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As the King of Pop’s skin got lighter his music became more politicised, and 1991’s overlooked album encapsulated this radical moment in music

For a figure as enigmatic as Michael Jackson, one of the more fascinating paradoxes about his career is this: as he became whiter, he became blacker. Or to put it another way: as his skin became whiter, his work became blacker.

To elaborate, we must rewind to a crucial turning point: the early 1990s. In hindsight, it represents the best of times and the worst of times for the artist. In November 1991, Jackson released the first single from his Dangerous album: Black or White, a bright, catchy pop-rock-rap fusion that soared to No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained at the top of the charts for six weeks. It was his most successful solo single since Beat It.

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With their sundrenched soul-jazz grooves, this ambitious duo belie their suburban English origins

Hertfordshire isn’t typically a place you’d associate with smooth hip-hop-meets-R&B sounds, but rising duo Cold Callers are about to subvert your expectations. Toch-UQ and Timi.B met in secondary school during their GCSEs. “We started recording at our local youth centre and got more into it,” they have said. “Eventually we invested in our own equipment and ended up converting Toch’s shed into a studio, which is where we record most of our vocals.”

A shed in rainy suburban England is not the first place that comes to mind when listening to their breezy, sunshine-imbued music. Cold Callers’ As the Sun Sets EP, released last year, conjured up vapoury images of cruising through Los Angeles, all sultry and humid – albeit with the subtle inflections of British accents. Deliciously warm touches of jazz and soul give the duo a sound reminiscent of California group the Internet, and the same is true on their forthcoming EP Swallowed By the Sun (you might sense something of a pattern here).

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Trouble No More combines concert footage with specially commissioned sermons

The acute and sometimes obtuse angles of Bob Dylan’s career have teased and infuriated his public for more than half a century. But nothing – not the bizarre Christmas album, his no-show at the Nobel ceremony or allowing his music to be used in a Victoria’s Secret lingerie ad – has provoked the degree of derision that greeted his conversion to Christianity at the end of the 1970s, which is the subject of a film to be shown on the BBC later this month.

Vainly anticipating the oneiric visions of Mr Tambourine Man and the dazzling surrealism of Desolation Row, his audiences felt betrayed when the seemingly conventional opening line of a new composition – Are you ready? – was followed by a fusillade of more uncomfortably precise demands expressing his newfound faith: “Are you ready for the judgement? Are you ready for the terrible swift sword? Are you ready for Armageddon? Are you ready for the day of the Lord?”

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I know I’m an old man screaming about how scary the future is but technology is ruining music

I used to love the Wu-Tang Clan. They took my school by storm, by which I mean the three kids in my year who listened to hip-hop. I skipped lectures to go and buy their second album, Forever, and then rushed home to listen to it. It was a glorious hour or so before I realised the album was crap. I listened, willing it to be better than it was, much like I did when I first watched The Phantom Menace, which is dreadful apart from the Darth Maul lightsaber scene, which is possibly the greatest ever “good action scene in an awful movie”, probably contested only by Samuel L Jackson’s death in Deep Blue Sea.

If the way that last sentence jumped around without really focusing on any one point annoyed you, then welcome to my issues with the way that streaming sites such as Netflix, Tidal and Apple Music have affected the way that I consume hip-hop, and music in general. Everyone seems so excited by the fact that music is more accessible, people can find new artists more easily and it’s cheaper, without focusing on the potential negatives, not least of which is that idiots can more easily listen to your favourite music.

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Check out Angolan kuduro, fluffy disco-funk and whimsical fingerpicking in this month’s roundup of the best new music. Subscribe to the playlist of all 50 tracks and read about our 10 favourites

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They are sometimes written off as a band for music nerds – but their vastly varied three decades of music has something for everyone. The band pick out their own favourite songs, from duets with air conditioners to Sun Ra covers about 9/11

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As a book of interviews and box set of songs from Joni Mitchell’s career are released, long-time fan Sean O’Hagan argues that her run of five classic albums, from Blue in 1971 to Hejira in 1976, surpass the work of her more celebrated male contemporaries

“But even on the scuffle, the cleaner’s press was in my jeans/ And any eye for detail caught a little lace along the seams,” sang Joni Mitchell on a song called The Boho Dance from her 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. If the couplet was an acknowledgment of her Canadian well-bredness, it was also the perfect metaphor for the increasing sophistication of her music at that time, the “lace along the seams” of her songs.

