Across the Margin commences its rollout of the Top 50 Albums of 2021 with albums 50 – 41…
Once again, we are thrilled to share with you, our readers we are forever grateful for, the music that has ushered us through another tumultuous year. As is always the case when we annually celebrate our Top 50 Albums at Across the Margin, what we are proud to present here is simply the albums we are most thankful for in any given year (not particularly “the best”). Those which received the greatest play, moved us with the deepest emotion, and settled most soundly in our souls. So, without further delay, let’s step in and drop the needle…
50. Eamon O’ Leary — The Silver Sun
A truly wonderful and enchanting traditional folk album kicks off this year’s top albums countdown, brought to vivid life by singer-songwriter Eamon O’ Leary. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, O’ Leary currently calls New York City’s Lower East Side home and, remarkably, his latest album, The Silver Sun, was recorded in the eclectic neighborhood in a single afternoon. The under-the-radar folk phenomenon, who has previously collaborated with the likes of Beth Orton, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Anais Mitchell, and Sam Amidon muses about relationships and love lost yet somehow found again on the album. It’s a wonderfully blended concoction of guitar, mandola, organ, piano, electric guitar, fiddle, and bass that has been woven together to stunning results.
Essential tracks: “The Living Stream,” “Bernadette,” “Sister in a Song.”
49. Leon Bridges — Gold-Diggers Sound
Pardon our frankness here, but Fort Worth, Texas singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Leon Bridges’ latest album, Gold-Diggers Sound, is straight-up baby making music. Featuring a smooth as silk offering of sultry and intoxicating R&B, Gold-Diggers Sound is assuredly a product of the pandemic era and a triumphant ode to the late nights Bridges’ spent recording at the Los Angeles-based studio the album is named after. The album celebrates Bridges’ “immersive experience of creating music in the same East Hollywood room where he lived, worked, and drank over the course of two years. The soulful collaboration between Leon as an artist and the space itself was so encompassing that he chose to name the album after the studio complex.” Gold-Diggers Sound was, rather appropriately, nominated for Best R&B Album at the 2022 Grammy Awards.
Essential tracks: “Sweeter (feat Terrance Martin),” “Motorbike,” “Don’t Worry (feat Ink).”
48. Yasmin Williams — Urban Driftwood
Yasmin Williams is one of the most impressive guitar virtuosos we have ever encountered. The charming story of her love affair with the guitar is delightful to behold. Williams grew up in northern Virginia where various genres of music ranging from smooth jazz to hip-hop were played in her household. She was introduced to the guitar after playing the video game Guitar Hero 2 and became instantly curious. Williams begged her parents to buy her a real electric guitar and once she received it and an amplifier, she taught herself how to play by ear. After a few years of playing the electric guitar, she taught herself how to play the bass guitar, 12-string guitar, and classical guitar before eventually deciding to switch her focus to the acoustic guitar because of the instrument’s versatility. While still only in high school in 2012, Williams released her first EP, Serendipity, which she recorded and mixed herself. Ever since that moment, her star has continued to rise, leading to this year’s phenomenal release Urban Driftwood, an alluring and dramatic journey of an album that needs to be heard in aggregate to be believed.
Essential tracks: “Juvenescence,” “Sunshowers,” “I Wonder (Song For Michael).”
47. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard — Butterfly 3000
The prolific assemblage of prog rock geniuses from Down Under are at it again, and doing what they do best — releasing outstanding albums at a mind boggling rate. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard dropped a mammoth double album entitled K.G. and L.G across 2020 and 2021, their sixteenth and seventeenth respectively, and then proceeded to follow that up by releasing the captivating, psychedelic odyssey that is Butterfly 3000. Butterfly 3000, the band’s eighteenth album, is one of King Gizzard’s most psychedelic albums to date, a statement we know is saying a lot, but we would not make such statements if we did not believe in them so strongly. Butterfly 3000 was recorded in the band’s shared home during the pandemic (you’ll be seeing a lot of that from artists on this list), and presents a lush and sprawling sonic tapestry of synth programming, MIDI sequences, and the eccentric brand of rock n’ roll that only the Gizz is capable of.
Essential Tracks: “Interior People,” “Catching Smoke,” “BlueMorpho.”
46. UNKLE — Rōnin I
Kicking off with the theme music of a Shaw Brothers film, this mixtape session has all the energy and feel of a live UNKLE show, with pulse-pounding EDM interwoven with the group’s characteristic trip-hop. James Lavelle is joined by longtime UNKLE collaborators Philip Sheppard, Wil Malone, Jack Leonard and Alex Thomas on an album that features two brand new tracks (“‘If We Don’t Make It” and “Do Yourself Some Good”) that accompany seven brand new UNKLE remixes. Rōnin I is not exactly a return to form for UNKLE, as the musical landscape has changed too much since the late ‘90s to make such a claim. However, this album feels triumphantly back to basics just as it boldly asserts itself in a much-changed industry. With Rōnin I Lavelle and company really showcase their greatest strengths, creating multi-layered and nuanced electronic soundscapes that thread together into a cohesive whole, one that demands to be taken in as an album, listened to from beginning to end, every time.
Essential Tracks — ”If We Don’t Make it (Rōnin Throwdown),” “Feel More / With Less (Rōnin Reconstruction) [Feat. Liela Moss],” “Catch Me When I Fall (Rōnin Vocal Mix) [Feat. Callum Finn].”
