Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Opposites attract on instant indie-soul classic.
The chemistry that Spacebomb geek Matthew E. White finds with London folk sprite Flo Morrissey feels more divine than manufactured on this lovingly crafted covers album. The songs, from Frank Ocean and Beck back to Nino Ferrer and Leonard Cohen, are reborn in the dappled sunshine of White's rich, witty, obsessively sculpted production. Morrissey swoops like a bluebird through Barry Gibb's "Grease" and an ingenious Velvets-meets-Brian Wilson reshaping of "Sunday Morning". The spiralling incantation of "Govindam" confirms a destination on the distinctly spiritual side of soulful.
Sisters pivot towards pop on fifth album.
The McClymonts appear to have pretty much jettisoned the country template that defined their earlier output. Under the guidance of producer Andy Mak, Endless wholeheartedly embraces upbeat Nineties-influenced pop; that means big choruses, as on "House", a track Shania Twain might have once peddled, emotive electric guitars and synths amid the backing arrangements. Though the relentless polish does have its appeal, one wonders if these songs, some of which exhibit certain melodic intrigue (such as the title track), might have been better served up with less extravagance. Otherwise, Endless represents a bouncy, breezy new direction.
Fifth album for big-at-home British rockers.
You Me At Six may headline Wembley, but they've struggled to chart similar heights outside their homeland. Night People will likely not change that. Having decamped to Nashville with producer Jacquire King (Kings of Leon), their fifth album veers from Royal Blood-esque riff-fests (the title-track) to big, sweeping, made-for-arenas moments such as "Give", yet fails to consistently set the pulse racing – for every melodic gem like "Heavy Soul" there's a song like "Swear" that elicits a shrug of the shoulders. Frontman Josh Franceschi's voice has always been solid if unspectacular – a good analogy for the band in general.
Celtic punk legends deliver stonking ninth album.
Dropkick Murphys' blueprint remains effective as ever: write muscly punk-rock songs, add Celtic flourishes (mandolin, bagpipes etc), and make sure you can sing along while shitfaced. Here, in a welcomingly invigorated fashion, all their familiar tropes are hit: stomping shoutalongs ("I Had a Hat"), underdog championing ("Paying My Way"), a tin-whistle-accordion showdown ("First Class Loser") and anthemic fist-raisers ("Blood"). But their combination of riffs and heart – see their response to the desecration of their beloved home town, "4-15-13" – is why they remain one of punk's most reliably great bands.
High profile collaboration engages without captivating.
Given that Gone Is Gone feature Mastodon bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders, ATD-I drummer Tony Hajjar, QOTSA guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen and composer/multi-instrumentalist Mike Zarin, it's no surprise that Echolocation is a sonically spectacular affair. Where it struggles, though, is in the area that matters most: songs. So while you can marvel at the Fragile-era NIN atmospherics of "Dublin" or the progressive rock mastery of pretty much every song here, recalling any standout moments once the album's over is difficult. As a mood piece Echolocation works wonderfully – as a collection of songs to really hold onto, it falls short.
Duo expand protest-rap palette on latest call-to-arms album.
Run the Jewels 2 was the rare sequel that topped the original, as the skull-busting tag team of Atlanta street intellectual Killer Mike and Brooklyn indie-rap veteran El-P synchronised their punches with the aggro precision of a brilliantly choreographed superhero fight sequence. The third instalment, which dropped digitally weeks ahead of schedule on Christmas Eve, thrums with similar urgency, but a lot's changed since 2014. Mike spent the summer bro'ing down with Bernie Sanders, moonlighting as a CNN talking head, and his no-nonsense anti-racism is increasingly the language of black activism. Meanwhile, El-P's cyberpunk-tinged premonitions of dystopia sound more like straight-up journalism every day.
