Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
In the '80s, Echo and the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch battled the Cure's Robert Smith for goth-doll dominance. But nobody could touch the Buns for glowering guitar grandeur. On their 12th LP, trademark psychedelic swirls and red-sunset strings sound like they're soundtracking a Western about a gunslinger in a Joy Division T-shirt, as McCulloch moans about doomed romance, decadence ("Grapes Upon the Vine") and emotional dissolution (the Phil Spector-steeped "Is This a Breakdown?"). Producer Youth helps balloon the intensity skyhigh, making McCulloch the Bono of spider-web bangs and black regret.
On Mariah Carey's 14th studio album, stylistic cohesion is as elusive as the chanteuse herself. Here, R&B is less a static genre than a way to combine the best bits of hip-hop, disco and gospel. Highlights like the Wale-assisted dance jam "You Don't Know What to Do" and "Make It Look Good," where Carey glides over a warm beat reminiscent of Kanye West's soul-looping Chicago days, often raid two of three. The Wu-Tang sampling "Dedicated," on the other hand, is straight hip-hop – a tribute to a New York golden age that, unlike many such homages, reminds that "fresh" and "nostalgic" don't have to be mutually exclusive.
When Everything But the Girl ended, Ben Watt turned DJ and opened a label. But the songwriter and singer's first solo album since 1983 doesn't parade beats: It unleashes Southern California, London and Nashville sounds played by a rotating studio band, with softly killer guitars by Bernard Butler and David Gilmour. The songs occupy their own modern spaces with a raging peacefulness. The Jackson Browne melodies of "Forget" ricochet ingeniously. "Spring" throws crocuses at David Bowie's "Heroes." "Nathaniel" rekindles Morrissey's fire. "The Levels" stages a backyard aria. "Young Man's Game" is a country song about haute clubland. They're songs as free as any wild-ass dance track.
Strong debut from Australia’s brattiest band
When the first song on your album has only five words repeated over and over – “Dalai Llama, Big Banana, Marijuana” – it sets a certain tone. If the Dune Rats were after sophistication, they may have fallen a bit short of the mark. Fortunately, these Brisbane punks don’t have lofty aspirations. Like contemporaries Wavves, Dune Rats crank out sunny, sea-salt-laced pop- punk that owes as much to the Ramones as it does the Beach Boys. The slacker call-to-arms single “Funny Guy” (key lyric: “Start a revolution from your bed”) may well be the best summer anthem to be released in winter. Dune Rats is a punchy, unassuming statement of intent. No bullshit punk done well.
Australian noise-monger unleashes hell on album five
Australian-born, Iceland-dwelling composer Ben Frost has been releasing deep, punishing, nuanced drone work for more than a decade. Though Frost often plays guitars and has composed for buzzing string ensembles, his latest explores an uglier, colder palette of sounds closer to electronic and industrial music. Unrelentingly menacing, it's a 40-minute suite of VHS grinding, wistful Blade Runner synths, howling white noise and broken Detroit techno. The human attempts to fight the robots are provided by the junkyard clang of Swans percussion abuser Thor Harris. Deeply unsettling, heart-quickeningly intense and often gorgeous.
Newcomers show promise on a less than perfect debut
Fans will welcome news that the Acid have polished off their debut album, but what’s less exciting is that if you’ve been with them for a while, you will have heard some of it before. Four of Liminal’s 11 tracks are lifted straight from the trio’s lone EP, which arrived over a year ago now. While there’s a near-brilliant addition in “Ra” – and a standout trip with “Creeper”, a track that captures the Brighton-slash-L.A. team at their low-fi, barebones best – it’s a little underwhelming that much of the new material feels like filler. To fresh ears, though, this will be a memorable introduction to a band that feels like they’re close to producing something great. Close, that is, but not quite there yet.
Dark rock drama from UK-based sleepers
“Slowburn” ain’t the half of it for Juanita Stein and her gothic band of Sydney expats. They’ve been brooding in the London fog for a decade but album four isn’t quite the moment of ignition that song title anticipates. The shoegazing credentials of co-producer Alan Moulder (Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Ride) forewarn of a clanging density of attack, Stein’s buried vocals awash in splashy drums and great echoing guitars skidding on black ice through motorway tunnels. There’s respite in the back half’s chiming “Euphoria” and piano-based “Paper Heart”, and the default drama is held beautifully at bay in a title track that Mazzy Star might be pleased to call their own.