“For a long time, I’ve been playing in straight rhythms,” Mitchell told her friend, Malka Marom, in 1973, in the first of the three extended interviews that are included in Both Sides Now, a new book published next month. “But now, in order to sophisticate my music to my own taste, I push it into odd places that feel a little unusual to me, so that I feel I’m stretching out.”

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Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 album of the same name was a full-on record, reacting to extraordinary times. Yo La Tengo’s 15th-odd offering sounds nothing like its namesake. It too is a reaction to tense times, but a much calmer one.

Like virtually every other Yo La Tengo album, Riot finds the veteran trio striving to make the guitar band sound like the high point of human civilisation, rather than a vehicle for rebelliousness. It is, however, a departure for them. Largely improvised, often meditative, these 15 tracks find Georgia Hubley often taking the lead on guitar, offering up ambient passages – like Dream Dream Away, a strummed interlude of off-hand beauty – and, on Esportes Casual, a little loungey bossanova that, though sweet, sits ill with the rest of this immersive listen.

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(All the Time Entertainment/RCA)

Snoop Lion, the Rastafarian reincarnation of Bob Marley we knew so briefly, is dead. Save your prayers. Snoop Dogg is reborn, just in time for Easter, clutching a Bible and an Alan Partridge-sized collection plate. It’s clear now that Snoop’s true master is neither Slick Rick nor Dr Dre, but Richard Branson. This latest brand extension is a two-hour-plus hip-hop gospel confection that’s briefly charmingly pleasant, then heartbreakingly boring. It has less edge than a child’s balloon.

Some wonderful singers feature, including the Clark Sisters and Fred Hammond, alongside a raft of unexceptional rappers. Yet, given Uncle Snoop’s supposed journey from pornography, pimping and murder into the glory of God’s kingdom, it’s dispiriting that so much material here is boilerplate encomia, feebly incurious about sin and repentance.

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The baritone has been performing with ENO for five decades and has weathered crises, protests and woodworm. Plenty might have changed, but not the company’s core mission - accessible and immediately understandable opera

I started singing with English National Opera (Sadler’s Wells Opera as it was then) quite out of breath. I was still a student at the London Opera Centre, and had been brought in to do three weeks of a 10-week tour singing the role of Papageno in The Magic Flute. I found myself on the first night in 1969 under the baton of the great Charles Mackerras, the maestro who made ENO what it is today. He arrived in my dressing room in the cavernous Liverpool Empire at five past seven with the curtain due to go up at quarter past. It was our first meeting.

“This tempo for the first aria alright?” he asked, tapping out a speed on the table that was about half of that which I’d spent the previous three weeks rehearsing. I was too frightened and in awe to protest that it was not. Papageno has about 30 seconds of introductory music to wander about the stage, firing arrows, miming bird-catching and so forth. On my first entrance on stage, those seconds turned terrifyingly into what felt like two long minutes, as I was forced to improvise yet more firing, miming and running around, until by the time I got to sing the first verse I was so exhausted I was hardly able...

Coliseum, London
Alan Opie injects true vocal class into director Daniel Kramer’s big old mess of a production

There was a noise in the auditorium when the curtain went up on English National Opera’s new La Traviata: the sound of 4,000 eyebrows being raised simultaneously. Daniel Kramer’s production is his first here since taking over as the company’s artistic director, and it certainly makes a big impression.

First staged in Basel last November, and designed by Lizzie Clachan (sets) and Esther Bialas (costumes), it opens with the kind of eyeful that UK opera-house budgets aren’t meant to stretch to any more: a big, glitzy party scene, with shiny walls stretching floor to ceiling. It might be a black-and-white ball in a very specialised nightclub. Lots of vaguely Edwardian men, having left their top hats in nifty lockers at the back, are in their vaguely Edwardian underwear, energetically engaging in variously camp forms of debauchery with a stageful of tarts on a stageful of playground equipment: a trampoline, a bucking bronco, a roundabout with chic white lights. That’s our first sight of the ever-reliable ENO chorus, and well done them.

