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Miami rapper dips into a deeper consciousness on ninth album.
Rick Ross' ninth album finds the Miami kingpin in a reflective mood. Musically, he's drifting through a mid-career malaise. The beats he uses are the same worn poles of yacht-rap luxury and trap bangers that he's relied on since his 2010 watermark Teflon Don. Lyrically, he's still capable of speaking truth to power with remarkable clarity. His unexpected shots at Cash Money Records paterfamilias Birdman on "Idols Become Rivals," and how he compares him to a pedophile priest, may have the Internet chattering. But more impressive is how he balances his accusations of Birdman's licentious treatment towards his artists within an analysis about the fake watches, leased Benzes and overpaid video vixens that populate rap's glamorous façade. Elsewhere, Ross shouts out Mutulu Shakur on "Santorini Reece," then adds, "White man love me when I get my bling on/But you hate me buying real estate and foreign land."
He stuffs his rhymes with stray notes about his tough upbringing, and remembers on "Game Ain't Based on Sympathy" about growing up on welfare: "I thank God my kids ain't gotta see that cheese," he says. Rozay's newfound social conscience is welcome growth from the days when he bragged about knowing the real Manuel Noriega, but he's only woke to a certain point: Rather You Than Me also includes the self-explanatory "She on My Dick," and on "I Think She Like Me" he drawls, "If a pussy dry, call her Beetlejuice."
Seventh album fails to reclaim past glories.
They may have practically invented shoegaze, but on their first LP since 1998, the Jesus and Mary Chain have been stoned and dethroned: so many bands have mastered their distortion-meets-Phil Spector pop shtick in the interim that JAMC now sound like a just-passable knock-off of themselves. Although never revered for insightful lyrics, Damage and Joy hits new lows: hearing a 55-year-old Jim Reid sing about fast drugs and fast women ("I can't find a hole/to put my erection") isn't pretty. "War on Peace" channels some old-school JAMC cool, but much here would benefit from being obscured by thick distortion.
Experimental pop star commits to avant-pop partnership.
Charli XCX was already an alternative-leaning pop star when she broke with the punky rant "I Love It" with Icona Pop and dropped Sucker, an EDM-Devo reinvention of the quirkiest, most Bow Wow Wow-ing early Eighties New Wave. But in the past year and a half, this hook monster with legitimate Top 10 hits under her belt has taken a neon night drive into the avant-garde. For her 2016 EP Vroom Vroom, her recent single "After the Afterparty" and this 10-song, 37-minute "mixtape," Charli has teamed with the constellation of artists surrounding London digital-only label PC Music. The output from these acts, including producers A.G. Cook, Sophie and Danny L Harle, is a chirping and blipping simulacrum of pop music that sounds like an arch joke about consumerism. PC Music deal in the sleekest digital farts and twinkles, melodies like J-Pop performed on a glitching Game Boy and vocals manipulated into alien avatars. The real calling card of these productions is "hyper-reality," an audio effect that sounds like watching a hi-definition TV with motion smoothing on. It's a technique that's usually reserved for cutting edge noise musicians like Oneohtrix Point Never, techno theorists like Fatima Al Qadiri and weirdo cassette labels like Orange Milk Records. Charli XCX is going from dueting with Iggy Azalea on "Fancy" to being the carnival barker of a virtual reality funhouse populated by a gaggle of SoundCloud post-modernists.
The jury is still out on whether she is lost in the experimental Matrix or actually the earliest adopter of pop's next futuresex lovesound. But Angel makes this pioneering human-hologram marriage seem far more natural and cohesive than on Vroom. The beats aren't as abrasive, her vocals are distended in ways that are disorienting but not jarring. Most of the songs are about those moments before a relationship goes to the next level: These are still classic pop songs mostly about sex and cars, but the sexual yearning in the lyrics is compounding the nostalgic yearning of the music. The sounds are full of cosmic synths, vintage techno noises and 808 booms that sound rendered in CGI. On "ILY2" and "Emotions" the drones start to suffocate, creating the same combination of wistful, erotic and isolated that made the synth-heavy Drive soundrack a success. And the album houses no better statement on sex, alienation and capitalism than a naughty synth-pop song from the perspective of a pin-up poster ("Babygirl"). A combination of chilly noises and hot lyrics ("Cold like ice, petrified/Loving what you’re doing to me," she sings in "White Roses"), these robot sex anthems are storming into 2017 like pop music's dirty Blade Runner reboot.
