Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Percolating power pop detours into UK nostalgia.
No strangers to brisk guitar-pop earworms, the Creases front-load their debut LP with a cresting chorus on punchy opener "Answer To". The synth-streaked "Do What U Wanna" and fuzzily propulsive "Something's Gotta Break" follow suit at album's end, but the Brisbane quartet spend much of the interim indulging a soft spot for yesteryear Britpop. Beyond echoes of early Blur ("It's Alright"), the Verve ("At Last You Find") and even Cast ("Everybody Knows"), "Is It Love" goes full Primal Scream with horns, wah licks, backup singers and a very baggy beat. Of course, the Creases are at their best on those thrilling bookends, when they sound most like themselves.
Debut from Aussie indietronica duo sails safely rather than soars.
If one song title on the debut album from Sydney/Newcastle duo Boo Seeka sums up their overriding MO, it's "Calm Symphony". Never Too Soon is a ripple-free blend of chill-bro vibes and slick, ornate electronic production. Ben "Boo" Gumbleton and Sam "Seeka" Croft certainly know how to craft a hooky pop song, as evidenced by the earworm single "Turn Up Your Light". They're adept at inspiring gentle toe-tapping, but the results are often too airless and clean. It's inoffensive indie-tronica that's catchy, yet remains a particular kind of vague and generic that means it's bound to end up soundtracking hip cafés country-wide.
Five-decade journey from jug band stoners to legends.
As startling as it is to hear the Angels in their primitive form as a pot-smoking jug band, it can't compete with the late 1970s Angels at their shadow-boxing peak. So, this 36-track archive trawl is strictly for completists. Besides jug band rambles and acoustic Brewsters, included is a brace of recent tunes with Dave Gleeson, plus half a dozen live tracks from 2010's Symphony of Angels, the last line-up to feature iconic frontman Doc Neeson and bassist Chris Bailey, now both gone, and an orchestra (not a good fit). The pick of the litter is the handful of classic era deep cuts: Dark Room's "I'm Scared" still kicks like a mule.
Great American storyteller mines history for tragicomic gold.
One album every 10 years means zero filler when Randy Newman takes time from his Hollywood day job (his Cars 3 score is out now). These nine richly imagined historical narratives begin with the eight-minute "Great Debate", in which the complexities of science are arrayed in court with much symphonic intrigue, to be shouted down by a gospel chorus of "I'll take Jesus every time". An intimate chat between the Kennedy brothers on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the identity theft of blues pioneer Sonny Boy Williamson and a touching family deathbed scene are sculpted with the dry wit, thespian empathy and light orchestral touch of a master.
Punk-metal royalty collaborate on a skull-smashing debut album.
Too often supergroups sound good on paper but end up being an excuse for normally great artists to ease off the gas in the hope that their high profile band mates will pick up the slack. Not so with Dead Cross. Mike Patton delivers in a range of vocal styles we haven't seen since Faith No More's Angel Dust over raging hardcore courtesy of Slayer's Dave Lombardo and Retox's Justin Pearson and Michael Crain. It's furious but not relentless, as Patton's delivery injects melody, humour and brutality in equal doses, making for an album that never gets stale. If you were expecting an arty vanity project, you'll be disappointed – this is a motherfucker of a hardcore punk record.
Soulman shows off a love of vinyl and collabs on inventive solo LP.
"Solo project" is a bit of a misnomer for an album featuring 35 people – from producers to MCs and a band featuring members of Hiatus Kaiyote, the Putbacks and the Bamboos. But Melbourne soul impresario Lance Ferguson isn't really one to do things by halves. Raw Material features re-works of 12 original tracks, which Ferguson cut to vinyl and handed over to his producer mates like New York's Javelin, who apply house beats and synth splashes to the lounge-y "Voyage to the Future". The source material is included, so you can compare the reworks to the OG bangers (if that's what you're into). Goes down pretty well at a party, too.
Melbourne six-piece strike a bittersweet balance on LP four.
So many of pop's most compelling songs remain those composed of equal parts light and shade. Having dabbled with this dichotomy on 2015's Sorry I Let It Come Between Us, here Saskwatch nail it. "It doesn't feel like there's much difference between love and loss," Nkechi Anele reflects on "December Nights", a bubbling pool of psychedelic pop that draws melancholy from even its brightest moments. "Renoir" is equally compelling, as is the sparse "Fortress". But don't be fooled; this is a record for dancing away a broken heart, not wallowing in one.
Bendigo synth-pop trio deliver a fraught hometown portrait.
