Favorite Albums of 2021

At the end of each year, I compile a list of my favorite music albums, mainly to document what I enjoyed listening to, but also to share with others.

2021 seems to have been a huge year for music releases, so much so that I had a difficult time cutting down my list to just 10 albums. There was a lot of hope that 2021 would usher in a year where things got back to normal (post COVID-19), and that musicians would be able to get back to touring again. Many artists stated that they were either writing music or waiting for the right time to release music back in 2020, which probably led to the explosion of new work in 2021.

I also found that writing a weekly blog which included new music that I listened to during the week also helped. I definitely listened to a lot more music in 2021. I still gravitated toward downtempo, lo-fi and ambient grooves, but I also found a lot of new artists in other genres as well.

These are the albums and artists that I’ve spent the most time with, and/or have connected with over the past year. There are more than a few albums that didn’t make the cut and but you can read about those in my previous Weekender entries.

Full disclosure: Purchasing any of the music using some of the links below will give a small percentage of the sale to my wife.

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10. The Wallflowers - Exit Wounds
I was surprised to learn that the Wallflowers had a new album coming out in 2021. I actually lost hope for another record from them as their previous album, Glad All Over, was released almost 10 years ago (2012). Glad All Over had a different sound and feel from any of their previous releases, but I really enjoyed it. Exit Wounds finds songwriter Jakob Dylan fronting a whole new lineup of musicians, and at times, the tunes feel like something he could have put out as a solo album. The choice of including backing vocals by Shelby Lynne on four of the tracks was unexpected, but fit just right for those tunes. Exit Wounds still feels like a Wallflowers album, and Dylan explained why to The Washington Post: “There’s never been one lineup that’s made two records. So the constant is myself. If you think there’s a sound of the Wallflowers, I’m making that with my choices in the studio and with my songs and voice”.

Hot tracks: Maybe Your Heart’s Not in it No More, Roots and Wings

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

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9. Jim Campilongo and Luca Benedetti - Two Guitars
New York guitar slingers Jim Campilongo and Luca Benedetti team up for an album of guitar duets. Featuring no other instruments on the 12 tracks, I was amazed at what they were able to do using only a tonal palette of two Fender Telecasters plugged into their amps. Two Guitars is such a simple concept, but the result is an extremely fun and expressive collection of songs. The album deserves to be listened to with headphones to really get a feel for Campilongo and Benedetti’s guitar versatility. You can really hear how much fun they had recording this one.

Hot tracks: Mona Lisa, Nice Dress, Denise

Listen: Bandcamp
Buy: Bandcamp | Amazon

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8. Nala Sinephro - Space 1.8
Meditative, deep, atmospheric, with some sharp edges here and there, pedal harpist Nala Sinephro’s debut album is an experience. Sinephro chose a cast of musicians from the UK jazz scene to embellish her vision for Space 1.8. The suite of tracks, named Space 1 through Space 8, are a collection of musical possibilities that somehow relate to one another and form a cohesive listening experience. It’s the sort of record that you can put on repeat during a busy day and forget about turning off.

Hot tracks: This collection deserves a complete listen!

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon | Bandcamp

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7. Billy Idol - The Roadside - EP
The last time Billy Idol showed up on my radar was when he released 2015’s Kings & Queens of the Underground. The Roadside, is a perfect reminder of how great Idol can be, and shows that he can still rock! Now in his 60’s, Idol has nothing to prove. His older, rougher voice was a perfect for the quartet of moody tracks. If you’re a fan of the 80’s Idol sound, The Roadside EP is something you might want to give a spin. I’m hoping for more from Billy in the future!

Hot tracks: C’mon, it’s only 4 tracks. Take a listen to the whole thing!

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

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6. John Mayer - Sob Rock
I originally had a very long write up regarding the ad campaign for this album, but I decided to cut it because it doesn’t truly reflect what Sob Rock is about, although it plays into it in a way. Sob Rock is sort of nostalgia for the soul. Mayer went all out to cop the sounds of 1984, a time when new technology made it possible to create sonic textures that no one had heard before. The precise studio musician artistry and sampled synthesizers sounds of this time period brought on the eventual transformation from vinyl (analog) to CD (digital). Sob Rock has tinges of classic 80’s albums such as Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence and Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life, which evokes the “feeling” of a song you think you’ve heard somewhere before, but can’t quite place it. Kudos to Mayer for being so successful in his career for so long, and constantly trying new things.

