The List 2021
Even before the huge supply chain problems in the second half of 2021, the pop music world had been overdue for a slightly subdued year, which not even a pandemic could quench in 2020. The slight downturn in new releases in the first quarter seemed to indicate a breather year for 2021, though the sudden spring flurry of maniacal new British bands gave the whole year a much-needed kick in the pants. Still, the number of legitimate studio releases worth hearing dipped under 200 for the year as a whole, reinforcing the idea that things are cooling slightly. Indie rock and mainstream pop seemed healthy enough, but hip-hop was subdued – a great release from Little Simz, decent new works from Meek Mill and Doja Cat, middling works from J. Cole and Tyler the Creator, and a second posthumous release for Juice WRLD were the high points. And of course, supply chain problems made it next to impossible to find many physical products. The backlog at vinyl factories wreaked havoc on the singles/EP market, and made special albums (live works, compilations) a rare treat.
Farewell to Mike Nesmith of The Monkees, Robbie Shakespeare of Sly and Robbie, Steve Bronski of Bronski Beat, rapper Slim 400, writer and musician Greg Tate, composer Stephen Sondheim, Big Big Train vocalist David Longdon, Graeme Edge of The Moody Blues, Astro of UB40, Ronnie Wilson of The Gap Band, reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, blues singer Willie Cobbs, Jay & The Americans founder Jay Black, Bush Tetras drummer Dee Pop, Kool & The Gang founder and bassist Dennis Thomas, Andrea Haugen of Cradle of Filth, singer Julia Nixon, saxophonist Pee Wee Eliis, Labelle singer Sarah Dash, drummers Kenny Malone and Dave Harper as well as Stones drummer Charlie Watts, Fritz McIntyre of Simply Red, Everly Brother Don Everly. folk queen Nanci Griffith, songwriter Tom T. Hall, Paul Cotton and Rusty Young of Poco, Dusty Hill of ZZ Top, singer Chuck E. Weiss, rapper Biz Markie, fiddler Byron Berline, John Lawton of Uriah Heep, Ben Harper’s bassist Juan Nelson, pop singer B.J. Thomas, rapper Lil Loaded, radical folkie Patrick Sky, rock critic Ed Ward, Shock G of Digital Underground, Les McKeown of Bay City Rollers, rapper DMX, Bunny Wailer of The Wailers, Montrose singer Bob James, pianist Chick Corea, Matt Harris of The Posies, songwriter/producer Phil Spector, Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers, Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls, and composer/producer Sophie. I can’t help but feel at times that they might be the lucky ones….
Regular Studio Albums, 2021
1. Circuit des Yeux, -io– Another bid at perfection after Reaching for Indigo . It astonishes me that more people don’t have Haley Fohr on the top of their lists.
2. Low, HEY WHAT – Over 25 years, Alan and Mimi have always managed to grow and expand and surprise the listener. The biggest surprise here is that they have added many experimental elements, yet are more popular than ever.
3. The Accidentals – Vessel – Traverse City’s finest young folk-rock band shifts back to independent production, and comes up with a real winner.
4. Squid, Bright Green Field – There are at least five new British bands in the “new maniacal wigged-out British invasion,” but my top money rides on Squid. Dry Cleaning and BCNR are right behind them, though.
5. Dar Williams, I’ll Meet You Here – Like Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast, Williams is becoming as well-known as an author as she is a folk musician. It’s a good thing she hasn’t given up on the latter occupation, as this is her best collection of new songs in at least a decade.
6. Torres, Thirstier – An exciting emergence from lockdown from one of our finest guitarists and lyricists.
7. Black Country New Road, For the First Time – Out of the new pack of British manic bands, BCNR has the most math-rock elements in its delivery. The sophomore album is already due out in February 2022.
8. Big Red Machine, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? – The cast of Dessner Brothers, Bon Iver, Taylor Swift, Anais Mitchell, and Jack Antonoff almost makes this album seem too top-heavy, but BRM delivers.
9. The Weather Station, Ignorance – This might be considered Tamara Lindeman’s breakthrough album, at least for the U.S. market. And what a wonderful one.
10. The Hold Steady, Open Door Policy – Craig Finn finally achieves unity between his solo work and The Hold Steady band. This one’s dark and surly even as it stresses its party ethic – perfect for a post-pandemic Hold Steady.
11. Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg – Some find vocalist Florence Shaw to be too deadpan to fit in with the exuberance of the other members of the new British invasion, but after repeated listens, you’ll probably appreciate her approach.
12. Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee – Now that she’s a best-selling author, Michelle Zauner had to step up her JB project in arrangement and execution. She did, and then some.
13. Lucy Dacus, Home Video – The EP released just before lockdown gave us a hint at what Dacus was up to, and she delivers the goods here.
14. LUMP, Animal – Laura Marling’s second outing with Mike Lindsay is such a step ahead of the first LUMP album, it approaches the quality of Marling’s solo albums.
