Author Archives: chrislwriter

What Were the Best Albums of the Twenty-Teens? (Part 10 of 10)

Hey, we made it! It’s part ten of our ten-part review of the critic’s choices for the 52 best albums of 2010-2019! (One for each week of the year! But that’s not how I came up with the number. See below.)

If you missed parts one through nine, you can find them here:

( Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 )

This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. You should also check out the final edition of my overview of the critic’s choices for the 20 best albums of 2020, and my latest monthly review of 2021’s new releases as I search for the 21 best albums of 2021.

Come on, didn’t I pick 52 because it matched the number of weeks in the year? No, really, no! What happened was, I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. As it turned out, there were 52 albums getting 4 votes and up. This was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff rather than forcing two of them to fight to the death.

With that, on to Part 10 of 10!

The Suburbs (Arcade Fire, 2010, 6 votes)– The Arcade Fire is a good fire. Their album Funeral from 2004 was one of the best of that decade, and this has many of the same features that made that album so memorable- yearning vocals, damn smart lyrics that feel laden with meaning, music that knows enough about rock to keep powerfully moving forward, but enough about indie experimentation to have depths that surprise, and some structure that ties the whole thing together, but isn’t heavy enough to distract or feel gimmicky. This is really kind of the gold standard for what indie rock can do- be both smart and sophisticated and a fun listen. Also maybe a testament to how easy it is to fall off that balance beam, which makes it that much more impressive when someone doesn’t.

 

This Is Happening (LCD Soundsystem, 2010, 6 votes)– Their 2005 self-titled album was one of my favorites of the 00s, so I was looking forward to checking this out. It doesn’t disappoint! Electronic dance music can be a hard sell for me, but I love their brand of it. I think the thing that makes it work is the propulsive drive, call backs to new wave, and attention to song structure, all of which make it function almost like rock. It’s also full of wit lyrically and musically, and the songs tell a story, or at least convey a strong feeling. All of this together makes it more robust than electronic music often feels. LCD can bring their Soundsystem over my way anytime!

To Pimp A Butterfly (Kendrick Lamar, 2015, 10 votes)– This is his third album on this list, and it’s also the one with the most votes. Given how good DAMN and good kidd, m.A.D.d. City are, that’s really saying something. And you know what? It lives up to it! It’s musically virtuositic, densely sampled, full of dynamic flow, and lyrically dizzying as it wrestles with social and personal issues along the way. The middle dives deep into the later, and builds some interesting repeating motifs around it. All of this makes it sound powerful and serious, which it is, but doesn’t get across quite how fun it is to listen to. I’m right with the critics on this!

     

Visions (Grimes, 2012, 5 votes)– Spare beats, light synth effects, ethereal vocals that are disorienting in their relation to the bite behind what she’s singing. While there are flashes of brilliance all over, I will say that as a whole it’s not quite as together, engaging, or substantive as later Grimes. This, of course, is partially my problem for having that as a reference point. It certainly must have been a breath of fresh air at the time. So, I don’t know about best of the decade, but one of the most interesting and promising debuts of the decade? Probably yes!

Whack World (Tierra Whack, 2018, 4 votes)– I like the spare, almost synth accompaniment of this hip-hop, the straightforward rhymes and whimsy, and the quality of her voice. The series of 1 minute tracks is also really refreshing in a genre that sometimes can get a little…long… on an individual song level. The heavily autotuned nature of a lot of it? Not so much. I can see that there are definitely some great singles here, and a talent worth keeping an eye on. But best of decade album? I just don’t see it.

Yeezus (Kanye West, 2013, 5 votes)– Ibid. everything I said a few posts ago while introing my review of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In terms of the specifics of Yeezus, it kicks off with a really interesting electronica-flavored start. Then Kanye wades in with his patented swagger, lyrical density, and strong production assault. This album in general has a very heavy, even menacing sound, which is well done and lends urgency to the already lyrically/vocally fraught tracks. The misogyny is thick sometimes, but is presented as part of wrestling with demons. And the ego everywhere is bursting through, but often with a looming sense of dread. Looking at it, with knowledge of his later issues, it does have the feeling of the soundtrack of a manic break in progress, but a damn well-produced one.     

And with that, we have done it! Or, have we? We have blazed our way through the individual reviews over the last ten posts, that is true. But there’s one more post coming, with the grand wrap-up. Stay tuned!

What Were the Best Albums of the Twenty-Teens? (Part 9 of 10)

Part nine of our ten-part review of the critic’s choices for the best 52 albums of 2010-2019! (That’s almost 90% in some parts of the world!) (Wait, what, 52? Why? We’ll address that later.)

If you missed the first eight installments, you can read them here:

( Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 )

This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. You may also want to check out the final edition of my overview of the critic’s choices for the 20 best albums of 2020, and my latest monthly review of 2021’s new releases as I search for the 21 best albums of 2021.

So, most people would do a top 50 list, wouldn’t they? Well, yes. What happened was, I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. As it turned out, there were 52 albums getting 4 votes and up. This was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff rather than surgically removing two of them.

This series will have 10 posts of 5 albums each (or 6 each on these last two) and then a final wrap-up. All caught up? On to Part 9!

Random Access Memories (Daft Punk, 2013, 5 votes)– Daft Punk is my favorite French electronic music duo. Okay, no, but really, I’m sure there is more than one. And their 2001 album Discovery really was one of the best of that decade. They are as good as they always are here, and the mining they’re doing of 70s and 80s dance music really suits their strengths. But I don’t know if the album as a whole is as good as their best. The pacing often felt weird to me- fast and slow lurches and mood shifts that didn’t seem to build on each other in any apparent way.

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Courtney Barnett, 2015, 6 votes)– Oh my gosh, such solid rock, chord changes, intelligent lyrics that work with the music. This reminds me of an early 80s era of smart, wordy folks who knew how to work a rock song- Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Robyn Hitchcock, etc. But with contemporary subject matter. Not a single song fails the whole way through. And extra points for her Australian accent!

Sunbather (Deafhaven, 2013, 4 votes)– I mean, the first track is a pretty weird combo- the unintelligible screamo school of metal vocals, and a kind of orchestral swell of indie rock sound which is really rather pleasant. I think I would rather have the reverse. Then there’s a mellow instrumental. Then back to the scream orchestra. Then a “Revolution #9”-style abstract wank-off. And so forth. I really don’t get where the critics were coming from on this at all.

Take Care (Drake, 2011, 6 votes)– I’m skeptical going in of the 80 minute run-length, but the first track does start off very well- rich music sampling, clear vocal delivery, wit and impact with some honest wrestling with self and success thrown in. It gets a little auto-tuned in parts, but still catchy and substantive, with more than an occasional lyrical and musically surprise that bring one above and beyond what is otherwise a smooth pop ride. I wouldn’t say it’s up there with the best from Kanye or Jay-Z, but I can get behind the critical take on this album.

Teen Dream (Beach House, 2010, 4 votes)– It certainly is dreamy, and a little beachy too. That kind of shimmery, golden, sunburn hot turning to goosebump cool feeling of the end of a late summer day at the beach. There are hints of synth, psychedelia, even some honest to goodness surf music. It does seem to have a weird problem with volume randomly shooting up and down between tracks. Other than that, the dream pop here is in very good shape, but I’m not sure it’s in “decade’s best” territory.

The Idler Wheel (Fiona Apple, 2012, 6 votes)Let’s be precise, the full title is The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. That name alone is a tour de force, and so, here, is Fiona Apple. The soars and dips of her voice, the spare but driving nature of the music, the virtuosity in the phrasing of the vocals, the intelligent bare honesty of the lyrics, all conspire to produce a powerful live-wire of an album.

One more installment to go, and then the wrap-up. Take that, decade!     

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: September

It’s the September review! In some parts of the world that’s 75% through the year, and therefore 3/4 of the way through our search for the best 21 albums of 2021. Well done, us!

For those just tuning in, I’m listening to new releases each month, sorting them into yes/maybe/no, and then I’ll do a final shakedown to get the best 21 after the year ends. If you missed the earlier installments, you can find them here:

( January February March April May June July August )

This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year. We’re at the eighth of ten installments of my ongoing review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and the wrap-up of my review of the critic’s consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020 is here.

Before we proceed, 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 list is now up to 196 albums, so competition for the final 21 is going to be fierce!

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 to the 94 new releases I listened to for September!

Ada Lea, one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden– Well that’s a title all right! It has spare music informed by folk, electronic, and indie rock, dense and appealing lyrics, and a pleasing lilt and feeling-laden quality to her vocals. This Montreal-based musician is a distinctive voice in both senses of the word, and definitely worth another listen or two.

Alessia Cara, In the Meantime– She’s got a rich voice and makes inventive use of it, the songs have sure beats, and the music makes billowing, expansive use of various strands of dance, soul, R&B, and jazz. And the lyrics also have some bite, verve, and complexity to them. All in all, I’m in!

Amyl and the Sniffers, Comfort to Me– Australian punk group that knows how to work their chords to keep a rock song moving without being a punk cliché, and a lead singer that is 100% pure moxie. This could have dropped into first generation 70s English punk and sounded at home, by which I mean fresh and real.

Andrew W.K., God is Partying– Deliberately over the top melodrama metal. Operatic, stirring, maybe hilarious. Is it serious? Is it ridiculous? Is it a skillful and heartfelt homage to metals and stadium rocks past? Friends, we don’t need to choose- It’s all of those things, and I kind of freaking love it!

Andy Shauf, Wilds– This Saskatchewan-based singer-songwriter delivers a slightly distorted off-kilter acoustic and bare electric sound, with lyrics that are painfully earnest but catchy, and vocals that are naïve in a way that works with them. It is, in total, pretty darn charming.

Angelo De Augustine/Sufjan Stevens, A Beginner’s Mind– Sufjan Stevens, is, of course, Sufjan Stevens, and like many of us, I still haven’t recovered from being bowled over by Illinoise. His collaborator here is an indie rocker given to a similar vein of music. It’s full of the kind of thing I’ve come to expect from Stevens- deeply personal introspection, strong mood, and nuanced soundscapes. At first blush, all a little muted, but the depths pull you under…

AZ, Doe or Die II– AZ is an East Coast rapper, an associate of Nas since the 90s, and has a reputation for being comparatively underappreciated. I’d back that up based on what I’m hearing here. The musical sampling is top notch, production multilayered and complex, and his delivery is full of intelligence, personality, and confidence. Sophisticated East Coast hip-hop at its best.

Blunt Bangs, Proper Smoker– Now that is a proper rocking guitars and drums start. They’ve got the chords! They’ve got the melody! They’ve got the rock that reminds one of multiple eras, and still works like a charm! Blunt Bangs is a supergroup of sorts, with members who are veterans of multiple indie rock bands, and they have produced an excellent outing here.

Boyracer, Assuaged– So bouncy and cheery! English indie rock group that’s been around since 1990, but they sound naïve, even almost amateurish, in the best way. Rock and roll can still be fun!

Elvis Costello, Spanish Model– I do like an unusual album conceit, and this surely is one- the original masters of Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model, only with the lead vocals removed, and various Latin American musicians doing lead vocals in Spanish. Costello himself is backing this project, and the results are pretty inspired- it reminds you how strong the original tracks were musically, and the variety of vocal approaches to the material takes it off in whole new directions. Call me crazy, but this works!

Heartless Bastards, A Beautiful Life– I’ve got to say, for heartless bastards, they look like a very pleasant group of people. They also make some very nice music- it’s warm and richly textured as it rambles between acoustic, neo-psychedelia, and 70s rock, with an almost Dylanesque density of lyrics (albeit sometimes a little too on the nose in terms of topicality). It also, musically, vocally, and lyrically, has a sense of 70s naiveté to it.

 

Julia Bardo, Bauhaus, L’Appartamento– She’s got a rich voice, and richly played pop music backs it up. I’ve read the comparisons to Natalie Merchant, and I can certainly hear it. But her lyrics are more straightforward and the music less idiosyncratic than 10,000 Maniacs. Which is not to slight it- what really strikes me about these songs is how solidly pleasingly they work. They have individual identities, but a consistent quality. I can tell you after 672 albums just how hard that is to pull off!

Lil Nas X, Montero– Given the hubbub that’s been generated around him, I was certainly curious about his first full-length album. This heightened expectation game can go two ways- but in this case, BELIEVE the hype. In its playing with higher callings and lower pulls, playful musical experimentation, and lyrical wit, it reminds me of Prince. The transparent and prominent discussion of gay identity, relationships, and eroticism, rare not just in hip-hop but in mass-market pop music in general, is great. It even employs autotune to good effect- as a production tool rather than crutch. In general, this album is thoroughly conversant with, and yet rises above, 2000s hip-hop idioms. Pretty great all around.

Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert– Sometimes (often) I might be too, so I like the title! And boy does this album by a UK hip-hop artist/actress get off to a booming operatic start. She’s vocally powerful enough to keep up with the music too, and subsequent tracks are full of great production, intelligence, wit, positive energy, and strong presence.

Manic Street Preachers, The Ultra Vivid Lament– Strong, literate, imagistic story-telling, sparkling production, and a good knack from surging anthemic moments. They sound here like what they are- a 90s band strongly influenced by new wave and the arty side of pre-punk, and they’re really good at it. It’s good to hear them still manic, and street preaching after all of these years.

 

Meatbodies, 333– Oh guitars. Wall of guitars. Every time I hear you anew I’m reminded of how much I love you. From this LA area band, I hear hints of grunge, Zeppelin, Jesus & Mary Chain, psychedelia. This gives you some idea of what you’re in for here. And I really like being in for this kind of thing!

Moor Mother, Black Encyclopedia of the Air– With a trippy poetic spoken word start, weirdly syncopated instrumentation and electronic sound effects, it doesn’t sound like everything else. Which one really appreciates after listening to 700 albums in a year! Left field hip hop and experimental electronic music with dense powerful poetic lyrics. Moor Mother is the stage name of Camae Ayewa, an American poet, musician, and activist from Philadelphia.

p4rkr, drive-by lullabies– Heavily electronicized, it almost goes beyond auto-tune to machine voice for the sake of machine voice, with a kind of industrial music mix and frequently quirky and charming, often even tender, lyrics and vocals. I kind of like that! p4rkr a.k.a. osquinn is a 15 year old transgender rapper, singer, and producer known for hyperpop and electronic inspired hip hop. I’d been wanting to meet hyperpop for a while, and I’m glad I did- it’s thoroughly interesting!

Park Hye Jin, Before I Die– I knew I would eventually run across a k-pop album that I liked! To be fair, this comes more from the house/club DJ side of the fence than the teen idol side, which probably has something to do with it. It’s great electronic dance music, infused with a wit and rawness that brings another layer to the proceedings.

