From Heartbreak To Hope: Here Are The Best Albums Of The Year
It has been an astonishing year for music.
It is a sign of how tough things have been that it is something of a cliche to call 2021 a “hard year.”
We have all gone through our own crises, some the miniature catastrophe of simply waking up every single day and navigating a world disrupted by a global pandemic. And others — the musicians and artists amongst us — have seen their entire industry wrecked, the already shaky systems that supported them collapsing entirely.
The challenge then for anyone who works in a creative pursuit is how to deal with such horror; to either embrace it, or to offer words of hope instead. The best albums of the year vary in tone, form and content, but all of them have reckoned with these new horrors, which is a way of saying that they have reckoned with the very nature of being alive.
That, after all, is why we turn to art in the first place. Art says to us: “it is like this for me too.” Art says, “other worlds are possible.” And sometimes, in its simplicity, art says nothing at all — it just offers, quietly, without pretence, a way of embodying beauty, and resilience. And hope.
Lingua Ignota — Sinner Get Ready
Sinner Get Ready, the new album from Lingua Ignota, isn’t strictly a metal record. In fact, it fits into few of the pre-existing categories that we use to compartmentalise and explain music. That is because, at its heart, the work is a devotional.
There is horror to it, of course — screamed invocations to death itself, desperate pleas to submit to the fires that rage eternally. But the most astonishing thing about a record this loud, this jagged, is how much brevity it contains; how frequently it steps away from the vicious and embraces, in the smallest way, the graceful. It’s not just the best record of Lingua Ignota’s career. It is one of the seminal works of our time.
Emma Ruth Rundle — Engine of Hell
Each artist has their own tipping point, the moment that they take an entire way of making art to its logical conclusion and force themselves to begin again; to become new. So it goes with Engine Of Hell, the new record by Emma Ruth Rundle. Rundle has already mastered the maximalism that metal offers; here she goes quieter, simpler, more direct. Her lyrics are as cutting as ever, discrete pictures of a life lived under the weight of great suffering. But she too, like Lingua Ignota, has found the miraculous in the miniature. And all she needs is her piano, and her voice, in the centre of which sits a trembling scrap of solidarity, ready for you to take.
Tropical Fuck Storm — Deep States
There’s something so aggressively boring about living through the apocalypse. The ways that our world is collapsing don’t even have a sense of style about them; they are as uninteresting as laziness and stupidity always are.
Tropical Fuck Storm know that better than any other band on the planet. Sure, their music is far from fatigued — Gareth Liddiard has always known how to subvert sonic expectations, zagging when one expects him to zig. But at the heart of Deep States, one of their most astonishing records yet, the band engage, fully, with the way that horror can collapse into malaise; the way that evil manifests itself in a thousand little decisions, made by unassuming cogs in a gigantic machine. Long may they live.
Genesis Owusu — Smiling With No Teeth
Bad art makes incorrect assumptions about its audience; about what they want. Good art makes correct ones. And great art — like Genesis Owusu’s Smiling With No Teeth — makes no assumptions about what the audience wants at all.
Owusu has long since given up on trying to appease anyone but himself. His collage-based, endlessly inventive songs seem designed for a community of one: himself. That authority, that total self-respect, is intoxicating. But it’s also tremendously, cathartically alien. Here is a rapper who explains the world without a thought for how others might see him, or the pigeonholes they might attempt to shove his squawking art into. The choice, Owusu says with every song, is simple: come with me, or don’t.
Lana Del Rey — Chemtrails Over The Country Club
Lana Del Rey could make singing the phonebook interesting. That’s not mere speculation — with Chemtrails Over The Country Club, that’s exactly what she has done, speaking with elegance, grace and beauty about the most unassuming of subjects; the ways that love and heartbreak and horror can manifest themselves in the mundane.
Only a singer who has delivered this many masterpieces could have the self-possession to be this thrillingly understated; to understand, with a tremendous sense of finality, that there’s no need to confront the world as a whole. Instead, she picks it apart, turning her eye to what is exactly in front of her. May we have a record this assured, this extraordinary, from her every year.
