Sunday, December 12, 2021

Top Albums of 2021

The beginning of this year looked incredibly different from today: Since January, we've watched the world unfurl after having been caught in gridlock for months. As the wheels of society start to turn once again, nature might just be healing. After all, in the last few months alone, anti-vaxx spokesperson Nicki Minaj's cousin's friend became impotent after his COVID vaccination, Mariah Carey took over literally the entire McDonald's menu, and Kristin Stewart delivered a legitimately brilliant performance as Princess Diana. Crazier things have happened, my friends!

As artists focused on returning to the road and Tik Tok continued to pull songs out of relative obscurity and back into public consciousness, this year certainly won't be remembered for its quantity in music releases. These albums, however, were on heavy rotation in my house this year.


Once a no-frills acoustic singer-songwriter outfit, The Weather Station has gained enough comfort with sonic texture over its tenure in folk music to apply a progressive definition to the genre: The result is Ignorance, a bolder statement that does not dare mince Lindeman's thoughts on this generation's most prominent socioeconomic worries, even if it does prove to be pleasantly digressive in its musical touchpoints. Opening with its most ambitious material, Ignorance admittedly decelerates in intensity as it continue. But the sparse "Subdivisions" better asserts its narrative of a lonely winter's drive to close the record: "What if I misjudged? In the wildest of emotions, did I take this way too far?" A record that so often carried grief on a granular level over a widescale crisis comes to a soft yet curiously inconclusive landing point – and it's an ending that only emphasizes there's still more to learn. Read the full review.


Even despite its pitfalls, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power becomes Halsey's most uniform and interesting effort since Badlands. Flipping motherhood on its head, Halsey focuses on the underrepresented terror that surely ensues as a pregnancy matures: Far beyond the bodily manipulations that must occur to support another life, she faces the magnified responsibility and the potential motherly schism in public image. “You Asked for This,” for one, declares, “You wished upon a falling star, and then left behind the avant garde for lemonade in crystal glasses, picket fences, file taxes.” Fearing the loss of individuality, she channels anxiety into an exercise of power dynamics: How we identify power, how we gain it, how we leverage it, and ultimately, how we relinquish it to benefit another. The pathway there is littered in high drama and imaginative verbosity – but those are the landmarks that remind us it’s a Halsey record. And it’s a pretty good one at that. Read the full review.


While sessions for Blue Weekend were already underway prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, last year’s isolation was spent in part with producer Markus Dravs, who had a hand in both Coldplay and Florence + The Machine’s best albums. The resulting material presents a Wolf Alice with no option but to reflect on their half-completed work – and through that process, their career-best material was extracted. This record is free of any aimless meandering or harsh pivots, and instead, the songs coalesce into an engaging portrait of a band attempting to deduce what they want from their career, relationships, and life at large. Even to someone who hadn’t recognized their allure with previous records, Blue Weekend cements Wolf Alice’s well-deserved top billing in today’s alternative rock music landscape. Read the full review.


Despite its inspiration, Star-Crossed is an easy, encapsulating listen. The songs share the same DNA, creating a starry blanket across the freshly blackened sky. Musgraves’ vocals sink into each song’s plush production work, insulating her stanzas and embedding her voice into the framework. Ultimately, she has created a crash pad to absorb the impact of her imploded relationship. The songwriting almost snips the theses out of her stories, saving only the metaphoric musings to swirl around the dilated soundscapes. In turn, Star-Crossed isn’t the transformative exploration of a specific feeling that Golden Hour was. It smooths the sharp lines in a difficult yet life-redefining situation, rendering a record that, yes, can sometimes feel somewhat detached from its core. But perhaps that’s the lesson: Life happens. It’s painful. We cope. We heal. We move on. Sometimes, we're just star-crossed. Read the full review.