Pearl & The Oysters, Flowerland– This sounds like electronic music doing a hybrid of the loungier side of 60s pop and smooth Brazilian jazz while being attacked by a psychedelic rainbow omnichord (in a good way). Vocally and musically, it’s so damn sunny! Every song is full of weird, quirky riches. They are apparently a Los Angeles duo who, perhaps, met while vacationing in space. It’s a little hard to tell.

Rufus Wainwright, Unfollow the Rules: The Paramour Session– Unable to tour in support of his 2020 release Unfollow The Rules, Rufus Wainwright decided to record a live version in the ballroom of the Paramour Mansion in Los Angeles backed only by a guitarist, a pianist, and a string quartet. Added to the songs from the album are a mix of older numbers and previously unreleased songs. If that sounds a little weird, you should watch the videos of him performing the whole thing barefoot in a silky robe in the cavernous room. However, as always, he is both an amazing songwriter and performer. And the intimate setting really brings out something further, and fuck if the acoustics in that room aren’t great. It’s conceptually a little odd, but it’s also one of the better things I’ve listened to this year.

Sleigh Bells, Texis– Is this a kind of throwback to the synth/dance side of new wave? A guitar crunchy noise rock thing? Experimental electronic dance music? Yes to all! This Brooklynn-based duo has produced something idiosyncratic that sounds interesting and fun the whole way through.

The Beths, Auckland, New Zealand, 2020– You know that female-lead band that’s a little poppy, a little punky, and totally high energy and fun? This is them! New Zealand version. This live concert album captures the first time they were able to play live again following the lifting of New Zealand’s quarantine, which probably gives it even more of an edge in energy and enthusiasm. I love this kind of band whenever I find them, and in this case they’re a great live band too!

The Felice Brothers, From Dreams to Dust– So good! Super-intelligent lyrics at turns mythic, surrealist, and rambling, a way with melody, and big anthemic moments. Sometimes folk, sometimes rock, sometimes narrative set to country music, the songs often have a feeling of looming import.

The Shivas, Feels So Good // Feels So Bad– Nice big boom of a garage rock start, and this turns out not to be a fluke- the whole thing is an invocation of garage rock, wall of sound, and that weird haunted echoey mid-60s stuff. It doesn’t quite sound frozen in time though, there are flourishes that remind you that the alt 80s and 90s happened as well. This Portland-based band knows their craft, and are plying it very well here.

The Vaccines, Back in Love City– This UK band bring high energy rock with a dance/disco edge and lyrics & vocals with just the right kind of glitzy and slightly tawdry undertone. I don’t know where they’ve been hiding themselves, but this is a thoroughly solid band!

Wesley Stace, Late Style– This is groovy! It’s got smooth vocals and lyrics that work with the jazz-influenced music, a somewhat schmaltzy yet mysteriously still cool delivery, and songs that are clever, topical, and have a dark undertone under a cheerful delivery. It reminds me, in turns, of Randy Newman and Elvis Costello. What I subsequently discovered is that Wesley Stace is the English singer/songwriter who goes by the name John Wesley Harding, which makes even more sense of why I like this so much, having admired JWH’s work from semi-afar since the 80s.

Maybe

  • Alexa Rose, Head Waters– This album from a North Carolina country-inflected singer-songwriter is high on melody, with a clear shinning voice. I wondered the whole way through if this was too one tone and tempo, but I was also constantly won over by her golden vocals, intelligent bittersweet lyrics, and utter sincerity.
  • Anthony Hamilton, Love is The New Black– Classic 70s soul influence and great use of 2000s beats and production, as one would expect from a man who’s been one of soul/r&b’s greatest impresarios of the 2000s. I’m putting it in maybe because, for most of the run length, it’s a collection of really nice songs without any particular connection or structure. It really finds some themes song to song the last few tracks, and if it had been doing that the whole way through, it would have been a yes.
  • Cold Beat, WAR GARDEN– With the smooth bright mechanical beats and video game-like melodies, we begin in very 80s synth territory. I almost feel like we’ve wandered in to a Vince Clarke production. I wonder about the dated feel, but it’s such a skillful rendering of an era/vein of new wave that it’s also utterly charming.
  • Colleen Green, Cool– LA indie pop musician whose work here reminds me of a certain Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield etc. school of lead female with sharp lyrics, rock guitar, attention to melody, and damn catchy song structure. It sounds a little 90s/early 00s dated, which, along with a mysteriously low-key all instrumental ending song, is about my only reservation.
  • DJ Seinfeld, Mirrors– Well this is fun! DJ Seinfeld is the (delightful) moniker of Swedish DJ Armand Jakobsson. Can I necessarily tell one track from another? No, but they’re so bright and dynamic that I can’t help bouncing to them the whole way through. Call me crazy, but this is a definite maybe!
  • E*vax, E. Vax– E*vax is the stage name of American electronic music artist Evan Peter Mastor. Though this tends more to the abstract side of electronic music, it’s also got an interesting use of vocal samples and musical effects that do a good job of keeping one engaged. This is the kind of album that reminds you there’s something to this electronic music business.
  • Eric Bibb, Dear America– Bibb is a 70 year-old American blues artist living in Sweden. You might think from this that he has considerable skill to his craft, and an interesting point of view, and you’d be right. The music is somewhere between blues and folk, and full of sweetness and a spontaneous, genuine feeling. The lyrics are sometimes a little too on-the-nose, which is the reason it gets to “maybe” from me.
  • Iron Maiden, Senjutsu– Put them in the iron maiden. Excellent! Execute them. Bogus! The thing about Iron Maiden is, they produce a consistent and high quality experience, and I always have liked their school of metal. I’m not sure why this album needs to be an hour and 22 minutes, but it is solidly enjoyable. (If they did want to trim it up a bit, I note the last three tracks are 34 minutes total.) 
  • Jazzmeia Horn, Dear Love– With fat horns, a quirky shuffling beat, and poetic spoken word, the opening has me charmed immediately. Subsequent tracks get more into a jazz side of things, in an eclectic and even-bordering on chaotic way, and her vocals never fail to hold one’s attention. It’s on the edge of tuning me out with its jazz ramblings, but her voice and phrasing and the empowerment-centric lyrics kept bringing me back.
  • Kacey Musgraves, Star-Crossed– Kacey Musgraves is really something. Is she country? Yes, sort of, but with psychedelic, electronic, and 2000s teen pop all thrown in. There’s even a Spanish ballad at the end. The best moments here are searingly heartfelt, soaring and surging as she wrestles with the fall-out of the end of her three-year marriage. The “worst” are merely really damn catchy pop. Either way, this is never a bad ride.
  • Kero Kero Bonito, Civilisation– Take some disco-overdrive, some J-Pop influence, and the experimental/electronic side of indie rock, and you have an approximation of what this UK band sounds like. It’s a little light, which tends it toward “maybe” for me, but very cheery and energetic, which keeps it in contention.
  • Low, Hey What– Low was one of the more interesting and idiosyncratic bands to emerge in the 90s- they had a common spirit with grunge certainly, but more in common musically with industrial and post-punk. It remains an interesting and challenging sound today (there are moments that grate long enough they last until just one second before I might take song-ending action- that’s not easy to time!). It’s not a new sound, it’s sometimes grating, but I also kept listening, so…
  • Matthew E. White, K Bay– Now that is a groovy beat! Catchy, slinky songs with some disco, some 70s rock, some new wave, and a strong drive, accompanied by smartly worded and often humorous lyrics. He’s a songwriter and producer who has worked with a bevy of acts, and it’s easy to see what he brings to them from this masterful and pleasing outing. The only reason it’s not automatic yes is an extended song (though an important and well done one) that’s totally out of musical and emotional tone with the rest of the album.
  • Motorists, Surrounded – This Canadian band delivers fun rock, with the feeling of 80s alt on the jangle/power-pop side of things. It sounds a little dated and perhaps even formulaic in a way, but darn if it isn’t a good formula!
  • Poppy, Flux– This is the fourth album from YouTube sensation Poppy. There never were YouTube sensations when I was growing up, put putting out four albums is legit. This album is legit too- it would sound at home in the 90s, bringing to mind grunge, shoegaze and electronic, with quite a flair for verve and motion. I might say it’s a little light and a pinch era-bound in its sound, but it’s a sound I love, and done very well!
  • Ronnie Wood, Mr. Luck: A Tribute to Jimmy Reed – Live at the Royal Albert Hall– This was recorded a few years back, British blues-group (and, uh, Rolling Stone) alum-Ronnie Wood’s tribute to a blues great. So it definitely has skilled musician, excellent original material, and heartfelt connection to that material going for it. I think it may be a little too tribute/genre specialty for “year’s best” status, but it is very solid.
  • Slothrust, Parallel Timeline– The music tends toward the ethereal and poppy (except when the guitars really kick in, which they do often enough), the vocals are hushed and understated, and the lyrics are astonishingly emotionally literate and bare. I was 75% totally “yes”, but the other 25% felt a little deflated. I’d definitely keep an eye on this Boston-based band, though.

