“ ‘Tis the damn season,” to borrow a phrase from Taylor Swift, to rank the 10 albums that I enjoyed the most this year, each of which relentlessly assaulted my long-suffering eardrums in 2021. Ms. Swift, of course, released “Taylor’s Version” of her “Red” album this year, which unfortunately does not qualify it as a new album for the purposes of this list, but which did nonetheless coincide with the release of an outstanding 10-minute version of her song “All Too Well.” Never before has such a lengthy song seemed to breeze by so quickly, justifying its achievement as the longest song to ever reach #1 on the singles charts.
While that is definitely one of the top songs of the year, below are the full albums that made it onto the list of my annual favorites. An album is of course a single and comprehensive work of art, composed of individual songs that together encompass a whole. These were the year’s best, in my humble opinion.
10. “Sob Rock,” by John Mayer
’80s nostalgia meets Mayer’s signature introspection in this fun, tongue-in-cheek retro collection of songs that could have come straight out of 1989 (to again throw a hat tip to T-Swift). Check out the campy and hilarious videos that accompany some of the songs off the album, if you want to see what 1980s music videos were like. Despite the throwback feel, the songs, simply, are also really good, as Mayer’s often are. “New Light” is a standout (and the video is great).
9. “The Ballad of Dood and Juanita,” by Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill has quietly and steadily fashioned himself one of today’s master practitioners of the concept-album-as-art form. His latest release is perhaps his boldest step yet in that direction. A continuous old west tale of one man’s search for his kidnapped wife, accompanied by his trusty hound and reliable steed, the album is filled with beautiful harmonies, traditional bluegrass, the occasional sound effect, and a tale straight out of mid-century TV westerns. It’s a glorious throwback, and “Sam” is as fitting a tribute to any dog you’ll ever hear.
8. “Reckless,” by Morgan Wade
The album cover features Wade’s tattooed fingers obscuring most of her face, except for a hint of her eyes that reveal a steely vulnerability, and the album follows the same conceit in its music. Wade’s weathered country voice conjures visions of cigarettes and bourbon, while she sings about lost love, defeated addiction, and struggles for sobriety. The fact that Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden co-produced the album, and co-wrote some of the songs, only adds that much more to the collection of grizzled country tunes. Give a listen to “Northern Air,” “Other Side,” and “Last Cigarette.”
7. “Medicine at Midnight,” by Foo Fighters
Admittedly, the Foos don’t usually make my annual best album lists. I absolutely love a lot of their songs, but the albums don’t always hold up as complete works for me. Their latest is an exception, as it travels gloriously from bangers like “Making a Fire” to slower numbers like “Waiting on a War,” and finishes off with the absolutely glorious “Love Dies Young” (another of my best songs of the year). If you haven’t seen the video for the latter, featuring a decidedly un-“Ted Lasso,” Russian-American, synchronized swim coach — played masterfully by Jason Sudeikis — then do yourself a favor and watch it. The accent! The jacket! The dancing! The distraught CPR! The Foo Fighters (and the poo) in the pool! You’re welcome.
6. “Intermission,” by Assertion
Rock music had a good year, comparatively speaking, thus keeping our hopes alive that it remains with us, even if occasionally appearing to be on life support. The trio called Assertion put out this tight, alt-rock collection to little fanfare, and it remained in heavy rotation for me all year. “The Lamb to the Slaughter Pulls a Knife” is a pounding stadium rock anthem that would have seemed right at home in 1994. Meanwhile, “Supervised Suffering” is just as grunge-angsty as you imagine from the title, and I love it.
5. “When You See Yourself,” by Kings of Leon
As one of the four true rock albums on this year’s list, the newest from the brothers (and cousin) Followill might just be their most mellow and mature album to date. It is a finely-crafted collection of mostly mid-tempo numbers, and Caleb Followill’s lyrics give the textured music a new sense of reflection and insight that the band’s earlier albums perhaps lacked given the fellas’ previous youth and limited life experiences. The Kings have grown up and the music is maturing along with them. Check out “A Wave,” “Time in Disguise,” and “Golden Restless Age.”
4. “Glow On,” by Turnstile
This album is an absolute blast of smash-glam pseudo-punk rock, harkening back in portions to Filter, Jane’s Addiction, and even some mid-’90s thrash punk. From start to finish, it will surprise you with touches of The Police, ’80s electronica, and ’90s-style punk yell-singing. In the spaces in between is found a thoroughly banging and precision hard rock output. Check “Mystery,” “Blackout,” “New Heart Design,” and “Holiday” for a small taste.
3. “Quietly Blowing It,” by Hiss Golden Messenger
Having established himself alongside Jason Isbell, Tyler Childers, and Sturgill Simpson as one of the best American lyricists and songwriters around these days, Hiss frontman M.C. Taylor continues to put out beautiful, pastoral, melodic Americana music on every album. “Quietly Blowing It” is no exception and contains some of Taylor’s best songs to date, including “Way Back in the Way Back,” “Hardlytown,” and “Sanctuary.” As the man himself sings in the latter song, “Can’t get out of my own mind, but I know how to sing about it.” He does, indeed.
2. “Heart & Soul,” by Eric Church
If M.C. Taylor is a craftsman of subtle ennui, then Eric Church has always been a master of the melody and sentiment-driven heart-on-the-sleeve country song. And that is in no way a bad thing. In fact, Church writes one hell of a country song, ripe for bellowing at the top of your lungs, arms linked at one of his revival-like live shows, in musical communion with his legions of fans. A consistently good all-the-way-through double album (let alone a triple album!) is nearly impossible to pull off for most artists. With the exception of a very few songs in this collection, Eric Church has succeeded in the effort, putting out a collection of fantastic songs like “Russian Roulette,” “Stick that in Your Country Song,” “Hell of a View,” and “Through My Ray-Bans.” He remains unbowed as the King of Country Music.
1. “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” by The War on Drugs
This band has been making great, atmospheric, astral-sounding “alternative” rock in the vein of Pink Floyd for a handful of years now, and over five previous albums. Each of the previous LPs have contained absolute musical gems, though none of the full albums have successfully achieved that rare and seamless cohesion of a classic LP. That is, until their latest album, “I Don’t Live Here Anymore.”
The War on Drugs has achieved that rare feat of crafting an album of obviously well-produced and textured songs, each melodically rich and complex, yet also tight and lean sounding. They have avoided the trap of overproduction, where the songs become ponderously tedious, and managed to produce an album rich in layers and rewarding to the repeat listener (preferably through high-quality earphones). Really, that’s what we love in a classic album. Check out “Old Skin,” “I Don’t Wanna Wait,” and the title track.
And there they are, my favorite albums of the year. I hope you enjoy some or all of them.
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Feature image: Screen capture from YouTube