The year of the “surprise release” has given us monster showings from Beyoncé, Radiohead, Drake, Rihanna, and Kanye West. But traditional release schedules have brought a wealth of music from hard-rhyming hip-hoppers, buzzy indie-punks, up-and-coming country songwriters, veteran Hall of Famers and more. Here’s the best from New Year’s Day to now.
We Say: Lemonade is an entire album of emotional discord and marital meltdown, from the world’s most famous celebrity; it’s also a major personal statement from the most respected and creative artist in the pop game. All over these songs, she rolls through heartbreak and betrayal and infidelity and the hangover that follows “Drunk In Love.” Yet despite all the rage and pain in the music, she makes it all seem affirming…. Like the professional heartbreaker she sings about in “6 Inch,” she murdered everybody and the world was her witness.
Kanye West, ‘The Life of Pablo’
We Say: This is a messy album that feels like it was made that way on purpose…. It’s a laboured-over opus that wishes it were a mixtape, trying hard to curate the vibe of a sprawling mess, and that’s because it’s made by an artist who feels like a mess and doesn’t care to hide it. “My psychiatrist got kids that I inspired” is the most brilliant line on the album: Ye can’t even go to the shrink without getting his ass kissed about what a big shot he is, so he has to go to the studio instead. And dude knows he’s got some issues to work on…. Pablo doesn’t go for any grand musical and emotional statements on the level of “Bound 2” or “Runaway” or “Hey Mama.” West just drops broken pieces of his psyche all over the album and challenges you to fit them together.
Radiohead, ‘A Moon-Shaped Pool’
We Say: Radiohead’s ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, popped into view overnight and for a band that once pleaded for “no surprises,” Pool’s most thrilling surprise isn’t its unscheduled release, but that Radiohead’s least rock-oriented album in the 21st century doubles as its most gorgeous and desolate album to date. While The King of Limbs (and even parts of In Rainbows) at times sounded like the band were pulling in as many directions, there’s a stunning eloquence and cohesion on A Moon Shaped Pool, its many parts and trajectories aimed towards the same goal. If anything, A Moon Shaped Pool reveals within Radiohead a newfound appreciation of, if not folk music, then the form’s ability to express melancholy through their melodies.
David Bowie, ‘Blackstar’
We Say: Produced with longtime collaborator Tony Visconti and cut with a small combo of New York-based jazz musicians whose sound is wreathed in arctic electronics, Blackstar is a ricochet of textural eccentricity and pictorial-shrapnel writing. It’s confounding on first impact: the firm swing and giddy vulgarity of “ ’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”; Bowie’s croons and groans, like a doo-wop Kraftwerk, in the sexual dystopia of “Girl Loves Me”; the spare beaten-spirit soul of “Dollar Days.” But the mounting effect is wickedly compelling. This album represents Bowie’s most fulfilling spin away from glam-legend pop charm since 1977’s Low. Blackstar is that strange, and that good.
letlive., ‘If I’m the Devil…’
We Say: Talk about putting your cards on the table: letlive.’s fourth album begins with a dramatic, string-laced slow-burner in “I’ve Learned To Love Myself”, a song that not only charts new musical waters for the quartet (and sets the tone for the album in doing so), but sees frontman Jason Aalon Butler rip open his life via some unflinchingly personal lyrics: “There’s no way my mother can still love me,” he starts, “The way my father said she did.” What follows is, sonically speaking, letlive.’s most accessible album to date, albeit with Butler’s socially and politically conscious lyrics fuelling the fire; not since Rage Against the Machine has a band turned the mirror on society’s ugliest ills so forcefully.
We Say: [A] sprawling masterpiece of psychedelic soul that’s far more straightforward than its tangled rollout…. After more than a decade as a superstar of the singles chart, Rihanna has become an album artist…. This is an album that forces us to question the boxes we’ve placed Rihanna in all along. Is she queen of the clubs or a break-up balladeer? Are her pop instincts sharper than her hip-hop ones? The answer, as provided here, is all of the above and more.
