Sunday, April 24, 2022

Best Of 2021: Rock, Folk, Etc.

Of all the genre-based lists, only classical exceeds or comes close to this category, which both accurately reflects my listening and the general ferment among creators in those spaces. I wrote about plenty of rock, folk, etc. albums during the year, 14 of which landed on my top 25. As usual, the other previously covered releases will come first below and new reviews will follow those. Listen to a tracks from all of them here or in the playlist below.

Celebrating 2021: New Year, New Music
Shame - Drunk Tank Pink

Record Roundup: Sonic Environments
Steven van Betten & Andrew Rowan - No Branches Without Trees
Anika Pyle - Wild River

Record Roundup: Americana The Beautiful
Jeffrey Silverstein - Torii Gates 
Corntuth - The Desert Is Paper Thin

Record Roundup: Rock'n'Pop Adjacent
The Muckers - Endeavor
Acid Dad - Take It From The Dead
Bachelor - Doomin' Sun
Lael Neale - Acquainted With Night
UV-TV - Always Something
Palberta - Palberta5000
Ganser - Look At The Sun 
Lucy Dacus - Home Video

Record Roundup: Rooms Of Their Own
Anika - Change 
My Tree - Where The Grace Is
(Eli)zabeth Owens - Knock Knock

Record Roundup: Plugged In
Freak Slug - Slow Down Babe
Scott Hirsch - Windless Day
Matthew E. White - K-Bay
Colin Linden - bLow
Amyl And The Sniffers - Comfort To Me


Dummy - Mandatory Enjoyment This doesn't sound like an L.A. band, more like Brooklyn or London, except they are less single-minded in their pursuit of art-rock nirvana than say, Stereolab or UV-TV. Unafraid to go from sleek to noisy - sometimes in the same song - their combination of churning guitars, spacious synths, and driving rhythms is remarkably assured on this debut. 

Spud - Spud Rather than being a couch potato during lockdown, Holly Findlay (bass player of Australian band, Stonefield) cooked up a synth-heavy EP of micro-anthems, each one unexpectedly hooky. If you've got the cash, you can still score it on a limited-edition 10" pressing from stalwart label Greenway Records.

Tamar Aphek - All Bets Are Off If this is an example of what's going on in the Israeli rock underground, I say give me more. Aphek, who can be serene or stentorian, sails over edgy art-punk songs that stick under your skin like needles that hurt so good. She and her band of atmospherically inclined noise-rockers do not put a foot wrong, except for a cover of As Time Goes By, which ends the record on a note of retreat after eight songs of attack. No matter, just hit repeat after Nothing Can Surprise Me and continue to be surprised.

Church Girls - Still Blooms My favorite YouTube discovery last year was Jarrett Wolfson's channel, documenting his obsessive New York City concert-going with very conscientiously shot videos of all the shows I would be going to if I were going to shows - and some I wouldn't have known about, like this band. Hailing from Philly, which must have a scene rivaling Brooklyn's by now, Church Girls platforms the catalytic talent of Mariel Beaumont, a singer/guitarist who wrote or co-wrote all the songs here. On paper, she might not be doing anything entirely new - a blend of pop, punk (without exactly being pop-punk) with a bit of new wave sheen - but it's the passion with which she does it that puts it over the top. Predicting big things for Beaumont, whether with Church Girls or not. 

Geese - Projector The first thing that struck me when I heard Disco, the first single from Brooklyn-based Geese, was style. Singer Cameron Winter has style and swagger to burn, grabbing you by the throat with his range and variety of approaches. I wasn't even sure I liked it right way, but his no-fucks attitude, plus the splashy guitars and dance-punk rhythms, kept me listening as more singles and then the album came out. I'm glad I did, as Projector is an excellent first step for this young band. Their original but historically-informed post-punk update is full of twists and turns, at times white hot, at others contemplatively cool. A bright debut from a band that sounds like they can go the distance.

Sleigh Bells - Texis Of all the twists and turns in 2021, a return to relevance for this electro-clash (or hyper pop? who cares!) duo was certainly among the most unexpected. After hitting my top ten in 2010 (and my Best Of the 2010's list) with their explosive debut, Treats, Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller seemed to gradually run out of steam over the next three albums. How many different ways could they combine Miller's buzzsaw guitars, a drum machine, and Krauss's sugary vocals? Well, somehow they've figured out a new path - or maybe that debut was more about the songs than the sound after all. They seem to have found their spark again, in any case, with adrenalized melodies delivered by Krauss with roller-girl swagger, and more dynamics in the musical backing, even including the occasional acoustic guitar. Highly enjoyable.

