2021 Albums of the Year; 30–21.
30. Billie Eilish — Happier Than Ever
The Voice As a Fur Coat
This is a clear case of an artist finding the strength in their voice, in their persona, and in their craft and sharpening it and making a record that has more self-control and self-empowerment than they showed on their debut. This is less “fun”, less exciting than her previous record, but the sense of how audio production can emphasize and highlight her voice in incredible and sensual ways is on display. This is a perfect album for headphones, something to get almost unbearably close to and allow the little sounds to crawl through your ears, to run its fingers against the inside of your skull. There are a lot of very intimate moments bared in this record, plenty of moments where Billie’s voice will take you by the proverbial throat and have its way with you. Listening to this can sometimes feel like pure abandon, exposure to the lightest and the deftest touch you might find all year.
Check Out: NDA
29. Clint Mansell — In the Earth (Original Music)
Frequencies of the Earth
So, I believe that In the Earth was my favorite film that I saw this year. I didn’t dive too deeply into too many movies, I didn’t “put in the time” that I do with music. But this one really resonated with me. The slow build of it. The creeping humanity as people spent time in a forest they feared. And the authentic experiences of hallucinogens and psilocybin WREAKING HAVOC on one’s mind. I think they really nailed it. And Mansell’s score, especially as it stands alone as a soundtrack to listen to on its own, is so brilliant. It’s very experimental. It’s very soundscape-y. It sounds like someone standing in a studio flipping switches and moving sliders. But it creeps deeply into the skin, lingers longingly on the ends of the hairs, stimulates the roots of the fingernails. Of course, like with many movie scores, its strength comes from my enjoyment of the movie, the visual memories indelibly tied to those that the score is revisiting. But I find this record to be calming, one that allows you to curl up deeply into the core of your mind and experience a great nothing.
Check Out: Spirit of the Woods
28. Employed to Serve — Conquering
A Massive Influx of Fury
I got into this band in early 2018, right after they released their first record ‘The Warmth of a Dying Sun’ and I missed the release of it. I swore I’d never miss another release of theirs again, and have been plugged in ever since. This record took on a much bigger personality, crafting enormous boots and doing everything in their vicious power to fill them. Traditionally, this is far more of a metal sound than I would choose, but the level of shredding and the venom that this band brings is such a joy to digest. At heart, when I’m listening to music with this type of lean I’m often guilty of scraping off the icing and eating heartily of the breakdown cake in the middle and this record sees me doing little different, but the dressing is so beautiful, the frills so technically and masterfully done, I can’t help but let it embrace me. One of the best things about this release is that when I check out the record, it makes me want to jump back and listen to their previous two and watch their vibrant growth and so much of it, so many of their incredible strengths, culminate in the track Set In Stone; the heft of the riffs, the density of the breakdown, the clever and multi-tiered build to the monument. Such a frenzied record. Pure adrenaline.
Check Out: Set In Stone
27. Foreign Pain — Death of Divinity
Tapping Into the Red
From the moment the trigger is pulled on this one, it is all velocity and violence. Tucked behind the ear of the bared human animal (fangs and all) is a decarnalized control of the instruments at play, technical know how that is placed in the side car as most of the aggression is undirected and in the shape of wildfire. This record is not going to give you any rewards for drilling towards its core, it’s not going to reveal a pearl or a glimmer of light. This is murk and darkness, a veil and a cloak that’s not meant to be lifted. I would listen to this one as a beacon of vengeance, as a tincture for the means of physical motivation, as a totem of power.
Check Out: Knell
26. Chvrches — Screen Violence
A Return to Form
For a band that’s as massive as this one, for a band that began their career with two absolutely incredible records, it’s tough to say that they needed to ‘earn’ their way back into my heart. In fact, at no point does any artist, any musician, any single person, owe you anything. There is no point where we, as listeners and witnesses, can or should make any statement on the product we ‘expect’. But that being said, it had been a while since I believed that Chvrches would make another record that I would love. So when this one came around, it felt really great to be able to say that I was able to get into another collection of songs from them. There is a certain sense that they have their feet under them again, a sense that they’ve found their voice and the place that it feels comfortable. Not only comfortable but confident and powerful. The songs sound like their own, and they don’t sound like they’re punching above their weight. I was shocked to hear that Robert Smith jumped on one of their tracks. He is musical royalty, and the track that he and this band have created together is peak. There’s a little bit of bubblegummy pop sensibility, but it’s redirected into more deliberate and concerted channels, enormous synth lines as textured roads instead of lightly candied and hollow trails. There is a lot of empowerment in the lyrics, a lot of commentary on the unfair standards that women are held to not only in ‘the industry’ but also in the walk of everyday life. I had noticed that it seemed like I could hear a lot more of her accent throughout some of these songs and I believe this might be one of the many ways she’s taking her identity back from what she was told she had to be in order to ‘make it’. One thing I believe that’s missing from this record that made the first two remarkable is a sense of fun and carefree attitude, but it seems clear that after a couple of huge records, massive expectations and worldwide tours, this band has seen and felt a few things that have taken a bit of the joy out of the process. Hopefully this record is a great reminder to the group of doing what they love.
