If you’re wondering why it’s been a whole month since I last posted… well, it was that kind of month. I completed a file more than 450 pages long to fulfill an obligation at work. While doing that, I read and graded essays and stories written by about 60 students every week, working 12- to 16-hour days.

That workload continues.

But I am taking some “self-care” time at Looking Closer — because writing for you about the music that fed my heart and fueled my mind in 2021 is a joy.

For those of you who have made the journey so far — congratulations! You are arriving at the summit of my 2021 Music Mountain. These are my fifteen favorite albums of 2021. (And while I say that with great enthusiasm, I am filled with doubts. Couldn’t any one of the albums I posted at #26–#16 stand up well next to any of these? I’m sure they could. On any given day, my list might look a little different. Ask me tomorrow and I might tell you how I should revise this list.)

For those of you just joining us, I’d recommend starting with Part One… and Part Two. I think you’ll make substantial discoveries all over this big list.

I’m so glad I’m finally able to share these picks and these notes. I’ve been talking about these selections for weeks with the Looking Closer Specialists — a community of readers who have supported this website with donations — in our top-secret online clubhouse. (If you’d like to join that ongoing conversation in 2022, read all about how to join us here.)

Here we go! Enjoy this fantastic listening party.


15.
tUnE-yArDs — sketchy

Like the voices of so many visionary singer/songwriters, the vocal stylings of Merrill Garbus can be a polarizing factor. At first, I was not particularly fond of her voice, but over the course of several albums I’ve come to hear the passion, the nuance, and the way it makes spectacular harmonies possible.

Even better than that, the whizz-bang production fireworks of her collaborations with her tUnE-yArDs creative partner Nate Brenner are always worth checking out (with Nikki Nack being my favorite so far). And this may be her biggest, best fireworks show yet. Sketchy sounds amazing on a good sound system, with irresistible hooks layers so inventively that it’s easy to feel like you might be in danger of some kind of pop-genius overdose when you listen.

If you’re paying attention to the lyrics, you’ll find that Garbus and Brenner have their fingers on the zeitgeist pulse, and so they’re singing a lot about overcoming fear, about reckoning with the contrary values of our parents and grandparents, and about demanding justice. The harmonies are sometimes dizzying, and the beats are thrilling. I challenge you to turn this up in the car and then try to sit still. While the wisdom is delivered with a sledgehammer rather than subtlety, the sounds are a sonic circus that I keep coming back to the way I keep coming back to caffeine.

If some of the video footage below reminds you of 1980s-era Peter Gabriel innovations — isn’t that a bonus?


14.
Torres — Thirstier

Since Torres’ breakout album Sprinter — one of my favorite albums of 2015 (wow… seven years ago?!) — I’ve been respectfully watching her meander and explore some unexpected, interesting, and obviously very personal tangents with her music. I didn’t always understand or resonate with what I was hearing. But I stifled my impulse to complain, because there’s nothing worse than a fan thinking they know better than the artist about what they do best. (I don’t.)

But I’ve gotta be honest: This is a Torres record that fulfills the kind of promise I heard on Sprinter. It feels like the giant leap forward I’ve believed she would make. It’s easily my favorite of her career so far, and it makes me eager to see her play live.

I may be wrong, but I think there’s a sense of inspiration, exhilaration, and supreme confidence in these songs I haven’t heard from her before. The hooks are sharp, the performances are fierce. And the lyrics demand and reward attention: they’re the kinds of lines that make me want to sing along in the car, pounding my palms on the steering wheel. For all of her genre free-styling, Mackenzie Scott’s a rock star first and foremost, and she embraces that role with ambition and authority here.


13.
St. Vincent — Daddy’s Home

This one grew on me. It’s complicated, and, like so much of Annie Clark’s body of work, requires a listener’s full attention. I may be underestimating it still.

