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Album reviews from The Guardian Music

  • Kanye West’s Sunday Service Choir: Jesus Is Born review – gospel venture tests the faith
    by Dean Van Nguyen on 27th December 2019 at 12:56 pm

    The newly devout Christian takes you into his house of prayer in an album with some languid highs, but, ultimately this is one for believers onlyAs 2 billion Christians the world over commemorated the birth of Jesus Christ on Wednesday, they might have missed a minor miracle – Kanye West met a deadline. Having spent the last few years botching album rollouts, cancelling projects and indulging in post-release alterations, West delivered on the planned Christmas Day release of Jesus Is Born, his second strongly Christian record of recent months and first to be credited to his Sunday Service Choir project. Jesus Is Born fully realises the ambitious Sunday Service shows the collective has been performing in churches and other venues for months now. Whatever fans make of West’s transformation into a paragon of religious devotion, they can’t accuse him of failing to put in the time.While Jesus Is King saw West absorb a heavy Christian influence into his singular hip-hop style, its follow-up trades solely in traditional gospel. Fans uninterested in his religious rebirth will find little to love here (most of the Sunday Service Choir’s vocals are a variant on this bar from More Than Anything: “I love you, Jesus / I worship and adore you / Just want to tell you / Lord, I love you more than anything.”) but the album certainly fulfils its prayerful remit. Though West’s fingerprints are harder to detect than ever before, Jesus Is Born is more full-bodied than its predecessor, which often felt like a collection of unfinished sketches. Sometimes it can sound less like a studio album than audio snatched from a publicly funded evangelical TV station, but the power of the choir is captured in these recordings and the live feel of the compositions place the listener in Kanye’s own house of prayer. Continue reading...

  • Home listening: from Judith Weir to an all-Russian Nutcracker
    by Fiona Maddocks on 22nd December 2019 at 5:30 am

    The Hebrides Ensemble and Ailish Tynan revel in Weir’s chamber works, while Vladimir Jurowski conducts a thrilling live Nutcracker in Moscow• Sing along with Once in Royal David’s City, or take your ears elsewhere. Judith Weir’s exquisite Airs from Another Planet: Chamber Music and Songs (Delphian), with the Hebrides Ensemble and soprano Ailish Tynan, goes extraterrestrial, which is surely far enough. The title piece, from 1986, is subtitled “Traditional music from outer space”, while the vivid, sensuous songs, Nuits d’Afrique (2015) – sharing the same scoring, of soprano, flute, cello and piano, as Ravel’s Chansons madécasses – take us to another continent. O Viridissima invites us back to the 12th century, and the music of Hildegard of Bingen, here reimagined for small instrumental ensemble. Weir, versatile in so many styles, has an exceptional gift for chamber music. The Hebrides Ensemble and Tynan are joyful and dedicated interpreters.• Never accuse this column of bah humbug. Let’s end the year with make-believe and magic, via one of the world’s most beloved ballet scores: Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. If you’re capable of resisting the great set pieces – the urgent build-up to the magic spell at the start, the delicate Waltz of the Snowflakes, the rippling harps, soaring cellos and throbbing brass of the climactic pas de deux, not to mention the show-off “divertimenti” and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – you must tell me how. I succumb from the opening notes. For the authentic Russian sound, at once warm and raw, turn to Vladimir Jurowski and the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia Evgeny Svetlanov. Their Nutcracker (Pentatone), recorded at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, certainly has the rough edges and whoops moments of a live performance. Yet there’s no one better at handling the storytelling and dramatic architecture than Jurowski. Energy, colour, fantasy, bravura win out in this festive masterpiece. Get on your dancing shoes. Continue reading...

  • Jaimie Branch: Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise review – a trumpet call to action
    by Ammar Kalia on 20th December 2019 at 11:30 am

    (International Anthem)The US trumpeter – and now vocalist – lets out a furious, chaotic shriek in response to Trump’s AmericaAt its peak, Jaimie Branch’s trumpet playing has the feeling of a prelingual shriek, a cry out into the distance that intuits no response. It’s a dark, deeply felt tone, which perfectly fits her second solo album, Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise. Continue reading...

