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Vine-star-turned-pop-star's cunning confessionals.
Shawn Mendes – 18 and releasing his second album – rose to fame three years ago singing six-second cover snippets on Vine, mastering the microhooks that define current hitmaking. His own songs often start with his guitar, mixing disarming directness with pop guile. "Mercy" begins as a singer-songwriter confession of romantic agony, then layers on melodic and rhythmic bait like a Major Lazer single. Two-thirds of Illuminate is produced by Ed Sheeran collaborator Jake Gosling, and deploys Sheeran's mix of familiar pop vestments (John Mayer solos, pleading Timberlakean vocals). It's nothing new. But it's very sincere and truly cunning.
Synth washes, beats, folk remnants: Justin Vernon brings the future back to his cabin.
Who'd have thought that a bearded guy from the wilds of Wisconsin could help shape music from Chicago to London and beyond? But Bon Iver's Justin Vernon has done just that. Since debuting with the forlorn indie folk of 2007's For Emma, Forever Ago, he's carried on a rich conversation with modern pop, collaborating with Kanye West and James Blake while creating a new version of sensitive-guy Auto-Tune soul on 2011's Bon Iver. With his long-awaited third album, Vernon completely breaks from his guitar-hugging persona, leaving it in the woods like a Coen brothers corpse as he flexes a mastery of processed vocals, samples, loops, beats, synths and noise, along with more familiar trappings. The results place him alongside pop's top futurists. Amazingly, it still sounds like Bon Iver.
22, A Million (worked up over a five-year gap during which he doubted Bon Iver's future) often feels like the work of an artist starting over from scratch. "10dEAThbREasT" staggers through shredded-woofer beats and abraded, dubstep-grade bass shudders, while Vernon's layered declarations about a love struggle bubble up amid warp-speed samples (from a bootlegged version of Stevie Nicks' "Wild Heart", it turns out). Vocals are distressed throughout the set. "715 - CRΣΣKS" is a cyber a cappella soul ballad promising a pop reveal that never comes – it resolves with a parting shot apparently aimed at a lover's back. "Goddamn, turn around now, you're my A team," Vernon blurts, the last syllables stretched achingly with pixilated melisma. It's a startling line, not just for its emotional payload but because it's delivered through effects that generally neuter vocal intimacy. Here, they magnify it.
Vernon seems to listen hard to his peers. During "666 ʇ", you sense he's absorbed Björk's digitised orchestrations, and his confessional delivery on "8 (circle)" echoes Frank Ocean's "Thinkin Bout You" – in many ways, this LP isn't so different from the introspective soul of Blonde.
Vernon remains an oblique lyricist, but the knottiness can be compelling: Check his technique on the finale, "00000 Million", as he unfurls rhymes over piano like a hip-hop-bred choirboy alone in a cathedral, lining up "modus", "gnosis", "depose this", "s'pose you can't hold shit", "what a river don't know is" and "slow among roses". Whatever it means, it's powerfully evocative. Like the electronics and the typographical-hash song titles, the verbal abstractions are just more masks – Bowie-esque shape-shifting from an artist trying, in his elusive way, to keep things real.
Odd couple make beautiful music together.
At first blush, the former singer from the Walkmen and multi-instrumentalist from Vampire Weekend mightn't seem like obvious bedfellows. Rostam Batmanglij always brought out the baroque in Vampire Weekend, and here he throws down vamping piano, webs of fluttering Spanish guitar and doo-wop backing vocals. It provides a fine sepia-tinged setting for Leithauser to indulge his range, veering from a velvety croon to an impassioned yelp on "A 1000 Times". That haunted feeling seems central to the album, where unwanted wedding guests, kids playing pranks and the ghosts of loves (and lives) past provide fuel for the slow-burn fire this duo is stoking.
Austin longhairs turn their skull-melting riffs acoustic.
Low Country finds the Sword reinterpreting the songs off their brilliant 2015 album High Country, and their fuzzed-out, brain-imploding riffs take a whole new shape in acoustic form. Instead of bong smoke, long hair and layers of riffs, there's intricate duelling acoustic riffs and multi-tracked vocals: the songs work as well as gothic-country as they did space-metal. Acoustically, the thematic punch behind "Empty Temples" and "Mist And Shadow" resonates when unburdened of riffs, and it's never more striking on "Seriously Mysterious", the horn-toting "Early Snow" or the spare "Buzzards". The difference between metal and country can sometimes just be tempo and a distortion pedal.
Detroit MC's dark, delirious and diverse fourth LP his best yet.
