Pickled Priest's 21 from 21: Our Favorite Records of the Year (So Far)
The first half of 2021 is already over. That means we are obligated by law to provide our list of the best records of 2021 (So Far) in our humble opinion. We must put "so far" in parenthesis to clarify that this is only an interim list made at a moment in time, like you couldn't have figured that out for yourselves based on the posting date. In truth, these aren't the best records of 2021. Nobody really knows what they are definitively. Instead, we like to phrase it as our personal favorites. We've listened to a lot of records this year and here are 21 that fit our personalities, moods, whims, or fetishes. Sometimes all at once. In no specific order...
1 SONS OF KEMET | Black to the Future
Fully and rightfully expecting a letdown from Pickled Priest's 2018 #1 Record of the Year, Your Queen is a Reptile, Black to the Future is yet another gem from Shabaka Hutchings and friends. And by friends, I mean his usual cohorts Tom Skinner and Edward Waikili-Hick, both on drums—bam bam thank you ma'm—and the amazing Theon Cross, who basically puts on a tuba master class throughout the album. While Shabaka is the center stage attraction here, Theon's heavy oompah is the band's ultimate weapon. He is on track to become the most famous tubist since Howard "The Muhammad Ali of Tuba" Johnson thundered like an elephant into the jazz world back in the 1960s. But that's not all. The Shabaka blast doesn't stop there—you expected him to repeat himself?—this time enlisting guest musicians and vocalists throughout the record that not only adds to the band's trademark combination of funk, Afrobeat, jazz, etc., but brings in yet another contemporary component to keep it all endlessly fresh. And, if you thought Shabaka wasn't going to seize the moment and make a powerful statement about the state of race relations in this world, you were wrong. This is a must listen for many reasons.
2 JOANNA CONNOR | 4801 South Indiana Avenue
This record, which pays titular homage to Theresa's Lounge, a legendary, sadly defunct, blues club on Chicago's south side (see my full write-up here), is a live wire recording that captures the gritty power of the real electric blues that used to be found on the nightly around the city back in the day. Yes, great blues clubs remain, but many of the hotspots that gave Chicago its much-deserved reputation (Theresa's, Checkerboard, etc.) are now gone. For those of you who want to go beyond the marquee names and into the cracks of the Chicago blues infrastructure, here's a hidden record that'll blow you away.
3 MDOU MOCTAR | Afrique Victime
Rock and roll isn't dead, it's just not in the mainstream right now. You can still find it if you know where to look. You might have to think outside the box when sourcing it, but it is there. Lately, Africa has been one of my go-to locations for some truly amazing rock music. Last year, we got an amazing record from Songhoy Blues (Optimisme), the year before that Bombino's Deran, and the list goes on. Some like to lump it all into the "desert blues" classification, and that's fair, too, but like all good rock and roll, blues isn't far off as a major influence. So call it whatever you want, but call on it or risk missing Mdou Moctar's dazzling guitar work. To me, it's rock and roll of the best kind. You can feel it even if you don't understand the words. And if you go the extra mile and do some translating, you'll find some pretty heady subject matter along the way. Plus it has a freaky cover straight from the 1970s, too. Don't let all that airbrushing go to waste!
4 VALERIE JUNE | The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
Good title, because Val's brand of sweet country soul is like a drug for me. A drug that allows me to relax, forget the outside world, drift toward serenity, and mentally recharge. I don't want to sit on a hot front porch in the deep South, which is clearly where this music would thrive, but thankfully I find her cabinet of potions also works in the meat-locker I live in during the hot summer months. I like that she's designed an album to holistically address what ails me. I need all the help I can get.
5 MONSTER MAGNET | A Better Dystopia
We got a shit load of despondent, inward-looking, mopey pandemic records in the last 12-18 months and that's fine if you like to wallow in it. It even makes sense—misery loves company. But I found myself going in the opposite direction, especially when we left 2020 behind only to discover that 2021 was still force feeding us more of the same depressing bullshit. Hence, I've spent much of this year looking for records to help me clean out my cobwebs. And few do it better for me than Monster Magnet. A Better Dystopia is Dave Wyndorff's response to all the downcast mellowdrama. He's one of those band leaders who manage to retain rock's majestic power without losing that tongue-in-cheek bombast that results in monster riffs and shit-eating grins at the same time. His better dystopia is populated with covers of amazing, mostly unknown, psych-metal songs drawn mostly from the late-60s and early-1970s (and even one from the 2010s for good measure). If you love bands like Hawkwind, The Scientists, and The Pretty Things—some of the more notable sources here—you're in luck, but the real gems are sourced from relatively unknown bands like Poo-bah, Dust, J.D. Blackfoot, Cavemen, Pentagram, and more. They all get the Magnet overhaul and it's a feast of robust riffing, power yelping, and all around good-spirited debauchery.
