Okay, Looking Closer readers…

This year’s countdown is going to take a while.

Weeks, perhaps. Why? I’m teaching three in-classroom classes — about sixty students altogether, all of them turning in writing assignments each week — while also pursuing more than ten who are absent due to COVID precautions. That means I’m working 12- to 14-hour days.

But I will make this journey with you… and I will finish it! I will conquer all of my 2021 favorites lists — music and film — even if it takes me into springtime!

Let’s begin with the musical journey.

FAVORITE RECORDINGS OF 2021: Honorable Mention

Extraordinary Instrumental Film Scores

Let’s begin with the film scores I listened to most often. They are not just “background music” — they are powerful, influential qualities of the films themselves, elevating all other aspects. They challenge the audience and invite our investigation. They stand alone as remarkable compositions. And, over the past several months, they have become inspiring soundtracks for my own writing and work.

Of these, I think Daniel Hart’s work for The Green Knight was most meaningful and memorable for me — one of the most impressive fantasy film scores I’ve ever heard. Johnny Greenwood should win something significant for turning in two of the most evocative scores of the year: Spencer and The Power of the Dog. But then again, the Dessners gave us the score for C’mon C’mon as well as the songs for the musical Cyrano (which I haven’t seen – or heard — yet). Hans Zimmer’s score for Dune exerted an extraordinary pressure, giving shape the the nobility of House Atreides and the unfathomable cruelty of House Harkonnen in Dune. Alexandre Desplat delivered another multi-faceted, complicated score for Wes Anderson’s most elaborate and complicated film yet: The French Dispatch. And Emile Mosseri’s understated but surprisingly sophisticated work for Minari — a film released in 2020, but a score released in 2021 — was nothing less than a blessing and a consolation during hard times. The Nomadland soundtrack album, also released in 2021 after the film’s 2020 run, comprised a variety of musical elements from the film, most notably the passionate instrumentals of Ludovico Einaudi.

Other Notable Instrumental and Experimental Albums
(… and Inspiring Soundtracks for Writers)

While I am saving a few recordings in this category for my Top 35 countdown, here are several instrumental and/or experimental recordings that dazzled and enchanted me in 2021. They made me wish I was writing new novels instead of grading papers; they were powerfully inspiring for my imagination. I recommend you check out each one of them. They’ll affect your dreams.

    • A Winged Victory for the Sullen — Invisible Cities
    • Ballaké Sissoko — Djourou
    • Lisa Gerrard and Jules Maxwell — Burn
    • Sarah Neufeld — Detritus
    • Vangelis — Juno to Jupiter

Bands and Artists

Any one of these albums could, arguably, rank among my top 35 of the year. But at the time of this posting, I just couldn’t bring myself to include them at the expense of other albums on the list. I listened to each of these several times this year, and if you ask me I can share a favorite track or two from each.

    • Adele – 30
    • Andrea Baker – Wind In the Hollow
    • Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time
    • Black Country, New Road – For the First Time
    • The Black Keys – Delta Kream
    • Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
    • Steve Earle and the Dukes – J.T.
    • Fruit Bats – The Pet Parade
    • PJ Harvey – Is This Desire? – Demos
    • Hiss Golden Messenger – Quietly Blowing It
    • Chrissie Hynde – Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan
    • Idles – Crawler
    • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Georgia Blue
    • Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
    • Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
    • King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Butterfly 3000
    • Mon Laferte – Seis
    • Daniel Lanois – Heavy Sun
    • Lightning Bug – A Color of the Sky
    • Low – Hey What
    • Lump – Animal
    • Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
    • Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Raise the Roof
    • Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR
    • Strand of Oaks – In Heaven
    • Squid – Bright Green Field
    • Willow – lately I feel EVERYTHING

36  FAVORITE RECORDINGS OF 2021


36.–35. (tie)
Johnny Flynn and Robert MacFarlane – LOST IN THE CEDAR WOOD
James Yorkston & the Second Hand Orchestra – THE WIDE, WIDE RIVER

I’m trying to avoid pairing albums as “ties” on this list, but I just can’t untangle these two records in my mind.

They’re both folky, and they’re recorded with a rough, real-world ambience that makes me feel like I might have walked into a pub where people are surrounding a folk-music song circle and jamming. The lyrics seem timeless and deeply rooted in storytelling and mythology. They put me in mind of my favorite chapter of the history of The Waterboys (Fisherman’s Blues) — and yes, I wrote that down before I ever saw the AllMusic review of Yorkston’s record by Timothy Monger where he makes the same connection.

