Hey, we made it a third of the way through this madcap quest!
As part of my search for the 21 best albums of 2021, I’m listening to new releases every month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final reckoning after the year ends. If you missed the previous editions, you can find them here:
This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year, you should also check out the latest from my review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s and 2020.
But you’re here to hear about the 92 (!) new albums I listened to in April. Before we continue with that, 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 will likely end up with more than 200 possibilities by the end of the year, so every album that makes it to the top 21 will be standing on a mound of the corpses of its vanquished foes.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I had some reservation. 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 now, on with our April reviews!
Art d’Ecco, In Standard Definition– This starts off with surging guitars, drums, and powerful slightly surly vocals. I’m listening! It reminds me of Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Bowie. Later tracks occasionally get a little dancey, and when that happens we’re in a kind of glam disco space. This all creates a weird timeless world, and I didn’t feel let down by a single track. And the fact that the lead vocalist and everything about the band is Gay as hell is a happy bonus.
Ashley Monroe, Rosegold– Country singer makes a pop turn is really not an unusual story. What makes this stand out is that she does this not in a country pop way, or even in a contemporary mass market pop way, but instead produces a shimmering, golden, vaguely otherworldly pop. It’s really pretty extraordinary.
Beach Youth, Postcard– I think maybe I was expecting something more- beachy?- from this French group. That said, it is very good guitar-centered pop-rock with a dreamy feel, but enough propulsion to keep it from fuzzing out. Viva la France!
Benny Sings, Music– The album opens with a weird sunny 70s-flavored piece, and this turns out to be a really good preview of what we’re in for here. Track after track by this Dutch pop musician sounds like it fell out of a 70s easy listening station, but with a quirky twist and plaintive air. It’s just delightful the whole way through.
BROCKHAMPTON, ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE– Hey, it’s a multi-racial hip-hop collective that want to redefine the meaning of “boy band”! A promising premise, and the opening track gave me a feeling I haven’t had since the height of conscious hip-hop (think Arrested Development, De La Soul, Digable Planets, etc.) and political hip-hop (think Public Enemy, NWA) in the 90s. Subsequent tracks bore that out, but also featured the best of the kind of storytelling tracks found in 90s gangster rap, and multi-layered 2000s hip hop production styles. Lyrics, vocal styling, sampling and mixing, everything here is dynamic and substantive. This is one boy band I can get behind!
Demi Lovato, Dancing With The Devil…The Art of Starting over– Imagine you are a sometimes not taken seriously pop princess. Imagine that as you were seemingly on top of the world you were actually wrestling with addiction, depression, eating disorders, and recovery from sexual assault. Now imagine that you go public with these struggles, your near-death from them, and release an album that is unstintingly honest and vulnerable about the process. And that you somehow make it into musically lush and vocally powerful pop music. Simply amazing.
Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg– This UK band sounds like they’re doing a conscious throwback to/revival of the angular and nervy early era of post-punk. And they do it very well! The musical side of it is excellent and the dry spoken word vocals of vocalist Florence Shaw are a nice touch too.
Du Blonde, Homecoming– It begins with a burp, launches immediately into sludgy guitar, husky vocals with an undertone of both malice and boredom, and packs ten songs into 25 minutes. Some melodic sweetness kicks in along the way too, placing it at a kind of cross roads of 60s girl group and stoner rock. Shades of Blondie, shades of Hole. (She knows her oeuvre too, since Garbage’s Shirley Manson appears on one of the tracks.) I had no choice, I am required by law to love this. And I do! Also to note, the power behind this, Beth Jean Houghton, is also a multi-media artist and director of music videos for numerous bands.
Elizabeth King, Living in the Last Days– “77 year-old gospel recording veteran gets a chance to record a new album for the first time in decades” is a good story. Good stories don’t always translate into great albums, but it sure did in this case. Gospel, blues, funk, and her assured powerful voice make for rocking soulful gospel at its best.