6 VIAGRA BOYS | Welfare Jazz
Like a stray dog, the Viagra Boys were waiting for me to look beyond the dirt and grime, ticks and smells, erratic behavior and rough exterior, and see their heart and soul underneath. Welfare Jazz is, for a time, a primal beast—living off the grid (sometimes underwater!) and setting its own terms. But it never seems to take itself too seriously along the way, often pulling fiercely in the politically incorrect direction to illustrate a point ("Toad"), only to realize the error of their ways moments later ("Into the Sun"). At one point, on "I Feel Alive," a form of redemption arrives with a Harry Caray-esque vocal (post-Budweiser binge) that proves there's hope for the lost and weary dogs in this world.
7 STIFF RICHARDS | State of Mind
This record from Melbourne punk-rock band Stiff Richards claims to have been released in October of 2020, but I don't see that it has been officially released in the States yet (likely never), so I'm slotting it as a 2021 release for list purposes. I had to pick up an import to get my vinyl copy, but hopefully the band will get exposure in America before long because they totally deserve to be heard. Their name whetted my appetite upon seeing it. Could this be some riff-intensive hybrid of Keith Richards and the British bands signed to Stiff Records, one of my favorite record labels ever? Not expressly so, it turns out, but it's not that far off either. That possibility did get me curious about the band after being tipped off to their greatness and that's all that matters! There's some intangible quality to punk from down under and there always has been, from the Saints to the Pist Idiots, from Radio Birdman to Royal Headache, from the Scientists to the Eddy Current Suppression Ring, there's just a bratty bite to Aussie punk bands, something that makes them sound unaffected by commerce or current trends—a purity you can only get when isolated on an island continent perhaps. Stiff Richards are living up to that lineage as well, too, on State of Mind, nine songs in less than thirty minutes, a third are modern classics ("Point of View," "State of Mind," and "Fill in the Blanks"—your results may vary), a third are merely great, and a third are damn good. And if that's not enough for you, the lead singer's name is Wolfgang Buckley. Don't you want to know what a Wolfgang Buckley sounds like?
8 VIJAY IYER | Uneasy
After three straight albums blasting our speakers into oblivion, we now pause for a jaw-dropping demonstration of virtuosic musical talent from pianist/composer Vijay Iyer, a guy people we call geniuses call a genius, and his equally brilliant collaborators, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. This is not my normal area of expertise, but I'm pretty sure you'll hear what I hear when you play the album. We can classify it as jazz to make it easier, but it's the kind of jazz that gets reviewed by both Downbeat and Pitchfork. In other words, somewhere in between. I like the group's term for their musical collaboration the best: creative music. It's as simple as that perhaps, but it's as complex as the group's inspirations at the same time. With titles like "Children of Flint" and "Combat Breathing" you can immediately sense why the album is titled Uneasy. A palpable feeling of disquiet pervades this 72-minute set even though it is totally instrumental. It proves you can never underestimate the power of chemistry. This trio will make you shake your head repeatedly in awe.
9 TOO MUCH JOY | Mistakes Were Made
I wrote extensively about this album during out first-quarter mixtape, so get the whole story there. The Cliffs Notes for the lazy: first album in twenty years from this band of goofy oddballs turns out to be as good as anything they've ever done (confirmed after revisiting back catalog). If anything, they may be more compelling as seasoned adults than they were as precocious, quirky twenty-somethings back in the late-80s/early 90s. I especially admire aging rockers who manage to retain their demented youthful creativity years after it usually fades. If anything, their subject-matter draw is more diverse than ever—almost anything is on the table. Not only are they still amusing, they're wise as well. A winning combination.
