The exhilaration and exuberance of Icona Pop’s debut full-length album This Is . . . (Big Beat/Atlantic) begins to wear surprisingly thin after only the first few tracks. That’s disappointing, because the young Swedish duo’s breakthrough hit “I Love It” (featuring Charli XCX) was the kind of lightweight summer anthem that could extend its lifespan into other seasons. But when you get to “On a Roll,” which comes off as the inferior distant cousin of “I Love It,” you realize that Icona Pop’s iconic pop status might be short-lived. There’s a monotony here that even Ke$ha avoids on songs such as “All Night,” “We Got the World,” and “Ready for the Weekend.” There are a few exceptions, including “In the Stars,” “Light Me Up,” and “Just Another Night.” We get it—Icona Pop is a pair of fun-loving party girls. Now, where’s the Adderall?
Emblem3, the trio of finalists (who don’t look too bad shirtless!) on the U.S. version of the television talent show X-Factor (yawn), have nothing new to say and no new way to say it on their unfortunately titled debut album Nothing to Lose (SYCO/Columbia). Ever wondered what it would sound like if white boys from the Pacific Northwest rapped? Have an airsick bag nearby while you listen to “Chloe (You’re the One I Want),” about the sister of a hot girl who has her own special attributes. Emblem3 is reason enough for the TV talent show trend to come to an end, not to mention a good argument for declaring a moratorium on songwriting by committee.
Mariah Carey better watch her ass, because Ariana Grande has her sights set on it. In fact, on her debut album Yours Truly (Republic) Grande does Carey one better by transferring the elder diva’s vocal technique and acrobatics to the 21st century, something Carey has failed to do on her recent recordings. This is best illustrated on “The Way,” in which Grande makes her way through Carey’s bag of tricks, including hip-hop (the song features rapper Mac Miller). But there’s definitely more to Grande than her spot-on conjuring of a predecessor. Grande brings the drama in her own way on the duet “Almost Is Never Enough” (with The Wanted’s Nathan Sykes), the pop confection “Piano,” and a sweet remake of Mika’s “The Popular Song,” featuring the out singer/songwriter himself.
Combining the piano theatrics of Elton John with the vocal dramatics of Jeff Buckley, young British singer/songwriter Tom Odell hits the heights with his debut album Long Way Down (RCA/ITNO). Odell originals such as “Grow Old with Me” (not to be confused with the John Lennon song of the same name), “Another Love,” “I Know,” “Till I Lost,” the title cut, and the rousing “Hold Me” indicate that he has a knack for creating enduring pop songs. Odell also shows an appreciation for another piano-playing singer/songwriter, Randy Newman, with a reverent cover of Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.”
Attention spans being what they are, it was brave of Janelle Monae to take three years to release her second album The Electric Lady (Bad Boy/Wondaland). Dismal cover aside, what an electrifying second album it is. As with its predecessor, which featured guest appearances by Of Montreal and Big Boi (among others), The Electric Lady’s guest roster includes Prince (!), Erykah Badu, Solange, Miguel, and Esperanza Spalding. Where her previous disc musically time-traveled, The Electric Lady feels more firmly grounded in the recent past and the approaching future. Current and cool tracks include the title cut, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” “Primetime,” “We Were Rock & Roll,” “Dance Apocalyptic,” the wondrous Stevie Wonder-influenced “Ghetto Woman,” and “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes.”
In a year of fascinating debuts, sister trio Haim (Danielle, Alana, and Este) is close to the top of the list. Effortlessly channeling influences such as Florence + The Machine and Feist (not to mention vintage Liz Phair and Eagles) with strong echoes of ’80s dance pop (dig those programmed drum/synth beats), Haim is proof-positive that sisterhood is powerful. Lead vocalist Danielle’s appealing style is as timeless as the songs she sings. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself listening to “Falling,” “The Wire,” “Honey & I,” and “Running if You Call My Name” 10 years from now. Also, no dance-mix tape will be complete without “Forever,” “If I Could Change Your Mind,” “Don’t Save Me,” and the title track.
