The Week In Music: The Best Albums, Songs, Performances and More

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The Week In Music: The Best Albums, Songs, Performances and More

It was a week of tremendous loss within the music world. Just a few short days after soul legend Bill Withers passed away, we lost the great John Prine to complications resulting from the coronavirus. Therefore, we took some time this week to think about Mr. Prine and what he meant to us. You’d be hard-pressed to find a working artist—at least in the Americana/country/folk sphere—who didn’t look up to Prine in some way. We thought about what made him so special, revisited an interview from a decade ago and listed some of our favorite songs by the plainspoken songsmith who cherished the struggles and delights of the everyman. But as we mourn the loss of one artist, we’re also keeping our eyes and ears on new music. This week, Hamilton Leithauser and Laura Marling—two songwriters who, like Prine, consistently seek out truth and beauty—released new albums, as did The Strokes, Watkins Family Hour and so many more. Find all this and more below within our weekly music recap.

BEST ALBUMS

Hamilton Leithauser: The Loves of Your Life

With The Loves of Your Life, former The Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser expands his scope in a searching spirit, satiating his hunger for connection with the stories of others. Written about real individuals, some old friends and others strangers, the songs are as manifold as the human lives they encapsulate, with Leithauser often stepping aside to speak in his subjects’ own words. Written, recorded, produced and mixed in Leithauser’s cramped, DIY New York City studio The Struggle Hut, the album achieves a powerful sense of place, capturing the city and its innumerable narratives—NYC is well-trod creative territory, to say the least, and could have easily made for a mundane effort in the hands of a lesser songwriter. But Leithauser has spent his entire career on its wavelength, and dedicates The Loves of Your Life to the people who make the metropolis what it is, bringing all of his skills (he plays most of the instruments on the album) to bear on rendering their stories in poignant detail. —Scott Russell

Laura Marling: Song For Our Daughter

Midway through “Held Down,” the lead single from Laura Marling’s surprise released seventh album, the English singer/songwriter gives a cheeky little hint for anyone considering writing about her: “You sent me your book which I gave half a look / But I just don’t care for and I cannot get through / But you’re writing again and I’m glad, old friend / Now make sure you write me out of where you get to.” It’s an interesting inclusion here as Marling has made a career of ever-so-subtly writing about own personal relationships and breakups, be them about famous exes or not, but cloaking whatever autobiographical details there are underneath multiple levels of metaphor or imagery. She always writes from an extreme approach, either from the perspective of a character of her own invention or an obscure one deep in literature, rarely, if ever, giving any hints to what is real life or not, sometimes frustratingly so. As a result, her albums are centered around specific characters—Once I Was An Eagle’s Rosie, A Creature I Don’t Know’s The Beast and Sophia (the Greek goddess of wisdom)—or around a looser subject (Semper Femina’s look at femininity or societal gender roles on I Speak Because I Can). Perhaps that’s why Marling isn’t seen as the legendary singer/songwriter that she truly is: It’s hard to latch onto her albums because she hides herself under handfuls of different characters and perspectives, never truly allowing herself to shine through. But, like Bob Dylan before her, this is also her greatest strength, as impenetrable as her lyrics may be. —Steven Edelstone

BEST TRACKS

The Beths:Dying to Believe

“Dying to Believe” is a welcome return from The Beths, featuring frontwoman Elizabeth Stokes’ signature songwriting that is both introspective and clever. The music video for the song, directed by Callum Devlin, is a mock “How to be The Beths” instructional video, featuring clunky instructional text and a fuzzy picture quality reminiscent of VHS tapes that one might watch via a TV on wheels back in an early-2000s high school health class. —Natalia Keogan

Phoebe Bridgers:Kyoto

“Kyoto” follows the previous single released from Phoebe Bridgers’ forthcoming album Punisher, the somber “Garden Song.” Originally set to be filmed in Japan last month, the global pandemic halted those production plans. But Bridgers opted to cheekily use a green screen in order to create a magical video, donning a skeleton-print onesie, gliding on electric train tracks and flying over the ocean. “This song is about impostor syndrome,” Bridgers says. “About being in Japan for the first time, somewhere I’ve always wanted to go, and playing my music to people who want to hear it, feeling like I’m living someone else’s life. —Natalia Keogan

Washed Out:Too Late

Washed Out, a.k.a Ernest Greene, released a new song and music video on Thursday, fully embracing the strangeness of having to cancel a video shoot due to the coronavirus outbreak. Greene also announced that he has signed to powerhouse indie label Sub Pop. Instead of filming in Italy as originally planned, Greene called on fans to submit their own footage:”I’d spent months planning a music video for a new song called “Too Late,” Greene said in a press release. “My inspiration was a Mediterranean sunset I saw late last year, and the plan was to shoot on the coast of Italy with a team of UK and European collaborators. As we got closer to the shoot date, word about the severity and the speed of the virus started becoming daily news, and it became clear it wasn’t going to happen the way we’d planned.” —Isabella DeLeo

