2021 YEAR IN REVIEW: Our 50 Favorite Records of the Year
If you provided me a list of your personal favorite records I would review it with great interest and listen to the records I was unfamiliar with all in the hope of finding one more great new record for my shelf. I always need one more. I might even re-listen to records you liked, but I didn't, just to be sure that I wasn't hasty in my original assessment (it happens). I wouldn't require your tastes to be completely in line with mine, nor would I dismiss your list as crap because you included a record I really dislike. Everyone has different ears. So, maybe you'll find some things on my list to love, to like, or to hate. At least you'll have given them the chance to win you over. That's all that counts.
So, with apologies to the many, many records I left out reluctantly and for comically petty reasons in some cases, here are my favorite 50 records of 2021. My main goal is to tell you a little about the record and a little about why it appeals to me in the right here, right now. I've added a few starter tracks as a public service in case you are inclined to investigate further.
Note: Albums 30 minutes or less in length (unless ranked in the Top 25 overall) will be put in another list (released December 27th). This allows the "shorties" to have their own special appreciation. And we love brevity here at the Priest.
RECORDS OF 2021
The World is Still Chaos, But I Feel Better
The critically-approved, go-to sound collage record for 2021 was rightfully Madlib's inspired collaboration with Four Tet, Sound Ancestors—it's pretty fucking cool. I don't begrudge that record any accolades, but I found myself more drawn towards my sweet spot over on L'Orange's woozy new record of sound snippets that sounds like a satellite got crossed up and started picking up stray radio transmissions from several old time soul radio stations at the same time. L'Orange, a North Carolina DJ, mines a seemingly endless supply of long forgotten soul and jazz samples (dating back more than 70 years in some cases). He then takes his crate-digging finds and cuts them up and splices them back together adding some cool samples and effects on the back end. Think J Dillas Donuts but with much older source material and you're close.
"Delonte Needed Help"
"Durbin Was a Trap House"
I'd love it if we all were required to soundtrack every moment of our lives. The songs would follow us around, switching up as circumstances change, all at our direction. It would be much easier to suss out the truly cool people with great record collections (a prerequisite). For example, every time I walked into a business meeting, "King of Rock" by Run-D.M.C. would play. It just how I imagine it going. Which brings me to Montreal-based Japanese sound merchants TEKE::TEKE. They create their own soundtrack all by themselves and it's a glorious conglomeration of old surf, western, and karate movies all blended into something fresh and thrilling and, occasionally, downright beautiful. In the process they've created their own world all by themselves.
This hour-long, feel-good groove record is laid-back like a hot summer day in the Caribbean. Normally, I worry when things stretch past 40-minutes, but when you're in the Greentea Peng universe, with influences including jazz, soul, hip-hop, dub, reggae, and funk colliding into each other like meteors, space and time is no longer a factor. Her music is a state of mind. And if you have some weed, all the better. Maybe it would be easier if I let this London-based soothe-sayer give you the lowdown herself:
This sound is physical
It's very physical and literal
But metaphysical and mystical
And though we're not in your peripheral
Would find it difficult to miss you
"Nah It Ain't the Same"
What bands are on your radar? If the brilliantly-named Blips entered your earspace this year, you've really been guzzling strong coffee and downing copious amounts of amphetamines. You are laser-focused, my friend. Admittedly, they were easy to miss. If you did, a quick recap. They're from Birmingham, Alabama and are a made up of a bunch of leading men from several local bands of some renown. They play short, primitive, indie-rock, but the songs are all catchy, the hooks are sharp, the vocals a little nasally, and they have a pretty great sense of humor, They won't be landing in the big time any time soon, but they've got the makings of a cult favorite. Maybe some stroke of luck will put them on a bigger radar screen someday.
"Yes Yes No Yes Yes No"
Over the Overlords
Do you get worried by phrases like this?: "[The band] is back with their first record in [#] years" I know I do. The bigger the gap between records the bigger the concern. So when I heard the news that Naked Raygun was back with their first record in 31 years, I was simultaneously skeptical and excited. Sure, they put on a great reunion show six years ago at Riotfest in their hometown of Chicago, but they were all old stuff then (the entirety of Throb Throb to be specific). But new music? A definite risk. Could it be anything close to their classic output after all this time? As it turns out, it's a pretty amazing, shockingly youthful, record. It sounds like they're ripping off a bunch of more modern bands, but soon you realize it's the other way around. They're the ones who got ripped off. I wouldn't say they've come back to retain their throne, but they have proven they still have the old magic.
"Living in the Good Times"
"Ode to Sean McKeough"
At the risk of sounding like an old geezer living in the past, I put forth a second consecutive band from my younger days who have released a comeback record, this time only twenty years on from their last one. Isn't it sad, kids? The Pickled Priest still thinks a jangle-pop band whose heyday was decades ago is still remotely capable of achieving anything close to their past glory (which is, in my opinion, 1990's One Simple Word, notable for the alt-radio hit "Stone Cold Yesterday"—perhaps the third or fourth best song on the record—and one of the era's most underrated power-pop records). But shocker, and we will see how this settles over time, I am here to claim Steadman's Wake to be that record's equal and potentially more so for me because I am of similar age and much of what they are singing about connects with me (especially the parts about having kids). It's super catchy, but also more mature and occasionally moving. And to think it was a funeral that brought us back together.
