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Break yields fresh adventures in analog minimalism.
It’s the tinkly sweep of harp strings on "Inside Out" that makes Spoon Spoon. It’s the expert two-finger piano on "I Just Don’t Understand" and the way the guitar sounds like it’s made of soapy steel wool in "Knock Knock Knock". On their eighth record – yes, record – it’s the warm analog edges as much as the tripwire hooks that make Britt Daniel, Jim Eno and their Austin compadres such a reliable thrill. The paranoia of the title is reflected in songs of subtle recrimination and seamy personal politics that fit the rasp of Daniel’s voice as snugly as a bass in a kick drum. With every perfectly formed back-mask and taut keyboard squiggle unfolds a masterclass in punchy pop minimalism.
Ex-Rilo Kiley singer pulls in her A-List pals, checks her head on new solo outing.
Jenny Lewis was a child actor, you know. It explains the balance of world-weariness and showbiz grit in her girlish stage belter’s voice, and maybe also her tendency to cast herself in bigger pictures with a shifting pool of collaborators. But lately the princess of the indie-pop prom has been sleeping alone, and not well. "I’m not the same woman you’re used to," she frets in "Head Underwater". In the sordid motel ménage of "Aloha and the Three Johns" she wonders, "Is this the start of middle-ageing or the end of civilisation?"
The Voyager sits at a crossroads between hiding the weed from the hotel staff and stressing over her biological clock. In the folk-pop narrative of "Late Bloomer" she romanticises the sexual awakening of a distant Parisian road trip. In the opiated rock of "Slippery Slopes" and "Just One of the Guys", the same road is a dull blur of sex, drugs and arrested development.
Sonically the voyage carries recognisable baggage from Lewis’s myriad projects, from the Watson Twins' genteel harmonies on the Rabbit Fur Coat album to the seedy Eighties disco of that last Rilo Kiley LP. In the likes of "She’s Not Me", guitars and drums come with extra crunch courtesy of Ryan Adams’ production. Beck brings his spongy soul to other stops.
But from the insomniac head-check of that first song to the title track’s chamber-orchestrated slide into "the kool-aid of the cosmos", you get the feeling this is one trip Lewis had to make alone.
Australian songwriter celebrated in three-disc set.
"Geez, he said, the bands don’t seem to play round here no more," Clapton sang in 1977’s "Goodbye Tiger". Even in his heyday, he was awash in nostalgia. His best songs, including "Deep Water" and "Girls On the Avenue", featured the sound of a young man looking in the rearview mirror and capturing the sound of bittersweet memory via songs replete with sparkling guitars and street poetry. This 50-track 3-CD set – plus a DVD of a 1988 concert – spans his 40-year career. Despite some dated Seventies and Eighties production and the less essential latter-day recordings, there’s a stretch of songs that mark him as a chronicler of Australian dreams, both good and bad.
Norah Jones and friends start a harmony-happy bar band.
This charming hang session with Norah Jones, jazzy singer-songwriter Sasha Dobson and alt-rock session vet Catherine Popper began as three friends blowing off steam at a pool hall – think of it as a slacker version of Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt’s Trio project. Most bar bands don't manage trio harmonies near this gorgeous, but the song selection is uneven. A cover of Wilco’s Jesus, Etc. is a keeper; their take on Neil Young's Down by the River, not so much. Dobson's Sex Degrees of Separation (rhymes with "we’ll screw our way to salvation") is the highlight, dubious puns notwithstanding. It’s a promising sign.
Metal gods get back to what they do best: operatic menace.
Judas Priest have been looking for redemption since their 2008 concept album, Nostradamus, fell flat with fans. Their follow-up goes back to guitar-bludgeoning basics on songs that explore vengeance, virility and Valhalla – classic metal themes that might feel tired if it wasn’t for the fact that Priest are one of the bands that helped pioneer the pummeling genre in the first place. Frontman Rob Halford’s operatic howls soar on Battle Cry, and the group’s guitarists bring drama to the galloping title track and the relentless Metalizer. Above all, Redeemer is proof that Priest can still call themselves metal’s defenders of the faith.
Lost treasures of CSNY's live peak
Forty summers ago, North America's greatest dysfunctional supergroup patched things up for a while, filled stadiums and left behind tales of backstage excess and shaky vocal harmonies. The first-ever set of recordings from those shows is fittingly over-the-top – three discs and one DVD with footage of eight songs. The two electric-set discs have a crackling, wired-on-something energy: Check how Stephen Stills and Neil Young trade unhinged solos on Young's "Revolution Blues." The often exquisite acoustic disc fi nds all four lending harmonies to solo songs like Stills' "Change Partners" and reveling in a compatibility that often escaped them offstage.
