After one of the most amazing years in music in recent memory, 2021 was surely a let down. Even those who had previously brought me to my knees in submission were subdued and underwhelming. Perhaps two years of this shit known as Covid-19 had really taken its toll. How long could you remain creative when you were stuck in a box?
And yet a few albums managed to rise above the mediocrity. Some were surprises, others expected. And once again, most men had little to offer, as least from my point of view. But why waste time, let’s get to it.
The best albums of 2021 in order are:
Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, and Jon Randall – “The Marfa Tapes” – this is lo-fi that Guided By Voices would be envious of. Three great friends, who happen to be amongst the best song writers on the planet, sitting around a campfire playing and singing songs. You’ll hear crickets, sirens, airplanes over head, the players breaking up laughing, forgetting lyrics, but mostly you’ll hear the purest ode to songwriting put to record in years. Listening to this album feels like you’re sitting in on a private moment, and you hold your breath at every strum. It is a masterpiece from start to finish and writing about it brings tears to my eyes. Music in its purest form. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Morgan Wade – “Reckless” – That voice! Seriously WTF. It’s as if God were feeling bad for me, and she said I’m going to introduce you to the voice of your dreams. Ilona knows me well. (Read The Second Greatest Story Ever Told and you’ll understand.) This is one of those perfect records that came out of nowhere, and hooked my from her first line and never let go. A damn near perfect ode to lust, longing, and booze, and really what else is worth singing about? Morgan recently signed to a major label, listen now so you can say you knew her when. After one song, she will own your soul.
Lana Del Rey – “Blue Banisters” – While Lana might never make an album better than “Norman Fucking Rockwell” (but then how many musicians have created a masterpiece of that magnitude?), her second album released in 2021 has certainly taken her already dark sensibilities to new depths. From songs about daddy issues to drug dealers to Covid-19, Lana has given us a groove of fucked-up lyricism, depression, and slap-in-the-face sexual desire. “Blue Banisters” is a “Bolero” for this generation. (Look up what the song is best used for.) She knows how to get under out skin, and the minute she does we don’t want her to leave. Love this woman!
Torres – “Thirstier” – Right now no one makes me happier playing live than Torres. There is such an adorable geek joy in her performances. Her show at the Fairfield Theatre Company in August was my first live concert since the Archers of Loaf in Nashville in March 2020. (It was also the first show of her tour.). And it might have been the perfect welcome home for live music, for both Torres and her fans. This album, her fifth, is a love song to her longtime girlfriend, and to life, with an ode to her father as well. As on all of her records, it’s noise pop in its finest form. You never really know when the explosions of sound will come, but as on the aforementioned Archers’ records, you know its coming. Thank you, Torres, for helping me remember what Covid took away for way too long.
Lorde – “Solar Power” – an article was posted recently where Lorde mentioned that her first album was created under a haze of alcohol, her second while on Ecstasy, and her third, “Solar Power,” while on weed. Completely explains why I so disliked the second, while loving the first and third. This is the musical version of getting stoned with friends. Talk about a vibe. It’s a put on and dance around your house sort of album, and I pretty much love it from start to finish. I remember seeing Lorde live at a festival in 2014 where I went to see one of The Replacements reunion shows. I ended up enjoying her performance, with that wild unchoreographed dancing, more than theirs. And you know what I think of the Mats.
Lucy Dacus – “Home Video” – Dacus was the second to last concert I saw in March 2020. She stole my heart that night at the Ryman, and stole it again with this wonderful new record. From the opener “Hot & Heavy” to the epic closer “Triple Dog Dare,” she takes us back in time, like a John Hughes comedy in pop/punk audio form. She’s such a smart and funny lyricist, telling us stories we can all relate to, whether we want to admit it or not. A beautiful record.
Courtney Barnett – “Things Take Time, Take Time” – There is a wonderful sense of solitude to Barnett’s short but breathtaking new record. A Covid record, for certain, she nonetheless keeps it optimistic. It’s got to be over eventually, right. So let’s write a list of things to look forward to.
Snail Mail – “Valentine” – A record of heartbreak and seemingly more heartbreak, and the ability to fall in love and lose that love in no time at all. Another Covid generation record, as dark as Barnett’s is positive, but with Lindsey Jordan’s searing vocals, I’d pretty much let her lead me anywhere.
Most Disappointing Album of 2021:
Billie Eilish – “Happier Than Ever” – this is not a bad record, but after her thrilling and near-genius debut, it is a disappointing one. The title song is a masterpiece, and a few others work. But mostly is feels unfinished, like song ideas that needed an editor. She is still one of the most exciting new artists of this generation. I look forward to what comes next.
