Well my friends, here we are!
It was over a year ago that, as part of an effort to catch up on newer music, I set out to find the 21 best albums of 2021 by listening to new releases each month, and sorting them into yes/maybe/no. If you missed the individual monthly installments, you can find them here:
This was one of three music-related blog series I did this past year. The final installment of my review of critic’s choices for the best albums of the 2010s is here, and the wrap-up of my review of the critic’s consensus on the 20 best albums of 2020 is here.
But you don’t want to hear about all that now, do you? You want to find out what the 21 best albums of 2021 were! We’ll get there in just a second, but first a quick overview of how I got to the final list:
- Over the course of the year I listened to 1,026 (!) new releases
- From these, I got a “Yes” list of 244 albums
- Adding to this some entries from the “Maybe” list that had lingered with me got me 356 total possibilities
- Re-listening to these 356 albums, I narrowed it down to 163 semi-finalists
- I then gave these 163 another listen to get my top 21 (and 79 honorable mention)
And here, without further ado, are the plucky finalists. Aka,The 21 Best Albums of 2021!
Arlo Parks, Collapsed in Sunbeams– A solid selection of British Soul, with a poetic sensibility throughout. Her lyrical emotional sophistication is breath-taking, and often haunting. On a musical level it is, in a way, very straightforward smooth soul. But that’s the knife edge that slips the lyrics in between your ribs before you know what’s happened.
Baio, Dead Hand Control– A solo effort from one of the leads of Vampire Weekend. It booms into gear from the get go, and feels like I’ve fallen in to the Pretty in Pink/Some Kind of Wonderful soundtracks. You can take the boy out of the Alternative 80s, but you can never fully take the Alternative 80s out of the boy… Having listened to it several times at different points during the past year, I can testify that every time it makes me happy.
Bruiser Wolf, Dope Game Stupid– Vocally and lyrically unusual, surrealistic, smart, and sometimes downright hilarious hip-hop. It deals, as many hip hop albums do, with the street life and the drug trade, but makes such unusual musical, lyrical, and vocal choices that it sounds nothing like every other hip hop album while doing it.
Celeste, Not Your Muse– A very well-produced British R&B/soul/jazz/dance offering with smoky, soulful, affecting lyrics. It’s a good mix of uptempo and downtempo songs, and works equally well on both. Just lovely the whole way through- she doesn’t have to be anyone’s muse if she doesn’t want to, but she obviously knows the muse well herself.
Czarface/MF Doom, Super What?– One of two posthumous hip-hop legend releases we have in our list. RIP MF Doom. I don’t think it’s just sentiment that’s got me liking this- the delightful swirl of music and samples, pounding vocal flow, themes of superhero/sci-fi, pandemic, and pop culture, all add up to a great outing! And, amidst the celebration, sadness that there isn’t more to come.
Defcee & Messiah Musik, Trapdoor– This Chicago hip-hop artist brings super-smart and conscious lyrics, muscular vocal delivery, and a spare approach to beats and mix. This reminds me of a certain stream of 90s hip-hop that I’ve missed.
Demi Lovato, Dancing With The Devil…The Art of Starting Over– Imagine you are a sometimes not taken seriously pop princess. Imagine that as you were seemingly on top of the world you were actually wrestling with addiction, depression, eating disorders, and recovery from sexual assault. Now imagine that you go public with these struggles, your near-death from them, and release an album that is unstintingly honest and vulnerable about the process. And that you somehow make it into musically lush and vocally powerful pop music. Simply amazing.
Esther Rose, How Many Times– Solid acoustic folk with nice country flourishes. She has a clear and engaging voice, and things here are charmingly not perfectly smooth. As a result, it’s lively and utterly genuine-feeling. this is a great example of an album that does not necessarily have titanic ambitions, but wins through by flawless execution.
Guided by Voices, Earth Man Blues– Nobody else quite does what Guided by Voices does, and they are doing it very well here. Every track is like an instant classic, and they’re all in different styles. It feels hard to believe you haven’t known these songs your whole life.
JJJJJerome Ellis, The Clearing– This album is really, a philosophical thesis about Blackness in America, ranging from history and literature to modern pop culture and everything in-between. That general subject area is anchored by Ellis’s specific meditations on music, and his own personal experience with his lifelong stutter (which he works in to the lyrics and music in various ways). All this is accompanied by clear beats and the light touch of smartly deployed electronic keyboard effects. It is fairly heady material, but also engaging in a way that keeps it working through multiple listens.
Judith Hill, Baby I’m Hollywood– She does classic smoldering soul, old style R&B, funk, and swinging rock equally well, with a voice that doesn’t have a note of falseness in it. Between musical variety and verve, soaring vocals, and sharp lyrics that address the personal and the social, there isn’t a single thing here not to love! Hill started as a backup singer who broke out on her own, was a former contestant on The Voice, and afterward was produced by Prince, and you can hear how much she’s mastered along the way.
Lana Del Rey, Blue Bannisters– This was her second album this past year, and, as always, she’s amazing. I did wonder about the slow vein it started in and mostly maintains, but as it goes on, it’s clear that this is deliberate- the album is a meditation on the richness of heartbreak and feeling blue. And it’s magnificently done.
