Best Albums of 2021, Part 4

3. Yola, Stand For Myself

If a first album’s an introduction by default, a second album can be a continuation, a refinement, an advance, even a departure. Stand For Myself is all of these things, with this British-born, Nashville-based artist once again defying categorization. She draws freely from rock, folk, R&B and country, expanding her palette to include Al Green-like soul (“Dancing Away In Tears”), Dolly Parton-worthy protest song (“9 to 5” update “Diamond Studded Shoes”) and honky-tonk stomp (“Whatever You Want”). Her voice stronger and more confident than ever, she even reaches a turning point/place of grand catharsis on the closing title track, a thunderous, self-worth anthem/epiphany that bodes well for however she’ll next enhance or expand her sound.

Standout track: “Stand For Myself”

2. Cassandra Jenkins, An Overview On Phenomenal Nature

The title comes from “Hard Drive”, which I nearly predicted would be my most listened-to track of the year upon first hearing it in early March. Resembling Jane Siberry speaking/singing over Kaputt-era Destroyer, it conveys renewal and resilience following a period of turbulence and loss. Arriving at a time I most needed it, the song’s merely the centerpiece of a short (31 minutes) but complete album. Jenkins’ second, it continues this year’s theme of finding beauty in stillness and presence even as it delves into the sorrow of a friend’s passing (“Ambiguous Norway”, a tribute to David Berman) or the sharpness of a self-critique (“Michelangelo”). And the ambient, seven-minute “The Ramble” emerges at the end as a sustained grace note.

Standout track: “Hard Drive”

1. Aimee Mann, Queens Of The Summer Hotel

Aimee Mann’s first three solo albums are among my all-time favorites; her subsequent work ranges from pleasant rehashes (The Forgotten Arm) to uneven experiments (Charmer) to just plain meh (Lost In Space). Her latest consists of songs written for a stage musical adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl, Interrupted that was put on hold due to COVID. Pre-release singles like “Suicide Is Murder” and “Burn It Out” seemed pleasant enough in isolation, so imagine my surprise when the whole album proved her most cohesive work in decades. Drawing primarily from Mann’s acoustic, baroque, chamber-pop side (think “Mr. Harris”, “Satellite”, “Ballantines”), these lovingly crafted, piano-heavy miniatures find her at a new melodic peak. Although she’s tried on a variety of musical settings since her ‘Til Tuesday days, this might be her best fit yet. Suddenly, her long-gestating plan to turn The Forgotten Arm into its own musical makes sense.

Standout tracks: “You Don’t Have The Room”, “At The Frick Museum”

Best Albums of 2021, Part 3

7. José González, Local Valley

Lately, I’ve been into quieter, calmer sounds than usual; cue my age or maybe just a craving for serenity in these volatile times. González doesn’t record all that often, so his first studio album in six years is indeed a balm. He occasionally refreshes his acoustic palette, inserting a polite, thumping beat into “Swing” and veering closer than ever to jam-band territory on “Tjomme”. However, I’m still enamored with how much presence and feeling of divine inspiration he attains from the spare, guitar-and-voice settings dominating this lovely set, especially in the back-to-back awe of “The Void” and “Horizons” which glisten like mirror images of each other.

Standout track: “Visions”

6. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra, Promises

The year’s least likely event album is an instrumental suite composed by a young British electronic musician, augmented by the London Symphony Orchestra and made transcendent by 80-year-old jazz saxophonist Sanders—the first major release with his name on it in two decades. Built mostly around a recurring melodic flourish and divided into nine “movements”, it’s most powerful when heard in its 46-minute entirety. Like the two halves of In A Silent Way or four parts of A Love Supreme, play it on an endless loop and listen for new motifs and hidden treasures to reveal themselves each cycle through.

Standout track: All of them.

