Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
10th album from gloom-punk kingpins.
AFI trade in the kind of darkness that isn't so much dangerous as it is fodder for a bad tattoo, but their unabashed flamboyance and dramatic, emotionally torrid eyeliner-punk is macabrely entertaining. Bigger and lighter than 2013's Burials, AFI (The Blood Album) is more emotionally overwrought than a Bachelor finale, but delivers ace emo bolters ("Still a Stranger", "Hidden Knives") and strained epics ("Pink Eyes"). The emo-goth-lite "Aurelia" and "Snow Cats", plus the Cure-channelling "Above the Bridge", are kinda comforting though: in a world that can feel oppressively meta, there's still time for melodrama.
Alt-country luminary bares her soul anew, shines more brightly still on 11th studio LP.
Kasey Chambers has always tended to eschew the more reticent course of songwriting from a point of abstraction, consistently wearing her profoundest truths and uncertainties on her sleeve. It's an artistic penchant given full flight on free-ranging double-LP Dragonfly: "Talkin' Baby Blues", a shot of Woody Guthriesque spoken-word acoustica, is itself a stunningly candid retelling of Chambers' storied life to date.
From country-roots arrival The Captain (1999) through pop-rock outlier Carnival (2006) and back to antebellum country-folk collabs with Shane Nicholson in Rattlin' Bones (2008) and Wreck & Ruin (2012), fixity of style has never been Chambers' remit.
The 20-track span of Dragonfly makes for an immersive arc, recalling Lucinda Williams' sprawling Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (2014) for scale, while more than matching it for style, honesty and range. Frequently trading in the earthy blues-leaning vernacular of Chambers' work with Nicholson ("The Devil's Wheel") and the unvarnished raucousness of Springsteen's Seeger Sessions (2006) (loping dustbowl spiritual/train song "Golden Rails"), Dragonfly delivers on the expansive promise of 2016's Ain't No Little Girl EP sampler.
The album's discs cleave into two discrete sessions: the first with sometime collaborator Paul Kelly, and the second with brother and stalwart producer Nash Chambers. Both carry forward something of the raw, biting brilliance of Bittersweet (2014), Chambers' winning foray into the wheelhouse of U.S. ex-pat producer Nick DiDia.
Opener "Pompeii" entrances with its spindly old-time banjo and hypnotic trad-blues vocal refrain, before song of empowerment "Ain't No Little Girl" – a jazz-inflected belter thrilling with defiance – showcases the newfound strength in Chambers' ever-distinctive voice following nodule surgery last year.
Chambers finds an all-purpose creative foil in key collaborator Harry Hookey – see slinky folk dance "No Ordinary Man" (with Vika and Linda Bull) and sweetly irreverent, self-deprecating country-pop ditty "Satellite" – and trades lines with Kelly to striking effect on juddering blues stomp "Hey". Yet, by the time "If We Had a Child" with Keith Urban arrives on Disc Two, the inclusion of a big-name guest vocalist feels like an aside: it's Chambers' show.
Disc Two unfurls with similar stylistic expansiveness, taking in everything from chain-gang call-and-response "Shackle & Chain" to swampy backwoods blues snarler "If I Died". "Dragonfly" is, unsurprisingly, the album's standout moment, emboldened by urgent strings and awash with feeling.
A towering songbook, wordy and resigned, Dragonfly is the opus of Australia's foremost progenitor of, and innovator in, the country-roots fold. It's the masterwork of a heart laid bare in song.
Too many computers create disconnect for one-man-music-machine.
"The Wheel", from Sohn's 2014 debut Tremors, is a beguiling track. His clear, yearning croon is layered over a single stuttered, treated vocal utterance on loop and plinking percussion, and it's all swollen up in the middle, the voice dropping out as the synth washes get loud. There's nothing like it on Rennen, the London-born, Vienna-based producer's second album, on which the man born Christopher Taylor turns away from the warm, acoustic-toned electronica of his debut and towards something colder, more clinical and harder to connect with.
Opener "Hard Liquor" sounds a little like U.S. soul singer Allen Stone if he started playing around with synthesisers ("She needs that hard liquor, and she'll be ok"), and Rennen never really escapes that quasi-churchy, school camp feel throughout (see the twee verse and clap-stomp of "Conrad", and his repentance on the title track as he intones "my faith don't mean a thing" in the chorus). It's not unlistenable – "Rennen" benefits for being a fuss-free piano track, and "Falling" manages to convince you of the sentiment, the track's title repeated until it descends into a swirling pit of nefarious organ synths. But too many of these busy tracks are jam-packed with effects, lashings of James Blakeian auto-tune and everything but relatable feeling. It's hard to feel much towards Rennen in return.
Underground icon celebrates four decades with album 15.
Jad Fair is 62 years old, but he's still singing about giant leeches with 40-foot long noses that are so scary that literally "no one is safe". It's been 40 years since Fair formed Half Japanese with his brother David in their bedroom, and one of rock's great oddballs is just as wide-eyed, energetic and infectiously youthful as he's ever been. It's a Half Japanese record so Fair's stream-of-consciousness musings take centre stage. But with a dexterous band at his disposal – featuring Nineties-era collaborators and a baritone horn player and cellist that you can barely hear in the mix – this old dog has brought some new musical tricks.
