Here’s a big shock: Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways was the best album of the month. OK, so I’m predictable. But give me some credit: I suspect a few of my other favourite discs from June might surprise you. As always, click on the cover to read more and listen to the tunes.
ALBUM OF THE MONTH
“I’m a man of contradictions. I’m a man of many moods. I contain multitudes.” Bob Dylan rasps that little confession (with no apologies to Walt Whitman) a couple of minutes into his 39th studio album. You don’t need me to tell you that’s not exactly breaking news. But let me tell you this: When it comes to Rough and Rowdy Ways, truer words have never been spoken. Especially those last three words. Over the course of 10 tracks and 70 jam-packed minutes, the former Robert Zimmerman essentially surveys “the history of the whole human race” from Creation to Judgment Day — paying special attention to the bittersweet mysteries of life, love, war, religion, creativity and anything else that sparks his razor-sharp mind and roguish wit. Bragging like a gangster rapper and dropping pop culture references faster than Dennis Miller on speed, the 79-year-old singer-songwriter pinballs from topic to topic like James Holzhauer running the Jeopardy! board. He ponders the assassination of JFK and its turbulent aftermath. He expresses his love for Key West and sends off Jimmy Reed (but not Jimmie Rodgers, the source of the album’s title). He lays his heart bare as a young lover. He thumbs his nose at death. And he name-checks everyone from Julius Caesar and Karl Marx to The Rolling Stones and Indiana Jones. Even more impressive: Somehow he manages to tie it all together like one giant murder board of humanity. And he wisely sets it all to another nostalgic collection of laid-back blues, Americana and vintage Tin Pan Alley songcraft that works to complement and not compete with his lyrical tsunami. By the time you get to the end ofthe near-17-minute epic Murder Most Foul, there’s no doubt that Rough and Rowdy Ways is the latest late-career masterpiece from a man who’s not only the finest and most influential songwriter of the last half century — but also one of the most original and impactful songwriters working today. But you probably don’t need me to tell you that either.
RUNNERS UP (In Alphabetical Order)
Phoebe Bridgers is on top of the world right now. Or at least she ought to be. Her 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps rocketed her to fame and earned universal critical acclaim. And her subsequent high-profile collaborations in Better Oblivion Community Center (with Conor Oberst) and boygenius (with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker) haven’t done too badly either. But you’d never know it from the lyrics of her sophomore album Punisher (which could more accurately be titled Self-Punisher) — the spellbinding singer-songwriter still comes off like a lost, lovelorn loner on many of these 11 songs. But don’t feel too sorry for her. As she and her band (augmented by al the collaborators above and more) weave her darkly devastating tales of dread, detachment, desperation, drugs and death over a distinctive, stylishly messy fusion of organic folk-rock instrumentation and electronic textures and layers, it quickly becomes more than clear that Bridgers is making the best of it — artistically, at least. And in the process, she’s nimbly sidestepping the sophomore slump while making it clear she’s no flash in the pan. She can stop punishing herself anytime now.
Many (if not most) musicians don’t have a damn thing to say. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Lucky for us (and him), Tom Greenhouse does not have that problem. The frontman of U.K. post-punk outliers The Cool Greenhouse is never at a loss for words on their debut full-length. As his bandmates amateurishly and obsessively crank out two-fingered melodies and dead-simple drum beats, our Tom unleashes a veritable torrent of words — rapid-fire rants and raves or dry deadpan monologues about anything and everything from 4Chan and incels to antique jam and phantom limbs to Margaret Thatcher’s dirty glasses and Yoko Onos on treadmills stretching into infinity. What in the hell is he blathering on about? Honestly, most of the time your guess is as good as mine (if not better). All I can tell you is that whatever he says, his wild verbosity, stream-of-consciousness creativity and converational delivery compel you to listen up and listen good. And to think seriously about putting The Cool Greenhouse on a playlist between The Fall, Sleaford Mods and John Cooper Clarke. That about says it.
Ian MacKaye never lets you down. Not politically. Not philosophically. And certainly not musically. Four decades after forming the legendary Minor Threat and more than 15 years after the deservedly worshipped Fugazi went on indefinite hiatus, the singer-guitarist and punk icon remains as creative, passionate, potent and relevant as ever. Coriky, his latest collaboration with Warmers drummer (and wife) Amy Farina and Fugazi bassist Joe Lally, deliver one of the year’s strongest debuts with their long-awaited eponymous full-length. Their sound and approach are stylishly spare, engagingly economical and artfully arranged; MacKaye’s baritone guitar advances and retreats, slashing and burning with laser-focused blasts; Farina’s offbeat rhythms dart and dance in and out and around the edges of the grooves; Lally’s melodic basslines rise to the top of the songs even as they anchor the bottom end. Woven together with near-psychic interplay, they fashion striking tracks that deftly target the bittersweet spot between post-punk and art-rock, providing a darkly rich, tastefully understated backdrop for their sharp-eyed, sharp-witted sociopolitical commentary and world-weary lyrics. It all comes not a moment too soon; if there every was a time when we needed to hear from MacKaye, it’s now. You can only hope that he and Coriky — who have already been together for five years, but didn’t play live until 2018 — will have plenty more to say in the near future.
