The Catch-Up – 2021 (Part 2)

Adele

30

Adele has long been one of the untouchable deities in pop music, her incredible voice, intense relatability and songwriting skills that have attached some of the most cathartic and beautiful songs about heartbreak to her name. While every one of her age-linked records has been a diaristic snapshot of years of her life, 30 is a concept altogether different. As a whole, it’s something made as a linear journey to follow, even though the journey itself is far from linear itself. This is a record about the ups and downs of divorce—coming to terms with what’s happened, the loneliness, the piecing what’s left of your family back together in the aftermath, the fleeting new loves, then the crashing back down again. Of course, emotional piano ballads are firmly Adele’s territory and that is the medium through which much of the story is told. These songs aren’t the most inviting of a relisten (especially the few that tip over the six minute mark) and in fact feel confined to the album for the most part, but if they do anything, it’s sell pure emotion. Voice recordings of Adele talking about her own struggles with her mental state during her divorce and, most intimately, clips of her talking to her nine-year-old son Angelo really add snippets of much-needed realism to this album; it would otherwise be easy to detach the difficult emotions discussed so frankly here from the glamorous, cackling starlet we see in interviews, but these bring it all crashing down to a crushing reality. My Little Love, which centres Angelo,is the best example of stark emotions against a lush background Adele has maybe ever put out, and certainly the most memorable of the ballads on here, which when separated from the narrative, can feel quite drawn out with no hooks. Naming the songs that stick on 30 are easy. Easy On Me’s enlongated vowel sound hooks give it a single status feel, as does Oh My God’s stomping pop production,which Adele suits down to the last thread. It also helps that she knows how to twist it, like in its pre-chorus, or like Cry Your Heart Out’s main hook, which is completely reinvented with added vocal manipulation on top of its almost reggae beat. Musically, there’s not much else to say, but lyrically and thematically 30 is a stunning accomplishment. • GJ

6/10

For fans of: Birdy, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell


Ed Sheeran

=

Ed Sheeran cemented the charts and pop radio as his territory long ago, and while both have again succumbed to his power on the album cycle for this year’s =, interest elsewhere has felt somewhat muted. It’s not surprising considering this is Sheeran’s most traditionally pop album to date. Singles Bad Habits and Shivers demonstrated this in full flow, though their more toned-down, less overblown pop vibes are a much better fit for the singer than Shape Of You, his first stratospheric leap away from loveable underdog folk singer which felt nothing like an Ed Sheeran song away from the fact that he was the one actually singing it. Compared to previous record ÷, for the most part = feels much more suited to what’s in Sheeran’s wheelhouse (for better or worse). He’s already proven that he’s a dab hand at a soaring pop anthem, Overpass Graffiti further securing that bag and integrating new bubbling synth layers to the verses and hooky post-chorus blares and Tides and Be Here Now taking that formula and making it stadium rock. His set genre branch-outs on this record aren’t always fruitful though, like the cringeworthy 2step, which is entirely without any of the flavour a song like this needs, no matter how quickly Sheeran sing-raps his words. All this said, this is still an Ed Sheeran record, and much of the tracklist is made up of emotional balladry. It makes sense that this is the singer’s most overtly tender record since his folk days; he’s a family man now, much of the record centering on the perspective having a child gives you and the love he has for his wife. But it’s odd that the two standouts of these more emotional songs aren’t about romantic love like previously in his career, but about death on Visiting Hours (the true ballad centrepiece) and Sandman, a slightly clunky but still cute lullaby for his baby daughter. While much of = isn’t something that will stick with lots of people (those who actually listen to the record having not already made up their mind about whether it’s for them or not), what’s done well is done well enough. Plus, another album regardless of its quality is more than enough to ensure Ed Sheeran’s name stays on people’s lips for another few years. • GJ

6/10

For fans of: Niall Horan, Shawn Mendes, James Arthur


Lorde

Solar Power

Lorde suddenly stepping back into the spotlight after a years-long social media and press hiatus was a welcome surprise to many fans, but her third record Solar Power was definitely not something people expected. Lorde’s trademark self-awareness takes a different form on this record – where on previous outings her own private feelings were shrouded in poetry and beautiful imagery, Solar Power centers on the singer addressing her own stardom head-on, a quarter life crisis and the changes happening to our planet. The lyrics on this album feel like they’ve come straight from her own stream of consciousness at times with little re-examining. For someone as eloquent and gifted as Lorde, that’s perhaps not a process as necessary as it is for other artists, but the concepts on Solar Power are ones with less wiggle room for linguistic creativity. She tries to push the innovation by apparently lacing the record with satire of wellness culture but it’s almost completely unnoticeable, and Mood Ring, the song where this concept takes centre-stage, doesn’t come off as a parody at all. The most disappointing part of this whole record, though, is the music. Lorde’s synth arsenal is swapped out for acoustic guitars and mostly completely horizontal sonic journeys that hardly build or provide any kind of satisfying story evolution. The guitar backgrounds are peaceful and pleasant-sounding, but Lorde’s delivery is usually more mournful to match her lyrics, causing quite the disconnect. Even aside from that, the problem with the instrumental side of Solar Power is simple – it just isn’t very interesting. Pleasant as the guitars are, they’re bland with not much else in the mix to latch onto, certainly not Lorde’s rambling vocals. The two most memorable tracks are the title track, which only hits its (repetitive) stride in minute two of three, and Mood Ring, whose sweetness and presence of an actual melody is tarnished by the hippy-dippy cosplay that makes it hard to sing along without cringing. Lorde may have exorcised some personal demons in the making of this record, but from a listener point of view, it’s a disappointing first misstep in her career. • GJ

