The hipsters are back to talk about their favorite musical moments of the year.
Welcome one and all to this the annual ATVS Albums of the Year & Lagniappe post. We hope this year was better for you than 2020 was. Here Poseur and I will take the time to celebrate the year that was in music, because there was indeed lot to celebrate. As we started to exit the pandemic (only to boomerang back into it) more and more artists were able to come forward with the creative fruits that they planted during the quarantine. It was a sick joke during the lockdown that it would lead to great creative ideas, but that actually rung pretty true. So, without further delay, let’s dig on into the musical year that was.
Album of the Year
Honorable Mentions: I Don’t Live Here Anymore | The War on Drugs; SOUR | Olivia Rodrigo; Screen Violence | CHVRCHES; 30 | Adele; Daddy’s Home | St. Vincent
10: Yard Sale | The Brook & The Bluff
I really don’t have a ton to say about this, it’s just a collection of pretty good indie rock songs. The songs are tightly crafted while showcasing great musicianship and songwriting. It is a little down beat from their earlier work and perhaps the album blends together too much, but that’s a hard complaint to raise when each individually is enjoyable. It’s a really solid album, that’s all folks!
9; Twin Shadow | Twin Shadow
I know I’m getting old because Twin Shadow is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of his sophomore breakthrough Confess. There’s hope for my rapidly aging bones because this year he dropped perhaps his best work.
Twin Shadow aka George William Lewis Jr. aka DJ George has a decently impressive catalogue of catchy hooks and great songs, but none are as sharp as his self-titled album. I don’t want to call this his magnum opus, but I don’t think anything can be as fun as a listen as this is. Apart from the great hooks around the track list, George strikes the perfect balance between sonic cohesion and diversity. The bass guitar is present throughout and it sounds like he played the demo for each song on that in one sitting, but then came back around and built each song off that differently.
Sure, his songs are sonically saccharine and a little melodramatic, but when there’s diversity in the track list like there is here, it’s stupid fun. The best way I can describe this album is that it’s the soundtrack of a musical that satirizes the contemporary male artist trying to make it in theatre, but the satire is lost in the fact that the music unironically slaps. If that description confuses you, listen to “Lonestar” and “Modern Man” and then tell me it doesn’t fit perfectly.
8: ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE | BROCKHAMPTON
The best boy band since One Direction, and for the record, they can fly.
After going off-script with GINGER, Brockhampton went back to the bangers with Roadrunner. Well, at least in the first half. Roadrunner opens up with features from acolytes Danny Brown and JPEGMAFIA as well as A$APs Rocky and Ferg, and each of those songs allow the features to thrive: the opener with Danny Brown is slightly unhinged and frantic, the Peggy cut has a simple and groovy bassline, and the A$AP song is nearly pre-screwed and chopped. And of course, Brockhampton themselves own their verses. But as the album runs on, the more conscious the material gets and the more the features drop off.
This is the most I’ve enjoyed a Brockhampton release, and I think that’s because it’s their first release where they show discretion. I love “Boogie” for its wailing sirens that make you go buck, but here the songs are much more refined and stripped back, which I think is the final step in the maturation of the collective. They can make songs that go, but now they really know how to craft songs with nuance too. That balance pays off well on Roadrunner.
7: Vince Staples | Vince Staples
Vince Staples’ sixth album is his fifth one to clock in under 30 minutes, which is a wonderful trend. Because of its tightness, there is a serious consistency with Vince’s self-titled album.
Upon first listen, Vince slowing each track way down seriously throws off the vibe of the record and any preconceptions about Vince’s career. He’s at the stage in his run where he “should” be pumping out bangers to topple the charts and grab an even larger foothold on the public perception.
But that’s not what happens. Instead of flash frying hits, Vince goes low and slow with some pretty heavy subject matter. It’s the same stuff he’s been rapping about since day one, but for whatever reason he feels more affected by it now. And that makes it hit home that much more. The more stripped back production lends more credence to his words, which would have cut deep on a normal, run of the mill album.
