Lianne La Havas – Blood (Warner Brothers)
Expansion is eyed with Blood, Lianne La Havas’ second record; fearlessly pushing her musical range to new heights, the album is revitalizing. Said revitalization is key to the album’s (and its genre’s) success. Currently, the mass of contemporary rhythm and blues singers find themselves caught between the genre’s monolithic past and its murky future. There are touches of “classic soul” (“What You Don’t Do”) as well as ambitious explorations (“Unstoppable”) present on the LP. Combine the extraordinary craft of Blood’s production, La Havas’ crisp songwriting and dexterous vocals, you have an album that is eager (not desperate) to prove that R&B in 2015 is engaging and exciting.
Seal – 7 (Warner Brothers)
On 7 – technically “9” if you’re counting his dual covers LPs in 2008 and 2012 respectively―Seal is at his sharpest. Never lacking passion, 7’s strength lies in the song sequencing; each performance that leaves the listener in awe is followed by another showstopper. Undeniably a pop vocalist, Seal has always tempered that pop with soul to leave a lasting emotional resonance with his material.
Julia Holter – Have You in My Wilderness (Domino)
Holter’s fourth album Have You in My Wilderness refines her chamber pop. Holter toggles between mystery and ardor on the lead single “Feel You,” where her voice floats above the supple arrangement of the mentioned composition. This blueprint maps the remainder of Wilderness, allowing Holter to create a balance between her singing and the song itself versus being washed away by her own good taste.
Cassandra Wilson – Coming Forth by Day (Ojah/Legacy)
Marking the 100th year since Billie Holiday entered the public consciousness, the equally beloved Wilson pays tribute to Holiday with Coming Forth by Day – her 19th album overall. Casting Holiday staples like “Don’t Explain” and “Crazy He Calls Me” in her own beautiful shade of aural indigo, Wilson maintains their gravitas, but reinvents them. The sole original song “Last Song (For Lester)” sits comfortably with the established Holiday works, bringing the record to an astonishing close.
Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION (604/School Boy/Interscope)
Jepsen’s junior record radiates curiosity with a twist of reverence for ’80s pop―influences range from Stock-Aitken-Waterman to Jem and the Holograms. The retro electricity is nestled next to modern production sheen and centered by Jepsen’s earnest songwriting. Vocally, Jepsen solidifies her believable and affable style throughout the album. Sadly, E•MO•TION won’t receive the chart attention it deserves, but it promises great things for Jepsen in the long run for her artistic development.
Hot Chip – Why Make Sense? (Domino)
Hot Chip advances their brand of alternative and dance pop to new levels with Why Make Sense? Coming behind the pristine In Our Heads (2012, Domino), cuts like “Hurache Lights” evince a funkier feeling that clearly benefits the quintet. It will be interesting to see what their next album holds, but for now Hot Chip makes the party move with their fifth record and we’re the better for it.
Vanessa Carlton – Liberman (Dine Alone)
The victim of major label machinations, Carlton found her commercial career impoverished when it came to reaching wider audiences after several years. She forged forward and continued to record accomplished material culminating with Liberman. Similar to Rabbits on the Run (2011, Razor & Tie) Carlton adds a pronounced rhythmic undercurrent to Liberman which opens up her piano and rock tones. This partially extroverted approach rewards Carlton with yet another career highlight.
Mika – No Place in Heaven (Casablanca)
Mika’s patented idiosyncratic pop is taken to sensitive heights on his fourth outing, No Place in Heaven. Contemplation is the focal point for every sonic encounter on Heaven, from the cheeky (“Oh Girl, “You’re the Devil”) to the wistful (“Staring at the Sun”). This emotional sincerity allows his new long player to become his most satisfying of the four records he’s completed so far.
Janet Jackson – Unbreakable (Rhythm Nation/BMG)
Her fourth―since Damita Jo (2004, Virgin)―solid stunner of semi-veteran R&B tunes, Unbreakable is Jackson at her most mellow and reflective to date. Those hankering for that Jacksonian bite will find a bit of it present on “Burnitup!” (with Missy Elliott), “Dammn Baby” and “Love U 4 Life.” Otherwise, Jackson keeps the narrative closer to her heart than the dancefloor (or bedroom) on the remainder of the LP. In all, it’s as it always has been: “Classic Janet with a modern twist.”
a-ha – Cast in Steel (We Love Music/Polydor/Universal)
a-ha’s Cast in Steel is lean and gorgeous. Nothing on the new album will be unfamiliar to the initiated, but the material’s fresh enough in its presentation to rope in the curious. There are references to the synths of Hunting High and Low (1985, Warner Brothers) and to the wide open band sound of East of the Sun, West of the Moon (1991, Warner Brothers). Still refusing to rest on their laurels 30 years removed from their first strike at popular music, a-ha mesmerizes with their newest LP.
Natalie Imbruglia – Male (Portrait)
Her first LP since the misunderstood Come to Life (2009, Island/Malabar), Male is a covers record with a relaxed approach. Tackling songs by a range of men, Imbruglia supercharges entries from Daft Punk (“Instant Crush”), to The Cure (“Friday I’m in Love”) and Modern English (“I Melt With You”). All the songs are lovingly rendered by her ability to switch between reinvention and respect with her own blend of rock and pop. It’s a welcome return and excellent place holder until Imbruglia services an album of her own music.
Chk Chk Chk – As If (Warp)
Feeling like a punkier rewrite of the punchy Thr!!!ler (2013, Warp), As If does contains a few surprises along its sonic walls. Notably “Every Bit Counts” plays like the band threw in traditional disco with nu-funk and hit frappé on their genre blender. That raw energy makes the long player a captivating listen, even if it sometimes treads (politely) close to sounds they’ve successfully brought across on their stated past endeavors.
