Once upon a time, in an effort to catch up on new music after a hectic few years, I went in search of the 20 best albums of 2020.
In pursuit of this goal, I took year-end “best album” lists from All Music Guide, AV Club, Billboard, Consequence of Sound, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, Mojo, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Spin. For every album one or more of these sources listed, I tallied up the votes that album got between all of them, and took the highest scoring twenty albums. I broke up the reviews into four blocks of five each. You can find them here:
So, having listened to all 20 of the critics top choices, what have I concluded?
There were a few albums where the critics and I just couldn’t agree:
Eternal Atake (Lil Uzi Vert)–I like hip-hop. A lot! But there’s a kind of “autotune” school of recent hip-hop that I’m not super-keen on. On top of that, the first half of the album is thick with misogyny, apparently unironic/uncritical. There just aren’t that many moments that get beyond that until halfway through.
It Is What It Is (Thundercat)– I mean, if you call your band Thundercat, you’re already halfway there with me. This mellow jazz fusion sound was well done, but I couldn’t find a heart of anything that felt real or vital in most of it.
Punisher (Phoebe Bridgers)– Well done indie pop rock, with sophisticated emotional lyrics, and clear production. It tends mostly to a muted tempo and musical pallet, which is a shame, since the few more up-tempo moments are super-fun.
Then there were also several albums which, while I found a lot to like, didn’t quite add up to “year’s best” for me:
color theory(Soccer Mommy)– Solid pop-rock structure, beautiful clear vocals, introspective lyrics, the songs proceed along very pleasantly in a way that’s hard to find any fault with. It’s not transcendent, but she was only 22 when she made this album. We could do a lot worse, and there is huge promise for the future here.
Petals for Armor (Hayley Williams)–This solo venture by Paramore’s lead singer features electronic beats, strong clear vocals, and dark lyrics. I’m not sure about this as a “best”, but it was a consistently interesting high energy listen.
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (Perfume Genius)-It was a slow start, but I really liked many of the later more up-tempo tracks, and I do appreciate the lush same-sex romanticism found throughout. Overall, I’d say this is not consistent/well-structured enough to be a “best” album, but there’s certainly a lot that’s worthy here.
Shore (Fleet Foxes)– At this point, hearing the phrase “indie folk” tends to fill me with preemptive dread. This pleasantly surprised me, though! The music has a lot of dynamism, and the tracks have an independent identity, two things that often seem to get sacrificed to the sameness of indie folk approaches.
YHLQMDLG (Bad Bunny)– I mean, this seemed like it was very good, but it’s also entirely in Spanish, which prevents me from connecting with it lyrically. I will say it’s fun, interesting, and well-produced. Although it does have more than none of the autotuned style that is the order of the day, and I’m not sure it needed to be over an hour long- generically, it takes something pretty special for me to sign off on an album doing that. Though, given the language aspect, there may be some structure or narrative line that justified it here, but isn’t understandable by me.
Which leaves the following albums that I can heartily endorse as quite possibly being among the best albums of the year:
Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Fiona Apple)– I expected this to be excellent, because it’s Fiona Apple. So the lyrical and vocal power wasn’t a surprise. What I was surprised by was the musical side of it- there’s a dizzying mix of flourishes from classical and musicals, sound samples (I recommend having a dog around when you play it for extra fun reactions), pop beats, the use of the piano as practically a percussion instrument. There’s enough variability in the first track alone to be a virtuoso performance. The tracks each sound different, but fit together, and that is THE trick to pulling off an album. There is a much more conventional (to her approach) version of this album that could have been produced, and it would in many ways be an easier/smoother listen. But it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting and arresting.
folklore (Taylor Swift)– The title had me thinking this album might be somehow folky. It isn’t! What it is, is a fine showcase for Taylor Swift’s continued evolution as a songwriter. Musically, it explores a slower, more darkly textured side of pop than her previous outings. And lyrically, as she herself admits, on earlier albums she often wrote based on imagined feelings and life situations. That began to shift with 1989, a solid pop album that came more from direct experience. Not always profound experience, but real. Here, she sounds like what she actually is, someone hitting their 30s, and reflecting on youthful follies with a combination of wisdom and wistfulness. AKA, it’s kind of a review of the folklore of a life. Sometimes the songs are personal, sometimes they’re the kind of character storytelling you often find in country songs (she did start out in Nashville, after all). She’s always been a mechanically solid song-writer, and here there’s some real substance to back that up.
Future Nostalgia(Dua Lipa)– In the opening track she says, “You know you like this beat” and darned if she isn’t right! Dance music has its place, and this is great dance music! The beats work, the lyrics and vocals are sultry, and it’s full of dynamic shifts and attitude. It just feels good to listen to this. I don’t often groove in the club these days (okay, I never often grooved in the club), but I do groove while writing blog posts in bed. And this is perfect for that!
Heavy Light (U.S. Girls)– This album has solid 2000s beats with nice overtones of 70s music in several guises- 70s Soul, Patti Smith, AM radio. She (U.S. Girls is the vehicle of producer/musician Meghan Remy) has such a great pop sensibility, but it’s laced throughout with lyrical subversion. And livened by some surprising musical choices and vocal varieties on particular tracks. Crucially, these surprising moments still fit with the overall album. This grew on me track by track.
Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen)– I’m a big Springsteen fan, but with a particular valence. I have a marked preference for the “dark” Springsteen of every other album (or so), when a certain pessimism and airing of fears and doubts boils to the surface. Thus, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and Magic, for instance. This album is definitely in that vein, which is not to say there aren’t surging anthemic moments (especially since the E Street Band is backing him here). But there’s a central preoccupation with aging, loss, and ghosts of memory, and Springsteen is in fine lyrical form wrestling with these themes.
Live Forever(Bartees Strange)– The muted musical background, swirling sound effects, and sweetly rough off-kilter vocals of the opening wove a spell. While beautiful, it would have been bad news if it all stayed in that low-key vein, but the next track went immediately up-tempo and rock-y and became almost a hardcore song by the end. The next one was like a beat-oriented indie rock song, the next after that in a neo-soul/hip-hop flavored vein. And so on, through a dizzying array of musical modes. All of this, tied together by a strong and surprisingly vulnerable lyrical voice throughout, makes for a very interesting listen. I well understand what it’s doing in the top 20!
Reunions (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit)– The first track kicks into gear right away, with soulful yearning vocals and lyrics, and moody acoustic background instrumentation. As you might expect from a former Drive-by Trucker, the songs freely mix acoustic, electric, country, and rock, but they all keep hitting with the same level of power, solid song structure, and a haunting melancholy feel. You’ll hear hints here of Dylan, Neil Young, and Jackson Browne, but nothing that rings inauthentic or derivative. Really a mighty fine album.
Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan)– Full disclosure: Bob Dylan is in my all-time top five favorite musical artists. I appreciate almost everything he does on some level. That being said, I don’t have blinders on to the fact that, once you get past the mid-70s, not every album is necessarily a …timeless masterpiece. So hopefully I have some credibility when I say that this album deserves to take a place with the trio of widely revered “later-day” Dylan albums- Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times. The first song here is like an elegy to himself, and the last is an elegy to the entire era since his debut in the early 60s. That same mood pervades in between, and things are in top lyrical and musical form- thick with allusions and references, and stripped-down and effective use of different blues idioms. If not a timeless masterpiece, at the very least an excellent outing from an old master.
RTJ4 (Run the Jewels)– I was more familiar with Run the Jewels co-lead Killer Mike’s politics than his music, though based on his politics I had certain expectations of what his music might be like. These were not disappointed. I was hooked from the initial burst of metallic beats and high-impact lyrics, both demanding respect. The whole album is so dynamic and clever, and political without being polemical, which is always the big challenge. This brought me back to a feeling I haven’t had since the heyday of Public Enemy. Which is good, because now more than ever we need to party for our right to fight!
Saint Cloud (Waxahatchee)– The music is solid in a country-inflected indie rock with multi-instrument production flourishes kind of way, but what really moves it above and beyond is her voice. (Waxahatchee is a band fronted by Alabama-raised singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield.) Because of her voice, both vocally and lyrically, everything here sounds earnest and authentic despite/on top of the production gloss. This kind of reminds me of the space Edie Brickell used to occupy. And I loved the space Edie Brickell used to occupy!
Sawayama (Rina Sawayama)– Complex and well produced dance music is the impression from the first track. With energy, and lively musical (rock! Hip hop! ballads!) and vocal choices. This has both fiery attitude and vulnerable emotion, and picks up on some social and personal issues. The storytelling on some tracks is almost poetically visual, and things have that sophisticated international feel you often find on European dance music. I can definitely get behind the critics on this one!
Women in Music pt. III (HAIM)– It’s a great start, smooth beats, multi-instrument pop and clever lyrics with clear, lucid vocals. After several songs that go through a kaleidoscope of musical styles, I realize that this, and I hope they will forgive me for saying so, reminds me of a Wilson Phillips with more musical sophistication and indie attitude. I actually think that’s the key to this for me- it’s a thoroughly pop sensibility and production, but one with a rawness and power behind it musically and lyrically. It’s high quality and a fun listen, and I can well imagine it being one of the best albums of the year.
And there we are, all 20 reviewed! If you are a mathematical genius, you may notice that my “yes” list only includes twelve albums, and that 12<20. Which brings us to the special announcement alluded to last time…
I figure I am still owed eight albums, in order to get to 20. Accordingly, there will be one more post in which I review further down the critic’s choices in order to round out my list. That’s right, WE’RE GOING TO ELIMINATION DEATH MATCH!
Hey, we made it a third of the way through this madcap quest!
As part of my search for the 21 best albums of 2021, I’m listening to new releases every month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final reckoning after the year ends. If you missed the previous editions, you can find them here:
This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year, you should also check out the latest from my review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s and 2020.
But you’re here to hear about the 92 (!) new albums I listened to in April. Before we continue with that, a quick note about the three categories:
Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. This is no guarantee! In fact, at current pace, we will likely end up with more than 200 possibilities by the end of the year, so every album that makes it to the top 21 will be standing on a mound of the corpses of its vanquished foes.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I had some reservation. I have noticed over the years that some “maybes” have a habit of lingering, so I’m giving them a category just in case.
No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.
And now, on with our April reviews!
Art d’Ecco, In Standard Definition– This starts off with surging guitars, drums, and powerful slightly surly vocals. I’m listening! It reminds me of Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Bowie. Later tracks occasionally get a little dancey, and when that happens we’re in a kind of glam disco space. This all creates a weird timeless world, and I didn’t feel let down by a single track. And the fact that the lead vocalist and everything about the band is Gay as hell is a happy bonus.
Ashley Monroe, Rosegold– Country singer makes a pop turn is really not an unusual story. What makes this stand out is that she does this not in a country pop way, or even in a contemporary mass market pop way, but instead produces a shimmering, golden, vaguely otherworldly pop. It’s really pretty extraordinary.
