Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Rockin' My Turntable in 2021.

I don't think I ever waited this long in my life to post a "best of" list for a previous year, so clearly this is more for archival purposes than trying to hype any "recent" releases.* At the end of last year, I created a massive list of all the albums that either scored a 5 or higher ... and then never got around to winnowing it down to 20 albums, through there were a few attempts to narrow the list.

So this time around it was interesting to see a) just how many albums I'd considered had completely exited my memory and b) realize just how different my listening habits are than average (and most not-so-average) people. I mean, who listens to over 700 new releases in a year on top of whatever they decide to revisit form the recent or distant past between all that new music?! And 2021 was a lighter year for me!**

I've been a music critic on and off for over 30 years now, and have been at it pretty steadily for the last 20 of those years, but obviously the last few years threw the brakes pretty heavily on my output. And now I'm beginning to wonder if my music consumption habits even make sense anymore. Why listen to all these new releases when I'm no longer responsible for overseeing the arts and entertainment section of a prominent media outlet? These days I write either for myself or whenever I see something that would fit with Third Coast Review, so I'm no longer actually under any kind of pressure to listen to all this stuff or produce content about it. Y'know?

Yet here I am, still looking for something new every single day of the year. Maybe it would be easier if I was a specialist instead of a generalist, but I find more satisfaction in understanding the bigger picture than burrowing deep on a single niche activity, even if I am aware of and dig into those niche activities when it makes sense. Or if it just piques my personal curiosity! But I've always wanted to be a voice just about any listener of music could trust, so I've kept the parameters very, very, very wide when it comes to what I listen to and what I write about.

So here you go, the 20+ albums released in 2021 that I still think about and play almost a year later. It's less a wet snapshot of that year than it is a clearer photo of what things looked like after the emulsion finally dried and set in place. These are the albums whose presence remains vibrant and special in my little brain.

Neal Francis
In Plain Sight

Neal Francis had been on the Chicago scene for quite a while, but since his segment was more jam and funk, I only became aware of him last year when a friend recommended In Plain Sight, an album rooted in '70s sounds, burnished by Dave Fridmann's distinctive production, and filled with hooks that won't leave your brain.

The Rare Occasions
Big Whoop

This was one of those blind listens that had me hooked in the first minute and only got better on repeated listens. New-wave power-pop for the new millennium? Yes, please!

TV Baby

This gets filed under big crunchy guitars with vocals that cut through the fray. It's also the kind of album I would have died for in the '90s. But hey, better late than never for my ears, right?


Graham Coxon's soundtrack to his graphic novel functions as a Coxon solo album, and pulls from both the guitar rockin' and club dancin' territories in his own musical conversation. I dare say it's even catchier and poppier than any recent releases by the more famous frontman he shares a band with from time to time.

When You Walk Away

TV or Not TV

More big guitar brash pop that locks in and won't let you go. When I met a Supergrass fan asking for new music to listen to today, these were the albums I'd suggest over the last year.


The less I know about Sault the greater my enjoyment of their mysterious and often sudden, unannounced releases. If you dig digging through the soul and funk dusties at your local record store, this is essential modern listening.

The Static

I could write an entire essay on this album, and one day I might, but it is first and foremost one of the most powerful albums Hushdrops has released over their decades-long career. It is also the most tragic, sicne it features some of the final recordings including drummer Joe Camarillo before his tragic passing took his talents away from us far, far too soon.

Maximumblastsuperloud: The First 24 Songs

This was a late-December release in 2021, and here we are in November of 2022, and I still dig it. So this one can't be accused of recency bias! But I could be accused as having a bias when I'm a sucker for massive walls of guitars that crush your ears even as the sunny and sweet melodies buried within the tornadoes of sound are some of the catchiest stuff you'll hear this, or last, year.

Daniel Romano
Cobra Poems

I got lost in the rabbit hole that was the astounding number of wildly varied releases Daniel Romano has put out over the last few years. But Cobra Poems was masterpiece of that productive era. Romano and his collaborators create the sort of organic good-time rock that begs to be played in tight quarters for a sweaty, adoring audience. In a year marked by almost no live shows I felt were safe enough to attend, this was the album I'd thrown on when I wanted to pretend I was hearing a band at a most excellent house party.

