Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
La fille de Serge mixes club pop with noir cinema.
Charlotte Gainsbourg's first musical role in seven years is a spy thriller set in the nightclubs of Europe. All ominous cadences slashed with harpsichord jangle, "Ring-A Ring O' Roses" opens a nail-biting first side propelled by a breathless French whisper in the verses, cutting to airy English choruses. The swelling strings of "Kate" shadow her late father Serge's melodrama. The synaptic crackle of "Deadly Valentine" signals a slow segue into electro. "Dance Vos Airs" brings a welcome dash of acoustic chanson, but between the beat-centric production of SebastiAn and co-writes with Paul McCartney and Daft Punk, the lasting impression is more about ambition than cohesion.
Another year in hell for the bilious hermit of indie rock.
Times are ripe for the old personal/political juxtaposition caper, but ethnic cleansing and oral sex? Young lovers and nuclear incineration? "My Love, I'd Do Anything" bookended with screams from a torture chamber? Oh, Mr Morrissey! The British indie king-in-exile continues his misanthropic streak on his umpteenth uncompromising denunciation of the brutal idiocy of humankind. "Society's hell," he declares for openers, as thumping drums, clanging guitars and horns of war assemble in a world of propaganda and occupation.
"Who Will Protect Us From the Police" is typical of his contempt for uniform of all stripes, but the epic centrepiece "I Bury the Living" is next-level vitriol. Sung from the hapless viewpoint of "a sweet little soldier (gimme an order and I'll blow up your daughter)", its thrashing refrain of "honour mad canon fodder" is unlikely to garner many RSL invitations.
There's trademark tragicomic self-pity, too, between the Christmas bells of "Home Is a Question Mark" and the dancing electric piano of "Spent the Day In Bed". The classic Mozzer trope of withering from sexual neglect reaches a new pitch of terror in the stampeding finale of "Jacky's Only Happy When She's Up On the Stage".
Steel your nerves for the last simmering storm of inhuman oppression in "Israel", but fan or foe, don't expect to be sitting on the fence when the last battlefield vista unfolds.
On sixth album, pop mastermind ditches tabloid drama, goes darker and deeper.
"I swear I don't love the drama – it loves me!" Now there's a credo that sums up the Taylor Swift of Reputation. So rest in peace, Old Taylor, and for that matter New Taylor, because Reputation is New New Taylor. Swift spent most of the past year off the radar, dropping out of the media hustle – a major challenge for a star this relentless about sharing her feelings, not to mention her cats' feelings. Taylor turning off her phone was the equivalent of Leonard Cohen moving to a Zen monastery for five years.
From the sounds of her excellent sixth album, Swift spent that time going into deeper, darker, more introspective places. Reputation is her most intimate album – a song cycle about how it feels when you stop chasing romance and start letting your life happen. As one of the all-time great pop masterminds, she's trying something new, as she always does. But because she's Taylor Swift, she can't stop being her own turbulent, excessive, exhausting and gloriously extra self. Make no mistake, this girl's love affair with drama is alive and well.
The world was expecting Reputation to be a celebrity self-pity party, after her September single "Look What You Made Me Do," airing her grievances about getting mistreated by other famous people. Even if you think her complaints were totally justified, they felt like a dreary waste of her creative time, and many fans were dreading the idea of a whole album's worth. But sorry, world – that was just one of her Swiftian fake-out moves, because there's nothing else like that song on Reputation. (Whew.) Instead, she's playing for bigger emotional stakes – this is an album full of one-on-one adult love songs. That's a daring swerve from a songwriter who's scored so many brilliant hits about pursuing the next romantic high. Taylor might love the players, but nowhere near as much as she loves the game.
We all know better than to treat Swift's songs as straight autobiography, but a year into her relationship with actor Joe Alwyn, she sure isn't cranking out the break-up songs. Gems like "Dancing With Our Hands Tied" and "New Year's Day" are long-term love stories that don't end with a scarf hidden in a drawer. As she sings in "Call It What You Want," "Nobody's heard from me for months/I'm doing better than I ever was." The songs are full of everyday details – spilling wine in the bathtub, building blanket forts. But they also explore a timely question: What happens to your identity when you step back and stop defining yourself by how strangers see you?
