Fleet Foxes – ‘Crack-Up’ (Nonesuch)

What it is: When FLEET FOXES ended their world tour in support of 2011’s Helplessness Blues, they left the spotlight with a range of folk-rockers taking their place. Acts like MUMFORD AND SONS, THE LUMINEERS or OF MONSTERS AND MEN carried the genre into the mainstream, none of them managing to fill the creative void FLEET FOXES had left beyond the polyphonic chants and ambitious guitar strumming. Others, like singer-songwriters BON IVER and BEN HOWARD, started moving away from the ‘sad bearded man with acoustic guitar’ template. Robin Pecknold, in the meantime, enrolled at Columbia University, used the hiatus to seek out new intellectual impulses and engaged in a whole lot of soul-searching. FLEET FOXES’s new record Crack-Up might appear quite similar to their previous two albums, but repeated listens expose the dark undertones that surround the album.

Why to listen to it: Crack-Up starts with Robin Pecknold mumbling to himself ‘I am all that I need’, in his deepest voice. A minute later, amidst a sudden eruption of sound, he resumes ‘So it’s true, I’ve gone too far to find you’, as if he was both aware of and unwilling to acknowledge his predicament, looking for love in others while clinging to a sense of self-sufficiency. Threads of complex interpersonal relationships lead through the entire record, and just as fractured is the music that accompanies it. Crack-Up pulls off the contradiction of sounding both pastoral and grandiose, intimate and epic, with the music taking unexpected turns as Pecknold passes through different viewpoints and perspectives, underlined by lengthy song titles. When his vocal delivery changes from solemn to introspective, as in first single Third of May / Ōdaigahara, he indicates different stages in his deep, but troubled friendship to fellow band member Skyler Skjelset. The only unabashedly triumphant track in sound, it echoes the more carefree atmosphere of their last two albums, until the last third again delves deep into introspection, for the first time featuring electronic elements on a FLEET FOXES album. The greatest testament to their grace in composition and lyricism, however, lies in the way they comment contemporary politics in songs like Cassius, – or If You Need to, Keep Time on Me: Where other bands write full-blown protest songs, Pecknold makes do with a mere stanza: ‘A frightened fool stokes heedless fire.’ (Igor Franjic)

Lorde – ‘Melodrama’ (Republic Records)

What it is: To say the stakes are high would be the shameless underestimation when it comes to the anticipated second full-length by New Zealand pop sensation LORDE. Far too much has happened in the past four years since the release of her debut Pure Heroine. Critical praise, a global fan base, the sign of approval by the late great DAVID BOWIE and the unexpected position of being a role model to an entire generation of teenagers. People tend to forget that LORDE is still only 20 years young but thank god she hasn’t. Melodrama might be less subtle than its predecessor but the young lady continues to be a source of profound pop while remaining deeply connected to her own age group and its heavy relatable problems. The result is a reflective but also euphoric pop diamond.

Why to listen to it: If you are a bit older like me it takes a few moments to rehash that time around 20 when pretty much everything that happened could have an existential impact on your life. Every heartbreak was basically a death, every song an anthem and every small house party the centre of the universe; at least for a brief moment. Melodrama is nothing else than the story of a drunken party night which sets LORDE as the protagonist in a chaotic cycle of love, jealousy, alcoholic euphoria and delicate depression. Yes, these are the essential themes of your adolescent life and it’s as entertaining as it is insightful to follow the artist on that journey. She fights the feeling about her ex lover on the dancefloor in the outstanding opener Green Light, reflects on her own flaws in the melancholic Liability before turning into a KATE BUSH-like maniac on Writer In The Dark. Beside all the melodrama, the young lady remains quite capable of reflection. She states ‘We’re fucking with our lovers’ heads’ in the second part of Hard Feelings/ Loveless, admitting how difficult real emotions can be for her generation. Euphoria and despair are close companions on LORDE‘s journey through the night as she rides on tender ballads and pumping dance beats. The pop of Melodrama allows itself some lovely twists and turns and once again adds a nice edgy note to the concept of 2017 mainstream pop. Perfect Places ends the record with a mixture of hope but also cynical desperation as she sings ‘All of our heroes fading/ Now I can’t stand to be alone.’ LORDE captures the lack of perspective and the massive amount of confusion of her generation in these troubled times. But, well, weren’t we all a bit confused in our early twenties? Everything will eventually turn out to be okay but without the long and winding road towards that point and all the stupid drunk text messages and ridiculous behaviour of those years life itself would be way more boring, right? Thank you for reminding me about that, young lady. (Norman Fleischer)

Portugal. The Man – ‘Woodstock’ (Warner)

What it is: For a rock band hailing from a small Alaskan town, PORTUGAL. THE MAN put out a mind-boggling number of records in their first years together. Every year brought a new album starting in 2006 and running until their break after Evil Friends in 2013. They’ve been working since then, making enough content to match their album per year record, but they found their potential releases were quickly becoming irrelevant while they aimed to put a full length together. In the final album version that became Woodstock, PORTUGAL. THE MAN set a beginning and end point to it, after having scrapped their other versions at the start of last summer. It’s most certainly poppier than anything they’ve put out; the central upbeat tracks from Easy Tiger through to Keep On are sure to be upcoming festival anthems. As the album wraps up, the artists shift back to what they’re gained attention for on their past records, but that’s not before they show a bit more versatility than usual.