No

  • Alexis Taylor, Silence– This alumni of English synth-pop band Hot Chip has released an album with hints of 70s syrup, 80s synth, 90s twee, and more contemporary indie rock in a slow piano vein. Sometimes romantic, sometimes aching with loss, sometimes fascinatingly given to spiritual yearning, but full of feeling either way. Ultimately, though, the album, despite all this, is very heavy in emotional tone, and muted musical range. Worthy, but hard to sustain at album length.
  • Angels & Airwaves, Lifeforms– At first this sounds somewhat like the Miami Vice soundtrack (80s TV version). 80s kid here, so that’s not a slam. Then it gets kind of surgy and arena-like from there, which I don’t like as well. No question it’s well done, high-energy, and I like the 80s synth flourishes. But ultimately, it all feels a little too plastic.
  • Anthony Naples, Chameleon– New York City-based DJ and electronic artist. It’s occasionally very lively, but generally too easily fades to background.
  • Arturo O’Farrill, …dreaming in lions…– Second generation jazz musician and well-regarded composer. I don’t have any reason to think this isn’t very good, but upon hearing he leads the Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, I was expecting something a little more African and Latin, perhaps? It gets there at times, but not often enough.
  • Ashley Shadow, Only the End– The opener has a nice “minor chords” 60s kind of feeling to it, and it continues in that vein with more than a hint of country. This Vancouver-based musician has a great voice, and really evokes a mood. But, vocally, musically, and structurally, the songs are in too narrow and low key a vein for the album to really gain traction.
  • Bela Fleck, My Bluegrass Heart– Banjo maestro Bela Fleck returns to his Bluegrass roots. The material here is, without doubt, excellent. An hour and 46 minutes of it, though… Just because streaming technology makes it easier for one to do this, does not mean one should do it! At half the length, it could have been a contender.
  • Bomba Estéreo, Deja– This Colombian band’s music has been described as a cross of Latin American musical forms and psychedelia. It is interesting from that point of view, but the mellow vibe and being completely in Spanish prevent it from gelling as an album for me.
  • Caleb Landry Jones, Gadzooks, Vol. 1– Curiously for an American musician, this strongly has the feeling of being lost Rolling Stones songs from their psychedelic era. Curiously for an actor, it’s really good. (To be fair, he was a musician first, before becoming an actor.) It’s so well done, and so much fun! It was headed toward automatic yes by a mile until it ended with a TWENTY MINUTE meandering nonsense track.
  • Carly Pearce, 29: Written in Stone– Kentucky-born Nashville-based Pearce is here wrestling with the end of her marriage to fellow country artist Michael Ray, always promising subject matter for an album. And it does give the material some power and depth. It has more substance to it in that sense, but is ultimately too musically in a plastic pop country vein to really stand out.
  • Chris Carter/CTI, Electronic Ambient Remixes, Vol. 3– The name gives one pause. Also, his history with Throbbing Gristle makes me expect something a little abstract and ambient for my tastes. It turns out I am right. The fact that he’s not the Chris Carter from the X-Files is not his fault, though.
  • Cold War Kids, New Age Norms, Vol. 3– I loved their 2006 major label debut. They were so earnest, weird, slightly goony even. Since then, they’ve become more and more a “conventional” indie rock band, and that’s what’s on display here. It’s technically very good, radio-ready, and I didn’t care for it at all.
  • Cynthia Erivo, Ch. 1 Vs. 1– This British actress/singer is a vocal force, and is backed up by some well-rendered sophisticated eurodance/soul flavored music. But it’s all too much in one tempo/vein to really stand out or catch fire.
  • David Grubbs & Ryley Walker, A Tap on the Shoulder– Grubbs and Walker are both rich and varied musicians individually, but here together they’ve produced something a little too abstract, sometimes even abrasive, to come together as a listenable album.
  • Dntel, Away– This is the second Dntel album we’re reviewing this year. Well done Dntel! Though I think Cabaret Voltaire is still the record-holder with three separate releases. It’s cheery and pleasant, often funny, and definitely more engaging than the over-abstract The Seas Trees See. Ultimately not a lot of substance that would really vault it into “yes” territory, but one could do a lot worse!
  • Drake, Certified Lover Boy– I’m a little leery going in, because there is rarely good cause for an album to run an hour and a half. On the other hand, lyrically and vocally he’s top-notch, it’s brimming over with positive energy, and the sampling and production here is very smart. After a few tracks it veers way too much into autotuned, though. Between the length and the autotune, it just doesn’t add up to a succinct and sustainable album for me.
  • Esperanza Spalding, SONGWRITERS APOTHECARY LAB– A little too ethereal and jazzy for me.
  • Fucked Up, Year of the Horse– Canadian hardcore band? I’m automatically rooting for you. A four part album composed of four twenty-something minute suites? I’m cautious but curious. There is a kind of interesting orchestral drive to the whole thing, but much of it is too in the same vein musically, and the vocals are mostly in the “scream” category (although there are many fascinating asides to both). Ultimately, while I really admire its ambition, 93 minutes of it is a little too much to be easily digestible.
  • Henry Threadgill, Poof– This album from someone prominent in jazz since the 70s is a kind of discordant and abstract I appreciate, but it doesn’t add up to a coherent listenable album.
  • Herb Alpert, Catch the Wind– I didn’t think this was going to work for me, but I had to try, right? Don’t get me wrong. It’s pleasant. Relentlessly pleasant in the way that only slightly jazzy muzak can be.
  • Homeshake, Under the Weather– Solo musical project of Montreal-based singer-songwriter and musician Peter Saga. (This is the only notation I seem to have made while listening to it live, but I trust my reasons for tagging it “no”. Whatever they were!)
  • Imagine Dragons, Mercury: Act 1– I like imagining. I like dragons. Look, they’re fine. They’re very radio friendly. In fact, I liked several of the singles from their 2017 album. There’s nothing wrong with the songs musically, vocally, structurally. But I never catch the sense of anything vital or real from this album.
  • Injury Reserve, By the Time I Get to Phoenix– I instinctively like “Arizona-based multiracial hip-hop group” as a description. It does have some unusual, almost industrial, musical background. But it ends up sounding a little too dissonant, although it is very interesting along the way.
  • J Balvin, JOSE– Heavily autotuned, over an hour long, and in a language I don’t understand well is a tough combination. Some combination of one or more might have worked, but all three together are deadly.
  • Jose Gonzalez, Local Valley– As Swedish folk singers of Argentinian heritage who record in English go, he’s probably my favorite. It really is well played, with deeply felt lyrics, but is all a little too one tone ultimately.
  • Kanye West, Donda– I do love my cousin Kanye- The College Dropout remains one of my favorite albums of the 00s, and the two albums after it did the even more difficult job of holding up to a landmark debut. I don’t think it’s a secret that he’s gotten considerably more uneven since then. There are some obvious issues here- nearly two hours is a difficult length to sustain. The opening track is extremely annoying, which is never a great way to start. I’m baffled by how much autotune there is here, since he should know better. Then there’s some obvious strengths- as always, his sampling and production is smart and challenging, when he is not auto-tune singing, the vocal delivery is as strong as ever, the lyrics often display his prodigious boldness and humor, and the preoccupations of the material (spirituality, processing his mother’s death, the end of his marriage) are interesting and well-delivered. And it does get more coherent for a long middle section. On balance, I just don’t think it works as an album in whole. I think there’s a, say, 40-50 minute version that absolutely could have been a “yes”. It would have been darker, heavier, and not as witty as his first three albums, but it would have worked.
  • Kiefer, When There’s Love Around– This Los Angeles-based pianist and producer has made something positive, bubbly, and jazzy that I don’t care for much. Extra points for the kid holding a bunny on the cover, though!
  • Lauren Alaina, Sitting Pretty on Top of the World– This American Idol runner-up from Georgia delivers a very solid serving of pop country. She does it really pretty well, but, alas, pop country is atrocious.
  • Lawrence English, Observation of Breath– A forty minute album with only four songs sounds like it might be a tough slog. When the first track starts with something that sounds like sand falling and tinnitus and stays with that for minutes on end, well…
  • Lindsey Buckingham, Lindsey Buckingham– Some time ago, I came to realize that most everything I liked from Fleetwood Mac’s classic period was actually by Buckingham, so I was probably a Lindsey Buckingham fan instead of a sometime Fleetwood Mac fan. This does have a bit of his characteristic sound, but is often curiously muted overall. It’s also loaded with 80s production sound. I think there could be a solo album from him I’d be a fan of, but this isn’t it.
  • L’Orange , The World Is Still Chaos, But I Feel Better– Some electronic, some club DJ, some jazzy soul (or souly jazz?), some experimental. L’Orange is the stage name of Austin Hart, an American hip hop record producer from North Carolina. It’s fun and interesting, but I don’t think the songs have enough substantively, or in relation to each other, to add up to a great album.
  • Mac McCaughan, The Sound of Yourself– Superchunk co-founder and record-label owner, here on a very slow and mellow vibe. It’s too mellow, and start and stop, to really catch on.
  • Macie Stewart, Mouth Full of Glass– Smart lyrics and a sharp clear voice, acoustic with interesting flourishes. There’s something compelling about her, but it’s a little low-key and same track to track to break through.
  • Magic Roundabout, Up– Veterans of the noisepop scene in the UK, but underrecorded themselves. This has all the feedback and fuzz one might wish for, just the right mix of melody and noise, and is great at establishing a mood. It was on track to being a “yes” or at least a strong “maybe” until it ended with a rambling nearly twenty minute track. Poof!
  • Mas Aya, Máscaras – It’s all a little too abstract, new agey, and swirly.
  • Mickey Guyton, Remember Her Name– When I hear something is a country record coming from an R&B direction (or vice versa?), I’m immediately intrigued. Its heart is definitely in the right place in terms of bridging those two worlds, and bringing up the social issues in crossing-over between them. Unfortunately, it’s an overly produced slick pop version of both music forms.
  • Mild High Club, Going Going Gone– This is supposed to be an American psychedelic group. I guess that’s true, but coming at it from a jazz easy listening direction. Please no.
  • Mini Trees, Always In Motion– This project of an LA-based musician is very nice in its mellow, fuzzy, emotionally literate-lyric kind of way. I don’t know that rises enough above “very nice” to be in “best of the year” contention, though.
  • MONO, Pilgrimage of the Soul– Brooding synth giving way to driving guitar and drum start, which is promising. This Japanese instrumental band definitely has a knack for building a slowly surging song. There’s a kind of sameness track to track, though, and ultimately, as an all-instrumental piece, there isn’t quite enough to hang “great album” status on.
  • Nala Sinephro, Space 1.8– Caribbean-Belgian composer, producer and musician. The musicianship here, as you might expect from that, is excellent, if ultimately too in a jazz/orchestra vein for me.
  • Nao, And Then Life Was Beautiful– I like the unusual waifish quality to her voice, and the music is an interestingly spare version of soul as well. Unfortunately it eventually wears thin, especially on tracks with guests, where the focus drops off of her.
  • Natalie Imbruglia, Firebird– All right, look, I loved “Torn” and I’m not afraid to say it! So Natalie Imbruglia will always have a special place in my heart. On this album, she’s produced some very good, lively 90s pop. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s all a little too slick and dated. Sorry Nat!
  • Public Service Broadcasting, Bright Magic– As often abstract art rock by UK groups goes, this is some. It occasionally catches fire into something interesting, but not often enough.
  • Rumer, Live from Lafayette– Rumer is very pleasant and all, and these are good performances. Solid all the way around, but nothing here that lifts it up into “year’s best” territory.
  • Saint Etienne, I’ve Been Trying To Tell You– This UK alternative dance group has produced some fine dreamy, mellow dance vibes. Can’t say I care for it.
  • Sarah Davachi, Antiphonals– As Wikipedia will inform you: Sarah Davachi is a Canadian experimental musician, composer of acoustic and electroacoustic minimalist music, pianist, and organist. This is too much on the experimental/ambient front for me.
  • Smoke Bellow, Open for Business– If this was coming out in the 80s, it might have been a post-punk classic. At this point, though, it doesn’t sound new and different enough from a lot of other things out there in the same vein to really stand out.
  • Theo Croker, BLK2LIFE || A FUTURE PAST– Theodore Lee Croker is an American jazz trumpeter, composer, producer and vocalist, known for infusing some hip-hop influence into jazz. You can certainly hear that here, and it kept me listening for a while, but ultimately it didn’t gel for me.
  • Tony Seltzer, Hey Tony– I like the kind of lo-fi approach to hip-hop it takes, and there’s a lot of charm to his presentation. It doesn’t quite get enough beyond autotune tricks and sounding the same track to track, though.
  • Various Artists, I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico– The original 1967 album is one of THE epochal albums, due in no small part to how different and distinctive its sound was, and how influential it has been since. These factors present a sharper version of the general covers problem- how do you produce something that’s faithful to the original in some way, but not too influenced by/a carbon copy of the original. And that is where most of these fall down, despite having great original material, talented artists covering them, and solid versions. Certainly worth a listen for fans of the Velvet Underground or the coverers, but it doesn’t clear the hurdle.
  • X Ambassadors, The Beautiful Liar– This is a great example of a certain kind of 2010s/2020s music- a little electronic, a little rocky, definitely informed by hip-hop and electronic dance. There are some fine singles here, it should do very well on radio, and it’s not badly done or un-fun. But it kind of sounds like everything else, and it isn’t ambitious enough in any direction to make a successful album as a whole.

And there we are with the September review. Since I’m about to hit “publish” just before 8 PM on Halloween, we squeak in with getting it out before the end of October. Boldly onward we go!

What Were the Best Albums of the Twenty-Teens? (Part 8 of 10)

We have now barreled our way onward to part eight of our ten-part review of the critic’s choices for the best 52 albums of 2010-2019! (Surely I mean 50 instead of 52. No? No. See below.)

If you missed parts one through seven, you can read them here:

( Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 )

This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. If you like this, go check out the final installment of my overview of the critic’s choices for the 20 best albums of 2020, and my latest monthly review of 2021 new releases as I search for the 21 best albums of 2021.

So, 50 makes more sense as a “top xx” list number than 52, doesn’t it? It does! However, I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff rather than trying to figure out how to jettison two of them.

This series will have 10 posts of 5 albums each (or 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. That established, on with Part 8!

Melodrama (Lorde, 2017, 4 votes)– Lorde’s second album starts with an emotional punch and dynamic multi-layered music. And it doesn’t let up from there, along with generous servings of her lyrical intelligence and strong and honest vocal presence. Her combination of power, seriousness, and ability to produce something interesting and pleasing to listen to is truly impressive.

   

Modern Vampires of the City (Vampire Weekend, 2013, 7 votes)– Long have I heard of this Weekend of Vampires, but little did I know of what they actually sounded like. On top of that, lots of people I know have recommended this album to me, and 7 out of 10 critic’s top of the decade lists seem to agree. It gets off to a Beatlesque and unusual start, which is a nice way to catch one’s attention. From there it’s high energy, catchy, and if a little formulaic, a good execution of a great formula- hooky indie rock, 60s pop, sweetly smooth vocals, lyrical cleverness, just enough noise to catch one’s attention without stopping the pop. If not quite a transcendent album for the ages (like, I’m not sure what it’s doing in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of…ever…, for example), I can at least see why so many folks liked it.

   

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Kanye West, 2010, 7 votes)– Kanye West’s debut album was one of my favorites of the 00s (if not the whole damn century so far), and his next two albums also acquitted themselves admirably. Beyond that, I hadn’t really kept up with his further musical output, beyond knowing it was somewhat more uneven, so I’ve been looking forward to checking this out. It is well worth the checking out! His vocal flow, lyrical prowess, sampling intelligence, and production skill are all in top form here. And it is, as the name would imply, a darkly textured take on himself, his ego, and the fallout of fame. Along the way it goes through so many moods and musical modes, but retains the subject focus, tying the whole thing together. All in all, a powerful album!

Night Time, My Time (Sky Ferreira, 2013, 4 votes)– The debut album from one of the original MySpace musical sensations. It’s a very solid pop album, with a darker rock edge to its vocal and musical texture. And darn catchy too! The whole thing is a little inconsistent, but the inconsistency is between merely solidly good and freaking great. All in all, a good reminder that pop often may not be profound, but it doesn’t have to be dreck.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Lana Del Ray, 2019, 4 votes)Godamn, man child/ You fucked me so good that I almost said, “I love you” is quite a lyrical start! And so sweetly vocally and musically delivered. And that really, it seems to me, is the secret of what she does here. Smoky sultry music, rich warm vocals. She could be delivering the sweetest most torchy album ever. And she is, but with lyrics that dazzle with their intelligence and emotional complexity and bite with their edge. It’s a potent combination, and I am totally signed off on this being one of the best things that came out last decade.

This is where we leave off for now, 80% through. Two more installments to come, and then the wrap-up!

 

What Were the Best Albums of the Twenty-Teens? (Part 7 of 10)

Here begins part seven of our ten-part review of the critic’s choices for the best 52 albums of 2010-2019! (One for each card in the deck! That wasn’t the reason for choosing the number, though. See further below.)

If you missed the earlier installments, you can read them here:

( Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 )

This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. So go check out the final installment of my overview of the critic’s choices for the 20 best albums of 2020, and my latest monthly review of 2021 new releases as I search for the 21 best albums of 2021.

Okay, now that you’ve read all that, why 52? I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff.

This series will have 10 posts of 5 albums each (or 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. And with that, let’s get on with Part 7!

Invasion of Privacy (Cardi B, 2018, 6 votes)– Strong bold vocal flow? Check. Self-empowered swagger? Check. Spare, clean, sampling and production full of interesting choices? Check. Tracks that get your head bobbing, and strike a variety of moods? Check. Songs that are about something and show moments of reflection and vulnerability among the swagger? Check. Sometimes the guest stars get a little distracting, but otherwise this is pure gold.

 

Lemonade (Beyonce, 2016, 7 votes)– Her voice, of course, is never less than amazing. But that’s almost the least of the things going on here. Multilayered production, clever and varied musical choices, deeply personal lyrics that tackle the political and the private (sometimes the very private matter of marital infidelity), with equal parts biting humor, anger, and raw vulnerability. It kind of puts every other pop record of the decade on notice for their lack of ambition.

Lonerism (Tame Impala, 2012, 5 votes)– Some years ago, I was driving through the wilds of western New York with my wife when we heard something on the radio so weird and wonderful that we immediately had to know what it was. It turned out to be Tame Impala’s song “Elephant” from this album. I’ve listed to two later Tame Impala albums in this blog series and my 2020 review, and expected them to be amazing based on that song, but was decidedly underwhelmed. It turns out this is the album I was looking for the whole time after all. It’s a (distorted) pitch-perfect neo-psychedelic masterpiece from start to finish.

Lost In The Dream (The War on Drugs, 2014, 4 votes)– It starts off vocally and musically billowy and  golden, but with maybe too smooth a production. And yep, track two is in the same vein, it reminds me of the 80s, and not in a good way, but in a victory of airtight musical package over authenticity/vitality kind of way. I mean, it’s technically very good, there are some flourishes I enjoy, but I don’t really feel anything the whole way through.

LP1 (FKA Twigs, 2014, 4 votes)– I must confess, I’d heard the name, but I had no idea what kind of twig an FKA twig was. So this was all pleasant surprise- the theatrical vocals, air of vulnerability, music based in dance/pop but full of experimental edge and offbeat surprises. Tahliah Debrett Barnett (FKA Twigs is her musical stage name) is an English singer-songwriter, record producer, dancer, and actress, aka she’s overflowing with talent, and all of it is on display here. It never let go of my attention the whole way through.  

And here we close for now, 35 in and 17 to go…

What Were the Best Albums of the Twenty-Teens? (Part 6 of 10)

We now commence part six of my ten-part review of the critic’s choices for the 52 best albums of 2010-2019- Past the halfway point! (Did I not know Top 50 would be a more typical choice than 52? I did. There is a reason…)

If you need to catch up on the first five installments, you can find them here:

(Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5)

This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. You can, should you so choose, read the final installment of my overview of the critical consensus for the 20 best albums of 2020, and the latest monthly review of 2021 new releases as I search for the best 21 albums of 2021.

So, to return to the open question, can I count to 50? I can! But this is what happened: I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff.

I’m doing 10 posts of 5 albums each (but 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. Now that you know, let’s get on with Part 6!

