The Cat is back on an album that revisits his past and plots his future.
We've seen that apple tree before, on the cover of Tea For the Tillerman nearly 40 years go. "How I'd love to be a child," the former Cat Stevens sighs on "Mighty Peace", his tone beyond wistful, the fragile acoustic riff a heartbroken echo of "Where Do the Children Play?".
As it happens, "Mighty Peace" hails from further back still, half-finished during his apprenticeship on London's mid-Sixties folk circuit and remembered here in between new songs and very old. Four of them, including the opener "Blackness of the Night", the parable-like title track and the eerie "Northern Wind", are rescued from the over-egged production of the Cat's second album of '67. Two more, "Grandsons" and "Mary and the Little Lamb", have languished as demos for half a century. "You Can Do (Whatever)" was originally meant for Seventies cult flick Harold and Maude and man, it sounds like it.
With their scriptural allusions, childlike melodies and tender humanity, the three new compositions sit so seamlessly in the mix that the whole album may as well have been beamed in complete from 1970. The classically inspired "Don't Blame Them" rings with the gentle wisdom of an old man but, hey, didn't they always?
Light-fingered Tillerman producer Paul Samwell-Smith and Seventies guitarist Alun Davies endorse the dreamlike air of an ageless search for higher truth in a bad, bad world.
UK collective maintain the sugar rush on album five.
Creative brain Ian Parton returns to the ecstatic mash-ups of vintage hip-hop, schoolyard chants and big band rhythm that made the band's debut LP the surprise hit of 2004. Effervescent opener "Mayday" blends call-and-response from the Detroit Children's choir with buzzing sitar and a literal "love SOS" via beeping Morse code. Emcee Ninja goes deep into the funk on the disorientating "She's Got Guns", while "Getting Back Up" squeaks with delight, as sousaphones and choir coalesce in a kind of rapturous soul banger. Finding cohesion in the Go! Team's chaotic energy hasn't always been easy for Parton, but here he does just that.
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.