6: OK Human | Weezer
Look, I’m not any happier than you are about it, but Weezer dropped a really great album in the year of our Lord 2021.
In the mid-teens, Weezer seemingly had a renaissance with Everything Will Be Alright In The End and The White Album. But that renaissance quickly turned out to be more of a dead cat bounce, as evidenced by Pacific Daydream, a middling covers album, and The Black Album. But at some point in COVID, our favorite cringe lords decided to go in a new direction: themed albums.
The second one, Van Weezer, was a half-cooked attempt at a hair metal album, but their orchestral pop OK Human hit the mark. They went the extra mile by using only analogue equipment and fading each song into each other. Those are small details yes, but they add up in a great album.
And for whatever reason, baroque pop Weezer works. This is the band I feel like Weezer was supposed to be since they got too old for the Pinkerton stuff. They really understand how to craft these songs, and the lyrics won’t make you cringe into oblivion. There are even some fresh concepts in the writing, like on “Numbers”.
5: Blue Weekend | Wolf Alice
Let’s talk about one of the emerging trends in music: Hollywood Apathy. Suddenly, almost overnight, it’s become very en vogue to lament about the fakeness of Los Angeles, Hollywood, and Southern California at large. To a degree I’m not complaining because I’ve been driving the train for nearly my entire adult life. But it’s an undeniable trend seemingly kicked off by St. Vincent’s “Los Ageless” and followed suit by the likes of Lana Del Rey, Gorillaz and Lorde among many, many others.
But (almost) nobody has done it as well as Wolf Alice did on Blue Weekend. “Delicious Things” is a magnificent sonic journey detailing the loosening of inhibitions when far away from home, but also wrestling with the uneasiness and homesickness that follows.
Just as the London band is learning to blend into Los Angeles in a thematic sense, in a sonic sense the band sheds their archetype as indie folk shoegazers and become true musical chameleons. “Delicious Things” balances sultry verses with blissful hooks, “Smile” is a dead ringer for 90’s female-led rock songs, complete with a no-sold delivery on verses, the crushing “Safe From Heartbreak” is a singer-songwriter cut in which lead singer Ellie Roswell goes acapella for the big crescendo, “How Can I Make It Okay” is a standout contemporary indie rock song, and “Play The Greatest Hits” is a probably the greatest punk song not written by a punk band.
I’m not sure what possessed Wolf Alice put their chips in every dip at the table, but their ability to sound like they have three albums worth of experience in each genre floored me. Blue Weekend is a big event album because it offers a little something for everyone, and it leaves no one disappointed.
4: Call Me If You Get Lost | Tyler, The Creator
After scaling back into an extremely vulnerable and emotional place with Scum Fuck Flower Boy and IGOR that made us all reevaluate what we know about Tyler, he leaned into maximalism.
It’s still the new and improved Tyler, but it’s him doing a Gangster Grillz mixtape. It’s a Tyler record so of course the production is supreme, but the vibe of the record is pure late aughts, complete with DJ Drama emceeing the affair.
Narratively, it’s Tyler coming out hardened after…well, coming out and putting his heart on the platter. People my age like to reminisce about mixtape Lil Wayne, but Tyler is impossibly on point throughout Call Me, and I think he outperforms Wayne. There are several points where I had to look up who was on the verses because I couldn’t believe Tyler was coming through with a flow that hard, like on “JUGGERNAUT”, “LEMONHEAD”, or “LUMBERJACK”. I don’t think there’s been as impressive of a three-track run on as album as the “LEMONHEAD-WUSYANAME-LUMBERJACK” run in the first half the album, due in no small part to a surprisingly great and subtle NBA Youngboy feature on the slow jam track in the middle.
