It looks as though the string of quality releases in 2019 wasn’t just a fluke for January, as, while not quite as strong on the whole, February has still produced some truly great releases that still have that staying power that so much of this year has been blessed with so far. Sure, the dip has been noticeable in spots (particularly in the case of a certain album that’s pretty much a shoo-in the worst of 2019 come December), but this year has remained on a pretty even keel that only looks set to continue. Before that though, here’s what’s been on The Soundboard Stereo in February…

Ariana Grande – thank u, next

It’s always a shame when a solid artist releases a new record prematurely; more often than not with such releases it feels like a little more time in the oven would have made for the up-to-standard project advertised. Ariana Grande bucked that trend this month though, shoving two fingers up at label bigwigs and typical pop album cycle lengths to release a genuinely fleshed out album. That said, thank u, next is a more introspective release in every way. Lyrically the subject matter seems to shrink to being solely about Grande and her well-documented troubles (fake smile, in my head, ghostin), plus the more ambitious production on previous record sweetener has been swapped for a more toned-down, modern trap/hip-hop inspired take. While in that sense there is less to talk about than with Grande’s previous albums (and it has to be said that the production on sweetener makes it a superior record to this one), the fact that there is something to like about every song here (however long it takes to come to fruition) speaks volumes. Everything to her trademark vocal gymnastics on imagine to the pop catchiness of NASA or bloodline or newfound flow on 7 rings feels both fully realised and filled with potential as to where Ariana could go next, perhaps even in a period of time as short as a few months. • GJ

Choice picks: NASA, fake smile, 7 rings

Waterparks – Cluster

It seems like an age since Waterparks were just another pop-rock band looking to break it big, but even with two albums under their belts and a presence that’s uncontrollably ballooned with no signs of slowing down (for better or worse), Cluster still has a lot to offer, even as as short EP that would ultimately serve as a prelude for much bigger, bolder things. For one, the fact that the tongue-twisted Pink was never pushed harder is a shockingly poor effort (it’s still at least in Waterpark’s top five best songs to date, for the record), but Crave and Mad All The Time served as the fizzy pop-rock hits that gave this band a real push, and made Cluster as an EP resonate as much as it did, particularly as a breakout release. Beyond that, all the hallmarks that Waterparks would go on to display are pretty much here; the electronics are tart but never too grating; the knack for an unshakable melody was already laid in some impressively deep foundations; and Austen Knight showed the seeds of the inimitable presence that few could’ve predicted would end up quite as obnoxious as it did. So okay, not everything that Cluster did was great, but in paving the way for one of the most divisive bands in modern pop-rock, and delivering a handful of solid songs in the process, it did a good job. • LN

Choice picks: Pink, Crave, Mad All The Time

Snow Patrol – Eyes Open

While peers like Coldplay and Keane often get flack for being boring, safe dad-indie bands, Snow Patrol, though they’ve crossed the border into such territory on their last couple of albums, have been relatively unscathed in terms of the public’s perception of them. Eyes Open, the band’s biggest success story, remains the perfect showcase of the Glasgow quintet’s ability to balance tracks holding more emotional weight and those with more musical crunch wonderfully across a tracklisting. The songs on this album positively soar, whether they’re slow-building like Open Your Eyes or the ever-stunning Chasing Cars, or a more rock-led track like rose-tinted opener You’re All I Have. Gary Lightbody is a consistently underrated frontman too, with his soft, slightly accented vocals juxtaposing beautifully with the emotionally-heavy, sometimes even dark lyrics he writes and sings (see Headlights On Dark Roads). Combined with the guitar-led base instrumentation and the more novel surprises – such as the beautiful melancholy music box lead motif on You Could Be Happy – it’s a wonderful package; even if it’s not the most unique thing in the world, it’s an example of such a thing being done to the highest standard. There are no out-of-this-world guitar solos on here – let’s remember the genre we’re talking about – but Eyes Open still holds up as one of the standout British mainstream rock records of the 2000s. • GJ

Choice picks: You’re All I Have, Chasing Cars, It’s Beginning To Get To Me

Heaven’s Basement – Filthy Empire

Although disappointing, it’s not really surprising that people don’t often bring up in conversation, or even remember Heaven’s Basement. They were around at the boom of Britrock during the first half of the 2010s, plying a brand of hard rock that could easily be seen as a deviation from the norm, if only through a slightly heavier, slightly more energetic sound, and while all of that is hard to deny, the simple benefit of good, effective songs has allowed Filthy Empire to hold up. As far as musicianship or production goes, it’s about as far from masterful as you’re likely to get in a very by-the-book hard rock mould, but the drive in Fire, Fire and Executioner’s Day or the size of both the guitar work and Aaron Buchanan’s oversized vocals on Nothing Left To Lose and Lights Out In London manage to thrive on a pure notion of uncomplicated enjoyment. Through and through, it’s all incredibly basic and upon revisits, might have been slightly overpraised when it was first released (especially taking into account how devoid of life the hard rock and retro rock scenes would become), but there’s a good amount of fun that can still be had with this one, even if those moments can be rather fleeting. • LN

Choice picks: Lights Out In London, Nothing Left To Lose, The Price We Pray

3OH!3 – Streets Of Gold

The powerpop scene so inexplicably tied to the late 2000s Warped Tour crowd will always remain one of the most dumbfounding things in rock music. Despite minimal shared musical characteristics with All Time Low and the like, 3OH!3 found themselves filling plenty of support slots for such bands, along with Top 10 chart positions around the world and more recently, being elevated to meme status in terms of more mainstream achievements. But with one playback of Streets Of Gold, the duo’s first record as a well-known chart act, it’s extremely difficult to find more than a scrap of likability. Fans would probably counter such criticisms with arguments of character, fun and humour, but there’s nothing but odious frat boy mentality behind lyrics detailing getting wasted and sleazy behaviour towards women. To their credit, they definitely have an ear for a hook – the chorus of single My First Kiss is absolutely inescapable despite the insufferable rapped verses, but the rudimentary song skeletons with the bare minimum of gaudy synth lines sprinkled over them are lazy as hell. But the what does provide some kind of solace is the audible arrogance in Nat Motte and Sean Foreman’s vocal deliveries – presenting such shoddy musicianship and terrible philosophies with this much confidence puts 3OH!3 themselves firmly as the butt of the joke, something they undoubtedly still don’t know that they are. • GJ

Choice picks: another album.

Liz Brasher – Painted Image

The fact that Liz Brasher isn’t so much bigger than she should be is a crying shame. Soul is already a genre crying out for an interesting new voice and presence to lead it, and taking equally-as-strong cues from gospel, blues and straight-up southern swagger, Painted Image is already one of 2019’s most underrated releases. A big part of that is Brasher herself with the sort of smoky, enigmatic vocals that really play well to the bare, exposed production that mightn’t be flashy to any degree, but creates such an inviting sense of expanse, and leaves plenty of room for the horns and firm, slightly frayed basslines to really sit and simmer. It’s an incredibly atmospheric album, relying on that sense of groove to propel tracks like Hand To The Plow, or giving the temperate balladry of Air its sense of swell and smolder. The fact that that’s the primary basis for this entire album means that it’s all rather simple and languid, but that’s ultimately the point, and with Brasher being as powerful and charismatic as she is, it’s still an electrifying listen through and through. • LN

Choice picks: Air, Hand To The Plow, Blood Of The Lamb

Words by Luke Nuttall (LN) and Georgia Jackson (GJ)

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