Grave Flowers Bongo Band, Strength of Spring– The name gives one pause, but the reality is something unexpected: a guitar heavy post-punk, metal, and prog rock/psychedelia hybrid. Every track is both propulsive, and sings with the guitar work. I’m a yes!
Greta Van Fleet, The Battle at Garden’s Gate– Why lovingly recreate a 70s hard rock sound? Why not! The thing is, it’s done so well, with such sincerity, that it doesn’t sound like a knock-off, but a genuinely new album from that era that somehow just popped into contemporary existence. It will be fascinating to see how this group develops over time.
Guided by Voices, Earth Man Blues– Nobody else quite does what Guided by Voices does, and they are doing it very well here. Every track is like an instant classic, and they’re all in different styles. There’s even a Batman-themed song!
Juan Wauters, Real Life Situations– This Uruguayan musician living in New York City took advantage of COVID confinement to produce this mix of slice of life sound samples, hip-hop, electronic dance music, acoustic, latin pop, and jazz. The whole thing, along with lyrics in English and Spanish, creates a surprisingly listenable urban pastiche, delivering exactly what the title is promising.
Matthew E. White/Lonnie Holmes, Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection– This is a powerful melding of funk, jazz, and electronic beats from Virginia musician Mathew E. White and vocals that are in turns growling and poetic from 71 year-old multi-media artist Lonnie Holley that weave themselves through the music. I’ve noticed that these kinds of collaborations between artists can be either ponderous or magic. This one is magic- revelatory, challenging but always interesting and listenable, you probably won’t hear anything else like it this year.
Luke Haines, Luke Haines in…Setting the Dogs on the Post Punk Postman– Oh my god, I love it! The kind of weird simultaneously personal and international tales of intrigue delivered in melodic and affecting pop and rock that Warren Zevon used to deliver. One might also hear hints of Elvis Costello or Nick Lowe. I never wanted it to end
Midland, The Sonic Ranch– Well shit, this is an honest to God country album. Nothing feels affected, nothing feels slick. It’s in a neo-traditionalist vein, and doing it flawlessly. The excellent country album I’ve been looking for since the beginning of the year!
Nick Waterhouse, Promenade Blue– 50s/early 60s rock/soul revival sound with a wild edge and hint of indie darkness. Think of a kind of intersection of Buddy Holly/Buster Poindexter/Brian Setzer/early Elvis Costello, aka I fucking love it.
PONY, TV Baby– Oh hi, this album fell through a time warp from the 90s and hit me on the head, and now I love it. I saw one description of the band describe it as “bubble grunge”. Well yeah, you give me a female-fronted guitar-crunching band that has a pop sensibility, and I’m almost guaranteed to be on board.
Remember Sports, Like a Stone– There’s this band I fall in love with every few years. The basic elements are: an all-female or 3/4 female band, real guitar rock with real drums, and punk power and verve but strong melody and pop sensibility. It has been, variously, the Skirts, the Bangs, the Soviettes, and Vancougar. This is that band. I’m in love! They should watch out, though, because my love-band inevitably puts out less than a handful of albums and breaks up before meeting with the reception they deserve. Alas!
The Coral, Coral Island– This opens with one of those classic psychedelia spoken word intros The jangly psychedelia-flavored indie rock that follows, and spoken travel narrative interludes throughout, show this is exactly what this English band is going for, and they deliver-flawlessly
The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Dance Songs for Hard Times– Obviously, the band name is great, and the album name is energetic and hopeful. The even better news is that this Indiana country-blues band delivers with a set of rocking hi-energy blues songs. Every last track is solid fun!
Topaz Jones, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma– A lively and varied hip-hop album, I’m digging it! It has rich grooves, variability on tracks, smooth flow, and clever and positive lyrics. It also feels personal and authentic, and bing-bing- coherent!
Winds, Look at the Sky– Well instrumented (they know their rock chord changes!), with by turns moody and melodious vocals and lyrics. They deliver indie rock with a strong nod to the more swinging side of 70s singer-songwriter and 80s alt Replacements-style guitar rock. Sometimes it has a kind of “lost in time” feel, but darned if it isn’t excellent!
