My favorite music from 2021
Thought I'd knock this one out before 2023 got here! Before diving in, a few things it may help to know about my approach to music. First, my ears are even older than the rest of me, so I don’t often pick up lyrics. Second, I listen mainly to albums, not playlists or singles, to get the full picture of the artist’s work. Finally, I don’t rank or use the word “best,” because tastes are individual and because I’d need to listen to several thousand other releases to be sure I had all the “best.”
So here’s a semi-organized list of what I liked in some artificial groupings, listed alphabetically within each.
Some great "debuts" from seasoned artists
Bachelor, Back of My Hand: A (maybe?) one-off collaboration between Jay Som (Melina Duterte and Palehound (Ellen Kempner), who have each released two or three albums of their own. On this one, more than their own work, they show some amazing variety, from simple, pretty melodies like “Doomin Sun” to bluesy guitar on “Sand Angel” to rockers like “Stay in the Car.”
Lil’ Nas X, Montero: Must be nice to have earned millions before actually recording a full record! This one is deservedly one of the most popular releases of the year. For me the standout is “That’s What I Want,” a simple song of yearning that’s a lot more courageous when you’re black, gay, and country-adjacent. I also like his continued effort to be adopted by the Cyrus family, in which he effectively features Miley’s distinctive voice to punch up the pain of a breakup in the last song, “Am I Dreaming.”
Olivia Rodrigo, Sour : Her first album, this was released at age 18 and sounds way more seasoned than that; I guess five years as a Disney star will do that. While “Drivers License” deserves the attention it got and still gets (nearly broke the Internet from streaming!), you don’t have to be 18 and a recent survivor of high school to appreciate “Brutal” and much of the rest of this fine album.
If you made some of the best music of 2020, what do you next?
Taylor Swift, Red (Taylor’s Version): After making the leap from legit pop star to generational talent with 2020’s Folklore and Evermore, Swift leapt into her project to remake everything so she owns the rights. Do we really need a new version of a record that's only a few years old? Do we need four records with multiple versions of the songs? Do we need one of them to be ten minutes long? Well, yes, it turns out we do. It’s weirdly cathartic, even for those who haven’t had nasty breakups and feuds with as many celebrities as Swift has. She wisely shared production with Jack Antonoff (who performs as Bleachers, among other projects) and Aaron Dressner of The National who collaborated to make the 2020 records so epic.
Sault, Nine: A side project for originally unidentified artists, this band put together two superb soul-R&B albums in 2020,Untitled (Rise) and Untitled (Black Is). 2021’s Nine feels like a continued exploration of the Black experience but at a more personal level. It evolves from rhythm-section heavy chants like “Ha Ha” (that’s all the words to the song) and “London Gangs” to the beautiful, quiet ballads “Bitter Sweet” and “Alcohol,” ending with the stunning “Lights in Your Hands.” The vocals in all of these, believed to be Cleo Sol, are arresting. This release was free to download, but only until the beginning of 2022. It’s on YouTube, hopefully paying royalties to whomever should be getting them.
From the world of indie-pop-rock
Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark: This Scottish band has been at it most of this century, but this is the first I heard from them. Mostly spoken word with a good mix of instrumental backing. They step close to but not over the pretentious line that the Moody Blues blew right through. Reminiscent of Lou Reed, Nick Cave, later Leonard Cohen but wholly original. My favorite song is “Compersion pt. 1.” The lyric “She has only one confidant, a psychosexual shrink/I think she's wasting her money, I think we just need a drink” makes perfect sense to me.
Lucy Dacus, Home Video: Her second full-length, this one didn’t impress me at first, but repeated listenings made it a favorite late in the year. It’s a look back at the teen years from a modest distance. “Brando” is the sweetest put-down song I’ve heard!
