Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Bendigo synth-pop trio deliver a fraught hometown portrait.
Fountaineer's self-described "regional-basketball-stadium-rock" splits the difference between LNZNDRF ("Still Life"), the Killers ("Some Bright Sparks"), and Ultravox circa 1978. Greater City is a richly-textured DIY adventure conceived as both love song to Bendigo ("Grand Old Flags"), and a reaction to small town jingoism (the ELO-leaning "Words With Friends"). Rousing opener "Sirens (Parts 1 & 2)" seems to condense all the feeling of the National's High Violet into a single track while centrepiece "The Cricketers" is an indie-pop meditation on growing up in a regional centre. Fountaineer are synth-pop stylists to watch.
Suicide vocalist leaves a fearless final statement.
Alan Vega, who co-founded the electro-noise duo Suicide in New York in 1970, died last year. But he did not go gentle into that good night – as if there were any doubt. This posthumous album, recorded over six years with his wife, Liz Lamere, is proof. Knowing he was crafting his farewell, Vega leaves as he arrived, raging over Suicide-style industrial grinds. "We can see it/The red, white and blue is destroyed/Destroyed!" he snarls on "Screamin Jesus," which begins and ends with dizzying, throat-shredding shrieks. He was punk rock's battlefield reporter, staring into the horror and relaying it back, uncensored. R.I.P., man.
Fifth album finds the band landing on an ideal outlet for their powers.
Arcade Fire aren't shy of maximalism. Since roaring into public consciousness with 2004 debut Funeral, the Canadian collective have habitually gambled with excess. When finessed and expertly deployed (Funeral, The Suburbs), they convincingly paint a singular universe. But when ambition outpaces them (Neon Bible, Reflektor), their passion sounds a lot like pomp.
Fifth album Everything Now is a playful genre-surf back to that giddy universe. Produced by a pro pop team including Thomas Bangalter (Daft Punk) and Steve Mackey (Pulp), the album swings wildly through songs both concerned with the modern onslaught of data and borne from it. Take back-to-back cuts "Infinite Content" and "Infinite_Content" – the former a garage-punk rush, the latter a wistful Americana lope. But they're also the same song, Win Butler singing "Infinite content/We're infinitely content" on each, in a nod to – and explanation of – the uneasy duplicate. While the ABBA-aping title-track and disco strut of "Signs of Life" are danceable odes to classic pop, the shade behind them is more interesting: the spooky, saturated-tape pulse of "Peter Pan", the Blade Runner-meets-Nebraska melancholy of "We Don't Deserve Love", and spongy Eighties synth groove of "Electric Blue".
This tapestry meshes on repeat, leaving a breadcrumb trail of weird new sounds and avenues in the Arcade Fire pantheon to explore. If you can find the time.
Legendary rocker continues to grow old disgracefully.
It's been six years between solo albums for Alice Cooper, but the legendary shock rocker hasn't been idle, what with his relentless touring, radio show and work with the Hollywood Vampires. At 69, Cooper sounds fired up, his seasoned band providing a platform for this monstrous mix of grizzled Detroit rock & roll and arena-shaking anthems. Long gone is the hair metal sheen of 1989's Trash, in its place the more fearsome, classic (yet no less catchy) "Fireball", "Paranoiac Personality" and eerie closer "The Sound Of A". A bonus disc of live cuts and two new songs with his original band are welcome additions to an excellent LP.
Mature, accomplished live set from Kentucky sextet
Despite four solid albums of robust rock & roll, Cage the Elephant are best experienced live. These 21 tracks are not, however, indicative of the explosive shows that made their reputation, instead they come from a recent acoustic tour and feature a string quartet. The result is a surprisingly excellent collection, the new context bringing a refreshing sense of vulnerability to a once quite brattish band. The strings are most effective on "Too Late To Say Goodbye", while the intoxicating swagger of "Cry Baby" and "Ain't No Rest For the Wicked" is not dulled. Singer Matt Shultz's impressive emotional range caps off that rare thing: a highly satisfying live album.
Hushed folk balladry that proves unusually spacious.
