Lockdown Countdown

Twenty Twentyone, home all year, tied to a computer, bud in my ear. Coping with COVID meant loads of music therapy, and there were some rich rewards for distracted music heads like my family. My youngest was in the top 1% of Taylor Swift listeners on Spotify. My middlest traveled to Chicago to see Flying Lotus and Thundercat. But this isn’t their list, and it isn’t yours. It’s mine: my favorite 21 albums in 2021.

A side note: There’s a weird no-man’s-land of albums in December that hit too late to make the year end list, but which purist perfection keeps off next year’s list, too. So, for instance, The Avalanche’s We Will Always Love You dropped in December 2020, and would definitely have made my list last year. But I can’t quite bring myself to put it on this year’s list. So here it is, in the no-man’s-land paragraph before we get to the main event.

No further ado, ahem.

21. Linda Smith: Till Another Time: 1988-1996

Linda Smith: Till Another Time: 1988-1996 (March 12, Captured Tracks)
(March 12, Captured Tracks)
Somebody whose opinion I respect online reacted with joy to Captured Tracks‘s announcement that they were releasing a retrospective of Linda Smith in March. I went in unfamiliar, like I gather 98% of listeners, and only later realized that my assessment (“This feels like it might be the precursor to bedroom pop, recorded in the era of C86”) was literally the bio on the album’s Bandcamp page. Smith was an auteur with no reach in the pre-internet era, so her music feels prophetic, way ahead of its time (Frankie Rose and her compatriots have almost certainly heard this music somewhere in their formative pasts). This is the best of curator culture: after The Servants and The Wake and now this, Captured Tracks can introduce me to just about anyone they want.


20. Rival Consoles: Overflow

Rival Consoles: Overflow (December 3, Erased Tapes)
(December 3, Erased Tapes)
A darker, more eclectic offering than his previous (impressively) cohesive work. But deliciously dark: the pulsing, ominous first notes on 10-minute album opener Monster, set in parallax against slower and then faster counterpoints, set the tone for most of the album, so that when it slides into a panicked drone somewhere in the first few minutes you’re already anxious. And excitingly eclectic: there’s definitely some My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts DNA in there, and Pulses of Information calls back to his very best work. I got my hands on this just as I was finishing this list. There’s no guarantee that a favorite artist will deliver at the 11th hour: I’ve waited years for Holy Other to come back to the table, and I had such high hopes last week that Lieve would make this year’s list, but… no. Ryan Lee West, on the other hand, thy cup spilleth over.


19. The Natvral: Tethers

The Natvral: Tethers (April 2, Kanine)
(April 2, Kanine)
Hamilton Leithauser, Ezra Koenig, Joe Strummer (or Shane MacGowan?). Britpop. Dylan, Cohen, lyrically. Kip Berman (The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart) wears his stylistic influences on his peasant’s blouse sleeve. Do those resonate with you the way they do with me? I miss the band, but this’ll do nicely.


18. SAULT: NINE

SAULT: NINE (June 25, Forever Living Originals)
(June 25, Forever Living Originals)
On first listen this felt like marking time after the revelatory blowout that was last year’s offerings. But I came back to it late in the year and the songs had changed, somehow: vital, unexpected. The release was experimental, streaming/available for 90 days only, and then gone. It strikes me as a reflection of our time during COVID and of the continuing apocalypse for black people in the US: all just disappearing into America’s stubborn lack of attention and collective action in the face of violence and death. SAULT is protest music and celebration music and social commentary and musical alchemy all at once. The album’s gone, but the pain is real.


17. Mo Troper: Dilettante

Mo Troper: Dilettante (October 15, Bobo Integral)
(October 15, Bobo Integral)
28 songs in 50 minutes, sunny, guitar-drenched lo-fi madness, ranging from a heartfelt ode to a delicacy (Sugar and Cream) to a heartbreaking metaphor for self-hatred (My Parrot). Mo’s warbling croon will be familiar to every kid who’s ever worked out Beatles covers in their bedroom. Total euphoria.


16. Low: Hey What

Low: Hey What (September 10, Sub Pop)
(September 10, Sub Pop)
Alan and Mimi take the almost total destruction/deconstruction of their sound from 2018’s Double Negative and reintroduce clearly tracked vocals, with incredible results. The long decaying codas that end White Horses and Days Like These push the songs into the metaphysical. Album after album, Low evolve, I don’t know how, but I hope they never stop.


15. Boozoo Bajou: Lambique

Boozoo Bajou: Lambique (March 4, Apollo)
(March 4, Apollo)
In March I did a 31-day experiment to listen to every electronic album suggested by a certain blog for which I will provide you, reader, no data. Most failed to grab me; some (Caribou’s Suddenly Remixes, for instance) were already dead on target. And then there were a handful, new to me, that really got a hold of me, including Jas Shaw‘s Sollbruchstelle Triptych and this little EP from Boozoo Bajou, a German duo with percussion chops and Balearic leanings. Perfect summer afternoon music, and fall, and it’s looking like winter, too.


14. Idles: Crawler

Idles: Crawler (November 12, Partisan Records)
(November 12, Partisan Records)
Gets plenty hard, but the understated claustrophobic mood of opener MTT 420 RR signals that something’s different this time around. There’s a willingness to play with the form a bit that makes Crawler breathe more than Idles’s recent efforts. The New Sensation absolutely slaps. By time Talbot sings “God damn / In spite of it all / life is beautiful” at The End I’m 100% banging my head in agreement.


13. Arlo Parks: Collapsed In Sunbeams

Arlo Parks: Collapsed In Sunbeams (January 29, Transgressive)
(January 29, Transgressive)
Super laid back British R&B, lyrics focused on caring well for others and for herself. Parks’s debut couldn’t be easier to listen to: the songwriting is strong, poetic, the production is light. And she doesn’t drop the accent. Dare you not to be won over.


