2021 so far

These 2021-released albums have been playing loudly on my speakers and likely have also become a soundtrack to my upstairs neighbors’ life.

Jubilee - Japanese Breakfast

Japanese Breakfast made it onto my list of “new-to-me” artists of the year. Michelle Zauner, the singer and artist behind the band name, not only released this fire album in 2021, but also published a best-selling memoir Crying in H Mart as an ode to her mom who passed away a few years ago. I have not finished this book yet, not because I don’t like it. It has so much emotionally charge that I have to be in the right headspace to be able to handle the depth of Zauner’s grief that comes through in each chapter.

Robert and I saw Japanese Breakfast perform Jubilee at Thalia Hall in Chicago this year. Many times during the evening, her eyes locked with the super-fan crowd at the front as she crouched down to meet them. Someone held up a sign facing the stage with a painting of the Chicago bean. While some people shouted to put down the sign, she mused, “I love that sign. Thank you. It looks like a little butt.” The way she cracked jokes while also acknowledging those fans who so clearly adore her made me feel like she really saw us down here. After so many other concerts with charming but uncomfortable on stage chatter, Zauner’s candid, comfortable quips between songs lacked awkwardness in a way that seemed almost novel. Michelle – as her audience lovingly called her – is loyal to her fans, in the same way they are to her.

This album has the same power of words that her memoir does. She writes about internal mental health battles like sports in “Slide Tackle”, lover boys from towns and times of past, and the intimacy and vulnerability of bondage. One of the most powerful moments came during her performance of “Posing in Bondage”. I looked around at everyone else in the room in the quieter moments of this song. She “spoke sang” the lyrics, almost performing a poem. I felt that each person held the words of this song closely– whether they were hearing this for the first time or the thousandth time, be they swaying, staring at her standing still on stage, holding their hands to their heart, or leaning closer to their lover. With the marimba, soft background vocals, her hands gently touching the microphone, she sang:

Closeness. 
Proximity. 
I need it. 
Bondage.

I was having my own intimate moment with this crowd. I wondered what these words meant for each of them. How she can see us, make me feel seen, and also encourage me to see others as deeply human people who long for each other felt truly magic. Whether in a memoir, an album, a joke between the set, Japanese Breakfast’s words speak the deepest intimacies to crowds. Michelle Zauner delivers on one of the most beautiful, powerful functions of art: making loneliness feel less lonely.

star-crossed - Kacey Musgraves

Kacey Musgraves always goes straight to the heart in her songs. She cheekily talks about her cute velvet Elvis and the butterflies that come with a new lover. However, star-crossed hits a new note. There is no confusion that this is an album about her recent divorce from Ruston Kelly, a different side of love than her previous album Golden Hour. For example, in the first song (the album’s title track), she sings:

I signed the papers yesterday
You came and took your things away
And moved out of the home we made
I gave you back your name

Each lyric describes an almost matter-of-fact action that occurred during this point in her life. She tells us what happened using her words while the sound of the song tells us how she feels. The dramatic, cinematic-like production of this album carries with it the largeness and depth of Kacey’s emotions.

This album uniquely combines the story-telling lyrics with her dramatic, cinematic sound. She has used both of these techniques before, but this album is the first time they so seamlessly coalesce into one.

In her 2013 album, Same Trailer Different Park, Kacey’s lyrics match the very standard country style of her untouched, twangy guitar sound. Her words are characteristic of country music in general with a story-telling style and imagery of very earthly, concrete subjects. For example, in “Keep it to Yourself”, she describes a relationship at night through a story:

You turn on the light
Then you turn it back off
'Cause sleepin' alone, yeah, it ain't what you thought

In her 2018 album Golden Hour, Kacey takes a turn toward cosmic country with a more ethereal, rock-influenced, and even electronic style at times. She pulls out the synth and starts some songs making only low-frequency sounds. These techniques bring a new, more produced sound to Kacey. Likewise, her lyrics change, matching the rock sound she trends toward. In the style of rock, her lyrics speak less about the concrete world of events around her, instead communicating indirectly an experience of emotions. Like the metaphors she pulls on when she sings in “Happy & Sad”,

