Category Archives: Uncategorized

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!

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: June

No, this isn’t a blog post on Blackjack. The review of new albums from June 2021 is here! That’s right, we’re halfway there in our madcap quest to find the 21 best albums of 2021. And, like Bon Jovi before us, we’re living on a prayer.

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

( January February March April May )

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

I’ve received a few questions from readers, so the halfway point of this enterprise seems like a good spot to do an FAQ.

Q: How do you find the albums to listen to? A: I’m subscribed to weekly new release e-mails from All Music Guide and Pitchfork. I may be missing a thing or two, but between them I’ve listened to 440 albums as of the end of June, so I can’t be missing much!

Q: How do you listen to the albums? A: Between YouTube Music and Apple Music I can find almost everything- sometimes there’s a delay of a week or two, but most everything shows up in those places eventually.

Q: How do you listen to so many albums? A: I’m generally listening during the day at work, with moves through a lot of music if you do it daily! I take a few notes real-time, and then work on the write-ups after hours.

Q: What genres are you listening to? A: What I’ve always been interested in musically is Rock, very broadly defined, including all the genres that led to it and descended from it. So, I’m deliberately not listening to classical albums, chamber music, choral, opera, etc. Jazz is borderline, if it’s on the fusion edge of other genres I’ll often give it a try, whereas if it’s the more “pure” jazz I generally don’t. Otherwise, blues, country, dance, electronica, folk, hip-hop, gospel, rock, R&B and soul, etc. are all making it in.

Q: Are there any other criteria? A: I’m not listening to EPs since I have my hands full-enough with full-length albums. I’m also listening to new releases, so re-releases don’t make the cut. Either do live albums unless they’re of very recent vintage. I will listen to soundtracks if they’re comprised of new material.

Q: Do you listen to the whole album? A: It depends… I listen to at least the first few tracks of everything. If I’m three to five tracks in (depending on the length of the album) and I know it isn’t going to do it for me, I stop. But anything that’s a “yes” or a “maybe” I have listened to the entire album.

So that’s that for questions! Before we go on, a quick note about the three categories:

Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. As of the end of June, this list is up to 117 albums, so we’re probably looking at 200+ for the final reckoning at year end.

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

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

And now, let us proceed with the 82 new releases from June…

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

Anna Rochinski, Cherry– This 10 year alum of the Boston music scene and the band Quilt delivers pare synths and beats, driving vocals, an offbeat edge to both, and a certain dark attitude in the lyrics. Altogether, it’s a winning combination.

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.

Body Breaks, Bad Trouble– Is this electronica? 60s throwback? The results of an explosion in a psychedelia factory? This is weird, discordant, unexpected rock, and I love it.

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!

Danny Elfman, Big Mess– While he’s done A LOT of soundtrack work, this is Elfman’s first proper album as such since the 90s. There’s always been an edge of darkness and discord to his work, but here we’re often positively into Nine Inch Nails and/or noise pop territory. His trademark wit is here as well, and way with melody, though in this case buried beneath a layer of menace. A dark and challenging album that came by it honestly-explicitly struggling with aging, disappointment, Trumpism, COVID. Masterful, disturbing, and completely of its time.

Dean Blunt, BLACK METAL 2– This is not the black metal I was looking for. What it is, is a very interesting alternative hip hop album. This British DJ is delivering something that’s equal parts spoken word, acoustic, and indie rock, and is richly textured and darkly swirling. It’s excellent, and I haven’t heard anything else this year that sounds like this.

 

Holiday Ghosts, North Street Air– Bouncy, charming, incisive lyrics- acoustic rock with a punk spirit and sure knowledge of rock song structure.

Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee– Touches of new wave, touches of turn of the millennium dance music, touches of Kate Bush, with lyrics and vocals that are sensual and smart.

Liz Phair, Soberish– This is her first original album in ten years, which makes me feel a little old. The music has a pop sheen, but not as unadvisedly so as some of her earlier 2000’s efforts, and the lyrics have caught back up with her actual life. There’s almost a 60s swinging pop sound to it, with 90s snark. I might wish for it to be a little more rocking, but it’s musically and vocally lush, self-assured, and lyrically substantive. Well done, Liz!

LoneLady, Former Things– Some dynamic dance music here, with an edge of 80s sound. Julie Campbell is the LoneLady in question, and came to dance/funk from post-punk. I like what she’s laying down!

Lukas Nelson/Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, A Few Stars Apart– He sounds a little like Willie Nelson, which is not genetically an accident, since he’s Willie’s son. The music straddles several eras/genres of country and is always utterly sincere, and the lyrics have that same air to them. This feels like an instant classic country record.

Marina Allen, Candlepower– A debut album from the ethereal side of folk, but with a strong musical drive and powerful lyrical turns that preserve it from the danger of fuzzing out.

Matthew Dear, Preacher’s Sigh & Potion: Lost Album– Hi, is this cowboy DJ/mix music? That was the opening track, after that it got more varied, but remained a mix of instrumental heartland-flavored music with minimalist electronic/beats and interesting and unusual lyrics delivered with low key vocals. I really like it! This is from an experimental direction he took a few years back, but was unreleased.

Modest Mouse, The Golden Casket– Sometimes I remember the promise of indie rock-the power of rock, livened by experimental and unusual music choices, subject matter not normally touched, and an unapologetically intelligent approach.

Mykki Blanco, Broken Hearts & Beauty Sleep– Alternative hip-hop, a great vocal and musical mix, glowing with positivity and fun but also weight and power. The genderfluid aspect of performance artist/poet/musician Mykki Blanco also adds to it. I like things that aren’t like everything else, and also I like things that are really good, and this is both!

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 the 60s- 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 there from somewhere. This was just great, a thoroughly enjoyable turn from this Texas band.

