Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Familia (EBGB’s)
In 2016, the pop record is one of the most difficult mediums to conquer; individuality isn’t a valuable creative currency in this genre any longer. Bextor stands immune to this lack of identity, her stalwart vision guiding the intelligent, multifaceted pop encapsulated on her sixth LP, Familia. Bextor’s sound references new wave (“Wild Forever”), rock and disco (“Come with Us”), Latin (“Hush Little Voices”), and more. She binds all of these aural pieces together with her incomparable wit and one-of-a-kind voice. Familia is a milestone recording that will reposition Bextor as one of the undeniable power players in the pop genre due to its craftsmanship and integrity.
Hikaru Utada – Fantôme (Virgin/Universal Japan)
Prior to her eighth album, Utada underwent a host of personal changes that included the death of her mother, a second marriage, and motherhood. As such, Fantôme (French for “ghost”) possesses a ruminative air. Utada pulls back from the production muscle she’s favored on past records and taps into a live instrumentation vein garnished with a bit of technology for ambiance – see “Ningyo” (“Mermaid”) and “Michi” (“Road”). If the whole of Fantôme is anything to go by, the album heralds a new era of artistic promise for the icon.
Bright Light Bright Light – Choreography (Self Raising)
Rod Thomas, better known by his stage guise Bright Light Bright Light, has arrived with Choreography, his third LP. The record’s title references his love of 1980s films known for their soundtracks and/or scores – specifically those tied to memorable dance breaks within the movies themselves. Yet, at its core, Choreography is an album about human relationships. Utilizing a wealth of popular music from the same decade where his favorite films dwell, Thomas nods to the AOR of Phil Collins (“All in the Name of Love”) and the Hi-NRG of Stock-Aitken-Waterman (“Running Back to You”) seamlessly – Choreography joins the heart, the mind, and the feet in one place.
Bic Runga – Close Your Eyes (Sony)
At best, a covers record is a symbol of career longevity – at worst it’s seen as a holding pattern for a fatigued artist. For Bic Runga, Close Your Eyes, her fifth studio LP, falls into the former category. In fact, the new record finds Runga making a departure, spiking her music with an organic euro-disco groove. Touching on a variety of material from the likes of The Meters, Kanye West, Neil Young, and The Blue Nile, to name some, Runga splits the sound of Close Your Eyes between the aforementioned dance-pop vibe (“What’cha Say?”) and her familiar acoustic sounds (“Andmoreagain”). Runga tosses in two original songs – the title piece and “Dream a Dream” – proof that her pen hasn’t lost its spark, marking Close Your Eyes as another victory for the New Zealander.
Corinne Bailey Rae – The Heart Speaks in Whispers (Virgin EMI)
The Heart Speaks in Whispers is a majestic, though dense affair; the long player will ask the listener to be tenacious in their exploration of the record’s varied sonic terrain. The landscapes range from Minneapolis-rinsed R&B (“Been to the Moon”) to British folk-soul (“Night”), but Rae’s experimentation is mesmeric as one makes their way further into the LP. Throughout, Rae’s beguilingly gentle vocals don’t let the arrangements get away from her in lieu of their lofty aims. The Heart Speaks in Whispers shows an artist in complete control of her facilities without falling into total self-indulgence.
ABC – The Lexicon of Love II (Virgin EMI)
Longtime frontman Martin Fry has been piloting the ABC vessel alone since 1997, and The Lexicon of Love II has Fry upholding ABC’s commitment to top shelf pop superbly. The record mines ABC’s orchestral dance music synonymous with The Lexicon of Love (1982, Neutron/Mercury) but doesn’t undercut the growth that transpired between that album and this one. Evolution and recall are mutually joined on the single “Viva Love,” a showstopper that has the consummate showman Fry staged beautifully – it’s a great indication of the album’s overall feel.
Solange – A Seat at the Table (Columbia)
For Solange’s third album, A Seat at the Table, she moves the dial from romantic love to the African-American experience in 2016 thematically. On songs like “Mad” and “Don’t Touch My Hair,” Solange eloquently constructs – or deconstructs – stories birthed from the emotional volatility many people of color are feeling in America’s social climate. Musically, the album toggles between modern and classic R&B idioms, and that allows each song to find its own voice when conveying its story to the listener.
The Monkees – Good Times! (Rhino)
Pool It (1987, Rhino) and Justus (1996, Rhino) had been met with mixed results, creatively speaking (The Monkees’ own past heights inescapable). With Good Times!, The Monkees bridged the gap between modish alternative rock and their 1960s pop formula – see “She Brings the Summer” and “Gotta Give It Time.” Davy Jones’s death in 2012 may have supplied the remaining Monkees (Nesmith, Dolenz and Tork) with the fire to give it one more try at an album, so Good Times! is a final “hurrah” worth celebrating.
