Monday, December 27, 2021

The Best Albums of 2021

2021 - another year that does not need an introduction. We all lived it.

Normally at this point I take a moment to reflect on those we lost over the year. As I type, over 5.3 million lives have been lost worldwide to the pandemic. That total was 1.76 million at the same time last year. Heartbreaking. Music once again proved to be an unstoppable force, with tons of great releases emerging throughout the year.

Thank you to our friends from across the world that took the time to compile their lists below! Make sure to follow / listen to the Spotify playlist that is embedded at the bottom of this post. Listen while you peruse. :)

If you're reading this, we all look forward to your comments and lists, so please interact here or follow us on Facebook / Twitter / YouTube.

Here's to a better upcoming year.
- Bret and Sarah

P.S. We do earn a commission if you purchase anything through the links in this post.

Bret Helm
Life on this Planet | Audra | YouTube

10. Lightning Bug - A Color of the Sky

I'll often hear a band that's pleasant enough to acknowledge "this is nice," then I read the lyrics and they often leave me completely underwhelmed and I no longer want to engage. No substance. Lightning Bug is definitely an exception. Beauty with deep introspection on the human condition. "And in the night, I see all the friends I failed, or lost or left behind of me. And all the things I didn't mean to break. I lie awake." If you like Mazzy Star, Low or even Joni Mitchell, this band / album is for you.

09. Helloween - Helloween

Legends of German power metal welcomed back original member Kai Hansen and Keeper of the Seven Keys-era vocalist Michael Kiske for a powerhouse lineup on their 16th studio album. From the artwork to the outstanding musicianship, this was the kind of record that I needed to get lost in this past year.

08. ABBA - Voyage

40 years since their last album, ABBA re-emerged with a gloriously perfect single, "I Still Have Faith in You" - which if I didn't know better, I would've thought it was from their original years. I couldn't imagine hearing this live and not having a total breakdown. Did I say perfect? I do miss Rutger Gunnarsson's presence on the album. His bass lines were such an important part of ABBA's sound. He sadly passed in 2015.

07. Kacey Musgraves - star-crossed

It's been only 3 years since Kacey's outstanding Golden Hour, and a lot has changed. The joyful celebration of love and life has been replaced with heartbreak and loss - the end result of her divorce. While immediately accessible, I still found it to be an initially difficult record to want to go back and revisit. It almost felt too personal. That changed the more I dug into the track "Camera Roll" and it opened the doorway for the rest of the record to resonate. I'm sure we all have artifacts from the past that we don't want to look at, yet we just can't seem to get rid of them. "Chronological order and nothing but torture. Scroll too far back, that's what you get. I don't wanna see 'em, but I can't delete 'em. It just doesn't feel right yet."

06. Desperate Journalist - Maximum Sorrow!

I'm very pleased to see this great band's fourth LP make it onto over half of the lists in this feature!

05. Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises

Blending electronics, light symphonic textures and the sax of legend Pharoah Sanders, Promises has been my go-to headphone, chill-out, re-center myself record of 2021.

04. Iron Maiden - Senjutsu

I've always been a casual Iron Maiden fan since my brother Bart got an "Eddie" shirt at one of those stores in the mall where you chose the image on the wall and then they iron it onto a shirt. That was back in the 80s. For some reason when Senjutsu came out I had a hunch to grab this one and I'm so glad that I did. Hardcore Maiden fans will have to be the judge of how this compares to the rest of the catalog, but for me this is top tier. 

After the last two years that we've all shared, these songs should serve as a testament / reminder / warning of what we've all lived through. After a 35+ year existence, James continue to be on top of their game and one of my absolute favorite musical outfits of all-time. The chorus of "Isabella" - goosebumps every time.

02. Pink Turns Blue - Tainted

Tainted is the 11th album from this veteran German group. And damn, this record rivals their best work. If you're familiarity with the post-punk realm starts and ends with Joy Division, add this one to your collection - now!

01. Kaelan Mikla - Undir Köldum Norðurljósum

The Icelandic trio took a major leap forward on their fourth album, producing their finest album to date. Very, very few of the newer so-called "darkwave" / "post-punk" bands that have emerged over the last 7-8 years come anywhere close to Kaelan Mikla. From beginning to end, UKN is pretty perfect. The growth in production, musicianship and songwriting are instantly noticed. The change in vocal strength is immediately felt - soaring and beautiful. And if you're wondering about missing those banshees shrieks and screams from past albums, don't fret - they bubble beneath the surface on a few songs. Now how about a new Sólveig Matthildur solo record!

P.S. I'd like to also give a shout-out to Lycia for an amazing year - reissuing classic albums Ionia and Cold, along with the new Casa Luna EP, which contains one of my favorite tracks in their entire catalog, "Galatea."

Sarah Quarrie Helm
Life on this Planet | Instagram

10. ABBA - Voyage
09. Gary Numan - Intruder
08. Pink Turns Blue - Tainted
07. White Flowers - Day By Day
06. Strand of Oaks - In Heaven
03. Sneaker Pimps - Squaring the Circle
02. The Anchoress - The Art of Losing
01. Desperate Journalist - Maximum Sorrow!

Rob Clark
Rockford, Illinois | YouTube

10. St. Vincent - Daddy’s Home

Annie Clark's father was recently released from prison. That appears to be ground zero for this album, heavily steeped in 70s imagery and sounds that presumably recall the music he introduced her to as a child. It took me a while to understand where the album was coming from (thanks again, Jason!) but now that I get it I love it.

09. Kacey Musgraves - star-crossed

It's no secret that this is Kacey's breakup album. That fact alone started me building a wall in front of it. I'm not terribly surprised that she won me over in the end but, honestly, so much of this album makes me sad. I often just feel like I want to give her a big, sympathetic hug when I listen to it. Regardless, she examines what seems like every aspect of her relationship and its eventual demise, creating her own kind of concept album about the ins and outs of human connection.

