20. Queens of the Stone Age – …In Times New Roman (Matador)
In the years since Queens of the Stone Age‘s last album, 2017’s Villians, Homme dropped his drug habits, experienced severe health issues, grieved over the deaths of friends, and went through a messy divorce starting in 2019, all culminating in heavy depression. Despite his downward spiral, he was awarded custody of his children, and all this duress has fed into Queens of the Stone Age’s eighth studio album, In Times New Roman…, the end of a trilogy of albums starting with 2013’s …Like Clockwork.
Their most diaristic record, these songs are like snapshots of Homme’s recent obstacles and his attempts to make sense of them rather than writing feel-good rock songs about using copious drugs. Homme has lived a lot in the last several years, so he’s had plenty to reflect on. His sobriety has given way to a clearer mind, and his experiences have humbled him. Throughout this album, he spills out his criticisms of his ex-wife while considering his well-being. “Obscenity”, “Emotion Sickness”, and “Paper Machete” are full of bitter, resentful lyrics about his broken marriage with Distillers and Spinnerette frontwoman Brody Dalle, the latter song portrays her manipulative tactics and hurtful words as a flimsy weapon. – Andrew Spiess
19. Cherry Glazerr – I Don’t Want You Anymore (Secretly Canadian)
The music of the 1990s has been having a moment. Artists like Liz Phair have been touring their old classics, like her high-profile Exile in Guyville 30th Anniversary Tour. Bands like Soccer Mommy or Los Angeles’ Blondshell cite 1990s staples like Hole as formative influences. It’s the perfect storm for mining thick, powerful guitars, lo-fi vocals, and introspective, emotional lyrics.
I Don’t Want You Anymore finds Cherry Glazerr taking a turn for the introspective while still writing catchy, memorable, immediate songs. Album opener “Addicted to Your Love” could be a Nirvana Unplugged outtake, with its pulsing acoustic guitar and heartsick lyrics. “Touched You With My Chaos” radiates self-hatred like gasoline fumes with its gravel slide “Glycerine” guitars. “Soft Like a Flower” literally begins with the line “heart on my sleeve”, before unspooling into an explosive love paean to vulnerability. “Sugar” has a similar blank-eyed, slack-keyed vibe as Nirvana’s “Something in the Way”.
There’s still plenty of immediacy to I Don’t Want You Anymore, however. “Bad Habit” is neon-drenched modern pop. “Ready For You” is slow and slinky bedroom funk. It’s one of Cherry Glazerr’s most accessible records that also happens to be their most real. – J Simpson
18. Fucked Up – One Day (Merge)
One Day equally recalls the strengths of Fucked Up’s critically acclaimed second record, The Chemistry of Common Life (2008), which received the 2009 Polaris Music Prize. A return to form, as some might say, but, with this band, never for too long. As further suggested by its title, the new album’s central theme is the subject of time, and, taken as a whole, One Day possesses a brightness and sense of happiness that’s addictive and optimistic, even if the lyrics at times insinuate the opposite. Rather than despair, Fucked Up impart the hard-won lesson that the passage of time is what you consciously make of it. They would know. The artistic process affords a way of managing that fact and that dilemma, whether through acknowledgment, memory, experimentation, or other forms of storytelling. – Christopher J. Lee
17. Bully – Lucky for You (Sub Pop)
Bully‘s new album Lucky for You is clear, catchy, and compact, with ten enjoyable songs in 32 minutes, and they aren’t hard to categorize: guitar-driven, 1990s-influenced indie rock. There is something pleasingly self-contained and containable about this: no filler or fat, no confusion about where it fits in your listening matrix, and a sense that Alicia Bognanno—nowadays, the only official member of Bully—is operating with a kind of lean efficiency that has little room or time for messing around.
The hyperlocal approach to recording captures the homebound inwardness and almost workaday dependability of Bognanno’s songwriting. You feel like you’re in good hands. This feeling is in direct tension with Bognanno’s mood, which is low throughout Lucky for You. Many of the record’s songs are about her recently deceased dog, apparently. They’re loaded with lyrics about losing someone close to you in any case, but mourning a beloved companion isn’t the only reason Bognanno seems so down. In interviews, she has talked about battling bipolar disorder and kicking alcohol to get control of herself and her music, and the album’s lyrics evince plenty of regrets and even rage. – Adam Sobsey
16. Dommengang – Wished Eye (Thrill Jockey)
Blues-space rock outfit Dommengang‘s new record, Wished Eye, is the stuff of gods. While guitarist Dan “Sig” Wilson, bassist Brian Markham, and drummer Adam Bulgasem are just Portlanders (having settled after living separately), they know their stuff and will fearlessly dole it out. In one swoop of a song, Dommengang will carry us out via oceanic riffs, primordial bass, and a percussive chariot only to retract us, reminding us we are safely harnessed when earthless. We’re off, threading through the needle’s eye into an unknown destiny. The ooze Dommengang draw from Wished Eye is a loose, unspun wool that’s part metallic, fuzz addiction, visionary production, power trio power, and all rock. – Katherine Factor
15. Mitski – The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We (Dead Oceans)
Mitski has had a banner year. Arriving after her Oscar-nominated song, “This Is a Life”, for Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All at Once, her latest album, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, continues the momentum and acclaim she has accrued over the past several years. Mitski has often conveyed discomfort with the established role of the female singer-songwriter as a commodified product of the male gaze. Her response has been to balance her natural vocal gifts with an indie rock sensibility that self-consciously rebelled against the chanteuse ideal. The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We reflects a modulation of this approach. Embracing the traditions of her new home of Nashville, tracks like “Heaven” and “I Don’t Like My Mind” indulge country music as a new genre for self-expression. The outcome is a novel means of experimentation and self-acceptance, one less individual and more communal in scope. – Christopher J. Lee
14. The Mountain Goats – Jenny From Thebes (Merge)
Taylor Swift isn’t the only artist bristling with lore. John Darnielle’s discography as the Mountain Goats is bursting with colorful characters, detailed settings, and memorable situations. Jenny From Thebes is especially busy and detailed, though, even by Darnielle’s standards.
