Joel's top 10 albums of 2021

A rough year for most things; a good year for music

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Cover art for Cassandra Jenkins' "An Overview on Phenomenal Nature"

I know what you’re thinking. If Justin Vernon made an album and it didn’t end up on Joel’s top 10 list, did it ever really come out? A philosophical conundrum, indeed.

I did actually love quite a few songs on How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? by Big Red Machine. In fact, “Phoenix,” featuring Fleet Foxes and Anais Mitchell, might be my favorite track of the year. But, as an album, it’s a little spotty. On the contrary, I played the records below from front to back over and over again this year.

One caveat: I’ve continued to dive deeper into the overlapping worlds of ambient, solo guitar, piano and other instrumental genres, and I’m going to feature some of those in a separate list. (I know, I know. You can’t wait. You want those bangers right now!) Local releases are coming soon, too. 

Enough preamble. Here are some of my favorite 2021 albums that combine musical instruments with singing (and speaking).

1. Cassandra Jenkins: An Overview on Phenomenal Nature (Ba Da Bing)

I knew nothing about Cassandra Jenkins until this album, but I’m now a true believer. She wrote this record while reeling from the death of David Berman, with whom she was supposed to tour in 2019. Jenkins hit the road anyway, traveling around the world and writing songs along the way. On “Hard Drive,” she tells four stories (speaking, not singing) from those journeys, and cleverly ties them all together with the concept of a hard drive in the shifting refrain. It’s perfect.

I’m also obsessed with the production work here by Josh Kaufman, whose recent credits also include Taylor Swift and Bonny Light Horseman, his modernist folk trio with Anaïs Mitchell and Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson. Kaufman masterfully works saxophone, flute, string sections, synthesizers and deliciously toned guitars alongside Jenkins’ breathy vocals, always complementing, never overwhelming. 

If you dig the record, I’d also recommend reading Chris DeVille’s Stereogum chat with Jenkins, in which the songwriter peels back all the lyrical layers of Phenomenal Nature, providing stories and context that, for me, allow the songs to hit even deeper.

2. Matt Sweeney & Bonnie “Prince” Billy: Superwolves (Drag City)

When guitarist Matt Sweeney and singer-songwriter Bonnie “Prince” Billy aka Will Oldham collaborate, Oldham typically writes out his lyrics without any musical notations, then Sweeney writes the music, including Oldham’s vocal melodies. What’s astonishing is that Sweeney seems to understand Oldham's transfixing voice even better than the Bonnie Prince himself. You only need to push play on leadoff track “Make Worry for Me” to hear that symbiotic relationship in effect. And as if this made-in-heaven mashup wasn’t enough, the duo also invited Tuareg musician Mdou Moctar to add guitar on certain songs, like the brilliant “I am a Youth Inclined to Ramble.”

A heads up that Superwolves will perform with the Powers/Rolin Duo (the most recent recipient of Alive’s Best Musician designation) at 31 West Ballroom in Newark, Ohio, on Feb. 22.

More:Bonnie 'Prince' Billy basks in the glow of a tiny life

3. Rodeola: Arlene (self-released)

Like Cassandra Jenkins, Rodeola was new to me until this year; shout-out to Mike Adams for hipping me to Kate Long’s Bloomington, Indiana, folk-rock project, which reminds me of Rosali (who also put out another great album this year). I love the fuzzed-out, in-the-red acoustic strums on "We Can Go Diving," the orchestral swells on "Three Things" and all the psych-folk flourishes throughout. Also: This album includes a song titled “Northern Flicker,” my favorite backyard bird, with guest vocals and guitar from Joan Shelley and Nathan Salsburg, another Joel favorite.

More:Letter of Recommendation: Birds

4. The War on Drugs: I Don’t Live Here Anymore (Atlantic)

On paper, the War on Drugs should be a cliche: Springsteen-worshiping indie-rock band fronted by a dude with Dylan-isms and nods to Dire Straits. But somehow Adam Granduciel makes it all work. I’m utterly addicted to the cascading waves of guitars, synths and keys. Give the title track a few spins and the same will likely happen to you, too. 

5. Lucy Dacus: Home Video (Matador)

In October, when Dacus visited the Newport Music Hall, snippets of the songwriter’s old home movies looped on a screen. “It’s a personal, intimate experience watching someone’s home movies,” I wrote in the live review. “The footage is usually shot by family, for family, to preserve memories and document milestones. It’s not staged or posed like social media posts. We see the color of Dacus’ old couch, her dad’s big glasses, the food smeared on her face in a high chair. Dacus took the same approach on her recent album. … There’s a level of detail in the songs Dacus only hinted at on 2018 album Historian.” It’s those details, cleverly combined with unforgettable, instantly singable melodies, that kept this record in constant rotation the past year.

6. Flock of Dimes: Head of Roses (Sub Pop)

I first heard about singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jenn Wasner through Wye Oak, her Baltimore indie-rock duo with Andy Stack that recently reissued the 2011 album Civilian. Then I watched Wasner elevate the songs of Justin Vernon as part of Bon Iver's i,i touring band, and her seemingly effortless talent blew me away. All of that primed me for Head of Roses, the sophomore release from Wasner’s solo project, Flock of Dimes. In a just world, this varied, textured, gorgeous album would find its way onto every year-end list. Check it out if you haven’t. Start with “Two.”

7. Leon Bridges: Gold-Diggers Sound (Columbia)

This one got overlooked, too. Maybe because Bridges branched out further from the vintage soul vibes on his first two albums, modernizing his sound while still maintaining a comfortable distance from mainstream R&B. For an upbeat bop, check out “Motorbike,” and for a slow jam, give “Why Don’t You Touch Me” a try. Also: Don’t miss Bridges’ collabs with eclectic rock trio (and fellow Lone Star State natives) Khruangbin, Texas Sun and the forthcoming Texas Moon.

8. Sufjan Stevens & Angelo DeAugustine: A Beginner’s Mind (Asthmatic Kitty)

Asthmatic Kitty labelmates Stevens and DeAugustine wrote 14 songs while watching movies together in a cabin in upstate New York, using the films as inspiration for delicate tunes full of big ideas and intimate moments. These two voices were meant to be together.

9. Julien Baker: Little Oblivions (Matador)

Little Oblivions is Baker’s third record and her first real-deal rock album with a full-band sound. (She also played nearly all the instruments herself.) The cathartic, confessional album came out of an intense period of self-reflection. “I went to a bunch of therapy, dude,” Baker told Alive in September. “It's not like I magically took time off the road and went for walks in the woods. I mean, I did lots of that, and I love hiking, but I didn't have a Thoreau enlightenment thing. I went to a lot of therapy for hours and hours every day. … I've spent a lot of my life as a musician in interviews idealizing suffering for a purpose, and I don't think I want to do that anymore. I coped, yeah, but it's not magical.”

10. Laura Stevenson: Laura Stevenson (Don Giovanni)

The New York songwriter’s overlooked sixth album follows 2019’s The Big Freeze, another personal favorite, though this time Stevenson obscures some personal details to describe the emotional aftermath of a loved one’s close encounter with death, complicated even more by Stevenson’s new experience of motherhood. Produced by John Agnello, the record ping-pongs between spare numbers and snarling rockers.