15. SPELLLING, Turning Wheel – It’s hard to describe what Chrystia Cabral is up to with her SPELLLING project – think of a highly orchestrated Kate Bush adventure in Betty Boop-land.
16. The Dodos, Grizzly Peak – Some indescribable “wow” factor places this album ahead of The Dodos’ previous seven. Every track is great.
17. Black Midi, Cavalcade – This may be lowest of the British-mania bands, but on some days, Black Midi is my favorite example, just because the band ventures all over the place stylistically.
18. St. Vincent, Daddy’s Home – Not sure why Annie got middling reviews with this one. Side 2 in particular is exquisite.
19. Guided by Voices, Earth Man Blues
20. Guided by Voices, It’s Not Them, It Couldn’t Be Them, It Is Them – Another year with two near-perfect GbV releases. Pollard makes it look so easy. And now he’s back to leg kicks, too.
21. Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime – Finally, a shift to Matador Records has given Tuareg guitar a wider audience.
22. Julien Baker, Little Oblivions – Baker rocks out in lusher fashion in her third studio outing.
23. Faye Webster, I Know I’m Funny Ha Ha Ha – Billie Eilish and Adele have both adopted smoky nightclub delivery in their latest outings, but Webster does the sad chanteuse best of all.
24. Bleachers, Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night – Jack Antonoff is gradually becoming as good a rock band leader as he is a producer.
25. Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – The fourth album by the British rapper confronts the split between public and private selves, which is more honesty than you’ll get from ¾ of the pop stars out there.
26. Geese, Projector – A new Brooklyn quintet that turns out to be just as wonderful as the hype.
27. Aimee Mann, Queens of the Summer Hotel – What a concept, an orchestrated and soundtrack-like interpretation of Girl, Interrupted, talking frankly of women’s mental health. It’s Aimee, of course she can pull this off.
28. Lana Del Rey Chemtrails Over the Country Club
29. Lana Del Rey, Blue Banisters – Yes, it’s her second and third since Norman Fucking Rockwell (fourth if you count the album of spoken-word poetry), and no, she isn’t flagging yet. Great writing, great delivery.
30. Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever – Even if she startled with her blond tresses and sad bluesy delivery, this album worked.
31. The Mountain Goats, Dark In Here – It’s useful to think of this as a trilogy for lockdown, along with Getting Into Knives and the acoustic Songs for Pierre Chauvin. John Darnielle has remained at his peak since the mid-1990s, which is quite a feat.
32. Lingua Ignota, Sinner Get Ready – The world needs a more sacred version of Diamanda Galas, and Kristin Hayter is the real deal.
33. Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future – Shabaka proves in all three of his bands that a 21st-century equivalent of Art Ensemble of Chicago is alive and well, and Sons is more on top than Comet Is Coming.
34. Halsey, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power – So many pop singers went sullen and dark in a pandemic year, and so did Halsey despite the new baby. But it works, particularly with the NIN production.
35. Adele, 30 – Hey, she took just the right steps post-divorce to make relevant music, though at times the expanded 70-minute version of this album goes a little over the top.
36. Illuminati Hotties, Let Me Do One More – Sarah Tudzin has a lot more to offer the world than a great band name. An album that is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking.
37. James McMurtry, The Horses and The Hounds – McMurtry comes back from several years in the wilderness with perhaps his best work ever.
38. Del Amitri, Fatal Mistakes – What a treat to have Justin Currie and the Glasgow gang back, exuberant but grimmer than in the 90s power-pop days. If the blatant songs about death don’t get you, try “Second Staircase.”
39. Rhiannon Giddens, They’re Calling Me Home – Her second experimental work with Francesco Turrisi, exquisitely imagined.
40. Chvrches, Screen Violence – The only way Lauren Mayberry could speak frankly about abuse and fame is to treat the album as a horror movie, which was a great idea.
41. The Cocker Spaniels, The Cocker Spaniels are Still Alive and So Are You! – Sean Padilla once again gives us ample reasons to keep going.
42. Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark – Arab Strap is back as the world needs more expertise in gloom, and that’s all you need to know.
43. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raise the Roof – Yes, it’s better than Raising Sand. Thank heavens for return engagements.
44. SAULT, Nine – The mysterious British R&B collective offers up their most mainstream work to hit a wider audience.
45. Mogwai, As the Love Continues – The Scottish music industry finally recognized Mogwai as one of its most important resources. Another fine album from our favorite crew.
46. Dawn Richard, Second Line: An Electro Revival – Perhaps because she uses space themes a la Janelle Monae, Richard seems more interesting to me than Black women singers like Yola or Valerie June.
47. J. Cole, The Off-Season – J. Cole proclaims himself not a political spokesman, and gives us an album largely centered on basketball. Cool enough!
48. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, God’s Pee at World’s End – If you thought that every other instrumental majestic piece GYBE had ever released was apocalyptic in nature, this time they mean it, man.
