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.

Best Albums of 2020

And here we are in the nick of time, before the closing hours of 2020, to present you with the highly-subjective lists of our favourite albums of the year. We won’t pretend that 2020 wasn’t an especially horrible year for many people, but we can highlight that excellent artistry may arise despite tragedy (and it has been argued that the finest artistry emerges from tragedy necessarily). We would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for reading and to wish all of our readers a very happy New Year, full of love, peace and joy.

Elijah & Greg


10. Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple

Full disclosure: 2012’s The Idler Wheel… passed me by. In fact, I haven’t given Fiona Apple much of a listen since 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, which I found relatively underwhelming. I am grateful for venturing back into Apple territory for this record, which is the first of her five records (a slim catalogue over a 25-year career) in which she oversaw all of her own production. Without Jon Brion’s instrumental settings, Apple has produced something more primal. The title of the record comes from the television programme The Fall. In the scene in question, Gillian Anderson’s detective protagonist Stella Gibson is seeking to reach a torture victim through a locked door.

Without wanting to belabour the parallel, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an expression of artistic liberation: ‘Fetch the bolt cutters… I’ve been in here too long’ (from the title track). Additional percussion is provided by the bashing of walls and floor of her Los Angeles home. These are accompanied by barking dogs (à la Brian Wilson), and, apparently, her deceased dog’s bones. Perhaps she is musing on her prodigal beginnings as a seventeen-year-old pop star when she sings ‘I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill’. Whatever artistic journey she has been on, she has rediscovered a particular artistic freedom with this album.

9. Women in music Pt. III
HAIM

HAIM is comprised of the three Haim sisters: Este, Danielle and Alana. Women in Music Pt III is their third studio album and explores various personal challenges faced by the sisters as well as the sexism faced by women in the music industry (especially in the Joni Mitchell-esque ‘Man from the Magazine’). (A geeky side-note is the fact that the album cover was photographed by Paul Thomas Anderson [one of my favourite directors] at the famous Canter’s Deli in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles. Anderson also directed the several music videos from the album singles.) In addition to the deeply personal lyrical content of WIMPIII (each of the three Haim sisters have expressed personal traumas faced in the period leading up to the recording of the album), this record is notable for its employment of a wide variety of musical genres. Even with (though not necessarily in opposition to) the sometimes depressive content, WIMPIII is full of momentum, harnessing the energy of 1990s West Coast pop rock.

8. The Slow Rush
Tame Impala

When Greg first introduced me to Tame Impala over a decade ago, I was enamoured with the ‘band’s’ sound. Neo-psychedelic rock soundscapes with heavily-effected drums and vocals. There was something simultaneously classic and contemporary about the sound and I couldn’t get enough of it. When I discovered that the band was actually just Kevin Parker, my mind was well and truly blown. Since 2010’s InnerSpeaker, every Tame Impala record has scratched its way into my top ten lists.

When I first heard this record, I didn’t know whether The Slow Rush would buck the trend or not. It is both very Tame Impala and very much a departure. The psychedelic and effected elements remain, but The Slow Rush, in keeping with its name, features a distinctly softer sound than previous Tame Impala records while keeping time with punchy disco beats. In the opening track, Parker sings ‘Not caring if we do the same thing every week / of living like I’m only living for me / of never talking about where we’re gonna be / of living like the free spirit I wanna be.’ As an admitted superfan of the more distorted guitar-driven, gravelly Tame Impala sound, I remain entranced with the intimate interlude that is The Slow Rush.

7. Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Perfume Genius

Michael Alden Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius has continued the trend of exploring embodied existence through song in his fifth album. Somewhat familiar narratives remain, but Set My Heart on Fire Immediately picks up on Hadreas’ decade-long musical journey from the art rock industrial ballads of his early releases, through the land of the flamboyant showman and to this amalgamation of a considerable number of musical styles and influences spanning the last sixty years of pop music. And while Hadreas persists in his exquisite lyrical poeticism, he also leaves the sonic soundscapes to complete the picture, to express the verbally inexpressible. The tone of the whole of Set My Heart on Fire Immediately is one of more confidence and earthiness (as opposed to the equally-valuable frailty and dreaminess of his previous releases).

