SonicAwareness Special Guest Feature
SonicAwareness is proud to bring you this special guest feature! Take a look at music connoisseur Phil Herring's picks for the the best 40 albums of 2021, along with a playlist and detailed write-up of why he selected each record!
Phil’s Top 40 Albums of 2021
Every year that I do this, there is usually a clear winner but in 2021, I feel like my tastes were almost socialist in that this list could probably swap depending on my mood that day. For anyone reading this, I hope you may discover an album you love and, additionally, find comfort in someone reaffirming your personal tastes. Happy listening everyone.
40) LANA DEL REY – Chemtrails Over The Country Club / Blue Bannisters
The discourse around Lana Del Rey leading up to the release of both albums she put out in 2021 was fairly insufferable. First, she made a point to pre-emptively address and perceived criticism about both the cover of Chemtrails Over The Country Club (it’s a photo of a group of white women) as well as making a point to announce the release of another album, Blue Bannisters, to address the anticipated criticism of Chemtrails before anyone had the chance to hear either. After the dust settled, both albums are essentially just Lana being Lana. Over strokes of piano, strings and gentle acoustic guitars, Lana Del Rey continues painting a picture of Americana in distress with millennial-based folklore that is potentially trying to demonstrate a big picture of what American life is now or, like, fodder for Instagram/Tik-Tok posts. Regardless of her intention, she remains one of the most vital stars we have to offer with her illustrious singing voice improving significantly over the years while also still being able to demonstrate maximum star power without resorting to big glossy pop numbers, dance routines or viral marketing campaigns. It can be a bit much to take both albums in one sitting but I still think getting the whole painting for Del Rey makes for the most rewarding listen.
39) THE KILLERS – Pressure Machine
With the world still closed down in the beginning of 2021, The Killers and Brandon Flowers in particular, like everyone else, had some downtime. Since the band were not able to tour and, thus, there were no stadiums or arenas to fill across the world they took an opportunity to refine their sound and write their most inward and somber looking album to date. Flowers’ inspiration in particular was his hometown of Nephi, Utah which he built the concept of the album around. Instead of sparkling synths, anthemic choruses and big guitars, Pressure Machine finds The Killers at their most tender, lush and frankly, beautiful with the band producing an intimate set of songs held together by Flowers’ nostalgic childhood. Flowers’ has always, at least based on perception, typically written from a fictional point of view so it’s especially endearing to hear him this emotionally naked given his band has made a career out of pomp-infused glossy anthems. s While this album may not produce setlist staples, it is perhaps the most honest work the band has ever put together.
38) FOUSHEE – Time Machine
Going viral on TikTok has jump-started many careers over the past few years but few have a story as unique as alt-soul singer Foushee. After gaining traction on TikTok, her hit “Deep End” was still uncredited until the singer finally revealed her identity as the vocalist in her own challenge response video. “Deep End”, a subtle spooky R&B composition, lays the groundwork for her excellent debut, Time Machine which builds upon the song’s laid-back melancholy on 8 other excellent tracks (including a nice TikTok-readycover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence”). Social media platforms have no shortage of sound bites to choose from but Foushee seems prime to stick around given her excellent songwriting chops and vocal presentation. Time Machine is hopefully just the beginning of a long journey.
37) RHYE – Home
Mike Milosh has taken sole control of Rhye ever since his former collaborator, Robin Hannibal, left around 2017. After delivering three records of smooth, blissed-out romantic R&B, Milosh hasn’t tinkered with his sound too much but still offers a few signs of progression to deliver another excellent Rhye album. Home ups the tempo on a few tracks which almost be described as danceable while Milosh’s sweet croon (which is almost a falsetto at many points) continues to be the soundtrack to late night after-hours romance. To most listeners, Home will likely sound no different from Rhye’s other releases but with acts like this, there isn’t really enough of a demand to make big changes when he continues to create such beautiful soundscapes tied with his impassioned vocals.
