Alex Jackson

UK-based journalist and digital editor. Writes about science, health and technology, with sporadic moments of music punditry. Contributed to The Guardian, Nature, Scientific American, BBC, National Geographic, Geographical Magazine, Japan Times and Huffington Post.

Conor Oberst - 'Salutations'

The Nebraskan-born troubadour spilled his heart out on the contemplative, low-key and intimately personal collection that made up 2016's Ruminations. It was an album that divided plenty, as his voice quivered over minimal arrangements, yet for those lacking the immediate swagger of his self-titled album and the urgency of his band's support, Salutations is a very welcome surprise. His ten songs from last year (plus an additional seven) have been given a fantastic makeover, that over 17 sprawling tracks, make for a superb listen. Featuring members of the Felice Brothers, the assemblement Oberst's gathered add verve and warmth to his biting narratives.

British Sea Power - 'Let The Dancers Inherit The Party'

It's been 14 years since we first laid ears on one of British indie's finest. The opening reverb of 'Apologies to Insect Life' on debut The Decline of British Sea Power is still today as fresh and brimming with ideas as it was then. In the years following, they have released another eight records. Between eccentric foliage heavy live tours, a golden spell of 2005's Open Season and 2008's Do You Like Rock Music? they could do no wrong, and became critical darlings. In recent years, barring the exceptional soundtrack, From The Sea to the Land Beyond, they'd rather lost form.

Real Estate - 'In Mind'

The New Jersey five-piece has honed a sound that is both summery and for some detractors, a little safe. However, one thing you can't take away from the band, is their ability to craft short, ocassionally sublime, pop songs. Take the Beach Boys' indebited 'Easy' or the glistening harmony of 'It's Real', both from second record Days, as fine examples. On their third, the wonderful breakout Atlas, their hazy, pastoral leanings were exemplary and found them breaking into the top 40 in the UK.

Dirty Projectors - Dirty Projectors

Five records had gently passed by before 2009’s Bitte Orca arrived. It was a wonderful feat of glitchy pop that received both acclaim and an array of new followers. Their first on Domino, the record was packed with wonderful idiosyncrasies and melody typified on highlight track ‘Stillness in the Move’. Follow-up Swing Lo Magellan was more of a low-key affair, but nonetheless a splendid record, which leads us to their latest, largely a solo record with some great guest spots. The self-titled seventh is a break-up record about Amber Coffman, ex-singer in Dirty Projectors.

Old Crow Medicine Show - 'Best Of'

The prolifically exuberant six-piece is often defined by thrillingly wonderful live performances. Over the course of the band’s last five records, since they made waves with 2004’s O.C.M.S, there has been folk, breakneck bluegrass, Americana and varying styles to match their acclaim and awards. One thing that has remained consistent throughout is their devotion to honing their musicianship and reviving old classics. This, their ‘Best Of’ is a rather odd release, featuring songs from their three records with the label Nettwerk.

Sinkane - 'Life & Livin' It'

With Ahmed Gallab and his band’s fifth and first major label record ‘Mean Love’, the Sudan-born musician managed to effuse the perfect mix of sublime melody with jazz, funk and reggae. It was a record of significant artistry, which was undoubtedly one of the best things released in 2014. The band’s sixth showed similar promise with teasing first single U’Huh big on brass lines and heavy on exquisite funk melody. Thankfully the record is not far off the lofty heights of its predecessor. Opener Deadweight mixes beats and guitars to a thrilling stomp, while Favourite Song is one of the poppiest things Gallab has ever written. There’s a lot of Talking Heads influence and plenty of understandably one of the singer’s biggest influences, electro-funk legend William Onyeabor.

Various Artists - 'Nordic Lights'

Scandinavian cool has long been in vogue. From the great sagas and sweaters, to the box-set series and striking designs, the region has thrived in captivating the world with its charm. Yet, arguably their biggest and most creative output, lie in their music industry, churning out countless bands and acclaimed records. The diversity in Scandinavia’s burgeoning labels, often set up in remote locations, are staggering both in breadth and style. PIAS has done the unenviable thing, and selected 34 choice cuts from the best Scandinavian music of recent years, to varying results.

