Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Twenty years on, Oasis' debut remains one of the most gloriously loutish odes to cigarettes, alcohol and dumb guitar solos that the British Isles have ever coughed up. This deluxe three-disc reissue captures the madness of the Gallagher brothers' early days – even if Noel and Liam couldn't stand to be in the same room together, they boozed and brawled their way to greatness in pub-punk anthems like "Live Forever" and "Slide Away." There are unreleased demos and live treasures, along with essential 1994 singles and B sides like "Fade Away" and "Listen Up," where Oasis first hinted at the dreamy depths behind all the lager-swilling bravado.
Reggae icon hits all the right notes but lacks a little bite
Jazz used to be dangerous, the soundtrack to opium and bootleg liquor – now it’s widely regarded as polite enough to play with dinner. Likewise, reggae’s roots are distinctly outlaw, but it’s another genre that has been sanitised over time. None of which is Ziggy Marley’s fault, but it is increasingly a problem for the 45-year-old. His fifth studio LP, Fly Rasta, does everything reggae should do, but grooves and messages that once felt edgy and charged now feel a little like nostalgia. It’s telling that this album’s high points – “I Don’t Want To Live On Mars” and “You” – are sunny love songs, while deeper cuts like “So Many Rising” seem to fade into the background.
Sydney singer/producer earns her breakout moment
Caitlin Park’s second album is a major step forward from 2011’s promising Milk Annual, bolstered by confident vocals and thick layers of self-production. Engineered by Sam Brumby (Little Bastard, Achoo! Bless You), indie pop and folk get spiked by hip-hop and world cues, recalling a subtler tUnE-yArDs on “One Another Love” and “Wake Up in a Whirr”. While rich samples tie the songs together, the entrancing refrain of “Hold Your Gaze” makes it one of the year’s best local singles. Other highlights include the snappy soul of “Lemonade”, the smouldering balladry of “Hunt for the Young” and the shadowy blues of “This Hand You Lent Me” and the title track. Park knows how to back up her colour-drenched collages with empowering lyrics, and she convinces as much vocally as she does as an instrument-juggling musician. What she’s best at, though, is pulling together wildly different strands and threading them into her own vast world of sound.
Brisbane outfit impress on debut album
The much anticipated debut LP from the Cairos is an epic sprawl of an album, a tour de force that’s been two years in the making, the product of over 100 songs, whittled down to a final 10. Coming from the same school of musical thought as Perth’s Tame Impala, in that these songs build and build before breaking over you, a strong psych flavour at the fore, they differ in that these tracks are somewhat gentler and more fluid. A bit more warmth has also been included, courtesy no doubt of producer Nick DiDia (RATM, Powderfinger). Songs like “Imaginations”, however, display a muscularity as well, showing Dream of Reason to be a more than well-rounded debut effort.
Effortlessly eccentric star disses exes, hangs with Blake Shelton
If you’re Shakira’s ex-boyfriend – specifically, the one who sued her for $100 million in 2012 – you really don’t want to hear this record. On Shakira., the Colombian-born singer and hip-shaker rejoices in dissing men who lie and “just want your money”, while salivating over a new love’s “legs that never end”. She pins huge choruses and a mercurial vocal tone to music that’s so effortlessly eccentric and omnivorous you’ll hardly notice when a banjo (and Blake Shelton) enter on “Medicine”. Shakira’s lyrics have turned more commonplace in the past 10 years, but still, what other pop star would use the word “agnosticism” in a love ballad?
Satisfying fourth LP from electro-soul Swedes
Better known for guest spots on songs from SBTRKT and Gorillaz, Swedish four-piece Little Dragon are clearly intent on staking out their own place on the musical map with their most sonically assured album to date. The group incorporate their neo-soul past into electropop present on opener “Mirror”, a cavernous slow jam that segues into the towering, aggressive “Klapp Klapp”. From there it’s a zig-zagging tour of nocturnal delights, from the heading-out sense of adventure of “Paris” to the late night drift of “Let Go”. At times it threatens to disappear in a delicate puff of smoke, but Yukimi Nagano’s soulful voice, rich with wonder and longing, unifies Nabuma Rubberband into a bewitching whole.