12. Lawrence: Hotel TV

Lawrence: Hotel TV (July 23, Beautiful Mind Records)
(July 23, Beautiful Mind Records)
Brother/Sister duo Clyde and Gracie from NYC are gunning soooo hard for pop transcendence on their third album, which gets there at times but also stays just left-of-center kitschy enough to feel underground too. This is a sub-sub-subset of my palate, candy-coated tongue-in-cheek pop soul, and it only comes along this good once in a while. The sole record this year (ever?) to reference Cheers, The Office, and Bojack Horseman in the same (titular) song, and the final track revisits every other song like a reverse overture and trips all the musical theater wires in me (in the best way). I mean, don’t you like fun?


11. Liz Lawrence: The Avalanche

Liz Lawrence: The Avalanche (September 17, Kartel Music Group)
(September 17, Kartel Music Group)
Liz straddles the lines between spiky punk, new wave and power pop without even breaking sweat. She can write a hook, a riff, AND take a pop song on a hard right turn before you can catch up. In the two years since Pity Party she hasn’t been sleeping—the songs have a confident nonchalance that hides hours and hours of songwriting practice. Bookmark this entry for two years from now when Liz breaks through: you heard it here first.


10. Big Red Machine: How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?

Big Red Machine: How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? (August 27, Jagjaguwar)
(August 27, Jagjaguwar)
Like sloppy seconds from my favorite album of last year: many of the same players (Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner and Anaïs Mitchell) with a little Indie Taylor thrown in there, plus Sharon, Shara, Ben Howard and Robin Pecknold to boot. A big old Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans of an album, derived from a growing network of COVID-lockdown-motivated collaborators, with Dessner’s sonic signature as the sugar. Put all together? Feels like wizardry.


09. JAB: Currents

JAB: Currents (March 19, Joon Dada)
(March 19, Joon Dada)
Confident propulsive percussion-based melancholy in four longform tracks, just manipulated enough to snap it off center, but analog enough to feel like an intimate live performance, and always always driving forward. Especially on the magnificent closer, JAB accomplishes with live instruments what dozens of knob twiddlers are attempting to do in studio every damn day. Gorgeous.


08. Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine: A Beginner’s Mind

Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine: A Beginner's Mind (September 24, Asthmatic Kitty)
(September 24, Asthmatic Kitty)
Using the I-Ching and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, under the guidance of the Zen concept of shoshin (the “beginner’s mind” of the title), Stevens and De Augustine holed up in an upstate NY cabin for a month, watching B- (and sometimes A-) movies at night and writing songs in response in the morning. As good a muse as any, the movies; the results are stellar, and so unlike the source material (how Mad Max became the gentle Murder and Crime, I’m baffled). The artists’ commitment to songwriting without preconception generates absolute diamonds like (This Is) The Thing (based loosely on Carpenter’s The Thing) and the singularly funky Back To Oz. De Augustine’s voice complements Stevens’s perfectly, a more natural high tenor. This is a return to thematic form after last year’s The Ascension. I couldn’t include that uneven and overstuffed effort in my Twenty in Twenty Twenty. Not that Sufjan needed a palate cleanser exactly, but… here’s to the movies.


07. Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / London Symphony Orchestra: Promises

Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / London Symphony Orchestra: Promises (March 26, Luaka Bop)
(March 26, Luaka Bop)
Shepherd sets the same tonal figure repeating over an embarrassment of aural landscapes in conversation with Sanders’s saxophone. Rewards drifting, rewards close listening.

Hype sticker on Floating Points debut album Elaenia that reads: "Very, very creative... This sounds good—a really clean sound. I'd like to meet him some day." Pharoah Sanders on Elaenia
LOL, masterpiece.


06. Leon Bridges: Gold-Diggers Sound

Leon Bridges: Gold-Diggers Sound (July 23, Columbia)
(July 23, Columbia)
It’s called Gold Diggers Sound because he’s (finally) struck smooth, hot gold. Smooth, hot gold. Not taking any questions at this time, thank you.

05. The War On Drugs: I Don’t Live Here Anymore

The War On Drugs: I Don’t Live Here Anymore (October 29, Atlantic)
(October 29, Atlantic)
Ten-song-long love letter to Touch of Grey. I unironically love it.


04. Katy Kirby: Cool Dry Place

Katy Kirby: Cool Dry Place (February 19, Keeled Scales)
(February 19, Keeled Scales)
I want Katy Kirby to succeed so bad. Saw her this year with a friend, my second concert since the start of the pandemic, opening for Waxahatchee, who she quite frankly took to school. The longing and vulnerability and pathos in Cool Dry Place, the ambiguous side-eye in Fireman, the playful effects on the vocals in Traffic!, the interpolation of Hallelujah on Secret Language: Kirby is taking musical and lyrical chances way in excess of her peers. The transcendent guitar freakout that ends the title track is all I ever want in live music. By the time she got to a laughing cover of (Sandy) Alex G’s Bad Man at the end of her (too short) set, my friend and I were in total agreement: we’d just seen and heard something remarkable, something worth championing. More of whatever this is, please, Katy, more.


03. Khruangbin: Mordechai Remixes / Remi Wolf: We Love Dogs!

Khruangbin: Mordechai Remixes (August 6, Dead Oceans)
(August 6, Dead Oceans)
Remi Wolf: We Love Dogs! (May 5, Island Records)
(May 5, Island Records)
  1. Take songs you already dug to death.
  2. Hype them up with Dominic Fike and dub versions.
  3. Make it album-length.
  4. [???????]
  5. Profit.
It’s surprising that despite her also releasing a full (debut?!?) album in 2021, it’s this Remi Wolf remix thing that feels fresh. Son Lux did it too this year with Tomorrows, to similar effect. And Khraungbin turn their signature sound into raw material for some serious late-night bangers: Mordechai Remixes is almost more listenable than its predecessor. But I don’t want this entry to get unwieldy, I just want to dance.


