Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Force of nature finds sheltered harbour.
It's comforting to hear from a confessional songwriter you can trust. No crafty masks or unreliable narrators, just blood and guts and skeletons laid bare. The family allusions and brazen revelations continue on Martha Wainwright's best album in years ("I used to do a lot of blow/ Now I only do the show") but the plot thickens with songs written by her brother Rufus, Beth Orton, Glen Hansard and more. There's an ease of delivery in the mostly live recording with a chamber jazz combo capable of the grinding rock of "So Down" and nocturnal elegance of "Piano Music". As always, her astounding voice is a force unto itself, but rarely has it felt quite so sure of its purpose.
Satisfyingly dense third LP from Tame Impala and Pond muso.
Such is the warm massage of synths that smothers this and GUM's 2015 LP Glamorous Damage that it can take a few listens to grasp the finer points of Jay Watson's music. Because finer points there are: Flash in the Pan exhibits unprecedented songwriting ambition and moves with an attractive tumbling, tangential momentum. Watson can be abrasive on one hand, such as with "Deep Razz", as well as woozily hypnotic on mood pieces like "Ophelia". He is, however, no singer, so the effect-soaked vocals are allowed to sink into the Jean Michel Jarre-esque psychedelic soup, serving to emphasise the record's twin strengths of full-bodied production and incisive melody. On these counts he hits the spot.
Thrash legends prove they've still got it on 10th studio album.
Few bands are subjected to the kind of scrutiny when releasing a new album as Metallica. But that's what happens when your first five records – from 1983's Kill 'Em All to 1991's 'Black Album' – are regarded as metal classics. Of course, it doesn't help that the past few decades have yielded more ups and downs than a stock market, testing the patience of even the most ardent fan, whether it be the perceived sell-out of 1996's Load, St. Anger's songless din or the much maligned collaboration with Lou Reed, 2011's Lulu.
If, as many believe, Metallica righted the ship with 2008's Death Magnetic, the 12 tracks spread across this double album continue that trajectory. There are nods to the band's thrash past – "Hardwired", the brilliantly-titled "Spit Out the Bone" – and such is the riffing and attitude of "Atlas, Rise!" that it could have been plucked off their Kill 'Em All debut.
Primarily, though, this is an album of grooves, and some of them are monsters ("Am I Savage?", "Dream No More"). On occasion the band overthink things and trip themselves up ("ManUNkind"), and there would have been some merit in shaving a few songs off the tracklist to make an even 10. But when that's the biggest complaint of an album by a band 35 years into their career – a band with a catalogue as rich as Metallica's, no less – it's clear they're doing much more than just treading water. Instead they're shouting at the top of their lungs, "We ain't done yet!"
Reliable MC returns with strong fifth album.
Consistently one of Australia's smoothest emcees, Illy's fifth LP is packed with the signature slick, radio-friendly sound that has come to define the Frankston native. Lead single "Papercuts" featuring Vera Blue builds on the foundations of previous hits like "It Can Wait" and "Tightrope", with the impressive M-Phazes production delivering a near-bulletproof blend of pop, EDM and hip-hop. "Catch 22" plays in the same space, and amid such sonic polish the biggest danger is missing some of the album's best lyrical moments. The verses in stand-outs like "Two Degrees" and "Highway" demonstrate that for all the mainstream appeal, Illy is still more than capable of spitting fire.
Styles collide on eclectic, exuberant new album.
The 2015 debut from Liam McGorry's (Eagle & the Worm, Saskwatch) nine-piece Melbourne musical collective, Mind Renovation, was an album bursting at the seams with freewheeling ideas and a surplus of energy. Their follow-up is equally eclectic. Channelling the chuck-it-all-in-the-blender vibe of Nineties era Beck, Digital Zodiac flits between vocalists (chiefly GL's Ella Thompson and Venus II's Jarrad Brown) and styles with reckless abandon, from the tropical funk of "Roll Back the Years" to the house keys and Madchester vibe of "High Low". Occasionally all the shifts threaten to send it off the rails, but a palpable sense of low-stakes fun propels this wild ride to its satisfying conclusion.
