The Compton MC's second major-label album is a masterpiece of fiery outrage, deep jazz and ruthless self-critique.
Hashtag this one Portrait of the Artist as a Manchild in the Land of Broken Promises. Thanks to D'Angelo's Black Messiah and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015 will be remembered as the year radical Black politics and for-real Black music resurged in tandem to converge on the nation's pop mainstream. Malcolm X said our African ancestors didn't land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us. The cover of Lamar's second major-label LP flips that maxim with a fantasia of bare-chested young hoodrocks flashing cash and booze on the White House grounds, Amerikkka's Most Unwanted victoriously swarming a toppled symbol of pale-skinned patriarchy.
The party begins in earnest with George Clinton's blessings and bassist Thundercat's love for Bootsy Collins. "Wesley's Theory" is a disarming goof that's also a lament for the starry-eyed innocence lost to all winners of the game show known as Hip-Hop Idol. "Gather your wind, take a deep look inside," Clinton says. "Are you really who they idolize?" Lamar's got plenty of jokes and jeremiads to launch at himself, us and those malevolent powers that be. "I want you to recognize that I'm a proud monkey," he raps later on. "You vandalize my perception, but can't take style from me."
He's also made hella room for live jazz improv on this furthermucker, from the celestial keys of virtuoso pianist Robert Glasper to the horns of Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington to Thundercat's low end. Black Musicians Matter majorly here – their well-tempered orchestral note-worrying a consistent head-nod toward Sun Ra, which producers including Flying Lotus and Lamar's right-hand Sounwave smush into a lush volcanic riverbed of harmonic cunning and complexity. Only a lyricist of Lamar's skills, scope, poetics and polemics would dare hop aboard it and dragon-glide. His virtuosic slam-poetic romp across bebop blues changes on "For Free?" harkens back to LA's Freestyle Fellowship.
Clearly, this is Lamar's moment to remake rap in his own blood-sick image. If we're talking insurgent content and currency, Lamar straight up owns rap relevancy on Butterfly, whatever challengers to the throne barely visible in his dusty rear-view. He relishes and crushes the gift he's been handed by CNN in the national constabulary's now weekly-reported racist tactics, 21st-century apartheid American style: "It's a new gang in town, from Compton to Congress/…Ain't nothing new but a flow of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans." This tactic is nowhere more resonant than on the studio-rigged beyond-the-grave convo with 2Pac he conjures up on ''Mortal Man,'' letting Pac deliver the album's most-fatalist mad-prophetic zinger: ''Next time it's a riot, there's gonna be bloodshed for real. . .I think America thinks we was just playing, but it's gonna be murder. . .like Nat Turner 1831 up in this muthafucka.''
But Lamar's own fears of assuming a messiah position are upfront and personal. "I been wrote off before, I got abandonment issues," he says on "Mortal Man." "How many leaders you said you needed then left 'em for dead?/Is it Moses, is it Huey Newton, or Detroit Red?" You can imagine Chuck D or Dead Prez going in as hard and witty against white supremacy as Lamar does on "The Blacker the Berry" and "King Kunta" – but you can't picture them exposing the vulnerability, doubt and self-loathing swag heard on ''Complexion (A Zulu Love)," "u," "For Sale?" and "i." What makes Lamar's bully pulpit more akin to Curtis Mayfield's or Gil Scott Heron's than any protest MC before him is the heart worn on his hoodie's sleeves.
To Pimp a Butterfly is a densely packed, dizzying rush of unfiltered rage and unapologetic romanticism, true-crime confessionals, come-to-Jesus sidebars, blunted-swing sophistication, scathing self-critique and rap-quotable riot acts. Roll over Beethoven, tell Thomas Jefferson and his overseer Bull Connor the news: Kendrick Lamar and his jazzy guerrilla hands just mob-deeped the new Jim Crow, then stomped a mud hole out that ass.
Topics: Kendrick Lamar
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".
