Rewind: Favorite Albums + EPs Of 2015

Empowerment came in all forms this year. Whether it was from a position of maturity, shedding of a former skin, an attempt to push new boundaries, or to come back to what was tried and true with fresh new perspective --- sisters were truly doin' it for themselves in 2015. Some new faces and some old gal pals came back into the frame this year, and seeing the bigger picture proved to be just as important as seeing the tiny, intricate details of change on the wild musical frontier.

2015 had a very nice ring to it, and due to the wealth of music that was released this year alone, it proved to be a difficult task to narrow down all my favorite femme moments in order to make a tight, streamlined list. It's a dirty job, but an Audio Diva has to do it!

So what moved and grooved me this year? Let's be kind and rewind...

+ + + +

Reflection - Fifth Harmony 

Release Date: January 30
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In a way, I made a beeline to Fifth Harmony out of nostalgia. As a '90s kid, I grew up surrounded by an abundance of girl groups on the scene (Spice Girls, TLC, En Vogue --- you get the picture...), and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't miss seeing all those spunky, self-possessed femmes take names and toot their independent horns, giving me my very first lessons in feminism long before I even knew what the word really meant (and honestly, feminism is such a complex topic that there really isn't a clear definition these days!). Nostalgia aside, Fifth Harmony are a great revival of that era of musical sisterhood. Spurred by "BO$$", the strut-worthy ode to First Lady Michelle Obama and purses weighted down by Oprah dollars, Reflection is an aural declaration of female independence that is for big and little feminists alike.

While there are numerous pop stars out their saluting and raising Rosie the Riveter guns in the name of girl power, the ladies of Fifth Harmony --- all former contestants of The X Factor --- are just echoing the sentiments, framing them for a younger crowd due to their abundance of Instagram filters and "bae" references, but also keeping in mind the paths already paved with keen shout-outs to the mothers (Madonna, Mariah Carey) and the big sisters (Beyonce, Rihanna). The 5H ladies are in full body and mind possession throughout this set, clapping back on rigid beauty standards (the trappish title-track), swatting down their female rivals ("Them Girls Be Like"), or showing loafing losers to the door ("Suga Mama", the 2010's answer to TLC's "No Scrubs") ---- they really cover all the bases of Feminism 101. Even when they wax a love song, like the joyful, "Everlasting Love", never do they show an ounce of insecurity or fragility.

Of course the horn squeals and Kid Ink featured "Worth It" was the inescapable earworm for 2015 (take that "Uptown Funk" and "Hotline Bling"!), but its just one funky facet of the infectious high-octane pop and hip-hop-meshed R&B that pulses out of this collection. Difficult it is to bypass the pop luster of the Meghan Trainor-co-written "Sledgehammer" which flourishes at every turn, or how "Everlasting Love" is so easy and breezy, recalling the best hooks and melodies of '90s R&B. Their meta nod,"Like Mariah" does follow Madame Butterfly's aesthetic to a tee, right down to the addition of a sometimes unnecessary rap flow (Tyga does the honor here) and the perfectly placed sample of the familiar "doo-doo-doo's" of "Always Be My Baby".

As for getting down in the club with your girls crew, the ladies of 5H have you covered as highlights like the 1980s synth-bop "Top Down", the spastic Harmony Samuels' culled "Body Rock", and personal fave, Dr. Luke's percolating electro-rock fireball, "This Is How We Roll" will have you turnt n' turned on with all kinds of electric and kinetic feels for a night on the town.

Though this album dates itself by lingo alone (lines like "I'm thirstin' for my bae" and "swipe my card, then I do the nae nae" are phrases that I'm going to have to explain with a straight face to my future offspring) and feels geared for a teenage crowd due to the bounce house of beats, I still had loads of fun with this album. It surely leveled out all the faux deepness and overblown moodiness that seems to be recurring, methodical themes in music these days. It's an album that while not taking itself serious, ends up being about as positive, straight-forward and honest as one would want a third wave femme-tastic pop album to be.