5. Saint Etienne, I’ve Been Trying To Tell You

Renowned for their pop acumen (any of their singles collections are wall-to-wall bops), there’s always been another side to this British trio—an experimental streak that occasionally surfaces in instrumental album tracks, B-sides and fan club releases. Their tenth studio album is the first to give itself entirely over to this side, eschewing hooks for sample-heavy tone poems built out of cuts from such fin de siècle UK artists as Samantha Mumba, Lighthouse Family and The Lightning Seeds. Although it could use more Sarah Cracknell (anything could, really), whose sighs and spoken-word interludes serve as a spectral presence, this is the most forward-looking music they’ve recorded in some time.

Standout track: “Penlop”

4. The Weather Station, Ignorance

Previously unfamiliar with Tamara Lindeman’s long-running music project, Spotify kept recommending various tracks from this, her breakthrough LP until I broke down and listened to the entire thing on a warm, early Autumn afternoon walk. While the streamer’s suggestions don’t always hit the mark, this one did, bringing to mind many female singer/songwriters I love while remaining its own thing (vocally, Lindeman’s closest to Vienna Teng, who has had little output as of late.) Ecology-minded without the preachiness (titles include “Tried To Tell You”, “Parking Lot” and “Subdivisions”), catchy without ever seeming obvious, it’s both full of simple pleasures and quietly (that word again!) revelatory.

Standout track: “Parking Lot”

Best Albums of 2021, Part 2

11. Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark

The year’s least likely reunion (more so than Kings of Convenience.) Once immortalized in a Belle and Sebastian song, this Scottish duo always sounded much older than they were (thanks to Aidan Moffat’s thick, mucky brogue); it so follows that, now middle-aged and together again after 15 years, their sly observations and spoken-word reveries snugly fit into their eclectic folk-rock like an old brown shoe, albeit one still dodging the occasional spikes of memory, aging and such newfound wonders as being moved to tears when watching The Muppet Movie with your kid.

Standout track: “Here Comes Comus!”

10. Tori Amos, Ocean To Ocean

Having recalibrated her approach a few albums back—i.e., dispensing with the hour-plus running times and overarching concepts, Amos is on a minor late-career streak like 1990s Joni Mitchell. Though her latest isn’t as incendiary or innovative as her own 90s work, it’s suffused with emotion inspired by current events (like her post-9/11 travelogue Scarlet’s Walk), only on a more intimate scale. When she strips back down to just piano and voice (“Flowers Burn To Gold”), it’s so effective and startling one regrets having ever doubting her continued relevancy.

Standout track: “Flowers Burn To Gold”

9. Lord Huron, Long Lost

The fourth album from this roots-rock quartet emanates from the speakers like an unearthed, vintage radio broadcast: brief, spoken interludes weave together country ballads (“I Lied”), rockabilly raves (“Not Dead Yet”) and Technicolor retro-pop (“Mine Forever”) full of sweeping strings, Duane Eddy-style guitar, lots of reverb and a fair amount of extra space to move around and explore within. Not all that dissimilar from the three albums preceding it, but even with its concluding 15-minute ambient drone, it feels more complete.

Standout track: “Not Dead Yet”

8. Field Music, Flat White Moon

Following last year’s Making A New World, an ambitious concept album about the after-effects of World War I that felt a little overcooked, the Brewis Brothers present its near-antithesis—song-oriented, ultra-melodic and stacked with hooks. Truthfully, it could use a few more strange detours like 2018’s Open Here (still their best) but I won’t argue with the likes of “Do Me A Favour” and “No Pressure”, the latter an irresistible, insistent single that also serves as a clever rebuke to a certain Queen/David Bowie tune (not to mention another by Billy Joel.)

Standout track: “No Pressure”

Best Albums of 2021, Part 1

15. Arlo Parks, Collapsed In Sunbeams

This 21-year-old British singer/songwriter’s debut LP is already the recipient of the kind of hype few young artists can claim, including this year’s Mercury Prize. Although far from the first to attempt an indie folk/R&B with poetry leanings (hello, Corinne Bailey Rae), her beautifully languid voice and reflective tone remain constants, complementing a dozen songs that resemble handcrafted, well-worn vignettes. Best opening couplet: “I’d lick the grief right off your lips / You do your eyes like Robert Smith.”

