Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Dreamy cohesiveness of the highest order.
What is so delightfully refreshing about this London duo is the utter effortlessness of their music. Oh Wonder's brand of alt-pop is modern, beautifully crafted and often catchy as hell, but the radio-savvy hooks are delivered with little fanfare, and the songwriting seems to take its own seamlessness for granted. Perhaps it's the made-to-meld voices of Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West, or the carefully paced tracklisting that goes from earthy energy and quirky pop (think Of Monsters and Men covering Kate Miller-Heidke) to the arresting sparseness of "My Friends" and "Waste". Either way, this dreamy, polished album is a winner.
The Alabama songwriter goes wider musically but takes things more personally.
"Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know," sings Isbell on "Hope the High Road". We all know what he's talking about. In a post-Trump world it sometimes seems that all the news is bad news. But Isbell's glass is still half full: "Wherever you are, I hope the high road leads you home again."
He sounds warmer and softer than usual, perhaps because he knows about second chances. On the fast track to alcoholic oblivion as a member of Drive-By Truckers, he cleaned up and made up for lost time on 2013's Southeastern, an extraordinary collection of songs that unfolded like great short stories.
The Nashville Sound is not a solo album, but the new record with his group the 400 Unit, which means he goes wider. You can hear echoes of Ryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen (little surprise) but also Elliott Smith and R.E.M. (quite a surprise).
He's also getting more personal. His protagonists find answers in a bar ("Cumberland Gap") or a loving woman ("Tupelo") or "the fire in my little girl's eyes" ("White Man's World"). And on "If We Were Vampires" he duets with the 400 Unit's fiddle player Amanda Shires, who happens to be his wife, on a song musing on the fact that one day one of them will die and the other will be alone.
On her long-awaited second LP, the pop diva proves she’s in for the long haul.
On her debut, Pure Heroine, Lorde ridiculed pop music while glorying in it. The former Ella Yelich-O'Connor displayed an honour-roll-brat-in-detention-hall flow, a goth sense of drama and the sort of supreme over it-ness that only an actual 16-year-old can muster. Full of heart and nuanced writing, the LP was a small masterpiece and a massive hit as well. You could tell the Auckland, New Zealand, kid was in for the long haul, and after a four-year wait, her second album, Melodrama, confirms that notion.
Now 20, Lorde signals a new order straightaway, with lonely piano chords where Pure Heroine's electronic palette was. They open the single "Green Light”, a barbed message to an ex who the singer can't quite shake. The song grows into a stomping electro-acoustic thrill ride, its swarming, processed vocal chant "I want it!” recalling another precocious, hyperliterate, synth-loving auteur singer-songwriter: Kate Bush, who insisted "I want it all!” back in 1982 on "Suspended in Gaffa”. Give Lorde credit for wanting it all too – the huge vistas of electronic music alongside the human-scaled and handmade.
That's the trick here, abetted playfully by co-writer/co-producer Jack Antonoff, who brings the rock-schooled song sense he coined with fun. and honed on Taylor Swift's 1989 to Lorde's electro-pop craftiness. Using empty space to spectacular effect, the arrangements veer from stark clarity to delirium, often in a few bars. Like the finger snaps on her breakout, "Royals”, small touches loom: the dry guitar opening of "The Louvre”, with its ambient-dub atmospherics; the distant yelps and heraldic roots-reggae brass on "Sober”, a sexy midtempo jam endlessly second-guessing its own pleasure; the screeching industrial noise and f-bombs on "Hard Feelings/Loveless”; the trap beats that strafe the title track's orchestral brooding. As a pop-song production display, it's a tour de force.
Lorde's writing and fantastically intimate vocals, ranging from her witchy, unprocessed low-register warbles to all sorts of digitised masks, make it matter. She has said the album's conceit is a house party and its unfolding dramas; indeed, Pure Heroine's cool snark is now a hotter passion, in its millennial-sceptical way. It's most vivid on the rueful piano ballad "Liability”, a meditation on the loneliness of an ambitious pop drama queen.
But Melodrama's most striking moment may be the aside on "Homemade Dynamite” – a goofy new-lust paean with a Top Gun reference and a death wish – when Lorde vocalises a tiny explosion amid total silence, like a friend whispering a wordless message in your ear in a nightclub booth as chaos rages. It's emblematic of a modern pop record that prizes old-school intimacy, and lingers well after the house lights have gone up.
English band raise their voice on urgent second album.
Perhaps responding to criticism that their smooth 2015 self-titled debut was so light in places as to almost disappear in a wisp of smoke, Liverpool three-piece All We Are have turned the volume and attitude up on second album Sunny Hills. Opener "Burn it All Out" sets the tone with vaguely danceable post-punk that resurrects the spirit of early New Order and the Cure; a template that is adhered to throughout the LP with capable but rarely innovative results. It's only on epic closer "Punch" – a song Florence Welch would kill to have written – that All We Are find their own voice, opening an intriguing door to whatever may follow next.
Ninth album from enduring Californian punk rockers.