Highlights: Worth It (feat. Kid Ink), This Is How We Roll, Everlasting Love, Like Mariah (feat. Tyga), Top Down, Body Rock, Sledgehammer, Bo$$, Reflection

Cognac & Conversation - Teedra Moses 

Release Date: August 7
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Complex Simplicity will forever be one of the great R&B albums of the naughty naughts, but to ignore the flirtatious winks and seductive come-ons Cognac & Conversation tosses your way is a little rude. A long time practitioner of patience Teedra Moses spent eleven years between her 2004 breakout keeping fans interest alight with an abundance of mixtapes and numerous intimate live concerts. Stall tactics they weren't, but mere appetizers to represent Moses' talent. For Cognac & Conversation Moses (thankfully) doesn't cut corners or attempts to wild experiment --- she's been waiting like we've been waiting after all --- so 'Full-Tilt Teedra' she delivers, creating the ultimate lounged-out R&B album that stays true n' blue to her sultry sound.

Slipping into this album was similar to Complex Simplicity back in '04 as I took to it right away when the opener, "R UScared", swelled in. Being a California girl in soul, and a New Orleans native at heart, Moses is chrome and silk, slinky and sexy, but still not afraid to put cheaters, liars, and those random fuckbois on blast. Cross her you shouldn't as Moses has got comebacks galore in her arsenal, taking all-comers whether she's being thoroughly unapologetic on "No Regrets" or laying down the law on single, "Get It Right". Ambiance is enhanced with an old school Dynasty sample wiggling into the gritty backdrop of the Rick Ross-assisted, "All I Ever Wanted" and by how honey sweet Moses eases into her vocal runs, sparking exceptional fire on the slow burning, "Beautiful Chaos" and the hypnotic electric of "Skin Diver".

While it's no Complex Simplicity, Cognac & Conversation is Teedra Moses rich in thought and flavor, and back to give us the grown n' sexy side of contemporary R&B.

Highlights: Skin Diver, R UScared, Get It Right, No Regrets, All I Ever Wanted (feat. Rick Ross), Beautiful Chaos

I Cry When I Laugh - Jess Glynne 

Release Date: August 21
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Quoted from review: 
Jess Glynne may have not wanted to create an album dedicated to heartbreak, but she made an album that is to be enjoyed while you're going in-between the heartaches, digging a spoon in every flavor from Ben & Jerry's, and drying out your wine bottles. An album that is aware of the tears and cryptic text messages as it is about that tremble of the lip that lets a valiant "I will survive!" fly off of it. Its mix of awareness and optimism, uptempos and downtempos, makes I Cry When I Laugh a breath of fresh air, considering how pop-soul divas love to wallow in overwrought sorrow and sexual spectacle, sometimes for more than their share.

As with its relentless piano-fueled messages to find silver linings, sonically, I Cry When I Laugh is also heavy on the American Southern Gospel themes, well, sans Jesus shoptalk. It calls and responds, Glynne wading in troubled waters as backing choirs heighten tension with their moans and "amens". It's a wee bit exhaustive and fictitious when you hear the wailing, "Why Me", but Glynne maintains her position at the pulpit, her heart in the right place, flicking her tambourine and preaching a sermon of uplift, and you'll capture the spirit as you clap along to the mirthful "Ain't Got Far To Go", and stomp in the pews on singles, "Hold My Hand" and the album's anchor mantra, "Don't Be So Hard On Yourself", where Glynne tacks a mirrored ball up into the rafters to splash the congregation with a little disco shimmer.

As a whole, nothing is truly striking, nor ground-breaking on I Cry When I Laugh --- you've heard that strike of the house piano key, that string sweep, that percolating R&B thump, that Gospel-tinged preaching. This has Glynne at a disadvantage, because for some listeners, it can be wear and tear, as you can hear better execution of these elements elsewhere and by more seasoned performers. For me, the album is harmless, some guilt in its pleasure, but pleasure all the same, as Glynne does have the good grace to shake up the bottle that is filled with her influences, and gets these familiar embellishments out of dormancy and fizzing again, crafting a sound that is still surprisingly, and quite uniquely hers.