Quivers, Golden Doubt– Opens with great instrumentation, strong lyrics, nice production flourishes on the vocals. These are rock songs that work, with a pop leaning, that are both strong and catchy. Callbacks to 60s pop, golden syrupy 70s, 80s alt, 90/00s twee pop, it’s all here. And it’s all beautiful!

Raoul Vignal, Years in Marble– Moody and affecting acoustic folk-tinged indie rock. Some nice unusual flourishes, and while it’s certainly in a vein, it never descends into sameness.

Scientists, Negativity– From the first distorted guitar feedback notes, I feel like this is something I’m going to like. Naively klunky lyrics and ragged vocals add to the charm. It kind of pivots back and forth between the amateurish charm of original punk rock and a very garagey neo-psychedelia. The sound isn’t an accident, as this Australian band started out in 1978, then took 1987-2007 off before reincarnating. And I love it!

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, unconventionally spiritual, this really does achieve its aim of delivering songs of worship for our modern age!

The Mountain Goats, Dark in Here– The Mountain Goats was one of those groups I knew secondhand from knowing many people who liked them, so I was curious. I am quite pleased to have formally made their acquaintance! Lively propulsive instrument-heavy indie rock, playing with genres, and darkly-inflected lyrical wit. I can kind of see where they fit in too, among the Arcade Fires and the Death Cabs and what not. And they’re welcome!

Maybe

  • Atreyu, Baptize– Hi Atreyu, I have needed someone this year to be metal, and you are quite metal! I like the mix of moving parts here- Screamcore? Yes. Technical/orchestral? Yes. Thrash? Yes. A dash of punk and emo too. If it was any one of these, it might bog down, but by including all of them, and thanks to song times on the shorter side, it’s dynamic without sacrificing being heavy. A little too produced sometimes, but a strong entry regardless!
  • Hiatus Kaiyote, Mood Valiant– This Australian band is described as genre- bending, and I get it. Jazz? Yes? Fusion with multi-layered R&B production? Yes. Sound loops and sound effects? Yes. Quirky kaleidoscope of vocals? Yes. All of this is very charming, and keeps pulling it back from the edge of meandering/nonsense side of jazz.
  • Jeb Loy Nichols, Jeb Loy– Has the feeling of a 60s soul throwback, not as a forgery but as a genuine expression from this now Wales-based veteran U.S. soul singer. The lyrics sometimes go for rote/cliché, which is my reservation, but the music and vocals and spirit of it are spot on.
  • John Grant, Boy From Michigan– swinging, unusual, brooding, an electronic-informed indie rock. While it’s a little heavy on the slow/ballady side, the unusual voice, both lyrically and vocally, and the way the music informs and livens the content keeps it going. It reminds me of Sufjan Stevens and Ben Folds in terms of tender revelatory lyrics made epic-sounding.
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]– There was a Broadway Cast album a few years back, but this is from the film that is out now. Show tunes are, of course, their own kind of boisterous fun, and these are massively informed by hip-hop and latin music on top of it. It’s musically and lyrically interesting, and full of voices and points of view that aren’t typical for music. I have to call it “Maybe” because I’m not sure it stands on its own outside the context of the musical.
  • Lucy Dakus, Home Video– Produced with dark musical tones and vocals livened by a 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 lets go of one’s attention.
  • N0V3L, NON FICTION– I feel like a lost post-punk album form an early-80s college rock station has just landed on me. It’s a pleasant impact. There’s really nothing to fault in this perfectly delivered entry from a British Columbia band except that it sounds very of an era. 
  • Peter Holsapple/Chris Stamey, Our Back Pages– The founders of 80s college rock darling the dBs are here with a mighty fine acoustic album of new arrangements of dBs songs. These are excellent versions, and also a reminder that 2000s indie didn’t come from nowhere. It seems a little self-derivative to be best, but gosh it’s pretty darn good.
  • Sleater-Kinney, Path of Wellness– Sleater-Kinney is one of those artists where there’s no such thing as a “bad” album. The main problem this album has with me is that it isn’t the Sleater-Kinney I want, but what’s going on here is sophisticated, complex, well-played. And if I wish it was a little more conventionally rocking, and I’m kind of sore at them for letting long-time drummer Janet Weiss go, well, is that the album’s fault? I could see it growing on me.
  • Styx, Crash of the Crown– Like the Cheap Trick album I reviewed a month or two ago, the mere existence of a new Styx album is kind of an existential surprise. It sounds like- a really good Styx album! I’m kind of flummoxed by this- so dated in a way, and yet every damn track works.
  • Tyler, The Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost– Very smart production, lyrics, and sampling in this hip-hop album. There’s also a framing structure around travel. Turns out Tyler is a creator! It does get a little “bitch”y for my taste, but is full of personality and some atypical subject matter, which I really appreciate.
  • White Flowers, Day by Day- The music and vocals are pretty, ethereal, darkly billowing. This reminds me of the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine. I do wonder if it’s a little too similar track to track, but I liked it the whole way through and was never moved to turn it off.

