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.

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.

Angel HazeAngel Haze is an exciting prospect. The 22 year old rapper and sometimes singer from Detroit’s flow is like an exhilarating and effortless amphetamine hit; you hear her, you sit up and you ask ‘who?’ Her story is one of cult religions, abuse and an exploration of her sexuality and sexual orientation and how all of these things have resolutely not made her into a victim. After several mix tapes it was 2012’s unexpectedly diverse and brilliant “Reservation” and her covers EP “Classick”, both exploring all of these experiences, that guaranteed she could no longer go unheard. Her biggest hit to date, the skeletal and booming “New York” has now become a club essential and a classic in itself. So why exactly does “Dirty Gold”, Angel Haze’s first official album release sound like such a step backwards?

It may take a while to pull your already-established fan base along with you, but the decision to move from the relatively underground to the mainstream is not necessarily bad. It’s apparent after hearing  the opening track, the scene-setting “Sing About Me” that Angel Haze wants to make it big as a crossover act; not as a rap artist or a hip-hop artist but as a pop star. Listening to recent interviews and the snippets of dialogue contained through “Dirty Gold” this indeed would appear to be Haze’s choice. Beginning with a sung chorus, shimmering synths and a repetitive R2D2 whistle, “Sing About Me”, is uplifting and pleasant but completely derivative r’n’b pop. With sing-song rapped verses, Haze encourages us to celebrate her success and this formula of sung chorus and rapped verse is repeated almost throughout the entirety of the tracks on “Dirty Gold”. On the third song, “A Tribe Called Red”, a trapped-out and dub-stepped rhythm supports Haze’s rap spit efficiently enough but then  is completely compromised  and crushed by the excruciatingly heavy-handed (sung) chorus telling the listener  ‘Don’t give up…turn it around’. It already sounds dated; the EDM ticks, the histrionics and the self-empowering sentiment.

As if any further confirmation were required, the presence of omnipresent songwriter and pop star in her right, Sia, both singing and writing on “Battle Cry” (the hands in the air chorus actually states ‘lift your hands towards the sky’) and with production by equally in-demand Greg Kurstin (Kylie, Britney and Lily Allen), there is no doubt that Haze is aiming stadium big. But even with such dependable collaborators the overall sound of this is overwrought and clichéd, particularly in the slower and more ‘serious’ second half. The most obvious comparison is that of Nicki Minaj who, like Haze, released early mix tapes and through thunder-stealing features proved herself as a gloriously eccentric, genuinely witty and charismatic performer and then her debut “Pink Friday” appeared and  it was sonically safe, overly sentimental and, worst of all, dull. The Minaj that was initially promised was not the Minaj delivered and the Angel Haze that we expected has similarly been mislaid somewhere in transit.

There are moments of “Dirty Gold” that do work well within this new format. The first single taken from the album, the Markus Dravs-produced (Bjork, Arcade Fire and Coldplay, amongst others) “Echelon (It’s My Way)” sounds fresh and relevant. It has the best chorus on “Dirty Gold” by some distance and its trap styling and deceptively shallow subject matter (fashion, basically) are pretty perfunctory --  it’s pretty much the second instalment to ASAP Rocky’s “Fashion Killa” – but on an album that is looking for instant pop gratification and perfect hooks this does the trick very well. “Deep Sea Diver” has a tight groove and throbs and rattles like prime time Missy Elliott and “White Lilies/White Lies” has breadth and an epic feel that moves away from the more predictable structures found here with the spaghetti western-type loop and long instrumental fadeout adding atmosphere.

It’s maybe important to point out that the deluxe version of this album, and I am loath to review these ‘versions’, which are essentially just marketing tools and undoubtedly cynical, contains four of the most compelling, sonically-challenging and vibrant tracks contained under the “Dirty Gold” banner.  Admittedly one of these is the previously-released “New York”, but listen to the baroque and oddly beautiful “Rose-Tinted Suicide” and marvel at what could (should) have been achieved. The decision to still include these tracks, albeit in this unabridged version of the album, confirms that the young star’s talent is still very much intact. It might be of course that Angel Haze herself wants to distance herself from these more nuanced and disturbing tracks but one can only hope that she changes her mind and finds again the bright light that’s hidden beneath the dirt here, the one that attracted us to her in the first place. The three-star rating is based on the Deluxe Edition.

Days are GoneHaim are in a minority of artists who also form part of the majority where influences from chart music over the last thirty years can be heard clod-hopping all over their work but who are also pushing forward musically, and sound strikingly different from their current, retro-obsessed contemporaries. The three twenty-something sisters from LA write their own material and play their instruments, they aren’t an electronic act and neither do they aspire to be urban makeover superstars. But there are some fascinating deep and dark synths here and an R’n’B spirit is shadowing almost every song to the point where it does, albeit briefly, finally jump into the driving seat. “Tango in The Night”-era Fleetwood Mac, Prince, Sheryl Crow, The Police and eighties soft rock are the most dominant and easily-spotted influences for the Haim sisters debut though. Time and again you’ll hear these mentioned in reference to the group but importantly at the core of “Days Are Gone”, is a sound that is all theirs.

