Words by Luke LaBenne
Luke LaBenne is an Off Shelf contributor and co-host of the Best Song Ever Podcast, where he and Kevin play and discuss their favorite new music. On the pod, he’s known as “Lyrical Lukey” and loves analyzing the crafting of a songs lyrics and finding nuances and details that casual listeners miss. He is an avid music consumer and a musician under the name Indie Darling (on the socials @indiedarlingmusic). Here are his top ten albums in ascending order.
This was the boygenius year. Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker all grew to be indie darlings in their own rights yet this year they become superstars. They toured with Taylor Swift, played SNL, put on their own world tour and The Record even got The Film treatment with an incredibly directed visual album from Kristin Stewart. The Record finds these three delivering their finest material that showcases their unique personalities and highlights the merits of their stellar solo careers. Julien’s gruff white-collar rock and religious past come through on tracks like “$20,” “Anti-Curse,” and “Satanist” while Phoebe lends her heart-rending sparse vulnerability to “Emily, I’m Sorry” and “Revolution 0” Lucy’s signature emotionally dynamic storytelling comes through on “Leonard Cohen” and “We’re In Love”. Yet the highlight of this album comes from the tracks where all three singers trade off verses, the gorgeous folk ballad “Cool About It” and the epic album highlight “Not Strong Enough” which captures all of the magic of the band more than any other track. This album dominated all of my music-related text threads and outlets, it permeated my year more than any other and I found myself returning to it over and over again.
Ever since I heard 2016’s Worry I was sold on Jeff Rosenstock’s brand of hypermelodic energetic pop-punk. As he leaned more into political commentary on 2018’s POST- and 2020’s No Dream he reached a new level as an artist. HELLMODE is a natural progression into a more polished and accessible sound, yet it never loses the bloody beating heart that is at the core of all of Jeff Rosenstock’s albums. Though he delivers boisterous bangers like, “HEAD” and “I WANNA BE WRONG” softer tracks like “HEAL MODE” show us a different side. The highlight of the album is “DOUBT” combining heartfelt encouragement bolstered by a cathartic punk bridge. I struggle with doubting myself at times so I’ve used this song’s lyrics as a mantra throughout the year, “KILL ALL THE DOUBT.” This record packs the punch of Rosenstock’s previous work while blending it with a softer more nuanced sound. Similarly with the lyrical content you still get social commentary and political statements just woven through personal narratives. It feels like the best of both worlds, all shades of what he can offer on display taking his music to the next level once again.
My sign-off phrase on the Best Song Ever Podcast is, “Check Your Perpec.” Never I have checked my perspective harder than with 100 gecs. This was a band I had mocked yet still would return to their music to listen and laugh. Even then there was still something that kept me coming back. When they released their new record I thought I would give it a shot and from the first second I was sold. The opening track “Dumbest Girl Alive” is a feast of disparate sounds that somehow come together to make something wholly sound. It’s pop-punk, metal, EDM and emo. It’s all of these and none as the combination morphs into their signature brand of hyperpop. There’s no poignant commentary or emotional catharsis, just fun with sounds. Laura Les and Dylan Brady have perfected their brand of maximalism, experimentation and absurdity with many of the lyrics laughing at the surreality of their own success. I admit I was too quick to judge this band but I more than made up for it this year by spinning this album constantly and my Spotify Wrapped was gec-ed out.
Two singular forces in hip-hop joined forces and created one of the most unique and engrossing albums of the year. As a resident of Metro Detroit, I consider Danny Brown to be one of the finest talents to come out of my home state. Countless tracks have been made instantly iconic with the addition of Brown’s dynamic vocal. Pair that with JPEGMAFIA (a.k.a. Peggy) who has similarly created his own fully unique sound. Peggy’s production is at it’s finest on this record, he pairs looped samples with his signature band of sporadic and strange sounds, bass that will blow out your speakers, sax that will split your eardrums and repurposed vintage recordings that create memorable and surprising compositions. Every song feels like a different scene from an old film, like a 70s grindhouse flick or a 40s noir film. This pairing makes perfect sense and I hope we get to see many more collaborations from them in the future.