No

  • AFI, Bodies-This is a fine example of AFI’s kind of thing, but it strikes me as too one-tone throughout, and curiously emotionally detached. I probably would have liked this in the 80s, though.
  • Alessandro Cortini, Scuro Chiaro– It is quite very ambient.
  • Amy Helm, What The Flood Leaves Behind– As you might expect from Levon Helm’s daughter, there’s big Americana here. Unfortunately, while there are rich vocal and musical moments, it tends a little more toward the slick and pre-fab side of things.
  • Angelique Kidjo, Mother Nature– Powerhouse veteran of West African music- the music here is exquisite, but the lyrics sometimes go a little too cliché polemical and it doesn’t feel like it has the coherence, or lyrical consistency needed for “year’s best”.
  • Azure Ray, Remedy– Very pretty, tender and sophisticated lyrics, but a little too same track to track, and the production ia glossy at the expense of genuine.
  • Billy Gibbons, Hardware -In one of the less surprising things to ever happen, this solo album by a ZZ Top member sounds a lot like…ZZ Top! I do like a certain dose of ZZ Top in my life, but I’m not sure there is anything new enough/above and beyond here to qualify as “best album of the year” status.
  • Charnett Moffett, New Love– This was described as a crossover jazz album, but I think it has not crossed over far enough for me. That being said, it’s not bad at all, if you’re a jazz fan you might want to check it out!
  • Ches Smith/We All Break, Path of Seven Colors– When I read that part of the mix here was the artist having spent years studying voodoo drumming, I was definitely intrigued. It’s very good, but given the instrumental leanings and pervasive use of Haitian French, it’s a little inaccessible for “year’s best” status.
  • Chris Thile, Laysongs– An interesting set of acoustic songs, delivered in an offbeat, almost discordant way. It was a little too low volume and jumpy for me.
  • Crowded House, Dreamers Are Waiting– Very competent outing by a very competent band, but it doesn’t rise above itself.
  • Daniel Avery, Together in Static– The first track was so ambient it nearly ambiented itself into another dimension. Things picked up from there, but not much.
  • Dave Koz/Cory Wong, The Golden Hour– As bouncy crossover jazz instrumental albums go, this is a pretty good one. I don’t think it’s unique or different enough to make “top album of the year” status, but genre fans may want to check it out!
  • Eli Keszler, Icons– Really low-key shimmery electronic music with a new age flavor. Ugh.
  • Faye Webster, I Know I’m Funny haha– Sparkling and sophisticated acoustic pop with a jazzy sheen, but it’s all a little too produced and same track to track for me.
  • Francis Lung, Miracle No– At its best, sparkling pop that I think the Beatles and Brian Wilson would approve of. At its not best, too many songs in a row that are a little too low-key keep deflating it. Alas, because this could have been an absolute yes on its strongest tracks.
  • Garbage, No Gods, No Masters– A more electronic outing from them- not badly done. But the music does feel a little pre-fab, and the lyrics a little cliché at times as well. The covers on the second disc of the deluxe edition are kind of great though!
  • Gary Louris, Jump For Joy– Jayhawks co-founder delivers almost an ELOesque production shine to the tracks. If more had the energy of the opener, it really could have been a contender, but too much of the rest of the album is in “lull” mode.
  • Greentea Peng, Man Made– Self-described “psychedelic R&B singer”, this, plus knowing she’s British, and that there’s a fair amount of dub influence, gives you a good idea what you’re in for here. It is interesting and very well done, but a little too all in one mellow groove without standing out. I think it would have taken some more variability, and a shorter run time (it’s over an hour) to make it to the “yes” list.
  • Gucci Mane, Ice Daddy– The musical mix and vocal stylings here were actually very dynamic and fun, but the contents too often didn’t get much beyond boasting, hos, and money.
  • Helvetia, Essential Aliens– The first track of this outing by Duster alumni Jason Albertini is discordant sound, the second and onward is an often lively and jangly indie rock sound with a raw musical and vocal edge. Puts me in mind of Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker and the Meat Muppets, which I greatly appreciate being put in mind of, but it unfortunately bogs down in the middle and starts to get off every other track from there.
  • Hiss Golden Messenger, Quietly Blowing It– A pretty nice slice of Americana-flavored folk, more than a twist Dylanesque and you know how I like that. On the best tracks it definitely works, but ultimately too much of it sounds a little too standard, without enough notable/authentic breaking through.
  • James, All the Colours of You– I remember James when they were an 80s alt band. Then they became a 90s BritPop band. They were good at both things, and they’re still sounding good, but not particularly new or different, and there’s also some klunky lyrical topicality here.
  • João Donato/Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Adrian Younge, Joao Donato JID007– Really kind of a rocking jazz record, with great percussion, but it started to get a little too note bubbly.
  • Ka$hdami, Epiphany– This is high on charm and lyrical wit, but the auto-tuned vocal and musical school of hip hop continues to be…troublesome…for me.
  • Kid Millions/Jan St. Werner, Imperium Droop– The drummer for Oneida and an experimental musician/artist for Berlin team together for something experimental. As sound art, it’s interesting. As a best album of the year, I think it’s too self-consciously sound art to make it.
  • King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, Butterfly 3000– I really liked their album earlier in the year, L.W.. This one, well…it tends more towards sing-songy lyrics and electronic sound effects. I’m not mad at them, though. The essence of range and experimentation is that not every experiment will land!
  • Kings of Convenience, Peace or Love– This Norwegian acoustic duo has a winning combination of brightly played and sung, and lyrically bitter and blasted by love. It fades a bit too much toward sameness, but there’s something worthy here. 
  • Lightman Jarvis Ecstatic Band, Banned– Lurching music, swirling vocals, everything is deliberately offbeat-both figuratively and literally. it’s an interesting ride, but a little too off-kilter in the end.
  • Lightning Bug, A Color of the Sky– Pretty, textured, acoustic-oriented pop. To be clear, there is NOTHING wrong with this, but it was all too much in one tone, and too much track to track sameness compared to what I would need for a best album of the year.
  • Loraine James, Reflection– Why? Why so much autotune in the world? The hyperdub form is interesting, but it doesn’t feel like it comes together as a consistent album to me.
  • L’Rain, Fatigue– Left of center soul from this Brooklyn songwriter, with some strong concept in the album. Ultimately, it too often fades into low-key to really come together, but there is definitely worthy material here.
  • Mabe Fratti, Será que ahora podremos entendernos?– Album from a Guatemalan cellist and experimental musician. The arrangements are a little too on the orchestral/experimental side for me, but it is an intriguing exploration of soundscapes.
  • Maroon 5, Jordi– Adam Levine and autotune. Saints preserve us. Maybe it’s just that I still haven’t forgiven them for winning the Best New Artist Grammy over the White Stripes, but I’ve never succeeded in liking Maroon 5. Still true.
  • Mdsgn, Rare Pleasure– Light and bouncy jazzy easy listening sound please no.
  • Mia Joy, Spirit Tamer– Very pretty, well-produced, ethereal, but I never found something solid I could grab on to track to track.
  • Michael Cormier, More Light!!!– A nice, mellow, low-key folk album. There are tracks that get more interesting, but not until halfway through, which is too late for “great”.
  • Pan Daijing, Jade– A little too on the experimental and discordant side for me, but I do appreciate her artistic daring, and it’s genuinely eerie and unnerving.
  • Pastel Coast, Sun– Opening feels like it inhabits the kind of sunny overlap of pop-rock and electronic that Phoenix is in. Not quite as high-energy and dynamic as them, though, and the tracks here faded into sameness by about halfway through.
  • Polo G, Hall of Fame – Lots of autotune, lots of gangster rap tropes, not a lot that really grabbed me as unique, special, or especially well done.
  • PWNT, Days in the Summer– 60s swinging pop sound, a little twist of Brian Wilson. It was really very pleasant, but it never quite rose above that.
  • Rise Against, Nowhere Generation– It’s passionate, it’s intelligent, it’s well played, but late third-generation punk has to do something pretty special to, well, rise against the background.
  • Rostam, Changephobia– This album by Vampire Weekend’s co-founder, and award-winning producer, Rostam Batmanglij, is by no means unpleasant or unskillful. But a lot of it is also the kind of musically and vocally mellow where everything just blends together in a way that makes it fade into the background. It perks up halfway through, but, well, if you don’t perk up until halfway through…
  • Schneider TM, The 8 of Space– If you like music that sounds like it was made by machines for machines, you might like this. I do like a pinch of that, but it gets hard to sustain at album length.
  • SPELLING, The Turning Wheel– Jazzy, sparkly, light and bubbly. I can barely stand it.
  • Squirrel Flower, Planet (i)– The first track was too ethereal, the second had some brood and some bite to it, the next got back to a little too slow and down-tempo. It goes on kind of unevenly like this- the best bits from Boston-diy scene and currently Iowa-based folk singer/songwriter Ella Williams are really good, but it doesn’t add up to a coherent album.
  • The Catenary Wires, Burling Gap– This veteran duo from several indie groups delivers something well played, well sung, and gets into some fun pop/twee space, but too many tracks fade into a mellow sameness.
  • The Mountain Movers, World What World– This started off with excellent distorted electric guitar psychedelia with a side of sinister, then the middle bogged down in multiple slow songs in a row. Alas!
  • Wolf Alice, Blue Weekend– This is unquestionably well done, but it felt a little too slick and packaged for me.