What a rollercoaster ride — this St. Vincent career evolution. She was the most promising 20-something graduate of the Sufjan Stevens School of Eccentric Up-and-Comers, and with the albums Marry Me, Actor, and Strange Mercy catapulted her way from a lyricist of intimate lyrics with orchestral, Disney-like flourishes to a power-pop provocateur to a Bowie-level sound wizard, blurring borderlines of musical genres and her own identity. Then she went hard into fantastical electronics and dance music on the self-titled album (on which she appeared like some elf-cyborg queen seated on a throne) and went even further into frenetic fringe sounds on Masseduction. Now, Daddy’s Home mixes things up.

The opener, “Pay Your Way in Pain” has the hooks and shine of a single from Actor, but it also has sneaky layers of gospel backing vocals and twitchy effects. In it, a character hits rock bottom, out of money, short on pride, fed up with the compromises required for survival. She wants a fresh start and another chance at real love, but the vocal-fry cry of anguish at the end suggests that may not be possible. It’s followed by “Down and Out Downtown”: the testimony of someone feeling miserable on the street the morning after bad decisions. (Clark says this is her favorite track on the record.) “Daddy’s Home,” the title track, has the swagger of a reassertion of willpower and confidence, but it’s based on Clark’s visit to her father in prison, reckoning with the sense that they have more in common than their social status would suggest. These three combine to suggest a theme of bondage to our worst impulses and the seeming impossibility of succeeding with a clean record.

But the album has yet to reach its peak of inspiration.

The next track, “Life in the Dream,” slips into psychedelic dream that seems to be scored by Pink Floyd. I love what Clark says about this one at Apple Music:

I was having a conversation with Jack [Antonoff] and he was telling me about a conversation he had with Bruce Springsteen. Bruce was just, I think anecdotally, talking about the game of fame and talking about the fact that we lose a lot of people to it. They can kind of float off into the atmosphere, and the secret is, you can’t let the dream take over you. The dream has to live inside of you. And I thought that was wonderful, so I wrote this song as if you’re waking up from a dream and you almost have these sirens talking to you. In life, there’s still useful delusions. And then there’s delusions that—if left unchecked—lead to kind of a misuse of power.

The pinnacle of the album’s inspiration and energy come on “The Melting of the Sun,” in which Clark makes a move that recalls Beyonce’s Lemonade, finding her place in a tradition of female artists who have had paid heavy costs on their hard climbs to respect and success. She sings about Joan Didion (“Jane” in the lyrics), Joni Mitchell, Marilyn Monroe, Tori Amos, and Nina Simone. And the chorus of Gospel singers backing her up bless the sound with soul and sorrow.

The fun isn’t over: She gets her Prince-ly funk on with “Down,” one of the most irresistibly nasty little beats of her career that I suspect will be a concert highlight. And there are still several more strong tracks to come.

Yeah, I’m going to say this is one of her very best.


12.

Lucy Dacus — Home Video

“Heavy memories weighing on my brain,” sings Lucy Dacus in “Hot and Heavy.” “Couldn’t look away even if I wanted.”

Apparently not. Home Video is a journal of “heavy memories,” a saga of adolescence, first “hot and heavy” kissing, Vacation Bible School indoctrination, sexual awakenings of the kind that makes life almost impossible in evangelical Christian communities, sufferings alongside friends with abusive fathers, and more. Each song is a narrative poem, a flash fiction of startling intimacy and unforgettable lines. The sound is not surprising — the sort of polished and gauze-y keyboards and fuzzy guitars we’ve come to expect from all three members of the band boygenius.

If anything here is surprising, it’s that Dacus was content to keep these songs so compact. Historian had epic anthems that promised bigger things to come. But Home Video is less like home videos and more like an album of Polaroids, blurry images that occasionally come in focus so sharp they’re discomforting — as when she gets to the refrain about being moral support for a friend in the presence of her father and that refrain turns out to be “I would kill him / if you let me.” That is to say, while this may not big the grandiose masterpiece some of us thought was coming, it’s in some ways more engaging for how sharply the burrs of these sneaky songs catch on your coat and stick with you for a long time to come.