Given that this is only Rancid's third album in 14 years, it's something of a surprise to see Trouble Maker so soon after 2014's Honour Is All We Know. But that's where the surprises end. The 17 songs that comprise their ninth LP – of which eight don't even make the two-minute mark – contain all the Rancid trademarks: anthemic, heartfelt melodic punk ("Telegraph Ave"), flat-knacker venom ("All American Neighbourhood") and two-tone/ska ("Where I'm Going"). It's all quite acceptable, but as with each of their LPs this millennium nothing grabs you by the throat with the life-affirming power of their classic mid-Nineties output.
Country golden boy cheats Alzheimers with one last LP.
The rhinestone cowboy's final curtain is handmade and lovingly tended. The handful of Jimmy Webb songs, the fireside duet with Willie Nelson, a back porch demo from Roger Miller and, at last, Campbell's first studio recording of "Everybody's Talkin'" add up to finely finished business. Having joined the country TV hero as a teenager in the early Seventies, Carl Jackson's steady hand at the desk gives Adiós a warm-hearted glow and one of its best songs: "Arkansas Farmboy" is his mentor's life story, written for a voice he clearly knows like his father's. From honky tonk tears to a ragtime twist on Dylan, it's a farewell that stands tall even beside its bonus hits disc.
Fiery eighth album from Chicago punk stalwarts.
Rise Against's furiously politicised punk means there's always fodder for their meaty chops, and now's as good a time as any with a psychotic narcissist in the White House. So the muscly punk of "Mourning In Amerika", "How Many Walls" and "Welcome to the Breakdown" tackle the rampant divisive dipshittery of Trump's America, while the charging title-track ought to accompany a clip of el Presidente and his disgusting cronies distorting into nightmarish animals devouring humanity. Best, though, is "Bullshit", a fiery punk-rock torch song examining political apathy and moral hollowness in contemporary society.
Geordie bard returns with epic, history-spanning concoction.
This first post-Brexit album from Richard Dawson continues the glorious distortion of traditional folk forms and exploration of community and culture that made 2014's Nothing Important such a visionary work. Peasant is a coruscating, occasionally unhinged masterpiece using a lyrical framework based on the Early Medieval kingdom of Bernicia. Yet his ire is opaque, his social commentary glimpsed through oblique narratives. The de-tuned nylon guitar remains his weapon of choice, which when joined by children's choirs and ritualistic handclaps produces a relentless cacophony that testifies to Dawson's singular genius.
Four-way concept album about the solar system is a strange trip.
A concept album based around the solar system, with a track for each planet along with shout-outs to the moon, black holes and Halley's Comet? It sounds like something Muse would come up with after a few too many edibles. Stevens pushes his vocals through vocoders and autotune to sound like a lonesome robot, while Muhly's orchestrations, McAlister's beats and Dessner's guitar washes combine to suggest Philip Glass, Vangelis and Giorgio Moroder are on board the spacecraft with them. The proggy electronic/symphonic trip is atmospheric but meandering, with the odd shooting star.
British progsters show no signs of slowing on 11th album.
Since forming in 1990, Liverpool sextet Anathema have progressed from death metal act to a post-progressive group that deal in the same sort of grand, gorgeous sonic landscapes as latter-day Marillion. Their 11th album has a loose thematic tie to 2001's A Fine Day To Exit, exploring what happened to the character who disappeared on that record. The album is at its most affecting in its sweeping, piano-based moments, vocalist Lee Douglas's voice soaring ("Endless Ways"), and sees them incorporating elements of electronica and even jazz-noir into the film score-like compositions. Anathema's restless creative urges remain intact.
Brooklyn indie-folk band spread further on sophomore LP.
There's no shortage of creative curveballs on Big Thief's second effort. The unfurling transformation of "Coma" from demo to all-absorbing hypnosis; the looped banjos of "Object"; the sparseness of Gaelic sermon "Mary"; the sharp shift between bright pop momentum on "Shark Smile" and the heavy-plods of chaser "Capacity". However, it feels more competitive than complimentary, serving as a noble attempt to counterweight the looming presence of vocalist Adrianne Lenker. Her astute observations and harrowing hushed delivery remain a constant centrepiece, striking such prominence that the songs end up sounding quite similar.
Star navigates a less bombastic pop universe on fifth full-length.
After steadily charting nine Number One hits since 2008, anthem-roarer Katy Perry is stumbling through the fog and strobes of a less bombastic pop universe. Fourth album Witness surfs on gentler throbs of house music and lets ballads smush into art-pop soup. It's all a perfect fit for a Hot 100 dominated by the subtle, nuanced, EDM-informed music of artists like Halsey, Camila Cabello and Troye Sivan. But subtle and nuanced was never the calling card of the artist behind songs like "I Kissed a Girl." Perry has replaced the eye of the tiger with the heart of a contemporary night owl, making an album of mostly moody, dreamy, reserved music – and one double-entendre-filled, AC/DC-ready food fight in "Bon Appetit." In turn, a pop icon blends into the rest of the radio.