Jenny From Thebes is a sequel of sorts to 2002’s All Hail West Texas, a firm fan favorite of The Mountain Goats’ back catalog. It follows Jenny, a mysterious absence from AHWT who acts as a kind of indie pop Man in the Macintosh from Ulysses. Jenny From Thebes fleshes out the stories surrounding the recovering addict running a safehouse in West Texas. Darnielle digs in to unearth the humanity, mystery, and inspiration hiding behind the ranch-style home’s sheltering confines.
It has a similar literary sense of dense, sprawling humanity as Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honey Bear but somehow fresher and more immediate, less affected. Darnielle breathes life into these wayward misfits like only a novelist can without becoming overly clever or self-congratulatory. More impressive still, these wordy, twisty, unobvious narratives still sound fresh and fun, with some of the liveliest, sparkling arrangements in Darnielle’s nearly 30-year career. – J Simpson
13. Upper Wilds – Jupiter (Thrill Jockey)
Upper Wilds’ third album with a planetary title finds the trio as fierce and as catchy as ever. Vocalist/guitarist Dan Friel is equally likely to pull off a blistering noise rock guitar solo as he is to anchor a song with a huge, hooky riff. Bassist Jason Binnick and drummer Jeff Ottenbacher keep pace with Friel at every turn, making for an incredibly tight band that often masquerades as sloppy punkers that could fall apart at any moment. The title track even combines all of these elements into a single song. In keeping with this theme, the record includes killer tracks called “Permanent Storm” and “Voyager”.
Friel also displays his trademark affection and empathy for humanity’s extremes. The appropriately epic “10’9″” finds him musing about the life of the tallest human on record while seeming simultaneously astonished that it took 20 people to carry his coffin. “Short Centuries” reflects on the oldest married couple on Earth with the refrain, “We know how to pass the time.” Jupiter even finds the band loosening up a bit with a bouncy cover of Hüsker Dü’s “Books About UFOs”, which includes an unexpected saxophone solo. Combining noise-rock intensity with big melodies can be a tricky balance, but Upper Wilds has it figured out. – Chris Conaton
12. Dream Wife – Social Lubrication (Lucky Number)
Social Lubrication is a party. It’s full of hard drinking, drugging, hooking up, and lots and lots of jokes. It blends the glammy fabulousness of bands like T. Rex or The New York Dolls with the driving dance-punk relentlessness of the Gang of Four or Le Tigre, serving as a powerful V8 for Rakel Mjöll’s sneering, shouty vocals.
That’s not to say the third full-length from the London-based punk trio is all escapist hedonism. There are plenty of hard truths and social commentary on Social Lubrication. Dream Wife speak candidly and at length about the many contradictions of being a woman in the music industry and just a young woman in general. They linger on the details of uncertain, probably unhealthy, relationships. The seriousness is just broken up with dancing, drinking, and dating advice.
Dream Wife are re-imagining punk rock for the 2020s. They abandon the boring laddishness to offer a unique femme perspective while still not being afraid to rock and rage. Mjöll”s got one of the most distinctive voices in 21st-century punk, with a similar dry sprechtstimme wit as the Fall’s Mark E. Smith with just a dash of the Waitresses to keep things light and fun. It’s the perfect soundtrack for wasted weekend nights and dancefloor revolutions. – J Simpson
11. Slowdive – Everything Is Alive (Dead Oceans)
Following Slowdive’s triumphant return in 2017 after a 22-year absence, no one would have blamed them if they had quit while they were ahead or retired from the studio and become a legacy act. That’s almost what happened; Everything Is Alive began life as a solo project by songwriter Neil Halstead. Instead, Halstead ended up seeking his bandmates’ input, and the resulting lightning strike is even more impressive than the first. If Slowdive was a victory lap, Everything Is Alive is the morning after—sober, delicate, and haunting, with stark electronics counterbalancing the band’s regal guitarscapes. It features Halstead’s most emotional writing to date, yet it sacrifices none of the confidence and songcraft that made its predecessor so compelling. Everything Is Alive firmly establishes Slowdive as one of the most important bands of this decade. As good as the comeback story is, the music is even better. – John Bergstrom