Car Seat Headrest, ‘Teens of Denial’
We Say: On his 13th overall album (and second for Matador, this time recorded in a proper studio with a band and producer), 23-year-old Will Toledo – aka Car Seat Headrest – still channels the epic/intimate bedroom-recorded mid-fi rock of Guided by Voices and the casual ennui of early Strokes, but manages to create a batch of songs that either of those bands would kill for in 2016. Toledo isn’t the first young adult to write about how being a grown up kind of sucks, but witty, compelling conflicted-inner-monologue lyrics coupled with killer hooks and skill-flexing arrangements result in what will likely transpire to be the best indie rock album of the year.
Sturgill Simpson, ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’
We Say: “I hope you don’t grow up believing that you have to be a puppet to be a man.” That’s Sturgill Simpson, former Navy man, singing to his young son on “Call to Arms”, an indictment of America’s warmongering, media-stupefied culture that ends his spectacular mic drop of a third LP…His lauded 2014 Metamodern Sounds in Country Music – a set of roadhouse meditations on God, enlightenment and self-medication – lived up to its name. Its follow-up doubles down on ambition. More sonically expansive, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a life-lessons song cycle penned primarily as a letter to his son, inspired by the likes of Marvin Gaye.
Mitski, ‘Puberty 2’
We Say: “My body is made of crushed little stars,” 25-year-old Asian-American indie rocker Mitski Miyawaki tells us – a perfect greeting from an artist who specialises in incendiary malaise. Her fourth LP veers from the art pop of “Happy”, with braying sax and a rhythm track built from CD skips, to the Pixies-loving “A Loving Feeling” to the glitchy, ghostly “Crack Baby”. The centrepiece is the binational anthem “Your Best American Girl”, where she sings about the cultural challenges of dating an all-American boy. “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me,” she moans over slow guitar fuzz. “But I do.” Her mum should be proud.
Elton John, ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’
We Say: Wonderful Crazy Night is the latest stage in an extended return to form for John – his third straight album with co-producer T Bone Burnett…. [T]here is a matured pacing and weight to the music and John’s vocal performances that make this record one of his finest in its own right. Wonderful Crazy Night is about what happens after those loose clothes and cool drinks. The final tally: It’s all worth it.
Parquet Courts, ‘Human Performance’
We Say: Few bands can bottle the anxieties of big city living quite like Parquet Courts. On “Dust”, the opening track of their fifth album, you can just imagine co-vocalists Andrew Savage and Austin Brown obsessively cleaning a shoebox apartment. “Sweep,” they deadpan in unison, before the track gives way to the maddening traffic sounds of their native New York…After getting their noise rock predilections out of their system on last year’s Monastic Living EP, Parquet Courts are back to the business of writing edgy, anxious songs that mirror the kind of cluttered jumble of modern life. A more democratic approach to songwriting makes for their most diverse collection yet…Parquet Courts might just be the band for our times.
Mavis Staples, ‘Livin’ on a High Note’
We Say: “The world is big. And sometimes wrong. But truth is bigger. And twice as strong.” The message from the deep smelter of Mavis Staples’ lungs doesn’t change much, whether it’s penned by Neko Case, Ben Harper, Justin Vernon or, in this case (“Don’t Cry”), producer M Ward. But the queue of songwriters eager for her sweet absolution results in another richly varied leap of faith here, as joyous as Valerie June’s title track and as quietly committed as Nick Cave’s “Jesus Lay Down Beside Me”. Whether he’s channelling the great lady’s own life story in “Take Us Back” or Martin Luther King’s selfless conviction in the acoustic finale, Ward’s deft touch is the anchor that allows her to soar.
Gawurra, ‘Ratja Yaliyali’
We Say: Ratja Yaliyali (‘Vine of Love’) takes its title and focus from a Yolngu songline of Gawurra’s Milingimbi Island country. It’s an immersive cycle, highly suggestive of the totemic plants, animals, and natural rhythms it celebrates – see “Guwak (Little Black Bird)”, in which Gawurra’s repeating vocal refrain recalls the chirrup of the titular bird. All songs are performed in the Gupapuyngu language, with faultless production from Broadwing framing Gawurra’s expressive, communicative vocal. “Burala (Diving Duck)” entrances with its throbbing desert rock riff, while the album’s electronic tics frequently recall the likes of Múm. Like fellow Yolngu artist Gurrumul, Gawurra commands attention regardless of backdrop.
