This year just kept on going, didn’t it? At least there was a ton of great music to keep us company during the slog. Here are a few of the ones that kept me going in 2021.
Each year I offer these caveats along with my list:
1) I’m a music listener, not a critic.
2) The choices are in no particular order;
3) This is not a comprehensive roundup of the year in music, just one guy’s favorites.
If you like any of these songs, or know of any you think I’d like, get in touch!
“La Perla” by Sofia Kourtesis
One morning I was listening to a playlist, songs I already knew, and somehow this song started up. It wasn’t on the playlist; it just sort of demanded to be heard. Kourtesis lives in Berlin, but she’s originally from Peru; she says each time she returns, she stares at the sea, which her dad said “clears your head.” “La Perla” is a tribute to her late father, and unfolds like an ocean wave.
“Cracks In My Smile” by Eleventh Dream Day
One of my all time favorite bands puts out one of their all time best records, and a double album at that. “Since Grazed” isn’t quite like any of EDD’s previous releases – there aren’t any Neil Young-style electric guitar duels between Rick Rizzo and James Elkington. You won’t find much of the country harmony from drummer Janet Beveridge Bean’s other band, Freakwater, nor the experimental ambience of bassist Douglas McCombs’ other band, Tortoise. It’s a slow, reflective, meditative sound that fits the songs perfectly (multi-instrumentalist and studio wizard Mark Greenberg really outdid himself here). It’s as quiet as a home recording, and as grand as a symphony.
“Baghon Main” by Arooj Aftab
This record is a knockout. Arooj Aftab is a Brooklynite, born in Saudi Arabia, later moved with her Pakistani family to their hometown, and studied at Berklee after making waves online with her version of Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah.” I mention her biography because the songs on Aftab’s album “Vulture Prince” are rooted in ghazals, poems of religious longing, but as Aftab states very pointedly in this Pitchfork feature, these aren’t covers. She’s “taking something that’s really old and pulling it into the now.” I couldn’t choose any of the tracks over the others, because they are all astonishing, so instead I chose the opening track. Once you hear it I hope you’ll keep on listening through to the end.
“Hurt” by Arlo Parks
Not many debut albums are as well put together as Arlo Parks’ “Collapsed In Sunbeams.” Interestingly, many of the songs on the record are about how difficult it is to keep it together these days. “Hurt” is one of them, and a great one; over a driving beat, Parks tells the story of a guy who has pain “built into his body” and dreaming of something better. The chorus is a mantra for him, and for anyone living through this impossible year: “I know you can’t let go of anything at the moment/just know it won’t hurt so/Won’t hurt so much forever.”
“Before You Gotta Go” by Courtney Barnett
I know I had Courtney Barnett on last year’s list, but I couldn’t leave this song off of any roundup of my favorites from 2021. She’s at her lyrical and instrumental peak here, playing just the right notes, singing just the right words, hitting just the right tone the whole way through. I couldn’t hear this song enough.
“Head On” by José González
Any year that has a new José González record has at least one good thing in its favor. “Local Valley” recalls the highpoints of his previous records while also taking a few subtle but surprising interesting detours. “Head On” alone makes the five years since his last album worth the wait.
“When The Saints Rise Out Of Their Graves” by Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson’s most high profile release this year was his wonderful memoir, but his six-song EP “Serpent’s Tears” deserves plenty of attention too. “When The Saints Rise Out Of Their Graves” shows Thompson’s almost unrivaled skill as a songwriter, guitarist and singer, and he’s been making records this good for decades and decades. How does he do it?!?
“Stand For Myself” by Yola
Having had her song “Fly Away” stuck in my head for literally years, I was excited to hear Yola’s new album “Stand For Myself.” It more than met my expectations, especially the powerful, soulful title track. Not only does she stand up, she encourages the rest of us to do it too, and a performance as good as this one makes you believe you can.
“Crossbow” by Tamar Aphek
Israeli guitarist Tamar Aphek has classical guitar training but also loves the explosive power of bands like Fugazi and the Jesus Lizard. She describes her own music, at the intersection of these styles, “Jazz and Roll.” “Crossbow” is a musical sledgehammer, a wonderfully intense and cathartic musical workout in a time that is often intense in a less wonderful way.