Highlights: Don't Be So Hard On Yourself, Gave Me Something, Ain't Got Far To Go, No Rights No Wrongs, Hold My Hand

Pretend - Seinabo Sey 

Release Date: October 23
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Though empowerment was a major theme for 2015, the awareness of age was another one. Seinabo Sey is in good company with fellow sisters in maturation yet her trek to adulthood wasn't a mournful loss of youth, or a sonic blossoming of artistic progression. The Swedish-Gambian singer and songwriter is in her 'asking' years, probing and wondering what the hell growth and independence is supposed to be. She even has one song, the aptly titled, "Who" that repeats the same questions in chorus: "Who do you think you are? Who do you want to be?"

Who is Miss Sey by the way? In simpler terms, she's the expressive new voice who kicked the hornet's nest back in '14 with her series of EPs (For Madeline and For Maudo, named after her mother and father respectively), introducing with self-possessed stance her ability to revive the echo chambers of Gospel all while melding them into the digitized backdrop of today's EDM. Her 2013 debut single, the perceptive "Younger" with it's glitching robotic vocal samples and military marching band styled-rhythms showed promise, and the singles kept getting better as "Younger" was followed by the thunderous, "Hard Time" and "Pistols At Dawn".

Who does Miss Sey want to be? Pretend wrestles on the floor with this. Sey clearly has a handle on the sound quality of her music. Her music, symphonic on one end, mechanical in the other, is experimental as it is accessible, and is poised in the fine line where contemporary pop and traditional soul meet. Sey also has got the pipes. Her voice is a rich, tonal brew that is biting as it is soft, always rising above the assault of the barnstorming percussion and stark synth-work that penetrates her music. She's got some great showcases for these aural collisions. The sweat beads and runs raw on the Southern blues of "Easy" (with the great line: "what would a smile be, if not a tear sometime?") while the frantic, "Words" has great bursts of electric strings and synths threaded throughout. Her finest hour rests in the closer, "Burial", a moving tribute to her late father that plays on Sey's emotional duality as she goes from dark to light, church organs and a Gospel choir guiding her to its angelic end. Though a bulk of the album is comprised of her two EPs, revisiting these familiar songs in a sprawling 16-track collection deepens their essence.

Though Sey is still in the stages of finding herself, with this debut collection she's already placed herself in the perfect position to discover the answers that she so seeks.

Highlights: Hard Time, Words, Who, Younger, Burial, Easy, Still, Pretend, Pistols At Dawn, Sorry

Ruby - Lili K

Release Date: April 21
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Quoted from review:
Clocking in short, with seven full tracks, and three interludes, Ruby is an effortless and boundless fuse of jazz-blended soul. Easily this could be like any other soul-jazz hybrid, but it isn't. With its live instrumentation backing it feels as if you wandered into hole-in-the-wall nightclub for a history-in-the-making impromptu jam session and as gimmicky as I'm making it sound, Ruby is the exception as at it core it feels intimate, welcoming, and real. This is what I love about this album, it is what it is simply. No gimmick, no fetish, no bullshitting, just straight up jazz laced soul without frills.

What I also love is Lili K also has a sweet and wry sense of humor about her, sort of mirroring how Mariah Carey is able to smile sweetly when she's tossing her infamous side order of shade in song. When Lili K. begins standout, "I Don't Want You No More" she starts it with a wonderfully performed candied acapella, but that sweetness doesn't last long as she flicks open a penknife ready to slice and dice a louse when the track dips into a fast-paced hand-clapping guitar riffing jazz swing, calling out her cheating lover as someone who is "a boy dressed up as a man".