45. Little Simz — Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Little SImz (wordsmith Simbiatu Ajikawo) describes her latest album, her fourth and entitled Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, thematically as being about “this introverted person that has all these crazy thoughts and ideas and theories in my head and not always feeling like I’m able to express it if it’s not through my art.” And this is exactly what Simz can be found doing throughout Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, exploring such profound issues such as race, women’s standing in society, the motivations behind her art, and gang violence. Wielding dynamic and pulse-pounding raps, Simz is a phenom when it comes to the art of storytelling rap, as heard in “Little Q, Part 1 and 2” which tells of a cousin she lost touch with who was stabbed, or on “I Love You, I Hate You,” which speaks to her relationship with her absent father. The north London rapper’s latest album, produced by frequent collaborator Inflo, is surely her most impressive to date, yet it still feels as though Simz’s talent are boundless and in many ways, she is just getting started.
Essential Tracks: “Speed,” “Little Q, Part 2,” “Woman,” “I love You, I Hate You.”
44. Heartless Bastards — A Beautiful Life
Heartless Bastards, the Ohio-bred and Texas-transplanted rock band, released their sixth album this year, a follow up to 2015’s excellent Restless Ones, A Beautiful Life. On their latest album, the aptly titled A Beautiful Life, frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom “shares a wide-eyed and radiant vision for harmonizing a broken world.” Co-produced by Wennerstrom and Kevin Ratterman (Strand Of Oaks, Jim James, White Reaper), A Beautiful Life finds Wennerstrom joining forces with the likes of guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo (Okkervil River), drummer Greggory Clifford (White Denim), multi-instrumentalist Jesse Chandler (Mercury Rev, Midlake), keyboardist Bo Koster (My Morning Jacket), guitarist David Pulkingham (Patty Griffin), and longtime Heartless Bastards bassist Jesse Ebaugh. The team is all assembled, and A Beautiful Life is emphatically a positively-crafted album, smartly focusing its aim at all the beauty that surrounds us in the world, rather than the pain that is its counterpart. However, the album pointedly admonishes those ills that thwart decency, such as greed, for instance on the song “How Low, where the lyrics “On and on it never stops how much do you really need / Oh how low will you go to get to the top / I hope we never really have find out” drive the message home flawlessly.
Essential Tracks: “Revolution,” “How Low,” “Went Around This World,” “You Never Know.”
43. girl in red — if I could make it go quiet
Marie Ulven’s full-length debut album under the moniker girl in red is a departure from what the initiated have become accustomed to from the Norwegian artist. For longtime fans the album will seem thematically and lyrically similar to Ulven’s previous releases, but stylistically it is poppier, its range wider, its production grander. Producing the album herself alongside Matias Tellez and Finneas O’Connell, Ulven uses her songwriting prowess and ever-present lyrical candor to explore lost love, lust, self-examination, repressed pain, mental health, loyalty, fixation, reciprocity in intimacy, expectation, miscommunication, and dissonance. In the past few years Ulven has garnered a loyal following partly through her openness about her personal struggles, her vulnerability there for all to hear. if I could make it go quiet expands on the directness of Ulven’s lyrical style, her songs expressively underscored by her emotional recovery from the negative effects of lockdown in the early days of the pandemic. Ulven has always had a way of genuinely baring her soul in her songs, and this transparency has amassed for her a loyal following. if I could make it go quiet will undoubtedly continue to grow that following, and open up her music to many new fans.
Essential Tracks: “Serotonin,” “I’ll Call You Mine,” “midnight love.”
42. The Weather Station — Ignorance
The Canadian folk music band The Weather Station, fronted by Tamara Lindeman, most recent offering has our deepest admiration in that it faces, head on, the emotional trauma that transpires when one contemplates the global climate crisis. Lindeman, when explaining the album’s title, Ignorance, says “it’s about this process of moving through denial into understanding.” Further expanding upon the title of the album in how it relates to dealing with humanity’s potential facing end times, The Weather Station’s Bandcamp page explains: “The title of the album, Ignorance, feels confrontational, calling to mind perhaps wilful ignorance, but Lindeman insists she meant it in a different context. In 1915 Virginia Woolf wrote: “the future is dark, which is the best thing a future can be, I think.” Written amidst the brutal first world war, the darkness of the future connoted for Woolfe a not knowing, which by definition holds a sliver of hope; the possibility for something, somewhere, to change. In French, the verb ignorer connotes a humble, unashamed not knowing, and it is this ignorance Lindeman refers to here; the blank space at an intersection of hope and despair, a darkness that does not have to be dark.” A darkness that does not have to be dark — we love that, and we love this album as Tamara Linderman’s gentle voice walks us through the horrors of today reminding us the best way to face the moment is with compassion.
Essential Tracks: “Tried To Tell You,” “Robber,” “Parking Lot.”
41. Strand Of Oaks — In Heaven
When we praised Strand of Oaks’ 2019 album Eraserland in our Top 50 Albums of 2019 countdown, we thought so highly of it we could not have imagined the follow up would be as potent and impressive. We were wrong. Emphatically so. The Tim Showalter-led outfit’s seventh studio album, In Heaven, is just as musically enticing as its predecessor and is brimming with a depth of knowledge and insight born of sorrow and hurt. But the story of In Heaven isn’t anguish focused, but of resilience, of powering through. With assists from My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster, In Heaven highlights Showalter’s emotionally-charged songwriting prowess and ability to craft riveting, building soundscapes.“In Heaven was created with so much love,” explains Indiana-born Showalter, “my greatest hope is that it connects with people and provides a momentary space for reflection, joy, catharsis and whatever else someone might be looking for in their life.”
Essential Tracks: “Galacticana,” “Sunbathers,” “Easter.”