Wilco leader takes a lo-fi rummage around in the rearview.
Together At Last is the first of three acoustic albums exhuming the Jeff Tweedy songbook. Anyone familiar with the Wilco band-leader could anticipate it: heavy-lidded observationals sung in a stagger over a gently thumbed acoustic. Across 11 low-key tunes there are no revelations here. That's OK – Wilco's existential anthem "Via Chicago" is infallible; Loose Fur's "Laminated Cat" gorgeous; and "Hummingbird" shows there's still power in Tweedy's dog-eared voice. But there are moments of background snooze, too; "Lost Love" sounds like the once ornery songwriter kicking into caretaker mode. Or maybe just clearing his hard drive.
Singer-songwriter devastates on second full-length.
Julien Baker's 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle, was one of those albums that seemingly sprung from nowhere to become an instant cult classic – a reputation-making record that ensured the 19-year-old from Memphis would enjoy a loyal audience well into the future. Now 22, Baker's follow-up plays to her debut's strengths – breathtakingly confessional lyrics, a voice that sounds as brittle and broken as it is beautiful, paired with funereal, choral guitar work – but expands confidently on the blueprint by incorporating strings, woodwind and more piano into these lusher arrangements.
On Sprained Ankle, Baker lamented "wish I could write songs about anything other than death". Turn Out the Lights is no more cheery, the singer focusing more broadly on the human condition and all its foibles. Her lyrics consistently devastate – see the heartbroken "Sour Breath" ("You're everything I want and I'm all you dread") or "Even" ("It's not that I think I'm good/I know that I'm evil/I'm just trying to even it up"). The moments where she truly opens her lungs are uncomfortably – but stunningly – raw ("Shadowboxing").
Turn Out the Lights isn't as instant as its predecessor, and lacks some of that album's naive simplicity. It's denser and, at 11 songs, longer. But while wading through Baker's emotional wreckage can, at times, feel exhausting, it's always worth it.
Jam band evangelist's solo debut fails to launch.
At his best, Nahko Bear – leader of roots/world/festival collective Medicine for the People – explores identity with arresting candour and a knack for rapid-fire vocal delivery. Confounding the more mature outlook of MFTP's HOKA (2016), Nahko's solo debut comprises songs penned between the ages of 18 and 21 (he's "stoned on a stone" in "Creation's Daughter"). It's an album of terminally pleasant roots-pop lullabies ("Goodnight, Sun") littered with more processed sounds ("Susanna"). Guitars are strummed and trumpets parp, but the message is always the same: an apprentice piece is an apprentice piece, regardless of production.
Melbourne cousins signpost a bright future with mature debut.
Backwater builds on the promise shown in Chloe Kaul and Simon Lam's prior two EPs; it's an utterly lovely collection of neo-garage/R&B that wears its influences (the xx, Kelela, Little Dragon) obviously while carving out a space all of Kllo's own. The alchemy is in Kaul's hushed, syrupy voice and Lam's broken beats, ghostly synths and astute use of space – hardly a new combination but an exemplary one, especially in tracks such as "Virtue", with Kaul doing angel duties on vocals while Lam demands that we dance, and the melancholic "Last Yearn", farewelling an ex with Adele-like faux sincerity in a spiralling haze of piano and clipped beats.
Melbourne quartet go beyond dream pop on impressive debut.
Much like labelmates the Ocean Party, Melbourne's Crepes serve their steady-handed, blissful guitar-pop with a side of bitterness. Early work stuck solely to this lane, but on their first full-length they stretch out with sombre, Beatles-like sitars ("Getting Lost"), layers of lush harmonies ("Four Years Time") and even experimental electronica ("Channel Four"). Despite such indulgences, vocalist Tim Karmouche is a constant, with his calm assessment of teenage drama ("cool kids") from a twentysomething perspective aptly suiting both sides of their sound – equally nostalgic and optimistic.
Hiatus Kaiyote singer's stripped-back solo debut.
Two albums deep, Naomi Saalfield's future-soul collective have scored Grammy noms and been sampled by Drake and Kendrick. Championing her prodigious, silken vocal, Saalfield's first LP as Nai Palm features reworkings of several HK tunes, along with a handful of new compositions, and even a curiously claustrophobic medley – Bowie's "Blackstar" and Radiohead's "Pyramid Song" segueing into HK's "Breathing Underwater". Resonant jazz-hued guitar tones ripple beneath lush chorales, opening a window onto the deep roots of soul music ("Haiku"), but stripping out HK's trademark polyrhythmic crosscurrents disperses some essential dynamism.
Songwriter proves ready for her spotlight moment.
While an eight-year veteran of the bedroom-to-Bandcamp scene, Universe marks Jess Locke's second coming, as the singer-songwriter's honest, TMI-bordering diary scribbles are beaten into bite-size slogans by a full-band backing. As expected, the fidelity boost comes at the sacrifice of some of Locke's heart-wrenching fragility, but not her poetic punches, which hit hard whether taking on self-worth, the pros of self-medication or unflinching self-analysis. Sense a common thread? Thankfully, despite sharing the spotlight, Locke remains the centre of her own universe, the perfect place for her blunt vulnerability to thrive.
Amiable countrified album for former X Factor runner up.
