Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Heartbroken crooner sharpens his sound, still feels lost
Tom Krell, the velvet voice of How to Dress Well, is at his best when he's most vulnerable. His early recordings were grief-stricken and raw; subsequent releases have expanded and refined his sound without ever quite reaching the same heights. Krell's third LP continues to elevate his R&B-inflected music into sonic clarity, though his emotions remain muddled as ever. The spare, lovely intro "2 Years On (Shame Dream)" puts his multitracked falsetto over minimal instrumentation; on "Face Again," he cries, "I don't even know what's best for me" – a concise summary of the album's themes. Krell may be preoccupied with his failure to change, but this record makes it clear he's working on it.
Strong tunes, high passions survive Suffolk romantic's mixed signals
It’s a delicious irony of the troubadour’s life that those who sing most compellingly of love are obliged to travel a road of perpetual temptation. “Tell me that you’ll turn down the man who asks for your hand ’cause you’re waiting for me,” Ed Sheeran implores for openers, as he staggers “drunk as I’ve ever been” to the next port. As a statement of devotion, “One” is as sweet as they come. But would you encourage your daughter to wait for this man?
He’ll be gone a long time, if this confident follow-up to his four-million-selling + is any indication. The 23-year-old rap-balladeer from rural Suffolk has honed a gift for swooning melody and a voice that can soar with stirring conviction from crushed whisper to falsetto in finger-picked ballads as lovely as “Nina” and “Photograph”.
Such passionate, heartsick farewells are more than half the story here. They’re complemented by funkier grooves that find their first-person protagonist rattling around the hotel corridors of “Sing” – cue tequila-fuelled sex with a stranger – and “Don’t”, a post-coital recrimination rap with just enough showbiz allusions to keep the pop-gossip humming. So rolls the farm-boy romantic in a big, urban world of lusty ambition.
Speaking of which, Sheeran has mostly managed to “keep the genre pretty basic”, as promised in an earlier rap, in spite of exponential expectations and a top-shelf production roster that includes Pharrell Williams and Rick Rubin. It’s not the big strings, drums and piano that make “Afire Love” the high point here. It’s the way that Sheeran uses personal experience – the mortal decline of a grandparent – to begin to paint the bigger picture that awaits beyond his fleeting snapshots of love squandered and imagined.
Lana Del Rey's Second major-label LP is full of American dreams and summertime sadness
Three years ago, Lana Del Rey seemed to hatch into existence as a fully formed provocateur: She has introduced previously untasted flavors to pop music (her slow, torchy genre of choice might best be described as "Calvin Klein Eternity commercial") and shaped herself into as crafty a video star as Lady Gaga, making her racy, mysterious clips a core part of her brand. Using vintage references like they were bargain-bin lipsticks, she's been called an idiot and a savant. The fact that nobody has been able to verify which camp she belongs to – added to her outsize influence on stars like Lorde and Miley Cyrus – makes her one of the most compelling performers of our time.
2012's Born to Die, Del Rey's major-label debut, is a woozy collection of siren songs that mimics Peggy Lee's gauzy romanticism by way of Mazzy Star. Two years later, Del Rey is still a sad tomato. Ultraviolence is a melancholy crawl through doomed romance, incorrigible addictions, blown American dreams.
She has pulled back on nods to hip-hop and hired a new gun: the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who produced most of the LP at his Nashville studio. Auerbach introduces dashes of bad ass blues and psychedelic guitar, but Del Rey – who co-wrote every song but the closing cover of Jessie Mae Robinson's 1950s hit "The Other Woman" – holds tight to her pouty, cinematic aesthetic: the epic schmaltz of Ennio Morricone, reflected through the haze of a thousand dramatic selfies.
Del Rey muse Chris Isaak gave us 1989's "Wicked Game"; Lana answers with "Cruel World," where a reverb-drenched riff lurks behind seductively kvetched lyrics about love and madness. "Shades of Cool" – a waltz featuring a searing Auerbach guitar solo, swollen strings and Del Rey's operatic soprano – would be perfect for a James Bond film directed by Quentin Tarantino. The slinky standout "Sad Girl" is essentially Del Rey's theme song: "I'm a bad girl/I'm a sad girl," she announces, her voice slipping from childlike coo to sedated swoon. It's true that much of Ultraviolence, like Born to Die, rams the same sonic guidepost over and over. But Del Rey does allow herself to be coaxed into one striking departure, for the single "West Coast" – a deep groove that kicks her from chanteuse into frontwoman for a few glorious moments.
The album wraps desire, violence and sadness into a tight bundle that Del Rey doesn't always seem sure how to unpack. The title track – which quotes the Crystals' controversial "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)" over Auerbach's liquid wah-wah – describes, with an ethereal chilliness, clinging to an abusive relationship. On "Old Money," she vows, "If you call for me/You know I'll run to you." Del Rey has declared feminism "not an interesting concept" but toys with sexual power on "Fucked My Way Up to the Top."
