Wherever you are in the world and in whatever stage of the Omicron variant restrictions/lockdowns you are under, I still hope you managed to spend the last couple of days with some family and/or friends and find some joy and peace. My wife and I typically celebrate Christmas the traditional way with family, gift exchanges, and a big feast, but this year was different in many ways.
It’s over now, though, it’s in the past and it’s time to get back to my Best albums of 2021 countdown. If you want to go back and read words on albums ten through six on this list, you can click on any one of the hyperlinks below.
As I mentioned in the introduction to part one, this year’s list is full of surprises, albums beating out albums by bands that I expected to be here. And to be honest, it had nothing to do with these anticipated albums not living up to expectations but more to do with me being blown away by so much new music. The results for me were that I have list of honourable mentions that is perhaps triple that of the length of this top ten list. I can’t and won’t list them all here but will certainly share, in no particular order, a sampling of these other albums that are also worth your time:
- Elbow “Flying dream 1”
- Postdata “Twin flames”
- The Coral “Coral island”
- Islands “Islomania”
- New Candys “Vyvyd”
- James “All the colours of you”
- The Hold steady “Open door policy”
Great. Now that I’ve gotten through the great albums that are not in my top five for the year, let’s focus on the albums that are. Yes. Let’s do just that.
#5 Goat Girl “On all fours”
It used to be that I would hear the term post-punk and naturally gravitate towards the act upon which the writer bestowed the term. There was so much great music in the 2000s that was heavily inspired by the movement that grew out of the original punk scene in the late seventies and early eighties. But as time wore on, the term wore out its welcome, was being bandied about like crazy, and the bands that flew the banner always seemed to subscribe to just the one facet of the scene, that of angular guitars and stoic and dispassionate vocals. More often than not, these days, I give the new post-punk acts a cursory spin and move on. However, I found Goat Girl to be a different animal altogether (and yes, that pun was not intended). And while I’m on the name, I might never have given the album a chance had I not heard some of the songs before I heard the band name and learned that the band members operated under the pseudonyms Clottie Cream, L.E.D., Holly Hole, and Rosy Bones. Nevertheless, I did hear some magic from the start, and though the term post-punk is applied, it feels here like the dots in a connect-the-dot drawing where the dots remain for the most part unconnected. There’s definitely some heavy and foreboding basslines to be found on “On all fours”, the quartet’s sophomore record, but the spikes are worn down to shiny sparkles with frothing and swirling guitars and abracadabra synths. It is at times garish and loud but taken as a whole, it makes total nonsensical sense.
Gateway tune: “Sad cowboy”
#4 Breeze “Only up”
Back in September, I texted my friend Andrew Rodriguez the Spotify link to the song below and asked him who he thought the song sounded like. Within moments, he texted back the melon emoticon, which is our code for everything Happy Mondays. We both listened to the rest of “Only up” by Breeze in our separate homes and cities and continued to text back and forth to each other our thoughts on the album. By the end, we had hatched this plan to play some tunes off of it for our mutual friend Tim at an upcoming cottage weekend with a view to trying to convince him that Breeze was a group we had grown up listening to in the early 90s but that he had somehow forgotten. We almost had him too and we definitely wouldn’t have blamed him. The album truly is a paean to a specific time and mood of the early 90s, name-checking not only the Mondays but the Madchester baggy scene as a whole, throw in a little Beck, and pretty much anyone else mixing dance beats with rock guitars and basslines and a heavy peppery dose of samples. Toronto producer Josh Korody wrote, recorded, and mixed the album in 8 days with the help of a who’s who of Toronto-based indie artists, including Cadence Weapon, Tess Parks, and members of Orville Peck’s band, Tallies, Zoon, Ducks Ltd., and Broken Social Scene. Perhaps this pick shows my age and my love for the music of that time but I don’t care who knows it: I love this album.
Gateway tune: “Come around (feat. Cadence Weapon)”
#3 Flyying Colours “Fantasy country”
The first I heard tell of Australian four-piece, Flyying Colours, and their amazing sophomore record, “Fantasy country”, was when one of the many crazy vinyl collectors that I follow, posted about it on Instagram. He is often posting about bands that I also like and when I saw him raving about this as an early favourite of the year, I didn’t hesitate to give it a go on Spotify. Midway through the first track, I decided that his praises weren’t meaningless hyperbole and quickly went on the hunt to purchase a copy of it for my own collection. The group was formed in 2011 by school friends Brodie J Brümmer and Gemma O’Connor, and were rounded out by Melanie Barbaro and Andy Lloyd-Russell. Their 2016 debut album, “Mindfullness”, was well-received and critically acclaimed but constant touring and then, worldwide pandemic delayed any new material until early this year. The eight tracks on “Fantasy country” are honed and clean and nearly-perfect. Their shoegaze psych-rock feels a lot like the early work of The Besnard Lakes, especially with the hazy, Beach Boy like harmonies, but with a double shot of caffeine and sugar to throttle things up. There’s plenty of drone and atmospherics and layered beauty. It’s great for late nights with red wine.
Gateway tune: “Big mess”
#2 Big Red Machine “How long do you think it’s gonna last?”
At best, I thought that the self-titled debut by Big Red Machine was an interesting collaborative effort between Aaron Dessner (of The National) and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver). It had some good songs but I certainly didn’t think of it as a going concern. Indeed, I’ve never been a huge fan of Bon Iver, but I always had time for new material by The National, despite the fact that they were starting to get notice for some work they did with uber singer/songwriter/popstar, Taylor Swift. And I think it was her involvement in this latest Big Red Machine that had this particular blogger hemming and hawing, but most definitely had the indie music and pop music world, in general, abuzz with excitement. But you know? “How long do you think it’s gonna last” really is an excellent album. It’s long – 15 tracks spread over 65 minutes – and yet, it feels short. It doesn’t rock hard, just moves at its own pace, self-aware and self-examining, questioning its own health and safety, working hard to keep anxiety at bay, much like we are all doing right now. Of course, all of the collaborations are great – This is the Kit, Sharon Van Etten, Fleet Foxes, La Force, and yes, even Taylor Swift adds to the brilliance – but I think the real credit rests with Dessner, whose complete vision really carries this piece off and when he actually steps from the shadows to take center stage on a few songs, it is the epitome of poignant.
Gateway tune: “Magnolia”
#1 The Reds, Pinks and Purples “Uncommon weather”
What can I say? I don’t think I’ve fallen for any band or artist as quickly as I have for The Reds, Pinks and Purples in a very, very long time. The songwriting vehicle for San Francisco-based Glenn Donaldson first came to my attention via an email from Slumberland Records, one of my favourite record labels, advertising the release of “Uncommon weather”. I pulled it up on Spotify and bam, I was sold. Indeed, I don’t know where Mr. Donaldson has been all my life. He’s released an album in each of the last three years under The Reds, Pinks and Purples moniker, each of which I’ve since gobbled up like spaghetti, there’s a new album due out early in 2022, and you can bet that I’ll be all over that as well. There’s just something addictive in his short bursts of ear-worm pop. Each of the thirteen songs on “Uncommon weather” sounds immediately familiar and welcoming. There’s loads of reverb and silky smooth synths, peppy drumming and jangly guitars, and above it all, Donaldson channels all of our 80s John Hughes heroes: Robert Smith, Ian McCulloch, and Richard Butler. Yes, I’m well aware that The Reds, Pinks and Purples might not be to every taste but these songs have touched my soul this year and I feel obligated to pass it along. If you listen to one new album this year, please, let this be it.
Gateway tune: “The record player & the damage done”