"Song for Duncan"
Pickled Priest, now you're fucking with us! You've gotta be, right? First Naked Raygun's first LP in 31 years. Then the Connells' first LP in 20 years. But now you're trotting out Orquestra Afro-Brasileira, a band that first formed almost 80 years ago in 1942? And proudly, my answer is, you're god-damned right this is on my list. The title gives it away—80 Anos (or 80 Years in English). No, it's not the same group, of course, but their last release was back in 1970, so we're now at the 51-year mark between records, beating the prior record of 50 set by the Sonics in 2015. Granted, the name is more of placeholder for a sound, much like the current band of non-original Temptations. But this "orquestra," some twenty pieces strong, is as vital and energetic as any of their modern counterparts. The feeling is that of a 1960s nightclub in Rio, with African and Brazilian rhythms bouncing off the walls, blending together to provide the soundtrack for an epic night of partying and dancing. The vocals are old-school, deep and rich and masculine, and they really make the music sound like it has time-traveled to the current day from a golden age long ago.
"Canto Para Omolu-Abaluayé"
Chansons d' Ennui Tip Top
Pulp's Jarvis Cocker contributed a song to the new Wes Anderson movie ("Aline" for The French Dispatch) and while he was at it, he recorded a whole album of well-known French classics despite the fact he isn't even fluent in French. Such hubris! But if I was going to pick any British artist to pull it off it would be Cocker, whose droll wit and deadpan vocals seem the perfect complement for French pop. His style is not that far off from Serge Gainsbourg's the more you think about it. The album is an absolute treat, with songs originally done by Brigitte Bardot, Jacques Dutronc, Serge Gainsbourg (mandated by French law), and the obligatory François Hardy cover, among others. More often than not, Jarvis pulls it off, and even the missteps are strangely endearing. Charmingly quirky, convincingly serious.
"Dans Ma Chambra"
"Les Gens Sont Fous, Les Temps Sont Flous"
If you slapped Neil Young's name on the cover of this album, critics would then pronounced it a latter-period masterpiece from the living legend. The collection of songs here, from the pen of Texas singer/songwriter Israel Nash, who does sound a little like a young Shakey, are instantly pleasing to the ear. I wasn't sure I was buying it initially. It sounded too good to be true. But once I locked into it, I couldn't leave it alone. It has that hazy Texas shimmer that you can only get when you're rolling down an Amarillo back road in a pickup with a busted air conditioner. There's a haze of country-rock over the whole thing, with added gospel, soul, and rock & roll accents that give it that genre-defying quality I love so much. And the songs, each and every one, stick. Nash is an easy artist to dismiss because his music isn't in fashion right now, but I think that's the point. This music doesn't care about trends. It is what it is and that ain't ever gonna change.
Everything you want a French band to be in 2021 is right here for the taking. It's audacious and ambitious. It never stays in the same place for long. One minute, you're swinging to a Parisian big band, the next you're delighting in yéyé pop, later you're in a digital western, then you're dabbling in deliriously pretentious French spoken word beat poetry. Next, you're on a trip to sister city New Orleans, and so on. It's a wild and eclectic trip that continues for almost a full hour. But it's not like you're sitting still listening to one band singing the same type of song repeatedly. You're listening to one band play like they're every band in town.
Love & Rage
Pretty much everything you need to know about being a decent human in this day and age is included somewhere on this record. When the first song on your album warns that the end of the world is imminent, let’s just say the prognosis for life on Earth is negative. The surgeon isn’t strolling up to you with a confident disposition, to say the least—this patient is having complications. But you wouldn’t know it by Carsie Blanton’s sunny disposition, her girlish voice, or her deceptively cheery melodies. She makes the medicine go down a little easier, but it doesn’t mean she treads lightly. If you listen closely there are common sense themes about treating each other with respect, being courageous enough to break from our troubled past as a country, and not being afraid to get on the streets to fight for what you believe in. In between, she battles conventional relationship nuances with a deft touch. Love will never be figured out, oddly enough, but maybe we can band together to solve some of the issues that hold us back from becoming the country some people think we are already.
"Down in the Streets"
Handful of Hits
I thought the exclamation point after his name might be a joke and I surely assumed the album's title, Handful of Hits, was one, too. It turns out that this Portland power-pop cult idol (if he isn't, he should be) earns the right to use both. After one listen to this treble-heavy stack of compressed, nasally, guitar-pop singles you'll wonder why nobody's heard of this guy. Tommy sounds like a true believer in rock & roll to me and he seems willing to convert people the hard way, one at a time. Do your part, spread the word on his behalf.
"One Step Forward"
"In Love Again"
"If You Needed Anything"
TOO MUCH JOY
Mistakes Were Made
Have I gone soft? Am I a pathetic old guy hopelessly stuck in the past, overrating new records by long dormant bands in a futile attempt to revive my glory days? I assure you the reverse is true. I vehemently dislike reunions, anniversaries, birthdays, tribute albums, sentiment, affection, glad-handing, back-slapping, and people in general, so I am skeptical of almost every potentially lame attempt to rekindle a long lost past. This one is different. Here’s what I wrote about it a few months ago (truncated for your sanity):
I didn't spend too much time listening to Too Much Joy back in their prime (roughly 1987-1992), but I did appreciate their sense of humor (album titles included Green Eggs and Crack, Son of Sam I Am, and Cereal Killers). It's been over twenty years since they've put out a record and that, to be honest, was fine with me. I didn't miss them, really. But then I sampled a few tracks from their well-titled "comeback" record, Mistakes Were Made, and I soon realized I might've overlooked the wrong band during the college rock/alternative explosion of the late 80s and early 90s. They write peculiar little rock songs that positively radiate a love for making music. And they haven't lost a step, either. Once you have it, there's a decent chance, after years spend dormant, that you may still have it. Isn't it worth the effort to find out? It turns out, time hasn't diminished their songwriting skills. In fact, it may have broadened their scope considerably. Their lyrics are still clever (to too-clever), but are now informed by years of living ordinary lives doing ordinary things. A lot of observations have built up in their demented brains since we last heard from them.