On the Erykah Badu-inspired slick opener, "Pour Some Suga On" she puts an ex-beau on blast after coming to the realization that he was drenched in "artificial sweetener" all along, while the Fender Rhodes bop, "Refreshing" may sound like an ode to how a romantic opportunity can revive the soul, but Lili K scoffs at that and switches things up making it an anti-love song with the repetitive, funny line, "Life without you is so refreshing". Exes better beware...Lili K's pen and sly lip strike mightier than an angry text message.
Highlights: Tommy, I Don't Want You No More, Refreshing, Pour Some Suga

Know-It-All - Alessia Cara

Release Date: November 13
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With a shrug of its unapologetic shoulders, "Here" made everyone sit and pay attention to Canadian new kid on the block, Alessia Cara. For only being 19-years-young she pretty much nailed the lament of those who are socially awkward by nature, right down to the aversion to recreational activities and the reality of being more at ease at home Netflix n' chilling instead of around people who could give a rat's ass about your personal well-being. It a way, it took a lot of guts for Cara, a baby-faced Millennial, to admit being introverted and almost bored in social situations considering how over-share and social media are the status quo these days.

Then again, listening to Cara's debut album, Know-It-All, she really doesn't seem too concerned about following the particular patterns singers in her age and genre bracket are. She's not self-centered like Ariana Grande, but she's passive about taking resident in Aaliyah's baggy trousers unlike Tinashe, and really, that's refreshing. It's why Know-It-All feels genuine, Cara is trying to find her way, but she's not going to become a clone to do so. She's navigating with optimism, learning what her smoky vocal delivery is capable of expressing, growing into her R&B-crossed-pop sound.

First impressed on her Pop & Oak-produced debut EP, Four Pink WallsKnow-It-All makes sure to further establish that Cara is keen on thematic, invigorating pop jaunts, this a complete contrast to the pensive flow of "Here" (which sparks at a different type of dexterity). All of that particular EP is present here, with it's well-arranged title track, the soap operatic "Seventeen" and "I'm Yours" being the top moments. Though the album treks familiar territory, some surprises peak out of the album's pockets from two well-executed love ballads ("Stone" and "Stars") to yet another denouncement to societal norms (the rambunctious "Wild Things"). Even when Cara had a moment to lay on the inspirational shtick with a wide butter knife for "Scars To Your Beautiful", she turns the moment into a wise nod towards TLC's "Unpretty"where it's perceptive about finding beauty in imperfections, but not cloyingly so --- so you can stow away that barf bag now.

Filled with pleasantries and possibilities, Know-It-All works as a solid introduction to a new voice, and is one of the more thoughtful and joyous offerings to come out this year.

Highlights: Here, Four Pink Walls, Stone (feat. Sebastian Kole), Wild Things, At Seventeen, I'm Yours, Stars

Don't Mess Me Around [EP] - Clare Maguire

Release Date: February 23
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Quoted from review: 
For round three, Don't Mess Me Around has Maguire testing a new style and this time she lands into a rollicking boil of blues soaked pop, that is still theatrically cutting, but minus the suds and strings of her earlier offerings. Her voice is still undeniable though, even more so as it dares to sound like a wounded blues woman of yore, thumbing at her 27 years of age. On the title track, Maguire bluntly claps back in a rush of soul spiked gospel, testing whoever should dare cross her.It gets even better as the excellent "Boomerang" whips in and pierces to bone with Maguire stomping into Janis Joplin territory, getting tangled up in a thicket of trappy hip-hop beats as stirs up a good ol' ruckus.

Maguire doesn't totally toss the melancholy aside as "Dream Big" is a inspiring, quotable piece of guitar-guided pop that recalls her last EP's vulnerable interior. But Maguire comes roaring back as she closes things out with the snarling "Sherlock", and it goes deep into the hollerin' backwoods of Victrola-era Blues, Maguire punctuating the record pops and crackles and grainy pictures of riotous crowds at ramshackle honky-tonks, with lyrical mentions of scrolling through her cheating mate's phone messages and texts to take the track out of 1955 into 2015.  

Whether something borrowed or something new, or a little helpings of both, Clarie Maguire is on the move, and to keep up with her requires that you show up and show all the way out in the present. So don't mess Miss Maguire around --- just listen.

Highlights: Boomerang, Sherlock

How Big How Blue How Beautiful - Florence + The Machine

Release Date: June 2
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One of my main criticisms about Adele's 25 was that the songs, while lyrically and thematically enticing, felt lifeless, and standard on listen, forgettable by note's end. How Big How Blue How Beautiful hones in on what I mean when I say that music, even when it's at it's most tranquil and candid, has to come together from all sides, every corner illuminated and cobweb free. As Florence Welch's third player was also derived as a catharsis to abate a personal low point, it's evident from the outset who studied for their test, but who also made sure to look at the back of the paper knowing full well there were other questions to answer.

