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In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: May

Well, it looks like we just barely got the May review done before the end of June. Better that then even later!

As part of my continuing 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 shake-down after the year ends. If you missed the previous editions, you can find them here:

( January February March April )

This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year, you should also check out my ongoing review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s here, and my wrap-up on reviews of the 20 best albums of 2020 here.

But, for the moment, we’re concerned with 2021. And the 92 new releases I listened to in May! Before we go on, 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. As of the end of May, this list is up to 95 albums, so the reckoning is going to be bloody.

Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve 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, boldly forward with May!

Alan Jackson, Where Have You Gone– This feels like it’s just on this side of cliché, but almost classic, and musically and vocally straight up. Much of it is a conscious paean to the best of 70s and 80s pop country, and he delivers the feel. Despite the album running over an hour long, when it ended, I honest to gosh had the immediate impulse to play it again.

Allison Russell, Outside Child– Between the soulful jazzy first track, and the country third track, I had a feeling I would like what was going on here. Vocally powerful, musically complex, she tours genres like nobody’s business. All with looming feeling. A Montreal native and fixture of the Chicago and Nashville music scenes working with other bands, this is her debut solo album. She’s apparently self-taught and a multi-instrumentalist, which speaks to her range and power. Personal, meaningful, magnificent.

Aquarian Blood, Bending the Golden Hour– Neo-psychedelia, but also with some 90s rock and indie folk feeling to it. It’s a great mix, well-rendered, the male and female vocals add to it, and there’s an element of darkness and even menace to it that I appreciate.

Buffet Lunch, The Power of Rocks– I like buffets and I like rocks, so I walked into this album well-disposed. It turns out it delivers an offbeat, psychedelic-flavored sometimes discordant rock that repays my initial good will. The opening reminds one of the sillier side of the Beatles, in a good way. It stays in that vein but also gets discordant in a post-rock kind of way. It’s an interesting combination!

Chrissie Hynde, Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan– All right, the basics- Bob Dylan is in my all-time top five, I love Chrissie Hynde, and I really like cover albums. So Hynde covering Dylan starts off conceptually ahead for me. Hynde capitalizes on this head start, though, by choosing some more unusual songs from the catalogue, and giving them her own sound while honoring the spirit of the original. She is superb, and this is a definite contender.

Current Joys, Voyager– There’s a spareness and sometimes even delicacy to the music that is a nice offset to the emotional seriousness of the lyrics and yearning vocals. This album by Multi-band alumni Nick Rattigan feels like an evocation of Alex Chilton, with a good layer of 80s alt via a 2000 indie rock treatment.

Czarface/MF Doom, Super What?– One of two posthumous hip-hop legend releases we have this month. RIP MF Doom. I don’t think it’s just that sentiment that’s got me liking this- the delightful swirl of music and samples, pounding vocal flow, themes of superhero/sci-fi, pandemic, and pop culture, all add up to a great outing! And all the more reason for sadness that there isn’t more to come.

DMX, Exodus 1:7– The other of the two posthumous hip-hop legend releases we have this month. RIP DMX. This starts off muscular and menacing. Then is, by turns, a flashback to late 90s/early 2000s hip-hop, spiritual, and a considered meditation on age and parenthood. A tour de force, and fitting final testament.

Fiver, Fiver With the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition– Sometimes it seems like a country album, sometimes it seems like a jazz album, at times it gets almost psychedelic, and the vocals of lead singer Simone Schmidt have a subtle power that often breaks out into downright soaring. An unusual and arresting album.

Gruff Rhys, Seeking New Gods– Well this is lovely! Melody, clear instruments, and the thick voice of this Welsh singer-songwriter (and Super Furry Animals alum) all work together to create a feeling reminiscent of some of the highlights of pub rock, art rock, and prog rock.

J. Cole, The Off-Season– Musically muscular, great mixing, strong and clear vocals, great energy and variation on tracks. When it comes to contemporary hip-hop, I do appreciate that ROC production…

Jack Ingram/Miranda Lambert/Jon Randall, The Marfa Tapes– Several pop country stars hang out together on a porch in West Texas and record what they get up to, and it’s better than anything on pop country radio.There’s a lesson here! The songs are stripped down (including talk between takes, mistakes, and background noise, almost like demos really), honest, and shine like gold.

