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.

Reality ShowJazmine Sullivan’s third album comes after a five-year break and follows a period of personal turmoil and subsequent self-discovery for the big-lunged Philly r’n’b singer. “Reality Show” may suggest something both toe-curlingly revealing and tackily brash but Sullivan’s elegant but charged timbre and monologues couldn’t be further from this. There is also some fun to be had to here though, more than might possibly be expected given the reason for Sullivan’s break, and a distinct cohesiveness throughout which given the scattershot of styles chosen is quite an accomplishment. And this is an album that Sullivan has invested heavily in; co-producing, writing and selecting material that reflect her choices as an artist returning to the game where even a year out can result in negative speculation.

Dumb” is the smart, albeit misleading, opener and first single of “Reality Show”. Smart because it immediately reconnects to the Sullivan sound of 2008’s, Grammy-nominated “Bust Your Windows”; it’s operatic, audacious and built around that mesmerising pure soul voice. It’s also a very good song and sounds very much of its time. Misleading in the sense that it doesn’t reflect the rest of the album, at least sonically. It makes its point, sets the scene before retreating to allow for more subtle and unexpected sounds.

Mascara” is one of a triptych of songs that have a sixties girl group sentiment and sound. The most contemporary sounding of the three, “Mascara” is a lyrically ambiguous song that at first seems to be a ‘make the best of yourself’ ode to faking it when you’re actually breaking down a little inside. A closer listen confirms that Sullivan has adopted the persona of a defensive, insecure woman who hates other women and would do anything to keep hold of her partner, whatever the compromise in her dignity. It’s smart and buoyant and proves Sullivan can trip up a complacent listener. “Stupid Girl” is a juddering, snare rolling retro track that brings to mind Mark Ronson’s more playful Amy Winehouse productions and the relentless Motown thwack of “If You Dare” sends Sullivan soaring above a positive-thinking anthem that has genuine energy and power.

Silver Lining” is a glorious, airy late seventies r’n’b style mid-tempo track where vocally Sullivan conveys desperation, optimism and indifference over three minutes so effortlessly that it’s hard to avoid comparisons to the truly great soul vocalists from the past four decades. “#HoodLove” also has moments where it’s possible to believe that Aretha Franklin herself has made a hard – nosed but ultimately romantically blind-sighted (‘he aint always right, but he’s just right for me’) ghetto tribute. “Masterpiece (Mona Lisa)”, an ode to self-acceptance, takes its sonic cues from eighties Quincy Jones balladry and the electro-disco of the brilliant and inspired “Stanley”, an obvious highlight here, features a surprising sample of Annie’s Scandi-pop hit “Greatest Hit” of all things. A put upon girlfriend, Sullivan urges her feckless Stanley to wake up, smell the roses and ‘take a bitch to dinner!’

At a time when female r’n’b is confidently stepping out of the rut it tended to find itself in during the EDM days of the early 2010s and could indeed be heading for another renaissance period, Jazmine Sullivan has made an album which sounds reassuringly timeless in spite of its various retro influences. Although there are still many detailed and modern sonic flourishes here, the spotlight, as might be expected, falls on Sullivan’s exceptional vocal abilities and for the best part, the songs are more than good enough to support her talent. There may be little here that is ground-breaking but Reality Show has little use for trick photography or fashionable gimmicks. Jazmine Sullivan is a shocking scene stealer and is wonderfully showcased here on what may well be her most thought out and intriguing album.

Product DetailsMNDR is best known for being the shared lead vocalist on Mark Ronson’s last album’s first single, the eccentric “Bang Bang”. She is as charismatic a singer and performer as her vocals and video presence confirmed in this 2010 hit for Ronson and it’s taken 3 years for her full-length album to arrive. Her oldest song “C.L.U.B”, oddly re-titled “U.B.C.L” here, originally released in 2009, still sounds innovative and fresh and like the shockingly-ignored (at least commercially) Cocknbullkid, MNDR has the ability to write a pop song and become the kind of interesting pop star that once upon a time would have actually charted and been on TOTP. These days though, due to a uniformity of sound that doesn’t seem to want to budge (stadium dance or Adele), when it comes to Top 20 success she unfortunately doesn’t stand a chance. But let’s not worry about that, some of you reading this won’t even know what TOTP is and there are a thousand ways to promote music in 2012.

MNDR and her invisible partner in musical crime Peter Wade have made a brash, fashionable electronic dance album but thankfully its roots are in more traditional, song-based pop melodies. “#1 in Heaven”, (or Evan as MNDR endearingly pronounces it and not the similarly-titled Sparks song in case you’re wondering), is a big, euphoric singalong ‘Tell them I’m smiling, send them my greetings’ she joyfully refrains in a song that I would love to see in the top ten. The appropriately speeding “Faster Horses” shares equal billing as the best song here and “Stay” is based round a “Funky Drummer” loop, a sample used ad infinitum in late 80’s dance music, and adds a little shading to the overall pretty frantic pace and is the definition of the perfect album track. “Fall in Love with the Enemy” opens with a teeth-gnashing snyth that sounds a lot like a metallic “Hey Big Spender” and continues to dominate and charm in equal measure.

Burning Hearts” is an equally angular but more glacial track that really highlights MNDR’s personality with its cascading ‘oh, oh, oohs’ and perfect middle eight. All these little but so very important  touches demonstrates that she understands pop in a way someone like Robyn does and Cheryl Cole doesn’t. Vocally she is sometimes reminiscent of Kim Wilde and readers who know what TOPT stands for will also remember “Chequered Love” (I wonder if I can get this on tape?!).  “Feed Me Diamonds”, the title track, has the feeling of being an important song to MNDR and it does have a grandness and drama that anchors the album with some very eighties clanging and clattering going on before a middle tempo groove is established with the best vocal performance on the album.

The last quarter of the album is not as strong and the final songs start sounding like any electro indie female artist from the last 5 years or so; not bad but not up to the standard of  the brilliant first half. I hope that MNDR finds a way to promote this album effectively as there is more than a hint of star quality here and I would like to hear it develop. And it actually gets an extra half a star as well.