HospitalityHospitality -- “Trouble”

An archetypal indie band of the type you hear less and less these days, Hospitality’s second album is a masterful example of restraint, space and structure. Instrumentals, vividly detailed middle eights and trumpet solos are all given ample breathing space. Never too precise or self -indulgent, Amber Papini sounds like a fallen it-girl spending her days and nights on the phone smoking in coffee shops and crashing on other peoples’ sofa-beds. An album that reveals more with each listen, Hospitality are both old fashioned and forward-looking in their execution of guitar, drums and the occasional synth pop.

 

TinasheTinashe -- “Aquarius”

SZA, Kelela and Kindness have all been responsible for building the momentum of the new slowed-down and sonically screwed with RnB genre that came out of the remains of classic Aaliyah and Brandy and Cassie’s massively influential and singular debut. All commendable in the own right, none of these have yet mastered the all essential ingredient of delectable and persistent melodies like Tinashe has on her sublime debut album, the most consistent and important RnB album from a female vocalist in the last couple of years.

 

Azealia BanksAzealia Banks -- “Broke With Expensive Taste”

Her own worst enemy at times, but maybe that makes more sense now “Broke with Expensive Taste” has finally arrived in one piece and in the way Banks wanted it to. ‘I try all the cultures’ she sings over the appropriately tight and popping “Soda” and indeed she does; soca, hip-house, trap, surf-rock, UK garage and very deep house music all feature. The link to all of these styles is Banks herself; her inability to compromise and her keen ear have ensured her debut is one of the best within the genre, whatever genre that may be.

 

The Juan MacleanThe Juan Maclean – “In A Dream”

It’s hard not to mentally tick off the many influences that bubble up whilst listening to The Juan Maclean’s third album. Dance and club music is unavoidably indebted to its past, there are over five decades of a rich, diverse history to get lost in but McLean wisely avoids pastiche and nostalgia and creates his own nocturnal fantasy. With the essential Nancy Wang’s deadpan disco queen vocals dominating two thirds of the album, the duo have created their most successful and exciting collection to date.

 

St VincentSt Vincent – “St Vincent”

Not quite her masterpiece, so far that honour still falls upon 2011’s ground-breaking “Strange Mercy”. Annie Clarke’s first self-titled album is, following eleven months of getting-to-know-you time, probably her most strange and artful release so far. The original conceit is that it was going to be her most accessible and ‘pop’ album to date and yes, one of the songs does sound like a classic Madonna ballad. But tracks that start off as off-colour, other-worldly RnB end up somewhere completely unrelated, bruised and bashed 3 minutes later -- and it works beautifully. A genuine superstar, St Vincent’s ‘St Vincent’ is one of the year’s brightest and most brutal releases.

