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In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: The 21 Best Albums of 2021!

Well my friends, here we are!

It was over a year ago that, as part of an effort to catch up on newer music, I set out to find the 21 best albums of 2021 by listening to new releases each month, and sorting them into yes/maybe/no. If you missed the individual monthly installments, you can find them here:

( January February March April May June July August September October November December )

This was one of three music-related blog series I did this past year. The final installment of my review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s is here, and the wrap-up of my review of the critic’s consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020 is here.

But you don’t want to hear about all that now, do you? You want to find out what the 21 best albums of 2021 were! We’ll get there in just a second, but first a quick overview of how I got to the final list:

  • Over the course of the year I listened to 1,026 (!) new releases
  • From these, I got a “Yes” list of 244 albums
  • Adding to this some entries from the “Maybe” list that had lingered with me got me 356 total possibilities
  • Re-listening to these 356 albums, I narrowed it down to 163 semi-finalists
  • I then gave these 163 another listen to get my top 21 (and 79 honorable mention)

And here, without further ado, are the plucky finalists. Aka,The 21 Best Albums of 2021!

Arlo Parks, Collapsed in Sunbeams– A solid selection of British Soul, with a poetic sensibility throughout. Her lyrical emotional sophistication is breath-taking, and often haunting. On a musical level it is, in a way, very straightforward smooth soul. But that’s the knife edge that slips the lyrics in between your ribs before you know what’s happened.

Baio, Dead Hand Control– A solo effort from one of the leads of Vampire Weekend. It booms into gear from the get go, and feels like I’ve fallen in to the Pretty in Pink/Some Kind of Wonderful soundtracks. You can take the boy out of the Alternative 80s, but you can never fully take the Alternative 80s out of the boy… Having listened to it several times at different points during the past year, I can testify that every time it makes me happy.

Bruiser Wolf, Dope Game Stupid– Vocally and lyrically unusual, surrealistic, smart, and sometimes downright hilarious hip-hop. It deals, as many hip hop albums do, with the street life and the drug trade, but makes such unusual musical, lyrical, and vocal choices that it sounds nothing like every other hip hop album while doing it. 

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 if she doesn’t want to, but she obviously knows the muse well herself.

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

Defcee & Messiah Musik, Trapdoor– This Chicago hip-hop artist brings super-smart and conscious lyrics, muscular vocal delivery, and a spare approach to beats and mix. This reminds me of a certain stream of 90s hip-hop that I’ve missed.

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.

Esther Rose, How Many Times– Solid acoustic folk with nice country 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. this is a great example of an album that does not necessarily have titanic ambitions, but wins through by flawless execution.

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. It feels hard to believe you haven’t known these songs your whole life.

JJJJJerome Ellis, The Clearing– This album is really, a philosophical thesis about Blackness in America, ranging from history and literature to modern pop culture and everything in-between. That general subject area is anchored by Ellis’s specific meditations on music, and his own personal experience with his lifelong stutter (which he works in to the lyrics and music in various ways). All this is accompanied by clear beats and the light touch of smartly deployed electronic keyboard effects. It is fairly heady material, but also engaging in a way that keeps it working through multiple listens.

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. Between musical variety and verve, soaring vocals, and sharp lyrics that address the personal and the social, there isn’t a single thing here not to love! Hill started as a backup singer who broke out on her own, was a former contestant on The Voice, and afterward was produced by Prince, and you can hear how much she’s mastered along the way.

Lana Del Rey, Blue Bannisters– This was her second album this past year, and, as always, she’s amazing. I did wonder about the slow vein it started in and mostly maintains, but as it goes on, it’s clear that this is deliberate- the album is a meditation on the richness of heartbreak and feeling blue. And it’s magnificently done.

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 so personal, evocative, and poetic that I think it reaches any audience even if that subtext is missed.

Luke Haines, Luke Haines in…Setting the Dogs on the Post Punk Postman– Oh my god, I love it! The kind of simultaneously personal and international tales of intrigue delivered in melodic pop and rock that Warren Zevon used to deliver. One might also hear hints of Elvis Costello or Nick Lowe. It pulls you in to its own weird world, and I never wanted it to end.

Nick Waterhouse, Promenade Blue– 50s/early 60s rock/soul revival sound with a wild edge and hint of alt rock darkness. Think of a kind of intersection of Buddy Holly/Buster Poindexter/Brian Setzer/early Elvis Costello. It’s nonstop excellent, and I fucking love it.

Remi Wolf, Juno– Musically, this is coming from a dance/pop direction, but her personality, hilarious and super-smart lyrics, and the verve and variety of the music mix all put it over the top. Apparently, she was on American Idol in 2014 as a high school student. She was way too good for them, as she subsequently proved by getting a music degree and then self-releasing her own material. This is her studio album debut, and I love it more each time I hear it. It’s not quite clear to me why she isn’t running the world, but I’m convinced eventually she will be!

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, but in the best indie lo-fi home-recorded kind of way, in the rest of the album. This is angsty, quirky, idiosyncratic, and delightfully unafraid to be awkward and goony.

Sarah Mary Chadwick, Me and Ennui are Friends Baby– Yes, that cover is really something. And it gives you a clue, in a way, to what’s going on inside. I love the ragged vocals and bitter emotionally sophisticated lyrics. The phrasing and music interplay 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, revealing, and deliberately unpretty shouldn’t be out there. But here it is.

St. Lenox, Ten Songs of Worship & Praise for our Tumultuous Times– Boisterous, quirky and awkwardly earnest vocals and lyrics, music informed by gospel and electronic, unconventional spirituality, this really does achieve its stated aim of delivering songs of worship for our modern age!

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

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, and sounds equally natural and authentic doing it all. Bob Dylan has cited her as one of the contemporary artists he listens to, and I can see why. This is exquisite and gorgeous!

So there you have it, the 21 best albums of 2021.

But wait! Did I mention something above about honorable mention? I did! Having come all this way, it seemed remiss to not include albums that didn’t quite make the top 21, but still quite caught my fancy. 79 of them, to round us out to a nice even 100:

  • Aesop Rock/Blockhead, Garbology– I’ve listened to many great hip-hop albums this past year. And a whole lot of bad ones. So the bar is pretty high, but this collaboration of Portland-based underground hip-hop impresario Matthias Bavitz, aka Aesop Rock, and Manhattan record producer and DJ Tony Simon, aka Blockhead, deliverd. The vocals are pleasingly goony and un-smooth, the musical mix is wildly varied and muscular, and the lyrics are smart and off-kilter.

  • 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.

  • Amythyst Kiah, Wary + Strange– A plaintive folk-inflected beginning, then a muscular bruising blues track, then back to soulful orchestral folk, on to an eerie steel blues, and so on (with a country song tossed in the middle too). Musically excellent, and informed throughout with vocal power and sharp, clear, lyrical picture-painting.

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

  • 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 electronica, and the vocals are a kind of low-key narration. It all seems calculated to undersell how disturbing the content is.

  • BackRoad Gee, Reporting Live (From the Back of the Roads)– This British-Congolese artist brings together African pop, hip-hop, UK dub, and a delightful skillful wielding of varied sound effects and musical backgrounds. All this would work well just on the sonic side, but on top of that, lyrically it grapples honestly and intelligently with details of hard life in Africa and the UK.

  • Bat Fangs, Queen of My World– Do you know how much I appreciate jumping in at full rock from the first note? I appreciate it a lot! This album is steeped in the brighter side of 80s hard rock and hair metal, but with female leads. This works well, they deliver flawless cock rock without the downsides of cock attitude.

  • Benny the Butcher/Harry Fraud, The Plugs I Met 2– This collaboration brings together a New York-based MC and a hip-hop producer. There’s beautiful musical sampling work, fun weaving in of Scarface references, smooth vocal style, and lyrics with strong storytelling.

  • Big Jade, Pressure– I was a little flummoxed by this. It’s often the kind of bragging and dissing brand of hip-hop that I usually pass on. On the other hand, the gender inversion of how she does it is interesting, and the vocal stylings are strong and dynamic. There’s also a certain self-awareness in the unpleasantness of the character she puts forward. I can’t dismiss it!

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

  • Birds of Maya, Valdez– Recorded in 2014 as a follow-up to their well-received 2013 debut, but just now released due to the Philadelphia-based band reforming. Bruising noise rock, pieces that go into surging, crunching length, with hints of psychedelia and metal along the way but informed by punk spirit- this is as excellently straight-up as 2000s hard rock gets.

  • Charlotte Cornfield, Highs in the Minuses– This Canadian singer-songwriter is a hidden (at least heretofore to me) gem! Her songs know how to work a chord change and are solid musically, but where they really shine is the lyrics. They seem in a way, insularly personal and specific, but in that very specificity are somehow relatable- this is her life, and her thoughts and feelings about it, and hey, that kind of reminds me of my life, and my thoughts and feelings about it.

  • Circle/Richard Dawson, Henki– Dawson is an English neo-folk musician, and Circle is a Finnish experimental rock band. They describe this album as “flora-themed hypno-folk-metal”. That’s actually a pretty fair description of the mind-bending sound here. A little like prog rock, a little like Bowie and Ferry at their most theatrical, a little pinch of Bauhaus, a little off-kilter musically, vocally and lyrically, but always interesting and feeling looming with import. It’s not like everything else.

  • Cola Boyy, Prosthetic Boombox– Some disco throwback, some home-studio electronica, a lot of wit and eclecticism, not to mention solid fun. Score one for the Oxnard music scene!

  • Dave Gahan & The Soulsavers, Imposter– I don’t know what I was expecting from a Depeche Mode member’s side project, but I guess something generally Depeche Modey? To be sure, this is darkly textured and full of mood, but this series of widely ranging covers is musically treated as an invocation of old fashioned R&B, 60s soul, and the darker minor chords of 60s rock. Among others, he covers Neil Young and Dylan, which is a good way to win me over. There’s always been strong of homage to soul and R&B in synth pop, and I can see the dotted line between Depeche Mode and what he’s doing here musically, but it’s still an interesting and welcome surprise!

  • Deap Vally, Marriage– Now that kicks off with a crunching guitar and feedback start! A female rock duo from Los Angeles, sounding exactly like a female rock duo from Los Angeles should. They do fast, they do slow, they do mid-tempo, and they’re gloriously menacingly rocking the whole time.

  • Deerhoof, Actually, You Can– I do love me some Deerhoof! Reville and Apple O are two of my favorite albums of the 00s, and I’ve seen them live several times, which has never been less than great. The opening song is about vegetables and a refrigerator, and every song sounds like a power-pop song exploded and was reassembled. This is lacking some of the surging moments and structural unity of their best albums, but is a pretty worthy outing, all in all.

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

  • 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 great bonus touch to top things off.

  • Ducks Ltd., Modern Fiction– This sounds like some hi-energy alt 80s jangle pop. That, and the name, are both good ways to dispose me favorably. A bit of a time capsule sound from this Toronto band, but darned if it isn’t well done!

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

  • Eris Drew, Quivering in Time– What do you do if you’re holed up in a log cabin in New Hampshire during plague times? If you’re DJ and producer Eris Drew, you mix together this very fine house/electronic album. Electronic music is often a tough sell for me, but this is so full of energy, and a wit in production that moves it dynamically forward while the trance of the beats pulls you hypnotically under that I never even thought about touching that dial. Or clicking that mouse, as it were.

  • For Those I Love, For Those I Love– This is kind of fascinating, a varied and interesting electronica background, thickly accented spoken word vocals, and sometimes searingly personal lyrics. Irish producer and songwriter David Balfe produced this response to losses throughout his life, including the 2018 suicide of his long-time friend and musical partner Paul Curran, and Dublin’s struggles as well. It’s powerful.

  • Foxx Bodies, Vixen– Oh, help me. It’s that band! Punky. Poppy. Heavy crunching guitars, but with melody. Female lead with a strong presence. They’re from Los Angeles in this case, seem to have been kicking around since 2016, and do a very high level of engaging gender politics along the way. What’s not to love?

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

  • Goat Girl, On All Fours– If I had to think of two words to describe this album from British group Goat Girl (which, despite the name, seems to be all human women and not fantastic hybrids) it would be “lush” and “hypnotic”. Musically, it’s a combination of instrumental rock and electronic rock, fused together by strong production and a knowing way with melody. And the vocals are clear and powerful.

  • 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, It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them!– This is the second Guided by Voices album of the year, and, as is their wont, sounds different from the other one, and sounds excellent. This one is more in an early 70s prog/psychedelic groove, with enough guitar in a punk/80s alt vein to keep it moving. I thought Earth Man Blues was more solid all the way through, but this outing is also worthy.

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

  • James McMurty, The Horses and the Hounds– This folk/rock/alt country veteran from the 80s brings stripped down music, ragged vocals, and lyrics that are so sincere and on-point that they’re almost klunky (but in a charming way). He tells impossible not to visualize stories here in the way that country excels at, and the music is rock-country heartland solid.

  • Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales– This album is a musical tour de force with the mix of R&B and hip-hop stylings, vocally dynamic, and, beneath a shiny pop veneer, a nuanced and at times quite personal exploration of female empowerment and both resistance to and complicity with hip hop culture’s misogyny.

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

  • Juan Wauters, Real Life Situations– This Uruguayan musician living in New York City took advantage of COVID confinement to produce a mix of slice of life sound samples, hip-hop, electronic dance music, acoustic, latin pop, and jazz. The whole musical package, along with lyrics in English and Spanish, creates a very listenable urban pastiche of exactly what the title is promising.

  • Juliana Hatfield, Blood– I really like Juliana Hatfield, and I’m also required by law to like smart, angsty, fuzz-guitared 90s songstresses in general. She’s never not had an edge, but this is nasty in a sharp-tongued kind of way, and hilarious. The lyrics feel a little too topically on the nose sometimes, but that’s a minor nit to pick with this solid outing.

  • Karen Peris, A Song Is Way Above the Lawn– Speaking of 90s songstresses… This album by Innocence Mission alumni Peris is meant to be a children’s album, but it works for adults. In fact, it’s exactly those aspects that might make it work for children- a kind of lyrical naiveté, a fable-like quality, a straightforward even somewhat bare musical and vocal presentation, that makes it so affecting. It feels a little like a haunted fairy tale.

  • Kate Davis, Strange Boy– So, I’m kind of in love with this album. Kate Davis, apparently, is a pop and jazz singer-songwriter who is now on her fifth album, a cover of Daniel Johnston’s Retired Boxer. Johnston himself was an outsider musician who’s stripped down approach to music came out of his own experience with mental illness. Somewhere between the quirky charm of the original material and her talented interpretation- her lackadaisical vocals synch perfectly with the lo-fi music- this is just great.
     
  • Krolok, Funeral Winds & Crimson Sky– If you tell me you’re a Slovakian black metal band, I’m always going to want to hear what you have to say next. As it turns out, I really did! This sounds, and I mean this in the very best way possible, like a metal band did a Halloween album for a vampire theme park. Musically, they pulled off something that bands like this often have a hard time with, bridging the looming atmospheric parts with the more straightforward metal parts. Lyrically, I barely caught a word, but I feel like every word penetrated my soul. Easily one of my favorite metal albums of the year.

  • 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 can’t help it!

  • 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 not quite in the league of her other release from the year, Blue Banisters, but it’s powerful!

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

  • Lilly Hiatt, Lately– I have a friend who is a big John Hiatt fan, and, under her influence, I am learning to significantly appreciate him. So I was naturally curious to see what his daughter Lilly was up to. It turns out that she’s up to making a really good country-themed album, with great playing, powerful vocals, and just the right mix of verve with respect for traditionalism.

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

  • Lord Huron, Long Last– I’ve been curious about this Lord, and his great lakey realm, for a while. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this was a very welcome surprise- country inflections with that spooky minor chords sound, sometimes in a downright cowboy ballad vein, but with a heartfelt genuine air. There’s even a framing device for the album that works. It was all superb, and was headed toward being in the 21 best until a 14-minute ambient track at the end. Alas!