36) HAYLEY WILLIAMS – Flowers For Vases/Descansos
While likely not initially planned, Flowers For Vases/Descansos is a spiritual sequel (or “detour” as Williams publicly referred to it) to her excellent 2020 solo debut Petals For Armor and finds her delving further into her psyche working through emotional trauma, likely due to her divorce a few years back. Where Petals saw Williams embracing her love of artsy indie rock and marrying that love to her pop sensibilities, Floewrs is extremely stripped down, sparse and emotionally naked with most songs driven simply by Williams and acoustic guitar. This makes sense given that it was reportedly recorded entirely at home during the COVID lockdown. Now in her early 30’s, Williams is remarkably sharp in singer-songwriter mode with this album providing plenty of lush soundscapes and gentle melodies to act as mode of catharsis for both her and the listener.
35) SERPENTWITHFEET – Deacon
Building off of his excellent debut, Josiah Wise who records under the alias of Serpentwtihfeet delivered his sophomore album as a joyous celebration of a budding romance. Boisterous and jubilant, the album’s R&B-based sonic template finds Wise honing his craft with a heavy emphasis on optimism and romance. It’s a tricky balance to write about love without being bogged down by over-used saccharine sentiments and Wise’s laid-back and collected approach works well with the material. As a whole, Deacon is a grand achievement from an exciting new artist.
34) NO ROME – It’s All Smiles
Like many other modern day solo artists, No Rome is a stage name for Guendoline Gomez, a London musician whose been releasing music since 2015 but finally broke through with a couple of choice EP’s based off a recommendation of labelmates, The 1975. Similar to that band, Gomez’s music approach is a hodgepodge of various genres (electronic, pop, rock, soul, ambient) but with a more hyperactive and scattershot approach. Gomez’s voice is constantly put through various effects with his music not usually displaying the patience to stay calm for a long time. While that may sound like a complaint, it’s actually what makes his first proper album (though at only 27 min it’s still shorter than most EP’s) a thrilling listen. Very few acts are willing to take these kinds of non-calculated risks so early in their career and Gomez’s ear for melody holds is the superglue that holds this hyperactive sonic collage together.
33) COLDPLAY – Music Of The Spheres
If you were a fan of Coldplay’s post-britpop masterpiece Parachutes in 2000 and then completely disregarded them, the 2021 version of Coldplay is likely unrecognizable to you. Music Of The Spheres Spheres has the band continuing to alternate between big budget blockbuster albums and quiet, introspective releases. Since 2019’s Everyday Life was Coldplay at their most experimental, Music Of The Spheres finds the UK group smoothing out any leftover rough edges to create a experience for all markets across the globe. That is not to say the band made a crass commercial calculation with this album but rather they’ve perfected the formula of adjusting their sound and influences to that of the streaming era with their 2020’s style-pop reaching for stratosphere complete with guest spots from Selena Gomez and the other globe-dominating group, BTS. It’s not just the guest spots that make this album worthwhile but, even if it’s a big glossy pop album, Coldplay still expirement with new styles with the most noteworthy being the bluesy stomp of “People Of The Pride”, something they likely picked up from their forefathers in U2. While this album will continue to turn off anyone who longs for the band to write another “Yellow” or “The Scientist”, Music Of The Spheres continues to prove that Coldplay is secretly one of the most ambitious and daring bands of the past 20 years.
32) WOLF ALICE – Blue Weekend
After over a half decade of touring clubs and theaters as well as festival stages across the globe, Wolf Alice is obviously ready for the big time. Blue Weekend showcases the UK group boosting their sound in every big way possible as their songs now reach towards the cheap seats meant to be played in arenas and stadiums all around the world. Lead singer/songwriter Ellie Rosswell’s statements to the press during the promotion cycle indicated she was hyper-focused on her band representing the most authentic and honest version of themselves. As such, Blue Weekend infuses their big rock sound with all sorts of spacious arrangements, weaving melodies and even finds the band stretching to explore their more somber and delicate side. There may not be the same amount of cut-throat singles to be found on Blue Weekend but it still bests their previous two releases due to sheer focus and magnitude of sound created. Here’s to hoping they end up conquering the arenas they set out to.
