This time it’s a welcome return for MusicRiot alumnus John Preston, who moved on a couple of years ago to write for Vada but comes back to the fold each Christmas to share his favourites with us. John was part of the first High Five in 2012, and it’s always refreshing to read his passionate and committed work. And we’re so pleased that he continues to champion the wonderful Dawn Richard.

 Album of the year

1-anohniTough call, but the reason this isn’t Mitski’s “Puberty 2” or Beyonce’s “Lemonade” is because neither artist quite captured the intensity and diversity of heartache -- and these are all sublime records whose central theme is that of violent retribution -- of Anonhi’s “Hopelessness”. That isn’t to say that this is a hard slog but Anonhi’s first album as a trans artist and without the Johnsons features her most accessible and exciting material to date. Touted initially as a dance record, “Hopelessness” undoubtedly uses densely modern and electronic R’n’B styles with steely production by Hudson Mohawke and OPN, but sensibly resists the urge to cast Anonhi as some fallen disco diva. Domestic violence, Barack Obama, surveillance culture, climate change and religion are some of the many aspects of its title’s state of mind. Beautiful, haunting, catchy and progressive; Anonhi has old school pop star values and she’s never been more radiant.

Independent Artist of the Year

PrintOne of the biggest music injustices of the last few years is that Dawn Richard is still not taking up the amount of mainstream, musical media space that she should be. It’s unlikely that this will change with November’s release of her third and final album in the “Heart” series, “Redemption”, and it’s quite possible that this is the way that Richard prefers it. She could now choose to work with producers or collaborators that would propel her into a world she once knew when working with Sean Combs, but this might mean that Richard would have to compromise and this is not a concept that appeals to the tireless, electro-R’n’B artist. “Redemption” feels less conceptual than “Golden and Black” and, although its first half is frenzied and beats heavy, Richard is just as reflective and thoughtful as before. The episodic and ambitious “LA”, featuring an incredible Trombone Shorty play-out, shows just what Dawn Richard is capable of.

Album Title of the Year

3-roisin-murphy“Monto (Take Her Up to Monto)” is an a 1958 Irish folk song by George Desmond Hodnett which means that Roisin Murphy can’t take sole responsibility for the name of her fourth solo album – “Take Her Up to Monto” . Monto itself is a nickname given to the one-time red light district in Dublin and quite what the relevance to this area and Murphy’s brazenly out-there collection of songs left over from last year’s “Hairless Toys” sessions is unclear. Where that album was curvier and had a deceptively gentle demeanour, “Take Her Up To Monto” is by far a more angular collection which in turn still thankfully indulges Roisin’s flirty and humorous tics. “Thoughts Wasted” is her magnum opus, a by-turns sung electro-pop, spoken-word orchestral stream of consciousness which has a surreality that punctuates the majority of her work whilst being touchingly relatable. Roisin Murphy always acts as though she is a bigger star than she actually is, one day let’s hope that this genuine visionary gets the stage she deserves.

Nearly there of the Year

4-sleigh-bellsSleigh Bells last two albums have been disappointingly pallid impersonations of their bruising 2010 debut. On “Jessica Rabbit”, Derek E. Miller and Alexis Krauss don’t exactly go back to the drawing board but they do attempt to try some new things. Krauss has always been essential to Sleigh Bells densely layered textures, a key part of the formula but sometimes frustratingly buried, the point maybe, but on occasion there is a yearning to experience her vocals yanked out and pushed high into the mix. This then seems to have been their objective on “Jessica Rabbit”, and obvious highlight “I Can Only Stare” is straightforward pop and Krauss’ voice is the stuff of diva dreams. Other tracks are fantastically bizarrely structured, episodic and bursting with musicality whilst the remainder sadly bottles out on this promise and just delivers more of the same. In part at least then, this is one of the most thrillingly dynamic records released in 2016.

Disappointment of the Year

5-lady-gagaLady Gaga has thus far been a brilliant and thrilling pop-star but around the arrival of her fourth album, “Joanne”, something changed. Its best tracks are, surprisingly, reminiscent of Bette Midler’s rawer and stripped material from the early 1970s but the majority is sentimental and derivative middle of the road Americana-lite. Shania Twain and Bon Jovi seem key, irony-free references. The fact that the record has constantly been referred to by Gaga, executive producer and nostalgist Mark Ronson, and large parts of the music press as ‘real and authentic’ is profoundly depressing -- so what does this make the long period preceding it? Oddly, Joanne feels like the most contrived album of Stefanie Germanotta’s career and one that seems to mark her as a cynical fraud, “Poker Face” being more autobiographical than initially suspected.