08. Olivia Rodrigo - SOUR

Olivia Rodrigo is 18 years old and, not surprisingly, writes songs about teenage relationships and teenage concerns. As someone who is 40 years older, this shouldn't interest me much. However, Rodrigo has insight that is well beyond her years and a sense of sincerity in her writing and singing that pulled me in and made me care. Add to that her powerful voice and impressive range, and I found myself loving this album more each time I listened to it.

07. Del Amitri - Fatal Mistakes

My favorite Scottish pop band returns with their first studio album in 18 years and it does NOT disappoint. Justin Currie, in particular, is still a master at crafting pop songs with acerbic bite. He has released (excellent) solo albums in the interim, but it’s great to hear him back with guitarist Ian Hardie at his side.

06. Desperate Journalist - Maximum Sorrow!

This band's second album, Grow Up, was my introduction to their post-punk sound. That one ended up in my Top 10 of 2017, coming in at a very similar position to this one if I remember correctly. Their last album didn't do as much for me but the singles released in advance of Maximum Sorrow! album had me very excited. When the album finally dropped, I was over the moon. I'd say, without reservation, that it has become my favorite album in their catalog.

05. Gary Numan - Intruder

Numan has been a creative musical adventurer for over 40 years now. This latest album is dark and brooding and, while that has indeed been his trademark for a while now, he continues to manage to do it well without it sounding like a caricature of himself. He also manages to write albums full of genuine emotion (besides anger) and places them squarely within an industrial musical landscape. What this guy does he does really, really well.

04. Dry Cleaning - New Long Leg

Imagine Laurie Anderson with a British accent fronting early Pretenders. The contrast between Florence Shaw's deadpan vocal delivery and the electric, post-punk sonics shouldn’t work, and yet somehow it does. And then some. It's a witty, weird, and wonderful record.

03. The Tragically Hip - Saskadelphia

When The Tragically Hip were recording their third album, 1991’s brilliant Road Apples, they wanted to make it a double album. The band's label balked, so they whittled it down to a single LP. This 6-song EP represents the first official release of some of the songs that got cut, clearly indicating that the label made a huge mistake. There isn’t even a mediocre track here, and it’s so great to hear more new music from a time in their career when they were absolutely on fire.

Halsey's Manic ranked pretty highly for me (also #2) in 2020. Now, she goes into full collaboration mode with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and just blows the doors off the already high expectations I had. Reported to be an album influenced by her pregnancy and birth of her first child, none of that appears blatant to me. Instead, the Halsey/Reznor/Ross team creates the most lyrically and sonically interesting album of her career so far.

The last five plus years have been pretty rough on all of us. This album touches on all the crap we’ve been through and, somehow, emerges hopeful and full of light. I’ve probably listened to this album more than any other this year because it leaves me the feeling that we're going to be okay every time I play it.

Keith Creighton
Seattle, Washington | Popdose

If the kids got talent, nepotism be damned, see also the debut by Mammoth WVH. Bono’s kid leads the most exciting modern rock band debut since The Strokes or The Killers and topped this album with an equally great EP.  

09. Lindsey Buckingham - Lindsey Buckingham

If we need to choose sides, LB is my Fleetwood Mac “ride or die”. This sterling album was well worth getting fired over. Ironically, “I Don’t Mind” could have been the best Fleetwood Mac single in 35 years had Stevie or Christine added their harmonies, but Lindsey self-harmonizes just fine. This year I tracked down his entire solo catalog on CD and they are all pure genius (as 2018’s Anthology led me to believe). Nobody records acoustic and flamenco guitars better than LB. Most likely he’ll return to the Mac, but if not, I don’t mind.

08. Duran Duran - Future Past

The Duranaissance continues with their 4th near perfect album since the Fab 5 (now 4) reunited. It also continues the Giorgio Moroderthon, started with his 2015 all-star CD, Deja Vu.

07. Foo Fighters - Medicine at Midnight / DeeGees - Hail Satin

Dave Grohl has got to be the entertainer of the year. He kicked off the year with the best FF album in a decade – topped that with a disco tribute EP – got into drum wars with Nandi Bushell, filmed the upcoming horror movie, produced countless documentary series (the Brandi Carlisle episode of Cradle to the Stage is spellbinding), penned best selling book, and hammed it up with the Hanukkah Sessions (16 songs in, that alone deserves to be an album)...

06. Gold and Youth - Dream Baby

Perhaps my favorite singer/songwriter/guitarist/pianist, Louise Burns (formerly of Lillix) is in many ways a modern contemporary of Echo & The Bunnymen and The Church. Here, she Neko Case’s a side-hustle by contributing guest vocals, harmonies and instrumentation to the absolutely epic sophomore outing by this Canadian supergroup led by Matthew Lyall. Essential listening for fans of The Wild Swans, Arcade Fire, and dreampop that sort. 

05. ABBA - Voyage

ABBA scored my first five “albums of the year” (yes, I kept track even back then), starting with 1976’s Arrival, before Duran Duran landed the next two in 1982 and 1983. All these years, I thought a reunion album was less likely than one by The Smiths – and yet, here we are. Voyage seamlessly fits right in with the sugar, sweetness, sadness, and Saturday Night Fever feels of their final 5 albums all while creating fertile soundtrack fodder for Mama Mia 3.  

04. Cheap Trick - In Another World

This album was so epic, I spent much of the past year hunting down every single CD of theirs I could find – including Japanese-only editions stuffed with bonus tracks. Their 20th studio outing, In Another World, is just that damn good – and it turns out, all the other ones are too. OK, they may have been on cruise control for a few merely “very good” albums here and there, but here, they go full throttle with all the urgency and freshness of a debut album by scrappy young punks. 

