The Top 50 Albums of 2021

Hey, a year-end list on Feb. 1. That’s…not too bad, actually. I think that’s my best yet. How was my 2021, you ask? I had some personal/professional struggles and some personal/professional successes. I think, in the end, that came out as a net positive, though I’m sure there’s some trauma I’m already suppressing. The world’s not necessarily much better. In some ways things are little bit quieter, but it’s hard to see so many people going the absolute most selfish route with all this pandemic/quarantine/masking/vaccination/mandate stuff. I try to stay quiet about it, but I’ve also had to accept the reality that I’ve had to shut some people out of my life. No one great, mind you. Most of the people I know who are very outspoken about their rights & freedoms, etc. are also the same people who I know to be…not great. Like, there’s no one who has come out of this thing as anti-vax/mask/mandate that was somebody worthy of respect in the old world. It’s just a silly culture war, but damn, some of the players on the one side of the culture wars are people I’d never want to be caught aligning with. Sometimes it’s just a low critical thinking threshold, but I’ll be damned if that doesn’t have have an adverse affect on character.

Also Norm died this year. Still broken up about that.

But what of the music? It was…interesting. Looking at my list, I don’t think anything outside this year’s top three would have made my top 10 (12?) last year. I didn’t hate the year, but I think 2020 made me a little greedy. That all said, there were some fascinating developments as I was writing this list. Albums kept moving around. I know the order of this thing ultimately doesn’t matter, but certain albums kept insisting on moving higher than I originally placed them (Nos. 41, 35, 28, 19 and 18, in particular). There’s a lot here that you should already expect: jazz favorites, the typical range of metal and hardcore, indie girls. But I think there are a couple of themes that emerge as well, namely rock solid country songwriting, off-trend rap throwbacks and genre-omnivorous artists emerging from a punk/emo idiom.

I hope you enjoy this list. I hope you enjoy what I have to say about these albums. I hope you find your new favorite. Or I hope you find something you hate so much it ruins your 2022.

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The 10s: 1971

Don’t be fooled by the downward trend in actual bona fide 10s, 1971 was a much harder year to parse than 1970. There are a lot of albums that stick here, especially with an influx of “objectively great records for which I have no significant personal investment.” Shout out to Led Zeppelin IV, an album so objectively excellent and so not personally invested by yours truly that I feel like I deserve to be drawn and quartered for the snub. This is a concept we will return to with great frequency as I hit all the necessary stops of capital-I important artists whose signature works feel more akin to homework.

Also a big feature of 1971? Widely beloved “classic” records that I actually actively kind of dislike. From my perpetual indifference to Folky Joni’s Blue to my lemon-faced responses to the sodden What’s Going On to my on-going “is that it?” reactions to The Who, 1971 is a year where I start to strain against canon. This will be a recurring motif as well.

Then again, what is here and even what isn’t here comprise a staggering depth of cultural and creative S-curves. While the 60s casualties are still in the process of taking their final bow (so long Jim and Janis), a collection of misfits are finally finding the beginnings of a long-tenured groove: Clinton, Bowie, Bolan, Parton, Prine, Clark. Among those represented here and those just barely on the outside, there’s an array of artists who made 1971 a declarative year. Sad that I had to bypass so many staggering folk/country releases – almost too many greats to mention.

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The 10s: 1970

Welcome to The 10s, my little excuse for tracking my own musical canonization. Because I have a categorical brain, I tend to apply a bit of numerical valuation to albums. The 10s, unsurprisingly, are the ones I hold the deepest value for – the album’s with an excellence that is matched by a personal affinity. For this series, I will highlight, by year, those albums that I stump for most aggressively. Some years that means multiple albums. For other years it may mean one or even zero (there are great albums in every year, but not necessarily 10s). I will write at some length about each of the 10s and then round out the list with a couple honorable mentions (usually either albums I adore but run just shy of artistic perfection or flawless documents for which my passion remains quelled) to stretch the list to an even 10. EPs and live albums featuring previously released material will be mentioned as a sort of addendum…mostly as a cheat to sneak more albums on to the main list. Ten is not a lot and these lists contain as much heartbreak as enthusiasm. Essentially what you’re looking at here are my top 10 albums of every year.

