This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. If you like this, go check out the final installment of my overview of the critic’s choices for the 20 best albums of 2020, and my latest monthly review of 2021 new releases as I search for the 21 best albums of 2021.
So, 50 makes more sense as a “top xx” list number than 52, doesn’t it? It does! However, I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff rather than trying to figure out how to jettison two of them.
This series will have 10 posts of 5 albums each (or 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. That established, on with Part 8!
Melodrama (Lorde, 2017, 4 votes)– Lorde’s second album starts with an emotional punch and dynamic multi-layered music. And it doesn’t let up from there, along with generous servings of her lyrical intelligence and strong and honest vocal presence. Her combination of power, seriousness, and ability to produce something interesting and pleasing to listen to is truly impressive.
Modern Vampires of the City (Vampire Weekend, 2013, 7 votes)– Long have I heard of this Weekend of Vampires, but little did I know of what they actually sounded like. On top of that, lots of people I know have recommended this album to me, and 7 out of 10 critic’s top of the decade lists seem to agree. It gets off to a Beatlesque and unusual start, which is a nice way to catch one’s attention. From there it’s high energy, catchy, and if a little formulaic, a good execution of a great formula- hooky indie rock, 60s pop, sweetly smooth vocals, lyrical cleverness, just enough noise to catch one’s attention withoutstopping the pop. If not quite a transcendent album for the ages (like, I’m not sure what it’s doing in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of…ever…, for example), I can at least see why so many folks liked it.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Kanye West, 2010, 7 votes)– Kanye West’s debut album was one of my favorites of the 00s (if not the whole damn century so far), and his next two albums also acquitted themselves admirably. Beyond that, I hadn’t really kept up with his further musical output, beyond knowing it was somewhat more uneven, so I’ve been looking forward to checking this out. It is well worth the checking out! His vocal flow, lyrical prowess, sampling intelligence, and production skill are all in top form here. And it is, as the name would imply, a darkly textured take on himself, his ego, and the fallout of fame. Along the way it goes through so many moods and musical modes, but retains the subject focus, tying the whole thing together. All in all, a powerful album!
Night Time, My Time(Sky Ferreira, 2013, 4 votes)– The debut album from one of the original MySpace musical sensations. It’s a very solid pop album, with a darker rock edge to its vocal and musical texture. And darn catchy too! The whole thing is a little inconsistent, but the inconsistency is between merely solidly good and freaking great. All in all, a good reminder that pop often may not be profound, but it doesn’t have to be dreck.
Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Lana Del Ray, 2019, 4 votes)– Godamn, man child/ You fucked me so good that I almost said, “I love you” is quite a lyrical start! And so sweetly vocally and musically delivered. And that really, it seems to me, is the secret of what she does here. Smoky sultry music, rich warm vocals. She could be delivering the sweetest most torchy album ever. And she is, but with lyrics that dazzle with their intelligence and emotional complexity and bite with their edge. It’s a potent combination, and I am totally signed off on this being one of the best things that came out last decade.
This is where we leave off for now, 80% through. Two more installments to come, and then the wrap-up!
Here begins part seven of our ten-part review of the critic’s choices for the best 52 albums of 2010-2019! (One for each card in the deck! That wasn’t the reason for choosing the number, though. See further below.)
If you missed the earlier installments, you can read them here:
This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. So go check out the final installment of my overview of the critic’s choices for the 20 best albums of 2020, and my latest monthly review of 2021 new releases as I search for the 21 best albums of 2021.
Okay, now that you’ve read all that, why 52? I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff.
This series will have 10 posts of 5 albums each (or 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. And with that, let’s get on with Part 7!
Invasion of Privacy(Cardi B, 2018, 6 votes)– Strong bold vocal flow? Check. Self-empowered swagger? Check. Spare, clean, sampling and production full of interesting choices? Check. Tracks that get your head bobbing, and strike a variety of moods? Check. Songs that are about something and show moments of reflection and vulnerability among the swagger? Check. Sometimes the guest stars get a little distracting, but otherwise this is pure gold.
Lemonade(Beyonce, 2016, 7 votes)– Her voice, of course, is never less than amazing. But that’s almost the least of the things going on here. Multilayered production, clever and varied musical choices, deeply personal lyrics that tackle the political and the private (sometimes the very private matter of marital infidelity), with equal parts biting humor, anger, and raw vulnerability. It kind of puts every other pop record of the decade on notice for their lack of ambition.
Lonerism (Tame Impala, 2012, 5 votes)– Some years ago, I was driving through the wilds of western New York with my wife when we heard something on the radio so weird and wonderful that we immediately had to know what it was. It turned out to be Tame Impala’s song “Elephant” from this album. I’ve listed to two later Tame Impala albums in this blog series and my 2020 review, and expected them to be amazing based on that song, but was decidedly underwhelmed. It turns out this is the album I was looking for the whole time after all. It’s a (distorted) pitch-perfect neo-psychedelic masterpiece from start to finish.
Lost In The Dream(The War on Drugs, 2014, 4 votes)– It starts off vocally and musically billowy and golden, but with maybe too smooth a production. And yep, track two is in the same vein, it reminds me of the 80s, and not in a good way, but in a victory of airtight musical package over authenticity/vitality kind of way. I mean, it’s technically very good, there are some flourishes I enjoy, but I don’t really feel anything the whole way through.
LP1(FKA Twigs, 2014, 4 votes)– I must confess, I’d heard the name, but I had no idea what kind of twig an FKA twig was. So this was all pleasant surprise- the theatrical vocals, air of vulnerability, music based in dance/pop but full of experimental edge and offbeat surprises. Tahliah Debrett Barnett (FKA Twigs is her musical stage name) is an English singer-songwriter, record producer, dancer, and actress, aka she’s overflowing with talent, and all of it is on display here. It never let go of my attention the whole way through.
We now commence part six of my ten-part review of the critic’s choices for the 52 best albums of 2010-2019- Past the halfway point! (Did I not know Top 50 would be a more typical choice than 52? I did. There is a reason…)
If you need to catch up on the first five installments, you can find them here:
This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. You can, should you so choose, read the final installment of my overview of the critical consensus for the 20 best albums of 2020, and the latest monthly review of 2021 new releases as I search for the best 21 albums of 2021.
So, to return to the open question, can I count to 50? I can! But this is what happened: I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff.
I’m doing 10 posts of 5 albums each (but 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. Now that you know, let’s get on with Part 6!
Emotion(Carly Rae Jepsen, 2015, 5 votes)– The opening track is very poppy and very fun. And so, it appears, is the rest of it. It reminds me of Taylor Swift, though perhaps a little slicker and less substantive than her work from a comparable time. Really pretty good as dance-oriented pop music goes, and it does sound emblematic of the decade. So in that sense, maybe a signal album, but I’m not quite sure about “best”.
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (Kendrick Lamar, 2012, 5 votes)– This is the album that put Kendrick Lamar on the critical map, and deservedly so. Musically and vocally, it’s full of choices that put it above the crowd of hip-hop albums. If it stopped there, that would be notable enough, but on top of it there’s actually a structured storyline running throughout, and lyrics that feel searingly honest. It’s an album that observes the toughness of what he grew up in, and shines with a desire to rise above it even as it describes the fear of it dragging him back down.
Golden Hour (Kacey Musgraves, 2018, 6 votes)– A textured country album, definitely often leaning on the obvious/pop side lyrically, but the vocals are earnest enough to sell it. Musically, it’s lush, grounded in pop country, but drawing on dance music, electronic, and indie rock. It’s all very good, and the best moments are great, but I don’t know about it adding up to a “decade’s best”- I have a feeling the best country albums are better than this as a whole, and the best pop albums are too. What she’s done here in bringing together both sides of that equation is still worthy of notice though!
Have One On Me(Joanna Newsom, 2010)– The instrumentation and production is so clever, bringing in layers like the late Beatles. Her voice weaves in and out, soars and dips, sometimes sing-song, sometimes wispy, sometimes powerful. Between all these factors, there’s enough variability in a single song to be almost exhausting, but it holds the attention. And lyrically it’s often kind of trippy, creating a surreal idiosyncratic world of its own in the manner, say, of Kate Bush or Tori Amos. That’s the upside, and it’s very significant. On the downside, it’s hard to keep up over the length of a triple album (runtime comes in at about two hours), and it gets more conventional, and often lower energy, as it goes on. It’s hard to ignore the merits, but I’m not sure it totally succeeds as an album.
In Colour(Jamie xx, 2015, 6 votes)– British Dj Jamie xx delivers the kind of electronic dance music album that was maybe more common in the 90s and early 00s- strong beats, cleverly deployed samples, vocal snippets, but somehow structured in a way that makes it still work as a song along somewhat recognizable pop/rock lines. As you know if you’ve been following my three series this year, electronica is not generally my bag, but this variety of it, and how skillfully it’s done, absolutely is!
And there we are, 60% in on our review of the 2010s. What will the remaining 40% reveal? Stay tuned!
We’ve now reached our August review, aka 2/3 of the way through our search for the best 21 albums of 2021!
To recap for newcomers, I’m listening to new releases each month, sorting them into yes/maybe/no, and then I’ll do a final shakedown to get the best 21 after the year ends. If you missed our previous installments, you can find them here:
This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year. We’re at the halfway point of my ongoing review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and the final installment of my review of the critic’s consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020 is here.
Before we proceed, a quick note about the three categories:
Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. As of the end of August, this list was up to 169 albums, so ever survivor for the final 21 will leave 7 dead companions in it’s wake. En garde!
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes “maybes” linger, so I’m giving them a category just in case.
No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.
And with that, let’s get on to the 98 new releases I listened to for August!
Billy Childish/Wild Billy Childish & CTMF/CTMF, Where The Wild Purple Iris Grows– English painter, author, poet, photographer, film maker, singer and guitarist delivers blistering punk/garage with hints of rocakbilly, and 80s-style folk-punk. And there’s a stinging blues-drenched Dylan cover to boot! I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of him earlier (he’s been kicking around since the late 70s), because what he’s doing is right up my alley!
Brian Setzer, Gotta Have the Rumble– This album sees Brian Setzer getting back to his rockabilly roots, and damn is he good at it. While totally honoring the source sound, it also isn’t a slavish copy, so somehow sounds contemporary and varied.
Bruiser Wolf, Dope Game Stupid– Vocally and lyrically unusual, surrealistic, smart, and sometimes downright hilarious hip-hop. It deals, as many albums do, with the street life and the drug trade, but sounds nothing like every other album while doing it. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
Divine Horsemen, Hot Rise of an Ice Cream Phoenix– That’s a hum-dinger of an album name! Apparently the band is a veteran of the punk/alt country LA scene of the 80s. It’s definitely got that cowpunk sound, but also with interesting touches of metal and psychedelia here and there, poetic lyrics, and an interesting interplay between the male and lead vocalists, a little reminiscent of X. It sounds a little of an era, but it also sounds damn good, and not a single track goes awry.
For Those I Love, For Those I Love– This is kind of fascinating, a varied and interesting electronica background, thickly accented spoken word vocals, and sometimes searingly personal lyrics. Irish producer and songwriter David Balfe produced this response to losses throughout his life, including the 2018 suicide of his long-time friend and musical partner Paul Curran, and Dublin’s struggles as well. It’s powerful. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
GA-20, Try It… You Might Like It! GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor– GA-20 are a band of blues revivalists from Boston, and are here covering songs by 70s Chicago bluesman Hound Dog Taylor. The sound leans toward the electric, rocking, chaotic side of blues, and I love just about every second of it. This is one of those things that reminds me you how vital the blues can still be.
Geoffrey O’Connor, For as Long as I Can Remember– Like a lost era of Bowie. Like the blue-eyed soul end of synth pop. Vocally and musically cool, smooth, and alluring. A bunch of duets with other Australian musicians, including my new obsession Sarah Mary Chadwick. This is really very fine.
Halsey, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power– Trent Reznor produced, but I’m not sure I would have noticed had I not known. There’s definitely a musical and lyrical edge to what is otherwise pretty solidly a dance music album. But, a really good dance album, and then with that edge to it, better still.
Jake Bugg, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning– I went in to this skeptical, as he seemed way too pretty, so I was fearing some British boy band action. Shame on me, because he brings it! Yes, it’s pop oriented (and hooky as all get out), but in a way that shows traces of the Beatles, flourishes from electronica, some genuine emotional wrestling with darker topics, and other marks of sophistication on top of solid pop chops. Pop will always be with us, so we can certainly hope it will sometimes be this good.
James McMurty, The Horses and the Hounds– This Folk/rock/alt country veteran from the 80s, brings stripped down music, ragged vocals, and lyrics that are so sincere and on-point that they’re almost klunky (but in a charming way). He tells visual stories here in a way that country excels at, and the music is rock-country heartland solid.
Jennifer Hudson, Respect (Originial Motion Picture Soundtrack)– The source material is great (representative of periods throughout Aretha Franklin’s career) and the performances by Jennifer Hudson are strong. The natural objection might be: Why not just listen to an Aretha Franklin career retrospective instead? Well, yes. But the performances are great, and aren’t the kind of overly faithful musical drag that can derail this kind of effort. So if it were an album of Jennifer Hudson covers of a few generations of soul classics, wouldn’t I consider it? Yes I would!
Justus Proffit, Speedstar– Sunny guitar rhythms and 60s/70s production swirls belie lyrics with darkness and bite. There’s a lot to appreciate here. Also, the cover may give you nightmares, so there’s that.
Liam Kazar, Due North– This debut solo effort by a midwestern veteran of hip-hop and indie rock bands puts one in mind of the funkier and swingier side of 70s rock/singer-songwriters. It’s pure AM radio gold the whole way through.
Lorde, Solar Power– Wishing the album after one you really like was just like the one before and being dismayed that it’s not is an old, old, album appreciation trap. I’d encourage you to not fall into it in this case. If the Lorde on display here musically and vocally is, at first blush, less incisive and in your face than on Pure Heroine, she is in many ways more subtly disruptive and more surprising here. There are discoveries awaiting on every track, and if they’re not the ones we’re expecting, well, isn’t that how discovery is supposed to go?
Mae Powell, Both Ways Brighter– Bright melodic music, stripped down almost naïve vocals, charming and intelligent lyrics painting vivid pictures. There is nothing here not to like. The San Francisco references are a nice plus too!
Martha Wainwright, Love Will Be Reborn– Many an artist has done a moving, even heart-rending, post-divorce album, but few find the subject matter so suitable to their native talents. I’ve loved Martha Wainwright since her 2005 debut album, and the reason why is amply on display here. Rich music, yearning vocals, and lyrics that are genuine, bitter, and hopefully vulnerable all at the same time.
Media Jeweler, The Sublime Sculpture of Being Alive– This Los Angeles band has put out an album that feels like the more abrasive and twitchier side of 80s new wave and post-punk. The music is a great fit to the lyrical focus on media and manipulation. You’ll hear some Devo here, some early Oingo Boingo, some late Minutemen. I love ever weird, and weirdly profound, second of it.
Rodeola, Arlene– Between the name of this folk-rock band from Bloomington, Indiana, and the album name, I was hoping for something country-oriented. And it is, but in an unusual, beautifully instrumented lush golden slow pop kind of way. Listening to this is like eating wild honey. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
Rosie Tucker, Sucker Supreme– Bubbly pop with a rock guitar edge and sweetly delivered lyrics with bite. Shades of Liz Phair, shades of Juliana Hatfield. These are shades I’m a sucker for! (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
Sepultura, SepulQuarta– Sepultura is a Brazilian metal band that’s been chugging along since the 80s. This album is mostly in a thrash metal kind of vein, but apropos of someone that’s been around for that while, you will hear traces of all kinds of eras/styles of metal along the way. And it stays dynamic, interesting, and heavy, even at the hour run length. It especially warms my heart to find a solid metal album, so huzzah!