If you found yourself wondering what a New Zealand Lana Del Rey (minus the attitude) would sound like, look no further than the debut full-length Pure Heroine (Lava/Republic) by Grammy-nominee Lorde (aka Ella Yelich-O’Connor). The definition of a teen sensation if there ever was one, Lorde is a modern pop goddess, poised somewhere between blasé and blazing. Whether you’re still a teen or those years are a distant memory, Lorde makes you wish that she’d ask you to hang out with her so you could see the inspirations for her titillating tunes such as “Royals,” “Tennis Court,” “Ribs,” “Buzzcut Season,” and “A World Alone.” Call her “queen bee” and enjoy her sting. [Editor’s note: see Lorde in Houston at the Bayou Music Center on March 5. Tickets at livenation.com/artists/108566/lorde.]
Of all the 21st-century female singer/songwriters to become an inspiration to other artists, the distinctive Feist might not seem like the most likely one. However, you can hear her influence in the work of the aforementioned Haim as well as that of Lucy Rose on her debut disc Like I Used To (Columbia). Brit folkie Rose’s songs come in somewhere between imitation and innovation. When she momentarily steps out of that scenario, as she does when she gets feisty on “Don’t You Worry” and the more upbeat “Be Alright,” she shows greater promise for the future.
In the tradition of elder surf statesman Jack Johnson, sun-kissed youthful Aussie Cody Simpson surfs a similar path on Surfer’s Paradise (Atlantic). Simpson has a pleasant voice that fits the sand-and-surf nature of the tunes. It’s just that there’s a monotony that sets in, akin to waves lapping the shore. You might find yourself wishing for a shark sighting about halfway through the disc to stir things up a bit.
Self-proclaimed “dirty damsel” Natalia Kills comes across as a potty-mouthed and sexually compulsive Lady Gaga on her second album, the aptly named Trouble (Interscope/Cherry Tree). “Saturday Night,” for example, could have been an outtake from a Lady Gaga session. The one thing Natalia Kills has going for her is raunch, which she serves up on “Problem,” “Boys Don’t Cry” (not The Cure song), “Stop Me” (in which she puts her high heels on to be “closer to God” while having sex in the Paris lights), “Controversy” (not the Prince song), and “Rabbit Hole,” to name a few. “Daddy’s Girl” makes interesting use of a Hall & Oates “Rich Girl” sample, but she still ends up sounding like someone else—in this case, Katy Perry. The girl-group style of “Outta Time” is a pleasant, if indistinctive, distraction.
It’s been a while since The Paley Brothers were under 30. They were briefly the toast of the music world in the late 1970s, releasing an acclaimed debut album (on Sire Records, no less!) that sadly didn’t live up to its commercial potential. Still, they did get to hang out with the likes of Patti Smith and the Ramones, and they developed a devoted cult following. Old and new fans alike will find much to admire on The Complete Recordings (Real Gone Music), which combines the 10 songs from the brothers’ eponymous debut album with 16 more tracks (live, unreleased, and more) to finally give the duo their due.
The Rubens and Cash Cash are two youthful bands keeping it in the family. Now a trio featuring brothers Jean Paul Makhlouf and Alex Makhlouf, Cash Cash dives head first into the EDM they flirted with on their debut disc, the new six-song EP Overtime (Big Beat/Atlantic). The transition is made complete by the female disco diva-style vocals by Bebe Rexha on “Take Me Home,” Kerli on “Here and Now,” as well as the Loleatta Holloway “Love Sensation” sample on the title cut. New Zealand’s The Rubens, featuring Margin brothers Sam, Elliott, and Zaac, are more like old-school modern rockers on their eponymous Warner Brothers debut album. Their most obvious influence is Coldplay, but what they do with that influence on tracks including “Never Be the Same,” “My Gun,” “The Best We Got,” and “Look Good, Feel Good” indicates that they’re more interested in innovating than imitating.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.