Run the Jewels reorient themselves accordingly. Rather than slamming into action, Episode Three opens with the ruminative prelude "Down," Mike glancing backward at the drug-pushing life he evaded and joining fellow Atlantan Joi for a melodic hook. El-P's production, aided as before by Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby, still centers on a bassy throb and squelch, but now his drums twitch in nervous anticipation as often as they land like pavement-pulverising Hulk stomps. "2100," written with Beyonce producer Boots, is laced with wiry guitar arpeggios, Kendrick Lamar collaborator Kamasi Washington blows a sax on "Thursday in the Danger Room" that's by turns soulful and frantic, and the tracks make room for the distinct styles of several guest MCs – Danny Brown's anxious yelp, Zack de la Rocha's say-it-and-spray-it flow, Miami rap queen Trina's effortless filth.
Lyrically, there no lack of muscular skill-flexing. On "Talk to Me," Mike calls out an easily ID'd devil who "wore a bad toupee and a spray tan" while El-P boasts self-abasingly "I'm dirt, motherfucker/I can't be crushed." And El-P's still got just as many absurdist boasts ("I do pushups nude on the edge of cliffs") as Mike has pithy slogans ("We are the no-gooders, do-gooders"). But tracks like the simmering "Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)," with eerie vocals from Boots and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe and a clip of MLK intoning "A riot is the language of the unheard," mark an evolution of the duo's sound and sensibility. Run the Jewels can still detonate rhymes like a Molotov cocktail lobbed into a pharmacy, but now they're strategising for the long war ahead.
More music for the thinking person’s airport.
The bells! The bells! They softly chime in irregular time, as if struck by random felt mallets, deep underwater and floating in space simultaneously. The sonic ripples and whistles they weave through air, body and mind hypnotise with a quality best described as, well, Eno-esque. "Reflection" is a 53-minute piece described by the composer as "generative" music – sounds not so much played as set in motion under a series of cyclical, overlapping rules – designed to create "provocative spaces for thinking". Fans of Discreet Music and LUX will know the vibe but the feeling, magically, is something new yet again.
Wry, confident power-pop from Minnesotan indie darling.
Discovered by Low's Alan Sparhawk in 2001, Haley Bonar's career now spans seven albums of quite uncategorisable pop. Impossible Dream sways between a dreaminess resulting from her reverb-heavy vocals and the immediacy of her melodies, and an underbelly of punk/noise with rough guitars, befitting lyrics that vent personal frustration and lambast suburbia. At moments she's reminiscent of early St Vincent, while a certain vulnerability in Bonar's singing hints at Cat Power on "Better Than Me". While the catchiness is among the chief attractions, some more complex songwriting turns may have added a further dimension, but it's hard not to be charmed by such wit and self-awareness.
Shakey tones it down but maintains activist zeal on 38th studio album.
It's been a while since Neil Young undertook his periodic exercise in recalibration that is an acoustic album. Over a decade in fact, if you regard his last expression of relative quietude, of uncomplicated solemnity, to be 2005's Prairie Wind. This latest return to wooden instruments and unkempt production is particularly stark in the aftermath of the grungy crash of The Monsanto Years and the experimental live album Earth. Peace Trail features a couple of Young's best songs of this millennium, with the humbler arrangements offering a refreshingly plaintive backdrop for his environmental and humanitarian exhorting.
It is, though, not entirely acoustic, with combustible rages of electric guitar descending regularly to jolt songs away from rustic complacency, such as on the title track. Jim Keltner's beautifully lazy drumming, meanwhile, creates a somnolent rhythmic feel throughout, a quality which, along with Young's uncluttered songwriting, recalls some of his sprawling Seventies records, particularly On the Beach – "Can't Stop Workin'" is compelling for this reason.
However, this wouldn't be a post-2000 Neil Young album if there weren't something to wince at, and one wonders at his continuing preoccupation with Auto-Tune, which disrupts the otherwise poetic "My Pledge". That aside, this is an impassioned (and witty) set from this most dogged of iconoclasts, the colour of whose righteousness takes on different shades with every release.
Melbourne home recorder shines through his melancholy.
"I'm not ahead of my time, I'm behind it," quips Oliver Mestitz to open the fifth release from his revolving-cast ensemble the Finks. He's a natural at such self-deprecation (see the album title), and he's also got enough deadpan charm and attention to lyrical detail to rival his pal Courtney Barnett. As for the music, it dabbles in low-key guests and alternately creaky and luminous guitar melodies against a home-recorded intimacy that's perfect for Mestitz's tender wordplay. Songs like "Old Life" and the harmonica-rustled "How Long Is Too Long?" are achingly slow and crushingly beautiful, both in the tale and in the telling. "I measure my words," sings Mestitz, and that kind of understatement is a rare gift.
