The Top 20 Albums of 2021

We thought we could see it this year. Brightening the edges of our curtains. Warming the pillows of our reading nooks. Landing on our screens to interrupt our binges. We thought it was The Light, and for a few glorious weeks we scrambled out of our tunnels into it, the possibilities blossoming with the spring.

Even me, who thinks the pandemic has been stuffed with silver linings – more time with my wife, working from home, the best excuse ever to avoid meeting new people – was excited at the prospect of going to restaurants again, traveling again, breathing again.

But it was just a temporary break in the clouds. Even so, I’m here to report 20 sightings of a different kind of Light. The kind that humans create when an undefined urge demands they express themselves, be it through an instrument, or their vocal chords, or their pen. These are the albums that reminded me what humanity is capable of in 2021 – if we can create these, surely we can figure out a way to leave this tunnel for good.

20. Georgia Anne Muldrow – Vweto III

The Light from a Crossing Signal Switching from “STOP” to “MOVE”

The third installment in this R&B visionary’s series of instrumental hip hop albums acknowledges that, even when you strip life down to its building blocks, it’s still complicated and intriguing as hell. “Vweto” is a Congolese word for “gravity,” but with every effervescent bass line and echoing drum pattern, Muldrow reassures us that we can still pick up our feet and move. Our tether to this planet might be unbreakable, but damn is it flexible.

19. Unto Others – Strength

The Light of a Bedside Table Lamp, Where a 15-Year Old Is Reading The Catcher in the Rye and Nodding Solemnly

On 2019’s Mana, the band formerly known as Idle Hands served up a bubbling cauldron of Satan worship and goth-pop hooks that spoke to the sullen young dork in all of us. A few years and a name change later, the Portland, OR, quartet returned with Strength – an attempt to be more serious that succeeds in spite of itself. The heart-on-sleeve Depeche Mode flourishes are tempered by chilly Police guitar figures, and the blasphemy is scrubbed away. But Strength sticks with me regardless, because this band remains utterly committed to expressing outsized, borderline-embarrassing emotions with a straight face, while churning out hooks for days.

18. Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life

The Light of a Neon “OPEN” Sign In a 1980 NYC Dive Bar

This Brooklyn post-punk institution begins the second act of its decade-long career on its seventh LP, where it expands its scope to explore danceable, immersive, bass-driven new wave soundscapes without completely abandoning the Stooges and Velvets worship of its early records. On “Marathon of Anger,” a recounting of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in New York City, singer Andrew Savage engages in a mesmerizing call and response with his bandmates, while synths bloop, a simple bass line swings, and guitars deliver chilly funk accents. It’s an evocative RSVP to the similarly serpentine invitation David Byrne sent out over 40 years ago – to join him in embracing the passage of time, watching the water flow as the days go by.

17. iLoveMakonnen – My Parade

The Light of the Embers in a Fireplace That’s Been Burning All Night Long

The world has never seemed to quite be ready for iLoveMakonnen – a calm, level-headed rapper with off-the-charts emotional intelligence and a knack for party anthems. Back in 2014, Makonnen had a certified hit with “Tuesday,” complete with a Drake remix and a contract with his OVO imprint. But it wasn’t until 2021 that we got the artist’s first true LP, My Parade – a stripped down, casually catchy, profoundly introspective achievement. By splicing the bass drops and chittering hi hats of Atlanta trap with the patient fireside tempos of quiet storm R&B, Makonnen has made something perfectly of-the-moment – a pandemic classic full of vulnerability, paranoia, joy and intimacy. Who said parades had to be loud?

16. Helado Negro – Far In

The Light of a Sunrise on the First Morning of a Tropical Vacation

Just because Roberto Carlos Lange sings in a whisper doesn’t mean he can’t command your attention. On his seventh LP as Helado Negro, his deceptively quiet instrument is as agile as ever, shifting between finger-picked calypso ballads and sweaty disco hooks with the ease of a green thumb strolling between his veggie garden and beds of perennials. As a result, Far In won’t necessarily grab you by the ears at first. It further cements Lange’s status as one of our consummate “growers,” its melodic and textual depth revealing itself more with every listen, until before you know it, you’re surrounded by blossoms.

15. John Carroll Kirby – Cryptozoo: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The Light of a Pair of Red Eyes in the Forest

For his contributions to Solange’s A Seat at the Table and The Avalanches’ We Will Always Love You alone, pianist/producer/composer John Carroll Kirby deserves the benefit of the doubt. So while you might not think you’re in the mood to hear a new age/yacht rock score to a psychedelic animated movie about a zoo full of magical creatures, I’d recommend pressing play anyway. Far from a “weird for weird’s sake” exercise, Cryptozoo is a restorative balm of laid-back experimentation, where beds of synths and acoustic guitars reverberate reassuringly, leaving us more open to the wonders of a breathy pan flute solo that we ever could have imagined.

14. Mustafa – When Smoke Rises

The Light of a Candle on a Coffee Shop Table, Blurred By Tears

While Toronto natives Drake and The Weeknd chose superstardom over self-reflection years ago, the template they laid for woozy, deep dives into an artist’s damaged psyche is still in the water up there. On his debut LP, singer/songwriter Mustafa infuses the long blue winters of his hometown into a heart-wrenchingly gorgeous folk eulogy for fallen friends and eroded innocences. “I didn’t want to risk it all / Oh I know what’s at stake / But you made yourself special / I wanna throw myself away for you,” he sings over plaintive Leonard Cohen finger picking – grief and rage and love freezing together as grey clouds cover the stars.

13. Lil Nas X – Montero

The Light from a Single Sparkler Setting Off the Entire Pack

“Funny how you said it was the end / Then I went and did it again,” boasts Lil Nas X on his debut LP. The guy has a right to feel chuffed. After all the reactionary panic over his 2019 country-rap phenomenon “Old Town Road” – including Billboard pulling it off the country charts – the man born Montero Lamar Hill hasn’t just proven he’s more than a one-hit wonder. He’s made an entire album of potential chart-toppers, while staying true to himself and his eclectic muse. Montero has gleefully egotistical rap bangers, heartsick rainy-day ballads, “Hey Ya”-indebted acoustic thumps, and frank explorations of what it’s like to be a cultural icon on this beautiful, burning planet.

12. Maxo Kream – Weight of the World

The Light That Flared in Atlas’s Eyes As He Held Up the Heavens

Maxo Kream doesn’t need choruses, or hypnotically soulful beats, or guest stars with sparkling personalities. To be clear, the Houston rapper is gifted with all of those things on his third studio album. But his stories are so vivid, introspective, and casually devastating that it’s tough to focus on anything else. Weight of the World finds Maxo wrestling with all kinds of heaviness – survivor’s guilt for old friends still striving; raw grief from the March 2020 shooting death of his younger brother; the extra responsibility he feels toward his niece in the aftermath. It’s not only remarkable that the 31-year-old is willing to tackle such harrowing subjects, but he does it without surrendering to the darkness, spiking transparency with cleverness to create an effect that feels a lot like hope.

11. Shannon Lay Geist

The Light We Keep On at Night Because It Helps Us Sleep

“You’re on your own / But not alone.” When California singer/songwriter Shannon Lay serenades us with this couplet at the end of a song called “A Thread to Find,” the effect is a form of sonic therapy. Because not only does this proclamation of support help soothe our pandemic-warped nervous systems, but it also serves as a handy descriptor of what we’re hearing. For all of its reverberating lushness, Geist is a traditional folk album, with carefully plucked acoustic guitars and Lay’s lullaby tenor going largely unaccompanied. There are no drums at all here, which means every beautiful, searching note can initially feel like it’s rising into the ether on its own. But we’re there hearing it, so it’s not alone.