Paul Simon, ‘Stranger to Stranger’
We Say: Stranger to Stranger … draws together nearly all of the man’s accrued vernacular with seeming effortlessness: the gentle folk of Simon and Garfunkel; the gospel flavour of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon; the percolating Afropop of Graceland; the samba fireworks from The Rhythm of the Saints; the vintage-sample flipping of 2011’s So Beautiful or So What. His latest continues in the same vein; it’s as inviting, immaculately produced, jokey and unsettled a record as any he has ever made.
Iggy Pop, ‘Post Pop Depression’
We Say: Meet the new gang. They’re not quite as basic black as the Ramones-chic cover shot might suggest. In his first non-Stooges rock record since 2003, Iggy Pop’s straight-shooting lyrics make their bed in the rather more rich and undulating musical terrain of producer Josh Homme. From the echoing garage rock fanfare of “Break Into Your Heart”, it’s clear who’s calling the shots. Pop’s wildly oscillating baritone is a declaration of intent backed up by that most persuasive of credentials: survival…A rock god’s yearning for “American Valhalla” can’t help but resonate more profoundly, just as “German Days” obviously summons the weight of the artist’s glory days circa Lust For Life and The Idiot. The first half of “Sunday” might almost have hailed from those legendary sessions, until a rather gratuitous coda lays on the baroque orchestration and waltzing angels.
We Say: When Tom Petty reassembled his first, pre-Heartbreakers band in 2007 and, a year later, they released their debut self-titled album, it may have seemed like something of a novelty (not least because Petty plays bass here). Now, with a second full-length – aptly titled 2 – Mudcrutch feel like a steady moonlighting gig. This record is more of a band effort than the decades-delayed debut – all of the members get writing credits, and all get a shot at a lead vocal. The songs tend to lean toward punchy Southern rock. But there are surprise twists too, like guitarist Tom Leadon’s “The Other Side of the Mountain”, a bluegrass benediction cut with psych-rock guitar charge.
Sunflower Bean, ‘Human Ceremony’
We Say: Within this (very) youthful trio, there exists a special double-act that makes this debut a compelling proposition. Firstly, there is the absorbing guitar of Nick Kivlen, who at times evokes Johnny Marr, Graham Coxon and Jack White. This colourful (and technically excellent) instrumental template, at its dreamiest on “I Was Home”, is complemented by Julia Cumming’s unaffected, punk-inflected vocals – hers is among the most sincere and straightforwardly charming female voices of recent times. This fine combination suggests a host of Britpop acts, from Echobelly to Elastica, with dashes of shoegaze and garage-rock adding a muscularity that befits Sunflower Bean’s obvious, and warranted, confidence.
Bob Mould, ‘Patch the Sky’
We Say: No cellos, no club music electrobeats, no acoustic guitar breathers, and no light at the end of the tunnel – precious little, anyhow. Just a classic power trio lineup in the spirit of Midwest post-punk juggernaut Hüsker Dü and its barely-sweetened descendant Sugar, with Bob Mould conjuring the ecstatic rage of his earlier bands for a grim new era, apparently still convinced that the best way to meet crushing hopelessness is by barreling head first through it with a throat-shredding howl and all amps cranked.
We Say: Fear them for they are gods. Like proud winds or mighty oceans they meet in the elemental mystery of “Atomic Number”, weaving and overlapping lines in some mystical manifesto about sparks and chemistry and symbols and other things that defy the petty squabbles of labels, managers and monster egos. Seriously. Even on paper, the sum of these parts could make any harmony-loving heart melt, but their three variously weighted voices coalesce in the ringing cathedral of Tucker Martine’s production with seamless grace and empathy.
Peter Wolf, ‘A Cure for Loneliness’
We Say: If you’ve been praying for Peter Wolf to drop a bluegrass remake of his J. Geils Band classic “Love Stinks” – congratulations. The man heard you. It’s just one of the welcome surprises on the Woofa Goofa’s superbly rugged new solo album (his eighth, and first in six years), rambling through various strains of roots music, yet infusing it all with his own lanky-boned rock & roll spirit. “It’s Raining” is an R&B ballad he co-wrote with the late Don Covay. The unlikely highlight: Wolf’s rendition of the vintage Moe Bandy honky-tonk heartbreak lament “It Was Always So Easy to Find an Unhappy Woman”, hitting right in the sweet spot where Nashville meets the Bronx.
