Best Albums of 2021

I am sitting here at my desk this morning in that sweet and sticky spot between various and sundry Thanksgiving and Christmas over-indulgences, while feeling a bit woozy from my COVID vaccine booster shot, received yesterday. (Get yours now! Protect the herd!) Given that weird and wobbly head-space here, it seems to be an apt time to write and post my annual Best Albums Report, both to satisfy my own obsessive list-making pleasures, and to hopefully offer something worthwhile to you, mine readers, as you build your own year-end playlists and anticipate the musical year yet to come before us.

This Best Albums Report marks the 30th straight year in which I have publicly offered such a list, either via online or traditional print outlets. Zoinks! I guess that means I’m getting old, on one plane, but I also think it means that I’ve (hopefully) gained some wisdom and perspective after doing what I do for as long as I’ve done it, such that my lists are value-adding propositions. I usually post this annual report in late November or early December each year, on the presumption that I need to live with an album for a month, at least, before I declare it among the best things I heard over the course of a given year. I then do an update or supplement in January if I feel like I need to add anything truly notable that slipped in after that.

To provide some perspective on the choices I’ve made over the years, here is the complete reckoning of my published Albums of the Year from 1992 to 2020. (I had yearly favorites before then, obviously, I just didn’t hang them out for others to look at). I don’t quite know what I was thinking in some years, retrospectively, but I made my choices in public and I stick with them as a point of principle:

  • 1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream
  • 1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
  • 1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese
  • 1995: Björk, Post
  • 1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi
  • 1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch
  • 1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac
  • 1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip
  • 2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya
  • 2001: Björk, Vespertine
  • 2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone
  • 2003: Wire, Send
  • 2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)
  • 2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything
  • 2006: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
  • 2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom
  • 2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
  • 2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic
  • 2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics
  • 2011: Planningtorock, W
  • 2012: Goat, World Music
  • 2013: David Bowie, The Next Day
  • 2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
  • 2015: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock
  • 2016: David Bowie, Blackstar
  • 2017: Dälek, Endangered Philosophies
  • 2018: First Aid Kit, Ruins
  • 2019: Lingua Ignota, Caligula
  • 2020: Run The Jewels, RTJ4

As I normally do when I post “Best Of” lists like this one, I make two notes up front before getting to the good stuff. Firstly: This is all subjective, and it’s all my opinion. But of course it is. If music criticism were objective, we’d all end up with one mutually-agreed upon list at year’s end, and what would be the fun in that? Secondly: I can only rank and review that which I actually hear in any given year, so that’s limited by (a) what I like to listen to, and (b) what I actually acquire to spin. So as omnivorous as I am, and as a person who spends more money and time acquiring music that just about any other consumable commodity, I still must apologize if I missed your very favorite album of Lithuanian jazz-inflected grime performed faithfully in the regional Aukštaitija dialect and recorded entirely on vintage Roland TR-808s and 19th Century kanklės, though I’ll happily read about that record on your own list, and would likely enjoy hearing it. Please do share said list with me after you post it, and you really don’t need to add a “Dude, you suck” preamble to it because I neglected your niche. It wasn’t personal. Honest.

With that behind us, let’s get to the final countdown, from my #30 Album to my #1 Album of the Year for 2021. You might want to buckle up for the wild ride ahead. There’s going to be a lot of abrupt and juddering swings back and forth between various genres, styles, and techniques, some calm, some extreme, some inspirational, some soul-crushing, some wobbling at the very cusp of explainability and/or listenability. But that’s what makes for a memorable journey, right? I certainly think so. As always, I provide a link for each album to help you acquire it should you be so interested. I tend to focus on actual artists’ websites in these links, where I can, in the hopes that said artists actually earn something from your interest, beyond the spicks and specks sprinkled their ways by the various online streaming services who “serve” them (and I use that term most lightly, with my left eyebrow arched up high as I type it).

#30. Hawkwind: Somnia: How does that old Benjamin Franklin quote go? Something like “In this world, nothing is certain but death, taxes, and Hawkwind,” if I recall correctly. As in so many ways, old Ben nailed it, and this year’s offering from the Hawks is a fine one indeed. Not a lot of BLANGA here, but that’s apt, given the album’s lyrical themes surrounding sleep and dreams. It’s ooky, it’s spooky and it grooves big. Sold!

