Best of 2021

Nation of Language, A Way Forward

Every now and again we have a year with a lot of great albums, some immediate personal favorites…but for some reason, little of it resonates to the extent that they’re going to be all-time favorites I’d be listening for years to come. That’s not to say that they’re bad albums, or even forgetful ones! It could be due to Just How Life Has Been As Of Late (after all, this pandemic thing is still putting the kibosh on a lot of uplifting celebration), or it could be a personal thing (my mind has been focusing on numerous things other than my ever-expanding musical tastes).

I spent more time this year listening to KEXP streaming online than actually listening to any of the music I might have acquired during the past year. In a way it felt like those high school days of yore when I went through a spell of listening to WAMH on a daily basis and only listening to albums at night (except that my nights these days are watching TV with A in the living room). And just like that era, I’m (hopefully) making some personal changes to my life in the new year that might necessitate me not listening to John In the Morning every weekday. [Unlike those high school days of yore, KEXP archives their shows for a few days so I should be able to listen in at a later time.]

Next year is a ‘2’ year, which means that I’m expecting some mind-bogglingly stellar albums that will become all-time favorites. I know, I know…it’s only a pet theory of mine, but it hasn’t steered me wrong yet. There have been hints of it in the preview singles being dropped over the last couple of months, and the few new release news bites that have slipped out. Whatever comes, I’m looking forward to it!

That said, here is my list of favorite albums, songs, and other releases in 2021. These are in no particular order this time, other than that my top favorites are in boldface. I highly suggest checking them all out, as they’re all great and worth a listen or five!

TOP ALBUMS
Roosevelt, Polydans
Nation of Language, A Way Forward
Grandbrothers, All the Unknown
Flock of Dimes, Head of Roses
Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg
Hooverphonic, Hidden Stories
Wolf Alice, Blue Weekend
Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee
Quivers, Golden Doubt
CHVRCHES, Screen Violence
Sleigh Bells, Texis
Low, HEY WHAT
Film School, We Weren’t Here
Coldplay, Music of the Spheres
Elbow, Flying Dream 1
Failure, Wild Type Droid
Miss Gritt, Impostor EP
The Beatles, Let It Be [Super Deluxe]
Snoh Aalegra, Temporary Highs in the Violet Skies
Foo Fighters, Medicine at Midnight

TOP SINGLES
Imagine Dragons feat. JID, “Enemy”
The Clockworks, “Throw It All Away”
Miss Grit, “Blonde”
Sleigh Bells, “Locust Laced”
Nation of Language, “Across That Fine Line”
Roosevelt, “Echoes”
Teenage Sequence, “All This Art”
Ambar Lucid, “Space Cowgirl”
CHVRCHES, “Cry Little Sister”
Girlfriends and Boyfriends, “Your Touch”
Dry Cleaning, “Scratchcard Lanyard”
Seatbelts, “TANK! [Flix Mix]”
Wet Leg, “Chaise Longue”
Jose Gonzalez, “El Invento”
Flock of Dimes, “Price of Blue”
Yola, “Stand for Myself”
Parquet Courts, “Walking at a Downtown Pace”
Jack White, “Taking Me Back”
Yard Act, “Dark Days”
Breeze, “Come Around”

…and more Best-Ofs…

Box Sets, Compilations, Reissues and Remasters
The Beatles, Let It Be [Super Deluxe]
George Harrison, All Things Must Pass 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition
John Lennon, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (Ultimate Collection)
Various Artists, Bills & Aches & Blues (40 Years of 4AD)
Various Artists, Caught Beneath the Landslide: The Other Side of Britpop and the 90s
Supergrass, In It for the Money [Deluxe Expanded Edition]
POD, Satellite [Expanded Edition]
Death Cab for Cutie, The Photo Album [Deluxe Edition]
Radiohead, KID A MNESIA
Seatbelts, Cowboy Bebop (Soundtrack from the Netflix Series)
David Bowie, Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001)
U2, Achtung Baby [30th Anniversary Edition]

EPs and Singles
Ambar Lucid, Get Lost in the Music EP
Miss Grit, Impostor EP
Thom Yorke, “Creep [Very 2021 RMX]”
Wet Leg, “Chaise Longue”
Working Men’s Club, “X”
Bowling for Soup, “Growing Old Sucks (But Everybody’s Doing It)”
Teenage Sequence, “All This Art”
Imagine Dragons feat. JID, “Enemy””
Big Wreck, Big Wreck 7.1 EP
The Clockworks, “Throw It All Away”

Keepin’ It Local (Bands from My Hood)
The Reds, Pinks & Purples, Uncommon Weather
Chime School, Chime School
The Umbrellas, The Umbrellas
Cindy, 1:2

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…and that’s it for Walk in Silence for 2021! I’ll be taking the first week of January off just to enjoy the remainder of the holiday season and prep myself for the plans I have for the new year. Here’s to hoping everyone’s 2022 is stellar!