  • Lucy Dakus, Home Video– Produced with dark musical tones and vocals with trace of haunting, this meditation on adolescent experiences in the shadow of a strong church upbringing is arresting. It reminds me of the kind of interior work Sufjan Stevens does. I sometimes wondered whether it was too similar musically track to track, but it also never let go of my attention.

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

  • Margo Cilker, Pohorylle– Oregon-based Margo Cilker cut her teeth playing covers of Creedence, Dylan, and Neil Young before touring extensively on her own material. She clearly learned the craft, with dense story songs, a voice that never sounds false, and a sure feel for country-tinged Americana. There’s also some excellent use of the word “fuck”, and even when a song gets a little polemical it never sounds less than achingly sincere.

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

  • 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, with vocals that are in turns growling and poetic from 71 year-old multi-media artist Lonnie Holley. 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. I didn’t hear anything else like it this year.

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

  • Mon Laferte, 1940 Carmen– The second album out from this Chilean songstress this past year. It is just so darn pretty, and her voice is stunning. It also has a mix of Spanish and English, and dips into pop styles of the 60s, making it more accessible (to me, anyway) than her earlier in the year all-Spanish album which focused on Mexican folk music.

  • Moor Mother, Black Encyclopedia of the Air– Moor Mother is the stage name of Camae Ayewa, an American poet, musician, and activist from Philadelphia. With a trippy poetic spoken word start, weirdly syncopated instrumentation and electronic sound effects, it doesn’t sound like everything else. A truly winning outing of left field hip hop and experimental electronic music with dense powerful poetic lyrics.

  • Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, The Future– On the first track this Denver-based singer-songwriter seemed to be channeling late 60s/ early to mid 70s Bob Dylan, which is a great way to get my attention. Subsequently, though, he proves to be doing a romp all through the Americana and R&B of that era. And he does it very well! Does it feel a little like a museum piece? Yes. But a flawless and sincere one!

  • Naytronix, Other Possibilities– The first track is like space jazz playing with a radio tuning dial, the second has what sounds like an electric xylophone intro, the next is like AM radio gold being played on an 80s synth keyboard, and so on. That’s the musical side, the lyrical side is full of longing, and the vocals are heavy on melody with an occasional side trip into gonzo distortion. Naytronix is the solo musical project of Nate Brenner, who is also a member of the band tune-yards whose album Sketchy. I was very favorably impressed with earlier this year. As for this album, I think it literally delivers on the promise of its title, introducing an array of sonic possibilities.

  • 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.

  • Nicole Atkins, Memphis Ice– North Carolina-based self-professed purveyor of “pop noir” Nicole Atkins recorded this album in Memphis, and it feels like an excellent merger of her lush pop vocal style and the 60s soul Memphis sound.

  • Night Beats, Outlaw R&B– I love the idea that the album name brings to mind- an R&B equivalent of Outlaw Country. I wouldn’t quite say it’s delivering that, but it is an R&B brimming with a feeling of 60s rock- I hear some Beatles in there, some Who, some Cream, some Del Shannon. There’s even a spooky gunfighter ballad and a garage rock banger that sneaks in to the mix from somewhere. This was just great, a thoroughly enjoyable turn from this Texas band.

  • Papur Wal, Amser Mynd Adra– Driving upbeat rock with great hooks and a pop feeling. A lot of the album is in Welsh, which definitely is a barrier to my understanding, but the music is so darn accessible!

  • Pip Blom, Welcome Break– This Dutch band knows how to do a poppy, high-energy rock song, and I like the earnest straightforwardness of leader Pip Blom’s vocals. Is it super-profound? Probably not. But it is super-fun, and flawlessly executed. And okay, yes, I’m a sucker for a guitar-crunching, female-led band. So sue me!

  • Pokey LaFarge, In the Blossom of Their Shade– Vocal pop with country, 50s rock, swing, ska, and Latin sounds in the mix. This description is true, but I think it undersells how delightful the combination of this, and his plaintive croon, is. This is some really excellent music.

  • Pom Poko, Cheater– Discordant, but high on melody. Quirky. Clever. This is from the school of post-pock that still knows what makes a perfect pop-rock song, but has blown up the formula and beautifully reconstructed the pieces (think Deerhoof). Also, they’re Norwegian, which may have something to do with it.

  • R.A.P. Ferreira, The Light-Emitting Diamond Cutter Scriptures– Rory Allen Philip Ferreira is an American rapper and producer from Kenosha, Wisconsin. On this album he brings vivid, poetic, spiritually-infused vocal flow with relaxed beats and some spare jazz-inflected background. It might be hard to keep this going for an hour, but at a half-hour run time, it never flags for a moment.

  • Rats on Rafts, Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths– This feels like an album lost in time. Multiple times, actually. You’ll hear traces of psychedelia, 80’s new wave/synthpop, and Industrial. It all adds up to surging atmospheric music. And, as the album name might lead you to expect, it’s also a high concept story album. This could all get out of hand, but it doesn’t, and it’s weirdly wonderful.

  • 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 seems to put out less than a handful of albums and breaks up before meeting with the reception they deserve. Alas!

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

  • Silk Sonic, An Evening With Silk Sonic– Silk Sonic being a collaboration of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, you might be expecting some kind of invocation of 70s soul and funk. Hearing Bootsy Collins is involved with the album, you might expect that even more so. You would be exactly right, and it’s like glorious slow-pouring sonic gold.

  • Steven Wilson, The Future Bites– The mix of melody, samplings, and electronic dance music here brings to mind early 80s Peter Gabriel. It has a tendency toward the ethereal, but the dark bitterness of Wilson’s lyrics and more grating musical touches keep it grounded. All in all, very interesting!

  • TEKE::TEKE, Shirushi– Now this is suitably strange! A Japanese band who’s music is a mix of surf music, traditional forms, and psychedelia-flavored electronic. There’s the language issue, and the fact that it sometimes get a little too experimental, but on the other hand it’s a fun and interesting listen, and the experimentation goes somewhere.

  • 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 outing from a twee singer songwriter? All yeses, and I love it!

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

  • The Coral, Coral Island– This album opens with one of those classic psychedelia spoken word intros. The jangly psychedelia-flavored indie rock that follows, and high concept travel narrative interludes throughout, show this is exactly what this English band is going for, and they deliver-flawlessly.

  • The Darkness, Motorheart– Hard rock and metal, in a gloriously trashy 80s vein. Some throwaway Star Trek references. Guitars, guitars, guitars! It’s kind of like this UK band received the instruction “make an over-the-top parody of this kind of music, except do it totally sincerely” and then brilliantly executed on that mission.

  • The Go! Team, Get Up Sequences Part I– So fun and energetic- it mixes full on indie rock in a synth/bedroom pop vein, 80s-flavored hip-hop, and what sometimes sounds like high school band practice. This is one of those albums where nothing else this past year sounded like it. And it’s delightful!

  • 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 like a mere copy. The music has complexity and variability, with power and swagger. They won me over on the first track, and never lost me from there.

  • The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Dance Songs for Hard Times– Obviously, the band name is great, and the album name is 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!

  • TisaKorean, mr.siLLyfLow– The fresh sound directions from this this Houston rapper, producer, and dancer include soundtrack and cartoon sampling, gonzo vocal flow, and hilarious lyrics. Also, some of the sound effects made my dog bark fitfully. It doesn’t always feel like it fully fits together, but it’s all great. Dog and man recommend!

  • 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 an interesting story, though. Faced with a dispute over whether 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 (I did review the shorter version but didn’t like it as well), 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.

  • Volbeat, Servant of the Mind– “Scandinavian rock band” is one of my happy places, so hearing they were Danes favorably pre-disposed me. Seeing them described as playing a fusion of rock, metal, and rockabilly further piqued my interest. In practice they’re also pretty darn fun. Is it a little formulaic? Yes. Is the more than hour run length a concern for me? Also yes. But it is so gleefully and sincerely delivered- a rocking good time that isn’t trying to do anything more than that- that it works from start to finish.

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

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

And that is it, my friends. The 21 best albums of 2021, and 79 honorable mentions. If you’d like it in list-only form for reference, we can accommodate that:

The 21 Best Albums of 2021

  1. Arlo Parks, Collapsed in Sunbeams
  2. Baio, Dead Hand Control
  3. Bruiser Wolf, Dope Game Stupid
  4. Celeste, Not Your Muse
  5. Czarface/MF Doom, Super What?
  6. Defcee & Messiah Musik, Trapdoor
  7. Demi Lovato, Dancing With The Devil…The Art of Starting Over
  8. Esther Rose, How Many Times
  9. Guided by Voices, Earth Man Blues
  10. JJJJJerome Ellis, The Clearing
  11. Judith Hill, Baby I’m Hollywood
  12. Lana Del Rey, Blue Bannisters
  13. Leeanne Betasamosake Simpson, Theory of Ice
  14. Luke Haines, Luke Haines in…Setting the Dogs on the Post Punk Postman
  15. Nick Waterhouse, Promenade Blue
  16. Remi Wolf, Juno
  17. Ron Gallo, PEACEMEAL
  18. Sarah Mary Chadwick, Me and Ennui are Friends Baby
  19. St. Lenox, Ten Songs of Worship & Praise for our Tumultuous Times
  20. Sturgill Simpson, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita
  21. Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers

Honorable Mention

If you find yourself going in to album-review withdrawal with the ending of this series, fear not! I’m thinking of doing a follow-up post comparing my list to what the critics came up with as their favorites for the year. And there’s a rumor afoot that I may do this again for 2022…

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: December

It’s our final monthly review! Almost a year ago, as part of an effort to catch up on newer music, I set out to find the 21 best albums of the year by listening to new releases each month, and sorting them into yes/maybe/no. And here we are, the last month, after which I’ll do a final shakedown to get the 21 best albums of 2021.

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

( January February March April May June July August September October November )

This is one of three music-related blog series I did this past year. The final installment of my review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s is here, and the wrap-up of my review of the critic’s consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020 is here.

Before we wrap up December, a quick note about the three categories:

Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. There are now 244 albums on the list, so every final victor will have dispatched a host of foes.

Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes “maybes” linger, so I’m giving them a category just in case.

No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.

Now, on with the review of 55 December new releases!

Common, A Beautiful Revolution, Pt. 2– Part 2 to this hip-hop stalwart’s 2020 Part 1. On the musical side it’s dynamic and jazzy, the flow is muscular, it’s brimming over with positive message, and the whole has a sense of unity. Because of the comparison effect it’s not easy to clear the bar at this point in the year, but this absolutely does it!

Curren$y, Pilot Talk 4– Strong clear beats backing a jazzy swirl with some pleasing flow. The street talk isn’t always the freshest ever, but the deeper meditations on the downsides of street life, and the so well done musical and vocal backing elevate it. This New Orleans rapper has apparently been prolific as hell this year, and this shows it has been to good effect.

Don Trip, Pray God’s Not Watching– In a way, this album dives deep into hip-hop album theme cliches. But this pioneer of the Memphis scene brings a smooth spare mix, wit, and presence All that, and the strong storytelling of the vocals and lyrics really carries it through. And the ending is an unvarnished heart-tugger.

Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales– This is not a December release, but both NPR and Pitchfork had it at the top of their pre year-end Top 50 lists. Not sure how it slipped through my net earlier, but I figured I should give it a listen! I’m glad I did, it’s a musical tour de force with the mix of R&B and hip-hop stylings, vocally dynamic, and, beneath a shiny pop veneer, a nuanced and at times quite personal exploration of female empowerment and both resistance to and complicity with hip hop culture’s misogyny.

Krolok, Funeral Winds & Crimson Sky– If you tell me you’re a Slovakian black metal band, I’m always going to want to hear what you have to say next. As it turns out, I did. This sounds, and I mean this in the very best way possible, like a metal band did a Halloween album for a vampire theme park. Musically, they pulled off something that I find bands like this often have a hard time with, bridging the looming atmospheric parts with the more straightforward metal parts. Lyrically, I barely caught a word, but I feel like every word penetrated my soul. Easily one of my favorite metal albums of the year.

Mach-Hommy, Balens Cho– This album is much like his Prayer for Haiti earlier this year. But whereas the sprawl of that got away from me, this was much more focused, and musically rich, lyrically challenging, and well structured. That’s how you album!

Michael Hurley, The Time of the Foxgloves– Hurley has been playing folk music since the Greenwich Village scene in the 60s. Every note of this sounds with the beautifully burned-out music veteran power you would expect from that.

Nicole Atkins, Memphis Ice– North Carolina-based self-professed purveyor of “pop noir” Nicole Atkins recorded this album in Memphis, and it feels like an excellent merger of her lush pop vocal style and the 60s soul Memphis sound.

Ryan Sambol, Gestalt– There’s a gruffness in the vocals, a weariness in the lyrics, and a spirit of variety in the music that I find very appealing. Acoustic, blues, country and lo-fi indie all get mixed up in this album from a Texas-raised singer-songwriter and poet. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)

Speedy Ortiz, The Death of Speedy Ortiz & Cop Kicker…Forever– Does a remix of two old albums from 2011 plus eight new songs=something new? I hope so, because the guitar crunch and fuzz, layers of sound, and thick vocals and sharp lyrics of this Massachusetts band led by Sadie Dupuis have utterly charmed me.

Maybe

  • Bat Fangs, Queen of My World– Do you know how much I appreciate jumping in at full rock from the first note? I appreciate it a lot! This whole thing is steeped in the brighter side of 80s hard rock and hair metal, but with two female principles. This works well, they deliver flawless cock rock but without the downsides of cock attitude. The only reason it didn’t hit “yes” is that the vocals were a little flat, production-wise. It would have been nice to hear them cut loose a little more!

  • Biffy Clyro, The Myth of the Happily Ever After– “Scottish band” just inherently makes me happy, and “Scottish band formed in the 90s” is a further booster from there. There’s no denying that this is high energy, and has a considerable spark of something musically and lyrically. It’s a little prefab sounding, but it’s a good fab.
  • Bitchin Bajas, Switched On Ra– “Psych rockers cover cosmic jazz legend Sun Ra with vintage 70s synthesizers” is actually a pretty decent way to get my attention as far as album concepts go. There are multiple things here that aren’t usually my bag, and there’s one vocal guest track that feels totally out of tone with the rest, but darned if it doesn’t create some really fun and interesting soundscapes.

  • Charlotte Greve, Sediments We Move– Sometimes surging with power and feeling, but sometimes more on the ethereal side of classical/jazz/experimental mixes. There are definitely some interesting approaches here, but perhaps a little uneven in terms of energy/engagement to completely work as an album. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • Jeff Tweedy, Live is the King– Live versions of his 2020 release Love is the King. That album was thoroughly on the country side of Tweedy’s work, and these live versions are too. I’m in kind of a conundrum with this- the material is great, and the versions are very good. But it’s not very “live”- it was recorded live in studio, so there’s no audience feedback, no interactions between musicians on the stage, etc. So what (besides a nice Neil young cover) does this really do to go beyond the original album?

  • JJJJJerome Ellis, The Clearing– This album is the philosophical flow of an ongoing thesis about Blackness in America ranging from history and literature to modern pop culture and everything in-between. That general focus is anchored by his specific meditations on music, and his own personal experience with his lifelong stutter (which he works in to the lyrics and music in various ways). All this is accompanied by clear beats and the light touch of smartly deployed electronic keyboard surges. It’s really pretty amazing, about my only reservation is a long low-music lull in the middle.