31) RUFUS DU SOL – Surrender
In the strange landscape of the music press these days, Rufus Du Sol is oddly invisible despite selling out legit stadiums here in the U.S. and posting big numbers on streaming services. Perhaps that’s how the group likes it as they’ve always been a bit camera-shy and tend to let their music and light show do the talking. Surrender is their 4th album and features the Australian electronic/house trio continuing to aim for euphoria with another collection of 11 festival-ready jams. While they’re categorized as an electronic band, Surrender focuses on inner struggles and feelings with lush and detailed soundscapes as opposed to hard-driving dance rhythms and beats. Ture to form, the group continues to excel in their excellent combination of semi-psychedelic melodies, dark grooves and beautiful electronic instrumentation which allow for them to reach both the deep headphone listener as well as those rolling on drugs at big tent festivals.
30) LORDE – Solar Power
On 2017’s Melodrama, Lorde aimed for bigger pop heights and, while that album was excellent and well received, she may have bit off more than she can chew given she was playing to half empty arenas on the supporting tour. Perhaps the muted response commercially gave her pause or she just wanted to sidestep the female pop star arms which is why Solar Power has an entirely different approach and feel than her last two albums. Easy on the ears and with a more minimalistic approach, her and longtime collaborator Jack Antanoff scale back the electronics and beats and prop up each song with a light, breezy acoustic foundation soundtracking a day at the beach, a morning stroll or even just lazing about on the couch. There may not have been any surefire hits on Solar Power but it’s an album that sounds 100% honest and authentic which is what Lorde does best.
29) BLEACHERS – Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night
Even though Jack Antanoff has not released a Bleachers album since 2017, he;s been omnipresent in the pop music landscape, collaborating with the likes of Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Lorde, Sia, Carly Rae Jepsen, FKA Twigs and more. Given his work on all these big budget pop albums, it’s a bit surprising how understated Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night turned out. Rather than going for a big blockbuster sound, Antanoff leans into his love of heartland-via-New Jersey style music, even featuring Bruce Springsteen himself on one of the cuts. His collaborators also repay the favor with Lana Del Rey guesting on a track ads well. As such, album #3 from Bleachers continues Antanoff’s penchant for minor experimentation while still maintaining his pop smarts which allows for this album to be hooky enough for those fans who came his way via his production work as well as still satisfying those who have been following him since the Steel Train and Fun days.
28) SAM FENDER – Seventeen Going Under
Still a niche concern in America, Sam Fender was on the verge of UK superstardom when the pandemic hit when he booked his first UK arena tour. Downtime hasn’t appeared to diminish the songwriter’s ambitions as Seventeen Going Under is a modern-day heartland-rock record reaching for the rafters with an interesting juxtaposition coming from an earnest British rocker. Fender’s sophomore effort expands on his songwriting in both directions as he tempers Seventeen Going Under with both driving rockers and tender ballads held together by his magnificent voice and earnest delivery.
27) REMI WOLF – Juno
Remi Wolf has been making her own brand of “funky soul pop” for only 2 years and delivered Juno after a few killer EP’s. In the streaming era, finding acts that are brazen enough to be slightly off-putting or abrasive is a rarity. While Juno still registers as pop, Wolf isn’t content to just stack hooks on top of each other with crystal clean production. The album is filled with spunky (almost obnoxious) sonics, part-raps, exaggerated accents and Wolf’s various musings from the liquor store to comparing her family dynamic to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Given the strong response to her 2022 tour and an opening slot on Lorde’s 2022 theater tour, audience reception to this neat little album is reassuring that music listeners don’t require ALL music they listen to be so impeccably crafted that there is zero room for a fun personality like Wolf’s. Of the various emerging new acts on this list, Wolf may be the one to demonstrate the strongest star power.
26) TWENTY ONE PILOTS – Scaled And Icy
After the darker, somber 2018 offering of Trench¸Gen Z favorites Twenty One Pilots worked remotely yet somehow offered their sunniest collection of songs. Chief songwriter Tyler Joseph is now focusing on new adult concerts such asnew marriage, fatherhood and the challenges of lockdown over a suite of music that could almost be mistaken for soundtracking a Broadway play (much to the chagrin of Broadway critics). Of course, Twenty One Pilots being the genre shape-shifters they are, this modern-day presentation still leans heavily into electronics, atmospheric hip-hop and modern day pop but with less of a focus on Tyler’s nasal rap and a greater emphasis on melodic joy. This album likely won’t change the minds of the music critic establishment but it’s another excellent entry into this duo’s modern pop empire.
