Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Singer-songwriter takes the direct approach on second LP.
Megan Washington revealed her battle with a stutter recently, and she drops another bombshell midway through There There. "Do you want it back?" she asks the man she was supposed to marry, before devoting an entire verse to the awkward practicalities of an engagement gone sour. This man is not metaphorical, and neither is the marriage. Each song, says Washington, is connected to a real-life event – from the frank confession of infidelity on the raw ballad "Begin Again" to "Get Happy", where she falls in love over Eighties New Wave textures. 2010's I Believe You Liar masked insecurities under ambitious orchestrated pop. On There There, she's both fearless and direct.
Profound harmony from homecoming master of the musical universe.
The corner of banjo, tehardant and loops is the new crossroads for Robert Plant. With his widely sourced brotherhood of Sensational Space Shifters at his back, he lays out his stall like some space-time-travelling minstrel with "Little Maggie", a 19th century Appalachian folk tune bearing stamps of old Britain, West Africa and future trance states.
The seamlessness of this swirling, murmuring, disorienting spell is his trademark now: an assured arrival after an incredibly fertile decade of oscillations from the Zeppelin-esque dynamics of Mighty ReArranger to the deep-roots Americana of Raising Sand.
Riding charged, broken and utterly compelling rhythms on rattling skins, "Rainbow" and "Pocketful of Golden" find Plant's sweetly crooned melodies woven with muscular electric guitars and the startling timbres of the ritti, kologo and other strange sticks in the hands of Gambian griot Juldeh Camara.
The album title reverberates through intoxicating arrangements. The beguiling atmosphere of "Embrace Another Fall" turns first to rock violence then the hypnotic Welsh language of Julie Murphy, in turn an echo of Led Zep's deep connection with folkie Sandy Denny on long gone pastures. Given the huge wealth of colours at his fingertips, Plant’s long experience is most evident in the alluring simplicity of his tapestry. Lyrically, the likes of "Turn It Up" and "Somebody There" transcend the exotic baggage to speak of a profound personal homecoming.
Like Paul Simon before him, Plant has mined the mysteries of the known world and found himself: older, wiser, more muted with wonder but with no shortage of songs to sing.
Vocal powerhouse lives up to the hype.
With seven tracks from this album already out and all of them intensely compelling, Jillian Banks' debut was never really going to offer too many surprises. Luckily, Goddess still delivers. Skirting the lines of pop, R&B and electronic music, Banks usually keeps the mood dark, working through the perks and pitfalls of love or ferociously bringing a male down a peg ("I can see you struggling, boy don’t hurt your brain," she tuts) while in-demand producer Shlohmo lays down the beat. But even when she's stripping things back and belting out a ballad so lovelorn it’d make Mariah blush on "Should Know Where I’m Coming From", Banks will have you downright bewitched.
Fourth album from the man with the low tones.
This hirsute New Yorker can sprawl his sound in several directions, safe in the knowledge that his striking voice – a deep rumble somewhere between Scott Walker and Barry White – provides a constant anchor. The title track features a guitar style and folk tunings reminiscent of Stephen Stills, whereas "Desiree" is a straight-out soul number and "The Real Thing" apes Tom Waits magnificently. Rowe is a more animated presence than on previous albums, pushing himself to greater expression and more interesting lyrics. As with the National’s Matt Berninger, such distinctive vocals can irritate as many as they beguile, but this is a rich and sonorous album of great heart.
Outlaw country’s finest femme blurs every line.
In the beginning, Johnny Cash wasn't country, wasn't rock & roll. He was both; and neither — and he didn't care either way. Sixty years later, Nikki Lane might be cut from the same cloth. All Or Nothin' owes as much to Phil Spector, Detroit garage and indie folk as it does Loretta Lynn, but what it shares with Murder By Death, the Hanks I, II and III, Mark Ronson, Janis, Emmylou and the Dirt Bombs isn't style — it's soul. When Lane says it's the "Right Time" for doing the wrong thing, you believe; when she wants to "Sleep With a Stranger", you hope it’s you; and when she kicks the arse of her "Good Man" for being a piece of shit, well... it hurts like hell.
A lesson in dance-punk done well, from the genre’s pioneers.
It must have stung to be Death From Above 1979, having called it quits in 2006 and sitting idle while countless artists mined their 2004 debut You're a Woman, I'm a Machine for ideas. As a debut record, it stands alone as a refreshing burst of manic energy that some felt the duo were incapable of matching. Ten years later, they've returned to deliver their difficult second record and it’s been well worth the wait. Different enough to be a progression, but with all the swagger and groove of a hungry young band, incredibly, The Physical World's weakest track is the already well-received "Trainwreck 1979". A triumphant return.
Lean and pure country heartache from Earle Jr.