So easily this album could of slipped from Welch's grasp. It's filled with the similar panoramic, theatrical pieces she's known for, but gone are the songs crammed with Virginia Woolf embellishments, Renaissance art references and religious imagery. Still, emotions are heavier, instrumentation and arrangement even deeper. It takes patience for an album like this due to its expansive unfurling, but it lives up to its lengthy namesake --- especially the beautiful part. How Big is a gorgeous collection of songs that rest on Welch's laurels for sublime wailin' and a hollerin' Gothic rock, but in turn bears advancement, her graduating from being labeled as the resident woodland sprite, to being viewed as a decorated and accomplished recording artist who is now not an acquired taste, but a refined one. Oh, the old ghosts knock about, restless and riotous still, but Welch (the voice behind the instrumental entity 'The Machine') pegs what it means to be rock n' roll with symphonies on the brain with great skill as squealing guitars collide with horns, strings, and wind instruments, making it the norm as far as How Big is concerned.

Contemporary contenders "Ship To Wreck" and the rip-roaring bar rock of "What Kind Of Man" have two faces, simplistic in style (hence their current ability to garner single status), but chew on them you can cause they are three-dimensional clusters of sound. Previous well-acclaimed albums, 2009's Lungs and 2011's Ceremonials, while having their moments, never quite came together with production and songwriting, in two separate rooms they were, but here on How Big, things gel, the cohesion at a laser precision largely whenever Welch slips into the ballads. Her skill set is now so advance that she doesn't get lost in a labyrinthine of billowy strings like the excellent, "Various Storms and Saints" or dulls out whenever she "gets comfortable in chaos" for the pensive prayer of "St. Jude".

Welch continues to hold tight during the little earthquakes called her up-tempos as The Killers'-esque, "Third Eye" and the tabernacle rock n' stomp of "Delilah" really kick up fuss n' fury. And as always, Welch likes to throw in curveball moments, one grandiose one is encased in "Mother" a psychedelic waltz that begins quite simple, but ends in a climax where are dirty, sinister-sounding guitar buzz explodes, transcending into a wild wail, with a chanting Welch vocally climbing above the vicious sound, breaking through the sound barrier into to a new lightness of being by track's end. It's really something to hear, as my words really aren't giving that particular moment justice.

Ethereal and pure without an ounce of overwrought, How Big is how you mend the broken heart.

Highlights: Ship To Wreck, Various Storms and Saints, St. Jude, Mother, Third Eye, How Big How Blue How Beautiful, What Kind Of Man, Delilah

FROOT - Marina And The Diamonds

Release Date: March 16
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It was a sad day when Marina & The Diamonds (birth certificate name: Marina Diamandis) relinquished the flashy bubblegum trash of her fictional Electra Heart persona. Granted, Marina couldn't stay forever in character as her fame-whoring alter-ego, but exploring the bleakest corners of American pop culture by way of a high-octane soundtrack was some great subversive fun and miss it I shall. Still, the trip fantastique couldn't last for long as the Welsh-born singer and songwriter has never been (and never will be) that kind of pop star. And now with the sumptuous FROOT, never will she fit in with the archetype as she has prepared an album that acts as nutrition for the starved art-pop soul.

Stripped of high production, high-profiled names, and tongue-in-cheek sneers at the vapidness of pop culture, FROOT is Marina back in her own skin, tackling reflective pieces that have her sonically in spaced-out suspension but are still grounded by the gravity of the figurative and poignant language she expounds. It's why it's pertinent to mention that Marina wrote all 11-tracks and only used one co-producer (David Kosten, who is best known for producing Bat For Lashes) for this album --- outsiders putting words into her mouth and ideas into her brain is how Marina rolls.

