Debut from English songstress with a heartbreaking voice.
In an era where the term "folk" has come to mean "anything with banjo", London songstress Olivia Chaney pops up to remind us there is so much more that belongs under that broad, ambiguous umbrella. The Longest River delivers aching old-world balladry, weaving tunes of impossible delicacy into tales of heartbreak from another time and place. Chaney's pure, almost austere voice might not be for everyone, but the emotion it brings to the jilted lover in "False Bride" or fearful heart of Henry Purcell's "There's Not a Swain" is undeniable. Among the din of modern music's bombast, Chaney has found a different way to be intense.
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.
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.
Scrappy sixties radio recordings highlight band's early roughneck greatness.
There's been a bounty of archival Stones releases this year – notably Ladies & Gentleman: The Rolling Stones, the fierce 1972 Fort Worth, Texas, show documented in the film of the same name, Keith Richards' and Mick Taylor's guns blazing. But this set takes the prize for ear-cocking: 32 tracks, recorded by BBC radio between 1963 and 1965, that show a scrappy blues and R&B covers band evolving into a rock & roll juggernaut.
It's long on Chuck Berry, songs, naturally – including "Come On" (the Stones' debut single), "Carol," "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Memphis, Tennessee," the latter sung in the provocative voice of a fey British schoolboy still feeling out a style. The recordings were cut "live" in studios, and occasionally there were audiences, which give a sense of the Beatlemaniacal hysteria the band was already generating: check the shrieking on Tommy Tucker's "Hi Heeled Sneakers," Mick Jagger impressively deep-throating his consonants, and the Willie Dixon-penned Muddy Waters signature "I Just Wanna Make Love To You," Charlie Watts pounding down the door while Brian Jones freaks out on harmonica. You also hear the Stones as part of a scene – covering Berry's "Beautiful Delilah" in '64, the same year the Kinks released it as the opener of their debut LP, and "I Wanna Be Your Man," the Lennon/McCartney composition they gifted to the Stones, who rough it up nicely. By the time they're recording their originals, however, they're building a world of their own. On a version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" recorded in fall of 1965, just months after the single was issued, Jagger uses only a single clipped "hey" on the first chorus, landing less like a pop chant than the bark of a hooligan stalking prey. And on "The Last Time," with its lyrical nod to the Staples Singers and harmonies like a roughneck English Everly Brothers, you hear the sound of songwriters flush with discovery, a dazzling glimmer of what lay ahead.
The ambient master reacts to improvised piano.
English improvisational pianist Tom Rogerson has scored a dream collaborator in Brian Eno, whose contribution here is manipulating the spectral-sounding midi signals generated by an obscure bit of piano-based gear. Spanning the soothing and discordant, the results hew closer to ambient and classical than to Rogerson's past ventures in jazz and post-rock. Some tracks hang back at a glacial pace, evoking Eno's other ambient-minded duo albums. Yet there's plenty of variety, including the John Carpenter-esque suspense of "Chain Home". Though slightly disjointed, this remains an illuminating experiment.
Roughshod protest from down on the farm.
Ever found yourself marching in the street for a good reason but chanting something that, well, kinda needs work? From Living With War to The Monsanto Years, such has been the awkward mix of righteous conviction and half-cooked presentation in Neil Young's recent political manifestos.
"I'm Canadian by the way, and I love the USA," goes the old warrior's opening couplet. "Already Great" is a rowdy rejoinder to the MAGA rhetoric, applied to Young's classic ragged grunt formula and woven with real protest chants ("Whose streets? Our streets!" etc). The ham-fisted single-take vibe and defiant chorus of agitation recur at the barricades of "Stand Tall" and the tub-thumping orchestral grandeur of "Children of Destiny", which comes across like the whole-town singalong at the end of a 1950s Western.
The more-or-less blatant anti-Trump sentiment sounds almost defeated in the blues-harp twanger "Almost Always". It's comical in the chain-gang interlude "When Bad Got Good", but most effective in "Change of Heart", which is delivered in the voice of a grizzled farmer who's seen enough to know better days are coming.
Only the truly hardcore will hazard the nine-minute south-of-the-border dramedy of "Carnival" more than once, but the lulling closing epic, "Forever", is like sitting quietly on the porch as the wise old timer mutters himself to sleep in his rocking chair.
One of the best-selling albums of all time enters middle age.
The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac owned the charts in 1977 with two of the best-selling records of all time. While Rumours endures, Hotel California is an iffier icon. Air guitarists the world over still make faces to the intertwined dual soloing at the end of the title track, while that stuttering riff on "Life In the Fast Lane" retains its simmer and sneer. But a couple of the heavily orchestrated ballads billow and bloat, aiding the arguments for punk's imminent rise. A bonus disc from a 1976 LA concert leans towards earlier country-rock songs, revealing a band that easily replicated those soaring, pristine harmonies on stage.
Irish quartet keep trying to recapture a moment that's passed.
While it continues a decade-long trend of missing genuine moments of brilliance, Songs of Experience never really falls flat on its face, even when Bono unconvincingly says "I believe my best days are ahead" in the only mildly swaggering "Lights Of Home", or when "The Showman (Little More Better)" clumsily gets "street" with its echoing chorus line of "little more better".
As with sister album Songs Of Innocence, this touches on elemental U2 (the Edge's guitar tone and strict measures of Larry Mullen; Bono's preaching yearning) and second wave U2 (suggestions of dance, some surprising Adam Clayton basslines, guest vocals to contemporise).
In its best moments there is a gentle ballad, in the closing "There Is a Light"; a punchy, lightly post-punk/pre-discovering America song to sing on a waterfront in "Red Flag Day"; a loosely funky nod to the remix-to-come in "The Blackout"; and the now obligatory glam stomper in "American Soul".
But Songs of Experience has too many generic songs which fill the gap rather than own the space. "You're the Best Thing About Me" goes nowhere politely in its mid-range rock; "Landlady" is a pleasant meander; and "Get Out Of Your Own Way" seems prepared to reach for the blue sky, but never really fires that bullet. It's unlikely many of these songs will force their way into U2's next set list.