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 Films of 2014

Here, at long last, is the list of my favorite films from 2014. Or a list, anyway. I’d better post this before I change my mind again about what to put on it. It’s a mix of fiction features from the United States and other countries, along with documentaries. I included films that played in 2014 at the Chicago International Film Festival and art venues like the Gene Siskel Film Center. And of course, I didn’t see everything that’s worth seeing.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

01-grandbudapesthotelAn exquisite jewel box of a film as well as a thrilling adventure. I recently saw it on the big screen for a second time, along with my other favorite movie of 2014, Boyhood, and my appreciation for both films only deepened as a result of those repeat viewings. I feel torn over which movie to put at No. 1, but my second watching of The Grand Budapest Hotel — when I found myself focusing on all of the intricate details, like the typefaces on every object in the background — helped me to realize just what a stunning achievement of artistry it is. I have been an unabashed fan of Wes Anderson’s movies ever since I saw Rushmore, so it’s no surprise that I fell for this one, which ranks in the top tier of his work. Even as I tried to concentrate more on the way Anderson put together this marvel, tears welled up in my eyes as I watched the friendship and bond building between the young character Zero (Tony Revolori) and his mentor M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Like the best of his movies, it works on more than one levels: It’s highly artificial — very self-conscious of the fact that it’s a work of art — but it also resonates for me on a deeper emotional level. It turns out to be a delightful story about the power of storytelling. And now, I must really try to find the time to read the books of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian novelist whose early 20th-century stories inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel.

2. Boyhood

02-boyhoodRichard Linklater is another director whose films I’ve admired and enjoyed for years, especially his superb trilogy of talky romantic relationship movies: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. Watching Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play the same characters as they age over the course of those three films has been fascinating. Witnessing the passage of time is also the main attraction of Boyhood. The concept was almost ludicrously ambitious: filming a cast of actors playing a family over a dozen years. It’s amazing to watch these people (the characters as well as the actors) evolve over time. Boyhood doesn’t have the sort of plot structure that’s standard in Hollywood movies, but I found it absorbing. It unfolds in a natural way, and it feels like an authentic portrait of a boy and his family.

3. 20,000 Days on Earth

Nick Cave in 20,000 Days on Earth. Picturehouse Entertainment

This groundbreaking movie by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard about Nick Cave is not exactly a documentary. At times, it’s more like a filmed work of performance art, with Cave participating in staged situations. But even if those scenes are depicting Cave’s real life in a cinema verite style, they do seem to capture the true charisma and searching creativity of this remarkable musician. Maybe it’s more accurate to call this movie a portrait. It’s also one of the best rock ’n’ roll films of recent vintage.

4. Ne Me Quitte Pas


Two grizzled Belgians chat as they guzzle booze in this startlingly intimate documentary, directed by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden from the Netherlands. It’s touching, humorous and sometimes unsettling. Without any voiceover or any explanation of why we’re even watching these two men, it becomes a subtle examination of alcohol’s effects on their lives, as well as a moving depiction of their friendship.

5. Winter Sleep


An engrossing character study set against a desolate but picturesque landscape. Like director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s previous masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, this film moves at its own pace and confounds our expectations about where the story’s going. Ceylan knows how to linger on a conversation between his characters, subtly revealing their histories and personalities.

6. Force Majeure


A penetrating moral drama plays out at a ski resort, where the snow itself seems sinister. Director Ruben Östlund’s previous film, Play, was equally riveting and thought-provoking; he is proving himself to be one of Sweden’s most interesting and important filmmakers.

7. Under the Skin


Freaky and marvelously weird. Even months after seeing director Jonathan Glazer’s movie, it lingers in the mind like a bad dream.

8. Only Lovers Left Alive

08-onlyloversOne of the coolest vampire movies ever, and yet another Jim Jarmusch movie worthy of cult status.

9. Two Days, One Night

Two Days, One Night

One woman’s struggle for her livelihood and her dignity — and the latest gut-wrenching drama by Belgium’s masterful brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

10. Leviathan


Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, a vivid and disturbing tale of Kafkaesque political corruption in a small town in Russia, where you really can’t fight city hall. Most of the recent films from Russia that I’ve seen portray the country in a similar light — for further viewing, I recommend two films by Yury Bykov, The Major and The Fool, and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s surreal trip My Joy.


Here are more 2014 films that I liked, in roughly descending order. As with any such list, my opinions are subject to change. Many of these outstanding movies might move up into my top 10 after subsequent viewings.