10. Brockhampton – Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine

The Light of Multiple Laser Beams Combining Into One Indestructible Megalaser

If Roadrunner is indeed the beginning of the end for the Houston emo-rap collective Brockhampton, as bandleader Kevin Abstract claims, then they’re going out with a clear understanding of what they’re good at. After taking an unprecedented two-year break between releases, the nine-member group (four rappers, three vocalists, two producers) reached a new level of clarity on its sixth LP, leaving its kitchen-sink mixtape approach behind in favor of a focused 12-track statement that somehow leaves no stone unturned. Everything that makes Brockhampton great is here – lovesick pop-rap, yell-along hip hop, heartfelt alt-rock hooks, fearlessly confessional lyricism – and it all flows in a way that feels preordained.

9. Danny L Harle – Harlecore

The Light of Neurons Firing In an Android’s Positronic Brain

As one of the more accessible members of the UK experimental electronic collective PC Music, Danny L Harle has a knack of pairing thumping molly-trip beats with clear-eyed declarations of feeling. On his long-awaited debut Harlecore, the artist puts this ability to the test over 13 tracks, “collaborating” with various versions of himself (referred to as DJ Danny, MC Boing, DJ Mayhem and DJ Ocean in the credits). The result is a perfectly sequenced journey through the mind of an electronic music visionary, touching on tender pop balladry, pitch-bended weirdo R&B, instrumental electronica, and relentlessly grinding industrial. All without losing sight of the humanity behind the machines: “I can see your heart’s been broken too / So just lay here, on a mountain, me and you.”

8. Doja Cat – Planet Her

The Light of a Newly Discovered Planet That Looks Like A Glowstick Necklace in the Sky

When Q-Tip rapped “Rap is not pop / If you call it that, then stop” over 30 years ago, he clearly wasn’t able to conceive of a record like Planet Her ever existing. And I don’t blame him. Because Doja Cat has accomplished something many brilliant emcees have never been able to pull off – a seamless fusion of bars-heavy hip hop, tender-hearted R&B, and chart-baiting pop hooks that doesn’t feel like a misguided record label ultimatum. This charismatic L.A. artist can rap and sing with equal flair, with lyrics that can be gut-bustingly hilarious, effervescently lovestruck, and convincingly heartbroken. Planet Her combines these versatile vocal performances with island-inflected club grooves, delivering every clever turn of phrase on the back of a warm, welcoming breeze.

7. Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time

The Light From Your Best Friend’s Cigarette That They Forget to Smoke Because They’re Listening To You So Intently

On her steamroller of a debut (my #1 album of 2015), Courtney Barnett was a master at finding poignancy in mundane activities, like riding an elevator or going house hunting. Six years later, with mundanity at a premium, the Aussie slacker-rock visionary has shifted focus to the thing we often don’t admit to needing in our troubled, disconnected world – real companionship. “Sit beside me / Watch the world burn,” she proposes as her band rides a swirling roots-rock groove, finding the silver lining in the apocalypse like it’s a silver dollar on the street. Barnett hasn’t lost that trademark so-over-it sarcasm in her voice, but she’s deploying it in a gentler way, underlining the irony in how we focus on personal needs when humanity’s existence is at stake, while also admitting that she’s doing it too. All while writing riffs that feel like they’ve been keeping us company all our lives.

6. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

The Light Of a July 4 Fireworks Display That Makes You Smile Even Though You’re Depressed About the State of the Country

“After spending the last five years writing about grief, I wanted our follow-up to be about joy,” said Michelle Zauner in the press materials for the third Japanese Breakfast LP. Jubilee meets this expectation and then some, with every track attempting to reach the masses with an irresistibly positive pop touch – like the weightless mariachi horns on “Paprika”; the soothing, Peter Gabriel-worshipping electronics of “Posing in Bondage”; the instant-classic disco bass line on “Be Sweet.” But this is also not quite a party album, as Zauner sings from the perspectives of a craven billionaire, a grieving relative, and a lonely heart in Indiana. So while it’s tempting to label this as an “indie rock legend gone pop,” the record’s true narrative isn’t so tidy. Because Jubilee‘s joy didn’t emerge from a vacuum. It came in the wake of pain, and is felt all the more intensely as a result.

5. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

The Light In an Electron Microscope that Lets Us See the Building Blocks of Life

On her fourth album, Little Simz is clearly in autobiographical mode. Not only is its title – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – a clear statement about the artist’s personality, but it’s also an acronym of her birthname (“Simbi,” short for “Simbiatu”). Perhaps the British-Nigerian rapper felt the need to drop these hints, because the 19 tracks on Introvert don’t sound like stark, intimate confessionals. Simz partnered with producer Inflo to weave tapestries of lush, cinematic soul, greeting the ears with the reassuring tenderness of a Curtis Mayfield ballad. And the rapper proves to be just as bombastic as all the spy-flick horns and swelling strings, sharing her hopes, fears, traumas and inspirations like a timpanist establishing the low end so the symphony can soar. “Lived being angry my whole life / Like it’s part of my DNA,” she shares, grounding us distinctly in her reality. A few seconds later, a children’s chorus swoops in, and up we go.

4. Lucy Dacus – Home Video

The Light of a Slide Projector Warming Up in the Living Room

On her third album, this Virginia singer/songwriter doesn’t just tell stories. She writes letters – an offer to murder a partner’s dickhead father; an ode to a metalhead who wrote crappy poetry at Jesus Camp; an admission to a friend that she finds her boyfriend unworthy. Home Video deserves its title thanks to the specificity of these memories and the swells of emotion they can inspire in people who weren’t there. When Dacus gets less specific, it’s no less powerful – like the bridge on the gut-wrenching break-up ballad “Please Stay,” where the songwriter lists all the things her partner can do instead of leaving. “Quit your job / Cut your hair / Get a dog / Change your name,” it begins. It’s a stunning, honest admission of need, and a letter of encouragement to all who wonder if we’d be better off keeping our pesky feelings to ourselves.

3. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage

The Light That Guides Ships To Shore On Dark and Stormy Nights

Nick Cave’s singing voice is a marvel. After four decades of screaming, grunting and wailing as the frontman of The Birthday Party, the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, the 64-year-old Aussie legend is not only showing zero signs of strain, he’s exploring the upper register of his instrument, with riveting results. On Carnage, Cave teams up with trusted partner Warren Ellis to surround his voice with soft, rippling synthesizers, as he sings about deep rivers, lavender fields and kingdoms in the sky – the grief from his son’s passing in 2015 audible in every lyric about god and the afterlife. Yet despite the state of the world and his own personal burdens, Cave ends Carnage with a shaft of light through the clouds, a line repeated over and over again, with the kind of fervency that could convert a nonbeliever: “This morning is amazing / And so are you.”

