Sunday, December 26, 2021

Best Of 2021: The Top 25

As wild a ride as 2020 was, at least it had some kind of trajectory. We were learning to live with a pandemic, taking action to put it in the rearview. We were rallying to the cause of dumping Trump. There were fears and challenges aplenty along the way, but also a narrative to which our storytelling genes could give shape. Then came 2021, with so many neck-snapping reversals for every step forward that any shape the story had would resemble that of the path of a worm chewing its way through wood. 

Fortunately, there was no shortage of new music, including dozens of albums that I leaned on like a crutch. I am filled gratitude once again for all the players, writers, singers, producers, labels, and other elements of this delicate ecosystem who were able to keep going. Still, I worry about some who seem to have dropped away, like Novelty Daughter, Natalie Prass, and Jane Church, and hope they are OK. And while I was glad to see some semblance of a return to concerts and touring, I only attended a handful of shows as I am as yet unable to project myself into an indoor space crowded with my fellow music lovers. It was a privilege to see the shows I attended, all of which were outdoors. 

It's hard to say how the lack of the additional dimension a live performance can provide to a piece of music is affecting my devotion to the artists I follow, but I can only work with what I have. I can be certain that my feelings for the 25 albums below - and the many others I will share in genre-specific lists - are as strong as any other year. I hope you find some measure of comfort, joy, inspiration, validation, energy, and all the things you look for in music in these miraculous releases. 

All of the albums below - except one - were written about in previous posts; click through to read my original review. Listen to selections from all of them in this playlist or below to get the flavor of each release as you explore. While my use of Spotify is certainly fraught with concern about how artists are paid, it has also connected me to music I might never have heard, which I have gone on to support in a myriad of ways. I urge you to do the same should you hear something you love. We need all hands on deck to keep the lifeblood of music flowing!

1. Fruit Bats - The Pet Parade

2. Hiss Golden Messenger - Quietly Blowing It Note: M.C. Taylor also gifted us with a most supremely chill holiday album in O Come All Ye Faithful, featuring gorgeous originals like Hung Fire and Grace alongside covers of everything from Joy To The World and Silent Night to Woody Guthrie's Hanukkah Dance and CCR's As Long As I Can See The Light. The deluxe edition came with a separate disc of dubbed out versions, also available here, that are absorbing, immersive, and some of my favorite music ever from Hiss.  

3. Scott Wollschleger & Karl Larson - Dark Days

4. Jane Weaver - Flock

5. Elsa Hewitt - Lupa

6. Eye Knee Records Note: This is not an album but a series of remarkable singles released by Holly Miranda, Amb. Parsley, and Chris Maxwell's new collective label. Ranging from sweetly hilarious to delicate and from devastating to inspiring, they made for an incredible playlist that became a crucial listen for me. I can't suggest more strongly that you get yourself to their Bandcamp site to buy all these songs and make your own playlist!

7. Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever Note: Having signed on for a month of Disney+ to watch Get Back, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to watch Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter To Los Angeles, which featured stunning orchestral versions of every song from Eilish's sophomore album. Played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the engaged direction of Gustavo Dudamel and with string arrangements by David Campbell, the reworks were exquisitely sensitive to the songs and further convinced me of their elemental strength. I can only hope for an audio-only release of the concert!

8. Raoul Vignal - Years In Marble

9. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises

10. Mallu Magalhães - Esperança

11. Dry Cleaning - New Long Leg

12. Spektral Quartet - Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Enigma

13. Domenico Lancellotti - Raio

14. Madlib - Sound Ancestors

15. Summer Like The Season - Hum

18. Tyler, The Creator - Call Me If You Get Lost

19. The Muckers - Endeavor

20. Amy Helm - What The Flood Leaves Behind

21. Ben Seretan - Cicada Waves

22. Cassandra Jenkins - An Overview On Phenomenal Nature

23. Arooj Aftab - Vulture Prince

24. Courtney Barnett - Things Take Time, Take Time My heart sank the first time I listened to this, her third album. Where was the low-slung bass of Bones Sloane and the locked-in drumming of Dave Mudie? Where was Dan Lunscombe to provide guitar and keyboard interplay? Why did she choose to work with Stella Mozgawa from the perpetually underwhelming Warpaint? Now, I knew some of those choices were due to the multiple lockdowns in Australia during the pandemic, but still, I was disappointed with what I was hearing. But two songs grabbed me initially and kept me coming back until the whole album just snapped into place. The first of these was Here's The Thing, the most vulnerable song she's ever recorded, filled with romantic yearning - a color that has been mostly absent from her wonderfully clever songwriting. The second was Turning Green, which has some creative drum machine deployment, meditative keyboards, and builds slowly to a terrific guitar solo, abstract and angular yet restrained. The lyrics reveal a sort-of love song ("You've been around the world/Lookin' for the perfect girl/Turns out she was just livin' down the street) that in its series of missed connections seems never far from current events. Take It Day By Day is the perfect prescription for these times, with a chorus that reminds us never to take the survival of others (or ourselves) in isolation for granted: "Tuesday night, I'm checking in/Just to see how you're going/Are you good? Are you eating?/I'll call you back next week." There's more variety here than on her last album and a bravery to the way she's just putting herself out there, with no attempt to conceal her fears or enervation in the face of all that's gone on these last two years. Also, the stripped back intimacy of the production foregrounds some of Barnett's most well-developed melodies and seems to welcome a personal connection to the record, making it feel like a dispatch from a friend. It's Barnett's best album since her debut. As the title instructs, give it the time it deserves and you just might feel the same.

25. UV-TV - Always Something

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2020: The Top 25
Best Of 2019: The Top 25
Best Of 2018: The Top 25
Best Of 2017: The Top 25
Best Of 2016: The Top 20
Best Of 15: The Top 20
Best Of 14 (Part 1)
Best Of 14 (Part 2)
Best Of 2013
The Best Of 12: Part One
The Best Of 12: Part Two
The Best Of 11
Best Of Ten
A Blog Is Born: Best Of 2009

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