Classic | Excellent | Good | Fair | Poor
Less guitars, more disquiet on poetic Ohio band's seventh.
There's a lot of sleep on this album, from first single "The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness" to a thick, abstract title track swimming in murmured mystery. The former is sewn with serrated rock guitar. "Turtleneck" and "Day I Die" are the kind of mad, scrambling eruptions that tend to have frontman Matt Berninger leaping from the stage to stand on your chair.
But the Dessner brothers' guitars are mostly muted this time in favour of more synthesised loops for the singer's anxious, dream-state poetry to climb, his voice as sweet as caramel and as loaded as an open diary. Stately, stumbling piano chords frame the croaked conversations – with himself, or someone else who's slipping away – of "Nobody Else Will Be There" and "Born To Beg". The opening accusation of "Guilty Party" – "You're sleeping night and day" – echoes "Empire Line": "You've been sleepin' for miles".
The dream turns dark in "Walk It Back", an inner monologue woven with the voice of former presidential adviser Karl Rove laying down his Orwellian spiel about the mutability of reality.
Untangling the threads of meaning, emotion; personal and political is another long-term prospect for fans of this extraordinary band's elegant chemistry. The irresistible, off-kilter scaffolds of drummer Bryan Devendorf, and the slow dawn of one glorious melody after another, will keep you plenty occupied meanwhile.
Thrilling dream-pop spiked with expert putdowns.
On their whiplashing second album, Canadian quartet Alvvays perfect the sly pairing of frontwoman Molly Rankin's swooning sigh and droll tongue-lashings. "What's left for you and me?/I ask that question rhetorically" she quips on noise-swept opener "In Undertow", while "Not My Baby" celebrates her independence from the song's subject. Beyond the familiar head rush of reverb and distortion, the band flex their increasing variety via the excitable psych twinges of "Hey" and the neon-traced Eighties reverie "Dreams Tonite". Restoring a crashing, dashing edge to dream-pop's effervescent warmth, Antisocialites wrings prickly anthems out of everyday disillusionment.
Pretty but personality-less offering from Seattle electro duo.
Odesza launched their Foreign Family Collective label to support upcoming artists, but their third LP leans more heavily on higher-profile collaborations such as Regina Spektor on ethereal heartache ballad "Just a Memory"; WYNNE and Mansionair on "Line of Sight", recalling both Sohn and Flume; and, most curiously, soul singer Leon Bridges on "Across the Room". Australian singer-songwriter Ry X feels a more natural fit on the emotive "Corners of the Earth", complete with angelic choir and urgent percussion, but tellingly, it's Odesza's unaided instrumentals ("Late Night") that provide the album's most dynamic, compelling moments.
Melbourne psych-rock quintet shine with double album.
Beaches may not have set out to reinvent the psych-rock wheel, but they have produced a stunning, defining album. The songwriting boasts maturity ("September", "Be"), while the interchanging vocals are hypnotising ("Calendar", "Wine", "When You're Gone"). Moments of grittiness ("Arrow", "Mothers and Daughters") are balanced with moments of immersive beauty ("Golden", "Natural Tradition"). A 17-track record made to be listened to in full, Second of Spring doesn't over-indulge; each song has its place and threads together in forming a textured musical tapestry built to last.
Turn on, tune in, drop out on James Lavelle's trippy fifth album.
UNKLE's first album in seven years is a guided meditation through a dreamy, disjointed acid trip. The album explores myriad forms of psychedelia, from thumping trance ("Cowboys or Indians") to bluesy guitars ("Nowhere To Run/Bandits") and sentimental comedown piano ballads ("Stole Enough"). Being an acid trip, it is both wonderful and completely nonsensical. It flings itself in so many directions it's difficult to dive deeper, largely due to five discomforting spoken word interludes (titled "Iter"s) that break up the music with silly yoga-pants-and-top-knot titles like "Have You Looked At Yourself?"
Young releases a darkly powerful 'lost album' recorded in 1976.
Hitchhiker marks a pivotal moment in Neil Young's ongoing series of archival releases: Instead of a live classic-songs set, this is a buried-treasure mother lode – 10 newly unearthed studio recordings, cut in one acoustic session, on August 11th, 1976. Young wasn't exactly swept up in the country's bicentennial spirit at the time; now grouped together rather than spread out over later records, the violence-drenched "Powderfinger", "Captain Kennedy" and "Pocahontas" feel like pointed rejoinders to the whitewashed history offered up during America's 200th birthday.
He's in peak lonesome-guy mode on the never-released failed-relationship chronicle "Give Me Strength". Another previously unheard song, "Hawaii", is a spooky mysterious-stranger ballad. The take of the Nixon-sympathising "Campaigner" here includes a newly relevant verse deleted from the version that appeared on Decade: "The speaker speaks, but the truth still leaks." The major find is the scruffy title song, an unblinking depiction of fame, "neon lights and the endless nights", paranoia and cocaine. Young eventually released it on 2010's Le Noise, bathed in electric guitar and with a verse about being thankful for his kids. There was no one to comfort him in '76: It's a journey through the past, but far darker.