2. Yasmin Williams – Urban Driftwood

The Light Next To Thomas Edison’s Work Bench

When getting good at Guitar Hero 2 wasn’t enough for a young Yasmin Williams, she picked up an acoustic guitar and started experimenting with it. She laid it face up on her lap, tuned the strings in a harmonic structure that sounded right to her, and started playing it like a keyboard. On her second album of instrumental folk, this distinctive approach is apparent in the way her fingers glide across the frets, the resulting notes flowing and clustering together like streams feeding the ocean. As she translates this tablature of the mind to us on tape, we’re presented with utterly unique compositions full of fascinating harmonic shapes, punctuated by percussive slaps of wood and the refreshing spray of a squeaking string. If they ever come out with Guitar Hero Unplugged, any of these songs would make it incredibly hard to beat.

1. Lingua Ignota – Sinner Get Ready

The Light from an MRI of Eve’s Brain At the Moment She Saw the Tree of Knowledge

Sinner Get Ready, the fourth album from the brimstone-spewing one-woman powerhouse Lingua Ignota, is categorized in iTunes as “Rock.” That’s not accurate, but I get it. What the hell else would you call an album that trembles with the conviction of gospel, soothes with the rustic sounds of Appalachian folk, and terrifies with sudden blasts of noise-metal? What singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and performance artist Kristen Hayter has done here is some kind of righteous, cathartic miracle – long, patient songs of eerie majesty with lyrics that see the world through the eyes of fanatical Catholics, who plead to their Old Testament God to strike down the evildoers in their midst. And we’re not talking about people who skip church on Sunday – the “sinners” referenced in this album title are domestic abusers. A survivor herself, Hayter has described her creations as her way of getting “revenge” at her abusers – refusing to stay calm, while simultaneously turning pain into beauty. She cries out for divine murder on “I Who Bend the Tall Grasses,” screaming about golden scythes like a delirious preacher as a church organ hums in the shadows. And Hayter’s quieter moments are no less intense. “Fear is nothing when the path is righteous,” she softly intones over the skeletal piano notes of “The Perpetual Flame of Centralia,” baptizing us in the fires of determination, and outrage, and god-given creative genius.

Honorable Mentions: Aesop Rock & Blockhead – Garbology; Amyl & The Sniffers – Comfort To Me; Froglord – The Mystic Toad; Gatecreeper – An Unexpected Reality; Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon; Jonny Greenwood – The Power of the Dog; Iron Maiden – Senjutsu; Isaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning; Ka – A Martyr’s Reward; Aimee Mann – Queens of the Summer Hotel; Megan Thee Stallion – Something for Thee Hotties; The Mountain Goats – Dark In Here; Native Soul – Teenage Dreams; Queen Key – Your Highness 3; Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood & Juanita; Tune-Yards – Sketchy; Tyler the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost

New Songs to Re-Batten Down the Hatches To, September 2021

I’m one of those walking clichés who “loves fall the most, actually.” But in the age of the delta variant, it’s pretty hard to be basic. While I’m relishing the tell-tale elements of autumn – cool breezes at night, curated horror movie collections on all the streaming services, the way-too-busy ice cream store at the end of my street finally shutting down for the season – it also means we’re headed back indoors, aka COVID’s home turf.

But let’s not dwell on that. Instead, let me remind you that fall is the time to close your windows – which means you can crank this playlist as loud as you want. Everything might feel more complicated these days, but that volume knob still works just the same.

1. Payday (feat. Danny Brown) – “Vampire”

Massive drums, weird operatic vocal loops, and chest-beating vampiric rap verses = an instant Halloween classic.

2. Courtney Barnett – “Write A List of Things To Look Forward To”

I don’t know too many artists who could earnestly sing, “Sit beside me / Watch the world burn,” without sucking every positive vibe out of the room. But cool matter-of-factness is Courtney Barnett’s stock in trade. So she extends that invitation over sweetly jangling guitar chords, and makes our shared human destiny feel full of reasons to smile, ever-so slyly.

3. Lil Nas X – “That’s What I Want”

As an acoustic guitar strums with an irresistible “Hey Ya” pulse, 2021’s savviest, most fully realized pop star lays his vulnerabilities out there in a way that brings all of us into the fold: “I want someone to love me / I need someone to need me.”

4. Unto Others – “Instinct”

On its second album, these goth-metal masters scrap the satanic rituals and throw a 47-minute sullen-teen tantrum – which would be somewhat silly if it weren’t so damn catchy.

5. Little Simz – “Little Q, Pt. 2”

“Real criminals live in the suit!” raps this London MC over a honey-glazed old-Kanye gospel arrangement, shining light into painful corners of her past, encouraging those who’ve caused her harm to step back and focus on the real enemy.

6. Aimee Mann – “Burn It Out”

Over a gorgeous folk waltz arrangement that she should be able to trademark by now, Aimee Mann sets her empathetic sights on a person who just set themselves on fire: “All of the shame that was yours to bear / Will it ignite like a signal flare? / Can you just burn it out?”

7. Bartees Strange – “Weights”

An indie rock song so gleefully and relentlessly buzzy, your hair just might stand up on end.

8. Native Soul – “The Beginning”

This hypnotic, mid-tempo dance groove was my first exposure to amapiano, a type of meditative South African house music that builds but never quite peaks. Its disinterest in grabbing our attention has the opposite effect; I could burrow deep into Native Soul’s world of unshifting shakers and synthesizers and feel eerily fulfilled.

9. Latto – “Big Energy”

Tom Tom Club begat Mariah. Mariah begat Latto. Amen.

10. Parquet Courts – “Black Widow Spider”

A loose, short, weird single about trying to outrun pain and inevitably getting squashed.

11. Open Mike Eagle (feat. Armand Hammer) – “Burner Account”

“Making sure the bass slap, Ndegeocello!”

12. Iron Maiden – “Hell On Earth”

Iron Maiden released its 17th studio album in September, and it smartly focuses on what the band does best these days – long, slowly unfurling epics that wrestle with big questions, and only provide answers in the form of exquisite guitar playing. “Hell On Earth” is the best, and most resolutely hopeless, of the lot. “Lost in anger! / Life in danger!” bemoans Bruce Dickinson in the song’s eighth minute, the musicians behind him affirming his righteous outrage by playing slowly and determinedly. Iron Maiden is no longer urging anyone to run for the hills. Because there’s no escape from what humanity has wrought. If this ends up being their final song laid to tape, I can’t think of a more honest – and thoroughly metal – farewell.

New Songs to Pull Me Back from the Brink of Total Cynicism, August 2021

I’m currently reading book two of The Stormlight Archive, an exhilarating door-stopper fantasy series where ancient knights can breathe light that heals their wounds. (What, you thought I was, like, cool or something?) As hospitals fill right back up with anti-vaxxers who trust Facebook more than science books, these 10 songs have been my form of magical oxygen. Some are dance-floor-ready bangers; others are spacey instrumentals; all are imbued with the kind of positive vibes that make me feel like I can do impossible things. So go ahead. Breathe.

1. Queen Key – “What I Do”

After giving birth to triplets at the beginning of the pandemic, this Chicago rapper cannot be bothered to sound stressed, casually sharing her plans for world domination over sunny piano notes: “I want them to think that I’m slow / Think I’m a ho / So I can take their souls and put em in my fro.”

2. Sturgill Simpson – “Shamrock”

This usually idiosyncratic country star has given us three old-school bluegrass LPs in the last year, all of them barnburners. On “Shamrock,” he lets his band absolutely pop off, while managing to not drown out the mouth harp. The world needs more mouth harp!

3. Becky Hill (feat. Topic) – “My Heart Goes (La Di Da)”

A dance-pop anthem with a sound so convincingly ’90s, I coulda sworn CeCe Peniston had became a cardiologist.

