Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Sydney producer brings fun retro club vibes on party-ready debut.
Visions' gaudy neon cover art – featuring Michael 'Touch Sensitive' Di Francesco in a turtleneck, gold chain and manicured mo' – is the perfect distillation of his debut LP. "First Slice – Intro" (which samples his 2013 hit "Pizza Guy") sets the Eighties-cocaine-dealer-pulling-up-to-the-nightclub-in-a-Ferrarai vibe, kicking off an album of ebullient house ("Lay Down"), Nineties R'n'B ("Veronica") and Italo disco-influenced club bangers. Arriving in the spring, Visions plays like the perfect warm weather party soundtrack, whether you're drinking champagne spritzers on a yacht or hitting the local discotheque in your finest pair of slacks.
English band lacks vision on fifth album.
"Are we hologram? Are we vision?" sings Faris Badwan over roiling synths and an electro-clash beat. Perhaps he should be asking "Are we Gary Numan tribute act?", because that's what it sounds like. The Horrors have tried on a number of outfits over five albums, arriving as goth-clad garage rockers and transitioning through psych-rock and dream-pop before going for arena anthems with 2011's Skying. V finds them stranded somewhere between melodramatic Eighties synth-pop and contemporary Coldplay-esque stadium-fillers. In either mode they offer po-faced lyrics and a lack of adventure. To sum up, then: the answer to "Are we vision?" is no.
Las Vegas rockers hit targets with affecting, arena-built anthems.
Brandon Flowers has grown up a little. He's now big enough to poke fun at himself in "The Man", the fruitiest Killers track ever made, and willing to let his guard down lyrically and make some pretty vulnerable songs about his wife's childhood abandonment ("Wonderful Wonderful"); depression ("Rut"); and affairs of the heart ("Some Kind of Love"). Pairing with longterm producer Stuart Price and Jacknife Lee (U2, Taylor Swift) has paid dividends – soaring anthems like "Run for Cover" and "Tyson vs Douglas" are shamelessly emotive, yet undeniable. While they haven't eclipsed their earliest work, the Killers are ageing gracefully.
Seattle's golden boy of indie-folk delivers third studio LP.
With White Noise, Noah Gundersen continues his journey away from the rather anaemic acoustic balladry of old. This is a step up in songwriting, production and emotional heft that, with its touches of synth and Gundersen's occasional swooning falsetto, warrants favourable comparison with Perfume Genius's excellent recent albums. "After All" and especially "Sweet Talker" best exhibit this new ambition, though less successful are some banal attempts at sparse Josh Ritter-ish folk that sit awkwardly on an album that, thanks to Gundersen's sonic imagination and maturing sense of songcraft, otherwise succeeds.
Wolfe's sixth studio LP is her best and heaviest to date.
If Chelsea Wolfe's last album welcomed us into her abyss, Hiss Spun plunges headfirst into its apocalyptic epicentre, a bewitching brew of chaos and beautiful darkness. Where the California-born artist once lingered among eerie melodies and folk guitars, she holds nothing back on her heaviest, doomiest album yet. Thunderous drums ("Spun") and guitars, distorted to oblivion ("Welt"), offer catharsis through violence. Even its lightest moments ("Two Spirit") are far from frail or thin. It's this balance that makes Hiss Spun so arresting; cataclysmic walls of noise perfectly ballasted by Wolfe's rich, spellbinding vocals.
Guy from the Beatles wants to keep going. Is there a problem?
"Got up this mornin', packed my bags/Headed for the studio to finish this track." He's not complicated, our Ringo, but he's not calling stumps either. Would you? That's Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh, Edgar Winter and Steve Lukather stoking the rock & roll engine room of "We're On the Road Again". Peter Frampton pops up on "Speed of Sound", Dave Stewart helps him indulge his love for cornball country on "So Wrong For So Long", and he gets to pay a mawkish reggae tribute to Bob Marley in "King of the Kingdom". And say what you like about old guys with their home ProTools studios, but he's never sung more tunefully.
Wyclef Jean's narrative skill remains undimmed.
The third instalment in Wyclef Jean's 'Carnival' series proves the hip-hop icon hasn't lost his knack for bending and fusing genres. Stark contrasts are struck as Carnival III moves between sonic tone; the upbeat reggae-funk of "Fela Kuti" is sandwiched between the more introspective "Borrowed Time" and "Warrior". Collaborations with Emeli Sandé and Lunch Money Lewis are solid, and on his first album in eight years, Jean has made a sound that exists not simply as a new statement, but as the continuation of an approach to music that celebrates diversity and encourages musical discovery and emotional response.
