In March of this year, King remarkably escaped thirty years in the wilderness with their number one smash, ‘Years And Years’. It was an incredible comeback which remained at the top of the UK singles chart for several weeks. Yes, I know it was the other way round really; it’s just that I needed to make reference to the word “escape” somehow, in order to tenuously link it to the albums released in March which escaped our writers’ attention at the time. I was going to use Leicester City’s great escape from Premier League relegation, but sadly that didn’t begin in earnest until April. Oh well.
Here is a smattering of the ones that got away, once again assisted by my two trusty aides, Jonathan Wright and Andy Page. Also contributing this time around is Matt Hobbs.
French singer Soko‘s second album My Dreams Dictate My Reality willingly reflects a more hopeful, less lonesome and self-assured chapter in her life, in which she has moved to Los Angeles, soaked up American lifestyle and has started feeling comfortable, secure and confident with her own demons, whilst becoming friends with the local musicians in the process. One of the natives is psychedelic-pop multi-instrumentalist Ariel Pink who has become her permanent tour guide and sings along side her on duets on the odd romance of ”Monster Love” and the genre-switching “Lovetrap“.
Although the majority of the album adopts a nostalgic mixture of gothic post-punk (“Ocean of Tears“), grunge (“I Come in Peace“), new wave (specifically Frankie Goes To Hollywood on “Visions“) and 90′s alternative rock (“Who Wears The Pants“) that fits her new identity, “Monster Love” fits more in the bracket of shoegaze with the consistent-tempo vocals blending in with the dark guitar steadiness.
My Dreams Dictate My Reality is a wise example of how an artist can grow into different territories of exploration whilst maintaining the element of themselves that makes fans want to sustain a personal connection. Let’s hope she never goes on a hiatus again.
Marina Diamandis – better known as Marina & The Diamonds – has never quite lived up to her early potential. Her first album, The Family Jewels had some wonderful singles on but overall had too much filler and some of the eccentric spark that made her so charming was lost. On her follow-up, Electra Heart, she went in a poppier direction that felt somewhat forced. Now, on her third album, Froot, everything has finally fallen into place.
The eponymously titled lead single was the first indication that she’d gotten the balance just right. It’s a strange electro synth-inspired song with an effortless chorus that could be a long lost new wave single from the late 70s.
Froot’s highlights include the 80s power pop inspired ‘Blue’ and ‘Better Than That’, which are two of her most straightforward and catchy songs yet. ‘Blue’ boasts the most memorable chorus as Marina pleads “Give me one more night, one last goodbye, let’s do it one last time” as the synths swirl in the background.
The strength of the ballads on Froot show how much Marina has developed as a songwriter. This record, for example, opens with the understated and heartbreaking ‘Happy’. Then there’s the gorgeous, ‘I’m a Ruin‘, arguably the best song Marina has ever put out. It’s a haunting ballad that has the emotional punch of Froot when Marina sings “Babe I’m going to ruin you, if you let me stay”. Froot is the sound of Marina & The Diamonds fulfilling that early potential without losing any of the quirks that make her stand out from other singer songwriters. It’s her best album by far.
Lower Dens were formed when main woman Jana Hunter put together a backing band for what was to be her final tour as a solo artist. The group structure worked so well, that Lower Dens came to be a permanent outfit and this is their third album.
Hunter is very much the key figure in the band, producing the record herself, although all four members are credited with writing the album.
Escape From Evil is a sonically beautiful album and is very accessible even on first listen. Sweeping synths are used throughout to complement chiming guitars and Hunter’s high-in-the-mix vocals which have been compared to fellow Baltimore luminary Victoria Legrand of Beach House.
This is an album very strong on melody and a lot of the tracks sound like singles, especially the jauntier-than-the-title-suggests ‘To Die In LA‘ and superb album closer ‘Société Anonyme‘ which rushes past in a joyful blur.
‘Your Heart Still Beating‘ happily begins like a mid-80s OMD B-side before Hunter’s vocals take away any doubt that it is indeed a Lower Dens song.
Escape From Evil deserves to propel the band to the next level, and hopefully their tour support for Belle & Sebastian earlier this year will have brought them to the attention of a larger audience.
The last five years have been a strange time for Madonna. She has managed to stay in the charts and keep her momentum going since she first broke through in 1984. Every time she took a wobble commercially, she would bounce back stronger. Following the diversive sex years of the early 90s and the not-for-everyone Evita soundtrack, Madonna released Ray of Light, arguably her most critically acclaimed album (with sales to match). After the largely panned American Life she came back fighting with Confessions on a Dancefloor, which was another commercial and critical success. When Madonna’s last album, MDNA, fell completely flat, it seemed like her reputation was at an all-time low and Rebel Heart really needed to be good. Sadly it isn’t the great comeback she needed.
Lead single ‘Living for Love’ was an attempt to recapture the back-to-basics dance pop that made Confessions on a Dancefloor so appealing. If it had a stronger tune it might have succeeded, instead it sounds like a generic throwaway club song. Things get worse with ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna‘, which is as cringeworthy as you might expect. ‘Unapologetic Bitch‘ is an embarrassing attempt at sounding like Rihanna. The problem with songs like these are that her attitude doesn’t sound convincing in the slightest. Most of the ballads (which make up almost half the record) blend into each other and are utterly forgettable.
The second single, ‘Ghosttown’, is a simple ballad that’s the strongest song because she’s not trying too hard. At the same time, it’s nowhere near being one of her best songs. Madonna has had a knack for working with producers who brought out the best in her (William Orbit, Stuart Price, Mirwais). On Rebel Heart, she just sounds lost and in search of her identity. I used to think I’d never write Madonna off, but after three poor and unfocused albums in a row, it’s hard to maintain that confidence.
