The 10 best albums of 2021, where Turnstile reigns
One thing about pandemics: You figure you’re going to get some great albums out of it. Not because artists are writing about PCR tests and toilet paper shortages. There wasn’t much of that, that I heard, at least.
What the pandemic did was give artists time to dream and reflect, followed by ample time in the studio to bring the work to life.
A lot of my favorite albums this year blurred genre lines, keeping us on edge for what is coming next.
1. Turnstile, “Glow On”: If Jane’s Addiction had emerged 30 years later, it may have sounded like this third album from the aptly named Baltimore band that blasts through hardcore punk, metal and electronic with the same urgency. You never know what’s coming next through the turnstile and while that is sometimes a recipe for disaster, Turnstile and producer Mike Elizondo keep it thrilling and cohesive.
2. St. Vincent, “Daddy’s Home”: The art-rock sensation from Texas describes her sixth album as “the sound of being down and out downtown in New York, 1973.” It’s the music she listened to with her father, whose release from prison (for white-collar financial crimes) further prompted the confessional tone of the record. With colorings of Bowie, Pink Floyd, the Velvets and Steely Dan, she paints a portrait of a woman struggling in the face of societal pressures.
3. Dry Cleaning, “New Long Leg”: This London post-rock band doesn’t have a singer. It has a narrator, in visual artist Florence Shaw, who auditioned for the band reading from Michael Bernard Loggins’ book “Fears Of Your Life.” The result is much like those moments when Kim Gordon talks seductively over Sonic Youth’s grind and swirl of guitars, only in this case, it goes on for 42 minutes. Bits and fragments leap out, both dark and comical, but it’s so mesmerizing, what she’s saying barely matters. This is the aural equivalent of a Warhol Museum exhibition. (Bonus points: If you google “Dry Cleaning,” you’ll find the nearest shops in your area.)
4. Tyler, the Creator, “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST”: The Odd Future oddball follows his Grammy-winning rap album “Igor” by pushing the boundaries again with this densely layered homage to mixtapes that moves through hip-hop, R&B, funk and synth-pop with DJ Drama, Lil Wayne, Lil Uzi Vert, Pharrell Williams, Jamie xx and his own mama among those jumping in. Tyler, adopting the alias of Tyler Baudelaire, a nod to the French poet, tackles his own celebrity and controversies, before laying it all out there about a questionable affair on the album’s most revealing song “Wilshire,” where he offers, “I’m a bad person/I had no ill intentions though.” As he says, “It’s just another chapter in the book.” At times, I did get lost, but the Creator didn’t answer.
5. Little Simz, “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”: For a sometimes introvert, Little Simz takes some bold strokes, like starting this fourth album with what sounds like an orchestral Bond theme. From there, the fourth album from the Mercury Prize-nominated British-Nigerian rapper with the twisting wordplay keeps the sonic thrills going for the better part of its 19-song, 65-minute runtime. The warm analog instrumentation, shifting styles and playful self-exploration make it a journey worth taking.
6. Japanese Breakfast, “Jubilee”: The third album from Korean American indie-rocker Michelle Zauner is a companion piece to “Crying in H Mart,” her best-selling memoir grieving the death of her mother. It’s hard not to think of Harriet Wheeler, of The Sundays, when you hear the Philly artist’s airy vocals and percolating melodies offset by her introspective writing.
7. Olivia Rodrigo, “Sour”: Beginning with her breakout, “Driver’s License,” the 18-year-old Disney star from “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” took over the Lorde role of spokesperson for teen angst. Leaning on such influences as No Doubt and the White Stripes, she turns in a raging pop-punkish debut that crackles with energy.
8. Silk Sonic, “An Evening with Silk Sonic”: “Ladies, don’t be afraid to make your way to the stage,” Bootsy Collins, “the blaster of the universe” tells us in the intro. Indeed. Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak are about to lay some grooves on you. The duo puts substantial talents together for this valentine to old-school ‘70s R&B, capturing the magic of Motown and Philly soul. “We’re making music to make women feel good and make people dance, and that’s it,” Paak told Rolling Stone (quoting Mars).They pulled it off on this joyfully grooving debut project with some of the sweetest falsettos you’ll ever hear.
9. Valerie June, “The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers”: “Beguiling” is the word that keeps popping up to describe the otherworldly voice of this Brooklyn-by-way-of-Memphis singer who sounds like nobody else ever. Having worked with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and Matt Marinelli (Norah Jones) on previous albums, she now hooks up with Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, Alicia Keys) for this celestial soul trip that delivers on the promise of the title.
10. Neil Young and Crazy Horse, “Barn”: Neil, in his Colorado barn, with Old Black, the boys from Crazy Horse and no pressing agenda. All they have to do is plug in and rip. Sometimes, it’s clunky. Sometimes, it’s sublime. In any case, it’s hard to believe this creature comfort is still available to us all these decades later.