2021 has been a more productive year all around for the world of rock n roll albums. Though the Covid-19 virus still rages around us, there was a vaccine this year that at least gave some form of hope and allowed many people to work again and form some kind of normality. In truth, or times will never be like they were before, partly because of a virus, partly because of a world where everyday there seems a new crisis and the news outlets twist them to their favor. Most importantly with music in 2021, there are so many outlets and ways to listen it is almost overwhelming and most people give up before even trying.
The music made this year very much reflects the times we live in, the way the music is made and presented is frustrating- where some pop stars have the ability and sway to change the way and form we listen to music no matter how good the quality is. As always, many independent artists continue to be underheard and under paid and under appreciated. Radio is all but nonexistent for NEW music, though we have certain podcasts we like or leave it up to a randomizer to be our tastemakers. My friends, all of this is dangerous, and misleading on what kind of music is actually out there. So what is the answer? That I cannot say, but I will say the list I have is well informed and I am not paid to say any of these things- this list is my opinion of a fan of catchy, ambitious, challenging, and surprising rock music. As per usual, I personally listened in detail to over 150 albums in the genres of rock, alternative, hip hop, electronic, folk, singer songwriter etc. and have list of what I personally found to be the best ones. My favorite albums of the year may not have been your personal faves, the most successful in terms of sales, or at the tops of the critics’ lists. However, I am making this list because I do think that this music is THAT GOOD and definitely worth talking about. As we are at the beginning of the 2020’s, many of these names will be new, but it is good to look at this concept as an exciting thing as opposed to a detrimental thing.
Honorable Mention (so many great albums this year!):
21. Sufjan Stephens – Convocations
Funny thing for a man who only releases an album every 4 or 5 years on average to release not only an album/collaboration with Angelo De Augustine (A Beginner’s Mind, which is a good album on its own) right after his double album last year (2020’s The Ascension), but to also have Five more albums released this year as well! There are so many great songs spread out among these records it is rather overwhelming, and really it’s a matter of choice considering the medium- they work as background sounds but also as headphone music to try and differentiate all the subtle differences. A total of 7 releases in two years, not bad especially considering what the two and a half hour Convocations project actually is (maybe we will start his 50 state project once again?).
Conceived as sort of a memento to his father who passed away last year, each of the albums is around 30 minutes and evokes a different kind of feeling: Meditation is sort of contemplative and ambient; Lamentation is more pondering and random; Revelation is noisy and formless sound painting; Celebration is more upbeat and danceable for the most part; Incantation sums every thing up and points towards the future. It is easy to write off a long album project like this as self-indulgent, but each album is a decent stab as a sound-sculptor in the electronic music world. While Stevens really can move with his voice and lyrics, it is also easy to forget how well he is at dealing with more abstract sounds and how he would still be a reputable songwriter if electronic music was all he ever composed. From a new artist, I feel this 5 album project would have gotten world-wide acclaim, but from Stevens it can be overlooked as yet another over-ambitious project form a man who never seems to run out of ideas.
Even More great albums:
22.Little Simz- Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
23.Iglooghost – Lei Line Eon
24.Hannah Peel – Fir Wave
25.Children of Zeus – Balance
26.Dummy – Mandatory Enjoyment
27.Black Country New Road – For the First Time
28.Iosonouncane – Ira
29.Beautify Junkyards – Cosmorama
30.Kings of Convenience – Peace or Love
….And now for the actual list 🙂
#20. Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
Ethereal singer-songwriters can be a dime a dozen these days, but I’m always a sucker for a pretty voice singing songs of substance and Cassandra Jenkins certainly knows how to write a good song. Lyrically, Jenkins seems to be singing about nature and parallels to friends and family she has recently lost. The overtones of “New Bikini” speaks of a friend who is terminally ill and she wants to get to the ocean since “the water cures everything”. On “Hailey” she talks about new year resolutions and a woman who wants to reinvent herself after stealing all her money.
On a musical front, the music has elements of jazz though it is less improvisation and more just elegant arrangements. “Crosshairs” knows exactly how to use woodwinds to paint an elegant background, where “Hard Drive” mixes a road trip with thinking like a computer while a saxophone wails in the background. Lead track “Michelangelo” plays around with a simple drum accompaniment in a masterful way, and sets the tone for the record which is barely 31 minutes long but feels much more substantial than many that are double that in length. The atmospheric closer “The Ramble” I feel like could possibly go on forever and stay relevant, though it’s possibly the area where she has room to grow the most (either expand on the idea or make it multiple melodies intertwined). In all, a relaxing and moving tribute to being at peace with yourself In a crazy world.