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Cafe de Paris, London
Channelling heartache and Dolly Parton, the pop princess is reborn as a double-denim country queen at the first outing of her multifaceted new album

It starts with what sounds like the neigh of a horse, and Kylie, clad in faded double denim, descending a curved staircase like a sweetheart of the rodeo. A live band, looking only slightly rueful in their red neckerchiefs, like pet dogs in bandannas, rev up the title track from the singer’s forthcoming album, Golden, all distant Tarzan hollers and finger clicks. A glitter cannon discharges the first of many, many payloads.

Throughout the singer’s long career (by her own reckoning tonight, she’s “49 and ten-twelfths”), fans have never needed to mine Kylie’s output beyond the topsoil to find a vein of humour, or a gem or two indicating that her best work is being produced to arch and knowing standards. For every Locomotion – Stock, Aitken and Waterman-era froth – there has been a Can’t Get You Out of My Head (club-pop hammer blow of genius). This latest Minogue incarnation – shall we call her Dixie Minogue? Kyle Miner’s Daughter? – is, thankfully, no exception, as Kylie’s playfulness wins out tonight over what could be a high-fructose corn-fest.

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Statement festival, being held in summer 2018, will forbid men following a spate of sexual assaults at Swedish music festivals

Sweden will host a women-only music festival in the summer of 2018, after a successful crowdfunding campaign raised more than 500,000 Swedish krona (£47,000) for the venture, from 3,300 people.

Statement festival, which forbids cis men, comes in the wake of a series of sexual assaults at Swedish music festivals such as Bråvalla and Putte I Parken. There were four rapes and 23 sexual assaults at this year’s edition of Bråvalla, leading the event to be cancelled next year.

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Electric Brixton, London
The troubadour behind Hold Back the River has ditched the hipster hat for thigh-length boots – and a sleek new sound

James Bay’s ascent to pop stardom has appeared effortless. Having scooped the Brits Critics’ Choice award in 2015, the Hitchin-born singer-songwriter duly saw his debut album, Chaos and the Calm, hit No 1 and go double-platinum in the UK and Top 20 in the US, picking up a slew of industry awards along the way.

A stellar rise, and yet his press notices have not kept pace with this success. While sceptical critics have queued to write off Bay as an opportunistic purveyor of generic, ersatz blues-pop, a consensus has emerged that he is a hipster-hatted pretty boy of little substance or consequence.

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The US rapper is looking beyond her two Grammy nominations, and collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, to tell the ‘honest or ugly parts’ of African-American stories that are seldom heard

In January, 35-year-old Rapsody became the fifth woman ever to be nominated for best rap album at the Grammys, for Laila’s Wisdom – and picked up a nomination for best rap song, too. The self-described “tomboy” offers a ferocious voice to the voiceless: loaded with intricate rhyme patterns, wordplay and metaphors, her music coolly captures the essence of black women with a Maya Angelou-like grace. At her fiercest, she damningly critiques the US’s complex prison system – “I know prison business, but nobody know how many innocent in it,” she raps on Nobody – and attacks negative perceptions of the darker skinned. “Black and ugly as ever and still nobody fine as me / No one been as kind as me,” she sings on Black & Ugly.

These are vulnerable, complex stories not being told by the likes of Nicki Minaj and Cardi B – who are all braggadocio and self-empowerment – and so Rapsody sits in parallel to rap’s female resurgence. “I want to make music that people can feel and connect with,” she says in a soothing low register before her sell-out show at the Jazz Cafe, London. “I love making music that I care about, and if you listen to it, you can tell I care about my craft and people and our communities.”

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Phil Elverum’s last album focused unsparingly on his wife’s death, and a year later, the loss is still paralysing, though leavened with tiny moments of hope

It’s not often that an artist describes their latest work as “barely music”, but that was the frank assessment posited by singer-songwriter Phil Elverum about his eighth album under the name Mount Eerie, 2017’s A Crow Looked at Me.