Shannon & The Clams, Year of the Spiders– This is definitely one of those times when I’m almost ready to sign off just based on band name alone. I’m so happy, that on top of that, there’s a swinging retro-mix of 60s girl groups, the minor chords side of 60s pop, and psychedelia that I really love. And lead-singer Shannon Shaw is a power-house!
Sturgill Simpson, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita– This is the kind of “extended story” country album that you might have found coming out of Outlaw Country in the 70s (as if to prove the point, Willie Nelson appears on a track). It is ridiculously well done, vocally and musically straight up, country music story-telling in top form. It’s hard to believe he’s contemporary since the sound is so classic, but this is his seventh album, and sounding classic is apparently kind of his forte.
Thalia Zedek,Perfect Vision– A veteran of several 90s alternative rock groups that never really made it above the underground, Zedek is a power here. You’ll find minor chords, haunted lyrics, stripped down yearning vocals, and music with rock and country overtones. She has a poetic sensibility that reminds me of Patti Smith at times, and musically it reminds one of a certain elegiac vein of grunge as well. And on the tracks that really great rocking it’s thrilling! All-in-all, it really is kind of a perfect vision.
The Bug, Fire– I mean, you start off with a narration about robots and prisoners, I’m intrigued. This is like, heavy electronica, with a strong dub influence- stomping metallic beats, synthesizer as its own form of percussion, rapid-fire lyrics full of looming apocalypse. Excellent from start to finish.
The Killers, Pressure Machine– I really liked the burned-out but glitzy sleaze rock of the Killers when they first came out, but haven’t followed them closely since. So I was surprised by this-something much more haunted and introspective. It reminds me, of anything, of Springsteen and the “America-obsessed” era of U2. These are tales of small-town desperation, and feel like where the sleazy glitzy lives of their early work end up washed up. Or were trying to escape from in the first place. It’s pretty powerful.
The Umbrellas, The Umbrellas– Great shimmery twee-pop. A hint of 60s, the sunnier side of 80s alt guitar rock, and the trade-off between male and female lead vocals works well for them. I’m not just saying this because they’re a Bay Area band, although I am always pleased to find something great by a Bay Area band!
Ty Segall, Harmonizer– Full of surging guitars, hints of garage, psychedelia, and glam, and idiosyncratic electronic music tricks, these deconstructed songs have melody and just enough grating to keep you on your toes. With all this, and sharp, urgent vocals, and lyrics, this is smart, challenging indie rock! As with Billy Childish earlier above, I feel like somebody should have told me about Ty Segall long before now!
Wanda Jackson, Encore– What do you do when you’re an 83 year-old rockabilly legend? You write some whole new songs, go into the studio to record them, and get Joan Jett to produce, that’s what! And it is rocking, spirited, and freaking excellent. May we all still be so on top of our craft at that age!
Water From Your Eyes, Structure– The first track is sweet twee fun, it gets more electronic and darkly textured from there. And then, eventually, arrives at a kind of synthesis of them. It gets a tad grating, in the post-rock experimental kind of way, but often melodic and quirkily interesting. I kind of loved it more as time went on. Well done rock duo from Brooklyn!
Akai Solo, True Sky– This hip-hop album by a Brooklyn musician has a kind of metallic drive to it, and syncopated musical rhythm. It reminds me, favorably, of the sound of Madvillain. Though lacking a little in vocal dynamism, it’s full of positive affirmation of being, and unusual, interesting mix choices. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
Big Jade, Pressure– I was a little flummoxed by this. It was the kind of bragging through cursing out others brand of hip-hop that I usually pass on. On the other hand, the gender inversion of how she does it is interesting, and the vocal stylings are strong and dynamic. There’s also a certain self-awareness in the unpleasantness of the character she puts forward. I can’t dismiss it! (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
Bnny, Everything– This was a literal maybe for me, as it kept veering between a “yes” and “probably no”. On the “yes” side, her low-key vocals, minor chords, intensely emotional material and forays into different genres really caught my attention. On the “probably no” side, there were stretches where the whole thing got too muted for too long. But the affecting parts were so affecting, I never gave up on it!
Boldy James/The Alchemist, Bo Jackson– Detroit hip-hop artist Boldy Jackson partnering with DJ/Producer The Alchemist, who seems to have partnered with everyone the last year or two. It’s lyrically rich, vocally lively, and musically full. But it is about the drug trade/street life and does fall too easily into misogyny, both in cliched ways, which is bumping it out of “yes”.
Chorusing, Half Mirror– A synth base overlaid with a kind of spare, haunted, even melancholy, folk and country soundscape. My reservation is its tendency toward being muted, but this brainchild of North Carolina-based artist Matthew O’Connell is affecting in a way that stays with you.
Connie Smith, The Cry of the Heart– Connie Smith is a real-life old time country singer. And that’s what this album sounds like, in the best kind of way. My only hesitation is that it sounds a little dated, but that’s also kind of the point! Heartfelt, and nary a song misfires on the way.
Evan Wright, Sound From Out the Window– From the dark and discordant side of psychedelia, mixed with hints of syrupy 70s pop and some modern electronic music production. It’s very low key, which is my reservation, but has rich depths.
Indigo de Souza, Any Shape You Take– This sometimes sounds lyrically and vocally young, which makes sense since this North Carolina-based singer-songwriter is 24. But most often, it’s really striking. It comes from a dance/pop direction, but livened by an indie rock approach, with a powerful edge musically and vocally. She’s definitely someone to keep an eye on, and the only reason it’s not an automatic “yes” is the unfortunately autotuned and conventional opening track.
Jana Rush, Painful Enlightenment– Chicago based DJ Dana Rush is also, apparently, a chemical engineer and a CAT-scan technician. What she’s made here is somewhere between moaning blues, hot jazz, dub beats, and experimental electronica. At times it was a little too experimental, but it never quite let me go. It’s not like anything else you’ll hear this year, and it demands attention.
Laura Stevenson, Laura Stevenson– Emotional yearning vocals and lyrics, loud and then quiet guitar and vocal surges. This sounds for all the world like a 90s songstress. I’m a sucker for 90s songstresses! It does seem a little uneven in pacing, which is perhaps my only reservation.
Leslie Winer, When I Hit You, You’ll Feel It– Metallic beats, vaguely sinister spoken and whispered vocals, spare but driving musical backing, interesting sampling, and a poetic lyrical bent focused on issues personal and societal. Winer is a former model and close friend of William S. Burroughs, and has been involved with music off and on since the 80s. I’m not sure how I never heard of her before this, but this is something! Perhaps a tad deliberately discordant for regular listening? But worthy of attention.
Nathan Salsburg, Psalms– These are Pslams as in the actual Psalms, as in the Hebrew scriptures. In Hebrew, set to some fine acoustic guitar settings by this Kentucky-based folk musician. All right, you’re going to think I’m crazy, but it kind of works! They were always meant to be set to music after all, and the language barrier here helps weave the sacred spell. It’s from left field, but I have to call it a maybe!
Rosali, No Medium– There’s a horse on the cover, so you might think this has a country sound. It does in a way, but in an indie folk/rock vein with a guitar that keeps veering heavier, and sharp clear lyrics and vocals that remind me of Aimee Mann. I like being reminded of Aimee Mann. It tends toward being a little too same track to track toward the end, but is a strong entry regardless. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
Steve Gunn, Other You– Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter with a rich golden 70s sound- everything here sounds familiar, like that song you almost remember from childhood. The only reason it got docked from “yes” is that the next to last track is an extended slow instrumental, and then it ends on a good, but very low-key vocal number. Deflation right at the end!
Toyomansi, No More Sorry– Naming your band after a fish sauce from the Philippines is a good start. Turns out he’s a “musician and culinary artist” based out of Baltimore, and this is a pretty well-produced DJ/hip-hop album. Sometimes the production tips toward too 2000s conventional, but much more often the soundscapes are unique and arresting. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
Turnstile, Glow On– Multiracial hardcore band from Baltimore. I like them more when they’re in a metal vein than punk, but they’re solid either way, and the songs have a lot of variability. There are also some surprising pop and classic rock moments mixed in. It leans a little formulaic, which is what’s keeping it from “yes”, but it kept almost winning me over.
Wednesday, Twin Plagues– The squeal, the fuzz, the distortion of electric guitar, how I love you. And female vocals make it even better! The sound here is mostly in a My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain vein, with more than a hint of early Sleater-Kinney thrown in, but sometimes it goes in surprising directions- there’s even a country-tinged ballad. It seems a little unfocused to be an automatic “yes”, but I do like what it’s doing.
After 7, Unfinished Business– If you like 90s-style light and shiny R&B, this could be for you. Not enough substance for me to think it might be year’s best.
Alejandro Escovedo, La Cruzada– He’s been playing since the 70s, and he’s very good. At the end of the day, the production was a little too slick, and the language barrier was too formidable for this to make it to year’s best for me. Which is definitely more my failing than his!
Anderson East, Maybe We Never Die– No question, this is well-made, and his combination of country and R&B sounds passionate and smooth. It ended up a little too smooth, a little too “big produced album”-sounding to really stand out.
Badge Epoch, Scroll– Veteran of multiple solo personas and member of indie rock groups Max Turnbull self-describes this as “a cosmic hodge-podge of funk, jazz, ambient techno, aggressive guitarmonized rawk, musique concrète, and hip-hop.” He’s right, and it is often very interesting, but I’m just not sure it is 90 minutes worth of non-stop interesting. As a primer of sound possibilities, though, there’s a lot here.
Big Red Machine, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?- This is a kind of indie supergroup, or at least a collaboration between memebrs of Bon Iver and The National. They’ve also chock-filled with it guest stars as far flung as Fleet Foxes and Taylor Swift. Maybe this is the inevitable fate of supergroups, but a lot of it ends up sounding kind of blandly 80s. The mix of elements is promising, but it just doesn’t add up to something that can really hold one’s attention.
BIG/BRAVE, Vital- I appreciate the shambling feedback-laden rock, and the desperate and intelligent shout of the lead vocalist. Unfortunately, it turns muted to the point of being almost ambient in the middle. Like much of the most interesting and challenging rock of the day, it’s Canadian. I think it could have been a yes without such a long deadzone in the middle. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
Bob’s Burgers, The Bob’s Burgers Music Album, Vol. 2- If you’re a Bob’s Burgers fan (and why on Earth would you not be?!?!?!) this is pure delight. But it’s a little off category for “best album of the year”. Listen to it anyway, though!
Brian Jackson/Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Adrian Younge, Jazz is Dead 008– I keep hearing things are jazz fusion that then turn out to be less fused than I’m looking for. For jazz fans this might be dandy though.
Cerebral Rot, Excretion of Mortality– You want your music to be brutal and heavy? Good! Your songs are all about rot and decay? Even better! But the growling doom vocal style where nothing can actually be understood, well, it detracts from the effect. To properly horrify, one must be heard! (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
Chris Young, Famous Friends– Contemporary pop country doesn’t really go somewhere. But as far as contemporary pop country goes, this is pretty good.
Chvrches, Screen Violence– This outing by a Scottish synth-pop revival band started out very promising, but it soon became a little too Katy Perry/Taylor Swift for my taste. I mean, they’re both great in their proper setting, but they are already them, so we don’t really need more.
Creeper, American Noir– It’s a nice horror-themed, emo pop goth kind of thing, but it never really gets beyond that.
Damon & Naomi/Michio Kurihara, A Sky Record– Well sung, well-instrumented moody synth songs. There’s nothing wrong with them, but it’s a little too all in one low energy range and same song to song.
Dan Nicholls, Mattering and Meaning– Atmospheric keyboards with notes of dissonance. It’s too disembodied and abstract to really lay “great album” status on.
Deafhaven, Infinite Granite– I mean, I heard “metal band originally from San Francisco”, and I was very intrigued. But they’ve gotten so into symphonic and melodic metal that they seem to have ended up in a kind of 80s synth alt/emo territory. It’s pretty and well done, but never rises above a certain level of energy or interest.
Devendra Banhart, Refuge– Devendra Banhart is an indie rock powerhosue with many different modes. But this album’s one- almost ambient instrumental background music- is just not something I can get on board with.
Field Works, Maple, Ash, and Oaks: Cedars Instrumentals– I mean, it was an instrumental album by an experimental musician inspired by trees. I knew it was probably going to be a no, but I had to listen. I do like trees!
Harold Land, Westward Bound!– This is a kind of jazz I like, more in the hot torrid flow school. But I don’t see it rising up into “best of year” category.
Jade Bird, Different Kinds of Light- This English folk/Americana aficionado delivers solid rock/pop energetic, vocally sparking, lyrically rich music here, but, especially toward the end, it dips into too-long stretches of low key tracks that sound the same.
Joan Armatrading, Consequences– Her voice is powerful and unique as always, the music is driving, and the lyrics are a glorious celebration of love. But eventually it gets undermined by lyrics that are a little too spot-on, and an 80s production sound that ends up making everything a little too slick. It was a close call, though- she’s a force!
Kenny Garrett, Sounds From The Ancestors– I knew this might be too “pure jazz” for my purposes, but I also knew it was in the fusion realm, with nods to African musical forms. It is sometimes really captivating when it does that, but not often enough.
Khruangbin, Mordechai Remixes- Remix and re-sequencing of their 2020 album. I listened to the original as part of my 2020 search, and it was a little too mellow world beat jazz fusion for me. I did like these remixes a lot better, but it still didn’t add up to an album that held my attention.
Kool & the Gang, Perfect Union- I don’t think it’s possible to have a bad time with Kool & the Gang, and this is a good time, even if there wasn’t a lot that was especially new, different, or above and beyond. Also, this album was completed just before the death of one long-time member, and released shortly after the death of another, so in a way it can be thought of as a memorial. It might not be one of the best things this year, but it’s a very fitting memorial.
Kunzite, Visuals– You may have noticed that electronica is a hard sell for me. This was actually on a really good track though- dynamic, soulful, interesting. But it’s still hard to keep something almost entirely instrumental going for 50+ minutes, and it turned a little too conventional autouned 2000s soul in the middle.
Liars, The Apple Drop– My initial vibe from this was kind of post-grunge. It reminded me of how much I love grunge, and what icy contempt I have for post-grunge.
Lil Bean, Still Campaignin’– It does have lyrical complexity and positivity going for it, which is great. But ultimately the vocal styling is all too much in one vein, and it’s way too autotuned.
Lingua Ignota, Sinner Get Ready– You know the weirder and darker moments of operatic rock? This is that at length. It’s a little too heavy and challenging to get the listenability required for “top album”, but it also doesn’t permit you to turn away, which is something. If nothing else, you should read-up on multi-media artist and classically trained musician Kristin Hayter, who is Lingua Ignota, and who has a whole lot of interesting stuff going on.
Lucinda Chua, Antidotes (1 & 2)- London based singer, composer and producer, combines a 2021 EP with a 2019 EP for a full-length release. Beautiful vocals and subtle, muted instrumental music, but ultimately a little too subdued to really register.
Madi Diaz, History of a Feeling- This Connecticut singer-songwriter delivers searingly personal acoustic/folk songs centered on the difficult feelings that come up in relationships. It’s sometimes quite affecting, but the first four tracks are curiously vocally and musically muted given the subject matter. It speeds up after that, and then it’s devastating and arresting. But five tracks in is too late to have that start to click in.
Marisa Anderson/William Tyler, Lost Futures– This instrumental album by two American folk powerhouses is very good, but, well, entirely instrumental. I just don’t see it slaying hundreds of other albums to win a spot in the top 21 for the whole year.
