The listener

Is there anyone more irritating and stupid than Bobby Gillespie?

Grade: B– Is there anyone in rock music more irritating and stupid than Bobby Gillespie? The rawk’n’roll leather-jacketed self-mythologiser. The affected drawl. The shameless pillaging of every hard rock album made between 1969 and 1972, but especially the Faces and the Rolling Stones. The moronic lyrics. The hard-left radical chic posturing and condemnations of Israel from a man with all the geopolitical understanding of a nipple-clamp. The desperate, pathetic, yearning to be cool. Trawl back through those Primal Scream albums and show me a moment of true originality. There isn’t one, is there? Which isn’t to say that — annoyingly — they’re devoid of fun and the occasional good tune.

Whiny, polite and beautiful: Kings of Convenience’s Peace or Love reviewed

Grade: A– The problem with Norwegians is that they are so relentlessly, mind-numbingly pleasant. Well, OK, not Knut Hamsun or Vidkun Quisling. And probably not the deranged fascist murderer Anders Breivik either. But then maybe that’s what unrestrained, suffocating niceness does to a certain kind of person: they end up strapping on a machine gun, or yearning for Hitler. Or both. Kings of Convenience are two earnest and very pleasant youngish men who often wear nice jumpers. They come from Bergen, which is as pristine and congenial a city as you could wish for: sharp, clear northern air and wooden-framed houses filled with agreeably plain furniture. Oh, and fish everywhere.

The Byrds without the drugs: Teenage Fanclub’s Endless Arcade reviewed

Grade: B– Advancing age has smoothed the edges of Bellshill’s finest lads, once — back in the early 1990s — arguably Britain’s best band. This is like being embalmed for ever in suffocating pleasantness. You doze off during ‘Warm Embrace’ and wake, perhaps hours later, to the same gentle, winsome, minor-key harmonies chugging by at a medium pace, the guitars strummed with deadening accuracy. Is it the same song? Have I died? The Fannies have been heading this way for a while and the departure of one of their better songwriters, Gerard Love (who jacked it in two years ago), has hastened their hitherto gentle descent towards the earnestly soporific,

Tom Jones is as nuanced a vocalist as Ian Paisley

Grade: C Revisionism has been extraordinarily kind to Tom Jones, ever since he barked his way through Prince’s ‘Kiss’ with the kind of subtlety you might expect from someone who is about to nut you in the mouth. That enormous fruity bellow is one part threat, one part music hall. He was repackaged as someone whose roots supposedly lay in R&B, but I don’t remember Sam Cooke singing ‘It’s Not Unusual’ or ‘What’s New, Pussycat?’. What Tom does, with everything, is belt it out, with bombast and bravado and the faint whiff of faggots and peas. He is as nuanced a vocalist as the late Revd Ian Paisley. This, his

Demi Lovato makes Taylor Swift resemble Dostoevsky

Grade: Z If you wish to experience the full hideousness of Now, of our current age, condensed into one awful hour, then you should invest in this bucket of infected expectorant streaked with blood. It’s all there. The depthless self-absorption and introspection, the me me me. The self-aggrandising, the wallowing in victimhood, the complete lack of personal responsibility for her very bad decisions in life, the lack of discernible talent, the mawkishness, the stupidity, the facile political ‘awareness’. This is Demi Lovato, recent subject of an emetic four-part documentary on ‘her life’. Of course she is bulimic and bi-polar. Of course she nearly died of a skag (fentanyl) overdose and

A criminally underrated songwriter: Matthew Sweet’s Catspaw reviewed

Grade: A– The early 1990s were a lovely time for rock music: Beck, Sparklehorse, Sugar, Green on Red and Royal Trux. I wish I’d savoured it all more at the time, not realising that Damon and Noel would come along decked in Union Jacks and suffocate us with the precious (Damon) and the oafish (Noel). There was Matthew Sweet’s first album, too — Girlfriend; the missing link between Big Star and Neil Young. He is a criminally underrated songwriter, but then power pop has never found much traction over here since the fab four called it a day. Sweet is an engaging soul with a self-deprecation that occasionally teeters into