"Single mothers, absent fathers, broken homes." Justin Townes Earle drawls the bleak equation with the weight of tragic inevitability. Recently married and ostensibly sober, Steve Earle's little boy is no closer to resolving his "daddy issues" with album five, which finds his heart swaddled in grey clouds and downcast, dragging phrasing shadowed by the sigh of pedal steel. Nights are lonely, houses are cold and train rhymes with rain on an exquisitely melancholy panorama from "Worried About the Weather" to “Burning Pictures”. The jewels are "Picture In a Drawer", a heartbroken phone call with mama, and "White Gardenias", drawn from a snapshot of Billie Holiday with empathy that aches like a real memory.
Mercurial singer-songwriter plays it straight on first album in three years.
Maybe it was all those years of putting up with idiots in his audience yelling out requests for "Summer Of '69". Ryan Adams has decided he may as well grab some of Bryan Adams’ sales, with new songs such as "Trouble" and "Stay With Me" sharing DNA with "Run To You", along with liberal doses of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
To many longtime fans it probably comes as some relief that Adams is at least plugging in again, as the initial plan for this album was to follow up the reflective, acoustic-based Ashes & Fire with more of the same with producer Glyn Johns.
The opening line is not promising: "I can’t talk, my mind is so blank, so I'm goin’ for a walk, I got nothin' left to say." To which shareholders could fairly respond: “Well, thanks Ryan, but how about getting back to us when you actually have something worth saying?”
With raw electric guitar and a spare approach by his backing band, this is the most direct and certainly the most obviously commercial Adams album in years. He used to get the "new Dylan" tag, not just for his productivity and style changes, but for his waterfalls of words. His tendency of late to simplify his lyrics continues here, with a song such as "Tired Of Giving Up" aiming for a statesmanlike Springsteen-like approach, although "My Wrecking Ball" perhaps needed a run through the cliché-generator, considering the Boss, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and even Miley Cyrus got to it beforehand.
Melbourne songwriter casts aside ‘Riptide’ to show his true depth on first album.
Dream Your Life Away's single challenge was to show there’s more to Vance Joy than "Riptide". That it does it so effectively is unexpected. From the jaunty pop-folk strains of "Winds of Change"(not a Scorpions cover), "Mess Is Mine" and "Who Am I", to the love-lorn laments of "Wasted Time” and single "First Time", Dream Your Life Away's a record that almost doesn't need "Riptide".
Vance Joy's appeal lies not just in floppy hair, but in universal relatability – storytelling full of generalised tales about growing up, of love, lust and loss, motifs of 'eyes' and time's passage all painted with a golden folky haze and an ever-present ukulele. Each song possesses a clear-eyed bittersweetness executed more calculatingly than a Stark in Game of Thrones.
The highlight is unassuming mid-album bracket "We All Die Trying To Get It Right" and "Georgia", songs so warm and intimate they’d make the XX crack a smile. And while lines like "She's something to behold/Elegant and bold /She's electricity running through my soul" aren't necessarily poetic genius, they are simple and effective. Similar generalisations amassed Powderfinger an easily-pleased army of followers, and "Red Eye" might be the best song the ’Finger never wrote – and one Boy & Bear would kill for. "All I Ever Wanted" and "Best That I Can", too, graduated from the Bernard Fanning school of solo folk.
It amounts to a debut LP that's confident, self-assured and classically Australian, with an appeal that's universal.
Ariana Grande breaks free with a set of unstoppable hooks and pure star power.
Ariana Grande showed promise on her 2013 debut, Yours Truly – a classic case of "great voice, shame about the tunes", overseen by Nineties R&B god Babyface. My Everything is where the 21-year-old Nickelodeon starlet grows up. It’s a confident, intelligent, brazen pop statement, mixing bubblegum diva vocals with EDM break beats. The smash "Break Free" sets the tone: Grande sings, "This is the part when I break free", while German producer Zedd builds up those whisper-to-scream synths, until the bass explodes and so does Grande. Like a Natalie Imbruglia for our more pretentious times, she’s in the zone where "Torn" meets "Turn Down for What".
Unlike most of today’s young pop royals, Grande’s star power is rooted in her Mariah Carey-esque chops as a singer. She has a more virtuosic voice than Selena Gomez, Katy Perry or nearly anyone else on the radio in 2014 – and while she’s far from the only diva-in-training to aim for Mariah’s squeaky-deaky octave-goosing frills over Whitney’s grit and growl, very few have Grande’s sensitive touch. She knows how not to oversing, even when she opens the LP with a mostly a cappella intro overdubbing herself into an En Vogue chorale.
The hyperactive hummingbird-in-a-miniskirt energy of her voice makes sense, because she’s usually singing about how all these boys, boys, boys are driving her out of her wits. Grande doesn’t have much interest in wuss ballads where she plays the victim – she’s an I’m-so-moving-on type, which is what gives her voice its emotional kick. "Break Your Heart Right Back" is a righteous manifesto for young women all over this land, as well as a reminder of why your little sister is more punk than you are.
Grande has hit-or-miss luck with rappers, but mostly clunky misses. After klutzy cameos from Iggy Azalea and Big Sean, Childish Gambino sounds like Rakim by comparison. She makes up for it in bonus track "Bang Bang", her
perfect Max Martin throwdown with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj. It fuses Nelly’s "Country Grammar" with Wham!’s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go", which is some truly twisted pop archaeology.
