21 for 21 – Albums of the Year
Hey, who’s up for one more 2021 best of list? Granted, there may be debate about the actual possibility of anything from 2021 even qualifying for best of status due to the lingering pandemic and everyone and everything being on hold or delayed. In the spirit of delay and linger, here is my list of favorite records from the year that never really seemed to get off the ground. I could give some excuse about how this list was delayed due to staff shortages or the global supply bottleneck, but in reality, bands have had more time to record and with digital releases they seem to have managed to deliver many great records even during these strange times. Also, I’ve had more time to listen to them. My only real complaint is that I’ve missed the opportunity to hear most of them live. Here’s looking towards getting back to normal and better times.
1. Quivers – Golden Doubt (Ba Da Bing/Bobo Integral/Spunk)
Another Australian group delivering their second album (third if you count their REM Out of Time covers LP). Ringing guitars and top notch melodies build on the promise of the You’re Not Always On My Mind single from last year. If you dig late 80’s college rock (and I do) then this one will be in your wheelhouse. If you don’t know what late 80’s college rock is, Golden Doubt, with its heart on its sleeve and a bounty of great pop songs will give you a pretty good idea and possibly convert you into one and send you down a path adorned with Go-Betweens, Prefab Sprout and the Triffids.
2. Flyying Colours – Fantasy Country (Poison City/Club AC30)
Australian group flyying in with their second album of shoegaze symphonies and it is a very satisfying record. No let down and possibly an improvement over their debut. You don’t have to listen to closely to hear the great pop songs buried beneath the wash of guitars. The first two songs Goodtimes and Big Mess should be included in any shoegaze best of mix tape. The group also broaden their scope beyond mere pedals with a few moody motorik ones like It’s Real and White Knuckles. Shoegaze records continue to be a plenty each year, but there are few that even come close to being this good. Fantasy Country ranks up there with the best of the genre.
3. Arlo Parks – Collapsed Into Sunbeams (Trangressive)
Collapsed Into Sunbeams has gotten quite a bit of attention this year. It won the UK Mercury Prize and garnered much airplay on local radio station KEXP which is where I heard it. Probably a record that I wouldn’t have thought I would have liked, but it has successfully nudged into regular spins over here at Finest Kiss central. The album has a subtle R&B vibe throughout, combining Sade with Jay Som. The Lyrics are Parks’ highly personal but hopeful sounding bedroom pop is like a cool drink on a hot day.
4. Ducks Ltd – Modern Fiction (Carpark)
Few likely noticed that Toronto based duo Ducks Ltd went from Unlimited to Limited sometime after releasing their debut single back in 2019. The minor name change likely due to the wetlands and waterfowl organization of the same name. Nothing else has changed as their top quality jangle pop continues in top form. This record is so full of snappy barn burners that bring to mind such great jangle pop bands like Close Lobsters, Bluebells the Bats and Brilliant Corners while demonstrating an ability to keep it fresh. If you were a fan of the unlimited version of these guys, the limited version is even better.
5. Charley Crockett – Music City USA (Son of Davy)
This album caught my eye and ear while record shopping this summer. It quickly became a favorite. Charley Crockett is mighty prolific, this being one of two albums he released this year and his 10th album in six years. Music City USA was my intro, but it was also the entry into the Charley Crockett rabbit hole. Apparently a distant relative or Davey, born and raised in southern tip of Texas this country crooner started a bluesman and gradually blended into country and he’s covered many country classics (his version of Jamestown Ferry is the tops). Music City is a full on country classic that is so immediate you think it’s a covers record.
6. Dean Wareham – I Have Nothing to Say to the Mayor of LA (Double Feature)
It’s hard to believe that this is the first album of (mostly) new material in seven years from Dean Wareham soundtracks and covers albums aside. With classics from the Galaxie 500 and Luna catalog under his belt, he really doesn’t have much left to prove. So how do you find the motivation to record one of your best albums of you career? Biding your time and self-imposed deadlines? Who knows, but this solo album firmly notches itself up there with his best stuff. Wry, humorous, world weary lyrics, sleepy melodies and the sublime guitar solos that you are accustomed to are all in bountiful supply. I’m happy to wait long years between Wareham albums if the quality is going to be this good.