The Singles 2021

Here we are, as promised — my end of year mixtape! As with the last few years, my listening habits have pretty much been listening to KEXP online or whatever tunage I happened to download. And this time out I’ve created a Spotify playlist out of it for your listening enjoyment!

This past year has been kind of a strange one musically — a lot of records made during lockdown, incomplete sessions rejiggered as EPs and standalone singles, and songs that have been kicking around in the vaults for a bit — so while there may not be as much coherence or intensity behind some of it, the gems that are out there were pretty flippin’ phenomenal. Stay tuned for my best-of-year lists on Thursday!

SIDE A
1. Imagine Dragons feat. JID, “Enemy [from the League of Legends series ‘Arcane’]”
2. Roosevelt, “Echoes”
3. The Clockworks, “Throw It All Away”
4. Girlfriends and Boyfriends, “Your Touch”
5. Miss Grit, “Blonde”
6. Grandbrothers, “What We See”
7. Celeste, “Stop This Flame”
8. Arlo Parks, “Hurt”
9. Flock of Dimes, “Price of Blue”
10. Yola, “Stand for Myself”

SIDE B
1. Yard Act, “Dark Days”
2. Parquet Courts, “Walking at a Downtown Pace”
3. Siamese Youth, “So Far from Home”
4. Flyying Colours, “White Knuckles”
5. Sleigh Bells, “Locust Laced”
6. Dry Cleaning, “Scratchcard Lanyard”
7. K/DA, “Villain”
8. Jungle, “Keep Moving”
9. Wolf Alice, “The Last Man On Earth”
10. Teenage Sequence, “All This Art”
11. Nation of Language, “A Word & a Wave”

SIDE C
1. Seatbelts, “TANK! [Flix Mix]
2. The Beatles, “I’ve Got a Feeling [2021 Mix]”
3. Nation of Language, “Across That Fine Line”
4. Bachelor, “Stay in the Car”
5. Breeze, “Come Around”
6. Coldplay, “Higher Power”
7. CHVRCHES, “Cry Little Sister”
8. Snoh Aalegra, “In Your Eyes”
9. New Candys, “Twin Mime”
10. They Might Be Giants, “Super Cool”
11. Geese, “Low Era”
12. Duran Duran, “Invisible”

SIDE D
1. Goat Girl, “Sad Cowboy”
2. Hooverphonic, “The Wrong Place”
3. Sleaford Mods, “Nudge It”
4. Jack White, “Taking Me Back”
5. Fotoform, “Running”
6. Hatchie, “This Enchanted”
7. Amyl and the Sniffers, “Guided By Angels”
8. Film School, “Superperfection”
9. Public Service Broadcasting, “People, Let’s Dance”
10. ABBA, “I Still Have Faith in You”
11. Ambar Lucid, “Space Cowgirl”

SIDE E
1. Foo Fighters, “Waiting On a War”
2. Bill Janovitz, “Coming Up Close”*
3. Ora the Molecule, “Die to Be a Butterfly”
4. IDLES, “The Beachland Ballroom”
5. Thom Yorke, “Creep [Very 2021 RMX]”
6. Sleaford Mods, “Mork ‘n Mindy”
7. Wet Leg, “Chaise Longue”
8. tUnE-yArDs, “nowhere, man”
9. Grandbrothers, “Silver”
10. Roosevelt, “See You Again”

SIDE F
1. Field Music, “Orion from the Street”
2. Danny Elfman, “True”
3. Ambar Lucid, “Get Lost in the Music”
4. Low, “Days Like These”
5. The Goon Sax, “In the Stone”
6. Makthaverskan, “Maktologen”
7. Anna Schulze, “A New Way”
8. Ghost of Vroom, “Rona Pollona”
9. Shame, “Human, for a Minute”
10. Jane Weaver, “The Revolution of Super Visions”
11. The Verve Pipe, “Forever Reaching”

SIDE G
1. RUFUS DU SOL, “Alive”
2. Big Wreck, “Beano”
3. Goat Girl, “Badibaba”
4. Jose Gonzalez, “El Invento”
5. Delvon Lamarr, Organ Trio, “Call Your Mom”
6. Lucy Dacus, “Hot & Heavy”
7. Dropkick Murphys, “Mick Jones Nicked My Pudding”
8. Lost Horizons, “Every Beat That Passed”
9. Pond, “America’s Cup”
10. Porcupine Tree, “Harridan”

SIDE H
1. Garbage, “No Gods No Monsters”
2. Django Django, “Glowing in the Dark”
3. Billy Bragg, “Mid-Century Modern”
4. Nation of Language, “This Fractured Mind”
5. Sneaker Pimps, “Alibis”
6. Matt Nathanson, “Even Better Than the Real Thing”
7. Japanese Breakfast, “Be Sweet”
8. Mr Twin Sister, “Fantasy”
9. Elbow, “Flying Dream 1”
10. CHVRCHES, “How Not to Drown”
11. The Beatles, “Get Back [2021 Mix]”

Fly-By: Happy Holidays

Taking this week off from the music blog because why not? I felt like relaxing on the days leading up to Christmas. The shopping is done, the boxes are put away, and the nog is mixed in with my morning coffee. Life is good.