Mouse Rat, Awesome Album– Yes, Mouse Rat is Andy’s band from Parks and Rec. Yes, this is a collection of songs from the show, plus a few new tracks added. Yes, it somehow sounds better than most of what you hear on the radio now, even though it’s totally absurd. No, I don’t think it will be a best album of the year. Yes, it is delightful.
Nite Jewel, No Sun– It’s pretty, it’s smart and well produced, but it’s way too same track to track.
One Republic, Human – Uggghhh. Autontuned, overproduced 2000s pop par excellence. I grant you, it’s very radio friendly, but nothing like an actual human sentiment emerges from it at all.
Only Up, Breeze– This is often very interesting, especially when it gets funky, but generally it’s too 80s alt/90s electronic throwback without anything really distinct to it. I see-sawed, but ultimately ended up on “no”.
Quickly, Quickly, The Long and Short of It– This Portland based artist/musician is doing some really interesting things on the borderline of hip-hop/electronica/experimental. Ultimately, it gets a little auto-tuned and too similar track to track for me, but there are things here to take note of.
Robben Ford, Pure– Instrumental, electric, bluesy outing from American blues, jazz, and rock guitarist Robben Lee Ford. It’s very good, but also as an entirely instrumental piece, and it’s hard to hang a lot on it ultimately as an “album”
Scotch Rolex, TEWARI- A Japanese DJ living in Germany puts out an album with a UK label in which he works with avant garde African musicians. The modern world is really pretty amazing sometimes! It’s always interesting, but sometimes too grating/experimental for a consistent album experience. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
Southern Avenue, Be The Love You Want– Memphis soul and blues band? I mean, generically, yes! In specific, they start off really strong, high-energy and distinctive. By and by, too many songs that sound like each-other and production that’s a little too slick starts to drag it down, but no question this is a fun and talented band.
System Olympia, Always on Time– A solid enough electronica/dance outing from London-based artist Francesca Macri, but nothing grabs me to the extent that I think it might be “year’s best” material. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
Terence Blanchard, Absence– It’s a pretty fine jazz album, I think. But it doesn’t get enough into the realm of musical forms I’m interested in.
The Joy Formidable, Into the Blue– A Welsh alternative rock group, which is a promising enough description. And what they do is very solidly done, but it feels a little too smooth and not vital and real enough along the way.
The Steoples, Wide Through the Eyes of No One- An avant-soul collaboration between two Los Angeles musicians, and that’s how it comes off- something obviously based in soul and R&B, but approaching it from a different direction, still smooth while also bristling with experimentation and unusual musical and production choices. It started off with a lot of promise, but ultimately too much of it was in one groove/tone, and the individual tracks started getting lost.
Tinashe, 333- The opening track was off-kilter and promising, but from there it settled into the autotuned music/vocals school of R&B. There was more than a sign of sparkle here, but overall it doesn’t get out of that vein enough.
Tropical Fuck Storm, Deep States– These are like solid pop-rock songs that have gone out of focus in a fun way- vocals and music tracks slightly out of synch, discordant edges to everything, a certain stuttering quality. Ultimately it proved a little too grating a little too often to be sustainable at album length, but it was interesting!
Villagers, Fever Dreams- An Irish alternative rock group, which is a promising enough description. And what they do is very solidly done, but it feels a little too low-key/one-tempo to really stand out and get attention.
Walt McClements, A Hole in the Fence– Has a kind of Eno- Lanois U2 sound. Entirely instrumental, pretty and atmospheric, but not enough content to make it to “great” in my opinion. It is pretty impressive for being entirely accordion-based though!
William Parker, Mayan Space Station- This was almost the Fusion album that I actually like! Maybe because it was full of guitar distortion early on and sometimes reminded me of Hendrix. Later on it became a little more bubbling Jazz, speaking of which…
William Parker, Painter’s Winter– This was too often the kind of bubbling jazz that just fades into the background for me.
Wolves in the Throne Room, Primordial Arcana– Black metal band from Olympia, Washington? Count me in! And I mean, that name, come on. And let me tell you, the symphonic layered swell of their wall of sound is really something, but ultimately the totally opaque scream lyrics detracted too much from the process
Yann Tiersen, Kerber– French musician and composer. It has a kind of Eno/Lanois feeling to it. Yes I said the same thing about another entry a few items ago. Ultimately it’s too ethereal for me to find anything to grab on to.
Young Nudy, Rich Shooter– This is his second album out this year. Like the earlier one, DR. EV4L, there are the makings of a great, or at least a very interesting, album here, but too much of the rest of it is full of bitch and pussy talk. Alas!
Yung Baby Tate, After the Rain– This is fun, and she has a lot of presence and personality, but I’m not sure in total that it rises above other dance/R&B outings this year to “year’s best”. (Full disclosure: This is not really an August release. It’s from a Pitchfork list of 29 albums you might have missed this year. No stone left unturned!)
And so, with a little under 10 hours remaining, we have finished the August review before the end of September. Onward!
Okay, look, this is the July review. And yes, it’s September. Perhaps the August review will make it out before the end of the following month? We’ll see. Meanwhile, whatever month it is, our search for the 21 best albums of 2021 continues!
If this is your first time here, I’m listening to new releases each month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final shakedown to get the best 21 after the year ends. If you missed previous months, you can find them here:
This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year. We’re at the halfway point of my ongoing review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s, and my final installment on my reviews of the 20 best albums of 2020 is here.
Before we go on, a quick note about the three categories:
Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. As of the end of July, this list is up to 140 albums, so, you know, it’s going to be a brutal reckoning at the end.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes “maybes” linger, so I’m giving them a category just in case.
No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.
And with that, we better get going, because I listened to 95 new releases in July. So there’s a lot to get through!
Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever– Her smoky vocals and sharp emotionally complicated lyrics are in top form here, and the music works well with it, be it low-tempo piano cords, waves of electronic shimmer, or smooth beats. A worthy entry, all the way around.
Chet Faker, Hotel Surrender– This alter ego of Australian musician Nicholas Murphy brings a piece informed by electronica, R&B, and 70s flourishes, with a nice spare power, clean production, and some interesting musical, vocal, and lyrical twists. It’s really good, doesn’t sound like everything else I’ve heard this year, and also threw in a Star Trek reference. So, you know, that’s it for me.
Cookie Kawaii, Vanice– Oh my gosh, I love this! Apparently, she’s a Jersey club DJ who broke out on Tik-tok. There’s a2021 story for you. And here she’s delivering electronic dance/hip-hop that’s pure catchy fun, and is smart and coming from a unique point of view.
Dave, We’re All Alone in This Together– Dave is a British hip-hop artist, who turns out to have fierce and intelligent vocals and lyrics, delivered on a nuanced and subtle musical background. His songs deal with the personal and with social issues, and sound authentic and powerful in each vein.
Jodi, Blue Heron– Stripped-down, plaintive, vaguely melancholy. Offbeat and vulnerable lyrics and vocals, with a lurch that is reflected in the music sometimes too. In all, it’s really affecting despite its low-key tone.
John Glacier, SHILOH: Lost for Words– She (this London-based artist, despite the name, is a woman) delivers a disorienting tapestry of beats, music and vocals, informed by a left field hip hop sound and a strong, personal lyrical narrative. A great, low-key gem.
kolezanka, Place Is– Musically and vocally a swirling incantation, with the sweetness of melody, but the surprise and sometimes bite of musical experimentation. Kolezanka is the debut solo project of Kristina Moore, an Arizona native and current New York City resident who is a veteran of several indie bands. You can tell she’s learned her craft well along the way.
Ledisi, Ledisi Sings Nina– Ledisi is amazing, and the Nina Simone source material is great as well. So we have a solid basis, and from there the vocal performance is top-rate, the lyrics are smartly updated, and the musical delivery is in a swinging jazz style that’s a delight.
Los Lobos, Native Sons– Los Lobos is here paying tribute to their roots with a dozen covers of artists from Los Angeles that have influenced them. Multiple genres and eras from the 40s to the 80s get a turn, in fitting with the band’s own eclecticism. As both a love letter to LA, and a tribute to their influences, it’s pretty effective. And as a showcase for the band’s 40+ years of craftsmanship it’s smooth and powerful.
Mega Bog, Life, and Another– The music is acoustic with hints of jazz, flamenco, brill building pop, brittle noise, unusual vocals (sometimes quirky, sometimes whispery, sometimes discordant) and smart, off-center lyrics. It puts me a bit in mind of Laurie Anderson, Lydia Lunch, and the musically sharper side of Ani DiFranco. overall, the whole thing sits on the fine edge of charming and challenging, and that’s a great fence to straddle.
Molly Burch, Romantic Images– Musically and vocally, this sounds like its title-bright and lush with romance. A lot of the songs here felt familiar, in that “this is that song I used to like!” kind of way. One of the songs specifically pitches the joys of nostalgia too, so I think she knows what she’s doing.
Patrick Paige II, If I Fail Are We Still Cool?– The title of this is so charming I was pulling for it on that basis alone. As it turns out, his flow is smooth, the lyrics are sharp, clear and positive, and the production and sampling is spare and off-center (jazz, video game sounds, synth sound effects all make an appearance) in a way that drives everything along. There’s even a framing motif of an airplane flight that actually works with the theme of striving for personal uplift!
Rose City Band, Earth Trip– Country inflected indie with a warm hazy feeling. It reminds me of a certain vein of Neil Young and CSN&Y, but with a contemporary flourish. This turns out not to be an accident as guitarist Ripley Johnson apparently aims for this space in his projects. Just a delightful listen the whole way through.
Sault, Nine– I listened to Sault’s two 2020 releases as part of my review of the critic’s top twenty albums for that year. Darned if they weren’t both excellent, and this is too. Sault is an anonymous British hip-hop collective that mixes influences from electronica, hip-hop, and classic soul in a dizzying and skillful way. The musical side alone would be a treat, but then they have sharp, lucid, and uplifting lyrics and vocals on top of it.
Sonny & The Sunsets, New Day With New Possibilities– It started off sounding like moody and atmospheric acoustic folk with country flourishes, then got weirder and funnier from there. It reminds me of the attention to solid musicianship married with intelligent lyrics and a big sense of humor that Camper Van Beethoven had. Also more than a hint of Jonathan Richman. And it turns out they’re a San Francisco band, so no wonder I like them!
The Go! Team, Get Up Sequences Part I– So fun and energetic- it mixes full on indie rock in a synth/bedroom pop vein, 80s-flavored hip-hop, and what sometimes sounds like high school band practice. This the 441st new album I’ve listened to this year, and nothing else sounded like. And not many were as delightful either!
The Wallflowers, Exit Wounds– So, I’m from the 90s musically, thus I’m going to be interested in the Wallflowers based on lingering love for their 1996 album Bringing Down the Horse. Also, I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, so I’ll always be curious about what Jakob’s up to musically on that basis. The good news for me on both fronts is that, without ever sounding derivative, he does remind of his father, and he continues to have his 90s gift for incisive lyrics, and a way with melody within solid rock structure. This album works, start to finish.
Tones and I, Welcome to the Madhouse– This Australian singer-songwriter delivers dance music as madness. The opening is cheerful and truly unsettling. Subsequent tracks are more conventional but still have a lot of intelligence emotional bite and surprise twists, unusual flourishes to both the music and the lyrics.
TORRES, Thirstier– Hello, is this a guitar wall of sound? With pleasing outbreaks of dynamism? And smart heartfelt lyrics delivered via lackadaisical yet powerful vocals from a frontwoman? I am practically required by law to like this combination. The album even has an ending that feels like an honest-to-goodness ending! TORRES is Mackenzie Ruth Scott, and I approve her message.
Wavves, Hideaway– Great lo-fi ringing indie rock from this San Diego band. Callbacks to 50s/60s rock, garage rock, the rockier side of 80s alt. Male and female vocalists trading off too, which you don’t hear nearly often enough. If you’re like me, this may restore your faith in the anarchic appeal of real rock.
Willow, Lately I Feel EVERYTHING– This was much rockier than I was expecting. Mostly rocking from a young Taylor Swiftian kind of direction, but full of attitude and musical verve. And sometimes coming in from metal and even Bikini Kill territory, with R&B and hip-hop dashes along the way. Well done young Willow!
Yola, Stand For Myself– Rich, sparkling, full, R&B. This British soul artist’s voice is a force, and musically this has a modern classic sound from all kinds of Soul/R&B directions. You’re in good hands from start to finish.
Andy Bell, Another View -This is not Andy Bell of Erasure, but Andy Bell of shoegaze pioneer Ride. Let me tell you, this makes it difficult to search for. An electronica album by a shoegaze pioneer, well, I thought I was in trouble. But it turns out this is one of the livelier and more interesting electronica rides of the year!
Attacca Quartet, Real Life– One source described this as “classical crossover”, and I can see what they mean. A classical quartet goes for a spin that, while instrumentally still classical, has the flavor of rock and electronic dance music. It’s lively, powerful, and feels like it understands the spirit of rock, which I often wish rock still did. Call me crazy, but despite/because of the unusual genre approach, I think it could be a contender!
Barenaked Ladies, Detour de Force– They’ve never been less than really fun, and it’s still true here. Some of it feels a little by rote, but other tracks really stand out, and it’s impossible to find anything bad in this album. So I’m not sure it reaches “out of the park, best of the year” status, but maybe?
Bleachers, Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night– Headed by very in-demand songwriter Jack Antonoff, Bleachers at times sounds like new wave, at times sounds like Springsteen (no accident, they’re both from New Jersey and Bruce even appears on one of the tracks), and their album is full of songs about yearning for rising above. The only thing that bumped it off of “yes” was the decision to end on two very muted low-key tracks in a row.
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, 662– You know who’s got it going on as a genre? Contemporary blues. This album is muscular, electric, skillfully played. It falls prey a little too much sometimes, maybe, to production slickness, but really it’s pretty excellent. I wish rock would learn this lesson and be unafraid to produce unapologetic genre music.
Dusted, III– I kept thinking this was too much in a muted acoustic vein musically and vocally, but the emotional complexity, intelligence, and bite of the lyrics kept winning me back. Well done, Canadian indie rock band! I’m telling you, Canada is where it’s at!
Dave McMurray, Grateful Deadification– A jazz fusion great makes an album of Grateful Dead covers. How’s that for an album concept! My 80s alt teen self would have been aghast at two of the great enemies- Jazz and the Dead- being combined, but my more nuanced adult self thinks this take on it often works surprisingly well.
G Herbo, 25– There’s some great song structure work here and powerful clear flow, but it does tip into the autotune school of hip-hop on some tracks. Also, the subject matter and personality behind it is often quite interesting and revealing, but it dips into gangster cliches. On the other hand, he also questions these same tropes, and expresses a yearning for rising above it. And as it goes on, this actually increases.
Laura Mvula, Pink Noise– Starts off with those nice sharp metallic beats from the 80s, and strong vocals. It has a late-80s soul/R&B feel, also informed by jazz, and the dub/Caribbean influence often found in British soul/R&B(which makes sense since she’s British). I wonder about the dated feel, and it’s a little more produced than I often like things, but it’s such a fun mix, and her strong presence carries it through.
Marisa Monte, Portas– I’m not really up on my Afro-Brazilian pop/jazz artists, but she seems like a really good one! On the one hand, it’s not Portugese’s fault, but I don’t understand a word of Portugese. On the other hand, this is so engaging and charming. So maybe we average out at “Maybe”?
Prince, Welcome 2 America– This posthumous album is from unreleased 2010 sessions, but darned if they don’t fit 2020/21 weirdly well, which is one sign of his power. It’s lyrically, vocally and musically for the most part subtle but tight, and full of the utopian themes were one of Prince’s classic preoccupations. This isn’t the most innovative thing he’s ever put out, but it is eerily resonant of our moment.
