Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Electro-pop veterans get back to 'Violator' mode on 14th LP.
For nearly four decades, Depeche Mode have majored in gloomy meditations on their own personal shortcomings. But their 14th LP offers a bitter, sorrowful elegy for the outside world. Nearly every song on Spirit laments the death of human decency, often in disarmingly beautiful ways (see the fuzzy ballad "Fail," the forlornly crooned "Poison Heart"). They sometimes drift into heavy-handed polemics ("Where’s the Revolution"). But with a smart mix of techno-leaning keyboards and bluesy guitar, à la their 1990 high-water mark, Violator, it’s easy to get swept away in their gospel.
A country-rock exploration of Oberst's recent one-man album.
Last year Oberst released Ruminations, a stark one-man album that reflected its gestation in a snowbound house in Omaha. This companion piece serves up those songs with a full band and adds seven new tracks, with appearances by alt-country/rock royalty including Gillian Welch, Jim James, M. Ward and the Felice Brothers. There's a woodsy sound that's equal parts Dylan, the Band and Neil Young, with Oberst's quivering vocals and poetic storytelling to the fore and fiddles and harmonica in the mix. If Ruminations was his Nebraska, this is his Basement Tapes. Of the newer material, "Overdue" stands out for its hazy feel and tale of beautiful losers.
Cosmic American vibes on fourth album from New Jersey crew.
In 2015, Real Estate bade farewell to the considerable talent that is guitarist Matt Mondanile, who left to exclusively serve his other band, Ducktails. As a result, Real Estate's dissolution became a distinct possibility. However, Mondanile, while integral, was not the group's creative heart, with singer-songwriter Martin Courtney managing to reshuffle the five-piece's line-up to produce what may be their finest record.
The band's familiar essence is immediately recognisable on opener "Darling", a warm, shimmering affair adorned with the dreamy jangle of new guitarist Julian Lynch. His style is fuller and arguably more experimental than Mondanile's more minimalist approach, allowing these bittersweet, mournful songs a deliciously expansive, more woozily psychedelic atmosphere – here, they evoke long-time touchstone Beachwood Sparks more than ever.
That said, there is definite structure and discipline throughout. In Mind has tightened up where 2014's Atlas was a tad unfocused – as a songwriter Courtney has matured in terms of timing and restraint, exemplified by the exquisitely mellow "After the Moon". Another development is Courtney's full embrace of the old softly-sung, double-tracked, reverb-heavy vocals, to the point where he sounds uncannily like Elliott Smith on "Same Sun", an appropriately luscious track mimicking that deceased great. In Mind is a tribute and farewell to Mondanile and the foundations he helped lay, as well as a firm consolidation of a new identity.
Leeds punk-metal troublemakers throw down on fourth album.
PABH always sound like they're either soundtracking a four-day bender thrown by a bunch of desert tweakers hellbent on ruination, or they are them. The Haze is covered in an oily, sweaty sheen and underpinned by a riotous, sneering meth-punk energy, with neck snappers like "The Big What If" and "Prince of Meats" sitting alongside the psychedelic curl of "Lamping" (like if Refused did shitloads of 'shrooms) where the usual throat-shredding shit PABH are on is nicely tempered. Their metal edge devolves into Vines-y party-punk on "Dumb Fun", "Flash Lads" and "Hotel Motivation", but it makes for a raucous bareknuckled punk throwdown unafraid to get loose.
The lauded Austin, Texas band venture onto the dancefloor to strut their stuff.
What to do when, according to Metacritic, you're the most consistently highly-rated band of the 2000s? Apparently you get horny and go dancing.
Although strong traces of Spoon's DNA remain, with their ninth record something else is happening. Specifically, band leader Britt Daniel is writing and singing from the hips – and at times, the groin – rather than the head. "Could be a hot scent mixing with mine, you got me uptight, twistin' inside," he moans on the title track, his words sliding over electro handclaps, clucking guitar and shivering strings that nod to Barry White.