"Uncle Watson Wants to Think"
"Oliver Plunkett's Head"
"More of the Stuff I Like"
The Apple Drop
The more I listen to Liars the more I respect their creative restlessness. You’d think being a band that never makes the same record twice would be a heavy burden to carry and an impractical business model. They’ve willingly chosen a path that will inevitably alter and challenge their fan base from one record to the next. Another byproduct of this approach is possible disillusionment or frustration from some band members. Which explains why the "foundation" of the band has now been reduced to one person—which probably cuts down on artistic disagreements dramatically. Which is why show runner and creative mastermind Angus Andrew is all that's left from the original lineup. Even I sometimes think to myself, “Maybe I’ll take this record off,” before realizing my curiosity will get the better of me eventually. I always end up needing to hear what they’re up to now. So I find myself studying and deconstructing each album religiously. This one is no different. If I had to recommend a starting place for the band, it would be difficult to choose. I might have to tailor it to the specific person. But this one might please the most people in the end. That said, the closed-minded need not apply.
"My Pulse to Ponder"
HERE LIES MAN
Is there an awards ceremony for the record label reps who write press kits? If not, there should be. I propose we call them the Kittys and give the inaugural award to the person who came up with the description of Here Lies Man’s music as "a cross between Black Sabbath and Fela Kuti." That enticing description has been repeated in every review of the band’s new album, Ritual Divination, that I’ve read. And Pickled Priest is no exception. It just nails the band’s sound perfectly. Ritual Divination is a full hour of non-stop giant riffs and Afrobeat drumming (more pronounced on some songs than others) and, while a little long, it does conjure the spirit of Kuti, a man not known for his brevity. Here Lies Man is a spinoff of New York’s great Antibalas, another band with an Afrobeat engine, so the crossover here isn’t a major shock. But if you want the best of the two worlds promised by the press kit, applaud truth in promotion, because that’s exactly what you get here.
"What You See"
"Run Away Children"
Mayan Space Station
If you think I’m not going to check out an album titled Mayan Space Station, you don’t know me very well. I haven’t done a clinical study of this, but I wonder how often a cool album title equates to similarly cool music? (If I was on Card Sharks I would say 40% of the time.) Here’s a positive example of that very principle. Bassist William Parker’s credentials need no introduction to jazz experts, but for those of you like me that are dabblers, he is one of the most highly regarded jazz bassists of all time. But as even novice fans know, the improvisation inherent in jazz often relies equally on the musicians supporting the headliner. Such is the case here. William Parker as musician and bandleader is worth listening to every time he gets into a recording studio or steps on stage. But for me, this record‘s magic is equally attributable to the amazing, innovative and jaw-dropping guitar-work of Ava Mendoza. If you don’t love jazz, her playing—influences taken from rock & roll, jazz, metal, funk, etc—will still knock you out. As you will see later, this has been a great year for female guitarists, and Ava’s spectacular turn here indicates her own solo headlining time has come.
"Mayan Space Station"
Green to Gold
This is my healing record. When the day has been challenging and the wound-up needs to be wound-down, I put this on the headphones and put the headphones on me and then drift away into their peaceful world of dramatic calm. It wasn’t always this way with The Antlers. A decade ago they released one of my favorite songs of the new century with the heartbreakingly sad “I Don’t Want Love” which makes me verklempt every time I hear it. They’ve also released a depressing album titled Hospice, which is self-explanatory. So, in other words, while they always write beautiful songs, they’ve also been emotionally challenging. Green to Gold, seven years in the making, changes all that. As the title implies, there’s a late summer melancholy to this record, but where in the past close inspection would bring out hidden pain, here a sense of contentment, dare I say optimism, emerges. It’s a slow reveal, some songs more up-front than others, but this is an album to set and forget. Let it do its thing on you.
"Wheels Roll Home"
"Green to Gold"
The main project of Roberto Carlos Lange, who grew up in Florida and born to Ecuadarian parents, the new Helado Negro album is this years “Grower Award” recipient, given to the record that takes its time to settle in, but eventually pulls me into its orbit fully and completely. It didn’t hit me at first. Not until I gave it my full attention—no distractions, no buzzers and bells—did it fully reveal itself. From that point forward it was a drug of choice. It’s easy to see how his songs could drift by without notice initially. His pop songs are often subtle, laced delicately with complexity that the listener won’t really understand but is still there under the surface. The title is the opposite of the flower power motto “Far Out”—in other words, this isn’t time to “Let it all hang out,” it’s time to “Take a long look in.” For me, this brought me hope and positivity. Gorgeously effortless in execution, subtly uplifting in spirit.