03. Demi Lovato - Dancing with the Devil

Speaking of debut albums – this one sounds like the real Demi Lovato finally emerging from the chrysalis of a manufactured teen Disney pop star. Devil soars, plunges, rivets, and reveals – producing all the feels you need to let those happy and sad tears flow. As good as the new Adele album is, nothing compares to this masterpiece in terms of majestic pop. 

I was predisposed to absolutely loving Bridgerton – I’ve had a penchant for Regency-era heroines and fashion since I was 5 and my friend wrote the books this series is based on. But damn, Shondaland absolutely nailed this series – the casting, writing and costume design were all world class. The music, a combination of riveting originals and string quartet covers of modern pop songs, proved to be the perfect chill out and dinner party soundtrack, all while recalling every heaved bosom, stolen glance, baited breath, and ripped bodice in the series. I sprung for the vinyl which is sort of a greatest hits, but the true treasure can be found in the lossy full-length FLAC/WAV downloads available in the Tidal and HDTracks online stores. 

01. Volk - Cashville

Yes, my #1 from the mid-year countdown held on to win the whole enchilada, perhaps helped because their recent set in Seattle (opening for Nekromantix and Murder City Devils) was my first live concert since pre-Pandemic. Cashville is a thundering ass shaker, thigh quaker, baby maker of an album; bold enough to imagine a world where Dolly Parton fronts a hair metal band album produced by Jack White. The title track alone careens through four or five acts in under five minutes. “Honey Bee” remains my favorite rock song of the modern era and the delicate closer, “Simple Western Song,”absolutely entrances. 

Frank Deserto

This year felt brighter, bolder, more confident than the last. The world still burns, but I reckon we all did a lot less doomscrolling and a lot more celebrating as the year unfolded and live music began to fill the air once more. Music flourished, with longstanding projects coming out of hibernation with their strongest work to date while many new, inspiring artists melded genres and came out of the gate swinging, eager to carve out space in the musical wilderness. Of course, I wrote this original statement just weeks before New York City is threatened once more thanks to Omicron, but I still stand by these words and fully support all the inspiring new music I've had the pleasure of hearing in 2021.

My original list over at features these same ten choices, supplemented by ten additional records, five singles, and five EPs that are all worth a listen for anyone eager to dig a little deeper into my musical madness. I'd especially like to give a shout-out to Lycia for their latest EP Casa Luna, which is as essential as anything the band have ever done to date.

Kiss kiss, see you all in 2022! 

10. Bitumen - Cleareye Shining

This record was a late discovery, and even though I found it mere days before putting together my original list, it's quickly become a favorite. Like Just Mustard before them, Bitumen have tapped into the early 90s alternative boom and bottled up the excitement of bands like Cranes, Curve, and Medicine, with tracks that are extremely heavy and poppy all at once.

09. Odonis Odonis - Spectrums

This Canadian duo and former tour mates of mine have always been comfortable experimenting with different styles across the post-punk spectrum with each release, but on their latest record, they've found themselves covering a ton of ground all at once, each track running the gamut from hard-hitting Wax Trax fury to sleek, electronic synth punk.

08. HTRK - Rhinestones

HTRK could just as easily rest on their laurels, releasing another fine album of dark-tinged, sultry trip-hop, but this go-round, the Australian duo infused their core sound with sad, sombre country-fried flavor. While this record certainly takes risks and experiments with new sonic territory, it still feels comfortable and uniquely them.

07. Meridiane - To Walk Behind the Sun

The only super group worth caring about in 2021, this project features contributions from 4AD alumni Pieter Nooten (Clan of Xymox) and Warren Defever (His Name Is Alive), as well as the inimitable, multi-genre talents of Joshua Strachan (Blacklist, Azar Swan, Vaura), a dear friend and regular collaborator/bandmate of mine over the last 15 years. For fans of any of these projects, this album is a beautiful, reflective, heady treat that taps into the quiet devastation and gorgeous, haunting beauty of the world we live in.

06. Aeon Station - Observatory

Featuring 3/4 of one of my favorite indie rock bands The Wrens, this is a confident, yet restrained step forward after years and years of radio silence. "Queens" is the most immediately pleasurable single I've heard all year, and the rest of the record offers a mix of similarly driving barn burners and reflective pieces, showcasing a less-weird, but no less vital side of a cherished band of yore. 

05. Desperate Journalist - Maximum Sorrow!

A powerful band and one of their strongest efforts to date, every song is equally driving as it is catchy. Full of hooks and intensity, this record reminds me about what made me fall in love with classic post-punk and alternative rock. 

04. Kaelan Mikla - Undir Köldum Norðurljósum

This trio of Icelandic witches never disappoints - and this album works not just as a series of singles, but is even more powerful taken in its entirety. Come for the screeching "Sólstöður" and "Hvítir Sandar," the collaboration track with French shoegaze/metal masters Alcest, and stay for deep cuts such as "Örlögin" and "Sírenur." On first listen, this record appears less manic than their previous releases, but is far more mature, with moody, well-crafted songs from beginning to end. 

03. Nuovo Testamento - New Earth

Sometimes you just want to cut a rug (even when you're stuck at home)...and on their second record, these deathrockers successfully infused italo disco, darkwave fury, and early Madonna's universal pop appeal into eight succinct dancefloor smashes. Pure pop pleasure, through and through.

02. UV-TV - Always Something

For those craving the fast-paced, guitar-driven indie/post-punk sound of bands like The Primitives or The Popguns, UV-TV are the modern equivalent to a time when college rock really meant something and excitement could be found around every corner. This album clocked the most listens of any in my top ten this year, and is short, sweet, and filled with youthful passion.

01. Xeno and Oaklander - Vi/deo

I've watched this duo flourish since they began, and over a decade later, they're still putting out top shelf records time and time and time again. This may very well be their finest hour, chock full of hazy, pulsing synth futurism and romanticism. Often imitated but never duplicated, accept no substitutes when it comes to intelligently crafted minimal electronics. Long live Xeno and Oaklander! 