  • Mo Troper, Dilettante– This starts off as rock with the appropriate amount of feedback and chaos, and then keeps going. It could get bogged down, but the fact that there are 28 songs in 49 minutes keeps it moving along. The variety of modes does as well- it explores multiple varities of 80s alt and 90s indie. Some songs are noise pop, some more traditionally melodic, some thoroughly tongue in cheek if not slightly snotty. The pacing occasionally gets a little uneven, and the songs also sometimes sound very young. Put that’s where the zeal and the noise come from too! A worthy outing from this Portland band. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • Neil Young & Crazyhorse, Barn – All right, let’s start with the necessary disclaimer- Neil Young is on my all-time musical top five list. I’m never going to not react well to his work. I also like the extra musical oomph Crazy Horse gives him. In fact, this album has all the Neil Youngs- slow balladeer, saw-toothed feedback-laden guitar rocker, stirring anthemist, sometimes overly on-the-nose lyricist. It doesn’t feel like it quite comes together with a strong theme musically or lyrically though, which is what separates it from “great” versus merely “good”.

  • Pearly Gate Music, Mainly Gestalt Pornography– Pearly Gate Music is the brainchild of Pacific Northwest singer/songwriter Zach Tillman, the brother of Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty). Solid guitar rock on the acoustic side, with bright chords and arch lyrics. This feels like something I could have run into in the 80s on a college radio station. I’m not convinced it adds up to something strong/different enough to get to “yes”, but it does what it does very well.

  • Tasha, Tell Me What You Miss the Most– Chicago singer-songwriter Tasha has delivered a set of torchy emotional songs with an acoustic vibe, and her voice is strong and clear. The material in a way is simple and often low-key, but the feeling is so genuine, the content gets the emotions of romance right, and the presentation is very appealing. We could all do worse!

  • Volbeat, Servant of the Mind– “Scandinavian rock band is one of my happy places, so hearing they were Danes favorably pre-disposed me. Seeing them described as playing a fusion of rock, metal, and rockabilly further piqued my interest. In practice they’re also pretty darn fun. Is it a little formulaic? Yes. Is the more than hour run length a concern for me? Also yes. But it is so gleefully and sincerely delivered- a rocking good time that isn’t trying to do anything much more than that.

No

  • Aeon Station, Observatory– It’s a fine moody synthy indie rock outing. I have probably heard a few dozen this year that were no better or no worse than this.

  • Alicia Keys, Keys– This double album is beautiful like Alicia Keys so often is. The first side is, as she describes it, her “classic” sound, the second is “Unlocked”, doing the same songs but expressing herself in new/different ways.I was definitely more grabbed by that second half. Because of the sprawl and lack of focus I don’t think it works as an album, but that’s not to say there isn’t a ton of great material in it.

  • Arca, Kick iiii– Arca is a Venezuelan musician, singer, composer, record producer, and DJ, based in Barcelona who has released four, count them, four, albums in December! If you like your electronic music danceable, weird, with an edge of discord and dread, this might be for you. I do like those things, though ultimately there wasn’t enough consistent substance musically or lyrically for me to really sink my teeth into.

  • Arca, Kick ii– If you listen to Kick iiii first, you may, as I did, wonder how much different Kick ii will be. As it turns out, it was quite a bit different! I don’t know if it was the Latin influence, the comparatively smoother mix, or the greater sonic unity it had, but I liked it quite a bit better. It was well on its way to maybe until an extended dissonant weird-out in the middle.

  • Arca, Kick iii– Okay, not so much on iiii, ii fared much better, how will iii do? Turns out, it’s kind of a bridge between the weird and discordant iiii and the Latin-themes and club smoothness of ii. I don’t feel like it totally comes together, but I have been having a kick with all the Kicks. So to speak.

  • Arca, Kick iiiii– If you listen to ii, iii, and iiii, how are you not going to listen to iiiiI? (For those wondering, Kick i came out last year, which is why we’re not listening to it as part of this batch.) This is easily the most ambient trending of the four. I have trouble latching on to ambient.

  • BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jules Buckley/Paul Weller, An Orchestrated Songbook– This is Weller doing versions of his song backed by BBC Symphony. It’s an interesting form of career retrospective, and some of the covers are quite amazing and really showcase a mature power that matches what’s always been the high ambition of his work. It of course doesn’t sound bad, it’s the BBC Symphony Orchestra for pity’s sake! And I certainly would recommend it for Weller fans, but I’m not sure it makes the leap from there to overall “year’s best”.

  • Benjamin Lazar Davis, Benjamin Lazar Davis– This is certainly high quality, and has a lyrical edge, but it’s a little too smoothly laden with all the 2000s production tricks to make enough emotional connection.

  • Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Keyboard Fantasies Reimagined– A rework of a classic 1986 instrumental keyboard album by contemporary artists. It’s a nice concept, and leads to some interesting results, but a little too abstract, and not coherent enough, to make a proper album.

  • Brian Wilson, At My Piano– Here Wilson is playing instrumental piano versions of his songs. It’s good, but a little, well, instrumental piano. Very much all in one vein, which is hard to make a full-length album work with. A Wilson and/or Beach Boys fan might well want to have this in their collection, though.

  • Chief Keef, 4Nem– It’s got some power and dynamism, but is it among the best albums I’ve heard this year? Is it even in the top ten hip-hop albums I’ve heard this year? 11 days left…

  • Craig Taborn, Shadow Plays– From a 2020 live European performance. This trended toward a muted, almost ambient end of jazz. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • Darius Jones, Raw Demon Alchemy (A Lone Operation)– It starts with a horn like an enervated traffic jam. It upset my cat. The bunnies were not fans either.
     
  • Gas, Der Lange Marsch– Ambient to the point of being somnolent. Nyet.

  • Geese, Projector– I really like waterfowl. I also like the kind of young male rock that this New York band is doing, but it began to wear a little thin before the end. They went straight from high school to studio album, though, so definitely keep an eye on them and what they might grow into.

  • Jeff Parker, Forfolks– Some very nice jazz-influenced guitar, but as a pretty-mellow all instrumental, it never really cohered as an album for me.

  • Jeniveve, Division– It’s some good R&B/dance music, I can see what they mean by “underrated”. But year’s best? Competition is tough in these final days! (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)

  • Juçara Marçal, Delta Estácio Blues– All Music Guide will tell you that, “Juçara Marçal is a Brazilian singer, songwriter, and educator whose music bridges traditional Afro-Brazilian folk sounds, electronic music, rock, and hip-hop.” I will tell you that, despite the complete language gap, the joyous kaleidoscope of styles and complexity of rhythms had this well on its way to being at least a strong maybe until a terribly autotuned track turned up toward the end. That may seem like a rough reason to bounce something, but we’re in December now- it’s wheat from chaff time!

  • Kenny G, New Standards– I didn’t really think I was going to go for this- as a kid of the alt 80s, if there is an anathema par excellence to my people, it’s Kenny G. I was intrigued by the concept though- it’s his attempt to record new songs as if they were old standards. Unfortunately, it sounds like Kenny G.

  • King Krule, You Heat Me Up You Cool Me Down– This album from a UK singer/songwriter, sometimes rapper, is from live shows just before the tour had to be cancelled because of COVID. I wasn’t familiar with him going in, but the music is a muscular mix of jangly rock, jazz, and surprising sound effects, and the vocals are raw and bruising, which I appreciate. It gets to be a little the same after a while, and the almost hour and twenty run time is a tough thing to sustain, but it does make me curious to hear more of his stuff.

  • Lotic, Water– This was very interesting as dance-oriented music goes, in a heavily experimental vein. Not consistently listenable enough to make “year’s best”, but certainly not unworthy.

  • Myriam Gendron, Ma délireSongs of love, lost & found– Moody, French, quiet with dark jagged edges, but the language barrier is ultimately too much for me to “get” the album. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)

  • New Found Glory, December’s Here– Christmas-themed albums are an inevitability this time of year. They can work, but they can also make my skin crawl. A pop-punk album with an emo bent is an inevitability in life. It can work, or it can make my skin crawl. Multiply one by the other, and your odds of success considerably decrease.

     
  • Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, La Panthère des Neiges (Original Soundtrack)– This is my favorite Nick Cave soundtrack for a documentary about a snow leopard. No really, this is the soundtrack to Marie Amguet and Vincent Munier’s wildlife documentary La Panthére des Neiges, in which Munier (a photographer) and writer Sylvain Tesson pursue a rare sighting of a snow leopard in Tibet. It’s a little muted musically, and not general audience enough to work as an album of the year, but yay leopards!

  • Quadry, They Think We Ghetto– Definitely fresher than many another hip-hop album out this year, but we’re late in the year now, so it takes a lot to rise above. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)

  • Rival Consoles, Overflow– Electronic and experimental- some of these tracks have a sense of looming dread, which I always appreciate, and some have interesting thought-provoking verbal and sound juxtapositions. But it feels more like an art project, and less like something one would repeatedly listen to.

  • Robert Sotelo, Celebrant– It’s a little post-punk sounding, a little herky-jerky side of new wave, it’s more than nice enough, but it’s not enough to blow the rest of the year out of the water.

  • Roddy Richh, Live Life Fast– I was on the edge for a while. There is a good deal of higher aspiration in this album from Compton-based hip hop artist Richh, clever wordplay, and interesting music mixes. Eventually the misogyny and autotune got the better of me, but it stayed in contention for quite a while.

  • Rx Nephew, Transporter 4– Pitchfork recommended this album from an extremely prolific hip-hop artist to me. It’s powerful and driving, but I think it ultimately goes under with the weight of “street” clichés. He is from my wife’s mythical homeland of Rochester, NY, though, so there’s that.

  • SeeYouSpaceCowboy, The Romance of Affliction– Brutal hardcore/metal assault, which I appreciate. Dip into swelling symphonic melodies, which I tolerate. Screamed vocals, which I do not groove with.

  • Teen Daze, Interior– It’s electronic. It’s dancey. It’s nice enough. It’s late in the year.

  • Tony Shhnow, Authentic Goods– I can see what they mean in terms of it being underappreciated, but this is way late in the year. It takes not just good, but extraordinary to break into the list at this point. (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)

  • Wild Up, Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Feminine– California collective recording arrangements of songs from a Jazz great who died largely unsung (and too young) in the 90s. It was an interesting enough premise to get me listening, and there is something arresting about it, but given the instrumental and abstract nature, I’m not sure it’s accessible enough to rise to top spot of the year.

  • yes/and, yes/and– Some of these are ambient, some of these are more instrumental, all of them are a bunch of nice sounds that don’t add up to an album (Full disclosure: This is not really a December release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of underrated albums of 2021. No stone left unturned!)

And so, it is finished. Or not quite! As soon as I can manage it, I’m going to complete my relistens of the “Yes” (and selected “Maybe”) albums from the year and bring you the final list of THE 21 BEST ALBUMS OF 2021 Stay tuned!

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: November

Almost there! We’re now at 11 of 12 of our month-by-month survey of 2021, en route to our ultimate goal. Speaking of which, if you’re just joining for the first time, I’m listening to new releases each month, sorting them into yes/maybe/no, and then doing a final shakedown to get the 21 best albums of the year.

You can find the earlier installments here:

( January February March April May June July August September October )

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

Before we proceed with November, a quick note about the three categories:

Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. There are now 234 albums on the list, so every survivor will be standing on the mounded corpses of at least nine dead albums. The horror!

Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes “maybes” linger, so I’m giving them a category just in case.

No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.

Now, on with the review of 110 November new releases!

Adele, 30– It starts off with “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart” which lets you know what kind of material this post-divorce album is grappling with. Musically, though, it’s much lusher and often more up-tempo than that might make you think. If it’s more subtle and nuanced than some of her earlier work, it’s also more varied in modes, and moods. Some things stun with the vulnerability of the personal window she opens up here. Others find her alternately furious with her partner, angry with herself, eager for something new, and weary and wise. With this much power at 30, it makes one wonder what lies ahead.

 

Aesop Rock/Blockhead, Garbology– I’ve listened to many great hip-hop albums this year. And a whole lot of bad ones. So the bar is pretty high now, but this collaboration of Portland-based underground hip-hop impresario Matthias Bavitz, aka Aesop Rock, and Manhattan record producer and DJ Tony Simon, aka Blockhead, delivers. The vocals are pleasingly goony and un-smooth, the musical mix is wildly varied and muscular, and the lyrics are smart and off-kilter.

BackRoad Gee, Reporting Live (From the Back of the Roads)– This British-Congolese artist brings together African pop, hip-hop, UK dub, and a delightfully skillful wielding of varied sound effects and musical backgrounds. All this would work well just on the sonic side, but on top of that, lyrically it grapples honestly and intelligently with details of hard life in Africa and the UK.

Curtis Harding, If Words Were Flowers– Sometimes jazzy, sometimes funky, very informed by 70s soul and AM radio, but with more than a hint of hip-hop diction. Reading up on him afterward, this amalgam is his signature style, which he calls “slop ‘n’ soul”. It makes me feel lost in time, and it’s an exquisite trip.

David Christian & Pinecone Orchestra, For Those We Met on the Way– 30-year UK music veteran David Christian has come out with a fine album with traces of the more introspective singer-songwriter side of UK 80s alt (think Lloyd Cole, for example), 60s-influenced acoustic, and country. The whole thing has a tone of looking back on life and taking stock, with intelligent and emotionally complex lyrics.

Deap Vally, Marriage– Now that is a crunching guitar and feedback start! A female rock duo from Los Angeles, sounding exactly like a female rock duo from Los Angeles should sound. They do fast, they do slow, they do mid-tempo, and they’re gloriously menacingly rocking the whole time.

Defcee & Messiah Musik, Trapdoor– This Chicago hip-hop artist brings super-smart and conscious lyrics, muscular vocal delivery, and a spare approach to beats and mix. This reminds me of a certain stream of 90s hip-hop that I’ve missed.

Foxx Bodies, Vixen– Oh, help me. It’s that band! Punky. Poppy. Heavy crunching guitars, but with melody. Female lead with a strong presence. They’re from Los Angeles in this case, seem to have been kicking around since 2016, and do a very high level of engaging gender politics and identity issues in their music. Huzzah! 

Lukah, Why Look Up, God’s in the Mirror– At first this seems to be a very solid, driving and muscular hip-hop album, with a strong personality, but one that’s kind of typically hitting the street bluster clichés. Along the way, though, it ends up going through an arc where there’s a bottoming out, and a spiritual rebirth. Really interesting and well done!

Margo Cilker, Pohorylle– Oregon-based Margo Cilker cut her teeth playing covers of Creedence, Dylan, and Neil Young before touring extensively on her own material. She clearly learned the craft, with dense story songs, a voice that never sounds false, and a sure feel for country-tinged Americana. There’s also some excellent use of the word “fuck”, and even when a song gets a little polemical it never sounds less than achingly sincere.

Marta Del Grandi, Until We Fossilize– This Italian-born artist weaves a spell with her voice and delicate instrumentation that reflects both electronic and jazz influences. It won me over despite being in a low-key vein. The depths it pulls one into are rich and worthwhile.

Model Home, Both Feet en th Infinite– This was very interesting! They’re described as an “experimental hip-hop duo from Washington, D.C.”, and indeed, it’s kind of electronic, kind of jazz-influenced, very strong hip-hop influence. The audio collage keeps one going, and the repeated choruses and stomping beat create a kind of spell.

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, The Future– On the first track this Denver-based singer-songwriter seemed to be channeling late 60s/ early to mid 70s Bob Dylan, which is a great way to get my attention. Subsequently, though, he proves to be doing a romp all through the Americana and R&B of that era. And he does it very well! Does it feel a little like a museum piece? Yes. But a flawless and sincere one!

Naytronix, Other Possibilities– The first track is like space jazz playing with a radio tuning dial, the second has what sounds like an electric xylophone intro, the next is like AM radio gold being played on an 80s synth keyboard, and so on. That’s the musical side, the lyrical side is full of longing, and the vocal side is heavy on melody with an occasional side trip into gonzo distortion. Naytronix is the solo musical project of Nate Brenner, who is also a member of the band tune-yards whose album Sketchy. I was very favorably impressed with earlier this year. As for this album, I think it literally delivers on the promise of its title, introducing an array of sonic possibilities.

