Best Albums of 2021

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know how much I love music. Each year I’ll review some of my favorite records in a year-end “Best Albums” list. And of course, the term “best” is subjective; as you can tell from perusing my past lists, I’m partial to indie rock and Americana.

My 2021 Best Albums playlist

While this year couldn’t compare to the bumper crop of great albums we enjoyed in 2020, there were still several gems that were a part of my steady rotation in 2021. I’d love to hear some of your favorites from the past year or so.

  1. The War on Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore. The War on Drugs are in the middle of a scorching hot streak beginning with 2014’s Lost in the Dream, a neo-classic ode to Reagan-era Americana. But 2017’s A Deeper Understanding put to rest any fear that the War on Drugs were interested only in revivalism. The sonic palette expanded exponentially with their first release on Atlantic Records which has easily become one of my all-time favorites. Understandably, my expectations were sky high when I learned that the band would be releasing I Don’t Live Here Anymore this fall. In fact, I was honestly prepared for a bit of a letdown. I mean, it’s pretty difficult to follow up an all-timer. But those fears were unfounded. Somehow, the War on Drugs have continued to strike that balance between pushing their sound forward while retaining their uniquely authentic sound. I Don’t Live Here Anymore continues the lush production captured on A Deeper Understanding; if anything, it makes listening to Lost in the Dream less enjoyable, which I didn’t think was possible a few years ago. I think Adam Granduciel has perfected the art of making music for the late Gen. X crowd. The guitar solo on “Living Proof” is EXACTLY what it sounds like to be forty years old in the year 2020. There’s enough nostalgia to be familiar without being derivative. On the title track, the band has recorded their most pop-sounding single to date, with backing help from Lucius. And there are the typical WOD themes here as well: desperation and darkness and rain and being lost but finding your way back home. Granduciel has always leaned toward existentialism in his lyrics but there is a specificity to these songs that is different, grounding them in a bit more hopefulness. On “Living Proof,” Granduciel sings of Chicago, of the building down the block. But this kind of locality (which is really uncommon on a War on Drugs record) yields the universal lines: “I’m always changing / Love overflowing / But I’m rising / And I’m damaged / Oh, rising.” I’ve listened to this song more than any other in 2021, and I think this line gets at the heart of the human experience: always in transition; love as the constant; a recognition of brokenness and a dogged determination to keep rising. With I Don’t Live Here Anymore, the War on Drugs have created a textured and enduring album that I know I’ll be listening to for years to come. An easy choice for my 2021 Album of the Year.
  2. Bleachers, Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night. I have to thank Jackson for putting Bleachers on my radar. I’d honestly never heard of them before he told me about them. For most of the year, I was convinced this record would be my top album for the year. I interpreted it as a post-Covid album, all the way down to the title. Some of these songs have been with me for well over a year; if I remember correctly, “Chinatown” and “45” were released as singles in the fall of 2020 even though the full album didn’t drop until this past summer. And although some of the deeper cuts were wholly forgettable (like “91” and “Strange Behavior” and “What’d I Do With All This Faith”), the singles from this album are just amazing. “Chinatown” pairs Jack Antonoff with fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen; “Stop Making This Hurt” has been one of my most played songs this year, alongside “Don’t Go Dark” and “45.” But the saxophone solo at the end of “How Dare You Want More” is absolutely the most joyful sound of 2021, as if Antonoff and company are inviting us to throw off months of Covid isolation and depression to join in a rapturous Saturday night dance party. “Hey, lonely wants to stay forever / But tonight we’re gonna do a little better / Hey, lonely wants to tear us down now / But tonight we’re gonna drown the sound out.” That pretty much sums up how I’ve felt in 2021.
  3. Lord Huron, Long Lost. This record has been a slow burn for me. Upon first listen, I thought, “This album is pretty good.” But I found myself repeatedly coming back to the beautiful harmonies and retro vibe of Long Lost, a concept album built around a fictional ’60s era variety show performance. Some reviews liken this sound to Roy Orbison and rockabilly, which are good descriptions. I guess I have a thing for retro updates. “Mine Forever,” “Love Me Like You Used To,” and “Twenty Long Years” are some of my favorite songs from this great record.