Broke with Expensive TasteAt the very least, the dramatic and unexpected release of Azealia Banks’ debut album is a relief. Her one bona fide hit, the filthy and fantastic “212”, was released in 2011 and talk of her first album, mainly by Banks herself, has been on, off and on again pretty much consistently since then. Some three years later and Beyonced onto iTunes at 7.00pm on a cold Thursday in early November “Broke with Expensive Taste” finally saw the light of day. We can all now move on; Banks, the naysayers, the many she has horrified with brattish abuse via her volatile twitter account -- let’s go and fix our glare on the new kid. Maybe the surprise then is that there is a lot more to Azealia Banks than being a big dirty mouthed one- hit wonder. The breadth and rush of the consistently surprising, eccentric but accessible tracks here is absolute proof that she knew what she was doing all along. One of the most interesting and revealing aspects of Azealia Banks first full length release proper is all of the things that it is not. There is no EDM, and although this is most definitely a dance record, no dubstep, no grand-standing features and no sign of the kind of producers that eclipse the artist themselves and are usually called in for last minute emergencies. In fact the one track that was produced by and featured the ubiquitous Pharrell Williams (the lacklustre and generic “ATM Jam”) has wisely been left off. The Williams collaboration was forced upon Banks by her then record company (she has since left Interscope, to call it a rocky relationship would appear an understatement) to bag an easy hit, as is often the case, and by all accounts represents the reasons why “Broke with Expensive Taste” has suffered such a long and bumpy ride to release. Banks is not an artist who is willing to compromise or curtail her artistic impulses and this is made abundantly clear here. Album opener “Idle Delilah” has clattering pots and pans percussion, a fuzz-box island guitar riff and a chorus, if it can indeed be called that, that consists only of  a chopped- to- utter -smithereens Brandy sample from her hit  “I Wanna Be Down” which is rendered utterly unrecognisable here.  This is to support Banks warbling but radiant rap and vocal lines laid out over a building house beat. “Desperado” and “Gimme a Chance” go down different roads entirely; the former has Banks speeding sulkily over an old and moody MJ Cole 2-step track, “Bandelero Desperado”, with muted trumpet and an unmistakeable British identity whilst “Gimme A Chance” references early hip-hop scratching and a Ze Records “Off the Coast of Me” dead – eyed sung chorus. This all comes before the second half of the track which explodes into Latin American horns with Banks both singing and rapping in Spanish. “JFK” is a snooker balls-cracking house track with vocal inflections mimicking an almost operatic narrative of the vogue balls and creative rivalry and “Wallace” has dark cavernous drums, a blink and you’ll miss it Missy Elliott reference, and might be about a dog. At this point it is hard to accept that the album has not even reached its half-way point, such is the diversity and ambition that is alluded to. The album’s middle section is its most conventional and traditionally urban, all of the tracks are rapped. “Ice Princess” in particular, which is a variation on Morgan Page’s “In The Air” hit, proves that Banks can more than hold her own in commercial rap; her rhymes are effortless and engaging, often surreal,  with a flow that is sharp but soothing. “Soda” is a popping, taut house track that sounds like little else coming out of the urban genre or any other stable at the moment  and is completely sung in Banks highly distinctive swooping, and occasionally flat, contralto. It introduces the last act of the album and at this point some of the admittedly unexpected flow of the first half does suffer, due mainly to “Nude Beach a Go-Go”. Produced by Ariel Pink with an intense love or loathe quality, it sounds like a Beach Boys carol about the joys of nude beaches (‘Do you jingle when you dingle-dangle? Everybody does the bingle-bangle’) as imagined by the B 52s who already have a song called ‘Theme for A Nude Beach’. It is quite a lot to take in and is probably brilliant but is jarringly sandwiched between the album’s deepest house tracks, the alluring triptych of “Luxury”, “Miss Camaraderie” and “Miss Amor”. The decision to include older tracks here, including ones already featured in Banks 2012 “Fantasia” mixtape (and yes, “212” is also here), is the only misstep that hinders the irresistible freshness “Broke With Expensive Taste”. Not only are they the weaker tracks in the majority but they overload the track listing to sixteen and subsequently dilute the potential power of the lesser-heard and superior material. The real surprise here though is that Azealia Banks could not get this album released in the first place; this is the stuff that classic debut albums are made and is massive indictment of the state of the music industry in 2014. An unreserved success still, with “Broke with Expensive Taste”, Azealia Banks has ably demonstrated that the fight was most definitely worth it and has emerged from the other side as an important, original and necessary artist.

LP1In many ways Tahliah Barnett still sounds like many thought the future would in 1995. More sinuous and fragile maybe, but twenty-six year old FKA Twigs is much indebted to the Bristol’s trip-hop takeover in the mid-nineties and in particular Adrian Thaws, AKA Tricky. Along with Massive Attack and Portishead, Tricky defined the period with his doomy and sensual debut album “Maxinquaye” which featured soulfully threatening vocals from his favourite muse Martina Topley-Bird, and it’s this artist who springs to mind more than any other whilst listening Barnett’s vocal abilities. Against the skipping, tapping and whirring percussion noises, sporadic booming bass and hip hop and trap time-signatures, Barnett delivers two variations -- a barely-there, traditional r’n’b fluttering falsetto and a surprisingly clear contralto; a marvellous, devastating contrast frequently exchanged during the same song.

