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. Alvvays, Blue Rev
Alvvays remain very good at sounding like Alvvays. The formula is simple but effective — reverb-heavy guitars that jangle and sprawl, a wiry bassline, sighing synths, a chorus that lifts out of the verse in a manner that can only be described as shyly grandiose, a vocal that sounds sampled from a long-lost radio hit from 1965, and (hopefully) one well-placed reference in the lyrics to pop culture ephemera. On Blue Rev, there are nods to Tom Verlaine of the legendary post-punk band Television, Angela Lansbury’s character on the TV detective show Murder, She Wrote, and the 1987 Belinda Carlisle smash hit “Heaven Is A Place On Earth.” Somehow, these allusions perfectly encapsulate the band’s aesthetic of self-effacing bookish cool.
2. Arctic Monkeys, The Car
Anyone who listens to this album once will instantly compare it to the previous Arctic Monkeys LP. This is not entirely unfounded. As was the case with Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, The Car is fashioned in large part by Alex Turner, by himself, away from the band. He writes alone, plays and records most of the instrumentation alone, and then reworks what he’s done alone. Only at the end of the process does he bring in the other three guys. The inevitable result is that Tranquility Base and The Car both sound like solo records released under a highly bankable brand. What’s most shocking about The Car is that it proves Tranquility Base was not an experiment — that record marked what is currently a prolonged turn away from rock music. Turner has instead delved deep into 1960s West Coast pop and ’70s porno funk. At the risk of making an overly obvious comparison, The Car is Arctic Monkeys’ Young Americans, a British take on American Black music that manages to express a purely European point of view.
3. Wild Pink, ILYSM
When I got the promo of this album, I put out a tweet comparing it to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. As sometimes happens when you make comparisons, some people thought I was saying that this album is as good as YHF. When in reality I was saying that it felt like Wild Pink making their version of YHF, which isn’t the same thing. Though, at times, I think that’s true literally — one of my favorite songs, “War On Terror,” sounds like a YHF homage. But mostly I meant it in a philosophical sense — this record really represents John Ross taking apart what he does and putting it back together. A stunner.
4. Bill Callahan, Reality
In his songs, Bill Callahan tackles the big subjects: love, nature, death, the passage of time, how the stillness of everyday life belies constant transformation. But he has a way of approaching these weighty topics in a weightless manner, whether it’s inserting a dryly witty lyrical aside into an existential crisis or approaching his words with a remarkably understated vocal, which over time has come to resemble a cross between Leonard Cohen’s stoicism and Willie Nelson’s nimble emotionalism. That the 56-year-old indie-rock veteran has produced so much good work so consistently over the course of more than 30 years — both as the man behind the ’90s lo-fi outfit Smog or under his own name — ought to not make his latest album Reality any less special. Described by Callahan as a reaction to the forces (political, cultural, technological) that have undermined the verisimilitude of daily existence, the album leavens philosophical musings with music that melds Townes Van Zandt Texas folk with ethereal jazz splashes and starry-eyed psychedelia. It is, of course, beautiful and moving music.
5. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
This band is like a TV show that your friend loves but insists “only gets good” in the second season. They require a lot of patience. But I think the five albums (!) they put out this year are their best yet. And the three albums (!!) they released this month are especially good. Before now they have worked mainly in hyperkinetic garage rock mode, which I like in small doses but can feel wearying over the course of an album. But now they sound like a straight-up jam band — funky, fusion-y, krautrock-y, and noisy. My favorite song on Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms and Lava is “Iron Lung,” which is nine minutes long and pretty damn Phish-y. And the just released Changes isn’t that far removed sonically from Dripfield, the very good studio album released earlier this year by rising jam kingpins Goose.
6. Dazy, OUTOFBODY
This project spearheaded by Virginia-based singer-songwriter named James Goodson will inevitably be described as bedroom pop. But there’s nothing sleepy about this album. It sounds big and shiny, which is just the ticket for such fun, catchy, and breezy music. OUTOFBODY comes and goes in less than a half-hour, and it feels like half that time. It reminds me of early Car Seat Headrest, if it had been produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange.
7. Dry Cleaning, Stumpwork
Florence Shaw proves the validity of the old cliché about talking softly to make people lean in. What I wasn’t sure about after last year’s New Long Leg was whether this U.K. band could ever make an album that didn’t just repeat the same aesthetic with diminishing returns. But their latest record proves that those concerns were unfounded. Whereas New Long Leg was a loud post-punk record, Stumpwork is softer and more melodic in a classic indie kind of way. (It sounds more American.) I wonder if, moving forward, Dry Cleaning will set about creating different sonic landscapes as backdrops for Shaw’s musings. Maybe the next album will be Shaw talking over trip-hop or honky tonk or coffeeshop folk.
8. Disq, Desperately Imagining Someplace Quiet
This Madison band somewhat resembles an American answer to King Gizzard. While not quite as prolific, they do manage to cover the whole history of indie rock — from Elephant 6 to Flying Nun to cut-and-paste electro pop and many points in between — in their rapidly growing catalog. Their latest album is their best so far. It finds them working in “heavy and chunky melodic rock” mode, like Reckoning era R.E.M. with more distortion or early XTC if they come up playing the Crystal Corner Bar.