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Enchanting sonic fairytales from mercurial Los Angeles recluse.
Given that a harlequin is a kind of flamboyantly dressed comic servant, it's an appropriate title for this wildly innovative debut from an artist whose odd noises and fairly primitive production palette make him a kind of lo-fi Bjork, or the anti-folk Captain Beefheart. Strings and synthesisers weave together with a playful spirit, complemented by Izenberg's softly boyish vocals; some songs are charmingly incoherent, while others, such as "Libra" and "Archer", display a happy knack for dainty conciseness. An understanding of the jazz spectrum, and figures like Steve Reich, goes into such a sound, and though it may take a few listens to fully grasp, Harlequin is an idiosyncratic delight.
The R&B star reimagines the sound of high school dances past.
Bruno Mars wears a lot of hats on his third LP: giddy uptown-funk savant, bumping-and-grinding R&B time-traveller, Ashford and Simpson-esque quiet-storm balladeer. But the heart of 24K Magic recalls the New Jack Swing of Boyz II Men, Bell Biv DeVoe and Bobby Brown. Mars wanted Magic to re-create the nostalgic wonder of the school dances he attended in the Nineties – and his crowded productions, infectious attitude and soaring voice go well beyond "tribute" into the realm of "blockbuster reboot".
The chorus in "Calling All My Lovelies" – "I got Alesha waiting/Iesha waiting/All the eeshas waiting on me" – is an adult epilogue to Another Bad Creation's playground romanticism, and "Perm" is a future-shocked James Brown hip-hop hybrid. Yet while his funk game is strong and his swagger is stronger, the hook writing that made Mars' 2012 LP, Unorthodox Jukebox, so astounding isn't always as tight here. "Versace on the Floor" is the umpteenth tribute to Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing", while the title track feels like cloying flash. As a human Super Bowl halftime show, no one can touch him – this just isn't always the most glittering display of his star power.
Indigenous rap duo lay down the gauntlet on fiery debut album.
A.B. Original sure don't half step. Evident right there in the album title (a double entendre reference to an Australian hate group) and throughout their fist-raised debut, the duo – a cross-state amalgamation between Shepparton's Briggs and Trials from Adelaide's Funkoars – strangle the status quo with their socially conscious flip of Nineties West Coast gangster rap.
Bookended by a baton-pass intro with indigenous leader Archie Roach and a soulful closing cameo from Gurrumul, A.B. Original share more than just aesthetics with the G-funk era, swaggering and smirking like a heyday Ice Cube, as they deliver plainspoken punchlines of both poignancy and humour, all antagonistically aimed to "hit you with that Andrew Bolt of lightning" – as Trials boasts on "2 Black 2 Strong".
Aside from a few ill-fitting bars from actual Left Coast representatives (Guilty Simpson and King T), this is revolution rap at its best. Protest and pride split duties as the pair cover ground from systematic racism ("Call 'Em Out", with a chilling sample of Lang Hancock's sterilisation plans) to police abuse ("Report to the Mist") to the impact of Australia Day celebrations on indigenous people (radio-ready "January 26", complete with the unusual rhyming couplet "I remember all the blood and what carried us, they remember 20 recipes for lamingtons"). On an album of such purpose and immediate accessibility, the only risk is if the trunk-rattling beats and ante-up hooks distract from the powerful messages, rather than enable them.
Jonas Brother struggles to shed pop shallowness.
In a world where Zayn Malik creates challenging pop, the debut from DNCE – Joe Jonas's band – feels oddly shallow and out of step. It trades almost exclusively in electro-funk pop, but pushes few boundaries: fun, bonkers moments ("Zoom") and genuinely ace ballads ("Truthfully") butt against the wince-inducing ("Toothbrush"). "Blown (feat. Kent Jones)" weirdly 'references' the build-up from "Twist & Shout", while "Cake By the Ocean" almost cribs the "Seven Nation Army" riff, but at least it's still a joyous explosion of pop silliness. It's a fun LP, but lacks an adventurous weirdness that would've helped its funk and falsetto mix make it a Weeknd-esque contender.
The country queen flirts and drinks and digs deep on a powerful double album.
Miranda Lambert's latest opens on a classic country image: a weekend hangover echoing the one in Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Mornin' Coming Down". But "Runnin' Just in Case" is no brooding existential ramble. It's a gravel-spitting exit from sorrow's driveway, bad memories shrivelling in the rearview. And it sets the tone for the Nashville star's most ambitious LP, a rangy two-disc set ditching country's mainstream playbook for the sort of Great Album that rock acts used to crank out regularly back in the day.
