Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Little Big League vocalist goes direct on second solo LP.
Despite being recorded as she mourned her mother’s death, Michelle Zauner’s 2016 solo debut, Psychopomp, sidestepped self-pity as she upscaled a selection of scrappy lo-fi recordings with near-suffocating levels of glowing optimism. The second stage of grief is, evidently, confrontation, as the comfort of obfuscation is stripped away on Soft Sounds From Another Planet. Instead she takes on that same morbid muse via sweeping cinematic shots (“Till Death”), art-pop abstraction (“Machinist”) and, at best, face-to-face, as with the title-track, where, snugly comforted in sorrow, she boldly states: “that’s not the way to hurt me”.
Musical maturity can’t hide emotional vulnerability.
On his debut album, Brisbane’s the Kite String Tangle (Danny Harley) attempts to subvert his electro-emo past. There’s deliberately detached house beats (“Waiting”), emotional nonchalance (“Selfish”) and brass-meets-bass bangers (“This Thing We Got”). The beat-heavy tracks showcase his best production yet, but he shines brightest through pain: tender moments of longing, loss and insecurity. The flitting beats and bulging bass of “Fickle Gods” are almost loud enough to veil despondence and jealous resolve. This is a contained yet expressive exploration of the muddy, uncertain terrain of emotion and relationships.
Melbourne trio revel in bleakness and brutality.
Not known for superficialities, Batpiss ram your senses into whatever horror they’re dealing with. For record three, that’s missing dead friends, as underlined by guitarist Paul Piss’s grotesque cover portrait. Gone is the punk immediacy of their 2013 debut, in its place the refinement of experiments in dirge: the discordant drag of “Golden Handshake” during which being cable tied at the bottom of a river is mentioned; the tempo raised a notch for the bawl of “N.U.M.N.”. Come the crash of the superb “Weatherboard Man”, it feels like the exit from a perpetual interment. One where, for better or worse, you too have felt the anger and anguish of grief.
Formidable talent overwhelms reticent personality on soul debut.
Few artists can boast the sort of touring schedule of Megan McInerney, aka Meg Mac, before releasing their first LP. The Triple J Unearthed 2014 winner has toured the US in the years since sharing vans and stages with D’Angelo and the Vanguard, a commitment that has doubtless stalled the rather un-Australian-sounding singer’s debut while helping to forge her increasingly bluesy direction.
Comparisons have already been made between McInerney and Adele, or Welsh songstress Duffy, but the truth is that McInerney falls somewhere in the middle – her voice is a rich instrument of impressive range, but her personality is not quite as penetrating. Neither seductive nor spiteful, her lyrics are undeniably from the heart, they’re just a little light on grit. Just shy of 35 minutes, it’s not a remarkably varied record, either, but what Mac knows she does so very well, whether it’s soul-steeped mellifluous humming or bending her vocal effortlessly around a dynamic key change, as in the earworm “Kindness”.
The production, from Fort Worth’s Niles City Sound team (Leon Bridges), is polished, almost to a fault; Mac’s more commanding when cruising confidently on voice and piano alone in “Shiny Bright”, or veering towards interesting pop territory on “Didn’t Wanna Get So Low But I Had To”, recalling Swede renegade Robyn in balladry mode.
Seedy bar trio walk the line between pathos and danger.
Here’s a bloke you don’t want to know, but you can’t look away. He is what he is: a man in conflict with nature, one step ahead of the blues, hitching outta town in the rain, looking for the Plan B he already kinda knows is gonna take him nowhere. You think you know lonely? This bloke knows lonely.
On their third album together, the sad, seedy composite character conjured by Tex Perkins, Don Walker and Charlie Owen is as reliable as a hangover after the races.
On a scaffold of block piano chords, sighing slide and twanging steel guitar he drags his scarred and sorry bones from closing time and “women of a certain age” to another truck stop and, well, “Here’s As Good As Anywhere”.
In that scene and “Summer”, he makes us feel the deadweight of a specific memory like a chronic ache. He’s less self-aware in the slightly more comical garb of “The Hitcher” and “Plan B”, but only in the sinister creep of “Just Your Luck” does he cross the line to endanger anyone but himself.