- Cory Hanson, Pale Horse Rider– Country flavored, and the minor chords, the lyrics, and vocals deliver a kind of evocative melodious melancholy that works with this. Two weirdly ambient tracks at random(?) spots is the only thing costing it an automatic yes.
- Dinosaur Jr., Swept Into Space– As an 80s alt kid and 90s American guitar-rock fan, well, what can I do? If not for one mysteriously dud/low volume track, this would be a “yes”.
- Eric Church, Soul– I like this better than Heart, the other album he released at almost the same time. And, as you’ll see below. there was nothing wrong with Heart, technically, it just felt like it leaned more often on country tropes than authenticity. While still smooth, the material here feels more authentic to the artist.
- Field Music, Flat White Moon– This feels Beatlesesque, which can be a pathway to doom, but this English band does it so straight up sweetly, and with enough indie rock verve and discord to not be a shallow copy. The thought that maybe it’s a little derivative is keeping it from automatic “yes”, but it’s a strong maybe!
- Garage a Trois, Calm Down Cologne– All-instrumental is an inherently harder sell for me, but this jazz-funk fusion is truly excellent, and never let me down, despite some really long jammy tracks- maybe!
- Gojira, Fortitude– French metal band named after Godzilla?-I’m pulling for you! Well-done thrash/prog metal with some mirthful choices, even the pause in the middle works. It may not totally exceed its genre, but 1/3 into the year, this is the metal album I’ve been hoping for!
- La Femme, Paradigmes– I mean, it’s much more than half in French, but it’s so swinging and hi-energy and musically dynamic that I’m seriously considering it!
- Lucinda Williams, Runnin’ Down a Dream– There are very confusing indications of what year this was released, but hey, I love covers, Tom Petty. and Lucinda Williams, so… As approaches to covers goes, I think this is the gold standard-respectful but no slavish, she successfully brings her own sensibility to them, and many of the tracks are unusual/ less common choices.
- Major Murphy, Access– Stripped down rock and clear, emotional vocals, this is giving me a 90s flashback feel, with a hint of 70s rock in there too. It slows down on the second half, and it’s not profound, but everything is well done.
- Maxwell Farrington/Le SuperHomard, Once– This collaboration between Australian singer Farrington and composer Le SuperHomard has swinging 60s orchestral-style pop, is vocally and musically rich, while being lyrically dour, which is an interesting combo. The tracks get a little similarish, but they’re so good and none of them dud out.
- Mon Laferte, SEIS– This really makes me wish my Spanish was better, because she is a vocal powerhouse. This is a also a lively musical exploration of Mexican folk. I like it so much, I have to give it a “Maybe” even though I can’t really understand it!
- Shelley FKA Dram, Shelley FKA Dram– The autotune, why does this age have so much autotune? Yet this album quickly transcends that, and my word is it good- robust production, genuine feeling, disarming charm. I wonder a little about consistency, but it makes up for it with lots of authenticity.
- Silver Synthetic, Silver Synthetic– My first impression is a country-rock feel with a hint of paisley underground, and chord changes reminiscent of the Velvet Underground, which automatically makes me well-disposed toward it. It sounds a little derivative, and isn’t profound, but every track is doing exactly what it needs to do.
- Steve Cropper, Fire It Up– This veteran guitarist of Booker T. & the M.G.s and the Blues Brothers Band sounds completely as excellent as you’d think based on that. It comes off a little dated. Or perhaps that’s timeless, as he’s pushing 80? It lands short of yes, but still rates highly.
- The Reds, Pinks and Purples, Uncommon Weather– I was pre-disposed to want to like this when I realized the cover of his previous album (the “band” is the diy project of multi-band alumni Glenn Donaldson) was a picture of the corner I lived on in San Francisco for 7 years! Fortunately, he has a way with alternately sweetly ringing and fuzzy guitars, melody, and weary vocals and heartsick lyrics, so I didn’t feel like I was in danger of manufacturing a case for him just based on home pride. It all creates a dreamy side of 80s alt feeling, and the only real drawback is that the tone is a little too similar from track to track. (The cover of this album, by the way, is another street scene from my old SF neighborhood. Keep it local!)
