Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Top 10 Albums of 2021

    Sure, the list might be a bit late. But I'm glad I waited. Some of these I didn't recognize until recently. I certainly wanted to make sure I knew what I was talking about. It wasn't due to being lazy. 

2021 was an interesting year. For me personally, I moved 2 states away after spending a summer traveling to where only God knows. It was a very tumultuous year in my life. In many ways, it was the same for music. Adapting to a new environment after moving away from Minnesota for the first time, the pop rock energy of Olivia Rodrigo's Good For You contrasted the slow smooth tempo of Silk Sonic's Leave The Door open. Tyler The Creator's tight style switched lanes and graced us once again for Lumberjack and WusYaName, just weeks before Drake pandered to the dumbest common denominator with Way Too Sexy and Girls Want Girls. The culture's taste in music had never been consistent, but 2020 finally split America's somewhat unified populace of normies into a million subdivisions that wanted nothing to do with each other. 2021 showed that 2020 was no fluke, and that the new way of listening to music was without radio. The charts no longer reflect what America likes, just what community is the largest. We broke away from the system and returned power to individuals and small groups. It's what Kaczynski would have wanted.

Anyway, here's my favorites so far.

Honorable Mentions

Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever

This album is good. It's not great. Oxytocin has a great bassline. Billie Bossa Nova is cute. I actually think Therefore I Am is a bit annoying. I don't know. I've only listened to Happier Than Ever in full two or three times, and most of it doesn't leave that much of an impact on me. That is, until the last song, Male Fantasy, cuts in. This song has stuck with me since the album came out because it's hard. And I don't mean it's epic, or it's high energy. It's hard as in, it's difficult to sit through. There have been more than a few instances where a relationship fell apart and I didn't know what to do with myself. The feeling of being unable to get over someone no matter what I try is all too real. Sometimes it's hard to even parse out what's real and what isn't. At the darkest points, the only reason I made it through was by lying to myself until I couldn't convince myself anymore. I've been destructive of my soul in ways that take some people years to recover from. I've been sick for the past four years, and getting better has been a slow process. I still have a long way to go. Billie Eilish knows what it's like, and she is right there with me. Even if I don't care for the album, I have to give credit to Male Fantasy.

Clairo - Sling

 Clairo is so pretty. I'm not necessarily talking about Clairo herself. I mean the music. Sling is so peaceful. When you look at the cover art, and you see her holding a fluffy puppy in a snowy field on a sunny afternoon, just know that the music sounds like that feeling. It feels like Christmas of years past. When I was a younger man I felt it - the feeling of sun on your skin, trying to keep you warm but not powerful enough to succeed, the crunch of the fresh forest snow beneath your boots, some of it going into your shoes because of how deep the banks are, as you follow a set of rabbit prints off towards who knows where, sitting throwing rocks into a frozen stream trying to break the surface ice - it feels all so familiar. The instrumentation is so lush and layered, forming one perfect track after another, with Clairo's beautiful voice at the forefront of it all. I don't know what half the instruments are, but it never confuses nor overwhelms me. It's pleasant. I love Clairo.

Alexis Marshall - House of Lull. House of When

 People talk about how You Won't Get What You Want and Daughters and Hell Songs are clearly written by a deranged sociopath, and we all should have seen it coming when Alexis Marshall turned out to be evil. But I never really saw it. You Won't Get What You Want is twisted, don't get me wrong. I never saw it as deeply twisted in a way that other "scary" bands aren't. But this solo album from Lex really is deeply concerning. The screams of terror on Religion as Leader. The sounds of change on No Truth in the Body complementing the prodding piano. The centerpiece is the track It Just Doesn't Feel Good Anymore. Lex screaming to meet your obligations over harsh drums that encapsulate the room makes you feel powerless in your own home. Then when Lingua Ignota's vocals come into play, the album gets redefined. Once you know what Lex did to her, you become a victim just like her, although not nearly to that degree. This album makes you sympathize with anyone that's ever met Alexis Marshall. It's incredible that the album from the abuser only makes him look more abusive. It's horrifying, it's thrilling, and it's larger than life. Alexis Marshall is one of the greatest musicians alive. He should be put in jail and never let out. The past is like an anchor indeed.