Join us next time for the review of July’s new releases which, you never know, just *might* be completed before the very end of August!

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: May

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

As part of my continuing search for the 21 best albums of 2021, I’m listening to new releases every month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final shake-down after the year ends. If you missed the previous editions, you can find them here:

( January February March April )

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

But, for the moment, we’re concerned with 2021. And the 92 new releases I listened to in May! Before we go on, a quick note about the three categories:

Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. As of the end of May, this list is up to 95 albums, so the reckoning is going to be bloody.

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

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

And now, boldly forward with May!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe

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

No

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

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

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

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

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

(Part I Part II Part III Part IV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned…

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: April

Hey, we made it a third of the way through this madcap quest!

As part of my search for the 21 best albums of 2021, I’m listening to new releases every month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final reckoning after the year ends. If you missed the previous editions, you can find them here:

( January February March )

This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year, you should also check out the latest from my review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s and 2020.

But you’re here to hear about the 92 (!) new albums I listened to in April. Before we continue with that, a quick note about the three categories:

Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. This is no guarantee! In fact, at current pace, we will likely end up with more than 200 possibilities by the end of the year, so every album that makes it to the top 21 will be standing on a mound of the corpses of its vanquished foes.

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

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

And now, on with our April reviews!

Art d’Ecco, In Standard Definition– This starts off with surging guitars, drums, and powerful slightly surly vocals. I’m listening! It reminds me of Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Bowie. Later tracks occasionally get a little dancey, and when that happens we’re in a kind of glam disco space. This all creates a weird timeless world, and I didn’t feel let down by a single track. And the fact that the lead vocalist and everything about the band is Gay as hell is a happy bonus.

Ashley Monroe, Rosegold– Country singer makes a pop turn is really not an unusual story. What makes this stand out is that she does this not in a country pop way, or even in a contemporary mass market pop way, but instead produces a shimmering, golden, vaguely otherworldly pop. It’s really pretty extraordinary.

Beach Youth, Postcard– I think maybe I was expecting something more- beachy?- from this French group. That said, it is very good guitar-centered pop-rock with a dreamy feel, but enough propulsion to keep it from fuzzing out. Viva la France!

Benny Sings, Music– The album opens with a weird sunny 70s-flavored piece, and this turns out to be a really good preview of what we’re in for here. Track after track by this Dutch pop musician sounds like it fell out of a 70s easy listening station, but with a quirky twist and plaintive air. It’s just delightful the whole way through.

BROCKHAMPTON, ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE– Hey, it’s a multi-racial hip-hop collective that want to redefine the meaning of “boy band”! A promising premise, and the opening track gave me a feeling I haven’t had since the height of conscious hip-hop (think Arrested Development, De La Soul, Digable Planets, etc.) and political hip-hop (think Public Enemy, NWA) in the 90s. Subsequent tracks bore that out, but also featured the best of the kind of storytelling tracks found in 90s gangster rap, and multi-layered 2000s hip hop production styles. Lyrics, vocal styling, sampling and mixing, everything here is dynamic and substantive. This is one boy band I can get behind!

