While the pandemic may have interrupted the live music industry, the flow of new records by musical artists since early 2020 has only seemed to increase. More music, more breakout artists, and more incredible records than any other two year span in recent memory. The music promotion team at Planetary Group was working double to help get all the great music from the pandemic into the ears of potential fans.
When music lovers and historians alike look back at these strange years of frustration and tragedy, they will undoubtedly say that at least we had the music. Let’s take a look at ten of our favorite albums released since March 2020, in no particular order.
Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Pitchfork named it Album of the Year for 2020, and in a rare moment, I agree! Apple’s first new album in 8 years finds her with just as much bite, spark, beauty, and delicate fierceness as ever before with songs that leap from her piano off the record directly into our psyches. No detail is spared, with particular attention paid to the percussion arrangements of Amy Aileen Wood, who plays everything from drums, her own hands (claps), and a literal water tower on the song “On I Go”. Fiona’s unique piano playing style is still recognizable, but again, there is a more percussive element to her playing so that even the lead instrument takes on the persona of a tuned drum set. There is even a song called “Drum Set”, further lending a hint at the album’s musical center-point.
Mainly recorded on Garageband in Apple’s home, Fetch The Bolt Cutters is a singular record in sonic experience and composition. It could only have been made by her at this time, and even though parts of the record were recorded over the course of 5 years, its 2020 release felt perfectly apropos.
Album Highlight: “On I Go”
Bright Eyes – Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was
Much like Apple’s contribution to this list, Down In The Weeds… is the first new album by Bright Eyes in about a decade. And although Conor Oberst released solo albums, multiple side projects (one with Phoebe Bridgers), he hadn’t worked with his longest collaborators on record since 2009. His signature cracked and exhausted voice, his suture sharp lyrics, and ne’er-do-well delivery never sound better than with the arrangements and musicality of his original bandmates Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott.
Older, and perhaps none the wiser, Oberst and Co. revisit familiar sonic textures and recording techniques that made Bright Eyes unique in the first place, the album opens with a long sound collage to start the album that makes you feel like you woke up inebriated in a Spanish language jazz club and sweeps you into the first song where he sings: “Gotta keep on going like it ain’t the end, gotta change like your life is depending on it.” But the coolest tracks on the record are the ones where the band isn’t looking to satisfy their oldest fans, or attempting to recapture feelings from their most successful records, instead glimpses of innovation and having fun in the studio shine strongest on tracks like “Pan and Broom” and “Mariana Trench”. In 2020, they signed a deal with indie label darlings Dead Oceans, which means more Bright Eyes in the future, which hopefully means more innovation.
Album highlight: “Pan and Broom”
Run The Jewels – RTJ4
From the album’s first onslaught, a repetitive unrelenting cascade of sampler resets that at once resembles an automatic firearm or an endless explosion, Run The Jewels show from the get-go that this album is not an exercise in feel-good Rap or happy pop Hip Hop. And although all styles have their place, this album sounds far more connected to the roots and history of Hip Hop than most sleek, over-engineered, glossy productions these days. You can feel it was made on an old school sampler, you can hear the human touch of how it was pieced together. The energy is just so palpable, and the content matches.
The single “Oh La La” packs an album’s worth of quality into an under four minute track. Catchiness, crisp production, and proof they can have fun while still bringing us intelligent, socially conscious art proving “the mission is spiritual” as Killer Mike says on “Pull the Pin”. In a world filled with slow jams and emotional raps about money and internet gossip, it’s always nice to be reminded that Jesus was killed by the state.
As they say in that bombastic intro “yankee and the brave ep. 4”, “We truly mean all the disrespect.”
Song Highlight – “Pull The Pin [ft. Mavis Staples and John Homme]”
Adele – 30
Every Adele album release is a cultural moment. Paired with her Hollywood sunset concert special, including a sit down with Oprah, 2021 seems to have been ruled by Queen Adele. What keeps her interesting, and the albums worth discussing, is how the quality of songwriting doesn’t diminish or stay the same, but somehow increases with each album she puts out into the world.
One wonders, ok she’s had so many iconic choruses and hits, how can she have another? And then “Go Easy” comes out. But that’s only the beginning. With song titles like “I Drink Wine” and “Cry Your Heart Out”, “30” isn’t shy about it being her divorce album. Her voices sounds better than it ever has, despite the surgeries and polyp issues that have plagued her career.
But the true stand out track is the penultimate “To Be Loved”. Whitney, Aretha, Celine… Adele. Although she doesn’t sound or try to sound like any of the aforementioned divas, she has taken her place amongst them, not because she hasn’t earned it already, but because she keeps bringing it, bigger, more freely, and with more abandon every time.
Album highlight – “To Be Loved”
The Felice Brothers – From Dreams to Dust
My personal favorite album of 2021, “From Dreams to Dust” by Catskill NY folk-rockers is a mixture of eerie, darkness and playful tongue-in-cheek jams. Fronted by two sangriaing brothers, Ian and James Felice, the record ping-pongs between Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams Sr. inspired talking blues songs, reminiscent of John Prine with more sweeping arrangements. Tales of being in a hotel on then order of Utah, the lead singer narrating his own future funeral, or rattling of the increasingly disturbing items on a to-do list co-mingle on this always unpredictable but never hopeless album.
Juxtaposing Ian’s songs are James ruminations, “Silverfish” about the nuisance of bugs in your apartment, strangers DMing your girlfriend on Instagram, and the feeling of something that has yet to be done. Or on his song “All The Way Down” his gorgeous piano playing intermingles with the observation that we may just be “the union of an ape in an apron and a break in the clouds”.
