If we rated albums with togs rather than stars, 'Morning Phase' would be a 15. Warm, expansive, richly textured and thick with shimmering vocal reverb, the twelfth album from Beck Hansen is the spiritual successor to 2003's 'Sea Change' - on which the 'Loser' author washed slacker irony and two-turntables-and-a-microphone skip hop aside with the first folky strum and sincere, heartbroken couplet.
'Morning Phase' is also the most anticipated leftfield album of 2014, following a six-year gap in which Beck has done everything (including overcoming spinal injury and confounding the download generation with a book of sheet music) except release an album. A 12-song cycle set in the tender, uncertain hours of dawn, it bathes in the '70s West Coast vibe of Beck's youth, with dew-spangled guitars and psychedelic melodies slowly turning their crumpled faces to the sun.
'Wave' swells with sensuous unease, like Scott Walker covering Bjork. With Beck's majestically weary tenor at full-bloom, single 'Blue Moon' has the emotional lift of Duran Duran's 'Ordinary Girl'. Swaddled in self-production, 'Morning Phase' is an absorbing and moving mood album. But if the other Beck record pegged for a 2014 release turns out to be a lo-fi beatbox-blues slap round the face called 'Wake-Up Call'? All to the good.
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★★★★★ Beyoncé worked with so many people on ‘Lemonade’, her sixth album which she dropped in late April with an accompanying short fi lm, that its credits run to 3,105 words. It’s a testament to her star power that none of her collaborators blabbed before the surprise album release – Bey’s second in a row after her 2013 self-titled LP. But it’s also a testament to her star quality that despite the many, many cooks in this kitchen, ‘Lemonade’ feels like an album only Beyoncé could make. ‘Lemonade’ is officially billed as ‘a conceptual project based on every woman’s journey of self knowledge and healing’, but the narrative is really one of marital infi delity. ‘How did it come down to this? Going through your call list,’ she sings on the deceptively breezy reggae bounce of ‘Hold Up’, before issuing what sounds like an ultimatum on the brilliant, Jack White-assisted rock stomper ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’: ‘If you try this shit again / You gon’ lose your wife.’ The electro blips of ‘Sorry’ feature another killer couplet: ‘He only want me when I’m not there / He better call Becky with the good hair.’ Beyoncé stops short of singing ‘My sister Solange appeared to attack you in a lift after the Met Gala in 2014’, but this is still startling stuff which must be tough for Jay Z (who appears in the short film) to listen to. As the story progresses from rage to reconciliation, ‘Lemonade’ continues to thrill musically. Bey teams with The Weeknd for ‘6 Inch’, a kind of strip club update of
★★★★☆ Last winter, PJ Harvey sealed herself behind one-way glass in a room beneath Somerset House, along with her band and producer Flood. Visitors to ‘Recording in Progress’, which was billed as an art installation rather than a music event, could see and hear the two-time Mercury-winner making her ninth album. The result is ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’, which deals with bearing witness in another sense too. Over four years, Harvey and photojournalist Seamus Murphy spent time in Kosovo, Afghanistan and poor areas of Washington DC, notebook and camera in hand. What they saw furnished a volume of poetry and images, footage for music videos and a documentary, and finally these 11, frequently thrilling but more often deeply uneasy, songs. As album genesis stories go, it’s the opposite of Happy Mondays spunking the sessions for ‘Yes Please!’ in Barbados. Full points for earnestness. But the ‘writer as camera’ approach puts Harvey on dangerous ground. Her 2011 album ‘Let England Shake’ charged through centuries of war in a characteristically full-blooded act of imagination. Here she observes the current aftermath of geopolitical fuck-ups in diligently literal detail. ‘A white jawbone, syringes, razors, a plastic spoon, human hair, a kitchen knife, and the ghost of a girl who runs and hides,’ she lists on ‘The Ministry of Defence’. Harvey’s voice is extraordinary, soaring like a surface-to-air missile. But it’s telling that her muse sometimes feels a little too tethered to