With strong then-new material from all four – including Graham Nash's agitated "Fieldworker," Stills' Latin-soul "My Angel," David Crosby's ethereal "Carry Me" and several Young songs, especially the wrenching "Pushed It Over the End" – CSNY 1974 may be the closest we'll come to hearing a mid-Seventies reunion album from this band. (After the tour, the group convened for a new record but fell apart yet again.) In another of Young's songs here, the droll honky-tonk shu e "Love Art Blues," he sings, "I went and played too hard and I lost my fun." It's a prophetic line for a tour that pushed a great band over the edge but left us, finally, with this overabundance of treasures.
Pop’s greatest parodist goofs on Lorde, Robin Thicke and more.
When we talk about timeless artists, the ones who truly cross generations, how come no one mentions Weird Al? Where his 1983 debut spoofed then-hot singles like “Mickey,” his 14th album turns Lorde’s Royals into Foil (as in aluminum) and Iggy Azalea's Fancy into Handy ("I’ll fix your plumbing/When your toilets overflow"). The schoolhouse R&B of Word Crimes is clever enough to win over the harshest critics of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. Then there’s Tacky, his sharp-tongued take on Pharrell Williams' Happy. Sure, there’s a touch of hypocrisy in a guy as gloriously tacky as Al taking shots at the shameless – but who really cares when it's this much fun?
Scottish troubadour's love note to homeland.
2014 will be a year to remember for Scotland with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and September’s independence referendum. This is a mournful tribute to a nation on the cusp of change (and the soundtrack to a film tying in with the Games). Fife's Kenny Anderson, the man behind the Creosote, has offered consistent, occasionally mesmerising modern folk for two decades and here is at his warmest, with breathtaking tracks like Miserable Strangers and For One Night Only. What is absent is any hint of stereotypes like urban decay, drinking or traditional music – this is an eclectic singer-songwriter at work rather than an exploration of idiom, making for a heartfelt meditation on place and people.
King of paisley psych-pop makes assured move to mid-fi.
With this his sixth album in four years, White Fence (Tim Presley) has a prodigious output only matched by friend and collaborator Ty Segall (see the duo's 2012 LP Hair). Finally out of his bedroom and in the garage studio of producer Segall – who wraps the characteristically cryptic songs in a warm analogue blanket – Presley has taken his triple B (Beatles, Byrds and Sixties Britain) psych-pop from lo to mid-fi, melodies and lyrics ringing clearer but no less trippy ("I need some vitamin skin," he sings on The Light, "Put your eggs on the table."). Initially it passes by in a purple haze, but repeat listens unearth Presley as a man out of time but never out of a pleasing melody.
Sydneysider’s third LP ditches the folk for a punk-rock punch to the face.
Over the course of five years and two albums, bushy-bearded Boulet has mined a vein of ornate folk-rock that has placed him loosely in the nu-folk revival spearheaded by former tourmates Mumford & Sons. In a move straight out of the Dylan-goes-electric playbook set to confound older fans and melt the faces of new ones, Boulet has freed himself of the beard and acoustic instruments for a raw, lo-fi rock LP. He blisters through it with unrelenting, Josh Homme-style riffage (Hold it Down, You're a Man), pummelling any notion of his "sound" right into the dirt. The LP’s second half becomes mired in murk, but the rocking is delivered with such maniacal glee that it’s hard to resist.
Chicago punkers justify their success on latest LP.
When Rise Against released their scrappy 2001 debut The Unraveling, few would have predicted they’d break out of the Fat Wreck Chords stable to become major-label arena headliners. Yet on this, their seventh album, it’s abundantly clear why they’ve managed the transition and, what’s more, done so with integrity intact. Songs such as Sudden Life and Tragedy + Time are anthemic enough to appease FM playlists, but still sufficiently gritty to satiate diehard fans. And while The Black Market focuses lyrically more on the personal than the political, it’s not without its moments of searing social commentary - see blistering opener The Great Die-Off with its anti-bigotry sentiment.
Welsh trio continue to reinvent themselves.
