1. serpentwithfeet – DEACON
This is by far my most played album of 2021. Simply put, it makes me happy. It is rare to hear an entire album of love songs from a queer black perspective before. It is soulful, it is catchy, it is wonderful. It will have you singing “Me and my boo wear the same size shoe” over and over.
Favorite Tracks: “Same Size Shoe” & “Fellowship”
2. Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
Billie is growing up before our eyes and is proving that her excellent debut album was not a fluke. She’s done her homework and pays respects to many different genres of music including jazz, bossa nova, choral, electronic, trip hop and rock. In fact, one of the most exciting transitions of any song this year is her transition from sweet to all out rocking on the title track. Buy a great pair of headphones and listen to this.
Favorite Tracks: “Oxytocin” & “Happier Than Ever”
3. Brandi Carlile – In These Silent Days
This album contains the best vocal performances I’ve heard all year. It gives me the chills. Especially the opening track Right on Time. I also love the Joni Mitchell-esque “You and Me On The Rock”. Speaking of Joni, so many great stories in Brandi’s memoir “Broken Horses” about Brandi becoming friends with some of her biggest heroes such as Joni, Dolly, Tanya & Elton. Side note: When I bought this album on vinyl at a local record store (Rattleback Records), both Jason and the store employee asked me separately “Is that a new David Bowie album?”. Now I can’t unsee it. Brandi really does look like Bowie on this album cover!
Favorite Tracks: “Right On Time” & “You and Me On The Rock (feat. Lucius)”
4. Adele – 30
All three of Adele’s previous albums made my “Best of” lists. So it seems weird to say that I was surprised by how much I love this album but I was very surprised. I think maybe I thought she was due for a stinker. It is too early to tell but this might actually be her best album so far. Full of timeless songs that sound as if they could be cover songs from another era.
Favorite Tracks: “Oh My God” & “Love Is A Game”
5. Lucy Dacus – Home Video
This albums sounds as if Lucy is opening up her yearbook and telling you interesting stories about her younger self. Such vivid storytelling that you feel like you have gone back in time with her.
Favorite Tracks: “Thumbs” & “Vbs”
6. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend
This is the best rock album of the year and by far my favorite Wolf Alice album so far. I think what makes this album special is how they mix in softer moments like “Safe From Heartbreak” with harder moments like “Play the Greatest Hits”. Such a great live band too. I was lucky enough to see them play these songs at The Vic this year. They really deserve to be playing arenas.
Favorite Tracks: “No Hard Feelings” & “Safe From Heartbreak (if you never fall in love)”
7. James Blake – Friends That Break Your Heart
James Blake is no stranger to my “Best Of” lists. I simply love his futuristic melancholy sound. This album feels a little more accessible than his previous releases. I went to see him (for the 7th time!) at the Chicago Theatre a week before this album came out. I instantly fell in love with the new songs and it ended up being my favorite of all his concerts.
Favorite Tracks: “Funeral” & “Say What You Will”
8. Claud – Super Monster
Super Monster is Claud’s debut album and they are also the first artist to be signed to Phoebe Bridgers’ new label Saddest Factory. This album came out in January and I have consistently listened to it throughout the year. It is full of alt-pop treasures.
Favorite Tracks: “Overnight” & “Soft Spot”
9. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
Michelle Zauner (AKA Japanese Breakfast) is having quite a successful year. You may have seen me earlier this year walking around Chicago with tears streaming down my face while listening to the audiobook of Zauner’s beautiful memoir “Crying in H Mart”. In contrast, this album is much more upbeat. I love the rich layers of sounds throughout.
Favorite Tracks: “Paprika” & “Be Sweet”
10. The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
This is another fantastic album by The War on Drugs. It has more of an 80s rock sound than their previous albums which makes me love it even more.
Favorite Tracks: “I Don’t Live Here Anymore (feat. Lucius)” & “Victim”
11. Liz Phair – Soberish
After an 11 year wait, it is so great to finally have a new Liz Phair album. And this one is her best since Whitechocolatespaceegg. I really hope she tours in 2022. I would love to hear these songs live.
Favorite Tracks: “Spanish Doors” & “Soberish”
12. Foo Fighters – Medicine At Midnight
This album is a slight shift towards pop but is still firmly planted in rock. These songs sound so great live. This year Foo Fighters also released an album under the name Dee Gees. Half of it is Bee Gees covers and the other half is live versions of songs from Medicine At Midnight.
