Best Albums February 2021: Slowthai, Julien Baker, Aaron Lee Tasjan - Rolling Stone
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The Best Albums of February 2021: Slowthai, Julien Baker, Aaron Lee Tasjan, the Band, and More

Here are the must-hear albums from last month, from a potent indie singer-songwriter to a thrilling U.K. rapper to an essential Seventies rock reissue

julien baker the band

Alysse Gafkjen*; Harvey L. Silver/Corbis/Getty Images

Julien Baker, Little Oblivions

On two standout solo albums, and as a member of the indie supergroup Boygenius, with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, she’s established herself as one of the leading female singer-songwriters of her generation, both for her music’s muted grandeur and lyrics that seem to dive headlong into emotional chaos.In 2019, Baker took a break from music to finish her undergraduate degree. But she’s emerged a much more proficient artist. After making her previous LPs mostly on guitar and piano, Baker recorded her latest, which she also produced, with a full band, creating a big, steely, momentous-feeling sound that’s much more pop-aware than anything else she’s done. The expansive music does nothing to dilute her lyrical directness. —Angie Martoccio

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The Weather Station, Ignorance 

Canadian singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman treats Ignorance as a breakup-record with her own dying planet, grappling with what she describes, at one point, as the “fragile idea that anything matters.” Sometimes that means reveling in natural beauty in the face of destruction (“Atlantic”), sometimes it means greed and the loss of innocence (“Robber”), and sometimes it just means grief. Halfway through “Loss,” a song about what happens when using optimism as a survival tactic no longer suffices, Lindeman stakes out the album’s emotional territory in a moment that recalls Van Morrison’s “the love that loves to love” epiphany from “Madame George”: “Loss is loss is loss is loss is loss,” she sings, each word its own funeral, ”is loss is loss is loss is loss is loss is loss is loss is loss.” —Jonathan Bernstein

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Slowthai, Tyron

Throughout Tyron, Slowthai appears to be reckoning a punk-inspired brashness with a broader culture of accountability. The result is both illuminating and one-dimensional in equal measure. Despite a handful of missed landings, Tyron still admirably inspires the kind of mosh-pit energy that feels nearly romantic in an era of closed venues and social distancing. The front end, with song titles in all-caps, is full of the high-octane style most fans are familiar with. The latter half, with titles in lowercase, finds Slowthai in relatively new territory. The bpms are lower, and he’s is in a place of genuine introspection. It’s this honesty that makes the second half of Tyron stand out as the record’s greatest strength. —Jeff Ihaza

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Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Carnage 

Carnage, a collaboration between Cave and Bad Seeds multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, is a relatively quiet meditation on spiritual salvation in the era of loneliness. On each of the record’s eight tracks, Cave attempts to make sense of his place in the world, as he sees it crumbling around him. When he thinks of love on the title track, it’s “with a little bit of rain, and I hope to see you again.” Deeper into the album, on “Shattered Ground,” his love is diffuse, “Everywhere you are, I am,” he sings into an ether of synthesized strings, “and everywhere you are, I will hold your hand again.” —Kory Grow

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Joeboy, Somewhere Between Beauty & Magic

“I’m always making really happy music,” rising Nigerian artist Joeboy told Rolling Stone. Indeed, his first album to be released in the United States teams with bright melodies, gorgeous rhythms, and an optimistic vision. On “Number One” his voice skates into a supple high register over a skittering beat, and “Better Things” creates something glistening and majestic from a simple guitar loop and his warm harmonies. Whether he’s singing about love and marriage or more ephemeral romance, everything on this uniquely pretty records flows with the warmth, generosity, and beauty of an Al Green valentine. —Jon Dolan

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Hayley Williams, Flowers

Hayley Williams has codified what a top-to-bottom quarantine album can sound like with her latest LP, Flowers for Vases/Descansos, released this past Friday via Atlantic. It’s her second solo album outside of her long career as the lead singer for Paramore, and her second one in less than a year: She put out her debut, the eclectic and Björk-inspired Petals for Armor, in three parts last spring. Unlike Petals, or any other album she’s been a part of, Williams recorded Flowers entirely on her own — singing all the harmonies, playing all the instruments — at her home in Nashville, seeking outside help from only producer Daniel James and engineer Carlos de la Garza. —Claire Shaffer

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The Band, Stage Fright 

More than 50 years after its release, Robbie Robertson finally sequenced Stage Fright the way he originally intended. (His bandmates wanted their more collaborative songs toward the front, and it haunted Robertson for half a century.) As with the previous anniversary reissues of Music From Big Pink and The Bandthe tracks have been given a new stereo mix makeover, but the real gem on Stage Fright is the live component. On the previously unreleased set from the Royal Albert Hall in 1971, you can hear Levon Helm tear through “Strawberry Wine” and Richard Manuel’s throaty vocals on “The Shape I’m In” with crystal clarity. Sprinkled in the collection are a few raw takes from a hotel room in Calgary, providing a more intimate aspect away from the crowd — which now feels all too familiar. —A.M.

