It all starts with a guitar riff then 80s styled synths pop into the mix on “Grand Junction”. A song about a couple driving out west where the girl is scared then amazed by the size of the sky. Singer Craig Finn tackles other relationships on The Hold Steady’s ninth studio album, The Price of Progress. “Perdido” captures a break up while on vacations. “Says she’s got a couple lovers, yeah, you’re not the only one/You’re just the only one that wants to spend the week with me.”
The boys are having a crisis after softball on “Carlos is Crying” where Carlos has not told his girlfriend he has not worked in weeks. “Flyover Halftime” has a significant pregaming session before one of the boys runs on the field. At times, the stories and songs are not that significant, “City at Eleven” doesn’t leave much of an impression. But on The Price of Progress, the band cranks out several middle aged delights that a lot of us can relate to.
10. The Hold Steady – Unpleasant Breakfast: The mid tempo track appears midway through the latest release from The Hold Steady, on an album that welcomes Franz Nicolay back to the fold. It’s a minimal track that gets amped up with “Woooo” in the chorus before adding a piano swing towards the end.
9. Chris Miles, Lil Xan – MISS ME: When Lil Xan teamed up with Chris Miles, they managed to cross numerous musical boundaries including rap, trap, rock, emo, pop, etc. Lil Xan turns in a vulnerable second verse and it’s hard to deny the simple hook of Miles yelling “like yeah”. An unexpected end of year favourite.
8. Japanese Breakfast – Paprika: The lead track from Michelle Zauner’s critically acclaimed third album was all sweetness and light. It is hard to top the joy when Zauner hits the high notes in the chorus and her exclamation that “it’s a rush” just before the horns pour in.
7. Lana Del Rey – Dealer: With two albums of songs to choose from in 2021, this Miles Kane duet is not the most obvious. Driven by bass and drums, the lazy 60s vibe builds as they sang “I gave you all my money” before Lana belts out the anguished chorus.
6. Wolf Alice – Delicious Things: The second track on Wolf Alice’s excellent Blue Weekend album, sees the Ellie Roswell wondering whether her move to LA was the right decision. Over an atmospheric chorus, Roswell ponders a feeling that many of us have felt while living in a new city – “would you believe I’m in Los Angeles?”
5. Chvrches (Featuring Robert Smith) – How Not To Drown: Another UK band that saw members move to LA, Chvrches second single added Robert Smith to the proceedings. A pounding piano breaks through the densely layered track. Even with a legend singing with her, it’s Lauren Mayberry that delivers the powerful opening line “I’m writing a book on how to stay conscious when you drown”.
4. Wet Leg – Chaise Longue: When readers on Instagram were asked by BBC6 what their favourite new bands were, an overwhelming amount of commenters mentioned Wet Leg. The duo delivers hilarious lyrics in a monotone, deadpan style over one of the catchiest musical beds of the year. A few more excellent singles have followed making Wet Leg’s debut scheduled for 2022, one of the most anticipated of the new year.
3. Damon Albarn – Royal Morning Blue: A highlight off of Albarn’s first solo album in seven years, “Royal Morning Blue” rides a simple electronic drum beat but also adds swirls of sounds. The atmospheric track draws much heft from Albarn’s singing and hits an emotional note when he says, “…and nothing like this had ever happened”
2. The Felice Brothers – Jazz On The Autobahn: The upbeat track from New York’s The Felice Brothers tells the story of a woman speaking of what the apocalypse will be like. A terrific drum beat moves the track along as it reaches the infectious chorus declaring the end of times will sound/not sound like “jazz, jazz, jazz…”. If the end of the world sounds like this, I’m ready!
1. Middle Kids – Today We’re the Greatest: Like the year before, 2021 was a rough go much of the time. Still battling a pandemic, cut off from friends/family, endless fighting online, employment lost, travel plans cancelled. But Middle Kids breaks through the doom to declare that, “someday we’ll be gone, but today we’re the greatest”. It’s a poignant sentiment that we’ll all disappear and be forgotten about but just for today – we can be heroes. A hidden gem that will hopefully be discovered by more people needing a lift.
5. Lana Del Rey – Blue Banisters: Lana Del Rey put her work foot down in 2021 and released two fine albums. Her second release, Blue Banisters, gets the slight nod for favourite of the year. What Lana does very well is create a vibe and feeling. Mixing new songs with older recordings, this was an album to sink into while drifting away.
4. Chvrches – Screen Violence: A few members of the Scottish band have relocated to LA but the band has continued through the travels. Lauren Mayberry’s voice adds a human element to their often dense, electronic sound. Robert Smith shows up on “How Not To Drown” and it’s a testament to the band that he adds to the track instead of overshadowing the younger Glaswegians.
3. The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy: The Hold Steady’s first album with keyboardist Franz Nicolay was welcomed with open arms. The wordy wordplay of Craig Finn is punctuated with horns and flourishes that add an extra dose of excitement. It was an album to make some of us fall for the band all over again after not listening for a few years.
2. Damon Albarn – The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows: The blur and Gorillaz leader returns with his first solo album in seven years. The influence was Iceland but also his home in Devon and the lockdown. Paranoia and danger mixes with beauty and wonder on the minimal album that is not perfect but one that we returned to time and time again.
1. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend: Right from first listen it was going to be hard to knock Wolf Alice off our list as the album of the year. The London band mixed many alternative rock styles from the last 30 years to create a memorable ride through their eclectic world. While, “Delicious Things” was the highlight, several other songs shone such as the blast of “Play The Greatest Hits” and the much softer “No Hard Feelings”. It all hangs together terrifically well as the band looks equally to the oil filled water in the gutter as they do the bright stadium lights.
Open Door Policy is The Hold Steady’s eighth studio album and second since the return of keyboardist Franz Nicolay. ODP has all the hallmarks one comes to expect from The Hold Steady, the wordy wordplay of vocalist Craig Finn along with the driving rock sound of the band. There are cool little moments in each song. The “woooo” background vocals of “Unpleasant Breakfast” and the horn section courtesy of Stuart Bogie and Jordan McLean, formerly of Antibalas, that adds lift to third single “Spices”.
“The Feelers” is a solid introduction to both the album and The Hold Steady. A varied track with some piano and strings before the drums and guitar really start to pump. “All the things you never really noticed before/Turned out they don’t even matter/’Cause when someone hits the switch in the kitchen/All the insects just scatter”. The more straightforward rock songs don’t quite hit the same way, unlike lead single “Family Farm” that comes out with blazing horns and guitar or the handclapping pop rock of “Riptown”. The best parts here are when the band is really cooking rather than just focusing on Finn’s intricate lyrics. There’s more than enough of those moments to carry this very good early 2021 album.