From the sweet snob midnight hour it’s Al Green, with his secret weapon minor hit, Back Up Train. “ease the pain. take me to my baby.”
Sound and color. Blow your mind.
The most dangerous song in freak folk.
“I’m through having your harsh march stare down my size.”
This song makes losers feel like winners.
“I’ve been in showbiz long enough, you need to wait your turn.”
This is a dope rap in its own way.
This dude never made another song this cool but damn.
I actually think it’s pretty cute that the ONLY EVER legally approved Grateful Dead sample is in THIS SONG, and it doesn’t show up until 3:09 in the song and makes the song sound like it’s saying words the original song LITERALLY DO NOT SAY.
You may not even recognize the artists I picked for my top 25 album covers, since smaller artists sometimes put the most effort into making attention-getting album covers.
Sadly, musicians rarely credit the artist of their covers, but when I’m able to, I call out the artist name. In some rare cases it’s actually the artist themselves who made the cover, like in the case of #10’s Darth Sueder VI by AJ Sueder.
I had to rank the covers in some order but I think every single one of these covers is great. So with that, enjoy my favorite 25 albums. Enjoy, I say!
#25: Failure – Wild Type Droid
#24: Exbats – Now Where Were We
#23: Castello Branco – Niska: Uma Mensagem para Tempos de Emergência
#22: Ty Farris – No Cosign Just Cocaine 2
#21: Acid Mammoth – Caravan
#20 – Diablo Swing Orchestra – Swagger and Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole
#19: The Architects – For Those Who Wish To Exist
#18: Udondolo – Urban Village
#17: Ritual Divination – Here Lies Man
#16: Bodies of Water – Is This What It’s Like
#15: MECO – Transmute
#14 – POLYDANS – Roosevelt
#13: Ghett – Conflict of Interest
#12: Fotocrime – Heart of Crime
Hot and dorky in a very French way. Like the movie Le Samouraï:
Much like that vibe, Fotocrime’s cover is lurid and ugly-beautiful. I want to read the graphic novel I wish existed.
#11: Sad Night Dynamite- Sad Night Dynamite
Did human beings submerge an actual functioning Limo to get this picture? Was a picture altered? I can’t know, but it gets the feeling of the album across. “Icy Violence” is the (very Gorillaz inspired) song that really goes along with this cover.
#10: AJ Suede – Darth Sueder VI
AJ Suede does his own covers and he does an incredible job. The cover of Darth Sueder VI just gets everything right. The parental advisory sticker in Japanese Kanji is a particularly slick touch.
#9: Villagers – Fever Dreams
Such a crisp, beautiful image that asks more questions than it answers. All I know is that bear is super fucking magical.
#8: K-Drama – Both Sides of the Blessing
This is easily the best Christian rap album cover I have ever seen. I challenge you to find me a better one. Was it enough to get me to give this album a serious listen? Not yet. But this album cover is working on me.
#7: KEY- BAD LOVE
This ray gun wouldn’t kill Godzilla, but it would stun him.
#6: Logic1000 – In The Sweetness of You
This is like the uncanny valley of food. Sure, someone really made it, but my brain still isn’t convinced. Luminously lit, but I’m sure that cherry still has a pit.
Jell-O cake appearance: 10
Actual edibility: 6
#5: Odette -Herald
Odette is gorgeous, her music is gorgeous, and this cover is a gorgeous and grotesque painting of her.
#4: Mexican Institute of Sound – Distrito Federal
One of the best albums I listened to because of the cover. Fun, funky, Funkadelic-inspired, the music and the cover. The cover does a great job of letting you know the funky Mexican experience you’re about to have. Electric war babies definitely might get spanked. The slop might get cosmic. This cover has the most mystical, Mexican porn pop-up window.
#3: Baker Boy – Gela
This person is beautiful, the painting is beautiful. What do you call polka dot war paint? Fun paint?
#2: CARCASS – Torn Arteries
I just can’t believe someone did such a good job of making a human heart out of vegetables. That person is a true artist.
Speaking of, I try to find the artists who made these covers, I really do. It’s amazing, however, how uncommon it is to see album covers artists credited.
#1: Eidola – The Architect
This cover is good worldbuilding. I immediately can imagine an entire work of fiction where this Architect character exists, where this mask makes sense. Either someone actually fabricated this incredible mask, or very skillfully used CGI to overlay it on an actual photo. Either way, the effect is incredible.
These are the odds-and-ends that deserved their own categories.
BEST / Fashion
Lovely photo, but the outfit and hairstyle are what elevate this. This guy’s slightly oversized, rumpled dinner jacket over matching pants with bright red shirt and tangled gold accents are sublime. If I saw this dude in person, I’d walk right up to him and tell him how fresh his style is. I feel like you could pull this off in several decades of the past 100 years.
BEST / Attempt to Get All of the Members of a K-Pop Group on Cover
There were almost as many K-Pop albums released this year as heavy metal, which is a lot. K-Pop albums tend to go one of two different directions:
Incredible graphic design
Fit all the inevitably large number of band members on the cover
A surprising number of K-Pop bands choose #2 and their attempts can often be hilarious. What Red Velvet did here on their album “Queendom” is pretty darn next level, involving baloons, birds, wind, and earth moving equipment. It’s safe to say they “really nailed the shot”.
In the runner-up, they managed to get everyone’s heads even, and some pretty incredibly typography to boot. Once you see that R kicked in the stomach and doubled over you can’t unsee it, though.