Beach Youth, Postcard– I think maybe I was expecting something more- beachy?- from this French group. That said, it is very good guitar-centered pop-rock with a dreamy feel, but enough propulsion to keep it from fuzzing out. Viva la France!
Benny Sings, Music– The album opens with a weird sunny 70s-flavored piece, and this turns out to be a really good preview of what we’re in for here. Track after track by this Dutch pop musician sounds like it fell out of a 70s easy listening station, but with a quirky twist and plaintive air. It’s just delightful the whole way through.
BROCKHAMPTON, ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE– Hey, it’s a multi-racial hip-hop collective that want to redefine the meaning of “boy band”! A promising premise, and the opening track gave me a feeling I haven’t had since the height of conscious hip-hop (think Arrested Development, De La Soul, Digable Planets, etc.) and political hip-hop (think Public Enemy, NWA) in the 90s. Subsequent tracks bore that out, but also featured the best of the kind of storytelling tracks found in 90s gangster rap, and multi-layered 2000s hip hop production styles. Lyrics, vocal styling, sampling and mixing, everything here is dynamic and substantive. This is one boy band I can get behind!
Demi Lovato, Dancing With The Devil…The Art of Starting over– Imagine you are a sometimes not taken seriously pop princess. Imagine that as you were seemingly on top of the world you were actually wrestling with addiction, depression, eating disorders, and recovery from sexual assault. Now imagine that you go public with these struggles, your near-death from them, and release an album that is unstintingly honest and vulnerable about the process. And that you somehow make it into musically lush and vocally powerful pop music. Simply amazing.
Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg– This UK band sounds like they’re doing a conscious throwback to/revival of the angular and nervy early era of post-punk. And they do it very well! The musical side of it is excellent and the dry spoken word vocals of vocalist Florence Shaw are a nice touch too.
Du Blonde, Homecoming– It begins with a burp, launches immediately into sludgy guitar, husky vocals with an undertone of both malice and boredom, and packs ten songs into 25 minutes. Some melodic sweetness kicks in along the way too, placing it at a kind of cross roads of 60s girl group and stoner rock. Shades of Blondie, shades of Hole. (She knows her oeuvre too, since Garbage’s Shirley Manson appears on one of the tracks.) I had no choice, I am required by law to love this. And I do! Also to note, the power behind this, Beth Jean Houghton, is also a multi-media artist and director of music videos for numerous bands.
Elizabeth King, Living in the Last Days– “77 year-old gospel recording veteran gets a chance to record a new album for the first time in decades” is a good story. Good stories don’t always translate into great albums, but it sure did in this case. Gospel, blues, funk, and her assured powerful voice make for rocking soulful gospel at its best.
Grave Flowers Bongo Band, Strength of Spring– The name gives one pause, but the reality is something unexpected: a guitar heavy post-punk, metal, and prog rock/psychedelia hybrid. Every track is both propulsive, and sings with the guitar work. I’m a yes!
Greta Van Fleet, The Battle at Garden’s Gate– Why lovingly recreate a 70s hard rock sound? Why not! The thing is, it’s done so well, with such sincerity, that it doesn’t sound like a knock-off, but a genuinely new album from that era that somehow just popped into contemporary existence. It will be fascinating to see how this group develops over time.
Guided by Voices, Earth Man Blues– Nobody else quite does what Guided by Voices does, and they are doing it very well here. Every track is like an instant classic, and they’re all in different styles. There’s even a Batman-themed song!
Juan Wauters, Real Life Situations– This Uruguayan musician living in New York City took advantage of COVID confinement to produce this mix of slice of life sound samples, hip-hop, electronic dance music, acoustic, latin pop, and jazz. The whole thing, along with lyrics in English and Spanish, creates a surprisingly listenable urban pastiche, delivering exactly what the title is promising.
Matthew E. White/Lonnie Holmes, Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection– This is a powerful melding of funk, jazz, and electronic beats from Virginia musician Mathew E. White and vocals that are in turns growling and poetic from 71 year-old multi-media artist Lonnie Holley that weave themselves through the music. I’ve noticed that these kinds of collaborations between artists can be either ponderous or magic. This one is magic- revelatory, challenging but always interesting and listenable, you probably won’t hear anything else like it this year.
Luke Haines, Luke Haines in…Setting the Dogs on the Post Punk Postman– Oh my god, I love it! The kind of weird simultaneously personal and international tales of intrigue delivered in melodic and affecting pop and rock that Warren Zevon used to deliver. One might also hear hints of Elvis Costello or Nick Lowe. I never wanted it to end
Midland, The Sonic Ranch– Well shit, this is an honest to God country album. Nothing feels affected, nothing feels slick. It’s in a neo-traditionalist vein, and doing it flawlessly. The excellent country album I’ve been looking for since the beginning of the year!
Nick Waterhouse, Promenade Blue– 50s/early 60s rock/soul revival sound with a wild edge and hint of indie darkness. Think of a kind of intersection of Buddy Holly/Buster Poindexter/Brian Setzer/early Elvis Costello, aka I fucking love it.
PONY, TV Baby– Oh hi, this album fell through a time warp from the 90s and hit me on the head, and now I love it. I saw one description of the band describe it as “bubble grunge”. Well yeah, you give me a female-fronted guitar-crunching band that has a pop sensibility, and I’m almost guaranteed to be on board.
Remember Sports, Like a Stone– There’s this band I fall in love with every few years. The basic elements are: an all-female or 3/4 female band, real guitar rock with real drums, and punk power and verve but strong melody and pop sensibility. It has been, variously, the Skirts, the Bangs, the Soviettes, and Vancougar. This is that band. I’m in love! They should watch out, though, because my love-band inevitably puts out less than a handful of albums and breaks up before meeting with the reception they deserve. Alas!
The Coral, Coral Island– This opens with one of those classic psychedelia spoken word intros The jangly psychedelia-flavored indie rock that follows, and spoken travel narrative interludes throughout, show this is exactly what this English band is going for, and they deliver-flawlessly
The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Dance Songs for Hard Times– Obviously, the band name is great, and the album name is energetic and hopeful. The even better news is that this Indiana country-blues band delivers with a set of rocking hi-energy blues songs. Every last track is solid fun!
Topaz Jones, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma– A lively and varied hip-hop album, I’m digging it! It has rich grooves, variability on tracks, smooth flow, and clever and positive lyrics. It also feels personal and authentic, and bing-bing- coherent!
Winds, Look at the Sky– Well instrumented (they know their rock chord changes!), with by turns moody and melodious vocals and lyrics. They deliver indie rock with a strong nod to the more swinging side of 70s singer-songwriter and 80s alt Replacements-style guitar rock. Sometimes it has a kind of “lost in time” feel, but darned if it isn’t excellent!
Cory Hanson, Pale Horse Rider– Country flavored, and the minor chords, the lyrics, and vocals deliver a kind of evocative melodious melancholy that works with this. Two weirdly ambient tracks at random(?) spots is the only thing costing it an automatic yes.
Dinosaur Jr., Swept Into Space– As an 80s alt kid and 90s American guitar-rock fan, well, what can I do? If not for one mysteriously dud/low volume track, this would be a “yes”.
Eric Church, Soul– I like this better than Heart, the other album he released at almost the same time. And, as you’ll see below. there was nothing wrong with Heart, technically, it just felt like it leaned more often on country tropes than authenticity. While still smooth, the material here feels more authentic to the artist.
Field Music, Flat White Moon– This feels Beatlesesque, which can be a pathway to doom, but this English band does it so straight up sweetly, and with enough indie rock verve and discord to not be a shallow copy. The thought that maybe it’s a little derivative is keeping it from automatic “yes”, but it’s a strong maybe!
Garage a Trois, Calm Down Cologne– All-instrumental is an inherently harder sell for me, but this jazz-funk fusion is truly excellent, and never let me down, despite some really long jammy tracks- maybe!
Gojira, Fortitude– French metal band named after Godzilla?-I’m pulling for you! Well-done thrash/prog metal with some mirthful choices, even the pause in the middle works. It may not totally exceed its genre, but 1/3 into the year, this is the metal album I’ve been hoping for!
La Femme, Paradigmes– I mean, it’s much more than half in French, but it’s so swinging and hi-energy and musically dynamic that I’m seriously considering it!
Lucinda Williams, Runnin’ Down a Dream– There are very confusing indications of what year this was released, but hey, I love covers, Tom Petty. and Lucinda Williams, so… As approaches to covers goes, I think this is the gold standard-respectful but no slavish, she successfully brings her own sensibility to them, and many of the tracks are unusual/ less common choices.
Major Murphy, Access– Stripped down rock and clear, emotional vocals, this is giving me a 90s flashback feel, with a hint of 70s rock in there too. It slows down on the second half, and it’s not profound, but everything is well done.
Maxwell Farrington/Le SuperHomard, Once– This collaboration between Australian singer Farrington and composer Le SuperHomard has swinging 60s orchestral-style pop, is vocally and musically rich, while being lyrically dour, which is an interesting combo. The tracks get a little similarish, but they’re so good and none of them dud out.
Mon Laferte, SEIS– This really makes me wish my Spanish was better, because she is a vocal powerhouse. This is a also a lively musical exploration of Mexican folk. I like it so much, I have to give it a “Maybe” even though I can’t really understand it!
Shelley FKA Dram, Shelley FKA Dram– The autotune, why does this age have so much autotune? Yet this album quickly transcends that, and my word is it good- robust production, genuine feeling, disarming charm. I wonder a little about consistency, but it makes up for it with lots of authenticity.
Silver Synthetic, Silver Synthetic– My first impression is a country-rock feel with a hint of paisley underground, and chord changes reminiscent of the Velvet Underground, which automatically makes me well-disposed toward it. It sounds a little derivative, and isn’t profound, but every track is doing exactly what it needs to do.
Steve Cropper, Fire It Up– This veteran guitarist of Booker T. & the M.G.s and the Blues Brothers Band sounds completely as excellent as you’d think based on that. It comes off a little dated. Or perhaps that’s timeless, as he’s pushing 80? It lands short of yes, but still rates highly.
The Reds, Pinks and Purples, Uncommon Weather– I was pre-disposed to want to like this when I realized the cover of his previous album (the “band” is the diy project of multi-band alumni Glenn Donaldson) was a picture of the corner I lived on in San Francisco for 7 years! Fortunately, he has a way with alternately sweetly ringing and fuzzy guitars, melody, and weary vocals and heartsick lyrics, so I didn’t feel like I was in danger of manufacturing a case for him just based on home pride. It all creates a dreamy side of 80s alt feeling, and the only real drawback is that the tone is a little too similar from track to track. (The cover of this album, by the way, is another street scene from my old SF neighborhood. Keep it local!)
