Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Debut LP has strong handle on moody, melancholy pop.
The project of multi-instrumentalist Mark Zito, Fractures specialise in a form of melancholic pop that blends electronics and live instruments, all tied together by Zito's multitracked vocals that recall Bon Iver having a not particularly great day. It isn't all downcast moods and tempos: see the pacier "Alchemy", the light-at-the-end-of-a-dark-tunnel guitar pop of "Lowcast" and "Time Frame", which combines Eighties-Prince guitars and even Eighties-er drums for an effective dramatic pop number. The second-half doesn't offer the same kind of stylistic shifts, but that can't detract from what is a debut that boasts some undeniably accomplished songwriting.
Enchanting debut from Sarah Blasko/Olympia tour mate.
You may hear several clear touchstones on the debut album from Sydney-based singer-songwriter Sarah Belkner. There are touches of Kate Bush and Tori Amos to her voice and arrangements; there's a daring sense of musicality that suggests an allegiance to Bowie and Peter Gabriel. Satisfyingly, though, on But You Are, But It Has Belkner emerges as a singular artist; she is very much her own person, rather an amalgam of her influences. Created over a three-year period, a song such as "Chance" dazzles with instrumentation and cascading rhythms, but Belkner also knows the value of space, something she employs with expertise.
Melbourne mentalists unveil the first of their five albums due in 2017.
There's a fine line, they say, between fear and excitement. The unsettling existence of infinite so-called microtones in between the 12 legal notes of the western scale has been freaking out rock kids since George Harrison tripped over a sitar in 1965.
It was only a matter of time before some tricksy lizard magicians smuggled the spooky little critters into a metaphorical piece of airborne fruit and here it is, in nine hyperventilating slices of psychedelic terror conceived on cunningly modified instruments and no shortage of red cordial.
From whooshing segues to bad-acid imagery, the Melbourne jam freaks' ninth album feels like a sister to last year's Nonagon Infinity: a frantic nightmare of rattlesnakes, rising seas, oxygen deprivation, bloodthirsty bushrangers and nuclear fusion set to a bone-rattling pace for whipping festivals into a lather.
The furious tumble of drums, parrying and noodling electrics and volleys of staccato vocals are woven with some squawking cobra-taming pipe instrument making like an evil Pied Piper from "Open Water" and "Billabong Valley" to "Doom City".
The overall effect is plenty immersive without being all that progressive: a vaguely exotic continuation of an established sonic landscape that will spawn another four albums, they're warning, before the year is out. Whether all of them are strictly necessary is a question maybe only Lizard cultists, like Grateful Deadheads before them, can answer.
Swedish indie songwriter spins tales on fourth full-length.
Singer Jens Lekman has always revelled in quirky, whimsical storytelling, sort of like the indie-pop inverse of Tom Waits. His fourth LP, Life Will See You Now, presents 10 new vignettes with a bizarre cast featuring a Mormon missionary seeking the meaning of life, a pair of friends joyriding on a hotwired Ferris wheel in the middle of the night and a man curiously examining a 3-D printout of his own tumour. One disco-y tune recounts "How We Met, the Long Version," but it goes back to the Big Bang. Although Lekman's voice sometimes sounds like Morrissey doing a Kermit the Frog impression, he revels in strong songwriting and brilliant hooks played on steel drums, funky horns and hip-hop bells.
Album four from sparkling Manchester-based American.
For an artist of Jesca Hoop's skittish brilliance, the 2016 album with Sam Beam, Love Letter For Fire, was disappointingly vanilla. This is a return to the oddly structured songs and daring rhythmic turns that made 2009's Hunting My Dress so magical. Hoop is wistfully childlike on some songs ("Simon Says") and mildly political on others ("Animal Kingdom Chaotic"). Her vocals, meanwhile, are more graceful than ever, yet become devastatingly powerful when she occasionally rises to anger. Despite lacking the dazzling originality of early albums, Hoop has recaptured her quixotic Romanticism, and it is swooningly lovely.
Quiet Sydney folkie feeling more lover/keeper than seeker.
The tranquillity of the cover image says a lot about where Holly Throsby is coming from after all this titular time. OK, her recent novel probably didn't appear while she was lying down contemplating the quiet beauty of her garden, but her first songs since 2011 exude the deep, effortless bliss of exactly that kind of daydreaming afternoon.
"Where I go, only I know," she whispers over the lazy fingerpicked waltz of "Evening Stroll". "I'm pulling out the weeds/with my whole being," she sighs in the simple ecstasy of "Gardening". Mick Turner's guitar makes like wind chimes in the gentlest breeze: one rich element in a meandering stream of textures that conjure their own world of dappled light and boundless hope. The centrepiece is "What Do You Say?", a day's-end duet with Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) which draws the most contended sketch of domestic respect imaginable from words of few syllables, culminating in the repeated affirmation, "Yes. Yes."
