Reviewed on this page:
Yağmur Duası - Bir Hadise Var - Ben Böyle Ask Görmedim - Göç - Sokak Kızı - Demirden Leblebi - Yan Yana Fotoğraf Çektirelim - 7'n Bitirdin - Hatırına Sustum - Hayvan - Bazı Şeyler -
Turkish singer/songwriter Nazan Öncel has been recording since the late 70s, and seems to be at a peak of popularity in her early 50s. She's recorded in a variety of styles, but is best known for Turkish pop music - using Near Eastern melodic movement, some traditional instruments and strings within a recognizable Western pop/rock framework.
And as Turkish pop is often built around the clavé, it can deliver Phrygian/Phrygian dominant melody, Latin rhythm, and both high-tech and folk instrumentation, all in one neat package.
Öncel writes most of her own songs - as well as notable hits for other artists - and shows a consistent knack for distilling disparate influences to enrich her own emotional expression; though I'm not competent to judge, she's also widely praised for her lyrical prowess.
For me, though, her crowning glory is her seasoned, sweet/sour voice, which always sounds unforced and confident even - or especially - when she's at her most sorrowful.
It's not easy to express the range of her talents, but I'll make a couple of culturally insensitive comparisons: imagine the hit-making ability of Daniela Mercury with the gravitas of Mercedes Sosa, or if you can, picture Joan Armatrading crossed with Robert John "Mutt" Lange.
We rarely discuss official sites, but Öncel's is astounding, once you figure out how to register: you can watch any of her videos, and stream a huge number of songs she's recorded or written for others.
Yağmur Duası (1982)
Though there was a 1978 single, and a 1981 contribution to the Eurovision contest, this was Öncel's first full-length release.
Unpolished and at times listless, her debut is nonetheless impressive in its scope: the opener "Zalimin Zulmü" is disco; "Demedim Mi" is bubblegum pop with a gimmicky bell hook; "Hüdaverdi" is reasonably effective funk-rock. The title track points in the direction of future successes, while "Geçti Güzelim" less effectively foregrounds Near Eastern melodicism and instruments (bağlama in particular). Many of the tracks, though, are undistinguished ballads that could have been recorded almost anywhere by almost anyone ("Kaderimde Hep Güzeli Aradm").
Bir Hadise Var (1992)
Though Öncel apparently wrote all the tunes this time out, it's weak on both the composition and production sides, with plenty of 80s gimmicks like stuttering sampled vocals ("Ayni Nakarat," present in two mixes) and overly bouncy pop-reggae ("Asık Degilim Olabilirim"). Most of the ballads are forgettable as well (title track), though at least they have forceful singing to recommend them. "Boncuk" and "Hadi Hadi Nazlanma" are solid, in her trademark "dignified yet danceable" style, but it's easy to find better examples of same.
Ben Böyle Ask Görmedim (1994)
Not sure why, but there's a dramatic jump in quality here: the arrangements are varied and precise, and the songs are memorable. The power ballad "Geceler Kara Tren" was her breakthrough hit; the title cut is a throbbing chant of the sort that's very difficult to pull off but is hypnotic when done right.
More remarkable still, "Nazınla Dünya Sozınle Dünya" - a dance track with a singsong children's choir and a stentorian operatic choir - manages not to seem ridiculous.
"Bunu Bir Ben Bilirim Bir Allah" weaves a striking number of indigenous instruments into an arrangement that's far from traditional, while "Avare Yıllar" isn't innovative in how it combines cello, flute and piano to outline a simple mournful vocal, it's wallop-packing nonetheless.
No sooner did Öncel demonstrate her mastery of contemporary pop than she shifted gears for a set of acoustic songs played on traditional instruments. But if you're afraid it's some sort of lazy Unplugged record, forget it: the compositions and arrangements are all over the map, using a broad palette of sounds to convey a wide swath of feelings.
The solemn ballad "Sen Beni Öldürüyorsun" and the vigorous, guitar-led "Aşk Olmali" are equally heartfelt and captivating.
Players include Hüseyin Cebeci on a bunch of string instruments, Özer Arkun on cello, and Erdem Sökmen on guitar.
In Turkey this is generally considered her landmark, but if you're a neophyte to this kind of music (as I am) you'll do better to start with one of her more broad-based efforts.
Sokak Kızı (1996)
Not to be pigeonholed, Öncel's followup opens with a distorted electric guitar and angry vocals ("Ben Sokak Kızıyım"), and continues largely in that vein.
As an exercise in claiming new territory it's admirable, though overall the rock elements feel a bit forced ("Bana Özel"): guitars and bass are played by Alper Erinç so I suppose I could blame him, but I'm pretty sure Öncel was calling the shots.
But there's still a lot to dig here: "Gerberik" and "Erkeklerde Yanar" mix the guitars with sweeping strings and thrilling hooks that achieves the monumental impact Orphaned Land is always going for.
Sezen Aksu is among the backing vocalists, and Ahmet Koç contributes bağlama (which sounds like a cross between a bouzouki and a sitar).
Demirden Leblebi (1999)
I know I use too many food analogies, but this album is aural meze: an assortment of tasty pleasures you can sample without gorging on any one thing.