Of course, this is the new Tyler and he has emotions. Emotions that need to come out. So many emotions. And come out they do on “SWEET/I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE” and “WILSHERE”, both songs that run longer than 8 and a half minutes, with the former nearly touching 10. Curiously enough, both songs detail a love triangle, with Tyler in the middle of one and being the odd person out in the other. “WILSHERE”, the nearly-10-minute song, was recorded in one take with a handheld mic and while it’s not a casual listen, the ease at which Tyler conveys the story so naturally is uncanny.
But that’s just how talented Tyler is and a testament to what that talent can do when properly matured.
3: The Ballad of Dood and Juanita | Sturgill Simpson
Meet Sturgill Simpson. Sturgill Simpson is a country artist. Sturgill Simpson is a very good country artist.
But Sturgill Simpson is unhappy with his label contract and ready to get out of it. So Sturgill Simpson does what one naturally does: records a kick-ass space trucker/acid rock/heavy metal samurai-themed concept album about the state of the music industry and gets some anime artists to collaborate and create a visual aspect to the album. Obvious stuff, really.
So, what do you do after that? Obviously re-record all of your previous material as bluegrass songs, duh.
Okay, so you’ve freed yourself from your label in the ultimate act of defiance and reclaimed your old songs in a new format. NOW what?
Well, the answer is plain to see: make an actual country western album, complete with spaghetti western instrumentation and a Marty Robbins-esque concept. Tell a completely linear story with it, complete with codas and songs about the protagonist’s horse and dog (separately, of course) that will yank tears clean out your eyes. And because this is Sturgill Simpson, the instrumentation and songwriting are all top-notch.
What part of this process doesn’t make sense to you?
2: Californian Soil | London Grammar.
This is a sports website, so I’ll use a sports analogy to describe London Grammar’s evolution. They are the two-star recruit who showed a lot of upside. Sure enough, once they get on campus and they start hanging with the big dogs with some development, and by the time it’s time for their third go at it, they’re lapping up the field and putting up video game numbers.
Their debut If You Wait showed off lead singer Hannah Strong’s incredible vocals but offered little instrumentally in support. Their sophomore album Truth Is A Beautiful Thing upped the ante instrumentally so that it was on the same level as Hannah’s vocals. But their third time around on Californian Soil (yet another album that deals with the west coast disillusionment) really saw the band take their skills to the new level. Hannah can still sing her ass off, but now she seemingly has actionable swagger behind her lyrics and her delivery. And bandmates Dot Major and Dan Rotham are no longer just simply complimenting her vocals, they are adding value to each track in a masterfully diverse way. The production strikes the perfect balance of quiet when it needs to be and intent when the moment calls for it.
Nothing exemplifies how far London Grammar have come more than the lead single from the album, “Baby It’s You”. The song is an upbeat synth-driven piece with layers and layers of sound that all come unraveled when it’s time for Hannah to carry us across the hook. It’s hauntingly beautiful and a deep contender for my song of the year
1: Nurture | Porter Robinson
This was never in doubt. Sorry if that takes all the fun out of this, but the moment I finished listening to Nurture, I knew everything else was going to be in a race for second place.
But the funny thing is, I’ve had all of this time to think of what I wanted to say about this album, but I’ve struggled to find the words. So Porter, if you’re reading this, I apologize because what I cannot write cannot do proper justice to this album. But I’m going to give it the ole college try.
Nurture is the musical Ted Lasso. It is a wholesome piece of media that has come out when we really needed it the most yes, but to say it’s just that is doing it a gross misjustice. It is not wholesome and good because it turns a blind eye to that which ails us, it is wholesome and good because it understands those things that we perceive to be wrong with us and welcomes us with open arms and assures us that it will be okay so long as we keep putting one foot in front of the other and work through it. Nurture is the golden sky and song of a lark that was promised to us in the storm. It does not deny the storm, it only celebrates that you made it through it.