John Magness
Uttoxeter, England | Instagram

10. Paul Weller - Fat Pop
09. Sleaford Mods - Spare Ribs
08. Crowded House - Dreamers are Waiting
06. Desperate Journalist - Maximum Sorrow!
05. Neil Young - Barn
04. Duran Duran - Future Past
03. The Coral - Coral Island
02. Far Caspian - Ways to Get Out
01. Gary Numan - Intruder

About My List: I am finding it increasingly difficult to decide the order of things of things and this annual list is no exception. I'm guessing it must be my age! Frankly, it depends on which day of the week it is, what I've been doing and what mood I'm in that determines the order of the list. After another disrupted year I realised that all of these releases were bought online, and 6 of this top ten were purchased directly from the artist's website. This is a direct result of the pandemic. As it becomes harder to find original pressings of great albums, demand for repressings has boomed and these compete with new releases for playing time. As Stuart Maconie said "There is no such thing as new music, only music you haven't heard before" and so in my mind reissues of albums such as Cascade and Holy Smoke by Peter Murphy (yes Bret, Cascade is the best!), Mobile Home by Longpigs and Ionia by Lycia (surely winning "the most beautiful looking vinyl record of the year" award) compete with the above because I hadn't heard them before this year and so to all intents and purposes they are new releases to me.

Anyway back to the year at hand. My list is stuffed with "return to form" albums by artists I've liked for years and in one case (Duran Duran), forgotten that I liked. Intruder by Gary Numan took my top spot largely because it has a melody line that once i've played the record I have it in my mind for the rest of the day. Far Caspian is the only new artist on the list with his debut album which I'd waited for it some time since hearing one of his 2 previously released EPs, it's delicate and dreamy and didn't disappoint. Both Crowded House and James released albums that do what they do best. Neither broke new ground but both albums are examples of the bands in peak form. The biggest surprise of the year to me was Duran Duran's Future Past. I'd forgotten I like them. After 40 years they had become to me one of those bands that you know exist but only really like them for past glories. Listening to Future Past it's impossible to think that 39 years separate it from Rio. The track featuring Tove Lo, "Give It All Up" is one of my songs of the year and the keyboards are worth the price of the album alone Tove Lo apparently hadn't heard of them before being invited to collaborate. Desperate Journalist continued their journey as the greatest undiscovered band currently doing the rounds and should definitely be "the next big thing" releasing a 4th album of guitar driven indie rock. The album which could easily have been number one was Coral Island by The Coral, another band that should be bigger than they have managed to be for the last 20 years. It's a good old fashioned concept album and so British in theme that it should come with a free cup of tea. Paul Weller has kept himself busy during lockdown by releasing 2 albums in less than a year and I finally got to see him live a few weeks ago after 3 previous failed attempts when I had tickets but couldn't go for one reason or another. 

Finally the album I expected to like least was delivered by Neil Young just two weeks ago. Barn meets exactly the criteria required to fulfill the demands of the expression "a real return to form." Over the past few years I've had a strange relationship with Neil Young. I used to love pretty much everything he did including Re Ac Tor and Trans. But then I just stopped buying his records after the prices went through the roof and Harry (Editor's note: Potter? Styles? The Prince?) and I went to see him at the NEC. The set was simply self-indulgent consisting mainly of obscure songs, the album Psychedelic Pill and monotonous feedback. Anyway after seeing the artwork to the new album and hearing that Nils Lofgren was involved I decided to take a chance and was rewarded with his best album in maybe 2 decades. It could have been recorded straight after Harvest, 50 years ago.

Kevin Larkin - Angioli
Hudson Valley Region of New York | Twitter | Instagram

10. Joe Lovano, Marilyn Crispell, Carmen Castaldi, Trio Tapestry - Garden of Expression

Early in the year, I felt I needed some contemporary jazz, and I bought this on a lark because it was ECM and I liked another Joe Lovano recording on the label that a favorite author of mine had recommended to me. It's a beautiful, contemplative, searching album with a lot of silence and space, and the music is not afraid to move into uncomfortable places. Approaches Morton Feldman levels of minimalism, slowed-down temporailty, and atonality on closer "Zen Like."

This is the best non-score album John Carpenter has made. The whole thing has a cohesion and unity of effect, and it's just dark deliciousness incarnate. Whether you're driving at night to it or listening at home on vinyl or cassette, the two formats I got it on, it takes your imagination on a journey.
08. Liz Phair - Soberish

So good to finally have a new Liz Phair album again. I didn't get to spend as much time with this album as I wanted to this year, but I really love a few songs on it. Those songs are listed below. There's this perfect mixture of cool assurance and aching vulnerability in Liz's voice and songs that just kills me. The way the best of the songs here are sonically, lyrically, and musically crafted is so satisfying.

07. Low - Hey What

The first time I heard the new Low album, my mind was blown. I felt a triptych with the also-BJ-Burton-produced albums Ones + Sixes and Double Negative had been completed. The way Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker allow Burton to fuck with the fabric of their songs but the strength and purity of their voices and songs still shine through creates not only an enlivening juxtaposition with fresh sounds, it lays out a blueprint for relevance and longevity for others to follow. 
06. Marianne Faithfull with Warren Ellis - She Walks in Beauty

This album was an excellent discovery. Another good lark. It's special. Every one I put it on for just comes under its spell and feels its incantatory power. Faithfull's readings of these Romantic poems infuse them with new life and meaning; Ellis's musical accompaniment is perfect. Grace notes from the likes of Eno and Cave give it just that much more to relish. It sent me back to other recent and Romantics-informed work of hers, such as Negative Capability, itself a title plucked from a famous letter John Keats wrote to a friend. (Couldn't connect with Carnage, while we're talking about Ellis and friends.)