Australia’s best roots guitarist mixes the moods
A true under-the-radar type, Jeff Lang has been the country’s best roots guitarist, a sort of Aussie Ry Cooder, for 20-odd years and now 15 albums. Lang’s a remarkably agile musician; he can deliver a slow, soulful blues just as easily as he can come on all high and lonesome (see “This City’s Not Your Hometown Anymore”), or noir-ish and menacing (cue “Petra Goes to the Movies”). Yet Lang’s at his best when he lets his nimble fingers do the talking, best heard here in a fretboard workout known as “I Want to Run But My Legs Won’t Stand”, or when he unleashes some stinging slide guitar during “People Will Break Your Heart”. Lang’s music is both vivid and visceral.
Bad Seed lends gravity to country-rock piss-up
The Australian rock underground boasts a proud lineage of hard-drinking reprobate cowboy types, but unlike Tracy Pew, Spencer P. Jones or Tex Perkins, tipsy teddy bear Henry Wagons has never seemed likely to turn ugly after the next slab. Roping former Bad Seed Mick Harvey to the producer’s saddle brings more grit and brimstone to the act – even if the Vegas showman’s wink remains hardwired to Wagons’ brand of hell-raising.
Witness for starters the outrageous extravagance of the horns and axe-play on “Hold On Caroline”, which necks the bad acid before heading out on the piss. The long night of libation veers from the coy bachelor pad croon of “Beer Barrel Bar” to the bogan boogie anthem of “Fortitude Valley”. The stray dog desperation of “Search the Streets” is balanced by the Campari-and-flute pas de deux of “Summer Liquor”, complete with raucous tango diversion that illustrates this band’s controlled insanity as a live unit. “Why Do You Always Cry” is where it all comes together: an epic storm of Harvey atmosphere, classic rock chops and Wagons’ mighty vocal range, from full-throttle wail to deep caramel warble. The guy can turn a phrase like the most laconic barfly but, ironically, it’s the sheer perfection of his rich vibrato that makes the heartfelt likes of “Dust in the Hall” hard to take seriously. Maybe if he shot a man in Dubbo, just to watch him die . . .?
Rootsy Texan goes to New York, loosens up, sparks fly
Both within and without the Be Good Tanyas, 38-year-old Jolie Holland has succeeded in giving old-timey music a modern makeover. With Wine Dark Sea, her fifth solo LP, Holland has tapped into Manhattan’s downtown jazz scene, bringing in players such as Doug Wieselman (Lou Reed). And she really kicks up her heels, especially during the wigged-out boho groove that is “Waiting for the Sun”, or the various junkyard guitar vamps (“On and On”, “Dark Days”). Holland’s ever-so mannered vocal style makes it hard to work out exactly what she’s singing about, but despite the odd dark cloud, there are moments (“All the Love”) when the lady simply couldn’t be any more mellow.
Five years in the musical wilderness hasn't dulled the Brit singer's edge
It's been five years since Lily Allen's last album, a period in which the U.K. pop diva got married and had kids. But fear not – she's still the same firecracker who turned heads in the mid-'00s with eclectic, post-hip-hop tunes and bullshit-slaying lyrics. The brilliantly titled Sheezus has loads of great punch lines ("I don't give a fuck about your Instagram or your lovely house or your ugly kids," she sings on "Insincerely Yours"). But Allen also rocks a sisterly warmth: The title track deals honestly with returning to compete with artists she loves, like Gaga and Lorde: "I'm prepared/Not gonna lie, though/I'm kinda scared." Please, girl.
Foos drummer ups the prog ante on side project
The debut album by Birds of Satan, a side project of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, sounds like every LP from Hawkins' teenage record collection playing at the same time. He and his bandmates – who also play with him in another side project, Chevy Metal – dabble in Queen-style operatic choruses, Cheap Trick power-pop melodies and a whole lotta Led Zep boogie. Hawkins even channels the jazz-fusion drum break fromRun-DMC's "Peter Piper" in "Thanks for the Line." That sort of eclecticism is both the best and worst thing about Birds of Satan: While its seven songs all go down easy, they can also feel like sensory overload. Lead track "The Ballad of the Birds of Satan" stretches over nine minutes (and features guest appearances by fellow Foos Dave Grohl and Pat Smear), with more twists and turns than a David Lynch movie. Then there's "Too Far Gone to See," which begins with a "Dream On"-style harpsichord intro and ends with an unexpected synth dirge. Birds of Satan is a memorable and often exhilarating listen – but with so much going on in the space of half an hour, you can almost hear Hawkins' life flash before your ears.
