V V Brown: Samson and Delilah^ (YOY)
Synopsis: From glowing to gothic, Brown’s Samson and Delilah brought the dark side to the illumination of her debut Travelling Like the Light (2009 / 2010). Dense, electronic and highly emotive, Brown’s command of her abilities allowed her to avoid empty pop rhetoric, in short the “artpop” prize of 2013 for sheer craftsmanship goes to Ms. Brown.
[Listen / Watch: “Samson“]
!!!: Thr!!!er (Warp)
Synopsis: Dance-punk freaks ‘n’ geeks !!! (pronounced and stylized as “ChkChkChk”) topped themselves (yet again) on their fifth project Thr!!!er. From blues to synth, these pop pirates spared no expense when they redefined their dancefloor hijinks. Oh, they’re also very brainy lyricists if one paid attention to the words alongside the grooves here.
[Listen / Watch: “Californiyeah“]
Amel Larrieux: Ice Cream Everyday^ (Blisslife)
Synopsis: An alternative soul record that was uncompromised, but equally inviting? After a seven-year absence Larrieux’s Ice Cream Everyday was full of flavors: celebratory, cerebral, nocturnal, sexual and sensitive. It helped that Larrieux’s voice hadn’t lost its twinkle, it made the sugar of this treat taste so wonderful.
Omar: The Man (Shanachie)
Synopsis: Terms like icon, underrated and gifted will be bandied around when British pioneer Omar is brought up. Not missing a beat since Sing (If You Want It) (2006), The Man was enriched by classic funk, some newer R&B widgets and Omar’s own awareness of his (rightful) greatness.
[Listen / Watch: “The Man“]
Texas: The Conversation* (PIAS)
Synopsis: They’re back again; after two years shy of a decade in silence, Scottish crew Texas unveiled their most focused set of music since The Hush (1999). While the sound of it, on an initial listen, recalled the blue denim vibes of their pre-White On Blonde (1997) output, the pristine finish to the LP could only come from years of practice on their blend of rock, pop and blue-eyed soul.
[Listen / Watch: “The Conversation“]
Alice Smith: She (Rainwater)
Synopsis: For Lovers, Dreamers & Me (2006), Smith’s debut, leaned on the alt-side; far from an R&B-sell-out, the acquired soulful sway of She felt like a progression of certain moments from the aforementioned For Lovers…LP. Smith’s voice contained enough character to not be identi-kit, the ideal lure for first timers unaware of her beguiling presence.
Janelle Monáe: The Electric Lady^ (Bad Boy / Wondaland)
Synopsis: The femme upstart of rhythm and blues showed no mercy on her second full length long player. Monáe spanned the epochs of black music through the eyes of her character Cindi Mayweather, a freedom fighting android; along for the ride was a tidy clutch of guest spots (notably reigning in the often irrepressible Prince). Progressive and retro, Monáe’s contradictions were aural candy for her listeners.
[Listen / Watch: “Dance Apocalyptic“]
KT Tunstall: Invisible Empire //Crescent Moon^ (Blue Note / Universal)
Synopsis: Stripped all the way back after the frenetic (and underrated) Tiger Suit (2010), Tunstall put the emphasis on her voice and lyrics. The ambitious album was recorded in two different intervals and inspired by two different events, despite this the narrative of loss and recovery translated. Musically, the folk-fizz garnished the stated lyrical /vocal deliveries so eloquently they mesmerized.
[Listen / Watch: “Made of Glass“]
The Brand New Heavies: Forward (Shanachie)
Synopsis: Finally, the true stars behind one of the leading acid jazz outfits stepped to the front on Forward. Jan Kincaid (drums, vocals), Simon Bartholomew (guitar, vocals) and Andrew Levy (bass) have been the nucleus for The Heavies since their inception. Here they employed new (Dawn Joseph) and old (N’Dea Davenport) talent to execute their exquisite cross-section of disco and jazz that tied Shelter (1997) for their finest album to date.
[Listen / Watch: “Sunlight“]
John Legend: Love in the Future^ (GOOD / Columbia)
Synopsis: A striking compromise of elements from Once Again (2006) and Evolver (2008), Love in the Future was nothing short of a handsome masterpiece for Legend. Hitting hard and pulling back when necessary, Legend’s fourth record tightroped between production muscle and vocal nuance with a ridiculous sense of ease.
[Listen / Watch: “Made to Love“]
Alison Moyet: The Minutes (Cooking Vinyl)
Synopsis: The very essence of the word “chanteuse,” Moyet’s mighty career has spanned decades and styles. The Minutes, a reach-around to her electro-pop roots, toggled between darkness and desire; Moyet stood stellar throughout the record, her pipes just as haunting as ever.