I'm comfortable when the sky is gray
But when everything is perfect, I start hidin'
'Cause I know that rain is comin' my way, my way

star-crossed mismatches lyrics and sound. She holds to the cosmic country sound of Golden Hour while bouncing back to the story-telling style of Same Trailer Different Park. As she sings the album’s title track, we get the line by line details of her divorce in a story-telling arc. Yet the sound is cinematic and ethereal, with reverb applied to her voice and the many voices of her chorus, making me feel like I am listening to an out-of-this-world, space movie soundtrack. It’s pretty easy to say this is a much less traditional country style than the sound of Kacey playing her guitar in my living room.

Though not particularly obvious, I would say this does in a way push both genres of rock and country, making Kacey stand out. Overall, this is an easy album to listen to once, but emotionally tough one to digest over time.

Daddy’s Home - St. Vincent

St. Vincent walked onto the stage in the highest heels and a leather jacket with “Daddy” rhinestone-studded across her back. I hadn’t really heard much of her before, so I wasn’t particularly looking forward or not to her performance. But the jacket made a pretty good impression. This was a strong way to start headlining the second night of the Pitchfork music festival. She started singing her first song and turns out I knew almost every word. I thought, “Funny…of course she would start with the song a lot of people know.” But as she sang the next song and the next one, I kept singing all the words. By the end I was super-fan screaming after each song, utterly enthralled by her electric performance. (Upon reflecting, I realized the radio station I grew listening to, The Current, has been playing her songs since I was in elementary school.)

After I decided I was now her biggest super-fan, I had to do some research. In her first album in 2007 Marry Me, she is pictured in headshot format wearing a linen-like flowy gray shirt and messy-hair. It looks more like she should be playing an acoustic guitar in a coffee shop. After only having the context of “Daddy” St. Vincent, I was shocked. The St. Vincent of Daddy's Home is the matriarch with much rougher edges. She has a straight bleach blonde bob with clean cut bangs, a fur coat, lingerie-like silk dress, and thick messy eye-liner which makes me curious what she’s been through all night. By playing with the exaggerated stereotype of an emotionally out-of-control, middle-aged woman, St. Vincent in Daddy's Home embodies a usual taboo spectrum of emotion for woman – out-of-control, angry, powerful, messy.

And in doing so, she gives her fans also the space to experience these really true emotions that too often get pushed out of the realm of public acceptance. I felt it during her concert when she was shredding the electric guitar screaming, and I could not help but scream back.

Weeks later, I am still screaming to Daddy's Home. It is stuck in my head. I also still want a jacket that says “Daddy” on the back.

Happier Than Ever - Billie Eilish

I cannot say much more than what’s already been said about Billie. I love her. I hope to hear her songs when I am 80 years old. She’ll probably still be writing songs I can relate to. Her ability to transcend age while acknowledging it age is incredible.

Home Video - Lucy Dacus

Lucy Dacus recounts dark times in the church with God, mediocre boyfriends who called her “cerebral” when she didn’t know what that meant, and best friends who went through the wringer with their own parents. Each song in Home Video is a snippet of a past relationship, most from high school. In a final ode to frankness, the record liner notes include the names of the individuals who inspired the songs.

Not sanitized for a public audience, there is something fiercely kind about her bluntness. In “Thumbs”, Dacus accompanies her best friend who is reuniting with her dad for the first time since fifth grade. With the deepest distaste for the dad stemming from her highest respect for her friend, Dacus sings:

I would kill him if you let me

Apparently before this song was released, when she performed it live with boygenius, she asked the audience to not film it. Dacus stays acutely aware that she cannot control how the subjects of her songs will react to her unfiltered rawness. Despite this, with the emotional wisdom we have come to count on from Dacus, she owns her perspective and gracefully delivers her truth in a way that holds those she loves as those worth fighting for.

