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The singer channels five years of personal hardship into resilient, genre-smashing pop.
In 2012, wild-child pop diva Kesha hit a high point with her dirty, glitter-soaked rock album, Warrior. But she's spent the past five years in silence, embroiled in a grueling legal battle with her most frequent collaborator, superproducer Dr. Luke, whom the singer accused of physical and emotional abuse.
On her excellent comeback record, Rainbow, Kesha channels that drama into the best music of her career – finding common ground between the honky-tonks she loves (her mom is Nashville songwriter Pebe Sebert) and the dance clubs she ruled with hits like "Tik Tok" and "Die Young," between glossy beats, epic ballads and grimy guitar riffs. In the process, she also finds her own voice: a freshly empowered, fearlessly feminist Top 40 rebel.
The LP opens softly with "Bastards," a ballad ripe for a campfire singalong. Above acoustic guitar, her once-Auto-Tune-weary vocals breathe easy as she nimbly and confidently shows off her underappreciated range, singing, "Don't let the bastards get you down." It's followed by the glam-punk kiss-off "Let 'Em Talk," where she's joined by Eagles of Death Metal. Kesha executive-produced the album, working with a team that included everyone from Ryan Lewis to Ben Folds to her mom. Across the board, she achieves a careful balance of her diverse musical selves: The gospel-tinged "Praying" takes the high road by wishing the best to the people who have hurt her, and "Woman" is a blissfully irreverent, proudly self-sufficient retro-soul shouter backed by Brooklyn funk crew the Dap-Kings.
Kesha used to sing about partying with rich dudes and feeling like P. Diddy. Rainbow is full of sympathetic (if at times cloying) prisoner metaphors and therapist clichés: "Live and learn and never forget it/Gotta learn to let it go," she repeats on "Learn to Let Go." Luckily, she also showcases her absurdist sense of humour. On the standout "Hunt You Down," she evokes June Carter with a devilishly threatening country ditty: "Baby, I love you so much," she sings in the most innocent Southern-belle voice she can muster, then warns, "Don't make me kill you." On "Godzilla," a gloriously surreal slice of indie-folk kitsch, she imagines what it might be like to fall in love with a cartoon monster, creating a lighthearted novelty out of chaos and destruction.
The album's most powerful moment is a cover of the 1980 Dolly Parton ballad "Old Flames (Can't Hold a Candle to You)" – Sebert's biggest country hit as a songwriter. Parton herself helps out on guest vocals. But this isn't some Grand Ole Opry homage. Kesha flips and filters it through her dreamy vision, turning the sweet tune into rousing rockabilly until the standard sounds refreshed and vividly modern, battle-tested and born again. Just like the woman singing it.
Classic riff-rock return for the bard of the burbs.
Paul Kelly's not drowning, he's waving. Shakespearean dalliances behind him, these waters vividly recall his surging pop-rock fortunes of the Nineties. That's literally true in Linda Bull's full band revisitation of "Don't Explain". Vika's thumping "My Man's Got a Cold" is such a classic Aussie household concept it's hard to believe it took Kelly so long to nail it. He sings the rest, bouncing off the ladies' big harmonies and Ash Naylor's twangsome riffs as the rising moon on a warm summer night and an open fire by candlelight invoke the lusty passions of everyman. All this and a priceless sequel to Roy Orbison's "Leah". Spoiler alert: he lives.
OPN scores OST with analogue electronics, Iggy Pop.
Crime-thriller flick Good Time sets Robert Pattinson on a downward spiral of bad choices. The action's matched to a synthy score from Daniel 'Oneohtrix Point Never' Lopatin, its ambient waft and arpeggiated blips heavily influenced by Tangerine Dream. This isn't just the straight score: distorted voices and sounds from the movie are scattered throughout, as compositional bridges and sound-art devices. It crests with the cathartic finale "The Pure and the Damned". It's a striking song: Iggy Pop's murmured words and weathered croon evoking both the film's fatalism, and his own mortality.
Clear-eyed rock reckoning from Melbourne indie powerhouse.
Meet Jen Cloher. Sure you've seen her around, maybe shared some quality time. But here's where you bust in on her playing guitar naked on her bed. Her girlfriend's away on tour. Again. The job's a slog. The country's a joke. Shut the door on your way out. She's going somewhere with this.