There's a surprising amount of sex ("scratches down your back" is a Tay lyrical first) and her first recorded profanity, when she sneers about her exes in the superbly dishy "I Did Something Bad": "If a man talks shit, then I owe him nothing." "Dress" rides on the hook, "I only bought this dress so you could take it off." But even when Ms. White Horse works blue, she can't resist droll self-mockery. Even the title is a sly in-joke, since Taylor has always loved singing odes to her dresses – it's like Bruce Springsteen calling a song "Car." "End Game" is her deeply weird, wildly funny R&B collabo with Future and Ed Sheeran – now there's a threesome nobody saw coming. While both suitors pledge their devotion, Tay plays coy ("You've been calling my bluff on all my usual tricks/So here's the truth from my red lips") and confesses, "I bury hatchets but I keep maps of where I put 'em."
Reputation builds on the synth-pop of 1989 – ingenious hooks blown out for maximum sonic bombast, with production split between the team of Max Martin and Shellback ("2 Swedes and a Swift") and Jack Antonoff. The delirious "Getaway Car" chronicles a love triangle that starts out somewhere fancy ("the ties were black, the lies were white") only to burn out in a sleazy motel with the realisation, "Nothing good starts in a getaway car." And in case you were worried she might retire Petty Tay, "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things" is a kiss-off to a posh friend she used to party with ("feeling so Gatsby for that whole year"), like a mega-budget "Better Than Revenge."
The word "reputation" comes up in a few of the songs – not in reference to her public image, but the far more relatable dilemma of how you surrender your identity in counting the likes and faves you rack up every day. In a way, that's always been a theme of her songwriting, going back to the high-school milieu of her earliest records – she's always sung about girls struggling not to internalise the misogyny around them, from "Fifteen" to "New Romantics." As she found out, that struggle doesn't end when you grow up. (Which is why she spent her summer in a courtroom when she could have been on a beach.) For that deluxe touch of self-expression, Tay pivots to print with the long-awaited Reputation magazines. Both 72-page issues are full of her hand-written lyrics, photos, poetry ("May your heart remain breakable/but never by the same hand twice") and watercolour paintings, packaged in faux-tabloid headlines from "Catitude: Meredith Is Out Of Control!" to "Who Is Olivia's Real Father?"
Swift doesn't switch into ballad mode much on Reputation, which is a real shame – if you're a fan of her epic weepers like "All Too Well" or "Clean" or "Last Kiss," you might picture her acoustic guitar sitting alone in the corner, impatiently clearing its throat. But she saves up her ballad mojo for the killer finale "New Year's Day," which continues her streak of ending each album with a sinus-exploding mess of a tearjerker. It's the quietest moment on Reputation, yet the most powerful – she wakes up after a glam New Year's bash ("Glitter on the floor after the party/Girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby") and reflects on what she has left to call her own, which is the not-so-glam partner she'll be spending this not-so-glam day with. It's a tiny moment between two people, a moment the rest of the world will never notice. And all over Reputation, Swift makes those moments sound colossal, the way only she can.
Rural Victorian home studio wiz beguiles with full band project.
The ground slips sideways in the opening chords of Machine Translations' ninth LP. J Walker is good for a melancholy pastoral strummer as gorgeous as "Made a Friend" or "P", but from bendy Chinese violin to any number of small, sonic curve balls, he's equally driven to unsettle. "Parliament of Spiders" is a spooked-up Velvet Underground banger, "Room 17" a four-way meeting of the ghosts of varied stringed instruments. "Doom Boogie" and "Oh" count in sixes and fifteens and the ill-prepared piano and guitar of "Weightless" seemingly read from different chord charts. Throughout, Walker's dream state poetry leads the imagination wandering.
Melbourne-based indie-pop debutante arrives with poise.