KT Tunstall – Kin (Caroline)
Kin touches on all of Tunstall’s rock/pop transformations across the four albums that preceded it. But, out of those four albums, Kin has its finger on the pulse of Tiger Suit (2010, Relentless) in regard to its energy level; Tunstall’s songwriting has remained grounded, but she’s relaxed here and that giddiness informs “Hard Girls” and “Everything Has Its Shape.” Kin is an infectious, feel-good LP, and that sets it apart within Tunstall’s discography.
Maxwell – blackSUMMERS’night (Columbia)
Maxwell’s three-part blacksummers’night album series enters into its second movement with blackSUMMERS‘night. The long player lives up to the heat evoked in its title by casting a sensual hex on listeners with its heady cross section of natural funk and alternative R&B. Those elements are roped together by Maxwell’s chameleon-like voice that goes from a lilting falsetto (“All the Ways That Love Can Feel”) to a fuller tone (“Lake by the Ocean”) with ease. Maxwell is in the prime of his career on blackSUMMERS‘night.
David Bowie – ★ (Columbia)
Rooted in the knowledge of his own mortality – Bowie succumbed to cancer just two days after its release on his 69th birthday – ★ is Bowie’s most magnificent entry. An inky, surrealist art rock trip, Bowie’s ★ paints an aural portrait of the human condition out of his own stated struggle with his impending death as heard on two of the record’s boldest works, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” and “Lazarus.”
Suzanne Vega – Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers (Amanuensis)
Vega’s ninth record is a hat tip to the female author Carson McCullers; in fact, the album’s songs were borrowed from a 2011 play in which Vega wrote and starred in herself about the writer. Musically, Lover, Beloved… loops Vega back around to the lounge club aura of Nine Objects of Desire (A&M, 1996) but with a bluesy bottom for kick. What makes the new LP as engaging as her past recordings is Vega herself – her voyeuristic pen and detached vocal slant are part and parcel to any Suzanne Vega experience, and Lover, Beloved… is no exception.
Alicia Keys – Here (RCA)
Here elevates Keys to next level status, the fulfillment of continued progression initially glimpsed on The Element of Freedom (2009, J Records). Her most socially conscious effort, Here collects various narratives centered around black issues. Musically, she accommodates this keynote by shifting out of the futuristic soul gloss of Girl on Fire (2012, RCA) to mix grit and polish equally on “The Gospel,” “More Than We Know,” and “Girl Can’t Be Herself.”
Melanie C – Version of Me (Red Girl)
Twenty years removed from her genesis as Sporty Spice, Melanie C has emerged as a decorated working musician. Version of Me, her seventh solo album, is a nuanced display of her unique approach to music, this time based in electro-pop and R&B. Version of Me is at its strongest when Melanie C produces a rousing performance that pairs convincingly with a compatible arrangement, as the anthemic “Anymore” and pop-soul melancholia of “Loving You Better” denote.
Beyoncé – Lemonade (Parkwood/Columbia)
Despite almost being smothered underneath the ostentatiousness of its partnering video component, Lemonade is a fascinating song cycle about romantic conflict and resolution. While many of the songs are assumed to be about Beyoncé’s husband Shawn Carter (Jay-Z), her open-ended lyrical approach on the dark reggae of “Hold Up” and soul-rock symphonica of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” (which features rocker Jack White) are relatable. Lemonade is Beyoncé’s recent commitment to craft versus convenience confirmed.
Norah Jones – Day Breaks (Blue Note)
The Fall (2009, Blue Note) and Little Broken Hearts (2012, Blue Note) saw Norah Jones break from her coffee house aesthetics embodied on her first three albums. Thusly, Day Breaks is a “return to form,” but without sacrificing the expansion of the albums recorded in 2009 and 2012, respectively. On the new platter, Jones has traditional jazz (“It’s a Wonderful Time for Love”) co-existing alongside present-day chamber pop (“Day Breaks”) quite easily. Casual fans may see this as a Come Away with Me (2002, Blue Note) redux with an “edge,” but those who have been tuned in will find Day Breaks to be an album of refinement and awareness.
Pet Shop Boys – Super (x2)
A complementary dose of eclectic electronic and dance-driven pop to 2013’s Electric (x2), Super cements the Pet Shop Boys as pioneers within these genres. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are still ironic and sentimental as heard on “The Dictator Decides” and “The Pop Kids” – the former song frighteningly relevant in the wake of Donald Trump’s abhorrent election in the United States. The Pet Shop Boys color their music with patience on Super, but for listeners that stick with the long player, they’ll hear the Pet Shop Boys in their best form thus far.
Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION: Side B (604/School Boy/Interscope)
Jepsen’s third album was one of last year’s best records; its subsequent eight tracks of outtakes EP, E•MO•TION: Side B, is a repeat performance in excellence. Jepsen is a keen lyricist and high-end nostalgia reconstructionist as shown on the EP’s opener, the pulsating and snappy “First Time.” Jepsen will need to be cautious that she doesn’t paint herself into a stylish corner with this kind of music, but as it stands now, she’s one of the brightest lights to beat back the shadow of mediocrity in North American pop.
