This is late, embarrassingly late. I made a draft list in January, but held off writing it up because I wanted to listen to a few more things and make some final decisions. Then for a bunch of reasons I couldn’t get around to it. My energy was consumed by my essays about Don’t Look Up and the Australian bushfires, which were both long and a bit taxing to work on. But also just life stuff: parenting, pandemic fatigue, executive dysfunction, what have you.
It’s almost too late to justify publishing it. The main reason I’m doing so, besides stubbornness, is so that I have an archive of my favorite music of 2021 on this site.
This list reflects influences on me that may seem wildly, awkwardly divergent but make internal sense to me. Melancholy postpunk, African psychedelic rock, glitchy bedroom pop, orchestral cosmic jazz, intimate covers of 70s classics from an 80s veteran — I don’t know how to fully explain why these sounds in particular mean so much to me, how they fit together or how they fit in with the underground dance music I play out. But whatever the genre, the music I love tends to be moody, opaque, layered, both introspective and cinematic, and weird. Generally speaking I love music that mixes up electronic and live instruments, or otherwise toys with the false dichotomy between organic and artificial.
So this is by no means supposed to be objective or some tidy representation of the year in music. I love new music, in fact I live for it, and my taste is diverse — in some ways more than it’s ever been in my 51 years, and that diversity is a source of great joy for me. But I don’t fancy myself the kind of critic who has his finger on the pulse. It’s not like I’m checking for the latest releases every Friday. Every year I drift through different obsessions, and sometimes that takes me away from new sounds for a while. I might get the urge to delve back into older music for months at a time, as happened last winter when I suddenly rediscovered my old passion for the Bangles. When I work on Classic Album Sundays I have to focus on older music for practical reasons. If I’m putting together a DJ mix I might spend days on a particular sound to the exclusion of all else. When I was writing my article about the 30th anniversary of my first rave, I spent a couple of weeks listening only to techno and rave music from 1991. And then when I look up I’ve missed out on new albums for month or three. Or, sometimes it takes me a while to catch up on something new, like when I became obsessed with Tame Impala’s Currents four years after it came out.
I don’t feel the need to change all this. It works for me, and this method of discovering new music — abstract, stop-start, but consistent over time — brings me a lot of happiness. But it leaves gaps in my knowledge.
To name a glaring example: I’m a bit ashamed there’s no hip hop here besides Genesis Owusu. It’s not really because of my age. People of my generation love to bitch and moan about the current state of hip hop, but I’m not one of them. I like a lot of the new hip hop I hear on the radio. But for some reason that hasn’t translated to checking out new hip-hop albums. I plan to rectify that soon.
Anyway, if there are any larger, objective trends reflected on this list, it’s first of all yet another resurgence of postpunk — for at least the third time in my lifetime, and I could not be happier about that. Secondly, we’re clearly living in a golden age of pop music, reflected in brilliant and very different offerings from Billie Eilish, Lorde, Halsey and others. One thing that’s significant about this movement, if you can call it that, is that it really puts the focus on women artists.
The pandemic is another factor that looms over almost all these albums, since they were almost all recorded in 2020, and many of them recorded in isolation. Not very many actually mention the crisis (Courtney Barnett and Sleaford Mods make passing references on a couple of tracks). But in some ways all of them are about COVID, in that all are directly or indirectly about isolation, anxiety, loneliness, dread and mortality. This is true whether the different artists are delving into all that anxiety, exploring it and working through it; or making more uplifting sounds to give us a much-needed break. Several of them, especially the ones from the UK, address larger issues of social decay and class anger.
I ranked the albums in order, but that order is not imperative and it might have shifted around if I’d done this on a different day or in a different mood. However the top six or seven were certainly the most impactful for me — the ones I couldn’t get out of my head, the ones that moved me deeply or changed me in some way.
I’ve embedded a playlist with selections from this list at the bottom of this article.
1. Dry Cleaning — New Long Leg
I’ve already reviewed this album at length. There was no album I listened to more this year, new or old, and none that I relied on as much to soundtrack my life, or just make me feel better. The months-long lockdown we went through here in Sydney over the winter had something to do with that; as I mention in my review, this is perfect music both for an internalized mood and for a domestic setting. It’s also just a brilliant, beautiful, and very affecting sound, and, especially thanks to the genius of Flo Shaw’s spoken word, wonderfully unique despite its many postpunk and art-rock influences.
2. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra — Promises
I can’t believe this album even exists. Early-70s cosmic jazz, including the work of Sanders, Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra, is my favorite mode of jazz. For many years it’s been a quietly huge part of my life, in part because of its influence on and kinship with ambient and electronica. The fact that the elderly Sanders went out of his way to befriend London electronic-music genius Sam Shepherd, AKA Floating Points, after he fell in love with his music, and talked him into recording an album together, is one of those musical and cultural confluences that’s as life-affirming as it is impossible to predict. (The LSO’s contributions were recorded a year later, after the pandemic hit.) The result is everything you’d hope from these three entities: ethereal, avant-garde, free-floating, yet also gorgeous and dramatic and intensely moving. Sanders’ saxophone lines — as unmistakeable and unshakeably, stirringly melodic as they were 50 years ago — lilt and hover and circle like astral birds around Shepherd’s hauntingly simple keyboard refrain. From this basic dynamic, the suite of nine movements expands outward like crystalline structures, with sweepingly cinematic cascades of strings broken up by haunting synth interludes. In the midst of world crisis it was an oasis of melody, transcendence and the joy found in the most adventurous music.
3. Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time
Barnett is one of my heroes — there’s a reason I chose her for the featured image of this post — and if it weren’t for the magic of Dry Cleaning or the one-off miracle that is the above collaboration, this quiet masterpiece would top this list. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Things Take Time. I found the months-long marketing campaign a little tedious (the sad thing about following an artist you love is when they have new product, they have to flog it; it’s sink or swim for them). I’d heard she recorded it in isolation during lockdown in Melbourne, so I was halfway expecting it to be all acoustic and a bit of a throwaway compared to the expansive Tell Me How You Really Feel, one of my very favorite albums, and Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, one of the greatest debut LPs of all time. But I felt foolish about these misgivings as soon as I pressed play. This is Courtney Barnett we’re talking about, and her radiant genius manifests itself immediately, in the first verse of the first track, “Rae Street.” It starts with a simple drum machine pattern — something you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Barnett’s rootsy alt-rock — before she kicks in with a gorgeous country-ish guitar riff and lyrics that, with her deceptively casual deftness, switch from the profound to the mundane, as if she’s embarrassed by her own deep thoughts: “All our candles, hopes and prayers / Though well-meanin’, they don’t mean a thing / Unless we see some change / I might change my sheets today.” Over a crisp 33 minutes, with accompaniment only from producer and drummer Stella Mogzawa, Barnett continues in this vein — just her brilliant electric guitar along with drums or drum machine, a bit of synth or keyboard. Far from sounding like a throwaway, this rawness is what makes it special. Despite how simple and uncluttered it is, there’s a sheer joy in sound. At times the guitar–electronic blend reminds me of the atmospheric postpunk of the Durutti Column; at others it’s a pleasant callback to that millennial era when bands like the Shins and Wilco weren’t afraid to throw some keyboards in with the guitars. Barnett also gets into some wonderful Velvet Underground-type droning grooves here. Lyrically, each of the 10 tracks is a snapshot of a restless mind stuck at home, wondering what it all means, calling her friends to check up on them, delivered in Barnett’s trademark voice that’s a cross between a sly grin and a wry, weary shrug, and emphasizing rather than downplaying her Aussie accent. Like Dry Cleaning’s Flo Shaw, Barnett’s lyrics have very often focused on the minutiae of domestic things — her garden, her Sunday roast — and those themes are more significant than ever in this locked-down era. Knowing she was hospitalized for anxiety during the first lockdown sometime before recording this album adds a melancholy resonance to the whole thing. There’s a therapeutic feel, with song titles like “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To” and “Take It Day by Day,” but Barnett is never able to be completely earnest, with heartfelt sentiments followed up by snarky rejoinders: “Don’t give up just yet / Maybe tomorrow.” It’s a very human, vulnerable and exquisite third album from one of the greatest rock and roll artists alive.
