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”