The first album-length collaboration from Brian Eno and Underworld frontman Karl Hyde has the slickness of Eighties pop, the tricky melodies of modern indie and the appeal of neither. Eno has boasted of the album's "deliberately irregular and awkward" constructions, which could apply to the goofy synth horns, the bone-dry guitars or the herky-jerk vocals that call to mind dead-eyed versions of acts like Dirty Projectors and Vampire Weekend. "When I Built This World," a minimalist suite that feels like it's made for strings and Nintendo, is weirdly gorgeous, but otherwise this just sounds like two electronic greats e-mailing dorm-room demos.
Noise gods deliver two hours of unparalleled intensity
Experimental rockers Swans have only ever had one goal: to overwhelm. Like their last sonic saga, 2012's The Seer, their latest offers two straight hours of spook-house drones, battering-ram guitar blasts and Michael Gira's howled imperatives about love, sex and death. Songs last up to 34 minutes and alternate between jazzy post-punk ragers ("Oxygen") and trippy jams plucked from the dark side of Pink Floyd ("Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture"). Backup vocals by St. Vincent and Cold Specks provide a stylistic through line back to the shimmery 1996 LP Soundtracks for the Blind, but Gira and Co. have grown more sophisticated since then. These days, they don't just crush – they hypnotise.
Blue Mountains hip-hoppers stretch out on LP three
Thundamentals have always had talent, but when they dropped romantic first single “Smiles Don’t Lie” from this, their third LP, they went from hip-hop heads painting the town red to a group with a whole new audience. The rest of the album opens up their sound even further; the whip-smart larrikin lyrics and funk infused jams of old are still there, but this time around they’re laced with electronica and a whole new level of polish. Opener “Home In Your Head” has hints of Burial, while the über-catchy “Something I Said” comes correct with a pure pop hook. A deft balance of fresh and familiar, the Thundas have their hearts firmly on their sleeves this time around, and that’s a very good thing.
Adele’s co-writer crafts grown-up, rainy-day pop
Post Semisonic, Dan Wilson’s found real form as a songwriter-for-hire. He’s cranked out the good stuff for Nas, Birdy, Missy Higgins – who repays the favour here – and, especially, Adele, with whom he wrote the Grammy winning “Someone Like You”, a huge pay day that means everything Wilson now does is for love, not money. Love Without Fear is a reminder that Wilson’s always had a winning way with heavy-hearted, organic pop; if you’re in a rainy day mood and crave a soundtrack, you could do far worse. And when Wilson goes for the big emotional splash during “When It Pleases You” and “Even the Stars Are Sleeping”, you can imagine Adele calling him, requesting something similar for her next outing.
Michael Jackson’s second posthumous studio album is surprisingly solid
Michael Jackson has been more prolific in death than he usually was while alive. For his second posthumous studio LP, weighing in at an ungenerous eight songs, Timbaland and Jerome Harmon lead a team of producers who’ve added bulk and even dubstep eruptions to Jackson’s unfinished tracks, originally laid down between 1983 and 2002.
“Loving You” (recorded during sessions for 1987’s Bad) follows the wonderful, breezy legacy of “Rock With You” and “The Way You Make Me Feel”. But it’s an exception: Most of these songs rot and sway with fear. In “Chicago”, Jackson rails at a harlot who seduced him, despite being married with kids. The Dangerous outtake “Slave to the Rhythm” details an ugly marriage, and the EDM surges of the astounding, audacious “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” chronicle the grim fate of a preteen girl who runs from an abusive stepdad. Even with such dark subject matter, though, it’s a joy to hear the joy in Jackson’s voice.
Female sexual predators and the abuse of children were frequent Jackson themes. So was his sense of martyrdom. In “Xscape”, he uses his array of percussive gasps and clucks to describe how TV cameras (and, inevitably, a greedy woman) plague his life. In the second chorus, he slips in a chilling ad-lib that’s easy to overlook: “I’m dying.”