A onetime session player for Charli XCX, Evan Klar might well have elected to premiere with a bold, brash statement. To his credit, the multi-instrumentalist opts for a more nuanced palette on his debut, drawing from the same woozy, heavy-lidded well as Cub Sport. Exhaling lyrics into quilted, synth-daubed soundscapes blending live, electronic and treated sounds, Klar anchors proceedings to a rhythmic pulse of essential dancefloor energy ("Barefoot"). It's a solid grounding for the album's adventures in style and texture, ranging from the up-tempo, radio-baiting title track to the carnivalesque off-centredness of "Shoulders".
New York post-hardcore legends' long-awaited third LP.
Quicksand's first two albums, 1993's Slip and (to a lesser extent) 1995's Manic Compression, were trailblazing post-hardcore records that sustained the band's legacy for decades. From the opening notes of this surprise third album, Interiors could be the work of no other group. The deep, cold grooves of "Illuminant" are a trademark, the dreamy melodies of "Cosmonauts" a wonderful 2017 update on the band's early-Nineties sound. The second half of Interiors isn't quite as enthralling, the ideas not as fully formed as the opening onslaught, though "Normal Love" sends things out on a high, a stirring combination of tightly wound riffing and intricate melodic interplay.
Sydney electronic stalwarts aim for pleasure centres on album six.
With the release of lead single "Chameleon" last year, Pnau made their intentions clear – the trio (Sam Littlemore has joined his brother Nick and Peter Mayes) want to once again ignite festivals with tunes as party-starting as those on their 2007 self-titled smash. While the energy levels are understandable after a spell in wishy-washy synth-pop, there's a sameyness to much of Changa, its strong afrosoca flavour led by vocalist Kira Divine, who features heavily. Diversions are welcome – Vera Blue's Sophie Ellis-Bextor channelling turn on "Young Melody", the straight-outta Madchester "Control Your Body" and a moment of cool restraint on "La Grenouille".
Slowcore songs writing cheques the voice can't cash.
In Lo Carmen's parched country ballads, pedal steel is the foundation stone, wistful guitars the framework, and brushed drums and lugubrious bass the permeable walls. Men and women walk in here alone, leave alone, and Bonnie "Prince" Billy is almost jaunty light relief when he turns up in "Sometimes It's Hard". Carmen and friends get the style pretty well right but rarely break out of a monochromatic palette. A bigger problem is Carmen's limited voice not being able to make the few colours striking. Mood is one thing, but carrying us through asks for more than her quarter-speaking/half-reaching/quarter-missing style.
On star-studded sixth album, band are still deftly navigating the pop moment.
On the sixth Maroon 5 LP, Adam Levine nuances a role he plays well: the Top 40 old-soul navigating whatever the pop-music moment throws his way. He works well alongside young talent, trading playful "hey now, baby"s with SZA over crisp brunch funk on "What Lovers Do" and ascending into falsetto sunshine with Julia Michaels on "Help Me Out." Kendrick Lamar provides a high point simply by showing up for "Don't Wanna Know." Whether skating over house beats on "Plastic Rose" or cruising through a ballad like "Denim Jacket," Levine proves himself a pliant star of Jacksonian ease and Stingly self-assurance.
Bootleg box set travels deeper into songwriter's gospel phase.
The arguments of this edition of the Bootleg Series are familiar — a disparaged period in Dylan's career (in this case, the gospel years) was better than you think; the studio recordings don't tell the story as well as the live shows; he was so busy chasing the moment that he left some of the best stuff in the vault.
And, yes. The first two CDs, lovingly assembled from live tracks spanning 24 months and 19 cities, showcase a band that could bend toward tradition without losing any of the brute force that defined rock in one of its last moments at culture's center stage. A 1981 version of "Gotta Serve Somebody" in Bad Segeberg, Germany turns the song from a shuffle into a power-chord stomp, before opening space for gospel shouts at the end. It's followed by a 1979 performance of one of 14 unreleased songs, "Ain't No Man Righteous, No Not One," that opens with guitar boogie before sliding into a soul-drenched reggae groove. It's a moment of jubilation, full of lubricious spirituality. Such moments are not in abundance across the eight CDs in this box set. Enjoy this one.