If you don’t like the style of electronic music that Porer practices, then that’s fine and understandable. But objectively, nothing is undeniable about this record to me. I actually think this record is strengthened by the electronic elements and semi-EDM stylings of Porter. The production is incredible, surpassed by only the lyrics.
I am challenging you to listen to “Something Comforting” or “Look at the Sky” and not feel a complete feeling of reassurance. If you don’t, then I really don’t know what to tell you. We all need our comforts in this depressing age, and Nurture was my emotional security blanket in a trying year.
Best New Artist | Olivia Rodrigo
I really truly debated putting SOUR into my top ten, but it just barely missed out. The debut from the newest Gen Z superstar led the charge in the newest generating phasing into adulthood’s trend of adopting millennial teen culture with an album that is a dead ringer for early era Paramore material…perhaps a little too much. Powered by “driver’s license”, Olivia became the first true breakthrough artist of the TikTok era (who just happened to be powered by Mickey Mouse, but small details).
The fact that nearly every song on the album is a breakup song kind of sinks the boat for me a little, but the fact that the one song that isn’t (“jealousy, jealousy”) is the best song on the album really makes me excited for what comes on the horizon. And look, writing a breakup album at 17 is one thing, doing it at 23 and again at 27 is another. So she gets a pass for the content of the album, which allows me to enjoy a really great pop punk record released in the year of our lord 2021. I’m almost certain that she won’t stay in the pop punk sphere, but regardless I’m excited to see where her songwriting skills takes her in the future.
Artist of the Year: Lil Nas X
There’s beating allegations of being a one hit wonder and then there’s snapping a 4×4 on its back. Lil Nas X might have spammed Old Town Road to the way to records, but when it was time for him to follow it up, he surpassed it by far. “MONTERO ‘’ became a hit in its own right, only to serve as the layup to “INDUSTRY BABY”’s backboard-shattering dunk. I thought the album was good not great, but Lil Nas X was able to manifest his own destiny this whole time and really became a superstar by his own volition. He played a system that was stacked against him and destroyed it.
Song Of The Year: I Don’t Live Here Anymore | The War on Drugs
For a moment, this was hard, probably the hardest one I can recall doing. Do I go populist with “All Too Well”? “INDUSTRY BABY”? “drivers’ license”? “good 4 u”? “Kiss Me More”? Or do I pick the best songs from the best albums like “Something Comforting”, “Look at the Sky”, “Baby It’s You”, or “JUGGERNAUT”?
Then I remembered that. ”duh you stupid moron, it’s ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore.”
The album just missed the cut for my list, landing at 11 but the titular song itself is unimpeachable. Aided with a brilliant assist from Lucius on the hook, the song is the high point of TWOD’s venture into arena rock, a driving and soaring ballad that does Springsteen better than Springsteen did Springsteen apart from “Thunder Road”. And the lyrics are pretty perfect encapsulation of the Boss as well:
I was lying in my bed
A creature void of form
Been so afraid of everything
I need a chance to be reborn
I never wanted anything
That someone had to give
I don’t live here anymore
I went along the wind
When I think about the old days, babe
You’re always on my mind
I know it ain’t like I remember
I guess my memories run wild
Like when we went to see Bob Dylan
We danced to “Desolation Row”
But I don’t live here anymore
But I got no place to go
Beating like a heart
I’m gonna walk through every doorway, I can’t stop
I need some time, I need control, I need your love
I wanna find out everything I need to know
I’m gonna say everything that there is to say
Although you’ve taken everything I need away
I’m gonna make it to the place I need to go
We’re all just walkin’ through this darkness on our own
It’s just a beautiful, emotionally stirring song that should go on those gold records we put on deep space satellites.
2021… damn. We thought 2020 was bad.
Though, I have to admit, the music was pretty good. Trapped in our own houses yet again, the frustration poured out to varying effect. While the movie industry, for example, has struggled to react to this new reality, pop music is practically tailor made for this current social environment.