Leeanne Betasamosake Simpson, Theory of Ice– Luminous lyrics and vocals, with an electronic-infused acoustic pop sound. She’s a First Nations Canadian writer/musician, and you will certainly hear that thematically here. But it’s so personal, evocative, and poetic that I think it reaches any audience even if that subtext is missed.
Luke Haines, Luke Haines in…Setting the Dogs on the Post Punk Postman– Oh my god, I love it! The kind of simultaneously personal and international tales of intrigue delivered in melodic pop and rock that Warren Zevon used to deliver. One might also hear hints of Elvis Costello or Nick Lowe. It pulls you in to its own weird world, and I never wanted it to end.
Nick Waterhouse, Promenade Blue– 50s/early 60s rock/soul revival sound with a wild edge and hint of alt rock darkness. Think of a kind of intersection of Buddy Holly/Buster Poindexter/Brian Setzer/early Elvis Costello. It’s nonstop excellent, and I fucking love it.
Remi Wolf, Juno– Musically, this is coming from a dance/pop direction, but her personality, hilarious and super-smart lyrics, and the verve and variety of the music mix all put it over the top. Apparently, she was on American Idol in 2014 as a high school student. She was way too good for them, as she subsequently proved by getting a music degree and then self-releasing her own material. This is her studio album debut, and I love it more each time I hear it. It’s not quite clear to me why she isn’t running the world, but I’m convinced eventually she will be!
Ron Gallo, PEACEMEAL– I mean, I’m both interested and leery when you start with a backwards vocals intro. This betrays a kind of 60s psychedelia/70s concept album bent which is borne out, but in the best indie lo-fi home-recorded kind of way, in the rest of the album. This is angsty, quirky, idiosyncratic, and delightfully unafraid to be awkward and goony.
Sarah Mary Chadwick, Me and Ennui are Friends Baby– Yes, that cover is really something. And it gives you a clue, in a way, to what’s going on inside. I love the ragged vocals and bitter emotionally sophisticated lyrics. The phrasing and music interplay belies the simplicity of each, creating layers even though it’s substantially only her voice and piano. Between all this, the album is legitimately harrowing. It’s like something this raw, revealing, and deliberately unpretty shouldn’t be out there. But here it is.
St. Lenox, Ten Songs of Worship & Praise for our Tumultuous Times– Boisterous, quirky and awkwardly earnest vocals and lyrics, music informed by gospel and electronic, unconventional spirituality, this really does achieve its stated aim of delivering songs of worship for our modern age!
Sturgill Simpson, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita– This is the kind of “extended story” country album that you might have found coming out of Outlaw Country in the 70s (as if to prove the point, Willie Nelson appears on a track here). It is ridiculously well done, vocally and musically straight up, country music story-telling in top form. It’s hard to believe he’s contemporary since the sound is so classic, but this is his seventh album, and sounding classic is apparently kind of his forte.
Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers– Solid vocals and affecting lyrics, livened by skillful layered production. It pulls together acoustic, indie rock, classic soul and R&B, and psychedelia, and sounds equally natural and authentic doing it all. Bob Dylan has cited her as one of the contemporary artists he listens to, and I can see why. This is exquisite and gorgeous!
So there you have it, the 21 best albums of 2021.
But wait! Did I mention something above about honorable mention? I did! Having come all this way, it seemed remiss to not include albums that didn’t quite make the top 21, but still quite caught my fancy. 79 of them, to round us out to a nice even 100:
- Aesop Rock/Blockhead, Garbology– I’ve listened to many great hip-hop albums this past year. And a whole lot of bad ones. So the bar is pretty high, but this collaboration of Portland-based underground hip-hop impresario Matthias Bavitz, aka Aesop Rock, and Manhattan record producer and DJ Tony Simon, aka Blockhead, deliverd. The vocals are pleasingly goony and un-smooth, the musical mix is wildly varied and muscular, and the lyrics are smart and off-kilter.
- Alex Beeker, Heaven on the Faultline– This was just delightful from the first few bright, clear and poppy, lof-fi synth-organ notes. A sure feel for melody and hooks, packed with clever musical choices and lyrical surprises as well. I genuinely didn’t want it to end.
- Amythyst Kiah, Wary + Strange– A plaintive folk-inflected beginning, then a muscular bruising blues track, then back to soulful orchestral folk, on to an eerie steel blues, and so on (with a country song tossed in the middle too). Musically excellent, and informed throughout with vocal power and sharp, clear, lyrical picture-painting.
- Andrew W.K., God is Partying– Deliberately over the top melodramatic metal. Operatic, stirring, maybe hilarious. Is it serious? Is it ridiculous? Is it a skillful and heartfelt homage to metals and stadium rocks past? Friends, we don’t need to choose- It’s all of those things, and I freaking love it!
- Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark– Dark and fascinating. Lyrically like some of the darker turns of goth music, but musically on the soft edge of indie folk and electronica, and the vocals are a kind of low-key narration. It all seems calculated to undersell how disturbing the content is.