Why to listen to it: The band worked alongside Mike D (of the BEASTIE BOYS) and Danger Mouse in getting this album together, and even spent a chunk of time recording it in Rick Ruben’s studio. They all gave their nod of approval to the final version, deeming it far better than the scrapped trials. With Woodstock, PORTUGAL. THE MAN uses pop as a mouthpiece for their frustration. They flawlessly showcase lyrically heavy tracks, masked under a driving, upbeat tempo. Their teaser track, Feel It Still, for example, hits on inequality and social justice but is made more digestible by a funky beat. With their initial release of the track, the band put out an interactive video that pushes their fans to actually do something, to get involved and participate in change rather than sticking in an all too familiar state of apathy. The album strays away from their standard style, digging mostly into pop, but also bringing a solid dose of hip-hop into the mix and they manage to effortlessly sway between them all. (Sasha Chebil)

Beth Ditto – ‘Fake Sugar’ (Virgin Records)

What it is: After a successful career with GOSSIP which paved her way into the mainstream, a solo EP, a clothing line and a memoir, there doesn’t seem to be much left unknown about BETH DITTO. But her debut solo album proves the opposite as it reveals her highly diverse musical roots and preferences and it’s not just the bluesy sound you encounter on first single Fire. Additionally, DITTO processes several personal experiences which are more often than not connected to Arkansas, where she was born and raised. Therefore, her ‘Southern record’ sounds like a musical memoir.

Why to listen to it: Fake Sugar doesn’t leave the typical dance punk sound of GOSSIP behind and here and there the fine electro pop of her self-named EP shines through as well, but this record’s journey goes a lot further. It takes the listener through the highs and lows of relationships, love and adulthood with the music supporting this roller coaster-like feeling. And whatever part of the ride you’re on, DITTO’s positive energy gets you through. In And Out continues the retro vibe of Fire by bringing to mind the doo-wop girl group sound of the ‘50s. The reflective chill pop title track reduces the speed before it’s taken up again by French-infused disco stomps Savoir Faire and Oh La La; the in between We Could Run is one of several appearances of anthemic bombast pop à la U2. Go Baby Go pays tribute to late ALAN VEGA of New York punk band SUICIDE and a very different but not unexpected ‘70s reference is presented on Oh My God, a song about falling in love with someone at first sight: It reminds of ABBA. Fake Sugar ignores norms and genres like DITTO does herself, one of the few constants being her strong and soulful voice. Her punky I do what I want-attitude together with her humility and straight-out honesty has surely made her so likeable over the years and it’s good to know that her equally inspiring and upsetting force is still there, especially in times like these. (Jessi Schmitte)

The Drums – ‘Abysmal Thoughts’ (ANTI Records)

What it is: Jonathan Pierce’s first very own record. THE DRUMS‘ fourth full-length was only made by himself, without the help of any other band members. It was just him sitting down with his guitar, a sythesizer, a bass and a microphone. Like he told us in our recent interview, it has been the first time for him that he could totally express himself – and talk about personal subjects like being gay, sex or personal memories on childhood. What emerged is Abysmal Thoughts: a honest record that connects positive vibes with thoughtful lyrics.

Why to listen to it: There is this special characteristic you can find on every DRUMS record: the combination of uplifting surf pop beats and profound texts. Abysmal Thoughts deals with the issues of loneliness and sadness but also the turning point after depressing times, when you try to find yourself again: ‘I look in the mirror when the sun goes down/ I ask myself who are you now’ (Mirror). It is darker and more abysmal than THE DRUMS former records, but still danceable, poppy and catchy. Jonny Pierce prooves with this LP that he’s a great artist who doesn’t need anyone else to make beautiful and honest art. It seems like the indie pop boy from earlier has finally found himself and grown up to be an authentic musician. (Miriam Wallbaum)

Lea Porcelain – ‘Hymns To The Night’ (Lea Porcelain Recordings)

What it is: The eagerly awaited debut full-length of the German/English duo Julien Bracht and Markus Nikolaus. They met in Frankfurt, lived and worked in London and now present the synthesis in form of their Berlin-record. Hymns To The Night has to be listened to against the backdrop of its production. Recorded in the legendary halls of Funkhaus in Berlin, for most parts during nighttime, by two guys with different musical backgrounds but with a mutual vision. The result: Lea Porcelain proof that they actually are as good on record as we always believed them to be.

Why to listen to it: Gaining critical acclaim before you actually started to build a career often is a turning point for young bands. Talent is one thing. A sense for contemporary trends in sound and aesthetic another. And then there’s still the problem of actually being a good enough songwriter for a debut record to work as a whole. A lot of preconditions that give an idea of how much pressure a young band can face. Lea Porcelain’s Hymns To The Night is a good example of how you should do it: The duo took their time, they evolved and condensed their sound and they poured every exciting aspect of it into these 12 songs while creating something as organic as possible. The edgy post-punk spirit is on here (Bones), wave pop of highest international standard (Warsaw Street), very stripped down beauty (White Noise) and club associated material (Similar Familiar) – but most of all, Hymns To The Night creates the infamous arc of suspense without over-stressing it. The romanticism of sweaty nights between euphoria and despair is palpable throughout the whole record. These two take you by the hand, they mislead and guide you into the twilight of neither night nor day, a place where you’re neither asleep nor awake. Who would’ve expected that from a debut album? (Henning Grabow)