Foyer Red - Zigzag Wombat A meeting of messed-up minds, including Mitch Myers, whose 2020 cassette Turn Tail (as "Sreym Hctim") I speculated could be "the end of all music." Apparently not, because he has found a brilliant way forward, with helping hands from Elana Riordan, who sings and plays clarinet and Omnichord, and Marco Ocampo, responsible for drums, bass, and percussion. Myers contributes guitar, bass, vocals, and percussion, and somehow the end result is delightfully intuitive, sounding perfectly natural, as angular and odd as it is. This 19-minute EP has me eager for more.


Alice Phoebe Lou - Child's Play Breezy and just a touch hazy, this effortlessly tuneful album showcases Lou's airy voice beautifully. Drawing on 60s pop and 90s bedsit indie, its an intimate visit with a great songwriter. A South-African-born prodigy who has been making music since the age of 14, this is her fourth album since 2016. Her third album, Glow, was also released in 2021, and features a more sophisticated, even sultry, sound, with sparkling keyboards and insistent bass lines. Once I've had my fill of these two albums, I'm looking forward to catching up with those earlier ones, which I unaccountably missed!

Jordana and TV Girl - Summer's Over Brad Petering's gift for catchy tunes, inflected by both hip hop and 60s pop, hasn't deserted him since I discovered TV Girl years ago. Putting his production and songwriting skills in service of Jordana Nye's airy voice is a winning combination, and when they sing together it's even more pure pleasure. Jordana also put out an excellent single with Magdalena Bay last year and has her own album, Face The Wall, due in May. Pre-saving!

FPA - Princess Wiko Released on Justin Vernon's 37d03d label, this second album from Frances Priya Anczarski finds her assaying pop, folk, R&B, and art-song with equal aplomb, earning that regal pose on the cover. Between her enveloping and lovely voice and the cinematic sweep of the songs, you will swear twice the amount of time has passed when its 25 minutes are up.

Laura Wolf - Artifacts Arty and airy synth-pop EP that somehow hits some of the same buttons as Bill Nelson's club singles from the 80s, meaning they are highly melodic, quirky, and follow their own internal logic in how the sounds are assembled. Unexpectedly, it all comes together in delightful ways.

Alice TM - Little Body In Orbit When I saw her perform with Ethan Woods, Alice Tolan-Mee's serene confidence - along with her expert musicianship - made her a captivating presence. Then, the two of them put out an album of sexy, weird electro-pop as Hyperion Drive, which seems to contain some of the seeds of this debut solo album. Hoeing a row that might be termed synth-art-song, Alice TM uses a lot of the shiny textures of pop to present her imaginatively meandering melodies, which gain more inevitability with each listen. 

Lily Konigsburg - The Best Of Lily Konigsburg Right Now and Lily We Need To Talk Now Even if she had just released Palberta5000 (see above) with her bandmates in Palberta, Konigsburg would have had a great year as it was their best album yet. But her songwriting cup runneth over, apparently, as she also put out her first solo album, the sprightly Lily We Need To Talk Now. While some of the songs sound like they could be on a band record (and drummer Nina Ryser makes several appearances), the best material explores more layered pop production to support songs that seem a little more introspective. Sweat Forever and That's The Way I Like It are great arguments that Konigsburg could play in the same arena as Clairo or Lorde - and have more fun doing it. The Best Of..., which collects several singles and EPs going back to at least 2017, is even more terrific, with every song hitting the sweet (or bittersweet) spot in the best indie-pop tradition. The a cappella of Rock and Sin and perky autotune of It's Just Like All The Clouds are earworms you will actually not want to shake! If Konigsburg wanted to be the opening act for her own band, I guarantee you that no one would feel oversaturated with her quirky brilliance by the end of the night. 