"Gemini and Leo"
"There Must Be a Song Like You"
Collapsed in Sunbeams
Some records get the attention they deserve. This is one of them. While I do attribute that to the album’s coffeehouse friendly vibe that appeals to a wide demographic, you also have to realize there are coffeehouses on almost every corner in every city. People need a cozy space to decompress and the perfect musical selection only hastens the process. One listen will reveal a record with a highly appealing and steady rhythm palette capable of loosening a tight spine or sphincter, but what I’ve been consistently pleased with is the reward provided after close inspection. This works as a background record, but it thrives in the foreground. It’s not the record you think it is. Depth Exhibit A: I’d lick the grief right off your lips / You do your eyes likeRobert Smith / Sometimes it seems like you won't survive this / And honestly it's terrifying. If the coffeehouse denizens paid full mind, they might slip a little whiskey in with their lattes just to get through the day. But if you listen long enough hope will be revealed.
As I said earlier this year, this record was written with a beach in mind. It has that airy island groove that’s perfect for unwinding in the sun, a salty ocean spray refreshing your face before a night on the town. Sometimes music like this can seem a little insubstantial at first—made for a bunch of drunk tourists on a bender—but if that were the case, the songs wouldn’t need to be this good.
"I Wanna Be Here (Shotgun)"
Three Little Words
Three Little Words is the third album in a trilogy of records that examines the history of African-American music by blending various styles and influences, sometimes within the same song, into a staggeringly cohesive whole. The Canadian, born of Haitian immigrants, doesn't want for ambition, that's for sure. The scope of the record is amazing, but it never comes off as preachy or even as the project it is. It sounds like a record made by someone proud of their heritage who is thankfully also talented enough to convert it into dazzling songs.
"While We Wait"
"We Are Light"
"Being the Same"
VIJAY IYER / LINDA MAY HAN OH / TYSHAWN SOREY
This is a record of equals. Vijay is the marquee name, but there’s a reason each player is given equal cover space and font size. There are numerous moments on this record where I just stopped what I was doing and listened with admiration for their instrumental talent. A special and spellbinding performance that conveys more than most records with vocals.
"Children of Flint"
The Horses and the Hounds
An American poet of the highest order, James McMurtry ladies and gentlemen. I don’t really know how to sell a guy who has been writing album after album of great songs other than urge all to spend some time listening to them. In theory, that should work. He’s not flashy, just substance. He’s not tricky, just clever. He’s not quirky, just genuine. This record is like stumbling onto an old friend in a tavern who has an endless supply of great stories. Stories you’ll want to hear every time you come in for a belt. He should be a national treasure, instead he’s getting buried under a pile of pop culture plastic, plying his trade for the enlightened few.
"Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call"
"The Horses and the Hounds"
THE LIMIÑANAS & LAURENT GARNIER
The Liminanas, a French duo who trade in mostly psychedelic instrumental grooves, have blended their talents with French DJ Laurent Garnier (Oh, how I wish that was my name) to produce a record of super cool soundtrack music. I’m thinking a film about a getaway driver or ace safecracker or even an undercover agent posing as a runway model. The options are endless. If you need proof of the viability of such a project, set your alarm for 2:00am, get in your car, and navigate the empty roads of a major city. You’ll feel like the most interesting person in the world.
"Juliette Dans La Caravane"
Nature Always Wins
Someone forgot to tell these Newcastle lads that Britpop went out of favor a decade or more ago. This record is absolutely packed with robust pop singles so confidently executed you almost could be convinced it’s time for a second wave of Brits to lap up on the shores along the eastern seaboard. Maxïmo Park dipped out of view for awhile, perhaps wondering where they fit in, but they’re back with at least six songs that match the epic hits of their first two albums, which is saying a lot (both A Certain Trigger and Our Earthly Pleasures are corkers). The secret ingredient is the most underrated singer in all of Britpop, Paul Smith (by the name you can see why he might be overlooked). This is nothing short of a re-arrival of a band long thought irrelevant. On top of that, I get to use the rare ï umlaut!
"Versions of You"
If you wanted good old-fashioned ribaldry from your rock & roll in 2021, you pretty much had to scour the globe for it. This stop finds us in Sweden with the Viagra Boys, a post-punk, post-pub rock band with a lead singer (Sebastian Murphy) who sounds like he's been living in a dog kennel or downtown alley for months waiting to be unleashed. The whole band sounds like they sourced their instruments from a junkyard and assembled a wheezing, clanging jalopy out of old parts that doesn't just run, it spews and belches, just like a parade float from hell.
"Girls & Boys"
Path of Wellness
I'm not surprised some aren't in love with this record because it's doesn't wail like a hyena as some of their seminal early records did. Some would argue they've lost the ability to fire off like a bottle rocket. Some would claim that the departure of Janet Weiss meant the end of the band as we know it. While both points have some validity, I'd counter with this. The band is evolving. I don't need them to try to reclaim past magic—I want new magic. If this is a more mature record, that doesn't mean they still aren't one of the more compelling bands on the planet. With their last record, The Center Won't Hold, they took risks and challenged their listeners to reimagine the band. Can you blame them for moving beyond their old sound and wanting to try something new? There were some amazing songs on that record. Now, they're producing themselves for the first time; sisters doing it for themselves. And it sounds like they loved the process, or at least wrote songs that made it feel that way. Many of the songs here hold up with their best ever, even if they are a little more restrained and evolved. Yeah, we all miss Janet, she was a fierce player that drove the band to greatness. But make no mistake, the creative engine remains intact and the songs here are still fantastic. Don't assume the critics are right here. Make up your own mind.