With his lilting voice and delicate fingerpicking, Brisbane's Tom Cooney embraces the cosy intimacy of folk music on his first album in six years. That works to great effect on the profound title track and the Elliott Smith-esque "Sinking Feeling", while tasteful embellishment from Melbourne trio Sleep Decade, string arranger Biddy Connor and harmony singer Corrina Scanlon help leaven some of Cooney's post-relationship brooding. He may slot in neatly next to indie folkies like Iron & Wine, but Cooney's gift for clear-cut, often pastoral imagery and wide-open atmosphere makes Futureproof well worth poring over in its own right.
Singer indulges in nostalgia, reverb on fourth full-length.
Lana Del Rey has become a hugely adored miserablist thanks to a perpetually wounded voice and plainspoken poetry. Her fourth album as Lana Del Rey luxuriates in warm textures and laconic tempos that recall pre-rock-era pop, her voice given Rick Nelson levels of reverb that adds ruminative weight to even her most basic observations. Shying away from the big riffs of 2013's Ultraviolence and the glossy noise of 2015's Honeymoon, Lust for Life is almost like a fan service album, solidifying the idea of Del Rey as a trapped-in-space pop star of yore who happened to touch down in Los Angeles in the era of streaming music and sponsored afterparties.
Lust for Life recalls the gloomy pop laid down by the Walker Brothers in their mid-Sixties heyday, only with trap-era touches, allusions to modern problems and a penchant for songs that drag on just a little too long. It's dense yet spacious, and there are surprising flourishes buried within: "When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing," on which Del Rey worries about the fate of the country, buries bachata guitars in its anxious haze.
For much of the record, Del Rey sounds at her most contented when she's indulging nostalgic impulses, whether her own or borrowed. Allusions to her previous records dot the lyrics; the spacey, surprisingly touching "Heroin" is littered with references to Charles Manson and Mötley Crüe. The hiccuping "Coachella - Woodstock in My Mind" portrays being in the moment as an impossible dream, with the watercolour portraits of the distant past as an ideal to match. From it's title on down, "Tomorrow Never Came" reaches for the "Beatles-esque" tag, and it largely succeeds: Sean Ono Lennon produced the track, performed the "Across the Universe"-echoing instrumental and provides a vocal track that brings to mind his dad's shaggier outings.
Stevie Nicks drops by for the mournful "Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems," which could be a thesis statement for Del Rey's career up to this point. The flashy cameos by A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti on the spiky "Summer Bummer" and the fever-dreamy "Groupie Love" seem to underscore this point – their verses aren't in dialogue with their host as much as they are using her as a platform for self-promotion. (At least the Weeknd sounds intrigued by the idea of being in Del Rey's orbit on the glittering, glacial title track)
The implied wink of the Del Rey-Nicks duet makes one wonder how much of the younger singer's bummer quotient is rooted in a camp impulse: Is it meant to be self-serious like Valley of the Dolls, or is she implicit in the ridiculousness, like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? Del Rey's po-faced delivery and the lush arrangements suggest the former, but moments like the moaned "why-why-why-why-why-whyyyy" on "Tomorrow Never Came" and songs like the preening, awkwardly slang-stuffed "In My Feelings" hint ata slowly blooming desert flower of self-awareness.
The sweeping, girl-group-echoing closer "Get Free" might be a clue. A "modern manifesto," it outlines her planned move perhaps away from gloom, or at least "out of the black, [and] into the blue." Whether that "blue" is a cloudless California sky or a place defined by sadness is what she's going to figure out: "I never really noticed that I had to decide/To play someone's game or live my own life/And now I do/I wanna move," she declares on one verse. It's an optimistic ending for a singer whose career has been defined by discomfort, and for an album that, at times, can get lost in its own mythology.
Album number 10 from ever-evolving country stalwart.
The cathartic intensity that Shane Nicholson invested in his 2015 record Hell Breaks Loose – the ‘divorce album' that is arguably his finest work – meant that following it up was going to be a challenging business. Where to go after such stark personal confessions and such a creative highpoint?
The upheaval with ex-wife Kasey Chambers is now in his rear-view mirror, thus this album is more outward-looking and even humorous in lyrical sentiment. Nicholson has mostly put aside the sparse acoustic balladry (the pleasant "All I Know" being an exception) in favour of up-tempo, instrumentally busy, occasionally bombastic adult-rock. Indeed, Springsteen-ish opener "Safe" is a dead-ringer for something from Ryan Adams' latter-day 1980s-influenced albums.
