No Mythologies to FollowOn paper at least it would appear that is unlikely to deviate much from what is a well-established and superior brand of Scandi-pop. With this album being three years in the making, the Copenhagen based twenty-five year old has had time to hone her preferred blend of r’n’b pop with trap leanings and an occasional wander into 1960s reverb-heavy girl group territory. Her competition is undoubtedly strong; Lykke Li, Annie, Robyn and Oh Land to name a few of the female singers who have already demonstrated their worth in the genre over the last decade. But MØ can thankfully hold her own more often than not on this, her debut album, “No Mythologies to Follow”.

Album opener “Fire Rides”, one of the new songs which represent the minority here, as over half the album has already been released, is a perfect introduction to MØ’s style and sound. Following a near acapella flurry of swooping, angelic vocals, stop-start post Timbaland beats hit hard against the melancholic melody line before a rave synth adds another, more angular dimension to the chorus. It may sound crowded but it’s a sublime merging of styles. Most impressive of all though are MØ’s vocals, full bodied and soulful with an impressive and expressive range that her contemporaries can’t match. The apocalyptic metaphors on “Fire Rides” are bought to life with her possessed performance on the haunted and yearning verses:

‘What’s it gonna be with the violence?

What’s it gonna be when the fire rides in?

What’s it gonna be when the sound of you and I die out?’

Maiden”, “Pilgrim” and “Waste of Time” are all previous singles and further represent MØ’s fixation with the music she grew up with. Much like Grimes, contemporary futuristic r’n’b and hip hop have been essential influences to her along with electronic pop music and an ability to subvert these genres subtly and without irony but with heart; this is her specialty. “Maiden” introduces a classic nylon-strung guitar sound that crops up more than once in the album’s playing time and it’s to her credit that she applies these odd stylistic flourishes to her sound and makes it something that is identifiable to her and without contrivance. Producer superstar Diplo appears on the brassy and low-slung “XXX 88” and it’s maybe not surprising that it’s the most commercial moment here but also completely in keeping with the sonic themes of the album. Don’t Wanna Dance” and the slowly chiming “Never Wanna Know” in particular pay a brilliant homage to Motown and girl group dilemmas and sonics. Both tracks are wonderfully conceived and a perfect for MØ’s longing and alienated vocals, “Never Wanna Know” has a divine spoken interlude that draws the line from The Shangri-Las to All Saints, it may be an easy pull but it certainly hits in all the right places

‘All of a sudden I was brain dead and rotten

With thoughts of you and I

And I wanted to ‘goodbye’ you

But the nights are so cold

How I missed your human soul

I would never let you go if I’d been a little older’

 he less successful songs here, and there only a few, are also the newer ones. “Red in the Grey” has a pretty straight forward trap arrangement but is more of a re-tread of earlier material rather than a fresh update.  Dust is Gone” continues with the sixties thread but the lack of a strong song and Lana Del Rey aping render it redundant karaoke. The clanking and clapping “Walk this Way” and the gorgeous “Slow Love” with its opulent, misty funk fare much better. Compare any of these tracks though to the older and eccentric “Glass”, the closing song here, with its deeply disconcerting festive synth hook, massive pop chorus and general oddness, and these tracks fail to fully measure up.

“No Mythologies To Follow” may not be as instantly gratifying as one may have expected given a genre that all too often and easily is written off as disposable. This is an album that initially is difficult to warm to and a fairly steady mid tempo throughout can provoke a feeling of sameness. This proves to be a strength as opposed to any kind of weakness however as repeated listens reward enormously as buried melodies and hidden embellishments are excitingly revealed over time. MØ has already managed to establish her own style and found a voice which allows her access to the hallowed music hall of Swedish Pop (a copy of Abba’s “The Visitors” is given to all wannabes as homework) but she also cleverly sets herself apart from her contemporaries effortlessly and with some aplomb. MØ is indeed something quite special: an awkward and talented woman challenging her inhibitions and desires through frequently beautiful and slow burning music that is, at times, equally awkward.

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.

ChiaroscuroI Break Horses sophomore album, “Chiaroscuro”, Italian for contrasting light and dark, is a very multi-layered and somewhat intense affair. Thick with manic hi-hats, synths and stereo-centric effects, melodies, when they do appear, are strong and compelling but half of the album forsakes this dominant foreboding mood, representing the extremes of the title in a way. “Hearts”, I Break Horses debut album, was released in 2011 and was also a thick and textured, atmospheric electronic album but was also significantly more optimistic and in many ways accessible than this follow up. There were also songs on their first album, only a couple, admittedly, that you could dance to and although “Chiaroscuro” contains tracks that may inspire you to move, there is nothing here that will leave you dehydrated.

Swedish electronic music is seemingly dominated by female singers making pop music which is beautiful, ten steps ahead of their European neighbours and both sad and joyous; Robyn is their leader. Maria Linden and Fredrik Balck relate to both the beauty and sadness but these Swedes have more in common with artists from the US label Italians Do It Better such as Chromatics and Glass Candy with Linden’s sweet but depressed, sometimes dead-eyed, delivery replicating the female leads of these groups. Musically, recent releases from School of Seven Bells and Nigel Godrich group Ultraista come close with their rave-punctuated, electronic disco for introverts but I Break  Horses are often far more distant and harder to know.