  • Sault: 5 / 7 review – intriguing grooves from a mystery funk machine
    by Alexis Petridis on 20th December 2019 at 11:00 am

    (Forever Living Originals)No one seems to know who they are, but one thing is sure: Sault make hooky, dubby, funky music with echoes of ESG and CanMystery is a rare commodity in rock and pop these days. The internet has made investigative journalists of us all, and an artist who expends a lot of effort creating an enigmatic aura will almost invariably find themselves revealed online. So hats off to Sault, who managed to release two albums in 2019 – titled 5 and 7 – without anyone managing to conclusively solve the puzzle of who was behind them.It was not for want of trying. Some people suggested the involvement of a London-based musician called Dean Josiah, whose CV boasts co-writing and production credits for Michael Kiwanuka, the Saturdays and Little Simz – the last of whom raved about Sault on social media. Others have posited that British soul singer Cleo Sol and Chicago-based rapper and sometime Kanye West collaborator Kid Sister – both signed to Sault’s label, Forever Living Originals – are the vocalists. But no one has confirmed or denied anything. Continue reading...

  • Luthorist: Hueco Mundo review
    by Dean Van Nguyen on 20th December 2019 at 10:30 am

    (Nuxsense)Luthorist, of Dublin rap collective Nuxsense, released this blueprint of their philosophy in hypnotic, drowsy styleRap collective Nuxsense have spent the last couple of years making their name in the Dublin rap scene, dropping a rough mixtape and a handful of loosies along the way. Hueco Mundo, the debut solo project of group member Luthorist, offered the most complete blueprint of their philosophy. This is hushed trap cut with mellow trance; abstract sci-fi mixed with urban noir. There’s not a single stale element in producer Sivv’s late-night soul-noir, whether it’s spooky synth whooshes and music-box plinks (Wafer) or wavy keyboard riffs and muted drums (Saucer). Luthorist has a hypnotic rhyme style that may be chilled to the point of near-drowsiness, but it doesn’t stifle his ability to produce pleasing hooks. Hueco Mundo doesn’t just spotlight its leading man’s strengths, but sets a high bar for the crew he rolls with. Continue reading...

  • Joan Shelley: Like the River Loves the Sea review
    by Dave Simpson on 20th December 2019 at 10:00 am

    (No Quarter)Shelley’s fifth album was recorded in Iceland and her music seems more timeless, steely, sad and resolute than ever Over the course of four albums, Louisville, Kentucky singer-songwriter Joan Shelley has built up a considerable reputation as a purveyor of fine, heartfelt folk and country. Her fifth is a magnificent addition to the canon. Recorded in Iceland with regular collaborators Nathan Salsburg and James Elkington alongside Icelandic musicians (and Will Oldham on Coming Down for You and The Fading), the 12 songs chart the course of a relationship like the changing seasons. There’s a hint of classic Joni Mitchell to the 34-year-old’s simultaneously pure and world-weathered tones. Recorded close to the microphone, with banjos, guitar, piano, drums and occasional strings never overpowering the beautiful vocals, she sounds personal and intimate. “I’m coming down for you as you always knew I would,” she sings. “All your tender parts exposed.” At times, her poetic imagery is dazzling: the superb Teal sees “the fresh air and wind and waves” get set to “tear apart summer’s stuffy and stale rooms”. Continue reading...

  • Young Nudy & Pi'erre Bourne: Sli'merre review
    by Ben Beaumont-Thomas on 20th December 2019 at 9:30 am

    (Paradise East) With his crisp drum programming and weird and woozy synth lines, producer Bourne proves the ideal foil for Atlanta rapper NudyAt only 26, Pi’erre Bourne is already one of the most distinctive producers in modern rap. By making his drum programming extremely crisp and system-friendly, he gives himself the space to get weird with everything else, using seasick synths, water-damaged samples and instruments that sound like they’re filtering in on a light breeze from another session entirely. He has since distanced himself from 6ix9ine, but the ethereal, jaundiced beat he used for the disgraced rapper’s track Gummo was the perfect foil to the shouted lyrics; his extensive work with Playboi Carti is exceptional; and this year he made On God, the best track on Kanye West’s Jesus Is King, its tapestry of synth lines evoking a mind wrestling with earth and heaven at once. Continue reading...

