Happy New Year! Maybe some year I’ll figure out how to integrate writing-about-music back into my everyday life. Meanwhile, here is a list of my 30 favorite albums of the year 2021, with a few sentences standing in for the 5,000-word love letter each of these deserves.
by dave heaton
- Chvrches – Screen Violence
Turns out I’m not the only one who’s been binge-watching horror movies during the pandemic. Also turns out Chvches were Goths all along, who knew? It’s an album perfectly tuned to our moment – feminist reads on slasher films and ghost stories, filtered through our own 2021 reality (isolation, screen dependence), but also beautiful synth-pop infectious enough to hook even my 7- and 11-year old kids.
- Erika De Casier – Supernatural
Whispery come-ons and regrets with a late ‘90s/early ‘00s R&B vibe – but can we talk about her singing style for a minute? I can’t think of anyone who sounds as casual/conversational while also mostly expressing an interior monologue (eccentric tics and inside jokes intact). When music nerds talk about “headphones albums”, it’s usually something with layer upon layer of bells & whistles… but I could listen to Supernatural on headphones until infinity.
- Domenico Lancellotti – Raio
Flashback to 2018: Kansas City, Missouri puts on an ambitious arts festival called Open Spaces that’s seen by some as a boondoggle and by others of us as a miracle, a treasure of riches. Me and my family explore an empty parking lot that’s been turned into an installation of color and sound (see photo above), with music by the Brazilian musician Domenico Lancellotti, whose album The Good Is a Big God is one of my highlights of that same year. The music from that installation formed the roots of his 2021 album Raio, but like all of us it went through quite a journey from 2018 to 2021. The end result (“a record about permanent transformation”, he says) is rich and unique, rooted in his home country’s musical traditions but also playful and eccentric, and nothing short of stunning in each listen. The title means “lightning” in Portuguese, and this is its sound.
- Cindy – 1:2
One of the few groups I can think of now that is working with the standard pop-rock approach and doing something that feels breathtakingly new, the San Francisco band Cindy follows up their splendid 2020 album Free Advice with 1:2, a beautiful advancement. Their sound lies somewhere among your late-night surrealist version of a ‘50s pop ballad (thanks, David Lynch), an observational poet’s internal monologue/sketches on notepads she keeps while riding city transit, ‘slowcore’ ‘90s indie-rock, slow-motion versions of Phil Spector hits, and hymns with the solemnity of church but the vibe of a bohemian get-together. All of that means gorgeous and supernatural music that’s also touching, humorous, and completely relatable.
- Irreversible Entanglements – Open the Gates
Protest poet Camae Ayewa aka Moor Mother put out the brilliant Black Encyclopedia of the Air album this year as well, but the third Irreversible Entanglements album displayed her radical energy in especially distilled form. It helps that the group has some of jazz’s finest, whose other endeavors are just as worthy of exploring — Keir Neuringer on sax, Aquiles Navarro on trumpet, Luke Stewart on bass, Tcheser Holmes on drums, plus synthesizer contributions from a few of them. Their past albums are exciting but without the clean, clear, directed impact of this one, from the opening title anthem (a call to action if you’ve ever heard one) through multiple extended melancholy meditations on the lingering legacies of colonialism, imperialism and slavery.
- Ashley Monroe – Rosegold
Perhaps the most purely joyous album on this list, earned joy. After being dropped from her longtime label, country singer/songwriter Ashley Monroe pivoted from the sad songs she’s mastered on past albums to embrace positivity, and back it with a layered, more varied pop sound that plays with rhythm and texture in glorious ways. She’s long been one of the sharpest songwriters in country, and that’s true here too even as she’s singing less about pain and more about human connection, love, birth and rebirth. The album’s sound is that of floating in the clouds (what the song “Flying” describes – “Feels like I’m floating with no ceiling / Heart in the clouds / I’m not coming down”), yet the songs are tactile and visceral.
- Ngaiire – 3
The Papua New Guinea-born, Australia-based singer Ngaiire is one of the most interesting pop artists in the world right now, without the fame or attention yet to match it. There’s a weight to her songs based in real challenge, sorrow, hurt, that she never fails to channel into release and optimistic striving. The songs speak of history, tradition, the ties that bond families and humans together over centuries – even when she’s singing what could be a simple love song. That dynamic is even more true on her third album 3 than on 2016’s Blastoma (one of my favorite albums of the past decade). One song starts, “my heart is heavier than what my body weighs”; another, “Oh I never thought you’d come to see me / ‘cuz I’m blinded by the noise and the mess / of the city trying to kill me.” These are love songs, in a general human way, yet complicated. Her singing is powerful, always, and the music can’t be pinned down too simply in genre terms.