Rodney Crowell, Triage– A country music veteran who helped kick start the neo-traditional movement in the 80s. This outing is often very personal and introspective (fueled both by the influence of the pandemic, and a nerve disease he has developed). The only reservation is that the music and lyrics sometimes go for an almost cliche standard, but he always sound sincere, and affecting. Some good covers, and his originals bring to mind Neil Young and Bob Dylan, which is a pretty impressive thing to have one’s originals do.
Son Volt, Electro Melodier– When the principals of Uncle Tupelo went their separate ways, the way Jay Farrar went was to Son Volt, where he continued a sound rather like Uncle Tupelo’s. Which is great! The lyrics do tend a little toward the klunky side of topical here and there, in a way that was charming for an 80s underground band and isn’t as much now, but that’s about my only reservation.
Taphari, Blind Obedience– A fun dynamic hip-hop outing, full of unusual musical, vocal, and lyrical choices that evoke a kaleidoscope of ideas and images. A little light/not always coherent, perhaps, for annual best. But maybe not!
The Flatlanders, Treasure of Love– Founded in 1972, The Flatlanders were a short-lived country rock/outlaw country band, but the individual members went on to long careers harking to traditionalism, which has fueled interest in their reunions over the years. There are a few originals here, mostly covers. This sounds just like you’d expect based on that, which is a sort of a minus- is it too familiar?, but also a strong plus- it sounds timelessly classic.
Tom Petty / Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Angel Dream– It’s a bit of a peculiar story. This album features songs from his soundtrack for “She’s The One” in 1993, but it’s not simply that soundtrack- it features some, but not all of the songs from it, and adds four previously unreleased songs from the same period. And it was released by his estate, so it’s official, and in, a way, a new album in its own right. The peculiarity is keeping it from “yes” for me, but it is such an excellent window into one of his most interesting and often overlooked periods.
Towa Tei, LP– I do have a generational soft spot in my heart for Deee-Lite, so maybe I’m biased, but this album reminds me of how fun electronic music can be. How it can be clever, knowledgeable of and conversant with musical idioms and what makes a song work, weirdly electronic and futuristic sounding, high energy, and just joyful. It got just bumped out of “yes” by having an out-of-tone with the rest of it dreamy slow number at the end, but otherwise excellent. Thanks Towa!
U-Roy, Solid Gold– A fitting send-off for a reggae veteran who is also often credited as one of the inspirations for the development of hip-hop. This album, completed in 2020 and then followed shortly after by the 78 year-old U-Roy’s passing in February of this year, is chock full of well-used guests, and excellent songs with the particular spiritual-political charge and simultaneous joy of Rastafarian-inspired reggae. If not for two 15-minute versions of the same song in a row at the end, it would have been an automatic “yes”, but even that couldn’t fully defeat it.
Alasdair Roberts/Volvur, The Old Fabled River– If you say “Scottish folk musician” to me, I’m well-disposed in advance. That being said, it was a little too all in one groove on the mellow side of folky to stand out.
Always You, Bloom Off The Rose– Lost 80s alt album of the intersection of synth and moody pop rock variety? It was very pleasant, but it got a little too into the sameness of its own grove after a while.
Amaro Freitas, Sankofa– A Brazilian jazz album is bound to be a little borderline in terms of what I’m looking for, but, no stone left unturned. It was very nice, but in a too low-key, mellow way to really leave much impression.
Anika, Change– This British/German musician, journalist and poet delivers electronic/dance music, but with a spare post-punk edge, high intelligence, and a somewhat unsettling lyrical and vocal presence. The best tracks are great, but it’s a little too inconsistent between the ones that really hit and and muted fade-to-background numbers.
At The Gates, Nightmare of Being– Swedish death metal band, from the technical/orchestral side of metal, with a fair twist of thrash thrown in. The vocals are in the shouted school of metal vocals, but are clear enough to make out, which isn’t always the case with that school. Ultimately, I don’t know that it’s committing enough to one or the other of its sounds, or doing anything new or especially excellent enough to reach “best”.
Blues Traveler, Traveler’s Blues– I like the inversion of the name. This album sees the band doing a variety of blues covers, which plays to their strengths. For a band fan, for a genre fan, it’s a very worthy endeavor but, though it catches fire on some tracks, for the most part it doesn’t rise decisively to the level of year’s best.
Born of Osiris, Angel or Alien– Metalcore band from the Chicago area. Technically very proficient, it’s, well, a little shouty vocally, which largely prevents me from approaching it lyrically. The album picks up some of the worst habits of 2000s metal and hardcore, and even works in a little autotune.
Cautious Clay, Deadpan Love– A hip-hop album, but one that leans very heavily in an R&B direction. Or vice versa? Makes some unusual choices, which is interesting, and the tone is very positive, but ultimately too all one tone.
Charlotte Day Wilson, Alpha– A solid serving of smoky soul from a Canadian R&B singer. It’s well done musically and vocally, but sounds too much the same track to track. As a debut, though, it carries a lot of promise.
Clairo, Sling– A kind of hazy 70s feel to it, her cool vocals and warm syrup of the swinging, even sometimes orchestral, music nicely offset each other. The tracks also have a strong individual identity. It was a real contender until it lulled out for a few too many tracks 3/4 of the way through. She’s worth keeping an eye on, though!
Darkside, Spiral– A kind of discordant and spare album. Too often trending toward abstract/background.
David Crosby, For Free– David Crosby, of course, never sounds bad. And he doesn’t here either. It does have that “rock veteran makes album in 80s with slick production” feel though. I certainly wouldn’t tell fans of his to stay away from it, but it doesn’t get into “year’s best” territory.
Declaime, In the Beginning, Vol. 1– Ah, the Oxnard school of hip-hop! Okay, maybe there’s not such a thing. It’s a solid album, but doesn’t really do anything special to stand out or rise above.
Descendents, 9th & Walnut– This album sounds like it could have been produced at any point in the group’s history from 1977 to now, which is both a strength and weakness. I don’t hear “best of year” here, but it does do what it does very well. And you have to admire punk’s ability to pack 18 songs into 25 minutes.
Dot Allison, Heart-Shaped Scars– She got her start in electronic music in the 90s, and this is electronic, but in a strings kind of way, which, with her flowing wisp of a voice, brings to mind Celtic and new age music. Pleasant, but fades into the background.
Durand Jones & the Indications, Private Space– I couldn’t decide if this was an early 80’s R&B sound I really liked, or a too-produced muzak/light-jazz 80s soul that I didn’t. Ultimately there was too much of the later for it to make it to yes for me, but enough of the former that it deserves mention.
Emma-Jen Thackray, Yellow– Discordant electronica, surging jazz opening, spoken word poetry, then shifts into a jazz-inflected dance music with clever lyrics, but it gets a little too into the jazz easy listening vein after that.
Foodman, Yasuragi Land– This electronica album is from Japanese DJ, Producer, and Painter Takahide Higuch. It’s interesting, but a little abstract and a little too all in one tone track to track to really stand out for me.
Guardian Singles, Guardian Singles– Rock! Hi-energy, sunny rock! Every time I hear it again, I remember how much I’ve missed it. You know when a song ends and the feedback fuzz is still there? That’s good stuff. Unfortunately, it mushed up into undifferentiated low-key tracks at the end. Alas!
Half Waif, Mythopoetics– The spare but powerful production-leans toward electronic/keyboard, plaintive slightly ghostly vocals, darkly textured lyrics. These are the strengths, and they are considerable, but ultimately too much of it just fades into the background of track to track similarity.
Horsey, Debonair– For the majority of these tracks, this South London band sounds like a muscular out of control lounge singer, kind of like if “Helter Skleter” Paul McCartney played the sweet diddies of sweet diddy Paul McCartney. And then methed it out a step further. I loved it, until they decided to end with a long low-energy song followed by a meandering “Revolution #9” type style track. Album greatness squashed.
Jackson Browne, Downhill From Everywhere– Like the David Crosby album, there really isn’t a version of Jackson Browne that sounds bad. And this doesn’t sound as “80s production” as Crosby’s album, though it does have traces of that. On the whole, it’s energetic and well done, and won’t do any Jackson Browne fan wrong, but doesn’t rise to his/the year’s best.
Jam & Lewis, Volume One– This is the debut album of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, but of course their production work loomed so large in soul/R&B in the 80s and 90s that it’s hardly an unknown quantity. And that is maybe part of the problem here- it is, as one might expect, extremely finely produced. It’s also very familiar, and a little plastic feeling. There’s not enough of the dynamic or surprising here.
Jeff Lorbe/The Jeff Lorber Fusion , Space-Time– There is, maybe?, a version of jazz fusion that I like. Maybe. This isn’t it, it’s practically muzaky.
Jehnny Beth/Bobby Gillespie , Utopian Ashes– Sort of the post-punk version of a country duets album, featuring the front-man of 80s alt stalwarts Primal Scream and the vocalist of 2000s post-punk band Savages. The songs are well done, very fine in fact, but beyond some scattered moments here and there, the whole never really catches fire or raises above.
John Mayer, Sob Rock– I like John Mayer, but only in a certain small dosage, so between that and the title, I was a little leery going in. Boy do I stand by that! Vapid lyrics, smooth soulless music, coupled with 80s-style production. Saints preserve us!
John McLaughlin, Liberation Time– Based on its clanging electric opening, at first I thought that this might be the fusion album that I turned out to like. Then it started to go down the dark path of bubbly light and easy.
King Woman, Celestial Blues– A thick, somewhat doomy, somewhat orchestral sound, with vocals that started out more in the yearning than the screaming category. But then, alas, got more screamy. If you’ve ever been a goth kid, there is good stuff here, but ultimately it’s kind of the same track to track.
Koreless, Agor– Extremely minimal, even as minimal electronic albums go.
Leon Bridges, Gold-Diggers Sound– Definitely a solid soul/R&B album, but a little too in the autotuned direction, and I never felt like it consistently rose above.
Lucrecia Dalt/Aaron Dilloway, Lucy & Aaron– Well, they’re both experimental musicians, and this was very…experimental. Interesting, but a little too deliberately grating to be consistently listenable.
Luminol, Midwife– An ethereal swirl of vocals and muted keyboard chords. The lyrical voice is quite interesting and strong, which makes the best tracks very affecting, but it doesn’t happen consistently.
Maxine Funke, Séance– A folk-flavored outing from a New Zealand singer-songwriter. The songs are quiet, spare, and arresting. Ultimately too quiet to hold attention in a “year’s best” kind of way, but still very fine.
Moin, Moot!– Some moody and menacing electronica, some wailing in the background, some muttered lyrics. At its best, it’s actually pretty compelling, but the best is unfortunately only every other track or so.
Nancy Wilson, You And Me– This was a May release that I somehow missed! Over the years, I’ve slowly come to terms with not marrying her, and silently admired her too-often undersung guitar playing from afar. There are some great covers here, and the best items crackle. Then there are a few too many ballads/80s production numbers. Drop 4 tracks, and this might have been a “yes”.
Ora The Molecule, Human Safari– This is more accessible than you might think upon hearing that it’s the vehicle of a Norwegian avant-garde artist. It sometimes feels a bit too abstract, and isn’t consistent/coherent enough for album “best”, but there’s some worthy material here!
Paul McCartney, McCartney III Imagined– Not quite covers, but rather, a variety of artists doing remixes of Paul McCartney’s well-received album from last year McCartney III. Kind of like the Gray Album in reverse, and with a wider variety of artists working it (Beck, Phoebe Bridgers, and St. Vincent, among others, get in on the action here). It’s really quite fun, and was well on its way to being a “yes” until it ended with a low-energy 11 minute electronica track. There’s just no call for that. Alas!
Peyton, PSA– A pretty, pleasant soul/dance album, with some pleasing cursing thrown in, but it never really sparks up.
Piroshka, Love Drips and Gathers– The music by this supergroup composed of members of Elastica, Lush, and Modern English is surging and shimmering, and the vocals have some verve to them. You can certainly hear the roots, and they’re good roots. It was really winning me over until it delfated at the end by having multiple slow/abstracts tracks in a row.
Rey Sapienz & The Congo Techno Ensemble, Na Zala Zala– This was very interesting, with unusual beats, and at times almost grating. I do like African music, but this was too opaque between the grating quality and foreign language. It is certainly unusual though, and doesn’t sound like everything else.
Rodrigo Amarante, Drama– Brazilian Singer-Songwriter, ultimately a little too world/jazz and in Portugese for me.
Royal Canoe, Sidelining– I definitely feel like Royal Canoe is an appropriate name for a Canadian band. They don’t sound as canoey as you might expect, more like an electronic-informed indie rock, with lurches into and out of guitar rock and dance/disco mode. It didn’t quite come together consistently enough for me in terms of track by track quality and coherence to reach “best”, but it is fun and often interesting.
Sennen, Widows (Expanded Version)– This re-masters the band’s original 7-song album from 2005 and adds 7 unreleased songs from that same era. It’s all a little too slow and fuzzy for me, without enough musical or lyrical hook to keep it moving from track to track.
Snapped Ankles, Forest of Your Problems– A real solid post-punk outing, it would feel very at home on College Radio in the 80s. It was a borderline call, and it really is well done, but it feels so much like an archive item.
Stimulator Jones, Low Budget Environments Striving for Perfection– The artist name and album name are both pretty great, though one shouldn’t judge by that. What it turns out to be is hip-hop flavored electronic music. It’s nice background music, and interesting, but too low-key/low-content to really stand out.
Surf Gang, Surf Gang Vol. 1– The opening is less surf music than you might think, and much more psychedelisized hip-hop. After that it’s uneven- some very fun and unusual mixes, some autotuned dreck.
Tangents, Timeslips & Chimeras– An expansion (like, really, more than doubling) of a 2020 release by an Australian band. This particular mix of all-instrumental deconstrcuted jazz and electronic is certainly interesting, but never really gets over the top in terms of being compelling.
The Orange Peels, Celebrate the Moments of Your Life– This band originated in the Bay Area during the indie rock outburst of the 90s, and they’re still very good at what they do! They’re here with a double album, thick with melody, pop sensibility, and rock that recalls the 80s underground, the 90s, and a sunny dreamy side of the 70s all at once. The best material here is really great, but the double album sometime meanders and bogs down, which keeps it from coming together. More streamlined and they could have been a contender!
Trees Speak, PostHuman– This instrumental album from an Arizona duo would have sounded very at home in a new wave or industrial dance club in the 80s. It does what it does well, but I don’t know that it does it “best of year” well.
Twin Shadow, Twin Shadow– Poppy-rocky, and fun, outing from this Dominican-American singer-songwriter. Some 90s soul/80s alt feeling, a little dash of ska. It’s all very fine, but doesn’t feel to me like it consistently rises above and beyond to “year best” territory.
Various Artists, Bills & Aches & Blues– A variety of artists cover songs from throughout 4AD’s catalogue in honor of their 40th anniversary. It seems like a promising setup, I mean I was practically raised by 4AD. And some of the covers are truly grand. Then some of them kind of fizzle out, or are of material that is itself very low-key. So it ends up being a little uneven.
Various Artists, Changui: The Sound of Guantanamo– A box set documenting contemporary rural Cuban practitioners of the changui style of Cuban music (influenced by Spanish and African musical traditions and instruments, and an ancestor of salsa) compiled in support of a documentary. There are 51 songs, with a four hour run time. Given this sprawling range, it’s difficult for it to work as a coherent album, though this definitely can happen for something similar in more compact form (cf. Buena Vista Social Club). A fun window into a fascinating style, though.
Vince Staples, Vince Staples– This hip-hop album is a little autontuned, a little one-tone musically and vocally. It’s a shame because the content is actually pretty good!