Lorde - Solar Power I was maybe one of the few that found Lorde's second album, Melodrama, to be mostly overwrought and overthought, the anxiety of her surprise success with the song Royals and ensuing album Pure Heroine all too apparent in its conception and execution. At the time, I blamed producer Jack Antonoff whose "magic touch" usually makes sounds that turn me off. Four years later, it seems I was only partly right. While she's once again working with him as a co-producer and co-songwriter, she's made clear in interviews that this time around, she's in full control. And thank goodness, as this is the tuneful, sun-struck pop album promised by the title but so unexpected by an artist who usually shades on the darker side of things. Singing in a fluttery higher register than before - and often double-tracked (or shadowed by Clairo) - the focus is firmly on her voice, which has never sounded more natural, surrounding it with acoustic guitars, sinewy bass lines, and sensitive keyboards. There is very little of the hip hop influence shown on her earlier work, but the drums (by the great Matt Chamberlain) give oomph when needed. It's almost like having a whole new artist to listen to - and I like this Lorde a lot!

Clairo - Sling Speaking of Clairo and Antonoff, when I included her in the 2019 edition of this list, I celebrated the fact that she hadn't gone the "full Jack Antonoff route" for her debut, Immunity. Now we know what that sounds like, as Antonoff co-produced Sling and co-wrote half the songs - fortunately, it's not the obnoxious disaster I predicted. But neither is it the bright success of Solar Power. In fact, it leans over a little too far in the opposite direction, with one hushed, drum-less song blending into another. Not unpleasant, but I was hoping for more. Amoeba, however is a massive highlight, perhaps her best song yet, as she digs into a Steely Dan/Boz Scaggs groove circa 1976 and completely commands the sleek ship at it sails into AM radio glory. The lyrics throughout show a maturity and self-empathy that are sure to give comfort to many, I just wish the musical surround was a little more distinctive. If she's looking for her next collaborator, can I suggest Nate Amos, who helped Lily Konigsburg make some of the magic mentioned above.

Dora Jar - Digital Meadow Blending acoustic, electric, and electronic textures to frame her assured songwriting and flowing voice, this 20-minute EP showcases a burgeoning talent. Not surprised Billie Eilish tapped her to open some shows. 

Historian - Out Of Season Chris Karman continues to expand on his chamber-pop approach - working with nearly a full orchestra's worth of musicians to realize his melancholy songs on this, his ninth album as Historian. While he still wears his love of Radiohead on his sleeve, the Historian sound is its own thing, and embraces new tributaries all the time, such as the 1920s ballroom resonances of Transitions, with its woozy sax and upright bass. His singing is more confident than ever, too, stepping away from the reverb-laden approach he often uses. While he wonders if he is "out of season" on the title track, I would say his time is just beginning.


Rebecca Tilles - Oh Sister This folk-pop debut from a Swedish-American singer/songwriter has a light touch that gains weight as it goes on. The trilogy of songs that end the album, starting with the wry melancholy of Endless Days, moving through the bittersweet I Don't Even Miss You, and ending with The Beginning, may be the finest here. Sensitive production from Robin Applewood adds just the right touches to the acoustic strumming, whether accordion, mandolin, or organ, and keeps things varied yet consistent. Rebecca was a member of one of my writing groups and it was always a highlight when she contributed - now she's here for the world to hear.

Marissa Nadler - The Path Of The Clouds For her ninth solo album - and first of all-original songs since 2018's stunning For My Crimes - Nadler throws up her folk-infused songs on the widescreen, blowing  them up with rich layers of guitar, droning underscores, starlit keyboards, and Mary Lattimore's harp. This has the effect of lending her dark tales of love, loss, and murder even more gravitas. I expect the movie and TV sync requests are coming in even more fast and furiously now. Nadler also found time to showcase her interpretive gifts on the cover album Instead Of Dreaming, especially on versions of King Crimson's Moonchild and Metallica's Nothing Else Matters.

Le Ren - Leftovers It's a self-effacing title, that, and an understandable defense by an artist who appears very much exposed on this spare, stately, and drop-dead gorgeous album of folk songs. There's a toughness here, however, reminiscent of those bedrock artists from America's past, who would work the fields and then meet Alan Lomax on their front porch to make a field recording. In short, these are sturdy yet delicate songs by someone who sounds fully engaged with the life of the earth and workings of her heart. A stunning debut.