WORST / Attempt to Get All of the Members of a K-Pop Group on the Cover
Boymen are pretty much the worst offender in this category. There’s a lot of gradations of bad before you get here, however. In full size for your eyeball bleeding pleasure:
BEST / Funniest
This album cover of a confused knife wielding clown demanding to know what, exactly, is so fucking funny, had me in stitches all day the day I posted it, and I still haven’t found a funnier album cover this year.
First runner up for funniest, these two guys holding an info card over themselves with important info like name and “type of voice” (super high tone!) plus drawn on bowties and hairstyles definitely tickled me.
Funniest runner up to the runner up. This guys cover for drugs depicts him both “together” and fully drugged out. I love that in the “fully together” version his tie is still loosened and he’s still smoking a cigarette. In the drug photo he looks properly deranged. Hope you’re having fun, Tyler Posey, recovery is not far behind.
WORST / Ringo Starr Release in 2021
Ringo. You are a goddamn former member of The Beatles and can presumably afford some real heavy-duty PR muscle, but the reality is, your version of cool ended in 1990, which is why when you saw this bargain-bin album cover, you said “YES! CHANGE THE WORLD! THIS IS MY ALBUM COVER!”
The truly hilarious thing here is, that there’s a runner-up in this category…
…yes, another scrubby photo of Ringo Starr, another laughably outdated sentiment and album cover that would have looked dated in 1990. And those… extra jacket zippers? My god.
BEST / Graphic Novel Style
I saw a lot of comic book cover-type art this year, but nothing nearly as striking as this comic look inside a lonely memory. Incredibly impactful graphic image. Crisp, clean, balanced, perfect depiction.
WORST, er, BEST? / ATBGE (Atrocious Taste But Great Execution)
These covers are very well executed, but still incredibly gross and/or cheesy.
WORST / Grossest Mouth
I can’t believe I have to report this had to be a category of its own, and that I actually REJECTED several other gross mouth photos. Stop trying to pass off gross photos of your mouth as an album cover, people.
The busted lip and broken tooth somehow make this, every so slightly grosser than…
…the also horrifying runner-up. There are many, many other examples this year I won’t pain you with.
Best Minimal Use of Type
WORST / Minimal Type Design
Everything about the Yung Head$hit title and cover make me feel dumber. Creativiting Us: From Darkness To All… the holy what? I assure you this dude’s raps are just as poorly written and executed. It’s legitimately embarrassing. But to top it off, the weird mix of alignment, type-sizes, and just horrible balance are really a headscratcher.
BEST / Most Mixtape-ey Mixtape Cover
Checking all the mixtape boxes is important in a Hip Hop mixtape cover, but this one checked all the boxes and then some. Sure other mixtape covers have a cup of lean, but does even their pitbull have a Rollie and a scale? Probably not. Lil’ Migo has corrected that.
BEST / Album Cover I’d Definitely Play if it was a Mobile Game
Well, you know exactly what kind of glossy math rock this is going to be as an album, but I couldn’t help wishing this was a mobile game! I want to play the old dude with the flamethrower and sword mowing down approaching biplanes with fire! Missed opportunity!
BEST Themed Series of Covers – Cue Dot Records
Some time last year, the experimental and electronic music label Cue Dot Records came up with a simple idea for their album covers: a 5X5 grid of colored circles creating an incredibly low resolution icon. Then, for well over a year, they’ve used this framework to express the concept of the individual artist and album releases they put out.
I couldn’t really pick the best, so I’m just posting most of their release covers for 2021. To see all the rest, just go to the Cue Dot Records bandcamp page.
I particularly love Manfred Hamil’s “Everything Fades” for the clearest illustration of an idea in so very few bits.
If I had to guess, I’d say more heavy metal albums are released than any other single genre. Of course, I’m lumping together Drone Metal, Grindcore, Sludge Metal, Stoner Metal, Black Metal, Industrial Black Metal, Space Metal, Melodic Metal, Thrash Metal, Symphonic Black Metal, Funk Metal, Rap Metal, and a bunch of other metals I can’t even think of right now. If you think I made any of those up, you definitely don’t metal. But now you can get a taste, without even listening to any metal.
That is because heavy metal album covers have their own world. Their own aesthetic. Their own complicated iconography. Get a taste of it here, starting with…
Some metal album covers look like a skilled 7th grader did them, or they’re just so corny you can’t believe an adult thought they were cool.
This is the core of the heavy metal aesthetic. Body horror. Apocalypse. Apocalyptic body horror. Gates opening to hell. Horrific monsters. Dystopian future war. Things growing into or out of people’s faces.
These are the best conventional heavy metal album covers. They’re overdone and gnarly, but in a really cool, balanced way!
You wouldn’t even guess these were heavy metal albums. I laud these albums for taking the Heavy Metal Album Cover in a new direction.
I stopped doing Twitter reviews of bad albums at some point earlier this year. Why? Because no matter how funny my reviews are: no one “likes” bad album covers. Thus, no one sees the reviews. So I’m sure I missed many bad album covers, because I only included ones I posted at the time. Also, there are dozens of bad Hip Hop Mix Tapes released every week and I generally don’t cover them because…I feel like it would veer into actually racist territory. There’s a notable exception on the list.
For instance there are a million of these:
That said, I am absolutely certain that my #1 worst album of the year is actually, objectively the worst album released this year. It would take a very bad album cover indeed to beat it for the rest of the decade, in my opinion. It is horrible. Props to Exclaim’s excellent list. They caught many I missed, and although we disagree on a few, I am happy to say we both agree on the #1 worst album of the year.
Not included are bad heavy metal covers because heavy metal covers are their own genre, and I’m giving them their own list.
