On May 10, 2021, I received the second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. I had an appointment to get the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, but on the day I was to drive 20 miles to get it, distribution of the vaccine was paused.
After weeks of wondering when I’d be eligible to get a vaccine, followed by another few weeks of battling for an appointment, I had little mental energy left to do anything but work and practice for my music lessons.
Record Store Day Drops happened, and I was actually dreading it. A large music shop in my neighborhood closed permanently, and I haven’t eulogized it yet.
After a year and change of a pandemic that is nowhere near close to ending, I haven’t put much energy into listening to music of the current year. I visit the thrift shops every week to discover the past, but the present has no allure for me.
TL;DR: I don’t have much to offer for this half-year list.
The one release to which I’ve listened with any consistency contains remixes of a song released more than a decade ago. I’ve been distracting myself with so much YouTube and violin practice that I have a backlog of unopened vinyl, including titles I bought on Record Store Day.
I hope the second half of the year is kinder than the last year and a half.
Here are my favorites of 2021, what few I could find.
Utada Hikaru, One Last Kiss EP: I haven’t cottoned to an Utada song this hard since “Be My Last”, and all the incarnations of “Beautiful World” on this EP makes a strong argument that it too is one of her strongest songs.
Anton Reicha, Reicha Rediscovered (Ivan Ilić): Reicha is pretty obsessive about interrogating the theme of L’Art de varier (The Art of Variation) to the point it’s almost maddening. But maybe that’s the point.
Yo Majesty, Return of the Matriarch: Earlier this year, I had a hankering to hear “Club Action” by Yo Majesty, though I had sold my copy of Futuristically Speaking … Never Be Afraid when cash got tight. So it was a bit of serendipity to learn the duo reunited to release Return of the Matriarch.
Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum, Thanks for Coming: I actually don’t think this album is as good as it could have been. The trio’s self-titled debut EP is actually stronger, but it has enough attitude that I can’t completely dismiss it.
The older I get, the more I find music from the past I hadn’t yet discovered more interesting than the new.
Riz Ahmed, The Long Goodbye: Wow, a breakup record with an entire country. Amazing.
Laurie Anderson, Big Science: Oh, so that’s why Laurie Anderson is a BFD.
Kelela, Take Me Apart: I find indie R&B way more interesting than indie rock these days.
The Fixx, Reach the Beach: File under: an album I would have owned a long time ago if only I learned who sang those songs at the time I first heard them.
Linda Ronstadt, Mad Love: I’ve read the success of Mad Love allowed Ronstadt to record more adventurous albums, which makes me wonder what would have happened if she had done another new wave album.
Last year, I may have complained about getting too many albums from Lifelong Thrift Shop, where I had started volunteering. SARS-CoV2 pretty much ended my volunteer work for this year, but I intend to resume once the pandemic subsides. I still make weekly visits, this time as a customer.
At least it’s afforded me to take a deeper dive into albums I do get.
Ned Doheny, Hard Candy: Does anyone else get a super homoerotic vibe from the cover?
Charlie Puth, Voicenotes: I just found him totally adorable in the Subway ads.
Robyn, Body Talk: I’m a latecomer to Robyn, but I see why she is popular with the gays.
Anton Reicha, Reicha Rediscovered, Vol. 1 (Ivan Ilić): Two volumes of an expected five have been released, so where are the other three?
Nakamori Akina, AKINA BOX, 1982-1989: This purchase pretty much seals my place in the Nakamori vs. Matsuda rivalry.
Various Artists, Studio One Rockers: Dawn Penn’s “No No No” is one of those tracks I loved but never knew who sang till recently.
The Damned, Machine Gun Etiquette: I love those thrift shop purchases that turn out to be keepers.
Gary Numan, The Pleasure Principle: I have “Cars” on a 7-inch single, and it only took me another 40 years before listening to the entire album.
SUPERCAR, OOKeah!!: I thought I had caught up on owning SUPERCAR’s studio albums, but this album along with OOYeah!! slipped through the cracks. Of the simultaneously-released pair from 1999, OOKeah!! is noisier with stronger writing.
The Dismemberment Plan, Change: I’m waiting for Emergency & I to show up at the thrift shop.
I actually bought more vinyl reissues this year than remasters or deluxe editions.
Wire Train, In a Chamber / Between Two Words / Ten Women: This 2-CD reissue of Wire Train’s Columbia albums might mark the first time Ten Women has been released on CD.
Tears for Fears, The Seeds of Love (Deluxe Edition): Wow, this album is longer than I remember.
U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Deluxe Edition): I didn’t spring for the multi-disc edition with B-sides, but the inclusion of a live show did remind me of the only time I saw the band live, which was during the Elevation Tour.
