Joy and sorrow, survival and mortality, loneliness and connection — the best music I reviewed in October dealt with all of these topics (and more) with eloquence, intelligence, originality and sometimes bravery. Here’s the rundown to the latest of the greatest. Click on the cover art to read the review in full and hear the album:
WHO ARE THEY? The deservedly beloved and rightfully respected Chicago alt-roots experimentalists founded and fronted by singer-guitarist and songwriter Jeff Tweedy. Also, your dad’s favourite band — at least according to the Internet.
WHAT IS THIS? Their 11th studio release, the long-awaited followup to 2016’s Schmilco comes after the hard-working 25-year-old band took a year-long hiatus (and a two-year break from the road) which allowed Tweedy to release a trio of solo albums and pen a memoir.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? A welcome return. Another artistic triumph. And a disc that should generate the titular emotional state in the listener — even if the album itself doesn’t always display it. Which is not to suggest that the 52-year-old Tweedy is in one of his funks again. If anything, he seems to retain the unique combination of world-weariness and guarded optimism that has defined much of his recent work — along with his gift for fusing personal revelations with political commentary. On these 11 tracks, he sets it all against an artfully understated, slow-burning backdrop that outfits acoustic-driven songs with thumpy beats, edgy arrangements and itchy textures, positioning it somewhere between Sky Blue Sky’s rootsy earthiness and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s exploratory stylings. Bottom line: It’s the greatest Wilco album since their last one. And until their next one.
WHO IS HE? The veteran folk-rocker and visual artist who regularly releases magnificent solo albums, moonlights in supergroups with the likes of Dhani Harrison, Ben Harper, Peter Buck and Jeff Ament — yet still manages to fly miles below the commercial radar.
WHAT IS THIS? His 16th solo studio album in a little more than 20 years — in addition to a plethora of EPs and extracurricular offerings — and still another album that probably won’t do much for his popularity or bank account.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? A singer-songwriter at the height of his powers. And at times, the depths of his despair. Arthur says these songs are about surviving hardship, hopelessness and isolation. Thankfully, the key word in his description turns out to be surviving: While there’s no mistaking the shadows lurking at the edges of these cuts, the bulk of them look to the light with their optimistic lyrics and melodies.
WHO ARE THEY? Singer-guitarist Guy Garvey and his long-serving band of stylishly progressive alt-rock Mancunians — all of whom have been playing together nearly 30 years, but sadly remain one of the best British acts most North Americans have never heard.
WHAT IS THIS? Their eighth studio album since 2001, and the latest in a line of superb releases that seldom fail to garner four-star reviews and win plenty of awards in their homeland while barely making a ripple on this side of the Atlantic.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Elbow stretching their legs. According to Garvey, the band loosened the reins this time by recording live in the studio, embracing sonic explorations and trusting their instincts instead of trying to find compromise. Augment that with lyrics that tackle everything from the deaths of family members to the decline of the British empire and you’ve got the distinctively different and daring Giants of All Sizes.
WHO ARE THEY? The grim, exceptionally literate Australian singer-songwriter and novelist — supported as usual by his talented quintet of likeminded bandmates and musical cronies.
WHAT IS THIS? Their 17th studio album of the last 35 years, their first double album since 2004’s heavy-hitting Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus, a loose concept album about children and parents, and supposedly the final part of a ballad-heavy trilogy with 2013’s Push the Sky Away and 2016’s Skeleton Tree.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Not surprisingly, much like its two predecessors. In other words, plenty of lazily drifting piano ballads and dream-like narratives about family, loss and letting go — hardly surprising given the tragic death of Cave’s teenage son Arthur, who fell from a cliff near their Brighton home in 2015.
WHO IS HE? The singer-songwriter and — for the past 28 years — sole permanent member of post-grunge populists Everclear. The man who wrote the chart-toppers Santa Monica, Everything to Everyone, I Will Buy You a New Life and Wonderful. And the man who has the unfortunate distinction of looking like a punk-rock Mike Pence — except Pence would never pen a tune called Jesus Was a Democrat.
WHAT IS THIS? Sun Songs is more than just the first disc Alexakis has released under his own name: It’s literally his first solo album — he penned and performed all the songs on his own. It also happens to be his first work since he revealed he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis following a car accident three years ago. Not surprisingly, it might be the most personal work of his career — and the most compelling album he’s made in ages.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? To his credit, it doesn’t just sound like a watered-down Everclear record. For these 11 stocktaking songs, Alexakis steers clear of the post-grunge pop-rock of his day job in favour of rootsier and more acoustic-based fare. Between that and his slightly lazy drawled vocals, he ends up sounding a lot like folk-punk Tom Petty with a bleaker worldview.
WHO ARE THEY? The long-serving Arizona emo-rockers who are still best known for their 2001 hit The Middle — and who just celebrated their 25th year together.
WHAT IS THIS? Their 10th studio album, second collaboration with producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, and a disc that stays true to their trademark sound while also venturing into some new sonic terrain.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Surprisingly heavy at times. Along with no shortage of singer-guitarist Jim Adkins’ typicaly emotive, confessional and melodic pop-rock, there are a few cuts that rock harder and more pointedly than they have before.
WHAT IS THIS? The solo alter ego of on-again, off-again Alexisonfire singer-guitarist Dallas Green and a cast of talented but essentially faceless supporting players. For those who haven’t made the connection yet, the band’s handle is a generic version of Green’s first and last names.
WHAT IS THIS? His sixth studio set and the followup to his 2015 Juno-nominated stunner If I Should Go Before You, which was quite correctly heralded as his finest solo work to date.
WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? A worthy successor — which is easier said than done. As usual, restless workaholic Green pushes the envelope, his sound and himself to new heights and depths on these 11 cuts, which feature noisily ringing guitars, lush orchestrations and psychedelic atmospherics majestically stacked to support his soaring falsetto vocals and tenderhearted lyrics. “I wrote a lot of dark songs and wrapped them in the most beautiful sounds we could find,” he has said. “There are personal connotations, but they’re also relatable.” They’re also some of the most beautifully written and exquisitely rendered songs in his sizable catalogue.