We’ve reached peak Beatles, Tom Odell is a triumph – the week’s best albums

The Beatles in Abbey Road Studios during filming of the Paperback Writer in 1966 - © Apple Corps Ltd.
The Beatles in Abbey Road Studios during filming of the Paperback Writer in 1966 - © Apple Corps Ltd.

The Beatles, Revolver: Special Edition ★★★☆☆

Have we reached peak Beatles? It is over half a century since the powerhouse Sixties band released the last of their recordings and broke up in disarray, never to reunite, and yet they remain an ever-present fixture of pop culture, looming over everything in their wake like unassailable, foundational gods.

Last November, Beatles fans were treated to a marathon three-part, eight-hour long Apple TV documentary, Get Back, featuring restored footage from the Let It Be recording sessions, plus an expanded reissue of Let It Be itself, their 1970 swan song freshened up with a new stereo remix and abundant outtakes. It was a wonderful thing, showing the most famous musicians in pop history at creative close quarters. It felt like a crowning moment, restoring lustre to what had been widely regarded as their most disappointing album, creating a lovely grace note to the Beatles’s illustrious career.

And now, 12 months on, here we go again. Revolver: Special Editions is the latest box set re-release of a classic album with added extras, remixed and polished up by Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin. The unsurprising news is that Revolver sounds fantastic. The 1966 classic stands up as a ground-breaking masterpiece on which the quartet are superbly tuned into each other. Every song is a tautly crafted gem, the playing is tight and varied, the singing and harmonising are stunning, and it arguably represents The Beatles at a creative peak entering their adult rock phase, establishing a template for the way guitar bands looked and sounded for decades to come. Five stars all round.

Does anyone need me to point out that Revolver was always a masterpiece, and always sounded fantastic? It was recorded on relatively primitive four-track equipment, with the Beatles concocting arrangements as live takes, then bouncing multiple tracks down to make space for overdubbing. Giles Martin has employed new technology to digitally separate all the individual elements, then put them back together in exactly the same place. The new version certainly sounds fuller, brighter and deeper, but unless you are a committed audiophile with studio standard hi-fi, most listeners could achieve a similar experience by turning up the volume, or perhaps investing in a pair of decent headphones.

All interest therefore lies in extra tracks, which are not so much outtakes as works in progress – as The Beatles settled on arrangements, they would continually build on their chosen version. Highlights include a rocky take of Got to Get You Into My Life and a vulnerably stripped back Here, There and Everywhere. But you’d have to be particularly obsessive to demand a special mix of Yellow Submarine which highlights the comical background effects. And the best thing to be said about a gnarly first take of Tomorrow Never Knows is that I am glad they persisted.

The truth is that the Beatles released everything they considered worthy whilst they were together, leaving nothing of outstanding quality in the vault. The expansiveness of later albums meant that there have been interesting alternate takes to uncover, but the further back the series reaches, the harder it is to get past the originals. Only a nostalgic desire to squeeze out the very last drops of Beatles magic can explain the appearance of an alternate mix of a giggling And Your Bird Can Sing – previously heard on 1996 archival album Anthology 2. If you listen very closely, you can almost hear the sound of a barrel being scraped. Neil McCormick

Fred again.., Actual Life 3 ★★★★☆

London’s progressive house guru Fred Gibson has infused his classical music training with playful, determinedly naïve production skills. Over a decade ago, he began tooling about with audio software Logic in his bedroom, creating an epic 90-minute orchestral, choral, hip-hop symphony. It won the 16-year-old a role as assistant to Brian Eno.

Working with both Eno and Underworld’s Karl Hyde in 2014 exposed burgeoning songwriter Gibson to the art of transgressive, skewed, fidgety beats, vocal and digital mantras and the ambient nature of rave’s hypnotically repetitive beats. He learned from Eno and Hyde that the tools are secondary, it’s the magic of unexpected twists, instinctive sounds, meshing rap with found sounds, live instrumentation, and self-recorded (iPhone) samples that results in emotive music that can also send a techno club into ecstatic, explosive delight.

He debuted his own moniker in last year’s two Actual Life albums, which were audio diaries of his adventures in the world: a whirlwind of voice memos, snippets of YouTube audio, and club beats recorded onto his iPhone. This time, Four Tet, 070 Shake, and Swedish House Mafia are willing collaborators in Gibson’s wildly explorative, house-leaning, euphoric dance universe, built in studios, on trains, in clubs, on planes.

In the restrained thud of distant beats and disco sirens, Gibson evokes the London streets at 3am when half-dazed clubbers can hear raves from nearby warehouses, the ping of their phone messages, the intermingling sounds of chatter, the clack of heels on the pavement, and a drunken laugh. It is these ordinary, organic elements of life that magically worm into the climax and drop of Actual Life compositions. In videos of his studio work, or his club appearances, Gibson is almost involuntarily nodding, eyes closed: ecstatic.