There's a slightly sad air of might-have-been in "Seeing You Now", but even the wanderlust of "Aeroplane" sounds less frustrated than thrilled by possibility. "I'll be mountain, I'm as tall as anything," she sings in another updraft of joy, but for the exhilaration of life itself in all its baffling beauty, it's hard to go past "Being Born". It's the little things, after all.
Rockhampton roots-pop duo return to the sea with third LP.
Shell House picks up where the island sway of Farewell Fitzroy (2013) closer "Waterlogged" left off. At once a homecoming ("Living in a Town") and a departure from the country leanings of preceding offerings, it's an album steeped in the gentle rhythms of the coast. Opener "Best Part of Me" champions Busby's breezy croon and Marou's earthy guitar, recalling Josh Pyke and laidback moments from Bernard Fanning. Reconciliation anthem "Paint This Land" bears the sonic stamp of producer-collaborator Jon Hume, while folk-rock anthem "Getaway Car" is piloted by the pair's sparkling harmony.
Rock's enduring romantic in entrancing return to form on 15th LP.
It would be unfair to regard Ryan Adams' excursions into emotive 1980s-inspired rock on 2014's self-titled LP as anything but sincere. After all, he was aged six to 16 during that decade, and it's only natural that the likes of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and his beloved Bruce Hornsby made a meaningful impact on this now 42-year-old songwriting phenomenon.
Yet Ryan Adams, while highly listenable, lacked a certain intangible quality – that impassioned, mournful urgency with which his more unpolished, troubadour-ish albums brim. Prisoner sees the savage romantic heart of this unpredictable artist return, whilst maintaining that MOR sheen in its production. This is, in short, his most original album in years, and on songs like the exquisite "To Be Without You" and "Breakdown", the unmistakable melodic warmth that was in short supply on the more clinical Ryan Adams is back.
Adams says that this record "saved his life". Looking past the cliché, this is perhaps an indirect reference to his divorce from Mandy Moore, an ordeal that brings a certain context to many of these songs. "Every night is longer than before/ Nothing really matters anymore" he sings on "To Be Without You", undoubtedly the album's conceptual centrepiece as well as its musical highpoint, evoking Sweet Baby James-era James Taylor. That's about as far as it goes in terms of any acoustic feel, while he lurches towards a more muscular Replacements-like sound on "Anything I Say To You Now" and "We Disappear".
Most songs, however, manage the significant trick of tastefully combining the solemn balladry with the soaring alt-rock, arriving at a tuneful, melancholic jangle that recalls Adams' brilliant Love Is Hell of 2004 – most successfully on the title track.
That is not to say there aren't songs that seem somewhat adrift. Both "Outbound Train" and "Doomsday" meander without any robustness of arrangement or prettiness of melody, while occasionally Adams' singing takes on a certain throatiness, a rasp, that compared to the gorgeously rich vocal timbre of earlier records, is a little lifeless.
Despite those minor shortcomings, there is a compelling atmosphere of crisis throughout, balanced by a cathartic sense of resignation, which suggests Adams is not being flippant in claiming that making Prisoner saved his life. Lyrically, it even rivals his other great break-up record, Heartbreaker (2000), for emotional rawness. Indeed, he has not been as direct as this in the expression of his own heartache since that seminal album, yet his vague imagery and the expression of a relatable sadness ensure ambiguity and a universality of sentiment. It is to his endless credit that he can, more than 20 years into his mercurial career, still make the brutality of lost love a fruitful source of art.
Jay Farrar and Co. plough a familiar musical field.
No wonder Uncle Tupelo broke up in 1994 – while restless Jeff Tweedy ventured further and further away from his country roots, Jay Farrar seems to have drawn closer to his, re-ploughing the Americana field to see if he could grow more fruit in the same soil. His eighth album under the Son Volt moniker finds him back on the tractor. Apart from the electric rock swirl of "Static" and the chunky riffing of "Lost Souls", Farrar is content to stick with crying pedal steel, strummed acoustics and vocals full of woodsmoke and heartland sentiments. It's easy on the ears, but a lack of adventure stops it fully flowering.
Youth Group frontman channels Western Sydney stunningly.
Martin's second solo LP emerged from an artist's residency in Bankstown in October 2013. His penchant for character studies and preternatural eye for detail make for nine entrancing, deeply evocative tales of suburbia and the singular lives that combine to shape it. Deploying the manifold talents of his "folk-rock-Arabic-Vietnamese-jam-band", Martin draws zithers – Đàn tranh and Qanun – into the mix, along with oud, Mijwiz (reed pipes), and monochord. The sinuous "Olive Tree" is a timely meditation on alienation, before lead single "Spring Feeling" arrives as a shot of pure pop joy stippled with sunlight.
Compelling trio return after four-year absence.
