Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Wyclef Jean's narrative skill remains undimmed.
The third instalment in Wyclef Jean's 'Carnival' series proves the hip-hop icon hasn't lost his knack for bending and fusing genres. Stark contrasts are struck as Carnival III moves between sonic tone; the upbeat reggae-funk of "Fela Kuti" is sandwiched between the more introspective "Borrowed Time" and "Warrior". Collaborations with Emeli Sandé and Lunch Money Lewis are solid, and on his first album in eight years, Jean has made a sound that exists not simply as a new statement, but as the continuation of an approach to music that celebrates diversity and encourages musical discovery and emotional response.
Folk gems from former Old Crow Medicine Show singer.
Willie Watson's much-loved Folk Singer Vol.1 worked so well partly because he and producer David Rawlings allowed a certain unkemptness, a muddiness, to drive both performance and production on its renditions of songs from the American folk canon. Vol.2 is the same. The sparseness of these interpretations, along with Watson's winsome vocals, produces an overall sound startlingly similar to Dave Van Ronk. At the same time, some inspired instrumental choices from Rawlings bring gorgeous new dimensions to well-trodden ground. For song selection, sincerity and passion, Watson has nailed it again.
Rap-rock supergroup lob monstrous riffs at the forces of evil.
One oft repeated phrase in the wake of Donald Trump's election victory was that it might at least give rise to some great music. And if there's a band for which these times were made, it's surely Rage Against the Machine. But with frontman Zack de la Rocha concentrating on other endeavours, we get the next best thing: Prophets of Rage, AKA Rage Against the Machine with Public Enemy's Chuck D and Cypress Hill's B-Real handling vocal duties.
The anger on their debut album is righteous, B-Real rapping "Poverty hit home like a war zone/Check America's pulse, heard a death tone" in "Unfuck the World", while Chuck D's baritone is a formidable foil for Tom Morello's trademark riffing. At their best – see the monstrous "Hail to the Chief" and "Who Owns Who" ("The government can't stand when the people take a stand," rail the MCs) – Prophets of Rage sound capable of smashing through any wall Donald Trump might build (or, at the very least, detonating a mosh pit).
But not every song combusts in the same manner: the "drones" chant of "Take Me Higher" feels limp, as do B-Real's tiresome dope references in "Legalize Me". It's in these moments that the absence of de la Rocha's lyrical heft is most sorely felt, and Prophets of Rage starts to feel like a missed opportunity. But then you get knocked on your head by another seismic riff, and Chuck D winds up, and you start to think that maybe, just maybe, this could be the soundtrack to the revolution.
Sydney siblings continue their upward trajectory on fourth album.
Rick Rubin's hirsute shadow still looms large over the Stones, who have decided to keep rolling since splitting up on the down-low in 2012. The super producer was the catalyst for their 2014 reunion after hearing them at a party and inviting them into his Malibu studio to reconnect and record. It resulted in their self-titled third album – their finest yet – and Rubin's trick wasn't just that dry Seventies drum sound. He insisted the siblings write in the same room together, and it's a process they've stuck to for their fourth album, which was self-produced in Angus' Byron Bay studio.
It seems fitting that they open proceedings with the call-and-response of "Snow", which sees the pair swap verses like a less cloying Moldy Peaches (despite Julia's chorus of "la la las"). The Stones are at their best when they're playing off each other like this: Julia providing the strong but sympathetic counterpoint to her brother's just-rolled-out-of-a-two-day-bender version of charm.
The use of a drum machine and a more expansive guitar palette is a marked difference from Rubin's organic LA production. They even take a stab at indie-hop on "Baudelaire", which works surprisingly well for two kids that grew up in Sydney's northern beaches. (Straight outta Newport yo!)
The album fittingly closes with the Stones finishing each others' sentences. They're stronger together – they just realise it now.
Dave Grohl's merry men get messy with Adele's producer on ninth album.
Foo Fighters are the world's biggest modern rock band for many reasons: Dave Grohl's immense likability; his talent for writing three or four really good songs every few years; their killer live chops; and outlasting competition for the title. They maintain relevancy via challenges (see: recording to tape in Grohl's garage on 2011's Wasting Light), and the latest (according to the frontman) is to make "Motörhead's version of Sgt Peppers".