49. Pom Pom Squad Death of a Cheerleader – Everyone seems to love Olivia this year, but few give credit to the woman who really defines high-school punk pop, Mia Berrin. In addition to many funny moments, she covers “Crimson and Clover.”
50. IDLES, Crawler – I was ready to scorn this album as being full of Joe’s usual bombast, but you know what? It’s actually very good, maybe the best IDLES album.
51. The Killers, Pressure Machine – Brandon Flowers has crafted a very listenable and heartbreaking concept album about opioid abuse in small Midwestern towns. When The Killers decide to get relevant, they are very capable.
52. Six Organs of Admittance, The Veiled Sea – I picked up four LPs in the Three-Lobed 20th anniversary series this year. Pelt, as a live album, is listed separately in Specials, Body/Dilloway/Head ranks a little lower, Sunburned is Sunburned, so that leaves Ben Chasny with best of series.
53. Olivia Rodrigo, Sour – There are no doubt many of you who are wondering why an obvious teeny-bopper ranked so high with many critics. Admittedly, I don’t have her in my Top Ten, and I get a little tired of hearing “Driver’s License,” but this album is nevertheless a whole lot of fun.
54. Wilderado, s/t – This is a charming Tulsa alt-country band that have hints of Del Amitri and Coldplay in their sound, along with an expected Son Volt or Wilco.
55. Clairo, Sling – Another one of the single-name sincere pop singers who you simply can’t afford to ignore.
56. Emma-Jean Thackray, Yellow – One of the bright new stars in free jazz, and one who adds elements of space fantasy and funk to her mix.
57. The War On Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Any More – I usually think of Adam Granduciel as being a bit grandiose in trying to recreate the 1970s, but in this one, he gets the mix just right.
58. Wolf Alice, Blue Weekend – A downright rapturous indie-rock-with-female-singer album.
59. Sleigh Bells, Texis – Why does everyone think Sleigh Bells is falling victim to formula? I think this represents Alison’s broadest leap from mega-beats since the band’s first album.
60. The World Is A Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Illusory Walls – Seems like the band set out to make its fourth album a summing up of all that had gone before, and it turned out very nicely indeed.
61. Tori Amos, Ocean to Ocean – A beautiful ode to loneliness, resilience, and pandemic visions.
62. Son Volt, Electro Melodier – Jay Farrar continues with the fierce political tirade of Union, albeit with a little more hope for redemption.
63. Sarah Jarosz, Blue Heron Suite – This might belong in Specials, as it’s a limited-release grant-driven piece for her mother. But since it’s a studio album, here it shall remain. Breathtaking in its minimalism.
64. The Joy Formidable, Into the Blue -- Ritzy Bryan has a way of constantly taking us to the well and bringing us back more treasures to prove her guitar-angel status.
65. Valerie June, The Moon & Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers – This might have been higher, except for two issues: the neo-Motown approach doesn’t sit as well with me as her older traditionalist stuff, and the mindfulness and meditation theme is a bit woo-woo.
66. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Barn – An impressive, loose collection of ten songs recorded in a Colorado barn, though given Neil’s output of archival works in 2021, it would be easy to miss.
67. tUnEyArDs, Sketchy – This is sort of mainstream for Merrill Garbus, but if that expands her audience…
68. Body/Dilloway/Head, s/t – Many Sonic Youth fans were ecstatic to see Kim Gordon and Bill Nace collaborate with Aaron Dilloway. Nice idea in theory, but there was a lot of noise tomfoolery going nowhere.
69. Esperanza Spalding, Apothecary – I applaud Spalding for always adding enough experimentalism to keep the music from drifting into MOR lite jazz.
70. Courtney Barnett, Things Take Time, Take Time – This is Barnett doing rough-cut, lo-fi songs appropriate to breakups and pandemics.
71. Aeon Station, Observatory – Kevin Whelan crafted a nice piano-driven album with hints of Rundgren. Thing is, this was supposed to be the next Wrens album. Rest assured, there will be no more Wrens albums now.
72. Marissa Nadler, Path of the Clouds – A delicious concept album about forgotten mysteries and people who vanish, it integrates her earlier freak-folk and murder ballads styles with her more advanced folkie styles from the past five years or so.
73. Tyler the Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost – A lot of people say this is an opportunity for Tyler to reclaim mix tape culture, but given the stunning nature of his last few works, it seems like a placeholder.
74. Snail Mail, Valentine – A lot of people are excited about the sophomore Snail Mail album. Certainly good, but not stunning.
75. Lake Street Dive, Obviously – Sort of a placeholder, as a founder quits, and the rest of the band seeks new direction.
76. Tindersticks, Distortions – An intriguing and eclectic collection of Stuart’s spoken-word pieces, lengthier jazz-influenced numbers, and just interesting Tindersticks offerings.
77. Nobody’s Girl, s/t – The Austin trio lived up to the promise of a first EP with this debut full-length. Great songwriting throughout.
78. Doja Cat, Planet Her – Definitely a fine self-produced hip-hop effort for her third album, but the Grammy nomination for album of the year is a little perplexing.