This serves as a fascinating complement to the new Pedro the Lion album, which gives us David Bazan’s version of the same thing, as if these two teenagers might suddenly meet in a crossover episode someday.

 


11.
Amythyst Kiah — Wary + Strange

I remember how, in high school, when I started listening to The Cure, I expressed some doubts about whether it was healthy for me to listen to songs that were that dark. A friend of mine responded by suggesting that it’s better to “let out” thoughts and feelings like that than hold them in, because the thoughts and feelings are real, and common, and they’re more destructive if they’re bottled up. Better to get them out in the open where we can admit them, face them, and move through them.

Amythyst Kiah’s Wary + Strange is an album in which the artist had told the truth of some of her lowest points, most painful hardships, most desperate states. And yet, the effect of listening is to feel connected, to feel confided in, and ultimately to feel inspired that she is taking those experiences and making something beautiful out of them. It’s a survivor’s testimony, one that will comfort others who are still struggling to survive.

Wary + Strange doesn’t sound anything like the solo records of her bandmates from Our Native Daughters. It’s produced in a way that reminds me of lush, layered records by Peter Gabriel (sometimes) and Lenny Kravitz (other times). It’s a great headphones album, a great in-the-car album. It’s one of the most vividly colored albums I’ve heard in a long time.

 


10.
Joy Oladokun — in defense of my own happiness

It’s no surprise to learn that Joy Oladokun’s songs have frequently been featured during prime time TV dramas. There is a kind of pop polish to the production of this tidal wave of new tunes that makes me wish she’d worked with producers who are less fond of formulas. Nevertheless, in defense of my own happiness makes up for that familiar, glossy sound it with irresistible melodies and affecting lyrics that have a gospel of reconciliation and healing at their heart. This album is so full of love, and it just goes on and on and on. (There’s a standard album version that was released in 2020, and then a double-album version this year that’s stronger.)

Like so many of my favorite albums of 2021 — it’s a strangely specific trend this year — this album is a musical memoir by a black woman, and (like several of them) one whose sexuality has made relationships and acceptance even more complicated and punishing. (No Depression sums it up succinctly: Oladokun is “a queer Black woman born to Nigerian parents and raised in an Arizona farming town.”)

Explicitly in these songs, Oladokun is longing for a home in Christian community where she can worship and rejoice without suffering rejection and judgement. To listen is to grieve with her over yet another testimony of a church that cannot understand — much less demonstrate — the scandalous grace of Jesus. But to listen is also to hope: The Holy Spirit is alive and well in the music of Joy Oladokun, and Christ has no problem doing redemptive work beyond the narrow borderlines drawn by his fearful followers. Listen and rejoice with this child of God.


9.
Elori Saxl — The Blue of Distance

I have no previous experience with Elori Saxl’s music, but as I swam in oceans of ambient, instrumental music during the long, long hours of reading and grading papers in 2021, I noticed when something emerged from the sameness of it all, became an occasion of discovery and distinctive play, and captured my imagination.

The Blue of Distance was one of two such albums for how vividly it painted moving pictures of water and light. I’m not surprised to learn that this Brooklyn indie artist’s music has become a popular accompaniment to short films and commercials, as there is something cinematic and spacious and propulsive about it. It really takes you somewhere, and you come back as if you have been on a trek into the mountains or out on some promontory to see a sunset and stars.

I think my childhood discovery of Ferde Grofe’s “The Grand Canyon Suite” instilled in me a fascination with music as environment. And this — an album great for headphones and for big-room sound systems, is truly transporting stuff.

The AllMusic review by Marcy Donelson offers this crucial context:

Written partly in the verdant Adirondack Mountains during the summer and partly on an island in the middle of a frozen Lake Superior, it was inspired by contrasts in both nature and mood. Using flowing water as an early sample source, she employs manipulated recordings of water and wind, a seven-instrument chamber orchestra, and analog synthesizers as her palette, and all intentionally imitate each other here.