Jerry Douglas/John Hiatt/The Jerry Douglas Band, Leftover Feelings– By turns rollicking, relaxed, and tender, this music lives at the intersection of rock, blues, and country. Hiatt’s voice is just the right kind of ragged to fit with this and make it feel utterly authentic. You may hear echoes of Dylan, Springsteen, the more wistful edges of Outlaw Country, and even, I swear, Carl Perkins here. None of it is derivative though, that’s just the mythic space this album is inhabiting.

Johnny Flynn & Robert Macfarlane, Lost in the Cedar Wood– Kind of a hardcore folk album, it also reminds me of the folk side of Led Zeppelin. Strong music, clear vocals, and lyrics that create a world. And I thought Johnny Flynn was just a pretty lovelorn BBC shows-TV face!

Jorge Elbrecht, Presentable Corpse 002– Strains of dark folk, psychedelia, indie rock, put together in a way that is menacing and mind-bending. It feels like a time-lost classic. Reading up on it after listening, there is a through story, which is hard to get at first listen. Even without that, though, it’s thoroughly well done.

Lydia Ainsworth, Sparkles & Debris– Toronto composer and singer, this is musically simple, electronic and just on the edge of dance, and in a sense vocally straightforward, but with interesting touches to both, and her literate lyrics are arresting. Pop but deeper-think of, perhaps, Dido? It even gets philosophical and metaphysical! And the “Good Times” cover is amazing!

PACKS, Take The Cake– Surging guitar rhythms, darkly inflected vocals with a lackadaisical undertow. Am I in the 90s? Musically, I love being in the 90s! As per many an excellent rock band from the last decade plus, they’re from Canada (Toronto, to be exact). Oh Canada!

Pardoner, Came Down Different– You know that promising young band of indie rock guys with great crunching guitars? This is them! I always like them, whoever they are. This particular iteration are from San Francisco, which is maybe an additional reason as well, but I swear the promise is there.

Riley Downing, Start It Over– A croony soulful swell of music, informed by some country flavor, some soul and blues, and some glowering alt presence. The vocals are like spoken word soul, except with a country inflection, and remind a little of Tom Waits. It all adds up to something pretty compelling.

Robert Finley, Sharecropper’s Son– This Blues and Soul veteran returned to recording in 2016 after a break of many years, and is here coming out with an album produced by the Black Keys. You might figure these would be the elements of excellence, and they gosh darn are. Muscular electric blues and soul.

St. Vincent, Daddy’s Home– Attitude, vocal verve, sometimes dancey sometimes smokingly croony music informed by multiple genres, with clever lyrics. What here is not to love? Honestly, she reminds me of Prince in her playfulness, range, and power.

Texas, Hi– Brooding, swinging, rocking, smooth and sophisticated, familiar with 80s alt, indie rock and classic idioms, full of feeling. I do love my Scottish bands, so I don’t know why I didn’t know about Texas a lot earlier than this, but they have got it going on!

The Black Keys, Delta Kream– This Black Keys homage to Delta Blues is clearly a sound that’s in their wheelhouse. A bunch of 2000s white guys covering early/mid 20th century black blues musicians certainly has representation problem potential. However, their whole lifetime approach holds this music in such reverence that I think it avoids that trap and shines as a labor of love.

The Chills, Scatterbrain– A very lost in time feel, one might legitimately think one was stumbling across a lost classic of the psychedelic era, though as it goes on it picks up more than a little twist of synth pop. Not a track misfires.

Weezer, Van Weezer– Not an album of Van Halen covers, but rather an invocation of the spirit of that era/style of music. This is near and dear to my heart, and obviously to theirs as well. So well done!

