Bono and Co. look inward for inspiration on "surprise" 13th studio album.
No other rock band does rebirth like U2. No other band – certainly of U2's duration, commercial success and creative achievement – believes it needs rebirth more and so often. But even by the standards of transformation on 1987's The Joshua Tree and 1991's Achtung! Baby, Songs of Innocence – U2's first studio album in five years – is a triumph of dynamic, focused renaissance: 11 tracks of straightforward rapture about the life-saving joys of music, drawing on U2's long palette of influences and investigations of post-punk rock, industrial electronics and contemporary dance music. "You and I are rock & roll," Bono shouts in "Volcano", a song about imminent eruption, through a propulsive delirium of throaty, striding bass, alien-choral effects and the Edge's rusted-treble jolts of Gang of Four-vintage guitar. Bono also sings this, earlier in a darker, more challenging tone: "Do you live here or is this a vacation?" For U2, rock & roll was always a life's work – and the work is never done.
Songs of Innocence is aptly named, after William Blake's 1789 collection of poems about man's perpetually great age of discovery – childhood. For the first time, after decades of looking abroad for inspiration – to American frontier spirituality, Euro-dance-party irony and historic figures of protest such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela – Bono, the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. have taken the long way 'round to metamorphosis: turning back and inward, for the first time on a whole record, to their lives and learning as boys on the way to uncertain manhood (and their band) in Dublin.
Bono's lyrics are striking in their specific, personal history. In "Cedarwood Road", named after a street where he lived, the singer remembers the fear and unrequited anger that drove him to music and to be heard – and which won't go away. "I'm still standing on that street/Still need an enemy," he admits against Clayton and Mullen's strident, brooding rhythm and the enraged stutter of the Edge's guitar. "Raised by Wolves" is a tension of metronome-like groove and real-life carnage ("There's a man in a pool of misery . . . a red sea covers the ground") based on a series of car bombs that bloodied Dublin one night in the Seventies.
In "Iris (Hold Me Close)", Bono sings to his mother, whos died when he was 14, through a tangle of fondness and still-desperate yearning, in outbreaks of dreamy neo-operatic ascension over a creamy sea of keyboards and Clayton's dignified-disco bass figure. "You took me by the hand/I thought I was leading you," Bono recalls in a kind of embarrassed bliss. "But it was you who made me your man/Machine," he adds – a playful shotgun reference to his youthful poetic conceit in Boy's "Twilight" ("In the shadows boy meets man") and his wife Ali. The teenage Bono once gave her Kraftwerk's The Man-Machine as a gift while they were dating.
For U2 – and Bono in particular – the first step on the road out of Dublin was the sound of a voice, and they name it in the opening track, "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)". U2 have always been open in their gratitude to New York punk and the Ramones in particular, and this homage to unlikely heroism – that kid you least expect to take on the world and win – is suitable honour: a great, chunky guitar riff and a beat like a T. Rex stomp, glazed with galactic-Ronettes vocal sugar. "I woke up," Bono sings, "at the moment when the miracle occurred/Heard a song that made some sense out of the world." U2 also pay due diligence to the Clash in "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now", dedicated to Joe Strummer, and there is a strong hint of the Beach Boys' allure – their standing invitation to a utopia far from the Dublin grit and rain – in the Smile-style flair of the chanting harmonies in "California (There Is No End to Love)". "Blood orange sunset brings you to your knees," Bono croons in an awed register. "I've seen for myself."
These are the oldest stories in rock & roll – adolescent restlessness; traumatic loss; the revelation of rescue hiding in a great chorus or power chord. But Songs of Innocence is the first time U2 have told their own tales so directly, with the strengths and expression they have accumulated as songwriters and record-makers. This album was famous, long before release, for its broken deadlines and the indecision suggested by its multiple producers: Brian Burton a/k/a Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth of Adele fame and Ryan Tedder of the pop band One Republic. Those credits are misleading. Burton, Epworth and Tedder all co-produced "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" and contributed keyboards; that's Epworth on the additional slide guitar in "Cedarwood Road"; and Burton arranged the chorale in "Volcano". But the extra hands and textures are thoroughly embedded in the memoir. There is no time when the telling sounds like it was more than the work of the four who lived it.