#10: Willie Jones – Right Now
#9: Sun Kil Moon – Welcome to Sparks, NV
There are a lot of album covers like this, a cruddy, poorly exposed photo with some lens flare that the artist themselves took. They clearly deluded themselves into thinking was more meaningful than it is. This is just a photo of the sun shining through treetops with lens flare that washes out all the contrast and saturation of the photo. If this was on Instagram you would just scroll right past it, perhaps with a snort. Then he just slapped some white text and a horizontal line on it. Good job, Mark. That really makes me want to listen to more of your depressed warbling.
#8 – BennY RevivaL – GLAAD GAME
Months later, and I still can’t decide how intentionally bad this album cover is. I am all for sex positive gender expression and weirdness, absolutely, but this is an assault on the senses that I can’t let slide. I feel like they promised too many friends a spot on their cover and had like fifteen minutes to put the collage together and run to Kinkos. All the photos mashed together without any kind of border or layout. The font mixing. The white-on-rainbow-in-a-narrow-strip. It all seems designed to harm the eyes. And it’s successful.
#7: Lil Wayne & Rich the Kid – Trust Fund Babies
This is what multi-millionaire entertainer Lil Wayne chose to front his collab mix tape with Rich the Kid. I get that he’s projecting low expectations but damn is it bad.
#6: DoisPes & bedhop – C A F E
If I were going to teach a typography and graphic design class, I could use this album cover as a thesis level study on what not to do. It’s like a parody of bad typography. See if you can identify all the horrifying choices they made.
#5: DJ Blackpower – blp2021: “for ur own good”
#4: “CHAIN GANG HALO WORLD” by BLACK KRAY AKA SICKBOYRARI is LIVE FROM GOTHGANISTAN
I will admit that this recording and album cover no longer really exists on the internet, but it did on August 20th, 2021. However, Goth Money Records still exists and this definitely matches their album cover profile. Allow yourself to just slowly absorb all the elements in this album cover. It’s magnificent. I almost regret putting it in the “Worst Albums” list and not the “Best Albums” list.
#3: Margaret – Maggie Vision
There’s so much glow on Polish hip-hop artist Margaret’s album cover, it’s hard to find an element on it that’s not glowing. The logo is glowing. Maggie herself is glowing. The disco balls are glowing. The overlapping boxes haphazardly laid over each other are glowing. There are a few bonus glowing spheres in the background, just to make sure there’s enough glow.
I actually listened to this album, and it’s a relatively well-produced and enjoyable, if cookie-cutter, Polish pop album. I’m genuinely sad for her that she was saddled with this hack job of an album cover.
#2: Rigo – Pimpin On The Web
Every Friday of the year, there are at least five truly awful Hip Hop mixtape covers. I usually don’t bother to cover them, even though some are laughably bad. But still, I have some special hostility for casual misogyny and glorification of sex trafficking in 2021. The stereotypes here are so ugly, so lazy, so poorly executed, so lumpy and stupid, that I just had to highlight how bad this cover is. It’s sort of like a bad political comic, but even worse.
#1: Drake – Certified Lover Boy
You’ll notice I use the 80’s hip-hop terminology whack here to describe Drake and the fact that he thought this whole thing was a good idea. I use whack instead of some other word to say it sucks for a specific reason. Whack has the connotation in hip-hop terminology to mean not only is an artist is bad, but that they’re embarrassingly bad and they don’t even realize it. They think they’re really good, but their self delusion is part of what makes them and their art suck so badly. That’s why I use the term here liberally, and I’ve never used it more appropriately.
Drake’s incredible achievement of in-poor-taste peak whackness couldn’t have been done alone. Drake actually commissioned the “world famous official fine artist of pure whackness” Damien Hirst. Damien Hirst is the type of guy to:
So, it’s kind of a marriage of whackness made in heaven. I get what he’s going for here but this is multilevel whack on whack on whack. The implication here is that Drake’s “character” in this album, the titular “Certified Lover Boy” is so virile and prolific that he’s an equal opportunity simultaneous impregnator of women of all races and creeds that they can be reduced to an emoji to save time when representing them.
Can this possibly get worse? Yes. Let me provide some context:
A) Had appeared in “blacker-face” for a previous project he did… yes, this is a picture of young Drake:
B) Had a secret love child named Adonis who he was planning on announcing to the world with an Adidas shoe line and press tour.
Pusha T’s rap (which I very highly recommend listening to if you like brutality) basically tanked the Adidas deal (we guess the shoe line must have been called Adidon) and ended Drake’s high batting average of “winning” rap battles in the public eye definitively.
So, to some extent, this album cover can be read as him trying to rebrand himself as someone who’s proud of having fathered a bunch of secret love children. You see where I’m going with how truly whack this is?
When I started looking through album covers late last year, there seemed to be an endless supply of Prog Rock and New Age looking album covers. I started joking with twitter user @ChristyW907 that an album cover could win an award for being “The Most Likely to Contain a Passage of Beguiling Flute™” and I picked a winner every week. Out of the whole year, there were some real standouts, that seemed truly likely to contain beguiling flute.
Elements that generally made an album seem likely were a fantastical landscape, preferably with multiple moons or planets in the background, dreamcatchers, or other wispy fantasy elements.
What is beguiling flute, specifically, you ask? It’s one of those things where when you hear it, you know. It’s a passage of flute that whimsically invites the listener to don a filmy skirt and peasant shirt and dance inexorably towards the unseen flautist.