Electro-pop veterans get back to 'Violator' mode on 14th LP.
For nearly four decades, Depeche Mode have majored in gloomy meditations on their own personal shortcomings. But their 14th LP offers a bitter, sorrowful elegy for the outside world. Nearly every song on Spirit laments the death of human decency, often in disarmingly beautiful ways (see the fuzzy ballad "Fail," the forlornly crooned "Poison Heart"). They sometimes drift into heavy-handed polemics ("Where’s the Revolution"). But with a smart mix of techno-leaning keyboards and bluesy guitar, à la their 1990 high-water mark, Violator, it’s easy to get swept away in their gospel.
A country-rock exploration of Oberst's recent one-man album.
Last year Oberst released Ruminations, a stark one-man album that reflected its gestation in a snowbound house in Omaha. This companion piece serves up those songs with a full band and adds seven new tracks, with appearances by alt-country/rock royalty including Gillian Welch, Jim James, M. Ward and the Felice Brothers. There's a woodsy sound that's equal parts Dylan, the Band and Neil Young, with Oberst's quivering vocals and poetic storytelling to the fore and fiddles and harmonica in the mix. If Ruminations was his Nebraska, this is his Basement Tapes. Of the newer material, "Overdue" stands out for its hazy feel and tale of beautiful losers.
Cosmic American vibes on fourth album from New Jersey crew.
In 2015, Real Estate bade farewell to the considerable talent that is guitarist Matt Mondanile, who left to exclusively serve his other band, Ducktails. As a result, Real Estate's dissolution became a distinct possibility. However, Mondanile, while integral, was not the group's creative heart, with singer-songwriter Martin Courtney managing to reshuffle the five-piece's line-up to produce what may be their finest record.
The band's familiar essence is immediately recognisable on opener "Darling", a warm, shimmering affair adorned with the dreamy jangle of new guitarist Julian Lynch. His style is fuller and arguably more experimental than Mondanile's more minimalist approach, allowing these bittersweet, mournful songs a deliciously expansive, more woozily psychedelic atmosphere – here, they evoke long-time touchstone Beachwood Sparks more than ever.
That said, there is definite structure and discipline throughout. In Mind has tightened up where 2014's Atlas was a tad unfocused – as a songwriter Courtney has matured in terms of timing and restraint, exemplified by the exquisitely mellow "After the Moon". Another development is Courtney's full embrace of the old softly-sung, double-tracked, reverb-heavy vocals, to the point where he sounds uncannily like Elliott Smith on "Same Sun", an appropriately luscious track mimicking that deceased great. In Mind is a tribute and farewell to Mondanile and the foundations he helped lay, as well as a firm consolidation of a new identity.
Leeds punk-metal troublemakers throw down on fourth album.
PABH always sound like they're either soundtracking a four-day bender thrown by a bunch of desert tweakers hellbent on ruination, or they are them. The Haze is covered in an oily, sweaty sheen and underpinned by a riotous, sneering meth-punk energy, with neck snappers like "The Big What If" and "Prince of Meats" sitting alongside the psychedelic curl of "Lamping" (like if Refused did shitloads of 'shrooms) where the usual throat-shredding shit PABH are on is nicely tempered. Their metal edge devolves into Vines-y party-punk on "Dumb Fun", "Flash Lads" and "Hotel Motivation", but it makes for a raucous bareknuckled punk throwdown unafraid to get loose.
The lauded Austin, Texas band venture onto the dancefloor to strut their stuff.
What to do when, according to Metacritic, you're the most consistently highly-rated band of the 2000s? Apparently you get horny and go dancing.
Although strong traces of Spoon's DNA remain, with their ninth record something else is happening. Specifically, band leader Britt Daniel is writing and singing from the hips – and at times, the groin – rather than the head. "Could be a hot scent mixing with mine, you got me uptight, twistin' inside," he moans on the title track, his words sliding over electro handclaps, clucking guitar and shivering strings that nod to Barry White.
