Five great American fall albums

David Meir Grossman
David Meir Grossman
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Each season brings its own particular feeling, and fall is one of transition—even in the desert, with the end of the summer’s extreme heat. It’s a season of contradictions and alternating moods, which might be why musicians thrive making fall music.

1. Neil Young, Harvest

Perhaps the definitive studio album for the season, Young’s 1972 country-rock masterpiece is filled with the warmth, coldness, and yearning that can define the season. Young’s deep desire for connection bursts through on tracks like “A Man Needs A Maid,” “Heart of Gold,” and “Old Man.” The first of these discusses loneliness, and Young gives the feeling an operatic quality, something larger than life. The latter two have Linda Rondstadt’s unmistakable background vocals, which get across human desire as much as any music ever had.

Harvest’s massive success ended up annoying Young, and the image it gave him as a country troubadour would be something he’d rage against on one experimental album after another. But its power is undeniable: The pain Young conjures on “The Needle And The Damage Done,” where every junkie is like a setting sun, and the plea for a generational peace treaty on “Old Man,” showcase Young both at his most romantic and unforgiving.

2. J Mascis, Several Shades of Why

Dinosaur Jr. is one of the hardest-rocking bands in existence, a trio whose riffs are only equalled by its in-fighting. After the band’s revival in 2009 proved that its ear-splitting riffs could be summoned at will, frontman J Mascis released his first solo album in 2011, something more tender and gentle than anything anyone could have been expecting.

The title track, composed of an acoustic guitar, a violin, and J’s voice, has a warm, mesmerizing beauty to it, allowing its instruments to build after Mascis has finished with his words. On the next track, “Not Enough” has Mascis asking, “can we be loved, can we be free / can we be all these things you said to me / can we be loved, can we explain / can we be all these things and hold the pain.” And when the electric guitar finally busts out on “Is It Done,” it is a riff of singular beauty, it feels like a release of pain into an open, welcoming sky.

If you’re ever on a train or a bus in the fall evening, get a window seat and put this album on. Every passing tree, every blurry town, feels larger than life.

3. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

Unless you’ve got something in the title giving a hint, like Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” or Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater,” seasonal music is something of an arbitrary category. The music you associate with a season becomes that season’s music, regardless of sound. On her fourth solo album, Neko Case embraces that sense of mystery. A country-rock album in sound and a variety of disasters in the abstract, Case’s incredible voice carries listeners through drunken nights, car crashes, people going crazy in the woods, Ukrainian myths, and old folk spirituals.

Through them all, Case brings a sense of curiosity and wonder. Some songs feel like carefully plotted stories, others feel like hazy dreams, others feel like the camaraderie of friends. The album weaves in and out of these stories, somehow tying them all together like a spider’s web.

“John Saw That Number,” a rollicking spiritual, leads into “Dirty Knife,” a dire track about murder, which leads into “Lion’s Jaw,” a small song that focuses on “the night I fell into the lion's jaws, to my regret and your delight.” It’s hard to say what this means, but Case knows, and that’s what makes the song great. A track like “Star Witness,” carrying the listener through horror and beauty in equal measure, is an object fascinating enough for repeated listens.

Fox Confessor came out in 2006, and it’s just as beguiling as when it was released.

4. Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

For years, Earl Sweatshirt was a mystery to fans of the combustive Odd Future collective, living in Samoa at a boarding school until just before his 18th birthday. On his second studio album, he mixes warm electronic beats with clear-eyed introspection. It can be a tough journey. “I don't know who house to call home lately / I hope my phone break, let it ring,” he says on “Faucet.” On “AM // Radio,” deconstructed beats play over Earl and fellow indie rapper Wiki reminiscing over origin stories.

Seconds under half an hour, this album makes a big impression in a small time period. It’s perfect for walking around in cold weather, or, as the nights creep up earlier and earlier, playing as inner thoughts begin to find their ways in. For all the pain, Earl says, it’s easier when you’re not alone.

5. The Band, The Last Waltz

Recorded on Thanksgiving Day in 1976 in San Francisco, The Band’s grand finale is perhaps the ultimate fall album. It’s a long goodbye, with the ‘60s act, which grew out of being a backing group into a fully-fledged project, taking center stage. Their songs were always about nostalgia and times gone past in the first place, and now they’ve got a full horn section filling them out.

As The Band works through their personal history, they bring out guests from their many, many sojourns on tour, from Bob Dylan to Muddy Waters to Neil Young to Joni Mitchell. One of the all-time great, if not greatest, live recordings of rock music, The Last Waltz doesn’t just recreate a warm feeling. It creates an entire world, entire lives, all out there on stage.

The Last Waltz pulls double duty as it’s also a documentary directed by Martin Scorcese. Through brief interludes, Scorcese is able to penetrate the hard living of The Band’s members, and contrasts it with the beauty of songs like “The Weight” and “Stage Fright.” The cameos, like Young showing up for a version of “Helpless,” result in powerful recreations of classics trying to reach through the bonds of time one last time.

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