  • Kalie Shorr: Open Book review – raw tales from a gifted country storyteller
    by Laura Snapes on 20th December 2019 at 9:00 am

    (Kalie Shorr)On her self-released debut, the future country star discusses some hard knocks with an abundance of empathy, humour and honestyThe country acts who break in the UK are usually the ones perceived as reformers, as if there is something automatically suspect about the genre’s heartland. But anyone beguiled by Kacey Musgraves and Sturgill Simpson’s musical expansiveness should be impressed by the raw emotional space that 25-year-old Kalie Shorr forced open with her debut album, sowing switchblades amid tough, pop-influenced country. The year before Shorr self-released Open Book, her sister died of a heroin overdose; she battled anorexia and an unfaithful, violent ex. She surveys the wreckage on hard-bitten opener Too Much to Say, warning listeners that they may find her candour uncomfortable. But Shorr’s empathy and humour makes the opposite true. Continue reading...

  • Classical CDs of the year | Andrew Clements's pick of 2019
    by Andrew Clements on 19th December 2019 at 3:00 pm

    Significant orchestral recordings were few, but Berlioz, Offenbach and Schumann were celebrated in style, solo artists impressed and smaller labels triumphedFor the major companies, perhaps, this year has provided the lull before the storm, a chance to take stock and raid the archives for the deluge of Beethoven releases and rereleases that is sure to come in 2020 to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Certainly the number of truly outstanding new recordings seemed lower than usual, and the proportion of those coming from what used to be thought of as the major labels was lower still.Opera seems to have been the most serious casualty of this reining back, and it’s hard to think of a single popular opera that received a worthwhile new recording during the year. Significant stage works, though, were still unearthed; Sardanapalo, the rediscovered single act that is all that exists of Liszt’s shot at composing a grand opera in the mould of Meyerbeer, was perhaps the most important, while Pascal Dusapin’s bleak, haunting Penthesilea from 2015 clearly deserves to be performed much more widely. Continue reading...

  • Burial: Tunes 2011 to 2019 review – a bleak, beautiful, brave compilation
    by Damien Morris on 15th December 2019 at 3:00 pm

    (Hyperdub)It’s strange to remember how much of the excitement around Burial’s emergence focused on the act’s anonymity. Like any serious underground scene, dubstep was hardly about fame-chasing faces in 2005. But Burial became its Banksy, a feted street artist who told poetic truths about the prosaic to the public. Evocative yet blunt song titles (In McDonalds, Night Bus, Homeless) introduced music that was easy to digest yet restless and difficult to define. Burial was the city after dark, sometimes comforting, often unsettling, studded with scraps of songs from passing cars or phones, industrial static mixed into ghostly, gorgeous melodies.Then, after a Mercury prize nomination in 2008 for Untrue and the unmasking of Will Bevan as Burial, there were no more Burial albums, just some remixes and singles, the latter collected here over a languorous two-and-a-half hours. Bevan has jettisoned the sleep paralysis pop of his early work for something even more dissociated and peripatetic. You might head for the vicious rave of Rival Dealer or Nightmarket’s sumptuous, pealing melody first, to swerve some long, austere, beatless passages, but this is a compilation of rare bravery and beauty. Continue reading...

  • Harry Styles: Fine Line review – confident, convincing and catchy
    by Gregory Robinson on 15th December 2019 at 1:00 pm

    (Erskine/Columbia)Back in 2017, Harry Styles’s self-titled debut solo album attempted to rebrand his image from teen heart-throb to 1970s rock star, although many would argue he still leans heavily towards the former. With the release of his follow-up Fine Line, his idols – Bowie, Queen, Pink Floyd – are less to the fore as Styles begins to find his own niche.He still sings the blues on breakup ballad Cherry, and gives us a taste of old school rock’n’roll on the jolly Canyon Moon and Treat People With Kindness. But the album’s most endearing moments are when he experiments. Sunflower, Vol 6 – perhaps the result of one of the magic mushroom trips he told Rolling Stone about – sounds like it was bathed in southern California sunshine. “Let me inside, I wanna get to know you,” he coos over a breezy ska rhythm. Continue reading...

