I listened to 75 new albums in March so you don’t have to!
Insanity? Possibly, but also part of my search for the 21 best albums of 2021. In service of this great goal, I’m listening to new releases every month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final shake-out after the year ends. If you missed the previous editions, you can find them here:
Before we continue, a quick note about the 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. This is no guarantee! In fact, at current pace, we might end up with as many as 200 possibilities by the end of the year, so there’s going to be quite a reckoning to get to 21.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I had some reservation. But I have noticed over the years that some “maybes” have a habit of lingering, so I’m giving them a category just in case.
No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.
And with that, away we go with March’s albums!
Alex Beeker, Heaven on the Faultline– This was just delightful from the first few bright, clear and poppy, lof-fi synth-organ notes. A sure feel for melody and hooks, packed with clever musical choices and lyrical surprises as well. I genuinely didn’t want it to end. Also, I think the album should have lunch with Ron Gallo’s album further below.
Andrew Bird/Jimbo Malthus, These 13– When I heard this was mining the territory where country, blues, and folk overlap, I knew I was in (the good kind of) trouble. If they did it even halfway well, I was probably going to like it. And they did it very well! It never strikes a false note.
Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark– Dark and fascinating. Lyrically like some of the darker turns of goth music, but musically on the soft edge of indie folk and orchestral electronica, and the vocals are a kind of low-key narration. It all seems calculated to undersell how disturbing the content is. Very much all in the same tone, lyrically and emotionally, but with enough musical variability to pull it out. Dammit, I like it!
Armand Hammer/The Alchemist, Haram– Trust me, you probably don’t want a more hi-res version of that picture. “Haram” refers to things that are forbidden in Islam, and well, that’s a graphic illustration of one of them. As for the actual album itself, though, it’s simply superb. Jazz-informed hip-hop, with literate and vivid socially conscious lyrics that also get metaphysical but feel personally urgent. And on top of that, a rich musical mix and interesting use of samples.
Ben Howard, Collections From the Whiteout– A compelling musical swirl with traces of indie rock, folk, acoustic, and synth. Add to that literate and interesting lyrics that explore internal and external landscapes, and vocals that are also emotionally evocative in their understated way, and there’s a lot going on in each track. It’s really just pretty great, all in all.
Benny the Butcher/Harry Fraud, The Plugs I Met 2– This collaboration brings together a New York-based MC and hip-hop producer. There’s beautiful musical sampling work, fun weaving in of Scarface references, smooth vocal style, and lyrics with strong storytelling. Certainly a contender!
Esther Rose, How Many Times– Solid acoustic folk with nice country instrumental flourishes. She has a clear and engaging voice, and things here are charmingly not perfectly smooth. As a result, it’s lively and utterly genuine-feeling.
Judith Hill, Baby I’m Hollywood– She does classic smoldering soul, old style R&B, funk, and swinging rock equally well, with a voice that doesn’t have a note of falseness in it. Musical variability and verve, soaring vocals, sharp lyrics that address the personal and the social. There isn’t a single thing here not to love! Originally a backup singer who broke out, former contestant on The Voice, and having been produced by Prince, you can hear how much she’s mastered along the way.
Lana Del Rey, Chemtrails Over the Country Club– The subtlety of the first track alone is breathtaking. Throughout, the music is restrained, even minimal, but there’s such honesty and authenticity in the vocals, and her voice itself is an instrument. All of this supports, as per her usual, sophisticated lyrics. It’s powerful!
Leeanne Betasamosake Simpson, Theory of Ice– Luminous lyrics and vocals, with an electronic-infused acoustic pop sound. She’s a First Nations Canadian writer/musician, and you will certainly hear that thematically here. But it’s also so personal, evocative, and poetic that it can reach any audience.
Loretta Lynn, Still Woman Enough– Uh, she’s almost 90, this is her 50th album, and I love it! Straight up classic country the way it’s meant to be, with covers of standards (hers and others) plus an original or two. The duets here work too, and there’s even a spoken word version of Coal Miner’s Daughter that reminds you of how well that song works as storytelling. This is probably a better album than most of pop country radio will get anywhere close to this year.