05. David Gray - Skellig

This quiet, acoustic, unassuming album grew on me over the course of the year. Subtle hooks, sharp lyrics, and that lived-in voice with its capacity for expressing the weariness, tenderness, joy, and ache of life's accumulating experiences all reward close listening.

04. Aeon Station - Observatory

When I first heard the first song released from this record, "Queens," it was the most moving and exciting piece of new music in years for me, at least within the indie rock paradigm. My own connection with the voice, being that it was a certain Kevin Whelan from a certain beloved band, the wrens, whose debut, silver, made a massive impact on me in the nineties and stayed with me all this time, was certainly one of the elements. 3/4 of that great New Jersey band assembled to launch this new album into the world, on the other side of all this life--parenthood, work, travel, marriage, trying to keep the dream alive when they bowed out in 2003 with one of the greatest indie rock albums of all time precisely and performatively about the dream dying--and it's that very quality, so hard to express, of the way their adult lives have shaped them, mixed with a disarming honesty and immediacy, that makes this album so powerfully affecting at times. My own copy finally arrived on the night that I write this, 8 days after it was released and 13 before the year ends, so I have only listened in full twice now, once streaming and once on record, but the anticipation as each new song was released and reconnecting with this band's predecessor was a major part of my musical life for the last quarter of the year. 

03. Pino Palladino and Blake Mills - Notes with Attachments

I've long loved Pino Palladino, that singular bassist. Ever the session man and touring musician, I had no idea he had released an album of his own with Blake Mills on Impulse! this year until I listened to the new Adele album, didn't hate it, and read some good music criticism the following day which made me aware of drummer Chris Dave, who plays on this (indeed, even gives one song its title) and played with Pino in the Vanguard on D'Angelo's Black Messiah (I thought it was all Questlove!). One thing lead to another and next thing you know, this CD was at my door. Anyway, this album is wild. Musicians' musicians, playing and improvising and having a great time. Not limited by the constraints of pop stars' songs, they get to flex various muscles here, but it's never wanky. Pino's weird bass clusters always land as satisfyingly as a billiard ball dropping quietly in the corner pocket. Textures and colors abound. Afrobeat and funk and jazz worthy of the black-and-orange spine tear the lid of this mother as eight wordless tracks rip, squonk, growl, and groove over the course of a refreshing half-hour.

02. Starlight Assembly - Starlight and Still Air

Another instance of getting to hear a beloved voice from a favorite band in a new context. Dominic Appleton of Breathless (and also This Mortal Coil) partners with an Italian electronic musician Matteo Uggeri and the results are very original. Working in performances and samples from a cast of musician friends, Uggeri creates a noirish nocturnal soundworld through which Appleton's sonorous and emotive voice finds new shadings, sighs and intones mantras and obsessive repetitive thoughts. It's wondrous stuff on headphones. Something I love about this album is how if puts you on the backfoot. It's not out to win you. Lately, it feels to me like we've really gone off the map, and this music actually feels up to the occasion of speaking to it. The soul's murmurs and ululations, running through the night like an endless stream. Joyce's wake, computer-glitching mind, flattened romance. It takes time to get to know this album and it rewards the effort. 

01. Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises

If the best album of the year for me is the one I've listened to the most then it's this one, recommended by none other than Life On This Planet's very own Bret Helm. I think of it as a spiritual sequel to "Subterraneans," the song which ends David Bowie's Low. A lifetime of jazz playing is palpable in Sanders's warm, breathy, pneumatic saxophone playing. The synth lines from Floating Points ensorcell, relaxing and dilating the mind, keying one into a roomier state of consciousness. At first barely noticed, the London Symphony Orchestra eventually take center stage, pushing the long meditative piece out of lullaby country into slightly challenging and strained places. Each of these three credited musical entities exist in equanimity here, balancing one another out, ceding the stage. "Promises" is the name of this single long piece of music, split into several seamless tracks on the CD I have and two sides on the beautifully packaged vinyl edition. When it seems to have ended, a coda follows. It's expansive and generous and thoughtful, exactly what the doctor ordered in this fevered and stressed and scarcity-panicked time. 

Sean Benham
Chicago, Illinois | Instagram

I decided for this year’s top ten that I was going to try something new when making my list. First, I wasn’t going to read other album reviews and would seek the music out myself. I have a pretty good network of friends plus I (try to) keep up with the latest sounds. Second, I would not leave out ambient electronic music. This is a vital part of my arsenal and as much as it is hard to compile a list with different genres, it makes it quite interesting at the same time. There’s as many instrumentals as there are vocal tracks in my list. In some ways any of these ten albums are as good as the other. Music is so subjective that I’m amazed when I see the bigger music sites all voting for the same albums near the top.

10. Eric Hilton - Ceremony

Half of the duo, Thievery Corporation, Eric has put out two fantastic albums in the past two years. A pioneer of the lounge sound of the late 1990s, Eric continues to bring those lounge world beats in this album. It’s music that just makes you feel like enjoying life and staying positive in these trying times.

09. Devendra Banhart & Noah Georgeson - Refuge

When I saw that Devendra Banhart had released a collaborative album with Noah Georgeson, I just assumed it would be another folk one to date, but I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this is quite a memorizing ambient journey that this duo has created. At times it reminds me of the works of David Sylvian from Gone to Earth. They’ve put out some interesting videos for these tunes as well.

08. Jane Weaver - Flock

Flock is great indie pop album reminiscent of Stereolab and Broadcast, and Jane’s discography is quite incredible with Flock being her twelfth album since 2002.

07. Motionfield - Awake

I just recently got tuned into Motionfield, which is the works of Sweden’s Petter Friberg. A very dark ambient and atmospheric album with sweeping sounds and a dystopic feel of a lost world. The album Awake isn’t just his only release this year, but his second of three releases! Just recently he released his third (and final?) album Injection for 2021. What a prolific year!