Rubberneckers have anticipated The Weight of These Wings since Lambert split from Blake Shelton, ending their four-year term as country's First Couple (another thankless job). Sure, it's a "breakup record". But it's more about songs for the ages than tabloid raw meat. With an A-list co-author team including Natalie Hemby, Liz Rose, Ashley Monroe and Lambert's boyfriend, Anderson East, Lambert co-wrote 20 of 24 tracks and filled out the rest with well-chosen covers; see "Covered Wagon", a 1971 jam by singer-songwriter Danny O'Keefe, and "You Wouldn't Know Me", by Texas troubadour Shake Russell.
The album's two parts – "The Nerve" and "The Heart" – pivot on songs about romantic rebound. "Use My Heart" chronicles a sort of lovers' PTSD; "Tin Man" extends the cardiac metaphor per The Wizard of Oz; "Pushin' Time" is a steely but fragile collaboration (with East, fittingly) about late-game relationships that can't afford to dawdle. Emmylou Harris' 1995 LP Wrecking Ball, with its floaty Daniel Lanois production, seems a touchstone here. But this is also an album with dirt under its manicured nails: There's the hoarse hollers and guitar skronk on "Pink Sunglasses", and the perm-damaged hair-metal riffs on "Vice", where Lambert's declaration "said I wouldn't do it/But I did it again" echoes Britney Spears minus the ingénue coyness, consequences clattering like leg irons. There are goofs ("For the Birds") and throwaways ("Bad Boy"). But these moments are often less lightweight than they seem; see "Tomboy" (rhymes with "move along, boy") and "Getaway Driver", its unsettled friendship as touchingly queer in its way as Little Big Town's "Girl Crush".
The set's most vintage moment is "To Learn Her", a honky-tonk weeper worthy of George Jones, offering a lovers' curriculum with no easy answers. It's emblematic of an album that never wallows in breakup pain, but instead deals – making plans, getting drunk, flirting, testifying and, above all, moving on. And if you're fingering a few scars of your own, you'll be rooting for her.
Parisian pranksters mellow out on rewarding disco odyssey.
Justice, the Parisian duo of Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay, landed in 2007 with an ebullient up-yours to the dance music establishment - † was French touch with the dial turned way up, distorted, and overlaid with mincing rock riffs. Follow-up Audio, Video, Disco eschewed † mark II for dalliances with prog-rock, and while diverting, there was nothing quite as visceral as say, "Genesis".
Five years later, Justice have shifted shapes again – Woman is a disco album, as performed by an acid-loving lothario in a gold glitter g-string. Saturated in slap bass, "Safe and Sound" curls around psychedelic synth bursts and "D.A.N.C.E."-style vocals, while "Pleasure" might be a Hair soundtrack offcut, the ensemble harmonising on "Use imagination as a destination." "Alakazam!" is a Moroder-esque rocket ride with crunching guitars, "Stop", featuring Johnny Blake from Zoot Woman, is a Discovery-era Daft Punk slowie. Things get weirder in the back end with "Chorus", a lyric-free epic with ghostly synths, while "Heavy Metal" recalls some of M83's recent baroque experiments. And the dreamy outro pairing of "Love S.O.S." and "Close Call" is Justice at their most sentimental yet.
It's not the seismic statement † was, but Woman sounds like a band maturing with style, without ever making the mistake of taking themselves too seriously.
Devastating folk balladry straight outta the kitchen.
Drawing on members of Deaf Wish and Dick Diver, Lower Plenty convene every couple of years to record an album of laidback lo-fi folk. Their fourth LP was recorded in a kitchen with modest sprinkles of shakers, woodwinds, saxophone and sarangi, which lends a raga vibe to the psych-tinged "Ravesh". These are campfire songs between friends, rambling in structure and swapping between three distinct singers. The rickety ballad "Cursed By Numbers" evokes Will Oldham's early bands, while "All the Young Men" sneaks up with a damning assessment of war. For all the bleakness, Lower Plenty's dishevelled yarns radiate a communal, consolidating warmth.
Australian hip-hop's not-so-quiet underground achiever.
Six releases in on his record-a-year dictate, Sydney firebrand Kerser mostly sticks to an if-it-ain't-broke aesthetic while addressing addiction issues ("Bad Habits") and documenting the mean streets he came up in. Local in feel, international in vision, by now it's a familiar template of brash beats and big boasts, sharp wit and tight rhymes, but Tradition steps to the left enough to prove that Kerser isn't relying on a cookie-cutter production line. "See Me In Real Life" bounces in Eminem's footsteps, while slower points – like the guitar-led "Crash" – are more contemplative. Boost the BPMs, though, as on "Waitin' For This", and Kerser proves why he's a high-flyer despite cruising under the radar.