Demi Lovato, Dancing With The Devil…The Art of Starting over– Imagine you are a sometimes not taken seriously pop princess. Imagine that as you were seemingly on top of the world you were actually wrestling with addiction, depression, eating disorders, and recovery from sexual assault. Now imagine that you go public with these struggles, your near-death from them, and release an album that is unstintingly honest and vulnerable about the process. And that you somehow make it into musically lush and vocally powerful pop music. Simply amazing.

Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg– This UK band sounds like they’re doing a conscious throwback to/revival of the angular and nervy early era of post-punk. And they do it very well! The musical side of it is excellent and the dry spoken word vocals of vocalist Florence Shaw are a nice touch too.

Du Blonde, Homecoming– It begins with a burp, launches immediately into sludgy guitar, husky vocals with an undertone of both malice and boredom, and packs ten songs into 25 minutes. Some melodic sweetness kicks in along the way too, placing it at a kind of cross roads of 60s girl group and stoner rock. Shades of Blondie, shades of Hole. (She knows her oeuvre too, since Garbage’s Shirley Manson appears on one of the tracks.) I had no choice, I am required by law to love this. And I do! Also to note, the power behind this, Beth Jean Houghton, is also a multi-media artist and director of music videos for numerous bands.

Elizabeth King, Living in the Last Days– “77 year-old gospel recording veteran gets a chance to record a new album for the first time in decades” is a good story. Good stories don’t always translate into great albums, but it sure did in this case. Gospel, blues, funk, and her assured powerful voice make for rocking soulful gospel at its best.

Grave Flowers Bongo Band, Strength of Spring– The name gives one pause, but the reality is something unexpected: a guitar heavy post-punk, metal, and prog rock/psychedelia hybrid. Every track is both propulsive, and sings with the guitar work. I’m a yes!

Greta Van Fleet, The Battle at Garden’s Gate– Why lovingly recreate a 70s hard rock sound? Why not! The thing is, it’s done so well, with such sincerity, that it doesn’t sound like a knock-off, but a genuinely new album from that era that somehow just popped into contemporary existence. It will be fascinating to see how this group develops over time.

Guided by Voices, Earth Man Blues– Nobody else quite does what Guided by Voices does, and they are doing it very well here. Every track is like an instant classic, and they’re all in different styles. There’s even a Batman-themed song!

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

Matthew E. White/Lonnie Holmes, Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection– This is a powerful melding of funk, jazz, and electronic beats from Virginia musician Mathew E. White and vocals that are in turns growling and poetic from 71 year-old multi-media artist Lonnie Holley that weave themselves through the music. I’ve noticed that these kinds of collaborations between artists can be either ponderous or magic. This one is magic- revelatory, challenging but always interesting and listenable, you probably won’t hear anything else like it this year.

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

Midland, The Sonic Ranch– Well shit, this is an honest to God country album. Nothing feels affected, nothing feels slick. It’s in a neo-traditionalist vein, and doing it flawlessly. The excellent country album I’ve been looking for since the beginning of the year!

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

PONY, TV Baby– Oh hi, this album fell through a time warp from the 90s and hit me on the head, and now I love it. I saw one description of the band describe it as “bubble grunge”. Well yeah, you give me a female-fronted guitar-crunching band that has a pop sensibility, and I’m almost guaranteed to be on board.

Remember Sports, Like a Stone– There’s this band I fall in love with every few years. The basic elements are: an all-female or 3/4 female band, real guitar rock with real drums, and punk power and verve but strong melody and pop sensibility. It has been, variously, the Skirts, the Bangs, the Soviettes, and Vancougar. This is that band. I’m in love! They should watch out, though, because my love-band inevitably puts out less than a handful of albums and breaks up before meeting with the reception they deserve. Alas!

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

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Dance Songs for Hard Times– Obviously, the band name is great, and the album name is energetic and hopeful. The even better news is that this Indiana country-blues band delivers with a set of rocking hi-energy blues songs. Every last track is solid fun!

Topaz Jones, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma– A lively and varied hip-hop album, I’m digging it! It has rich grooves, variability on tracks, smooth flow, and clever and positive lyrics. It also feels personal and authentic, and bing-bing- coherent!

Winds, Look at the Sky– Well instrumented (they know their rock chord changes!), with by turns moody and melodious vocals and lyrics. They deliver indie rock with a strong nod to the more swinging side of 70s singer-songwriter and 80s alt Replacements-style guitar rock. Sometimes it has a kind of “lost in time” feel, but darned if it isn’t excellent!