#19. Birds of Maya – Valdez
There are few too many straight up rock bands in the 21st century that look into the past while diving into the future. Birds of Maya are one of the more obscure and best, guitarist Mike Polizze bringing back the garage rock sound of the 60’s while also sounding like every song is a noisy jam that could go on forever. “Please Come in” is a prime example of that, with a bassline that will stick in your head for days. “Bfiou” is a blistering track where not a single word /lyric is understood, and even better is the dance along slacker tune “Front Street”. “Busted Room” calms things down a bit and its heavy metal laboring riffs put the listener in a coma but in a catchy way.
This album is quite more accessible then their debut album (Ready to Howl from 2010 which is still a great mess of guitar noise, ditto for Mike’s previous group Purling Hiss) but accessible is not a bad word, especially in a day and age where you have to fight and get as much exposure as you can just to be heard. “High Fly” sets the tone as the opener, a miniature version of MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams”, but not a bit sounds out of control- somehow these are calculated garage rock jams. Bands of our era could take a lesson from the fun Birds of Maya seem to be having creating great music.
#18. The Weather Station – Ignorance
Even though I know they are very far apart in stylistic intent, I cant but help think of 1980’s new wave group Talk Talk when talking about The Weather Station. The grooves are as deep, the production is as well thought out, and the vocals are equally as unique and ethereal though it is a woman’s voice that escorts the songs this time around lead singer/sonstress Tamara Lindeman). “Heart” has something of Mark Hollis’s detached sensibilities, and lead single “Robber” has the same sort of chugging foundation of well produced synthetic music.
The Weather Station woks differently as a band though, making topics such as “Subdivisions” and “Atlantic” sound personal but also rather majestic and touching. Songs on their breakthrough album don’t really build to a climax as much as they sort of exist in a space or type of area that is filled in with subtle touches and calculated motions. Perhaps the most effecting song, “Tried to Tell You”, manages to be catchy while also pulling at your heartstrings, so maybe a better touchstone of inspiration is a late 1990’s chanteuse like Heather Duby or Beth Orton.
#17. Sault – Nine
Sault remain one of the most interesting band’s around, despite using somewhat of a gimmick for their release this year- the fact the album “disappeared” from streaming after 99 days proves to be pointless given the fact that you can just buy it on physical media. But their strange persona as a band intertwines with the poignant music they make. In a mere eight tracks, the group manages to create one of the most disturbing and haunting tracks of the year (“Fear”), one of the most uplifting soul ballads in a while (“Lights In Your Hands”) and the ying/yang takes on life on the streets of modern London in “Bitter Streets” and “London Gangs”.
Producer Inflo and lead Singer Cleo Soul are known by this point to be at the heart of this intriguing collective, and though this year was not as prolific as 2019 or 2020 where Sault released two nearly double albums each year, Nine is still an intriguing listen. What people seem to overlook because of the strange stance the album takes on being available to listen to for a limited time online, is the fact that Sault uses contemporary musicians, non-musicians talking about their own lives, and classic African rhythms to merge together what life is like in the modern world. Name any artist that does this so well, and makes every sound so smooth. The future is limitless with potential for this band.
#16. The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
I tend to always have a War on Drugs album on my years’ end list, because they are simply one of the most consistent bands out there. They wait a couple years between releases until they have songs good enough for an album, and they don’t tend to fill the world with a bunch of filler. It’s a good tactic, and on their newest one they actually have done even better by trimming it down to a solid, ten song 45 minute listen, which matches their classic 2011’s Slave Ambient almost perfectly. The obvious two singles continue the band’s quest for the perfect road album- “Harmonia’s Dream” is a chugging Jeff Lynne style rocker, that seems to match the optimism of the coffee cup running through the snow on the album’s cover as it talks a man who has come to terms with how the world works and is comfortable with his place in it; “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” has a repetitious guitar riff that builds and crescendos into some kind of meaningful movement channeling all of our souls. There is a healing quality to this bands music.
But at its core the album searches for a kind of inner truth, while exploring a more synth-rock sound then usual. I’m glad the band is evolving; they are a top-notch guitar jam band for sure as evidenced by the last album 2017’s A Deeper Understanding which went on for nearly 80 minutes with the same number of songs as this one. The shimmering synth lines of “Wasted” that recall early 80’s New Wave and the odd, wailing keyboard sounds of “Victim” would not have been heard on any other record of theirs, and it’s a welcome change of pace. “Old Skin” starts solemn like so many of lead man Adam Granduciel’s tunes as it channels Bob Dylan at his most introspective (also see opener “Living Proof” for a more sparse version of this), but ends of building and maybe having one of the most effecting changes of ANY of their songs as the emotions swell more like Bruce Springsteen. The melding of classic rock influences with modern ones culminates in closer “Occasional Rain” which makes great song writing sound effortless- trust me, it never is. Again, trudging through the snow is a great album cover and metaphor for being the sort of band War on Drugs is, being placed on a pedestal of greatness with every move they make.