Middle Kids — Today We’re The Greatest
Middle Kids are magicians, and like all magicians, their success is in sleight of hand. You think that your gaze is being directed to something heartbreaking, to a kind of personal apocalypse. But what the band actually do with Today We’re The Greatest is sneak in, just under your line of sight, a bristling sense of hope. And better yet, the record seems angled perpetually towards the future.
There is no empty nostalgia here, no desire to echo the hits of the past — either Middle Kids’ own, or the work of others. This is the sound of a highway, stretching to the horizon; to something blooming, subtly, before you’ve even begun to notice that, in the space of a single song, everything has changed.
Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend
Who makes music like Wolf Alice? The band spent their formative years making music perfecting a certain brand of indie rock. Now, with Blue Weekend, they haven’t so much torn up the rule book as pretended that it never existed in the first place.
Each song is a trove of unexpected delights, of sonic left turns. Ugliness morphs into beauty, and vice versa; guitar lines snake like electrical chords lying in puddles of water. That kind of art is dangerous, of course — confronting in its refusal to stay still. But that’s precisely what makes it so essential.
Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams
That title says it all, really. Arlo Parks’ Collapsed In Sunbeams is, as described, a thing of pure light; a subversively gentle reclamation of words that our culture has sadly put out of fashion, words like “comfort’ and “joy” and “sincerity.”
Parks means, at every turn, exactly what she says. She never hides behind an easy metaphor, or distracts the audience from the simple, direct beauty of her voice. Fashion be damned. Arlo Parks is back here to remind you that, despite it all, there is hope to be found in a world that seems to have given up on it.
Lucy Dacus – Home Video
Heartbreak can become old hat, and fast — how many songs do we actually need about being deserted, about struggling to find your place in the world? But Lucy Dacus, against the odds, has made pain new again; has revealed the way that grief, even in its extremity, can be a form of connection. Her arms are always open. Her songs are always pointing outwards.
These are choruses that you can live in for the rest of your life, that you can decorate, that you can make your own. If generosity is the spirit of the artist, then there are few artists as spirited as Dacus.
Amyl & The Sniffers – Comfort To Me
Amyl & The Sniffers belong to a long line of rabble-rousers; their acerbic, electric choruses call to mind everyone from The Sex Pistols to The Slits. But this is not a case of a band resting on old laurels that don’t even belong to them. Nor is this a mere regurgitation of what has come before, a way of repeating words that have been spoken since the first snot-nosed teenager picked up a guitar and decided to lay the world to rights.
Instead, Amyl & The Sniffers strip the paint off the houses built before them, exposing roots, finding fault lines and leaning heavily into them. Collapse has never sounded quite this fresh.
June Jones — Leafcutter
June Jones is, in no uncertain terms, one of the most astonishing poets working in Australia. It was Jordie Albiston who once said that great poetry holds you against a feeling and nails you there: how else to describe an album like Leafcutter, one that doesn’t try to make the individuated universal, but instead leans heavily into the unique, into the particular? Each word has been chosen with care, arranged like broken glass across a hardwood floor; each sonic decision deployed, carefully, to ensnare.
It is hard to imagine that we will get any Australian albums this precise, this beautiful, in quite some time. And yes, you might have noticed we wrote up Leafcutter in another Best Of album list — but it deserves to be written up twice.
Torres — Thirstier
Torres — real name Mackenzie Scott — once chose terror over love, crafting a discography of ugly screams and uglier still destructions. Here, she does something more elegant, showing with each and every song the ways that terror and love are one and the same. We want what we don’t have. We fear losing what we do. And inbetween those two poles, both of them powerful enough to lay us flat like netting pegged over budding plants, Scott discovers beauty. Her voice has never sounded this powerful; this assured. We should cherish her for the genius that she is.
Baker Boy — Gela
Baker Boy knows what you want from him, and he isn’t going to give it to you. Instead of following the path beaten by the singles that made his name, with Gela, the Australian icon has pushed his own creative boundaries to their breaking points, inventing new ways of communication in the process.
There are no unanswered questions here; no hanging threads. It is a potent injection of life, humour and art, and a sign of Baker Boy’s near-boundless imagination. Let it wash over you.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Music Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.