As I get older, the less I like the idea of ranking albums. It’s silly and arbitrary, so this is more of an exercise in sharing the music I loved this year. Your mileage may vary. My top 10 will look very different from yours, which is really cool. I love each and every individual’s list. What I’m gonna try to do is spread it around a bunch of genres.
10 Motero | Lil Nas X
Lil Nas X has done the seemingly impossible, he has transitioned from a one-hit wonder, and a novelty hit at that, into a legit boundary smashing artist. He’s now appearing in commercials with Elton John, which is a pretty good historical comp for him right now. He courted controversy throughout, which is sort of lazy and obnoxious, but the songs themselves are friggin’ great. It’s a delightful pop-rap album, packed full of one banger right after another.
ALSO SEE: Vince Staples, Jazmine Sullivan
9 Death of a Cheerleader | Pom Pom Squad
Let’s first talk about the illumination hotties. They are a great indie band that released their first longform record this year, after sitting on the fringes of pop culture with a few EP’s and live releases. I’m a big fan, and was looking forward to their breakout release. And their lead singer, Sarah Tudzin, produced an even better record, Pom Pom Squad’s debut release. Can you imagine the love? The giving nature? Talk about lifting each other up. Death of a Cheerleader is chock full of angular indie pop, loosely based on The Virgin Suicides. It’s an album so good it made me rewatch the movie.
ALSO SEE: Pip Blom, illumination hotties
8 Bright Green Field | Squid
I will admit that postpunk is a bit of an acquired taste. But the dizzying mashup of styles and the sheer audacity of the song structures just draws me in. The songs start as these meandering streams, eddying to nowhere, only to explode into gushing rivers. They draw on multiple styles, but its politics feel more like an expression of confusion and repression, struggling to break free, rather than anthems to rally people against the status quo. It fights the system by ripping it apart and then trying to mash it back together again.
ALSO SEE: Geese, Goat Girl
7 No Medium | Rosali
Look, it’s a country album by an artist from the northeast and a title taken from a Charlotte Bronte novel. Either you’re going to accept what country music can be, or you won’t. But there’s so much more to the genre that cartoonish expressions of cultural signifiers and callouts to older artist they clearly didn’t actually listen to. Rosali recorded the album in just ten days, hoping the compressed time schedule would lead to a more rough, but urgent sound. It worked. The album never careens out of control, but it feels more urgent than something that has been produced within an inch of its life, so all character had been stripped away. I’ll admit to being a deep lover of Neil Young’s passion over precision, and this is what it would sound like if Crazy Horse was a country band.
ALSO SEE: Sturgill Simpson, Katy Kirby
6 Emphatically No | Cheekface
No record sums up the pandemic life more than Cheekface and their aggressively lo-fi shrugged off songs which respond to the age old advice of listen to your heart with a resounding “No.” As a dedicated Gen X’er, this is a record that feels like it fits in with Generation Meh. It’s got a slacker vibe and a brilliant, dry sense of humor. Sure, it sounds like it was recorded for about 20 bucks, but I like records which sound like that. It’s an album that opens with a smirk, and never breaks character.
ALSO SEE: Kiwi Jr, Cloud Nothings
5 Juno | Remi Wolf
Can we talk about how we are in a virtual Golden Age of female singer/songwriters? It’s like the musical progeny of Joni Mitchell have taken over the record industry, and there is this glorious glut of terrific, confessional records from female artist which, let’s face it, likely would have been excluded from the industry just a few years ago. But Remi Wolf isn’t carrying an acoustic guitar on her back like some troubadour, she is dropping earworms that are simply nonstop fun. Remember fun? It was that thing we used to have. Remi Wolf writes confessional pop songs, and I’m so down for it.
