Dean's List: 2021
The 71 best albums of the last year (or so)
It would be neat to kick things off by claiming this is my 50th Dean's List, but alas it's only the 49th, a preliminary pass in 1971 plus a straight run from 1974 to the anomalous present. As I began to write late Friday, 2021's list came in citing 71 A records, a total that might well have surpassed last year's 71 as I kept scrivening and listening into Monday but didn't, so that's not the anomaly. Neither is the mix of indie-rock, hip-hop pop and alt, altish female-intensive country, aging male singer-songwriters of varying renown, resurrected older music, and Africa-dominated "world," with male-vs.-female nearing parity and whites outnumbering people of color four-to-three where a decade ago it was two-to-one. These demographics are cheering in their way and would synch up even better racially if I understood Spanish, the lead language on five of Rolling Stone's top 50. Although in principle I approve, as I pass 80 I doubt I'll ever join the actually existing bilingual hunk of this ominously white-supremacist nation, which has always impeded my access to Cuban, Puerto Rican, and South American songs without blocking it altogether. And insofar as my picks are anomalous, they're no more so than the Stone and Pitchfork finishers I've long counted meaningful benchmarks, and where racial representation in particular has improved markedly over the 15 years since I left the Voice. Instead the anomaly is my increasingly old-fashioned notion of what an album is and should be.
Not that I'm strict about this. Well before I published my first Dean's List I fell for Terry Riley's excellent "downtown" "classical" "minimalist" "environmental"-let's-call-it 1967 keyboard album A Rainbow in Curved Air, and later reviewed a bunch of music by the not altogether dissimilar Philip Glass. Gradually I've gathered the chutzpah to review a fair complement of the jazz I've enjoyed since I was 15, and I've pumped fundamentally environmental dance albums over the years as well. But most of the time I'm on the hunt for songs. With three major exceptions for me in 2021--Burnt Sugar's all-jazz Angels Over Oakanda, Body Meπa's jazzish The Work Is Slow, and Anthony Joseph's poetry-with-jazz The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running for Their Lives--an album remained what the term's metaphorical roots indicate: just as photo albums compile photos, music albums compile songs. And while sonic conception is always crucial to how meaningful and enjoyable songs are, lyrics signify at least as much.
So although preliminary listening and research persuades me that Rolling Stone had reason to put Puerto Rican pop phenom Rauw Alejandro's Vice Versa high on its list, there's no way he'll ever be Olivia Rodrigo or even Harry Styles for me unless he starts singing in English (as he probably will, to exactly what effect is another matter). And while there's no denying that Toronto's Tamara Lindeman showcases actual songs on Pitchfork's seventh-ranked Weather Station album Ignorance, their smug gentility reminds me all too vividly of Joan Baez putting me off lo these many decades ago. Which isn't even to mention the impressionistic musical poesy of Pitchfork's second-place L'Rain, or the huzzahs that greeted my old fave Jazmine Sullivan when she compensated for her songwriting drought by inviting women to contribute spoken-word accounts of their sexual travails and got album-of-the-year plaudits from Pitchfork for the dodge.
For these reasons and more, my top 71 is longer than the Stone or P4K lists on unapologetically four-square songcraft amenable to explicitly political content, headed by Nathan Bell and James McMurtry and Joe Fahey on the folk-rock side and Gift of Gab and Dave and Mach-Hommy and Vic Mensa on the hip-hop side. In the most frightening political year of my life I craved such stuff, and there wasn't enough of it, which is why my undeniable number one was Neil Young's Barn--released too late in December for year-end action, and though it could imaginably make Stone's 2022 list if we're not all preoccupied with more pressing journalistic imperatives by then, Pitchfork's prissy 6.8 ("three-chord progression," oh dear) would appear definitive. But for now let me note one more anomaly in my top 10. I stand by the current order as much as that's ever possible--surveying old lists I generally find a few overrateds up there. But as longtime Pazz & Jop devotees may recall, that poll asked voters to assign points to their top 10s, and while I was OK with the 15-14-13-12-11-9-8-7-6-5 ploy, I scorned the 10-apiece dodge. C'mon, I thought--minute qualitative distinctions are the critic's job. This year, however, I'd exploit the no-points option myself. All 10 of these albums played a crucial role in getting me through the year, each in a rather different way. Sure I like some more than others. But give 'em all 10 anyway.