Emotion (Carly Rae Jepsen, 2015, 5 votes)– The opening track is very poppy and very fun. And so, it appears, is the rest of it. It reminds me of Taylor Swift, though perhaps a little slicker and less substantive than her work from a comparable time. Really pretty good as dance-oriented pop music goes, and it does sound emblematic of the decade. So in that sense, maybe a signal album, but I’m not quite sure about “best”.

Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (Kendrick Lamar, 2012, 5 votes)– This is the album that put Kendrick Lamar on the critical map, and deservedly so. Musically and vocally, it’s full of choices that put it above the crowd of hip-hop albums. If it stopped there, that would be notable enough, but on top of it there’s actually a structured storyline running throughout, and lyrics that feel searingly honest. It’s an album that observes the toughness of what he grew up in, and shines with a desire to rise above it even as it describes the fear of it dragging him back down.

Golden Hour (Kacey Musgraves, 2018, 6 votes)– A textured country album, definitely often leaning on the obvious/pop side lyrically, but the vocals are earnest enough to sell it. Musically, it’s lush, grounded in pop country, but drawing on dance music, electronic, and indie rock. It’s all very good, and the best moments are great, but I don’t know about it adding up to a “decade’s best”- I have a feeling the best country albums are better than this as a whole, and the best pop albums are too. What she’s done here in bringing together both sides of that equation is still worthy of notice though!

Have One On Me (Joanna Newsom, 2010)– The instrumentation and production is so clever, bringing in layers like the late Beatles. Her voice weaves in and out, soars and dips, sometimes sing-song, sometimes wispy, sometimes powerful. Between all these factors, there’s enough variability in a single song to be almost exhausting, but it holds the attention. And lyrically it’s often kind of trippy, creating a surreal idiosyncratic world of its own in the manner, say, of Kate Bush or Tori Amos. That’s the upside, and it’s very significant. On the downside, it’s hard to keep up over the length of a triple album (runtime comes in at about two hours), and it gets more conventional, and often lower energy, as it goes on. It’s hard to ignore the merits, but I’m not sure it totally succeeds as an album.

    

In Colour (Jamie xx, 2015, 6 votes)– British Dj Jamie xx delivers the kind of electronic dance music album that was maybe more common in the 90s and early 00s- strong beats, cleverly deployed samples, vocal snippets, but somehow structured in a way that makes it still work as a song along somewhat recognizable pop/rock lines. As you know if you’ve been following my three series this year, electronica is not generally my bag, but this variety of it, and how skillfully it’s done, absolutely is!

And there we are, 60% in on our review of the 2010s. What will the remaining 40% reveal? Stay tuned!

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: August

We’ve now reached our August review, aka 2/3 of the way through our search for the best 21 albums of 2021!

To recap for newcomers, I’m listening to new releases each month, sorting them into yes/maybe/no, and then I’ll do a final shakedown to get the best 21 after the year ends. If you missed our previous installments, you can find them here:

( January February March April May June July )

This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year. We’re at the halfway point of my ongoing review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and the final installment of my review of the critic’s consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020 is here.

Before we proceed, 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 August, this list was up to 169 albums, so ever survivor for the final 21 will leave 7 dead companions in it’s wake. En garde!

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.

And with that, let’s get on to the 98 new releases I listened to for August!

Billy Childish/Wild Billy Childish & CTMF/CTMF, Where The Wild Purple Iris Grows– English painter, author, poet, photographer, film maker, singer and guitarist delivers blistering punk/garage with hints of rocakbilly, and 80s-style folk-punk. And there’s a stinging blues-drenched Dylan cover to boot! I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of him earlier (he’s been kicking around since the late 70s), because what he’s doing is right up my alley!

Brian Setzer, Gotta Have the Rumble– This album sees Brian Setzer getting back to his rockabilly roots, and damn is he good at it. While totally honoring the source sound, it also isn’t a slavish copy, so somehow sounds contemporary and varied.

Bruiser Wolf, Dope Game Stupid– Vocally and lyrically unusual, surrealistic, smart, and sometimes downright hilarious hip-hop. It deals, as many albums do, with the street life and the drug trade, but sounds nothing like every other album while doing it.  (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

Divine Horsemen, Hot Rise of an Ice Cream Phoenix– That’s a hum-dinger of an album name! Apparently the band is a veteran of the punk/alt country LA scene of the 80s. It’s definitely got that cowpunk sound, but also with interesting touches of metal and psychedelia here and there, poetic lyrics, and an interesting interplay between the male and lead vocalists, a little reminiscent of X. It sounds a little of an era, but it also sounds damn good, and not a single track goes awry.

 

For Those I Love, For Those I Love– This is kind of fascinating, a varied and interesting electronica background, thickly accented spoken word vocals, and sometimes searingly personal lyrics. Irish producer and songwriter David Balfe produced this response to losses throughout his life, including the 2018 suicide of his long-time friend and musical partner Paul Curran, and Dublin’s struggles as well. It’s powerful.  (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

GA-20, Try It… You Might Like It! GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor– GA-20 are a band of blues revivalists from Boston, and are here covering songs by 70s Chicago bluesman Hound Dog Taylor. The sound leans toward the electric, rocking, chaotic side of blues, and I love just about every second of it. This is one of those things that reminds me you how vital the blues can still be.

Geoffrey O’Connor, For as Long as I Can Remember– Like a lost era of Bowie. Like the blue-eyed soul end of synth pop. Vocally and musically cool, smooth, and alluring. A bunch of duets with other Australian musicians, including my new obsession Sarah Mary Chadwick. This is really very fine.

Halsey, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power– Trent Reznor produced, but I’m not sure I would have noticed had I not known. There’s definitely a musical and lyrical edge to what is otherwise pretty solidly a dance music album. But, a really good dance album, and then with that edge to it, better still.

Jake Bugg, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning– I went in to this skeptical, as he seemed way too pretty, so I was fearing some British boy band action. Shame on me, because he brings it! Yes, it’s pop oriented (and hooky as all get out), but in a way that shows traces of the Beatles, flourishes from electronica, some genuine emotional wrestling with darker topics, and other marks of sophistication on top of solid pop chops. Pop will always be with us, so we can certainly hope it will sometimes be this good.

James McMurty, The Horses and the Hounds– This Folk/rock/alt country veteran from the 80s, brings stripped down music, ragged vocals, and lyrics that are so sincere and on-point that they’re almost klunky (but in a charming way). He tells visual stories here in a way that country excels at, and the music is rock-country heartland solid.

Jennifer Hudson, Respect (Originial Motion Picture Soundtrack)– The source material is great (representative of periods throughout Aretha Franklin’s career) and the performances by Jennifer Hudson are strong. The natural objection might be: Why not just listen to an Aretha Franklin career retrospective instead? Well, yes. But the performances are great, and aren’t the kind of overly faithful musical drag that can derail this kind of effort. So if it were an album of Jennifer Hudson covers of a few generations of soul classics, wouldn’t I consider it? Yes I would! 

Justus Proffit, Speedstar– Sunny guitar rhythms and 60s/70s production swirls belie lyrics with darkness and bite. There’s a lot to appreciate here. Also, the cover may give you nightmares, so there’s that.

Liam Kazar, Due North– This debut solo effort by a  midwestern veteran of hip-hop and indie rock bands puts one in mind of the funkier and swingier side of 70s rock/singer-songwriters. It’s pure AM radio gold the whole way through.

Lorde, Solar Power– Wishing the album after one you really like was just like the one before and being dismayed that it’s not is an old, old, album appreciation trap. I’d encourage you to not fall into it in this case. If the Lorde on display here musically and vocally is, at first blush, less incisive and in your face than on Pure Heroine, she is in many ways more subtly disruptive and more surprising here. There are discoveries awaiting on every track, and if they’re not the ones we’re expecting, well, isn’t that how discovery is supposed to go? 

Mae Powell, Both Ways Brighter– Bright melodic music, stripped down almost naïve vocals, charming and intelligent lyrics painting vivid pictures. There is nothing here not to like. The San Francisco references are a nice plus too!

Martha Wainwright, Love Will Be Reborn– Many an artist has done a moving, even heart-rending, post-divorce album, but few find the subject matter so suitable to their native talents. I’ve loved Martha Wainwright since her 2005 debut album, and the reason why is amply on display here. Rich music, yearning vocals, and lyrics that are genuine, bitter, and hopefully vulnerable all at the same time.

Media Jeweler, The Sublime Sculpture of Being Alive– This Los Angeles band has put out an album that feels like the more abrasive and twitchier side of 80s new wave and post-punk. The music is a great fit to the lyrical focus on media and manipulation. You’ll hear some Devo here, some early Oingo Boingo, some late Minutemen. I love ever weird, and weirdly profound, second of it.

Rodeola, Arlene– Between the name of this folk-rock band from Bloomington, Indiana, and the album name, I was hoping for something country-oriented. And it is, but in an unusual, beautifully instrumented lush golden slow pop kind of way. Listening to this is like eating wild honey.  (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

Rosie Tucker, Sucker Supreme– Bubbly pop with a rock guitar edge and sweetly delivered lyrics with bite. Shades of Liz Phair, shades of Juliana Hatfield. These are shades I’m a sucker for!  (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

Sepultura, SepulQuarta– Sepultura is a Brazilian metal band that’s been chugging along since the 80s. This album is mostly in a thrash metal kind of vein, but apropos of someone that’s been around for that while, you will hear traces of all kinds of eras/styles of metal along the way. And it stays dynamic, interesting, and heavy, even at the hour run length. It especially warms my heart to find a solid metal album, so huzzah!

Shannon & The Clams, Year of the Spiders– This is definitely one of those times when I’m almost ready to sign off just based on band name alone. I’m so happy, that on top of that, there’s a swinging retro-mix of 60s girl groups, the minor chords side of 60s pop, and  psychedelia that I really love. And lead-singer Shannon Shaw is a power-house!

Sturgill Simpson, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita– This is the kind of “extended story” country album that you might have found coming out of Outlaw Country in the 70s (as if to prove the point, Willie Nelson appears on a track). It is ridiculously well done, vocally and musically straight up, country music story-telling in top form. It’s hard to believe he’s contemporary since the sound is so classic, but this is his seventh album, and sounding classic is apparently kind of his forte.

 

Thalia Zedek, Perfect Vision– A veteran of several 90s alternative rock groups that never really made it above the underground, Zedek is a power here. You’ll find minor chords, haunted lyrics, stripped down yearning vocals, and music with rock and country overtones. She has a poetic sensibility that reminds me of Patti Smith at times, and musically it reminds one of a certain elegiac vein of grunge as well. And on the tracks that really great rocking it’s thrilling! All-in-all, it really is kind of a perfect vision. 

The Bug, Fire– I mean, you start off with a narration about robots and prisoners, I’m intrigued. This is like, heavy electronica, with a strong dub influence- stomping metallic beats, synthesizer as its own form of percussion, rapid-fire lyrics full of looming apocalypse. Excellent from start to finish.

The Killers, Pressure Machine– I really liked the burned-out but glitzy sleaze rock of the Killers when they first came out, but haven’t followed them closely since. So I was surprised by this-something much more haunted and introspective. It reminds me, of anything, of Springsteen and the “America-obsessed” era of U2. These are tales of small-town desperation, and feel like where the sleazy glitzy lives of their early work end up washed up. Or were trying to escape from in the first place. It’s pretty powerful.

The Umbrellas, The Umbrellas– Great shimmery twee-pop. A hint of 60s, the sunnier side of 80s alt guitar rock, and the trade-off between male and female lead vocals works well for them. I’m not just saying this because they’re a Bay Area band, although I am always pleased to find something great by a Bay Area band!

Ty Segall, Harmonizer– Full of surging guitars, hints of garage, psychedelia, and glam, and idiosyncratic electronic music tricks, these deconstructed songs have melody and just enough grating to keep you on your toes. With all this, and sharp, urgent vocals, and lyrics, this is smart, challenging indie rock! As with Billy Childish earlier above, I feel like somebody should have told me about Ty Segall long before now! 

Wanda Jackson, Encore– What do you do when you’re an 83 year-old rockabilly legend? You write some whole new songs, go into the studio to record them, and get Joan Jett to produce, that’s what! And it is rocking, spirited, and freaking excellent. May we all still be so on top of our craft at that age!

Water From Your Eyes, Structure– The first track is sweet twee fun, it gets more electronic and darkly textured from there. And then, eventually, arrives at a kind of synthesis of them. It gets a tad grating, in the post-rock experimental kind of way, but often melodic and quirkily interesting. I kind of loved it more as time went on. Well done rock duo from Brooklyn! 