- James Brandon Lewis/Red Lily Quintet – Jesup Wagon
Everything saxophonist James Brandon Lewis touches is gold lately; see this year’s Code of Being or last year’s Molecular for more evidence. As a NY Times headline put it, he “embodies and transcends tradition”. Tradition is built-in with Jesup Wagon, thematically linked to George Washington Carver. Carver had multi-faceted interests, as does Lewis, and as does this album, where the skilled quintet (including 2021 heavy-hitters William Parker and Chad Taylor) take us surprising places and well-placed spoken-word elements heighten the power.
- Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take
Angsty, edgy pop-rock, with a clear ‘90s alt-rock influence – yet have you ever heard angry music that’s this beautiful? On her second album, Indigo de Souza doesn’t let any genre form hold her back from brilliance – the songs go many places. And what first sounds like angst is more tender than that – a pursuit of honesty and transparency above all else. Facing the ugliness of life, your own and everybody else’s, with eyes wide open. ”When pain is real, you cannot run”, she sings in a song that breaks down into chaotic, collective screaming and yelping towards the end. An album that has room both for that and for one of the sweetest love ballads of the year (“Hold U”) is one oriented towards open emotional expression of all types.
- Rachika Nayar – Our Hands Against the Dusk
My 2021 was filled with transporting ambient music but you won’t see much of it on this list. Rachika Nayar’s spellbinding debut is a good representation, and also its own shining diamond. If you can’t guess from the title or the album-cover image of hands entwined, there is deep feeling at work in each of these eight tracks. It comes from many places, flowing together. The music is never doing just one thing, if that makes sense – wavering, exploring guitar is at the heart of it, but integrated in with vocal harmonies, with synthesizers, with strings and more. If it always feels like the work of one individual, it’s also a gorgeous coming-together of a variety of sounds, feelings, even styles, with a monumental impact.
- Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future
There’s just one pure hip-hop album on this list, but hip-hop as the global musical language of our era runs through much of this list one way or another. Sons of Kemet, the fiery Afrocentric UK jazz outfit featuring the prolific saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, brings in rappers, poets and musicians from the UK and US for a compact distillation of progressive politics within a collective sound rooted in the music of the African diaspora.
- Anika – Change
Intentionally or not, most of the albums on the list resonate with our current era – the pandemic, extremism, hate, overall social anxiety. For this album, the second in 11 years from the Berlin-based musician/artist Anika, that feels especially the case. Minimalist art-pop loaded with ideas and reactions to the turmoil, confusion, and demons of our time, it also carries a clear, beautiful thread of struggle and hope within it, in its persistent beats and Anika’s at least as driven way of singing. The title track is my motivational anthem of the moment, filled with the hope that people can listen to each other, learn from other, and change.
- Anthonie Tonnon – Leave Love Out of This
Elegant ballads from a New Zealand pop singer with a thoughtful experimental bent. These are some of the most moving songs of the year, with beautiful arrangements (piano, acoustic guitar, drum machines, whatever fits a given song). The songs ask human questions – about nature, history, work, love, community — without suggesting that the answers are simple or even knowable.
- Massage – Still Life
How can you not love pop-rock this hushed and pretty, sounding like various bands from across music history at once? Massage’s 2018 debut album Oh Boy was a gem and this outdoes it by far. The second track is called “Made of Moods”, and I like that phrase as a theme for the album – this is that melancholic, sensitive style of guitar pop that generates moods upon moods. Also, hooks upon hooks, melodies upon melodies, pleasure upon gentle pleasure.
- Jamire Williams – But Only After You Have Suffered
Jamire Williams’ 2016 debut album ///// Effectual was an avant-drumming album you could lose yourself in. That free drumming sensibility is somewhere in this one too, but far from the first thing you’ll notice. The first thing I felt was haunted – the multi-layered, deluxe music feels both disembodied and like it’s taking over our bodies. There is a collective spirit here, in the overlapping styles and sounds, and in the assortment of guest rappers, singers and players who helped bring Williams’ vision for this type of autobiographical art-pop-jazz-hip-hop experimental statement to life.
- William Parker – Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World
William Parker is the jazz MVP of 2021, over four decades into his career. This spot could have easily been taken up by the gorgeous trio album Painters Winter or the guitar-led, fiery Mayan Space Station. But the 10-disc Migration set – truly ten separate albums – is a treasure chest of varying approaches and rewards that will likely take years to fully exhaust.
- Isaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning
One of the most underrated rappers of our time returned from years of personal turmoil with his third project, which has its own distinct style from the others. A riveting presence always, he’s as likely as ever to alternate jokes and playful brags with chronicles of tears and pain. Through samples and style reference he pays overt homage to the legacy of Southern hip-hop on The House Is Burning, while conveying the inspiration he draws from music to make it day-by-day when things feel on fire.
