Sam Smith joins George Michael’s ranks, Bob Dylan won’t stay still –the week’s best albums

Sam Smith will be darling of next year's awards season - Michael Bailey Gates
Sam Smith will be darling of next year's awards season - Michael Bailey Gates

Sam Smith: Gloria ★★★★☆

Sam Smith sent the Brit awards into a tailspin in 2019, when the honey voiced singer-songwriter, multiple BRIT winner and regular nominee in the British Male Solo Artist category announced themselves as non-binary, with preferred pronouns they/them. As a result, one of British music’s biggest stars was initially excluded from gendered categories, before the Brits made a historic switch to gender neutral in 2021.

An unintended (but sadly predictable) consequence has been the neglect of female artists, with no women on the shortlist for Artist of the Year this year. It was a casebook example of one step forward, two steps back in the quest for fairness and inclusivity. “It’s a shame,” Smith has rather limply noted. Still, on the evidence of this eccentric fourth album, Gloria, they can comfort themselves that they are sure to be in the running for big prizes come 2024.

Which is not to say Smith’s new offering is a masterpiece. But it is certainly a masterclass, a showcase for one of the most scintillating voices in modern pop. Smith sings rings around themselves and the material, elevating both the banal and the sublime with smokey curlicues of tremulous falsetto. It is often said of truly great vocalists that they could sing the phonebook and make it sound good. Smith operates at such elevated heights, albeit you wonder sometimes if they mightn’t be better off just getting the phonebook out and giving it a go.

Smith’s world-beating 2014 debut, In the Lonely Hour, established them as a patron saint of sadness, a downcast figure in a sharp suit delivering weepy ballads of infinite melancholia. Over subsequent years, as Smith’s confidence in their queer identity grew, they ventured further onto the dancefloor, finding poppier, up-tempo spaces to unleash that weaponized falsetto. On Gloria, the singer (and their accomplished production team including regular co-writer Jimmy Napes, Swedish duo Stargate and Scottish DJ Calvin Harris) attempt to bridge these strands, with an added twist of sexual bravado.

The result is a slightly ungainly mix of lachrymose ballads (How to Cry, Love Me More), lustily sexed-up R’n’B jams (Six Shots, Gimme) and naughty nightlife anthems (I’m Not Here to Make Friends). On the one hand you have Smith duetting with the ubiquitous Ed Sheeran on mushy power ballad, Who We Love, and on the other you have last year’s bizarre global chart topper, Unholy, a cheeky paean to transgressive sex delivered as a cross between a Brecht & Weill cabaret showstopper and a Pet Shop Boys electro stomp. And then there’s the title track itself, on which Verdi meets Versace on an a capella choral hymn to gay pride.

The last really successful artist to attempt such a mixture of balladry and bangers with a queer transgressive undercurrent was the late, great George Michael. Gloria puts Smith in such exalted ranks, affirming their claim to be the world’s first non-binary superstar with a decidedly oddball album, blessed with a big heart and a bigger voice. Neil McCormick

Bob Dylan, Fragments: The Bootleg Series Vol. 17 ★★★★★

With an 81-year-old Dylan wowing UK gig-goers three months ago on the back of 2020’s extraordinary Rough and Rowdy Ways album, now is hardly a moment in his labyrinthine career where reliance on his vast, Nobel-garlanded legacy might feel necessary.

Yet his archival Bootleg Series continues apace, here shining a light on the painstaking assembly of his mid-life masterpiece, 1997’s Time Out of Mind. This was certainly a pivotal moment for Dylan, then in his mid-50s: after some 15 years of labouring under the weight of his own reputation, and eventually hiding behind shaky covers records, he finessed a startling return to form, penning classics such as Love Sick and Make You Feel My Love (yes, the Adele one), and going on to win three Grammys, including Best Album.

As he told one interviewer, Time Out of Mind was “me getting back in, and fighting my way out of the corner”. In his private life, Dylan was recently divorced from an entirely unpublicized marriage to his backing singer, Carolyn Dennis, and his writing had newly shifted towards a mature, heartbroken and thoroughly world-weary take on vintage blues.

In an effort to bounce back, he’d re-engaged with star producer Daniel Lanois of U2 fame, who’d guided Dylan to his only latterday success, 1989’s Oh Mercy. As readers of Bob’s Chronicles Vol 1 will know, however, they always sparred bitterly, with Dylan favouring bashing out tracks raw-and-alive, and Lanois preferring to sculpt his own soupy, spooky vision of perfection.

So, the first of Fragments’ five discs delivers a new mix of the finished album, with some of Lanois’ overdubs stripped away, its consequent ‘presence’ almost feeling like Dylan is in the room testifying to the listener in person. One of three discs of studio out-takes features stuff previously available on 2008’s Tell Take Signs, but as with other volumes like The Cutting Edge and More Blood, More Tracks, the joy here is in basking in the creative process, how Dylan chipped away at differing tempos, alternate arrangements and revised lyrics for each composition, ultimately to arrive at the final 11 tracks.

Highlights include a rickety (unused) rendition of the traditional The Water is Wide, Dreamin’ of You’s prototype for the verses of Standing in the Doorway (rejected lines: “I squandered the years of my youth/It’s a scary thing, the truth”) and an early stab at Cold Irons Bound, which seems poised to launch into The Cult’s She Sells Sanctuary before bursting into a Cuban mambo rhythm. As his consummate army of musicians – including sometime Aretha Franklin band leader Jim Dickinson, and John Lennon’s favourite drummer, Jim Keltner – struggles to keep up, the unexpected really does lurk around every corner, as no two recordings of a track are ever the same.