#15. Aesop Rock x Blockhead – Garbology
Aesop Rock is on some kind of prolific string of great hip hop releases- with 2019’s collaboration Malibu Ken, 2020’s self-produced double album Spirit World Field Guide (which would have made my best of list last year if I would have heard it in time) and now this, again a collaboration between producer Blockhead and himself as a rapper. I feel like we are living in a golden age of music somewhat spoiled by endless entertainment accessible to all, so it’s good to try and appreciate it when we can. The music on Garbology is based off more old school reparative beats then last years’ SWFG, and it’s more concise yet still a solid 50 minutes. Aesop Rock is a person that has a lot to say but does not waste a second of your time; how rare and generous of him. He is also a top-notch producer in his own right, so to see him experiment again with an old collaborator like Blockhead shows his artistic spirit is in the right place.
I’m not gonna lie…. I think the album starts a little slow…but once it gets going, after a small intro track and some warmup songs in the mostly spoken word “Jazz Hands” and spooky vibes of “Wolf Piss”, a song called “Legerdemain” kicks in. It is many things at once, a beautiful mash of harsh poetry stew all around swirly guitar lines and clacking drumbeats, using strange lyrics and non-linear song structures marking abstract hip hop at its best. “Oh Fudge” is riddled with upright bass and random sound effects like an old Soul Coughing track; “Difficult” sounds like El-P pulled Company Flow’s 1997 Funcrusher Plus out of retirement as Blockhead brings his retro sounds up to our current year (classic lyric “folks say im difficult/ to stubborn/ that’s funny I’m real eaaaaassssy”, “Plucking sushi out of salmon”, “trying to man up / man down”, “every time an influencer offers advice/ I feel inches coming off of my life”); “Flamingo Pink” incorporates flutes and cello in some kind of magical catchy listen; “Fizz” would be a classic single on rap radio…..on Neptune.
The final closing duo of tracks sums up this renaissance period of Aesop Rock: “The Sea” holds nothing back, and his vitriol is shouted out all over anyone who listens while “Abandoned Malls” is his ballad for Covid-19 times serving as a metaphor for everything we leave behind as we humans move through time without looking back. This album stirs emotions in me, and I am glad I discovered rap music for all of the magic it can do- and then I dug even deeper. There is a flip side to all genres of music and now I see that, one is on top and one is on bottom. I see the world one way and Aesop Rock sees it quite different but now I see kinda of like him, so therefore rap music has changed my life.
#14. Low – Hey What
Oh, Low. Inscrutable Low. Releasing an album of intriguing music every 3 or 4 years since ending their main streak of masterpieces with one of my favorite albums of all time, 2002’s Trust, this husband-wife duo just can’t seem to stop making music that challenges expectations and evolves their sound. Consequently, these songs are presented as loud and electronic this time around, using producer BJ Burton like they have on every record since 2015’s amazing Ones and Zeros. There are some songs where the electronic sound effects take over the proceedings in a lovely way, the way the waves of sound cascade in and out of “Disappearing” and the magnificent ending of “The Price You Pay”, as Low have a way of always ending an album on an awesome note. “I Can Wait” and “Don’t Walk Away” are perhaps the only examples of when this approach comes off as over-production.
So with the subtlety gone, how is Low still the same band? It’s amazing to behold: “White Horses” stumbles along using a guitar-keyboard blur with a staccato rhythm, opening a whole album of possibilities. Slow motion, repetitive parts are still the name of the game, “Days Like These” is a prime example of this type of tune. “All Night” and especially the instant classic “More” are more compact singles, using Mimi Parker’s voice like the weapon of angels it is. All of Hey What shines as an example of a band that has produced almost 30 years of substance over style, as Low have always known exactly what they have wanted to do and ridden their own path though all of the stylistic changes of the decades, but never sounding dated or forced at all. Low effortlessly blends contemporary sounds and techniques into their already amazing prophetic song writing and whether it’s their first or tenth album you have heard, it feels instantly like a part of their best works. Their previous minimalist style has become maximized.
