Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
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.
Skywritten confessions soar on reluctant pop diva’s return
The idea of a pop singer shunning fame is certainly novel, if not absurd in the co-writing salon of show-ponies like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Eminem, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and David Guetta. With her face pointedly absent from her platinum wig and her songs fairly bursting after all that top-shelf experience, 1000 Forms of Fear is a dramatic start to Act Two of Sia’s remarkable pop life.
The overindulgences of Act One are up front in the fast-lane party-girl regrets of “Chandelier” and “Big Girls Cry”, although the sheer chart-seeking calibre of her craft tends to dwarf considerations as banal as true confession. From combustible titles to stadium-rattling choruses, the likes of “Burn the Pages” and “Fire Meets Gasoline” have more in common with skywriting than diary entries.
There’s elegance and restraint, too, even in the power ballad bombast of the outstanding “Eye of the Needle”. Sia’s magic chemistry with heavyweight pop producer Greg Kurstin extends from the sinister grace of “Straight For the Knife” to the giddy synth-pop of “Hostage”, a tune that might have taken Cyndi Lauper to the next level back in ’89.
Meanwhile, “Elastic Heart” and “Free the Animal” dabble in African elements like a collage artist dabbles in bubble-wrap: all textural snap and crackle with meaning strictly in the eye of the beholder.
Highly anticipated debut almost hits the mark
Indie vibe, echoes of Frank Ocean, social media impact, undeniable mic skills – it’s no wonder the official debut for Allday, hosted on Illy’s new imprint, is getting so much attention. Mostly, it’s warranted – he’s looking to push past hip-hop’s backward-facing snapbacks into a world of small bars and boutique labels. But the unrelenting mid-pace and overplayed reverb, obvious sequencing and simplistic key lines result in a collection of tracks that drift into each other like a degustation menu from a mall food hall – not a lot of spice. The Adelaide-via-Melbourne rapper clearly has a knack for interesting lyrics, but it all seems more late-night notes than morning-after clarity.
Grafton trio of sisters return with fourth album
The McClymonts are one of Australia’s most sincere and heartfelt, if hardly innovative, country acts. In the wake of Brooke’s motherhood and sister Mollie’s painful relationship break-up, Here’s To You & I is an improvement on 2012’s Two Worlds Collide, with a definite soulfulness to be found in the likes of “Heart Breaks” and “Blood Is Thicker Than Water”. Production from Lindsay Rimes allows a satisfying pace to things, with pedal steel in a consistently effective supporting role. However, it’s hard not to cringe at the same lyrical clichés that blighted Two Worlds Collide, with a distinct lack of anything poetically disarming making the record drag. An undemanding, though very sweet, listen.
Big names cover lost Koori protest classic
Vic Simms’ The Loner has long been a whispered treasure of music lore: Australia’s first indigenous protest album, made in Bathurst Gaol in ’73 then forgotten like so many of our inconvenient truths. Brisbane singer-songwriter Luke Peacock (Halfway) was into this labour of love before the LP’s reissue last year, but it resonates more as companion piece than standalone. “Get Back in the Shadows” remains pointedly faithful while “Living My Life By the Days” is devastating in its acoustic melancholy. Simms’ vocal cameo on “I Wanna Bop” is pure adrenalin, but the masterstroke is Ed Kuepper, Paul Kelly, Bunna Lawrie, Roger Knox and more sharing the sad sentiment of “Stranger In My Country”.
Sydney producer/singer masters the immersive
Lavurn Lee’s debut album as Guerre (pronounced Gair) might at first seem purely atmospheric, like a haunted house soundtracked by some disciple of Burial. But sit with it a while, and Lee’s talents as an arranger and vocalist rise to meet his mastery of murky production. Switching between bedroom breathiness and pitch-shifted menace, he mingles the two in a quasi-duet on lead single “Deatheat”. For all the cues to dubstep and R’n’B, there’s a pop radiance lurking within standouts like “Kone/Bone”, while “Tuk” should seduce fans of HTRK. If the Darth Vader-esque exhalations of “Silo” seem like mere window dressing in the beginning, their immersive pull grows and grows.
Londoner fulfils potential on landmark album
He may look like an abrasive East Londoner down at the dog track on the cover of his fourth LP, but Eugene McGuinness has quietly been making imaginative yet unspectacular mod-influenced indie since 2007. He’s hit his stride with unprecedented energy here, eschewing slower tracks that made previous albums drag in favour of an infectious jumpiness that makes this by far his most enjoyable record. One can hear the Buzzcocks’ melodic punk, along with choruses evoking the Zombies (“She Paints Houses”), while he embraces glam on “Immortals” and “The Crueler Kind”. This lean album (just 33 minutes) is a blur of hooks, sincerity and an endearing, exciting sense of innocence.
A would-be shoegaze band excels at spacious pop
Despite its shoegaze overtones, Lowtide’s debut LP is actually a pop record steeped in blissful textures. “Wedding Ring” and “Held” are jangly singles at heart, and “Maxillæ Leaving, Seaward” could pass for something on Sarah Records. That said, “Blue Movie” and “Still Time” are subtle enough to reveal their full potential with patience. Key to the Melbourne quartet’s slippery uniqueness are the conversational exchanges between Lucy Buckeridge and Giles Simon, entwining their dual bass lines and vocals alike. Instead of banking purely on swirling guitar effects, Lowtide exploit rhythm and space. The album houses a perfect mix of the driving and drifting, with songs changing shape right before our ears.