Kishi Bashi - 'Sonderlust'

The luxuriant loop-based instrumentation of the Seattle-born singer, Kishi Bashi, is at times as bewildering as it is wonderful. His idiosyncrasies have made his records stand out as low key classics, in a similar vein to Andrew Bird or Sufjan Stevens. Yet where they’ve made great strides into the popular mainstream, the multi-instrumentalist has struggled to find crowd sizes worthy of his acclaim. The former Of Montreal member crafts countless hooks and influences in his records that grow with repeated listens. On his third, there is plenty to enjoy too.

Cass McCombs - 'Mangy Love'

The esoteric Californian’s eighth record is one of those rare gems that reveals more with every new listen. A songwriter very much in a field of his own, his debut on Anti marks a significant shift to a more mainstream sound, albeit on his own terms. The prolific troubadour has honed his musicianship and eccentricities with every record, resulting in a succession of wonderfully offbeat, articulate alt-country classics. 2013’s ‘Big Wheel and Others’ – a 22-track kaleidoscopic epic touching country, blues, folk and rock. This, however, strips it back to 12 songs of consistently warm, witty, and often odd wordplay that entices you in from the very first seconds of ‘Bum Bum Bum’s light soul. In cutting quantity for consistency, he’s created an affecting, lush sounding and cohesive set, that will sound wonderful live.

King Creosote - 'Astronaut Meets Appleman'

Fife’s Kenny Anderson is something of a byword for indie brilliance in Scotland. Quietly prolific, effortlessly experimental, his wistful folk pop meets occasional electronica flourishes, and has always been a wonder to those who’ve had the good fortune of stumbling upon his genuine talent. From 2005’s ‘KC Rules OK’ right through to his Mercury nominated collaboration with electronica producer Jon Hopkins, ‘Diamond Mine’, his records are often slow-burning string-laden nuggets of perfection that bristle with passion and energy. His most recent love letter to his homeland, ‘From Scotland With Love’ was a wonderfully enchanting record, and here we have all the Celtic swagger that you would come to expect from an LP recorded in the beautiful countryside of the Isle of Mull. Intact with harps, cellos, bagpipes and occasional krautrock grooves, this is arguably one of his finest efforts to date.

Teenage Fanclub - 'Here'

Some bands gracefully grow with age, while others wither and fade into obscurity. With Teenage Fanclub, we have a band that have not only matured in sound over the years, but become even more compelling with each release. Arguably they have a simple formula. Soaring harmonies, chiming guitars and sweeping choruses have been the trademark over their eight albums. It’s one that has made them one of the most cherished and consistent British bands of the last three decades.

Ladyhawke - 'Wild Things'

It’s crazy to think eight years have passed since the sprightly singer-songwriter from New Zealand first appeared on our shores with the incessantly catchy ‘My Delirium’. At that stage, her hugely entertaining self-titled record was bursting with hits including ‘Paris Is Burning’ and ‘Back of the Van.’ It was 80s new wave which brought hipsters and pop fanatics together alike. And then she all but vanished. Her second record Anxiety was a mixed bag and seemed to go rather unnoticed, possibly the plight of topping that first, superb record. Many wondered what album number three would bring, and with Wild Things she’s come back and answered any harsh critics with a record brimming with verve and swagger.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros - 'PersonA'

Alex Ebert’s mix of folk, gospel and psychedelic idiosyncrasies have long been admirable since his band’s astonishing debut record Up From Below first hit the airwaves. It was a bold statement, thrillingly packed with anthemic hook laden tracks. But it's been a record hard to match in both feat and urgency. Second album Here was a pleasant summer soundtrack, whereas their self-titled third never quite found the consistency they sought. With their fourth, it's clear they are reaching back to the epic proportions of their debut both in scale and attempted grandeur. Yet with ambition comes risk, and here we have their most mixed set of songs to date. Some soar, while others grate.