Basement, ‘Promise Everything’
We Say: Basement pull off a neat trick on their third LP (and first since returning from a three-year hiatus): although Promise Everything sounds like a Nineties album, it’s nearly impossible to compare it with other classic LPs from that time. You might hear strains of Sunny Day Real Estate, Nirvana, Far or Hum, but it’s to the band’s credit that no song sounds derivative. The interplay between the five members alternates between energetic and serene – there are tidal-wave choruses and moments of intimacy, but not an ounce of self-indulgence. It will invoke intense nostalgia in those who participated in alternative music in the 1990s, but should be heard by anyone who values sincere, thrilling guitar music.
Kendrick Lamar, ‘Untitled Unmastered’
We Say: In the wake of Kanye’s work-in-progress psychodrama comes this left-field Kendrick Lamar surprise drop – a similarly unfinished-feeling, just as all-over-the-place, yet somehow more decisively indecisive set, which functions as a victory lap following the triumph of To Pimp A Butterfly…It feels like an earned and inclusive celebration of a singular artist’s excellence, achieved against all odds. Of course, nothing’s that simple in the mind of Lamar, and after torching the Grammys, his embers are still popping. This eight-track, 35 minute set begins in a bedroom, incense burning, Lamar sexing up a lover over soul-jazz, bass-and-percussion foreplay. But before we hit the two-minute mark he’s seeing rapists and murderers, “death faces screaming in agony,” “atheists for suicide/planes falling out the sky/trains jumping off the track.” And this is a jam about uplift…Ultimately, this is a set of odds and ends, inspired freestyles and funk jams; many are likely Butterfly outtakes, albeit none with the laser-focused resonance of “The Blacker The Berry” or “Alright.” But there’s brilliance in even Lamar’s cast-offs, and an intimacy here that makes this more than just a gift for his ravenous fans — it’s an illuminating look at a red-hot rapper’s craft.
Bob Evans, ‘Car Boot Sale’
We Say: As long as Jebediah live, Kevin Mitchell will never age. But the portrait stowed in his attic grows more interesting with each album. His fifth solo LP finds alter ego Bob Evans suffering no hipster in his dressing room or right-wing douchebag on his telly. His scathing armchair observations about “Old News”, “Some People” and their “Race to the Bottom” are bookended by deeply felt songs about domestic resilience that peak with one of his most insightful lyrics and sophisticated melodies in “Open Wound”. There’s plenty of joy in his flights of baroque arrangement and wall of ELO harmony in “Happy Tears”, but Mitchell sees clean through the fleeting currency of pop here to answer to his own heart.
Violent Soho, ‘WACO’
We Say: WACO finds the foursome again sparking up the big guitars with relish, though this time it’s more nimble and nuanced, adding a deft melodic lightness to Violent Soho’s signature slate of bruising longhair riffs. Rerunning elements of Hungry Ghost – producer Bryce Moorhead and Brisbane’s The Shed studios – may have resulted in stagnation, but that hasn’t eventuated: witness the textural, light touch of “So Sentimental” and the loping sunshine-bass-riff intro and tight Weezer-lite melody of second single “Viceroy”. Their knack for statement-of-intent opening salvos, meanwhile, remains undiminished with “How To Taste”…It may have taken a decade for Violent Soho to break through, but if WACO is any indication, their climb isn’t anywhere near over.
Paul Dempsey, ‘Strange Loop’
We Say: …the frontman tackles new challenges, proving that his dextrous guitar playing and his skills as an arranger can be applied in a variety of contexts. The album’s straight-faced predecessor, 2009’s Everything Is True, took its cues primarily from folk-rock, and traces of that sound remain. But this is a lighter, wackier record: the American South is the touchstone, so there are plenty of piano licks, twanging guitars and rollicking sing-a-long choruses. Dempsey clearly had fun writing and arranging these songs: on the gorgeous “Idiot Oracle”, he double-tracks the drums to make them sound more personable, while on the sweet, pedal-steel-soaked closer “(I’ve Got a Feeling) Nobody’s Trying to Tell Me Something” he uncharacteristically tells his subject to “Go fuck yourself”. It’s an album full of little surprises – and, two decades after he started releasing music, it proves that Dempsey still has inspiration to spare.