Masked festival headliner bucks EDM expectations again.
Electronic producer Deadmau5 retreated, Bon Iver-style, to write the bulk of his dense, thoughtful eighth album in the Canadian countryside. It's a fitting creation legend for the anti-star, a Twitter crank who openly hates the term "EDM," snarks at many of its professionals and prefers anonymity underneath a giant mouse head. While most of his fellow main-stage festival favourites continue to either churn out vocal-driven, vaguely house-inflected pop, or vocal-driven, vaguely trap-inflected pop, one of the music's most famous and visible stars has done neither.
With the breadth and beauty of a rural sky, 10 of the 11 expansive tracks on W:/2016ALBUM/ unroll across at least five-and-a-half-minutes. Tracks ebb and flow from style to style; they end abruptly, rather than pretending to blend seamlessly. This is an album, proper, and most definitely not a mix – and it's definitely not made just for a big-room dance floor.
There's still plenty of the type of four-on-the-floor numbers which he made his name, but plenty of left turns and detours abound, starting with the album's opening "4Ware," which recalls the melodic, wistful trance of the turn of the millennium. Later, "Imaginary Friends" flirts hard with throbbing techno and "Snowcone" is a straight-up bit of trip-hoppy boom-bap worthy of a chillout room or a Brooklyn yoga class. On the LP's lone vocal track, little-known artist Grabbitz pushes along a moody and slowly building 11-and-a-half-minutes of saudade.
Fist-pumpy EDM cheese this most certainly is not. Instead, W:/2016ALBUM/ works equally in a field, car or headphones, the latest catalog entry from an artist who continues to delight in bucking expectations.
Libertines singer is still standing and poetically drawling.
With his mush-mouthed drawl, Doherty still sounds like an eloquent lush at a dive bar. On the woozy knees-up "Hell to Pay at the Gates of Heaven", written after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, he sings "Come on boys you got to choose your weapon, J-45 or AK-47", referring to, respectively, a Gibson guitar and a gun. "Flags From the Old Regime" is a jazz-inflected sigh of a song about Amy Winehouse – it's so intimate you can hear Doherty's rattling intakes of breath between lines such as "How you gonna stand up there in front of the whole wide world when you don't feel a thing no more?" He could be singing about himself, but somehow he's still standing, wobbly but unbroken.
Donald Glover explores hip-hop's limits on expansive third album.
You could argue that Childish Gambino became a great hip-hop artist when he stopped rapping, but that would be unfair. Over the course of two albums and a handful of mixtapes, the artist also known as actor and screenwriter Donald Glover has proven himself a decent lyricist. However, his best moments on his 2011 debut Camp arrived when he threw out the humblebrag playbook and exploded our stereotypes of black youth by addressing bullying and growing up in a two-parent household. His 2013 follow-up, Because the Internet, is remembered for when he harmonised wistfully on tracks like the hit single "3005." With his 2014 EP Kauai, he barely rapped at all, instead offering a short suite of winningly pop meditations on summer romance. Much like André 3000 and Kanye West, Childish Gambino seems to have realised that his music can be just as resonant, if not more so, when he brings a hip-hop sensibility to vocals and melodies, and leaves the bars behind.
For his third album, "Awaken, My Love!", Gambino delves into the kind of grungy stanklove that OutKast once indulged in on their magnum opuses. When its first track, "Me and Your Mama," was sent to websites last month, listeners were stunned at the epic six-minute track, its soaring gospel chorus and the raggedly intense feeling he summoned with ease. (Some already anticipated his evolution – he debuted the project during his Pharos Festival at Joshua Tree, California last September.) While the rest of the album, produced by longtime collaborator Ludwig Göransson, doesn't quite equal that sensational single, it's still an inspired detour from a multi-talented hyphenate who has already dazzled us this fall with his critically acclaimed comedy-drama, Atlanta.
