KEXP is counting down the best records of the year with our annual Top 90.3 Countdown. Ahead of the countdown, KEXP staff make the case for some of their favorite albums from 2021. Make sure to vote for your favorites by December 10 at 6 PM PT and tune in to hear what makes the list on December 17.
I tend to express myself in verbally hyperbolic extremes. As a human whose emotional radar often catapults from zero to 100, weeping in the office after watching a particularly devastating advertisement for the humane society, a basic lexicon doesn’t always function. Particularly when it comes to music, saying I “loved” or “enjoyed” an album simply doesn’t capture the maelstrom of joy, nostalgia, inspiration, or other profound feelings that come seeping out upon each listen.
I feel like Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail understands this plight. “Doesn’t obsession just become me?” she whisper-snarls in her track “Forever (Sailing),” at once accurately depicting every romantic experience I’ve ever had, but also the fervent internal response that accompanies blasting her sophomore album Valentine on repeat.
Snail Mail doesn’t shy away from obsession on Valentine, an experience so often negatively connotated and associated with the inability of letting go. But in her refusal to pack up and move on immediately from the moments that cut her most deeply, she invites us all to revisit our own heartbreaks, first loves, unattainable crushes – and to forgive ourselves for the embarrassments made in the confusing clouds of passion.
From the opening chimes of synth in lead single “Valentine,” it’s clear Snail Mail has taken the vulnerability of 2018’s Lush and cranked the intensity, both lyrically and sonically. “I’m older now, believe me,” she promises, proving her point with a controlled scream, asking versus demanding a lover not to erase her memory.
However, it’s with track two, “Ben Franklin,” where I knew Valentine would land high on my own and many other Top of 2021 lists. The layered textures of deep bass grooves, jittery high hats, and droning synth convey the familiar anxiety of trying to appear OK when you're not, long before Lindsey ever opens her mouth. She plays confidence and nonchalance as a character, allowing the music to reveal subtext, before finally dropping the charade in time for the bridge.
Co-producer Brad Cook more than deserves a shoutout for his masterful work on this release (he was in the producer’s chair for another of my favorite records this year, Indigo De Souza's Any Shape You Take, as well as 2020's perfect album from Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud.) As more beloved indie rockers turn to pop influences, it’s electrifying to hear them manipulate strings and synths so effortlessly alongside lyrics that cut to the bone. Sad songs you can bop to, or in my case, blast through crappy headphones while on a cold run in post-daylight savings darkness.
I find infinite reasons why this record is important to me, why it should be up for your consideration as a “top of the year.” Perhaps it’s the clearly 80s-inspired jam sessions, the way Lindsay refers to her ex-lover as “Tiger,” the pastel Gucci suits she rocks in all press photos, or just the arresting quality of her raspy, incomparable vocals (a moment of silence and well wishes for Snail Mail as she heads into surgery for polyps on her vocal chords.)
But obsession keeps me repeating “Forever (Sailing)” into “Madonna '' over and over until my heart feels numb, has me performing every “Ben Franklin ' lyric to my showerhead, and tearing up to “c. et. al.” while trapped in I-5 traffic. Like Snail Mail, I’m embracing that obsession, letting it wash over me.
KEXP's Editorial Director and Afternoon Show host Larry Mizell Jr. makes the case for L'Rain's latest LP as one of the best albums of 2021.
KEXP staff make the case for some of their favorite albums of the year ahead of our Top 90.3 Countdown. Dusty Henry reflects on Japanese Breakfast's third album, themes of loss, and the complicated nature of happiness.