A lofty ambition, and one they don't quite reach. With Adele producer Greg Kurstin – and guests Paul McCartney, Inara George, Alison Mosshart and Boyz II Men's Shawn Stockman – on board, Grohl's reliably anthemic songwriting and the usual Foos crispness is cluttered with messy, overwrought studio fuckwittery. "Arrows" and "Dirty Water" take Grohl's delicate/uppercut blueprint and overcook it with unnecessary keyboards. Most head-scratching? Foos writing a constipated string-heavy commercial rock plodder destined for an all-star Grammy singalong in "The Sky Is a Neighborhood".
Foos are too big to fail, however, and Kurstin's pop nous adds a hefty brightness to burners like "Run" and "La Dee Da", and the choppy classic FM rock swagger of "Make It Right". The Led Zeppelin III repose of "Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)" and Taylor Hawkins' ragged "Sunday Rain" add shade and texture. Still, the lack of clarity equals a record aiming to do many things at once, but only doing a few of them well.
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.
Norwegian punk-pop quartet make party music with bite.
The members of Sløtface were barely born when Bikini Kill disbanded, but the group have clearly been doing their riot grrrl research. Although singer Haley Shea is the only female, Kathleen Hanna's 'girls to the front' creed is administered persuasively via reeling riffs, explosive drums, Shea's pure voice – a blend of pretty and gritty – and a healthy dose of bratty humour. "Why didn't anybody warn me about the dangers of playing 'I am never' with prosecco?/Something's definitely bubbling up," Shea sings on the infectious "Pitted", while sweet duet "Slumber" proves they can sustain a tune on more than sheer energy.
Americana trio stuck in third gear with album number three.
Such has been the world's appetite for Americana in recent years that TLB have carved out a sizeable following despite 2015's patchy, low-key symphonic sophomore effort Then Came the Morning. Recorded at RCA's famed Studio A with producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell), Storm is the band's first outing since relocating from Brooklyn to Nashville. The lush strings of "May You Be Well" salvage an otherwise rote devotional, while "Time's Always Leaving" is a standout hi-sheen country-rock moment. All told, though, the album approximates what it might have sounded like had the Band slipped serenely into the AOR/soft-rock twilight. It's pleasant, if insubstantial.
Philly golden boy returns with modern take on classic R&B.
Son Little's unassuming but potent interpretation of soul is defined by a world-weary mellowness that makes his second LP compelling, and perhaps a more mature offering than his 2015 self-titled debut. The tired angst of a song like "The Middle" and the more simmering yearning of "ASAP" exhibit the album's range, while his effortless vocals are smooth with gruff undertones, not unlike soul pioneer Billy Paul. Throughout, there are intriguing hints of sonic experimentation and unanticipated studio effects: more of this may have added a welcome further dimension to New Magic, but it's hard to argue with such a beautifully solemn, but also serene, statement.
Perth grunge-pop rascals hit the mark on charming debut.
Tired Lion possess a spark that lends Dumb Days a whirling dervish hyperactivity as guitars crack and fizz, with defiant tales of wayward youth, misadventure and melancholy sinking in during its reflective moments. Singer-guitarist Sophie Hopes is a Karen O-channelling talisman, lending their snotty punk ("Behave"), sugary grunge ("Camp") and captivating almost-ballads ("I've Been Trying") a deep, dangerous delicacy. With Violent Soho's Luke Boerdam producing, there's an ever-present Pixies-via-Pumpkins quiet-loud-crash dynamic that feels like the type of headlock that starts off as a joke... but can quickly turn into something not so playful.
Norway/New Zealand electro-pop duo debut with promise
Oslo-based vocalist Anna Lotterud and NZ producer-composer bandmate Brady Daniell-Smith deliver their first full-length release amid ample hype. Debut single "Sway" spawned an online hit remix from the Chainsmokers, while Lotterud can boast collabs with Tyler, the Creator alongside Frank Ocean. A breakup album, Lovers is a likeable show of soft-focus pop programming that weds cavernous Nordic chill ("Moving On") with synths and samples that situate the pair in a distinctly John Hughes OST mode. Less vocally expansive than, say, Vérité, Lotterud is a frequently beguiling presence nonetheless. The remix potential here is immense.