Check Out: How Not to Drown
25. Jónsi — Obsidian
You can live inside a Jónsi song, and this is a full record of them. His work paints the sky, it paints the ground, and it doesn’t stop there. It illustrates a network of roots, of fungus, of sediment, it maps constellations and solar systems. The size of his work stretches beyond the scope of what you’re prepared for if you haven’t tried to check out any of the records he’s worked on. And yet there is a connection you can find, knowing that it’s “just” a voice swirling in the cyclone. You can hear the humanity, the parting of the words, the mouth, the teeth. As I get older as well, as much as I tend to gravitate towards more extreme and aggressive music, meditation and headspace have become a massive priority for me, so records like this, ones that you can separate from your body and disappear into have become increasingly important to me as well. While silence is the ideal, if I can find some time to sit with an album like this and allow it to siphon out my thoughts and keep only the clarity and the serenity, I can feel myself growing more ‘powerful’ more prepared for the day(s) that rest in front of me.
Check Out: Vikur
24. SeeYouSpaceCowboy… — The Romance of Affliction
The Ancient Vintage of Screamo
There is a very specific type of person this record might appeal to. Think long bangs, tight jeans, tighter shirts, eye makeup. The style is a relic of a past genre, a style which I can’t believe is from about 15–20 years ago at this point, a true “you just don’t understand, mom” musical experience. But for what it’s worth, for all of that stigma, this is a style that I absolutely connect with, an entire period of time where this was just about exclusively what I was listening to. Breakdowns, and screeches, and singers with fingerless gloves, shaking their head left and right while they waited for their opportunity to sing as the guitarists played their dueling horror chords. It’s such a fun feeling, such a flashback. And this band captures that feeling with absolute perfection. I can connect with so many old friends either through the love or hate of this exact type of sound. And if I were to throw this in a playlist from “the old days”, it would sound like it came directly from that same time period. It’s a heavy style that doesn’t quite stack up against the big beefy boys, but doesn’t really express any interest in doing so. It’s got something that those bands don’t even brush up against, something that they never attempt to claim: sass. I find this to be such a fun listen, definitely satisfies a very specific desire. And it’s an absolute blast.
Check Out: Misinterpreting Constellations
23. Ryley Walker — Course In Fable
Ryley Walker has this sense of a cosmic folk hero to me, someone who has a distinct ability to sit down next to you at a local bar and start chatting you up, get deeply into a conversation with you about your favorite record, helping you find out things you never knew you felt about it. Then he’ll tell you about three more that will send you off on a new experience of albums and artist hunting that will beat out any time you could spend in a record store browsing the bins. Then he’ll get up calmly, head up to the open mic and play some of the most nuanced and intricate folk guitar songs that you’ve heard in person. He’s done a few records in various bands/collectives this year, but this one, this solo one is the one that I have fallen in love with. Listening to a lot of his output will show some of the meandering and jamming noise, sound and music that he has pent up within his constantly working mind, but this “tip of the iceberg” record is the most calming to digest. They feel the most like songs. And while the music feels the most thought out, the most composed, so many of the lyrics feel like they’ve been written in the moment, on napkins and even thrown out into the microphone on that very spot, based on what he happened to be staring at in the moment. These are effortless songs that come across so naturally, one of those records that makes you want to play guitar, and somehow capture the same magic that Walker has directly at his fingertips.
Check Out: Rang Dizzy
22. Robohands — Shapes
Establishing the Creative State
There are times when I’m either reading or Making Something where I have to choose more passive music, tunes that hang in the background and create an ambiance as opposed to becoming about the music itself. And more often than not, jazz is the genre of choice. Over the past year, I’ve read more than I have in the mornings, and that means that I’ve spent a lot of time looking for new jazz musicians. It’s cool to be able to say that some of these records are some of my favorites of 2021, and this one in particular is a beaut. Everything is very freeform, always seeking out the groove and hitting a particularly low vibration flow that coats everything in a whisky relaxation. Even when the tempo rises, it seems to sync with the working order of the mind and soul to concentrate the energy in a focused direction, to generate inertia in a positive direction. I for damn sure do not know enough about jazz to piece together a cognizant ‘review’ of this album, but I know what I like, and I know I’ve heard enough this year to tell you that it stands apart from much of the rest that I’ve heard this year. Lastly, I realize (or at least project) that a lot of mentions of the genre can often sound like the listener believes they are part of some elite group who has decoded the enjoyment of a clandestine style only reserved for those “in the know” and I will tell you right now, man… I in no way think this is a tier or style of music I’m chasing. It just sounds good, man.
Check Out: Odysea
21. Adult Mom — Driver
Give Me Your Hand
There’s a three song stretch on this record that will detail whether or not this album will be for you. From Wisconsin, through Breathing and then at the end of Berlin, you will either be in love with this record or you will be calling it “just another album.” These work as deeply exhumed emotions, lyrics draped as skeletal tapestries across music that is wondrously developed into big, lush, and sad organic beings. Guitars strum wide chords, keyboards place constellations on the ceiling. Knipe’s vocals remind me so much of Niall Quinn of The Cranberries, with the voice quivering on the edge of cracking, with the peaks and valleys of conversational delivery and ribbed and rippling verses. There’s lap steel, a great deal of sadness, and a lot of excuses to drink along to this one, despite the sense of levity to be found on the sleeves. I would be willing to bet that in these narratives, you’d find a lot of ways to find proxies of the characters she discusses and place them in parallel to your life. I hope you’re gonna feel this one.
Check Out: Wisconsin