Maybe

  • Akai Solo, True Sky– This hip-hop album by a Brooklyn musician has a kind of metallic drive to it, and syncopated musical rhythm. It reminds me, favorably, of the sound of Madvillain. Though lacking a little in vocal dynamism, it’s full of positive affirmation of being, and unusual, interesting mix choices. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Big Jade, Pressure– I was a little flummoxed by this. It was the kind of bragging through cursing out others brand of hip-hop that I usually pass on. On the other hand, the gender inversion of how she does it is interesting, and the vocal stylings are strong and dynamic. There’s also a certain self-awareness in the unpleasantness of the character she puts forward. I can’t dismiss it! (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Bnny, Everything– This was a literal maybe for me, as it kept veering between a “yes” and “probably no”. On the “yes” side, her low-key vocals, minor chords, intensely emotional material and forays into different genres really caught my attention. On the “probably no” side, there were stretches where the whole thing got too muted for too long. But the affecting parts were so affecting, I never gave up on it!
  • Boldy James/The Alchemist, Bo Jackson– Detroit hip-hop artist Boldy Jackson partnering with DJ/Producer The Alchemist, who seems to have partnered with everyone the last year or two. It’s lyrically rich, vocally lively, and musically full. But it is about the drug trade/street life and does fall too easily into misogyny, both in cliched ways, which is bumping it out of “yes”.
  • Chorusing, Half Mirror– A synth base overlaid with a kind of spare, haunted, even melancholy, folk and country soundscape. My reservation is its tendency toward being muted, but this brainchild of North Carolina-based artist Matthew O’Connell is affecting in a way that stays with you.
  • Connie Smith, The Cry of the Heart– Connie Smith is a real-life old time country singer. And that’s what this album sounds like, in the best kind of way. My only hesitation is that it sounds a little dated, but that’s also kind of the point! Heartfelt, and nary a song misfires on the way.
  • Evan Wright, Sound From Out the Window– From the dark and discordant side of psychedelia, mixed with hints of syrupy 70s pop and some modern electronic music production. It’s very low key, which is my reservation, but has rich depths.
  • Indigo de Souza, Any Shape You Take– This sometimes sounds lyrically and vocally young, which makes sense since this North Carolina-based singer-songwriter is 24. But most often, it’s really striking. It comes from a dance/pop direction, but livened by an indie rock approach, with a powerful edge musically and vocally. She’s definitely someone to keep an eye on, and the only reason it’s not an automatic “yes” is the unfortunately autotuned and conventional opening track.
  • Jana Rush, Painful Enlightenment– Chicago based DJ Dana Rush is also, apparently, a chemical engineer and a CAT-scan technician. What she’s made here is somewhere between moaning blues, hot jazz, dub beats, and experimental electronica. At times it was a little too experimental, but it never quite let me go. It’s not like anything else you’ll hear this year, and it demands attention.
  • Laura Stevenson, Laura Stevenson– Emotional yearning vocals and lyrics, loud and then quiet guitar and vocal surges. This sounds for all the world like a 90s songstress. I’m a sucker for 90s songstresses! It does seem a little uneven in pacing, which is perhaps my only reservation.
  • Leslie Winer, When I Hit You, You’ll Feel It– Metallic beats, vaguely sinister spoken and whispered vocals, spare but driving musical backing, interesting sampling, and a poetic lyrical bent focused on issues personal and societal. Winer is a former model and close friend of William S. Burroughs, and has been involved with music off and on since the 80s. I’m not sure how I never heard of her before this, but this is something! Perhaps a tad deliberately discordant for regular listening? But worthy of attention.
  • Nathan Salsburg, Psalms– These are Pslams as in the actual Psalms, as in the Hebrew scriptures. In Hebrew, set to some fine acoustic guitar settings by this Kentucky-based folk musician. All right, you’re going to think I’m crazy, but it kind of works! They were always meant to be set to music after all, and the language barrier here helps weave the sacred spell. It’s from left field, but I have to call it a maybe!
  • Rosali, No Medium– There’s a horse on the cover, so you might think this has a country sound. It does in a way, but in an indie folk/rock vein with a guitar that keeps veering heavier, and sharp clear lyrics and vocals that remind me of Aimee Mann. I like being reminded of Aimee Mann. It tends toward being a little too same track to track toward the end, but is a strong entry regardless.   (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Steve Gunn, Other You– Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter with a rich golden 70s sound- everything here sounds familiar, like that song you almost remember from childhood. The only reason it got docked from “yes” is that the next to last track is an extended slow instrumental, and then it ends on a good, but very low-key vocal number. Deflation right at the end!
  • Toyomansi, No More Sorry– Naming your band after a fish sauce from the Philippines is a good start. Turns out he’s a “musician and culinary artist” based out of Baltimore, and this is a pretty well-produced DJ/hip-hop album. Sometimes the production tips toward too 2000s conventional, but much more often the soundscapes are unique and arresting. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Turnstile, Glow On– Multiracial hardcore band from Baltimore. I like them more when they’re in a metal vein than punk, but they’re solid either way, and the songs have a lot of variability. There are also some surprising pop and classic rock moments mixed in. It leans a little formulaic, which is what’s keeping it from “yes”, but it kept almost winning me over.
  • Wednesday, Twin Plagues– The squeal, the fuzz, the distortion of electric guitar, how I love you. And female vocals make it even better! The sound here is mostly in a My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain vein, with more than a hint of early Sleater-Kinney thrown in, but sometimes it goes in surprising directions- there’s even a  country-tinged ballad. It seems a little unfocused to be an automatic “yes”, but I do like what it’s doing.

No

  • After 7, Unfinished Business– If you like 90s-style light and shiny R&B, this could be for you. Not enough substance for me to think it might be year’s best.
  • Alejandro Escovedo, La Cruzada– He’s been playing since the 70s, and he’s very good. At the end of the day, the production was a little too slick, and the language barrier was too formidable for this to make it to year’s best for me. Which is definitely more my failing than his!
  • Anderson East, Maybe We Never Die– No question, this is well-made, and his combination of country and R&B sounds passionate and smooth. It ended up a little too smooth, a little too “big produced album”-sounding to really stand out.
  • Badge Epoch, Scroll– Veteran of multiple solo personas and member of indie rock groups Max Turnbull self-describes this as “a cosmic hodge-podge of funk, jazz, ambient techno, aggressive guitarmonized rawk, musique concrète, and hip-hop.” He’s right, and it is often very interesting, but I’m just not sure it is 90 minutes worth of non-stop interesting. As a primer of sound possibilities, though, there’s a lot here.
  • Big Red Machine, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?- This is a kind of indie supergroup, or at least a collaboration between memebrs of Bon Iver and The National. They’ve also chock-filled with it guest stars as far flung as Fleet Foxes and Taylor Swift. Maybe this is the inevitable fate of supergroups, but a lot of it ends up sounding kind of blandly 80s. The mix of elements is promising, but it just doesn’t add up to something that can really hold one’s attention.
  • BIG/BRAVE, Vital- I appreciate the shambling feedback-laden rock, and the desperate and intelligent shout of the lead vocalist. Unfortunately, it turns muted to the point of being almost ambient in the middle. Like much of the most interesting and challenging rock of the day, it’s Canadian. I think it could have been a yes without such a long deadzone in the middle. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Bob’s Burgers, The Bob’s Burgers Music Album, Vol. 2- If you’re a Bob’s Burgers fan (and why on Earth would you not be?!?!?!) this is pure delight. But it’s a little off category for “best album of the year”. Listen to it anyway, though!
  • Brian Jackson/Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Adrian Younge, Jazz is Dead 008– I keep hearing things are jazz fusion that then turn out to be less fused than I’m looking for. For jazz fans this might be dandy though.
  • Cerebral Rot, Excretion of Mortality– You want your music to be brutal and heavy? Good! Your songs are all about rot and decay? Even better! But the growling doom vocal style where nothing can actually be understood, well, it detracts from the effect. To properly horrify, one must be heard!  (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Chris Young, Famous Friends– Contemporary pop country doesn’t really go somewhere. But as far as contemporary pop country goes, this is pretty good.
  • Chvrches, Screen Violence– This outing by a Scottish synth-pop revival band started out very promising, but it soon became a little too Katy Perry/Taylor Swift for my taste. I mean, they’re both great in their proper setting, but they are already them, so we don’t really need more.
  • Creeper, American Noir– It’s a nice horror-themed, emo pop goth kind of thing, but it never really gets beyond that.
  • Damon & Naomi/Michio Kurihara, A Sky Record– Well sung, well-instrumented moody synth songs. There’s nothing wrong with them, but it’s a little too all in one low energy range and same song to song.
  • Dan Nicholls, Mattering and Meaning– Atmospheric keyboards with notes of dissonance. It’s too disembodied and abstract to really lay “great album” status on.
  • Deafhaven, Infinite Granite– I mean, I heard “metal band originally from San Francisco”, and I was very intrigued. But they’ve gotten so into symphonic and melodic metal that they seem to have ended up in a kind of 80s synth alt/emo territory. It’s pretty and well done, but never rises above a certain level of energy or interest.
  • Devendra Banhart, Refuge– Devendra Banhart is an indie rock powerhosue with many different modes. But this album’s one- almost ambient instrumental background music- is just not something I can get on board with.
  • Field Works, Maple, Ash, and Oaks: Cedars Instrumentals– I mean, it was an instrumental album by an experimental musician inspired by trees. I knew it was probably going to be a no, but I had to listen. I do like trees!
  • Harold Land, Westward Bound!– This is a kind of jazz I like, more in the hot torrid flow school. But I don’t see it rising up into “best of year” category.
  • Jade Bird, Different Kinds of Light- This English folk/Americana aficionado delivers solid rock/pop energetic, vocally sparking, lyrically rich music here, but, especially toward the end, it dips into too-long stretches of low key tracks that sound the same.
  • Joan Armatrading, Consequences– Her voice is powerful and unique as always, the music is driving, and the lyrics are a glorious celebration of love. But eventually it gets undermined by lyrics that are a little too spot-on, and an 80s production sound that ends up making everything a little too slick. It was a close call, though- she’s a force!
  • Kenny Garrett, Sounds From The Ancestors– I knew this might be too “pure jazz” for my purposes, but I also knew it was in the fusion realm, with nods to African musical forms. It is sometimes really captivating when it does that, but not often enough.
  • Khruangbin, Mordechai Remixes- Remix and re-sequencing of their 2020 album. I listened to the original as part of my 2020 search, and it was a little too mellow world beat jazz fusion for me. I did like these remixes a lot better, but it still didn’t add up to an album that held my attention.
  • Kool & the Gang, Perfect Union- I don’t think it’s possible to have a bad time with Kool & the Gang, and this is a good time, even if there wasn’t a lot that was especially new, different, or above and beyond. Also, this album was completed just before the death of one long-time member, and released shortly after the death of another, so in a way it can be thought of as a memorial. It might not be one of the best things this year, but it’s a very fitting memorial.
  • Kunzite, Visuals– You may have noticed that electronica is a hard sell for me. This was actually on a  really good track though- dynamic, soulful, interesting. But it’s still hard to keep something almost entirely instrumental going for 50+ minutes, and it turned a little too conventional autouned 2000s soul in the middle.
  • Liars, The Apple Drop– My initial vibe from this was kind of post-grunge. It reminded me of how much I love grunge, and what icy contempt I have for post-grunge.
  • Lil Bean, Still Campaignin’– It does have lyrical complexity and positivity going for it, which is great. But ultimately the vocal styling is all too much in one vein, and it’s way too autotuned.
  • Lingua Ignota, Sinner Get Ready– You know the weirder and darker moments of operatic rock? This is that at length. It’s a little too heavy and challenging to get the listenability required for “top album”, but it also doesn’t permit you to turn away, which is something.  If nothing else, you should read-up on multi-media artist and classically trained musician Kristin Hayter, who is Lingua Ignota, and who has a whole lot of interesting stuff going on.
  • Lucinda Chua, Antidotes (1 & 2)- London based singer, composer and producer, combines a 2021 EP with a 2019 EP for a full-length release. Beautiful vocals and subtle, muted instrumental music, but ultimately a little too subdued to really register.
  • Madi Diaz, History of a Feeling- This Connecticut singer-songwriter delivers searingly personal acoustic/folk songs centered on the difficult feelings that come up in relationships. It’s sometimes quite affecting, but the first four tracks are curiously vocally and musically muted given the subject matter. It speeds up after that, and then it’s devastating and arresting. But five tracks in is too late to have that start to click in. 
  • Marisa Anderson/William Tyler, Lost Futures– This instrumental album by two American folk powerhouses is very good, but, well, entirely instrumental. I just don’t see it slaying hundreds of other albums to win a spot in the top 21 for the whole year.
  • Mouse Rat, Awesome Album– Yes, Mouse Rat is Andy’s band from Parks and Rec. Yes, this is a collection of songs from the show, plus a few new tracks added. Yes, it somehow sounds better than most of what you hear on the radio now, even though it’s totally absurd. No, I don’t think it will be a best album of the year. Yes, it is delightful.
  • Nite Jewel, No Sun– It’s pretty, it’s smart and well produced, but it’s way too same track to track.
  • One Republic, Human – Uggghhh. Autontuned, overproduced 2000s pop par excellence. I grant you, it’s very radio friendly, but nothing like an actual human sentiment emerges from it at all.
  • Only Up, Breeze– This is often very interesting, especially when it gets funky, but generally it’s too 80s alt/90s electronic throwback without anything really distinct to it. I see-sawed, but ultimately ended up on “no”.
  • Quickly, Quickly, The Long and Short of It– This Portland based artist/musician is doing some really interesting things on the borderline of hip-hop/electronica/experimental. Ultimately, it gets a little auto-tuned and too similar track to track for me, but there are things here to take note of.
  • Robben Ford, Pure– Instrumental, electric, bluesy outing from American blues, jazz, and rock guitarist Robben Lee Ford. It’s very good, but also as an entirely instrumental piece, and it’s hard to hang a lot on it ultimately as an “album”
  • Scotch Rolex, TEWARI- A Japanese DJ living in Germany puts out an album with a UK label in which he works with avant garde African musicians. The modern world is really pretty amazing sometimes! It’s always interesting, but sometimes too grating/experimental for a consistent album experience.  (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Southern Avenue, Be The Love You Want– Memphis soul and blues band? I mean, generically, yes! In specific, they start off really strong, high-energy and distinctive. By and by, too many songs that sound like each-other and production that’s a little too slick starts to drag it down, but no question this is a fun and talented band.
  • System Olympia, Always on Time– A solid enough electronica/dance outing from London-based artist Francesca Macri, but nothing grabs me to the extent that I think it might be “year’s best” material. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
  • Terence Blanchard, Absence– It’s a pretty fine jazz album, I think. But it doesn’t get enough into the realm of musical forms I’m interested in.
  • The Joy Formidable, Into the Blue– A Welsh alternative rock group, which is a promising enough description. And what they do is very solidly done, but it feels a little too smooth and not vital and real enough along the way.
  • The Steoples, Wide Through the Eyes of No One- An avant-soul collaboration between two Los Angeles musicians, and that’s how it comes off- something obviously based in soul and R&B, but approaching it from a different direction, still smooth while also bristling with experimentation and unusual musical and production choices. It started off with a lot of promise, but ultimately too much of it was in one groove/tone, and the individual tracks started getting lost.
  • Tinashe, 333- The opening track was off-kilter and promising, but from there it settled into the autotuned music/vocals school of R&B. There was more than a sign of sparkle here, but overall it doesn’t get out of that vein enough.
  • Tropical Fuck Storm, Deep States– These are like solid pop-rock songs that have gone out of focus in a fun way- vocals and music tracks slightly out of synch, discordant edges to everything, a certain stuttering quality. Ultimately it proved a little too grating a little too often to be sustainable at album length, but it was interesting!
  • Villagers, Fever Dreams- An Irish alternative rock group, which is a promising enough description. And what they do is very solidly done, but it feels a little too low-key/one-tempo to really stand out and get attention.
  • Walt McClements, A Hole in the Fence– Has a kind of Eno- Lanois U2 sound. Entirely instrumental, pretty and atmospheric, but not enough content to make it to “great” in my opinion. It is pretty impressive for being entirely accordion-based though!
  • William Parker, Mayan Space Station- This was almost the Fusion album that I actually like! Maybe because it was full of guitar distortion early on and sometimes reminded me of Hendrix. Later on it became a little more bubbling Jazz, speaking of which…
  • William Parker, Painter’s Winter– This was too often the kind of bubbling jazz that just fades into the background for me.
  • Wolves in the Throne Room, Primordial Arcana– Black metal band from Olympia, Washington? Count me in! And I mean, that name, come on. And let me tell you, the symphonic layered swell of their wall of sound is really something, but ultimately the totally opaque scream lyrics detracted too much from the process
  • Yann Tiersen, Kerber– French musician and composer. It has a kind of Eno/Lanois feeling to it. Yes I said the same thing about another entry a few items ago. Ultimately it’s too ethereal for me to find anything to grab on to.
  • Young Nudy, Rich Shooter– This is his second album out this year. Like the earlier one, DR. EV4L, there are the makings of a great, or at least a very interesting, album here,  but too much of the rest of it is full of bitch and pussy talk. Alas!
  • Yung Baby Tate, After the Rain– This is fun, and she has a lot of presence and personality, but I’m not sure in total that it rises above other dance/R&B outings this year to “year’s best”. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

And so, with a little under 10 hours remaining, we have finished the August review before the end of September. Onward!

