by InRO Staff Featured Music Year in Review

Top Albums of 2021 — 20-16

January 4, 2022

Day 2 of our Top Albums of 2021 countdown, meaning we have thoughts on favorites #16-20 today. Most albums, even if we previously covered them, have been revisited with new words and new writers, and everything in our Top 10 has been given this treatment. Check out our full Best Albums coverage (including our Honorable Mentions) all this week!

Credit: Peter Ash

20. Japanese Breakfast

For the last couple of years, big Internet music press has been hellbent on selling us this notion that indie rock is still the most vital mode of pop song-making around, a dominant force on yearly “Best Of” lists at various entrenched publications. Indicative of an ever-growing gulf between critic community and general audience, tepid, stodgy albums like Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud are celebrated as evidence that rock music is here to stay, but who’s really listening? Japanese Breakfast is an act that’s benefited from the press’s attempt to reorient toward a rockist future, but they’re also a group that’s been able to reimagine themselves a couple times over in their short existence, most recently and appealingly with Jubilee, their third LP.

Once the primary vocalist of punky Philadelphia emo band Little Big League, Michelle Zauner split from that band and relocated to Eugene, Oregon to be with her mother who was fighting a cancer that would eventually end her life. Japanese Breakfast began as a project through which Zauner processed her emotional distress following this tragedy; initially a solo act, soon after, a full band. Naturally, the tone and material on their first two albums skewed darker and colder, moving from 2016’s melancholic, lo-fi Psychopomp to the lonely, existentially-troubled Soft Sounds from Another Planet two years later without perking up particularly. Jubilee marks a conscious turn toward warmer emotions, repurposing the band’s instrumentation and compositional ideas to create bright, danceable tunes complementary to Zauner’s evolving perspective.

Admittedly, like most artists operating in this sort of pop strata, Japanese Breakfast aren’t exactly forging a unique path ahead with Jubilee, so much as they have managed to confidently claim and personalize current popular aesthetic trends. Embracing a moody ‘80s production sound largely built on synth and drum machine (part of the band’s repertoire in the past, though never so much as here) with strong bass lines and occasional disco strings. It’s a popular styling at the moment, but Zauner’s crisp, fem vocals offer a cool counter to these slinky, late-night melodies, her voice slipping from Kim Deal (track three, “Kokomo, IN,” sounds remarkably like The Breeders’ “Drivin’ on 9”) to Madonna and back, with casual effort. The result is commanding, yet cautious, a purposeful take on this aesthetic that accentuates the album’s central tension.

While Jubilee is certainly Japanese Breakfast’s most ebullient work, it’s anchored by insecurity and lingering pain (both personal and social) expressed lyrically. Album opener “Paprika” sets the tone for what’s to come with Zauner’s conflicted description of her recent fame (described as “a rush” while also being compared to opening floodgates that dispense no water) set to the crescendo of a marching band’s drums and horns that lead into the Phil Collins-y single “Be Sweet,” the title phrase intoned in the chorus more like a (gently) pleading request than a demand. Jubilee’s other two singles, “Posing for Bondage” and wonky Alex G collab “Savage Good Boy,” also follow this trend, exuberant pop works contending with doubt and the vulnerability that generally comes with being a woman (the former song’s title sort of a metaphor for heterosexual monogamy, the latter song adopting the perspective of a male billionaire attempting to coax a younger woman into entombing herself with him a la Under the Silver Lake). In these ways, Jubilee proves a smart and enticing switch-up for Zauner and Japanese Breakfast, one that broadens the band’s sound while accommodating the songwriter’s organic spiritual/emotional journey. What might have been another tired, if functional, act of indie rock pastiche is instead something more complicated, a work that chooses to revel in the contradictory. M.G. Mailloux   [Previously published as part of InRO’s June 2021 album coverage.]

Credit: Huy Nguyen

19. Adia Victoria

Her approach to the blues has always bucked tradition, but Adia Victoria fully develops an inimitable aesthetic on A Southern Gothic, on which she embraces her capacity to make people squirm who, in her estimation, deserve to sit in some discomfort. While her targets are broad — white supremacist institutions, religious hypocrisy — she chooses specific targets when making her points. On “Magnolia Blues,” when she sings of planting herself under the South’s most iconic species of tree, she’s taking up space in an act of defiance. Later, “Whole World Knows,” a tale of a pastor’s daughter who shows up strung-out to her own sweet sixteen party, reserves Victoria’s judgment for the family whose false sense of propriety failed their own child for the sake of public-facing godliness. The album’s title is apt, then, in the sense that Victoria is fully committed to exposing the horrors of the modern South while still claiming that South as her own. 

