In the immediate aftermath of an immensely draining 2020, the role of music in our everyday lives has been exacerbated as a necessary escape from quotidian chaos. And now that everyone’s gotten their hands on their Spotify Wrapped metrics, it’s only fair that we look back on the year in music.
Disclaimer: This is an editorialized Top 5 countdown. All opinions expressed are as they pertain to my particular tastes throughout the year. Objectivity is a myth, and we’re here to have fun. And with that out of the way, why not dive right in, shall we?
#5: Japanese Breakfast – “Jubilee”
2021 has very much been a banner year for Michelle Zauner, AKA JBrekkie, whose third studio album exists as a repudiation of the themes of her LPs prior. Her immaculately-heartfelt debut book, “Crying in H-Mart,” catapulted itself to the very top of the New York Times’ Bestsellers list. It finished at #2 in the Nonfiction category for Book of the Year, and has even been picked up for a full movie adaptation. Much of Zauner’s existing musical canon has deftly explored grief, desperation, and isolation, especially as it pertains to love, cultural identity, and her fraught relationship with her mother. “Jubilee” opts instead to shine a light on radical joy as a form of rebellion. And in a year defined by prolonged uncertainty at the hands of an ongoing pandemic, the sentiment is certainly appreciated. Reclamation is the mission statement at the outset. On opener “Paprika,” Brekkie muses on the power and responsibility of a frontwoman: “How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers/To captivate every heart?/Projecting your visions to strangers who feel it/Who listen to linger on every word/ Oh, it’s a rush.” As the transcendent horns kick in, it is most certainly just that. “Be Sweet” is a syrupy heel turn towards embracing the poptimism that the album title espouses. Brekkie’s pièce de résistance, however, arrives on “Kokomo, IN,” the great slow dance ballad of our lifetime. The chorus is a tear-inducing promise delivered as the softest, most tender serenade, and I’d be outright lying if I said the number of times I’ve cried to it is in anything less than the dozens. On my life, I swear, this will be the song I dance to at my wedding once love finds me. “Jubilee”‘s white-hot vulnerability sets it apart as one of the most endearing records of the year, and it is a much-needed counterpoint to the mayhem that exists outside our windows.
#4: Tyler, The Creator – “Call Me If You Get Lost”
“Oh, you want to see a pandemic?/You should remove us from the game/This s*** really get crazy.” Whether it be as Gap Tooth T, DJ Stank Daddy, Wolf Haley, or Igor, Tyler, The Creator is no stranger to manufacturing personas that allow him to navigate his musical space. With “Call Me If You Get Lost,” another alter ego steps into the ring: the gaudy, Geneva-sailing, spoonfed-ice-cream Tyler Baudelaire. The Creator slips into his latest invention like a glove, dispensing unbridled wit, a keen sense of self-worth, and the occasional pang of sensitivity. “Sir Baudelaire” is a manifesto for all that the character embodies. DJ Drama acts as a master of ceremonies throughout the string of instant debauchery classics, and the interplay between both characters nets some of Tyler’s best ad-libs and background hype. “Corso” lights a fuse to the very idea of staying in during the summer – a brash refusal to idle. Baudelaire is far too busy sporting ascots and bunny hopping in his latest whip. ” ’bout to spend millions just to fill voids up/Drama, I need you, can you turn the noise up?” Tylerisms and sleeve-hearted asides abound, blurring the line between Tyler and his mansion liege: “I don’t even like using the word b****/It just sounded cool.” Collaborators include 42 Dugg, Youngboy, Lil Wayne, Teezo Touchdown, Domo Genesis, Daisy World, Lil Uzi Vert, and Pharrell Williams, and each feature adds another sunny ingredient to the summertime iced drink blend that Baudelaire sips with his pinky out. “Lemonhead” exudes massive stadium energy in which the marching band instrumentation alone transports you to a shoulder-to-shoulder venue where COVID concerns dissipate in an instant. Few tracks this year have been more immediately earworm-prone than “Wusyaname,” a boastful, player-laden single that starts with possibly the funniest pick-up line I’ve heard: “Awww, you look malnourished.” Baudelaire’s relentless pursuit and avant-garde sensibilities will render just about anyone defenseless. Perhaps even more so than the previous track, “Lumberjack” is a bonafide heavyweight of a single; guns-out bravado with a swaggering sense of self-accomplishment. “Rolls Royce pull up/Black boy hop out” is undoubtedly the defining rap couplet of 2021. Even those who can’t relate to the lyrics can’t help but don your illest mean mug. This is that sold-out arena energy that Tyler first cultivated on “Igor,” but arguably in a more refined state. “Too far? 500 stacks for the hood/ Call me lumberjack, ’cause I wish a n**** would” is a zeitgeist-encapsulating temperature check for the genre. Climb aboard your yacht and get those toes out, Baudelaire’s on the line.