25) GARBAGE – No Gods, No Masters
More than 25 years after their debut, Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson still has plenty of bile and disgust to get off her chest. No Gods, No Masters functions as Manson’s one-woman takedown of a male-dominated world with her vocals alternating between snide whispers and remarks to soulful angry singing. It’s a shame they are stuck on the nostalgia circuit touring with relics like Alanis Morisette and Tears For Fears as their music would likely still strike a chord with a younger generation aligning with Manson’s disenfranchisement but I digress. Garbage, never one to skimp on hooks, continues to dress up Manson’s ragers with slick, modern sounding production with the band never turning down a chance to chop up and turn organic instrumentation upside down. That’s obviously long been what Garbage trades in but it’s amazing that they sound just as relevant and vital in 2021 as they did in 1995.
24) JOSE GONZALEZ – Local Valley
Given the tumultuous times of 2020-21 it wouldn’t have been surprising if Jose Gonzalez reverted from his polite, timid classical guitar-style approach into something slightly more unsettling and angrier. However, since he is a minimalist by nature, Gonzalez was free to make his album the same way he always has in a studio in his native Sweden. Local Valley is unique in that it his Gonzazel’s first released album to contain songs sung in Spanish (a nod to his Argentinian roots) as well as him starting to learn to embrace a bit of grooves via Caribbean-style vibes. These small nuances show just the right amount of growth needed in order to justify a new album but, above all else, Gonzalez’s songs come in the form of comfort food with his gentle voice, unique guitar playing and somber melodies providing a welcome respite from outside chaos.
23) BIG RED MACHINE – How Long Do You Think It Will Last?
Both Justin Vernon, who is the main figure of Bon Iver, and Aaron Dessner of The National stay plenty busy outside their main projects. Big Red Machine’s debut in 2018 was one of those albums that seemed destined be a one-off so it’s not only surprising that the duo collaborated once again but that their sophomore effort continues the project’s evolution. How Long Do You Think It Will Last is an excellent team effort that finds the two collaborating with a varied cast of characters such as Anais Mitchell, Ben Howard and even Taylor Swift herself who continues the woodsy acoustic-based sound she trotted out during the pandemic. Both fans of Bon Iver and The National should find plenty to treasure here, especially the songs where Dessner steps out on his own and proves himself to be an accomplished vocalist. Even at its hour run-time, this album doesn’t wear out its welcome and is an excellent Sunday morning soundtrack.
22) ADELE – 30
There are few sure things in the music industry these days and Adele is one of them. When she announced her divorce, one of the reoccurring themes from her fanbase despite the unfortunate personal circumstances was that it would provide ample fodder for her next album. Divorce indeed is a prominent theme on 30 but rather than bitter kiss-offs and heart-wrenching ballads, 30 finds Adele looking inward, reflecting on both the dissolution of her marriage as well as what that means for her young son (whose conversation she has with appears in one of the songs). All in all, this is actually the least accessible album from Adele to date as she explores new vocal patterns, sounds and off-shoot melodies which wouldn’t typically be in favor of those seeking more music to cry into their wine too (though “Easy On Me” is another surefire hit). Adele could have very easily focus-grouped her songs to create another big-budget blockbuster which makes the emotional nakedness and uncertainty of 30 all the more interesting. Perhaps it won’t be the blockbuster that 21 or 25 was but it remains her most personal, assured and gut-wrenching release to date.
21) THE STAVES – Good Woman
The three sisters who make up The Staves went through all sorts of personal trauma on their journey to making Good Woman. The death of their mother, grandmother and also the ending of a relationship informed the melancholy that is the foundational block of Good Woman. Their patented three-part harmonies and gentle melodies are still very much a presence on Good Woman but the group, working with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, expand their musical palette by layering their sound to create more open soundscapes that were previously not heard on their previous two albums. Beautiful melodies and beautiful soundscapes would be enough to make a great album but the way the group strains to provide the listener with comfort when talking their own personal strife presents a very balanced, delicate and beautifully rewarding listen.
