We’ve reached the halfway point of our Top Albums of 2021 countdown, delivering today thoughts on albums that ranked #11-15 in our writer’s poll. 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!
15. Lingua Ignota
Few acts have reinvented themselves in the way Kristin Hayter has on her third album, a huge departure in sound from the abrasive, industrial, and electronic timbres of her debut and sophomore outings. But the reinvention also comes from the album’s essence and not just its sonorities: it’s impossible to talk about Sinner Get Ready now without acknowledging the psychological, physical, and sexual abuse of Hayter by Daughter’s frontman, articulated on the album but has also detailed in a statement. This abuse started shortly after Hayter moved in with Marshall in Pennsylvania, the setting, so to speak, of the album as she beckons to Appalachian Folk tradition with twangy reeds and strings used hauntingly, tall grasses seen disquietingly, and Christian liturgy and organ used at once to highlight the hypocrisy of the fellowship but also to seek earnest salvation. Despite the ornate and frequently robust instrumentation, Sinners Get Ready is a largely solitary experience, with Hayter’s vocals foreground and impossible to peel away from, each syllable precisely pitched tonally, emotively, and evocatively. On “Pennsylvania Furnace,” the closest thing to a Lingua Ignota piano ballad, Hayter sounds mournful, precious, and pious, and she transitions into “Repent Now Confess Now,” featuring several vocal parts layered on top of each other in an eerie incantation. On “The Order of Spiritual Virgins,” the album opener, imbued with harsh noise, Hayter’s voice is a droning threat, mimicking the locust and willowy winds.
In an album full of shocking musical ideas and direct, painful lyrics, the most stand-out moment comes in centerpiece “Man Is Like a Spring Flower,” a post-minimalist gothic country chamber piece. Hayter’s effortless falsetto vocalization is accompanied by repetitive reeds, pizzicato strings, and bells, the combination presenting a chirpy melody and leaving space for an emotional main vocal line, which sounds like it’s sung between tears. The music swells and distorts only to cut off, bleeding into a recording of a woman saying she’s protected from COVID by the blood of God, an unnerving start to the album’s closer, “The Solitary Brethren of Ephrata,” a harp hymnal in which Hayter sings of the paradise she longs for. It’s a gorgeous, thorny finish to an album that’s always both of those things, like all of Lingua Ignota’s music. It’s a gift to receive this music, a document of not only one woman’s experiences at the hands of disturbed men who wronged her, but also a seminal work for our fucked times. Tanner Stechnij
14. Magdalena Bay
Duo Magdalena Bay make pop music that is in love with being pop music. Although their songs burst with playfulness and a desire to center the unexpected, the overwhelming impression their tracks leave you with is one of care — care to polish their songs until they sparkle, care to tie their work together with cohesive sounds and themes, and care to express the best version of their artistic vision possible. Listening through their debut album Mercurial World is a breathless ride through the greatest potential that synthpop has to offer.
Mercurial World is themed around the idea of beginnings, endings, and the ways that they circle back on each other. Intro track “The End” (as opposed to ending track “The Beginning”) opens with songwriter and vocalist Mica Tenenbaum musing, “I was thinking about how there’s no true end to anything!” Songs accelerate, decelerate, and transition into each other like they’re playing out stages in a life cycle, and the theme of endings hangs over the entire record in a strange cocktail of ominous optimism.
Unexpected contrasts also play out in the album’s lyrical content. Tenenbaum’s writing often frames traditional ideas of romance in uncanny ways (“Hysterical us / sucking in oxygen / how did we learn to breathe?,” “Time with you stretches into the horizon… / Breaks in two, let it bend”), but at the same time, her delicate vocals turn apocalyptic imagery into something sugary sweet. “Chaeri,” a song where the narrator confronts regret over how they handled things with a depressed friend, sounds surprisingly soft and heartfelt, even as producer Matthew Lewin’s arrangement builds up into a musical self-destruct sequence. “Dreamcatching” and “Prophecy” tackle ideas of love as infinity and inevitability, even as the music intensifies and changes in unpredictable ways. And, of course, every ending that appears is also framed as a beginning — the last track even transitions seamlessly into the first one. Although these nuances might feel confusing in a different context, within the sonically and conceptually rich landscape of this album, they’re just another thoughtful addition to a fascinating project.