Best Single of 2021:
Phoebe Bridgers – “That Funny Feeling” – Bridgers took a good Bo Burnham song about the end of the world and turned it into a seven minute miracle. It will make you cry and smile at the same time, as you realize we’re doomed, but at least we can listen to Phoebe while we self-destruct. Saw Phoebe in Boston in September. Her’s was one of those concerts where you wanted to cry with joy, where you needed to dance, where the world for 90 or so minutes, seemed normal again. I love her for that respite.
Musical Discovery of 2021:
Miranda Lambert – after hearing “The Marfa Tapes” I needed to go back. What else had this woman done. Everything pointed to her nasty divorce inspired double-album “The Weight of These Wings,” and from the opening track I was hooked. This was the pop country equivalent of “Exile on Main Street,” a near perfect collection of anger, heatrbreak and drunken mistakes. Miranda, where had you been all my life? I went down the rabbit hole, even scouring up a copy of her very rare debut on eBay. And while I don’t love everything (hell, I don’t love everything from ANY band), I love more than enough to move her onto a list of artists I will follow forever. I even love her duet with Elle King, “Drunk (And I Don’t Want To Go Home).” And her newest single is the theme for the new season of “Queer Eye” – from a mainstream country artist! And she runs MuttNation. Do I have a crush.? Hell, yeah.
I leave you with an oldie, the title track from her 2005 album “Kerosene.”
“Storkman” – from director Tomislav Jenincic – as heartwarming as it gets, Storkman tells the tale of a widower who takes a wounded stork under his wings, caring for the bird for decades. It’s a love story, a story of humanity and kindness. You will cry, but you will also walk away feeling that perhaps there is hope for the world.
Best Narrative Feature:
“Shiva Baby” – from director Emma Seligman – Rachel Sennott is a star to be reconned with in this truly uncomfortable dark comedy about a young women meeting her ex-girlfriend, sugar daddy, and his wife, at a shiva. A perfect 77 minutes long (during a year when most directors have forgotten how to freakin’ edit), this film brings awkwardness to new extremes. It is a perfect movie. And nothing else even came close this year.
“Ted Lasso” – hype is rarely real. This time it is. Jason Sudeikis and his co-stars deliver the feel-good comedy we ALL need. Whether we need to be a goldfish, or just believe, it matters not. We need Ted Lasso. We need our leaders, all of our leaders, to be Ted Lasso. And most importantly, we need to all agree that tea, as a drink, sucks. Just disgusting dirty water.
As for the rest of my 2021:
Despite the ups and downs of Covid, myself, along with Katherine, Tony, Sophia, Doug, Sydni, Stephy and a number of amazing volunteers were able to pull off the 8th edition of NHdocs: the New Haven Documentary Film Festival in August. Of course, a new mask mandate going into effect the day before everything started did not help.
“Where are you, Jay Bennett?” – my 6th rock doc finally had its world premiere. There will be a pay-per-view screening on January 8th, then the wide commercial release in April, with one amazing surprise I can’t talk about yet!
“The Matchbox Man,” my look at the amazing Matchbox car collection of Charlie Mack, likewise had its world premiere, and will be out on DVD with a boatload of extras in late January.
Me, co-producer Sophia, editor Sydni, and shooter Stephy spent a bunch of time in one of my favorite cities, Nashville, working on our newest animal documentary: “Old Friends, A Dogumentary.” That film is actually on the fast track and will premiere in April 2022. (Unless of course the world ends before that, and then it wouldn’t matter, but I am going to hold Phoebe to the 5 or so more years promised in the song.)
As for other film projects, “Factory” is moving along…slowly but. Sort of like the progress on the building. And we’ve taken on a new film, well into shooting it, about the failed Powder Ridge Music Festival of 1970. It’s an amazing story. Stay tuned for a lot more.
Kris and I cooked a lot. Watched a lot of TV. Got to finally see live music again: Torres, Phoebe, Jeff Tweedy, SG Goodman, The Fixx (Kris loves the 80s, me not so much), Tommy Stinson, and Jesse Malin.
Our dog family, Springsteen and Dylan are both well. Springsteen is 13 now and is still wonderfully obnoxious. I thank Ilona for every day with him.
And that’s it. Another damn covid year is over. Be well, hug your dog, raise a drink to the people you love and respect, eat good pizza, drink hot coffee, laugh, rock, play it loud, believe that things will get better…eventually…and be kind to everyone you meet.