Matt Dillon, Suitcase Man– Oh my God, I love it! Tom Waits-style growly vocals, smart and often hilarious lyrics, weird off-beat instruments (one of his specialties is the vibraphone). Between bands, solo projects, and collaborations, he put out 18 albums in 18 years getting here, and I’m just sorry we hadn’t met earlier.
New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers, New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers, Vol. 2– You may not have known that anybody still made blues like this, but this blues/roots music supergroup is here to tell you they do. Well, sort of still do, since the jam sessions that produced this were actually recorded in 2007, and one of the key members, Jim Dickinson, has even died since then. But it is still damn good!
Noga Erez, Kids– I still feel strangely bad for not liking the last Israeli recording artist we came across (I believe in January?). Fortunately here we are, and this dance beats and hip-hop oriented album is a step above. There’s great attitude throughout, surprising musical and vocal choices, and it never stops being interesting.
Ron Gallo, PEACEMEAL– I mean, I’m both interested and leery when you start with a backwards vocals intro. This betrays a kind of 60s psychedelia/70s concept album bent which is borne out in the best lo-fi home-recorded way in the rest of the album. This is angsty, quirky, idiosyncratic, delightful. And you see what I mean, right? This album should definitely have lunch with Alex Bleeker’s album at the top of our list.
Skeggs, Rehearsal– Apropos of an Australian garage rock/surf trio, this is pleasingly melodious and rocking. In fact, you know that rocking 80s alt band you loved, and that 90s band that never quite made it big but you adored them? This is that. Every track left me unremittingly happy the whole way through.
Special Friend, Ennemi Commun– This French/American duo has clear bright instrumentation, and knows how to do fuzzy crunchy guitars, with melody and a yearning mood in lyrics and vocals. There isn’t a track that goes astray, although I do think the last one may be Vaselines plagiarism. Even that commends them to me, though!
Tim Cohen, You Are Still Here– Melodious, moody, a unique lyrical voice. He demonstrates a mastery of pop/rock tropes, and all of the above plus the shimmery and assured production invokes a world. I almost felt like I was listening to a later-day Warren Zevon.
Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers– Solid vocals and affecting lyrics, livened by skillful layered production. It pulls together acoustic, indie rock, classic soul and R&B, and psychedelia. Bob Dylan has cited her as one of the contemporary artists he listens to, and I can see why. This is exquisite and gorgeous.
Xiu Xiu, Oh No– Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for years before being expatriated eastward, I’d long heard of Xiu Xiu, but didn’t really know what their deal was. Their deal is extraordinary! Experimental, evocative, musically and lyrically surprising. Something this experimental and unconventional seems like it shouldn’t work at album length, but it totally does. This particular album is all duets between Xiu Xiu founder Jamie Stewart and other indie luminaries, which is a nice touch.
- A.A. Williams, Songs from Isolation– As has been established in previously editions, I do love a good covers album. This is a great covers album! Haunting, beautiful, respectful, but not slavish. The sameness of emotional/musical tone is keeping it from automatic “yes”, but it’s close.
- American Culture, For My Animals– Low-fi, dissonant, definitely trends toward punk/alt rocky, but melodious and with classic rock flourishes worked in. It reminds me of diy early NY punk lyrically. The only reason it’s not an automatic yes is a nonsense dub sound effects track that was second from last.
- Bernice, Eau de Bonjourno– Beats, mellow smooth instrumentation, vocals flowing smoothly, but really surprising musical/production choices and complex lyrics lift it up. It’s all a little too mellow to be an automatic yes, but close.
- Central Cee, Wild West– This British hip-hop album has a unique voice and vision, pounding cadence, interesting and unusual samples, and heartfelt material that doesn’t lean on cliché. But vocally it’s all too much one tone after a while.
- Chad VanGaalen, World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener– This is like a really trippy psychedelic album from the 60s ran into a 90s noisepop album with some 80s alt in there to mediate between them. Perhaps predictably, I love it! A pair of nearly ambient instrumental pieces really threw off the momentum, though. Would have been a yes without them, so maybe?