4. Abstract Mindstate – “A Wise Tale”

Turns out there was a reason to celebrate Kanye West’s return this August – as the producer on this low-key comeback LP from a forgotten Windy City rap duo. This rich, playful, soul-sample-flipping beat might be old hat for Ye, but it’s perfect for slightly wistful late-summer barbecues, and better than anything on Donda.

5. Marisa Anderson & William Tyler – “News About Heaven”

From the first cascading guitar notes of this serene instrumental, you know this song title is perfect.

6. Caribou – “You Can Do It”

I hope Dan Snaith’s don’t-overthink-it lounge-house groove rips this phrase out of Rob Schneider’s big dumb mouth, once and for all.

7. Denzel Curry – “The Game”

This Florida rapper is capable of such exceptional acrobatics, his straightforward, martial approach on “The Game” hits even harder. Here’s to him and Kendrick coming to our rescue at the end of this fairly boring year in rap.

8. John Carroll Kirby – “Mystic Brine”

The soundtrack to the new psychedelic animated oddity Cryptozoo is an appropriately otherworldly stoner daydream – but it’s also undeniably real, man.

9. Tierra Whack – “Walk the Beat”

The first full embrace of club music from this Philadelphia rapper/singer/visionary is refreshingly blasé about haute couture: “Fashion shows, fancy clothes / That’s just the way it goes.”

10. Wanda Jackson (feat. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts) – “That’s What Love Is”

This is the last song on this 83-year-old country legend’s final album? Holy shit:

It isn’t just the way we felt that first day
It’s an ongoing thing, I fought more along the way
It’s knowing you’ll be there when I call your name
That’s what love is

New Songs to Sigh Through My New Mask To, July 2021

Sorry I’m a few weeks late with this one! I’ve been traveling a bit for work, which put my listening habits on hold and also reminded me that this pandemic is very much still a thing – I needed my mask for more than just the plane. Boy was I dumb to title my last playlist “New Songs to Gingerly Re-Enter Society To”!

1. Prince – “Same Page, Different Book”

It’s common for famous musicians to return to the sounds of their formative influences as they age, but rarely does it sound as cool as Prince’s late-stage embrace of Sly Stone funk-vamp mimicry. This track from newly unearthed 2010 sessions has some bass lines that will slingshot your soul to a distant galaxy.

2. Amyl & The Sniffers – “Security”

“I’m not looking for trouble / I’m looking for love!” pleads lead singer Amy Taylor to a skeptical bouncer, over seething riffage and pummeling drums that threaten to clear the way.

3. Silk Sonic – “Skate”

Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars deliver a Motown-indebted charisma bomb that makes every half-assed compliment (“In a room full of dimes / You would be a hundred dollars”) feel like a glittery proposal.

4. Maxo Kream – “Local Joker”

Maxo Kream is so good at telling stories, he doesn’t need a production full of big dramatic shifts. On “Local Joker,” the Houston rapper illustrates the difference between his previous life of crime and his current celebrity, filling our ears with nostalgia, sadness and relief. A low-lit soul loop quietly unfurls beneath him, and it’s absolutely enough.

5. Courtney Barnett – “Rae Street”

“Time is money / And money is no man’s friend,” goes the chorus to Courtney Barnett’s first single since 2018. Thankfully, she doesn’t apply this adage to this track’s production, letting her guitar chords ring out over a patient, sauntering arrangement. It all feels like a Sunday stroll with a sarcastic philosopher, with no particular place to go and plenty of time to get there.

6. Sleigh Bells – “Locust Laced”

The amp-stacking cheerleader-chant energy of this Brooklyn duo tends to toe the line between grating and exhilarating. “Locust Laced” is very much the latter – the kind of confrontational noise pop we need to short out the chaotic news ticker in our minds: “I feel like dynamite / I feel like dying tonight!”

7. Lingua Ignota – “Perpetual Flame of Centralia”

Anyone fascinated and/or repulsed by the effects of organized religion on the human psyche needs to light some candles, gird their loins, and play Kristin Hayter’s terrifying new LP, Sinner Get Ready. “I am covered with the blood of Jesus / Fear is nothing when the path is righteous,” the noise-metal experimentalist croons over ominous piano chords, making us feel just how scary it can be when a dangerous person feels sanctified.

8. Shannon Lay – “Geist”

When Shannon Lay shifts from simple plucking to a finger-picking cascade, it’s like a seance meant to summon the spirit of Nick Drake.

9. Coldplay – “Coloratura”

The more complicated and uncertain our future becomes, the more I’m drawn to simple expressions of hope. And that has been Coldplay’s stock in trade for decades, reassuring us that everything’s not lost, that we can go back to the start, that we should be patient and not worry. “Coloratura” is a classic Coldplay hope-bomb genetically modified for the times – a 10-minute epic about the existence of some form of heaven. “We’re a slow burning tune / But we’ll get there,” Chris Martin sings, invoking the names of scientific visionaries as proof of humanity’s potential. As the arrangement swells to a “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”-esque panorama, I feel my cynicism erode, the simple chord progression aligning with that stubborn, tiny part of me that still believes.

New Songs to Gingerly Re-enter Society To, June 2021

With America opening back up at a dizzying pace, my emotions are all over the place. I hear a song about two zodiac signs that almost perfectly aligns with my wife and I’s astrological dynamic, and I feel like dancing with her until my ankles hurt. But then I hear another song about the facades we have to wear in social situations, and I want to hide under the covers. So with this list, I want to honor this rollercoaster of joy and anxiety that we’re all on in some way, shape or form. Get ready to party, then fall out, and then party some more!

1. Helado Negro – “Gemini and Leo”

Two years after sweeping us up in the whisper-delicate dream world of his last album, This Is How You Smile, Helado Negro feels like dancing. And by turning to the zodiac over this airy disco groove, the singer/songwriter elevates a simple story of two people vibing on the dance floor into a connection that must be written in the stars.

2. Jessie Ware – “Hot N Heavy”

Speaking of irresistible disco grooves about falling in love on the dance floor…

3. Tyler the Creator (feat. Lil Wayne) – “Hot Wind Blows”

Tyler the Creator isn’t just a sonic visionary who has left his gimmicky shock-rap roots in the dust – he’s an artist with the kind of big-tent vision that inspires old-timers to bring their A game. Over a flute-speckled Henry Mancini sample, Tyler sets the table for Lil Wayne, who lays into the cut with effortless, syllable-spraying glee.

4. Unto Others – “When Will Gods Work Be Done”

This Portland goth-metal hook factory, formerly called Idle Hands, had to change its name last year due to copyright issues. If you thought it might’ve disrupted their mojo, worry not. Their first track as Unto Others is a prime example of their Depeche Maiden formula, pairing a theatrically bleak worldview with punishingly catchy dual-guitar leads.

5. The Mountain Goats – “Lizard Suit”

Not super psyched for social situations to be making a comeback? This jazz-folk alienation anthem is for you: “Let my phobias control my habits / Let my habits form the shapes of days.”

6. Japanese Breakfast – “Jubilee”

When the horns come in on this chorus, it’s like the clouds parting in a way the weatherman could never predict.

7. Sault – “London Gangs”

Sault, the still-faceless UK rhythm & blues collective, dropped its fourth album of visionary jams in June. Including this one, where they make a bass line sound like a pot of water on a rolling boil, ready to receive any ingredient and make it sing.