Upon first listen, it’s easy to tell what Blue Banisters is not. It is not the kind of high gloss record that made Lana Del Rey a musical harbinger. It is not always pretty or even particularly interesting, but this record is also not as insulated or as deflective, either. It takes time with Blue Banisters to understand just how many bricks the record pulls from the retaining wall between the person and the persona. Even for how clunky the songwriting can become as she rushes through stanzas to squeeze in every last detail, the songs expose her hardwiring in ways her past major label records couldn’t consistently achieve. It would be unwise to call the record a return to pre-fame form for Lana Del Rey, among the most unpredictable power figures in popular music. We can never be sure where she’s going next, but what’s important about Blue Banisters is that she didn’t go anywhere at all – and it left her no option but to inspect a harsh reflection in front of her. Read the full review.


On Letter Blue, the three members of Wet reimagine the band into an alternate musical timeline – one in which the band further indulges widescreen electronic backgrounds and snappy drums, allowing those elements to become the prominent musical foundation rather than supplemental supports. The three have produced some of their most interesting music yet, but Letter Blue still catalogs and processes a range of residual emotions from the band’s recent past. Whether it’s considered balance or imbalance, shifting emotions are splattered across the record, sometimes all at once. And it all stems from a restored equilibrium in Wet – a band that, even when delivering a somewhat unlevel and transitional record, always manages to suspend their music in the eye of a magnificent emotional storm. Read the full review.


Valentine torches a path that its predecessor failed to forge: Its use of guitars and keys are crunchier and more interactive, and its tight melodies sizzle before they burn. Jordan is a full-grown rocker now, having toured a record, gone through a bad relationship or two, and spent time in rehab – and she sounds like it. Every line reads poetic but with purpose, as Jordan commits to her feelings without reservations: Not many people could sound so confident in declaring, “I’m like your dog,” or “You owe me. You own me,” to an ex-partner. The record’s buzzier rock influences feel more actualized than her last record, managing to dissolve the barrier between the burning fires of obsession and the persistent nag of envy. In a robust display of arms, the record proves there’s no chance of forgetting that soured valentine. Read the full review.


Despite the flat talking points used to describe this record in the press, Clark pulls a two-dimension touchpoint into an incredibly dynamic space on Daddy's Home. No matter the viewfinder through which the record is framed – the musical side effect of normality’s collapse and slow revival in the past year, an overdue coping mechanism, or a vintage psychological thriller from an East Coast art student – Daddy's Home just works. Aside from the title track’s outward sarcasm, Clark digs to the crux of her struggles and communicates them through loose production and appropriately tattered vocal delivery. Moreover, Clark releases herself from a years-long obligation to go rougher, sharper, and more aggressive, and in doing so, this music breathes – something that, as a listener who entered her career at the self-titled record, I didn’t know I needed from a St. Vincent record. And as unexpected as it is, this one is another triumph shrink-wrapped in slinky sepia packaging. Read the full review.


Screen Violence is a tense listen, uncompromising in the band’s rejection of fame. “And it feels like the weight is too much to carry. I should quit, maybe go get married,” she sings on “Final Girl,” perhaps the darkest reflection of Mayberry’s experiences. The band’s production choices – this time, they electrify their synthpop with a barbed progressive rock – only intensify the internal struggle between pushing forward or retreating to comfort. While this record bears more semblance to the band’s first two than their third, the band aggregates lessons from them all to craft their most gripping record yet. It glorifies our complicated relationship with broadcasted (or more fittingly for this side of the year 2000, streamed) trauma: Why can’t we look away from the scene, even when we are the victims on the screen? Will things ever be as good as they once were? Is there any way to persevere through the pain of unjust wounds? There absolutely is, and it sounds a lot like Screen Violence. Read the full review.


With a huge canyon of time between Aly & AJ’s last album and this one, most folks gave A Touch of the Beat an honorary “comeback album” stamp – a type of record that, frankly, doesn’t often compete in the same bracket as its idealized predecessors despite high anticipation. Soaring well above any pressure to recreate their past lives as teen pop-rockers, this record doesn’t at all listen like one with anything to prove. The album spills out in impassioned one-liners and balanced vocal work between Aly & AJ, carrying itself with the same natural progression in which it was produced: Life happens, people grow, and eventually, some beauty can be made of it all. If a record takes 14 years to produce, so be it – but the end product should always be as inexplicably spotless as this one. Read the full review.

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