"Worry With You"
If rock & roll is dead, somebody forgot to loop Australia into the communication. I've been making year-end lists for a long time and never has the land Down Under made such a strong showing. Civic kicks off one of four great Aussie records on this list. Civic is perhaps the most classic sounding of the bunch. Local legends like Radio Birdman and the Saints come to mind when listening to the first song on Future Forecast, the hard-riffing "Radiant Eye." And from there, the band tears through a dozen snarling rippers, each one kick started by an instantly memorable opening riff. Man, these koala-loving motherfuckers know how to make an entrance. This is where most critics would end with some kind of cute closer like the Future Forecast for Civic is bright, but I'm not gonna do that.
"Tell the Papers"
"Come to Know"
State of Mind
Australian Rock for 400, Alex (I will never as long as I live use anyone's else's name when I make a Jeopardy! reference). Here's our second entry in the Top 25 from Down Under, this time from Melbourne. I wrote about them earlier this year, but even then I didn't quite know where they would fare on this list come year-end, but here they are. In truth, this might not be a 2021 record, especially since it wasn't officially released in the U.S. ever, which I think gives me the latitude to include it. As with Civic, the boys in Stiff Richards know how to plug in the electricity of a song, ride the adrenalin surge for two to three minutes, and then dismount gloriously at the end, leaving only a split-second before the next track begins. They hard accelerate nine total times on State of Mind (the title track even copping the opening riff of "Helter Skelter"!) and their singer, the amazingly named Wolfgang Buckley (surely he was a jazz drummer from the 1940s in another life), is to say the least, a presence. He spits out snarling barbs like he's been listening full-time to protopunk from the Pacific Northwest, which is ironic considering his current location in the deep Southeast.
"Fill in the Blanks"
"State of Mind"
SONS OF KEMET
Black to the Future
Their previous album, Your Queen is a Reptile, was my #1 Album of 2018 and would likely rank as my #1 album of the 2010s. It blew my mind, to say the least. It was the record my soul didn't know it needed. If any year needed a return of the Shabaka Hutchings' amazing group it was 2021. Enter Black to the Future, an album that not surprisingly didn't leave the events of the past two years without pointed comment. Instrumental music can make a point, too, but this time Sons of Kemet didn't want to leave anything to chance so they enlisted the help of some guests to add cameos on a few tracks. It was a good idea, too, especially the appearances by Moor Mother & Angel Bat Dawid and Kojey Radical. It won't replace my beloved Reptile, but I will never get enough of this sound, no matter the format.
"Pick Up Your Burning Cross"
"Think of Home"
It's not every day that a new kind of instrumental record arrives, but young African-American guitarist Yasmin Williams has created something magical with Urban Driftwood. Yes, she plays the guitar. That's what makes it even more amazing. Hasn't everything been done with the guitar by now? Apparently not, because the Virginia finger-picker, lap tapper, and body thumper makes her music come alive in a way that seems completely fresh and organic, but without trading off a memorable melody in service to jaw-dropping technique. I particularly like how it was recorded. You can hear her fingers moving on the strings, negotiating complex passages as if in a trance. The notes descend as naturally as a waterfall and the intimacy achieved makes it sound like she's playing a solo performance just for you.
THE CITY CHAMPS
If you are looking to get your groove back, Memphis is a good place to look for it. Perhaps the City Champs can help you find it. If they can't, maybe you didn't have it in the first place. Did you ever think of that? Not everybody has one. Nine instrumentals in 40-minutes, each one different than the other, all working it in a new way. There are some common themes—Stax organ, reverberating guitars--but there's nuance in spades here that elevates this band above cheap imitations of the real thing.
"Freddie King For Now"
Our next entry from Australia comes from New South Wales. Pist Idiots are the latest band to stand out and they have immense promise. They’ve returned with a stellar debut record after three locally released EPs. You have to like a band that shows growth on their debut. Boys, not really necessary! What separates this band from most is you can tell they have a heart under their gritty, barroom appearance, the same quality that elevated the Replacements from drunk fuck-ups to drunk-artists of surprising depth. Did the self-deprecating band name not tip you to a similar self esteem issue? Granted, there's no Paul Westerberg equivalent here yet, but there are moments when the songwriting aims for more than just the approval of a rowdy tavern crowd. Sure, their songs are stirring at times and could easily gain the favor of anthem chirping louts, but I hear something more in this band. There’s an intangible quality that manifests itself naturally and can’t be bought or posed. They may be a little sloppy, but they're really trying to be a great band and write great songs. More often than not, they achieve just that.
"She Yells Jack"
"Light Up Your World"
Mon Laferte, taking full advantage of the pandemic, put out two amazing records in 2021, so fuck it, let's cheat and lump them both together. SEIS came out first and is this year's breakout traditional sounding Mexican heritage album. Similar in nature to Natalia La Fourcade's amazing Un Canto por Mexico, Vol. 1 from last year (Vol.2 from this year wasn't as consistently amazing) SEIS mines a variety of classic sounds from Mexico's rich musical tradition. The twist is that these are all songs penned by Laferte, a Mexican immigrant from Chile. And they are remarkable to hear. The second record is Laferte vacillating all over the map, pulling off ballads and pop songs in both Spanish and English, with no sacrifice in quality. Of the two, this is the most accessible and the most contemporary, but each has equal merit and should be a part of any colorful life.
