Published on January 5th, 2022 | by Dave Scaddan0
The Feedback Society’s Top 20 Albums of 2021
As he does every year, music writer Dave Scaddan gives us his top 20 albums of the year! Here’s Dave’s Top 20 albums of 2021!
Before we get to the list, it seems worth mentioning that I considered several albums this year that all included songs that weren’t actually released in 2021. King Krule, Jaga Jazzist, Khruangbin, and Nubya Garcia all put out albums this year that featured songs that were at least a year old, but were presented in new renditions.
King Krule’s live album You Heat Me Up, You Cool Me Down contains no new material, but the in-concert versions of these songs often represent exciting new renditions that reveal how Archy Marshall’s work has developed within his band over time. Despite all the songwriting and personnel being familiar, this really is a new-sounding album where some numbers are smoothed out and others are roughed up. Amazing how this album can actually serve as a retrospective of a prolific career when Archy is only 27 years old.
Jaga Jazzist’s album Pyramid (which was on this list last year) featured one of my fave instrumental tracks of the year, ‘Apex’. If there’s a better document to show the potential of a nine-piece instrumental combo embracing modern music production, I don’t know where to find it. At least that’s what I thought before hearing the Lindstrom and Prins Thomas remix that came out on Pyramid Remix in 2021. There’s another remix on the same record that Prins Thomas does on his own – good stuff.
The Houston guitar-funk trio Khruangbin are getting really good at stretching their catalogue while only putting out about ten to twelve new songs a year. They did the remix thing a few years back on Hasta el Cielo, a dub version of their Con Todo El Mundo LP, and last year’s Mordechai got a remix LP of its own in 2021, featuring ten different producers pushing the drums and sequencing of this record to newer, dancier levels. Will Holland’s remix of ‘Pelota’ works so well that he should probably just join the band.
Nubya Garcia’s 2020 record SOURCE was an explosion of talent whose aftershocks are still resonating with ripples of jazz sax, afro/latin rhythms and soul vocals. Seeing that it had also been given a remix release initially made me think, “how unnecessary.” But SOURCE = WE MOVE made me rethink that. This is one of those remix sets that really rewards familiarity with the (no pun intended) source material, giving the initiated listener lots of, “oooh, I like what they did there” moments to enjoy.
Another repurposed release this year that wasn’t really new was Kaleidoscope Companion by DJ Food. As a kind of 20th anniversary/quarantine project, a bunch of unreleased/adjacent material was added to the original Kaleidoscope album to create eight sides of vinyl that hearken back to some of the best Ninja Tune days. The reworking gives us a more atmospheric take on the flavor of something like DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing or a more playful incarnation of Kruder and Dorfmeister.
Okay, now the 20 . . .
20 Scotch Rolex – Tewari
These tracks can make you feel like you’re trapped in a Donkey Kong nightmare. Jungle drums aggressively pound through an album of screeched and howled productions. There are just enough guest spots to keep the whole experience human, and though Tewari is never gentle or subtle, it gets points for pure rhythmic assault.
19 Madlib – Sound Ancestors
Production by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden was the big buzz when this album was released early this year. Having had almost all of 2021 to soak it up, it doesn’t feel like that aspect matters. While it may be just slightly more polished-sounding, it’s another great Madlib record, knocking like he knocks, rocking like he rocks, and riding groove peaks.
18 Leon Vynehall – Rare, Forever
Being an early-2021 release, this is probably the record I’ve had the most time to absorb this year. Leon Vynehall’s history as a house music producer informs all of Rare, Forever without making it a house record in any way. There are fat beats and slick swooshes of production flair, to be sure, but this is more of an instrumental living-room record than a club record. Like many musicians who start out in the thudding arena of dance music, LV reaches here for something darker and spookier to flavour his sounds with. Chill moments of gloomy atmosphere give way to hitch-and-jerk hooks on this album – it’s a journey that often feels like it’s over too soon.
17 Darkside – Spiral
Nicolas Jaar has maybe reached the point where he benefits much from a collaborator to keep him in check. Once your pretentiousness reaches the point where you have to put a warning on your own record to tell the consumer that the bursts of distortion they’re hearing are intentional, and not the product of damaged equipment, maybe you’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole of your own “innovation”. This is not to say that collaborating with Darkside partner David Harrington turns Nicolas Jaar into a radio-friendly pop star, but there is certainly a reined-in influence keeping Spiral tethered to some semblance of song structure and accessibility.
This record is a little on the mournful side, but there’s enough melody and pulse to keep it from wandering into the Atom Heart Mother territory that Jaar can sometimes get lost in. ‘The Limit’, for example, has a chorus that could live in the top 20 if someone like, say, The Weeknd was singing it, and Jaar and Harrington add just enough weirdness and off-kilter effects to give it shelf life.