02. Hiss Golden Messenger: Quietly Blowing It

Hiss Golden Messenger: Quietly Blowing It (June 25, Merge)
(June 25, Merge)
Pitchfork was dismissive, calling it “the sound of an artist beginning to repeat himself.” Fuck those guys. This is a songwriter and musician completely and un-self-consciously in the pocket, which is exactly what I love about M.C. Taylor and his ragged rotating band of gypsies (which includes co-writing credits from Anaïs Mitchell and Gregory Alan Isakov this time round). The album is aging nicely, songs deepening and growing in my esteem as I continue to listen.

Nobody said it’d be easy
They’ll say you ain’t worth it
They’ll say you ain’t ready
Well, there’s a new day coming
We’ve been a long time running
Put your nose to the stone, you can taste it


That bears repeating, if indeed he’s repeating himself, because when everything’s on fire it’s a tonic to hear again an honest mixture of hope and resignation in folk art of this caliber. Music against the darkness.


01. The Weather Station: Ignorance

The Weather Station: Ignorance (February 5, Fat Possum)
(February 5, Fat Possum)
I’m particularly devoted to The Weather Station. Tamara Lindeman’s 2015 album came into my life at a transitional moment and reanimated my relationship with meaningful, narrative music. Pavement may have forever diminished my need for lyrics that make immediate sense, which has been a blessing and a curse. But Loyalty managed to touch the parts of me that responded to emotional honesty, musical ingenuity, and considered, lyrical prose, for the first time in a long time.

Her follow-up was seen as a step forward, an ‘electric’ album (though that’s criminally reductive) where earlier efforts were folk or folk-rock at most, and her cachet has only grown. This, then, may be her year.

Working with a full band and the arrangements that makes possible, Ignorance is a set of ten fully-realized pop songs, loosely inspired by Lindeman’s meditation on climate change, our responsibilities and inaction in the face of it. Inspired lead single and album opener Robber blows in on an understated jazz freakout. With its video featuring twin drummers in a forest flanking Lindeman in the showiest of performance get-ups, Robber puts the new approach right out front: this is no longer an artist painting alone in her studio. The palette has expanded to meet the demands of the artist’s new vision.

I think that expansive sound has made the establishment prick up its ears, finally, but it’s also a sweet reward for devotees like me. I can hear how these songs might have been delivered in an earlier iteration of The Weather Station (and in fact Wear has a twin sketch released a few years ago that validates my intuition), so they retain the intimacy of her quiet delivery. But they also gain a complexity borne of the full complement of musicians, improvising together. I get to hear what The Weather Station might sound like, almost, maybe, as a pop musician.

Always, The Weather Station’s lyrics rewards close listening. Lindeman is evasive, her phrasing making it difficult at times to follow. But she’s a master lyricist, able to capture an image, a hard-to-define emotional moment in a way that communicates fully, one human to another.

Waiting outside the club in a parking lot
I watched some bird fly up and land on the rooftop
Then up again into the sky, in and out of sight
Then flying down again to land on the pavement


Is it alright if I don’t wanna sing tonight?
I know you arе tired of seeing tears in my eyes
But everywhere we go there is an outside
Over all of these ceilings hangs a sky


And it kills me when I
You know it just kills me when I see some bird fly
It just kills me and I don’t know why


The strength of her powers on this album come together brilliantly on the final track, which paints a clear picture of the narrator driving a winter highway, fleeing pain and taking herself endlessly to task. She shoots for the moon on this and every song on Ignorance, walking a fine line between profound and too far, managing to stay just on this side, but acknowledging the risk:

What if I misjudged
In the wildest of emotion?
Did I take this way too far?


Oh my God, no. No no no no.


Thanks 2021, though I won’t be sad to see you go. Also though:

Twenty Twenty Twenty

My twenty favorite albums of Twenty Twenty. Some old favorites and some new discoveries. This is the year my kids got Spotify accounts and officially diverged from my lifelong methods of musical consumption. They listen to playlists. I’m still committed to the album, that forced collective unit of songs that represents a temporal moment in an artist’s life. An album-worth of music is even more important to me this year: an anchor to hold onto while quarantine rips up the social landscape around us. The best of these are like comrades now, advancing in just a few short months from novelties to fast friends (I think it’s trauma bonding). There’s a shared feeling of almost studied irrelevance to so many of my favorites this year—musicians comfortable doing exactly what they do best, just delivering the goods, not trying to break the mold but settled in for the long haul.

Most of these are linked to Bandcamp, and I strongly endorse their artist-first model of digital music delivery, especially as against the extractive and commercially exploitative rent-seeking giants killing the industry out here (coughSpotifycough). It costs you nothing to click through and listen at Bandcamp, and if you toss a few bucks to these excellent artists in the process, all the better.

Numbers 1 through 5 are pretty solidly ranked. 6 through 10 are probably more like a voting block, and 11 – 20 could move up and down the chart depending on the day. With no further ado.

20. Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers: Get In Union

This, shortly after seeing Julie Dash’s Daughters Of The Dust for the first time. To hear these voices, in recital of songs that feel more like liturgies, songs you understand must have been sung and sung and sung again, is like being a guest in someone’s family room, no one explaining any traditions to you but there’s no rancor either. It’s the privilege of witness. [ALAN LOMAX ARCHIVE, June 5 2020]

19. Daniel Avery & Alessandro Cortini: Illusion Of Time

The title track, four minutes of gently decaying synths, is my platonic ideal for ambient electronic wallpaper music. But Cortini’s work w/ Nine Inch Nails puts the music in tension w/ industrial noise. Brian Eno and Tim Hecker’s lovechild. [MUTE, March 27 2020]

18. Khruangbin: Mordechai

Per the NYTimes profile for this album, the drummer and guitarist played in the gospel band at Beyoncé’s church in Houston. Dub, funk, art and groove in a fug of smoke. Helps me imagine myself as someone infinitely cooler than I am. [DEAD OCEANS, June 26 2020]

17. Plants & Animals: The Jungle

Warren Spicer’s plaintive vocals always sound just unhinged enough to push these songs past jammy and into sublime. You can imagine the shindig where this band is playing, and exactly where each song will slip into structured chaos in their live renditions. We need a vaccine so bad, if only so I can see Plants & Animals make the above dream a reality in a dirty club. [SECRET CITY, October 23 2020]

16. Nils Frahm: Empty

Masterclass in ironic album titling. Picture the SRO hall where these compositions are played, hundreds of people holding their collective breath lest they break the spell. [ERASED TAPES, March 28 2020]

15. Adrianne Lenker: Songs/Instrumentals

Big Thief released two masterpieces in 2019 and Lenker still wasn’t emptied out. I’m partial to artists w/ alter egos that work in a different dynamic, and songs/instrumentals fits that like a glove. Lenker’s voice is integral to what makes these songs work, one of the more distinctive gifts of the new millennium. [4AD, October 23 2020]

14. Art Feynman: Half Price At 3:30

Speaking of artists w/ alter egos, Luke Temple‘s Art Feynman sits snugly in between his songwriterly work under his own name and his improvisational full band material with Here We Go Magic, splitting the difference with similarly exquisite results. I’m Gonna Miss Your World has a good chance at taking the Earworm Of 2020 title. [WESTERN VINYL, June 26 2020]

13. Waxahatchee: Saint Cloud

The point at which I went from Waxahatchee appreciator to Waxahatchee fan. Saint Cloud is a huge step forward: accessible, exciting and mature. And the cover art is worth a thousand words about what it sounds like. [MERGE, March 27 2020]

12. Remi Wolf: I’m Allergic To Dogs!

Technically an EP, but there’s so much kitchen dance party stuffed in there, I’m rounding up. Instant mood changer. [ISLAND, June 24 2020]

11. The Beths: Jump Rope Gazers

That cover art notwithstanding, no one power-pops harder, better, or with more innocent abandon than The Beths right now. [CARPARK, July 10 2020]

10. Real Estate: The Main Thing

They’re not doing anything new, or even anything remarkable. It’s just that what they’re doing is so refined and consistently pleasant. This became one of my go-to comfort blankets when COVID19 threatened to overwhelm my equilibrium. [DOMINO RECORDING CO., February 28 2020]

09. The Microphones: Microphones In 2020

Phil writes a synechdoche for his entire artistic career. When he sings about hearing Stereolab and running to the studio I think my heart stopped for a minute. A masterpiece. [P.W. ELVERUM & SUN, August 7 2020]

08. Blake Mills: Mutable Set

I heard Vanishing Twin and immediately sought out this unknown album of hushed, intelligent virtuosity. The intersection of <thoughtful + accessible + patient> meets so many of my needs and pushes so many of my buttons. There’s always room on my turntable for a new auteur (or not so new, in this case—Mills is an industry vet, having worked with a murderer’s row of luminaries and having recorded and released multiple albums before this). Worth all the time you can give it. [NEW DEAL/VERVE, May 8 2020]

07. Taylor Swift: Folklore

As long as Taylor’s trying on hats, I want to make a public bid for more of this Aaron Dessner phase. Indie Swift, complete with obligatory Bon Iver guest appearance, is as commercially strategic as ever: I submit that her audience may have shifted from the teens of her teens to their now-middle-aged indie dads with their respectable jobs and market influence. She obviously knows everything. Plus the storytelling is some of the best in the business. [REPUBLIC, July 24 2020]

06. Caribou: Suddenly

Pandemic cancelled my first Caribou show. Fuck. At least I have Suddenly. [MERGE, February 28 2020]
All five artists represented in the final spots were new to me this year. Normally I’ll have an old favorite with new material that creeps up here, but 2020 has been an exceptional year in a lot of ways. I commend these artists’ back catalogs to you if, like me, you hadn’t explored their music before now. In all cases, their superlative work this year is just the tip of the iceberg (barring of course my number one, which arrived sui generis, leaving us looking forward with hope for the future).

05. Ben Lukas Boysen: Mirage

Boysen’s eliptical compositions feel all-consuming, warm and strong and taking up space in ways that most of my favorite electronic music does. Jon Hopkins and Floating Points have filled this spot for me in years past, but Boysen is a welcome addition to that exclusive club. [ERASED TAPES, May 1 2020]

04. Lianne La Havas: Lianne La Havas

Take this perfect single, add a genrebending cover of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes and, yeah, pretty much can’t fight. Seldom does pop music cohere (for me) across an entire album of material quite as effortlessly as Lianne La Havas. [NONESUCH, July 17 2020]

03. Andy Shauf: The Neon Skyline

Shauf’s self-loathing protagonists, drinking and striking out with a specific cast of friends and lovers (Charlie, Judy, Claire) in a specific place (the titular bar, which we get to know within the first two minutes), are detailed in perhaps my favorite distinctive new voice, made unforgettable by his unique diction and high, wistful tone. Playing every instrument including a surprisingly essential clarinet, singing in harmony with himself, Shauf punches way above his weight on these charming-then-unsettling tiny, perfect pop confections. Few more just-plain listenable albums this year, to my ears, then The Neon Skyline. [ANTI-, January 24 2020]

