Music

The Music Club 2021

Entry 5: The 10 best albums of the year, according to our music critic.

Two performers singing.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for MRC and Timothy Norris/Getty Images for ABA.

In Slate’s annual Music Club, Slate critic Carl Wilson emails about the year in music with fellow critics — featuring New York Times contributor Lindsay Zoladz, freelance writer Briana Younger, NPR music critic Ann Powers, Glitter Up the Dark author Sasha Geffen, Pitchfork contributing editor Jenn Pelly, WXNP Nashville editorial director Jewly Hight, Penguin Books author Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, critic Steacy Easton, Slate pop-culture critic Jack Hamilton, and Chris Molanphy, the host of Slate’s Hit Parade

Dear bunnies/riders,

Sasha and Lindsay, it was fascinating to get that vicarious tour of your sensory experiences adjusting to your first indoor concerts since the pandemic began. My only significant live show was outdoors in a park this summer, where the Moravian-Czech avant-folk singer and violist Iva Bittová was performing in a small regional festival. She’s built a monster rep over many decades in global experimental-music circles, but it was a sparse audience that day. She’d driven many hours from her upstate New York home and had a difficult border crossing, and I was wishing I felt crowded, instead of embarrassed at the poor local showing. Bittová first played an afternoon duet with her son on keyboards, a lockdown-born project that seemed still unsteady on its feet. But since she was scheduled for another brief set after the dinner break, we stuck around.

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After taking the small stage again at twilight, with the sun setting behind her, Bittová seemed to settle into her body, perhaps shedding her own post-isolation inhibitions. Her planned 20 minutes grew into an ecstatic hour-plus. Traditional Eastern European modes blended with improvisation, simulated birdsong, glossolalia, menacing growls, high cartoony trills. It resembled what you described about Low, Sasha—phantom voices seeming to arise from unidentifiable sources and making absences present, in Bittová’s case often legacies of repression, dispersion, and genocide in her homelands. But here, it happened without the enhancement of any technology other than the vast technique the 63-year-old performer carried inside her. As the evening deepened, she strode barefoot onto the lawn and sang unamplified, with her viola, and then a capella. She closed by teaching the audience a Moravian folk song and leading us in singing it in the near-dark. Though we didn’t know what the words meant, they surged through long-dormant channels of shared emotion, binding strangers together, as dislocation became location again.

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It was a cathartic experience in a time when we’ve all needed to release our feelings over so much continuing loss, both of time and of individual humans. I join you, Briana, in aching over the one-two punch of the deaths of the great writers and thinkers bell hooks and Greg Tate. Like many of our peers, I wrote an appreciation this past week about Tate’s towering influence on me and other music writers. But since his passing, I’ve also been schooled on how much he affected thinkers across fields; even some Black political journalists raised their hands. It was extraordinary to see the Apollo Theater itself salute him with a farewell message up on its legendary marquee. I would add to hooks’ and Tate’s the name of another master teacher, the jazz pianist Barry Harris, who came up in Detroit in the big-band era and became part of the bebop generation. He died Dec. 8, just short of his 92nd birthday, but the loss was greater than that suggests, because for decades Harris had devoted himself to teaching regular open classes to all comers, almost regardless of means. He was a gifted (albeit no-nonsense) instructor, who touched many lives through that spirit of service. And these are just a few of those who’ve left us this month alone.

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But let’s shake off the blues and get back to the year-end business of setting works of art up in arbitrary competition, why don’t we?! Lindsay, I get your point about Adele’s comeback being unlike Billie Eilish’s, Kacey Musgraves’, or Lorde’s, for instance—and your addition of Lana Del Rey is on target. (BTW, did you all catch the Variety Awards speech a couple of weeks ago where LDR said she was “super thankful for all the criticism?” Irony? Passive aggression? Delusion? Looking at you, Ann!) However, when I said that these big names were sidestepping expectations, I didn’t mean it was always for the worse. Like Lindsay, I enjoy 30 more than any previous Adele album, precisely because it doesn’t always play to the stereotype of “classic” Adele; she doesn’t try to out-sob or out-belt herself. I’ve had conversations with fans who found the whole scope of the new record, especially the tracks with more digital effects or jazzy throwback arrangements, something they needed to get used to. And I did find lots to like about those other records, even if they seem like transitional work—besides the songs Lindsay already mentioned on Star-Crossed, for instance, there’s Musgraves’ modernized cover of the Chilean revolutionary ode “Gracias a la Vida,” which caps the album with a left-field twist. But on the other hand, none of these albums, including Adele’s, made my best-of-the-year list.

