Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Kiwis return with more woozy synth-pop.
Yumi Zouma opted to decamp to their native Christchurch to knuckle down on their second record, the result sparkling with the same shiny, polished electronic sheen that defined their much-admired debut Yoncalla. This is disco-influenced dream-pop at its most wistful, strongly in the vein of early Empire of the Sun, but ultimately the album, while pleasant and breezy, feels a little one-paced, unobtrusive and samey. Highpoints come when Christie Simpson's understated and distant vocals transcend the hazy production ("In Blue"), otherwise the LP can be regarded as one of considerable skill, but little penetration.
Bloc Party frontman's transition to earnest singer-songwriter.
Well, this is unexpected. Trickling acoustic guitars, parping woodwinds and sighing strings are not what you'd associate with Okereke. Unfortunately the transition to earnest singer-songwriter on his third solo album is an awkward one. For starters, his voice is more suited to impassioned yelping in front of post-punk or electronica, and it shrinks when spotlit in crooner mode. His attempts at gloomy folk ("Streets Been Talkin"), polite soul-pop ("Do U Right") and a song for his kid ("Savannah") sound stretched, and the whimsical vamping of "Capers" is ill-advised. Lyrically, things you can get away with when yammering over a racket don't pass muster in quiet mode.
Toronto folk singer expands her sound on compelling fourth LP.
With its ragged, sometimes strangled electrified guitars ("Complicit") and bustling drums ("Kept it All to Myself"), Tamara Lindeman's self-described 'rock & roll record' builds on the delicate trad-folk that has long soundtracked her poetic profundities. Less like fellow Canadians Jennifer Castle and Joni Mitchell – nudging, instead, early Fairport Convention – the rawer textures underscore the gutsiness of Lindeman's insightful meditations on the shifting sands of selfhood and relationships ("Thirty"). It's all carried by her spellbinding vocals – which hint that she has even more to say than time allows.
Sydney metallers push the sonic extremes.
On their third full-length Sydney metallers Lo! draw heavily on the Lamb of God and Meshuggah playbooks, vocalist Sam Dillon summoning the guttural roar of LOG's Randy Blythe over a corrosive collection of thrash riffing and time-signature-bending rhythms. It's undeniably powerful stuff, crippled only by the feeling we've heard this before. The atmospheric, spoken-word "Bombardier" provides welcome, moody respite from the aural battering around it, flowing nicely into the more sludgey "A Tiger Moth's Shadow". "Judas Steer", too, demonstrates an ability to inject dynamics into its blastbeat insanity, a formidable example of what Lo! can do.
Our take on Twain's 'Now' and Cyrus' 'Younger Now'.
There's always been something contentious about the borders of country music, borders that Shania Twain and Miley Cyrus have spent their very different careers exploring. In the Nineties "is this country or is it disco" culture wars, Shania scandalized Nashville propriety with her glam-rock flash and mirror-ball glitz, just a few years after Miley's dad Billy Ray Cyrus came out of nowhere with the ass-wiggling dance-craze blockbuster "Achy Breaky Heart." Miley, of course, grew up playing Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel before turning into America's favorite sex-drugs-and-twerking shock-pop diva. But Miley and Shania have both served as noble pioneers, opening old-school country up to alien sounds – though on their new records, both of them aim to get back to their roots, however un-rootsy these roots might be.
The New Improved Miley of 2017 is as far from "We Can't Stop" and Bangerz as that Miley was from "See You Again" and Hannah Montana. Her last album – just two years ago – was a psychedelic rock opera about her dead pets (R.I.P., Pablow the Blowfish) with a genuinely touching galactic-sex ballad, "Something About Space Dude," one of the last great songs written about David Bowie in his lifetime. But the Dead Petz-eraMiley now sleeps with the blowfishes. Her new Younger Now is the debut of yet another Miley, playing down her whimsical and outrageous quirks for a[ ]sincerity-intensive move into the country-pop maturity of "Malibu." Still only 24, she's out to rebrand herself as a dues-paying twerk-free Nashville adult – any remaining Flaming Lips influence has gotten toned way down.
Cyrus' ace in the hole has always been the dusky country ache in her voice, which she's carried with her through all her incarnations. All over Younger Now, she revives her Southern accent, demonstrating her Nashville bona fides by including a voicemail from her godmom Dolly Parton to cue their Monkees-esque duet "Rainbowland." The songs are deliberately low-affect, if short on personality compared to her other albums. But the attention-getter is the finale "Inspired," where she writes a folksy country ballad to express some of her fears about climate change, with the opening lines, "I'm writing down my dreams/All I'd like to see/Starting with the bees." In this context, it's refreshing to hear from the Old Weird Miley again.
For Shania, Now is her first album in 15 years, after a historic run that rewrote the rules of country with hits like "That Don't Impress Me Much," "You Win My Love" and "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" As a Canadian chanteuse married to Def Leppard's producer, with zero nostalgia and no apparent sense of shame, Twain was perfectly positioned to mix up Eurodisco beats with fiddles and steel guitars for an emerging global audience. (She got her break singing in an Ontario resort revue called Viva Vegas, which made all the sense in the world.) Since her 2002 Up!, she's endured a high-profile divorce from Mutt Lange, a two-year Las Vegas residency and a sorely underrated reality show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Shania Twain: Why Not? (Not to mention blowing up Drake's Instagram.)
