September is a weird month—in most parts of the country it’s still warm enough to qualify as summer, but children are back in school, pumpkin fanfare is steadily appearing and, according to the calendar, it’s officially fall. But while September was in the throes of an identity crisis, loads of fantastic new music streamed in. Among Paste’s favorite records of the month are the debut from Night Shop, St. Paul & the Broken Bones’ third full-length effort and Richard Swift’s striking posthumous release. Read on to see all the September records worth a spin.
Here are the 10 best albums of September, according to Paste’s music critics.
Three albums in, St. Paul & The Broken Bones have helped redefine the modern sound of rhythm and blues and repurposed it into a contemporary context. They aren’t the only ones who have dipped into that formula of late with Mike Farris, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats and The War & Treaty reviving and rebooting that seminal sound and helped bring it a new wave of populist appeal. Young Sick Camellia will likely allow St. Paul & The Broken Bones to further etch their niche as major players in that recent renaissance of sorts. It’s an album with a heft and richness that easily makes an emphatic impression even on first hearing. The performances are first rate, underscored by Stax-sounding horn charts and a breezy delivery that would qualify for radio readiness on both pop and R&B radio charts three or four decades removed. The combination of a smooth groove and singer Paul Janeway’s emotive vocals make songs such as “Mr. Invisible” and “Nasa” excellent examples of the band’s confidence and credence. —Lee Zimmerman
Justin Sullivan, who for the last two decades was a touring drummer with bands like Ringers, Worriers and Kevin Morby’s the Babies, is making his full-length debut as Night Shop with the warmly astute In the Break, a follow-up to his self-titled EP from 2017. An uncomplicated traipse into folk rock, In the Break isn’t an album meant for picking apart; rather, it’s already cozily knit together, ready for the listener to climb inside and stay awhile. In the Break may be uncomplicated, but it’s not slack. Sullivan balances warm palpability with tight songwriting, resulting in an easy-going batch of brainy rock songs. The album’s lead-off track and first single, “The One I Love,” is a great introduction to Sullivan’s dry wit and spirited folk leanings. —Ellen Johnson
Thunder Follows The Light, the ninth album from Jordan Lee’s project, Mutual Benefit, serves as a still point, a breath of sanity, a meditation. It’s the rare album that manages to soothe and calm without burying its head in the sand—like a guided meditation through the reality of living in today’s world. Ambient, folky and gorgeously arranged, the orchestral elements and Lee’s rumination on heavy-hitters like our collective past and future, internal and external strife, apocalypse and hope never feel overwhelming. Take the opening track, “Written In Lightning,” which speaks of ominous clouds forming—a storm on the way—but still feels completely uplifting. Like many of his songs, it hints at Lee’s core belief that peace and the nearest any human can get to harmony, comes from within. “Shedding Skin” also stems out of this meditative discipline; the gentle, rain-like acoustic guitar and nature metaphors reminding us to be present in the moment and rooted in ourselves. The best defense in a world on fire. —Madison Desler
Ruston Kelly’s debut full-length Dying Star isn’t the best album anyone will release in 2018. It isn’t even the best album his own household will release in 2018. That title goes to his wife, Kacey Musgraves, for her stunning Golden Hour. But Dying Star is a very impressive effort from Kelly, a heretofore little-known Nashville singer-songwriter with a perfectly fine-grit voice and a gift for pairing heavy lyrics with remarkably graceful melodies. Evidence of both appears all over the album, revealing an artist who is not only ready for a slice of the spotlight, but also capable of his own crossover someday. —Ben Salmon
6. Ava Luna: Moon 2