8. Spellling – “Turning Wheel”

A sweeping, let’s-hold-hands-and-sway, Beatlesque ballad about how staying up on the hill doesn’t necessarily make you a fool.

9. Pa Salieu (feat. slowthai) – “Glidin'”

I love it when a rapper just tells me how a beat makes them feel.

10. Lucy Dacus – “Please Stay”

Break-up songs can be tough listens. But please-don’t-break-up-with-me songs? Those are the ones that break me.

New Songs to Quarantine To, May 2021

Even though this was the month I became fully vaccinated and walked into the supermarket without a mask, I still don’t feel comfortable changing the title of this column. My psyche is still quarantining, and would rather listen to these cathartic, confident, grief-stricken songs than engage in a face-to-face conversation with someone I just met. Also, what would the new name be? “New Songs for a Strange Transitional Period Where Our Bodies are Protected but our Minds Need a Minute to Catch Up”? If you have a better idea, leave it in the comments. Even better, just press play.

1. The Linda Lindas – “Racist, Sexist Boy (Live at LA Public Library)”

So much more than a piece of content “we all need right now,” this breakout live performance from a quartet of Asian and Latinx teens and tweens boasts the kind of cathartic, no-bullshit punk songcraft that is made to last – especially in a country that is still pretending it isn’t racist.

2. Georgia Anne Muldrow – “Old Jack Swing”

This hip-hop instrumentalist has said that her new album is meant “to be played when you birth yourself back outside after a long introspective period.” And this offering of funky, distorted bass and rumbling low-end piano should make every vaccinated person want to take off their masks and strut.

3. Audrey Nuna (feat. Saba) – “Top Again”

This New Jersey pop/R&B/rap triple-threat fuses ’90s angst with ’20s swagger, using “Kurt Cobain” as a verb and boasting about how her “Gabbana pants sag in the mosh pit.”

4. Sarah Barrios – “IH8EVERY1”

As I begin to spend time with people other than my wife again, this nihilistically romantic pop-punk earworm is gonna get a lot of spins.

5. Mustafa – “The Hearse”

On this grief-stricken, revenge-fueled dubstep/folk triumph, Mustafa’s voice trembles like a deck of cards: “I wanna throw my life away for you.”

6. Holly Humberstone – “The Walls Are Way Too Thin”

Claustrophobia is going to be a songwriting theme for awhile I imagine, and this UK singer/songwriter has used it as fuel for a heartbroken synth-pop gem.

7. Japanese Breakfast – “Savage Good Boy”

Michelle Zauner has already given us Sweensryche’s Song of the Summer, but she’s just getting started. The deceptively sprightly “Savage Good Boy” finds her inhabiting a truly evil character – a billionaire with a bunker, attempting to lure a woman down there as the seas inexorably rise.

8. Mach-Hommy – “Kriminel”

The mysterious, multilingual, always-masked-even-before-COVID emcee Mach-Hommy just released Pray for Haiti, a stunning achievement of hazy, soothing, organically intoxicating hip hop. “Kriminel” exemplifies this artist’s preternatural sense of calm, reminiscing about lost loved ones and childhood struggles over a quavering vocal sample, and patiently explaining why: “Fuck all that industry / Cause killers keep calm / She wrong / Cause n****s’ feelings need songs.”

9. Lucy Dacus – “VBS”

Lucy Dacus is one hell of a storyteller, and here’s one for all the lapsed Christians looking to feel seen. The singer/songwriter mines her memories of summers at “Vacation Bible School,” as a once-earnest believer who meets a Slayer-cranking naysayer who tries to poke holes in her logic, however awkwardly (“Your poetry was so bad / It took a lot not to laugh”). By the end, nobody has been saved.

10. Little Simz (feat. Cleo Sol) – “Woman”

“Innovating just like Donna Summer in the ’80s.”

11. Shungudzo – “I’m Not A Mother, But I Have Children”

Over a gravity-free expanse of gently plucked guitars and faraway synth murmurs, this Zimbabwean-American singer (and 2011 Real World cast member) sings about our shared responsibilities for this planet with desperately poetic turns of phrase: “Isn’t the point to try? / Even though some things will not be alright / Before we die.”

12. Helloween – “Fear of the Fallen”

Like plenty of legacy metal acts, Helloween has churned through multiple lead singers over its 37 years of existence. But on this new track, the German power metal institution has done something original – invite all three singers back to wail lines like “Listen to your HEART!” with flame-throwing, doubt-destroying energy.

13. Shannon Lay – “Rare to Wake”

“Without change, something sleeps inside us,” observes this California singer/songwriter, as she makes her acoustic guitar strings dance like Nick Drake vacationing in Laurel Canyon, leaving us fully and completely awakened.

New Songs to Quarantine To, April 2021

As I write this, on the eve of my second vaccination shot, I’m thinking about the moments during quarantine that I want to hang onto. And they all have something to do with gratitude. While I’m excited by the prospect of being able to breathe openly in a room without tempting fate, I never want to lose the feeling of being safe with the person I love, in the house we made a home, amazed at the life we built together.

I think that’s why I was drawn to songs about intimacy, trust and hope this past month. No matter how much the world opens up, it’s what we carry inside of us that makes us free.

1. Kero Kero Bonito – “21/04/20”

This tired-but-hopeful sunshine pop song describes captures our current moment so accurately, you almost expect it to glitch like a Zoom call: “Hey, so, how are you doing? / I’m okay, you know, the usual kinda weird.”

2. Brockhampton – “Count On Me”

If this irrepressible Texas rap collective isn’t lying when they say this new release will be one of their last, at least they’re going out on top. “Count On Me” is a goosebump-raising good-vibes earworm about commitment and trust, perfect for anyone who wants to make a proclamation of love in the midst of a summer BBQ.

3. Spellling – “Little Deer”

We are all Bambi in the 2020s, trying to maintain friendships in a world full of forest fires and emboldened men with guns. And this Oakland R&B crooner has created an ideal soundtrack for us, pairing naturalistic poetry about the circle of life with the rich orchestral arrangement it deserves.

4. Jeff Rosenstock – “SKrAm!”

Jeff Rosenstock’s anthemic punk LP No Dream was a catchy, sweaty highlight of 2020. But Ska Dream – his new, track-for-track ska cover version – might be even better.

5. ILOVEMAKONNEN – “What You Tryna Do”

The self-love expressed in Makonnen Kamali Sheran’s stage name has always been more of a shelter than a boast, protecting his emotionally intelligent rap and R&B songs from the homophobic slings and arrows of the Atlanta trap scene. On this new acoustic ballad, he’s as close-miked, open-hearted, and consent-conscious as ever: “Is it okay if I have one little kiss?”

6. Vision Video – “Inked in Red”

In the same month that a U.S. president finally announced the end of the war in Afghanistan, we get a pitch-perfect retro-goth single from a band whose lead singer, Dusty Gannon, is a veteran of that war. When he sings “History has drawn these lines across my face,” it’s a long way from cosplay.

7. Polo G – “Rapstar”

A rap beat based on a ukulele riff sounds insufferably twee on paper. Polo G turns it into something enchanting.

8. Little Simz – “Introvert”

Over an epic trombones-and-choirs beat, this UK rapper confronts government corruption, systemic racism and her own personal anxieties with sensitivity and clarity, reminding us that art can at least feel like the light at the end of the tunnel.

