September kicked off with new releases from Travis Scott and Isaiah Rashad that dominated the conversation about the next generation of rap — but there were plenty more memorable albums out that month, too. The point of this column will be to highlight albums you might’ve missed elsewhere, something to put on in a moment when you’re wondering what you need to catch up on.
From Touché Amoré’s punishing post-hardcore to the sparkling synth-pop of Jenn Wasner’s solo debut as Flock Of Dimes, here’s all the best September albums you can now stream at your leisure. October’s list will be coming soon, for now, these are albums that exist either beyond hype or despite it. Listen below.
25. Touché Amoré, Stage Four
Touché Amoré’s latest album Stage Four is a record centered around grief, namely, the death of lead singer Jeremy Bolm’s mother in 2014. She died from cancer (hence the album title) and for Bolm there was no way through the experience but via the same visceral post-hardcore and screamo that has always defined the band’s sound. Infamously, Bolm got the news of his mother’s death while on tour, and in these new songs there is a sense of his battle against the music that kept him from being by her side when she passed. That tension and struggle is present in every chord and every screamed note of Stage Four, and part of what makes it such a gripping listen. Come for the compelling post-hardcore hooks, stay for the cathartically screamed lyrics, and the brutally honest, autobiographical undertow. This is an album for those going through sh*t and for those who are almost out the other side. That’s part of why it continues the legacy of Is Survived By.
24. Drive-By Truckers, American Band
Patterson Hood has a voice that sounds like a country music song. Even if he’d had an inkling to head toward another genre, his rawhide drawl cements the man directly in the center of the country music tradition. Luckily, he likes it that way. The Drive-By Truckers are the epitome of American mythos, and they leaned into that more than ever on their newest album, christening it American Band for good measure. Given all the rancor that’s sometimes leveled at inhabitants of the American South due to the underlying brokenness trailing after slavery’s ugly specter, last year Hood penned an op-ed for The New York Times about how the region’s legacy is so much more than the Confederate flag, and offering a nuanced take on the inhabitants of that area who helped wage the war for civil rights that, unfortunately, we’re still fighting today. Hood and co. have never been a band to take their role — both as entertainers and Americans — lightly, and American Band lets them darken it up without losing any of their well-earned momentum.
23. How To Dress Well, Care
How To Dress Well makes R&B that possesses the same earnest level as most folk music. Even when Tom Krell ventures into the sex-jam side of things, he manages to keep consent and tenderness in the forefront of the narrative without sacrificing any intimacy. That’s the definition of Care, and his painstaking attention to detail makes me proud to be a fan. The shades of rubbery synth grooves and fluttering layered harmonies are all here on Krell’s fourth album. A solid, playful collection of self-conscious R&B that is not made more awkward in its inward gaze, but rather, seems to expand the more closely Krell examines himself.
22. St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Sea Of Noise
If you have yet to hear St. Paul & The Broken Bones then get your affairs in order and settle in for a trip through Sea Of Noise. The Birmingham, Alabama retro-soul outfit is fronted by the baby-faced Paul Janeway, but don’t let his angelic demeanor fool you — Janeway can get as gritty and dark as any of the soul greats, before bringing you back up into the glorious light. Sea Of Noise is just that, a record that hits you wave after wave with funky, elated sex-jams and beatific hymnals that circle the edge of religion without crossing over into believer territory. Thus, the album is never unwieldy or preachy even when it spews a golden-gospel rush. A must-listen for any traditionalists in your life, and for those listeners who think a falsetto and brass combination is proof that God exists.
21. Wilco, Schmilco
Wilco is a legendary band. If you don’t believe that, go read Steven Hyden’s synopsis of the band’s entire career, then come back and listen to Schmilco. Because, as Hyden notes, their impeccable “dad rock” has gone through five distinct stages, and this record is a muted, PTSD record like Star Wars was. Well, I don’t know about you, but muted, existential folk rock done right has a huge place in my heart this fall. Put this on when you want to pull up the covers and stare up at the ceiling. It’s a nice companion for those hours of darkness, early and late.
20. Okkervil River, Away
Many Okkervil River albums come in like a lion, but Away comes in like a lamb. Though his band his been in flux for most of his career, Will Sheff always had a band at his back, the roiling that was Okkervil River always appeared, in some form, adding a certain fearsome volume to his supple songwriting. On Away, this seems to have all fallen, well, away, and his first record in three years reads close to the script of a solo record. As such, it’s lighter and more elegiac, full of yearning for something that isn’t there and never was, built upon the realization that “away” isn’t really a place, but longing after it gets you there anyway. Good for rainy nights and candelit dinners alone.
