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One Direction extend their winning streak, with echoes of the 1970s and 1980s.
One Direction have now been the biggest pop band in the world for three full years. Such longevity doesn't exactly make them the Allman Brothers – but it's pretty impressive for a bunch of singing-contest runners-up joined together in Simon Cowell's laboratory. If any of these guys harbor secret dreams of going solo or becoming an actor or a fashion exec, they've stayed secret. They don't appear to be jerks. (Justin Bieber's PR team would chop off his two middle fingers for that kind of consistency.)
It's unclear whether the title Four is an actual Led Zeppelin reference, but the album is saturated with retro vibes. These songs split the difference between big, splashy Eighties pop rock and more elegant Seventies flavors – a very millennial move that's not so far from what Haim's hit Days Are Gone did last year. "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" is a Slippery When Wet blast of synth-metal fluff with a scream-along chorus designed to detonate chaperone eardrums. "Spaces" suggests the Eagles if they'd ever made a record with Ryan Tedder. And the bubbly "Girl Almighty" takes a rolling rhythm reminiscent of Juice Newton's "Queen of Hearts" into some prim guitar flicks copy-pasted right out of Fleetwood Mac's "I Don't Want to Know." This isn't the first time 1D have tried on some old-school moves – check the Clash guitar that opened 2012's "Live While We're Young" or the glorious "Baba O'Riley" synth slams of last year's "Best Song Ever," their best song ever – but Four hits like a Nerf Hammer of the Gods.
As always, the vocal duties are divvied up in ways that highlight the singers' similarities, placing weapons-grade hottie Harry Styles and take-him-or-leave-him Irishman Niall Horan in the same democratic swirl of desire. And the audience is right there with them: One Direction have mastered the ancient boy-band art of whispering directly into listeners' ears. On "Ready to Run," rippling acoustic guitars set a searching tone while each member calls out for the sweet salvation only you can provide – yes, you, right there, in section G, row 45, seat 11. Then they all come together and gallop toward a glistening Valhalla of a chorus.
There are moments on Four where the Big D and their co-writers let a little droll irony creep into the mix. The album's brightest song is a slick, body-moving R&B ditty called "Stockholm Syndrome," with lyrics co-written by Styles about being under his girl's thumb that could also be read as a meek cry for help from deep within the prison of celebrity (even if it totally isn't). But the band mainly shows growth through the music.Four's tune for the ages is "Fireproof," a subtle, pleading soft-rock lullaby any boy band, man band or unicorn band would be proud to call its own. Riding a spare bass line à la the Mac's "Gypsy," the guys take turns big-upping your lifesaving power over not much more than some Christine McVie-style keyboards, California guitar gold and their own billowing background vocals. How great would an entire album of such smooth, polished simplicity be? Maybe on Eight. Till then, fellas, stay frosty.
Melbournian serves up debut set of dense psychedelia.
Sunbeam Sound Machine is the moniker of Melbourne's Nick Sowersby. If the name doesn't give it away, the drippy artwork should: this debut LP is headphone psychedelia, reminiscent of the Elephant 6 collective and, yes, Tame Impala. Sowersby is a dedicated bedroom producer, throwing a woolly fog over his dense creations: all compressed drums, tape hiss and reverb-drenched fuzz. The winding morass of "Fever Dream" is a hemp-fused highlight, as is the peppy loop of "Daibatsu". But Wonderer can be passive to a fault, valuing atmosphere over arrangements and lyrically vague. Sowersby has the sonics nailed, now he just has to tell us why.
New York melodic punks carve a niche on LP two.
As a city, New York has a knack for spawning progressive artists. And with The New Sidewalk, NY natives Such Gold can be found applying this inherited progressive streak to their brand of melodic punk. Trading the simpler, in-your-face sonic attack of 2012's Misadventures in favour of offbeat time signatures, abrasive key changes and prickly, math-like melodies, here the quartet showcase a desire to develop. And for the most part, it works. The attacks can still be found ("Engulfed in Flames"), but they're scattered among well-polished (nod to producer Bill Stevenson) slabs of rather more inventive efforts such as the excellent "Don't Park Next To Me". Punk rock by numbers, this is not.
Punk whiz kids follow a great album with a bonus rant-off.
The art-punk dudes in Parquet Courts have already chalked up one of 2014's kickiest guitar LPs, Sunbathing Animal. Why slow down now? They banged this one out in about two weeks, as the alter ego Parkay Quarts. The title tune is their high-speed manifesto against click bait and comment sections: "Content, that's what you call it/An infant screaming in every room in your gut." They do a sincere version of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'", as well as the 13th Floor Elevators' lost hippie classic "Slide Machine". And "Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth" is demented Highway 61 grandeur. These guys will try anything once – except being boring.