Pip Blom, Welcome Break– This Dutch band knows how to do a poppy, high-energy rock song, and I like the earnest straightforwardness of leader Pip Blom’s vocals. Is it super-profound? Probably not. But it is a super-fun, flawlessly executed example of what it is. Okay, yes, I’m a sucker for a guitar-crunching, female-led band. So sue me!

R.A.P. Ferreira, The Light-Emitting Diamond Cutter Scriptures– Rory Allen Philip Ferreira is an American rapper and producer from Kenosha, Wisconsin. On this album he brings vivid, poetic, spiritually-infused vocal flow with relaxed beats and some spare jazz-inflected background. It might be hard to keep this going for an hour, but at a half-hour run time, it never flags for a moment.

Silk Sonic, An Evening With Silk Sonic– Silk Sonic being a collaboration of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, you might be expecting some kind of invocation of 70s soul and funk. Hearing Bootsy Collins is involved with the album, you might expect that even more so. You would be exactly right, and it’s like glorious slowly-pouring sonic gold.

  

The Darkness, Motorheart– Hard rock and metal, in a gloriously trashy 80s vein. Some throwaway Star Trek references. Guitars, guitars, guitars! It’s kind of like this UK band received the instruction “make an over-the-top parody of this kind of music, except do it totally sincerely” and then brilliantly executed on that mission.

Maybe

  • Aimee Mann, Queens of the Summer Hotel– Mann developed these songs for a stage version of “Girl, Interrupted” that ended up itself being interrupted by COVID, after which she decided to release them herself. She is as good as she ever is, but it’s somehow not consistently up to her best (admittedly a high bar).

     
  • Chime School, Chime School– Based on the band name, you might expect something like the Byrds, or maybe the paisley underground channeling the Byrds. And you would be getting exactly that from this San Francisco band! In many ways it’s a museum piece, which is making me question “yes”, but it’s a flawlessly executed one.

  • Circle/Richard Dawson, Henki– Dawson is an English neo-folk musician, and Circle is a Finnish experimental rock band. They describe this album as “flora-themed hypno-folk-metal”. That’s actually a pretty fair description of the mind-bending sound here. A little like prog rock, a little like Bowie and Ferry at their most theatrical, a little pinch of Bauhaus, a little off-kilter musically, vocally and lyrically, but always interesting and feeling looming with import. It’s not like everything else. Which after 938 albums so far this year I put quite a premium on! My only reservation is a section in the middle that bogs down a little.

  • Courtney Barnett, Things Take Time, Take Time– Her sometimes I sit and think was one of the critics’ picks for the 2010s that I agreed with. Like that album, this has unique vocals, a sure feel for melody and rock chords, and smart and sometimes knife twist lyrics. It mostly keeps a little too all to one vein musically and emotionally, which is my main reservation.

     
  • Dave Gahan & The Soulsavers, Imposter– I don’t know what I was expecting from a Depeche Mode member’s side projects, but I guess something generally Depeche Modey? To be sure, this is darkly textured and full of mood, but is a series of widely ranging covers that are musically treated as an invocation of old fashioned R&B, 60s soul, and the darker minor chords side of 60s rock. Among others, he covers Neil Young and Dylan cover, which is a good way to win me over. There’s always been an undercurrent of homage to soul and R&B in synth pop, and I can see the dotted lines between Depeche ModI and what he’s doing here musically, but it’s still an interesting and welcome surprise!

  • IFE, 0000 + 0000– per YouTube Music’s summary: “The electronic music moniker of New Orleans based producer and percussionist Otura Mun, ÌFÉ blends elements of Afro-Cuban folklore and Yoruban religious music with the bass driven sounds of modern day Jamaican Dancehall, Trap and Afro-Beat.” That maybe gives you the proper flavor, and while I wasn’t quite sold on it having enough coherence, structure or sheer oomph to be a year’s best album, it was a consistently interesting (and fun!) listen that I never felt tempted to turn off.

  • Julie Doiron, I Thought of You– Doiron is a Canadian singer-songwriter who has been a fixture of the Canadian indie scene since the 90s. And with guitar rock that rings like bells, sometimes haunting and sometimes plaintive vocals, and incisive emotionally complex lyrics, there is a lot here to like. My only reservation is the pacing of the material, I’m not sure the shifts from faster/slower are spaced out for best album flow.

  • NRBQ, Dragnet– I feel kind of bad not having heard of them before, since they’ve been around since 1965. Always something new to learn! Technically, only one original member is left, backed here by a band that he’s had together for a decade now. But what really catches me about it is the spontaneity, variety, and sincerity of the music. It’s kind of like it samples various styles from the last half-century, and then plays every single one of them as if 100% in that era. What it lacks for in overall coherence is mostly offset by the impressive inventiveness and skill.

  • Rod Stewart, The Tears of Hercules– His 32nd studio album! One the one hand, does it match his best work, and will it be an album people are still talking about two years from now? It doesn’t seem likely to me. On the other, it’s livelier than the average outing his contemporaries produce these days, and completely naively joyously committed to its pseudo-classic, pseudo-disco, pseudo-sleazy ethos. I gotta say maybe!

  • Sherelle, Fabric Presents Sherelle– AllMusic tells me, “London-born DJ, label founder, and producer Sherelle has earned widespread praise for her high-octane sets”. And that definitely keys in on what I love about this- its over the top manic energy level. This would be a great set to spend the night at the club dancing too, but as an hour and a half album, I’m not sure it works. On the other hand, I did thoroughly enjoy it. So maybe?

  • The Flaming Lips/Nell Smith, Where the Viaduct Looms– If you’re the Flaming Lips, you know what you do for your next album? You do an album of Nick Cave covers with a 14 year old Canadian singer-songwriter on lead vocals. Do you know why? Because you’re the Flaming Lips, you can do any damn thing you want, and the weirder the better! Between the off-kilter musical approach typical of the Flaming Lips, the strong source material, and the contemporary pop vibe of the vocalist, it’s a weirdly successful and compelling mix. It doesn’t *totally* feel like it all fits together, but isn’t that kind of the point?

  • TisaKorean, mr.siLLyfLow– The fresh sound directions from this this Houston rapper, producer, and dancer include soundtracks and cartoons sampling, gonzo vocal flow, and hilarious lyrics. Also, the sound effects made my dog fitfully bark. It doesn’t always feel like it fully fits together, but it’s all great. Dog and man recommend! (Full disclosure: This is not really a November release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • Tony Allen/Joan as Police Woman/Dave Okumu, The Solution is Restless– This collaboration between indie pop powerhouse Joan Wasser, Afro-beat veteran Tony Allen (this was his last record before his recent death), and producer Dave Okumu is very interesting. It emerged out of what was essentially an extended studio jam session, the results of which they later refined. I was constantly on the edge of thinking it sounding unfocused, but then being utterly charmed by the spontaneous energy and the intriguing mix of jazz, beats, and sophisticated pop that they were weaving together. A strong maybe!

  • Walk The Moon, Heights– I was continually tipping back and forth between “this is the epitome of post-2000 pop/rock, and not in a good way” and “I really like their energy, and this is pretty darn catchy”. So I think, by definition, we have ended up at “Maybe”. So all right, Cincinnati-based band founded in 2006. Maybe!

  • Willie Nelson, The Willie Nelson Family-This is exactly what you might think based on the name- Willie Nelson, musically and sometimes vocally accompanied by his two sons, two daughters, and sister. His backing band has been called The Family since the 70s, so really it’s a double serving of family. Perhaps fittingly for that, this selection of covers of country gospel songs is very relaxed-feeling. Is it stupendous? No. Did I wish it would just keep going, and would I listen to it again? Yes. We could do a lot worse! 

No

  • ABBA, Voyage– “First new ABBA album in 40 years” is, if nothing else, notable. It’s actually pretty well done, but in a slow and syrupy dripping with nostalgia way. It doesn’t start to hit the kind of high energy Abba territory one might be expecting until a third of the way in. It’s not bad, but not their best, or the best of the year.

  • Alex Malheiros, Tempos Futuros– Leading Brazilian Jazz bassist since the 70s. It is very pleasant and richly textured, but it just doesn’t click in for me. I try jazz, I really do!

  • Alison Krauss/Robert Plant, Raise the Roof– It’s as solid as you would expect, but for the most part it doesn’t differentiate or distinguish itself enough, especially given their earlier collaboration. This is the trap of being compared against your own best!

  • anaiis, this is no longer a dream– Definitely some worthy material here, musically lush and vocally powerful. Ultimately it doesn’t get beyond a certain energy sameness to me. (Full disclosure: This is not really a November release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • Ashley Shadow, Only the End– Jangly reverb-heavy guitar chords are a good way to get my attention. This was doing well for the first few tracks, but then bogged down in the middle with too many slower low-energy tracks in a row. (Full disclosure: This is not really a November release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • aya , im hole– Part feedback, part performance art, part experimental synth jazz club beats. This outing from UK club DJ aya is not without merit, considerable merit, but a little too abstract/experimental to be an album for the year/ages.

  • Beach Fossils, The Other Side of Life: Piano Ballads– These are piano ballads. They’re fine. They have a song named “Sleep Apnea”. It’s appropriate.

  • Ben LaMar Gay, Open Arms to Open Us– Now this is interesting! A little jazz, a little experimental, a little electronic, and all thoroughly vocally and musically offbeat and quirky. It wears a little thin after about a quarter of the way through, but I did appreciate how different it sounded.

  • Body/Head/Aaron Dilloway, Body/Dilloway/Head– I want to like this, I really do. The inclusion of Sonic youth’s Kim Gordon pre-disposes me kindly. Unfortunately, it’s very much on the “atonal noise experiment” side of her (and her collaborators) output. Alas!

  • Casper Skulls, Knows No Kindness– The vocals are shimmery, the music is billowing, it’s all well-rendered and establishes a mood, but it doesn’t particularly stick while listening, or afterward.

  • Chris Liebing, Another Day– This reminded me of that kind of late 80s techno/industrial that one found in, well, the late 80s. Pretty good as far as it goes! But it started to wear thin partway through.

     
  • Christian McBride, Live at the Village Vanguard [2021]– American jazz bassist, composer and arranger, with over 300 side-man recordings. So, he’s probably very good. It doesn’t sound bad, I just generally can’t jazz. I keep trying!

  • Cleo Soul, Mother– This is a very intelligent, emotionally and lyrically profound album on motherhood. It’s all so much musically in one low-key track to track vein that it just doesn’t sustain.

  • Constant Smiles, Paragons– This reminds me of some kind of bulge bracket encompassing 80s alternative and 80s AOR. So I guess I’m saying guitars and mood like the Church, but with a hint of Moody Blues prog to it? It was working for me for quite a while, but then eventually collapsed into fuzzy sameness.

  • Converge/Chelsea Wolfe, Bloodmoon: 1– I guess if I were a depressed teenager I might like this? I did definitely like the depressed teenager music of my era when I was a depressed teenager. It’s all a little paint by numbers meeting between goth indie rocker and prog metal, though.

  • DAF/Robert Gorl, Nur Noch Einer– This feels like a trip down the early version of electronic music’s memory lane. And that’s exactly what it is- DAF were pioneers of electronic music in Germany in the late 70s, and this album is based on unreleased material they’d written in the 80s, re-worked by the surviving original band member after one of the other founder’s untimely passing. It’s a fun enough listen, and might certainly appeal to aficionados, but I’m not sure it’s hitting “best of year” territory.

  • Damon Albarn, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows– Sometimes synthy and moody in that brooding English kind of way, sometimes more electronic and experimental. It actually might have sold me with more of those really gonzo moments. Maybe. It was really pretty pleasant, it just wasn’t usually more than that.

  • Diana Ross, Thank You– It’s decent, if somewhat low energy. But not up to her finest work (admittedly, an absurd bar to top) or among the year’s best for R&B.

  • Dijon, Absolutely– There are moments where it gets to an abstract, almost chaotic mix with rising and falling rhythms. Those are interesting times. It doesn’t get there consistently enough, though.

  • Dltzk, Frailty– It was starting off as a nice low-fi approach, albeit in a kind of emo/indie vein, but then just started becoming too autotuned.

  • Doran, Doran– My sources inform me this is a four-person freak folk collective. They do lovely harmonies, but it’s all kind of stuck in one tone/low-energy groove.

  • Dream Unending, Tide Turns Eternal– Ah, instrumental orchestral metal with the unintelligible guttural monster voice. Next!

  • Eastern Margins, Redline Legends– I was really hoping for something interesting in this collection of East Asian club music. There are some off the hook high-energy tracks here that I appreciate, but also way, way, wayyyyy too much autotune. (Full disclosure: This is not really a November release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • Elbow, Flying Dream 1– It reminds me in a way of  the slower side of Peter Gabriel. It all ends up being a little too sonorous for extended listening, though.

  • Fine Place, This New Heaven– This is a little on the chilly side of synth/electronic, which I actually appreciate about it. Though it reminded me of my moody teen music home in a way, I didn’t think it added up as an album.

  • Foxes, Friends in the Corner– Kind of the British version of a Taylor Swiftian teen album. Not badly done, by any means, but not really rising above either.

  • Goldenboy Countup, Chicken Man 2– This is a solid hip-hop album, and makes some fun and interesting mix/sample choices, but it doesn’t really rise up to the level of best hip-hop albums I’ve heard this year. End of year is a tough time to measure up! (Full disclosure: This is not really a November release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • Gov’t Mule, Heavy Load Blues– Hey, Gov’t Mule is good mule! And they come to the blues-based sound very honestly. But it too often feels a bit “playing genre by rote” here for me, and especially with a run time of well over an hour, it needs to be consistently very sharp in order to work.

  • hackedepicciotto, The Silver Threshold– Kind of new age, kind of orchestra, kind of abstract electronic. Kind of no.

  • Hana Vu, Public Storage– This LA singer-songwriter has produced music that is spare, smart, and full of a surging, looming feeling. It’s very well done, but ultimately it’s too in one tone musically and vocally to really stand out and work at full album length.

  • HARD FEELINGS, HARD FEELINGS– This is some very fine club dance music, but is it the finest club dance music we’ve heard this year? Or better/as good as the best of what we’ve heard in other genres? This is the peril everything I’m listening to in November/December has to face!

  • Haviah Mighty, Stock Exchange– There are definitely some good things about this rapper from Toronto, Ontario. She’s got something to say, and keeps hi-energy tracks moving. Unfortunately, it’s also autotuned all to hell.

  • Hawthonn, Earth Mirror– A very background, almost somnolent sound. It fits deep slow earth magic, but maybe doesn’t so well fit listening and remembering.

  • Hayden Pedigo, Letting Go– Apparently, Hayden Pedigo is an American avant-garde musician, politician, performance artist, and model. This is a lovely acoustic set. Doesn’t really zing into “best of year” status. (Full disclosure: This is not really a November release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • HTRK, Rhinestones– Richly textured vocally and musically, strong on a dreamy acoustic mood. It never really gets outside of that same track-to-track vein though. But I do want to give this Australian band props for having been originally named “Hate Rock Trio” and for having rallied back after the suicide of one of their founders.

  • Ichiko Aoba, Windswept Adan– The soundtrack to a movie that exists only in this Japanese musician’s mind. I love the concept, and the execution is pretty, but is a little too in an ethereal neo-classical, largely instrumental vein to hold my attention.

  • Idles, Crawler– I like this so much better than Ultra Mono, the Idles album I listened to for the 2020 list. As good musically and lyrically (sometimes very punky, sometimes bruising hardcore, sometimes brooding atmospheric songs) as that earlier labum, and it’s gotten itself much more out of the shouted vocals business. Ultimately, I think it ended up too uneven in its musical approach given the length- some sequencing and structure would have really benefited it as an album. There’s a lot of good material in there, though!

