My Top Ten Albums of 2021
I like music. That may be an understatement, actually. I desperately need music. I write to it. I edit to it. I just sit and play it, work out to it, everything.
I also don’t stream music. Nothing against people who do, mind you. I just like to buy my music, a mix of mp3s and CDs. I don’t do vinyl because, honestly, I grew up at the end of vinyl and then rebought things on cassette and then CD and I can’t go backwards. I just can’t. That’s me. Again, however you listen to music you should enjoy it. I get albums and tend to think of music in terms of albums not singles more often than not. Which is why I am not doing the Top Ten Songs.
I digress mightily!
This year, for the first time, I actually tracked all the music I bought in a year. I plan to keep it going, so hopefully I’ll do this again next year.
Now understand this isn’t what I consider the best music of the year, this is my Top Ten Albums That I Personally Purchased (or got as gifts) This Calendar Year. I had to work out what best meant in that context. For these purposes it meant things I reached for more often than anything else.
A bunch of it did not come out this year. I mean I spent some time this year digging into Elton John’s old catalog, you know? But still, I ended up with 70+ albums this year soâ€¦yikes. In my defense some of that is sets where you get like “All 5 albums for one low price” sort of thing but really, I have no reason to defend myself. Anyway!
I did my best to link to where you could hear/buy each album yourself, be it Amazon, Bandcamp, a linktree landing site from the artist themselves, whatever. Also I added a YouTube video of a song off each album.
And so here they are in no particular order, because I can’t order them further than just picking my ten faves.
They’re angry at the bullshit in the world, they’re in their 40s, and they’re in the UK. The two of them (Jason Williamson on vocals and Andrew Fearn on, well, music) produce what they refer to as “minimalist punk-hop” which is a I suppose as good a way as any to describe what they do. They make music, with lyrics, that reflect how sick to fuck they are with the world, and they’re also funny. What more could you want?
LPX, who is also half of MS MR, manages to ride this gleeful, animated edge of pop/rock right up into just enjoying what’s going on. This 6 song EP is just a lot of fun, and a bunch of slightly different angles on where pop can go while still sounding classic, but new. There’s a rawness here, mixed with a delightful splash of both self-consciousness and awareness of same that interplay wonderfully.
K. Flay is one of those amazing artists I tripped over through some mangled bit of luck back when her first album dropped. So far every release has been an outgrowth from the last, in an emotional arc of being more and more yourself over time. Which is kinda amazingly cool, let’s admit. Also she can cut apart the world with a lyric, understands a killer beat and can hold down the guitar end of things in ways that make it make sense that Tom Morello guests on a track. The heart of any K. Flay project though truly are the lyrics which are so wonderfully emotionally honest they tell a story in the song and resonate out into the audience magically.
Somehow I had never run into Vulfpeck before this year. Which makes no sense to me. I mean I love funk and seek out new funk at every turn. Yet somehow I found obscure French funk before I ran into Vulfpeck? Absurd! But eventually the universe righted itself and I came to know Woody Goss, Jack Stratton, Theo Katzman, Joe Dart, and Cory Wong. Each of them is a superb musician in their own right, with Wong and Dart utterly top of any class you include them in. Goss writes amazing music, Katzman is a force of his own, and Stratton is a mad genius pulling everything together. They do jazz/funk/whatever they feel like, at a level most people take lifetimes to achieve.
I found Slothrust on at a listening station at the store (Music Millennium is the place to hit in Portland if you didn’t know) and decided to give them a listen based, honestly, on the name. I wasn’t sure what to expect, in terms of genre or anything else. Their brand ofâ€¦I suppose it’s indie rock, with ballads mixed in and that sounds fairly standard, but they have lyrics that are both randomly absurdist and deeply perfect. I’ve been a huge fan since and this latest album has some of my all-time fave tracks they’ve released.