4/10

For fans of: Natalie Imbruglia, Natasha Bedingfield, Jack Johnson


Andrew W.K.

God Is Partying

It remains fitting that Andrew W.K.’s catalogue still revolves around partying when his output tends to follow a pattern of having one you’ll vividly remember, and the rest that blur into an ill-defined mush flitting between vaguely enjoyable and practically indeterminable. Bear in mind that I Get Wet came out in 2001 too, and this is his fifth album since then, which feels more like hope overtaking reason that something as good might someday spawn, regardless of how unlikely in reality that might be. If nothing else then, God Is Partying is probably the closest Andrew W.K. has come to dropping a curveball, as a throwback to ‘80s hard rock and metal laced with his usual ironclad PMA. It’s little surprise that he effectively sounds like a different artist then, doing away with the caffeinated, throws-a-brick-at-his-own-face energy of old to erect a towering new persona more indebted to sweeping prog theatricality on Everybody Sins and Remember Your Oath. The self-indulgence and chronic bloat is hard to escape—particularly from a production standpoint in its streamrolling volume and lack of balance—but it’s hard to deny a certain carnal thrill that Andrew W.K. produces. It certainly feels more purposeful than the corner he’s only just escaped from, especially when the recognisable elements of Ghost or Muse kick in, paired with a genuine heaviness that hits the right notes between sounding vintage and agreeable in a modern setting. At the same time though, the bleeding overzealousness does hit a ceiling quite early on, and outside of a few stompers like Babalon and I’m In Heaven, there isn’t much in the way of a pace shake-up; even those examples are more marginal or stylistic. Still, an album like this is well above Andrew W.K.’s pay grade, and there’s clearly plenty of passion that’s gone into it for his most substantive album to date, even if the meat content within that still doesn’t quite cut it altogether. If nothing else though, it’s more engaging to behold than just another run-of-the-mill party. • LN

6/10

For fans of: Muse, Ghost, Meat Loaf


Kacey Musgraves

star-crossed

Kacey Musgraves’ fifth record was promised to be an epic. Dealing with the fallout of the end of her marriage (which was the centre of her uber-successful fourth album Golden Hour) and released with an accompanying film, star-crossed promised tragedy and drama of Shakespearian proportions. What we got, though, was not that. Many of the songs on star-crossed are quite low-key. The record chronicling the end of the marriage that quite literally won Musgraves Grammys obviously doesn’t call for out-and-out pop bangers, but the toned down nature of these songs are the root of why this record doesn’t hit the way it should. It can feel at times like the over-arching concept of doomed lovers is too heavy for the introspective way Musgraves tries to tell her story, particularly when she often deals with the mundane, the day-to-day in the breakdown of her relationship. She goes through her camera roll debating whether or not to hold onto the photos and painful memories attached to them, replays in her head the expectations of traditional wives and husbands and whether her marriage lived up to them, and vowing to keep her head up after signing the divorce papers. But while these everyday observations were enchanting on Golden Hour because of production, there don’t seem to be many decisions made musically to give these songs the weight they should have. good wife probably gets closest with the auto-tune on its reflective chorus, but a vast proportion of star-crossed pops. The pop treatment carries simple times and breadwinner, while Musgraves’ pretty vocals make cherry blossom and justified pop in the slow burn way that made Golden Hour so easy to love. Otherwise, this is a record of unremarkable mid-paced guitar songs separated by lowest hanging fruit metaphors, bookended by the title track and gracias a la vida, the only two songs that fit a concept that’s seemingly forgotten about otherwise. • GJ

