Here We Are in the Year: The Best of the Best, Halftime Edition

My intent this morning was to craft a wordy soliloquy about the fraying fabric of spacetime, which is indeed a thing (but not necessarily a worrisome thing), and turn the decay into a metaphor about something or other. Instead, I found myself distracted by the melodies, rhythms and rhymes percolating through my headphones. First up was a solo Neil Young concert from 1989 that’s available on the Neil Young Archives, then the reissue of Roberta Flack’s Quiet Fire and now the deluxe edition of Paul Weller’s Fat Pop (Volume 1) – the intoxicating “Fat Remix” is playing as I type, actually, with the live disc on deck. 

To return to the lede, the best I can say now, without wasting more spacetime, is that the year’s clock is near the halfway mark. Until now, I’ve always skipped writing mid-year best-of lists, as me deciding the best of anything generally causes my synapses to misfire again and again and again until my head hurts. (It’s why I often say my all-time Top 10 includes a hundred or so albums – a lotta ties!) These are unique times, however. It’s safe to say that, aside from my wife and cat, the music I’ve enjoyed since last March has been instrumental in keeping me sane (or as close to sane as I usually am) – any chance to celebrate it, I’ll take. So, just as some TV stations and stores mark “Christmas in July,” I’m retooling Remember December for June!

Anyway, as far as this list goes, every artist and album that I’ve spotlighted over the past six months has provided needed sustenance to my soul; they all have something unique to offer and, as such, should be sought out. (To give an idea of my process: I generally listen to at least four or five albums, in part if not in full, for each one that I single out.) The mere fact that I decided to write about them speaks to their quality, in other words.

So, all that said, here are my top albums of 2021 thus far (along with links to my original reviews)…

1) Paul Weller – Fat Pop (Volume 1) – I’ve been digging on it since its release, but the deluxe edition makes this a must for every self-respecting music fan’s collection. In my review, I equated it to a stack of 45 singles, all A-sides, that drop to the turntable in succession.  

2) Jillette Johnson – It’s a Beautiful Day and I Love You. Upon its February release, I wrote that it’s “a tremendous set that grows stronger with every listen.” That’s not hyperbole.

3) Charlie Marie – Ramble On. The Rhode Island-based country singer’s album is a five-star affair, simultaneously traditional and modern. Take my advice: Hop on her “Soul Train” – you won’t regret it.

4) Elizabeth & the Catapult – sincerely, e. Singer-songwriter Elizabeth Ziman delivers 12 tracks that, in another era, would’ve been dubbed “pure pop for now people” by Nick Lowe. I called the album “the sonic equivalent of one of those velvety black-light posters of yore. Her voice shades plush but never fuzzy, grainy but never coarse, and is always warm, always hypnotic.”

5) Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature. I equated the eight-track release to “a slim volume of ambient poetry” and said “it’s quite cool…somewhat akin to a thousand fingers caressing the skin, gentle as feathers yet weighty as sin.”

And two honorable mentions (arranged alphabetically):

Sara Bug – self-titled. I still don’t know what to make of this album, but keep returning to it – which says something in and of itself. At the time, I said that “[h]er songs come across like colorful pop art pressed to wax, if that makes sense, and are forever fascinating.” I stand by those words.

Richard Haswell – With the Changing Light. This is time travel set to song, essentially, in that it conjures a sound and style that is like balm for anyone who was of age in the early and mid-1980s. As I noted, “It’s one part electronica and one part cool, with the music sure to push listeners of a certain age down the proverbial staircase of their minds to their youths.” (It’s best enjoyed with headphones, by the way.)

As far as archival treasures, also in alphabetical order, here are my two favorites:

Roberta Flack – Quiet Fire. The 50th anniversary edition is well worth seeking out, especially since it’s available on the streaming services for free. In its original incarnation, it was a sublime set that included a hypnotic rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” but the reissue tacks on eight bonus tracks – including covers of “What’s Going On,” “Free at Last” and “O-o-h Child” – that take a great album and make it greater.

Neil Young – Young Shakespeare. Neil released two archival gems this year. While the Crazy Horse-powered Way Down in the Rust Bucket is also excellent, this acoustic gem has pulled me back far more often. I wrote at the time that, “[a]t 25 years of age, his voice is still pure, sure and, when necessary, as forlorn as his lyrics. He’s more than just a troubadour doing his thing; he’s a poet who also sings.”

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