79. Hiatus Kaiyote, Mood Valiant – I think of this band the way I think of Khruangbin – although there’s an island vibe, it’s hard to peg the music, and a little too self-referential.
80. Yola, Stand for Myself – The incredible stylistic diversity of this album is both its strength and its weakness. Yola can work with a multitude of styles, but still needs to find a center of gravity.
81. Brandi Carlile, In These Silent Days – I always like approaching a new Brandi album, but the writing is often eclipsed by others in the Americana field.
82. Kacey Musgraves, Star-Crossed – Sort of a similar reaction to BC. Musgraves was brave enough to write about the split of an apparent great relationship, but the album as a whole didn’t match her last one.
83. Serpentwithfeet, Deacon – Josiah Wise is on a quasi-religious mission to tell young Black men it’s OK to express queer politics in art. There are hints of a Moses Sumney sound here, albeit without the grandiose sense Sumney sometimes uses.
84. Modest Mouse, The Golden Casket – We could joke about what a lazy devil-may-care Isaac Brock is in middle age, but the point is, he realizes it, and Modest Mouse’s latest material has quite a bit of wry humor.
85. Current Joys, Voyager – I only recently discovered the cult fan base of Reno songwriter Nick Rattigan. Reminds me a little of the early days of Will Toledo and Car Seat Headrest. Nick’s work may not grab me as much as Will’s, but I’d like to see Current Joys in the 2022 visit to Denver.
86. Parquet Courts, Sympathy for Life – As a longtime PC fan, I’d have to agree with many fans who were slightly confused with the band trying to make a “downtown dance” sort of album. But in a post-Covid environment, PC needs to give NYC all the joy that can be mustered.
87. Willie Nile, The Day The Earth Stood Still – Leave it to Nile to give us a topical pandemic album that really has some thought and compassion behind it.
88. Xiu Xiu, Oh No – I thought I would cringe at Jamie’s efforts to make a sort of “Duets” album of the experimental and strange, but guests like Haley Fohr and Sharon Van Etten make this project work.
89. Ani DiFranco, Revolutionary Love – There are many reasons for respecting where Ani wanted to go with this bid for radical change through mindfulness and love. The songs didn’t always carry the important message, though.
90. Manchester Orchestra, The Million Masks of God – Even when Andy gets all spiritual, the results are usually fine.
91. The Goon Sax, Mirror II – This Melbourne, Australia band has a wonderful otherworldly quality and a great beat.
92. Maia Sharp, Mercy Rising – A fine set by a worthy Nashville songwriter.
93. Cub Scout Bowling Pins, Clang Clang Ho – A Guided by Voices side project that was interesting in its own light, but paled next to the two albums released by GbV proper.
94. Bomba Estereo, Deja – Many critics loved this for the environmental consciousness in the tunes, though the tracks didn’t grab me as much as earlier albums.
95. My Morning Jacket, s/t – Jim James has gotten the band back together with many hybrid styles on display, but not a lot of memorable tunes.
96. Morly, ‘Til I Start Speaking – An interesting singer-songwriter album from a woman formerly known for trip-hop EPs. Still trying to figure out her center of gravity.
97. BadBadNotGood, Talk Memory – Perhaps the most traditionalist jazz album the band has made, but traditional in the 1970s ECM style, which is not a criticism by any means.
98. Death From Above 1979, Is 4 Lovers – The duo have always been a rowdier take on The Black Keys, and this album is a good math-rock meets EDM experiment.
99. Meek Mill, Expensive Pain – A decent enough fifth album, but no great strides forward.
100. Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey, Our Back Pages – Every time The dB’s founders get together, the world benefits.
101. Holly Macve, Not the Girl –- Macve is in a transitional period from being a British Patsy Cline imitator to becoming a Nashville original, and she carries the ball forward on this sophomore album.
102. Sleater-Kinney, Path of Wellness – I’ve reconciled myself to S-K as a duo. This may be ranked low, but there’s a lot to like here, despite all the calls for an S-K boycott.
103. Grouper, Shade – Normally, I’ll be a strong advocate for anything Liz Harris releases, but this seemed to be a bit formless and meandering.
104. Cloud Nothings, The Shadow I Remember – So I’ve always liked this band, and I find Dylan Baldi’s songwriting intriguing, so why did I find a new offering from, say, Dodos worthy of Top 20, while this one was down low? Sometimes, the difference is something difficult to put into words. But Cloud Nothings fans will find a lot to like here.
105. Heartless Bastards, A Beautiful Life – Three cheers to Erika Wennerstrom for keeping up the positivism in a Covid year.
106. PACKS, Take the Cake – Plenty of people think PACKS is Canada’s future of indie rock. I like Madeline Link’s style, I like the looseness, but the gauzy nature reminds me of Yo La Tengo or The Feelies, which means my mind can wander at times.