“Bitter Taste” by Billy Idol
In his heyday, Billy Idol wasn’t exactly on anyone’s list of rockers expected to make it to their mid 60s. Then he had a near-fatal motorcycle accident that left him unable to walk for a year and gave him time to think about where he was headed. At the start of the pandemic, Idol reflected on what he’d learned from the wreck three decades ago, and came up with a four-song EP called “The Roadside.” “Bitter Taste” is the standout track; when you hear a guy who knows what it’s like to see your life flash before your eyes sing “Hello, goodbye, there’s a million ways to die,” it catches your attention.
“Falaise de Malaise” by Martha Wainwright
Martha Wainwright is so open in her music that she once named a song “Bloody Mother F___ing A_____e” that was reportedly about her dad. And even by that standard, she has a lot to get off her chest on the album “Love Will Be Reborn.” Some of it is unsettling to hear, especially the emotional vocal standout “Body and Soul” (which is all the protagonist is able to take with her in leaving an abusive relationship). “Falaise de Malaise” concludes, beautifully, an album of reflections on trying to carry on through storm after storm.
“My Bones” by Hannah Jagadu
I read that Hannah Jagadu records her instant-classic bedroom pop songs on an iPhone 7. An iPhone 7?!? You’re making the rest of us look bad, Hannah.
“Heartlow” by Jane Weaver
Whenever an album is marketed as a “psychedelic pop masterpiece,” I’m the target demographic they’re trying to reach. “Flock” definitely reached me (and thanks to my sister, who texted me to let me know about this one!)
“I’m In Asheville” by John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band
The great singer-songwriter John Hiatt and dobro legend Jerry Douglas both live in Nashville, not far from each other. But they’d never really crossed paths until they decided to spend four days together in RCA’s Studio B with Douglas and his band. The resulting album, “Leftover Feelings,” is full of feeling, as if they’d been playing together for decades. “I’m In Asheville” is a classic Hiatt story-song, with a haunted narrator regretting every mistake and misstep that led him to this point. Honorable mention to “All the Lilacs in Ohio,” which is just as wonderful and maybe a bit more cheerful.
“Harlem River Blues” by Steve Earle
Records don’t get much sadder than “J.T.,” Steve Earle’s tribute to his late son and fellow songwriting great Justin Townes Earle. Joined by his longtime band The Dukes, the father covers the son’s songs with love, admiration, and occasional jealousy; then he adds a song of his own, “Last Words,” a love song to a child that no parent would ever want to have to write. It’s hard to hear without tearing up, except for “Harlem River Blues.” The song itself is pretty bleak – the narrator is being taken “uptown to the Harlem River to drown,” and not by choice. But it’s played uptempo, almost like an Irish wake. (And the proceeds from “J.T.” are going to support Justin Townes Earle’s young daughter, another great reason to check out the album.)
“Et Hop” by Corridor
Montreal’s Corridor is my kind of group: dreamy melodies and voices, guitars that bounce around in your brain… I kind of want to learn French so I can know all the lyrics without running translation app.
“Strong Feelings” by Dry Cleaning
A little like Wire fronted by a university lecturer who has a lot on her mind. Or a mix of Life Without Buildings, Patio, Gang of Four and Courtney Barnett. However you describe it, I love how this song builds.
“Lipstick On The Glass” by Wolf Alice
For their “Blue Weekend” album, London-based Wolf Alice focused on mood. They wrote songs together on a road trip to Somerset and then put them to the test by playing along to movie trailers, which gives the whole record a feel that’s as big as a movie screen. I don’t know what trailer they were playing to when they made the intimate-but-still-enormous “Lipstick On The Glass,” but I sure want to see it.
“Birthday Song” by Wednesday
Oh, how I have fallen in love with Wednesday. It’s a five-piece band out of Asheville, two guitars, steel guitar, bass and drums, and they turn way up, sometimes sounding like if Snail Mail fronted My Bloody Valentine and played some Galaxie 500 covers in between some pounding, haunting originals. The songs on the “Twin Plagues” album are, as the title might suggest, pretty intense; in “Birthday Song,” Karly Hartzman sings about dropping acid with a high school friend who jumps out a window and breaks his foot! If you’re into Wednesday as much as I am, don’t miss their 2020 debut with the awesome title of “I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone.”