4. Parquet Courts — Sympathy for Life
Parquet Courts are a New York band who are new to me, though Sympathy for Life is their seventh album. I’m a bit irritated (not to mention embarrassed) that I hadn’t heard them before, because this LP really does it for me. From what I understand, Sympathy is a departure for them — a foray into funk, dance and electronic sounds after several albums of more minimal postpunk, not unlike the evolution of Talking Heads, a clear influence. Since it’s a new chapter, it’s no wonder Sympathy has the freshness of a debut, while retaining the confidence and lyrical complexity of a band who’ve been at it for a decade. They mash up lots of influences: Television, Liquid Liquid, LCD Soundsystem, to name some obvious references from the pantheon of New York postpunk. The album was based on several months of extended jam sessions, and the groove they developed in that time is palpable here even with shorter track lengths. They also strongly remind me of A Certain Ratio — specifically the range of sounds on Soul Jazz Records’ fantastic 2002 compilation of ACR’s early work, the way it runs the gamut from Joy Division-inspired postpunk to outright funk and disco. At other times PQ have a very 60s psychedelic garage-rock feel — which, as a side note, pleasantly dovetailed with my rediscovery of the Bangles and L.A.’s Paisley Underground this year. The overall effect is as if they’re out to prove the unity of underground sounds from the late 60s through postpunk and funk and modern indie dance. But it also feels really new and hard to pin down, and the great songwriting keeps it from sounding disjointed or choppily “eclectic.” The lyrics tie it all together, with their stories about life in 21st century New York, a creeping sense of late-capitalist dystopia broken by moments of euphoria — climaxing on the chillingly good electro-Krautrock jam “Application/Apparatus.” It all has that deliriously good feeling of a band who who are peaking, exploding with ideas, and everything they do works. I don’t care how many generations revive this sound, it will never not be cool.
5. Billie Eilish — Happier Than Ever
The thing I love about Eilish is that she reached the upper echelons of pop fame as a teenager with music that’s actually really weird when you sit and listen to it. Her great debut LP, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is pop in terms of format and (insanely catchy) songwriting, but underneath it’s exquisitely produced glitchy electronica with a goth attitude. Compared to most generic corporate pop, her music is wonderfully offbeat, uncompromising, and a hell of a lot of fun. I genuinely think she’s following in the footsteps of Madonna (by making pop as adventurous as possible) but also Sinéad O’Connor (with her darkly personal songwriting and confrontational attitude). That warms the heart of an aging 80s kid like me. Happier Than Ever is an even better album than the debut: with more swagger and control in Eilish’s vocals and lyrics, more consistency and groove in brother Finneas’s production. It has a smokier, loungier vibe, and at times it reminds me of Portishead — probably by design, judging by how overt the influence seems on “I Didn’t Change My Number.” And yes, Eilish’s sultry, dramatic vocals and acerbic, frequently bitter lyrics are often as good as Beth Gibbons’s. At other times she invokes Björk or Mezzanine-era Massive Attack (I’m not kidding). Thematically it’s all about her struggles with fame at an early age; but rather than making that sound glamorous or self-indulgent, she focuses on the dark side — the lack of privacy, the vicious and relentless online sexism she’s endured, the body-image issues. She also tackles bigger and more social topics, including the Me Too movement on “Your Power” and, on “Everybody Dies,” her generation’s fear of mortality, entirely justified in the age of COVID. “Everybody dies, that’s what they say / And maybe in a couple hundred years they’ll find another way.”