- Jennifer O’Connor – Born at the Disco
Singer-songwriter O’Connor has a way of cutting straight to the heart of things, always, and on this minimalist reinvention of her sound, that’s especially true. The instrumentation is spare, and chosen carefully to bring out the emotion of each particular song — drum machines and synth for songs looking back to childhood and coming-of-age; piano for heartfelt confessions and love letters. “Your Job Is Gone”, a would-be dance jam, and some of the others crystallize turning points in a life, those moments of trying to figure out who you are and what to do next.
- Maurice Louca – Saet el Haaz (The Luck Hour)
The Egyptian guitarist Maurice Louca always seems to be approaching his art from a different angle. This one involved a Lebanese improv group called ‘A’ Trio (prepared trumpet, prepared guitar, prepared double bass), and custom-made instruments – a guitar and a Serang – modified to be played microtonally. Oh there’s a harpist and a cellist involved too. The result is a six-movement composition that’s playful and cacophonous – a wild, beautiful ride.
- Fine Place – This New Heaven
Like a few other albums on this list This New Heaven’s approach looks to the past (in this case, early ‘80s post-punk/synth-pop) but sounds like the future, or at least our dystopian present. Fine Place, the duo of Frankie Rose and Matthew Hord, pile on the atmosphere, before ending with a stunning cover of an obscure piece of gloom (“The Party Is Over” by Adult Fantasies).
- Jason Nazary – Spring Collection
The jazz drummer/electronics improviser Jasaon Nazary (also in the duo Anteloper with Jaimie Branch) made this music during pandemic lockdown – trying to recreate the spontaneous feeling of missed live opportunities by integrating his own playing with computer-made sounds and the home-recorded playing of other musicians. The result is a creative junkyard of sounds and surprises, sometimes almost an abstract assortment – randomness alive — and other times something like a tune or put-together passage will emerge. It’s all the while riveting and exciting.
- Ian Sweet – Show Me How You Disappear
On the first song, Jillian Medford aka Ian Sweet tells us her favorite cloud is the “the kind that’s in disguise and makin’ everybody cry”. Which feels like this music to me – emotional in so many deep ways, a journey of self-healing, but it’s in disguise as something light, fun, full of bouncy melodies and sounds that get caught in your head.
- Modern Nature – Island of Noise
With Modern Nature, guitarist/singer Jack Cooper (formerly of Mazes and Ultimate Painting) has been quietly advancing his songs in a more atmospheric, open, varied direction. On the Tempest-inspired, nature-oriented Island of Noise the songs stretch out and insinuate themselves into your psyche, with help from guest jazz musicians. Not just an album but a project, its physical release was as a vinyl boxset with an artwork to accompany each song.
- Carly Pearce – 29: Written in Stone
2021 was somewhat of a void in the area of well-written, well-put-together mainstream country music, but don’t overlook Carly Pearce’s brilliant third album – a no-nonsense, emotional collection about a post-divorce search for meaning and understanding, rooted in ‘90s country sounds.
- Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O – Umdali
I’m no expert on the South African jazz scene, but the power of this particular album sneaks up on me every time. Trombonist Malcolm Jiyane leads his group through some tender, perhaps melancholy, jazz which grows in power and expanse — voices and instruments pile on together and the whole thing becomes ecstatic, transcendent, overpowering with emotion.
- Rochelle Jordan – Play With the Changes
Sleek, rhythmic pop/R&B with a sound inclusive of a variety of styles of past and present – UK techno, ‘90s US R&B, and much more. Somehow the familiarity of these various then-progressive styles comes together with Rochelle Jordan’s tender, multi-faceted singing to sound like the future.
- Men I Trust – Untourable Album
An awkwardly named album representing an awkward year (and I think they toured it, anyway!) The Montreal trio Men I Trust are reinventing soft-pop in their own idiosyncratic way, with atmosphere and heart.
- White Flowers – Day by Day
On their debut album, the UK duo White Flowers’ dark dreampop is harrowing and lovely at the same time – music that takes over and pulls you under its spell. The song titles reflect the shifting moods driven by time and place – “Night Drive”, “Daylight”, “Different Time, Different Place”.
- April Magazine – Sunday Music for an Overpass
There’s a lo-fi indie-rock quiet-revolution afoot in San Francisco. The enigmatic April Magazine play fuzzed-up daydreams perfect for your afternoon nap or late-night whatevers.
- Lionmilk – I Hope You Are Well
Originally hand-delivered as care packages to friends during the initial days of the pandemic, the meditative synth lullabies on I Hope You Are Well fully contain and carry across that intention, the kindness and generosity of it.