Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
One of the best-selling albums of all time enters middle age.
The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac owned the charts in 1977 with two of the best-selling records of all time. While Rumours endures, Hotel California is an iffier icon. Air guitarists the world over still make faces to the intertwined dual soloing at the end of the title track, while that stuttering riff on "Life In the Fast Lane" retains its simmer and sneer. But a couple of the heavily orchestrated ballads billow and bloat, aiding the arguments for punk's imminent rise. A bonus disc from a 1976 LA concert leans towards earlier country-rock songs, revealing a band that easily replicated those soaring, pristine harmonies on stage.
Irish quartet keep trying to recapture a moment that's passed.
While it continues a decade-long trend of missing genuine moments of brilliance, Songs of Experience never really falls flat on its face, even when Bono unconvincingly says "I believe my best days are ahead" in the only mildly swaggering "Lights Of Home", or when "The Showman (Little More Better)" clumsily gets "street" with its echoing chorus line of "little more better".
As with sister album Songs Of Innocence, this touches on elemental U2 (the Edge's guitar tone and strict measures of Larry Mullen; Bono's preaching yearning) and second wave U2 (suggestions of dance, some surprising Adam Clayton basslines, guest vocals to contemporise).
In its best moments there is a gentle ballad, in the closing "There Is a Light"; a punchy, lightly post-punk/pre-discovering America song to sing on a waterfront in "Red Flag Day"; a loosely funky nod to the remix-to-come in "The Blackout"; and the now obligatory glam stomper in "American Soul".
But Songs of Experience has too many generic songs which fill the gap rather than own the space. "You're the Best Thing About Me" goes nowhere politely in its mid-range rock; "Landlady" is a pleasant meander; and "Get Out Of Your Own Way" seems prepared to reach for the blue sky, but never really fires that bullet. It's unlikely many of these songs will force their way into U2's next set list.
Missing chapters enhance third visit with Carrie & Lowell.
Stevens' return to neo-folkie minimalism had us swooning with 2015's Carrie & Lowell. The live album that followed kept the intimacy intact, so it's slightly weird to find the grief parlour taking guests (Helado Negro, Doveman, 900X) on this remix-and-bits addendum. Their padded beats and choral ecstasies are muted though, and fingerpicked atmos remains the default, from the lulling echoes of "Drawn to the Blood" to an iPhone demo of "John My Beloved". But The Greatest Gift is mostly about the title track and bookends: four new songs that deepen the intrigue in images of feathered snakes, Indian graves, praise and prayers.
Classic third LP gets massive deluxe treatment.
While the Ramones' self-titled 1976 debut is one of punk's defining statements, it wasn't until 1977's Rocket to Russia that the Queens foursome hit their true peak. They'd stripped pop to its contingent parts, then stripped it down some more, and Rocket to Russia was the perfect intersection of their raw rock & roll and bubblegum-pop/surf influences... before their striving for hits became an all-encompassing strain.
Sounding crisper than ever, "Teenage Lobotomy", "Rockaway Beach", "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" remain classics, while 40 years has done nothing to dull the brilliant fun of "I Don't Care", "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow", "Do You Wanna Dance?" and "Surfin' Bird".
This massive 77-track collection and its exhaustive extras cover how the sausage was made, with two fascinating alternate mixes and tracking/rough mixes (even an acoustic "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow"!), while the live set from the Apollo Centre in Glasgow, Scotland, is a revelation.
The Ramones would never release a better album, and this remains one of punk's early, riotous classics.
Art-pop experiments that play like promising sketches.
South Africa native Romy Xeno devotes her debut LP to quietly mutating art-pop, complete with spacious production. But for every standout track, there's a weak one that doesn't leave a lasting impression, like the cosmic-themed "Cyan Water" and a pair of inconsequential instrumentals. When Xeno's taffy-like malleability finds more focus, the results are better for it. Take "Chief of Tin", anchored by an insistent vocal mantra, or the whimsical and warmly melodic "Luna Man". Also on the stronger side, "She Ghosts" evokes Debut-era Björk and "Caramello" floats like anti-gravity bubblegum. Still, most of these colourful ideas could use a lot more fleshing out.
Aussie collective put Creedence catalogue on low simmer.
Cover bands love CCR – a fistful of chords, killer tunes, rock grunt and country twang. So it must have been a no-brainer for this conglomerate of Australian musos to bash out a tribute LP on the group's 50th anniversary. In a nice twist, lead vocals are not from some shouty bloke, but Katie Wighton (All Our Exes Live In Texas) and Ness Quinn (Hot Spoke). The problem is that the catalogue has been worn smooth with over-use, and the go-to musical setting for the group – featuring members of Boy & Bear and the Whitlams – is to slow almost everything down into a low-key Americana-laced simmer. Needs more salt. And vinegar.
Hot on the heels of his brother, Gallagher Snr. releases his third solo album.
