UK avant-garde electronic star proves why he's Beyonce's favourite sad sound sculptor.
For a guy who specialises in quiet, forlorn music, James Blake can deliver quite an emotional wallop. Though he started out as a star of the London electronic avant-garde, his ability to mix downtempo dubstep textures with gospel-leaning piano balladry has won him writing credits on Beyonce's Lemonade and the forthcoming Frank Ocean LP.
Blake's third album (all 76 minutes of it) reaches back to the abstract electronics and agile, brittle beats of his early EPs while pushing his songwriting towards new levels of sad urgent grandeur. Blake's bell-clear tenor has never sounded more wounded – or more ethereal. "Radio Silence" deploys wintry pianos, weeping synths and meditative vocals to conjure soulful dread; "Choose Me" makes falling in love feel like falling into a void; and "Timeless" slowly evolves from a quiver to a banger – "you know you slide out when you slide in, with graceful shadow," Blake sings.
In these dark sonic surroundings, the moments of catharsis flash even brighter: Justin Vernon's clarion vocals meld with Blake's on highlight "I Need a Forest Fire," a feverish plea for spiritual renewal with the optimism of spring's first growth. Sensitivity without strength is just decadence – and fortunately for Blake, there's plenty of fight in him.
Topics: James Blake
Melbourne singer wide awake and kicking in Guyville.
Over three years and a clutch of EPs and singles, we've learned that Ali Barter is a girl with a suitable axe to grind whether in eloquent feminist op-ed webzine pieces or in front of an overdriven amp. The Melbourne songwriter's long-playing debut bolsters both lines of attack, an unapologetic "not the girl you wanted me to be" to the tune of a belching synth-guitar-scape handed down from the Nineties grunge-pop wave. There's ethereal romance in the neon cloud of "Tokyo" and elsewhere, but it's in the withering gender politics of "Cigarette" and "Girlie Bits", where "battle lines" rhymes with "panty lines", that her own turf gloriously unfurls.
Third album from heart-on-sleeve indie rockers.
Sorority Noise frontman Cam Boucher is not one to hide behind metaphors: "I've been feeling suicidal," he sings on "A Portrait Of" before adding, "I was thinking 'bout how great it would be if I could make the tightness in my chest go away." The spectre of death and depression hangs heavily over the Connecticut quartet's third album, as Boucher deals with the passing of close friends and mental health issues over a sound that recalls the bare-knuckled, if slightly less memorable, indie rock of Modern Baseball. Raw and close to the bone.
Melbourne rocker delivers catchy debut influenced by classics.
It would require a concerted effort to dislike this album. Wright Smith's infectious brand of rock – a clean, classic sound with some indie vibes thrown in – seems to have a groove for every toe to tap, a melodic hook for every ear. "I Don't Wanna Know" has a touch of the Beatles circa Revolver, while "Where Do All Your Friends Go While You're Sleeping" blasts the expressive scope wide open. There's some experimentation of the stadium-filling-guitars type (the expansive title track) and the slightly psychedelic ("Her technicolour fingernails are scratching on my mind"), but it's still effortless, rewarding listening.
Behemoth frontman trades the Beast for the blues.
As Me and That Man, Behemoth frontman Nergal, along with guitarist John Porter, swaps Polish death metal for storied Southern blues-folk. Like Behemoth, Songs of Love and Death is lyrically macabre and grim, focusing on Hell, Satan, death, blood, etc. Yet when paired with bluesy riffs, stomping rhythms and the odd country twang, it almost feels comical, not menacing. Nergal's typically violent howls give way to deep gravelly vocals (think Nick Cave meets Mark Lanegan), while track titles like "Nightride" and "On the Road" cement the swampy road trip feel evoked throughout. It's hardly challenging, but that's what makes it so fun.
Miami rapper dips into a deeper consciousness on ninth album.
Rick Ross' ninth album finds the Miami kingpin in a reflective mood. Musically, he's drifting through a mid-career malaise. The beats he uses are the same worn poles of yacht-rap luxury and trap bangers that he's relied on since his 2010 watermark Teflon Don. Lyrically, he's still capable of speaking truth to power with remarkable clarity. His unexpected shots at Cash Money Records paterfamilias Birdman on "Idols Become Rivals," and how he compares him to a pedophile priest, may have the Internet chattering. But more impressive is how he balances his accusations of Birdman's licentious treatment towards his artists within an analysis about the fake watches, leased Benzes and overpaid video vixens that populate rap's glamorous façade. Elsewhere, Ross shouts out Mutulu Shakur on "Santorini Reece," then adds, "White man love me when I get my bling on/But you hate me buying real estate and foreign land."