  • Irreversible Entanglements, Open The Gates– Some hip-hop/spoken word-infused jazz, interesting but eventually gets bogged down in lengthy mostly instrumental tracks.

  • Jason Aldean, Macon– Do you like your formulaic lyrics and topics pop-country with a rock edge? If so, God bless, and this is for you.

  • Jessy Lanza, DJ-Kicks– Jessy Lanza is a leader of the hyperdub movement, and a talented DJ and multinstrumentalist. She’s collected this album of mixes, and there’s no denying there’s some great dance music here, but there’s not enough holding it together for the nearly hour and a half run length to get it to “great album” status.

  • Jon Hopkins, Music for Psychedelic Therapy– Well, the title just about perfectly tells you what to expect. And I think it would honestly be pretty good for the suggested purpose, just maybe not as good for repeated listening under any other circumstance.

  • Key Glock, Yellow Tape 2– The flow is solid, and I like the driving spareness of the production. This album by a Memphis-based hip-hop artist doesn’t get enough beyond cliché and sameness track to track to really stand out, though.

  • Kip C, meraki– Some low-key hip-hop flow and a jazz background. It’s pleasant enough, but never really grabbed me. (Full disclosure: This is not really a November release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • KrispyLife Kidd, The Art of Spice Talk– It’s a good hip-hop album. We’ve only got room for extraordinary at this point. (Full disclosure: This is not really a November release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • Ladyhawke, Time Flies– This is a kind of pastiche of disco and 80s pop and 90s dance music. It’s all well enough done, but, well, it’s getting to be late in the year, and the bar for getting my attention at this point is pretty high…

  • Leif, 9 Airs– There was some nice swirling instrumental work, some keyboard sound effects, something that sounded like a plastic container rolling down a hallway. Eh.

  • Lord Jah-Monte Ogbone, Beautifully Black– It’s a pretty darn good hip-hop album, with some clever and interesting material, but the bar, well, she is very high at this point in the year.

  • Makaya McCraven, Deciphering the Message– Through the years, venerable jazz label Blue Note has made it’s archive available to hip-hop artists, often to great effect. This bleeding edge drummer, producer, and self described “beat scientist” has produced something sonically pleasing, but not as dynamic and engaging as when Us3 did something similar, for example.

  • Makthaverskan, For Allting– The totally ambient intro pretty much lost me, but the second track from this Swedish band started to win me back with its lively surging rock and yearning vocals. The tracks do have a tendency to kind of fuzz together in an undifferentiated way, but when they’re on, they’re great- brimming over with a spontaneous 80s alt kind of feeling. In the end it was a little too uneven to really gel together as an album, but it was a close call.

  • Mira Calix, absent origin– It opens with de-synchronized beats and what sounds like a repeated fart or deflating balloon. It does get considerably better and more interesting than that, but is too discordant and experimental to make a sustainable “best of year” album.

  • Modeselektor, EXTLP– German electronic music duo. When it gets in to dub, and the more vocal tracks, it definitely comes alive. Otherwise it gets a little abstract for me.

  • Mortiferum, Preserved in Torment– I mean, you see the band name, you see the album name, you know what you’re in for. At that point, it’s actually a bigger problem for a band if they you don’t deliver it than if they do. Musically, it’s doing an excellent job of alternating between shambling sludgy doom and blistering guitar metal. The lyrics and vocals, unfortunately, are utterly lost behind an incomprehensible monster mumble voice.

     
  • New Age Doom/Lee “Scratch” Perry, Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Guide to the Universe– One of the final outings from the acclaimed Jamaican producer, teaming up with proggy metal band New Age Doom. It’s interesting, trippy, and I wouldn’t say it doesn’t work. It certainly is the kind of experiment that should be celebrated. But I’m not sure it makes an album that one would repeatedly listen to.

  • Ovlov, Buds– This is some really good indie-guitar rock, but it all kind of fuzzes together after several tracks.

  • Parris, Soaked in Indigo Moonlight– There are some good dance singles here, but I’m not hearing anything that adds up to a complete album.

  • Pelt, Reticence/Resistance– Pitchfork tells me “over the past 30 years, Pelt has become known for their distinct blend of Americana, drone, improvisation, and psychedelic rock”. It is impressive that these are live recordings, but the album’s two 20+ minute tracks are on the drone side of psychedelia. That’s a lot of minutes of that sound.

  • Penelope Isles, Which Way to Happy– They’ve got beats, and dreamy shimmery music, and swirly vocals. It’s all very nice, but I’m not sure I picture it being remebered much after the year is over.

  • Portrayal of Guilt, Christfucker- If you know it’s a metal band, and you see the album title, you know what you’re getting in for. Musically it’s pretty good, though there’s an occasional almost electronica touch that strikes me as odd. The vocals are all in that hoarse exaggerated monster scream voice that keeps you from getting anything out of the lyrics, though.

  • QRTR, infina ad nausea– A little electronic sometimes tending toward ambient, a little autotune, a little nah. (Full disclosure: This is not really a November release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • Rosie Lowe/Duval Timothy, Son – This collaboration between UK and South African artists is sonically interesting, but maybe a tad abstract and experimental to be coherent and bear repeated listening.

  • Scott Hirsch, Windless Day– There are moments where this mix of heartland rock and 70s production effects really felt like it was working for me. Then there were others when it felt a little flat and overproduced. Too many more of the later. (Full disclosure: This is not really a November release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • Sean Khan, Supreme Love: A Journey Through Coltrane– Some great jazz musicians paying tribute to a jazz great. I’m sure it’s great. Although I do wonder- I one of the things about the original is how groundbreaking it was. I’m not sure the responses measure up to that. Ever the trap when covering/responding to a great!

  • Shubh Saran, Inglish– It’s a thoughtful, if all-instrumental, meditation on identity. Done in an electronic-informed jazz vein. (Or a jazz-informed electronic vein?) Certainly not unworthy, but ultimately not enough to hang coherent, repeatable album status on.

  • Sloppy Jane, Madison– I do like the spell of her voice, and the emotional depth of the lyrics, and I really admire the musical gonzo spirit of recording the whole thing in a deep underground cave. It’s all of one slow tone, though, that doesn’t make for a sustainable, interesting album.

  • Snail Mail, Valentine– Skilled young indie rocker, but this is a little too much in a same low tempo track-tot-track vocal and musical vein.

  • Spirit Was, Heaven’s Just a Cloud– Although I wasn’t sure about the opening track, it did have a way with melody, and moody guitar layers that I appreciated. There was also some interesting experimentation along the way. I think it stayed all too much in one fuzzy, woozy vein (although a nice one) to work as an album, but I would keep an eye on this New York City band.  (Full disclosure: This is not really a November release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • Sting, The Bridge– I think the last time I listened to a new Sting album was probably some time in the 90s. And don’t get me wrong, I know it’s hip to dislike him, but as an alt 80s kid I was a big fan of the Police and Sting’s earlier solo albums. So, I’m not inherently hostile, and this is not bad, in parts it’s even soaring musical storytelling. But it’s not consistently at that level, and not up to his best.
  • Summer Walker, Still Over It– The sentiments expressed here are worthy, but otherwise it’s musically unremarkable 2000s soul/R&B, down-tempo, with a lot of autotune.

  • Swallow the Sun, Moonflowers– “Finnish doom band” does leave me favorably disposed in general. And, to be sure, they do their orchestral, occasionally thrashy, thick with dread emotional vocals thing well. Maybe not well enough to sound particularly more or different from other things like this, though?

  • Taylor Swift, Red [Taylor’s Version]– We’ve talked earlier in the year about the admirable audacity of Taylor Swift’s project of re-recording earlier albums to re-gain control of her catalogue. And, not wanting fans to feel tricked or cheated, she’s loaded the releases with additional material. That’s praiseworthy! But, a two and a half hour run-time is…a bit much. Not to say there isn’t a lot of great material here, but it’s extreme overflow for an album.

  • Terrace Martin, Drones– There were moments when this was doing a jazz-inflected channeling of 70s/early 80s soul that I quite liked. There were others when it was doing something more like autotuned hip-hop that I didn’t. On balance, it didn’t quite come together.

  • The Dodos, Grizzly Peak– The descriptor “San Francisco indie rock duo” makes me want to like them, but it was a little on the bleary, unfocused side of indie for me.

  • The KVB, Unity– This British duo has produced a nice, moody, shimmery shoe-gazey outing here. To be sure, it’s pretty good. But is it especially more good than other similar things? Will people still be listening to it and talking about it five years from now? A year from now even?

  • They Might Be Giants, Book– Earlier this year I reviewed a Barenaked Ladies album, and I remember thinking they sounded as good as they always do, and the songs were all fun and well done, but I was curiously unsure it added up to a proper album. I have that same feeling here.

  • Tristan Arp, Sculpturegardening– It is like sonic sculptures, and it’s very well done, but it’s also very abstract. Not bad, just not in the general area of what I’m looking for. (Full disclosure: This is not really a November release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 27 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)

  • Uffe, Words and Endings– Experimental electronic, some dub influence, which I like. Doesn’t stand out.
  • Various Artists, Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal– Casal was a country-rock songwriter who released fourteen albums himself, and played on hundreds of songs for other artists before becoming a member of Ryan Adams band. You can see how widely respected he was by the breadth and depth of artists who contributed covers of his songs to this tribute. It really is great material and well covered, but, at more than three hours, too unwieldy to function as an album for the general listener. But still well worth exploring!  

And now, on to December! Can I make it before the year ends?

What Were the Best Albums of the Twenty-Teens? (The Wrap-up!)

Well, my friends, here we are! I started out this year determined to catch up on newer music after a very busy and distracting stretch of years. I was very well versed in the music of the 50s-90s, and had a decent handle on the 00s, but for 2010 forward I was largely flying blind.

So I started three musical blog series. You can check out the final edition of my overview of the critic’s choices for the 20 best albums of 2020, and my latest monthly review of 2021’s new releases as I search for the 21 best albums of 2021. And then there’s this series, where I set out to find the best albums of the 2010s.

To that end, I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. As it turned out, there were 52 albums getting 4 votes and up. This was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff, and split the reviews into ten parts, which you can find here:

( Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10 )

Having now completely reviewed the critic’s choices, what conclusions have I come to?

Inevitably, there were some (8 out of 52, in fact) albums where I just couldn’t agree with the critics:

  • A Moon Shaped Pool (Radiohead, 2016)– I don’t particularly care for Radiohead. I’m aware that this puts me at odds with every music critic ever, as well as many actual humans I know. They’re not, by any means, bad. I like moody atmospheric music. Sometimes. I like elliptical lyrics. Sometimes. I like lackadaisical low-key anguished vocals. Sometimes. But 50 minutes solid of that is just not a mood I’m often in, and I was not in that mood listening to this album.
  • Body Talk (Robyn, 2010)– This is 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 “Best of the Decade” album.
  • Bon Iver (Bon Iver, 2011, 5 votes)– The great danger of indie folk is that it has a tendency to sound the same from track to track. Which is not to say it, by any means, sounds bad. But a solid album’s worth of no changes in musical or vocal tone, well, that doesn’t always make for a great listen. This album is fine, just not a kind of fine I particularly groove on, and it never feels like it gets to great.
  • Currents (Tame Impala, 2015, 4 votes)– This is a little trippy, which is their jam. 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 here tend a lot toward sameness. Not bad, but not, and this is the point of a “decade’s best” list, great.
  • DS2 (Future, 2015, 4 votes)– Early on I thought this was a little more on the autotuned side of hip-hop than I like, but the lyrical content was interesting, and there’s a pleasing air of menace in the music. However, there ended up being a lot more “bitch” and “pussy” here than I like.
  • Lost In The Dream (The War on Drugs, 2014, 4 votes)– Vocally and musically billowy and  golden, but with maybe too smooth a production. It reminded” me of the 80s, and not in a good way, but in a “victory of airtight musical package over authenticity/vitality” kind of way. It’s technically very good, there were some flourishes I enjoyed, but I didn’t really feel anything the whole way through.
  • Sunbather (Deafhaven, 2013, 4 votes)– I mean, the first track is a pretty weird combo- the unintelligible screamo school of metal vocals, and a kind of orchestral swell of indie rock sound which is really rather pleasant. I think I would rather have the reverse. Then there’s a mellow instrumental. Then back to the scream orchestra. Then a “Revolution #9”-style abstract wank-off. And so forth. I really don’t get where the critics were coming from on this at all.
  • Whack World (Tierra Whack, 2018, 4 votes)– I like the spare, almost synth accompaniment of this hip-hop, the straightforward rhymes and whimsy, and the quality of her voice. The series of 1 minute tracks is also refreshing in a genre where songs can sometimes can get a little…long. The heavily autotuned nature of a lot of it? Not so much. Definitely some great singles here, and a talent worth keeping an eye on.

There was another block of albums (10 of 52) where I could certainly hear what caught the critics ear, but which I didn’t feel totally added up:

  • Anti (Rihanna, 2016)– There’s musical and lyrical sophistication here, and songs that are sometimes quite personal and confessional. It’s very well produced, and 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.
  • Black Messiah (D’Angelo & the Vanguard, 2014)– 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. 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 exactly the same reaction here. To be fair, though, I suppose this could be considered praising by faint damnation, since that’s a pretty darn elevated reference point.
  • Days Are Gone (Haim, 2013)– For my 2020 list I’d listened to their album Women in Music, and quite liked it. This album feels like it leans in an even more poppy direction, but retains what I really liked about that album- a nearly perfect pop sensibility with some power and substance behind it. This does register as lighter than their later album, though. Is this Days Are Gone‘s fault? No, and yet it must reverse-chronologically suffer for my knowledge!
  • Emotion (Carly Rae Jepsen, 2015)– The whole thing is very poppy and fun. It reminds me of Taylor Swift, though perhaps a little slicker and less substantive than her work from a comparable time. Really pretty good as dance-oriented pop music goes, and it does sound emblematic of the decade. So in that sense, maybe a signal album, but I’m not quite sure about “best”.
  • Golden Hour (Kacey Musgraves, 2018)– A textured country album, often leaning on the obvious/pop side lyrically, but the vocals are earnest enough to sell it. Musically, it’s lush, grounded in pop country, but drawing on dance music, electronic, and indie rock. It’s all very good, and the best moments are great, but I don’t know about it adding up to a “decade’s best”- the best country albums are better than this as a whole, and the best pop albums are too. What she’s done in bringing together both sides of that equation is still worthy of notice though!
  • Have One On Me (Joanna Newsom)– The instrumentation and production is so clever, bringing in layers that remind one of the late Beatles. Her voice weaves in and out, soars and dips, sometimes sing-song, sometimes wispy, sometimes powerful. Between all these factors, there’s enough variability in a single song to be almost exhausting. And lyrically it creates a surreal idiosyncratic world of its own in the manner, say, of Kate Bush or Tori Amos. That’s the upside, and it’s significant. On the downside, it’s hard to keep up over the length of a triple album (runtime comes in at about two hours), and it gets more conventional, and often lower energy, as it goes on. It’s hard to ignore the merits, but I’m not sure it totally succeeds as an album.
  • Night Time, My Time (Sky Ferreira, 2013)– The debut album from one of the original MySpace musical sensations. It’s a solid pop album, with a darker rock edge to its vocal and musical texture. And darn catchy too! The whole thing is a little inconsistent, but the inconsistency is between merely solidly good and freaking great. All in all, an excellent reminder that pop may not always be profound, but it doesn’t have to be dreck.
  • Random Access Memories (Daft Punk, 2013)– Daft Punk is my favorite French electronic music duo. Okay, no, but really, I’m sure there is more than one. And their 2001 album Discovery really was one of the best of that decade. They are as good as always here, and their mining herein of 70s and 80s dance music really suits their strengths. But I don’t know if the album as a whole is as good as their best. The pacing often felt weird to me- fast and slow lurches and mood shifts that didn’t seem to build on each other in any apparent way.
  • Teen Dream (Beach House, 2010)– This album has the shimmery, golden, sunburn hot turning to goosebump cool feeling of the end of a late summer day at the beach. There are hints of synth, psychedelia, even some honest to goodness surf music. It unfortunately seems to have a weird problem with volume randomly shooting up and down between tracks. Other than that, the dream pop here is in very good shape, but I’m not sure it’s in “decade’s best” territory.
  • Visions (Grimes, 2012)– Spare beats, light synth effects, ethereal vocals that are disorienting in their relation to the bite behind what she’s singing. While there are flashes of brilliance all over, I will say that as a whole it’s not quite as together, engaging, or substantive as later Grimes. This, of course, is partially my problem for having that as a reference point. It certainly must have been a breath of fresh air at the time. So, I don’t know about best of the decade, but one of the most interesting and promising debuts of the decade? Probably yes!

