Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Veteran all-rounder returns to her easy, breezy roots on LP nine.
Despite a roundly positive response to her debut country album, Feels Like Home (2013), Sheryl Crow has done an about face, something to do with her distaste for country radio politics. It's our gain – such a versatile artist is wasted boxed into the one genre, and on Be Myself she flits breezily between pop, rock, blues, and a little country in a hark back to the fun and looseness of Tuesday Night Music Club. "Roller Skate" sneers at dating apps – "old-school contact, would it be asking too much?" – "Grow Up" is a sugar-spun pop jam, while "Heartbeat Away" showcases her still-intact rock chops. There's no killer punch, but it's an effortless listen.
Strong melodies almost enough to disguise trite lyricism.
Adelaide rapper Allday is a product of the ever-expanding definition of hip-hop. Singing heavily outweighs actual rapping on Speeding – though when he does rap, he exhibits an agile flow. The excellent all-electronic production focuses on bouncy dance beats and spacey synths. On the one hand, his melodies are smooth, sweet and catchy. On the other, his lyrics are banal, mostly juvenile and boring. Three fundamental characteristics appear in every song: he gives no fucks, he loves to fuck, and he loves getting fucked up. Nevertheless, the sentimental "Raceway" is a tender standout, as is "Baby Spiders" featuring Mallrat, with its mellow beat and pensive melodies.
Meditative folk songs that relish wide-open space.
Sydney's Kell Derrig-Hall makes slow, spectral folk music as the Singing Skies. The follow-up to his 2011 debut feels open and timeless. The drowsy Americana of "Taken By the Wind" could be decades old, while "Future Comes" edges closer to reverbed rock without losing the delicate touch. Vibrantly embellished by Melodie Nelson's Lia Tsamoglou and members of the Holy Soul and Cameras, the LP thrives on hushed moments. Derrig-Hall wrote the album in part as a response to his father's death, but these songs are decidedly universal – right down to the incredibly fragile closer "You and I".
Brooklyn duo's lovesick LP is a fantastic fuzz-pop record.
"Can we hang, no strings attached? Listen to *N Sync cassettes?" A typical come-on from Diet Cig, and an invitation tough to resist. The New York boy/girl duo specialise in lovesick fuzz-pop on their fantastic debut album Swear I'm Good At This. Guitar-toting firecracker Alex Luciano keeps tripping over her own reluctant sentimental streak in these sardonic modern-love vignettes – as she sings, "It's hard to be punk while wearing a skirt." Even when her melodies get sugary, Luciano never wusses out as she contemplates the anxieties of youth, the terror of adulthood and the ever-astonishing lameness of the male.
"Sixteen" has to be the best song ever written about dating somebody with the same name ("It was weird in the back of his truck/Moaning my own name while trying to fuck") while "Tummy Ache", "I Don't Know Her" and "Link In Bio" raise the aggression level.
The highlight: "Maid of the Mist", where she announces, "I want to hold a séance for every heart I've broken/Put them all in a room and say, get over it."
Swedish dance-pop mainstays strike balance of hard and soft.
Having dipped a toe in the mainstream with 2011's Ritual Union and then pivoted away from the dance floor towards Janet Jackson-influenced R&B on 2014's Nakuma Rubberband, Season High settles somewhere between the two, fusing the Berlin glitch of Rex the Dog with Nineties digital percussion and plenty of swag. There are mellower numbers like the minimally furnished "Don't Cry", led by Yukimi Nagano's pleading falsetto, and ice-cold club cuts such as the hypnotic "Strobe Light", cantering synths and strings slicing through a gloomy bottom note. Insistent and detached by turns, they're beguiling throughout.
Garage-party-punk reprobates grow up on welcome return.
Returning as a four-piece (and sans founding member Jordan Malane), the Bleeding Knees Club of Chew the Gum are a substantially different band than on 2013 single "Feel". The new line-up means new – welcome – depth, with the trashy bubble-gum punk title-track showing off not just a more well-rounded musical edge, but a captivating self-reflexivity from lead-man Alex Wall on burning out one's partying pleasure centres. "Sick Feeling" and "Cyber Doom" also deal with BNC moving beyond their grimy punk kid persona, and it makes the Go-Betweens-aping jangle of "Sun House" all the more striking.
Clunky lyrics and an Eighties pop sound add up to little.
If there were awards for clunky lyrics, Maximo Park would need a lot of shelf space. The title track of the UK band's sixth album may have good intentions, reaching out to those seeking asylum from their war-torn homes, but these people have suffered enough without Paul Smith's torturous schoolboy poetry. "The hand that giveth is set to taketh away," he sayeth in "Work and Then Wait", in a line Spinal Tap would jettison for being ridicule-eth. The band that arrived in 2005 in a kinetic blur of post-punk energy has undergone an INXS-meets-ABC makeover that gives the whole exercise an Eighties gloss to match the pop singer-as-social conscience approach.