Pop's many faces skilfully worn on diverse second LP
When a sophomore album arrives five years after a debut due to record label shenanigans and boasts 16 stylistically diverse tracks – including spoken word interludes – expectations for a cohesive LP rich with strong songwriting are low. Benjamin Garrett has defied those expectations with an ambitious pop LP that glides from Sixties classicism ("On Your Own") to sexed-up electro-R&B ("Prettiest Ones Fly Highest") to orchestral pop (the Scott Walker-ish "China Voyage") to thumping dance jams ("Cool Like Me"). Miraculously it all hangs together, Garrett's opening lyrics about coming and going with "minimal flair" vastly underselling things: this is a pop maestro showing off, and impressively so.
Brooklyn duo stop shoe gazing and set sights on pop
Last year's debut, True Hallucinations, hinted at the commercial potential of Brooklyn duo Amalie Bruun and Brian Harding, but they housed it in a shoegaze/dream-pop shell. There's no such camouflage on Daggers – Ex Cops are open for business. Produced by Justin Raisen (Charli XCX, Kylie Minogue) and executive produced by Billy Corgan, they go for the pop jugular. Their big calling cards are "Modern World", which shamelessly announces their love of ABBA, and an insanely catchy confection called "Teenagers". With other tracks nodding to Garbage, Lana Del Rey and – yes, really – Transvision Vamp, Daggers does come across more as a resumé than a cohesive statement. But they'll get the job.
Forward-thinking production lifts so-so raps on second album.
The star of the sophomore LP from London rapper DELS (Kieren Gallear; touted by The Times as "the future of U.K. hip-hop") isn't the man himself, but the production spread across the 11 tracks. Although the work of several contributors (Bonobo, Kwes and Micachu among them), there's a cohesiveness to the crisp, cavernous and bass-heavy songs, most of which add an edge to the album that the MC does not. Neither profound nor technically dazzling, DELS' languid, stoned observations on love and domestic concerns do little to enthral, but when the beats pick up the slack (see the hollers and military strut on "Pack of Wolves"), there's a sense of why the hype began in the first place.
Dazzling double LP showcases pop weirdo at top of his game.
The lo-fi trickster formerly known as Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti has slimmed down the stage name and fattened up the ambition in producing this 17-track, 69-minute double LP. Usually a signifier of bloated excess, Pink – as is his perverse way – desecrates expectation by offering up what are his most focused and fun songs yet. Pom Pom is crammed full of dazzling ideas and Zappa-esque madness, touching upon everything from Eighties cheese, Seventies rock and Sixties jangle pop to spoken word, TV show themes and ad jingles – sometimes all in the one song. A surreal, dizzying trip though the mind of a pop savant on career-best form, rich with surprises.
Mostly instrumental set honors the band’s psychedelic legacy.
It was bassist Roger Waters' lyric: "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way." But guitarist David Gilmour and keyboard player Richard Wright sang that line on 1973's The Dark Side of the Moon, then proved it in a creative relationship that survived Wright's forced resignation during sessions for The Wall and the subsequent rupture of the Floyd itself. The Endless River is Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason's generous farewell to Wright, who died in 2008, built from unissued music the three made together for 1994's The Division Bell.
A suite of mostly instrumental moods and fragments, The Endless River rolls like a requiem through familiar echoes. "Skins" is a trip back to the jungle-telegraph sequence in 1968's "A Saucerful of Secrets"; the piano figure in "Anisina" is a stately variation on Wright's indelible intro to Dark Side's "Us and Them." The effect is inevitably cinematic, a fluid rewind to the Floyd's early film scores. One piece, a suspense of glacial electronics and elegantly searing guitar, is rightly titled "It's What We Do."
"Louder Than Words," the closing vocal track, is undercut by slang in the first lines. But when Gilmour sings, "The beat of our hearts/Is louder than words," it feels, again, like hanging on – with grace. Wright was the steady, binding majesty in the Floyd's explorations. This album is an unexpected, welcome epitaph.
Man versus machine in Montreal '76 flashback.
Athletes. In the 1970s. On drugs. As with Altamont Diary and Call Signs before it, the concept is historically specific and the sound palette unique to Black Cab's latest electronic collage. Musical references comprise a vista from Kraftwerk to Joy Division, the Vocoder drone of "Supermadchen" and the deep, treated vocals of "Problem Child" invoking the endless fascination of the man/machine conundrum in the tarnished context of East Germany's steroid-enhanced victory at Montreal '76. The narrative is anything but linear but beneath the alternately propulsive and ambient layers of synth, guitar and kitchen sink is a study of ego, winners and losers that suggests a far bigger picture of human folly and ambition.
The Stooges guitarist calls on famous friends for a reboot.
James Williamson, like all of the remaining Stooges, seems to have a secret supply of youth-juice. On this killer collection of Stooges rarities, the most striking thing about each track isn't the inspired choice of collaborators, but the sheer velocity and volume of Williamson's playing. Solo albums by guitarists rarely have such personality and attitude, but on tracks like opener "Head on The Curve", Williams and Jello Biafra put forward a great argument for Iggy Pop not being the irreplaceable frontman we all thought he was. Other highlights include a psychedelic turn with Ariel Pink, and a paint peeling rager with Lisa Kekaula of the BellRays. There's not a dud track on this garage rock classic.
