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 War On Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Over the course of The War On Drugs’ 13-year recording career, Adam Granduciel has refined and streamlined his band’s heartland indie sound. Listen to 2008’s Wagonwheel Blues and it’s almost like a completely different band; what was once a noisy, lo-fi and meandering mess of guitars and synths has now emerged on The War On Drugs’ fifth album as a world-beating collection of punchy pop-rock anthems. It remains to be seen whether this will be their most successful LP, but it is undeniably their catchiest and most engaging. It’s also loaded with the sort of grandly uplifting rock gestures that Granduciel is so good at making. I don’t think there is a better moment on any album I’ve heard this year than when the drums come in on “Old Skin.” Congrats to this band on passing The Five Albums Test!
2. Tonstartssbandht, Petunia
I Don’t Live Here Anymore will surely end up near the top of my year-end album list. I suspect this album will as well. It’s certainly one of my most played records of recent memory; I already wrote about the single “What Has Happened,” which might very well be my favorite song of 2021, last month. But the whole LP is a real pleasure, with an incredible amount of groovy choogle kicked up for just two people.
3. Circuit des Yeux, “-io”
While the music on I Don’t Live Here Anymore and Petunia has a comfort food quality, the seventh album by the experimental Chicago musician Haley Fohr is often unsettling even as it unfurls luminously expansive arrangements. Inspired by the death of a friend and the devastation of the pandemic, Fohr crafts intimate songs for a 23-piece orchestra and sets the music against her striking, mournful croon, resulting in an album that achieves near-operatic emotional catharsis, like a land-locked Scott Walker.
4. The Velvet Underground
In his previous films about musicians — 1987’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (still only available as a bootleg due to brother Richard Carpenter’s objections), 1998’s Velvet Goldmine, and 2007’s I’m Not There — Todd Haynes was more interested in exploring aesthetics and mythology then doing a dry, journalistic run-through a mundane biography. Each of those movies are really about an “idea” of the subject: Karen Carpenter as a literal children’s doll slowly dying on the inside; David Bowie as an elusive enigma who abandoned his transgressive past for pop glory; Bob Dylan as a constantly shifting facade put on by several different actors. Haynes isn’t trying to tell us who these people “really” are; he’s exploring how we, the audience, perceives them and what this shows about our collective pop-culture illusions and desires.
Unlike those other films, his latest work, The Velvet Underground is a documentary. But for all of the background details we learn about Reed and John Cale’s upbringings, it’s not really intended to be a full account of the band’s history. The other Velvets are discussed less thoroughly or, in the case of Yule, hardly at all. Once Cale departs three-quarters in, you can feel Haynes’ interest wane. The film ultimately is more invested in what this band signifies: A thriving counterculture that could have only existed at a specific moment in time, and will never be repeated.
5. Two Good Rock Documentaries That Aren’t The Velvet Underground
Haynes’ film sucked up a lot of the oxygen this month in terms of conversation about rock documentaries. But I would like to shoutout two other music movies I enjoyed in October: The first is Jesse Lauter’s Learning To Live Together: The Return Of Mad Dogs And Englishmen, which documents a 2015 performance by Tedeschi Trucks Band featuring members of Joe Cocker’s sizable backing group on his historic 1970 tour. The movie also delves into the original tour, one of the most iconic campaigns of rock’s waning hippie era, in which the idealism of Woodstock Nation slowly devolved into hedonism and addiction. But mostly Learning To Live Together is a celebration of joyous American music. I watched it with a smile on my face from beginning to end.
The other good rock doc out this month is Mary Wharton’s Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free: The Making Of Wildflowers, which charts the creation of one of the late icon’s most beloved albums. Having covered this topic extensively, I can’t say I learned much from the film. But it was still a delight to see all of the footage from the studio. Wildflowers is one of rock’s greatest “hangout” albums, in that it’s more about the overall vibe of easygoing melancholy than any individual song. (Though the songs are of course excellent.) So, having the chance to see Petty hang out while making it only enriches the experience of Wildflowers.
This Portland-based power-pop maven really puts in the work on his latest album, which packs in 28 songs about the course of 50 minutes. If that brings to mind the mid-’90s classic Alien Lanes by Guided By Voices, surely Troper won’t mind (or suffer from) the comparison.
7. Trace Mountains, House Of Confusion
This winsome project from former LVL UP member Dave Benton feels like a throwback to the rustic “out in the country” acts of the classic-rock era. (In fact their 2020 debut LP was literally called Lost In The Country.) The new Trace Mountains album goes deeper than the first record, with lovely pedal-steel lines accenting already beautiful ballads designed to be played at dusk. If you’ve been jonesing for a new Phosphorescent record, this will scratch that itch.
8. Strand Of Oaks, In Heaven
Each time Tim Showalter returns with a new record, you know you’re in for an intense experience of extreme emotions. His previous album, Eraserland, made with members of My Morning Jacket, felt like a resurgence. But his latest LP, In Heaven, is his best work since 2014’s classic Heal. While the feeling is still there, Showalter has grown as a craftsman, showing a particularly strong penchant for big, sweeping rock songs that recall the sonic bearhugs of The Verve during their Urban Hymns era.
This Brooklyn act draws on the usual influences for an #indiejam band — prog, Krautrock, fusion jazz, the Grateful Dead. But on the new Pharaonic Crosstalk, they utilize these influences to create delectably spacey jams that build from enjoyable back-porch choogles to mesmerizing and often explosive musical peaks.
10. Sam Fender, Seventeen Going Under
In my recent interview with Dave Le’aupepe of Gang Of Youths, he laughed about being described as the Ted Lasso of music. But I actually think that descriptor applies more to GOY’s future tour mate, Sam Fender. At the very least, every song on Seventeen Going Under sounds like it could soundtrack an especially emotional scene in which Ted and his players learn a valuable life lesson. What I’m saying is that this album is extremely obvious and aggressively uplifting pop-rock … and it’s executed with enough skill to actually press the button it’s trying so hard to hit.
This collection of reimagined folk standards originating from Canada (Gendron’s home country), France, and the United States refuses to be pigeon-holed in a neat and sterile “folk standards” niche. Gendron reveres these songs, but she’s not intimidated by them. She’s interested in how ancient expressions of fear and longing rhyme speak to us in the contemporary world. In the process, she accomplishes what all interpreters ought to strive for – she connects the listener to a lost, overarching history.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.