I imagine this album in another format: a set of VHSs on a shelf, each with a piece of tape saying something like “Lucy and Pete - 2007”, one tape for each person who is listed in the liner notes. The album follows up on its promise to be a Home Video of her high school life. The lyrics are so vividly descriptive that each song plays like a mini-movie in my mind. Dacus brought me into her deep psyche, and it has been years too late, but this was also the final straw that sucked me into the Dacus / Bridgers / boygenius fandom.

Obviously - Lake Street Dive

At seventeen years old, I dragged my mom to First Ave in Minneapolis, Minnesota, so that I could attend Lake Street Dive’s 18+ show. I basked in the thrill of seeing my first concert in the very city that gave Lake Street Dive their name. My mom stood in the back near the bar, and I bet she said that someday I would know the exhaustion of going out after my nine-to-five job on a weekday. But I wanted nothing to do with thinking about getting older at that moment. I pushed forward in the crowd. Lake Street Dive harmonized, “I wish I met you when I was seventeen”. I melted into the evening as the luckiest person in that room. I was seventeen and didn’t have to wish to be anything or anywhere other than exactly where I was. I was the age everyone in that room wished to be.

Nine years later, I have now seen LSD so many times I cannot even remember. Each time I prepare for their show by memorizing every word to each song on their latest album. However, for the first time in four albums, I could not make Obviously stick. The lyrics are more trite, less punchy, and impersonal. I appreciate the topics they address in Obviously – climate change and a woman’s place in the world, for example – but the lyrics don’t touch these issues with the frankness I have come to expect. In “Being a Woman”, they sing:

Being a woman is a full-time job
And I work all day
And I work all night
Being a woman
Is an uphill climb
Eighty cents on the dollar
And you need every dime

I agree, yet I cannot help but think, “tell me more”. The lyrics of this song evoke a Wikipedia page about women’s issues. Any woman could sing these lyrics. To be so widely applicable might be a compliment, but to me these words don’t offer anything particularly insightful about the experience of womanhood or patriarchy. As they tackle other critical issues of the day, like climate change, they follow a similar pattern of generalizing away the specifics. In such a song “Making Do”, they hint at the meaning of the album as a whole:

How could you deny it?
Living like your eyes are shut
I guess it's hard to be a human
It's еven harder to be not

This is an album about the “obvious” concerns of our days for humanity. The title of the album reflects the sentiment of “Making Do”: anyone who is blind to injustices that surround us, wake up! It is Obviously clear as day. Part of this album feels like a laundry list of very real issues but doesn’t dig into them, like “Being a Woman”. However, in “Making Do”, they take a different scope and address some wider emotional experiences of our current era: fear of what’s been left for the future generations to deal with, longing for all people to let down their blinders, and even hope that something better is yet to come. The strongest moments of this album are when they tap into these meatier emotions, helping me process these experiences and provide me a new way to understand issues that I already know exist.

I am glad I met LSD when I was seventeen. I hold tight the relationship between my favorite band in high school and me. Perhaps unavoidably, over the last almost decade, the taste in my mouth of nostalgia for a younger time has grown. As I evolve, the band grows and shifts too. Pianist and singer Akie Bermiss joined about five years ago. This past May, trumpeter and founding member Mike ‘McDuck’ Olson left the band after 16 years. Even though it’s hard to admit sometimes, the evolution of a band is part of the joy of being a fan. I also salute the band and its members experimenting and doing what is best for them as musicians and family members. McDuck has been around for a pretty long time, and I understand wanting and needing to change. This past August I saw them play at the Ravinia in Chicago suburbs. McDuck’s trumpet parts were played by a new member (though I cannot find any info about an “official” new member online). This new person played trumpet solos on the guitar – a beautiful tribute to a sound of past while welcoming a new era.

Overall, Obviously has some catchy songs from an always genre-defying band. If I wished them never to change, I would have to wish the same for myself. So, let them evolve, I say.

Ignorance - The Weather Station

During a cold January pandemic day, swayed by a recent Pitchfork endorsement, Robert and I decided to listen to The Weather Station’s newest album. The soft, ethereal, airy voice of singer Tamara Lindeman filled my first floor apartment. We lounged from floor to chair to couch while the many layers of Ignorance helped us escape from the snow coming down outside. Lindeman’s voice danced carefully with five other Canadian musicians, playing hand drums, electric guitar, piano, clarinet, and saxophone. We were listening to jazz and indie-rock all with singer-songwriter lyricism. Over the months, the cold days became fewer and listening to Ignorance on lazy weekends became our ritual.