Bonobo plays to his textured, mood-shifting strengths.
There's a reassuring consistency to the music Simon Green makes as Bonobo. The producer's sixth album finds him in dependably classy form, with one foot in a darkened club and the other at the morning-after wind down. Where 2013's The North Borders channelled the energy of London's underground scene, Migration mirrors the shifting moods of Green's marathon DJ sets. As a result, the tracks with a dancefloor pulse feel more alive than the likes of "Grains" and "Second Sun", whose tasteful restraint recalls a massage therapy soundtrack. Migration is built on fine details, with new layers shimmering up on each listen. It is, in other words, the Bonobo we know.
First album in three years from Oklahoma's fearless freaks.
2013's The Terror was more than just a morbid mood piece. It was a timely reminder that no matter how many confetti cannons they discharged or how many fake blood vials they poured on their faces, Wayne Coyne's fearless freaks could still be very real when they wanted to be.
But if The Terror caught them heading into the middle-age abyss with eyes wide open and guns blazing, then Oczy Mlody is the calm after the cataclysmic storm.
The album is painted in the same soft hues as 2002's Yoshimi, but without a song like "Do You Realize??" or "Fight Test" to give this flighty collection some heft. The closest thing here is "The Castle", where Coyne sings of a girl with eyes like butterflies in a voice that's getting weaker and, consequently, more effected with age. It's more of an instrument now, wrapping wordlessly around the shape-shifting arrangements and light techno of "Nigdy Nie (Never No)", or being Auto-Tuned to buggery on "Do Glowy".
"The Castle"'s melody is repurposed for "Galaxy I Sink", which veers off into Morricone territory midway through. At times they sound like they're stuck in a Disneyland snow globe, but they bring it all home on a poignant note: the zany but affecting "We a Family", with best bud Miley Cyrus pitching in on vocals. Nawwwww.
Second album of infectious garage rock from L.A. troupe.
The Molochs, the brainchild of singer-songwriter Lucas Fitzsimons, sound like a heady combination of several epoch-defining bands when they were young and raw. "No More Cryin'" is pure pre-Aftermath Rolling Stones; "Charlie's Lips" channels Barrett-era Floyd, while "New York" is a clear homage to the Velvet Underground & Nico. Amid the bluesy, abrasive jangle there are definite songwriting chops ("You and Me"), while Fitzsimons possesses a magnificent nasal snarl of a voice. There may not be a lot that is original, but the Molochs are an invigorating, exciting bunch nonetheless.
London indie trio embrace a more expansive sound on third album.
After their brilliant 2009 debut xx, and a very good, if safe, sophomore effort in Coexist (2012), British trio the xx assert their intentions early on I See You.
"Dangerous" opens with a set of horns and settles into a coltish beat, the claxons reappearing and multiplying in the chorus as Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft pursue a relationship they know they shouldn't. It's the sound of the xx moving out of their natural habitat – the shadows – and towards the more experimental, wide-ranging palette that producer Jamie "xx" Smith painted so brilliantly with on 2015's solo album In Colour.
It's in the calypso notes of "Say Something Loving", the marimba-heavy "Lips" and the liberal sampling throughout, most effectively in the sped-up snippet of Hall and Oates' "I Can't Go For That" in the album's statement-making lead single "On Hold".
Fans, fear not, it still sounds like the xx – Madley Croft and Sim's distinctive, unchanging vocals see to that, and even when Smith is referencing a grab-bag of genres, his "future garage" flourishes identify him – but their efforts to evolve are palpable without sounding laboured. And there's no need to begrudge an equal amount of classic the xx tracks such as the simply lush "Replica", bass plucked over sunshine synths and heavenly sighs. The future looks bright.
Opposites attract on instant indie-soul classic.
The chemistry that Spacebomb geek Matthew E. White finds with London folk sprite Flo Morrissey feels more divine than manufactured on this lovingly crafted covers album. The songs, from Frank Ocean and Beck back to Nino Ferrer and Leonard Cohen, are reborn in the dappled sunshine of White's rich, witty, obsessively sculpted production. Morrissey swoops like a bluebird through Barry Gibb's "Grease" and an ingenious Velvets-meets-Brian Wilson reshaping of "Sunday Morning". The spiralling incantation of "Govindam" confirms a destination on the distinctly spiritual side of soulful.
Sisters pivot towards pop on fifth album.
The McClymonts appear to have pretty much jettisoned the country template that defined their earlier output. Under the guidance of producer Andy Mak, Endless wholeheartedly embraces upbeat Nineties-influenced pop; that means big choruses, as on "House", a track Shania Twain might have once peddled, emotive electric guitars and synths amid the backing arrangements. Though the relentless polish does have its appeal, one wonders if these songs, some of which exhibit certain melodic intrigue (such as the title track), might have been better served up with less extravagance. Otherwise, Endless represents a bouncy, breezy new direction.
Fifth album for big-at-home British rockers.