The broader the guffaws – “A Man In Conflict With Nature” blows his track winnings on “three hookers and some sushi”, for instance – the harder it is to suspend disbelief. Then again, compared to this guy, most of us lead pretty sheltered lives.
English songwriter’s masterful return to folk fundamentals.
With its mannered electronic tics, airs and graces, Work It Out (2015) aligned Rose with several mercurial English indie/folk-pop peers (Daughter, Bombay Bicycle Club et al). But on her third LP, the multi-instrumentalist tills the fallow fields of folk tradition with matchless poise and feeling. Harp solders a gilded cage around Rose’s delicate vocal on “Intro”, there’s timeless autobiographical acoustica with an undertow of longing and regret in “Floral Dresses”, while “Second Chance” shadows Carole King’s immortal Tapestry. Then there’s devastating piano ballad “Moirai”, which may well be the year’s most heartbreaking moment.
Spoken-word and post-rock soundscapes tell engaging story.
This English duo don’t write songs so much as make conceptual art pieces and academic research projects that happen to be musical. This is based on Welsh coalmining and it samples archived spoken-word and constructs soundscapes that are equal parts pulsing electronica and sprawling post-rock. They try to convey how industry and social cohesion are intertwined by using the words of the Welsh people who lived through the rise and fall of mining. The message is sweetened when they employ guest vocalists including Tracyanne Campbell of Camera Obscura and James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers.
Prolific grunge lords unleash their first double LP.
Fans of the Melvins are no doubt used to the bands’ gruelling work ethic by now, with over 25 albums and 14 EPs under their belt, they’re a collector’s dream, and a completist’s nightmare. A Walk With Love and Death sees the band settle into a familiar, if sinister, groove, despite being two different undertakings. One side, Death, is a standard release Melvins record, and the second disc, Love, is the soundtrack to a short film, A Walk With Love and Death. Surprisingly, it’s a cohesive set of ragers, largely devoid of the drone experimentation that you’d expect from a Melvins soundtrack. Yet another worthy addition to their hefty catalogue.
Desert and digital combine on vibrant debut.
“Ancient time in a new paradigm” goes the refrain on second track “Two Worlds Collide”, serving as a statement of intent for this extraordinary all-female four-piece from the Northern Territory. So we have an uplifting fusion of Indigenous rhythms (seed pods, clap sticks and so on) with woozy electronica occasionally reminiscent of Azure Ray or Mazzy Star (“Ngabaju”). Sung in both Mudburra and English, the album pulses with intensity as it explores and reasserts notions of femininity and family. Kardajala Kirridarra is proof of the boundless originality of Central Australian music.
Brisbane act deliver career high third album.
The bombastic debut album. The difficult second album. The defining third album. It’s a cliché – but then clichés are there for a reason, right? On their third album, Brisbane’s the Jungle Giants deliver their most coherent and sophisticated record to date, tightening up every loose screw from scattered 2015 predecessor Speakerzoid. From the big hit groove on “On Your Way Down” to jangly closer “People Always Say”, there’s not a drum-thwack or syncopated guitar strum that hasn’t been thought about or worked to within an inch of its life. At times the production can feel over-kneaded, but when the results are this good, who cares?
Canadian collective bring some celebration into the world.
If you’ve ever been in a band, you know how hard it is to get four people in one place at one time to do something. Now imagine there’s 15 of you. That kind of explains the seven-year gap between albums for this Toronto collective. Apparently it was the Paris terror attacks of 2015 that galvanised the group into recording again. And yes, there is a track called “Protest Song” here, but if you’re looking for resignation and anger at the state of the world, you’ll have to look elsewhere. While Broken Social Scene don’t go for the robes-and-Kool-Aid massed chorale of the Polyphonic Spree, they still know how to do joy and uplift. The titles “Stay Happy” and “Halfway Home” let you know where they’re coming from, but they create warmth while keeping the sonic tension and sharp angles. Leslie Feist returns to the fold, most notably on the nostalgic title track, which lives up to its title with thick layers of vocals across a bed of thudding bass and drums, as she sings about “survival by the soundtrack made of our short lives”. Like Canadian compatriots Arcade Fire and Japandroids, the group achieve celebration without pomposity. By the time they close with “Gonna Get Better” you’ll be singing along to this mantra for our times: “Things’ll get better ’cause they can’t get worse”.
