Tag Archives: best albums

In Search of the 22 Best Albums of 2022: July

Yes, summer is on its way out. But don’t fear. We still have to catch up on the July edition of my quest for the 22 Best Albums of 2022!

If you missed the previous six months, you can find them here:

( January/February March/April May June )

For extra credit, you can also read my wrap-up on the search for the 21 best albums of 2021, and the round-ups of my blog series reviewing the critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and 2020.

Before we proceed with the July review, let’s do a quick overview of the three categories:

Yes– These are albums that could be in running for the year’s best. That doesn’t mean that they will. As of July, there were 103 yeses, but we only have room for 22. And that’s before we get to…

Maybe– These albums definitely have something going for them, but also something that gives me pause. I’m giving them their own category, because “maybes” sometimes linger and become “yeses”. We have 93 maybes as of July.

No– Being a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re crap. To be sure, sometimes you do end up there because you’re crap. But you can also be fine, but not more than fine. Or interesting and ambitious, but not quite pulling it off. Getting to “yes” isn’t for the faint of heart.

Now that everything is squared away, boldly forward with the review of 95 new releases from July!

Amanda Shires, Take It Like a Man– Shires started off as a country artist, and there’s still more than a hint of that, but this is like haunted pop music of various genres, tied together by her plain-spoken earnest vocals and the bare emotional tales of her lyrics. Nanci Griffith’s Storms comes to mind in terms of pop smoothness combined with complicated dark depths.

Beach Bunny, Emotional Creature– There’s a bevy of younger ladies doing a kind of music that effortlessly brings together pop ballads and crunchy 90s influenced guitar rock, unspooling pop emotion and yet intelligent lyrics in the process (looking at you Olivia Rodrigo, Soccer Mommy, etc.). And hallelujah for that! Beach Bunny, a Chicago rock band formed in 2015 by Lili Trifilio, is in this vein, and boy can she work it! It may be glossy, and use pop rotes along the way, but nothing here sounds false, and every track is solid and fun.

Ben Harper, Bloodline Maintenance– Modern soul and blues master Ben Harper is back with a new album informed by, among other things, the 2021 passing of Juan Nelson, his longtime friend and bandmate. And it’s a master’s work- sometimes angry, sometimes yearning, personal, political, and musically informed by classic soul sounds and modern blues. This is an album that would have been in good company with a 70s Marvin Gaye record.

Beyonce, Renaissance– The amount of layering in the first track alone is dizzying- the personal, the political, the vocally muscular and subtle, the powerful homage to house with clever sonic details and twists, the sense of being serious and fun. And it goes on in that vein and expands on the musical front with a varied and deep celebration of 80s-90s house music and its various cousins and forebears, and on the lyrical side with raunch, snark, and an assured sense of power. There aren’t many artists around who can wield their own persona/myth for their purposes as effectively as Beyonce can, and she puts it to great use here.

Black Midi, Hellfire– The spoken word stream of the first song and weird hyper-lounge second somehow have the same voice between them. And so on with, depending on which track you’re listening to, cabaret, acoustic, crunching guitar, abstract experimental electronic, etc. I had a similar reaction to their album last year, but all the lurching around there didn’t work for me. Here it was on the edge of “too much” several times, but also the best kind of “too much”- like a later-day Bryan Ferry at his most over-the-top melodramatic, but weirder and goonier.

Florist, Florist– The elements here are simple- delicate acoustic, simple piano chords and strings, some gauzy distortion, a smattering of found sound effects, and sweetly lackadaisical vocals. If it sounds low key, it is, but it’s also hooky, intimate, and compelling. The alternation of songs featuring Emily Sprague’s mesmerizing vocals and instrumental/found sound pieces works well to keep the spell going. And this was largely recorded in a rental house in the Hudson Valley during COVID retreat, which perhaps explains the feeling of intimacy and authenticity. Producers take note!

Guided by Voices, Tremblers and Goggles by Rank– This is, I think, the 85th Guided by Voices album of the last two years? My count may be slightly off, but the point is, with them pushing out material at such a high rate, this album has no business being as good as it is. In this go, the musical chameleons seems to be channeling a “punk turning to post-punk” era, I hear many echoes of the Jam, Gang of Four, Magazine, Wire, etc. at the tipping point of the 70s becoming the 80s. Informed, for sure, by the prog rock bent of Guided by Voices. And it is a glorious noise!

Jack White, Entering Heaven Alive– This is White’s second album of the year, and consciously in a different vein than his heavier, rockier Fear of the Dawn. Against all general trends of my musical preferences, I like this better! It’s like a continued groove of the slower more introspective side of the White Stripes, and as such, is more consistent than the sometimes straight ahead sometimes weirdly veering Fear of the Dawn. But in a way that doesn’t sacrifice musical dynamism and brings a lot of emotional and lyrical depth from its greater subtlety. All right, Jack. All right!

Lizzo, Special– The opening track starts with “Hi motherfucker did you miss me?” then touts her twerk and celebrates her thickness within the first minute. So there’s that, but also, it’s vocally and musically just so fun, fun, fun! Great dance/soul music with a strong personality, musical cleverness (motifs from the 70s-90s abound), and rich buoyant vocals is a great thing. And I want to give it a medal for the way “Grrrls” samples from the Beastie Boy’s “Girls” while turning its whole concept inside out. Lizzo for President!

Mat Ball, Amplified Guitar– Every song on the record was recorded in a single take, with a guitar Bal built himself. As wonky music premises go, I like that a lot. In practice I ended up liking it a lot too! It felt in a way like a guitar playing pieces meant for other instruments- piano, I swear even shakuhachi- and doing it with waves of distorted feedback-laden sheen. All instrumental, which can be harder to make work as an album that sticks, but I can’t discount it!
  

Mush, Down Tools– This was so relentlessly retro in a very certain vein- its nervy quirky music, vocals, and lyrics reminded me of Modern Lovers, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Soft Boys, and a half dozen other things of that related era/genre. If I take points off for originality, I have to add them back because it’s very well done, and fun to listen to. This Leeds, UK group never sounds like they’re ripping off, more like they fell out of that era with a heretofore lost original work.

quinn, quinn– Three cheers for hyper-pop! This 17-year-old artist has produced a disjointed (in the best kind of way) pastiche of hip-hop that musically turn the genre inside out while being personal, hilarious, and political. This doesn’t sound like everything else out there, and it makes me hopeful that there are still ways out of the rehashed, cliched sonic mess the 2020s has become.

Superorganism, World Wide Pop– The hyperkinetic pop of this London indie group has so much going on! The first track alone was a dizzying array of sound effects, samples, beats, and musical modes. The goings-on here are equally informed by dance, indie, and a 90s slacker feeling, which makes it nostalgic and contemporary all at the same time.

The Koreatown Oddity, ISTHISFORREAL? This philosophical, abstract, and experimental outing from LA-based hip-hop artist the Koreatown Oddity is a delight! In between an ongoing motif of claiming to be British and posing as an American and musings on the nature of reality and subjective experience are trippy vocals and a heady mix of samples. This all might be a bit much if it wasn’t also highly listenable. Which it is!

The Sadies, Colder Streams– I wasn’t that familiar with the Sadies, a fact that I’m now saddened by, since this album came out shortly after their guitarist/co-founder Dallas Good died unexpectedly of a heart ailment. From what I’ve subsequently read, since the 90s this Toronto band has plied an area informed by psychedelia, garage rock, and folk rock. I generally don’t read reviews before giving a listen because I don’t want to prejudice myself going in, so I didn’t know about either their niche or their loss. I just knew that this album sounded like a concept album from a space somewhere between the Zombies and the Moody Blues had fallen out of the late 60s and suddenly plopped down into 2022. It is a mighty fine album, and a fitting swan song.

Ty Segall, “Hello, Hi”– Segall here is in a space reminiscent of both the folkier side of psychedelic garage 60s, and the more acoustic side of grunge. With maybe a little Big Star feel as a kind of bridge between the two? I love this space! And the lo-fi production provided by his home recording the album is the perfect setting for bringing out the sound even more fully.

Maybe

  • Ahmer, Azli– There’s a muscular power to the beats from this Kashmiri rapper, and the mix at times feels almost industrial, while occasionally adding in local musical forms. The vocals also carry a heavy power, you can feel the lyrical weight behind them- his subject matter revolves around the state of emergency in the disputed Kashmir region claimed by both India and Pakistan. It’s almost entirely not in English (though there are translations if you watch the lyric videos), but it somehow retains its power even so.
  • BandGang Lonnie Bands, Scorpion Eyes– Dark dense tales, personal sounding confessions, music sparkling in its darkness. With a mumbled lurching delivery, and I mean this in a good way. There are cliches a-plenty, but there’s also power.
  • Chat Pile, God’s Country– The first track turned me off with its ragged vocals, and I feared it would be another musically heavily but vocally screamoed into the abyss album. But I was wrong! The punk/hardcore/metal edge remained, and the vocals were still ragged, but they cohered enough to understand that the roughness was part of the point. The vocal and lyrical attack reminds me of the brutal snark of Flipper or Jello Biafra, but with a slacker undertow that leavens the whole thing out. Thank you, little Oklahoma band, for reminding us that rock can still be heavy, disturbing, serious, and funny all at the same time.
  • Friendship, Love the Stranger– Country ballads with stripped plain vocals, rock chords, and internal tales of everyday life. The 2020s so far seems to be very heavily about musical nostalgia, but 80s/90s alt country is one thing I don’t mind being nostalgic about when it’s done this well. It perhaps lags a little toward the end, though?
  • Ghost Woman, Ghost Woman– A kind of 70s feel, a kind of dirty jaded 2000s rock feeling, minor chords, an echoing sound, hints of the Byrds, the Kinks, Del Shannon. These are all things I love, and it was headed to automatic “yes” until the next to last track came in too contemporary sounding, which was both boring and out of tone with the rest. Still, the rest is so excellent it tempts me…
  • Jonah Tolchin, Lava Lamp– A New Jersey-born singer-songwriter and musician who debuted at the Newport Folk Festival in 2012. The different pieces of Americana in his approach- folk, blues, country, R&B, all make an appearance here. At times it’s in a mellow burned-out vein, and times it’s heavy, electric and foot-stomping. The variability doesn’t quite feel coherent, which is the only thing here I take points off for, but I’ll definitely be diving in a second time.
  • Katy J Pearson, Sound of the Morning– This Bristol, UK native has produced something a little folky, a little punky, a little electronic, and, if the component pieces are not super-original, her strong vocals and incisive lyrics definitely pull it together into a worthy package.
  • Laura Veirs, Found Light– Neo-folk artist Laura Veirs has been very good since her 1999 debut, and she remains in fine form here. There are elfin vocals, multi-layered production on top of a fairly simple and spare acoustic musical base that cycles through several modes (acoustic, indie rock, pop), and emotionally intelligent, vivid lyrics. A lot of it is on the more low-key side (not unjustifiably, certainly pleasingly), which creates lulls that maybe make the difference from an automatic “yes”. Still in all, a solid and very worthy entry.
  • Paolo Nutini, Last Night in the Bittersweet– “Scottish singer-songwriter” is always going to catch my attention. In this case, his approach goes all kinds of places- sometimes in Springsteen/U2 bombastic direction, sometimes something more like post-punk spoken word, sometimes Van Morrisonesqu, sometimes straight up hooks and high energy 80s/90s style indie rock, etc. If it lacks something in coherence and produces a kind of sprawl, the advantage is that anytime I started to waver a little on one musical approach, a fascinating one came along next!
  • Planet Asia, Medallions Monarchy– I’ve heard this veteran Fresno rapper’s work described as “traditionalist hip-hop”, which, given that he debuted in 1997, means I’m probably a lot older than I think I am. It’s true though, there is a late 90s/early 00s muscular solidity to this mix, to his flow, to the tales of the street, to the whole damn thing. I’m not sure about “year’s best”, but it’s pretty good.
  • The Deslondes, Ways & Means– There’s a 70s feel to a lot of this- the singer/songwriter vibe, the burned-out undertow of the vocals and lyrics, the organ and strings pop flourishes of the era. Musically, that portion reminds me more than a little of Springsteen’s first two albums, although there’s also a pinch of the Band, Dylan, and Neil Young. A significant portion of the album is also in an 80s-00s alt country-flavored vein. The two approaches of the New Orleans-based group are complementary, so it doesn’t totally clash, but it is noticeably different. Two yeses that don’t quite fit makes a maybe?
  • The Fernweh, Torschlusspanik!– The name had me fearing some experimental German abstraction, but what I ran into was an utterly charming band playing with multiple strands of 60s and 70s pop, with a strong psychedelic and folk bent. It’s not the newest sound ever, but it is very pleasing! Also, they’re from Liverpool. I think there’s some kind of track record for good bands from Liverpool?
  • Westside Gunn, Peace “Fly” God– The ragged vocals, the unusual sampling and playful classic jams musical mix, the swirl of braggadocio, humor, and grim storytelling in the lyrics are all working for this. The music of this Buffalo-raised rapper has recognizable debts to Jay-Z, and relation to his cousin Benny the Butcher, but not unoriginal and still very well done.
  • Wilder Maker, Male Models– This Brooklyn-based band’s album is in that “this sounds like…” category. In this case, it sounds like several streams of classic rock, with an 80s production sheen on top of it, and some 00s indie rock polish and garage rock revival. The styles careen around kind of wildly, and the lead vocalist switches up a lot as well, but every iteration of it is hooky, and feels familiar while still being fun. I kept wondering about the coherence, but the charm of the individual songs kept winning through.

No

  • …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, XI: Bleed Here Now– In theory I like the combination of melody, ornateness, and hard heavy music this Austin band aims for. In practice I liked it best when it led with hard and heavy, which wasn’t often enough on this album.
  • Al Riggs, Themselves– Somewhat electronic, somewhat jazz, very mellow. The lyrics are literate and interesting, but the low-key musical and vocal approach tends to subsume them.
  • Attia Taylor, Space Ghost– A synthy, glossy pop with psych and dance elements from this NYC-based musician. It was very pleasant, but a little too same track to track.
  • Bananarama, Masquerade– There are a lot of people these days doing an 80s synth-pop sound. None of them have a better claim to it than Bananarama does though! Really lush and solid, and if too time capsule for my taste, it won’t lead you astray is this is a time capsule you want to open.
  • Banks, Serpentina– Eh. This California artist is known for her electronic pop, but I found it all to be a little too dance remix and autotune.
  • Beabadoobee, Beatopia– Their album Fake It Flowers was on my 2020 maybe list, and there is so much to like from this Filipino-British artist, especially considering how young she is. Indeed, the best songs here are great- putting together dance/electronic music and rock (with a decided 90s tilt), strong vocals, and open vulnerable emotionality. There are problems with sequencing though, a few too many slower acoustic songs in a row here and there deflating the momentum.
  • Brent Faiyaz, Wasteland– A nice enough smooth-jams vein hip-hop/R&B outing. Nobody could accuse it of any significant wrongdoing.
  • Burna Boy, Love, Damini– A reggae-dancehall singer/songwriter from Nigeria. Things are at their best while African rhythms and soul/hip-hop are being mixed. Things are not as much at their best while heavy autotune is going on.
  • Candy, Heaven is Here– The metal is fast, brutal, and full of an industrial-noise edge. The vocals, though- I just can’t with the “can’t make a word out” screamo anymore. I guess I’m getting old!
  • Carlos Truly, Not Mine– The experimentation of this Brooklyn DIY pioneer as he tries different things track by track musically and lyrically in the course of this minimal soul album is very interesting. It’s so minimal that it sometimes lapses into barely registering, but other times the results are unique, weird, and wonderful. Three cheers for experimentation!
  • Chicago, Born For This Moment– I mean it’s the 2020’s, here’s Chicago with their 666th album, and Peter Cetera isn’t even part of the mix.
  • Dawes, Misadventures of Doomscroller– This California indie quartet’s outing is musically layered, lyrically subtle, and vocally complex. It’s also very jazz fusiony, and I just couldn’t sustain the mellow energy.
  • Delicate Steve, After Hours– He’s supposed to have an idiosyncratic sound, and I expect he does, but here it’s not showing up so much. What is showing up is a very lounge jazz mellow groove.
  • Duwap Kaine, Faith Like Esther– I will say that the flow is not bad, and some of the wordplay is quite fun. But the autotunnnneeee……
  • Elf Power, Artificial Countrysides– This Athens, GA indie band is doing a very nice thing. Indie rock, a little country twist, some 60s rock chord sensibilities thrown in for good measure. It had me on the edge for a while but falls down in being too same track to track to really keep working.
  • Flo Milli, You Still Here, Ho?– Apparently this female led gender-cliché inverted school of rap I sometimes really like is called “pussy rap”. In this case, the cliches (although inverted) got too cliched, and it didn’t have the wit of the best examples of this, but it was fun.
  • Gwenno, Tresor– Gwenno is a Welsh electronic musician. The first part favorably disposes me, and the second makes me instinctively cautious. As it turned out, it is an interesting mix, albeit it comes down too much on the ethereal/new age side of things. I did like that it was all in Welsh, though!
  • Ian Daniel Kehoe, Yes Very So– Canadian indie artist who delivers many different kinds of music, but this is synth-pop on the sparer end of 80s synth-pop. Which I didn’t care for much at the time, and even less so now.
  • Icewear Vezzo, Rich Off Pints 3– A solidly executed, very typical 2020’s hip hop album in every regard. No, please.
  • Imagine Dragons, Mercury- Act 2– I had the same reaction to this as I had to Act 1 last year- “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.”
  • Interpol, The Other Side of Make Believe– The nice thing about an Interpol album is you go in knowing it won’t be bad, even if it’s not quite your cup of tea. In this outing, they’re actually a good deal lighter and more in the vein of “mainstream” indie pop than they sometimes are. I like it a lot less.
  • JayWood, Slingshot– A lot of people are doing this neo-soul nostalgia space these days. Not many of them are from Manitoba, and he does a very pleasant version of it. But it doesn’t get a lot above pleasant, or very different track-to-track.
  • John McEntire/Sam Prekop, Sons Of– It’s a very nice sci-fi kind of electronic, with four extended pieces taking up about an hour total. A little abstract to hang one’s hat on at album length, but good if you’re in that mood.
  • Josh Rouse, Going Places– A nice 70s mellow gold pop sound, well produced, well sung, well played, but I’m not sure it ever rises above itself.
  • Journey, Freedom– I mean, it’s a journey album in 2022, well over an hour long, and doesn’t even include Steve Perry or the founding bass player. I guess it’s….nice? To know that somebody can still make arena rock? Just in case, you know, we need it.
  • Ken Car$on, X – I mean, the musical mix has some interesting elements, and the lyrics are interesting too. But good God, the autottttuuuunnnneeee…
  • King Princess, Hold on Baby– This is some good indie pop from this American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist from Brooklyn, New York. The lyrics are literate, personal, and revealing, and the music and voice are lush, but in a smoothly produced and low key way that makes it all blend together indistinctly.
  • Kode9, Escapology– This is an interesting electronic mix, tending toward sci-fi sound effects. Which I’m always going to like, but not enough in this case.
  • Launder, Happening– Launder is the project of Californian John Cudlip, and they’ve produced a very nice atmospheric fuzzy layer of guitar sound, not unlike shoegaze music. Which is kind of the thing, as far as it being distinctive enough to linger goes.
  • Lil Silva, Yesterday is Heavy– This album by an English record producer, singer, songwriter, and DJ, is certainly well produced and intelligent funk/house-infused electronic. A little too abstract to stick with me though.
  • Lloyd Banks, The Course of the Inevitable 2– It’s a fine hip-hop album, has some definite dark drive to it. But is it doing anything especially better or different from other “street life” themed hip-hop albums?
  • M. Geddes Gengras, Expressed, I Noticed Silence– Long abstract electronic pieces. I’m not telling you not to do it, but it doesn’t work for me.
  • Maggie Rogers, Surrender– A lively and well produced indie-pop, somewhere between electronic and rock, with a nice emotional literacy and point of view. But just a little too slick and plastic feeling.
  • Medicine Singers, Medicine Singers– Like the other Native American-related album I listened to earlier this year, this one makes liberal use of sound collage and modern musical forms in conjunction with traditional music. When it’s on an experimental rock/noise wavelength it actually works very well, but it sometimes got a little too experimental for me, and other times too mellow jazzed out. Still, some very intriguing soundscapes here.
  • Metric, Formentera– Since their late-90s debut, I’ve really liked Metric when they’re on the more rock, driving side. I don’t mind, but don’t particularly care for when they’re on a more muted electronic kick. They do both here, so, I partially liked it.
  • Mice Parade, Lapapo– A nice shimmery jangly indie rock thing. Particularly better than other nice shimmery jangly indie rock things?
  • Momma, Household Name– This was very close, because I love my lackadaisical lo-fi rock female singer-songwriters. Clear influences here of the originals (a la Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield, etc.) and of modern practitioners (a la Soccer Mommy), but in the end just a little too poppy and not equal to the best of this space.
  • Moor Mother, Jazz Codes– Their album Black Encyclopedia of the Air was in my top 21 list for 2021, so I certainly went into this interested. What’s going on here is not unlike the previous album in its mix of political/social import and music experimentation. As the name implies, though, this tips in a more jazz direction that didn’t always support the sometimes electrifying lyrical and sample work. Nothing here is bad by any means, but I guess that’s the danger of comparing to a favorite!
  • Mozzy, Survivor’s Guilt– This album is obviously indebted, musically, vocally, and lyrically to West Coast Hip-hop a la Tupac. And I liked that about it, but it doesn’t get much beyond the cliches of the genre.
  • mxmtoon, rising– I mean, you get me a quirky YouTube ukulele player from Oakland, I’m kind of preemptively done for. What I can additionally say about her, though, is that her song-writing instincts and vocals are impeccable. And if diy homegrown music is still the heart of this, the additional production level of a studio album often enhances the verve. Other times, it blands and standards everything up a little too much, and there are some sequencing problems. It eventually gets too uneven in that way. But if we had more smart, fun, unafraid to be sweet, but still incisive purveyors of pop like this around, what a world it would be…
  • Naima Bock, Giant Palm– She is one of the members from Goat Girl (in fact recently having left the band), whose album On All Fours was in my “honorable mention” for 2021. So I gave this a careful listen. This album is much more in an acoustic/experimental folk vein than their work. Which is a worthy experiment but ended up being a little low energy and same track to track to catch my attention.
  • Neighbor Lady, For the Birds– It’s musically and vocally very pretty, but all too in one muted country-flavored acoustic vein.
  • Ne-Yo, Self Explanatory– Some very autotuned contemporary R&B.
  • Nightlands, Moonshine– I saw that this was by the bassist from the War on Drugs, which immediately put me on guard given my failed attempts to like them. As it turns out, it’s quite a different sound, and actually kind of an interesting one- a gauzy and loungy vibe whose languid air belies heavier content. Didn’t ultimately work for me, but I’m not mad at it.
  • Nina Nastasia, Riderless Horse– This New York based folk singer has the earnestness, and a fine country-tinged sound, but it gets too same track to track to really stand out.
  • Orbital, 30 Something– More of a re-recording/remix of orbital’s now 30-year-old (!) acid house work. It is a great sound though! Two hours+ is a little long for it to work as an album, but it’s great music to trouble-shoot financial reporting problems to.
  • Prison Religion, Hard Industrial B.O.P.– This Virginia-based duo sounds a lot like the band and album names might lead you to believe. If you’re looking for something abrasive and unpretty, this might be for you!
  • Rico Nasty, Las Ruinas– I do enjoy the clashy, thrashy approach of this gender-inverted hip-hop, and the point of view. It’s eventually maybe too the same musically and lyrically though. Still, I’ve got my eye out for more!
  • Ronnie Foster, Reboot– hearing he was a 70s soul/jazz/funk artist who has been a frequent inspiration of hip-hop sampling, I tried. But instrumental jazz, I can only do so much…
  • Sean Nicholas Savage, Shine– It’s very nice pop music. Not more.
  • She and Him, Melt Away: A Tribute to Brian Wilson– Don’t get me wrong, I like She and Him, and this is really very good. Covering the more sunshine syrupy side of Brian Wilson is a great fit with their natural talents, and they do it well. There are flashes where you hear what this album could have been if it took a few more risks, but as is, it’s a little too reverent. However, Wilson fans, She and Him fans, and aficionados of new approaches to surf music will not be led astray by this.
  • Stealing Sheep, Wow Machine– The fact that 30 seconds in to track one I was checking my speaker volume trying to see if the song had started yet or not is, well, not a great sign. After that, it sounded like a series of recorded sound effects played to a microphone with feedback issues. It got more songy from there, in an extremely heliumated way with amusing sound effects. That was more fun, but I’m still a “no” on balance.
  • Stephen Mallinder, Tick Tick Tick– An album from Cabaret Voltaire’s co-founder. It’s really not bad if you want spare and somewhat sinister but oddly danceable industrial flavored music.
  • Steve Lacy, Gemini Rights– Once this got going, it sounded like 90s soul. I found that to be upsetting.
  • Stimulator Jones, Round Spiritual Ring– This Virginian producer’s mix sounds like a lot of the retro-soul out there. Not worse than any of it, not noticeably better than a lot of it.
  • Tallies, Patina– A nice outing, more than a little reminiscent of a certain late 80s/early 90s space occupied by, say, the Sundays or Sixpence None the Richer. So, you might well like this if you like that reference point (heck I do too!), but I don’t know that it gets enough beyond it to be a lasting album of the year.
  • Tatsuro Yamashita, Softly– Tatsuro Yamashita is one of the leading lights of the “City Pop” style that was popular in Japan in the 70s and 80s (and has lately been having a weird cult moment on US social media). And what you get here is indeed excellently done pop. It doesn’t necessarily make a lasting impression, but it goes down smooth.
  • Tedeschi Trucks Band, I Am the Moon: II. Ascension– Part two of four album project, An 11-piece band, fronted by the married guitar slingers, which plays a righteous meld of rock, blues, gospel, and New Orleans funk. This more often wanders into overly-slick, or low energy drifting songs than June’s Part 1 did, and is still not working for me as an album.
  • Tedeschi Trucks Band, I Am the Moon: III. The Fall– Part three! The sound here was very smooth, I appreciated the general musicianship, but it didn’t grab me. Maybe part IV will?
  • The Last Goodbye, ODESZA– Some nice international sounding electronic dance music. Eh.
  • TRAAMS, personal best– A fine album coming from a post-punk kind of place that lots of people are coming from these days and doing a fine job of it.
  • Vladislav Delay, Isoviha– Finnish stalwart of electronic music. It’s well done, and muscular, but a little too abstract ultimately.
  • Working Men’s Club, Fear Fear– This sounds like it exists at a late-80s/early 90s intersection of techno and industrial. It’s a good intersection, it’s a well-done version of it, and besides sounding so perfectly dated and typified, there’s nothing wrong with it.
  • Wu-Lu, Loggerhead– The drum and bass breaks and guitar elements and low-key chant from this London artist are not bad, but it fails to really catch and hold interest.
  • ZZ Top, RAW: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas– A semi-soundtrack recorded for a recent ZZ Top documentary, from live recordings in 2019. The band is in good form here, and reminds you, if your first introduction to them was in the slicker 80s version, what a raw honky tonk blues band they were when they started in the 70s. And still can be! Fun, recommended for fans, but not breaking new ground.