6. Sleaford Mods — Spare Ribs
There’s no album that’s fascinated me more than this one recently. Like Parquet Courts, Sleaford Mods have been around for some time and I missed out on them, only to be blown away last year by their eleventh album. They hail from Nottingham in the UK, and are made up of producer and beatmaker Andrew Fearn and vocalist Jason Williamson. Their sound is a minimalist, bass-heavy mashup of electro, postpunk, dub, and funk, with Williamson speak-singing-rapping over it in unhinged, snarky, sneering fashion with a slangy, working-class Midlands accent, telling lurid tales of life in post-Brexit England with lots of raunchy humor. (Incidentally, I love that Williamson is my age; let’s hear it for the geezers who are just warming up in their 50s.) This is a thrilling and hypnotic formula: the lean and mean backing tracks set against Williamson’s wild, loopy, rambling monologues. His vocals have many antecedents, from Johnny Rotten to Mark E. Smith, but the one I keep coming back to is Shaun Ryder from the Happy Mondays (and I believe the Mondays influence is explicit on the title track, with its dubby Andy Weatherall-style production that sounds like it’s straight off the Hallelujah EP). No doubt Tony Wilson would call Williamson the greatest poet since Yeats if he were still alive. Like Ryder, Williamson’s sing-songy rants delight in vulgar surrealism, and sound offhand when you first listen, but reveal depth and brilliance the more you listen. Some of his bars are so dense in their rhyme schemes and flowing imagery they remind me of MF DOOM: “Benches with RIP badges under swaying trees that kiss the energy damaged / People underneath, same old same old, dugouts and old walks, footings / Oh fuck, story’s about the origins of buildings, slight hills, panic behind the tills / Rumble rumble, get the hot weather and some fucker got a beer or two.” Though it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, the anger is what grabs me the most — specifically class anger; I can’t think of a recent band that addresses class so directly. “I wish I had the time to be a wanker just like you,” Williamson taunts an unnamed music-industry boss in “Elocution,” “And maybe then I’d be somewhere lovely and warm, just like you.” No wonder given the situation in the UK, with the chaos of Brexit, the massive spike in poverty and homelessness, and the deadly nihilism and brutality of the Tory government’s let-it-rip COVID policies. “We’re all so Tory tired!” Williamson wails on the intro track. The picture Williamson paints is one of an island seething with instability and unfocused rage. His repeated refrain on “Out There” has, by itself, enough social drama and conflict for a Ken Loach film: “I try to tell the bloke who’s drinkin’ near the shops that it ain’t the foreigners and it ain’t the fuckin’ Cov / But he don’t care.”
7. Susanna Hoffs — Bright Lights
I’ve already written about this wonderful but sadly neglected album, and I definitely don’t need to write more about it now, because I have a couple of long-form articles about the rediscovery of my Bangles fandom in the works. It was a nice coincidence for this collection of exquisite covers to be released just a few months into the process of revisiting my most primal influence, my musical origin story.
8. Mdou Moctar — Afrique Victime
How to describe Mdou Moctar if you haven’t heard him? He and his band play Tuareg psychedelic rock — modern interpretations of guitar music from Niger, sung in the Tamasheq language, and fused with contemporary Western sounds. Picture North African desert blues crossed with Jane’s Addiction — but even more awe-inspiring and beautiful than that sounds. This guy is just an incredible, visionary guitarist, with total command of his instrument, shifting between traditional modes and his influences such as Jimi Hendrix and Van Halen with effortless agility, his playing seeming to communicate and tell stories on its own. When he turns on his pedals his guitar takes on the quality of a synth, and the whole thing launches into outer space. As God is my witness there’s something almost shoegazey about it at times. His band is amazing too, especially drummer Souleymane Ibrahim, as they structure a beautifully melodic, polyrhythmic scaffold for that towering lead guitar, frequently accelerating the tempo into overdrive to keep up with Moctar. Bassist Mikey Coltun, who hails from the Washington, DC punk and experimental scenes and is the lone Westerner in the band, handles production duties, often editing extended jams into the powerful shorter versions that appear on the album. Though it’s often feverishly exciting music, it’s also quite meditative. Even better, Moctar’s lyrics address political themes including feminism and colonialism — the latter is the subject of the epic title track.