Elverum had a point. Since the late 90s, when he began releasing music as frontman of Olympia indie band the Microphones, Elverum has pursued the kind of uncompromising, esoteric career that invites listeners to either doggedly follow him down whatever unlikely musical path his muse leads, or get lost. There have been albums inspired by Norwegian black metal, albums filled with old songs rerecorded using Apple’s basic music software GarageBand and Auto-Tune vocals, an album consisting solely of the drum tracks from a previous album. It’s a wilfully abstruse oeuvre that has led to critical acclaim. In some corners of the online music press, Elverum’s position as an idiosyncratic genius whose work encompasses an “epic, ongoing existential puzzle” is an article of faith. You can find reviews that, without irony, compare his lyrics to the novels of Cormac McCarthy and his love of nature to that of Henry Thoreau: when Elverum published a lengthy online post about why he preferred not to sign autographs, it was reported in some quarters as news.

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The Trio’s first concert after Jarrett’s return from illness in 1998 bubbles with rediscovered power and energy

Gary Peacock, Keith Jarrett’s double bassist in the piano star’s 35-year-old Standards Trio, once told JazzTimes that when: “You don’t feel you have to make a statement any more, you enter a space of enormous freedom.” It was perhaps a disingenuous observation, since Jarrett almost certainly had a statement in mind when he founded this influential band in 1983 – to cherish some old-school standards about melody, swing and acoustic sound, as well as celebrating the standard songbook repertoire from which so much original jazz has been launched.

But in an era in which people can’t fall over each other fast enough to make statements, the trio’s casual bearing of familiar baggage, and liberated delight in spontaneous playing feels increasingly, timelessly fresh. Jarrett, Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette’s previously-unreleased After the Fall goes back to 1998, but it sounds no more dated than any creative classical music reappraisal of repertory materials. The pianist was emerging from chronic fatigue syndrome’s two-year silence, and this 1998 concert in Newark – just an hour’s drive from his home – was his comeback to the stage.

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(Warner Bros/YALA!)

The last time major labels were signing amiable, jangly indie bands came in the aftermath of Creation Records’s dissolution, when Columbia Records attempted to turn Teenage Fanclub’s Britpop-adjacent success into hot cash.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t work, and the two parties amicably parted ways.

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The chorus that Georgia Hubley sings softly on the second track of Yo La Tengo’s 15th studio album serves almost as a mission statement for the trio: “Whenever I see you, there are shades of blue.” Yo La Tengo are, as so often, blue: but theirs is not the midnight blue of despair, but the pale blue of melancholy, and sometimes the sharp, unending blue of a cloudless sky. The song exemplifies the group in other ways: its jaunty rhythm is taken straight from 60s beat pop, befitting their record collector reputation, but recast into something somnambulant and soothing all their own.

There are flickers of the old fire on There’s a Riot Going on (which bears no similarity to Sly and the Family Stone, to the surprise of precisely no one). On For You Too, James McNew’s bass puts all four to the floor, with the fuzz pedal turned on, but Ira Kaplan refuses to rise to the bait, picking arpeggios around the basslines instead of wigging out, murmuring his vocal – but for the most part Yo La Tengo are gently blowing on embers rather than poking the logs.

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Meshell Ndegeocello isn’t a fan of modern R&B: “I find myself not being able to listen to a lot of [it],” she recently told Billboard, “just because of the vibration it gives off.” Little wonder then that, after a grief-filled year in which she buried one parent and half-lost the other to dementia, the feted neo-soul pioneer chose to reach backwards, to the comfort of familiar, past sounds.

Ndegeocello is no stranger to covers projects. Recent years have seen her pay homage to Nina Simone on 2012’s Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone, and Fats Waller, via guest spots on Selma scorer Jason Moran’s All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller. Ventriloquism casts a wider net, reworking classics by various artists, songs released between 1985 and 95 (the decade that preceded Ndegeocello’s feted debut, Plantation Lullabies).

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