02. SAULT: Untitled (Black Is) / Untitled (Rise)

I exclaimed out loud in delight multiple times during my first hearing earlier this year of SAULT’s 2019 album, 5, and immediately listened to all four of their releases. R&B, soul, rock, chanting, percussion, indigenous sound, spoken word—the elements are familiar but the assembled outcome is some of the best outsider art I’ve ever heard. Conscious, unforgettable music, grounded in past traditions but unarguably rooted in the moment. There’s no choosing between these two roughly thematic albums, both released in 2020, both fully realised and absolutely stellar. Really, they’re that remarkable, a new new thing. [FOREVER LIVING ORIGINALS, June 19 / September 18 2020]

01. Bonny Light Horseman: Bonny Light Horseman

In a better world, Anaïs Mitchell (Hadestown), Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats), and instrumentalist and habitual Hiss Golden Messenger guitarist Josh Kaufman’s Bonny Light Horseman would be everywhere, as ubiquitous to 2020 as WAP. The source material is centuries old, but the execution is urgent and immediate. It’s especially resonant in a year when the upending of everything familiar has all of us looking back to reevaluate a collective culture so routine, so unremarkable as to have become invisible. By bringing these folk songs up from the deep and recasting them in a contemporary mold, Bonny Light Horseman connect the present moment to the past in a way that feels essential in this unmoored crisis of a year. Mitchell and Johnson’s voices sound natural together, their harmonies pouring over the listener like water. By the time Justin Vernon interjects his guest baritone late in the tracklist, Mitchell and Johnson have already established your new normal, and you’re grateful when they return to the foreground in the closing song, 10,000 Miles. These are artists in collaboration at the peak of their powers, and I’ve played and loved no album more consistently this year. There’s no way to tell, but Bonny Light Horseman has all the signs of being a lifelong friend. It’s an album to return to, again and again, when you just need to be… re-grounded. [37d03d, January 24 2020]

Ten More Mentions, Just Off-List:

Blu & Exile: Miles [DIRTY SCIENCE, July 17 2020]
Jay Electronica: A Written Testimony [ROC NATION, March 13 2020]
Fleet Foxes: Shore [ANTI-, September 22 2020]
I Break Horses: Warnings [BELLA UNION, May 8 2020]
The Innocence Mission: See You Tomorrow [THERESE, January 17 2020]
Loma: Don’t Shy Away [SUB POP, October 23 2020]
Luluc: Dreamboat [SUN CHASER, October 23 2020]
Oneohtrix Point Never: Magic Oneohtrix Point Never [WARP, October 30 2020]
Tenci: My Heart Is An Open Field [KEELED SCALES, June 5 2020]
Trace Mountains: Lost In The Country [LAME-O, April 10 2020]

Ten Plus Two, Two Thousand Nineteen

December has come at last, careening toward the end of the year. I’m sitting right on top of middle age, and my tastes have both hardened and softened. The music that moves me is pretty squarely in a set of musical borders, but my engagement with artists wandered all over this year: lots of new stuff in my top ten. I’m throwing in two from 2018 that I didn’t really consider at the time, but which floored me when I finally listened this year, to make an even dozen; and some honorable mentions for the long tail. Here they are: jnon’s favorite albums of 2019.

12. Nils Frahm: All Melody (2018)

Nils Frahm: All Melody cover image

Gorrrrrrrgeous. I’ve wasted a year, not considering this album. That’s a year of listening I can never get back.

11. The Beths: Future Me Hates Me (2018)

The Beths: Future Me Hates Me

If I’d known that an album rocked this hard or tasted this sweet last year (the “whoo-hoos,” the complementary lyrics sung one on top of the other, the power chords), my top three would’ve looked 33% different. This is the kind of record you don’t take off the player for months: pick up the needle, go back to the beginning, drop it again.

10. Telekinesis: Effluxion

Telekinesis: Effluxion

Michael Benjamin Lerner stops trying so hard and delivers 10 sunny, shuffling pop confections in his earnest and endearing tenor. Surprised to find myself liking a Telekinesis album again, and quite this much.

09. Aldous Harding: Designer

Aldous Harding: Designer

That’s it, that’s the review.

08. Hiss Golden Messenger: Terms Of Surrender

Hiss Golden Messenger: Terms Of Surrender

Almost embarrassingly prolific these past few years, MC Taylor is making a densely packed assault on a particularly southern mystical tradition, where musicians come together to perform an alchemy that transcends rock and roll, or makes rock and roll transcendent. Hiss ties a string to these experiments to make sure he can find his way back out again, or to keep a tenuous hold on the whole thing as it beats its black wings and tries to take off and float away. Directing these songs to his children, his ego, his heart, also helps ground them, resulting in another pristine document of a songwriter balancing on the razor edge between losing himself and finding nirvana.

07. Brittany Howard: Jaime

Brittany Howard: Jaime

Howard bulls her way through dirty rock, soul and torch music, but as an auteur and not the frontwoman to a band. Turns out it makes all the difference, as these songs feel alive in ways Alabama Shakes never did, to me. I was hooked, from the first mantra-like chorus of History Repeats to the last wet drum hit of the laconic Run To Me. A superlative record in every way.

06. Liz Lawrence: Pity Party

Liz Lawrence: Pity Party

A late year accidental find, Liz makes a particularly British pop-punk that makes me think of a complicated cross between last years’ gem, Caroline Rose’s Loner, and Feist’s song-deconstructing Pleasure. Like those albums, these songs are relationally directed at a specific hearer, making Pity Party feel intimate. A loner pleasure, which is how I listened to this album the last couple months: it feels like a personal find, that old feeling of finding a new artist who’s all yours. At least until she hits the big time.