Always one for a good chorus, Nicholson wheels out some unsubtle but catchy anthems with "Driving Me Mad" and "God's Own Army", yet overall there isn't quite the songwriting prowess of Hell Breaks Loose, what with the odd flat filler track ("Busted Lip") as well as the downright insipid ("Hotel Radio"). The best moments come with the pacey, plugged-in country-rock – "Song For a Sad Girl" has certain flavours of Steve Earle, while "Even If You Were the One", with its Bryan Adams feel, shows off Nicholson's undoubted melodic gifts. Despite the comedown in quality, he remains one of Australia's most sincere singer-songwriters.
Two legendary outfits offer a spicy and soulful set of covers.
If Ronald Isley's perfectly weathered voice can't bring peace to the world do we really stand a chance? The legendary singer is in fine form on this collection of covers, bashed out in four days with his guitarist brother Ernie and Santana's latest incarnation. Ernie and Santana tear through Swamp Dogg's "Total Destruction To Your Mind", while Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" is, er, grounded by a shocking rap verse namechecking LeBron James. Drummer Cindy Blackman Santana brings it home with a gospel-tinged original, reminding us that peace begins at home. Bless.
Fitzroy's own world-beating rock'n'soul man stages a winning neo-soul reinvention.
Trading the red clay rock & roll textures of Nashville excursion Blackbird (2014) for more manicured production leaning on synths and drum programming (see the sputtering electronic snicks of "Cul-de-sac"), Sultan's fourth long-player is a marked departure from his earlier blues-and-roots-oriented incarnations.
From the hard-hitting drum triggering of opener "Drover" – a self-described prequel to Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody's anthemic "From Little Things Big Things Grow" – it's clear that Sultan has distilled some fresh ideas from recent forays into urban territory, including last year's collaboration with A.B. Original ("January 26").
Produced by Jan Skubiszewski (Cat Empire) and featuring input from a slew of collaborators including Sparkadia's Alex Burnett and Julian Hamilton (the Presets), Killer's neo-soul trajectory positions Sultan alongside the likes of Saskwatch and the Cactus Channel. With its clipped, urbane guitar tones, "Killer" is a striking intersection of style and substance, while urgent, Gospel-soul entry "Magnetic" soars on an updraft of sweeping strings, and "Reaction" prosecutes an irresistible late-nite dancefloor groove. Throughout, the album's Gospel-hued choral BVs and concern with Indigenous issues chime with the work of the Black Arm Band, of which Sultan is a member (see the politically-charged "Kingdom").
Sultan himself is, as ever, a vocalist of uncommon, prodigiously soulful cool ("Fire Under Foot"). Killer is eloquent proof he has the songwriting chops to match.
Tasmanian folk-punk prodigy and band hit home run on LP three.
"When I told you that I missed you, you just stared down at the floor, and you held me like there's nothing left to hold any more," mourns Lincoln le Fevre on the enormous, devastating "Newcastle". Ouch. When the Tasmanian isn't breaking hearts, he's breaking vocal cords (specifically: yours) with his brand of folk-punk lamentations and celebrations. Come Undone invokes Ryan Adams-like songwriting, Frank Turner-like sensibility and a typically Australian no-bullshit delivery. "I should warn you I'm not built to last," sings le Fevre on opener "Ugly Enough". Don't believe a word of it.
Alt-rock veterans match angst with restrain on five-track EP.
Trent Reznor has always aspired to the artistic malleability of David Bowie, tweaking his sound and vision with each release while twisting his kaleidoscope of greys into different shades of anguish. Like the late Thin White Duke, he's made missteps (his remix EPs never "fixed" anything, and his glitchy How to Destroy Angels space-pop detour could be his Tin Machine), but also like Bowie, he's always regained his footing, funnelling his anxieties into new teeth-gnashing horrorscapes. His soundtrack work in recent years with his Nine Inch Nails partner Atticus Ross has given him an outlet to experiment outside of his nom de synth-rock, forcing new vitality into his NIN outings of late for even harsher, more potent music.
His latest, the five-song EP Add Violence, contains all the aggression, abjection and self-loathing that solidified his position as alt-rock's Original Angster but with the measured restraint of a man his age. Like Reznor's early Nine Inch Nails work, it's a mostly insular affair – only he and Ross are credited here, with two women singing backup on opener "Less Than" – and it's the inherent loneliness that makes Add Violence compelling, especially when contrasted with last year's Not the Actual Events EP, which sounded a little scattered despite guest shots from Daves Grohl and Navarro and Reznor's wife and How to Destroy Angels partner Mariqueen Maandig.
