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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.
The Philly hi-hop vets make a powerful LP about hopelessness
Brutally bleak, shrouded in screwed hues, with a narrator "on my existential grind doing consequential dirt," this 33-minute concept suite is rap's own Downward Spiral. With zero aspirational tales, the Roots' 11th album explores a hopelessness where the trap is something you're stuck in. The band seems fueled by a moody, circa-1961 record collection, recontextualizing life before funk: Pianos and strings clash in explosions of third-stream jazz, French electro-acoustic pioneer Michel Chion brings noise, deep-blue tones vibrate like Miles Davis' Porgy and Bess, and a 90-second chunk of Nina Simone plays like opening credits.
No band but Nirvana made more breathtakingly transformative use of MTV Unplugged than R.E.M., the only act to headline the show twice. This set of 33 songs, 11 of which never aired, revisits both sessions, boiling their magical greatness down to two base elements: achingly sugared melodies and Michael Stipe's potent voice, in all its deep grain, swooning vibrato and radiant empathy.
The '91 sessions came just as the semi-acoustic Out of Time was taking R.E.M. from big to huge. The hits "Losing My Religion" and "Radio Song" (appealingly rap-less here) gain intimacy; ditto beloved deep cuts like "Perfect Circle," even more of a 4 a.m. confidence than the Murmur original. B-listers – "Disturbance at the Heron House," "Fretless," "Half a World Away," "Low," "Swan Swan H" – bloom in wonderful new ways, as Stipe recalibrates phrasing and Mike Mills repositions his fragile backing vocals. By 2001, drummer Bill Berry and some of the campfire vibe are gone. But new songs like "At My Most Beautiful," with its neo-Beach Boys harmonies, and the elegiac bubblegum of "Imitation of Life" show a band that could still sucker-punch hearts, while quietly magnificent takes on "Cuyahoga" and "So. Central Rain" conjure the same triumphant melancholy they did in the last century. How about a reunion like this in 2021, guys?
Twenty years on, Oasis' debut remains one of the most gloriously loutish odes to cigarettes, alcohol and dumb guitar solos that the British Isles have ever coughed up. This deluxe three-disc reissue captures the madness of the Gallagher brothers' early days – even if Noel and Liam couldn't stand to be in the same room together, they boozed and brawled their way to greatness in pub-punk anthems like "Live Forever" and "Slide Away." There are unreleased demos and live treasures, along with essential 1994 singles and B sides like "Fade Away" and "Listen Up," where Oasis first hinted at the dreamy depths behind all the lager-swilling bravado.
Reggae icon hits all the right notes but lacks a little bite
Jazz used to be dangerous, the soundtrack to opium and bootleg liquor – now it’s widely regarded as polite enough to play with dinner. Likewise, reggae’s roots are distinctly outlaw, but it’s another genre that has been sanitised over time. None of which is Ziggy Marley’s fault, but it is increasingly a problem for the 45-year-old. His fifth studio LP, Fly Rasta, does everything reggae should do, but grooves and messages that once felt edgy and charged now feel a little like nostalgia. It’s telling that this album’s high points – “I Don’t Want To Live On Mars” and “You” – are sunny love songs, while deeper cuts like “So Many Rising” seem to fade into the background.
Sydney singer/producer earns her breakout moment
Caitlin Park’s second album is a major step forward from 2011’s promising Milk Annual, bolstered by confident vocals and thick layers of self-production. Engineered by Sam Brumby (Little Bastard, Achoo! Bless You), indie pop and folk get spiked by hip-hop and world cues, recalling a subtler tUnE-yArDs on “One Another Love” and “Wake Up in a Whirr”. While rich samples tie the songs together, the entrancing refrain of “Hold Your Gaze” makes it one of the year’s best local singles. Other highlights include the snappy soul of “Lemonade”, the smouldering balladry of “Hunt for the Young” and the shadowy blues of “This Hand You Lent Me” and the title track. Park knows how to back up her colour-drenched collages with empowering lyrics, and she convinces as much vocally as she does as an instrument-juggling musician. What she’s best at, though, is pulling together wildly different strands and threading them into her own vast world of sound.
Brisbane outfit impress on debut album
The much anticipated debut LP from the Cairos is an epic sprawl of an album, a tour de force that’s been two years in the making, the product of over 100 songs, whittled down to a final 10. Coming from the same school of musical thought as Perth’s Tame Impala, in that these songs build and build before breaking over you, a strong psych flavour at the fore, they differ in that these tracks are somewhat gentler and more fluid. A bit more warmth has also been included, courtesy no doubt of producer Nick DiDia (RATM, Powderfinger). Songs like “Imaginations”, however, display a muscularity as well, showing Dream of Reason to be a more than well-rounded debut effort.
