15 new radical records worth a listen

Neil Young breaks new ground. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
November 12, 2014

Here's this month's roundup of left-leaning music, with a strong contingent from Melbourne. What album, or albums, would you suggest? Comment below, on Twitter or Facebook.

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1. Neil Young's new album, Storytone, continues his five decade-long campaign for the environment and constant quest for musical reinvention. His new protest song about the planet's future, "Who's Gonna Stand Up?" sounds particularly fitting in the version sung by children. But Young says the orchestral take breaks new ground: "With over sixty of the music industry's finest musicians and a thirty-voice choir, this epic version resonates with a sound that has never been heard on a protest song before." On the solo version, Young's frail falsetto sounds as fragile as the earth itself as he asks: "Who's gonna stand up and save the earth? Who's gonna take on the big machine?" The corporate media have noted Young "wryly" follows that song with one titled "I Want To Drive My Car". But his car is LincVolt, his own electric-biofuel hybrid invention. Imperfect though it may be, it's another example of his innovation, which ranges from patents on toy trains to his new high-definition music format, Pono. http://bit.ly/1ts9ija

2. Australian Hip-Hop reared its ignorant head again late last month as one of its biggest stars, Pez, took to Facebook to complain he'd been a victim of racism because he was called "skip" at school. When they'd stopped laughing, non-whites piled onto his status to point out the difference between being called a name and suffering a life of institutionalised racism. Thankfully, a couple of weeks later, the new album from black and white US duo Run The Jewels came out and reminded the world there are white rappers out there who understand what "white privilege" means. Their track "Lie Cheat And Steal", on new album Run The Jewels 2, takes a swipe at a "prisoner of privilege", billionaire Clippers chief Donald Sterling, who was ousted following a racist outburst and went on to blubber on TV. The black half of the duo, Killer Mike, also publicly called for an end to police violence after the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson. Being shot dead and being called "skip". See the difference, Pez? http://bit.ly/1uPvcOC

3. Also calling for an end to racist police violence was Los Angeles rapper Vince Staples on his latest record, the Def Jam-released Hell Can Wait. His song "Hands Up" appeared to take its name directly from the protests over Mike Brown's killing in Ferguson, when young African-Americans flooded the streets with their hands raised, chanting Brown's reported last words, "Hands Up! Don't Shoot!" Staples took to Twitter to make the brief statement: "Hands Up is not about Ferguson." But the song's message, railing against "paying taxes for some fucking clowns to ride around whooping niggas’ asses", is universal. On the track, Staples raps: "Nigga freeze, put your hands in the air. Raidin' homes without a warrant. Shoot him first without a warning. And they expect respect and non-violence. I refuse the right to be silent." http://bit.ly/1qBPsCf

4. Also hailing from working-class California, punk old-hands Rancid continue to defy their name by sounding as fresh as ever on their eighth album. Honor Is All We Know touches on the usual themes of brotherhood and solidarity over a rollicking soundtrack that shuffles from punk to ska all the way back to punk again. For their more political fans, the standout tracks will be "Power Inside" - complete with its homage to the "power in union" - and "Raise Your Fist", which urges: "Apathetic revolution, people gone put to sleep. If the people'll wake up, there'll be riots in the streets. Raise your fist - raise your fist! - against the power - raise your fist! - the oppressive power that exists." The lyrics may be a little uncomplicated for some, but the album comes with the kind of standalone basslines and killer hooks that have reeled them in millions of record sales. http://bit.ly/1uhAiqT

5. If you like your punk a little more underground and complex, you could do worse than British duo Sleaford Mods. Their latest album, Divide And Exit, has been hailed by style bible Pitchfork as "about as punk as punk gets in 2014". Sleaford Mods do call themselves punks, but are more like a head-on collision between Brummie chart-topping rapper The Streets and indie raving Mancunian loons The Happy Mondays. Divide And Exit contends that, "Chumbawamba weren't political, they were just crap." But you'll have to delve further back into Sleaford Mods' back catalogue to mine their most radical gems. Last year's Austerity Dogs album takes bitter bites out of Britain and this year's long-player, Chubbed Up, contains the instructive "Jobseeker", which features the immortal lines: "So Mr Williamson, what have you done in order to find gainful employment since your last signing-on date?" "FUCK ALL. I sat around the house wanking, and I want to know why you don't serve coffee here." http://bit.ly/10TM4Mk