And so July is out, with nine days still left in September! Can we get August out too before the end of the month? Stay tuned…

In Search of the 22 Best Albums of 2022: June

We have now reached the halfway point in our quest for the 22 Best Albums of 2022! Or, at least the halfway point of the initial sorting-out portion of the search. That’s right, we’ve hereby completed six months of listening to new releases each month, and then sorting them into “Yes”, “Maybe”, and “No” contenders for the best albums of the year.

If you missed the previous five months, you can find them here:

( January/February March/April May )

I did this last year too, so you can also read my wrap-up of the 21 best albums of 2021. And for extra credit, here are the round-ups of my blog series reviewing the critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and 2020.

Before we get on with tackling June, a brief overview of the three categories:

Yes– These albums could be in running for the year’s best. If they survive the mortal combat to come!

Maybe– These albums definitely have something going for them, but also something that gives me pause. I’m giving them their own category, because “maybes” sometimes linger and become “yeses”.

No– Being a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re crap. I mean, sometimes you do end up there because you’re crap. But you can also be fine, but not more than fine. Or interesting and ambitious, but not quite pulling it off. Getting to “yes” isn’t easy!

Now that we have that established, onward with the review of the 103 June new releases I listened to!

700 Bliss, Nothing to Declare– 700 Bliss is a duo made up of of Philadelphia experimental poet/rapper Moor Mother and New Jersey-born DJ Haram, who between them were responsible for two of my favorite hip-hop outings last year, so I went in interested. And my interest is well repaid! This often reads more as a densely sampled electronic album than a conventional hip-hop album, and it’s deconstructing a lot of current conventional hip hop themes as well. Sonically and lyrically challenging and interesting!

Andrew Bird, Inside Problems– This is interesting! His literate wordy lyrics and straightforwardly melodious vocals populate a range of musical approaches including swinging lounge, 70s acoustic, contemporary indie pop, even a tad Velvet Underground, and more besides. Throughout, it has a good feel for hooks. I started off unsure of the stylistic oscillation, but it rapidly grew on me. This is apparently his 16th studio album, so I guess I’m just catching up, and the excellence on display here makes sense.

Corb Lund, Songs My Friends Wrote– The title tells you what’s going on here, this Canadian musician is covering songs from a variety of contemporaries and musical fellow travelers. Along the way is some spontaneous and joyful country/Western/rockabilly/(North) American roots music and a variety of interesting lyrical takes and moods. It reminds you just how vital this kind of music can still be!

Damien Jurado, Reggae Film Star– A haunted 70s burning out into 1980 feeling, lyrics that are literate and sometimes feel achingly revealing, vocals that know how to bring out the nostalgic melancholy. This Seattle-based singer songwriter is in my age cohort, started recording in the 90s, released albums on some of my favorite labels (Sub Pop and Secretly Canadian) and this is his 18th studio album. I don’t know how he didn’t get on my radar before this, but I’m glad he’s on it now!

Fantastic Negrito, White Jesus Black Problems– This is great! Musically, it’s an R&B shakedown with edges of electronic dance, new wave, garage rock revival, 70s soul, and gospel. Lyrically it is a cycle of songs about struggle, freedom, and joy, and vocally it’s extremely playful and varied. Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, aka Fantastic Negrito, was inspired to play by listening to Prince and then taught himself. I feel like he’s teaching us now what’s still possible for an album to do!

Grace Ives, Janky Star– This Brooklyn-based musician delivers tales of internal and external misadventure, fantastically clever and lively synth arrangements, and vocals so replete with light sweetness and that they belie the wit, snark, and sometimes darkness of the lyrics. This all adds up to a fun and multi-layered pop album, and it’s especially impressive when you know that she’s home-produced and arranged the whole damn thing. Grace Ives for God Emperor!
 

Hank Williams Jr., Rich White Honky Blues– The idea is pretty simple: Have a producer known for getting good down and dirty blues performances work with an idiosyncratic country artist known for getting down and dirty. It works very well! Junior is in raw grizzled grouchy veteran form, the material is great, and the playing and production is sterling.

Hollie Cook, Happy Hour– This ska/dub/jazz mix from a British singer and keyboardist (and late lineup member of the Slits) is quite fetching! It sounds like a happy hour- not the loud obnoxious sports bar kind, but the mellow night out at a local spot where everyone is enjoying the grove. If it sometimes feels a little too smooth, it never sounds in-genuine for it, and it carries you along track to track like a warm current.

Jens Lekman, The Cherry Trees Are Still in Blossom– Technically, this is a re-production of Swedish indie artist Jens Lekman’s 2005 compilation Oh You’re So Silent.  That compilation was taken down from streaming services years ago, and this re-recorded, expanded, and re-titled version has just been released in its place. It’s a hodge-podge of fresh revisions, almost completely unaltered original recordings, and previously unreleased material with audio diaries from a personal cassette archive as interludes between the songs. And remember, this hodge-podge approach has been applied to what was originally a “greatest hits”. It shouldn’t work, and it shouldn’t sound unified, but it really does- the saccharine perfection of the pop songs vs. the extremely idiosyncratic nature of their subject matter, the variety of styles, and the stripped-down nature of the production all feel like they hold together. And they’re practically aglow with singular talent and wit!

Katie Alice Greer, Barbarism– This is the first full-length solo album from front-person of D.C. art punk band Priests, Katie Alice Greer.  Thrashing guitars, swirling metal machine noises, witty lyrics, and vocals that have at various times an arch new wave delivery, distorted psychedelic sheen, and 90s straightforwardness. This reminds me more than a bit of Bjork, but doesn’t feel like a mere copy- what I mean is the knack for songs that are catchy and fun, but experimental and challenging. Amen!

Kula Shaker, 1st Congregational Church of Eternal Love and Free Hugs– Knowing they’re an English psychedelic rock group, combined with that title, gives you some sense of the goings-on here. And, indeed, there are British psychedelic touches a plenty- a framing mechanism of a church service, a kind of through story about the fall of man, ornate musical production in parts, Indian influences, and lyrics sometimes given to extreme whimsy. What all of this doesn’t quite convey is how often it is blisteringly guitar rocking. Listening, I heard hints of all the concept album forebearers one might expect- the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Who, the Zombies. But it never felt inauthentic, or not vitally present. This band has been at this since the 90s heyday of Britpop, with a break and resurrection in the early 00s, and this 6th album shows what they’ve learned.

Lucy Liyou, Welfare/Practice– This album by a Philadelphia-based Korean-American experimental musician is, in a sense, very detached, even muted. It’s a pastiche of text-to-voice vocals, piano, and sound samples. The detachment works though, to take just enough of the edge off the confessional lyrics of family estrangement and therapy to make the content even that more raw and revealing. Yes, it tends toward the abstract and is over an hour long, but damned if my first impulse after finishing it wasn’t to immediately play it again to examine all the layers hidden therein.

Regina Spektor, Home, before and after– The literate and vivid poetry of her lyrics, the alternating softly and ardently compelling quality of her voice, and the orchestrated swell of the music behind her here are all working so, so well together! She’s been doing great work for about 20 years now, and it’s nice to see it continuing here.

Tim Heidecker, High School– Tim Heidecker is a comedian with a more than incidental side career as a musician. As in, he’s really good at it, making a philosophical kind of soft rock. This album is in that vein and lives up to its name. Musically, it almost seems like frat rock at times, but gets a hint of 90s alt guitar, and name checks music from multiple genres of the 80s and 90s. It’s full of authentic details of the travails of suburban teen youth. More than that, it evokes the sense of dusty nostalgia of teen memories, how everything seems serious and yet vague at the same time. Kind of peculiarly, it feels philosophical and shallow at the same time, all because it so authentically taps into its theme through mood and mode.

Yaya Bey, Remember Your North Star– Brooklyn singer-songwriter whose sound is a combination of hip-hop, smoky soul, dub, biting social commentary, and gender inversions. There are some things in life I’m not sure about, but one thing I am sure of is that the world needs more Yaya Bey!

Maybe

  • Angel Olsen, Big Time– I’ve been favorably impressed by her on previous outings. She’s an excellent vocalist, and an honest, emotional lyricist. Both of those are on display here, in even more focused form, and the slow country-flavored background supports what she’s doing very well. It is a little bit all of a tone song to song, but a gorgeous richly sung tone.

  • Art d’Ecco, After the Headrush– This is a delightful and well-done romp through classic influences a la David Bowie and Roxy Music, and the currents of post-punk and new wave that most strongly reflect them. I had this same reaction to their album In Standard Definition last year, which made my initial “yes” list. So the derivative aspects may wear thin on repeated listen, but it’s so energetic and fun on the first listen that I can’t dismiss it as a possibility!
     
  • Automatic, Excess– So many people are doing this brittle post-punk 80s chilly synth early electronic thing these days. Does everybody have to keep doing this? But dammit, this Los Angeles group is doing it so well that I have to say “maybe”.

  • Bartees Strange, Farm to Table– His stylistic kaleidoscope of an album Live Forever was one of my favorites of 2020, so I was looking forward to checking this out. Here he often sticks a closer to a conventional palette in terms of music and production, but still pulls surprises like the first track, where a quiet introspective examination of the past year becomes a booming indie rock song, or the great surges of synth sound and echo in what had started off as more of a conventional electronic dance song in “Cosigns”. Sometimes the surprising moments are subtle, on others they blow your socks off. If it’s a little off in pacing and not quite as dazzling as his previous outing, it’s still worth another listen.

  • Cola, Deep in View– These veterans of bands from the Montreal art punk scene have produced an album that sounds like early post-punk. Spare, angular, driving, a little chill, and densely worded. There are a lot of people mining this vein these days, but I must give points for this being a well-done version of it!

  • Erin Anne, Do Your Worst– Crunching guitars of power-pop, crashing synths of high-energy bedroom pop, and a ridiculous way with melody. That’s on the musical side, on the vocal side she tends between pop-punk and autotuned, and lyrically, there’s romance gone wrong with some snark and attitude thrown in.

  • Horsegirl, Versions of Modern Performance– First thing to note: this Chicago-based trio recorded most of this album when they were in high school! It’s thick on guitars and fuzz feelings, both musically and emotionally, and brings to mind multiple aspects of alt/indie rock from the 80s-00s. A little samey track to track, but, return to opening note- they recorded this while they were still in high school! A very promising debut.

  • Logic, Vinyl Days– There’s a dizzying kaleidoscope of styles and samples on this album from American rapper and record producer Logic, well-deployed guest appearances, and some serious wordplay amidst the flow. On the lyrical side, there’s plenty of bragging, but there’s also plenty of humor, some serious message, and wild inventiveness. At an hour ten, it’s a little sprawling, but there’s a lot of good stuff in that sprawl! 

  • Nicki Bluhm, Avondale Drive– A solid set of blue-eyed soul and country with an electric stomping edge and yearning vocals. In classic country fashion, this was inspired by her divorce, and the authenticity shows up in the lyrics and vocals. The music sometimes is a tad formulaic, but damn it’s a good formula.

  • Pet Fox, A Face in Your Life– I kept thinking, “This sounds like…” and could never specifically place it, because what it sounds like is so damn much from my alt 80s youth and 90s alternative still pretty youth. As this would indicate, there’s a variety of styles here. What unites them is a sense of romantic yearning throughout, and the deftness with which they’re all worked. Derivative, but it’s a great derivation.

  • S.G. Goodman, Teethmarks– This Kentucky singer-songwriter is a powerhouse! Moving between folk, country, blues, and some good honest rock, with vocals sometimes powerful and driving and sometimes haunting and subtle. Her lyrics have a knack for both bare emotional and topical anthems. Some tracks get a little indistinct, and you’ll hear influences for sure- Sheryl Crow, Edie Brickell, Ricki Lee Jones, even a pinch of Janis all came to mind. But it’s not a copy, and there’s something here that catches the attention.

  • Shintaro Sakamoto, Like a Fable– Shinataro Sakomoto is a psychedelic rocker from Japan known for bending genre, and that’s well on display here. You’ll find some swinging lounge sounds, some 60s pop, some psychedelia, and it’s entirely in Japanese. Despite the language barrier, it feels instantly understandable, and is like an overflowing plate of sunshine.
     
  • Soccer Mommy, Sometimes, Forever– This is like the second-coming of 90s guitar songstresses! Her album color theory was a maybe in my 2020 blog. I have some of the same concerns here as I did there- a kind of sameness of tempo track to track, some pacing issues. But the dark undertones of her music, vocals, and lyrics kept pulling me through.

  • The Inflorescence, Remember What I Look Like– Emotional female-lead vocals, high energy guitars with a pop-punk flavor, distortion! That’s the basic elements of what will always be a happy place for me. This particular edition is from San Diego, and while it may not be the most original formulation ever, I’m a sucker for the sound.

No

  • µ-Ziq, Magic Pony Ride– As electronic music goes, this was enjoyable and interesting. Ultimately not enough…something… Structure? Lyrics? Unifying theme? To really work as an album, but not a bad listen!

  • Alice Merton, S.I.D.E.S.– Smart and sophisticated cosmopolitan sounding dance-pop. I certainly didn’t dislike it but didn’t think it was enough above and beyond other examples in class to really stand out.

  • Andre Bratten, Picture Music– Norwegian artist Andre Bratten’s album is certainly well done, but too much on the chilly and abstract side of electronic to hold attention at album length.

  • Astronoid, Radiant Bloom– A description I ran across said, “fuses black metal’s volume and precision with the soft ambience of shoegaze and the steady repetition of post-rock”. To me, it sounded like it would have been very much at home on College Radio in the 80s somewhere between the Icicle Works and the Psychedelic Furs. It’s not bad, but not sure it’s “still talk about it in a year” good.

  • Avalanche Kaito, Avalanche Kaito– Players from Brussels’ experimental scene and a Burkina Faso-born griot. It’s a winning combination in many ways, bringing to mind the fertile interplay between post-punk and African music in the early 80s. Ultimately a little same track to track, and with the language issue, it doesn’t quite come together as an album.

  • Big Moochie Grape, East Haiti Baby– It’s a fine enough hip-hop album, but in a mumbly vocal style that doesn’t particularly catch my attention, and it doesn’t stand out thematically.

  • Big Sad 1900, I Don’t Tap In or Tap Out– I really liked the 80s R&B-sound mix of this hip-hop album and there’s some power in the vocals, but it is a little same track to track and it doesn’t have something that really stands out.

  • Bobby Oroza, Get on the Otherside– A native Finlander of Bolivian descent, his music includes elements of jazz and Latin but relies most heavily on a trinity of classic R&B, funk, and soul. So read the description, and indeed this had a beautiful honey-dripping slow 70s soul feel, with some jazz keyboard sprinkle. It’s very nice, but it got a little samey eventually.

  • Brett Eldredge, Songs About You– Pop country, but with a distinctive R&B swing and call-backs to a lot of musical heritage. It’s considerably less odious than your average pop country! Eventually it gets a little too cliché-slick and packaged, but still a cut above.

  • Caamp, Lavender Days– Some nice American roots music from this Ohio band. It’s more than occasionally quite charming, but it’s sometimes a little too 2020s indie folk produced slick.

  • Carrie Underwood, Denim & Rhinestones– Certainly well produced pop country, but the country goes for pop country cliché, and the pop is too slick and ornate in its production.

  • Charlie Musselwhite, Mississippi Son– A modern blues great, and he does some fine Mississippi Blues playing and singing here, but it feels like it leans a little too much on form versus spontaneity.

  • Coheed and Cambria, Vaxis II: A Window of the Waking Mind– Second of a five-part arc of concept albums around a greater storyline! Surging rock with prog and arena influences! Very well produced! It all feels a little plastic to me though!

  • Conan Gray, Superache– A nice emoey teen angsty thing that leans in a pop direction. It’s fine.

  • Day Wave, Pastlife– Bay Area band, so I’m pre-disposed to think well of them. And they’re doing a perfect shimmering jangling music with a lo-fi feeling, but eventually it gets too fuzzy and indistinct to keep working for an entire album.

  • Deliluh, Faultlines– This Toronto art rock group’s album almost made it! Its combination of a spare industrial synth with occasional grating touches and spoken word almost affectless vocals was oddly compelling until the last track which meandered and bad 80s soundtrack synthed around for eight minutes.

  • Drake, Honestly, Nevermind– Wait, Drake is Canadian? Why did no one ever tell me this?!?!?!? In any case, wherever he’s from he makes reliably good music with fun and clever touches, but this one was a little unfocused and way too autotuned for me.

  • Elucid, I Told Bessie– Elucid is doing some interesting things here, and has collaborations with some of the best names in the darker more creative reaches of contemporary hip-hop like Armand Hammer bandmate Billy Woods, as well as Pink Siifu, Quelle Chris, the Alchemist, and Kenny Segal. And the dark undertow of his flow, spare musical background and incantatory lyrics does cast a spell, but, it’s a little too same track to track to really stand out.

  • Emma Ruth Rundle, EG2: Dowsing Voice– The artistry of the experimentation here is undeniable, but it’s too much on the experimental/avantgarde side to be repeatably listenable.

  • Fashion Club, Scrutiny– If you ran across a band called “Fashion Club” on a college radio station in the 80s, you would not be surprised to hear them have this haunted, dark, melodramatic and melodious synth feeling. In fact, this band is from the LA indie scene of the 2020s. It’s not bad at all, in fact it’s kind of great, but it is so of an era/vein that it has trouble escaping that context.
     
  • Flasher, Love is Yours– This is a blend of post-punk/art rock I would have loved in the 80s. And it is very well done, but a little in the same vein song to song, and too bound by its time sound/genre place.

  • Foals, Life is Yours– I mean, I like the post-punk, neo-new wave, pseudo-disco sound so many bands have been exploring this millennium but…so many bands are exploring it. And do many of them stand out from, or above the others? In a “will be listening to this/thinking of it” several years from now way? I wonder…

  • Gaby Moreno, Alegoria– Guatemalan-born, her self-defined “Spanglish soul” sound encompasses jazz, blues, pop, rock, and R&B. There are moments when she’s simply outstanding, but there are others where the smooth jazz is too smooth, or the production is too slick. Still, for range and quality, a name to keep an eye on.

  • Giveon, Give or Take– The quality of this LA-born R&B artist’s album is high, the viewpoint is laudable, but urgghhh, the autotune!

  • Grey Daze, The Phoenix– If you were thinking, “I need some more post-grunge that sounds perfectly like post-grunge” this Phoenix-based band (who, to be fair, started doing it in the 90s, so they come by it honestly) has you covered.

  • Hercules & Love Affair, In Amber– Spare synth sounds that straddle atmospheric and upbeat dance, sometimes dolorous vocals, emotional and deeply internal lyrics. It’s not bad, but it is kind of low key, and not different than other such outings.

  • Horse Jumper of Love, Natural Part– Dreamy lo-fi pop that, on the upside, mentions tentacle porn and skunks living under the house. On the downside, it sounds a lot like a lot of other things that sound like this.

  • Jack Johnson, Meet the Moonlight– It’s pretty, it’s accessible, it’s warm. It’s Jack Johnson. But it’s also something we’ve heard a lot before.

  • Jasmyn, In the Wild– Somewhere between electronic, indie pop, and punk, Jasmyn’s music is fun. It’s occasionally more than fun, thrilling even, and I’d certainly want to keep an eye on her in the future.

  • Jean-Benoît Dunckel, Carbon– Against my better judgement, my friend and music appreciation savant Matt had me listen to Air, and I ended up quite liking them. That French electronic outfit is where this artist hails from, and what’s on display here is a lot like their music. Ultimately a little too like to stand out. But it’s great if you’re in that mood, and there is a song here called “sex ufo” so there’s that.

  • Jens Lekman, The Linden Trees Are Still in Blossom– Technically, this is a re-production of Swedish indie artist Jens Lekman’s 2007 album Night Falls Over Kortedala. Or rather, what he did is remove it from streaming platforms and replace it with The Linden Trees Are Still in Blossom. Linden Trees is one of two albums Lekman uses to revisit, partially re-record, and otherwise reconfigure older work. The other album he just did this with, The Cherry Trees Are Still in Blossom, made my “yes” list. While this contains much of the charm of that album, and originally came from a proper album as opposed to Cherry Trees “greatest hits” source material, it actually feels less unified. Among other things, it’s longer which makes an album “through line” harder to maintain, and it feels a lot more produced and less quirky, which frankly detracts. Not that there isn’t a lot of worthy material here, but it feels much less like a proper album than its companion piece.

  • Jimmie Allen, Tulip Drive– I mean, having pop country that leans heavily to the pop side and sounds all the slick, packaged, and cliche one would think based on that, except with a Black male lead, is different. That doesn’t really make it work though.

  • Joan Shelley, The Spur– A beautifully sung and played acoustic-oriented album, full of literate lyrics. It’s a little too all in that vein to work indefinitely, but if you’re looking for that vein, it’s beautiful.

  • Joyce Manor, 40 Oz. to Fresno– 9 songs in 17 minutes! So you might argue this is actually an EP, but the Ramones first album did 14 songs in 28 minutes, so we’re in a similar timing territory here. I also like how the title is based on an autocorrect miscorrection of a Sublime album title. This is some good catchy pop-punk of the 2000s pop-punk variety, but not sure it really brings something original to that.

  • Just Mustard, Heart Under– This Irish band is channeling some identifiable spirits- an angular haunted early post-punk (aka Joy Division), some industrial, some emo side of goth. It’s not a bad channeling, but it may not be new and different enough to really stand out.

  • Kelley Stoltz, Stylist– This San Francisco auteur has been doing great work reminiscent of classic 70s singer-songwriter sources for decades. It’s in good form here, most every song sounds in a way familiar a la 70s pop and the Nick Lowe school of new wave/pub rock, but also new.  It’s well-done and all very pleasant, but it feels curiously emotionally detached and over-slick in production, and, at nearly an hour long, the sprawl doesn’t quite come together.

  • Lil Tracy, Saturn Child– Ohhhh myyyy gawwwdddd thisss issss sssooooo autotunedddddddddddd.

  • Luke Combs, Growin’ Up– Honestly, as formulaic dude pop country goes, this is top of the line. I wouldn’t throw myself onto a funeral pyre instead of listening to it again, but it still doesn’t make a “top of year” cut.

  • Luke Steele, Listen to the Water– This solo debut of one half of the electro-pop duo Empire of the Sun was self-recorded in a cabin in rural Northern California, which automatically makes me favorably disposed to it. And the electro-folk goings on here are good, sometimes quirky and quite interesting. It does fuzz out into an indistinct sameness a little too much as it goes on though.

