(The featured image comes from the best live performance of 2021: Final Fantasy XIV composer Masayoshi Soken’s rendition of the “La Hee” meme. You might need to hear the real song for context.)
For the second year in a row, I find myself feeling disconnected from the annual top 10 process. I can think of a few possibilities for that, and, first and foremost of them is the fact that I’m in my thirties now and therefore much less cool and getting lamer by the day. But also there’s still this whole thing going on and that prevailing despair definitely effects my mood. Plus, that situation means a lot of media is still getting delayed, cancelled, or changed as we learn to adapt – which ultimately makes the idea of confining years feel less essential than ever before. But now I feel like I’m getting all Neil deGrasse Tyson on you, so I’ll stop and say: check out some awesome music below!
Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take
Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
Lucy Dacus – Home Video
Nala Sinephro – Space 1.8
Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend
I’m giving Antonioni the local band bonus and pushing their self-titled album up from the honorable mentions into my top ten. It probably also helps that their name starts with an A, so they were always right at the top of my list when I was working on this. They also get special consideration because despite being the band’s debut album, it sounds like it will be their last as well. But the good news is that singer-guitarist Sarah Pasillas is still out here doing solo gigs and we’ll always have this one delicious collection of lofi power pop-y goodness. And they didn’t actually need all these advantages because I really liked this album and listened to it a bunch of times. And those are really the only two reasons any album should be on this list, right?
After Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon helped get me into Taylor Swift last year, we all knew Big Red Machine had to be coming back. After all, they both seemed to have a new project out every few months since the pandemic started (the weirdest must be that Bon Iver song with Bruce Springsteen, Jenny Lewis, and Jenn Wasner). So it’s not surprising this album exists, nor that it’s a surprisingly eclectic collection of collaborators and genres. Maybe the biggest shocker is how COVID-influenced the album is, right down to its title How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? and its first track invoking sheltering in place. I guess you could say it’s an album about a moment in time?
Porter Robinson is finally back! I love this kind of shoegazey electropop so I was stoked to finally have a new album, his second after 2014’s Worlds. I know I made the gap seem longer than I had to – Robinson has been putting out singles and EPs in the intervening years – but I can’t get out of the habit of pretty much exclusively listening to LPs. It kind of seems pretentious these days, like I’m demanding a cohesive artistic vision of an arbitrary length when the reality is that LPs became the norm just as much because that was a good way for labels to make money. But anyway, happy to have disgraced YouTuber Nick Robinson’s brother back and as good as ever. Love listening to these absolute bops about being sad!
I’m right there with Colin in that it doesn’t really seem like there’s anything interesting left to say about The War on Drugs. But you won’t hear me complaining, this is still only the band’s fifth album (and that’s if you count Wagonwheel Blues, which I sort of don’t). They’ve just perfected their particular brand of synthy anthems and I guess I’m just always going to be here for it. I think this is even better than A Deeper Understanding, and maybe even rivals Slave Ambient for the coveted number two position (Lost in the Dream stands alone). In conclusion, I just learned that Adam Granduciel has been in a relationship with Krysten Ritter for a while and they even have a kid together. I guess you could say “Don’t Trust the War on D—- in Apartment 23”?
Beloved dream pop duo Wye Oak are always a threat when it comes to my lists. Not only do Wye Oak albums basically automatically make my top 10s, both members are dangerous on their own. Andy Stack was also part of that awesome EL VY album back in 2015 and his solo debut as Joyero was one of my favorites in 2019. Meanwhile, Jenn Wasner’s showed up on Titus Andronicus’ seminal opus The Monitor, has been in Bon Iver for a bit now, was part of the extraordinary live album Sylvan Esso put out last year, and now has made the cut yet again with her latest album as her solo project Flock of Dimes. Taken alongside Joyero’s Release the Dogs, it becomes clear why Wye Oak are such an exciting collaboration. While Joyero was an outlet for Stack’s electronic genius, Flock of Dimes lets Wasner get back to her guitar-driven indie rock roots. That would be enough, but Head of Roses has a wider scope than that, as Wasner seems to try her hand at the type of music she was making with other bands – “Two,” for example, feels like it could have been a Sylvan Esso song. Basically, this is catnip for me.