Over 13 songs, it’s almost impossible not to fidget and move to glitchy drum’n’bass (Kammy), dreamy dub-step (Bleu) or echoey R’n’B-meets-soulful house (Kelly). Fred has done it…(dare we say?) again. Cat Woods

Benjamin Clemantine: And I Have Been
Benjamin Clemantine: And I Have Been

Benjamin Clementine, And I Have Been ★★★★☆

Benjamin Clementine is a musician from a different age. He carries the flame for an era when – pre-TikTok and Spotify algorithms – artists came complete with misty, fable-like hinterlands. The 33-year-old singer-songwriter’s marvellous debut At Least for Now, which won the 2015 Mercury Prize, showcased his genre-rattling talent, with lyrics drawing on the transcendental poetry of William Blake.

Aged 16, Clementine escaped an unhappy childhood home in north London and fled to Camden, then Paris, sleeping rough and singing for his supper in bars and hotels of Place de Clichy. But even when success came with his second album, 2017’s I Tell A Fly, his lifestyle barely changed, with Clementine choosing to walk 45 km barefoot to a jazz festival because he couldn’t afford the fare (he still performs barefoot as homage to his penniless days). And his interests remain literary, with the artists spending years writing his own 11-volume dictionary.

Of course, these affectations would be tedious if the music wasn’t up to scratch. Fortunately, it is, as his third album And I Have Been proves. As so many are today, it’s a lockdown special, and this shows both in its more ambitious production and its slight air of self-indulgence. The opening numbers, Residue and Delighted, have Clementine slowing his voice down to spoken word, while strings swoop and electronic blips and boops whack-a-mole about. Clementine, one senses, has been spending a lot of time in his own head, never an uninteresting place to be.

He relaxes, though, and happily returns to the singular strengths of his previous work. “This winding road/ will crush my hope/ this mighty road/ won’t stop my soul,” he promises on Copening, a dusty troubadour swirling his world-weariness. And Atonement proves he still has a voice like an oak grove, rising from near whisper to lusty bebop howl, the sound part-Nina Simone, part-timber wolf.

But even rolling stones eventually come to a stop. And the surprise of this record are its flashes of quiet domesticity. Auxiliary, for instance, is a gentle tribute to his wife, the folk singer Flo Morrissey (with whom he performs as The Clementines), and his daughter. “Takes you and I to make this child smile,” he sings. It’s sweet and wholesome and wholly un-tortured: hardly a Clementine production at all.

Yet restlessness is at the heart of his talent. It’s there on the unexpectedly groovy Lovelustreman, but also on the expansiveness of the album’s final track Recommence: “Ain’t no love, no hate/ just a scent that goes by.” The road calls again, and off he goes, bare feet and all. Alex Diggins

Tom Odell - Best Days of My Life - Sophie Green
Tom Odell - Best Days of My Life - Sophie Green

Best Day Of My Life by Tom Odell ★★★★★

Tom Odell’s astonishing fifth album, Best Day Of My Life, is the Ivor Novello-winning 31-year-old’s first release as an independent artist. A minimalist triumph, Odell got to work on the record after his major label contract ran its course last year. For the first time in his career, there was no external pressure, and so he set himself the ambitious task of making the entire album using only piano and his voice, casting aside opinions he’s fought against for the best part of a decade.

The resulting 12 tracks are so raw as to be almost ecclesiastical. Ballads have long been Odell’s bread-and-butter (2013’s Another Love has been streamed more than one billion times on Spotify), but Best Day Of My Life takes his trademark melancholy to new heights, stripping it of cookie-cutter pop tricks to reveal vulnerable emotion that can at times be hard to bear. These are songs that speak to your soul, calling to mind the likes of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Rufus Wainwright.

Set loosely over the course of a single day, the album is about learning to cope with life in all its contradictory glory, from the heart-wrenching titular opener about living in the moment, to Enemy, where he interrogates his struggle with crippling anxiety: “I lay in bed at night/ Watch you as you try to break my mind.”

Flying :)) shows off Odell’s spectacular vocal range, complete with captivating solo harmonies, while Giving A F–k reminds us of his extraordinary ability as a pianist, not to mention his intention: “People telling me I’m not enough, people saying my music sucks, it used to hurt me so much, I don’t give a f–k anymore”.

On the lullaby-like Blood We Bleed, about Odell’s difficult relationship with his father, his voice cracks to a husky near-whisper. It wouldn’t sound out of place soundtracking the saddest scene in the saddest film imaginable.

But the final track, Smiling All The Way Back Home brings the record to a hopeful close. “I went through a really hard couple of years where I really lost my stability,” Odell has said. “And in a way the album is a journey towards letting go. When I get to that last song, I really feel that journey of arriving somewhere better than you were before.” Kathleen Johnston

Yung Gravy, Marvelous ★★☆☆☆

Fans of US comedy series Dave will be aware of the exploits of lead character Lil Dicky, a white rapper who is convinced he’s destined to become one of the world’s most celebrated hip hop stars. Lil Dicky is the creation of comedian David Burd (who also performs in real life under the character’s name), and he raps about everyday experiences like the difficulty of getting an Uber when you need one and his favourite pizza toppings. Well, reality has replaced comedy in the form a Yung Gravy, a 26-year-old white rapper from Minnesota. Born Matthew Hauri, the popular musician has 6.9 million TikTok followers and a Billboard Hot 100 hit under his belt. His new album is called Marvelous. And it’s anything but.