25 years into their career, Screamfeeder are still killing it.
Thankfully Brisbane's Screamfeeder have never been very good at breaking up, and 25 years after their debut, Flour, they're still writing career-best songs. Screamfeeder pour a lifetime of indie-rock experience into this collection of blissed-out punk songs. They may not have achieved the chart success of fellow Brisbane-ites Regurgitator, Powderfinger or Custard, but their records have held up better than those of their peers. Pop Guilt is big, brash and shiny guitar music that will take you back to the Nineties. Think Hüsker Dü and the Go Betweens smashing heads with the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr and you'd be in the right ballpark.
Second album from Adelaide's finest tackles the (not-so) lucky country.
Bad//Dreems approach the toxic masculinity and racism masquerading as fuckheaded patriotism infusing contemporary Australian society with the same fervour mouth-breathing dipshits do righteous self-belief, Australian flag capes and intolerance. Their second album rumbles with the malevolence of Rundle Mall at 2am, spitting and kicking at a ruling class and confused culture fixated on self-interest and enrichment rather than insight and empathy.
Their songwriting – equal parts Go-Betweens, Paul Kelly and the Church mixed with a relatability that made Eddy Current Suppression Ring so vital – finds its range perfectly here, delivering an exasperated garage-punk wave as they name-check social ills like Donald Trump, racism, Australia Day, the credit crunch and coward punches. They're devastatingly stark on "1000 Miles Away" and the Springsteen-meets-Kill Devil Hills of "A Million Times Alone", but best are lead single "Mob Rule" and "Nice Guy". Both articulate the prevailing 'afraid-of-media-raised-spectres' national psyche and effectively explore our ingrained "boys will be boys" reductive machoism.
It makes for an album that's quintessentially Australian, full of free-wheeling scepticism about national identity and how it's applied to whatever you need it to justify, without preaching. Bad//Dreems aren't the heroes we need, they've just had a gutful of rampant dipshittery, just like the rest of us.
The Canadian keeps it cushioned and crooning on 14th album.
Some artists radically re-invent themselves over time. Ron Sexsmith is not one of them. The Canadian's 14th album sounds pretty much like his previous 13. There's no doubt the man has a gift for sweet McCartney-esque melodies, even if the bulk of these 15 tasteful tracks drift by on pillowy instrumentation and a cushioned croon, while his lyrics gently sway between wistful melancholy and wistful hopefulness. "Evergreen" and "Radio" break into a canter – the former is about love lasting until the end of time like vintage wine, while the latter casts him as a cuddly curmudgeon longing for the old days when a true voice was valued over The Voice.
MC remains complex, relentless on latest strange, multifaceted album, in which he goes deeper into his own mind.
Kendrick Lamar has already taken hip-hop to the outer galaxies of style, sound and resonance. Protesters in Chicago, Cleveland, Oakland and New York took to the streets singing his 2015 single "Alright" like it was the new "We Shall Overcome." His last album, To Pimp a Butterfly, will likely go down as the defining reflection of the America that spawned #BlackLivesMatter, in the same way Pablo Picasso's Guernica stands as the defining reflection of the Spanish Civil War.
But two years later, the perils of fame and the exhaustion of fighting for social justice seem to weigh on Lamar. "Last LP I tried to lift the black artists," he laments on "Element," one of the many bruising, battle-scarred battle-raps on his fourth LP, Damn. "But it's a difference between black artists and wack artists."
Seemingly exhausted with the burden of constantly pushing hip-hop forward into concept operas, electric Miles explosions and Flying Lotus electronic burbles, Damn. seemingly takes a classicist route to rap music. If To Pimp a Butterfly was the best rap album in 2015, Damn. is the platonic ideal of the best rap album of 1995, a dazzling display of showy rhyme skills, consciousness-raising political screeds, self-examination and bass-crazy-kicking. Kendrick has many talents – pop star, avant-garde poet, lyrical gymnast, storyteller. But here he explores what we traditionally know as a "rapper" more than on any of his albums to date. The rhymes on songs like "DNA," "Element," "Feel," "Humble" and "XXX" come fast, furious and almost purist in nature. In an era where "bars" seems almost old-fashioned in the age of Drake's polyglot tunesmithery, Young Thug's Silly-Putty syllable stretching and Future's expressionist robo-croak, Lamar builds a bridge to the past.