Sloppy Jane - Madison

 On the front cover of Madison, the text reads "Recorded in Lost World Caverns." This is no lie; the album's recording occurred in a cave 200 feet below the surface. This gives the album a very interesting, ethereal sound that's almost marvelous. Looking into the recording process of this album while listening to it blows your mind, because, despite it being recorded in a big cave, and the microphones being outside of the cave, everything sounds crisp and clear. The production sounds like a concert in the clouds, which is ironic. Once the gimmick of production wears off, the songwriting itself keeps your attention for the whole run. It's pretty and powerful. Haley and besties cooked up something sweet for us.

#10 Olivia Rodrigo - Sour

A lot of people like to claim Olivia Rodrigo is a worse version of other artists. But nobody can pin down who it is she is ripping off. Taylor Swift? They have similar writing philosophies, but they don't sound all that similar. Paramore? Just because she uses guitars sometimes and is a woman doesn't mean she's the new Hayley Williams. Avril Lavigne? This is the one I agree with most, but sounding similar doesn't mean they have similar personalities. In fact I think Avril and Olivia are polar opposites personality-wise. The truth is that Olivia Rodrigo isn't a carbon copy of another artist. You can take inspiration from multiple places and mix and match them to form something new. Nobody has been writing songs like Olivia Rodrigo, and all who have tried after Sour's launch have failed miserably. What the imitators get is that Olivia Rodrigo has a more honest, unfiltered way of writing. What they don't understand is that she uses it sparingly to form the overall character of the project. Sabrina Carpenter sounds like she's a bearded man in his late 20s recording an unscripted YouTube rant from his run-down Silverado in an empty parking lot. Halsey sounds like a vocal wine aunt breaking up with her boyfriend at your house party that neither of them were invited to. Sour sounds like you're sitting one-on-one with Olivia by a dying fire in the backyard, and she's crying on your chest telling you about what her new album really means. Other people who use the "brutally honest" style make you feel awkward, like you aren't supposed to know what they're telling you. Olivia's writing style is very pointed and intentional. When you hear her say she only has two real friends on Brutal, you are one of the two. The other is her ex that she hates. It makes a lot of sense. The production here is really good too, but I can talk about that if I ever talk about Guts. 

#9 Halsey - If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power

When I took a jab at Halsey in the last paragraph, I was referring to her 2010s output - Badlands and Hopeless Fountain Kingdom. I like Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, but I think it's out of pity that I appreciate its strides. I don't like Badlands at all. This album, though, reflects a new Halsey. This Halsey is intentional and diverse. She no longer sounds like a breakup at a house party, but a thesis statement to an essay on why Halsey matters. I believe this is because of Nine Inch Nails. Trent and Atticus' industrial rock band has been seeing a resurgence in "mainstream" popularity; everyone heard 34 Ghosts IV in 2019, whether they know it or not. Now their album With Teeth is in Fortnite. Nevertheless, their most important contribution to the modern landscape is producing for this Halsey project. Their work on If I Can't Have Love gave Halsey a fun playground to run around in and flex her muscles. More importantly, they gave her direction and guidance. Unlike her previous albums, this project is laser focused on a specific vision that it achieves and exceeds. Halsey wants power, so she sounds powerful throughout the whole project. Like the cover, I picture her on the throne, and I think she's about to sentence me to death. She certainly makes an impact. Trent told Halsey while making the project that she wrote like she demanded the audience's attention; he was right on the money. It's an intriguing ride through and through. Haters will say it's just another NIN album, but I think it's more than that. This is the album Halsey was made for.