Maybe

  • Cory Hanson, Pale Horse Rider– Country flavored, and the minor chords, the lyrics, and vocals deliver a kind of evocative melodious melancholy that works with this. Two weirdly ambient tracks at random(?) spots is the only thing costing it an automatic yes.
  • Dinosaur Jr., Swept Into Space– As an 80s alt kid and 90s American guitar-rock fan, well, what can I do? If not for one mysteriously dud/low volume track, this would be a “yes”.
  • Eric Church, Soul– I like this better than Heart, the other album he released at almost the same time. And, as you’ll see below. there was nothing wrong with Heart, technically, it just felt like it leaned more often on country tropes than authenticity. While still smooth, the material here feels more authentic to the artist.
  • Field Music, Flat White Moon– This feels Beatlesesque, which can be a pathway to doom, but this English band does it so straight up sweetly, and with enough indie rock verve and discord to not be a shallow copy. The thought that maybe it’s a little derivative is keeping it from automatic “yes”, but it’s a strong maybe!
  • Garage a Trois, Calm Down Cologne– All-instrumental is an inherently harder sell for me, but this jazz-funk fusion is truly excellent, and never let me down, despite some really long jammy tracks- maybe!
  • Gojira, Fortitude– French metal band named after Godzilla?-I’m pulling for you! Well-done thrash/prog metal with some mirthful choices, even the pause in the middle works. It may not totally exceed its genre, but 1/3 into the year, this is the metal album I’ve been hoping for!
  • La Femme, Paradigmes– I mean, it’s much more than half in French, but it’s so swinging and hi-energy and musically dynamic that I’m seriously considering it!
  • Lucinda Williams, Runnin’ Down a Dream– There are very confusing indications of what year this was released, but hey, I love covers, Tom Petty. and Lucinda Williams, so… As approaches to covers goes, I think this is the gold standard-respectful but no slavish, she successfully brings her own sensibility to them, and many of the tracks are unusual/ less common choices.
  • Major Murphy, Access– Stripped down rock and clear, emotional vocals, this is giving me a 90s flashback feel, with a hint of 70s rock in there too. It slows down on the second half, and it’s not profound, but everything is well done.
  • Maxwell Farrington/Le SuperHomard, Once– This collaboration between Australian singer Farrington and composer Le SuperHomard has swinging 60s orchestral-style pop, is vocally and musically rich, while being lyrically dour, which is an interesting combo. The tracks get a little similarish, but they’re so good and none of them dud out.
  • Mon Laferte, SEIS– This really makes me wish my Spanish was better, because she is a vocal powerhouse. This is a also a lively musical exploration of Mexican folk. I like it so much, I have to give it a “Maybe” even though I can’t really understand it!
  • Shelley FKA Dram, Shelley FKA Dram– The autotune, why does this age have so much autotune? Yet this album quickly transcends that, and my word is it good- robust production, genuine feeling, disarming charm. I wonder a little about consistency, but it makes up for it with lots of authenticity.
  • Silver Synthetic, Silver Synthetic– My first impression is a country-rock feel with a hint of paisley underground, and chord changes reminiscent of the Velvet Underground, which automatically makes me well-disposed toward it. It sounds a little derivative, and isn’t profound, but every track is doing exactly what it needs to do.
  • Steve Cropper, Fire It Up– This veteran guitarist of Booker T. & the M.G.s and the Blues Brothers Band sounds completely as excellent as you’d think based on that. It comes off a little dated. Or perhaps that’s timeless, as he’s pushing 80? It lands short of yes, but still rates highly.
  • The Reds, Pinks and Purples, Uncommon Weather– I was pre-disposed to want to like this when I realized the cover of his previous album (the “band” is the diy project of multi-band alumni Glenn Donaldson) was a picture of the corner I lived on in San Francisco for 7 years! Fortunately, he has a way with alternately sweetly ringing and fuzzy guitars, melody, and weary vocals and heartsick lyrics, so I didn’t feel like I was in danger of manufacturing a case for him just based on home pride. It all creates a dreamy side of 80s alt feeling, and the only real drawback is that the tone is a little too similar from track to track. (The cover of this album, by the way, is another street scene from my old SF neighborhood. Keep it local!)
  • Zo! & Tall Black Guy, Abstractions– This is another one of those cases where band name alone makes me want to like something. It turns out I did like it! This conciously hearkens back to 80s R&B, with jazz, funk and some modern hip-hop, and a celebration of Detroit thrown in along the way. I kept wondering if it was too mellow, but I also enjoyed it and its eclecticism the whole way along.

