Keeper Albums of 2021

I posted the other day about Wrapped, the Spotify product that shows you every year what you spent the most time listening to since January. I love it.

Music wants to be collected and categorized as well as played, and in the era of streaming music that means making your own lists of songs and albums, which I do every year. Actually, no. I don’t make annual song lists anymore. I let Wrapped do that for me. But I do collect albums that I like best in a given year, even ones that I don’t seem to have listened to all that much.

Here, then, are the 12 albums released in 2021 that I’m keeping.

The Cream of The Crop

Fatal Mistakes by Del Amitri and On Account of Exile, Vol. 1 by Trevor Sensor

Del Amitri last released an album in 2001, and it pretty promptly spelled the end of their two decade run. I’d been on board for the last seven years of that run, and hard; if you knew between 1994 and 2001, you knew that I was obsessed with an obscure folk rock band from Glasgow. 20 years on, now, in an utterly reshaped music industry, the same lineup that last recorded under the Bush administration signed a deal with a small label and released 13 brand new songs into the world. I was ready to be disappointed. I was not. It’s really good, and I’m still a little obsessed.

Trevor Sensor is crazy young and sings like he’s gargling gasoline, but, man does it work for me. The songs on On Account of Exile, Vol. 1 are the perfect combination of memorable melodies, lush arrangements, vivid lyricism, and vocals that scratch an itch deep inside my ear. I can put this on and play it straight through without skipping a single track, then start it over again.

Twangy Stuff

The Horses and The Hounds by James McMurtry, Ten Thousand Roses by Dori Freeman, You Get It All by Hayes Carll

James McMurtry’s dad wrote Lonesome Dove, a fact I didn’t know while I was listening to “Carlisle’s Haul” on repeat in 2015. I hooked onto his latest album pretty quick for lines like “Cashing in on a 30 year crush/you can’t be young and do that.” These are character sketches and declarations of conviction that will hold up for a long time.

Dori Freeman was an Appalachian minimalist when I first heard her in 2015. Her first two albums contain completely acapella tracks (you have to hear “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog”). Ten Thousand Roses is all moderned up, which adds muscle without sacrificing the storytelling. “I Am” is worth repeat plays.

Hayes Carll’s 2011 debut album has one of my favorite all time songs on it, and on the strength of that one song I’ll give every one of his albums a try forever and ever amen. You Get It All is my favorite so far.

Rockers

Open Door Policy by The Hold Steady, Enjoy The View by We Were Promised Jetpacks, Huffy by We Are Scientists

I missed the boat on The Hold Steady while they were rocking the bar scene during the aughts, so I didn’t greet their first album with any kind of nostalgia, but rather as a chance to experience something new. The songs on Open Door Policy do what I understand this band to have always done–tell stories about down-and-out salt of the earth drinkers and druggers (“I sell software made for offices/it increases their efficiency/hospitals and local governments/it’s a pretty heavy covenant”), which is fine, but my money is on the backing band, horns and all.

We Were Promised Jetpacks have added lots of electronica to their production since the bare bones brogue-driven 2009 album that made me love them. But those elements bring out what’s great about their music, which is driving, straightforward melodies with hooky little lines like, “I thought I had a fat chance/maybe one in a million.”

I can’t hardly keep up with all the music We Are Scientists release. It’s a constant stream of singles and albums and reworked versions of those albums and podcasts about those albums. A lot of what they do gets lost for me. It’s just so much. But Huffy is a focused collection of pop rock songs that reward their fans in abundance and might also be an alluring point of entry for new listeners.

Grooves

I Told You So by Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, Obviously by Lake Street Drive

I can’t tell you much about Delvon Lamarr and his two organ-accompanying friends, but I can tell you I play this lyric-less album all the time. It’s fun and contains multitudes.

Lake Street Dive gonna Lake Street Dive, you know? Rachel Price’s vocals punch you in the chest, and the songs reach for social comment and relationship witticisms i equal measure without it feeling awkward. This album has a new band member on it, the keyboard player they’ve toured with (and who I saw three years ago). He even has a vocal on here. It’s so good.

Straight Pop

Screen Violence by Chvrches, Sob Rock by John Mayer

I have a thing for Scots, clearly. Chvrches, though, aren’t another collection of self-loathing rocker blokes. Lauren Mayberry’s voice is GORGEOUS, and all the synthesizers and drums machines just work, with force. “He Said She Said” is that perfect combination of powerfully percussive rhythm with layers of melody that are downright enchanting.

I’ve spent a lot of time making fun of John Mayer. Reviewers hated Sob Rock for reasons I would have probably have been mad about five years ago (it’s kind of a shameless 80’s nostalgia product. I wouldn’t be surprised if Toto were the studio band). But real talk: it works on me. I listened to “Last Train Home” almost more than any other song this year, and it didn’t even come out until, like, May. I guess I just feel like Sob Rock is good at what it is, and that is for my 80’s-formed tastes.

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