A further disc of in-concert recordings finds audiences stumped by a reggaefied Can’t Wait and a slo-mo Tryin’ to Get To Heaven. The lesson in Fragments is that ticket-holders should never take Dylan’s notoriously strange onstage makeovers as a personal affront: for him, songs are never static, and their evolution begins behind closed doors, thrillingly, at the point of conception. Andrew Perry

Grammy-winning artist Kimbra
Grammy-winning artist Kimbra

Kimbra, A Reckoning ★★★★☆

A decade ago, New Zealand-born, New York-based Kimbra won two Grammy awards for her quirky-cute ballad with Gotye (Somebody That I Used To Know). Two albums followed, but the 32-year-old has made her most comprehensive, brazen artistic statement to date with A Reckoning.

This is the sort of dark, gothic pop that Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepson flirted with, but haven’t sucked the marrow from. Chunky piano chords pierce slithering, ghostly synths on the opening track, Save Me. It is at once beautiful and malevolent, evolving into a further nine tracks exploring the nuances of cinematic and intimate reckonings. Teetering between self-investigation and self-eviscerating, Save Me exposes a woman facing her deepest flaws and owning them. “I'm the accident waiting to happen,” is Kimbra’s haunting, celestial croon. “It's just a matter of time...I lack the courage to take care of myself.”

She is drowning in her feelings at the outset, but Replay! is a snarly, snappy trap-style number that throbs with Missy Elliott-style club beats. It's a brave contrast of moods, woven through with glitchy electro and Kimbra's singular, strong, smooth vocals. Gun is a searing, gospel-style ballad delivered over synth-hand claps, distorted harmonies and a chorus veering into hysteria. “The words that you say feel like a gun to my head”, she near-howls.

The significantly more buoyant, brighter The Way We Were is an anthemic, danceable adventure in melancholic synthpop that harks to Robyn’s Dancing On My Own or So Sad, So Sexy-era Lykke Li. The sexy, breathy RnB of I Don't Want To Fight spotlights her lush, mellifluous voice, delicately traced through with plucky strings, a sprinkle of harp, and glock-stop percussion.

Is this reckoning an estimation of Kimbra's craft, or an act of retribution upon a cruel, patriarchal world? Either way, it sets a very high benchmark for pop music in 2023. Cat Woods

SG Lewis, AudioLust & HigherLove ★★★★★

With collaborations including Nile Rodgers and Elton John and behind-the-scenes wizardry for the likes of Dua Lipa, Mabel and Dave, SG Lewis is one of the most influential British musicians of his generation.

Hailing from Reading, the Los Angeles -based singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer released his debut album, Times, to great acclaim in February 2021, emerging as a pied piper capable of enticing everyone to the dancefloor with his slick, retro-tinged future-disco.

Today, the 28-year-old, full name Sam Lewis, releases follow-up AudioLust & HigherLove, an ambitious double album that shows off his production chops and puts his vocals in the spotlight.

On the sublime third track Holding On, about a short-lived romance, Lewis demonstrates an impressive falsetto, made all the more sparkling by kaleidoscopic synths and a soaring electric guitar solo. Infatuation is reminiscent of his hero, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, while Oh Laura calls to mind The 1975.

Missing You is deliciously infectious: fast-paced, 80s-inspired and a great example of the vulnerability and introspection Lewis has embraced in his songwriting. The euphoric Something About Your Love, a glittering, Daft Punk-esque blast of golden sunlight, is bound to become an anthem for summer 2023.

While Epiphany, a trippy, near-nine minute track of practically wordless production is sure to excite the electronic community, this album proves Lewis can master the mainstream, too, with earworms to soundtrack parties from Brooklyn to Brixton. So much more than “just a DJ”, one suspects that within a few short years, Lewis will be selling out stadiums.  Kathleen Johnston

Popcaan, Great is He ★★★☆☆

Bombastic, beat-driven and bursting with sunny, super-catchy melodies, Popcaan’s fifth album is just what you’d expect from dancehall’s biggest cheese.

Born Andrae Hugh Sutherland in St Thomas, Jamaica, Popcaan rose to fame in 2010 with Clarks (yes, as in, the British shoe shop) and has since amassed more than a billion streams to his name while working with a notably diverse roster of international stars, from Jamie XX and Gorillaz to Giggs, Snoop Dogg and Maroon 5. The UK is, in fact, Sutherland’s biggest territory outside of his home country, and in 2018, he sold out Wembley SSE Arena, the same year signed with Drake’s label OVO Sound.

This latest offering, Great is He, features his third collaboration with the Canadian giant: We Cah Done, which has already been played more than 16.5 million times on Spotify alone. The other international teamup comes by way of Burna Boy on Aboboyaa, one of the best and most memorable tracks on the record, sure to boom from the clubs come June. 

Memorability is the main issue with Great is He, which, while superficially pleasing, lacks emotional depth, despite Sutherland’s incredible personal journey from an estate known as “Gangsta City” to becoming one of the world's most influential artists. The luxury lifestyle references feel a little too laden, even if the chorus on Freshness, “Prada mi Prada, Gucci mi Gucci” is an undeniable earworm. And while opener Defeat the Struggle, about ambition, is inspiring, the lyricism  – “being at the top is kind of lonely” – can feel predictable.

Sutherland has absolutely earned the right to celebrate his success. It’s just a shame that, with 17 tracks to play with, Great is He doesn’t go a little deeper. Kathleen Johnston