Maybe

  • Aly & AJ, A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then into the Sun– A very pretty and well done pop record. It’s not profound, but it also never lets you down, and I kept wavering between “not substantive enough”, and “yeah, but it’s pretty good”. So I guess by definition this is a maybe!
  • Bachelor, Doomin’ Sun– Friends from two indie bands rent a house together during the pandemic and get as deep and weird as they want to home recording. That’s a good start, and the results are shimmery, raw, and real. Their visions are complementary, but not identical, and the results are beautiful and always interesting, albeit maybe it doesn’t feel totally coherent.
  • CHAI, Wink– The “quirky becomes downright weird” side of J-pop is one of my favorite locations. They play around with dance music and disco to excellent, and consistently subversively fun, effect. It feels a little light and slight, perhaps, which is the only thing keeping it from a “yes” for me.
  • Damien Jurado, The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania– The title is great, and the cover is pretty good too. Don’t judge a book by it’s…? Well, the lyrics and vocals are lucid, even poetically luminous. It’s all on the acoustic and mellow side musically, maybe a little too same that way, but the lyrical/vocal side of it keeps it in strong contention!
  • Dispatch, Break Our Fall– Wastes no time, started out rocking. With 60s classic/80s jangle feel-rocking numbers, ballads, lighter almost novelty songs. A little klunky in its topicality and maybe too long, but song structure and music is 100%. A lot of it sounds instant classic.
  • Giant Claw, Mirror Guide– I kind of liked the discordant random plucked notes start to this. I made it to halfway through and realized, unlike many electronic albums I listen to, I wasn’t questioning its or my continued existence. There’s something weird, off-beat, even sci-fi about it that keeps it compelling. Despite the oddness, because of the oddness? This is a definite maybe for me!
  • Juliana Hatfield, Blood– I really like Juliana Hatfield, and I’m also required by law to like smart, angsty, fuzz-guitared 90s songstresses in general, and this is firmly in that vein. She’s never not had an edge, but this is nasty in a sharp-tongued kind of way, and hilarious. The lyrics feel a little too topically on the nose sometimes, which is the only thing keeping it from a “yes”.
  • Kasai Allstars, Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No Sound– African folk from a Congolese group, delivered with exuberance. There is obvious application of the roots of their sound to American music as well. There is the foreign language issue, but the music is so dynamic and fun it pretty much overcomes that for me.
  • L’Orange/Namir Blade, Imaginary Everything– It didn’t quite feel like it came together, but there’s a lot of excellent hip-hop experimentation going on here. The eclectic musical sampling work is superb, the mix and wordplay is surreal.
  • Lord Huron, Long Last– I’ve been curious about this Lord, and his great lakey realm, for a while. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this is a very welcome surprise- country inflections with that spooky minor chords sound, sometimes in a downright cowboy ballad vein, but with a heartfelt air. There’s even a framing device for the album that works. It was all superb, and was headed toward being an automatic yes until a 14-minute ambient track at the end. Alas!
  • Lou Barlow, Reason To Live– Nice acoustic energy, evocative vocals, I kept teetering toward everything sounding too same early on, but the songs sound looming, like something important is going on. This 80s/90s lo-fi rock pioneer (alumni of Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh) knows what he’s doing, I think.
  • Mach-Hommy, Pray for Haiti– The musical/mix side of this is great, with many offbeat choices, and the vocal flow is smooth but dynamic, and the subject matter-a kaleidoscope of personal and cultural references focused by an overarching meditation on the political and economic straights of Haiti-is compelling. It was very promising on the first half, but got unfocused and over-run with guest MCs who watered down the coherence on the second half.
  • Micky Dolenz, Dolenz Sings Nesmith– The more poppy former-Monkee covering solo work from the more experimental former-Monkee is an interesting idea. Like, imagine what a McCartney covers solo Lennon album might be like? It turns out really well, and the only thing going against it as an album is also it’s strength- a wide diversity of source songs. So it doesn’t really come off as coherent, but it is fun!
  • Moby, Reprise– This is literally a reprise- Moby not just re-recording, but re-imagining, a baker’s dozen plus one of songs from throughout his career. Between the strength of the original source material and the interesting nature of the re-works, it’s pretty compelling.
  • Mustafa, When Smoke Rises– Spoken word, hip-hop, and there’s something quiet and compelling about it. It’s very low-key, musically and vocally, which is about my only reservation, but it gets under your skin and is talking about things that have some weight to them. It doesn’t sound like everything else, and all-in-all is a pretty hefty accomplishment for someone who’s only 24.
  • Natalie Bergman, Mercy– Is this an electronic indie neo-disco gospel album? I kind of think yes! I actually liked that idea pretty well, and it’s weirdly compelling. I was with it for quite a while, until it got a little wobbly halfway through, but then ended powerfully.
  • Paul Weller, Fat Pop, Vol. 1– Paul Weller walks into this with a problem that’s really sort of his fault, which is I’m expecting a lot from him. And you know what, I hear the Jam here and the Style Council in parts, also a fairly strong Bowie influence, and a lot of variety and verve. The only thing keeping it from a “yes” is some of it sounds cliched/by rote. But, come on, his rote is better than most people’s best effort.
  • Sophia Kennedy, Monsters– This is fascinating. Largely keyboards and electronic percussion, but with unsettling brooding and flashes of musical discord, sharp vocals, and dark lyrics. And unlike many another album, it actually gets more interesting and varied as it goes on, with tin pan alley pop and even dance beats rearing their heads. In fact, it got so variable that lack of coherence popped it out of automatic yes!
  • TEKE::TEKE, Shirushi– Now this is suitably strange! A Japanese band, and their music is a mix of surf music, traditional forms, and psychedelia-flavored electronic. There’s the language issue, and the fact that it sometimes get a little too experimental, but on the other hand it’s a fun and interesting listen, and the experimentation goes somewhere.
  • The Reigning Sound, A Little More Time with Reigning Sound– Swaggering but melodic indie rock with hints of country, 50s rock, the Beatles, and Dylan. When I heard this band was from Nashville, I kind of hoped they’d sound like this. The vocals are klunky in a wonderful way that actually highlights the directness of the musical approach. It slowed down a little in the middle, though never got bad or fully deflated. These pacing issues just keep it from “yes”.
  • Van Morrison, Latest Record Project Volume 1– I do admire the school of album naming this hails from, but also must note that there are very few circumstances, even for a living legend, under which a more than two hour album is justified. The opening track is kind of brilliantly solipsistic, though. So there’s the length, a general crankiness, and a certain level of right wing ranty in the lyrics. On the other hand, it’s so musically and vocally excellent I don’t feel let down by a single track for more than hours. Does this all equal out to a maybe?