#8 Kanye West - Donda

It's a miracle that this album is here. The 24 July 2020 release date came and went with nothing but YZY FOAM to show. The 23 July 2021 release date came with a listening party full of mumble demo quality music and no consistent quality to be spoken of. By the 6 Aug 2021 listening party, LP2, Donda started to turn around. Songs sounded like songs. Words sounded like words. The album sounded like an album. The LP3 at the end of the month was more of the same with more concrete ideas fully developed, although some great concepts were lessened. When the album dropped at 7am on a Sunday, over 13 months after the initial release date, all the best parts of the last 2 listening parties were on display. Jay-Z was here, as was Baby Keem, Conway The Machine, Vory, Playboi Carti, Kid Cudi, Don Toliver, Young Thug, Roddy Ricch, Jay Electronica, Chris Brown, the Sunday Service Choir, Buju Banton, Lil Yachty, Travis Scott, posthumous Pop Smoke... This album has a lot of guests, not even counting bonus track guests. If you thought a lot of people worked on The Life of Pablo, you would lose your mind looking at the Donda credits. That doesn't discredit Donda's significance, though. Putting together 23 tracks that are well-done and coherent as a single body is incredibly difficult, which is why LP1 sounded so terrible, and why The Life of Pablo had multiple revisions after launch in 2016. In many ways, Donda is a follow-up to The Life of Pablo. It's a real cultural event in a way the previous 3 Kanye albums are not, and at times it treats those 3 albums as if they should not have existed in the first place. Ye, Kids See Ghosts, and Jesus is King are all appetizers, and Donda is the real meal. Everyone who worked on this album worked hard to make it good, and it paid off. 23 catchy tracks, 4 substantive bonus tracks, and enough diversity and consistency to make you care about all of them. Come To Life is my favorite Kanye song, and it would not be that way if it weren't for this album's confusing and stressful rollout. This is the only album I can think of where the 27 tracks don't feel like enough; I'm still hungry for more.

#7 Deafheaven - Infinite Granite

Infinite Granite is so good it made me a Deafheaven fan. In the weeks leading up to this album, not a few Instagram pages were in a stir that Deafheaven was going shoegaze. How could this album cast away its black metals roots by ignoring unclean vocals? It's not like there was a song on the last album hinting at this shift or anything! Deafheaven was "selling out" - they were abandoning their core identity for something new. "Selling out" deniers can rejoice, because Infinite Granite is surprisingly a step up from the last album. Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, aside from their one track with clean vocals, felt like treading the water of their previous 3 albums. It was great water to tread, but another album in the same vein afterwards was not gonna fly. The switch up to a more shoegaze style gave them room to grow in a positive light toward something greater than the sum of its parts. The guitars here are not too different, sounding just as beautiful as they did on previous albums. On top of that, the more frequent transitions on display make sure you never get bored with the musical style, and almost all of the riffs and runs are memorable in a way that feels like an old friend you haven't seen since grade school. George's clean vocals are surprisingly calm and warm, despite his strength being in screaming. Then when the screaming comes back for just a minute, the vocals sound triumphant and homey, like finally arriving home after driving all day. Everything builds to a rewarding climax that's worth waiting every second to experience. Infinite Granite is good driving music. It's such a satisfying escape from the mundane stresses of life.

#6 Weezer - OK Human

Best Weezer album? 2021 has a trend going where beautiful orchestral music is everywhere. Clairo's Sling was released in the middle of summer, yet feels like a calm, crisp winter. OK Human came out in the dead of January and feels like the blooming of spring. Weezer albums live and die by their individual tracks. Terrible albums still have good tracks, like This Is Such a Pity or Put Me Back Together or Island In The Sun. Great albums still have bad tracks, like Time Flies or Piece of Cake. OK Human doesn't have the most consistency, but it does have the most peaks. All My Favorite Songs is cliche and underwritten, but everything after that just gets better and better. Grapes of Wrath makes reading exciting, Screens scratches the itch that hates technology within my soul, Here Comes The Rain is driving like the beginning of an adventure.... The high-energy songs contrast well with the somber, depressive songs like Dead Roses and Bird With a Broken Wing. The hopelessness never feels fully hopeless. I'll always sing along to sinking in the La Brea Tar Pits. It's crazy how much ground is covered in 30 minutes on OK Human. It was a while before I realized how short it really was because almost no stone is left unturned. OK Human is the most complete and fleshed out album Weezer has made. I don't think they'll ever do anything better.