Roberta Flack, First Take (50th Anniversary Edition): The bonus material on this expanded edition is illuminating, but it’s clear why they weren’t pursued for the album.
Neneh Cherry, Raw Like Sushi: This album so needed a remastering.
I started running out of things to say just as the SARS-CoV2 spread in the US, and when the lockdown happened, I threw myself into recording a pair of cover albums. I wasn’t buying much music, nor listening to anyone other than myself. By the time I finished making the albums, stores were opening up, and my music buying eventually resumed.
But I still don’t have much to say.
That doesn’t mean I’ve run out of opinions. So here are my favorites of the year so far.
Sam Sparro, Boombox Eternal
Timo Andres / Brad Mehldau / Jeremy Denk / Randy Newman, I Still Play
Perfume Genius, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Jason Isbell and 400 Unit, Reunions
The Streets, None of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, X: The Godless Void and Other Stories
The new decade doesn’t start till the end of of 2020, if you use the modified Julian calendar upon which scientists and the Naval Observatory rely. Pop culture writers are not scientists. Would you consider U2’s debut album a product of the ‘70s? Boy was released in 1980, and it would seem odd to lump it in the decade that gave us disco.
So even though science tells us the albums of 2020 should be counted in this review of the decade, we’ll save them for next decade. Besides, we didn’t give 2010 that accommodation last decade.
Tokyo Jihen, Sports: This album was a true band effort with songwriting duties spread among members rather than falling entirely on Shiina Ringo’s shoulders. But you couldn’t tell. Tokyo Jihen finally felt like an independent unit here and not just a backing band.
Jason Isbell, Southeastern: The stark cover with Isbell gazing directly at the camera only hints at the vulnerability contained within the album’s 12 tracks.
Jarell Perry, Simple Things: I knew about neo-soul, but until I ran across Solange, Frank Ocean and Jarell Perry, I didn’t know the genre had formed its own underground. Sometimes, Perry is a beat or two away from falling into the orbit of Björk. Oddly enough, he reminds me a lot of Utada Hikaru.
Sturgill Simpson, Sound and Fury: Simpson owned this decade. He started out sounding like a traditionalist, but by decade’s end, he created a body of work incomparable even to itself. All of his albums should be on this list, but I’m choosing his most confounding.
Solange, A Seat at the Table: You may have Beyoncé.
Parquet Courts, Wide Awake!: I wish I could sing along with this album, but these lyrics … hot damn!
John Luther Adams, Become Ocean (Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot): When your award-winning commission inspires Taylor Swift to donate to your organization …
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: The Pulitzer Prize should have gone to this album.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton:The Phantom of the Opera was the last time I was riveted to a cast recording.
Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer: I’ve always felt Monáe had a Muzai Moratorium or Shouso Strip inside her. This album comes closest.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love: It’s like the decade preceding this album’s release had melted away.
Eponymous 4, Travis: Yeah, I’m putting my own damn album on this list. I can listen to it without cringing or second guessing it. It almost feels like someone better than myself had made it.
Sam Smith, The Thrill of It All: Similar to Monáe, I feel Sam Smith has an I Am a Bird Now or a Homogenic in them, waiting to bust out. This album is a step in that direction.
D’angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah: I got pregnant listening to this album, and I’m not even a woman.
I’m old enough now that I can no longer be mistaken for someone remotely connected to the zeitgeist. A phrase I would often employ was, “I know of them, but I’ve not heard from them.” These days, the first part of that phrase is a stretch.
That said, I’m surprised by the number of R&B titles that have crept into my playlist rotation. I’m still a rockist at heart, but rock is loosening its grip on my attention.
Sturgill Simpson, Sound & Fury: How was Sturgill Simpson ever going to top A Sailor’s Guide to Earth? He didn’t. He veered so drastically in a different direction that the albums can’t be compared. None of his albums can be compared to each other.
Torche, Admission: Torche can be found under the metal section of most music stores, but when I play their albums, I hear post-rock.
Weezer, Weezer (Teal Album): It’s a karaoke album, but a painstakingly created one.
Jeremy Denk, c.1300-c.2000: It’s a tall order to compile eight centuries of music into a single program.
John Luther Adams, Become Desert: It was also stirring to hear this piece live.
Cocco, Star Shank: We hear hints of clouds covering the sunniness of Cocco’s later work.
BBMAK, Powerstation: I will not lie — I’ve anticipating this album for most of the year, and I do not care who knows.
Shiina Ringo, Sandokushi: This album is a glorious mess.
Solange, When I Get Home: Similar to Sound and Fury, this album is confounding and fascinating at the same time. There’s nothing on here that matches the tunefulness of A Seat at the Table, and it would be too disruptive to the album’s flow if there were.
Jamila Woods, Legacy! Legacy!: “Basquiat” was playing on the in-store system at Sonic Boom, and it pretty much clinched my decision to get this album.