Thematic complications aside, Mercurial World could never work if its production was shoddy. However, Lewin has turned in a slate of incredible pop tunes packed with energy, creativity, and technical mastery. “Secrets (Your Fire)” bounces between layers and layers of playfully synthesized sounds (shimmers, sirens, saxophone, strings, chiptunes, piano — it’s a pop cornucopia), and yet its mix is still wonderfully crisp. “You Lose!” is an explosive, grungy take on hyperpop; “The Beginning” mixes a dancey beat with twinkly piano; the title track swirls into a vortex of contrasting synth textures. Sometimes the production is dreamy and ethereal, sometimes it’s precise and cutting, and often it’s both at once. Magdalena Bay are a small indie duo, but they’re putting out some of the most sophisticated, fun, and imaginative songs in the world of pop music today, and Mercurial World is a massive level up for their already excellent discography. Fittingly, it also feels like just the beginning. Kayla Beardslee
13. Julien Baker
“Faith Healer,” the third track on Julien Baker’s latest album, Little Oblivions, opens with a lament: “Oh, I miss it high, how it dulls the terror and the beauty.” Specifically, she’s singing of the paradoxical nature of substance abuse, the way it can flatten an individual, an inoculation against both joy and pain. Or, as she sings on album opener “Hardline,” it “split[s] the difference / between medicine and poison.” But on Little Oblivions, a record that is both a deepening of and doubling-back on the themes and emotions of her first two albums, it’s the use of “terror” and “beauty” that proves most instructive to the experience, each more present in these tracks than ever before. On the title track of her debut LP, Sprained Ankle, Baker sang, “Wish I could write songs about anything other than death,” and while she hasn’t exactly managed to divorce herself from that subject matter, she has left behind easy confessionalism for a deeper interrogation of what exactly singing of death means. “Appointments,” from sophomore effort Turn Out the Lights, found the songwriter considering that “maybe the emptiness is just a lesson in canvases,” before ending that track with what starts as a primal scream and fades into a whimper: “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right / Oh, I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is.” As a lyricist, Baker has always tended toward such portentous cogitations, but here they take more abstract linguistic shape, while also speaking to a new degree of emotional and experiential specificity.
Those two previous albums were released when the singer was 19 and 21, respectively, and so while it shouldn’t necessarily surprise that the now 25-year-old would evince a maturation, it’s no less impressive to find that Little Oblivions so successfully complicates her trademark fatalism. From Sprained Ankle to Turn Out the Lights, she progressed from bleak expressions of trauma and struggle to declarations of willful and cynical hope, almost a statement of intent for her continued survival. But on Little Oblivions, no such tidy summations suffice to capture her tendrils of thought. “Hardline” finds the singer both absent from and haunting herself — “Say my own name in the mirror / and when nobody appears / say it’s not so cut and dry,” just one in a number of self-recriminations across the album. Later, album closer “Ziptie” sees her facing the existential ennui of disappearing from one’s own life: “I was disappointed to find out / how much everybody looks like me.” Most evident, however, is the spectre of Baker’s relapse a few years back, which looms over much of Littles Oblivions’ lyrical content, and leads to some of the album’s most cutting, introspective moments: “I wish that I drank / because of you and not only because of me.”
Most important is that these thornier ruminations feel organic to Baker’s development, and her contention with life’s continued messiness brings about her best artistic instincts. Evolution is, of course, integral to any art, but even more so for musicians placed within the singer-songwriter box, as such raw feels can become dank in short order, resulting in an impression of angsty performativity that can easily undermine lyrical trenchancy and raw emotionalism. But even more pronounced than the enrichment of her writing is the expansion of her sound, newly feeling like a full rock outfit rather than a lone songstress. Turn Out the Lights added moody strings and a few more piano twinkles to the electric guitar plinking and warbles of Sprained Ankle, but the multi-instrumentalist fully opens up on Little Oblivions, showcasing bold progressions and sequences of heavy, guiding percussion. The aforementioned “Faith Healer” starts in the way of many of the singer’s tracks, before pounding drums and heavy piano strikes build immediate tension into the song. They quickly drop out, and a momentary lull ushers in another mini-crescendo, set to the end of track’s second line, an observation of rediscovered sobriety: “Now I see everything in startling intensity.” Elsewhere, Baker incorporates garbled synth blasts that sound ominously like alarms, guitar distortions, and some upbeat, puckish drums that work in tandem with her more melancholy inclinations.
The result of all this evident growth is an effort that feels legitimately dangerous, her bolder, sometimes even anthemic sound providing gloss to the pained exorcisms therein — the impression is something like hiding her pain in plain sight. Her sonic palette boasts both swells and respites that aren’t so easily found in her stark expressions of little oblivions and small, daily deaths, and the startling contrast marks a peak in Baker’s artistic voice. It’s not all easy listening, even as the singer softens her voice more than ever — fans will note the difference from her usual mode, mostly abandoning the melodrama of her punctuating, cathartic screeches. But it’s precisely these interpolations — the comforting into the painful, the novel into the familiar, the terror into the beauty, and vice versa — that make Little Oblivions her most challenging, lingering work to date. Luke Gorham [Previously published as part of InRO’s February 2021 album coverage.]