Fountaineer's self-described "regional-basketball-stadium-rock" splits the difference between LNZNDRF ("Still Life"), the Killers ("Some Bright Sparks"), and Ultravox circa 1978. Greater City is a richly-textured DIY adventure conceived as both love song to Bendigo ("Grand Old Flags"), and a reaction to small town jingoism (the ELO-leaning "Words With Friends"). Rousing opener "Sirens (Parts 1 & 2)" seems to condense all the feeling of the National's High Violet into a single track while centrepiece "The Cricketers" is an indie-pop meditation on growing up in a regional centre. Fountaineer are synth-pop stylists to watch.
Suicide vocalist leaves a fearless final statement.
Alan Vega, who co-founded the electro-noise duo Suicide in New York in 1970, died last year. But he did not go gentle into that good night – as if there were any doubt. This posthumous album, recorded over six years with his wife, Liz Lamere, is proof. Knowing he was crafting his farewell, Vega leaves as he arrived, raging over Suicide-style industrial grinds. "We can see it/The red, white and blue is destroyed/Destroyed!" he snarls on "Screamin Jesus," which begins and ends with dizzying, throat-shredding shrieks. He was punk rock's battlefield reporter, staring into the horror and relaying it back, uncensored. R.I.P., man.
Fifth album finds the band landing on an ideal outlet for their powers.
Arcade Fire aren't shy of maximalism. Since roaring into public consciousness with 2004 debut Funeral, the Canadian collective have habitually gambled with excess. When finessed and expertly deployed (Funeral, The Suburbs), they convincingly paint a singular universe. But when ambition outpaces them (Neon Bible, Reflektor), their passion sounds a lot like pomp.
Fifth album Everything Now is a playful genre-surf back to that giddy universe. Produced by a pro pop team including Thomas Bangalter (Daft Punk) and Steve Mackey (Pulp), the album swings wildly through songs both concerned with the modern onslaught of data and borne from it. Take back-to-back cuts "Infinite Content" and "Infinite_Content" – the former a garage-punk rush, the latter a wistful Americana lope. But they're also the same song, Win Butler singing "Infinite content/We're infinitely content" on each, in a nod to – and explanation of – the uneasy duplicate. While the ABBA-aping title-track and disco strut of "Signs of Life" are danceable odes to classic pop, the shade behind them is more interesting: the spooky, saturated-tape pulse of "Peter Pan", the Blade Runner-meets-Nebraska melancholy of "We Don't Deserve Love", and spongy Eighties synth groove of "Electric Blue".
This tapestry meshes on repeat, leaving a breadcrumb trail of weird new sounds and avenues in the Arcade Fire pantheon to explore. If you can find the time.
Legendary rocker continues to grow old disgracefully.
It's been six years between solo albums for Alice Cooper, but the legendary shock rocker hasn't been idle, what with his relentless touring, radio show and work with the Hollywood Vampires. At 69, Cooper sounds fired up, his seasoned band providing a platform for this monstrous mix of grizzled Detroit rock & roll and arena-shaking anthems. Long gone is the hair metal sheen of 1989's Trash, in its place the more fearsome, classic (yet no less catchy) "Fireball", "Paranoiac Personality" and eerie closer "The Sound Of A". A bonus disc of live cuts and two new songs with his original band are welcome additions to an excellent LP.
Mature, accomplished live set from Kentucky sextet
Despite four solid albums of robust rock & roll, Cage the Elephant are best experienced live. These 21 tracks are not, however, indicative of the explosive shows that made their reputation, instead they come from a recent acoustic tour and feature a string quartet. The result is a surprisingly excellent collection, the new context bringing a refreshing sense of vulnerability to a once quite brattish band. The strings are most effective on "Too Late To Say Goodbye", while the intoxicating swagger of "Cry Baby" and "Ain't No Rest For the Wicked" is not dulled. Singer Matt Shultz's impressive emotional range caps off that rare thing: a highly satisfying live album.
Hushed folk balladry that proves unusually spacious.
With his lilting voice and delicate fingerpicking, Brisbane's Tom Cooney embraces the cosy intimacy of folk music on his first album in six years. That works to great effect on the profound title track and the Elliott Smith-esque "Sinking Feeling", while tasteful embellishment from Melbourne trio Sleep Decade, string arranger Biddy Connor and harmony singer Corrina Scanlon help leaven some of Cooney's post-relationship brooding. He may slot in neatly next to indie folkies like Iron & Wine, but Cooney's gift for clear-cut, often pastoral imagery and wide-open atmosphere makes Futureproof well worth poring over in its own right.
Singer indulges in nostalgia, reverb on fourth full-length.