19. Francis And The Lights, Farewell, Starlite
Francis Starlite has friends in high places. Many people were introduced to the New York producer/singer/songwriter’s work earlier this year via a show-stopping feature on Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book track “Summer Friends.” Initially, some fans complained that Chance had collaborated with a Bon Iver soundalike — that is, until Justin Vernon himself confirmed he’s on the song too, and that Francis had taught him a thing or two about vocal effects too! The original song that Chance ended up sampling on “Summer Friends” appears here on Farewell, Starlite as “Friends,” and contains an accredited Bon Iver feature. Who gets those these days aside from, say, Kanye? Anyway, enough about his collaborators, even without those cosigns Francis has released a fully-formed, sparkling take on synthpop that surges and flares without burning itself out. Dramatic and sumptuous, this official full-length follows up four EPs from the band and serves as a thesis statement for a band who are well on their way to mainstream recognition.
18. Tysson, Tysson
New Orleans has long been a hotbed for musical genius, but most people associate Louisiana’s capitol with jazz, soul and blues, not exuberant synthpop. So Tysson may throw listeners for a loop given his regional affiliation for a moment or two, but a moment is all the duo composed of John Michael Rouchell and Alvin Ford Jr. need to draw you in. Despite their modern sound, Rouchell and Ford Jr. met at New Orleans’ annual historical music festival, Jazz Fest, and discovered their mutual fascination with ’80s beats and film noir aesthetics. Their self-titled EP is only four songs long, but reflects these sensibilities, a streamlined, insanely catchy collection of beats and synths that hint at a partnership that is just coming into itself. For Tysson the best is yet to come, but “Electric Moment” is a great stop gap until we get a full-length.
17. Dawes, We’re All Gonna Die
With an album title like We’re All Gonna Die, you’d expect the latest Dawes album to be a lot sadder than it is. Nope. Taylor Goldsmith and co. may be plenty bitter, but they’ve embraced the most electronic/rock sound to date on their fifth full-length. That doesn’t mean its upbeat by any means — Goldsmith is a well-known Dylan worshipper, and plenty of that darkness lingers here — but it’s by no means a statement of giving up. Instead, the California alt-country band sound more determined than ever to stay alive. Far from sounding overwrought, their fierce new expansion is the most powerful they’ve sounded in years. Mortality is a helluva a motivator.
16. Usher, Hard II Love
Is there anyone else from the R&B class of Usher that has stuck around as long as him, and stayed successful? While R&B upstarts and hip-hop hybrids are cropping up all over the place, this R&B legend stays steadily grinding, and releasing solid albums over twenty years after his self-titled debut in 1994. Plus, he folds those upstarts right into his sound, and both Young Thug and Future appear on this LP. So yes, Usher is pushing forty, but he can still croon better than any young buck, and he still knows which rappers are popping. Some things sound better as they age — Usher is one of them.
15. Deap Vally, Femejism
I’d love to pretend it’s confusing why Deap Vally aren’t one of the biggest bands in the country, but the answer to that riddle is right in front of you in the duo’s new album title, Femejism. Though Lindsey Troy and Julie Edwards can shred harder than most of live acts performing right now — and they do it in heels — Deap Vally remain wildly underrated because rock and roll has so traditionally been a man’s game. This is one of the most solid rock LPs to come out in 2016, and just because you haven’t heard a peep about it doesn’t mean it’s not worth sitting with. Instead of listening to songs that objectify women’s bodies, try listening to some that describe the struggle of living in one — there’s nothing more metal than venturing into a man’s world and screaming into the void about all the ways it sucks.
14. Billie Marten, Writing Of Blues & Yellows
A couple years ago I received a song in my email that made the day disappear. That song was “Heavy Weather” by Billie Marten, and we had the privilege of premiering it on Stereogum. It pretty much floored everyone else who heard it, too. Now, just about eighteen months later, Marten has released her debut full-length, a gorgeous, gossamer folk record called Writing Of Blues & Yellows, and this is a case where the title seems to do the job of describing the songs perfectly. “Heavy Weather” appears here, one among many tender, trawling ballads that that poke at the center of the universe with a small, gentle finger.