9. Tierra Whack – “Link”

I was ready to roll my eyes at this partnership between Tierra Whack and Lego, but sometimes even product placement can move us. “You should come and build with me / We could link up,” the Philly artist sings over the kind of Rugrats-soundtrack music-box groove she’s been favoring these days. It might be a glorified ad, but after a year of humanity struggling to maintain connections, it absolutely works.

10. Lucy Dacus – “Hot & Heavy”

For anyone who’s not 100% thrilled about heading back to your hometown post-COVID, here’s a devastating anti-nostalgia rock anthem that turns Springsteen’s “Glory Days” on its head: “Being back here makes me hot in the face / Hot blood pulsing in my veins / Heavy memories weighing on my brain.”

My Best Pictures

Like most people, I tried more new things in 2020 than I would’ve in a normal year. I didn’t learn to make sourdough or play a new instrument or anything constructive like that, but my wife and I did successfully create a valid alternative to the movie theater-going experience – an absolute must for people with Cinemagic loyalty cards faded from constant swiping. We invested in a projector and a great big screen, and screened our favorites in the backyard all summer long.

Looking back on the year in movies, I’m struck by the achievements of new directors, who ignored their expected career narrative and made fully realized cinematic statements right out the gate. When the 93rd Academy Awards kicks off on Sunday, it will be celebrating several instances of people trying something new – almost half of the Best Picture nominees came from first-time filmmakers.

My list of 2020’s Best Pictures has an even higher batting average – seven of the 10 movies below are debut features. Perhaps this is just a coincidence. But then again, as the world shifts into formations we would’ve found unthinkable two years ago, maybe there’s some science behind it. As humanity wrestles with grave new threats, we need new voices to give us hope for a future that, for all its challenges, won’t be lacking in stories that inspire us.

Here are my 10 favorite movies from the year we all tried something new.

Amulet

First-time director Romola Garai helms this patiently gruesome horror-morality tale, where a troubled former soldier named Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) almost dies in a fire, only to be rescued by a kindly nun (Imelda Staunton, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye) who offers him an opportunity to get back on his feet – he can move into a place rent-free, as long as he helps a woman named Magda (Carla Juri) keep house while she cares for her sickly mother. Of course, this opportunity is too good to be true, but not in the way you might expect. Garai takes her time jumping between ominous flashbacks of Tomaz’s military past and prolonged shots of the stained, moldy structure he now calls home, begging the viewer to wonder what must be lingering in his memory and crawling behind those walls. All of this pent-up anxiety explodes in a scene that had me raising my hands to protect my face, my lizard brain temporarily forgetting that I was safe at home. This would be a feat on its own. But Garai has more monsters to unveil. And not all of them look scary at first.

Bacurau

This anti-colonialist gonzo Western pits the mysteriously disenfranchised residents of the titular Brazilian village – its water supply has been cut off, and it’s vanishing from GPS maps – against an enemy who would seem cartoonishly barbaric, if it wasn’t for all the clear parallels to white nationalists and the politicians who enable them. Directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles do an exquisite job of setting the stage, patiently introducing us to the colorful characters of Bacurau, who convene at the funeral of a town matriarch. While there is clearly something off about village life, we do get a look at what it might be like if allowed to proceed organically, its night air alive with music after another productive, sunny day. Once Udo Keir appears on screen, sporting that casually sadistic look he’s perfected over the decades, the body count rises and the action crescendoes to one final, immensely satisfying showdown. For fans of spaghetti Westerns, John Carpenter synth sounds, antiracist movements, and that battered old concept of justice.

The Father

In 50+ years of acting on screen, Anthony Hopkins has tackled his share of psychologically complicated roles, including a charming psychopath, an emotionally stunted butler, and a corrupt U.S. president. But none of these performances delved into the inner workings of the human mind as effectively as his work in The Father. The 83-year-old pours his entire self into the role of a proud, frustrated man who shares his name, depicting his struggle with dementia with fearless vulnerability. And he’s paired with a director who is equally bold. Florian Zeller adapts his stage play to the screen with great respect for the afflicted, so much so that the narrative isn’t built from the outside looking in. We see the world through Anthony’s eyes, and are as confused as he is when the story stops traveling down a linear path. Editor Yorgos Lamprinos builds sequences like unsolvable puzzle boxes, looping back to revisit scenes from different perspectives, utterly disorienting us. In the midst of it all, Zeller is able to convey the toll it takes on Anthony’s daughter and caretaker Anne, simply by casting Olivia Colman, who doesn’t need any dialogue to show us that she is on the brink of clinical exhaustion. Where typical Oscar-bait would be content with documenting all of this misery with a sense of remove, The Father asks for empathy. As we walk in the shoes of a former engineer who obsesses over watches as he loses track of time, a sad story evolves into a heartbreaking achievement of shared humanity.

First Cow

I recently saw my first John Wayne movie, the gorgeously shot 1948 cattle-drive drama Red River. While it had some important things to say about masculine friendships, they were more of the “I’m not gonna say I love you even on my death bed” variety. Which left me wishing I was watching First Cow instead. Kelly Reichardt’s gold rush period piece charts the friendship of two characters who would have been Red River extras at best – Cookie, a soft-spoken Oregonian chef who gets bullied by fur trappers, and King-Lu, a quick-witted Chinese immigrant on the run after allegedly killing a Russian man. When Cookie stumbles across a naked and starving Lu in the woods, he clothes, feeds and hides him. It’s the opening salvo in a sweet, realistic depiction of male friendship, played with tenderness and verve by John Magaro and Orion Lee. The pair go into business together, selling Cookie’s mouthwatering “oily cakes” in town with promising results. Thing is, those cakes require milk, and the only source is a cow that was imported by the town’s richest man (Toby Jones, believably weird flexing). The scenes where Cookie milks the cow in the dead of night, whispering his gratitude to the animal as Lu sits up in a tree looking out for them both, are stunning tableaus of love and support.

The Forty-Year-Old Version

Radha Blank’s debut film is such a profound, hilarious achievement, it might make you wonder how on earth she hadn’t gotten the green light to make one before now. For the answer, all you have to do is watch. The writer, director and star plays a lightly fictionalized version of herself in The Forty-Year-Old Version, a slumping NYC playwright who pays her bills by teaching theatre to disinterested teens. She never stopped writing plays, but they’ve all been rejected by Broadway producers who are more interested in Harriet Tubman musicals and an “all-male Steel Magnolias.” Blank deftly pairs this push-pull between art and commerce with the warring priorities in her character’s psyche as she approaches middle age. She avoids calls from her brother so she doesn’t have to come to terms with their mother’s death. She fights with her manager/best friend, who is asking her to compromise. And she invents a new persona, the rapper RahdaMUS Prime, who finds a producer on Instagram and spends hours in his booth, spitting unfiltered rhymes about her reality. Shot in glorious black and white and edited in the rhythms of real life, The Forty-Year-Old Version is an engrossing character study, a biting satire of cultural appropriators, and an open-hearted ode to struggling artists everywhere.