t may not be 1995 anymore and explicit and unimaginative sexuality has replaced mystery and ambiguity and this is what has partly driven what seems an uncommonly insatiable appetite for this young singer who almost constantly remains somewhat hidden in all respects. “LP1” was preceded by two 4-track EPs which have served as an introduction to the singer (none of those tracks are included here) and accompanying each of these songs was a highly stylised video; no-one could tell who this person was though, so obscured by the surreal and vivid images -- a slippery and repeatedly oral Chris Cunningham cum Grace Jones “Corporate Cannibal” body-morphing aesthetic. These portraits proved irresistible and have made FKA Twigs the absolute doyenne of tumblr cool; the hype starts here indeed. Stripped then of these visuals as one is when listening to the 10 tracks here (at the time of writing only one song has visual accompaniment), the overall impact is not always as strong when relying entirely on melodic and sonic ability but a lot of the time it exceeds what has been heard to date such is the strength of the song writing.

Two Weeks” is a massive and masterful song, the highlight of “LP1”, and its straight-out-of-the-box perfection would be an achievement for any artist, new or established. Staccato delivery and clipped annunciation surround the only explicit references to sex, and sexual competitiveness, on the album. ‘I can fuck you better than her…..my thighs are apart for when you’re ready to breathe in’ is an example of this but it’s the reference to ‘pull out that incisor’ and ‘flying like a screaming falcon’ that add another altogether otherworldly layer that so befits what we know of Barnett, a darker and by far more disturbing extreme to go to. “Video Girl”, like “Two Weeks”, is another of the more typically structured and sturdier songs which will have people reeling off names like Brandy, Aaliyah and Tweet -- sweet-voiced r’n’b artists who actively encouraged producer involvement to create music that was bleaker and more experimental than the norm expected at the time within the genre. But “Video Girl” is autobiographical; it references her time as a dancer in music videos by the likes of Jessie J and Kylie Minogue immediately before this album’s release and the subsequent change of hierarchy. ‘Is she the girl that’s from the video?’ leering demand is met with Barnett’s subsequent denial ‘I can’t recognise me’. The second chorus slows down just enough for the listener to think there may be a fault with their copy of the track, as though it’s malfunctioning; it’s a disquieting and magical little trick.

Hours” creaks up slowly like a sticky corrugated shutter, produced by indie female favourite Dev Hynes, and has the best example of this soft / hard vocal dynamic where the later verses become strident demands as opposed to the earlier girly infatuations. “Closer” is sublime Gregorian chamber pop ending with the devastating (I think) ‘all these years in isolation, isolation, isolation’ and “Give Up” sees the singer take the role of forceful encourager and rock.  Pendulum” starts with the clack of a stick being rattled around a cotton wool lined barrel with Barnett sounding as though she may dissolve into the background due to emotional upheaval. It’s one of the songs here, and odd therefore that it’s the sole production by pop god Paul Epworth, that feels pleasant enough but inadequate -- the most surprising thing you could say about Barnett, certainly. But it’s misleading as eventually it becomes somewhat of a centrally-placed heart to the album and its warmth burns through you. “Lights On” and album closer “Kicks” are at the weaker end of “LP1”, both tracks promise something that never fully develops or is reached and it’s here that Barnett is reminiscent of Kelela’s “Cut 4 Me” and the slow jams that appear on her album. Production levels are startlingly high and the vocals are pure r’n’b sweetness but there is a little either in the way or melody or mood here.

“LP1” is a record that at first seems to be somewhat slight considering the heft of everything that surrounds it. I was lucky enough to have this album a good two weeks before it was released and can say that after initially forming an opinion that wasn’t as favourable as this one, it kept drawing me back. It was as though I hadn’t heard all of the tracks yet but had retained enough of a clatter or a buzz or a divine falsetto being slowed down to a stuttering machine that I needed to go back and finish them properly, to give the record a fair chance. It’s only through these repeated listens that some of the tracks here really show themselves; it isn’t a slight record at all, far from it in fact. FKA Twigs debut is wholly impressive and bewitching and stands up as a cohesive and single-minded debut; let it also be known that she also wrote every track here. A brilliant and wholly exciting new talent on the British black music scene, whatever that music may be.