  • Lupe Fiasco, Drill Music in Zion– The consciousness of this hip-hop/R&B outing is coming from an interesting place. And, about half the time, the musical and vocal accompaniment of it is great (I could have stood a lot more of the spoken word/poetic style that kicked it off), but the rest tends a little too much toward the autotuned.

  • Mapache, Roscoe’s Dream– It opens with a country-style love song for the artist’s dog, and honestly, I was all in at that point. From there this Los Angeles duo starts to stylistically vary, usually to good effect, but there end up being a few too many indie folk numbers that sound like all other indie folk numbers.

  • Martin Courtney, Magic Sign– I mean, it’s not unpleasant. But it is a little like some kind of cross between synth and yacht rock. If I were on a yacht, heck, it might be the prefect accompaniment!

  • Michael Head & the Red Elastic Band, Dear Scott– This Liverpool-born singer/songwriter is really a pretty solid songwriter and musician. And yes, you can hear hints of the songcraft of certain Liverpool-born songwriters past. It’s a little low-key to ultimately stand out, but it’s solid.
     
  • Michael Rault, Michael Rault– This Canadian singer-songwriter takes us through a sunny fuzzy slice of 70s pop sounds. As so many are doing these days. It’s well done, but it often feels like the (nearly perfect) form is coming at the cost of any emotionally vital substance to me. With so many others plying these waters, it takes something special to stand out.

  • Michaela Anne, Oh To Be That Free– A little country, a little folky, a little lush poppy. Not bad, but it doesn’t feel vital or authentic.

  • Mt. Joy, Orange Blood– LA band originally from Philadelphia, with the minor chords, the hooky melodies, the jangly guitars with just the right balance between indie pop catchiness, driving rock, and psyche flourish. But then it gets a little too into a bland kind of 2020s indie rock. Alas!

  • Muna, Muna– Some good, sophisticated pop from this trio under Phoebe Bridger’s label, and you can understand how they appealed to her and her musical approach. But it was too slick, autotuned, and produced to ever really get its hooks in to me.

  • Perfume Genius, Ugly Season– This is romantic synth pop as complex orchestral conceptual music, and as such, I can’t dismiss it as bad. I will say it tends toward a little too abstract and occasionally ethereal to really grab and hold my attention for a whole album though.

  • Poliça, Madness– A nice enough shimmery electronic thing, but, eh…

  • Porcupine Tree, Closure/Continuation– A reunion of sorts for this well-respected band, including founding member Steven Wilson, who’s album The Future Bites made my “honorable mention” list last year. I didn’t like this quite as well, though its mix of prog rock, semi-metal and synth/electronic provided many interesting moments and let me know why this band has the strong reputation it does. It tended too abstract too often to keep me consistently engaged, though.
     
  • Post Malone, Twelve Carat Toothache– Godddddd dammmmnnnnn issss thissssss autotunnnnnned…………

  • Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios– Recorded from Wainwright’s livestreaming a cover of Judy Garland’s 1961 classic Judy at Carnegie Hall with a four-piece jazz ensemble (and one appearance by guest Kristin Chenoweth). Classic American songbook source, and the material and musical setting certainly plays to his strengths. It’s a good performance, even if it is a little twice-derived to end up as a best of year.

  • Sally Ann Morgan, Cups– This was described as a “blend of Appalachian folk traditions, drone music, and light psychedelia”. I think that’s true, although it’s a lot more classical sounding than that introduction gets across. Certainly beautiful, but not really compelling as an album in total.

  • Saya Gray, 19 Masters– This Toronto-based singer’s album is a fascinating swirl of unusually-produced and emotionally revealing songs incorporating elements of synth, acoustic and experimental electronic. It’s never an uninteresting or unworthy listen, but in the experimental edges and variety, it never quite gels together either.

  • Shearwater, The Great Awakening– This Texas-based band has an international outlook and some interesting ecological ideas. The music and vocals, however, are…not interesting. A little too far on the mellow bleeds to ambient side of electronic.

  • Sound of Ceres, Emerald Sea– If you know that Sound of Ceres is a dream pop group, and if you know that they’ve extensively collaborated on this album with performance artist Marina Abramovic, you might be expecting things to be trippy and weird. And you would be right! As such, it’s always interesting, but a little too abstract and gauzy to work at length for me.

  • Stella, Up and Away– I did enjoy this Greek-influenced pop as international mellow jam music. Sort of an Enya, Dido, Everything but the Girl space, but with Greek highlights. It doesn’t rise much above nice. But hey, nice is nice!

  • Supersonic Blues Machine, Voodoo Nation– California’s Supersonic Blues Machine does something like the name might lead you to expect- plays loud, fast blues with a rock edge. And I was on board for most of the hour+ run-time, but toward the end it started veering too often into songs that flavored slickness and production over vitality and bruising noise. Alas!

  • Tedeschi Trucks Band, I Am the Moon: I. Crescent– Part one of a four album project by this 11-piece band, fronted by the married guitar slingers, that plays a righteous melding of rock, blues, gospel, and New Orleans funk. This sounds great, a real 70s Americana R&B influenced rock sound. I’m not sure it really holds together as an album as such though. Maybe parts II-IV will tell.

  • The Dream Syndicate, Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions– The Dream Syndicate is in fine form here, but the form is a little dated, and not as dreamy as it was in the 80s. Alas!

  • The Range, Mercury– Electronic musician/producer/DJ James Hinton moved from Brooklyn to Vermont, fell into a depression, and then musiced his way out with this album. I mean, as someone with experience with depression, and as someone who’s experienced the lifestyle shift of big city to Vermont, I’m interested in the premise. In practice, it’s some nice, lively enough electronic music, but it doesn’t really hold my attention above a background level.

  • Tijuana Panthers, Halfway to Eighty– This trio from Long Beach brings together sounds from punk, surf, garage rock, and sometimes even brought to mind The Replacements. I’m pretty sure I would have loved this in 1986. Now it’s more of a reaction of nostalgic fondness.

  • Tim Bernardes, Mil Coisas Invisíveis– A beautiful acoustic album from this Brazilian artist. But, without much Portuguese on my part, and largely being in a uniform musical tone/vein on the album’s part, it never quite wowed me.

  • Tony Shhnow, Reflexions– The vocal flow is sharp, but kind of all too the same. And the subject matter is a little too 2000s hip-hop standard. On the upside the cool vibe of the musical mix does work well.

  • Trixie Mattel, The Blonde & Pink Albums– When I heard this was by an American drag queen, actor, and singer who was on the seventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I was definitely intrigued! I was expecting some kind of disco inferno because, you know, stereotypes. What I actually got was a fun, high energy basically emo pop album. I’m glad my stereotypes got busted, but musically, while fun, it wasn’t really distinguished from many another fun emo pop album of the past twenty years.

  • TV Priest, My Other People– Their 2021 album Uppers made my “maybe” list. This has all the same charms of that album- a spare and nervy post-punk delivery with an industrial edge. But it also doesn’t sound new or different to that, or all that different from a lot of groups I’ve heard in the past year and a half who are mining that same vein. Alas! A fine example of the sound though, if you’re looking for it!

  • Ural Thomas & the Pain, Dancing Dimensions– First of all, this has an interesting story- he had performed widely as a child soul singer and back-up singer for many notables in the 50s and 60s. In the 2010s a Portland DJ, learning that he was living locally, organized a band for him and got him back into regular performing. This is some good fun soul, with a jazz influence and 70s feel. I’m not sure if it adds up to a standout album, but I love the story and it works as a slice of fun!

  • Various Artists, Under the Bridge– Sarah Records was a Bristol, England indie pop record label active from 1987 and 1995, and hugely influential in developing the poppier more shimmering side of indie rock through its releases, which were largely singles. This is a tribute to Sarah put out by the also indie Skep Wax label, organized around a simple premise: the current projects of various Sarah-related artists record contemporary versions of classic songs by other Sarah artists. The results are quite charming and reinforce just how influential this body of music continues to be. This is great as a sampler, but it’s a little twice-derived to be a year’s best album.
      
  • Westside Boogie, More Black Superheroes– There is some freshness to this hip-hop album, and the more than occasional unusual touch, and it’s certainly well done. Some more of the more interesting parts would have put it into contention, but too much of it was focused on the now standard “street life“ clichéd material.

  • XAM Duo, XAM Duo II– Hey, a XAM Duo is a pretty good duo! This Yorkshire-based pair is putting out some clean solid electronic music, even if it ultimately didn’t grab me.

  • Yann Tiersen, 11 5 18 2 5 18– If you see the title, and know that he’s Breton, and much of his work is on film soundtracks, you might be expecting something quite disembodied and abstract. It does get there eventually which is why I have it as a “no”, but the first 3/4 were really solid techno with all the best butt-moving music and interesting sound effects that go with that.

  • Yoo Doo Right, A Murmur, Boundless to the East– Somewhere between electronic and an 80s alt sound that combines the darker sides of synth and “big music”. Not bad, but a little swirly and unmoored.

  • Young Guv, Guv IV– I liked this a lot better than III, which came out in March. It still wore thin after a while, but I did enjoy the shimmery jangly neo-psych (with occasional country dashes!) space it inhabited.

  • Zola Jesus, Arkhon– It’s not the elements here- looming feeling, dark orchestral synths, operatic vocals- are in any way bad. But it is indistinct track to track, and not a whole lot different from many other examples of same.

And that’s it for June! Tune in next time for July, when we’ll be halfway plus one…

In Search of the 22 Best Albums of 2022: May

It took us three tries, but finally a single month posting, and before the end of the next month. Victory! Or at least, you know, less defeat. If you’re new here, I’m listening to new releases each month, and then sorting them into “Yes”, “Maybe”, and “No”, with the ultimate goal of finding… The 22 Best Albums of 2022!

You can find the previous not single-month reviews here:

( January/February March/April )

I did something like this last year, so if you’re curious you can also check out the round-ups of my three blog series reviewing the critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and 2020 , and my discovery of the 21 best albums of 2021.

We’ll get going in a moment, but first a brief overview of the three categories:

Yes– These albums, upon first listen, could be in running for the year’s best. If they survive the brutal winnowing to come!

Maybe– These albums have a considerable something going for them, but also something that gives me pause. I’m giving them their own category, because “maybes” sometimes linger and become “yeses”.

No– Being a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bad. Though sometimes you do end up there because you’re crap. But you can also be fine, but not more than fine. Or interesting in some way, but not quite pulling it off. Getting to yes isn’t easy!

With all that established, let’s get on with it and review the good, the bad, the ugly, and the merely insipid from the 93 May new releases I listened to!

Action Bronson, Cocodrillo Turbo– A cacophony of sound effects and musical influences (with a pleasing tendency towards good old fashioned rock) on the mix side, and some variously hilarious and scary swagger on the vocal/lyrical side. He is now my favorite Albanian-American rapper of Jewish and Muslim parentage! His food show is really fun too, although I guess that review belongs in another blog…

Alfie Templeman, Mellow Moon– Swinging indie pop that bangs its way through multiple styles and has fun the whole way through. The smooth pop production is there, but so is an indie spirit of experimentation. Here’s to more innovative 19-year-olds making bedroom pop!

Arcade Fire, WE– If there’s anybody out there on the artier side of indie rock who does a better job than Arcade Fire at making albums that are artistically deep, emotionally evocative, and have honest to goodness structure, I haven’t heard of it. With this exploration of the ends of emotion and ends of empire, I had the experience I often have with their music, of starting off not sure if I’m buying it this time and realizing by the end that I’m utterly entranced.

AWOLNATION, My Echo, My Shadow, My Covers and Me– I am told AWOLNATION is an electronic-rock project fronted by Los Angeles-bred singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Bruno. They decided to ride out COVID by taking on a truly dizzying array of covers including songs from, for example, ABBA, Alan Parsons Project, Biz Markie, Madonna, and Midnight Sun. Sometimes their takes are more faithful, sometimes cleverly inventive, and always well done and fun.

Belle and Sebastian, A Bit of Previous– If there have been better purveyors of melodious indie pop the last twenty years than Belle and Sebastian, I’m not sure who they are. Every song here is smooth and on-target without ever sounding artificial or rote, and you only have to listen around a little to appreciate how rare that is. I also like that this album in particular feels like it has a slightly harder and driving edge than their music sometimes does.
  

Boat Songs, MJ Lenderman– The musical touchstones of this album are country-inflected heartland rock a la Neil Young, 80s/90s alt country, and seething hardcore guitar. On the lyrical side, there’s a snarky take on matters personal and pop culture worthy of classic Uncle Tupelo or Warren Zevon. This Asheville-based musician is truly producing something that honors multiple pasts and still feels individual and vital.

Boldy James & Real Bad Man, Killing Nothing– Detroit rapper James has teamed with crew Real Bad Man to produce this throbbing menacing set of songs livened by clever and unexpected mix effects. The vocal flow adds a hypnotic quality to the dark tales being told. It leans a little toward cliché at times lyrically, but for every moment like that there are a dozen where the power and musical surprise pulls it through.
  

Cave In, Heavy Pendulum– The metal crunches. The music swirls and swells in great waves. Sometimes it’s thrashy, sometimes it’s orchestral, sometimes it’s heavy. The vocals shout but you can make them out, and then another vocal which is more metal ballad kicks in. At times it becomes almost a resurrection of Soundgarden, then gets a little edgier a la the Melvins or Tad, other times I’m hearing Rush, even a distant hint of Zeppelin. Something serious is going on I think, but livened by a lot of musical fun. Even the 12-minute track at the end works!

Craig Finn, A Legacy of Rentals– A solo outing from one of the leads of the Hold Steady. Vocally/lyrically it’s pretty much spot on with the vivid tales of regular life storytelling he does, which you either like or don’t (I do!). Musically is where it gets interesting- there is a lot more variety and experimentation here than on most Hold Steady albums- it reminds me of the difference between, say, the Postal Service and Death Cab for Cutie.

Gospel, The Loser– I don’t know where Gospel came from, but this is apparently their first new album in 16 years. And I think they’ve been saving up! Blistering metal, sometimes technical and prog-rocky, sometimes full of hardcore snot attitude. If you’re in the mood, it won’t do you wrong on a single song.

Joe Rainey, Niineta– Niineta, the title of Pow Wow singer Joe Rainey’s debut album means “just me” in Ojibwe, the native language of Red Lake Ojibwe in Minneapolis. If you didn’t know what to expect from a Pow Wow album, you’re just like me. It’s powerful in its own right, but is interspersed with a sound recording collage and an electronic mix that enhance it further and sends it in surprising directions. Worth repeated listens for all that’s going on here!

John Doe, Fables in a Foreign Land– John Doe has been exploring Americana/heartland/country territory off and on since the 80s, so in a sense this album is no departure. But boy has he jumped in to it here! The folk influences are in full flower, and the lyrical heft, musical excellence and dark vision all churn along.

Johnny Ray Daniels, Whatever You Need– Debut album from a 76-year-old North Carolina-based singer/guitarist who has previously been a key background figure in multiple North Carolina gospel productions? I’m in! And as it turns out, this is rocking good music from start to finish, without a hint of slickness or inauthenticity. Everyone who’s not a 76-year-old releasing their first solo album should take note and question why they aren’t doing this well.

Kendrick Lamar, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers– As befits Kendrick Lamar, this is by turns hilarious, menacing, willing to explore ugly truths, and uncomfortably vulnerable and self-exposing. His customary musical and vocal kaleidoscope of approaches is there throughout, and, if anything, is more varied and experimental than ever. If it comes in a little long (1 hour 17 minutes) and isn’t as focused or structured as some of his albums, it also gets more powerful as it goes on. And isn’t the best hip-hop artist of his generation entitled to a sprawling double album now and then?

Otoboke Beaver, Super Champon– Rocking female-led bands and quirky Japanese noise-pop are two of my happy places, so… And indeed, this is brutal and hilarious. It reminds me, variously, of Bleach era Nirvana, a snotty young hardcore band, and the thrashier side of Cibo Matto. It’s a winning mix, and even the parts that are entirely in Japanese work.

Porridge Radio, Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky– Wow do I love what this English group is doing here. Musically, you’ll hear some of the synth-pop 80s, some of the Cure/Siouxsie side of things, and a fair nod to the darker side of emo. Vocally, the lead singer often comes across as anguished, even harrowing at times, but it never rings false. And it’s livened by some darkly funny lyrics that have a genuine bite to them. Their album Every Bad was on my 2020 final list, and it looks like I’m still buying what they’re selling!

Steven Lambke, Volcano Volcano– This Canadian singer-songwriter’s album is mostly in an acoustic vein, but with richly supporting instrumentation redolent of classic rock. That, and the combination of Lambke’s wispy vocals and densely intelligent lyrics, casts an entrancing spell. Though spare, there are layers here that bear repeated listening.

Tess Parks, And Those Who Were Seen Dancing– This starts off with slow grooving songs, blues and R&B chord changes, fuzzy and echoey, with dark complex lyrics and languid vocals. All this is still going on, but it gets some darkly surging rock going on later without losing the flowing feeling. This Toronto singer-songwriter is someone to keep an eye on!

Yves Jarvis, The Zug– This album by Montreal-based musician Jean-Sébastien Audet is really something! In (large) part, it’s in the vein of mellower folk-tinged psychedelia from the late 60s/early 70s. But interpreted with more than a dash of bright, quirky electronic music, and sometimes the kind of fusion of philosophical flights and confessional material you might find from, say, Sufjan Stevens. Both a fun and interesting listen, and layers of what’s going on here that are well worth re-exploring!

Maybe

  • Andrew Leahey & the Homestead, American Static, Vol. 2– It’s like one just accidentally tuned in to 40 minutes of AOR radio from the 70s. Which makes for a very agreeable 40 minutes! It’s not over-brimming with originality and does fall a little into sameness track to track, but it never feels false.

  • Def Leppard, Diamond Star Halos– Def Leppard, who are a great band, paying tribute to the great 70s music that first inspired them (hence the T Rex lyric reference in the album title) by making songs in that vein. This is a good set-up! I don’t know that I can always hear those influences on the tracks here, but when I can, it’s amazing. The rest of the time it’s “merely” a really good Def Leppard album.

  • Harry Styles, Harry’s House– Against my better judgement, I really liked this! Several different schools of pop are being explored here, from mellow acoustic, 60s Britpop, to neo-dance music, and they’re being explored well. He really has become a legit artist in his own right! The marks off, such as they are, are coming from a lack of the coherence that could have really cemented it as an album.

  • Leikeli47, Shape Up– This New York musician is known for being so private she’s never performed without her face covered. That’s a curiousity, but the real deal is her strong beats, husky sensual hypnotic flow, fun musical, vocal, and lyrical twists, and delightful inversion of hip-hop gender dynamics. She sometimes waxes downright ballady along the way as well. There’s some lack of album coherence/structure keeping this from getting to “yes”, but it’s still a strong package.
      
  • Let It Be Blue, !!!– The first track was a nice moody acoustic ballad, the second is a very techno electronic outing, the third is more dance club and neo-disco, and now I just don’t know what is going on! It continued in that vein, and afterward I read that they are a twenty-year-old unconventional dance-punk band. I’ll say! It’s never less than unusual, interesting, and fun the whole way through, and their cover of “Man on the Moon” as a dance club power-song is amazing. I’m still not sure about the intro track, which is so unlike the rest in tone, but I have to consider it a maybe!

  • Midland, The Last Resort: Greetings From– I was favorably impressed by their album The Sonic Ranch from last year, and this neo-traditionalist country band from Texas has done it again here. It veers a little toward cliché, but if the median country band had this much respect for the musicianship and songcraft of country, along with some rock verve, we’d be in great shape collectively.

  • Say Sue Me, The Last Thing Left– I think I was expecting something more…K-Poppy?… from an indie rock band from Busan, South Korea. What we have here, though, is as fine a set of shimmering, chord-working, strongly felt and sung jangle-pop songs as you could hope to find. Very much in a vein that’s not surprising from an 80s alt or 90s-00s indie rock world, but no less solid for it. Maybe!

  • Slang, Cockroach in a Ghost Town– A sort of Pacific Northwest indie supergroup- composed of lead singer Drew Grow (Modern Kin and Drew Grow and the Pastors’ Wives), drummer Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, and Wild Flag), lead guitarist Anita Lee Elliot (Viva Voce) and bassist Kathy Foster (the Thermals and Roseblood). They’ve all learned their craft well, and they work well on it together.

  • Tank and the Bangas, Red Balloon– Oh, this was so close! This new Orleans group mixes together genres, and had, at times, an almost early 80s hip-hop feeling, other times something jazzier, and sometimes verging on downright psychedelic. And the hilarious and just downright weird cutting up they do during and between pieces is a delight. There were a few spots where it became more easy listening jazz, and that’s what threw my off. But I’m surely going to listen again!

  • Uffie, Sunshine Factory– This rapper, DJ, and singer/songwriter has been working furiously in collaboration with others and behind the scenes for years and has put out music on social media and via EP, but this is her debut solo album. On the one hand, it is autotuned dance music par excellence. On the other, it is utterly given to the genre, and milks it for all the glitz and tawdry afterburn it’s worth. If anything, the only thing that threw me off was a flat song or two that didn’t have the sparkle of the rest.

  • VERO, Unsoothing Interior– Stockholm trio! You know how I feel about Scandinavians… Some excellent angular post-punk, moody and sometimes thrashy, a la Elastica. It’s not the newest sounding thing in the world, but it I liked it more track by track as I listened.

  • Wilco, Cruel Country– Wilco getting back to their (that is, Uncle Tupelo’s) alt country roots. A lot of this sounds familiar to that era, and also hearkens back to some solid Alex Chilton. It’s very good, and the best moments are haunting and yearning. But I’m not quite sure it sustains the double-album length.

No

  • Alex Izenberg, I’m Not Here– This Los Angeles musician wrestling with his diagnosis of schizophrenia is certainly interesting, lyrically and musically. It’s in a dreamy, heavy 70s pop space, which when it works, works very well with what he’s doing. It often gets a little too fuzzy and indistinct to maintain, though.

  • Bad Bunny, Un Verano Sin Ti– There’s a lot in this kaleidoscope of sound and winning personality to love, but there’s also a lot of autotune, it’s closing in on an hour and a half which is a hard length to pull off, and well, I don’t understand Spanish well enough.

  • Blut aus Nord, Disharmonium: Undreamable Abysses– I mean, it’s a French Black Metal band, so I’m listening.

  • Brandon Coleman, Interstellar Black Space– When this jazz keyboardist with a love for funk leans in a funk direction on this album, it’s excellent. When it leans a little more in the jazz direction, it’s still good, but gets a too smooth and flowy to capture attention at album length.

  • Brian Jackson, This is Brian Jackson– Jackson was Gil Scott-Heron’s musical collaborator for most of the 70s. There’s no questioning the excellence, but it does sound very much of an era, and leans way too much toward smooth jazz for me.

  • Bruce Hornsby, ‘Flicted– I don’t know what I was expecting from Bruce Hornsby based on my 80s memories, but it certainly wasn’t this extremely experimental outing. For the first two thirds, you can certainly hear his jazzy mellow chords here and there, but it almost feels like the whole thing was produced as electronica. It was headed toward a yes or at least a maybe before it dipped back into the conventional and expected for the final third.

  • Chris Bathgate, The Significance of Peaches– This Michigan singer/songwriter certainly has some powerful songs, and they are nicely informed by Americana while at their heart being spare and driving. As a whole, though, it was a little too spare and same track to track to really sustain at album length for me.

  • Dama Scout, gen wo lai (come with me)– UK indie pop band Dama Scout has produced something of quality certainly, and they make interesting use of the lead singer’s Hong Kong heritage, but it’s all a little too dreamy and gauzy musically to hold attnetion.

  • Dean Spunt/John Wiese, The Echoing Shell– No Age’s drummer and a noise pop rocker collaborate. I do love No Age, and have a lot of fondness for noise pop, but this particular outing is a little too gleefully grating to work as a repeatably listenable album.

  • Dehd, Blue Skies– This Chicago-based indie band has done a very fine indie rock album redolent of 80s alt at the intersection of pop and darker more haunted concerns. If it was the 80s, I would have loved it! As it is now, I like it, and can certainly recommend it to anyone in that mood.

  • Dreezy, Hitgirl– Singer, rapper, songwriter, and actress Seandrea Sledge, aka Dreezy, has some strong flow here, and I enjoy her attitude. But it is a bit too one-note vocally, musically, and lyrically to work at album length.

  • Ella Mai, Heart on My Sleeve– Not a bad example of 2020s soul/R&B, which is to say- holy gawd the autotune!

  • Emeile Sande, Let’s Say For Instance– The first track was so autotuned to hell I could barely get through it. It got a little better from there, but not enough.

