No pre-amble necessary. Here are my favorite albums of 2021.
I started ranking my favorite albums of the year in 2015. Really, it started back when I would do my own weekly Much Music Countdown list in a journal, but there are sadly no longer records of my rabid Third Eye Blind stanning. Instead, the official record begins in 2015.
That made creating an all-decade list a little stressful, as it required me to remember things from 10 years ago and hope that Wikipedia records of album releases and other people’s lists jotted my memory enough. And that was before remembering 2015-2018 albums I discovered after each of those years, excluding them from my annual lists. I failed. Upon sending these in to the team at Columbia House Party, I realized I’d left out at least one album (sorry, Danny Brown). It’s also a little difficult to balance recency bias, how an album feels to me now versus when it came out, and so on. I tried my best.
What follows are the albums I enjoyed most from 2010 to 2019. We also discussed these on a Columbia House Party bonus episode.
I started a music podcast this year.
I know, I know. But for a long time now, I’ve wanted a more consistent outlet for my love of music, and while me adding to my plate is probably something my therapist would be angry about if I ever went back, it’s been refreshing so far. I don’t feel a need to turn every passion into a work project, but it’s allowed me to express more about myself and engage more creatively than I get to by sticking to basketball. (I love my job, obviously. Variety is appreciated, though.)
Doing the project – Columbia House Party – with my friend Jake has the added wrinkle of exploring and appreciating a variety of music that we maybe don’t agree on. Music is subjective, and how you relate with it is often an ethereal, intangible experience. Jake and I have a lot of overlap in our musical tastes, sure. We also have very little annual overlap in the very tops of your year-ends or most-listened-tos. There’s some Venn Diagram to the show, to the shows we go to together, and with most of my friends I share tastes with.
Diving into albums from both of our pasts and exploring why those albums resonated with different people at different times has lent helpful perspective to this, one of my favorite annual exercises. Foremost – and this is something I realized in introducing The Phoebe Bridgers Corollary in 2018 – albums are timeless and it’s not always necessary to experience them immediately. If you’re going deep on one album and it means you listen to a little less new stuff for a while, live in that first album. The others aren’t going anywhere. (Consequently, I listened to 119 albums this year, down about 20 percent from 2018.)
Additionally, it’s lessened the pressure I feel to get the list “right.” There’s no such thing, and even people with similar taste can amicably split hairs on what albums hit them hardest. It’s a favorite albums list, not an objectively best albums list.
This stuff should be obvious. Sometimes it’s hard to separate a job where you’re evaluated on the accuracy of your analysis and a side-passion where you’re just allowed to feel. It’s a welcome balance. It also made the tougher decisions a little easier to lock in for a year that was defined more by the amount of good albums (my initial pass at a top-75 had 90-plus albums) than the amount of great ones.
Ironically, the side project also cut into the time I had to do this list, so it’s coming out later and with briefer blurbs than in the past.
What follows are the albums I enjoyed most in 2019.
I released my 2017 version of this list on Dec. 15 last year. In early January, Friend That I Met Online John Cullen released his own list. At No. 1 on his list was Phoebe Bridgers’ Stranger in the Alps, a transcendently smart, painfully sad album that, were I to rewrite my own 2017 list now, would be the unquestioned No. 1. Except that I hadn’t heard about it until John’s list.
This changed the way I approached things a little bit for 2018. I understand that year-end lists are arbitrary cut-offs, that the calendar is only something we perceive, and that Boston Celtics’ prospect Robert Williams would laugh at us for even considering “years.” Music does not belong to the year it was released in. Not finding Bridgers’ 2017 album until 2018 did not make me enjoy it any less. All it meant was that it wasn’t on my list, which was a snapshot of my feelings on 2017 music at that point in time. It’s no different than looking at my 2015 list and realizing how much I’d re-shuffle it now.
Still, I wanted to make a concerted effort to cast a wider net this year. Last year, I occasionally asked people on Twitter what their favorite albums of the last while were. This year, I made that a quarterly exercise, and the responses were voluminous. The result was that I wound up checking out way too many albums this year. Which is cool, but I think I’ll scale back moving forward. The exercise is still a lot of fun. At the same time, such a broad approach necessitated spending a little less time with the albums I really loved this year. There’s a trade-off between searching for anything you might like and really immersing in the things you know you love. There’s no right answer, obviously, but 2019 will probably see me hold back less when it comes to, say, listening to CHVRCHES front-to-back on every run for weeks at a time even though Pusha T, A$AP Rocky, Retirement Party, and Hoobastank all dropped that same week.
What follows are the albums I enjoyed most in 2018.
My mom’s basement flooded in July. This was not really that big a deal. My step-dad had been finishing the entire basement himself, so it was disappointing for him, but big-picture, this was about as low-stakes a housing disaster can be. There was damage, including some old family keepsakes, the type of stuff you really don’t need to hang on to but do anyway for the occasional shot of nostalgia.
I keep some of my stuff in storage there, including a duffel bag that serves as a graveyard for old, terrible jerseys and a box of random things from my childhood. Photo albums, sports memorabilia, letters from my globe-trotting pen-pal, and some random notebooks. The notebooks are a trip. There have been signs that I wanted to be a sportswriter for as long as I can remember. I would “play” SportsDesk with mini-sticks or in the driveway. This photo actually exists. And the notebooks are filled with fake box scores, standings, and mini-game stories.
They also contain re-written editions of the MuchMusic Countdown. Apparently displeased with the order presented, I would write the top 25 out in the order I thought those (or other) songs should go in. 11-year-old me gave Harvey Danger a hell of a run on top. Around that same time, I was seeing a child psychologist in Guelph regularly, and I remember that my sort-of “reward” for going to those sessions was that on the drive home to Cambridge, the Top 7 at 7 would be playing on whatever London’s alternative radio station was at the time. Just get through the session, and there was good music waiting.
I have not pursued music writing (or ranking) nearly as aggressively as sports, but it’s still something I really enjoy doing. (The connection between mental health and music remains, umm, quite strong.) And so instead of just listing off my favorite albums of 2017, I wanted to write a bit about some of them for a change. 2017 wasn’t as strong at the top as 2016, something it made up for with exceptional depth. When I listed out all of the albums I’d listened to in 2017 to start cutting down to 25, there were 88, which feels insane. I opted to stretch this annual list from 25 to 50, because there were just too many albums I enjoyed that I didn’t want to leave out or thought other people might see, check out, and enjoy.
What follows are the albums I enjoyed most in 2017.
An aside: My mom lives in Drumbo, which – and I am not joking here – refers to itself as “The detour capital of Ontario.” I really feel like they should borrow from The Wonder Years and erect a sign that says “But I was kinda hoping you’d stay” as you leave.