- Zo! & Tall Black Guy, Abstractions– This is another one of those cases where band name alone makes me want to like something. It turns out I did like it! This conciously hearkens back to 80s R&B, with jazz, funk and some modern hip-hop, and a celebration of Detroit thrown in along the way. I kept wondering if it was too mellow, but I also enjoyed it and its eclecticism the whole way along.
- Alfa Mist, Bring Backs– Overall it was too jazz-easy listening-new age for me.
- Andy Stott, Never The Right Time– I certainly appreciated the unsettling sonic dissonance of the opening. Overall too spare and sometimes ambient a version of electronica for my taste, but interesting.
- Animal Collective, Crestone (Original Score)– Not as unlistenable as the last Animal Collective album I listened too. Merely kind of boring.
- Arooj Aftab, Vulture Prince– It’s beautiful, but it’s generally too in the category of orchestral soundtrack/world music for what I’m looking at here.
- Balmorhea, The Wind– The opening track was so slow and muted it almost literally put me to sleep. Subsequent tracks did not improve on that. Nearly ambient musical changes, whispered vocals when there are any. Ugh no.
- Birdy, Young Heart– Very pretty folky pop, but doesn’t get above a kind of simplicity and track to track sameness.
- Bonnie “Prince” Billy / Matt Sweeney, Superwolves– Good start, poetic lyrics and music by turns brooding, driving, acoustic, with many a classic rock reference. It did get a little bog-downy in the middle/end, though. Alas!
- Cabaret Voltaire, BN9Drone– This is the third album Cabaret Voltaire is releasing this year, which isn’t bad for a group that I hadn’t thought continued to exist after about 1989 or so. It is my least favorite of the three, they each seem to get closer and closer to being annoying noise.
- Californian Soil, London Grammar– Well, the intro definitely pissed me off with its orchestral swell and disembodied ethereal singing. It was kind of electronic pop folk after that, and really pretty good, but it feels a little too polished versus authentic.
- Cannibal Corpse, Violence Unimagined– I mean, it’s not like you don’t know what you’re going to get from this group. If you happen to need some grisly death metal, you’ll get a very good serving of it here. But it doesn’t get enough beyond what you’d expect to be in contention for best, I’d say.
- Cheap Trick, In Another World– I have to say, I didn’t expect “a new Cheap Trick album” would be something I could possibly be listening to in 2021- it’s pretty good, but a little too exactly what you’d expect from them.
- Citizen Cope, The Pull of Niagara Falls– The spare acoustic guitar, growly vocals, and grim lyrics are an affecting combo, but in the end I found it all too one-tone musically and vocally to sustain itself at album length.
- Dawn Richard, Second Line– I think this is pretty good, but it does tend toward a sameness after a while. Sic semper electronicus. Her approach is great, though, and some of these I would certainly want as singles.
- Dntel, The Seas Trees See– Outright weird electric voice beginning is somehow much better than the currently popular autotune that pretends to be really singing, but sadly it vanished after that and what was left, despite interesting moments along the way, was way too electronica abstract and/or almost ambient.
- Eric Church, Heart– Hey, it’s a country album! I am always on the lookout for a good country album. Very well done, but it feels like more formula than heart throughout.
- Flock of Dimes, Head of Roses– It’s a nice indie album with elements of folk, rock, and electronic. But it feels way too low energy and same track to track to really engage.
- Flying Lotus, Yasuke– “Electronic music soundtrack for an anime series focused on a Black Samurai” is a pretty good mission statement, but it all tends a little toward too low-key/background mostly instrumental for me.
- Gary Bartz/Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Adrian Younge, Gary Bartz JID006– I was led to believe that this might be the kind of jazz that interfaces with rock or funk in interesting ways. It was not. It’s a nice mellow vibe, if you like that kind of thing.