#29. Hobo Johnson: The Revenge of Hobo Johnson: Not to be all “old man yells at cloud” here, but I have little patience with suburban Gen Z tropes of the “I started writing songs when I was 10 years old, now I am 14, I understand the whole world, and deserve your respect” variety. Most don’t, frankly. But Hobo Johnson does. Super fun, thoughtful, diverse, joyous hip-hop here from a younger artist with a real back story.

#28. Silk Sonic: An Evening With Silk Sonic: I nabbed this collaboration between Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak just as I was binging Sherman’s Showcase, a loving and knowing tribute to the Soul Train shows I adored as a kid. It was a perfect moment of synchronicity, as Silk Sonic lay down the sweetest and surest soul jams here, moved and inspired by smooth sexiness of the era, with the talent to not just mimic, but evoke.

#27. The Flying Bobs: High Fidelity Virtue Signaling Party: The Flying Bobs are a new side (or successor?) project to long-time faves here, The Weasels. Featuring the songs and vocals of The Brothers Graf (Ray and Chris) and the Weasels’ rhythm section, The Bobs fill their debut disc with even more of the scabrous, stylish, and sharp fun that they have shared so generously over the years. There’s a second disc pending, hooray!

#26. Ministry: Moral Hygiene: Industrial metal mastermind Uncle Al Jourgensen has historically offered his finest works, always politically trenchant, when the GOP has held the White House. This one came out under the Biden administration, but I’m assuming it was written and recorded when The Former Guy was wobbling about in Washington, as it’s one of the best and brawniest Ministry records in a long, long time.

#25. MED, Blu & Madlib: Bad Neighbors: I know and like all of the named artists in this collaboration’s cover title, and I also know most of their featured singers/rappers, most notably the late and deeply missed MC DOOM. Together, they make super hip-hop magic, with thoughtful lyrics and fine flow amassed atop killer beats and samples. Their “Burgundy Whip” video pointed me to this one, and it’s one of the year’s finest songs.

#24. The Killers: Pressure Machine: A fine example of the ways in which a “COVID Album” can be something more than just whining about masks and social isolation. Killers’ frontman Brandon Flowers went back for hunker time near his rural Utah home, taped some of his neighbors talking, and built songs around their stories. “Terrible Thing” is one of the most heart-breaking songs ever, perfect for our times.

#23. Alice Cooper: Detroit Stories: Alice Cooper (the man)’s latest disc features a prominent pair of songs with the surviving members of Alice Cooper (the band), but all of its cuts slam and swing and sweat just as you’d want and expect. Big props for Alice’s suicide hotline tag on “Don’t Give Up;” his core audience likely includes struggling men who may need to hear from their heroes that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.

#22. Aesop Rock x Blockhead: Garbology: Lyrical mastermind Aesop Rock has worked with producer Blockhead on and off throughout his career, but this it the first project cover-credited to the pair. Blockhead’s beats tend to be sparse and spare, but that’s an asset, not a flaw, here, as they allow Rock to flow like a mighty river, even when he’s spinning tales of the most mundane aspects of 21st Century life. Tasty, and refined.

#21. Genghis Tron: Dream Weapon: Experimental/electronic metallists Genghis Tron have returned after a decade-long hiatus with a new singer and their first live drummer. There’s a degree of lyrical and musical clarity here that separates Genghis Tron from the massed metal hordes, but without defusing their gut-punch impact. It’s high-quality metal that might even be playable when your non-metal friends are about.

#20. Dana Sipos: The Astral Plane: The late Sandy Denny was such an extraordinary singer, songwriter, and musician that I’m really hesitant to ever evoke her in any comparative basis. But with that as preamble, Canadian Dana Sipos most certainly evokes the restless spirit of Sandy on her latest album, a deliciously, darkly delightful collection of fine songs, playing perfectly beneath her, well, perfect voice. Sublime!

#19. Alan Vega: Mutator: Suicide front-man Alan Vega died in 2016, and his brilliant posthumous album IT (recorded with his life/creative partner Liz Lamere) placed high on my Best Albums of 2017 list. I figured that was that with regard to his catalog, so was tickled to get another Vega-Lamere collaboration a few months back, this one culled from tapes the pair developed between 1995 and 1997. Bracing, as he always is.