More at this link, where you’ll learn what the title means and its connection to the writing of Rebecca Solnit.


8.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & the London Symphony Orchestra — Promises

Like watching lights move across the walls of my bedroom in the early morning, reflections off of the windows of passing traffic…

Or, like watching white clouds of the pre-dawn darkness slowly pass as first light goldens the horizon over the city during my commute…

This music has been good company on days when I couldn’t get to the water’s edge.

I’m not familiar with electronic music producer Sam Shepard (a.k.a. Floating Points), but this record sure makes me curious. This album is a meditative composition of sustained tones (orchestral strings), punctuated by sudden flourishes — splashes of Shepard’s keys — while Pharoah Sanders’ tenor sax explores the spaces in a spirit of curiosity and questioning. The combination is as unlikely as it is entrancing, gentle and hypnotic until “Movement 6” when the strings suddenly swell into dramatic, emotional tangents that remind me of certain romantic heights from John Williams’ soundtracks of the ’80s.

I really, really love this.


7.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney — Superwolves

Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billy) and Matt Sweeney follow up their 2005 collaboration Superwolf with another book of songs that play like excerpts from horror movies (more the A24 kind than the Hammer sort). The scariness is downright perverse for the effortless grace of the guitars and the soothing, gentle harmonies. Fred Thomas captures the strengths of this album concisely and clearly in his AllMusic.com review. He says, “Oldham’s albums always temper organic beauty with elements of depravity and bleak humor, and Sweeney’s gifts for arranging his variety of excellent guitar tones and performances bring the sublime and sacred side of Oldham’s songwriting to the forefront.”

The opening track, “Make Worry for Me,” sounds a bit like the kind of creepy stalker song that The Cure or The Police might have composed in the ’80s. It begins in a half-whisper like this:

When I come to your streets
Make worry for me…
I got things in my pockets
I got tricks up my sleeve
Your world will never be the same
Oh, you can be whatever you wanna be
But you won’t be bad as me
You’ll be screaming my name

Cheery, right? Sounds like a song for a Halloween party, right? But it’s soft, slow, and, well, creepy at first before it crescendoes in a way that suggests the monsters have caught up to you and sunk in their claws.

This menacing prologue is not just kidding around: The rest of the album digs into a variety of present-day anxieties by giving voices to characters from the wrong side of the great national divide. In “Good to My Girls” I hear the testimony of a single father who seems loving until you start hearing the violence and arrogance in his sentiments towards neighbors and family. As the song goes on, we realize that this is a man consumed by fear and despair who is trying to defend himself from a family that is furious with him. (Strangely, Pitchfork‘s critic Marty Sartini Garner hears the song as being the voice of a madame thinking about the prostitutes in her employ. I don’t get that at all.) “My Popsicle” sews the title into a term of endearment for a young child, but juxtaposes that sweetness with declarations of doom and dark memories. There is a loneliness and a rage simmering in a lot of these songs, rage of the “toxic masculinity” variety.

And those are only a few of the 14 songs on this remarkable record! The despair, heartbreak, vanity, and anger with God in these characters has only just begun. In the ironically peppy folk romp “Hall of Death,” Billy remarks, “It is clear, no love is waiting near.

Some will find this record too dark for days like these. I find it fascinating and thought-provoking. Sometimes, a song of despair can liberate us from similar dark feelings by showing us their narrowness and limitations, even as they assure us that we are not alone in our troubles.


6.
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis — Carnage

For a long time, this was my favorite record of the year — the triumphant return of the furious Nick Cave, the one caught up in fever dreams of memory, murder ballads, and horror stories. That last several albums have seemed to me to be a long and arduous journey through the process of grieving the death of his son. I might be mis-reading this, but here it seems to me that Cave seems to be slowly broadening the scope of his storytelling, turning his attention back to a world that is simmering with out-in-the-open hatreds.