20) FOO FIGHTERS – Medicine At Midnight
As one of the people who’ve listened to the Foo Fighters for over 25 years, I’ve grown a bit weary of Dave Grohl’s “Rock and Roll foreva man!” mayoral position in the music industry as whole. Coupled with the band’s increasingly sterile/conservative setlists (I skipped two opportunities to see them locally this year), I was pretty much ready to write this band off so it almost pains me to say that Medicine At Midnight is an excellent, lean, boogie-ready rock and roll album with Grohl finally making good on his promise to inject his big guitar formula with a few pop nuances. The nice lean running time of this album helps along with some of Grohl’s contributing his stickiest melodies in a long time. Who knows, maybe I’ll catch the Foos in 2022 just to hear the new tunes.
19) HALSEY – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
Although Halsey has operated in the Top 40 pop world for a while, she (who also goes by the non-binary pronouns of they/them as of this year) has always been a bit of an outsider, proudly touting 90’s alternative and 00’s emo influences as a foundation of her sound which helps explain why If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power was produced by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails along with his longtime collaborator Atticus Ross. While that combo may be puzzling on paper, the album works much better than most would assume since Halsey has often favored big, foreboding dramatics to go along with her twisted Top 40 melodies. This album is by far her strangest and might even be her best as she takes the user on a long dark journey grappling with her pregnancy, sexuality and overall self-worth. Reznor and Atticus supply plenty of dark, foreboding beats and even finally re-purpose NIN’s 1994 hit “Closer” in the title track to make for a winning combination.
18) BRANDI CARLILE – In These Silent Days
For a multitude of reasons, I have stayed away from the Americana genre as I, incorrectly, assumed it was too similar to the twangy country music that I couldn’t stand. As I’ve grown older, I’ve drifted closer and closer due to indie rock embracing folk, country-rock and roots music which meant I had no longer had any excuse to ignore singer-songwriters like Brandi Carlile. What’s most impressive is that Carlile is at her most vital as an artist nearly two decades into her career and on her seventh album nonetheless. In These Silent Days is an impeccably crafted, personal and soulful album for all fans of songwriter-driven music, Americana or not. Carlile’s sweeping vocals and arrangement skills give her songs an additional emotional weight that separates her from the pack and has now given me a whole discography I need to dig into.
17) GIRL IN RED – If I Could Make It Go Quiet
Marie Ringheim has been recording under the moniker of Girl In Red since 2017 but finally got around to releasing her full-length debut this year. Coming in at a lean 33 minutes, it’s actually not that much longer than her previous EP’s but showcases a sharp focus that comes from slowly building an empire. Hailing from Norway and openly queer, Ringheim is a perfect Gen Z genre-blender, splicing her 2020’s pop with all sorts of instrumentation and large spunky vocals. Lyrically and sonically, If I Could Make It Go Quiet is the kind of album that only a young 20-something can make detailing various sexual and romantic frustrations. It’s also been fun to hear artists like Girl In Red move beyond the typical bedroom pop trappings and embrace large scale sounds on bouncy numbers such as “Serotonin” as well as lifting from Warped Tour style pop-punk in “You Stupid Bitch”. Given how quickly her 2022 tour sold out here in the US, she’ll be a force to reckon with in years to come.
16) TWIN SHADOW – Twin Shadow
Coming up in the final era when indie blogs could give an up-and-coming act a boost, George William Lewis Jr, who records as Twin Shadow, was the beneficiary of fawning reviews of his early minimalist bedroom R&B/pop only to strike out when he attempted to go to the big leagues with his two major label albums. Regrouping to form is own label, Lewis released his most relaxed and vibrant album to date. As he stated multiple times in the press around this album, this self-titled release finds moving away from the mopey romantic indie R&B of his past and embracing his Dominican heritage, bringing an island and dance-y vibe to 10 neat songs of perfectly compact modern pop. Seemingly being freed from major label expectations has lifted a weight of his shoulders and he’s never sounded more joyful and happy simply to be making music for himself with a minor hope that others will catch on to his joyous vibes.
