Best Albums of 2021

Here we are again, with another round of our favourite albums of the year. Perhaps some are familiar to you, dear reader. Perhaps some are new discoveries. Either way, we hope you enjoy our trifling reflections and that you might be able to offer up some of your favourite offerings from 2021 in the comments!

Elijah & Greg


ELIJAH’S TOP ALBUMS OF 2021

10. Madison
Sloppy Jane

Sloppy Jane is the brainchild of one Haley Dahl, a Los Angeles-born Brooklyn-based musician. Perhaps one cannot help but appreciate the magnitude of her latest release, Madison. Here, Dahl exhibits her preternatural compositional and performative deftness in tremendous fashion – echoing from the damp walls of the Lost World Caverns in West Virginia, where the album was recorded (and what an ordeal it was to record a 22-piece orchestra in a cave). For Dahl, Sloppy Jane does not stop with the music, but is part of a wider multimedia artistic project. Yet, for all the strengths of Madison (and there are many), there remains a slight degree of off-putting self-importance (clearly, Dahl sees herself as quite the clever one – and in truth, she is). This experimental chamber [read: cave] pop is indeed of a high order, but perhaps it would maybe benefit from some more germination.

9. Reason to Live
Lou Barlow

The indie god Lou Barlow is Lou Barlow. Reason to Live is a Lou Barlow album. When Lou Barlow releases an album, I am compelled to listen. I must thank Greg, who first planted the Barlow seed in me almost 20 years ago. Reason to Live isn’t ground-breaking Barlow in the same way that 2005’s Emoh or even 2009’s Goodnight Unknown are, but it sees more of a return to the Barlow magic than does his previous release, 2015’s Brace the Wave. For more on Reason to Live, I defer to Greg’s more seasoned and astute Barlow reflections in his list below.

8. As the Love Continues
Mogwai

This is Mogwai’s tenth full-length album and their first to reach the top of the UK music charts. Bravo to the lads! At times, this record is familiar, perhaps even to a fault, but there are also real moments of grandeur. The album’s fourth track, ‘Ritchie Sacramento’ features rare unaffected vocals by Stuart Braithwaite as he reflects on the loss of friends including our beloved Scott Hutchison (Frightened Rabbit) and David Berman (Silver Jews), who took their own lives in 2018 and 2019, respectively. All-in-all, As the Love Continues is, like their previous two records, another excellent effort from Mogwai, and with a few poignant surprises.

7. Little Oblivions
Julien Baker

Julien Baker’s previous records didn’t capture me – I found them indistinguishable from other albums by similar indie artists I’ve encountered over the last few years: those wispy vocals over familiar indie-rock orchestration (cough*Phoebe*cough*Lucy*cough). Little Oblivions might well verge on generic at times (I would put this down to production, primarily), but there are excellent moments of musical climax. Lyrically, it seems as if Baker is more liberated than before. Her familiar reflections as a queer person of faith are so refreshing with their unapologetic presentation. There is no case to answer, no chip on any shoulder. Baker is ‘at one’ with herself and it is inspiring.

6. Mandatory Enjoyment
Dummy

Dummy entered my radar with the release of two EPs last year (Dummy and EP2). Their first full-length, Mandatory Enjoyment, builds on the art-pop avant-garde of these initial releases to present something fuller, both in length and sound. There is a [heavy] touch of ambient and the abstract throughout the whole album, delivering a fresh Talking Heads-esque sound while pushing through new wave barriers with fuzz and drones. The album is full of this energy and, living up to its name, is just plain fun.

5. För Allting
Makthaverskan

Post-punk Swedes Makthaverskan (Swedish for ‘The Ruler’ and pronounced ‘Makthaverskan’) have been at it since 2008, though this album is the first of theirs I have ever heard – and I regret this. For all intents and purposes, their style has not changed dramatically. If one appreciates the dream-pop and Scandigaze of För Allting (Swedish for ‘For Ever’), one will appreciate the development of the whole of Makthaverskan’s back catalogue. If the Cocteau Twins, New Order and My Bloody Valentine made a Swedish baby in the late 1980s, it might well sound something like Makthaverskan and För Allting. This is not to suggest that För Allting is a simple variation on a theme. Instead, this ambitious record weaves between terrible elation and beautiful desperation, both musically and lyrically, with vocalist Maja Milner bringing oh-so-much to the table.

4. Ultrapop
The Armed

I love hard music. I love clever hooks. I love the Detroit Tigers. So it comes as no surprise that I love the Armed, the Detroit-based anonymous post-hardcore collective. Their previous effort, 2018’s Only Love was one of my favourite records that year and Ultrapop is surprisingly superior to its predecessor in most every way. Mind you, it is difficult to compare albums for an anonymous band with a rotating line-up, but taken as a whole, Ultrapop lives up to its name (and familiar, Armed-esque touches, such as the influence of Converge’s Kurt Ballou, are plentiful). Ultrapop doesn’t take itself too seriously (the pitfall of many artists within the metal/hardcore/post-hardcore genre), yet delivers on all fronts – exquisite melodies, powerful percussion, a stunning combination of aggressive and ethereal vocals, virtuosic guitar riffs. Yes, please.