12. Billie Eilish
“Do you know me?” Billie Eilish asks listeners at about the half-way point on her ironically-titled sophomore release, Happier Than Ever. She sounds dejected, almost defeated; she then proceeds to ask the question again, this time more vexingly: “Really know me?” Her voice, now distorted, is flat, yet her vocal’s resolve and prosaic lyricism firmly situates the song’s tension around the one-sided nature of parasocial relationships. She points out how people have opinions on her opinions, on her clothes, how she presents herself, how she dresses — she also makes an astute observation that even if you’re supposedly “on her side,” if you’re a grown adult, that’s still super weird — which makes the opening inquiry’s tone all the more acidic. One could reasonably compare this spoken-word interlude (“Not My Responsibility”) with another sonic respite of sorts: Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier,” which used a synthesized voice application to achieve the same numbing, fourth-wall breaking effect. But that track ended after a few minutes, and had SimpleText’s Fred vocalizing and authenticating a distanced affect; Eilish doesn’t allow listeners the ability to tune out after a few minutes, as she verbally accosts them over her brother’s routinely minimal production.
On an album that’s thematically defined by power dynamics — more specifically, about figures of authority abusing their control and influence within a cultural industry that’s predicated on exploiting young talent — this is a moment of self-reclamation, a more didactic one amidst some of the more anxious sentiments expressed elsewhere. Opener “Getting Older” serves as the introductory statement of sorts for the rest of the album: the track’s gentle, plodding synth beat is sparse and reserved, with Eilish’s vocals sounding frail and vulnerable — she laments both growing up and growing up in the public’s scrupulous eye, the crushing isolation that comes with newfound fame (“Which is ironic ’cause the strangers seem to want me more / Than anyone before”), and the personal trauma, usually inflicted by older men, that seems to accompany women as they enter into adulthood. It’s a lot to take in, all gracefully balanced across a pensive tempo — then a pitbull’s rabid growling crashes through, straight into “I Didn’t Change My Number.” It’s a devilish move that would have suited the Eilish’s siblings’ last studio album more naturally — which only makes sense on a track that’s more in tune with their last record’s sensibilities as well, with Billie vocally sashaying around the ensuing barking.
This, “Therefore I Am,” “Lost Cause” (a track practically constructed around the idea of “what if we only had a bass guitar in the mix?”), and mischievous “NDA” — with it’s puckish violin strings plucking away — all pace themselves and fall into similar rhythms as the songs on When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, but that’s about all those two records share on a compositional level. The remaining tracks vary in terms of musical genres (MPB on “Billie Bossa Nova”; acoustic folk on “Your Power”) and production styles (the stuttering vocal sample that comprises the beat of “Goldwing”), often radically swaying between these diverse modes with a sequencing order seemingly created to infuriate with how nonuniform it appears to operate. Undoubtedly, this is a result of the album’s slow roll-out, starting all the way back in mid-2020 with “My Future” — but what results is a constant work-in-progress that suits the arrested development of its central performer, one that’s somehow both sonically comprehensive while also concentrating its intimate songwriting efforts around a single individual’s affected experiences. On the beautiful, melancholic “Halley’s Comet,” the re-occurrence of a passing nebular mass turns into a play on words for how emotionally available one is; and on the album’s title track — which keeps building in intensity, with its drums banging louder and louder — she reverses the sentiment wholesale (“Just fuckin’ leave me alone”) against a lover who didn’t have time for her mom and now talks shit about her on the internet. In a sense, this takes us back to the first penetrating question, or at the bare minimum re-contextualizes it: “Do you know me?” Eilish, here once again, proves there’s plenty she and her brother still have yet to reveal. Paul Attard [Previously published as part of InRO’s July 2021 album coverage.]
Most everyone who writes about Low’s HEY WHAT describes its desolate, fractured noise-scapes as an accurate portrayal of current times. The reality is that life has always been terrible for numerous reasons, and Low’s decades-long career has captured this truth through variations on their methodical and patient songwriting. The difference between Low’s slowcore beginnings and their newer BJ Burton-produced escapades is how the band utilizes volume to construct enveloping atmospherics. Instead of the palpable weight of silence found in their first LPs, there’s a hollowness here felt inside dense walls of guitar strums and pounding drums. A track like “Disappearing,” for example, sounds like it’s endlessly crumbling, but also transports one into a vast, empty space, as if perpetually floating in the ether.
Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk have noted that their partnership is key to the music’s success: While Sparhawk is eager to turn the dial up and let hell break loose, Parker reins in such proclivities to ensure that the music always sounds pretty. “Hey” showcases this beautifully, with a reverberating low end that dissolves into blissful ambience. Crucial to how graceful these songs can sound are the vocals: simple melodies, charming harmonies, pithy lyrics. “Days Like These” is especially striking, with Sparhawk belting out “No, you’re never gonna feel complete” alongside fuzzed-out instrumentation before everything fizzles into cozy synth filigrees.
But this isn’t pessimistic music so much as music that acknowledges the unimpeachable pains of reality. HEY WHAT’s seven-minute closer, the booming “The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off),” broadcasts the struggle of making it through another day. Across an album with traces of shoegaze, industrial, and “power ambient,” HEY WHAT ends with a song that registers as a punishingly monotonous epic, every booming snare hit like trudging through a greyscale vortex of murk. More than anything, Parker and Sparhawk recognize and often beautifully communicate the tragedy and pain of modern living. Joshua Minsoo Kim