5/10

For fans of: Little Big Town, LÉON, Olivia Rodrigo


Elton John

The Lockdown Sessions

A constant presence championing his favourite modern artists plus an international lockdown with all plans cancelled saw Elton John release The Lockdown Sessions this year, an album which sees him collaborate with friends from all over the pop sphere. John described himself as being more of a “session player” on this album rather than the star of the show, but his taste and talents are firmly at its core. There’s quite the range of artists on this record, but while the motivation behind it feels absolutely genuine and not seeking out hits, not much of what’s here lasts outside of the album it belongs to, when its overarching concept isn’t so obvious. Cases can be made in favour of or against UK number one single Cold Heart featuring PNAU and Dua Lipa – its combining of four Elton John hits could be seen as lazy or creative depending on one’s standards. It also doesn’t help that plenty of the best cuts have been heard before on other records, like the partnerships with today’s new breed of stars, (Lil Nas X’s One Of Me and Rina Sawayama’s Chosen Family) and the all-star band version of Nothing Else Matters for Metallica’s Blacklist. Lots of concoctions are pretty underwhelming, like the Disney-esque After All with Charlie Puth or the perfectly meh duets with Stevie Wonder and Stevie Nicks, but a handful are definitely out-and-out misses. Always Love You, which blends John’s standard piano balladry with the world of Young Thug and Nicki Minaj isn’t great, and neither is the ridiculous genre mashing of Beauty In The Bones featuring Jimmie Allen. Even though the vast majority of The Lockdown Sessions is throwaway, no one’s here and listening for the songwriting skills on offer. It’s the pure novelty factor and sugar rush that makes something like this thrive, and even if you don’t listen to a single song from this album ever again, there’s sure to be at least something to appreciate. • GJ

4/10

For fans of: Ed Sheeran’s Collaborations projects, Billy Joel, Wings


Becky Hill

Only Honest On The Weekend

It’s surreal that 2021 saw Becky Hill, arguably the only real, chart-bothering success story to come from The Voice UK, release her debut album almost a decade after her stint on the show. Hill’s breakthrough came from features on other DJs’ singles, her full-bodied husky vocal often rejuvenating the musical canvases she was placed upon and creating a solid fanbase that will pack out any live set she plays. While Hill can more than hold her own in the vocal department (which she’s proven time and time again over the years), the style of music she makes can be a hit or miss one. One amazing club banger can make moods do a complete 180° and leave you on a high for long afterwards, but an average one is just that, and a whole string of them in a row can be quite the slog to get through. The singer does enough vocal gymnastics on Last Time to create drama one can really engage with, and is helped along by the titular nonsense refrain on My Heart Goes (La Di Da) to drill it into your head, but they’re really the only two songs that are somewhat memorable even after multiple listens to the whole record. She does try different things, like on ballads Distance and Perfect People, and Business, a radio pop cut featuring Ella Eyre, but ultimately none of them live up to the highs of Hill’s most successful EDM singles, and none of them are creative enough in their arrangements to even try and pull focus. Surely no one would have criticised Becky Hill for continuing on as a singles artist – it was a career path that really worked for her. Only Honest On The Weekend just feels like an unnecessary project, a overdue bow to traditional music release schedules instead of what Becky Hill really wants to do. • GJ

4/10

For fans of: Sigala, Rudimental, RAYE


Powerwolf

Call Of The Wild

So…is there really much to say about a new Powerwolf album? If you’ve liked any of their operatic, symphonic power-metal about werewolves before, here’s an eighth helping of it; if not, you won’t be swayed even an inch. It’s the sort of power-metal you really need to build up a tolerance for too, sugary to the point of diabetes-inducing, and armed with Latin punctuations to truly exacerbate the air of supreme grandeur it’s going for. Though it’d be hard to say it’s not at least somewhat fun either, mostly because Powerwolf’s experience means they’re effectively in on their own joke and can vamp accordingly. They do feel comfortable in their particular lane but still can avoid complacency, as Attila Dorn is a strong metal vocalist and the compositions he has to work with—especially when the galloping picks up most on Faster Than The Flame and the title track—do sound reasonably exalted. The strings and operatic backing vocals definitely help as a means of sounding more expensive than some other power-metal, and generally distracting from the fact that Powerwolf are still comfortable with a fairly congruous genre skillset. They aren’t falling out of line with really any of their scene here, and beyond an increased sonic profile, Call Of The Wild is a rather stock example of what modern power-metal does, almost entirely. The big battles and invoking of mythology are about the same as they always were, and outside of Glaubenskraft being sung entirely in German, the album begins to set into its routine remarkably early. Sure, power-metal albums being one-note can be a given, but it’s more than a little disappointing when this is the case eight albums album, and Powerwolf do have the means of differentiating themselves from the pack more readily. Still, it’s hard to criticise a band doubling down on what they’re already good at, and for as underwhelming as Call Of The Wild might be in its greater genre space, it is a good example of modern power-metal having undeniable enormity. It’d just be nice if that could stop feeling so rote and actually explore its options more; it’s not like it can’t afford to. • LN

6/10

For fans of: Sabaton, Battle Beast, Beast In Black


Big Red Machine

How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?