107. Deerhoof, Actually You Can – Nice to see the goofy experimentalists in Deerhoof make a plea for positivism and activism in the wake of the pandemic. Problem is, the band has been so prolific of late, it’s hard to give all releases proper due.
108. Martha Wainwright, Love Will Be Reborn – I’m always rooting for Martha as being more interesting than her brother Rufus or father Loudon. Problem is, this album is sort of romantic and OK, but not a lot to stick to the ribs.
109. Azure Ray, Remedy – I’m a huge fan of Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink, and I look forward to any reunion of Azure Ray. This one had interesting songs, but nothing that hits the listener.
110. Garbage, No Gods No Masters – Some might say Shirley Manson is lost in time, not really 1990s or 2000s or now. But these are some of the best songs she’s penned in a while.
111. The Wandering Hearts, s/t – An exceptional folk-rock/country sophomore album from this UK group.
112. Lorde, Solar Power – The intention of addressing alternative energy and climate change is real, but the songs are languorous and sort of formless.
113. Black Dice, Mod Prog Sic – It’s great to have NYC downtown dance band Black Dice back in action, but in recent years, folks like Parquet Courts and Gang Gang Dance have entered their territory, making it hard for Black Dice to keep differentiation.
114. The Besnard Lakes, The Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings – Since previous albums have delved into jazz and chamber sounds, this seems more mainstream prog-rock, but still fun.
115. Niam Ni Charra, Donelly’s Arm – Ireland’s greatest traditional fiddle and squeezebox player is back with a decent album seeking inspiration from all over.
116. Sturgill Simpson, The Ballad of Dood and Juanita – It’s apparent what Simpson was trying to do here, show empathy on immigration and border issues with a post-Civil-War tale of star-crossed lovers, but it turned out a bit corny.
117. Durand Jones and the Indication, Private Space – The band remains the best implementers of the Motown revival out there, all while offering original songs. But interest can wear off.
118. Houndmouth, Good for You – The shapeshifters on Indiana shifted to an EDM sound, now they’re back to indie folk-rock storytelling again. Whew.
119. Teenage Fanclub, Endless Arcade – I’m waiting for a 21st-century TF album to hit me with even a fraction of the power of Bandwagonesque. Still waiting.
120. Sunburned Hand of the Man, Pick a Day to Die – An argument can be made for putting this live album in Specials, though as part of the Three-Lobed 20th Anniversary series, I kept it here (funny thing, I put Pelt in Specials). It’s been a long time since a Sunburned release, and I love their antics, but all those releases tend to run together over time.
121. Anna Egge, Between Us – A long-neglected New Mexican/Canadian songwriter cooks up an impressive new batch of songs. Pay attention!
122. Iceage, Seek Shelter – Many folks lump this Danish band with the oddball side of indie rock, but they’ve always sounded pretty traditional to me.
123. Blanck Mass, Inferneaux – I’m beginning to prefer Blanck Mass solo releases to the Fuck Buttons duo.
124. SUUNS, Witness – A lot of people love SUUNS, but I found this release merely OK.
125. Lotic, Water – J’Kerian Morgan, living in Berlin and releasing ethereal EDM/R&B under the name Lotic, gets a lot more humane and less scary in this new release.
126. Billy Bragg, The Million Things That Never Happened -- I am infinitely glad Bragg is still offering radical anthems, but on this 13th album, he asks if he as an aging white cis man has outlived his usefulness. I hope people listen to the introspective Bragg.
127. Kool & The Gang, Perfect Union – Ironic and sad that, as soon as this lively and relevant reunion album comes out, founder Dennis Thomas dies.
128. John McCutcheon, Bucket List – Apologies for the low ranking for this fine message of resilience and survival. Like Billy Bragg or Willie Nile, McCutcheon shows us how to remain an activist and keep smiling.
129. The Stranglers, Dark Matters – it’s good to know The Stranglers have renounced their 1970s misogyny to put their politics in the right place. It’s even better to see their commitment to memorializing departed keyboardist Dave Greenfield.
130. Split Single, Amplificado – Jason Narducy of Superchunk heads up this supergroup with Mike Mills of REM and John Wurster of The Mountain Goats. Fun.
131. Foo Fighters, Medicine at Midnight – As is often the case with Grohl and the gang, the idea of a new FF album sounds good, but you forget the songs a day later.
132. Crowded House, Dreamers Are Waiting – Kudos to Neil Finn for coming back from a Fleetwood Mac tour, reassembling Crowded House, and kicking out a fine offering.
133. Shakespeare & The Blues, e.g., Rhapsodic – An intrigiung debut from a New Orleans experimental trio melding jazz, classical, and hip-hop.
134. The Hushdrops, The Static – The Chicago supergroup finished this album just before drummer Joe Camarillo passed away, which might make this the last Hushdrops album – but what a legacy.
135. Kings of Leon, When You See Yourself – The Followill brothers told us this would be a creative reassessment, but the most memorable thing about the album was the art’s release as an NFT.
