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  • Writer's pictureStephen Diamond

10 Favorite Albums from 2021

With another confusing year wrapped up, I figured it was time to look back at the albums released that captured my attention in 2021. For musicians, the last few years were difficult. Some artists were better positioned to sit in a studio to write and record an astonishingly high number of new tunes (e.g., Lana Del Rey), and some finally able to tour in support of albums released in 2020. However, many fell by the wayside - unable to maintain their fanfare. I believe the best albums of 2021 were not rushed quarantine albums, but pieces in development for a few years and poised to be released this year despite the conditions of the industry. They feel like complete ideas, which often is a critical piece in the lost art of making a great album. I generally do not listen to what is traditionally popular, so let's see how many of these you know or agree with.

10. Obviously by Lake Street Dive

Lake Street Dive released 'Obviously' in March of 2021 and is their fifth studio album. With this album, Lake Street Dive cements their ability to write enjoyable tunes that span across genres, and are well written lyrically and musically. Lead by the strong vocals of Rachel Price, the rest of the quintet follows suit with equally talented instrumentation and backing vocals. The group bounces playfully off one another, and 'Obviously' is a prime example of their energy. The record features more interaction between the band members, specifically with more call-and-response and backing vocals than previous albums. Amongst the track list are several catchy and witty tunes that are sure to make you tap your foot, or get up to dance. It is what Lake Street Dive does best, and what stands out the most on 'Obviously'. However, the band's records have historically been balanced with a handful of moving and soulful slow songs that are as enticing as their upbeat bops - which on this album I find to be as lackluster as their track "Lackluster Lover". The song "Anymore" is the only slow song that seems to hold up to the ballads of Lake Street Dive's past. This all being said, 'Obviously' is a return to form from their previous album in 2018, 'Free Yourself Up', which was lopsided with their singles and little else holding up.

9. Super Monster by Claud

Claud released their first album, 'Super Monster', in February of 2021. To me, Claud's music is the epitome of a collection of surging unknown indie artists into the top indie charts during the pandemic, and the bedroom pop genre. This recipe of coming-of-age experiences, catchy melodies, and lo-fi vibes has played into Claud's hand, with a perfectly timed record. At age 23, Claud captures the essence of new-age angst about life, relationships, and self-identification. The album features 13 catchy tracks that are not over engineered or over thought. They are what they sound like - songs one would write in their bedrooms. The songs are not likely to win awards, but they are likely to win your ear's attention. Although similar in sound, and not dynamically too estranged, there are a few tunes that stand out, including "Overnight", "Soft Spot", "Pepsi", and "Guard Down". 'Super Monster' represents what I believe to be a significant shift in music for independent artists everywhere, and what music is capable of during these unprecedented times.

8. Daddy's Home by St. Vincent

The much anticipated sixth studio album of St. Vincent was released in May of 2021, four years after her last album. Known for her innovative and avant garde arrangements and performances, St. Vincent's newest record, 'Daddy's Home', does not disappoint. With inspirations from the likes of classics like Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, and Stevie Wonder, the record had to stand up and evolve from her prior award-winning work. Each song on the album is as multi-dimensional as the next, never knowing which direction she will lead you. The production and instrumentation of the record is top-notch, and highlights the stark dramatic vocals of which St. Vincent is known. Arguably, the record should be higher up on this list, as I am sure it is on other indie-based top lists, but this list is purely subjective based on my tastes. While it is a solid record front-to-back, it is not an album I found myself listening to on repeat like all the ones succeeding this. A good measure of this is often if I bought the record on vinyl, of which I did not do for 'Daddy's Home', and did for all the rest. Her choppy style lead me to pick out a few favorite tunes, such as "Somebody Like Me" and "...At The Holiday Party", rather than adopting the entire album. Regardless, it is my favorite of her discography and certainly a stand-out of 2021.

7. Holy Hive by Holy Hive

Brooklyn-based indie-trio Holy Hive released their self-titled second album in September of 2021. The soul and folk inspired group continues where they left off in their 2020 album, 'Float Back To You', with groovy drum lines, chill piano and guitar chords, and echoing vocals. This new 15 track record features a series of short tunes filled with solid back-beats, eerie melodies, and fat bass lines. It is well balanced between the three instrumentalists, giving space for each to shine. The folk influence is evidenced by the frequent acoustic and classical guitar licks that line the tunes. Their second album is a little more mature sounding than their first, which had quite a few youthful pop and hip hop driven tracks. Here they play with time signatures more, as well as repetition, creating a sound more similar to Jose Gonzalez (as featured next at #6) if he was on psychedelics. Altogether, Holy Hive provides 42 minutes of straight grooves that are easily consumable. Especially thanks to the drumming of Homer Steinweiss, who frequently plays drums for the likes of Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, and Adele. Can not argue with credentials like that.

6. Local Valley by Jose Gonzalez

Gonzalez's fourth studio album, 'Local Valley', was released in September of 2021, and is his first in nearly five years. While it seems like a long time between records, the Swedish-born Argentine has many musical projects to keep him busy. If anything, his solo work is a side-project. His music stems from an influence of growing up with bossa nova, classical, and even post-punk. In addition to his solo career, which started in 2003, Gonzalez has his initial musical project, Junip, and a recently started group, Brite Lights. Between them there were also numerous collaborations with everyone from Zero 7 to the Goteburg String Theory. With 'Local Valley', Gonzalez returns to his bossa nova roots, with an array of tracks with playful classical guitar riffs, electronic drum machine beats, and multi-layered vocals of his casual baritone voice. I was always aware of Gonzalez, but never really listened to his music. His earlier tunes seemed a bit ambiguous to me - with nothing to really hold onto. 'Local Valley' however, is as collectively captivating as a night out in Brazil. It is hard not to tap your foot to the quintessential tropical rhythms. His KEXP performance solidified the new material for me by demonstrating how effortlessly he could reproduce the tunes. There is nothing more to it than Gonzalez enjoying his guitar, and playing with a loop pedal - it is easy to get sucked into his elation.