A note: some of these albums I listened to and confirmed there was, in fact, a passage of beguiling flute, but most don’t really, and the ones that do are lost to time and memory. You’ll have to give every album a listen yourself to find out for sure.
10: Sungazer – Perihelion
An unconventional choice, chosen for looking like a New Agey Prog Rock “project” like The Alan Parson’s Project. There are no moons or planets per se, but I can definitely hear the flute.
#9: Strick – Strick Land
This album has the distinction of being the only album that is both likely to contain beguiling flute, and language that a parent would feel caution about exposing a small child to. While I can’t make out a lot of extra planets in the sky, we’ve got the flute-ception-like fantasy-landscape-within-a-fantasy-landscape, a waterfall, and some sexy beings trapped in crystals. All of these point to beguiling flute.
#8: The Sherlocks – World I Understand
It’s incredible how common a theme interlocking clocks are in prog rock albums. There were actually several that didn’t make the list but seemed even likelier to contain beguiling flute, but World I Understand makes it because I like the concept of their weird steampunk head-device.
#7: Kalidia – Lies’ Device
First of all let’s talk about the placement of the apostrophe in the album title, indicating that the titular “Device” actually belongs to lies themselves. Then we have over-adorned font curlicues in the band title, a symbolic wheel of lies, mysterious occult figures, eyes, and…some tentacles of lies? Either way, I am certain there is going to be beguiling flute inside.
#6: JPL – Sapiens chapitre 2 / 3 : Deus ex Machina
First of all we’ve got the off-brand “Yes”-look-alike logo of JPL. Next we’ve got what looks to be a planet and the planet’s own moon. We’ve got a generic spaceship coming in for a landing. We’ve got a lone figure contemplating the passage of time outside a glimmering city. We’ve got an extremely French multi-part title. All of this points to at least one passage of beguiling flute.
#5: Galaad – Paradis posthumes
Here we have a mandala of vague figures from various belief systems across the world, a hazy treatment, and a distressed fine-art frame. Add the not-quite-well-designed band’s typefaces, and you can be almost certain you’re in for some beguiling flute.
#4: DREAMCATCHER – Dystopia: Road to Utopia
The subtle psychedelic embossed rainbow dreamcatcher seems to almost ensure beguiling flute.
#3: Syrinx Call – Mirrorneuron
I cheated a little and bumped this album up probably further than the cover itself deserved when I found out that German recorder player Volker Kuinke is the main feature of Syrinx Call. Check out the incredible masthead of his website as he passionately recorders like some kind of recorder god:
#2: Emphasis: Spiral of Time
I decided that each moon or planet hanging peacefully in the sky adds to the likelihood of beguiling flute. I feel like the leader of Emphasis sat there next to the designer, asking for yet another moon, until finally he cried out in a Scottish accent, “There’s nae room for anymore moons!” Add a lonely figure. Pair that with the over-adorned “E” in the band’s name, and you’ve got some extreme likelihood.
#1: Joel Vandroogenbroeck – For View
An obvious slam dunk, since there is not only hippie imagery, but actual flute playing is depicted. This is the quintessential beguiling flute indicator. Is it a little on-the-nose? Absolutely. Still, however, the year’s winner of the award.
this blog post is now over, thank you for reading.
as a reminder, it was called: Top 10 Album Covers of 2021 that look “Most Likely to Contain a Passage of Beguiling Flute™”
it's categorized as: Album Covers, Reviews
link to it, please: Tuesday, December 28th, 2021
In 2021: I moved from New York City to a cozy suburb of Chicago and experienced a cavalcade of isolation and personal disasters, so it’s unsurprising that my everyday musical tastes got very comfort-music-y and I embraced a lot of Dad-rock I had once rejected. Was The Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs a little on-the-nose? Apparently not.
It’s odd, I didn’t deeply connect with the albums released in 2021.
I liked and was fascinated by several for sure, but most of what blew me away was not released in 2021, so I’m really focusing on what I personally listened to the most, with NO idea that these are THE BEST. I instead want to highlight some albums that got a little less attention this year that I thought were worth a listen.
With those provisos in place, here, in no particular order, are the sweetest, snobbiest albums of 2021:
Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
How the hell do I sell people on this?! It’s a hard sell! It’s aimless (but good) guitar strumming over laconic talk-singing by a smartass white lady.
BUT! The guitar music is good and has its own propulsion, and provides counterpoint to Florence Shaw’s calm and knowing talk-singing.
AND! Let’s get this 100% clear: she is hilarious. Like constantly hilarious. She drops a never-ending bone-dry commentary on life filled with little acidic bon mots without a chorus in sight. On one level she’s just nattering on like someone’s cynical aunt:
Will there be a hairdryer in my state room or should I bring one? What about shampoo? Will we be able to have laundry done on the ship? And what are the prices? Are thеre some kind of revеrse platforms, shoes that make you go into the ground more? Make you reach a lower level? Nevermind Would you choose a dentist with a messy back garden like that? I don’t think so
BUT! as she natters on, you begin to see shape in her endless wit. A worldview. A place you want to live; the guitar jangles on. I love it. I aspire to be so cool. And no, I wouldn’t choose a dentist with a messy back garden.
Villagers – Fever Dreams
This was the indie symphonic prog record of my dreams. Just when Jim James stopped making great solo albums and went back to making mediocre My Morning Jacket albums, there’s Villagers to pick up the slack of making heartfelt, plainly spoken and richly ornamented pop music to keep life sweet.
I notably discovered this album by being fascinated by the excellent cover of a giant magical bear resting(/creeping) by the poolside, and knew I had to know what was in the box.