Most of Del Rey's lovers are unlovable, her battles unwinnable. So when she gets a shot to trade religion for "Money Power Glory," a hymnlike highlight, she grabs hold and doesn't let go. Del Rey's American dream doesn't get much more honest than that.
MC navigates his thirties with incisive social critique
If there’s one line that perfectly sums up Melbourne MC and TZU member Joel Ma’s stylistically diverse second album, it’s “We spent our 20s on various sofas/Woke up in our 30s with bangin’ hangovers” (“In the Morning”): this is the rude reality check after the youthful delusion of feeling indestructible. Blue Volume is both a celebration and mourning for the current state of the world, voiced by a smart, incisive writer: the love-gone-awry “Out of the Blue” ably channels the spirit of Paul Kelly; “Not in My Name” provides a damning critique of the handling of refugees. It’s less bangin’-party-we-want and more boot-up-the-arse-we-need, but crucially delivered with craft and care.
Aussie tough guys take on the Big C
For the past six years, Confession have been Australia’s reliable metalcore staple, never greatly challenging the listener but always providing a furious soundtrack for a solid mosh. Spearheaded by Michael Crafter (ex-I Killed the Prom Queen), constant line-up changes saw things go sideways with 2012’s The Long Way Home, an LP which chased after the squeaky clean choruses of the Amity Affliction. Thankfully, Life and Death has them seeing red again, inspired by Crafter’s frustration with those around him struggling with cancer. A subject worthy of real rage adds a welcome focus to the torrent of breakdowns and should see the gleeful return of fans who jumped ship last time around.
Brooklyn art rockers shuffle forward with identity intact
Like previous Antlers records, Familiars is a slow, sombre collection of shifting soundscapes, a mish-mash of melancholia incarnate. Tracks like “Palace” deliver the same gentle, meandering mood that made the Brooklyn band’s 2009 set Hospice such a breakthrough – guitar, horn, voice and synth melting together into a haze of downbeat indirectness. This time, however, the Antlers also up the ante, and tracks like “Revisited” and “Intruders” actually deliver memorable melodies (not always a feature) and even a little angry intensity (albeit understated). Lyrically, Peter Silberman’s bleak cynicism is balanced by a sort of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it humour, ensuring that for all its bleak moods, Familiars is never a mope.
It’s always sunny for these Philadelphians
A collaboration between Kenny Vasoli (the Starting Line) and Body Language’s Matthew Young and Grant Wheeler, Vacationer’s 2012 debut Gone was spritely but somewhat vanilla indie-pop. Relief is more ambitious, offering a smooth warmth that is a cross between Smokey Robinson and Animal Collective. They could use some of the latter’s darker edge – the relentless good vibes come to grate, and the LP lacks depth as a result. That said, there are enjoyable elements, such as the dreamy synth and inventive drum samples, which prevent things from becoming boring. However, staying on vacation forever becomes nightmarish, as lovely as it might seem at first.
Majestic second LP from elegant New Yorker
In the four years since Diane Birch’s acclaimed debut Bible Belt, with its singer-songwriterly, Laurel Canyon mood, she has hinted that her tastes lie beyond that realm (proven by last year’s collaboration with UK rapper Devlin). Thus here is a record of synth-heavy pop, occasionally reminiscent of M83’s sugary, dreamy fare, yet at times even leaning towards Belinda Carlisle territory with its emotive, dramatic balladry. The title song is a beautifully atmospheric thing, which along with “Superstars” and the superb “Diamonds in the Dust” exhibits a blissful marriage of Birch’s hugely soulful voice with the sensitive, Prince-inspired production from Dap Kings drummer Homer Steinweiss. Thoughtful, inspiring pop.
Where do lonely hearts go? British singer Sam Smith, 21, has written a dissertation on the question with his debut LP. Smith – a gifted blue-eyed-soulster with Barry Gibb's flexible falsetto and Mark Ronson's ear for throwback grooves – got noticed last year for his vocals on house duo Disclosure's slow jam "Latch." With In the Lonely Hour's orchestral flourishes and focus on a single unrealized affair, it seems the baby-faced singer is being positioned as a male Adele. But while the album flirts with a few radiant moments, Smith's endless yearning isn't wrapped in as many irresistible packages.
He rolls deepest on the gospel-powered "Stay With Me" – a spare track with a simple arrangement that matches its bare plea – and "Like I Can," a blissful groove that packs a Seventies rock-radio punch. Elsewhere, though he reaches for his upper register with the same eagerness that he grasps for love, his emo hopelessness is a flood drowning everything in sight. The album's team of producers gives Smith a mostly blank canvas to showcase his vocals, providing room for soaring riffs over fingerpicked guitars on "Not in That Way" and "Leave Your Lover." But neither leaves as indelible a mark as Smith's lost love has left on his heart.