With its excellent fourth album, Moon 2, Ava Luna evokes a cosmic utopia of its own making and yet remains tethered to a relentless, earthbound groove. Highlights like “Childish” and “Deli Run” (both sung by keyboardist Felicia Douglass, who emerges as an increasingly crucial melodic presence) vibrate, rustle, shake and pulsate like Speaking in Tongues-era Talking Heads b-sides. If this is an interplanetary utopia, it’s a rhythmic one: Drummer Julian Fader’s propulsive grooves jostle for space with vintage drum machines (“Moon 2”) and toy-like synthesizers (“Mine”). Even the electric guitar works as a sort of percussive instrument, announcing itself in little staccato scrapes on “Deli Run.” Vocal hooks trail into chant-like refrains, some evidently inspired by those women’s liberation tapes (“All the things he read / Nothing in his head!”—and repeat). —Zach Schonfeld
The solo debut from Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jessee seems like it could get snapped in two if handled too roughly or blown halfway around the world if hit by a strong gust of wind. The 47-year-old musician plays and sings with the delicacy of a glass figurine or a thin sheet of rice paper. A far cry from the maximalist pop of his band Hotel Lights and the bombast of BFF. But as with the work of fellow heart on sleeve troubadours like Cat Power and Elliott Smith, it’s precisely that gentleness that gives Jessee’s work so much power. The appropriate response to the nine, mostly acoustic songs on this collection is to lean in close and search out every last detail. All the better to hear the quaver in his voice, the squeak of his guitar strings and a healthy amount of room noise (Jessee recorded the bulk of the album alone in his New York apartment). There’s a voyeuristic quality to it all, as if eavesdropping on the sessions. So much so that when the overdubbed mini orchestra swells into the mix, it’s almost startling, like being caught with your ear pressed against the wall. —Robert Ham
“I’m so scared to get out of here / But I really want to get out of here.” It’s a line from “Strange Light”—a late standout from the sophomore LP by The Goon Sax—and I’m not sure there’s a lyric that better sums up the feelings of late adolescence. Those prime years when your conflicting instincts are all fucking with each other, and the endless possibilities preached at you from childhood become paralyzing instead of promising. Growing pains and dawning realizations abound, but it’s in this mess that we finally wind up meeting ourselves. It’s an experience you might have all over again after listening to We’re Not Talking, the latest effort from the Brisbane trio. —Madison Desler
Drive-By Truckers have always been a political band, an enlightened stab at Southern rock and a socially aware take on country, but they haven’t always been the Drive-By Truckers. Before moving to Athens, Ga., frontmen Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, along with drummer Chuck Tremblay, were making music in a then-sleepy Muscle Shoals, Ala., as Adam’s House Cat, named for the quirky southern colloquialism, “I wouldn’t know him from Adam’s house cat.” It’s a miracle this album ever secured a release—one iteration of the record was destroyed in a tornado in 2011, and Tremblay nearly died in a heart attack in 2017. Despite all the odds, this almost 30-year-old record is making its long overdue debut, and Southern rock is better for it. —Ellen Johnson
Fitzsimmons’ harrowing new album, Mission Bell, offers a no-holds barred testament to the trials that accompany the loss of love and the dashed promises of a once-happy future. Opening track “Second Hand Smoke” sets a tone that reverberates throughout the album as a whole, the first in a series of mournful laments that find Fitzsimmons questioning all the things he hoped he could continue to take for granted. Likewise, the track that follows, “Distant Lovers,” finds him attempting to come to grips with the inevitably of separation and loneliness. “You can take the kids on Tuesday and every other weekend/I’ll be fine with holiday arrangements on my own,” he allows while confronting his new reality. “Better off as friends, than distant lovers anyways,” he ultimately concedes. —Lee Zimmerman
1. Richard Swift: The Hex
After singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and indie-rock uber-producer Richard Swift died in July, his family announced, among other things, that he had been working on new music, that said new music had been planned for release in November, and that they hoped to share it with the world sooner than that. Given the typical timeline for getting an album out into the world via an indie label, a planned November release means Swift had almost certainly put the finishing touches on the music he was making before he passed away. Which means The Hex—surprise-released by Secretly Canadian—may very well be Swift’s final fully formed artistic statement. —Ben Salmon