#18. Billy F. Gibbons: Hardware: 2021 was a tough year in ZZ Top world as bassist Dusty Hill flew away to the Great (La) Grange In the Sky. While his long-time bass tech Elwood Francis has stepped up to allow the Top to continue on its live journey, I’m not sure we’ll be hearing anything new from the band going forward, so Billy Gibbons’ solo career is crucial, to these ears, in offering what he offers, so well, and for so long.

#17. IKOQWE: The Beginning, the Medium, the End and the Infinite: There’s a really good essay to be written about which music genre has achieved the deepest global penetration, with hip-hop and metal among the leading contenders. The incredible 2014 documentary Death Metal Angola demonstrated how deeply the dark stuff had penetrated into Angola. And this album now proves how great its hip-hop culture is.

#16. Theon Cross: Intra-I: The world would be better with lots of innovative tuba players moving beyond the instrument’s stereotypical oom-pah-pah role. Theon Cross is at the cutting edge of the movement to take his instrument in new directions, with the acclaimed Sons of Kemet, and now with this fantastic jazz-hip-hop-dubstep-reggae-grime-soca album, across which he blats and rumbles like nobody’s business.

#15. Xiu Xiu: OH NO: Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart is both a restless and a prolific soul, and his albums feature most regularly in my annual best-of lists. This year’s offering featured a collection of Jamie-Plus-Guest duets, ranging from the freaky and weird through to the sweet and sublime. It was a true treat to hear Alice Bag (look her up) here, and the Liz Harris duet, “A Bottle of Rum,” is among the finest Xiu Xiu tracks ever.

#14. Lindsey Buckingham: Lindsey Buckingham: Beyond the usual yuck that we’ve all experienced of late, Lindsey Buckingham has endured a tough time in recent years, with high-profile band drama (goodbye Fleetwood Mac), health concerns, and marital issues chewing up tabloid space. Thankfully, the master guitarist-singer has responded to those challenges with his finest solo album, a shining gem of technique and emotion.

#13. Buggy Jive: You Won’t Like the Answer: Buggy Jive describes himself as a “soul rock singer-songwriter quietly uploading music from a basement somewhere in Upstate New York. Part Prince, part Joni, all Buggy.” Yes, all that, and more. I’ve followed his brilliant work for decades now, and his latest record is a fine addition to his incredible catalog, with “Ain’t Going Anywhere” easily standing as the best COVID-era video yet.

#12. Gnod: La Mort Du Sens: Gnod are an evolving collective from Salford, Greater Manchester, England (a point of interest for any Fall Fans here), who have in recent years worked from a guitar, bass, vocal and double drum line-up. They make a glorious, clangorous racket, in the best senses of all of those words, and their latest album (The Death of Sense in English) is a skull-crusher, especially the 12-minute “Giro Day.”

#11. The Body: I’ve Seen All I Need to See: The Body (guitarist/vocalist Chip King and drummer Lee Buford) are another skull-crushing band, and their 2021 entry on my list (they’re regulars here) is among the most visceral, brutal recordings of their career, amazingly enough. Electronics are to the fore here, with the proverbial needles so deep into the red that clipping and distortion are an integral part of the sonic experience.

#10. Shriekback: 1000 Books: The most recent acquisition on this year’s list, and one that I’d likely be rating even higher had I lived with it longer. The core trio of Barry Andrews, Carl Marsh and Martyn Barker are re-joined (joy!) by long-time backing vocalists Wendy and Sarah Partridge, with PiL bassist Scott Firth helping out on a handful of songs. Shriekback generally operate in one of two major modes: shouty and concussive, or wobbly and ethereal. This album leans a smidge toward the latter, making the bolder bits feel even more titanic when they appear. Super-duper lyrics throughout this one, as is always the case with the verbose and clever Andrews and Marsh, with the pair sharing lead vocals, as they usually do. A truly fine addition to their most impressive catalog, moving in new directions, while hewing to the old magic.