- Ghlow, Slash and Burn– Beats, guitars, and the sound of a race car revving up was actually a pretty promising start. It IS the kind of thing I like, but there’s too much all-one tone to the music and the vocals, no distinction between tracks.
- girl in red, if i could make it go quiet– Such a shame! pop-punk, hip-hop, melody, searingly personal lyrics, sweet pop and honestly unpretty lyrics. It was in serious contention until it did the dreaded second half deflation.
- Godspeed You! Black Emperor, G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!– Between hearing they’re a Canadian experimental music collective and that title, well, one wondered what to expect. What’s delivered is kind of in line with what some good guesses might be. Very interesting, sometimes quite compelling, but a little too experimental for me.
- Imelda May, 11 Past the Hour– A dark haunting opening, with gorgeous and smoking vocals, but it gets a little too slick, and some of the lyrics too cliched for my taste.
- Leon Vynehall, Rare, Forever– Electronic music, and an album inspired by psychedelic revelation of music as therapy, which is interesting. But, it’s a little too abstract and chaotic for me.
- Lil Tjay, Destined 2 Win– This is from the severely auto-tuned vocals school of hip-hop, and, well, no matter how worthy parts of it may be, I just can’t. Sorry.
- Liquid Tension Experiment, LTE3– Progressive metal supergroup! And, sure, this is pretty good. In fact, really good. But, um, it’s entirely instrumental and almost two hours long. That’s a pretty tough sell for me.
- Luca Yupanqui, Sounds of the Unborn– An experimental musician records in utero sounds from her daughter (Luca, of title fame) and remixes them into an electronic music album. The results are fascinating, often even unsettling. I don’t think it’s quite an album in “best of the year” sense, but it is a sonic document worth perusing.
- Manchester Orchestra, Million Masks of God– It does indeed sound a little orchestral. It’s well produced, but every track sounds kind of the same.
- Merry Clayton, Beautiful Scars– The best moments here would definitely get a “yes”, and it is very high quality throughout. Ultimately, it felt a little too much like glossy production drowned out authentic passion.
- Moontype, Bodies of Water– Nice fuzz-rock start and they know how to do their crashing chords. It often had my head bouncing, but pacing problems doomed it-sudden lurches between fast and slow tracks threw the rhythm of the album off.
- Motorpsycho, Kingdom of Oblivion– With the band’s name, I was going to be disappointed if it wasn’t heavy. It is, but also surprisingly melodic and with light poppy vocals and a musical mix of metal, prog, and psychedelic. It was doing so well until track 5 and the long beginning of track 6 went ambiently dead. From there, pace and voice got all wobbly. It’s a real shame!
- Mythic Sunship, Wildfire– If your band name is Mythic Sunship and the average length of a track on your album is 9 minutes, I’m going to have certain expectations/ trepidations. The blistering opening exceeded my expectations and almost avoided my trepidations. Wild jazz version of an instrumental metal jam? Metal jazz? I don’t know, but I loved it! For like 7 of its 10 minutes. Ditto on track two. So maybe there was a 33 minute version of this album that would have been a yes?
- Norah Jones, ‘Til We Meet Again– I’ve been avoiding “from the archives” live albums, but have included recently recorded live albums, which this is. Everything she does is beautiful, but ultimately it was a little too long slow jazz groove for me. I’ll tell you what though, “Black Hole Sun” always makes for a great cover no matter who does it!
- OMAAR, Drum Temple– I mean, an entirely instrumental electronic percussion album was going to be a hard sell for me as “best of year”. But if you’re a fan of beats, you might like it!
- Orions Belte, Villa Amorini– Nicely played drums and guitars, lively production flourishes (including jazz, psychedelia, and Nigerian music), a mellow vibe, and when the vocals do kick in (much of it is instrumental) they’re also well-done and interesting. It’s skillful, but shallow enough that I’d had enough after halfway through.
- Peter Frampton, Frampton Forgets the Words– While I love a good covers album, and I really appreciate his skill, courage in the face of debilitating disease, and his self-deprecation, an entirely instrumental guitar album, even one as excellent as this, is a hard sell for me.