Although nominally an indie rock band, Spoon's music has always been based more on grooves than chords, a rubbing together of wiry rhythms and sputtering riffs to create a spark that will catch alight. But they've never been so overtly keen to shimmy onto the dancefloor. "First Caress" is unashamedly dance-pop, the rolling beat and bloopy keyboards soundtracking a story of passion overriding judgment. And if "Shotgun" isn't deliberately using Kiss's "I Was Made For Lovin' You" as a template, then I'll eat my copy of Dynasty.
Of course, Spoon being Spoon, there's no simple over-arching narrative here. Check out the backwards looped vocals of "Pink Up" or the breathy, brooding saxes of closing track "Us". But then, this consistently lauded band is consistently confounding.
The German folkies have undergone undeniable growth.
In 2013, Milky Chance's "Stolen Dance" was inescapable, a slice of nu-folk electronica characterised by Clemens Rehbein's distinctive, throaty whine. Fans of it will find plenty to like on LP two – it's filled with more of the mid-tempo, Euro reggae-folk tracks that marked their debut, albeit more elaborately furnished, from "Firebird", with an appealing instrumental section and vaguely Spanish guitars, to "Doing Good", with arpeggiated guitar chords and layered harmonies. Lyrics are occasionally woeful enough to suggest a language barrier, but those partial to Rehbein's divisive vocals and the odd harmonica will appreciate the band's progress.
This wry musical autobiography is a 50-song marathon.
Stephin Merritt's 1999 masterpiece, The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, was exactly what the title said. For 50 Song Memoir, he wrote a song for each of his 50 years on earth. It's a marathon that can prove exhausting, but he's got the material. Some tracks reference his childhood with a mother who lived on communes and had a series of bad boyfriends. Everything from his teenage obsession with English synth-pop to his history of living in New York is dissected with a mix of deadpan humour and razor-sharp wordplay, delivered via his deeper-than-Atlantis vocals and everything-and-the kitchen sink instrumentation.
Bad Religion frontman gets old-time folksie on third solo LP.
Much like Greg Graffin's first two solo records – released 10 and 20 years ago, respectively – album number three is no acoustic Bad Religion record. No, Millport sees the aging punk team up with Social Distortion's Jonny 'Two Bags' Wickersham, Brent Harding and David Hidalgo Jr. to help him commit his Americana-flavoured folk songs to wax. There's still dissent ("Amen – no religion can help this time of need," he croons gospel-like on "Time of Need"), but it's not the main event. In fact, Graffin sounds so relaxed and assured at times, you could almost forget he's spent nearly 40 years singing about being pissed off.
Regrets and reminiscences of the long distance indie rocker.
This time it's personal for James Mercer. Album five from his reliable indie-pop sugar rush is as convoluted as ever in thought and melody, but the "heartworms" of the title seem to feed on the inevitable reflections of middle age.
"Fantasy Island" spells out dreams of an attention-seeking schoolboy in a cocktail of chagrin and melancholy. "I don't want to show you my feelings," he sings at the edge of sweet falsetto that remains his default pitch, "I just want to crash through the ceiling/Before it gets too real." The folkie road movie "Mildenhall" is more literal still: dewy reminiscences of a fateful cassette passed in class, those first Eighties bands down at the Corn Exchange, cautious chords on his dad's guitar — "and that's how we get to where we are now".
It's not all as straightforward. "Painting a Hole" is more Bosch than Beatles, its "magical violence" cluttered with sonic ideas that are less effective, in the end, than the simple Cars pastiche of "Half a Million".
"There's half a million things/That I'm supposed to be/A shelter in the night-time/A punk running free/And if it gets too deep/I reach for my guitar," is the confessional insight from that one. He settles on the night-time vibe in the parting loneliness of "The Fear", but you can bet the heartworms are still turning.
Big, brash second dose of radio-friendly indie.