#9. Intercourse: Rule 36: Intercourse have been around, and have been prolific, since about 2014, but this record was the first of theirs that I tumbled to. I can guarantee you that it will not be the last, and I have been enjoying trawling their back catalog for gems, which are in plentiful supply. The Connecticut-based quartet offer a truly slamming guitar-bass-drum-voice approach, with singer Tarek Ahmed being one of those over-the-top front-man masterminds who crafts weirdly detailed and disturbing lyrics, and then shouts them like nobody’s business, while his band-mates grind out heinously brutal riffs behind him. The obvious comparison here would be to David Yow and The Jesus Lizard, and I offer that as fine praise, while also noting that Intercourse are unquestionably originals, and not mere imitators. A head punch when you need it.

#8. Jed Davis: 2021: I’ve been writing and ranting about Jed Davis here and elsewhere since the mid-1990s, most recently reporting on the series of “Three Packs” that he had launched early in 2021. Jed has continued that series throughout the year, and I’m tickled that he is releasing a compilation of those cuts as a single album bearing the name of this most, uhhh, “interesting” of years. (I got an advance copy, but you should be able to get it soon, too). The consolidated album isn’t a traditional “Greatest Hits” collection, but it does offer a fascinating chronicle of his superb musical adventures back to the early 1990s, with a stellar array of players including Tony Levin, Anton Fig, Chuck Rainey, and Jerry Marotta, among many others. Jed also earned copious plaudits for his work with Juliana Hatfield on her Blood release. 2021: It’s Jed Time!

#7. Mammoth WVH: Mammoth WVH: A confession: I loved Van Halen during their original David Lee Roth era, and being a guy who pays too much attention to the “wrong” members of bands, I was really into bassist-vocalist Michael Anthony. So when Roth returned late in the group’s run, I was happy, but then disappointed to learn that Anthony was replaced by Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang, which felt like some sort of sad nepotism deal. After Eddie’s death, and with this, Wolf’s debut album out, I must admit that I was woefully wrong. Wolfgang is an incredibly talented musician, writing, singing and playing every note on this exceptional album. I love it, dearly, and apologize for any prior sniffiness on my part about him. Plus, “Distance,” his song about his Dad’s death, made my eyes admittedly misty. And that takes some doing, hard nut that I am.

#6. Paul Leary: Born Stupid: I claimed Butthole Surfers as my favorite band for a longer period of time than any other artist over the years, and I’ve long been on the record as holding their guitarist, Paul Leary, as one of my three all-time favorites, along with Robert Fripp and David Gilmour. The Surfers imploded, alas, around the dawn of the 2000s, by which time Leary had emerged as a big-time record producer. There was some social media buzz a few years back that the Surfers were reuniting to record a new disc, but it’s not (yet?) seen light of day. Thankfully, Leary finally released his own second studio album, and it’s as weird and wonderful as I ever could have hoped for, with crazy new songs and complete revisits of a few classics from his catalog, including his own overdue version of his oft-covered “The Adventures of Pee Pee The Sailor.”

#5. Mexican Institute of Sound: Distrito Federal: Mexican Institute of Sound is a long-running electronic/dance project helmed by Camilo Lara. After a few years of quiet, MIS re-emerged early this year with an utterly brilliant remix of Run The Jewels’ “Ooh La La,” taking that fine cut from my 2020 Album of the Year and making it utterly transcendent. Had Lara and company done nothing else, I’d have chalked up 2021 as a good year for them, but then along comes the full-length Distrito Federal, which made this one of their very best years ever. With bumping production support from Dan the Automator, MIS kick out the jams with ten cuts merging modern hip-hop/dance cadences with the soul-heavy, butt-wiggling grooves of Mexico’s native Mariachi, Norteño, and Banda traditions, with a bit of Cumbia tossed in for good measure. Viva!

#4. Les Conches Velasques: Celebración Del Trance Profano: The second Spanish-language album in my Top Five of the year is a product of that tongue’s motherland, with Les Conches Velasques hailing from Zaragoza. The group melds a modern electric-guitar based approach with rhythms and lyrics culled from their home country’s deep cultural traditions, coming across on some plane like an unholy merger of, say, The Fall’s spiky earlier incarnations and a seasoned flamenco ensemble. The resulting music is deeply fascinating, with angular structures seeming right on the cusp of flying apart as they careen forward, becoming all the more remarkable for holding together and resolving their structural conflicts. A truly unique testament to ways in which incongruous familiar elements can be blended into tasty magical freshness.