Standout track: “Black Dog”

14. Kings Of Convenience, Peace Or Love

A dozen years after their last album and this Norwegian duo haven’t changed one iota—thankfully so, for the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach serves them well. Whether continuing to put their singular harmonies and nylon-string guitars at the forefront or welcoming guest appearances from Feist as if it were still 2004, KON remains a timeless proposition. Not as essential as those earlier albums, mind you, but after six months of spins, almost as durable.

Standout track: “Fever”

13. Gruff Rhys, Seeking New Gods

An LP written from the point-of-view of a volcano on the China/North Korea border does not seem nearly as outlandish coming from this enduring Welsh weirdo as opposed to anyone else. The real surprise is how hooky and accessible the music is, some of Rhys’ most accomplished since his band Super Furry Animals recorded their last LP over a decade ago. On that note, leadoff track “Mausoleum of My Former Self” is the year’s most hummable song with the least likely title.

Standout track: “Mausoleum of My Former Self”

12. Lindsey Buckingham, S/T

When an artist puts out a self-titled album decades into their career, it’s usually a statement, and this might be LB’s most cohesive collection since Out of the Cradle (if not Tusk.) It kicks off with three instant classics (“I love it when you scream,” he sings on the opener), but it’s a near-perfect ten track album, folding in such unlikely flourishes as trap beats and synth-bass on some tracks and a return to his folk-rock roots on others.

Standout track: “On The Wrong Side”

Take A Deep Breath, Count With Me: Halfway Through 2021

It’s been a weird six months—for us all, no doubt. What has made them particularly odd for me is that, since January 1, I’ve been unemployed for the first time in over 15 years. I’ve had to make greater adjustments processing and navigating this than I did with the early days of the pandemic last year.

I’ve spent this additional down time ticking off project after project (Emptying out old files! Digitizing old photographs!) and trying to adhere to a daily routine that, in addition to job hunting makes ample time for reading, exercise, neighborhood walks when the weather permits and, as always, watching movies. I’ve also had to acclimate myself to this strange limbo; not entirely sure what my professional future might resemble yet, though I feel like I’m getting closer (check back with me in another three or six months.)

As for the music and movies I’ve been consuming, I’ve compiled two lists of 2021 favorites-to-date. Some of the albums (below in alphabetical order) come from long-beloved artists including three who’ve released their first full-lengths in over a decade (Liz Phair, Kings of Convenience, Arab Strap). Others are fresh discoveries: Wolf Alice’s reclamation of female-fronted alternative pop, Another Sky’s chewy but hooky soundscapes made distinct by androgynous vocalist Catrin Vincent and Cassandra Jenkins, whose singular, seven-track second album has remained in heavy rotation since I first heard it in March:

Another Sky, Music For Winter, Vol. 1

Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark

Cassandra Jenkins, An Overview On Phenomenal Nature

Field Music, Flat White Moon

Gruff Rhys, Seeking New Gods

Julien Baker, Little Oblivions

Kings of Convenience, Peace or Love

Liz Phair, Soberish

Lord Huron, Long Lost

Morcheeba, Blackest Blue

Quivers, Golden Doubt

Wolf Alice, Blue Weekend

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet

I’ve also seen nearly thirty new films from two festivals plus a smattering of other new releases, mostly via Chlotrudis’ weekly discussion group. Within the next six months, I hope to even return to the cinema as well! Below is everything I rated at least four stars out of five in alphabetical order by title:


Dear Mr. Brody

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet


I Was A Simple Man

The Killing of Two Lovers

Language Lessons


Playing With Sharks

Quo Vadis, Aida?


Shiva Baby

Some Kind of Heaven

Strawberry Mansion

Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street

Two of Us