6. Similarly work-shy is "Fuck Work", the highlight of the latest - and last, it seems - album from the Asylum Street Spankers. The Texan troubadours called it a day in 2011 after nearly two decades of working audiences with their energetic early 20th century folk, roots and ragtime music, which they often performed live with no amplification. The Last Laugh, a collection of their live performances, came out only this year. Sadly, it doesn't contain their biggest hit, the anti-war satirical song "Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV", which clocked up more than 1 million YouTube views shortly after its release in 2006. But the aforementioned "Fuck Work" more than makes up for that, telling the audience: "Wake to an alarm clock? You've got to be joking. I don't even think about getting up until it's right about time to start toking. I sit behind a desk all day I might develop some really weird quirks. What was I saying about work again?" The audience responds: "FUCK WORK!!!" http://bit.ly/1xopFT3

7. KMFDM continue their relentless industrial onslaught with their 19th album, Our Time Will Come. The band, whose name translates very loosely from the German "Kein Mehrheit Für Die Mitleid" as "no pity for the majority", have been supporting the 99% for the past 30 years. Our Time Will Come features the usual artwork from Aidan "Brute!" Hughes, whose Russian Constructivist-style sleeves have become as iconic as the band's music. New tracks such as "Brainwashed", "Shake The Cage" and "Blood Vs Money" hark back to the power of their best political work, which howled from albums such as 1995's Nihil and 2003's Bush-whacking WWIII. The most fun track, however, is lead single "Genau", which runs through all the German words that have become an everyday part of the English language. http://bit.ly/1qygTwP

8. Also holding it down for European political electronic music are French cyberpunks Chrysalide. Their name, derived from the term for butterfly pupae, "expresses a metaphor on the human race – how behind every worm, who we are, there is a butterfly". Their pounding beats demolish topics such as, in their words, "globalisation, the European economy, and the effect of a vicious financial market onto the yet helpless individual". If the promise of ultra-heavy, dark stomping electro and caustic vocals doesn't sound your thing, try the opening line from the first track off their new album, Personal Revolution. The song, titled “Welcome To The 21st Century” declares the era: “The century of all crisis: political, economical, ecological, moral and individual. To sum up: This world is totally fucked up!” http://bit.ly/1tv5opT

9. Muslimgauze's prodigious output continues to amaze, not least because he's been dead for 15 years. The Mancunian artist otherwise known as Bryn Jones was manically active, inundating labels with his leftfield Middle Eastern-influenced electronica for 16 years before he died of a rare fungal infection at the age of 37. He preferred to let his song titles speak for themselves, but critics of his pro-Palestine stance pointed to the fact he'd never been there. His response was: "I would never go to an occupied land, others shouldn't. Zionists living off Arab land and water is not a tourist attraction." His latest release, Un-used Re-mix's 1994–1995, clatters with heavy dhol drums and stuttering tape edits that some may find a little disorientating. http://bit.ly/1y5jUMK

10. Acclaimed English protest singer Grace Petrie gets the fuller sound she deserves on Love Is My Rebellion, her first album with a band. Adding The Benefits Culture - otherwise known as bassist Caitlin Field and drummer Jess Greengrass - greatly benefits her clean, catchy, sardonic folk. "All In It Together" takes a government slogan and picks off the equally elitist opposition and government one by one, including Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and PM David Cameron. "Why listen to our health care staff's opinions, when we've got those of Mr Hunt? When every doctor and every nurse that I've spoken to seem to think that he's a cuuuuuuuuompletley inappropriate choice for the job. If we can just squeeze you all a little tighter, every penny we must save. But old boys, do relax, we wouldn't dream of a mansion tax. Yes, we're all in it together, us and Dave." http://bit.ly/1oEXI8T

