by Gregg Shapiro
Poor little rich girl Lana Del Rey got the debutante ball rolling in 2012 with her premiere full-length recording Born To Die (Polydor/Interscope). It was a "Dark Paradise" of sexually overt lyrics set in retro hipster arrangements, sung in a blase style, and Del Rey came off as the kid sister of Liz Phair and Amy Winehouse. At least that was the image she projected via songs such as the title cut, "Video Games," "National Anthem," "Million Dollar Man," "This Is What Makes Us Girls" and "Blue Jeans." But for someone for whom image was so essential, her musical guest slot on SNL blew up in her pretty face, indicating that Del Rey was more of a studio artist than a live performer. Rest assured, we haven't heard the last of Miss Del Rey.
Emeli Sande conjures a more recent retro with "Heaven," the opening track of her debut album Our Version of Events (Capitol). The exhilarating 90s jungle beat and Sande's roof-raising vocals elevate the song skyward. A soulful belter of the highest order, Sande sings goosebump-inducing ballads such as "My Kind of Love," "Clown" and "Suitcase," as well as forceful beat-driven cuts such as "Lifetime" and "Next To Me," qualifying this debut as an event.
Lovers (Victory), the debut disc by The Royalty, is notable for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, the fact that the male-dominated emo/screamo label (now home to lesbian heavy-metal artist Otep) would ever release such a pop-oriented disc is a bit of a victory in itself. When you consider that the lead singer of The Royalty is a woman, Nicole Boudreau, the victory is even sweeter. Of course, none of that would matter if the songs weren't any good. But they are good! Beginning with the addictive drinking song "Bartender," The Royalty royally rocks listeners on "I Want You," "Mr. Hyde," "Say the Word," "Every Little Bit" and "Saint Bowie."
Shaking the same family tree as contemporaries the Black Keys and vintage Stax Records, Alabama Shakes have the benefit of the estrogen-fueled vocals of Brittany Howard on their debut album Boys & Girls (ATO). Howard has a gift for communicating a range of emotions, sometimes in the same song. Alabama Shakes play Southern soul that is deep-fried, crispy and fragrant. Songs such as "Rise to the Sun," "Heartbreaker, "Hold On" and the title cut stick to your ribs and cling to your clothes, become a part of you one way or another.
With Perfectly Imperfect (RCA), Elle Varner takes her rightful place alongside established contemporaries such as Beyonce and Rhianna. The proof is in "Sound Proof Room," which not only gives Varner a chance to express herself, but also displays a unique sense of humor. It's the kind of come-on that comes with a provocative wink and a wicked grin. Equally intoxicating are "Refill," the stunted seduction of "Not Tonight," the morning-after anthem "Oh What a Night" and the aptly titled "So Fly." Perfectly imperfect, indeed.
Even if you don't know Kimbra's name, you'll probably recognize her voice. It was everywhere for most of this year on the unavoidable Gotye single "Somebody That I Used To Know." On her own, Kimbra has a sound worth exploring on her debut disc Vows (Warner Brothers). She's at her most promising on intriguing songs such as "Two Way Street," "Good Intent," "Come Into My Head," "Sally I Can See You" and the clubby bonus track "Warrior." Kimbra's (brave) cover of "Plain Gold Ring" (made famous by Nina Simone) illustrates her good taste, and confirms her talent.
Rebecca Ferguson and Cher Lloyd, both X Factor competitors, represent the opposite ends of the TV talent-show spectrum. Singer/songwriter Ferguson has a voice that conjures old-school soul with a modern gloss on Heaven (SYCO/Columbia). Comparisons to Adele are inevitable, but Ferguson's talent speaks (or sings) for itself, as you can hear on "Nothing's Real But Love," "Shoulder to Shoulder," "Mr. Bright Eyes," "Teach Me How To Be Loved" and the rhythmic "Run Free." Lloyd, on the other hand, brings far less to the table on Sticks & Stones (Epic/SYCO). These 10 pre-fab excuses for songs sound like a playlist for the post-Radio Disney generation.