Retro appeal

Music - Stephanie Merritt on the new stars and old-stagers we'll be listening to this summer

While nothing about the guttural vigour of Patti Smith's distinctive voice betrays her age (57), one song on Trampin' (Columbia), her first studio album in four years, marks it as unmistakably contemporary. "Radio Baghdad" is a strident 12-minute proclamation of the past glories of "the cradle of civilisation on the banks of the Euphrates". As the coursing, distorted guitars rise to a crescendo, Smith cries: "They're robbing the cradle", and urges the city to flee its oppressors. (And to think Bush got upset about the Dixie Chicks.) Elsewhere, Smith calls upon older influences: "In My Blakean Year" is a bold attempt to put the poet's images to music, while "Gandhi" is another trum-pet call for peace. But it's not all tub-thumping. "Mother Rose" jangles happily with Byrds-like guitars, and the soft closure of the title song, over a solo piano, is further proof (if any were needed) of the mother of punk's versatility.

If, early in their careers, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had recorded a joint album, it might have sounded like Nic Armstrong's The Greatest White Liar (One Little Indian). Armstrong's debut - produced by Liam Watson, who was responsible for the White Stripes's Elephant - pays deft tribute to the R'n'B bands of the 1950s and 1960s, but also to the jauntier pop of groups such as the Beatles and the Kinks. Of the 14 tracks here (only one of which, "Down Home Girl", is a cover), at least half are impossible to stop humming. Highlights include the Manfred Mann-influenced "She Changes Like the Weather" and "Scratch the Surface", a bubbly folksy number. But Armstrong also lets rip with a good old Jagger scream on such hard blues songs as "Natural Flair" and "Broken Mouth Blues". And he plays all his own guitar, bass, piano and harmonica to boot.

Perhaps surprisingly for a label associated with the rock revival led by the Strokes and the Libertines, Rough Trade snapped up the Delays, a highly accomplished Southampton four-piece whose bright, soaring California pop recalls the La's, the Cocteau Twins and, more recently, Tim Burgess. The group's first album, Faded Seaside Glamour, entered the indie charts at number one, thanks in part to the mainstream success of the two singles, "Hey Girl" and "Long Time Coming". In one sense, the Delays are only reinventing the wheel, but there's a laid-back and - dare I say it - almost Beach Boys-esque feel to their guitar-driven music that has been sorely missing from the art-punk-garage-rock boom. Vocalist and songwriter Greg Gilbert's falsetto brings tears to the eyes, yet not for a moment does he sound as if he's not enjoying himself. This looks like being one of the definitive albums of the summer.

German-born composer Max Richter's The Blue Notebooks (Fat Cat Records) may sound pretentious (it's a fusion of modern classical music with spoken excerpts from Franz Kafka and Czeslaw Milosz), but in fact this is an album of astonishing beauty and depth. In a voice of crystal precision, Tilda Swinton reads meditations on transience from Kafka's Blue Octavo Notebooks and Milosz's poems "Hymn of the Pearl" and "Unattainable Earth". In the title track, her voice rises above the yearning notes of a solo piano and the clacking of a manual typewriter; later, in "Shadow Journal", she speaks unaccompanied. There are background hints of Brian Eno and Philip Glass (Richter's classical ensemble, Piano Circus, regularly performed works by those composers), and the overall mood is one of deliciously aching tristesse. The effect may be oddly soporific, but Richter's arrangements of piano and strings could hardly be improved. Perfect if you're searching for original mood music.

It's almost impossible to find a contemporary R'n'B artist under 30 who doesn't cite Prince's music as a major influence. By this, they usually mean the seminal pop-funk albums that cast a long shadow over the 1980s. In the past decade, however, the diminutive icon has pursued a trajectory of wilful oddness, changing his name to a hieroglyph and using his own label to release a string of forgettable albums. But with Musicology, the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince has returned both to a major label (Columbia) and to his old form, composing, producing, arranging and performing vocals and every instrument on each of the album's 11 tracks. The title song is a full-blooded funk track, while "Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance" knowingly blends riffs sampled from previous hits. And the return to mainstream pop hasn't dulled his edge: "Cinnamon Girl" is an explicit commentary on 9/11 and the legacy of the war on terror: "Militants bomb with foreign guns/Both sides children die."

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