Snail Mail - Valentine I felt there was a coiled ambition contained in the emotionally-connected indie-rock of Lindsay Jordan as presented on her debut, Lush. But then I found myself taken aback by the nearly Kelly Clarkson-esque uplift of the huge chorus on the title track of this second album. I soon got over myself and marveled at the wide range of places she was taking her voice, both as a singer and songwriter. I never would have expected something like Forever (Sailing), which samples an obscure 70s R&B jam (by Madleen Kane) she heard at Starbucks, from Jordan, nor that she would pull it off with such organic ease. Then there's the string-laden Glory (arrangement by Spacebomb's Trey Pollard) that finds new sonics in which to embed her passionate lyrics and delivery. Overall, there's a little more gloss than I would expect from a Brad Cook production, but there's still enough tooth here to grab me along with the thrill of self-discovery that is a through-line from Lush. If she keeps moving this fast, she'll have to change her name to Email.

Laura Stevenson - Laura Stevenson Distinguished by her literate lyrics and well-developed melodic sense, Stevenson's sixth album is a winner throughout. Adding a little 90s-influenced loud-quiet-loud cannily reflects the mysterious trauma that underscores the storytelling. 

Hand Habits - Fun House For their third album, Meg Duffy has conjured up a richly textured collection of what at one time might have been called "soft rock," with each drum hit and acoustic strum burnished to a warm glow. However, she avoids all the pitfalls of what made that genre artistically bankrupt - the shallow solipsism, mainly - and continues to develop her introspective and complex songwriting. While I wouldn't have minded a little of the straight-forward indie rock of their debut, but the restraint only makes a song like Concrete & Feathers hit harder. Piece by piece, Duffy is assembling an impressive and nourishing discography.

Field Music - Flat White Moon While I might still recommend Tones Of Town (2007), Measure (2010), or Plumb (2012) to any under-rock dweller not yet familiar with the smart and funky art-rock of the Brewis brothers, this is their must unfetteredly joyful release since that latter album. So if it's easiest, feel free to start here and lap up all the jabbing angular guitars, sunny harmonies, catchy choruses, and perfectly pocketed drums on offer. 

Pip Blom - Welcome Break A band from the Netherlands that's ever more expert at channeling the sound of Boston college rock circa 1995, but with their own energy and European spin. Guitars chug, jangle, and soar over propulsive rhythms while the band's namesake lets her sweet-tart vocals tell stories of coming of age and interpersonal thrills and spills. I was even more convinced by their live set (as seen on Jarrett Wolfson's YouTube channel) and it may be that the stage is even more a natural habitat than the studio.


Triptides - Alter Echoes Lysergic, sun-drenched rock, with sixties echoes in evidence, from garage rock to The Byrds. Like Levitation Room, their light touch injects a fresh taste of the surreal into their sound.

Boogarins - Manchaca Vol. 2 Another compilation of "memories, dreams, outtakes, and demos" from Brazil's finest rock band. Recorded both in Austin, TX and Sao Paulo, the 12 tracks mainly showcase their weirder, more studio-bound side, with plenty of sonic manipulations amidst the melodic invention and guitar fireworks. There are also two songs in English: Basic Lines, an early song they never recorded, and Far And Safe, a rework of Te Quero Longe from 2019's Sombrou Dúvida with Erika Wennerstrom (Heartless Bastards) on vocals. The latter is a heavenly listen and suggests further collaborations, with her or others, could be yet another avenue of exploration for this most exploratory of bands. 

Crumb - Ice Melt Some of the murk has been stripped away and there's a little less of that distinctive wobble to their sound - but Lila Ramani's vocals have grown ever-dreamier and they're only more expert at making the studio their canvas for their sweet and slightly off psych-rock. And I would imagine they're still great on stage!


Neal Francis - In Plain Sight On his second album, Francis invites you for a jam back at his place with the ghosts of the Allman Brothers, Leon Russell, and ex-Beatles John and George. And they're all having a blast because he brought a briefcase full of tasty songs, most notably Alameda Apartments, Can't Stop The Rain, and Sentimental Garbage. Rain is an instant classic, slotting in next to similarly named tracks by the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival and others. I'm having fun thinking of how much juicier this could have been if Jonathan Wilson had been behind the boards, but it's early days yet for Francis - more goodness will come.