Judas and the Black Messiah

In 2007, a movie called The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford received a pair of Oscar nominations, thanks to its luminous cinematography and understated performances. But in reality, Jesse James was the coward – a violent white supremacist who kept fighting for the Confederacy long after its defeat. In 2020, we got another period piece about betrayal, with a title that pits its two leads against one another. Except this time around, the historical figures are Black, and it’s the bravery that the history books have omitted. Judas and the Black Messiah depicts the rise of Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther party in the late 1960s. Daniel Kaluuya plays the 21-year-old Hampton with the intensity of a comet, streaking down the streets of Chicago to summon people to his cause, aware he will be extinguished and all the more committed because of it. His Judas is FBI informant William O’Neal, who is bullied into divulging more than his conscience can handle. He’s played by Lakeith Stanfield, who makes us feel ulcers of guilt with his facial expressions alone. Director Shaka King and editor Kristan Sprague set a tone that is the anti-Jesse James, stuffing scenes with rapidly delivered soliloquies and infectious, kinetic motion. Making us believe that when an idea catches fire, no number of men with guns can truly kill it.

Promising Young Woman

Imagine a story where a male character gets his girlfriend drunk, brags “I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to,” and then hands her unconscious body over to his buddy with these skin-crawling instructions: “Have fun.” Sounds like a Law & Order: SVU villain who will surely get his comeuppance, right? Nope. This is a scene from Sixteen Candles, the 1984 John Hughes teen comedy that an entire generation saw as an ideal representation of romantic love. It is scenes like this that inspired the British actor Emerald Fennell to start writing what would become her directorial debut. Promising Young Woman wrests narrative control from men like Hughes, investigating the cascading traumas rapists inflict on their victims and the people who love them. Her hero is Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a woman seeking revenge for the rape and eventual death of her best friend Nina, feigning drunkenness in clubs as a way to shock and shame the men who inevitably try to take advantage of her – a steely-eyed nocturnal crusader doing more to protect women than Batman ever has. And the rapists aren’t the only villains to be exposed. Several characters, including so-called love interest Ryan (Bo Burnham), speak of Nina’s assault like it was an unpreventable, unprosecutable act of God, when her rapist is a guy named Al who is still out there, guiltlessly living his life. Both a deft genre experiment that absolutely skewers romantic comedy tropes and an unblinkingly brutal condemnation of rape culture, Promising Young Woman cuts any apologist off at the knees before they even have a chance to mewl, “not all men.”

Saint Maud

To be raised Catholic is to learn to be suspicious of your own body. Lust and gluttony are deadly sins, and to atone for them you must pray to the mutilated man hanging on your wall. While Saint Maud isn’t the first film to explore the unhealthy nature of this divine celebration of violence – the prayer closet in Carrie featured a statue of a wild-eyed St. Sebastian, arrows sprouting out of him like eyes from rotten potatoes – it’s the first I’ve seen that never enters the supernatural realm, positioning the church’s demented morals as the worst kind of poison for its delusional, mentally ill protagonist. Maud is a mild-mannered-at-first hospice nurse sent to care for a once-famous dancer dying of cancer. Played by Morfydd Clark with the nervous energy of a wallflower about to step on the dance floor, Maud is clearly unstable from the start. Yet unlike Carrie White, Maud isn’t bullied or shamed. Her patient takes pity on her, indulging her flights of spiritual fancy. An old nursing colleague appears and offers kindness, even though she’s aware of some awful, shadowy thing from Maud’s past. Director Rose Glass depicts Maud’s mental breakdown with methodical inevitability, filling the screen with stunning, apocalyptic visuals that act as portals into her madness. She’s who Carrie would have been, if she believed every lie her mother told her.

Vampires vs. the Bronx

As a fantasy novel dork, I’m a sucker for stories that pit groups of kids against seemingly unstoppable forces of evil – because their ability to wholeheartedly believe in myths and legends ends up being the key to their triumph. And while Vampires vs. the Bronx is rooted in this tradition (Attack the Block, Stranger Things and The Monster Squad are clear forebears), director/writer Oz Rodriguez adds a layer of social commentary that gives these horror-comedy tropes a new lease on life. This is the story of Miguel Martinez (Jaden Michael), a boy whose passion for preserving his Bronx neighborhood has earned him the nickname “The Mayor.” As the shadowy Murnau Properties starts buying up buildings and turning them into hipster magnets, the stage is set for the showdown promised in the title. While the gentrification allegory isn’t subtle, Rodriguez’s experience as a director for Saturday Night Live gives the film a brisk, banter-heavy energy that makes sure we’re never being talked down to. He fills his streets with wise-cracking characters sitting on stoops and streaming live updates on their phones, successfully portraying the Bronx as a vibrant, diverse community being drained of its lifeblood by the pale, privileged classes. Kids have battled vampires on screen before, but the stakes have never been this real.

The Vast of Night

If you’re a director angling for a bigger budget these days, a word of advice – don’t let your producer see The Vast of Night. This exquisitely haunting sci-fi period piece features the kind of ambitious single-shot sequences, undulating cinematography and pitch-perfect period detail that can convert a viewer from a skeptic to someone who searches the night skies for odd clusters of light. And first-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson made it for just $700,000 (or .00196% of the budget of Avengers: Endgame). The story unfurls across a single evening in 1950s Cayuga, New Mexico. Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz) are friends and fellow audiophiles who we meet killing time at a high school basketball game before their respective shifts start – Fay is a phone operator and Everett is a radio DJ. When Fay hears an odd noise interrupt Everett’s broadcast, and then overtake one of her phone lines, our heroes are in the thick of a mystery as American as Area 51. Patterson and cinematographer M. I. Littin-Menz make the most of their decision to shoot in black and white, thickening the shadows until it feels like anything could creep out of the murk. Yet The Vast of Night is not a horror movie. This is hopeful, character-driven, studio-nerd sci-fi – a loving homage to audio technology. If it can carry our voices through wires, and beautiful music through invisible airwaves, who’s to say what other miracles could be there waiting for us, just a twist of the dial away?

Honorable mentions: The Assistant; Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar; Becoming; Bill & Ted Face the Music; Borat Subsequent Moviefilm; Da 5 Bloods; The Empty Man; Happiest Season; His House; The Invisible Man; Mangrove; Minari; The Nest; Never Rarely Sometimes Always; Nomadland; Run

New Songs to Quarantine To, March 2021

In April, my home state will be opening up vaccinations to all adults. This is a fact that has not completely registered in my mind – even after I get my shots I’m guessing I’ll be flinching at shadows in crowded places for a long time. But I do find myself being more easily comforted by the thrumming noise of woodpeckers searching for sustenance outside my home office window. And the songs that really spoke to me in March include the work of two octogenarians, deriving joy from doing what they love, as well as a reverential cover of Dolly Parton’s most hopeful song. Things are changing out there, even more than a typical spring.

1. Japanese Breakfast – “Be Sweet”

And here it is, the first serious contender for 2021’s Song of the Summer (for me at least) – an airy synth pop gem about the need to believe in someone that feels like it’s existed ever since Cyndi Lauper first promised “If you fall, I will catch you.”

2. Zara Larsson – “FFF”

I could spend this whole space talking about the grammatically heinous and somehow perfect line, “Is this a story arc? / Cause if it are, it’d be iconic.” But then I’d be ignoring that insanely catchy beat, which sounds like the Vengaboys trying to impress Kylie Minogue in 1998.

3. Tune-Yards – “Nowhere, Man”

This duo loves establishing a monster drum and bass grove, and then doing everything they can to get in its way. On “Nowhere, Man” they try telephone vocal effects, a shouty chorus and a bridge that throws the kitchen sink into the mix. None of it kept me from dancing.

4. Aesop Rock – “Long Legged Larry”

Did you know that March 20 was World Frog Day? Aesop Rock did, inventing an amphibious character called Long Legged Larry who rescues cats from trees and poodles from high-wire act disasters, rapping about him in a sing-song storytelling style that will have listeners of all ages jumping for joy.