The first third of the album is home to all four heavily-promoted singles and with the possible exception of the worryingly Shania Twain tendencies of the overly-perky “The Wire” (not forgetting the Eagles “Heartache Tonight” drum intro – Ed), all still sound spring fresh, funky and with plenty of space for instruments and vocals to stretch out and sparkle. “If I Could Change your Mind” has a fidgety, skipping melody line which brings to mind freestyle electro pop from eighties artists like Cover Girls and Lisa Lisa, and the title track, a surprising co-write with UK new-house artist Jessie Ware, has plenty of tension and bustles along with an urgent agenda and rhythm.

It’s on the futuristic R’n’B of the oddly titled “My Song 5” where the band really surprise. If this were the lead single from Beyonce’s near-mythical, possibly forthcoming album or even more excitingly, another attempt at a comeback from Missy Elliott then either would be rightly lauded. Three seconds of dirgy, descending buzz bass and then massive slow pounding drums introduce vocals which mimic Wendy and Lisa doing their Purple Rain residence; dead eyed and dangerous, pitch black promising ‘honey I’m not your honey pie’. A dizzy and delirious middle eight where tight angelic harmonies flip forward and then just disappear and it’s one of the one of the most exciting and weird four minutes you’ll have experienced since the first time you heard “Get Ur Freak On”.

Continuing with the genuinely thrilling and experimental final third of “Days Are Gone” where the sound that we’d already heard from the band is both intensified and stripped away, “Go Slow” is a gorgeous and gently skulking “True Colours” but with all of the sonic fuzz wiped away. “Let Me Go” is the angriest sounding moment here, building from the sixties girl group chants in the dark into a tribal thud and clanking, dubby outro and “Running If you Call my Name” closes the album in a traditional way as a down-tempo mass of drums, guitars and those beautiful harmonies.

“Days Are Gone”, maybe more than anything else, is very welcome at this point in pop culture. Pop music is more female-driven and dominated than ever before; Gaga is eaten by Lana is eaten by Taylor is eaten by Miley. It happens so quickly and all have their place and merit but none sound like Haim. Image, although clearly very much considered, seems less of an issue to the group than the music itself, you can listen to the songs here and you don’t necessarily feel hijacked by a carefully constructed persona and brand as you may do when listening to “Born This Way” or “Video Games” say. This is a charismatic and superior release, real musical talent and love of performing that doesn’t sound cynical or short-sighted. Probably most satisfying of all, you can almost guarantee that this really is only the beginning for Haim and the best is still to come.

Out now.

A&R EPAnnie is the absolute embodiment of a cult artist but also a bit of an oxymoron, she shows few signs of craving that big crossover pop smash although she appears to be the most archetypal of pop stars, but then not quite. Annie has always retained an awkwardness and appears as an introverted figure; with no massive ego and zero tabloid splashes, this is not the kind of attitude that will get you that support slot on the next Katy Perry stadium tour.  This EP is not going to change that and an assumption that this was never one of Annie’s main objectives in the first place would not be naïve.

Like fellow swede Robyn before her, Annie isn’t releasing an album this time round, apparently there will be three EP’s this year, each made with a different producer/come collaborator (“Tube Stops and Lonely Hearts”, which suddenly appeared as a lone single earlier this year, was co-produced by Girls Aloud masterminds Xenomania) and the first is with anarchic pop producer and neglected genius, Richard X (the R in the title). Richard X is to Annie as Timberland once was to Missy around the turn of the last decade, the relationship goes beyond that of muse and maestro, an equal partnership that brings out the best in each artist derived from a comfort factor and desire to innovate.

These are songs about relationships with boys, or should I say men, Annie is in her thirties after all. The third track, and maybe the most pure pop moment here, is a cartoony, Casio keyboard style bleeped love letter addressed to one man in particular. “Ralph Macchio”, the actor best known for his role as the Karate Kid, is Annie’s new crush and the humour that is a trademark of Richard and Annie’s previous work is in intact and resplendent (2004’s “Me Plus One” is famously about Geri Halliwell pleading with Richard X to work with her and the cut-price diva consequences of him refusing). “Invisible”, with its Funky Drummer sample and acid squiggles, make it the most textured and interesting track the duo have come up with to date. A duet with herself, Annie’s voice is slowed down for a verse as she acts out the part of the rotten lover and then answers herself with a Boo style rap; it goes hard and is fantastic.

Hold On” is possibly the standout song; it’s certainly the most self-assured and has some lovely, intricate musical details from Richard X (listen out for the brief, clipped steel drum sample right at the end) and a mid-tempo groove that manages to reference The Rah Band, “Break 4 Love” and St Etienne while Annie’s delicate vocals float above the whole thing beautifully. “Mixed Emotions” is sad, minor key verse major key chorus disco house which doesn’t make its presence felt as strongly as the other three tracks and “Back Together”, a co-write with Sally Shapiro obsessive (it shows) Little Boots, is straight-up pop house from 1991 although many will be too blind to see it.

Annie fans will be happy then, her and Richard X have turned their obsessive musical radar to the dance (and chart) music of the early 1990’s and particularly with “Invisible” and “Holding On”, have created tracks that would have doubtlessly appeared on The Chart Show, the frustrating but loved music video show that ran throughout the decade. These songs are neither big or stupid enough to make that kind of mainstream impact now but the world is a different place, one where Annie can  get her smart and fun tunes out to her dedicated demographic and still remain pop’s best kept secret. Her choice.