YN Jay, Coochie Chronicles– The name might give you certain expectations. While it sometimes rises above, the content largely bears out these expectations. It could possibly get away with it with very clever or unusual flow or off-beat musical choices, but it doesn’t do either often enough.
And there we are, finished with July! Before the first half of September. So I guess that’s something? Now, I better hop on over to working on August now so we can catch up!
This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. So go check out the final installment of my overview of the critical consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020, and my latest monthly review of 2021 new releases en route to finding the best 21 albums of 2021.
So. 52. It’s like this: I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff.
I’m doing 10 posts of 5 albums each (or 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. With that explained, let’s get on with Part 5!
DAMN.(Kendrick Lamar, 2017, 5 votes)– From the first this made musical and lyrical choices that show something special is going on here. The dense weaving of storytelling, the unusual vocal mixing choices, the strategic deployment of music samples to set a mood, it all works. His 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.DCity was a heck of a thing to have to live up to. Darned if this doesn’t do it!
Days Are Gone(Haim, 2013, 5 votes)– For my 2020 list I’d listened to their album Women in Music, and quite liked it. This feels like it leans even more poppy than that, but retains what I really liked about that album- a nearly perfect pop sensibility but some power and substance behind it. This does register as lighter than their later album, though. Is this the earlier album’s fault? No, and yet they must reverse-chronologically suffer for my knowledge!
Daytona(Pusha T, 2018, 4 votes)– It’s got energy and swagger, all right, and the wordplay is top notch. The music mix and sampling is crisp and sharp. The lyrics have some weight and meaning too. A little derivative (you’ll hear lots of influence of Jay-Z and Kanye West here- who produced it) but all in all, this is a very worthy effort.
Dirty Computer(Janelle Monae, 2018, 5 votes)– If you make a sexy, smooth R&B/dance album, I’m on your side. If you make an album with political/social import that doesn’t get polemical, I’m on your side. If you make an album full of smart, unusual lyrical, vocal, and musical choices, I’m on your side. If you make an album with sci-fi/tech themes, I’m on your side. If you do all of these together, you are Janelle Monae, and I’m over the moon.
DS2(Future, 2015, 4 votes)– Early on I’m thinking this is a little more autotuned than I like, but the lyrical content is interesting at times, and there’s a pleasing air of menace in the music. However, there seems to be a lot more “bitch” and “pussy” here than I like. On balance, it’s a “no” for me.
And there we are with Part Five. 25 down, 27 to go. Five more posts. We can do it!
Well, it looks like we just barely got the May review done before the end of June. Better that then even later!
As part of my continuing search for the 21 best albums of 2021, I’m listening to new releases every month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final shake-down after the year ends. If you missed the previous editions, you can find them here:
This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year, you should also check out my ongoing review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s here, and my wrap-up on reviews of the 20 best albums of 2020 here.
But, for the moment, we’re concerned with 2021. And the 92 new releases I listened to in May! Before we go on, a quick note about the three categories:
Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. As of the end of May, this list is up to 95 albums, so the reckoning is going to be bloody.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I have some reservation. I’ve noticed over the years that some “maybes” have a habit of lingering, so I’m giving them a category just in case.
No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.
And now, boldly forward with May!
Alan Jackson, Where Have You Gone– This feels like it’s just on this side of cliché, but almost classic, and musically and vocally straight up. Much of it is a conscious paean to the best of 70s and 80s pop country, and he delivers the feel. Despite the album running over an hour long, when it ended, I honest to gosh had the immediate impulse to play it again.
Allison Russell, Outside Child– Between the soulful jazzy first track, and the country third track, I had a feeling I would like what was going on here. Vocally powerful, musically complex, she tours genres like nobody’s business. All with looming feeling. A Montreal native and fixture of the Chicago and Nashville music scenes working with other bands, this is her debut solo album. She’s apparently self-taught and a multi-instrumentalist, which speaks to her range and power. Personal, meaningful, magnificent.
Aquarian Blood, Bending the Golden Hour– Neo-psychedelia, but also with some 90s rock and indie folk feeling to it. It’s a great mix, well-rendered, the male and female vocals add to it, and there’s an element of darkness and even menace to it that I appreciate.
Buffet Lunch, The Power of Rocks– I like buffets and I like rocks, so I walked into this album well-disposed. It turns out it delivers an offbeat, psychedelic-flavored sometimes discordant rock that repays my initial good will. The opening reminds one of the sillier side of the Beatles, in a good way. It stays in that vein but also gets discordant in a post-rock kind of way. It’s an interesting combination!
Chrissie Hynde, Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan– All right, the basics- Bob Dylan is in my all-time top five, I love Chrissie Hynde, and I really like cover albums. So Hynde covering Dylan starts off conceptually ahead for me. Hynde capitalizes on this head start, though, by choosing some more unusual songs from the catalogue, and giving them her own sound while honoring the spirit of the original. She is superb, and this is a definite contender.
Current Joys, Voyager– There’s a spareness and sometimes even delicacy to the music that is a nice offset to the emotional seriousness of the lyrics and yearning vocals. This album by Multi-band alumni Nick Rattigan feels like an evocation of Alex Chilton, with a good layer of 80s alt via a 2000 indie rock treatment.
Czarface/MF Doom, Super What?– One of two posthumous hip-hop legend releases we have this month. RIP MF Doom. I don’t think it’s just that sentiment that’s got me liking this- the delightful swirl of music and samples, pounding vocal flow, themes of superhero/sci-fi, pandemic, and pop culture, all add up to a great outing! And all the more reason for sadness that there isn’t more to come.
DMX, Exodus 1:7– The other of the two posthumous hip-hop legend releases we have this month. RIP DMX. This starts off muscular and menacing. Then is, by turns, a flashback to late 90s/early 2000s hip-hop, spiritual, and a considered meditation on age and parenthood. A tour de force, and fitting final testament.
Fiver, Fiver With the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition– Sometimes it seems like a country album, sometimes it seems like a jazz album, at times it gets almost psychedelic, and the vocals of lead singer Simone Schmidt have a subtle power that often breaks out into downright soaring. An unusual and arresting album.
Gruff Rhys, Seeking New Gods– Well this is lovely! Melody, clear instruments, and the thick voice of this Welsh singer-songwriter (and Super Furry Animals alum) all work together to create a feeling reminiscent of some of the highlights of pub rock, art rock, and prog rock.
J. Cole, The Off-Season– Musically muscular, great mixing, strong and clear vocals, great energy and variation on tracks. When it comes to contemporary hip-hop, I do appreciate that ROC production…
Jack Ingram/Miranda Lambert/Jon Randall, The Marfa Tapes– Several pop country stars hang out together on a porch in West Texas and record what they get up to, and it’s better than anything on pop country radio.There’s a lesson here! The songs are stripped down (including talk between takes, mistakes, and background noise, almost like demos really), honest, and shine like gold.
Jerry Douglas/John Hiatt/The Jerry Douglas Band, Leftover Feelings– By turns rollicking, relaxed, and tender, this music lives at the intersection of rock, blues, and country. Hiatt’s voice is just the right kind of ragged to fit with this and make it feel utterly authentic. You may hear echoes of Dylan, Springsteen, the more wistful edges of Outlaw Country, and even, I swear, Carl Perkins here. None of it is derivative though, that’s just the mythic space this album is inhabiting.
Johnny Flynn & Robert Macfarlane, Lost in the Cedar Wood– Kind of a hardcore folk album, it also reminds me of the folk side of Led Zeppelin. Strong music, clear vocals, and lyrics that create a world. And I thought Johnny Flynn was just a pretty lovelorn BBC shows-TV face!
Jorge Elbrecht, Presentable Corpse 002– Strains of dark folk, psychedelia, indie rock, put together in a way that is menacing and mind-bending. It feels like a time-lost classic. Reading up on it after listening, there is a through story, which is hard to get at first listen. Even without that, though, it’s thoroughly well done.
Lydia Ainsworth, Sparkles & Debris– Toronto composer and singer, this is musically simple, electronic and just on the edge of dance, and in a sense vocally straightforward, but with interesting touches to both, and her literate lyrics are arresting. Pop but deeper-think of, perhaps, Dido? It even gets philosophical and metaphysical! And the “Good Times” cover is amazing!
PACKS, Take The Cake– Surging guitar rhythms, darkly inflected vocals with a lackadaisical undertow. Am I in the 90s? Musically, I love being in the 90s! As per many an excellent rock band from the last decade plus, they’re from Canada (Toronto, to be exact). Oh Canada!
Pardoner, Came Down Different– You know that promising young band of indie rock guys with great crunching guitars? This is them! I always like them, whoever they are. This particular iteration are from San Francisco, which is maybe an additional reason as well, but I swear the promise is there.
Riley Downing, Start It Over– A croony soulful swell of music, informed by some country flavor, some soul and blues, and some glowering alt presence. The vocals are like spoken word soul, except with a country inflection, and remind a little of Tom Waits. It all adds up to something pretty compelling.
Robert Finley, Sharecropper’s Son– This Blues and Soul veteran returned to recording in 2016 after a break of many years, and is here coming out with an album produced by the Black Keys. You might figure these would be the elements of excellence, and they gosh darn are. Muscular electric blues and soul.
St. Vincent, Daddy’s Home– Attitude, vocal verve, sometimes dancey sometimes smokingly croony music informed by multiple genres, with clever lyrics. What here is not to love? Honestly, she reminds me of Prince in her playfulness, range, and power.
Texas, Hi– Brooding, swinging, rocking, smooth and sophisticated, familiar with 80s alt, indie rock and classic idioms, full of feeling. I do love my Scottish bands, so I don’t know why I didn’t know about Texas a lot earlier than this, but they have got it going on!
The Black Keys, Delta Kream– This Black Keys homage to Delta Blues is clearly a sound that’s in their wheelhouse. A bunch of 2000s white guys covering early/mid 20th century black blues musicians certainly has representation problem potential. However, their whole lifetime approach holds this music in such reverence that I think it avoids that trap and shines as a labor of love.
The Chills, Scatterbrain– A very lost in time feel, one might legitimately think one was stumbling across a lost classic of the psychedelic era, though as it goes on it picks up more than a little twist of synth pop. Not a track misfires.
Weezer, Van Weezer– Not an album of Van Halen covers, but rather an invocation of the spirit of that era/style of music. This is near and dear to my heart, and obviously to theirs as well. So well done!
Aly & AJ, A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then into the Sun– A very pretty and well done pop record. It’s not profound, but it also never lets you down, and I kept wavering between “not substantive enough”, and “yeah, but it’s pretty good”. So I guess by definition this is a maybe!
Bachelor, Doomin’ Sun– Friends from two indie bands rent a house together during the pandemic and get as deep and weird as they want to home recording. That’s a good start, and the results are shimmery, raw, and real. Their visions are complementary, but not identical, and the results are beautiful and always interesting, albeit maybe it doesn’t feel totally coherent.
CHAI, Wink– The “quirky becomes downright weird” side of J-pop is one of my favorite locations. They play around with dance music and disco to excellent, and consistently subversively fun, effect. It feels a little light and slight, perhaps, which is the only thing keeping it from a “yes” for me.
Damien Jurado, The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania– The title is great, and the cover is pretty good too. Don’t judge a book by it’s…? Well, the lyrics and vocals are lucid, even poetically luminous. It’s all on the acoustic and mellow side musically, maybe a little too same that way, but the lyrical/vocal side of it keeps it in strong contention!
Dispatch, Break Our Fall– Wastes no time, started out rocking. With 60s classic/80s jangle feel-rocking numbers, ballads, lighter almost novelty songs. A little klunky in its topicality and maybe too long, but song structure and music is 100%. A lot of it sounds instant classic.
Giant Claw, Mirror Guide– I kind of liked the discordant random plucked notes start to this. I made it to halfway through and realized, unlike many electronic albums I listen to, I wasn’t questioning its or my continued existence. There’s something weird, off-beat, even sci-fi about it that keeps it compelling. Despite the oddness, because of the oddness? This is a definite maybe for me!
Juliana Hatfield, Blood– I really like Juliana Hatfield, and I’m also required by law to like smart, angsty, fuzz-guitared 90s songstresses in general, and this is firmly in that vein. She’s never not had an edge, but this is nasty in a sharp-tongued kind of way, and hilarious. The lyrics feel a little too topically on the nose sometimes, which is the only thing keeping it from a “yes”.
Kasai Allstars, Black Ants Always Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No Sound– African folk from a Congolese group, delivered with exuberance. There is obvious application of the roots of their sound to American music as well. There is the foreign language issue, but the music is so dynamic and fun it pretty much overcomes that for me.
L’Orange/Namir Blade, Imaginary Everything– It didn’t quite feel like it came together, but there’s a lot of excellent hip-hop experimentation going on here. The eclectic musical sampling work is superb, the mix and wordplay is surreal.
Lord Huron, Long Last– I’ve been curious about this Lord, and his great lakey realm, for a while. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this is a very welcome surprise- country inflections with that spooky minor chords sound, sometimes in a downright cowboy ballad vein, but with a heartfelt air. There’s even a framing device for the album that works. It was all superb, and was headed toward being an automatic yes until a 14-minute ambient track at the end. Alas!
Lou Barlow, Reason To Live– Nice acoustic energy, evocative vocals, I kept teetering toward everything sounding too same early on, but the songs sound looming, like something important is going on. This 80s/90s lo-fi rock pioneer (alumni of Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh) knows what he’s doing, I think.
Mach-Hommy, Pray for Haiti– The musical/mix side of this is great, with many offbeat choices, and the vocal flow is smooth but dynamic, and the subject matter-a kaleidoscope of personal and cultural references focused by an overarching meditation on the political and economic straights of Haiti-is compelling. It was very promising on the first half, but got unfocused and over-run with guest MCs who watered down the coherence on the second half.
Micky Dolenz, Dolenz Sings Nesmith– The more poppy former-Monkee covering solo work from the more experimental former-Monkee is an interesting idea. Like, imagine what a McCartney covers solo Lennon album might be like? It turns out really well, and the only thing going against it as an album is also it’s strength- a wide diversity of source songs. So it doesn’t really come off as coherent, but it is fun!
Moby, Reprise– This is literally a reprise- Moby not just re-recording, but re-imagining, a baker’s dozen plus one of songs from throughout his career. Between the strength of the original source material and the interesting nature of the re-works, it’s pretty compelling.
Mustafa, When Smoke Rises– Spoken word, hip-hop, and there’s something quiet and compelling about it. It’s very low-key, musically and vocally, which is about my only reservation, but it gets under your skin and is talking about things that have some weight to them. It doesn’t sound like everything else, and all-in-all is a pretty hefty accomplishment for someone who’s only 24.
Natalie Bergman, Mercy– Is this an electronic indie neo-disco gospel album? I kind of think yes! I actually liked that idea pretty well, and it’s weirdly compelling. I was with it for quite a while, until it got a little wobbly halfway through, but then ended powerfully.
Paul Weller, Fat Pop, Vol. 1– Paul Weller walks into this with a problem that’s really sort of his fault, which is I’m expecting a lot from him. And you know what, I hear the Jam here and the Style Council in parts, also a fairly strong Bowie influence, and a lot of variety and verve. The only thing keeping it from a “yes” is some of it sounds cliched/by rote. But, come on, his rote is better than most people’s best effort.
Sophia Kennedy, Monsters– This is fascinating. Largely keyboards and electronic percussion, but with unsettling brooding and flashes of musical discord, sharp vocals, and dark lyrics. And unlike many another album, it actually gets more interesting and varied as it goes on, with tin pan alley pop and even dance beats rearing their heads. In fact, it got so variable that lack of coherence popped it out of automatic yes!