Throaty baroque from indie choirboy
A few months ago, Canadian indie auteur Owen Pallett shared an Oscar nomination with Arcade Fire's William Butler for scoring Her. The classically trained multi-instrumentalist's second album under his own name showcases his warm, elegant voice, matched with his compelling skill on violin, viola and synths; guests from a Czech orchestra to Brian Eno (who adds guitar, keys and backing vocals on several songs) accentuate a series of moving meditations on memory and identity. From the string-riff-heavy melodrama of "The Riverbed" to the layered collage of "Song for Five & Six" and the slow-burn intensity of "The Passions," In Conflict is a pop treasure that's also a stirring, personal work of art.
Brooklyn songwriter gets brutally frank – and better than ever
There's a great clip on YouTube of singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten playing "People Ain't No Good," by Nick Cave, whom she toured with last year. It's a telling footnote to her magnificent fourth LP, which grows her trademark examinations of romantic decay to cathedral-like scale. Like Cave, her darkness contains multitudes.
The centerpiece comes early: "Your Love Is Killing Me" is a six-minute dirge opening with funereal organ and a laundry list of violent fantasies that build to guitar crescendos. "Taste blood/Everybody needs to feel," she sings, sounding like Tilda Swinton sipping O-positive in last year's arty vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive. The palette is less guitar-centered than Van Etten's 2012 breakthrough, Tramp. Keyboards and woodwinds shroud processed beats; "Our Love" is nearly an Eighties synth ballad but for lines like "At the bottom of a well/I'm reliving my own hell." The tonal purity of Van Etten's voice, and her remarkable feel for harmonies, remain her signatures. But after all the heart surgery, the closer, "Every Time the Sun Comes Up," pulls back the curtain a bit: "People say I'm a one-hit wonder, but what happens when I have two?" she asks cheekily. Define "hit" as you like; that she's a wonder, there's no doubt.
Swedish pop queen Robyn's partnership with the Norwegian duo Röyksopp on this five-song EP lets her relax her typically skintight songwriting into contemplative jams that fade out as slowly as a sunset. "Monument," the best track, finds her somberly reflecting from an imagined future; "Do It Again" pairs propulsive beats with Robyn's melancholy vocal hooks, but it doesn't feel as emotionally authentic as, say, her 2011 club hit "Call Your Girlfriend." Even without the ecstatic melodrama of Robyn's best work or the momentum of Röyksopp albums like 2009's Junior, this is a worthwhile peek into three great electro-pop minds.
Punk-pop progenitors redo their old hits, aim for new ones
Why remake your own classics? For Blondie, this 40th-anniversary twofer is a way to reinsert themselves into the pop dialogue. Wisely, they don’t mess with the blueprints for “Heart of Glass”, “Rapture” and nine other favourites; they just sharpen the production, which was never that masterful anyway. More interesting, if less irresistible, is the companion disc of new material: modern dance pop focusing on Latin fusions (“I Screwed Up”, with Panamanian-American rappers Los Rakas) and EDM. The latter jams could benefit from some A-list beatmakers. But the fact that punk’s great pop magpies are still engaged with the present is reason enough to celebrate.
M83 collaborator shows her range on dramatic solo debut
You don’t have to read her bio to know that Morgan Kibby (aka White Sea) has a background in theatre. As a collaborator and touring member of French electronic outfit M83, Kibby’s first step into solo artist mode begins with an artificial choir, pounding drums and her own acrobatic voice. It sounds like she’s soundtracking a futuristic Lion King reboot, and it never lets up. Album highlight “Future Husbands” is Haim on steroids; a synth-pop odyssey with Blood Orange-like production and breathy Eighties pop vocals. It’s when Kibby goes into full ballad mode that things get stupidly syrupy and OTT. If you like Celine Dion you’ll love “Small December”, which almost condemns this album singlehandedly.
The Bright Eyes boy grows up and walks in the sun
"I'm blessed with a heart that doesn't stop," Conor Oberst declares in a still-boyish voice in the aptly titled "Zigzagging Toward the Light." At 34, the former indie-rock prodigy still writes and sings about the high times and bad choices of adolescence, on the way to matured love and responsibility, like the sharpest kid in the room: a florid Midwest Morrissey with Jeff Tweedy's twisted-pop savvy. "What a time to live among the ashen remnants of a love/That came before," Oberst sings in "Hundreds of Ways," against a sambalike sway, country guitar and brass. "I'm still looking for that now," he adds eagerly.
