2021 has been a strange year. A year in which there were new albums by Sting, Chris Thile, and Imagine Dragons, and none of those made my list of favorite albums. I picked 6 out of the 51 new albums that I listened to from 2021 to highlight, in no particular order:
Screen Violence by Chvrches – The Scottish electropop trio’s best album since The Bones of What You Believe (2013), its songs deal with the (mostly bad) effects of living your life through screens—which many of us have been doing. Try out “Asking for a Friend,” which is about how easy it is to say things online that you can’t take back, or “Good Girls” (explicit language warning) about living up to unequal gender expectations. Pretty much every song has a great melody and thoughtful organization.
La Grande Folie by San Salvador – This was my top discovery for the year. A six-person vocal-and-percussion group who sing folk-inspired music. They all grew up in the small French town Saint-Salvadour and perform in the Occitan language, the historically traditional dialect in their region (though they learned it as a second language). Try out “Fai Sautar” and you’ll probably be hooked and listen to the rest of the album.
Star-Crossed by Kacey Musgraves – While I agree with most critics that it is not as good as Golden Hour, my favorite album from 2018, I still thought Musgrave’s "divorce album" had a plethora of well-constructed, well-produced, great tracks. She has some insightful minute, emotional observations along with a few empowering sing-alongs. Musgraves continues in a country fusion style; you can have a good cry while having a dance party. Check out: “Good Wife,” “Breadwinner,” or the out-of-this-world flute solo in “There is a Light.”
I Know I’m Funny haha by Faye Webster – An Atlanta native signed to a hip-hop label, this indie album took me by surprise with its musicianship. I know this album isn't for everyone; it’s definitely a downer and Webster's vocals are often more breathy than necessary. The album's strengths are in the songwriting and the instrumental hooks, often in the chorus; these hooks take the album from good to great. Try: "Better Distractions," “Kind of,” or "A Dream with a Baseball Player."
Blue Heron Suite by Sarah Jarosz – Jarosz’s World on the Ground made my top album list last year, but I think Blue Heron Suite is a better album (well, technically EP, I think). It was written and recorded back in 2017–2018, and I’ve been waiting for a commercial release for a long time! The suite looks back at happy morning childhood walks with her mother on the beach in Port Aransas, Texas—written at a time when both her mother and the town were not doing great. The blue herons in the suite are a symbol of hope for Jarosz, hope that we all need. Also, herons are objectively cool. Jarosz has a talent for songwriting, mandolin and guitar-picking, and atmospheres. It should be listened to from start to finish (no shuffling!), with musical themes interwoven and re-orchestrated throughout, but if you must pick, try “Morning” or “Blue Heron.”
Pressure Machine by The Killers – I’ve never really been a Killers fan, but this album struck closer to home than anything they’ve ever done. And when I say closer to home, I mean it’s a homage to Brandon Flowers’ childhood growing up in Nephi, Utah, about an hour south of where I grew up (also, Flowers and I are the same age). Flowers’ characters are not blameless nor pristine, but pitiable, struggling to make ends meet, and under the shadow of the opioid crisis. The sound is more acoustic and Americana-inspired than previous albums. Almost every track starts with an interview from a Nephi local (though I wish these soundbites were separate tracks). “Quiet Town” or “Sleepwalker” are good introduction songs.