Which leaves 34 of 52 albums that the critics and I agree are among the best of the decade:

1989 (Taylor Swift, 2014)– It is obviously disingenuous in some wise to say I missed this, because it’s Taylor Swift, and if you didn’t hear “Shake It Off” and some of the other singles from this album in the last decade, you probably weren’t in the last decade. Importantly for an album, the non-hit singles here are as compelling and well-done as the hits. Look, I’m a rock guy, I’m a genre classics and alternative guy, I’m a history/deep cuts guy. But there’s nothing wrong with good pop music, and this is pop music at its finest. 

A Seat at the Table (Solange, 2016)– Solange, reportedly, is not fond of being compared to older sister Beyonce. If you’ve found yourself on either side of that sibling comparison game, this is probably understandable to you. As it happens, she’s earned independent review, because, at least based on what I hear here, she’s a force in her own right. This album is soulful, weary, and wise from the first note. It mixes the personal and the social, and there’s genuine vulnerability throughout. And, while keeping a general smooth low-tempo R&B vibe, it takes musical and vocal chances that are lovely. If you want to play a comparison game, this honestly reminds me of Prince in its complexity and quality.

Acid Rap (Chance the Rapper, 2013)– Rich, fun, and dynamic from the get-go with “Good Ass Intro” (which is), and it doesn’t let up from there. Musically, it makes excellent use of an amalgam of Soul, Funk, R&B, and Jazz backgrounds. The lyrics are also so well done, simultaneously clever, informed by pop culture references, and meaningful. The vocals meanwhile cycle through multiple modes- staccato rapid flow, straight-up singing, spoken word. Altogether, it’s a kaleidoscope of moods and modes that sounds like its title. It’s easy to see why this ended up on so many lists!

AM (Arctic Monkeys, 2013)– This starts off with a solid beat and vaguely sinister guitar, which is a good way to get me on board. Then come the vocals and lyrics, which also have a dark and slightly sleazy feeling. The songs display an excellent feel for the interplay between music and vocals, how each should move around the other for maximum impact. Even in the second half, when it sometimes slips into softer croonier and more “high concept” tracks, every song fires on all cylinders. This is sophisticated dirty rock the way sophisticated dirty rock is supposed to be done!   

Art Angels (Grimes, 2015)– 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. If this was the average level pop music was landing at, it would be a grand thing!

Beyonce (Beyonce, 2013)– From the first track, which wrestles with 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)– 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)– The first track sound like an autotuned chipmunk ,but real vocals kicked in midway. With that, and the many unusual and interesting choices it makes for R&B, it grew on me. The arrangement and production was 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!

Brothers (The Black Keys, 2010)– 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)– 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)– 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.

Celebration Rock (Japandroids, 2012)– Hey, that’s some good rock! 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.

Channel ORANGE (Frank Ocean, 2012)– 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)– 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 listened to, I was by then 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you’d prefer a names-only list version for easier reference (hey, I can appreciate that) here you go:

  1. 1989 (Taylor Swift, 2014)
  2. A Seat at the Table (Solange, 2016)
  3. Acid Rap (Chance the Rapper, 2013)
  4. AM (Arctic Monkeys, 2013)
  5. Art Angels (Grimes, 2015)
  6. Beyonce (Beyonce, 2013)
  7. Blackstar (David Bowie, 2016)
  8. Blonde (Frank Ocean, 2016)
  9. Brothers (The Black Keys, 2010)
  10. Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Angel Olsen, 2014)
  11. Carrie & Lowell (Sufjan Stevens, 2015)
  12. Celebration Rock (Japandroids, 2012)
  13. Channel ORANGE (Frank Ocean, 2012)
  14. Control (SZA, 2017)
  15. DAMN. (Kendrick Lamar, 2017)
  16. Daytona (Pusha T, 2018)
  17. Dirty Computer (Janelle Monae, 2018)
  18. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (Kendrick Lamar, 2012)
  19. In Colour (Jamie xx, 2015)
  20. Invasion of Privacy (Cardi B, 2018)
  21. Lemonade (Beyonce, 2016)
  22. Lonerism (Tame Impala, 2012)
  23. LP1 (FKA Twigs, 2014)
  24. Melodrama (Lorde, 2017)
  25. Modern Vampires of the City (Vampire Weekend, 2013)
  26. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Kanye West, 2010)
  27. Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Lana Del Ray, 2019)
  28. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Courtney Barnett, 2015)
  29. Take Care (Drake, 2011)
  30. The Idler Wheel (Fiona Apple, 2012)
  31. The Suburbs (Arcade Fire, 2010)
  32. This Is Happening (LCD Soundsystem, 2010)
  33. To Pimp A Butterfly (Kendrick Lamar, 2015)
  34. Yeezus (Kanye West, 2013)

And that, my friends, is our wrap-up on this search for the best albums of the 2010s.

I know from my 2021 project that my particular tastes are rather idiosyncratic, so some of what I might like best probably isn’t even on the consensus critical list. But 34 albums that make it out of a decade really having something going on is a good place to start! I’d love to hear if you have some favorites that didn’t make the list. And, now that we’ve wrapped up the series on the 2010s and 2020, please join me for the final installments of our 2021 review!

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: October

October is the tenth month of the year, and thus we are 10/12 through with our search the 21 best albums of 2021. We have come far my friends!

If you’re just joining for the first time, I’m listening to new releases each month, sorting them into yes/maybe/no, and then I’ll do a final shakedown to get the best 21 albums of the year. You can find the earlier installments here:

( January February March April May June July August September )

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

Since we’re nearing the end of this mad venture, I thought it might by an opportune time to say a few words on the theory and practice of a great album. Or to put it another way, what am I listening for? In my opinion, there are several potential ingredients that make for a successful album:

  • Consistency- We’re all familiar with the “one or two good songs, but the rest is crap” phenomenon. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being a great singles artist who never pulled off a great album. They can, and do, produce music that will live forever. But for an album as a whole to be great, there shouldn’t be a song on it, much less whole sections, where one is thinking, “This is shit, but I’ll hang in there because of what comes before/after.”
  • Quality- This is kind of a difficult to nail down concept, but I think it’s crucial. It could be that the album is incredibly ambitious musically. Or, it might be doing something more modest musically, but doing it very well. Perhaps it’s the vocals or lyrics that are a cut above- in sophistication, in intelligence, in the depth of the feeling they’re conveying. Probably it’s several of these things in combination. Whatever it is, there has to be something that’s somehow above and beyond.
  • Pacing/Sequencing- I can’t tell you how many times I was listening to something that was well on its way to being a “yes”, but then the second half went flat after a great first half. Or energy built up by one song was dissipated by a series of songs that were in a completely different tone or mood. In many of these cases, it wouldn’t even have been necessary to cut anything, it could have just been arranged differently so that the ups/downs, fast/slows, quiet/louds, etc. had a natural rhythm to them.
  • Listenability- Here you might be thinking, “duh”. I mean, of course you should enjoy listening to it. And that can be quite a subjective quality, of course. But there are many albums where I found what they were doing interesting, or challenging, even thoroughly worthy, but it ended up being a little too discordant or grating to bear extended listening. Or others where it was all so much in one tone musically, vocally, or emotionally, that it all started to blend together in a way that lost my attention. If you’re going to listen to the whole thing, and want to listen to it more than once, is needs to be listenable. Duh.
  • Honesty- How’s that for an abstract term? I’m not sure how precisely to define it, but what I mean is, for almost any song to work, there has to be something authentic, genuine, vital to it. It might be in the music, the vocals, the lyrics, somewhere in between, but it’s the difference between something that is technically solid or well produced but leaves you totally cold and something that catches your attention and sticks with you later.
  • Unity- This is a big one. For a whole album to work, and work greatly, there needs to be something holding it together. This doesn’t at all mean every album needs to be a rock opera, have a grand story arc, or be a concept album with repeated motifs, though all of those can work. It could be something as simple as a common set of themes that the lyrics are wrestling with. Or a particular musical vein or sonic approach that’s developed throughout. Even, as ephemeral as this can be, simply a spirit or an attitude holding the whole thing together.

And these things are to some extent substitute with each other. A given album might succeed by doing, say, three of these things really well, but the other three not as strongly. If you’re thinking of a great album that you like all the way through, and go back to again and again, though, I’m betting some combination of most of the above is at play.

All right, enough philosophizing, let’s get on with it! But before we proceed, a quick note about the three categories:

Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. This list is now up to 216 albums, so a minimum 90% slaughter is headed their way. Gird your loins!

Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes “maybes” linger, so I’m giving them a category just in case.

No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.

Now, on to the truly excessive 134 October new releases I listened to!

Atmosphere, WORD?– Trippy, fun, and often hilarious hip-hop, served well by the completely artless vocal styling (I mean this in a good way- it’s often like he’s just talking to us!). This American hip hop duo from Minneapolis, Minnesota, consisting of rapper Slug and DJ/producer Ant, started in the 90s, which makes sense in terms of the sound and the tone, which reminds me of KRS-One.

Billy Bragg, The Million Things That Never Happened– Billy Bragg has many different modes/moods. This one is more slow and bittersweet, a collection written from age/wisdom taking stock of where one is in life, and what one still believes in and wants. Which is not to say there aren’t moments of humor, stirring music, optimism, and his trademark fiery political commitment in there too.

Charlotte Cornfield, Highs in the Minuses– This Canadian singer-songwriter is a hidden (at least heretofore to me) gem! The songs know how to work a chord change and are solid musically, but where it really shines is the lyrics. They seem in a way, insularly personal and specific, but in their very specificity are somehow relatable- this is her life, and her thoughts and feelings about it, and hey, that kind of reminds me of my life, and my thoughts and feelings about it. Her straightforward and flawlessly authentic vocal delivery further sells it.

Clamm, Beseech Me– By the sound of it, I would not be surprised if this album had landed on us from the late 70s LA Punk scene, or from the early 80s U.S. hardcore scene. In fact, it’s from Melbourne in 2021. Despite the weird time-capsule feeling, I kind of love it- as it turns out, the original punk sound is still a good way to warm an old punk’s heart.

Eris Drew, Quivering in Time– What do you do if you’re holed up in a log cabin in New Hampshire during plague times? If you’re DJ and producer Eris Drew, you mix together this very fine house/electronic album. If you’ve been following along at home, you know that electronic music is often a tough sell for me, but this is so full of energy, and a wit in production that moves it dynamically forward while the trance of the beats pulls you hypnotically under that I never even thought about touching that dial. Or clicking that mouse, as it were.

Guided by Voices, It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them!– This is the second Guided by Voices album of the year, and, as is their wont, sounds different from the other one, and sounds excellent. This one is more in an early 70s prog/psychedelic groove, with enough guitar in a punk/80s alt vein to keep it moving.

Illuminati Hotties, Let Me Do One More– American indie rock band from Los Angeles created by producer/audio engineer Sarah Tudzin. It’s really something! On the one hand, it seems a little like 2000s YouTube pop. But at other times it’s channeling grunge and full-on 90s guitar-crunching songstress. And sometimes it’s in experimental and manic hyperpop modes all its own. And I mean the name is pretty cool too, right? Definitely a talent worth keeping an eye on!

JPEGmafia, LP!– Barrington DeVaughn Hendricks, known professionally as JPEGmafia, is an American rapper, singer, and record producer from Brooklyn. His hip-hop comes from an electronic direction with an interesting and challenging musical and lyrical mix. It reminds me a bit of 90s Conscious hip-hop, and also of 80s metallic beats, but is something unique and all its own on top of that.

Karen Peris, A Song Is Way Above the Lawn– This album by Innocence Mission alumni Peris is meant to be a children’s album, but it works for adults. In fact, it’s exactly those aspects that might make it work for children- a kind of lyrical naiveté, a fable-like quality, a straightforward even somewhat bare musical and vocal presentation, that makes it so affecting. It feels a little like a haunted fairy tale.

Lana Del Rey, Blue Bannisters– This is her second album this year, and, consistently, she’s amazing. I did wonder about the slow vein it started in and mostly maintains, but as it goes on, it’s clear that this is deliberate- the album is a meditation on the richness of heartbreak and feeling blue. And it’s magnificently done.

Lilly Hiatt, Lately– I have a friend who is a big John Hiatt fan, and, under her influence, I am learning to significantly appreciate him. So I was naturally curious to see what his daughter Lilly is up to. It turns out that she’s up to making a really good country-themed album, with great playing, powerful vocals, and just the right mix of respect for traditionalism and verve.

Megan Thee Stallion, Something for Thee Hotties– The stallion named Megan is never less than interesting. She released this mix of previously online free-styles and archive tracks as a gift for fans and proceeds to spend it blisteringly talking trash, female empowerment, and in our faces sexuality. With some great beats and non-stop excellent vocal flow thrown in. If this was a male hip-hop artist doing something similar, it probably wouldn’t work, but the gender inversion makes me say, “Go girl!”

Mon Laferte, 1940 Carmen– The second album out from this Chilean songstress this year. It is just so darn pretty, and her voice is stunning. It also has a mix of Spanish and English, and dips into pop styles of the 60s, making it more accessible (to me, anyway) than her earlier in the year all-Spanish album which focused on Mexican folk music.

Natalie Hemby, Pins and Needles– Second solo album by an artist who has written hit songs for many other country artists over the last 20+ years. I expected/feared from this something that would be very pop country. In fact, while definitely coming from a  country direction, it’s often got a rock feeling to it, and, while being pop catchy, has a good sense for emotional complexity, delivered in a  voice that rings authentic.

ONETWOTHREE, ONETWOTHREE– We kick into gear with a grooving head-bopping start, with a staccato vocal punch. This is the product of three female bassists/singers from classic Swiss post-punk bands, and that’s what it sounds like. In a wonderful way! Dissonant, spare, driving, nervy.

Pokey LaFarge, In the Blossom of Their Shade– Vocal pop with country, 50s rock, swing, ska, and Latin sounds in the mix. This description is true, but I think it undersells how delightful the combination of this, and his plaintive croon, is. This is some really excellent Americana.

Remi Wolf, Juno– Musically, this is definitely coming from a dance/pop direction, but her personality, hilarious and super-smart lyrics, and the verve and variety of the music mix all put it over the top. Apparently, she was on American Idol in 2014 as a high school student. She was way too good for them, as she subsequently proved by getting a music degree and then self-releasing her own material. This is her studio album debut, and I’m firmly convinced she’s an exciting talent to keep an eye on!

UNIIQU3, Heartbeats– I think I like Jersey Club, because between this, and Cookie Kawaii’s album earlier this year, I’m on board! The beats and mix are relentless, the sexuality is over the top and hilarious, and the general wit and unusual presence is non-stop fun.