While the debut Big Red Machine album felt more insular, its primary function to act as a secondary outlet for Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner,this year’s How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? widens that scope significantly, inviting a cast of characters from the band’s circle of friends and collaborators to add splashes of colour to an already strong foundation. Dessner’s warm piano playing provides an easy in to Big Red Machine’s songs, while Vernon’s singing always commands focus. Combining lush orchestral backing with drum machines, the odd warped synth and sprinkles of vocal manipulation, Vernon and Dessner have all the tools they need to make all of their recruited guests sound at home. Ben Howard and This Is The Kit fit right in on the calm yet still bubbling June’s A River, the cocktail of Vernon, Anaïs Mitchell and Fleet Foxes on Phoenix is stunning, Ilsey stands out on super pretty, pop-tinged acoustic duet Mimi, while Taylor Swift is given time to shine on both Birch (a gorgeous duet that centres Vernon) and Renegade (the most radio-friendly track this record has to offer), further expanding her folklore and evermore universe. Dessner himself gets his own solo moments, Brycie, his touching ode to his twin brother and National bandmate Bryce far and away the touching standout. There’s lots to respect on How Long…, even on the less attention-grabbing tracks – how wide the range of musical talent spans between Dessner and Vernon, the simmering musical landscapes that they create with that talent that feel out every note until they reach full bloom, and how they manage to host so many distinct other artists while still having their own sound. This is a wholesome showcase of everyone involved, and proof that magic can happen when Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon come together. • GJ

8/10

For fans of: The National, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes


Alessia Cara

In The Meantime

Long known as a pop star for the introverts, Alessia Cara has been a quiet dependable in the mainstream since her breakthrough in 2015. From then, she’s had the early twenties experiences most people can relate to, sharpening her writing skills all the way, culminating in third album In The Meantime. There’s an air of sophistication to this record, Cara’s observations and own personal take on the world better communicated than ever. The instrumentation on In The Meantime is immaculate also – plenty of songs dabble in different things, but everything feels inexplicably tied together whether it’s ska, funk or soul. The major complaint here is the pacing and tempo. In The Meantime follows the trend of introspection, both lyrically and sonically, in the pop world. Sure, the subject material of breakups and quarter life crises isn’t the chirpiest, but Cara demonstrates that she can crank up the energy surrounding such themes on the slinky Fishbowl and assured, handclapping Drama Queen or have some fun on these songs herself like on Middle Ground or Find My Boy, where she goes in depth on her conflicting and colliding emotions through a syrupy, hair-twirling persona. Lots of these songs, while interesting, are a little too low-key to really stick. There’s also the point of there being 18 songs on this album – it feels overly long but with the contradiction of there being no tracks that stand out as being obvious dead weight. In The Meantime showcases the neat little musical home Alessia Cara has worked to build for herself that’s uniquely her own, and even if it’s not entirely your style, there’s lots to respect. • GJ

7/10

For fans of: Julia Michaels, Niall Horan, Demi Lovato


Tones And I

Welcome To The Madhouse

Having a song as huge as Dance Monkey is a unique springboard for an almost-brand new artist to push a career from – the outcomes are to best yourself over and over again, or always live in the shadow of your inescapable worldwide smash. The undeniable oddity of such a song leaves Tones And I boasting underdog status (something she seems all too happy to take on), but her debut record Welcome To The Madhouse strips her sound of almost anything interesting, and certainly anything likeable. The focal point are her vocals, which are grating to say the least, and while they blended with the oddity of Dance Monkey’s instrumental, they stick out on …Madhouse’s more traditional pop songs like a knife in a fruit bowl. There are two types of songs on this record—piano-led emotional track, be it full on balladry or led by bouncy, cutesy chords, and cartoon-esque synthpop which sound completely overblown and grating. Some of choices for instrumentals on this record are baffling, be it the dancehall beat of Westside Lobby which is completely stripped of any dirt or edge or Won’t Sleep in general – it’s hard to listen to the opening seconds and feel anything other than pure disbelief with its bizarre melodic drums and warped vocals that manage to bend in every way under the sun in an incredibly short space of time. It’s a record that sounds inoffensive enough that it could be your 10-year-old’s favourite album, but it’s begging to be taken seriously the whole way through. Its lyrics celebrate Tones And I’s underdog status, which is where the record is more interesting, but its discussion of the singer’s depression, while of course valid feelings and probably cathartic for her, are incredibly surface level with their metaphors and concept. Is Welcome To The Madhouse as accurate a picture of Tones & I as you can get? Probably. But whether that’s a concept anyone wants to experience is another question entirely. • GJ

2/10

For fans of: Lucy Spraggan, Amy Shark, G Flip


ZillaKami

DOG BOY

Considering his band City Morgue are already spearheading the current wave of trap-metal (and also put out an album this year), having ZillaKami occupy the same space on his solo work doesn’t feel like an auspicious move. If anything, it exposes a real limitation at work, taking a sound with a propensity for shallowness already and not enhancing his presence within it. On the other hand though, entertaining that clearly isn’t too high on ZillaKami’s list of priorities, and embracing that is probably the way to get the most from DOG BOY. As uber-aggro fight music, the likes of CHAINS and Lemon Juice hit a profound sweet spot, where the grizzled guitar loops and trap beats elevate the ferocity that each element might not otherwise have on its own. Then there’s ZillaKami himself, stacking even more volatility on with bulldog barks and a grungy scowl that’s at least identifiable from most in his field. In fact, sidling into grunge does feel like a conscious decision here with a song like Hello, as the guitars ripple out and the cadence of Smells Like Teen Spirit creates some obvious bedrock, but stays noteworthy all the same. It does need to be said that there isn’t nearly the same X-factor there though; the lyrics might be a bit more personal but it brings the momentum grinding, and ultimately pulls the curtain back on how on-the-fly some of these compositions can be. Guest appearances from Denzel Curry and Lil Uzi Vert might imply otherwise, but the grotty cheapness of DOG BOY on the whole does stand pretty plainly, whether as a feature or a flaw. That’s definitely a subjective decision to make though, and it can indeed enhance the rugged, hard-bitten nature of the album in a pretty fitting way. For what trap-metal wants to offer, ZillaKami is definitely on the right paths, even if that can amount to little more than hype music that swings so wide it’s almost guaranteed not to miss. • LN

