Nikki NackTune-Yards -- aka New England vocalist Merrill Garbus and partner in bass-playing crime Nate Brenner -- have allowed some major pop producers, namely John Hill and Malay, access to their already established and almost aggressively individual sound. Concerns of a disaster in the making may ring out; their first album unbelievably lo-fi and the second self- produced -- how would makers of albeit alternative but identifiable r’n’b pop affect the truly eccentric and self-sufficient band’s identity? Well, not as you much as you may imagine or possibly fear. There are changes of course as one would expect and also hope from any artist that has been producing music in excess of five years, but these are subtle and even, on occasion, welcome amendments made to the Tune-Yards manifesto.

2011’s “Whokill” was an astonishing force of nature; it blew everyone and everything that stood in its path away but left Merrill Garbus drained and creatively arid. “Nikki Nack”’s opening lyrics tell of Garbus’ frustrations and the encouragement given to her by a stranger based only on her casual, overheard, singing:

‘You tried to tell me that I had a right to sing

Just like a bird has to fly

And I really wanted to believe him because he seemed

Like a really nice guy

But I trip on the truth when I walk that wire

When you wear a mask, always sound like a liar

I tried to tell him all the reasons that I had never to sing again

And he replied ‘You’d better find a new way’

Garbus’ wide eyed, exclaiming vocals -- certainly soulful and often astoundingly powerful -- sound pretty much the same on “Find a New Way” as they always did. The change then comes mainly from the songs themselves and Tune-Yards development as writers. Garbus has spoken about her love of sticky, ear worm- songs that attack the brain, embedded forever. One of the objectives she had for this album was to figure out how to write such hooks and incorporate them without compromise of creativity and individuality. Maybe this was the reason for recruiting the producers of, amongst others, Pink, Shakira, Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera; John Hill and Malay are music specialists who understand how to navigate an artist towards the potential of a great melody. Along with Brenner, the band has again self-written the entire record and this objective of creating catchiness has, on the whole, been met, with many satisfying examples.

The first half on “Nikki Nack” is more convoluted stylistically than the second and also has a lower hit rate. “Water Fountain”, the album’s first single, squashes all of Tune-Yards characteristics and tics into one song. It’s a very tight squeeze; playground skipping rhymes, yelps and ‘yee- ha’s!’, clanging and clattering percussion, exhibitionist vocals and lyrics about a crumbling and under-funded neighbourhoods and a video that references Peewee Herman’s “Play House”. Ostentatious, wacky and be-jewelled, it’s not subtle and, after the initial and undeniable rush has worn off, it’s not enduring either. “Look Around” and “Time of Dark”, both slower tracks, feel longer than their playing time and “Real Thing”, which starts off brilliantly with staccato thrown verses circa “Writing on the Wall” era Destiny’s Child, ends in a tangle of voices and sonic muddle.

Hey Life” chronicles an existence led too fast accompanied by anxiety and a pressure to cram as much as possible into every waking second; its drumming, synth prods and speed singing all add to the heightened feeling of panic with Merrill central to the ensuing chaos. It’s a minor track in some ways but one that is nonetheless thrilling and manages to avoid any cartoonish inclinations on a track where this could have been an easy temptation.

The strongest section of the album begins with “Stop that Man” which introduces a trio of songs where evidence of growth in song-writing and an ability to apply a more contained but ultimately more rewarding approach is clearly apparent. One of the continued aims of Tune-Yards has been to comment on social and left-leaning political issues with lyrics that are set against predominantly upbeat and dense dance rhythms and beats that imply a celebratory mood. Casual racism, gentrification and sexual harassment are all central themes here and “Stop that Man” questions racial assumptions based on media statistics and news reports and also personal experiences. The song succeeds mainly though by being part angular, glitchy electro clash experiment (it turns inexplicably and temporarily into Blue Monday/ Bobby O for forty-five seconds mid-song) and part glorious, singalong pop song. So if Garbus’ intention was to create a song serious in intention that you’ll also sing and dance along to, she has also again succeeded.