You Me At Six may headline Wembley, but they've struggled to chart similar heights outside their homeland. Night People will likely not change that. Having decamped to Nashville with producer Jacquire King (Kings of Leon), their fifth album veers from Royal Blood-esque riff-fests (the title-track) to big, sweeping, made-for-arenas moments such as "Give", yet fails to consistently set the pulse racing – for every melodic gem like "Heavy Soul" there's a song like "Swear" that elicits a shrug of the shoulders. Frontman Josh Franceschi's voice has always been solid if unspectacular – a good analogy for the band in general.
Celtic punk legends deliver stonking ninth album.
Dropkick Murphys' blueprint remains effective as ever: write muscly punk-rock songs, add Celtic flourishes (mandolin, bagpipes etc), and make sure you can sing along while shitfaced. Here, in a welcomingly invigorated fashion, all their familiar tropes are hit: stomping shoutalongs ("I Had a Hat"), underdog championing ("Paying My Way"), a tin-whistle-accordion showdown ("First Class Loser") and anthemic fist-raisers ("Blood"). But their combination of riffs and heart – see their response to the desecration of their beloved home town, "4-15-13" – is why they remain one of punk's most reliably great bands.
High profile collaboration engages without captivating.
Given that Gone Is Gone feature Mastodon bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders, ATD-I drummer Tony Hajjar, QOTSA guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen and composer/multi-instrumentalist Mike Zarin, it's no surprise that Echolocation is a sonically spectacular affair. Where it struggles, though, is in the area that matters most: songs. So while you can marvel at the Fragile-era NIN atmospherics of "Dublin" or the progressive rock mastery of pretty much every song here, recalling any standout moments once the album's over is difficult. As a mood piece Echolocation works wonderfully – as a collection of songs to really hold onto, it falls short.
Duo expand protest-rap palette on latest call-to-arms album.
Run the Jewels 2 was the rare sequel that topped the original, as the skull-busting tag team of Atlanta street intellectual Killer Mike and Brooklyn indie-rap veteran El-P synchronised their punches with the aggro precision of a brilliantly choreographed superhero fight sequence. The third instalment, which dropped digitally weeks ahead of schedule on Christmas Eve, thrums with similar urgency, but a lot's changed since 2014. Mike spent the summer bro'ing down with Bernie Sanders, moonlighting as a CNN talking head, and his no-nonsense anti-racism is increasingly the language of black activism. Meanwhile, El-P's cyberpunk-tinged premonitions of dystopia sound more like straight-up journalism every day.
Run the Jewels reorient themselves accordingly. Rather than slamming into action, Episode Three opens with the ruminative prelude "Down," Mike glancing backward at the drug-pushing life he evaded and joining fellow Atlantan Joi for a melodic hook. El-P's production, aided as before by Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby, still centers on a bassy throb and squelch, but now his drums twitch in nervous anticipation as often as they land like pavement-pulverising Hulk stomps. "2100," written with Beyonce producer Boots, is laced with wiry guitar arpeggios, Kendrick Lamar collaborator Kamasi Washington blows a sax on "Thursday in the Danger Room" that's by turns soulful and frantic, and the tracks make room for the distinct styles of several guest MCs – Danny Brown's anxious yelp, Zack de la Rocha's say-it-and-spray-it flow, Miami rap queen Trina's effortless filth.
Lyrically, there no lack of muscular skill-flexing. On "Talk to Me," Mike calls out an easily ID'd devil who "wore a bad toupee and a spray tan" while El-P boasts self-abasingly "I'm dirt, motherfucker/I can't be crushed." And El-P's still got just as many absurdist boasts ("I do pushups nude on the edge of cliffs") as Mike has pithy slogans ("We are the no-gooders, do-gooders"). But tracks like the simmering "Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)," with eerie vocals from Boots and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe and a clip of MLK intoning "A riot is the language of the unheard," mark an evolution of the duo's sound and sensibility. Run the Jewels can still detonate rhymes like a Molotov cocktail lobbed into a pharmacy, but now they're strategising for the long war ahead.
More music for the thinking person’s airport.
The bells! The bells! They softly chime in irregular time, as if struck by random felt mallets, deep underwater and floating in space simultaneously. The sonic ripples and whistles they weave through air, body and mind hypnotise with a quality best described as, well, Eno-esque. "Reflection" is a 53-minute piece described by the composer as "generative" music – sounds not so much played as set in motion under a series of cyclical, overlapping rules – designed to create "provocative spaces for thinking". Fans of Discreet Music and LUX will know the vibe but the feeling, magically, is something new yet again.
Wry, confident power-pop from Minnesotan indie darling.
Discovered by Low's Alan Sparhawk in 2001, Haley Bonar's career now spans seven albums of quite uncategorisable pop. Impossible Dream sways between a dreaminess resulting from her reverb-heavy vocals and the immediacy of her melodies, and an underbelly of punk/noise with rough guitars, befitting lyrics that vent personal frustration and lambast suburbia. At moments she's reminiscent of early St Vincent, while a certain vulnerability in Bonar's singing hints at Cat Power on "Better Than Me". While the catchiness is among the chief attractions, some more complex songwriting turns may have added a further dimension, but it's hard not to be charmed by such wit and self-awareness.