No

  • black midi, Cavalcade– The opening is really something. Disco, rock, lurching music, trippy spoken word. The next track is even more disorienting with it’s trip into a classic croon. The third track lurches back and forth between these two modes. And so on. Ultimately a little too much on the “not consistently listenable” side of experimental. But interesting!
  • Blackberry Smoke, You Hear Georgia– This band is deeply steeped in southern rock, very skillfully rendered, but I can’t escape the feeling that it’s too often a little “prefab” in terms of lyrics and production.
  • Blake Shelton, Body Language– This is a little too on the “pop” side of pop country for me, and falls into the cliché/rote route too often. That being said, he has tons of charm, and as pop country goes, this is very well done.
  • Carlos Nino & Friends, More Energy Fields, Current– A little too jazzy and instrumentally mellow for me.
  • Cheval Sombre, Days Go By– The first track sounds like a grunge ballad. Now, I like an occasional grunge ballad, but it turns out pretty much every track either sounds like that or a slow slide into My Bloody Valentine. That’s too much in that vein for me!
  • Cloves, Nightmare on Elmfield Road– Mellow dance beats and shimmery vocals, I gather that there is a kind of horror story going on in it, but it’s too mellow and shimmery for me to pick it up.
  • Colleen, The Tunnel and the Clearing– The down-tempo here almost fades into non-existence. The third track sounded like it had sea lions in it, so I liked that.
  • Dark Tea, Dark Tea [2021]– Brooklyn based musical collective. A little country and classic rock twist, excellent song structure, vocals, and melody. At its best, it’s very good, but it too often falls prey to a feeling of sameness, and long pacing lulls.
  • Dave Holland, Another Land– As funk-flavored all instrumental jazz outings go, this is a fine one, but this cup of tea, it is not mine.
  • David Gray, Skellig– This may have suffered from being the second mellow acoustic album I listened to in a row. It’s solid, but I never really caught a spark from it.
  • Dodie, Build a Problem– English singer-songwriter, kind of a mellow electronic folk. It’s nice enough, literate emotionally sophisticated lyrics, but eh.
  • Dorothea Paas, Anything Can’t Happen– She has a really great voice, and things are well played on this folk album, but it doesn’t feel like there are enough moments that are surprising or get beyond a certain narrow musical/emotional range.
  • Erika de Casier, Sensational– The music is more on the subtle side than I often prefer, but the changeable flow of the vocals and the emotionally vulnerable lyrics are compelling! It ends up being a little too musically thin though, and the tracks fade into a kind of sameness.
  • Facs, Present Tense– I mean, it’s kind of punky, kind of electronic, kind of glowery, there’s feedback and distortion and anguished shrieking in the background. It all got kind of tiresome pretty quickly.
  • Fatima Al Qadiri, Medieval Femme– This is interesting, but it’s a little too “fade into the background” world music for me.
  • Fly Pan Am, Frontera– Well, there’s beats, moody background music, and some occasional screaming. No.
  • Georgia Anne Mudrow, Vweto III-Sadly, no. This is mostly instrumental, but there is a lot of verve in its mix of influences- hip-hop, 80s club, disco, and funk all make an appearance. Not bad by any means, in fact really good, but it doesn’t feel like there’s enough connecting it together to add up to a great album.
  • GoGo Penguin, GGP/RMX– Some tracks totally caught my attention. Others seemed to be animated by a sound not unlike eating lettuce.
  • Greenhouse, Music For Living Spaces– This, let it be known, is literally an album about plants. That being said, I was pulling for it, and it is very pleasant. But a little too low-key and instrumental in the end.
  • Iceage, Seek Shelter– The opening descent into vaguely sinister guitar warms my heart, as do the weary burned-out vocals. It’s pretty good down-tempo slightly sleazy rock, and has some fine anthemic moments, but keeps slowing down without warning, and doesn’t sound differentiated enough- the tracks blend into each other.
  • John Andrews & the Yawns, Cookbook– Jazz vibe, hints of Santana, a mellow California feel, musically and vocally like a hazy summer day. It’s very nice. For a track or two. I’ll avoid obvious jokes about the band name.
  • Jorja Smith, Be Right Back– Beautiful British soul, it’s never bad, but ultimately it never sparked up for me.
  • Lampchop, Showtunes– Slow piano chords, sonorous vocals, and philosophical lyrics create a melancholy feel. It all adds up to one downbeat tone, without enough variety or texture to rise above that.
  • Last Days of April, Even The Good Days Are Bad– Strong indie pop-rock with a classical feel. The tracks have a propulsive, independent sound, and vocal variability. And then it had the dreaded second half deflation, including literally ending on a downtempo song called “Downer”. Almost well done Swedes! I swear the people who seem to still be doing rock well these days are almost all Canadian or Scandinavian…
  • Lionel Boy, Lionel Boy– As auto-tuned slow-tempo well-produced contemporary R&B goes, this is fine.
  • Lisa Gerrard/Jules Maxwell, Burn– A collaboration by the vocalist and keyboard player from Dead Can Dance. This is the kind of orchestral ambient swirl of music you might expect from that. If it’s your thing, you might like it, but I don’t hear enough going on here, powerfully enough, to be a “best” album of the year.