PJ Harvey - 'The Hope Six Demonlition Project'

The very manner in which the Dorset-born singer recorded her latest record is admirably impressive, though hardly surprising. For an artist who has strived on her previous nine records to constantly challenge, reward and engage listeners through different styles, harrowing lyrics and often beautiful melodies – recording in a glass box to a live audience is not too far-fetched. A British gem, her 10th album billed as a sequel to 2011’s acclaimed Let England Shake, is intensely wonderful and urgent. From the opening urgency of the thrilling ‘The Community of Hope’ and the rocking ‘The Ministry of Defence’, it’s refreshing to have her return five years on. Conflict and nationhood are two staple themes, and the record doesn't relent in its sweeping melodies and powerful messages. ‘Chain of Keys’ soars, ‘The Orange Monkey’ has a subtle confident groove, while ‘The Wheel’ sees Harvey at her most ferocious.

Holy Ghost! - 'Crime Cutz'

With echoes of Justice and Simian Mobile Disco, the New-York duo is often seen as the go-to producers for funk and 80s inspired neo-disco. Their own output under their moniker, however, has been less prolific. A self-titled debut in 2011 and strong follow-up Dynamics two years later showed great promise. This EP is largely overdue, and all the more disappointing it's just four songs. However, disappointment springs from potential, and with this collection of songs they’ve mustered up their best material to date. Live drums pile on top of euphoric hook-laden synth pop and tight grooves, in what seems like a rapidly vibrant piece of work, which as thrilling as it is, feels just too short. The self-titled opener swirls into an incessantly wonderful beat after a gradual build and unravels into a huge arms-aloft chorus.

Calexico @ The Barbican, London - 25/04/2016

There was a moment part way through which encapsulated the euphoria of Calexico’s first gig at the Barbican since 2003. With the crowd already in raptures at the Tex-Mex heavy set, four middle-aged women in the front row rose to their feet and broke into an ecstatic dance. It was a moment fairly unseen and uncharacteristic of the oft whisper quiet theatre hall, yet was so perfectly timed and wonderful in its every motion. In this one defiant act of buoyance the crowd erupted, rose to their feet, and in scenes of absolute brilliance, started dancing to an irresistible band in fine form.

Yeasayer - 'Amen & Goodbye'

Even by their own idiosyncratic standards, third record Fragrant World was a slight misstep into obscurity. Thankfully, the initial signs this time were positive. The swirling prog of first single ‘I Am Chemistry’ was more in debt to their earlier workings on Odd Blood, packed with a rapturous chorus and avoiding any previous self-indulgence. ‘Silly Me’ could be twinned with their huge floor filling single ‘O.N.E.’ full of tight grooves and verve, while the cosmic fantasy of ‘Prophecy Gun’ is their most tender yet. It’s not all great though.

Laura Gibson - 'Empire Builder'

The Oregon singer-songwriter has been quietly making beautiful, soaring records since she first graced the live scene in the mid-noughties. However, it wasn’t until 2012’s La Grande that she deservedly garnered international attentional, to support the acclaim. Her delicate vocal range is stunning in depth and Gibson’s latest is guaranteed to only further her reputation as a consistently excellent musician. Empire Builder named after the Amtrak line that took the singer to her new home of New York is her warmest, most urgent yet. It sees her grapple with solitude, loss and independence across 10 wonderful songs.

White Denim - 'Stiff'

Much like fellow Austin dwellers Spoon, this four-piece have amassed quite the fan-base and had critical acclaim lauded on them from all corners of the music industry in recent years. Yet, what makes White Denim stand out, is their ability to experiment, their enthralling live sets, and their ultimate sense of fun, in an increasingly risk averse musical landscape. This, their sixth, is quite fittingly called Stiff - a definite antonym to their diverse back catalogue.

The Coral - 'Distance Inbetween'

After a five-year hiatus, the Wirral quintet is back, and boy, they’re sounding rejuvenated. From the propulsive opening reverb and psychedelic loops of the insistent ‘Connector’, it is clear this is a very different beast to their sixth record, Butterfly House. Whereas that built on their jangly, soaring and playful melodies, their latest throws experimental beats and guitar lines in arguably their most daring effort yet. It makes for an exquisite record, taking all The Coral’s qualities and adding epic cosmic and pysch rock swirls, inventive production and a renewed focus.
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