Group's long-awaited comeback LP features timely election-year truths, poignant homages to late MC Phife Dawg.
The first album in 18 years from exploratory, jazz-traveling rap heroes A Tribe Called Quest effortlessly chronicles the chaotic crescendo of the 2016 election: a warning of "mass un-blackening," dark-humoured crooning about intolerance ("Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways") and perceptive words about the media's culpability in everything ("Why y'all cool with the fuckery/Trump and the SNL hilarity/Troublesome times, kid, no times for comedy"). The whole album ends with late rapper Phife Dawg taking the nickname "the Donald" back from our oncoming bigot-in-chief. Recorded well before the election, it serves as the hands-down best musical release valve the confused and angry segment of America has gotten since Election Day. As Q-Tip says in "Melatonin": "The world is crazy and I cannot sleep."
In addition, the band itself was rocked to their foundation earlier this year when Phife, the group's "high-strung voice," passed away at age 45. The shadow of his death is the other overarching theme of We Got It From Here, the remaining members paying honour on multiple songs, most poignantly when de facto leader Q-Tip spins a nearly verse-long tribute, delivering a rap as Phife himself on "Black Spasmodic."
Technically, Q-Tip is in a particular school of awesomely stubborn Nineties MCs who only let their flows grow more complex, internally knotty and speedy with age; as opposed to the Jay Z route of always trying to understand what makes modern rap tick. To anyone who grew up loving Big Daddy Kane or Kool G. Rap, Q-Tip is in that small field of fortysomething rappers (Andre 3000, Busta Rhymes, Eminem, Lauryn Hill) who decided the only way to move forward was go ludicrously speedy, not infectious with the slow-mo. His rhymes are absolute stuntman level at times: On opening track "The Space Program" he spills, "We about our business, we not quitters, not bullshitters, we deliver/We go-getters, don’t be bitter 'cause we not just niggas." The usually more elusive MC Jarobi brings his hard-rhyming A-game too, and longtime associates like Busta Rhymes and Consequence play berserk supporting roles.It's important to check the vibe throughout. Entire books can be written about how the sound, identity, location, phrasing, technical innards and even purpose of rap music has changed since A Tribe Called Quest's last album, The Love Movement, in 1998. But Tribe, in both delivery and content, maintain the attitude of the Bohemian everydude funkonauts that inspired Kanye West, Andre 3000 and Kendrick Lamar (who all appear here). Lyrically, they're still popping the bubbles of hip-hop fantasy ("Kids …") and examining their egos instead of inflating them ("Ego").
A record rooted in anxiety and mourning, We Got It From Here remains musically as dark and electrically relaxed as 1996's Beats, Rhymes and Life and 1998's The Love Movement. With help from visionary producer J Dilla, those critically mixed, commercially sturdy records were moody, muted, experimental, deeply funky and remarkably prescient, but ultimately unable to wrangle the proper amount of attention in the shiny-suit era. We Got It From Here checks in with similarly off-kilter but undeniably grooving beats. Tribe utilise the Dilla innovation of letting samples clash at odd angles; they let a copy of Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets" skip endlessly until the real John pops in for a guest spot, and the drum beat to "Lost Somebody," one of the album's Phife tributes, doubles up and separates from itself like a Steve Reich phasing experiment before abruptly slamming into total silence. In a contemporary move, Tribe abandon the Nineties hip-hop format and allow for modern musical and melodic sprawl, like a guitar solo from Jack White, a psychedelic keyboard detour or a spiralling verse from Anderson Paak.
One of the most timeless rap groups ever has returned with a record that doesn't sound like 1996, but doesn't sound like 2016 either. It's imbued with the same feeling of "Push It Along" that they've had from the beginning. The biggest complaint is the one thing they couldn't control: The entire thing feels like it needs a whole lot more of Phife Dawg's scrappy humour, personality and playful back-and-forth. His absence is not only lamented and honoured, it's also felt.
Sydney quartet embrace their inner R&B on second album.