We Say: Anohni was announced as a project, a collaboration between singer Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons and producers Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, in early 2015. It’s telling Hegarty now goes by the name Anohni; this is deeply personal and political music, “an electronic record with some sharp teeth”, as Anohni described it. Ecocide is a longstanding Anohni concern, but on Hopelessness this and other issues are brought into sharp relief against the jarringly incongruous foundation of beats and synthesisers. Lead single “4 Degrees”, released to coincide with the Climate Conference in Paris last December, and in which Anohni implicates herself as part of the problem, sets the tone…This is a call to arms, and in voicing it, Anohni inspires hope.
Clairy Browne, ‘Pool’
We Say: Clairy Browne’s debut sans her Bangin’ Rackettes jettisons the vintage soul vibe for a much more down and dirty definition of R&B. From the Jacksons to TLC to Destiny’s Child, her touchstones are clear but can’t hope to detract from her particular brand of class, both as a turbo-lunged singer and a writer on a supremely confident roll. Even the horns sound like they’re sliding out of the lady’s way in the opening boast of “Vanity Fair”, a deliciously loose groove of clattering drums and lean bass that sets the agenda with due reference to dropped trousers, dripping juice and grown men weeping…L.A. accomplices (chiefly Amanda Warner, aka MNDR) naturally lend weight, but it’s Browne’s presence and control that leave us dripping and spent.
Frankie Cosmos, ‘Next Thing’
We Say: 22-year-old Greta Kline started putting intriguing song sketches online when she was in her teens, slowly amassing a cult following before releasing her promising debut Zentropy in 2014. On Next Thing, Kline, who records with a roving group of collaborators under the moniker Frankie Cosmos, moves from the lonesome bedroom to the cramped garage, updating her cloistered lo-fi aesthetic with a crisp pop minimalism best suited for the tinny Macbook speakers that will be playing this record in dorm rooms across this country. If Frankie Cosmos sounds newly professional this time around, it hasn’t affected Kline’s insular anxiety and winking self-doubt one bit.
We Say: Of all the bands to emerge from the mid-Nineties heavy music scene, none have aged as gracefully as Deftones. Where one-time contemporaries such as Korn, System Of a Down and Incubus are either M.I.A. or ran out of ideas years ago, the Sacramento quintet hit a vein of form on 2010’s Diamond Eyes that’s showing no sign of abating. Exhibit A: this, their eighth studio album…Much of Gore seems coated with a hazy, cloudy malevolence that constantly catches you off guard, as seething guitar passages infiltrate dreamy moments spearheaded by vocalist Chino Moreno’s at-times ethereal vocals, a feat the band first perfected on 2000’s White Pony, still their defining moment. That they’re able to match those heights 16 years on speaks volumes.
The Monkees, ‘Good Times!’
We Say: Hey, hey, they’re the Monkees, and like that Liverpool band they were always compared to in the Sixties, they get by with a little help from their friends on their first album in two decades…The (slightly) younger generation has listened well, their songs sitting comfortably with revamped older tracks that never got a run the first time round. Writers who were all over the Sixties albums – Neil Diamond, Goffin & King, Boyce & Hart – pop up here, the tunes decked out with the jangly guitars, tootling organ and buoyant harmonies of yesteryear. Even the late Davy Jones is resurrected for “Love To Love”. Producer Adam Schlesinger of Fountains Of Wayne knows a thing or five about classic pop, and although Good Times! is a Frankenstein’s monster of something old, something new and something in between, he manages to orchestrate the whole thing into something beyond an embarrassing heritage act.
Brian Eno, ‘The Ship’
We Say: Humanity burns, nature abides. The subtext is unusually stark on Brian Eno’s return to the ambient float tank but his vistas are typically immense. The 20-minute title track hums under an infinite night sky. Bows shear icy water, buoys clang in the mist, sonar bleeps and radio intelligence drifts as our hero drones a doomy poem that might be one man sailing to war or humankind’s futile journey across the Milky Way. “Fickle Sun” drags the horror of the trenches into focus. Parts i and ii trace our “cumulus of pride and will” to despair; part iii transcends with a disembodied tilt at Lou Reed’s “I’m Set Free”. The Ship is a deep, dark mirror to human folly. Big call? Trust Eno.