TEKE::TEKE, Shirushi– Now this is suitably strange! A Japanese band, and their music is a mix of surf music, traditional forms, and psychedelia-flavored electronic. There’s the language issue, and the fact that it sometimes get a little too experimental, but on the other hand it’s a fun and interesting listen, and the experimentation goes somewhere.
The Reigning Sound, A Little More Time with Reigning Sound– Swaggering but melodic indie rock with hints of country, 50s rock, the Beatles, and Dylan. When I heard this band was from Nashville, I kind of hoped they’d sound like this. The vocals are klunky in a wonderful way that actually highlights the directness of the musical approach. It slowed down a little in the middle, though never got bad or fully deflated. These pacing issues just keep it from “yes”.
Van Morrison, Latest Record Project Volume 1– I do admire the school of album naming this hails from, but also must note that there are very few circumstances, even for a living legend, under which a more than two hour album is justified. The opening track is kind of brilliantly solipsistic, though. So there’s the length, a general crankiness, and a certain level of right wing ranty in the lyrics. On the other hand, it’s so musically and vocally excellent I don’t feel let down by a single track for more than hours. Does this all equal out to a maybe?
black midi, Cavalcade– The opening is really something. Disco, rock, lurching music, trippy spoken word. The next track is even more disorienting with it’s trip into a classic croon. The third track lurches back and forth between these two modes. And so on. Ultimately a little too much on the “not consistently listenable” side of experimental. But interesting!
Blackberry Smoke, You Hear Georgia– This band is deeply steeped in southern rock, very skillfully rendered, but I can’t escape the feeling that it’s too often a little “prefab” in terms of lyrics and production.
Blake Shelton, Body Language– This is a little too on the “pop” side of pop country for me, and falls into the cliché/rote route too often. That being said, he has tons of charm, and as pop country goes, this is very well done.
Carlos Nino & Friends, More Energy Fields, Current– A little too jazzy and instrumentally mellow for me.
Cheval Sombre, Days Go By– The first track sounds like a grunge ballad. Now, I like an occasional grunge ballad, but it turns out pretty much every track either sounds like that or a slow slide into My Bloody Valentine. That’s too much in that vein for me!
Cloves, Nightmare on Elmfield Road– Mellow dance beats and shimmery vocals, I gather that there is a kind of horror story going on in it, but it’s too mellow and shimmery for me to pick it up.
Colleen, The Tunnel and the Clearing– The down-tempo here almost fades into non-existence. The third track sounded like it had sea lions in it, so I liked that.
Dark Tea, Dark Tea – Brooklyn based musical collective. A little country and classic rock twist, excellent song structure, vocals, and melody. At its best, it’s very good, but it too often falls prey to a feeling of sameness, and long pacing lulls.
Dave Holland, Another Land– As funk-flavored all instrumental jazz outings go, this is a fine one, but this cup of tea, it is not mine.
David Gray, Skellig– This may have suffered from being the second mellow acoustic album I listened to in a row. It’s solid, but I never really caught a spark from it.
Dodie, Build a Problem– English singer-songwriter, kind of a mellow electronic folk. It’s nice enough, literate emotionally sophisticated lyrics, but eh.
Dorothea Paas, Anything Can’t Happen– She has a really great voice, and things are well played on this folk album, but it doesn’t feel like there are enough moments that are surprising or get beyond a certain narrow musical/emotional range.
Erika de Casier, Sensational– The music is more on the subtle side than I often prefer, but the changeable flow of the vocals and the emotionally vulnerable lyrics are compelling! It ends up being a little too musically thin though, and the tracks fade into a kind of sameness.
Facs, Present Tense– I mean, it’s kind of punky, kind of electronic, kind of glowery, there’s feedback and distortion and anguished shrieking in the background. It all got kind of tiresome pretty quickly.
Fatima Al Qadiri, Medieval Femme– This is interesting, but it’s a little too “fade into the background” world music for me.
Fly Pan Am, Frontera– Well, there’s beats, moody background music, and some occasional screaming. No.
Georgia Anne Mudrow, Vweto III-Sadly, no. This is mostly instrumental, but there is a lot of verve in its mix of influences- hip-hop, 80s club, disco, and funk all make an appearance. Not bad by any means, in fact really good, but it doesn’t feel like there’s enough connecting it together to add up to a great album.
GoGo Penguin, GGP/RMX– Some tracks totally caught my attention. Others seemed to be animated by a sound not unlike eating lettuce.
Greenhouse, Music For Living Spaces– This, let it be known, is literally an album about plants. That being said, I was pulling for it, and it is very pleasant. But a little too low-key and instrumental in the end.
Iceage, Seek Shelter– The opening descent into vaguely sinister guitar warms my heart, as do the weary burned-out vocals. It’s pretty good down-tempo slightly sleazy rock, and has some fine anthemic moments, but keeps slowing down without warning, and doesn’t sound differentiated enough- the tracks blend into each other.
John Andrews & the Yawns, Cookbook– Jazz vibe, hints of Santana, a mellow California feel, musically and vocally like a hazy summer day. It’s very nice. For a track or two. I’ll avoid obvious jokes about the band name.
Jorja Smith, Be Right Back– Beautiful British soul, it’s never bad, but ultimately it never sparked up for me.
Lampchop, Showtunes– Slow piano chords, sonorous vocals, and philosophical lyrics create a melancholy feel. It all adds up to one downbeat tone, without enough variety or texture to rise above that.
Last Days of April, Even The Good Days Are Bad– Strong indie pop-rock with a classical feel. The tracks have a propulsive, independent sound, and vocal variability. And then it had the dreaded second half deflation, including literally ending on a downtempo song called “Downer”. Almost well done Swedes! I swear the people who seem to still be doing rock well these days are almost all Canadian or Scandinavian…
Lionel Boy, Lionel Boy– As auto-tuned slow-tempo well-produced contemporary R&B goes, this is fine.
Lisa Gerrard/Jules Maxwell, Burn– A collaboration by the vocalist and keyboard player from Dead Can Dance. This is the kind of orchestral ambient swirl of music you might expect from that. If it’s your thing, you might like it, but I don’t hear enough going on here, powerfully enough, to be a “best” album of the year.
Loscil, Clara– It is very ambient. The cover is a picture of melting ice. That seems appropriate.
Magic Castles, Sun Reign– A little 80s/90s alt a la Jesus and Mary Chain, a little paisley underground, but it kind of ended up all blurring together.
Marinero, Hella Love– Lush Latin music-themed romanticism. It’s largely a paen to San Francisco, which certainly tugs on my heartstrings, but, with exceptions, it’s mostly too low-key and all in one tone to really engage me.
Matt Berry, The Blue Elephant– I knew him as a British actor from the IT Crowd, but he’s a pretty fine musician too! Jazzy instrumental first track had me thrown off, but the psychedelic swirl and powerful instruments on the next track was great. Then another jazzy instrumental. And so on. This was half of an excellent album and half of a blah one.
Matt Kearney, January Flower– Upbeat indie rock leaning toward electric folk, but it was a little too poppy and prefab for me.
Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime– A Tuareg singer-songwriter from Niger in the eclectic “Desert Blues” genre. It is musically muscular! I really like it, but in the end, the language barrier keeps me from connecting with it enough to rank it as a “year’s best” album.
Morcheeba, Blackest Blue– This is undoubtedly well-produced and high quality. Its particular brand of lush and easy just fades into the background for me, though, and I need a “best” album to stand out more than that!
Murcof, The Alias Sessions– This is a double album. It is also spare and minimalist, sometimes to the point of barely registering. I did not care for it.
New Order, Education Entertainment Recreation– When I was a lovelorn depressed teen, I was a big fan of New Order. I still like them, they certainly have their place. A live album by them is relatively unlikely to result in surprises, though. That being said, these are fine live versions , but two hours of live album practically identical to studio, well…
Olivia Rodrigo, Sour– The opening sounds like she really likes grunge, and has a pop sensibility too, and her lyrics have some real wit and personality. The subsequent tracks were much more Taylor Swiftian, but still with an almost operatic quality to the emotional drama. Often affecting, but also very young, and it has a few too many tear-stained ballads in a row. But so well rendered, and she’s only 18, there is big promise here.
Paula Cole, American Quilt– “Paula Cole covers American standards” doesn’t sound like a bad premise. The variety of styles is laudable, and all are really well-done. But I only like about half of them- more the blues, soul, and gospel side, less the extended jazzy and ethereal celtic ones. Which I guess means this would work for me as a selected EP?
Sarah Bareilles, Amidst the Chaos: Live From the Hollywood Bowl– Just because streaming technology makes it possible for one to have an almost two-hour long concert album does not mean one should. That being said, this is a really good live album- excellent sound quality, good versions, charming interaction with the crowd. It would need to be a little more streamlined to be in contention for year’s best, but I would certainly recommend it for fans.
Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future– Poetic ragged vocals, jazz backing, timely Afrocentric lyrics. There’s a lot to admire here, but it too often faded to background sound for me.
Squid, Bright Green Field– The sound collage opening was a minus, which is a shame because the off kilter vocals and music of the next track were interesting. Unfortunately it’s the kind of off-kilter that wears thin after several songs. And what is it with the recent shouted vocals trend with British bands?
Sunroof, Electronic Music Improvisations, Vol. 1– The album name made me think this might not be for me. The Beats, atmospheric sounds, and electronic boops and bops confirmed it.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, When God Was Great– Like the Offspring album we reviewed in April, this was mostly a case of a fine example of their sound, but kind of a victim of that very thing. What would raise it above that to the realm of great? There are some songs that I think are actually on track, doing a retrospective look at the history of the band and its scene, showing where it actually is in time and space. More of this, and maybe…in the meantime, there’s plenty here for a ska fan to like.
Trevor Powers, Capricorn– First impression: This sounds like discordant muzak. Those were actually the better parts, in other places it got very ethereal and sound samply.
Twenty One Pilots, Scaled and Icy– Starts off 70s sunny, then becomes kind of autotune, then kind of Weezery, then electronic influenced rock, a little discoy, a little hip hop, all clever, but rarely feels very genuine.
Will Stratton, The Changing Wilderness– There’s a richness to the lyrics and the vocals, and understated power to the low-key indie rock. It’s pretty, it’s well-done, but it’s kind of the same track to track.
Young Nudy, DR. EV4L– I was in just based on the cover alone, and it definitely has some material that dives deep into the horrorcore theme the cover indicates. Unfortunately, too much of the rest of it is full of bitch and pussy talk. It’s a shame- there could have been a great, or at least very interesting album here.
And there we have it. Next, on to June! Which, who knows, I may get done before the last day of the following month…
Once upon a time, in an effort to catch up on new music after a hectic few years, I went in search of the 20 best albums of 2020.
In pursuit of this goal, I took year-end “best album” lists from All Music Guide, AV Club, Billboard, Consequence of Sound, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, Mojo, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Spin. For every album one or more of these sources listed, I tallied up the votes that album got between all of them, and took the highest scoring twenty albums. I broke up the reviews into four blocks of five each. You can find them here:
So, having listened to all 20 of the critics top choices, what have I concluded?
There were a few albums where the critics and I just couldn’t agree:
Eternal Atake (Lil Uzi Vert)–I like hip-hop. A lot! But there’s a kind of “autotune” school of recent hip-hop that I’m not super-keen on. On top of that, the first half of the album is thick with misogyny, apparently unironic/uncritical. There just aren’t that many moments that get beyond that until halfway through.
It Is What It Is (Thundercat)– I mean, if you call your band Thundercat, you’re already halfway there with me. This mellow jazz fusion sound was well done, but I couldn’t find a heart of anything that felt real or vital in most of it.
Punisher (Phoebe Bridgers)– Well done indie pop rock, with sophisticated emotional lyrics, and clear production. It tends mostly to a muted tempo and musical pallet, which is a shame, since the few more up-tempo moments are super-fun.
Then there were also several albums which, while I found a lot to like, didn’t quite add up to “year’s best” for me:
color theory(Soccer Mommy)– Solid pop-rock structure, beautiful clear vocals, introspective lyrics, the songs proceed along very pleasantly in a way that’s hard to find any fault with. It’s not transcendent, but she was only 22 when she made this album. We could do a lot worse, and there is huge promise for the future here.
Petals for Armor (Hayley Williams)–This solo venture by Paramore’s lead singer features electronic beats, strong clear vocals, and dark lyrics. I’m not sure about this as a “best”, but it was a consistently interesting high energy listen.
Set My Heart on Fire Immediately (Perfume Genius)-It was a slow start, but I really liked many of the later more up-tempo tracks, and I do appreciate the lush same-sex romanticism found throughout. Overall, I’d say this is not consistent/well-structured enough to be a “best” album, but there’s certainly a lot that’s worthy here.
Shore (Fleet Foxes)– At this point, hearing the phrase “indie folk” tends to fill me with preemptive dread. This pleasantly surprised me, though! The music has a lot of dynamism, and the tracks have an independent identity, two things that often seem to get sacrificed to the sameness of indie folk approaches.
YHLQMDLG (Bad Bunny)– I mean, this seemed like it was very good, but it’s also entirely in Spanish, which prevents me from connecting with it lyrically. I will say it’s fun, interesting, and well-produced. Although it does have more than none of the autotuned style that is the order of the day, and I’m not sure it needed to be over an hour long- generically, it takes something pretty special for me to sign off on an album doing that. Though, given the language aspect, there may be some structure or narrative line that justified it here, but isn’t understandable by me.
Which leaves the following albums that I can heartily endorse as quite possibly being among the best albums of the year:
Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Fiona Apple)– I expected this to be excellent, because it’s Fiona Apple. So the lyrical and vocal power wasn’t a surprise. What I was surprised by was the musical side of it- there’s a dizzying mix of flourishes from classical and musicals, sound samples (I recommend having a dog around when you play it for extra fun reactions), pop beats, the use of the piano as practically a percussion instrument. There’s enough variability in the first track alone to be a virtuoso performance. The tracks each sound different, but fit together, and that is THE trick to pulling off an album. There is a much more conventional (to her approach) version of this album that could have been produced, and it would in many ways be an easier/smoother listen. But it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting and arresting.
folklore (Taylor Swift)– The title had me thinking this album might be somehow folky. It isn’t! What it is, is a fine showcase for Taylor Swift’s continued evolution as a songwriter. Musically, it explores a slower, more darkly textured side of pop than her previous outings. And lyrically, as she herself admits, on earlier albums she often wrote based on imagined feelings and life situations. That began to shift with 1989, a solid pop album that came more from direct experience. Not always profound experience, but real. Here, she sounds like what she actually is, someone hitting their 30s, and reflecting on youthful follies with a combination of wisdom and wistfulness. AKA, it’s kind of a review of the folklore of a life. Sometimes the songs are personal, sometimes they’re the kind of character storytelling you often find in country songs (she did start out in Nashville, after all). She’s always been a mechanically solid song-writer, and here there’s some real substance to back that up.
Future Nostalgia(Dua Lipa)– In the opening track she says, “You know you like this beat” and darned if she isn’t right! Dance music has its place, and this is great dance music! The beats work, the lyrics and vocals are sultry, and it’s full of dynamic shifts and attitude. It just feels good to listen to this. I don’t often groove in the club these days (okay, I never often grooved in the club), but I do groove while writing blog posts in bed. And this is perfect for that!
Heavy Light (U.S. Girls)– This album has solid 2000s beats with nice overtones of 70s music in several guises- 70s Soul, Patti Smith, AM radio. She (U.S. Girls is the vehicle of producer/musician Meghan Remy) has such a great pop sensibility, but it’s laced throughout with lyrical subversion. And livened by some surprising musical choices and vocal varieties on particular tracks. Crucially, these surprising moments still fit with the overall album. This grew on me track by track.
Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen)– I’m a big Springsteen fan, but with a particular valence. I have a marked preference for the “dark” Springsteen of every other album (or so), when a certain pessimism and airing of fears and doubts boils to the surface. Thus, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, The Ghost of Tom Joad, and Magic, for instance. This album is definitely in that vein, which is not to say there aren’t surging anthemic moments (especially since the E Street Band is backing him here). But there’s a central preoccupation with aging, loss, and ghosts of memory, and Springsteen is in fine lyrical form wrestling with these themes.
Live Forever(Bartees Strange)– The muted musical background, swirling sound effects, and sweetly rough off-kilter vocals of the opening wove a spell. While beautiful, it would have been bad news if it all stayed in that low-key vein, but the next track went immediately up-tempo and rock-y and became almost a hardcore song by the end. The next one was like a beat-oriented indie rock song, the next after that in a neo-soul/hip-hop flavored vein. And so on, through a dizzying array of musical modes. All of this, tied together by a strong and surprisingly vulnerable lyrical voice throughout, makes for a very interesting listen. I well understand what it’s doing in the top 20!
Reunions (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit)– The first track kicks into gear right away, with soulful yearning vocals and lyrics, and moody acoustic background instrumentation. As you might expect from a former Drive-by Trucker, the songs freely mix acoustic, electric, country, and rock, but they all keep hitting with the same level of power, solid song structure, and a haunting melancholy feel. You’ll hear hints here of Dylan, Neil Young, and Jackson Browne, but nothing that rings inauthentic or derivative. Really a mighty fine album.
Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan)– Full disclosure: Bob Dylan is in my all-time top five favorite musical artists. I appreciate almost everything he does on some level. That being said, I don’t have blinders on to the fact that, once you get past the mid-70s, not every album is necessarily a …timeless masterpiece. So hopefully I have some credibility when I say that this album deserves to take a place with the trio of widely revered “later-day” Dylan albums- Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times. The first song here is like an elegy to himself, and the last is an elegy to the entire era since his debut in the early 60s. That same mood pervades in between, and things are in top lyrical and musical form- thick with allusions and references, and stripped-down and effective use of different blues idioms. If not a timeless masterpiece, at the very least an excellent outing from an old master.
RTJ4 (Run the Jewels)– I was more familiar with Run the Jewels co-lead Killer Mike’s politics than his music, though based on his politics I had certain expectations of what his music might be like. These were not disappointed. I was hooked from the initial burst of metallic beats and high-impact lyrics, both demanding respect. The whole album is so dynamic and clever, and political without being polemical, which is always the big challenge. This brought me back to a feeling I haven’t had since the heyday of Public Enemy. Which is good, because now more than ever we need to party for our right to fight!
Saint Cloud (Waxahatchee)– The music is solid in a country-inflected indie rock with multi-instrument production flourishes kind of way, but what really moves it above and beyond is her voice. (Waxahatchee is a band fronted by Alabama-raised singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield.) Because of her voice, both vocally and lyrically, everything here sounds earnest and authentic despite/on top of the production gloss. This kind of reminds me of the space Edie Brickell used to occupy. And I loved the space Edie Brickell used to occupy!
Sawayama (Rina Sawayama)– Complex and well produced dance music is the impression from the first track. With energy, and lively musical (rock! Hip hop! ballads!) and vocal choices. This has both fiery attitude and vulnerable emotion, and picks up on some social and personal issues. The storytelling on some tracks is almost poetically visual, and things have that sophisticated international feel you often find on European dance music. I can definitely get behind the critics on this one!
Women in Music pt. III (HAIM)– It’s a great start, smooth beats, multi-instrument pop and clever lyrics with clear, lucid vocals. After several songs that go through a kaleidoscope of musical styles, I realize that this, and I hope they will forgive me for saying so, reminds me of a Wilson Phillips with more musical sophistication and indie attitude. I actually think that’s the key to this for me- it’s a thoroughly pop sensibility and production, but one with a rawness and power behind it musically and lyrically. It’s high quality and a fun listen, and I can well imagine it being one of the best albums of the year.
And there we are, all 20 reviewed! If you are a mathematical genius, you may notice that my “yes” list only includes twelve albums, and that 12<20. Which brings us to the special announcement alluded to last time…
I figure I am still owed eight albums, in order to get to 20. Accordingly, there will be one more post in which I review further down the critic’s choices in order to round out my list. That’s right, WE’RE GOING TO ELIMINATION DEATH MATCH!
Hey, we made it a third of the way through this madcap quest!
As part of my search for the 21 best albums of 2021, I’m listening to new releases every month, sorting them into categories, and then I’ll do a final reckoning after the year ends. If you missed the previous editions, you can find them here:
This is one of three music-related blog series I’m doing this year, you should also check out the latest from my review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s and 2020.
But you’re here to hear about the 92 (!) new albums I listened to in April. Before we continue with that, a quick note about the three categories:
Yes– These are the albums that, based on my initial listen, are in definite contention to be considered for the 21 best albums of the year. This is no guarantee! In fact, at current pace, we will likely end up with more than 200 possibilities by the end of the year, so every album that makes it to the top 21 will be standing on a mound of the corpses of its vanquished foes.
Maybe– These are albums that had definite strengths, but about which I had some reservation. I have noticed over the years that some “maybes” have a habit of lingering, so I’m giving them a category just in case.
No– These albums are not in contention. Some of them deserve discussion, though, which I note.
And now, on with our April reviews!
Art d’Ecco, In Standard Definition– This starts off with surging guitars, drums, and powerful slightly surly vocals. I’m listening! It reminds me of Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Bowie. Later tracks occasionally get a little dancey, and when that happens we’re in a kind of glam disco space. This all creates a weird timeless world, and I didn’t feel let down by a single track. And the fact that the lead vocalist and everything about the band is Gay as hell is a happy bonus.
Ashley Monroe, Rosegold– Country singer makes a pop turn is really not an unusual story. What makes this stand out is that she does this not in a country pop way, or even in a contemporary mass market pop way, but instead produces a shimmering, golden, vaguely otherworldly pop. It’s really pretty extraordinary.
Beach Youth, Postcard– I think maybe I was expecting something more- beachy?- from this French group. That said, it is very good guitar-centered pop-rock with a dreamy feel, but enough propulsion to keep it from fuzzing out. Viva la France!
Benny Sings, Music– The album opens with a weird sunny 70s-flavored piece, and this turns out to be a really good preview of what we’re in for here. Track after track by this Dutch pop musician sounds like it fell out of a 70s easy listening station, but with a quirky twist and plaintive air. It’s just delightful the whole way through.
BROCKHAMPTON, ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE– Hey, it’s a multi-racial hip-hop collective that want to redefine the meaning of “boy band”! A promising premise, and the opening track gave me a feeling I haven’t had since the height of conscious hip-hop (think Arrested Development, De La Soul, Digable Planets, etc.) and political hip-hop (think Public Enemy, NWA) in the 90s. Subsequent tracks bore that out, but also featured the best of the kind of storytelling tracks found in 90s gangster rap, and multi-layered 2000s hip hop production styles. Lyrics, vocal styling, sampling and mixing, everything here is dynamic and substantive. This is one boy band I can get behind!
Demi Lovato, Dancing With The Devil…The Art of Starting over– Imagine you are a sometimes not taken seriously pop princess. Imagine that as you were seemingly on top of the world you were actually wrestling with addiction, depression, eating disorders, and recovery from sexual assault. Now imagine that you go public with these struggles, your near-death from them, and release an album that is unstintingly honest and vulnerable about the process. And that you somehow make it into musically lush and vocally powerful pop music. Simply amazing.
Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg– This UK band sounds like they’re doing a conscious throwback to/revival of the angular and nervy early era of post-punk. And they do it very well! The musical side of it is excellent and the dry spoken word vocals of vocalist Florence Shaw are a nice touch too.
Du Blonde, Homecoming– It begins with a burp, launches immediately into sludgy guitar, husky vocals with an undertone of both malice and boredom, and packs ten songs into 25 minutes. Some melodic sweetness kicks in along the way too, placing it at a kind of cross roads of 60s girl group and stoner rock. Shades of Blondie, shades of Hole. (She knows her oeuvre too, since Garbage’s Shirley Manson appears on one of the tracks.) I had no choice, I am required by law to love this. And I do! Also to note, the power behind this, Beth Jean Houghton, is also a multi-media artist and director of music videos for numerous bands.
Elizabeth King, Living in the Last Days– “77 year-old gospel recording veteran gets a chance to record a new album for the first time in decades” is a good story. Good stories don’t always translate into great albums, but it sure did in this case. Gospel, blues, funk, and her assured powerful voice make for rocking soulful gospel at its best.
Grave Flowers Bongo Band, Strength of Spring– The name gives one pause, but the reality is something unexpected: a guitar heavy post-punk, metal, and prog rock/psychedelia hybrid. Every track is both propulsive, and sings with the guitar work. I’m a yes!
Greta Van Fleet, The Battle at Garden’s Gate– Why lovingly recreate a 70s hard rock sound? Why not! The thing is, it’s done so well, with such sincerity, that it doesn’t sound like a knock-off, but a genuinely new album from that era that somehow just popped into contemporary existence. It will be fascinating to see how this group develops over time.
Guided by Voices, Earth Man Blues– Nobody else quite does what Guided by Voices does, and they are doing it very well here. Every track is like an instant classic, and they’re all in different styles. There’s even a Batman-themed song!
Juan Wauters, Real Life Situations– This Uruguayan musician living in New York City took advantage of COVID confinement to produce this mix of slice of life sound samples, hip-hop, electronic dance music, acoustic, latin pop, and jazz. The whole thing, along with lyrics in English and Spanish, creates a surprisingly listenable urban pastiche, delivering exactly what the title is promising.
Matthew E. White/Lonnie Holmes, Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection– This is a powerful melding of funk, jazz, and electronic beats from Virginia musician Mathew E. White and vocals that are in turns growling and poetic from 71 year-old multi-media artist Lonnie Holley that weave themselves through the music. I’ve noticed that these kinds of collaborations between artists can be either ponderous or magic. This one is magic- revelatory, challenging but always interesting and listenable, you probably won’t hear anything else like it this year.
Luke Haines, Luke Haines in…Setting the Dogs on the Post Punk Postman– Oh my god, I love it! The kind of weird simultaneously personal and international tales of intrigue delivered in melodic and affecting pop and rock that Warren Zevon used to deliver. One might also hear hints of Elvis Costello or Nick Lowe. I never wanted it to end
Midland, The Sonic Ranch– Well shit, this is an honest to God country album. Nothing feels affected, nothing feels slick. It’s in a neo-traditionalist vein, and doing it flawlessly. The excellent country album I’ve been looking for since the beginning of the year!
Nick Waterhouse, Promenade Blue– 50s/early 60s rock/soul revival sound with a wild edge and hint of indie darkness. Think of a kind of intersection of Buddy Holly/Buster Poindexter/Brian Setzer/early Elvis Costello, aka I fucking love it.
PONY, TV Baby– Oh hi, this album fell through a time warp from the 90s and hit me on the head, and now I love it. I saw one description of the band describe it as “bubble grunge”. Well yeah, you give me a female-fronted guitar-crunching band that has a pop sensibility, and I’m almost guaranteed to be on board.
Remember Sports, Like a Stone– There’s this band I fall in love with every few years. The basic elements are: an all-female or 3/4 female band, real guitar rock with real drums, and punk power and verve but strong melody and pop sensibility. It has been, variously, the Skirts, the Bangs, the Soviettes, and Vancougar. This is that band. I’m in love! They should watch out, though, because my love-band inevitably puts out less than a handful of albums and breaks up before meeting with the reception they deserve. Alas!
The Coral, Coral Island– This opens with one of those classic psychedelia spoken word intros The jangly psychedelia-flavored indie rock that follows, and spoken travel narrative interludes throughout, show this is exactly what this English band is going for, and they deliver-flawlessly
The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Dance Songs for Hard Times– Obviously, the band name is great, and the album name is energetic and hopeful. The even better news is that this Indiana country-blues band delivers with a set of rocking hi-energy blues songs. Every last track is solid fun!
Topaz Jones, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma– A lively and varied hip-hop album, I’m digging it! It has rich grooves, variability on tracks, smooth flow, and clever and positive lyrics. It also feels personal and authentic, and bing-bing- coherent!
Winds, Look at the Sky– Well instrumented (they know their rock chord changes!), with by turns moody and melodious vocals and lyrics. They deliver indie rock with a strong nod to the more swinging side of 70s singer-songwriter and 80s alt Replacements-style guitar rock. Sometimes it has a kind of “lost in time” feel, but darned if it isn’t excellent!
Cory Hanson, Pale Horse Rider– Country flavored, and the minor chords, the lyrics, and vocals deliver a kind of evocative melodious melancholy that works with this. Two weirdly ambient tracks at random(?) spots is the only thing costing it an automatic yes.
Dinosaur Jr., Swept Into Space– As an 80s alt kid and 90s American guitar-rock fan, well, what can I do? If not for one mysteriously dud/low volume track, this would be a “yes”.
Eric Church, Soul– I like this better than Heart, the other album he released at almost the same time. And, as you’ll see below. there was nothing wrong with Heart, technically, it just felt like it leaned more often on country tropes than authenticity. While still smooth, the material here feels more authentic to the artist.
Field Music, Flat White Moon– This feels Beatlesesque, which can be a pathway to doom, but this English band does it so straight up sweetly, and with enough indie rock verve and discord to not be a shallow copy. The thought that maybe it’s a little derivative is keeping it from automatic “yes”, but it’s a strong maybe!
Garage a Trois, Calm Down Cologne– All-instrumental is an inherently harder sell for me, but this jazz-funk fusion is truly excellent, and never let me down, despite some really long jammy tracks- maybe!
Gojira, Fortitude– French metal band named after Godzilla?-I’m pulling for you! Well-done thrash/prog metal with some mirthful choices, even the pause in the middle works. It may not totally exceed its genre, but 1/3 into the year, this is the metal album I’ve been hoping for!
La Femme, Paradigmes– I mean, it’s much more than half in French, but it’s so swinging and hi-energy and musically dynamic that I’m seriously considering it!
Lucinda Williams, Runnin’ Down a Dream– There are very confusing indications of what year this was released, but hey, I love covers, Tom Petty. and Lucinda Williams, so… As approaches to covers goes, I think this is the gold standard-respectful but no slavish, she successfully brings her own sensibility to them, and many of the tracks are unusual/ less common choices.
Major Murphy, Access– Stripped down rock and clear, emotional vocals, this is giving me a 90s flashback feel, with a hint of 70s rock in there too. It slows down on the second half, and it’s not profound, but everything is well done.
Maxwell Farrington/Le SuperHomard, Once– This collaboration between Australian singer Farrington and composer Le SuperHomard has swinging 60s orchestral-style pop, is vocally and musically rich, while being lyrically dour, which is an interesting combo. The tracks get a little similarish, but they’re so good and none of them dud out.
Mon Laferte, SEIS– This really makes me wish my Spanish was better, because she is a vocal powerhouse. This is a also a lively musical exploration of Mexican folk. I like it so much, I have to give it a “Maybe” even though I can’t really understand it!
Shelley FKA Dram, Shelley FKA Dram– The autotune, why does this age have so much autotune? Yet this album quickly transcends that, and my word is it good- robust production, genuine feeling, disarming charm. I wonder a little about consistency, but it makes up for it with lots of authenticity.
Silver Synthetic, Silver Synthetic– My first impression is a country-rock feel with a hint of paisley underground, and chord changes reminiscent of the Velvet Underground, which automatically makes me well-disposed toward it. It sounds a little derivative, and isn’t profound, but every track is doing exactly what it needs to do.