Indeed, that love-hate tension is how Victoria embodies the blues idiom. While there are some overt nods to conventional blues structures on “Troubled Mind” and “My Oh My,” a killer duet with Stone Jack Jones, Victoria’s sonic approach to the genre is knotty and progressive in ways that will, by design, rankle would-be purists. That the timbre of her singing voice has a natural sweetness only heightens the tensions at play throughout: As a “Mean-Hearted Woman,” Victoria sounds like she might kill you with kindness, but, make no mistake, you’ll still end up dead by her hand just the same. If there’s a useful analogue to what Victoria accomplishes here, it’s peak-era PJ Harvey, another artist who uses blues conventions as a suggestion of forms into which to channel her rage: “Deep Water Blues” finds Victoria masking a threat of drowning as a lullaby, and it draws an immediate parallel to Harvey’s “Down by the Water.” Even still, Victoria’s perspective is wholly her own, foregrounding the experiences of Black women in her narrative and musical voices, and it’s Victoria’s mastery of both that makes A Southern Gothic one of the year’s finest albums. Jonathan Keefe

Credit: Lindsey Buckingham

18. Lindsey Buckingham

Rare is the artist in popular music with a sound that’s entirely their own; one-time Fleetwood Mac mastermind Lindsey Buckingham is for sure one of ‘em. In a sense, this could be gleaned just from a single listen to Rumors opener “Second Hand News,” as celtic folk becomes unlikely bedfellows with a fuzzed-out guitar solo and fidgety acoustic picking (the song’s demo was just called “Strummer”). But definitely no further evidence was required after Buckingham notched his many odd instrumental contributions to the Mac’s high masterpiece, Tusk. And yet, the prickly artist, now forty years into a solo career, has never stopped trying to prove his uniqueness — and the septuagenarian rocker still sounds like pretty much nobody else.

This year’s plainly labeled Lindsey Buckingham isn’t exactly business as usual, though — in so much as you could assign “usual” to any artist who only releases one or two solo albums per decade. Of Buckingham’s two aughts efforts, one was a largely acoustic set and the other was something of a mishmash of Mac leftovers and a paring down of a (better) bootleg that had circulated for years. Lindsey Buckingham arrives a full 10 years after Buckingham’s last solo set (although it was apparently recorded and finished in 2018), and like 2011’s Seeds We Sow, it’s a robust song-cycle with more than a few flashes of the compositional brilliance evident in his best Mac material. Except this new album is better — partly because it’s more cohesive, partly because the melodies hit consistently, but mostly just because it never sounds old.

Latter-day Buckingham has largely been possessed of the same restlessness of his best years, but there have been occasional lapses into nostalgia, retracing sonic ideas that sound less sharp now than they did 30-40 years ago, or overestimating interest in arpeggiating guitar workouts. The ten tight, catchy, and expertly mixed tracks of Lindsey Buckingham never sound tired or dated; there’s just the right amount of bouncy synthesizers and clattering drum machines to mark these songs as modern pop, even as the intricate guitars, wall-to-wall harmonies, and strange chords separate them out from the contemporary music landscape. “Power Down” is a simultaneously more cacophonous and less cluttered cousin to 1996’s “Don’t Look Down”; lead single “I Don’t Mind” pairs a pocket symphony with the album’s best hook; and “On the Wrong Side” gives us both repurposed, Rumors-reminiscent paranoia-as-self-critique and a barnstorming electric guitar solo. There are lovely and understated moments (his version of “Time” would sound at home on Under the Skin), but even the quiet songs leave a firm impression. Thirty-six fleet minutes and it’s done, but near every track will beckon you back. Sam C. Mac

Credit: Joel Ryan

17. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

Nick Cave has never been one to coddle. His music demands that listeners sit for a while with uncomfortable questions, for which he is seldom willing to offer a straight answer. The question posed by Carnage — a collaborative release with Bad Seeds’ lieutenant Warren Ellis — is simply this: What does the Kingdom of God mean to you? It’s a question you can’t escape; a “kingdom in the sky” is referenced, in so many words, time and again across the album, and what’s most fascinating is how the connotation seems to shift. In one song, the thought of a celestial city and an interventionist God sounds like a promise of hope; in the next, an omen of wrath; and elsewhere, a fool’s escapist fantasy.