Emphatically No.

Sharp, taut songs. Incisive, deliciously witty speak-sung lyrics. And yes, I did see them play in 2021, so can confirm they are a highly entertaining live band, though I was half-expecting them to be revealed as simply a sharply funny studio band. This was my go-to all through 2021 (and 2022!) whenever I just needed a smart mood-lightener.

Tamar Berk
the restless dreams of youth

Old Joy
Trash Your Life

To me, these are both Chicago acts—despite Tamar Berk moving to the West Coast years ago—that reveal a lot about different generations of musicians in our little scene. Berk and Old Joy's Alex Reindl both craft deeply personal music that also just happens to explode with musical energy, Which is to say, they both rock. So when I say these albums reveal a lot about the different generations, I think it's revealing how much they have in common, and not any vast differences.

Nous Alpha
A Walk In the Woods

Walk In The Light

Both of these albums are largely instrumental, lightly psychedelic, wholly engrossing, and absolutely dependable metal escapes to another dimension on days this world can seem too dark and/or heavy. The less said te better, as I think these only work if you make your own connections to the music. My words will only complicate that process. I know, weird for a music critic to say, but sometimes less context leads to greater appreciation. See also: Sault.

Danko Jones
Power Trio

The first time I saw Danko Jones play was the late '90s. And I thought he was ridiculously loud and ridiculously fun. Over two decades later, Jones and crew are still managing to mine 3-chord combinations and turn them into deliriously dependable party rockers. 

Bo Burnham
Inside (The Songs)

I played this album a LOT. Clearly it was a coping mechanism. But it's also really quite good. So some may want to file this under "comedy" but it is 100% a pop album.

Naked Raygun
Over the Overlords

Liz Phair

Two Chicago legends returned in 2021. Naked Raygun released an amazing album no one would've expected from a band after decades of no new LPs, but holy heck this is an incredibly solid, and enjoyable album! And Liz Phair never stopped releasing music, and every couple of years we get a "she's returning to her roots" press cycle that never quite pans out, but this time around she came through. However in this case, "returning to her roots" just meant "recording what I want to and saying it how I want to, again." 

Glow On

Look, we all know this band is basically Jane's Addiction plus 311, but it's the best bits of both, so this ended up being an incredibly enjoyable, if unexpected, album last year. Obviously this last year has shown I am not in the minority when it comes to liking what this band is laying down.

Saint Motel
The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Harmony House

These are both rock albums from pop bands making albums that sound like rock albums. Wait, that's confusing. These are both bands that sound like they go into the studio to write their albums, meaning the music is at the forefront and individual band member identities are completely obscured. In one way, these both sound like artifacts from a different time, when a band like INXS was a rock band. These days y'all are stuck with Maroon 5 as a "rock" band. So these groups prove all is not lost on that front, quite yet. 

Psymon Spine
Charismatic Megafauna


These are both great albums. And I've bought both on vinyl.But I'd be lying if I didn't admit the greatest draw for both of these lies in the simple fact they're carrying LCDS- and DFA-influenced sounds into a new era—minus the baggage, so it's twice as fun. Pickle the Kitten is not a fan of either, since their beats mean a kitty dance party with dad is soon approaching.


Pearl Charles
Magic Mirror

The spirit of Laurel Canyon called and Pearl Charles answered. And then Charles messed with the formula—even throwing in a dash of ABBA sparkliness to keep everyone on their toes—and shook the Canyon-sound cobwebs off in favor of a more glistening, '00s approach.

Magdalena Bay
Mercurial World

I debated removing this entry after their "deluxe reissue" of this album came out this year, and managed to actually hurt the legacy of the album in my own head. But the original release was super fun, and buoyed me through some dark days, so once I remembered that (and that I was being a bit of a complainer) I realized that as a singular piece, this LP still slaps.****


Discover Effortless Living

It's less impressive this year when the band Pavement is actively touring, but when I heard this last year it was the first thing in YEARS that I'd heard that even came close to the classic Pavement grooves of yore. 