★★★★☆ Once upon a time All Saints were The Spice Girls for cool people. Named after All Saints Road in Notting Hill, this combat trouser-wearing combo drew from UK garage, electronica and R&B. They smirked, sulked and swished instead of faking showbiz grins. They took a song called ‘Bootie Call’ to Number One years before Drake coined the term ‘hotline bling’. So although their 2006 comeback album ‘Studio 1’ fl opped horribly, Melanie, Shaznay, Natalie and Nicole still deserve the benefit of the doubt. Current single ‘One Strike’ is a sleekly catchy reintroduction and fortunately it’s no one-off. The dramatic ‘This Is a War’ shows off their seamless vocal harmonies, ‘Summer Rain’ is a snakelike slice of balmy R&B and ‘One Woman Man’ wraps a plea for monogamy in glorious sweeping strings. The album’s closing stretch even features some more expansive tracks that lay lovely airy melodies over surprising tribal beats. Given that All Saints originally split in 2001 after arguing about who would wear a certain jacket for a photoshoot, it’s sweet to hear the title track’s nod to female friendship: ‘Why didn’t I stop and listen? Why didn’t I hear my girls?’ But ‘Red Flag’ succeeds above all because it feels grown-up without being boring. The catty dancehall smackdown of ‘Ratchet Behaviour’ is a welcome reminder that these four women should not be messed with. (Spice Girls’ Mel B recently claimed she had a bathroom scrap with Shaznay back in the ’90s: we’d have paid good money to s
★★★☆☆ After quitting the world’s biggest boy band in March 2015, Zayn Malik shared his true thoughts on the group’s music a few months later. ‘Would you listen to One Direction, sat at a party with your girl? I wouldn’t,’ he told The Fader. Though a little ungracious, the diss doesn’t seem to have discouraged his fans: last month, Zayn’s debut solo single ‘Pillowtalk’ reached Number One in both the UK and US. This album continues his move from 1D’s precision-tooled pop-rock into hipper, more intimate musical territory. The crisp choruses of ‘Pillowtalk’ and follow-up single ‘Like I Would’ are slightly misleading, because elsewhere ‘Mind of Mine’ clearly wants to be a moody alternative R&B album. The gentle electronic quiver of ‘She Don't Love Me’ and ‘Bright’ recall The Weeknd, while atmospheric downtempo jams like ‘It’s You’ and ‘Borderz’ have strong echoes of Frank Ocean. Sure, it’s a bit derivative, but Zayn’s distinctive voice – a smokey smoulder with a strong falsetto – will keep you intrigued. In a few years time, Zayn will probably look back and cringe at the way he’s stylised each track title with alternating capital letters: ‘dRuNk’, ‘rEaR vIeW’ and ‘lUcOzAdE’ – which seems to be a song about people who’ve wronged Zayn, and thankfully not an ode to the isotonic sports drink. But then again, his lingering gaucheness can be endearing. When he yelps ‘We'll piss off the neighbours’ on ‘Pillowtalk’, it’s a very British and strangely passive way of announcing that he’s
★★☆☆☆ In February 2012, at the height of her post-’21’ pomp, Adele Adkins told a reporter: ‘I can’t write another break-up record. That would be a real cliché. It would just be a boring running theme. I think people will be like: “I think I’ve had enough now, cheer up”.’ She kinda nailed it.The fastest way to explain ‘25’ – one of the most tremendously fêted albums ever – is to say that there’s nothing on it as scorching and pulse-racing as ‘Rolling in the Deep’, and there’s nothing so overwhelmingly moving as ‘Someone Like You’. That in itself doesn’t make it a bad album – but it’s what 99 percent of people will think after that all-important first listen. It’s no ‘21’. After the insane success of that breakthrough second album, Adele could have had it all. She could have travelled the world, broadened her horizons, learned new tricks. Reinvention was within her grasp. The fact that Adele has eschewed reinvention this time around, and instead tried to make a whole album of ‘Someone Like You’s, is a shame. But the fact that ‘25’ is as innovative as a flip phone isn’t a reason to criticise it. So here’s one: It’s a bit dull. Now, that’s not to say it’s not worth a listen. Wailers and wallowers in particular should rest assured – ‘25’ is still a festival of sadness, a ruptured tear duct gushing out woe like an unmanned fire hose. If you only hear one piano ballad this year, make it ‘All I Ask’ – written with Bruno Mars yet pleasantly reminiscent of the great Whitney Housto
★★★★☆ First things first, it’s pronounced ‘k-wor-bs’, so relax: you can stop scratching around inside your underpants. But if you’re a fan of soulful grooves, crackling synths or generally good music, you probably knew that already. This 25-year old Londoner has been making waves for a couple of years now, and it’s not difficult to hear why. Kwabs can sing. I mean, really, really, sounds-a-bitlike-Luther-Vandross sing – and he makes sure you know it with a bunch of excellent pop bangers and the odd pulsating ballad on this debut LP. Head straight to delicate piano weepie ‘Perfect Ruin’ as an example of the latter. There are one or two worrying moments, where things threaten to go a bit Mick Hucknall, but, frankly, Kwabs could be backed by the Teletubbies and this album would still be an impressive debut.