#13. Rodney Crowell – Triage
When any country music artist lasts long enough or gets get enough, he or she gets thrown into the singer songwriter category. There is nothing wrong with that, but its worth noting because at the end of the day any artist transcends whatever genre they are in if they are worth their salt, and Rodney Crowell is one of those people. I’ve seen him play live solo, and he really knows how to hypnotize the crowd. Songs such as “Don’t Leave Me know” and “The Body Isn’t All There is to Who I am” show this world weary quality, as Crowell is a man who knows what he is talking about- he is just well off enough and just famous enough to see the music game for what it is. The title, track is made like a classic folk song that’s been around forever though augmented by interweaving Beatles style guitar playing.
“Something Has To Change” is embolic of this as it is just prophetic and vague enough to point out: “am I ready for times like these? Emphatically no/ Though I did see it coming/ a long time ago.” The truly great tunes on here are many, but a special shout out to that previous song, the Dylanesque “Here Goes Nothing” with its effortless melody carved out on a piano and synthesizer simultaneously, and the hard grove of “I’m All About Love” which is one of his best songs ever rivaling his classic 1978 hit “Ain’t Living Long Like This”. That song above all sums up the music of our times with the classic figures of our time, from Vldimir Putin, Donald Trump and Jessica Biel (what?) while being interrupted by a Marc Ribot style guitar solo. There were times he had not a penny to his name, and at this point he is making great music just because there is something inside him that drives him to do it; these are songs he wrote and he knows its his duty to get them out into the world. I’m glad he did.
#12. Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future
Sons of Kemet have been on the rise for a while (see the awesome 2018 record Your Queen is a Reptile), but this album is the best fusion of music they have done so far. The mixing of different types of music is what rock n roll has always been about from the start, and it changes even still. Their music is more of a conglomeration of influences then I have ever heard- heavy on the saxophone with the groovy dance of the Afro-beat world on songs like “Pick up Your Burning Cross” and “For the Culture”, elements of hip hop at its darkest and weirdest on the outstanding and morphing “Hustle”, the smooth jazz element that channels music of the Fourth Word in “Never Forget the Source”. “Throughout the Madness” has one of the coolest tenor saxophone solo’s I have ever heard, channeling Neil Young’s guitar playing through a different culture’s ears. Bandleader Shabaka Hutchings has another group named Comet is Coming, and together these two London based groups made up of people from all over Europe and Africa are changing the landscape of music in the 21st century.
This record contains the most groove ridden and short and catchy songs of their career, but as accessible as it is it has a number of challenging tracks as well. The longer, hypnotizing grooves of “Envision Yourself Levitating” is perhaps the climax of their entertaining mix of jazz, African, and pop music; it is an instrumental piece, but I swear I can hear a voice in there somewhere. Percussionist Seb Rochford has also played with Brian Eno and Herbie Hancock, and the level of musicianship on display channels those influences. Closing track “Black” sums up the mindset of a type of anger to match the fury punk music, but it’s not quite the same music…I can’t be sure there is a genre for this type of sound just yet. The music knows the culture it came from but is also made for a mass audience- Sons of Kemet are on their way to making African music the new vanguard of provocative rock n roll.
#11. Darkside – Spiral
There are over fifty music artists that officially call themselves DARKSIDE or some version of those two words. There are hundreds of albums over the yearZ called SPIRAL. Yet somehow, I can’t think that is part of the thinking behind Nicholas Jaar’s project and most recent album. This is the type of music that feels like an alien species that hides in the background then pounces on your ears when you least expect it. It starts and stops abruptly all the time. The vocals seem to come form inside a well with sides of metal, like the singer is trapped at the bottom spiting out life lessons at you. But hey what lessons they are! And what catchy songs and rhythms they came up with this time around. BLEEP!
Though the critics didn’t seem to love it as much this year, it is very possible that the duo of Darkside nailed it this time around. Songs like “Liberty Bell” and “The Limit” are very catchy keep your attention while retaining a dance quality to them. “I am the Echo” has enough glitchy guitar in it to make you think you are in the void of outer space (use headphones on this track for real), while “Narrow Road” and “Spiral” don’t care if you give them attention or not; they already have been so ignored by loved ones that they might as well be invisible. Best of all, “Inside is Out There” is an eight and a half minute think piece devoted to all the progressions dance music RRRRRRRRrrrrrRRRRRObOT InsidE mEE has made in rock n roll up to this point, while “Lawmaker” is the best sermon for fighting the power that there has been in quite some time. Darkside’s debut record from 2013 has its supporters- while I don’t dislike it at all, it is a far cry from this one I believe. Spiral is a huge leap forward while still retaining their trademark sound- a little bit beaker and test tube and totally ready for the radio airplay or streaming you use. In fact, it may already be inside you…beware. BLORP!