This album contains no filler and no cliches, whether it be a pitched down vocal intro that sounds like Satan himself is interviewing you for a job or an earnestly hopeful song like “We Shall Live Again” to wrap up the set. There is much light to be found in the dark.
Album highlight – “Jazz on the Autobahn”
Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
2021 was a landmark year for Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast. She not only released Jubilee, with some of the best indie singles of the year, led by the dance banger “Be Sweet”. (Try to get that chorus and baseline out of your head!). She also had a best selling memoir about the grief of losing her mother called “Crying in H Mart”. If she hadn’t before, she’s certainly arrived.
But Jubilee is more than just a few good singles by a newly minted best selling author and indie sweetheart, it is one of the best indie rock albums in years, maybe a decade. Fans of early aughts twee and well orchestrated baroque pop will find it on tracks like “Kokomo, IN” between the more flashy singles like “Savage Good Boy.”
She defies the era by writing genuinely relatable material in an age of uberirony and sarcastic nose thumbing. And it sounds so pleasing without being schmaltzy.
Album highlight – “Kokomo, IN”
Moor Mother – Black Encyclopedia of the Air
Newly signed to ANTI records, but not new to performance or artistry, poet/songwriter/musician/activist Moor Mother explodes onto the scene with a truly unique record. To attempt to describe it feels like a disservice to the totality of the work. It isn’t just music, it isn’t just spoken word or rap, it isn’t just experimental.
It needs to be heard just as it is, if possible as an entire album in one listening.
Album highlight – “Rogue Waves”
The Weather Station – Ignorance
Bringing the ethos of a protest singer and folksinger with the sensibilities of a Bowie fan bent through the prism of modern experimental jazz, The Weather Station take a giant leap forward sonically. Woven through personal sounding songs that do not preach, are not didactic, and do not wag fingers, “Ignorance” is a meditation on humanity and all of her flaws, namely the ability to wish away and ignore the large scale destruction of the environment due to climate change, largely due to capitalist and corporate interests. In the lead single “The Robber”, the music slowly settles in, allowing each musician to layer in their voice before the lyrics enter and talk about how just because you don’t believe in something, or just because it is incapable of hating you, doesn’t mean it isn’t stealing balance, stealing life, and taking with it the ability to survive.
On “Atlantic” the frenetic and precise drumming compliment Tamara Lindeman’s vocal delivery that is at once hushed, calm-sounding, while carrying an inner tonality of horror and despair. Her opening “Oh my God, Oh my God, what a sunset” is at once conversational and personal in nature, and I believe that is the true method this music uses to present its meaning without feeling condescending and off-putting. She knows just when to abandon perfectly singing a note in tune, letting it fall and bend, and when to put the hooks in and nail it. The support of the backing musicians adds a deft element to the songwriting, bringing it all into focus.
Album highlight – “The Robber”
Waxahatchee – St. Cloud
Some albums just hit the right way. It isn’t because there is something novel about the instrumentation or that the recording is innovative in sound or technique. Or that big name producers or musicians were hired to lend their skills to the project. Some albums just have great songs, played well by a great band, and sung by a believable singer. This is that album for the pandemic.
St. Cloud was released a few weeks after the pandemic began, which means it was recorded before the hellscape descended. Regardless, this album came to us just as everything began to change and the world felt a little darker. This gem of an album was a gleaming ruby in that time. From the loping beat of the first song to the end of the record, there is a warmth in Kate Crutchfield’s delivery and the fact that this album was not influenced by the pandemic or made during it, but released as it came on, makes the album that much more poignant. When she sings “I Want It All” on “Oxbow”, she couldn’t have known what that could mean to us, but when performed now it gains an extra-dimensional meaning on top of her own personal one.
Backed by the boys in Bonny Doon, “St. Cloud” feels like a well worn in jacket that just fits right. It has enough 90s throwback to feel familiar but doesn’t wallow in the common tropes or musical choices and therefore doesn’t feel pastiche. Americana twang and vocal stylings are present but don’t push the record into genre-specific category on songs like “Can’t Do Much” and “Lilacs”. And although she could’ve fit in well at Lilith Fair or Woodstock ’99, there is something ineffably new and unique about their take on indie rock. Let’s just hope she can finish touring this wonderful record in 2022 after multiple cancellations.
Album highlight – “Arkadelphia”
Bob Dylan – Rough & Rowdy Ways
What can we say? The master still wields supreme power. No one from his era ha been able to consistently release quality new music except him. While the Stones continue to play their asses off, with or without Charlie Watts, new material is lacking and let’s face it, the most recent cuts aren’t that great.
But in walks Dylan with his first new album since The Tempest, after a few crooner albums of mostly Sinatra covers. It was worth the wait, not only does he have some of his sleaziest stripper beat blues songs since “Rainy Day Women”, but he also brings us his longest song to date, the nearly seveteen minute long epic “Murder Most Foul”. For a song that touches on the Kennedy assassination, dozens of rock n’ roll legends forgotten to most except Dylan, and other stream of conscious ephemera, the song does wonders with three chords, two of which comprise almost the entire song.
Another highlight is “Goodbye Jimmy Reed”, a tribute to the unmatched bluesman, songwriter and fellow harmonica player. The turnaround in the riff is just so slightly irregular it makes your ear jump to try and pick up whats going on, in addition Dylan’s raspy snarl has never sounded better than in this context.
Ending the record on an unusual note, “Key West (Philosopher Poet)” regales the wonder and beautiful of the Florida Keys, a place Dylan apparently loves very much. You can imagine him sailing into the sunset, with the ghosts of Walt Whitman (who he quotes in the opening tune “I Contain Multitudes”), Ernest Hemingway, and his cats, leaving behind his best album in fifteen years.
Album highlight – “False Prophet”