I have found it can be opportune to harvest the energy of the beginning of a new year to set some intentions for the year to come. Being an audiophile, some of my intentions for this year are music-related. To whit: after being out of keeping up with new music for various reasons for the last few years, I have determined to catch up!
So I am going to review new releases every month, with the goal of eventually finding the best 21 albums of 2021. This will be one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year, with another reviewing critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and the third one doing the same for 2020.
(Parenthetical shout out to Joe Biden for winning, and freeing up the time and mental/emotional energy to do this. The last four years politically weren’t the only reason I didn’t do much music writing, but they were a major reason.)
Let’s start with a quick note about how this will go. I’m listening to the new releases each month and sorting them into three categories:
Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I had some reservation. I want to leave myself some room though, because I’ve more than once had the experience of an initial “maybe” becoming a favorite eventually.
No– These albums are not in contention. In a few cases, I even abandoned them after listening to three or four tracks, although others were compelling in certain ways, which I note.
I’ll be doing this each month, and then at the end of the year we’ll do the final reckoning to find the best 21. And with that, let’s get to it! Here’s my take on the 31 new releases I listened to in January:
Arlo Parks, Collapsed in Sunbeams– A solid selection of British Soul, with a poetic sensibility throughout. Her lyrical emotional sophistication is breath-taking, and often haunting. On a musical level it is, in a way, very simple. But that’s the knife edge that slips the lyrics in between your ribs before you know what’s happened.
Baio, Dead Hand Control– A solo effort from the lead singer of Vampire Weekend. I have heard tell of this Weekend of Vampires for a few years now, but am not familiar with their work. Based on this I might want to be! It booms into gear from the get go, and feels like I’ve fallen in to the Pretty in Pink/Some Kind of Wonderful soundtracks. You can take the boy out of the Alternative 80s, but you can never fully take the Alternative 80s out of the boy…
Goat Girl, On All Fours– If I had to think of two words to describe this album from British group Goat Girl (which, despite the name, seems to be all human women and not fantastic hybrids) it would be “lush” and “hypnotic”. Musically, it’s a combination of instrumental rock and electronic rock, fused together by strong production and a knowing way with melody. And the vocals are clear and powerful.
Kate Davis, Strange Boy– So, I’m kind of in love with this album. Kate Davis, apparently, is a pop and jazz singer-songwriter who is now on her fifth album, a cover of Daniel Johnston’s Retired Boxer. Johnston himself was an outsider musician who’s stripped down approach to music came out of his own experience with mental illness. Somewhere between the quirky charm of the original material and her talented interpretation- her lackadaisical vocals synch perfectly with the lo-fi music- this is just great.
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, Macca to Mecca!– This is a live album from the touring band of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street band-member Little Steven. On that basis alone, you would think it would be solid. But wait, there’s more! It’s an album of Beatles covers recorded at the Cavern Club in Liverpool where the Beatles got their start. As Steven says on the album intro, “Rock and Roll is my religion, and this is Mecca”. Great material, well played, and, crucially for covers, true to the spirit of the originals without being slavish copies.
Midnight Sister, Painting the Roses– This album is unsettling in a good way. It’s partially the music, which is solidly in a neo-soul vein but keeps doing complex and surprising things track after track. And it’s very much in the lyrics and vocal performance. Lead singer Juliana Giraffe (I am not making this up) is heavy on hypnotic artistry, bringing to mind Kate Bush from way back and Florence and the Machine from more recently.
Pom Poko, Cheater– Discordant, but high on melody. Quirky. Clever. This is from the school of Post-Rock that still knows what makes a perfect pop-rock song work, but has blown up the formula and beautifully reconstructed the pieces (think Deerhoof). Also, they’re Norwegian, which may have something to do with it.
Rats on Rafts, Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths– This feels like an album lost in time. Multiple times, actually. You’ll hear traces of Psychedelia, 80’s New Wave/Synthpop, and Industrial. It all adds up to surging atmospheric music. And, as the album name might lead you to expect, it’s also a high concept story album. This could all get out of hand, but it doesn’t, and it’s weirdly wonderful.
Steven Wilson, The Future Bites– The musical mix of melody, samplings, and electronic dance music here brings to mind early 80s Peter Gabriel. It has a tendency toward the ethereal, but the dark bitterness of Wilson’s lyrics and more grating musical touches keep it grounded. All in all, very interesting!