9. Lorde — Solar Power
The third album from New Zealand electropop diva Lorde is all about light. Sunlight is a recurring theme: from the title of the album and Lorde’s nude stroll on a sun-splashed beach on the cheekily provocative cover, to lyrics like “Let’s hope the sun will show us the path,” the refrain on the opening track. It’s also light in feel, with its bright, airy, acoustic folktronica and its clear inspiration in early-70s singer-songwriters like Carole King and Joni Mitchell. And it’s all about enlightenment: basically a concept album about Lorde escaping the rat race and worldly things so she can find herself. At first I was suspicious of the hippy-dippy themes and references to yoga and meditation — with their emphasis on individualism and self-care over the collective — but the more you listen the more you hear a sharp satirical edge. “I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus,” she quips on the title track. There’s plenty of cynicism, melancholy and self-doubt along with the zen — she’s just too good and honest a lyricist to go full New Age. In “Stoned at the Nail Salon” she comically dismisses her own grandiose thoughts about the impermanence of things as the musings of a stoner. “California” is, true to its Joni Mitchell influence, quite jaded about life in Hollywood. “Don’t want that California love,” she sighs. The production, by Lorde herself with help from superproducer Jack Antonoff and Frank Ocean collaborator Malay, is terrific. Repeat listens keep revealing detail, especially the ethereally layered backing vocals. I love how stoned it is, and how it borrows from indie-dance classics like Primal Scream’s Screamadelica. The folktronica vibe also frequently reminds me of Beth Orton’s terribly underrated 1996 album Trailer Park, which, like Screamadelica, was produced by Andy Weatherall. With its trip-hop beat, gospelly chorus and crescendoing brass, the title track seems to directly refer to the single version of the Primals’ “Come Together” (which, of course, directly referred to mid-period Stones). I love that pop music can be so overtly psychedelic and trippy nowadays.
10 & 11. Squid — Bright Green Field and Black Country, New Road — For the First Time
Here we have two excellent and memorable debut albums with a lot in common. Both bands are British, and both are operating in the sphere of postpunk, more or less, while resolutely setting aside the minimalism that often accompanies that tag. Both bands hit hard with abrasive guitars and nimble, funky rhythms, but both go beyond the usual guitar-bass-drums and prominently feature lush instrumentation including brass or strings or both. The two bands seem to share similar influences: Modest Mouse jumps to mind in both cases; as does Godspeed You! Black Emperor; and there’s even hints of some of the proggier grunge-era bands like Faith No More or Primus. Both albums are as adventurous as debut LPs get, with moods ranging from gentle ambience to squalling noise; and both featuring long, epic tracks with complex structures. Both lead singers engage in a kind of sprechsegang or speak-singing, and both go from tense spoken word to angsty shouting. In both cases that shouty quality can be a bit grating and this is not music for every mood. (Apparently spoken word is the thing in British postpunk these days — it’s fascinating how many newer bands do this, including several listed here.) Lyrically speaking, both albums are made up of vignettes of dystopian modern British life, with the spoken-word style of the leads allowing for detailed storytelling and rambling monologues that range from the surreal to the paranoid. There’s even some visual harmony: both album covers depict fields of green grass. I hope it’s not reductive or unfair to make such comparisons — maybe I noticed all the connecting points because I first heard them around the same time. But listening to them back to back, as I did while writing this, it strikes me that this feels like some kind of movement. If you love rock with no boundaries or limitations, but with lots of punch and plenty of ideas, it’s some time to be alive.
12. Emma-Jean Thackray — Yellow
Thackray is part of the vibrant London jazz scene — I was put onto her by London jazzmeister and BBC host Gilles Peterson, who named Yellow his best of the year. She’s a staggeringly talented singer, multi-instrumentalist and bandleader, and she wrote, produced and arranged this lovely, idiosyncratic album and released it on her own label, Movementt. It’s cosmic jazz-funk in a very 70s vein, harking back to that era defined by Pharoah Sanders (see above) as well as artists like Lonnie Liston-Smith and Roy Ayers — the ones who took that boundless sound and spiritual vibe and brought it to the dancefloor. It’s also highly influenced by the late-90s, early-00s school of nu-jazz that fused those sounds with house and electronic music (and which was really big in my life in those years). This is an album designed to uplift the listener: overflowing with melody, funk and good vibes along with the amazing playing. Typically Thackray and her band lay down a thick groove, keyboards and brass mesh together or trade solos, then she chants a chorus like a playful mantra (“Be yellow, be mellow! Be kind to your fellow humans! We’re all made of sunshine!”) while gorgeous strings elevate the whole thing. It’s also really trippy, packed with sonic detail and radical progressions — Thackray says she wanted the album to feel like “a life-changing psychedelic experience.” Unlike Lorde, Thackray is completely sincere with the spiritual stuff and seemingly devoid of cynicism — she sings and chants about astrology and spirits and third eyes. That’s intrinsic to this kind of music — it’s cosmic for a reason — and, whatever the listener may think of its rationality, for the Black artists who innovated it back in the day, those metaphysical beliefs were closely tied to ideals of Black freedom and universal community. The joy and inspiration Thackray finds in that tradition is contagious, and the beauty, texture and energy of this album is enough to overcome any doubts.
