Without asking for it, Spotify told me at the end of 2021 that I had listened to music on the app for a total of 66,577 minutes (or nearly 1,110 hours). And that my top genres were Indie rock, Jam bands, Neo-psychedelic, Folk rock, and Blues rock. Spotify also said if 2021 was a movie and I was its main character, the soundtrack would include the following songs: the talented late guitarist Neal Casal’s Highway Butterfly, New Orleans-style R&B singer Jon Batiste’s I Need You, and the all-woman punk rock band Sleater-Kinney’s Worry With You. All this was a part of Spotify Wrapped, which, if you subscribe to the app, you will have got as a summary of what you listened to all through the year. Welcome to the somewhat cheesy world of music app algorithms.
Besides Spotify, I also have other apps and sources to meet my listening needs. There’s Apple Music, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, YouTube Music, not to mention the old fashioned vinyls, and CDs that have been gathered over dozens of years. If I had made a list of all the songs and albums that I listened to during 2021 (the majority of which was because of this column I regularly write), I am not sure what trend or preference pattern would emerge and whether it would match what the folks (or bots) at Spotify have wrapped for me. Be that as it may, here’s a list of six albums from six genres that I think are the best new albums that I listened to in 2021.
Best Rock Album: If your brand of rock is guitar-rich and with classic roots, then The War on Drugs has to be a band that you love. They began in the early 2000s as an indie band but have now become a mainstream act with arena-filling potential. Bandleader Adam Granduciel is their driving force and their latest album, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, is meticulously crafted, and takes the band’s ability to combine experimentation with easily accessible classic guitar rock to a new peak. It’s an album that you can put on rotation endlessly and every time be smitten by their infectious brand of music.
Best Blues Album: Of late, this old genre with a hoary tradition going back to the mid 19th century has been getting revived by many new artists across the world. But no one stands out as a young 22-year-old bluesman, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram does. When his first album came out in 2019, he was called “a young bluesman with an ancient soul”. On his second album, titled 662, Ingram who hails from Clarksdale, Mississippi, a historic blues locale, infuses fresh life into traditional blues with guitar work that is truly among the greatest in the genre.
Best Post-punk album: According to Spotify, the top song on the list of songs that I loved most was Ain’t Nice by the Swedish band, Viagra Boys. It’s from the Welfare Jazz, their third full-length album, which makes it on this list as the best in post-punk this year. Founded by two tattoo artists, the Viagra Boys are noisy and loud and their songs are sometimes angry, often about drugs, and have big servings of self-loathing. But they’re great fun to listen to. For an introduction to their music, check out their darkly humorous early single titled Sport, and the music video of it. A sad fact, however, is that towards the end of 2021, Viagra Boys lost their guitarist Benjamin Vallé. Fans hope that the band can recover from the tragic setback.
Best Jazz album: The best jazz album of 2021 is actually a very old one. John Coltrane’s most celebrated album is A Love Supreme, recorded in 1965, which, along with Miles Davis’ A Kind of Blue (1959) is considered to be among jazz’s greatest albums of all time. In 2021, however, there was a delightful bonanza for jazz lovers in the form of a rare live recording of A Love Supreme from a performance by Coltrane and his band in Seattle shortly after the release of the album. The live recording is an expanded version of the original and teems with glorious improvisations, pushing the boundaries of the genre. No better way to enjoy A Love Supreme again.
Best Indie rock album: Low, a duo from Minnesota, have been releasing albums since 1994. Yet they are still fiercely indie. Uncompromising and adventurous, on their latest album, Hey What, they defy convention right from the start. With static distortions, intriguing lyrics, and the unconventional use of just a guitar and drums (and no bass because the band didn't replace their erstwhile bassist after he left), Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker don’t stop surprising you with the unexpected throughout the album. For many, Low’s music can need a bit of getting used to but once you do there’s no going back from their asymmetric groove.
Best Heavy Metal album: Fortitude is French metal band Gojira’s seventh full-length album. The highly skilled quartet has a death metal-meets-progressive rock style but what makes them stand out is their commitment to the environment. Gojira often collaborates with Sea Shepherd, the marine conservation activism organisation and their songs have lyrics that are about the degradation of the marine environment. Their style includes the yelps, growls, and grinding loudness that characterises metal but they are what you could call an intellectual metal band and one of the most literate in their genre of music. And Fortitude reaffirms that description.
THE LOUNGE LIST (Six tracks to bookend your week)
Harmonia’s Dream by The War On Drugs from I Can’t Live Here Anymore
662 by Christone “Kingfish” Ingram from 662
Ain’t Nice by Viagra Boys from Welfare Jazz
A Love Supreme, Pt. IV-Psalm by John Coltrane from A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle
White Horses by Low from Hey What
Amazonia by Gojira from Fortitude