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: July

Okay, look, this is the July review. And yes, it’s September. Perhaps the August review will make it out before the end of the following month? We’ll see. Meanwhile, whatever month it is, our search for the 21 best albums of 2021 continues!

If this is your first time here, I’m listening to new releases each month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final shakedown to get the best 21 after the year ends. If you missed previous months, you can find them here:

( January February March April May June )

This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year. We’re at the halfway point of my ongoing review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and my final installment on my reviews of the 20 best albums of 2020 is here.

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 July, this list is up to 140 albums, so, you know, it’s going to be a brutal reckoning at the end.

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.

And with that, we better get going, because I listened to 95 new releases in July. So there’s a lot to get through!

Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever– Her smoky vocals and sharp emotionally complicated lyrics are in top form here, and the music works well with it, be it low-tempo piano cords, waves of electronic shimmer, or smooth beats. A worthy entry, all the way around.

Chet Faker, Hotel Surrender– This alter ego of Australian musician Nicholas Murphy brings a piece informed by electronica, R&B, and 70s flourishes, with a nice spare power, clean production, and some interesting musical, vocal, and lyrical twists. It’s really good, doesn’t sound like everything else I’ve heard this year, and also threw in a Star Trek reference. So, you know, that’s it for me.

Cookie Kawaii, Vanice– Oh my gosh, I love this! Apparently, she’s a Jersey club DJ who broke out on Tik-tok. There’s a2021 story for you. And here she’s delivering electronic dance/hip-hop that’s pure catchy fun, and is smart and coming from a unique point of view.

Dave, We’re All Alone in This Together– Dave is a British hip-hop artist, who turns out to have fierce and intelligent vocals and lyrics, delivered on a nuanced and subtle musical background. His songs deal with the personal and with social issues, and sound authentic and powerful in each vein.

Jodi, Blue Heron– Stripped-down, plaintive, vaguely melancholy. Offbeat and vulnerable lyrics and vocals, with a lurch that is reflected in the music sometimes too. In all, it’s really affecting despite its low-key tone.

John Glacier, SHILOH: Lost for Words– She (this London-based artist, despite the name, is a woman) delivers a disorienting tapestry of beats, music and vocals, informed by a left field hip hop sound and a strong, personal lyrical narrative. A great, low-key gem.

kolezanka, Place Is– Musically and vocally a swirling incantation, with the sweetness of melody, but the surprise and sometimes bite of musical experimentation. Kolezanka is the debut solo project of Kristina Moore, an Arizona native and current New York City resident who is a veteran of several indie bands. You can tell she’s learned her craft well along the way.

Ledisi, Ledisi Sings Nina– Ledisi is amazing, and the Nina Simone source material is great as well. So we have a solid basis, and from there the vocal performance is top-rate, the lyrics are smartly updated, and the musical delivery is in a swinging jazz style that’s a delight.

Los Lobos, Native Sons– Los Lobos is here paying tribute to their roots with a dozen covers of artists from Los Angeles that have influenced them. Multiple genres and eras from the 40s to the 80s get a  turn, in fitting with the band’s own eclecticism. As both a love letter to LA, and a tribute to their influences, it’s pretty effective. And as a showcase for the band’s 40+ years of craftsmanship it’s smooth and powerful.

Lucinda Williams, Lu’s Jukebox, Vol. 2: Southern Soul – From Memphis to Muscle ShoalsPart of the “jukebox” series of Lucinda Williams covering favorites. The source material for her covers here is great stuff. And she covers it well- her strength in terms of musical approach and sensibility fits it so well.

Mega Bog, Life, and Another– The music is acoustic with hints of jazz, flamenco, brill building pop, brittle noise, unusual vocals (sometimes quirky, sometimes whispery, sometimes discordant) and smart, off-center lyrics. It puts me a bit in mind of Laurie Anderson, Lydia Lunch, and the musically sharper side of Ani DiFranco. overall, the whole thing sits on the fine edge of charming and challenging, and that’s a great fence to straddle.

Molly Burch, Romantic Images– Musically and vocally, this sounds like its title-bright and lush with romance. A lot of the songs here felt familiar, in that “this is that song I used to like!” kind of way. One of the songs specifically pitches the joys of nostalgia too, so I think she knows what she’s doing.

Patrick Paige II, If I Fail Are We Still Cool?– The title of this is so charming I was pulling for it on that basis alone. As it turns out, his flow is smooth, the lyrics are sharp, clear and positive, and the production and sampling is spare and off-center (jazz, video game sounds, synth sound effects all make an appearance) in a way that drives everything along. There’s even a framing motif of an airplane flight that actually works with the theme of striving for personal uplift!

  

Rose City Band, Earth Trip– Country inflected indie with a warm hazy feeling. It reminds me of a certain vein of Neil Young and CSN&Y, but with a contemporary flourish. This turns out not to be an accident as guitarist Ripley Johnson apparently aims for this space in his projects. Just a delightful listen the whole way through.

Sault, Nine– I listened to Sault’s two 2020 releases as part of my review of the critic’s top twenty albums for that year. Darned if they weren’t both excellent, and this is too. Sault is an anonymous British hip-hop collective that mixes influences from electronica, hip-hop, and classic soul in a dizzying and skillful way. The musical side alone would be a treat, but then they have sharp, lucid, and uplifting lyrics and vocals on top of it.

Sonny & The Sunsets, New Day With New Possibilities– It started off sounding like moody and atmospheric acoustic folk with country flourishes, then got weirder and funnier from there. It reminds me of the attention to solid musicianship married with intelligent lyrics and a big sense of humor that Camper Van Beethoven had. Also more than a hint of Jonathan Richman. And it turns out they’re a San Francisco band, so no wonder I like them!

The Go! Team, Get Up Sequences Part I– So fun and energetic- it mixes full on indie rock in a synth/bedroom pop vein, 80s-flavored hip-hop, and what sometimes sounds like high school band practice. This the 441st new album I’ve listened to this year, and nothing else sounded like. And not many were as delightful either!

The Wallflowers, Exit Wounds– So, I’m from the 90s musically, thus I’m going to be interested in the Wallflowers based on lingering love for their 1996 album Bringing Down the Horse. Also, I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, so I’ll always be curious about what Jakob’s up to musically on that basis. The good news for me on both fronts is that, without ever sounding derivative, he does remind of his father, and he continues to have his 90s gift for incisive lyrics, and a way with melody within solid rock structure. This album works, start to finish.

Tones and I, Welcome to the Madhouse– This Australian singer-songwriter delivers dance music as madness. The opening is cheerful and truly unsettling. Subsequent tracks are more conventional but still have a lot of intelligence emotional bite and surprise twists, unusual flourishes to both the music and the lyrics.

TORRES, Thirstier– Hello, is this a guitar wall of sound? With pleasing outbreaks of dynamism? And smart heartfelt lyrics delivered via lackadaisical yet powerful vocals from a frontwoman? I am practically required by law to like this combination. The album even has an ending that feels like an honest-to-goodness ending! TORRES is Mackenzie Ruth Scott, and I approve her message.

 

Wavves, Hideaway– Great lo-fi ringing indie rock from this San Diego band. Callbacks to 50s/60s rock, garage rock, the rockier side of 80s alt. Male and female vocalists trading off too, which you don’t hear nearly often enough. If you’re like me, this may restore your faith in the anarchic appeal of real rock.

Willow, Lately I Feel EVERYTHING– This was much rockier than I was expecting. Mostly rocking from a young Taylor Swiftian kind of direction, but full of attitude and musical verve. And sometimes coming in from metal and even Bikini Kill territory, with R&B and hip-hop dashes along the way. Well done young Willow!

Yola, Stand For Myself– Rich, sparkling, full, R&B. This British soul artist’s voice is a force, and musically this has a modern classic sound from all kinds of Soul/R&B directions. You’re in good hands from start to finish.

Maybe

  • Andy Bell, Another View  -This is not Andy Bell of Erasure, but Andy Bell of shoegaze pioneer Ride. Let me tell you, this makes it difficult to search for. An electronica album by a shoegaze pioneer, well, I thought I was in trouble. But it turns out this is one of the livelier and more interesting electronica rides of the year!
  • Attacca Quartet, Real Life– One source described this as “classical crossover”, and I can see what they mean. A classical quartet goes for a spin that, while instrumentally still classical, has the flavor of rock and electronic dance music. It’s lively, powerful, and feels like it understands the spirit of rock, which I often wish rock still did. Call me crazy, but despite/because of the unusual genre approach, I think it could be a contender!
  • Barenaked Ladies, Detour de Force– They’ve never been less than really fun, and it’s still true here. Some of it feels a little by rote, but other tracks really stand out, and it’s impossible to find anything bad in this album. So I’m not sure it reaches “out of the park, best of the year” status, but maybe?
  • Bleachers, Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night– Headed by very in-demand songwriter Jack Antonoff, Bleachers at times sounds like new wave, at times sounds like Springsteen (no accident, they’re both from New Jersey and Bruce even appears on one of the tracks), and their album is full of songs about yearning for rising above. The only thing that bumped it off of “yes” was the decision to end on two very muted low-key tracks in a row.
  • Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, 662– You know who’s got it going on as a genre? Contemporary blues. This album is muscular, electric, skillfully played. It falls prey a little too much sometimes, maybe, to production slickness, but really it’s pretty excellent. I wish rock would learn this lesson and be unafraid to produce unapologetic genre music.
  • Dusted, III– I kept thinking this was too much in a muted acoustic vein musically and vocally, but the emotional complexity, intelligence, and bite of the lyrics kept winning me back. Well done, Canadian indie rock band! I’m telling you, Canada is where it’s at!
  • Dave McMurray, Grateful Deadification– A jazz fusion great makes an album of Grateful Dead covers. How’s that for an album concept! My 80s alt teen self would have been aghast at two of the great enemies- Jazz and the Dead- being combined, but my more nuanced adult self thinks this take on it often works surprisingly well.
  • G Herbo, 25– There’s some great song structure work here and powerful clear flow, but it does tip into the autotune school of hip-hop on some tracks. Also, the subject matter and personality behind it is often quite interesting and revealing, but it dips into gangster cliches. On the other hand, he also questions these same tropes, and expresses a yearning for rising above it. And as it goes on, this actually increases.
  • Laura Mvula, Pink Noise– Starts off with those nice sharp metallic beats from the 80s, and strong vocals. It has a late-80s soul/R&B feel, also informed by jazz, and the dub/Caribbean influence often found in British soul/R&B(which makes sense since she’s British). I wonder about the dated feel, and it’s a little more produced than I often like things, but it’s such a fun mix, and her strong presence carries it through.
  • Marisa Monte, Portas– I’m not really up on my Afro-Brazilian pop/jazz artists, but she seems like a really good one! On the one hand, it’s not Portugese’s fault, but I don’t understand a word of Portugese. On the other hand, this is so engaging and charming. So maybe we average out at “Maybe”?
  • Prince, Welcome 2 America– This posthumous album is from unreleased 2010 sessions, but darned if they don’t fit 2020/21 weirdly well, which is one sign of his power. It’s lyrically, vocally and musically for the most part subtle but tight, and full of the utopian themes were one of Prince’s classic preoccupations. This isn’t the most innovative thing he’s ever put out, but it is eerily resonant of our moment.
  • Rodney Crowell, Triage– A country music veteran who helped kick start the neo-traditional movement in the 80s. This outing is often very personal and introspective (fueled both by the influence of the pandemic, and a nerve disease he has developed). The only reservation is that the music and lyrics sometimes go for an almost cliche standard, but he always sound sincere, and affecting. Some good covers, and his originals bring to mind Neil Young and Bob Dylan, which is a pretty impressive thing to have one’s originals do.
  • Son Volt, Electro Melodier– When the principals of Uncle Tupelo went their separate ways, the way Jay Farrar went was to Son Volt, where he continued a sound rather like Uncle Tupelo’s. Which is great! The lyrics do tend a little toward the klunky side of topical here and there, in a way that was charming for an 80s underground band and isn’t as much now, but that’s about my only reservation.
  • Taphari, Blind Obedience– A fun dynamic hip-hop outing, full of unusual musical, vocal, and lyrical choices that evoke a kaleidoscope of ideas and images. A little light/not always coherent, perhaps, for annual best. But maybe not!
  • The Flatlanders, Treasure of Love– Founded in 1972, The Flatlanders were a short-lived country rock/outlaw country band, but the individual members went on to long careers harking to traditionalism, which has fueled interest in their reunions over the years. There are a few originals here, mostly covers. This sounds just like you’d expect based on that, which is a sort of a minus- is it too familiar?, but also a strong plus- it sounds timelessly classic.
  • Tom Petty / Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Angel Dream– It’s a bit of a peculiar story. This album features songs from his soundtrack for “She’s The One” in 1993, but it’s not simply that soundtrack- it features some, but not all of the songs from it, and adds four previously unreleased songs from the same period. And it was released by his estate, so it’s official, and in, a way, a new album in its own right. The peculiarity is keeping it from “yes” for me, but it is such an excellent window into one of his most interesting and often overlooked periods.
  • Towa Tei, LP– I do have a generational soft spot in my heart for Deee-Lite, so maybe I’m biased, but this album reminds me of how fun electronic music can be. How it can be clever, knowledgeable of and conversant with musical idioms and what makes a song work, weirdly electronic and futuristic sounding, high energy, and just joyful. It got just bumped out of “yes” by having an out-of-tone with the rest of it dreamy slow number at the end, but otherwise excellent. Thanks Towa!
  • U-Roy, Solid Gold– A fitting send-off for a reggae veteran who is also often credited as one of the inspirations for the development of hip-hop. This album, completed in 2020 and then followed shortly after by the 78 year-old U-Roy’s passing in February of this year, is chock full of well-used guests, and  excellent songs with the particular spiritual-political charge and simultaneous joy of Rastafarian-inspired reggae. If not for two 15-minute versions of the same song in a row at the end, it would have been an automatic “yes”, but even that couldn’t fully defeat it.