  • Loscil, Clara– It is very ambient. The cover is a picture of melting ice. That seems appropriate.
  • Magic Castles, Sun Reign– A little 80s/90s alt a la Jesus and Mary Chain, a little paisley underground, but it kind of ended up all blurring together.
  • Marinero, Hella Love– Lush Latin music-themed romanticism. It’s largely a paen to San Francisco, which certainly tugs on my heartstrings, but, with exceptions, it’s mostly too low-key and all in one tone to really engage me.
  • Matt Berry, The Blue Elephant– I knew him as a British actor from the IT Crowd, but he’s a pretty fine musician too! Jazzy instrumental first track had me thrown off, but the psychedelic swirl and powerful instruments on the next track was great. Then another jazzy instrumental. And so on. This was half of an excellent album and half of a blah one.
  • Matt Kearney, January Flower– Upbeat indie rock leaning toward electric folk, but it was a little too poppy and prefab for me.
  • Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime– A Tuareg singer-songwriter from Niger in the eclectic “Desert Blues” genre. It is musically muscular! I really like it, but in the end, the language barrier keeps me from connecting with it enough to rank it as a “year’s best” album.
  • Morcheeba, Blackest Blue– This is undoubtedly well-produced and high quality. Its particular brand of lush and easy just fades into the background for me, though, and I need a “best” album to stand out more than that!
  • Murcof, The Alias Sessions– This is a double album. It is also spare and minimalist, sometimes to the point of barely registering. I did not care for it.
  • New Order, Education Entertainment Recreation– When I was a lovelorn depressed teen, I was a big fan of New Order. I still like them, they certainly have their place. A live album by them is relatively unlikely to result in surprises, though. That being said, these are fine live versions , but two hours of live album practically identical to studio, well…
  • Olivia Rodrigo, Sour– The opening sounds like she really likes grunge, and has a pop sensibility too, and her lyrics have some real wit and personality. The subsequent tracks were much more Taylor Swiftian, but still with an almost operatic quality to the emotional drama. Often affecting, but also very young, and it has a few too many tear-stained ballads in a row. But so well rendered, and she’s only 18, there is big promise here.
  • Paula Cole, American Quilt– “Paula Cole covers American standards” doesn’t sound like a bad premise. The variety of styles is laudable, and all are really well-done. But I only like about half of them- more the blues, soul, and gospel side, less the extended jazzy and ethereal celtic ones. Which I guess means this would work for me as a selected EP?
  • Sarah Bareilles, Amidst the Chaos: Live From the Hollywood Bowl– Just because streaming technology makes it possible for one to have an almost two-hour long concert album does not mean one should. That being said, this is a really good live album- excellent sound quality, good versions, charming interaction with the crowd. It would need to be a little more streamlined to be in contention for year’s best, but I would certainly recommend it for fans.
  • Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future– Poetic ragged vocals, jazz backing, timely Afrocentric lyrics. There’s a lot to admire here, but it too often faded to background sound for me.
  • Squid, Bright Green Field– The sound collage opening was a minus, which is a shame because the off kilter vocals and music of the next track were interesting. Unfortunately it’s the kind of off-kilter that wears thin after several songs. And what is it with the recent shouted vocals trend with British bands?
  • Sunroof, Electronic Music Improvisations, Vol. 1– The album name made me think this might not be for me. The Beats, atmospheric sounds, and electronic boops and bops confirmed it.
  • The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, When God Was Great– Like the Offspring album we reviewed in April, this was mostly a case of a fine example of their sound, but kind of a victim of that very thing. What would raise it above that to the realm of great? There are some songs that I think are actually on track, doing a retrospective look at the history of the band and its scene, showing where it actually is in time and space. More of this, and maybe…in the meantime, there’s plenty here for a ska fan to like.
  • Trevor Powers, Capricorn– First impression: This sounds like discordant muzak. Those were actually the better parts, in other places it got very ethereal and sound samply.
  • Twenty One Pilots, Scaled and Icy– Starts off 70s sunny, then becomes kind of autotune, then kind of Weezery, then electronic influenced rock, a little discoy, a little hip hop, all clever, but rarely feels very genuine.
  • Will Stratton, The Changing Wilderness– There’s a richness to the lyrics and the vocals, and understated power to the low-key indie rock. It’s pretty, it’s well-done, but it’s kind of the same track to track.
  • Young Nudy, DR. EV4L– I was in just based on the cover alone, and it definitely has some material that dives deep into the horrorcore theme the cover indicates. Unfortunately, too much of the rest of it is full of bitch and pussy talk. It’s a shame- there could have been a great, or at least very interesting album here.

