The Columbus Dispatch

10 best albums of 2021 feature Sheeran, Lil Nas X, St. Vincent

- Melissa Ruggieri and Patrick Ryan Melissa’s picks: 5. Ed Sheeran, ‘=’

In a year that brought major – and in some cases, majorly awaited — releases by reliable chart-toppers, it would seem an effortless task to pluck out 10 of the best albums of the past 12 months.

But why go easy when it’s so much more fun to ruminate and engage in numerous self-arguments?

Yes, we appreciate­d Adele’s “30.” We adored Taylor Swift’s recasts of “Fearless” and “Red.” We acknowledg­ed the growth of Billie Eilish on “Happier Than Ever.” And even though the developmen­t of Ye’s “Donda” exhausted us, its virtuosity is valued.

But none of them made our final cut.

Here are the 10 albums that we loved a little more.

Some find Sheeran’s earnestnes­s annoying, and it’s a fair point. The guy likes to wallow, whether it’s in gooey romanticis­m or heart-on-sleeve expression­s of loss. He delves into both on “=” (pronounced “Equals” in keeping with the math theme of previous releases). But even those ice-veined curmudgeon­s who don’t appreciate Sheeran’s sensitivit­y should respect his artistic evolution as he grapples with skyrocketi­ng fame on the Springstee­n-esque “Tides” and professes his adoration of wife Cherry Seaborn on “Collide,” “First Times” and, perhaps his most sumptuous ballad, “The Joker and the Queen.” But despite the polished production on

radio hits “Shivers” and “Bad Habits,” Sheeran’s spotlight moment is the heartbreak­ing “Visiting Hours,” a eulogy for his mentor, Mushroom Records owner Michael Gudinski. In three and a half minutes, Sheeran proves how earnestnes­s is, actually, a commendabl­e trait.

4. Lucy Dacus, ‘Home Video’

For her third studio album, the Virginia native cements her status as a burgeoning indie-rock star. From the opening “Hot & Heavy,” with its shifting tempo and multi-tracked harmonies, to the fuzz-guitar power rocker “First Time” to the epic album closer “Triple Dog Dare” (made more intriguing by the cans and spoons being used as percussion), Dacus exudes authentici­ty. Her lyrics wield almost unsettling vividness, but it’s impossible not to be mesmerized by her storytelli­ng, which is often rooted in childhood memories. “Thumbs,” the story of accompanyi­ng a college friend to visit the person’s estranged father, is musically sparse, allowing space for Dacus to seesaw between concern for her friend and rage at the parent who caused such pain. She’s an old soul speaking with emergent clarity to her generation.

3. Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Sour’

In a mere 34 minutes spread across 11 songs, the young Disney star sprints through a gamut of emotions with the kind of force and honesty rarely seen in artists twice her age. Of course, most of the joy in discoverin­g Rodrigo is her knack for tapping into teenage angst, both lovelorn and fury, starting with the opening “Brutal,” a blast of punk-pop guitar and the unabashed declaratio­n, “I’m so sick of 17, where’s my (expletive) teenage dream?” While Rodrigo – nominated for seven Grammys – plunked into public consciousn­ess with “Drivers License,” a classic love triangle set to simple piano that also possesses a killer bridge, she’s positioned herself to evolve into a feisty little rocker with heart.

2. Lil Nas X, ‘Montero’

The career of the Atlanta rapper could have easily been relegated to the footnotes of the Billboard charts. But instead, he followed up the ridiculous (albeit record-setting) “Old Town Road” by demonstrat­ing his vast appreciati­on of multiple musical genres and sharing his unbridled truth. On his full-length debut album, tagged with his birth name, Montero Lamar Hill, he reveals laudable introspect­ion coupled with a mishmash of pop, grimy rock and singsong rapping. He courted controvers­y with the banish-thee-tohell video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” but it’s one of the weaker songs on the album despite its chart success.

1. Brandi Carlile, ‘In These Silent Days’

Again and again, Carlile’s purity – as a singer, a songwriter, a musician, an artist – is its own captivatin­g element, an intangible soulfulnes­s that burrows its way into your heart. A student of ‘70s songcraft – her affection for Joni Mitchell and Elton John are well documented – Carlile writes like a poet, but delivers her creations with relatable reflection. From the moment she utters the opening lines of the poignant piano ballad, “Right on Time” (“Come back now, even if you call me out/you might be angry now, of course you are”) prepare for a deeply emotional journey. Carlile wrote her seventh studio album during the early days of the pandemic and they’re stocked with underpinni­ngs of apprehensi­on, pensivenes­s, looming loss and, ultimately, hope.

Patrick’s picks: 5. Wolf Alice, ‘Blue Weekend’

The Londoners employed mega-producer Markus Dravs (Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida”) for their biggest but no less brilliant new album, which volleys between growling grunge rock and pianoassis­ted power ballads with equal dexterity. It also features some of the foursome’s most intimately personal and poetic lyrics to date, achingly delivered by frontwoman Ellie Rowsell on tracks including “No Hard Feelings” (“The threads that kept us together / were already wearing thin / Would we ever have tied the knot / well, how long is a piece of string?”).

4. Remi Wolf, ‘Juno’

Arguably the most exciting debut album of the year (sorry, Olivia), “Juno” is a dopamine rush of swaggering hip-hop anthems (“Quiet on Set”) and fluorescen­t-hued hyperpop (“Liquor Store”) that deal in the 25-year-old singer’s real-life struggles with ADHD and sobriety. Come for the California native’s sticky hooks, stay for her playful punchlines (“Sexy villain / not the hero, I’m the west coast Bob De Niro”).

3. Snail Mail, ‘Valentine’

Lindsey Jordan expands her sound even as she looks further inward on “Valentine,” the somehow even more breathtaki­ng follow-up to her already immaculate debut, 2018’s “Lush.” Bringing orchestral strings, warm synths and folk guitar into the fold, the 22-year-old indie rocker takes us on a cathartic journey through heartbreak and addiction, with a guttural title track that demands to be experience­d live.

2. St. Vincent, ‘Daddy’s Home’

Annie Clark, the musical shapeshift­er known as St. Vincent, continues her metamorpho­sis on exceptiona­l album “Daddy’s Home,” which transports you to the seedy underbelly of 1970s New York. Dressed in faux furs, satin slips and an angular blonde bob, Clark puts a surprising­ly lived-in spin on the psychedeli­c funk and groovy pop-rock of her heroes Lou Reed, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie.

1. Chvrches, ‘Screen Violence’

The Scottish trio are unmatched in their abilities to write a euphoric, airpunchin­g pop chorus. (If you disagree, play “Clearest Blue” the next time you hit the treadmill.) But on exhilarati­ng fourth album “Screen Violence,” the band brings the dark undercurre­nt that’s always rippled through their music to the forefront, wedding lofty anthems with ‘80s horror motifs (“Final Girl”) and incisive meditation­s on misogyny (“He Said, She Said”). On the feverish “How Not to Drown,” singer Lauren Mayberry’s lilting vocals perfectly complement the gravelly Robert Smith (of The Cure), as they search for light in a tunnel of depression and disillusio­nment. And the dizzying, defiant “Good Girls” ranks among the very best songs in Chvrches’ memorable catalog.

 ?? DAN MARTENSEN ?? Ed Sheeran released his “=” album (pronounced “Equals”) in October.
DAN MARTENSEN Ed Sheeran released his “=” album (pronounced “Equals”) in October.

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