After nearly 20 years and five albums of innovative electronica, PVT must come close to qualifying as a Great Australian Band. Longevity has not dulled them, with New Spirit a restrained, economical, mournful triumph. Though they don't make the same racket as in early days, a pleasing melodic sensibility has emerged, exemplified by the haunting changes of "Salt Lake Heart". The centrepiece, however, is "Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend", a nine-minute opus driven by brooding synth lines that escalate and intertwine. It all amounts to a futuristic kind of Australian gothic, an idea that sums up the whole of this hypnotic record.
Punk heroes are raw, explosive on first ever live LP.
With a cover like a xeroxed Nineties feminist 'zine and a recording like a hi-fi fever-dream of a cassette bootleg worn out in your pre-owned Cavalier, Live in Paris is a 48-minute purge reaffirming the power of that hoary rock cliché, the live LP. Recorded last March, landmarks like "Dig Me Out" and "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" are as breathtaking as 20 years ago. But the revelations are raw reloads from 2005's farewell The Woods and 2015's comeback No Cities to Love, which throb with new context. "1984 is such a bore!" Carrie Brownstein sneers on "Entertain," before Corin Tucker demands, "Whose side are you on?" Whose, indeed?
U.S. rapper still searching for himself on fourth album.
Big Sean is still finding himself. On I Decided, a mostly searing collection of introspective rhymes and light trap beats, he comes one step closer to a more self-assured sense of his space in the pantheon of today's most powerful and famous rappers. His fourth album sets out to finish the work of his third, 2015's Dark Sky Paradise, and comes close to completing his transition away from the boyish irreverence of his early era, decidedly marked by his early novelty hit "Dance (A$$)." He has come a long way from then, tackling concepts like rebirth, age and wisdom.
As always, his earnestness is believable. Every moment he counts his blessings – like on the casually catchy single "Bounce Back" – you root for him. He embraces his underdog status, especially since he is most often pitted against and working with rap's biggest personalities, like Kanye West, Drake and Kendrick Lamar. More often than not, however, he gets swallowed by the larger-than-life brands and presences of those he surrounds himself with, like Eminem who steals Sean's thunder with the quality, agility and fire of his guest verse on "No Favors." Elsewhere, Sean is no match for the affable charm of Migos on "Sacrifices" or the dulcet tones of singers Jeremih, The-Dream and Jhene Aiko who slip in and out of their dreamy appearances with ease.
Still, there's a sweetness to Sean that makes it difficult to not want him to shine. He caps an assertive album with a moment of spirituality, singing with the Flint Chozen Choir and Starrah on the glorious, tender and reverent "Bigger Than Me." In taking a step back from his bravado, he gives enough space to respect and even admire his own appreciation for all the good in his world.
Blues meets singer-songwriter on diverse, sentimental debut.
The rugged blues that defines Rory Graham's Rag'n'Bone Man spreads its wings on Human, showcasing far greater stylistic and emotive diversity than previous EPs. Between mining his signature sound on tracks "Human" and "Bitter End", his softer side seeps through on the mellifluous "Odetta", while "Ego", one of the album's best, not only propels trumpets and a gospel sound to the fore, but sees the UK artist flexing lyrical dexterity via a short but impressive rap verse, harking back to his career beginnings as a drum & bass MC. While the odd lacklustre moment admittedly fragments the energy, Human is a sincere, compelling, accomplished debut.
Singer-songwriter loses himself on second album.
It's ironic that Andrew McMahon first made his name in a band called Something Corporate, because their brand of emo-pop felt nowhere near as calculated and tailormade for radio play as this, his second album under the In the Wilderness monicker. McMahon has a pleasant voice, and knows his way around a good alternative pop song – see the pulsing "So Close" for proof. Ultimately, though, Zombies on Broadway feels interchangeable with much of what's currently on pop radio, with McMahon's personality and soul smothered under a mass of shiny production techniques.
Hip-hop crew keep moving forward on inspired fourth album.
It's been over two years since Thundamentals dropped their last album, 2014's So We Can Remember, and from the first notes of this follow-up it's clear the time has been spent pushing their sound even further than their last genre-defying effort. A mellow trumpet, piano and choral intro announces that Thundamentals won't be constrained by a hip-hop template, but one track later the De La Soul-vibing "Sally" is a reassuring blast of funk, letting you know they haven't forgotten how to bounce, either.
Lead single "Never Say Never" is a party jam with heart and showcases some of the best flows MCs Tuka and Jeswon have produced, while "Wolves" heads in a different direction altogether, all autotuned vocals and a haunting synth line that wouldn't sound out of place on a Cudi joint. The disparate influences had the potential to sound scatty, but producers Morgs and Poncho don't slip up. Jeswon and Tuka, meanwhile, deliver their finest work as writers; from addressing white privilege to penning a love letter to Reebok Pumps. It's a new level for Thundamentals, and with Everyone We Know also the first record released on their own label, it cements them as a creative force to be reckoned with.