16 The Residents – Duck Stab! Alive
This is an album I probably like simply for the fact that it exists, even though listening to it is pretty fun also. Duck Stab! is one of the best Residents albums. Originally released in 1978, it is a reckoning with songwriting insanity, unhinged oddities layered onto one another in a carnival of the strange. Played live all these years later, The Residents are outfitted to bring a little more musicianship to these songs, along with more effects on the vocals and guitars, which helps to keep the hinges unattached.
15 Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood and Juanita
Fresh off an Anime soundtrack and two bluegrass records, Sturgill turned to full-on storytelling in 2021. The Ballad of Dood and Juanita plays like the storyboard to a great revenge western as SS again tries to do something that goes beyond the scope of the single song. It’s not my favourite thing he’s done in the last five years, but I still think this record will endure. Still waiting for the vinyl version to hit stores in early 2022.
14 Snail Mail – Valentine
Valentine got plenty of critical slobber this year, and deservedly so. Snail Mail is an artist on the rise, developing a knack for pained pop that lets the listener directly into the life of the songwriter. The sometimes-straining vocals could easily be off-putting, but they put me in mind of Jane Siberry, who I cite here as a favorable comparison. Lindsay Jordan is a pop star who seems incredibly unaffected and normal, and when she hits a glitch in her delivery trying to reach a note that’s a bit of a reach, she gives us a satisfying squeal that trademarks her vibe.
13 Horsey – Debonair
This record might be the toughest sell on the list. I like it because it reminds me of Mr. Bungle’s self-titled 1991 album, a room-clearer if ever there was one. Horsey are melding crooned vocals that could’ve been sung by the likes of Harry Connick Jr. with aggressive, plodding, experimental sounds that defy categorization. Sometimes a record finds its appeal by refusing to do anything whatsoever to draw the listener in, and ‘Debonair’ is such a record. It’s impossible to get comfortable with ‘Debonair’ as a cohesive album, but it’s still a worthy and unpredictable collection of disjointed and unsettled songs. I also have a soft spot for any crooning frontman who describes himself as having “a body like a disrepaired and poorly made pork statue of a pear.” I am sorry for recommending this.
12 Irreversible Entanglements – Open the Gates
If there’s a record from the last year that makes me miss live music while also scratching the itch that removal from concerts creates, this is it. Moor Mother’s earnestness of tone in the spoken-word poems that anchor this record makes an empty room feel inhabited by a ghost on a mission. The free-form jazz that this group splashes behind her is the kind that can only be created in an intense sweat, eyes closed, hands clenched on the instrument like meaty clamps. In these songs, the history of music as a tool to lift oneself out of social entrenchment can be heard – Moor Mother’s words guide this historic jaunt, but the music is an un-detachable part of the trip.
11 Aesop Rock and Blockhead – Garbology
Aesop Rock is on an incredible roll right now, one that began in 2016 with The Impossible Kid. Since then, he’s released Spirit World Field Guide, the Malibu Ken album with Tobacco, and this team-up with Blockhead, a producer my headphones and bucket speakers go way back with. During this incredibly rich run, Aes has focused his verbosity more and more on autobiography. The image he paints of himself in his songs is that of a trollish, unshaven, unwashed nature freak who’s still addicted to junk food. Through four albums, this image has concentrated into a kind of fantasy game avatar that delivers all the lyrics – a cool effect. I like having a corner of hiphop where urban emcees rap about being seen in mukluks and favouring sandwiches with potato chips inside. Aes used to write whole songs about stuff like feeding the dog from the table or trying to get a mother to understand the need to acquire Ministry tix – now he’s on more of a self-detrimental braggadocio that appeals to my GenX sensibilities.
10 The True Loves – Sunday Afternoon
The True Loves are a nine-piece instrumental combo who make up-tempo party music. Heavy with horns, snap-back drums, funky hooks and soulful guitar grooves, Sunday Afternoon is the soundtrack to the hippest bar trip you never got to take this year, but also the score of your most enjoyably mellow afternoon at home, just you and the pets. Among the many great live sets I’ve seen on KEXP’s YouTube channel, this group has some of the best.
9 Loraine James – Reflection
Though this is not a debut, it’s the album from 2021 that has me most excited about where an artist might head from here. Loraine James seems like the most qualified successor to the glitch riches of King Richard D. James, able to twist beats and synth strokes to their contorted limits.
8 The Grid and Robert Fripp – Leviathan
When I think of Robert Fripp, I think, “avant-garde guitar virtuoso”, which is not what emerges from Leviathan. There is no guitar to speak of on this ambient release, unless maybe some of the droning synth sounds we hear are actually ringing from a Les Paul.
This album might not seem like much at first, but let it overtake a room and you’ll journey to an unknown realm of vastness and escape. Best heard in solitude, Leviathan will get you out of your head, your planet, your known universe.
