Sunday, December 26, 2021

My Top 40 albums of 2021

By my rough count, I listened to somewhere around 224 new releases in 2021(albums and EPs). This is pandemic living: working at home, not going anywhere, and having more time to listen to music on my stereo and laptop. Of course, music continued to be strong therapy for me as 2021 did not turn out as we hoped. The promise of vaccines was dashed by anti-vaxxers, misinformation, and variants. At least there was some live music, and yet we head into 2022, not knowing if and when we get back something more akin to pre-2020 life. 

One thing about the incredible volume of music I listened to: so much of it was good. There are many fine albums that were pushed out, just because of there was so much to choose from, and if I did this list a month later, some of these selections would change. Anyway, the rankings aren't arbitrary, but the further down the list, the more incremental the quality differential is. Still, I like the order of making a list. One more thing -- this is my best of, which is really just my favorite records. If you disagree, make your own list. It's fun.

1. CHAI - Wink (Sub Pop): It was CHAI’s distinctive approach to post-punk that drew me into their debut album. But as the band evolved, poppier influences steered their music. The pandemic forced the quartet to change how it made music, and they fell into songs that featured more electronics (since they weren’t playing together in one room) and were often more R & B-influenced. And yet again, CHAI shows a great ability to meld styles and influences into something familiar yet distinct, infused with their personality, reflected in their sweet, positive lyrics. I knew I liked it when I first heard it, and then found myself listening to it all the time. 

2. Yola - Stand for Myself (Easy Eye Sound): As impressive as Yolanda Claire Quartey’s debut album was, she really took a giant step forward on her sophomore effort. Working again with sympathetic producer Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, Yola expanded the range of her music. Her debut was tagged as “country soul,” and this album goes far beyond that, steeped in classic R & B sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Yola really shows off her songwriting skill, with songs that have strong melodies and indelible choruses. And her singing is powerful when needed, and more nuanced than one might expect.

3. The Weather Station - Ignorance (Fat Possum): The fifth album from singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman is a rumination on the climate crisis, which could yield a dry, didactic song cycle. But Lindeman instead created a warm, inviting set of guitar-based songs, on par with contemporaries like Nadia Reid and Squirrel Flower. The arrangements have the sophistication of the best of the ‘70s, with every little guitar fill and keyboard embellishment appearing organically where it has to be, while Lindeman singing with utter engagement and empathy.

4. Puffy - The Puffy (Warner Music Japan): While not gone as long as ABBA (at least as an album act), the Japanese pop duo’s comeback was exciting and rewarding. Ami and Yumi (yes, this is the Puffy Amiyumi from Cartoon Network, who had to take on that name because of Sean Puffy Combs) can pull off just about any form of pop music, and they do so here. There’s a Beatles pastiche, power pop, dance music, a ballad or two, and everyone of them is fizzy and fresh, as Puffy has enough energy to power Tokyo for weeks on end.

5. shame - Drunk Tank Pink (Dead Oceans): A potent punch of contemporary post-punk from these Brits whose songs are full of jagged edges and piss and vigor. The drums clatter, the guitars slice, the singer declaims (at times with some fairly personal lyrics), and hooks sometimes come out of nowhere. There is a decadent vibe that reminds me a bit of Suede, but the music comes more from folks raised on Wire and Gang of Four, with the band managing to sound intense but playful at the same time.

6. Joy Crookes - Skin (Insanity/Speakerbox): Crookes is an R & B singer of Irish and Bangladeshi descent who was raised on classic jazz and soul, and she conjures up a more singer-songwriter-ish variation on Amy Winehouse. So rather than lacerating and dramatic, these soulful retro-pop tunes are sensitive, with Crookes’ penning some wise observational lyrics. The album has a really nice variety of sounds and approaches, all heightened by Crookes’s terrific singing.