#5 Poppy - Flux

"You know, I just don't get it." My first impressions of Flux were not positive; it didn't hit the same way that I Disagree did. No spoiler alerts for my upcoming Poppy ranking list, but Flux has definitely grown on me in the past 2 years. Flux is more subtle, more soft. It doesn't throw a lot of crazy ideas at you. It doesn't reinvent the wheel. It doesn't blow your mind. But what it does, it does really well. It feels more adult in that sense. As you grow up and start to figure out who you are as a person, you sit down and think about what really matters. Flux focuses on what really matters. The instrumentation is pleasant, with each individual element making an impact without metal implements jutting into your head like the Valve intro. Poppy has always been good with slow, calming songs, and Flux does this best. On The Level, As Strange As It Seems, and Never Find My Place cement themselves as classics in Poppy's catalogue, and the other tracks aren't anything to shake a stick at either. Even if Bloom has a percussive riff, it brings it all together by the chorus. I need to buy this record, man. It's so nice, and an easy recommend to anyone who has ears.

#4 Lingua Ignota - Sinner Get Ready

Lex ain't got nothing on this. Sinner Get Ready is a horrific tale of abuse and trauma from someone who, again, really knows from experience. For the length of Sinner Get Ready, Kristin Hayter can do no right, and God punishes her for it. (God being Alexis Marshall.) It feels like pinching a nerve the way your spine tingles when, in unforgiving night, God came and proudly spoke her given name. "Upon your pale, pale body I will put many hands, and rough, rough fingers for every hole you have." There are so many moments like this, but simply reading the text does not do it justice. You can't understand Sinner Get Ready until you hear the pain in Kristin's voice. The album includes allusions to the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. It may seem comical to compare the extreme abuse Kristin suffered to the adultery of Jimmy Swaggart - Jimmy was bad, but not excessively evil beyond all belief. I think this inclusion is to compare not the excess of their evil, but the failure of their vocation. Swaggart failed as a moral compass for America, and Lex failed as a functional human being. In both cases, you cannot look to people as an example of moral uprightness; when push comes to shove, the only person you can fully trust is God himself in the flesh. Jesus is king. Jesus is also judge. Lex will get what is coming to him for what he's done. Amen.

#3 Black Country, New Road - For The First Time

Who would expect an album with a watermark on the front cover to be so good? Yet Black Country, New Road makes it work. If you buy the CD, there are even more watermarked stock photos in the booklet! BC,NR's jazz rock style comes off really fresh. Maybe it's because I'm a jazz normie and know nothing about the genre, but I don't know any album that's wild in the sense that For The First Time is. In just six tracks, you get a great sense of Isaac's personality and backstory. Science Fair, Athens France, Sunglasses... paint a pretty picture of a day in the life of a British man named Isaac. I think about feeling invincible every time I wear sunglasses, and I feel British a lot because of it. That one song has made such an impact on my life. But my favorite part of this album is the sax. It goes hard, and I like it like I like The Comet Is Coming. Instrumental is probably my favorite song on the album, which says a lot considering the strength of Isaac's writing. It's high energy, well rehearsed, kinda wild. I love it. But leave Kanye out of this.