  • Ethel Cain, Preacher’s Daughter– Certainly impassioned, moody, and full of feeling, with high quality production. But, at over an hour and the songs all blending together in one vein, it doesn’t work as an album.

  • Florence + the Machine, Dance Fever– I mean, of course, not bad. Butalso not different from, better than or even as good as her earlier highlights. this is definitely an example of the perils of getting compared to yourself, but there it is.

  • Girlpool, Forgiveness– The gauzy beauty of these songs belies the portraits of dark lives they contain. Unfortunately, it belies it a little too much, so the point doesn’t fully land.

  • Grant-Lee Phillips, All That You Can Dream– Redolent of classic sounds a la Neil Young and Alex Chilton from 70s glory. However, it’s all too much in a narrow range to totally work. But if you’re looking for darkly inflected low-key songs from the heartland, this won’t lead you astray!

  • HAAi, Baby, We’re Ascending– This is not bad as an electronic music album goes, but it doesn’t rise above.

  • Hater, Sincere– I’m pre-disposed to love Swedes, and indeed between a shimmering 80s synth/goth sound and some jagged feedback-laden guitar parts I do like this. I would have outright loved it in the 80s, but it sounds a pinch dated now.

  • Hyaline, Maria BC– This Oakland-based band reminds me at moments of Kate Bush. It’s vocally and musically lovely, but ultimately too all in one low-key vein to sustain at album length.

  • Ibeyi, Spell 31– “Afro-French Cuban musical duo consisting of twin sisters who sing in English, French, Spanish and Yoruba” is a heck of a tag. And indeed, there are some very interesting genre-bridging things aswirl here. It doesn’t quite come together as a whole, and has some autotuned moments it really doesn’t need, but I’d keep my eye on Ibeyi!

  • Jack Harlow, Come home the kids miss you– This latest outing from Kentucky rapper Harlow was sometimes musically surprising and dynamically flowing, but more frequently felt curiously flat.

  • Jahmal Padmore, Esparanto– It’s a mellow jazzy affair that dips into multiple genres and would be great if you were looking for a mellow jazzy affair.

  • Jeshi, Universal Credit– Certainly some strong beats and good flow from this UK hip-hop artist, but it never quite seems to stand out.

  • Jordana, Face the Wall– It’s a little dancey, it’s a little boisterous young rock girl, it’s a little confessional. It doesn’t stand out on any of these accounts, but there’s promise here.

  • Julmud, Tuqoos– I believe this is my first album from a Palestinian DJ! Hopefully not my last- while the musical mix was a little too abstract to work for me at album length, he is doing some fun and interesting things with electronic music here.

  • Kevin Morby, This is a Photograph– Oh, this Texas-born American songwriter got close! Somewhere between country and singer-songwriter, musically pleasing and lyrically affecting. But, at the end of the day it was a little too production-polished at the expense of vitality.

  • Kikagaku Moyo, Kumoyo Island– Japanese psych-rock group. It’s interesting, but too often too slickly produced at the expense of the vitally weird.

  • Levon Helm/Mavis Staples, Carry Me Home– I think on the issue of currency I have trouble seeing it as “best of year” album (it was recorded live in 2011) but these two greats of American music do sound pretty darn good together.

  • Liam Gallagher, C’mon You Know– Not a surprise, this sounded a lot like an Oasis album. And for a good long time, I thought it was an Oasis album that I really liked, then it became one that I merely liked.

  • Lyle Lovett, 12th of June– Lyle Lovett has always been a) excellent and b) idiosyncratic. Both of those are on display here! While the swinging jazz lounge/standards space going on here is well done, it sounds sort of museum piece and doesn’t rise a lot above what it’s doing. A very pleasant ride on the way to that though!

  • M Huncho, Chasing Euphoria– This British rapper and singer has a pleasant jazzy vibe, but he ends up being a little too autotuned and undistinguished track to track.

  • Mandy Moore, In Real Life– While it doesn’t rise to what I think of as “year standout” level, it is very nice to see Mandy Moore doing so well with smart substantive pop songs. A little too produced for my taste, but there’s lots worse that can happen.

  • Matmos, Regards/Uklony dla Boguslaw Schaeffer– Innovative experimental electronic duo records a reimagining and reassembling of the works of Polish composer, theoretician, playwright, critic, and teacher Bogusław Schaeffer commissioned by the Instytutu Adama Mickiewicza as part of the Niepodlegla program. I’m not sure how this made it onto my “to listen to” list, it is, exactly as the description would lead one to expect, highly abstract electronic music.

  • Moderat, More D4ta– The synth and repetitive beat waves wash over me in this electronic album. It’s not a bad wash. But…

  • Mono, My Story, the Buraku Story [Original Soundtrack]– Experimental Japanese indie rock soundtracks could go in all kinds of ways, but the way this one went was nearly ambient, which doesn’t hold an album’s worth of attention. The discrimination against the Buraku “class” in Japan though is a worthy documentary subject!

  • Monophonics, Sage Motel– There’s a great retro-soul feeling here, but it stays a little too much in that retro groove to really kick in.

  • Perel, Jesus Was an Alien– If I say this is new wave influenced electro-disco from a Berlin-based DJ, you may develop a pretty accurate sense of what it sounds like. It’s chilly good fun, well done, but doesn’t vary internally or stand out a lot from its own sound.

  • Phelimuncasi, Ama Gogela– A gqom trio from the Mlaszi township of Durban, South Africa. Like me, you may not know, but I learned that “gqom” is a genre of electronic dance music that emerged in South Africa, descended from local varieties of house music. Sonically this is very interesting, but the repetitive nature and the language barrier kept it from fully gelling for me.
     
  • Project Gemini, The Children of Scorpio– Project Gemini is guided by the musical vision of psychedelic devotee, breakbeat enthusiast, and ’70s film soundtrack lover Paul Osborne, which gives you a fair idea of what it sounds like. It’s fun and dynamic, but being all instrumental it never quite lands for me as an album in total.

  • Quelle Chris, Deathfame– There was a nice unconventionality to the music mix from this Detroit rapper, and some traces of conscious hip-hop, but it never quite gelled together in a way that helped it stand out from the low-key mellow grove it was in track to track.

  • Quinquis, Seim– I saw this described in one source as “Heavy atmospheric electronica from Breton.” That’s right, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it does tend a little ethereal and is all foreign language, so it’s hard to get it to the top of my list for the year.

  • Ravyn Lenae, Hypnos– This is a not bad debut R&B album, but also not one that really stands out. Glimmers of future promise though!

  • Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Endless Rooms– This Australian indie rock band makes nice and jangly white boy rock. It doesn’t sound especially better or different than multiple other examples of the same.

  • Sharon Van Etten, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong– There is nothing wrong with Sharon van Etten’s voice, moody music, or songwriting. The issue, I think, is that while the results can be gorgeous and moving on a single song, the songs are all so much alike that it gets difficult to sustain at album length.

  • Sigrid, How to Let Go– She’s a Norwegian pop star, which makes me smile. It’s definitely good clean fun, and sometimes rises above to energetic and arresting. Not often enough, though.

  • Sly Johnson, 55.4– My sources inform me that, “Hailing from Paris, Sylvère Johnson (Sly Johnson) is a major force on the French Hip-Hop, Soul and Jazz scenes.” And that’s what it sounds like, not in bad way, actually in a really well-produced way. But one that eventually feels a little more packaged and produced than vital and real.

  • SOAK, If I Never Know You Like This Again– This Irish singer-songwriter is certainly talented, and the confessional personal songs and genuinely emotional vocals are affecting. As is the substantive way the lyrics deal with their non-binary identification. It does end up vocally and musically in too limited of a range eventually. But it was close!

  • Soccer96, Inner Worlds– A nice electronic music album, but it eventually gets too far in the direction of post-modern lounge music.

  • Stars, From Capelton Hill– This was a little confounding- some of these songs were great pop rock redolent of different eras, some of them were haunting atmospheric ballads, and then some, at regular intervals, were overproduced shallow indie pablum. Eventually it got to be too inconsistent in this regard, but the highs were great.

  • Sunflower Bean, Headful of Sugar– When it has some verve to it this is really pretty good, but it too often goes downtempo and fuzzes together.

  • The Black Keys, Dropout Boogie– I do love me some Black Keys, and there isn’t a bad song on this album. What there is, though, is a confusing lack of pacing. Blistering shakedowns, mellower 70s style grooves seem sprinkled around at random, and the momentum keeps getting off. This is one of the ways that sometimes, a bunch of fine songs don’t add up to a good album.

  • The Chainsmokers, So Far So Good– A little pop-rock, a little electronic dance, very autotuned, please cast it into a lake of fire.

  • The Frightnrs, Always– It’s a nice mellow groove from this New York City dub/rocksteady band, but it never really catches on.

  • The Pineapple Thief, Give it Back– A nice British indie rock band, a very 2020s pop version of indie rock band, please no.

  • The Smile, A Light For Attracting Attention– I mean, it’s a collaboration between British jazz group Sons of Kemet and Thom Yorke of Radiohead- it’s a wonder I found some songs I liked. Which I did! But too many of them background faded out of existence.

  • The Stroppies, Levity– This Australian indie pop band made up of members from multiple previous bands makes music redolent of the instrumental rock & lackadaisical vocals 80s alt and 90s/00s indie schools of rock. Notwithstanding the face that I could have been listening to this at any point in the past several decades, and it does tend towards sameness at points, there is something pleasant about it. But best of year pleasant?

  • They Hate Change, Finally, New– I really do appreciate how this Tampa Bay rap duo’s music is informed as much by post punk and electronic music as hip hop. And the high level of sophisticated social commentary they have going on. It was a little all too similar track to track to really work at album length though. Still, I’d like to keep an eye on them!

  • Thomas Dollbaum, Wellswood– New Orleans-by-way-of-Florida singer/songwriter Thomas Dollbaum delivers some solid Americana here, but it’s so in one range vocally and musically track to track that the rough and tumble lyrics get lost in the muted flow.

  • Train, AM Gold– I walked into this unsure. On the one hand, I like AM Gold as a musical area. On the other, Train, well, let’s just say when you have a vibrant and innovative local music scene and the band that makes it big from your area is something as bland as Train, it kind of sticks in your craw. Turns out this album does a decent job of channeling 70s AM Gold. But it’s still Train.

  • Van Morrison, What’s It Gonna Take?– This is, musically and vocally, the best extended COVID conspiracy rant I have ever heard. Shorter than his similar album from last year, but more ranty! But the song “Fear and Self Loathing in Las Vegas” is great, I’d recommend listening to it.

  • Warpaint, Radiate Like This– A little thick sensual vocals, a little melody, a little post-punk angularity and darkness. It’s not a bad combination, but it never rises above a certain track to track sameness.

And there you have it! May review in by the last day of June. I think we have a good shot at getting June out well before the end of July. Tune in to find out!

In Search of the 22 Best Albums of 2022: March/April

Let us boldly continue with our quest for the 22 best albums of 2022! For those joining us for the first time, or in need of a refresher, I’m listening to new releases each month, and then categorizing them into “Yes”, “Maybe”, and “No”, with an eye toward eventually determining… The 22 Best Albums of 2022!

Yes, I’m combining reviews for two months again. I do hope to be caught back up to monthly installments at some point… In the meantime, you can find the previous review here:

( January/February )

And if you’re interested in previous outings of my quest to get caught up on newer music, you can check out the round-ups of my three blog series from last year reviewing the critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and 2020 , and scouring monthly new releases to choose the 21 best albums of 2021.

Got it? Good. Let’s get going! But first, a brief word about the three categories:

Yes– This is the albums that, upon first listen, I think could definitely be in running for best of the year. They still have to survive mortal combat with each other though!

Maybe– These albums have something to recommend them, but also something that gives me pause. I’m putting them in their own category, because I have found “maybes” sometimes linger and become “yeses”.

No– These are not in the running. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad! Sometimes you end up here because you’re crap. But you can also be fine, but not more than fine. Or interesting and inspired in some way, but not quite able to pull it off. Getting to yes ain’t easy!

With all that established, let’s see what was discovered in the 218 new releases from March and April that I listened to…

50 Foot Wave, Black Pearl– Full disclosure requires me to say that I love Kristin Hersh, and all her various projects over the years. And i have a particular fondness for 50 Foot Wave- There’s something to be said for the time-defying move of going blisteringly heavy decades into your career. This has everything I love about her, and this band- Snarling guitar rock, but a precision of timing and melody peeking through, and her nothing held-back vocals and evocative imagery. May I be doing this well 36 years after my initial release!

Aldous Harding, Warm Chris– Sometimes a classic 70s singer-songwriter feel, sometimes soul/R&B, sometimes sparkling with quirky traces of 80s-2000s alternative, more than a hint of Velvet Underground. Each song by this New Zealand singer-songwriter feels like it lasts longer than it does, and I mean this in a good way- the musical layers and melodic depths create space upon space inside these songs.
 

Alex Cameron, Oxy Music– A classic 80s synth sound, with some arch emotional storytelling in the lyrics (as hinted at by the punny album title). This Australian musician and singer-songwriter is best known for his solo career, a high-concept act in which he initially adopted the persona of a failed entertainer. This music lends itself to those acting skills.

Anitta, Versions of Me– This was a welcome surprise! At first I thought I might be in for another super-autotuned dance album. But this Brazilian singer, songwriter, actress, dancer, businesswoman and TV presenter (!) really brings it here- the beats get the booty moving, the grooves are catchy, and there’s a great deal of verve, personality, and point of view in the vocals and on the lyric side. It may not be the most profound thing every, but as great dance music goes- this is!

Anton Barbeau/Loud Family, What If It Works?– This collaboration between two idiosyncratic indie musicians starts off with a Rolling Stones cover that they make sound like The Jesus and March Chain, and the next is a song about making that song which sounds like Beatlesque neo-psychedelia, so that gives you some idea of the sensibility and talent on display here. Between the musical excellence, vocal snark, and lyrical cleverness, this is a delight the whole way through.

April March, In Cinerama– From the first jaunty guitar notes, swiftly joined by drums, horns, and her neo-swinging 60s vocals, this is a joy. At times carrying on in this 60s vein, at times sounding like international pop, at times shimmering with timeless harmonies, every track shines with unimpeachable excellence.
 

Astrel K, Flickering i– Kind of like if the Beatles (or maybe some of their later-day imitators a la XTC or Oasis) made an electronic album. And I mean this very positively! It is shimmering, beautiful, and surprisingly varied fun the whole way through. Astrel K is the solo project of Rhys Edwards (singer/guitarist of British band Ulrika Spacek), currently based in Stockholm, and how often do interesting musical excursions involve Scandinavia these days?

Bart Davenport, Episodes– Pop in a 60s and trippy mellow 70s songwriter vein, with more than a splash of 80s interpreters of the same (Robyn Hitchcock, the Smiths, XTC, etc.). This US Singer-songwriter has recorded in all kinds of modes. This one is freaking well done!

billy woods, Aethiopes– Dark menacing poetic flow backed by a jazz mix with discordant edges. The lyrics are heavy with history and spirituality without being heavy-handed, and the mix contains constant surprises. This New York hip-hop artist has a reputation as an outsider, and he proves it here in the best sense of the term.

Bladee & Ecco2K, Crest– Swedish rapper, singer, songwriter, record producer Bladee and British-Swedish singer, designer, model, director Ecco2K have made something pretty interesting here. High energy dance music, shimmering autotuned electronic, it’s like pop music on overdrive with just the right dash of experimental and avant garde.

Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul, Topical Dancer– Belgian-Caribbean musician Adigery has made some weird, quirky, weird, international dance music that’s topical and polemical with a sense of humor. On the music side it’s light, fluid, and full of dynamic sound effects. The lyrical sentiments are a little too on the nose sometimes, but the presentation is so tongue in cheek you can tell it’s messing with you deliberately. This reminds me, variously, of MIA, my dear departed Cibo Matto, and the Talking Heads from their African rhythms era.

Damu the Fudgemunk/Raw Poetic, Laminated Skies– This pair of Washington D.C. producers/hip-hop artists has produced a collaboration with a dense poetic flow, an intriguing jazz-inflected musical mix supporting it, and more than a hint of the conscious side of 90s hip-hop. It’s full of positive energy and I like it!

Denzel Curry, Melt My Eyez See Your Future– This album is full of fresh and rich musical mix, various vocal styles, and flow that embraces some of the more conventional sides of song structure but is still hard-hitting. There’s depth on the lyrical side as well. This Florida-born rapper invokes hip-hop greats often along the way, and it’s clear he’s learned from them while fusing it into a sound of his own.

Diving Rings, Night Palace– This Athens GA-derived band, currently out of New York, has put together a shimmering dreamscape of songs. Vocal and musically the whole thing is suffused with rich gauzy melodies, backed by intelligent and sophisticated lyrics.

Eamon, No Matter the Season– This Staten Island hip-hop/R&B artist is bringing a big fat 70s soul sound here, and I am loving it! A period piece? Maybe. But a damn well done one!

Eli “Paperboy” Reed, Down Every Road– A modern revivalist of 60s R&B covers Merle Haggard. It’s conceptually intriguing, which is nice, but how it works in practice is the key. And in practice, it works insanely well! Besides being a fun boisterous listen the whole way through, it got me thinking about the cross-genre unity behind American musical forms. And amen!

Fontaines D.C., Skinty Fia– Their album A Hero’s Death was one of my leading contenders for best album in my 2020 review (it just got squeezed out!), so I was looking forward to this. And darned if it doesn’t deliver! You’ll hear the angular heavy sound of post-punk here, but also the surging power and pathos you might associate with U2 of yesteryear. The accents are thick, which helps with the feeling of authenticity leavening the seriousness, and the lyrics are literate and emotionally complex. This Dublin band is bringing the goods.

Frog Eyes, The Bees– With occasional psychedelic flourishes, the music is emotional and driving in its spareness. But it’s the lyrics and vocal presentation that are really something! There’s deliberate melodrama and weird wit aplenty in both that stays compelling the whole way through. This album from a band from the Isle of Wight almost feels like latter-day classic Roxy Music to me. And huzzah for that! Definitely my favorite Isle of Wight band.

Ibibio Sound Machine, Electricity– This London-based DJ/live music octet combines the sounds of West African music, funk and disco, post-punk, and electronic. What they’ve produced in this album is muscular, heavy, funky and groovy, and lead singer Eno Williams has a vocal and personality presence that powerfully pulls it together and pushes it along as well! This really shows the best of fertile cross-pollination that club music can bring about.

Jenny Hval, Classic Objects– The music is shimmering, sophisticated, and controlled. The same sense of beautiful but brittle is present in the vocals. And I mean this not as a criticism of either, in fact they’re the perfect platform for supporting the spell the intelligent lyrics weave. This is what happens when you get a Norwegian singer-songwriter who’s also a novelist. It reminds me of Laurie Anderson and the way her artistic sensibilities shape everything about the music, though musically and vocally Hval is more accessible. Accessible and philosophically artistic is not a bad combination!

Jon Spencer & the HITmakers, Spencer Gets It Lit– Jon Spencer has made gloriously raw blues-punk in various bands since the late 80s, and this album finds him in excellent form. It’s loud, it’s heavy, somewhat sleazy and sinister, pretty much everything you could hope rock still can be.

Kae Tempest, The Line is a Curve– The descriptor “UK poet, rapper, playwright, and novelist” could have gone a lot of different ways, but the way it’s gone here is pretty stunning. Her plainspoken vocal delivery, muted musical background, and tales of working-class life and deep interior feelings create an experience that lingers long after it’s done.

Lyrics Born, Mobile Homies: Season 1–  I hear “Tokyo-born Bay Area rapper” and I’m favorably predisposed, so it’s so much the better that this COVID-born mix-tape is actually fresh and delightful! It’s composed of collaborations with friends interspersed with interviews he did with them for his podcast. The mix is surprising and unusual, beats and refrains catchy, and lyrics full of both humor and serious import.
 

Miranda Lambert, Palomino– I like Miranda Lambert’s version of country, and here she’s delivering muscular minor chords, sharp vocals, and smart and swagger-filled lyrics. The country is straight-up enough to give the pop depth, the pop hooky enough to keep it rolling, chock full of sly references to a range of American music, and there’s even a through story of sorts about a trip across the Southwest in search of- Herself? A good cowboy? American life? Her Marfa Tapes collaboration was one of my favorites of 2021, and here she is again showing contemporary country what it can still do if it just tries!

My Idea, Cry Mfer– Lily Konigsberg of Brooklyn band Palberta had her 2020 solo debut produced by fellow indie rocker Nate Amos of Water From Your Eyes. The two became friends, leading to this collaborative album between them. Both Palberta and a solo album from Konigsberg were high on my 2021 contenders list, and this album has a lot of the “why” for that on good display. Her pop rock instincts are impeccable, but while melodies proceed so sweetly, the lyrics are archly subversive, and the music is loaded with experimental touches and indie grit and verve. The whole ends up far exceeding its already excellent parts. I want more Lily!
  

Orville Peck, Bronco– Minor chords, echoey crooning vocals, a surf-music and rockabilly-influenced take on country. Sometimes so straight-up it’s almost on the edge of parody, but darned if it doesn’t work! Orville Peck is now my favorite South African country musician based in Canada who wears a fringed mask and never shows his face publicly.

Particle Kid, Time Capsule– This is extraordinary! For reference, Particle Kid is the band of Willie Nelson’s youngest child, Micah, who describes what he does as “experimental future-folk”. I think that’s not inaccurate, but it undersells the creative kaleidoscope on display here. You’ll find, alternately, experimental electronic, things that sound like they come from some strain or another of the 90s (grunge, shoegaze, melodic pop-rock), psychedelia, and more than the occasional moment that put me in mind of Neil Young in the 70s. Behind it, though, there’s some kind of unity of spirit and overarching structure that holds this all together. For an hour and 45 minutes!
 

Pastor Champion, I Just Want To Be a Good Man– Itinerant preacher Pastor Wylie Champion wandered California preaching and playing an electric guitar. David Byrne’s label Luaka Bop happened to come across a video of him playing in a church in Oakland, and, after reaching out, recorded a set of his live playing before his death in 2018. As an album origin story, this sounds amazing. The great news is that the spare, powerful, and raw electric gospel it contains lives up to the story.

Pictish Trail, Island Family– Fuzzy rock. Weird trippy rock. Philosophical rock. Pictish Trail is the pseudonym of Scottish musician Johnny Lynch, and his brand of electronic folk pulls you in. I’m occasionally a little unsure about the sameness of the groove throughout, but it remains compelling and often musically surprising.
 

PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project: The Demos– This is the raw demos of her 2016 album by the same name. PJ Harvey always makes one stand up and take note, and, as with other demo versions she’s released, there’s a stripped-down power and immediacy to these that enhances what were already powerful songs.

Ry Cooder/Taj Mahal, Get On Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee– Two later day blues greats, now elders in their own right, cover songs from 50s-60s folk blues powerhouses Terry-McGhee. The source material is great, the playing raucously gorgeous, and the vocals gloriously ragged and natural-feeling. There isn’t anything here not to love!

Sofi Tukker, Wet Tennis– Sexy, sometimes sinister, and spare dance music with clear vocals and surprising mix details from the New York-based dance duo of Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern. Hawley-Weld’s warm voice, and lyrics that paint emotionally evocative stories combine with the music to make the whole thing a cut above. Dance music will always be with us. May it always be this good!

The Linda Lindas, Growing Up– Energetic power-pop-punk from a girl group? I gotta love it. I gotta! In this case they’re also multi-cultural and tackling sexism and racism with wit and verve, so the love is multiplied.

Wednesday, Mowing the Leaves Instead of Piling ’Em Up– This Asheville North Carolina band is a delight! The whole thing reads as a country album played in the style of noise rock (or maybe the other way around?). As if to prove that point, this is a cover album paying tribute to their influences, ranging from straight-up country to Vic Chesnutt and the Smashing Pumpkins.

Wet Leg, Wet Leg– I got a 90s vibe from this Isle of Wight band with their lackadaisical vocal style, stop-and-start dynamics, and jarring guitar notes. It’s also often lyrically hilarious, packed with sexualized innuendo, and snark about band life and boys on the scene. Wet Leg is now my new favorite Isle of Wight band! Sorry Frog Eyes, it was a short reign for you.

Willie Nelson, A Beautiful Time– This isn’t always the freshest sounding (my 72nd studio album probably wouldn’t be either!), but it is like finely burnished metal. The music is authentic, the vocals are appropriately worn and weary, and it’s full of meditations on time, mortality, and gratitude for life lived. I hope I’m still producing anything nearly this good, in any field, as I’m closing in on 90.

Yumi Zouma, Present Tense– Some bright clear melodic pop, with layers of rich dark feeling vocally and musically. It’s not the most profound thing every, but this New Zealand band has made a really charming little album.