6. songs / instrumentals
Adrianne Lenker

Since the release of Masterpiece in 2016, Big Thief has been one of my favourite bands of the last decade. This has been due primarily to the contribution of lead singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker. In both songwriting and musicianship, Lenker has been a pleasure to explore. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, she has been writing and releasing music for the last 16 years.) Having released two excellent records last year (U.F.O.F. and Two Hands), Big Thief was set to embark on a European tour when, due to the pandemic, it was cancelled (boo…). As a result, Lenker saw an opportunity to take a break from the demands of recording and touring (as well as to work through a recent break-up), staying in a small cabin in Western Massachusetts to be near to her sister. It may come as no surprise that with a creative force such as Lenker, these circumstances proved ideal for the gestation of new material.

While Lenker’s previous material is known for its lyrical honesty, Songs in particular is a further journey into her feelings, borne, was The Independent’s Roisin O’Connor puts it, ‘with complete abandon.’ The opening track, ‘two reverse’ indicates this complete abandon: ‘Lay me down so to let you leave. / Tell me lies, I wanna see your eyes. / Is it a crime to say I still need you? / Crime, wanna feed you.’

In the midst of this vulnerable outpouring of emotion, Lenker continues to demonstrate her musical confidence, albeit stripped down to mostly her guitar and vocals (and the occasional sound of falling rain). This doesn’t feel like a Big Thief album, but perhaps something better, or at the very least, something more intimate.

5. græ
Moses Sumney

It is perhaps a testimony to my own musical ignorance (rather than the opposite) that I don’t often hear an album and feel as if it is unlike anything I have ever heard before. Even albums that may catch me off-guard tend to also harbour a strong relationship to my other musical interests. Without a doubt, Moses Sumney’s græ bears little resemblance to other music with which I am familiar. This is not to say that Sumney’s influences are unrecognisable, but instead that the composition of græ is a wholly unique expressive force. In addition to the experimental melding of genres including jazz, classical, folk, art pop/rock and spoken word, græ is also an exceptionally personal record. With confidence and skill, Sumney approaches various issues close to home including immigration (Sunmey was born in California to Ghanaian immigrants and spent a number of years in Ghana as a child), race, gender and queer culture. While these genres and concepts might appear ham-fisted or pretentious on any other record, the pacing and tone of græ facilitates natural expression and is a triumph of contemporary music.

4. RTJ4
Run the Jewels

I have been a fan of El-P since 2002’s Fantastic Damage. I even loved the electronic jazz fusion of High Water (recorded with The Blue Series Continuum in 2004). When he partnered with Killer Mike for 2013’s Run the Jewels, El-P went from strength to strength. Every subsequent RTJ record has continued to impress (albeit, peppered with humour on the level of Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] programming), but none so significantly as this latest release.

RTJ4 is the quintessential 2020 record. Pandemics, although horrific in their destruction of human life, come and go. Police brutality/racism is the more enduring illness in the United States. The opening track, ‘Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4)’ heralds the tone of the record, closing with the words, ‘Yankee and The Brave are here / everybody hit the deck / we don’t mean no harm / but we truly mean all the disrespect.’ Run the Jewels have always exercised pointed social commentary, but RTJ4 is a step up in terms of agitation and clarity of thought. The lyrics express the reality of black Americans resisting systematic racism as well as the solidary in this struggle that can be expressed by allies of the black community. In a sense, Killer Mike and El-P are a shining example of what a unified, pragmatic and socially-conscious America can be, all bolstered by the superb production for which El-P has become legendary in the field of experimental hip-hop.

3. Hannah
Lomelda

Hannah is Lomelda’s fourth studio album (although ‘Lomelda’ is Texas songwriter Hannah Read, who has been releasing music for nearly a decade, in one form or another). Last year’s release, M for Empathy passed me by. Approaching Hannah with a tabula rasa was probably the best way in for me. As it turns out, whether by nature or design, Hannah Read is one of the most unassuming contemporary musicians I have encountered. There is a profound modesty in her songwriting, paralleled by the gentleness and unmilled tone of her singing voice. Hannah feels like a series of letters that Read has written to herself (as opposed to the convention of most self-titled records). It is almost as if Read is not interested in performing, per se, but rather, expressing herself in the most natural way possible – almost as if she is singing in the privacy of her bedroom. This openness disarms the listener and draws them in to Read’s narrative. She unveils grace and beauty in the mundane and ordinary, and through this, the listener is absorbed into that transcendence.