On Butterfly, he untangled the mess in his mind with multiple personalities and distended voices, an Inside Out-esque spray where different emotions would almost require different timbres. Now he stares down almost everything with the same voice and a singular focus, whether his problems are external (Fox News, the prison-industrial complex, guns), internal (self-doubt, pride) or something in between (see the masterful "Lust," which treats news of Donald Trump's election as but a rumble in a monotonous Groundhog Day timeline of existence). His flow remains exquisite without having fall back on the dramatic filigrees he brought to Butterfly. Producers like Mike Will Made It and Sounwave make Damn. feel state of the art – an album full of beat changes, tempo switches, backmasking, needle bounces and broken melodies – but Lamar's rapping is timeless enough to step into Ice Cube's Death Certificate Timberlands.
Of course, this is Kendrick Lamar, so if he's going to delve into a more classic style of rap, he's going to take a complex, multifaceted, strange, unexpected path to get there. His twists on vintage hip-hop are downright post-modern. Kid Capri, the DJ whose blends and airhorn voice were omnipresent on early Nineties mixtapes, shows up with his iconic voice. But instead of brassy hype, he drops existential koans like, "Y'all know, what happens on Earth stays on Earth." "XXX" is a vintage screed about clapping back at killer cops, perfectly in line with Rodney King-era revenge fantasies by Geto Boys, Paris and Lamar's personal hero 2Pac. But Lamar goes deeper into his own mind, painting blood-soaked hypotheticals and then juxtaposing them against his desires for gun control. (U2 are featured on the track, but their input sounds like maybe eight measures of a melody used like a sample.)
That's the electric part about Damn.: 2Pac rapped through his contradictions; Lamar raps about his contradictions. The theme here is humility, and Kendrick clearly has mixed feelings. On "Loyalty," he treats his boasts like a weakness, with Rihanna crooning "It's so hard to be humble." On "Pride," he treats his boasts as an annoying obligation, drolly saying "I can’t fake humble just 'cause your ass is insecure." Then, on "Humble," he finally screams "Bitch, be humble" like he worked up the confidence. And even then, you can't help but wonder if he's talking to himself. On "Element," he'll say "I don't give a fuck" but then immediately follow it with "I'm willin' to die for this shit."
In the album’s introduction, Lamar helps a blind lady searching for something on the ground, and she turns out to be a murderer. The meaning of this metaphor is open for debate, but one thing is indisputable: Kendrick Lamar sees himself as someone here to help people find the things they have lost –quite often, it seems, a sense of humanity itself. And that's a huge job for one man, especially since his peers can hold court on a relatively smaller part of the collective subconscious. Chance the Rapper raps like America's hope and optimism; Kanye West its untethered id and basest impulses. Hundreds of street-level mixtape rappers represent anger and nihilism; and mega-stars like Drake, J. Cole, Big Sean, Nicki Minaj and Eminem are all explorations of various ideas of self. Lamar, patient and meticulous, self-doubting yet bold, is left as pretty much the unofficial navigator of everything else, a wide, complex, occasionally paradoxical gulf of noise.
Lamar's gift is not just that he can say why he's the best ("I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA"), but also that he articulate how this responsibility feels ("I feel like the whole world want me to pray for 'em/But who the fuck prayin' for me?"). He can paint pride and agony with the same brush, and it’s that ability that makes "Fear" probably the most emotionally rich song in his entire discography. Like Sigmund Freud meets Scarface, Lamar connects the dots from the seven-year-old terrified of catching a beating from his mother to the 17-year-old terrified of being murdered by police to the 27-year-old terrified of fame. "I practiced runnin' from fear, guess I had some good luck," he raps with ease. "At 27 years old, my biggest fear was bein' judged."
Much like the recent A Tribe Called Quest record, Damn. is a brilliant combination of the timeless and the modern, the old school and the next-level. The most gifted rapper of a generation stomps into the Nineties and continues to blaze a trail forward. Don't be confused if he can't stay humble.
Debut album from chart-topping EDM-pop duo is a drab, monotonous whinge.
Last year, the duo of Alex Pall and Andrew Taggart – known, collectively, as the Chainsmokers – were the ruling bro kings of pop. After breaking through in the early 2010s with the smirking novelty banger "#SELFIE," they chilled out and looked inward, to great reward. The makeup-sex prelude "Closer" spent 12 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 and became 2016's most defining song, establishing the commercial potential of EDM's soft "future bass" sound and utilising Tumblr alt-pop upstart Halsey. They achieved chart dominance without releasing a proper full-length and could probably have bobbed along pop's waves for another year or so with EPs of self-serious moping.