“I’ve been down,” Haim admit midway through Women in Music Pt. III. No shit, Sally. From the opening words of the California sisters’ third full-length (“Los Angeles / Give me a miracle, I just want out from this”) to its full-circle final tune (“L.A. on my mind / I can’t breathe”), this is easily the trio’s darkest disc. Granted, these tales of disillusionment, dissatisfaction and dysfunction aren’t coming straight out of the blue; all the sisters reportedly were battling depression due to a slate of personal hardships experienced before and during the making of the album. But what is a surprise — in the best possible way — is how magnificently they rebounded and responded on the musical level: Despite its darker tones, Women in Music Pt. III also happens to be the band’s most bold, advanced and adventurous outing. Pushing the envelope both stylistically and sonically, Haim put their sunny, summery pop-rock in the rear-view and head headlong into freakier, freer and far more fearlessly creative terrain that embraces anything and everything. From sax-fuelled reggae-pop and Afrobeat-tinged folk to post-modern electro-rock, futuristic R&B, old-school homages to Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell and even a track that revamps a guitar lick from Mountain’s Mississippi Queen, it’s all here. And it’s all more than vibrant enough to brighten even their blackest of their lyrical corners. So make no mistake: They’ve been down. But things are undeniably looking up for Haim.
Ray LaMontagne has always been his own man. But on his eighth album Monovision, the singer-songwriter takes the concept to the max — he penned, played and produced every single note on the disc by himself. As you might figure, it’s a slightly more intimate and organic affair than his recent collaborations with Jim James and Dan Auerbach, eschewing the trippy psychedelic Americana for earthier and more soulful fare. But don’t think for a second he’s lost his groove — some of the scrappier numbers kick up their heels like vintage Van Morrison and Nashville-era Bob Dylan (or at least contemporary incarnations like Nathaniel Rateliff). On the flip side of the coin, some of the quieter numbers echo and evoke everyone from The Everly Brothers to Nick Drake and even John Denver. But even at his mellowest and moodiest, LaMontagne’s tenderly sincere nostalgia and openhearted folk-poet mysticism are nothing short of transcendent and transfixing. Even without a band or a producer, it’s crystal clear that his artistic vision is sharp as ever.
Let there be drums. Specifically, intoxicating, hypnotic African drums. They’re what anchors the sound of Ugandan outfit Nihiloxica on their full-length debut Kaloli. But they’re not the only element in the mix. While the percussionists — augmented by live drum-kit work from Brit Spooky J — hold down their headnodding grooves and intertwining rhythms, U.K. electronicist pq adds stylishly idiosyncratic synth tones, textures and treatments to create a sound that balances organic and electronic, earthy and spacey, past and futuristic, East the West. Can’t beat that.
“Every day on the evening news they feed you fear for free,” Killer Mike rhymes midway through Run The Jewels’ RTJ4. “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper: ‘I can’t breathe’ / And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV.” Amazingly, he wrote those prescient lines last year, not last week. But they will undoubtedly be just as true and topical next week. And next year. And if that doesn’t give you a hint of just how fierce, committed and relevant the masterful RTJ4 is, rest assured there’s plenty more words where those came from. The uncompromising and potent 11-track album is brimming over with provocative, take-no-prisoners lyrics about racism, justice, police brutality, political corruption, revolution, social media and umpteen other topical issues. And naturally, those urgent, challenging pronouncements are set atop relentlessly driving, endlessly creative and punishingly heavy tracks — many of which welcome VIPs like Pharrell, Mavis Staples, 2 Chainz, Zack de la Rocha, Josh Homme, and DJ Premier. Still not sold on the disc? Well, you don’t have to be — as usual, Mike and partner-in-rhyme El-P are giving the damn thing away for free. So really, the only goods RTJ4 doesn’t deliver are dinner, a facemask and a cure for COVID-19. But hey, they’re probably working on all of that.
There are metal bands. There are punk bands. There are noise-rock bands. There are thrash bands. There are grindcore bands. There are metalcore bands. There are stoner bands. There are post-hardcore bands. There are screamo bands. There are even bands that can cobble together a couple of these styles into a decent hybrid. And then there’s Second Arrows. These New Jersey destroyers fuse all the styles above (and probably a few more I can’t think of right now) into a high-velocity, high-voltage, high-volume display of sonic brutality, intensity and mayhem the likes of which are seldom seen and heard. Yeah, their name is kinda crappy. And their album cover isn’t much better. But trust me when I assure you that their self-titled debut more than makes up for it with its cathartically explosive arsenal of electro-shock guitars, convulsive rhythms and blowtorch vocals. Actually, don’t take my word for it. Push play and experience their fearsome, awesome might for yourself. But be forewarned: This sucker will pierce your skill clean through if you aren’t ready for what will be hurtling toward you. If there’s a bigger, badder, more brutal album out there this week, I’m still looking for it. But I don’t expect to find it.
