Ozzy Osbourne, Robbie Williams, Jockstrap – the week’s best albums
Ozzy Osbourne, Patient Number 9 ★★★★☆
There was a time when it seemed unlikely that we would hear from Ozzy Osbourne again. Heavy metal’s clown prince of darkness has had a rough few years, in which he revealed that he has Parkinson’s disease (diagnosed in 2003 but kept secret until 2019), was hospitalised for pneumonia, Covid and blood clots, and underwent “life-changing” surgery following a fall. A planned farewell tour has been postponed multiple times: the dates are currently pencilled in for 2023.
Then up he popped at the Commonwealth Games in his native Birmingham last month, strapped to a back brace to keep him vertical, grinning with delight as he roared through the 1970 anthem Paranoid accompanied by his old Black Sabbath sidekick Tony Iommi on guitar. Now, here’s his 13th solo album (to add to the nine he recorded with Sabbath), Patient Number 9: a defiantly bravura set of melodic metal on which the 73-year-old genuinely sounds as though he’s having the time of his life.
Osbourne’s regal status is confirmed by the starry quality of his supporting players, including all-time great guitarists Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. The core backing band is made up of Metallica bassist Roberto Trujillo and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, augmented by members of Guns ’N Roses, Queens of the Stone Age, Pearl Jam and the late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins. Iommi appears for the first time on an Osbourne solo album, bringing psychedelic Sabbath riffing to No Escape From Now, a sludgy tempo-shifting epic of dread and fear. “Memories go up in flames / Shovel dirt upon my name / See my future circle in a drain,” Osbourne wails. This, to be fair, is the kind of thing that passes for good cheer in his horrormeister oeuvre.
No one ever went to an Ozzy Osbourne record for wisdom and self-reflection, and being confronted with his mortality on a daily basis doesn’t seem to have changed him much. “I’m not getting out alive,” he sings on the title track – but rather than a rumination on the inevitable, it’s just some silliness about life being like an asylum. By the second track, Immortal, Osbourne is wailing about being a vampire. In a recent interview, he admitted that he didn’t always understand Geezer Butler’s fantastical Sabbath lyrics, and that personally he “could sing about any old s--t”. The lurid Degradation Rules is credited to all key musicians, so we can’t lay all the blame on Osbourne for its “sticky little magazines” and “masturbating fools”.
The most eloquent moments belong to the guitarists. Beck tears up the title track and adds atmospheric flair to the stately A Thousand Shades, a ballad that wouldn’t embarrass Noel Gallagher. It’s interesting to hear Clapton’s sensitive bluesy twists in a heavy metal context on One of Those Days, where Osbourne almost sounds soulful singing about a loss of faith. His voice has never been particularly nimble: what it has is tone and power, and producer Andrew Watt is adept at building big, exciting tracks to surround Osbourne’s bellowing. The virtuoso guitarist Zakk Wylde does a lot of the heavy lifting, driving big riffs through songs with schlocky titles such as Parasite, Mr Darkness and Evil Shuffle.
Right at the close, God Only Knows hints at something approaching profundity, as Osbourne addresses the fear that may have always lurked behind his fascination with horror imagery. “Wonder what will come after / Will we do it all again? / Things that used to matter / They don’t matter in the end,” he sings. Yet he remains defiant to the last: “Better to burn in hell than fade away.” On Patient Number 9, the old devil’s still burning. Neil McCormick
Robbie Williams, XXV ★★★☆☆
To mark his 25 years as a solo artist, Robbie Williams has re-recorded his greatest hits with Netherlands-based Metropole Orkest, the leading jazz-and-pop orchestra. With new orchestrations by hipster composer Jules Buckley, his old writing chum Guy Chambers and the Grammy-winning arranger Steve Sidwell, XXV includes six Number One songs and a further 10 Top 10 hits among its 19 tracks. Its sleeve features a naked Williams recreating the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker – a refreshing reminder that pop stars are still allowed to be bombastic and ridiculous. You couldn’t imagine Ed Sheeran or Lewis Capaldi doing such a thing.
Do these new orchestrations add anything? In many cases, yes. Williams’s 2000 hit Rock DJ is fantastically reimagined as a swooning soft-disco number by The Love Unlimited Orchestra, while Feel gains some gloriously ghostly operatic backing vocals.
Millennium, which was already based on John Barry’s theme to the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, gets even more Bond-y with added stabby horns. No Regrets also gets the full 007 treatment, with new, funky guitars. In fact, it may here be exposed as the greatest Bond theme that never was; Sheryl Crow’s Tomorrow Never Dies and Garbage’s The World is Not Enough were the forgettable themes either side of its release in 1998 – did producers miss a trick by overlooking Williams?