What’s in the box is a lovingly crafted indie rock friend.
Kissed Her Little Sister – sleeping giant
I have been following this dude since he blew me away with his first album, now available only on Bandcamp. He was mixing his weirdo falsetto with heavy distortion, some turntablism and electronic experimentation to match some of the best of Four Tet, They Might Be Giants, Blockhead, Dan Deacon or anyone who makes super interesting chopped-and-screwed-nerd music. A couple of the best examples of this early genius is the nutso beat box masterpiece “My Dreams are Television” or his bizarre mashup of actual Pink Floyd samples and Johnny Cash vibes in the twisted cover of “Cocaine“.
He’s too restless and uncompromising an artist to keep doing the same type of stuff, and his new album is an explosion of electronic music and hyper-pop-freak-folk. My favorite songs on his new album are the wordless ones like “way to go“, “morning never come“, and “hush“. He’s bringing much more electronic music innovation into the party like a Chris Clark or Jamie XX. His songs keep surprising you throughout their length. This album is restless, exciting, and worth some of your time.
Helado Negro – Far In
This is an album of such smooth and aching beauty. This is an album that can engulf me. Roberto Carlos Lange’s voice and delivery is in a class of its own, uniquely Latin, uniquely smooth, uniquely expressive. The final four song suite on the album is almost impossibly lovely and atmospheric. Roberto’s voice sounds like a woodwind instrument and they pair it with actual woodwinds, digital filigrees, and heavily processed drum sounds to great effect.
Mexican Institute of Sound – Distrito Federal
I bet the Mexican Institute of Sound loves the Latin Playboys’ song “Same Brown Earth” where a symphony of car horns is the primary instrument, judging by their song “El Antídoto“. They take that vibe and make a giant, electro-funky party out of it. There is not a bad track on here, and you could make a whole real party out of this while you make red pozole like me and my friend Chris did.
Mariah the Scientist – RY RY WORLD
Her voice is beautiful, and she sings about dark themes, which puts here in the same damn lane as SZA, Kehlani, and probably 20 other neo-soul-R&B ladies out there already killing it.
So what does Mariah the Scientist bring to the table that they don’t?
I’ve listened to her first album, 2019’s MASTER at least as many times as I’ve listened to SZA’s CTRL and I still can’t quite tell you. She has some kind of knowing way with her phrasing. She’s a sex magnet. What can I say?
I love her, I love her songwriting, I love her sexy, dry delivery, and I’m still not sure why I find her so extraordinary. RY RY WORLD is just not as strong as MASTER is, which I think is an unbelievably slept-on slug of pure dark Frank Ocean-inspired pleasure, but it is still damn good.
Matthew E. White – K Bay
Matthew E. White has a lot of influences. I could list all the “experimental but still truly rockin'” 60’s and 70’s bands or sly singer-songwriters he reminds me of (XTC, T. Rex, Frank Zappa, Randy Newman, Steely Dan, maybe even Billy Joel?), but I won’t because he manages to smash them all into a ball and add something uniquely his own, while keeping it smooth and listenable at all times with his silky baritone and good humor.
Faye Webster – I Know I’m Funny haha
Faye Webster is funny (haha). She’s funny, sly, sultry, and in her own quiet way, majestic. Majestic like Carole King in her elevation of everyday experience. This is probably not her best album, but it is still damn good. Everything about Faye Webster’s style is laid back: her vocal delivery, the chill steel guitar that winds its way around the background, the gently brushed drums. Her wit, however, is sharp, and she manages to uniquely pair wryness with real emotional sincerity.
I like having a place to send people for music recommendations they might not have heard. This post is the place.
This is a categorized list of 30 albums I really love, that you might not have heard of. If you’ve heard every single one, you can feel free to let me know and I will try and come up with even more obscure suggestions just for you.
I personally recommend every single one of these albums, and have included a mini-review to help you decide if it’s the type of thing you like.
Organized into categories for your listening pleasure:
~ 60’s-70’s ~
1. Stan Getz – Focus: Instead of coasting on the fame of his Bossa Nova megahit album Getz/Gilberto, he did all kinds of other great work. In Focus, Stan commissioned a whole string arrangement, and then improvised saxophone over it the first time he heard it. It’s honestly goddamn thrilling.
2. The Youngbloods – Elephant Mountain: Youngbloods, the one-hit wonder who did “Come On” (people now, smile on your brother everybody get together try to love one another right now), also did this incredibly beautiful, pastoral rock album with a gorgeous vibe. Very slept on.
3. Funkadelic – Maggotbrain: Everyone’s heard of this, right? This one’s a “just in case” because it’s so damn good. Starts off with a long “best ever” guitar solo (George Clinton reportedly told Eddie Hazel to play like his momma died), then three ROCK SOLID funk songs that are truly unfuckwithable, then an amazing symphony of noise and destruction. One of the best albums of all time.
~ hip hop ~
4. P.O.S. – Never Better: Bush-era Minnesota rap, POS was literally never better. Truly dizzying raps and razor sharp wit over beats that slap your mom.
5. Qwel & Maker – Owl: Totally slept on rock-solid bars on bars on bars 90’s style. Found this on a reddit thread of slept on albums and it’s been a favorite ever since.
6. Why? – Alopecia: Weird nasally white dude rap but some really classic, quotable unforgettable lyrics and jams
7. Tierra Whack – Whack World: 15 minutes, 15 incredible 1-minute rap songs. just watch the video:
~ noise / electronic / ambient ~
8. Four Tet – There is Love in You: Just one of the most beautiful electronic music albums of all time.
9. Ben Frost – By the Throat: Dark, horror-ambient. Guttural, sinister electronic sounds, but somehow with a sense of humor.