Working with super-producer Max Martin and a list of modern cool kids (Duke Dumont, Jack Garratt, Corin Roddick of synth-pop band Purity Ring), Witness is a mish-mash of electronic-leaning pop: the currently trendy revival of British 2-step ("Witness"), a dancehall/disco smash-up ("Chained to the Rhythm"), fake Sam Smith ("Save as Draft") and a look back on vintage early-Nineties house music ("Swish") that jacks the same Roland Clark sample that Fatboy Slim did in 2000. Throughout, Perry is less like the so-unusual, candy-coated Cyndi Lauper of "Teenage Dream," and is more an anonymous disco crooner, a breathy moderator leading us through passionate but muted songs of longing and empowerment.
A brassy voice that once held long notes and sang lines like "I am a champion" is now devoured in effects and reverb, rarely reaching the excited joy of punkier electronic-poppers like Robyn, Charli XCX or even recent singles from Lorde. The exceptions are "Roulette," an explosive EDM Eurythmics update (produced by Martin and Shellback), and the gospel-choir-assisted "Pendulum," which brings a vintage Perry vocal performance to some late-Eighties filigrees by Kanye producer Jeff Bhasker. But her advice in that song doubles as a criticism: "Don't try and reinvent your wheel/'Cause you’re too original."
The true king bids adieu with effortless wit, riffs and wisdom.
In the wake of his March passing, Chuck Berry's first studio album in 38 years is obviously more than a face-value proposition. The all-in guitar boogie of the opening track, "Wonderful Woman", is both a broad embrace to all who cherish his signature duck-walking style and a profoundly personal celebration as three generations of the Berry family trade licks between lusty verses about love gone by.
"Big Boys" mines the same timeless feelgood rock & roll vein. It opens with yet another variation on that trademark "Johnny B"/"Beethoven" riff, then tumble-turns through a tale of wide-eyed youth that manages to uncork the exuberance of the eternal teen like – well, like Chuck Berry on a roll.
It's hard to feel quite so involved in his slow-stomping cover of Tinpan Alley standard "You Go To My Head", or in the sentimental croon of his own "Darlin'", but it's harder still to begrudge a couple of last, slow-dancing duets with his daughter, Ingrid.
A live Tony Joe White nugget and a fond bookend to history in "Lady B. Goode" pad a soft mid-section, amply redeemed in the last two tracks. In the enigmatic spoken-word fable "Dutchman" and the breezy closing wisdom of "Eyes of Man", the gracefully departing pioneer displays an undimmed gift for the loaded conversational rhymes that founded the reference library of rock & roll.
British ambient pop trio play it safe on uneven sophomore record.
It's hard to imagine Jamie "xx" Smith much likes London Grammar being compared to his band. He'd have reason to groan, too – while London Grammar's first album enjoyed the rare combination of critical acclaim and huge international sales, their second is less impressive, a dirge-heavy collection that lacks the colourful counterpoints of its predecessor – and certainly the boundless imagination of Smith's work.
Hannah Reid's vocals are undeniably arresting – she's got lungs to match Florence Welch's – but the songs lack the range of her clarion alto. Lyrically, too, Reid stumbles – "follow your dreams" on repeat in "Wild Eyed" is hard to stomach, and her reminder that "Maybe what we are and what we need, they're different things" (shock horror!) cripples "Non-Believer", an otherwise palatable track about her scepticism of a friend's new lover.
Some songs work, among them "Big Picture", produced by Jon Hopkins, with lovely arpeggiated guitar chords rippling under an equally pretty chorus; close relative "Who Am I"; and "Everyone Else", Dan Rothman's guitar imparting a lilting lightness over Dot Major's mannered percussion. But producer Paul Epworth, old hat at making mighty-voiced women (Adele, Florence Welch) sound ever more grandiose, fails to guide his young charges towards much new or exciting – unlike, say, the beat-driven "Metal and Dust" or bongos-laced "Flickers" from their debut – and the album suffers for it.
In a celebratory mood, Callinan collabs with international friends.
Album two sees Sydney's enfant terrible parlaying more of his shit-stirring persona into his music. "Night on the piss, the shit hits the fan," he deadpans in his laconic drawl on "My Moment", a creeper that culminates in garish EDM sirens, while "S.A.D" is a balls-out electro-ballad... about drugs. This is Callinan's dance record, filled with typically wry lyrics, amusing cameos – Jimmy Barnes lends his howl to "Big Enough" – and Callinan's cool cronies (he counts Connan Mockasin, Weyes Blood and Jorge Elbrecht among his friends and fans). The power-ballad finale, though, is more self-aware than silly, as Callinan admits, "it was all bravado".
Ultra-bubbly love songs that don't linger long.
From the stadium-sized sparkle of opener "J-Boy", it's clear Phoenix are playing it straighter than on 2013's subversive Bankrupt!. In fact, the Parisian quartet celebrate much of the luxury they skewered last time. They also embrace gushing romance, with frontman Thomas Mars professing love in multiple languages on the title track before cooing "We're meant to get it on" amid "Fior Di Latte". While still mingling swanky and sleazy impulses, the band tap the high-gloss euphoria of the Bee Gees and ABBA with these synth-licked, dance-slanted songs. But for all its streamlined craftsmanship, Ti Amo suffers from a certain weightlessness, trafficking in pleasures most fleeting.