From the opening seconds of "Swingin' With My Eyes Closed," it's clear Shania's up to her old genre-trashing tricks – the quasi-metal guitar twang and "We Will Rock You" stomp of "Any Man of Mine" meet a reggae skank, and for good measure, she urges us all to throw our fists in the air like we just don't care. As you'd expect, the songs on Now are her mid-life personal statements, along the lines of "Poor Me" and "Roll Me on the River," with an emphasis on post-divorce piano ballads about getting the Shania groove back. (As she sings in "Life's About to Get Good," "I wasn't just broken, I was shattered/ … /I couldn't move on and I think you were flattered.") Maybe next time she'll cover "Hotline Bling." But like Miley, Shania is taking inspiration from the expansively chaotic sound of contemporary country pop – a sound she helped to shape in the first place.
Main page illustration by Yuta Onoda.
Indie pop classicists mine a melancholy streak.
David McCormack is feeling the distance on the second LP of Custard's second life. The defeated conclusion of "In the Grand Scheme of Things (None of This Really Matters)" gives a melancholy hue to the Brisbane band's tragicomedy. Missing persons and old memories haunt his empty house from "Halley's Comet" to "Dr Huxley Creeper". The modern male panic of "2000 Woman" is lighter, but even the wry political twist of Glenn Thompson's "Police Cars" has an air of lament. The quartet's minimalist pop is sound enough for another lap, though their best new tune, the pedal steel farewell of "Take It From Here", is also their saddest.
Compelling first album from Melbourne up-and-comer.
Your early 20s are about making mistakes. Lahey spends much of her debut LP untangling bad decisions and battling ennui. She does so in such a tricky fashion, it's easy to mistake these wry observations for love songs. "You make double-vision bad decisions/but that's OK with me," Lahey tells a noxious lover on "Backpack", effervescent synths transforming her over-driven guitar pop into something more anthemic. The title track packs a tighter punch, Lahey's lyrics delivered Ramones-like over a simple garage riff, while "There's No Money" sprawls itself out over dreamy layers of guitar. It's these new shades that make Lahey's debut compelling.
Solid statement from local duo with impeccable influences.
Jessica Mincher and Billy James took their time crafting a follow-up to 2015's striking EP, Baby Blue. This debut album feels carefully plotted, with plenty of nuance amid the reverb-soaked late-night atmospherics. The best tracks feel both of-the-moment and nostalgic: "Real Cool" recalls peak-period Air, "Don't Know Where I'm Going" takes its cues from Mazzy Star. What's missing is an element that's uniquely Noire's – the music is so referential it's hard to figure out what sort of people Mincher and James might be outside the recording studio. Still, with foundations as sturdy as these, the duo's future is bright.
Powerful post-punk whose message gets muddled.
Protomartyr open their fourth LP with a fiery mission statement railing against our "age of blasting trumpets". It showcases Joe Casey's brooding vocals and barbed lyrics as much as the Detroit post-punk quartet's gripping dynamic shifts, but the band soon surrender some of their impact. Despite highlights in the synth-warmed meditation "Night-Blooming Cereus" and the pointed commentary of "Male Plague", Protomartyr's message often gets muddled. Casey lapses into Hold Steady-style talk-singing, while other tracks are blunted by so much blustering distortion. It's reliably intense, but at the expense of articulation.
Bold new direction for much-loved indie songstress.
Following flirts with electro-experimentalism on 2015's Sprinter, Mackenzie Scott shifts further from her raw folk-rock foundation with the introduction of an abrasive minimal palette on third full-length. Her consistently strong lyricism flourishes, and although theatrically overindulging – bordering on cabaret – at times, the white space suits her impactful mix of poignancy ("I'm only a skim of what has already been"), humour ("I'm more of an ass man") and quirky fables ("Helen in the Woods"). A few pop hooks short of being immediately captivating, Three Futures is the sound of a first step, rather than a completed journey.
Cosmic jazz sojourn inches forward for Kendrick's sax guy.
"Desire". "Humility". "Knowledge". "Perspective". "Integrity". "Truth". Its six tracks are a trifle compared to 2015's triple-disc The Epic, but you can see Washington is a man of clear intention on this 30-minute follow-up. The various virtues flow like shifting light from the sultry boudoir glow of "Desire" to the frantic time signatures of "Humility". Horns unite in slow swinging certainty against the percussive madness of "Knowledge" then flirt with upmarket cheese in the Californian strut of "Perspective". The thread is a barely contained exuberance that runs from Seventies fusion bedrock to the newfound miracle of a cosmic jazz future.
More decade-defying muscle from the Victorian trio.
Surprise, surprise: ORB's second album is another affectionate riff fest. But while the thunderous theme song "O.R.B." won't discourage those pesky Sabbath comparisons, the Geelong-bred power trio throw themselves just as bodily into chugging psych-pop and crusty funk. In fact, once you've settled into Naturality's groggy, grotty depths, you'll catch more whimsy and variation by the minute, including a rubbery motorik groove on lead single "You Are Right". Especially telling is the acid-fried "Immortal Tortoise", which punctuates its fuzz-soaked lurch with enough slippery pivots and tangents to keep our heads spinning.
Sydney party time favourites faking it 'til they make it.
Sponge Cake canvasses styles galore, from lightweight psychedelia and sun-kissed electro to old school disco and smiley hip-hop, from pop and blunt-toasted rapping to pale reggae and lazy soul. Winston Surfshirt lope and slouch, slip on some brass and kick up the beats like they picked up Sly and the Family Stone via an Arrested Development cover band. You can see crowds jumping up and down. What's not to like? Except this is Pond and Electric Guest with edges rubbed off, Flight Facilities and Chromeo without killer tunes. Actually, it's Sticky Fingers with irony instead of blokey bonhomie, the same calculation and good time festival feel masking emptiness.
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.