Though she's at her 'quietest', her signature Technicolor vividness and cinematic froth continues to circuit through FROOT's anatomy. Blending neon and nature, and seducing like a 'sci-fi Sophia Loren', Marina plucks a bounty of great moments such as the fresh squeezed lite-disco juice of the title track and the acidic rock shocks of "Forget" and "Better Than That". Her ballads (what? Marina has ballads?), particularly the 1980s sophisticate of "I'm A Ruin" and the R&B bass-lined "Immortal" are strong and glean those The Family Jewels-years, back when many a talking head dubbed her cum laude of the School of Kate Bush due to her proficiency to weave intelligent insight in reliable pop formulas.

Though So-Cal swings like "Gold" and "Weeds" have Marina snuggling into lamb's skin, she's always at her best when she pulls out the switchblade, like for the fiery "Savages" where in the wake of Bill Cosby, terrorist attacks, and authority abusing cops she takes rape culture and political unrest to task, jabbing with sharp aptitude ("Another day, another tale of rape / Another ticking bomb to bury deep and detonate / I'm not the only one who finds it hard to understand / I'm not afraid of God / I'm afraid of Man") . It's a strong reminder that Marina is aware, so very aware of humans and their nature more so than any pop star of her ilk.

Eat your heart out, Electra.

Highlights: I'm A Ruin, FROOT, Savages, Blue, Better Than That, Can't Pin Me Down, Gold, Forget, Weeds

February 15th [EP] - Nao 

Release Date: May 1
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Quoted from review: 
Though Nao began plugging her SoundCloud with surrealistic kaleidoscopic trances like "Back Porch" and allowed So Good to thrash and jolt on a diet of '80s synths, with February 15, her sophomore collection is primed with funky grooves and streamlined mid-tempos that pit her in a sweet spot of inventiveness that take her down a new corridor. Highlights like the spastic synth waltz of "Zillionaire" and the trap of bass and electric guitar on the rhythmically groovin' "Golden" are just plain ol' fun to engage in, as they simmer and sizzle out of the pot. Not to retain too much heat, she cools her palette and blows kisses Prince's way on "Apple Cherry" and its a lean New Wave ballad that allows Nao to show off those chops as she reaches a octave heaven that mirrors the heights taken on a-ha's '80s classic "Take On Me". For an even softer touch, she caresses with "It's You", its melodies airy and intimate, reminding one of the slower grooves '90s R&B dames like SWV and Billy Lawrence waxed, as it closes everything out with lacy delicacy.

Highlights: Zillionaire, Apple Cherry, Golden

Blood - Lianne La Havas

Release Date: July 31
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Quoted from review: 
Building from the beauty of her first impression, Blood is La Havas pushing through the soil of youth, slow and pure, flourishing into a new uncharted groundwork that nods towards maturity and growth. La Havas still has her nimble fingers poised on her guitar strings, plucking them to precociously nibble at the earlier, clear-eyed moments of Joan Armstrading and Carly Simon, but her alt-folk has invited in the guest of bass, and well, La Havas' soul just got a bit heavier.

As the cartograms of R&B and soul read these days, La Havas could've easily gotten sucked into the vortex of EDM, trap, and every diva yodel that permeates the top 40, but as growth would have it La Havas' skin is thicker and her ear sharper thus she recalculates her route and orbits away from all the trappings and queens, winking just slightly as far as bass is concerned in earthier moments. Aid from producers Paul Epworth (who was responsible for giving Adele's chart-topping 21 that bit of polish), Stephen McGregor, and former collaborator Matt Hales, give her lyrical beds new dimension, and they manage to steer La Havas away from drowning herself in middle road guitar plucks and strings.

Growing up is hard to do, but Lianne La Havas shows us the beauty and purity of going from little girl lost to woman found, making the journey worthwhile. Down-to-earth, but still stylishly in vogue, Blood, is champagne you can sip with a curly straw, because why grow up totally?