Force of nature finds sheltered harbour.
It's comforting to hear from a confessional songwriter you can trust. No crafty masks or unreliable narrators, just blood and guts and skeletons laid bare. The family allusions and brazen revelations continue on Martha Wainwright's best album in years ("I used to do a lot of blow/ Now I only do the show") but the plot thickens with songs written by her brother Rufus, Beth Orton, Glen Hansard and more. There's an ease of delivery in the mostly live recording with a chamber jazz combo capable of the grinding rock of "So Down" and nocturnal elegance of "Piano Music". As always, her astounding voice is a force unto itself, but rarely has it felt quite so sure of its purpose.
Satisfyingly dense third LP from Tame Impala and Pond muso.
Such is the warm massage of synths that smothers this and GUM's 2015 LP Glamorous Damage that it can take a few listens to grasp the finer points of Jay Watson's music. Because finer points there are: Flash in the Pan exhibits unprecedented songwriting ambition and moves with an attractive tumbling, tangential momentum. Watson can be abrasive on one hand, such as with "Deep Razz", as well as woozily hypnotic on mood pieces like "Ophelia". He is, however, no singer, so the effect-soaked vocals are allowed to sink into the Jean Michel Jarre-esque psychedelic soup, serving to emphasise the record's twin strengths of full-bodied production and incisive melody. On these counts he hits the spot.
Thrash legends prove they've still got it on 10th studio album.
Few bands are subjected to the kind of scrutiny when releasing a new album as Metallica. But that's what happens when your first five records – from 1983's Kill 'Em All to 1991's 'Black Album' – are regarded as metal classics. Of course, it doesn't help that the past few decades have yielded more ups and downs than a stock market, testing the patience of even the most ardent fan, whether it be the perceived sell-out of 1996's Load, St. Anger's songless din or the much maligned collaboration with Lou Reed, 2011's Lulu.
If, as many believe, Metallica righted the ship with 2008's Death Magnetic, the 12 tracks spread across this double album continue that trajectory. There are nods to the band's thrash past – "Hardwired", the brilliantly-titled "Spit Out the Bone" – and such is the riffing and attitude of "Atlas, Rise!" that it could have been plucked off their Kill 'Em All debut.
Primarily, though, this is an album of grooves, and some of them are monsters ("Am I Savage?", "Dream No More"). On occasion the band overthink things and trip themselves up ("ManUNkind"), and there would have been some merit in shaving a few songs off the tracklist to make an even 10. But when that's the biggest complaint of an album by a band 35 years into their career – a band with a catalogue as rich as Metallica's, no less – it's clear they're doing much more than just treading water. Instead they're shouting at the top of their lungs, "We ain't done yet!"
Reliable MC returns with strong fifth album.
Consistently one of Australia's smoothest emcees, Illy's fifth LP is packed with the signature slick, radio-friendly sound that has come to define the Frankston native. Lead single "Papercuts" featuring Vera Blue builds on the foundations of previous hits like "It Can Wait" and "Tightrope", with the impressive M-Phazes production delivering a near-bulletproof blend of pop, EDM and hip-hop. "Catch 22" plays in the same space, and amid such sonic polish the biggest danger is missing some of the album's best lyrical moments. The verses in stand-outs like "Two Degrees" and "Highway" demonstrate that for all the mainstream appeal, Illy is still more than capable of spitting fire.
Styles collide on eclectic, exuberant new album.
The 2015 debut from Liam McGorry's (Eagle & the Worm, Saskwatch) nine-piece Melbourne musical collective, Mind Renovation, was an album bursting at the seams with freewheeling ideas and a surplus of energy. Their follow-up is equally eclectic. Channelling the chuck-it-all-in-the-blender vibe of Nineties era Beck, Digital Zodiac flits between vocalists (chiefly GL's Ella Thompson and Venus II's Jarrad Brown) and styles with reckless abandon, from the tropical funk of "Roll Back the Years" to the house keys and Madchester vibe of "High Low". Occasionally all the shifts threaten to send it off the rails, but a palpable sense of low-stakes fun propels this wild ride to its satisfying conclusion.
Group's long-awaited comeback LP features timely election-year truths, poignant homages to late MC Phife Dawg.
The first album in 18 years from exploratory, jazz-traveling rap heroes A Tribe Called Quest effortlessly chronicles the chaotic crescendo of the 2016 election: a warning of "mass un-blackening," dark-humoured crooning about intolerance ("Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways") and perceptive words about the media's culpability in everything ("Why y'all cool with the fuckery/Trump and the SNL hilarity/Troublesome times, kid, no times for comedy"). The whole album ends with late rapper Phife Dawg taking the nickname "the Donald" back from our oncoming bigot-in-chief. Recorded well before the election, it serves as the hands-down best musical release valve the confused and angry segment of America has gotten since Election Day. As Q-Tip says in "Melatonin": "The world is crazy and I cannot sleep."