He stuffs his rhymes with stray notes about his tough upbringing, and remembers on "Game Ain't Based on Sympathy" about growing up on welfare: "I thank God my kids ain't gotta see that cheese," he says. Rozay's newfound social conscience is welcome growth from the days when he bragged about knowing the real Manuel Noriega, but he's only woke to a certain point: Rather You Than Me also includes the self-explanatory "She on My Dick," and on "I Think She Like Me" he drawls, "If a pussy dry, call her Beetlejuice."
Seventh album fails to reclaim past glories.
They may have practically invented shoegaze, but on their first LP since 1998, the Jesus and Mary Chain have been stoned and dethroned: so many bands have mastered their distortion-meets-Phil Spector pop shtick in the interim that JAMC now sound like a just-passable knock-off of themselves. Although never revered for insightful lyrics, Damage and Joy hits new lows: hearing a 55-year-old Jim Reid sing about fast drugs and fast women ("I can't find a hole/to put my erection") isn't pretty. "War on Peace" channels some old-school JAMC cool, but much here would benefit from being obscured by thick distortion.
Experimental pop star commits to avant-pop partnership.
Charli XCX was already an alternative-leaning pop star when she broke with the punky rant "I Love It" with Icona Pop and dropped Sucker, an EDM-Devo reinvention of the quirkiest, most Bow Wow Wow-ing early Eighties New Wave. But in the past year and a half, this hook monster with legitimate Top 10 hits under her belt has taken a neon night drive into the avant-garde. For her 2016 EP Vroom Vroom, her recent single "After the Afterparty" and this 10-song, 37-minute "mixtape," Charli has teamed with the constellation of artists surrounding London digital-only label PC Music. The output from these acts, including producers A.G. Cook, Sophie and Danny L Harle, is a chirping and blipping simulacrum of pop music that sounds like an arch joke about consumerism. PC Music deal in the sleekest digital farts and twinkles, melodies like J-Pop performed on a glitching Game Boy and vocals manipulated into alien avatars. The real calling card of these productions is "hyper-reality," an audio effect that sounds like watching a hi-definition TV with motion smoothing on. It's a technique that's usually reserved for cutting edge noise musicians like Oneohtrix Point Never, techno theorists like Fatima Al Qadiri and weirdo cassette labels like Orange Milk Records. Charli XCX is going from dueting with Iggy Azalea on "Fancy" to being the carnival barker of a virtual reality funhouse populated by a gaggle of SoundCloud post-modernists.
The jury is still out on whether she is lost in the experimental Matrix or actually the earliest adopter of pop's next futuresex lovesound. But Angel makes this pioneering human-hologram marriage seem far more natural and cohesive than on Vroom. The beats aren't as abrasive, her vocals are distended in ways that are disorienting but not jarring. Most of the songs are about those moments before a relationship goes to the next level: These are still classic pop songs mostly about sex and cars, but the sexual yearning in the lyrics is compounding the nostalgic yearning of the music. The sounds are full of cosmic synths, vintage techno noises and 808 booms that sound rendered in CGI. On "ILY2" and "Emotions" the drones start to suffocate, creating the same combination of wistful, erotic and isolated that made the synth-heavy Drive soundrack a success. And the album houses no better statement on sex, alienation and capitalism than a naughty synth-pop song from the perspective of a pin-up poster ("Babygirl"). A combination of chilly noises and hot lyrics ("Cold like ice, petrified/Loving what you’re doing to me," she sings in "White Roses"), these robot sex anthems are storming into 2017 like pop music's dirty Blade Runner reboot.
Electro-pop veterans get back to 'Violator' mode on 14th LP.
For nearly four decades, Depeche Mode have majored in gloomy meditations on their own personal shortcomings. But their 14th LP offers a bitter, sorrowful elegy for the outside world. Nearly every song on Spirit laments the death of human decency, often in disarmingly beautiful ways (see the fuzzy ballad "Fail," the forlornly crooned "Poison Heart"). They sometimes drift into heavy-handed polemics ("Where’s the Revolution"). But with a smart mix of techno-leaning keyboards and bluesy guitar, à la their 1990 high-water mark, Violator, it’s easy to get swept away in their gospel.
A country-rock exploration of Oberst's recent one-man album.
Last year Oberst released Ruminations, a stark one-man album that reflected its gestation in a snowbound house in Omaha. This companion piece serves up those songs with a full band and adds seven new tracks, with appearances by alt-country/rock royalty including Gillian Welch, Jim James, M. Ward and the Felice Brothers. There's a woodsy sound that's equal parts Dylan, the Band and Neil Young, with Oberst's quivering vocals and poetic storytelling to the fore and fiddles and harmonica in the mix. If Ruminations was his Nebraska, this is his Basement Tapes. Of the newer material, "Overdue" stands out for its hazy feel and tale of beautiful losers.