7. The Bug Club – Pure Particles (Bingo)
You may have seen Bug Club’s Checkmate single at number two in the singles countdown, as it turns out they also put out this mini-LP in 2021 too. The only think working against this Welsh trio in 2021 was the vinyl manufacturing backlogs as this one is still waiting for the vinyl version to exist. Pure Particles is a svelte record full of smart, poppy garage rock. Nine songs influenced by Jonathan Richman (see song Jonathan’s Gone), Violent Femmes and Patty Smith and not a clunker in the lot. If there is more where this came from, then can these Welsh folks be stopped from world domination of the indie scene? I’m pulling for them!
8. Subway Sect – Moments Like These (GUNinc/Texte und Töne)
Vic Godard and his Subway Sect have been at it since the late 70’s. The last we heard from him as the Subway Sect was 2014’s 1979 Now LP produced with Edwyn Collins (He also popped up with solo LP with 2019’s Mum’s Revenge). For Moments Like These he employs the production talents of Mick Jones (Clash & Big Audio Dynamite). This LP is evidence that the man is still having fun and going his own way. Opener Since the 80’s has a nostalgic regretful feel, while other songs sound like a party. Sharks ‘N’ Vipers is blast with it’s rhythmic chorus and Jelly Legs is a funky mess. They throw in a surf instrumental some bluesy pop with Commercial Suicide Man and a closing time closer with Time Shoulda Made a Man of Me. Godard’s gravely croon doesn’t seem to age and even at his ripe old age he still sounds pithy and playful.
9. We. The Pigs – We. The Pigs (Dreams Never End)
This album came as a surprise. The scuzzy Swedish shoegazers had a great single back in 2017 on the Discos De Kerlian label, but I hadn’t heard much since. Obviously they were holed up working on this masterpiece of a record. They’ve got the sound and the songs. Everything is draped with ethereal guitars and wistful vocals, but the secret sauce here is how the band is unafraid to get all scuzzy and into the gutter on songs like Goodbye, Closer and Fuck Your Songs.
10. Maxwell Farrington & Le Superhomard – Once (Talitres)
France-based Australian Maxwell Farrington has a deep croon that puts him in the Tom Jones, Scott Walker, Neil Hannon and Lee Hazlewood corner of some rock and roll showbiz ven diagram. His team-up with Christophe Vaillant of Le Superhomard might seem odd on paper, but totally works in a kitschy, 60’s Las Vegas sort of way. Farrington could be singing about doing his laundry and make it sound grandiose. If you dig big dramatic sounding pop songs served with side of kitsch (and I do) then here’s a record for you.
11. Goat Girl – On All Fours (Rough Trade)
Even today when there are no UK music weekly papers, bands still seem to struggle to maintain attention they get for their debut album when it comes to their second album. The excitement seemed to die down about this London band, but in my book, their second album improves on their first with a more coherent and consistent approach and a batch of better songs. The songs are sneaky good. They don’t seem to shout for your attention, they take a more stealthy approach and get your defenses down and then pretty soon you find yourself all wrapped up in the swirling melodies and hypnotic vocals of these songs.
12. JJ Ulius – Vol I (Mammas Mysteriska Jukebox)
This solo effort from JJ Ulius who is also in Monokultur and Skiftande Enheter is a sparse and arty endeavor. It sounds like it could have been akin to the moody Wolfgang Press or the slowest of Crystal Stilts songs. It’s moody with lots of space between guitar riffs, sparsely populated with synths and dark plunging bass and vocals in Swedish. There are brief flashes of pop that surface here and there, but mostly this record relishes in the dark.
13. Saint Etienne – I’ve Been Trying To Tell You (Heavenly)
Full of obscure samples, and barely containing what you would call an obvious hook an album full of mid-tempo chillouts might not be considered top notch Saint Etienne, but Saint Etienne are not like other groups. This reinvention or detour is endlessly intriguing and exciting. These aren’t dance tracks, they move back and forth from ambient to dub. I always wondered what would happen if they went down the rabbit hole of the track Wilson on their debut. Would you like some sweets Willy? Come on auntie we’ll miss the bus…This is what I had in mind.
14. The Chills – Scatterbrain (Fire)
When Martin Phillips resurrected the Chills around 2013 and released Silver Bullets in 2015 I had no idea he would continue on a pace that rivals the original Chills epoch. Scatterbrain showcases Phillips’ songwriting genius. He seems like a Brian Wilson type of savant with his ability to craft pop genius with his unique Chills sound appearing to be effortless. Songs like the title track, Little Alien and You’re Immortal reach some lofty heights set by such great LP’s like Submarine Bells and Soft Bomb.