7. Self Esteem - Prioritise Pleasure (Universal): Rebecca Taylor was half of the indie-rock duo Slow Club, before executing a solo left turn into the pop-oriented Self Esteem. This sophomore album is a triumph, with bright, buoyant musical settings for Taylor’s whip smart lyrics that have the wit of Lily Allen and some of the literary aspirations of Mike (The Streets) Skinner. Taylor’s insights are about what a woman goes through in the world today, with Taylor exuding both confidence and vulnerability, which is making her, deservedly, a star.

8. Steve Dawson - At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree (Pravda): This is simply a terrific singer-songwriter record from the frontman of Dolly Varden (featuring a guest appearance from Dolly Varden frontwoman and Dawson’s spouse, Dianne Christensen). While many of these songs would probably be gems if performed by his band, on this solo record, there are some songs that have a bit of an AM Gold vibe or an R & B undercurrent that distinguish the solo work. And some of these songs are so intimate and beautiful, with sparer accompaniment that works so well. This album touches on a lot of feelings and, unsurprisingly, the songs are sung superbly by Dawson.

9. Spellling - The Turning Wheel (Sacred Bones): I liked the second album from Chrystia Cabral enough to fork over some cash for this one. I was expecting more arty electronic R & B, but was pleasantly surprised by this major artistic leap. Cabral works with orchestration to create a really intoxicating blend of Kate Bush whimsy and melodic pop without abandoning her R & B foundations. Moreover, the more ambitious music (and don’t get me wrong, her earlier music was also ambitious) demanded she up her singing game, and she definitely lived up to this great material. A joyous, wonderful LP.

10. Sons of Kemet - Black to the Future (Impulse): On their third album, the unique saxophone-tuba-double drummer British quartet works more with rappers and singers, adding words to their socially conscious jazz. This touches on free jazz, rock, spiritual jazz, hip hop, reggae, and funk, and shows off the dexterity of the combo. Where the prior Sons of Kemet album was mostly in your face and declamatory, this has a wider variety of sounds and moods. So they definitely aren’t repeating themselves, and the music is as captivating as ever.

11. Jon Batiste - We Are (Verve): I’m not sure where Batiste has the time, between leading the band on Stephen Colbert’s Late Night show and scoring movies like Soul. While jazz is where Batiste made his name, he shows off his R & B chops on this fun album that was a real tonic for this pandemic era. With positive messages of empowerment and social change, Batiste roots these songs in classic funk and soul, and performs and sings them with a verve that shows how timeless these forms are.

12. Allison Russell - Outside Child (Fantasy): The first solo outing from the Birds of Chicago member is an autobiographical look at her time growing up in Canada, which involved some pretty harrowing experiences. This isn’t so much a confessional as a musical memoir, with a mix of singer-songwriter type stuff, some Americana, some soul, and some rock (with the song “Runner”, which sounds like a cross between Margo Price and Stevie Nicks). This is a very affecting work.

13. The ChillsScatterbrain (Fire): I can’t quite describe what separates a good Chills album from a great one – I suppose it’s the old “I know it when I hear it.” This might be my favorite Chills LP since Submarine Bells. Martin Phillipps remains a font of consistency, but the songs here are just a bit sharper and the performances really bring them to life. The song about his mother, who had recently passed, really resonates. Meanwhile, The Chills endure.

14. Lady Blackbird - Black Acid Soul (Foundation/BMG): The debut album from singer Marley Monroe is truly impressive. This is a great mid-point between jazz and soul, with Blackbird, who cites Nina Simone and Gladys Knight, among others, as influences, puts together a great sequence of songs that she invests with soul and emotion. There are some really creative choices, here, with renditions of songs from everyone from Simone and Bill Evans to The James Gang and Tim Hardin. The way she sings, you can tell that she has experienced a lot, and she gives bravura performances without being overly showy or affected.

15. The Mysteries of Life - Blue Jay (self-released): The latest from the husband-and-wife combo of Jake and Freda Love Smith is a model of economical songwriting. Jake’s melodic acoustic creations are rooted in classic song forms from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, with songs that remind me of everything from Buddy Holly to The Beatles to The Jayhawks. Just as the songs have no fuss, Jake’s guitar and Freda’s drumming are given just the right amount of embellishment from other instruments and voices, on spare but full recordings. 

