Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer

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Everybody who’s even remotely familiar with the name Janelle Monae has probably been awaiting 27th of April with a sense of hype and excitement. This was going to be one of the most important musical moments of the year, and we knew it ever since the release of two brilliant teaser singles back in February. Of course, hype can be a bitch, and Dirty Comuter could easily turn into the biggest flop of the year. But Janelle is an artist that guarantees an extremely high level of musical quality, and her new record is no exception.

When describing the album (and its accompanying short film), she used the term emotion picture, and that name is fitting as hell, because Dirty Computer is a record full of emotions, ranging from triumphant sense of freedom to more subtle and intimate feelings. Lyrically, it portraits Janelle as a voice of her generation of women – liberated and empowered, while at the time brilliantly self aware and conscious. Musically, it’s a kaleidoscope of genres, from sexy funk that would make Prince very, very proud, all the  way to ambitious art pop or conscious hip-hop (yes, Janelle drops a few bars on this record, and she’s quite brilliant at it).

But the main thing that makes this album so great is the excellent songwriting – every song features either a memorable hook or a catchy chorus. The opening title track features gorgeous backing vocals from Brian Wilson himself, and what follows is a barrage of potential hit singles: both Crazy, Classic, Life and Take a Byte are excellent songs, but the centerpiece of the record are tracks 5-9: the anthemic Screwed, bombastic rap of Django Jane, the subtle Pynk, funky Make Me Feel and even funkier I Got the Juice. These five tracks alone are enough to make Dirty Computer an Album of the Year contender. But there’s more! I Like That features the biggest earworm of the entire record, and then Janelle slows things down a bit with Don’t Judge Me and So Afraid before the triumphant and optimistic Americans right at the end.

Equal parts ambitious and poppy, Dirty Computer is one of the best pop records of recent years – a true must-listen for everyone.

 8/10

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Sting & Shaggy – 44/876

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Oh boy, where do I even begin? When I initially heard these two are making an album together I thought it was too ridiculous to be true. But it was. And the album is here. And it’s just as cheesy as you would expect. And sometimes it’s so goofy, it’s hard not to like it just a little bit.

Musically, it’s just what you would expect: poppy reggae, with all the sweet hooks and Jamaican vibes possible. Sometimes with a touch of Sting’s sophisti-pop style (Waiting For the Break of Day, Just One Lifetime), other times just plain sunshine-tingled pop (the corny lead single Don’t Make Me Wait). This album is quite literally the definition of “easy listening” – nothing very ambitious or grand – but that’s the point, isn’t it? Some moments are painfully sweet and cringy they reach the so-bad-it’s-good level (Dreaming in the U.S.A.) but overally it’s quite… solid. Like, nothing spectacular, but this album doesn’t try to pretend to be something it isn’t – and that’s quite rare these days.

It’s not a good album, by any means, but I have to admit, it did bring a smile on my face. What it lacks in musical quality, it makes up in warm mood and atmosphere. I don’t see myself returning back to this album ever again, but I’ll think of it with sympathy of some sort.

5/10

Manic Street Preachers – Resistance Is Futile

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I’m not gonna lie – Manic Street Preachers are among my favourite bands of all time. So naturally, this was one of my most heavily anticipated releases of the year. My hopes were high, because I really enjoyed the direction that they went in on 2014’s Futurology, so I expected an even more experimental turn on this one. Oh boy, I was so wrong.

When the band described the sound of this record as “widescreen melancholy” I started to be a bit worried. When you look back at the band’s discography you can clearly see a pattern – the “melancholic” ones usually tend to be worse than the more ferocious ones. Postcards From a Young Man, Rewind the Film and, unfortunately, Resistance Is Futile seem to prove that.

It looks like the band tried to replicate the sound of the 1996 classic Everything Must Go – with all its stadium-ready songs and orchestral arrangements. The problem is, while Everything Must Go was a triumphal and passionate comeback, on this new record the Manics are resigned and pessimistic, and it doesn’t quite work as well. Also, while lyrically the band is still miles ahead of everyone else, the songwritng sometimes fails. Take the repetitive opener People Give In for instance. Or the obligatory female singer feature (this time it’s The Anchoress) on Dylan & Caitlin – it pains me to say it, but Manics sound… banal here. And there’s also Vivian, which features probably the least imaginitvie chorus I’ve ever heard from these guys.

But we’re talking about a band with a certain class, so there’s quite a few good songs here to. My favourite has to be International Blue: great melodic single and brilliant lyrics referencing Yves Klein. The cold sound of this song reminds me of Futurology – and I would be glad if more songs on this record were like this. A Song for The Sadness would also fit on that album, and it’s another highlight here – coincidence? The passionate Distant Colours or In Eternity are also good, but sadly they’re nowhere near the band’s best work. Oh, they also mentioned that there would be songs that sound like Generation Terrorist, but apart from Broken Algorithms (which by the way is pretty good) I can’t really hear that.