The simplicity of the duo's approach drives Add Violence from the start, as "Less Than" opens with a plinky, Depeche Mode–styled keyboard riff before Reznor's voice wrests it into a catchy, chin-down single. "Welcome oblivion," he sings at the end. "Did it fix what was wrong inside?" But since that feeling of nothingness, which Reznor has paid homage to on practically every release of his career, has never fixed anything, it becomes the third member of Nine Inch Nails on the rest of the EP.
That isolated sensation overwhelms "Not Anymore," one of the harder hitting and most self-deprecating tracks on Add Violence. "I won't forget – I know who I am," he sings. "No matter what, I know who I am/And what I'm doing this for ... " And then he screams, "Well, not anymore." It's vintage Reznor hostility, and it's all the more cutting when sandwiched between the shadowy, ominous "This Isn't the Place," which could be a soul song if presented differently, and overdriven closing track "The Background World," which opens with Reznor dejectedly scorning someone, "You left me here," before eventually building to eight minutes of an overdriven synth loop, adding more and more distortion with each repeat, recalling Nine Inch Nails' Broken EP.
The only weak moment here is "The Lovers," a blippy, meandering ballad of sorts that's sometimes too mopey for its own good – even for Reznor – as he suffers an identity crisis ("I know who I am, right?") and settles "into the arms of the lovers" before deciding, "I am free/Finally." It slows down the momentum of what is an otherwise strong declaration of anxiety, one that, if he and Ross blew it out a little more into an album, could stand with the band's best.
Animal Collective frontman pushes boundaries on solo LP.
Avey Tare (aka David Portner of Animal Collective) describes Eucalyptus as an "electroacoustic movement" intended to be listened to as a whole. The result is a sprawling, elemental soundscape that draws on the textures and sounds of the natural world. On psychedelic opener "Season High", brushed acoustic guitar and Portner's hushed vocal are painted with delightful digital bloops that eventually coalesce into a hymn-like formation. There is some clarity amid the haze ("Roamer"), and though on paper Eucalyptus sounds dense, in the deft hands of Portner it gently reveals itself to be more than just a vanity project.
L.A. outfit continue down a misguided path on third album.
Not quite the one-hit-wonders many pegged them as, Foster the People nonetheless followed up their smash hit debut Torches with Supermodel, a record that lost its predecessor's restraint while amplifying all that was annoying about the band – mainly twee lyrics and overblown whimsy. On Sacred Hearts Club that sweet spot remains misplaced as Mark Foster leads his band through a kitchen sink approach to songwriting that, while occasionally catchy, if unsubtle (the chugging chorus of "Doing It For the Money"), more often feels all over the shop – the trappy WTF departure of "Loyal Like Sid & Nancy" – or crippled by lyrical daftness, as on "I Love My Friends".
Gruelling fourth full-length from indie rock band is their sharpest yet.
"I spend all my time learning how to defeat you at your own game. It's embarrassing." So opens the fourth LP from singer-guitarist Katie Crutchfield's great indie-rock band Waxahatchee: two clear sentences mapping out an album's worth of tangled regret, helplessness, endurance and shame – driven home with burning guitars and ache and hunger in her voice. It starts off the sharpest set of songs Crutchfield has come up with, from the big-drinking, scene-causing country of "8 Ball" to the Nineties guitar churn of "Silver" to the ruggedly pretty ballad "Sparks Fly." Each song is as grueling as it is thrilling.
The return of a cult favourite rewards patience.
Japanese musician Keigo Oyamada is a musical polymath, who as Cornelius takes mostly acoustic instruments and relentlessly chops and changes them to hyperreal effect. Eleven years on from its predecessor, Sensuous, Oyamada's sixth album is another slick structure bursting with electric piano tinkles, busy percussion, and chopped-up guitars. "Sometime/Someplace" blossoms into dreamy post-rock; "Dear Future Person" multiplies stuttering, glassy keys into a dizzying, complex hum; and "In a Dream" pops like the credits to an Eighties sitcom. Soothing yet tense, the push-pull of Cornelius' wonderful world stays attractively unknowable.