And yet, in spite of the often-jarring darkness in these lyrics (there are lines that will send the censors scrambling for their “WARNING: EXPLICIT” stickers), he’s also carrying forward that Gospel vision, so that there’s always a palpable sense of hope for a new heaven and a new earth. I hear in this record some of the inspiration and energy that made his double album The Lyre of Orpheus / Abattoir Blues my favorite release of his long career.

And it’s amazing that he did this during lockdown in collaboration with Warren Ellis instead of with the Bad Seeds — the sounds here are starker, more unpredictable, as often abrasive as they are glorious. And the images are unmistakably and inimitably his own, so that listening is like walking through maze-like art gallery where horrific shocks and enchanting beauty might wait around any corner.

No lines sung all year startled me like those in the title track, which include these images:

I always seem to be saying goodbye

And rolling through the mountains

Like a train…

 

My uncle’s at the chopping block

Turning chickens into fountains

I’m a barefoot child

Watching in the rain…

I’m sitting on the balcony

Reading Flannery O’Connor

With a pencil and a plan

This song is like a rain cloud

That keeps circling overhead…

A reindeer frozen in the headlights

Steps back into the woods…

 

Look over there! Look over there!

The sun, a barefoot child with fire in his hair

 

Nobody can do what Nick Cave is doing at this point in his career, and nobody should try.

I can’t wait to see him and Warren Ellis make a live show out of this in two weeks at Seattle’s Paramount.


5.
Little Simz — I Might Be Introvert

The biggest discovery for me at the end of the year was an album that others had been talking about for months. When I finally listened to it all the way through, I was bowled over by, well… everything: the production, which is probably 2021’s most spectacular sound design accomplishment, a genuinely Bjork-level soundscape; Little Simz’ performances, which are varied in style but always nuanced and compelling; the lyrics, which cover a range of personal revelations to cultural commentary to Gospel-laced reflections that I previously only associated with work by Kendrick Lamar and with Beyonce’s Lemonade. Simz strikes a balance between lament, challenge, and joy that builds on the sounds of the SAULT records.

If I’d had more time with it, I might well have bumped it higher up this list. It’s an exhilarating achievement, and I’m going to tune in to anything she does going forward. (Previously, I’d only known her voice from her appearances on SAULT records.) If I have any difficulty with it, I find that the self-help narration interludes go on too long and get a bit gimmicky.

But I don’t think anything this year has a more spectacular opening number. Check it out.


4.
Rhiannon Giddens — They’re Calling Me Home

On the long list of impressive — and impressively intimate — albums recording under lockdown, one of those that I will go on playing for the rest of my life is Rhiannon Giddens’ soulful collaboration with her partner Francesco Turrisi. Their first full-album collaboration there is no Other was my favorite record of 2019, and this is a worthy follow-up.

Recorded in Ireland, the album lives up to its title with songs of longing for home, songs sung in a world where hope always leads us through the here-and-now to visions of Kingdom Come. The songs and sounds are timeless, and Giddens clarion-call vocals are as strong as ever.

 


3.
Elbow — Flying Dream 1

The British band Elbow may never mean as much to me as U2 or Radiohead — I don’t know the names of all of the band members by heart, or know the story of how the band formed, or have important personal memories bonded with the band album by album over several decades.

But these days, I’d argue that Elbow, who celebrated the 20th anniversary of their debut album in 2021, is a more exciting band than both U2 and Radiohead in that they just keep making great music on a yearly basis, one outstanding album after another, with wide-ranging and deeply poetic lyrics, and a sound that keeps evolving.

They may not command an international audience like U2 or go so directly to the Gospel for the soul of their lyrics, but they’re better than U2 in that they’re not so focused on scoring hit singles that they’ve lost sight of their musical strengths.

They may not be musicians as innovative as Radiohead, but they’re better than Radiohead in that they are willing to sing about much, much more than the darkness of the world, and their music is unapologetically and even enthusiastically about love and joy.