And it is a salvation, U2 believe, that keeps on giving. "Every breaking wave on the shore/Tells the next one that there will be one more," Bono promises in the tidal sun-kissed electronica of "Every Breaking Wave". And "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" comes with a pledge to every stranded dreamer who now hears Rocket to Russia, Give 'Em Enough Rope or some U2 for the first time and is somehow, permanently, changed. "We can hear you," Bono swears. "Your voices will be heard."
Just find one of your own. Then shout as hard as you can.
Sisters find a middle path between hurt and happiness.
Swedish-via-USA sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg have reportedly experienced both breakups and some intra-family tension in recent times, and their fourth album feels a little darker, a little more bruised, a little wiser for it. The "little" here isn't meant to suggest insignificance, but rather that Ruins is neither a sudden shift into darkness nor an extreme exploration of it.
Their preference for a kind of wistful country/folk means that First Aid Kit have always leaned sad, but there's an extra edge to the lyrics and an additional layer of hurt in those songs.
However, there's no cheap gloom or easy moves. "Rebel Heart", with a trumpet voluntary in the denouement, and "It's a Shame", with some southern soul organ circling behind the voices, give Ruins a punchy start, but overall each time the songs hint they may veer to sadness, a flicker of sound or an uptick in vocals, a brisker drum or a gathering momentum reclaims the centre path.
Even when "To Live a Life" has melancholy prominent in the saddle, the ride is still peppered with keyboards that sparkle and a kind of Christmas-is-here-don't-cry tenor.
If there is a downside to this it is that holding the full sadness in, or balancing it with optimistic sounds and tempo changes, strangely leaves you looking for the killer song that will nail the hurt.
New York emo synth-pop convert builds the beat.
Aaron Maine aka Porches leaves his DIY guitar roots ever further behind in The House. "Leave the House" and "Find Me" kick things off in slow-mo Nineties Eurobeats style, while Maine's sadboy croon keeps the mood blue, and the contrast is what makes these tunes stick. Though you can hear Maine pushing himself and the imagined crowd to dance, particularly when the horns kick in on "Find Me" and during the baggy flute synth breakdown on "Anymore", he's still stoically sharing the internal angst, and some achingly beautiful moments: "I have no idea who I see in the mirror," he sings on haunting heartbreak jam "By My Side".
LA rock kids fail to live up to their backstory.
Great backstory – L.A. teenagers meet in school and form a band inspired by Ozzy, Alice and the Runaways, with a female singer who likes to spit fake blood. Then they get recorded by Ryan Adams. Suitably pumped, put on their debut album and... insert sound of deflating pool toy. Arrow de Wilde may have a wild stage act, but her voice fails to match the rep, while the band chugs and stomps between glam-metal Sunset Strip and garage-rock Echo Park. "Let Her Be" is the pick of the pack, both in attitude and grunt, but "Pussy Tower" is as stupid as the title suggests and "Full Of Pride" is basically Nirvana's "Lithium".
Merrill Garbus examines her life, with rubbery rhythms and jubilant vocals.
Sometimes Tune-Yards' music sounds like field hollers from the American south in the 1940s. Sometimes it sounds like troupes of South African schoolgirls doing skipping chants. Sometimes it sounds like an early Eighties New York downtown mash-up of electro, disco and art-pop. The fact it's all the work of one white thirtysomething woman, who can translate all the above onstage with just a bass player for company, speaks to the genius of Merrill Garbus.
On her fourth album, Garbus pulls back the curtain a crack to allow the listener a peak into how she builds these songs. There's the deliberately skew-iff piano chord that's repeated throughout "Heart Attack" until its part of the fabric of the song, or the scatty word game involving the words "exception" and "exceptional" on "Now As Then".
She's also not shying away from stuff. On "Colonizer", over a squelching rhythm and loping Afropop bass, she sings, "I use my white woman's voice to tell stories of troubles with African men." Thematically she's putting up a mirror to examine who she is as a woman and a human being, wrestling with her place in the world and what she represents. And if that sounds too heady, don't worry. You'll be dancing around so much to her playful, rubbery rhythms and jubilant, multi-layered vocals that it will all go down easily.
A mature offering from Ozzy's favourite henchman.