[Listen / Watch: “Changeling“]
Dawn Richard: Goldenheart (101)
Synopsis: Even if you’re underwhelmed by her girl group connection (recently reestablished) with Danity Kane, Richard’s first LP Goldenheart suggested that alone she held more power than imagined. Goldenheart’s embrace of mainstream and underground black club culture, with a few other surprises along its length, captivated.
[Listen / Watch: “’86“]
Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark: English Electric (BMG / 100%)
Synopsis: For most, the (now) fossilized immortality of their 1980’s evergreen “If You Leave” will be where familiarity begins and ends with OMD. That is unfortunate as their career has included 11 records and existed well outside of a “nostalgia” context; the boldly named English Electric (their 12th record) has their touch of mechanized pop, honed to perfection.
[Listen / Watch: “Metroland“]
Lisa Loeb: No Fairy Tale (429)
Synopsis: Quirky and quick, Lisa Loeb’s comeback to the traditional album format was quite welcome. The rock, bordering on new wave, undercurrent to No Fairy Tale made it Loeb’s “toughest” project since Tails (1995). No Fairy Tale was not a breakaway record, but an affirmation of her songwriter driven pop that has taken many forms throughout her discography.
[Listen / Watch: “No Fairy Tale“]
Gloria Estefan: The Standards^ (Crescent Moon / Sony)
Synopsis: Her second covers record, The Standards drew its sketches on a posh, but not opulent canvas. Estefan’s seasoned, impassioned voice, the true wonder of the piece, didn’t overdo or undersell itself. Pretty, painted and patient, The Standards had Estefan giving another unsurpassed performance.
[Listen / Watch: “How Long Has This Been Going On?“]
Backstreet Boys: In a World Like This^ (K-Bahn / BMG)
Synopsis: While critics have sniped that the Backstreet Boys have coasted on past glories recently, they’ve continued assuredly since 2005’s Never Gone. Now back to quintet status with Kevin Richardson’s homecoming, In a World Like This built on the previous momentum of their last three recordings. Their harmonies as rich and dapper as before had the Backstreet Boys show that aging gracefully was not a bad thing.
[Listen / Watch: “Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of)“]
Agnetha Fältskog: A (Universal)
Synopsis: Nine years separated Ms. Fältskog from My Colouring Book (2004), her last LP. With A, this former one-fourth of ABBA peered back to a romantic ethos often missing in today’s pop landscape. Interestingly, the sound of A mixed erstwhile affections with modish soundscapes; vocally, Fältskog remained as clear and lovely as she ever was.
[Listen / Watch: “When You Really Loved Someone“]
Almost, But …
Nabiha: Mind the Gap* (disco: wax / Sony)
Synopsis: This Danish wondergirl slammed into the scene with 2010’s Cracks; snappy and sparkly, her “is it soul, is it pop?” tunes were refreshing. Her follow-up, Mind the Gap mined the same minerals as her debut. Sadly, the music of Mind the Gap has been scrubbed too clean and made Nabiha’s sophomore effort slump. That said, Nabiha’s holding pattern is still beyond the banality in pop today.
[Listen / Watch: “Mind the Gap“]
Chrisette Michele: Better^ (Universal-Motown / Def Jam)
Synopsis: While not the dismal drop in quality it was dismissed as, Let Freedom Reign’s (2010) commercial failure was a pivot point for Michele. Either return to the wholesome neo-soul of her debut or continue to reshape current R&B to her personality. Michele went for the latter and serviced her bright (if at times brittle) soul music on her fourth LP; her greatest platter has yet to be realized.
[Listen / Watch: “A Couple of Forevers“]
Dido: Girl Who Got Away^ (RCA)
Synopsis: This hushed-pop figure’s fourth affair, Girl Who Got Away, was strewn carefully with several detours to eliminate the sameness that caused Safe Trip Home (2008) to drag. That said, length marred Girl; the record would have benefitted from trimming to bring out its subtle, but inherent charms.
[Listen / Watch: “No Freedom“]
B.Slade: Stunt B%$@H # (Suxxess)
Synopsis: A wildcard, B.Slade (formerly known as gospel singer Tonéx) uncovered his ninth record, the aptly titled Stunt B%$@H, to consolidate his erratic musings. The LP was boundary deficient in its grasp of black music from the last three decades (at least); Slade merged era’s within one song like a Mr. Hyde opposite to Janelle Monáe’s Dr. Jekyll. That was the Achilles heel to Slade’s LP, too much in one sitting to consume.
