Steven Hyden’s Favorite Music Of November 2023

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. Andre 3000, New Blue Sun

I can never remember the name of this album. I had to Google it again just now. It will forever exist in my mind as “The Andre 3000 Flute Record.” For the sake of efficiency, I wish he had just called it that. But I suspect it will be permanently known by that colloquial moniker in retrospect, in the same way that The Beatles is known as “The White Album” and Weezer is identified by everybody as “The Blue Album.” Let me just say that I love this record as a gesture. I am extremely happy that it exists. By the “as a gesture” standard, it’s my record of the year. But as an album, I have listened to it one and a half times, and I’m not sure I will go back to it. And that’s fine. Again, the “as a gesture” part is probably enough for me. However, at the risk of being wet blanket-y, I must point out the following: The fun of a “bold left turn” record is reacting against the people who initially hated it upon release. That’s the whole point of a revisionism — if, for instance, Bob Dylan puts out a live album in 1979 in which he radically re-arranges his songs so that they sound like Hot August Night-era Neil Diamond, part of the fun of playing that album in 2023 is pointing out the ways in which all of those mean critics were wrong about the record 44 years ago. That’s not going to happen with New Blue Sun. People have bent over backward to call it a work of genius. And while I’m not doubting their sincerity I do wonder if that relegates New Blue Soon to a different kind of historical dustbin once the novelty wears off. Nobody wants to be the jerk that future generations wind up telling off. But does this self-consciousness ultimately impair an ongoing critical conversation in retrospect? Let’s check back in 10 years!

2. Bob Dylan, The Complete Budokan 1978

Speaking of that Bob Dylan live record, the frankly stunning existence of this box set commemorating the single most polarizing release in his catalogue represents either a worthy reappraisal of a flawed but fascinating effort (my view) or an example of revisionism run amok. Originally released on August 21, 1978 as a Japan-only release, and then worldwide the following April, Bob Dylan At Budokan was recorded at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan Hall on February 28 and March 1 of ’78. It contains 22 songs, including many of Dylan’s most famous tunes: “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” “All Along The Watchtower,” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” etc. Judging by the tracklist, Bob Dylan At Budokan appears to be a greatest hits record, except that the songs are played live. But while the album is that in form, it is not in execution a straight-forward recounting of past glories. It is the opposite of straightforward. It is crooked and backward. For At Budokan, Dylan employed an expansive 11-piece band staffed with, among other musicians, three backup singers, an extremely audible percussionist, an ex-King Crimson drummer, Eddie Money’s keyboardist, a blonde guitarist who performed in the Broadway production of Hair, and (most notoriously) a horn player doing double duty on saxophone and flute. That’s right, flute. “But what Dylan songs require a flute?” you ask. On At Budokan, way more than you might expect! In case anyone needed to be reminded: The Complete Budokan 1978 is yet more evidence that the canon is always in flux. And that today’s trash might very well be tomorrow’s $159.99 retail-priced doorstop.

3. Hotline TNT, Cartwheel

One of my favorite albums of 2023, and definitely one of my top “CD album” albums of the year. A fuzzed-out corker with shoegaze guitars that lean more in the direction of Copper Blue than Loveless, Cartwheel sounds amazing while driving, it’s the right length to soundtrack most errands, and it’s easy to find in that between-seats middle compartment. I can’t honestly think of a higher function for a record than this.

3. MJ Lenderman, And The Wind (Live And Loose!)

While the bulk of this excellent live record is made up of the slacked-up and witty country-rock tunes from last year’s tremendous Boat Songs, the most revelatory performances are of material that pre-date Lenderman’s indie fame, particularly the numbers from 2021’s Ghost Of Your Guitar Solo. Lenderman recorded that album by himself, and the songs are skeletal and rendered in bottom-of-the-barrel fidelity. On Live And Loose!, great tunes like “Catholic Priest” and “Someone Get The Grill Out Of The Rain” are transformed with extra layers of instrumental muscle, with Lenderman’s Crazy Horse-like band fleshing out their bones with sympathetic washes of lap steel and chunky guitars. Taken in tandem with the murderer’s row of stunners from Boat Songs — plus the fantastic recent single “Rudolph” — the revamped Guitar Solo tracks make Live And Loose! feel like something more important than a mere tour souvenir. It just might be Lenderman’s best effort yet, and the definitive document of this rising star’s 1.0 era.