  4. Jackson Bybee, Galactic Voyage. One of the great joys for me this year has been watching Jackson create his own music. About a year ago, he started dabbling around on Garage Band, mixing and matching beats and sounds. He kept tweaking a few of those early demos and in April, he released his first album Galactic Voyage. It’s a concept album of sorts, tracking a journey through the galaxy backed by cool ambient sounds. Jackson’s music is highly structured techno / house music, layered with beats and rhythm. I’ve listened to this album as much as any piece of recorded music this year, often as part of my workday while I’m at the office. I sat down with him and asked him about Galactic Voyage, Here are Jackson’s own words: “To me, it’s about the sound of exploring space. I feel like in such a terrible year like last year, it was nice to have something to distract myself with and to experiment. So to me, the album is kind of about escapism.” How many times have you wanted to get away to another world in the last year and a half? If you’d like to check out Jackson’s music, you can find him on all major streaming platforms. Some of my favorite songs on this record include “Voyager,” “Gravity,” and “Oceans.” And I’m also excited for the singles he’s released that will be on the next record; you can find “Easy” and “Forever Ago” on all major streaming platforms as well. I know I’m biased, but Jackson Bybee is definitely my favorite new artist of 2021!
  5. Adele, 30. After a six year layoff, Adele’s long-awaited follow-up to 25 has been hailed by some as a career high point. I’m not quite as bullish (I’m partial to 25 as her best); I can only get so juiced for a “divorce” record. But there are a couple of FANTASTIC songs on this album. “Easy on Me” is the closest approximation to her previous work, thus it serves as an appropriate lead single. “I Drink Wine” is an absolute earworm; I hear it once and I’m singing it for hours. And I really like the closing trilogy of “Hold On,” “To Be Loved,” and “Love Is A Game.”
  6. Big Red Machine, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? Jackson and I go back and forth about this record; he really likes it, while I think it would benefit from some heavy editing. (I should add that discussing music with my son has been a 2021 highlight as well!) I love Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon as much as anyone and the collaborations here are mostly strong. But songs like “Reese” and “Brycie” and “The Ghost of Cincinnati” and “June’s a River” would be better as deluxe edition cuts, in my opinion. Take out some of the filler and I’d be inclined to rank this one higher. Who knows? Maybe it’ll grow on me.
  7. The Wallflowers, Exit Wounds. I’ve loved the Wallflowers since their debut album (my 1996 AOTY) so I was psyched by the summer release of Exit Wounds, their first album in about a decade. Some of my favorite songs here are “Roots and Wings” and “Darlin’ Hold On.”
  8. Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime. This Nigerian guitarist (and his band by the same name) melds Saharan sounds with traditional rock music. If you want to check them out, try “Chismiten” and “Tala Tannam.”
  9. Pharoah Sanders, Floating Points and the London Symphony, Promises. I’m always looking for good instrumental music to soundtrack some of my studying. This beautiful work has been one of my steady “go to’s” for 2021.
  10. Balthazar, Sand. This Belgian band sounds like a cross between The National and Arcade Fire. They’ve been around for years, but I wasn’t familiar with them until discovering them this year.

Honorable Mentions and other Tidbits:

  • This win puts the War on Drugs in some rarified territory, as they join U2 as my only other three-time winners (1987, 1991, 2009). Other bands with multiple wins are Radiohead (1997, 2016) and Bon Iver (2011, 2019). At one time, I had Kid A as my 2000 AOTY, but I’ve since changed my mind. So until I choose to revisit that year, U2 and the War on Drugs are tied for the all-time lead for me.
  • In light of Peter Jackson’s Disney+ documentary “Get Back,” I’ve been listening to a lot of late era Beatles lately. I’d never realized it before, but in the middle of the band’s long breakup, Paul McCartney was on something of a burner, churning out all-timers like “Let It Be,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and, in an awesome moment captured in the Jackson doc, “Get Back.”
  • Devendra Banhart and Noah Georgeson’s Refuge is one of the best ambient albums of the year. Really great for reading.
  • It’s never too early to look ahead. Albums slated for early release in 2022 include Eddie Vedder, Beach House, Khruangbin / Leon Bridges, and Band of Horses.
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