- Nathan Yoder
DC's Favorite Albums of 2021
And here it is, the grand finale!
There were so many amazing albums released in 2021, and it was difficult to narrow it down to just ten favorites, but after much deliberation and hand wringing, we managed to do it. Who knows, maybe we'll save ourselves some grief and expand the field to 20 next year.
Also, we gotta cheat for a sec and mention an eleventh album before our top ten list kicks off. We here at DC publish our EOTY posts each year at the end of November/early December. So if an artist happens to release their album in that time frame, we don't really know how to include their work in our process. On November 27, 2020 Luis Pestana gave us Rosa Pano after we had finalized our 2020 lists. So it was too late for 2020 and too early for 2021. We've written about this album already, but feel the need to highlight it once more. It's amazing. And it just so happens that DC is teaming with Luis Pestana to announce some exciting news about Rosa Pano pretty soon here, so stay tuned.
Alright, enough about that. Let's run through this final countdown from ten to one.
10. Izzy Johnson - Earth Tones
We've already written about a handful of the selections you'll see on DC's top ten list this year, and will be sure to provide links to those posts when that's the case. Those first dedications are much more flowery and detailed than these short summary paragraphs, so check em out if you have the time. For our full love letter to Izzy Johnson's Earth Tones, click here. Johnson's softly strummed guitar and ethereal vocals make up the album's base - the constants from start to finish, and some well-placed flute and strings add just the right amount of magic to a few of their songs. Earth Tones the perfect album for a summertime doze outside in dappled sun, but it probably sounds just as good in December.
This album just stuck with us. Couldn't shake it. But that's okay, really, because Hedley's music never goes stale. It's so heartfelt, so sincere, so animated. Read all the praise DC heaped on Painterly last summer by clicking here if you'd like, but it all boils down to Nico Hedley's superb songwriting skills and vocal performance. Just listen to the track Something to Make to hear what we're talking about. And as we wrote in our full feature, Hedley's backing band is capable of building these noisy climbs before peeling everything away, and this dynamism makes for quite a captivating sonic arc. Hear for yourself below, and see if you love Painterly as much as we do.
We previewed Hidemi this fall, having had the great honor to sit with the entire album a couple months before its release. Conceptually, it piqued our interest, and musically, it blew us away. Patrick Shiroishi's masterpiece is perhaps the most emotionally resonant album of the year - a tribute to his late grandfather who was held in a Japanese-American concentration camp, though the album itself focuses more on his years following detainment. Saxophone composition is not often our jam here at DC, but surprisingly to us, we fell in love with Shiroishi's music immediately. There are moments throughout this album which are absolutely jaw-dropping: the building pressure across Tule Lake Like Yesterday, the climax on Jellyfish in the Sky, the held notes at the end of What Happens When People Open Their Hearts, and especially the powerful, ecstatic chorus closing out the album on The Long Bright Dark. Shoot, most moments on this album are special, so listen to the entire work below.
7. Chuck Johnson - The Cinder Grove
Like Shiroishi's work, listening to Chuck Johnson's The Cinder Grove is a deeply emotional experience, but for a very different reason. Read our complete thoughts about the album by clicking here, but to summarize, this ambient pedal steel journey tells the story of burning old growth forests - an annual occurrence we West Coasters witness each summer. And though these large-scale fire events have become a part of our collective lives and landscapes, they never feel any less violent when they happen. Often, they lead to bouts of depression and dread. So why sit with such heavy music? Maybe we wish to hold these skeleton trees in our memories. The Cinder Grove is a tribute album, after all, and the more we meditate on these terrible scenes, the more they may affect us in ways both small and significant. It should be noted, too, that The Cinder Grove is a stunning piece of music. We find side B especially moving, but hear it all below.
It was hard to temper expectations leading up to October 22nd. Grouper (our favorite artist) was set to release an album about the Oregon Coast (our favorite place), and the lead single somehow sounded both fresh and familiar. We wrote about Unclean Mind earlier this week, but now we want to offer up a few words of praise for Shade, because it did not disappoint. Tracks 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7 all share certain qualities, Liz opting to use only acoustic guitar and voice with minimal editing across these songs. It's like we are right there in the room, hearing her play. But two noisier pieces (Followed the Ocean and Disordered Minds) are equally engaging. The opening track is a massive wall of sound, or more appropriately, a tidal wave, and we hear bit of percussion on the second cut - a rare occurrence in Grouper's music. Finally, Kelso closes out the album. With due respect to Pitchfork, this song may be a sonic outlier on Shade, but the lyrical imagery resonates deeply. Whoever wrote that review has never driven west to Astoria and then down to the sea. It's a perfect ending.
