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?
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.