Parviz (Majid Barzeger, Iran)
Exhibition (Joanna Hogg)
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, France)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
Enemy (Denis Villeneuve)
Gone Girl (David Fincher)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)
Birdman (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines)
Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland)
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, Sweden)
Life Itself (Steve James)
The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher, Germany)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
The Fool (Yuriy Bykov, Russia)
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich)
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
The Red Army (Gabe Polsky)
Ilo Ilo (Anthony Chen, Singapore)
The Private Life of Mr. & Mrs. M (Rouhollah Hejazi, Iran)
Snow on Pines (Peyman Moaddi, Iran)
Honeymoon (Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic)
Revenge of the Mekons (Joe Angio)
The President (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Georgia)
Mistaken for Strangers (Tom Berninger)
Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists (Leslie Buchbinder)
The Immigrant (James Gray)
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Algren (Michael Caplan)
Free Fall (Gyorgy Palfi, Hungary)

Favorite Records of 2014

Over the past year, these are the 2014 albums I’ve enjoyed the most. (And here’s a Spotify playlist with some of my favorite songs.)


1. Wussy: Attica!

Among the many terrific things about this terrific album are the words, memorable little nuggets of real life, lyrics that pull off that trick of feeling poetic without seeming to try too hard at achieving the effect. The first song, “Teenage Wasteland,” seems to be an ode to the joy of listening to rock music — in particular, that classic-rock radio standard by the Who, “Baba O’Riley.” And it deserves a spot on the list of best opening lyrics for an album:

Do you remember the moment you finally did something about it?
When the kick of the drum lined up with the beat of your heart
Stuck in the corn with only a transistor radio
Making paths with the sound waves and echoes in old Baba O oh oh…

Of course, Wussy is considerably less famous than the Who, but this little band-that-could from Cincinnati has made yet another record filled with rock songs that stand up alongside the classic stuff. Wussy is one of those groups with two lead singers, and the way Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker switch off on lead vocals is a big part of Wussy’s chemistry.

Thanks in part to the championing of legendary critic Robert Christgau, who has called Wussy “the best band in America,” the group has been getting a bit more of the attention it deserves, including a recent appearance on the CBS This Morning. I chuckled at the way CBS described Wussy: “Despite a record deal, a dedicated following and critical praise, members of the band Wussy haven’t been able to leave their day jobs.” As if that’s anything unusual! (See many of the other musicians on this list.)


2. Laura Cantrell: No Way There From Here

It has been a strong year for female singers — five of them occupy spots on my top 10 list, or 5 1/2 if you count Wussy — but Laura Cantrell’s wonderful collection of old-fashioned country and folk-rock songs went largely unnoticed. Cantrell is a low-key performer, singing her lovely melodies without any grand flourishes. That’s part of what makes her songs such perfect gems.

03ultimatepainting3. Ultimate Painting: self-titled

The key reference points on this album are the Feelies and, of course, the seminal band that influenced the Feelies and countless other bands, the Velvet Underground. That formula is well-worn but far from worn out, as this delightful record demonstrates. Released by the dependable Chicago label Trouble in Mind, it’s the debut of a London group comprising James Hoare of the band Veronica Falls and Jack Cooper of Mazes (the British group, not to be confused with the Chicago group of the same name). The bones of Ultimate Painting’s songs are bare in these recordings, which almost sound like unadorned demos — the best sort of demos, the kind that reveal all the strengths and structure of a song. These tunes don’t need anything more.

sharonjones4. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: Give the People What They Want

Jones has made several great albums of authentically retro soul music since the Daptone label rescued her from a career of obscurity, and this is one of her best. The presence of backup vocals by the Dapettes and the varied, colorful arrangements give the music an added urgency. Jones finished making this record just before she was diagnosed with breast cancer; she successfully battled the disease and hit the road this year for a tour (including a triumphant show April 11 at the Vic), sounding as strong and vibrant as she ever has.

05adams5. John Luther Adams/Seattle Symphony Orchestra: Become Ocean

First off, let’s stipulate that this recording can’t capture the full effect of hearing and seeing Become Ocean performed live — something I haven’t been lucky enough to experience. Adams, a composer who lives near Fairbanks, Alaska, writes music that evokes the natural world. And he designed Become Ocean to be performed by an orchestra spatially divided into three ensembles. Each of these groups plays slowly changing chords at its own pace. But even experienced through the two channels of a stereo recording (I haven’t heard the DVD 5.1 surround mix), it’s a beautiful and remarkable piece of music. Adams took the title from a poem that John Cage wrote about the music of Lou Harrison: “Listening to it, we become ocean.” That’s an apt description of Adams’ amorphous and oddly compelling music.