Scottish post-rockers' ninth LP shows them at their heavy best
Glaswegian post-rock heavyweights Mogwai have finally reached the level of notoriety that they deserve. Thanks to some high-profile soundtrack work and buzz-worthy live shows, this predominantly instrumental band have gone from strength to strength over their nine studio albums. Every Country's Sun doesn't offer up any surprises, but is comforting in its resolve to be simply a great Mogwai record. From the electronic synth rave of opener "Coolverine" through to the epic, distortion-drenched title track, this is exactly what we've come to expect from Mogwai, a band at the peak of their powers holding true to their vision.
Superbly spacey debut from Brisbane psych-pop heads.
The Belligerents operate in a wonderfully hazy but precise Krautrock-via-Madchester universe, mixing synth-heavy psych-electro spaciness with swathes of guitar. Importantly there's a lightness and real-life scrappiness grounding their more esoteric tendencies, preventing the po-faced 'we're here for serious dancing' that afflicts so many bands aiming for psychedelic dancefloor transcendence. That shines best on the psych-sitar disco-punk of "Less and Less" and "Flash" and the laser-show disco of "Caroline". The MGMT-isms of "It's Gonna Get Worse" and "Science Fiction" are terrific fun, underscoring the album's playful oddness.
Next Big Things make their play for the big time.
PVRIS may well be the perfect modern band. In frontwoman Lynn Gunn they have a singer who pairs Lorde's intimacy with Paramore singer Hayley Williams' knack for belting out a tune; their sound is a melange of dark electronic pulses, big beats and arena rock; previous tourmates range from Fall Out Boy to Bring Me the Horizon; and their championing of LGBTQ rights marks them as a band with a social conscience. Their second LP suffers from a slight tendency to drink from the same musical well with every song, but the delivery is never less than intense, and the hooks are plentiful – witness anthemic opener "Heaven".
Trio return from years in the wilderness with strange new pop discoveries.
From the onset, Cloud Control have been in search of a heightened state: seeking out a Bliss Release on their 2010 debut; finding a fabled Dream Cave for their 2013 follow-up. On the group's third LP, they've discovered their Zone: a new space situated between triumph and tragedy that sees them still keeping one eye on the horizon, questing for something greater.
That questing has taken Cloud Control a notable distance from the humble psych-pop of their past. Now down to the trio of Alister Wright and siblings Heidi and Ulrich Lenffer, the band have spent the four years since Dream Cave's release shaping their sound into something markedly different. "Zone (This is How it Feels)" is a bold opening gambit that summarises Cloud Control 2017: experimental pop with intricate production (courtesy of Wright) that walks a delicate tightrope between joy and loss.
As with previous albums, there's a healthy ratio of pop perfection (the New Wave-y "Treetops"; a trip to "Rainbow City"; the future R&B of "Panopticon"; the excellent but daftly named "Mum's Spaghetti") peppered with a few admirable misses ("Lights on the Chrome" and "Lacuna").
Cathartic closer "Find Me in the Water" sees Wright searching out his next dreamt-of destination that promises a blissful release. Considering Zone's ability to unearth new discoveries in seemingly familiar places, you can only hope the questing continues.
Passion and persuasion from Aussie journeyman.
There is a case to be made that singer-songwriters today don't approach their peak until middle age looms. Now 40, Ben Salter has conjured a third solo album of formidable songwriting heft and ideological focus that is arguably the Queenslander's best work. Some eclectic arrangements vary between the acoustic frankness of opener "Where Corals Lie" and the more frenzied "Nazi Paraphernalia", which offers a withering indictment of the more moronic corners of popular culture. Salter also possesses a true folk voice that is strong, deep and a little bellowy, icing an album that is as poetic as it is polemical.
James Murphy and Co. return with an album of awesome jams loaded with fear and dread.
The time has come, the time has come, the time has come today. LCD Soundsystem have finally returned from a mysterious five-year breakup they never quite explained, despite making a high-profile film documentary ostensibly designed for just that purpose. As rock & roll retirements go, it was about as believable as Cher's sixth farewell tour. But wherever these guys have been, what matters is that they've returned at top strength. James Murphy and his wrecking crew of New York punk-disco marauders don't waste a moment on the superb American Dream – it's a relentless, expansive, maddeningly funny set of songs asking how a lifetime of good intentions and hard work can blow up into such a mess. In the America of 2017, this isn't just a question for middle-aged rock stars.