Halfway, ‘The Golden Halfway’
We Say: Halfway’s fifth release begs repeated listens. Moving away from the red-dirt country of 2014’s lauded Any Old Love, this immerses itself in a rock feel with a distinctly Australian vibe – the shimmering oppression of Rockhampton, the relative open-mindedness of Brisbane, wide and free. Recorded in Nashville with Mark Nevers (George Jones, Calexico), The Golden Halfway Record is a river – beginning with the slow-trickle of “Intro/If We Say the Words”, it grows and becomes large as it meanders purposefully forward, strings and keys, sharp guitars and bass high in the mix. The eight-piece are slowly accumulating a canon of work that in future years will be called brilliant.
PJ Harvey, ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’
We Say: Travelogue, social commentary, art project – The Hope Six Demolition Project is many things. Over four years, Harvey travelled to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington D.C. for inspiration. She then set up a studio in London’s Somerset House behind one-way glass, so members of the public could come in for 45-minute blocks each day to watch the recording process. Call it performance art, living sculpture or stickybeaking. She called it Recording In Progress. The result is one of her most visceral albums, in a catalogue not exactly lacking in that department. But you’d have to go back to 1998’s Is This Desire? to find her in such a forceful, primal mood. The tone is set from the get-go on “The Community Of Hope”, with the clattering rhythm, raw electric guitar, wailing sax and massed blues-moan backing vocals that colour the record.
Brandy Clark, ‘Big Day in a Small Town’
We Say: Clark is good at bending country boilerplate: On “Drinkin’, Smokin’, Cheatin'”, she teetotals while listing a downward spiral of coping fantasies. She also spikes the comic with the grim; in the cheerfully deadpan “Big Day in a Small Town”, a high schooler passes out in class when her water breaks, and a dude drunkenly flips his pickup en route to his son’s football game. Clark’s tear-jerkers are no joke either. “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven” is about the death of a father and the subsequent fallout. It offers no cheap palliatives; just the consolation of a beautiful voice delivering a well-built song, cold truth rising from it like fog off dry ice.
Kim Salmon, ‘My Script’
We Say: My Script is ineffably Salmonesque, recalling many of the artist’s key incarnations from seminal work with the Surrealists to date, and boasting typically whip-smart dialectical wordiness punctuated by a recurring six-track modulated drone cycle (“It’s Not Forgetting” et al). There are strangled guitars and glam posturing (“Gorgeous & Messed Up”), post-punk angst (“Sign Apps”), dyspeptic pop-rock (“Making Me Better”), and anarchic deployment of rhyming triplets (“Fucking Shit Up”). “Client JGT683” is a meditation on prevailing immigration policies co-written with pundit Waleed Aly, and “Animal Man” a raw reflection on the primitivism of the artist.
Various Artists, ‘Day of the Dead’
We Say: This five-plus hour, 59 track Grateful Dead tribute album is a monument of living history – an image of their golden road branching out endlessly…. Pretty much every sound the band touched on or suggested gets represented – from ambient music (several sound-sculptures by Bryce Dessner of the National and experimental composer Tim Hecker’s “Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald”) to Afropop (Orchestra Baobob turning “Franklin’s Tower” into a shining desert mirage) to psychedelia (Flaming Lips making throbbing lysergic mush out of “Dark Star”) to roots rock (Lucinda Williams locating the lust in a slow humid “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”). But indie songwriters and guitar nerds get most of the action; Courtney Barnett hazily savours the conversational drift of the post-Altamont rap session “New Speedway Boogie,” and Stephen Malkmus does his hey-whatever guitar wizard thing on a ten minute “China Cat Sunflower → I Know You Rider,” just to pick two of the more wonderful examples among many.
Melbourne Ska Orchestra, ‘Sierra-Kilo-Alpha’
We Say: Just the second release from MSO – represented here by 30+ players – in a currency spanning more than a decade, Sierra-Kilo-Alpha refines and intensifies the core sounds of monolithic 16-track debut Melbourne Ska Orchestra (2013). It charts uniformly mesmerising territory, from the classic mid-century Caribbean strains of ska’s progenitors (see the slinky bounce of “Bombay Detective”) to the vernacular of 2 Tone a la the Specials (“Escher”) and irresistible funk rhythms. It’s all here: bold and sensuous horns, carnivale keys, dragging percussion, Lennox Jordan’s prodigious steel pan parts (“Sans Humanité”), and so many crisp, syncopated guitars.