No

  • Alasdair Roberts/Volvur, The Old Fabled River– If you say “Scottish folk musician” to me, I’m well-disposed in advance. That being said, it was a little too all in one groove on the mellow side of folky to stand out. 
  • Always You, Bloom Off The Rose– Lost 80s alt album of the intersection of synth and moody pop rock variety? It was very pleasant, but it got a little too into the sameness of its own grove after a while.
  • Amaro Freitas, Sankofa– A Brazilian jazz album is bound to be a little borderline in terms of what I’m looking for, but, no stone left unturned. It was very nice, but in a too low-key, mellow way to really leave much impression.
  • Anika, Change– This British/German musician, journalist and poet delivers electronic/dance music, but with a spare post-punk edge, high intelligence, and a somewhat unsettling lyrical and vocal presence. The best tracks are great, but it’s a little too inconsistent between the ones that really hit and and muted fade-to-background numbers.
  • At The Gates, Nightmare of Being– Swedish death metal band, from the technical/orchestral side of metal, with a fair twist of thrash thrown in. The vocals are in the shouted school of metal vocals, but are clear enough to make out, which isn’t always the case with that school. Ultimately, I don’t know that it’s committing enough to one or the other of its sounds, or doing anything new or especially excellent enough to reach “best”.
  • Blues Traveler, Traveler’s Blues– I like the inversion of the name. This album sees the band doing a variety of blues covers, which plays to their strengths. For a band fan, for a genre fan, it’s a very worthy endeavor but, though it catches fire on some tracks, for the most part it doesn’t rise decisively to the level of year’s best.
  • Born of Osiris, Angel or Alien– Metalcore band from the Chicago area. Technically very proficient, it’s, well, a little shouty vocally, which largely prevents me from approaching it lyrically. The album picks up some of the worst habits of 2000s metal and hardcore, and even works in a little autotune.
  • Cautious Clay, Deadpan Love– A hip-hop album, but one that leans very heavily in an R&B direction. Or vice versa? Makes some unusual choices, which is interesting, and the tone is very positive, but ultimately too all one tone.
  • Charlotte Day Wilson, Alpha– A solid serving of smoky soul from a Canadian R&B singer. It’s well done musically and vocally, but sounds too much the same track to track. As a debut, though, it carries a lot of promise.
  • Clairo, Sling– A kind of hazy 70s feel to it, her cool vocals and warm syrup of the swinging, even sometimes orchestral, music nicely offset each other. The tracks also have a strong individual identity. It was a real contender until it lulled out for a few too many tracks 3/4 of the way through. She’s worth keeping an eye on, though!
  • Darkside, Spiral– A kind of discordant and spare album. Too often trending toward abstract/background.
  • David Crosby, For Free–  David Crosby, of course, never sounds bad. And he doesn’t here either. It does have that “rock veteran makes album in 80s with slick production” feel though. I certainly wouldn’t tell fans of his to stay away from it, but it doesn’t get into “year’s best” territory.
  • Declaime, In the Beginning, Vol. 1– Ah, the Oxnard school of hip-hop! Okay, maybe there’s not such a thing. It’s a solid album, but doesn’t really do anything special to stand out or rise above.
  • Descendents, 9th & Walnut–  This album sounds like it could have been produced at any point in the group’s history from 1977 to now, which is both a strength and weakness. I don’t hear “best of year” here, but it does do what it does very well. And you have to admire punk’s ability to pack 18 songs into 25 minutes.
  • Dot Allison, Heart-Shaped Scars– She got her start in electronic music in the 90s, and this is electronic, but in a strings kind of way, which, with her flowing wisp of a voice, brings to mind Celtic and new age music. Pleasant, but fades into the background.
  • Durand Jones & the Indications, Private Space– I couldn’t decide if this was an early 80’s R&B sound I really liked, or a too-produced muzak/light-jazz 80s soul that I didn’t. Ultimately there was too much of the later for it to make it to yes for me, but enough of the former that it deserves mention.
  • Emma-Jen Thackray, Yellow– Discordant electronica, surging jazz opening, spoken word poetry, then shifts into a jazz-inflected dance music with clever lyrics, but it gets a little too into the jazz easy listening vein after that.
  • Foodman, Yasuragi Land– This electronica album is from Japanese DJ, Producer, and Painter Takahide Higuch. It’s interesting, but a little abstract and a little too all in one tone track to track to really stand out for me.
  • Guardian Singles, Guardian Singles– Rock! Hi-energy, sunny rock! Every time I hear it again, I remember how much I’ve missed it. You know when a song ends and the feedback fuzz is still there? That’s good stuff. Unfortunately, it mushed up into undifferentiated low-key tracks at the end. Alas!
  • Half Waif, Mythopoetics– The spare but powerful production-leans toward electronic/keyboard, plaintive slightly ghostly vocals, darkly textured lyrics. These are the strengths, and they are considerable, but ultimately too much of it just fades into the background of track to track similarity.
  • Horsey, Debonair– For the majority of these tracks, this South London band sounds like a muscular out of control lounge singer, kind of like if “Helter Skleter” Paul McCartney played the sweet diddies of sweet diddy Paul McCartney. And then methed it out a step further. I loved it, until they decided to end with a long low-energy song followed by a meandering “Revolution #9” type style track. Album greatness squashed.
  • Jackson Browne, Downhill From Everywhere– Like the David Crosby album, there really isn’t a version of Jackson Browne that sounds bad. And this doesn’t sound as “80s production” as Crosby’s album, though it does have traces of that. On the whole, it’s energetic and well done, and won’t do any Jackson Browne fan wrong, but doesn’t rise to his/the year’s best.
  • Jam & Lewis, Volume One– This is the debut album of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, but of course their production work loomed so large in soul/R&B in the 80s and 90s that it’s hardly an unknown quantity. And that is maybe part of the problem here- it is, as one might expect, extremely finely produced. It’s also very familiar, and a little plastic feeling. There’s not enough of the dynamic or surprising here.
  • Jeff Lorbe/The Jeff Lorber Fusion , Space-Time– There is, maybe?, a version of jazz fusion that I like. Maybe. This isn’t it, it’s practically muzaky.
  • Jehnny Beth/Bobby Gillespie , Utopian Ashes– Sort of the post-punk version of a country duets album, featuring the front-man of 80s alt stalwarts Primal Scream and the vocalist of 2000s post-punk band Savages. The songs are well done, very fine in fact, but beyond some scattered moments here and there, the whole never really catches fire or raises above.
  • John Mayer, Sob Rock– I like John Mayer, but only in a certain small dosage, so between that and the title, I was a little leery going in. Boy do I stand by that! Vapid lyrics, smooth soulless music, coupled with 80s-style production. Saints preserve us!
  • John McLaughlin, Liberation Time– Based on its clanging electric opening, at first I thought that this might be the fusion album that I turned out to like. Then it started to go down the dark path of bubbly light and easy.
  • King Woman, Celestial Blues– A thick, somewhat doomy, somewhat orchestral sound, with vocals that started out more in the yearning than the screaming category. But then, alas, got more screamy. If you’ve ever been a goth kid, there is good stuff here, but ultimately it’s kind of the same track to track.
  • Koreless, Agor– Extremely minimal, even as minimal electronic albums go.
  • Leon Bridges, Gold-Diggers Sound– Definitely a solid soul/R&B album, but a little too in the autotuned direction, and I never felt like it consistently rose above.
  • Lucrecia Dalt/Aaron Dilloway, Lucy & Aaron– Well, they’re both experimental musicians, and this was very…experimental. Interesting, but a little too deliberately grating to be consistently listenable.
  • Luminol, Midwife– An ethereal swirl of vocals and muted keyboard chords. The lyrical voice is quite interesting and strong, which makes the best tracks very affecting, but it doesn’t happen consistently.
  • Maxine Funke, Séance– A folk-flavored outing from a New Zealand singer-songwriter. The songs are quiet, spare, and arresting. Ultimately too quiet to hold attention in a “year’s best” kind of way, but still very fine.
  • Moin, Moot!– Some moody and menacing electronica, some wailing in the background, some muttered lyrics. At its best, it’s actually pretty compelling, but the best is unfortunately only every other track or so.
  • Nancy Wilson, You And Me– This was a May release that I somehow missed! Over the years, I’ve slowly come to terms with not marrying her, and silently admired her too-often undersung guitar playing from afar. There are some great covers here, and the best items crackle. Then there are a few too many ballads/80s production numbers. Drop 4 tracks, and this might have been a “yes”.
  • Ora The Molecule, Human Safari– This is more accessible than you might think upon hearing that it’s the vehicle of a Norwegian avant-garde artist. It sometimes feels a bit too abstract, and isn’t consistent/coherent enough for album “best”, but there’s some worthy material here!
  • Paul McCartney, McCartney III Imagined– Not quite covers, but rather, a variety of artists doing remixes of Paul McCartney’s well-received album from last year McCartney III. Kind of like the Gray Album in reverse, and with a wider variety of artists working it (Beck, Phoebe Bridgers, and St. Vincent, among others, get in on the action here). It’s really quite fun, and was well on its way to being a “yes” until it ended with a low-energy 11 minute electronica track. There’s just no call for that. Alas!
  • Peyton, PSA– A pretty, pleasant soul/dance album, with some pleasing cursing thrown in, but it never really sparks up.
  • Piroshka, Love Drips and Gathers– The music by this supergroup composed of members of Elastica, Lush, and Modern English is surging and shimmering, and the  vocals have some verve to them. You can certainly hear the roots, and they’re good roots. It was really winning me over until it delfated at the end by having multiple slow/abstracts tracks in a row.
  • Rey Sapienz & The Congo Techno Ensemble, Na Zala Zala– This was very interesting, with unusual beats, and at times almost grating. I do like African music, but this was too opaque between the grating quality and foreign language. It is certainly unusual though, and doesn’t sound like everything else.
  • Rodrigo Amarante, Drama– Brazilian Singer-Songwriter, ultimately a little too world/jazz and in Portugese for me.
  • Royal Canoe, Sidelining– I definitely feel like Royal Canoe is an appropriate name for a Canadian band. They don’t sound as canoey as you might expect, more like an electronic-informed indie rock, with lurches into and out of guitar rock and dance/disco mode. It didn’t quite come together consistently enough for me in terms of track by track quality and coherence to reach “best”, but it is fun and often interesting.
  • Sennen, Widows (Expanded Version)– This re-masters the band’s original 7-song album from 2005 and adds 7 unreleased songs from that same era. It’s all a little too slow and fuzzy for me, without enough musical or lyrical hook to keep it moving from track to track.
  • Snapped Ankles, Forest of Your Problems– A real solid post-punk outing, it would feel very at home on College Radio in the 80s. It was a borderline call, and it really is well done, but it feels so much like an archive item.
  • Stimulator Jones, Low Budget Environments Striving for Perfection– The artist name and album name are both pretty great, though one shouldn’t judge by that. What it turns out to be is hip-hop flavored electronic music. It’s nice background music, and interesting, but too low-key/low-content to really stand out.
  • Surf Gang, Surf Gang Vol. 1– The opening is less surf music than you might think, and much more psychedelisized hip-hop. After that it’s uneven- some very fun and unusual mixes, some autotuned dreck.
  • Tangents, Timeslips & Chimeras– An expansion (like, really, more than doubling) of a 2020 release by an Australian band. This particular mix of all-instrumental deconstrcuted jazz and electronic is certainly interesting, but never really gets over the top in terms of being compelling.
  • The Orange Peels, Celebrate the Moments of Your Life– This band originated in the Bay Area during the indie rock outburst of the 90s, and they’re still very good at what they do! They’re here with a double album, thick with melody, pop sensibility, and rock that recalls the 80s underground, the 90s, and a sunny dreamy side of the 70s all at once. The best material here is really great, but the double album sometime meanders and bogs down, which keeps it from coming together. More streamlined and they could have been a contender!
  • Trees Speak, PostHuman– This instrumental album from an Arizona duo would have sounded very at home in a new wave or industrial dance club in the 80s. It does what it does well, but I don’t know that it does it “best of year” well.
  • Twin Shadow, Twin Shadow–  Poppy-rocky, and fun, outing from this  Dominican-American singer-songwriter. Some 90s soul/80s alt feeling, a little dash of ska. It’s all very fine, but doesn’t feel to me like it consistently rises above and beyond to “year best” territory.
  • Various Artists, Bills & Aches & Blues– A variety of artists cover songs from throughout 4AD’s catalogue in honor of their 40th anniversary. It seems like a promising setup, I mean I was practically raised by 4AD. And some of the covers are truly grand. Then some of them kind of fizzle out, or are of material that is itself very low-key. So it ends up being a little uneven.
  • Various Artists, Changui: The Sound of Guantanamo– A box set documenting contemporary rural Cuban practitioners of the changui style of Cuban music (influenced by Spanish and African musical traditions and instruments, and an ancestor of salsa) compiled in support of a documentary. There are 51 songs, with a four hour run time. Given this sprawling range, it’s difficult for it to work as a coherent album, though this definitely can happen for something similar in more compact form (cf. Buena Vista Social Club). A fun window into a fascinating style, though.
  • Vince Staples, Vince Staples– This hip-hop album is a little autontuned, a little one-tone musically and vocally. It’s a shame because the content is actually pretty good!
  • YN Jay, Coochie Chronicles– The name might give you certain expectations. While it sometimes rises above, the content largely bears out these expectations. It could possibly get away with it with very clever or unusual flow or off-beat musical choices, but it doesn’t do either often enough.

And there we are, finished with July! Before the first half of September. So I guess that’s something? Now, I better hop on over to working on August now so we can catch up!

What Were the Best Albums of the Twenty-Teens? (Part 5 of 10)

Here we are with part five of my ten-part review of critic’s choices for the 52 best albums of 2010-2019! Halfway there! (52’s a weird number isn’t it? See below for the reason why…)

If by chance you missed the earlier editions, you can find them here:

(Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4)

This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. So go check out the final installment of my overview of the critical consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020, and my latest monthly review of 2021 new releases en route to finding the best 21 albums of 2021.

So. 52. It’s like this: I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff.

I’m doing 10 posts of 5 albums each (or 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. With that explained, let’s get on with Part 5!

DAMN. (Kendrick Lamar, 2017, 5 votes)– From the first this made musical and lyrical choices that show something special is going on here. The dense weaving of storytelling, the unusual vocal mixing choices, the strategic deployment of music samples to set a mood, it all works. His 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was a heck of a thing to have to live up to. Darned if this doesn’t do it!

