Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
French/Cuban sisters resist but rejoice in the age of Trump.
Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz pull off a rare balancing act here as Ash takes in resistance and defiance, carrying a lament for what we are doing to each other but offering a strong note of optimism. No upbeat pop vehicle, it is measured and spaced, like crooning Bat For Lashes and meditative Bjork given their run of African and South American percussion and sliding basslines. But it feels on an upswing, even in a song such as "Numb", a slow unfurling where the narrator is "Numb, I ache for home/Protect me", but comfort comes in something spiritual as much as physical where "I feel you walking by my side/Take my hand/I'll save myself".
Fraught punk narratives from productive Aussie collective.
These Melbourne musicians declare themselves an "emotion punk" band, and anyone who has heard their early EPs or seen them live will understand why. Led by disarming vocalist June Jones, Two Steps on the Water's scrappy, folk-infused compositions conjure feelings of embarrassment and intense self-doubt via spasmodic loud/soft dynamics and blunt first-person lyrics. Their second album is more sophisticated than its predecessor, but the uniform aesthetic – acoustic guitar, rough vocals, a dry violin – can be challenging. It's a pleasant surprise when keyboardist Ellah Blake takes the lead on "Hold Me", hinting at more diverse possibilities for Two Steps.
Talented British youngsters turn it up on album number two.
There's little to fault with Visions of a Life, a rock/punk/indie hybrid that glides between genres with the conviction and skill of a much older band. Singer-songwriter Ellie Rowsell is the stunning centrepiece, sometimes spewing hot rage, as in "Yuk Foo", or whispering spoken word poetry over gauzy, celestial synths in "Don't Delete the Kisses", a millennial love song if ever there was one: "And I'm typing you a message/that I know I'll never send/rewriting old excuses/delete the kisses at the end." Producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen's (M83) spectral presence is felt throughout, but the band's effortless "Formidable Cool" is entirely their own.
World-beating Malian duo go discothèque on eighth studio LP.
Beginning with Dimanche à Bamako (2005), husband-and-wife duo A&M have steadily expanded their multi-lingual Afrobeat-, blues- and- jazz-informed sound with so much cosmic Afropop fusion. The pair's radically fluidic bent shines across this electro-pop adventure. Drawing on some Air-like new sounds ("Ta Promesse"), the album's electronic accoutrements are boldest on the hard-hitting "Yiki Yassa". Lyrics swing from Bambara to French as the funk bounce-and-slink of Amadou's guitar and the unruffled, soulful cool of Mariam's vocal tie proceedings to past glories even as the pair carry the magic forward.
The soul-rock singer's powerful posthumous goodbye.
On the growing list of farewell albums by dying rockers, Leon Russell's contribution – recorded months before his passing in November last year – may be the most unflinching yet. "Sounds like a funeral for some person here/And I might be the one," he bemoans; elsewhere he dwells on loneliness and lost lovers. Paradoxically, though, the soul-rock icon hasn't sounded so alive in years. From the swampy choogle of "Love This Way" to the supper-club orchestration of "On the Waterfront" to the Cotton Club jazz of "Easy to Love", he poignantly circles his musical bases one last time.
That retro comeback album without having to go away first.
Rather than wait out a decade and then call Joe Henry or Jeff Tweedy to produce the rootsy comeback, Van Morrison does it himself now. Roll With the Punches – five originals and some favourite blues and soul – is an unfussy, old-without-sounding-tired collection that could have been phoned in and still sounded OK, but works at a better than average level.
If that sounds equivocal it's not, because of the songs, including works by Bo Didley, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Doc Pomus. Didley's "I Can Tell" – which could have been done by Them, Morrison's route out of Northern Ireland in the mid-Sixties – and Tharpe's "How Far From God" both pack some solid swing, and Morrison's "Too Much Trouble" adds some Nat King Cole jazz to that swing. Nor is it the guests, who include the likes of Jeff Beck, John Paul Jones and Chris Farlowe. The slightly cosmic classic Van style of "Transformation" is lifted by Farlowe on just-rough-enough vocals and Beck on fluid guitar. If there is some hesitation it could be put down to the comfortable nature of a record which, while never being less than enjoyable, does cry out for some of the spiritual/joyful reawakening which marked the "returns" of veterans such as Solomon Burke and Mavis Staples. But then, Morrison's never gone away, has he?