Highlights: Unstoppable, Tokyo, What You Don't Do, Green & Gold, Wonderful, Midnight

Sound & Color - Alabama Shakes

Release Date: April 21 
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Don't call Alabama Shakes 'blues revivalists'. Don't call the band's lead singer, Brittany Howard a reincarnation of Janis Joplin. Just don't even go there. Sure, Alabama Shakes received such epithets when they stirred the town out of slumber and sauntered in like a weary knapsack n' guitar laden blues traveler on their 2012 debut album, Boys & Girls. But to say they are mimicking any sort of 'sound' or 'artist', doesn't give the quartet from Athens, Alabama benefit of the doubt. Consequence Of Sound's David Buchanan pegged it right: Sound & Color is not a revival, "it is a genuine Americana love letter, branching out in Kodachrome."

Intersecting the blues and country of their Deep South roots is done to a fine degree on Sound & Color, but instead of leaving it as simple tradition, they stir the melting pot with more vigor, sprinkling in rock, soul, and funk to taste, creating a rainbow palette of flavors that are accessible as they are distinctive, and truly all-American. It's a raw, rebel rouse of a record as it zips from tempo-changing thrashing Garage rock ("Shoegaze" and "The Greatest") to emotion-charged psychedelic ambles ("Dunes") back to laissez faire meditations ("Gemini"), manic it can be, but still a cohesive and rich brew that will feed the hunger of those who find today's modern rock outpouring a bit wanting.

And let's be honest now, Alabama Shakes wouldn't be Alabama Shakes if it wasn't for Brittany Howard. Howard is a force of vocal POWER (all caps, all necessary), rattling humorous one second ("Guess Who"), and morose the next ("Miss You"), to flying at you with cannonball bursts of energy and sensual potency ("Gimmie All Your Love"). Searingly androgynous, sounding masculine and muscular with her whoops and howls, but like Nina Simone (her true vocal disciple), she is still all-woman and all-intuitive thought, the crown jewel in the band's luminous sound.

Revivalists they sure aren't, but artistes for the future Alabama Shakes sure as heck are.

Highlights: Don't Want To Fight, Gimme All Your Love, Sound & Color, The Greatest, Future People, Shoegaze, Dunes, Guess Who

The Switch - Emily King

Release Date: June 26
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Quoted from review: 
The years since East Side Story have clearly refined King's sound to delicacy, a sumptuous soul sound that had been present since day one, but now fully cultured and prismatic with the eroding of age. Also with a release on her own label, Making Music Records, King doesn't have the pressure of a major record company breathing down her back, stifling the creative forces that be. She described the craft of the album as if she was assembling her debut all over again, telling the Wall Street Journal: "It definitely feels like a reintroduction. Kind of like I can finally go outside and play after staying indoors for so long."

And, play King does. With producer Jeremy Most as wingman, King, plays around with lyrics, arrangements, and themes, crafting an album that feels 'now', but still roots itself into the past, sort of as if you're entering your childhood bedroom after being away from it for years. There is familiarity and comfort there but you're seeing things differently, it's all brand-new territory now.

There are obvious flourishes of Prince's 1980s hey-day in not just King's light and airy diction, where she goes from sass to sweet in mere blinks, but also in its peerless arrangements. Though not as technical or subversive as Ye Olde Purple One, but his influence is there on, strikingly so on "Believer" as it bubbles with rubbery bass and finger-snapping accessibility, as do the light bumps of funk on the title track, and personal favorite, "Sleepwalker" which also sweetly frolic around Paisley Park.

What strikes at first listen is the completeness of this album. Not a note or a vocal chord is wasted, as each song is gorgeously constructed and executed, and King, ever so confident, culls together an even better album than it's predecessor. It's cliche, but some things do get better with time, and Emily King's The Switch, is proof of how sometimes if we allow it breathing room we're always in for a beautiful surprise worth waiting for.

Highlights: Distance, Sleepwalker, Believer, Good Friend, Off Center, The Animals, Out Of The Clouds

Unbreakable - Janet Jackson

Release Date: October 2
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Quoted from review:
Janet now realizes the error of 20 Y.O and Discipline's ways, that her full involvement is a vital aspect to the creative development of her projects, and for Unbreakable she's back at reinforcing her independent thought and carefree Black woman persona, signature elements that make a Janet Jackson album a special commodity. The past few years have no doubt added insight to her prose, with the death of her brother Michael Jackson in 2009 to her quietly marrying Qatri billionaire Wissam Al Mana in 2012 being her core focuses of examination, but she's fully back balancing her smiles and tears without hiccup, crafting Unbreakable as an album that celebrates as poignantly as it also meditates.