13. LVL UP, Return To Love
Damn, I can’t think of few things more fun than watching a baby band grow up into an adult one. I can remember watching LVL UP play small DIY shows in Brooklyn and elsewhere, and thinking the fuzz-pop band had something beyond the small scene there. Well, Sub Pop agreed, and signed the band this summer. Return To Love is the sound of that indie victory lap, a win for early fans, later ones, and the label itself. Watch this band, they’re going to skyrocket above us all in a few short years.
12. Johnny Jewel, Home soundtrack
There is nothing on this earth that isn’t improved by a Johnny Jewel song. Whether he’s curating soundtracks, crafting songs in Chromatics, Glass Candy or under his own name, Jewel possess a singular understanding of the electric blue current that runs through the human heart, and how to turn that current into a sound. I won’t lie to you, I have no idea what movie these songs go to or what story that film tells, and I don’t even really care to look it up (I don’t have enough room in my brain for music and film, I’m sorry I just don’t.) The story that Jewel has curated via Symmetry, Chromatics, and his own original compositions is enough for me. It doesn’t feel like home in the warm hearthstone way, but in the deep, jagged human way. The Home soundtrack is like a fragile, existential dreamscapes with keys to a muscle car and a bad case of insomnia.
11. Chely Wright I Am The Rain
It’s really no secret that 2016 is a difficult time to be a woman in country music. Sure, there’s outliers like Kelsea Ballerini slowly inching the needle back toward center, but the deck is stacked against female singer-songwriters in the genre right now. Not that any of that has stopped Chely Wright from quietly and determinedly putting out fantastic record after fantastic record. You’ve probably heard her hit song, the tongue-in-cheek “Single White Female” from back in 1999. Wright has been in the business since 1994, and experienced a lot of early success in the ’90s. The early aughts were tough for plenty of women of her caliber in the genre, when Wright came out as a lesbian in 2010 that changed her position within the genre, which is still very resistant to queer rights. Now, however, the tide is turning, and Wright’s latest album was kickstarted by fans and entered the Billboard chart at No. 13, her highest position to date. How’s that for “When they go low, we go high” ?
10. Nick Cave, Skeleton Tree
Grief, what a motherf*cker. If you have felt loss on the level contained on Skeleton Tree, there’s not much need to describe beyond that first sentence. If you haven’t, though, I supposed the album is a good gateway into what horrifying, numb loss and violence feels like. He keeps things strangely specific on this yearning, humid reflection on loss, but also imagines countless scenarios outside himself in the process. Skeleton Tree’s mysticism and gloom is, of course, familiar for Nick Cave fans, but the personal context presses this record into something much more urgent than his past work, something that is seeking new life out of dead branches. I’m not sure if he thinks he succeeded in coaxing something new forth or not, but he certainly comes damn close.
9. Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch
With a title like that, the subject matter of Jenny Hval’s fourth official full-length record is fairly clear — vampires and period blood abound. Yet, only an artist as delicately funny and weirdly blunt as Hval could make two such taboo topics sound mischievous and mystic instead of unwieldy or off-putting. Earlier this year I spoke to Hval about the record, and she pointed out that for how much space menstrual blood takes up in the lives of half the population, there’s very little art about it. Blood Bitch helps remedy that a little; it’s a bloody, spectral synth-pop record about the disgusting inner workings of things, and how body horror can become something beautiful if we just let it.
8. Danny Brown, Atrocity Exhibition
Atrocity Exhibition may well be the best rap album of the year, and if it’s not, it’s certainly the most interesting. Danny Brown uses his nasally nursery rhyme flow to narrate x-rated, f*cked up scenarios that he always emerges from unscathed, seemingly protected by the power of his singular cadence alone. Brown is in peak form here, drawing connections between his last two albums — 2011’s XXX and 2013’s Old — that only close listeners will catch, and weaving samples, features and allusions in and out of songs like the riddle is half the fun. Atrocity Exhibition reminds us that it is, and the other half is a rapper who can construct a verse like a house of cards, and knock it all down on the chorus. Between the build up and the destruction lies the real heart of Atrocity Exhibition, a flux of influences and collaborators that remains willfully fluid throughout.