16. Laura Mvula - Pink Noise (Atlantic): Three studio albums into her career, and it’s pretty clear that Mvula has her own way with a melody. There are just certain ways she crafts those melodies that make sure her songs sound like nobody else. With every album, she finds a different instrumental approach for her tunes, and on this one, the wheel stopped on the mid-‘80s. So this is a chock full of catchy, smart songs that sound like they were made to fit between Five Star and Michael Jackson.

17. Hushdrops - The Static (Pravda): From the first time I saw them live, I’ve been a sucker for the Hushdrops. They play a bittersweet, distinctly adult style of power pop, with the big, melodic guitars in service of conflicting emotions, similar to Tommy Keene and Aimee Mann. Singer-guitarist John San Juan has a way of conjuring up wistful melodies that work so well with his hangdog voice. Unfortunately, this album isn’t just bittersweet musically, as it represents the band’s final recordings with drummer Joe Camarillo, a beloved figure on the Chicago music scene, who passed away earlier this year. The album showcases what a great unit this trio was, whether bashing away in a rocking fashion, or adding delicate twists to songs that sometimes have a jazzy elegance.

18. Jason Ringenberg - Rhinestoned (Courageous Chicken): All these years after Jason and the Scorchers stormed all over college radio, Ringenberg is still going as strong as ever. A mix of amped up folk story songs and a few chugging rockers that sound pretty close to vintage cowpunk make for a great collection. Ringenberg effortlessly pens history lessons on civil rights and racism with sly commentaries on the music business and some fun rockers for another terrific LP.

19. Liam Kazar - Due North (Woodsist/Mare): The former member of Kids These Days and Marrow (and part of Jeff Tweedy’s solo band) makes good on the promise of his earlier singles (which are included here). Kazar’s music sounds like ‘70s AM Gold, on the border of yacht rock, as his bouncy, poppy melodies are married to R & B inspired rhythms. His music evokes artists like Emmitt Rhodes, Todd Rundgren, Three Dog Night, and other similar sounding folk, while he pens some interesting lyrics that are not always typical commercial fare.

20. Lucy Dacus - Home Video (Matador): Just a terrific set of songs from Dacus. She can wax an intimate, personal acoustic tune, a mid-tempo charmer, or a guitar-fueled rocker and it all just flows organically. Some of the best songs here are looks back to when she was younger, like the awesome “VBS”, her reminiscence about vacation bible school. She’s simply a great storyteller.

21. Starflyer 59 - Vanity (Velvet Blue): I had lost track of this rock band that has dabbled in a few different styles over the years, but checked out the first single from this album and was very pleased. I like all forms of SF59, but my favorite is when they play a somewhat twangy, spacious sound that’s adjacent to dream pop. Leader Jason Martin still has a knack for melodies that are full of wonder. I think I need to go back now and check out what I missed.

22. Tom Jones - Surrounded By Time (BMG/Red Window): Working again with producer Ethan Johns, this is an intriguing mix of covers, traditional songs, and a few originals that survey everything from folk to blues to pop-rock. Jones still has a the voice to live up to big drama, exemplified by his cover of The Waterboys’ “This is the Sea”. He’s not as powerful, but he’s still forceful. And he can be pretty nuanced where necessary. He’s doing some of his best work at age 80.

23. Lindsey Buckingham - Lindsey Buckingham (Rhino): Apparently, Buckingham had this in the can before he got booted from Fleetwood Mac and his subsequent heart attack. It’s great that this got out and he got to tour on it. It’s simply another quality solo effort from Buckingham. There aren’t any flat out rockers on here, but it’s a great mix of adult pop songs, with some showing off his still formidable guitar skills. 

24. Elizabeth King - Living in the Last Days (Bible & Tire): This Memphis gospel-soul singer was a part of the revered group The Gospel Souls. At age 77, she cut her first solo album with top flight Memphis session cats, re-recording songs from her old group. The result is a lively, passionate affair. King is a force of nature, and the backing musicians are totally in the pocket. Whether you are religious or not, this is such an affirmative, positive album.