The bliss, longing and jealousies of her life with the celebrated Courtney Barnett simmer in the present, in the wiry opener "Forgot Myself", and the sweet intimacies and raw insights of "Sensory Memory", "Waiting in the Wings" and "Dark Art". The past comes in raging flashbacks to Catholic girls' school, where "to love was to live in sin"; and to scenes of music as salvation, as ecstatic as the Dirty Three in "Loose Magic" and as heroic as the Saints and the Go-Betweens' in the savage "Great Australian Bite".
Cloher's perspective on Australian culture and its music industry's navel-gazing and compromises are brutal. Bickering mynah birds and crabs in a bucket define our politics and sad illusions of success.
It's the weight of three albums that make her every truth shake the foundations of the cosy singer-songwriter myth. Well, that and her band, with Barnett at her back, and a voice that's found a new well of deeply personal resonance. "It's exhausting up here on the surface," she sings. Too true.
Political punk rock brought into razor-sharp focus on third LP.
Not taking into account their liberal use of saxophone, Rhode Island's Downtown Boys come across as a punk rock, political Pixies: Victoria Ruiz has the raw mania of Black Francis at his most unhinged, even occasionally singing in manic Spanish ("Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)"). Produced by Fugazi's Guy Picciotto, Cost of Living is a pummelling "fuck you" to whatever injustice the band sets its unflinching gaze on, whether it's structures built to keep people apart ("A Wall") or being wilfully denied a seat at the table ("Promissory Note"). The unrelenting abrasiveness on show dulls the impact slightly, yet it remains a searing sonic wake-up call.
Second album from enigmatic Sydney folk duo.
The sultry music of Jep and Dep is for solitary nocturnal listening. Channelling Tom Waits, Scott Walker and some elements of Serge Gainsbourg, the duo forge a reverb-happy shimmer on each of these taut, concise songs that are further enhanced by Dep's admirably sensitive production. Jep's voice, meanwhile, possesses an absorbingly lived-in quality, worldly rather than trained, and combines with Dep's more limited croon nicely on "My Berlin" and "Unrequited Requiem". While not exactly eclectic (sticking firmly with the neo-gothic noir), THEY'VEBEENCALLED is supremely atmospheric, and revels in the shadows.
Heady concept record from Brisbane heavy rockers.
On their third album, Young Lions extend the strides they made on 2015's Blue Isla, delivering a concept record that explodes their sound into heady, arena-ready territory. "Burn the Money" and "Destroy Me" are a pair of emotionally wrought, heavy-alterna-rock burners with a deft sense of melody –Muse-lite, if you will, or Coldplay if they possessed any stones – while the isolationist paranoia of "Better World" is a definite highlight. Their approach is writ large in moments like "Headspace" and "Freedom", though, as electronic-flourishes tinge their muscly rock chops with a weighty atmospheric air, providing a depth that's surprising, and welcome.
Sophomore record is a slow-burning, considered evolution.
The Preatures' debut capitalised on the success of their single "Is This How You Feel?" with 34 minutes of mainly punchy pop-rock in a similar vein. Girlhood's charms are slower to reveal themselves, from the punky girl power of the title track to "Yanada", which sees the Indigenous Darug language of Sydney sung by frontwoman Isabella Manfredi and set to latitudinous Eighties chords to irresistible effect. Increased vulnerability is felt in Manfredi's voice and lyrics on ballads such as "Your Fan" and "Cherry Ripe", a contemplative Cyndi Lauper throwback, while expertly placed pops of energy – "Mess It Up" and "Nite Machine" – ensure a gentle but undeniable propulsion.
The 3-CD set contains a wealth of material from 1953 to 1955.
There's an eye-popping photo in this essential 3-CD set taken on July 31, 1955, at a Tampa, Florida. gig. Elvis clutches his customised Martin acoustic, hollering to heaven and the cheap seats, right hand a strumming blur, face and throat glistening, pants soaked in sweat, as Scotty Moore leans into the shot with his Gibson peghead. It's a high-resolution alternate angle on the cover shot from Presley's debut LP, one of rock's most iconic images, packaged with a 120-page detailing – via images and a day-by-day timeline – of Presley's birth as recording artist and mega-star.
Why buy music when you can stream it? This is why.
The set includes the Memphis Recording Service acetates Presley had cut on his own dime ($3.98 a pair, to be exact); the entire legendary Sun Sessions, aborted takes and all; and every known concert and radio recording from the period. The sound quality is likely as good as it'll ever get, and the performances are musical bedrock. Five versions of "Blue Moon," with slight variations on its clip-clop falsetto-moan conjuring? More'd be fine. Ditto the Louisiana Hayride live recordings here, which show a 19- and then 20-year-old galloping headlong into fame's stratosphere.
