in Top Ten

Unlike the past few years, 2021 didn’t particularly feel like a stand-out year for music. The easiest thing to blame this on would be the (still) ongoing pandemic, which continued to disrupt the ecosystem of the music industry in various ways, from artists having to cancel already-rescheduled live dates to indie labels having trouble getting their vinyl releases pressed. It was a year that had a lot of good albums, but only a handful of great ones. Also, it was a year where music felt less essential as we got further into it and we humans felt a little more free to go out and do things with other humans instead of hiding in our homes and hoping a good collection of songs could give us some comfort. Yet here we are, tucked back inside our homes with the cold weather and another wave of the virus raging, while these albums still feel like a suitable respite from it all.

Honorable Mentions:
Adele – 30
The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take
Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR

10. Laura Stevenson – Laura Stevenson

I was originally planning on putting Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR — arguably the biggest album of last year — on this list but instead decided to slot something in just a little more under-the-radar. My first point of reference for Laura Stevenson is that she’s buds with Jeff Rosenstock, a guy who I’ve written about on this blog probably more than anyone needed me to. However, Stevenson’s music isn’t really in the same universe as Rosenstock’s pumped-up brand of indie punk, which makes it all the more surprising that she’s been a constant collaborator with him for more than a decade. Stevenson’s music rides this nice line between the depressiveness of indie-rock and the sweetness of introverted Americana. It makes for an album that feels a little schizophrenic at times, but is carried through by Stevenson’s beautiful sense of both sincerity and austerity.

9. Madlib – Sound Ancestors

Much like Betty White in 2021, we lost a real one in MF Doom on New Year’s Eve 2020. This started me on a 2021 journey of not only exploring the discography of Doom, but also that of perhaps his most famous collaborator, Madlib. I’m not sure I would’ve fell for an album so out of my comfort zone without these circumstances, since I found myself in a bit of an underground hip-hop mood early in the year even if it’s still a world that’s pretty foreign to me. But Madlib and collaborator Four Tet make this mostly instrumental album into something undeniably informed by beat-making, but that also weaves in so many genres of music that it’s a little hard to categorize. Whatever you want to call it, it makes for good background music to groove to, but also has so many weird little things going on throughout it that even this categorization also seems futile.

8. Kacey Musgraves – Star-Crossed

An album that got less love than its predecessor for its decidedly more downbeat take on love. Perhaps I wasn’t disappointed by Star-Crossed because I knew that it would never reach the blissed-out highs of Golden Hour, and honestly, the fact that it’s such a counterpoint to that album feels like much more of a strength than a weakness. Maybe not every track on Star-Crossed has the immediacy of Kacey Musgraves’ earlier albums, but the more pulsing, laidback nature of it suits Kacey well. While the songs are pretty chill overall, the fact that she keeps seeing how she can push her songs into the realm of pop while being a consummate singer-songwriter is a joy to hear in spite of all the album’s heartbreak. Here’s to hoping that I’ll miraculously get to see her live in late January or whenever the date gets rescheduled to if things come to that.

7. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

What are you supposed to make of a hip-hop album that begins with marching snare drums that precede symphonic horns that are then accompanied by a swelling choir of voices? I think the answer is to just go with it. In my recent review, I talked about how Sometimes I Might Be Introvert was an album I wish I had spent more time with but was intimidated by its length. Though at 65 minutes, it’s not that long. Maybe with such ambitious production, conceptual interludes, and Simz’s increasingly autobiographical rhymes, its epic nature makes it feel longer than it is. Either way, it doesn’t seem like a lot of UK hip-hop has really crossed over to the U.S., but Little Simz already feels like the kind of rapper willing and able to do it, even if the polish of this album feels a little out-of-step (or ahead of the game) in comparison to the weird post-trap environment U.S. hip-hop finds itself in.

6. Snail Mail – Valentine

I would’ve never connected Snail Mail’s Valentine and Adele’s 30 as being similar if I hadn’t reviewed them back-to-back on this blog a few weeks ago. But, despite them existing in the disparate worlds of guitar-driven indie rock and piano-driven ballad pop, they do both feel like reflections on relationships seen from both the beginning and the end of your 20s. Though, for the messy emotions being investigated on Valentine by the still only 22-year-old Lindsay Jordan, there is a remarkable poise and confidence that she manages to pull off here. It’s not an album that’s all that more ambitious than her break-out debut, but with the amount of rawness and honesty put into these songs, it doesn’t really need to be.