Zo! & Tall Black Guy, Abstractions– This is another one of those cases where band name alone makes me want to like something. It turns out I did like it! This conciously hearkens back to 80s R&B, with jazz, funk and some modern hip-hop, and a celebration of Detroit thrown in along the way. I kept wondering if it was too mellow, but I also enjoyed it and its eclecticism the whole way along.
Alfa Mist, Bring Backs– Overall it was too jazz-easy listening-new age for me.
Andy Stott, Never The Right Time– I certainly appreciated the unsettling sonic dissonance of the opening. Overall too spare and sometimes ambient a version of electronica for my taste, but interesting.
Animal Collective, Crestone (Original Score)– Not as unlistenable as the last Animal Collective album I listened too. Merely kind of boring.
Arooj Aftab, Vulture Prince– It’s beautiful, but it’s generally too in the category of orchestral soundtrack/world music for what I’m looking at here.
Balmorhea, The Wind– The opening track was so slow and muted it almost literally put me to sleep. Subsequent tracks did not improve on that. Nearly ambient musical changes, whispered vocals when there are any. Ugh no.
Birdy, Young Heart– Very pretty folky pop, but doesn’t get above a kind of simplicity and track to track sameness.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy / Matt Sweeney, Superwolves– Good start, poetic lyrics and music by turns brooding, driving, acoustic, with many a classic rock reference. It did get a little bog-downy in the middle/end, though. Alas!
Cabaret Voltaire, BN9Drone– This is the third album Cabaret Voltaire is releasing this year, which isn’t bad for a group that I hadn’t thought continued to exist after about 1989 or so. It is my least favorite of the three, they each seem to get closer and closer to being annoying noise.
Californian Soil, London Grammar– Well, the intro definitely pissed me off with its orchestral swell and disembodied ethereal singing. It was kind of electronic pop folk after that, and really pretty good, but it feels a little too polished versus authentic.
Cannibal Corpse, Violence Unimagined– I mean, it’s not like you don’t know what you’re going to get from this group. If you happen to need some grisly death metal, you’ll get a very good serving of it here. But it doesn’t get enough beyond what you’d expect to be in contention for best, I’d say.
Cheap Trick, In Another World– I have to say, I didn’t expect “a new Cheap Trick album” would be something I could possibly be listening to in 2021- it’s pretty good, but a little too exactly what you’d expect from them.
Citizen Cope, The Pull of Niagara Falls– The spare acoustic guitar, growly vocals, and grim lyrics are an affecting combo, but in the end I found it all too one-tone musically and vocally to sustain itself at album length.
Dawn Richard, Second Line– I think this is pretty good, but it does tend toward a sameness after a while. Sic semper electronicus. Her approach is great, though, and some of these I would certainly want as singles.
Dntel, The Seas Trees See– Outright weird electric voice beginning is somehow much better than the currently popular autotune that pretends to be really singing, but sadly it vanished after that and what was left, despite interesting moments along the way, was way too electronica abstract and/or almost ambient.
Eric Church, Heart– Hey, it’s a country album! I am always on the lookout for a good country album. Very well done, but it feels like more formula than heart throughout.
Flock of Dimes, Head of Roses– It’s a nice indie album with elements of folk, rock, and electronic. But it feels way too low energy and same track to track to really engage.
Flying Lotus, Yasuke– “Electronic music soundtrack for an anime series focused on a Black Samurai” is a pretty good mission statement, but it all tends a little toward too low-key/background mostly instrumental for me.
Gary Bartz/Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Adrian Younge, Gary Bartz JID006– I was led to believe that this might be the kind of jazz that interfaces with rock or funk in interesting ways. It was not. It’s a nice mellow vibe, if you like that kind of thing.
Ghlow, Slash and Burn– Beats, guitars, and the sound of a race car revving up was actually a pretty promising start. It IS the kind of thing I like, but there’s too much all-one tone to the music and the vocals, no distinction between tracks.
girl in red, if i could make it go quiet– Such a shame! pop-punk, hip-hop, melody, searingly personal lyrics, sweet pop and honestly unpretty lyrics. It was in serious contention until it did the dreaded second half deflation.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!– Between hearing they’re a Canadian experimental music collective and that title, well, one wondered what to expect. What’s delivered is kind of in line with what some good guesses might be. Very interesting, sometimes quite compelling, but a little too experimental for me.
Imelda May, 11 Past the Hour– A dark haunting opening, with gorgeous and smoking vocals, but it gets a little too slick, and some of the lyrics too cliched for my taste.
Leon Vynehall, Rare, Forever– Electronic music, and an album inspired by psychedelic revelation of music as therapy, which is interesting. But, it’s a little too abstract and chaotic for me.
Lil Tjay, Destined 2 Win– This is from the severely auto-tuned vocals school of hip-hop, and, well, no matter how worthy parts of it may be, I just can’t. Sorry.
Liquid Tension Experiment, LTE3– Progressive metal supergroup! And, sure, this is pretty good. In fact, really good. But, um, it’s entirely instrumental and almost two hours long. That’s a pretty tough sell for me.
Luca Yupanqui, Sounds of the Unborn– An experimental musician records in utero sounds from her daughter (Luca, of title fame) and remixes them into an electronic music album. The results are fascinating, often even unsettling. I don’t think it’s quite an album in “best of the year” sense, but it is a sonic document worth perusing.
Manchester Orchestra, Million Masks of God– It does indeed sound a little orchestral. It’s well produced, but every track sounds kind of the same.
Merry Clayton, Beautiful Scars– The best moments here would definitely get a “yes”, and it is very high quality throughout. Ultimately, it felt a little too much like glossy production drowned out authentic passion.
Moontype, Bodies of Water– Nice fuzz-rock start and they know how to do their crashing chords. It often had my head bouncing, but pacing problems doomed it-sudden lurches between fast and slow tracks threw the rhythm of the album off.
Motorpsycho, Kingdom of Oblivion– With the band’s name, I was going to be disappointed if it wasn’t heavy. It is, but also surprisingly melodic and with light poppy vocals and a musical mix of metal, prog, and psychedelic. It was doing so well until track 5 and the long beginning of track 6 went ambiently dead. From there, pace and voice got all wobbly. It’s a real shame!
Mythic Sunship, Wildfire– If your band name is Mythic Sunship and the average length of a track on your album is 9 minutes, I’m going to have certain expectations/ trepidations. The blistering opening exceeded my expectations and almost avoided my trepidations. Wild jazz version of an instrumental metal jam? Metal jazz? I don’t know, but I loved it! For like 7 of its 10 minutes. Ditto on track two. So maybe there was a 33 minute version of this album that would have been a yes?
Norah Jones, ‘Til We Meet Again– I’ve been avoiding “from the archives” live albums, but have included recently recorded live albums, which this is. Everything she does is beautiful, but ultimately it was a little too long slow jazz groove for me. I’ll tell you what though, “Black Hole Sun” always makes for a great cover no matter who does it!
OMAAR, Drum Temple– I mean, an entirely instrumental electronic percussion album was going to be a hard sell for me as “best of year”. But if you’re a fan of beats, you might like it!
Orions Belte, Villa Amorini– Nicely played drums and guitars, lively production flourishes (including jazz, psychedelia, and Nigerian music), a mellow vibe, and when the vocals do kick in (much of it is instrumental) they’re also well-done and interesting. It’s skillful, but shallow enough that I’d had enough after halfway through.
Peter Frampton, Frampton Forgets the Words– While I love a good covers album, and I really appreciate his skill, courage in the face of debilitating disease, and his self-deprecation, an entirely instrumental guitar album, even one as excellent as this, is a hard sell for me.
Raf Rundell, O.M. Days– Definitely some fun stuff here vocally and lyrically, and the electronic music is occasionally lively, but more often than not the whole thing fades into the background.
Rhiannon Giddens, They’re Calling Me Home– Haunting vocals, traces of blues and celtic, classical-ultimately a little too on the classical/vocal music end for me and my purposes here.
Royal Blood, Typhoons– Rock with a dance beat, and it works as both genres, with propulsive music and crisp vocals. It’s really good at what it does, but the tracks do all start to blend together. Sorry to be so picky but with this album, I’d just passed 250 albums listened to. The bar is high and getting higher!
Ryley Walker, Course in Fable– A very interesting lyrical voice, but the smooth and easy musical production left things feeling cold.
Sindy, HORROR HEAD– If you spell Sindy with an an “S” and call your album Horror Head, I am per-disposed to expect something truly unsettling. Instead this is a vaguely new wave, vaguely My Bloody Valentine piece of pop electronica. I think the lyrics might be unsettling, but they’re so fuzzy-mumbled I can’t tell. There are some tracks that get there, but mostly no.
Son Lux, Tomorrows III– Not bad by any means, but a little too lurching ethereal sound effect for me.
Spirit of the Beehive, ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH– Between the title and the fact that the title was in all caps, I figured we’d be in for something here. The noise collage opening had me worried, but it turns out there is a band that knows about melody in there somewhere. Unfortunately, this is co-located with the band that’s doing a melange of industrial, noise-rock, and layers of sound samples. It just isn’t very listenable, and not even a song titled “I suck the Devil’s cock” could save it.
Still Dreams, Make Believe– I mean, don’t get me wrong. I like my J-Pop. And this is fun, but it’s not “best” material.
Taylor Swift, Fearless (Taylor’s Version)– No, but it’s an interesting story. To get around the former record label that’s got her debut album all locked up, she’s re-recorded it, along with six new songs. The whole thing is a little too weird (and faithful) conceptually to be a “best”, but it reminds you of how good she was from the get-go, which is reinforced even more by the six previously unreleased recordings from that era.
Teenage Fanclub, Endless Arcade– This is all well done, but a little too much all in one tone musically and vocally, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’m listening to their “jam band” album. Saints preserve us!
Tetrarch, Unstable– This was put out by Napalm Records, which gives you an idea of the sound. Actually, it’s the shortfall of that expectation that’s kind of the problem. It’s a competent mix of hardcore punk and metal with a little doom/scream vocals. But it doesn’t get beyond that to something that truly napalms the soul.
The Armed, ULTRAPOP– Anonymous post-hardcore collective? Go on, I’m listening… It’s an interesting deconstruction of hardcore using electronic music and samples, but a little too abstract and grating to be listenable for long.
The Legal Matters, Chapter Three– Neo-psychedelia, well done, but feels a little hollow/too slickly produced.
The Offspring, Let The Bad Times Roll– A friend of mine said, “It sounds just like their albums from the 90s.” True. And Smash was one of my favorite albums of that decade. Actually, I think they’re a little more musically and thematically nuanced here, and it’s certainly a good time for fans of the genre. But I’m not sure it rises above previous efforts, or, for example, exceeds Green Day’s “aging punker looks at the world” efforts.
Thomas Rhett, Country Again– It’s very competent country, better than a lot of 2000s pop country, but it has that similarly soulless prefab quality.