Brett Dennen, See the World: Dennen is the goofy, awkward kid from your high school class who turns out to be the first one to figure everything out. He makes fun, clever songs, skis, and hangs out with his family. He also has a fanatic if smallish following. The title song is a challenge to his young son (and likely himself) to see things for himself and draw his own conclusions. Dennen’s done weightier albums (check out 2011’s Loverboy). Listened to this one quite a bit last year; it’s a very effective antidote to all the breakup albums!
Indigo de Souza, Any Shape You Take: Beautiful voice over a wide range of accompaniments from minimal instruments under auto-tuned vocals on “17” to organ-propelled minimalism on “Hold U,” to “Kill Me,” a song about a person and relationship cracking up that starts quiet and builds to multi-vocal, thrumming guitar and a pretty hopeless conclusion: “Kill me, and clean up, and if they ask you where I am, we'll tell them that I was all done. Tell them that I wasn't having much fun.”
Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee: “Be Sweet” is a great song. The record as a whole is dance-poppy with a great beat, layered vocals, tons of layered everything with Zauner co-producing and playing everything but the drums. Outstanding album.
Manchester Orchestra, The Million Masks of God: Pretty, thoughtful, mainly acoustic songs that are well worth listening too. But the couple of big, big songs with choral backgrounds put Andy Hull’s Billy Corgan-like nasal vocals to the best use . “Angel of Death” might be about death or about another loss, but I don’t care! I love the way it unfolds into an epic; it’s one of the better songs this year!
Snail Mail, Valentine: Lindsay Jordan, songwriter and band leader, released her excellent second full-length album not long after turning 22. It’s a full-on catalog of heartbreak, usually sung over quiet but kind of sludgy guitar. Lyrics are often repeated and she regularly throws out memorable lines this way, such as “We’re not really talking now” in “Madonna” and “So why’d you wanna erase me?” in the title song.
The War on Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore: Philadelphia is justifiably known for its great soul tradition, but it’s also turned out great rock bands, like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Kurt Vile. The War on Drugs overlaps both these bands to an extent, but in this record the tunes, lyrics, voice, and topics remind me more of Bob Dylan, down to the closing line of the title song, “We’re all just walkin’ through this darkness on our own.” Each song is an extended guitar/keyboard epic and each is a gem. My only quibble is that it starts to sound the same when listened to all together.
We Are the Union, Ordinary Life: This Ann Arbor band fuses ska, punk, and pop in a unique sound. If you like No Doubt, Vampire Weekend, or Parquet Courts, you should check these guys out. “Boys Will Be Girls” is the standout song.
Return of the 90s girl acts
These acts and albums have little in common musically, other than being breakthrough female acts in a time dominated by grunge and other guy stuff, and putting guys in their place pretty effectively. Also, they put out some good music in 2021.
Liz Phair, Soberish: This is probably her poppiest album but it’s worthy of repeated listening; great rock music with Phair’s usual cleverly self-deprecating lyrics. “Spanish Doors” is as shiny as a breakup song can be, and totally infectious, but there are also new romance songs, substance issue songs, a song about being driven by genitals and a sweet little love letter to Chicago, “Sheridan Road.” Phair gets overlooked a lot, but this one should be enjoyed.
Sleater-Kinney, Path of Wellness: Olympia’s original girl punk band won’t die, in spite of folding, hiatusing, and breaking up with one of rock’s best drummers, Janet Weiss. They may have stepped too far from their punk roots, but a few songs, particularly “Worry With You,” capture their ability to pop up some punk.
Outside the country-hip hop-pop-rock mainstream
Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, They’re Calling Me Home: Giddens is a brilliant writer, singer and instrumentalist who is a complete master of traditional music. This record is brilliant from start to finish. These are mostly traditional songs from a range of sources and styles, but the few originals are beautiful as well. The opener, “Calling Me Home” is heavy on lyrics and light on instrumentation (just her viola and Turrisi’s accordion), while other songs are mostly or entirely instrumental. The simple version that closes the record is proof there is no such thing as too many recordings of “Amazing Grace.”