There's both energy and nous in these songs, which may begin with a not wholly successful lumbering psych track ("Fort Knox") but find their way through punchy, brassy, white boy soul (the light-on but swinging "Keep On Reaching"); a surprisingly effective pair of instrumentals (the naff titled "Interlude (Wednesday Part 1)" and "End Credits (Wednesday Part 2)"); and a bonus track ("Dead In the Water") that takes a scrubbing brush to a standard Gallagher ballad and does its emotions on the natural rather than on the run.
And when he channels straight-out Oasis in "Black & White Sunshine", he's learnt, like a veteran cricketer, to add some angles and light touches instead of pushing hard at the ball. Though it's fair to note that this is also a song where his limited singing range feels the strain, and the extreme-Oasis title track is a straight out clumping bit of stodge.
There is a wonderful irony, or maybe that should be historical synchronicity, that the creeping blues of "Be Careful What You Wish For" sounds unashamedly like John Lennon's "Come Together". Not because Gallagher's nicked something from the Beatles – hardly news – but that he's nicked from a song that Lennon was accused of nicking from Chuck Berry.
History never repeats? Well, as was probably argued in 1969, it's a good song regardless.
Stoic memories and fallen comrades call twilight for rocker.
The lusty grunt of "Gracile" is a clumsy introduction to an album of mature-age values and reflections. Happily, Seger makes amends with a rockin' revisit of Lou Reed's "Busload of Faith", later matched by a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Democracy". Both underscore their topicality with utterly faithful passion and arrangements. Dedications to Glenn Frey and other nameless heroes ("I Knew You When", "I'll Remember You") weave an overarching theme of generational camaraderie bolstered with beefcake drums, face-melt solos and fever-pitched female chorus. Sure, the mawkish likes of "Marie" can plod, but "The Sea Inside" is still raging.
Their second album is a trippier, stranger beast than their debut.
Eight months on from their striking 1967 debut – talk about a hard LP to follow – Strange Days was a stranger beast, from the freak show on the cover to the trippy music within. Even the two most radio-friendly tracks – "Love Me Two Times" and "People Are Strange" –emerge through a sonic hall of broken mirrors, riding circus-like organ and woozy harpsichord. Then there's the psycho poetry, whips and screams of "Horse Latitudes" and the wild 11-minute apocalyptic ode "When the Music's Over". This "expanded" edition includes mono and stereo mixes, but no extras.
After heartbreak, Icelandic iconoclast chooses (strange, arresting) love.
Björk wants you to know she is not in the same place she was a few years ago. 2015's Vulnicura, which chronicled her breakup with longterm partner Matthew Barney, was heavy, with songs like "Black Lake" and "Quicksand" laying bare Björk's battered heart with mournful strings and disconcerting beats. From its opening bars, Utopia tells a very different story, field recordings of birdsong interrupted by luxuriant harp and the glow of a woman in love: "Just that kiss was all there is," Björk breathes, the words drawn out to evoke a memory stuck on rapturous repeat.
Harp aside, she largely does away with the strings on this record, instead employing a 12-woman flute orchestra that she arranged and conducted to convey lightness and emotional freedom. So joyous are the bird calls and flute sections at times, they might be fit for a Disney soundtrack, but Venezuelan producer Arca, with whom Björk collaborated on Vulnicura, returns with more dissonance and off-kilter beats to lend her utopia an intriguing complexity (he also accompanied her on walks in the jungle recording birds; other bird sounds are taken from David Toop's experimental 1980 record Tekura).
Lyrically, there's less obfuscation on what the singer has jokingly referred to as her "Tinder album"; "Blissing Me" speaks of "two music nerds obsessing/sending each other MP3s" while "The Gate", contrary to its eerie woodwinds and atmospherics, is about healing. But even in love, Björk's music is rarely straightforward. A song about seeing someone with the same characteristics as a lover, "Features Creatures", comes over more maudlin than its lyrics with a ghostly choir and the singer's deliberate, emotionally ambiguous delivery, while on "Loss", Texan producer Rabit roughs up the music-box plinks and flute with digital percussion like muffled explosions on a scratched CD.
Healed Björk might be, but the carcass of her relationship with Barney is still fodder for some fairly unambiguous material. "Sue Me" addresses Barney's suing the singer over custody of their daughter, Isadora. "To spare our girl I won't let her get cut in half everrrr," Björk wails over muddy toms, while the beatless, piercing "Tabula Rasa" implores her ex for a clean slate. By instrumental interlude "Paradisa", though, she's content once more, and in closer "Future Forever" is at one with love, "in a spiritual sense", as she's described it in interviews.
Björk has described making Utopia as "paradise" compared to the hell of Vulnicura ("like divorce"), but while the record contains blissful moments, Björk's utopia is weirder and more realistic than that. Perhaps it's the best kind of utopia of all – the kind that acknowledges the rough and the smooth and knows that peace lies in acceptance of both.