In the meantime, here’s the London Symphony Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. We went to see San Francisco Ballet’s performance on the 12th — we go every single year (and streamed it from their site when there were none due to Covid) — and I’ve come to love this work from one of my favorite composers.

Happy holidays! See you next week for the year-end mixtape and best-of lists!

Everybody Had a Hard Year

It’s been a long year of confusion, change, loss, frustration, wonder, perseverance, and pretty much everything in between. Living in a pandemic will do that to a person. I’ve tried to keep a positive and open mind during it all, even when I’d log onto the news sites and social media and see people making terrible decisions based on fear, ignorance, greed or outright hate. I sometimes have to remind myself that this is part of life, and it’s happened before and will happen again in the future. I dearly hope not as a constant onslaught, of course. As long as I remain true to my own wishes, desires and hopes, with minimal distractions.

Here’s to hoping that 2022 goes in the right directions, at least.

Spare Oom Playlist, November 2021¬†Edition, Part II

Finishing up with last month’s great tunage, where it goes in all sorts of interesting directions!

Matt Nathanson, Achtung Matty, released 18 November. Pop singer and local goofball (you should really follow his Instagram, it’s quite fun) covers his number one favorite album ever to celebrate its thirty-year anniversary, and it’s a surprisingly enjoyable ride.

Adele, 30, released 19 November. Adele returns with what is essentially a post-breakup/post-divorce record that’s not so much full of sorrow as it is full of I am so sick of this bullsh*t rage, and you can’t help but cheer her on for coming out on top.

Big Wreck, Big Wreck 7.1 EP, released 19 November. I’ve loved this band ever since their 1997 debut, and their latest is just as loud and powerful and bluesy as ever. They’ve never put out a bad record, and this one is just as great as the rest of them.

Seatbelts, Cowboy Bebop soundtrack, 19 November. Whatever you feel about the Netflix remake, you can’t glide past the fact that its soundtrack is ABSOLUTELY FLIPPING AMAZING because it’s Yoko Kanno and Seatbelts, just like the original. There’s a whole lot of new score here and you really need to give it a listen.

Elbow, Flying Dream 1, released 19 November. One of my longtime favorite bands returns with a lovely and somber record that mirrors the delicate movements we’ve all had to make during this multi-year pandemic.

Radwimps, FOREVER DAZE, released 23 November. You may remember these guys from the last two Makoto Shinkai movies, Your Name and Weathering with You. Their new record is a lot of good fun, full of cheerful powerpop and lovely balladry.

David Bowie, Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001), released 26 November. The latest in the major Bowie reissue box set project, this one covers his most intriguing and mature albums that led him to classy (Black Tie White Noise) to weirdo conceptual (Outside) to techno (Earthling, one of my top favorites of his) to adult alternative (‘hours…’), with multiple discs of b-sides, remixes, soundtrack songs, and the unreleased 2001 project Toy, in which he updates some of his earliest songs.

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Coming soon: a December overview, and of course my mixtape/best-of lists!

Spare Oom Playlist, November 2021¬†Edition, Part I

November was usually the last month in which we get an exciting array of new releases that finally quiet down come Thanksgiving, leaving December to provide us with greatest hits mixes, box sets, and untried bands provided a chance to break through. At least that’s how it’s usually been pre-COVID, anyway. Still, last month’s drops were strong and exciting, so let’s take a peek, shall we?

Porcupine Tree, “Harridan” single, released 1 November. New Porcupine Tree single??? NEW PORCUPINE TREE SINGLE!!!! AND A NEW ALBUM in 2022!! *eight-minute squee*

Nation of Language, A Way Forward, released 5 November. I mentioned this one in a previous entry and yeah, it’s still one of my favorites of the year. It’s an amazing record.

They Might Be Giants, BOOK, released 5 November. This band has been working for years and there’s no sign of the Two Johns stopping anytime soon. Their full-band sound fits them well this time out!

Chime School, Chime School, released 5 November. Bandcamp recently posted a great article about San Francisco’s lo-fi music scene, and Chime School is one of the fun bands featured, with their sweet jangly pop that really does owe a lot to the C86 sound.

The Verve Pipe, Threads, released 5 November. TVP are still going strong, and Brian Vander Ark’s songwriting is still stellar. (Go follow his Patreon, his posts are a lot of fun and he’s a really nice guy.)