I ranked Barn first because self-righteous '60s idealism, while always overstated by young wannabes and overrated by old farts, might be of real practical use with fascism on the rise. So in a year when '60s totems Eric Clapton, damn right overrated and no one's idea of a clear thinker either, and Van Morrison, more God-touched but an even bigger crank, began spewing anti-vax/lockdown/government rot, Young's return to the political and ecological themes of '00s releases Greendale, Living With War, and Fork in the Road was an up that touched me deep. Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel's barely reviewed, 2017-recorded, Bandcamp-only Both Ways comes locked and loaded with the early Trump shot "True Tax Forms" and evokes the songfully humanistic ecumenicism embodied by Stampfel's less musically consistent but visionary five-disc, sixth-place-by-me Peter Stampfel's 20th Century in 100 Songs. Equally open-hearted is the Atlanta rap-not-trap collective Spillage Village's Spilligion, where even the skits enrich not only meaning but music in a comically soulful and sonically eccentric hip-hop invention. And almost as soulful is Sour by 18-year-old Rolling Stone number one (21st in Pitchfork too!) Olivia Rodrigo, who with help from 38-year-old Daniel Nigro recalls her hero Taylor more than her West Coast homegirl Billie with bravely retro pre-track-and-hook structures and lyrics that map out the kind of emotional grounding all parents pray their kids achieve, the female ones especially.
Sadly, older females got less respect from the big two--not so much "What have you done for me lately" as "What have you done for me Auntie," which is worse. Tune-Yards' Sketchy, which Pitchfork declined even to review, proved the most inspired of four politically sapient earlyish-2021 albums by live and kicking first-generation feminist alt-rock bands, but like Sleater-Kinney's embattled Portland Path of Wellness and Liz Phair's middle-class feminist Soberish and Garbage's belatedly class-conscious No Gods No Masters was shut out at year's end by both P4K and Stone. So be glad both lists made room for up-and-coming indie pro Sarah Tudzin, who as she pushes 30 still nurtures the Illuminati Hotties' knack for sounding brattily defiant and sexually sapient at the same time and stands in my list as Rodrigo's big sister, the witting embodiment of the flaming youth that's always sparked the many popular musics that followed in the wake of the teen hits that were already slotted "oldies" 60 years ago. And while I'm here let me venture down to my 12th-place surprise: a 2020 album by a band I never got into until I streamed their latest, thought it good, and then concluded that it was rather better than that: the indie-rock "folk punk" Front Bottoms' Metacritic bomb In Sickness and in Flames, where the troubled romance that's imbued Brian Sella's marginal career since 2008 or so is encapsulated in the indelible "You are the truth I choose to bend myself around," a theorem romantic partners would be even better off trying out in this parlous time than they were back when the Front Bottoms were a lark and the president was so sane that comity if not deliverance seemed worth postulating.
Oh well--that was then and this, parlously, is now. So before I conclude my top-heavy 2021 roundup, discretion demands that I note another peculiarity of this year's top 10, which is that I know these guys: unprecedentedly and yet also fittingly in such a socially constrained time, four of my picks are by friends, not just my old pal Peter Stampfel (and Jeffrey Lewis too) but deeply mourned and missed colleague-turned-titan Greg Tate and also Low Cut Connie's Adam Weiner, a warm acquaintance ever since I give his band its first critical boost in 2011. For that matter, 10th-place Nathan Bell is also my kind of guy: a 61-year-old who left a middle management job at AT&T so he could bulk up the most political songbook I opened all year. Sowing musical righteousness from Angola Prison to "Jesus don't like your folding money/Or the way you use his name," he never relents but never speechifies either, just lays out brutal facts nobody can live with 24-seven on the assumption that most of us could use some reminding right about now.
In contrast, Tate and Weiner both offer the succor we need as well. Tate's gift is the palpably sweet-tempered and contemplative proof of a lifework imbued with gender-fluid Afrocentric humankindness--a balm rendered more precious by the inescapable feeling that whatever else we hear from him will be a postscript. And Low Cut Connie's livestream best-of epitomizes what I just said an album should be. It's a collection of songs designed to remind us how many different things a song can be and how much we need every one. Hewn from the pandemic lockdown in a bare-bones living room where the star tickled the ivories in his bathrobe as guitarist Will Donnelly beefed up the groove, it transformed Adam Weiner from unlikely club-circuit mainstay to more unlikely budding celeb--a celeb with a palpable chance of surviving that fate with his humanity unscathed. And now, having noted this welcome success story, I'll stop theorizing and just leave you with a roll call of the artists Tough Cookies honors--a list that means more than I could say.
Louis Armstrong. James Brown. Wings. Prince. Neil Young. INXS. Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Bill Withers. Madonna. David Bowie. Ennio Morricone. Bruce Springsteen. Sly & the Family Stone. Cardi B. Chic. Donna Summer. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. The Weather Girls. Kaddish. Bob Dylan. Lana Del Rey. Tim Maia. Vera Lynn.
I thank them all. Love 'em or just respect 'em, they help make life worth living. As do you.