ALSO SEE: Courtney Barnett, Snail Mail
4 If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power | Halsey
Halsey has been near the center of pop music for quite sometime, as if she was built for the internet age. Like most pop, her music was designed to be disposable, but she’s starting to grow up now, and she settled in to make an album about a troubled pregnancy and the problems of marriage. You know, grown up problems, which usually aren’t the focus of pop songs which, as Public Enemy once claimed, is about sex for profit. She turned to Trent Reznor as a producer, and I’ll be honest, I think Reznor works much better behind the dials than in front of the mic. He creates soundscapes in the background for Halsey to unleash her songs and brilliant voice. It’s a perfect union of talents, but make no mistake, this is her album. It’s a personal album which sound universal.
ALSO SEE: Arlo Parks, Indigo de Souza
3 Afrique Victime | Mdou Moctar
Imagine you grew up in a small village in Niger, and you had no exposure to rock music. Throw in some parents distrustful of modern music to set the scene, and then imagine you hear an Eddie van Halen song. No context, no nothing. It must have been mind blowing. For Mdou Moctar, it spurred him to teach himself the electric guitar, and invent a style of playing nicknamed the Saharan Blues. He gained some game as a YouTube sensation, but he had added an American to the backing band, who taught him song structures, moving him away from soundscapes. The result is simply the best rock album of recent vintage. It’s like Jimi Hendrix, right down to the left handed style. He’s re-inventing the way to play the guitar, because no one taught him the “right” way. And none of that would matter of the songs weren’t great, which they absolutely are.
ALSO SEE: Modest Mouse, WILLOW
2 An Evening With Silk Sonic | Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak
There’s been a run of great soul records recently, so it is fun to see a genuine superstar in Bruno Mars put out a soul record with the help of super producer Anderson Paak. Paak went so far as to seek out 1970s drum heads in order to better replicate the sounds of the past. And yeah, that’s nostalgia, but it wouldn’t work if Bruno Mars didn’t deliver the songs and the pop hooks. It’s a look backwards to better times, and I understand the impulse. But I’m too busy enjoying the groove.
ALSO SEE: Sault, Leon Bridges
1 GLOW ON | Turnstile
Holy shit. It was a great year for punk rock, for music meant to be played loud and with multiple people crushing against one another, the last thing we are supposed to be doing. But rarely has a band sounded so timeless right out of the gate. Turnstile is already one of the greatest punk bands of all time. They are being name dropped in other bands; song, like they are the 2020’s answer to the Ramones. They have moved past hardcore and into something else. It’s dance punk, but most importantly, it’s a music of community. It’s meant to be experienced with hundreds of your closest friends, screaming out the choruses as one, while some crazy guy dives off the stage into you. And then another and another. Turnstile is relentless, but it is asking for a simple, basic thing… a return to community.
ALSO SEE: Orgami Gang, THE ARMED
ARTIST OF THE YEAR: Brandi Carlile
Three of the greatest songwriters in modern pop music release new records this year, and they were all predictably great. Julien Baker and Courtney Barnett continued to display the chops which put them on a path to true legendary status. But the third outshone them all, as Brandi Carlile continues to stake a claim as the greatest female country musician since Dolly Parton. She started the year off with yet another Grammy and a heartfelt tribute to John Prine… and that might be the least notably thing about her year.
She put out another great album, of course, but she also stood in for Chris Cornell on a new Soundgarden EP, and blew it out of the water. She continued her charity work and advocacy, and performed a livestream concert at the Ryman to support marginalized artists in country music. Yeah, she won another Americana artist of the year award, to add to the trophy case.
The Grammys came calling again at the end of the year, only now to nominate her in the pop category rather than Americana, he preferred genre. She thanked them for the honor and recognition, and then took them to task, standing up for her place as a country musician and a queer icon. She knows where she is needed, and that’s where she isn’t wanted. She’s a 40-year-old mom who refused to stay home this year, instead fighting the power wherever she could, and continuing to make beautiful music aimed at adults. She’s done chasing fads… she is an icon for all time, and she knows it.
Here’s my Spotify list. Hope there’s some songs you enjoy.