15) BILLIE EILISH – Happier Than Ever
Coming off a cultural changing, Grammy-sweeping debut album would be hard for anyone, let alone someone as young as Billie Eilish. If she felt pressure, Happier Than Ever doesn’t really sound like it as her and her brother/longtime collaborator Finneas keep out any additional songwriters and producers and continue to reshape Eilish’s sound. Not content to just journey down the path of EDM-enhanced whisper-pop, Eilish expands her sound in multiple directions getting louder and quieter while even exploring new genres such as bosa nova along with some industrial touches. Upon first listen, Happier Than Ever may be one of those typical “reaction to fame” albums due to the lyrical content but as the layers are peeled off, they reveal a young artist continuing to find her voice while still being capable of meeting the demands of a global fanbase with sky-high expectations.
14) ROYAL BLOOD – Typhoons
When you’re a two-person group, and utilize the two most basic bottom-end instruments (bass and drums), growing between albums can be a real challenge. While I wouldn’t say Royal Blood has significantly altered their sound, this UK-duo has added in some subtle but effective almost disco-like grooves to their standard rock attack making Typhoons feel overall fresher than their previous release. Having killer tunes is still the ultimate prerequisite for rock records like this and, perhaps because I’m now two years away from 40, this sound will never sound passe to me which is why Typhoons continues Royal Blood’s excellent streak.
13) WEEZER – OK Human / Van Weezer
The streaming era mixed with our increasing reliance on social media has put an additional pressure on acts to create content, be it musical or not. Weezer, despite a few long breaks in their nearly 30 year career, have always been fairly prolific thanks to chief songwriter/frontman Rivers Cuomo’s approach to record-making. As he’s stated in several interviews, Cuomo views making music as a craft rather than as an expression of emotion. This workmanlike approach allows for Weezer’s two albums released in 2021 to showcase both sides of the same coin and demonstrate Cuomo’s under-appreciated wide range of songwriting capabilities. For a man that has always cited Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys as an influence, OK Human’s piano-based melodic orchestrations offered a welcome respite for Weezer’s typical big league guitar-driven pop bids. Very rarely to bands of Weezer’s stature make this sort of stylistic departure this late in their career and the winking nod to Radiohead’s OK Computer shows that Cuomo is not only well aware of his place in the pop landscape but also willing to challenge his fans and detractors to take him more seriously. On the other end of the spectrum, Van Weezer offers up everything we’ve come to love (or love to hate about Weezer) since 1994 with big crunchy riffs, semi-ironic tap-based guitar solos and big glossy hooks contained in short punchy songs. Unlike their 90’s peers, Weezer continue to demonstrate they are not content to become a heritage act while also challenging their audience with rewarding new music.
12) PALE WAVES – Who Am I?
Very few bands get to play Madison Square Garden before their debut album is released but Pale Waves were blessed with the opportunity opening for The 1975 in 2017 on the strength of a few excellent singles. While their debut album was accomplished it often suffered due to the long run-time. On their sophomore effort, the band tightened up their songwriting and leaned heavily into the Avril Lavigne/Michelle Branch school of pop which is in the so-uncool-it’s-now-hip category of nostalgia 20 years later. Who Am I? whips by in just over a half hour with another excellent batch of Cure-influenced sprinkled pop with plenty of sugary hooks and attitude. The best bands find ways to improve on their talents with each album and this album makes the case for Pale Waves to eventually headline arenas on their own.
11) KALEO – Surface Sounds
Pushed from 2020 to 2021 due to the pandemic, Kaleo’s third album demonstrates a band who has strengthened their chops after nearly two years touring behind their 2016 breakthrough A/B. While blues-based rock has long gone out of style here in America, other parts of the world (particularly the UK and Western Europe) still produce a number of new bands dabbling in the old-timey genres and Kaleo is one of the best. Giving their rock-based sound a jolt, they sound muscular and lean throughout this excellent album with singe JJ Julias Son adding some additional snarl to the rockers and a newfound tenderness to the folky acoustic songs which really showcases his strong voice. They likely won’t ever experience Black Keys-levels of ubiquity here, they’ve already established a solid foundation.