The standout track is the most pared-back, a song called Nobody Someday. Some of these re-recordings, however, add little. Let Me Entertain You sounds essentially the same, save perhaps for punchier horns and a choir at the breakdown. The Road to Mandalay loses its Divine Comedy-like jauntiness and becomes a dull cul-de-sac, while the song Bodies is stripped of the Trevor Horn production that made it interesting in the first place. She’s The One was already a cover of a World Party song. The new iteration is therefore a cover version of a cover version. I prefer the middle one.
At 48, Williams remains one of our greatest showmen and a fantastic live act. This doesn’t stop this self-covers album from feeling a bit like a stopgap. Still, XXV is a big, bold and brassy reminder of Williams’s stonking back catalogue. Fans will lap it up. Give him the Legends slot at Glastonbury immediately. James Hall
Jockstrap, I Love You Jennifer B ★★★★☆
It’s often mentioned that the duo Jockstrap – Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye – are alumni of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Though it has an Electronic and Produced Music Department, musically it’s better known for the classics: opera and orchestra, violin and voice. It has also produced some of the most bankable actors of screen and stage: think Michelle Dockery and Daniel Craig.
On their much-anticipated debut album, I Love You Jennifer B, Jockstrap meld those strengths, creating an album robust in both scope and sound. It’s orchestral in parts, but it features digital instruments throughout, and sometimes even indie-folk guitar parts take centre stage. Thematically, it’s more pedestrian – though not to its detriment. Ellery, who takes full charge of the lyrical content, approaches themes of love and loss. Millennial anxiety is central, too: “Get a job, get a house, get a car, get a record deal,” she sings on Lancaster Court.
Ellery’s dominating voice would fit sweetly in an opera house, but she can also channel a quiet uncertainty that produces a palpable sense of dread – more punk than precise. No more is this evident on the song Greatest Hits, which starts with a joyous, groovy synthesiser that harkens back to Kraftwerk, and a haunting vocal sample that provides bedding for Emery’s own saccharine vocals, before it unexpectedly implodes into a confrontational orchestral line.
Fans of Jockstrap’s early singles will have expected the unpredictable, but it may be a shock that it works so well. A 43-minute debut would often give too much room to adventurous musicians and their aspirations, but Ellery and Skye have managed cohesion amid the cacophony. I Love You Jennifer B is a dramatic outing that combines the modern, the classical and everything else in between. You wonder, optimistically, what else is left? Where else can this duo go? Michelle Kambasha
Oliver Sim, Hideous Bastard ★★★★☆
“Been living with HIV since 17 / Am I hideous?” Oliver Sim’s stark admission falls at the end of Hideous, the lead single from his debut solo album, Hideous Bastard. Even with Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Somerville on hand as a glittery guardian angel – “Follow my voice, sweet-natured boy,” Somerville counsels in trademark sky-high tones – Sim’s lines are devastating.
The xx musician was inspired by videos of Somerville talking openly about AIDS on breakfast television in the early 1990s – defying a homophobic horror like that present in stock imagery of monkeypox plastered across the media this year. What follows, however, is not an artist courting today’s obligation to have a stance. All Hideous Bastard preaches is a sense of unburdening, and it celebrates queerness and love, most successfully on the stand-out track GMT. “I’m on Greenwich Mean Time, missing you, missing you,” Sim repeats, his voice coagulating with emotion.
As part of his Mercury-winning band, Sim helped to define the sound of the 2010s. Here, with bandmate Jamie xx (real name Jamie Smith) sitting comfortably in the producer’s chair, their solemn yet charged indie electronica underpins Hideous Bastard, and bleeds through tracks such as Never Here, Confident Man, and the (alas, too short) Unreliable Narrator.
But this is no watered-down xx record. Somerville leaves a trail through the album, fleshed out by samples of 1960s songwriters such as Brian Wilson, Lee Hazlewood, Sam Dees and Del Shannon. Sim adopts a John Grant-style baritone rumble, as per the camp growl of Romance With a Memory, while horror-movie imagery recalls the visual-heavy work of other fellow queer musicians Perfume Genius, Fever Ray and Anohni.
Mired in a mid-tempo mood, the album delays any real jollity until the final tracks, Fruit and Run The Credits. Hideous Creature doesn’t possess the same pop immediacy of Sim’s day job, but it does feel like a record that needed to be made: vital and beautiful. Kate French-Morris
Sampa the Great, As Above, So Below ★★★★★
Sampa the Great’s cosmopolitan background – born in Zambia; raised in Botswana; educated partly in America, and partly in Australia (where she was based for several years) – is evident in her scintillating and confident second full album, As Above, So Below.