Left Behind” and the downbeat but not depressing, smoothly r’n’b “Wait for a Minute”, probably the album’s best tune and performance, complete the trio and these moments are some of the finest in Tune-Yards discography to date. There is nothing that rivals the unruly, audacious and already ground -breaking “Gangsta”’ for example, here; the Tune-Yards of “Nikki Nack” are indeed more mannered but also more intricate with one beady eye placed on fine detail and songs that reveal themselves more slowly and reward generously over time. Claims of cultural appropriation, for they have been made, are surely overblown and only on the multi harmonies of the lullaby-like “Rocking Chair”, short and little too on the nose, does the intention grate. Other influences can also be heard, Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper, Missy Elliott and Timbaland, Santigold, Big Boi, MIA and Neneh Cherry in particular all register at certain points but never once could you mistake Tune –Yards for anyone else. “Nikki Nack” may not shout its intentions as loudly as before but its power is found elsewhere, you’ll find yourself madly singing its merits -- probably unaware and almost certainly with glee.

Blank ProjectI have a confession. It would be unreasonable and creatively and artistically crippling for her, but I want Neneh Cherry to make another “Buffalo Stance” and one more “Manchild” whilst she’s at it. These two songs, twenty five years old and counting, and her most famous along with Youssou N’Dour’s “Seven Seconds”, are as fantastic examples of perfect r’n’b, hip-hop pop as you will ever hear. Weird, joyous, melancholic and just gloriously sing-along tracks they instantly established Cherry as an artist that represented the period so completely that she has never been forgotten and as a female performer who embodied supreme self- possession and control over her image and her music. But therein of course lies a real truth in my confession and that it is built on nostalgia, sentimentality probably, and an opportunity to recapture something that probably can’t be and shouldn’t be. And Neneh Cherry has never been an artist to wallow or revisit, not for she the desperate and depressing revival tours and reality TV features so I wonder, when will my one pop wish ever come true?

2012’s “The Cherry Thing” was the last full length album to feature Cherry’s vocals on every track. It was a relatively specialist jazz album, wild and uninhibited but a sideline nonetheless. This, only her fourth album proper, has some of the residue of the itchy, structure-punishing, live feel of that last outing but where that album felt like an ensemble piece, which is what it was, this is all her; front, back and centre. “Blank Project”, a misleading title given its sharp focus, is very much about Neneh Cherry and her life now and the roles that she plays out, old and new. To get back to my confessional wish, there is not another “Buffalo Stance” here; of course there isn’t. There is however, amongst the avant-garde noises and sometimes bare sound stages, some bold and invigorating pop song structures. Surprisingly they are not to be found in the ponderous and strangely characterless duet with Cherry’s super groupie and number one fan Robyn on “Out of the Black” but in a trio of songs that appear in the album’s first half.

Following the reflective and protective “Across The Water”, a gentle and partly-rapped opener set to African percussion and stark patted drums, the title track “Blank Project” establishes Kieran (aka Four Tet) Heden’s production (he’s responsible for the whole album) style and sonic choices. Live drums, drum machines, guitars, pinging jangling ear-flinching percussion and a low frequency, vibrating and rubbery electronic bass that shares equal billing with only Cherry herself for persistence and aggravated attitude.  Along with “Blank Project”, “Naked” and “Weightless” detail addictive/compulsive relationships, making peace with a world and culture that resists being grounded in anything other than the present and feelings of being overwhelmed by the pressure to carry on ‘as normal’.

‘Strip me naked and put me down right

Strips me naked, my wings need to blast off

Life is going faster, like a bus it runs me over

No kind of beacon, fill me up and make me whole now’

All of these songs have a rambunctious punk energy which link in with Cherry’s earlier time with Rip, Rig and Panic but also, like her best work, they have fantastic melodies and exuberant, big choruses. “Weightless” in particular has a massive charge swinging around a chorus that lists bad dancing, over-spending, hasty decisions and a desire for some kind of spiritual balance. Any of these songs could be performed by artists that are half the age of Cherry and who represent the more interesting end of r’n’b and dance hybrids such as Angel Haze, MIA, Sky Ferreira and even Lorde, which is testament not only to the influence that Cherry has had on modern music but also her refusal to conform to perceived notions of appropriateness.

Spit Three Times”, a mid-tempo track that recalls Cherry’s dalliance with trip-hop around the mid 90’s, and, in particular the track ‘Feel It’, tackles depression but is not in itself a depressing track. Cherry’s warm and clear vocal also sounds suspicious of the superstitions that she thinks may help her dark mood at bay.