No

  • Alfa Mist, Bring Backs– Overall it was too jazz-easy listening-new age for me.
  • Andy Stott, Never The Right Time– I certainly appreciated the unsettling sonic dissonance of the opening. Overall too spare and sometimes ambient a version of electronica for my taste, but interesting.
  • Animal Collective, Crestone (Original Score)– Not as unlistenable as the last Animal Collective album I listened too. Merely kind of boring.
  • Arooj Aftab, Vulture Prince– It’s beautiful, but it’s generally too in the category of orchestral soundtrack/world music for what I’m looking at here.
  • Balmorhea, The Wind– The opening track was so slow and muted it almost literally put me to sleep. Subsequent tracks did not improve on that. Nearly ambient musical changes, whispered vocals when there are any. Ugh no.
  • Birdy, Young Heart– Very pretty folky pop, but doesn’t get above a kind of simplicity and track to track sameness.
  • Bonnie “Prince” Billy / Matt Sweeney, Superwolves– Good start, poetic lyrics and music by turns brooding, driving, acoustic, with many a classic rock reference. It did get a little bog-downy in the middle/end, though. Alas!
  • Cabaret Voltaire, BN9Drone– This is the third album Cabaret Voltaire is releasing this year, which isn’t bad for a group that I hadn’t thought continued to exist after about 1989 or so. It is my least favorite of the three, they each seem to get closer and closer to being annoying noise.
  • Californian Soil, London Grammar– Well, the intro definitely pissed me off with its orchestral swell and disembodied ethereal singing. It was kind of electronic pop folk after that, and really pretty good, but it feels a little too polished versus authentic.
  • Cannibal Corpse, Violence Unimagined– I mean, it’s not like you don’t know what you’re going to get from this group. If you happen to need some grisly death metal, you’ll get a very good serving of it here. But it doesn’t get enough beyond what you’d expect to be in contention for best, I’d say.
  • Cheap Trick, In Another World– I have to say, I didn’t expect “a new Cheap Trick album” would be something I could possibly be listening to in 2021- it’s pretty good, but a little too exactly what you’d expect from them.
  • Citizen Cope, The Pull of Niagara Falls– The spare acoustic guitar, growly vocals, and grim lyrics are an affecting combo, but in the end I found it all too one-tone musically and vocally to sustain itself at album length.
  • Dawn Richard, Second Line– I think this is pretty good, but it does tend toward a sameness after a while. Sic semper electronicus. Her approach is great, though, and some of these I would certainly want as singles.
  • Dntel, The Seas Trees See– Outright weird electric voice beginning is somehow much better than the currently popular autotune that pretends to be really singing, but sadly it vanished after that and what was left, despite interesting moments along the way, was way too electronica abstract and/or almost ambient.
  • Eric Church, Heart– Hey, it’s a country album! I am always on the lookout for a good country album. Very well done, but it feels like more formula than heart throughout.
  • Flock of Dimes, Head of Roses– It’s a nice indie album with elements of folk, rock, and electronic. But it feels way too low energy and same track to track to really engage.
  • Flying Lotus, Yasuke– “Electronic music soundtrack for an anime series focused on a Black Samurai” is a pretty good mission statement, but it all tends a little toward too low-key/background mostly instrumental for me.
  • Gary Bartz/Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Adrian Younge, Gary Bartz JID006– I was led to believe that this might be the kind of jazz that interfaces with rock or funk in interesting ways. It was not. It’s a nice mellow vibe, if you like that kind of thing.
  • Ghlow, Slash and Burn– Beats, guitars, and the sound of a race car revving up was actually a pretty promising start. It IS the kind of thing I like, but there’s too much all-one tone to the music and the vocals, no distinction between tracks.
  • girl in red, if i could make it go quiet– Such a shame! pop-punk, hip-hop, melody, searingly personal lyrics, sweet pop and honestly unpretty lyrics. It was in serious contention until it did the dreaded second half deflation.
  • Godspeed You! Black Emperor, G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!– Between hearing they’re a Canadian experimental music collective and that title, well, one wondered what to expect. What’s delivered is kind of in line with what some good guesses might be. Very interesting, sometimes quite compelling, but a little too experimental for me.
  • Imelda May, 11 Past the Hour– A dark haunting opening, with gorgeous and smoking vocals, but it gets a little too slick, and some of the lyrics too cliched for my taste.
  • Leon Vynehall, Rare, Forever– Electronic music, and an album inspired by psychedelic revelation of music as therapy, which is interesting. But, it’s a little too abstract and chaotic for me.
  • Lil Tjay, Destined 2 Win– This is from the severely auto-tuned vocals school of hip-hop, and, well, no matter how worthy parts of it may be, I just can’t. Sorry.
  • Liquid Tension Experiment, LTE3– Progressive metal supergroup! And, sure, this is pretty good. In fact, really good. But, um, it’s entirely instrumental and almost two hours long. That’s a pretty tough sell for me.
  • Luca Yupanqui, Sounds of the Unborn– An experimental musician records in utero sounds from her daughter (Luca, of title fame) and remixes them into an electronic music album. The results are fascinating, often even unsettling. I don’t think it’s quite an album in “best of the year” sense, but it is a sonic document worth perusing.
  • Manchester Orchestra, Million Masks of God– It does indeed sound a little orchestral. It’s well produced, but every track sounds kind of the same.
  • Merry Clayton, Beautiful Scars– The best moments here would definitely get a “yes”, and it is very high quality throughout. Ultimately, it felt a little too much like glossy production drowned out authentic passion.
  • Moontype, Bodies of Water– Nice fuzz-rock start and they know how to do their crashing chords. It often had my head bouncing, but pacing problems doomed it-sudden lurches between fast and slow tracks threw the rhythm of the album off.
  • Motorpsycho, Kingdom of Oblivion– With the band’s name, I was going to be disappointed if it wasn’t heavy. It is, but also surprisingly melodic and with light poppy vocals and a musical mix of metal, prog, and psychedelic. It was doing so well until track 5 and the long beginning of track 6 went ambiently dead. From there, pace and voice got all wobbly. It’s a real shame!
  • Mythic Sunship, Wildfire– If your band name is Mythic Sunship and the average length of a track on your album is 9 minutes, I’m going to have certain expectations/ trepidations. The blistering opening exceeded my expectations and almost avoided my trepidations. Wild jazz version of an instrumental metal jam? Metal jazz? I don’t know, but I loved it! For like 7 of its 10 minutes. Ditto on track two. So maybe there was a 33 minute version of this album that would have been a yes?
  • Norah Jones, ‘Til We Meet Again– I’ve been avoiding “from the archives” live albums, but have included recently recorded live albums, which this is. Everything she does is beautiful, but ultimately it was a little too long slow jazz groove for me. I’ll tell you what though, “Black Hole Sun” always makes for a great cover no matter who does it!
  • OMAAR, Drum Temple– I mean, an entirely instrumental electronic percussion album was going to be a hard sell for me as “best of year”. But if you’re a fan of beats, you might like it!
  • Orions Belte, Villa Amorini– Nicely played drums and guitars, lively production flourishes (including jazz, psychedelia, and Nigerian music), a mellow vibe, and when the vocals do kick in (much of it is instrumental) they’re also well-done and interesting. It’s skillful, but shallow enough that I’d had enough after halfway through.
  • Peter Frampton, Frampton Forgets the Words– While I love a good covers album, and I really appreciate his skill, courage in the face of debilitating disease, and his self-deprecation, an entirely instrumental guitar album, even one as excellent as this, is a hard sell for me.
  • Raf Rundell, O.M. Days– Definitely some fun stuff here vocally and lyrically, and the electronic music is occasionally lively, but more often than not the whole thing fades into the background.
  • Rhiannon Giddens, They’re Calling Me Home– Haunting vocals, traces of blues and celtic, classical-ultimately a little too on the classical/vocal music end for me and my purposes here.
  • Royal Blood, Typhoons– Rock with a dance beat, and it works as both genres, with propulsive music and crisp vocals. It’s really good at what it does, but the tracks do all start to blend together. Sorry to be so picky but with this album, I’d just passed 250 albums listened to. The bar is high and getting higher!
  • Ryley Walker, Course in Fable– A very interesting lyrical voice, but the smooth and easy musical production left things feeling cold.
  • Sindy, HORROR HEAD– If you spell Sindy with an an “S” and call your album Horror Head, I am per-disposed to expect something truly unsettling. Instead this is a vaguely new wave, vaguely My Bloody Valentine piece of pop electronica. I think the lyrics might be unsettling, but they’re so fuzzy-mumbled I can’t tell. There are some tracks that get there, but mostly no.
  • Son Lux, Tomorrows III– Not bad by any means, but a little too lurching ethereal sound effect for me.
  • Spirit of the Beehive, ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH– Between the title and the fact that the title was in all caps, I figured we’d be in for something here. The noise collage opening had me worried, but it turns out there is a band that knows about melody in there somewhere. Unfortunately, this is co-located with the band that’s doing a melange of industrial, noise-rock, and layers of sound samples. It just isn’t very listenable, and not even a song titled “I suck the Devil’s cock” could save it.
  • Still Dreams, Make Believe– I mean, don’t get me wrong. I like my J-Pop. And this is fun, but it’s not “best” material.
  • Taylor Swift, Fearless (Taylor’s Version)– No, but it’s an interesting story. To get around the former record label that’s got her debut album all locked up, she’s re-recorded it, along with six new songs. The whole thing is a little too weird (and faithful) conceptually to be a “best”, but it reminds you of how good she was from the get-go, which is reinforced even more by the six previously unreleased recordings from that era.
  • Teenage Fanclub, Endless Arcade– This is all well done, but a little too much all in one tone musically and vocally, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’m listening to their “jam band” album. Saints preserve us!
  • Tetrarch, Unstable– This was put out by Napalm Records, which gives you an idea of the sound. Actually, it’s the shortfall of that expectation that’s kind of the problem. It’s a competent mix of hardcore punk and metal with a little doom/scream vocals. But it doesn’t get beyond that to something that truly napalms the soul.
  • The Armed, ULTRAPOP– Anonymous post-hardcore collective? Go on, I’m listening… It’s an interesting deconstruction of hardcore using electronic music and samples, but a little too abstract and grating to be listenable for long.
  • The Legal Matters, Chapter Three– Neo-psychedelia, well done, but feels a little hollow/too slickly produced.
  • The Offspring, Let The Bad Times Roll– A friend of mine said, “It sounds just like their albums from the 90s.” True. And Smash was one of my favorite albums of that decade. Actually, I think they’re a little more musically and thematically nuanced here, and it’s certainly a good time for fans of the genre. But I’m not sure it rises above previous efforts, or, for example, exceeds Green Day’s “aging punker looks at the world” efforts.
  • Thomas Rhett, Country Again– It’s very competent country, better than a lot of 2000s pop country, but it has that similarly soulless prefab quality.
  • Tom Jones, Surrounded by Time– It’s another cover album, and I like covers albums, and Tom Jones, well, he’s predictably great. So, it’s solid, but I don’t think it gets to “year’s best” great.
  • Yellow Ostrich, Soft– Mellow, intelligent, literate, emoish indie. Can barely stand it.
  • Yoshinori Hayashi, Pulse of Defiance– A nice selection of mellow beats, purely instrumental, just didn’t spark anything in particular for me.