Although nominally an indie rock band, Spoon's music has always been based more on grooves than chords, a rubbing together of wiry rhythms and sputtering riffs to create a spark that will catch alight. But they've never been so overtly keen to shimmy onto the dancefloor. "First Caress" is unashamedly dance-pop, the rolling beat and bloopy keyboards soundtracking a story of passion overriding judgment. And if "Shotgun" isn't deliberately using Kiss's "I Was Made For Lovin' You" as a template, then I'll eat my copy of Dynasty.
Of course, Spoon being Spoon, there's no simple over-arching narrative here. Check out the backwards looped vocals of "Pink Up" or the breathy, brooding saxes of closing track "Us". But then, this consistently lauded band is consistently confounding.
The German folkies have undergone undeniable growth.
In 2013, Milky Chance's "Stolen Dance" was inescapable, a slice of nu-folk electronica characterised by Clemens Rehbein's distinctive, throaty whine. Fans of it will find plenty to like on LP two – it's filled with more of the mid-tempo, Euro reggae-folk tracks that marked their debut, albeit more elaborately furnished, from "Firebird", with an appealing instrumental section and vaguely Spanish guitars, to "Doing Good", with arpeggiated guitar chords and layered harmonies. Lyrics are occasionally woeful enough to suggest a language barrier, but those partial to Rehbein's divisive vocals and the odd harmonica will appreciate the band's progress.
This wry musical autobiography is a 50-song marathon.
Stephin Merritt's 1999 masterpiece, The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, was exactly what the title said. For 50 Song Memoir, he wrote a song for each of his 50 years on earth. It's a marathon that can prove exhausting, but he's got the material. Some tracks reference his childhood with a mother who lived on communes and had a series of bad boyfriends. Everything from his teenage obsession with English synth-pop to his history of living in New York is dissected with a mix of deadpan humour and razor-sharp wordplay, delivered via his deeper-than-Atlantis vocals and everything-and-the kitchen sink instrumentation.
Bad Religion frontman gets old-time folksie on third solo LP.
Much like Greg Graffin's first two solo records – released 10 and 20 years ago, respectively – album number three is no acoustic Bad Religion record. No, Millport sees the aging punk team up with Social Distortion's Jonny 'Two Bags' Wickersham, Brent Harding and David Hidalgo Jr. to help him commit his Americana-flavoured folk songs to wax. There's still dissent ("Amen – no religion can help this time of need," he croons gospel-like on "Time of Need"), but it's not the main event. In fact, Graffin sounds so relaxed and assured at times, you could almost forget he's spent nearly 40 years singing about being pissed off.
Regrets and reminiscences of the long distance indie rocker.
This time it's personal for James Mercer. Album five from his reliable indie-pop sugar rush is as convoluted as ever in thought and melody, but the "heartworms" of the title seem to feed on the inevitable reflections of middle age.
"Fantasy Island" spells out dreams of an attention-seeking schoolboy in a cocktail of chagrin and melancholy. "I don't want to show you my feelings," he sings at the edge of sweet falsetto that remains his default pitch, "I just want to crash through the ceiling/Before it gets too real." The folkie road movie "Mildenhall" is more literal still: dewy reminiscences of a fateful cassette passed in class, those first Eighties bands down at the Corn Exchange, cautious chords on his dad's guitar — "and that's how we get to where we are now".
It's not all as straightforward. "Painting a Hole" is more Bosch than Beatles, its "magical violence" cluttered with sonic ideas that are less effective, in the end, than the simple Cars pastiche of "Half a Million".
"There's half a million things/That I'm supposed to be/A shelter in the night-time/A punk running free/And if it gets too deep/I reach for my guitar," is the confessional insight from that one. He settles on the night-time vibe in the parting loneliness of "The Fear", but you can bet the heartworms are still turning.
Big, brash second dose of radio-friendly indie.