Blanco – City of God (Amazon)
This mixtape is a hell of a thing. Built off Brazilian funk, Blanco’s flow always come across measured – fast but never hurried, slow but never static. Filled with references, and guests across the entire affair, City of God starts as something special and becomes something approaching transcendent across its runtime.
So this is a strange one, with a bit of history. Let me explain that first: The album was originally released as the soundtrack to She’s The One. It contained a bunch of songs that were going to be on Wildflowers, but couldn’t fit, as well as some other stuff and bits of movie instrumental tracks that had nothing to do with anything. When Wildflowersâ€¦And All The Rest came out, it stole back the tracks that belonged there, and then they went and stripped out the movie instrumental stuff and put the extra minute of so back in Angel Radio. After that four more tracks, unreleased until now, were added. The result is the full picture of the missing piece of a puzzle. If you listen to Wildflowers and then The Last DJ it can be a bit jarring. This is the album that goes in between them, that shows the transition from one to the next in tone. It’s a gorgeous set of tracks, and feels complete for the first time.
Modern dance music came from disco. A lot of it went toward electronica first and there are, of course, endless permutations. But the best stuff remembers that disco came out of funk (which came out of soul and all three, again, have endless permutations). Dua Lipa understands the power of funk, and disco, and merges them both with more modern forms of dance music to get something that hits the exact note of the title of the album, and the title track itself. The end result is an album full of great beats and bass lines, that is just fun to put on.
There’s a wealth of history evident in Black Pumas. From top to bottom there’s a metric tonnage of 60s and 70s soul going on here, but it doesn’t feel as if it was unearthed in a time capsule, somehow it manages to still feel fresh and new, while also being knowledgeable about the past. There’s an evocative quality to the guitar tone, to the hi-hat, and the keys as they pull power from their own roots, pushing them forward.
Charles Mingus – Mingus at Carnegie Hall [Deluxe Version] (Amazon)
The original release of this concert album was good, but this one blows the doors off it by including an extra 70+ minutes of music from before the main show began. If you don’t know Mingus, this may not be the best place to start, but if you know anything of his music well this is a treat. The horns trade off and show off, while Mingus is being himself, at times in the background quietly amazing everyone. Stunning jazz from a group of musicians at their height.
Well that’s all ten. Guess we should…oh damn it, no this is me, I couldn’t stop at ten could I? I figured “Maybe I’ll list a runner up or two” and then I had six and well I could pretend to be surprised but I won’t lie to you. So we’ll run through these quick.
AnÂ Anatolian rockÂ band fromÂ Amsterdam, Altin GÃ¼n fuses Turkish folk music with rock, adding funk to the mix as they go. If that doesn’t grab you, I’m not sure what could.
Lauren Jenkins – Miles on Me part 1 (Amazon)
About a year after her first EP No Saint (which would’ve been here if I hadn’t heard it last year), Jenkins got dropped by her label. Madness. Anyway, this is her first EP since, four great country songs, which will, given the name, obviously be added too. Hopefully soon.
Elton John – Madman Across the Water (Amazon)
Oh come on, do I ever have to say anything about this album? Sure you may feel sick of Tiny Dancer and Levon, but in their proper album context they come alive again. And that’s without getting into everything else on the album which also sparkles.
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle (Amazon)
A 1965 previously unknown recording of Coltrane. No, really. That’s everything that needs to be saidâ€¦well except that it isn’t exactly full-on amazing quality, there are bits of, you know I’ll call it character, to the recording, but they don’t damage the listening experience at all. And it is an experience, even if you know the album, and other recordings of it.
Dense, organ-fueled, and lively, this energetic jazz brushes alongside funk and classic sounding guitar riffs to bloom fully into a soundscape that scratches an itch you may not have even known you had.
Rhapsody – Laila’s Wisdom (Amazon)
Lyrically impressive, and technically solid as hell, this 2017 album pinned Rhapsody down as a major talent. The album itself delves both into social and political rap as well as sliding into a more R&B edge when the mood arises. Over the course of the runtime it exposes itself as a truly engaging and tight album.