  • Free Nationals: Free Nationals review – a smooth ride with Anderson .Paak’s band
    by Kitty Empire on 15th December 2019 at 9:00 am

    (Empire/OBE)Even in this era of guest spots and collaborations, it’s hard to think of another album that unites reggae singer Chronixx with Unknown Mortal Orchestra and the late Mac Miller. All crop up on this squelchy retro-funk outing by Free Nationals, otherwise known as Anderson .Paak’s backing band.There’s just the one guest spot from .Paak – a tune called Gidget, which references a fictional 1960s female surfer. And while this album’s rotating mic-spot keeps things moving like a playlist, the memorability of these tracks bobs up and down like the waves off the coast of Free Nationals’ native California. Continue reading...

  • Home listening: heavenly Haydn, and a good week for Farinelli
    by Nicholas Kenyon on 15th December 2019 at 5:30 am

    An exemplary recording of the Missa Cellensis; Ann Hallenberg channels the great castrato; and in praise of Opera on 3• I love Haydn’s masses. They speak of an unusual state of contentment between the artist and the Almighty: an early biographer of the composer said that the goodness of divine nature “inspired him with such confidence and joy that he could have written even a Miserere in tempo allegro”. The late mass settings have quasi-symphonic proportions, while the finest of the earlier masses (1782) is the huge Missa Cellensis “in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary”, also called the Mariazeller Mass. This receives a glorious new recording from the RIAS Kammerchor and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under Justin Doyle (Harmonia Mundi).From its hushed slow choral opening, through some buoyant fugues and angular chromaticisms, Haydn traces a spiritual journey with great exuberance – notably in the flamboyant roulades of the soprano arias, well dispatched by Johanna Winkel. The chamber choir of German broadcaster RIAS has kept up with the times and produces beautifully cool, clean-edged textures, which Doyle moulds with skill. Continue reading...

  • O’Higgins and Luft: Play Monk & Trane review – a bold take on two greats
    by Dave Gelly on 14th December 2019 at 4:00 pm

    (Ubuntu Music)This came out a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t let such a bold and deftly performed venture slip away unnoticed with the old year. It’s one thing to create bad imitations of Monk or Coltrane, and quite another to accept the fact that they are to be admired rather than imitated and come up with your own approach. This is what saxophonist Dave O’Higgins and guitarist Rob Luft have done, assisted by organist Scott Flanigan and drummer Rod Youngs.The opening number, Coltrane’s Naima, is a perfect example. The pensive, brooding quality of the original is replaced by a lighter mood, enlivened by a gentle Latin rhythm. The elegant melody loses none of its charm in the process. Monk’s quirky Locomotive sheds some of his characteristic doggedness, but none of its harmonic Monkishness. His Round Midnight comes as a single exposition of the melody. Some of the Coltrane pieces are not his compositions, although originally played by him. Not that it matters when they’re as good as the sparky Minor Mishap. The playing throughout is quite superb. They even sail through the fiendishly difficult theme of Monk’s Trinkle Tinkle. Continue reading...

  • Stormzy: Heavy Is the Head review – a hyper-confident return
    by Kitty Empire on 14th December 2019 at 2:00 pm

    This powerful follow-up to Gang Signs & Prayer is a grandstanding, soul-searching bid to crack the US – without losing that pugnacious south London voice“How’s the best spitter in grime so commercial?” wonders Stormzy on Wiley Flow, a standout track off his second studio album, Heavy Is the Head. It is a pointed rhetorical flourish from a man who mostly wears the mantle of street poet-king like a tracksuit made of fine silk.It was, arguably, only a matter of time before grime threw up its true crossover star. That the genre should have found one as analytical, mould-breaking and assured as Stormzy is a particular thrill. His second album continues seamlessly on from 2017’s landmark No 1 Gang Signs & Prayer. If anything, Heavy Is the Head grandstands harder, sings more sweetly and examines the rapper’s own conscience even more attentively than before. Related: ‘The spotlight can scare the shit out of me’: Stormzy speaks out Continue reading...