Tom Jones, Surrounded by Time– It’s another cover album, and I like covers albums, and Tom Jones, well, he’s predictably great. So, it’s solid, but I don’t think it gets to “year’s best” great.
Yellow Ostrich, Soft– Mellow, intelligent, literate, emoish indie. Can barely stand it.
Yoshinori Hayashi, Pulse of Defiance– A nice selection of mellow beats, purely instrumental, just didn’t spark anything in particular for me.
And there we are! The April review is published before the end of May. Now, onward!
Commencing part four of my ten-part review of critic’s choices for the 52 best albums of 2010-2019! (Wait! What? 52? There is a reason, see below…) If you missed the earlier editions, you can find them here:
This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. So go check out the latest installments of my overview of the critical consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020, and my monthly review of new releases en route to finding the best 21 albums of 2021.
So, wait, did I say 52? 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 total posts of 5 each (or 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. With that explained, let’s get on with Part 4!
Celebration Rock (Japandroids, 2012, 5 votes)– Hey, that’s some good rock! At least on the opening track. It’s got the guitar. It’s got the backbeat. It’s got surging passionate vocals. It’s got the feedback fade after. They totally know how rock song structure works as well, and there are affecting lyrics. Without sounding absolutely the same track after track, there isn’t a track that stops rocking. God bless Canadians, I sometimes think they’re the only ones who still get it.
Black Messiah (D’Angelo & the Vanguard, 2014, 5 votes)– In a previous iteration of this kind of exercise a few years back, I had been confidently informed by critics that D’Angelo’s album Voodoo was one of the best albums of the 00s. I had trouble getting there. It was good stuff, but I couldn’t see what I was getting from it that I wouldn’t, for example, get from Prince (who it felt heavily derivative of). I’m having a similar reaction to this. To be fair, though, I suppose this could be considered praising by faint damnation, since that’s a pretty darn elevated reference point.
Channel ORANGE (Frank Ocean, 2012, 7 votes)– This is the second of two albums of his that made the list, and the chronologically earlier of the two (the other one being Blonde from 2016). Well done Frank! Like that album, the autotuned nature of some of the vocals here gives me pause. Also, like that album, the lyrical wit, interesting sampling and production, and varied musical approaches utterly overcomes those reservations. I can see how this got listed, especially since it came out first!
Control (SZA, 2017, 7 votes)– Musically sophisticated, emotionally honest, and lyrically complex R&B. Some tracks are harrowing, some sweetly vulnerable, some sarcastic, and some downright hilarious, like Doves in The Wind in which she (SZA is the stage name of Solána Imani Rowe) uses samples from Westerns and Kung-fu movies and a guest appearance by Kendrick Lamar to explore the obsession with pussy. On the downside, it’s got more than a bit of the “autotuned” sound that’s the bane of the decade and maybe falls a little short in overall coherence. Part of the issue may be that, as the 19th album from the list I’ve listened to, I’m now comparing it to the very best-structured albums from the list. That’s pretty minor sour grapes considering how high quality this is, and how powerful she is.
Currents(Tame Impala, 2015, 4 votes)– This is a little trippy, which I hear is their jam. But, more on the dance/electronic side of trippy, with some new wave influence. It reminds me, perhaps, of something the Flaming Lips might put out, except from them I’d expect even more weirdness, and also more overarching album structure. The tracks are also tending a lot toward sameness. Not bad, by any means, but I’m not convinced this adds up to a “decade best” album.
And that’s it for this installment! 20 down, 32 to go…
Look, the last few years have been…tough. Nationally. Globally. Personally. It happens. And, as a result, sometimes one loses touch with some things. One of those things for me, and a very important one to me, was newer music. And this year I’ve determined to catch up! As part of this quest, I’m reviewing the critical consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020. If you missed the earlier installments, you can find them here:
This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. If you’re curious, check out the latest editions of my review of the critics choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and my monthly search for the 21 best albums of 2021.
First, a quick re-visit of methodology. I took year-end “best album” lists from All Music Guide, AV Club, Billboard, Consequence of Sound, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, Mojo, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Spin. For every album one or more of these sources listed, I tallied up the votes that album got between all of them, and took the highest scoring twenty albums. I’ve broken up the reviews into four blocks of five albums each, and will follow with a sum-up at the end.
With that explained, here is our last block, 16-20:
Sawayama (Rina Sawayama, 8 votes)– Complex and well produced dance music is the impression from the first track. With energy, and lively musical (rock! Hip hop! ballads!) and vocal choices. This has both fiery attitude and vulnerable emotion, and picks up on some social and personal issues. The storytelling on some tracks is almost poetically visual, and things have that sophisticated international feel you often find on European dance music. I can definitely get behind the critics on this one!
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (Perfume Genius, 7 votes)– Right off, I’m not sure if the combination of sonorous vocals and orchestral swirl on the opening track are working for me. The scene improved on track two with some good wall of distortion guitar work, although the vocals remained similarly languid. There was more of a dance beat on the third track, and the vocals here and elsewhere started to remind me of a certain era of Bowie/Bryan Ferry. It was a slow start, but I really liked many of the later more up-tempo tracks, and I do appreciate the lush same-sex romanticism found throughout. Overall, I’d say this is not consistent/well-structured enough to be a “best” album, but there’s certainly a lot that’s worthy here.
Shore (Fleet Foxes, 7 votes)– At this point, hearing the phrase “indie folk” tends to fill me with preemptive dread. This pleasantly surprised me, though! The music has a lot of dynamism, and the tracks have an independent identity, two things that often seem to get sacrificed to the sameness of indie folk approaches. The lyrics are also interesting, and combined with the music and the vocals, give everything a yearning, even elegiac feeling. It also, while feeling completely contemporary, transmits something of the spirit of 70s folk and singer/songwriters.
Women in Music pt. III (HAIM, 7 votes)– It’s a great start, smooth beats, multi-instrument pop and clever lyrics with clear, lucid vocals. After several songs that go through a kaleidoscope of musical styles, I realize that this, and I hope they will forgive me for saying so, reminds me of a Wilson Phillips with more musical sophistication and indie attitude. I actually think that’s the key to this for me- it’s a thoroughly pop sensibility and production, but one with a rawness and power behind it musically and lyrically. It’s high quality and a fun listen, and I can well imagine it being one of the best albums of the year.
YHLQMDLG (Bad Bunny, 6 votes)– I mean, this seems like it’s very good, but it’s also entirely in Spanish, which prevents me from connecting with it lyrically. I will say on the musical and vocal side, it’s fun, interesting, and well-produced. Although it does have more than none of the autotuned style that is the order of the day, and which I just can’t get behind. Also, I’m not sure this needs to be over an hour long- generically, it takes something pretty special for me to sign off on an album doing that. Though, given the language aspect, there may be some structure or narrative line that justifies it here, but isn’t understandable by me. Reading about the production has clued me in to the whole world of Latin-Caribbean reggaeton and latin trap music though, which is fascinating!
And there we are, we’ve completed our review of the 20! Tune in next time for the final wrap-up, and a special announcement…
I listened to 75 new albums in March so you don’t have to!
Insanity? Possibly, but also part of my search for the 21 best albums of 2021. In service of this great goal, I’m listening to new releases every month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final shake-out after the year ends. If you missed the previous editions, you can find them here:
This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year, you may also want to checking out the latest from my review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s and 2020.
Before we continue, a quick note about the three categories:
Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. This is no guarantee! In fact, at current pace, we might end up with as many as 200 possibilities by the end of the year, so there’s going to be quite a reckoning to get to 21.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I had some reservation. But I have noticed over the years that some “maybes” have a habit of lingering, so I’m giving them a category just in case.
No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.
And with that, away we go with March’s albums!
Alex Beeker, Heaven on the Faultline– This was just delightful from the first few bright, clear and poppy, lof-fi synth-organ notes. A sure feel for melody and hooks, packed with clever musical choices and lyrical surprises as well. I genuinely didn’t want it to end. Also, I think the album should have lunch with Ron Gallo’s album further below.
Andrew Bird/Jimbo Malthus, These 13– When I heard this was mining the territory where country, blues, and folk overlap, I knew I was in (the good kind of) trouble. If they did it even halfway well, I was probably going to like it. And they did it very well! It never strikes a false note.
Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark– Dark and fascinating. Lyrically like some of the darker turns of goth music, but musically on the soft edge of indie folk and orchestral electronica, and the vocals are a kind of low-key narration. It all seems calculated to undersell how disturbing the content is. Very much all in the same tone, lyrically and emotionally, but with enough musical variability to pull it out. Dammit, I like it!
Armand Hammer/The Alchemist, Haram– Trust me, you probably don’t want a more hi-res version of that picture. “Haram” refers to things that are forbidden in Islam, and well, that’s a graphic illustration of one of them. As for the actual album itself, though, it’s simply superb. Jazz-informed hip-hop, with literate and vivid socially conscious lyrics that also get metaphysical but feel personally urgent. And on top of that, a rich musical mix and interesting use of samples.
Ben Howard, Collections From the Whiteout– A compelling musical swirl with traces of indie rock, folk, acoustic, and synth. Add to that literate and interesting lyrics that explore internal and external landscapes, and vocals that are also emotionally evocative in their understated way, and there’s a lot going on in each track. It’s really just pretty great, all in all.
Benny the Butcher/Harry Fraud, The Plugs I Met 2– This collaboration brings together a New York-based MC and hip-hop producer. There’s beautiful musical sampling work, fun weaving in of Scarface references, smooth vocal style, and lyrics with strong storytelling. Certainly a contender!
Esther Rose, How Many Times– Solid acoustic folk with nice country instrumental flourishes. She has a clear and engaging voice, and things here are charmingly not perfectly smooth. As a result, it’s lively and utterly genuine-feeling.
Judith Hill, Baby I’m Hollywood– She does classic smoldering soul, old style R&B, funk, and swinging rock equally well, with a voice that doesn’t have a note of falseness in it. Musical variability and verve, soaring vocals, sharp lyrics that address the personal and the social. There isn’t a single thing here not to love! Originally a backup singer who broke out, former contestant on The Voice, and having been produced by Prince, you can hear how much she’s mastered along the way.
Lana Del Rey, Chemtrails Over the Country Club– The subtlety of the first track alone is breathtaking. Throughout, the music is restrained, even minimal, but there’s such honesty and authenticity in the vocals, and her voice itself is an instrument. All of this supports, as per her usual, sophisticated lyrics. It’s powerful!
Leeanne Betasamosake Simpson, Theory of Ice– Luminous lyrics and vocals, with an electronic-infused acoustic pop sound. She’s a First Nations Canadian writer/musician, and you will certainly hear that thematically here. But it’s also so personal, evocative, and poetic that it can reach any audience.