- BackRoad Gee, Reporting Live (From the Back of the Roads)– This British-Congolese artist brings together African pop, hip-hop, UK dub, and a delightful skillful wielding of varied sound effects and musical backgrounds. All this would work well just on the sonic side, but on top of that, lyrically it grapples honestly and intelligently with details of hard life in Africa and the UK.
- Bat Fangs, Queen of My World– Do you know how much I appreciate jumping in at full rock from the first note? I appreciate it a lot! This album is steeped in the brighter side of 80s hard rock and hair metal, but with female leads. This works well, they deliver flawless cock rock without the downsides of cock attitude.
- Benny the Butcher/Harry Fraud, The Plugs I Met 2– This collaboration brings together a New York-based MC and a hip-hop producer. There’s beautiful musical sampling work, fun weaving in of Scarface references, smooth vocal style, and lyrics with strong storytelling.
- Big Jade, Pressure– I was a little flummoxed by this. It’s often the kind of bragging and dissing brand of hip-hop that I usually pass on. On the other hand, the gender inversion of how she does it is interesting, and the vocal stylings are strong and dynamic. There’s also a certain self-awareness in the unpleasantness of the character she puts forward. I can’t dismiss it!
- Billy Childish/Wild Billy Childish & CTMF/CTMF, Where The Wild Purple Iris Grows– This English painter, author, poet, photographer, film maker, singer and guitarist delivers blistering punk/garage with hints of rocakbilly, and 80s-style folk-punk. And there’s a stinging blues-drenched Dylan cover to boot! I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of him earlier (he’s been kicking around since the late 70s), because what he’s doing is right up my alley!
- Birds of Maya, Valdez– Recorded in 2014 as a follow-up to their well-received 2013 debut, but just now released due to the Philadelphia-based band reforming. Bruising noise rock, pieces that go into surging, crunching length, with hints of psychedelia and metal along the way but informed by punk spirit- this is as excellently straight-up as 2000s hard rock gets.
- Charlotte Cornfield, Highs in the Minuses– This Canadian singer-songwriter is a hidden (at least heretofore to me) gem! Her songs know how to work a chord change and are solid musically, but where they really shine is the lyrics. They seem in a way, insularly personal and specific, but in that very specificity are somehow relatable- this is her life, and her thoughts and feelings about it, and hey, that kind of reminds me of my life, and my thoughts and feelings about it.
- Circle/Richard Dawson, Henki– Dawson is an English neo-folk musician, and Circle is a Finnish experimental rock band. They describe this album as “flora-themed hypno-folk-metal”. That’s actually a pretty fair description of the mind-bending sound here. A little like prog rock, a little like Bowie and Ferry at their most theatrical, a little pinch of Bauhaus, a little off-kilter musically, vocally and lyrically, but always interesting and feeling looming with import. It’s not like everything else.
- Cola Boyy, Prosthetic Boombox– Some disco throwback, some home-studio electronica, a lot of wit and eclecticism, not to mention solid fun. Score one for the Oxnard music scene!
- Dave Gahan & The Soulsavers, Imposter– I don’t know what I was expecting from a Depeche Mode member’s side project, but I guess something generally Depeche Modey? To be sure, this is darkly textured and full of mood, but this series of widely ranging covers is musically treated as an invocation of old fashioned R&B, 60s soul, and the darker minor chords of 60s rock. Among others, he covers Neil Young and Dylan, which is a good way to win me over. There’s always been strong of homage to soul and R&B in synth pop, and I can see the dotted line between Depeche Mode and what he’s doing here musically, but it’s still an interesting and welcome surprise!
- Deap Vally, Marriage– Now that kicks off with a crunching guitar and feedback start! A female rock duo from Los Angeles, sounding exactly like a female rock duo from Los Angeles should. They do fast, they do slow, they do mid-tempo, and they’re gloriously menacingly rocking the whole time.
- Deerhoof, Actually, You Can– I do love me some Deerhoof! Reville and Apple O are two of my favorite albums of the 00s, and I’ve seen them live several times, which has never been less than great. The opening song is about vegetables and a refrigerator, and every song sounds like a power-pop song exploded and was reassembled. This is lacking some of the surging moments and structural unity of their best albums, but is a pretty worthy outing, all in all.
- DMX, Exodus 1:7– The other of the two posthumous hip-hop legend releases we have in this list. RIP DMX. This starts off muscular and menacing. Then is, by turns, a flashback to late 90s/early 2000s hip-hop, spiritual, and a considered meditation on age and parenthood. A tour de force, and fitting final testament.
- Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg– This UK band sounds like they’re doing a conscious throwback to/revival of the angular and nervy early era of post-punk. And they do it very well! The musical side of it is excellent and the dry spoken word vocals of vocalist Florence Shaw are a great bonus touch to top things off.
- Ducks Ltd., Modern Fiction– This sounds like some hi-energy alt 80s jangle pop. That, and the name, are both good ways to dispose me favorably. A bit of a time capsule sound from this Toronto band, but darned if it isn’t well done!