6/10

For fans of: Scarlxrd, City Morgue, nascar aloe


Self Esteem

Prioritise Pleasure

Rebecca Taylor shedding her indie image (as one half of Slow Club) in favour of her unabashedly, loud and proud pop alter ego Self Esteem is probably the best thing she could’ve done for not just fans of music, but her own mental health. Her second record Prioritise Pleasure only reaffirms this – it bursts with personality and confidence from one of the best narrators pop has to offer. Female rage is at the core of this record, hammered home by clips of women explaining the precautions they take to protect themselves from sexual assault, lyrical barbs’ points only amplified by the sass and self-assurance the instrumentation radiates. It’s easy to be distracted by how hypnotic and danceable many of these songs are, but they also feel like a piece of Taylor’s soul, particularly on How Can I Help You’sdescent into manic sarcasm or the spoken word parts of I Do This All The Time. While intimate and emotional, it has bops by the barrel load that are super intelligently crafted, Taylor completely unafraid to take an already fleshed out song and flip it on its head. The heavy drumbeat of Fucking Wizardry only amplifies the pure anthemia of its chorus, while the title track’s cavernous chorus (belted by what sounds like a thousand voices) is accompanied by an industrial din that doesn’t come close to drowning out the words said, before everything cuts out again for the second verse. There’s so much to appreciate on Prioritise Pleasure, and while lots of these songs probably aren’t dead certs for an everyday playlist, a full listen end to end is definitely a rewarding one. • GJ

8/10

For fans of: Caroline Polachek, Nadine Shah, Du Blonde


Maisie Peters

You Signed Up For This

The emerging class of Gen Z pop stars believe that the more emotional, the better, but as important as such a thing is, it’s missing a distinct Britishness. Enter Maisie Peters, whose debut album You Signed Up For This is scattered with glorious mentions of her secret crush “taking Rebecca to HMV”, telling friends “he’s fit, go for it” and discussing nonchalant interactions on a bus, probably one not dissimilar to the easily identifiable orange one on her album’s cover. Naysayers may quickly dismiss this record for its tendency to veer towards the easy, more formulaic option when it comes to the musical side (see: the chorus drop in John Hughes Movie), but that said, You Signed Up For This is a vessel for Peters herself. She’s clearly a product of her influences – the Taylor Swift untouchable talent to fit the most relatable parts of everyday life into lyrics, the Ed Sheeran ear for pop – but her unique voice and writing skills giving her a perspective that’s distinctly hers. Peters’ writing is the best thing about this record, her delivery full of character and likeability that tells every individual story in vivid technicolour. As a writer, she has a real knack for one-line zingers sung with a wink. It’s what makes I’m Trying (Not Friends) and Psycho highlights on this record, sassy takedowns of badly behaving exes anyone can relate to and find bundles of fun in. As a narrator, she’s unabashedly honest, unafraid to delve into the dramatic, passive-aggressive, often wrong side of her. She threatens to out her horrible ex to everyone she knows before admitting she’s a villain in her next breath, even her most confident moments laced with self-aware deprecation. That’s not to say her more emotional, less complicated side is nothing to shout about, though. Brooklyn is a real shining star of this record, centred around a trip stateside with her twin sister embedded in a gorgeous, tender pop landscape. You Signed Up For This is a fabulous showcase for an artist with so much to say already, and heaven help anyone who scorns her after this. • GJ

8/10

For fans of: Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, Gabrielle Aplin


Nessa Barrett

pretty poison

As if being a TikToker-turned-musician most closely linked to jxdn wasn’t throwing up those red flags already, Nessa Barret’s breakthrough track i hope ur miserable until ur dead was exactly what’s expected of someone with that profile in the worst way, where the wannabe-edgy alt-girl shtick was threadbare on impact and not even interesting enough to keep up with the market that Olivia Rodrigo has monopolised across the entire year. Credit to Barrett for playing directly to an audience then, but in the vein of shoddier, drastically less impressive Billie Eilish clones, pretty poison isn’t exactly breaking the door down in the same way that so many others have similarly failed. For one, Barrett is no sort of unique presence behind the microphone, all glassy-eyed and baby-voiced to convey a disaffection whose phoniness has only gotten more apparent. There’s also all the usual lyrical window-dressing to go with it, which is as try-hard as ever in attempting to feign some form of edgy, angsty transgression, where the moment of vulnerability on scare myself probably could be accidental. It’s all, of course, the glamourous, airbrushed ‘brokenness’ of a millionaire influencer, left as detail-free as possible to imprint on whoever crosses its field of view, which is really only remedied by its brief runtime. The sound is really nothing special either, as booming alt-pop forms a basis that’s only really deviated from in the occasional ‘darker’ synth motifs, and the more prominent guitars of i hope ur miserable until ur dead which actually ends up being the most memorable thing here. It’s just another one of these at the end of the day, as disposable as the people who create them will inevitably become, and only with the benefit of being more ignorable than the others because Travis Barker’s fingerprints aren’t coating it. What an upgrade… • LN

