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!