While Circa Waves' debut Young Chasers sparkled with a brash youthful restlessness, Different Creatures brings in co-producer Alan Moulder, steps in a heavier, more focused direction, and broadens their ramshackle indie-pop appeal in a similar way to their Liverpudlian forebears the Wombats. While Kieran Shudall making sense of life in a band and a changing world isn't breaking new ground, it's charmingly honest, and their indie-punk spunk is still happily present, if expanded. The life can feel sucked out of the bigger, brasher moments, but the intimacy of "Old Friends" is terrific.
Puerto Rican-American roots music traveller's homecoming.
The Navigator sees New Orleans transplant Alynda Lee Segarra return home to the Bronx, the political verve of Small Town Heroes (2014) intact. The wayfaring Nuyorican singer-songwriter weds Caribbean rhythms to her favoured rustic Americana ("Finale"), while navigating doo-wop ("Entrance"), jangling folk-rock ("Living In the City"), and rollicking fairground-roots ("Life to Save"). Defiant off-Broadway tune "Nothing's Gonna Change That Girl" is a standout moment, while Segarra summons her most fervent vocal performance to date in "Pa'lante". At a time of hair-trigger identity politics, The Navigator is a stirring manifesto.
British folkie returns to her roots on effortlessly enchanting sixth album.
Laura Marling gives the impression of being more comfortable when she's not talking about herself. Still just 27 and onto her sixth album, she's famously reticent in interviews and has always been an obtuse songwriter, though she dropped her guard on 2015's Short Movie, inspired by her youth-reclaiming hiatus in California. It was, she said, the first time she'd tried to write from her own perspective rather than the "something other" that comes more naturally to her, something she's returned to in this effortless collection of songs concerned with femininity and named after an old tattoo of Marling's, an abbreviated line from Virgil's epic Latin poem Aeneid, translated as "always a woman".
She focuses on an unknown muse throughout, positioning herself as a friend (and possibly a lover) prone to startling observations such as "Wouldn't you die to know how you're seen?/Are you getting away with who you're trying to be?" set to sinewy strumming, mellifluous melodies and vocals to match. See "Wild Fire" for the most breathtaking confluence of all four qualities, a deceptively simple ode to a woman just out of reach in Marling's best, most sweetly bruised vocal performance to date.
Off-kilter deviations keep things interesting – the smoky, swaggering "Soothing" might be a Roisin Murphy offcut – and producer Blake Mills (Conor Oberst, Kid Rock and Lana Del Rey) provides an unobtrusive, swelling backdrop, from the sun-drenched strings of "The Valley" to the barely perceptible clip and plinking piano of "Next Time".
While Short Movie saw Marling embrace electric guitars, Semper Femina is in the main pure folk. But Marling is adept at making the traditional sound sublime, as per sad-eyed lament "Always This Way", which sees her in unusually sentimental form; "stare at the phone try to carry on, but I have made my mistake". In finale "Nothing, Not Nearly" she lays herself bare again, couched in bluesy organ twang. "The only thing I learnt in a year/Where I didn't smile once, not really/Is nothing matters more than love/...not nearly." Elsewhere, she defiantly clings to a version of femininity not hitched to frills and fragility, recalling a rough-and-tumble outdoorsy childhood. "Well, you are wild and/You must remember/You are wild/Chasing stones." Championing a woman's right (and her prerogative as an artist) to be whatever she damn well wants, in "Nouel" Marling elaborates on that line from Aeneid: "a woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing" and owns it throughout the record, abandoning the American twang she affected on Short Movie as she flits between spoken word and celestial lilt. In reverting to "something other", Marling sounds like she's reconnected with herself.
A masterful comeback from a yesteryear supergroup.
The Blackeyed Susans work wonders on their first LP of new material in more than a decade. Originally conceived in 1989 as a casual detour for members of the Triffids and other fine Perth bands, the ensemble now highlight the considerable gifts of vocalist Rob Snarski and bassist/songwriter Phil Kakulas, among other members. There are loving echoes of the Everly Brothers ("Dream On") and the Velvet Underground ("Lover or the Loved"), while the electronics-flecked "I Asked My Mother" tips its hat to Leonard Cohen. "I Don't Dance (Anymore)" could pass for Tindersticks. These songs slow the pulse and nourish the soul.