What's actually serious for an artist, though, is an album, and so last week brought the duo's official debut, Memories... Do Not Open. Riddled with resentment and lyrics that land with a self-serious thud, Memories is a stunningly drab record. For the most part songs plod along at a strenuously mid-tempo pace, and are mostly lacking in any sonic detail that would reward closer listening. The few stylistic flourishes that break up the trudge – robo-funk backing choruses on "Young," a wobbly synth break on "It Won't Kill Ya," the dreaded, made-for-festival-singalongs "whoa-whoa-whoa-who-o-o-a" break on "Honest" – sound like sops to potential trends more than anything else. The slightly more uptempo "Break Up Every Night" suffers from the same "women be crazy" anomie that made "Closer"'s omnipresence so wearying.
Similar to how the spunky Halsey was whittled down to a sulky whine on "Closer," Memories' guest vocalists, – narcotised R&B singer Jhené Aiko on the trapped-out existential lament "Wake Up Alone," the hired-gun songwriter Emily Warren on two tracks – could have been brought in off the street to mimicking the bawling denizens who dominate pop right now. Country duo Florida Georgia Line, who appear on the pseudo-inspirational album closer "The Last Day Alive," are turned into a rubbery backing-vocal blur. Only Coldplay's Chris Martin stands out in any way, his trembling contribution to the current hit "Something Just Like This" breaking from the sad-boy and mopey-girl monotony.
The anonymising of everyone who stopped by the Chainsmokers' studio would at least be understandable if Taggart's vocals were worthy of the spotlight, or if his lyrics betrayed even a hint of insight. But his bleat, which brings to mind the wounded wail of a third-tier Warped Tour act, is nothing special; and his lyrics, which resemble hastily texted missives from a friend who never asks you how you're doing while endlessly railing about the woes of his not-really-that-bad life, are artless pouts about fame being hard and about feeling being misunderstood. While the human impulse to feel for another person's pain does flare up now and again, the combination of lyrics like "I'm supposed to call you, but I don't know what to say at all/And there's this girl, she wants me to take her home/She don't really love me though, I'm just on the radio" with the Chainsmokers' overly ponderous, yet somehow underbaked pseudo-balladry makes for a crushingly un-fun listening experience.
San Diego two-piece return with album number three.
With Gold Fever (2014), Tone Catalano and C.C. Spina proved they could turn out a consummate, hook-laden dirty blues-rock stomp. This sometimes-soulful follow-up takes these quantities and stirs in a smattering of keys, chimes and effects. The title track and "For Life" showcase Spina's undeniable chops behind the drumkit, while "Bad Business" confirms Catalano is capable of mustering ample rustbelt blues-guitar bite. But it's hard to shake a sense of déjà vu despite the frills: Same Sun adds superficial colour to the already comprehensive palette sketched out by the White Stripes/Black Keys duopoly a decade ago.
L.A. country stylist airs his softer side on sophomore outing.
Tenderheart is an assured step forward for this rising country star. Expanding upon the more trad. country lay of Angeleno (2015) – albeit with added emphasis on silvery pedal steel ("Two Broken Hearts") – Outlaw reprises a little SoCal mariachi verve ("Everyone's Looking For Home"), before taking in the broad sweep of L.A. with urbane cosmopolitan country ("Now She Tells Me"), classic Bakersfield strains ("All My Life"), and sun-dappled Suburban nostalgia ("Bougainvillea, I Think"). There's heartland rock redolent of Tom Petty in "Tenderheart", while "Look At You Now" recalls Justin Townes Earle.
Sydney hip-hop duo embrace pop on most confident album yet.
On their fourth LP Spit Syndicate achieve a consistency that was lacking on 2013's Sunday Gentlemen. While Jimmy Nice and Nick Lupi still seesaw thematically – wedging their signature party jams ("Late Nights") up against overt political statements ("Not In My Name") – slick R&B production weaves it all together neatly. The extensive guest list is used to great effect: Thelma Plum's dynamic vocal simmers over a restrained beat on "Darling Street", while Remi is a mischievous counterpoint to Nice and Lupi's verses in "Houdini". No longer just tinkering with pop music, this is Spit Syndicate's most confident LP yet.
Fragile UK model-folkie tends post-divorce wounds.
Professionally speaking, Jack White was always a mixed blessing for Karen Elson. As husband/producer, his shadow fell heavily over her 2010 debut The Ghost Who Walks, and the couple's estrangement only brings him into sharper focus on this album of open wounds and stoic resolutions. "Wonderblind" and "Double Roses" count the cost in a gauze of harp, flute and harpsichord, an olde folkie thread that weaves around orchestral bodice-rippers, fragile confessions and the token Nashville twang of "Million Stars". What sticks is the nakedness of lines such as "In the end I forgive/I was set free by what you did." Ouch.