In addition, the band itself was rocked to their foundation earlier this year when Phife, the group's "high-strung voice," passed away at age 45. The shadow of his death is the other overarching theme of We Got It From Here, the remaining members paying honour on multiple songs, most poignantly when de facto leader Q-Tip spins a nearly verse-long tribute, delivering a rap as Phife himself on "Black Spasmodic."
Technically, Q-Tip is in a particular school of awesomely stubborn Nineties MCs who only let their flows grow more complex, internally knotty and speedy with age; as opposed to the Jay Z route of always trying to understand what makes modern rap tick. To anyone who grew up loving Big Daddy Kane or Kool G. Rap, Q-Tip is in that small field of fortysomething rappers (Andre 3000, Busta Rhymes, Eminem, Lauryn Hill) who decided the only way to move forward was go ludicrously speedy, not infectious with the slow-mo. His rhymes are absolute stuntman level at times: On opening track "The Space Program" he spills, "We about our business, we not quitters, not bullshitters, we deliver/We go-getters, don’t be bitter 'cause we not just niggas." The usually more elusive MC Jarobi brings his hard-rhyming A-game too, and longtime associates like Busta Rhymes and Consequence play berserk supporting roles.It's important to check the vibe throughout. Entire books can be written about how the sound, identity, location, phrasing, technical innards and even purpose of rap music has changed since A Tribe Called Quest's last album, The Love Movement, in 1998. But Tribe, in both delivery and content, maintain the attitude of the Bohemian everydude funkonauts that inspired Kanye West, Andre 3000 and Kendrick Lamar (who all appear here). Lyrically, they're still popping the bubbles of hip-hop fantasy ("Kids …") and examining their egos instead of inflating them ("Ego").
A record rooted in anxiety and mourning, We Got It From Here remains musically as dark and electrically relaxed as 1996's Beats, Rhymes and Life and 1998's The Love Movement. With help from visionary producer J Dilla, those critically mixed, commercially sturdy records were moody, muted, experimental, deeply funky and remarkably prescient, but ultimately unable to wrangle the proper amount of attention in the shiny-suit era. We Got It From Here checks in with similarly off-kilter but undeniably grooving beats. Tribe utilise the Dilla innovation of letting samples clash at odd angles; they let a copy of Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets" skip endlessly until the real John pops in for a guest spot, and the drum beat to "Lost Somebody," one of the album's Phife tributes, doubles up and separates from itself like a Steve Reich phasing experiment before abruptly slamming into total silence. In a contemporary move, Tribe abandon the Nineties hip-hop format and allow for modern musical and melodic sprawl, like a guitar solo from Jack White, a psychedelic keyboard detour or a spiralling verse from Anderson Paak.
One of the most timeless rap groups ever has returned with a record that doesn't sound like 1996, but doesn't sound like 2016 either. It's imbued with the same feeling of "Push It Along" that they've had from the beginning. The biggest complaint is the one thing they couldn't control: The entire thing feels like it needs a whole lot more of Phife Dawg's scrappy humour, personality and playful back-and-forth. His absence is not only lamented and honoured, it's also felt.
Sydney quartet embrace their inner R&B on second album.
Advance word that the Griswolds were ripping up the rulebook on their second album wasn't far from the truth. Turning to producer Andrew Dawson (Kanye, fun.), the Sydney quartet have created a densely packed R&B-inflected pop album that seizes the production Zeitgeist and could confidently compete on the international stage. "Out Of My Head" is a link to their sonic past, but the rest of the album sees them channelling the spirits of vintage Michael Jackson and Prince and merging it with the uptown funk of Justin Timberlake. It's not all fun and games – the title-track and "I Want It All" send the album out on a raw, reflective note that adds an extra layer of complexity and depth.
Producer finds the odd revelation on love-themed LP.
UK electronic producer and musician Romare (born Archie Fairhurst) proves his adeptness at taking disparate elements – vocal samples, monophonic synthesizers, thumping dance beats – and repurposing them into something all his own. Fairhurst has a flair for morphing simple, repetitive grooves into something much fuller and enticing (the pulsing "Je T'aime"; the blues-influenced disco-funk of "All Night", which recalls Play-era Moby), although the technique doesn't always pay-off ("Don't Stop", which is as relentless as the title suggests). When it all comes together – as on joyous house-inflected centrepiece "Who Loves You?" – Love Songs hits the amorous dancefloor highs it sets out to achieve.