And there we have it. Next, on to June! Which, who knows, I may get done before the last day of the following month…

The 20 Best Albums of 2020? (The Wrap-up!)

Once upon a time, in an effort to catch up on new music after a hectic few years, I went in search of the 20 best albums of 2020.

In pursuit of this goal, I took year-end “best album” lists from All Music Guide, AV Club, Billboard, Consequence of Sound, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, Mojo, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Spin. For every album one or more of these sources listed, I tallied up the votes that album got between all of them, and took the highest scoring twenty albums. I broke up the reviews into four blocks of five each. You can find them here:

(Part I Part II Part III Part IV)

So, having listened to all 20 of the critics top choices, what have I concluded?

There were a few albums where the critics and I just couldn’t agree:

  • Eternal Atake (Lil Uzi Vert)–I like hip-hop. A lot! But there’s a kind of “autotune” school of recent hip-hop that I’m not super-keen on. On top of that, the first half of the album is thick with misogyny, apparently unironic/uncritical. There just aren’t that many moments that get beyond that until halfway through.
  • It Is What It Is (Thundercat)– I mean, if you call your band Thundercat, you’re already halfway there with me. This mellow jazz fusion sound was well done, but I couldn’t find a heart of anything that felt real or vital in most of it.
  • Punisher (Phoebe Bridgers)– Well done indie pop rock, with sophisticated emotional lyrics, and clear production. It tends mostly to a muted tempo and musical pallet, which is a shame, since the few more up-tempo moments are super-fun.