Favorite Tracks: “No Son Of Mine” & “Shame Shame”
13. Art d’Ecco – In Standard Definition
This album sounds as if the Scissor Sisters recorded a soundtrack to an early 80s movie. Also, this is my favorite album cover of the year. Art d’Ecco really needs to be a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Favorite Tracks: “In Standard Definition” & “Bird of Prey”
14. Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
Arlo Parks debut album covers a lot of dark subject matter yet somehow feels comforting…like a hug.
Favorite Tracks: “Black Dog” & “Just Go”
15. Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
Halsey’s collaboration with Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross on a concept album about pregnancy and childbirth was the biggest musical surprise of the year. Such a powerful album. I really want Halsey to do a tour where she plays this album in its entirety.
Favorite Tracks: “Girl is a Gun” & “I am not a woman, I’m a god”
16. St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home
I really admire St. Vincent’s commitment to a particular aesthetic for each album. This time the vibe is early 70s New York City. The background vocals on this album are incredible.
Favorite Tracks: “The Melting Of The Sun” & “Somebody Like Me”
17. Ashe – Ashlyn
This album is full of catchy emotional sing-along songs. One of my first indoor shows this year was seeing Ashe at Lincoln Hall at a Lollapalooza aftershow. The audience was singing along so enthusiastically that it made me a little anxious and oh so thankful I was wearing a really good mask.
Favorite Tracks: “Till Forever Falls Apart (feat. FINNEAS) ” & “Ryne’s Song”
18. Kacey Musgraves – star-crossed
This breakup album has some really interesting twists and turns. I don’t want Kacey to be sad much longer but this was a nice relatable detour.
Favorite Tracks: “simple times” & “camera roll”
19. FINNEAS – Optimist
This is the debut full-length album by FINNEAS and it is impressive. Lyrically, he doesn’t shy away from the state of the world but he does it with a little playfulness. His piano instrumental “Peaches Etude” is so beautiful. I could totally see him becoming a film score composer someday.
Favorite Tracks: “Around My Neck” & “Only a Lifetime”
20. David Bowie – TOY
This album was recorded in 2000 and was intended to be a surprise release but then shelved until it was officially released a few weeks ago. It mostly contains re-recordings of some of his earliest songs from the 60s (not any that were hits). I find it to be such a satisfying album and I keep playing it on repeat. Side note: If you are looking for this album on streaming services it is part of the new box set titled “Brilliant Adventure (1992 – 2001)”. On January 7th, 2022 it was released on streaming services on the stand-alone “Toy:Box” with extra tracks.
Favorite Tracks: “Hole In The Ground” & “Conversation Piece”
21. Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure
This is an empowering protest march disguised as a pop album. It keeps getting better the more you listen.
Favorite Tracks: “It’s Been A While” & “I’m Fine”
22. Lorde – Solar Power
The reviews for this album have been mostly lukewarm but I think in time people will rediscover this one and reassess it to be a transitional gem from one of our most important artists. Side note: Lorde also released a Māori-language EP of some of these songs titled Te Ao Mārama which is a beautiful companion to the album.
Favorite Tracks: “Stoned at the Nail Salon” & “Secrets from a Girl (Who’s Seen it All)”
23. CHVRCHES – Screen Violence
I originally thought the inspiration for this album was horror movies but it turns out that it is more about the negative impact on us living our lives through screens. Either way, I love it.
Favorite Tracks: “Good Girls” & “Asking for a Friend”
24. John Grant – Boy from Michigan
I’m also a boy from Michigan so this album instantly had a special place in my heart. Much like the Lucy Dacus album, this one has some great storytelling. In fact, it reminds me of those times when you can’t sleep and you are lying in bed and replaying random moments from your life. Sometimes looking back in fondness and sometimes with regret.
Favorite Tracks: “County Fair” & “The Rusty Bull”
25. Yola -Stand For Myself
This album sounds like it is a soulful country/R&B collection from the 70s.
Favorite Tracks: “If I Had To Do It All Again” & “Whatever You Want”
26. Garbage – No Gods No Masters
There is so much power on this album…sonically and lyrically. I keep going back to this album and each time I do, a new favorite song emerges. Someday I really hope to see a drag queen performance to “Godhead”.
Favorite Tracks: “Uncomfortably Me” & “Godhead”
27. Fauvely – Beautiful Places
Fauvely has a dreamy sound that reminds me of a combination of Cowboy Junkies and The National. This album came out around the time I got my first Covid vaccine. I must have played it at least five times that day as I walked around an empty downtown Chicago. It totally fit my mood of pandemic fatigue mixed with gratitude to finally be somewhat protected. I will forever associate this album with that feeling.