And last but not least from the Riot Squad, we have John Preston’s Top 5 albums from 2012.  Starting tomorrow, you can find out what some of the artists we’ve reviewed this year have been listening to.  Of course, I’m not going to tell you who’s contributing yet; you’ll have to visit the website over the next couple of weeks for that.

 

Fiona Apple -- “The Idler Wheel…”Product Details

Her best album of 4, Fiona Apple is a true original; a breath taking talent and completely, criminally overlooked in the UK. You can change this; buy this outstanding albeit challenging (worth it though, believe me) CD and show her the respect and love she deserves for continuing to make songs as brave, bare and uncompromising as she has here. You’re not worthy of course and she’d rather spend a weekend with her piano and dog than share a beer with a hipster like you but you won’t find a better singer songwriter to fall head over heels with. Listen to ‘Regret’ and be quietly, hopelessly terrified and then just surrender.

Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra -- “Theatre is Evil”Product Details

Charismatic, tireless, controversial and forever ‘on’; Amanda Palmer’s fan-funded, 16 track opus is a thumping and relentless feel good(ish) blast. The chamber pop strings and piano of “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” has, on the whole, been traded in for massive 80’s synths, rock guitars, thuggish pop choruses and has an energy and vitality that nothing else I’ve listened to this year comes close to matching. This is probably best demonstrated in the garish, hysterical and euphoric “Do It with A Rockstar” video where all of these elements collide beautifully. My go to choice to blow the morning blues away when you’re still half asleep and making your way into work on a rainy Thursday morning; it may be a cliché but play this one LOUD!

Brandy – “Two Eleven”Product Details

In 2004 Brandy released what was probably her most consistent and cohesive album, “Afrodisiac”. Crucially it was also one of the last top notch productions that RnB superstar Timbaland (and Missy Elliott’s musical soul mate) was responsible for before his, and also RnB’s, decline. He went on to produce Miley Cyrus and New Kids on The Block and Mary J Blige was produced by Eurotrance cheese maker RedOne and autotune replaced real vocals. Brandy resisted jumping on this ill-conceived bandwagon and has now returned with a heartfelt, beautifully sung, sleek and modern RnB album. Timbaland isn’t around this time but Frank Ocean and Bangladesh are and they really do provide Brandy with a sound-scape that enables her to fly.  Check out the Lykke Li-sampled, dancehall-incorporating and completely bonkers “Let Me Go” if any further proof is needed. So along with new comers such as Dawn Richard and Solange, things are thankfully moving forward again in a very positive, new direction within the RnB genre.

Lana Del Rey – “Born To Die Paradise Edition”Product Details

When one of the most intriguing and original pop stars of the last ten years debut album didn’t quite deliver the goods as expected in the wake  of her destined to become classic single “Video Games”, the disappointment was palpable. Lana Del Rey has more than redeemed herself however on this re-release featuring 9 (on the ITunes version) new, very high quality songs which ditches some of the kitchen sink production mistakes of the original album and replaces them with a warmer but, importantly,  even more desolate sound. “Ride” demonstrates that vocally and songwise Del Rey is no one-trick pony and possesses enough personality and pathos to carry a big song in a way that her contemporaries may struggle with. America’s new sweet heart.

Rachel Zeffira – “The Deserters”Product Details

Released at the beginning of this month, this is a late comer but without doubt an essential release which you will thank me for tracking down. This is beautiful, ornate and soothing music of the most other-worldly kind and also the most seasonal (as in winter not Christmas) of my picks. Last year I included Cat’s Eyes on my Top 5 and Rachel Zeffira is one half of that duo so it’s nice that this album, which has the DNA of that debut but mixed with something altogether more spectral, has proved that she can stand alone and make an album which sounds unlike anything else I’ve heard this year.