Originally sold as a generic-brand rock & roll bad boy balladeer, Dean Ray has ditched the saccharine bullshit and crafted a record that takes mid-20s existential worry and uses it as fuel for mature, beguiling country-folk tunes. At times coming off like a bluegrass Jeff Buckley with plenty of banjo and brushes ("Green"), and a world-weary Ian Moss acolyte ("Call It a Day"), Ray delivers a set that's steeped in Australiana and affecting story-telling, like the confessional tales of "Alcohol" and "Six Feet Under". The down-on-his-luck outlaw rocker motif isn't new, but Ray's talent turns it upside down with terrific verve.
More arresting and confessional indie rock from Nashville band.
Alicia Bognanno doesn't mince words. "I cut my hair, I feel the same, masturbate, I feel the same," she howls on the album opener. Bully play the kind of wiry, slightly out-of-control indie rock Pavement and Superchunk pioneered in the Nineties. They move from inspired to imitative on "Guess There", and the see-sawing guitar and throbbing bass of "Seeing It" shows their debt to the Pixies is ongoing. Still, with a singer as arresting and confessional as Bognanno, the songs demand attention. When she shreds her throat with lines such as "I've been staying away from the west side, trying to keep away from the booze and you", she sounds brave, not broken.
Sydney folkie returns with more apple-pie optimism on LP five.
Fans of Lenka won't be jolted by a sudden change of sound after 2015 album The Bright Side. She's produced Attune herself and it's a more stripped back record, largely acoustic and organic in keeping with the subject matter. The title is a reminder to all of us, Lenka included, to reconnect with the natural world. But the songs are as winsome as ever, and while Lenka's rosy outlook often rings twee, you have to admire her ability to make even dying sound cute, as in afterlife ballad "Disappear". The Sally Seltmann co-write "Heal" is the strongest track on an album with simple charms that are both quaint and refreshing.
Psychedelic plot continues to swirl for guitar cosmonauts.
There's less to prove and more room to breathe on the second album of the Church's new era: a 10-song doddle after the monolith of 2014's Further/Deeper. But between the shifting keys and ecstatic dream-state chorus of "Another Century" and the filmic apocalypse of "Dark Waltz" is an eminently familiar envelope of sonic architecture. Guitarists Peter Koppes and Ian Haug weave a seamless continuum in the synthy wash of "Submarine", then jangle and chime blissfully nostalgic through "In Your Fog". From ocean to desert, Steve Kilbey's astral visions wax reliably majestic and mercurial. Did you want peyote with that?
The pop star shows off her brassy firepower.
Demi Lovato is at her pop-princess best when her majestic wail takes over, as the high points of the singer's sixth album attest. The title track channels the brassy clamour of her 2015 smash "Confident" into maximum-overdrive R&B; "Sexy Dirty Love" throws back to the robo-funk era, with Lovato using its fluid bass line as a springboard for vocal pyrotechnics. The LP gets bogged down in chilled-out trap pop (see the Lil Wayne-assisted "Lonely"). But slow jams like "Concentrate" perfectly balance the downtempo and the energetic.
Melbourne artist realises her potential on debut album.
When Ecca Vandal emerged in 2014 with "White Flag", she appeared to be an artist fully formed. A brash electro-punk anthem complete with striking DIY film clip, it wasn't a question of how good it was, but more where did she come from?
Putting out singles is, of course, a different exercise to releasing a debut album, something not lost on the singer given that she spent a year-and-a-half constructing Ecca Vandal. That the record contains only one previously released song ("End of Time") suggests she resisted the urge to rely on past glories, and a good thing too, for this is a vibrant, dazzling collection of new tunes. Vandal made it clear early on that she wouldn't be boxed in to a certain sound, but the real art here is her ability to fuse multiple genres coherently into each song, as opposed to having the "electro one", the "punk one" and so on. Melody, too, is a going concern, meaning hooks fly thick and fast, be it in the electronic thump of "Future Heroine", the punk guitar rave of "Broke Days, Party Nights" or the stuttering beats of ballad "Cold of the World".
Vandal is an astute lyricist, "Price of Living" taking aim at Australia's offshore detention centres ("Back there I was a lawyer and a mother/Now I'm stuck behind barbed wire"). Only the Garbage-esque rock of "Out on the Inside" feels superfluous to needs – a minor blight on a stunning debut album.
Indie Sydney-siders knock the dust off after a long hiatus.
Having split in 2007, Sydney guitar-pop boffins Hoolahan return to almost the exact same sweet spot they hit with their 1999 debut, King Autumn. From the shoe-gazey opener "The Morning Roll" to lead single "Ev'ry Time You Go", Hoolahan mine a rich heritage of jangling guitars and sweet vocal harmonies. Like the Go-Betweens, Hoolahan place more emphasis on songwriting than having a consistent sound, bouncing confidently between densely-textured bliss-pop, psychedelic experimentation and alt-country twang. While it's not the most cohesive record, Casuarina sounds like talented musos needing to get some great songs off their chest.
Slinky debut from Northern Beaches brotherly duo.
On their debut album, Oli and Louis Leimbach have thrown the kitchen sink of funk, folk and synthy electro at their garrulous, sunny indie pop. The insidious reggae of "Risky Love", pop bounce on "Other Way Round" and deafening echoes of the Strokes on "Can I Be Your Lover" are covered in gooey layers of instrumentation, as barely a moment goes by that isn't polished to a gleaming sheen with horns, strings and playful experimentation. It's all exceptionally pleasant, but it's hard to shake the feeling its heart is being subsumed by its need to prove its worth, even on chest-bursters like "Underground" and "Top Of My List".