3/10

For fans of: Billie Eilish, Melanie Martinez, Bella Poarch


Kawala

Paradise Heights

Accompanying your longest release to date with a full-on comedy series on YouTube screams ambition, and everything surrounding Kawala’s Paradise Heights radiates wholesome laddish charm. They’ve made a mark with their likeable folk-pop since their inception in 2017, their debut mixtape from this year further pushes that sound and further expands their catalogue. There’s not much heft behind the core sound of Kawala or Paradise Heights and they appear to often follow their own folk-pop formula of layering sweet pop choruses over their cutesy folk guitar lines, a formula that becomes quickly noticeable and then repetitive towards the tail end of the record. The change in drum pattern and sprinkles of electric violin on Ticket To Ride make it easier to pick out of a lineup than the other tracks on Paradise Heights, though in the grand scheme of things that isn’t enough to separate it from other peers of Kawala’s. That said, the five-piece have a knack for making every song feel like it’s come straight out of a jam session – the bounce and energy to Chasing / Wasting Time in particular makes it oodles of fun. Giving Kawala more songs to their name honestly feels like the main objective of this release, but while Paradise Heights is a fine showcase of this version of Kawala, evolution is probably needed to take them and their career to the next level. • GJ

5/10

For fans of: Ed Sheeran, Kodaline, Saint Raymond


Bokassa

Molotov Rocktail

Let it be known that throwback-rock can be done well, if the artists making it just take the time to understand how to do it. Bokassa, for instance, clearly stand on building blocks of classic metal and hard rock, but they factor in their own flavour instead of just bloodless impersonations of old bands while trying to sound ‘dangerous’ and failing spectacularly. This actually does sound powerful and red-blooded, in no small part due to Bokassa’s stoner-rock side that beefs up an already impressive suite of riffs, and gives some of their sillier lyrical tendencies some firmer ground to stand on. That part’s to be expected on an album called Molotov Rocktail with albums like that, but it’s worth noting that at no point does this feel like a joke album. Even on the title track where the proud proclamation of “Fuck your band and fuck your attitude / You ain’t even heard Weezer’s Raditude” is impossible to miss, it’s played with a slyer humour than most will be willing to offer it. It certainly helps that frontman Jørn Kaarstad sounds like he’s gargling pebbles at most points, and the rumbling, coursing power that this music exudes feels weighty even despite how loose and fun Bokassa are clearly playing it. It makes it easier to ignore some shortcomings like how the drums can be a bit too flat and loud to exhibit the same momentum, or how, at its core, Molotov Rocktail is rather coated with an air of disposability, more than would be preferable. That’s not to say this isn’t a colossal vertical leap compared to the trad-rock dross it could be, but the edge to tip into real excellence isn’t quite there yet. It’s hard to properly qualify why either, but it’s also not something to worry about when Bokassa’s sights are clearly laser-focused on wringing out hard rock heroism in this entertaining a form. • LN

7/10

For fans of: Kvelertak, Red Fang, Spidergawd


King Woman

Celestial Blues

The elevator pitch of King Woman’s Celestial Blues—a doom-metal concept album based on Paradise Lost and the tempatation of Adam and Eve by Lucifer—is immediately a strong one. Doom-metal can easily convey crushing heft and biblical reverence in even its most base execution, so it’s really no surprise that Celestial Blues yields an expected result, but a good one. At their best, King Woman lean into their own enormity and suffocating presence, peaking on the smothering might of Entwined but never truly faltering at the same time. That’s ultimately the basis it operates on the most; this isn’t reinventing the wheel as much as keeping it supremely buffed and maintained to run as smoothly as possible, something that the slithering tempos and generally cavernous mixes will consistently attest to. Of course it’s heavy, largely anchored in how detailed the rhythm section is in layered bass and percussion, but the greatest weight comes from how looming and insidious it can all feel, as Kris Esferandi’s hollowed vocals capture the exact bleakness that comes from extrapolating such evocative source material. It’s undoubtedly a grower in how deliberate King Woman are throughout, something that strong doom-metal can easily handle with this being no exception. On the basis of intrigue and deep evocativeness alone, it’s definitely worth paying attention to. • LN