“Chiarascuro” starts with the noir-like dramatic, piano-led, “You Burn”, a strong and slowly thumping Italian disco-influenced lead that doesn’t sound like any other song here. The next three tracks amplify the energy significantly and successfully and with “Denial”, the best of the trio, Linden’s dreamy vocals are initially attacked by stun guns, stuttering like a Stock, Aitken and Waterman twelve-inch and surrounded by syndrums that aren’t retro sounding but fresh and darkly pop. It really does sound great and, yes, sad and beautiful. The second half of the album does not replicate the first though. Linden and Balck have a distinct ability to create instant and exciting music but they then decide to pull back from this.  With tracks like the seven minute, funereal “Medicine Brush” (with very Julee Cruise falsetto vocals thankfully adding some respite), the overly sombre “Berceuse” and out of focus, both melodically and sonically, “Disclosure” all reinforcing the sense of nothing really happening over a long (feeling) period of time. All is not lost though and album latecomer “Weigh True Words” reignites the spark and distortion of the earlier tracks and with its repetitious but thrilling house percussion and brilliant chorus, it’s the best tune of the album.

Ultimately “Chiaroscuro” is a somewhat uneven collection of nine tracks; the longer songs need to be shorter and vice-versa .  The stronger poppier melodies can be frustratingly buried and, at nearly eight minutes long, the art-doom of “Heart to Know” is just very hard going indeed. Listen to this on a decent set of headphones though and there is still a lot of pleasure to be had and the humour in some of the diseased-sounding short synth motifs and computer game effects are thrilling. It may still be difficult to really understand what Maria Lindén is actually singing about but the lyrics aren’t the most important thing here. I Break Horses is really about mood and the album title is a clue to the strong contrast between the two sides of the album, the light may be under-represented but the point where the two collide can be dazzling.

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.

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.

British pop artist Charli XCX aka Charlotte Aitchison loves a sing-song spoken verse or middle eight, the type that dominates songs like the spectacular “Never Ever” by All Saints or the slightly less spectacular but just as influential “China In My Hands” by eighties favourite T’Pau. They crop up again and again on this, her 3 years in the making debut album, “True Romance” features only 2 songs I haven’t heard before; the danger of releasing mix tapes and singles for years and then deciding to retain them all, also signalling a slight lack of quality control, in one format or another, for your first release proper.

Apart from the cartoon rave popping of “Take My Hand” (appropriately enough about taking amphetamines and being unable to stop dancing or get any sleep for many hours; no subtleties here) and the low-fi, underwhelming “Black Roses”, and as far as I’m aware these are also the two ‘new’ tracks, the tempos are all mid and the inspiration seems to be predominantly taken from that mid-nineties girl group sound that incorporated r’n’b and pop before Timbaland and The Neptunes descended from outer space and changed the sound of pop forever at the very beginning of the noughties.

I’m talking “Honey to the Bee” by Billie Piper, Atomic Kitten, The Spice Girls debut album and I mentioned All Saints earlier. What Charli XCX does however is subvert the genre gently by adding some grubby synths, ambient sounds and a sense of alienation and real individuality that you never quite got from Geri Halliwell or Kerry Katona. This, admittedly pretty common, hybrid can work really well and does on a good half of this record, “Stay Away” and “Nuclear Season”, two of the oldest songs here, sound sulky and satisfyingly challenging whilst being built around pure pop structures and “So Far Away” and “Cloud Aura” both steer more towards r’n’b and are instant and substantial. On the current single “What I Like”, Aitchison channels Lily Allen, both of them guilty of masking their social class with their mockney accents and it’s as good as anything Allen put her name to over her brief reign as ruling pop woman.

“You (Ha, Ha, Ha)” is Gold Panda’s insistent, nagging instrumental “You” with singing and is pin-sharp perfection but surely this is in fact a collaboration so Charli XCX can’t take full responsibility for its brilliance.  On the previous single “You’re The One” a massive chorus springs out from the doomy verses and is the number 1 Eternal never had, insane pop produced by the man responsible for Robyn’s juggernaut, “Dancing On my Own”. Immediately before and after this track though (its track 10 of 12) things plod and get samey and something I thought was there is actually only apparent in flashes and only fully realised on a couple of tracks.

Come the summer we are all going to be familiar with, love for 15 minutes and then hate “I Love It” by Swedish girl duo Icona Pop (currently I still love it), a track that Charli XCX wrote for the pair and features on, the kind of song that has a life of its own, the Adele affect where you can actually see and experience a song much like any common or garden object but can no longer hear it. It will affect people’s lives, simply put, for better or for worse. There isn’t a song like that on here and maybe Charli XCX doesn’t want that kind of immediate, intensified fame that it could bring but there is enough to make you confident that this is an artist that understands the value and importance of pop and will find a way to keep releasing it to hopefully larger and larger audiences, to be her own smaller and far more thoughtful phenomenon.  And you can add another half-star to the rating if you like.