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Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Way Down in the Rust Bucket

Way Down in the Rust Bucket showcases a reconvened band that sounds newly motivated after increasingly sluggish and creaky shows in the Eighties. They’re not yet the smooth-galloping machine they would become on the full-blown tour, though. What we’re hearing is the musicians feeling their way — for only the second time onstage — through the new material from the just-out Ragged Glory. The must-plays, like “Cinnamon Girl,” get by through sheer musical memory. But a certain tentativeness is evident on Glory songs like “Fuckin’ Up” and “Mansion on the Hill,” which would tighten up on the road; “Farmer John” sounds especially, shall we say, liquored up. —David Browne

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VanJess, Homegrown

VanJess — the duo of singing Nigerian American sisters Ivana and Jessica Nwokike — sit softly in their carnal desires and emotional needs on Homegrown. The pair may be best known for their collaborations with producer Kaytranada, both on his projects and their stellar 2018 album Silk Canvas. The pair slips “Dysfunctional,” their 2019 dance track with Kaytra, onto Homegrown, but smartly bury it between sexy new songs. Here, VanJess also enlists the sophisticated production of Snakehips and Monte Booker, double date with guest vocalists Garren and Jimi Tents, and link with Phony Ppl. Across nine tracks, Ivana and Jessica are in sync with each other through delicate harmonies and in sync with their soundscape of slinky, uptempo R&B, soul, funk, and hip-hop. —Mankaprr Conteh

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Aaron Lee Tasjan, Tasjan, Tasjan, Tasjan

The singer-songwriter’s latest album is his most compelling to date. His sonic reinvention here — marked by stammering synths and swirling glam rock — feels both effortless and inevitable. Tasjan delivers songs — like “Sunday Women,” with its chorus storming the song in its opening seconds, and “Don’t Overthink It,” with its psych-rock outro — with a thrilling, fresh urgency that makes it feel like he’s the first singer-songwriter to discover (or, in his case, rediscover) synths and pop choruses. —J.B.

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Alice Cooper, Detroit Stories 

That spirit of rock & roll abandon still exists in Cooper’s music half a century after he got his start. It’s no surprise that the best songs on Cooper’s 21st solo album, Detroit Stories, are the funniest. “Our Love Will Change the World” is a jaunty cover of an ironic ditty by the Michigan power-pop group Outrageous Cherry, and in Cooper’s hands, it sounds like The Partridge Family on angel dust, complete with finger snaps, as the ever-sarcastic singer describes his dream utopia as a dystopia. —K.G.

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Sarah Mary Chadwick, Me and Ennui Are Friends, Baby

Chadwick props herself on her piano and divines the right chords to treat each of her wounded words like a salve as she makes sense of her middle-age wreckage. It’s not so much the heartbreaking language of Me and Ennui that makes the record captivating as it is the way she sings it. Yes, there’s plenty of ennui — that difficult-to-describe dissatisfied feeling that Sylvia Plath and Charles Lloyd paid homage to in poetry (perhaps summed up best in Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”) — but Chadwick is too self-aware for that feeling to take center stage. In some ways, this album has been a long time coming. —K.G.

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John Carpenter, Lost Themes III: Alive After Death

As with the two previous volumes, Carpenter teamed with his son, Cody, and godson, Daniel Davies (son of the Kinks’ Dave Davies), to conjure 10 unsettling sound vignettes. Whereas Lost Themes had tunes with vague monikers like “Obsidian” and “Wraith,” and Part 2 offered “Windy Death” and “Last Sunrise,” Lost Themes III embraces hoary horror imagery like “Dripping Blood,” “Vampire’s Touch,” “The Dead Walk,” and “Carpathian Darkness.” But the trio sound inspired enough that it never feels like self-parody, so much as the lifting of a curtain on Carpenter’s obvious inspirations. —K.G.

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