Albums of the week - from James Blunt to Rex Orange County
James Blunt and Stereophonics deliver excellent records this week, showing that despite many years in the industry, they remain at the top of their game.
JAMES BLUNT - ONCE UPON A MIND
James Blunt is here to make you think deeply but feel pretty darn positive at the same time.
The You're Beautiful crooner has taken a personal edge with his sixth album, but despite its depth and candour (Blunt sings to his ailing father and his far-away family in some of the touching odes to his relatives), there's a palatable pep to the record, the largely cheery-sounding folksy-pop songs spiked with jubilation.
Having dabbled with electronica on his previous album, Blunt is back to what he does best - combining his emotions with radio-friendly bops.
From the euphoria of opener The Truth - an upbeat song that would perfectly accompany a drive - to the anthemic and bold lyrical hug that is Champions and the dramatic, piano-laced How It Feels To Be Alive, Blunt is better than ever.
9/10: Lucy Mapstone
STEREOPHONICS - KIND
I wasn't sure what to expect from Stereophonics this time around because I felt their two previous offerings were hit and miss.
However, when I heard the album's first single, Fly Like An Eagle, a couple of months back, the excitement of listening to the rockers some 20-odd years ago came flooding back.
One thing frontman Kelly Jones has always excelled at is his ability to tell a story in his lyrics, and this shines through in Kind. You get the feeling this offering is more personal to him than others have been.
The excellent Street of Orange Light pushes the country twist on the album to the forefront, along with Make Friends With the Morning, which is close to being my favourite, just behind the aforementioned Fly Like an Eagle.
You get the feeling that the album is about searching for answers and maybe even a fresh start. They may have just found it as this is Jones back to his song-writing best.
9/10: Nick Hayward
REX ORANGE COUNTY - PONY
The soundtrack of an existential crisis may not sound enjoyable, but with Pony, Rex Orange County has beautifully captured the tensions of being young.
Rex Orange County, known to his parents as Alex O'Connor, jumps between jazz, balmy R&B, acoustic and 80s synthesiser-inspired pop with his hugely anticipated third album
Pony, O'Connor's first album with a record label, starts triumphantly, hooking you in before it flows between rough break-up tunes and whisper-soft melodies.
The album, almost entirely written and performed by O'Connor, is a masterclass in empathy.
It is a paradox of existential crisis and joyfulness that truly encapsulates the experience of being young in the modern world.
9/10: Jess Glass
UNDERWORLD - DRIFT SERIES 1
Drift Series 1 marks the end of a year-long experiment for Underworld.
Singer Karl Hyde and modular maverick Rick Smith have released weekly 'episodes' combining music, film and writing.
It's a brilliant move. Their live shows have never faltered, but recent releases failed to hit the high notes of their mid-90s pomp, or rival the quality and breadth of today's laptop-crafted electronica.
The space offered by the spontaneity of weekly releases gave the pair, who formed four decades ago in Cardiff, the freedom to take risks.
Over 52 episodes they revisited old tracks, released forgotten material and collaborated with contemporary stars such as London techno producer 0 [Phase] and Australian jazz band The Necks.
It's no substitute for having followed Underworld on their year-long journey, but as a record of what letting go and taking risks can do, it's a must listen. Here's to next year.
8/10: Alex Green
JAMES ARTHUR - YOU
On his third album, You, X Factor alumnus James Arthur finally starts to hit the right notes.
Flash back to 2012 - he triumphs on Simon Cowell's pop-factory and releases Impossible, the most successful winner's single in the show's history. But a series of scandals over homophobic language, as well as a well-documented battle with mental health, put the brakes on his ascension.
Make sure to pack your tissues. You is one-tone and there's no relief from the sadness. Still, it's an improvement on 2016's Back From the Edge. Arthur might be back on the up soon.
5/10: Alex Green