MMM Staff Picks: Tom Williams’ Top Ten Favorite Albums of 2021
#10. Sam Fender – ‘Seventeen Going Under’
Much of Sam Fender’s first album was inspired by discussions the Geordie singer had at the bar, but when lockdown made that impossible, he was forced to look inwards. As a result, the politicking of his first album is largely (though not entirely) replaced by an introspective look back at adolescence and working through mental health issues. The title track went viral earlier this year on TikTok, with people sharing stories of abuse using the sound. This speaks to the emotional weight of these songs; that capture working-class malaise with unparalleled insight and affect. Seventeen Going Under, then, is the most moving piece of stadium rock you’re likely to hear this year – if not this decade.
#9. Lucy Dacus – ‘Home Video’
For her third studio album, Lucy Dacus went back to her childhood diaries, displaying a similar penchant for nostalgia that many of us experienced during lockdown. As such, Home Video alternately captures the sweetness and innocence of youth, while reminding listeners that the past isn’t as rosy as we’d like to believe. Home Video’s 11 tracks capture unconditional friendship, conflicts between religion and identity, and the difficult process of trying to answer life’s biggest questions.
#8. Japanese Breakfast – ‘Jubilee’
So much of Michelle Zauner’s career has been defined by grief; specifically, the grief caused by her mother’s terminal illness and death – which made for the dominant focus of her first two albums and her bestselling memoir Crying in H Mart. With Jubilee, however, she set out to make an album about joy; as seen on the sparkling pop numbers “Be Sweet” and “Paprika”. However, Jubilee also explores the moments of longing and despair that had to be experienced to reach this state of joy; “In Hell”, for instance, sees her recount the euthanization of her dog in painstaking detail. The end result, then, is an album that captures the totality of the human experience – and just so happens to sound great too.
#7. Julien Baker – ‘Little Oblivions’
A Pitchfork critic once said of Julien Baker that she “turns being way too hard on yourself into its own genre,” and it’s true. Like all her works, Little Oblivions paints a devastating, endlessly critical self-portrait. But for the first time, here Baker upgrades to a full band sound (playing all the instruments herself). The resulting twelve tracks capture the struggles of depression and addiction with laser point precision. Highlights include the staggering “Song In E” (about being unable to accept the kindness of others) and the career highlight “Favor”; which takes everything great about Baker’s music and puts it into one fantastic song.
#6. The Weather Station – ‘Ignorance’
The descriptor “political music” understandably provokes an eye roll from many, but Tamara Lindemann’s songs about the climate crisis and political instability are truly stunning – and also double up as break-up songs (depending on how you read them). Beautiful baroque pop arrangements push the band to new heights and Lindemann delivers fantastic lyric after fantastic lyric (“I feel as useless as a tree in a city park // Standing as a symbol of what we have torn about”).
#5. Snail Mail – ‘Valentine’
2018’s Lush made the then 18-year-old Lindsey Jordan a cult star in the indie world; hailed by some as a prodigy, or even, the savior of rock music. Like for many young stars, however, this experience took its toll on Jordan, and in the three-year space between her first and second album, she spent 45 days in an Arizona rehab facility – as referenced on the fantastic “Ben Franklin.” Unlike Clairo and Lorde – whose newfound reflections of fame this year were set against subdued arrangements – everything on Valentine is bigger and bolder. Valentine’s 10 tracks capture love in a state of disrepair, with Jordan able to capture abject longing and desperation like few others are capable of.
#4. St. Vincent – ‘Daddy’s Home’
Annie Clark abandoned the jagged-edged sounds that have defined her solo music up until this point for her sixth studio album. The result of this is Daddy’s Home; where reflections on legacy, fame, depression, and incarceration are set against psychedelic, ’70s-indebted arrangements. Like Clark’s best music it’s filled with unpredictable twists and turns and consistently blurs the line between the persona and the personal.
#3. Lingua Ignota – ‘Sinner Get Ready’
Lingua Ignota’s newest album – discovered by many because of the rare perfect score it received from Youtube critic Anthony Fantano – is a visceral and genuinely frightening piece of work. It’s an uncomfortable listen – it’s meant to be – yet, it’s that rare album that completely transforms your idea of what music can be.
#2. Sarah Mary Chadwick – ‘Me & Ennui Are Friends, Baby’
Most people who come across Sarah Mary Chadwick’s newest album are unlikely to get past the explicit, eye-grabbing album cover. Yet, to do such would be a mistake; Ennui captures depression and despair with an intensity and accuracy unseen by any other album this year. Utilizing nothing more than a piano and Chadwick’s unique vocals, Ennui was written just weeks after a breakup and the deaths of Chadwick’s father and a close friend that led Chadwick to attempt suicide. The resulting album is a harrowing, emotional gut punch.
#1. Little Simz – ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is the sort of masterful hip-hop album that only comes about once every few years. Moving effortlessly from trap, Afrobeats, and grime – and blurring the lines between these arbitrary descriptors in the process – it is a consistently surprising album that deserves the sort of status held by Pimp A Butterfly (Kendrick Lamar) and Miseducation (Lauryn Hill).