Oberst faces west and backward, brilliantly, on Upside Down Mountain. A sumptuous immersion in Seventies California folk pop, it is the most immediately charming album he has ever made. Co-producer Jonathan Wilson, playing and leading a Laurel Canyon big band's worth of guitars and keyboards, frames the wreckage and Oberst's wishfulness like a younger David Lindley. That earthy luxury is also lined with gripping unease: the prickly electronics in the soft buoyance of "Time Forgot"; the Nashville-via-Tijuana noir of "Artifact #1"; the disruptive drum crash, like a slammed door, in "Double Life." But like Neil Young's Harvest and Jackson Browne's Late for the Sky, this is dreaming stalked by despair, then charged with rebound. "There are hundreds of ways," Oberst sings in that song, "to get through the day. . . . Now you just find one." Here's a good place to start.
What happens when he doesn't have someone to write all those lush ballads for?
Since we met Chris Martin 14 years ago, he's been a trusted emotional shepherd, nudging us to hear the clanging bells, marvel at the stars, glow in the dark, obey our hearts. But what happens when he doesn't have someone to write all those lush ballads for?
Coldplay's sixth album is called Ghost Stories, and there's a blond phantom obviously haunting its nine tracks. The record comes just two months after Martin and his wife of a decade, Gwyneth Paltrow, announced their "conscious uncoupling" – outwardly a breakup with the best intentions, but a split all the same. For the first time in ages, Martin isn't trying to "Fix You." Now he needs to repair himself.
The result is a Coldplay LP unlike anything the band has done before. Instead of broad, arms-outstretched choruses and irresistible, foot-stomping anthems, there are whimpers and wails that recall the anguished warbling of Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak or Bon Iver's Bon Iver. "You're always in my head," Martin croons on the hushed opener, prodded on by guitarist Jonny Buckland's chiming riff; he keeps that vow for 43 raw minutes. On the mournful "Oceans," Martin's falsetto flings itself against an acoustic guitar and holds on for dear life. By the time he reaches the closer, "O," Martin is a ghost, too, a plume of smoke chasing a flock of birds into the sky.
Co-producer Paul Epworth, who famously helped Adele roll to a Grammys sweep in 2012, does a laudable job helping Coldplay peel back the layers of 2011's Brian Eno-led Mylo Xyloto, landing on a more minimalist palette. On several songs, drummer Will Champion experiments with the gentle thump of synth percussion. Many multitracked Martins mournfully harmonize on "Midnight," the album's sprawling linchpin, as sputtering synths mimic the disorientation he sings about. Live, the band has been performing the tune with a pair of dueling laser harps, as bassist Guy Berryman and Martin guide the track's EDM-y spaz-out from opposite ends of the stage.
Ghost Stories is set somewhere between depression and acceptance: While Martin sprints all the way out to the precipice, Coldplay – still the same four guys who brought you "Yellow" in 2000 and share equal credit on every track – don't slip over the edge. The throbby single "Magic" and brighter "Ink" plumb the prospects of eternal love after the flame of romance has been extinguished. The album's most ecstatic track, the Avicii-assisted "A Sky Full of Stars" – a full-on detour into the Swedish DJ's patented strum-tronica – gives Martin a chance to (awkwardly) dance himself clean.
The truth of "True Love" is too painful to bear, so the singer instructs his partner, "Just tell me you love me/If you don't, then lie/Oh, lie to me." At a recent New York gig, the 37-year-old singer proclaimed the especially tortured song the band's favorite track it has ever written. Its detuned, squalling guitar solo is the album's most jarring but ultimately most satisfying sonic moment. It's probably not the song Martin wanted to write, but it's the one he needs right now.
James Murphy’s band sails into the sunset: the official document
For a band built on dance music's in-the-moment bliss, there's an unseemly sadness about this document of LCD Soundsystem's 2011 farewell gig in New York. At least the DVD doc Shut Up and Play the Hits lets you see the revelry. Yet the sound, cleaned up beautifully, is way better than most fans heard in Madison Square Garden – and when the choir blows in on the mission statement "Dance Yrself Clean," it sounds like a revival meeting, albeit less Baptist than the Sacred Church of Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy). By the time James Murphy drops the wistful "All My Friends," you may find yourself frugging away the tears.
Four years into the game, Dutch house star Afrojack doesn't exactly need an album – he's already a chart-topping producer and one of the world's 10 highest-paid DJs. Maybe that's why his debut feels so unabashedly victorious, with Snoop Dogg, Neon Trees' Tyler Glenn and others chanting lyrics like "I'm 10 feet tall" and "We were born to run." The Springsteen reference is likely no accident: This is an album steeped in the anthemic feel of pop from decades past. But anything that's not glowing with Afrojack's trademark explosions and monster melodies – like Wiz Khalifa's stoned retread of Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night" – is a blown opportunity.