  • St Vincent/Nina Kraviz: Masseduction Rewired review
    by Aimee Cliff on 13th December 2019 at 10:30 am

    (Loma Vista)Russian producer Kraviz moves St Vincent’s 2017 album through a variety of gloomy musical lenses, from footwork to dubThroughout the 2010s, the album has become somewhat amorphous. Today’s artists are more prone to releasing multiple versions of their records, and many of the old rules about the format have gone out of the window. Continue reading...

  • Free Nationals: Free Nationals review – soulful vibes abound
    by Dave Simpson on 13th December 2019 at 10:00 am

    (Empire/OBE)The slinky, funky debut album by Anderson .Paak’s live band evokes gas-guzzling 70s cars with shag pile carpetsThe debut album by Anderson .Paak’s live band sounds like what it is: an album by his crack musicians made (mostly) without the singer-rapper. As with many of the grooves the LA quartet lay down, Kelsey Gonzalez (bass), Ron “Tnava” Avant (keyboard/vocoder), Callum Connor (drums) and José Rios (guitar) pay conscious homage to the giants of funk and soul – most notably Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield. The slinky harmonies are reminiscent of the Stylistics. There are funky drum beats, sci-fi synth noises, fat basslines and soulful melodies that all evoke gas-guzzling 70s cars with shag-pile carpets. Continue reading...

  • Daniel Lopatin: Uncut Gems Original Soundtrack review
    by Ben Beaumont-Thomas on 13th December 2019 at 9:30 am

    (Warp)Lopatin, AKA Oneohtrix Point Never, has created a soundtrack for the Safdie brothers’ latest that brings its whole roiling humanity brilliantly to lifeUncut Gems is one of the films of the year, cementing its directors, the Safdie brothers, as the masters of stressing you out by watching flawed people make even more flawed life decisions – here, Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a gambling-addicted jeweller who is in love not so much with the winning as the survivors’ adrenalin of not losing. After scoring their previous film, Robert Pattinson heist movie Good Time, Daniel Lopatin – AKA electronic producer Oneohtrix Point Never, now composing under his own name – once again writes the music. Continue reading...

  • Thirty Pounds of Bone & Philip Reeder: Still Every Year They Went review | Jude Rogers's folk album of the month
    by Jude Rogers on 13th December 2019 at 8:30 am

    (Armellodie)An evocative album of softly shined shanties and folk songs recorded on a working fishing boat, with added atmosphere supplied by the waves and gullsFolk music and field recordings have always been earthy, natural bedfellows; the sounds of real life or the land help to lash those old songs back to a universal present. Producer Philip Reeder and Thirty Pounds of Bone (AKA Shetland-born singer/multi-instrumentalist Johny Lamb) have taken this approach to its extreme on Still Every Year They Went, an album of fishing songs recorded in the belly of a boat while fishermen continued working around them. Continue reading...

  • Harry Styles: Fine Line review – idiosyncratic pop with heart and soul
    by Laura Snapes on 13th December 2019 at 7:00 am

    (Columbia)Harry Styles’ fanbase haven’t, like most, named themselves in his image, and it’s telling: Styles sometimes seems like the least important part of the package. He’s a blurry focal point, avoiding specific personal or political pronouncements. By vaguely standing for fluidity and tolerance, he creates a space for fantasy that perhaps he has realised is best left undisturbed. But to some, Styles’s aesthetic – whether the 70s California stylings of his self-titled debut or his conspicuously flamboyant attire – looked like window dressing on a blank shopfront.Fine Line rectifies that by putting Styles’s identity, at least in one domain, front and centre as he grapples with a breakup. Is he the heartbreaker or heartbroken? Is he, on To Be So Lonely, the victim or “arrogant son of a bitch who can’t admit when he’s sorry”? The line, “no one to blame but the drink and my wandering hands”, from Falling, has prompted tabloid headlines. Continue reading...

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