- Raf Rundell, O.M. Days– Definitely some fun stuff here vocally and lyrically, and the electronic music is occasionally lively, but more often than not the whole thing fades into the background.
- Rhiannon Giddens, They’re Calling Me Home– Haunting vocals, traces of blues and celtic, classical-ultimately a little too on the classical/vocal music end for me and my purposes here.
- Royal Blood, Typhoons– Rock with a dance beat, and it works as both genres, with propulsive music and crisp vocals. It’s really good at what it does, but the tracks do all start to blend together. Sorry to be so picky but with this album, I’d just passed 250 albums listened to. The bar is high and getting higher!
- Ryley Walker, Course in Fable– A very interesting lyrical voice, but the smooth and easy musical production left things feeling cold.
- Sindy, HORROR HEAD– If you spell Sindy with an an “S” and call your album Horror Head, I am per-disposed to expect something truly unsettling. Instead this is a vaguely new wave, vaguely My Bloody Valentine piece of pop electronica. I think the lyrics might be unsettling, but they’re so fuzzy-mumbled I can’t tell. There are some tracks that get there, but mostly no.
- Son Lux, Tomorrows III– Not bad by any means, but a little too lurching ethereal sound effect for me.
- Spirit of the Beehive, ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH– Between the title and the fact that the title was in all caps, I figured we’d be in for something here. The noise collage opening had me worried, but it turns out there is a band that knows about melody in there somewhere. Unfortunately, this is co-located with the band that’s doing a melange of industrial, noise-rock, and layers of sound samples. It just isn’t very listenable, and not even a song titled “I suck the Devil’s cock” could save it.
- Still Dreams, Make Believe– I mean, don’t get me wrong. I like my J-Pop. And this is fun, but it’s not “best” material.
- Taylor Swift, Fearless (Taylor’s Version)– No, but it’s an interesting story. To get around the former record label that’s got her debut album all locked up, she’s re-recorded it, along with six new songs. The whole thing is a little too weird (and faithful) conceptually to be a “best”, but it reminds you of how good she was from the get-go, which is reinforced even more by the six previously unreleased recordings from that era.
- Teenage Fanclub, Endless Arcade– This is all well done, but a little too much all in one tone musically and vocally, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’m listening to their “jam band” album. Saints preserve us!
- Tetrarch, Unstable– This was put out by Napalm Records, which gives you an idea of the sound. Actually, it’s the shortfall of that expectation that’s kind of the problem. It’s a competent mix of hardcore punk and metal with a little doom/scream vocals. But it doesn’t get beyond that to something that truly napalms the soul.
- The Armed, ULTRAPOP– Anonymous post-hardcore collective? Go on, I’m listening… It’s an interesting deconstruction of hardcore using electronic music and samples, but a little too abstract and grating to be listenable for long.
- The Legal Matters, Chapter Three– Neo-psychedelia, well done, but feels a little hollow/too slickly produced.
- The Offspring, Let The Bad Times Roll– A friend of mine said, “It sounds just like their albums from the 90s.” True. And Smash was one of my favorite albums of that decade. Actually, I think they’re a little more musically and thematically nuanced here, and it’s certainly a good time for fans of the genre. But I’m not sure it rises above previous efforts, or, for example, exceeds Green Day’s “aging punker looks at the world” efforts.
- Thomas Rhett, Country Again– It’s very competent country, better than a lot of 2000s pop country, but it has that similarly soulless prefab quality.
- Tom Jones, Surrounded by Time– It’s another cover album, and I like covers albums, and Tom Jones, well, he’s predictably great. So, it’s solid, but I don’t think it gets to “year’s best” great.
- Yellow Ostrich, Soft– Mellow, intelligent, literate, emoish indie. Can barely stand it.
- Yoshinori Hayashi, Pulse of Defiance– A nice selection of mellow beats, purely instrumental, just didn’t spark anything in particular for me.
And there we are! The April review is published before the end of May. Now, onward!