In both his review and top 10 list, Colin sounded a little disappointed Valentine wasn’t more of a departure. I think Snail Mail did everything you want from a second album on Valentine: embrace a bigger, more complex sound, deal with deeper subject matter, keep what already worked. When I look at the picture of Lindsey Jordan on the cover, all I can think is that she’s just a baby! She was born in 1999 – the greatest year in the history of cinema – and was fielding dozens of offers from record labels before she even graduated high school. If she was a baseball player she’d still be in the minor leagues, years away from her MLB debut… Can you tell I’m just padding this paragraph out? This is good, you’ve probably already listened to it.
In the otherwise forgettable Tomorrowland, the villain laments that warning humanity about our impending annihilation was futile: “How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom? They gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair! They didn’t fear their demise, they re-packaged it. It could be enjoyed as video-games, as TV shows, books, movies, the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon. Meanwhile, your Earth was crumbling all around you… In every moment there’s the possibility of a better future, but you people won’t believe it. And because you won’t believe it you won’t do what is necessary to make it a reality. So, you dwell on this terrible future. You resign yourselves to it for one reason, because that future does not ask anything of you today. So yes, we saw the iceberg and warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway, full steam ahead.” While I disagree with the idea of putting the blame on everyday people (see: Joe Biden’s pathetic strategy against omicron, telling the people to “just Google it!”) I can’t help but think about this stupid movie every time I run into more apocalyptic media. And there’s a lot of it, seemingly more every year! So I try to remember the lesson of Tomorrowland, as stupid as that sounds: the problem isn’t ignorance, it’s cynicism. And thanks to The Weather Station, I have another piece of media that extols this virtue. And thankful, this album is a lot less embarrassing to reference than that movie.
Whether you think Left at London’s debut album stands for “There is a Place For You Here.” or “This is a Protest For Your Heart!!!” there is no doubt that she is reaching out to us listeners and trying to make a connection. Left at London is the stage name of Nat Puff, a Vine legend, who has been pretty open about her ADHD, PTSD, borderline personality disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and OSDD-1b. The epic opening track earnestly struggles with the inherent inadequacy of trying to solve psychiatric problems externally when all anyone can offer is “Pills & Good Advice,” but juxtaposes that resignation with a desperate, dangerous desire to be understood. The second track shows her identifying with obscure Washington congressman Marion Zioncheck, who had his own mental problems and ultimately committed suicide. But this is not an unhappy album, Left at London bears all this real shit in an act of triumph, not defeat. It’s quirky, it’s fun, it’s banging, it ends with her screaming “I lived bitch!”
Man, Soft Sounds from Another Planet feels like it came out a whole lifetime ago. It’s good to have Japanese Breakfast back, and even better that Michelle Zauner seems to be in a good place and writing such joyful music. I was curious about the persimmons on the cover of Jubilee and found this quote: “In a lot of East Asian cultures, they’ll hang persimmons. They start out as very hard, bitter fruit, and they mature over time and become sweetened, dried fruit. I liked that metaphor: of being a hard, bitter person who’s been put on display and that has matured over time and has allowed myself to get sweetened.” That’s awesome. Not only is the music peppy, the band is doing goofy things like re-recording “Be Sweet” for the cottagecore Sims expansion. Perhaps the biggest surprise was “Slide Tackle,” a song you could totally dance to and easily the track I’ve listened to the most from Jubilee. Also this is another album on my list that has two similarly titled tracks; “Posing in Bondage” and “Posing for Cars.”
If you haven’t heard it yet, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is seven tracks long. Here are my top seven most listened to songs of 2021. I don’t know why they’re not in the same order as on the album, but you get my point. And to be clear, those aren’t my most listened to tracks released in 2021, those are the songs I listened to the most out of all music in the last year. That’s how good I think Cassandra Jenkins’ sophomore album is. If I got a chance to interview Cassandra Jenkins, I would ask her what variant spelling of “Haley” she’ll use on her third album after she did a song called “Hailey” on this and already had a song called “Halley” on her first album, Play Till You Win. And then I’d ask her why songs about Norway, like her “Ambiguous Norway” and Beach House’s “Norway” always feel like they’re not really about that Nordic country. I would ask her dumb questions like these because I’m otherwise just gobsmacked by the titanic sonic achievement that is An Overview on Phenomenal Nature. From the humble beginnings of “Michelangelo” to the philosophical musings of “Hard Drive” (which endeavors to wring every possible meaning out of those two words) to the delicate wordlessness of “The Ramble,” this album always seemed to have exactly what I needed when I needed it. I’ve been obsessed with it since last February and I’ll probably still be listening to it come next February.