Best albums 2021

Over the past month I’ve read many reviews saying that 2021 was an especially great year for music. Given how much longer it took me to compile the following list, I would tend to agree, but we each approach our entertainment needs in different ways, and the ongoing pandemic, which I daresay didn’t expect to still be happening two years on, has definitely affected those needs. I only attended one offline concert this year, and it happened to be a festival, but a festival dominated by local acts and DJs from overseas, and as a result it felt constrained, as if the effort to make sure it went ahead at any cost destroyed the sort of freewheeling vibe that festivals are famous for. I didn’t particularly enjoy it.

But, then again, I’m not the ideal audience for that kind of music, and so I found my needs this year to be more primal, less mediated by any feeling that I should search out skills and an original imagination. On my initial short list there were four punk albums, only one of which was discarded when I finally arrived at my final 18. It wasn’t so much a substitute for the headbanging pleasures I chiefly derived from live performances, but more of an acknowledgement that forced isolation had made my head an uncomfortable place in which to dwell. The visceral charge that good, dedicated punk rock can deliver made me forget myself, pulling me through some bad stretches of doubt and despair over my work, which has mostly vanished—or, at least, the paid kind has. Of course, eventually you have to return to this life, but I wasn’t turning to music to escape life. If anything, the purpose was to reaffirm that I still had my health and am relatively secure financially, which may sound like odd conclusions to arrive at from listening to people play songs. The point was to provide a jolt of meaning to an existence that had become even more sedentary than usual.

Looking over my list now, I realize that the meaning I sought was more purely musical than in past years. My top pick is in a language I don’t understand, and so the drama presented was purely felt on my part. I notice that the list is particularly light on hip-hop, which I’ve always approached intellectually, despite some DJs who really know how to whip up a storm. Yes, it was a good year for music, because I opened up more to pleasure for the sake of pleasure. 

1. Seis, Mon Laferte (Universal): The award-winning Chilean singer-songwriter has lived in Mexico for 15 years, but this is the first record where she fully explores the native styles of her adopted home, and she covers the entire range from rancheros to boleros with no drop-off in passion. Moreover, all the songs are original and many address Laferte’s prime concern, violence against women; and yet they sound even more timeless—not just steeped in tradition but fully inhabited. Her duet with veteran pop star Gloria Trevi on an older Laferte tune, “La Mujer,” is the sound of two divas competing to see who can be more florid and melodramatic. They almost destroy each other in the process.

2. Spare Ribs, Sleaford Mods (Rough Trade/Beat): Andrew Fearn’s beats have become less minimalist and Jason Williamson’s vocals more melodic, but the real reason their new album soars above their previous work is the accuracy of their vision, which has been focused to a laser point by COVID. Whether railing against hapless Tories, describing the unbearable heaviness of existing in a council flat, or beating back the consumerist monster at their door, the duo knows whereof they rant, especially when they reconnect with their youth and turn nostalgia mercilessly back on itself. Moreover, you just can’t fail with the baddest bass lines in the UK.

3. Comfort to Me, Amyl and the Sniffers (Rough Trade/Beat): Amy Taylor, the lead singer of this Melbourne punk band, makes a brief appearance on Spare Ribs spouting class solidarity with her disaffected hosts, but on her group’s second album she sticks to the personal, even when the personal is couched as an affront to capitalist dogma. But don’t mistake her self-reflection for angst. This is deluxe rock maximalism, stuffed to the gills with riffs that, while not necessarily fresh, are so confidently applied that no one dare challenge their authenticity. Standing atop the churning guitars, Taylor deploys enough vocal snarl and spit to keep her prosaic take on life and lucklessness potent and engaging. “I’m short, I’m shy, I’m bloody ugly,” she screams. “Get out of my way!”

4. Smiling With No Teeth, Genesis Owusu (House Anxiety): Another Aussie, but this one was born in Ghana and thus has to put up with the othering his complexion provokes in white compatriots who insist they “don’t see color,” and which he describes vividly on a debut album that plants its flag in hip-hop but travels so freely through funk, synth-pop, jazz, and rock that it’s sometimes difficult to attribute it all to a singular voice. What unifies it is Owusu’s personality, assertive and self-possessed to the point where even his lighter, more comical moments add force to the primacy of his message. Most artists aren’t this compelling when confronting their trust issues, no matter how justifiable.

5. Juno, Remi Wolf (Island): Though she’s no longer a teenager, this former California downhill skier always sounds as if she’s hanging at the mall sizing up the competition, though beneath the shiny electropop beats a complex heart. She wants her listeners to just keep dancing even when she betrays the notion that she herself is no longer in it solely for the fun. “This just don’t feel quite like it’s supposed to,” she says while the vocal overdubs swirl and hoot happily around her. Legend has it that she could have gone the Billie/Olivia route but opted for a sound with a more overt populist appeal. In the process she ended up with something unique: pure pop for the developmentally arrested. 

