It’s our final monthly review! Almost a year ago, as part of an effort to catch up on newer music, I set out to find the 21 best albums of the year by listening to new releases each month, and sorting them into yes/maybe/no. And here we are, the last month, after which I’ll do a final shakedown to get the 21 best albums of 2021.
If you missed the earlier installments, you can find them here:
This is one of three music-related blog series I did this past year. The final installment of my review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s is here, and the wrap-up of my review of the critic’s consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020 is here.
Before we wrap up December, 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. There are now 244 albums on the list, so every final victor will have dispatched a host of foes.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes “maybes” linger, 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.
Now, on with the review of 55 December new releases!
Common, A Beautiful Revolution, Pt. 2– Part 2 to this hip-hop stalwart’s 2020 Part 1. On the musical side it’s dynamic and jazzy, the flow is muscular, it’s brimming over with positive message, and the whole has a sense of unity. Because of the comparison effect it’s not easy to clear the bar at this point in the year, but this absolutely does it!
Curren$y, Pilot Talk 4– Strong clear beats backing a jazzy swirl with some pleasing flow. The street talk isn’t always the freshest ever, but the deeper meditations on the downsides of street life, and the so well done musical and vocal backing elevate it. This New Orleans rapper has apparently been prolific as hell this year, and this shows it has been to good effect.
Don Trip, Pray God’s Not Watching– In a way, this album dives deep into hip-hop album theme cliches. But this pioneer of the Memphis scene brings a smooth spare mix, wit, and presence All that, and the strong storytelling of the vocals and lyrics really carries it through. And the ending is an unvarnished heart-tugger.
Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales– This is not a December release, but both NPR and Pitchfork had it at the top of their pre year-end Top 50 lists. Not sure how it slipped through my net earlier, but I figured I should give it a listen! I’m glad I did, it’s a musical tour de force with the mix of R&B and hip-hop stylings, vocally dynamic, and, beneath a shiny pop veneer, a nuanced and at times quite personal exploration of female empowerment and both resistance to and complicity with hip hop culture’s misogyny.
Krolok, Funeral Winds & Crimson Sky– If you tell me you’re a Slovakian black metal band, I’m always going to want to hear what you have to say next. As it turns out, I did. This sounds, and I mean this in the very best way possible, like a metal band did a Halloween album for a vampire theme park. Musically, they pulled off something that I find bands like this often have a hard time with, bridging the looming atmospheric parts with the more straightforward metal parts. Lyrically, I barely caught a word, but I feel like every word penetrated my soul. Easily one of my favorite metal albums of the year.
Mach-Hommy, Balens Cho– This album is much like his Prayer for Haiti earlier this year. But whereas the sprawl of that got away from me, this was much more focused, and musically rich, lyrically challenging, and well structured. That’s how you album!
Michael Hurley, The Time of the Foxgloves– Hurley has been playing folk music since the Greenwich Village scene in the 60s. Every note of this sounds with the beautifully burned-out music veteran power you would expect from that.
Nicole Atkins, Memphis Ice– North Carolina-based self-professed purveyor of “pop noir” Nicole Atkins recorded this album in Memphis, and it feels like an excellent merger of her lush pop vocal style and the 60s soul Memphis sound.
Ryan Sambol, Gestalt– There’s a gruffness in the vocals, a weariness in the lyrics, and a spirit of variety in the music that I find very appealing. Acoustic, blues, country and lo-fi indie all get mixed up in this album from a Texas-raised singer-songwriter and poet. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)
Speedy Ortiz, The Death of Speedy Ortiz & Cop Kicker…Forever– Does a remix of two old albums from 2011 plus eight new songs=something new? I hope so, because the guitar crunch and fuzz, layers of sound, and thick vocals and sharp lyrics of this Massachusetts band led by Sadie Dupuis have utterly charmed me.
- Bat Fangs, Queen of My World– Do you know how much I appreciate jumping in at full rock from the first note? I appreciate it a lot! This whole thing is steeped in the brighter side of 80s hard rock and hair metal, but with two female principles. This works well, they deliver flawless cock rock but without the downsides of cock attitude. The only reason it didn’t hit “yes” is that the vocals were a little flat, production-wise. It would have been nice to hear them cut loose a little more!
- Biffy Clyro, The Myth of the Happily Ever After– “Scottish band” just inherently makes me happy, and “Scottish band formed in the 90s” is a further booster from there. There’s no denying that this is high energy, and has a considerable spark of something musically and lyrically. It’s a little prefab sounding, but it’s a good fab.
- Bitchin Bajas, Switched On Ra– “Psych rockers cover cosmic jazz legend Sun Ra with vintage 70s synthesizers” is actually a pretty decent way to get my attention as far as album concepts go. There are multiple things here that aren’t usually my bag, and there’s one vocal guest track that feels totally out of tone with the rest, but darned if it doesn’t create some really fun and interesting soundscapes.
- Charlotte Greve, Sediments We Move– Sometimes surging with power and feeling, but sometimes more on the ethereal side of classical/jazz/experimental mixes. There are definitely some interesting approaches here, but perhaps a little uneven in terms of energy/engagement to completely work as an album. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
- Jeff Tweedy, Live is the King– Live versions of his 2020 release Love is the King. That album was thoroughly on the country side of Tweedy’s work, and these live versions are too. I’m in kind of a conundrum with this- the material is great, and the versions are very good. But it’s not very “live”- it was recorded live in studio, so there’s no audience feedback, no interactions between musicians on the stage, etc. So what (besides a nice Neil young cover) does this really do to go beyond the original album?
- JJJJJerome Ellis, The Clearing– This album is the philosophical flow of an ongoing thesis about Blackness in America ranging from history and literature to modern pop culture and everything in-between. That general focus is anchored by his specific meditations on music, and his own personal experience with his lifelong stutter (which he works in to the lyrics and music in various ways). All this is accompanied by clear beats and the light touch of smartly deployed electronic keyboard surges. It’s really pretty amazing, about my only reservation is a long low-music lull in the middle.
- Mo Troper, Dilettante– This starts off as rock with the appropriate amount of feedback and chaos, and then keeps going. It could get bogged down, but the fact that there are 28 songs in 49 minutes keeps it moving along. The variety of modes does as well- it explores multiple varities of 80s alt and 90s indie. Some songs are noise pop, some more traditionally melodic, some thoroughly tongue in cheek if not slightly snotty. The pacing occasionally gets a little uneven, and the songs also sometimes sound very young. Put that’s where the zeal and the noise come from too! A worthy outing from this Portland band. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
- Neil Young & Crazyhorse, Barn – All right, let’s start with the necessary disclaimer- Neil Young is on my all-time musical top five list. I’m never going to not react well to his work. I also like the extra musical oomph Crazy Horse gives him. In fact, this album has all the Neil Youngs- slow balladeer, saw-toothed feedback-laden guitar rocker, stirring anthemist, sometimes overly on-the-nose lyricist. It doesn’t feel like it quite comes together with a strong theme musically or lyrically though, which is what separates it from “great” versus merely “good”.
- Pearly Gate Music, Mainly Gestalt Pornography– Pearly Gate Music is the brainchild of Pacific Northwest singer/songwriter Zach Tillman, the brother of Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty). Solid guitar rock on the acoustic side, with bright chords and arch lyrics. This feels like something I could have run into in the 80s on a college radio station. I’m not convinced it adds up to something strong/different enough to get to “yes”, but it does what it does very well.
- Tasha, Tell Me What You Miss the Most– Chicago singer-songwriter Tasha has delivered a set of torchy emotional songs with an acoustic vibe, and her voice is strong and clear. The material in a way is simple and often low-key, but the feeling is so genuine, the content gets the emotions of romance right, and the presentation is very appealing. We could all do worse!
- Volbeat, Servant of the Mind– “Scandinavian rock band is one of my happy places, so hearing they were Danes favorably pre-disposed me. Seeing them described as playing a fusion of rock, metal, and rockabilly further piqued my interest. In practice they’re also pretty darn fun. Is it a little formulaic? Yes. Is the more than hour run length a concern for me? Also yes. But it is so gleefully and sincerely delivered- a rocking good time that isn’t trying to do anything much more than that.
- Aeon Station, Observatory– It’s a fine moody synthy indie rock outing. I have probably heard a few dozen this year that were no better or no worse than this.