I shared this album with my dad who immediately noticed similarities to 90s-era band, The Cowboy Junkies. Both deliver a softness, a space in their rocky genres. Because we discovered The Weather Station during a year when the pandemic’s isolation gave the ordinary and mundane a new meaning, we welcomed the invigoration of this clearing whole-heartedly. Toward the end of the summer, isolation gave way to more gatherings. In a celebration of sorts, we saw The Weather Station perform. Characteristic of the clearing from which they came, each was clothed in earthly muted green, orange, tan colors. Tamara wore a jacket and short combo with ’20s styled tassels in these muted colors in a powerful extension of their grounded nature.

In No Depression’s Summer 2021 issue “Voices”, Lindeman aptly summarizes the strength of The Weather Station’s softness:

When we take a moment to listen and really hear, 
I think soft voices can carry more expression, more nuance,
more complexity. [... ] It's when I sing softly that I feel like 
I can access my full range of expression, when I feel like I 
can allow my voice to carry many conflicting emotions at once, 
when I feel like I can access the intimacy that I think carries 
my music best.  

I don’t even know what many of the songs are about and that does not bother me at all. The layered instrumentation, rhythmic variety, and, as Lindeman says with admirable self-aware artistry, the nuanced complexity of vocal tenderness of their style conveys depth without having to investigate the lyrics (which one most definitely could). At a time, when I felt somewhat numb to emotions, this album awakened something inside me. It drew me closer to Robert. I could feel without thinking too much. A shell that had been forming without my awareness softened to an underlying warmness. I had found a small antidote for the “ignorance” toward my own emotions and experience I fueled over the last year.

Watchhouse - Watchhouse

You might know Watchhouse better as Mandolin Orange. This self-titled album is their first full-length after dropping their previous moniker. The re-brand of folk duo Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin came after raising their toddler through the pandemic. Mandolin Orange was a relic of their early 20s and young adulthood. As they evolve in their mid-thirties, Marlin mentioned that the old name was holding back the generation of new sounds: “We have long been burdened by the dichotomy between our band name and the music we want to create.”

During the past year, devoid of their traditional routine of writing and touring, they had time to reconcile these burdens that kept them from moving into the future. In doing so, memories of past communion with friends surfaced for Marlin. When he was a teenager, he and his friends took trips to a cabin in Chesapeake Bay where they sat together often in silence, thinking and being. Frantz and Marlin reconnected to this sense of togetherness and realized they want to generate “a watch house” going forward – a place of communal observation and reflection. However, Watchhouse to me is incredibly similar in sound and style to my dearly beloved Mandolin Orange. As they put this intention into the ether, I am excited to see what changes come next.

Their sound might not have changed much, but they did update their aesthetics. This visual update evokes a traditional nostalgia for a time gone-by while also welcoming the ethereal, whimsical, and space-esque. For the album art, Marlin sits hand-on-knee while Frantz floats weightlessly upside down behind him. This over-exposed black-and-white photograph sits centered on a black and navy starry night sky. In the single “Better Way” released before the album, they sit slumped on a window ledge, back lit, over-exposed again, and sepia toned. This photo in particular sits in a lineage of Depression-era style, contemporary folk music. They loosely follow couple singers Gillian Welch and David Rawlings in bluegrass style and nostalgic aesthetics. Though, Watchhouse trends toward the whimsical and Rawlings and Welch toward the twangy, they both are situated in a history of folk styles, much older than the couples themselves. As Frantz and Marlin look toward the future, they are firmly rooted in the past.

watchhouse Watchhouse’s 2021 single “Better Way” gillian-welch Gillian Welch’s 1996 Revival

Other Notable Mentions…

Gold Digger’s Sound - Leon Bridges

Stand for Myself - Yola

Between Us - Ana Egge

Published on Oct 10, 2021