- Cool Ghouls, At Geroge’s Zoo– This San Francisco group really feels like they’re a 60s garage/psychedelic rock band, or on the paisley underground side of 80s alt. The songs have an individual identity but all fit together, and not one of them strikes a false note, but ending on two slow songs in a row cost it the “yes”.
- Death From Above 1979, Is 4 Lovers– From the first distorted guitar feedback notes, and then the pseudo-dance beats kicking in, you know you’re in DFA’s hands. You’re a Woman I’m a Machine was one of my favorite albums of the 00s, and this is not quite as dynamic as that debut. It feels a little uneven, but I still love what they do.
- Justin Bieber, Justice– Dammit. Look, I can hold a musical grudge. Teen Bieber was so banal musically, and jerky personally that I’ve been anti even as evidence emerged that he was becoming a pretty solid artist. This is really quite good, personally revealing and emotionally sophisticated. The only thing that’s cost it the yes is the title and the MLK speeches sampled material, which is so bizarrely out of joint with the contents.
- Kings of Leon, When You See Yourself– Well produced in a 2000s Indie kind of way, but I worry it squashes the weird and spooky they are at their best. But it kept having breakout moments that got under my skin. Not an automatic yes, but a strong possibility.
- Lake Street Dive, Obviously– 70s R&B inflected pop feel with an indie rock twist, upbeat, energetic, great at weaving vocals and music together. I wonder about the dated feel, but that’s really the only negative.
- Middle Kids, Today We’re the Greatest– Folkish Indie start, got more rocky and catchy and infectious as it went. Nice musical variability too, with sophisticated emotional lyrics, but sometimes a little too slick production-wise at the expense of feeling genuine.
- Music on Hold, 30 Minutes Of– Between the band name and the album title I was nervous, but this is delightful! Nice upbeat indie rock with lively vocals and a clear new wave synth influence. It’s not profound, but strong lyrics, and every track works. Huzzah!
- Painted Shrines, Heaven and Holy– Solid Indie rock, they know how to work their major and minor chords, with hints of classic rock and 80s alt. Slight deflation toward the end and the decision to end it on a low-key instrumental cost it the “yes”.
- Rob Zombie, The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy– I mean, you have to be in a Rob Zombie horror-inflected metal and hellbilly paen to LSD kind of mood. If you are, it’s pretty fun. Maybe not coherent enough to be a best of year, but very good at what it does.
- Triptides, Alter Echoes– See, now that’s a nice straightforward indie/alt/strong influence of 60s garage and psychedelia rock start! And it works for track after track, though they did do the dreaded two slow songs in a row thing. And then another a song later. They had the sense to end it on an up note though, which saved it from total deflation. This all kept it from yes, but still a strong maybe.
- tUnE-yArDs, Sketchy.– Well this was fascinating! Nervy, eclectic, and muscular. It felt like it sometimes rode right on the edge of too discordant to listen to, which is why it ended up in “maybe”. But, crucially, I never did stop listening. In fact, I couldn’t turn away.
- Zara Larsson, Poster Girl– Swedish dance-pop, this is actually very good at what it does. It bogged down briefly 2/3 through, then bounced back. I surprised myself by how much I loved it!
- Allie Crow Buckley, Moonlit and Devious– Her voice is a wave of power underpinned by a dark surging wall of music, but while the quality is very high, there becomes a kind of sameness before it’s 1/3 through.
- Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Music from the Motion Picture)– You might expect this would be Billie Holiday covers, and it is, but there are originals too. The covers are perhaps too faithful and yet still powerful owing to the source material, and the originals weave together hip-hop and modern R&B with Holiday’s jazz and blues style and are just stunning. But I’m not sure the two excellent parts ever come together properly.
- Barbarossa, Love Here Listen– Mellow synth waves, electronic beats, smooth vocals-there’s nothing wrong with it, but it never rises above pleasant.
- Belle Orchestre, House Music– It’s good in an electronic jazz and noise pastiche of sound kind of way. Which is not a way for me.