Wiki, Half God– American rapper and record producer Patrick G. Morales, aka Wiki, has produced an album that is in some wise a meditation, delivered in love but also hard honesty, on his native New York City. It’s also full of lyrics heavy on his life and feelings. The production by Navy Blue meanwhile keeps this potentially heavy material buoyed up by spare and clear grooves, and Wiki’s unadorned vocals also buoy things up.

Xenia Rubinos, Una Rosa– This is kind of weird! Some of it sounds like experimental electronic music, or perhaps a theremin-informed movie soundtrack, but then there’s quite a bit of balladeering and hip-hop dance music along the way. Sometimes all of these modes will appear in a single song. All of it informed by a wicked wit that shows up in the lyrics, vocal changes, and mix choices. Well worth a repeated listen! 

Maybe

  • BandGang Lonnie Bands, Hard 2 Kill– Low key music mix and vocal flow adds to the lyrics in delivering a slow steady sense of dread. In a way, it’s thoroughly and unremarkably stuck in the gangster subroutine, but stands out from the skillful way it’s put together.
     
  • Boy Scouts, Wayfinder– Boy Scouts is the stage name of Oakland, California musician Taylor Vick. The fuzzy lo-fi sound, and lackadaisical undertow of vocals is low key, and sort of the same track to track, but with the emotionally charged and literate lyrics, it’s also affecting in the mood it creates and really pretty excellent.
  • Brandi Carlile, In These Silent Days– From her debut on, I have liked Brandi Carlile a lot. This is a fine album (I don’t think she can do a bad one). But I’m not sure it’s up to her best, or the other bests of the year. Maybe?
  • Dean Wareham, I Have Nothing to Say to the Mayor of LA– The intelligence of the lyrics, dry humor, and world-weariness of the vocals is a wonderful thing. The music is deliberately muted, and this low-key tone and lack of variability is perhaps the thing holding it back from the”yes” category.
     
  • Deerhoof, Actually, You Can– I do love me some Deerhoof! Reville and Apple O are two of my favorite albums of the 00s, and I’ve seen them live several times, which has never been less than great. The opening song is about vegetables and a refrigerator, and every song sounds like a power-pop song exploded and was reassembled. This is lacking some of the surging moments and repeated structure of their best albums, but is a pretty worthy outing, all in all.
  • Ducks Ltd., Modern Fiction– This sounds like some hi-energy alt 80s jangle pop. That, and the name, are both good ways to dispose me favorably. Time capsule sound from this Toronto band, but darned if it isn’t well done!
  • Hayes Carll, You Get it All– Vocally and musically this Texas singer-songwriter delivers- sometimes in an outlaw country vein, sometimes bluegrass-tinged, or blues, sometimes 70s pop country. But his lyrical edge and wit take it up another notch. There are a few tracks where it falls flat, sound too produced and/or dips into cliché, which is a shame, because minus, say, 2-3 tracks here, it would have been an enthusiastic yes.
  • HONNE, Let’s Just Say the World Ended a Week From Now, What Would You Do?– I mean it’s autotuned too much, and it’s “just” a good pop album. But a good pop album that never lets you down for a single track is really good! Just enough energy, just enough interesting touches in the electronic mix, some wit in the lyrics, and melody and hooks.
  • Jason Isbell, Georgia Blue– His previous album, Reunions, was one of my favorites of 2020. This is the result of an election dare, but an inspired one- he campaigned for Biden in Georgia and said if Joe won, Jason would do an album covering songs from Georgia artists. He pulls the covers from a variety of sources, and plays them to his and his band’s strengths, concentrating on the instrumental side and pulling in guest vocalists. It’s so well done that even the 12-minute Allman Brothers cover doesn’t throw me off.
  • Jerry Cantrell, Brighten– It is still the 90s on this Alice in Chains alum’s album. I miss the 90s. And it’s hard to find anything this album is doing wrong- it would have made a great mid/late 90s “grunge is no longer fresh and new but this still works” album. The dated sound now is the source of my reservation.
  • Kevin Morby, A Night at the Little Los Angeles– These are 4-track demos from this Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter’s 2020 album Sundowner. He originally hails from Texas and Missouri, and works in a very Dylan/Springsteen “haunted-sounding songs of troubled lives” space, and the spare four-track setting enhances it. The second-half sequencing sometimes dissipates the energy it was otherwise building up, which is the only thing that got it docked from “yes”.
  • Kurt Elling, Super Blue– I am informed he’s the “standout male jazz vocalist of our age”. He does have a great voice, and his vocal phrasing is really interesting. He’s paired here with jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, who’s funky, driving tracks I appreciate. Between these two forces and some literate, imagistic lyrics, my interest got carried along the whole way through. Call me crazy, but I think this is a strong maybe. See, I can like a jazz album! I can!
  • Lily Koningsberg, Lily We Need to Talk Now– Koningsberg is one of the members of Palberta, whose album Palberta5000 made my “maybe” list earlier this year. She’s great here- bringing a mix of lo-fi dance and rock, with propulsive music, crunchy guitar, songs that remember melody, and vocals and lyrics that are smart and true. If it wasn’t for a few dreamy keyboard pieces that seem out of joint with everything else, this would have been an automatic yes.
     
  • Mastodon, Hushed and Grim– I do love me some Mastodon! This has their characteristic moments of both heaviness (nobody current does heavy better), orchestral flourish, and musical experimentation (one track has practically a disco vibe in parts) as they explore themes of grief, centering on the death of their long-time manager. While full of range, this definitely leans more on the prog/arena rock side, and it does run for an hour and a half. Albeit a much more accessible hour and a half than their concept albums sometimes manage. So I’m not entirely sure it hangs together at that length, but it also brings a lot to the table.
  • Orquesta Akokán, 16 Rayos– Orquesta Akokán is a multi-generational big band of top musicians from Cuba and New York’s Latin music scene. Their sound puts together mambo, other related musical styles, and Latin jazz. Despite the language barrier, it’s a winning and vigorous mix!
  • Papur Wal, Amser Mynd Adra– driving upbeat rock with great hooks and a pop feeling. A lot of the album is in Welsh, which definitely is a barrier, but the music is so darn accessible!
  • Parquet Courts, Sympathy For Life– What’s wrong with a nice, energetic rock album that evokes a range of eras and styles, combining solid playing with a sense of melody? Nothing! This New York City band is not going to cure cancer, they’re not doing something incredibly profound here, they’re just making a solid rock album with range. Amen! It was headed straight toward “yes” until the questionable decision to close on a six-minute long slow song.
  • Pia Fraus, Now You Know It Still Feels the Same– The descriptor “Estonian noise pop group re-records their 20 year old debut with everything they’re capable of now” pretty much had me pre-hooked. It was going really well- the kind of fuzzy noise that makes you take notice but also remembers melody- until about halfway through, when it decisively slide into overly dreamy gauzy territory for two songs in a row. So, it would be a “yes” if it dropped two tracks=maybe?
     
  • Sam Fender, Seventeen Going Under– This album by a UK musician is a well-produced, varied, pop album hiding a lyrically and emotionally deep introspective look back at childhood memories. The anthemic feeling as he tackles this material reminds me of Springsteen even though musically it has more in common with 80s synth pop and the more orchestral/bombastic ends of 80s alt. It ends on a somewhat somber note, and the smoothness sometimes feels a little deadening, but then again the smoothness is the very thing that disguises, while also delivering, the heaviness of what it’s doing.
     
  • The Lathums, How Beautiful Life Can Be– Brings to mind 80s jangle pop. I personally kept veering between “this sounds a little paint by numbers” and “this is a masterful evocation of that sound”. So I think, by definition, we land at “maybe”.
  • Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga, Love For Sale– There’s a lot that can go right here- two great vocal performers, classic Cole Porter material. This kind of thing can also go wrong by feeling like a gimmick, or hewing too exactly to the originals, leaving no room for surprise or discovery. In this case, the stuff that can go right does, and if the versions are a little on the conservative side, it’s musically lively, and there’s a chemistry between them that works. Perhaps not new and different enough to be a screaming ‘yes”, but worthwhile.
  • Tori Amos, Ocean to Ocean– There’s no such thing as a bad Tori Amos album, only those that are more focused and musically interesting than the merely “good” others. This is subtle on the musical side (but with depths in the subtlety), but is thematically tied together with the energy of quarantine and isolation and the tides of the sea, which ends up being lyrically rich and suggestive.

No

  • Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Adrian Younge, Instrumentals JID009– All instrumental is a tough sell for me. Jazz, well, I try. Put the two together, we’re probably headed for a “no”.
  • Andrew Leahey & the Homestead, American Static, Vol. 1– Andrew Leahey is a master of a certain era/spirit of Americana- 80s heartland rock, but with a 2000s indie rock polish. As befits a master, it is well done, but it feels a little too smooth and prefab along the way. I think there’s a version of this album just a pinch less finely polished and more unleashed that would have worked really well.
  • April Magazine, If the Ceiling Were a Kite, Vol. 1– Dreamy and jangly, which is a good way to get my attention, but it ended up too muted and same track to track.
  • Aquaserge, The Possibility of a New Work for Aquaserge– French art collective making music kind of like you might imagine a French art collective making.
  • audiobooks, Astro Tough– audiobooks is a duo made up of vocalist/visual artist Evangeline Ling and David Wrench — who has a deeply impressive resume as a producer/mixer. They’ve got some electronic dance music going here, clever effects, dark undertone, understated vocals, and narratives that spin dense stories of scenes from life. Somewhere in all this is enough sense of melody, refrain, and song structure to propel it along. It was really doing well despite not being total coherent, but ended with such a low-energy final track that it kind of deflated.
  • BADBADNOTGOOD, Talk Memory– This Canadian instrumental group’s album sometimes sounds like electronic music, sometimes like straight out rock, sometimes a little jazzy. It’s skillfully done, but I don’t think it clears the hurdle to “year’s best” album.
  • BeMyFiasco, Where I Left You– Top points for the name! Dallas-based Bianca Rodriguez courts a version of R&B harking back to the sleeker more sophisticated side of the 80s. It’s very well done, but a little too in a mellow groove to break out.
  • BIG|BRAVE/The Body , Leaving None But Small Birds– It does it well, but it’s a little too “Celtic Fire Hour on Public Radio” for me.
  • Black Dice, Mod Prog Sic– Experimental music duo from Brooklyn. It’s interesting, metallic in a good way, but a little too much “sound experiment” to totally work as an album in a lasting kind of way.
  • Black Marble, Fast Idol– A nice moody electronic project by some nice Brooklyn musicians. It’s well done, but also not particularly better done than other similar things this year.
  • Bremer/McCoy, Natten– Danish duo of Jonathan Bremer on acoustic bass and Morten McCoy on the keys and tape delay. This is very well-played instrumental music, but too in a neo-classical/jazz vein for me.
  • Carolyn Wonderland, Tempting Fate– This blues singer from Texas, delivers good electric blues with a country flavor. It’s always fun and well done, and at its best it’s downright rollicking. But overall, I don’t know if it rises enough above the genre for “year’s best”.
  • Circuit des Yeux, -io– Stage name of Chicago-based American musician Haley Fohr.  The music is interesting in its orchestral swell and playing with rising tension, and the vocals are clear, but everything ends up a little too ethereal and abstract.
  • Clinic, Fantasy Island– This English band first formed in the late 90s is doing a good, moody version of post-punk, but I don’t know that it’s better than a lot of other good, moody versions of post-punk I’ve heard this year.
  • Coldplay, Music of the Spheres– Coldplay is one of those bands that I am confidently told I should like, and so I keep trying, but, alas. The framing space theme of this album is nice, and everything in it is well done. It’s well done in that Coldplay way, totally smooth, totally competent, but not much hint of real human feeling or musical vitality anywhere in the mix.
  • Cradle of Filth, Existence is Futile– How’s that for a metal group and album name? They’re a well known quantity in metal circles, this being their thirteenth album. (Lucky 13!) They certainly do a good job of their mix of thrash and orchestral, infused by horror lyrics. Genre fans will have a good time here, but I’m not sure it’s doing anything new or different enough to reach year’s best, or accessible and coherent enough to justify the more than hour run time.
  • Dar Williams, I’ll Meet You Here– As with Brandi Carlile above, Dar Williams is probably not capable of making a bad album. Some of the songs here are quite affecting, and all are never less that well-played and very literate. But it doesn’t come together as an album that rises above for the year as a whole.
  • Dear Laika, Pluperfect Mind– Interesting, but also abstract and experimental in a way that’s hard to engage with at length. It is an impressive effort, though, considering that this U.K. based musician is only 23.
  • Dinner, Dream Work– Dinner is Copenhagen-based Danish producer and singer Anders Rhedin. As befits the album name, it is shimmery and dreamy. Well instrumented, with a nice gauzy mood, but doesn’t beyond that.
  • Domingæ, Ae– This sounds like the dissonant opening of a Pink Floyd song, only at album length.
  • Dummy, Mandatory Enjoyment– Despite the name, this L.A. band is no Dummy. What they are is a smart purveyor of a combination of shoegaze, 70s electronic, and psychedelia that often has good, rocking momentum. And, whether or not it was mandatory, I enjoyed it a lot. The thing that’s keeping it from being a yes is the ethereal opening that’s out of tone with the rest, and the times it gets bogged down in a hazy psychedelic swirl for too long, dissipating the momentum.
  • Duran Duran, Future Past– Reviewing a new Duran Duran album is an unexpected time warp, for sure. That being said, they’re sounding pretty good here. Kind of more in their late-80s mode, whereas I preferred early 80s, and it feels, as it always has, a little pre-fab, but few other people from that era are still putting out something this creditable.
  • Ed Sheeran, =– Ed Sheeran is a UK hit-making machine, and you can certainly hear why here. It’s radio-friendly 2000s pop-rock par excellence. Please save me from it.
  • Efterklang, Windflowers– Well-produced, pleasantly dreamy outing from this Danish indie rock band. It never really stands out or gets beyond a certain energy level.
  • Elton John, The Lockdown Sessions– Elton John’s 30th studio album. I have made zero studio albums, so maybe I should just shut my mouth. And, to be fair, it has solid production and interesting mixes, a kaleidoscope of well-deployed “contemporary” guest stars, and some interesting covers. But, well, ultimately it doesn’t totally come together as an album, or as something that lands solidly in “good” late period Elton John territory. Competing with yourself is tough!
  • ESP Summer, Kingdom of Heaven– The side project of musicians Ian Masters and Warn Defever attracted some notice with a (seemingly) one-off release in the 90s, and now they’re back more than twenty years later delivering this neo-psychedelic and dreamy outing. It’s interesting, especially on the two shorter tracks, but about half of it meanders very far afield.
  • FINNEAS, Optimist– Like his sister, he’s a solid songwriter and performer (he’s Billie Ellish’s brother, and has produced a fair amount of her music as well). He tends more toward the conventional and less toward the soul-baring than she does though. I like things that are unconventional and soul-baring.
  • Fire-Toolz, Eternal Home– The hour and a half run time had me on guard, and the mechanized screaming of the vocals in the opening didn’t help. It is kind of interesting, like a doom metal vocal on an otherwise cheery synth-jazz electronica, but a little too grating for way too long to work as an album.
  • Full of Hell, Garden of Burning Apparitions– Maryland/Pennsylvania grindcore band, and man, it’s brutal from the get-go. Musically, I could have been totally on board with this relentless assault, but vocally, well, I’m a little old fashioned, to the extent that I like to understandably hear a lyric every once in a  while.
  • Good Morning, Barnyard– If you name your album “Barnyard” I’m preemptively rooting for you, and if your band name is “Good Morning”, between those two things I’m looking for some hi-energy ruckus. Instead Australian band Barnyard is doing something that sounds like 90s slow rock, with a twist of Modern Lovers. Not bad, but a little too all in one muted tone.
     