11. Not too many power metal bands reference George Orwell, but Steel Prophet do on their new album, Omniscient. In a flurry of steroid-chomping riffs, "1984 (George Orwell Is Rolling In His Grave)" shrieks: "George! George Or-well! Must be rolling in his grave in a rising police staaaate!" It's a return to political form for Steel Prophet, who as far back as 1996 included an anti-corporate ecological protest song, "Environmental Revolt", on their Continuum EP. In 1999, they put out Dark Hallucinations, a concept album based on Ray Bradbury's dystopian book-burning novel Fahrenheit 451. And "Political Greed" on their 2004 album, Beware, seethed: "See the children in this fucking war / They've got the money, political deeds / Giving life for a barrel of gas / Becoming victims of corporate greed." http://on.fb.me/1EnPS5v

12. Australia is one of the most multicultural countries on Earth, yet language and immigration maps show how its ethnicities tend to keep themselves separate. Not so with Australian roots veterans Blue King Brown. "Someone once said we're like the United Nations," says magnetic frontwoman Natalie Pa'apa'a, whose own background includes Samoan, Native American, Basque and Mexican heritage. The polished production on the Melbourne-based artists' new album, Born Free, serves as a solid base for the many topics they tackle, from education and media manipulation to activism and inequality. The first single, "Rize Up", declares: "It really makes me wonder, however did we let this go on for so long, exploit the Earth until the very end, that's how it happens when control stays with dem greedy men." http://bit.ly/10TMUZx

13. Another poster child for Melbourne multiculturalism could be folk-protest outfit Little Foot, who ooze cultural tolerance. Frontwoman Celine Yap spent a harrowing childhood in the Philippines separated from her family in a convent - and the experience has heightened her sensitivity to the pain of refugees. Asylum seekers are just one of the many topics Little Foot cover on their new album, Be Brave. They are a regular fixture at rallies in Melbourne, reaching out to audiences with songs that range from worker's rights and the anti-war movement to the mining and deforestation of countries worldwide. "Folk music, though sometimes sad, gives the listeners a feeling of hope, and a feeling of empowerment to make a change," says Yap. http://bit.ly/1xoUSq8

14. Les Thomas also hails from Melbourne, but his high-quality Americana is world-class. Though his sound may be universal, his album Survivor's Tale focuses laser-like on Australian politics, burning through the country's treatment of refugees, in particular. Thomas summons power from the personal, highlighting individual asylum seekers' stories on "Free Ranjini" and "Song For Selva", which opens: "My name is Selva Kulachelvan / And I am fighting for my life / Thirty-seven months I’ve been held / I miss my child I miss my wife." On his homage to American folk legend Woody Guthrie and the slogan on Guthrie's guitar, "This machine kills fascists", Thomas sings: "If Woody had lived till the present day / Bet he’d speak out loud and have a lot to say / Maybe his machine would cut razor wire." http://bit.ly/1ssJbbL

15. When he's not writing record-breaking solo hits like "Somebody I Used To Know", Belgian-born Melbourne musician Gotye plays his part in politically reinvigorated indie trio The Basics. Like fellow Melbourne-based musician Tex Perkins, The Basics have announced their intention to run in Victoria's elections on November 29. Though they may both be a little light on policies, The Basics at least have a pretty solid protest single in the shape of the Midnight Oil-esque "The Lucky Country". But the best thing about the song is that The Basics asked the general public to suggest their favourite protest music on launching the single via campaign group GetUp! The comments showed ordinary Australians are well aware of a wealth of protest music out there, even if most gets neglected by the publicists-feed-music-press machine. http://bit.ly/1xoqnj7

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From last month: 12 new left-leaning albums worth a listen

From September: Ten new albums worth a listen

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