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Albums

Best albums of 2021: Part two (#5 to #1)

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.

#10 Middle Kids “Today we’re the greatest”
#9 Iceage “Seek shelter”
#8 Du Blonde “Homecoming”
#7 Julien Baker “Little oblivions”
#6 Linn Koch-Emmery “Being the girl”

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

 

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Albums

Best albums of 2021: Part one (#10 to #6)

So here we are, just a couple of days before Christmas, and I’m just getting started on my end of year festivities now.

Normally, I do this huge production that starts mid-November and lasts six weeks, all this in counting down my ten favourite albums of the year. I typically start with an introductory post of albums ten through six and then give each of my top five their own post, wrapping everything up just in time for the new year. However, I didn’t have the energy and drive this year. I had even briefly thought about skipping the whole idea but in the end, opted for a more stripped back affair: a two-part-er, splitting the list of ten between the two posts.

Now before I get down to it, I thought I’d point out a trend I noticed while compiling this list. As opposed to last year, where many of the albums I chose as favourites were those by old reliables of this curmudgeonly blogger and in many cases, the albums were the first by said artists in many years, reunion and comeback albums of sorts, this year’s list, instead, is literally full of surprises. To an album, each on the list for 2021 is by an artist that I either never expected to appear somewhere in one of my top albums lists or of whom I had either never heard or even heard tell. This is not to say that none of my old favourites released new material this year. Indeed, many did and many came close to appearing here and will likely get their due when I pass along some of my honourable mentions in part two of this series. It just so happened that there was so much exciting, creative, and inspiring new music being conceived in these wild times and I was drawn to the freshness of the releases below.

But I’ll stop my blathering there and start into the first five of my ten favourites for 2021. As always, I welcome hearing your thoughts on my picks, as well as your own favourites from the year, and would love if you could leave them the comments section below.

Here we go…


#10 Middle Kids “Today we’re the greatest”

“Lost friends”, the debut album by Sydney, Australia’s Middle Kids, was my fifth favourite album back in 2018, drawing me in with its twelve delicious, hook-laden alt-rockers. In the three years since its release, the trio of Hannah Joy, Tim Fitz, and Harry Day toured like crazy, right up to the point when they couldn’t anymore, what with COVID-19 putting a stop to touring, travel, and live shows. They are now quite popular and successful in their home country and this year, their sophomore record, “Today we’re the greatest”, has won the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Award) for best rock album over both AC/DC and Midnight Oil, much to the surprise and delight of the band. Although I didn’t hesitate to pre-order the record for my collection, I fully expected to be disappointed given how much I loved the debut. And yet… I wasn’t… not at all. It didn’t necessarily rock as hard but the hooks were still there and so was the honesty and the beauty. If Middle Kids continue in this way and at this pace, they are very soon going to be just as huge world-wide as they are in Australia.

Gateway tune: Stacking chairs


#9 Iceage “Seek shelter”

Iceage is one of the aforementioned bands that I had never listened to before this year, though, “Seek shelter” is not their debut. Instead, it’s the Danish quintet’s fifth album. They first burst forth on to the scene a decade ago, considered by most who heard them to be fully formed and brilliant, yet another saviour of punk and post-punk. Each one of their albums has been lauded by critics, even the notoriously picky Pitchfork writers, and much has been written about their continual ability to redefine what it is to be a punk band. I don’t know how I missed the bus on the group thus far but I heard the opening track (see below) on one of my Spotify release radar playlists and immediately hunted down this brilliant nine-track album. There are elements of psych, classic rock, acid house, and all of this with that sneering edge. Pete ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember’s production touch is definitely felt and with the gospel choir additions, you might actually think it was the other principal songwriter from Spaceman 3 that might’ve been involved. I have no idea if Iceage’s previous four albums would be within my wheelhouse at all but with this album, as good as it is, how can I not check them out.