Michigan’s folk hero Sufjan Stevens once again finds a way to take his sound to a new level while delivering some of his most emotionally abundant material to date. Though he’s delivered stunning symphonies and interesting conceptual collaborations, Stevens has produced some of his finest work when channeling his own personal hardships into glorious emotional hymns and he’s done it once again on Javelin. Shades of the acoustic minimalism of Carrie & Lowell, the jarring electronic elements of The Age of Adz and the flute-laden orchestral swells of Illinoise and All Delighted People. While there is no easy comfort for the tragedies life throws at us, Stevens has a gift for spinning difficult emotions into magical musical tapestries.
Sampha Sisay started out writing songs on the piano in his mother’s home and went on to become a breakout star. He stunned audiences in 2017 with his debut album Process, toured with the xx, and collaborated with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Alicia Keys, Jessie Ware and Drake. Now on his long-awaited sophomore album Lahai, he returns older and wiser, now a father, he reflects on his growing up process and looks to the future. This album is lush with impeccably performed instrumentals, songs bloom and expand in unexpected and exciting ways. Swirling synths emerge from enveloping piano beds, each piece perfectly placed with dexterous precision, strengthened by dynamic rhythms and percussion. Sampha has only heightened his power since his debut and this album was well worth the wait.
Veteran singer-songwriter Jessie Ware wowed listeners and critics alike with her 2020 album What’s Your Pleasure, blending R&B, dance and disco with great success. On That! Feels Good! she continues to explore subjects of pleasure and desire amid incredible instrumentals. From funky disco grooves to thumping club tracks to the airy pop jams, Ware brings variety while maintaining cohesion with each song bringing a unique flavor. My favorite track is the existential orchestrated “Begin Again” where she asks the question, “Why does all the purest love get filtered through machines?” While she certainly employs electronics at times most of this album has a vintage approach with rich instrumentals. It has a tactile feeling which is fitting for an album called That! Feels Good! Whether she’s recalling anecdotes of her exes, exploring life’s mysteries or delivering empowering anthems she approaches it with incredible depth and elegance. When it comes to listening to this album, that feels good! I think I’ll do it again!
Shalom proves that endings can be new beginnings. After the dissolution of her band, the singer-songwriter experienced intense writer’s block before penning the track “Concrete” which serves as the midpoint of her phenomenal debut album, Sublimation. Working with producer Ryan Hemsworth, these songs are made up of expertly crafted arrangements for her On this album Shalom showcases her dynamic abilities, she effortlessly makes herself at home on any song whether it’s sludgy rock catharsis, danceable synthpop jams or bouncy indie earworms. Her lyrics deal with feelings of being an outsider, dealing with loss, the ending of relationships and wrestling with past regrets. She weaves in cheeky humor and sentimental sweetness with weighty emotional explorations, so the listener can experience the full spectrum of human emotions when listening to this album.
This year Asheville-based outfit Wednesday became one of my favorite new rock bands. Singer-songwriter & guitarist Karly Hartzman’s incredibly evocative and dutiful chronicling of herself and her environment is paired with impeccably performed rock instrumentals that effortlessly drift from screeching and gritty to epic and glimmering. These songs feel like cryptic scenes in an art film, with strip malls and quarries as the backdrops for epiphanies and breakdowns. Morals or messages aren’t spoon-fed to the listener, rather hazy pictures speak volumes and a blend of feelings emerges from collaged images. Hartzman has a deft ability to world-build and transport the listener to see what she’s seeing and feel what she’s feeling, finding glory and despair in the most unlikely places.
The story of glaive’s rise to success is an incredible one. As a teenager he posted his first song on Soundcloud in April 2020 and in a few short years he signed to Interscope, opened for megastar The Kid Laroi and was featured on a track by Machine Gun Kelly. Now, at the age of only 18 he’s put out a stellar debut album. Tracks like “17250” and “the good the bad and the olga” have traces of his hyperpop past. Pop-punk bangers like “as if” and “the prom” are balanced with sparse emo ballads like “Pardee Urgent Care” and “2005 barbie doll” as well as anthemic synthpop jams like “all i do is try my best” and “the car.” This is a Gen Z coming-of-age album yet it captures emotions that resonate with all ages. He speaks frankly about his struggles with mental health, bipolar disorder and the pains of growing up. In the past I would say he’s wise beyond his years however I think that phrase is dismissive of the insight and emotions of the young. We should listen to what the kids have to say and glaive makes that abundantly clear.