While Circa Waves' debut Young Chasers sparkled with a brash youthful restlessness, Different Creatures brings in co-producer Alan Moulder, steps in a heavier, more focused direction, and broadens their ramshackle indie-pop appeal in a similar way to their Liverpudlian forebears the Wombats. While Kieran Shudall making sense of life in a band and a changing world isn't breaking new ground, it's charmingly honest, and their indie-punk spunk is still happily present, if expanded. The life can feel sucked out of the bigger, brasher moments, but the intimacy of "Old Friends" is terrific.
Puerto Rican-American roots music traveller's homecoming.
The Navigator sees New Orleans transplant Alynda Lee Segarra return home to the Bronx, the political verve of Small Town Heroes (2014) intact. The wayfaring Nuyorican singer-songwriter weds Caribbean rhythms to her favoured rustic Americana ("Finale"), while navigating doo-wop ("Entrance"), jangling folk-rock ("Living In the City"), and rollicking fairground-roots ("Life to Save"). Defiant off-Broadway tune "Nothing's Gonna Change That Girl" is a standout moment, while Segarra summons her most fervent vocal performance to date in "Pa'lante". At a time of hair-trigger identity politics, The Navigator is a stirring manifesto.
British folkie returns to her roots on effortlessly enchanting sixth album.
Laura Marling gives the impression of being more comfortable when she's not talking about herself. Still just 27 and onto her sixth album, she's famously reticent in interviews and has always been an obtuse songwriter, though she dropped her guard on 2015's Short Movie, inspired by her youth-reclaiming hiatus in California. It was, she said, the first time she'd tried to write from her own perspective rather than the "something other" that comes more naturally to her, something she's returned to in this effortless collection of songs concerned with femininity and named after an old tattoo of Marling's, an abbreviated line from Virgil's epic Latin poem Aeneid, translated as "always a woman".
She focuses on an unknown muse throughout, positioning herself as a friend (and possibly a lover) prone to startling observations such as "Wouldn't you die to know how you're seen?/Are you getting away with who you're trying to be?" set to sinewy strumming, mellifluous melodies and vocals to match. See "Wild Fire" for the most breathtaking confluence of all four qualities, a deceptively simple ode to a woman just out of reach in Marling's best, most sweetly bruised vocal performance to date.
Off-kilter deviations keep things interesting – the smoky, swaggering "Soothing" might be a Roisin Murphy offcut – and producer Blake Mills (Conor Oberst, Kid Rock and Lana Del Rey) provides an unobtrusive, swelling backdrop, from the sun-drenched strings of "The Valley" to the barely perceptible clip and plinking piano of "Next Time".
While Short Movie saw Marling embrace electric guitars, Semper Femina is in the main pure folk. But Marling is adept at making the traditional sound sublime, as per sad-eyed lament "Always This Way", which sees her in unusually sentimental form; "stare at the phone try to carry on, but I have made my mistake". In finale "Nothing, Not Nearly" she lays herself bare again, couched in bluesy organ twang. "The only thing I learnt in a year/Where I didn't smile once, not really/Is nothing matters more than love/...not nearly." Elsewhere, she defiantly clings to a version of femininity not hitched to frills and fragility, recalling a rough-and-tumble outdoorsy childhood. "Well, you are wild and/You must remember/You are wild/Chasing stones." Championing a woman's right (and her prerogative as an artist) to be whatever she damn well wants, in "Nouel" Marling elaborates on that line from Aeneid: "a woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing" and owns it throughout the record, abandoning the American twang she affected on Short Movie as she flits between spoken word and celestial lilt. In reverting to "something other", Marling sounds like she's reconnected with herself.
A masterful comeback from a yesteryear supergroup.
The Blackeyed Susans work wonders on their first LP of new material in more than a decade. Originally conceived in 1989 as a casual detour for members of the Triffids and other fine Perth bands, the ensemble now highlight the considerable gifts of vocalist Rob Snarski and bassist/songwriter Phil Kakulas, among other members. There are loving echoes of the Everly Brothers ("Dream On") and the Velvet Underground ("Lover or the Loved"), while the electronics-flecked "I Asked My Mother" tips its hat to Leonard Cohen. "I Don't Dance (Anymore)" could pass for Tindersticks. These songs slow the pulse and nourish the soul.