A soundtrack to our urban lives

Although The National’s last album was a great slab of melancholic indie rock, I was still not prepared for the sheer audacity of their latest album, Boxer (Just Music). To put it simply, everyone else is going to have to work bloody hard to beat this album in 2007. It is that addictive.

Musically, Boxer is a fuller, better-produced album, whereas 2005’s Alligator was muddy (don’t get me wrong; that was part of its charm). Their new offering sounds like a soundtrack to the remoteness of our urban lives, and lead singer Matt Berninger is singing his tales of woe from the rooftops.

Berninger’s deep, distinctive baritone sounds more and more like a blend of Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, while the band have a slicker sound that resembles Interpol. However, while Interpol’s vocalist Paul Banks takes that Brooklyn-based outfit towards the otherworldly sound of Joy Division, Berninger’s vocal performances are very much of this earth. The National have taken their game to the next level and Boxer is an out-and out-classic.


Modest Mouse

We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (Sony/BMG)

Who would have thought? The Smith’s Johnny Marr in Modest Mouse? It all seemed so strange, but now the resultant album is here and it’s killer. It starts like an old, scratched record of some French one-man band, but it doesn’t take long to hit its stride. Opener March into the Sea sees Isaac Brock dicing between Frank Black savagery and orchestrated lullaby sweetness, while the first single, Dashboard, is a perfect example of why this leftfield indie band have found so much success in the world of mainstream American radio: there is just no denying them.

Modest Mouse effortlessly blend pop hooks with original songwriting and wild circus-music instrumentation to create tunes that sit somewhere between the Talking Heads and The Pixies. Although their new album is not vastly different from their breakthrough album, Good News for People Who Like Bad News, Marr’s influence can be heard all over the album; it is, quite literally, littered with tight, jangly guitar riffs. The moody, rambling gothic folk song Parting the Sensory is a delight, but the album highlight has to be Missed the Boat. It’s Crowded House-styled chorus is sure to make it a summer-holiday anthem come the end of the year. — Lloyd Gedye

Lucinda Williams

West (Universal)

Lucinda Williams has all but established herself at the top of the country roost. Since her landmark album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, she has delivered albums of the highest quality, earning respect from her peers and kudos from the critics. West sees Williams return with a batch of songs dealing with her escape from an abusive relationship and the death of her mother. The delightful soulful groove of Mama You Sweet sees Williams dealing with grief in the most beautiful way, while the haunting country tune Fancy Funeral is a working-class take on a death in the family.

Williams’s voice is developing into one of the best in the business, sweet and soulful one minute and angry and raw the next. Unsuffer Me is definitely an example of the latter, with Williams channelling a bit of the gruff Tom Waits into one of the dark rock songs to make the album. The achingly beautiful Learning How to Live is a delicate piano-driven song for all the heartbroken making their way in the world. However, the real gem is Wrap My Head Around That, a nine-minute whirlwind of emotion that’s not dissimilar from Marianne Faithfull’s Why D’ya Do It, an angry stab at an ex-lover. West may not be a career high point for Williams, but it is a deeply emotional rollercoaster, if you’re game for the ride. — Lloyd Gedye

Back to Black

Amy Winehouse (Universal)

Who hasn’t heard of Amy Winehouse by now? Even if you haven’t yet heard the radio-friendly single Rehab from her latest album Back to Black, you’ve probably recognised her beehive hairdo and read about her alcohol-induced antics in the gossip pages of the Sunday Times. There’s much more, however, to the talented diva from north London than just a retro-hip image, regular tabloid appearances and an undeniably catchy tune.

Winehouse wrote or co-wrote all the songs on her second album, and they are confrontational, witty, seductive, funky, passionate and searingly honest. With its stabbing brass and grooving bass, the sound of Back to Black has been likened to that of Motown and Winehouse’s soulful voice to that of Diana Ross, but Ross never delivered lyrics like “He left no time to regret/ Kept his dick wet …” from the brilliant title track. Back to Black is the album that Christina Aguilera and Joss Stone wish they had made. — Asha Pond

In the Streets to Africa

Richie Spice (VP Records)

It means nothing that Richie Spice is the younger brother of Pliers (of Chaka Demus and Pliers fame). The two stand on opposite spectrums of reggae music. One is a washed-up dancehall playboy and the other is a haunting roots singer, holding steadfast to his songs of freedom.

Richie, who has been singing professionally for the past 10 or so years, belatedly tasted success in 2004 when his apocalyptic plea for calm in Jamaica, Earth a Run Red, was picked up by 5th Element Records and marketed. It climbed up the charts, despite being five years old by then. Richie followed the song’s momentum with a compelling second album that dropped at the height of the roots reggae revival, and continued with non-stop hit singles since. Some of these, like Youth Dem Cold and Brownskin, have been included in this collection, which by far surpasses any of his previous albums in terms of maturity and consistency. His pained falsetto is calmer, suggesting a man more comfortable in his oddball persona, but his razor-sharp pen is still a one-way ticket to Kingston gullies peopled by string-vested ganja dealers and Bible-quoting gunmen. — Kwanele Sosibo

Favourite Worst Nightmare

Arctic Monkeys (Domino Records)

Arctic Monkeys are hot stuff. They became one of the rock outfits of the decade with their previous album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. The hype spilled over to their newest offering with more than 225 000 copies sold in its debut week in April. So are the Arctic Monkeys worth the plug they are receiving? While it is difficult to live up to any hype, the Monkeys’ new album is definitely up there with their first. It is hard and it is fast, and it blows you away. Yorkshire accent king Alex Turner sings about social realism and the Monkeys perceive working-class life, very much like the former album, yet they succeed in taking their sound forward. The only question is how long they will be able to live up to the demands of the media circus that surrounds their astronomic success. — Yolandi Groenewald

Viva Voce

Get Yr Blood Sucked Out (Sheer)

This album is what I like to call a slow burner. On first listen it pricks your interest; on the second listen you realise that is actually is really good; and a month later you realise that it hasn’t left your car stereo and you beginning to wonder if you’ll ever listen to anything else ever again. Viva Voce are a husband-and-wife duo from Alabama who now reside in Portland, Oregon. Get Yr Blood Sucked Out is their fourth full-length album and although I haven’t heard any of their earlier work, I fail to believe it could be better than this; it would be a violation of some scientific principle, of that I am sure.

Get Yr Blood Sucked Out is littered with great melodies, nasty distorted guitar, propellant drums and handclaps; together these create one of my favourite musical moments this year. It reminds me of late-Eighties indie favourites such as The Breeders and Throwing Muses, while at the same time I can’t help thinking of Veruca Salt of Seether fame. Album highlights include the beautiful When Planets Collide and the Mercury Rev-esque We Do Not Fuck Around. However, my favourite moment has to be the mammoth jam titled So Many Miles, a swirling psychedelic workout with killer classic rock riffs and manic percussion. As a legendary Australian seventies rock band once said: “For those about to rock, we salute you!” — Lloyd Gedye

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