With a title suggesting a ‘best of' album, this is in fact a slab of all new material from perennial guitar offender Zakk Wylde and his Black Label Society. Wylde's is a familiar sonic template that doesn't change much from album to album, but here he shows a degree of restraint that a less sober version of himself never revealed. Grimmest Hits dials back the overdriven fuzz and dispenses with his oft-overused pinch harmonics for a smoother, mellower approach. Still doom-tainted, dark and heavy, with the odd country-flavoured semi-acoustic tune, it presents a somewhat more mature picture of one of metal's favourite wildmen.
Sydney outfit triumph after upheaval.
For years Tonight Alive have grappled with being a little too "punk" for the pop kids and a little too "pop" for the alt scene. But severing ties with their major label might be just what the doctor ordered. Underworld is the sound of a band levelling up; the one long-time fans have been waiting for. Guitar-driven tracks like "Crack My Heart" and "Book Of Love" see Tonight Alive at their most powerful, a force fully realised, while the infectious "Temple" plays like a frenzied cry for help. Corey Taylor steps in for the album's closing track, but it's the vocal harmonies on "Disappear" with PVRIS's Lynn Gunn that make for one of the best duets you'll hear all year.
Indie rockers spike slacker anthems with rare honesty.
Having shaken off their early Neutral Milk Hotel worship, Melbourne quartet Tiny Little Houses remain firmly entrenched in the Nineties on their debut album. Touchstones include Modest Mouse and Blue Album-era Weezer, guided by the relatable whine of frontman Caleb Karvountzis. Anchoring all the tousled jangle and scouring distortion are self-deprecating coming-of-age confessionals: the crushingly catchy "Entitled Generation" skewers its own slacker impulses. By the time we get to "Team Player", a Pavement-ish takedown of the music industry, Karvountzis has emerged as an unflinching chronicler of inner volatility.
Pharrell's avante-rap crew gets a radical reawakening.
In the early '00s, while his career as a pop hitmaker was taking off, Pharrell Williams invented his side project N.E.R.D, with Chad Hugo and Shay Haley, as a dumping ground for his most off-kilter impulses – scrambling everything from funk rock to hallucinatory soul to prog-rock. If their records sounded like a hodgepodge, that wasn't a drawback. It was the whole liberating point.
The fifth N.E.R.D LP, and first since 2010's forgettable Nothing, feels urgent in a way their music never has, fitting our political moment while remaining as stylistically looped-out as ever. "If not me, then who?" Pharrell asks on the vertiginous booty-shaker "Lemon," which features a scorching rap from Rihanna. "Don't Don't Do It," one of two songs to brandish Kendrick Lamar verses, undercuts its brunch-funk keyboards and sunny bounce with lyrics about police brutality. "Secret Life of Tigers" references Guns N' Roses and right-wing parents, then springs off into a sprawling electro-funk seizure with "more space than NASA." It's refreshingly weird to watch Mr. "Happy" contort his nice-guy smile into a psychedelic scowl. But there's beauty and hope here too. The closing track, "Lifting You," is a liltingly optimistic island-tinged dub tune with Ed Sheeran on bright backing vocals – a little shot of light to help us wander out of the darkness.
Rapper takes stock of his career, says he’s sorry to his daughter and goes off on Trump on raw, compelling ninth LP.
Another politically motivated Rust Belt blond, Paul Newman, once said "a man with no enemies is a man with no character." And few musicians could boast more of either than Eminem, the poison-tongued, potty-mouthed scourge of Lynn Cheney, boy bands, clown posses and eventually – on a string of self-auditing post-rehab albums – himself. But, at 45, he hasn't had a good pop-culture feud in ages, and his pill-popping days of vice are behind him. Eminem has long been pushed to the edge and all his foes are dead. "I only go to meetings court-ordered from a shrink," he jokes on a Revival pick-up line.
The title of his ninth LP implies a nostalgic return, and its most electric moments do look back, suggesting a confused and conciliatory man taking stock of his own legacy – the kind of honesty that's always made him one of hip-hop's most compelling memoirists. Album-opener "Walk On Water," featuring vocals from Beyoncé, wonders if that legacy can still be built upon. Eminem details his own missteps and self-doubt over a mostly beatless track as the sounds of crumbling paper and errant swears underscore his lack of confidence. That confessional power also comes out as he revisits another favorite theme: his failings as a dad. The LP's last two tracks, "Castle" and "Arose," form a powerful suite that moves from his days as a struggling dad penning letters to his unborn daughter to the pill-hazed superstar screaming about her loss of privacy. He raps from the hospital bed where he was shuttled after a 2007 methadone overdose and apologizes for all the things he won't get to see her do. It's a mini-series working like the raw docu-drama of open-hearted goosebumpers like 2004's "Mockingbird," proving that, when he lets you peek inside, Eminem still carries emotional heft.