Favorite Tracks: “High Hopes” & “Palinode”
28. The Killers – Pressure Machine
This is a Springsteen-esque concept album inspired by Brandon Flowers’ childhood in a small town in Utah. This is much folkier than their previous releases and quite beautiful.
Favorite Tracks: “Quiet Town” & “Terrible Thing”
29. twenty one pilots – Scaled And Icy
I wasn’t expecting a new twenty one pilots album to be so optimistic and upbeat especially because it was written entirely by frontman Tyler Joseph during the isolation of the pandemic. The title comes from a shortened version of a phrase he used while recording “scaled back and isolated”. It is a really great pop album. Even if you think you don’t like twenty one pilots, you should give it a try.
Favorite Tracks: “The Outside” & “Choker”
30. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
For me, this album was an acquired taste like IPAs or coffee. The band plays jangly rock music while Florence Shaw delivers dry British monologues. It sounds strange at first but it really grows on you. Probably the most unique album I heard this year.
Favorite Tracks: “Scratchcard Lanyard” & “Strong Feelings”
**********Other music highlights of 2021**********
Artist I Listened to the Most in 2021:
Lana Del Rey – Blue Banisters
Favorite Music/Entertainment Memoir:
Yours Cruelly, Elvira by Cassandra Peterson
This needs to be made in a Netflix anthology series with each era of her life as a different season.
Surprisingly Great Music Memoir:
Stories To Tell by Richard Marx
My favorite part of this memoir was his pre-fame days when he sang backup for EVERYONE in the 80s including Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Madonna, Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand. So many stories about all the greats of that era.
Other Great Music Memoirs:
Rememberings by Sinead O’Connor
A truly misunderstood artist. I’m a huge fan but I realized that I knew very little about her until this memoir.
The Storyteller by Dave Grohl
Such a satisfying read. Dave is like the Forrest Gump of rock music over the past few decades. A huge music fan who is living the dream and meeting every hero you could imagine while also making his own mark on music history.
Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile
My favorite part of this memoir is when she describes the all-star jam session parties at Joni Mitchell’s house. They almost don’t seem real. I had tears of joy just reading about them.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Michelle Zauner’s (AKA Japanese Breakfast) moving memoir is on many “Best of 2021” lists. You don’t have to be familiar at all with her music to appreciate this book.
Worst Music Memoir:
On Time: A Princely Life In Funk by Morris Day with David Ritz
This memoir is written as if Morris is having a fictional conversation with Prince. The stories are really interesting but the format is so annoying (It came out in 2019 but I just got around to reading it this year)
First Concert I Attended After Being Fully Vaccinated:
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real at Martyrs’ (My first in-person concert in 15 months!)
Worst Concert Trend:
Concert ticket prices for the big shows are out of control. The bigger the venue, the higher the prices. It doesn’t even matter if you are a mile away from the stage. Thankfully, the smaller venue shows have remained inexpensive.
Best Remix Album:
Lady Gaga – Dawn of Chromatica
Sickick Remix of Madonna’s Frozen
Hall of Shame:
Eric Clapton for his anti-lockdown & anti-vax nonsense
Worst Music Trend:
Really long albums with many many tracks. They seem designed to rack up more streams and higher chart positions regardless of the quality of the songs. There is also a trend to add even more tracks after the album’s initial release. Again, this seems mostly for commercial purposes. Artists need to be a little more discerning and not just release everything they recorded.
Album I Thought I Would Hate But Is Actually Quite Good:
Olivia Rodrigo – Sour
Artist Who Is Changing The World:
Lil Nas X – Montero
Favorite Music Artist To Follow on Instagram:
Favorite Music Artist To Follow on Twitter:
Album That Makes Me Smile:
Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga – Love For Sale
Favorite Music Documentaries:
Favorite Concert Films/Livestreams:
Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter To Los Angeles (on Disney+)
Masterpiece of the Year:
Bo Burnham – Inside
So funny, so moving, brilliantly done…give this film and soundtrack ALL the awards!
Favorite Music Podcasts:
Hit Parade Podcast
Rolling Stone Music Now Podcast
Charli XCX – Best Song Ever Podcast
This list is dedicated to the memory of our sweet cat Moby (2003 – 2021)