Yep, it’s been four years since I last posted here. Man, that’s sad.
Anyway, here’s a “Best Albums of 2021” post. 21 albums for 2021.
21. Luca Brasi – Everything is Tenuous
Dependable melodic-punk, for when your inner 16-year-old needs to come out, and remind yourself that you’re not dead yet, dammit.
I can only speak for myself, but my inner 16-year-old needed to come out a lot, this year.
An album of bangers. Luca Brasi know how to write 3.5 minute songs that get you jamming, and that’s what this album does.
Standout track: Dying to Feel Alive (but honestly, the whole album bops)
20. Nas – King’s Disease II
Nas embracing Nas. Fully. Both who he is, and who he was. And it’s about time.
An album of killers. EPMD 2 (featuring Eminem and EPMD) has Em sounding the most fire he’s been in a while, and then the beautiful “Nobody” features the one and only Ms Lauryn Hill giving a lyrical masterclass; but the revelation of the album is Death Row East, where Nas gives an insight into his view of the East Coast/West Coast war, and his personal fallout with 2Pac (and the reconciliation that never had the opportunity to happen)
Standout track: Death Row East
19. The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy
The Hold Steady continue their renaissance, following 2019’s “Thrashing Thru the Passion“.
Sometimes, The Hold Steady sound like Craig Finn. This time around, Open Door Policy sounds like a band album. Once named “America’s Best Bar Band”, the “everyman” motifs are still there; but this certainly seems, to me at least, to be the most delicately textured of all of The Hold Steady’s albums. And it’s richer for it.
Standout track: Unpleasant Breakfast
18. Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life
Parquet Courts head further into “Talking Heads” territory, and I love it.
Standout track: Walking at a Downtown Pace
17. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – The Future
Soul, R&B, Blues, Rock, Folk, Americana – yep, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats have always been a versatile outfit, but this album definitely shows it off to full effect. A vintage outing into warm nights and swinging tunes. Coming from the past, but absolutely looking into the future. Sometimes uneven in pacing, its still buoyed along by Rateliff’s trademark soulful bark, killer horns and absolute joys like “Survivor” and “Love Don’t“.
Standout track: Love Don’t
16. Hayden Calnin – What it Means to be Human
Australian electro-folk artist, Hayden Calnin is an aural technician. Seriously. His albums are auditory experiences, best listened to through headphones that immerse you in the intricacies. On What It Means to be Human, Hayden appears to have found himself. There’s a natural flow to this album that his previous double-album debut seemed oh so close to, but didn’t quite achieve.
Standout track: Oh What a Mess I’m In
15. Emily Scott Robinson – American Siren
Emily Scott Robinson absolutely devastated me last year with her tune “The Time For Flowers“, which came at just the right time for me in 2020. Even so, I wasn’t ready for American Siren, which welcomes in the lost and lonely with open arms from the very first tune, “Old Gods“.
For the life of me, I can’t listen to Emily Scott Robinson without thinking of Dolly Parton, and I mean that in the absolute best possible way. This record explores the ups and downs and roundabouts of life, faith, loss and new loves. It’s a journey.
Standout track: If Trouble Comes a Lookin’
14. Valerie June – The Moon & Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
A wistful record, taking in past pain with a faint… pride? Fondness? Honestly, I’m not sure how to describe the mood of The Moon & Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, but I can tell you this: it’s a beautiful, beautiful record full of acceptance and killer vocals that race up and down delicately, before slamming you with power. And Carla Thomas makes a feature! What else do you need?
Standout track: Call Me A Fool (feat. Carla Thomas)
13. Josiah and the Bonnevilles – Motel Mayday
I find Josiah and the Bonnevilles — and particularly frontman, Josiah Leming — just fascinating. The dude’s been a working, travelling muso for years now. On leaving school at 16, he took his first full-time job in a fruit and vegetable packing plant in Texas, and then headed across the States in search of gigs and open-mic nights. But despite the drive, determination and clear talent, he’s just never seemed to get the recognition I feel like he deserves. I wondered if this album would change that, but it seems to have passed pretty much under the radar, again.