Last year's gorgeous Rewind The Film marked something of a reinvention for the Manic Street Preachers, and this, their 12th full-length, continues that journey. A companion piece of sorts to Rewind, it was recorded at Berlin's Hansa Tonstudio, which has housed the likes of U2 and David Bowie as they've veered off into similarly uncharted sonic waters. A certain Germanic spectre looms over the album, not only in titles such as Europa Geht Durch Mich but in the pulsing Krautrock synth inflections of that track and Walk Me to the Bridge. Longterm fans needn't worry, though - there is still much here for you, so long as you're willing to work at it.
Perennial So-Cal punkers keep things raw on 11th studio LP
Eleven albums into their 26-year-long career, and very little has changed musically in the world of Pennywise. While one-time scene contemporaries Green Day have progressed to rock operas and stadium shows, Yesterdays was knocked out in a matter of days and, true to form, consists of two-to-three minute blasts of life-affirming punk with lyrics such as "Don't tell me how you think I should act/Don't tell me principles I lack" (Noise Pollution). If things sound a little more vintage than usual it's due not only to the recording return of frontman Jim Lindberg, but also to the fact that several of these tunes were penned by former bassist Jason Thirsk prior to his passing in 1996.
Head-nodding modern take on British soul brings the cool.
Like the deepest, darkest heart of their namesake, Jungle want to create a mystery that people must decipher for themselves: they're a (seven-piece) "collective", not a band; their music videos feature a slew of impossibly cool urban dancers apparently contractually obliged to wear Adidas tracksuits; and the creative nucleus behind the whole shebang prefer to go by "J" and "T". What is known: this is throwback British soul saved from the cheese section thanks to tasteful, futuristic production tweaks and a sexy attitude. All the subterfuge leaves the music lacking a single strong identity to pin everything on, but it barely matters when the grooves run this deep: heads will nod, arses will shake.
Brisbane sextet craft an album laden with potential indie-pop hits
The cover of this album references Alan Shepard, the first American to go into space in 1961. It doesn't reference murder victim Marilyn Sheppard, or her husband Dr Sam Sheppard, who was incorrectly charged with the homicide and inspired the Harrison Ford movie The Fugitive; nor does it pay homage to the other Sam Shepard, playwright and former boyfriend of Patti Smith. The Sheppards here are George and Amy Sheppard from Brisbane, and these Sheppards don't do tragedy, nor are they aiming to go where no one has before; what they do is write beautiful and sweet songs dripping with emotion and more hooks than a tuna fleet.
The LP takes its title from the song Geronimo, a recent number one hit that, with its galloping rhythms and anthemic, Of Monsters and Men-esque acoustic stylings, well and truly seized the Zeitgeist. The rest of the album has more conventional pop stylings. What's not conventional is the craftsmanship in the songs. These are sturdy pieces that could have been made any time since the Brill Building opened its doors. Tracks like Halfway to Hell, Lingering and These People are classics in any sense of the word - indeed each track on this album is a potential smash.
Sheppard are calling themselves indie pop, but it remains to be seen which of those options they choose. Could go either way, but more interestingly it could go all the way.
Sydney synth wizard lends massive anthems a human touch.
The singles for Andy Bull's second album - synth-swamped thumpers Baby I am Nobody Now and Keep on Running, both cracking the 2013 Hottest 100 - were so big and pervasive that it's tough for the Sydneysider to match them with the rest of the record. Luckily he doesn't even try, instead just letting them hit their outsized emotional cues while exploring relatively quieter moments elsewhere.
Bull has mapped out a fascinating career so far, starting as an indie-friendly piano balladeer before embracing synths and self-production (like his hero, Todd Rundgren) and going full pop star. He's got the requisite killer hooks, but also an everyman touch that's often missing from mainstream pop. Bull seems deeply invested in his songs, even when they hit stratospheric levels of gloss. There are loving retro touches all over Sea of Approval, like vocoder on Nothing is Wrong and a ringing telephone on Just One Expression, Just One Line, while Talk Too Much would have gone down a treat at Studio 54.
It's old-school songwriting, anchoring very real lyrical preoccupations to stadium-sized catchiness. Coupled with his androgynous voice and cosmic leanings, that makes for a long-lasting immersion in Bull's personal universe. That said, many of his whirring synth motifs resemble each other too much, giving a sense of immediate déjà vu to certain tracks. Still, when someone can rock out with keyboards one minute and play R'n'B poet the next (Loved Like You), without ever quite overdoing the earnestness, it's a rare feat.