Percolating power pop detours into UK nostalgia.
No strangers to brisk guitar-pop earworms, the Creases front-load their debut LP with a cresting chorus on punchy opener "Answer To". The synth-streaked "Do What U Wanna" and fuzzily propulsive "Something's Gotta Break" follow suit at album's end, but the Brisbane quartet spend much of the interim indulging a soft spot for yesteryear Britpop. Beyond echoes of early Blur ("It's Alright"), the Verve ("At Last You Find") and even Cast ("Everybody Knows"), "Is It Love" goes full Primal Scream with horns, wah licks, backup singers and a very baggy beat. Of course, the Creases are at their best on those thrilling bookends, when they sound most like themselves.
Debut from Aussie indietronica duo sails safely rather than soars.
If one song title on the debut album from Sydney/Newcastle duo Boo Seeka sums up their overriding MO, it's "Calm Symphony". Never Too Soon is a ripple-free blend of chill-bro vibes and slick, ornate electronic production. Ben "Boo" Gumbleton and Sam "Seeka" Croft certainly know how to craft a hooky pop song, as evidenced by the earworm single "Turn Up Your Light". They're adept at inspiring gentle toe-tapping, but the results are often too airless and clean. It's inoffensive indie-tronica that's catchy, yet remains a particular kind of vague and generic that means it's bound to end up soundtracking hip cafés country-wide.
Five-decade journey from jug band stoners to legends.
As startling as it is to hear the Angels in their primitive form as a pot-smoking jug band, it can't compete with the late 1970s Angels at their shadow-boxing peak. So, this 36-track archive trawl is strictly for completists. Besides jug band rambles and acoustic Brewsters, included is a brace of recent tunes with Dave Gleeson, plus half a dozen live tracks from 2010's Symphony of Angels, the last line-up to feature iconic frontman Doc Neeson and bassist Chris Bailey, now both gone, and an orchestra (not a good fit). The pick of the litter is the handful of classic era deep cuts: Dark Room's "I'm Scared" still kicks like a mule.
Great American storyteller mines history for tragicomic gold.
One album every 10 years means zero filler when Randy Newman takes time from his Hollywood day job (his Cars 3 score is out now). These nine richly imagined historical narratives begin with the eight-minute "Great Debate", in which the complexities of science are arrayed in court with much symphonic intrigue, to be shouted down by a gospel chorus of "I'll take Jesus every time". An intimate chat between the Kennedy brothers on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the identity theft of blues pioneer Sonny Boy Williamson and a touching family deathbed scene are sculpted with the dry wit, thespian empathy and light orchestral touch of a master.
Punk-metal royalty collaborate on a skull-smashing debut album.
Too often supergroups sound good on paper but end up being an excuse for normally great artists to ease off the gas in the hope that their high profile band mates will pick up the slack. Not so with Dead Cross. Mike Patton delivers in a range of vocal styles we haven't seen since Faith No More's Angel Dust over raging hardcore courtesy of Slayer's Dave Lombardo and Retox's Justin Pearson and Michael Crain. It's furious but not relentless, as Patton's delivery injects melody, humour and brutality in equal doses, making for an album that never gets stale. If you were expecting an arty vanity project, you'll be disappointed – this is a motherfucker of a hardcore punk record.
Soulman shows off a love of vinyl and collabs on inventive solo LP.
"Solo project" is a bit of a misnomer for an album featuring 35 people – from producers to MCs and a band featuring members of Hiatus Kaiyote, the Putbacks and the Bamboos. But Melbourne soul impresario Lance Ferguson isn't really one to do things by halves. Raw Material features re-works of 12 original tracks, which Ferguson cut to vinyl and handed over to his producer mates like New York's Javelin, who apply house beats and synth splashes to the lounge-y "Voyage to the Future". The source material is included, so you can compare the reworks to the OG bangers (if that's what you're into). Goes down pretty well at a party, too.
Melbourne six-piece strike a bittersweet balance on LP four.
So many of pop's most compelling songs remain those composed of equal parts light and shade. Having dabbled with this dichotomy on 2015's Sorry I Let It Come Between Us, here Saskwatch nail it. "It doesn't feel like there's much difference between love and loss," Nkechi Anele reflects on "December Nights", a bubbling pool of psychedelic pop that draws melancholy from even its brightest moments. "Renoir" is equally compelling, as is the sparse "Fortress". But don't be fooled; this is a record for dancing away a broken heart, not wallowing in one.