Proudly ridiculous and wholly glorious: KLF’s Solid State Logik reviewed

Grade: A What a miracle the KLF were: an elaborate practical joke at the expense of the music industry, seemingly both wholly cynical and completely sincere, who for a short period at the start of the 1990s bestrode the singles charts like a novelty colossus. A reissue of their greatest hits album wouldn’t seem cause for celebration — doesn’t the world have quite enough singles collections? — but the nature of the KLF’s disappearance (they burned a million quid and deleted their entire back catalogue) makes this unexpected reappearance a bit of an event. These are hit singles that fizz with silliness in a uniquely British way. No American artist

Make Status Quo sound like Stockhausen: AC/DC’s Power Up reviewed

Grade: C The fear is this: you’re wearing a leather jacket and hipster jeans and think you look cool, but you can’t fasten either item of clothing and your teeth have fallen out. Instead you are simply an undignified granddad and everybody knows it. Hell, I’ve been there, over the years, until kindly women intervened. Apparently no women have intervened with guitarist Angus Young. He’s still wearing his short-trousered schoolboy outfit, gurning like a man who has just discovered a kidney stone, at the age of 65. No matter how desperately, inelegantly, you cling to your youth, there’s always Angus to make you look kind of measured. The Aussie-Geordie alliance

I’ve heard worse things — the death rattle of a close relative, for example: Kylie’s Disco reviewed

Grade: B– Uh-oh. Might have to be careful here, pull my punches a little bit. The editor is a big fan of the caterwauling Aussie. We have enormous editorial freedom at The Spectator, but one needs to exercise a little discretion. Last time I reviewed a Kylie album he was very kind about my writing, but I could see a deep sadness in his eyes. He also adores Mariah Carey. Conservatives are weird about music. Luckily — luckily, luckily, luckily — this is a lot better than her previous effort, Golden, which had been an attempt at a country album. She was about as believable a country singer as, I

The sound of pop eating itself and throwing up: A.G. Cook’s Apple reviewed

Grade: A The future, then. The sound of pop eating itself, throwing up into a bag and then getting a spoon and digging in. A mash-up of everything — largely very sickly EDM, but also trance, house, power ballads, industrial techno, soft rock, winsome acoustic guitar. Meticulous to the point of almost derangement, endlessly inventive both musically and rhythmically, full of arch puns. Such as the album’s title here — Apple. Mr Cook is the boss of the record label PC Music. Geddit? Sides splitting? That’s the other thing — the future also promises to be very irritating. What you cannot doubt is A.G. Cook’s nerdish attention to detail, nor

More mimsy soft rock from Cat Stevens: Tea for the Tillerman 2 reviewed

Grade: B– Time has been kind to Cat Stevens’s reputation — his estrangement from the music business and rad BAME credentials bestowing upon him an edginess which his mimsy fragile-voiced soft rock never really deserved. It’s the kind of retrospective benediction usually only death from some bad skag at the age of 27 can provide. Never mind anything else, I’d have barred him entry to the US just for calling an album Teaser and the Firecat. This one, meanwhile, is described as ‘his 1970 masterpiece’. Really? I don’t think so, although in its original incarnation it was pleasant enough on the ears, tinkling away on the turntable in the infant

Virtuosic but slight – always prog’s problem: The Pineapple Thief’s latest reviewed

Grade: B– Of all the various subdivisions in that wheezing and crippled phenomenon that we call rock music, prog has fared better than most, spawning its own devilish offspring in math rock and post-rock. Why? Maybe we are more amenable to bombast and pretension these days. Or perhaps new studio technology lends itself to the genre — hell, you can hear prog time signatures in top ten hits. Maybe more to the point, prog offers a broader avenue than, say, heavy metal or punk. Prog is often what bands end up doing even if that’s not what they think they’re doing: Radiohead, Muse — even Arcade Fire or the National.

There’s scarcely a dull track: Deep Purple’s Whoosh! reviewed

Grade: B+ Less deep purple than a pleasant mauve. Ageing headbangers will note a lack of the freneticism that distinguished Fireball and ‘Highway Star’. But by the same token they may be relieved that there are no six-minute drum solos, songs about the devil, or Jon Lord demonstrating that he can hammer the organ fairly quickly for an unimaginably long time. Instead you have extremely well played 1980s arena rawk — think Guns N’ Roses with a touch of prog thrown in. And decent tunes that do not outstay their welcome — Ian Gillan always was a catchy mofo, however ludicrously vaudevillian his vocals may be. This is not quite