2. THE ASCENSION
Sufjan Stevens

I resisted. I promise that I resisted. When the album’s first single, ‘America’ was released in July, I had assumed it was a one-off, perhaps a comment on the state of play in the United States, what with the ongoing pandemic and the circus of a presidential election on the horizon. (In reality, Stevens penned ‘America’ during the Carrie & Lowell sessions.) Then August brought the second single, ‘Video Game’. As soon as it was released, I listened with measured anticipation. Was this to be the sound of The Ascension? I wondered, ‘Maybe this won’t be my cup of tea…’ ‘Video Game’ was followed by ‘Sugar’ in September and then the release of the album in full. I had placed a pre-order as soon as the album was announced, but I was beginning to think that its addition to my collection would be a matter of mere Sufjan Stevens ‘completism’, rather than a treasure to be cherished.

In part, I was relieved when I didn’t fall in love with The Ascension after hearing it for the first time. In the past, every time had Sufjan Stevens released an album of new material, it always seemed to climb its way to the top of my ‘best of’ list. To be sure, I am under no impression that my end of the year lists are anything more than subjective rambles about music that I—an ignoramus—enjoy. Yet, the more I listened, the more I realised that this was a true grower. Stevens has grown tired of folk music convention (he tends to dip in and out of love with this form) and songwriting in The Ascension exercises more force and certainty (even while expressing uncertainty) than ever before. In an interview with Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic, Stevens admits that this album is ‘bossy and bitchy’. In a sense, The Ascension is less dynamic than most of Stevens’ previous releases, but when that dynamism appears, it really pays off. The Purple Rain-era-Prince-sounding ‘Death Star’ stands out especially — I could not have guessed that jingle bells would give me the chills time and time again.

1. Rough and Rowdy Ways
Bob Dylan

Here are several potentially controversial statements: This is easily Dylan’s finest original work since 1997’s Time Out of Mind. This might well be his finest release since 1975’s Desire (or, when the notion takes me, 1989’s Oh Mercy). For all of the strengths of 2001’s “Love and Theft”, 2006’s Modern Times and 2012’s Tempest, Rough and Rowdy Ways showcases Dylan’s Nobel-prize winning, transcendent and perhaps, unparalleled songwriting prowess better than anything he has produced in the last two decades.

I find only two weaknesses in Rough and Rowdy Ways. The first is a single phrase in ‘I Contain Multitudes’. In the midst of throwing out seemingly-pithy pop-culture references intermixed with more profound figures among the ‘multitudes’ he ‘contains’, Dylan offers up this cringe-worthy line: ‘And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones’. At 79, I can accept Dylan’s characterisation of the The Rolling Stones here—who were beginning to favour of edgier rock-n-roll cuts like ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ and ‘Paint It Black’ when Dylan was making his own transition to the electric guitar—but referring to them as ‘British bad boys’… I shudder even as I type the expression. My second grievance is with Dylan’s occasional dependence on cookie-cutter blues rock arrangements. Yet, even within the likes of ‘False Prophet’, ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ and ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, his exceptional songwriting genius shines through. Thanks, Bob, for reminding me why you’re my favourite artist of all time.

Shore Fleet Foxes

Fountain Lyra Pramuk

Mystic Familiar Dan Deacon

Flower of Devotion Dehd

Microphones in 2020 The Microphones

Healing is a Miracle Julianna Barwick

SHall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? The Soft Pink Truth

Whole New Mess Angel Olsen

Fear of Death Tim Heidecker

Live Forever Bartees Strange


10. SURVIVORS EP
Tim Baker

I had originally slotted the new Car Seat Headrest album into this tenth slot, but then I realized that… I honestly REALLY only like about 3 songs on it. And so I came to the conclusion that I should instead honor this 5 song EP from my last year’s top album artist, Canadian troubadour Tim Baker. The song “Survivors” was MY ANTHEM for this year, so here’s to you Tim, for helping me to get through the lousiest year on record. You spin gold out of tragedy…

9. Born again
Ellis

Her voice is hard to distinguish from another dreamy bedroom pop singer named Clairo, but there’s something deeper in her deconversion narrative that keep this album from turning into another collection of broken heart stories. The lyrics aren’t too profound, but they’re honest, like a gauzy reflection on a #metoo world from the evangelical subculture with smashing cymbals and guitars on overdrive. I guess I’m just a sucker for a song that starts “Lately I have been romanticizing shit…” (“Embarrassing”).

8. Color Theory
Soccer Mommy

To be honest, a lot of the songs on this album sound the same to me… but the thing is, it’s such a great sound that she’s mastered. 90’s atmospheric rock with a girl-ish wistfulness (“I’m the princess of screwing up”) beneath which lies trenchant insights pulled from the wreckage of self-doubt, depression, loss, and splintered relationships. She’s like the prettiest, smartest, saddest, and angriest girl in the world at the same time, standing at the mic with a Fender Strat wrapped around her shoulders.