#10. Valerie June – The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
With her positive attitude and peppy songs, i have no idea why Valerie June isn’t one of the biggest stars on the planet. June starts of her new record with a unique approach to the folk world- it’s a mix of folk music tinged with elements of soul and her slightly eccentric singing voice is icing on the cake. If Nina Simone crossed with Joanna Newsom, you have some idea of how it sounds, but then you have to throw in some classic country as she previously toured with John Prine and shares that influence as well. A small portion of the album tries its hand at bombastic pop such as “Why the Stars Grow” and the opening anthem of a track (backed up with marching band drums) “Stay”, but most of the material is more in the psychedelic folk rock vein. “You and I” is an odd concoction of a tune, part ballad and part guitar noodling on the back porch.
“Stardust Scattering” paints a picture with words while channeling revival psych of the 1990’s like Mercury Rev or Mazzy Star. “Home Inside” and “Smile” could be played on a mandolin and have the same lasting effect, while best of all “Colors” is a Gordon Lightfoot influenced tune complete with backing orchestral strings; seriously its a contender for a 21st century version of “If You Could Read My Mind.” But just so you don’t forget her soul roots, she belts out the amazing “Call Me a Fool” backing by the legend Carla Thomas; the vocal acrobatics in this song alone warrant the artistic importance of June’s place of the most important artists of her time. Its an album full of variety an ambition and it would play as easily as music in the background at a party or live in an arena full of thousands of people.
#9. Nas – King’s Disease 2
It’s hard to live up to yourself in this world; perhaps even more than the journey to get famous is the fact that its impossible to live up to a flawless debut record. I can’t think of many cases where this is truer than Nas’s career (his debut album in 1994 Illmatic is considered by many to be the best debut album in hip hop of all time) and there have been many stylistic changes to his styles over the years with different producers on board (2001’s Stillmatic and 2012’s Life is Good jump out as prime examples). He has returned in a big way on King’s Disease II, but the revival is very natural and very organic. He has been in the odd position of trying to remake his career and top his classic debut album over and over, and in my opinion here he finally made an album that matches it. Nas is not trying to change the world, he is merely trying to give you a snapshot of his current life.
The jazz influenced brass background in “Moments” and recollecting aura of “Death Row East” are prime examples of this, as Nas looks back on past events while taking on rap stylings of the current times. “40 Slide” is a prime example of that, the way Nas raps is completely immersed in the hip hop vernacular of the 2020’s. He seems to be overflowing with ideas musically, notice how “Rare” splits itself in half into 2 different songs entirely and how “EPMD 2” is not content to only have the past masters on it but also Eminem, who releases a mash up of cadences so mind blowing you would hope the song was twice as long.
Let’s be real though: if anyone has EVER defined hip-hop as an artform that’s all about the lyrics it is Nas. A song like “No Phony Love” is powerful, he yearns for a love that is real and encourages others to do the same. A song like “Nobody” he raps along side Lauren Hill (!!!) and speaks to no matter what he does he will never be seen by others as he sees himself. A song like “Brunch On Sunday” talks to how this man loves his brunch on Sundays and he wants to tell you about it! People accuse Nas of not having a sense of humor, but I think its just that he finds harsh reality more comforting. He would rather sing you songs of truth because it’s more important to him than comedy; perhaps in his life there was never any time to laugh. But at least nearly 30 years after his debut, Nas has found time to enjoy his Brunch time on Sundays.
P.S.: if you haven’t done so before go watch the YouTube Billy on the Street episode with Nas, he does trivia and his present is a birdcage- he gets so mad Nas and his entire crew actually abandon the show midway through (it’s beautiful).
#8. Tropical Fuck Storm – Deep States
The barrage of sounds coming from Tropical Fuck Storm can be off putting which I understand- Lead man Gareth Liddiard is yelling at you with crazy conspiracy theories as the guitars played by the all women band behind him wail with noise and there are very brief respites in the maelstrom. But there is a soulful quality to this music, an actual truthful heart exists (feel the yearning in a song like “Blue Beam Baby”). The dragging tension we may feel from them is only because nobody listens and nobody understands the state of our world, so the thoughts inside scream to get out. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is a bold title for a song that is mostly chaos and angular guitars (check that ending), the sort of deaf echo that surrounds “Legal Ghost” as Gareth pleads his case about the future of humanity.