10 MAXÏMO PARK | Nature Always Wins
I love when bands win me over again after a period of separation. In Maxïmo Park's case, I absolutely loved, and still love, their debut album, A Certain Trigger, from 2005. Its 2007 follow up, Our Earthly Pleasures, also had a few singles I still play often. But after that, I'm not sure if they lost the plot or I did. Perhaps a little of both. Fast forward 14 years and an unlikely thing has happened. The band I remember is back and they've written a batch of songs that should please anyone still interested in pristinely recorded Britpop. Back in the day, you couldn't go an afternoon without some new fully-formed British band popping out of the woodwork like cicadas waking from a long slumber. It was uncanny. But years later, long after their prime, I didn't expect them to walk the earth again, but low and behold here they are. And most of the time it sounds positively magnificent!
11 NICK CAVE & WARREN ELLIS | Carnage
Current Bad Seed and Robin to Nick Cave's Batman, Warren Ellis, is really getting around these days. He's juggling projects out the ying-yang, doing soundtrack work, and seemingly collaborating on albums around the clock. Earlier this year he provided the backing tracks for Marianne Faithfull's haunting poetry collection, She Walks In Beauty (her voice and phrasing nearly perfect, although a little heavy on the Keats in my opinion). Hell, he admirably even found time to open the Ellis Animal Sanctuary in Indonesia which will provide homes for special needs animals affected by the mistreatment of humans. Robust applause, Warren! Oh, and he also managed to craft this excellent album from the snips and snacks left from assorted recording sessions with pal Nick that were not necessarily meant to amount to anything formal (or so I've read). But Warren sees things other don't (the mark of a great collaborator) and soon Nick was astounded by what he was presented. Hence, the record is credited to both Cave and Ellis, where in the past Warren was content to sit poolside as Nick jackknifed spectacularly off the high dive. The record is, accordingly, not perfect. But I like it more that way. I also like that demented Nick makes an appearance again after some time away ("White Elephant"). As with all Cave records, little musical touches and lyrical twists reveal themselves during each subsequent listen. He chooses his words very carefully even though they seem incongruous at times. I welcomed the challenge of sifting through the Warren Ellis-assisted creation that is Carnage. There are few things that give me as much pleasure.
12 LA FEMME | Paradigmes
For what it's worth, one of the most popular bands in France right now. Ca t'impressionne? Sorry, I was asking if you were impressed. Granted, there's not a huge pool of competition to rise above, but La Femme undoubtedly earn their lofty status on Paradigmes by tossing everything including the kitchen sink into the record's bloated 55-minute run time. The French likely wouldn't balk at a 15 course tasting menu like this, but my attention span here is limited. I'd have gone with a more digestible 10 courses max, or 40-minutes on my antique Pequignet wristwatch. Even at 55 minutes the record is a total blast, with just about every musical whim indulged at some point along the way. Stay around long enough and you'll hear bits of big band, yé yé girl pop, Serge Gainsbourg's pseudo-sexuality, German Krautrock, French Quarter electronica (what?), Hollywood western noir, Avalanches-esque pastiche, and even a spontaneous burst of Hee Haw-worthy banjo picking for good measure. Amazingly, it's not a mess. In fact, La Femme corral the whole wild herd by translating everything into their own distinct style. There's a distinct French aloofness throughout that ties it all together nicely. If you put this on the next time you have guests over I guarantee you'll surely be asked "What the fuck are we listening to?" at least once.
13 THE BLIPS | The Blips
Alabama's Cornelius Chapel Records strikes again! Earlier this year they put out Alabama Slim's gem of a blues record The Parlor, then they put out the superb Safe Distance by Janet Simpson which is growing on me more and more, then Austin Lucas's Alive in the Hot Zone came next (for me that is, it was released last year). I dig them all, but none more than the self-titled debut by Birmingham's The Blips, a quintet that has restored my faith in the casual brilliance of real indie-rock once again. Ten quick, catchy songs in a little over a half-hour, each scrappy yet built with a catchy melody or hook. The band was formed by pulling the frontmen from five local bands to see what would happen and the result is a band with multiple vocalists and musical weapons. I certainly hope there's more coming soon and they don't live up to their name.
14 BLACK MIDI | Cavalcade
Unless you have some very open-minded friends and/or relatives, one play of Black Midi's Cavalcade ought to clear out straggling guests at the end of a long night of partying. The record is not for everybody, and will admittedly appeal to a select few adventurous listeners, but for that group, those who love not knowing what's going to happen next and delight in the absurd, this unpredictable mishmash of avant-post-prog will be heaven on earth, replete with shifting angles, undulating shapes, and oscillating dimensions. One minute it's full freak- out, the next it's a hypodermic needle full of Ambien, and you never know when either will wear off or be replaced by something else pulsing through its bloodstream. Black Midi is a malfunctioning contraption of undisclosed purpose and we love them for it.