KING – We are KING (King Creative)
One of the more exciting female outfits to emerge of late, KING lives up to their nom de guerre. Comprised of the Strother Sisters (Amber and Paris) with Anita Bias, the trio wrote, played on and produced their debut LP, We Are KING. Drawing on a panoply of R&B from the last three decades, they’ve got something for everyone as heard on their shimmering single, “The Greatest.” The song, a tribute to the late Muhammad Ali, is one of the finest singles of 2016.
Macy Gray – Stripped (Chesky)
Stripped is an appropriate title for Gray’s ninth album which dresses down several of her classics but reveals some new songs (“Annabelle,” “First Time”) that follow in the LP’s sparse jazz style. The new material is just as compelling as Gray’s reworked tunes, an example of her songwriting strength. But it’s Gray’s voice that’s the center of Stripped – sensual and (still) characteristically scratchy, its range pilotes the prose of each song with authority and detail.
Katie Melua – In Winter (BMG)
In Winter bewitches with its European undercurrent that revitalizes Melua’s pretty, if at times staid, adult contemporary sound. The record is lean but it doesn’t feel too brief during its playing time due to its content. The lead single, “Dreams of Fire,” is already considered a Melua classic, and her reverent but unique rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “River” is also a noteworthy mention. In Winter is a worthy addition to Melua’s canon, rivaling her last masterpiece, The House (2010, Dramatico).
Nu Shooz – Bagtown (NSO Music)
Oregonite duo Nu Shooz (Valerie Day and John Smith) have a penchant for jazz-pop spelunking stretching back as far as 1982. Not ready to rest on the laurels of their past achievements, Nu Shooz’s sixth record, Bagtown, is a gregarious potpourri of their mentioned jazz-pop. However, it’s the album’s closing number “The Rail I Ride” that steals the show; a great vehicle for Day, the song bestows a touch of pathos to the otherwise jubilant Bagtown.
Gwen Stefani – This Is What the Truth Feels Like (Interscope)
As the leader of No Doubt, Stefani had been a magnetic presence and held fast to that confidence on her solo debut, Love.Angel.Music.Baby. (2004, Interscope). On her third record, This Is What the Truth Feels Like, mostly centered around her separation from her husband Gavin Rossdale, Stefani’s mix of ska and synth-pop is irresistible on “Where Would I Be?” and “Used to Love You.” Only when she tries to reposition herself at the apex of a trend does the album lag. Thankfully, Stefani is only temporarily halted by that error before returning to juggling heartbreak and newfound love on This Is What That Truth Feels Like triumphantly.
Cyndi Lauper – Detour (Sire)
Cyndi Lauper has made a career of defying the odds, and her 10th LP (and third covers record) Detour, a country excursion, adds to Lauper’s stock. Her unmistakable voice hasn’t lost its luster, with age extending its strength on her take of “Funnel of Love” and “Hard Candy Christmas.” One can’t be sure where Lauper will go next, but Detour speaks volumes about the idea of artistic adventure not being limited by age or any other variable.
Lake Street Dive – Side Pony (Sound Emporium)
On their fifth LP, Side Pony, the quintet Lake Street Dive serve up a blend of rock, blues, soul, and addictive hooks. Lake Street Dive benefits from translating their live presence as a band and putting that ethos onto the album – see “Call Off Your Dogs” which straddles studio innovation and live improvisation. Side Pony advances Lake Street Dive’s momentum, setting another standard for them to beat.
Beverley Knight – Soulsville (East West)
Four years after Knight’s tribute to British soul on Soul U.K. (2011, Hurricane), England’s most successful female R&B singer returns with her homage to American soul on Soulsville. This wasn’t Knight’s initial dalliance with Stateside R&B, as Music City Soul (2006, Parlophone) had that distinction. As with that album, Knight convincingly works the vintage angle on Soulsville with established classics (“I Can’t Stand the Rain”) and her own songs (“Still Here”). The record may feel like a retread due to Music City Soul, especially after the forward-thinking Soul U.K. Still, Knight fits into this R&B form like a hand in glove, and its affability is apparent.
Additional Considerations for 2016: A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service; Eric Benét – Eric Benét; Neko Case, k.d. lang, Laura Veirs – case/lang/veirs; Common – Black America Again; De La Soul – and the Anonymous Nobody…; Céline Dion – Encore un soir; Will Downing – Black Pearls; Melissa Etheridge – Memphis Rock and Soul; Fantasia – The Definition of…; Garbage – Strange Little Birds; Jem – Beachwood Canyon; Johnnyswim – Georgica Pond; John Legend – Darkness and Light; Billie Ray Martin – The Soul Tapes; Chrisette Michele – Milestone; Róisín Murphy – Take Her Up to Monto; Frank Ocean – Blonde; The Pretenders – Alone; Dawn Richard – Redemption; Roxette – Good Karma; Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution; Angie Stone – Covered in Soul; Tegan & Sara – Love You to Death; Tweet – Charlene; Robbie Williams – Heavy Entertainment Show; Will Young – Summer Covers