★★★★☆ Montreal’s Ought are the closet their city’s iconic Constellation Records has come to signing a ‘normal’ guitar band – but they share their label’s extravagant bloody-mindedness. Wildly-praised 2013 debut ‘Today More than Any Other Day’ and last year’s excellent ‘Once More with Feeling’ EP weren’t exactly easy listening, but Ought’s heavy, snarling take on post-punk contained moments of explosive exhilaration, and even the odd ballad. ‘Sun Coming Down’ offers no such olive branch: opener ‘Men for Miles’ sounds like Mark E Smith being bludgeoned to death with several very heavy guitars and there’s not much respite over the record’s eight sludgy songs. But give it time and patience and beauty emerges from the chaos. Shimmeringly heavy centrepiece ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’ is a remarkable piece of music, like some sublime union of Talking Heads and Shellac, while Tim Beeler’s ferociously growled lyrics are endlessly fascinating. ‘This is the high watermark of civilization’ he snarls on ‘Never Better’, and I’m not going to be the one who argues with him.
★★★★☆ ‘I’ve got nothing much to live for ever since I found my fame,’ Lana Del Rey sings on ‘God Knows I Tried’, a typically wistful song from her impressive new album. If anything, the enigmatic singer born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant has only become more elusive since 2011’s ‘Video Games’ made her a sensation, though her work rate remains enviable. ‘Honeymoon’ is her fourth collection of new material – three albums and an EP – in as many years. Though it’s glossier than last year’s grungy ‘Ultraviolence’, this album is no more commercially-minded. With Del Rey co-producing throughout, ‘Honeymoon’ unfolds languidly over 65 minutes in a familiar swirl of cinematic strings, twangy guitars and exquisitely miserable melodies. A handful of tracks feature trap-inspired beats and there's a dash of jazz on ‘Art Deco’ and ‘Terrence Loves You’ Del Rey always refines her formula cautiously. When she ruins her cover of Nina Simone’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ with some cheesy horror film organ riffs, it’s a rare lapse in taste that makes you appreciate her usual flair for crafting elegantly melancholy dream-pop. The singer’s submissive doomed romantic persona remains troublesome, especially when she swoons over a man with a ‘history of violence’ on the title track, but ‘Honeymoon’ also contains welcome hints of something spunkier. ‘You could be a bad motherfucker, but that don’t make you a man,’ she tells a disappointing lover on ‘High By the Beach’, while ‘Salvatore’ finds her de
★★★☆☆ They may hate the tag, but avant-riffing three-piece Battles will forever be classed as ‘math rock’. Sounds geeky and boring, right? Geeky: absolutely. Boring: not a chance, as third album ‘La Di Da Di’ wholeheartedly proves. Like your maths homework, you’ll need to give it your full attention. It’s not background music for a party, unless your parties involve sitting around a MacBook reading Pitchfork. You can’t really dance to ‘La Di Da Di’, sing or hum along with it, or even mosh to it, but listen – like, actually listen – to the numerous angular guitar walkabouts scattered throughout every track, the glitchy synth interruptions in ‘Dot Net’ and the card-counting rhythms of ‘FF Bada’, and you’ll uncover a weirdly funky and hugely satisfying tapestry of musicianship.