In conclusion, it seems like it’s a similiar case as the other resigned and melancholic Manics’ record, Lifeblood – while not directly a bad album, it certainly ranks among the group’s most lackluster efforts.

6/10

Kali Uchis – Isolation

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This Colombian singer has been steadily building up the hype before releasing a debut album, and she managed to get my attention as well. And as it turns out, Isolation may be just the beginning of a truly marvellous career. Despite guest appearances from great musicians like Damon Albarn and Tyler, The Creator, the most interesting and captivating performances on the album belong to Kali Uchis.

The thing that impresses me most about this record is just how brilliantly self-aware it is. The sound, the hooks, the lyrics – it all merges into one mezmerizing experience, already putting the 23-year old Uchis among the best pop artists in modern music. And she’s well aware of how good she is – this record oozes confidence and class.

From the bossa nova-tingling beginning of Body Language, right until the sensual closer Killer the songwriting is absolutely excellent. Miami is the most infectious tune of the year, with a chorus to die for. And that’s just the beginning. The funky Just a Stranger is another gloriously catchy song (by the way, Steve Lacy is perfect in every single song he apperars on this year). After the rather forgettable Flight 22 Kali hits us with a brilliant three-song combo with Tyrant standing out as one of the album’s best tracks (great performance by Jorja Smith, too). Nuestro Planeta caught me a bit off guard – the sudden change to Spanish feels a bit out of place, and the song is not really that convincing.

The second half of the album is just as good as the first one, with the upbeat In My Dreams (oh hello Damon) and the dreamy Tomorrow being among the best tracks here. Overall, there are two or three tracks that I would rather not have here, but the core of the record is absolutely gorgeous.

In conclusion, it’s a must listen. Kali Uchis may be a up-and-coming young artist now, but I can bet that by this time next year, she’ll be a global superstar. Undisputed Debut of The Year.

8/10

 

The Voidz – Virtue

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It’s been clear for a while that Julian Casablancas’ artistic ambitions go well beyond just recreating Is This It over and over again for easy profit. He took major songwriting risks ever since First Impressions of Earth, and the following Strokes albums, as well as his solo record showcased his desire for experimentation, culminating with 2014’s Tyranny. The Voidz debut was a document of musical madness, with great tunes hidden behind abrasive sounds. While incredibly messy, Tyranny was a promise of an even better and crazier record. And here we are with Virtue.

While it’s certainly not as abrasive and more accesible than its predecessor, this record is still a hell of a ride. The band constantly switches styles, ranging from typical indie rock to futuristic Arabic prison jazz. I mean seriously, this album is all over the place: hard rock (but with a psychotic twist) in Pyramid of Bones, lo-fi folk in Think Before You Drink or noise rock in One of The Ones or Black Hole. Don’t forget the hypnotic Pink Ocean or the eerie closer Pointlessness. I could go on and on, but the point is that all these songs, no matter how chaotic they might seem, are carefully constructed and well put together. Absolutely no filler here, even though some songs clearly stick out as highlights: All Wordz Are Made Up, My Friend the Walls or Qyurryus.

Virtue may be more accesible than Tyranny was, but it still ain’t easy listening. In fact, it’s quite overwhelming (did it really had to be almost an hour long?), abrasive and overall unfriendly, it takes more than two or three listens to really get this album. That being said, it rewards the patient and adventurous listener, and is really one of the most unique things I’ve heard in a while.

8/10

The Vaccines – Combat Sports

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Remember when The Vaccines came bursting onto the stage back in 2011? While their debut album wasn’t the most ambitious project, it certainly could be described as fun – a collection of really catchy, really simple songs played with energy and charm. The problem is, that’s a formula that’s gonna run out pretty quickly, and the following Come of Age and English Graffiti seemed to confirm that, as both albums were pretty subpar and dissappointing. And sadly, it doesn’t change with Combat Sports.

The core of the album are still those short & simple indie rock/pop tracks that the band is well known for. The Vaccines rarely try anything new, and when they do, the results are not convincing (Maybe or Young American). But for the most part of the album, Justin Young and company still sound the same as they were in 2011. Sure, they have a certain rawness and energy that can be admirable, but energy doesn’t mean shit when you don’t have good songs, and that is the case with this record. The band struggles to write anything memorable, and when they finally do, the results are somewhat corny (Your Love Is My Favourite Band). I Can’t Quit is probably the closest they’ve come to a good song, but it’s catchy in an annoying kind of way.

It’s not the worst record I’ve ever heard, but before you pick it up, you’ll have to be aware that there are dozens of bands in London alone that to the same thing, but with better results. Combat Sports is basically 11 generic, average indie songs. But honestly, what did you expect from The Vaccines?

4/10