So also, no. There are treasures aplenty here, among them a rehearsal take on "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" that seems to find the band jamming on the Rolling Stones' "Bitch" and two very different versions of "Caribbean Wind," an epic full of lust, divinity and a mystery that he never resolved. But there's also bitterness and stridency, as the restless spirit of "Like a Rolling Stone" stops dead on the Biblical literalism of "Solid Rock." Dylan had traded songs that asked questions for songs that insisted on answers. It was a test of faith, his and ours. It still is.
Cat Empire members' collab with Indigenous choir shines.
A song-cycle exploring the striking rhythms of the Pilbara, traditional and industrial, Spinifex Gum finds Felix Riebl and Ollie McGill (Cat Empire) showcasing Cairns-based Indigenous choir Marliya. Peppered with treated field recordings, it invites comparison with M.I.A.'s Kala: see the penetrating title track, with its rapid-fire chorale, fractured industrial samples and sand-rattling beat. But it's the tracks that grapple with the more precipitous issues facing Indigenous Australia – the frankly devastating "Miss Dhu", and 'bomb-track' "Locked Up", featuring Briggs in full-flight – that most thrill with essential fervour.
Sisters enlist pop contemporaries to mark album's 10th anniversary.
In celebrating 2007's The Con, Tegan and Sara hand the reins over to some special guests. On paper, the album should be a 5- star instalment with the likes of Hayley Williams ("Nineteen") and Bleachers ("Burn Your Life Down") in the mix, but as a collection, The Con X: Covers doesn't land as meaningfully as intended. Songs are stripped back and sometimes given a more warped, breathy electronic feel (Shura, "The Con"), and unfortunately lose the emotional core that founded the original. Mykki Blanco, PVRIS and Ryan Adams are examples of the album's diverse approach; unfortunately, it doesn't quite stick as a whole.
U.K. crooner makes his lonely hours feel universal on second album.
Sam Smith's breakout moment as a deep house don on Disclosure's "Latch," arguably the sexiest club banger of 2012, was a feint. Sure, dude could sing. But given the digital-chipmunk high notes and other effects, the jam gave little indication of his full power. His debut LP, In the Lonely Hour, clarified matters, racking up ridiculous stream and sales numbers, plus four Grammys. Now, doubling down on his magnificent, gender-nonconforming voice while pushing his songcraft forward, Smith's second LP knights one of the mightiest, most expressive vocalists of his generation.
Where Lonely Hour led with beats, Thrill of It All opens on lonely piano chords and Smith's whispering high tenor, which sweeps up to falsetto on the pre-chorus, soon echoed by a choir and handclaps. The song, "Too Good at Goodbyes," has gotten over 120 million YouTube plays since its release as a single, and establishes the ruling formula for album, one which Smith laid out on his biggest hit "Stay With Me" – an aching lover pleading with a paramour against slow-building gospel-pop rapture. He mixes up. "One Last Song" adds choral muscle and Memphis brass to a doo-wop strut that echoes Amy Winehouse, as does "Baby You Make Me Crazy" (Smith's live version of the late singer's "Tears Dry on Their Own" is worth searching for). On the tortured "Burning," which begins with a haunting a capella, Smith confesses despondency, flying up and down his vocal range, each switchback escalating the drama until yet another churchy choir raises the roof. "No Peace" is a showpiece duet with up-and-comer Yebba, a Harlem-based singer via West Memphis, Arkansas, whose full breakout moment must be close at hand.
But the drama here peaks with the breathtaking "Him." Until now, Smith has largely kept his identity as a gay man out of his songwriting. Here, he addresses a "Holy Father," appearing to conflate spiritual and biological patriarchs, confessing he's "not the boy that/You thought you wanted," and declaring "it is him I love," bottoming out his register on the final word. It's intense, and by the time Smith describes walking hand in hand with his lover through the streets of Mississippi – a state whose famous intolerance was immortalised by kindred torch singer Nina Simone in her 1964 single "Mississippi Goddam" – it's clear Smith has forged a civil rights anthem no less visceral and no less committed.
"Him" elevates a set of brilliantly-sung songs into a potent concept album that universalizes heartbreak from a distinctly LGBTQ point of view. Yes, the magic beats of "Latch" are missed. But here's hoping for a house remix of "Him" that will raise the roof in clubs gay and straight for years to come.