- Elvis Costello, Spanish Model– I do like an unusual album concept, and this surely is one- the original masters of Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model, only with the lead vocals removed, and various Latin American musicians doing lead vocals in Spanish. Costello himself is backing this project, and the results are pretty inspired- it reminds you how strong the original tracks were musically, and the variety of vocal approaches to the material takes things off in whole new directions. Call me crazy, but this works!
- Eris Drew, Quivering in Time– What do you do if you’re holed up in a log cabin in New Hampshire during plague times? If you’re DJ and producer Eris Drew, you mix together this very fine house/electronic album. Electronic music is often a tough sell for me, but this is so full of energy, and a wit in production that moves it dynamically forward while the trance of the beats pulls you hypnotically under that I never even thought about touching that dial. Or clicking that mouse, as it were.
- For Those I Love, For Those I Love– This is kind of fascinating, a varied and interesting electronica background, thickly accented spoken word vocals, and sometimes searingly personal lyrics. Irish producer and songwriter David Balfe produced this response to losses throughout his life, including the 2018 suicide of his long-time friend and musical partner Paul Curran, and Dublin’s struggles as well. It’s powerful.
- Foxx Bodies, Vixen– Oh, help me. It’s that band! Punky. Poppy. Heavy crunching guitars, but with melody. Female lead with a strong presence. They’re from Los Angeles in this case, seem to have been kicking around since 2016, and do a very high level of engaging gender politics along the way. What’s not to love?
- GA-20, Try It… You Might Like It! GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor– GA-20 are a band of blues revivalists from Boston, and in this album are covering songs by 70s Chicago bluesman Hound Dog Taylor. The sound leans toward the electric, rocking, chaotic side of blues, and I love just about every second of it. This is one of those recordings that reminds you how vital the blues can still be.
- Goat Girl, On All Fours– If I had to think of two words to describe this album from British group Goat Girl (which, despite the name, seems to be all human women and not fantastic hybrids) it would be “lush” and “hypnotic”. Musically, it’s a combination of instrumental rock and electronic rock, fused together by strong production and a knowing way with melody. And the vocals are clear and powerful.
- Greta Van Fleet, The Battle at Garden’s Gate– Why lovingly recreate a 70s hard rock sound? Why not! The thing is, it’s done so well, with such sincerity, that it doesn’t sound like a knock-off, but a genuinely new album from that era that somehow just popped into contemporary existence. It will be fascinating to see how this group develops over time.
- Guided by Voices, It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them!– This is the second Guided by Voices album of the year, and, as is their wont, sounds different from the other one, and sounds excellent. This one is more in an early 70s prog/psychedelic groove, with enough guitar in a punk/80s alt vein to keep it moving. I thought Earth Man Blues was more solid all the way through, but this outing is also worthy.
- Jack Ingram/Miranda Lambert/Jon Randall, The Marfa Tapes– Several pop country stars hang out together on a porch in West Texas and record what they get up to, and it’s better than anything on pop country radio. There’s a lesson here! The songs are stripped down (including talk between takes, mistakes, and background noise, almost like demos really), honest, and shine like gold.
- James McMurty, The Horses and the Hounds– This folk/rock/alt country veteran from the 80s brings stripped down music, ragged vocals, and lyrics that are so sincere and on-point that they’re almost klunky (but in a charming way). He tells impossible not to visualize stories here in the way that country excels at, and the music is rock-country heartland solid.
- Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales– This album is a musical tour de force with the mix of R&B and hip-hop stylings, vocally dynamic, and, beneath a shiny pop veneer, a nuanced and at times quite personal exploration of female empowerment and both resistance to and complicity with hip hop culture’s misogyny.
- Jerry Douglas/John Hiatt/The Jerry Douglas Band, Leftover Feelings– By turns rollicking, relaxed, and tender, this music lives at the intersection of rock, blues, and country. Hiatt’s voice is just the right kind of finely aged to fit with this and make it feel utterly authentic. You may hear echoes of Dylan, Springsteen, the more wistful edges of Outlaw Country, and even, I swear, Carl Perkins here. None of it is derivative though, that’s just the mythic space this album is inhabiting.
- Juan Wauters, Real Life Situations– This Uruguayan musician living in New York City took advantage of COVID confinement to produce a mix of slice of life sound samples, hip-hop, electronic dance music, acoustic, latin pop, and jazz. The whole musical package, along with lyrics in English and Spanish, creates a very listenable urban pastiche of exactly what the title is promising.
- Juliana Hatfield, Blood– I really like Juliana Hatfield, and I’m also required by law to like smart, angsty, fuzz-guitared 90s songstresses in general. She’s never not had an edge, but this is nasty in a sharp-tongued kind of way, and hilarious. The lyrics feel a little too topically on the nose sometimes, but that’s a minor nit to pick with this solid outing.
- Karen Peris, A Song Is Way Above the Lawn– Speaking of 90s songstresses… This album by Innocence Mission alumni Peris is meant to be a children’s album, but it works for adults. In fact, it’s exactly those aspects that might make it work for children- a kind of lyrical naiveté, a fable-like quality, a straightforward even somewhat bare musical and vocal presentation, that makes it so affecting. It feels a little like a haunted fairy tale.