5. Things Take Time, Take Time by Courtney Barnett

Released in November of 2021, 'Things Take Time, Take Time' is Barnett's fifth studio album. It is her latest album in three years, and represents the longest gap between records since her first in 2013. As written in my "What Steve See's & Hears" article from November 15th, this space between records shows in the cohesiveness of the tracks, which paints a solid theme and is represented in both name and imagery of several shades of blue paint on the album artwork. Good things take time, so Barnett took the time. The track list is the strongest collection of hits in her discography, which is reflected in her Top 5 on Spotify - of which four are from the new album. I was never a big fan of Barnett as a whole, but this album is like a train of gritty, angsty, and blues-inspired tracks that just keep chugging along. It represents all of what I appreciated in her older hits, but together in one package.

4. Stunning & Atrocious by Fleece

Fleece's third studio album, 'Stunning & Atrocious', was released in August of 2021. As written in my "What Steve See's & Hears" article from November 15th, Fleece is a fun and upbeat indie pop band with groovy melodies, layered harmonies, and cool synth sounds. Their new album features catchy singles such as "Upside Down" and "Do U Mind?", which despite appearing back-to-back early on the record as the third and fourth track, cement the rest of the tunes in the track listing. The album is like an ascension of an airplane to cruising altitude - with these two songs representing the smooth leveling of the plane where you are now free to move about the cabin and enjoy the clouds of atmospheric pop that are the other tunes that follow. The other tracks cause no turbulence, and in this case it is a good thing. It is a smooth journey of snappy guitar licks, pocket-filled drum beats, and sweet soothing vocals that takes you on a 48 minute trip to somewhere else.

3. Pono by A Great Big Pile of Leaves

'AGBPOL' released 'Pono' - their fourth full-length studio album, and first album in eight years, in August of 2021. After a long break from the band, the trio making up AGBPOL returned with some fresh tunes. Despite the length of time since their previous record, the band picked up right where they left off. Not missing a literal beat. Their recipe of bright melodic guitar riffs, combined with crunchy guitar chords, driving drum lines, and reverb rich vocals remains unchanged - and for good reason, it is so catchy! Mixing genres of indie rock infused with math rock and pop punk, their tunes echo the elation and care-free excitement of getting out of school on a sunny day. While not as pure and more forced feeling than their earlier material, 'Pono' contains ten songs that still paint a similar fun feeling. Although most of the songs make no sense and words are difficult to decipher, that is nothing new. From songs about cereal, spiders, and now writing utensils and concerts using pots and pans in your kitchen - A Great Big Pile of Leaves always makes you bop your head to things you never imagined.

2. Glow by Alice Phoebe Lou

'APL' (as she was referred to in the cries of audience members when I saw her in concert in December) released her third studio album, 'Glow', in March of 2021. It features 12 solid tracks of varying plucky and almost ragtime piano progressions, 'Abbey Road' inspired bass riffs, vibey staccato guitar chords, marching band snare hits, and Lou's powerful theatrical crooning voice. The album's character is perfectly encapsulated by track title "Velvet Mood". It sets a mood of velvet upholstered stools in a dimly-lit smoky wild west saloon with a janky jukebox cranking out this soundtrack. These series of sultry tunes inspired a playlist of my own, named after the "Velvet Mood" track, and features many tracks from the albums featured in the list. The album is a level up from her 2019 album, 'Paper Castles', which in itself is another great album. 'Glow' is a better all around album, with a more cohesive theme than 'Paper Castles' which has stronger individual tracks. I will mention that APL released a surprise second album in 2021, 'Child's Play', which seemed like rushed leftovers that did not fit on 'Glow' and other quarantine written tunes. It did not capture me the same way 'Glow' did, due to its disjointedness.

1. Sling by Clairo

Clairo's sophomore album 'Sling' was released in July 2021 with much anticipation. However, it was as different from her earlier material as fashion was in 1921 to 2021. Her most popular songs are her younger singles portraying the angsty and uncouth nature of those her age. Her success at age 20 turned her into quite the artistically mature 22 year old, with 'Sling' reflecting a complex introspection of self that comes with normalizing success. Thanks in part to the creative direction of producer, Jack Antonoff, the album features carefully placed multi-instrumental and vocal harmonic layers that compliment the troubling feelings behind the songs, which include health and family relations. It is sonically one of the best recorded and produced albums I have heard in a while. Despite the web of intermingled tones throughout the tracks, they remain balanced perfectly with Claire Cottrill's mellow voice - creating an airy space that sits between your ears. While only one track from the album makes it to her top 5 on Spotify ("Amoeba"), it contains what I would consider to be her top 5 tracks and overall my favorite album of 2021.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Delta Kream by The Black Keys

  • Wilds by Andy Shauf

  • When You See Yourself by Kings of Leon

  • Blue Banisters by Lana Del Rey

  • Inside Every Fig is a Dead Wasp by Lunar Vacation

  • Cory and the Wongnotes by Cory Wong

  • Music by Benny Sings

Notable Disappointments (IMO):

  • Valentine by Snail Mail

  • Solar Power by Lorde

  • I Know I'm Funny haha by Faye Webster

  • Jubilee by Japanese Breakfast

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