The great Britrock survivors Stereophonics are back, plus the week’s best albums
Stereophonics, Oochya! ★★★☆☆
Stereophonics’ 12th album starts exactly as you might expect, with a slick and sleazy guitar riff firing up a full-on blast of bluesy rock whilst songwriter, guitarist and frontman Kelly Jones spits out a lyric crammed with rock ’n’ roll buzzwords such as love, hate, boys, girls, time, faith, devils, sinners and saints, as if just by piling them all up they might yield some meaning. “So what’s new?” Jones drawls at one point, to which one might be tempted to respond: “Not a lot.” But that is exactly the appeal of Britrock’s great survivors.
It has been 25 years since Stereophonics’ 1997 debut, Word Gets Around. A power trio from Cwmaman in Wales, they were unapologetically old-fashioned right from the start. Late entrants in the fading light of Britpop, they revved-up the genre’s 1960s-fetishising, art-pop stylings with a hefty dose of 1970s raunch. Think of that style of good-time, raucous boogie rock and soul riffage once banged out with considerable élan by tight-trousered, long-haired men in such uncomplicated bands as The Faces and Free, with a hefty dash of The Rolling Stones at their least self-conscious. The Welsh ensemble’s not so secret weapon was Jones himself, a slick guitarist and catchy pop songwriter with one of those ripped and ragged soul voices that makes every note sound like it was issued in a state of emotional torture yet somehow always remains tuneful.
The title, Oochya!, is not (according to Jones) the sound you make when you step on a piece of Lego, but a celebratory incantation, “a bit like ‘let’s have it!’ – a blast of energy and optimism”. The band smash through 15 songs in just over an hour, spanning raunchy pop rock to overwrought ballads and back again. Every one of them has a chorus that will instantly lodge in your head, whether you welcome it or not.
What Jones and his cohort (who added an extra guitarist in 2012, just in case anyone was concerned there weren’t enough fuzzy riffs and howling solos to go round) are particularly good at is building tracks, so that basic, repetitive elements are gradually underscored until the ending becomes a kind of valedictory reiteration of what we have heard so far, usually with Jones roaring on top like an unchained beast. The songs themselves may not be complex but the simple and sincere emotions expressed on anthems such as the chiming indie epic Forever, the rip-roaring AC/DC-style rocker Running Round My Brain and the Rod-Stewart-flavoured piano ballad Every Dog Has Its Day carry a potent weight of feeling and offer euphoric release.
Critics tend to be disparaging about artists who stay so resolutely inside their comfort zone, and yet there is a purist thrill in honing a style to perfection. How else do you explain such much-loved rock institutions as the Ramones, Status Quo, AC/CD, ZZ Top and Motorhead? Stereophonics have had 11 Top 10 albums, including seven number ones. If it ain’t broke, then get it back out on the road and flog it for all its worth. Oochya! indeed. Neil McCormick
Nilüfer Yanya, PAINLESS ★★★★★
Nilüfer Yanya makes hazy bedroom pop that’s sung so intimately it feels like you’re having a midnight heart-to-heart with your best friend. The 26-year-old west Londoner underpins her half-slurred vocals with a ferocious wit, with 2019’s Miss Universe a smart concept album that mocked the relentless propaganda of the wellness industry.
But where previous records such as Miss Universe and 2021’s Inside Out were sparse, Yanya’s excellent new album, PAINLESS, marks an evolution into a much fuller songwriter. Everything here feels dialed up and more precise, and where Yanya might have relied on a stream-of-consciousness approach to melody in the past, she’s now leaning into massive, soul-bearing hooks that can – and surely will – fill stadiums.
The intoxicating yet devilish trip-hop of the song L/R will remind you of a golden-era Portishead, as Yanya swings between lust (“Take me out to the beach / take off all your clothes”) and fear. Shameless is even better, with Yanya making peace with pain amid haunting guitar licks reminiscent of Elliott Smith at his most vulnerable. Perhaps the most apt comparison is an In Rainbows-era Radiohead, with the chaotic drumming of Stabilise channeling the madcap energy of Weird Fishes / Arpeggi, while Yanya’s lyrics (“I’m not waiting for anyone to save me”) carry that Thom Yorke-esque bittersweet melancholy.
When a singer-songwriter wears their influences this openly (as a tribute to her roots, Yanya also plays the saz, a string instrument used in Turkish folk music), it’s easy to make comparisons, but Yanya deserves enormous credit for a confessional style of songwriting (“I remember everything so I can’t take back anything” she admits on the raw Midnight Sun) that’s very much her own. Because there’s a rap-type of percussion to her music, it’s hard to tell whether she’s ready to break into an indie harmony or some lo-fi poetry – yet this unpredictability is what makes PAINLESS so exciting to sit through.
Across these 12 colorful, escapist songs, the singer purges her heartbreak and works through the inner city blues, letting out a sentiment (“I can tell you feel exhausted. You are not the only one”) on the highlight, Company, that will resonate with just about everybody in the UK right now. This should rubber-stamp Nilüfer Yanya as a generational star. Thomas Hobbs
Kojey Radical, Reason to Smile ★★★★☆
With bold lyrics that intellectualise sex (“Lip-lock with logic and make sweet passionate sense to you”) and call out institutional racism, Kojey Radical has been earmarked as the next big thing in UK rap for quite some time now. Sitting on the fringes of the mainstream, his very good EPs and mixtapes have straddled genres including funk, neo-soul, punk, jazz and RnB, as the Hoxton-based artist defied expectations like his life depended on it by popping up with guest verses on songs by Sons of Kemet, Amaarae and Rudimental. It felt like he could be the new Roots Manuva.
While this long-awaited major label debut, Reason To Smile, carries less of the pan-African revolutionary ideals of Kojey’s previous work, which seemed to favour the radical “by any means necessary” politics of Malcolm X over the “all men are created equal” ideals of Martin Luther King Jr, it is a dose of sunshine that presents a welcome step-change. From the off, Kojey sounds looser and like a large weight has been moved off his shoulders, with the joyful title track including the telling boast of: “I felt 10 pounds lighter when I let go of my fears, and I found my reason to smile.”
On the warm Together, which is littered with sticky, Isley Brothers-esque synths, there’s testimony from Kojey’s mother about how she used to dread school parents’ evening meetings. Later on, she talks about the culture shock of being an immigrant forced to move to the UK in the freezing winter. All this nostalgia lends the music a real warmth, and it subsequently feels as though you were listening to music performed at a family gathering, with everyone now in a position to make light of the dark times in the past.
Although the celebratory atmosphere is very Stand! by Sly and the Family Stone, Kojey doesn’t forget his obligation to the street, with the more gutter Pusher Man BWI deftly dealing with themes such as survivor’s guilt and society’s fear of a “black man with intelligence (BWI)”. There are a few moments here that feel like major label fodder, sure, but on the whole Kojey Radical deserves enormous credit for putting out an album that remains thoughtful and spiky despite its clear intention to get people dancing.
He’s reminding us of our reasons to smile at a time where there don’t appear to be many left, and, for this service, Kojey Radical should finally take the spot he’s long been earmarked for. Thomas Hobbs