Hip-hop may be prone to trend chasing, but you wouldn't know it from listening to Danny Brown: no-one comes close to his wild-eyed style. Here his singular rap-squawk is backed by an array of experimental, sample-heavy beats, largely supplied by Brit Paul White. It delights in thrilling left-turns: "Downward Spiral" sounds like a sampler falling down a flight of stairs; "Tell Me What I Don't Know" is Krautrock meets Kraftwerk. All-star posse cut "Really Doe" featuring Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt and Ab-Soul is a highlight, but this is Brown's show: a dizzying dissection of hedonism and despair that doesn't push hip-hop's boundaries so much as brilliantly defy them.
L.A. four-piece pull it all together on high-watermark third album.
There was a song on Warpaint's 2014 self-titled album that poked out a mile. On a record of haunted moods still tethered to the L.A.-based band's spindly indie-guitar roots, the disco-dub, chant-jam of "Disco//Very" beamed in like a transmission from another era. Turns out that era was Warpaint's future.
The four-piece's third album cuts through the swampy guitars with a fresh quiver of percussive grooves, and the result is something that feels like a revival. Much of that is on Australian drummer Stella Mozgawa, whose foray into electronics is a palate cleanser; opener "Whiteout" clatters on hip-hop beats and squawks of compressed static; "The Stall" rides a nervous energy offset by clangs of distant guitar; while big highlight "So Good" is a direct descendent of "Disco//Very", mincing a simple disco groove to the dark heart of the dance floor before collapsing in a sultry puddle of electronic bleeps.
First single "New Song" is the band's closest brush yet with chart pop, even relying on the recent trend of a tweaked, wordless vocal sample for a melodic hook. Old school fans might worry, but in the context of this diverse collection it scans as a confident and playful side-step. Three albums in, Warpaint's arc is suddenly revealed to be a hugely impressive body of work.
Sextet show no shortage of laidback jangle rock gems.
Consistently good and terminally underrated, Melbourne-by-way-of-Wagga six-piece the Ocean Party have slotted into a cherished space once occupied by the Go-Betweens. There are no personalities as distinct as Forster and McLennan, but the Ocean Party specialise in nostalgia-laced portraits of suburban Australia, though on their sixth LP, anxiety and self-doubt hide within the deceptively gentle songs. Track titles are a giveaway ("Restless", "Pressure"), as are lyrics "my confidence is gone/not sure that I can go on" ("Better Off"). The Ocean Party may have hit a quarter-life malaise words-wise, but you'd never know it from the pretty and meticulously produced music they've created here.
Fourth album from Chicagoan purveyor of intellectual pop.
Tom Krell's highly emotional, experimental music reached its zenith on 2014 LP What Is This Heart?, an avant-pop masterpiece that combined his synth-heavy, R&B-influenced style with pervasive personal sadness and existential ennui. This is different. As well as bigger and more refined production, it appears Krell has let some light in, with several tracks suggesting at least the potential for fulfilment and joy ("Salt Song"). Lacking, however, are the beautiful melodies of past LPs, the exception being sublime single "Lost Youth/Lost You". Though a drop in intensity and not his best, Care is the mature sound of an artist with an acute grasp of the transience of both melancholy and contentment.
Duo turn mounting frustrations into scathing therapy.
Guitar-drums duo Unity Floors take Sydney – and themselves – harshly to task on their second LP of cathartic noise-pop anthems. Their acidic social commentary spans everything from careerist youths doing yoga on their lunch breaks ("Young Professionals") to feeling the pull of a more desirable city ("Moving to Melbourne"). That raw emotional intensity evokes Japandroids and TV Colours, while clever rhymes like "nudity/new to me" are a treat to stumble upon – as is the extrapolation on the Beach Boys classic "Wouldn't It Be Nice" tucked away at the end. It all makes for hard-won, fuzz-caked therapy, where the ache of twenty-something life lingers right alongside the constant heartburn of distortion.
The revelatory companion LP to Bruce's new memoir reaches back to 1966.
Bruce Springsteen's passion for storytelling has taken countless forms over the years – he called his early songs "twisted autobiographies". Chapter and Verse is the companion album to his memoir, Born to Run, following the tale from his garage-band youth to his current glory days, with five tunes he's never released before. He's chosen a revelatory mix of classics and obscurities – he leans hard on the hard-luck tales in his songbook, as the Jersey romance of "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" gives way to the dashed dreams of "The River" or "Brilliant Disguise".
For the previously unheard gems, he reaches all the way back to 1966, to his teen garage band the Castiles ("Baby I") and his pre-E Street group Steel Mill, with the guitar-and-cowbell 1970 stomp "He's Guilty (The Judge Song)", drenched in Danny Federici's organ. "Henry Boy" is an acoustic rough draft for "Rosalita". But the prize is "Ballad of Jesse James", a 1972 outlaw lament à la Van Morrison or the Band, with a dash of Gregg Allman in Springsteen's drawl. He's a 22-year-old kid restless to wear a man's shoes, taking on the myths of the Old West when he's still playing bars in Jersey. He's fired up about the territory he wants to explore. And over the course of Chapter and Verse, you can hear him get there.