25. SAULT - NINE (Forever Living Originals): This album was only out for 99 days, and while that’s a gimmick, SAULT’s modern R & B, with hints of British dance music, is a sound that always sounds cool. Producer Inflo, Cleo Sol, and Kid Sister and their other collaborators have created another terrific batch of tunes, with some light social commentary.

26. Amyl and the Sniffers - Comfort to Me (ATO): No sophomore slump for these Aussies. The second LP from this band is sharper and Amyl’s lyrics are even more biting. The gusto of Rose Tattoo is melded to the bravado and fury of Divinyls' Christina Amphlett, as this album seethes with intensity.

27. Connie Smith - The Cry of the Heart (Fat Possum): The Country Music Hall of Famer works with her husband Marty Stuart on a splendid album of traditional country. Other than sonic fidelity, there’s not much here that couldn’t have come out 50 years ago. In country music, age can sometimes benefit a singer, as Smith may have lost a bit of range, but is so commanding.

28. Split Single - Amplificado (Inside Outside): The third Split Single album is the best yet. Jason Narducy is getting close to perfecting his brand of melodic rock that isn’t quite punk-pop (Buzzcocks-style, not the wussier modern variety) or power pop (not quite indebted to the ‘60s enough), which is a good thing. The hooks are everywhere, and this album is made to blast out of the speakers of a fast moving vehicle.

29. Maximo Park - Nature Always Wins (Prolifica, Inc./[PIAS]): Some changes in membership appear to have refreshed Maximo Park. The sound hasn’t drastically changed, but getting in some new blood has altered the textures, and given Paul Smith and company a few new approaches to songs. They don’t abandon what they did well, but add some new wrinkles to their post-punk pop.

30. Tirzah - Colourgrade (Domino): This was definitely a grower. Working with her best pal Mica Levi again, the R & B-tinged electro pop became subtly harsher in spots. The spare backing and atmospheric sounds tantalized, as Tirzah’s intimate vocals further drew me in.

31. La Luz - La Luz (Hardly Art): The L.A. band hooked up with producer Adrian Younge, and it turned out to be a great call, as he turned out to be quite sympathetic to getting the band what they wanted. The core of the music is still a melodic surf-tinged garage rock, with some girl group vibes, but this album has more contemplative material that edges towards dream pop, which really serves the more personal lyrics. 

32. Tamar Aphek - All Bets Are Off (Kill Rock Stars): This Israeli singer-guitarist has some jazz in her background, and this album is an intriguing variation on artists like Anna Calvi and PJ Harvey. Her smoky mid-range vocals are very appealing, and she often holds back. The songs include some spy-guitar movie noir tuneage, a la Morphine, some sweet old jazz-pop, and some simmering rock songs.

33. 박혜진 Park Hye Jin - Before I Die (Ninja Tune): The South Korean-born/L.A. resident cut her teeth as a DJ and intrigued with earlier releases. Her debut album does a great job of bringing her DJ influences (with house, trap, and downtempo, and other styles) into a set of simple, direct songs that are matched to simple, direct lyrics. Her vocal limitations become a strength, as their lack of affectation makes what she’s expressing all the more compelling.

34. Reigning Sound - A Little More Time with Reigning Sound (Merge): Greg Cartwright got together the original lineup of the band for this effort. On one hand, this does not lead to a return to the more blistering garage rock of Reigning Sound’s early material. On the other hand, Cartwright continues to pen mid-tempo ‘60s-inspired rock gems that show a love for rhythm and blues. And his old mates serve the material well. 

35. Dummy - Mandatory Enjoyment (Trouble in Mind): The bumper sticker description: what if Stereolab was a bit more into Krautrock, and had an aggressive post-punk guitarist. This Los Angeles group mines some familiar influences, but does so very well, coming up with a bunch of terrific tunes.

36. Ashley Monroe - Rosegold (Mountainrose Sparrow): After finding her excellent country releases getting less and less attention, thus losing her label deal, Monroe did a re-think. You can’t fully take the country out of Monroe, but this is really a modern adult pop record, with most of the texture provided by electronic keyboards. Monroe has always been a great songwriter, and this new musical approach suits her well.