FEATURES

Remembering John Prine: The Droll Voice of the Common Man

John Prine, who died Tuesday of Covid-19, once claimed that his three main influences were Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and Roger Miller. Like Dylan, Prine was a Midwesterner who got his start strumming an acoustic guitar and compensating for his small, nasal voice and melodic well with lyrics that made your head snap around and say, “What was that?” Unlike Dylan, however, Prine didn’t write long, sprawling lines with the flamboyant metaphors employed by bohemians arguing philosophy late into the evening, Prine wrote compact, down-to-earth lines using the common-sense aphorisms traded by blue-collar workers on their lunch break. These were the same people Williams provided a voice for—folks who’d left the farms of Alabama and the mines of West Virginia to work at factories in Chicago and Baltimore and to send their kids to the state university or the civil service. Prine was one of those kids and he twisted their stories enough to yield the absurdist humor that Miller was so brilliant at. Then he twisted them again to go where Williams and Miller had never ventured—to give his stories endings closer to face-slapping reality than to the comforts of Music Row. If Dylan specialized in the ironies of the overeducated, Prine did the same for the underemployed. —Geoffrey Himes

How Spotify’s “Indigo” Playlist Captures a Moment of Alt-Country Magic

Pushing boundaries within country music is nothing new. Stars like Willie Nelson, John Prine and Emmylou Harris can speak to that. But now, in 2020, it feels like artists are challenging notions of what country can be from more directions than ever before. The streaming giant Spotify is known to fashion playlists out of just about anything, from titles as ambiguous as “Kitchen Swagger” and “Chill Lofi Study Beats” to more conventional genre collections such as “Fresh Folk” and “RapCaviar” (a playlist famous for breaking some of the genre’s up-and-comers). One of the streaming service’s more recent entries, titled “Indigo” and released last week, feels more intentional than most “Mood” playlists users may stumble upon on the platform. “Indigo” doesn’t just incite a feeling—it captures the aforementioned country moment, a time when artists are experimenting with the genre’s conventions and slowly, but surely, making it their own. —Ellen Johnson

The 20 Best Strokes Songs

The Strokes are one of the most repeatedly argued-about bands of the last 25 years. They’re also one of the most speculated: Their rise to mid-tier fame and rock success is practically lore now. They emerged from a burgeoning NYC scene in the late ’90s, and they radiated a kind of cool no one had seen in the city’s music scene for years. The band’s core members—perpetually shaggy frontman Julian Casablancas, guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti—got caught up in all the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of it all (as was famously documented in Lizzy Goodman’s 2017 oral history of the early-2000s NYC scene, Meet Me In The Bathroom) and were embroiled in label disputes. In the 20-plus years since their original inception, they’ve released albums both adored and detested by critics, branched off and made solo projects and, no matter how long it’s been since we last heard from them, they always seem to be lingering somewhere at the back of our minds. To celebrate the release of their sixth LP and first in seven years, The New Abnormal (out today, Friday, April 10), we polled our staff for the best Strokes songs. —Paste Staff

Ashley McBryde’s Never Will Is the Perfect Blend of Traditional and New-Age Country

Ashley McBryde has—and has had for a long time—the makings of a huge country star. That couldn’t be more clear on Never Will, her latest album, which has something for every type of country fan. “First Thing I Reach For” is an honest honky-tonk ode to vices that spares no details. On album closer “Styrofoam,” she dedicates three minutes of spoken-word sweet nothings to the creators of the impossible-to-decompose material that was miraculously chilling liquids of all varieties well before Yetis were on the market. The mandolin takes center stage on the bluegrass-indebted “Voodoo Doll,” which is one of the most impressive songs on the album, if only for its light flirtation with pure, unadulterated black magic. “Martha Divine,” another single that earned McBryde a place on several “most anticipated releases of 2020” lists, is the album’s other highlight and the eternal damnation of a serial homewrecker. If radio execs and DJs have any sense at all, they’ll play Ashley McBryde until we’re beggin’ them to stop. Few are as deserving of mainstream genre stardom as her, and Never Will is all the proof we need. —Ellen Johnson

The Best Country Albums From 2020 (So Far)

When I see the numbers 2020 next to the words “so far,” all I can think about is how absolutely horrendous this year has really been…so far. Show me the words “later in 2020,” or maybe the phrase “July,” and I feel hope spring up from my feet as I ponder all the time this year has left to get its shit in order. But, as of April, 2020 has been a real mess. The coronavirus outbreak has affected every aspect of our lives and continues to inform how we live every day. As the situation becomes more grim, we simply must find pockets of joy and normalcy in order to survive. For me, one area of sustainable happiness has been the tremendous output of country artists this year. There have been so many excellent releases to arrive already, and we’re only four months in. As we mourn the loss of John Prine, one of country’s all-time greats, I’m keeping an eye out for songwriters who, like Prine, have a different way of looking at things. New, unique voices are releasing compelling albums alongside veteran favorites, and if you’re a fan of country, I can almost guarantee you’ll find something new to love. Here are 12 albums made by those artists. May they bring you solace, or, at the very least, some version of escape. —Ellen Johnson

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