Snail Mail, Valentine, released 5 November. Super melodic alternative tunage that goes in some really interesting directions.

Silk Sonic, An Evening with Silk Sonic, released 12 November. Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak bring the smoove with this 70s soul groove pastiche.

IDLES, Crawler, released 12 November. Surprisingly not as confrontational this time out, but just as twitchy, even during their quieter moments. It’s definitely a bit stranger than their previous records, but that’s not a bad thing at all.

Aesop Rock x Blockhead, Garbology, released 12 November. Rock’s signature creative-weirdo delivery is such that you just want to sit there and listen just to see where the hell he goes next with his lyrics.

Dave Gahan & Soulsavers, Imposter, released 12 November. The Depeche Mode singer’s latest solo release, his third with Soulsavers, is a fascinating cover album this time out, full of unexpected songs from Cat Power, Neil Young, Mark Lanegan, PJ Harvey and more.

Robin Guthrie, Pearldiving, released 12 November. The ex-Cocteau Twin continues his solo career with some absolutely lovely guitar instrumentalism.

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Coming soon: more November releases!

Favorite Bands: Electric Light Orchestra (Part IV)

The official reformation of ELO came in 2000 when Jeff Lynne worked on creating the box set Flashback, a three-disc retrospective covering the entirety of their career and including a number of unreleased rarities. It also included a new version of the song “Xanadu”, formerly a 1980 single with Olivia Newton-John on vocals. This is the one you want if you’re looking for a great selection with the addition of excellent deep cuts as well.

Lynne would follow this up in 2001 with the first new ELO album proper since 1986 entitled Zoom. This was essentially an all-new lineup (although original keyboardist Richard Tandy does show up on a track) and included many guest musicians, including Ringo Starr and George Harrison. Though it was not a chart hit, their fans did indeed welcome them back, especially as they did tour for this record. Also in 2001, Lynne worked again with Harrison on his final album recorded shortly before his death, Brainwashed. He would honor his friend’s passing in November 2002 at the Concert for George.

Lynne however went quiet for the rest of the decade, focusing instead on a major remaster/rerelease project of all of ELO’s studio albums via the Harvest and Epic Legacy labels. Many of these contained extra tracks, including outtakes, b-sides, and unreleased songs. Several best-of compilations were also released over the years, many of them unfortunately so similar in tracking to the point of redundancy that they’re interchangeable.

But in 2012, Lynne okayed a new collection called Mr Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra, in which his best songs have been rerecorded mostly on his own. While this could have been a throwaway, or done as a song ownership/copyright measure, this was purely done out of Lynne listening to some of his own classics and realizing he improve on them, now that he had better technology. The end result is a twelve-track curio that might not be essential, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

This led to several live shows and a new interest in ELO’s music, and a few years later in 2015, Lynne reformed the band once more, this time under the moniker Jeff Lynne’s ELO, and set about recording completely new music. The result was the absolutely stellar Alone in the Universe, a record that perfectly captures their late 70s heyday with dreamy melodies, smart songwriting and even the occasional ‘Beatlesque’ hook. The preview single “When I Was a Boy”, a song (and video) that essentially tells his life’s musical story, and would fit perfectly on Out of the Blue. The album was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and paved the way for a major tour.

The tour itself would include a stay at the Wembley Arena in London, and its June 2017 show would be filmed and recorded for the film and live album Wembley Or Bust. While live albums and films can be hit or miss, this one’s very entertaining and well worth checking out. [NOTE: This live album was another on heavy rotation during my writing sessions for In My Blue World, and its version of “Xanadu” was the impetus for the story itself.]

Two years later in late 2019, he would follow up with a second album, From Out of Nowhere. This was to be followed up by another world tour, but was cancelled due to the COVID pandemic. The record may not have had as much of the lasting strength as the previous studio record had because of that, but it did gain favorable reviews and did hit the top of the charts in the UK.

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ELO has received many honors over the years including their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017; and in 2020, Jeff Lynne himself was honored an OBE for his contribution to music. And now in 2021, many online streaming services are celebrating the band’s fiftieth anniversary with several new unique playlists to enjoy (including one playful set featuring songs that use the vocoder!) and rereleases to buy.

This band may sometimes be dismissed as cheesy and dated, too much of a late-era Beatles clone, or worse, but they have a long and extremely broad legacy to back them up. Their songs have been covered, sampled, riffed, used in soundtracks, and their classical-meets-pop style has inspired many other bands past and present. And the Birmingham boy with the guitar, the shades, the falsetto, and the unruly poof of dark and curly hair is instantly recognizable to everyone. They’ve inspired so many musicians that critics will describe some songs as having an “ELO style”. They’ve been around for a lifetime, but their songs are ageless and amazing.