Loretta Lynn, Still Woman Enough– Uh, she’s almost 90, this is her 50th album, and I love it! Straight up classic country the way it’s meant to be, with covers of standards (hers and others) plus an original or two. The duets here work too, and there’s even a spoken word version of Coal Miner’s Daughter that reminds you of how well that song works as storytelling. This is probably a better album than most of pop country radio will get anywhere close to this year.
Matt Dillon, Suitcase Man– Oh my God, I love it! Tom Waits-style growly vocals, smart and often hilarious lyrics, weird off-beat instruments (one of his specialties is the vibraphone). Between bands, solo projects, and collaborations, he put out 18 albums in 18 years getting here, and I’m just sorry we hadn’t met earlier.
New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers, New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers, Vol. 2– You may not have known that anybody still made blues like this, but this blues/roots music supergroup is here to tell you they do. Well, sort of still do, since the jam sessions that produced this were actually recorded in 2007, and one of the key members, Jim Dickinson, has even died since then. But it is still damn good!
Noga Erez, Kids– I still feel strangely bad for not liking the last Israeli recording artist we came across (I believe in January?). Fortunately here we are, and this dance beats and hip-hop oriented album is a step above. There’s great attitude throughout, surprising musical and vocal choices, and it never stops being interesting.
Ron Gallo, PEACEMEAL– I mean, I’m both interested and leery when you start with a backwards vocals intro. This betrays a kind of 60s psychedelia/70s concept album bent which is borne out in the best lo-fi home-recorded way in the rest of the album. This is angsty, quirky, idiosyncratic, delightful. And you see what I mean, right? This album should definitely have lunch with Alex Bleeker’s album at the top of our list.
Skeggs, Rehearsal– Apropos of an Australian garage rock/surf trio, this is pleasingly melodious and rocking. In fact, you know that rocking 80s alt band you loved, and that 90s band that never quite made it big but you adored them? This is that. Every track left me unremittingly happy the whole way through.
Special Friend, Ennemi Commun– This French/American duo has clear bright instrumentation, and knows how to do fuzzy crunchy guitars, with melody and a yearning mood in lyrics and vocals. There isn’t a track that goes astray, although I do think the last one may be Vaselines plagiarism. Even that commends them to me, though!
Tim Cohen, You Are Still Here– Melodious, moody, a unique lyrical voice. He demonstrates a mastery of pop/rock tropes, and all of the above plus the shimmery and assured production invokes a world. I almost felt like I was listening to a later-day Warren Zevon.
Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers– Solid vocals and affecting lyrics, livened by skillful layered production. It pulls together acoustic, indie rock, classic soul and R&B, and psychedelia. Bob Dylan has cited her as one of the contemporary artists he listens to, and I can see why. This is exquisite and gorgeous.
Xiu Xiu, Oh No– Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for years before being expatriated eastward, I’d long heard of Xiu Xiu, but didn’t really know what their deal was. Their deal is extraordinary! Experimental, evocative, musically and lyrically surprising. Something this experimental and unconventional seems like it shouldn’t work at album length, but it totally does. This particular album is all duets between Xiu Xiu founder Jamie Stewart and other indie luminaries, which is a nice touch.
A.A. Williams, Songs from Isolation– As has been established in previously editions, I do love a good covers album. This is a great covers album! Haunting, beautiful, respectful, but not slavish. The sameness of emotional/musical tone is keeping it from automatic “yes”, but it’s close.
American Culture, For My Animals– Low-fi, dissonant, definitely trends toward punk/alt rocky, but melodious and with classic rock flourishes worked in. It reminds me of diy early NY punk lyrically. The only reason it’s not an automatic yes is a nonsense dub sound effects track that was second from last.
Bernice, Eau de Bonjourno– Beats, mellow smooth instrumentation, vocals flowing smoothly, but really surprising musical/production choices and complex lyrics lift it up. It’s all a little too mellow to be an automatic yes, but close.
Central Cee, Wild West– This British hip-hop album has a unique voice and vision, pounding cadence, interesting and unusual samples, and heartfelt material that doesn’t lean on cliché. But vocally it’s all too much one tone after a while.
Chad VanGaalen, World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener– This is like a really trippy psychedelic album from the 60s ran into a 90s noisepop album with some 80s alt in there to mediate between them. Perhaps predictably, I love it! A pair of nearly ambient instrumental pieces really threw off the momentum, though. Would have been a yes without them, so maybe?
Cool Ghouls, At Geroge’s Zoo– This San Francisco group really feels like they’re a 60s garage/psychedelic rock band, or on the paisley underground side of 80s alt. The songs have an individual identity but all fit together, and not one of them strikes a false note, but ending on two slow songs in a row cost it the “yes”.
Death From Above 1979, Is 4 Lovers– From the first distorted guitar feedback notes, and then the pseudo-dance beats kicking in, you know you’re in DFA’s hands. You’re a Woman I’m a Machine was one of my favorite albums of the 00s, and this is not quite as dynamic as that debut. It feels a little uneven, but I still love what they do.
Justin Bieber, Justice– Dammit. Look, I can hold a musical grudge. Teen Bieber was so banal musically, and jerky personally that I’ve been anti even as evidence emerged that he was becoming a pretty solid artist. This is really quite good, personally revealing and emotionally sophisticated. The only thing that’s cost it the yes is the title and the MLK speeches sampled material, which is so bizarrely out of joint with the contents.
Kings of Leon, When You See Yourself– Well produced in a 2000s Indie kind of way, but I worry it squashes the weird and spooky they are at their best. But it kept having breakout moments that got under my skin. Not an automatic yes, but a strong possibility.
Lake Street Dive, Obviously– 70s R&B inflected pop feel with an indie rock twist, upbeat, energetic, great at weaving vocals and music together. I wonder about the dated feel, but that’s really the only negative.
Middle Kids, Today We’re the Greatest– Folkish Indie start, got more rocky and catchy and infectious as it went. Nice musical variability too, with sophisticated emotional lyrics, but sometimes a little too slick production-wise at the expense of feeling genuine.
Music on Hold, 30 Minutes Of– Between the band name and the album title I was nervous, but this is delightful! Nice upbeat indie rock with lively vocals and a clear new wave synth influence. It’s not profound, but strong lyrics, and every track works. Huzzah!
Painted Shrines, Heaven and Holy– Solid Indie rock, they know how to work their major and minor chords, with hints of classic rock and 80s alt. Slight deflation toward the end and the decision to end it on a low-key instrumental cost it the “yes”.
Rob Zombie, The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy– I mean, you have to be in a Rob Zombie horror-inflected metal and hellbilly paen to LSD kind of mood. If you are, it’s pretty fun. Maybe not coherent enough to be a best of year, but very good at what it does.
Triptides, Alter Echoes– See, now that’s a nice straightforward indie/alt/strong influence of 60s garage and psychedelia rock start! And it works for track after track, though they did do the dreaded two slow songs in a row thing. And then another a song later. They had the sense to end it on an up note though, which saved it from total deflation. This all kept it from yes, but still a strong maybe.
tUnE-yArDs, Sketchy.– Well this was fascinating! Nervy, eclectic, and muscular. It felt like it sometimes rode right on the edge of too discordant to listen to, which is why it ended up in “maybe”. But, crucially, I never did stop listening. In fact, I couldn’t turn away.
Zara Larsson, Poster Girl– Swedish dance-pop, this is actually very good at what it does. It bogged down briefly 2/3 through, then bounced back. I surprised myself by how much I loved it!
Allie Crow Buckley, Moonlit and Devious– Her voice is a wave of power underpinned by a dark surging wall of music, but while the quality is very high, there becomes a kind of sameness before it’s 1/3 through.
Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Music from the Motion Picture)– You might expect this would be Billie Holiday covers, and it is, but there are originals too. The covers are perhaps too faithful and yet still powerful owing to the source material, and the originals weave together hip-hop and modern R&B with Holiday’s jazz and blues style and are just stunning. But I’m not sure the two excellent parts ever come together properly.
Barbarossa, Love Here Listen– Mellow synth waves, electronic beats, smooth vocals-there’s nothing wrong with it, but it never rises above pleasant.
Belle Orchestre, House Music– It’s good in an electronic jazz and noise pastiche of sound kind of way. Which is not a way for me.
Blake Mills/Pino Palladino, Notes With Attachments– This melange of musical styles is pretty pleasant. Jazz, electronic beats, hip-hop, funk, and African rhythms all make an appearance. It is very well done, and explores some interesting soundscapes, but doesn’t quite come together as an album in a way that appeals to me.
Cabaret Voltaire, Dekadrone– I do have to admire their ambition to release three different albums this year, but I don’t like this any better than the last one. Worse actually, as it’s even more noise and less music than Shadow of Funk.
Cameron Knowler & Eli Winter, Anticipation– This is a very nice acoustic americana roots record. If you like that intersection of folk/country/blues (I do!) you’ll probably enjoy this (I did!). But it’s a hard sell for me for a purely instrumental album to get to “best of year” status.
Carrie Underwood, My Savior– One of two “big name star releases gospel record” we’re reviewing this month-must be something in the air… In any case, these are all very serviceable versions, but emotionally muted. It could have gone in several directions, but with a few exceptions didn’t go in any- not folksy, not passionate, not great country, not great gospel.
Chase Atlantic, Beauty in Death– No x1000- Beats and autonune vocalsssss hellll- I feel like I need to do something to clear my musical pallet from having even listened to a few tracks of this.
Chevelle, Niratias– Ah, metal. I am always glad to see you! This doesn’t rise to something interesting or different enough to be in contention for “best” (though I did appreciate its sci-fi affects) but it is good clean genre fun.
Chris Corsano/Bill Orcutt, Made Out of Sound– This, as it turns out, is made out of some pretty good sounds. Somewhere in the meeting up of punk, experimental, and jazz. It’s very good, but didn’t feel like it had the cohesion needed to truly make an album out of a jam session, even one as interesting as this.
Clark, Playground in a Lake– A little too instrumental and a little too abstract for me, though I’ll grant you it got more interesting by the end.
DJ Muggs, Dies Occidendum– Nicely weird, a kind of Black Sabbath approach to hip-hop/electronica, which isn’t surprising if you know Cypress Hill, which DJ Muggs hails from. Fascinating, but I think ultimately a little too abstract. However, you could (and should) play it at a Halloween party!
Dr. Lonnie Smith, Breathe– Jazz soul veteran teams up with Iggy pop? Of course I’m interested! But it ends up being more of a curiosity than a great pairing, and is otherwise a nice mellow jazz album. That’s not my jam, and it’s not year-best material.
El Michels Affair, Yeti Season– You call your album “Yeti Season”, you automatically have my attention. Remarkably, it doesn’t disappoint the high level of interest that creates. The music is a great melange of funk, soul, jazz, and global musical influences. Smooth, but never in a lulls you in and vanishes kind of way. Ultimately what cost it was being mostly instrumental, and entirely non-English (in multiple languages!) when it wasn’t. This didn’t give me enough connection to make it coherent as an album.