- Kate Davis, Strange Boy– So, I’m kind of in love with this album. Kate Davis, apparently, is a pop and jazz singer-songwriter who is now on her fifth album, a cover of Daniel Johnston’s Retired Boxer. Johnston himself was an outsider musician who’s stripped down approach to music came out of his own experience with mental illness. Somewhere between the quirky charm of the original material and her talented interpretation- her lackadaisical vocals synch perfectly with the lo-fi music- this is just great.
- Krolok, Funeral Winds & Crimson Sky– If you tell me you’re a Slovakian black metal band, I’m always going to want to hear what you have to say next. As it turns out, I really did! This sounds, and I mean this in the very best way possible, like a metal band did a Halloween album for a vampire theme park. Musically, they pulled off something that bands like this often have a hard time with, bridging the looming atmospheric parts with the more straightforward metal parts. Lyrically, I barely caught a word, but I feel like every word penetrated my soul. Easily one of my favorite metal albums of the year.
- La Femme, Paradigmes– I mean, it’s much more than half in French, but it’s so swinging and hi-energy and musically dynamic that I can’t help it!
- Lana Del Rey, Chemtrails Over the Country Club– The subtlety of the first track alone is breathtaking. Throughout, the music is restrained, even minimal, but there’s such honesty and authenticity in the vocals, and her voice itself is an instrument. All of this supports, as per her usual, sophisticated lyrics. It’s not quite in the league of her other release from the year, Blue Banisters, but it’s powerful!
- Lil Nas X, Montero– Given the hubbub that’s been generated around Lil Nas X, I was certainly curious about his first full-length album. This heightened expectation game can go two ways- but in this case, BELIEVE the hype. In its playing with higher callings and lower pulls, playful musical experimentation, and lyrical wit, this album reminds me of Prince. The transparent and prominent discussion of gay identity, relationships, and eroticism, rare not just in hip-hop but in mass-market pop music in general, is great. It even employs autotune to good effect- as a production tool rather than a crutch. In general, this album is thoroughly conversant with, and yet rises above, 2000s hip-hop idioms. Pretty great all around.
- Lilly Hiatt, Lately– I have a friend who is a big John Hiatt fan, and, under her influence, I am learning to significantly appreciate him. So I was naturally curious to see what his daughter Lilly was up to. It turns out that she’s up to making a really good country-themed album, with great playing, powerful vocals, and just the right mix of verve with respect for traditionalism.
- Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert– Sometimes (often) I might be too, so I like the title! And boy does this album by a UK hip-hop artist/actress get off to a booming operatic start. She’s vocally powerful enough to keep up with the music too, and subsequent tracks are full of great production, intelligence, wit, positive energy, and strong presence.
- Lord Huron, Long Last– I’ve been curious about this Lord, and his great lakey realm, for a while. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this was a very welcome surprise- country inflections with that spooky minor chords sound, sometimes in a downright cowboy ballad vein, but with a heartfelt genuine air. There’s even a framing device for the album that works. It was all superb, and was headed toward being in the 21 best until a 14-minute ambient track at the end. Alas!
- Lucy Dakus, Home Video– Produced with dark musical tones and vocals with trace of haunting, this meditation on adolescent experiences in the shadow of a strong church upbringing is arresting. It reminds me of the kind of interior work Sufjan Stevens does. I sometimes wondered whether it was too similar musically track to track, but it also never let go of my attention.
- Mae Powell, Both Ways Brighter– Bright melodic music, stripped down almost naïve vocals, charming and intelligent lyrics painting vivid pictures. There is nothing here not to like. For me personally, the San Francisco references are a nice plus too!
- Margo Cilker, Pohorylle– Oregon-based Margo Cilker cut her teeth playing covers of Creedence, Dylan, and Neil Young before touring extensively on her own material. She clearly learned the craft, with dense story songs, a voice that never sounds false, and a sure feel for country-tinged Americana. There’s also some excellent use of the word “fuck”, and even when a song gets a little polemical it never sounds less than achingly sincere.
- Martha Wainwright, Love Will Be Reborn– Many an artist has done a moving, even heart-rending, post-divorce album, but few find the subject matter so suitable to their native talents. I’ve loved Martha Wainwright since her 2005 debut album, and the reason why is amply on display here. Rich music, yearning vocals, and lyrics that are genuine, bitter, and hopefully vulnerable all at the same time.
- Matthew E. White/Lonnie Holmes, Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection– This is a powerful melding of funk, jazz, and electronic beats from Virginia musician Mathew E. White, with vocals that are in turns growling and poetic from 71 year-old multi-media artist Lonnie Holley. I’ve noticed that these kinds of collaborations between artists can be either ponderous or magic. This one is magic- revelatory, challenging, but always interesting and listenable. I didn’t hear anything else like it this year.
- Meatbodies, 333– Oh guitars. Wall of guitars. Every time I hear you anew I’m reminded of how much I love you. From this LA area band, I hear hints of grunge, Zeppelin, Jesus & Mary Chain, psychedelia. This gives you some idea of what you’re in for here. And I really like being in for this kind of thing!