5. JJJJJerome Ellis - The Clearing
We've never heard an album quite like JJJJJerome Ellis' The Clearing before, nor do we expect any future copycats. Essentially, it's a thesis defense, but delivered via an hour-long sound collage. Ellis' words about speech dysfluency, Blackness, music, and time swirl atop beat-threaded jazz and chopped up audio fragments. So not only is the content of Ellis' album compelling, but so too is the form that it takes. We feel our summary paragraph may not do this intensely cerebral and beautiful work of art near enough justice, so we'll cut to the artist's own expression of intent. About The Clearing, Ellis says, "I hope this album offers the listener some of what my stutter offers me: an opportunity to imagine new ways of being in time.” Hear for yourself below.
4. Strange Ranger - No Light in Heaven
What the hell is a mixtape anyway? Is it different than an album? Probably, but we're going to go ahead and toss this one in here anyway. We wrote a bit about Strange Ranger earlier this week, but just gotta state one more time that they seem to get better and better with each release. We've followed the band from their days in Portland, where they recorded and performed under a different name. They were a scrappy group of kids back then, emulating Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. But now, they don't recycle others' stylings. Instead, Strange Ranger (now based in Philly), is popularizing a sound which feels altogether new. Across the sub-30-minutes of No Light in Heaven, you'll catch squelches of noise, autotuned crooning, pop hooks, dance music, punk rock, found sound, and beats both chunky and break. There's a smattering of everything here, as the band explores and experiments in sonic fringes. Catch it below, and be sure to follow where Strange Ranger is headed next.
These final three albums stand apart from the rest of the group. We ranked them 3-1, sure, but their order is pretty interchangeable. For our full review of Balmorhea's The Wind, follow this link. As you'll read, we were in awe of the duo's post-classical masterpiece then, and we remain just as impressed today. Like Chuck Johnson's The Cinder Grove, The Wind is a meditation on our fragile and increasingly stressed planet, as well as the evolving relationship humans have with natural elements. The album holds twelve minimalist, mostly instrumental tracks, but when strung together, these wordless vignettes feel connected thematically. The Wind's middle stretch of Landlessness into Evening into The Myth is especially potent, and features cameos by both Clarice Jensen and Lisa Morgenstern. A number of other guests appear across The Wind, so be sure to listen to it from start to finish. It is a truly breathtaking work.
*While this release is unavailable through Bandcamp, you can stream and purchase it by clicking the hyperlink above. It's also on Spotify.
2. Japanese Breakfast - Jubilee
There was a stretch of time late last spring when we felt immersed in Michelle Zauner's world. We read her memoir, Crying in H Mart, just a couple weeks before Jubilee came out, and adored both works immensely. While her book is a devastating story of grief stemming from the loss of her mother to cancer, her album is a ray of sun bursting through the gray. This was intentional on her part, Zauner expressing that after spending so many years mired in sadness, she wanted to write an album that was, well, jubilant. We wrote a bit about our favorite cut already (read that here), but all of Jubilee is wonderful. Lead single, Be Sweet, is sugary to its core, Kokomo, IN tells a story of young love, and Posing in Bondage echoes as it grows larger and larger. But it's the final two tracks that really get us. Tactics is the type of song that makes you wanna close your eyes, clutch your heart, and belt out the lyrics as loud as you can (even if you're a lousy singer). And Posing for Cars is an epic capstone track which features a wailing guitar solo and plenty of crash. Overall, Jubilee is outstanding. Zauner teaches us that from loss comes love, and sometimes even light.
1. Karima Walker - Waking the Dreaming Body
Another year, another Orindal AOTY. Gia Margaret took our top spot last year, and now it's Karima Walker's turn. In our original review of Waking the Dreaming Body (read those words here) we recalled the first time we head Walker's work, and our "oh shit, this is really really really good" revelation. That was way back in January, and no other album we sat with over the next 11-ish months matched that feeling. We listened to literally hundreds of releases in 2021, many of which we loved, but none as much as Waking the Dreaming Body. So what led us to select this album as our overall favorite? It's a combination of things, as you might guess, but we'll focus on one big reason here, so as to avoid getting carried away. Simply put, the album's structure is unique and appealed to the type of listening we enjoy. There are songs where it feels as if Walker addresses us directly, singing and strumming her guitar nearby, but also long periods of quiet drone during which she leaves us alone to wander and ponder our own thoughts. She subtly weaves field recordings through this hazy, dreamlike journey, til the moment she coaxes us awake on the album's title track (which we highlighted on Monday). The overall arc of the album, but also its diverse compositions set it apart. It's our favorite of the year!
Be sure to come back tomorrow for DC's final post of 2021. We'll recount where we've been, where we're going in 2022, and you can also get some free DC gear, mailed direct. Seriously! Thanks a bunch for reading, and see you soon.