Melody Pool, ‘Deep Dark Savage Heart’
We Say: Melody Pool isn’t squeamish about calling a fuck a fuck. She knows when she’s done with “all of the shit I used to promise myself” and she can read her pulse well enough to parse guilt, contempt, defeat and rage in the jaws of the “Black Dog”…Gone is the country gal of 2013’s The Hurting Scene, as she stares down a world of darkness with a crushing mix of vulnerability and defiance. Her language is classically poetic in the Euro-folk echoes of “Southern Nightshade” and barbed with real violence in the swooning beauty of “Mariachi Wind”. Her voice has a flinty pitch that seethes and soars and breaks like cold sweat…it’s an act of unflinching emotional honesty that clinches suspicions of a prematurely masterful talent.
We Say: Ngaiire’s sublime “Once”, released last year, signalled a shift in style from jazz-funk-soul to a more electronic brand of neo-soul, and Blastoma, named after the childhood cancer she overcame, continues in that vein, aided by the production/co-writing team of Paul Mac and emerging Sydney talent Jack Grace. (Megan Washington also co-writes two tracks.) Ngaiire’s earthy, sensual vocals moor each song, whether there’s urgent drums interrupting sparse piano on “Anchor”, fuzzy synths expanding behind popping percussion on “Cruel”, or a driving dubstep bassline on “House On a Rock”. It’s all terribly trendy but is superbly executed, impressively diverse, and deserves to be Ngaiire’s breakthrough.
Olympia, ‘Self Talk’
We Say: Olivia Bartley is a rare bird. A commanding performer, singer, multi-instrumentalist – you name it – her debut album as Olympia is a rich realisation of a left field vision. Bartley’s tunes are reminiscent of the way Neil Finn works – always “pop”, but built from trapdoors and surreal asides, a genre funhouse if you want to go deep, pretty melodies all the same. The shimmering Eighties chorus of “Smoke Signals” pops up out of a Sixties psych lope, yet sounds alien; “Different Cities” is a somnambulist, slinky heartbreaker re: glancing communications – Bartley cleverly oscillating between party and participant. But picking moments feels a disservice to this deftly wrought and wonderfully affecting whole.
We Say: The best thing you can say about Drake on Views is the worst thing, too: He’s a lightweight. That description suits his breathtaking nimbleness in switching between flows, intonations and genres; his fleet-footedness adapting to, and jettisoning, passing trends; his ear for killer stripped-down beats and his stunning economy when crafting hooks – singing irresistibly wounded melodies, finding unlikely musicality in barked refrains about woes and Jumpmen.
Tegan and Sara, ‘Love You to Death’
We Say: Tegan and Sara Quin have been attempting stadium-sized pop for a while now, and Love You To Death is their most accomplished iteration of it to date – a tight, taut collection that’s both of-the-moment and a beat ahead of the pack. Greg Kurstin (Sia, Taylor Swift, Ellie Goulding) produced most of their last pure pop effort, Heartthrob, and here he oversees the entire record, guiding the Quins towards their best case yet for superstardom. Cannily, so as not to alienate their substantial and loyal fanbase, the out-and-proud Canadian identical twins balance ambition with introspection, turning the microscope on their relationships with lovers, and most revealingly, with each other…Each song has been carefully reared for radio, but with surprising flourishes – a sparkling bridge here, clipped staccato vocals there. As gay twins, Tegan and Sara have endured the novelty tag for years, but LYTD is simply a great pop record; no qualifiers necessary.
Steve Gunn, ‘Eyes on the Lines’
We Say: Steve Gunn’s beautifully unhurried guitar playing and songwriting was mesmerising on 2014’s Way Out Weather. Though electric has largely replaced acoustic, Eyes on the Lines is no great departure, with Gunn perfecting the art of the track that gently but confidently meanders through an array of moods. Less erratic than the Grateful Dead, his drone tunings and general tempo hint at that other exquisitely soulful contemporary guitarist, Richard Bishop. Topping off this magnificent record is a melodic accessibility (see “Nature Driver”) that evokes Cold Roses-era Ryan Adams. An intoxicating combination of Gunn’s wild skills and his breezily pastoral sensibility.