Advance word that the Griswolds were ripping up the rulebook on their second album wasn't far from the truth. Turning to producer Andrew Dawson (Kanye, fun.), the Sydney quartet have created a densely packed R&B-inflected pop album that seizes the production Zeitgeist and could confidently compete on the international stage. "Out Of My Head" is a link to their sonic past, but the rest of the album sees them channelling the spirits of vintage Michael Jackson and Prince and merging it with the uptown funk of Justin Timberlake. It's not all fun and games – the title-track and "I Want It All" send the album out on a raw, reflective note that adds an extra layer of complexity and depth.
Producer finds the odd revelation on love-themed LP.
UK electronic producer and musician Romare (born Archie Fairhurst) proves his adeptness at taking disparate elements – vocal samples, monophonic synthesizers, thumping dance beats – and repurposing them into something all his own. Fairhurst has a flair for morphing simple, repetitive grooves into something much fuller and enticing (the pulsing "Je T'aime"; the blues-influenced disco-funk of "All Night", which recalls Play-era Moby), although the technique doesn't always pay-off ("Don't Stop", which is as relentless as the title suggests). When it all comes together – as on joyous house-inflected centrepiece "Who Loves You?" – Love Songs hits the amorous dancefloor highs it sets out to achieve.
New York duo throw the kitchen sink into the mix.
"Pop rocks and coke make your head explode!" squeals Alexis Krauss in "Rule Number One". Your head may well do the same during the duo's fourth album. Derek Miller still shreds like the hardcore guitarist he used to be, but they've gone for a maximalist pop approach that can grate, sometimes sounding like they're playing three or four mismatched songs at once – digitally diced and sliced beats are tossed against jibbering Eighties synths and random blasts of metallic guitar. "Torn Clean" provides some brooding respite from the ADD approach and "I Can't Stand You Anymore" is one of their more catchy moments, but when Krauss exclaims "I'm manic and breathless, it's exhausting", one can only agree.
Our take on the songwriter's eighth album.
Alicia Keys' eighth album downplays her classical training in favour of a grittier R&B edge. She roughs up the piano she once played prettily, endows her vocal exertions with more church than ever, and leans into a solid old-school hip-hop backbone fortified in large part by her husband Swizz Beatz. Her socially consciousness lyrics are as tough as her sound, from the sex-positive pacifism of "Holy War" to the inner city blues of "The Gospel," where her raw holler skirts the edge of despair. But Here also offers hope: "More Than We Know" is an uncommonly strong anthem of uplift (bolstered by actually acknowledging the everyday reality experienced by the kids it preaches to) and "Blended Family (What You Do for Love)," which celebrates Keys' real-life co-parenting experiences with her husband's ex-wife, suggests how caring can build community. And musically, the way a boom-bap here brushes up against a Latin flourish there while Seventies soul echoes nearby suggests less a fusion of styles than an atmosphere the singer inhabits – these are the sounds New Yorkers overhear blasting from passing cars and seeping from pedestrian earbuds, reimagined as a hectic but coherent symphony.
Sting holds stick shift in hand on pop-rock victory lap.
"Dear leaders please do something quick/Time is up, the planet's sick." That's the worst of Sting's surprise rock return after a decade of Renaissance lutes, stage musical autobiography and other un-danceable shenanigans. But the listless climate change rumination of "One Fine Day" is far from the only clanger here.
"50,000", a half-spoken musing about rock & roll immortality, plays just as clumsily into the hands that would paint him as a pompous pranny intoning his humble wisdom in a deep, thespian rasp that Russell Crowe might deem a tad ponderous.
The lead track and single, "I Can't Stop Thinking About You", is much more clever, casting elusive inspiration as a lover lost in the snow with a melody and attack that would have fit the Police's Synchronicity like, well, an OK B-side.
That familiar brash electric twang cut with extended jazz chords is all over "Down, Down, Down" and the more raucous "Petrol Head", which recalls that unfortunate yogic sex incident with its squirmy juxtaposition of "burning bush" and "stick shift in my hand".
Even given the rich folk tradition of cross-dressing battle songs, "Pretty Young Soldier" is the most bizarre of the lilting acoustic tunes. Thematically, the anxious parent's modern world lament, "Inshallah", seems to sum up a general acquiescence to fate, which is anything but inspiring.