10) LEON BRIDGES – Gold Diggers Sound
For no good reason, I had somehow made it 2021 without ever digging into Leon Bridges’s catalog. This year’s Gold-Diggers Sound thankfully changed that and found Bridges updating his jazzy blues-based sound to incorporate more contemporary R&B. Filled with lush textures, impressive musicianship and a helpful tinge of Americana-style songwriting, Gold-Diggers Sound demonstrates a musician taking the sonic blueprints of the past and blending in the modern elements he enjoys. The beefing up of his sound likely also has to do with the bigger rooms he’s been playing as these are the kind of songs that will play nicely in large theaters and festival fields. With his third release, Bridges remains one of the best contemporary songwriters.
09) CHVRCHES – Screen Violence
While it was not without its charms, Chvrches 2018 album Love Is Dead was essentially a big swing and a big miss as it didn’t accomplish the goal of elevating them beyond festival sub-headliner into the big pop leagues. The Scottish trio regrouped, cut down on working with outside producers/songwriters and delivered their most focused album to date. There isn’t necessarily much to differentiate Screen Violence from the group’s other three releases but that’s not a problem for Chvrches who still executes precision-based hooky modern synth-pop with Lauren Mayberry working through various personal traumas she’s experienced at the onset of middle age. They may not be in the big leagues, but Chvrches is still 4 for 4 in my book and I’m hope they remain in it for the long haul.
08) JAPANESE BREAKFAST – Jubilee
It’s been a huge year for Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner, not just for her musical project but also due to the fact that she released a best-selling novel, Crying In H Mart, which detailed her coping with her mother’s passing. Japanese Breakfast”s third album, released a few months after the book, turned out to be Zauner’s most assured and confident release to date. While her novel focused on healing, the album largely focuses on themes of joy as Zauner bounces from one sweet melody to the next. Pushing her sound forward in multiple directors, Zauner leads her band through a number of pop-inspired bangers as well as maintaining her love of stretched out jams that would play well within the fields of big festivals like Bonnaroo. This type of growth in and overall emotional presentation made for one of the year’s best listens as well as showcasing how Zauner is one of indie’s sharpest and most detailed songwriters out there today.
07) MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA – The Million Masks Of God
Before 2017’s A Black Mile To The Surface finally made critics whose coverage never touched thet emo genre take notice, Manchester Orchestra were a niche concern. A big niche concern, but still playing to a dedicated fanbase. That album finally gave them their critical due as well as some minor commercial success with their lone radio hit “The Gold”. The Million Masks Of God expands on Black Mile’s wide cinematic scope and finds the band continuing to ponder the big questions with an added emphasis on mood and atmosphere. Lead singer/songwriter Andy Hull’s haunting voice still has the ability to give listeners chills and he’s now learned the new practice of restraint as this album features more tender, acoustic-led numbers to fully emphasize Manchester Orchestra’s dramatic art-rock attack. With this album, Manchester Orchestra continue to operate at the peak of their powers.
06) WILD PINK – A Billion Little Lights
This Brooklyn project led by John Ross has been kicking around for a few years but I finally dug into them with this excellent album. Ross builds upon the indie rock formula adding in busy arrangements filled with shiny synths, saxophones, strings and polite guitar-work which allows for delicate sonic landscapes. A Billion Little Lights is one of those rare albums that can be used for open-road driving as well as late-night headphone solace as Ross’s vocals take a polite, nurturing form. On paper, this may sound a bit too quaint and precious but this album was a frequent go-to during the last months of quarantine still remains one of the years most pleasurable listens.