Trio tinker with their sound on long-awaited second album.
“I just said goodbye to love again,” Danielle Haim exclaims on tender album closer “Night So Long”, a sparse cut that sounds the least like anything the sisters Haim have done before. It arrives as welcome relief from both the emotional turmoil that Danielle lays bare across the record, and the band’s thunderous energy.
But it’s not all uncharted territory. Written mostly at their parents’ L.A. house in the Valley, Something To Tell You retains much of what made Haim’s 2013 debut so beguiling. West Coast soft rock and Eighties pop remain touchstones for the trio, although here they lean harder into the R&B and funk influences that bubbled just under the surface of Days Are Gone. And it’s these moments that burn brightest, thanks in part to producer Ariel Rechtshaid, who peppers the record with playful fragments of digital fairy dust.
Haim are at their most propulsive when Este’s rubbery bass and Alana’s shiny guitar give way to the sisters’ harmonies, which slice in and out from one another at all angles; their breathy Michael Jackson-like staccato still a prominent feature. Mirroring these twists, Danielle swings wildly between rejection and longing – blissfully repentant on “Want You Back” and stridently independent on “Found It In Silence”. At every new turn, Este and Alana are right there beside her.
Stirring cowpunk from soulful Alabamans.
No fewer than six song titles on this third album feature exclamation marks, giving an idea of exactly how much exuberance we are dealing with here. Yet underneath this high-octane, punk-infused racket there lurks something more subtle, with lyrics exploring the confusion of existence in a polarised America, while musically there is often a compelling melding of country chord progressions with the brash guitars of the MC5, such as on “Sweet Disorder!”. The more restrained acoustic numbers don’t hit the spot in the same way, and a double album seems like overkill, but it’s hard to quibble with such spirited, vivacious rock & roll.
Kanye West’s signee comes good on compelling pop debut.
There’s a lot of hype around Kacy Hill, the former American Apparel model and backup dancer for Kanye West who got her single under Yeezy’s nose while on tour and was signed to his GOOD Music label on the spot. She’s definitely the odd one out in his stable, but the time and care taken with Hill is audible on her LP, a sublime, brooding pop record in which Hill’s almost operatic vocals are a captivating presence across the spacious, elegant, piano-led title track, spiralling around gossamer synth washes on “Cruel”, and powering through what sounds like a lost Eighties teen anthem, the Stuart Price-produced “Hard To Love”.
Corey Taylor’s ‘other’ band leans in to commercial hard rock.
On their sixth album, Stone Sour progress deeper into heavy alterna-rock, hewing ever further away from the meth-shaved brutality of frontman Corey Taylor’s ‘other’ band, Slipknot. Taylor’s voice remains one of the most versatile in the genre – handling melodicism with a silky deftness that’s almost Halford-esque – and Hydrograd delivers poppy power-metal (“Fabuless”, “The Witness Trees”), country (“St Marie”) and swaggering bluesy hard rock (“Mercy”, “Friday Knights”) with conviction. It’s overlong and inconsistent (Chad Kroeger would turn his nose up at the radio rock of “Song #3”), but its energy and gleeful homage-paying to the riffage gods is undeniable.
Kiwi has strong handle on moody, melancholy pop.
Dunedin native Kane Strang laces his second LP with lurching, lugubrious indie rock, delivering dazed vocals that often double up and overlap. It’s reliably brooding, with whiffs of Modest Mouse (“Two Hearts and No Brain”) and Interpol (“Not Quite”). But the long shadow of the Nineties can start to feel limiting, and Strang is most appealing when splashing lyrical acid across the façade of sing-song catchiness. The quietly scathing “Oh So You’re Off I See” nails that brief. Doprah’s Stephen Marr lends a downcast consistency to it all, but it’d be nice to hear Strang double down on the subversive potential of those brighter moments.