Historically an electronica and IDM musician, Jon has worked with Brian Eno and Coldplay, as well as remixing musicians such as Four Tet. This is his first work I’ve heard that isn’t beat-oriented but dives deep into ambient. It’s quite an experience and transforming. As the album name is titled, Music for Psychedelic Therapy, I could see this as definitely such a tool.

05. Django Django - Glowing in the Dark

The first track is like a song taken straight out of 1983. I can picture a big fog machine and the smell of cloves in the air. It’s a fun album and you want to just dance along!

Known for their indie/dream pop, Beach Fossils really take a turn here with creating a jazz album of previous songs written in their usual indie format. This new sound reminds me of Vince Guaraldi, Bill Evans, or Dave Brubeck, but with Dustin Payseur keeping his dreamy chillwave vocals. Perhaps they’ve created a new genre with this one?

03. Chorusing - Half Mirror

Chorusing, which is an effect which adds space and fullness to a sound, is also the moniker of musician Matthew O'Connell from Durham, NC. Half Mirror reminds me of Talk Talk and Bon Iver. Part post rock, part hallucinatory folk. It’s an intense album, and I can’t listen to it enough honestly.

02. Kings of Convenience - Peace or Love

KoC has never written a bad album. If Simon and Garfunkel had a child, it would be Norway’s Kings of Convenience. In some ways this is their best album. This folk duo has been churning out classic hits for 22 years and have never dropped a beat. Some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard are on this album.

01. Madlib - Sound Ancestors

At the top of my list is Madlib. Otis Jackson Jr, aka Madlib, wrote a masterpiece with the help of Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) who arranged it. Not since his Quasimoto days has hip hop sounded so good. It’s got an intense vibe that puts you out in the streets being submerged in a cacophony of strange sounds and infectious grooves. It’s a concept album, a soundtrack to your mind. Let Madlib take you on a ride.

Jaymz Todd
Phoenix, Arizona | Instagram

10. Lucid Express - Lucid Express
08. Hoorsees - Hoorsees
06. Hovvdy - True Love
05. Joel Culpepper - Sgt. Culpepper 
03. Strange Ranger - No Light in Heaven
02. Leon Bridges - Gold Diggers Sound
01. Current Joys - Voyager

About My #1: Through and through, these 10 albums have been my most played and recognized albums for the year. And In regards to my #1, upon hearing it on its release in May, I was like, “This is it. Delish. Fucking perfect.” Songs that have a change up of styles that range from quiet bedroom to fast fuzz pop. There’s a lushness to the heartache that feels equally compelling and contemporary to our current times but also feels as if it could have come from yesterday, today or tomorrow. In regards to melody, the songs quickly capture your memory and on the few songs that include the backup of the vocals of Maddy Boyd you almost feel as if you’ve been teleported to the recording room- so intimate and close in its proximity. Plus the inclusion of a classic song, "Shivers," covered so well that you forget who originally recorded it. 

Have a listen to the playlist:

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Friday, December 24, 2021

Saturday Night Music Club #53: Blue Christmas

We are back with a new edition of Saturday Night Music Club! The SNMC started up as an idea I had years ago - to recapture the feeling of being a kid and getting together with your friends in the basement to listen and discuss music.

This meeting of SNMC will dig into the chillier parts of the yuletide season. We're looking for themes of introspection and isolation. Tunes that name check Mari Lwyd, La Befana, and Krampus, solstice and Saturnalia, and the folkloric foundations of the American holiday tradition. Songs that lament commercialism and the sorry state of humanity, but still hold on to hope for a better world.

Song banned for everyone: “Wonderful Christmastime” in all formats. Seriously. Don’t even think about it.

A track from each record (when available) is collected in an ongoing SNMC Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post. So please listen in and enjoy these blue holiday tunes along with us.

The SNMC began with a Christmas-themed trivia contest. Here are a few of the 22 questions that were presented by the Yule Log of Wisdom:

Q: This cosmic 80s sci-fi romp featuring two teenage girls navigating a post-apocalyptic wasteland during the Christmas season was a tremendous influence on the creation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

A: Night of the Comet

Q: Before his 19th-century transformation into the fat man in red we all know today, Santa Claus was St. Nicholas, an early Christian bishop who, according to legend, was born in southern Turkey. The name of the region where he was born shares its name with this Tempe, AZ darkwave band. What is the name of the band?

A: Lycia 

Q: The soundtrack to this classic Christmas special features vocals from the children’s choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, CA. 

A: A Charlie Brown Christmas

Q: This beloved fast food chain has become a go-to for Christmas eve dinner in Japan. 


Trivia Winner: Kevin emerged victorious in this close race. His trophy is currently being whittled from a moderately-sized piece of festive driftwood. With shipping delays, arrival of said display of victory will most likely arrive by Christmas (2024). Thank you for your patience Kevin.

Audra | Life on this Planet

01. Which song did you play for the group that represented all the misplaced joy and dashed hopes of the holiday season?

"Christmas Makes Me Cry" from the modern holiday classic, A Very Kacey Christmas. We have many holiday standards that have been around for generations. This one will forever be played every year. This verse really tears me up - especially the final line: "Seems like everybody else is having fun / I wonder if I'm the only one who's broken heart still has broken parts just wrapped in pretty paper / And it's always sad seeing mom and dad getting a little grayer."

02. Describe your song in one sad sentence.

A sadly beautiful reflection on the holidays and the passing of time in three quarter time.

03. The second round had a lot more holiday cheer, though still there was a tangible feeling of loneliness and isolation. Tell us about your second pick.

