THE TOP 50 ALBUMS OF 2021, ALBUMS 30 — 21

Across the Margin continues its rollout of the Best Albums of 2021 with albums 30 — 21…

30. Matt Sweeney & Bonnie Prince Billy — Superwolves 

The long awaited sequel, sixteen years in the making, to esteemed singer-songwriter Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Billy) and guitar virtuoso Math Sweeney’s outstanding album Superwolf finally came to fruition this year in the form of a sprawling, lush, and gorgeous offering entitled Superwolves. Everything you’d expected from the talented pairing is on display on Superwolves — the intricate guitar arrangements, thought provoking and unparagoned lyrical stylings, profound emotional affectivity — and to add to the resplendence several of the tracks feature Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar (more on him later!). The addition of Moctar and his band’s unique sound adds a pleasing West African element to the album’s already rich sonic tapestry. While Superwolves ideally should be absorbed in consummate, one of our favorite tracks, “Make Me Worry For Me,” which fittingly leads off the album, is dark and menacing, confident on the verge of cocky, and a song that marks a biting return for a beloved indie rock project that his been profoundly missed.

Essential Tracks: “Make Me Worry For Me,” “Resist The Urge,” “My Blue Suit.”

29. Black Midi — Cavalcade

We are increasingly coming upon comparisons of Black Midi, an experimental English rock band (the name is derived from the Japanese music genre black MIDI), to the gods of funk-metal Primus, a resemblance that makes a great deal of sense when you give over to the offerings on the bands latest, extremely spirited and innovative album, Cavalcade. For a taste of Black Midi’s sophomore album, we would like to point you to a funky, gyrating and ultimately dreamlike ditty curiously entitled “Chondromalacia Patella.” According to the band’s press kit, “Chondromalacia Patella,” is a song about convalescence and, if curious (as we sure were), the name refers to a type of knee injury that reportedly one of the band members suffered while running. So yeah, Black Midi, like Primus, is a weird band, and like Primus, they are tremendously talented. Their latest album is chock full of songs that are equally jarring, seductive, and energetic AF. “John L” kicks off the album and we advise you to buckle up for the wild, and entirely gratifying, ride.

Essential Tracks: “John L,” “Marlene Dietrich,” “Chondromalacia Patella.”

28. IDLES — Crawler

On the opening track “MTT 420 RR,” off the IDLES 2021 album Crawler, lead singer Joe Talbot passionately wails “Are you ready for the storm?” again and again. Take this as a warning and heed that warning. The fourth full-length release for the British punk band, co-produced by Kenny Beats (mentioned previously in the countdown, hailed for his work with Vince Staples), is absolutely brimming with potent headbangers. Yet amid all that righteous chaos you can find moments of stark introspection, and shocking reserve (for example, the startlingly soothing song “Progress”). IDLES finds a way to just keep getting better and better as they mature, exploring new sounds, displaying a vast range in abilities, and increasingly exhibiting unexpected emotional depth. Crawler stands as proof positive of this heightening of the bands abilities and the expansion of their songwriting range and proves once-again that they are one of Britain’s most intoxicatingly talented bands.

Essential Tracks: “The Wheel,” “Stockholm Syndrome,” “Progress,” “Meds.”

27. James Blake — Friends That Break Your Heart

“Coming Back” by British singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer James Blake, featuring the goddess SZA, is easily one of the most impressive songs we have heard all year. Thing is, so is “Lost Angel Nights,” “Friends That Break Your Heart” (absolutely devastating to behold), “Funeral,” And “Life Is Not The Same.” Truth be told, if this latest treasure of an album entitled Friends That Break Your Heart were Blake’s debut or even sophomore album, we might be here hailing it as one of the top albums of the year, but we fear that we are beginning to take Blake’s brand of gorgeous, inspiring melancholy for granted. Fortunately, Friends That Break Your Heart serves as a stark and honest reminder of Blake’s genius, and of how he can tear you apart with one song and then build you back together better in the next. It’s an absolutely heart-wrenching, honest album, and another testament to Blake’s otherworldly talents.

Essential tracks: “Coming Back (feat SZA),” “Lost Angel Nights,” “Funeral.”

26. Jason Isbell — Georgia Blue

Proving to be a man of his word, singer-songwriter Jason Isbell triumphantly came through on his vow to record an album of songs by artists from Georgia if the state went to Joe Biden and Democratic candidates in the 2020 election, which it inarguably did. On top of that, Isbell assured that all of the proceeds from Georgia Blue would be donated to Georgia based non-profit organizations. It does turn out, however, that the intent of Isabell’s latest album wasn’t all altruistic. As Isbell puts it, “I will admit my motivations were a bit selfish. For years, I’ve been looking for an excuse to record these songs with my band and some friends. The songs on this album are some of my favorite Georgia-related songs,” ones by the likes of Precious Bryant, James Brown, and Gladys Knight. The grouping of artists that help Isbell deliver on his promise is flat out jaw-dropping, including Amanda Shires, Brittney Spencer, Adia Victoria, Brandi Carlile, Julien Baker, Béla Fleck, Chris Thile, Steve Gorman, Peter Levin, and John Paul White. Anything Isbell touches turns to gold, but with time-tested material by some of the most gifted artists of all time, crafted with an all-star cast, the politically-inspired Georgia Blue  is an absolute treat.