Often unfairly overlooked in favour of the similarly named Houndstooth, the anthemic Americana of Houndmouth returned in March on their second album, Little Neon Limelight. Matt Myers’ vocal style remains akin to that of Ian Felice (of the eponymously titled brothers) and is a perfect fit for the euphoric, beer swilling chantalong ‘Sedona‘ that kicks things off.
Parallels can once again be levelled with the likes of Drive-By Truckers (at least during the Shonna Tucker years), although granted, Houndmouth are rather less gritty than their Southern counterparts, and, on songs like ‘Otis‘, more aligned with “classic country”, with Katie Toupin’s vocal reminiscent of Emmylou Harris.
Perhaps the most affecting tracks on Little Neon Limelight though, are the gorgeous, sunny Band like ‘Honey Slider‘ and Toupin’s own, fingerpicked ballad ‘Gasoline‘. Whether it’s a wild, wanton party you want when you listen to music, or whether you prefer to do so in a bed-hugging state of inertia, Houndmouth continue to have all the ingredients to heighten the experience.
The Cribs‘ sixth album For All My Sisters marked something of a watershed for the band, being their first major label release after previously releasing all their albums on Wichita Records.
Producer Rick Ocasek, (of power-poppers The Cars), brings a pop sensibility to the record, which contrasts with the darker sound of 2012’s previous album, In The Belly Of The Brazen Bull.
‘An Ivory Hand’ was the first song aired from the album when it was made available for streaming back in January, and is a fair representation of the tone of the record. However, first ‘proper’ single ‘Burning For No One’ is far superior and is classic Cribs – truly one of the best singles the band have put out, its subtle melody more in the vein of 2009 album Ignore The Ignorant‘s lead single ‘Cheat On Me’ than a full-blooded Cribs stomper like, say, ‘Mens Needs’ or ‘Hey Scenesters’.
‘Mr Wrong’ sadly doesn’t seem to be a tribute to the zany Mr Men book characters, while dramatic seven-minute final track ‘Pink Snow’ seems to have replaced gig-closing staple ‘City Of Bugs’ in the band’s recent, reliably jubilant, live sets.
In truth, the album never quite scales the heights of previous efforts despite having plenty of great songs for long time Jarman brothers admirers to get their collective teeth into.
A steady if not spectacular addition to Wakefield band’s discography; it would be surprising if this one ends up being anyone’s absolute favourite Cribs album.
On Kendrick Lamar‘s second studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly, he had the tough task of following Good Kid Maad City, which is the one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of the decade. Good Kid… showed Lamar as an amazing rapper and a great storyteller. It also showed him in control of his creative vision – an impressive feat considering his age and that it was his first proper album.
There isn’t a clear story running through To Pimp A Butterfly like there was on its predecessor, but the album feels just as consistent and exciting. It’s musically diverse. There are 70s funk influences all over, especially on the album highlight, ‘King Kunta‘, which must be a contender for single of the year. Jazz influences seep through on ‘For Free?’ and ‘How Much a Dollar Cost’. ‘These Walls’ features Bilal who brings some of the eerie R&B that makes his solo work great. Kendrick’s only Top 40 hit to date, ‘I’, appears here as a live version (it keeps The Isley Brothers sample but doesn’t sound as smooth as the single version). The added grittiness fits well with the rest of the album. It’s one of the songs where his political views are at their most prominent. The recent use of students singing the refrain of ‘Alright’, “We gonna be alright” at the Justice Or Else rallies show how respected and powerful Lamar is.
To Pimp A Butterfly is a brilliant record where Lamar hasn’t repeated what he’s already done. It’s a dense, unsettling and challenging record; it’s also an extremely compelling one. It’s exciting to imagine where he will go from here and whether he’ll be able to top an album that’s destined to be talked about as a classic in years to come.
Laura Marling returned in March with her fifth album, which became her fourth consecutive Top 10 success.
For a (still) young artist signed to a major label, Marling seems to enjoy no shortage of creative control, producing the album herself and including some of her darkest work to date.
Short Movie works best when listened to in full; it was never going to produce that elusive hit single – but repeated listens reveal it to be an inspired record of real emotional depth and full of superb arrangements.
‘Warrior’ begins the album with Marling’s familiar acoustic guitar and vocal combination backed by ominous background sounds, which match the lyrics perfectly: ‘I stumble some way on ,licking my sores / Tasting the memory of pain I have endured’. Elsewhere, ‘Strange’ picks up the pace and sounds almost like something from a Lou Reed solo album, albeit with Marling’s distinctive voice making it very much a sound of her own.
The title track is tucked away as the penultimate song and builds slowly to a rapturous end, then ‘Worship Me’ comes along to end the album on a more subtle note, with Marling’s words again well-chosen and the vocals restrained and very natural-sounding.
Another addictive and affecting Marling release that may not win her many new fans, but will further cement her place as a truly original artist.
RuPaul’s seventh(!) album, Realness, came out to little fanfare earlier this year. Her profile has been consistent thanks to the cult success of her TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, the latest season of which aired as Realness was released. Nineties house music inspires the whole record and over a whole album the individual songs don’t get a chance to stand out. Hercules & Love Affair did something similar with last year’s The Feast of the Broken Heart, and were much more successful at it.
There are hints of RuPaul’s star quality on some songs, but often she blends into the background. Some of the interludes recall Grace Jones‘s excellent Slave To The Rhythm album but unfortunately that’s where the similarity ends. The strongest and most noticeable song on Realness is ‘Step Up’ which addresses all the “biological females” out there and features the memorable chorus “girl you gotta step your pussy up”. It’s one of the few songs where RuPaul really stamps her identity on the song. If there were more moments like that, then there would be a bit more variety, which is just what Realness needs. This is a disappointingly faceless album for an artist known for having a big personality.