Words by Trav
I’m Trav, and this is a top ten list where I talk about my ten favorite releases of the year, beginning with New Year’s Day in January 2021 [ed note: this is a reference to All Your Thoughts on Pod, a podcast he cohosts]. I also sometimes play music in Lawnmower, Natural Monuments, and Rapid Eye Movement, one of southeast Michigan’s finest R.E.M. tribute bands.
What a lonely year. Usually when I’m reflecting on end of year lists, I can look back on shared moments with friends that gave special significance to a given album. The moments I remember from each of my favorite albums this year are almost entirely just me alone in my car driving to or from work, or at home lying on the couch flipping through my phone. One of the best things about enjoying new music has always been discussing it with friends or acquaintances and having similar reactions and experiences, but all of the recent isolation has been rough. All of this is to say: check in with your friends and tell them how much you love the Olivia Rodrigo album, or Montero, or even (god forbid) the Foo Fighters. They’ll be happy for you, and will love to hear you talk about feeling passionately about something.
10. Militarie Gun – All Roads Lead to the Gun (Alternatives Label) & All Roads Lead To The Gun II (Convulse Records) EPs
This is more or less a cool indie rock band with a hardcore singer. But to listen to Militarie Gun is a lot more fun than that description. Vocalist Ian Shelton’s charisma, cadence, and delivery are the main features of the eight songs between these two EPs.
9. Floatie – Voyage Out (Exploding In Sound Records)
Mathy jazz with soft vocals. There’s a skittish quality to the musicianship that’s vaguely similar in some ways to the busy guitar work of American Football-style emo bands, but without any of the pandering, retread benchmarks of that genre. Floatie is a truly original band establishing their own path on Voyage Out, and it’s a joy to see how well it works.
8. black midi – Cavalcade (Rough Trade)
Seeing the “John L” video for the first time was one of the most striking moments in music for me this year. I immediately watched it three more times after that, and once every couple of weeks since. I think my perception of black midi after hearing 2019’s Schlagenheim was totally wrong; I had thought of them as one type of band, and after listening to Cavalcade it was clear that they are much more clever and versatile than that. Top notch musicians, thoughtful songwriting, unique perspectives.
7. Snail Mail – Valentine (Matador)
This was a pleasant surprise, as the first SM album, Lush, didn’t really register for me. The first Valentine single, the title track, immediately forced me to approach this album differently, as it was so much more colorful and multi-dimensional. It also seemed like Lindsey Jordan’s voice had evolved and that she had become more self-assured as a singer. The album has several other excellent songs (“Forever (Sailing),” “Headlock,” “Glory,” etc.), but you’ve probably heard about that already.
6. Zoos of Berlin – Here and There Fading and Riding (Don’t Look About)
Zoos of Berlin have been consistently making sophisticated art pop for over a decade. My relationship to their music has changed and evolved over that time, which I’ve come to realize is more of a reflection of my values as a listener than their output. HaTFaR is their fourth full length, and they’re as stately and adventurous as ever. Early single “Children Cycle” gradually builds to a quiet, euphoric explosion of manipulated guitar while the vocals manifest those feelings by singing of “trying hard to reach you.” It’s another truly great moment in music this year.
5. Rejjie Snow – Baw Baw Black Sheep (Honeymoon)
I just googled this and learned that this is the work of a shroom-inspired Irish rapper who intended it to be an unofficial companion soundtrack to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and I could not be more confused. To me, this is perfect nostalgic sunny Saturday morning r&b that tastes like orange slices at halftime of your youth soccer game. I had assumed it was a nod to one of the great underappreciated eras of music that was meant to evoke the same feelings as hearing groups like SWV, Zhane, and Arrested Development. I guess psychedelic drugs and Augustus Gloop work too.
4. Robohands – Shapes (King Underground)
Shapes is a very chill album of traditional jazz played on conventional instruments that ultimately doesn’t sound all that far off from a lofi study beats Youtube playlist. The fact that it’s performed by one person is stunning considering how strong the grooves are. It works great as background music or a point of focus, which has always been a difficult line to navigate.
3. Spirit of the Beehive – Entertainment, Death (Saddle Creek)
Since this album’s release, I was, and still remain, deeply frustrated by it. I’m honestly not even sure if I like it. There are so many moments where it comes close to being something that I would love, and then it resets and takes a hard left turn into something else. I appreciate the use of frequent changes as a different approach to disorient the listener, but I know that there are elements of great unfinished songs here that don’t need to be obfuscated. The search for what those great songs could be keeps me coming back to this album.
2. Goat Girl – On All Fours (Rough Trade)
This one checks all the boxes for me – terrific melodies, warm melancholy guitar chords, disaffected vocals, clever arrangements. Those are vague enough descriptors that it could apply to plenty of indie rock bands, but it’s rare that it actually works. Goat Girl is the real deal and On All Fours is packed with banger after banger.
1. Cheekface – Emphatically No. (New Professor Music)
I spent my first two listens LOLing through what I thought was a jokey novelty album of self-deprecation and therapy quips before I realized how good it actually is. Yes it’s funny, but to make an album of humorous songs that holds up over multiple listens is a feat. It’s a delicate balancing act, and the more that I hear Emphatically No., the more convinced I am that this is a perfect example of that. Catchy riff after catchy riff supports one liner after one liner (I’ll limit myself to sharing one because this entire blurb could just be great lines from this album: “I am young, dumb and full of psychiatric medication / I’ve watched every single episode of PBS NewsHour and now I’m going on vacation”). Eventually I stopped laughing and just kept listening.