Standout track: Oh No!
12. Sun June – Somewhere
Somewhere is certainly an apt name for this album. There is a yearning that pervades Sun June’s latest release… someone else, some place else, sometime else. The band produces “regret pop”, in their own words… but despite that framing, there’s an upbeat, airy quality to these somewhat weighty tunes.
Standout track: Everything I Had
11. Big Red Machine – How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?
HLDYTIGL is a divisive album; you either like Big Red Machine, or you don’t… and if you don’t, you really won’t like this album. It’s not that the songs are indescernable, but — particularly in the second half of the album — the songs seem to meld into a mashed song somehow. You begin to miss ebbs and flows… there’s just no tension and release, and it starts to feel like there could have been some more ruthless editing on the album.
That’s if you don’t like Big Red Machine.
Fortunately for me, I do… so I could put up with that lull; although even I catch myself skipping a fair bit there. With all that said, I just feel like this is a pretty, pretty album, and if you like what Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner “do”, you’ll like this. The highlights come from Dessner himself, finally fronting songs like The Ghost of Cincinnati and Brycie (a very touching ode to his twin brother), and the copious crew of frequent collaborators that join the album, like Robin Pecknold from Fleet Foxes (featuring on certified bop, Phoenix), Anais Mitchell (who pens some of the best lyrics on the album) and, of course, Taylor Swift.
Standout track: Renegade (feat. Taylor Swift)
10. Amythyst Kiah – Wary + Strange
Wary + Strange is an intensely personal record, as Amythyst Kiah tries to work through her own feelings and past; without a care for what others think, mind you, as opener (and closer) track “Soapbox” warns the listener:
“Don’t wanna hear your soapbox speech / Don’t wanna know how you would do it / Don’t wanna know how it should be / ’Cause I don’t care what you think”
Kiah melds folk, country, southern blues and alt-rock effortlessly, as she explores her… self? There’s pain. Anger. Defiance. And progress.
Kiah’s multi-instrumental prowess is only matched by soaring vocals that rage and growl and dare. But it’s the introspective “Wild Turkey“, a song that deals with her mother’s suicide, that gets me every time. Opening with delicate finger-picking, it’s a slow burner of a song that slowly builds to wall of sound that totally sneaks up on you.
Standout track: Wild Turkey
9. Holy Holy – Hello My Beautiful World
An album of the pandemic, but just so… hopeful? Heading far further into electro-pop territory than I’ve yet heard from duo Holy Holy, this is an album of acceptance, but not resignation. Accepting that things may never be the same again, but being aware of the fact that the only way forward is to leave the past behind us. Tim Carroll spoke about how he became “quite obsessed” with an essay by author Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal”, which argued that:
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
… and man, this album soundtracks that sentiment perfectly.
Standout track: The Aftergone (feat CLEWS)
8. Tyne-James Organ – Necessary Evil
Man, this is an album of ups and downs. Raw emotion (Heal You), and certified bops (Sunday Suit). Gritty rock vocals (Hold Me Back) and pop sensibilities (Stranger). Such is the range and versatility of Australian artist, Tyne-James Organ. Totally blows my mind to think this is his debut album. The confidence is staggering.
Standout track: Sunday Suit
7. Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
The album that we needed in 2021. This is the aural equivalent of a warm hug, comforting you that things will be ok again; or at least, “won’t hurt so much, forever”, as Parks repeats in the albums second song, “Hurt” (which is followed just two songs later by the aptly named “Hope”… see a theme here?)
Another debut album where I just can’t believe it’s a debut album. I can’t recall a single previous debut album that sounds this polished.
Music to watch the rain hit your window to, as you get lose in memories.
Standout track: Hope
6. The Killers – Pressure Machine
Brandon Flowers has never been shy about wearing his Springsteen-influence on his leave, but this album might be the most overt. The Killers’ “Nebraska”, Pressure Machine sees the band examining small-town lives, loves and losses in Flowers’ own hometown of Nephi, Utah.