10. Andy Stott – Luxury Problems: Crunchy ugly-beautiful beats that sound different than anything anyone has ever done.
11. Untogether – Blue Hawaii: Super etherial beats and fragmented song structure. Gorgeous and haunting.
12. Weval – Weval: Cool, almost danceable beats, usually with one well-placed vocal sample. I can put it on almost any time.
~ dream-pop-y ~
13. Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation: Tender yearning personified. One of my favorite bedroom recordings of all time. To me there aren’t even individual songs, just one beautiful mood.
14. Sunny Day in Glasgow – Sea When Absent: Explosive quiet/loud dynamics and just in general an evolution from Loveless that I think is enjoyable.
15. The Clientele – Suburban Light: The sunday album you put on when you don’t know what to put on after Blonde? A timeless, hazy gorgeous album that feels like looking out a rain-clouded window.
16. Real Estate – Real Estate: Also one beautiful mood. I’m honestly misclassifying this as dream pop. It’s more like a kind of dreamy surf rock with singing. Production is a little lo-fi but that only adds to its charm.
17. Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas: Probably part of the early genesis of dream pop. A heedlessly beautiful album that sparkles with actual magic.
~ country / americana / folky ~
18. Ohio – Over the Rhine: A crushingly beautiful double album. A husband and wife team makes a towering work very few people have heard of.
19. Neko Case – Furnace Room Lullaby: To me this is the ultimate Neko Case album. An unparalleled vocal powerhouse at the height of her songwriting powers.
20. M. Ward – Post-War: Songs I’d sing to my kids, if I had any. Timeless.
~ weird ~
21. kissed her little sister – HIGHandLOW: I think this one is Bandcamp only. A truly weird and hilarious low-fi mix of turntablism and singer-songwriteriness. Truly among the most hidden of gems.
22. Mr. Bungle – California: A singular album. A bizarre mish-mash of styles roughly based around a kind of demented surf rock. Mike Patton is a genius.
~ rock / jam ~
23. Plants and Animals – Parc Avenue: A band that never made another masterwork quite like this again. A beautiful journey.
24. Okkervil River – The Stage Names: Some seriously deep and funny and passionate rock and roll.
25. The Dodos – Visiter: Gorgeous singing, hilariously touching songs, balls out messy percussion, heart, spirit.
26. White Denim – Last Days of Summer: White Denim is a crazy experimental Austin rock band that has done a lot of interesting work. For pure pleasure, however, nothing they’ve done is as good as Last Days of Summer. It’s like caramel poured over fresh strawberries and still just enough musically experimental to be amazing.
~ mellow / soul / chill ~
27. How to Dress Well – Love Remains: Some of the genesis of lo-fi “PBR&B”, but hardly ever done as well. Later this same dude started making very clear recordings, but it’s this early, distorted, hopeless music that made me love him.
28. Mija – HOW TO MEASURE THE DISTANCE BETWEEN LOVERS: Criminally slept on EP of ethereal electronic / neo-soul.
~ pop adjacent ~
29. Kelis – Tasty: Everyone knows the song “Milkshake”, but not everyone knows there’s an incredible album built around it, along with an awesome Andre 3000 feature.
30. Sia – Healing is Difficult: Before Sia even bothered to hide her face, she made this brilliant album. No one has a voice like hers, and no one knows how to make dark, thorny, vulnerable songs like her. This album is a treasure.
Well, there you go. 30 albums. Surely you haven’t heard every single one?
this blog post is now over, thank you for reading.
as a reminder, it was called: 30 Awesome, Underrated, Sweet, Snobby Albums
it's categorized as: Albums
link to it, please: Tuesday, January 26th, 2021
If Cobain was alive today, he’d like Girlpool. Somewhere West of the Vaselines. Alternately cooing and shredding. Song: Soup
9. Alex Cameron: Forced Witness:
Alex Cameron plays a character a little like Tom Waits, but less knowing, more confused, more innocent, more loungey, more uses of the word “pussy”. Song: Chihuahua
8. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
I love Vince Staples. He took some real chances here and made an actually experimental rap album. Vince Staples is the king of making songs that aren’t what they seem to be about. It’s fantastic. Song: Rain Come Down
7. Lorde – Melodrama
Liability was an anthem for me. A song where if I played it for friends they’d silently listen with me and then look at me and say, “Ow.”
6. Sheer Mag – Need to Feel Your Love
If this was coming out of my transistor radio while I jumped in the lake in cutoffs, I’d feel like life was good. Song: Expect the Bayonet
5. Cigarettes After Sex – Cigarettes After Sex
Yeah, it’s what it sounds like. Sade, Goldfrapp, Everything but the Girl. That kind of stuff, and very well done. Song: Each Time You Fall in Love
4. Sampha – Process
A vocalist like no other. A mix of grief, paranoia, and hope, but with a little grime. Song: Blood on Me [for beats] and Nobody Knows Me Like The Piano (In My Mother’s Home) [for the pure beauty]
3. Sophia Kennedy – Sophia Kennedy
Vivacious, beautiful, honest, original music. Great percussion and production, great singing, unorthodox songwriting. Song: Kimono Hill
2. King Kendrick (Pulitzer Recipient) – DAMN.
Kendrick really knows how to make himself a part of the national conversation, that’s for sure. Three days after this album came out, I walked by a young girl singing, “They won’t take me out my ELEMENT.” and I thought, that’s right, girl. Plus a U2 feature?!?!?! He can write his own rules still. Song: FEAR.
