Top Ten Albums of 2021

I enjoyed a wide variety of interesting new music in 2021. My favorites, in no particular order:

TurnstileGlow On – The bounds of hardcore punk rock were pretty well defined by its originators in the early 80s. It clearly hasn’t been easy to innovate in such a rigid genre — there hasn’t been a hardcore album this exciting since the Refused’s Shape Of Punk To Come over 20 years ago. Turnstile have been improving with each release, but Glow On reaches a whole new level. The band manage to weave disparate elements — dance-able poly-rhythms, spacey synth breaks, emo interludes — into something that is unquestionably hardcore without losing an iota of intensity. The quieter, reflective moments only serve to make the rest hit harder. The album truly re-defines what hardcore punk is and what it can be.

Sam FenderSeventeen Going Under – On his sophomore album, Fender continues to stake his claim as North East England’s own Bruce Springsteen. He draws mostly from Springsteen’s darker work in the late 70s and early 80s. His anthemic song structures and liberal use of instruments like saxophone and glockenspiel invite comparison to The Boss. His songs, about the trials and tribulations of growing up working class in the coastal town of North Shields (outside of Newcastle) are very much parallel to Springsteen’s tales of Asbury Park, NJ. It’s clear many of the details in the songs are autobiographical and Fender delivers them with authenticity and genuine emotion. On the more political songs, his reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, but he never hits a false note. The whole album is a solid, enjoyable listen.


The War On DrugsI Don’t Live Here Anymore – This album contains the most confident and direct set of songs this excellent band has yet produced. It’s a different vibe than the mysterious and abstract A Deeper Understanding from 2017.The vocals are up front and the songs are more compact and pop-oriented. The arrangements are still complex and varied, but the more upbeat and celebratory nature of the songs also makes the album more accessible as a whole. The positive lyrics make life changes, growing older, and simple pleasures sound very appealing indeed.


Durand Jones & The IndicationsPrivate Space – The retro-soul maestros hit another one out of the park. Their last album American Love Call, had a classic late-60s/early-70s R&B sound — this one moves forward to the mid-70s with elements of Philly Soul, funk, and disco. The sound is pure vintage, with new bassist Mike Montgomery laying down a rock solid groove, topped with expertly deployed strings, vibraphone, and backup singers to provide plush accompaniment for both Jones’ soulful croon and Aaron Frazer’s soaring falsetto. While the album has more silky smooth love songs and dance floor stompers than the last one, their more political/conscious side still shines through on tracks like “Love Will Work It Out” and “Reach Out”. As with their previous release, this is a true revival of classic styles, worthy of consideration alongside the best of the era that inspired it.


Wolf AliceBlue Weekend – Their latest album finds this British quartet showing off their potent blend of 90s alternative, shoegaze, and Britpop with a batch of top-notch, fully-realized songs. They’ve hit the mark before on previous tracks, but this is a complete album that improves with multiple listens. “Lipstick On The Glass” brims with atmosphere, “Smile” rocks like peak Jane’s Addiction meets Smashing Pumpkins, and “Last Man On Earth” manages to quote Vonnegut and critique humanity as whole like vintage Bowie, just to pick a few highlights. The album along with their brilliant live performances show a band in full command of their art.


Illuminati HottiesLet Me Do One More – The brainchild of Sarah Tudzin, who initially formed the band as an extension of her work as a recording engineer. She describes her sound as “tenderpunk”, which is an apt description of the heart and humor on both the punk-pop rave-ups and the more personal indie musings. “Pool Hopping” is a brilliant pop metaphor for moving on from a disintegrated relationship. “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA” marries dissonant guitar in the verses, to a catchy, wordless chorus with madcap lyrical couplets that are simultaneously silly and deep. “Threatening Each Other re: Capitalism” is a thoughtful number about the transactional aspects of art and relationships. It’s a fun and diverse listen that I keep coming back to.


John SplithoffAll In – An album of buttery smooth soul-pop. Splithoff has a great voice, but the songwriting is what makes the album special. Whether he’s describing a night out (“Fahrenheit”), celebrating a relationship in the face of difficulties (“Steady”), or hitting the dance floor (“Wgyg”) the songs are carefully crafted, tightly arranged, and damn near irresistible. I am surprised he hasn’t already become a bigger star, but as long as he is able to keep putting out great music, I’m certainly all in.


Snail MailValentine – Snail Mail’s sophomore album finds Lindsey Jordan dealing with the problems of unexpected fame and the pain of an ill-fated romance through cathartic songwriting. Her vocals are more powerful and expressive than on the debut. Some of the songs (e.g. “Headlock”), wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the debut, but there are now strings and synths adorning her guitar work on most tracks. Overall, the new sound serves the songs well and clearly indicates that Jordan does not intend to be boxed in by any “indie rock” labels. It’ll be interesting to see where she goes from here, but this album is a real gem to enjoy right now.


Delvon Lamarr Organ TrioI Told You So – I love instrumental soul/jazz/funk and these guys are serving it up hot and fresh — based on classic recipes from the Meters and Booker T. & The MGs. They are trio because Delvon Lamarr plays both the main melody AND the bass parts on the organ. Guitarist Jimmy James (Williams) provides stinging, funky, Steve Cropper-style licks. And both Grant Schroff and Dan Weiss are perfectly simpatico, in-the-pocket drummers. Would love to catch these guys live, they seem to play together as naturally as breathing.


Drew BeskinProblematic For The People – The former front man of The District Attorneys was planning on quitting the music business and prepared this album as a swan song. Pushed by the idea that this could be his last release ever, he delivers his finest solo work, a tight collection of pop/rock songcraft. Whether the songs are hard-driving (“Going Alright For You”) or contemplative (“Personal Shopper”) they are all engaging and his band hits on all cylinders. Buoyed by the high quality of the results, Beskin decided against retirement, and seems to have the creative flame burning again. Look forward to his future projects.


Honorable Mention:
The Hold SteadyOpen Door Policy
Richie MayerThe Inn Of Temporary Happiness
WaxahatcheeSaint Cloud
HybridBlack Halo
SkyzooAll The Brilliant Things

Best re-issues:
Gang Of Four77-81 (Box Set)
Bruce SpringsteenThe Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts
SorrowsLove Too Late… The Real Album
MetallicaMetallica (Deluxe Edition)