The story behind this album was dispiriting for those of us who love the Wrens’ 2003 masterpiece The Meadowlands. We’ve been waiting 18 years for the Wrens to release a long-promised follow-up record. But now, one of the Wrens has gone his own way: Kevin Whelan says he was tired of waiting for bandmate Charles Bissell to put out the music they’d been working on for all of those years. So he released this album under the Aeon Station name, including five songs that had been intended for the next Wrens album. It’s sad to see the Wrens dissolving in a “bitter feud,” as the Guardian called it. And we might never hear that Wrens album that was supposedly coming out, though some version of it will surely surface in one way or another. Bissell tweeted: “my songs have also been done for a couple years & will come out now…as a solo album, I guess.”
It’s hard not to listen to Aeon Station’s album without wondering what might have been. Is this half of a never-to-be-heard Wrens masterpiece? Is it just a shadow of that phantom album? Perhaps. The image on the album cover, a half-built office block, symbolizes how “projects sometimes just don’t get finished,” Whelan told the Guardian.
But this is also outstanding music in its own right. Whelan demonstrates his skill at making songs with catchy chord progressions that cycle around and around with tones that almost sound like chimes—patterns that morph as they repeat, sneakily building in power until they feel like anthems. His melodies and vocals also seem simple and understated at first glance, but their depth becomes more apparent the more you listen.
In the song “Alpine Drive,” Whalen seems to be describing the long process of trying to make the Wrens’ new album when he sings: “Why should I feel like I still have more time? / Year after year paid in more than my crime / One thousand night shifts all end with a song / Still breaking rocks into songs we never get taught”
Matt Sweeney & Bonnie “Prince” Billy
The guitarist Matt Sweeney’s name is listed first on the album cover, but Bonnie “Prince” Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham) is the singer and the more famous one. Oldham wrote the lyrics and gave them to Sweeney, who wrote the music on this record, a follow-up to their 2005 album, Superwolf. One reason why Oldham is such a fascinating artist is his eagerness to collaborate with so many different musicians. This partnership yields a beguiling set of songs, most of them spare and sinister.
This Australian band says its album is about “what comes after grief, and how we throw ourselves back into love.” While that sounds like a heavy concept, the record is light in spirit: bittersweet pop that evokes 1980s and ‘90s indie rock (as well as the 1960s classics evoked by that music). Quivers delivers its memorable lyrics and melodies with beautiful male-female vocal harmonies and a few orchestral flourishes.
Eleventh Dream Day
As I see it, Chicago’s Eleventh Dream Day is a role model for how an independent band can endure, continuing to make vital music — by working at its own unhurried pace, releasing new records every few years, playing a handful of gigs now and then, but never giving up the ship. “The time between records is what has allowed us to continue,” drummer-vocalist Janet Beveridge Bean told the Concrete Islands site.
This new double album came out six years after EDD’s last record, the stellar Works for Tomorrow. Although Since Grazed has a few passages of the loud and propulsive rock Eleventh Dream Day is known for, the predominant mood is stately and almost meditative. That reflects how these songs began, as Rick Rizzo’s demos for a planned solo record, but the rest of the musicians added layers that enrich the sound. In the end, it became another shining example of what this band can do.
Sons of Kemet
Black to the Future
This British group, led by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, gets categorized as jazz. But this album transcends genre definitions. With guest vocals by various singers and rappers, there’s a sense of call and response between the voices and the instruments. “I wanted to get a better sense of how African traditional cosmologies can inform my life in a modern-day context,” Hutchings said. The resulting album feels like a passionate performance of a holy ritual.
The first musical reference point that comes to mind is Stereolab. But this Los Angeles band doesn’t slavishly imitate those forerunners. Instead, it uses droning organ chords as a jumping-off point for sounds both loud and soft. Dummy is actually a very smart band. (And, as always, the fine folks at one of my favorite labels, Chicago’s Trouble in Mind, were smart to pick up this band.)
The Power of the Dog (Music From the Netflix Film)
Ever since he wrote music for 2007’s There Will Be Blood, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has been one of my favorite film composers. With this score, he underlines the building tension and mystery in Jane Campion’s terrific movie (one of the year’s best). As Greenwood explained to The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, his approach included “using traditional instruments but having them sound like there’s something slightly wrong with them. Make it evident that it’s a human being making the sounds—that it’s being made with effort and sweat and breath.” The sense of the world being slightly off-kilter is part of what makes Greenwood’s smart experiments in chamber music so compelling.
This Glasgow post-punk band lists No Wave and early Sonic Youth as its early influences, but at times, the clean, minimalist arrangements on this record remind me of chamber music. Maybe that’s due to the occasional clarinet in the instrumentation. The members of Nightshift wrote these songs like a game of exquisite corpse while separated during the pandemic lockdown, and the results are slinky, surreal, and spooky. (This is another release from the Trouble in Mind label. Listening to everything on Trouble in Mind is a good way to start hunting for a year’s best music.)
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
B-Sides & Rarities Part II
I’m not sure if a collection of B-sides and rarities really belongs on a top 10 list of new albums. Is it truly new? Does it count as an album? Those questions are why I have this sitting at No. 9 on my list. If I ranked these records based sheerly on how much I’ve enjoyed listening to him — and how strong they are from beginning to end — this would be higher on my list, maybe even No. 1. This compilation pulls together 27 recordings from 2006 through 2019, which has been a fruitful and creative period for Nick Cave, marked by tragedy in his personal life. The records he’s made in recent years are among his best, and this collection offers outtakes and demos from his probing musical explorations. It helps to illuminate what he’s been doing on those other records, and it’s also a wonderful set of music on its own.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
I think of GYBE as a rock orchestra — not an orchestra playing concertos that sound quite like Beethoven and Bach, but one making music more in the tradition of 20th and 21st century composers. When this Canadian band’s strings (the ones on its guitars and violins) are at full roar, they have all the Sturm und Drang of a symphony orchestra: sweeping, ominous, frightening, and sometimes even stirring with flashes of sonic glory, like some sort of postmodern national anthem for an underground society. All of those elements are present on this latest record — along with found sounds, like voices from radio transmission. Even without lyrics, G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! is a timely overture for the troubled times on our planet.
Bill Callahan & Bonnie Prince Billy: Blind Date Party
I Was a King: Grand Hotel
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis: Carnage
Courtney Barnett: Things Take Time, Take Time
Guided By Voices: It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them.
The Mountain Movers: What What World
Steve Dawson: At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree
Makaya McCraven: Deciphering the Message
Natural Information Society with Evan Parker: descension (Out of Our Constrictions)
Fake Fruit: Fake Fruit
Low: Hey What
Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg
Tele Novella: Merlynn Belle
Mdou Moctar: Afrique Victime
PJ Harvey: Is This Desire?—Demos
PJ Harvey: Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea—Demos
PJ Harvey: White Chalk—Demos
PJ Harvey: Uh Huh Her—Demos