Folk gems from former Old Crow Medicine Show singer.
Willie Watson's much-loved Folk Singer Vol.1 worked so well partly because he and producer David Rawlings allowed a certain unkemptness, a muddiness, to drive both performance and production on its renditions of songs from the American folk canon. Vol.2 is the same. The sparseness of these interpretations, along with Watson's winsome vocals, produces an overall sound startlingly similar to Dave Van Ronk. At the same time, some inspired instrumental choices from Rawlings bring gorgeous new dimensions to well-trodden ground. For song selection, sincerity and passion, Watson has nailed it again.
Rap-rock supergroup lob monstrous riffs at the forces of evil.
One oft repeated phrase in the wake of Donald Trump's election victory was that it might at least give rise to some great music. And if there's a band for which these times were made, it's surely Rage Against the Machine. But with frontman Zack de la Rocha concentrating on other endeavours, we get the next best thing: Prophets of Rage, AKA Rage Against the Machine with Public Enemy's Chuck D and Cypress Hill's B-Real handling vocal duties.
The anger on their debut album is righteous, B-Real rapping "Poverty hit home like a war zone/Check America's pulse, heard a death tone" in "Unfuck the World", while Chuck D's baritone is a formidable foil for Tom Morello's trademark riffing. At their best – see the monstrous "Hail to the Chief" and "Who Owns Who" ("The government can't stand when the people take a stand," rail the MCs) – Prophets of Rage sound capable of smashing through any wall Donald Trump might build (or, at the very least, detonating a mosh pit).
But not every song combusts in the same manner: the "drones" chant of "Take Me Higher" feels limp, as do B-Real's tiresome dope references in "Legalize Me". It's in these moments that the absence of de la Rocha's lyrical heft is most sorely felt, and Prophets of Rage starts to feel like a missed opportunity. But then you get knocked on your head by another seismic riff, and Chuck D winds up, and you start to think that maybe, just maybe, this could be the soundtrack to the revolution.
Sydney siblings continue their upward trajectory on fourth album.
Rick Rubin's hirsute shadow still looms large over the Stones, who have decided to keep rolling since splitting up on the down-low in 2012. The super producer was the catalyst for their 2014 reunion after hearing them at a party and inviting them into his Malibu studio to reconnect and record. It resulted in their self-titled third album – their finest yet – and Rubin's trick wasn't just that dry Seventies drum sound. He insisted the siblings write in the same room together, and it's a process they've stuck to for their fourth album, which was self-produced in Angus' Byron Bay studio.
It seems fitting that they open proceedings with the call-and-response of "Snow", which sees the pair swap verses like a less cloying Moldy Peaches (despite Julia's chorus of "la la las"). The Stones are at their best when they're playing off each other like this: Julia providing the strong but sympathetic counterpoint to her brother's just-rolled-out-of-a-two-day-bender version of charm.
The use of a drum machine and a more expansive guitar palette is a marked difference from Rubin's organic LA production. They even take a stab at indie-hop on "Baudelaire", which works surprisingly well for two kids that grew up in Sydney's northern beaches. (Straight outta Newport yo!)
The album fittingly closes with the Stones finishing each others' sentences. They're stronger together – they just realise it now.
Dave Grohl's merry men get messy with Adele's producer on ninth album.
Foo Fighters are the world's biggest modern rock band for many reasons: Dave Grohl's immense likability; his talent for writing three or four really good songs every few years; their killer live chops; and outlasting competition for the title. They maintain relevancy via challenges (see: recording to tape in Grohl's garage on 2011's Wasting Light), and the latest (according to the frontman) is to make "Motörhead's version of Sgt Peppers".
A lofty ambition, and one they don't quite reach. With Adele producer Greg Kurstin – and guests Paul McCartney, Inara George, Alison Mosshart and Boyz II Men's Shawn Stockman – on board, Grohl's reliably anthemic songwriting and the usual Foos crispness is cluttered with messy, overwrought studio fuckwittery. "Arrows" and "Dirty Water" take Grohl's delicate/uppercut blueprint and overcook it with unnecessary keyboards. Most head-scratching? Foos writing a constipated string-heavy commercial rock plodder destined for an all-star Grammy singalong in "The Sky Is a Neighborhood".