The majority of Revival is, well, a revival: a collection of labyrinthine raps without much of a narrative arc. Lyrically, Eminem mainly falls back on old tricks. But what tricks they are: part Big Daddy Kane, part Eddie Van Halen, part Marquis de Sade. He can still be the same booger-flicking shock-rocker, just in a dirty old man's body. "Believe" and "Chloraseptic" are the type of boast-heavy rap-a-thons that no fan of Run the Jewels would shrug at; Em even has a go at a Migos flow. On "Heat," he unleashes a ridiculous litany of dirty puns ("You got buns, I got Asperger's") and the type of convoluted double entendres that would make AC/DC feel like underachievers ("Sorry if I'm being graphic, but I'm stiff as a statue/You sat on a shelf, I feel like I'm a bust/Maybe I'm ahead of myself"). He's a triple-X LL Cool J on "Remind Me," rapping about boobs 'n' butts while Rick Rubin flips Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'N' Roll."
"Framed" and "Offended" return to 2009's Relapse: self-consciously ultraviolent splatstick with sexual assault jokes on parade and pop culture punchlines updated with Bill Cosby, Ray Rice and Steven Avery. It will ultimately be for the listener to decide whether these songs land as an exploitation flick made of intricately stacked syllables ("In Hamtramck, got the panoramic camera, Xanax, a banana hammock and a Santa hat") or a disgusting, unnecessary display of misogyny ("Gotta stab a bitch at least eight times/To make it on Dateline") that's more distracting than transgressive in the #MeToo era.
Eminem's solipsism also gets interrupted by world events. Here, he follows his insane anti-Trump freestyle from the BET Awards with the huge piano-ballad screed "Like Home," hooked around a soaring vocal from Alicia Keys: "All he does is watch Fox News like a parrot and repeat," Em raps. "While he looks like a canary with a beak/Why you think banned transgenders from the military with a Tweet?" "Untouchable" even goes beyond vitriol to offer ideas: hire more black cops, the crap stops."
However, at 77 minutes, Revival is a heavy listen, going deep on ballads with guests like Ed Sheeran and X Ambassadors. But a certain indulgent messiness has always been part of the Eminem experience. "River" (with Sheeran), "Tragic Endings" (with Skylar Grey) and "Need Me" (with Pink) are self-lacerating narratives about powder-keg relationships, each seeming like an attempt to recreate the lighters-up majesty of Number One hits like 2010's "Love the Way You Lie" and 2013's "The Monster." On the Cranberries-sampling "In Your Head," he says sorry to his daughter for forcing her grow on record with the fucked-up character of Slim Shady. When Revival's confessionals work, it's proof that, when the real Marshal Mathers stands up, he can still pull us into his evocative dramas.
Revisiting the work of Afrobeat's progenitor – and a fearless Pan-Africanist firebrand.
Curated by Erykah Badu, this latest Kuti retrospective encompasses a slew of the visionary Nigerian bandleader's most fervidly political recordings, many with the game-changing Africa '70. Even at 40 years' remove, their prickling electricity is palpable.
The anthology's 12 tracks occupy 223+ minutes of timeless genius: a mesmeric potion of jazz virtuosity, highlife hedonism, and unshakable Yoruba ceremonial rhythms and call-and-responses. Pestling shekere, congas and palm-muted guitars form a seamless river of interlocking grooves, couching keys and wildly expressive saxophone parts of the kind piloted by Sun Ra Arkestra — see especially "No Agreement" (1977), with its urgent funk backbeat and expressive guitar vocalisation.
The collection takes in some of the darkest passages of Kuti's personal and public life, including the Nigerian military's 1978 raid on his Lagos commune, Kalakuta Republic, which claimed the life of Kuti's mother. The outrage prompted Kuti to deliver her coffin to Lagos' Dodan Barracks — a defiant gesture enshrined in searing, scathing indictment of corruption "Coffin for Head of State" (1980).
