December 22, 2021

Best of 2021

IMG_2190[Furnace Fest 2021, photo by me]

What impacted my listening habits the most in 2021? LIVE MUSIC. The return of concerts was huge for me, all fans, all musicians, and the entire music community. I believe music exists primarily to be experienced live. While of course I listen to it primarily at home on my turntable, at work on my computer, and in my car, the experience--key word, experience--of seeing musicians perform their compositions live in concert radically elevates the impact. The communal and downright spiritual component of a live show cannot be replicated through listening to recordings.

Pre-COVID, the last concert I attended had been June of 2019 (Blank Books and Brother Bird in Detroit). Then during COVID, planning for Furnace Fest began, and I knew I had to attend and take part. The festival was inevitably delayed for a full year, but I was fortunate enough to attend in September. And that, along with three other shows this fall, dictated what music, and what kind of music, I listened to most in 2021: heavy stuff. After my 2020 listening was dominated by primarily quiet folk, both prep for Furnace Fest and the experience itself reignited my love for hardcore, punk, metal, etc. You'll see that clearly in the top 20. See my Furnace Fest video recap here, and all my concert photos here.

Next, where does Evermore go? Released digitally on December 11, 2020, I will forever think of it as a "holiday album" as I listened to it incessantly this time last year. But then the vinyl dropped in May of 2021. So, is it my #2 album of 2020 (behind folklore)? Or is it my favorite album of 2021? Currently leaning towards the first option, because of how it is paired with folklore. So while you won't see Taylor Swift in my list below (except under best reissues), for the second year in a row I listened to Taylor Swift WAY more than any other artist. And not just because of folklore and Evermore, but also due to her contributions to Big Red Machine (in my top 20 below), and the spectacular re-recordings and reissues--the "Taylor's Version" of Fearless (April 9, 2021) and Red (November 15, 2021).

This also hints at a larger issue--vinyl manufacturing. So many albums moving forward are going to have digital releases one calendar year, and vinyl releases the next. That is unless the artists and labels hold on to the digital until the vinyl is ready. From my list below, both Sleigh Bells and Bent Knee released new albums fall of 2021, but the vinyl is not due to ship until Feb. 2022 at the earliest. And then with the case of a couple albums in my top 5--Thrice and The World Is...--the digital albums were released a couple months before the vinyl. One of my favorite experiences, listening to an album for the first time on a turntable, is a rare occurence right now and only possible with extreme patience.

I put together three best-of playlists recently, two on Apple Music and one on BNDCMPR (the new and only way to compile a playlist of Bandcamp tracks). All three playlists are about an hour long, albeit different thematically. The first playlist I randomly created one night in November, and picked some of the longest and best songs of the year--only took seven songs to fill the hour. I have gravitated towards really long songs my whole life (when I deejayed in college I had a regular feature of shows where we'd only play 6 minute-plus songs, the opposite of what radio typically leans to).

 

The second playlist is more of a traditional best-of list, and I defaulted towards shorter songs to represent more (18 songs):

 

And the final is more random and represents some lesser-known and under-represented 2021 releases:

Top 20 albums of 2021:

1. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die- Illusory Walls
Hometown: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

Collaboration and experimentation are two of my most important attributes in music. And this album and band--with no principle songwriter--is a perfect example of that. I was recently listening to a podcast interview with Chris Teti, guitarist in The World is, as he described how Illusory Walls was written. Each member of the band first of all has the ability to present ideas to everyone else, and secondly has the freedom to modify and change ideas that the other members have presented. It is a unique and rare model, the the fruits are awesome. 

I have been a fan of The World Is since I saw them open for mewithoutYou in 2016 (photos here; the only song from the band I knew prior to that show was "January 10, 2014"). I eventually fell in love with their 2015 album Harmlessness, and have followed them closely ever since. They are a band essentially defined by collaboration, and if you check out their Wikipedia band-member infographic, you'll understand why:

Their changing and at times extremely large group of band members has in generally been positive, but at times, it was far from productive. Many fans, journalists, and members of the band themselves thought it best they break up, however, not only did the five core members stick together--they became the strongest and most cohesive unit of the bands' dozen year history.

Bello, Teti, Cyr, Buttery, and Dvorak have now formed the tightest and most powerful line-up The World Is... has ever had. The layers upon layers of guitars are aggressive and intricate, but the dueling vocals of Bello and Dvorak are melodic with meaningful, relevant lyrics. I was thankful to see them perform in Ann Arbor this fall, and the show was significantly better and tighter than when I saw them 5 years prior.

Illusory Walls is broken into two parts, both 35 minutes in length. But the first part is nine songs, and second part is only two songs--one 15 minutes and the other almost 20 minutes in length! The 19:44 Fewer Afraid is my favorite song of 2021.


2. Middle Kids- Today We’re The Greatest
Hometown: Sydney, Australia
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

Middle Kids is arguably my favorite band of the last few years, right up there with the band next in this list. They dropped Today We’re The Greatest on March 19, which was perfect timing for spring break and summer roads trip with the fam. My middle child watched the YouTube premiere for the video for the song "Questions", and it became maybe her favorite song of the year. This is catchy, pop-rock goodness.

The first five songs are killer, the best stretch of music in this band's history--the include the poppiest and folkiest songs in the band's catalog. The middle of the album blends and drags a bit before finishing with two awesome songs, including the title track finale, perhaps the best song on the album. While as a whole I prefer 2018's Lost Friends, this was easily the most listened to album of the year by my family of five. Sadly, we were to go see them in concert in Detroit in October, but the venue had mandatory vaccination. I agreed with the policy, but my two daughters were too young at the time and I was unwilling to attend without them.