Foos are too big to fail, however, and Kurstin's pop nous adds a hefty brightness to burners like "Run" and "La Dee Da", and the choppy classic FM rock swagger of "Make It Right". The Led Zeppelin III repose of "Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)" and Taylor Hawkins' ragged "Sunday Rain" add shade and texture. Still, the lack of clarity equals a record aiming to do many things at once, but only doing a few of them well.
The Cat is back on an album that revisits his past and plots his future.
We've seen that apple tree before, on the cover of Tea For the Tillerman nearly 40 years go. "How I'd love to be a child," the former Cat Stevens sighs on "Mighty Peace", his tone beyond wistful, the fragile acoustic riff a heartbroken echo of "Where Do the Children Play?".
As it happens, "Mighty Peace" hails from further back still, half-finished during his apprenticeship on London's mid-Sixties folk circuit and remembered here in between new songs and very old. Four of them, including the opener "Blackness of the Night", the parable-like title track and the eerie "Northern Wind", are rescued from the over-egged production of the Cat's second album of '67. Two more, "Grandsons" and "Mary and the Little Lamb", have languished as demos for half a century. "You Can Do (Whatever)" was originally meant for Seventies cult flick Harold and Maude and man, it sounds like it.
With their scriptural allusions, childlike melodies and tender humanity, the three new compositions sit so seamlessly in the mix that the whole album may as well have been beamed in complete from 1970. The classically inspired "Don't Blame Them" rings with the gentle wisdom of an old man but, hey, didn't they always?
Light-fingered Tillerman producer Paul Samwell-Smith and Seventies guitarist Alun Davies endorse the dreamlike air of an ageless search for higher truth in a bad, bad world.
Norwegian punk-pop quartet make party music with bite.
The members of Sløtface were barely born when Bikini Kill disbanded, but the group have clearly been doing their riot grrrl research. Although singer Haley Shea is the only female, Kathleen Hanna's 'girls to the front' creed is administered persuasively via reeling riffs, explosive drums, Shea's pure voice – a blend of pretty and gritty – and a healthy dose of bratty humour. "Why didn't anybody warn me about the dangers of playing 'I am never' with prosecco?/Something's definitely bubbling up," Shea sings on the infectious "Pitted", while sweet duet "Slumber" proves they can sustain a tune on more than sheer energy.
Americana trio stuck in third gear with album number three.
Such has been the world's appetite for Americana in recent years that TLB have carved out a sizeable following despite 2015's patchy, low-key symphonic sophomore effort Then Came the Morning. Recorded at RCA's famed Studio A with producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell), Storm is the band's first outing since relocating from Brooklyn to Nashville. The lush strings of "May You Be Well" salvage an otherwise rote devotional, while "Time's Always Leaving" is a standout hi-sheen country-rock moment. All told, though, the album approximates what it might have sounded like had the Band slipped serenely into the AOR/soft-rock twilight. It's pleasant, if insubstantial.
Philly golden boy returns with modern take on classic R&B.
Son Little's unassuming but potent interpretation of soul is defined by a world-weary mellowness that makes his second LP compelling, and perhaps a more mature offering than his 2015 self-titled debut. The tired angst of a song like "The Middle" and the more simmering yearning of "ASAP" exhibit the album's range, while his effortless vocals are smooth with gruff undertones, not unlike soul pioneer Billy Paul. Throughout, there are intriguing hints of sonic experimentation and unanticipated studio effects: more of this may have added a welcome further dimension to New Magic, but it's hard to argue with such a beautifully solemn, but also serene, statement.
Perth grunge-pop rascals hit the mark on charming debut.
Tired Lion possess a spark that lends Dumb Days a whirling dervish hyperactivity as guitars crack and fizz, with defiant tales of wayward youth, misadventure and melancholy sinking in during its reflective moments. Singer-guitarist Sophie Hopes is a Karen O-channelling talisman, lending their snotty punk ("Behave"), sugary grunge ("Camp") and captivating almost-ballads ("I've Been Trying") a deep, dangerous delicacy. With Violent Soho's Luke Boerdam producing, there's an ever-present Pixies-via-Pumpkins quiet-loud-crash dynamic that feels like the type of headlock that starts off as a joke... but can quickly turn into something not so playful.