Maybe

  • Astrid Øster Mortensen, Skærgårdslyd– Denmark-born, Sweden-based musician, who describes their work as “folk field recordings”. This 4-track production mixes vocal harmonies, sounds of nature, and spare synth sounds for an effect that is uncanny, but also weirdly exultant. It embodies the feelings of the turning of seasons. More experimental than I usually go, but I think this is a maybe!

  • Band of Horses, Things Are Great– This Seattle band knows its melodic rock hooks, and yearning lyrics and vocals. There was a hint of pre-fab to the sound, but darned if doesn’t work.

  • BÖRN, Drottningar Dauðans– Icelandic female metal! I’m conceptually sold going in. And from there, delightfully, it mostly works! The songs are, in a way, in the orchestral/ornamented side of metal, but delivered at such a blistering pace (9 songs in under a half hour) and with such vocal urgency that it comes off almost like punk. The only thing keeping it from “yes” is the lyrics being entirely in Icelandic, and the production being a tad too clean to really unleash the wildness here. Also of note: Their name means “Queens of Death”. If you’re not in love, I don’t understand why.  (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)

  • Camila Cabello, Familia– This may not be the most profound thing ever (and to be fair, she’s only in her mid-20s), but darned if this Cuban-American singer/songwriter’s mix of catchy dance pop, Cuban influences, and a flair for emotionally revealing lyrical twists doesn’t work!
     
  • Camp Cope, Running With the Hurricane– I think I may have to add Aussiess and Kiwis to Canadians and Scandinavians on my “potential saviors of rock” list. This Australian band is presenting some surging guitar rock. There are moments that musically remind me of, variously, U2, Joy Division, the Cure, and current indie rock hits. The vocals are strong enough to keep up with the music, but with a hint of vulnerable plainness when they slow down. It can lean a little to the formulaic, but they are making pretty damn good use of the formula.
     
  • Caracara, New Preoccupations– This kept being on the edge for me, so I guess it’s a maybe by definition. At its best moments, its atmospheric moody rock, darkly charging and surging guitars and yearning vocals are entrancing. At worst, it feels a little too pre-packaged in the 90s grunge-afterburn emotional cresting waves it affects, and that’s not a bad at worst. So, slightly against my better judgement, I find myself digging what this Philadelphia band is putting down.

  • Congotronics International, Where’s the one?– This is a supergroup uniting several members of the Congolese groups Konono No. 1 and Kasai Allstars as well as experimental rock artists Deerhoof, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Matt Mehlan (of Skeletons), and Juana Molina. I really enjoyed last year’s Kasai Allstars album, and appreciate the way Congolese music both derives from, and contributes back to, Western Hemisphere musical forms. Also, Deerhoof is one of my favorite contemporary bands. So I go in intrigued, and this well re-pays that interest. The Congolese poly-rhythms and the experimental bent from the collaborators fit together extremely well in ways both intriguing and fun. I have some length concerns (it comes in at over an hour), but this bears repeated listening.

  • Cowboy Junkies, Songs of the Recollection– An album of covers by the group that first came to (alternative) fame with their torch song take on alt country in the 80s. They have truly burnished into a bluesy, bruised power with age, and these are excellent covers- honoring the original, but bringing the band’s own take to them. It does tend a little toward sameness by the end, but it’s gorgeous along the way.
  • Dale Watson, Jukebox Fury– A modern master of good old-fashioned honky-tonk and the Bakersfield sound covers an array of pop, rock, and country gems from the 70s? I mean, of course I’m going to be a fool for this! It is, in a sense, twice not original, but also, it’s so straight-up natural feeling and well done.

  • Ditz, The Great Regression– Musically the heavy, bruising grunge-flavored post-punk of this Brighton band is really working for me. But the sometimes-atonal shouted vocals school of vocals is…problematic. Sometimes the vocals work well with the music though. I kept going back and forth, so I guess it is, by definition, a maybe.

  • DJ Travella, Mr Mixondo– As you know if you’ve been reading this regularly, being electronic and practically lyric-free, this was going to be a hard sell for me. But Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania DJ Travella’s mixes are so over the top hyper-energetic and inventive I have to say maybe. Score one for the Tanzania club scene!

  • Dopplereffekt, Neurotelepathy– This Detroit electronic music outfit has been active since the 90s, and they’ve apparently had many style shifts over that time. Here they’re hearkening back to a classic very computery futuristic electronic sound. That, and titles like “Epigenetic Modulation” and “Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation” should give you some idea what you’re in for here. Call me crazy but I think it works. Still hard to latch onto with almost no lyrics to speak of, but it’s a good example of how fun electronic can be in the right hands.

  • Ghost, Impera– Swedish metal? I’m preemptively in! And this is exuberantly delivered, it reminds me of British new wave metal in its clean bright musicianship. Still a little miffed at contemporary music for being mostly retreads of prior eras, but if it’s going to happen, let’s have some good ones.

  • Guided by Voices, Crystal Nuns Cathedral– Guided by Voices are always good, always different, and bizarrely prolific. This particular album seems to be drawing on metal, prog, and stadium rock for its influences. Metal chord progressions are a cheap way to get my attention. But darn if it isn’t effective! It does feel like it peters out a little toward the end, which is about my only reservation.

  • Haru Nemuri, Shunka Ryougen– Frenetic pop with an experimental edge and some outright excursions into noise pop from this Japanese singer, songwriter, and “poetry rapper”. A lot of it is in Japanese, which, to be sure, makes it harder to understand, but the feeling, the intelligence, and the attitude come through.

  • Joshua Hedley, Neon Blue– Hedley is hearkening back to some old-style Bakersfield/Outlaw country sounds and bless him for it! It occasionally sounds a little cliché or rote, but it is just as often energetic and charming.

  • Kurt Vile, (watch my moves)– The low-key melody, the burned-out wit, the slacker undertow here is a beautiful thing to behold. It was a little overlong at past an hour and without enough tone switches song to song, but musically, lyrically and vocally it was working for me. I’ve seen him described as a “dazed and confused update on roots rock” and I say, “Amen!”

  • PUP, The Unraveling of Puptheband– Snotty teen diy punk band? (Note one does not need to be a teen to be a snotty teen diy punk band.) Edgy provocateurs a la Jello Biafra? Hilarious conceptual artists pulling a fast one? All yes! The musical approach isn’t always the freshest (though it’s good clean noise) and I’m not totally convinced the concept album frame about the band trying to turn itself into a corporation totally comes together, but it does warm the heart!

  • Romero, Turn It On!– Starting full-out rocking from the get-go is a good way to get me! As is a female-led band, and one with good knowledge of how to work its guitar chord changes. This Australian band reminds me a little of Blondie and the Go-Gos in their sound, and if it’s not the most original thing ever (my one hesitation) it is a very well-done version of it.

  • Rosalia, Motomami– Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalía’s third album has been generating a lot of buzz, and deservedly so. In some respects, it’s not an unusual 2020’s soul/dance album with its mix of ballads, dance music, and hip-hop, but every track delivers surprising moments, and it’s bristling with quirky energy and personality. It’s also a musical kaleidoscope, which can be dazzling, but works against coherence. This, the more conventional moments, and the fact that it’s largely in Spanish have me hedging, but the general excellence pulls me forward…

  • SAVAK, Human Error/Human Delight– This prolific indie rock supergroup starts off with a song called “No Blues No Jazz” so you may have some idea where they’re coming from. And they then proceed blisteringly through bell-ringing rock that pulls out all the tricks of the instrument-based alt-80s and indie rock 90s-00s. It may not all be the freshest sound ever, but it gets the blood moving.

  • The Crystal Method, The Trip Out– Holy 90s flashback! The Crystal Method does a school of electronic I quite like, and I can understand why listening to this- it’s muscular, and also hews in some ways to “normal” song structure, while still having the driving energy and sci-fi flourishes of techno. Is it a little dated-sounding? Maybe. But it also kept my head bouncing the whole time. Maybe!

  • The High Strung, HannaH– This Detroit band recorded these songs off the cuff in 2002 during downtime while making another album. Some really good 60s-sounding pop/psychedelia as interpreted through 80s/90s guitar-fuzzed alt rock. Melody, vocals, instrumentation are all so bright! Is it a little old? Yes. Is it a profoundly new sound? No, not even at the time. But so well done, especially for being composed on the fly just to fill time!

  • Tomberlin, i don’t know who needs to hear this…– This American folk musician and singer-songwriter based in Louisville, Kentucky is never not affecting, but I do wonder if it’s all too of a tone to work at its 50-minute length. But the depth and power behind the quietude of her songs is inarguable.

  • Toro y Moi, Mahal– Wikipedia tells me “Chaz Bundick, known professionally as Toro y Moi, is an American singer, songwriter, record producer, and graphic designer. He is often recognized as a spearhead of the chillwave genre in the 2010s”. I’m telling you that this is a fascinating pastiche of swirls and styles of electronic music, deadpan lyrics about life, and intriguing sound effects. It’s not a totally easy listen, but it’s often a fun one, and always an interesting one. 
     
  • U.S. Highball, A Parkhead Cross of the Mind– Glasgow-based two-piece band with a bright and cheery feeling redolent of 60s pop, pub rock, and the jangly side of alt 80s. It feels a little same as it goes on, but it’s a very pleasant ride along the way!

  • Vince Staples, Ramona Park Broke My Heart– I really though Vince Staples was a country guy, but he is most decidedly a hip-hop guy. Great classic sounding R&B mix, an interesting almost lackadaisical vocal style, and surprising storytelling and sound effect flourishes. That’s all on the plus side, it does delve into autotune a little too often, and is kind of thematically conventional. But I never turned it off, and it’s lingering…

  • Widowspeak, The Jacket– Dreamy yearning vocals against a shimmering guitar wall with just the right edge of feedback. Is it that different from, say, Mazzy Star? No. Does it still work on me like a sucker? Yes!

  • Wolfgang Flur, Magazine 1– Some very old-style electronica, hearkening to the 70s Kraftwerk school.  But wait, that’s no accident! Flur was a member of the group from 1973-1987. A little dated sounding, but the amount of spontaneity, exuberance and humor he brings to it really sparkles.

No

  • Alex G, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)– The ambient pieces within eventually tipped it away from working for me, but this was closer than any experimental sometimes deliberately grating film score has a right to come to being a workable album!

  • Axel Boman, Luz/Quest for Fire– This is a smart and interesting electronic music mix, but a little too abstract and fade into background to really work as an album.

  • Barrie, Barbara– Mellow indie rock on the border of acoustic and electronic. It’s not bad, and there are moments where it really kicks in, but mostly it is kind of all the same, both internally and compared to other albums like this.

  • Ben Marc, Glass Effect– Producer and multi-instrumentalist at the leading edge of the UK jazz scene, and indeed it is too jazzy and low key electronic for me, although there are spoken word portions I quite liked.

  • Benny the Butcher, Tana Talk 4– I do like Benny, and there’s some great lyrical content here, but the flow and mix is often a little too muted to have it work for the full length of the album.

  • Bloc Party, Alpha Games– 00s flashback! Bloc party is still in pretty good shape in their first studio album in 6 years. I’m not hearing a lot that’s especially new or different, but we could do lots worse.

  • Blue States, World Contact Day– If you name your album after a line from a Carpenters song about alien contact, I’m listening. Alas, it’s good shimmery shoegaze, but doesn’t really stand out track to track.

  • Bodega, Broken Equipment– It’s got an off-kilter post-punk/new wave feel, and a pounding vocal assault. The musical side feels pretty fresh, but the lack of change in vocal tone started to drag it down after a while.

  • Bonnie Raitt, Just Like That…– Look, Bonnie Raitt isn’t going to make a bad album. So, this isn’t bad, but it is too glossily produced, and not rising enough above her comfortable middle.

  • Brad Mehldau, Jacob’s Ladder– Some very interesting electronic music here, sometimes quite lively and interesting, but too often tending toward lulled into over-quiet or a little too experimental to be listenable.

  • Calexico, El Mirador– I do dig the space these indie rock veterans inhabit, with its crossing of country and Latin American. And this is a solid example of it, but I don’t know that it rises above that.

  • Charli XCX, Crash– Her 2020 album how I’m feeling now made my top 20 list for that year, so I was looking forward to this. And it is good dance music, and good dance music is good, but it did seem a little too all in one vein as it wore on. Still, you wouldn’t mind having this playing in the club, or in your car on the way there.

  • Chris Janson, All In– As pop country goes, this isn’t a bad version. It still feels rather pre-fab, but is delivered with some genuine exuberance. There is a great song about doing a crime (revenge for a cheating heart) and disposing of the body in the Mississippi- if there had been more of that kind of storytelling throughout, it might have won me over.

  • Christian Lee Hutson, Quitters– A very nice, densely lyrical acoustic set, but it does blend into sameness after a while.

  • Chrome Canyon, Director– This emulation of 80s synth soundtracks was just a little too on the low key/ambient side of electronic for me. How did they trick me into listening to this? The 80s. It was the 80s.

  • Claire Rousay, sometimes i feel like i have no friends– Okay, this is a single 28-minute track album, and I knew going in that a lot of it was composed of ambient background sounds. But the title and the idea of what the artist was trying to accomplish had me hooked. And there is something genuinely engaging, and haunting, about her the juxtaposition of her philosophical musings on friendship with the background outdoor sounds. But with the big “dead zones” that are purely background sounds, I don’t know that it would stand up to repeated listening.  (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)

  • CMAT, If My Wife New I’d Be Dead– Dublin artist Ciara Mary Alice Thompson has a great presence, and I really appreciate her countrified take on dance music. However, the musical side of it does start to all blend together before too long.
     
  • Colin Hay, Now and the Evermore– I did love Men at Work in the 80s, and remain a fan of their smart but peppy school of rock. Hay is in good form here with contemplative melancholy vocals, but it has the over-produced sound of 80s afterburn.

  • Confidence Man, Tilt– As fun high-energy dance mixes go, this isn’t a bad one! It is a little musically simple, though. And is it a “will remember the album in a year and still want to listen to it” album?

  • Dana Gavanski, When it Comes– I don’t mind twee and dreamy, but this was a little too twee and dreamy in too low-key a vein for the most part. There were edgier more angular moments that were interesting.

  • Daniel Rossen, You Belong There– A nice and torchy set of songs. But too mellow and same track to track to stand out and work at length.

  • David West, Jolly in the Bush– David West is a very talented musical chameleon. on this release, he’s doing jangly slightly anguished white boy rock that would have been very home on alt radio in the 80s or 90s. It’s a fine example of what it is, but not sure there’s something new or “above and beyond” enough here to really stand out. Sorry Cousin David!

  • Dedicated Men of Zion, The Devil Don’t Like It– This album by a North Carolina gospel group mines 70s funk and soul sounds for their take on gospel classics. It never sounds, in that sense, fresh and original. It does sound soulful, though, and is well-done, if a little smooth for its own good.

  • Deer Scout, Woodpecker– A sometimes quirky acoustic lo-fi outing from the Brooklyn group by way of Philly. It has an inherent charm that carried me through quite a ways, but eventually succumbs to its low energy level and sameness.

  • Destroyer, Labyrinthitis– Dan Bejar’s Canadian rock band Destroyer gets up to all kinds of things, and here is getting up to an 80s alt synth overdrive- you’ll hear hints throughout of the poppier side of synthpop, of New Order, the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, maybe the Church and Bauhaus too. I would have LOVED this in 1986! I still really like it, but I think it’s a little too museum piece to totally work.

  • Devil Master, Ecstasies of Never Ending Night– I like the production note that it was recorded live to analog tape, but mostly this metal was a little too on the orchestral/technical side for me.

  • Dianne Coffee, With People– This project of Foxygen’s Shaun Fleming takes its notes both from synth pop and the mellow gold of 70s radio. The mix is always pleasant, and occasionally it’s both quirky and super catchy. If there had been more of those moments, it might have made it for me, but equally often it’s a little too mellow fuzzed-out.

  • Diplo, Diplo– Some exemplar half mellow half energy 2020’s autotune dance pop. Please bury it in a deep, deep hole.

  • Duke Robillard, They Call It Rhythm and Blues– Former Fabulous Thunderbird Robillard is a living channeler of classic rock and blues forms, and this is very much a conscious attempt to evoke the original R&B sound of the 50s and 60s. At its best it sounds spontaneously in that vein, but sometimes more like a too slick recreation.

  • Duster, Together– Slowcore low-fi making a beautiful gauzy noise with just the right touch of dark and heavy. It really is giving me a 90s feeling, and I’m tempted, but I think ultimately is too all in one vein track to track.

  • Duwap Kaine, A Dogg’s Influence– Some fun and verve here in this hip-hop artist making a mixtape catering to his influences, but wayyyy toooo muccchhhhh autotuneeeeeeee.(Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)

  • Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, Nightclub Daydreaming– I’m pretty sure that Jim Morrison faked his death, and that this album is by the elder Morrison. Or maybe it’s just the sometimes Buahausian moody crooning that’s getting to me, because it gets weirder and more diverse from there, and I am informed it’s a Baltimore experimental duo. Really good, but the vein is too similar track to track and too familiar in ways to really make the album come together.

  • Eiko Ishibashi, For McCoy– “Japanese experimental artist records album inspired by her favorite character from Law & Order” is a great concept. It ends up, perhaps not surprisingly, being a little too abstract.

  • El Ten Eleven, New Year’s Eve– This Los Angeles duo is kicking out something somewhere between rock instrumental and electronic. It’s full of sinuous grooves and bass. All instrumental, and a little same track to track, so I’m not sure it works for me as an album, but there is some worthy work here!

  • Emily Wells, Regards to the End– It’s a little Kate Bushian, a little Florence and the Machinian, but too ethereal for me to really settle into it. (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)

  • Erasers, Constant Connection– It’s got a very chilly 80s synth feeling, not badly done as such, but not doing a lot more than that either.

  • Father John Misty, Chloë and the Next 20th Century– This was a very interesting set of songs from the good Father (aka singer-songwriter Joshua Michael Tillman). Driven by a high concept of a cycle of stories on love lost in the wilds of Southern California and often deliberately going for a campy and glitzy vein, they really evoked the feeling of standards and show tunes. The high concept and lyrical storytelling definitely catch one’s attention, but it felt to me like the musical side of it sometimes deflated this. I can’t say it totally came together as something that worked, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for ambitious messes!

  • Flock of Dimes, Head of Roses: Phantom Limb– A series of outtakes and covers from the preparation of their album Head of Roses. It’s good material, but a little too all in one mellow acoustic vein to stand out.

  • Fly Anakin, Frank– You know with the artist’s name that this Star Wars fan is going to try to like the album. And I do like it! There’s pleasing flow, smooth musical mixing, clever and positive rhymes. But I don’t know that I hear anything dynamic or varied or impactful enough here to take it to “top 10% of things I’ll listen to” territory.

  • Frontperson, Parade– This Vancouver group’s work is redolent with synth sounds and romantic melody, but it all feels a bit too chilly to fully engage.

  • Fucked Up, Do All Words Can Do– Each of these songs feels like it has two rock songs worth of energy shoved into it! After a while it’s too the same track to track, but this Canadian hardcore band is scrappy!

  • Future, I Never Liked You– Veryyyyyy autotuneddddd hip-hoppppppp.

  • Gabriel Kahamne, Magnificent Bird– It’s got good concept going for it- chronicling the artist’s year off of the whole internet. And the lyrics are dizzyingly literate and clever, with nuanced music backing it. Ultimately, though, the folk electronic musical vein is too low key and similar track to track to really sustain it at album length.

  • George is Lord, My Sweet George– As you might guess from the album/band name, this is a bunch of George Harrison enthusiasts. While I love covers, I’m leery of cover bands. That being said, these are really charming renditions of a set of Harrison Beatles and solo songs. Some of them a little too straight up, but some of them taking new approaches to the songs. It’s not best of year territory, but if you’re feeling the Harrison homage, you could do worse!

  • Ghost Power, Ghost Power– This instrumental electronic pop project of Stereolab’s Tim Gane and Dymaxion’s Jeremy Novak was very pleasing, especially early on as the high-energy and sci-fi sounds really hit. After a while it started to get too often in an orchestral/muzak vein.

  • Good Looks, Bummer Year– This is a solid alt country sound, on the minor chord side. Well played, strong emotion in the vocals, enough rock/pop hooks to work, but it doesn’t really rise above the pack of similar sounding bands/albums.

  • Guerilla Toss, Famously Alive– Gauzy dance electronic, on the shoegazy side of rock. It’s fun and energetic, but all feels a little too amorphous to coalesce properly as an album.

  • Harvey Sutherland, Boy– This electronic music album had its moments, but was mostly too much in elevator muzak jazz territory.

  • Hatchie, Giving the World Away– There are some individual songs here that catch on with their mix of 90s-sounding power pop and dance music. On balance not often enough to cohere as an album, but I would keep my eye on her!

  • HEALTH, DISCO4 :: Pt. II– Interesting, sometimes grating, electronic music. It has verve, but I don’t know that it adds up to a durable lasting album.

  • High Pulp, Pursuit of Ends– It’s pretty lively, it’s good in its way, it’s instrumental jazz, and, eh.

  • Hinako Omori, A Journey…– Sometimes an album by a Japanese artist inspired by forest bathing sounds interesting in theory, but in practice is too abstract and almost-ambient to work at length.

  • Hoodoo Gurus, Chariot of the Gods– I saw the Hoodoo Gurus when they opened for the Bangles during their 1986 tour. I also read Chariots of the Gods and related books devotedly as a kid. Possibly, both factors are neither here nor there. It turns out that the Hoodoo Gurus remain as solid a band as they were then, straddling the line between pub rock and alt. It turns out that Chariots of the Gods was almost entirely bullshit. In any case, the album is solid but not outstanding, and ancient alien contact is an idea awaiting evidence, but not inherently absurd.

  • Hook, From, Hook– I don’t feel like it ultimately worked in terms of being sustainable, but this electronic music-flavored hip hop with a snarky alt punk attitude was interesting. Kudos to experimenters! (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)

  • Horace Andy, Midnight Rocker– One of the last of the old school Reggae greats, and he’s showing up in good, if rather mellow form here. It doesn’t quite come together or stand out as an album, but is full of some fine sounds.

  • Hygiene, Drug Church– Hardcore band from Albany with more than a hint of grunge feel. I was down with this musically, but it did end up being a little too same track to track musically and vocally after a while.

  • Isik Kural, In February– It’s nice and chimey and strummy and mellow and has some interesting sound effects. All very pleasant, but I don’t know that it leaves a lasting impression.

  • Jack White, Fear of the Dawn– I don’t know that Jack White could make bad music if he tried. What he can do, as he did sometimes with the White Stripes, is make an album where his thematic conceits and musical experimentation don’t quite come together as a whole. Packed with good stuff, and a half dozen directions that could have succeeded, but the massed weight of the zig zag keeps it from coming together. Still, if you’re a fan of his (and if you aren’t, why not?!?!) you won’t mind spending some time with it.
     
  • Jake Xerxes Fussell, Good and Green Again– Some really pretty good acoustic folk, but it veers a little too much into musical and vocal sameness after a while.

  • Jane Inc, Faster Than I Can Take– One might call this indie dance music? It’s fairly thin and unremarkable at what it does, though.

  • Japanese Television, Space Fruit Vineyard– This instrumental surf album with an electronic music slant is good clean fun, but it doesn’t end up going a lot beyond that.

  • Jason Aldean, Georgia– As pop country goes, this isn’t a bad version, in fact is taking the whole thing pretty seriously and injecting some unusual touches, but it’s still subject to the pre-fab pro-forma feeling of the genre.

  • Jeanines, Don’t Wait for a Sign– Pop-rock girl groups are my happy place, and if they can pump out songs less than two minutes long on average, I love that too! So, really liking this, but the production does sound a little flat or thin somehow. It’s almost there.

  • Jensen McRae, Are You Happy Now?– The best parts of this are very affecting and idiosyncratic. Other parts are too slickly produced and lose the directness and even harrowing vulnerability that makes the best tracks work, and all the pieces don’t quite fit together. Even if these fifteen tracks don’t quite come together as an album in total, though, there is gold in there (check out, for example, “Wolves” or “White Boy”). This 24-year-old bears watching!

  • Jeremy Ivey, Invisible Pictures– Classic 70s rock with a psychedelic/Beatles twist. Well done but feels a little too museum/prefab. May have something to do with musical energy level not selling it.

  • Jerry Paper, Free Time– I appreciated the eclecticism and sense of humor behind this, but the sound too often verged toward the lounge/easy listening side of the road for me to really engage.

  • Jewel, Freewheelin’ Woman– I was/am a big fan of Jewel’s first three albums, so I went in to this curious. She’s in pretty good form here, mostly coming from a country direction, but with some jazz, pop, and dance highlights. It doesn’t quite get a lot beyond “good” to what I know can be her “great” though.

  • Joe Satriani, The Elephants of Mars– If you want an instrumental album of well-played ornate guitar rock to lay back and groove to, this is for you!