In June 2019, I took the plunge back into music retail by volunteering at the Lifelong Thrift Store. This immediate access to the store’s CD stock has reshaped my listening habits. I bring back so many discs from my visits to the store, it’s rare that I’ll listen to something more than once. It makes finding new favorites a challenge.
Hans Abrahamsen, Schnee: Seattle Symphony performed this piece as part of its [untitled] series, and I was so fascinated by it, I had to own a recording.
Ali Wong, Baby Cobra: I heard Baby Cobra was a really good comedy special, but I didn’t realize Wong had filmed the special in Seattle. And I’ve known about Wong back when Chelsea Lately was on the air. I could have seen this show live, dammit.
Easterhouse, Waiting for the Redbird: The classic rock station in Honolulu back in the late ’80s would play an occasional “modern rock” track. I may have caught Easterhouse’s “Come Out Fighting” once on that station, but it was enough to make me curious about the band — a curiosity I would not explore till more than 30 years later.
Kalapana, Kalapana: I didn’t realize how pervasive this album was on Hawaii pop radio when I was growing up. I was 3 years old when this album was released, but it would continue to dominate the airwaves as I grew more aware of my surroundings.
Infomatik, Technologies: Sometimes, the Internet does forget.
My Bloody Valentine, Isn’t Anything: I missed out on the 2018 vinyl reissue of this album, so I settled for a bootleg pressing.
Robert Palmer, Secrets: This album was the pivot between the blue-eyed funk of Palmer’s early work and his embrace of a more new wave sound. It’s also one of his finest.
Rick Springfield, Tao: I’m a sucker for albums that forgo gaps and fades between tracks.
Boston, Boston: This album is against what punk music rebelled, but I like it anyway.
Roberta Flack, First Take: Stop underrating Roberta Flack!
This year was pretty slim on reissues. To be honest, I haven’t gotten through Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and Sigur Rós’ Ágætis byrjun.
Re-Flex, The Politics of Dancing: I can’t believe this album isn’t a towering classic of ’80s new wave. Cherry Pop thankfully gives it the deluxe treatment it deserves
The Replacements, Dead Man’s Pop: The Matt Wallace mix of Don’t Tell a Soul is ahead of its time. The drier sound would not become fashionable till after 1991, but heard today, Dead Man’s Pop feels contemporary.
Janet Jackson, Control: The Remixes: I didn’t realize how much I loved the mixes featured in Janet’s videos.
One of these years, I’m not going to have a big enough pool from which to draw a mid-year Favorite Edition list. This year got close.
Weezer, Weezer (Teal Album): The big criticism of this cover album is the slavish reproduction of the originals, as if Weezer did nothing to inject its own personality in these songs. The studio geek in me, however, marvels at such a feat. It may be a karaoke exercise, but it’s a painstaking one, not unlike art students reproducing the masters.
Jeremy Denk, c.1300-c.2000: It’s a tricky proposition to distill seven centuries of music in a single program, but Denk takes an admirable stab at it. I have no objections to his choices.
James Blake, Assume Form: Blake’s previous album was lengthy and not terribly engaging. He rights the ship on this one.
John Luther Adams, Become Desert: Where Become Ocean explored the Seattle Symphony’s lower and middle registers, Become Desert hovers almost exclusively in the upper ends.
Shiina Ringo, Sandokushi: Shiina’s first three albums looms large over the rest of her work, Tokyo Jihen included. Sandokushi is a fascinating mess — lots of seemingly disparate songs threaded together as a single program. It’s jarring but coherent, and probably the best summation of her style thus far.
Jamila Woods, Legacy! Legacy!: Like Parquet Courts’ Wide Awake, Legacy! Legacy! was playing on a record store sound system and made me stop to find out who is Jamila Woods.
Solange, When I Get Home: There are no obvious singles on this album, which is fine because it’s not intended to be a singles album.
Madonna, Madame X: A quotation of Tchaikovsky’s signature work could have backfired, but when the Nutcracker interrupts “Dark Ballet,” it doesn’t feel forced. The singles preceding the release of Madame X didn’t hint at this kind of creative stretch.
The Drums, Brutalism: Jonny Pierce tones down the Joy Division influence and brings forth the beats.
Last year, new releases made up 7 percent of my music purchases. This year, that number ticks up to … 8 percent. For a while there, I didn’t know if I would find enough titles to make a Favorite 10, but I did.
Parquet Courts, Wide Awake!: When you visit multiple record stores and ask what is playing, you probably ought to buy that album if the answer is the same at each store.
Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer: I also liked the Emotion Picture that accompanied the release of this album.
Christine and the Queens, Chris: Those dance moves!