Men really need to shut up and start listening to women. If there’s one lesson I’ve truly tried to learn over the course of my idiotic existence, that’s it. So I’m not going to start mansplaining the impetus, importance and impact of acclaimed U.K. indie-rock singer-songwriter Nadine Shah’s fantastic fourth album Kitchen Sink, a concept album about womanhood, sexuality, sexism and gender politics in contemporary society. I will just respectfully make the following observations: 1 | Her provocative and personal lyrics are razor-sharp, laser-focused and thought-provoking; 2 | Her vocal delivery is deep and richly soulful yet darkly intense; 3 | The noirish musical tracks that bolster it all — co-written and performed with longtime collaborator Ben Hiller — offer a superbly stylish and innovative collision between classic pop songcraft and abrasively edgy electronic textures (and are nowhere near as overloaded or pedestrian as the album title might imply). Beyond that, the best advice I can give you is to shut up and listen.
Does anyone remember laughter? How about fun? Kicks? Being a young wiseass? Nah, me neither. Thankfully, London sextet Sports Team have not forgotten. And to prove their point, the guitar-based indie-rock upstarts play fast and loose on their infectious debut Deep Down Happy, swinging for the fences with no shortage of exuberance, cheek and jittery post-adolescent energy. Of course, it certainly doesn’t hurt that they seem to remember early XTC, based on the yelpy vocals, clanging guitars, clever lyrics and old-school new wave vibe that act as a virtual playbook for of these tracks. If they keep that up, they’ll soon find themselves laughing all the way to the bank. And keeping everybody happy to boot. How’s that for a result?
Heads up, Low Cut Connie fans. Britain’s Swampmeat Family Band is fronted by former LCC member Dan Finnemore. So it’s hardly a surprise that the foursome’s latest album Muck! — their second since Finnemore returned to his Birmingham stomping grounds and reunited with drummer T-Bird Jones — features the same down ’n’ dirty, rough ’n’ tumble garage-rock and back-bar roots-punk as his much-loved former crew (while also bearing more than a passing resemblance to another raggedly glorious band you might have heard of called The Replacements). That’s good news for anybody who needs some new drinking music. The better news: No dress code, no cover, no minimum, and no closing time.
If you’re lucky enough to get a do-over — even a severely belated one — make the most of it. These Athens indie-rockers clearly have. More than a decade after they split, they have reconvened for this reunion album. And it makes you wish they’d never left. Knotty and gnarly, loud and messy, yelpy and scrappy, invigorating and just pretty damn magnificent all around, these 10 tracks of wiry guitar interplay, noisy mayhem and kick-out-the-jams urgency draw on everything from ’70s Detroit rock and ’80s post-punk to ’90s post-grunge and ’00s punk and math-rock — while still sounding fresh and fierce enough to win over a whole new generation of fans. Sometimes you actually do get a second chance to make a first impression. Fingers crossed that they make the most of it.
Canada does a damn fine job of exporting pop stars and rappers. But it’s been a while since we launched a bona fide rocker onto the world stage. JJ Wilde just might snap that losing streak. The Kitchener alt-rock singer-songwriter got a good start with last year’s Wilde Eyes and Steady Hands EP. With this debut album — which augments the EP’s tracks and other singles with new tracks — she puts the pedal to the metal and burns rubber. Fuelled by gritty guitar riffs and punchy grooves that wouldn’t be out of place in the set lists of Black Keys or Alabama Shakes, and graced with her bluesy, powerhouse rasp, these tunes were precision-engineered for blasting out of the radio in your muscle car and bringing arena crowds to their feet. Global domination would seem to be just a matter of time. Speaking of a damn fine job.
Neil Young and Prince don’t seem like they would have much in common. Except for maybe one thing: They both know how to stuff a vault. Like His Purple Majesty, Shakey probably has probably shelved and forgotten about more great albums than most artists put out over the course of their careers. His latest archival offering Homegrown — a gorgeous breakup album about the end of his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress, originally slated to follow up Harvest and precede Comes A Time — is most assuredly one of them. And the latest example of how artists are often their own worst enemies. Nearly half a century after its confessional honesty supposedly spooked Neil into hiding it away, it’s hard to see what he was so scared about: Sure, several of its tracks are revealing and personal. But not much more so than countless other songs he had no problem releasing over the years. I guess we should just be grateful he finally worked up the nerve to share these long-lost ’70s folk-rock nuggets and heartbroken ballads (some of which he’s played live over the years). Hey, better late than never, right? Speaking of better: Unlike Prince, Young is still around to reap the artistic and financial reward. And maybe even pull a few more gems from the vault while he’s at it — if we’re lucky.