05. Hand Habits: placeholder

Hand Habits: placeholder

“What’s the use if you’re not trying to forgive,” sings Meg Duffy in an anthem for the back half of a life. Upper-case feeling with all lower-case titles. These sonically gentle but lyrically piercing songs got way under my skin early this year and made themselves right at home.

04. Floating Points: Crush

Floating Points: Crush

Sam Shepherd pushes his electronic/freeJazz methodology in two directions: closer to the dance floor and the concert hall in equal measure. The stuttering strings of opener Falaise are a useful touchpoint, an almost classical swell of violins dissected by programmatic beat-like silences into a hybrid, echoed in the frenetic clicks under album closer Apoptose, Pts. 1 & 2. These experiments feel as vital to now as Elaenia felt to 2015.

03. Nilüfer Yanya: Miss Universe

Nilüfer Yanya: Miss Universe

Yanya’s sparse new wave, tied together by a series of dystopian pharmacotheraphy skits, felt like it skittered over the anxious heart of 2019. This voice, supremely confident even as the lyrics upset and unsettle; this music, approaching the sublime even as the guitar careens toward dissolution. Firmly tied to the pop tradition; one of my most-listened-to albums this year.

02. The Building: PETRA

The Building: PETRA

I don’t know anything about Anthony LaMarca except a) he’s got some Catholic in his background and b) he has/had cancer. Well, and that he has the temperament to think deeply about what life requires in the face of those facts, and write songs about it, and sing them somewhere in the patri-lineal lineage of Neil Young. Cancer and Catholicism both require a reckoning with loss. This album is a gift about coming to terms with loss, going through and not even coming out the other side, but imagining what coming out the other side will mean for the other half of a life lived well. Really, this album was a revelation, one of my favorite new finds of the year.

01. Beyoncé: HOMECOMING: THE LIVE ALBUM / The Lion King: The Gift

Beyonce: Homecoming: The Live Album

HOMECOMING is an unqualified triumph, as a synthesis/metamorphosis of an incredibly accomplished career, as a Black Fuck You Slash What’s Up to a white industry, as, just even, a document of a live performance. Beyoncé is at the absolute height of her powers here, and the effect is to completely obliterate the listener: I’m fully absorbed into Beyoncé’s world, on Beyoncé’s terms, and somehow both lose my self completely and come out the other side more fully myself. It’s the only album this year that consistently makes me cry.

What other performer could seat herself so securely at the center of Black Life, with such assurance, even arrogance, and garner no pushback? What other Black document could white America consume but not co-opt, attend but not assimilate; what other Black document enforces meeting it on its own terms? What other catalog of songs enjoys the popular recognition and cultural significance of Beyoncé’s, such that its interpretation by marching band might enhance and not destroy it? HOMECOMING easily belongs in the list of the best live albums of all time, the best Best Of albums of all time. The interpretations and interpolations of some of these songs supersede the original recordings (I could happily never hear Deja Vu again without that horn chart). Beyoncé and her comrades on HOMECOMING accomplish a feat no one saw coming: they transmute gold into… another kind of gold, a stunning transformation that I’ll need years to come to terms with. Fortunately, that’s a power worth spending years considering.

Beyonce: The Lion King: The Gift

HOMECOMING also represents Beyoncé’s complete ownership of the industry’s capitalization of Beyoncé. I’ve already written about the ways that Beyoncé used Coachella such that Beyoncé now owns Coachella, and with an eye on sustaining her future (HOMECOMING, as a documentary and an album, ensure that Beyoncé will profit from Coachella long after Coachella will profit from Beyoncé). That this is only her first magic trick of this kind this year is just more proof that there is no one playing on Beyoncé’s level. The Lion King: The Gift is Beyoncé’s response to the critics who look sideways at her participation in Disney’s “live-action” The Lion King remake. A paycheck? Maybe. But even as Disney tries to commodify Beyoncé, Beyoncé uses Disney mercilessly, to platform Black artists, to extend her own brand as a fulcrum for Black music, and most importantly to re-interpret The Lion King as a love letter / legacy letter to her own children (note that the King doesn’t survive the film: it’s the Queen who presides over the Prince’s ascension). The collection is shot through with Beyoncé’s concern for her children’s regal inheritance: that they know they are loved and worth love, that they are fully realized people in a racist world, that they already have the Keys to the Kingdom. Even as HOMECOMING puts a bow on Beyoncé’s career to date, The Lion King: The Gift looks forward to a time when Beyoncé wills the whole thing to her future Queens and Kings. That she crafts both statements in a single year? Bow down, bitches.

Some Honorable Mentions

Benny Sings: City Pop
Bedouine: Bird Songs Of A Killjoy
Big Thief: Two Hands
Andre Bratten: Pax Americana
Bon Iver: i,i
Chance The Rapper: The Big Day
Clark: Kiri Variations
Sam Cohen: The Future’s Still Ringing In My Ears
Nils Frahm: All Encores
Carly Rae Jepsen: Dedicated
Cate Le Bon: Reward
Lisel: Angels On The Slope
M83: DSVII
Metronomy: Metronomy Forever
Over The Rhine: Love & Revelation
Jessica Pratt: Quiet Signs
Prince: Originals
Ride: This Is Not A Safe Place
Taylor Swift: Lover
Jamila Woods: LEGACY! LEGACY!
Thom Yorke: Anima

Ten Top

I’ve heard some whining about the year in music, not-so-great, and I say pshaw. 2018 was lovely; there was so much good music that my top ten albums of the year didn’t even make it onto the high-profile end-of-year lists I’ve been reading. There’s enough hi-test material in 2018 to populate a thousand lists! I’ve given you a run-down of the run-up to this post (on Twitter), and I’ll probably recap those in a follow-on post. But here, at the end of all things 2018, is my Top Ten.

