My Favorite Albums of 2021
Yes, 2021. Cleaning out the drafts folder…
As I ramped up my piano playing over the past couple of years I’ve listened to a lot more classical music. I think it’s squeezed out some of the space for pop music. Or maybe I’ve just finally become old enough I don’t care for the new stuff anymore. Either way, my favorite music of 2021 was split between new albums and piano repertoire I was interested in playing.
1. Olivia Rodrigo — Sour
First year my daughter and I had the same favorite album of the year… so that’s something new. This is really a tremendous pop album though, even if the ballads drag. More songs like Brutal, please.
2. Low — Hey What
Almost 30 years into Low’s career and this is the first I ever listened to them. The songs are good and the production is unique. I did a lot of late night work to this album.
3. Sturgill Simpson — The Ballad of Dood and Juanita
Definitely an oddball album, but I enjoy everything Sturgill Simpson does, and he never makes the same album twice. It’s a song cycle telling a single story, and really should be listened to that way.
4. The War on Drugs — I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Not my favorite War on Drugs album — it’s a bit overly 80s-style synth heavy at times for me, but it gets the job done.
1. Chopin Preludes
Chopin’s wrote a cycle of 24 preludes in the late 1830s, following Bach. He brought a copy of the Well-Tempered Clavier to Mallorca with him, where he worked on the set. Like Bach’s set, he has a prelude in each major and minor key. Unlike Bach, there are no fugues, so these are preludes to nothing (which apparently baffled folks at the time). Each prelude has a different emotional character. Some of my favorites include #4 (nicknamed “Suffocation”), #6, #9, #15 (nicknamed “Raindrop”), and #20 “Funeral March”. Pollini’s interpretations are great (Spotify).
2. Chopin Nocturnes
The Nocturnes are justifiably famous short-form piano pieces. You definitely know the lyrical Eb major (Op. 9 no 2.), but I also love the Bb minor (Op. 9 No. 1, below), and the posthumous C# minor, among others. Again, Pollini’s versions are superb (Spotify), but you’ll have to go elsewhere if you want the C# minor (Jan Lisiecki has a nice version on Spotify).
3. Schubert Impromptus
I came across the Impromptu in Gb major (Op. 90 No. 3) quite by accident through this András Schiff masterclass on YouTube, but fell quite in love with Schubert’s beautiful song-like melodic style through it. Murray Perahia does a great job with it, as he does with everything (Spotify).
4. Bach’s French Suites
One of several Baroque dance suite cycles Bach wrote (you may know the Cello Suites), these are beautiful and the most approachable of the solo piano suites for me. I like Suite 1 in D minor a lot (in particular, the Allemande and the Sarabande), but the Allemande from Suite 4 in Eb major is the highlight of the whole set for me. It’s timeless. Somehow it always makes me think of a Brunelleschi church, with its perfect proportions bringing a deep sense of everything inside being at piece. And you can listen to this three minutes of music every day for years and you’ll keep hearing new things each time. Again you can’t beat Murray Perahia (Spotify).