Every month, Uproxx cultural critic Steven Hyden makes an unranked list of his favorite music-related items released during this period — songs, albums, books, films, you name it.
1. The Beatles: Get Back
I’m glad I wasn’t tasked with reviewing Peter Jackson’s eight-hour Lords Of The Rock documentary. How do you quickly assess a movie in which there’s twice as many hours as Fab Four’s? I feel like I’ll be regularly dipping in and out of this for as long as I keep my Disney+ subscription. (I assume a Blu-Ray with — dare I say it — additional previously unseen footage will soon be made available for certifiable Beatles lunatics like yours truly?) But here’s my immediate impression: This is the greatest depiction of a band’s inner life — how they work, how they interact, how they grow apart while always feeling like a tight-knit family — ever put on film. It’s hard for me to think of another film that even comes close. Maybe Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster? Though that 2004 film by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky is “only” 141 minutes and documents the making of a minor album. In Get Back, we see the creation of future rock classics like “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Let It Be” unfold in real time — the initial flash of inspiration, the lyrical dead ends, the arrangement choices not taken, the moment when the songs we all know by heart appear to suddenly (miraculously!) fall into place. (And then there’s the film director who won’t shut up already about Libya. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, you come off like a dope!) Most incredibly, there’s the scene from Part 1 in which Paul McCartney aimlessly strums his bass until he slowly discovers the skeleton of “Get Back,” one of the most illuminating depictions of the creative process I’ve ever seen. As it is, I can’t relate to anyone who feels this is “too much” Beatles. John and George are gone now, forever. Paul and Ringo are deep into their twilight years. In that context, eight hours of an immersive “hangout” experience with the greatest rock band ever feels, if anything, rapidly fleeting, like the most beautiful sunset in mankind’s history sinking too fast into the horizon. Even now, I’m left wanting more.
2. Big Thief, “Time Escaping”
The jamband-ification of Big Thief continued this month with this excellent single from their forthcoming double album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, due out Feb. 11. I am, of course, fully on board with one of the best indie bands on the planet sounding like a cross of Blind Melon and Billy Breathes. And I’m, ahem, high on the new bountiful LP, the promo of which I’ve been spinning regularly for the past few weeks. Beyond that, I should keep my mouth shut until closer to the release.
3. Nation Of Language,A Way Forward
I’m still catching up with young bands who had the misfortune of putting out debut albums in the shadow of the pandemic in 2020. One of my fave “Class of 2020” groups is this Brooklyn outfit, who make moody synth-rock in the mold of early Depeche Mode and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. Their first album released last year, Introduction, Presence, spotlighted these millennials’ close studying of delectably ancient keyboard tones. But this year’s A Way Forward ups the ante on songwriting, with tracks like “Across That Fine Line” and “The Grey Commute” leaning into their burgeoning pop grandiosity.
4. Neal Francis, In Plain Sight
Here’s an album I’ve enjoyed listening to this month, but I expect to love once barbecue season rolls around again in the spring of 2022. Born Neal Francis O’Hara, Francis is a recovering child prodigy who toured Europe in his teens and then fell into addiction. After cleaning himself up, he re-emerged with a throwback big-band sound that recalls the highs of 1970s funk and swamp rock — lovers of Dr. John, Leon Russell, and The Meters will immediately feel at home amid Francis’ fat-bottomed, bluesy bangers.
5. Snail Mail, Valentine
On the first Snail Mail record, 2018’s Lush, Lindsey Jordan focused almost solely on guitar, to the point of aligning herself with indie “shredders” like Kurt Vile and Steve Gunn. But on Valentine, she’s expanded her musical palate significantly, layering her songs with keyboards and strings in a manner consistent with “mature sophomore efforts” from young indie phenoms. For Jordan, the grown-up, MOR indie of Valentine is a subtle hint that she’s no longer a precocious wunderkind of Lush, and therefore shouldn’t be fetishized solely for her youth or confessional lyrics. And yet Valentine isn’t fully grown up, just as nobody at 22 is fully grown up. Jordan still portrays herself in these latest songs as a person who falls in love a little too hard, and then has to deal with the consequences when things fall apart. This, of course, is the most “young person” subject matter imaginable. (She apparently wrote the songs for Valentine back at her childhood bedroom in Baltimore.)
6. Courtney Barnett, Things Take Time, Take Time
Is she underrated now? At the time of Sometimes I Just Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, Barnett seemed like the next great indie singer-songwriter. But now that indie rock is awash in guitar-slinging memoirists of a slightly younger generational vintage, Barnett seems a little taken for granted. It’s true that Things Take Time, Take Time doesn’t vary radically from her previous work. About half of the songs sound like “Avant Gardner,” and about half of the songs resemble “Depreston.” This is “merely” another collection of witty and winsome mid-tempo rockers with guitar solos that slowly rise from the malaise like a layabout peeling off the couch for a graveyard shift at a dead-end service job. But Barnett is still really, really good at this. In five years, people are going to wonder why this album was slept on.
7. Sonic Youth, Live In Austin 1995
As someone who would gladly buy a box set compiling every live version of “The Diamond Sea” performed by Sonic Youth during the Washing Machine era, I see this new archival release as a step in the right direction. Though, if I have to quibble, a “Sea” that is “only” about 14 minutes feels kinda skimpy. The album version is actually about five minutes longer. Can the powers that be at Sonic Youth HQ work on getting our “Diamond Sea” stats up, please? Fourteen minutes are rookie numbers. We need many more minutes, if not hours, of blissed-out distortion.
8. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts
Only in a month in which an eight-hour Beatles documentary dropped would this incredible new live record and concert film from the Boss be overshadowed on the classic-rock part of my brain. But this really is a momentous release for Bruce heads, capturing him at an absolute sweet spot — one year after the fire-spitting fury of the Darkness On The Edge Of Town era (still my favorite Springsteen tour of all time), and one year before the release of one of his greatest albums, The River. Some of those songs are previewed here, including the desolate title track, which gets its live debut (!) in front of an appropriately stunned audience at Madison Square Garden. But the album (which compiles both No Nukes benefit shows) and film don’t dwell long on doleful ballads. This is Bruce at the height of his arena-rock powers, playing hard and long (though not as long as usual) in front of a band determined to kick as much ass as possible. The back half is especially supercharged, in which the band tears through a Stone Pony-approved collection of rock and soul oldies as well as the unbeatable live war horse “Rosalita.” Whereas Get Back is leavened with an air of melancholy, The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts is a blast of pure joy. Play it loud.