7/10

For fans of: Chelsea Wolfe, The Body, Anna von Hausswolff


Joy Crookes

Skin

It’s always the most interesting when an artist, especially a new artist, puts every inch of themselves into their music, and Joy Crookes’ debut album Skin is nothing but authentically her. Each song is a vignette of a feeling she’s felt or an issue she cares passionately about, stitched together with clippings from media and intimate family phone calls. Crookes’ rich, honeyed voice is what carries a lot of this record. It makes any more surface level listens to this album hypnotising, particularly on songs like Trouble or Wild Jasmine where the instrumentation is busy but never crowded, Crookes herself always the focal point. Lyrically, she’s considered and eloquent, painting as vivid a picture of the tower block in London she called home as a child as it does of female rage at gender inequality and sexual violence. Though always enjoyable, there are a handful of moments on Skin which are more by-the-numbers, like the title track and To Lose Someone, both ballads which, though emotional, don’t draw the ear as much. That said, there’s so much to enjoy and respect on Skin, and it’snot just a brilliant opening statement to the world of who Joy Crookes the artist is, but of who Joy Crookes the person is too. • GJ

7/10

For fans of: Amber Mark, Poppy Ajudha, Amy Winehouse


3OH!3

NEED

Rejoice 3OH!3 fans—we see you both—because they had a new album come out this year! Not that anyone would’ve realised, given that 3OH!3 couldn’t be less relevant if they tried, evidenced by the homage here to their singular known breakout WANT as presumably a means of goosing some morbid curiosity streams. To be fair, they’re at least playing a more up-to-date angle with fragments of the hyperpop scene they’ve somehow wormed their way into (culminating in the 100gecs collaboration LONELY MACHINES, easily the album highlight), but the general foetid stench of 3OH!3 hasn’t gone away. They’re still abysmally untalented as presences and songwriters, at best feeling more generic than anything on alt-pop cuts like I’M SO SAD and VAMPIRE DIET, and at worst, plummeting to whatever nadir would frame SKID MARKS and its lynchpin line of “Skid marks wash out” as a tender acoustic torch song. It’s not like 3OH!3 have never not been juvenile, but on NEED, there’s nothing that’s ever gained from it besides the sinking feeling that this is supposed to be an ‘artistic statement’. Beyond that though, it’s not like there’s much else to separate this from some usual TikTok jetsam; the rock pivots attempt for a bratty, Beastie Boys energy but never give the rammed-in power-chords any sort of oomph, and the general cheapness that belies the entire album honestly goes without saying. This has done nothing since it came out in August and that’s really no surprise, when the combination of an album this bad and the 3OH!3 name attached to it is more than enough to ward off anyone with, y’know, taste, or brains. • LN

3/10

For fans of: Metro Station, Cobra Starship, Breathe Carolina


Baby Queen

The Yearbook

As a concept, Baby Queen’s debut mixtape The Yearbook is pretty straightforward, but the prowess she already has when it comes to hitting all the right beats is nothing to be sniffed at. Sound-wise, there’s hardly any new ground trodden with these songs, but what’s done is done really well, invoking all the edgy euphoria of the synthpop boom of the mid-2010s. Arabella Latham knows how to make herself a compelling focal point, knowing when to be cutesy to match the vibe of American Dream, jumping into spoken word passages when the emotions call for it and speaking every lyric of every song from the heart they were written with. These are well crafted songs too, if a little too reminiscent of their influences. You Shaped Hole is a total earworm with a lazy danceability while Fake Believe is wonderfully bratty in Baby Queen’s own way, sticking a middle finger up to the most warped aspects of society. But it’s Dover Beach, a totally loveable burst of synthpop, that’s the crown jewel of The Yearbook. It nails the euphoric climax the best songs of its kind do with its chorus, but deceptively detailing a broken heart and coming to terms to life without a partner in its lyrics. Its Pt. 2 which immediately follows is probably unnecessary, but hints at a creative ambition that could make future Baby Queen projects very exciting. The Yearbook marks a solid start to Baby Queen’s career, and with an Olivia Rodrigo support slot in her diary for next year, she’s sure to be a name on many more lips in future. • GJ

7/10

For fans of: L Devine, Fletcher, Fickle Friends


Dana Dentata

pantychrist

If there’s a single, undeniable positive about Dana Dentata’s pantychrist, it’s that it serves as a very suitable modernisation of the rap-metal ethos. The swagger and bravado remains intact, now affixed with an approach that lives and dies on how edgy it is, and a performer who’ll try and facilitate that through a source of ‘creepiness’ that constitutes occasionally putting on a scary voice. Unsurprisingly, it pays off the most when Dentata’s visceral intent feels the most specific to her, dredging up the memories of being groomed and raped as a teenager and the dissociative disorder it brought about on Happy Family, and the lingering psychological effects that persist on Free. Compared to the pretty base horrorcore of I Know What You Did Last Summer or the empty closer Dstock ‘99 that’s a particularly inconsequential finale, it highlights just how inconsistent pantychrist’s approach is, possessing strong moments that separate Dentata from the rest of her ilk, but really only in patches. In truth, this is a far more workable attempt at bringing together the in-vogue hip-hop / nu-metal crossover, where there’s a bit more depth and vision that comes through readily. The quaking industrial guitars on the title track and the more malleable use of trap gloom and darkness on Spit and I.U.D are a lot more compelling than the usual bolting of the two halves together. Admittedly Dentata hasn’t quite refined her approach to factor in an album that’s consistently gripping; on average, it’s more so than others, but it’s a similar case to the content where there’s a clear gulf between more inspired pivots, and those that feel more perfunctory to the formula. It’s still rare that an album in this scene gets as close as pantychrist does though, and another fresh draft or two could make Dentata a truly formidable presence in the crossover field. Right now, there’s still a bit of work to do to get there.