Supergroup prove they're equal to the sum of their parts.
Giraffe Tongue Orchestra owe their monicker to an encounter guitarist Brent Hinds (Mastodon) had with the titular animal at a Sydney zoo. His project with Dillinger Escape Plan guitarist Ben Weinman, Alice In Chains vocalist William DuVall, the Mars Volta's Thomas Pridgen and Dethklok's Pete Griffin shares the DNA of all those bands – be it in the furious opener "Adapt Or Die", the chugging "Blood Moon" or the slightly cosmic, technical riffing of "Back to the Light" – without being overshadowed by any of them. In the horn-laden disco groove of "Everyone Gets Everything They Really Want", the quintet also show they're not averse to new tricks.
Philadelphia punks unleash second album in two years.
Beach Slang frontman James Alex has clearly been boning up on the glory days of American punk for the group's sophomore album. It taps into the youthful energy of the Replacements, albeit through the fuzz-drench of Mudhoney or Dinosaur Jr. Tracks like "Spin the Dial" or closer "Warpaint" bring to mind Paul Westerberg's sense of drama and raw splendour, while barnstormers like "Atom Bomb" are pure mosh-pit-starters. There's an honest simplicity to Beach Slang, as Alex's near-whispered vocal style is supplemented with some healthy screaming. The songwriter's intention seems simple – to set a fire under a whole new generation of disenfranchised kids.
Metalcore stalwarts don't stray far from the formula.
Eight albums is a lot when your music is as intense as Every Time I Die's. It's a credit to them that they haven't strayed from the formula, and this single-mindedness results in a record that's every bit as intense as their first. The question is, how many ETID records can a fan own if they keep the pedal to the metal? Peers like Dillinger Escape Plan have taken major risks by changing up their sound, but the closest ETID come to reinvention on Low Teens is "Two Summers", easing back on the vocal throttle just enough for their Southern rock influences to shine. Low Teens is impressive, but it needs to be the last ETID record that sounds exactly like this. Eight is enough.
Moods swing on ninth album from ever-inventive songwriter.
Despite the flamboyant silliness of some of his work, Devendra Banhart is something very special when in a sombre mood. Ape in Pink Marble is bookended by fascinating, delicate, lo-fi morsels, highlights being "Linda" and "Middle Names". About halfway through, however, goofy Devendra emerges with the silly lyrics of "Fancy Man" and an eccentric attempt at disco with "Fig in Leather". With 2013's Mala acclaimed as his most cohesive LP yet, these tracks suggest a partial return to the sprawling, impish spirit of his younger days. Any doubts about the man's emotional heart, however, are allayed by gorgeous closer "Celebration", a lazy, hazy one-word mantra confirming that Banhart remains an artist of rare soul.
Warrnambool mentalists find the volume knob that goes to 11. Again.
Airbourne have never been one for subtlety. Exhibit A is the song titles on this, their fourth album: "It's Never Too Loud For Me", "Never Been Rocked Like This", "Do Me Like You Do Yourself", "It's All For Rock N Roll". If that doesn't give you an idea of what you're in for, the illustration of frontman Joel O'Keeffe's skinless body bursting through the album cover should: ball breaking rock & roll turned up to 11, no ballads need apply.
Of course, detractors have always pointed to the fact that Australia already has one AC/DC. Airbourne responded by taking their Marshalls overseas, where their status as festival favourites throughout Europe is now well established. Indeed, it sounds like much of Breakin' Outta Hell was tailormade for giant fields full of beer-drinking, denim-clad punters, revelling in the bombastic chants of "Rivalry", the ode to cunnilingus "Down On You" or the fist-in-the-air anthem "It's Never Too Loud For Me".
Produced by Bob Marlette (Kiss, Alice Cooper), with whom Airbourne worked on 2007's Runnin' Wild, the album sparkles like a freshly minted Gibson SG but, more importantly, contains some of the band's best executed songs. They may still be a way off penning anything with the staying power of "Back In Black" or "Highway To Hell", but the surging "I'm Going to Hell For This" and the title-track are world class anthems, proof that as long as Airbourne are around, rock & roll still has a chance.
Rock Othello enters King Lear twilight.
Meat Loaf was always an actor first, but man, that gale-force rock-operatic pitch came close second. One out of two wouldn't be so bad if he chose a script to match his suddenly, shockingly ruined throat strings. Instead, in a Shakespearean act of hubris, here's a mix of unearthed pop-operas written by his Bat Out Of Hell-raising foil, Jim Steinman. There's dark humour in his strangled wobble through vaudeville opener "Who Needs the Young", and plenty of trademark drama elsewhere. But as ageless leading ladies Ellen Foley and Karla DeVito sing lusty rings around the epic "Going All the Way Is Just the Start", it's clear Mr Loaf has checked in to "Sunset Boulevard".