Indigenous legend uses love and hope as a central theme.
Archie Roach's tenth record is a gem. At its core is the theme of love, but overall it's an 11-song long message of hope: "what I wish for," as Roach himself says. Covering a range of styles, Let Love Rule centres around his deep and rough-edged voice, the mainstay through these songs which paint vivid pictures of a theme which in no way seems clichéd or overused, not in Roach's hands anyway. The addition of the Dhungala Children's Choir and the Short Black Opera Choir on the title track and "No More Bleeding" is a masterstroke; Jen Anderson's violin throughout plays a pivotal role; the songwriting is poignant and as strong as ever, on an album which fair oozes soul and honesty.
Irish-Australian couple deliver fourth album of rough blues.
There's an argument to be made that a musical partnership between a husband and wife – particularly in the folk and country realm – can have a problem accessing what we might call ‘edge'. Often, the energy born of restlessness and friction is dulled by domestic contentment. Hat Fitz & Cara operate somewhere on the brink. The duo's percussive, gutsy blues can produce a brooding intensity, as on "Try", whereas elsewhere the more upbeat boogie-woogie comes to grate. Cara's vocals are as powerful as ever in a conventional kind of way, while her husband's growl, like a less raspy Seasick Steve, is the LP's most soulful ingredient. An accomplished, if unremarkable, addition to their oeuvre.
A gauzy blend of Coldplay and Jeff Buckley.
They say one of their major influences is Wu Lyf, the short-lived Manchester band better remembered for the hype than the music. But in reality, this English quartet take more from early Coldplay, along with the overt Jeff Buckley affectations of "It's Over" and "Family". Everything in Palace jangles, trickles and tinkles, underpinned by skittery drum patterns, with reverb whacked on top to give it all plenty of echo and space. Singer-guitarist Leo Wyndham sounds like he's singing everything with big puppy dog eyes, crooning earnest lines such as "trust yourself, it's harsh out there" in a flighty tenor over trebly guitars that stutter and spark without really catching fire.
My Morning Jacket frontman gets political with second solo outing.
James' follow-up to Regions of Light and Sound of God (2013) and last year's blue-skies MMJ outing The Waterfall is, in James' telling, a reaction to the 'broken' and 'corrupt' political system of the day and systemic denial of 'equality and respect'. Yet James-the-noted-practitioner-of-transcendental-meditation and James-the-politically-minded-voice-in-the-wilderness collide to oddly measured effect.
The overarching project of the album is most patent in lead single "Same Old Lie", a hypnotic late-nite funk spell in which James all but exhales his prophetic message, while the droning electronics and intrusive bass of "Hide in Plain Sight" make for a disquietingly world-weary, even claustrophobic meditation on transcending isolation. The plaintive whimpers and spiking highs of James' vocal work with the ever-mutable MMJ are ironed out into something smoother and duskier here, as the ever-impressive multi-instrumentalist delves deeper into the electronic textures and crystalline keys that shaped much of Regions. Instrumental "We Ain't Getting Any Younger Pt. 1" settles uneasily into an inscrutable groove and spacey prog shades, while sluggish funk entry "In the Moment" speaks to mindfulness and peace. Tellingly, though, funereal closer "Eternally Even" feels like a recessional.
For an album that takes political and social engagement as a jumping-off point, Eternally Even is an incongruously resigned — if prodigious — experience. The ultimate suggestion is, paradoxically, one of surrender rather than collectivity and action.
MC releases long-awaited follow-up to 2008 debut.
Eight years is a decent wait for a follow-up record, but as Pez takes time to explain on Don't Look Down, his second set has had a tough genesis. Immediately after his debut the emcee faced a long period of illness, and while he discusses the self-doubt and challenges he faced during the creation of this album, his still-familiar laid-back flow lends things an easy charm. It's the guests who add welcome variety: Paul Kelly, 360, Hailey Cramer and Paul Dempsey deliver strong contributions, with Kelly particularly memorable on the haunting "Livin' On". Maybe not the breezy follow-up fans expected years ago, but Don't Look Down rewards those who've grown up too.