With 2021 being a year that came in hot and was decidedly uneven from then on out, when it came to music it seems now, with the benefit of hindsight, that amidst all of the uncertainty, I relied on old favorites to get me through. It’s weird and I don’t think I realized it at the time but when I sat down to take stock of the year and the music that was released, releases by some of my favorite acts dominated the list.
Now, the counter to this revelation is that it shouldn’t really be surprising. Why wouldn’t new albums by acts I hold near and dear to my heart be among my favorites of the year? That’s fair but hey, I love the Foo Fighters but I don’t have Medicine at Midnight in my top ten. The same goes for Weezer and both of the albums they released. Favorite status doesn’t automatically get you on this list, my friends. It helps, but it doesn’t make it a lock.
Plus, if I only turned my attention towards the old guard, I would have missed an album by someone like Arlo Parks and that would be a shame. I feel like the key to musical happiness is to find a balance between finding comfort in the old and staying frosty with the new. And when I look at my top ten list of favorite albums from this bizarre mind effer of year, it’s not an even break, but it’s kind of close when it comes to albums by my favorite bands and artists and new artists.
And as for Foo Fighters, they find themselves on the Honorable Mention list, along with Dispatch (Break Our Fall,) The War on Drugs (I Don’t Live Here Anymore,) and Sturgill Simpson (The Ballad of Dood & Juanita.)
10. Gold Light The Mallet Brothers Band
A band of roots-rocking, alt-country ramblers from the great state of Maine, the Mallet Brothers Band has steadily honed and refined a combination of the two genres that is uniquely their own over the course of the past decade. There is an unassuming and genuine feeling of purity to the band’s music, crafted in a way that one would build a songwriting shack in their backyard in their free time. Gold Light is the band’s first studio album since 2018 but it’s the first album they’ve released that is 100% Mallet since back in 2015 as the two albums that came before Gold Light was the French-Canadian folk tale inspired Vive l’acadie! and The Falling of the Pine, which pulled its subject matter from the songs sung by Maine lumberjacks back in the day.
9. Delta Kream The Black Keys
The Black Keys came storming back into our lives in 2019 with the charged album Let’s Rock!, their first since the less charged and significantly more sprawling Turn Blue, which came out in 2014. Let’s Rock! was exciting because it was the Black Keys getting back to their roots, their dingy, lo-fi garage rock roots. In 2021, the band dug deeper into their tool chest of influences with an album of swampy, gritty blues covers. If Let’s Rock! reminded fans of the band’s first forays into stadium rattlers, Delta Kream was catnip for people that had been with them for the jump as the whole album had the familiar and welcome scent of their pre-El Camino albums.
8. Sound Ancestors Madlib
Sound Ancestors is only sixteen songs long and barely cracks 41 minutes but it somehow feels like the album is longer than that. I think it’s because Madlib makes such great use of his time on the album, taking each song down various roads and paths, setting each off on a journey, and gladly taking into account their findings. Sound Ancestors is also something of a rarity for Madlib in that it’s a solo joint for him; not a collaborative one as is most often the case for the talented producer. I guess that like a lot of us in 2021, Madlib decided to do what was best for him. To which I say, well done, sir.
7. Typhoons Royal Blood
Royal Blood released their third album in 2021 and it’s been historically around album number three when a two-piece band typically starts to look at changing things up, as was the case with the English duo this time around. On Typhoons, Royal Blood loosened up, albeit just a little. The songs still stomp and still sound tailor-made for an episode of Peaky Blinders but if you wanted to, I don’t know, you could also maybe dance to them. Well, I don’t know about dance. But you can definitely nob your head pretty enthusiastically while sipping on a pint and that still works. Either way, Royal Blood is still one of the more exciting young rock bands out there.
6. When You See Yourself Kings of Leon
In their review of Kings of Leon’s new album, Pitchfork asked a good question, wondering when Kings of Leon stopped enjoying themselves. During the second decade of their career, the band has been markedly less joyful and full of life than they were early on. But isn’t that to be expected as you get older? To expect the band to keep a fire burning that was lit during their first two albums (both of which were released nearly 20 years ago) seems unrealistic. I do think you can still have fun though, albeit in a more muted and mature way, which oddly enough is what happens on the band’s eighth album. They seem comfortable taking their foot off the gas and exploring more of a meditative approach. In the same way that I’m totally cool with not going out on a Saturday night and going to bed at 9:30, Kings of Leon also seem cool with the changes one experiences as one gets older and your life starts to change.