1. Amber Mark – 3:33
I listened to the 7 songs on this album, and their 4 remixes more than any other music this year. I honestly can’t explain why it has the hold on me that it does, but there is not one wasted or imperfect second on this album. I never want to skip anything. It’s hard to think of what to play after it. A hopeful album dealing with her mother’s death, handled with such ebullient and lovely energy. It uplifts me every time. Song: Monsoon
These were the albums that rocked me this year. Special thanks to Sean Glenn for his help and free labor with the sweet, sweet day-glo cover graphics.
10. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
Alabama Shakes were a damn good blues rock outfit with a unique and androgynous female singer but nothing that would make you drop your drink. Then they evidently decided to craft something extraordinary. The guitar sound is luscious and confident, dare I say, stanky? It’s like Al Green meets Houses of the Holy-era Led Zeppelin? This album will make your day.
Hard to pick a song since the styles are all over the map, but I’ll pick the mellow and sweet “Guess Who” for it’s utterly delicious guitar sound:
9. Shamir – Ratchet
Shamir has a really fruity countertenor singing voice. So, growing up in the shitty part of Las Vegas, a few people have had to find out the hard way that he’s a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He’s also a black belt in confident brattiness. At twenty-one, he’s a fully formed artist.
He’s luminous in interviews. He’s friendly, funny, sweet, and smart. And his act is dope. It’s a kind of hybrid modern electronic disco base, and then he sets you down easy with some mellow ballads at the end. This year it was voted most-likely-to-make-me-stand-up-from-the-computer-chair-and-shake-my-ass.
I will share with you the voted-most-likely-to-make-me-shake-my-ass-in-my-living-room “Call It Off”:
8. Viet Cong – Viet Cong
I don’t know, spend a minute on Wikipedia before you go pick a band name, ok? Viet Cong turned out a really badass psychedelic noise-rock album for a debut album. They’re young guys and the term Viet Cong just sounded cool to them, I’m guessing. So I feel bad for them that the debate about it bit them so hard. It got them some attention but it detracted from the smear of grey, beige, and bright Day-Glo green that make up their music. Their debut is imaginative and powerful. I want to go back and listen to some Velvet Underground and some early Pink Floyd though. The closer, Death, is quite a ride.
Addendum: Evidently they did decide to change their name but the new name is still TBA.
I present the mighty 11-minute epic album closer “Death”:
7. Empress Of – Her
There’s a quiet, self-empowered party happening. You can dance to it but only move your toes and elbows and eyelids. Lorely Rodriguez is doing something special here. She has the vocal timing of a rapper, and she engineered absolutely everything about this album. I feel inspired every time I listen to it.
There’s songs about being surprised that you could let another human being really satisfy you, and there’s songs about not needing anyone else and being devoted to only satisfying yourself. Somehow they go together perfectly on this album.
The effortlessly beautiful and exciting “Standard” is what really does it for me:
6. Jamie XX – In Colour
Jamie XX was already half of one indie-famous band (he gentle, intimate singing of The XX), so it’s almost unfair that he’d come up with a totally different project and have it turn super successful. He’d always been a DJ, and in his live shows he started to develop his own style of dance music that blended turntablism with a variety of hip-hop and dance traditions.
The variety and beauty of this album is overwhelming, and it makes use of the best headphones or speakers you could possibly put it on. It’s an album to soundtrack the best moments in your life, when you just found out something lifechanging and you’re driving up Lake Shore Drive from the south in Chicago to start a new existence and you see the skyline suddenly loom above you.
The song “Gosh” is the song that really made me say, “Oh My Gosh”:
5. Bjork – Vulnicura
I thought Bjork had made her last really incredible album. I was wrong. When I’m prepared for it, I listen to this album, and it blows me away anew each time. I went to see her in concert for the first time on this tour and it’s one of the best shows I’ve been to. She had a line of string musicians on stage, and behind them, a visualization of the incredibly complex electronic drum pulsations that make up the songs. It let you see the inner gears of each song, like a live version of the Song Exploder podcast (a podcast for which artists deconstruct a song and talk about its evolution).
A lot was made of her “diaristic” tone (which is seriously just annoying sexism). I just like to think of this album as a bookend to her 2001 album, Vespertine, on which she tells the story of falling in love with her (at the time soon-to-be) husband, artist Matthew Barney. Two or three albums and children later she’s now telling the story of the dissolution of that relationship–and it is crushing.
I probably only listened to the album 5 total times this year, because that’s all I could handle, but every time I listened to it, I let it wash over me and I was impressed anew.
Here’s the short, emotionally-raw, “History of Touches”:
4. Hop Along – Painted Shut
No one sings like Frances Quinlan. She alternates between a Janice Joplin-like scream-moan, a Tiny Tim-like falsetto, and her regular power-rock chest voice. It’s an impressive toolset and she uses it for telling some killer stories.
Hop Along went from a band I listened to a couple of times and thought of as kind of anonymous rock—to the only band I could listen to for a months. I went and watched every live performance I could find on YouTube because Frances genuinely brings some new type of howl to every vocal performance.
On the most obvious level they’re a modern Philadelphia art-grunge band with an interesting singer. On the next level though, they have a perfect way of burying the lede in every song. The songs all start out a little boring because it’s their way to build up to the payoff. So it’s not like you hear the beginning of a song and think, “Oh, I’m gonna like this!” It’s more like you get to the crescendo and finally realize where it was going all along and you say, “Ohhhhhhhh.” Then you sing that hook to yourself in the shower and you can’t remember what song it went to-even if you listen to the beginning of every song on the album.
