Words by Quillen
Quillen is a friend, husband, dog dad, and lover of baseball, Twin Peaks (the tv show, not the band), and Final Fantasy VII through X. He has played drums since the mid-90s, most recently in bands called Lawnmower, Congress, and Natural Monuments. He is a co-host of the Tell Me All Your Thoughts on Pod podcast, where he gets to wax nostalgic about the music he grew up listening to with two of his absolute greatest buds.
The Weather Station’s fifth album was an early 2021 MVP. While it lost some of its luster for me throughout the year, when I revisited it when working on this here list, I couldn’t help but be floored again. There isn’t a bad song in the bunch. I remember expecting a pretty straightforward folk album. Instead, I was rewarded with experiments in groovy adult contemporary pop and krautrock fused with some Laurel Canyon-style folk rock from Tamara Lindeman and company. 2021 was a great year for this kind of vibe between Ignorance and the Cassandra Jenkins album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature.
The War on Drugs have entirely ditched their shoegaze folk beginnings for a Bruce Hornsby-inspired dad rock sound. It’s been a process from one album to the next, and on their latest, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, they are fully realized. Not to say that 2014’s Lost in the Dream and 2017’s A Deeper Understanding aren’t good (they’re great, in fact), but I haven’t felt as attached to an album of their’s since Slave Ambient ten years ago. There are too many fantastic moments here to count. “Harmonia’s Dream” brings the Peter Buck guitar noodling over an upbeat 80s soft rock backdrop. The title track might feature the best chorus on any song in 2021. And, the last two minutes of “Old Skin” are overflowing with Springsteen-like passion and yearning, yet it feels so much more exciting and special to me. Where A Deeper Understanding was half outright jams with meandering ballads in between, I Don’t Live Here Anymore has those blatant high points, but feels complete.
I was tipped off to Kacy Hill with her quality 2020 sophomore effort, Is It Selfish if We Talk About Me Again. She has leveled up on the lower key Simple, Sweet, and Smiling, giving her saccharine pop sound some much appreciated dynamics. The album also feels more cohesive, particularly in mood, despite the style varying from song to song. There are some real stunners here, like “Seasons Bloom” and “The Right Time” to name a couple. Another one, “Walking at Midnight,” seems to be inspired by the Marc Cohn classic, “Walking in Memphis,” which I had honestly never heard of until recently. “Caterpillars” hits a melodic sweet spot for me and with its sparsity and drama, makes it the biggest standout for me.
MCs Billy Woods and Elucid quickly followed up last year’s very good Shrines with a game changer of an album in Haram. It doesn’t hurt that The Alchemist, who has been on quite a tear the post couple years, took on production duties. Thankfully, Alc didn’t entirely overpower the group here. I mean, yes, the production sounds very much like The Alchemist, but these songs also feel entirely like Armand Hammer. I love the eerie and mysterious mood of opener “Sir Benni Miles,”, but the highest point of the album is unquestionably the surreal reggae of “Falling Out the Sky,” which showcases a truly inspired feature from Earl Sweatshirt. Haram is certainly not immediate and it took some work for me to really get into it, but it was 100% worth it.
Not only is Ryley Walker an amazing and hilarious presence on Twitter, he also is a guitar virtuoso and can craft some gorgeous tuneage. I haven’t put in the work on anything previous to Course in Fable, and the collaborations he’s released since just aren’t my thing. But, I love this album. It sounds as if in an alternate timeline, Jim O’Rourke passed on forming Loose Fur with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche, and started a side project with members of Phish instead. Reading that back, it sounds tremendously stupid, but it absolutely works.
In a year where we didn’t get a new Protomartyr release, Dry Cleaning picked up the slack and blessed us with an ample substitution. Here, the band continues their post-punk trajectory that began when they debuted with two EPs in 2019. New Long Leg, perhaps my favorite album title of 2021, is full of wiry and memorable guitar licks, a quality rhythm section that locks in and strays as needed, and some rich yet deadpan vocal and lyrical delivery from a truly compelling frontperson in Florence Shaw. It’s hard to pick a favorite song when half the album deserves that designation.
Featuring members of hardcore/punk bands Trapped Under Ice and the very popular and increasingly important Turnstile, Angel Du$t’s fourth album is a modern power pop masterpiece. Produced by Rob Schnapf, who has recorded the likes of Kurt Vile, Joyce Manor, and most importantly Elliott Smith, YAK: A Collection of Truck Songs sounds excellent and has the songs to back it up. The upbeat “No Vacancy” is a brilliant jangle pop banger with tight drumming and some of the most memorable melodies on the album. The mid-tempo groove is only the first awesome thing you notice in “Dancing on the Radio.” Then you get to the part where Tim Armstrong from Operation Ivy and Rancid sings, and then the strings come in. For all the hype that surrounded Turnstile this year, and rightfully so, Angel Du$t might deserve it even a little more.
All the way back in January, Shame finally returned after their 2018 debut. The band took their sound from Songs of Praise, honed and matured it, instilled a bit more fun into it, and came away with a far superior sophomore effort. The songs are angular and noodly, shifting within a second’s notice whenever the hell they want. The guitars are jagged and often make me think of past favorite guitar-centric albums, such as Q and Not U’s 2000 debut, No Kill No Beep Beep. Drunk Tank Pink was an exciting way to bring in the new music year, and has been reliable throughout.
2. MIKE – Disco! (self-released)
For the third year in a row, rapper MIKE has had a top two release for me. I’m not sure that it surpasses 2019’s Tears of Joy, and it doesn’t quite reach the highs of last year’s #1, Weight of the World, but it certainly continues MIKE’s current incredible run. Disco! is more lo-fi underground hip hop with murky soul samples and inviting flow. The overall sound and feel here is a bit brighter though, which is a really nice touch. I am very much looking forward to whatever MIKE has in store next.
Almost immediately upon this album’s release, I knew it would land in my #1 spot. Zack Schwartz’s musical journey is one I’ve followed closely and enthusiastically, from the mathy emo/indie rock of Glocca Morra to the earlier shoegaze/dream pop iteration of Spirit of the Beehive, along with his solo experimental kaleidoscopic pop project, Draag Me (who had an album in my top five last year). Entertainment, Death follows three albums and an EP of varying levels of accessibility and difficulty. In some ways I can see it as their most challenging record (each song changes so many times I can’t even count, and there are some really twisted moments throughout). However, there are sections of songs here where they haven’t been more melodic or memorable, and pretty much every song has a moment like that. Between the production and arrangements of these truly unique works of art, I truly don’t know how to describe this band anymore, and I think it is for the best. If any 2021 album sticks with me for years and years to come, this is it.