  • Jorge Dexler, Tinta y Tiempo– As pop from Uruguayan artists goes, this is my favorite! It has a nice eclecticism of styles, but the language and occasional detours into worldbeat easy listening keeps it totally from clicking for me.

  • Joy Guidry, Radical Acceptance– I really like what this album is doing in terms of tackling body, gender, and sexuality acceptance, and the experimental approach it takes with spoken word and music. Ironically, the problem is too much music, too often in ambient or jazz veins, and not enough word! (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)

  • Jwords, Self-Connection– It’s an unusual synth-inflected hip-hop mix, but a little too low key to totally work. (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)

  • Kaina, It Was a Home– A vocally nice mellow sunny soul-flavored album. But it doesn’t rise above the track-to-track mellow groove often enough to stand out.

  • Kathryn Joseph, For You Who Are the Wronged– Scottish singer-songwriter’s album is vocally beautiful, but all in one vein and musically a little too mellow to click in.

  • Kehlani, Blue Water Road– There is considerable merit to this singer/songwriter’s R&B album, but it dips too often into autotune musically and vocally.

  • King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Omnium Gatherum– I do like me some King Gizzard, and of course their whole point with them is experimental range and being unafraid to take a deep dive into flights of lunacy. That given, opening with an 18-minute psyche jam piece is a bold move, but darned if it doesn’t kind of work. Many highs and surprises, but also many lulls, so things do feel a little unfocused here, though, which is hard to keep up for an hour and twenty. Still, salute to the ambitious chance takers!

  • Koffee, Gifted– I really enjoyed a lot about this young Jamaican singer/rapper/deejay’s album. On the best tracks her vocals are strong and bare and there’s a spareness to the backing beats and musical samples that ends up imparting a lot of power. It ended up veering too often into autotune though, bleeding this power.

  • Koloah, Serenity– Its heart is in the right place, being a benefit for Ukraine recorded by a Ukrainian DJ in transit. The ambient approach of the music just doesn’t land with me, though.

  • Leon Vynehall, Fabric Presente Leon Vynehall– British artist and producer who produces some fine experimental club/electronic music. But at a run length of almost 80 minutes, well…

  • Let’s Eat Grandma, Two Ribbons– This is really the sweetest thing- an album of love songs toward one’s best friend, from two childhood friends. It’s beautiful, conceptually and musically, but does fuzz too much into a track-to-track sameness to continuously work at album length.

  • Letting Up Despite Great Faults, IV– It’s mellow, it’s shimmery, it’s synthy. Meh.

  • Lightning in a Twilight Hour, Overwintering– It’s chimey and moody and mellow with a sometimes-electric end, but I’m not sure it leaves enough of an impression.

  • Lola Kirke, Lady For Sale– When this pop-country outing leans more toward country, and embraces her funnier impulses, it’s gold. When it leans more to pop, and is more conventional, it’s okay. So, I wish there had been more of the former, but I will keep an eye on her!

  • Loop, Sonancy– Spacy, driving, fuzzy distorted music from this British band that dates back to the 80s. It has some energy, but without lyrics and given the sameness track-to-track, it’s not compelling at album length.

  • Lucius, Second Nature– Their euro disco-revival sound is really pretty nice for a while, but it fades into sameness eventually.

  • Luna Li, Duality– This Toronto multi-instrumentalist is a lovely vocalist and talented musician. Things here are in an orchestral/dreamy pop vein, but it all blends together in a way in fails to grab me as an album. She is more than worth keeping an eye on, though!

  • Machine Gun Kelly, Mainstream Sellout– Let me see if I got this right: White rapper from Cleveland in the midst of becoming pop punk. It is very 2000s pop-punk, complete with production from a Blink-182 alum. And it is a well-done example of that, but not a terribly original or standout one.

  • Maren Morris, Humble Quest– There are some moments here that transcend nice pop country (with a strong tilt toward the pop end of that equation) to something more authentic and dynamic feeling. In the end, though, not enough.

  • Maylee Todd, Maloo– I do appreciate the archly intelligent lyrics, and the quirky sound effects that populate her virtual reality-inspired album, but it ends up being all too one tone musically and vocally.

  • Melody’s Echo Chamber, Emotional Eternal– Some fine shimmery billowy pop, but a little too heliumated, and mostly too same.

  • Meshuggah, Immutable– Orchestral rock with screamy death voice vocals. Not a badly done version of it, but, eh…

  • Midlake, For the Sake of Bethel Woods– Moody vocals and music that weave a spell heavy on trippy hazy 70s flower power and prog rock, and not bad, but in the end it’s a little too high on production and low on feeling of vitality.

  • Mike Campbell & the Dirty Knobs, External Combustion– Dirty bar rock with strong traces of country and southern rock. It more than occasionally reminds me of Tom Petty. This is an intersection I have a lot of love for, but something about it feels a little pre-fab to me, not fully “there”. It’s a subtle, ghostly, difference, but what to do?

  • Mindi Abair, Forever– Tinged by country, redolent with a heartland rock feeling, bluesy and brassy. Saxophonist, vocalist, author Mindi Abair definitely has the chops. Eventually it got to be a little too smooth jazz for me, just lacking a raw and authentic spark that would have set it apart.

  • Munya, Voyage to Mars– Some dreamy shimmery pop from the Quebec-based Josie Boivin. It doesn’t stand out a lot at album length, but it is very well done, with the cover of the Smashing Pumpkins “Tonight, Tonight” being a special stand-out.

  • Nilüfer Yanya, Painless– Sophisticated international pop of the borderline between dance and rock variety. It’s not bad, at all, but it never really stands out.

  • North Mississippi Allstars, Set Sail– The slightly countrified bluesy vein it starts off in really works for me, but then it gets more indistinct, and too polished later.

  • Oceanator, Nothings Ever Fine– This winning mix of guitar-crunching angst and shades of 80s rock was headed straight for “yes” until it ended with two long down-tempo songs in a row.

  • Old Crow Medicine Show, Paint This Town– I do like me a Medicine Show, and Old Crow is one of my favorite kinds of Medicine Show. That being said, a lot of this ends up feeling a pinch rote and aiming for the middle, only occasionally opening up to the timeless mythic and utterly sincere space that they can reach. This may be because only one original member is left, and he’s gone for a more muscular musical sound. It’s not bad, but it’s not best.

  • Omar Apollo, Ivory– At times I wasn’t sure if this wanted to be an emo album, but I think it mostly wanted to be an autotuned 2020s soul album. I did not want it to be this combination of things.

  • Organ Tapes, Chang Zhe Na Wu Ren Wen Jin De Ge Yao– Church organ-influenced electronic underground music? I’m intrigued enough to listen! And it is an interesting sound, though I think it doesn’t sustain at album length as it gets both too experimental and too fuzzy/blurry.

  • Oso Oso, Sore Thumb– Long Beach indie rocker sets a certain expectation for me, then I feel confounded that it’s Long beach, NY, which apparently is a place. That being said, this guitar-led, mellow, feeling heavy music could have come from California. And is pretty good, but descends into a kind of sameness after a while.

  • Papercuts, Past Life Regression– This is a pretty good example of dreamy moody fuzzed-out pop, but it feels a little too same the whole way through to really catch on as an album.

  • Pillow Queens, Leave the Light On– I do like an all-female band, and they have a heavy but dreamy sound that is working for them. It gets to be too the same track to track, though, and somehow there’s some kind of spark missing.

  • Placebo, Never Let Me Go– This wouldn’t sound out of place as a late 90s/early 00s grunge afterburn with a strong dose of music from the Radiohead/Coldplay side of the fence. It’s not bad, but it does all sound curiously dated.

  • PLOSIVS, PLOSIVS– Punk/Hardcore supergroup composed of members from various bands in the, if not underground, at least less “mainstream” part of the 90s/00s scene. There are moments the separate pieces gel together into something explosive and fresh, but others are more kind of 00s pop punk blah.

  • Pusha T, It’s Almost Dry– His 2018 album Daytona was one of my favorites from my 2010s review, so I was interested going in to this. Smoothness of flow, dynamic musical mix, and lyrics alternately full of humor and surly menace. Pharrel and Kanye both had a hand in production, which is to the positive. But it doesn’t quite feel coherent, has a weak ending, and leans too heavily on his “greatest hits”. Best moments are great, but overall, not quite…

  • Rammstein, Zeit– This is really pretty good if you’re looking for something in a neo-cabaret goth entirely in German vein. If you’re not…

  • Raum, Daughter– This sounded intriguing in theory, but in practice it ambiented out to infinity. (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)

  • RealYungPhil, Dr. Philvinci– Not without merit and charm, but the autotune, it is too much! (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)

  • Red Hot Chili Peppers, Unlimited Love– There are a lot of things going right here- the inherent excellence of the band, the return of all the classic lineup, having Rick Rubin guide the production. But there’s also the challenge of the length- closing in on 80 minutes- the pacing of slower numbers, and the mélange of styles. I feel like there is an excellent version of this album in there at half the length, and the best moments are thrilling. The others are “merely” late Red Hot Chili Peppers good, which is to say pretty darn good.
     
  • Redveil, Learn 2 Swim– There’s some charm here, and sophistication to the musical mix and an organizing theme but the autotune, it is too much!

  • Renata Zeiguer, Picnic in the Dark– Brooklynite songwriter relocated to the Catskills. And this almost worked for me. Every other song did something musically surprising or even amazing within its overall framework that sold me. Then every other every other track was too lulled into the overarching dreamy magical lounge sound. Which, although charming, tended to shimmer into indistinct. I’m more than intrigued enough to keep an eye on her going forward though!
     
  • Rex Orange County, Who Cares? I mean, I’m not sure where an English musician gets off talking about Orange County, but someone will come back at me and say they have counties in the UK too. Fine. It’s good 2020’s soul-pop, part symphony and part hip hop. It doesn’t really get beyond that, though.

  • Richie Hawtin/Chilly Gonzales/Plastikman, Consumed in Key– Occasional moments of higher energy, but mostly low key to the point of somnolence.

  • Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters, Mercy Me– As nice fairly relaxed contemporary blues goes, this is pretty good, but it doesn’t feel especially fresh, vivid, or stand out.

  • Royksopp, Profound Mysteries– Norwegian electronic music powerhouse Royksopp here delivers something subdued and multi-layered. It was interesting, but it’s generally a little too in an abstract and quiet vein to really stick for me.

  • S. Carey, Break Me Open– This is by a member of Bon Iver, so the sound isn’t really a surprise- dreamy mellow neo-folk indie rock. It’s nice. But does it sound different from or better than all the other dreamy mellow neo-folk indie rock out there?

  • Sault, Air– UK music collective Sault is excellent, and made some of my top pick albums of 2020 and a near top for 2021. This particular experiment with choral, orchestral and new age elements, however… It’s not badly done, but it doesn’t have the hooks their work usually does.

  • Scott Hardware, Ballad of a Tryhard– It’s mellow vocally and musically and it mellows along from mellow track to mellow track, and everything is very mellow.

  • Seabear, In Another Life– This was very close! Riding the edge of affecting melodious indie rock and being just a little too low energy and same track to track.

  • Seratones, Love & Algorhythms– The Seratones are a Soul band from new Orleans who’s stock in trade is wide experimentation, so much so that they can sound completely different from album to album. This one has a strong 70s dance music direction, and, while it’s good slinky fun, doesn’t really work for me as an album, as it all tends to blend together. Not unlike a night on the dancefloor!

  • Shane Parish, Liverpool– All-instrumental guitar thematically inspired by the comings and goings of goings on in the port of Liverpool, very interesting.

  • Silvana Estrada, Marchita– There is something very affecting about what this Mexican singer-songwriter is doing. The language barrier kept me from fully engaging, as did a kind of sameness to its sonic explorations of Latin American folk, but her voice is gorgeous. (Full disclosure: This is not an April release. It comes from Pitchforks Winter 2022 “26 albums you may have missed” list. I am nothing if not thorough!)

  • Soul Glow, Diaspora Problems– Am I now too old for non-stop shouting noise rock? It’s a frightening thought, but it may be true. It’s actually the shouting that gets to me, and not the music, I think. There’s a lot of verve and humor here, but, well, 40 minutes nonstop of this sound…

  • Spiritualized, Everything was Beautiful– Spiritualized doing their shoegaze thing, and doing it very well, but is it better than their 90s version of doing it?

  • Stabbing Westward, Chasing Ghosts– This is from the echoey electronic anthem school of metal. It’s a good example of it but doesn’t necessarily rise above.

  • Stromae, Multitude– Belgian singer-songwriter, rapper and musician. French pop, electronic music, hip-hop. It’s musically unusual and really pretty good, but also entirely in French, which prevents me from fully-connecting.

  • Sugaray Rayford, In Too Deep– It started off with a fat 70s soul sound, but the freshness of that began to fade and it began to sound too “by rote” as it went on.

  • Suki Waterhouse, I Can’t Let Go– A smoky singer and songwriter, not unlike a Lana Del Rey, and not without merit, but this doesn’t rise above.

  • Syd, Broken Heart’s Club– Bright neo-dancey pop from this LA singer-songwriter. She can get quite experimental and challenging, but what’s here mostly goes for a more straightforward vein.

  • Tahiti 80, Here With You– French indie pop band who have been active since the 90s. This has a neo-disco feel to it that isn’t uncommon among euro-indie bands (heck, many American ones too!). It’s good clean fun, but not sure it’s rising above that.

  • Tess Roby, Ideas of Space– Some bright and interesting dance-oriented pop, but it doesn’t rise a lot beyond that. Tess has considerable depths as a person and as an experimental musician, but this is mostly aimed at a fairly conventional pop space.

  • The Boo Radleys, Keep on With Falling– Shoegaze/Britpop pioneers from the 90s. It’s pretty pitch perfect for the sunny shimmery space it’s going for, but it does feel a little dated and out of time. Being the best of a whole year is a tricky business…

  • The Districts, Great American Painting– This is some fine indie rock, but it doesn’t often enough reach for the something more dynamic or unusual it would take to stand out from many similar artist.

  • The Monochrome Set, Allhallowtide– English post-punk/new wave band who have been kicking around since the late 70s. That’s what they sound like, and they’re really good at it. But it sounds a little dated and like many other bands that sound like this. One the other hand, if there’s a Bowie/Roxy Music-inspired somewhat Echo and the Bunnymen space in your heart that needs filling, this might do it.

  • The Regrettes, Further Joy– This was an almost! Dance music and romantic ballads but carried a step above by frontwoman Lydia Night’s presence, vulnerability and wit. I subsequently read that they’re a punk band, and maybe that’s why they’re bringing something above and beyond to the more dance/pop direction this album was in.

  • The Waterboys, All Souls Hill– The 80s “Big Music” sound the Waterboys are known for (a la U2, Big Country, Simple Minds, etc.) is on fine display here. A fan of theirs, or of that sound, won’t go awry listening to this, but it does feel a little frozen in time/formula to be a “best of” this year.

  • The Weather Station, How Is It That I Should Look at the Stars– The last time I tried to like a Weather Station album I ended up in the same place- lyrically sophisticated, music and vocals both very solid, but so muted and low key and same track to track that it was difficult to get my hooks in to the album.

  • Thomas Rhett, Where We Started– As contemporary pop country goes, it’s fine, even has playful musical inventiveness, but it doesn’t feel vital or energized beyond its packaging very often.

  • Tran Uy Duc, Came– This is some interesting experimental electronic music, but it’s a little too on the “hard to listen to” edge of grating to make it at album length.

  • Trey Anastasio, Mercy– I went in pre-disposed to be hostile out of a residual 80s punk/90s alt resentment toward jam bands and their dark progeny. In fact, it was quite engaging musically, and vocally simple in a way that really let the complex lyrics shine through. It wasn’t until near the very end that the track-to-track mellow grove finally pushed me over from “maybe” to “no”.

  • Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Lifted– New Orleans trombone and trumpet player Andrews has put out a boisterous jazz-funk album, redolent with New Orleans musical influences. It sometimes felt a little too slickly packaged, but no denying it was fun!

  • Undeath, It’s Time…To Rise From the Grave– I mean, between the band name, the album name, and the fact that they hail from my wife’s hometown of Rochester, NY, how could I not give it a try? Musically, I appreciate the non-stop metal assault, but the doom metal demon growl vocals are just so rarely a good idea these days.

  • Van Chamberlain, In The Sun– It’s solid instrumental rock, a little dreamy and in good control of its chord changes, but ultimately a little too hazy all the same.

  • Various Artists, Black Lives: From Generation to Generation– This is what it sounds like, a tribute to black music from musicians mining several generations of styles- African music, hip-hop, jazz, and soul all make an appearance. Some of the results are exquisite, but at an hour and forty-one minutes run-time, it gets hard to sustain in whole.

  • Vein.FM, This World Is Going to Ruin You– On the musical side, I like the stuttering distorted metal going on here. The purely screamo vocals, though, kept a single lyric from getting through.

  • Wallows, Tell Me That It’s Over– This Los Angeles band makes good, poppy, bright music. We could do A LOT worse, but I think it’s not substantive or different enough to linger.

  • Wesley Gonzales, Wax Limousine– A classic synth pop feeling and sure upbeat song structure feeling, offset by the languorous vocals and smart complicated lyrics. It’s always pretty good, and occasionally it’s extraordinary. I’m not sure it tipped over that line often enough, but it can’t be dismissed.

  • Wet Tuna, Warping All By Yourself– When I hear that an album is by psychedelic folkies living in a Vermont cabin, I can’t help but be interested. And wonder how far away from me they live! There’s no denying this trippy swirl of electronic dance, psychedelic effects and sometimes prog rock-sounding sections is interesting, but it’s a little abstract and untethered to work at album length.

  • YIN YIN, The Age of Aquarius– This was described as SE Asian influenced psychedelia, which was very interesting to me. And it is interesting, albeit I think more in a mode of SE Asian music-influenced dance music? There are some intriguing soundscapes here, although it eventually gets a little too muzaky.

  • Young Guv, Guv III– This Toronto musician relocated to Brooklyn has a sound that would have worked well on the crossover between pop and indie rock in the 90s. Really pretty well done, but it doesn’t sound sufficiently different from a lot of other things, then and now, which sound similar.

  • Young Prisms, Drifter– Very fuzzy musically and vocally, in the 90s shoegaze distortion kind of way. Not unlike everything had gotten refracted through a prism! It’s not a bad example of what it is, but also doesn’t get a lot beyond it.

And thus we end our review of March/April only shortly after the beginning on June! I have high hopes for getting May out, in its own post, before the end of the month…

In Search of the 22 Best Albums of 2022: January/February

With all due apologies to Brittney (and please don’t put me in a conservatorship): Oops I’m doing it again! In 2021 I set out to catch up on the backlog from years of not listening to newer music by two blog series reviewing the critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and 2020. And I did a third blog series where I tried to get even more present by listening to new releases monthly on my way to choosing the 21 best albums of 2021.

This exercise led to some great finds! It piqued my interest more than enough to keep doing it, and it also occurred to me along the way that while many artists put out an album (or more than one!) yearly, there are equally many who take two or three years between albums. There’s a lot of folks I haven’t even heard from yet! So here I go again, only now it’s 2022, thus I’m going to look for the 22 best albums of the year.

How? Well, the same way we did last year! I’m listening to new releases as they come out each month. Along the way, I’ll sort them into three categories:

Yes– This isn’t a guarantee, but it represents the albums that, upon first listen, I think could definitely be in running for best of the year.

Maybe– These albums have something to recommend them, but also something that gives me pause. I’m putting them in their own category, because I have found “maybes” sometimes linger and eventually become “yeses”.

No– This can be a tricky category. Sometimes you end up here because you’re crap. You can also be fine though, but not more than fine. Or interesting and inspired, but a little too incoherent to totally pull together. Getting to yes ain’t easy!

What genres am I listening to? My musical interests are, and always have been, a pretty broadly defined version of Rock and the genres that led to and descended from it. So if you’re blues, country, dance, electronic, folk, hip-hop, metal, pop, punk, ska, soul, etc., I’m probably listening. Unless you’re too far on the side of ambient in electronic, because I just can’t.

Okay, all that having been established, let us now boldly forward to the review of the 160 new releases I listened to from January/February! (I’m combining these two months together since they typically have lighter release schedules, and since finishing the 2021 reviews took me well into the New Year!)

Apollo Brown/Stalley, Blacklight– This collaboration between Detroit record producer Brown and Ohio rapper Stalley delivers some great hip-hop! The production is layered and dynamic, strong flow, clever rhymes, and a personal-feeling message of perseverance and positivity under the swagger. It reminds me, favorably, of Jay-Z.

Artsick, Fingers Crossed– High energy guitar pop and affecting female lead vocals? That’s a good way to get me in. This reminds me of a hooky pop-rocking 90s band, which means in a way it also reminds me of the poppier end of 60s garage rock bands. I like being reminded of both these things! While there’s a definite unity of sensibility here, the songs have enough of an individual identity that each one holds attention on its own. Well done, little band from Oakland!

 

Boulevards, Electric Cowboy: Born in Carolina Mud– A lot of people seem to be mining a 70s funk/soul vein these days, but my word does it sound glorious when it’s done right. This North Carolina one-time punk and metal artist who found himself drawn back to the funk and R&B music he was raised with is doing it right, totally operating in a classic vein but so genuinely it sounds fresh and alive.

Eels, Extreme Witchcraft– Rock, rock, guitar rock! This album kicks right into it, and mostly doesn’t let up from there. In the moments when it does slow down a little, the ragged vocals, playful musical experimentation and lyrical interest keep things going. This indie rock band fronted in various combinations by Los Angeles singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mark Oliver Everett has been kicking around since the 90s, and clearly he hasn’t lost his edge.

John Mellencamp, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack– I’ve always had a soft spot for John Mellencamp. At his best he’s been an incisive lyricist along with a strong musician. On the poppier side of it, but certainly homing in on a certain heartland rock vibe that can get quite profound, a la Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young, etc. That’s definitely the space he’s in on this album (with several Springsteen guest appearances to prove the point). The music is nuanced, the lyrics are darkly evocative with themes of time, memory, and loss, and his voice is beautifully ragged. This is the kind of album that you have to have a lifetime behind you to make, and he’s earned it.

Johnny Marr, Fever Dreams, Pts. 1-4– If Guitar Gods did not end with the 70s, certainly somebody who deserves consideration in the category is Johnny Marr, for his co-leading of the Smiths, and numerous solo and group projects since then. You’ll hear echoes of all his eras here- the Smiths, The The, his Factory work from the 90s, solo albums. But mostly what you’ll hear is really excellent dynamic guitar work. And if you are only familiar with Marr from his lead guitar work with the Smiths, you may be favorably impressed with the lyrical and vocal skills he’s developed since. The run time’s a little long (this release combines two 2021 EPs with a new part 3 and part 4) but it remains dynamic and evocative throughout.

Katie Dey, Forever Music– A sweet little lo-fi distorted fuzzy synth-pop dance album with absolutely harrowing emotional lyrical content. I don’t even mind the autotune here, because it’s in service of the subversive contradiction between the two. This Australian artist has described this approach in interviews as a way of dealing with her experience as a trans woman, making the pain of struggle with dysphoria more palatable through musical lightness.

  

Kids on a Crime Spree, Fall in Love Not in Line– Now here is a band who has well learned the art of 60s jangly guitar bell-ringing rock (via some influence from punk and 80s/90s alt). Is it the most original or profound thing ever? No. But it is flawlessly done. And yet another band who I hear and like, and then subsequently find out is from Oakland. You can take the guy out of the Bay Area, but you can’t take the Bay Area out of…

Love, Burns, It Should Have Been Tomorrow– The solo project of Phil Sutton, a Queens-based singer/songwriter and veteran of multiple indie bands. He’s learned the craft well- these are perfect shimmery, guitar jangly pop songs with yearning vocals and revealing yet polished lyrics.

Miles Kane, Change the Show– This co-founder of several UK indie bands brings a sound to his solo album that combines 70s AM radio and 60s swinging pop, with a nice little dash of pub rock, but doesn’t feel like a museum piece or a self-conscious homage. Every note and every word is utterly sincere, and fresh sounding.

Nicfit, Fuse– This outing from a Japanese punk band is on the frosty, machiney, post-punk end of the street. I’m liking that side of the street as I listen to this! It’s got a relentless energy that propels things forward, a menacing abrasive edge that never lets one feel fully at ease, but a weirdly melodic nature that balances things out. And the last song is even named “Ack Ack Ack”. How am I not going to love that?

Reptaliens, Multiverse– I mean the group name, the album name, the knowledge that they like to write about alien conspiracies. How could I not? All that being said, not a lot of alien on this outing, but they are surprisingly sweet and melodic musically and vocally while lyrically probing the darker edges of interior landscapes. This is some excellent neo-psychedelic rock that rolls charmingly and somewhat disturbingly along without a hitch.

