The debut album by young Kathleen Brien was good enough to make my runners-up list back in 2011, but as time went on, the more it grew on me, to the point where it was one of my most listened-to albums of 2012. On a Mission was an auspicious first full-length, immersed in London club culture, combining dubstep, garage, drum ‘n’ bass, house, breakbeat, and R&B, which combined with Brien’s warm, appealing singing, created something vibrant and original. A commercial success in the UK and a critical success worldwide, it was more than apparent that she was on the cusp of something big, and she and her array of producers pulled out all the stops on the stupendous follow-up Little Red, led by the Aaliyah EP and the single “5AM”, which placed very high on my 2013 singles list. What makes Little Red such a success is that although it is plenty aware of its desire to be a crossover success, it still remains very true to its dance roots, never for a second feeling like it’s pandering. Instead, it’s a total charmer: bright-eyed, rich, likeable, and surprisingly eloquent.
Perhaps if her label wanted to become that much-desired smash, the album should have pandered a little more, because although it was a chart-topper in the UK its commercial performance stalled by early summer. As a great admirer of Brien’s work, though, I’m glad she and her producers stuck to their original vision of what Little Red should be. And to be honest, she should have hit Adele-level heights based on the strength of the album’s two most “accessible” (by mainstream standards) singles, “Crying For No Reason” and “Still”. A pair of stunning ballads that place the focus on Brien’s vocal strengths, both songs go for the slow burn, showing great restraint instead of bombast, and burst with honesty and vulnerability as a result. The album is even richer than that, however, featuring a wide array of styles, including bonus tracks that make the experience even better, loaded with such bangers as “Hot Like Fire”, “Wicked Love”, and “Sky’s the Limit”. As good as all of that is, the definitive version of the album is the “continuous mix” bonus CD that comes with the deluxe edition. A smooth, fluid, 65-minute mix that restructures all 17 tracks into a distinct arc that the original album can’t quite match, it transforms Brien’s work into the brilliant, shimmering piece of art that it deserves to be. One of the most rewarding albums I have heard all year, Little Red has stuck with me since February and its appeal hasn’t diminished one bit. It’s a bright, colourful blast of life in what was a very dreary year.