Marvelous is a collection of 16 trap-infused rap tracks that sound like Lil Dicky shorn of the humour. They deal with the genre’s lowest common denominator themes. In Hot Tub, Hauri raps about there being “a whole lot of arse in the hot tub”. Skiing in Japan Freestyle sees him telling us, “I’m a cowboy / Like Woody / I f----- a horse girl once”. Meanwhile Isn’t It Just Marvelous features a brand new waterbed (“Yo bitch / You and me gonna christen it”). Pizza toppings and elusive Ubers are far more original. Most of Hauri’s songs feature vintage soul and funk samples, while his hit Betty (Get Money) samples Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up and the song Smells Like Money is based on Salt-N-Pepa’s Push It.

All but one of the tracks clock in at under three minutes. It’s as though they’ve been tailor-made for viral videos on TikTok. After all, why bother making the songs any longer when such videos only last for 30 seconds? Hauri is a fast-rising star in that world. In 2020, Dame Judi Dench even appeared on a Yung Gravy-soundtracked TikTok video when she danced to a song with her grandson Sam Williams. Credit to Hauri for his success. But there’s nothing exciting here. For me, Marvelous sounds like an album of non-stop pound shop TikTok hip hop. James Hall

Aqualung: Dead Letters
Aqualung: Dead Letters

Aqualung, Dead Letters ★★★★☆

British musician Matt Hales shot to fame in 2002 as Aqualung after his debut single, the piano ballad Strange and Beautiful, was used in a Volkswagen TV advert. Six albums followed but Dead Letters is his first since 2015. In the intervening period Hales has collaborated with the likes of Lianne La Havas, Keane’s Tom Chaplin and Bat for Lashes. He also won a Grammy in 2020 for his work with Australian Christian pop duo For King & Country. Now aged 50, Hales has come back with an album of mature songs that oscillate between layered and lushly orchestrated, and pared back and intimate.

The writing is hugely accomplished, as befits a man whose life has been steeped in music. Hales’s parents ran a record shop in Southampton and, aged 16, he won a scholarship to study music composition at Winchester, the private school also attended by new PM Rishi Sunak (they didn’t cross). He wrote his first symphony while still a teen. The songs on Dead Letters were written on Hales’s favourite upright piano in the UK having moved home from a spell in Los Angeles. Champion of the World sounds like a cross between Elton John and Ben Folds. Epic opener Here and Now lasts a meaty seven minutes and builds superbly from hushed beginnings to a grand ending with bursts of Pink Floyd-like guitar. The highlight is the single Imperfect Cadence which starts with shuffling drums and a single repeated piano note and blooms like a spring crocus around a gorgeous melody.

The words are infused with the confessional romance of Father John Misty, albeit with the archness removed. Hales has said that the lyrics were written as letters that were not necessarily meant to be sent – hence the title Dead Letters. This explains their striking intimacy. “It’s been a while since I told the truth / The way I feel when I look at you… / You’re the star in my sky,” he sings on Fool. “All I do is reflect your light / You think I’m a fool / I think you’re right.” It has been seven years since Hales’s last album. It’s good to have him back. James Hall

The Brother Moves On - Lightfarm Client
The Brother Moves On - Lightfarm Client

The Brother Moves On, $he Who Feeds You…Owns You ★★★★☆

Almost 50 years ago, at the height of apartheid repression in South Africa, the jazz fusion band Batsumi released an eponymous album which became a massively popular expression of resistance. Over bass-and-drums grooves that blend South African tribal rhythms and jazz-funk, defiant vocals are interwoven with streams of flute-and-sax melody. Revolution now, is the message.

The spirit of that album, poised so movingly between hope and dogged endurance, is recalled and subtly transformed in this new album from The Brother Moves On. They’re a Johannesburg-based collective of artists, storytellers and musicians whose members are constantly “moving on” – thus the band’s name. For their fourth album, the usual seven-man band of saxes, guitars, keyboards, trombone and vocalists is fronted by Siyabonga Mthembu, the lead singer of Shabaka and The Ancestors, the British jazz band led by the fiercely political saxophonist and composer Shabaka Hutchings – who also plays on this album.

As with their previous albums this one is full of protest, aimed partly at the lingering effects of apartheid but also at global food production systems that exert their own kind of tyranny – thus the album’s title. Some recent South African jazz albums have seemed like pale echoes of the glory days of anti-apartheid protest, but not this one. There’s anger certainly, but also a self-questioning in some of the lyrics, a feeling of searching for something that can’t even be named.

It’s as if the urgency of that 1970s album has been transposed onto a more distant, Utopian plane. You feel it in the way each track seems to “find its voice”, as Mthembu’s extraordinary heart-stopping singing surges up behind the flute-and-sax melodies, and the way the long fading-away of each track seems to gesture towards some hoped-for future. Protest albums don’t come more subtle and moving than this. Ivan Hewett