Andy’s top 10 albums of 2021

Here are the records this writer returned to most often throughout the year

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive

1. Low: Hey What (Sub Pop)

In the early 1990s grunge era, Low felt like an anomaly: a married couple from Minnesota making slow, quiet music that conjured images of the region’s deep-freeze winters. Three decades on, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker continue to surprise, the duo’s latest taking what it applied to the deeply experimental Double Negative, from 2018, and refining it, transferring the gorgeous melodies that have long been the band’s hallmark to an unsteady backdrop, songs giving way to bursts of dissonance and pinging electronics. Throughout, the two remain stoic and composed, even as they sing about a world fumbling from one crisis to another, the dichotomy suggesting that there’s still some beauty to be found amid the chaos.

2. Lucy Dacus: Home Video (Matador)

On her previous album, Lucy Dacus explored big questions of faith and mortality. Released in June amid an ongoing pandemic, the musician’s latest feels smaller and more intimate in comparison, with Dacus repeatedly returning to the idea of personal connection and exploring the ways that those we form relationships with — whether romantic or platonic — can shape the people we become.

3. Dave: We’re All Alone in This Together (Neighbourhood)

The British rapper’s second album is another triumph, expanding on the political and personal deep dives of his debut and tackling issues of conspicuous consumption, toxic relationships and the increasing uncertainty of trying to navigate life in 2021. “Crime’s on the rise, hate’s on the rise,” he raps. “Feel like everythin’ but my mum’s pay on the rise.” But while Dave maintains this external focus, it’s generally leveraged in service of a more internal world, the rapper unpacking through his own story the many ways this modern life continually bulldozes those clinging to the fringes.

4. Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg (4AD)

Dry Cleaning’s post-punk sound, as crisp as fresh-pressed trousers, takes flight on the subdued wordplay of singer/speaker Florence Shaw. Throughout, Shaw marries comically cutting observations (“Would you choose a dentist with a messy back garden like that?") to lyrics that tap the ennui that has in many ways become entwined with pandemic existence. “Do everything and feel nothing,” Shaw repeats on album highlight “Scratchcard Lanyard,” gradually transforming this bone-deep numbness into cathartic feels.

5. Adia Victoria: A Southern Gothic (Atlantic)

Adia Victoria’s latest reclaims and restructures both the blues and the Southern experience, the musician creating a gorgeous, unsettling environment in which to grapple with the region’s insidious history, its ongoing hold on her and the reasons she’ll never abdicate the responsibility of pushing it toward change.

6. Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy: Superwolves (Drag City)

Arriving 16 years after its predecessor, Superwolf, the newest collaboration between Sweeney and Will Oldham feels as lived-in as that long stretch of time might suggest, the two displaying an ever-sturdy rapport. This isn’t to say the two have settled into predictability, however, interrupting folksy, vaguely unnerving creepers with more whimsical turns like “Hall of Death” (really), given a musical jolt by the addition of Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar and his bandmates.

7. Little Simz: Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (Age 101)

“Simz the artist or Simbi the person?” Little Simz, born Simbiatu Ajikawo, asks early on her fourth album. This stunning collection repeatedly returns to questions surrounding this public-private divide, the rapper unpacking the person she wants to be while remaining keenly aware that these inner-thoughts are being broadcast to a larger world.

8. Allison Russell: Outside Child (Fantasy)

Russell has a gorgeous voice, and she applies it to a hellacious emotional landscape on Outside Child, a jarringly brave musical memoir that traces the singer’s experiences with and recovery from childhood sexual abuse. Though at times brutal (“Blood on my shirt, two ripped buttons/Might’ve killed me that time if I let him”), what gradually emerges is a portrait of hope and survival best summed up in a line from “Persephone”: “My petals are bruised but I’m still a flower.”

9. Goat Girl: On All Fours (Rough Trade)

The London post-punk band smooths out some of the rough edges on its sophomore album, a pulsating, spindly effort that captures the disquiet of the stay-at-home era. “Please don’t leave me alone/Staring out the window,” guitarist L.E.D. offers on the aptly named “Anxiety Feels,” and that cut-off, adrift sensation permeates these songs to their core.

10. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis: Carnage (Goliath)

Following the accidental death of his son, Arthur, Nick Cave worked through his grief on albums such as Ghosteen, from 2019, a record that found him attempting to find a way forward in the wake of the world-altering loss. This journey carries into Carnage, a pairing with longtime musical accomplice Warren Ellis on which Cave again offers his farewells (“I always seem to be saying goodbye,” he narrates on the title track) but focuses more on reunions. “Everywhere you are I am,” Cave sings on the gorgeous, hope-filled “Shattered Ground.” “And everywhere you are, well I will hold your hand again.”