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The seven best albums released in May: Kendrick Lamar's long-awaited return and the next best thing to Radiohead

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Irish Independent music critic John Meagher has all the records you need to hear this month.

Kendrick Lamar - Mr Morale & The Big Steppers

Aftermath/Interscope

There aren’t many artists for whom a new album release is a major cultural event, but the LA rapper is one. Long famed for his poetic lyrics, keen observational eye and dazzling wordplay, he’s in remarkable form once again. While 18 tracks and 75 minutes could have been a slog, it’s so varied, dynamic and well sequenced that there’s no drifting off. We Cry Together, featuring Taylour Paige, snarls like a pocket drama, capturing a brutal verbal row between a man and a woman. The extraordinary piano-led Mother I Sober is raw and reflective and features Portishead’s Beth Gibbons.

The Smile - A Light For Attracting Attention

XL Recordings

Six years have elapsed since the last Radiohead album, but this is the next best thing. It’s Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and jazz drummer Tom Skinner flexing their muscles on a batch of mostly brilliant songs that have, apparently, been percolating for years. The London Contemporary Orchestra provides an often sumptuous accompaniment and tracks such as the downcast but gorgeous Free in the Knowledge, and the skittering, propulsive but lavishly orchestrated Skrting on the Surface, boast some of Yorke’s finest vocal performances. Alienation, isolation are here, but there’s no staleness. A remarkable album.

Kevin Morby - This is a Photograph

Dead Oceans

Over the course of several albums, the Kansas-based Texan has been likened to Dylan — a laconic, almost non-singing style and a gift for quote-worthy lyrics will do that — and this marvellous seventh album won’t disabuse the listener of the comparison either. Everything that compels about Morby can be found on the brilliant six-minute A Coat of Butterflies. It’s languid and jazzy and features a smattering of female vocals. It’s one of two songs inspired by Jeff Buckley. There’s also a gorgeous love song, Stop Before I Cry, about Morby’s partner Katie Crutchfield, aka indie artist Waxahatchee.

Sharon Van Etten - We've Been Going About This All Wrong

Jagjaguwar

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Motherhood, marriage and midlife musings inform the sixth album from one of America’s great contemporary tunesmiths. At least half a dozen of these songs will likely burrow deep into your heart. One of them, the gorgeous, giddy Mistakes offers a confluence of organic and synthetic instrumentation alongside languid, Chrissy Hynde like vocals. While perhaps the album’s most commercial track, Headspace, ponders the place of nookie in a world of kids and mobile phone addiction.

Craig Finn - A Legacy of Rentals

Positive Jams

The Hold Steady frontman is prolific. It’s easy to lose count of his solo albums, let alone those with his band, but this is one of his more consistently strong offerings — a lively stew of Springsteenesque songs, artfully crafted vignettes written in the third person. As ever, Finn’s characters are down on their luck, but his empathy is always apparent, especially on The Year We Fell Behind, which centres on a meds-dependent couple struggling to get a break. “If we can hustle hard enough, ”his heroine says, “I think we’ll probably make it.”

Arcade Fire - WE

Columbia

Grandiose and pompous are words that have long been synonymous with the US-Canadian band who, lest we forget, gave the world two marvellous albums in Funeral and The Suburbs. This sixth album marks something of a return to form, although it’s hamstrung by half-baked concepts and a determination to say something important about a post-pandemic world. It opens with a pair of tracks, titled Age of Anxiety I and II, that grabble gamely with these uncertain times. But it’s the second half that really connects, with the lovely End of the Empire.

Florence + The Machine - Dance Fever

Polydor

Florence Welch had incorporated sophisticated dance moves into her live shows and during lockdown she became fixated with choreomania — historical dance marathons. She lets the idea fly on an album that explores the personal and the universal and, frankly, it’s hard to sit still when listening to songs like My Love. Girls Against God seems to directly confront the privations caused by the pandemic. Several songs find Welch at war — often with herself. But there’s little that’s myopic in these ballsy, beautiful songs.


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