Weezer, OK Human– I have to admit, when I heard that this latest Weezer foray involved a full orchestra and took inspiration from opera, I had more than a touch of trepidation. I thought we might end up with something like how Rivers Cuomo getting interested in music theory on Pinkerton squashed all the energy and charm that had been in their debut album. Here, though, those touches are always in service of solid Pop Rock structure, and Cuomo is in top form lyrically. It’s just too good to ignore.
- Dale Crover, Rat-a-Tat-Tat– Crover is the drummer from one of my long-time favorites, the Melvins. Per what one might expect from that, this is full of great heavy and yet melodic rock. The downside is that throughout it veers into experimental sound forays that just get a little annoying.
- Kiwi Jr., Cooler Returns– Good solid Power-Pop. If you like the Modern Lovers and the Replacements, you might like this. I was left wondering, though, if the sound is a little too familiar?
- Lia Ices, Family Album– This is affecting from the start, she sounds and feels like a 70s singer-songwriter livened by psychedelic and 90s indie touches. Her voice weaves spells, but by the end a sense of sameness starts to set in.
- Palberta, Palberta5000– Sweet, melodious pop-punk, it’s musically propulsive and interesting. And I am a sucker for girl groups. It’s very charming, but occasionally gets a little lyrically and vocally repetitive.
- Sleaford Mods, Spare Ribs– Very interesting! The grooves are infectious, the lyrics political without getting polemical. It brings to mind PiL, and the Streets. The delivery, though, is a little, well, shouty, which gets hard to sustain toward the end.
- The Besnard Lakes, The Besnard Lakes Are the Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings– This is a very strong maybe. It’s surging, atmospheric and weird, in a way that brings to mind 70s Prog Rock as well as newer efforts by bands like the Flaming Lips. Per the Prog Rock vibe, the tracks sometimes feel a little…long. But it grew on me the more it went.
- Trevor Beld Jimenez, I like It Here– This felt like a 70s Southern California album lost in time. He’s lyrically compelling and vocally rich. My only hesitation is that the production sounds a little too thin and straightforward, but it’s definitely worth another listen or two.
- Yung, Ongoing Dispute– Poppy in a power-chordy kind of way, and I liked the naively self-referential lyrics. I did feel it veered a little too much toward sameness by the end.
- Alpine Decline, For the Betterment of Well People– Very high quality pop-rock, but there’s just too much “sameness” to the tracks.
- Ani DiFranco, Revolutionary Love– To be clear, there is no such thing as a bad Ani DiFranco album, and this isn’t bad. It was however, a little too in an “adult easy listening” vein musically and vocally, and I like my Ani a little more incendiary.
- Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, New Fragility– Very well done, but it’s just kind of too one tone “sad indie guy”.
- Gas Lit, Divide and Dissolve– Instrumental metal with new age and orchestral flourishes. It wasn’t for me, but I’m sure it does have an audience.
- Henrik Appel, Humanity– In a proto-punk/post-punk vein musically, and it has some mood and lyrical flourishes, but it’s a little too simple and one tone for me.
- Lucero, When You Found Me– It’s good dark Country-Rock, but descends into too much sameness.
- Madlib, New Ancestors– Please understand, I love Madvillain so I was pre-disposed to like this effort from the “Mad” half of that hip-hop duo, and this is beautiful and well done. But it’s too down-tempo and fading into the background for me.
- Pearl Charles, Magic Mirror– Pretty effort from a singer-songwriter with an interesting musical mix, but ultimately a little too simple in its production for me.
- Shame, Drunk Tank Pink– Third generation punk. It’s fine.
- Tamar Aphek, All Bets Are Off– Slick and well-produced effort from an Israeli indie rocker, but I failed to locate anything that felt genuine in it.
- The Body, I’ve Seen All I Need to See– I do like my noise rock and my experimental rock, but this was a little discordant even for me.
- The Notwist, Vertigo Days– It all ends up being a little too ambient and sound-effecty.
- Therion, Leviathan– Symphonic Scandinavian metal with Celtic elements. I was left flat when the really good metal moments kept giving way to the symphonic moments, but it’s definitely interesting.