It is that time of year, and my ‘top 20’ is listed at the bottom of this post. This is based on the number of times I have had them on repeat in various formats, and a non-trivial amount of thinking about the music.
Some of the choices will surprise you I expect, and I am sure that I will get told off for missing some and including others. It has been a very good year for music and for personal choice. I have omitted re-issues (sadly, including The Beatles’ Let It Be, which is just excellent) and some ECM-style jazz which I have also really enjoyed. I wanted to keep to 20, broadly accessible albums.
All of these have great production values. That is a given. And isn’t the album cover art brilliant. As I look at this list versus last year, perhaps 2021 is a little more mellow? And most are by female artists or feature female vocalists. Still, I can’t avoid a new-British-jazz theme. An eclectic mix of music.
So, let’s explore the ‘top 10’ albums (as featured in the header above) in more detail, starting with #10.
10. Wolf Alice. Blue Weekend.
Perhaps the closest in this year’s list to an ‘normal’ indie rock album. Varied tracks, great energy. An album hard to ignore yet equally hard to pin down even after several listens. Pitchfork described the album as reflective of Glastonbury stage-hopping (for those that know art I mean). The band has a very bright future.
9. Lana Del Rey. Chemtrails Over the Country Club.
I thought quite a bit about including this, as it really doesn’t measure up to the directness of Norman Fucking Rockwell! But it is still one of the most listenable-to and thoughtful albums of 2021. Even the closing inclusion of a Joni Mitchell cover (For Free, about buskers not earning a dime) makes sense as the album explores fame and loneliness.
8. Sault. Nine.
This album was only available for a short time open streaming services, but if you do want it, get the vinyl. Urban soul – funk from the ever-interesting whose origins apparently lie in London’s council estates. Where last year’s two Untitled albums were angry and in pain, Nine is more about the shift from trauma to healing. It’s calmer yet strangely in your face.
7. St Vincent. Daddy’s Home.
Shape-shifting Annie Clark offers 70’s glam with songs about mothers and daughters, fathers and prison. Never afraid to share her life, the title track, ‘Daddy’s Home’ lays bare her father’s 12-year imprisonment for his role in a $43 million stock manipulation scheme. Not Annie’s strongest album but a worthy addition to an impeccable line. How can you not listen?
6. The Weather Station. Ignorance.
Canadian Tamara Lindeman has moved from folk to rock, but always with a kind of understated elegance that makes sure you listen to the words. Her music seems to ask ‘what are you thinking about?’, and in this case it is climate change and the failure of capitalism. But it’s not an angry or emotional record. The power is in the understatement. A totally beautiful recording, and a contender for my record of the year.
5. Alfa Mist. Bring Backs.
This is more a suite than a series of tunes. Funk jazz hip-hop spoken word … Whilst it might read a bit pretentiously, Ken Micallef at Jazz Times has it right on the blend of styles and sophistication in this album. ‘The Chick Corea-ish intro of ‘Attune’ leads to a coma-like stillness, before the dark string-quartet sounds of ‘Once a Year’ segue into ‘Organic Rust’. a J Dilla-inspired beat buffeting a rap lament and weirdly effected instrumentation in this bleaked-out, contemporary vision’. Buy it on vinyl and play it loud.
4. LUMP. Animal.
Laura Marling and Tunng’s Mike Lindsay released LUMP’s first album in 2018. It was a fun ride, a psychedelic mix without any rules inherited from their previous work. I am not a huge Laura fan, though she makes lovely albums. But LUMP is something new. With Animal, Laura gets ‘poppier’, and the twists and turns of the album – gorgeous orchestration meets the spoken word with touches of Radiohead and electro-funk – make for one of the most infectious albums of the year.
This is another recording that could so easily have been my number one, especially as I think it has been played the most in the last few months.
3. Nubya Garcia. Source + We Move.
Saxophonist Nubya’s debut album last year, Source, was dance-infused jazz at its most eclectic.
Now, she has invited other artists to collaborate on the tracks from that album. But the result isn’t a simple remix – it is a brand new work. Pitchfork again: ‘Colombian cumbia, reggae, calypso, and modern dance music to create a vision of jazz that was both historic in scope and modern in feel’. The music stays true to its London jazz roots, but takes on a cross Atlantic feel and vibe. Can’t wait to hear what Nubya does next.
2. London Grammar. Californian Soil.
When I first heard this, I thought ‘well, that is nice but it is not as good as Truth is a Beautiful Thing‘. Then I played it again. And again. And again.