136. The Vaccines, Back in Love City – A worthy effort to be sure, but somewhat stuck in early 2000’s polish.
137. Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones, Here to Tell – The 2020’s sorely needs rockabilly this spirited.
138. Lucero, When You Found Me – Ben Nichols seems subdued here, an occupational hazard for a shitkicker band.
139. Wanderlust, All a View – The Philadelphia 1990s power-poppers are back, and it’s as though nothing has changed.
140. The Muckers, Endeavors – An interesting young band trying for a hybrid of 1970s styles. Infinitely better than Greta Van Fleet.
141. Lizzie & The Makers, Dear Onda Wahl – Nice to hear a NYC band with such respect for old-time rock and roll.
142. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, New Fragility – The ranking on this one might lead you to think Alec Ounsworth has released yet another mediocre album, but this actually has fine moments.
143. Mega Bog, Life and Another – I should find Erin Birgy’s whimsical experimentalism delightful in a Faye Webster sense, and I do, but she jumps around all over the place.
144. Chad VanGaalen, The World’s Most Stressed-Out Gardener – VanGaalen has always been on my list of oddball singer-songwriters, but the charm seems worn a little thin here.
145. Natalie D-Napoleon, You Wanted to be the Shore But Instead You Were the Sea – This Australian songwriter recorded an album in a Santa Barbara chapel, with raw and excellent results.
146. Davendra Banhart, Refuge – The problem here is that Banhart, whose charm is waning for me, elected to do an ambient album, which runs the risk of being a snoozefest.
147. Penelope Trappes, Three – A nice chunk of experimentalism.
148. The Jenny Thing, American Canyon – A 1990s one-hit indie wonder returns with some solid new material.
149. Fly Pan Am, Frontera – Nice to have this Godspeed side project back, though the compositions are middling.
150. The Bronx, VI – Hard rock? Indie rock? Good in any event.
151. Brigitte Demeyer, Seeker – Another fine album by a Nashville writer delivering in a Bonnie Raitt vein.
152. Juliana Hatfield, Blood – Every now and then, this 1990s idol delivers with works far superior to well-known songs like “My Sister.” This album isn’t up at that level, but it ain’t bad.
153. Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Dance Songs for Hard Times – The title says it all. This year and this decade sorely need more whoop and holler.
154. Ty Segall, Harmonizer – So shoot me, most of Ty’s work fails to grab me.
155. I See Hawks in L.A., On Our Way – Maybe the most traditionalist of the Hawks albums, which is not a bad thing.
156. Hayes Carll, You Get It All – Carll called this one his return to country roots, but the physical copies of this album are so hard to find, it will be hard for him to expand his audience.
157. Tommy Womack, I Thought I Was Fine – Tommy Womack is such an oddball, self-centered storyteller, it’s hard to know whether to slap him up or thank him for his frankness. Which is sort of the point.
158. The Hobbs Sisters, Turn It On – Some great Nashville country fun.
159. Beach Fossils, The Other Side of Life: Piano Ballads – Hey, good for this Brooklyn indie dream-pop band for trying something new, but piano ballads?
160. Anika, Change – I admire this British-German writer for her work in poetry and political journalism, but her music is standard dance-pop.
161. Badge Epoque Ensemble, Scroll – The fourth album in less than 18 months from this new Toronto jazz-funk group, worth a listen.
162. Cruzados, She’s Automatic – A rock blast from another era, refreshing but oddly dated.
163. Bluhauz, s/t – An interesting new blues artist.
164. Carlos Nino and Friends, More Energy Fields – I know many fans who swear by Nino’s music, though it seems a bit hippie-trippy.
165. Jackson Browne, Downhill From Everywhere – It pains me to say that there are only a couple of redeeming moments here. It mostly sounds like Browne is getting tired.
166. Lionlimb, Spiral Groove – The project of Stewart Branaugh has lots of interest violin and cello things going on.
167. Three Pairs of Boots, Long Rider – An interesting and independently produced country duo.
168. Brijean, Feelings – Brijean Murphy and Doug Stuart are certainly one of the more interesting Bay Area duos, though the music can be too ethereal at times.
169. Divine Horsemen, Hot Rise of an Ice Cream Phoenix – Chris D of Flesh Eaters has had a side project going with Julie Christensen since the 1980s, but this is the first new Divine Horsemen in a while. Definitely worthy moments here.
170. Richard X. Heyman, Copious Notes – One of Heyman’s most frank and honest works.
171. Bat Fangs, Queen of My World – Because of their roots in Ex-Hex, many folks want to treat this Baltimore/DC duo as though they’re the saviors of women’s rock. In both albums, I’m hearing mostly shades of Heart or Joan Jett, which I don’t find terribly interesting.
172. Keith Kenny, Lifetime Ago Motel – New Jersey bard Keith Kenny would like to bring back hints of SoCal rock, meaning both the lyricism and the riffs. His second album, a divorce album, is the ideal vehicle for that.