Cave and Ellis wrote the material on Carnage during the year of COVID-19; described by its creators as “brutal” and “beautiful,” the album offers a sustained meditation on suffering, grief, and the tenacity of love, all filtered through a season of distance and loss. Cave’s elusive proclamations of God’s Kingdom are just one example of how his songwriting has become more impressionistic over time, and this slippery, mood-setting approach feels just right for Carnage’s transitory reflections. You won’t hear a lot of direct references to the pandemic, although a fetching torch song called “Albuquerque” features two lovers consoling each other as they are stuck at home, their travel dreams deferred. They can’t make their intended pilgrimage to Amsterdam nor Africa, and yet open roads are a motif throughout the album, setting a scene for escape, prodigal wanderings, and, in “Lavender Fields,” the sensation of being “appallingly alone.” The actual elephant in the room is a song where Cave invites all the demons of white supremacy to possess him, a reverse exorcism that finds him stalking and spitting violent, profanity-ridden rants about statues. This song, “White Elephant,” is the closest he has come in some years to the hell-raising narratives of his older, more punk-oriented material. (Meanwhile, the title song, with its Flannery O’Connor name-drop, can’t help but feel like a winking acknowledgment of the fatalistic persona Cave has cultivated over the years; he’s telling us that he’s in on the joke.)

Cave and Ellis have been collaborating since the mid-’90s, both in the orbit of the Bad Seeds and with a number of film scores, but Carnage is the first non-soundtrack album they’ve released as a duo. Fleshed out primarily with piano and synthesizer, it sounds at times like a continuation of the chillingly quiet music the Bad Seeds have been making as of late, particularly in the mostly-placid back half. And yet, Carnage is also the most raucous and textured music Cave has made in a while, shaking up the tranquil ambience of Ghosteen with a little bit of his band’s former menace, perhaps even a touch of Grinderman’s sleaze. On opening song “Hand of God” — an ominous incantation — Cave sings over rippling orchestral effects and an anxious drum beat. There’s rattling percussion and ragged violin flourishes to punctuate “Old Time,” pure gothic unease that answers the question, what would the Bad Seeds have sounded like if Ellis had been a member from the beginning? The album ends with a lovesick waltz called “Balcony Man,” where Cave compares himself to Fred Astaire and, speaking to his beloved, professes the one thing he knows to be true: “This morning is amazing and so are you.” Who knows what good that’ll do him when the Kingdom comes, but it’s a profoundly settling coda to Carnage’s disquiet. Josh Hurst   [Previously published as part of InRO’s February 2021 album coverage.]

Credit: Vasso Vu

16. Danny L. Harle

2021 saw Club Harlecore open its doors to the Internet, a 24-hour web-based rave spot featuring a quartet of mystical DJs brought into our reality by maximalist pop producer Danny L. Harle to coincide with the release of his first full-length album, Harlecore. Surprising as it may be, Harlecore is indeed the debut studio album from the majorly influential electronic dance musician who has been producing and remixing since 2012/2013, when he became a founding PC Music signee. His time with that culture-defining label saw him busy and ambitious, steadily piecing together an eclectic catalog of singles and remixes that bridged into a more commercial sphere that tended away from long-form projects. Now at Mad Decent, Harle appears to be rethinking his approach to releasing music, with Harlecore representing a sort of compromise between the scattershot singles-centric path, and a cohesive, wholly conceptualized LP.

Its 13 tracks united by the aforementioned “Club Harlecore” premise, this project allows itself to take the form of a subgenre sampler under the guise of flaunting the voices of these long-tinkered-with personae, the digital sprites depicted on the knowingly cheesy album art and seen spinning at virtual DJ booths, each assigned a particular sonic aesthetic. Harlecore spends its 37-minute runtime cycling through these characters to thrilling effect, taking listeners on a tour of various hardcore stylings in the process. Assumed default persona DJ Danny and the Hudson Mohawke co-masterminded DJ Mayhem bear most of the tracklist’s weight and the least aesthetic distance between one another, the former placing Harle in romantic, trancey, happy hardcore mode (the anthemic “Take My Heart Away,” not only the peak of this sound and album, but of the year in total), the latter gnashing gabber homage with big, stomping basslines interlinked by fluid synth melody. Harle’s madcap DJ Boing (a U.K. hardcore side project with PC Music’s Lil Data) and the new age/ambient DJ Ocean (whose music is driven by Caroline Polachek vocals) provide something resembling interludes that diffuse and instigate Harlecore’s extra high energy strategically. The result is a surprisingly vital and well-timed release from an artist who has long been content to move at their own pace. Perhaps an acknowledgment of the shifting cultural attitudes toward the music celebrated here and Harle’s own role in re-popularizing it, Harlecore stands as one of the year’s best even when considered apart from the narratives spun by and surrounding its creator, an unapologetic celebration of the rave spirit and pop music’s most empowering qualities. M.G. Mailloux