10. The Essex Green: Hardly Electronic

The Essex Green: Hardly Electronic
Surprise! It’s been over a decade since we saw anything from these gentle New York pop craftspersons, and I can’t imagine a better reunion opener than Sloane Ranger, with its golden Farfisa tones and classic harmonies. The band fairly skips through a masterclass multi-genre workout before waltzing back out of our lives again. Don’t wait another decade, please.

09. Natalie Prass: The Future And The Past

Natalie Prass: The Future and The Past
Prass’s pop-soul leanings get a shot in the arm on this follow-up to her self-titled debut. I can almost see her in the studio, dropping right into the pocket with her crack session musicians. Abe and I were a little obsessed with this album this summer: he learned Never Too Late on the piano, and I played Sisters probably one time too often. Prass’s delightful inversion of the Carpenter’s Close To You is as witty as a pop song gets. I can see this playing at parties for years to come.

08. Jon Hopkins: Singularity

Jon Hopkins: Singularity
When they talk about electronic/dance music being warm, or humanistic, or textured, or coaxing organic forms out of electrical impulses, I usually wonder what they mean. But in the future when I can’t put it into words, I’m going to point to this album. Emotionally affecting programmatic music; revelatory, even.

07. Amen Dunes: Freedom

Amen Dunes: Freedom
Damon McMahon’s mumbling, shambling, warbling, consonant-clipping and vowel-altering delivery gave me a thrilling emotional recall of the feelings I had listening to those early R.E.M. albums for the first time. And those R.E.M. albums were fundamental to my developing aesthetic for pop music. Combine that with McMahon’s expressed desire to write songs in the mode of Jackson’s Thriller and this album was probably always a surgical strike on my playlist this year. Hard to understand, impossible to ignore.

06. Dick Stusso: In Heaven

Dick Stusso: In Heaven
The flat drums, tamborine, and buzzing bass of Modern Music, under Stusso’s weary baritone and accented by bolts of electric guitar with the reverb on. When he sings “I’m just looking for a good time and a little cash,” well, that’s all I’m looking for too. And then he pushes the track into a weird effects-laden bridge, and drop-cuts the ending, and oh man, just take my money.

05. Emma Louise: Lilac Everything

Emma Louise: Lilac Everything
How do you set yourself apart from the myriad balladeers practicing mid-tempo lovesongs? Pitch-shift your voice down into androgynous territory, make yourself sound like a sensitive man, and then sing about sensitive men without changing your pronouns, so we’re forced to engage with the questions of love and desire from multiple angles at the same time. Brilliant.

04. S. Carey: Hundred Acres

S. Carey: Hundred Acres
This is the kind of delicate pastoral beauty I can lose myself in over and over forever. I don’t even care what it’s about, just keep singing and playing like this and I’m done for.

03. Rae Morris: Someone Out There

Rae Morris: Someone Out There
I’m not a radio pop person, but a few years of Taylor Swift/Lorde/Rihanna fandom from certain pre-teens in my household has fixed a crack in my hip-dad facade. I brought Morris’s album home and decided to like it unapologetically. And then I really did like it unapologetically, and it’s had wicked staying power over the year. Do It might be my platonic ideal of a perfect pop single. And the pre-teens liked it, too.

02. Caroline Rose: LONER

Caroline Rose: LONER
I had this locked down in February.

01. Wye Oak: The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs

Wye Oak: The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs
I didn’t get Jenn Wasner before, but I’m 100% on board now. Call it clarity, transparency– whatever she was trying to communicate, it finally clicked in her songwriting here. Plaintive, inventive, trancendental, rhythmic. Burns down the whole barn at times. I listen to this album and I just don’t want it to end: this kind of wall-to-wall energetic, creative rock experience is the gold standard.

In praise of Famous Tracheotomies

I’ve spent the past week in frequent tears, emotionally undone for some reason by the opening track from Okkervil River’s In The Rainbow Rain, “Famous Tracheotomies.”

Morgan Enos in Billboard opines that the song is self-explanatory, but I think its genius is a little more subtle than that. On first listen, the synopsis goes: Okkervil songwriter Will Sheff almost died as a baby. He had to have a tracheotomy, and has lived with the scar and the knowledge that he almost didn’t make it, since then. Sheff goes on, in a series of verses, to recount the sad declines of other famous tracheotomy recipients: Gary Coleman, Mary Wells, Dylan Thomas, whose wife got so drunk the night he died that she “had to be restrained.”

At this point, you know the song is going somewhere, but you don’t know where. It seems a little on the nose. Somewhere relatively dark. The last verse starts in the same style: Ray Davies, age 13, in a hospital in London. The pattern repetition has lulled you into complacency— you know the story, here’s another example. The nurses wheel him out onto the balcony to get some air. He looks out over the river, and we roll into the last line.

“And as that evening sun did sink / on London and the river and that freaked-out future Kink”

You already knew that. Ray Davies, along with his brother Dave, is the chief songwriter for the most working class of British bands, The Kinks. Famous for songs about everyday men and women, working stiffs, down-on-their-luck folks caught up in the conundrums of their time. You could see Sheff identifying with Davies even, drawing a line between Davies’s art and his own.