Yorkston is a musician I need to spend time with. Apparently he has been very busy recording albums for many years — and writing fiction and memoir too!

Flynn is already a favorite of mine, and has been since I discovered that he was responsible for that irresistible theme song for my favorite TV series of recent years: The Detectorists. (He’s also a fine actor, as you can see in 2020’s film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.)

Highlights:

James Yorkston & the Second Hand Orchestra: “To Soothe Her Wee Bit Sorrows,” “A Very Old-Fashioned Blues,”

Johnny Flynn & Robert MacFarlane: “Nether,” “Ferryman


34.
Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine — A BEGINNER’S MIND

If you like Sufjan Stevens in his soft, dreamy, folky, string-pluckier mode more than you do his wild art-rock-electronica mode, well… you have good reason to celebrate in 2021. This record is a feast of familiar sounds — so familiar, in fact, that you could be forgiven for listening to it all the way through without realizing it is a collaboration with another artist: Angelo De Augustine (whose so work I haven’t heard). Stevens’ and De Augustine’s voices blend so seamlessly that their duets make them almost indistinguishable at times.

I’m underwhelmed by the lack of sonic adventurousness here, but I’m enchanted by the concept of the album: These two retreated together with a plan to watch a movie each day and write a song together inspired by the movie. The lineup of movies is… wild, to say the least: Wings of Desire, Night of the Living Dead, Return to Oz, All About Eve, Bring It On Again, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, The Silence of the Lambs, and Point Break, to name several. Can you guess which movies inspired which songs? Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s puzzling.

Whatever the case, the results are poetic, dreamy (there’s that word again), and sometimes daringly curious about troubled characters and dark places. Think back to Stevens’s “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” and its sympathetic meditation on a serial killer’s secrets, and you have the idea for some of this album’s spiritual adventurousness. Did you ever think you’d sing along to a song that’s written from the point of view of the true villain of The Silence of the Lambs — Buffalo Bill?

Highlights:

Reach Out,” “You Give Death a Bad Name,” “(This Is) the Thing,” “Lost In the World


33.
Billy Bragg — THE MILLION THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPENED

This is as meat-and-potatoes as any record on my list: a folk-rock legend, always guided by the light of Woody Guthrie, gets as down-to-earth, sincere, and reassuring as he’s ever been. I’m more accustomed to seeing Bragg as an icon of righteous anger and social justice. His solo performance of my favorite song of the 2000s — Anais Mitchell’s “Why We Build the Wall” — during his October 2016 gig at Seattle’s Neptune (with Joe Henry) was a last, ferocious appeal for America to save itself from its own fast-growing parasite: Trumpism. It was a performance I’ll never forget, and now it’s a bittersweet memory.

Maybe it was his collaboration with Joe Henry a few years back that softened Bragg — I don’t know. He’s still angry, still gobsmacked at what is happening to American democracy. (See “The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here No More.”) But I find his presence here as comforting as a longtime friend’s company at the end of the world, and his humble, large-hearted meditations as magnetic as a campfire in a cold, darkening woods.

Highlights:

I Will Be Your Shield,” “Reflections On the Mirth of Creativity,” “The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here No More


32.
Inhaler — IT WON’T ALWAYS BE LIKE THIS


Okay, the lyrics aren’t their strong point. But that sound — it’s Echo and the Bunnymen if they’d arrived in 2021. I’m just a sucker for it: arena-rock, guitar-driven passion from four dudes who have the basics down, and a lead singer with the confidence and zeal of a young Bono.

(Did I mention that the lead singer is, in fact, literally… the Son of Bono?)

More fiery and fierce than Coldplay, as catchy as The Cure, as expansive and atmospheric as ’90s “City of Blinding Lights” U2, these guys sound like they could set up on a rooftop and stop the traffic in all directions. Nobody else is doing this well right now, and as these guys grow up and find new and more compelling experiences to write about, I suspect that they might become a force to be reckoned with. So I’m spotlighting this more as a vote of confidence in their future than anything: We might look back at this someday and say “Here was their very promising debut.”