Amethyst Kiah, Wary + Strange: This Tennessee native matches a powerful voice with pretty acoustic guitar and lyrics that capture universal despair and the particularly bleak weight of the black experience. The song you remember when this is over is the soul-rocker “Black Myself,” which she’d earlier recorded with Our Native Daughters.
Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victim. I’m a huge fan of the desert blues bands from northern Africa, and this is one of my all-time favorites. There’s a lot more here than the guitar solos and simple vocals that dominate the music of most artists in this genre. There’s some brilliant bass work throughout. The opener, “Chismiten” starts out with a crazy blues guitar solo and piles it on from there. It’s a great introduction if you don’t know this music and more affirmation of your good taste if you do!
Nilufer Yanya, Inside Out: The third full length (well ¾ length in this case) from this British singer continues to show off her beautiful jazz voice that can be smooth, syncopated, or outright jumpy. This closes with her first release from 2016, “Small Crimes.” It’s a showcase for her ability to create a character and live inside her for a few minutes.
A resurgence in live albums filled a big concert-sized hole
It was a good year for live albums, if not live performances. Weirdly, the most compelling had no crowd noise. Fontaines DC, the insanely talented Irish punk band (and closest living facsimile of Joy Division) recorded Live at Kilmainham Gaol yes, at a jail! Their stark music seems to bounce around just a bit more than in a studio.
I also loved some new releases of old concerts. Carole King’s Live at the BBC1971 is a quick run-through of the highlights of Tapestry, along with a couple of the best of her early work, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “Up on the Roof.” The addition of a second piano, played by Ralph Shuckett, along with a great touring band, adds a depth to these songs that doesn’t always come through in studio recordings.
I can’t help it, I like Tears for Fears and a lot of 80s bands that real music fans dismiss. Their “Live at Massey Hall Toronto Canada/1985” does a great job with their infectious radio hits but also shows a band that knew how to jam when necessary.
I think there is a whole shelf of Drive By Truckers in my record collection but that doesn’t keep me from adding to it. This band has evolved from a guitar party band into some of the most astute observers of the mess our country has made of itself. (I know you don’t believe me, but let’s talk after you listen to American Band and The Unraveling.) Their 2021 release “Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, and Jason Isbell, Live at the Shoals Theatre” reunites the band’s three original singers/songwriters; it’s just three friends with acoustic guitars and great material to work with.
Also worth checking out
Obviously I could go on forever, but let’s hope I don’t. Here are a few more things that caught my ear at one time or another and deserve a listen.
Afro Cluster, The Reach: Welsh band that combines Afro Pop and Hip Hop, including great rap flow, heavy emphasis on horns, and great rhythms underneath it all.
Boldy James and the Alchemist, Bo Jackson: Hip hop that overworks the drug and crime territory but the completely deadpan rapping makes it seem more important and The Alchemist’s production is superb as always.
Choses Sauvages, Choses Sauvages II: Danceable, French-speaking electro pop band from Montreal.
Des Filles de Illighadad, Live at Pioneer Works: Small studio live album of drum-driven, multi-vocal, all-female French-speaking African Blues band from Niger.
Illuminati Hotties, Let Me Do One More: Punk-pop that continues a straight line from girl group to Go-Gos to 2021. While Sarah Tudzins is out front and gets most of the attention, she has great musicians as well. Fun live act if you get the chance.
Kacey Musgraves, Star-Crossed: Not my favorite of hers but it is a good view from the inside of a bad breakup. Songs like “Camera Roll” show she’s still one of the best chorus-writers ever.
Arlo Parks, Collapsed in Sunbeams: What a voice! Great jazz vocals and tunes. She’s got a gigantic future. If you’re like me and disappointed in Adele’s recent outings, check this out as a complement/alternative/”I found the next Adele” listen.
I’m always ready for new suggestions and friendly disagreements! Leave a comment if there’s something you loved that I should hear, if you hated these, if you’re over music, etc.