Kiss me OnceThe definitive ‘Kylie Sound’; it’s what Kylie herself and pop obsessives everywhere are desperate to identify, capture and then immortalise and never has this felt more apparent than on “Kiss Me Once”, her twelfth studio album. Her biggest hits are studies in expert song writing, of-the-moment production and perfect execution. From “Hand On my Heart” to “Slow”, “Spinning Around” to  “Can’t Get you Out of My Head”, all effortless sounding pop from an artist who has more than proved her worth as a leader in the field. This album sees her again working with some of the most de rigueur and established writers and producers available with reclusive pop extraordinaire herself, Sia Furler, curating the entire project. Kylie’s first album for Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella has not come cheap it, seems. Three albums worth of songs have been recorded over the album’s two year creation and many have deemed not worthy of inclusion. For example none of the collaborations with Minogue’s new partner on the reality talent show The Voice, will.i.am, are here, a cause for celebration for some. So what exactly has made the finishing line and does the Kylie Sound of 2014 live up to some of her previous heady years? Yes and no.

The first half of “Kiss Me Once” is indeed the most problematic and some of it is best got out of the way as quickly as possible before the really good stuff starts to cut through and rise to the sheeny, shiny surface. Lead single “Into the Blue” is smart and solid -- very much a ‘Kylie’ song -- and contains a string section that is uplifting and vocal phrasing and beats that are certainly in keeping with current chart fodder. It is however disappointing in its overall niceness and lack of originality.  Kylie’s best songs have also incorporated the unexpected with the familiar and for a song leading us into a new era it is not exactly encouraging. There are then two songs which both, at Sia’s insistence, contain the word ‘sex’ (a third follows later of a different standard entirely) and almost suggest the onset of a concept album. “Sexy Love” comes first and is a wholly derivative Daft Punk/Chic/”Holiday” hybrid which has tons of sunny Kylie enthusiasm in the place where the song should be. “Sexercise”, a Furler co-write, follows and is the most cynical three minutes here. It’s a focus-grouped, trend-chasing attempt at maintaining her Grindr demographic in addition to securing just one more USA hit, urban style. It’s horrible and if you liked Madonna’s “Hard Candy” weaker moments that it may just be your favourite.

Pharrell Williams, currently as ubiquitous a producer as Sia is writer, thankfully comes to the rescue with “I Was Gonna Cancel”. Seems Williams understands the Kylie DNA better than he did Madonna’s. A joyous, confident and supremely carefree disco tune that has a nice pinch of ‘fuck you!’ about it. With its “I Want Your Love” bassline and bells that resemble Blondie’s “Rapture”, this is the first song here where Kylie sounds like you might expect her to given the diverse talent that features here. “Feels So Good” is airy, electronic pop that is both enveloping and aloof in its purpose. It’s a cover version of the Tom Aspaul song “Indiana”, produced by new kid on the block MNEK, with its dreamy chord progression and Kylie’s translucent vocals is one of the best things here. Ariel Rechtshaid of HAIM and Sky Ferreira fame ups the ante further on the tense and metallic “If Only”. Vocal samples are slowed down and sped up and disorientate and muddle and the drums pound like a sci-fi “Hounds of Love”. Truly dynamic and modern sounding with Minogue’s coolly enunciated,heartbreaking admission -- ‘if I set you free and you actually came back to me…if only’. The final song in the sex trilogy “Les Sex” is another triumph. Written by the brilliant and underrated female electro star MDNR, it is a music box sweet and then a squelching and whacking camp delight.

Enrique Iglesias, following The Hurts and Neil Tennant before him, is allocated duetting honours on the deceiving ballad “Beautiful”. It’s deceptive because of its highly vocodered vocals and soulless machines suggesting something macabre and narcotic, when it is in fact excruciatingly sentimental and dull; a low point indeed. “Fine” is a handbag house type affair with lyrics suggesting a positive outlook equals a positive life cliché. It’s not the most adventurous song Kylie has ever made and like a lot of the songs here (see also “Million Miles”)  it does a perfunctory job of producing workman-like album tracks. This leaves the one other Sia Furler penned song, the title track, “Kiss Me Once”. Given Sia’s song-writing style which is now becoming recognisable – dots can be joined that connect “Diamonds” to “Perfume” to “Pretty Hurts” – “Kiss Me Once” is unmistakable only as a Kylie song. Lush and dreamy, romantic and multi-coloured, it will be become a favourite for many. Kylie herself sounds re-assuring and warm and the bells and the beats that surround her balance out any concerns of mawkishness. It is a performance and song that could have come from the best of Minogue’s PWL years, the Cathy Dennis sessions of “Fever” or her first album for Deconstruction; a Kylie Minogue song for all seasons, beautifully realised. 

If there is a comparison to be made between this and another of Kylie’s albums then it would be 2007’s “X”, another album that suffered from a long gestation period with many songs being recorded with a myriad of producers and writers and then a patchy final track-listing that lacked cohesion and quality control. Like “X”, “Kiss Me Once” also features some of the best material that Minogue has put her name to but also some of the worse. Only on her best but not most successful album, 2009’s “Aphrodite” (executive producer, the extraordinary Stuart Price) was this problem averted with a collection of expertly judged songs that formed a tight and unified vision of pop superiority. There is always a degree of good will placed at Kylie Minogue’s tiny feet, she appears loved by many in an industry that excels in back biting and a desire for always younger, fresh talent  and a general sense that the UK, her biggest audience, do not want to see her suffer or to fail. ‘Kiss Me Once’ is not going to change that and is a crowd pleasing but uneven effort at maintaining her status as pop’s eternal princess. Her more interesting songs, of which only a couple appear here, have always hinted at a darker and more introspective and experimental Kylie; maybe it’s time now for her to embrace this side and allow us more than just the glimpse that she’s permitted over her 27 year tenure.