So, let’s talk about 1970. I’m starting with 1970 largely because it’s the first year I feel like I have a really healthy grasp of and I’m also not interested in explaining why the likes of The Beatles, Dylan and Hendrix don’t make my lists. Like any decade-opening year, 1970 is more aligned with the preceding decade than the one that is to follow. My list of 10s includes some artists whose body of work tilts more to the 60s than the 70s. For some artists, these albums represent the end of a fruitful road. For others, it’s more of a shot across the bow. With my No. 1 album of the year, it’s the first (second?) major statement in a career riddled with major statements and major risks. The list seems to be defined by artists who dabbled in both simultaneously, whether they were rewarded or not. If you don’t see your favorite album here, it can only be because I despise it and I despise you for liking it. Enjoy!

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The 50 Best Albums of 2020

Every single year-end list from this last cycle started with a paragraph about how 2020 was a terribly hard year for all of us, but that the music really helped us get through it. That’s great, I guess. I mean, yes, on a global scale, 2020 stunk. And in some ways, it was difficult on a personal level. Like everyone else, I miss seeing my friends (OK, my friend) and I really miss getting to cough into their mouths, but the extra time with family was…not all that bad. So…what did I do with my extra time in 2020? Well, I finished a long-gestating, but ultimately fruitless music list, I started an Instagram account with my buddy Kramer (@Up_Toppers), I stopped cutting my hair (I look like Kevin Sorbo) and I grew a moustache (I look like evil Kevin Sorbo).

Oh, and the music! The music was good. Actually, it was quite good. My write-ups this year represent more of a “first thought, best thought” approach. I didn’t want to overexert myself like I did with the 2010s list, so keep it in mind that efficiency was the name of the game here (even though it’s almost March).

As always, the ranking kind of means something. The top 15 were absolute mortal locks for the lists. Loved ’em all – major part of my 2020. The next batch (16-25) are albums I’ve either had second thoughts about or not enough first thoughts about, but they feel like they have legs. I’m still listening to them. The 26-35 batch also feels like it could grow with me. That all said, as always, there’s much of value to soak up here, so please enjoy!

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The Top 200 Albums of the 2010s (Part 21: Lists About a List)

Listen, no one’s perfect. We all stumble and fall short of the glory of a perfect song. I will go to bat for all 200 (actually 225) albums on my list, but I can’t pretend that there are no hazards in the water. Here are 20 such hazards – some contextually flawed, others are just bad ideas from the outset. Either way, these are the small moments that give one pause when enjoying the decade’s finest.

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The Top 200 Albums of the 2010s (Part 20: 10-1)

10. Propagandhi Victory Lap (2017)
File Under: Punk Rock

My write-up for Victory Lap at the top of my Best of 2017 list is probably my worst piece of music writing I have attempted in the last five or so years. I wrote 2,340 words on that one album in an attempt to capture my feelings. I got carried away, I tried to say too much. It was an honest endeavor. When it comes to Propagandhi, I have a million thoughts racing through my head. At some point in the last decade, they transcended from a band I greatly enjoy to a band I deeply love. I don’t just want to chat about Propagandhi, I want to devour every word, every riff, every snare roll, every bass run, and pontificate on it for hours (and yes, there is a Prop-cast for that – the essential Unscripted Moments – to make me feel a little less lonely). Propagandhi are a band that makes me feel things. Propagandhi are the kind of band that have changed how I want to write my own music. They are a band that makes me want to reconsider my own politics and worldview. Even if you don’t know my musical taste, there’s a good chance that there is something you know about me that has been influenced by Propagandhi. Their music runs through my veins. 