Highlights:

My Honest Face,” “Cheer Up Baby,” “When It Breaks


31.
Karen Peris – A SONG IS WAY ABOVE THE LAWN

If I were rating albums for their medicinal value during a punishing year, Karen Peris’s solo album — framed as an album for children — spoke meaningfully to the heart of this world-weary and broken-hearted adult in restorative ways. Her voice remains one of the great treasures of American music, and here is floats and glides and shimmers on the current of her gentle piano playing that winds through warm lakes of orchestration from her own family — Don on drums and upright bass, and their children Drew and Anna on violin and viola. If this were branded as an Innocence Mission album, I’d rate it as one of their best. (And it would just seem so right for The Innocence Mission to become a generational family band!)

There are so many lovely, dreamy visions here: an elephant singing someone to sleep and dreaming of her family vacations at the seaside; a child riding on a giraffe through a park; a trip to the library because that’s where the kindest friends are waiting.

I love the lyrics of “George in the Car”:

George, I was at the kitchen table eating my bread,
when this great light came from reading your poem.
I haven’t been that surprised in recent memory.
And there are cities in our house,
and there are trees in our house since then.

George in the car,
a field of stars, lavender and white.
And riding out over these long miles
you’re waving to me a sign to be alive

That captures how I feel listening to Peris. Her voice is always a light, but sometimes, as I attend to the lyrics, I am re-enchanted by the world. Such music is worth its weight in gold.

Highlights:

To the Library,” “This Is a Song in Wintertime


30.
London Grammar – CALIFORNIAN SOIL

Last April, I posted this for the Looking Closer Specialists: “London Grammar’s new record sounded so good in the car today, I turned a short drive to a nearby coffee shop into an hour’s drive to a small town just so I could keep listening to the whole darn thing.” And I’ve continued to listen to Hannah Reid commanding vocals. She can be as emotive and intimate as Sarah McLachlan, as pop-perfect as Dido, and as danceable as The XX. But considering how much this album is focused on troubles experienced in America, the instrumental prologue gives the album a fantastical ambience that stirs up images of rocky cairns and mists and specifically English enchantment.

Sometimes the frankness of the lyrics can be caustic — on the Moby-esque “Lord, It’s a Feeling” it’s clear she’s processing some rage and betrayal. And one of the album’s central themes is recovering from rejection — which, in the case of Reid’s career, apparently has as much to do with frustrations with the American music industry as anything else.

In an NME interview, she said, “This record is about gaining possession of my own life. You imagine success will be amazing. Then you see it from the inside and ask, ‘Why am I not controlling this thing? Why am I not allowed to be in control of it? And does that connect, in any way to being a woman? If so, how can I do that differently?'”

And in a Red Bull interview, she said, “It’s definitely in the lyrics. I did have quite profound experiences being a woman in the music industry and then realising that when I came home from being on tour and spoke to my girlfriends about it, they were all having the same experiences. It was disappointing and made me feel like, ‘Wow, the world has not moved on in the way I thought it had.’”

Highlights:

Intro,” “Californian Soil,” “Missing


29.
Brandi Carlile – IN THESE SILENT DAYS

This was big year for show-stopping turns from divas. Adele soaked up a lot of the spotlight, but there were several passionate solo acts who outshone her — at least from my vantage point. I’ve been warming to the work of Brandi Carlile, and this one rivals 2018’s By the Way, I Forgive You in my book. I love how it moves from intimate piano ballads to epic rock anthems without ever feeling disjointed — the album flows beautifully, always intimate, insightful, poignant, and personal. I love the specificity of the relationship in the opening “Right on Time,” the confident celebration of partnership in “You and Me On the Rock,” the lament for lost faith called “This Time Tomorrow,” and the knockout that’s being heralded by many as the song of the year: “Broken Horses.” Carlile sings with such sincerity that always believe her.

I’ll hand the mic to Stephen Thomas Erlewine at AllMusic.com:

What separates In These Silent Days from the rest of Carlile’s albums is its controlled urgency and tight sense of craft, an aesthetic evident in how the album is as lean and robust as a well-loved record from the ’70s. Often, In These Silent Days conjures a specific spirit, as if Elton John cut a collection of Laurel Canyon folk-rock in 1973 without abandoning his yearning to rock. Carlile may tip her hat to Elton and Joni Mitchell here (“You and Me on the Rock” feels like an explicit nod to “Big Yellow Taxi”) but as the album alternates between candid whispers and raw catharsis, it is unmistakably the work of Brandi Carlile, who once again proves she’s one of the best singer/songwriters of her generation.