From pensive piano ballads ("After You Fall"), to retro soul joints ("Dream Maker/Euphoria"), to entrancing club bops ("Night"), hip-hop heaters ("Dammn Baby") and country pop stomps ("Well Traveled"), Unbreakable hopscotches through various throwback thoughts, multiple moods and styles, and they all integrate well, melting into each other to form quite a cohesive collection. It's inviting to hear the seamless way Janet bridges the old with the new, how it's aware of the trends without bending pressure to them. For that, Janet is far and away ahead of the aesthetics of her fellow senior pop icon citizens. She's not meandering in the safe zone like Mariah Carey, or breathlessly baiting a radio-tuned youth crowd akin to her pop queen rival Madonna, nor does she hold her nose high to self-indulge and distance her past (and her listeners) a la Prince.

For a while most wondered how Janet Jackson, a near 50-year-old female pop veteran was going to retain any sort of relevancy in a shifting musical landscape, where sex sells, mediocrity is herald over innovation, and her disciples --- you know the Beyonces, Ciaras, Janelle Monaes, and FKA twigs of this world --- reside and rule the roost.

Unbreakable should quell those doubts, illuminate the fact that Janet is in the sweet, lofty place where she doesn't have to "fit in" or prove anything. Her turning a polished middle finger towards typical industry practices when she launched her own label, Rhythm Nation Records, proved that Janet wasn't here for being muzzled or having her artistic vision mangled, and her doing little to no promotion for Unbreakable also provided notion that Janet is back to transcending the status quo of the the pop culture paradigm, giving herself and others permission in this fast-paced era of social media overshare, that slowing down and retaining mystery in the midst of craft can reinvigorate your sense of expression, producing a product most worthy of yourself.

Highlights: Night, Lessons Learned, Black Eagle, Dammn Baby, The Great Forever, After You Fall, Dream Maker/Euphoria, Shoulda Known Better, No Sleeep

Reality Show - Jazmine Sullivan

Release Date: January 13 
Purchase | Stream | Review

Quoted from review:
After five years of quiet, Reality Show is Sullivan standing up for her life, pushing aside her self-doubts, reveling in the high and lows and embracing them in order to live her best life. She's not necessarily telling us in these songs on how to live life correctly, but rather how one can do it the best way they know how, figuring out the oh so complex equation that life = how you make it. With just twelve tracks, Sullivan has created her most realized and cohesive collection thus far, comprising it of songs that peel back the ugliness and beauty of life and love with an honesty that pegs her as an heir to the thrones of such confessional R&B queens as [Mary J.] Blige, Faith Evans, and even Mariah Carey during her days of 'looking in' and reminiscing about past affairs on rainy rooftops.

For women, especially for women of color, there's always this itch to have our stories told and told with keen insight and a tender hand, and yet in rare flashes do we actually get to tell that fully realized autobiography without the distortion of other's interjections. As much as Reality Show is for Sullivan to clear the air for herself, she has made room for the rest of her sisters from other misters to vocally have their say, shoehorning in her aural narrative the stories of women not often discussed. From the side chicks to the ride-or-die dames, to the women who've been battered, burned and bruised and who are just trying to breathe, Reality Show isn't femininity televised --- its uninhibited and live.

While we weren't too sure at first when Sullivan made her brazen first appearance in 2008 swinging her bat and busting windows, now everything matches up --- her dynamic vocalizing, her attention to details, her ability to word a teardrop in a lyric --- all of her talents have finally fallen snugly into place. Though she had it always in her, Jazmine Sullivan can now bask in a realized glow that she is a storyteller for the contemporary set as she shows us the true reality of it all without scripts or filters.

Highlights: Silver Lining, Masterpiece (Mona Lisa), Mascara, Veins, Let It Burn, Stanley, If You Dare, Brand New
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