Elizabeth & The Catapult, sincerely, e– Her weary voice is lovely, and fits the pandemic theme. It goes uptempo too, and has some fun pop flourishes. There’s a bit to much hush and background level songs for me, but the best moments here are very good.
Floatie, Voyage Out– Nice little indie rock album from Chicago group Floatie, with angular guitar work, quirky vocals, and pleasant songs. No serious missteps, but the tracks all kind of sound the same. I do think they’re worth keeping an eye on, though.
Fruit Bats, The Pet Parade– Nice Indie folk feeling at first, then classical echoes as well as 80s/90s alt country start coming in, but it gets way too samey until tracks 4-10 really pick up. And then promptly losses all that verve right after. I really think there could have been a great album here, but the slow start and uneven nature kills it.
Harry Connick, Jr., Alone With My Faith– Harry Connick’s take on some gospel standards- I gave it a whirl because gospel has been a major source of country and soul/R&B, and I was curious to see his approach. These are solid and heartfelt versions, but a little conventional. And, honestly, generally less energetic and swinging than I was hoping for until a section in the middle, which really showed what a great album this could have been.
IAN SWEET, Show Me How You Disappear– In theory this feedbacky wave of synth sound isn’t totally my jam, but every individual track kept winning me over with her lyrics, dissonance, and musical surprises. But it started to run out of steam for me at track 6, becoming a kind of undistinguished swirly feedback shimmery blend.
Jane Getter/Jane Getter Premonition, Anomalia– It booms into a metal-flavored synth and instrument wave with dissonant notes, but ends up a little formulaic and too similar, although very well played.
Jane Weaver, Flock– This surges into gear immediately, with melody and enough fuzz to be serious. Before long though, it starts to feel a little too folktronic and ungrounded. It’s very good, it just doesn’t quite come together as an album.
Jon Batiste, We Are– As one might expect from an album by the Late Show’s band leader, this is well made and technically very proficient, with classic soul references all over. But I feel that somehow production is trumping the emotional connection throughout.
Lil Dirk/Only The Family, Only The Family Presents: Loyal Bros– 23 song sampler from the Only The Family hip-hop production company. There’s definitely some good stuff here, but it’s hard for a sampler to qualify as a great album in a coherent sense, and a lot of the material is a little too-gangster oriented and misogynist “bitch” rant-full for me. Fans of the genre might find it useful to bookmark some names to keep an eye on, though.
Lost Girls, Menneskekollektivet– This kind of sounds like the album name might lead you to suspect, a sound project from an art collective. Not uninteresting, but not my cup of cha.
Mare Cognitum, Solar Paroxysm– If you tell me you are a “Portland Oregon one-man cosmic black metal band” I’m already at least halfway there. The strong opening did not disappoint, but the vocals were so scream-doomy that the lyrics were practically inaccessible. It’s really this complete lyrical opacity that landed it in “no”. The music was 100%!
Michael Beach, Dream Violence– It starts rocking right away, which is always a good way to get my attention, with hints of classic rock, 80s alt, 90s rock, a moody haunted sound. I kind of loved it, until it ended with three long slow songs in a row, leading to complete second half deflation. Musicians! DON’T FUCKING DO THIS!
Mint Julep, In a Deep and Dreamless Sleep– Nice dream pop, it’s very pretty, but it all kind of shimmers into the background.
New Bums, Last Time I Saw Grace– Nice acoustic rock, intelligent lyrical work, it maintains a steady mood, but a little too steady, not enough musical or tone variability to make it really stand out.
Sara Watkins, Under the Pepper Tree– Really pretty covers of standards, but a little too blandly pretty. I frequently found myself wishing that her bluegrass roots would show through more.
serpentwithfeet, DEACON– What’s that you say? A gay indie soul album? I mean I love that, but unfortunately I think I admire what it’s doing much more than how it’s doing it, which is too low-key and narrow a range, musically and vocally.
Sunburned Hand of the Man, Pick a Day to Die– Ain’t my groove. Opening track was instrumental low-key atmospheric electronica, occasionally some actual beats and vocals kicked in but everything felt a bit loonngggg.
Tex Crick, Live in…New York City– Charming 70s feel, but a little too muted and low key, all one tone.
The Antlers, Green to Gold– Nice sort of folkie low-key indie. Nothing wrong with it, but the tracks all blend into each other in a way too low-key fashion for my taste.
The Writhing Squares, Chart for the Solution– The opening is like a great trip into the arty side of synth early 80s but with elements of something thrashier, then it ends up being something I might call noise jazz. Overall, a little too discordant art project for me.
Various Artists, Endless Garage– Project of John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees that pulls in various musicians, instruments, and sound effects. An interesting art project, but it doesn’t add up to an album.
Visionist, A Call to Arms– Noise and disorganized music samples, sections have vocals and melody but in a muted low key ambient background kind of way.
William Doyle, Great Spans of Muddy Time– a little too muted musically and emotionally. It seemed to be going sinister for a second, but, alas, backed off.
And there we are for March! One quarter of the year down on our way to uncovering the best 21albums of 2021. See you again for the April wrap-up!
Welcome to part three of my ten-part review of critic’s choices for the 52 best albums of 2010-2019! (52 is weird, right? We ended up with that number for technical reasons explained below.) If you missed the earlier editions, you can find them here:
This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. You may also want to check out the latest installments of my overview of the critical consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020, and my monthly review of 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 total posts of 5 each (or actually 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. Got it? Then let’s do Part 3!
Body Talk (Robyn, 2010, 7 votes)– I think this is Swedish dance music that would have sounded pretty at home somewhere in the borderline between the 80s and the early 90s? It’s well performed and well produced, and there are some songs here that are clever, unusual, and fun, which I certainly would want in my collection as singles. But overall I have trouble feeling like it adds up to a consistent album, never mind “Best of the Decade” territory.
Bon Iver (Bon Iver, 2011, 5 votes)– The great danger of indie folk is that it has a tendency to sound the same- both internally from track to track in an album, and between albums. Which is not to say it is, by any means, bad. But a solid album’s worth of no changes in musical or vocal tone, well, that doesn’t always make for a great album. This album is fine, as far as I can tell. Just not a kind of fine I particularly groove on. And, fine or not, it never feels like it gets to great.
Brothers (The Black Keys, 2010, 4 votes)– Remember Rock? Remember when you first heard it? Really heard it? The further one gets into this century, the harder it is to remember what that felt like. The Black Keys, like the White Stripes (lots of bad blood there, don’t tell them I compared them), remember. This album, like their music in general, taps into that threshold where blues crosses over and becomes rock. And in the process takes me back to why I loved rock in the first place.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Angel Olsen, 2014, 5 votes)– I liked the intro with its richly textured acoustic guitar, and her beautifully dolorous voice. Then the second track kicked into a 90s rocker girl mode, and uh, I was done for. Her vocals are very interesting, with smart and nervy lyrics, and the music knows its way around rock history. It keeps changing musical modes, but is tied together by her undeniable presence. By track three I was officially ensorcelled, and remained so until the end.
Carrie & Lowell(Sufjan Stevens, 2015, 5 votes)– To say this isn’t quite the tour de force that his album Illinoise was, well, that’s like saying “not quite Brothers Karamazov, but still good Dostoyevsky”. The emotional and musical texturing of the songs is rich, and the lyrics, as always, searingly earnest and personal. If there’s anything more I might ask for, it’s more moments, vocally and musically, that break out of the relatively narrow emotional palette of the album. Then again, it’s an album about sorting out the emotional aftermath of his mother’s death, so you can’t exactly fault it for that.
All right, there we are! Fifteen down, which means 37 to go. Who knows what wonders we still have to discover?
As part of my quest to get re-connected to new music after several busy (if not sometimes downright difficult) years, I’m reviewing the critical consensus on the best 20 albums of 2020. If you missed the earlier installments, you can find them here:
This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. You may also want to check out the latest installments of my review of the critics choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and my monthly search for the 21 best albums of 2021.
To quickly recap my methodology, I took year-end “best album” lists from All Music Guide, AV Club, Billboard, Consequence of Sound, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, Mojo, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Spin. For every album one or more of these sources listed, I tallied up the votes that album got between all of them, and took the highest scoring twenty albums. I’ll be breaking up the reviews into four blocks of five albums each, and then doing a sum-up at the end.
With that explained, here are 11-15:
Punisher (Phoebe Bridgers, 10 votes)– The kick-off with strings and disembodied keyboard notes had me concerned. From there it becomes well done indie pop rock, with sophisticated emotional lyrics, and clear production. It tends mostly to a muted tempo and musical pallet, which is a shame, since the few more up-tempo moments are super-fun. It also ends up feeling unbalanced. Everything here is high quality, but I don’t see it coherently adding up to a “Best of the Year” album. Which apparently I’m in the minority on!
Reunions (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, 8 votes)– The first track kicks into gear right away, with soulful yearning vocals and lyrics, and moody acoustic background instrumentation. As you might expect from a former Drive-by Trucker, the songs freely mix acoustic, electric, country, and rock, but they all keep hitting with the same level of power, solid song structure, and a haunting melancholy feel. You’ll hear hints here of Dylan, Neil Young, and Jackson Browne, but nothing that rings inauthentic or derivative. Really a mighty fine album.
Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan, 7 votes)– Full disclosure: Bob Dylan is in my all-time top five favorite musical artists. I appreciate almost everything he does on some level. That being said, I don’t have blinders on to the fact that, once you get past the mid-70s, not every album is necessarily a …timeless masterpiece. So hopefully I have some credibility when I say that this album deserves to take a place with the trio of widely revered “later-day” Dylan albums- Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times. The first song here is like an elegy to himself, and the last is an elegy to the entire era since his debut in the early 60s. That same mood pervades in between, and things are in top lyrical and musical form- thick with allusions and references, and stripped-down and effective use of different blues idioms. If not a timeless masterpiece, at the very least an excellent outing from an old master.
RTJ4 (Run the Jewels, 12 votes)– I was more familiar with Run the Jewels co-lead Killer Mike’s politics than his music, though based on his politics I had certain expectations of what his music might be like. These were not disappointed. I was hooked from the initial burst of metallic beats and high-impact lyrics, both demanding respect. The whole album is so dynamic and clever, and political without being polemical, which is always the big challenge. This brought me back to a feeling I haven’t had since the heyday of Public Enemy. Which is good, because now more than ever we need to party for our right to fight!
Saint Cloud (Waxahatchee, 6 votes)– The music is solid in a country-inflected indie rock with multi-instrument production flourishes kind of way, but what really moves it above and beyond is her voice. (Waxahatchee is a band fronted by Alabama-raised singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield.) Because of her voice, both vocally and lyrically, everything here sounds earnest and authentic despite/on top of the production gloss. This kind of reminds me of the space Edie Brickell used to occupy. And I loved the space Edie Brickell used to occupy!