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As promised in my last post, I’ll end here by offering up that list. (Next time, I’ll add a list of individual tracks.) Looking over it, I feel I’ve forgotten something. Partly that’s just a perpetual state these days, but maybe I also don’t feel quite as attached to my choices as usual. My heart stirs more, for instance, when I think of the outstanding music documentaries this year, such as Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground (as you previously mentioned, Sasha), Peter Jackson’s Get Back Beatles marathon, or Questlove’s Summer of Soul. Was my mind less apt to wander when both my eyes and ears were engaged? Or did the desiccated social context of 2021 made it tougher for new albums to take root?

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That said, I do recommend these all wholeheartedly and urge readers to seek them out. I discussed half of my Top 10 in my first entry, so I’ll comment only on the remaining five here. And then I’ll add a heaping scoop more.

Top 10 (alphabetical by artist)

Julien Baker — Little Oblivions

Baker, a member of Boygenius with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, has been renowned for the intimate intensity of her solo music for years. But her earlier songwriting felt underdeveloped to me. Now she’s expanded not only her instrumental arrangements but her self-awareness, highlighting internal contradictions and paradoxes, making the songs twice as riveting and ultimately devastating.

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Black Midi — Cavalcade

Sylvie Courvoisier and Mary Halvorson — Searching for the Disappeared Hour

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I’ll follow the ingenious guitarist Halvorson anywhere she leads, but her second duo album with the Swiss-born pianist Courvoisier is a revelation. It’s an unusual instrumental pairing, because the guitar’s external strings and the piano’s internal ones seem too easily sonically tangled. But that entanglement becomes the prime motif here, cinching tighter and tighter round the brain and then springing loose in a rush. It’s meditation music for high adepts, but the listener gets to skip all the monkish discipline.

Dry Cleaning — New Long Leg

Myriam Gendron — Ma délire: Songs of Love, Lost & Found

James Brandon Lewis — Jesup Wagon

A saxophonist in his late 30s who’s been on the rise in jazz for the past decade, Lewis nails down a leading place with this album with his new Red Lily Quintet, featuring among others the unbeatable rhythm section of bassist William Parker (his album Mayan Space Station in the list below is merely one of many releases Parker’s put out this year) and drummer Chad Taylor. Conceptually, Jesup Wagon is a tribute to the multidisciplinary mind of George Washington Carver—the titular wagon was the mobile classroom Carver used to visit farmers and sharecroppers to teach new agricultural techniques in the early 20th century. But a listener doesn’t need to know that to get the gumption with which Lewis pursues his own musical travels along byways of melody and abstraction and sheer rocking force, and to be carried irresistibly along. 

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Low — Hey What

Mustafa — Smoke Rises

Liz Phair — Soberish

Phair might be partly a sentimental pick here, as I’ve been a devotee since the week Exile in Guyville hit in 1993. But I don’t need to cite her generations-long influence to praise her first new album in a decade and her best this century. The onetime indie-feminist enfant terrible addresses middle-aged concerns, with as sharp a mind as ever but a more forgiving sense of perspective, informed partly by her once-controversial early-2000s excursions into major-label pop.

Tyler, the Creator — Call Me If You Get Lost

Tyler’s evolution from shock-shilling young MC to sensitive and complex rapper-singer has been engrossing (and occasionally gross) at every stage, but he’s never made an album that holds my ear moment by moment as much as Call Me If You Get Lost. Neither did anyone else in hip-hop this year. Reveling in fame and material wealth while lamenting a lack of love may be Drake’s mopey stock-in-trade, but Tyler actually makes a deeply felt philosophical issue of it, one reassessed from contrasting directions on nearly every track. If there’s still such a thing as a rap canon, this one goes in it.

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25 more of note (alphabetical by artist)

ABBA — Voyager

Billy Bragg — The Million Things That Never Happened

Elvis Costello & V/A — Spanish Model

Theon Cross — Intra-I

Lucy Dacus — Home Video

Dave — We’re All Alone in This Together

Willie Dunn — Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology

Mickey Guyton — Remember Her Name

Injury Reserve — By the Time I Get to Phoenix

Vijay Iyer/Linda May Han Oh/Tyshawn Sorey — Uneasy

Rochelle Jordan — Play with the Changes

Nicholas Krgovich — This Spring

Aimee Mann — Queens of the Summer Hotel

William Parker — Mayan Space Station

Dawn Richard — Second Line: An Electro Revival

Allison Russell  — Outside Child

Amir El Saffar and Rivers of Sound — The Other Shore 

Skillibeng — Crocodile Teeth

Sons of Kemet — Black to the Future

V/A — Anastenaria: Thracian Firewalking Ritual Music

Caetano Veloso — Meu Coco

Tierra Whack’s series of three EPs — Rap?, Pop?, and R&B?

Wild Up — Julius Eastman, Vol 1: Femenine

Leslie Winer — When I Hit You—You’ll Feel It

Lainey Wilson — Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’

— Carl

Read the previous entry. Read the next entry.

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