in Review

My prediction for 2021 was that it would be an off-year for music, not unlike 2020 was for movies. While music is a medium that (especially now) can be produced by one person at home, it typically thrives on collaboration, which we didn’t have much room for in 2020 or early 2021. So it was hard for me to imagine that a lot of artists would be able to go into the studio and record new music while also abiding by covid protocols. While this does seem to somewhat be the case, considering there haven’t been nearly as many hotly anticipated albums as there were last year, 2021’s still been no slouch.

Some of this has been due to the fact that a few high-profile albums that were already gestating for a while got released this year after delays. But also, music is just such a vast, universal art form that there’s always going to be good stuff to discover. I would say this has been the theme for my 2021 listening, as I’ve definitely ended up listening more to artists that I either hadn’t heard of or had somewhat ignored for a while. I’ll admit that Spring/early Summer is usually the time when there seems to be a new great album from an artist I love coming out every week, and that isn’t quite the case this year. But again, there’s still been some good stuff coming out recently in addition to the other discoveries that have made this year worthwhile so far.

Also, since streaming has made it rare that I end up spending much time with albums I don’t like these days, I’ll forgo using star ratings for these albums in exchange for arbitrary “like”-ness ratings.

Madlib – Sound Ancestors

Like Level: Really Liked It

One of the earliest musical projects I set out for myself in 2021 was getting more acquainted with the rapper MF DOOM, whose death was announced on New Year’s Eve 2020. Perhaps DOOM’s most lauded album is 2004’s Madvillainy, which DOOM collaborated on with producer Madlib. So after going deep on MF DOOM, it only seemed natural to go a bit deeper on Madlib, who coincidentally had an album come out early this year. Sound Ancestors is mostly instrumental beats that Madlib constructed with the help of Four Tet, though it’s a little hard for me to parse why the album is credited to Madlib alone.

Either way, I don’t find myself listening to instrumental hip-hop a ton, but this is some of the best I’ve heard. Madlib strikes me as a guy who always uses hip-hop as the framework of his beats, but is always open to incorporating all sorts of different genres. The music here is mostly dark and brooding and a little bit badass, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it mere background music to put on while you’re working. Which to be fair, I did plenty of. But Madlib and Four Tet throw so many fun little sound nuggets into each track that regardless of how close of attention you’re paying to these songs, there’s always something new for your ears to feast on.

The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy

Like Level: Kinda Liked It

I’m not certain that The Hold Steady are the band I’ve written about the most on this blog, but it sure feels like they are. I wasn’t necessarily ready for a new album by this typically raucous rock band in mid-February, when the idea of staying positive felt all-but-exhausted. However, Open Door Policy feels a little more suited for the feelings of the past year, even if the album was recorded just before the pandemic started. It’s often a darker and more restrained album than we’re used to expecting from these guys, who are now sporting a six-piece lineup that has seen Franz Nicolay — the keyboardist from the band’s glory years — return.

You can tangibly feel that expanded lineup on Open Door Policy, as the sound is a bit bigger and more varied than the strictly guitar-driven sounds of their last few albums. I’m not sure I like it quite as much as the band’s last album, 2019’s Thrashing Thru The Passion, which was their first after having Nicolay re-enter the band, but it does have the upside of being a lot more cohesive and unified than that album. It’s also the first time that it truly feels like Craig Finn has managed to blend the introspection and melancholy of his solo albums with the fist-pumping nature of his main gig. Maybe I dismissed it too much upon first listen, since as I said I wasn’t much in the mood for loud rock music in February, but it’s definitely sounding better to me now as the joy of a constructive summer is feeling right around the corner.

Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature

Like Level: Liked it? I Loved It!

You probably could’ve guessed just from looking at the cover of An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, but this is great, soothing morning music. It’s the kind of album that will ease you into the day and make you feel ready to take on the world even when the world’s a little too quiet to be taken on in any substantial way. You would think more melancholy folk-y albums would’ve worn out their welcome after this kind of music became a big part of wallowing in the sadness and stillness of 2020. However, as mellow as this music is, there is a kind of dreamy optimism that shines through, while Jenkins’ calming voice lets you know everything’s gonna be alright.

Perhaps the most striking example of this is “Hard Drive”, one of my favorite songs of the year. It’s not a song I would typically be inclined to go for, as spoken-word vocals don’t usually do much for me, as my inability to get into Dry Cleaning’s new album demonstrated. Though the way Jenkins weaves the spoken with sung vocals and lilting saxophones somehow manages to evoke the feeling of one of those long, existential drives despite Jenkins admitting she didn’t get her license until she was 35. At a mere 32 minutes, the album would probably feel like an EP if it wasn’t for its final 7-minute track, but something about its brevity also adds to it being a potent snapshot of a feeling that is very welcome this year.

Julien Baker – Little Oblivions

Like Level: Kinda Liked It

2020 was a big year for Julien Baker’s bandmate Phoebe Bridgers, but it’s hard to say if Baker and Lucy Dacus (who also has an album coming out this year) will ever get to quite that level. Regardless, it’s remarkable that at just 25, Baker already feels like a veteran of the indie rock world, which might have been a double-edged sword in regards to this album for me. While it is another very solid album from her, for whatever reason I haven’t returned to it as much as I would have thought.

Maybe some of this has to do with me being a little over listening to music as inherently sad as Julien Baker’s, though to be fair this is probably the sunniest she’s sounded yet. You know, comparatively. It’s also her most expansive record, as she’s playing with a full-on rock band here, while her first two albums were mainly built around her guitar or piano playing with some sonic flourishes thrown in here or there. Maybe it’s an album that will sound a little better in the colder months, but for now, it’s another very solid entry from a singer/songwriter who feels like she’ll have plenty to offer for years to come.

Yasmin Williams – Urban Driftwood

Like Level: Really Liked It. Well, for the kind of music it is.

Not sure if I’ve written about this before, but one byproduct of working office jobs (and work from home jobs) the past few years has been a need to find music to listen to in the mornings. This time of day for me has always called for more mellow music, willing to ease you into the day (not unlike the Cassandra Jenkins album). This has resulted in me listening to a fair amount of instrumental music this time of day, some of which is jazz, while a more recent artist that has scratched this itch is alt-country guitarist William Tyler, who quietly released another album last year in addition to scoring the movie First Cow.

Yasmin Williams is similarly an excellent guitarist in the same folksy/country vein as William Tyler, though her music is based a little more around her unusual acoustic playing than atmospherics. Williams supposedly was inspired to pick up guitar from playing Guitar Hero and oddly enough, that does seem to influence the way she approaches the instrument. It’s an odd middle-ground between standard acoustic playing and pedal steel where she has the guitar on her lap and relies on a lot of tapping. It makes for something that doesn’t quite sound like your typical acoustic playing but also manages to be soothing even in its unconventionality.

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  1. I’ll have to check a few of these out but mostly I’m just excited to see that you also fell in love with An Overview on Phenomenal Nature. It’s easily my most listened to album this year and just weird enough that I was worried other people wouldn’t be into it.