‘Monkeys on my back

Holding me down

Black dogs in the corner

Looking up at me

But you’re like an old friend or an enemy; holding me down’

Dossier”, a definite standout track, has a truly sinister build and bipolar mood but ends up revealing nothing scarier than domesticity although maybe this is Cherry’s biggest fear? The one true ballad “422” sees Cherry joining her native Swedes with a glacial, melancholic electronica reminiscent of The Knife and the closing track “Everything”, which may be overlong at nearly eight minutes, is the most experimental track here calling to mind Yoko Ono, albeit at her most subdued. All of it though hanging together beautifully with a graceful and consistent temperament.

Neneh Cherry has always been more of a commentator than a player. Her views have come from her own perspective and experiences as a woman, a woman of colour, a hip-hop star, a pop star, a parent and a reluctant participant of the music industry. To use an overused and often incorrectly-applied phrase she is what you might call authentic. “Blank Project” feels like a concentrated version of Cherry in that she is so present throughout and her strength and vulnerability heightened. It’s as if you’ve spent the morning with her sharing pots of coffee whilst trying to disentangle problems and laughing hysterically at pretty much nothing together, and she’s just left. She’s still live in your head but she’s no longer present, such is the personal nature and intensity of these songs. I won’t deny that I would love to hear her produced by Pharrell or the new Beyonce whizz kid Boots just to hear what they would come up with; I think it would be amazing. But that’s not to belittle or underestimate the quality of this record. Neneh Cherry is back and her art and soul informs this project, blank only for you to fill the role of listener and to share the very human experiences expressed honestly, courageously, and often thrillingly throughout.

YeezusKanye West – “Yeezus”

An artist who is consumed by his own obsession with culture, music and art, West has made the most startling album of his career so far. Where lyrical and sonic power collide magnificently, thematically “Yeezus” is an album about racism and ego and sex and sounds like nothing that you’ve heard from any of the rap or pops big players this year. Always one step ahead of every genre, West has made an album that incorporates brutal and beautiful techno, Nina Simone, Marilyn Manson and Daft Punk sounding like you wish they did on their own record. A collection that restores faith in creativity and the passion of self-expression; Kanye West really may be a god, just please don’t tell him.

NYPCNYPC – “NYPC”

In addition to changing their name and downsizing in 2013, NYPC (formerly known as New Young Pony Club) have somewhat surprisingly also released a brilliant record. Their self-titled third album is proof that the key members of this group needed to lighten the load somewhat in order to deliver what they’ve promising since 2005’s tasty ”Ice Cream”. This, their best album by some distance, is a master class in electronic pop music that has personality and class. Concise, muscular with divine melodies and gleaming electronics throughout, it puts the rather substantial competition in the shade.

MatangaMIA – “Mantangi”

Miley may have got their first with the “Bangerz” title but MIA’s outstanding fourth album is stacked to the ceiling with them. This was always going to be a difficult release as the critical spotlight had suddenly turned on the Sri Lankan-born and London-based rapper but instead of getting mad, MIA got ecstatic. Vocals that can sound like gunshots, delirious rhythms and textures and just one massive indie, world-rave bash after another;  “Mantangi” is the most pure and celebratory  representation of MIA to date.

Night Time, My TimeSky Ferreira – “Night Time, My Time”

Oh, Sky, the ultimate 21st century pop star who never releases any music, until now, sort of. Still unavailable in the UK, Sky Ferreira’s debut album was finally released in some parts of the world in late 2013. Nearly four years in the making, it’s a far cry from her earlier electro pop, although traces remain if you listen hard enough. Sounding like it was recorded in 1978 and produced by Mike Chapman, the missing album between Blondie’s “Plastic Letters” and “Parallel Lines” would just about do it justice.  A big, weird rock’n’pop album that entrances with liquid melodies and Ferreira’s ability to seduce just about anyone, this is music that was made for the Top of the Pops studio and a massive great hairbrush.

One BreathAnna Calvi – “One Breath”

Some of the year’s most intricate and soulful music, and this is indeed an extremely musical album, can be heard on Anna Calvi’s intimate and daring second album “One Breath”.  Partly because of the assertive and very academic use of an orchestra, Calvi has created songs which take expected turns into light and dark. Like a more feral and restless sister recording to Agnes Obel’s also excellent 2013 album “Aventine”, “One Breath” is both a dramatic and cathartic experience that firmly cements Anna Calvi’s place within the genre.