3. Manchester Orchestra- The Million Masks Of God
Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

The earliest Christmas gift I bought this year was in June when I ordered tickets to see Manchester Orchestra in March 2022 at the Fillmore in Detroit. They will be surprise stocking stuffers for the whole family.

While I have been a fan of Manchester Orchestra for 15 years, they reached a new level with 2017's A Black Mile To the Surface. This is a continuation of that sound, and is nearly perfect. I don't find the individual songs on Masks and good as Black Mile, but the album is designed to be listened to as a whole, and is stunning when you take the time.

4. Thrice- Horizons / East
Hometown: Irvine, California
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

Thrice is my favorite post-2000 band. However, everything since 2009's Beggars had been a little disappointing for me. I find the band at their creative peak with The Alchemy Index, and finally, after a decade, Thrice has returned to the experimentation that defined them prior to 2010. 

Thrice is held together by their rhythm section, and the bass and drums have never sounded better here. An argument can be made, that while this may not be the best Thrice songs, they have never been recorded more effectively and it sounds AMAZING.

I have now seen Thrice six times since 2007, and while I mourn that there are some songs I'll never hear them play again, I am generally OK with that because they still sounds great. A friend went with me to the show who doesn't really know Thrice, and I explained to him that the band played none of my top-5 favorite Thrice songs, but I I knew they wouldn't, and I was OK with it. My favorite part of the set this year was when they played "Buried in the Sun" and "Just Breathe" back-to-back, as those are my fav songs from each of the most recent two albums.

5. Turnstile- GLOW ON
Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on band webstore

As far as music defined by the live experience, Turnstile is the 2021 essential example. While I listened to and enjoyed GLOW ON prior to seeing them at Furnace Fest, that show was next-level. The band, and crowd, was so energetic and having SO MUCH FUN. Here's my video of them playing "Holiday":


6. Bent Knee- Frosting
Hometown: Boston, Massachusetts
Format purchased: Vinyl (pre-order due to ship in February)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

Had never even heard of Bent Knee prior to October, but when I saw they were opening for The World Is in Ann Arbor, I began checking out some of their older music. However, nothing would prepare me for what I would experience with their live show--absolutely stunning. While the opening band Gates was strong, and I of course love the headliner, Bent Knee as live performers blew them all away. The show also happened to be the digital album release party for Frosting, and most of the songs played were from it.

7. Wolf Alice- Blue Weekend
Hometown: London, England
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on band webstore

Wolf Alice's 3rd album is probably also 3rd in my personal rankings of their full-lengths, but it does show development and front-woman Ellie Roswell can sing far better than I ever realized.

8. Laura Stevenson- 
Laura Stevenson
Hometown: Long Island, New York
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp



9. Mogwai- As The Love Continues
Hometown: Scotland, UK
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp



10. Starflyer 59- Vanity
Hometown: Riverside, California
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp



11. Big Red Machine- How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?
Hometown: Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp



12. Brother Bird- Gardens
Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee
Format purchased: Digital
Listen/buy on Bandcamp




13. Chvrches- Screen Violence 
Hometown: Glasgow, Scotland
Format purchased: Vinyl
Listen/buy on Bandcamp




14. Sleigh Bells- Texis
Hometown: New York, New York
Format purchased: Vinyl (due to ship in February 20222)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

Another debut comes in next, with the perfect band name for 2020. While I spent most of the year listening to singer-songwriter music, this was the first and best heavy album I got into. It is all over the place stylistically though, and isn't always hard.



15. Julien Baker- Little Oblivions
Hometown: Memphis, Tennessee
Format purchased: Vinyl (see on my Instagram)
Listen/buy on Bandcamp



16. Kississippi- Mood Ring
Hometown: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Format purchased: Digital
Listen/buy on Bandcamp





17. Gretta Ray- Begin to Look Around
Hometown: Melbourne, Australia
Format purchased: Digitial
Listen/buy on Bandcamp




18. Wednesday-
Twin Plagues
Hometown: Asheville, North Carolina
Format purchased: Digital
Listen/buy on Bandcamp



19. Spirit Breaker- Cura Nata
Hometown: Michigan
Format purchased: Digital
Listen/buy on band webstore



20. The Connells- Steadman's Wake

Hometown: Raleigh, North Carolina
Format purchased: Digital
Listen/buy on Bandcamp




Top 5 EP’s of 2021:

1. This Beautiful Mess- Second Mountain Songs
Hometown: Utrecht, Netherlands
Format purchased: Vinyl, but awaiting shipment from the Netherlands
Listen/buy on Bandcamp

One of my top 5 releases of 2021 as whole, and I was able to interview Arjen van Wijk and Lydia van Maurik over Zoom in January in a feature I published in July to correspond with the release fo the EP.

2. Natalie Schepman- Fresh Water in an Empty Vase
Hometown: Portland, Oregon
Format purchased: Digital
Listen/buy on Bandcamp



3. Overcoats- Used to be Scared of the Dark
Hometown: New York, New York
Format purchased: Digital
Listen/buy on Bandcamp



4. Michael Knott- All Indie EP II
Hometown: Huntington Beach, California
Format purchased: Digital
Listen/buy on Bandcamp



5. Aaron Sprinkle- Certainty

Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee (weird to type that instead of Seattle, but as long as he has lived there, I guess true?)
Format purchased: Digital
Listen/buy on Bandcamp



Top 5 singles of 2021: