in Review

Here goes the third part of my look back at some of the music from 2021 as we (terrifyingly) have almost reached the halfway point of the year. These are the albums that came out in the past month or two, so I probably don’t have fully formed opinions on all of them. But at the very least, I’ve given them enough spins to know that I like them.

St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home

Like Level: Kinda Liked It

There haven’t been a ton of high-profile indie rock releases this year, but you know a new St. Vincent release is always one to look forward to. Despite the fact that her last album Masseduction may have been my favorite release from Annie Clark yet, lead-off single “Pay Your Way In Pain” didn’t have me overloaded with anticipation for Daddy’s Home. Though “The Melting Of The Sun” had me a little more intrigued with its more melancholy and anthemic approach toward the very glammy ’70s sound that Clark is embracing on this album. Fortunately, a lot of the album has this somewhat downbeat, silky vibe, covered in funky grooves while Clark ruminates on her past and occasionally her father who was recently released from prison (for white collar crimes), as the album’s title hints at.

Yet for whatever reason, I can’t quite put this album in the same league as St. Vincent’s past few albums, which have been remarkably consistent. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot to enjoy about this album — Clark’s weepy guitar work combined with producer Jack Antonoff’s reproduction of funk and disco-era pop music makes it worth a listen alone. Though there’s just something missing here. I think it has to do with the fact that while St. Vincent always felt indebted to a lot of art-rock from the past, she never seemed to overtly indulge homage and has always felt like her own full-formed, singular entity. But by indulging homages to sounds of the past so closely here, I feel like what has made St. Vincent such a force for so many years gets lost a bit.

It’s not a dissimilar feeling from the one I had hearing Lana Del Rey’s latest album, which was another Jack Antonoff production. As I mentioned, the way he weaves different sounds of the past together on this album is hard to take issue with, but there’s also a part of me that wonders if he should only work with artists for one album and then let them go do something else (it sure paid off for Taylor Swift). I also get the sense that it’s become a little less cool to like St. Vincent now for reasons that I understand, but also seem a little sexist to me. I’ll admit I was a little bummed that Janet Weiss left Sleater-Kinney, possibly due to the direction that St. Vincent steered them in while producing that album. What’s more ridiculous is that there’s this sense that for an artist with indie roots, St. Vincent has become too oversaturated and too mainstream (though I don’t remember people complaining when Bon Iver and Tame Impala also started working with pop stars).

Anyways, Daddy’s Home is a pretty good album (if not quite a great one) and I think Annie Clark should be appreciated as one of the very few 21st-century rock stars we have. I’m also realizing I probably should have written a full-fledged review of this album since I clearly have a lot of feelings about it. Oh well.

Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime

Like Level: Really Liked It

Here’s an album I have less to say about, since I have very little knowledge of music similar to it, but I’m glad it found its way to me. Mdou Moctar is a Nigerian artist who apparently does a more modern take on Tuareg guitar music, a kind of guitar-based “desert rock” forged by the Muslim Tuareg people of Saharan Africa. Moctar’s origin story is truly the stuff of legend, as he grew up in a rural village and was inspired to craft his own guitar after watching YouTube videos of Eddie Van Halen. Then after forming his own band, his music started to become popular through fans sharing phone data cards, which apparently is a popular form of cultivating music in West Africa.

There’s no way I would’ve ever stumbled upon Mdou Moctar’s latest album if it hadn’t been released on prominent indie label Matador. I’m noticing a trend that some of the more prominent indie labels are signing artists that aren’t just bands made up of white people from Brooklyn/Philadelphia (shout out to Serpentwithfeet’s Deacon and Dawn Richard’s Second Line). As a disciple of Van Halen and Hendrix, Moctar is clearly a natural guitar savant, though he uses his guitar playing to construct songs that are much more than just vehicles for shredding. A lot of the songs are rooted in traditional West African folk music, but also presented in a form that’s something resembling rock, and is therefore quite palatable to a schmuck like me.

Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR

Like Level: Kinda Liked It. Even if listening to it makes me feel like Steve Buscemi.

Look, I am too fucking old to be listening to this album. But then again, so are a lot of millennials who ended up listening to Olivia Rodrigo’s debut. Some of this is probably due to the fact that our generation wants to still feel young by listening to what all the zoomers are soundtracking their TikToks to. Some of it, however, has more to do with the fact that Rodrigo displayed a disarming ability to craft a well-observed heartbreak ballad with singles “driver’s license” and “deja vu”.

SOUR strays a little bit from the moodier sounds of these singles, as her rock-ier influences here are a bit surprising, or at least they were before “good 4 u” became such a ubiquitous single. As you could probably guess, I am happy to see that “good 4 u” is the first smash single in what feels like forever that legitimately feels like rock music and perhaps gives me some hope that guitars will make their way back into mainstream music. In the same way that this song makes Rodrigo’s Paramore influence apparent, other songs show that she’s also a big fan of Lorde and Taylor Swift. You would think that with these influences made so easily discernable, the music would feel derivative. But somehow, Rodrigo is able to paint such a vivid portrait of teenage angst that it all feels remarkably singular.

Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

Like Level: Liked It? I Loved It!

As a fellow Philadelphia transplant that hails from the Northwest, I was already rooting for Japanese Breakfast frontwoman Michelle Zauner, but her banner 2021 has made it even easier. Jubilee is another album that was recorded pre-pandemic but got its release pushed back, though it serendipitously coincided with the release of Zauner’s memoir Crying In H Mart, which I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and is about as great as this album is. That memoir, like much of the first two Japanese Breakfast albums, is inspired by the death of Zauner’s mother and the cloud of grief that shrouded its aftermath. However, she’s made it very clear that Jubilee is an attempt to close the door on that period and start to embrace joy in her music.

That became more than obvious with “Be Sweet”, the album’s delightfully dance-y lead single, and carries into several other songs on the album as well. There are still moments of spacey reflection throughout many of the songs, which doesn’t make the album feel like a complete left turn from her earlier work. While those albums saw someone reaching for grandiosity on an indie budget, here Japanese Breakfast pulls off a very big, emotional sound that you don’t hear enough these days. It’s just one of the best-sounding albums of the year, but does it by collecting a lot of different peculiar pop sounds that don’t seem like they should meld together as nicely as they do here.

Sleater-Kinney – Path of Wellness

Like Level: Kinda Liked It

Now we bring things full circle by returning to the topic of Sleater-Kinney’s 2019 St. Vincent-produced album, The Center Won’t Hold. In the wake of that album, longtime Sleater-Kinney member and drumming juggernaut Janet Weiss quit the band, leaving Corrin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein to pick up the pieces and forge a way forward. I don’t think I expected them to come back with an album so quickly after one so fraught with tension, but it seems that there was something a bit therapeutic about Path of Wellness, as it was recorded not only in the aftermath of Weiss’s departure but also last summer as their native Portland was being torn apart by some of the nation’s most intense Black Lives Matter protests.

That said, the album is therapeutic less in a confrontational or emotionally direct way, but more as a way of Tucker and Brownstein finding some sense of normalcy by doing what they do best. This is by no means a big leap forward for the band, and that’s kind of ok. Path of Wellness relies on the gripping way Tucker and Brownstein manage to tangle both their guitars and vocals around each other that’s off-kilter and comforting at the same time. They both sound like they’ve found a way to center themselves without Weiss, though the irony is that all of these songs feel so well-suited to her heavy rhythms that you can’t help but wonder what she would’ve brought to these songs.