This album succeeds because it puts a focus to the oblivion where the last album 2019’s Raindrops sort of failed to. A tune such as “Bumma Sanger” is perfectly organized chaos, and the switch between female background singers and male shouter is quite unique to them; ”Suburbopia” is completely the women and they exceed as the sort of Greek Chorus talking directly to the audience when they say “don’t knock nothing until you try it.” The seven-and-a-half minute “The Donkey” is the best stab at a longer song the band has done yet, culminating in an epic guitar freak-out but before that Gareth sounds utterly defeated in his vocal style- part Nick Cave’s angry preacher and part Neil Young’s squeaking lost prophet. Parts of the ending of the record bring TFS to a poppier future, one where a song like “New Romeo Agent” (sung by Erica Dunn) could be used a taste of ecstasy after the disaster of a party. On Deep States (emphasis on being in a particularly tweaked-out state of mind) maybe they don’t reach the heights of their debut album, 2018’s Laughing Death in Meatspace, but they don’t need to; this is quite a different sonic trip and still one of the better hard rock outfits going.
#7. Steve Gunn – Other You
I believe Gunn channels the best of influences to make something completely his own here. It’s a great accomplishment and making of one’s identity for someone who has been a part of many groups upto this point- His own group GHQ and Black Dirt Oak, even playing on albums by legends like Michael Champan and contemporaries like Kurt Vile. The songs on here are produced like they are floating on a river, the guitars sort of swish into each other (see the delicate “Morning River” or perfect closer “Ever Feel That Way”). “Fulton” owes its heart to Joni Mitchell’s intricate and percussive acoustic guitar playing while soloing like an out of control Ira Kapaln over the surface. “Good Wind” is a song John Martyn wishes he could have written, all blissful flutes and swooshing guitars; its my favorite on the album. “Other You” and “Reflection” are straight of the 1970’s singer songwriter cannon.
It’s folk music at its core, the rock is definitely an afterthought mostly; as wild as the guitars can get, “On the Way” is definitely some sort of mix of the two genres sounding familiar but also from another world at the same time. Steve Gunn is a man who has been around and developed his own brand of music. Somehow it is as hazy as a summer fog but as lovely as a canoe ride down the river- with the occasional rapids we all have to steer through. Some people dislike Gunn’s vocals, but i believe they really suit his music: a sort of folk rock with angel wings, its meant to vanish in the either and not be as spectacular as the music around it. Either way, this set of songs outdoes anything he has attempted before and it’s a beautiful record.
#6. Natalie Bergman – Mercy
One of the first albums I loved this year was this one, probably because it was such a surprise to me but also the fact it was an album based on mainly Christian Songs, it was on the Third Man Records label not known for this type of thing, and it was based on a personal tragedy. I had heard Bergman’s previous band Wild Belle and their brand of faux reggae was not really my thing, though they do have some decent songs. But wow, nearly every song on this album tugs at the heart strings in some way, whether it be the playful nature of “You Make My World Go Around”, the hippy tribute to the desert that is “Paint the Rain”, or the easy-going nature of “Sweet Mary”. The album harnesses the sound of early 1960’s girl-groups soul on “Shine Your Light On Me” which is surely the melodic highlight of the album. “He Will Lift You Up” is somehow meaningful and catchy at the same time.
There is also an element of sadness present reflecting on her father’s passing, the grower of a tune “Home at Last” where Bergman’s vocals perhaps shine the brightest; the quirky ballad “Talk to the Lord” which makes a point of equating prayer and worship to serenity and gratification. “The Gallows” could be a hymn in a church pew and it illustrates the timelessness of the songs Bergman comes up on this album. More so than anything, the way all of these songs- some full of happy energy and some full of heartbreaking sadness- all complement each other is subtle but astonishing; closer “Last Farewell” is the most despairing album ending I have heard in quite some time. It is a song cycle that can be put on shuffle and work or played in album order and work even better. Bergman took the tragedy of her father’s death and made a truly artful experience out of it, something many people try to accomplish but few actually do.
#5.The Bug – Fire
While the previous full length of Kevin Martin’s The Bug contained an interesting idea- half moody sort of despair ridden ballads with a second side of hard-hitting grime UK dub tracks featuring all sorts of hip hop and reggae alumni- this sort of sprawling clash of styles is not for everybody. So for the first time in his career, Martin decided to just have an album that seems to be following Angel’s and Devil’s (2014) second side idea and have the entire album be straight heavy dark bass beats with amazing rapping M.C.’s on top. What the album, aptly named Fire, also has is a sense of dread and urgency that never lets up. Tracks like “Demon”, the excellent world-shattering single “Pressure”, and echo heavy “War” sound exactly like their song titles, like the horsemen of the Apocalypse themselves are here to tell us it is time for a new world the spring out of the ashes of the old one. Like many albums this year, many parallels to the Covid-19 state of the world is given, perhaps even taken further with the call to arms of “Hammer” (which is still related to the techno music Martin began with) or the poor vs rich feeling that “Clash” creates. “Vexed” tells the story of a prostitute (?) that seems to do whatever he has to do to survive, where “How Bout Dat” is more of a female led track that puts the Megan Thee Stallion pop garbage of the world to shame; this music is what people should be flocking too in a society under constant attack of a virus and constant fear of airborne death.
