Favorite Records of 2021

Aeon Station

The story behind this album was dispiriting for those of us who love the Wrens’ 2003 masterpiece The Meadowlands. We’ve been waiting 18 years for the Wrens to release a long-promised follow-up record. But now, one of the Wrens has gone his own way: Kevin Whelan says he was tired of waiting for bandmate Charles Bissell to put out the music they’d been working on for all of those years. So he released this album under the Aeon Station name, including five songs that had been intended for the next Wrens album. It’s sad to see the Wrens dissolving in a “bitter feud,” as the Guardian called it. And we might never hear that Wrens album that was supposedly coming out, though some version of it will surely surface in one way or another. Bissell tweeted: “my songs have also been done for a couple years & will come out now…as a solo album, I guess.”

It’s hard not to listen to Aeon Station’s album without wondering what might have been. Is this half of a never-to-be-heard Wrens masterpiece? Is it just a shadow of that phantom album? Perhaps. The image on the album cover, a half-built office block, symbolizes how “projects sometimes just don’t get finished,” Whelan told the Guardian.

But this is also outstanding music in its own right. Whelan demonstrates his skill at making songs with catchy chord progressions that cycle around and around with tones that almost sound like chimes—patterns that morph as they repeat, sneakily building in power until they feel like anthems. His melodies and vocals also seem simple and understated at first glance, but their depth becomes more apparent the more you listen.

In the song “Alpine Drive,” Whalen seems to be describing the long process of trying to make the Wrens’ new album when he sings: “Why should I feel like I still have more time? / Year after year paid in more than my crime / One thousand night shifts all end with a song / Still breaking rocks into songs we never get taught”


Matt Sweeney & Bonnie “Prince” Billy

The guitarist Matt Sweeney’s name is listed first on the album cover, but Bonnie “Prince” Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham) is the singer and the more famous one. Oldham wrote the lyrics and gave them to Sweeney, who wrote the music on this record, a follow-up to their 2005 album, Superwolf. One reason why Oldham is such a fascinating artist is his eagerness to collaborate with so many different musicians. This partnership yields a beguiling set of songs, most of them spare and sinister.


Golden Doubt

This Australian band says its album is about “what comes after grief, and how we throw ourselves back into love.” While that sounds like a heavy concept, the record is light in spirit: bittersweet pop that evokes 1980s and ‘90s indie rock (as well as the 1960s classics evoked by that music). Quivers delivers its memorable lyrics and melodies with beautiful male-female vocal harmonies and a few orchestral flourishes.


Eleventh Dream Day
Since Grazed

As I see it, Chicago’s Eleventh Dream Day is a role model for how an independent band can endure, continuing to make vital music — by working at its own unhurried pace, releasing new records every few years, playing a handful of gigs now and then, but never giving up the ship. “The time between records is what has allowed us to continue,” drummer-vocalist Janet Beveridge Bean told the Concrete Islands site.

This new double album came out six years after EDD’s last record, the stellar Works for Tomorrow. Although Since Grazed has a few passages of the loud and propulsive rock Eleventh Dream Day is known for, the predominant mood is stately and almost meditative. That reflects how these songs began, as Rick Rizzo’s demos for a planned solo record, but the rest of the musicians added layers that enrich the sound. In the end, it became another shining example of what this band can do.


Sons of Kemet
Black to the Future

This British group, led by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, gets categorized as jazz. But this album transcends genre definitions. With guest vocals by various singers and rappers, there’s a sense of call and response between the voices and the instruments. “I wanted to get a better sense of how African traditional cosmologies can inform my life in a modern-day context,” Hutchings said. The resulting album feels like a passionate performance of a holy ritual.


Mandatory Enjoyment

The first musical reference point that comes to mind is Stereolab. But this Los Angeles band doesn’t slavishly imitate those forerunners. Instead, it uses droning organ chords as a jumping-off point for sounds both loud and soft. Dummy is actually a very smart band. (And, as always, the fine folks at one of my favorite labels, Chicago’s Trouble in Mind, were smart to pick up this band.)