"La Mujer" (from SEIS)
Brazilians do it better. Butts, waxings, rainforests, parades, bicycle kicks, churassco, cheese bread, parties, ogling girls on the beach, causing inflation to skyrocket, you name it. Oh, and rhythms. They understand rhythms like no other country. They know the value of a good one and that they don't need to be right up in your face to get you moving. They know a subtle rhythm can slowly work its way through your body. The stealthy approach provides an almost subliminal swagger. A foundation of relaxation and cool is established, so when it's time to break free, you don't even know you were already half way there. Case in point, Rodrigo Amarante, a guy who operates on a different wavelength from the rest of us. Drama is loaded with such rhythms, waiting to seduce you into its way of thinking. It's the Brazilian way of life. I've gotta think Jobim would love this record. Perhaps Rodrigo has found his own Girl from Ipanema as well.
This is the sound of Saharan rock & roll at its most thrilling, and there may be no cooler sound on the planet when it locks into one of its deep, trance-like grooves. Mdou Moctar's electrifying new album, Afrique Victime, opens with about 15 seconds of ambient sounds, presumably sandals walking across hot sand, before the left-handed, Hendrix-loving Nigerian guitarist plugs in and rips into "Chismiten" for about five glorious minutes. If you saw this in its natural habitat it would blow your numb American mind. Even on record, the heat is palpable. (From a post earlier this year)
You can no longer just buy a copy of Buena Vista Social Club and check Cuba off your musical bucket list. It's not that simple. When Orquestra Akokan put out their debut in 2018, it got a lot of attention, cited as the perfect distillation of the sound of a vintage Cuban nightclub on a Saturday night. The band was hot and the music was playful and exotic. The band took advantage of the attention and toured and played and toured and played and ended up tighter than ever as a result. Now they are back on New York's Daptone Records and they're better than ever in every all ways, somehow improving on a stellar record that made my Top 25 in 2018. Can you mamba? If not, put it on your new bucket list and start getting busy with this record.
"Mi Conga Es De Akokán"
"Fiebra De Mambo"
The visceral Crawler in all likelihood may not be looked at by many fans as their favorite Idles record, but I imagine if might be viewed at the most important one. The one where singer Joe Talbot, a force-of-nature, wrestled with his demons and worked through them live on tape. It can be uncomfortable at times, euphoric at others, but the payoff can be cathartic. Combining the band's primal ferocity with this kind of personal subject matter makes for a powerful listen. Brace yourself.
"The Beachland Ballroom"
"The New Sensation"
Delta Estácio Blues
I've been dreading this one. How do I effectively capture the essence of an artist who so thoroughly defies easy classification at every turn? An artist who, despite pushing 60, has the creative drive of someone a third her age and full command of her formidable vocal talents? Here's my best shot. Brazil's Marçal is a musician who has released an album teeming with startling variety, innovation, and passion this year. It's easy to forget you're listening to the same artist as the record unfolds. It's dizzying in the best way. It's also thrilling to see someone operate so fearlessly, clearly open to anything, including a rhythm based on what sounds like monkeys whooping it up at the local zoo. She's from Brazil, a rich cultural melting pot known for incorporating African and South American rhythms seamlessly, but she doesn't stop there even though that's more than enough. She's not afraid to incorporate modern sounds, electronic effects, or startling shifts in tempo and style. She reminds me a little of her Argentine neighbor Juana Molina, but not necessarily in sound, more because of her restlessness. She's mainly interested in pushes the boundaries with her exotic creations. She takes from every local flavor, adds in outside influences, and comes out the other end with something bizarre, weird, and wonderful.
"Delta Estácio Blues"
There Is No End
One of the most prolific artists of 2021 died in April of 2020 (not from Covid). Tony Allen, ranked as one of the greatest drummers of all-time by everyone, was extremely active to the very end of his life with recorded projects in the can featuring him either leading or collaborating with a diverse array of artists in many different styles. Just this year, he's released a cool collaboration with Joan as Policewoman and Dave Okumu (of British band The Invisible), The Solution is Restless, and he even showed up on April March's Record Store Day album, In Cinerama! Where did he find the time? On top of that, we now get this record of his amazing collaborations with rappers from around the world (some well-known, some not) spitting lyrics over infectious Afrobeats laid down by Allen live in the studio. You can feel the energy his playing adds to the music, his collaborators in beat heaven clearly. I honestly think I could listen to nothing but Tony Allen playing the drums for the rest of my life and be perfectly fine with that. Allen is nothing short of an inspirational figure for me. The title of this record comes from a comment made by Allen, which is generously included at the end of the record, where he explains why he kept so busy even into his late-70s, "I don't know when to stop. What I'm doing is exploring. There is no end to it"* He felt that way as a player of music, I feel that way as a listener to music. It explains perfectly why I'm still at this longer than I ever thought I would be. There is no end to it for me as well it turns out. If only I could play the drums.
*Edited from a longer comment, which can be heard in its entirety on the record.