- Blake Mills/Pino Palladino, Notes With Attachments– This melange of musical styles is pretty pleasant. Jazz, electronic beats, hip-hop, funk, and African rhythms all make an appearance. It is very well done, and explores some interesting soundscapes, but doesn’t quite come together as an album in a way that appeals to me.
- Cabaret Voltaire, Dekadrone– I do have to admire their ambition to release three different albums this year, but I don’t like this any better than the last one. Worse actually, as it’s even more noise and less music than Shadow of Funk.
- Cameron Knowler & Eli Winter, Anticipation– This is a very nice acoustic americana roots record. If you like that intersection of folk/country/blues (I do!) you’ll probably enjoy this (I did!). But it’s a hard sell for me for a purely instrumental album to get to “best of year” status.
- Carrie Underwood, My Savior– One of two “big name star releases gospel record” we’re reviewing this month-must be something in the air… In any case, these are all very serviceable versions, but emotionally muted. It could have gone in several directions, but with a few exceptions didn’t go in any- not folksy, not passionate, not great country, not great gospel.
- Chase Atlantic, Beauty in Death– No x1000- Beats and autonune vocalsssss hellll- I feel like I need to do something to clear my musical pallet from having even listened to a few tracks of this.
- Chevelle, Niratias– Ah, metal. I am always glad to see you! This doesn’t rise to something interesting or different enough to be in contention for “best” (though I did appreciate its sci-fi affects) but it is good clean genre fun.
- Chris Corsano/Bill Orcutt, Made Out of Sound– This, as it turns out, is made out of some pretty good sounds. Somewhere in the meeting up of punk, experimental, and jazz. It’s very good, but didn’t feel like it had the cohesion needed to truly make an album out of a jam session, even one as interesting as this.
- Clark, Playground in a Lake– A little too instrumental and a little too abstract for me, though I’ll grant you it got more interesting by the end.
- DJ Muggs, Dies Occidendum– Nicely weird, a kind of Black Sabbath approach to hip-hop/electronica, which isn’t surprising if you know Cypress Hill, which DJ Muggs hails from. Fascinating, but I think ultimately a little too abstract. However, you could (and should) play it at a Halloween party!
- Dr. Lonnie Smith, Breathe– Jazz soul veteran teams up with Iggy pop? Of course I’m interested! But it ends up being more of a curiosity than a great pairing, and is otherwise a nice mellow jazz album. That’s not my jam, and it’s not year-best material.
- El Michels Affair, Yeti Season– You call your album “Yeti Season”, you automatically have my attention. Remarkably, it doesn’t disappoint the high level of interest that creates. The music is a great melange of funk, soul, jazz, and global musical influences. Smooth, but never in a lulls you in and vanishes kind of way. Ultimately what cost it was being mostly instrumental, and entirely non-English (in multiple languages!) when it wasn’t. This didn’t give me enough connection to make it coherent as an album.
- Elizabeth & The Catapult, sincerely, e– Her weary voice is lovely, and fits the pandemic theme. It goes uptempo too, and has some fun pop flourishes. There’s a bit to much hush and background level songs for me, but the best moments here are very good.
- Floatie, Voyage Out– Nice little indie rock album from Chicago group Floatie, with angular guitar work, quirky vocals, and pleasant songs. No serious missteps, but the tracks all kind of sound the same. I do think they’re worth keeping an eye on, though.
- Fruit Bats, The Pet Parade– Nice Indie folk feeling at first, then classical echoes as well as 80s/90s alt country start coming in, but it gets way too samey until tracks 4-10 really pick up. And then promptly losses all that verve right after. I really think there could have been a great album here, but the slow start and uneven nature kills it.
- Harry Connick, Jr., Alone With My Faith– Harry Connick’s take on some gospel standards- I gave it a whirl because gospel has been a major source of country and soul/R&B, and I was curious to see his approach. These are solid and heartfelt versions, but a little conventional. And, honestly, generally less energetic and swinging than I was hoping for until a section in the middle, which really showed what a great album this could have been.