05) JUNGLE – Loving In Stereo
I never thought I’d be throwing around the term “disco” so much more than 40 years after it’s heyday but the genre has come back and been a significant cultural touchpoint for several acts. Jungle’s neo-soul electronic music was also disco influenced by Loving In Stereo is the UK duo at their most euphoric and dance-ready. According to reports, the group wanted to focus on new beginnings, perhaps due to world events or simply their own personal strife. Opening up the doors to collaborations for the first time, Loving In Stereo is a wonderful headrush of disco schmaltz with never-ending dance grooves and funk swirling around singer Josh-Lloyd Watson’s impenetrable falsetto. Since pop music has been increasingly focused on bangers you can rage to on the dance floor, Loving In Stereo is a modern pop record comfortably embracing the sounds of the past and re-purposing for post-pandemic times, resulting in Jungle’s best album to date.
04) ROOSEVELT – Polydans
Marius Lauber, who records under the pseudonym Roosevelt, has making music since 2009 with Roosevelt first coming into fruition in 2015. While his two previous two albums offered the kind of disco-infused laid-back dance grooves heard in festival fields across the world, Polydans is him bringing his vision fully into focus. Playing almost like an inverse of Dua Lipa’s excellet album for last year, Polydans tosses off one low-key disco banger after another with Lauber’s almost care-free vocal style providing an extra silky touch. Naturally, all of this would be for nothing if it weren’t for the multi-layered hooks Lauber offers in every track but, listen after listen, Polydans never wears out its welcome and will continue to provide an excellent soundtrack for those aching to get back to the dance floor.
03) NATION OF LANGUAGE – A Way Forward
The members of Nation Of Language have been kicking around the NYC area for a few years and formed out of failed indie rock projects. Singer Ian Devaney apparently was inspired by hearing an old song from British synth-pop act OMD to form his own synth-pop project in Brooklyn. Nation Of Language actually released their debut album in 2020 and, even without the ability to tour behind it, still found a substantial audience. A Way Forward is a significant improvement on their debut with an increased precision on 80s-style hooks, stylistic keyboards and Devaney’s gothic-like approach to vocals. The idea of a bunch of yuppies in Brooklyn forming a band to pay homage to the 80’s has been eliciting eyerolls for well over a decade but the sincerity this trio projects in their music gives this album an additional boost above their peers who have often walked the rope in this genre with an underlying smirk. More importantly, the group haven’t forgotten about the second part of being a synth-pop act since it doesn’t matter how many CASIO-friendly keyboard lines are sprinkled onto electronic drum beats without strong and meaningful songs. As such, A Way Forward delivers on the promise in that it may be an 80’s inspired record but it’s not a throwback yearning for simpler times. Nation Of Language is one of the few bands that seems to be able to push this nearly 40-year-old genre forward.
02) LONDON GRAMMAR – Californian Soil
Leading up to the release of Californian Soil, London Grammar’s lead singer Hannah Reid stated that the album was about gaining possession of her life, stipulating that even though her nice electronic indie pop band had been successful, she still felt she didn’t have the amount of control over her career and life. Californian Soil supports her claims as the album plays out like a slow, melancholic but still beautiful journey through Reid’s mind as she grapples with what it means to be a woman in the industry, how to age gracefully and how to carefully balance ambition with practicality. Sonically, not much as has changed but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing when London Grammar has perfected their approach. Longtime listeners will still appreciate the slow-burning grooves, splashy synths and Reid’s understated but haunting vocals taking center stage. While Californian Soil isn’t necessarily a breakup record, it’s still a comforting listen for anyone whose been through any sort of trauma in the past few years while also showcasing one of UK’s strongest bands doing what they do best.
01) THE WAR ON DRUGS – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
While not quite a one-man project, The War On Drugs has almost always been the vision of Adam Granduciel, a noted studio perfectionist who obsesses over each album to an almost unhealthy degree. Over the years, he’s also essentially become a dad-rock whisperer, providing the necessary sonic landscapes for long tired days and for musings around growing older, mortality and regret. I Don’t Live Here Anymore is Granduciel’s most accomplished and best work. While the band has somewhat reductively been associated with urban yuppies approach middle age, I Don’t Live Here Anymore has delicate moments of grace, magic and beauty sprinkled throughout. Granduciel’s delicate and balanced vocals along with his exceptional gift for arrangements can soundtrack the weary traveler in all of us while also offering the kind of sonic solace music listeners seek out. With this album, Granduciel has cemented himself as undeniable great artist and artistic journeyman.