So I can’t really just talk about Victory Lap. I want to talk and talk and talk. I want to talk about how the album is Propagandhi in conversation with their past selves  – literally in the case of “Letter To A Young Anus” but also spiritually in the case of the title track (a sequel to 2005’s “A Speculative Fiction”) and the vastly underrated “Tartuffe.” I want to talk about the mind-melting musical dynamics of “Cop Just Out Of Frame” and “When All Your Fears Collide.” I want to talk about how many times Chris Hannah does a righteous rock grunt on the album. I want to talk about how somewhere along the line both Hannah and bassist Todd Kowalski really learned to sing. I want to talk about how “Adventures In Zoochosis” has made me sob on multiple occasions. When I try to put the words together, they feel inadequate. When I try to find like-minded people in my life, I feel like an island. All I’ll say is that I hope, one day, you will experience this band and this special album the way I do. I hope that people can extricate the band from their skate punk past and hear them as they are now – punk’s smartest and most deeply feeling band. Ever. Period. I feel lucky to have connected so much to this band. You should be so lucky too. 
Also Recommended: War On Women Capture The Flag (2018)

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The Top 200 Albums of the 2010s (Part 19: 20-11)

20. Jeff Rosenstock WORRY. (2016)
File Under: Punk, Pop Punk

WORRY. was released less than a month before the election of Donald Trump, but it sounds like an album by someone who had already absorbed the entire hellscape of the coming four years.”Born as a data mine for targeted marketing and no one will listen up until you become a hashtag or a meme,” Jeff Rosenstock warns on the foreboding “To Be Ghost…,” heeding the coming storm of algorithm victims regurgitating conspiracy theories and misinformed hate speech into your social feed. Next comes the hammer: “But hate’s not a fad that dies with it virality.” Fucking oof. 

That heavy, suffocating dread is everywhere on WORRY., an album by modern punk’s most vigorous upstream swimmer (he was in a ska band in the mid-2000s!) that crossed over through sheer force of will. Rosenstock summons the cultural fault lines – mainstreamed lies, gentrification and the ensuing displacement, police brutality, digital addiction, “the Amazon days…the binge-watching age” – with a disarmingly loose and wide-ranging punk epic that sounds as tossed off and fun as it is deadly serious. Essentially, Rosenstock is what happens if Ian Mackaye grew up a Fat Wreck kid. On WORRY., Rosenstock devours the whole of punk history and barfs it all back up in glorious technicolor, building a song suite that frantically speeds through roid rage D-beat, cornball ska, Reggie & The Full Effect emo-pop piss takes and the kind of showtune-level bigness that would make Broadway stars Green Day jealous. It’s a sweaty, breathless endeavor that wears its urgency proudly on its sleeve and it remains one of the most unsettlingly relatable albums I’ve ever heard. By navigating the personal and the political in tandem, Rosenstock acts as a voice to the eternally disenfranchised – those overly online, cash poor, opportunity-strapped would-be do-gooders who observe an increasingly divided and horrifying world and are overcome with a wave of hopelessness. On WORRY., Rosenstock doesn’t stand in defiance to pain; he weeps openly, clings desperately to his loved ones, throws a temper tantrum and lets his voice crack when the truth finally descends on him (“I’ve had a baaaad year”). It’s devastating, but also one of the most deeply human records I’ve ever heard.    
Also Recommended: Jeff Rosenstock POST- (2018)

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The Top 200 Albums of the 2010s (Part 18: 30-21)

30. Fucked Up Dose Your Dreams (2018)
File Under: Hardcore Punk, Experimental

After the relatively staid Glass Boys in 2014, Toronto’s beloved hardcore boundary destroyers Fucked Up were ready to get weird and wild again. Dose Your Dreams exists to disrupt the Fucked Up template, which is really saying something for a band so restless and progressive. With musical leader Mike Haliechuk (10,000 Eyes) at the helm, Dose Your Dreams makes sure it never settles in one spot for too long. The result is an album the exhausts every creative consideration, leaving no stone unturned until the album keels over in a state of absolute overindulgence. Singer Damian Abraham leads the charge, as always, with raging epics like “Raise Your Voice Joyce” and “I Don’t Want To Live In This World Anymore,” but it should be noted that both tracks include saxophone solos, strong indicators that this is no “punk-by-numbers” album. From there, Abraham’s voice begins to bleed into the background, allowing a host of new voices to emerge to ensure greater synergy between the idea of the songs and the reality. To be sure, Dose Your Dreams is as much in spiritual conversation with Pretty Hate Machine and Loveless as it is with You’re Living All Over Me and Zen Arcade. To that end, Dose Your Dreams absolutely overreaches – a hallmark of the genre-spanning double album – but those draggier moments are met head on with some of the most exciting and well-executed experiments of the band’s career. Before Dose Your Dreams, Fucked Up knew how to do big and blown-out. But it’s finally with this album that they really begin to understand the full scope of their capabilities.
Also Recommended: Jennifer Castle Angels of Death (2018)