“Waterloo lit up for one sick kid”

Sheff’s lulling repetition has blinded you to the other identification he makes with Davies, that of the everyman who comes close to death but pulls through and makes indelible art. With that buried lede, “Waterloo,” the entire song opens up instantaneously. You know what Waterloo signifies. “Waterloo Sunset” has been at times pegged as the greatest British rock song, the quintessential story of blue collar knobs finding beauty amid the drudgery. You instantly hear in your mind “As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise,” and Sheff has already painted the picture of Davies doing exactly that.

“And at 23, he wrote a song about it”

And as you’re hearing Sheff and seeing Davies watching the Waterloo sunset, you hear that last line, and you know that Davies still has his whole career ahead of him, and there’s hope, that the song is about hope. It’s not about dissolution.

It’s about hope.

In the masterstroke, the song then begins to cycle into a wordless repetition of the “Waterloo Sunset” melody, and the chord structure is revealed to have been a companion to Waterloo Sunset all along, and Sheff a direct descendant of a long line of hurting artists trying to find beauty in the everyday. And then, you get to meditate on the song itself, without words – the lyrical melody of the opening verse of “Waterloo Sunset” – and you feel something. Something ineffable and filled with hope.

It’s an old truism – your pain is not the end of your story, it may set the stage for your greatest achievements – but it’s as elegantly painted here as it has ever been, in a subversive and unexpectedly moving way: Waterloo Sunset’s fine.

Hashtag #AOTY 2017

Twitter has been less than ideal for expounding on the music I’m listening to. I’ve been doing year-end lists on Twitter for the last few years, one album a day near the end of December, counting down to my Album Of The Year (complete with hashtags, #aoty, natch). Here, though, is a great big blog, just begging for a long-form list. So I’m going to recast my Top Ten of 2017.

10 through 6, unranked:

Big Thief - CapacityBig Thief: Capacity. I was hooked by the stark vulnerability of this songwriting, but I was reeled in by the rock’n’roll perfection of two singles, the above linked ‘Shark Smile’ and the devastating ‘Black Diamonds.’ Adrianne Lenker’s approach is on target for me right now, somewhere vaguely in the female singer-songwriter neighborhood but I don’t know how to describe exactly where.


Blond Ambition - Slow All OverBlond Ambition: Slow All Over. Ex-Cops, Brian Harding’s previous band, is responsible for a personal fav, True Hallucinations, so I was geeked to see this new offering. Same ranging musical curiosity applies, leans more pop than rock.


Four Tet - New EnergyFour Tet: New Energy. New Energy‘s lead single grabbed me and stayed with me all year, and the rest of the tracks here (‘Lush’ is another standout) carry weight. Years in and Kieran Hebden still just… does it, for me. I’m waiting for the fall-off, where he starts making albums that don’t appeal to me. Hasn’t happened yet, thank you Jesus.


Hiss Golden Messenger - Hallelujah AnyhowHiss Golden Messenger: Hallelujah Anyhow. M C Taylor is the man of the hour in the Neds-Fox household, so we looked with anticipation to this album. A little less hard-hitting than last year’s masterpiece Heart Like A Levee, but no less important, and worth the price for the studio version of ‘John The Gun’ alone. Few are doing conscious work against the darkness today like HGM.


Iron & Wine - Beast EpicIron & Wine: Beast Epic. Sam Beam hits me (weirdly) somewhere in the same spot that’s activated by The Weather Station and Big Thief and Natalie Prass and Innocence Mission. It’s not Americana or folk or singer-songwriter, it’s not gendered… it’s hard for me to put my finger on it. There’s something about the closeness, the vulnerability, the lyricism. Beast Epic is a return to form for Iron & Wine, and I for one welcome it.


5 – 1, ranked:

Emily Haines / Soft Skeleton: Choir of the Mind5. Emily Haines / Soft Skeleton: Choir of the Mind. I love South San Gabriel but I can’t really get into Centromatic. In the same way, I’m not keen on Metric but I played the crap out of the Soft Skeleton stuff that came out about 10 years ago. Long wait, does not disappoint. Poetic/comical in a way that doesn’t privilege either, and soooo listenable.


Elbow: Little Fictions4. Elbow: Little Fictions. As with Alvvays below, we just… kept playing this one. It’s dead-center stuff for Elbow: not a revelation or a sea-change, just solidly in their wheelhouse. But, come on– do one thing this well.


The Weather Station: S/T3. The Weather Station: The Weather Station. I loved Loyalty so much that this was big on the horizon for me. Comes on punkier, and that’s actually a revelation: Lindeman’s stark, emotionally honest, literary songwriting paired with a harder focus makes these songs punch.


Alvvays: Antisocialites2. Alvvays: Antisocialites. Clayton called their debut a perfect album, and on review it turned out he was right. This came along shortly thereafter and stayed right here, hovering around #1 on my list, by sheer force of its relistenability. We* could just put this on over and over.


Aimee Mann: Mental Illness1. Aimee Mann: Mental Illness. We’ve had a thing for Mann since Magnolia (as I suspect a number of folks my age/ilk did), but honestly I’ve felt sort of hit or miss about her albums as a whole. This, however, is front to back unimpeachable. Emotionally affecting, masterclass level songwriting, crazy catchy. When the kids started memorizing the lyrics I knew it was over. Career high, flawless.


(* When I say we I mean the fam, fam).

One Year

One Year, a January mix from jnonfiction
One Year, a themed mix for January. Skews light; let’s see if 2018 can take a hint.

  1. New Year – The Breeders
  2. Valentine’s Day – Hem
  3. March – Hex
  4. April The 14th (Ruination Day Part 1) – Gillian Welch
  5. Month of May – Arcade Fire
  6. June – Over The Rhine
  7. July – The Innocence Mission
  8. August & September – The The
  9. Late October – Harold Budd / Brian Eno
  10. Rose Hip November – Vashti Bunyan
  11. New Year’s Eve – The Walkmen