3. buds
ovlov

As with most unfamiliar albums, I wasn’t sure about buds at first. Its under-25-minute runtime struck me as more of an EP than an LP. But I didn’t give up on buds after the first listen, and for this I am grateful. It elicits some significant adolescent flashbacks (more having to do with musical style and not learning how to shave): I can’t help but hear a wee bit of 1990s Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Foo Fighters and the Lemonheads. Their fuzzy pop-rock is contagious and there’s something timeless about buds. Admittedly, it is not as fuzzy as ovlov’s previous releases, but the musical depth and focus only prove to enhance the strengths of the album.

2. A Beginner’s Mind
Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine

The inclusion of A Beginner’s Mind should come as no surprise to seasoned readers of Lost in the Cloud’s ‘Best Albums’ lists. Given the sheer size Sufjan Stevens’ output over the last two years (2019’s The Decalogue with Timo Andres, 2020’s Aporia with Lowell Brams, followed by The Ascension, and finally, his five-volume Convocations from earlier this year), I had admittedly low expectations for his collaboration with Angelo De Augustine for A Beginner’s Mind. While The Ascension was a cracker, I began to feel that acquiring The Decalogue, Aporia and Convocations were more to do with my commitment to Sufjan Stevens completism rather than the irresistibility of 2015’s Carrie & Lowell. I feared that A Beginner’s Mind would be another ‘completist’ investment.

I am pleased to report that A Beginner’s Mind is no such investment. The concept of the album (with specific films acting as muses for each song) is novel, but just as the film selection can range from inspired (Wim Wenders’ 1987 Wings of Desire, for example) to banal (Damon Santostefano’s 2004 Bring it On Again), the tracks demonstrate some degree of that range. A number of songs on the album feature lyrics that are stunningly beautiful, while at least two are a bit too ‘on the nose’ for my liking (see ‘Pillar of Souls’ and ‘You Give Death a Bad Name’). Regardless, the album as a whole is brilliant, showcasing the talents of both De Augustine and Stevens in surprisingly equal measure. I am a particular fan of the hints of Elliott Smith I hear in the heartbreaking melodies throughout the album.

1. Any Shape You Take
Indigo De Souza

Indigo De Souza’s second album, Any Shape You Take secures this top spot. This album begins with the auto-tuned ‘17’, which may seem like pop radio fodder until it bursts into the first of many continuous surprises on this record. Its unpretentiousness is disarming. While De Souza delves into common broken relationship themes, she does so with poise, confidence and musical competence beyond her years. She explores broad musical territory—from pop to grunge—leaving me wanting more, but not in a dissatisfied way. She is both gentle and aggressive, with tone and melody reminiscent of the high points of St Vincent’s first three records. It also remains catchy without any danger of being obnoxious or repetitive. Any Shape You Take is very listenable and I find that it grows more endearing with subsequent listens.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Call Me If You Get Lost Tyler, the Creator

Voyage to Mars MUNYA

A Way Forward Nation of Language

Shade Grouper

As Days Get Dark Arab Strap

I Want the Door to Open Lala Lala

Henki Richard Dawson/Circle

The Death of Speedy Ortiz & Cop Kicker…Forever (compilation) Speedy Ortiz

Seek Shelter Iceage

Garbology Aesop Rock/Blockhead


GREG’S TOP ALBUMS OF 2021

10. Afrique Victime
Mdou Moctar

I honestly only heard this album for the first time two days ago (and here I’m violating my personal rule that I need to have PURCHASED the albums on my top 10 list), but I was checking out a few best of 2021 lists this week to see if I’d missed anything and I was intrigued by the description of this Saharan psychedelic rock outfit (Mdou Moctar is the singer and lead guitarist of the band). I was immediately entranced by the swirling, cyclical guitar licks which suddenly ascend into heavenly bursts of melody and hypnotic vocal lines that transported me to far off lands. It’s been on repeat as I go to sleep and when I wake up. So this is why we NEED lists like these end of year posts, so that we can discover what we might have missed in the midst of the myriad music that has come out each year.

9. Little Oblivions
Julien Baker

I’ll get this out of the way right up front: the lyrics on this album feel like fake angst to me. But her uncanny ability to create epic soundtracks for love gone bad and convince me to care about her fractured, angry heart with her husky, soaring vocals are a kind of beguilement to which I’ll happily accede. She is a master at bewitching the listener.

8. A Color of the Sky
Lightning Bug

Some groups that came to mind in a melange of associations as I listened again and again to this languid beauty of an album would include the Cowboy Junkies, the Cranberries, shoegaze band Curve, and a touch of the Cocteau Twins. It made me wistfully remember drives along empty highways towards cloud-covered horizons…or something like that.