Great for any holiday / festive occasion, I chose to give King Diamond a second appearance in the SNMC with "No Presents for Christmas." Don't let the cheery opening melodic romp fool you, The King means business - and that business is worse than a lump of black coal in your stocking. It's Tom and Jerry smugly drinking sherry while you enjoy the contents of an empty stocking.

04. Frosty the snowman, your magical holiday pal, is now melting into a giant puddle before your very eyes. His death throes fill the night sky and bring a profound sense of loss to your heart. What does it all mean? You stare into his cold, coal eyes and he sees right through you, bitter and jealous as he gasps his last breaths. But, being a good friend, you try to comfort him in his time of death. What song from the group do you play for Frosty as he shuffles off this mortal coil?

I'm torn on this one. Does Frosty require a mellow, introspective dirge-y send-off, or something more on the upbeat fun side to celebrate all of the joy that he brought in his short time here on Earth? Since none of the tracks featured a sad lute solo, I'm gonna play SarahQ's second pick - Dragonette's "Merry Xmas (Says Your Text Message)" - imagining Frosty as the savvy, digital age protagonist melting back to Mother Earth. The curtain drops on a lone snowman hand in a large puddle of water, middle finger proudly extended. Cue lute solo.

Life on this Planet | Instagram

01. Which song did you play for the group that represented all the misplaced joy and dashed hopes of the holiday season?

Ivoux "The White Witch" from the album Frozen: A Suite of Winter Songs released in 1997. This is a chilly little side-project concept album by the band Battery, a staple in the female-fronted electro-industrial scene of the late 90's. Their German-by-way-of-Oakland label COP Int'l produced a series of badass comps featuring female vocalists called Diva X Machina I just couldn't get enough of. As Ivoux, they released only one album and what a glacial gem it is for when you're in the mood to shiver to some frosty ethereal synth-pop trip-hop. Frozen is a collection of songs inspired by female characters of mythical stories and fairy tales from the world at large, all affected by a bone-chilling wintry event. "The White Witch" is constructed around C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and is an ode to Aslan, the Lion & King of Narnia, to thaw the arctic blast Jadis, the White Witch, cast upon Narnia known as the Long Winter. As if it wasn't bad enough that the dark arts enchanted snow, sadness & suffering across the land, Father Christmas was totally banned. "It is winter in Narnia, and has been for ever so long…. always winter, but never Christmas."  Depressing!

02. Describe your song in one sad sentence.

The sleigh bells ringing are not Santa Claus coming to town, you won't see him for another 100 years. Dismally looking out at the endless snow falling on the barren land, in a trance-like state you light your best Fresh Balsam 3-wick candle and wistfully resound a bleak and dispirited plea to a magical creature to beseech the ice melting.

03. The second round had a lot more holiday cheer, though still there was a tangible feeling of loneliness and isolation. Tell us about your second pick.

Disappointment is the gift that keeps on giving, and Dragonette's "Merry Xmas (Says Your Text Message)" finally tells off that person you regret you knew. You know, that thoughtless selfish person who ghosted you but then feels compelled to pop in to remind you they exist? If gaslighting is not on your Christmas list, this is a song for you. Released as a digital single in 2012 and co-written by William Orbit (hello Madonna's Ray of Light), this anthem has all the Christmas sass and enough F-bombs to remind you self-respect is all you should want for Christmas every year.

04. Frosty the snowman, your magical holiday pal, is now melting into a giant puddle before your very eyes. His death throes fill the night sky and bring a profound sense of loss to your heart. What does it all mean? You stare into his cold, coal eyes and he sees right through you, bitter and jealous of your existence as he gasps his last breaths. But, being a good friend, you know you have to try to comfort him in his time of death. What song from the group's picks do you play for Frosty as he shuffles off this mortal coil?

"Things fall apart but they never leave my heart", Frank's pick from the dearly departed Cristina, which would be accompanied by an awkward funky interpretive dance much like the orange shirt kid at the Charlie Brown Christmas dance.  Then just like the song I'd catch a cab back to my flat, weep a bit and feed the cat. Pretty sure Cristina is my Christmas spirit animal.  RIP Frosty, thanks for leaving your magic hat to me in your will. Thumpity thump thump.

Brooklyn, NY

01. Which song did you play for the group that represented all the misplaced joy and dashed hopes of the holiday season?

For this oh-so-cheerful edition of music club, I chose "A Ghost Story for Christmas" from the 2018 album Ghost Stories for Christmas by Aidan Moffat (Arab Strap) and RM Hubbert (El Hombre Trajeado). This album is an ideal accompaniment for the existential crises that can intensify around the holidays—the moment when the party's over, everyone's gone home, and you're left to dwell on relationships past and your own mortality. Aidan Moffat's reading of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Fir-Tree" is particularly distressing.

02. Describe your song in one sad sentence.

Two former lovers separately experience the sucking emptiness that comes from performing merriment when you're profoundly alone. The angels might be singing, but you won't hear them on your own. Maybe that's a bummer, but this focus on love over the more tangible parts of the holiday gets to what "the true meaning of Christmas" is, right?

03. The second round had a lot more holiday cheer, though still there was a tangible feeling of loneliness and isolation. Tell us about your second pick.

My round 2 choice was "Christmas Wrapping," recorded in 1981 by Ohio new wave band The Waitresses (which included former Television drummer Billy Ficca). The upbeat, festive tone of the song initially seems out of joint with the lyrics: a lonely NYC single loves Christmas, but she's just too exhausted to feel like celebrating (she's had a few frustrating missed-connection moments with a guy). But just when she decides to turn down all party invites and stay home, a last-minute cranberry run at the A&P (RIP as of 2015) puts her face to face with the missed connections guy! A classic heartwarming holiday twist ending.  

04. Frosty the snowman, your magical holiday pal, is now melting into a giant puddle before your very eyes. His death throes fill the night sky and bring a profound sense of loss to your heart. What does it all mean? You stare into his cold, coal eyes and he sees right through you, bitter and jealous as he gasps his last breaths. But, being a good friend, you try to comfort him in his time of death. What song from the group do you play for Frosty as he shuffles off this mortal coil?