#2 Spellling - The Turning Wheel

You can take a wild guess where I heard about this album. We've already seen some great orchestral albums this year - Sling, Madison, and OK Human have previously been described as lush projects that stand out as some of the best in their respective artists' catalogues. The Turning Wheel is by and large the best of these projects. The highlight of The Turning Wheel is clearly Chrystia Cabral's beautiful voice. She rasps in perfect union with a sweet, smooth, style that is somehow both soft and powerful at the same time. Her attention to detail is insane. It's like drinking maple syrup, and it reminds me of Chris Cornell in a way. Spellling makes a very different type of music from Audioslave and Soundgarden, but really pay attention and you'll know what I mean. Got it? It's crazy how quickly The Turning Wheel pulls you in. The whole instrumental introduction to Little Deer has enough sticking power that I would still have fond memories of The Turning Wheel if I never heard the rest of the record. I'm so glad I did, though. Boys at School is probably the most beautiful song ever made. The last two minutes of the track gives you the feeling of finding out that your brother is coming home, he just won the war. It's triumphant and bittersweet. The Turning Wheel is full of moments like this. Is that a Moog synth towards the back of Legacy? And have you heard Sweet Talk? I don't even have a specific element to point to because they all blend so well together with Chrystia's beautiful voice. Discovering The Turning Wheel is like listening to your mom describe her happiest memories at family Christmas. Nothing sounds as grand and perfect as this.

#1 The Killers - Pressure Machine

When I moved to a small town at a young age, I learned the beauty of nature. That summer, we didn't have time or money for me to go to Camp or play in the summer softball league or go to the pool. I spent a lot of my time in the summer exploring the woods right outside of town. Listening to the wind rustle the leaves, hunting for geocaches, dipping my feet in the river, discovering fossils, finding caves, eating strange berries and hoping to survive, listening to Bon Iver on my 3DS.... the beauty of nature has stuck with me ever since. To this day, I spend my summers hammocking in the woods and staring at the stars alongside the people who matter most to me. But my home isn't perfect. Once I had moved to Nebraska, I was happy to hear that my friend from back home was 5 years clean from heroin. My bestie whom I really cared about was addicted to such a harmful and dangerous drug when we received communion for the first time together, and I had no idea. She isn't the only one in this situation; I can speak of many such cases, even in such a small town. My home may be beautiful, but it is economically depressed and riddled with crime. Freedom has its positives, but it often comes with a terrible cost. 

The forest and the hills are to the right of the picture, west of town.

Now imagine you have only known this small town environment your entire life when you first listen to Pressure Machine. Listen to West Hills. When Brandon screams, "They got me for possession of enough to kill the horses that run free in the West Hills," he highlights exactly this struggle between the beauty and the pain that both come with freedom. Brandon Flowers is not from my town, and he isn't even from my area. He is a Mormon from Nephi, Utah. Nephi has 15 times the population of my hometown and has a railroad running through it. Meanwhile, I have never been to Utah, and I don't know any Mormons. Even with those huge differences, Pressure Machine still captures the essence of my town better than any song, album, movie, or book I've ever seen. Listening to the album, I recognize people I know. Cody is just my buddy Robert. The small-town girl on Runaway Horses is my sister Emily. In Another Life is written to Ally, and I'm the author of Terrible Thing. I recognize the jukebox in the corner, the dark of the canyon, the mattress on the hardwood floor, and just about everything else, besides the railroad, which was dismantled in the 80s. With all its strengths and weaknesses, we are a community and we do what we can to support each other. Sometimes we can't do much. Sometimes we don't know even know where to begin, or we come to the wrong conclusion. Sometimes we fail. Even in failure, we care for everyone in our community as a family. Brandon knows what it's like.

Have you heard how good it sounds? You can't just read the lyric book. You'd miss the strength and conviction of West Hills, which moved me almost to tears. There is no substitute for the spine-chilling peak beauty of the larger than life chords backing up the line, "We picked you wild flowers, you gotta open your eyes," on Sleepwalker. The distortion of all sound matches the corruption of the local police perfectly in Desperate Things. And you just have to hear the high notes Brandon shows off in the title track. Pressure Machine is easily the "closest" album I've ever heard. Never before has an album made me feel more at home. It feels like my home, it feels like my family, and it feels like me. Both good and bad. There's no wonder or doubt in my mind that it's the best album of 2021.

Buy These Albums

Happier Than Ever
House of Lull. House of When (Used copies on Discogs, so as to not support Lex)
If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power
Donda ("Deluxe" Edition)
Infinite Granite
OK Human
Sinner Get Ready
For The First Time
The Turning Wheel
Pressure Machine

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