Then there were also several albums which, while I found a lot to like, didn’t quite add up to “year’s best” for me:

  • color theory (Soccer Mommy)– Solid pop-rock structure, beautiful clear vocals, introspective lyrics, the songs proceed along very pleasantly in a way that’s hard to find any fault with. It’s not transcendent, but she was only 22 when she made this album. We could do a lot worse, and there is huge promise for the future here.
  • Petals for Armor (Hayley Williams)–This solo venture by Paramore’s lead singer features electronic beats, strong clear vocals, and dark lyrics. I’m not sure about this as a “best”, but it was a consistently interesting high energy listen.
  • Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (Perfume Genius)-It was a slow start, but I really liked many of the later more up-tempo tracks, and I do appreciate the lush same-sex romanticism found throughout. Overall, I’d say this is not consistent/well-structured enough to be a “best” album, but there’s certainly a lot that’s worthy here.
  • Shore (Fleet Foxes)– At this point, hearing the phrase “indie folk” tends to fill me with preemptive dread. This pleasantly surprised me, though! The music has a lot of dynamism, and the tracks have an independent identity, two things that often seem to get sacrificed to the sameness of indie folk approaches.
  • YHLQMDLG (Bad Bunny)– I mean, this seemed like it was very good, but it’s also entirely in Spanish, which prevents me from connecting with it lyrically. I will say it’s fun, interesting, and well-produced. Although it does have more than none of the autotuned style that is the order of the day, and I’m not sure it needed to be over an hour long- generically, it takes something pretty special for me to sign off on an album doing that. Though, given the language aspect, there may be some structure or narrative line that justified it here, but isn’t understandable by me.

Which leaves the following albums that I can heartily endorse as quite possibly being among the best albums of the year:

Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Fiona Apple)– I expected this to be excellent, because it’s Fiona Apple. So the lyrical and vocal power wasn’t a surprise. What I was surprised by was the musical side of it- there’s a dizzying mix of flourishes from classical and musicals, sound samples (I recommend having a dog around when you play it for extra fun reactions), pop beats, the use of the piano as practically a percussion instrument. There’s enough variability in the first track alone to be a virtuoso performance. The tracks each sound different, but fit together, and that is THE trick to pulling off an album. There is a much more conventional (to her approach) version of this album that could have been produced, and it would in many ways be an easier/smoother listen. But it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting and arresting.  

folklore (Taylor Swift)– The title had me thinking this album might be somehow folky. It isn’t! What it is, is a fine showcase for Taylor Swift’s continued evolution as a songwriter. Musically, it explores a slower, more darkly textured side of pop than her previous outings. And lyrically, as she herself admits, on earlier albums she often wrote based on imagined feelings and life situations. That began to shift with 1989, a solid pop album that came more from direct experience. Not always profound experience, but real. Here, she sounds like what she actually is, someone hitting their 30s, and reflecting on youthful follies with a combination of wisdom and wistfulness. AKA, it’s kind of a review of the folklore of a life. Sometimes the songs are personal, sometimes they’re the kind of character storytelling you often find in country songs (she did start out in Nashville, after all). She’s always been a mechanically solid song-writer, and here there’s some real substance to back that up.

Future Nostalgia (Dua Lipa)– In the opening track she says, “You know you like this beat” and darned if she isn’t right! Dance music has its place, and this is great dance music! The beats work, the lyrics and vocals are sultry, and it’s full of dynamic shifts and attitude. It just feels good to listen to this. I don’t often groove in the club these days (okay, I never often grooved in the club), but I do groove while writing blog posts in bed. And this is perfect for that!  

Heavy Light (U.S. Girls)– This album has solid 2000s beats with nice overtones of 70s music in several guises- 70s Soul, Patti Smith, AM radio. She (U.S. Girls is the vehicle of producer/musician Meghan Remy) has such a great pop sensibility, but it’s laced throughout with lyrical subversion. And livened by some surprising musical choices and vocal varieties on particular tracks. Crucially, these surprising moments still fit with the overall album. This grew on me track by track.

Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen)– I’m a big Springsteen fan, but with a particular valence. I have a marked preference for the “dark” Springsteen of every other album (or so), when a certain pessimism and airing of fears and doubts boils to the surface. Thus, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and Magic, for instance. This album is definitely in that vein, which is not to say there aren’t surging anthemic moments (especially since the E Street Band is backing him here). But there’s a central preoccupation with aging, loss, and ghosts of memory, and Springsteen is in fine lyrical form wrestling with these themes.  

  

Live Forever (Bartees Strange)– The muted musical background, swirling sound effects, and sweetly rough off-kilter vocals of the opening wove a spell. While beautiful, it would have been bad news if it all stayed in that low-key vein, but the next track went immediately up-tempo and rock-y and became almost a hardcore song by the end. The next one was like a beat-oriented indie rock song, the next after that in a neo-soul/hip-hop flavored vein. And so on, through a dizzying array of musical modes. All of this, tied together by a strong and surprisingly vulnerable lyrical voice throughout, makes for a very interesting listen. I well understand what it’s doing in the top 20!

Reunions (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit)– The first track kicks into gear right away, with soulful yearning vocals and lyrics, and moody acoustic background instrumentation. As you might expect from a former Drive-by Trucker, the songs freely mix acoustic, electric, country, and rock, but they all keep hitting with the same level of power, solid song structure, and a haunting melancholy feel. You’ll hear hints here of Dylan, Neil Young, and Jackson Browne, but nothing that rings inauthentic or derivative. Really a mighty fine album.

Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan)– Full disclosure: Bob Dylan is in my all-time top five favorite musical artists. I appreciate almost everything he does on some level. That being said, I don’t have blinders on to the fact that, once you get past the mid-70s, not every album is necessarily a …timeless masterpiece. So hopefully I have some credibility when I say that this album deserves to take a place with the trio of widely revered “later-day” Dylan albums- Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times. The first song here is like an elegy to himself, and the last is an elegy to the entire era since his debut in the early 60s. That same mood pervades in between, and things are in top lyrical and musical form- thick with allusions and references, and stripped-down and effective use of different blues idioms. If not a timeless masterpiece, at the very least an excellent outing from an old master.

RTJ4 (Run the Jewels)– I was more familiar with Run the Jewels co-lead Killer Mike’s politics than his music, though based on his politics I had certain expectations of what his music might be like. These were not disappointed. I was hooked from the initial burst of metallic beats and high-impact lyrics, both demanding respect. The whole album is so dynamic and clever, and political without being polemical, which is always the big challenge. This brought me back to a feeling I haven’t had since the heyday of Public Enemy. Which is good, because now more than ever we need to party for our right to fight!

Saint Cloud (Waxahatchee)– The music is solid in a country-inflected indie rock with multi-instrument production flourishes kind of way, but what really moves it above and beyond is her voice. (Waxahatchee is a band fronted by Alabama-raised singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield.) Because of her voice, both vocally and lyrically, everything here sounds earnest and authentic despite/on top of the production gloss. This kind of reminds me of the space Edie Brickell used to occupy. And I loved the space Edie Brickell used to occupy!

Sawayama (Rina Sawayama)– Complex and well produced dance music is the impression from the first track. With energy, and lively musical (rock! Hip hop! ballads!) and vocal choices. This has both fiery attitude and vulnerable emotion, and picks up on some social and personal issues. The storytelling on some tracks is almost poetically visual, and things have that sophisticated international feel you often find on European dance music. I can definitely get behind the critics on this one!

Women in Music pt. III (HAIM)– It’s a great start, smooth beats, multi-instrument pop and clever lyrics with clear, lucid vocals. After several songs that go through a kaleidoscope of musical styles, I realize that this, and I hope they will forgive me for saying so, reminds me of a Wilson Phillips with more musical sophistication and indie attitude. I actually think that’s the key to this for me- it’s a thoroughly pop sensibility and production, but one with a rawness and power behind it musically and lyrically. It’s high quality and a fun listen, and I can well imagine it being one of the best albums of the year.

And there we are, all 20 reviewed! If you are a mathematical genius, you may notice that my “yes” list only includes twelve albums, and that 12<20. Which brings us to the special announcement alluded to last time…

I figure I am still owed eight albums, in order to get to 20. Accordingly, there will be one more post in which I review further down the critic’s choices in order to round out my list. That’s right, WE’RE GOING TO ELIMINATION DEATH MATCH!

Stay tuned…