In sound and vision, the greying golden god is still on fire.
We carry a flame for lost love. We carry fire to vouchsafe humanity, with all its accumulated wisdom and empathy, through dark days. Robert Plant has a bet each way here, shifting between intense romantic longing ("Season's Song", "Dance With You Tonight") and calling out inhumanity in the savage "New World..."
He referenced the image once before, on the stunning musical watershed of Mighty ReArranger in 2005. But these days are far darker and his mission more urgent at the crossroads of east and west, and at "the dimming of my life" he references wistfully in the dusty swirl of "The May Queen".
That title carries a cheeky glimmer of his past, of course. But his last few albums with the Strange Sensation/Sensational Space Shifters are about kaleidoscopic consolidation, not dry nostalgia: Bron-Yr-Aur and Appalachia, Mali and Morocco fuse seamlessly in this bonfire to incredibly potent effect.
This world spans the rich, slow strings of "A Way With Words" and the title track's mystical twang of djembe and bendir; the terse historical polemic of "Carving Up the World Again… a wall and not a fence" and a majestic duet with Chrissie Hynde on a mellowed rockabilly tune, "Bluebirds Over the Mountain".
Few troubadours alive have this much to carry, let alone do it so lightly. Fifty years since his first album, Plant remains essential.
Smashing Pumpkins head honcho strips back with pleasant results.
Billy Corgan is no stranger to self-indulgence – remember that eight-hour live set inspired by Siddhartha? – so seeing him use his full name on this solo offering sets off the 'pretentious warning' alert. The truth couldn't be more different – this is the most straight forward, stripped-back album of Corgan's career. Accompanied by piano and/or acoustic guitar, the Rick Rubin-helmed Ogilala suffers only from being perfectly pleasant, nothing more, nothing less. "Aeronaut" and "Archer" contain melodies so wistful and beautiful they weaken the knees, but elsewhere Ogilala is notable mainly for hearing Corgan in such raw surroundings, as opposed to its songs.
Sprightly but vanilla electro-pop from arty LA talent.
Given Lawrence Rothman's ongoing experimentation with dazzling and often disturbing video clips and a shape-shifting Bowie-like approach to his own look and style, the Californian's debut LP is surprisingly conventional sonically and musically – a series of upbeat synth-based tracks with roots in 1990s R&B (How To Dress Well, who references the same period more successfully, appears on the so-so "Wolves Still Cry"). In moving away from the adventure of darkly excellent 2013 single "Montauk Fling", Rothman is playing it safe, but his deep, sensuous baritone remains a striking point of difference.
Wordy New Jersey DIY punks deliver storytelling good times.
One of the surprise success stories of wordy, beardy-man-feels punk, the Front Bottoms' easygoing nature belies just how smart, insightful and genuinely moving their ouvre can be. Brian Sella remains strikingly relatable as the everyman with the reedy storytelling voice coughing up sneaky-deep narrative gems like the travelling doubt of "Raining". The plaintive "Trampoline" and charming "Don't Fill Up On Chips" are terrific, but the perky synths on "You Used To Say (Holy Fuck)" and the ponderous "Grand Finale" land awkwardly. But for communal drunken sing-alongs ("Ocean", "Everyone But You") and bud hugs, few do it better.
Spunky diva keeps the energy high, vitriol catchy on seventh album.
Pink was dominating the charts with spunky, real-talking anthems back when today's slow-sad divas were in preschool, and her seventh LP is a reminder of that. The title track and the strummy "Whatever You Want" are vintage Pink, with juicy hooks and pop-rock muscle; "I Am Here" underscores its EDM-powerment message with a gospel choir. Beautiful Trauma's chilled-out middle sags, but "Revenge," her bad-romance duet with Eminem, is an early shot of energy; Max Martin and Shellback's homage to Dr. Dre's skip-step beats may be too on the nose, but Em's rhymes nicely recall a time when even lunatics rode bright hooks.