Days Are Gone (Haim, 2013, 5 votes)– For my 2020 list I’d listened to their album Women in Music, and quite liked it. This feels like it leans even more poppy than that, but retains what I really liked about that album- a nearly perfect pop sensibility but some power and substance behind it. This does register as lighter than their later album, though. Is this the earlier album’s fault? No, and yet they must reverse-chronologically suffer for my knowledge!

Daytona (Pusha T, 2018, 4 votes)– It’s got energy and swagger, all right, and the wordplay is top notch. The music mix and sampling is crisp and sharp. The lyrics have some weight and meaning too. A little derivative (you’ll hear lots of influence of Jay-Z and Kanye West here- who produced it) but all in all, this is a very worthy effort.

Dirty Computer (Janelle Monae, 2018, 5 votes)– If you make a sexy, smooth R&B/dance album, I’m on your side. If you make an album with political/social import that doesn’t get polemical, I’m on your side. If you make an album full of smart, unusual lyrical, vocal, and musical choices, I’m on your side. If you make an album with sci-fi/tech themes, I’m on your side. If you do all of these together, you are Janelle Monae, and I’m over the moon.

DS2 (Future, 2015, 4 votes)– Early on I’m thinking this is a little more autotuned than I like, but the lyrical content is interesting at times, and there’s a pleasing air of menace in the music. However, there seems to be a lot more “bitch” and “pussy” here than I like. On balance, it’s a “no” for me.

And there we are with Part Five. 25 down, 27 to go. Five more posts. We can do it!

The 20 Best Albums of 2020? Elimination Deathmatch Overdrive Edition!

Once upon a time, we set out in search of the 20 best albums of 2020.

In pursuit of this goal, 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 were consulted. For every album one or more of these sources listed, votes that the album got between all of them were tallied up, resulting in the highest scoring twenty albums. Reviews of these were broken up into four blocks of five each:

(Part I Part II Part III Part IV)

Then, there was a wrap-up. But it turned out that only twelve of the critic’s choices made my “yes” list. So I figured I was due another eight albums. It was time for an Elimination Deathmatch!

The “how” was fairly easy. The top 20 albums had all gotten six votes or more from the combined lists. So I bumped it down a bracket and listened to the fifteen albums that had gotten five votes total. This netted me seven more “yeses”. I still needed one more, so then I listened to the eleven albums in the four votes bracket. Which got me another five “yesses”. Whoops!

We’ll deal with that at the end, but first let’s review what I found…

Sometimes the critics and I were not on the same page:

  • Good News (Megan Thee Stallion)– I’d heard of this stallion named Megan for a few years, but didn’t really know much about her. Turns out she’s a hip-hop artist! The thing is, the same things I generally don’t care for when I run across them in male-led hip-hop- pussy obsession, “bitch” left and right, and all bragging at the expense of substance, are what’s on display here. The gender inversion of it is something, perhaps even something worthy, but it isn’t for me.
  • Lianne La Havas (Lianne La Havas)– Gorgeous, heartfelt vocals that work well with the sparkling jazz/soul sound and emotional lyrics. While it is consistently well-done, it’s all too mellow and one tone for me to truly stand out as a year’s “best”.
  • Map of the Soul: 7 (BTS)– Hey, it’s a K-pop group! I guess it was inevitable we would run across a K-pop group eventually if we kept going. It’s actually really good, and seems to be doing some interesting thematic stuff as well, but, well, it’s mostly in Korean. For someone like me who’s big on lyrics, that makes it a little challenging.
  • Mordechai (Khruangbin)– This is undoubtedly musically skillful and well produced. But this kind of “jazz-fusion world music in a mellow vibe” has never been my cup of tea. It would be a great album for someone who’s cup of tea that is, though!
  • SOURCE (Nubya Garcia)– I mean, yeah, it’s a fine mellow jazz album. Except when it goes crazy with instrumentation and notes. It’s not bad, in fact I think it’s probably pretty good, but it doesn’t rank above any twenty other good albums from the year for me.
  • The Slow Rush (Tame Impala)– I keep trying to like Tame Impala, and I keep failing. I listened to Currents for my 2010 blog series, and had the same reaction I’m having here. I think what gets me is that there is really interesting psychedelia-flavored material, and nuanced lyrics. But the vocals are so low key and the musical approach is sometimes so “fade to background” that it all just kind of blends together. I do still have Lonerism to go for that other list, so we’ll see…  
  • Ultra Mono (IDLES)– The literally rocking start had my head bopping from the first second. The music doesn’t disappoint, the lyrics are interesting and worthy, but I am wondering about the shouted monotone vocals. Did they learn this from Sleaford Mods? It got to be too much for me after three or four tracks, which is a shame, because there’s a lot else here that’s going really well.
  • What’s Your Pleasure? (Jessie Ware)– There’s a nice steady cosmopolitan groove on the opening track. Unfortunately the second track followed suit, which slowed things down until we got to the more dynamic third and fourth tracks. And so on back and forth throughout. There’s plenty of really great songs here, I just never got the feeling it added up to an album.

In other cases, I could certainly see some of what the critics were talking about, but wasn’t sure it added up to year’s best for one reason or another:

  • Alfredo (Freddie Gibbs & the Alchemist)– For my 2021 list I’d listened to an album that the Alchemist co-produced and really liked it, so I was well disposed in advance here. That faith was justified. The production is sterling, musical samples are rich and evocative, and the vocal styling and lyrics are high impact. There’s also a narrative through-line here, which really helps an album come together. There’s a little much misogyny and glorification of violence for my taste, so it’s a very strong maybe instead of an automatic yes, but still pretty darn worthy.
  • Chromatica (Lady Gaga)– I mean, it’s not like I thought Lady Gaga was going to put out something bad. And for that very reason, I maybe have a steeper grading curve for her than I might for a relative newcomer. I’m measuring her against The Fame/The Fame Monster, which is a heck of a thing to do to someone. There is certainly material here that is that good, and there isn’t anything here that’s bad, but I never quite got the feeling it organically comes together as an album.
  • Fake It Flowers (Beabadoobee)– A pretty and lively indie rock album with a pop flavor and emotionally sophisticated lyrics from a Filipino-British singer-songwriter. I enjoyed it, especially on its rockier side, and it’s definitely not bad considering she was only 20 when it came out, and 19 when a lot of it was recorded. I can readily believe it might have been one of the better albums of the year, though I wouldn’t be surprised to find some others that come before it to round out my top 20.
  • Inner Song (Kelly Lee Owens)– She, apparently, is a Welsh electronic musician. I did love her drifting ghostly vocals, and they fit well with the pulsing music in the background. The music is also affecting in its simplicity. It’s at its best, best of the year material even, when her vocals and lyrics are there, which they are about half the time, but it fades into the background on the purely instrumental tracks.    
  • Ohms (Deftones)– Metal! Alternative metal. Arty intellectual metal. There’s even a song titled “The Spell of Mathematics”. I’m incapable of NOT loving this. That being said, while I like the content a lot, I’m not getting the feeling it totally comes together as an album. At least not in a top 20 “best of year” kind of way. That’s a pretty high bar, though, there’s no shame in not hitting it!
  • Ungodly Hour (Chloe x Halle)– A solid album from an R&B duo made up of two sisters. It was smart, energetic, and really fun, and not a track went awry. Kind of like the preceding, I could definitely see that it could well have been one of the year’s better albums, but I didn’t get that “home run” feeling that would tell me I’m not going to hear anything else that bumps it off.

And then there are twelve albums that I can entirely believe could be among the best of the year:

A Hero’s Death (Fontaines D.C.)– There are certain phrases that are guaranteed to positively pre-dispose me, and “Dublin-based post-punk revival band” is certainly one. Following up on that promise, this album is musically spare, vocally haunting, and lyrically slightly glowering in ways that favorably bring, say, Joy Division, Gang of Four, and Magazine, to mind. In theory, this could get a little too bleary and “one tone”, but what’s going on here has enough dynamism and power that it carried me the whole way through. It’s a yes for me!

A Written Testimony (Jay Electronica)– The album by Jay Electronica, one of the artists on Jay-Z’s Roc Nation record label, has everything you might expect based on that- sterling production, interesting musical sampling, sure grooves and strong beats, and guest appearances by Jay-Z. Jay Electronica brings to this mix personal material, social commentary, a kaleidoscope of cultural references, and spirituality via his faith in the Nation of Islam. That last can, of course, come with issues, but here it’s the empowerment part of that message that contributes positively to the whole. I can see how this got on so many lists.

Every Bad (Porridge Radio)– The darkly rocking, melodic, and emotional lyrics immediately started winning me over. Throughout, the songs by frontwoman Dana Margolin have a bitter, ragged, and even genuinely desperate edge at times, but without abandoning melody. Sometimes the lyrical repetition in songs bugged me, but ultimately it has a surging hypnotic payoff. A yes for me!

Good Souls Better Angels (Lucinda Williams)– Lucinda Williams made one of the hidden jewels of the 80s (Lucinda Williams), did one of my favorite albums from the 90s (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road), and is one of the primary exhibits of my thesis that some of the best music of the 00s was country music, even though you won’t hear it on country radio. She’s in great form here. The musical side of it is muscular and electric, leaning toward blues and rock. The subject matter is darkly textured, and her voice gloriously ragged as she closes in on 70. This is a great example of an artist getting more powerful as they age.

grae (Moses Sumney)– The classic soul feeling on the first track wowed me (think Motown, Sam Cooke, etc.). In other places you’ll hear 80s slow jams, electronica, indie folk, and more than a trace lyrically and vocally of Prince. There are really unusual and striking musical production choices as well, high level social commentary, internal psychological exploration, and also interesting gender role material. Honestly, it’s kind of a sprawling mess, but there isn’t a track here that isn’t interesting and complex, and it got there through towering artistic ambition. I have a definite soft spot for ambitious messes over smooth and polished blahs, so this is going on my list.

Heaven To a Tortured Mind (Yves Tumor)– As soon as I saw the description “experimental electronic artist” I suspected this wouldn’t be a top choice for me. So it’s a measure of how good it is that it overcame that not just to a “it’s actually okay” level, but all the way to “it’s great!”. The songs are a wild kaleidoscope of styles. They don’t all sound the same, and work as individual songs lyrically and in terms of song structure while still being loaded with surprising and disruptive choices. It’s almost a kind of punk approach to electronica.

how i’m feeling now (Charli XCX)– Dance music from an English singer/songwriter, well mixed, with some noisy rock edges. It’s really clever and fun too, and surprisingly emotionally vulnerable as well. So much fun I didn’t even mind the autotuned touches.

Miss Anthropocene (Grimes)– Ethereal dance music? Weird indie neo-psychedelia? Arty heavy concept-heavy prog rock? Yes, all of that plus an acoustic number and some cosmic DC Comics references. It’s like the soundtrack for the international online gaming community, which is to say there couldn’t be a more 2020 kind of sound. And what it lacks in coherence it more than makes up for with eclectic excellence.

Suddenly (Caribou)– If nothing else, props for naming your 10th album “Suddenly” (Caribou is the vehicle of Canadian musician/Math PhD Daniel Snaith, and is the tenth he’s released under various recording names). This is an electronic album that, in its mix of styles and verve, reminds me of the 90s heyday of this kind of music. The beats are lively, the arrangements and sampling from other sources is dynamic, and the lyrics are interesting. Even if the original vocals tend a little toward the low-key (it’s the most 2000s indie thing about it), in this mix of things it works.

That’s How Rumors Get Started (Margo Price)– When he heard I was doing this project, my friend Stuart, a confirmed audiophile who’s musical opinions I have a lot of respect for, enthusiastically mentioned this album. He was not wrong! This is musically and vocally lush but a legitimate country feeling still comes through. As well as a great variety of song styles. She’s a solid song-writer, knows how to work her chord changes, and there’s some great classic rock, 90s rock, and gospel influence scattered around too. If the lyrics do sometimes go a little for cliché, she never seems insincere and her charm totally carries it through.

Untitled (Black is) (Sault)– An anonymous British neo-soul collective? Well-sure! And what they deliver here is an electronica/house DJ sound informed by 70s soul, 90s R&B, African music, funk, gospel, and spoken word. All of it marshaled in support of Black identity and liberation. Musically delightful, meaningful, and full of heart the whole way through.

Untitled (Rise) (Sault)– This was released a few months after Untitled (Black is). It takes a similarly eclectic musical approach to that earlier album but, as the name implies, this is a more buoyant outing. Along the way, it loses none of the heart of the previous album, but is deliberately sunny, and the spoken word here is lighter on identity and power (though still has generous servings of those topics in places) and instead focuses on celebration. Accordingly, the music has more disco and smooth R&B grooves too! So, a different feeling from the previous outing, but just as delightful.  

So there we are, the good, the bad, and the excellent of the Elimination Deathmatch Overdrive. If you’ve been following along at home with your calculator, you know that we went in to this with twelve albums from the critic’s top twenty that I thought were indeed “best of the year” material. I then listened to another 26 albums in search of something to round out a twenty for me, and accidentally overshot and got another twelve. 12+12=24, and 24>20. What to do?

I made the following four cuts, with all due brutality:

  • Sault has two albums on the list, and of the two I like Rise better than Black Is. It’s musically stronger, without losing any of the import.
  • I did have a hint of hesitation about Jay Electronica’s album, and there are several other excellent hip-hop choices, so out he goes.
  • The Fontaines D album was solid, but not something new or original, musically.
  • Similarly, the Lucinda Williams album wasn’t up to her strongest work (as opposed to say, the Springsteen and Dylan albums) and didn’t bring something new or challenging to the mix. (Please don’t tell her I said this!)

These are all kind of along the lines “what really great thing is slightly less great than these other great things?” But choices must be made! Here, then, are my picks from the critic’s picks for the twenty best albums of 2020:

  1. Every Bad (Porridge Radio)
  2. Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Fiona Apple)
  3. folklore (Taylor Swift)
  4. Future Nostalgia (Dua Lipa)
  5. grae (Moses Sumney)
  6. Heaven To a Tortured Mind (Yves Tumor)
  7. Heavy Light (U.S. Girls)
  8. how i’m feeling now (Charli XCX)
  9. Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen)
  10. Live Forever (Bartees Strange)
  11. Miss Anthropocene (Grimes)
  12. Reunions (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit)
  13. Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan)
  14. RTJ4 (Run the Jewels)
  15. Saint Cloud (Waxahatchee)
  16. Sawayama (Rina Sawayama)
  17. Suddenly (Caribou)
  18. That’s How Rumors Get Started (Margo Price)
  19. Untitled (Rise) (Sault)
  20. Women in Music pt. III (HAIM)

And so our review of the 20 best albums (?) of 2020 has drawn to a close. Fear not though, friends! We found some great music along the way, and we’re still reviewing the 2010s, and searching for the 21 best albums of 2021. More to come!