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. Wilco, Cruel Country
I played Wilco’s 21-song double-album opus a lot this month when I needed a break from news stories about school shootings, overseas wars, and eroding civil liberties. In the ’90s, musicians like Jeff Tweedy dug into the roots of America’s musical past to find a narrative that was more open-minded and sympathetic than the depressing stories we all heard in history class or on the evening news, which were always centered on political dynasties and endless military conquests. At its best, this music reminded people born into modernity that there was a rich heritage buried underneath the toxicity of institutional American history that we all could inherit as part of our birthright. We just needed to know where to look and how listen for it. A record like Cruel Country can, I hope, remind a new generation that there’s a version of America rooted in art, love, community, and joy. It is, at heart, a batch of folk songs replete with lovely pedal steel guitars and warm organ fills. But the album also carries a harder, more pessimistic truth. It’s the one you hear in “The Plains,” in which the place that vows to give all who live here the world might in fact, in the end, take our souls.
2. The Smile, A Light For Attracting Attention
The title of this LP could be taken as ironic, given that The Smile appears to be an antidote to the fanatical anticipation that typically greets Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood’s work with their “regular” group. The Smile, in contrast, feels like a deliberately low-stakes affair, having come together during lockdown after 40 percent of one of the world’s most beloved bands decided to work on music together with highly regarded jazz drummer Tom Skinner. If anything, adopting The Smile moniker is a means of attracting significantly less attention than a proper Radiohead release inevitably would. Backed by Skinner’s technically brilliant but unobtrusive timekeeping, The Smile present themselves on that song as the most un-Radiohead-like of propositions — a guitar-driven power trio! — that happens to sound, tantalizingly, like a version of Radiohead that Radiohead no longer is apparently interested in being.
3. Say Sue Me, The Last Thing Left
My friend and podcast co-host Ian Cohen likes to say that at least 25 percent of his indie rock promo pile at any give moment sounds like “Alvvays without the tunes.” This South Korean band reminds me a bit of Alvvays, but they definitely have the tunes to go with the sad-eyed, indie-pop trappings. The melancholy bop of The Last Thing Left has soundtracked my late spring, as I’m a sucker for taking walks in the fresh air while taking in trebly guitars and alluringly doleful vocals. Sumi Choi — Say Sue Me’s singer, guitarist, and songwriter — really is the star of the show here, striking a perfect balance of knowing sorrow and ingratiating charm on songs that zip in and out before the heartache can set in.
4. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Endless Rooms
Briskly strummed guitars, ping-ponging baselines, relentless motorik drum beats that usually linger between 160 and 170 bpm — Australian quintet Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever definitely have a formula when it comes to writing songs. But the wonder of the band’s consistently great output is how they find new ways to package those elements into insistently tuneful guitar-pop gems. While I remain partial to their breakout 2017 EP The French Press, I’m starting to think that their latest effort might be their best. The problem with this band is that I tend to think that whichever record I’ve heard most recently is their best. Like fellow Aussies AC/DC, these guys just make the same record over and over. But it’s always a really good record, so I’m really just complimenting their top-notch quality control.
5. Sharon Van Etten, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong
Speaking of consistency, few artists in the indie sphere have been as reliable in the past decade as Sharon Van Etten. Only she hasn’t stuck to a particular sound in that time. Her previous album, 2019’s Remind Me Tomorrow, was a full-on rock record with genuine anthems, a shift of startling boldness for an artist who sometimes seemed too shy to actually step on stage at the beginning of her career. I loved the evolution, and Remind Me Tomorrow remains my favorite Van Etten record. But her latest LP can hardly be considered a letdown. Rather, it finds Van Etten showing off both her recent aggressiveness (particularly on the flinty “Headspace”) as well as the familiar sensitivity of her early work. With an artist as dependable as Van Etten, it’s easy to take a record like We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong for granted. It’s “merely” another very good release from a very good artist. (I wonder if her decision to not release any advance singles might have damped the buzz.) But I have a feeling this one will continue to sink in for me as the year unfolds.
6. Craig Finn, A Legacy Of Rentals
The evolution of the Hold Steady singer’s solo career has been a welcome surprise. After a brief dalliance with Americana singer-songwriter moves on his 2012 debut Clear Heart Full Eyes, he teamed up with producer Josh Kaufman (of the excellent folk-rock band Bonny Light Horseman) for what he later classified as a trio of albums — 2015’s Faith In The Future, 2017’s We All Want The Same Things, and 2019’s I Need A New War — that impressively diverged from his regular band’s guitar crunch and toward dynamic soundscapes that put the focus squarely on Finn’s narratives about middle-aged burnouts. While Finn retained Kaufman for his new album, A Legacy Of Rentals really does feel like the beginning of a different saga. Working with a string section and muted electronics, Finn has crafted a record that feels like his version of Tunnel Of Love, with the fine singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins acting as his Patti Scialfa vocal foil. The mood is sad and reflective, with characters who have been around the block more times than they can count reflecting on how the hell they got here.
7. Dehd, Blue Skies
I got into this Chicago trio after becoming entranced by their breakthrough third record, 2020’s Flower Of Devotion. While they can be broadly labeled as a post-punk band, Dehd doesn’t fall into the usual clichés of that subgenre — they are no monotone, talky vocals that wryly deconstruct the low-key madness of modern existence. This band is way too romantic for that. There’s a reason why so many critics namecheck Roy Orbison and The Cure when describing them — they specialize in jangly, reverb-heavy fatalism that earns the melodrama of the lyrics by putting you squarely in their goth-kid frame of mind. Forget the sunny title: This record makes me want to smoke clove cigarettes in a depressive 23-year-old’s crappy apartment on a gorgeously rainy night.