37. The Toms - Tomplicated (Futureman): The first Toms album came out in 1979, and somehow, even with sporadic releases over the year, Tom Marolda still delivers the power pop goods with music that sounds frozen in time. Some songs are definitely ‘70s vintage power pop, a la Raspberries and their ilk, while others have more of a psych pop flavor. Regardless, they are punchy, melodic, and catchy. 

38. Noga Erez - Kids (City Slang): This Israeli singer’s second album is fascinating mix of modern pop and hip hop styles. Erez has a great rhythmic flow to her singing, which sounds playful on the more melodic songs, but allows her to throw down when things get more aggressive. Working with her partner in romance and music, ROUSSO, this is a really original pop album. 

39. Damu the Fudgemunk - Conversation Peace (Def Presse): This album is the first in a series, where hip hop artists are given access to London’s KPM music library, home of scads of incidental music that was used in movies, television, and for other purposes. D.C. DJ Damu made a worthwhile trip, and his use of this music is kind of old school, reminding me at times of DJ Premier’s work with Gang Starr. Damu raps on this, along with some well chosen guests, and the raps take on social and political issues, adding heft to the beats and cool samples. 

40. Tune-Yards - sketchy. (4AD): Merrill Garbus continues to carve out her own path. There are no drastic changes to the Tune-Yards sound. Instead, Garbus continues to find new wrinkles, subtly adding breadth to the groups sound. Her mix of funk, African, and rock influences still works well, and her melodic skills are growing. 

And here are the next 20:

41. Hard Feelings - Hard Feeling (4AD)
42. John Grant - Boy from Michigan (Partisan)
43. Lily Konigsberg - Lily We Need to Talk Now (Wharf Cat)
44. FACS - Present Tense (Trouble in Mind)
45. Shannon Lay - Geist (Sub Pop)
46. Josh Caterer - The Hideout Sessions (Pravda)
47. Glüme - The Internet (Italians Do It Better)
48. Alice Cooper - Detroit Stories (Ear Music)
49. The Green Pajamas - Sunlight May Weigh Even More (Green Monkey)
50. Rhiannon Giddens with Fracesco Turresi - They’re Calling Me Home (Nonesuch)
51. Sonic45 - Space and Time (Cheap Kiss)
52. Kiwi Jr. - Cooler Returns (Sub Pop)
53. Snoh Aalegra - Temporary Highs in the Violet Skies (ARTium)
54. The Reds, Pinks, and Purples - Uncommon Weather (Tough Love)
55. Hana Vu- Public Storage (Ghostly International)
56. Torres - Thirstier (Merge)
57. The Connells - Steadman’s Wake (Black Park)
58. Squirrel Flower - Planet (i) (Full Time Hobby)
59. Aimee Mann - Queens of the Summer Hotel (SuperEgo)
60. LUMP - Animal (Partisan)

In addition to those albums, I also enjoyed new releases from Bedouine, Dolph Chaney, Jason Moran, James Yorkston, Arlo Parks, Doleful Lions, Django Django, Kalbells, Smerz, Celeste, Du Blonde, Valerie June, The Anchoress, Fauvely, Anna Fox Rochinski, Cheap Trick, Dawn Richard, Mia Joy, The Bamboos, Mandy Barnett, Paul Weller, Gary Numan, Erika de Casier, Micky Dolenz, Bachelor, Green Tea Peng, Angelique Kidjo, The Mountain Goats, Garbage, Deadlights, Billy F. Gibbons, Hiatus Kayote, Cola Boyyy, Anushka, Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth, Jam & Lewis, Wavves, Sturgill Simpson, Leon Bridges, Elvis Costello, Kacey Musgraves, Mini Trees, Jason Isbell, Natalie Hemby, ONIPA, Circuit des Yeux, Guided By Voices, Makaya McCraven, Curtis Harding, and The Darkness. And there are even more I could list.

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