We’ve now reviewed 15 of the top 20 critic’s choices for best albums of 2020. Tune in next time for the final five!
In an effort to get re-connected to new music, I am in search of the 21 best albums of 2021! To that end, I’m listening to new releases every month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final shake-out after the year ends. If you missed the January round-up, you can find it here.
(This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year, you may also be interested in checking out the latest editions of my review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s and 2020.)
Let’s start with a quick note about the three categories:
Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. This is no guarantee! In fact, at current pace, we’ll end up with well over 100 possibilities, so there’s going to be quite a reckoning at the end.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I had some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that certain “maybes” have a habit of lingering though, 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’ll proceed! Here’s my take on the 67(!) new releases I listened to in February:
Aaron Lee Tasjan, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!– The first track is like a lost 70s song from Todd Rundgren suddenly popped out of a wormhole. This isn’t an accident, as the accompanying video proves. Subsequent tracks are in the same vein and it is utterly charming. While the music has a 70s timeless feel, the very clever lyrics are full of modern references and personality. For what it’s worth, this and the Baio album from last month are the only albums in 98 I’ve listened to from January and February that I found myself singing along to out loud!
Alice Cooper, Detroit Stories– This album is like a double musical love letter, both to Detroit and to Rock itself. Cooper does both covers and originals here, with hints of Iggy Pop, Kiss, the MC5 and other icons of a certain era in that city abounding. Honestly, it’s a little bit of a mess, but a glorious and heartfelt mess! It just makes me happy.
Black Nash, Black Nash– I kind of fucking love this! It’s lo fi rock with occasional noise rock tendencies, but also classic rock call-backs, and a place for melody. Musically, vocally, and lyrically, it’s distinct from the get go.
Celeste, Not Your Muse– A very well-produced British R&B/soul/jazz/dance offering with smoky, soulful, affecting lyrics. It’s a good mix of uptempo and downtempo songs, and works equally well on both. Just lovely the whole way through- she doesn’t have to be anyone’s muse, because the muse itself is at her beck and call.
Claud, Super Monster– Musically and vocally very sweet, like a treat right from the first song. Things here are bright and shimmering, with just the right undertone from the emotionally earnest vocals/lyrics (as a nonbinary artist they bring an additional layer of meaning to both), and a perfect home-produced pop sensibility.
Cloud Nothings, The Shadow I Remember– Crunchy feedback-laden rock with a dreamy choral background, lyrical and vocal power, and a great way with melody. It’s really pretty delightful.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, L.W.– I mean, the name, right? Is this a lo-fi hard rock album? A garage/psychedelic throwback? A weird jazz sitar album? Yes to all! I’d never heard of this band before, but apparently they are a recording powerhouse with a devoted following in their native Australia. You won’t hear anything else that sounds like this, and it is excellent.
Lael Neale, Acquainted With Night– This is great from the start- clear lovely instruments, arresting vocals, poetic/personal/philosophical lyrics. It has a curiously timeless sound, like something at the intersection of Joan Baez and Dylan has gotten unmoored in time. It was also home recorded on an omnichord. I had not previously known what an omnichord was, and if you don’t either I encourage you to look it up because they’re pretty amazing.
Melvins, Working With God– I had previously outed myself in our January edition as a Melvins fan. I mean, I don’t feel any need to be closeted about it, really. If a certain kind of sludgy stoner rock with a big vein of humor appeals to you, they are that par excellence. This album opens with “I Fuck Around”, a song sent to the tune of the Beach Boys. And, sure enough, they are fucking around for the length of this album. But their fucking around is more entertaining than many another band’s best effort.
Tele Novella, Merlynn Belle– Vocally charming, with clever clear lyrics, and it casts a spell. Is this a flamenco album? A sad country album? An effort by a twee singer songwriter? All yeses, and I love it!
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Carnage– The dark hypnotic power of the opening track pretty much had me, and it didn’t let up from there. Cave’s darkling imaginings are well-supported here by the brooding music and its eerie flourishes. Poetic, beautiful, and often heartbreaking.
Hearty Har, Radio Astro– When you discover that this band is driven by John Fogerty’s sons, you might develop certain expectations. Those expectations are not disappointed- you’ll hear 60s garage rock, pop, soul, and psychedlia, all with a 00s rock sensibility. It is just damn good.
Sam Coffey and the Iron Lungs, Real One– Rock! Oh my god, rock! I’d almost forgotten what it could sound like. The specific varieties you’ll hear here most reflect 70s cock rock, 70s/80s album-oriented rock stations, and the pub rock side of British punk. It is, in a sense, nothing new or unfamiliar. But it is oh so welcome.
Sarah Mary Chadwick, Me and Ennui are Friends Baby– Yes, that cover is really something. And it gives you a clue, albeit somewhat misleadingly, to what’s going on inside. I love the ragged vocals and bitter emotionally sophisticated lyrics. The phrasing and music interplay in a way that belies the simplicity of each, creating layers even though it’s substantially only her voice and piano. Between all this, the album is legitimately harrowing. It’s like something this raw and deliberately unpretty shouldn’t be out there. But here it is.
The Hold Steady, Open Door Policy– The Hold Steady’s ability to do storytelling in a song is really nonpareil. Except for, you know, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. So yes, you’ll hear echoes of them throughout, but never in a way that sounds merely like a copy. And the music has complexity and variability, with power and swagger. They won me over on the first track, and then never lost me from there.
Transatlantic, The Absolute Universe: Forevermore– The phrase “Progressive Rock Supergroup”, frankly, should set off alarm bells. And then the fact that the album is an hour and a half long? One should be running for the hills. It’s a fascinating story, though. Faced with a dispute over whether or not to release a double-album or something more streamlined, the principals of the band decided- Why not both?!??! The shorter version isn’t simply a selection of songs from the longer album though- each was independently produced, so the same song on each can sound quite different. This is the longer version (you’ll see the shorter one mentioned in a section below), and it’s pretty amazing. It feels like the high point of 70s Prog Rock/concept albums resurrected itself, in a way that’s simultaneously familiar but fun, and, for lack of a better word, friendly. Against all likelihood, I wanted every minute of the whole hour and a half.
Valley Maker, When the Day Leaves– This album had a country-flavored indie folk thing going. Granted, there is a lot out there that sounds like that, but there are many musical and production surprises here, and strong lyrics. I just kind of dig it!
Another Michael, New Music and Big Pop– I liked the personal lyrics and weirdly off-kilter vocals of this clear, bright, energetic acoustic-tinged pop with a 70s vibe plus 2000s indie flavor. Some of it was a little too muted, though.
Cassandra Jenkins, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature– This would have been a yes if not for a meandering 7 minute instrumental track at the end. A NY-based artist and musician with quiet intensity in her vocals, and a deep philosophical vibe that takes the simpler music into overdrive.
Chris Crack, Might Delete Later– Musically this reminded me of the heyday of concious hip hop in the 90s, but with a swager of attitude and production familiar from 2000s hip hop. If there had been less “bitch” and “pussy” throughout, it probably would have been a “yes”.
Curtis Salgado, Damage Control– A nice contemporary blues album that does a good wrestle with mortality and aging on many tracks. It never rises above a certain level musically or lyrically, but it’s a fun, fun listen.
Dan Kroha, Detroit Blues– It seems weird to put an album of stripped down blues covers by an alumni of Detroit punk bands in the running for best album of the year, but it is great material really well done.
Django, Djiango, Glowing in the Dark– Energetic and propulsive, kind of electronica by way of Alan Parsons/Moody Blues art rock. Or an art rock band by way of electronica? It’s very catchy! It kept veering toward repetitive, but then the sheer well-doneness of it all pulls it out.
Foo Fighters, Medicine at Midnight– I mean, I don’t think there is a bad Foo Fighters album. And the rock informed by funk/groove thing they’re exploring here is fun. The sort of problem is lots of other bands in the 2000s have already occupied this space. But the Foos sound great doing it!
Katy Kirby, Cool Dry Place– She has an extraordinary voice, in both the lyrical and vocal senses, and is musically dynamic too- folky, rocky, the kind of searing feel you get from Aimee Mann. But it doesn’t feel quite consistent/coherent enough to be a great album.
Maximo Park, Nature Always Wins– It rocks right from the get-go, which I appreciate, and has a Bowiesque/Roxy Music/80s alt feeling. I would have loved this album in my 80s alt youth! My only reservation keeping it from “yes” is the dated feel.
Mush, Lines Redacted– I feel like I’ve flashed back to somewhere in 1979-1981 and landed in the most gonzo and discordant side of post punk/new wave. I kind of love it! But is it too dated sounding?
slowthai, Tyron– It took me a little while to get in to this British hip hop album, but then I was loving it. The witty and unusual lyrical voice, and neat production and sampling really grew on me.
The Boys With The Perpetual Nervousness, Songs From Another Life– Beats, guitars, melody, and sugary vocals bam in from the get-go. What can I say, I love the jangle pop. Maddeningly, this has a problem many things I’ve listened to do- second half deflation. Bands! Don’t put all your slower songs one after another at the end!
The Telescopes, Songs of Love and Revolution– The wall of fuzzy guitar is a good start. I can’t make out the lyrics, but do I care? It’s a beautiful noise a la Jesus & Mary Chain or My Bloody Valentine, the only reservation is it’s so deliberately noisy I don’t know how regularly I’d want to hear it.
TV Priest, Uppers– Hey, rock! In an angular, nervy, post-punk kind of vein. It’s a debut album by a band that first played together 20 years ago, which is a great story. Musically I was over the moon, but the vocals were a little too one shouting tone, which wore on its durability.
Virginia Wing, Private LIFE– Lyrically and vocally intriguing, with fun and unusual musical & production choices. Arty, smart, and orchestral in a synth kind of way, it did a really good job of keeping my interest. About my only reservation is that it may be too deliberately discordant for frequent listening.
Ad Nauseam, Imperative Imperceptible Impulse– Italian Death Metal band. It’s a little too 57 minutes of death metal not in English to be a good general album of the year contender, but genre fans certainly might enjoy it.
Adeline Hotel, Good Timing– Nicely textured acoustic instrumental. It’s very nice, but too mellow, too one-tone, too lyric-free to be a “best”.
AJ Croce, By Request– I love a good cover album, and these are a great fit with his blues/americana sensibility, but ultimately they’re too faithful to the originals to rise above and stand out.
Blanck Mass, In Fernaeux– I mean, if your name is almost Black Mass and your album is almost named Inferno, I’m expecting something a little more dark and heavy than this. It was more in an electronica/sound art vein. By turns too ambient and too abstract for me.