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The Top 200 Albums of the 2010s (Part 17: 40-31)

40. Anderson .Paak Malibu (2016)
File Under: R&B, Hip-Hop

Hip-hop and R&B have always had a tenuous relationship. To many, R&B’s doe-eyed sentimentality has always clashed with rap’s hard-as-nails braggadociousness. Think of the backlash LL Cool J once received for “I Need Love’s” shameless balladry – buddy had to start acting like a boxer to get his cred back. Of course, there have been several artists to break down those barriers, but Anderson .Paak in particular has a uniquely effective skillset for weaving naturally between the two poles. Raised on G-Funk but embodying the spirit of Bobby Womack or Al Green, Paak crosses the divide with effortless personality and a gritty ebullience. Paak took a few years to find an audience, but on his dazzling breakthrough, Malibu, he seems undeniable, as if his star would ascend even without the Dr. Dre co-sign. “Without You” proves that Paak can deliver bars, but the brunt of Malibu, save for a few guest spots, carries the spirit of hip-hop more than it delivers its trappings. Instead, Malibu plays around funk stickiness with the free-for-all spirit of a jam band (Paak is a singing drummer after all). Malibu holds a steady pacing, calmly cruising at high speeds with precious few blips. Every song is designed to be a potential favorite – that is until the next one comes around. That quality makes the album’s final quarter feel like giddy leap of genre hybrid perfection, with “Come Down” riding a particularly infectious funk groove, “Celebrate” laying back over the album’s finest hooks and closer “The Dreamer” summing up the album’s vibe with a communal cookout. On Malibu, Paak is the most sought after person in any social circle, an easy-going charmer with the right song for any moment. 
Also Recommended: Anderson .Paak Ventura (2019)

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The Top 200 Albums of the 2010s (Part 16: 50-41)

50. Paramore Paramore (2013)
File Under: Emo, Pop

Listen, I knew the day would come that the micro-generation behind me would swoop in and try to put some respect on emo’s mid-aughts hair metal phase. Conceptually, I totally understand. You had to be in the moment to properly understand the importance of a movement. The fact that I could never quite get on board with the likes of Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance and Panic! At The Disco has more to do with my age than taste. Still, it’s a tough pill that these bands are remembered fondly and that my disdain is pure Old Man Yells At Cloud. So thank God for Paramore, a second-tier third wave set whose early work holds up well and, more importantly, were able to level up considerably with a savvy and wide-ranging pop pivot on their impeccable self-titled record. Inter-band disputes were the name of the game during the four year gap following 2009’s Brand New Eyes, but the album’s difficult conception proved to be worth it. Paramore’s infectious shimmer and sonic expanse not only opened up doors in terms of critical reception but mass acceptance as well, with “Still Into You” and the Grammy-winning “Ain’t It Fun” both going Double Platinum (and with good reason). Outside of the massive singles, Paramore boasts pop-punk rippers (“Anklebiters,” “Be Alone”), ukulele interludes that avoid cloying (“I’m Not Angry Anymore”), vocal showcases for powerhouse singer Hailey Williams (“Daydreaming”) and stunningly potent ventures into post-rock (“Part II,” “Future”). For a band that I would have easily dismissed only a couple years earlier, Paramore makes itself undeniable. Paramore is so many things at once – a fabulous rock record, a exuberant pop spectacle and, perhaps most unnerving, a fierce and convincing defense of third wave emo’s artistic viability. I may still be an old man yelling at a cloud, but Paramore makes me feel young again.
Also Recommended: Ariana Grande thank u, next (2019)

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