5. The Future Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
As 2021 comes to a close, I’m left to take stock of some of the things I learned this year, things like two kids are a lot more work than one and to hell with trying to keep the lawn looking good once August hits. Another thing I learned is that Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats are one of my favorite bands. I had liked them for a couple years now but this year, our relationship took things a step further thanks in large part to their excellent album The Future. The album features them still hammering away at their soulful sound but also expanding things some, most notably getting a little of The Band vibe in there. Whereas other bands that emerged around the same time they did and were bringing with them a neosoul sound that was delightful started abandoning that sound this year, Rateliff and company pressed on and for that I am thankful.
4. star-crossed Kacey Musgraves
When Kacey Musgraves filed for divorce in 2020, she joked that she “wasn’t going to be a real country artist without at least one divorce under my belt.” When it came to tackling the divorce and making it the subject matter of her fourth album, Musgraves might be “a real country artist” but stylistically, she’s taking her music in whatever effin’ direction she pleases, whether it’s pop or rock. She still goes country, but to call her a country artist feels like we’re pigeon-holing her and in turn, being disrespectful. There was already going to a certain level of anticipation surrounding Musgraves’ follow-up to her Grammy-winning album Golden Hour but billing star-crossed as a three-part meditation on divorce definitely took things up a notch. Whereas Golden Hour went down easy, star-crossed is more immersive and involved, ultimately showing that whatever genre you want to lump her in, Musgraves has moves left to make.
3. Collapsed In Sunbeams Arlo Parks
I can’t remember if I first heard “Green Eyes” by Arlo Parks on a random Spotify playlist or on the local community radio station that has proven to be a great resource for discovering new music. But either way, Arlo Parks has a voice that sounds so smooth and comforting it could easily convince you that the pandemic, inflation, etc are all noise and everything is going to be okay. Backed by perfectly minimalist production, the young London singer dropped an album so appealing and welcoming you could play it on a loop for an entire afternoon and not get sick of it. Collapsed In Sunbeams also operates on levels, with one being the ease of the melodies and syrupy goodness of Parks’ voice and another being the depth of her lyrics, especially when bravely tackling issues of mental health, something we all are more familiar with courtesy of the pandemic. Thankfully, we’re familiar with Parks now. Bonus, kid.
2. My Morning Jacket My Morning Jacket
It’s always interesting when an artist releases a self-titled album well into their career. It typically signifies that the act in question has been doing some soul-searching and the result is a desire to rediscover themselves, to redefine who they are and who we might think they are. I would imagine that with My Morning Jacket, things had possibly gotten a little stale with the Kentucky gentlemen and as with a lot of us during the pandemic, they found themselves questioning some past decisions and reflecting on moves that had gotten them to this point. Yet whereas I decided to buy an exercise bike, My Morning Jacket elected to open the floodgates some in the studio and see where something like jamming took them. The result is an album that feels more spacey and open than past efforts. After one time through, I wasn’t sure about it but like with the exercise bike, it took some getting used to.
1. Open Door Policy The Hold Steady
I got into The Hold Steady as something of a homework assignment. I was going to see the Gaslight Anthem a few years ago and The Hold Steady were opening for them. Wanting to be prepared, I did a quick deep dive into the band’s catalog, emerging extremely interested and pleasantly surprised. I didn’t know what to expect and truth be told, didn’t know what I had just experienced. Really all I knew was that I was down. I was down and after a few years of following the band, thought I knew what to expect when it came to a Hold Steady record.
Then they released Open Door Policy and that changed.
There is still Craig Finn’s distinct and unique vocals, his story-telling lyrical style rattling off over the band’s music but whereas so much of the band’s musical style was anchored by garage rock and hard-charging tendencies, on Open Door Policy, the band embraces more styles, arrangements, and instrumentation. It makes for what was already an experience, even more so.
There is always an immersive quality to The Hold Steady albums and then you go and add more horns and different tempos and it’s akin to listening to good jazz. It’s hard to concentrate on anything else. Open Door Policy has more in common with a good narrative podcast than any other alt-rock album that was released this year and like with such a podcast, you tend to want to give it your undivided attention so as not to miss anything.