In all, there is such an air of an alternative universe going on with The Bug’s latest. There is a call back to the times of prime reggae of the late 1960’s and early 70’s with “Ganga Baby” though its updated to our modern times with the expert production. “Bomb” especially deserves to be mentioned as one of the great reagge songs of all time, no matter how demented and ugly it sounds, with The Bug’s regular singer Flowdan at the helm it is a song that sustains its power throughout even though in the middle of the song the ‘bomb’ explodes and everything goes quiet. The final two songs are especially powerful, finding a more personal political bend as “High Rise” reflects on the collapse of buildings that are built poorly for the poor in Britain (this resonates as well in America, as pretty notoriously the Miami high-rise collapsed earlier this year), while “The Missing” is sort of a coda for the album with no percussive beats only nuclear fallout. The atmosphere of noise and sound pollutes our ears as we listen to it; there is nothing left of the sonic landscape after Fire is played in its entirety. It’s Martin’s most perfect album yet.
#4. Ryley Walker – Course in Fable
There were two great folk rock records by men I heard this year- Ryley Walker’s Course in Fable and Steve Gunn’s Other You. Both are amazing, but while Gunn’s record looked deep to the past to come up with light psychedelic music, I feel Walker looked into the more immediate past and absorbed Louisville and Chicago’s post rock sound into a more folk tradition. “Striking Down Your Big Premiere” starts off with a stunning of big major power chords (similar to, say, My Morning Jacket’s “What a Wonderful Man”) but quickly shifts gears into an odd time signature and many echoing guitar patterns with a somewhat placid folk melody at its heart. “A Lenticular Slap” is the most rewarding experience of all these songs, so many twists turns and modulations that even the best modern composers would have trouble keeping up. “Axis Bent” actually has a normal drum beat of sorts, but even this song is prone to the sort of twist and turns that often permeate Jazz music; “Clad with Bunk” can’t decide if it wants to be jovial or languid so its sort of both at the same time. Walker’s production quality on Course in Fable is sort of like a robot jumped in and made changes to the tempos of different parts of the songs- fans of underground bands like Gastr Del Sol, eat your heart out. This is an album for musicians looking to see what is possible with music, that is for sure.
Walker’s lyrics set him apart from most of his contemporaries, no matter what the music sounds like he seems to always be talking about random themes from his life- Shivas, mathematics, different movies, doing drugs, quantum physics, tweakers, and much swearing in general. His voice is actually sort of pretty, but he seems to be rebelling against the music he himself makes and that fact makes his music very unique to him. “Rang Dizzy” and especially the ultra-catchy “Shiva with Dustpan” could defiantly be more well-known songs than some of the more challenging prog-rock tendencies present. But like Van Morrison with Astral Weeks or more recently, Bill Callahan’s 2013 masterwork of sorts Dream River, the merging of many genres present surrender to a cascading folk rock presence that fulfills the proceedings. To be even more specific, strange mix of 70’s John Martyn, 90’s Built to Spill and 2000’s Archer Prewitt. Make no mistake he has been at this for some time, but I feel the verve of progressive rock flowing through Course in Fable – as in what it really means to be ambitious and make rock music progress- makes this his best record yet.
#3. Spellling – The Turning Wheel
Singer Chrystia Cabral keeps progressing with her musical adventures, harnessing the hippy energy of her hometown of Berkley, Ca and translating it into dance music unlike anything in the musical landscape in the 2020’s. The formal perfection of “The Turning Wheel” is mind blowing after a couple of listens as if the best soul singers and divas of dance of the last several decades all collided into one- there are echoes of Donna Summer, Kate Bush, Fiery Furnaces, Bjork, Jane Siberry, Massive Attack, Madonna and Tori Amos. Like a traveling carnival ride of joy and full of captivating melodies, every song is uniquely hers but very different at the same time. Make no mistake, a lot of this is based on music theatre troupes- “Always” could be the soundtrack for a silent movie, “Emperor with an Egg” is some sort of soliloquy about running around in the forest (of your mind), “Legacy” displays her vocal range jumping octave upon octave, while “Revolution” very calmly states that she has revitalized her sound since her debut album, culminating in a majestic crescendo. And boy, has she ever!
