The Black Keys — El Camino (Nonesuch)
Saurabh & Gaurav

More than a decade into their career, the Black Keys have unexpectedly become the mainstream torchbearers for purist rock and roll. Their last album Brothers scooped three Grammys and sold more than a million copies worldwide. Frequent collaborator Danger Mouse is back as producer after overseeing Brothers’ breakout hit Tighten Up and 2008’s transitional LP Attack And Release. With influences ranging from the likes of The Cramps and T-Rex to rockabilly Johnny Burnette Trio, the result is a heavy dose of classic rock ’n’ roll with an injection of the 1970s edge, all laced over the original bluegrass melodies.

Every track from the opening Lonely Boy to the final, hanging note of Mind Eraser roars nonstop. Even the sole acoustic track on the disc Little Black Submarines, which begins quietly, an acoustic guitar accompanying Dan Auerbach’s unfiltered voice, ends in thunderous electricity. While El Camino is basically a tribute album to their most commercially successful effort to date, the new album streamlines and refines the band’s rip roaring rock ’n’ roll aesthetic. Every song on the album comes with a certain level of bravado. Sister, with its insistent 1980s pulse, is simply the best out-and-out pop song they’ve ever written while the brilliantly demented cowboy glam holler of Gold on the Ceiling is boosted by the band’s new trio of female backing singers. El Camino is yet another ear-pleasing installment in the catalog of a consistently impressive band.

Best track: Lonely Boy

Worst track: Stop Stop

Rating: ****

Drake — Take Care (Cash Money)

Toronto rapper Aubrey Drake Graham is one of the most unique hip-hop artists in the game. After taking the game by storm with his 2010 debut Thank Me Later, Drake is back with his latest album Take Care. The latest outing is largely built out of the same material as the debut album, and the collection is overall more about refining his formula than expanding it. All the things you love about Drake are still there — melodic raps, up-tempo beats and melancholy — so even when he does stray a little outside the lines, the majority of what you hear will be what you expected. Take Care is 80 minutes of gorgeous downbeat tracks painstakingly crafted to sound massive yet distant at the same time. Drake spends most of his rapping about the relationships he has lost, the downside of fame, and the emptiness he finds in his millions. Standout Crew Love and The Ride breaks out of the typical hip-pop structures and adds some new colors to Drake’s palette but most other tracks stick closely to the script. Of all his solo cuts on the record, Headlines is the ultimate demonstration of his newfound level of domination. Stevie Wonder lends his genius on Doing It Wrong while it’s Rihanna taking the role of an ex-lover on the haunting title track. The album’s delicate strings and subtle percussion provide a steady mood and tone that is both dense and structured.

Best track: Headlines

Worst track: Shot for Me

Rating: ***

The Roots — Undun (Island)

The Roots may be best known in the mainstream for their nightly gig as the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. On their new album, Undun, the Philadelphia octet tells the story of Redford Stephens, depicting the demise of semi-fictional character through a series of sparse soul melodies, thoughtful string arrangements and stomping hip hop backdrop. It begins at the end, with the death of its hustling protagonist and unfolds backward to reveal how he reached such an end. Tip the Scale is the reinforcement of Stephens’ mission statement. The backdrops ramp up with slight gradations, from soft collisions of percussion and keys (Sleep), to pleasant gospel-soul (Make My), to the experimental (One Time). Standout track Make My recalls Marvin Gaye while the instrumental suite at the end of the album borrows from Sufjan Stevens. The music is astonishing, threading intellectual raps through soulful jams and panoramic orchestral interludes. After close to two decades of music, world tours, and Grammy Awards, The Roots have crafted an album that not only elevates Hip Hop, but raises the bar for anyone who dare call themselves a ‘Hip Hop Band’.

Best track: Make My

Worst track: Kool On

Rating: ***

Album of the month
R.E.M. — Part Lies Part
Heart Part

Truth Part Garbage: 1982-2011
Warner Bros

Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982-2011, the band’s first career-spanning anthology, does an exceptional job of presenting this body of work as a chronological survey that neatly summarises their major themes and artistic tangents while being highly listenable. The song selection is exceptional, a few relatively minor singles didn’t make the cut but every major hit is here, presented alongside crucial album tracks such as Country Feedback, Begin the Begin, and Life and How to Live It. Disc Two of the compilation yields lovely surprises like Imitation Of Life, the sultry New Test Leper and At My Most Beautiful, as lovely a homage to Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys as you’ve ever heard, all ascending piano chords, bass harmonica and heavenly la-la-la’s. The band’s first-ever career-spanning retrospective proves that R.E.M. broadened their sound slowly over the years. This is a portrait of maturation, a chronicle of growth with arguably few missteps. The first run of songs includes some of the most obvious tracks from the band’s formative period as one of the progenitors of alternative rock and the defining act for the rock radio scene of the early 1980s. Longtime fans will likely wonder why something like Fables of the Reconstruction’s Feeling Gravity’s Pull didn’t make the cut. Some of R.E.M.s strongest songs have been omitted in favour of the ‘Part Garbage’ of the set’s title.

R.E.M. offers up a collection of songs that act more as a guide to first-time callers than a package for longtime listeners. Finally, Hallelujah is an alternately lilting and searing anthem that is probably the most interesting of the new cuts offered here.

Best track: Losing My Religion

Misfit: Pop Song 89