Whether it's rocking his best George Clinton impression over the platform boot stomp of "Boogieman," or delivering a deep-hued spoken word manifesto on "Baby Boy," Childish Gambino fully inhabits his funkadelic guise. On "Have Some Love," he swings with a leisurely gait akin to Funkadelic's "Can You Get To That" as he implores us, "Have some time for one another/Really love one another." He subtly underlines his excursions with a message: "Stay woke … now don't you close your eyes," he cries in a high, Prince-like falsetto on "Redbone," a spacey boogie exploration that thumps with thick lowrider bass. The wah-wah guitars and rolling percussion of "Riot" crackle with psychedelic energy. When he serenades a girl moving to the Golden State over the kitschy calypso beat of "California," it adds well-timed comic levity to his heavy soul odyssey.
Is "Awaken, My Love!" just a fantastic conceit? There's some evidence of that: The themes of "Baby Boy," which slinks along like an outtake from Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Going On, and the Eddie Hazel-like scratch-guitar instrumental "The Night Me and Your Mama Met," sound as if they could be coming from the mind of Earn Marks, the Princeton dropout, babydaddy and would-be rap manager at the center of Atlanta. Only time will tell if Childish Gambino has remade himself into the post-millennial D'Angelo. But for now, "Awaken, My Love!" is an enthralling trip into the land of funk.
One hell of a smokin' little blues band hits the swamp and bangs out a cracking album.
This must be harder than it sounds. That's the only answer to what took the Stones so long to slam out an album of vintage Chicago blues grinders in some concrete echo chamber out Twickenham way. However simple the three-days/no overdubs construction, it's the weight of passion and experience – on both sides of the mixing desk – that makes it such an intense, soulful and joyous experience.
The songs hail from sources whose lofty renown owes plenty to these very upstarts – Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon – as well as lesser known greats like Miles Grayson and Lermon Horton. Their "Everybody Knows About My Good Thing" is the high point of the swamp, with its stinging soloing by Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger near combustible with sexual jealousy.
Jagger sounds unleashed here, a revelation even now both for his scalding vocals and his scorching blues harp, each brutally compressed to a hair's breadth from distortion. He howls like an ill wind on the slow sleaze of Magic Sam's "All Your Love" and hollers cocksure and smooth in the rattling train of Little Walter's "Hate to See You Go".
Meanwhile, the telepathic entanglement of Keef'n'Ronnie's lazy riffing and slicing counter-attacks remains, rather like the unhurried whiplash of Charlie Watts' punctuation, gobstopping wonders of the rock & roll age. Kids could do worse than start here.
Late-night crooner treads murky water amidst innovative R&B era.
"It just seems like niggas trying to sound like my old shit," sings the Weeknd on "Reminder." Ironically, years after remaking contemporary R&B in his druggy, sex-obsessed vision on his iconic debut EP House of Balloons, the Toronto singer has settled into a familiar routine. We know that his songs will explore love as either a tortured form of codependency or transactional pornography; that he will boast of his forays into a one-percent world of luxury vehicles, white lines and sylph-like women; and that the beats will possess a synthesised sheen that gleams like coated stock paper in Vogue magazine.
The Weeknd has managed to offer some kind of ingenuity in spite of his well-worn shticks in the past. Kiss Land may have sounded like Trilogy redux, but at least it offered a thrilling reprise of Eighties underground darkwave as well as his mordantly inspired meditations on the first rush of international fame. Beauty Behind the Madness was a stunning leap forward into the pop stratosphere, and its standout moments more than outweighed its weaker tracks. However, Starboy, which follows a mixed critical reception to teaser tracks "Starboy" and "Party Monster," just sounds like clichés wrapped in prettier packaging. Yes, the Weeknd cut his dreads in favor of a fetching ink-blot mohawk; he's working with Daft Punk, who produced the title track and "I Feel It Coming"; and he's got a nickname that he has said pays homage to the late David Bowie. (He hasn't acknowledged claims that Nigerian afrobeats vocalist Wizkid used the name "Starboy" first.)