"One Inna Million"
AMYL AND THE SNIFFERS
Comfort to Me
Amyl and the Sniffers first record was a perfect opener for a young band. They let it rip and snarl for about a half-hour and they did so convincingly. That's what a punk record should be. That said, the band isn't content to stay in one spot and they have clear designs on being so much more. This time, they've released a big punk record that's grander in all ways: budget, ambition, production, sound, and most importantly, the message. The record dominates at punishing volumes, but it also has a lot to say. Or Amy Taylor has a lot to say that is. And she ain't fucking happy, so get out of her way. She doesn't need a cunt like you to love her, but you should anyway.
"Freaks to the Front"
"Don't Need a Cunt (Like You to Love Me)"
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Remember ten years ago when Janelle Monae put out The ArchAndroid? It was so sprawling and ambitious it didn't seem possible that it could've been created by a relative newcomer. It came out of nowhere. Listening to London-via-Nigeria artist Little Simz makes me feel the same way, although we had a little warning this time since this is her second record. Sophomore or not, this is the record that officially and possibly forever puts Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikawo on the map. She might deserve her own private country after this one. It's an epic piece of work at 63-minutes, grounded in hip-hop and rap, but so much more. A major talent already. And a big win for introverts everywhere!
"Fear No Man"
NICK CAVE & WARREN ELLIS
The friendship built over the years between Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is heart-warming and fascinating. You can tell they are creative soul mates, but it's their friendship that makes the music special. The mutual respect is there and so is an intuitive working arrangement. So when they got together to record during the pandemic, it was for no other reason than to keep the creative fires burning. Ellis heard something special and put some songs together from the pieces for Nick to hear. I'm sure Nick was skeptical since he had no real expectations other than hanging out together trying new ideas out for size. It's a tribute to both that these songs could be pulled from such a session. Some really great stuff that will sound amazing when they take them on tour this year, the place where Nick Cave and his foil belong. Making magic together.
I Have Nothing to Say to the Mayor of L.A.
Charmed, I'm sure. This polite album was just what I needed this year. Something to unwind tensions and relax my weary mind. Admittedly, there's a lot of snarling rock and roll, international jet-setting, and incessant rhythm chasing on this list, but every once in a while I found myself needing to tone it down a bit. Dean Wareham was my guy in these moments. His new humorously-titled record was an diamond in the rough for me this year A simple, plain-spoken little record full of deceptively clever constructions from the one-time member of Galaxie 500 and Luna. Each song it great, with little accents—a backing vocal here, a violin there—taking them to the next level. A true gem worth seeking out.
"As Much As It Was Worth"
"The Past is Our Plaything"
Drunk Tank Pink
I've written all I need to write about this record already, but I did wonder how it would age as the year progressed since it was released in cold, barren mid-January. Sometimes the buzz can wear off come December, the songs having exhausted their usefulness or vitality. It works both ways, though. Sometimes the January record uses its real estate in my record collection wisely, allowing more time to reveal itself in different seasons and circumstances. As a result, this record has gotten better and better with time. It's a great rock & roll record to hear over a few pints at a local pub.
DELVON LAMARR ORGAN TRIO
I Told You So
The first band I saw live post-pandemic. The show opened up my appreciation of a record I already loved and gave me a new understanding of its essential elements. That's what we've missed from the lack of live music over the past couple years. The name attraction here is Delvon Lamarr, of course, and sitting right behind his organ (hey now) was a treat. Each hand has a specific role in each song and while it sounds effortless on record, it looks much more complex in person. I won't fall for just any organist because they're sitting at a Hammond B3. They need to bring it. And I don't want a Booker T wannabe either. I want something fresh and innovative. That said, if this band was named the Jimmy James Guitar Trio, you wouldn't bat an eye. Instead of an organist with a great guitar player, you'd have a guitar player with a great organist. Jimmy is clearly the second star of this show. His guitar is a crucial component of the band's sound (and he's very entertaining onstage). They are both incredible musicians and cohorts. Taken together, with a drummer to provide the core rhythm, they've one of the best records of the year.
"Right Place, Right Time"
HEDVIG MOLLESTAD TRIO
Ding Dong. You're Dead.
I'll have my people check on this, but this could be the first Norweigan to make my Top 25 in Pickled Priest history (Motorpsycho's Behind the Sun was in consideration back in 2014, nor was I a huge fan of a-ha back in the 80s). So I don't feel guilty lumping both albums Hedvig Mollestad dropped this year into one slot. I was saving space for Ding Dong on this list since March thanks to its innovative mixture of jazz and wailing rock, borderline metal, guitar riffs, which are absolutely incredible, but then she snap released Tempest Revisited late in year, and that too was remarkable, but with a more restrained and subtle performance. Even if you don't love jazz, this should blow your rock & roll soul away. If you do, then be prepared for something completely different and amazing.