The only flat-out terrible song here is "Just a Little Bit of Your Heart", a masochistic piano drooper where Grande plays the doormat who keeps taking back her no-good man every time he cheats. It doesn’t exactly fit her personality, to say the least. You can practically hear her rolling her eyes as she sings. (And this is the one Harry Styles wrote? Harry, Harry, Harry. Do yourself a favour
and get some songwriting tips from Babyface, pronto.)
When Grande reaches for a more adult tone in the ace power ballad "Why Try", she pulls it off. It’s a Ryan Tedder special in the mode of Beyoncé’s "XO" or "Halo", with Grande contemplating grown-up heartbreak ("We been living like angels and devils") over those now-familiar martial drum rolls. In clumsier hands, a song like this would turn into pure corn, but she doesn’t waste a line of it. It sounds like there’s no limit to where Ariana Grande can go from here. But as My Everything proves, she’s already a major force.
Star-studded line-up helps Barnesy celebrate solo career
It was 30 years ago that Jimmy Barnes left Cold Chisel to embark on a solo career that is unrivalled in this country. This album is a fitting celebration of those three decades of full-throttle rock & roll, with the 58-year-old reworking some of his best tunes with the help of all the friends he’s made along the way. Highlights include the Living End setting fire to "Lay Down Your Guns", daughter Mahalia going line for lung-busting line with her dad on "Stand Up" and Shihad's dark, confrontational reworking of "Love and Hate". Barnes’ voice has lost none of its bite, and he genuinely sounds like he’s ecstatic to be putting fresh life into this collection of old favourites.
First solo album in four years for grand dame of Oz country.
For her latest solo album Kasey Chambers eschewed long-time producer, brother Nash, for the illustrious Nick DiDia. The result is not startlingly adventurous, but still beautiful in places. There are few more intuitive songwriters than Chambers, and the album travels with characteristic melodic smoothness and her typical soulfulness. Unfortunately, there is the odd dip into too-familiar country hooks and lyrical safety nets, even on first single, the gothic "Wheelbarrow", which boasts an alluring vocal performance but is fairly staid in structure. "Oh Grace" and "Too Late To Save Me", however, are pleasant examples of Chambers at her most natural – enough to make this a notable achievement.
Brit-rock’s indie kids grow up on fourth album.
Across their previous three albums the Kooks aimed for rock’s gooey pop middle and hit it; on Listen they aim for weirder territory, and though their songwriting growth is clear, the results are mixed. The synth forays of "Westside" and "Are We Electric" verge on cheesy; Luke Pritchard’s tribute to his father "See Me Now" is touching but feels ill-advised; and the looping riff of "Bad Habit" is knocked off from Flo Rida's "Good Feeling". The experimentation works on the Love-channelling "Dreams", the Primal Scream-aping "Forgive & Forget" and the funky staccato r’n’b of "Sunrise" and "Down" – but it’s hard to ignore that the playful indie rock of "Sweet Emotion" still suits them best.
Psychedelic good times from blissed-out, chill-pill poppers.
The general philosophy behind Richard Cartwright's ever-shifting Sydney-based musical collective is stated on 2009 track "Make it Chill": "You've gotta make it chill," Cartwright half-smirks, "if nobody else will, I will." On album four, the band are still channelling Odelay-era Beck by walking the fine line between sincere and smart arse and indulging in joyful genre-hopping that takes in post-India Beatles sitar psychedelia ("Karma"), bubbling summery pop ("Shooting Star") and DJ Shadow-style breakbeat freak-outs (the title track). Occasionally it drifts and becomes a little too languid, but Ponderosa is still a head-trip worth embarking upon.
Brisbane collective offer up a garage pop gem.
That Velociraptor wrangle coherency out of their chaotic constellation of band members – let alone deranged and great Sixties garage surf-pop – is no mean feat. "Monster Mash" is gloriously weird, single "Ramona" is a bubblegum ear-worm of the highest calibre, and the lackadaisical "All You Need", "The Right To Call You" and mumbling of "Leaches" are what the Libertines could've been if frontman Pete Doherty hadn't arsed away their potential. Likewise, if the Ramones wrote "Robocop" or "Hollywood Teen" in 1981 they could've had the crossover hit they spent the Eighties searching for. An accomplished debut infused with sly humour and retro panache.
Come for the solos, stay for the songs.
Ty Segall may be a garage-rock monster, but the 27-year-old's seventh album broadens his scope to include uplifting strings ("The Singer") and other gentler touches ("The Hand"). These 17 songs pack all the fuzz guitar you'd expect, and can sometimes feel like mere showcases for wild soloing, but Segall's songwriting is only getting better. And he rarely sits still, moving from dank riffing on "Susie Thumb" to a folkier sequel on "Don't You Want to Know? (Sue)". While gems like "The Crawler" still pack face-melting fuzz and frothy falsetto, Segall's blast through rock's cobwebby past is more varied than ever. This is a shaggy celebration with surprises in store.