Regular readers will have noticed that this site’s monthly album round-ups haven’t happened during 2021 so, as some consolation, I have put together a list of my favourite album releases of this year. Unlike the monthly lists I have ranked them in order, mainly so I can shake my head at my choices when I decide differently at the end of the year. I’ve included short “reviews” for the top ten, and as usual Bandcamp is my preferred place to direct you should you wish to purchase these releases.
1. For The First Time – Black Country, New Road (Ninja Tune, 5th Feb) Bandcamp
Records which I am most familiar with will invariably end up towards the top of this list. Some of the songs on BCNR’s debut have been around well in advance of the album, but to be honest this record would have been my number one if it had come out at any point in the year. They will progress and get even better, but for now this debut is the sound of “the world’s second best Slint tribute act” growing wings and soaring.
2. G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! – Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Constellation, 2nd April) Bandcamp
I rate all of GY!BE’s records highly and this is yet another mighty one. They had me from the moment those shortwave frequencies were launched, teasing the release of this album. So what’s different this time? Well, the “found voices” are abstract and intriguing instead of polemical, the music remains powerful whilst somehow still sounding lost and confused, and the two bridging drone passages – if you have the vinyl I mean the material on the 10” – are as strong and important as the lengthier pieces.
3. Dark In Here – the Mountain Goats (Merge, 19th June) Bandcamp
If you count the Jordan Lake live sessions and the emergency lo-fi cassette album Songs for Pierre Chauvin, the pandemic has meant the already profilic Mountain Goats have become even more bountiful. Dark In Here is a lush studio album which was recorded in Alabama as the pandemic took hold. It is subtitled “12 Songs for singing in caves, bunkers, foxholes, and secret spaces beneath the floorboards” and I know that these songs will also be sung when things are brighter and we emerge blinking into the light.
4. Superwolves – Matt Sweeney & Bonnie Prince Billy (Domino, 30th April) Bandcamp
I know it’s early days for this one but, 15 years on from their classic debut Superwolf, it really feels like they’ve done it again. A long time in the making, for this collaboration Will Oldham wrote the lyrics first then sent them to Matt, who fleshed them out with his arrangements and crafty guitar playing.
5. Earth Man Blues – Guided By Voices (30th April) Bandcamp
If you think that Guided by Voices peaked in the mid-90s and that was that, then this is the album to change your mind. In truth they have been on a staggeringly consistent run since they “reformed” in 2012. Earth Man Blues is something else though, it’s straight into my top 5 GbV albums. It never wastes a note in its 37 minute, 15-song duration – it is by turns catchy, weird, and anthemic. People have asked me what is the best GbV record to introduce someone to the band and I could never give a satisfactory answer (it was usually the Best of or Alien Lanes depending on how deep I thought the person would dig) but honestly, the answer is now Earth Man Blues.
6. New Long Leg – Dry Cleaning (4AD, 2nd April) Bandcamp
The last band I saw live before the world changed, and they were in blistering form. Essentially a cracking indie-rock band fronted by Florence Shaw, who manages to contrast with the energetic delivery of the band by speaking in a monotone for 90% of this album. When she finally changes the note and sings an absent-minded “Doo-doo” refrain on the title track it comes as quite a shock. Sometimes I feel like that her style can’t possibly sustain a whole album, but then I remember that their most memorable line – “Do everything and feel nothing,” is a Tampax slogan and I realise that I am in love with them a bit.
7. Collapsed in Sunbeams – Arlo Parks (Transgressive, 29th Jan) Bandcamp
“I had a dream we kissed and it was all amethyst…” is currently my favourite opening line of any song ever. You don’t need me to tell you about Arlo Parks, she had three brit awards nominations ffs. This debut album is a beaut.
8. Vertigo Days – The Notwist (Morr Music, 29th Jan) Bandcamp
Given the consistently high standard of their albums and live shows I don’t understand why the Notwist often get overlooked. Vertigo Days is yet another great album which manages to pull a wide range of influences together into something quite stunning.
9. Open Door Policy – The Hold Steady (Positive Jams, 19th Feb) Bandcamp
Although I was a massive fan around the time of Separation Sunday in the mid-00s I haven’t been following this lot too closely in recent years, so Open Door Policy has come to me as a very pleasant surprise. Their songwriting has peaked again – ‘Lanyards’ is particular is a masterpiece of storytelling – and although the album was completed before the pandemic hit, there is a lot here which resonates with our current predicament.
10. Echo – Indigo Sparke (Sacred Bones, 26th Feb) Bandcamp
I hadn’t heard of Australia’s Indigo Sparke before this album appeared, but I think it is one of my most played records of the year. An intimate sounding acoustic-based album, co-produced by Indigo with Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker, it does have stylistic similarities with Lenker’s work. Indigo describes this album as “an ode to death and decay,” but there is an immense beauty to it all.
11. An Overview on Phenomenal Nature – Cassandra Jenkins (19 Feb) Bandcamp
12. As Days Get Dark – Arab Strap (Rock Action, 5th March) Bandcamp
13. Bright Green Field – Squid (Warp, 7th May) Bandcamp
14. Flock – Jane Weaver (Fire, 5th March) Bandcamp
15. Sound Ancestors (arranged by Kieran Hebden) – Madlib (Madlib Invasion, 29th Jan) Bandcamp
16. The Wide, Wide River – James Yorkston and the Second Hand Orchestra (Domino, 22th Jan) Bandcamp
17. As the Love Continues – Mogwai (Rock Action, 19th Feb) Bandcamp
18. Sweep It Into Space – Dinosaur Jr (Jagjaguwar, 23th April) Bandcamp
19. Carnage – Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (25th Feb) Official site
20. In Quiet Moments – Lost Horizons (Bella Union, 26 Feb) Bandcamp
21. Promises – Floating Points, Pharaoh Saunders, London Symphony Orchestra (26 March) Bandcamp