Israel Nash - Topaz Nash has been living off the land for a while now, ingesting nourishing meals of cosmic country and funky soul, which he has now digested for us in a widescreen collection of heartfelt tales, aided by an array of driving horns, sweeping keyboards, sky-scraping guitars, and a locked-in rhythm section. Don't be concerned that Adrian Queseda of the Black Pumas is on hand to produce and play guitar. Nash never stoops to the crowd-pleasing, award-show clamor of their stuff. 


Jeff Tweedy - Live Is The King As I noted in my review of Love Is The King, the Tweedy album from which these songs are taken, it offers few surprises. However, these live versions do at least add some spark - and occasional fire - mainly thanks to the guitar of James Elkington. There's also a fine cover of Neil Young's The Old Country Waltz, making for a satisfying and heartwarming listen.

Fleet Foxes - A Very Lonely Solstice Recorded alone during 2020's lockdown in St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, Robin Pecknold does sound a little lonely on this album, except for the first and last songs featuring the Resistance Revival Chorus. But the solo performances also allow us to appreciate the songwriting, not to mention his honeyed voice, with new acuity, while noting the quality he has maintained across four Fleet Foxes releases. A moment in time perhaps, but one we're having difficulty shaking, so I'll be keeping this close to hand.

Killing Joke - Total Invasion (Live In The USA) Relentless, uncompromising, and, at just nine songs, over far too soon. But what other legendary band would be humble enough to go out on the road as an opening act (for Tool) more than 40 years into their career? So what if this is something like their dozenth live album, let them have their victory lap - and enjoy this bracing listen.


Big Paul Ferguson - Virtual Control And so it was that as the fifth year passed since Pylon with no new music from Killing Joke and the Gatherers had grown restless. But one arose from the drum set at the back of the stage, conscripted Mark Gemini Thwait (The Mission, Peter Murphy, etc.) to co-write and co-produce, and took on the dusty mantle of tribal rhythms, skirling and grinding guitars, atmospheric keyboards, and doom-scrolling lyrics - and it was good. Not exactly Killing Joke, and not quite as scary good as Pylon, but more than enough to light the torches once again and let the fire dances begin.

PJ Sykes - Fuzz My erstwhile Off Your Radar colleague has been busy during the pandemic! Among other things, he founded a creative agency and put together these 10 punked-out songs, layering fuzzed guitars over slamming rhythms and adding anthemic vocals for a blistering album. While he had a little help from guitarist Jeff Roop, he did everything else himself and perhaps the most impressive thing about his solo proficiency is the fact that it sounds like he's banging these tracks out with his best friends, rather than working alone. Putting Fuzz on will fill your room with an instant crowd and togetherness, even virtually, still feels in short supply these days.

Soen - Imperial My son listens almost exclusively to prog metal so he's become an important filter for a genre in which I like to dip a toe on occasion. This fifth album from a Swedish band was a quick favorite, with melodies that soar, guitars that are heavy yet sleek, and rhythms that aren't afraid to swing a little. The vocals, so often a deal-breaker in this style, are passionate and clear, if not overly distinctive. Some fans find their approach too straightforward here, so I'm looking forward to investigating their potentially knotty past.

Mastodon - Hushed and Grim Over 20 years into their career, by now we know that Mastodon is at their best when they have a concept as big as their sound and ambition to hang an album's worth of songs on. Except that is for The Hunter, their extraordinary 2011 album. While they don't reach those heights on this, their eighth album and first double-disc collection, as an exploration of their strengths as performers, Hushed and Grim is a thrilling ride. Even without a concrete story to tell, they have an emotional core to work off of, paying tribute to their longtime manager, Nick John, who died from cancer in 2018. That loss forms a white-hot magma from which sparks and sorrows shoot off, with echoes of Pink Floyd at their most elegiac or King Crimson at their most aggressive. Incorporating French horn and strings, including the Indian Sarangi, in totally organic fashion, Mastodon are continuing their evolution as a hard rock band that can go anywhere and do anything.

If you think that's everything, you couldn't be more wrong, believe it or not! Find more 2021 albums of note from these genres in this playlist and keep up with what this year has to offer here.

You may also enjoy:
Best Of 2020: Rock, Folk, Etc.
Best Of 2019: Rock, Folk, Etc. 
Best Of 2018: Rock, Folk, Etc. 
Best Of 2017: Rock, Folk, Etc.
Best Of 2016: Rock, Folk, Etc.