15 THE CITY CHAMPS | Luna '68
We're in final casting for The Pickled Priest Story as I write this, but the soundtrack—the most important part of any movie, particularly this one—is starting to come together nicely. Songs from the City Champs' new album, Luna '68, will undoubtedly play a prominent role in several pivotal scenes. The title track will back the moment when we all got high and ate fried chicken while waiting for the office furniture to arrive. "Lockdown City" will follow us on our first group record shopping trip. And "Freddie King for Now" will play each and every time the Priest himself strolls confidently into work for each day (his "walk up" song, if you will, and we all should have one). We're still writing some key dialogue, but a few more tracks from this record could creep in along the way. We love our instrumentals around here, after all. If they're not careful, the City Champs might be anointed the house band around here from now on.
16 SHAME | Drunk Tank Pink
Great album title, to begin with. If you've ever woken up in a holding cell after a bender, you'll know they paint the walls pink to heighten the agony when you wake up, hoping it encourages you not to return anytime soon. Here's guessing that this band speaks, rants rather, from experience. As I said when I included them on our Q1 Mixtape, Shame are an old-fashioned, pub-brawling, gutter-rolling British rock band. Chuffed, unsorted, gobby, dodgy and knackered all at once. The sum total is gloriously demented and surely worth a wild night on the town. Just stay out of trouble if possible.
17 DELVON LAMARR ORGAN TRIO | I Told You So
My most-played record of 2021 so far. Mainly, because it grooves mightily and it's all instrumental. Hence, it thrives in almost any work (we have day jobs here at Pickled Priest), social, or home situation. I'd like to think the Power Points, emails, and spreadsheets I create while this plays have a little extra swing to them. If you feel funky, that's got to come through in everything you do, right? God I hope so. If you're cooking while this plays, expect the unexpected. There will be a left-field ingredient added, an exotic spice used, flavors will dance. This is a crisp, funky soul record that sounds absolutely incredible on vinyl. It will seep into every unfilled groove in your life and make everything better. (Click here for more, written earlier this year.)
18 CARSIE BLANTON | Love & Rage
Carsie Blanton? Hmmm—sounds familiar. Is she the new girl over in reception? No, accounts receivable, right? Admittedly, it's not a name that stands out, unfortunately. Well, it turns out she's actually a pretty damn great singer/songwriter. But singer/songwriters are in plentiful supply; it's so hard to get beyond a local stage or cult following (like Carsie has in Philadelphia, for example). But I would argue Carsie deserves national exposure and with a break or two she might just get it with Love & Rage, her well-crafted fifth album. I loved her last one, Buck Up, too, but she's really struck a great balance on this record, pairing accessible love songs with issue-driven songs with pointed arrows. It helps that she has a unique girlish voice (very similar to the great Amy LaVere), writes great lyrics, and routinely crafts catchy melodies that stick in your head for days. No, there's nothing flashy about her style, but her songs have instant impact and I'll take substance over style any day. She's a comfortable, endearing companion to say the least, but she's also not afraid to bring up some potentially divisive issues either. "Down in the Streets" takes on the tendency to dismiss protesters as troublemakers without really understanding their message. "Be Good" invokes both Jesus and JFK while lamenting the price some pay in pursuit of doing good for humanity. And "Shit List" takes white male superiority head on, "You want a medal just for being a white boy / That ain't the way we gonna do it no more." Carsie isn't afraid of the consequences either instead relying on her gut to guide her. On "Be So Bad," she asks an important question, "If I'm so bad / Why do I feel so good?" And the answer is obvious. She's a good person. And she's a good musician, too. Based on Love & Rage, that's not even debatable.