#3: Dry Cleaning – “New Long Leg”
4AD’s newest upstart pups – South London quartet Dry Cleaning – set their sights on the hysterically mundane as they sprout new appendages on debut record “New Long Leg.” On paper, Florence Shaw’s deadpan delivery should be the oil to the water of the band’s instrumentation, but her signature hypnotic rantings somehow never fail to stick the landing. I found myself awestruck upon first listen of “Scratchcard Lanyard,” the group’s gnawing, contemplative debut single. The intro bass riff is an instant classic, and Shaw spilling at the mouth with what seems like a series of non-sequiturs not only complements it, but merges in a most mesmerizing way by the chorus. A record abundant with irony and idiosyncrasies, it’s a wonder one of the most exciting rock tracks of 2021 is about the fundamental inability to experience joy in a world filled to the brim with fluff. “Do everything, and feel nothing” is every bit a calling card and a mission statement for the album at large. “New Long Leg”‘s world is an existentially-exhausted mosaic of everyday dullness – llama plushies, uneaten sausages, electrician visits, a drawstring dog bag – and in its opposition is Shaw with all the might her fed-up disaffection can muster. “A woman in aviators firing a bazooka” is a potent hat tip to her role as deconstructor of the humdrum. On “Her Hippo,” Florence’s relationship to the people around her is made plain: “I’m smiling constantly/And people constantly step on me.” For Dry Cleaning, modernity is the newly-spawned tertiary limb that one has to awkwardly drag behind them, as it’s yet to learn the ways of moving in harmony with the rest of the body; or as Shaw so delicately puts it, “a useless long leg.” In navigating the unexciting, the four piece contrarily establish themselves as a vital addition to the rock soundscape of a world swallowed by vapid pomp and frill.
#2: The Jungle Giants – “Love Signs”
Brisbane darlings The Jungle Giants release arguably their most polished collection of sleeve-hearted, danceable tunes on fourth studio album, the aptly-named “Love Signs.” Frontman Sam Hales wrote, produced, arranged, and recorded the majority of the record himself in isolation during quarantine after having co-produced 2017’s “Quiet Ferocity.” Since that third LP, Hales has gotten married to his beloved Grace Stephenson, (AKA Confidence Man’s own Janet Planet) who operates as the primary muse, alongside offering charming vocal doses of cloudy interjection. On “Treat You Right,” Grace entreats Hales from across the room: “Hey, boy/I’m watching you from across the dancefloor/And I just wanted to know/What kind of guy are you?” With his cheekiest ear-to-ear grin, Sam responds “Well, I’m a lover, girl, I want you to know/Well, I’ll treat you right” – a promise he delivers aplenty throughout the length of the ten tracks. Infectiously serene synths, buzzy backbeats, breezy instrumentation, and electro-drops make every track deeply intimate, yet equally able to transition into filling the air at any festival lineup. “Are you sending out your love signs?/ ’cause I’m picking up your love signs” Hales croons on the titular tune before Grace leaves a hazy litany of voice messages on a phone that he will later have to charge. The accompanying track (“Charge My Phone”) commences with the pair serenading each other before Stephenson bellows her sincerest “I love you” as the beat drops. In the ramp up to “Love Signs”‘ release, a commendable maelstrom of singles ushered in the new era of Giants, including “Sending Me Ur Loving,” “In Her Eyes,” the Platinum-rated “Heavy Hearted,” and of course, the eponymous track. Secret weapon gem “Here I Come” opens with a Hales-ism that lives rent-free in my insomniac brain – a breathily-delivered “Well, anyway…/I’ve been up the whole damn night.” One of 2021’s true musical delights comes in the transition from this song to its successor, the adrenaline-fueled rager “Something Got Between Us.” Claps, snares, bass hits, and a raucous rhythm section congeal into a mass of huddled, sweaty bodies as Hales reups: “HEY! NEVER GONNA LET YOU GO! NOT! THIS! TIME!” As a steadfast proponent of 2015’s criminally-underrated “Speakerzoid” (a sophomore pivot that fundamentally redefines the band’s sound with effortless aplomb), closer “Monstertruck” inhabits the very same soundscape, and is in every sense (perhaps even more so) just as intoxicating. The quirky finisher finds Sam’s narrator driving off into the sunset in the very antithesis of a traditional wedding Rolls Royce clad with stringy soup cans; instead, he and his lover find their perfect ending in the back of a gaudy, garish monster truck, as if to signal to the audience that their connection is deeper than the stares they’ll garner. “Trust/I don’t know ’bout them/There’s enough for us/In the back of/Out there in the back of your monster truck/Well, that’s love.” And I couldn’t agree more. There’s a reason that literally every night since the album dropped, it would be the very last thing I listen to before bed.