Titanic fifth album from LA punk shredders takes aim at everyone.
Each Bronx record has been a punk fist cannoning into the sternum of our collective shitty now: amid nuclear threats, class war, fake news and narcissistic, racist politicians, on V the Bronx strip artifice from the indolent bones of modern life with fire and vengeance. Riffs kick and spit like scorpions being lowered into tequila bottles in the pummelling assault of "Sore Throat", "Broken Arrow" and "Stranger Danger", as Matt Caughthran rasps "I'm a killer/Let me be who I am". Even its tempered, melodic moments ("Side Effects", "Space is the Place") have rough edges, as V disseminates its anger and melody in brutally effective fashion.
Second album from emerging darling of Oz country.
Fanny Lumsden's take on country music is free of the formulaic drabness that infects many Australians in the genre. Instead, her tragicomic songs are wittily self-deprecating and imaginatively evocative of the minutiae of regional Australian existence – she sings of Bunnings and Target on the title track. Production and arrangements are also attractively eclectic: "Elastic Waistband" verges on indie-folk while "Here to Hear" closes the record on an unexpectedly poignant note. It could lose a couple of tracks and the lyrical glibness occasionally misfires, but Lumsden is an idiosyncratic and welcome addition to the world of Australian country.
Garage rock and sci-fi synths collide on weird, wonderful LP.
Canadian Chad VanGaalen has spent the past 12-plus years creating a body of work preoccupied with mortality and trippy sci-fi concepts, and Light Information stays on course. There are songs about holidaying in other people's bodies ("Mind Hijacker's Curse"), shapeshifters and parasitic demons, VanGaalen's catchy blend of ramshackle garage rock and spacey synths occasionally coming in to land to explore more earthly concerns (the sobering "Broken Bell"). The freaky world VanGaalen has lovingly created may scare off casual tourists, but those willing to take the dive may find it's a place they never want to leave.
The Southern rock icon's farewell album is vividly steeped in his own history.
The final album by Gregg Allman, who died in May, is a moving farewell statement à la twilight masterworks by Leonard Cohen and David Bowie. "I know I'm not a young man, and it's time to settle down," Allman sings on the roadhouse blues "Love Like Kerosene", his full-moon growl strikingly undiminished.
Yet while Southern Blood is rich with intimations of mortality, it's easygoing too, with a laid-back generosity that recalls Allman's kindest Seventies work – see his warm take on Lowell George's Southern-rock salvo "Willin'". Allman steeped the album in his own history, recording with producer Don Was in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Allman and his brother Duane recorded in the late Sixties. And while the LP is almost entirely covers, they spool by as one vivid benediction, from Allman's gorgeously soulful reading of Bob Dylan's "Going, Going, Gone", to his gently swaying version of the Grateful Dead's meditation on aging "Black Muddy River", to tender folk reckonings by his friends Tim Buckley and Jackson Browne. Allman opens with an original, the searching blues "My Only True Friend", sung as a conversation with Duane. "It feels like home is just around the bend," he sings, the elegiac sound of gracefully moving on.
Brisbane indie-pop kids come of age with sophomore release.
Rhythmically strong and filled with gorgeous synth production and guitar, Bats is the perfect successor to 2016's This is Our Vice. Tim Nelson's songwriting has become a dynamic leading force – over 13 tracks, he wears his heart on his sleeve more than ever before. Aching gospel influences ("O Lord") turn to delicate moments of sweetness ("Give It To Me"), while fully embracing technicolour vibrancy fusing synth-pop and house ("Look After Me"). An album inspecting self-worth, self-discovery, love and longing, Bats is an accomplished effort; demonstrative of the band's musical maturation and their confident steps into a beautifully complicated pop arena.