7. Smothered
Oberhofer

I was a fan of this guy back in the mid-2010’s, but hadn’t heard much of him of late. Then this album crossed my path and I was immediately smitten again with his throwaway talent for writing infectious melodies and singing in his falsetto so languorously over glittery synth-pop hooks. It’s like he’s not even trying, he makes it look so easy!

6. Reason to Live
Lou Barlow

SO glad that one of my favorite ever lo-fi indie folk heroes re-discovered his downstrum mojo after a few middling efforts. While not quite up to his Sebadoh/Sentridoh-era rueful perfection, each song here is a solid contribution to his catalog. (NOTE: he’s on the outside looking at Christianity with disdain (i.e. “All you people suck – YOU’RE the ones who don’t believe that we’re all connected”). His domesticated life away from the music scene has yielded some poignant home-recordings that address old wounds and habits, along with glimmers of a new kind of joy with the life he’s found.

5. Home Video
Lucy Dacus

I’m a sucker for her lovely, laid-back voice and coy storytelling. The songs are just so solid and perfectly constructed, a deft nostalgic trip into the treachery of youth. She’s taking apart her own experience of growing up evangelical, singing about VBS and “sermons saying how bent and evil we are” (fundamentalist faith is like some great source of trauma for this generation…I’m not so sure that it’s as bad as they all make it out to be, but there truly were a whole lot of misguided youth pastors and power-hungry preachers in 90’s America, trying hard to hang onto the glory days of a time gone by—probably the same people who turned into these snarling, insane Trump zombies—oh culture wars, so much to answer for…).

4. Frailty
dltzk

I can’t remember where I first heard about this lo-fi, bedroom pop, electronic rock masterpiece, but I really fell for its poppy chops meets chaotic digital breakdowns (it often sounds like a CD that is skipping/mis-reading the 1s and 0s). It’s like a blender mix of Weezer and that kid from Owl City with the Electric Light Parade and some video game soundtrack. Now that I think about it, I don’t really love any of those ingredients on their own, but together it becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. It feels like the youth soundtrack to the last two years’ pandemic experience…

3. HEY WHAT
Low

I was not a fan of this band’s last album, Double Negative, wherein the band’s songs were subjected to some kind of sonic Picasso-like deconstruction.  But THIS album, with songs that have been dismantled and simplified in its own way, totally won me over from the opening overdriven, but gated guitar chords of “White Horses” until the bookended track “The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off”).  The strength of the powerful harmonies of the husband/wife singer-song architects and their straightforward/oblique lyrical duality ensures that this band still is operating at the height of their understated rock powers.

2. Mixtape for the Milky Way
Jeremy Messersmith

Here is another album so far under the radar that it’s practically sonar. Jeremy Messersmith is one of my favorite indie-pop songwriters, but I didn’t know about this gorgeous confessional masterpiece that he put out under a new band name until four months after it had been released (apparently self-released with little fanfare). Many of these songs here deal with his evangelical Christian upbringing (seemingly abandoned by now, due to fundamentalist homophobia, threats of eternal torment, and his confusion/wonder at pondering the metaverse, which he comments upon in various songs). These tracks have a beautiful, fragile melancholy to them, as if Messersmith ended each song teary-eyed from the pain of looking back at things that were once so important that he has now lost (“You said I’d walk with you on streets of gold, where no one ever dies from growing old, somewhere everything is perfect…”). I wish that I could be this band’s PR person—I would take over a radio station like some deranged fan if I could just get people to listen to the genius of his work, even though I also wish I could show him a better version of what it means to follow Jesus.

1. A Beginner’s Mind
Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine

A new album from Sufjan will always be a contender for my best album of the year, but it’s no guarantee (Phoebe Bridgers took that spot from him last year!). But this collection is truly worthy of the highest accolades and so I’m finding it rather disturbing that this incredible collaboration is not making many best albums lists this year! (Sufjan’s label probably spends more on fun extras like the “A.B.M. movie club cards” included with the deluxe vinyl package than they do on marketing.) The project that these two gifted singer-songwriters came up with, to watch a film at night then write a song together inspired (sometimes loosely) by their viewing the next day, yielded a lovely batch of mostly folk tunes that alchemically turn even straight-to-video fare into lyrical and melodic gold. There are only two songs on the album that I don’t deeply love (tracks 4 & 5), but I’ve listened to this album so many times I know it will hold its own among Sufjan and Angelo’s best other work. The only real downside to this album is the off-putting artwork on the cover, but even that has a delightful backstory…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Collapsed in Sunbeams Arlo Parks — This album is SO amazingly well produced, the band is so tight, the singer is a beautiful young woman with a charming British accent…the only problem is that the lyrics feel like they’re derived from a hackneyed teenager’s diary.

The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows Damon Albarn

Friends that Break Your Heart James Blake

A Billion Little Lights Wild Pink — This album is so calming to listen to—amazingly well constructed on all levels, but somehow just a little bland.

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