Nineties legend traverses deep and dark terrain.
A powerful sense of foreboding hangs over Amos's 15th studio album – unsurprising given it was written in the aftermath of her mother's stroke and Trump's election win. Rarely has she sounded so troubled or her songs so murky, but repeat listens reveal some remarkably emotive songwriting, particularly on tracks where the grand piano dominates, such as swirling opener "Reindeer King". Elsewhere, Amos revisits the sonic and thematic ideas of 2002's Scarlet's Walk, weaving electric and acoustic guitars around her keyboard lines on the brilliant "Bats" and "Broken Arrow". This is potent, unsettling stuff.
Funk metal agitators got the blues on first LP in eight years.
Subtlety is jettisoned in the first thunderous downbeat of Living Colour's return to the funk-metal frontline. The hyper-Zeppelin swerve of "Freedom of Expression" leads into a belching swipe at Robert Johnson's "Preachin' Blues". Later the bristling state of the Union diatribe ropes in turbo-charged urban laments from Marvin Gaye and the Notorious BIG and a cameo from George Clinton, all set to a squalling pitch by singer Cory Glover and axe monster Vernon Reid. The sound, frankly, is as fresh as a limp biscuit, but it's hard to fault the righteous indignation over gun violence, racial profiling, media whitewash and the rest of the black American disaster.
Cameron continues to make the deplorable irresistible on LP two.
Alex Cameron has built his solo career on celebrating losers, telling stories of delusional deadbeats that are at once searingly funny and – thanks to his earnest, gravelly delivery and way with some affecting analog synthesisers – oddly poignant. On Forced Witness, the characters he inhabits are more pathetic than ever, from the "fucking lonely man" on "Candy May" ("I live with a deep regret/of what I do on the internet") to the bloke who counts "the Down Syndrome Jew from the real estate crew" in his "pretty mean posse". The more depraved Cameron gets, the more ecstatic the music, and it's a hilarious device that sometimes obscures just how strong the songs are of their own accord, as when you're doubling over at the "beautiful eyes/Nigerian guy" harmonising in catfish ballad "True Lies" – a fine pop song in any language. And it seems that the unlikely friendship that developed between Cameron and Brandon Flowers has rubbed off on both parties – see the Killers' recent satirical single "The Man" and the chest-beating chorus on "Runnin' Outta Luck", featuring Flowers. "Business partner" Roy Molloy, whose presence until now has been largely limited to Cameron's live shows, really comes into his own on this record, too, his abundant, jubilant sax serving to highlight the glorious wackiness of the whole exercise. A hoot.
Three decades have barely dimmed their college rock flame.
What's a few decades between friends? Twenty-eight years since breaking up, the Eighties US alternative band release their fifth album. Time has certainly not wearied them – they may be more grizzled but the fire remains in ragged songs peppered with jagged guitars and down-at-heel characters. "Soon as the pills started kicking in she decided to go for a drive," Steve Wynn sings in a Lou Reed-like drawl on "Like Mary", a chiming tune about a woman on the verge. In fact, the band sounds on the verge throughout, whether it's the Velvets-meets-Mary Chain squall-and-drone of "Out Of My Head" or the 11-minute sprawl of the title track.
Norwegian indie-pop chameleon shifts decades on sophomore LP.
Fast-forwarding from the doo-wop- and- Sixties folk/psychedelia-influenced sounds of What's Life Without Losers (2013), Paskalev's second outing draws lustily on Seventies and Eighties glam, synth-pop and Italo disco, and delivers a little more cohesion with its relatively tighter sonic grouping. "Witness" recalls Split Enz; the album's back-end frequently conjures ELO circa Time (1981); and loungier entries align Paskalev with Mild High Club ("Burn"). The singer's elastic, nasal keen is as distinctive as ever. Inhabiting his indie oddball persona with compelling confidence, Paskalev is more than capable of prosecuting a rousing melodic run ("Needles").