Jonny Greenwood
The Power of the Dog (Music From the Netflix Film)

Ever since he wrote music for 2007’s There Will Be Blood, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has been one of my favorite film composers. With this score, he underlines the building tension and mystery in Jane Campion’s terrific movie (one of the year’s best). As Greenwood explained to The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, his approach included “using traditional instruments but having them sound like there’s something slightly wrong with them. Make it evident that it’s a human being making the sounds—that it’s being made with effort and sweat and breath.” The sense of the world being slightly off-kilter is part of what makes Greenwood’s smart experiments in chamber music so compelling.



This Glasgow post-punk band lists No Wave and early Sonic Youth as its early influences, but at times, the clean, minimalist arrangements on this record remind me of chamber music. Maybe that’s due to the occasional clarinet in the instrumentation. The members of Nightshift wrote these songs like a game of exquisite corpse while separated during the pandemic lockdown, and the results are slinky, surreal, and spooky. (This is another release from the Trouble in Mind label. Listening to everything on Trouble in Mind is a good way to start hunting for a year’s best music.)


Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
B-Sides & Rarities Part II

I’m not sure if a collection of B-sides and rarities really belongs on a top 10 list of new albums. Is it truly new? Does it count as an album? Those questions are why I have this sitting at No. 9 on my list. If I ranked these records based sheerly on how much I’ve enjoyed listening to him — and how strong they are from beginning to end — this would be higher on my list, maybe even No. 1. This compilation pulls together 27 recordings from 2006 through 2019, which has been a fruitful and creative period for Nick Cave, marked by tragedy in his personal life. The records he’s made in recent years are among his best, and this collection offers outtakes and demos from his probing musical explorations. It helps to illuminate what he’s been doing on those other records, and it’s also a wonderful set of music on its own.


Godspeed You! Black Emperor

I think of GYBE as a rock orchestra — not an orchestra playing concertos that sound quite like Beethoven and Bach, but one making music more in the tradition of 20th and 21st century composers. When this Canadian band’s strings (the ones on its guitars and violins) are at full roar, they have all the Sturm und Drang of a symphony orchestra: sweeping, ominous, frightening, and sometimes even stirring with flashes of sonic glory, like some sort of postmodern national anthem for an underground society. All of those elements are present on this latest record — along with found sounds, like voices from radio transmission. Even without lyrics, G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! is a timely overture for the troubled times on our planet.



Bill Callahan & Bonnie Prince Billy: Blind Date Party

I Was a King: Grand Hotel

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis: Carnage

Courtney Barnett: Things Take Time, Take Time

Guided By Voices: It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them.

The Mountain Movers: What What World

Steve Dawson: At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree

Makaya McCraven: Deciphering the Message

Natural Information Society with Evan Parker: descension (Out of Our Constrictions)

Fake Fruit: Fake Fruit

Low: Hey What

Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg

Tele Novella: Merlynn Belle

Mdou Moctar: Afrique Victime

PJ Harvey: Is This Desire?—Demos

PJ Harvey: Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea—Demos

PJ Harvey: White Chalk—Demos

PJ Harvey: Uh Huh Her—Demos

Favorite Albums of 2020

1. S.G. Goodman, Old Time Feeling (Verve Forecast)

I heard this album only because someone put one of S.G. Goodman’s songs on a Spotify playlist that I happened to check out. I liked it and listened to the whole album. And then I just kept on listening, again and again. What a solid record, filled with one terrific song after another. This singer-songwriter from rural Kentucky probably fits best into the Americana genre, but she pulls together elements from other styles of rock, pop and folk on this gorgeous collection (produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James). Like her voice, the sonic aura of the recordings is entrancing.

Goodman laces her music with poetic turns of phrase. I’m particularly taken with the lyrics of the title song, which comment on the rural-urban political divide in America. “The south has a very complex history of social and economic injustice,” Goodman said in a Consequence of Sound article. “It was important for me as a proud southerner to vocalize that many of us are working hard to undo those generational cycles that have long held us back. Many of us are not living in that old time feeling.”

In the song’s second verse, she sings:

Oh, and I hear people saying how they want a change
And then the most of them do something strange
They move where everybody feels the same
About the southern state behind
The southern state is a condition, it’s true
I’ve got a little proposition for you
Stick around and work your way through
Be the change you hope to find


2. Gillian Welch, Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vols. 1, 2 and 3 (Acony)

I’m amazed that Welch, one of the best songwriters of recent decades, sat on this trove of 48 wonderful songs for 18 years before releasing them. Pitchfork explains the unusual circumstances of how she made these recordings with her longtime partner David Rawlings: “Welch resolved she could finally break from the publishing contract she’d signed nine years earlier—she was a successful singer-songwriter now, not merely a writer for hire. During one productive weekend at home in December 2002, six months before releasing the aching Soul Journey, she and Rawlings pored through more than 100 notebooks. They turned scraps of discarded songs into enough quick recordings to fulfill her contract before it renewed January 1.”