Highlights:

Broken Horses,” “This Time Tomorrow,” “Right On Time


28.
The War on Drugs – I DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE

I admit that I’ve resisted The War on Drugs because I’ve been unable to settle into their sound without a constant awareness of their influences. Is there really an honest-to-goodness *band* in there beyond the “sounds-like” game that dominates the conversations and reviews? Adam Granduciel’s vocal style has been clearly shaped by Bob Dylan’s, Bryan Adams’s, Tom Petty’s, and Don Henley’s. Guitars often imitate Dire Straits or Steely Dan. Strong currents of piano might as well have been lifted from Bruce Hornsby. Phil Collins should get credit for the opening drums of “I Don’t Wanna Wait,” and if you’d sought to persuade me that Bryan Adams was singing some of the verses I would’ve believed you. Granduciel’s lyrics have seemed somewhat narrow in their focus and genre: I’d call it “rehab-confessional” in nature (like a Red Green skit with a song: “I’m a man / But I can change / If I have to / I guess….”)

I can’t quite put my finger on it yet — maybe its just a surrender after constant popularity and critical acclaim — but this album is really growing on me. I think it’s the sound design and production, above all, that I’m enjoying. The layers are enveloping, bright, precise, and unexpectedly uplifting. I hear something of the warmth and intimacy I associate with Dylan’s OH MERCY in the standout opening track, “Living Proof” — at least until it builds, like classic U2 anthems, into something immersive and propulsive. “Harmonia’s Dream” keeps up the intensity, like a Tom Petty version of “Where The Streets Have No Name.” “Victim” springs a harmonica solo just when we expect someone to start shredding — just one of many inspired flourishes that keep things interesting. I’m finding that it’s a great groove for driving, and I look forward to seeing them live in a few weeks. That experience might be the thing that makes me a true fan — we’ll see.

Highlights:

Living Proof,” “Victim


27.
Claire Rousay – A SOFTER FOCUS

In the last two years, I’ve missed the experience of relaxing at coffee shops, opening a blank journal, and letting my mind wander without anxiety. Here’s an album that’s designed to bring some of the stimulation of those oh-so-human soundscapes into my headphones and my home.

This kind of thing is difficult to do well. But Claire Rousay is setting a standard, making music out of specific environments and activities, drawing us into quiet and contemplative experiences in a way that seamlessly weaves the ambient noise of the work and the surroundings into the instrumentation she has composed. Pay attention and you’ll hear typewriters, nearby conversations, rain, the buzz of a marketplace, the rush of traffic. Or… don’t pay attention: Just let the abstractions wash over you.

Highlights:

Peak Chroma,” “Discrete ‘The Market’


26.
Wolf Alice – BLUE WEEKEND

Thanks to my friend Kirk Jones for keeping this band in front of me until I finally caught on.

They got their name from Angela Carter — so, that’s cool. Their sound checks a lot of boxes for the ’90s arena-rock sound I love so much. Blend up a hyper-color smoothie of Garbage, Belly, Cocteau Twins, Sinead O’Connor… or, imagine if Olivia Newton-John sang lead for Pink Floyd, and you’re getting the idea. Lead singer Ellie Rowsell has the vocal fearlessness and fierceness of a St. Vincent or a Sinead O’Connor. If anyone’s developing a movie of Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, I can imagine her playing the ultra-diva Persephone figure.

Blue Weekend plays like the soundtrack to a vividly produced television series about young people in show business making very bad personal decisions after too much post-show partying, and then the hard work of making slightly better decisions the next day. If there’s a line that sums it up, it’s this one: “There’s only so much sulking the heart can entertain….”

That may not sound ideal. In fact, it’s right on the wavelength of so many of my students right now: a prematurely world-weary and pessimistic brooding, a pandemic all its own. (And who can blame them, given how their elders are wrecking the world with wild abandon and showing little concern for their education or their futures or their democracies?) I hear it in many of their voices, and I read it in many of their social media posts. And it’s familiar: Wasn’t I singing The Cure’s Disintegration — the whole album, by heart — when I was that age?

I’m willing to bear with the melodramatic late-teen-angst of the lyrics for the musical highs.

Here’s Ian Cohen at Pitchfork: “They’re the platonic ideal for big-tent rock music in 2021: lead singer Ellie Rowsell gives 20-somethings the megaphone of a superhuman, working through vices, crises of confidence, and a pervasive misogyny that success has only worsened, upending UK lad-rock supremacy while staying firmly within its lineage.”

Highlights:

How Can I Make It Okay?” / “Smile” / “The Last Man on Earth


Come back soon! The countdown continues next week!

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