2021 IN 20 ALBUMS: AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK IN AN IMPOSSIBLE YEAR?



THE BEST? YES. NO. WHATEVER. I’ll say this, as I do each year: this isn’t a definitive list of the best albums of the year. There’s too much out there to be on top of everything, there are too many styles and genres and sub-genres to be across all corners, and really, there’s too many uncertainties to be so certain about something so subjective.


What I can say is below, in no particular order, are the albums that I loved, admired, played to death, or all three. The ones that satisfied on more than one level and feel like I’ll be playing for a while yet. And bar one, which I discovered too late to cover, they are accompanied by a link to my original review.


To cover as wide an area of the good things of this hellish year as possible, along with the top 20 there’s a bonus round of 10 more which deserve your attention and might on another day, in another mood, have nudged their way into the top 20.


And beyond the words, here’s a playlist of selections from the 30 for you to hear them - technically 28, as the Charles Jenkins and Glen Hansard albums are not on Spotify, but I've pulled in another Jenkins song from the Icecream Hands album and doubled the Aimee Mann content because, well, there's no such thing as too much Aimee Mann.


(And remember, there’s also a playlist of the songs of the year for you to listen to. Six hours/100 tracks/non-stop pleasures.)


Themes? Loss, isolation, recovery, comfort, fear, and love were staples of this list. Of this year, indeed this past two years. But so were frankness and energy and a grabbing of life, while we can. Plus some wit, a smattering of love, and dancing.


In other words, so very 2021.


Anyway, time to dive in to the music and the words before Omicron takes us all. Go hard, go home, and wear a bloody mask!



THE TOP OF THE TOPPERMOST


AMYL AND THE SNIFFERS – COMFORT TO ME

If anyone still thought of them as shouty, amusing but limited punks, the second album from Amyl And The Sniffers blew those doubters away. Powerful, occasionally melodic, thoughtful, and packed with hooks, Comfort To Me is just rock done well.

Read more.



THE ANCHORESS – THE ART OF LOSING

The Art Of Losing runs deep with grief and ripples with power on the edges. The Anchoress – Welsh artist, Dr Catherine Anne Davies – had personal, physical and cultural travails to navigate and she does it with both the grandeur of controlled pop and the force of swagger-era rock.

Read more



COUSTEAUX – STRAY GODS

The CousteauX pairing of songwriting multi-instrumentalist, Davey Ray Moor, and commanding vocalist, Liam McKay, continues to find ways to dive deep and then soar in flamboyant, dramatic pop. Read more.



AIMEE MANN – QUEENS OF THE SUMMER HOTEL

A quiet, baroque pop song cycle, set in and around a place for those considered dangerously different, worryingly feeling – or as we may know them, women not yet destroyed – Queens Of The Summer Hotel finds Aimee Mann in sublime form.

Read more.



HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER – QUIETLY BLOWING IT

M.C. Taylor comes to us offering a shoulder to lean on, an ear to listen, and a heart to share. The mix of soul and country and intimate pop that his Hiss Golden Messenger ensemble produce is as attractive a balm as we could have hoped for.

Read more.



LIZ STRINGER – FIRST TIME REALLY FEELING

Liz Stringer’s empathy is matched by her insight, and these character-based songs felt rich with understanding, backed by playing that is as skilful as it was intuitive. “We are everything at once/We are all the same,” she sings. And she makes you hope that’s true.

Read more.



DRY CLEANING – NEW LONG LEG

What hits you first is the bristling and brittle post punk angles that cut back and forth excitingly. What gets you next is the language. At first like stream of consciousness oddities, delivered in the driest of droll manner, slowly begin to look like a pointillist summary of the very weird world we’re living in.

Read more.



GENESIS OWUSU – SMILING WITH NO TEETH

The most exciting new presence in Australian music in some years, Genesis Owusu pitches R&B, hip hop, soul and punkish rock into the pot and seasons it with truth and wit and honesty.

Read more.



PEARL CHARLES – MAGIC MIRROR

One song sounds like Abba in shiny form, another sounds like 1970s California in extremis, and it all sounds clear and pop-joyful and so easily taken in. Which is when you find the harder/darker bits within from Pearl Charles.

Read more.



THE WAR ON DRUGS – I DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE

Channelling what might in other circumstances be put down as smooth, highway groove, Dylan-and-Dire Straits, classic radio rock‘n’roll, The War On Drugs stretch into limpid music for the soul.

Read more.



SG LEWIS – TIMES

Why the hell not dance? For dancefloor pleasures and pop fun, SG Lewis’s Times was made for these times. These songs are facing up and out.

Read more.



ICECREAM HANDS – NO WEAPON BUT LOVE

There are few bands in Australia, and barely any more than that around the world, as dedicated to the craft of guitar pop songwriting and playing as Icecream Hands. And none of them have the brilliant Chuck Jenkins writing the bulk of their songs. (See also Jenkins’ solo album in the extras list below)

Read more.



BRANDI CARLILE – IN THESE SILENT DAYS

Long past being confined to only country music, Brandi Carlile’s confidence in pop and rock allowed her songs which dealt with personal connections – in couples, through generations, across class and religion – to connect with audiences hungry for both depth and quality.

Read more: https://www.bernardzuel.net/post/brandi-carlile-in-these-silent-days-review



JAZMINE SULLIVAN – HEAUX TALES

Jazmine Sullivan’s apparently bleak take on human and societal failings (and our desires and needs) is more nuanced than the surface assumptions, speaking across the sexes. And they soak deeply in complex soul moves that never feel retro.

Read more.



NICK CAVE AND WARREN ELLIS – CARNAGE

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, together alone, and in the company of a god who is both interventionist and only part of the story. Sonically more menacing than Cave’s been for some years, but still grasping for love, Carnage has wreckage and beauty.

Read more.



DAVE – WE’RE ALL ALONE IN THIS TOGETHER

Brixton rapper, Dave, approaches contemporary Britain with an unsparing eye and a knowledge of its history, especially as it applies to the promise of renewal and improvement, but he also turns that eye on himself. From piano/bass tracks to harder angles, his stories are supported, not overtaken.

Read more.



THE DATSUNS – EYE TO EYE

The mix is familiar: garage rock and proto-metal, bits of glam and slices of psychedelia. But getting it right, hanging some grab-able tunes on it, making it sound as much fun to listen to at volume as this, just keeps working for The Datsuns.

Read more.



LUMP – ANIMAL

The all-capped LUMP – a pairing of electronic and folk, planning and improvising, Mike Lindsay and Laura Marling – add some playfulness to their ever shifting variety of musical forms. It’s a collaboration that keeps exploring, and winning.

Read more.



VALERIE JUNE – THE MOON AND STARS: PRESCRIPTIONS FOR DREAMERS

Liminal states and ambiguous circumstances make up the world in which Valerie June operates here. Flute and piano, strings and indoor rock, bucolic embers and redemption, all exist in that space between feeling and knowing.

Read more.



SCIENTISTS – NEGATIVITY


Scientists return with shirt buttons popping, heads smacked and hips bent this way and that by guitars and drums and bass and attitude. An all night space boogie.

Read more



AND HERE'S ANOTHER 10 QUALITY RECORDS YOU OUGHTA HEAR


ARLO PARKS – COLLAPSED IN SUNBEAMS

Read the review.



CHARLES JENKINS – RADIO SKETCHES

Read the review.



EMMA DONOVAN AND THE PUTBACKS

Read the review.



GLEN HANSARD – LIVE AT SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE

Read the review.



ROBERT PLANT AND ALISON KRAUSS

Read the review.