Illustration by Sam Spratt for Rolling Stone.
Glimmering debut from Adelaide songwriter/producer.
Following the subtle 2015 Flux EP, Timberwolf (Christopher Panousakis) has exploded his tender folk into genre-dodging soundscapes of conceptual, confessional indie-psych-electro-folk. Íkaros brims with sweeping, expansive melodies that combine with Panousakis' vocals to create an enveloping intimacy. The gentle surge of "Washed Out" and "Hold You Up" floats on a bubble of George Harrison's gospel-psych, ELO's sparkling pop nous, and the wonky prog-funk of Steely Dan, making for memorable, tender songs worth the price of admission alone. "Why Won't You Love Me", meanwhile, feels like a lost Jeff Buckley B-side. A stirring debut.
Massachusetts punks return with brutal ninth album.
Across nine albums, Converge have evolved as one of heavy music's most uncompromising and reliably primeval forces. Here their whirlwind hardcore is honed to a fine machine-edge, a piston-powered industrial guillotine of riffs expunging and expelling pain, bitterness and anger in an exorcism led by Jacob Bannon's throat-shredding vocals and Kurt Ballou's twisting guitar. There's body-rending ferocity in the stalking attack of "Trigger", but when they soften the raining of blows with slowburning ruminations ("The Dusk In Us") it provides a balance to a record that threatens to split you from top to tail.
Tormented Vermont emo-rapper highlights hip-hop's post-modern evolution.
Vermont musician Joe Mulherin, a.k.a. Nothing,Nowhere., lies at the intersection of hip-hop's evolution into post-modernism: emo-rap and SoundCloud trap, self-righteous bitterness and self-pitying opiate blues, melody and harmony emphasized over sharp-witted bars and tricky rhyme schemes. There's precedent for his uniquely tormented work, whether it's Yelawolf's cathartic country-rap tunes on 2015's Love Story and Eminem's choruses on "Not Afraid" and "Cleaning Out My Closet"; or, more recently, XXXtentacion's emotionally stunted 17 and Lil Peep's narcotised Come Over When You're Sober. However, Nothing,Nowhere. doesn't require an antagonist – a wayward ex-girlfriend, a pernicious drug addiction – to prompt his agonized, suicidal feelings. His anger seems largely internalized, and directed at himself – at least most of the time. "I hope you choke in your sleep," he sings angrily on "Clarity in Kerosene," a track from his new album Reaper. "I'll be the last that you see."
Reaper, his first album for Equal Vision and Pete Wentz' DCD2 finds him tonally evoking the glory years of 2000s emo-punk without necessarily replicating it. There are no churning guitars and pummelling drums à la Taking Back Sunday, just a laconic, atmospherically picked guitar line or two. The skittering, drill-like percussive patterns of "Houdini" will ring familiar to Zaytoven fans, while the billowing laptop cloud washes that hover throughout are a hallmark of producers like Blue Sky Black Death and Clams Casino. On "Houdini" he sings verses in a half-bounce flow before breaking into an echoing squall on the song's bridge. But on "Funeral Fantasy," he raps hard, and spits bars like, "Give a fuck about a SoundCloud rapper/Give him two years and the cloud won't matter/And I hate it so I'm working in the shadows/See you rocking Gucci but you look like an asshole." Despite his own success on that platform, he wants to separate from what is quickly become a scorned industry cliché: the anti-musical, "lean"-addicted SoundCloud rapper-misogynist-doofus.
Nothing,Nowhere. isn't a revelatory rapper or singer, but seamless blend of the two that makes Reaper stand out. He tends to flick between the two like a light switch, shifting from bars to anguished singing on "Black Heart" as he cries, "You're just another reason why I stay inside/Just another reason why I hate this life." There's a cameo from rapper Lil West, who drenches his "REM" vocal in Auto-Tune. More importantly, emo elder Chris Carraba of Dashboard Confessional appears on "Hopes Up" to lend his imprimatur and let us know that, yes, this is the real thing.