Opening to double handclaps, a spare hip-hop beat and a middle- eastern twang, Bulgarian born Denitza Torodrove, aka DENA’s, third single “Guest List” brings to mind MIA when she was fresh out of art school on her 2003 debut “Galang”. Also sharing the Grammy nominee’s anarchic political stance, DENA twists ‘everyone’s trying to get their name on the guest list’ to a double meaning; her music will be played in clubs where status can be everything but she is also directly referring to her native country’s immigration policies. Unlike MIA, DENA’s delivery is more relaxed and measured, eccentric swoops in her vocal delivery maybe but she’s no kooky novelty MC either.

The track builds from its initial bare bones and features some lovely vibes and jagged, buzzing synth shards as it finds its alt-hip-hop rap feet. It is somewhat crude sounding and doesn’t come with the sonic bells and whistles we’ve come to expect with some American artists’ early releases, such is the level of sophistication coming through, but this is welcome in an overly producer-dominated genre.

DENA is a rare find indeed. Female Bulgarian rap artists aren’t dominating anywhere at present and she has enough cultural blends and savvy not to alienate a more far reaching audience ( her work is so far performed in English) with a clear understanding of how to captivate just the kind of audience who will embrace her (hipster alert!). Her debut album is out next year and my ears are ready and waiting.

WishboneSince recording her occasionally twee, but consistently charming self- titled debut from 2011, Danish electronic pop singer-songwriter Oh Land has been listening to a lot of rap and the influences of this genre can be heard all over the tight and tough follow up,” Wishbone”. The stark, attention-seeking cover portrait alone projects enough star power to confirm that Nanna Ohland Fabricius means business this time; just try not to stare at it. Along with the recruitment of David Sitek, TV on the Radio member and fast becoming the most inspired alt-pop producer to emerge after the last couple of years (Beck, Beady Eye, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and CSS), the promise of something both unexpected and immediately compelling is met almost without exception.

“Wishbone” is Oh Land’s declaration of change and of the strength required to achieve it. Many of the songs use fighting or violent metaphors to get the message across, but are then off set against lush, warm restorative retreats. Album opener “Bird in An Aeroplane” is a strange, weary-sounding minor key, synth pile-up; it’s also a very good pop song but not fully realised on first listen. Like some of Sitek’s other productions, the fun is unravelling and exposing a song’s real intentions, which can sometimes take time. At the other end of the spectrum, “Renaissance Girls” furiously changes the tone with its scatty mania and staccato melody, Oh Land dazzling with exuberant vocals. It’s one of the most self-possessed pop songs of the year.

Love a Man Dead”, “Kill My Darling” and, in particular, “My Boxer”, which sees Oh Land reunite with producer Dan Carey (MIA, Bat For Lashes and Kylie), form a trilogy of sorts of part-rapped, part-sung concise muscular electro pop tracks. David Sitek again changing musical tack with “Pyromaniac” which is loose and funky and with its celebratory woo-hoo’s is The Cardigan’s classic “Lovefool”’s older sister. The twinkling “Sleepy Town” and doomy, two note piano chime of “Next Summer “(‘Put me to sleep and don’t wake me up, until time has changed please let’s fast forward the clock’), both topped with deceptively sweet vocals, successfully take the theme of small town resentment and boredom into mid tempo territory along with the finger snapping r’n’b of “Cherry On Top”.

Green Card” is a majestic, rolling Sia co-write and is a success of proportion and restraint; trumpets swell and Oh Land’s elaborate vocals demonstrate the skill and versatility of her vision and talent. The wheezy and dilapidated electronics on album closer “First to Say Goodnight” mimic more than anywhere else here the overall sonic atmosphere of Sitek’s successful collaboration with Scarlett Johansson on her album of Tom Waits covers “Anywhere I Lay My Head”. Where Johansson’s voice was never much more than a remote smudge or drawl, Oh Land’s clear and intimate vocals pull you much closer to the sentiment and sound beautiful alongside the ornate, drunken musicbox soundtrack.

Robyn, Lykke Li, Dragonette and Annie make vivid, revered and, to many, cultish pop music of various shades. Oh Land, like several similar acts, has been on the periphery of this greatness for a little while now but “Wishbone” sees her nudge her way into this very special group with an album that, in addition to cementing her own unique identity, is a delirious and thoughtful collection of pop beauty.