Various Artists, Adam to Eve no Ringo: I didn’t realize the cover of “Sid to Hakuchuumu” was by MIKA, the singer “discovered” by Perez Hilton. MIKA’s circumspection about his sexuality drew a lot of attention and some controversy. I checked out his music as a result of the brouhaha and found little that was remarkable. That said, he nails the French interpretation of this very Ringo track.
Steve Grand, Not the End of Me: I don’t know if it’s intentional, but I hear a bit of Matt Alber’s swoon on some of the quieter moments on this album.
Kronos Quartet and Laurie Anderson, Landfall: Take all the swagger and posturing out of hip-hop, and it would probably sound a lot like Laurie Anderson.
Seattle Symphony with Roomful of Teeth, Berio: Sinfonia: This piece was awesome to hear live.
Nico Muhly & Thomas Bartlett, Peter Pears: Ceremonial Balinese Music: Oddly enough, I found a recording of Colin McPhee performing his gamelan transcriptions with Benjamin Britten, and I kind of wish Muhly and Bartlett had also done the unpublished scores.
Yore, EP1: Recent press seems to obscure the fact Yore released music under his own name, so we’ll stick with that preference and just mention this EP finds him moving in a direction more akin to Cocteau Twins or even Utada Hikaru.
Utada Hikaru, Hatsukoi:Her sound has gotten darker since her comeback.
Other favorites from the year:
John Coltrane, Both Directions at Once
Leo Imai, VLP
Mikami Chisako, I AM Ready!
Craig Armstrong, Sun on You
Tracey Thorn, Record
Renee Fleming, Broadway
Igor Stravisnky, Chant Funebre / Le Sacre du Printemps
Eponymous 4, Travis
OK, I’m being a bit cheeky including my own album, Travis, on this list. I finished recording it in 2016, so I’d been sitting on it for more than a year. In all that time, I’ve not gotten sick of hearing it day in and day out, and when I compare it with other albums I’ve recorded, it sounds like a proper, professional work.
This past year, I started keeping a log of purchases every week, and a cursory look at those entries show how much catalog has taken over my collection.
Like last year, many of these purchases come from Lifelong Thrift Store or Goodwill. A month-long CD sale at Easy Street Records contributed quite a number of titles. I’ve whittled down nearly 600 purchases to a list of Favorite 10.
Patti Smith, Horses: The first time I played this album, I didn’t get it. So I played a few more times and became fascinated with it on each play.
Boris, Pink: I remember other Japanese indie rock fans fawning over this album, and it’s taken me 12 years to get around to finding out why.
David Bowie, Scary Monsters: At first I was going to be boring and choose Ziggy Stardust or Let’s Dance as my favorite Bowie album, but this one takes it, hands down.
Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska: I like the story of how this album came about just as much as I like the end result.
Fugazi, The Argument: Fugazi didn’t make a bad album, just less good ones. The Argument would probably be Fugazi’s best album if 13 Songs and Repeater weren’t in the way.
Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark: I went on a Joni Mitchell binge this year, and this album is the only one I really like. Sorry, Blue.
Roxy Music, Avalon: Quite the dapper album.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced: It’s weird how familiar this album feels after years of hearing covers by Kronos Quartet, Sting and Emmylou Harris.
The Pogues, Rum Sodomy and the Lash: I didn’t accommodate the Pogues during my Celtic phase of the mid-90s because they were more rock than Celtic.
Wire, Pink Flag: I’m also fond of the self-titled Killing Joke album.
The last half of the year was stuffed with reissues that were of particular interest for me.
Art of Noise, In No Sense? Nonsense! (Deluxe Edition):(Who’s Afraid Of …?) The Art of Noise! may have all the hits, but the post-ZTT albums from 1986 and 1987 are the band’s creative peak.
Camouflage, Voices and Images (30th Anniversary Edition): This reissue received a limited run in Germany, so pick it up before they’re all gone.
Johnny Hates Jazz, Turn Back the Clock (30th Anniversary Edition): The acoustic re-recording of this album works quite well, given how reliant the original was on MIDI.
Kate Bush, Remastered Part I and Remastered Part II: It’s apparent on which side Kate takes in the loudness wars, because these remasters do nothing with the volume. In the case of The Red Shoes, it’s actually pulled back. But they sound great, particularly Part I.
Julee Cruise, The Voice of Love: I so dug Floating Into the Night that I didn’t think it could be topped. It wasn’t, because The Voice of Love is a different beast.
Sasagawa Miwa, Houjou -BEST 03-18-: I passed on the two most recent Sasagawa Miwa albums, but this retrospective does a good job of highlighting the best parts of her output.
Frank Ocean, Endless: This album was better than Blonde.
Prince, Piano and a Microphone 1983: How about a vinyl reissue of the Love Symbol album?