Favorite Albums of 2021
Lucy Dacus - Home Video: A solid record top to bottom, full of witty and cutting songwriting that grows on you the more time you spend with the album. I dig the fuzzy guitars that sit in the background on many songs, and there's a lot of snappy production that amps the catchiness of the songs.
Floating Points & Pharaoh Sanders featuring The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises: This record has been heralded as signaling a revival of "ambient jazz" in a lot of press - and here's hoping. Pharaoh Sanders has been on regular rotation for me the past few years (I highly recommend his 1969 yodel-infused "Jewels of Thought"), but this was my introduction to Floating Points. Turns out, the blend works perfectly: the movements here are well paced and the crescendos are far more raucous than the moniker "ambient jazz" might suggest. This is a great record to read by.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor - G_d's Pee AT STATE'S END!: Godspeed never disappoint, and while their newest is not a huge departure from their prior work, it is also probably the most accessible record they've made in the past decade or so. "Job's Lament" is as solid a track as anything found on their legendary late 90s/early 2000s records, and the band successfully revisits some of their favorite sonic indulgences without it coming across as a rehash or self-parody.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Georgia Blue: I was a small bit dubious about this record as much of Isbell's appeal is his songwriting and lyricism...and this is a covers album. There was no reason to worry - the songs selected are all excellent and, more interestingly, many of the best tracks are those where Isbell is relegated to backing vocals and/or guitar. Brittney Spencer crushes it on a jammy version "Midnight Train to Georgia", the acoustic-driven REM covers are all a fan could hope for, and 400 Unit member Sadler Vaden brings the rock on "Honeysuckle Blue".
Olivia Rodrigo - SOUR: In a weird way, this record reminds me of Hootie and the Blowfish's "Cracked Rear View". Like that record, almost every song on the album became a single. Like the sound on that record, Rodrigo's sound contains a near-perfect blend of currently popular genres...these songs play easily across radio formats, most tracks can fit in well with many kinds of playlists, and the lyrics speak to fairly universal themes. Well-deserving of all its accolades and success!
Nala Sinephro - Space 1.8: If "Promises" above was my go-to album to read to last year, this one has become my go-to album for writing. The two records share an ability to create a kind of "sonic landscape"/"wall of sound" effect, but Sinephro's album deviates a bit more from the standards of the genre as these tracks are a bit more distinct (they don't flow in quite the same way). Similarly, the production makes the performances feel focused and "close" - like you are in a small club where everyone is listening so intently you'd hear a phone vibrating in someone's pocket from across the room.
Jazmine Sullivan - Heaux Tales: My favorite hip hop record from last year, Sullivan incorporates an impressive range of styles and ideas into a genre-splitting, fire-spitting, ear-catching series of statement tracks. Standout tracks include "Pick Up Your Feelings" and "On It" (featuring Ari Lennox), but there's no filler here. Sullivan's writing is also quite powerful - she can turn a phrase and drop a line with startling intensity, and the immediacy of the experiences and ideas she presents were pretty much unmatched in anything else on this year's list.
Turnstile - Glow On: Heavy riffage and tight production come together in this genre-spanning take on punk, and the band's ability to pack a bunch of compelling ideas into a 1-2 minute song make this one worth coming back to again and again. Standout tracks include "Blackout" and "Alien Love Call", but there's not a throwaway track amongst the 15 that make up its ~35-minute runtime. If this is the direction that punk music takes this decade, count me in.
The War on Drugs - I Don't Live Here Anymore: On this record, The War on Drugs continue their infatuation with a specific style of 1980s synth-infused rock and roll (think of Bob Dylan and Tom Petty's work of the era), and the results are once again gripping. I'm a sucker for the noodling jams and muted crescendos that pervade most tracks, and they are an easy path into this record...ultimately, though, it was the shimmery production juxtaposed with rainy-day misanthropy that kept me coming back to this one a lot this year.
Wiki - Half God: Wiki strikes me as a fairly unique rapper in a landscape that, to my aging ears, is a welcome stylistic departure in a genre that seems to be increasingly turning out artists that adhere to similar approaches. In contrast to much of the stagnant rap I heard this year, Half God offers a minimalist production that focuses the listener on Wiki's insightful lyrics and the stories he wants to tell, many of which are worth hearing.
Honorable Mentions: Adele- 30, Elton John - The Lockdown Sessions, Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band - The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concert, R.E.M. - New Adventures in Hi-Fi (Deluxe Reissue)