LCD Soundsystem are gambling with history by making any new music at all, since they signed off after three of this century's finest albums: the hits-packed 2005 debut; their grandiose 2007 zenith, Sound of Silver; the masterful 2010 farewell, This Is Happening. But American Dream is on the same level. Murphy digs deep into the wreckage he sees all around him, both emotional and political, even if his message to the country is the same as his message to the mirror: "You just suck at self-preservation."
Murphy doesn't go for a "Drunk Girls" or "North American Scum" here – no lightweight novelty hit to bait the hook. Instead, American Dream is 10 complex tracks in an old-school CD-size 70-minute electro-funk rush, stubbornly insisting that you put in time to absorb all the twists and turns. It moves from the hushed crooning of "Oh Baby" to the extremely 1985 drum flomps of "I Used To".
The heart of American Dream is the four-song groove that builds from "How Do You Sleep?" to "Tonite" to the two songs already released as a single last autumn, "Call the Police" and "American Dream." These songs flow together as a 28-minute suite on the terrors of adulthood in dangerous times. "Tonite" is a deceptively perky disco satire, ripping "these bullying children of the fabulous/Raffling off limited-edition shoes". "American Dream" sums it up in a comic yet bizarrely poignant doo-wop Kraftwerk ballad, as Murphy testifies about how growing older can feel like a constant drug haze, running away from relationships but running on empty.
Yet unlike some other rockers of a certain age we could mention, Murphy never sounds like a crank hung up on his lost youth – maybe because he was already well into his thirties by the time he got LCD Soundsystem off the ground. There's an open-hearted compassion in all the turmoil here. On American Dream, even the most exuberantly upbeat grooves are loaded with dread and confusion. But that's exactly why they hit home right now.
Main illustration by Tomer Hanuka.
Sophomore album sees Aussie straddling genres and continents.
Since taking up in LA, Wheatley's sounding a little darker. As the album opens with the bluesy stomp and smoky narrative of "Midnight Man", imagine a genteel Tom Waits, if you can. There's sweet alt-folk on "Better Days", a little indie-pop on "Violet Skies", and a smidge of country-rock on "The Rest of the Way", but we're never far from heavy guitar grooves and whisky-tinged vocals. It culminates in a sound that is weary, but not wearisome: just nostalgic and slightly bruised. There's a twangy, American presence throughout – banjo, yes, and a few bursts of brass – but "Skipper's Daughter" has a loping homesickness that Australians know best.
British multi-tasker's follow-up to 2013's 'Comfort'.
Shapeshifting Brit Maya Jane Coles decided not to take any shortcuts on her second album (third if you count her dubstep-leaning LP as Nocturnal Sunshine). Across 24 tracks, the producer/mixer/singer manages to stay true to her dynamic brand of tech-house melancholy while exploring all of its possible permutations, from the rubbery, subterranean chill of "Weak" to the housey keys and elliptical beat of "Go On and Make It Through". Tracks such as the witchy, woozy "Stay" provide welcome jolts after a languid mid-section, but ultimately the world Coles has created is a hypnotic, significant accomplishment.
Rapper-turned-TV-host returns to sample-based tunes on final instalment of 'Blue Chips' series.
Action Bronson's major-label debut, 2015's Mr. Wonderful, didn't make him a rap superstar, but he became fairly famous anyway thanks to his foul-mouthed Viceland food travelogue F*ck That's Delicious. Without the need for a hit record to keep his pockets satiated, Bronson can go back to the freewheeling model of the Blue Chips mixtapes that helped his initial rise: off-kilter punchlines, giddy dirtbaggery and beats chopped from kitschy, quirky samples. Here, producers like Party Supplies (who did the last two Blue Chips) and Harry Fraud make funky work out of Austrian jazz-rock, Nigerian highlife, Thai funk and Italian lounge-groove records. Most hilarious is an Alchemist production made to sound like Bronson is rapping to the hold music from a taxi service. Working with a major label that clears samples is probably why Bronson and crew have opted out of some of the more audacious selections (Blue Chips 2 had him spitting over Elton John, Peter Gabriel and "Tequila"), but a banquet of loop-based production still hits those old-school notes even without the postmodern twist. For his part, Bronson is still acrobatic with a bar ("Now I'm nestled in the Tesla eatin pretzels") and still dabbles in the occasional sports reference ("Two pumps from the inhaler got me feeling like Lawrence Taylor").
You Am I guitar slinger goes epic synth-phonic.
What's the opposite of guitar hero? Davey Lane seems hell-bent on finding out on his second solo album, a Technicolor pomp-rock epic with everything more synthesised than everything else and just one 12-second thrasher to remind us how far we've come from the garage. Nostalgic passions are flagged in song titles ("My Apple Lady Cried", "Biggest Star") to pre-empt clear comparisons (XTC, er, Big Star), and Gallagher-esque pastiche perilously looms in the overcooked likes of "You Drained My Mynd". It's an impressively sculpted affair, but sonic respite and genuine emotional engagement sure are sweet in the sole acoustic tune, "This Is Hell".