Lana Del Rey has become a hugely adored miserablist thanks to a perpetually wounded voice and plainspoken poetry. Her fourth album as Lana Del Rey luxuriates in warm textures and laconic tempos that recall pre-rock-era pop, her voice given Rick Nelson levels of reverb that adds ruminative weight to even her most basic observations. Shying away from the big riffs of 2013's Ultraviolence and the glossy noise of 2015's Honeymoon, Lust for Life is almost like a fan service album, solidifying the idea of Del Rey as a trapped-in-space pop star of yore who happened to touch down in Los Angeles in the era of streaming music and sponsored afterparties.
Lust for Life recalls the gloomy pop laid down by the Walker Brothers in their mid-Sixties heyday, only with trap-era touches, allusions to modern problems and a penchant for songs that drag on just a little too long. It's dense yet spacious, and there are surprising flourishes buried within: "When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing," on which Del Rey worries about the fate of the country, buries bachata guitars in its anxious haze.
For much of the record, Del Rey sounds at her most contented when she's indulging nostalgic impulses, whether her own or borrowed. Allusions to her previous records dot the lyrics; the spacey, surprisingly touching "Heroin" is littered with references to Charles Manson and Mötley Crüe. The hiccuping "Coachella - Woodstock in My Mind" portrays being in the moment as an impossible dream, with the watercolour portraits of the distant past as an ideal to match. From it's title on down, "Tomorrow Never Came" reaches for the "Beatles-esque" tag, and it largely succeeds: Sean Ono Lennon produced the track, performed the "Across the Universe"-echoing instrumental and provides a vocal track that brings to mind his dad's shaggier outings.
Stevie Nicks drops by for the mournful "Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems," which could be a thesis statement for Del Rey's career up to this point. The flashy cameos by A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti on the spiky "Summer Bummer" and the fever-dreamy "Groupie Love" seem to underscore this point – their verses aren't in dialogue with their host as much as they are using her as a platform for self-promotion. (At least the Weeknd sounds intrigued by the idea of being in Del Rey's orbit on the glittering, glacial title track)
The implied wink of the Del Rey-Nicks duet makes one wonder how much of the younger singer's bummer quotient is rooted in a camp impulse: Is it meant to be self-serious like Valley of the Dolls, or is she implicit in the ridiculousness, like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? Del Rey's po-faced delivery and the lush arrangements suggest the former, but moments like the moaned "why-why-why-why-why-whyyyy" on "Tomorrow Never Came" and songs like the preening, awkwardly slang-stuffed "In My Feelings" hint ata slowly blooming desert flower of self-awareness.
The sweeping, girl-group-echoing closer "Get Free" might be a clue. A "modern manifesto," it outlines her planned move perhaps away from gloom, or at least "out of the black, [and] into the blue." Whether that "blue" is a cloudless California sky or a place defined by sadness is what she's going to figure out: "I never really noticed that I had to decide/To play someone's game or live my own life/And now I do/I wanna move," she declares on one verse. It's an optimistic ending for a singer whose career has been defined by discomfort, and for an album that, at times, can get lost in its own mythology.
Album number 10 from ever-evolving country stalwart.
The cathartic intensity that Shane Nicholson invested in his 2015 record Hell Breaks Loose – the ‘divorce album' that is arguably his finest work – meant that following it up was going to be a challenging business. Where to go after such stark personal confessions and such a creative highpoint?
The upheaval with ex-wife Kasey Chambers is now in his rear-view mirror, thus this album is more outward-looking and even humorous in lyrical sentiment. Nicholson has mostly put aside the sparse acoustic balladry (the pleasant "All I Know" being an exception) in favour of up-tempo, instrumentally busy, occasionally bombastic adult-rock. Indeed, Springsteen-ish opener "Safe" is a dead-ringer for something from Ryan Adams' latter-day 1980s-influenced albums.
Always one for a good chorus, Nicholson wheels out some unsubtle but catchy anthems with "Driving Me Mad" and "God's Own Army", yet overall there isn't quite the songwriting prowess of Hell Breaks Loose, what with the odd flat filler track ("Busted Lip") as well as the downright insipid ("Hotel Radio"). The best moments come with the pacey, plugged-in country-rock – "Song For a Sad Girl" has certain flavours of Steve Earle, while "Even If You Were the One", with its Bryan Adams feel, shows off Nicholson's undoubted melodic gifts. Despite the comedown in quality, he remains one of Australia's most sincere singer-songwriters.
Two legendary outfits offer a spicy and soulful set of covers.
If Ronald Isley's perfectly weathered voice can't bring peace to the world do we really stand a chance? The legendary singer is in fine form on this collection of covers, bashed out in four days with his guitarist brother Ernie and Santana's latest incarnation. Ernie and Santana tear through Swamp Dogg's "Total Destruction To Your Mind", while Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" is, er, grounded by a shocking rap verse namechecking LeBron James. Drummer Cindy Blackman Santana brings it home with a gospel-tinged original, reminding us that peace begins at home. Bless.