In other words, this was a hastily produced batch of tapes recorded as a sort of contractual obligation. That sounds unpromising, and yet, there’s something to be said for working fast and not worrying about production. For Welch and Rawlings, it resulted in a few hours of beautiful folk music telling evocative stories — rivaling anything else they’ve released. gillianwelch.com

3. Gil Scott-Heron and Makaya McCraven, We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven (XL Recordings)

This is not an entirely new piece of music, but this version of it is fresh and exciting — and the lyrics are as moving and relevant as they were when Scott-Heron wrote and recited them near the end of his life. They originally appeared on his final record, 2010’s I’m New Here, which didn’t feel like a fully realized Gil Scott-Heron album. More like a rough first draft. Here, the Chicago jazz drummer and producer Makaya McCraven fleshes out those old recordings of Scott-Heron’s voice with a colorful and funky tapestry. I found it mesmerizing. XL Recordings

4. Sault, Untitled (Black Is) (Forever Living Originals)

This is the one record where my top 10 overlaps with the major critical consensus for 2020. It ranks at No. 10 on the spreadsheet compiled by writer Rob Mitchum, ranking albums based on the lists posted by various publications. Delivered by a mysterious British musical collective, this is such a powerful record about the Black experience — with a compelling mix of musical styles and perfect pacing. Bandcamp

5. Close Lobsters, Post Neo Anti: Arte Povera in the Forest of Symbols (Shelflife)

For me, this was the year’s most unlikely comeback. I was a fan of Close Lobsters back in 1987, when the this Scottish indie rock band released an outstanding album called Foxheads Stalk This Land, replete with that 1980s “jangly guitars” sound. I saw Close Lobsters perform in concert at Chicago’s Cabaret Metro in 1989, but then they seemed to disappear. Out of nowhere, Close Lobsters reunited in 2014 and released two new songs — including “New York City in Space,” which includes lyrics about traveling to New York and Chicago during that tour back in the 1980s. (“It was originally entitled ‘Chicago’ because that’s where we were headed at the time. In a bus,” the band told The Big Takeover.)

Those 2014 tracks are now part of this album, which sounds like a throwback to that 1980s era, but with contemporary-sounding production. Sure, it’s all very retro … but I love it. There’s something thrilling about hearing Close Lobsters declare, “This is the London of the Clash,” in their song “Under London Skies.” Explaining that song, the band calls it an ode to London, “the capital of punk rock insurrection and its renewed shambolic expression in 1986. As we in the North would seek to bid adieu, we salute and stand in solidarity with that London. That England. The England of The Clash, The Mob, The June Brides, Swell Maps and John A. Rivers.” Bandcamp

6. Melenas, Dias Raros (Trouble in Mind)

The next two records on my list were released by Chicago’s reliably great label Trouble in Mind, and they’re both rock bands from overseas led by women. Melenas are from Pamplona, Spain, making catchy tunes with oft layers of harmony vocals floating above organ and guitar riffs anchored in the garage rock tradition. Bandcamp

7. En Attendant Ana, Juillet (Trouble in Mind)

This coed quintet from Paris has a bit of that elegant French vibe associated with artists like Stereolab, but its music is rooted more in fuzzy guitar riffs. Margaux Bouchaudon’s lovely vocals carry her band through a variety of musical settings, including some pretty orchestral flourishes, all on a quest for perfect pop earworms. Bandcamp

8. The Necks, Three (Northern Spy)

I had a ticket to see this Australian instrumental trio this spring, but of course, that concert was canceled, like so many others. In place of that experience, I was left with this album of the group’s latest improvised pieces. With intricate music that moves from driving momentum to serene contemplation, it was my soundtrack for much of 2020. Bandcamp