Essential Tracks: “Nightswimming,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “Midnight train To Georgia.”

25. Terry Gross — Soft Opening

Being ardent fans of post-rock thrashers Trans Am, we continually keep an eye on the various projects the trio embraces. Thus, when we saw that multi-instrumentalist Phil Manley of Trans Am had teamed with bassist Donny Newenhouse, who co-owns a studio with Phil called El Studio, and drummer Phil Becker, we were instantly intrigued. What started as just playful studio jam sessions morphed into something more, a project curiously entitled Terry Gross. As the band began improvising as a way to test the boundaries and capability of the studio they were recording in, songs came into focus, and an album christened Soft Opening came into being. Because these songs were born of jams, there is a live feel to the three song, thirty-eight minute whirlwind of an album. The artists, three self-described “sonic scientists traversing the borderlands of rock,” unleash a fury of sound across Soft Opening, crafting an album that is driving, wholly absorbing, and unreservedly brimming with extravagant energy.

Essential Tracks: “Specifically (Or What Have You),” “Space Voyage Mission.”

24. The War on Drugs — I Don’t Live Here Anymore

The fifth full-length release by the Adam Granduciel led Philadelphia rock band, entitled I Don’t Live Here Anymore, was four years in the making. The long awaited follow-up to 2017’s stunning A Deeper Understanding, The War On Drugs latest album is assuredly their most straight-forward, accessible and concise offering to date. While the hardcore WOD faithful could view the absence of extensive jams or the ultra clean production of the album as a misstep, there is something truly magical about the boiling down of all that is special about Granduciel’s droney, inspiring brand of rock that encompasses I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Following the affecting, slow build that commences the album’s first track “Living Proof,” what follows is a breathtaking collection of arena rock anthems. I Don’t Live Here Anymore persists as an album that highlights a fully realized and confident band, where Granduciel’s lyrical talents are wholly audible and the band’s musical talents entirely digestible in a manner that can be easily viewed as a mammoth leap forward.

Essential Tracks: “Living Proof,” “I Don’t Live Here Anymore (feat Lscius),” “Change.”

23. Cassandra Jenkins — An Overview Of Phenomenal Nature

“I’m a three legged dog / working with what I got / and I’ll always be / looking for what I lost,” commences the brilliant songstress Cassandra Jenkins’s latest album, An Overview Of Phenomenal Nature, a cryptic but poignant line which serves as a hint to the sort of depth that would lie ahead. The Josh Kaufman-produced Phenomenal Nature, a follow up to 2017’s Play Till You Win, is a grouping of heartfelt reflections on the complicated puzzle that is life and an ode to nature, the pure healing balm that has the ability to ease some of the pain of the human journey, if only momentarily. Jenkins, it is worth noting, was set to open up for Purple Mountains on tour before the beloved poet and musician David Berman passed away. They had worked together, and their artistic bond can be felt throughout this introspective album, particularly on the track “Ambiguous Norway,” which serves a stunning, if not heart-wrenching, ode to the loss of such an unparalleled talent.

Essential Tracks: “Michelangelo,” “Ambiguous Norway,” “Hard Drive.”

22. Tonstartssbandht — Petunia

Tonstartssbandht is an American psychedelic, noise rock band consisting of the sibling duo Andy and Edwin White. The brothers hail from Orlando, Florida, and released their eighteenth album this year entitled Petunia, easily their most accessible and compelling offering to date. Comprised of little more than a 12-string guitar and a drum kit, Andy and Edwin brought Petunia to life in the midst of the pandemic and there is an intimacy and patience that can be found on the album because of it. Rock critic James Christopher Monger described the songs on the album as “like a Krautrock Grateful Dead having a go at Pet Sounds,” and we couldn’t agree more. Petunia is a wonderfully melodic, spacious album, easy to get lost in. Petunia is a masterclass in jamy-filled neo psych folk, rife with delightful, novel guitar hooks lurking around every corner, intoxicating overlaying twin falsetto from Andy and Edwin, and increasingly compelling musical wanderings that are equal parts hypnotizing and cathartic.

Essential Tracks: “Pass Away,” “What Has Happened,” “Hey Bad.”

21. Curtis Harding – If Words Were Flowers

Curtis Harding’s third solo album, If Words Were Flowers, is the shot in the arm of positivity we have been craving. The album’s title was inspired by something Curtis Harding’s mother — a travelling gospel singer who often brought Curtis along for the ride and taught him to sing — told him: “Give me flowers while I’m still here,” a reminder to celebrate people while they are still with us. With that singular thought in mind, we choose here to acknowledge and celebrate the remarkable achievement Harding has realized on such an extraordinary album as If Words Were Flowers. While a sonic palette pervasive with classic soul provides the foundation for the talented Atlanta singer-songwriters work, intermingled into the album is new-wave R&B, funk, soft jazz, pop, gospel, and even psych rock intonations. Harding’s talents seem limitless, especially considering he was part of the hip-hop group Proseed, and has traded bars with fellow Atlantean Cee-Lo Green, and his rhyming prowess can be found on one of If Words Were Flowers’ standout tracks, “Hopeful.”

Essential Tracks: “I Won’t Let You Down,” “Hopeful,” “Can’t Hide It.”

To Be Continued
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