Africa '70's celebrated performance at the 1979 Berlin Jazz festival is captured in V.I.P (Vagabonds in Power), which — along with later entries Army Arrangement (1985) and Underground System (1992) — carries forward the fire of Kuti's mid-Seventies ascendency.
A giant of 20th Century popular song, Kuti continues to excite at his every entrancing, wildly inventive turn.
Beloved Melbourne post-punks change things up, again.
Total Control return from two years of elusiveness with a surprise EP that elaborates and evolves beyond any expectation set by 2014's Typical System, with the apocalyptic thump dialled back for an almost playful, energetic mixture of art-pop, buoyed by clattering drum machines and wryly melancholic lyricism. Laughing at the System makes it apparent that a sonic torch was carried by fellow Melbourne art-punks Terry — two members of which also exist within Total Control's shifting bounds — "Future Crème" and "Luxury Vacuum" evoking similar tones to this year's Remember Terry. Total Control's penchant for disorienting outsiders and fans alike is maintained regardless, perhaps the only wholesale constant from their past work.
My Morning Jacket's reverb-loving singer reworks Brian Wilson, Sonny and Cher on second covers set.
From My Morning Jacket's early days, frontman Jim James had a thing for vocal reverb. On his second solo covers set, it persists, and serves the project well – these classic songs feel like live broadcasts from distant memory, clouds in heaven, or an empty theater after everyone's gone home. Of course, James' gorgeous tenor lies at the heart of it. Brian Wilson's "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" is handsomely ghostly; ditto the Orioles' doo-wop gem "Crying In The Chapel," distilled to a single lonely voice. The curveball is "Baby Don't Go," the singer multi-tracking himself on Sonny and Cher's 1965 hit, harmonizing yin and yang quite literally, and refreshing a pop classic for a new, gender-fluid generation.
Memphis R&B singer continues her upward trajectory.
Album number four for K.Michelle shows the R&B artist in a more confident creative space. Thematically, the LP doesn't reinvent the wheel. Songs about relationships, sex, drugs and the high life K.Michelle flaunts via reality TV are bolstered by gripping R&B and hip-hop beats, yet the singer pulls herself away from the comfort zone of standard rhythm progressions and trap beats, instead opting to let her voice take centre stage. "Either Way" with Chris Brown is forgettable, though "Crazy Like You" and "Birthday" mark two solid examples of K.Michelle's versatility.
Scrappy sixties radio recordings highlight band's early roughneck greatness.
There's been a bounty of archival Stones releases this year – notably Ladies & Gentleman: The Rolling Stones, the fierce 1972 Fort Worth, Texas, show documented in the film of the same name, Keith Richards' and Mick Taylor's guns blazing. But this set takes the prize for ear-cocking: 32 tracks, recorded by BBC radio between 1963 and 1965, that show a scrappy blues and R&B covers band evolving into a rock & roll juggernaut.
It's long on Chuck Berry, songs, naturally – including "Come On" (the Stones' debut single), "Carol," "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Memphis, Tennessee," the latter sung in the provocative voice of a fey British schoolboy still feeling out a style. The recordings were cut "live" in studios, and occasionally there were audiences, which give a sense of the Beatlemaniacal hysteria the band was already generating: check the shrieking on Tommy Tucker's "Hi Heeled Sneakers," Mick Jagger impressively deep-throating his consonants, and the Willie Dixon-penned Muddy Waters signature "I Just Wanna Make Love To You," Charlie Watts pounding down the door while Brian Jones freaks out on harmonica. You also hear the Stones as part of a scene – covering Berry's "Beautiful Delilah" in '64, the same year the Kinks released it as the opener of their debut LP, and "I Wanna Be Your Man," the Lennon/McCartney composition they gifted to the Stones, who rough it up nicely. By the time they're recording their originals, however, they're building a world of their own. On a version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" recorded in fall of 1965, just months after the single was issued, Jagger uses only a single clipped "hey" on the first chorus, landing less like a pop chant than the bark of a hooligan stalking prey. And on "The Last Time," with its lyrical nod to the Staples Singers and harmonies like a roughneck English Everly Brothers, you hear the sound of songwriters flush with discovery, a dazzling glimmer of what lay ahead.