Two days before Starboy's release, the Weeknd dropped a short film titled Mania. It found him entering a nightclub shaded in red and blue hues, where he seeks out and gyrates with the French model Anais Mali, and then he's nearly knifed by a jealous suitor – before Mali transforms into a panther and decapitates the assailant. The latter scene is a clear nod to Nicolas Wilding Refn's recent art-house shocker The Neon Demon and its ornate vision of fashion models that transform into bloodthirsty animals. But while Refn continues to bravely exhaust his post-Drive goodwill with thrillingly polarising work, Starboy offers evidence that the Weeknd is afraid to abandon the post-millennial lounge lizard archetype that has brought him so much renown.
Incidentally, the aforementioned "Reminder" is one of Starboy's better tracks. "I just won a new award from a kids show/Talking 'bout a face numbing from a bag of blow," he says in reference to his world conquering hit "I Can't Feel My Face." "I'm like, goddamn, bitch, I am not a Teen Choice." On "Sidewalks," which features a cameo from Kendrick Lamar, he talks more shit in that inimitable singing/rapping mode that so many lesser "wavy" R&B vocalists have copied. "Too many people think they made me/Well, if they really made me then replace me."
Yet the Weeknd should take a look at his own state of affairs. This year has brought amazing soul music, whether it's the galvanising call-to-arms of the Knowles sisters' political R&B, the thrift-shop funk of Anderson Paak or the deeply emotional ambient states of Frank Ocean. The Weeknd should be among those trailblazers pushing forward. Instead, he stuffs Starboy with dreary alt-R&B boilerplates and arch New Wave near misses. Among the latter is "Secrets," a sugary Eighties cataclysm with a stabbing synth beat and a melodic reprise of Tears for Fears' "Pale Shelter," and which falters on a perfunctory hook lifted from the Romantics' "Talking in Your Sleep." "Rockin'" has an infectious garage-house rhythm courtesy of producers Max Martin and Ali Payami, but all the Weeknd can do is respond with a clunky chorus. Inexplicably, Lana Del Rey appears as "Stargirl." And since the Weeknd and Future turned "Low Life" into a perfunctory hit earlier this spring, why not aim for more SEO-leveraged magic with "Six Feet Under" and "All I Know"?
Lyrically, he mostly offers banalities. "People always talk about the ones that got away/I just seem to get the ones that always want to stay," he sings unconvincingly on "Rockin'." Even worse is when he sings, "She ain't got time for lovin'/Louis Vuitton her husband" on "Six Feet Under." Then there's the monochromatic synth-pop of "Love to Lay" and its chorus, "She loves to lay/I learned the hard way."
Despite an overlong hour-plus runtime and surplus of filler, Starboy does have highlights. "A Lonely Night" is a nice B-side-quality slice of electro-funk. "Attention" is a decent EDM ballad that could have been made by Major Lazer or Jason DeRulo. Two of the best tracks arrive at album's end. "Die for You" is a euphoric slow jam where he finally summons the poetic sincerity he mined so easily in the past. "It's hard for me to communicate the thoughts that I hold/But tonight I'm gonna let you know/Let me tell the truth," he sings. The closer, "I Feel It Coming," is a gem of Ibiza disco love. It's meant as a contrast to Daft Punk's dark techno work on "Starboy," but "I Feel It Coming" is surprisingly sunny and fresh, and encourages the Weeknd to briefly abandon his increasingly stale image as an unrepentant night creature.
Of course, "Starboy" peaked at Number Two on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, so maybe it pays to rest on his laurels. But for longtime fans that believe the Weeknd is one of the major R&B artists of the decade, Starboy will ultimately seem like a disappointment.
Wiley, windy moors of Canada spawn atmospheric sister act.
There's a uni paper's worth of quasi-mystical/beat author allusions in the title of this Canadian duo's album, but what meets the ear is mostly brain-neutral. Unison-singing sisters Sari and Romy Lightman are all gossamer threads and wind chimes as the breeze shifts from the ether-slicing piano of "Dead Can Dance & Neil Young" to the synth washes of "29 Palms" and the fairy mist of "Eli". Little meaning escapes their lovely echo chamber, though the chilling glimpse of doomed youth in "Gentle Man" is relief from the ringing cathedral of vague suggestions about "Claudine" and "Wiolyn". There's a place for lapping waves and cooing sax, but there's more prettiness than purpose here.