13. Halsey — If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
I’m going to admit to being a basic Gen-Xer here: I became interested in this album after I found out it was produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. So much of the current wave of pop borrows from industrial, so it only makes sense for Halsey to go to the source. This is a wonderful collaboration that brings out the best in both, and the truth is I’d rather listen to this than Nine Inch Nails, especially thanks to Halsey’s powerhouse vocals. The backing tracks range from the kind of eerie spacious ambient that Reznor and Finch do on movie soundtracks lately to speaker-crunching drum & bass to shoegazey alt-rock. After a few tracks you forget about the who, what, where of the production and focus on the intense drama of Halsey’s songwriting and vocals, and the album’s overarching concept about the dark side of pregnancy and motherhood. There’s a Q Magazine issue from 1994 that featured Björk, Tori Amos and PJ Harvey on the cover. The net effect of this album is as if the three of them had actually collaborated on record.
14. Skee Mask — Pool
Of all the current techno artists whose tracks I might include in a dance mix (like this one), Munich’s Skee Mask is the one making the nicest music for home listening. Released in early 2021, when the dance music industry worldwide was stuck at home, this sprawling instrumental album is a document of isolation and meditative solitude, which is true of the best electronic and ambient music anyway. It’s great music to clean house to — and if you know me you know that’s the highest praise. The producer, whose real name is Bryan Müller, is clearly influenced by classic Warp artists like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada in his restless experimentalism and love of noise, but his rolling beats and gorgeous synthscapes also have the crystalline, hyperreal quality of atmospheric drum & bass (a style he tackles directly at times here). The album’s length seemed indulgent at first, but the more I listened the more I decided there’s hardly a throwaway: even on the more minimal or repetitive tracks, some hook or other fascinating detail manifests itself. The best tracks are awash with melody and simply spine-tingling. Though still early in his career, Skee Mask has a terrific ear for what gives techno the potential to exhilarate and inspire away from the dancefloor. (Note: this album is only available for streaming on Bandcamp. You can listen to it a couple of times for free there, but after that you have to pay.)
15. Banoffee — Tear Tracks
There’s a lot of this kind of music out there lately. It’s a dominant sound on FBi Radio here in Sydney, which is what I listen to in the car. Whether you call it hyperpop or bedroom pop or what have you, I won’t pretend to have a handle on the genre. I’m a 51-year-old dad and house DJ and this music is not made for me; the target audience is decades younger, not to mention overwhelmingly women and LGBT. But still, it really grabs me and reminds me of what I’ve always loved about 80s dance pop, which is very close to my heart. I’ve gotten bored with a lot of house lately and there’s something so fresh and invigorating about this sound, which combines glitchy electronic beats, ranging from trap to techno to industrial, with melody-saturated songwriting influenced by emo and pop punk as well as R&B. One hallmark of this style is its unabashed reliance on Autotuned vocals, the more deliriously artificial the better. There’s often a rough DIY feel to it, a quality it shares with underground dance music. At the same time it’s all about shiny textures and big emotions. When it’s good, it’s great: Charli XCX’s 2020 lockdown album How I’m Feeling Now is one of the best of any genre in recent years and I was obsessed with it for a while. When it’s mediocre, it can sound like a telecom commercial. Banoffee (real name Martha Brown), who played synth in Charli XCX’s touring band before her solo career started blowing up, makes the good stuff. I’m inclined to support her anyway because she’s an Australian independent artist; and because she lives with chronic pain, so I naturally feel disability solidarity with her. (She had to leave L.A. and move back to Melbourne because — wait for it — she couldn’t afford healthcare in the U.S.) External factors aside, this album is fascinating. It’s a whirlwind of sound that’s abrasive and distorted but at the same time absurdly, virulently catchy. Just try to get the refrain of “Take a Pill” out of your head after you’ve heard it once: “Wake up, take a pill, go to sleep, take a pill.” I’m trying to imagine music this noisy and weird and nonchalant about drugs and depression and pain being classified as “pop” when I was a kid. Or a pop song with bass as dope as that on “Never Get to Fuck Any1.” I like that the album’s not overloaded with guests like so many pop albums are; it’s all Banoffee herself, a short, sharp nine tracks, 30+ minutes, staying in a steady groove. The lyrics are largely about heartbreak, but also in a bigger sense about alienation and the miasma of stress and anxiety we all live with. “Gotta clean the house today,” she sings on “Idiot.” “The outside world just don’t seem safe.”