I love Elbow more with every album. This is the album I played the most in 2021, and I could have predicted that would be the case even before I heard it. They are the most reliable great band in the world.

And on this album, they take a break from the heavy rock songs — they’re very, very good at those — and go deep into some of their other strengths: love songs and dream songs. There are several moments of beauty on this album that I would argue belong on an ideal Best-Of release. I would wish them greater and greater success, but I want to see them in a club again someday, because their visit to Seattle’s Showbox a few years ago was one of the most glorious live shows I’ve ever experienced.


2.
Adia Victoria — A Southern Gothic

Just as he set the stage for the genius of Rhiannon Giddens’ first solo album Tomorrow is My Turn, the legendary T Bone Burnett is at the controls here to help Adia Victoria achieve the Big Record that would fulfill the promise of her outstanding 2019 release: Silences. And Victoria delivers just as Giddens did. I admired a lot about Silences, but A Southern Gothic is an album that I will keep in heavy rotation for many years to come.

Both of the albums at the top of my favorites list this year are powerful, personal records from Nashville-based women who take their sufferings and their longings and turn them into art that is triumphant and transcendent.

Adia Victoria’s record is like a book of short stories — or maybe even a novel, if you imagine the songs following the arc of one character. Either way, she’s giving voice to the experiences of women who have been wronged and who are seeking resolution, revolution, and sometimes even revenge. Due to Victoria’s active presence on social media, where she speaks plainly about the more troubling aspects of American music history (particularly in Nashville), she regularly suffers disrespect and abuse from the MAGA types who think her skin color disqualifies her. But these songs don’t feel like lectures or rants — they’re more like fierce dreams or searing cinema.

T Bone’s reunion with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant may have gotten a lot more buzz in 2021, but this was the real masterpiece of his year as a producer. The sounds on this album are layered, lush, grunge-y, and sometimes downright sweltering. Jason Isbell, Margo Price, and The National’s Matt Berninger show strong support in guest appearances. But they don’t need to do any heavy lifting — Victoria is sensational in every aspect of her art here, and she seems very much in charge.

I’m regretting that I haven’t seen her live yet. But this record is more than enough to help me understand the enthusiasm I was hearing from those who saw her perform at Over the Rhine’s Nowhere Else festival a few years back. She’s high on my list of live-show priorities now.

 


1.
Allison Russell — Outside Child

The highlight of my concert-going year in 2021 was seeing Allison Russell, caught up in a passion that reminded me of Falconetti during the trial scenes in The Passion of Joan of Arc, singing a song cycle that narrates her extraordinary life story of suffering and surviving abuse at the hands of a cruel stepfather in Montreal; finding solace in the arms of a gentle lover who she calls “Persephone”; running away from home; discovering a healing music — and a calling — in the Vancouver BC music scene; opening her heart to a sisterhood of suffering all around her; and discovering joy and hope and true love along the way. It sounds like I’m describing a memoir — and I am, in fact, for the unexpected and thrilling success of Outside Child has brought Russell an opportunity to write that book and have it published soon. But this album is a strong as any life-story record I can think of. I won’t be surprised if it inspires a film or a stage-play musical in time.

The array of instruments makes for a creative range of sounds throughout the record, none more affecting than Russell’s own contributions on clarinet. Her agility shifting from English to French in her lyrics enhances a sense that she is reaching to express things that no human language can sufficiently express — above all, the mystery of the Grace that leads us to take terrible risks in order to escape our prisons and fulfill our callings.

I’ve enjoyed the music of Russell’s collaboration with her husband JT Nero in the band Birds of Chicago. And it was a thrill to see him join her for the closing number of that live set. But this is clearly the right time for her to do a great and personal work that her life has prepared her to do. Outside Child feels inspired, epic, timeless.

It’s been quite a year of solo endeavors for members of the band Our Native Daughters, but Russell’s contribution is my favorite by far, and easily my favorite album of 2021.