173. Son of the Velvet Rat, Solitary Company – Another slice of indescribable strangeness from SVR.
174. Dwayne Dopsie, Set Me Free – A nice bit of Zydeco accordion.
175. Jon Klages, Fabulous Twilight – Klages has genuine roots in Hoboken punk and indie, and this comeback has some fine moments.
176. Lanterna, Hidden Drives – The concept of hidden geographical spaces is a good one, but the instrumental music here is just sort of so-so.
Special Albums (Live, Compilations, Splits, CD-Rs, MP3, etc.) (Many straightforward re-releases this year, but not a lot of truly unreleased new works. The combined reissue of Radiohead’s Kid A/Amnesia almost fit here, but not quite.)
1. Prince, Welcome 2 America – The first release from the Prince vaults, this is a fully-realized 2010 concept album that did not see the light of day until last summer. A fine work.
2. SLONK, Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years? – and the Whole Recorded Works -- This one goes in Specials for two reasons: 1. The 2021 studio album, Where Do You See Yourself, is only on cassette and download for now; and 2. The band offered its entire four-hour back catalog for download at the end of 2021. SLONK deserves a sacred place in the annals of new British crazed bands.
3. Pharoah Sanders, Floating Points, and the London Symphony Orchestra, Promises – I’m not even going to be petty enough to get into arguments as to whether this album constitutes an advanced form of sampling or not. It’s great, who cares how its sound is manipulated?
4. Arca, kick ii, iii, iiii, iiiii – Those who considered kick I a kick in the head, the electronic experimentalist Arca has taken on the ambitious task of releasing four themed albums in different subgenres, all mind-blowing to absorb.
5. Juice WRLD, Fighting Demons – A second postmortem collection, timed for the second anniversary of his death in 2019. No discernible decline in quality, in fact, the collaborations with the like of Justin Bieber and Suga of BTS might indicate this was too commercial. But there will be odds and sods from the amazing Juice WRLD gracing us for some time to come.
6. Various Artists, I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground’s VU and Nico album – Just when you think there’s been far too many tribute covers of VU and Lou Reed, along comes this album, timed with the documentary on Apple TV, filled with musicians like Courtney Barnett and Sharon Van Etten (and even a rare appearance by Michael Stipe).
7. Lera Lynn, Live and Unplugged at Vinyl Tap – One of Nashville most underappreciated artists ended up with the best album out of the Record Store Day Black Friday event.
8. The Beths, Live in Auckland 2020 – A live album in a large concert-hall venue in 2020 was a rare thing indeed, but New Zealand locked down early and was able to move back to full concerts early. Who better to spotlight than Auckland’s favorite indie pop band? The set list may be a little too structured, but the music is first rate.
9. Steve Earle, JT –It’s always heartbreaking when the parent survives the child, but when Steve, who’s already given us a couple tribute albums of covers, has to do one for his departed son Justin Townes Earle, it’s all kinds of tragic and all kinds of beautiful.
10. Pelt, Reticence/Resistance – As part of the Three-Lobed 20th anniversary album series, this live performance from the mighty Pelt, at Café OTO in 2017, has been unearthed. It’s been a long time. Here’s hoping Pelt will grace us with more, and that this wasn’t just a one-off.
11. Lilli Lewis, Americana – Lewis weaves so many modern and traditionalist elements on this sort-of-debut album, it could be considered a standard studio effort, were it not for the throwbacks that make “Folk Rock Diva” so indescribable. Besides, she gets a higher ranking this way.
12. Hassan Ibn Ali, Metaphysics
13. Hassan Ibn Ali, Retrospective – How special that a former colleague of John Coltrane was rediscovered, and his 1965 unreleased music turns out to be astounding.
14. Blanck Mass, Mind Killer Live – Unlike with the audience sounds of The Beths, there’s not an easy way to tell this was a live album, except the spontaneity. But this comes close to being better than Blanck Mass’s studio work, Inferneaux.
15. Aerosmith, 1971, The Road Starts Hear – Another RSD Black Friday hidden gem, these are tapes of Aerosmith performances prior to their recording contract. Rough-cut and fun.
16. John Coltrane, A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle – Since live performances of A Love Supreme have been included in deluxe newer editions of the album, does this standalone live album serve a purpose? Oh yes.
17. Moses Sumney, Live from Blackalachia – Sumney could have released a live album from locations like the Hollywood Bowl, but because he decamped from L.A. to Asheville in 2017, it made perfect sense for him to release a live album from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Transcendent as fuck.
18. Richard Hell, Destiny Street Complete – Since Hell’s 1982 release was overshadowed by the earlier Blank Generation, many people don’t own even a single version of Destiny Street. This double-CD set contains four different versions of the album.
19. Explorer Tapes, s/t – Two buddies from Dallas were going to make a great duo, and even had Keith Urban record one of their songs, but their January 2015 sessions stayed on a shelf somewhere until now. Still sounds fresh nearly seven years later.