The thrift-shopping, deep-thinking MC has a good time.
Macklemore's first post-fame LP minus longtime partner Ryan Lewis finds the Seattle MC unburdened by stardom or the social concern that turns his woke anthems into online firestorms – "I'm a motherfuckin' icon/Boots made of python," he raps on "Willy Wonka", a creeping track with Offset of Migos. Partying tunes like the funky "Firebreather" sometimes feel like not much more than a rich white guy bragging. But Macklemore's trademark awkward humanity comes through on "Good Old Days", a reflection on ageing (with Kesha), and "Church", a thank-you letter to making it that's warm, vivid, earnest and earned.
Melbourne rock stalwarts get imaginative on sixth album.
There's an adventurous complexity to British India's latest that's an exploration of their creative nature, helped by enlisting Holy Holy's Oscar Dawson on production. It means unconventionally memorable rock & roll whirlwinds adorned with keys, effects and plenty of feels, as frontman Declan Melia spits lines about false gods in "Midnight Homie (My Best Friends)" and heady dissatisfaction in "Precious". It's the breathing-room ruminations ("My Love"), however, that balance the frenzied rock maelstrom, breathing life into a rich lyrical world detailing our crushing quests for meaning and relevance in an uncaring world.
Indie-dance luminaries return with a more mindful trip.
Cut Copy's fourth LP was called Free Your Mind, but some argued the band had lost theirs with the unashamed Summer Of Love throwback that offered little new. Haiku From Zero reverts to the broader palette of 2011's Zonoscope; from cowbell-helmed highlight "Standing In the Middle of the Field" to "Airborne", a mildly annoying jam until it lives up to its name around the four-minute mark. Characteristically pat lyrics are hitched to music sophisticated enough to impart profundity, from the E-rush of "Stars Last Me a Lifetime" to the polymorphic, David Byrne-indebted "Memories We Share". It's not vintage Cut Copy, but it's a return to form.
Melbourne grinders unleash pure insanity on third album.
Ugly by name, ugly by nature, King Parrot have truly upped their game in all levels of extremity while simultaneously lowering the bar in depravity. Album number three is a sordid, nasty grindfest of crazed riffing, inhuman time-keeping and ridiculous yob anthems about binge drinking, low standards and being a straight-up dickhead, delivered with a schizophrenic vocal roar/shriek that teeters on the brink of insanity. Smashing blazing hardcore into furious thrash metal with the impact of a high-speed collision, Ugly Produce is a visceral ball of fury wrapped in sarcasm and grime that's both terrifying and hilarious at the same time.
The Vampire Weekend auteur channels his worldly vision into an excellent debut LP.
After putting in work on Frank Ocean's Blonde ("Seigfried," "Ivy"), Solange Knowles' A Seat at the Table ("F.U.B.U.") and various collaborative projects, ex-Vampire Weekend MVP Rostam Batmanglij has finally gotten around to releasing a proper solo LP of his own. And, admirably, he's refused to choose between his former group's Ivy League-aesthete indie rock and modern vernacular electro-pop, opting instead to cherry-pick the best of both worlds.
The resulting 15 tracks are, fittingly, all over the place. "Bike Dream" is sexy voice-boxed art pop; "Thatch Snow" is chamber music with a multitracked choir; "Wood" is a widescreen Bollywood daydream, complete with layered hand drums and orchestral strings; "Hold You" is a hungry robo-soul slow-jam with ex-Dirty Projectors vocalist-bassist Angel Deradoorian as an earthy diva.
Batmanglij has a boyish, intimate tenor, charming when not overdoing the breathy, verge-of-a-giggle delivery. Ultimately, though, it's the gorgeously inventive tracks that steal the show. Maybe the most telling is "Don't Let It Get to You", built around a machine-gunning sample of the samba-drum battery from Paul Simon's curveball 1990 banger "The Obvious Child" – a modern equivalent to Patti Smith repurposing Velvet Underground tunes. Here's to the bright future of another New York whiz kid.