- IAN SWEET, Show Me How You Disappear– In theory this feedbacky wave of synth sound isn’t totally my jam, but every individual track kept winning me over with her lyrics, dissonance, and musical surprises. But it started to run out of steam for me at track 6, becoming a kind of undistinguished swirly feedback shimmery blend.
- Jane Getter/Jane Getter Premonition, Anomalia– It booms into a metal-flavored synth and instrument wave with dissonant notes, but ends up a little formulaic and too similar, although very well played.
- Jane Weaver, Flock– This surges into gear immediately, with melody and enough fuzz to be serious. Before long though, it starts to feel a little too folktronic and ungrounded. It’s very good, it just doesn’t quite come together as an album.
- Jon Batiste, We Are– As one might expect from an album by the Late Show’s band leader, this is well made and technically very proficient, with classic soul references all over. But I feel that somehow production is trumping the emotional connection throughout.
- Lil Dirk/Only The Family, Only The Family Presents: Loyal Bros– 23 song sampler from the Only The Family hip-hop production company. There’s definitely some good stuff here, but it’s hard for a sampler to qualify as a great album in a coherent sense, and a lot of the material is a little too-gangster oriented and misogynist “bitch” rant-full for me. Fans of the genre might find it useful to bookmark some names to keep an eye on, though.
- Lost Girls, Menneskekollektivet– This kind of sounds like the album name might lead you to suspect, a sound project from an art collective. Not uninteresting, but not my cup of cha.
- Mare Cognitum, Solar Paroxysm– If you tell me you are a “Portland Oregon one-man cosmic black metal band” I’m already at least halfway there. The strong opening did not disappoint, but the vocals were so scream-doomy that the lyrics were practically inaccessible. It’s really this complete lyrical opacity that landed it in “no”. The music was 100%!
- Michael Beach, Dream Violence– It starts rocking right away, which is always a good way to get my attention, with hints of classic rock, 80s alt, 90s rock, a moody haunted sound. I kind of loved it, until it ended with three long slow songs in a row, leading to complete second half deflation. Musicians! DON’T FUCKING DO THIS!
- Mint Julep, In a Deep and Dreamless Sleep– Nice dream pop, it’s very pretty, but it all kind of shimmers into the background.
- New Bums, Last Time I Saw Grace– Nice acoustic rock, intelligent lyrical work, it maintains a steady mood, but a little too steady, not enough musical or tone variability to make it really stand out.
- Sara Watkins, Under the Pepper Tree– Really pretty covers of standards, but a little too blandly pretty. I frequently found myself wishing that her bluegrass roots would show through more.
- serpentwithfeet, DEACON– What’s that you say? A gay indie soul album? I mean I love that, but unfortunately I think I admire what it’s doing much more than how it’s doing it, which is too low-key and narrow a range, musically and vocally.
- Sunburned Hand of the Man, Pick a Day to Die– Ain’t my groove. Opening track was instrumental low-key atmospheric electronica, occasionally some actual beats and vocals kicked in but everything felt a bit loonngggg.
- Tex Crick, Live in…New York City– Charming 70s feel, but a little too muted and low key, all one tone.
- The Antlers, Green to Gold– Nice sort of folkie low-key indie. Nothing wrong with it, but the tracks all blend into each other in a way too low-key fashion for my taste.
- The Writhing Squares, Chart for the Solution– The opening is like a great trip into the arty side of synth early 80s but with elements of something thrashier, then it ends up being something I might call noise jazz. Overall, a little too discordant art project for me.
- Various Artists, Endless Garage– Project of John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees that pulls in various musicians, instruments, and sound effects. An interesting art project, but it doesn’t add up to an album.
- Visionist, A Call to Arms– Noise and disorganized music samples, sections have vocals and melody but in a muted low key ambient background kind of way.
- William Doyle, Great Spans of Muddy Time– a little too muted musically and emotionally. It seemed to be going sinister for a second, but, alas, backed off.
And there we are for March! One quarter of the year down on our way to uncovering the best 21albums of 2021. See you again for the April wrap-up!