20. Neil Young, Way Down in the Rust Bucket – Neil’s other two live releases in 2021, Live at Carnegie Hall 1970 and Young Shakespeare, were official releases of former bootlegs, so they didn’t really count. But this one was a real oddity – a November 1990 live album for a Ragged Glory tour, one that had the dangerously unsettling feeling of the Arc/Weld days.
21. The Melvins, Five-Legged Dog – A two-disc re-interpretation of covers and Melvins originals, but definitely not a Melvins unplugged.
22. Sarah McQuaid, The St. Buryan Sessions – Cornwall folkie McQuaid recorded several originals and covers in an empty Cornwall church in the height of Covid 2020. A beautiful set
23. Peter Stampfel, Songs of the 20th Century – A multidisc compilation of Stampfel (of Holy Modal Rounders and Kweskin Jug Band fame) interpreting one song from each year of the last century. One would think that the 1920s and 1930s would be closest to his style, but Stampfel’s interpretations of 1980s pop hits is fascinating.
24. David Olney and Anna Kaye, Whispers and Sighs – Songwriter David Olney left the world in early 2020, and this was his last recording, realized with young East European chanteuse Anna Kaye in 2019. A fascinating tribute.
25. Warpaint, The Fool Remixed – A Record Store Day 2-LP oddity features an early Warpaint album remixed to the point of being a genuine new work.
26. The Rubinoos, The CBS Tapes – Some unreleased goodies from this new wave/power-pop band that didn’t get a lot of credit in the late 1970s.
27. Harry Dean Stanton and the Cheap Dates, October 1993 – Yes, Stanton was a musician as well as an actor, and had fun playing in a lot of session and bar bands around L.A.
28. Alex Chilton, Boogie Shoes: Live on Beale Street – There’s always new Alex Chilton material to dredge up, and this is better than most, but the more I hear of what a total dickhead Chilton was to others, the less I care about memorials.
29. The Mumps, Rock and Roll This, Rock and Roll That – Perhaps the definitive collection of Lance Loud’s punk band.
30. Laura Nyro, Live in Japan
31. Laura Nyro, Go Find the Moon – After all the accolades for Joni Mitchell, Karen Dalton, and countless other 1960s heroines, it’s nice to see the outpouring of love for Laura Nyro. Her original studio albums were reissued in 2021, and a 1994 live recording in Japan was unearthed, along with early demo tapes prior to her contract signing. The former may be a little Hollywood-ish, the latter rough cut for fans and completeists, but hooray for it all.
32. The Palace Guard, All Night Long – The former garage band of Emitt Rhodes gets a collection of its own.
33. Clifford/Wright, For All the Money in the World – Doug “Cosmo” Clifford of Creedence Clearwater Revival envisioned this band as a supergroup of sorts in 1971, but the original recordings ended up in Cosmo’s Vault. They were finally re-engineered and mastered and released. More from the vault, please!
Singles and EPs
1. Wet Leg, “Chaise Longue” – Of course the Amish surrealists deserve top spot, having taken the world by storm. Yes, there was a physical release prior to their April 2022 debut album, a 7” single that sold out in seconds, and is now fetching $60 to $80 on Discogs and eBay. Ya snooze, ya lose.
2. Jorja Smith, Be Right Back – One of the most stunning R&B singers in the world right now graces us with a brief but powerful 8-track release that belongs in EPs due to its brevity. Can’t go wrong, though.
3. Skylar Gudasz, “If I Were a Carpenter” – A stunning live rendition of the Tim Hardin song.
4. Angel Olsen, Aisles – As we wait for the imminent Angel/Sharon duo work, here’s some 1980s covers that are all kinds of fun.
5. Torres, “Making Memories” – A fun single featuring Keith Urban and Nirvana covers.
6. Sons of Kemet, African Cosmology – A fantastic 12” single adjunct to the Black to the Future album.
7. Spoon, “Wild” – The 7” preview of the 2022 Spoon album proves there’s life in Brett yet.
8. Death Cab for Cutie, The Georgia EP – Covers of Georgia artists to benefit progressive Georgia politicians. I can get behind that.
9. Cole Quest, s/t – Arlo Guthrie’s nephew weighs in with some decent and lively bluegrass.
10. Janet LaBelle, Suddenly – An exciting songwriter worth your attention.
11. Billie Eilish, “No Time to Die” – Probably one of the most essential James Bond movie title soundtracks.
12. Okay Kaya, The Incompatible Okay Kaya – The Kaya Wilkins equivalent of a mixtape, and given Kaya’s inherent weirdness, plenty of fun to hear.
13. Habibi, Somewhere – A brief offering from the psychedelic girl-group Habibi.
14. Ian Jones, The Evergreens – A placeholder EP of tunes that are reminiscent of Jackson Browne.
15. Sam Gelaitry, IV – Cool beats from the Scottish producer.
16. James DiGirolamo, Paper Boats -- A session musician for Alice Peacock offers up a 21st-century version of yacht-rock.