7. SLEEPYHEAD
Cavetown

For the first time ever, I have an album on my top ten that MY DAUGHTER Katrina turned me onto. This Gen Z wunderkind, whom his parents named Robin Skinner, wrote, produced, and played most of the instruments on the record in his major label debut and he is the most earnest of bedroom indie heroes imaginable, singing about how he hates the way he looks as an adult (“Snail”), wanting someone to tell him that they like him after he confesses his own affection (“Sweet Tooth”), and recounting how he almost killing himself at age 13 (“Empty Bed”). His double tracked vocals are charmingly lovely, he strums the acoustic minimally or grinds the electric Weezer-ly in just the right amount of accompaniment. It gives me hope for the future.

6. The Slow Rush
Tame Impala

This album had to grow on me. The dance-y vibe didn’t originally capture me as much as the sonic homages of Kevin Parker’s previous work (Beatles, 60’s psychedelic, 80’s pop, etc.), probably because I’ve never been a fan of songs that repeat a theme over and over, building and dropping out again and again. But, in the end, I had to give into the groove that this kid laid down. He’s a genius, this one.

5. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
Bright Eyes

This is a triumphant come back after 2011’s The People’s Key, which I found almost unlistenable. Conor Oberst may have been reinvigorated by his new muse (hint: see my #1 album) after creating the masterful collaboration Better Oblivion Community Center with her last year. His lyrics, songwriting, arrangements, and instrumentation are all back to the highest level of some of his best previous work with his long-time band. He touches on some deep wounds and finds cathartic creative power amidst the pain. Let’s hope that he stays this inspired for some time to come!

4. The New Abnormal
The Strokes

You know, I’ve never actually owned an album by The Strokes before. I mean, I knew and liked the songs that everyone did, but I would not have considered myself a fan. Perhaps I should have listened more closely. When I put this record on, I immediately connected with the catchy post-punk melodies and weary nostalgia that they were peddling. I even found myself cracking up at the melodic thievery (Psychedelic Furs in “Eternal Summer”), inside jokes (“Drums please, Fab” and “I was just bored, playing the guitar / Learned all your tricks, wasn’t too hard” in “Ode to the Mets”), and the bands coming to terms with being the old guard at this point in their career. This album brought me a lot of joy in this joyless crapheap of a year, so I thank them for that.

3. Shore
Fleet Foxes

This was the album that made me feel like everything would be okay again one day. Robin Peckhold et al were a bit obscure (though still brilliant) on 2017’s Crack-up, but it was like he was now inviting us to explore “land / Overgrown / No words, no false, no true / Water stands / Waves just pass through it / Like something moves through you.” That’s what listening to this album feels like… just the thing that I needed so much.

2. The Ascension
Sufjan Stevens

I had a listening party for this album on the night that it was released. For the first few songs, I was dialed in, willing to follow Suf wherever he wanted to take us. But then, beginning with “Die Happy” I became pretty… unhappy. Song after song began to revel in discordance, melodically and lyrically. I felt like it was a repudiation of the old Sufjan that I loved so much—his faith (“I want to be my own redeemer” and “I was acting like a believer when I was just angry and depressed”), his love of his country—though this somewhat understandable—in “America,” and his musical aesthetic (it was hard to make out any discernible natural instrument on the album—even Age of Adz allowed for the occasional acoustic guitar or orchestral part! It’s funny that the “America” B-side “My Rajneesh” was the EXACT Sufjan sound that I wanted!!). But then… I just decided to let Sufjan do what he needed to do, to say what he needed to say. And I once again recognized his genius and began to appreciate the album more and more. I may not love it as much as previous albums (I’d rank his oeuvre as follows: Illinois, Carrie & Lowell, Age of Adz, Michigan, The Ascension, Planetarium, A Sun Came, Seven Swans, Aporia, Enjoy Your Rabbit), but I will stand behind my artistic apotheosis whatever path he takes.

1. Punisher
Phoebe Bridgers

I’ve seen the Phoebe Bridgers backlash. It’s a real thing. And it’s not pretty. But to my ears, this is it. This is the best that this damnable year had to offer. She kept at it too, releasing the orchestral re-mix EP Copycat Killer and a melancholovely Christmas EP as well. I won’t say any more other than to say, “Take up and listen.” (PS. Katrina loves it too!! She dressed up as Phoebes for Halloween, which is meta, cause it’s one of the song titles on the album.)

folklore Taylor Swift (my beautiful youngest daughter is looking over my shoulder right now to make sure that I included this album on my list… heh heh)