Every week, I write about new music on this website and yap about it on a podcast. But it’s still a challenge to cover everything I’d like to share, and I’m sure it can be tough for readers and listeners to keep up with all my bloviating. Therefore, I am launching a new column in which I compile all of my recent favorites in a given month.
Welcome to the first installment. Keep in mind that while this list is numbered, it is not ranked. I’m not going to rank any of this until I’m required by music-critic law to do it at the end of the year. In the meantime, please enjoy this musical journal. I hope you find something that you like.
1. The Killers – Pressure Machine
When I interviewed Brandon Flowers earlier this month, he offhandedly likened the latest Killers album to Achtung Baby. (Both are seventh records in their respective bands’ discographies, by the way.) Flowers has been making outrageously megalomaniacal statements in the press since the heady days of Sam’s Town, but I don’t think he’s off-base in regard to Pressure Machine. Just as Achtung Baby was a reboot for U2, Pressure Machine is a bold reinvention for The Killers, setting Flowers’ most evocative narrative lyrics ever to dusty, downscaled versions of his band’s hybrid of anglophilia and heartland rock. It’s one of 2021’s most surprising, and best, albums.
2. Alien Boy – Don’t Know What I Am
This Portland band has made one of the summer’s most appealing indie guitar pop records in Don’t Know What I Am, which beams with wonderfully jangly guitars and heart-rending lyrics about age-old power-pop topics such as loneliness, desire, and how watching TV always makes perennial sad sacks cry. Imagine if the Gin Blossoms’ New Miserable Experience sounded more like Guided By Voices and you’re in the ballpark. (They also cover Oasis’ “Wonderwall” in concert, as if I needed another reason to love them.)
3. Turnstile – Glow On
Just an insanely fun record that has unwittingly inspired a revival of one of the biggest bummer music conversations: What makes a hardcore band a hardcore band? Specifically, can a band that kind of sounds like 311 and ’80s Rush (seriously!) really be considered hardcore? Admittedly, I am not invested in the meaning of “hardcore” at all, and I suggest ignoring anyone who is. Fortunately, Turnstile themselves don’t seem to care, either. Yes, they play shows with the manic energy of a hardcore gig. But their songs have so many hooks that Glow On ends up being one of 2021’s most inviting and inclusive records.
4. Phish – “Simple” (8/6/21)
There’s a terminology applied to Phish that I really love and want to use for other bands. It numbers the band’s different eras like updated versions of computer software — Phish 1.0 covers the ’90s, 2.0 is their brief reunion in the early aughts, and 3.0 covers the modern era since their full-fledged return in 2009. Some have dubbed the post-Covid era — which is not technically post-Covid after all — 4.0, which launched with a tour that began last month and wraps in early September. Of course, Phish would be among the first bands to wage a major nationwide tour in the shadow of the Delta Variant. What’s amazing is how consistently great these shows have been, in spite of the rust from not playing for a year and a half. If this truly is the 4.0 era, then this version of “Simple” from Noblesville, Indiana gets my vote for the best jam of this young age.
5. Sturgill Simpson – “Sam”/ Lorde – “Big Star”
Sturgill’s The Ballad Of Dood And Juanita is among my favorite albums of August 2021, and Lorde’s Solar Power is among my least favorite. But one shared attribute unites these records — they each include a nice song about a dead dog. I am a sucker for a nice song about a dead dog. Even though I know I’m being manipulated, as thinking about a dead dog is the easiest way to get me emotionally engaged in art. A dead dog is one of the few things in this world that demands to be rightfully sentimentalized. For the record, the best “dead dog” songs of all time are “Cracker Jack” by Dolly Parton at No. 1, followed by “Fluffy” by Ween.
6. Ween at Surly Brewing Company in Minneapolis (8/21/21)
Speaking of Ween, this concert was one of my first live experiences of the year, and I’m pleased to report that Gene and Dean delivered a splendid rock ‘n’ roll show that went on for about three hours. Being a dingbat social media addict, I was tempted to tweet about the show as it was happening, but realized that every single Ween song when stripped of context suddenly becomes extremely cancelable. So Ween indirectly inspired me to use Twitter less, if only temporarily, which is yet another reason why they are one of the great American rock bands.
7. Indigo De Souza – “Real Pain”
I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot from Indigo De Souza as the year unfolds, as the just-released Any Shape You Take is already garnering rave reviews. While broadly classified as indie rock, Any Shape You Take is in fact a clever hybrid of many different styles, including folk, pop, and R&B, in the manner of so much Gen Z music. But De Souza is at her most dazzling when she somehow integrates all of her influences in the space of a single song, like how “Real Pain” starts at Rid Of Me PJ Harvey, then descends into literal screaming, and then miraculously pulls off a rousing power-pop climax.
8. Rosali – No Medium
This album came out in May, but I didn’t discover it until this month, which was perfect timing as this dreamy, enigmatic folk-rock gem is really great late-summer music. A Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter, Rosali has performed with hometown heroes The War On Drugs — that band’s keyboardist Robbie Bennett also contributes to No Medium — but her key collaborators on this album are members of the excellent Nebraska outfit David Nance Group. The combination of Rosali’s sensitive songs and knowing vocals with DNG’s heavy guitar stomp make No Medium sound like Sandy Denny as backed by Crazy Horse.
9. Steve Gunn – “Protection”
On his past few solo albums, Steve Gunn has tempered the guitar heroics that made 2016’s Eyes On The Lines one of my favorite albums of recent years. Instead, he’s used his guitar as an atmospheric accent for contemplative psych-folk songs, with mixed results. As a singer and lyricist, Gunn isn’t quite as striking as when his guitar hits the sweet spot between the Grateful Dead and Marquee Moon. The best moments on his latest LP, Other You, occur when he’s able to marry the more conventional singer-songwriter moves of his recent work with the exploratory playing of Lines and his great duo with drummer John Truscinski. On my favorite track “Protection,” Gunn weaves watery guitar lines over an insistent motorik beat and dread-inducing synths. I’d love to hear him play it live for at least 15 minutes.
10. Deafheaven – Infinite Granite
Ever since Sunbather, my favorite LP of 2013 and one of the most emotionally overwhelming rock records of the 2010s, each new Deafheaven album has felt like diminished returns, in which the black metal band struggled to extend the innovations of their breakthrough record. For Infinite Granite, they finally excise metal completely from their musical vocabulary, leaning entirely on the impossibly lush dream-pop soundscapes that made Sunbather so captivating. On one hand, this has made Deafheaven a less dynamic act — the ugliness that contrasted with the beauty in their music is now gone. On the other hand, Infinite Granite sounds so damn beautiful and powerful that it mostly doesn’t matter.
11. The Rolling Stones – “Midnight Rambler” from Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out
Naturally I’ve been jamming on the Stones since the death of Charlie Watts on August 24. A lot of people have written about what made him such a great drummer, though it’s difficult to expound on it without lapsing into the usual platitudes about how he “played only what was needed” and other clichés. Sometimes you have to let the grooves speak for themselves. Put this song on, go to the 3:45 mark, and listen to Charlie lock in with Keith Richards for the next 30 seconds. The knowledge that no one will rock and roll quite this effectively ever again makes me profoundly sad.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.