*OK, last year I waited until September. I swear I'll get the 2022 list up earlier. How could I not?!
**I'm already past the 740 albums mark this year and it's still October, if that gives you an idea.***
***Actually this draft was started in October. As of today, when I finished and published this, it's around 800 albums. But things slow down at the end of the year—thank gawd—as reissues, greatest hits, box sets, and holiday music clog the ol' inbox.
****I think that may be the first time I've used the terms "slaps" in a piece? Which means it is definitely outdated by now.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022


It's been a while, huh? I've been busy, how about you? Busy in a good way, don't worry.

In the U.S., tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I do have a lot to be thankful for. I may still be pretty isolated, but I've grown closer with the small handful of people I talk with regularly. And I've even made it out and met a few new people! After a long hiatus I started dating again, so that's been interesting. The biggest difference from the last time I was "out there?" At my age I'm discovering that when there are no immediate sparks but you both still find each other interesting when you meet in person, non-romantic but rewarding friendships can actually develop from a simple coffee date!

So that's been nice.

But mostly it's been work, walks, work, and quality time with Pickle the Kitten. Oh! And Andor! But shhhhh....I haven't had a chance to watch the season finale yet, so no spoilers!

Friday, November 04, 2022

Ne'er-do-well could justifiably call themselves Always-do-awesome on 'Fun Days.'

Photo by TLC
While I encourage you to dig deep and follow your interests as you scan Bandcamp for purchases this Bandcamp Friday, I am throwing my own personal recommendation behind a single release, the debut EP from one-man-band Ne’er-do-well, Fun Days.

This EP has been continuously replayed since I received it, partially because I'm convinced there's some sort of mystery at the core to figure out, but mostly because it's just stunning in its execution.

And this EP is all over the place! The songs go from Midwestern rawk, to glam metal, to full-on emo, back to Midwestern brawn, and all the things in-between. I can already hear you saying, "So what?" But the songs LITERALLY completely change genres from tune to tune. As in, it sounds like 5 genuine bands were put together to create the 5 songs on this EP, yet from what I can tell, every single sound is created by a single person, Bryan Rolli.

I can't figure out if Rolli's showing off his ridiculously accomplished range and internalized grasp of multiple genres, or if he just writes in whatever genre fits the song in his head. And the EP plays like an incredibly condensed concept album, but after trying to pin down exactly what the concept was—at one point I was trying to match the songs to the 5 stages of grief, on the off chance that would help unlock some deeper meaning—I've comfortably settled into simply enjoying the album even as I sit in awe at Rolli's flexibility and authenticity.

If Rolli was on stage, I'd imagine him wearing a sleeveless black t-shirt with silver piping, a flannel tied around his waist over blinding neon multi-colored spandex flowing down his legs and into a pair of weathered combat boots, all topped off with a haircut featuring bangs that fall perfectly over one eye or the other as he shakes his head to and fro, singing energetically as he slashes his guitar strings. 

However you imagine the artist in your own mind's eye, or whatever your personal taste in music might be, this is an EP I think will floor just about anyone who hears it, once they realize all these different, fully realized worlds of sound flow forth from a single person.

Tuesday, November 01, 2022

Getting ahead of ye olde year end list.

I'm testing out a new process right now...

This year I've tried to get a little ahead of the game and have been randomly selecting albums in my pretty long "best of 2022 consideration list" to listen to and see if they are still in the running. If one gets played and is no longer a clear contender I'm deleting it in the hope of culling the list down to a manageable size ahead of time instead of swimming in a sea of 100+ releases and trying to figure it all out at the same time. 

So far, so good! And it will hopefully help me avoid the situation I find myself in right now ... which is rushing to get my best of 2021 list up before the end of 2022!

Actually the 2021 list is made, and most of the formatting and embeds are done, so I'm hoping to get that incredibly delinquent list up this week.