9. Jeff Parker, Suite for Max Brown (International Anthem)

Parker is best known as a guitarist — most famously, as a member of Tortoise — but his stellar guitar playing is just one facet of this jazz album (dedicated to his mother, whose maiden name was Maxine Brown). Parker plays multiple instruments and draws on eclectic influences as he creates the sense of a story shifting scenery with each chapter. Bandcamp

10. Three Queens in Mourning & Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Hello Sorrow / Hello Joy (Textile)

Will Oldham, the Louisville singer-songwriter known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, continues to play by his own rules, releasing many records that wouldn’t fit into a traditional discography, including collaborations and multiple interpretations of his songs. That makes it challenging to keep track of Oldham’s musical output, but it’s always worth paying attention, even to his more obscure releases. Most of this album is the Scottish trio Three Queens in Mourning performing covers of songs by Oldham, making them sound more than ever like folk songs from the British Isles. But the record also includes Oldham singing a few songs by Three Queens in Mourning and contributing one new song. So this is something of a grab-bag — but quite an enjoyable one. Bandcamp


Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud
Lucinda Williams, Good Souls Better Angels
Nathan Salsburg, Landwerk
Kevin Morby, Sundowner
Bill Callahan, Gold Record
Tré Burt, Caught It From the Rye
Laura Marling, Song for Our Daughter
Smokescreens, A Strange Dream
Irreversible Entanglements, Who Sent You?
Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings E&F Sides
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
Jason Isbell, Reunions
Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling
Mekons, Exquisite
Bonny Light Horseman, Bonny Light Horseman
Jeff Tweedy, Love Is the King
The Flat Five, Another World
John Luther Adams/JACK Quartet, Lines Made by Walking
William Basinski, Lamentations
Jeff Lescher, All Is Grace
The Jayhawks, Xoxo
Joan Shelley, Live at the Bomhard
M. Ward, Migration Stories
William Tyler, Music From First Cow
Rose City Band, Summerlong
X, Alphabetland
Laura Veirs, My Echo
Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding, Last Flight Out
Woods, Strange to Explain
Steve Earle and the Dukes, Ghosts of West Virginia
Yo La Tengo, We Have Amnesia Sometimes
Yo La Tengo, Sleepless Night

Pazz & Jop 2005

The results of the Village Voice’s critics’ poll are out, and not surprisingly, Kanye West’s Late Registration finished at No. 1. Personally, I don’t think West’s music is all that great — I can hear some innovative musical layers on his record, and some of the songs are very strong, but as a whole, it just doesn’t click with me. Then again, I know I’m not the best judge of hip-hop.

For the second year, I got a chance to vote in this poll. Here are the albums and singles I voted for, and the places where they ended up in the overall poll. I knew some of my choices would fall way down on the list, while others would place high. As it turned out, four of my top 10 album choices made the poll’s top 20. The singles list is always more difficult for me to decide on. What is a single these days, anyway? Since you can buy practically any song as a download, I consider any track on an album from last year eligible for the singles list. Hence, my list is more like a list of favorite songs than a list of the best radio hits of 2005. That said, I did try to choose a few songs that were the “singles” or videos from albums that I liked. Only one of my choices made Pazz & Jop’s top 10 singles.

1. Sleater-Kinney, The Woods — 4
2. Amadou & Mariam, Dimanche a Bamako — 13
3. Devin Davis, Lonely People of the World, Unite! — 343
4. Sons and Daughters, The Repulsion Box — 192
5. Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production of Eggs — 49
6. The Go! Team, Thunder Lightning Strike — 19
7. M. Ward, Transistor Radio — 104
8. Sufjan Stevens, Illinois — 3
9. Brakes, Give Blood – 254
10. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Naturally – 77

1. Sleater-Kinney, “Jumpers” — 112
2. Robbie Fulks, “Georgia Hard” – 536*
3. Gorillaz/De La Soul, “Feel Good Inc.” – 4
4. Devin Davis, “Giant Spiders” – 536*
5. The Go! Team, “Ladyflash” – 183
6. Spoon, “Sister Jack” – 60
7. Sons and Daughters, “Dance Me In” – 235
8. The New Pornographers, “Twin Cinema” – 235
9. M. Ward, “Radio Campaign” – 536*
10. Andrew Bird, “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” – 536*

* — I was the only critic to vote for these songs.

Click here to go to the Voice’s Pazz & Jop page, which has the complete list of winning albums and singles, individual critics’ ballots and essays. Here’s my ballot at the site…