7 Sault – Nine
Continuing their short legacy as one of the more interesting young musical acts of the 20s, Sault did their best work so far in 2021. Nine is rooted in soul and hip-hop, but these tracks go lots of other ways too. This is a group that’s bound to be seen primarily as a “political” entity, but much like with Irreversible Entanglements, the political label risks missing how many great musical steps are being taken. It’s not easy to be idealistically dire while still infusing one’s work with hope and promise, but that’s what Nine does, sometimes sounding like Nina Simone got hooked up with The Go! Team.
6 Midwife – Luminol
If there’s anyone else out there who feels a hole in the indie music scene where the Ruby Kato Atwood lineup of Yamantaka Sonic Titan used to be, you might want to try filling that void with these six songs. This also might be up your alley if you favour “quiet” records that sound better when played very, very loud. The pulse rate of this record never gets past that of a sleeping heartbeat, yet it reaches some incredible intensities in a short span of time. I can find 35 minutes of any day to let the honey coating of Luminol drape over my consciousness.
5 Loretta Lynn – Still Woman Enough
After her association with Third Man Records facilitated a late-career resurgence for the coal miner’s daughter, Loretta Lynn has continued to write and record. Still Woman Enough more than lives up to its title, taking me back to the strains of the old eight-track player in the bench seats of the station wagon. In those days, Loretta, Kenny, Abba, and CCR were all we had besides the radio to listen to in the car, so Loretta’s voice takes me back to another time. Her words run deep with me, always serving as a powerful reminder of the importance of simplicity and directness.
4 Low – HEY WHAT
Despite being punctuated with bursts of aggressive, distorted synth and drum sounds, HEY WHAT is one of the year’s most beautiful and probably enduring records. The real force behind this beauty is the harmonic vocal work of husband-and-wife team Alan Spearhawk and Mimi Parker. Years of performing together have melded this couple’s voices into a powerful tandem force. Even though many of these songs sound like they’re about something splitting apart, the tone of the music is one of togetherness. Listen to HEY WHAT once to get used to the chunky, raspy production, then go back to let the voices take hold.
3 Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – I Told You So
This title iterates what I’ve been saying to anyone who will listen since I was lucky enough to see them live in 2018. It is impossible to resist the good-time feeling that emanates from the Hammond organ of Delvon Lamarr, the Fender of Jimmy James, and the snare drum of Dan Weiss. The tender ticklings of Lamarr’s capable fingers can always be relied on to carry the DLO3 to places of pure joy. I Told You So is full of the kind of music that keeps hips and shoulders in motion. This is music played by people who are smiling for people who like to smile.
2 Colleen Green – Cool
This is a record that the tastemakers were all over when it first came out in September, and a few short months later, it was nowhere to be found in the top-whatevers of the same music journalists that pumped it up upon release. Maybe it wore thin on them, but not for me. Much like the debut album by a Philadelphia group called Second Grade in 2020, Cool finds its feet in stripped-down pop songs that are free from pretention.
I am put in mind of a tune like ‘La La Love You’ by The Pixies when I listen to Cool. These songs are almost annoyingly simple, yet there’s no denying the songwriting prowess that spawned them. Colleen Green has plenty of great under-written lyrical passages on this record, and its simplicity is a mark of confidence that beams from every track. It’s like when she knows she’s got a great hook or a great bar, she’s secure enough to not overthink it, and that’s a rare trait.
1 Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
Mahamadou Souleymane can announce himself like a proclamation using only his guitar. That’s exactly what he does at the start of “Chismiten”, track one of Mdou Moctar’s “Afrique Victime”. His guitar playing is inflected with the Tuarag styles of West Africa, but other inflections of soul, rock, and blues can be heard seeping their way through. This cool mix of styles would be plenty interesting even if the musicianship were mediocre, but here it is presented through the playing of a virtuoso.
Then there’s his voice. Even without understanding the language the songs are written in, one can still feel the tone in every song because of Souleymane’s singing. On “Layla” he sounds as smooth and sad as Marvin Gaye. On “Afrique Victime” his voice pains with frustration, but there’s also a resolve, and moments where his singing surges with bursts of hope and insistency. On “Tala Tannam” he sounds as tender as Art Garfunkel, and you won’t need to speak Tamasheq to know what he’s pining for when you hear it.
Then there’s his band. These guys lay down a locked-in groove on every track. They lull these songs into intense, hypnotic cycles without letting them become repetitive. The ear that’s accustomed to 4/4 rhythms will get a mesmerizing effect out of these three-beat bars where the first beat is barely there. Once the ear or the feet catch up with the pulse of Mdou Moctar, there is no going back. Even without the guitar and vocals, these songs would be a satisfying experience full of attitude and nuance.