- Mon Laferte, 1940 Carmen– The second album out from this Chilean songstress this past year. It is just so darn pretty, and her voice is stunning. It also has a mix of Spanish and English, and dips into pop styles of the 60s, making it more accessible (to me, anyway) than her earlier in the year all-Spanish album which focused on Mexican folk music.
- Moor Mother, Black Encyclopedia of the Air– Moor Mother is the stage name of Camae Ayewa, an American poet, musician, and activist from Philadelphia. With a trippy poetic spoken word start, weirdly syncopated instrumentation and electronic sound effects, it doesn’t sound like everything else. A truly winning outing of left field hip hop and experimental electronic music with dense powerful poetic lyrics.
- Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, The Future– On the first track this Denver-based singer-songwriter seemed to be channeling late 60s/ early to mid 70s Bob Dylan, which is a great way to get my attention. Subsequently, though, he proves to be doing a romp all through the Americana and R&B of that era. And he does it very well! Does it feel a little like a museum piece? Yes. But a flawless and sincere one!
- Naytronix, Other Possibilities– The first track is like space jazz playing with a radio tuning dial, the second has what sounds like an electric xylophone intro, the next is like AM radio gold being played on an 80s synth keyboard, and so on. That’s the musical side, the lyrical side is full of longing, and the vocals are heavy on melody with an occasional side trip into gonzo distortion. Naytronix is the solo musical project of Nate Brenner, who is also a member of the band tune-yards whose album Sketchy. I was very favorably impressed with earlier this year. As for this album, I think it literally delivers on the promise of its title, introducing an array of sonic possibilities.
- Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Carnage– The dark hypnotic power of the opening track pretty much had me, and it didn’t let up from there. Cave’s darkling imaginings are well-supported here by the brooding music and its eerie flourishes. Poetic, beautiful, and often heartbreaking.
- Nicole Atkins, Memphis Ice– North Carolina-based self-professed purveyor of “pop noir” Nicole Atkins recorded this album in Memphis, and it feels like an excellent merger of her lush pop vocal style and the 60s soul Memphis sound.
- Night Beats, Outlaw R&B– I love the idea that the album name brings to mind- an R&B equivalent of Outlaw Country. I wouldn’t quite say it’s delivering that, but it is an R&B brimming with a feeling of 60s rock- I hear some Beatles in there, some Who, some Cream, some Del Shannon. There’s even a spooky gunfighter ballad and a garage rock banger that sneaks in to the mix from somewhere. This was just great, a thoroughly enjoyable turn from this Texas band.
- Papur Wal, Amser Mynd Adra– Driving upbeat rock with great hooks and a pop feeling. A lot of the album is in Welsh, which definitely is a barrier to my understanding, but the music is so darn accessible!
- Pip Blom, Welcome Break– This Dutch band knows how to do a poppy, high-energy rock song, and I like the earnest straightforwardness of leader Pip Blom’s vocals. Is it super-profound? Probably not. But it is super-fun, and flawlessly executed. And okay, yes, I’m a sucker for a guitar-crunching, female-led band. So sue me!
- Pokey LaFarge, In the Blossom of Their Shade– Vocal pop with country, 50s rock, swing, ska, and Latin sounds in the mix. This description is true, but I think it undersells how delightful the combination of this, and his plaintive croon, is. This is some really excellent music.
- Pom Poko, Cheater– Discordant, but high on melody. Quirky. Clever. This is from the school of post-pock that still knows what makes a perfect pop-rock song, but has blown up the formula and beautifully reconstructed the pieces (think Deerhoof). Also, they’re Norwegian, which may have something to do with it.
- R.A.P. Ferreira, The Light-Emitting Diamond Cutter Scriptures– Rory Allen Philip Ferreira is an American rapper and producer from Kenosha, Wisconsin. On this album he brings vivid, poetic, spiritually-infused vocal flow with relaxed beats and some spare jazz-inflected background. It might be hard to keep this going for an hour, but at a half-hour run time, it never flags for a moment.
- Rats on Rafts, Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths– This feels like an album lost in time. Multiple times, actually. You’ll hear traces of psychedelia, 80’s new wave/synthpop, and Industrial. It all adds up to surging atmospheric music. And, as the album name might lead you to expect, it’s also a high concept story album. This could all get out of hand, but it doesn’t, and it’s weirdly wonderful.
- Remember Sports, Like a Stone– There’s this band I fall in love with every few years. The basic elements are: an all-female or 3/4 female band, real guitar rock with real drums, and punk power and verve but strong melody and pop sensibility. It has been, variously, the Skirts, the Bangs, the Soviettes, and Vancougar. This is that band. I’m in love! They should watch out, though, because my love-band inevitably seems to put out less than a handful of albums and breaks up before meeting with the reception they deserve. Alas!
- Robert Finley, Sharecropper’s Son– This blues and soul veteran returned to recording in 2016 after a break of many years, and is here coming out with an album produced by the Black Keys. You might figure these would be the elements of excellence, and they gosh darn are. Muscular electric blues and soul.