Gateway tune: Shelter song


#8 Du Blonde “Homecoming”

I’ve been keeping tabs on Beth Jeans Houghton since she released her debut album, “Yours truly, cellophane nose”, back in 2012. Three years later, she rebranded herself as Du Blonde and has since put together three albums as this persona. She has always tried do things her own unique way and the results have been a bit mixed for my tastes, though there’s always been one or two tracks per album that I really loved. For “Homecoming”, she wrote and produced it, did all her own artwork, and released it on her own label, Daemon TV. I don’t know if she’s hit on something special here, or if I’ve just finally caught up to her but I love all ten tracks. The album features contributions by likeminded singer/songwriter Ezra Furman (see below), Garbage’s Shirley Manson, Ride’s Andy Bell, and feminist punk band, The Farting Suffragettes. It is a mere 25 minutes and each song oozes seedy and raunchy sex. Roaring guitars and hammering drums, retro glam rock laser lights glinting off disco balls, snide and snarling duets and fist-pumping anthemic choruses, the album has got so much fun.

Gateway tune: I’m glad that we broke up (feat. Ezra Furman)


#7 Julien Baker “Little oblivions”

Yet another surprise appearance on this list comes care of the young American singer/songwriter Julien Baker. I saw her perform as part of a show headlined by The National back in 2018 and was impressed by her physical and spiritual voice and the way she and her electric guitar commanded the stage, accompanied only sporadically by a violinist. I became a fan and afterwards revisited her two albums. Then, a mere two months later, she, along with Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers, released an eponymously named EP under the moniker Boygenius, garnering the three of them new audiences all around. “Little oblivions” is Baker’s third album and first since her foray with Boygenius and instead of mining the sparse and frail territory of her earlier work, opted for a full band sound. The results are astounding. The subject matter is no less heartbreaking and personal and her voice always at the forefront, confessing to us all how we are all feeling and absolving us of our sins. The full band sound, though, amplifies it all, pouring more salt in the wounds and wringing out even more sweat and tears. So much beauty here in the hurt.

Gateway tune: Faith healer


#6 Linn Koch-Emmery “Being the girl”

“Being the girl” is the debut album by Swedish singer/songwriter Linn Koch-Emmery. Apparently, she knew she was going to have a career in music from a very young age and was in a band with her twin sister and a handful of friends when they were still in high school. When that ended, her sister started another band and moved to England but Linn stayed in Sweden and decided to go it alone. She’s been releasing singles and EPs since 2016 but this album is the first I’ve heard of her. I remember liking it a lot when I first heard the album back in the spring but was still quite surprised when it landed among my top picks with my usually foolproof method of narrowing down my music lists. Then, listening to it over and over again this month just confirmed it for me. “Being the girl” is an album that doles out ear worms like they’re candy. Far from being dreamy and gentle, Koch-Emmery’s tunes are spiky indie rockers rife with synths and hooks, reminiscent of “Fantasies”-era Metric and early work by Lykke Li (another Swedish indie singer/songwriter). As debuts that sound like they could be third or fourth records go, this a great one and at just shy of 30 minutes in length, begs for multiple listens in one sitting.

Gateway tune: Linn RIP


Part two of this list will follow immediately after the Christmas holidays. Hope yours are full of joy and good cheer!

Categories
Albums

Best albums of 2000: #4 Coldplay “Parachutes”

Back when I wrote about the song “Yellow” to finish off my Best tunes of 2000 list, I wrote how I still remembered first hearing the track on the radio and the excitement I felt in experiencing it. I also briefly played the game of trying to get us all to remember this same feeling, “Yellow”, before everything that came after with Coldplay. A tough task to be sure, given that Will Champion, Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, and Chris Martin make up what is still surely one of the world’s biggest bands and one of the more commercially successful rock acts of the 21st century.