“Atlantic” by The Weather Station
The Weather Station’s early records were acoustic and folky; you might not have expected that a few years down the road Tamara Lindeman would be leading a band playing widescreen 80s-style piano and synth pop. And yet “Ignorance” sounds like the album she’s been building towards this whole time. Along with Arooj Aftab’s “Vulture Prince” it’s one of the two albums that stunned me this year. “Atlantic” starts with a wondrous image of a perfect sunset over the ocean, made bittersweet because the singer knows so much about the not-so-perfect world beyond.
“The Sun Won’t Shine On Me” by Teenage Fanclub
When they first made names for themselves in the early 90s, Scotland’s Teenage Fanclub made fuzzbox power pop that not only echoed their musical hero, Big Star’s Alex Chilton, they inspired him; Chilton played live with the band several times, some of the most enthusiastic and exciting performances of his career. The songs on their latest album, “Endless Arcade,” aren’t nearly as loud, but they’re just as good; Norman Blake’s “The Sun Won’t Shine On Me” is a song that not only rivals Big Star but matches that group’s musical heroes, too.
“Triple Dog Dare” by Lucy Dacus
Lucy Dacus says the album “Home Video” was inspired by her diaries and memories from growing up. No surprise that ”Thumbs” is the showcase song, with the narrator helping a friend through an unpleasant encounter with her unpleasant dad. But I’m also a big fan of the closing track, which she says is about a close friendship that hovered somewhere close to something more before the two ended up falling out. In the song, she rewrites the real-life ending; instead of growing apart, they run off together, away from obstacles and judgments and parents who declare them “cursed.” Do they end up where they really want to be? It’s hard to say, but at least maybe they haven’t left anything unsaid between them.
“Chismiten” by Mdou Moctar
Mdou Moctar is another artist I put on last year’s list, but I could not keep away from his album “Afrique Victime” this year. Somehow his guitar playing is even more ferocious, his band more driven, his songwriting even more evocative, his singing even more urgent. “Chrismiten” kicks off the album with an explosion of sound and Moctar and company keep on burning the whole way through.
“In The Country” by La Luz
I’m a huge fan of the music of the mid 60s, when pop was turning toward psychedelia but still had those sunny harmonies and echoey guitar sounds from the surf days. La Luz takes that sound and perfects it, especially on the spooky opening track of their self-titled album. The lyrics to “In The Country” sound sweet and plaintive, at least until the kicker: “I don’t want the way that I feel today to disappear, disappear” (!)
“No Hole In My Head” by Tom Jones
Anybody who wants to know if 81-year-old Tom Jones can still sing the hell out of a song, take a listen. It’s an inspired choice, too: a folk song by Malvina Reynolds (“Weeds” fans know her because she wrote “Little Boxes”) turns into a quasi-psychedelic statement of purpose. He may be “Surrounded By Time,” as his album title suggests, but his voice, and the heart he puts into it here, are timeless.
“Sure” by Shannon Lay
Simplicity can be complex. On “Geist,” Shannon Lay’s melodies and lyrics are as straightforward as they get; “Sure” starts with an invitation to sit on a hill and enjoy the view. But then she explains some of how the two characters got to that point, and what it means to them. The instrumental flourishes complement the main guitar part, and the song, perfectly. Everything is in its right place. Lay sings “never have I been so sure” about the relationship in the song, but it could just as easily be about the album, too.
“Jordan” by Joy Oladokun
It’s a ballad that sounds like it’s going to be a murder ballad: “They drowned me in the Jordan, and they tried to wash me clean,” sings Joy Oladokun, who has sung and talked openly about growing up as a queer woman of color and feeling like the world was trying to “fix” her. But then she sings about finding love and “building our own promised land,” knowing that their work too is blessed. Oladokun has said she’s trying to write the songs that someone growing up the way she did deserves to hear; when they hear this one they sure won’t be disappointed.
“Other You” by Steve Gunn
Steve Gunn is an able guitarist who could hold his own on a six-string with pretty much anybody, but his new album “Other You” is full of musical spaces where instruments of all kinds swirl through and drone and otherwise make you feel at home. The title track sounds a bit like a loop but subtly builds to a conclusion that’s sort of like a New Age version of the unforgettable string section at the end of “Moonlight Mile.”
“I Was Made For Loving You” by David Hasselhoff
2021 has been a year, possibly several of them all at once. It’s been long, and hard, and nerve-racking, and the only possible way to wrap it up is as the name of this album says: “Party Your Hasselhoff.”
Happy new year!