In the song “Waitress”, she sings about being a waitress in a diner and seeing someone who probably knew her and “the worst possible version of what I’d done” and then just hangs around long after closing. “The world’s grown so small and embarrassing” she sings. Boy do I know that feeling:
3. Vince Staples – Summertime ‘06
“I feel like ‘Fuck Versace’, they rapin’ nigga’s pockets.” said Vince Staples, on his song Lift Me Up. Somebody had to say it.
If you’re not used to listening to rap, and the roughness of its themes sometimes, then this album could be a hard listen. But it’s a worthwhile listen, and an inspiring one.
Vince Staples grew up in the rough neighborhood of Ramona Park in California Over rough, thick, sexy, thrumming beats, Vince tells the stories about growing up there and his lifechanging summer in 2006 when he got more involved in making music than gangs.
Vince’s last album Hell Can Wait, was about being a kid in Ramona Park and had unbelievably creepy and astounding songs like Screen Door, describing what it felt like to be a little kid with drug dealer parents and wondering “Who’s that peepin’ through the screen door?” This guy can tell a story and he tells them with such dark straight-faced dexterity.
So, in Summertime ‘06 he broadens the scope. Ice Cube told similar gang stories, connecting them to political and race realities, but Vince doesn’t try to make it all sound so cool. He’s not selling it as a lifestyle. As an example, the song Jump Off The Roof is one of the best songs on the album. He’s talking in first person about coming off crack cocaine and considering jumping off the roof just to feel alive. It’s an exciting song and I originally thought he was in some way glorifying this nihlistic mentality…until I read in an interview that it’s paraphrased from things his dad said to him while high while he was a kid.
Vince Staples never cracks a smile. He just spits his stories and paints these vivid dark pictures… I’m pretty sure there’s hope in there somewhere, but it’s admittedly buried a little deep.
On three let’s “Jump Off the Roof”:
2. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
I tried to listen to solo albums released by J. Tillman. Mostly it’s a depressing snooze fest comprised of monotone songs sung in a hushed way to gentle guitar music. That’s why it was so shocking when Father John Misty emerged as if a new man, with his “first” album Fear Fun a few years ago. I guess it’s technically the same human being.
Suddenly there was a howling wolf of a mad lunatic crooner, alternating between full throated singing and the sweetest falsettos behind rich orchestration. Now he’s back with his second album. He’s more in love, and more powerful, and meaner. He’s daring you to guess when he’s in character and when he’s not. I’ve got him figured out, though; he’s both, all the time.
He’s not just a musician. He’s a modern warlock of song. He’s the trickster spirit of the Rat Pack. These two albums are classics and when your kids come across them twenty years from now they’ll ask you you ever heard of him and you’ll smile knowingly.
Lastly, let’s address the charges of misogyny. My guess is that people are talking primarily about the song The Night Josh Tillman Came to our Apartment in which he spits venom (perhaps in a character) about someone he has a great deal of disdain for. It’s all been dismantled in think-pieces far better than I care to, but here’s some good parsing by NPR, The 405, and IndyWeek. I think misogyny is something Josh Tillman is struggling with, and not something he accepts within himself in an unexamined way. Sure there’s mysogyny, but there’s self-hate for it, too, and he’s not sure what to do about it. This his version of the old Nirvana chestnut “Love myself / better than you / I know it’s wrong / but what should I do?”
“Strange Encounter” has everything, soaring vocals, odd guitar, massive orchestration, the whole package:
1. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Yeah, what else could the top spot be? I’ve read so many think-pieces about this album my head spins. Even backlash think-pieces that talk about how weird and difficult, thus, overrated it is. But hey, let’s not kid ourselves, the same think-pieces and praise went to Stevie Wonder’s jazzier, more difficult albums, and that doesn’t change the fact that they’re towering masterpieces on the whole.
Kendrick Lamar is a vocal performer and writer par excellence, with his finger on the pulse of humanity. Sometimes he can be too ham-handed (How Much a Dollar Cost). Sometimes he can be too thorny and abstruse. Fine. No one else came close to reaching so high this year musically, against unbelievably high expectations, and came up with something that everyone had to admit was a stunning statement.
Partially because the video is so good, I think “Alright” is the perfect song to feature:
And last, but not least:
Extremely Honorable Mentions:
U.S. Girls – Half Free: Growling and purring rock that’s a little Liz Phair-ey and all cool. Pond – Man It Feels Like Space Again: Modern groovy psychadelic rock Neon Indian – VEGA INTL. Night School: So ugly it’s beautiful synth rock in an 80’s palette Czarface – Every Hero Needs A Villian: Kaleidoscopic old-school rap done right with enough cleverness in one song to fill out ten albums. FKA twigs – M3LL155X EP: Something amazing to hold us over until her next album. Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION: Tiny, perfect pop jewel. Joanna Newsom – Divers: Our reigning queen of poetry and world creation graces us with another towering work it will take years to fully parse. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell: Sufjan quietly and meditatively muses on finally losing his addict mother. I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside – Earl Sweatshirt: A quiet masterpiece of elegant poetic misanthropy. Young Thug – Barter 6: Whatever Lil’ Wayne did right, Young Thug does better Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass: Lush orchestration and great songwriting
Stuff I Wish I’d Had Time To Listen To More:
Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer Surf – Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment Deerhunter – Fading Frontier Lanal Del Rey – Honeymoon Blackalicious – Imani Vol. 1