And there we are! The April review is published before the end of May. Now, onward!

What Were the Best Albums of the Twenty-Teens? (Part 4 of 10)

Commencing part four of my ten-part review of critic’s choices for the 52 best albums of 2010-2019! (Wait! What? 52? There is a reason, see below…) If you missed the earlier editions, you can find them here:

(Part 1 Part 2 Part 3)

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

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

I’m doing 10 total posts of 5 each (or 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. With that explained, let’s get on with Part 4!

Celebration Rock (Japandroids, 2012, 5 votes)– Hey, that’s some good rock! At least on the opening track. It’s got the guitar. It’s got the backbeat. It’s got surging passionate vocals. It’s got the feedback fade after. They totally know how rock song structure works as well, and there are affecting lyrics. Without sounding absolutely the same track after track, there isn’t a track that stops rocking. God bless Canadians, I sometimes think they’re the only ones who still get it.

    

Black Messiah (D’Angelo & the Vanguard, 2014, 5 votes)– In a previous iteration of this kind of exercise a few years back, I had been confidently informed by critics that D’Angelo’s album Voodoo was one of the best albums of the 00s. I had trouble getting there. It was good stuff, but I couldn’t see what I was getting from it that I wouldn’t, for example, get from Prince (who it felt heavily derivative of). I’m having a similar reaction to this. To be fair, though, I suppose this could be considered praising by faint damnation, since that’s a pretty darn elevated reference point.

Channel ORANGE (Frank Ocean, 2012, 7 votes)– This is the second of two albums of his that made the list, and the chronologically earlier of the two (the other one being Blonde from 2016). Well done Frank! Like that album, the autotuned nature of some of the vocals here gives me pause. Also, like that album, the lyrical wit, interesting sampling and production, and varied musical approaches utterly overcomes those reservations. I can see how this got listed, especially since it came out first!

Control (SZA, 2017, 7 votes)– Musically sophisticated, emotionally honest, and lyrically complex R&B. Some tracks are harrowing, some sweetly vulnerable, some sarcastic, and some downright hilarious, like Doves in The Wind in which she (SZA is the stage name of Solána Imani Rowe) uses samples from Westerns and Kung-fu movies and a guest appearance by Kendrick Lamar to explore the obsession with pussy. On the downside, it’s got more than a bit of the “autotuned” sound that’s the bane of the decade and maybe falls a little short in overall coherence. Part of the issue may be that, as the 19th album from the list I’ve listened to, I’m now comparing it to the very best-structured albums from the list. That’s pretty minor sour grapes considering how high quality this is, and how powerful she is.

Currents (Tame Impala, 2015, 4 votes)– This is a little trippy, which I hear is their jam. But, more on the dance/electronic side of trippy, with some new wave influence. It reminds me, perhaps, of something the Flaming Lips might put out, except from them I’d expect even more weirdness, and also more overarching album structure. The tracks are also tending a lot toward sameness. Not bad, by any means, but I’m not convinced this adds up to a “decade best” album.

And that’s it for this installment! 20 down, 32 to go…