This is music that begs to be talked about, listened to, and pondered over. She has talked in interviews how many sci-fi books and other mind-expanding literature have informed her lyrics. How exactly does a song like “Magic Act” work- it starts as a reparative slow journey, morphing in to an 80’s metal guitar solo then ends as a truncated techno beat?? “Boys at School” does this same type of thing over an aching and yearning seven-minute journey that talks about high school bullying and its long-term effects. “Little Deer” as an opening track is perfect yet still odd and it will not leave your head after even one listen, and you replay it enough in your mind that you fall in love with it. Is this still Rock music…? If rock music is a candy-coated menagerie in our childhood dreams, perhaps. It does not need big distorted guitars to make its point, and therefore is not defined by any of the styles of our time. Maybe Cabral is not quite as masterfully psychedelic as Kramer or Dogbowl, but very close and the only real comparison I can think of when listening to the title track. As she states on her theatrical closer “Sweet Talk”: “I hear the musical words/ wait for the verses / the colorful voices/ on the radio.” Well, she may never be on the radio, as the music is quite eccentric, but I do believe this album will hold up long beyond the boundaries of this year well into the future.
#2. Lightning Bug – A Color of The Sky
This band came out of nowhere to make on the most atmospheric and amazing album I have heard in quite a while. When listening you are taken up into the clouds and taught how to fly, it’s reminiscent of rock acts of the late 80’s and early 90’s only in the most baroque pop kind of way. “Song of the Bell” recalls bands that know how to create a pure sonic soundscape of enjoyable tunes with supreme ease. “The Right Thing is Hard to Do” is as delicate as butterfly landing on your finger, with lead singer Audrey Kang really projecting how great music can still be within the realm of ethereal rock n roll. These cuts, along with closer “The Flash” make up the accessible ready part of the album. There is a dreamy kind of elemental quality to music like this, whether that is due to production or spectacular playing I am not sure
If there was such a thing as the Laurel Canyon area of the 1960s come to life in music, opener “The Return” would be it, a nearly seven-minute anthem full of flute and echoing vocal harmonies. “I Lie Awake” is more of a deep album cut, though no less effective as a work of art but working sedative in the best kind of blissful way, classically transforming from its gentle verse to a climaxing rainbow of a chorus- it’s my favorite song of the year. “September Song part Two” is deeper, recalling Doves at their most driftful and contemplative. If this kind of writing sounds goofy in explaining what an album full of unabashed psych pop can sound like, well go listen for yourself- it makes perfect sense in this context.
#1. Injury Reserve – By the Time I Get to Phoenix
My favorite album experience this year is probably this one. I say probably because my opinion changes on each listen. Do I really like this menagerie of found noise and collage of utter nonsense?? Yeah, I suppose I love it. On Injury Reserve’s previous outing there were flashes of genius- “Jailbreak the Telsa” and “Rap Song Tutorial” from their 2018 debut literally mapped out how to make a rap song from your home studio. This album throws everything into a blender- rap, rock, soul, techno, industrial – and look at what magic comes out. There are memorable songs that work as odd rap tracks (“SS San Francisco” which I swear uses an obscure sample from Lida Husik’s 1993 track “Light of the Day”), soul balladry at its finest (“Knees” will forever make me wonder about what age I will start thinking about my knees going bad, hasn’t happened yet!), songs that build to epic climaxes (opener “Outside” is one of the best songs to begin an album I have ever heard), and songs that just straight up disorient and terrify (the California wildfire influenced “Smoke Don’t Clear”, and more obviously “Footwork in a Forest Fire”, and blistering noise bubbles echoing the best Death Grips song with “Superman That”).
In all there is just a great craft on display here, a craft that becomes apparent with each subsequent listen. A prominent Brian Eno sample in “Bye Storm” with clumsy rapping over it is meant to be both beautiful and hilarious at the same time. The ache and reality of seeing a video game avatar still going strong after someone has died has never, ever to my knowledge been a subject for a song and its probably my favorite song of the album, the elegant “Top Picks for You”. It’s kind of a melding of The Books, Death Grips, Madvillian and some bizarre possessed sprit that haunts the world and the internet world since the epidemic started.
Yes, you will get lost listening to By the Time I Get to Phoenix, somewhere around the creepy murk of “Ground Zero” or the jerking joy of “Postpostpartum” you will want to give up- but keep going it is worth it. The album is about 40 minutes long but feels like hours, that can be a good thing; the alternate perspective time of a fractured state of being perfectly encapsulates the fear, hopes, and desires of our life in 2021.