John Preston’s been writing for MusicRiot for a few years now, but this year he’s started to concentrate on his work for Vada online magazine and we genuinely wish him all the best with that venture. We’ve managed to lure him back for his take on the five best albums of the year. Give some of these a listen, because John really knows his stuff.

 

Miley CyrusMiley Cyrus -- “Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz”

“Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz” is surprisingly sensitive and predominantly mid-tempo with even songs like “Bang My Box” and “Space Boots” being ladled with melancholia and not sounding as you might expect. In a year of Tidal exclusives versus ‘you will buy my album, I don’t care if you pay for streaming’, Miley Cyrus beyonced a brilliant album with minimal fuss for zero pence which anyone with an internet connection could listen to. She continues to piss the right people off and many won’t bother to listen. For someone who grew up with Madonna this is a familiar story and like the gnarly icon herself, Miley Cyrus is far from done.

ChvrchesChvrches – “Every Open Eye

The Scottish trio have effectively made the third Yazoo album, the one that the eighties synth-duo never got around to finishing. Tight and upright melodies, shining and exhilarating electronics and with Lauren Mayberry’s regional accent punching out its many kiss-offs, “Leave a Trace” builds on what was promised on their 2013 debut and delivers a flawless start-to-finish album of perfect pop songs. Chvrches have perfected the art of making huge records that sound like the past and future colliding.

 

Dawn RichardDawn Richard -- “Blackheart

Released at the top of the year, the second in a trilogy of albums, “Blackheart” was an often a bleak but breathtakingly beautiful record about redemption. Ultimately uplifting, Dawn Richard manages to cover the old story of hope that’s lost and then found in a new way and within a flinty futuristic soundscape that refuses to conform to traditional R’n’B structures and timeframes. Visionary and fearless, Dawn Richard star continues to rise and rise.

Lana Del ReyLana Del Rey – “Honeymoon

The oddest pop-star of them all, Lana Del Rey reduces her trademark lyrical tics and sound stylings down to a sticky and claustrophobic pitch-black potion consisting of, you got it, sex, drugs and unrequited love. “Honeymoon” is Del Rey’s most honest and hard-core artistic statement yet with only snatches of camp (“Salvatore” rhymes soft ice cream with limousines) to lift the funereal mood. No longer as needy and as accommodating as before, Lana Del Rey continues to baffle but ultimately proves she is in a league of her own, demanding to be taken seriously.

BraidsBraids – “Deep In the Iris

Miniskirt” is a brittle kick in the gut and Braids most focused and attention-grabbing song of their career. Their third album “Deep in the Iris” has a kitchen sink, melodrama quality and riffs on mid-nineties British synth pop bands like Dubstar and Pet Shop Boys pre-slump. Drum ‘n’ bass, euphoric electro-pop choruses and a theme of sexual identity dominate an album that is far lighter and easy to absorb than this might at first suggest; don’t let Braids pass you by.

So, how was 2013 for you?  The Riot Squad have had a brilliant year bringing you the best in contemporary music wherever we find it.  Allan, John, Klare and Louie have reviewed some exceptional live and recorded music throughout the year and we all thank you for reading our reviews and looking at our photos.  We couldn’t resist this opportunity to remind you of some of the artists we reviewed for the first time in 2013.

We saw live performances by the Emile Gerber Band (which became Stoneface Travellers), Henrik Freischlader, Josephine, Marcus Bonfanti (solo and with his band), The Kennedys, Federal Charm (twice), Black Casino & The Ghost, Coco and the Butterfields (several times), The Dirt Tracks, Carrie Rodriguez, Aynsley Lister, Civil Protection, Wheatus, Dean Owens and Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion.  Quite a selection, really.

We reviewed albums and singles by Henrik Freischlader, Marcus Bonfanti, Sally Shapiro, Tomorrow’s World, Black Casino & The Ghost, Jimmy Livingstone, Austra, Tess of the Circle, Aynsley Lister, The Nyco Project, The Dirt Tracks, Nadine Shah, Sullivn,  Radio (in my) Head, Tal National, Layla Zoe, Kinver, Au Revoir Simone, DENA, Hartebeest, Polly Scattergood, Glasser, Annie, Emika and John Grant and probably a few others as well.  Along the way we had some great fun and met some lovely people; you all know who you are, and we’re hoping to meet most of you again this year.

Looking forward to 2014, we’re hoping for more of the same.  The review copies are already coming in and it’s starting to look pretty good already.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing some of our predictions for 2014 from the Riot Squad and possibly from a few guest contributors as well.  And, while we’re on the subject of guest contributions, many thanks to Aynsley Lister, Steve Jenner, Marcus Bonfanti and Billie Ray Martin for their contributions to our High Fives feature last year.