Effortlessly eccentric star disses exes, hangs with Blake Shelton
If you’re Shakira’s ex-boyfriend – specifically, the one who sued her for $100 million in 2012 – you really don’t want to hear this record. On Shakira., the Colombian-born singer and hip-shaker rejoices in dissing men who lie and “just want your money”, while salivating over a new love’s “legs that never end”. She pins huge choruses and a mercurial vocal tone to music that’s so effortlessly eccentric and omnivorous you’ll hardly notice when a banjo (and Blake Shelton) enter on “Medicine”. Shakira’s lyrics have turned more commonplace in the past 10 years, but still, what other pop star would use the word “agnosticism” in a love ballad?
Satisfying fourth LP from electro-soul Swedes
Better known for guest spots on songs from SBTRKT and Gorillaz, Swedish four-piece Little Dragon are clearly intent on staking out their own place on the musical map with their most sonically assured album to date. The group incorporate their neo-soul past into electropop present on opener “Mirror”, a cavernous slow jam that segues into the towering, aggressive “Klapp Klapp”. From there it’s a zig-zagging tour of nocturnal delights, from the heading-out sense of adventure of “Paris” to the late night drift of “Let Go”. At times it threatens to disappear in a delicate puff of smoke, but Yukimi Nagano’s soulful voice, rich with wonder and longing, unifies Nabuma Rubberband into a bewitching whole.
Australia’s best roots guitarist mixes the moods
A true under-the-radar type, Jeff Lang has been the country’s best roots guitarist, a sort of Aussie Ry Cooder, for 20-odd years and now 15 albums. Lang’s a remarkably agile musician; he can deliver a slow, soulful blues just as easily as he can come on all high and lonesome (see “This City’s Not Your Hometown Anymore”), or noir-ish and menacing (cue “Petra Goes to the Movies”). Yet Lang’s at his best when he lets his nimble fingers do the talking, best heard here in a fretboard workout known as “I Want to Run But My Legs Won’t Stand”, or when he unleashes some stinging slide guitar during “People Will Break Your Heart”. Lang’s music is both vivid and visceral.
Bad Seed lends gravity to country-rock piss-up
The Australian rock underground boasts a proud lineage of hard-drinking reprobate cowboy types, but unlike Tracy Pew, Spencer P. Jones or Tex Perkins, tipsy teddy bear Henry Wagons has never seemed likely to turn ugly after the next slab. Roping former Bad Seed Mick Harvey to the producer’s saddle brings more grit and brimstone to the act – even if the Vegas showman’s wink remains hardwired to Wagons’ brand of hell-raising.
Witness for starters the outrageous extravagance of the horns and axe-play on “Hold On Caroline”, which necks the bad acid before heading out on the piss. The long night of libation veers from the coy bachelor pad croon of “Beer Barrel Bar” to the bogan boogie anthem of “Fortitude Valley”. The stray dog desperation of “Search the Streets” is balanced by the Campari-and-flute pas de deux of “Summer Liquor”, complete with raucous tango diversion that illustrates this band’s controlled insanity as a live unit. “Why Do You Always Cry” is where it all comes together: an epic storm of Harvey atmosphere, classic rock chops and Wagons’ mighty vocal range, from full-throttle wail to deep caramel warble. The guy can turn a phrase like the most laconic barfly but, ironically, it’s the sheer perfection of his rich vibrato that makes the heartfelt likes of “Dust in the Hall” hard to take seriously. Maybe if he shot a man in Dubbo, just to watch him die . . .?
Rootsy Texan goes to New York, loosens up, sparks fly
Both within and without the Be Good Tanyas, 38-year-old Jolie Holland has succeeded in giving old-timey music a modern makeover. With Wine Dark Sea, her fifth solo LP, Holland has tapped into Manhattan’s downtown jazz scene, bringing in players such as Doug Wieselman (Lou Reed). And she really kicks up her heels, especially during the wigged-out boho groove that is “Waiting for the Sun”, or the various junkyard guitar vamps (“On and On”, “Dark Days”). Holland’s ever-so mannered vocal style makes it hard to work out exactly what she’s singing about, but despite the odd dark cloud, there are moments (“All the Love”) when the lady simply couldn’t be any more mellow.
Five years in the musical wilderness hasn't dulled the Brit singer's edge
It's been five years since Lily Allen's last album, a period in which the U.K. pop diva got married and had kids. But fear not – she's still the same firecracker who turned heads in the mid-'00s with eclectic, post-hip-hop tunes and bullshit-slaying lyrics. The brilliantly titled Sheezus has loads of great punch lines ("I don't give a fuck about your Instagram or your lovely house or your ugly kids," she sings on "Insincerely Yours"). But Allen also rocks a sisterly warmth: The title track deals honestly with returning to compete with artists she loves, like Gaga and Lorde: "I'm prepared/Not gonna lie, though/I'm kinda scared." Please, girl.