Cosmic American vibes on fourth album from New Jersey crew.
In 2015, Real Estate bade farewell to the considerable talent that is guitarist Matt Mondanile, who left to exclusively serve his other band, Ducktails. As a result, Real Estate's dissolution became a distinct possibility. However, Mondanile, while integral, was not the group's creative heart, with singer-songwriter Martin Courtney managing to reshuffle the five-piece's line-up to produce what may be their finest record.
The band's familiar essence is immediately recognisable on opener "Darling", a warm, shimmering affair adorned with the dreamy jangle of new guitarist Julian Lynch. His style is fuller and arguably more experimental than Mondanile's more minimalist approach, allowing these bittersweet, mournful songs a deliciously expansive, more woozily psychedelic atmosphere – here, they evoke long-time touchstone Beachwood Sparks more than ever.
That said, there is definite structure and discipline throughout. In Mind has tightened up where 2014's Atlas was a tad unfocused – as a songwriter Courtney has matured in terms of timing and restraint, exemplified by the exquisitely mellow "After the Moon". Another development is Courtney's full embrace of the old softly-sung, double-tracked, reverb-heavy vocals, to the point where he sounds uncannily like Elliott Smith on "Same Sun", an appropriately luscious track mimicking that deceased great. In Mind is a tribute and farewell to Mondanile and the foundations he helped lay, as well as a firm consolidation of a new identity.
Leeds punk-metal troublemakers throw down on fourth album.
PABH always sound like they're either soundtracking a four-day bender thrown by a bunch of desert tweakers hellbent on ruination, or they are them. The Haze is covered in an oily, sweaty sheen and underpinned by a riotous, sneering meth-punk energy, with neck snappers like "The Big What If" and "Prince of Meats" sitting alongside the psychedelic curl of "Lamping" (like if Refused did shitloads of 'shrooms) where the usual throat-shredding shit PABH are on is nicely tempered. Their metal edge devolves into Vines-y party-punk on "Dumb Fun", "Flash Lads" and "Hotel Motivation", but it makes for a raucous bareknuckled punk throwdown unafraid to get loose.
The lauded Austin, Texas band venture onto the dancefloor to strut their stuff.
What to do when, according to Metacritic, you're the most consistently highly-rated band of the 2000s? Apparently you get horny and go dancing.
Although strong traces of Spoon's DNA remain, with their ninth record something else is happening. Specifically, band leader Britt Daniel is writing and singing from the hips – and at times, the groin – rather than the head. "Could be a hot scent mixing with mine, you got me uptight, twistin' inside," he moans on the title track, his words sliding over electro handclaps, clucking guitar and shivering strings that nod to Barry White.
Although nominally an indie rock band, Spoon's music has always been based more on grooves than chords, a rubbing together of wiry rhythms and sputtering riffs to create a spark that will catch alight. But they've never been so overtly keen to shimmy onto the dancefloor. "First Caress" is unashamedly dance-pop, the rolling beat and bloopy keyboards soundtracking a story of passion overriding judgment. And if "Shotgun" isn't deliberately using Kiss's "I Was Made For Lovin' You" as a template, then I'll eat my copy of Dynasty.
Of course, Spoon being Spoon, there's no simple over-arching narrative here. Check out the backwards looped vocals of "Pink Up" or the breathy, brooding saxes of closing track "Us". But then, this consistently lauded band is consistently confounding.
The German folkies have undergone undeniable growth.
In 2013, Milky Chance's "Stolen Dance" was inescapable, a slice of nu-folk electronica characterised by Clemens Rehbein's distinctive, throaty whine. Fans of it will find plenty to like on LP two – it's filled with more of the mid-tempo, Euro reggae-folk tracks that marked their debut, albeit more elaborately furnished, from "Firebird", with an appealing instrumental section and vaguely Spanish guitars, to "Doing Good", with arpeggiated guitar chords and layered harmonies. Lyrics are occasionally woeful enough to suggest a language barrier, but those partial to Rehbein's divisive vocals and the odd harmonica will appreciate the band's progress.
This wry musical autobiography is a 50-song marathon.
Stephin Merritt's 1999 masterpiece, The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, was exactly what the title said. For 50 Song Memoir, he wrote a song for each of his 50 years on earth. It's a marathon that can prove exhausting, but he's got the material. Some tracks reference his childhood with a mother who lived on communes and had a series of bad boyfriends. Everything from his teenage obsession with English synth-pop to his history of living in New York is dissected with a mix of deadpan humour and razor-sharp wordplay, delivered via his deeper-than-Atlantis vocals and everything-and-the kitchen sink instrumentation.