6/10

For fans of: ZAND, Mimi Barks, Ashnikko


The Aubreys

Karaoke Alone

If there’s a thing Finn Wolfhard is known for outside of his role in Stranger Things, it’s his love of music. His love (and appearances in music videos) of bands like PUP and Weezer is well documented, and he’s shown his own musical prowess in projects of his own. Wolfhard and Malcolm Clark, his previous bandmate from the now-defunct Calpurnia, form The Aubreys, an indie duo whose method to making music is much more ‘chill’ than either have been used to before. Debut record Karaoke Alone was a collaborative process in the studio – with members of Twin Peaks boasting production duties and instrumental credits – and the organic nature of recording seeps through to the finished version. Every song has a clear cut knowledge of where it wants to go but is still being completely unafraid to take the scenic route and dissolve into whatever feels right on the journey. There are lots of fuzz-drenched moments, a descent into swirling madness on I Don’t Bite, but then low key summery bliss on the title track and a full injection of energy on Blue. Karaoke Alone is a perfectly serviceable debut for the kind of chilled indie The Aubreys want to make. There isn’t too much there in terms of real identity at the moment, but this record will be a good springboard for future releases. • GJ

6/10

For fans of: The Regrettes, Twin Peaks, Spendtime Palace


Gracie Abrams

This Is What It Feels Like

Confessional female pop singers are going through quite the renaissance at the moment, and despite not having her debut album out yet, Gracie Abrams has been a point of inspiration for plenty of them. Both fellow newbies like Olivia Rodrigo and old hands like Taylor Swift have cited the singer’s past works . On This Is What It Feels Like (referred to by Abrams as a 12-song ‘project’ rather than commit to it as her debut), the songs deal in small, contained soundscapes rather than the cavernous anthemia something like driver’s license keeps itself going on. Lots of these songs are instrumentally sparse and build beautifully to completely fill the space they’re in, particularly Rockland and Camden, two of the songs tellingly produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner. This is an introspective record through and through, Abrams tiptoeing through her innermost thoughts on her struggles with anxiety, which magnifies all of the doubts and overthinking that accompany relationships. It’s a gorgeous scrapbook of human emotion and a set of songs you can easily lose yourself in, be it just in the music or reflecting on your own thoughts too. The clear standout is The Bottom, its funky bass and more beefed up, straight pop production a great fit for Abrams’ voice, and a welcome change in the tracklist’s energy levels. That said, the starker, more vulnerable tracks (which make up a majority on this record) are where Abrams sounds most at home. Opener Feels Like is a great marriage of the two worlds. It’s a stunning song, one that feels though it could go either way emotionally until the chorus hits and that keeps you fully onboard until everything finally goes into full bloom in the bridge. …What It Feels Like is a solid taste of what Gracie Abrams can do on a full length album, surely a milestone she’ll reach sooner rather than later. • GJ

8/10

For fans of: Phoebe Bridgers, Olivia Rodrigo, Holly Humberstone


Kid Brunswick

XFOREVER

Given that Yungblud has basically irreparably tainted the idea of a young, thoroughly modern, genre-blending solo artist looking to make any kind of statement, Kid Brunswick comes into this mixtape with an inherent uphill climb to face. Then again, maybe those flaws are just built in; they certainly seem to be when XFOREVER exhibits pretty much the same over-reliance on style above literally everything else, and achieves practically nothing in return. At least Harry James doesn’t sound like he’s trying to physically wrench a pastiche of rawness from his voice at every turn, but the alternative of distanced, dejected e-boy angst is hardly an improvement. It makes the lyrical basicness feel that much more predictable, wallowing in the usual bleary touchstones of being high and depressed, which make the poppier pivots of When You Were Young and The Feel seem even more out of place. They’re easily among the mixtape’s most cohesive strides, which otherwise amounts to cramming together elements of hip-hop, pop and post-hardcore into an unformed mass, and coating them with bass as some sort of unifying form. There are moments when any sort of composition feels like an afterthought, if it was there at all, where James skirts across ideas and musical beats without properly crafting a song from them. Combined with the dreariness that informs the bulk of the listening experience, XFOREVER is a notable slog to get through and entirely fails to come together in a satisfactory way. This might be the newest form of punk to some, but at least in the traditional sense, there was the knowledge of how to keep things moving; this is more punk in the sense that anyone at a street level could make it, though whether they should is another matter entirely. • LN

4/10

For fans of: DE’WAYNE, phem, American Teeth


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

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