- Silk Sonic, An Evening With Silk Sonic– Silk Sonic being a collaboration of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, you might be expecting some kind of invocation of 70s soul and funk. Hearing Bootsy Collins is involved with the album, you might expect that even more so. You would be exactly right, and it’s like glorious slow-pouring sonic gold.
- Steven Wilson, The Future Bites– The mix of melody, samplings, and electronic dance music here brings to mind early 80s Peter Gabriel. It has a tendency toward the ethereal, but the dark bitterness of Wilson’s lyrics and more grating musical touches keep it grounded. All in all, very interesting!
- TEKE::TEKE, Shirushi– Now this is suitably strange! A Japanese band who’s music is a mix of surf music, traditional forms, and psychedelia-flavored electronic. There’s the language issue, and the fact that it sometimes get a little too experimental, but on the other hand it’s a fun and interesting listen, and the experimentation goes somewhere.
- Tele Novella, Merlynn Belle– Vocally charming, with clever clear lyrics, and it casts a spell. Is this a flamenco album? A sad country album? An outing from a twee singer songwriter? All yeses, and I love it!
- The Bug, Fire– I mean, you start off with a narration about robots and prisoners, I’m intrigued. This is like heavy electronica, with a strong dub influence- stomping metallic beats, synthesizer as its own form of percussion, rapid-fire lyrics full of looming apocalypse. Excellent from start to finish.
- The Coral, Coral Island– This album opens with one of those classic psychedelia spoken word intros. The jangly psychedelia-flavored indie rock that follows, and high concept travel narrative interludes throughout, show this is exactly what this English band is going for, and they deliver-flawlessly.
- The Darkness, Motorheart– Hard rock and metal, in a gloriously trashy 80s vein. Some throwaway Star Trek references. Guitars, guitars, guitars! It’s kind of like this UK band received the instruction “make an over-the-top parody of this kind of music, except do it totally sincerely” and then brilliantly executed on that mission.
- The Go! Team, Get Up Sequences Part I– So fun and energetic- it mixes full on indie rock in a synth/bedroom pop vein, 80s-flavored hip-hop, and what sometimes sounds like high school band practice. This is one of those albums where nothing else this past year sounded like it. And it’s delightful!
- The Hold Steady, Open Door Policy– The Hold Steady’s ability to do storytelling in a song is really nonpareil. Except for, you know, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. So yes, you’ll hear echoes of them throughout, but never in a way that sounds like a mere copy. The music has complexity and variability, with power and swagger. They won me over on the first track, and never lost me from there.
- The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Dance Songs for Hard Times– Obviously, the band name is great, and the album name is hopeful. The even better news is that this Indiana country-blues band delivers with a set of rocking hi-energy blues songs. Every last track is solid fun!
- TisaKorean, mr.siLLyfLow– The fresh sound directions from this this Houston rapper, producer, and dancer include soundtrack and cartoon sampling, gonzo vocal flow, and hilarious lyrics. Also, some of the sound effects made my dog bark fitfully. It doesn’t always feel like it fully fits together, but it’s all great. Dog and man recommend!
- Transatlantic, The Absolute Universe: Forevermore– The phrase “Progressive Rock Supergroup”, frankly, should set off alarm bells. And then the fact that the album is an hour and a half long? One should be running for the hills. It’s an interesting story, though. Faced with a dispute over whether to release a double-album or something more streamlined, the principals of the band decided- Why not both?!??! The shorter version isn’t simply a selection of songs from the longer album though- each was independently produced, so the same song on each can sound quite different. This is the longer version (I did review the shorter version but didn’t like it as well), and it’s pretty amazing. It feels like the high point of 70s Prog Rock/concept albums resurrected itself, in a way that’s simultaneously familiar but fun, and, for lack of a better word, friendly. Against all likelihood, I wanted every minute of the whole hour and a half.
- Volbeat, Servant of the Mind– “Scandinavian rock band” is one of my happy places, so hearing they were Danes favorably pre-disposed me. Seeing them described as playing a fusion of rock, metal, and rockabilly further piqued my interest. In practice they’re also pretty darn fun. Is it a little formulaic? Yes. Is the more than hour run length a concern for me? Also yes. But it is so gleefully and sincerely delivered- a rocking good time that isn’t trying to do anything more than that- that it works from start to finish.
- Wesley Stace, Late Style– This is groovy! It’s got smooth vocals, lyrics that work with the jazz-influenced music, a somewhat schmaltzy yet mysteriously still cool delivery, and songs that are clever, topical, and have a dark undertone under a cheerful delivery. It reminded me, in turns, of Randy Newman and Elvis Costello. What I subsequently discovered is that Wesley Stace is the English singer/songwriter who goes by the name John Wesley Harding, which makes even more sense in terms of why I like this so much, having admired Harding’s work since the 80s.
- Willow, Lately I Feel EVERYTHING– This was much rockier than I was expecting. “Rocking” somewhat from a young Taylor Swiftian kind of direction, but full of attitude and musical verve. And sometimes coming in from metal and even Bikini Kill territory, with R&B and hip-hop dashes along the way. Well done young Willow!