5. Cat Power, Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert

The third live album on this list, and the second one to involve Bob Dylan. But otherwise Chan Marshall, as always, is operating entirely on her own wavelength. Her decision to cover one of the most the famous live performances of the rock era — the one where Dylan faced off with an audience of pissed-off folkies triggered by his decision to play with The Hawks, including one anonymous buffoon who called him “Judas” — flips the drama of the original concert. Whereas the electric half of Dylan’s show overshadows the opening acoustic half, just for the sheer drama on display between him and the clueless audience, the acoustic portion of Cat Power’s redux is where this album truly beguiles. No matter her capable backing band, she simply can’t match the firepower of Dylan and the Hawks. But her run through the stoned and winding likes of “She Belongs To Me,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “Desolation Row” is an absolute delight, spotlighting both the timeless power of Dylan’s songs and Marshall’s own once-in-a-generation voice.

6. Golden Apples, Bananasugarfire

I’m tempted to compare this crafty Philadelphia power-pop band to Apples In Stereo, even if it seems hacky to the extreme. Would this thought had entered my mind if both bands didn’t happen to include “Apples” in their name? Screw it — apples or not, it’s an apt comparison. Bananasugarfire has that jangly ’60s vibe goosed up with loud guitars that veteran Elephant 6 lovers will recall from the glories of Fun Trick Noisemaker, a reference I suspect this band would appreciate.

7. Ryan Davis & The Roadhouse Band, Dancing On The Edge

As has been noted elsewhere, this has been a banner year for indie-rock bands discovering the power of pedal-steel guitar. Few instruments automatically make a band better more quickly than this mysterious conjurer of high-lonesome sounds. Louisville singer-songwriter Ryan Davis clearly gets this, given the prominent pedal-steel that glides throughout Dancing On The Edge. But this is not another by-the-numbers wannabe country-rock troubadour LP. Drawing on the tradition of iconoclastic Americana smart-asses like Terry Allen and David Berman, Davis marries down-home music to sprawling story songs that drag on in mesmerizing fashion for several minutes at a time, like an Aristocrats joke lollygagging to a surprising finish.

8. R.E.M., Up (25th Anniversary Edition)

The last great R.E.M. record. And perhaps the best and truest rock album ever about processing the trauma of your friend leaving the band you started together. Unlike virtually every other rock band that has lost an essential member, R.E.M. did not pretend like it was business as usual on their first record after Bill Berry’s exist. (They actually didn’t make a conventional rock album for another 10 years.) On Up, they deliberately leave holes in the middle of the songs as constant reminders of who is not there. Drums either are absent or replaced with drum machines. R.E.M. doesn’t even sound like a band much of the time; sounds are layered in a manner that recalls the late-’60s Beach Boys, one of the album’s obvious influences. (Another touchstone is OK Computer, though Up ultimately sounds like a prequel to Kid A.) What’s apparent is R.E.M.’s thoughtfulness about rethinking their musical milieu in the wake of becoming a trio, and how correct their choices seem. They absorbed a critical loss and somehow spun it forward as the next logical step in their creative evolution. The resulting record simultaneously mourns the version of R.E.M. that no longer exists, while also positing that this latest incarnation is a perfect next step. That the next two albums were less successful reiterations of Up shouldn’t diminish this achievement. (Especially since those records, 2001’s Reveal and 2004’s Around The Sun, are better than their reputations suggest.) Even when R.E.M. fell apart, the pieces fell in all the right places.