7. MIA, AIM
Here’s another artist who will never get her due. Why? AIM is better than any pop album I’ve heard this year, and most of the other ones too. Why is the climate in our industry such that this spectacularly talented woman is throwing up her hands and abandoning the form? Why is her vibrant, effusive album labeled “confusing” instead of praised for its unflinching combination of textures, cultures and styles? These questions have answers we do not want to hear or say, so listen to AIM instead, it’s a fantastic record from a formerly self-assured auteur who has been worn down by the flaws in our system. F*ck em, we’re not with them.
6. Itasca, Open To Chance
Do yourself a favor and go sign up for Paradise Of Bachelor‘s mailing list right now. That way, you won’t miss out on the next undeniable folk gem that passes through their meticulous process. Itasca’s Open To Chance is one of the best folk albums of the year, comforting and familiar as rain on your windowpane, and just as hypnotizing, unpredictable, and unknowable. She manages to maintain an air of mystery even while practically singing in your ear, the mark of a songwriter whose work can’t be undone or understood on cursory listens, but requires digging. Open To Chance is a record worth getting a shovel out for, and Kaya Cohen is figuring out what’s underneath her own surface.
5. Travis Scott, Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight
After several years of finding his groove, it looks like Travis Scott is in the pocket. Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight is just as quirky, wavy, and all over the place as the Houston MC himself, and has yielded quite a few hits and cult favorites in the few short weeks it has been out. “Pick Up The Phone” may have been shrouded in drama, but it’s a clear contender for song of the year, and his earlier interpolation “SDP Interlude” featuring Cassie is an incredible piece of music. With a guest list packed out by rappers like Andre 3000 and Kendrick Lamar, McKnight marks Scott’s official ascension into the upper echelon of rap. Let’s hope he can keep flying.
4. Flock Of Dimes, If You See Me Say Yes
Jenn Wasner has had this Flock Of Dimes solo album growing inside her for years now, but her roots went deeper elsewhere. As one half of Wye Oak — one of the most successful and beloved indie rock bands in an era that has seen audiences largely abandon the form — Wasner had her hands full with touring, recording, real life, and a couple other musical side projects. Eventually, she made the decision to leave her home in Baltimore and relocate in the middle-of-nowhere North Carolina. Once alone, the songs that had accumulated over the years, and some new ones too, began to pour out of her. The result is a shimmering synth-pop record that puzzles over the constrains of time, space and love in powerful ways.
3. Clipping., Splendor & Misery
There’s little left to say about Clipping. that I didn’t include in the cover-story-length profile we published on the band in late September. Their third full-length album Splendor & Misery is a non-linear dystopian sci-fi drama inspired in large part by the writings of Samuel Delany and other Afrofuturist authors. It’s a screeching fusion of noise and rap that aligns itself with the Afrofuturist tradition, and is one of the better albums to come out this year. Fun fact for the unenlightened — Daveed Diggs left his role in Hamilton to finish up the record and release it with Clipping’s other two members, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes, as the three are all old friends. Most of my friends would gladly drop me off a cliff just to get tickets to Hamilton, let alone star in it, so that lets you know what kind of friendship forms the core of this group.
2. Solange, A Seat At The Table
Solange might have this year’s sleeper hit record. For the millennial audience, Solange’s early two albums — Solo Star in 2003 and Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams in 2008 — might not be on the radar, but True, her 2012 collaborative EP with Dev Hynes, established her as much more than just Beyonce’s kid sister. A Seat At The Table doesn’t sound like the jittery, gem-crushed True at all, but unlike her uneven first two full-lengths, it carries on the EP’s tradition of cohesion and clarity. Narrated by Master P and punctuated by guests like Lil Wayne, Sampha, Kelela, and Solange’s mother herself, A Seat At The Table is explicitly a letter of black self-love, balmy and beautiful. Plus, “Cranes In The Sky” might be the most delicate, personal song about the weightiness of oppression in the history of the format, bringing personal touches to a devastating, widespread subject. A top-ten song in the year if I’ve ever heard one.
1. Bon Iver, 22, A Million
Bon Iver’s third full-length 22, A Million is another album that got the full Steven Hyden treatment, and if you haven’t, you should definitely read his lengthy profile on the record and attending Justin Vernon’s press conference that preceded its release. The live show is quite a spectacle too, and I reviewed it here. 22, A Million is astral folk that leaps toward the eternal, and even if every artist gets a backlash when they get this big or successful, I’m convinced this record will outlast all of this year’s weird trends and remain a touchstone when it comes to the way we reimagine folk in new millennium.