On third album, folk-pop troubadour continues to showcase his pop savvy side.
In the four years since Ed Sheeran established himself as Taylor Swift's opening-act-slash-bestie, the British singer-songwriter hasn't just become a star – he's helped make over pop's sound. Blending acoustic sensitive-guy vibes with digital-age craft, Sheeran has knocked out hits for Justin Bieber and One Direction while influencing the strummy likes of Lukas Graham and Shawn Mendes. On ÷, his first album since 2014's X, Sheeran doubles down on the blend of hip-hop bravado and everyday-bloke songwriting that helped him break out at the turn of the decade.
The first chart-topper from ÷, the feather-light "Shape of You," might have hinted at a different direction; it's a beat-heavy, body-focused track that Sheeran used as a Grammy showcase for his impressive collection of loop pedals. But for the most part, ÷ puts Sheeran and his guitar center stage. "Perfect" is a lushly arranged love song that evokes golden-age pop; "Castle on the Hill," which balances jittery guitars and a massive chorus, strives for a Glastonbury-ready rock grandeur à la U2, Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons. The album closer, "Supermarket Flowers," is a wispy ballad Sheeran wrote as a tribute to his late grandmother, a retelling of the aftermath of her funeral from the perspective of his mother. Though the workaday poetry of its verses reveals the mundanity of dealing with death's aftermath in a detailed way, its chorus, with its angel imagery and "hallelujah"-ing, seems built for cathartic group sing-alongs.
Vivid character sketches provide ÷'s best moments. The deceptively breezy alt-acoustic "New Man" is an acidic rebuke of an ex's new boyfriend's faults. The way Sheeran paints the picture – sunglasses indoors, man bags, fake patois – ably puts across the "uggggh" that rises in his mind every time he creeps his former flame's Instagram. "Galway Girl" pays tribute to a fiddle-playing Irish lass who isn't above chowing down on Doritos when bringing a guy home – and it even brings some Emerald Isle-inspired bounce into the mix. Nodding to his own Irish roots and acknowledging a country where he's bigger than Bieber, Sheeran offers his own spin on the Irish drinking song to the present-day pop world in a modern-day jig that recalls a synthesis of Justin Timberlake meets the Pogues – and is released in March, to boot. Sheeran's musical history lesson is both well-timed and rip-roaringly fun, another example of his still-evolving craft.
Dark themes veiled by chirpy French indie-pop.
Musically, Fránçois & the Atlas Mountains' fourth album is colourful and fun, from the catchy twangs of "Grand Dérèglement" to the soothing, tropical "Apocalypse à Ipsos". But beneath the vibrant melodies, Solide Mirage contains confronting political commentary. Deeply impacted by global political chaos, particularly after touring a post-Arab Spring Middle East, Fránçois Marry and his bandmates felt a responsibility to address political issues through their music. While the language barrier may pose a challenge, the musical juxtaposition makes for an engaging, layered listen – should you choose to look beneath the surface.
Latest from Mark Kozelek is a stream-of-consciousness epic.
Three years after the resplendently sorrowful Benji – Mark Kozelek's apotheosis, 20 years in, as a songwriter-cum-barstool-storyteller – comes this 130-minute stream-of-conscious brain dump, delivered over dreamy grooves driven by ex-Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. The obsessions (death, boxing, mass murder, indie-rock inside baseball) feel more obsessive; the diaristic style more diaristic ("May 28th, 12:58 A.M., 2016," he intones on "Butch Lullaby," a requiem for a fellow traveller). Sometimes it drags, hypnotically or solipsistically, then a line – about the Orlando shootings, or Bowie's death – snaps things back into dazzling, desperate, furious focus. Taking its place alongside recent work-in-progress-style releases by Kanye and Kendrick, it's an epic for our unfiltered moment.