5. Illuminati Hotties – Let Me Do One More

This can’t possibly be true, but Let Me Do One More kinda feels to me like the only “feel good” album of 2021. Or at the very least, it’s able to be a lot of fun while not shying away from the fact that it’s impossible to have fun while not being cynically aware of how fucked everything is. Basically every time I popped on album opener “Pool Hopping”, I couldn’t help but say a little “fuck yeah” to myself even though it would’ve been nice if I’d been able to listen to this song and the rest of the album during the more optimistic days of early Spring and Summer instead of early Fall. But either way, nothing can stop Sarah Tudzin from rocking her way through an album of “all rippers” that often slows down for a dreamy ballad that’s far from a “skipper”.

4. The Weather Station – Ignorance

This album shouldn’t be as listenable as it is, but for some reason, it was always an easy one to put on throughout the year. The Weather Station’s Ignorance is very much about the anxiety and dread of climate change, and it sounds like it. There’s an iciness to it that feels a little detached and impenetrable, and yet there’s also something quite delicious about the grooves it spins. It’s a bit of an unlikely sound to hear something so jazzy coming from singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman, who on her previous releases seemed like she was chasing Joni Mitchell’s folk years and now (in a very Joni way) sounds like something else entirely. It’s an album that just washes over you like a cool Canadian breeze and leaves you looking to the future with a sense of persistence that has just a tiny bit of hope hiding somewhere between its airtight instrumentation.

3. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

It sure was nice to have what felt like the kind of tentpole indie rock album we used to get all the time in the late ’00s/early ’10s. It was also nice to see it happen to someone like Michelle Zauner who paid her dues in Philadelphia’s indie rock trenches for quite some time. I’m really glad I got to see her at one of her homecoming shows in Philly (at a venue that she once worked the coat check for) even despite the fact that it was shortly after the Delta variant emerged and ended up being the first time I remember having to show my vaccination card to get into an establishment. Anyways, not much of that has to do with Jubilee, which I would say is Japanese Breakfast’s best release yet — a lush, beautiful little pop album that can feel intimate one moment and grand the next. This is perhaps best personified by album closer “Posing For Cars”, which shows Zauner pulling off a magnificent guitar solo in addition to the many other things she effortlessly pulled off this year.

2. Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales

Oh hey, another Philly artist. This is an album that I couldn’t help but keep returning to, even if its subject matter wasn’t particularly applicable to my life. Namely, that it’s mostly a concept record about the emotional toll that dating takes on Black women. But the fact of the matter is, everything on Heaux Tales just hits so hard that it’s hard to deny its brilliance. Sullivan’s voice is both a little unusual for the world of modern R&B while there’s also something virtuosic about it, able to convey all of the songs’ varying emotions with crystal clear precision. The confessional interviews it parses throughout the album (or EP as it’s officially regarded) are surprisingly non-skippable, as they all seem integral to each song that they lead into. Also, they’re so heartwrenching that they just add to Heaux Tales‘ ability to pack a whole bunch of heartbreak into this concise package.

1. Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview On Phenomenal Nature

“I’m a three-legged dog, working with what I got.”

Man, if that doesn’t sum up 2021, I don’t know what does. With lyrics like “new year, new you, same me” and “this year, it’s gonna be a good one” I often forget that this album wasn’t actually written to be about living in the wreckage of 2020, but it still has always felt that way to me. In fact, much of the album was written as a response to Cassandra Jenkins’ brief interactions with David Berman, who she was about to tour with after he’d recorded one of my previous number 1 albums, and before he’d take his own life. It gives An Overview On Phenomenal Nature a feeling of trying to find calm in chaos, and for that reason, this album was a great one to listen to in the mornings, when the chaos of the world felt a little quieter.

There’s no better song that embodies this than “Hard Drive”, a gorgeous if unusual meditation on nature, talking to strangers, and learning to drive in your 30s. The album has kind of an unusual shape to it, with some songs being pretty polished little folk songs, and some being little more than sweeping sax-based ambiance. But again, that feels pretty par for a year as weirdly structured as 2021, while nearly a year after An Overview of Phenomenal Nature‘s release it still feels like a great album to listen to while embracing that new year and new you, even if neither ever come to fruition.