To be honest, I don’t listen to Coldplay all that often any more and don’t think I’ve heard even a note of their last two records. However, I really liked their first three records and perhaps to a lesser extent, their fourth. Indeed, “Parachutes” is still, for me, a classic, the measuring stick by which I’ve always judged their latter work. It is the sound of a young band finding their feet after a few years of slogging it out on the live circuit and striking gold.

The album went to number one on the UK album charts and though it took a bit longer, went platinum many times over in the states. It was long listed for the Mercury prize and has been cited as influential by more than a few newer bands, which is more than we can say for anything by them that came later. Interesting, then, that the boys in Coldplay don’t really like the album all that much.

“Parachutes” nicely filled the British guitar rock void, just recently vacated by Radiohead, when that latter band decided to go experimental and electronic, a fact to which many critics attributed Coldplay’s early success. But for me, the album wasn’t just a rehash or throwaway. It was beautiful stuff. It was long-faced and grieving and claustrophobic production. It was the unexpected discovery of a new voice in Chris Martin, a breath of fresh air before all the pretence set in. It was Coldplay’s most passionate work because it wasn’t planned or expected or foreshadowed. And unfortunately, this kind of perfection can never be replicated.

It’s more than likely that most of you know the ten tracks on this release but I welcome you all to revisit them without delay, starting now with my three picks for you.


“Shiver”: The first single to be released off the album in the band’s native country was the second to come out on this side of the Atlantic. Chris Martin has admitted that he wrote the song with a particular woman in mind but has never given up her identity. “From the moment I wake to the moment I sleep, I’ll be there by your side – just you try and stop me.” Martin has also said that in an attempt to channel Jeff Buckley, the band created their “most blatant ripoff”, and a poor one at that. I’ll have to take his word for it because I’m not all that familiar with Buckley’s work but this track a heartbreaker. A jangling mesh of guitars that starts off in the distance but moves ever closer until it bursts into flames. And then, quiet – an easing, a stepping aside for Martin to shuffle into the light. Finally, it’s all him, pouring it all on, aching with his soul, and he leans on those driving guitars to hold him upright. Else, he might melt into a puddle of yearning.

“Don’t panic”: The opening number on the album was released as a single almost a year after the album’s release. And yet it is one of the band’s earliest known songs, first seeing the light of day as early as 1998. This version, the one I know and love, is perhaps much different than how it originated. And to be honest, I’ve never bothered to try to find out. I love this two minute wonder. It starts with a gentle strum and an even gentler touch on drums, Chris Martin is almost whispering, intimate, an aside to himself and millions of others. “And we live in a beautiful world. Yeah we do, yeah we do, we live in a beautiful world.” The guitars jangle and chime and sing and echo in, shattering a mirror into a million sparkling pieces. The world as microcosm, beauty in infinity, quiet in expansiveness. A young Chris Martin is reassuring himself and us at the same time.

“Yellow”: As I inferred above, this song was and still is my favourite song from the year 2000. It is iconic. It was the beginning of something and the end of something else. It was released as the second song off the album in the UK but first in the US. It was my introduction to the band, as it was to many others. It was in heavy rotation everywhere, ubiquitous for a time, but for me, it never became old, despite the oversaturation. I got sick of the band before I got sick of the song. This is pop perfection. A hammering on the guitars, all violence and passion, a threat to fall apart but yet somehow holding it all together. Chris Martin is right on this same page, singing softly but in a quiet rage, falsettos floating on a cloud of reverb. “I came along, I wrote a song for you, and all the things you do, and it was called Yellow.” It is romance. It is love. And a hopeless romantic like me could never resist it.


To be honest, this particular post is late by a few weeks and now, with my new philosophy for the site, I’m definitely not going to promise when we’ll get to album #3. So in the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Richard Ashcroft “Alone with everybody”
9. The New Pornographers “Mass romantic”
8. The Cure  “Bloodflowers”
7. The Weakerthans “Left and leaving”
6. The Clientele “Suburban light”
5. Belle and Sebastian “Fold your hands child, you walk like a peasant”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.