LL-digital.v16. Lydia Loveless: Somewhere Else

This young singer-songwriter from Columbus, Ohio, belts out her smart, catchy alt-country songs with impressive strength, packing them with yearning and spunk. And her band kicks ass. Among the many excellent tracks on this album, “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” — a twangy Americana tune about 19th-century French poets — was my favorite song of 2014.

07protomartyr7. Protomartyr: Under Color of Official Right

Joe Casey, the frontman of this Detroit group, typically performs in a professorial jacket, intoning his lyrics like a half-inebriated poet. The brooding strength of that voice comes through on record, too. Using the basic tools of a standard rock band — guitar, bass and drums — Protomartyr makes intense post-punk with unusual, distinctive sonic touches, especially those otherworldly guitar lines.

08twinpeaks8. Twin Peaks: Wild Onion

This youthful band from Chicago writes garage-rock tunes with a touch of 1970s glam, cheerfully bashing out catchy riffs and singing with what sounds like a bit of a punk sneer. This debut album isn’t quite as lo-fi as Twin Peaks’ earlier EP, but it still has the highly compressed tones of music actually recorded in someone’s garage. Thank goodness.

09stvincent9. St. Vincent: self-titled

Annie Clark, who performs under the name St. Vincent, is an amazing talent: a highly inventive songwriter; a musician who makes daring and unusual production choices; a live performer with the flair of an actress and a dancer; and a guitarist capable of blazing solos. Other than the visual spectacle of her live shows, all of that comes through in brilliant color on her self-titled album.

jag246.1118310. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire For No Witness

On her latest record, the former Chicagoan gets more comfortable playing with her band, making music that defies genre labels. But her stunning voice is still at the center of the music — a preternatural force that conveys deep emotion even in the moments when it seems calm and placid on the surface.


With more listens, many of these records might have ended up in my top 10. And I heard another 100 or so albums that I liked — if only I’d had enough to give them more than a spin or two. These are in roughly descending order:

Chad VanGaalen: Shrink Dust
Andrew Bird: Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…
Tweedy: Sukierae
Gord Downie & the Sadies: The Conquering Sun
Bob Mould: Beauty & Ruin
Reigning Sound: Shattered
Cousins: The Halls of Wickwire
Bry Webb: Free Will
Swans: To Be Kind
Ty Segall: Manipulator
Nude Beach: 77
Woods: With Light and With Love
Neneh Cherry: Blank Project
Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Luluc: Passerby
Thee Oh Sees: Drop
Ausmuteants: Order of Operation
Sharon Van Etten: Are We There
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything
Jennifer Castle: Pink City
The Skygreen Leopards: Family Crimes
Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics
Marianne Faithfull: Give My Love to London
Matt Kivel: Days of Being Wild
Meatbodies: Meatbodies
Mozes & the Firstborn: Mozes & the Firstborn
Outrageous Cherry: Digital Age
Ex Hex: Rips
Spoon: They Want My Soul
Beck: Morning Phase
Lykke Li: I Never Learn
Kasai Allstars: Beware the Fetish
OOIOO: Gamel
Pink Mountaintops: Get Back
The Soft Walls: No Time
The People’s Temple: Musical Garden
Carsick Cars: 3
White Fence: For The Recently Found Innocent
Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
My Brightest Diamond: This Is My Hand
Steve Dawson’s Funeral Bonsai Wedding
Jack White: Lazaretto
New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers
Damon Albarn: Everyday Robots
Jon Langford: Here Be Monsters
Greg Ashley: Another Generation of Slaves
John Wesley Coleman: Love That You Own
The Haden Triplets: The Haden Triplets
Paperhead: Africa Avenue
Tony Allen: Film of Life
Musee Mecanique: From Shores of Sleep
Hookworms: The Hum
Krakatau: Water Near a Bridge

Records I discovered in 2014

Honorable mention goes to a few records from previous years that I discovered in 2014. If these qualified as 2014 releases, they’d have a strong shot at my top 10:

Dog Trumpet: Medicated Spirits
Courtney Barnett: The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas
Jambinai: Difference
Tim Kinsella Sings the Songs of Marvin Tate by Leroy Bach Featuring Angel Olsen