Ranges from the slight to the first-rate: Neil Young’s Homegrown reviewed

Grade: B+ Neil Young has been mining his own past very profitably for a long time now, disinterring a seemingly endless catalogue of stuff which, at the time it was recorded, failed to see the light of day. And people like me fork out each time. I remember looking forward to this album in 1975 — but just before the release date he shelved it in favour of Tonight’s the Night, easily the finest rock album of the 1970s (or, to my mind, since). This doesn’t come close but, as it’s from Young’s most rewarding period, it holds a certain interest. Five songs have been released elsewhere, including the lovely

Contains the loveliest new song I’ve heard in decades: Bob Dylan’s new album reviewed

Grade: A ‘Rough’ in terms of the mostly spoken vocals, but only ‘rowdy’ if you’re approaching your 80th birthday, which of course Dylan is. This is a sometimes playful and often self-deprecating Nobel Laureate at work, the lyrics (like the vocals) carrying a whiff of late Leonard Cohen, the arrangements of some of the slower, if not funereal, songs a nod to Tom Waits. In ‘I Contain Multitudes’, the grizzled old boomer has given us his best song since ‘Idiot Wind’; like many on here, the delicate melody is implied by the chord changes rather than explicitly stated. But what a pleasure to hear wit and articulacy in a pop

Skates on the edge of parody: The 1975’s Notes on a Conditional Form reviewed

Grade: B+ Just what you wanted. An opening track that matches banal piano noodling to an address by Greta Thunberg. Followed by a hugely unconvincing stab at tuneless industrial metal on a song called ‘People’, in which the aforementioned — me and you, not them, of course — are cautioned to ‘WAKE UP!!’ Leafy Wilmslow’s middle-class skag-head prophet, Matty Healy, is back, then, with a series of injunctions for us all, spread over interminable length and always skating on the very edge of parody. The 1975 are probably Britain’s biggest ‘rock’ band — those quote marks are needed — and this vast slab of pretentious, gullible, vacuous commendations to us

Beautiful voice, pretentious album: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters reviewed

Grade: C+ Where did they all come from, the quirky yet meaningful rock chicks who don’t have a decent song between them yet put out albums by the bucketload? Back in the day it was just Joni Mitchell, who had four good songs, Laura Nyro who had two and Dory Previn who had one. Now there are thousands of these creatures, flaunting their intemperance without showing much brilliance. And all slavered over by the (still male) music press. Years of oppression, of being disregarded, they would argue. But disregarded for very good reasons, in almost all cases. Yeah, Carole King is ten times the songwriter James Taylor ever was. I

Haunting and beautiful: Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus’s Songs of Yearning reviewed

Grade: A It has taken 33 years — during which time this decidedly strange Liverpool collective have put out only three albums and done virtually no interviews — for the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus to become sort of au courant. Which is perhaps why they have suddenly, in a wholly unforeseen bout of activity, put out two in the same week. The other is the limited edition Nocturnes. Given our current predicament, the simple iron church bell that tolls here and there on this album should be resonant enough. But musical fashion has swung around a little to this band, too. Whereas once they would have been filed

The last great purveyors of a vanishing art form: Green Day’s Fathers of All… reviewed

Grade: B+ It is an eternal mystery to me why Britain has never had much time for power pop, seeing as we gave this often charming genre to the world through the Beatles and, to a lesser extent, Badfinger. But we never really swung for it, post-Abbey Road. When power pop had its mild renaissance in late ’78, we looked away, bored, tugged by disco on the one hand and po-faced boring angular post-punk on the other. The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’ — the epitome of power pop — got in the charts, sure. But there was no groundswell. In the USA it was different. Almost everything labelled punk that wasn’t

The rancid meanderings of a long-spent wankpuffin: Justin Bieber’s Changes reviewed

Grade: D– For my first review of popular music releases in 2020 I thought I’d deposit this large vat of crap over your heads. This is the fifth album from Canada’s androgynous, tattooed bratlette — purveyor of corporate trap dross to the world’s pre-pubescent thots, skanks and wannabe hos. Trouble is, even for the dumbest of the world’s unter-mädchens, Bieber’s schtick has long since worn a little thin. So his new album is called Changes, which is the only echo of David Bowie you will find within. But as Justin puts it on the title track: ‘Tho I’m goin thru changes, don’t mean that I’ll change.’ No indeed, well put.