5. Loretta Lynn – “I Saw the Light”

New music from a profoundly influential, 88-year-old country legend, singing Hank Williams’s timeless ode to spiritual epiphanies with palpable delight in her voice? Maybe there is a god.

6. Georgia Anne Muldrow – “Mufaro’s Garden”

Evocative, jazz-inflected instrumental hip-hop that doesn’t need a rapper to resonate – it’s already rhyming with our souls.

7. Genghis Tron – “Pyrocene”

This synthesizer-fueled prog-metal group has reunited after over a decade apart, seemingly on a shared mission to uncover a new form of interstellar sonic beauty.

8. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – “Movement 4”

The 80-year-old saxophone legend Pharoah Sanders has teamed up with a British producer and world-famous orchestra on a gorgeously interconnected suite called Promises. This is my favorite bit, because it begins with Sanders vocalizing into the mic over a soft bed of mallet instruments. He doesn’t form one word, aware that his improvised gibberish has a soothing quality, like the sound of bubbles racing to the surface of a pond.

9. Lil Nas X – “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”

By titling his new single with his real-life first name and tossing in an homage to one of the first gay films he ever watched, Lil Nas X is not bowing to the pressure he must be facing to give the world another “Old Town Road.” He’s taking us along on his personal journey instead, rapping over a flamenco-flecked beat about a real-life COVID crush and confessing “I wanna sell what your buyin’ / I wanna feel on your ass in Hawaii.”

10. Waxahatchee – “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”

As the vaccination numbers continue to rise, and more and more people step out into the world with something resembling relief, the timing was right for Katie Crutchfield to release her cover of “Light of a Clear Blue Morning,” hewing closely to the golden-sunrise country-pop arrangement of Dolly Parton’s cynicism-destroying original. It’s the sound of hope, pure and true.

Top 100 Albums of the 2010s (75-71)

Feeling nostalgic for the 2010s yet? They weren’t great, but at least they’re not the 2020s amirite? And while we’re on the subject of things that aren’t fun, what about Mondays? Cold weather? That time the hometown sports team got robbed? Unpopular bloggers who drive stupid gags into the ground?

Anyways, here are entries 75-71 in my seemingly never-ending countdown of my 100 favorite albums from the past 10 years.

75. Haim – Something to Tell You (2017)

If you didn’t already feel grateful for Wilson Phillips in the 2010s – was there better advice during the Trump administration than “hold on for one more day”? – hopefully the rise of Haim corrected that problem. On its second album, this trio of California sisters continued to revel in 1980s supermarket pop aesthetics, harmonizing about big-time emotions over even bigger drum machines and effervescently processed guitars. The best songs remain the singles, which pair absolutely massive choruses with quirky production wrinkles that make repeat listens even more rewarding – on “Want You Back,” it’s a horse’s whinny; on “Little of Your Love,” it’s someone falling asleep at the pitch bender; on “Nothing’s Wrong,” it’s a series of oddly interrupted gasps. For all its obvious influences – Haim have definitely paid close attention to Stevie Nicks’s recipes – Something to Tell You is not some generic, store brand approach to pop hooks. This band figured out how to bottle their unadulterated joy. And so far, it seems like there’s no expiration date.

74. Thundercat – Drunk (2017)

Through his session playing alone, bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner made an indelible mark on 2010s hip hop and R&B – Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah series and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly are just a few of the modern classics that entrusted their low ends to him. But as the cover to his third solo album depicted, the potential of this artist as a vibrant new songwriting voice was only just beginning to emerge. Drunk is the work of an artist with a kaleidoscopically imaginative vision all his own. The music was rooted in his fluid, beautiful bass lines, which was important because it’s one hell of a gumbo: fiery jazz, chittering electronica and straight-faced yacht rock. In a voice that shifts into falsetto with ease, the artist sang about mundane late night rituals and fun Japanese vacations with awestruck, childlike energy. By building these bridges between poetry and poptimism, Thundercat was able to pull off a love-against-all-odds ballad featuring Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, and then shift to a regret-laden Kendrick Lamar rap showcase on the very next track. It remains one hell of a balancing act, which leaves us feeling the opposite of wasted.

73. Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do (2010)

To give a song the best chance at catching on, it’s best to stay vague. Listeners love to interpret lyrics in ways that fit their own situations, which is why The Police’s serial stalker anthem “Every Breath You Take” is still a hit at weddings. But the Athens, Georgia, alt-country institution Drive-By Truckers hasn’t had much time for that advice since its inception in the late ’90s. On its eighth LP, the band rang in the 2010s with an album full of exhilarating specificity – detailed story songs with colorful characters, performed with the kind of chiming roots rock efficiency that made Tom Petty famous. “Drag the Lake Charlie” documents a small town’s reaction to a cheating man gone missing, and the looming danger of his trigger-happy partner. “The Wig He Made Her Wear” recounts the murder trial of a woman claiming self-defense, and the unusual exhibits that inspired the jury to reduce the charge. “The Flying Wallendas” tells the true story of a legendary family of tightrope walkers, many of whom fell to their deaths doing what they loved. When Hood encounters a surviving Wallenda in Florida, the awe flows from his pen: “I was stunned and astounded that the old lady who was out / Pruning her orange trees / Had flown to the heavens and back.”

72. Laura Marling – Semper Femina (2017)

Happily ever after is great and all. But if we felt nothing but fairytale bliss, we wouldn’t get to appreciate art that traffics in shades of grey. Like Laura Marling’s stunning sixth album, for example. Each of the nine tracks on Semper Femina takes its own distinct sonic path as it searches for meaning in an unfulfilling relationship. “Soothing” rides a mournfully funky bass line. “The Valley” basks in pastoral acoustics. “Nothing Not Nearly” brings in stabs of fuzzbox guitar. And it’s all tied together by Marling’s empathetic pen. As she deals with love, and loss, and love that doesn’t go away even though it’s lost, she maintains a passion for the whole flawed phenomenon of human coupling that’s as impressive as the impeccably produced surroundings. On the final chorus, Marling makes her mission statement clear, just in case we weren’t paying attention: “Nothing matters more than love.”

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71. CupcakKe – Ephorize (2018)

When a brilliant, charismatic rapper is just starting to blow up, there are few things more exciting for a listener – being there for that moment, pressing play on the album that could put them on the short list for Best Rapper Alive. For CupcakKe, Ephorize was that moment. The third LP from the Chicago rapper was a significant leap forward from 2017’s excellent Queen Elizabitch – pairing her sharply honed lyricism and whitewater-rapids flow with club-ready production that sends all the positive vibes into the stratosphere. The artist is most famous for explicit, sex-positive bops, and she delivers one of her greatest here with the Statue of Liberty-referencing “Duck Duck Goose.” But Ephorize is equally defined by themes of personal growth and celebratory equity. “Most people already skipped this song cause it ain’t about sex and killin’,” she raps on “Self Interview,” a fearless recitation of her anxieties that ends with a vow to be true to herself. When this inward empathy explodes outward, CupcakKe is in rarefied air. “Boy on boy / girl on girl / Like who the fuck you like / Fuck the world!” she proclaims over the sax-laden dancehall groove of “Crayons.” It’s like we’re riding a rainbow rollercoaster, double guns drawn, the Best Rapper Alive at the controls.