Dave Grohl and Co. enter their third decade in style.
You've got to hand it to Dave Grohl: he's not afraid to push himself. With the dust still settling on his Sound City project he's back behind the camera directing a TV series that serves to act as a document of American music history in Sonic Highways, all the while making the Foo Fighters' eighth album (also called Sonic Highways).
Grohl has long said that he looks for challenges to avoid the band becoming stale, and here they mark their 20th anniversary with arguably their most unorthodox album to date. Eight tracks recorded in eight cities across America (with producer Butch Vig), the breadth of its ambition is typified by first single "Something From Nothing", which shuns typical song structure in favour of something far looser, sounds unlike anything else on the radio, and yet somehow manages to land the melodic punches you'd expect of a Foo Fighters song.
To say you can hear each city in each track would be a stretch, but there are some telltale signs: the horn-laden intro of "In the Clear", for example, channels the spirit of New Orleans' Preservation Hall, where the song was recorded; the mellowest number, "Subterranean", harks back to the band's 1995 self-titled debut, perhaps not surprisingly given it was recorded in the same Seattle studio.
It all comes to a halt with the string-laden "I Am a River", a finale so grandiose it makes you question if this could be the same band (and, in Grohl's case, man) that once wrote "For All the Cows". The answer is it's not: there's 20 years of life and experience in this record, proof should it be needed that when bands are given time to grow, the results can be formidable.
Singer-producer masters the art of gloomy hypnosis.
Half of U.K. production duo Hype Williams, Dean Blunt continues to stand utterly outside of genre limitations on his second solo album. If pressed, you could maybe call these "ambient doom ballads", but that doesn't account for the dub bass line of "Punk" or rapped vocals with classical piano on "X". Then there's the drifting 13-minute centrepiece "Forever", which will test the patience of casual listeners. Blunt's gloomy baritone is capable of evoking everyone from Bill Callahan ("Blow") to the Velvet Underground ("50 Cent"), while the standout "Molly & Aquafina" is a simmering portrait of disappointment. These are lost-in-space oddities that mesmerise.
A jagged postcard from post-punk's finest exponents.
You'd expect a rarities set to be hit-and-miss, especially from a band as erratic as English post-punk agitators the Pop Group. This nine-song set starts strong with the great 1980 single "Where There's a Will" and a version of "She Is Beyond Good and Evil" produced by Roxy Music's Andy Mackay, while a 1978 live version of "Please Don't Sell Your Dreams" from their native Bristol captures a fractured flirtation with pop. The selections grow more jagged towards the end, and the closer of "Karen's Car" gets too preachy with lines like "Nuclear power corrupts absolutely". While it's a spot-on time capsule, it's not the perfect primer. For that, try Shock's reissue of 1980's We Are Time.
U.K. acoustic storyteller finds his voice on album two.
English folkie Ben Howard has several EPs and a 2011 album to his name, but this follow-up is his strongest statement yet. From the first discordant strains of "Small Things" to the meditative "All Is Now Harmed", Howard strikes a sure-footed balance between the lilting ballads we've come to expect from past releases (see the new album's "She Treats Me Well") and more haunting dirges that carry the weight of remorse (check the title track). I Forget Where We Were delivers a darker Howard, one who embraces loneliness and disappointment instead of shying away from them. As mild as the music might often sound, this is an album that cuts deep.
Folk-rock all-stars the New Basement Tapes relish tackling maestro's forgotten verses.
The postman's gift to Nashville producer T Bone Burnett was the stuff of dreams: a box of Bob Dylan's handwritten, unsung lyrics circa 1967. One pictures jaws falling like dominoes as Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Taylor Goldsmith, Jim James and Marcus Mumford answered his call.
This 15-song selection (stand by for Vol. 2) owes more to careful composition than the freewheeling spirit of Dylan and the Band's original Basement Tapes, but that's no bad thing. Each track is palpably owned by its singer/composer – though it's impossible not to feel the absent maestro looming over their shoulders like the ghost of songwriting itself.
The tender melodies of Dawes' sweet-voiced frontman Goldsmith feel particularly in tune with the sepia-toned panoramas of "Liberty Street" and "Florida Key". James (My Morning Jacket) filters the stately roll of "Nothing To It" and the coy pillow talk of "Hidee Hidee Ho #11" through John Lennon's piano and echo chamber.
Each musician quietly relishes the thrill of textbook Dylan zingers from a forgotten dimension, not least "Now look here baby snooks, doesn't matter what books you keep underneath your seat" and, "There I sat with my eyes in my hand, just contemplating killing a man."
Mumford's star turn is the tippy-toed stalker's creep of "When I Get My Hands On You". Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) brings the old weird folkie vibe to haunt a stunning title track. Costello has a rowdy crack at that one too, but only on "Married to My Hack" does his unmistakable stamp allow the sacred verses to breathe.