19 TOUMANI DIABATÉ & THE LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA | Kôrôlén
There's a long history of rock bands collaborating with symphony orchestras. My first exposure to it was The London Symphony Orchestra with Ian Anderson playing the music of Jethro Tull (A Classic Case from 1985, which I still enjoy to this day). What could be cooler than Jethro Tull symphonies, after all?! (Your sarcastic response not required at this point.) Many other artists have done the same, from Deep Purple back in the late 60s to Kiss in the early 21st century (see clip below, with entire orchestra clad in Kiss makeup!—genius!). Clearly, whoring yourself out to lowbrow rock bands is a lucrative business which pays the bills as long as you can stomach the loss of artistic integrity. No orchestra is more aware of this exchange than the aforementioned LSO, which will cut a record with almost anyone with a fat checkbook. But that's not necessarily a bad thing even though it will surely tweak purist sensibilities who could deem such a pursuit a pandering waste of time. It could also collect some intrigued new listeners in the process. I applaud the maneuver, especially when it leads to a culture of musical partnerships that knock down barriers between genres, creating something new and sometimes uniquely beautiful in the process. It has also led artists in other genres to do the same thing. The most successful LSO collaboration this year was their partnership with Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders on this years Promises album, which everyone has fallen in love with, including me. It has been a critical smash everywhere. However, with now slight to that record at all, I must say I am even more impressed with their support of African kora master, Toumani Diabaté. It's a magical night (recorded over ten years ago and only now released!) with Diabaté commanding the crowded stage with his virtuosic mastery of his instrument (see photo). Only occasionally does the orchestra step on Toumani's performance, but for the most part the sheer spellbinding beauty of his intricate playing comes shining through.
20 SOPHIA KENNEDY | Monsters
Sophia is true original, which is a quality I admire. She's one of those singular artists who defy just about all descriptions. That's not a recipe for mass acceptance in most cases, so it's no wonder she has not found widespread notoriety just yet—perhaps that's because there's no one place for her music to reside. As I listened to this album many artists came to mind as possible reference points, sometimes only for a moment or two, sometimes longer: the hear the adventurousness of Annie Clark (St. Vincent), the unbridled creative freedom of Fiona Apple, the bizarre theatricality of Peter Gabriel, the entrancing word art of Laurie Anderson, the crooning purity of Petula Clark. There's some Broadway and some contemporary pop, cabaret and vocal stylings worthy of a army USO routine; there are hints of prog, pop, hip hop, jazz, and electronic music as well. Amazingly, it all somehow holds together. Sophia, from Baltimore—now living in Berlin (which explains some things, but not all)—comes from a film and theater background, which is obvious, and her songs combine inputs from multiple sources at the same time. While it requires an adjustment of expectations and an open mind from the unsuspecting listener, I found the whole sorted affair turns into an addiction over time. You're going to need to give it time. A few listens minimum. My first was a hard NO. My second an intrigued MAYBE. From then on, all YES YES YES.
21 YOO DOO RIGHT | Don't Think You Can Escape Your Purpose
I get as much joy from a band that knows how to mount a total noise assault as I do from a band that specializes in three-minute radio pop songs. The physical imperative with the former is discretion. I simply cannot waste my eardrum life on just any band with amps set to stun. Pop songs come and go quickly and can be assessed at almost any volume (is there a hook, a melody...?). But the orchestrated attacks of volume merchants like Montreal's Yoo Doo Right tend to demand more of your attention and time. By design, they require ample volume to get their message across. Many songs on Purpose take a while before the music swells from beautifully quiet to dizzyingly loud. You need volume to appreciate both, too. If you're approximating the sound of a black hole being turned inside out, there's no time for restraint. It's all or nothing. And it's not something easily accomplished either. Most bands can pull it off, but Yoo Doo Right doo it right. It's right there in their moniker, after all. I mean, they're named after an epic six-hour jam by influential German group Can (an "edited" 20-minute version can be found on their 1969 debut, Monster Movie), so that fact alone might clue you in as to what to expect. That said, despite allusions to Krautrock throughout, this is no Can tribute act. The record has moments of stunning beauty surrounding the walls of ascending sonic majesty (like landscaping around an ancient castle!). What makes this worthy of my eardrum time is that each song stands on its own merits while simultaneously contributing to a cumulative weight of the project. There's one crushing cataclysm after the next and it's thrilling to hear it unfold (I would argue it gets better and better as it progresses; another great quality). So, if you are so inclined, and you likely know if you are already, don't snack on this one like you would a simple pop record. Eat it in one gluttonous sitting. This is a piece of sonic art and is best imbibed as such. And don't forget the volume knob. It's your best friend.
So many records left out. Sigh. Well, it's only mid-year thankfully. In a few days, stay tuned for our Favorite Songs of Q2 mixtape.