16. Turnstile — Glow On
I felt like I was almost shamed into checking out Turnstile. This band has gotten so much hype lately; they are regularly called the saviors of punk or the greatest rock band around and so on. The thing is, I’m not into mainline punk and I never really was; so whatever it is these guys are saving is not something I lost sleep over in the first place. But when I gave this one a spin I was like, yeah. The accolades are not wrong. This is phenomenally powerful and dynamic music, combining the best of punk, hardcore and later, grungier iterations of same with terrific songwriting and audacious arrangements and production. It’s all about the details for me. I love the album cover: gauzy, abstract, pink, which might make you expect something “softer” or more “feminine,” more like shoegaze or dreampop. That little aesthetic sign going in means a lot to me. I love how the album starts out with a spacey synth sound, and incorporates electronica throughout. I like the little hints of salsa, blues, postpunk, and, indeed, dreampop. Sometimes they give themselves over to completely to melody and atmosphere, as on the terrific Blood Orange collab “Alien Love Call.” It makes it that much more impactful when they fucking rock out, which is very often. Music this all-embracing and colorful and fun and improbably beautiful is the opposite of why I gave up on punk.
17. Genesis Owusu — Smiling with No Teeth
The debut album from Ghana-born, Canberra-raised Owusu, who was just 22 when he released it, fits loosely into the format of R&B and hip hop. He croons soulful ballads and he most certainly raps. But limiting Owusu to those genres would be like doing the same with Frank Ocean, or Prince. Owusu is an artist who refuses to be constrained by genre, or anything, and this breathtakingly confident debut is as much electronic dance music and indie rock as it is “urban” music. Rock and dance and electronica are Black forms too of course; but aside from proving a point, Owusu also clearly loves mixing things up just for the pure joy of it. His great backing band features guitar work from Aussie rocker Kirin J. Callinan and bass by Touch Sensitive. I love that Owusu brought in Harvey Sutherland, one of my favorite Australian house and funk producers, to collaborate on the electro-flavored “Easy.” I love that he’s so fierce and uncompromising in calling out racism and domestic violence and Nazis and the cops, as on the mesmerisingly good “Whip Cracker.” (If you’re not familiar with Australian politics, let me assure you that African immigrant communities cop a lot of racist shit from the ruling class and the media here.) If there’s any criticism to offer, it’s that the album feels a little heterogeneous at times; the guest vocal from Callinan on the straight-up rocker “Drown” in particular feels a bit obligatory. Some of the D’Angelo-like soul numbers are a bit standard as well. Thankfully, whenever it flags a bit, Owusu flips the script and gets weird — the eerie synth noise on “I Don’t See Colour,” or the backward-masked vocals on “Centrefold.” It’s that weirdness and that Afrofuturism I’m really here for, more than the classic soul vibe; and the best tracks really do channel the spirit of Prince or OutKast in their freaky, floor-destroying Black fusion. Either way it never sounds like Owusu’s merely imitating his influences; he has too much talent for that, and too much to say.
Honorable mentions: Here are a few albums that didn’t quite make this list, for different reasons. Either they are truly great but I didn’t hear them before 2020 was over; or I just haven’t had time to explore them fully; or they didn’t grab me like I was hoping they would but they’re still good and interesting enough to recommend:
St. Vincent — Daddy’s Home
Low — Hey What
Yard Act — The Overload
Low Life — From Squats to Lots: The Agony and XTC of Low Life
Lil Nas X — Montero
Ausecuma Beats — Musso