  • Grouper, Shade– The opening is gorgeously fuzzy- it sounds like it was recorded on tape recorder off of AM radio. What comes next gets clearer than that, but is still on the gauzy lo-fi melody side. In the end, it’s a little too muted and indistinct track-to-track to work as an album at length.
  • Hand Habits, Fun House– Hand Habits is the project of American studio musician and guitarist Meg Duffy. It’s richly instrumented, with strong mood and emotionally complex lyrics, but very musically muted. It’s this last factor that kept it from “yes” for me.
  • Hayden Thorpe, Moondust for my Diamond– This English songwriter has produced something with synth sounds and swirling abstract lyrics that would have sounded pretty at home on alternative rock radio in the 80s or 90s. It’s not badly done, but also not internally distinguished much track to track.
  • Helado Negro, Far In– Stage name of Roberto Carlos Lange, a Brooklyn-based first generation Ecuadorian-American. Somewhere between electronic and jazz and lounge, and well done, but a little too low key and fading into the background along the way.
  • Hovvdy, True Love– Austin-based indie-pop duo, and this is shimmery and full, if ultimately too all in one tone song to song.
  • James Blake, Friends That Break Your Heart– Smooth pop, high clear vocals, nice sound effects. Eh. This is a good example of something technically completely solid, but lacking an ounce of vitality or genuine feeling.
  • Jaques Greene, ANTHO1– Canadian electronic musician, based in Toronto. A little too far on the spare, repetitive side of edm for me.
  • Jarvis Cocker, Chansons d’Ennui Tip-Top– Solo album from founder/frontman of Britpop pioneers Pulp. A bit more particular than that though, in this case, 12 covers of classic French pop songs as a tie-in to the Wes Anderson film The French Dispatch. They’re well done, I think, but between the specificity of the form (French pop songs of a certain era) and the language barrier, it was hard for me to connect with it.
  • Kacy Hill, Simple, Sweet, and Smiling– Kind of on the synthy side of dance. It’s not bad, but doesn’t stack up to the best things I’ve heard in that genre from the last year or two.
  • Kedr Livanskiy, Liminal Soul– Russian electronic musician, singer-songwriter, record producer and DJ. That description had me curious, and this is well done, but a little ethereal and spare for my tastes. Plus, you know, being almost entirely in Russian. Though I did enjoy that!
  • Kit Sebastian, Melodi– Kit Sebastian is a duo formed by Kit Martin and Merve Erdem, spread between Turkey and France. As one might expect from all of that, it has a swinging global sound. Kind of jazzy, kind of funky, kind of a lot of vocals in Turkish. Not my cup of tea, but not at all unpleasant.
  • La Luz, La Luz– This all-female group from Los Angeles is known for working the vein of surf music, with a dash of psychedelia and 60s harmonies (i.e. doo wop, girl groups). This is in that vein, surfy and dreamy. Everything about it is well done, but leaning more heavily on the dreamy side than the propulsive side makes it hard to sustain. A real shame, because I love a lot of things about it!
  • Lady A, What a Song Can Do– I mean, they’re good. They’re solid. They’re well produced. It just isn’t big on musical dynamism or real human feeling.
  • Lala, I Want the Door to Open– Lala is the indie rock project of Chicago-based songwriter Lillie West who I’m assuming, along with Kanye West, is my cousin. This is somewhere in the bracket between teenish indie pop and something more electronic and experimental. Ultimately it ends up feeling like it’s not quite there in terms of album coherence/impact, but definitely a talent worth keeping an eye on.
  • Le Ren, Leftovers– Twangy, plucky acoustic-flavored singer-songwriter, with emotionally bare lyrics. It was really well done, but too all in one low-key groove to work at album length.
  • Lone, Always Inside Your Head– Swirling beats, ethereal keyboards, vaguely disembodied lyrics. Please save me.
  • Magdalena Bay, Mercurial World– This sounds like an 80s dance remix, with traces of video game soundtrack. It’s good high-energy fun, but it doesn’t really get beyond that.
  • Marissa Nadler, The Path of the Clouds– Unbeknownst to me, Marissa Nadler has apparently been recording and touring for twenty years now. Shame on me for not knowing, and that definitely explains the depth of songwriting and presence she has here. It really is masterful, but the somber and muted tone musically and vocally eventually anchors the album down, even if it never quite drags it under.
      
  • Matthew Stevens, Pittsburgh– As jazz guitar odes to Pittsburgh go, this is a fine one.
  • Maxo Kream, Weight of the World– At the outset, I thought this album was going the gangster cliché route, but then was pleasantly surprised by its wit and deeper meditations on street life (and crisp vocal delivery plus great sampling/production). However, as it wore on, it tipped back into cliché. Alas!
  • Maya Jane Coles, Night Creature– The more ethereal easy listening end of electronic. Nah.
  • Meek Mill, Expensive Pain– Rapid-fire hip-hop, great production, with a good, distinctive voice, but more gangster clichés and autotune than I care for. However, it also includes reflections on the limits of street life, and a desire for something more. The balance of plusses and minuses kept me listening for quite a while, but eventually the minuses took it.
  • Melvins, Five-Legged Dog– “The Melvins do an acoustic album” is something that could go either way, given how outside of their usual wheelhouse it is. That part actually goes pretty well, the setting brings out the inherent mix of melody and menace in their music in a new light. A two and a half hour acoustic album, well… There is a 40-50 minute version of this album that really would have been a “yes”, but as is, it’s a good outing for Melvins fanatics. Of which I am one!
  • Mess Esque, Mess Esque– Collaboration between indie rockers Helen Franzmann and Mick Turner. It sets a fine mellow mood, with vocals weaving in and out of dreamy waves of guitar. But it remains a little too indistinct to really catch fire.
  • Ministry, Moral Hygiene– Ministry is one of those bands that I kind of vaguely thought maybe wasn’t around anymore. They are! They’re even in pretty good form here, and I appreciate the heaviness and the political bent, but it’s a little all too in one tone to really rise above. The Jello Biafra appearance and a Stooges cover are welcome, though.
  • My Morning Jacket, My Morning Jacket– They’re sort of one of the signature bands of the 2000s, and one would not want to be on the side of arguing against them being good. But this whole thing sounds too slick, and emotionally flat to me. It’s fine, in fact in many ways it’s very good, but I just can’t picture a lot of people particularly remembering it or turning to it a few years from now.
  • Nightmares on Wax, Shoutout! To Freedom…- About 2/3 through it really catches fire into something interesting, but until then it’s spent a lot of time as a groovy easy listening international electronic outing. If it had started in with some vocals and lyrics and content earlier, it might have been saved!
  • Nubya Garcia, Source: We Move– This is a set of remixes from her 2020 album Source, which I listened to as part of my blog series reviewing that year. These mixes certainly do liven up those tracks, which had been at their best when they got out of a “smooth and mellow jazz” vein, but the original didn’t make into my top 20 for 2020, and this isn’t making it into my 21 for 2021.
  • Petitie Amie, Petitie Amie– Pleasant French pop, sometimes does some quite interesting musical things, but as a whole doesn’t really stand out.
  • PinkPantheress, to hell with it– English singer, songwriter and record producer who first broke out on TikTok. It’s nice enough, though way too autotuned, and doesn’t really stand out.
  • Pistol Annies, Hell of a Holiday– Miranda Lambert’s side project with two other country music songwriters. I like the girl power, and it’s solidly done, but a little formulaic. But she did already end up in my “yes” column for the year with another side project, The Marfa Tapes, so that goes to show that Blake Shelton can suck it.
  • Porches, All Day Gentle Hold !– Lo-fi indie synth pop isn’t a bad way to go, and there are some songs on here that are really fun and affecting. But for the most part, it doesn’t add up as an album.
  • Reb Fountain, Iris– Somber clear vocals and incantory poetic lyrics. That’s the upside. The downside is that musically it’s too muted and smooth to really land and sustain itself at album length.
  • Ross From Friends, Tread– British DJ/electronic musician, and associate of DJ Seinfeld, which goes to show you what jokers they are with their names. It’s fine as such things go, but a little abstract and “low content”.
  • RP Boo, Established!– Chicago-based electronic musician, producer and DJ known as one of the originators of the footwork genre during the 90s. What’s here is a little too on the echoey/repetitive side of techno to work at album length.
  • Sable, Japanese Breakfast– I guess if video game soundtracks are a thing, we need to review them. Hour and 36 minute soundtracks, though, whatever they’re for, are a bit much. And this is all way too ethereal to work at that length.
  • Sam Evian, Time to Melt– It’s mellow, and groovy, and jazzy. I can’t prove that it’s ever killed anyone, but I have my suspicions.
  • Santana, Blessings and Miracles– I mean, it’s not a bad Santana album. Can that even happen? But it’s also not an especially new or different one, kind of continuing the “duets with more contemporary pop stars” approach that he’s done for a while.
  • Screensaver, Expressions of Interest– Some nervy and well-done post-punk with more than a trace of British 80s alt and industrial. But it doesn’t really reach above to something that stands out.
  • Shannon Lay, Geist– An acoustic singer-songwriter album that has solid playing, vocals, and lyrics, but doesn’t really stand out from the pack of similar musicians.
  • Soshi Takeda, Floating Mountains– Vaguely new agey synth background music.
  • Sue Foley, Pinky’s Blues– Canadian blues musician, and pinky is her signature guitar. This is very strong southern blues, but doesn’t feel like it gets a lot beyond the genre or latches on to something especially authentic.
  • The Convenience, Accelerator– This album by a duo of New Orleans-based (but originally hailing from New Jersey and San Francisco) indie musicians is full of sounds of the quirkier/poppier side of new wave, and indeed of 80s pop in general. That is fun, and well done, but never really adds up to a compelling album.
  • The Doobie Brothers, Liberte– As with several other things we’ve gotten up to, a new Doobie Brothers album is not something I expected to see in 2021. One should note they still tour with Michael McDonald, but they don’t record with him these days, so this is the three core members of the original group. It’s well done, and has some classic sounding moments, but overall, it has the blandly overproduced sound of “classic rock folks issue contemporary album”.
  • The Pineapple Thief, Nothing But The Truth– British progressive rock band, started in 1999. Right off, I find myself thinking, “Did the world really need new prog rock bands in 1999”? And then I smack into the hour and a half run time, which is an inherently tough thing to justify. It could at least have been intricate and weird and unwieldy. Instead it’s kind of blandly pop-produced. No, just no.
  • The Record Company, Play Loud– This rock band from Los Angeles sounds kind of like they’re doing a Black keys impression. Sometimes it’s a really good impression, and I’m almost sold on it, but then it goes a bit prefab and soulless and I’m not.
  • The Specials, Protest Songs 1924-2012– The Specials cover almost a century’s worth of protest songs in different veins. They may not be as inspired musically as they were in the late 70s and early 80s, but they’re solidly, dependably good. Some of the material suits their strengths better than others, and when it does, it really shines. Other times it’s merely “good”. So, it doesn’t add up to great album, but it is worthwhile.
     
  • The War on Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore– People keep telling me I should like the War on Drugs, and I’ve tried. I really have! It’s well produced music, establishes a mood, at moments reminds me of Dylan. But it’s also a little too smooth, radio-packaged, and slickly produced. I just can’t find something really authentic enough in it to latch onto and carry me throughout the length of an album.
  • Theon Cross, Intra-I– This is at its best when it gets really in to the dub side, and less good when it does a more typical kind of electronic music. Between the back and forth, it just doesn’t catch on as a coherent album. Though it is definitely notable for being led by a tuba player. We could use more tuba-based albums!
  • Thrice, Horizons/East– American rock band from Irvine, California, formed in 1998. It sounds like a lot of 2000s radio-friendly American rock. Urck.
  • Tirzah, Colourgrade– English singer and songwriter, this is very interesting electronic experimentation, but spends about half its time on the grating edge of hard to listen to.
  • Toby Keith, Peso in My Pocket– Toby Keith has been a reliable country hit-maker for decades, and this album feels very reliable. It kind of skates the edge between courting cliché and seeming classic. As a result, I was riding the edge with it, but the last track “Happy Birthday America” tipped me over- I can read a collection of right wing talking points online anytime, I don’t need them in my music.
  • Tom Morello, The Atlas Underground Fire– The opening tracks mix of some promising rock with some nonsense autotune sound effects was concerning. The follow-up cover of AC/DC with Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder guest appearances is great! From there we’re on firmer and more expected ground based on Morello’s history with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Between the false start, the occasional dip back into too much autotune, and the fact that it’s expected rather than extraordinary, though, it doesn’t fully add up.
  • Tonstartssbandht, Petunia– According to Wikipedia “Tonstartssbandht is an American psychedelic, noise rock band consisting of brothers Andy and Edwin White, based in Orlando and New York City”. I think that’s right, and I did hear the psychedelia, but in an extended groovy kind of way that honestly had me feeling like I was listening to a jam band. Jam bands are all well and good. In their proper place. In proper proportion.
  • Topdown Dialectic, Vol. 3– To quote Bandcamp: “The dissociative electronic designs of incognito American producer Topdown Dialectic originated as a set of software strategies, rather than compositions”. That gives you a pretty good idea of what’s happening here.
  • Trivium, In the Court of the Dragon– I can see why metal started going with orchestral concept albums. It suits the genre and its beautiful ability to get overblown. However, we may have reached a point where it would be okay if not every metal act does it. When they’re just getting down to playing, this is pretty good. When they’re doing ponderous intros and setting up story…
  • Twelve Foot Ninja, Vengeance– I mean, there’s the band name, there’s the album name, there’s the cover depicting an arcade game breaking through a blasted desolate landscape. All of this gives you a pretty accurate sense of what you’re in for from this Australian band- thrash metal mixed with operatic moments, and leavened by a heavy dose of humor and some unexpected musical choices. It doesn’t quite come together, but it is fun!
  • Vanishing Twin, Oookii Gekkou– It’s interesting, but too gauzy, abstract, and easy listening to really take hold.
  • Various Artists, The Metallica Blacklist– “Artists contribute covers of a classic album” is a noble formula, and Metallica’s 1991 Black Album is a worthy target for such homage. More than four hours of covers though (each song gets five or more) is, well, long. My recommendation is to check out the list of songs and 53 different artists covering them, and listen to the ones that particularly intrigue you, because there are many gems to be found, even if it isn’t listenable as an album as a whole. One of the things the variety and quality of covers does do, though, is really spotlight why that album, and Metallica in general, works so well- behind the thunder and the darkness, there’s a core of emotional complexity and even vulnerability in these songs.
     
  • Xeno & Oaklander, Vi/deo– This electronic music duo has delivered something spare and unusual enough that it held my attention longer than this genre often does, but ultimately it didn’t stick.
  • Yikii, Crimson Poem– This album by Chinese multi-genre artist Yikii sounds like neo-classical neo-electronic music made by a haunted doll. But I mean, really well made! It’s a little too outré for regular listening, but it is genuinely eerie and unsettling.
  • Zac Brown/Zac Brown Band, The Comeback– This is absolutely as good as rock-friendly pop country gets. It’s fine if you like that kind of thing, admirable even, but it’s not up to the best of the year, or the best country of the year.

And so we conclude October, with a whole day in November to spare. Crunch time is coming up, but we’ve come too far to turn back now! See you soon for November…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: September

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

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

( January February March April May June July August )

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

Before we proceed, a quick note about the three categories:

Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. This list is now up to 196 albums, so competition for the final 21 is going to be fierce!

Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes “maybes” linger, so I’m giving them a category just in case.

No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.

Now, on to the 94 new releases I listened to for September!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe

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

No

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

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

   

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

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

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

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

 

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: August

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

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

( January February March April May June July )

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

Before we proceed, a quick note about the three categories:

Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. As of the end of August, this list was up to 169 albums, so ever survivor for the final 21 will leave 7 dead companions in it’s wake. En garde!

Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes “maybes” linger, so I’m giving them a category just in case.

No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe

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

No

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

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

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

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

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

(Part I Part II Part III Part IV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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