- Alicia Keys, Keys– This double album is beautiful like Alicia Keys so often is. The first side is, as she describes it, her “classic” sound, the second is “Unlocked”, doing the same songs but expressing herself in new/different ways.I was definitely more grabbed by that second half. Because of the sprawl and lack of focus I don’t think it works as an album, but that’s not to say there isn’t a ton of great material in it.
- Arca, Kick iiii– Arca is a Venezuelan musician, singer, composer, record producer, and DJ, based in Barcelona who has released four, count them, four, albums in December! If you like your electronic music danceable, weird, with an edge of discord and dread, this might be for you. I do like those things, though ultimately there wasn’t enough consistent substance musically or lyrically for me to really sink my teeth into.
- Arca, Kick ii– If you listen to Kick iiii first, you may, as I did, wonder how much different Kick ii will be. As it turns out, it was quite a bit different! I don’t know if it was the Latin influence, the comparatively smoother mix, or the greater sonic unity it had, but I liked it quite a bit better. It was well on its way to maybe until an extended dissonant weird-out in the middle.
- Arca, Kick iii– Okay, not so much on iiii, ii fared much better, how will iii do? Turns out, it’s kind of a bridge between the weird and discordant iiii and the Latin-themes and club smoothness of ii. I don’t feel like it totally comes together, but I have been having a kick with all the Kicks. So to speak.
- Arca, Kick iiiii– If you listen to ii, iii, and iiii, how are you not going to listen to iiiiI? (For those wondering, Kick i came out last year, which is why we’re not listening to it as part of this batch.) This is easily the most ambient trending of the four. I have trouble latching on to ambient.
- BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jules Buckley/Paul Weller, An Orchestrated Songbook– This is Weller doing versions of his song backed by BBC Symphony. It’s an interesting form of career retrospective, and some of the covers are quite amazing and really showcase a mature power that matches what’s always been the high ambition of his work. It of course doesn’t sound bad, it’s the BBC Symphony Orchestra for pity’s sake! And I certainly would recommend it for Weller fans, but I’m not sure it makes the leap from there to overall “year’s best”.
- Benjamin Lazar Davis, Benjamin Lazar Davis– This is certainly high quality, and has a lyrical edge, but it’s a little too smoothly laden with all the 2000s production tricks to make enough emotional connection.
- Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Keyboard Fantasies Reimagined– A rework of a classic 1986 instrumental keyboard album by contemporary artists. It’s a nice concept, and leads to some interesting results, but a little too abstract, and not coherent enough, to make a proper album.
- Brian Wilson, At My Piano– Here Wilson is playing instrumental piano versions of his songs. It’s good, but a little, well, instrumental piano. Very much all in one vein, which is hard to make a full-length album work with. A Wilson and/or Beach Boys fan might well want to have this in their collection, though.
- Chief Keef, 4Nem– It’s got some power and dynamism, but is it among the best albums I’ve heard this year? Is it even in the top ten hip-hop albums I’ve heard this year? 11 days left…
- Craig Taborn, Shadow Plays– From a 2020 live European performance. This trended toward a muted, almost ambient end of jazz. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
- Darius Jones, Raw Demon Alchemy (A Lone Operation)– It starts with a horn like an enervated traffic jam. It upset my cat. The bunnies were not fans either.
- Gas, Der Lange Marsch– Ambient to the point of being somnolent. Nyet.
- Geese, Projector– I really like waterfowl. I also like the kind of young male rock that this New York band is doing, but it began to wear a little thin before the end. They went straight from high school to studio album, though, so definitely keep an eye on them and what they might grow into.
- Jeff Parker, Forfolks– Some very nice jazz-influenced guitar, but as a pretty-mellow all instrumental, it never really cohered as an album for me.
- Jeniveve, Division– It’s some good R&B/dance music, I can see what they mean by “underrated”. But year’s best? Competition is tough in these final days! (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)
- Juçara Marçal, Delta Estácio Blues– All Music Guide will tell you that, “Juçara Marçal is a Brazilian singer, songwriter, and educator whose music bridges traditional Afro-Brazilian folk sounds, electronic music, rock, and hip-hop.” I will tell you that, despite the complete language gap, the joyous kaleidoscope of styles and complexity of rhythms had this well on its way to being at least a strong maybe until a terribly autotuned track turned up toward the end. That may seem like a rough reason to bounce something, but we’re in December now- it’s wheat from chaff time!