Brijean, Feelings– It’s got beats, it’s got dreamy musical swirls, it’s got fuzzed out vocals. It’s not bad, but it’s just not my jam.
Cabaret Voltaire, Shadow of Funk– I honestly never would have considered they were still around-it’s a little too industrial flashback for my tastes.
Deacon Blue, Riding on the Tide of Love– A booming Scottish alternative band with an 80s feel. The first half was great, but then the second went flat as all the dynamism went out of the songs.
Death by Unga Bunga, Heavy Male Insecurity– If you’re going to still be doing punk this far down the line, the unusual metalesque and symphonic flourishes here are a way to make it worthwhile. The five minute track at the end did me in though.
Francois & The Atlas Mountains- Banane Bleue– French indie rock. Certainly well done, but a little too swirly dream pop for me. And also, you know, mostly in French.
Florida Georgia Line, Life Rolls On– I am determined to find a great country album this year. This was not it.
Indigo Sparke, echo– This is 55% of a great album. on tracks 1-3 the acoustic folk vibe is too samey, but then it really picks up with tracks 4-8, before 9 kind of fizzles again.
John Tejada, Year of the Living Dead– Electronica, pretty good as far as it goes, but way too ambient and fading into the background for me.
Juliene Baker, Little Oblivions– Surging and affecting, but I feel like the soul is getting lost in the production, and the tracks tend toward sameness.
Menahan Street Band, The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band– 70s soundtrack vibe, only all originals. It’s too “album out of time” and instrumental to be a year’s best, but it’s so well and lovingly done.
Mia Doi Todd, Music Life– The music and the lyrics are sophisticated and her voice rings like a clear bell, at first I felt like I was in a lost Jefferson Starship album from the mid-70s. But by-and-by it got a little too New Age and self-consciously expository for me.
Mogwai, As the Love Continues– An interesting musical melange, more electronica and synthy than I was expecting, but I’m just not sure what would make it better or worse than a lot of other similar soundscape stuff.
Mouse on Mars, AAI– Electronica is mostly not my genre, so something needs to be above and beyond to catch my attention. That being said, this is certainly well done, although even as electronica goes, a little experimental for me.
Nightshift, Zoe– Almossstttt maybe. A brittle post-punk feeling with experimental flourishes. The good tracks were very good, but it was a little too uneven. For what it’s worth, it was best when the women were on lead vocals instead of the men.
Nonconnah, Songs for and About Ghosts– Experimental sound collage is not my thing.
Pale Waves, Who Am I?– Pop/rock structure is strong from the get-go, it would have been right at home in the 90s or early 2000s. It doesn’t add up to more, but you won’t have a bad time listening to it.
Puma Blue, In Praise of Shadows– Mellow beats, low key vocals, it’s pretty, but the tracks are indistinguishable, and the tempo never “ups”.
Rat Columns, Pacific Kiss– Power-pop, much sweeter than you might expect from a band with the word “rat” in its name. Strong song sensibility, and it doesn’t misstep, until the second half when all the energy and dynamism goes out of it, and the tracks get too shimmery and ethereal.
Robin Thicke, On Earth, As in Heaven– It’s very pleasant. It’s very smooth. It’s very blah.
Roy Montgomery, Island of Lost Souls– While quite good, it was just too ambient for me.
Sia, Music: Songs From and Inspired by the Motion Picture– Good fun dance-oriented pop, I’m just not sure it gets beyond that.
Smerz, Believer– Kind of like an abstract music theory senior thesis project.
Sun June, Somewhere– Ghostly breathless vocals, lyrics are sophisticated, mellow musical vibe, it’s got the minor chords, but ultimately everything is too much the same.
Tash Sultana, Terra Firma– Well produced, jazz-inflected, but just too 80s easy listening for me.
The Staves, Good Woman– The vocals are nice, the music is nice (with occasional surging surprises in each), but all a little too smooth and fading to sameness.
The Weather Station, Ignorance– Quiet vocals, beats, and jazz flourishes, with occasional touches of frenzy or eerie dissonance that complement the harrow of the lyrics, but it is a little too one tone emotionally/musically, albeit very well done.
The Weeknd, The Highlights– Very well produced dance music, some great singles certainly. It’s fun high-energy pop, and it’s not doing anything wrong. But does it add up to an album?
Tindersticks, Distractions– Beats, mellow vibes, disembodied vocals. It’s a little too low key electronica for me compared to, say, a Daft Punk/LCD Soundsystem approach. I did appreciate the Neil Young cover, though.
Transatlantic, The Absolute Universe: The Breath of Life– It’s a little surprising to see this here, right? The extended version made my “yes” list. I actually appreciate the production more on the longer version (this one has a more 80s feel), and it’s weird how this version essentially repeats the intro track twice in a row.
Wild Pink, A Billion Little Lights– Some nice instrumental flourishes, but a little too muted for me, somehow it doesn’t ever emotionally or musically rise above.
Willie Nelson, That’s Life– This is Nelson’s second recent album of Sinatra covers. (Dylan’s been doing this too lately. Why is this in the air?) The covers are a little too straightforward, but they are well done, and I like the worn gold sound of his voice here.
And there we have it, the “Yes”, “No”, and “Maybe” from February. Join me in a month (give or take) for the March roundup!
Welcome to the second installment of my review of the best albums (according to critical consensus) of the 2010s. If you missed Part 1, you can find it here. This is one of three musically-themed blog series I’m doing this year. You may also be interested in my review of the reputed 20 best albums of 2020 (latest edition here), and my search for the 21 best albums of 2021 (January edition here).
To quickly review methodology, 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 total posts of 5 each (or actually 6 on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. And now, without further ado, here’s Part II!
Anti (Rihanna, 2016, 7 votes)– There’s musical and lyrical sophistication here, and songs that are sometimes more conventional, sometimes more personal and confessional. It’s very well produced, but I don’t know that it makes the level of a “best album” of the decade. It is, par excellence, what a big chunk of the decade sounded like. But I’m not sure it holds up to the best of other soul/R&B/dance albums from the same time period.
Art Angels (Grimes, 2015, 4 votes)– The ethereal disembodied first track almost sent me away, but then the variability and verve of the subsequent efforts brought me back. Quirky music, quirky vocals, very upbeat. She knows pop music, and then keeps ‘effin with it with dissonant choices, which I appreciate. If this was the average level pop music was landing at, it would be a grand thing!
Beyonce(Beyonce, 2013, 6 votes)– From the first track, which tackles body image and social pressure, this is a pop album in service of a higher purpose. Whether tackling social issues, personal biography, or emotional confession, track after track aims for import. In lesser hands, this could be an unwieldy exercise. But given skill and vision, it can be pulled off, and is amazing when it works (cf. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation). Beyonce’s hands are not lesser- between mastery of the musical idioms of soul and R&B, by turns soaring and subtle vocals, rich production, and incisive lyrics, she delivers.
Blackstar (David Bowie, 2016, 6 votes)– As a David Bowie fan, I had been curious about his final album. The opening/title song is mesmerizing and self-valedictory, in the course of 10 minutes, it tries out styles from throughout his long career. Subsequent tracks stick more to a unified musical theme, with healthy portions of dissonant art rock and electronic beats. Vocally and musically the tracks are unsettling in the way many a Bowie song can be unsettling, and then on top of that there is an obvious concern with history, legacy, and mortality throughout. It’s a powerful thing to do with a record and makes for a fitting swan song.
Blonde (Frank Ocean, 2016, 8 votes)– Is it just me, or does the first track sound like an autotuned chipmunk? Real vocals kicked in midway, but the sound was still very autotuned. Which is a shame, because musically it’s making many unusual and interesting choices for R&B. Dammit, it’s growing on me. The arrangement and production is actually really, really good. Except for the occasional dip back into autotuned chipmunk. But this is a fun and unusual sounding album. I can see why it ended up on so many lists!
And that’s it for Part II. Ten down, 42 to go! Which means we may learn the secret to Life, the Universe, and Everything…
Welcome to Part II of my review of the reputed 20 Best Albums of 2020. In case you missed Part I, you can find it here. This is one of three music blog series I’m doing this year as I seek to reacquaint myself with new music. You may also want to check out the most recent editions of the other two, in which I seek out the Best Albums of the 2010s, and search for the 21 Best Albums of 2021.
A quick reminder on the methodology for this series: I took year-end “best album” lists from All Music Guide, AV Club, Billboard, Consequence of Sound, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, Mojo, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Spin. For every album one or more of these sources listed, I tallied up the votes that album got between all of them. I’ll be breaking up the reviews into four blocks of five albums each, and then doing a sum-up at the end.
With that explained, here are my reviews of 6-10!
Heavy Light (U.S. Girls, 4 votes)– This album has solid 2000s beats with nice overtones of 70s music in several guises- 70s Soul, Patti Smith, AM radio. She (U.S. Girls is the vehicle of producer/musician Meghan Remy) has such a great pop sensibility, but it’s laced throughout with lyrical subversion. And livened by some surprising musical choices and vocal varieties on particular tracks. Crucially, these surprising moments still fit with the overall album. This grew on me track by track.
It Is What It Is (Thundercat, 7 votes)– I mean, if you call your band Thundercat, you’re already halfway there with me. This seems to be a kind of jazz fusion sound, very mellow. It’s well done, but I can’t find a heart of anything that feels real or vital in most of it. It wasn’t until track four that I found the first song that really engaged me, and then not again for several more tracks. Really, critics?
Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen, 4 votes)– I’m a big Springsteen fan, but with a particular valence. I have a marked preference for the “dark” Springsteen of every other album (or so), when a certain pessimism and airing of fears and doubts boils to the surface. Thus, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and Magic, for instance. This album is definitely in that vein, which is not to say there aren’t surging anthemic moments (especially since the E Street Band is backing him here). But there’s a central preoccupation with aging, loss, and ghosts of memory, and Springsteen is in fine lyrical form wrestling with these themes.
Live Forever(Bartees Strange, 6 votes)– The muted musical background, swirling sound effects, and sweetly rough off-kilter vocals of the opening wove a spell. While beautiful, it would have been bad news if it all stayed in that low-key vein, but the next track went immediately up-tempo and rock-y and became almost a hardcore song by the end. The next one was like a beat-oriented indie rock song, the next after that in a neo-soul/hip-hop flavored vein. And so on, through a dizzying array of musical modes. All of this, tied together by a strong and surprisingly vulnerable lyrical voice throughout, makes for a very interesting listen. I well understand what it’s doing in the top 20!
Petals for Armor (Hayley Williams, 7 votes)– This solo venture by Paramore’s lead singer features electronic beats, strong clear vocals, and dark lyrics. There’s a kind of simplicity of the music, which is belied by the complexity of the lyrics and surprises in her vocal delivery. I’m not sure about this as a “best”, but it is a consistently interesting high energy listen.
So there we are, 10 down, 10 to go. Join me next time for 11-15!