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Rewinding September | The Top Indies

Bigger isn't always better, as some of the month's smaller albums make clear.

Like countless critics, much of my time is taken up by major-label releases. But also like countless critics, I always try to make some room for the deserving indie artists. Here are the best ones I heard in September, presented in alphabetical order. Just click on the cover pic to read the original review (and probably listen to the album in full).

All Eyes West
Like Lightning

WHO ARE THEY? A Chicago power trio that carries a red-hot torch for post-punk and alt-rock noisemakers like Hüsker Dü, Swervedriver, Jawbreaker and Drive Like Jehu.

WHAT IS THIS? Their third collection of distorted guitar slashes, primally thundering drums and ragged chestbeating vocals aimed straight at the pit.

WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? There’s no getting around the fact that these guys sound almost exactly like Hüsker Dü most of the time. Not that I’m complaining. Thankfully, they also manage to inject enough of their own personality into the proceedings to keep from sounding like wannabes.

Neal Francis

WHO IS HE? A 30-year-old Chicago singer-pianist whose impressive musical resume includes a stint fronting instrumental funk band The Heard, sideman work with Muddy Waters’ son and other prominent blues artists — but whose personal history includes a long, near-fatal battle with addiction that bottomed out after an alcohol-induced seizure that left him with a broken femur and a dislocated arm.

WHAT IS THIS? His remarkable first solo album, recorded in L.A. with some of his former bandmates.

WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Believe it or not, like someone who’s spent a lifetime listening, loving and learning from Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, The Meters and other soulful southerners. From the bayou grooves and brassy horns to the sizzling guitars and funky keyboard lines, Francis pays homage to his influences while personalizing the proceedings with confessional lyrics about his personal struggle.

Joel Paterson
Let It Be Guitar! Joel Paterson Plays The Beatles

WHO IS HE? A Chicago guitar geek and musical multi-tasker who plays in a plethora of local bands — including Devil in a Woodpile, The Modern Sounds and Western Elstons — when he isn’t releasing his own records.

WHAT IS THIS? His third retro-minded instrumental album, which is exactly what it purports to be: A collection of Beatles classics converted into light-fingered jazz and countripolitan treats.

WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Something Chet Aktins, Les Paul or James Burton might have recorded in 1966.

Those Pretty Wrongs
Zed For Zulu

WHO ARE THEY? The combined forces of two indie-rock veterans: Big Star drummer/Ardent Studios CEO Jody Stephens and singer-guitarist/musical journeyman Luther Russell, who has worked with everyone from Jakob Dylan to Robyn Hitchcock to Weezer.

WHAT IS THIS? Their second studio set and the followup to their self-titled 2016 debut. Fun fact: Their name comes from a Shakespeare sonnet.

WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Classic ’70s indie-pop and folk-rock, complete with all the lightly jangling guitars, laid-back beats and dreamy harmonies you’d expect. What you don’t expect: Most of these collaborative gems were written via email between Memphis native Stephens and L.A. resident Russell.

Vivian Girls

WHO ARE THEY? The female indie-punk trio from Brooklyn who named themselves after the crusading prepubescent heroines of outsider artist Henry Darger’s 15,000-page magnum opus The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. No, I haven’t read it either. I’m waiting for the audiobook.

WHAT IS THIS? Their fourth studio album, first release in eight years and their long-awaited comeback disc — the trio finally reunited this summer in L.A., more than five years after they originally disbanded.

WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? A nostalgic throwback album that picks up right where they left off — and reminds you why they were so great in the first place. Anchored by fuzzy, ramshackle pop-punk and topped with surfy melodies, empowered lyrics and hazy harmonies, these dozen surprisingly lush cuts are simultaneously a strong comeback and a work that traces the sonic signatures of both their eastern roots and their new Cali home.