- Kenny G, New Standards– I didn’t really think I was going to go for this- as a kid of the alt 80s, if there is an anathema par excellence to my people, it’s Kenny G. I was intrigued by the concept though- it’s his attempt to record new songs as if they were old standards. Unfortunately, it sounds like Kenny G.
- King Krule, You Heat Me Up You Cool Me Down– This album from a UK singer/songwriter, sometimes rapper, is from live shows just before the tour had to be cancelled because of COVID. I wasn’t familiar with him going in, but the music is a muscular mix of jangly rock, jazz, and surprising sound effects, and the vocals are raw and bruising, which I appreciate. It gets to be a little the same after a while, and the almost hour and twenty run time is a tough thing to sustain, but it does make me curious to hear more of his stuff.
- Lotic, Water– This was very interesting as dance-oriented music goes, in a heavily experimental vein. Not consistently listenable enough to make “year’s best”, but certainly not unworthy.
- Myriam Gendron, Ma délire– Songs of love, lost & found– Moody, French, quiet with dark jagged edges, but the language barrier is ultimately too much for me to “get” the album. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)
- New Found Glory, December’s Here– Christmas-themed albums are an inevitability this time of year. They can work, but they can also make my skin crawl. A pop-punk album with an emo bent is an inevitability in life. It can work, or it can make my skin crawl. Multiply one by the other, and your odds of success considerably decrease.
- Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, La Panthère des Neiges (Original Soundtrack)– This is my favorite Nick Cave soundtrack for a documentary about a snow leopard. No really, this is the soundtrack to Marie Amguet and Vincent Munier’s wildlife documentary La Panthére des Neiges, in which Munier (a photographer) and writer Sylvain Tesson pursue a rare sighting of a snow leopard in Tibet. It’s a little muted musically, and not general audience enough to work as an album of the year, but yay leopards!
- Quadry, They Think We Ghetto– Definitely fresher than many another hip-hop album out this year, but we’re late in the year now, so it takes a lot to rise above. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)
- Rival Consoles, Overflow– Electronic and experimental- some of these tracks have a sense of looming dread, which I always appreciate, and some have interesting thought-provoking verbal and sound juxtapositions. But it feels more like an art project, and less like something one would repeatedly listen to.
- Robert Sotelo, Celebrant– It’s a little post-punk sounding, a little herky-jerky side of new wave, it’s more than nice enough, but it’s not enough to blow the rest of the year out of the water.
- Roddy Richh, Live Life Fast– I was on the edge for a while. There is a good deal of higher aspiration in this album from Compton-based hip hop artist Richh, clever wordplay, and interesting music mixes. Eventually the misogyny and autotune got the better of me, but it stayed in contention for quite a while.
- Rx Nephew, Transporter 4– Pitchfork recommended this album from an extremely prolific hip-hop artist to me. It’s powerful and driving, but I think it ultimately goes under with the weight of “street” clichés. He is from my wife’s mythical homeland of Rochester, NY, though, so there’s that.
- SeeYouSpaceCowboy, The Romance of Affliction– Brutal hardcore/metal assault, which I appreciate. Dip into swelling symphonic melodies, which I tolerate. Screamed vocals, which I do not groove with.
- Teen Daze, Interior– It’s electronic. It’s dancey. It’s nice enough. It’s late in the year.
- Tony Shhnow, Authentic Goods– I can see what they mean in terms of it being underappreciated, but this is way late in the year. It takes not just good, but extraordinary to break into the list at this point. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)
- Wild Up, Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Feminine– California collective recording arrangements of songs from a Jazz great who died largely unsung (and too young) in the 90s. It was an interesting enough premise to get me listening, and there is something arresting about it, but given the instrumental and abstract nature, I’m not sure it’s accessible enough to rise to top spot of the year.
- yes/and, yes/and– Some of these are ambient, some of these are more instrumental, all of them are a bunch of nice sounds that don’t add up to an album (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)
And so, it is finished. Or not quite! As soon as I can manage it, I’m going to complete my relistens of the “Yes” (and selected “Maybe”) albums from the year and bring you the final list of THE 21 BEST ALBUMS OF 2021 Stay tuned!