#1: Geese – “Projector”
Surprise, surprise. If my review hadn’t clued you in on just how taken I was with NYC five piece Geese‘s debut album, “Projector,” there aren’t neon lights bright enough to spell it out for you. In said review, I noted how difficult it is to resist the urge to self-mythologize the rise of this up-and-coming band of nineteen year-olds, but after several listens of the record, not a one of us could sit idly by and let their work go without praise. From the early lo-fi recording days at The Nest, to the scrubbed-clean virtual presence of their previous record, to being picked up by Idles‘ label, Partisan Records, it’s easy to see where the groundswell comes from. In an unconventional meteoric rise, Geese found themselves gathering an overnight following during the elongated days of quarantine. Frontman Cameron Winter both evokes and invokes his influences heavily – from The Strokes‘ Julian Casablancas to Television‘s Tom Verlaine – somehow always skirting the line of appreciation and newfound invention with his vocal delivery. On seismic debut single “Disco,” Winter and co. lay the blueprint that will be the centerpiece of the nine track LP. Guitarists Foster Hudson and Gus Green (after whom the band is named) exude a shattering sense of synergy throughout their interplay. From the four-minute mark onward, the song crescendoes to what has to be the single best wind-up in the year of rock. If your bedroom doesn’t look like a sudden whirlwind burst through it, I implore you to listen again. It is truly that good. Winter’s often-cryptic lyricism lends itself to Geese’s signature introspective atmosphere. However, on the crackerjack thunderclap that is “Fantasies/Survival,” Cameron’s songwriting is at both its sharpest and most scathing. He contrasts his narrator with a foil that exists on opposite ideological ends – Security vs Fulfillment, Practicality vs Passion, Fear vs Action. While Cam is off stargazing beneath the inky gloaming, his foil trembles at the thought of what goes bump in the night. Then again, the foil could very well be part of himself he no longer hopes to come into contention with (“I put myself under the knife/I cut out what makes me this way”). The late-night rumination is ushered out with dueling guitar solos that are tempered enough to pierce stone, let alone skin. “Low Era” is a spiraling display of ‘psychic inflection,’ coated in a snarling chorus that gives way to snaking guitar licks and a meaty bassline. With “First World Warrior,” the flock shifts gears towards the somber nature of an inward-drawn ballad that reckons with cosmic purpose in an otherwise indifferent world. All references to a ‘house’ that occupies much of Geese canon comes to a head on “Exploding House,” in which the cold homestead can only remain icy for so long before warmth finds its way in. The kicker, though, is that said warmth will challenge the home’s very foundations. In one of the most poetically-potent moments on the album, Winter asserts “Some love for what may be/I love for what is there.” Once opportunity comes knocking on the closer, all the Strokes-y twang of an Is This It B-side presents itself front and center. Putting a bow on the performance beamed onto the side of a burning childhood home, Cam wistfully muses “Is this the end?”
Far from it, Mr. Winter. In many ways, this is just the beginning.