Hot tracks: Wild Blue, Shot in the Dark, Last Train Home

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

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5. Steve Lukather - I Found the Sun Again
You may not know the name Steve Lukather, but you’ve definitely heard his guitar playing on countless hits while he was one of the top studio musicians during the 70’s ~ 90’s. He’s best known as one of the founding members of the band Toto. I Found the Sun Again finds Luke (as he likes to be called) in new sonic territory and expanding the diversity of tunes he puts out. Not one to hold back lyrically, he holds no punches on the fast paced opening track “Along For the Ride” and bitter sounding “Serpent Soul”. He performs a stunning 10 minute cover of Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” The entire album was cut live with very little overdubbing, which in todays Pro Tools world of recording is kinda unheard of. As Luke would probably say “Not bad for a guy in his 60’s.” The 8 tracks are a satisfying listen from a man with a lot more music to give.

Hot Tracks: Along for the Ride, Serpent Soul, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

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4. Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio - I Told You So
One of the things I love about Apple Music is it’s ability to bubble up some great new artists I’ve never heard of before. I Told You So showed up on my radar at the start of 2021 and I’ve been digging Lamarr’s funky Hammond B-3 organ ever since! The trio’s music has a feel good quality to it that makes you want to move your head to the groove.

Hot Tracks: Hole in One, Call Your Mom, Fo Sho

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon | Bandcamp

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3. John Carroll Kirby - Septet
Another artist that bubbled up in my listening feed in 2021 was John Carroll Kirby. I was only familiar with his keyboard work on the Norah Jones track Chasing Pirates, so Septet was a revelation. The best way to describe this instrumental album would be organic 70’s funk/avant-pop, jazz fusion vibe with a touch of new age. While this is Kirby’s album, he’s fine moving his keys to the background to let the other musicians take the spotlight.

Hot tracks: It’s all good!

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon | Bandcamp

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2. ATARASHII GAKKO! - SNACKTIME - EP
I’ve made it no secret that I’m a huge fan of the four member dance and vocal performance unit, Atarashii Gakkou no Leaders, now known by their shorter name ATARASHII GAKKO!. 2021 was a huge leap forward for the group in many ways. They departed their home base of Japan and spent two months in LA working with musician/producer Money Mark to create SNACKTIME. The EP is a five song kaleidoscope of eclectic tunes, that puts the clever and quirky writing talents of the group at the forefront. It’s great to watch this group grow in talent and popularity. I’m really looking forward to a full album release in 2022.

Hot tracks: All of it. C’mon it’s just 5 tracks!

Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

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1. Japanese Breakfast - Jubilee
There was only one album that I felt was hands down, the best album of the year, and it was Jubilee. It was a break out year for Japanese Breakfast, a.k.a. Michelle Zauner, who in 2021 released the New York Times best selling memoir Crying in H Mart, worked on the original soundtrack for the video game Sable, while simultaneously releasing her third album Jubilee. Unlike the first two albums, Jubilee is upbeat and hopeful and finds Zauner writing form a different place. I had my doubts that JBrekkie could release a happy sounding album, and was pleasantly surprised by what I heard. It was exactly what I needed in 2021… an album that put a smile on my face and gave me hope for the future!

Hot tracks: Paprika, Be Sweet, Posing in Bondage
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify
Buy: iTunes | Amazon

Even Moar Music

I can’t always listen to vocal music when I’m working and need to concentrate on specific tasks. If you’re in a similar situation, here are some smooth grooves to play in the background that I enjoyed in 2021.

Jazz / Instrumental

Cory Wong & Dirty Loops - Turbo
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Matthew Halsall - Salute to the Sun
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Pat Metheny - Side-Eye NYC (V1.IV)
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Andy Summers - Harmonics of the Night
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Downtempo / Electronic

Metic - Soul Feather
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Metic & Norvik - A Fleeting Dream in Waking Life
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Metic & Hanimo - Inner Reflections
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Kazuki Isogai & yuhei miura - Work_1 - EP
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Kazuki Isogai & yuhei miura - Work_2 - EP
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Joy Orbison - still slipping vol. 1
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify.

Meditative

Japanese Breakfast - Sable (Original Video Game Soundtrack)
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

Los Days - Singing Sands (featuring Tommy Guerrero and Josh Lippi)
Listen: Apple Music | Spotify

See my Favorite albums of 2020 here.