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.

Night Time, My TimeAlthough her first single appeared in 2010 Sky Ferreira has never released an album before. There appears to have been a lot of music recorded over a three year period, talk of albums near to completion and exciting collaborations, but very little has ever seen the light of day. It would appear that this is mainly due to Ferreira herself not being happy to release material that record companies and interested parties want her to release and therefore becoming an artist that certain sections of the music industry would rather not have to deal with. Either she is a highly volatile personality whose ego stands in the way of her producing consistently good material (hi Azealia!) or she is an artist in the more literal sense of the word who wants to only share material that she stands by. It’s satisfying then to hear, based on this new evidence, it is almost certainly the latter.

“Night Time, My Time” is a surprisingly taut guitar, drums and synths (in that order) album, with Ferreira herself sounding bright and pouting through the majority of it. The sexuality that informs the NSFW album sleeve portrait translates into the multi-harmonies that make up the wall of sound, mid-sixties girl group album opener “Boys”. The predominant electro-pop sound that runs through the majority of her previous releases does not dominate here and this collection sounds unlike anything else released by a female singer in 2013 who is within the genre of ‘pop artist’. Whilst not a retro album, the spirit of early Blondie, Joan Jett, Siouxsie Sioux and even Kim Wilde are alive and well and it’s these kind of stand-alone punk icons that Ferreira obviously feels a kinship with.

Ariel Rechtshaid (Charlie XCX, Vampire Weekend and Glasser), who produces the entire album, excels at creating wonderfully full soundscapes which bulge with intricate details and neat sonic flourishes (listen to Haim’s thrilling “My Song 5” for an example). On songs like the snarling “Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay)” and “Kids In America”-mugging “Ain’t Your Right”, Ferreira and Rechtshaid give “Night Time, My Time” a genuine indie rock-pop authenticity and power as a cohesive body of work and not just an exercise in producer placement. Regardless of whether acoustic specialist Jon Brion or pop god Greg Kurstin had taken the production reins here, as it was previously assumed they might (both have worked successfully with Ferreira before), none of this would work if the songs weren’t good enough, and Ferreira has always had an excess of brilliant tunes.

Fans who may possibly mourn the overall departure of more traditional pop songs like the towering, Kylie-like “One” from 2010 can still find solace here with three nuggets of airy and gleaming brilliance: “24 Hours”, “Love in Stereo” and, in particular, the defiant “I Blame Myself”. The latter finds Ferreira accusing her detractors ‘How could you know what it feels like to fight the hounds of hell? How could you know what it feels like to be outside yourself? You think you know me so well? I just want you to realise I blame myself for my reputation’.  And that still doesn’t take into account “Kristine”, a real weirdo of a track, short with deliberately hard to decipher lyrics that seem to reference shopping with said Kristine and the young millionaires with an ever
ascending melody key-line and the admission ‘even though I’m not bright, I can live in the bright town’. Its craziness is unexpected and brilliantly realised.

Ferreira has said that the album’s title comes from a line spoken by the tragic character Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s feature length film “Fire Walk with Me”, more commonly known as Twin Peaks, or at least a less successful prequel to the hugely popular TV show of that name. There is an incredibly affecting scene in the film where Laura Palmer speaks about falling in space and how eventually you would burst into flames and the angels wouldn’t save you as they are all gone. A haunting insight into the lead character’s eventual death, Ferreira incorporates this dialogue into the title track’s lyrics; the bad girl punished by death.  It’s a sombre close to an otherwise uplifting and exhilarating album and musically it’s lifted straight from Tricky’s 1995 trip hop classic, ‘Maxinquaye’. It’s sticky and drunken with Ferreira coolly accepting her potential fate. This track alone confirms the risks she clearly wanted to take with her first album, it’s impossible to imagine any one of pop’s golden girls making anything as desolate sounding as this; it’s how you may expect Lady Gaga to sound if you had only seen her.

Heavy Metal Heart” may go precisely nowhere and “Omanko” takes a novelty turn in the wrong direction but this still doesn’t prevent Sky Ferreira’s album from being a massive achievement. Her current reputation as the hipster bloggers’ poster girl is troubling as it is questionable.  How much of that is due to the music as opposed to the image of a seemingly nihilistic, with occasional low self-esteem issues, ex-model? This is a pop artist, though, and image is arguably as important as sound. What Ferreira has done with “Night Time, My Time” is that she has made a record where it isn’t necessary to rely on visual props to fully relate to and enjoy the music. In that way it seems quite old fashioned and there is little doubt whilst listening to it that she loves these songs and making them come to life.  If you were impressed but unmoved by some of the bigger, shinier releases from the last four months of 2013, then this album may relieve some of your pessimism.  She may have taken an age to do it and it’s very early to say, but Sky Ferriera may have made one of the best albums of 2014.

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.