Now, I think it might be their best yet despite its mixed reviews. Time will tell. After the first two albums, fame took its toll and Hannah Reid felt she had fallen foul of pervasive misogyny, in both overt and subtle forms. ‘... boys … could walk into a room and just be taken seriously as musicians straight away‘ (NME interview). She also suffers from fibromyalgia.
‘Californian Soil‘ maintains the same sense of space and quasi-laziness that we hear in the other albums, but it feels tighter and more expressive. Hannah seems defiant and more self assured. For example, ‘Lord It’s A Feeling‘ directly addresses emotional manipulation.
‘I saw the way you made her feel
Like she should be somebody else
I saw the way she tried to hold you
When your heart was just a shell
I saw the words she wrote that broke my heart
It was a living hell
I saw the way you laughed behind her back
When you fucked somebody else’.
An excellent album, and it will be fascinating to see what the band does next.
1. Joan as Policewoman, Tony Allen & Dave Okumu. The Solution Is Restless.
I think that this album might surprise people who read all of those mainstream top ten lists, as it hardly appears, never mind as number one of 2021.
The Solution Is Restless is a brilliant collaboration between Joan Wasser (aka Joan as Police Woman), Tony Allen and Dave Okumu. It also features contributions from Damon Albarn. To quote Joan in a recent NME interview:
‘Damon Albarn introduced me to Afrobeat legend, Tony Allen, at the Africa Express event ‘The Circus’ in London in 2019. Tony and I played Nina Simone’s ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’ and made a pact to record together in the future. In November of that year, our pact was realized. My old friend and fierce musician Dave Okumu joined Tony and me in a Parisian studio, where we improvised, untethered by form or tempo. I left with the tapes without knowing exactly how I’d use them.
In April  I lost a beloved mentor, Hal Willner. … Grieving Hal’s death, I began creating songs from the Parisian improvisations, only to learn of Tony’s passing while in the studio. As my world became undone, I focused on creating the new album from the Paris collaboration’.
Tony Allen (1940-2020) was a Nigerian drummer, composer, and songwriter who lived and worked in Paris. He was the drummer and musical director of Fela Kuti’s band Africa ’70 (1968 to 1979), and was one of the co-founders of Afrobeat music. Brian Eno described Tony as ‘perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived‘.
Dave Okumu, Austrian, is a singer, songwriter, producer and guitarist, perhaps best known for fronting the band The Invisible. Their debut album, 2009, was nominated for a Mercury Prize.
The Barbarian is the opening track of The Solution Is Restless, over eleven minutes long, and it hits you with jazz-funk, piano and strings driven by Tony’s drums. It sets the tone of the album, as there are no three-minute pop ditties to be heard. Every song is superbly crafted, and whilst the sequence is coherent, the music twists and turns, coming up with something new as each track unfolds. And if you think that you can’t link quantum maths and sensuality, then try Geometry Of You. Pure ear-worm funk. When it was pre-released, Joan said:
‘Geometry Of You is a song about the intersection of math and sensuality. It’s what Tony Allen did every time he sat down to play. It’s about the quantum aspects of life – there is no one way of doing anything – paradox is everywhere. Finding the flexibility in life is the way I most connect with joy’.
The album is not without its pandemic messages, though. Take Me To Your Leader is inspired by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, in which America asks her for advice on running the country.
It is easy to hear that everyone had fun, both in the original improv sessions, and the sound of the final music. Joan provides vocals, strings, piano, 12 string acoustic guitar, Wurlitzer, synths, bass, percussion, production and all lyrical content on the ten tracks. I have always enjoyed her music, and her sheer professional excellence, but this album is quite special in so many ways.
The Solution Is Restless is very much a one-off, and a joy to listen to.
Here is my Top 20
And here is Mick’s Top 20 Apple Music Playlist
This is a pretty interesting 2021 list from Esquire, 5 album overlap with mine … https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/music/g35340475/best-albums-2021/
Pitchfork’s list – also 5 album overlap in the top 20 … https://pitchfork.com/features/lists-and-guides/best-albums-2021/
8 album overlap so far with the Guardian’s Top Fifty … https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/nov/30/the-50-best-albums-of-2021
And if you want something a bit more ‘data-based’, try Metacritic. 10 of my choices feature here though the top 100 – but not ‘The Solution Is Restless‘ at all … https://www.metacritic.com/browse/albums/score/metascore/year/filtered