For me, 2014 was all about Food (Ninja Tune)―the kind one-time hook girl turned chameleonic chanteuse Kelis was serving. Her sixth record to date, Food built on the lyrical strength found in the electro-fury of Flesh Tone (2010, Interscope). Kelis exchanges that sonic for an R&B vibe that is fresh with the inclination to age well. The inaugural single “Jerk Ribs” lives up to its namesake with punchy horns and a spicy vocal; the remainder of the record surprises, alternating between earthy rhythms and a few tricks. Food shows that it’s never too late to take something visited and improve on it.
Close on Food’s heels is Wanderlust (EBGB’s), the fifth LP from British vocalist Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Former frontwoman of Theaudience, Bextor transitioned into a topflight dance-pop act whose floorfilling works often hid broader pop experimentation. Wanderlust extends on that aforementioned experimental style by pushing Bextor into mod-pop and Russian folk. Whether imparting the Spector-lite prettiness of “Runaway Daydreamer” or the chamber music of “Cry to the Beat of the Band,” Bextor’s new album is a definitive dance-pop departure record of the period.
Other top-to-bottom contenders include La Roux (Trouble in Paradise, Polydor), Suzanne Vega (Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, Amanuensis), Macy Gray (The Way, Kobalt) and Nina Persson (Animal Heart, Lojinx/The End). La Roux’s second album peers back to the avant-garde height of the early 1980s with no trace of irony. Evidence manifests in the rippling singles “Uptight Downtown” and “Kiss and Not Tell.” Intelli-pop singer Vega returns with her first LP of original material since the lovely Beauty & Crime (2007, Blue Note/Capitol). Touching on (almost) every style she’s covered since she started in 1985, it ranks as another solid stunner from her.
Gray herself continues to carve out her post-neo-soul niche fiercely; the new album has Gray voracious in her moods, her voice as identifiable as ever. Persson―known for leading The Cardigans and A Camp―decides to try it alone. The resulting player juggles between synth flourishes (“Animal Heart”) and disco-lite (“Food for the Beast”). And yes, Persson doesn’t relinquish her way with a pen either.
Kimbra―one to watch―steadily challenges listeners. The Golden Echo (Warner Bros.) isn’t too dissimilar from her starting point Vows (2012, Warner Bros.). A bit busier than Vows, The Golden Echo is Teena Marie-meets-Björk on “’90s Music” and “Carolina.” Blue-eyed soul legend Lisa Stansfield takes back the mic with her seventh album, appropriately titled Seven (Monkeynatra). Stansfield’s first record in a decade, since The Moment (2004, ZTT), Seven is a decent set of adult pop led by an uncanny opener in “Can’t Dance.”
Mariah Carey’s Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse (Def Jam) shocked as her sturdiest set in years. High on the urban groove she trademarked in the mid-to-late 1990s onward, Carey soars with cuts like “Cry” and “Meteorite.” Shakira, like Carey, has had her own bouts with unevenness in her discography. Usually, Shakira’s Spanish records contain her spark. Thankfully, Shakira, (RCA) with its guitar-spirited tunes becomes a score for the English portion of her work―it’s her most enthralling Anglo fare since Laundry Service (2001, Epic). The towering “Empire” should have received wider acclaim and was one of the lost singles of 2014.
Despite its ambitious nom de geurre, Tori Amos’ Unrepentant Geraldines (Mercury Classics) plays focused, rather than muddled. Her singing and composing are refreshed on “America” and “Trouble’s Lament”; the latter single sits next to Amos’ 2000s-era hits “A Sorta Fairytale” and “Sleeps with Butterflies.” Mirroring the aforementioned Persson, another iconic front lady emerged by herself―Chrissie Hynde. Known for her work with The Pretenders, Hynde’s Stockholm (Caroline International) is a stirring concoction of Motown and muted power pop. Its spinning time is bit longer than needed, but it compels, as heard on “You’re the One.”
Johnnyswim―Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano-Ramirez―are a husband-wife duo with considerable musical pedigrees. In particular, Sudano-Ramirez boasts the late Donna Summer as her mother and former Brooklyn Dreams singer/songwriter Bruce Sudano as her father. Their full-length project Diamonds (SJMW/Big Picnic) is a romantic rock piece, perfect for lovers. Jody Watley’s “progressive” slant is (again) proven with her EP, Paradise (Avitone). With its modern and classic black dance motif, Paradise adds further dimension to Watley’s rich discography.
Lenny Kravitz’s Strut (Roxie) is his most danceable recording thus far―he’s ageless on “Sex” and “The Chamber,” a one-two wallop of steamy funk. Strut loses its energy in its second half, but maintains the veneer of a musician in complete control of his abilities. Something similar can be leveled at vocalist/bassist Meshell Ndegeocello. After Comfort Woman (2003, Maverick/Warner Bros.), Ndegeocello’s work became increasingly insular. Comet, Come to Me (Naïve) is Ndegeocello making art for herself, albeit more relaxed than her last efforts. As such, the sweeping “Shopping for Jazz” beguiles rather than alienates.
Both Cibo Matto and Neneh Cherry had endured considerable breaks before releasing their third and fourth recordings, respectively. For Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori, a decade’s absence hasn’t dulled their kookiness. Hotel Valentine (Chimera) is an abstract song cycle about a disembodied spirit watching everyday living in a hotel – see the spikiness of “Déjà vu” and “10th Floor Ghost Girl” for details. Cherry’s Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound) picks up where her last long player Man (1996, Hut) wrapped. Alternative and prose-driven, Cherry’s perspective feels hip, but honest on Blank Project.
X by Chris Brown (RCA), A.K.A. by Jennifer Lopez (Capitol) and Kiss Me Once by Kylie Minogue (Parlophone/Warner Bros.) invoked ire due to their unnecessary irregularities keeping the albums’ better moments at bay. For Chris Brown, production remains his ace; the song structures are bold, musical and contemporary without appearing overtly trendy. However, Brown’s stifled songwriting and inability to curb guest spots―passes are issued to the excellent “Autumn Leaves” with Kendrick Lamar and “Do Better” with Brandy―mar X. With the right amount of concentration, Brown could evoke his hero Michael Jackson.
Lopez manages to mostly erase the bland taste of Love? (2011, Island) with the urban-pop uniformity of A.K.A. Yet Lopez doesn’t go for the gusto she shares on “First Love” and “Troubeaux” (with Nas). Packing A.K.A. with lesser material disfigures the previously stated memorable sides. Minogue’s conundrum is more challenging as she faces her first post-PWL era failure. Minogue typically trades in quality over quantity, so the anonymity of Kiss Me Once hurts. Patient fans are gifted with the glittering “I Was Gonna Cancel” and “If Only,” but said fans shipwreck upon “Sexercize” and its ilk while wading in the record’s murky waters. Kiss Me Once may be the only Minogue record since Enjoy Yourself (1989, Mushroom) to truly be a miss.
Additional Considerations for 2014: Marsha Ambrosius/Friends & Lovers; Ashanti/Braveheart; Mary J. Blige/The London Sessions; Blondie/Ghosts of Download; The Brand New Heavies/Sweet Freaks; Common/Nobody’s Smiling; André Cymone/The Stone; Melissa Etheridge/This is M.E; Annie Lennox/Nostalgia; Little Mix/Salute; Maroon 5/V; Sarah McLachlan/Shine On; Stevie Nicks/24k; Prince/Art Official Age; Röyksopp and Robyn/Do It Again; Robin Thicke/Paula; The Ting Tings/Super Critical; U2/Songs of Innocence; Robbie Williams/Under the Radar, Volume 1.
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