6. New Long Leg, Dry Cleaning (4AD/Beat): Funny is as funny does, and everything about Florence Shaw, from the unaffected vocal tone to the penchant for testing unproven metaphors in front of paying customers, seems designed to draw hilarity, and while it accomplishes that to a certain extent it also draws the listener into a world that’s simultaneously quotidian and bizarre. Primarily a visual artist, Shaw doesn’t approach music as a peak to ascend, but rather as a landscape to wander through as she comments on the trees and the rocks and that hot dog, which, by the way, looks yummy. Consequently, the post-punk accompaniment has no purchase on her non sequiturs and the musicians wail or groove away regardless of what she’s saying. That it works this effectively is something akin to a miracle.

7. At Pioneer Works, Les Filles de Illighadad (Sahel Sounds): The publicity hook is that Fatou Deidi Ghali, the leader of this group of female musicians from a village in Niger, is the first woman electric guitarist in the Taureg tradition, which has come to the fore during the last decade in a big commercial way. What distinguishes Le Filles de Illighadad from groups like Tinariwen and solo shredders like Mdou Moctar is that the women still primarily operate in a folk idiom, with the guitar being secondary to indigenous percussion and call-and-response choruses. It is forthrightly communal music meant to bring people together, and this live recording, captured in a Brooklyn factory, is mesmerizing in its propulsiveness, which is achieved through vocal stylings that, while repetitive, never fail to surprise. 

8. You Get It All, Hayes Carll (Dualtone): Co-produced and, presumably, inspired by his partner, singer Allison Moorer, Hayes Carll’s latest album of personable, woolly country rock is by far his most tuneful and exuberant, even when he’s singing about things that should be bringing him down. Though his strongest suit has always been the wry, pitch-perfect ode to losers, usually contextualized in the first person (“To Keep From Being Found”), here his love songs make the biggest impression, and while it may be unfair to credit Moorer’s well-publicized personal tribulations to these compositions’ emotional power, it takes considerable artistic wherewithal to channel one’s own feelings about such matters into moving, affecting music. You literally will laugh and cry at the same time.

9. Heaux Tales, Jazmine Sullivan (RCA): The title of Jazmine Sullivan’s fourth album is hardly shocking within the context of modern r&b, though I initially found its recurring theme of money-and-sex problematic. The frank, emotional testimonies of real women scattered throughout the album as background to Sullivan’s stories of giving it up, either gratefully or grudgingly, for the trappings of comfort certainly make you think carefully about a (Black) female’s prerogatives when it comes to romance, but they still don’t prepare you for the songs’ frank survey of all the possibilities in play. That Sullivan can put it across as both a singer and an actress with minimal musical accompaniment is its own kind of testament, and provides you with sufficient impetus to keep diving deeper into this fraught, ambitious undertaking.

10. Welfare Jazz, Viagra Boys (Year0001): Swedes have developed a knack for lampooning Anglo hard rock without losing the plot of what makes Anglo hard rock work. Whereas the Hives took the piss on the show biz side of the garage rock revival, Viagra Boys look at the same genre and see the sexism inherent in not only the bands’ outlook but that of their male fans. The tricky part is exposing this sordid side of rockism while delivering the requisite excitement and not making you feel sick. Lead singer Sebastian Murphy’s sleazy growl, which should have stayed in Vegas, has a way of setting your teeth on edge as he tries to make amends for the dick he’s been, and the punkish funk of his mates only convinces you of his insincerity. Do I feel guilty for playing this shamelessly catchy album so much this year? Absolutely, but I made up for it by not listening to Van Morrison.

Those that missed the list

Let Me Do One More, Illuminati Hotties (Hopeless): It means nothing that I prefer her manic side to her depressive side, but in her case you can’t have one without the other.

To See the Next Part of the Dream, Parannoul: Though never a big shoegaze fan, I find the melodic/dynamic ingenuity of this mysterious Korean bedroom act endlessly intriguing. Kill me when it’s over.

Wilds, Andy Shauf (Anti-/Silent Trade): A concept album about a guy who pines after a girl he doesn’t deserve set to melodies he doesn’t deserve, either.

Vince Staples (Motown/Universal): Shorter and mellower, but with a bitter aftertaste that concedes its honesty.

Drama, Rodrigo Amarante (Polyvinyl): Tropicalia endures in this Brazilian bizzer whose shapeshifting approach to rock is best represented by his occasional forays into English, where he sounds almost ghoulish. 

State of Mind, Stiff Richards (Drunken Sailor): From what I hear, the standard bearer of Melbourne punk, Amyl notwithstanding, and it makes sense owing to their adherence to the basics and an unerring dedication to making everything sound as if they copped their riffs from Keif.

Vulture Prince, Arooj Aftab (New Amsterdam): Sufi vibe in the Brooklyn style. You decide if the presentation is spiritually derived or just beautiful to begin with.

How Many Times, Esther Rose (Father/Daughter): In a year practically choking on decent-to-great breakup albums, this New Orleans native’s contribution, based on sparse, sturdy arrangements and plainspoken vocals, may be the most subtly devastating of the bunch.

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