"All Flights Cancelled"
"Winds Approaching" (fromTempest Revisited)
4801 South Indiana Avenue
I'm from Chicago, and if you've spent time in any of our local blues clubs, you already know the name Joanna Connor. She was a regular at my preferred hangout, Kingston Mines (on Chicago's north side), and for good reason—she could absolutely tear up the stage with her ferocious guitar playing and her ripping set of pipes. At Kingston Mines, she was often too much for their small stages, a true force to be reckoned with. She never really got her due on record, however. Possibly because live intensity doesn't often translate well to a studio environment. That's been especially true in recent decades, with many modern blues records failing to capture that "live in the club, 2:00 a.m." electricity; instead, suffering from a clean, pristinely recorded approach that sounds good, but misses that nasty intangible bite so essential to real blues. But every once in a while, a record finds the perfect balance between sound quality and genuine performance. Connor's 4801 South Indiana Avenue is one such record, and it's been a long time coming, too. Named after the address of the legendary Theresa's Lounge* on Chicago's south side (thee place to find real blues in Chicago), the record captures the true essence of Connor thanks to masterful production from Joe Bonamassa. Here we find Connor in all her wicked, impassioned, grimy, gritty glory. To say this record is "hot" is an understatement. It's nothing short of an epiphany—easily one of the best blues records I've heard in a long time. (Text from a prior post)
"Come Back Now"
"Cut You Loose"
Black Acid Soul
My go-to late-night record this year and a near-perfect one at that. We should be ashamed that very few Americans know who she is and that not one other source has put Black Acid Soul on their year-end lists. Lady Blackbird is simply the most soulful, nuanced, and naturally genuine singer I've heard in some time. She's a master interpreter of songs, right up there with the best of them. But she's not a cherry-picker. She digs deep to find songs that are perfect for her voice and vision and then surrounds herself with musicians and producers who can create an atmosphere where the songs can thrive. If there is a better sounding record this year than this one, I'd be surprised. It sounds exactly as it should—intimate and warm. It's neither safe nor threatening. It's vulnerable, but no pushover. It's powerful, but tender. It simmers under watchful eyes. And I could go on. Black Acid Soul is the one record from 2021 that everyone should own.
"It'll Never Happen Again"
"Beware the Stranger"
Sympathy for Life
This isn't a "Best of 2021" list. I hope I've made that clear. This is a "Favorite Albums of 2021" list. Sometimes the top pick is both, and sometimes not, which makes sense to me. The new Parquet Courts record isn't flawless, but the best rock & roll can often be that way. What Sympathy for Life is, however, is the record from this past year that my brain wiring responded to the most. Some brief comments as to why that may be, from the brain in question, follows:
As this list shows, I love rhythms. Latin rhythms, African Rhythms, Brazilian rhythms, Cuban rhythms, French rhythms, and, of course, American rhythms. On this record Parquet Courts have created a album that attempts to distill the rhythms of New York City into a rock & roll record. There is something strangely soothing about the naturally occurring rhythms of any major city. It's there on the streets, in the people, in the commotion, in the buildings, in the energy. Being in New York City only heightens each of these sensations to their most extreme levels. "Plant Life" brings to mind those classic 70's Stevie Wonder songs like "Don't You Worry About a Thing" that incorporate the ambient sounds of the city (including overheard conversations and car horns) into their rhythmic approach (I assume the title of "PLant Life" is a subtle reference to Wonder's 1979 record Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants). It should be said, that no one person, with the possible exception of Frank Sinatra, can set the mood for an entire city as diverse as New York and no one band can either, with the possible exception of the Velvet Underground. Each person moves through the city in their own unique way, adopted in order to survive the chaos.
Which brings us to the album's opening track, "Walking at a Downtown Pace." First, we need to ask what exactly is a downtown pace? Is it Tony Manero carrying paint cans as he swaggers down a Brooklyn street in Saturday Night Fever? Is it Ratso Rizzo negotiating a crowded intersection in Midnight Cowboy? Maybe it's Mookie delivering pizzas in Do the Right Thing? I think the ultimate answer is that the downtown pace is a state of mind for each individual. But you must decide, because if you don't move with the city you could get run over or spun around like a top like an amateur. I've decided my downtown pace is to the beat of this song. It's cool, confident, streetwise, and funky. If I'm walking in New York City, this is how I want to feel. This is who I want to be.
And if I'm in New York, I also want to sound like I'm comfortable there, that my surroundings haven't thrown me off my game. This is where Andrew Savage and Austin Brown come in. Each has that New York laid-back attitude that you can't fake. Like celebrated city denizens Patti Smith or Lou Reed, the vocals are cool and detached, their lyrics savvy and poetic, saying something, but nothing definitively. There are undertones of the pandemic ("Downtown Pace," which was amazingly written before it even began) and being strangely isolated despite living inside of a giant metropolis ("Application/Apparatus"), but the host organism usually survives in the end. At times, their songs recall other laconic, deep-throated singers like Ian Curtis ("Marathon of Anger" could've been a Joy Division song), Leonard Cohen (he would kill "Pulcinella") or even Jonathan Richman ("Just Shadows" perhaps?). The cast of characters in New York City is unlike anywhere else. The music of Parquet Courts only brings them to life.
So, while New York is all about survival in the asphalt jungle, it's also about the nightlife, too. In the city that never sleeps, there's gotta be a place to let loose. Hence, it's nightclubs and discos and sidewalks become spectacles, too. This is easily the Courts' most danceable record. If you heard it coming out of a club, you'd probably go in to check it out. There are rubber band rhythms throughout that make you want to move. And I'm not longer talking about walking anymore. This is dance music at its core. Cue "Sympathy for Life" and "Zoom Out" among others. Parquet Courts have made a record for the end of the pandemic from within it. It lures you into its world by creating a sound that makes you feel like you can handle this. You're ready to get back in the middle of the action. No wonder it's my favorite record of the year. It's exactly what I needed to hear and feel right now.
"Walking at a Downtown Pace"
"Marathon of Anger"
Wow. That wasn't easy. See you next week with not one, two, or three Songs of the Year mixtapes, but four! 104 total songs by 104 different artists. Sweet Jesus, why do we do this to ourselves?!