#3. Micky Dolenz: Dolenz Sings Nesmith: I was super excited when I read about this album before its release, being a big fan of The Monkees as a group (they all sang, but Micky’s is the voice I hear in my head when I think about them) and of Mike Nesmith as a woefully under-appreciated songwriter. We’d had the chance to see Nesmith live a few years back playing a collection of songs from his brilliant First National Band days in the 1970s, and his stellar stage ensemble was headed by his son, Christian, who produced this new collaboration. Such “looks good on paper” anticipation often results in disappointment, but in this case, the final release was even better than I was expecting, with gorgeous arrangements making the Mike and Micky partnership ever more impressive. Our first post-COVID concert was seeing the pair (with Christian Nesmith leading their fabulous band) in Phoenix. While I think Mike’s touring days are likely coming to an end, with him having wrestled with serious health issues in recent years, Micky’s voice remained a thing of wonder, so I will eagerly see him live again when I can, and eagerly look forward to his next record. There’ a bunch more great Nesmith songs out there, so I’m totally game for Dolenz Sings Nesmith 2.

#2. Arab Strap: As Days Get Dark: Scotland’s Arab Strap (a duo of Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton) were critical darlings (well, among critics who paid attention to such music anyway) for much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, impressing scribblers and punters alike with their sordidly observational lyrics, fine melodic sense, and eclectic arranging skills. The pair went their separate ways in 2006, and that seemed to be that, for a long, long time. Then in September 2020, deep in the Anno Virum, the quietly-reunited Arab Strap issued a single called “The Turning of Our Bones,” which was a spectacular addition to their already impressive catalog. It got even better in early 2021, with the release of As Days Get Dark, their first new album in 16 years, and I would argue the finest thing they’ve ever offered. As with the Dolenz-Nesmith record above, long anticipation can often produce disappointing results, or (worse) can result in critics and fans gushing fondly over inferior work, so desperate are they to not push their returned heroes back into obscurity. Neither were the case here, as all eleven of these new songs (including “The Turning of Our Bones”) are scintillating gems, easy to access on first listen, but rugged enough to stick and grow over the long horizon.

2021 ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg: There was a time when the lion’s share of artists featured in my annual “Best Of” reports would have done what they did within a then-nearly-ubiquitous and certainly-standard vocals-guitar-bass-drums line-up. But as I look at the 30 albums that moved me most in 2021, only five of my featured artists produced the bulk of that work within that idiom. I guess, on some plane, I’ve come to be bored by it, and to find it challenging to identify artists who can do something fresh and new within that stock approach to music-making.

Well, as it turns out, Dry Cleaning are a band, or maybe the band, who can and did produce something magical from the within that basic rock and roll infrastructure, blowing my mind in the process. The instrumental elements of their most fine debut album are written and played by guitarist Tom Dowse, bassist Lewis Maynard, and drummer Nick Buxton, and they are just dynamite at what they do. Their unique takes on the standard tools of rock and roll evoke the legendary likes of Wire, Joy Division, Magazine, Buzzcocks, Pylon and others of that post-punk, indie ilk who have pressed against the boundaries of their idioms, rather than being molded by them into a conformist blob.

Vocalist-lyricist Florence Shaw adds some special secret sauce to the mix, offering a conversational, deadpan, Sprechstimme approach to her superbly surreal and incongruous words, which are baffling and engaging in equal measure, accessible enough to grasp on first spin, but deep enough to reward many continued listens. (Or watches, if you’re more visually stimulated). I’ve probably played this album more than any other in 2021 (Arab Strap could be a possible contender for that title, but just because it came out so much earlier), and I still find myself pausing what I’m doing when Dry Cleaning songs come on the stereo, thinking “Wait, did she just say what I think she said? And does it mean what I think it meant? Better go hit ‘repeat’ to hear it again and make sure!”

New Long Leg is truly a worthy addition to my own personal pantheon of annual greatness, as it offers interest and engagement on so many levels, and it forges a brilliantly fresh path through a mostly-overgrown and weedy forest of similarly-configured bands, who are not and will never be as good at what they do as Dry Cleaning are at their own calling. Bravo and Brava to all involved, and I eagerly await what the future holds for this most impressive band, who I’d not even heard of when I did this report a year ago. That’s good, from where I sit. Always happy to gain new beloved artists, each and every year, world without end, Amen.

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