15. Small Breed – Remember a Dream (Bickerton)
Small Breed are from the current day Netherlands, but Remember a Dream sounds like it was born in the psychedelic 60’s past. The production is super clean and the songs aren’t just paeans to the past. Well, maybe they are, but they sound so good, you can put your Beatles, Kinks, and Moody Blues albums away for a bit.
16. The Boys With Perpetual Nervousness – Songs From Another Life (Bobo Integral)
Named for a Feelies song, and making great harmony laden jangly power pop in the vein of Teenage Fanclub with a little bit of Mathew Sweet on top, this duo of fellows, one from Edinburgh, Scotland and one from San Sebastian, Spain deliver a polished, sweet set of songs on their second album.
17. Idle Ray – Idle Ray (Life Like)
Fred Thomas is best known for his band Saturday Looks Good to Me. He’s also released quite a few solo records. Idle Ray is his latest endeavor and it has a definite 90’s indie guitar sound to it. Crossing Lou Barlow’s Sebadoh with F.M . Cornog’s East River Pipe with a bit of Pollard’s concise brilliance, Idle Ray reminds us of classic 90’s indierock and also of Thomas’s songwriting gifts.
18. Amyl & the Sniffers – Comfort To Me (ATO)
Amyl and the Sniffers finally deliver on the promise of their first two EP’s. Comfort To Me is full of raw, fun, catchy punk rock. This Melbourne, Australia group are fronted by the charismatic Amy Taylor who is great at delivering mosh friendly choruses that even in these days of maintaining distance from your fellow punks, will have you yearning to sweat in the pit as you shout lyrics to Freaks to Front.
19. Motorists – Surrounded (Bobo Integral)
This debut LP is so good sneakily borrowing from greats like Wire, Television, REM and Pavement. Motorists are further evidence that Canada is fruitful ground and they’ve got comrades in arms in like minded groups Kiwi Jr and Dumb. There are so many classic sounding songs on this record, its an embarrassment of riches. One song jangles and the next one hypnotizes, it’s an album full of sharp angles and surprises.
20. Chime School – Chime School (Slumberland)
You always need to watch out for the drummer. They can be sneaky so and so’s holding all their best songs back for themselves. That appears to be what Andy Pastalaniec just did. The San Francisco Bay area drummer has been in quite a few notable groups (Seablite, Cruel Summer, and Odd Hope), but this is the first time he’s struck out on his own. Chime School is a jem of a record for jangle-pop and early Creation records fans. It’s chock full of upbeat numbers that are virtually guaranteed to get your foot tapping and your head bopping.
21. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & London Symphony Orchestra – Promises (Luaka Bop)
Ya can’t listen to pop songs 100% of the time. This album was my respite when I wanted to chill out and not worry about the world. This team-up of Floating Points dude Sam Shepherd, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony is a one of kind moment not because it hasn’t been done before, but because of how good it is at doing it. Sanders, who played with John Coltrane in the 60’s is still making records that challenge into his 80’s. This ambient record was conceived of by Shepherd and will appeal to fans of Eno, Harold Budd or stuff like In a Silent Way by Miles Davis.
Here are 19 more to make at an even 40.
22. Massage – Still Life (Mt. St. Mtn.)
23. Snapped Ankles – Forest of Your Problems (Leaf)
24. Anika – Change (Sacred Bones)
25. Vanishing Twin – Ookii Gekkou (Fire)
26. Roy – Roy’s Garage (Idée Fixe)
27. Sleaford Mods – Spare Ribs (Rough Trade)
28. Kiwi Jr. – Cooler Returns (Sub Pop)
29. Carwyn Ellis & Rio 18 – Mas (Banana & Louie)
30. Dom & the Wizards – The Australian Cyclone Intensity Scale (Tenth Court)
31. Dummy – Mandatory Enjoyment (Trouble In Mind)
32. Chai – Wink (Sub Pop)
33. Silver Synthetic- S/T (Third Man)
34. Jane Weaver – Flock (Fire)
35. The Reds Pinks & Purples – Uncommon Weather (Slumberland)
36. Blue Ocean – S/T (Paisley Shirt)
37. Holiday Ghosts – North Street Air (Fatcat)
38. Fake Fruit – S/T (Rocks In Your Head)
39. La Femme – Paradigmes (Born Bad)
40. Pachyman – The Return of… (ATO)