[Listen / Watch: “Tipsy“]
Hanson: Anthem (3CG)
Synopsis: The Hanson men keep them comin’, three years behind 2010’s Shout It Out, Anthem appeared. More Americana rock than the soul-pop of Shout It Out, the songs showcased craft in lieu of charisma. However, that musicianship can’t be denied, in 2013 there aren’t many bands that played so well on the wax as Hanson have.
[Listen / Watch: “Get the Girl Back“]
Ciara: Ciara^ (Epic)
Synopsis: A perfumed puff of post-Basic Instinct (2010) smoke, Ciara’s eponymous fifth record rarely broke a sweat being so cool; that is both a good and bad thing. No one can resist Ciara’s cruise-worthy crooning, but the perception is that Ciara is hiding behind her “hold the wall and head bob to the beat” persona. If she has something to share artistically, one has a feeling she does, then she should indulge versus coast.
[Listen / Watch: “Body Party“]
Céline Dion: Loved Me Back to Life^ (Columbia)
Synopsis: It isn’t her vocals, those are intact, but the songs themselves; lyrically and musically, Dion’s arrangements were flaccid on this outing. Coming on the heels of the fantastic Sans Attendre (2012) and three shaky, but increasingly improved English LPs in the last decade, Loved Me Back to Life lacked the interpretive spirit of her last two records. All one is left with is two solid covers (“At Seventeen,” “How Do You Keep the Music Playing”) and a wealth of monochromatic pop.
[Listen / Watch: “Loved Me Back to Life“]
LL Cool J: Authentic^ (S-BRO /429)
Synopsis: Plagued from Mr. Smith (1994) onward, LL Cool J’s records began slipping; this isn’t to say sales evaded him, in fact he continued to be a commercial contender well into the 2000’s. The quality of LL’s records became spotty though, as such the lofty theory of Authentic is a miss as LL is conquered by too many features and a minimum of “back-to-basics” applications.
[Listen / Watch: “Take It“]
Little Mix: DNA^ (Syco)
Synopsis: Even with production / songwriting help from established girl group icons and producers of said icons, Little Mix’s debut lacked personality. They sang wonderfully, but the antiseptic essence that pervaded DNA does nothing for them. A handful of cuts permitted the girls to get out of their own way and break the mold; those moments were few and far between.
[Note-DNA received its initial United Kingdom release in 2012, we received it this year. Little Mix’s new LP Salute follows the same trend, it will be eligible for consideration in 2014.]
[Listen / Watch: “Wings“]
Donna Summer: Love to Love You Donna (Verve)
Synopsis: While Summer’s broader pop strengths went (criminally) unexamined, her dance work continued to receive acclaim. This tribute remix set ventured through Summer’s 1970’s material (with a cameo from her 1980’s music in the form of “Love Is In Control (Finger On the Trigger)”); Summer’s songs got the golden touch from existing electronic and dance-pop barons such as Chromeo, Hot Chip and Summer’s past principal producer Giorgio Moroder. The results were explosive.
[Listen / Watch: “Love Is In Control (Finger On the Trigger)” Chromeo Mix]
Indie Spotlight of 2013
Promis: Indiscretions (JFP)
Synopsis: Chilean-born, Los Angeles reared singer-songwriter Promis has spent close to a decade whittling his formula of cabaret pop. On Indiscretions, his sixth full-length affair, Promis cut his European eccentricities with several spices that weave their spell effectively. Distinctly his own man and artist, Promis’ music has a sure bet for longevity.
[Listen / Watch: “50 Bucks From Me“]
Considerations of 2013
Boy George: This Is What I Do, Tamar Braxton: Love and War, Cher: Closer To the Truth, Natalie Cole: Natalie Cole En Español, Sheryl Crow: Feels Like Home, Daft Punk: Random Access Memories, Earth, Wind & Fire: Now, Then & Forever, Goldfrapp: Tales of Us, India.Arie: Songversation, Glenn Lewis: Moment of Truth, Teena Marie: Beautiful, Katie Melua: Ketevan, New Kids on the Block: 10, Pet Shops Boys: Electric, Sheila E.: Icon, Robin Thicke: Blurred Lines, Ultra Naté: Hero Worship, Robbie Williams: Swings Both Ways
[Additional Editor Notes: ^=Denotes expanded / alternate edition was reviewed or is available. See respective social media outlets for each artist for further information. *=Denotes album is an import, not a domestic U.S. album. #=denotes digital format availability only.]