Gossip — A Joyful Noise (Columbia)
There are few crimes more egregious than Gossip not being huge pop stars and selling boatloads of records, especially in the gay community. This queer-centric trio has delivered some of the most palpable dance-punk grooves ever over the last decade. Some might say they sacrificed their indie credibility when they signed to Sony, or that they ditched the grit and edge in their search for crossover appeal. And you might scream both after hearing this Xenomania-produced effort. The bad news is that guitarist Brace Paine is nearly invisible, and drummer Hannah Billie seems reduced to a human click-track. Even powerhouse singer Beth Ditto—who is capable of blowing roofs off churches with that fierce voice of hers—sounds criminally restrained. The good news is that there are a few real gems. “Get Lost” is utterly fabulous disco that features a Deee-Lite-ful piano hook; “Get A Job” is an understated electro kiss-off to hipster slackers and hitting-30 party girls; “Involved” is Ditto’s second nod to Aaliyah, also her most urgent vocal on the disc; and “Horns” is a Stevie Wonder-esque chunky funk workout. Perhaps some remixes of choice singles will get our pulses racing like the old days? —Paul V.
Frida Hyvonen — To The Soul (Universal Records)
Sweden’s unsung heroine Frida Hyvonen returns with her third proper album release, To The Soul, and it’s exquisite. The album opens with the tense, disorienting “Gas Station,” a song that pulls out several of her many tricks. It’s attention-getting, with a glorious chorus that hits you like a truck coming out of nowhere. This song is followed by lead single “Terribly Dark” which fuses the sensibilities of ABBA and Fleetwood Mac seamlessly. Frida’s warmly detached voice and uniquely wonderful grasp of the English language weave complex and often funny stories through dark and haunting melodies in a manner few artists can compete with. “California” is a bit of lo-fi Cha-Cha about following a former lover through social media. What this song does in two minutes is something most bands can’t achieve in a full album. “Picking Apples” builds to a Motown/funk chorus you’d never expect. “Hands” is a stunner—it starts with simply strings and piano and immediately she shifts the tone of the album, as if side A is childhood and side B is adulthood. The album ends on—of course—a high note, as most perfect albums do. “Gold” is a six-minute epic that just explodes in a regal, Marc Almond way—pure torch. Just buy this album already. —Dominik Rothbard
Kimbra — Vows (Warner Bros.)
For most of us, our first exposure to New Zealand’s Kimbra (nèe Kimbra Johnson) is through Gotye’s now ubiquitous “Somebody That I Used to Know.” She doesn’t overshadow the song, but the tune works because of the brief yet necessary female point of view. Her U.S. debut, Vows (out since last August overseas), adds five new songs, removes two (including “Wandering Limbs,” one of her best) and relegates a few to iTunes bonus tracks. “Warrior,” with Mark Foster of Foster the People and A-Trak, is the danciest thing here, and that’s alright, because though Kimbra can light up a club groove, she’s at her best at her strangest. “The Build Up” is Björk-ian minimalism down to the breathiness of its vocal, with sultry harmonies that could as well be by Nina Simone. The slinky sex trio of “Old Flame,” “Good Intent” and “Plain Gold Ring” in the center of the album is an erotic knockout punch. And though she’s not as arty as Feist, whom she reminds me of the most, she’s also not as maddening. In other words, she’s going to be a force on the pop landscape for some time to come. —Dan Loughry
Ladyhawke — Anxiety (Universal)
My favorite lesbian Kiwi returns with her sophomore disc, and it’s on my short list for one of the best records of 2012. In the four years since her fabulous debut, Ladyhawke (AKA Pip Brown) has beefed up the aural delights, shed a little of her ‘80s obsession and added a wall-of-sound grit to her synths and guitars (courtesy of producer Pascal Gabriel). These 10 attitude-laden tracks flawlessly marry indie rock and pop, most apparent on the busy and buzzy lead single “Black, White & Blue.” It is loaded with echoed, distorted bass, searing chords and Brown’s voice managing to sound jagged and elegant all at once. It is classic Ladyhawke, and it rivals anything Garbage did in their ‘90s heyday. Elsewhere, psychedelic grunge pulses mightily inside “Blue Eyes,” and she reveals her real lyrical prowess on the gorgeous power-ballad “Cellophane.” Speaking of which, a good majority of the songs deal with love-life machinations. But it’s the scintillating “Gone Gone Gone” (the song that closes this disc) that grabs the brass ring of attitude, lyrics, sex appeal and hooks. If you fancy the femme fatale sounds of Blondie, Lykke Li or Elastica, then you should anxiously add Ladyhawke to your collection. —Paul V.
Marina and the Diamonds — Electra Heart (Atlantic Records)
Marina and the Diamonds’ second album, Electra Heart, opens with a song that typifies both the best and the worst of this record. The song in question is called “Bubblegum Bitch,” and if you’re familiar with Marina’s output, it’s exactly what you’d expect. It lies somewhere between a white, British New-Wave Nikki Minaj and the thinking man’s Ke$ha. There’s an underlying theme in this song that spreads throughout the album. Electra Heart, you see, is all about what Marina wants. If you look for it, the word ‘want’ is used more than any other. It’s fair that Marina Diamondis has created a character for this album (a character similar to the one in her previous LP), and that character is interesting. She’s a U.S.-obsessed, post-bulimic fame whore. It’s not a specific character, but it’s enough to spawn 16 (!) tracks in the album’s deluxe format. It’s worth getting, as this edition adds early single “Radioactive” and several others—including “Sex Yeah,” which is a riot. Marina not rioting, however, is what gets her in trouble. Treacly ballads like “Lies” and “Fear and Loathing” drag down the glossy, overproduced party. Electra Heart is not the step forward fans hoped for. Here’s hoping the ‘bubblegum bitch’ outgrows this character and delivers something a little more raw and real next time around. She’s certainly capable of it. —Dominik Rothbard
Niki & the Dove — Instinct (Sub Pop/Mercury)
Suddenly it seems as if every electro-pop band owes a debt to Sweden’s Lykke Li and/or Canada’s Dragonette. The Stockholm trio Niki & the Dove split the difference down the middle and meld both of them on their debut, Instinct—often to thrilling results, sometimes not. Singer Malin Dahlström echoes a lot of other vocalists—from Cyndi Lauper (the hiccup in her voice throughout) to Kate Bush (the clipped soprano on opener “Tomorrow”) and even, for a second or two, Stevie Nicks (the warmth and lyricism on “In Our Eyes,” the best song here). What’s most striking are the gentle electronic tribal rhythms courtesy of keyboardist Gustaf Karlöf and drummer Magnus Böqvist (as on “Mother Protect” and “Gentle Roar”) and the left-of-center tracks (the endless roiling of “Under the Bridges” that always seems on the verge of a rave-up that never arrives). The forced soul of “Somebody” is an earsore, and “DJ, Ease My Mind” takes too long to get approximately nowhere. Yet I have to give it up to a pop band who claims that they’re “ready to learn” and mean it. They’re a good band with great prospects—too reminiscent of better artists, but with the talent to grow. —Dan Loughry