The Drones, ‘Feelin Kinda Free’
We Say: The Horror! The Horror! Even the guitars sound tortured in the psychic prison of “Private Execution”, an Indonesian nightmare with a squalling slasher movie soundtrack. “Let’s change the topic before I get misanthropic,” Gareth Liddiard sneers in the bilious denunciation of a “fixed civilisation”. But it’s too late to play nice. “Taman Shud” is the sickening sound of a moral compass shattering under jackboots and Blundstones. “You came here in a boat you fucking cunt” is the insult that damns us all. So goes the poisonous pitch of the Drones’ seventh album, a stream of invective for centuries of violence, idiocy and possibly an ex-girlfriend or two: “To Think That I Once Loved You” employs the kind of lovely madrigal chorus one might commission for a stoning.
The Goon Sax, ‘Up To Anything’
We Say: While rife with reference points – from the straight shootin’ Dick Diver-like delivery to a sharpening of the Dunedin pop-jangle – Up To Anything remains the work of its creators. Weighted by personal insecurities, the Brisbane teenage trio examine the edges of adulthood – responsibilities, relationships et al – with remarkable self-awareness, yet smirk away the self-deprecating pity tempting them into depressive territory. Their finest moments (the stuttering lovesick ode “Sometimes Accidentally”) feature a clever morphing of mundane observations and clear thematic focus, a fumbling resolve simultaneously suited to both their stream-of-conscious songwriting structure and post-adolescent perspective.
Death Grips, ‘Bottomless Pit’
We Say: On what might be their ugliest release, the elusive noise-rap crew explodes with rhythms that hearken back to the crossover punk and thrash metal of mid-Eighties California. But texturally and lyrically, Bottomless Pit is boiling with the digital chaos, paranoia and tension of Internet-era info overload: “All I do is lose my form, I’m warping.”
Tim Hecker, ‘Love Streams’
We Say: For his eighth studio album, Canadian-born Tim Hecker returned to Iceland for a series of recording sessions over a two-year period, inspired by the choral works of 15th century European composer, Josquin des Prez. Taking the vocal grace of the Icelandic Choir Ensemble, the woodwind arrangements of Grímur Helgason and the keyboard contributions of Kara-Lis Coverdale, Hecker used elaborate programming techniques to create what may be perceived as unstructured ambience. The reality is a complexity that is palpable and a record that is incredibly sophisticated and intentionally ambiguous. Desolate, haunting, uplifting; Love Streams is above all, beautiful.
Urthboy, ‘The Past Beats Inside Me Like a Second Heartbeat’
We Say: With each successive release Urthboy has built upon his reputation as a fluent and gifted storyteller. The Past Beats Inside Me…, his fifth full-length, cements a place among the greats, overlaying histories personal and public until the lines are blurred, pivoting mid-record on the brilliant, throbbing “Rubble of the Past”. Remembrance and family are everywhere, a picture of romantic abandon painted on “Rushing Through Me”, closely followed by slouching menace on “Wolves At Bay”. It might shift speeds a little too quickly here and there, but a shining thread of warmth and open-heartedness runs throughout, and in the end the outcome matches the ambition.
Modern Baseball, ‘Holy Ghost’
We Say: Talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve. Modern Baseball’s third album is, effectively, an album of two halves – the first sung by Jacob Ewald, the second by Brendan Lukens – as the co-frontmen exorcise recent demons. For Ewald, that was the passing of his grandfather; for Lukens, his bi-polar diagnosis and near suicide attempt. Neither pull any punches in laying their lives bare – see heartbreaking closer “Just Another Face” – atop a soundtrack that recalls the best moments of the Weakerthans and the Promise Ring. That half the album’s songs come in at under two minutes means they pass like shooting stars, leaving you desperate to hear them again.
Emma Russack, ‘In a New State’
We Say: Few songwriters let down their guard like Emma Russack. She sings of failed love affairs and personal disappointments with rare directness, savouring detailed confession over guarded metaphors. Her third LP finds her shrugging off sex (“If You Could See Me Now”), revisiting her hometown (“Narooma”), and musing on the desire to “get my shit together” (“Another Chance”). Russack’s masterfully plainspoken ballads put her in the same league as Bill Callahan and Lucinda Williams, while supportive vocal harmonies add new dimensions to the country-tilted wooziness of “You Gave Me”. Cameron Potts’ drumming provides a quiet, gradual ambush, but these songs are plenty arresting in their own right.