Big stadium concerts are no longer a thing in the age of COVID, but honestly, I think that in some ways that’s freed up The Killers to explore parts of themselves outside of stadium pleasers. There’s a vulnerability here… and grief, and acceptance… that we haven’t seen before from the band.
Yet, despite all the pain that exists here, there’s a hope, too. Songs are punctuated by interviews with real residents of the town of Nephi. Before the second song – stunner “Quiet Town“, which deals with a death on the train tracks – kicks off, a resident talks about the train that winds its way through the town:
“I think the train is a way to find your way out of this life, if you get hit by it”
But in the final moments of album closer, “The Getting By”, we hear that train horn passing us by, and then another resident comments about the train:
“Twice a day it comes through — my grandkids, when it comes through, they run out and they look down the road, because they like to see it go by.”
Maybe that train is a way out of this life. But it depends on how it takes you.
Standout track: Sleepwalker
5. Strand of Oaks – In Heaven
Tim Showalter, the mastermind behind Strand of Oaks, just gets to me. The dude sings, and I feel it. Seven years since I heard Shut In, the guy is still soundtracking my feelings.
In Heaven is an album full of heartbreak and loss, but also hope. Showalter rails, rails against the dying of the light, and it gives us strength.
Standout track: Galacticana
4. Claud – Super Monster
An album made for day-dreaming to while staring out the window and thinking wistfully of past relationships. Claud may predominantly be known as a “bedroom-pop” artist, but this, their debut album released under Saddest Factory Records, is slick. And I mean that in the best possible way. This is an album that you can listen to from start to finish, and feel the cohesion throughout. That’s a pretty rare thing these days, and a welcome change in 2021.
An unflinching examination of relationships, Super Monster offers relatable, wry, and gut-punch observations from start to finish. If you listen to this album without bopping your head along at least once… well, check your soul.
Standout track: On Or In-Between (but such a close toss-up with opener, Overnight)
3. Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
I honestly can’t quite describe this album. There are airy, floating, delicate vocals. Spoken word pieces. Buzzy guitars, wafting sax, flutes, strings, tight snares… there’s just so much happening over the course of 30 minutes, but all of it is touching.
Perhaps I’ll just try, by calling it a dreamscape in music. Cassandra Jenkins observes people (and art, and beauty) that enter her life, and leave (the gut-wrenching “New Bikini” deals with the sad loss of David Berman, and the all-too-relatable process of healing).
Healing, in particular, comes across strongly throughout this album. And there’s this line, towards the end of album centrepiece, “Hard Drive”, where Jenkins’ talks about healing hearts, that’s been living rent-free in my head for months now. Softly, barely there, the song ends with words that you can just hear the twinkle in the eye for…
“All those little pieces / One, two, three / We’re gonna put ’em back together now
… Are you ready?”
Standout track: Hard Drive
2. The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Now, this makes me feel old, but it’s hard to believe it’s been 14 years since I first wrote about The War on Drugs on this site. It’s a 14-year love affair that’s still going strong, with the release of I Don’t Live Here Anymore.
I just get lost in this album. Completely foot-tappingly, head shakingly-lost.
We’re all growing up with Adam Granduciel, and I love it.
Standout track: Harmonia’s Dream (but such a toss-up with the understand opener, “Living Proof”)
1. The Mountain Goats – Dark in Here
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again… along with Josh Ritter, I view John Darnielle as one of the best lyricists of our generation.
As with other Mountain Goats releases, there’s a tension that simmers in Dark in Here… a desolation and ruin, balance with wry ruefulness. Religious fury abounds, and heartbreak and futility (I’ve never heard helplessness as beautiful as “Before I Got There“) and catastrophe. But perhaps, more than all of that, walking through the darkness with you… there’s empathy. While the songs here address the gloom, they never fall to it. As Darnielle sings in album closer, “Let Me Bathe In Demonic Light“:
“Swim right through the night / Break the surface and rise like a geyser / When my time is right / There I’ll be / And who among you is coming with me?”.
I just find this such an enjoyable listen.
Standout track: Mobile