I'd comfort Frosty with Ivoux's "The White Witch," presented by Sarah Q, hoping that the vision of an endless winter would provide some solace to Frosty as he slowly liquified and returned to the earth.

Brooklyn, NY | The Harrow, Systems of Romance,

01. Which song did you play for the group that represented all the misplaced joy and dashed hopes of the holiday season?

My choice was Cristina's "Things Fall Apart," from 1981. It's been my favorite Christmas song for ages, both from a musical and a lyrical point of view. It's also coincidentally Robert Smith's favorite Christmas tune, last I checked. The track is equally campy as it is bleak, but really, it just rips... The Don Was production, the razor-sharp guitar lines, the throbbing bass. and most importantly, Cristina's cool-as-ice vocal delivery; half disco kitten, half disenfranchised punk... All around, it's a masterpiece. Cristina was one of the first figures I knew to succumb to COVID in March 2020, so much love to her and her family. Play this one LOUD next time you're in need of some holiday "cheer." 

02. Describe your song in one sad sentence.

It's the early 80s, you're living in squalor in the Lower East Side, barely scraping money together for rent and food (though your cat still eats like royalty), and while everyone around you is snorting, drinking, and spending themselves into oblivion, you are completely numb - instead of rising up to fight your depression and revel in the joy of mankind, you sink into complete despair, but not before being one gratifying moment of pure holiday pleasure, but even that is ephemeral... 

03. The second round had a lot more holiday cheer, though still there was a tangible feeling of loneliness and isolation. Tell us about your second pick.

My second choice was Norma Loy's extremely bleak, piano-driven track simply titled "Christmas." This track recalls a lot of the more experimental/spoken-word Bauhaus tracks in style and sound, with it's repetitive, heavy-handed melody and half-spoken, half-sung refrains that build into a frenzy. Good times, great coldies. (This song was not available on Spotify. Please listen here.)

04. Frosty the snowman, your magical holiday pal, is now melting into a giant puddle before your very eyes. His death throes fill the night sky and bring a profound sense of loss to your heart. What does it all mean? You stare into his cold, coal eyes and he sees right through you, bitter and jealous of your existence as he gasps his last breaths. But, being a good friend, you know you have to try to comfort him in his time of death. What song from the group's picks do you play for Frosty as he shuffles off this mortal coil?

I'd try to keep Frosty alive for as long as I could with Sarah Q's glacially chilly Ivoux track, but once I realized that resisting death is futile, I'd play Kevin's "Ain't No Chimneys In the Projects" for Frosty, checking both of our privilege in one fell swoop. At least we had a magical Christmas adventure and a dog didn't pee on him, as far as I know...

Hudson Valley Region of New York | Twitter, Instagram

01. Which song did you play for the group that represented all the misplaced joy and dashed hopes of the holiday season?

I played "Ain't No Chimneys in the Projects" by the late great Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings from their album It's a Holiday Soul Party!

02. Describe your song in one sad sentence.

White privilege Christmas and its most enduring mythological figure overlook the basic facts of your physical existence and by the time you realize the magic was in your parents' love, sacrifice, and dedication, they may be gone, just like your childhood and naivete.

03. The second round had a lot more holiday cheer, though still there was a tangible feeling of loneliness and isolation. Tell us about your second pick.

"Eggnog Singalong" is just a dumb, snotty, fun song by a band that I love, Better Than Ezra, who can be deep and arty and beautiful but often choose to be dumb, snotty, and fun. Which is just what the doctor ordered sometimes. I had it on an official cassette release in the nineties and would think of it every year around Christmas, but I haven't owned that tape or had any copy of the song in decades. Someone put it up on YouTube last year and bless their soul. It's kind of embarrassing with its mock English accent and lexicon. Eggnog is gross. (This song was also not available on Spotify. Please enjoy here.)

04. Frosty the snowman, your magical holiday pal, is now melting into a giant puddle before your very eyes. His death throes fill the night sky and bring a profound sense of loss to your heart. What does it all mean? You stare into his cold, coal eyes and he sees right through you, bitter and jealous of your existence as he gasps his last breaths. But, being a good friend, you know you have to try to comfort him in his time of death. What song from the group's picks do you play for Frosty as he shuffles off this mortal coil?

"But the snow must turn to slush and then to water, then to steam. Impermanence is certain, happy endings just a dream." I'd play this delicious kiss-off of a song, "A Ghost Story for Christmas," which was a revelation for me, as I ready to wrap my arms around the absence where my frosty friend once smoked his corncob pipe.

Editor's Note: The keen observer may be wondering what happened to SNMC #49 & 50. We're a little behind on getting them posted. We wanted to make sure this one got up in time for Christmas. Stay tuned for the other features!

Here's the playlist!

If you're a vinyl enthusiast, check out our feature on the Spin Clean Vinyl Record Cleaning Machine (click image below).
We do earn a commission if you purchase anything through the links in this post.


Tuesday, November 2, 2021

20th Anniversary Reissue of Audra's "Going to the Theatre" Kickstarter Campaign

We've launched the Kickstarter Campaign for the 20th Anniversary Reissue of my band Audra's second album - Going to the Theatre!

Originally released on April 23, 2002 on Projekt Records, this is the first time Theatre will receive a vinyl release - 3 different colors! - and a 2-CD edition with a ton of bonus tracks. The first 100 pledges for the vinyl or CD editions will also receive a bonus live CD recorded in 2003. 

Scroll down to have a look at some mock-ups of the 3 different vinyl editions and then head on over to  our Kickstarter Page to peruse all of the rewards we are offering. If you're new to Audra, I've included a video for the song "Cabaret Fortune Teller" below. Thank you!