Electro titan loses the edit button on puzzling two-disc effort
For his seventh album, Deadmau5 has turned from an electro-house polymath into the world's most unnecessary Nine Inch Nails tribute act. With a running time longer than the new X-Men movie, the two-disc While(1<2) gives Mau5 plenty of room to spiral downward into many of Trent Reznor's favorite tricks – the moody minor-key melodies, the Erik Satie-derived piano miniatures, the flickering static and machine fuzz, the bent and tortured notes, the plodding chug on acoustic guitar. Twice you can hear him end a song by taking his foot o the piano's sustain pedal, just like NIN collaborator Aphex Twin's "Avril 14th." There's even a remix of a seven-year-old Nine Inch Nails song ("Survivalism") that makes it sound like it came from 1999. However, erase the Reznor fan fiction from this 141-minute behemoth, and there's a solid 64-minute house record hidden in there, trading in night-cruise synths and walloping throb. Highlights like "Infra Turbo Pigcart Racer" and "Mercedes" are revving engines that gleam with vintage textures: Deadmau5 shines brightest, it seems, when he turns off The Social Network and puts on Drive.
Mr Babylon stretched himself on latest offering
On the surface, this collaboration with Andy Barlow (of underrated Nineties trip-hop duo Lamb) isn't a huge leap for David Gray, a folk-rock vet obsessed with electronics at least since 2000's sleeper hit White Ladder. But Barlow, a DJ-minded producer obsessed with acoustic instruments, is a perfect match. Where Gray generally plants his Van Morrison-ish bray like a flag in a song's center, Barlow blurs the field with swarming arrangements and vocals smeared by effects and multitracking. "A Girl Like You" – with its warped grooves and clipped echo – is the most transporting example. It's curious: The more the singer is subsumed, the more engaging he sounds.
Austra's new EP is the sound of an act that's defined by its singer being left to its own devices. The single "Habitat" is up there with the Canadian electronic trio's catchiest tunes to date, as Katie Stelmanis' voice takes on a more soulful tone than usual on a cascade of sticky hooks. The rest of the EP is mostly instrumental, freeing the band from pop limitations. Highlight "Bass Drum Dance" mixes sounds that evoke a fog-shrouded dance floor – perhaps influenced by the band's Maya Postepski, a rising producer and DJ. The best thing about Habitat is how much less seriously Austra seem to be taking themselves than they often have. It's a promising sign for their future.
Former rap-rock superstars get back to their aggro roots
More than a decade ago, Linkin Park sold a couple zillion records by making better-than-Bizkit rap metal and collaborating with Jay Z. They've since wandered the emo wilderness, and singer Chester Bennington is now also fronting Stone Temple Pilots. But on Album Six they're back with a retro-neo-aggro sound that would've been too intense for modern-rock radio in 1999. Tom Morello guests on guitar; the mook-punk yowler "Guilty All the Same" features oldschool rap god Rakim. Even pushing 40, these dudes can still bring it like backward-ball-cap warriors hopped up on Mountain Dew and Dad's fourth divorce.
Jenny from the blah: Pop queen sounds bored on Album Eight
At her best, J.Lo combines and energises familiar dance-pop sounds to make music worth getting lost in (in 1999, "Waiting for Tonight"; in 2011, "On the Floor"). On her eighth album, however, she just sounds lost. Beyond summer-anthem contender "I Luh Ya Papi," Lopez supplements flat production from names like RoccStar with forgettable verses from rappers like T.I., claims street cred but offers nothing to show for it and awkwardly seeks cool in third-rate Diplo beats and New York's underground vogue scene. Later, she indulges in puns as shameless as "Expertease" and "bootyful" – though, to be fair, that last one comes from guest star Pitbull.
The master songwriter turns in his strongest tunes in decades
A minute into Willie Nelson's new set of songs – largely self-penned for a change – it's clear the man who wrote Patsy Cline's "Crazy" 50-some years ago has lost neither verve nor cojones. Co-writing with producer Buddy Cannon, Nelson sticks to his wheelhouse: love, heartache, rambling and music-making itself. The vocals remain indelibly creaky against stony acoustic guitar, bright steel whines and dusty harmonica whinnies. "We're a band of brothers and sisters and whatever/On a mission to break all the rules," he sings on the title track – a pledge of solidarity from an 81-year-old outlaw that, even at this late date, rings 100 per cent true.
These Brooklyn guys spent their first three records finding out how many pop subgenres they could fit into a single album. (The answer: a ton.) On their fourth effort, the Mini T's skip the wild swerving for a surprisingly cohesive set of sun-drenched, self-aware, often silly synthpop grooves. Lead single "Used to Be the Shit" is the kind of kiss-off that Vampire Weekend would have written if they'd skipped class to smoke weed on the couch more often; the cutesiness of album highlight "Selfish Girl," meanwhile, contains multitudes. Sure, Cruel Runnings is a bit of a one-trick pony – but, you have to admit, it's a pretty great trick.