Duran Duran – Paper Gods (Warner Brothers)
With All You Need Is Now (2011, Tape Modern/S-Curve) Duran Duran had (finally) made their initial bid for nostalgia by reclaiming a specific epoch of their sound. Paper Gods returns the band to shaping the modern pop landscape to their liking. Longtime fans will hear that the mood of this record recalls Astronaut (2004, Epic). By the time they’ve gotten half way through the bulk of Paper Gods, its soul is found in the funky fault lines of Big Thing’s (1988, EMI) debut side. Aside from a bit of trimming that’s needed, Paper Gods is Duran Duran in fine form.
Björk – Vulnicura (One Little Indian)
Concept has been something Björk has struggled with for over a decade now. From Medulla (2004, One Little Indian) onward, the vocalist/songwriter has seen herself eaten alive by her own ideas. Björk’s recent heartbreak―due to her separation from partner Matthew Barney―humanizes her alien genius on Vulnicura. Entries such as “Lionsong” and “Stonemilker” will assuredly make her fans think and feel. The latter element is something that’s been missing in Björk’s post-Vespertine (2001, One Little Indian) output.
Vivian Green – Vivid (Make Noise/Caroline)
Sexy and vibrant, Green’s fifth album is aptly titled. The initial single from Vivid, the rollerskating crush groove “Get Right Back to My Baby,” sets the Technicolor tone for the remainder of the LP. Green imparts plenty of heart and stays in tandem with the florid production present; to date, it’s her most solid album, back to front.
Will Young – 85% Proof (Island)
How to follow a career best like Echoes (2011, RCA/Sony)? Young doesn’t really attempt that Herculean task. Rather, he arranges his sixth record to act as a “Will Young catch all.” They’re all here: pop tunes spritzed with soul, light dance-funk and ballads in every conceivable shade, size and frequency. Young’s chameleonic voice and songwriting strings everything together, making 85% Proof a fair transitional long player.
Lenka – The Bright Side (Skipalong)
The Bright Side hits the block after the hushed loveliness of Lenka’s last foray, Shadows (2013, Skipalong). The Bright Side dabbles politely in an electro-pop pattern combined with the humorous wit that made her second LP Two (2011, Epic) so contagious. Lenka herself remains an enigmatically enchanting persona on the record all her own, bringing together all of the ingredients for a potent pop treat.
Brandon Flowers – The Desired Effect (Island)
Brandon Flowers (lead singer of the Killers) crafted a doppelgänger to Carly Rae Jepsen’s discussed E•MO•TION with The Desired Effect, his second solo album. Both records utilize an uncanny mix of production, vocal performance and lyricism. But where Jepsen made sure that the lyrics and vocals were in line with the arrangements, Flowers lets tracks get the best of him. The album is far from a failure, especially upon hearing the record’s explosive inaugural single “Can’t Deny My Love.” However, Flowers just needs to ensure that the next time out his voice (and songwriting) work together with his musical canvases.
Rickie Lee Jones – The Other Side of Desire (TOSOD)
Songstress Rickie Lee Jones continues to carve her own path; her 13th recording mines the rich musical fabric of New Orleans jazz music. The Other Side of Desire (mostly) lives up to its sensuous nom de guerre; the record does occasionally play drowsy versus passionate at times. Possibly its free-form approach lingers too long (?); the affection for this perspective will depend solely on the listener’s taste. Still, one cannot accuse Jones of being complacent artistically. Desire is a testament to the fact that not every genre fits an artist across an entire LP.
Róisín Murphy – Hairless Toys (Play It Again Sam)
A lengthy absence separated Hairless Toys, Murphy’s third solo album, from her last, Overpowered (2007, EMI). Hairless Toys is not too distant from the esoteric pop she’s peddled before, going back as far her beginnings with Moloko 20 years ago. Sadly, Murphy’s wonderful weirdness is become staunchly insular here, impenetrable almost. Hairless Toys contains songs that meander rather than bewitch; Murphy’s singing is so withdrawn, it makes the lyrics difficult to decipher. Records that require patience aren’t new when an artist is exploring their own creative whims. Yet, the solipsism that grips Murphy’s junior outing is devastating to experience.
Madonna – Rebel Heart (Live Nation/Interscope)
With a decade’s distance between the confident model of Confessions on a Dancefloor (2005, Warner Brothers) and this, her absolute nadir, the iconoclast Madonna has carried out against her own legacy is shocking. A mass of tuneless, lifeless shells attempting to masquerade as “hip” pop music is what Rebel Heart is―something no one saw coming in 2005. Madonna’s Rebel Heart is the retardation of pop made a painful reality.
Additional Considerations for 2015: Tamar Braxton – Calling All Lovers; Dee Dee Bridgewater – Dee Dee’s Feathers; V V Brown – Glitch; Ciara – Jackie; Sarah Cracknell – Red Kite; The Corrs – White Light; Estelle – True Romance; Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo & Youth; Chris Isaak – First Comes the Night; Jewel – Picking Up the Pieces; Leona Lewis – I Am; Ricky Martin – A Quien Quiera Escuchar; Teedra Moses – Cognac & Conversation; Kate Pierson – Guitars and Microphones; Prince – HitnRun; Dawn Richard – Blackheart; Jill Scott – Woman; Simply Red – Big Love; Angie Stone – Dream; Joss Stone – Water for Your Soul; Tamia – Love Life; Van Hunt – The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets
[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00X6X3QWC] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00WHZZBJ6] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=B010DY4L52] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=B0153HC6P6] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=B014U52OV8]