Steve Cropper, Fire It Up– This veteran guitarist of Booker T. & the M.G.s and the Blues Brothers Band sounds completely as excellent as you’d think based on that. It comes off a little dated. Or perhaps that’s timeless, as he’s pushing 80? It lands short of yes, but still rates highly.
The Reds, Pinks and Purples, Uncommon Weather– I was pre-disposed to want to like this when I realized the cover of his previous album (the “band” is the diy project of multi-band alumni Glenn Donaldson) was a picture of the corner I lived on in San Francisco for 7 years! Fortunately, he has a way with alternately sweetly ringing and fuzzy guitars, melody, and weary vocals and heartsick lyrics, so I didn’t feel like I was in danger of manufacturing a case for him just based on home pride. It all creates a dreamy side of 80s alt feeling, and the only real drawback is that the tone is a little too similar from track to track. (The cover of this album, by the way, is another street scene from my old SF neighborhood. Keep it local!)
Zo! & Tall Black Guy, Abstractions– This is another one of those cases where band name alone makes me want to like something. It turns out I did like it! This conciously hearkens back to 80s R&B, with jazz, funk and some modern hip-hop, and a celebration of Detroit thrown in along the way. I kept wondering if it was too mellow, but I also enjoyed it and its eclecticism the whole way along.
Alfa Mist, Bring Backs– Overall it was too jazz-easy listening-new age for me.
Andy Stott, Never The Right Time– I certainly appreciated the unsettling sonic dissonance of the opening. Overall too spare and sometimes ambient a version of electronica for my taste, but interesting.
Animal Collective, Crestone (Original Score)– Not as unlistenable as the last Animal Collective album I listened too. Merely kind of boring.
Arooj Aftab, Vulture Prince– It’s beautiful, but it’s generally too in the category of orchestral soundtrack/world music for what I’m looking at here.
Balmorhea, The Wind– The opening track was so slow and muted it almost literally put me to sleep. Subsequent tracks did not improve on that. Nearly ambient musical changes, whispered vocals when there are any. Ugh no.
Birdy, Young Heart– Very pretty folky pop, but doesn’t get above a kind of simplicity and track to track sameness.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy / Matt Sweeney, Superwolves– Good start, poetic lyrics and music by turns brooding, driving, acoustic, with many a classic rock reference. It did get a little bog-downy in the middle/end, though. Alas!
Cabaret Voltaire, BN9Drone– This is the third album Cabaret Voltaire is releasing this year, which isn’t bad for a group that I hadn’t thought continued to exist after about 1989 or so. It is my least favorite of the three, they each seem to get closer and closer to being annoying noise.
Californian Soil, London Grammar– Well, the intro definitely pissed me off with its orchestral swell and disembodied ethereal singing. It was kind of electronic pop folk after that, and really pretty good, but it feels a little too polished versus authentic.
Cannibal Corpse, Violence Unimagined– I mean, it’s not like you don’t know what you’re going to get from this group. If you happen to need some grisly death metal, you’ll get a very good serving of it here. But it doesn’t get enough beyond what you’d expect to be in contention for best, I’d say.
Cheap Trick, In Another World– I have to say, I didn’t expect “a new Cheap Trick album” would be something I could possibly be listening to in 2021- it’s pretty good, but a little too exactly what you’d expect from them.
Citizen Cope, The Pull of Niagara Falls– The spare acoustic guitar, growly vocals, and grim lyrics are an affecting combo, but in the end I found it all too one-tone musically and vocally to sustain itself at album length.
Dawn Richard, Second Line– I think this is pretty good, but it does tend toward a sameness after a while. Sic semper electronicus. Her approach is great, though, and some of these I would certainly want as singles.
Dntel, The Seas Trees See– Outright weird electric voice beginning is somehow much better than the currently popular autotune that pretends to be really singing, but sadly it vanished after that and what was left, despite interesting moments along the way, was way too electronica abstract and/or almost ambient.
Eric Church, Heart– Hey, it’s a country album! I am always on the lookout for a good country album. Very well done, but it feels like more formula than heart throughout.
Flock of Dimes, Head of Roses– It’s a nice indie album with elements of folk, rock, and electronic. But it feels way too low energy and same track to track to really engage.
Flying Lotus, Yasuke– “Electronic music soundtrack for an anime series focused on a Black Samurai” is a pretty good mission statement, but it all tends a little toward too low-key/background mostly instrumental for me.
Gary Bartz/Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Adrian Younge, Gary Bartz JID006– I was led to believe that this might be the kind of jazz that interfaces with rock or funk in interesting ways. It was not. It’s a nice mellow vibe, if you like that kind of thing.
Ghlow, Slash and Burn– Beats, guitars, and the sound of a race car revving up was actually a pretty promising start. It IS the kind of thing I like, but there’s too much all-one tone to the music and the vocals, no distinction between tracks.
girl in red, if i could make it go quiet– Such a shame! pop-punk, hip-hop, melody, searingly personal lyrics, sweet pop and honestly unpretty lyrics. It was in serious contention until it did the dreaded second half deflation.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!– Between hearing they’re a Canadian experimental music collective and that title, well, one wondered what to expect. What’s delivered is kind of in line with what some good guesses might be. Very interesting, sometimes quite compelling, but a little too experimental for me.
Imelda May, 11 Past the Hour– A dark haunting opening, with gorgeous and smoking vocals, but it gets a little too slick, and some of the lyrics too cliched for my taste.
Leon Vynehall, Rare, Forever– Electronic music, and an album inspired by psychedelic revelation of music as therapy, which is interesting. But, it’s a little too abstract and chaotic for me.
Lil Tjay, Destined 2 Win– This is from the severely auto-tuned vocals school of hip-hop, and, well, no matter how worthy parts of it may be, I just can’t. Sorry.
Liquid Tension Experiment, LTE3– Progressive metal supergroup! And, sure, this is pretty good. In fact, really good. But, um, it’s entirely instrumental and almost two hours long. That’s a pretty tough sell for me.
Luca Yupanqui, Sounds of the Unborn– An experimental musician records in utero sounds from her daughter (Luca, of title fame) and remixes them into an electronic music album. The results are fascinating, often even unsettling. I don’t think it’s quite an album in “best of the year” sense, but it is a sonic document worth perusing.
Manchester Orchestra, Million Masks of God– It does indeed sound a little orchestral. It’s well produced, but every track sounds kind of the same.
Merry Clayton, Beautiful Scars– The best moments here would definitely get a “yes”, and it is very high quality throughout. Ultimately, it felt a little too much like glossy production drowned out authentic passion.
Moontype, Bodies of Water– Nice fuzz-rock start and they know how to do their crashing chords. It often had my head bouncing, but pacing problems doomed it-sudden lurches between fast and slow tracks threw the rhythm of the album off.
Motorpsycho, Kingdom of Oblivion– With the band’s name, I was going to be disappointed if it wasn’t heavy. It is, but also surprisingly melodic and with light poppy vocals and a musical mix of metal, prog, and psychedelic. It was doing so well until track 5 and the long beginning of track 6 went ambiently dead. From there, pace and voice got all wobbly. It’s a real shame!
Mythic Sunship, Wildfire– If your band name is Mythic Sunship and the average length of a track on your album is 9 minutes, I’m going to have certain expectations/ trepidations. The blistering opening exceeded my expectations and almost avoided my trepidations. Wild jazz version of an instrumental metal jam? Metal jazz? I don’t know, but I loved it! For like 7 of its 10 minutes. Ditto on track two. So maybe there was a 33 minute version of this album that would have been a yes?
Norah Jones, ‘Til We Meet Again– I’ve been avoiding “from the archives” live albums, but have included recently recorded live albums, which this is. Everything she does is beautiful, but ultimately it was a little too long slow jazz groove for me. I’ll tell you what though, “Black Hole Sun” always makes for a great cover no matter who does it!
OMAAR, Drum Temple– I mean, an entirely instrumental electronic percussion album was going to be a hard sell for me as “best of year”. But if you’re a fan of beats, you might like it!
Orions Belte, Villa Amorini– Nicely played drums and guitars, lively production flourishes (including jazz, psychedelia, and Nigerian music), a mellow vibe, and when the vocals do kick in (much of it is instrumental) they’re also well-done and interesting. It’s skillful, but shallow enough that I’d had enough after halfway through.
Peter Frampton, Frampton Forgets the Words– While I love a good covers album, and I really appreciate his skill, courage in the face of debilitating disease, and his self-deprecation, an entirely instrumental guitar album, even one as excellent as this, is a hard sell for me.
Raf Rundell, O.M. Days– Definitely some fun stuff here vocally and lyrically, and the electronic music is occasionally lively, but more often than not the whole thing fades into the background.
Rhiannon Giddens, They’re Calling Me Home– Haunting vocals, traces of blues and celtic, classical-ultimately a little too on the classical/vocal music end for me and my purposes here.
Royal Blood, Typhoons– Rock with a dance beat, and it works as both genres, with propulsive music and crisp vocals. It’s really good at what it does, but the tracks do all start to blend together. Sorry to be so picky but with this album, I’d just passed 250 albums listened to. The bar is high and getting higher!
Ryley Walker, Course in Fable– A very interesting lyrical voice, but the smooth and easy musical production left things feeling cold.
Sindy, HORROR HEAD– If you spell Sindy with an an “S” and call your album Horror Head, I am per-disposed to expect something truly unsettling. Instead this is a vaguely new wave, vaguely My Bloody Valentine piece of pop electronica. I think the lyrics might be unsettling, but they’re so fuzzy-mumbled I can’t tell. There are some tracks that get there, but mostly no.
Son Lux, Tomorrows III– Not bad by any means, but a little too lurching ethereal sound effect for me.
Spirit of the Beehive, ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH– Between the title and the fact that the title was in all caps, I figured we’d be in for something here. The noise collage opening had me worried, but it turns out there is a band that knows about melody in there somewhere. Unfortunately, this is co-located with the band that’s doing a melange of industrial, noise-rock, and layers of sound samples. It just isn’t very listenable, and not even a song titled “I suck the Devil’s cock” could save it.
Still Dreams, Make Believe– I mean, don’t get me wrong. I like my J-Pop. And this is fun, but it’s not “best” material.
Taylor Swift, Fearless (Taylor’s Version)– No, but it’s an interesting story. To get around the former record label that’s got her debut album all locked up, she’s re-recorded it, along with six new songs. The whole thing is a little too weird (and faithful) conceptually to be a “best”, but it reminds you of how good she was from the get-go, which is reinforced even more by the six previously unreleased recordings from that era.
Teenage Fanclub, Endless Arcade– This is all well done, but a little too much all in one tone musically and vocally, and I can’t shake the feeling that I’m listening to their “jam band” album. Saints preserve us!
Tetrarch, Unstable– This was put out by Napalm Records, which gives you an idea of the sound. Actually, it’s the shortfall of that expectation that’s kind of the problem. It’s a competent mix of hardcore punk and metal with a little doom/scream vocals. But it doesn’t get beyond that to something that truly napalms the soul.
The Armed, ULTRAPOP– Anonymous post-hardcore collective? Go on, I’m listening… It’s an interesting deconstruction of hardcore using electronic music and samples, but a little too abstract and grating to be listenable for long.
The Legal Matters, Chapter Three– Neo-psychedelia, well done, but feels a little hollow/too slickly produced.
The Offspring, Let The Bad Times Roll– A friend of mine said, “It sounds just like their albums from the 90s.” True. And Smash was one of my favorite albums of that decade. Actually, I think they’re a little more musically and thematically nuanced here, and it’s certainly a good time for fans of the genre. But I’m not sure it rises above previous efforts, or, for example, exceeds Green Day’s “aging punker looks at the world” efforts.
Thomas Rhett, Country Again– It’s very competent country, better than a lot of 2000s pop country, but it has that similarly soulless prefab quality.
Tom Jones, Surrounded by Time– It’s another cover album, and I like covers albums, and Tom Jones, well, he’s predictably great. So, it’s solid, but I don’t think it gets to “year’s best” great.
Yellow Ostrich, Soft– Mellow, intelligent, literate, emoish indie. Can barely stand it.
Yoshinori Hayashi, Pulse of Defiance– A nice selection of mellow beats, purely instrumental, just didn’t spark anything in particular for me.
And there we are! The April review is published before the end of May. Now, onward!
Commencing part four of my ten-part review of critic’s choices for the 52 best albums of 2010-2019! (Wait! What? 52? There is a reason, see below…) If you missed the earlier editions, you can find them here:
This is one of three musical blog series I’m doing this year. So go check out the latest installments of my overview of the critical consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020, and my monthly review of new releases en route to finding the best 21 albums of 2021.
So, wait, did I say 52? This is what happened: I took “best of decade” lists from the AV Club, Billboard, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, the New Yorker, New Music Express, Paste, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Vice. For any album that appeared at least once in these lists, I tallied up votes between them. Albums getting 4 votes and up totaled 52, which was close enough to a top 50 that I decided to go with that as a cutoff.
I’m doing 10 total posts of 5 each (or 6 each on the last two) and then a final wrap-up. With that explained, let’s get on with Part 4!
Celebration Rock (Japandroids, 2012, 5 votes)– Hey, that’s some good rock! At least on the opening track. It’s got the guitar. It’s got the backbeat. It’s got surging passionate vocals. It’s got the feedback fade after. They totally know how rock song structure works as well, and there are affecting lyrics. Without sounding absolutely the same track after track, there isn’t a track that stops rocking. God bless Canadians, I sometimes think they’re the only ones who still get it.
Black Messiah (D’Angelo & the Vanguard, 2014, 5 votes)– In a previous iteration of this kind of exercise a few years back, I had been confidently informed by critics that D’Angelo’s album Voodoo was one of the best albums of the 00s. I had trouble getting there. It was good stuff, but I couldn’t see what I was getting from it that I wouldn’t, for example, get from Prince (who it felt heavily derivative of). I’m having a similar reaction to this. To be fair, though, I suppose this could be considered praising by faint damnation, since that’s a pretty darn elevated reference point.
Channel ORANGE (Frank Ocean, 2012, 7 votes)– This is the second of two albums of his that made the list, and the chronologically earlier of the two (the other one being Blonde from 2016). Well done Frank! Like that album, the autotuned nature of some of the vocals here gives me pause. Also, like that album, the lyrical wit, interesting sampling and production, and varied musical approaches utterly overcomes those reservations. I can see how this got listed, especially since it came out first!
Control (SZA, 2017, 7 votes)– Musically sophisticated, emotionally honest, and lyrically complex R&B. Some tracks are harrowing, some sweetly vulnerable, some sarcastic, and some downright hilarious, like Doves in The Wind in which she (SZA is the stage name of Solána Imani Rowe) uses samples from Westerns and Kung-fu movies and a guest appearance by Kendrick Lamar to explore the obsession with pussy. On the downside, it’s got more than a bit of the “autotuned” sound that’s the bane of the decade and maybe falls a little short in overall coherence. Part of the issue may be that, as the 19th album from the list I’ve listened to, I’m now comparing it to the very best-structured albums from the list. That’s pretty minor sour grapes considering how high quality this is, and how powerful she is.
Currents(Tame Impala, 2015, 4 votes)– This is a little trippy, which I hear is their jam. But, more on the dance/electronic side of trippy, with some new wave influence. It reminds me, perhaps, of something the Flaming Lips might put out, except from them I’d expect even more weirdness, and also more overarching album structure. The tracks are also tending a lot toward sameness. Not bad, by any means, but I’m not convinced this adds up to a “decade best” album.
And that’s it for this installment! 20 down, 32 to go…