Main page illustration by Leo Coyte.
Brit artist returns with more formulaic, well-executed pop.
"I was adamant I wouldn't write about love," Paloma Faith said of her fourth album, but things patently didn't go to plan – it includes a John Legend duet called "I'll Be Gentle"; "Kings and Queens" is Carly Rae Jepsen-esque pure pop reflecting on a past love; and then there's "Love Me As I Am". Even when she's attempting to be more socio-political – the title track, for example, addresses humanity from mother earth's perspective – her bluesy vocal still comes off like a scorned lover set to dramatic strings. The Architect is nothing new, in other words, but nimbly traversing disco, ballads and soul-spiked pop, Faith is still a more versatile singer than most.
Pop's contrarian delivers original jingles for the festive season.
When it comes to reviving that most tired of musical traditions, the festive album, who better to put their quirky spin on the formula than Sia Furler, a less than conventional pop star. Together with fellow chart-topping scribe Greg Kurstin, she's written an album of original Christmas songs, all of them managing to sound very much her own with added seasonal twinkle.
There are the more straight up-and-down, jaunty, jolly numbers – "Santa's Coming for Us" and "Candy Cane Lane", all jingle-jangle and Yankee Doodle Christmas motifs – and then slowies like "Snowman" and "Snowflake" which turn Christmas characters into cutesy, clever analogies for real people. "A puddle of water can't hold me close baby," Furler sings, beseeching her snowman not to cry. "Ho Ho Ho" is like holiday group therapy for those who related to "Chandelier", a "misfits'" Christmas celebrated with bourbon and whiskey and rendered almost vaudevillian with horns and a crash-bang chorus. "Everyday Is Christmas", meanwhile, is for the newly in love; "everyday is Christmas with you by my side".
There's no doubt Furler would have done a fine job interpreting the classics, but in her and Kurstin's hands, it's hard to veer too far wrong with any of these songs, which, if you're a fan of her intelligent, powerfully felt pop, you will likely enjoy too.
The boys from Brazil deliver a tepid lesson in violence.
Max and Iggor Cavalera and their loyal sideman Marc Rizzo return for volume four of their conspiracy theory, wherein they eschew most of the nuances of their other musical projects for unrelenting thrash metal bludgeoning. It's brutal, heavy and raw, yet it seems to exist almost for those reasons alone, as if the brothers want to prove that as they close in on their 50s, they can still be a punishing force. Rizzo provides some much needed texture with some deftly crafted melodies and soloing, and the title track offers a little respite, but it's all been done before – and better – by this band and many others.
Shape-shifting 2015 LP gets a lavish re-package.
Usually you have to wait at least a decade for a deluxe reissue, but here's Currents, less than three years on. Kevin Parker, the Fremantle musician who largely writes and records by himself, had been at the pointy end of the psych-rock revival for a while, but his third album marked a big shift. Goodbye elephantine guitars, hello pillowy beats, keyboard washes and falsetto vocals.
Disco-funk and Nineties R&B can be found in its DNA, tweaked with Parker's penchant for swirling atmospherics and compressed drop-outs. High points include "Eventually", which sounds like Brian Wilson getting it on with the Flaming Lips, and "'Cause I'm a Man", a stately slice of swoon-worthy soul. It's so shiny you have to wear shades, and the guitar wig-outs and trippy rock are missed, but as Parker puts it in "Yes, I'm Changing": "They say people never change, but that's bullshit – they do."
The lavishly packaged box set is aimed squarely at the avid collector – a red marbled vinyl album, two remixes on a 12-inch, a flexidisc with three extra tracks, a poster and a zine.
Proto-punk slackers welcome more softness and depth.
Geelong quartet the Living Eyes inject some newfound softness into their blurted proto-punk on this third album. "Spring" sneaks in poppy vocal harmonies and a cheeky description of cold weather ("My dick's the size of my thumb"), while "Household Day" adds plinking background melodies to its grainy lope and lurch. But the main attractions are still Billy Gardner's halting vocals and those deranged monster hooks, which bring a lashing catchiness to "Horseplay". It's all fairly low-stakes, but there are signs of looming depth during "Fear of Heights", on which the band reach the four-minute mark – just barely.
A soul queen's powerful posthumous farewell.
When Sharon Jones died of pancreatic cancer last year, the world lost its greatest exponent of vintage soul. Recording over her last two years with the Dap-Kings and other longtime sidemen, genre masters all, Jones meets darkness with hope on her final album, now a posthumous treasure. "Matter of Time" envisions world peace; "Come and Be a Winner" is a funky pep talk. It's easy to read themes of mortality into the lyrics, but this is a stirringly indefatigable farewell. Her own church choir joins in for "Call On God", and the LP ends heartbreakingly with Jones chuckling or crying – it's hard to tell. Maybe both.