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Nightroamer– Driving yet very spare country with more than a trace of rock influence, and vocals and music occasionally sounding like they’re being tuned in by an AM radio. It’s got a classic minor chords and big organ sound that I appreciate, but livened by some more contemporary rock/pop dynamism. Perhaps, when one is a non-binary bisexual atheist, one’s approach to country is especially fresh. Wherever it comes from, North Carolina-based Shook is a unique and worthy voice in country.

Shovels & Rope, Manticore– It opens with a lyrical assault and bouncy beat, driving flexible guitars and high energy vocals. Subsequent tracks find a slower vein, reminiscent of the dense and dark storytelling of Nick Cave, but in an American stories vein like the Hold Steady, and with a heavy country lean. I did miss the energy, but the assured musical mastery and lyrical and vocal power never let up. This South Carolina folk duo is doing some good work!

Simone Felice, All The Bright Coins– This Felice Brother out on his own evokes a 70s singer-songwriter and spoken word vibe as he lyrically plumbs the depths of the 90s. It’s evocative and kind of fascinating!

Swami John Reis, Ride The Wild Night– I first knew of John Reis when I was living in San Diego in the mid-90s and he was heading local garage-punk powerhouse Rocket From the Crypt. He was great then and he’s great here- this album is pure garage rock snarl from the get-go! It makes me so, so happy.



Maybe

  • Adult., Becoming Undone– Some old school electronic, harking back to the spare 70s and the industrial machine sounds of the 80s. A Detroit band from the 90s, both members of whom have art degrees, so, you know, you’ve got the electronic/techno pedigree for it. The pacing isn’t always the best, but the contents are compelling on every single track.
  • Beach House, Once Twice Melody– Beautiful, shimmery, gauzy, and in a way, beachy. I liked the Beach House release last year too, but ultimately it was a little too gauzy to stand up to repeat listening vis-à-vis other releases from the year. Will that be true this time? We’ll have to repeatedly listen to see!
  • Beechwood, Sleep Without Dreaming– A good moody rock outing with ragged vocals. Their cover of the Beatles “Rain” gives you some idea of their sensibilities. Overall, I’m not sure it’s fresh/original enough to get to “yes”, but it is a solid listen.
  • Bonobo, Fragments– This feels like it’s coming from the Mobyish end of electronica- recognizable musical structure, a stab at lyrics and vocals, but sometimes surprising sampling and complex layering throughout. It doesn’t always stand out, but it is a good listen that never lets you down on any individual track.
  • Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard, Backhand Deals– Callbacks to classic rock (UK edition) and 80s guitar alt (also UK edition). This sound is paired with a millennial mindset subject matter, which is interesting too. Is it especially profound? No. Just pure listening fun!
  • Carson McHone, Still Life– Solid folk/country inflected rock with emotionally complex lyrics and a strong yearning voice. I wasn’t sure if the pacing totally worked, but this Texas singer-songwriter clearly has something going on.
  • Che Noir, Food for Thought– Powerful thoughtful positive lyrics, strong vocal flow, and some interesting mixing. It reminds me of late 80s/early 90s hip-hop in some ways. This Buffalo-based emcee and producer sometimes veers a little too much in the bragging street talk direction, but when she is, it’s not totally out of place, and when she’s not doing that, it’s excellent.
  • Eddie Vedder, Earthling– In many ways this album represents Eddie Vedder having fun. Which is nice to hear! It has a very buoyant feeling, and often plays with classic rock sounds. It feels like it peters out a little at the end, and has the problem any maker of epochal work has, which is that I semi-unconsciously compare everything to the first three Pearl Jam albums. It’s not that, but it is good clean rocking out!
  • Elena Setien, Unfamiliar Minds– I love this Basque artist’s vocal alchemy, and the haunting musical and lyrical subtext of her songs. Is it maybe a little experimental and all on one energy level/tone for repeated listening? Maybe. But it is compelling!
  • Eric Gales, Crown– Some blistering blues-rock with at times an almost grunge edge and more than a hint of hip-hop influence. There are times it feels a little formulaic, but there are also times that the depth and soulfulness is stunning. The run time is long, but on the other hand, it’s well-paced and well-structured. All-in-all-the eighteenth album from this one-time child prodigy is brimming over with a lifetime of experience and talent.
  • Hurrah for the Riff Raff, Life on Earth– Slightly uncanny dance music, sometimes more rocking or acoustic, with great vocal phrasing, and lyrics that weave a spell as she talks to you. The focus is a little scattered, with some pacing slowdown in the middle, but the vocals and lyrics from this New Orleans band formed by Bronx singer-songwriter Alynda Segarra are so searing it wins through.
  • Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales, Mo’ Tales: The Deluxe– An expansion of her much-lauded 2021 album (which made my “honorable mention” list and topped many other critics lists). It expands the thesis, but keeps things powerful and listenable. With maybe some points off for still being largely composed of the prior album’s material?
  • Josephine Foster, Godmother– A haunting and off-kilter folk-electronic outing from this Colorado musician. To quote her website: “During the long 2020-21 winter, partnered with a thrift store digital keyboard and its programmed Latin rhythms, Josephine Foster arranged and recorded her cosmic cantata, Godmother, an electric and electrifying journey into new territories of her imagination.” It’s really pretty compelling- I kept wondering if it was too low key overall, but then there kept being a surprising moment (or multiple moments) in each song that brought me back.
  • Lavender Country, Blackberry Rose– It has a good story- the artist who released the first gay-themed country album ever back in the 70s put out a new album in 2019 that didn’t get proper backing, so it’s re-released now with some additional production. I’m intrigued going in! It holds up to my interest pretty well- the music is straight-up (all puns intended) old style country, and the lyrics are full of country tropes with clever subversions. Even the vocals conform to an old-style twang. It’s sometimes a little too on the nose, but really is a very interesting world turned upside down.
  • Night Shop, Forever Night– A nice spare and bouncy rock sound with driving guitar, intelligent lyrics, and clear storytelling from Los Angeles indie rocker Justin Sullivan. Sometimes it veers a little towards the blandly produced, and there are sequencing issues, but a worthy outing.
  • Pedro the Lion, Havasu– Hmmm. This has a very Counting Crows kind of feel. I like that feel, but do I really need someone who isn’t Counting Crows doing it? On the other hand, it’s well done. And if it’s somewhat ponderous in its melancholy, it’s also an exquisitely literate and weirdly compelling deep dive into childhood memories. Pedro founder David Bazan has been working various indie rock bands since 2005 and you can tell he’s honed a fearsome craft doing it.
     
  • Slash, 4– Well we had Johnny Marr in the “Yes” section, here’s another great candidate for “later-day Guitar God”. The guitar work here is, well, Slash- clean, classic, virtuositic, and heavy. And it’s kind of amazing what a good ersatz Axl Rose replacement he got in vocalist Myles Kennedy. Is this really getting us something equal to the best of GNR? Of course not. Or substantially different from what we got with Velvet Revolver? Again, no. But it’s solid, it works, and I enjoyed it the whole way through.
     
  • Spoon, Lucifer on the Sofa– Spoon has always been a good band, but I feel like they’ve really cranked into high gear here. There are a few songs that are a little too produced and smooth, but most of the album has rawness, immediacy, and is brimming with great rock hooks. It’s on the edge of out of the ballpark, and definitely deserves consideration.
  • The Jazz Butcher, The Highest in the Land– I’ve known The Jazz Butcher since I was a wee alternate 80s rock lad. He’s always been highly idiosyncratic, and here seems to be in a vocally mellow, musically bouncy, lyrically introspective mood, but his distinctive surrealistic storyscapes are as potent as ever. It reminds me of 2021 albums his contemporaries Billy Bragg and Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding) made in the same vein. The energy level isn’t high, but the heart sustains it.
  • The Reds, Pinks & Purples, Summer at Land’s End– Their album Uncommon Weather ended up making my first cut in 2021. This has a lot of the same things going for it- amazing sad bastard energy, subtle vocals and shimmery moody music, emotionally complex lyrics. And maybe the same main caution on my end- it’s very much of a tone musically and emotionally. Will it make the cut this time? We’ll have to see, but it’s so good at what it does that I can’t dismiss the possibility!
  • The Soundcarriers, Wilds– This has a very 60s melodious side of garage/psychedelia feeling. And/or an 80s alt band channeling that same feeling. Given that it’s thus one or two times derived, I’m not an automatic yes. But given how very well it’s done, I can’t be a no!
  • The Weeknd, Dawn FM– This is the third time I’ve tried to like an album by the Weeknd, and I think I’ve finally succeeded! Still way too much autotune for me, but it is deployed in the context of retro soul/dance music where at least it makes sense. There was also a pretty successful framing structure, and some interesting wrestling with darker themes. So, nice fun dance music, and a little more to bring it together. I’m still not totally sold on some of the guest appearances (so often the downfall of a contemporary album), but I do appreciate what he’s doing.
      
  • Urge Overkill, Oui– In our latest episode of “90s Flashbacks”, we have a new album from Urge Overkill! I know I should be cautious on general grounds of blasts form the past, and I assure you I am. But, in fact their out of time hard rock mélange still works very well, and darned if those 90s melodic twists didn’t twist my heart just like they intended. And it was interesting to hear them cover Wham!’s “Freedom” too!
  • Yard Act, The Overload– How much do I love quirky, clever lyrics, deliberately unpolished vocals, and off-kilter angular new wave-influenced rock? A lot, and this UK band is doing it very well! It does get a little samey by the end, but it also bounces along and keeps one engaged. Maybe!

No

  • A Place to Bury Strangers, See Through You– This New York City-based band provides some excellent noise rock with an 80s industrial/post punk feeling. It does get a little samey as it wears on, though.
  • Adam Miller, Gateway– An instrumental album from an Australian guitar virtuoso. It’s a little too all-instrumental and all in one musical vein to work as a general album, but one can certainly appreciate the technical skill.
  • Adekunle Gold, Catch Me If You Can– Nigerian singer-songwriter. I enjoyed the musical side of it a lot, but the autotune vocals got to me after a while.
  • Alice Glass, Prey//IV– I did appreciate the electro-goth as dance music focus, and the occasionally really grating edges. On the whole, though, it’s a little too autotuned and indistinct track to track to work for me.
  • Alt-J, The Dream– There was some interesting stuff going on in the off-kilter electronic swirl of this album, but it never quite clicked for me.
  • Amber Mark, Three Dimensions Deep– The musical/sampling part of the start was promising, then came the autotuned vocal part of the start. Subsequent tracks don’t go that way, in fact seem to be more in a retro 90s soul realm and are nice enough.
  • Amos Lee, Dreamland– He’s nice enough, in fact he’s really good. But in a blandly well produced kind of way. I didn’t find anything I could really latch on to.
  • Andy Bell, Flicker– I always feel duty-bound to note that this is NOT the Andy Bell of Erasure, but the Andy Bell who was a founder of the shoegaze scene in the UK. This is some very good electronic music, but at length it kind of blends together.
  • Anna von Hausswolff, Live at Montreux Jazz Festival– Now this is interesting- a thick atmospheric swirl, hypnotic spell of her voice, sense of looming power and dread, sound straddling the realms of orchestral and noise rock. And the fact that it’s a live album gives a nice little edge to something that could have otherwise been pretty heavy. It eventually got bogged down by that weight, but it was an interesting ride on the way.
  • Aoife O’Donovan, Age of Apathy– Folky semi-country, with a pop gloss. She’s got a great voice, and way with lyrics, but it all feels a little too “nice enough” and smooth going down.
  • Ari Roar, Made to Never Use– Jangly guitar pop and fuzzy vocals. Yay! It was eventually a little too same track to track, but it was fun along the way.
  • AURORA, The Gods We Can Touch– She’s Norwegian, and I’ve developed a solid respect for Scandinavian rockers, so we’re off to a good start. This is more on the ethereal side of dance pop, with a rock edge, but it does have a lot to recommend it. I think where it ultimately runs aground is that it’s pulling in different directions, almost always interestingly, but it never feels like it quite comes together.
  • Author & Punisher, Kruller– A little metal, a little electronic/industrial, a little emo. It’s fine moody music but doesn’t really become anything special beyond that.
  • Avril Lavigne, Love Sux– She’s returning to the feisty pop-flavored punk (or punk-flavored pop?) that first brought her to fame. It’s in good form, but it inherently feels kind of prefab.
  • Babyface Ray, Face– There’s nteresting mixology going on here, and a strong voice, with some complexity to the lyrics. On the downside, eventually there’s too much autotune, and not enough vocal dynamism to sustain it for an hour run length.
  • Bad Boy Chiller Crew, Disrespectful– A pretty fun mash-up of club dance music, UK hip-hop, and dub. It bounces along pretty well, but at almost an hour runs too long without something holding it together or varying things from track to track.
  • Bastille, Give Me The Future– Solid beat-heavy 2000s rock-pop. Sounds like a lot of other solid 2000s rock-pop.
  • BBC Radiophonic Workshop/Stealing Sheep, La Planète Sauvage– A pop band and the BBC’s sound effects unit get together to re-record the soundtrack of a trippy 70s animated sci-fi classic. The concept was intriguing enough to get me to listen, but it ends up being a little too abstracted and sound-tracky to work as a sustainable, memorable album.
  • Beth Hart, A Tribute to Led Zeppelin– It’s a good double premise: A contemporary blues-influenced artist takes on Led Zeppelin. And a lesbian woman takes on the mother-lode of hetero cock rock. And it is very well done- I enjoyed every second, and there are some fun gender/sexuality inversions along the way. Musically, though, it fell too often into the trap of overly faithful covers. Excellent covers, but not really bringing new or different things out of the songs.
     
  • Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You– A New York indie folk group, and really, they were pretty good with sharp lyrics, low key but well-done vocals and music, and sometimes did things that were positively unexpected and arresting. There needed to be more of these moments to make the 80-minute run time work, though.
  • Billy Talent, Crisis of Faith– A little emo-ey, a little metal-ey. The guitar is rocking like I like to rock, but otherwise it’s not really standing out from its own cliches.
  • Black Country, New Road, Ants From Up There– A weird pseudo-jazz beginning becomes clanging guitar with a touch of country fiddle sound. This proves not to have been a fluke, and the whole thing is delightfully off-kilter, with a kind of arch lyrics and vocal edge of frenzy that reminds me of David Bowie. Unfortunately, it has some pacing problems, and seems to repeatedly slow down just when the momentum is really catching.
  • Blood Incantation, Timewave Zero– This sounds like the slow orchestral parts of black metal. With all the other parts removed.
  • Bonnie “Prince” Billy/Bill Callahan, Blind Date Party– Okay, going in, I know I like the Bonnie Prince, and it’s a covers album, which I often enjoy. On the other hand, it’s 90-minutes long, which instinctively fills me with trepidation. There’s a great variety of material, and approaches taken to that material, so it works well on that side. Eventually the length, and a few too-experimental outings keep it from fully working. Still, some great songs are in here!
  • Boris, W – It’s all a little too ethereal and swirly for me to solidly sink my whatevers into.
  • Boundary Object, Gabor Lazar– I mean, it was kind of fun and energetic, but a little too on the repetitive computer sounds side of electronic for me.
  • Brent Cobb, And Now, Let’s Turn to Page…– Pop country star does some nice enough country gospel. But it’s a little formulaic and doesn’t get much beyond that.
  • Carmen Villain, Only Love From Now On– I do like anybody with the last name villain. The album itself, however, is all instrumental and experimental, full of quiet electronic orchestra, sound effects, and distorted jazz moments. That’s a tougher sell for me.
  • Caroline, Caroline– This was sometimes an electronic country album, sometimes something more abstract and experimental, sometimes some really very effecting moody lyrical synth. It never quite came together for me, but it was interesting.
  • Cat Power, Covers– All right, I like Cat Power, I like covers, let’s see how this goes. Pretty well! It doesn’t totally come together- there is a good variety of sources, but her approach to them tends toward a sort of sameness. A nice, mellow, high-quality sameness, but it doesn’t quite stand out.
  • Cate Le Bon, Pompeii– This Welsh singer-songwriter leans toward the experimental side. It’s a good experiment, in fact an interesting deconstruction of pop song, but feels a little meandery and lacking in coherence at times.
  • Cloakroom, Dissolution Wave– This is your typical album about a physics incident that causes a dissolution wave that wipes out humanity’s art and abstract thought. You won’t get that from a casual listen though, what you will get is the fuzzy guitar, the shimmering sheets of noise, and the waves of vocal feeling. It’s really pretty good aurally, but it does start to fade into sameness. And it feels like a problem to me that it can have a strong theme that’s not even detectable upon first listen.
     
  • Combo Chimbita, IRE– There is some fine minor chord strumming early on. It then goes in all kinds of musical directions from there- ballad, dance, jazz, Latin, and is really pretty good. But also all in Spanish, which prevented me from getting my hooks into it, lyrically.
  • Conway the Machine, God Don’t Make Mistakes– Not badly done, but a pretty standard 2020’s hip-hop album.
  • Dashboard Confessional, All the Truth That I Can Tell– Holy 00s flashback Batgirl! They pretty much are in their top form here, and their top form isn’t bad (in a very formulaic kind of way), but it’s not best of year memorable.
  • Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, Cold as Weiss– As all-instrumental jazz albums go, this really works pretty well. It’s heavily informed by funk and soul, and there’s something electric and buoyant about it. Eventually I couldn’t quite keep going as the muzaky elements came to the fore, but it was close!
  • Deserta, Every Moment, Everything You Need– Very atmospheric, moody swirly, hazy. Not really something substantial enough to sink one’s teeth into, though.
  • DJ Python, Club Sentimientos Vol. 2– It’s clubby. It’s DJey. It’s pleasant. It doesn’t get much beyond that.
  • Earl Sweatshirt, Sick!– Some powerful vocal delivery, and nice spare mix that delivers a variety of feelings. It doesn’t totally come together and rise above, though- there’s some sense of lack of unity.
  • EarthGang, Ghetto Gods– Sometimes quite fun, but mostly too autotuned and 2020s hip-hop conventional.
  • Elles Bailey, Shinning in the Half Light– Bluesy, vocally skillful singer, but it feels a little too much by formula.
  • Elvis Costello, The Boy Named If– Elvis Costello has been my main man since I was in my teens, which at this point has been… a while. So, on some level, I’m going to groove on almost anything he puts down. And it doesn’t hurt that his backing band, The Imposters, plays in an old-time rock and soul vein. So there is that, but this somehow feels unfocused and not crisp. I’m comparing him to his best, which is transcendent, but, well, that’s what you get for being a great. While individual songs from this album get there at times, as a whole it doesn’t measure up.
  • Eric Chenaux, Say Laura– An interesting experimental jazz-inflected piece from a former 90s Toronto punk. Very worthy in its way, but a little too ethereal for me.
  • EXEK, Advertise Here– Working a post-punk/dub/early electronic vein, this band is producing some interesting music, but it’s a little too brittle and on the experimental edge of listenable to work as an album for me.
  • Fickle Friends, Are We Gonna Be Alright?– A bit of 90s alternative feeling, a bit of slinky disco throwback. It’s all right, but it doesn’t really get beyond that.
  • FKA Twigs, Caprisongs– I came to appreciate FKA twigs during my 2010s review, so I was interested in what this, her mixtape project, would be like. Her off-center take on dance music and 2000s R&B is good stuff and is in excellent form here. The proliferation of guest features, which can be dicey for album coherence is working as well. It eventually overstays it’s welcome by being a little too long/too much the same, but there’s nothing wrong with a little good dance music.
  • Foxes, The Kick– This is some pretty good dance music, but it sort of runs out of just how far it can go on that after a while.
  • Gang of Youths, Angel in Realtime– This Australian indie rock band sound like a prime sample vintage 00s mass-market indie rock band. Don’t really care for it!
  • Garcia Peoples, Dodging Dues– We’ve got a very 70s rock feeling going on here. It’s groovy and mellow, but it doesn’t feel like it’s having a lasting impact on me.
  • Grace Cummings, Stormqueen– A neo-folk approach, and this Melbourne-based singer-songwriter puts some considerable power behind it. She’s a little weird, and I certainly appreciate that, but it ends up being all too much in one musical tone to sustain at album length.
  • Great Lakes, Contenders– Athens GA band formed in the 90s, but you’ll hear echoes of the 80s Athens scene and more than a little debt to the Velvet Underground too. Not at all bad, in fact rather good rock, but a little too museum-feeling.
  • Gunna, DS4Ever– A vast auto-tuned hip-hop wasteland.
  • Hikaru Utada, Bad Mode– It’s some J-Pop. It’s pretty nice! It doesn’t rise above and beyond enough to contend for “year’s best” though.
  • Hippo Campus, LP3– I mean, it’s a very nice 2000s somewhat rocky, somewhat dancey, very upbeat kind of thin. It doesn’t really stand out from its (very crowded) pack though.
  • Holm, Why Don’t You Dance?– A Danish band, doing good rock as Scandinavians are wont to do. It reminds me of the more guitary end of 80s alt. I’m not sure it stands out a whole lot beyond that, though.
  • Huerco S., Plonk– Some rather abstract electronic, a little too far in that direction for me.
  • Jake Xerxes Fussell, Good and Green Again– A very pleasant folky, country kind of outing. Doesn’t get a lot beyond that.
  • Jana Horn, Optimism– There are lyrical depths here, but the vocal and musical setting is so low-key and same track-to-track it has trouble hitting with full impact.
  • Jasss, A World of Service– A little too much mostly in Spanish, a little too much autotune, a little too much dance music that, outside of some interesting grating moments, is not dynamic or interesting enough.
  • John Mayall, The Sun is Shining Down– The 60th album from veteran British Bluesman John Mayall, recorded shortly after his 88th birthday. It’s worthy of respect, and he’s in fine, relaxed form. But does it rise to the level of his best, or the year’s best?
  • Joss Stone, Never Forget My Love– Joss Stone, is of course, a very good vocalist and songwriter, and that’s no less true here. That being said, this was a little too on the smooth, polished, high quality production side for me. I like my glory a little more ragged.
  • Joywave, Cleanse– Nice 2000s White guy electronic dance music. Eh.
  • Keb’ Mo’, Good To Be…– As contemporary blues artists go, he’s one of the great ones. Leaning in  a country direction on this album, which is pretty delightful. It’s a little too formulaic and smooth to rise to “great” but fans of his and fans of the genres definitely might enjoy it.
  • King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Butterfly 3001– Remixes by various artists of their 2021 album Butterfly 3000. I do like these remixes, but I’m not sure if we need two hours of them! Especially given the original album wasn’t one of my semi-finalists for the year.
  • Korn, Requiem– Well here’s a 90s flashback for me! I mean, they’re fine, in a Korny kind of way, and they’re in classic form here. But I’m not hearing a lot that’s new or really stands out.
  • Kreidler, Spells and Daubs– I don’t know-there’s things that sound like office supplies being rifled through, a rolodex that’s getting stuck on something, some empty tin can beats. It’s a little too abstract electronic for me.
  • Lady Wray, Piece of Me– This is some very nice, harking back to the classics, soul/R&B. But I’m not hearing something in “best of year” territory on it.
  • Little Green House, Anxious– It’s an emoey punky poppy kind of thing. Salvum me fac de inferno.
  • Los Bitchos, Let the Festivities Begin– I mean, you call yourself Los Bitchos and I’m going to really want to like you. This outing from four musicians from four different countries who got to know each other playing in London’s club scene turns out to be an all-instrumental album, informed by Latin rhythms, some ska, some surf, and a lot of pluck. Not solid enough, sans any lyrics, for me to really get a hold of though.
  • Lucki/F1lthy, WAKE UP LUCKI– Not a bad hip-hop album, but a little light on depth, and the flow, mix, and content, for the most part, don’t really stand out.
  • Martina Topley-Bird, Forever I Wait– This is lush and layered, and lyrically complex, but the electronic music and her vocals are both too same track to track, so it all ends up going kind of indistinct.
  • Mary J. Blige, Good Morning Gorgeous– She’s in good form here, a kind of 2000s-ified production of 90s soul. I don’t think it’s rising above to something extraordinary, though.
  • Methyl Ethel, Are You Haunted?– Pretty well-done bedroom pop from this Australian artist, but it descends into a kind of track-to-track sameness.
  • Metronomy, Small World– This English electronic music group kept having me on the edge of yes with their upbeat charm, and then on the edge of no with the relative track to track sameness. Except then something comes along by surprise and pulls it out. I rode the edge the whole time, but I think that very unevenness tips it, very narrowly, into “no”.
  • Mild Orange, Looking For Space– This was mellow and gauzy and dreamy and never really landed for me.
  • Mitski, Laurel Hell– The sonorous dreamscapes of this Japanese-American singer’s songs are compelling. It is kind of all-in-one energy vein, though, so it stops working after a while.
  • Mo, Motordrome– She’s Danish, her eyes are glowing red on the cover, and there’s a song called “Brad Pitt”. This are the kinds of details that incline me favorably pre-listen. It turns out to be some good, consistently high-energy dance music. But I don’t know that it gets above and beyond that enough to be in “year’s best” territory.
  • Modern Nature, Island of Noise– An experimental band’s concept album based on the sounds of nature is a fairly intriguing idea. It ends up being a little too amorphous and low key to totally gel together for me, but it does have something compelling going on!
  • Modern Studies, We Are There– It’s not bad, but musically and vocally, it’s rather chilly and spare. Perhaps like a Modern Studies course?
  • Molly Nillson, Extreme– Shimmering wall of guitar and vocals that remind me of a certain strain of 80s alt (think, Jesus and Mary Chain, for example) and 90s alternative (think My Bloody Valentine or Galaxie 500, perhaps). Or at least it was for the first track or two, until it went in a Portishead or even Everything But the Girl direction. The former had my attention, the later lost me.
  • OMBIIGIZI, Sewn Back Together– Shoegazey, gauzy, and at its best moments still electric and dynamic enough to be compelling. But there weren’t enough of those moments before it fuzzed out again.
  • Partner Look, By The Book– cute, very spare synth pop. And the lyrics are often hilarious, but I think it ends up being a little too samesies and insubstantial to work.
  • Pinegrove, 0.465972222222222– This is the kind of jangly indie rock with soft-loud stop-starts that I generally like, and I do like it. But not particularly more than many another example I’ve heard.
  • Prins Thomas, Prins Thomas, Vol. 8– It’s just all a little too mellow new agey electronic for me.
  • Punch Brothers, Hell on Church Street– Some nice folk, bluegrass, country action, and I really appreciated the Dylan cover. The best moments are quite something, but it has a bad habit of lulling to just “okay” in-between. Getting to “great” is a harsh mistress!
  • Raveena, Asha’s Awakening– It’s described as “a concept album from the perspective of a Punjabi space princess”, and of course I love that. It’s also often fun dance music on top of that, but it doesn’t quite totally hang together for the entire run time, despite many really great moments along the way.
  • RIP Swirl, Blurry– It’s just all a little too peppy whory new agey electronic for me.
  • Robert Glasper, Black Radio III– A lot of this was working for me- the weaving together of soul, jazz, hip-hop, and philosophical reflections on Black life in America. And a lot of it wasn’t- extensive dips into autotune, lack of coherence. I think this is a case of very worthy material that doesn’t quite make a sustainable album in whole.
  • Saba, Few Good Things– It definitely has some interesting flourishes going for it- soulful mixes, a clear bright sound, traces of the best of 90s conscious and 00s sophisticated hip-hop. It often dips into the territory of too autotuned, and is not totally coherent, but part of that is the beauty of its rich track to track variety. Eventually the shallow autotune won out over what was otherwise excellent content and pushed it to “no”.
     