The first artist to win the Australian Music Prize twice – for her 2017 mixtape, Birds and the Bee9, and her 2019 debut album, The Return – Sampa Tembo’s new record came about after she relocated to Zambia during the lockdown and reconnected with its musical traditions. Some of the songs, such as Mask On, are standard hip-hop fare, and reflect her inspiration from America. But on most of the tracks, English lyrics are interspersed with words spoken or sung in a Bantu language called Bemba.
The breakout track is titled Never Forget, and it’s an ode to a genre called Zamrock, which emerged in the 1970s as a combination of traditional Zambian music and psychedelic rock. The chorus of the track is beautifully sung by Tembo’s sister Mwanjé, and there are backing vocals and rapping from her fellow Zambians Chef 187 and Tio Nason. Sampa’s lyrics – “Who’s the origin / Straight from the soil / And then redistributed / Who did (never forget)” – speak to her ethos and that of her nation’s musical tradition, to which this song is a great ode: plucking native genres and infusing them with a modern, energising twist. This is music to bop to on the streets, to listen to in church with a big congregation, or to soak up alone in a room. Tomiwa Owolade
Santigold, Spirituals ★★★★☆
Listen to almost any album today and it’ll sound like an iPod on shuffle. In the past decade, musicians have developed an anarchic relationship with form; pop and metal have gone from mortal enemies to playmates, while hip-hop cosies up to country.
Enter Philadelphia’s Santi White, aka Santigold. Just before the turn of the 2010s, the dance-punk and multi-disciplinarian was laying the groundwork for that genre-clashing model. As she marks her return with her fourth full-length work, Spirituals – her first in six years – she’s showing all the musicians she’s taught how it’s really done.
Now a mother of three, Santigold recorded Spirituals during the pandemic, at a time when she felt her creativity taking a backseat to her domestic duties. There is horror, grief and deep uncertainty on this album, but you’d hardly know it; each feeling of discomfort is tempered and transmuted into something groovy, manageable, breezy. A kind of breeze that somehow manages to sink its claws into you.
Hosting a whole jubilee of enviable production talent, including Rostam and Boys Noize, as well as an enormous sonic palette that encompasses everything from arch electroclash to updated Afrobeat, Spirituals is tonally consistent despite its range of distinctive influences and talents. Just when Santigold threatens to lean into the corny, as on the SBTRKT-produced Shake, she pulls back, adding a whimsical, purposefully on-the-nose rattle sound at the end of each wedding disco-like “shake, shake, shake it” hook. It’s a joy to hear her back in her creative swing. Emma Madden
Sudan Archives, Natural Brown Prom Queen ★★★★☆
In traditional Sudanese music, the violin is king: the violin-led orchestras of ’70s Khartoum would sell records worldwide. The instrument draws out melodies, jousts with woodwind and even mimics the human voice. This spectacular scene was, however, silenced by the 1983 advent of sharia law. As her stage name suggests, the American singer and violinist Sudan Archives (real name Brittney Denise Parks) is reviving that cultural heritage – then adding sultry RnB vocals and sonic homages to the ’70s Cameroonian electronic artist Francis Bebey.
The effect is arresting, the rhythms dazzling and the pacing dreamlike as Sudan Archives trills and sautilles her way through her second album, Natural Brown Prom Queen. In songs such as Selfish Soul, a jaunty, staccato violin refrain buffers the words “I don’t want no struggles, I don’t want no fears”. The song queries the championing of Eurocentric beauty standards, the protagonist musing “if I wear [my hair] straight, would he like me more?” before embracing her “selfish soul” (read: bidding her trichological detractors adieu). While spirited, it’s no po-faced polemic: the insistent beat compels you to sway, to listen closely, to act magnanimously.
TDLY (Homegrown Land) boasts Cajun fiddle melodies ripened for the 21st century, while #513 sets proud lyrics to intricate pizzicato loops. Speaking as a fellow violinist, it’s easy to envy Sudan Archives’ talent, as she plays with gleeful abandon. At times the instrument is percussive in her hands; at others, distortions render it almost flutelike. But while this album invigorates and intrigues, in future I would hope to hear her expand lyrically, while exploring the hauntingly melancholic sounds her violin can produce. For now, at least, the defiant joy her work evokes is a stimulating jolt to the senses. Frances Forbes-Carbines