The title track, half-rapped over a fluid looped drumbeat with occasional bursts of melody, recalls Madonna's "Justify My Love" - the confessional lyrics about childhood sexual abuse caused controversy.
"Zor Dünya" has a contemporary synth-based arrangement, while the mostly acoustic "Hizli Yakarsen" sounds like mid-60s folk rock.
Then there's what I nerdily refer to as Öncel's superpower: uptempo songs as danceable as they are melodic, as international-friendly as they are unmistakably Turkish ("Kötülere Bi'şey Olmaz"; "Aşiklar Parkı").
What keeps the disc below the top rank of Öncel's work is that the slow songs are not up to her usual standard ("Sokarım Politikana," despite its unusual half-spit delivery).
Yan Yana Fotoğraf Çektirelim (2004)
Accomplished and confident, across the map of Öncel's usual approaches:
"Atıyorsun" works in bağlama, funk guitar, a rap, and a Marilyn Monroe shoutout, all without becoming contrived; "Beni Hatırla" also features acoustic bağlama, but on on a bed of synth loops. "Ruh Hali" is a sophisticated reinterpretation of the main hook of Cerrone's "Supernature."
The hit "Hay Hay" and "Nereye Böyle" are collaborations with Tarkan; "Hokka" is the sort of buoyant but restrained roofraiser she seems to toss off so easily.
7'n Bitirdin (2006)
Not the most eye-opening of her albums but probably the most consistent.
Here Öncel works within the Turkish pop parameters she's established - from guitar-based ballads ("Bırak Konuşsunlar"; "Kiş Baba") to synth-driven dance music ("El Kızı") - convincing at every stop along the way (the irresistable #1 hit "Aşkım Baksana Bana").
The blend of synth, guitar and drums with bağlama and other traditional instruments is smoother than ever,
and as usual her worldly voice brings gravity to the bouncier tunes ("Ekilmekteyim") and spirit to the slower ones ("Zehirli Sarmaşık," almost a dirge).
Hatırına Sustum Sustum (2008)
A bit more spare and melancholy than the past few albums, not unlike Sazan Aksu's release the following year. At times the mostly acoustic instrumentation recalls Göç, though it doesn't have the same emotional range (the closing "Çiçekçi Geldi" is about as lively as it gets). There aren't as many striking tunes, either ("Ali"; title track), though "Ankaralı Sevgilim" shows that she knows what to do with one when she's got it, and "Öp Barisalim" - a canny slice of 80s R&B - and the whistling refrain of "Canim Benim Nasilsin" (featuring Vic Chesnutt) show how Öncel continues to expand her musical vocabulary.
Also in 2008, Öncel contributed a new song ("Leyla") to the compilation album Güldünya Sarkilari.
In 2010, Öncel released the single "Tuttum Bırakmam."
From the opening "Normal," Öncel's latest has electric guitar and bubbly synth at the forefront, and by and large it's successful: "Bebişim" opens with ominous guitar distortion, then shifts into a hypermodern dancefloor groove with bizarrely appropriate harpsichord.
There's still room for sober contemplation ("Bebek Sevgilim") and 80s-style Quiet Storm ("Böyle Konuşma").
Not top-shelf Öncel - midtempo cuts like "Canın Bir Yanlış Yapmak İstiyor" and "Beni Düşün" are well-made but not exactly a breath of fresh air
- but her second and third shelves are worth rummaging through too.
And "Korkunun Üstüne Yürüyorum" is a revelation: spooky retro-disco that emulates the original form's emotional punch rather than its campy mindlessness.
Bazı Şeyler (2014)
Öncel doesn't have any new tricks up her sleeve - it's the same mix of Western song structures and rhythms with Near Eastern stringed instruments and melodies ("Harita"). As there are no loud guitars and not many downbeat songs ("Ne Güzel Olur," the record's most affecting cut, is an exception), the sound is closest to Yan Yana Fotograf Çikilarim, right down to the Tarkan cameo on the leadoff single ("Hadi O Zaman"). So far so great, except that the deft touches and small intricacies her work is usually so rich in are sadly absent... Though expressive as ever, her voice never drops to a whisper or rises to a shout; she cruises in mid-gear, one familiar-sounding theme after another ("Affola"; "Dostlar Kahvesi" is a rewrite of "Kötülere Bi'şey Olmaz"). So there are no fizzles but no fireworks either, and I would gladly have suffered through a lot of the former for even a little of the latter.
In 2016, Öncel released "Sakin Ol Şampiyon," a catchy midtempo tune in three very different incarnations (if you only listen to one, make it the Radio Versiyon), backed with the less interesting "Madalyon."
Durum Şarkıları (2018)
US-centric as I am, even I'm aware that this has been a rough few years for progressive/inclusive forces in Turkey, and that may partly explain Öncel's dour mood ("Illegal," a sax-led rocker but more Morphine than Mick).
Not a light listen but there's a lot to like here, including gorgeous, sophisticated string arrangements unlike anything she'd previously attempted ("Girizgah").
There's still some room for her usual gently propulsive pop ("Kimler Gelmis," featuring Manus Baba), and her sense of groove is so strong that even the dripping-with-bitterness "Mükemmel Kusur" is catchy as hell.