  • Sally Shapiro, Sad Cities– Nice atmospheric jazzy synthy pop heavy on melody and rich emotional vocals. But if I want more of this kind of thing, I always have Dido.
  • SASAMI, Squeeze– There were some moments that were genuinely uncanny and unsettling, and she was always good in her mixture of dance music, orchestral electronic, grunge-influenced rock, and darkness. I’ll keep my eye on her, for sure, but as an album it didn’t feel coherent enough to totally work.
  • Sea Power, Everything Was Forever– Moody, synthy, smooth, atmospheric. Nah.
  • Seafoam Walls, XVI– It’s a nice enough mellow, beaty, pseudo-dancey thing. Get it away from me.
  • Shamir, Heterosexuality– The heart of this album is very much in the right place, and its lyrics clever and incisive in their tackling of heteronormativity. The music and vocals side, though, it’s a little too conventional 00s dance to really pull it off.
  • Shinichi Atobe, Love of Plastic– I’ve got to say, as not the biggest fan of electronic ever, this was pretty light and fun. In its more dynamic moments, it might well have made it onto my “yes” list or at least a “maybe”. There were longer sections that were a little too lulled out, though.
  • Shout Out Louds, House– A smooth and accomplished album, anthemic, but it’s a little too hollow/smooth in production ultimately.
  • Silavan Estrada, Marchita– It was very pretty and ballady, but also very all in Spanish, which made it difficult for me to get a hold of.
  • Soichi Terada, Asakusa Light– This is a nice mellow low-key electronic kind of thing. Very smooth and fun enough, but I’m not hearing anything dynamic or substantive enough to really get a hold of.
  • St. Paul & the Broken Bones, The Alien Coast– I think I’m in a spacey concept album with cool slinky beats that remind one of the dance 70s. I think I like this! It eventually gets a little too undifferentiated song to song to keep going as an album, but it is fun along the way.
  • Superchunk, Wild Loneliness– Superchunk’s alt rock jam band thing is a pretty fun thing, but it got a little repetitive/rote as this album went on.
  • Tears For Fears, The Tipping Point– This was unexpected (at least for me)- a much less synth-poppy outing than their 80s albums (though it does show a lot of the 60s flourishes of Sowing The Seeds of Love) and in general, less bombastic. Roland Orzabal processing the grief at his wife’s death from a long-term illness, and he and Curth Smith providing more acoustic and quiet moments. It isn’t quite coherent, and sometimes the production dulls the feeling, but the best parts are superb.
     
  • The Body/OAA, Enemy of Love– This is from the screaming/grating side of techno. Or maybe the techno side of screaming/grating metal?

  • The Cactus Blossoms, One Day– Something on the country edge of smooth 2000s indie pop-rock? Something on the smooth 2000s indie pop-rock side of country? Either way, it’s very pleasant, but I can’t.
  • The Lumineers, Brightside– The Lumineers are, of course, a good band. In many ways, a par excellence of 2000s indie rock bands that make it big. And they’re good on this album, but, to me, it all is just a little too smooth and digestible, without the gristle of vitality. I need the gristle of vitality!
  • The Rave-Ups, Tomorrow– The latest album from an alt country pre-pioneer. I would have loved this in the 80s, and it is very good at what it does, but it feels a little dated now.
  • The Temptations, 60– It’s amazing how good they still sound. It does lean a little more heavily in the direction of the 70s disco/80s R&B side of the Temptations, so many original members aren’t there anymore, but damn if they aren’t a smooth machine! It’s a little museum piece to make into “best of year”, but damn we should all be doing so well for our 60th album.
  • The Whitmore Sisters, Ghost Stories– I do like folk/country sisters, and when they’re on, they’re really on. Other times it’s a little too lulled-out and over-orchestrated so the full vitality doesn’t show through.
  • The Wombats, Fix Yourself, Not the World– This is a good example of the sophisticated slightly-sleazy 2000s rock band sound (UK version). If this was the early 2000s, it would really stand out (like, say, The Strokes did for the U.S. version), but it doesn’t really at this point, not enough to get to “best of the best” territory anyway.
  • Trupa Trupa, B Flat A– This was off to a very good clanging-rock start, but the tempo slowed in the middle, bringing the clanginess too much to the fore.
  • Underoath, Voyeurist– It’s a very shouty emo-hardcore-metal kind of thing. Not much more needs to be said.

  • Various Artists, Stars Rock Kill (Rock Stars)– For its 30th Anniversary, powerhouse indie label Kill Rock Stars released 65 covers of songs from throughout its history by…other artists from the same label! As concepts go, this is a great one, and if you like their brand of varied, edgy, and experimental rock, you will probably enjoy this. I think it’s too much of an “aficionados only” exercise to work at that length, but there are riches here.

  • Various Artists, Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono– It’s a promising combination- an idiosyncratic and often underappreciated musician covered by an array of idiosyncratic contemporary artists. While it never feels like it quite comes together as a whole, as some of the covers just mellowly blur out, some of them are vivid and challenging. Like Yoko Ono herself!
  • Voivod, Syncho Anarchy– This is a kind of metal that I do really appreciate, the ornate but noisy 90s Operation Mindcrime kind of realm. But it’s a little unfocused here, and tends toward the noisy annoying too often.
  • Walker Hayes, Country Stuff The Album– Ah, pop country. As such goes, it’s pretty good. “Good” in the cliched formulaic way that such goes, but with some considerable charm along the way.
  • White Lies, As I Try Not to Fall Apart– This sounds like it comes from the synth-heavy, dark and moody side of 80s alt. Like, really, I would not be surprised if I was listening to this on a late 80s Modern Rock station. So, to be clear, it’s a very good invocation, and if you like the genre, you might really like this. But I wonder if it’s too of that piece to work as an enduring best of year?
  • WifiGawd, Chain of Command– The flow and mix here is good, but I don’t think it reaches the “above and beyond” level.
  • Years & Years, Night Call– It’s a fun and high energy electronic dance album. It’s not, for the most part, a lot beyond that, and it doesn’t support the album length. Do put it on if you want to have a dance party in your living room for an hour though!
  • Yeat, 2 Alive– If you like your hip-hop autotuned all to hell, this is for you.
  • yeule, Glitch Princess– While it eventually gets a little too lost in one auto-tone, the best moments of this Singapore electronic musician’s album are genuinely unsettling, lyrically and musically. I’m totally interested in keeping an eye on them. (Note the digital version includes a 4+ hour ambient track. I did not listen to it! heck, maybe it was great, who knows…)
  • Yung Kayo, DFTK– this hip-hop album has got a lot of energy and engaging presence. It’s also got a lot of similarity track to track and whole bunches of autotune.

Now let’s see if I can still get the March review out before the end of April!

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

Well my friends, here we are!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celeste, Not Your Muse– A very well-produced British R&B/soul/jazz/dance offering with smoky, soulful, affecting lyrics. It’s a good mix of uptempo and downtempo songs, and works equally well on both. Just lovely the whole way through- she doesn’t have to be anyone’s muse if she doesn’t want to, but she obviously knows the muse well herself.

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

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

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

Esther Rose, How Many Times– Solid acoustic folk with nice country flourishes. She has a clear and engaging voice, and things here are charmingly not perfectly smooth. As a result, it’s lively and utterly genuine-feeling. this is a great example of an album that does not necessarily have titanic ambitions, but wins through by flawless execution.

Guided by Voices, Earth Man Blues– Nobody else quite does what Guided by Voices does, and they are doing it very well here. Every track is like an instant classic, and they’re all in different styles. It feels hard to believe you haven’t known these songs your whole life.

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

Judith Hill, Baby I’m Hollywood– She does classic smoldering soul, old style R&B, funk, and swinging rock equally well, with a voice that doesn’t have a note of falseness in it. Between musical variety and verve, soaring vocals, and sharp lyrics that address the personal and the social, there isn’t a single thing here not to love! Hill started as a backup singer who broke out on her own, was a former contestant on The Voice, and afterward was produced by Prince, and you can hear how much she’s mastered along the way.

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

Leeanne Betasamosake Simpson, Theory of Ice– Luminous lyrics and vocals, with an electronic-infused acoustic pop sound. She’s a First Nations Canadian writer/musician, and you will certainly hear that thematically here. But it’s so personal, evocative, and poetic that I think it reaches any audience even if that subtext is missed.

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

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

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

Ron Gallo, PEACEMEAL– I mean, I’m both interested and leery when you start with a backwards vocals intro. This betrays a kind of 60s psychedelia/70s concept album bent which is borne out, but in the best indie lo-fi home-recorded kind of way, in the rest of the album. This is angsty, quirky, idiosyncratic, and delightfully unafraid to be awkward and goony.

Sarah Mary Chadwick, Me and Ennui are Friends Baby– Yes, that cover is really something. And it gives you a clue, in a way, to what’s going on inside. I love the ragged vocals and bitter emotionally sophisticated lyrics. The phrasing and music interplay belies the simplicity of each, creating layers even though it’s substantially only her voice and piano. Between all this, the album is legitimately harrowing. It’s like something this raw, revealing, and deliberately unpretty shouldn’t be out there. But here it is.

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

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

Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers– Solid vocals and affecting lyrics, livened by skillful layered production. It pulls together acoustic, indie rock, classic soul and R&B, and psychedelia, and sounds equally natural and authentic doing it all. Bob Dylan has cited her as one of the contemporary artists he listens to, and I can see why. This is exquisite and gorgeous!

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

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

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

  • Alex Beeker, Heaven on the Faultline– This was just delightful from the first few bright, clear and poppy, lof-fi synth-organ notes. A sure feel for melody and hooks, packed with clever musical choices and lyrical surprises as well. I genuinely didn’t want it to end.

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

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

  • Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark– Dark and fascinating. Lyrically like some of the darker turns of goth music, but musically on the soft edge of indie folk and electronica, and the vocals are a kind of low-key narration. It all seems calculated to undersell how disturbing the content is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • La Femme, Paradigmes– I mean, it’s much more than half in French, but it’s so swinging and hi-energy and musically dynamic that I can’t help it!

  • Lana Del Rey, Chemtrails Over the Country Club– The subtlety of the first track alone is breathtaking. Throughout, the music is restrained, even minimal, but there’s such honesty and authenticity in the vocals, and her voice itself is an instrument. All of this supports, as per her usual, sophisticated lyrics. It’s not quite in the league of her other release from the year, Blue Banisters, but it’s powerful!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Carnage– The dark hypnotic power of the opening track pretty much had me, and it didn’t let up from there. Cave’s darkling imaginings are well-supported here by the brooding music and its eerie flourishes. Poetic, beautiful, and often heartbreaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Tele Novella, Merlynn Belle– Vocally charming, with clever clear lyrics, and it casts a spell. Is this a flamenco album? A sad country album? An outing from a twee singer songwriter? All yeses, and I love it!

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

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

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

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

  • The Hold Steady, Open Door Policy– The Hold Steady’s ability to do storytelling in a song is really nonpareil. Except for, you know, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. So yes, you’ll hear echoes of them throughout, but never in a way that sounds like a mere copy. The music has complexity and variability, with power and swagger. They won me over on the first track, and never lost me from there.

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

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

  • Transatlantic, The Absolute Universe: Forevermore– The phrase “Progressive Rock Supergroup”, frankly, should set off alarm bells. And then the fact that the album is an hour and a half long? One should be running for the hills. It’s an interesting story, though. Faced with a dispute over whether to release a double-album or something more streamlined, the principals of the band decided- Why not both?!??! The shorter version isn’t simply a selection of songs from the longer album though- each was independently produced, so the same song on each can sound quite different. This is the longer version (I did review the shorter version but didn’t like it as well), and it’s pretty amazing. It feels like the high point of 70s Prog Rock/concept albums resurrected itself, in a way that’s simultaneously familiar but fun, and, for lack of a better word, friendly. Against all likelihood, I wanted every minute of the whole hour and a half.

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

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

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

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

The 21 Best Albums of 2021

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

Honorable Mention

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

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: November

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

You can find the earlier installments here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

Maybe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • A Moon Shaped Pool (Radiohead, 2016)– I don’t particularly care for Radiohead. I’m aware that this puts me at odds with every music critic ever, as well as many actual humans I know. They’re not, by any means, bad. I like moody atmospheric music. Sometimes. I like elliptical lyrics. Sometimes. I like lackadaisical low-key anguished vocals. Sometimes. But 50 minutes solid of that is just not a mood I’m often in, and I was not in that mood listening to this album.
  • Body Talk (Robyn, 2010)– This is dance music that would have sounded pretty at home somewhere in the borderline between the 80s and the early 90s. It’s well performed and well produced, and there are some songs here that are clever, unusual, and fun, which I certainly would want in my collection as singles. But overall I have trouble feeling like it adds up to a “Best of the Decade” album.
  • Bon Iver (Bon Iver, 2011, 5 votes)– The great danger of indie folk is that it has a tendency to sound the same from track to track. Which is not to say it, by any means, sounds bad. But a solid album’s worth of no changes in musical or vocal tone, well, that doesn’t always make for a great listen. This album is fine, just not a kind of fine I particularly groove on, and it never feels like it gets to great.
  • Currents (Tame Impala, 2015, 4 votes)– This is a little trippy, which is their jam. More on the dance/electronic side of trippy, with some new wave influence. It reminds me, perhaps, of something the Flaming Lips might put out, except from them I’d expect even more weirdness, and also more overarching album structure. The tracks here tend a lot toward sameness. Not bad, but not, and this is the point of a “decade’s best” list, great.
  • DS2 (Future, 2015, 4 votes)– Early on I thought this was a little more on the autotuned side of hip-hop than I like, but the lyrical content was interesting, and there’s a pleasing air of menace in the music. However, there ended up being a lot more “bitch” and “pussy” here than I like.
  • Lost In The Dream (The War on Drugs, 2014, 4 votes)– Vocally and musically billowy and  golden, but with maybe too smooth a production. It reminded” me of the 80s, and not in a good way, but in a “victory of airtight musical package over authenticity/vitality” kind of way. It’s technically very good, there were some flourishes I enjoyed, but I didn’t really feel anything the whole way through.
  • Sunbather (Deafhaven, 2013, 4 votes)– I mean, the first track is a pretty weird combo- the unintelligible screamo school of metal vocals, and a kind of orchestral swell of indie rock sound which is really rather pleasant. I think I would rather have the reverse. Then there’s a mellow instrumental. Then back to the scream orchestra. Then a “Revolution #9”-style abstract wank-off. And so forth. I really don’t get where the critics were coming from on this at all.
  • Whack World (Tierra Whack, 2018, 4 votes)– I like the spare, almost synth accompaniment of this hip-hop, the straightforward rhymes and whimsy, and the quality of her voice. The series of 1 minute tracks is also refreshing in a genre where songs can sometimes can get a little…long. The heavily autotuned nature of a lot of it? Not so much. Definitely some great singles here, and a talent worth keeping an eye on.

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

  • Anti (Rihanna, 2016)– There’s musical and lyrical sophistication here, and songs that are sometimes quite personal and confessional. It’s very well produced, and it is, par excellence, what a big chunk of the decade sounded like. But I’m not sure it holds up to the best of other soul/R&B/dance albums from the same time period.
  • Black Messiah (D’Angelo & the Vanguard, 2014)– In a previous iteration of this kind of exercise a few years back, I had been confidently informed by critics that D’Angelo’s album Voodoo was one of the best albums of the 00s. It was good stuff, but I couldn’t see what I was getting from it that I wouldn’t, for example, get from Prince (who it felt heavily derivative of). I’m having exactly the same reaction here. To be fair, though, I suppose this could be considered praising by faint damnation, since that’s a pretty darn elevated reference point.
  • Days Are Gone (Haim, 2013)– For my 2020 list I’d listened to their album Women in Music, and quite liked it. This album feels like it leans in an even more poppy direction, but retains what I really liked about that album- a nearly perfect pop sensibility with some power and substance behind it. This does register as lighter than their later album, though. Is this Days Are Gone‘s fault? No, and yet it must reverse-chronologically suffer for my knowledge!
  • Emotion (Carly Rae Jepsen, 2015)– The whole thing is very poppy and fun. It reminds me of Taylor Swift, though perhaps a little slicker and less substantive than her work from a comparable time. Really pretty good as dance-oriented pop music goes, and it does sound emblematic of the decade. So in that sense, maybe a signal album, but I’m not quite sure about “best”.
  • Golden Hour (Kacey Musgraves, 2018)– A textured country album, often leaning on the obvious/pop side lyrically, but the vocals are earnest enough to sell it. Musically, it’s lush, grounded in pop country, but drawing on dance music, electronic, and indie rock. It’s all very good, and the best moments are great, but I don’t know about it adding up to a “decade’s best”- the best country albums are better than this as a whole, and the best pop albums are too. What she’s done in bringing together both sides of that equation is still worthy of notice though!
  • Have One On Me (Joanna Newsom)– The instrumentation and production is so clever, bringing in layers that remind one of the late Beatles. Her voice weaves in and out, soars and dips, sometimes sing-song, sometimes wispy, sometimes powerful. Between all these factors, there’s enough variability in a single song to be almost exhausting. And lyrically it creates a surreal idiosyncratic world of its own in the manner, say, of Kate Bush or Tori Amos. That’s the upside, and it’s significant. On the downside, it’s hard to keep up over the length of a triple album (runtime comes in at about two hours), and it gets more conventional, and often lower energy, as it goes on. It’s hard to ignore the merits, but I’m not sure it totally succeeds as an album.
  • Night Time, My Time (Sky Ferreira, 2013)– The debut album from one of the original MySpace musical sensations. It’s a solid pop album, with a darker rock edge to its vocal and musical texture. And darn catchy too! The whole thing is a little inconsistent, but the inconsistency is between merely solidly good and freaking great. All in all, an excellent reminder that pop may not always be profound, but it doesn’t have to be dreck.
  • Random Access Memories (Daft Punk, 2013)– Daft Punk is my favorite French electronic music duo. Okay, no, but really, I’m sure there is more than one. And their 2001 album Discovery really was one of the best of that decade. They are as good as always here, and their mining herein of 70s and 80s dance music really suits their strengths. But I don’t know if the album as a whole is as good as their best. The pacing often felt weird to me- fast and slow lurches and mood shifts that didn’t seem to build on each other in any apparent way.
  • Teen Dream (Beach House, 2010)– This album has the shimmery, golden, sunburn hot turning to goosebump cool feeling of the end of a late summer day at the beach. There are hints of synth, psychedelia, even some honest to goodness surf music. It unfortunately seems to have a weird problem with volume randomly shooting up and down between tracks. Other than that, the dream pop here is in very good shape, but I’m not sure it’s in “decade’s best” territory.
  • Visions (Grimes, 2012)– Spare beats, light synth effects, ethereal vocals that are disorienting in their relation to the bite behind what she’s singing. While there are flashes of brilliance all over, I will say that as a whole it’s not quite as together, engaging, or substantive as later Grimes. This, of course, is partially my problem for having that as a reference point. It certainly must have been a breath of fresh air at the time. So, I don’t know about best of the decade, but one of the most interesting and promising debuts of the decade? Probably yes!

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

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

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

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

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

Art Angels (Grimes, 2015)– The ethereal disembodied first track almost sent me away, but then the variability and verve of the subsequent efforts brought me back. Quirky music, quirky vocals, very upbeat. She knows pop music, and then keeps ‘effin with it with dissonant choices. If this was the average level pop music was landing at, it would be a grand thing!

Beyonce (Beyonce, 2013)– From the first track, which wrestles with body image and social pressure, this is a pop album in service of a higher purpose. Whether tackling social issues, personal biography, or emotional confession, track after track aims for import. In lesser hands, this could be an unwieldy exercise. But given skill and vision, it can be pulled off, and is amazing when it works (cf. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation). Beyonce’s hands are not lesser- between mastery of the musical idioms of soul and R&B, by turns soaring and subtle vocals, rich production, and incisive lyrics, she delivers.

Blackstar (David Bowie, 2016)– As a David Bowie fan, I had been curious about his final album. The opening/title song is mesmerizing and self-valedictory, in the course of 10 minutes, it tries out styles from throughout his long career. Subsequent tracks stick more to a unified musical theme, with healthy portions of dissonant art rock and electronic beats. Vocally and musically the tracks are unsettling in the way many a Bowie song can be unsettling, and then on top of that there is an obvious concern with history, legacy, and mortality throughout. It’s a powerful thing to do with a record and makes for a fitting swan song.

Blonde (Frank Ocean, 2016)– The first track sound like an autotuned chipmunk ,but real vocals kicked in midway. With that, and the many unusual and interesting choices it makes for R&B, it grew on me. The arrangement and production was really, really good. Except for the occasional dip back into autotuned chipmunk. But this is a fun and unusual sounding album. I can see why it ended up on so many lists!

Brothers (The Black Keys, 2010)– Remember Rock? Remember when you first heard it? Really heard it? The further one gets into this century, the harder it is to remember what that felt like. The Black Keys, like the White Stripes (lots of bad blood there, don’t tell them I compared them), remember. This album, like their music in general, taps into that threshold where blues crosses over and becomes rock. And in the process takes me back to why I loved rock in the first place.

Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Angel Olsen, 2014)– I liked the intro with its richly textured acoustic guitar, and her beautifully dolorous voice. Then the second track kicked into a 90s rocker girl mode, and uh, I was done for. Her vocals are very interesting, with smart and nervy lyrics, and the music knows its way around rock history. It keeps changing musical modes, but is tied together by her undeniable presence. By track three I was officially ensorcelled, and remained so until the end.

Carrie & Lowell (Sufjan Stevens, 2015)– To say this isn’t quite the tour de force that his album Illinoise was, well, that’s like saying “not quite Brothers Karamazov, but still good Dostoyevsky”. The emotional and musical texturing of the songs is rich, and the lyrics, as always, searingly earnest and personal. If there’s anything more I might ask for, it’s more moments, vocally and musically, that break out of the relatively narrow emotional palette of the album. Then again, it’s an album about sorting out the emotional aftermath of his mother’s death, so you can’t exactly fault it for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Search of the 21 Best Albums of 2021: October

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

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

( January February March April May June July August September )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe

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

No

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

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