And that is it, my friends. The 21 best albums of 2021, and 79 honorable mentions. If you’d like it in list-only form for reference, we can accommodate that:
The 21 Best Albums of 2021
- Arlo Parks, Collapsed in Sunbeams
- Baio, Dead Hand Control
- Bruiser Wolf, Dope Game Stupid
- Celeste, Not Your Muse
- Czarface/MF Doom, Super What?
- Defcee & Messiah Musik, Trapdoor
- Demi Lovato, Dancing With The Devil…The Art of Starting Over
- Esther Rose, How Many Times
- Guided by Voices, Earth Man Blues
- JJJJJerome Ellis, The Clearing
- Judith Hill, Baby I’m Hollywood
- Lana Del Rey, Blue Bannisters
- Leeanne Betasamosake Simpson, Theory of Ice
- Luke Haines, Luke Haines in…Setting the Dogs on the Post Punk Postman
- Nick Waterhouse, Promenade Blue
- Remi Wolf, Juno
- Ron Gallo, PEACEMEAL
- Sarah Mary Chadwick, Me and Ennui are Friends Baby
- St. Lenox, Ten Songs of Worship & Praise for our Tumultuous Times
- Sturgill Simpson, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita
- Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers
- Aesop Rock/Blockhead, Garbology
- Alex Beeker, Heaven on the Faultline
- Amythyst Kiah, Wary + Strange
- Andrew W.K., God is Partying
- Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark
- BackRoad Gee, Reporting Live (From the Back of the Roads)
- Bat Fangs, Queen of My World
- Benny the Butcher/Harry Fraud, The Plugs I Met 2
- Big Jade, Pressure
- Billy Childish/Wild Billy Childish & CTMF/CTMF, Where The Wild Purple Iris Grows
- Birds of Maya, Valdez
- Charlotte Cornfield, Highs in the Minuses
- Circle/Richard Dawson, Henki
- Cola Boyy, Prosthetic Boombox
- Dave Gahan & The Soulsavers, Imposter
- Deap Vally, Marriage
- Deerhoof, Actually, You Can
- DMX, Exodus 1:7
- Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg
- Ducks Ltd., Modern Fiction
- Elvis Costello, Spanish Model
- Eris Drew, Quivering in Time
- For Those I Love, For Those I Love
- Foxx Bodies, Vixen
- GA-20, Try It… You Might Like It! GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor
- Goat Girl, On All Fours
- Greta Van Fleet, The Battle at Garden’s Gate
- Guided by Voices, It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them!
- Jack Ingram/Miranda Lambert/Jon Randall, The Marfa Tapes
- James McMurty, The Horses and the Hounds
- Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales
- Jerry Douglas/John Hiatt/The Jerry Douglas Band, Leftover Feelings
- Juan Wauters, Real Life Situations
- Juliana Hatfield, Blood
- Karen Peris, A Song Is Way Above the Lawn
- Kate Davis, Strange Boy
- Krolok, Funeral Winds & Crimson Sky
- La Femme, Paradigmes
- Lana Del Rey, Chemtrails Over the Country Club
- Lil Nas X, Montero
- Lilly Hiatt, Lately
- Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
- Lord Huron, Long Last
- Lucy Dakus, Home Video
- Mae Powell, Both Ways Brighter
- Margo Cilker, Pohorylle
- Martha Wainwright, Love Will Be Reborn
- Matthew E. White/Lonnie Holmes, Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection
- Meatbodies, 333
- Mon Laferte, 1940 Carmen
- Moor Mother, Black Encyclopedia of the Air
- Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, The Future
- Naytronix, Other Possibilities
- Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Carnage
- Nicole Atkins, Memphis Ice
- Night Beats, Outlaw R&B
- Papur Wal, Amser Mynd Adra
- Pip Blom, Welcome Break
- Pokey LaFarge, In the Blossom of Their Shade
- Pom Poko, Cheater
- R.A.P. Ferreira, The Light-Emitting Diamond Cutter Scriptures
- Rats on Rafts, Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths
- Remember Sports, Like a Stone
- Robert Finley, Sharecropper’s Son
- Silk Sonic, An Evening With Silk Sonic
- Steven Wilson, The Future Bites
- TEKE::TEKE, Shirushi
- Tele Novella, Merlynn Belle
- The Bug, Fire
- The Coral, Coral Island
- The Darkness, Motorheart
- The Go! Team, Get Up Sequences Part I
- The Hold Steady, Open Door Policy
- The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Dance Songs for Hard Times
- TisaKorean, mr.siLLyfLow
- Transatlantic, The Absolute Universe: Forevermore
- Volbeat, Servant of the Mind
- Wesley Stace, Late Style
- Willow, Lately I Feel EVERYTHING
If you find yourself going in to album-review withdrawal with the ending of this series, fear not! I’m thinking of doing a follow-up post comparing my list to what the critics came up with as their favorites for the year. And there’s a rumor afoot that I may do this again for 2022…