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The following list of 2021 releases reflects my faith in the power of music. 

‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.’

—Bertolt Brecht

Dinosaur Jr., Sweep It Into Space (Jagjaguwar)

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Sometimes you need to rock. J. Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph have never sounded better or had bigger hooks than they do on this late-period masterpiece produced by Kurt Vile.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Georgia Blue (Southeastern)

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Isbell promised in 2020 that if Georgia went for Biden and Harris, he’d record and release a tribute to the great musicians of that state. Here it is, and what a job he did on it. Guest artists like Chris Thile and Béla Fleck on R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming” and Isbell’s fabulous 400 Unit keep things blazing throughout. Track to sample first: “Suddenly Salvation.”

Víkingur Ólafsson, Mozart & Contemporaries (Deutsche Grammophon)

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Transcendent accounts of Mozart alongside works by Haydn, Galuppi, and Cimarosa make this solo piano outing one of the year’s most enchanting releases.

Vijay Iyer/Linda May Han Oh/Tyshawn Sorey, Uneasy (ECM) 

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Three of the greatest players in contemporary jazz come together in a musical meditation on social injustice that’s swinging, lyrical, and toughminded. 

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Chrissie Hynde, Standing in the Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan (BMG)

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During lockdown, Hynde traded files with The Pretenders guitarist James Walbourne to create this understated and haunting album of Dylan covers. None of them are predictable, and some of them are unforgettable.

Charles Lloyd & The Marvels, Tone Poem (Blue Note)

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Lloyd’s Marvels go entirely instrumental on this beautiful album that ranges from Ornette Coleman (“Ramblin’” to the Beach Boys (“In My Room”). 

Attacca Quartet, Of All Joys (Sony Classical)

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This audacious album programs contemporary works by Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt in alternation with arrangements for string quartet of renaissance music to stunning and highly listenable effect. 

Various Artists, I’ll Be Your Mirror: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground and Nico (Verve)

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The last project of the late, great Hal Willner brings a star-studded cast (Michael Stipe, Bill Frisell, St. Vincent) to bear on one of the most influential and exciting catalogs in music. For starters, check out the sonic damage Matt Sweeney and Iggy Pop inflict with “European Son.”  

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle (Impulse!)

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The most believable and accessible religious music of our time in an extended live rendition. Uneven? You bet. Irresistible? Absolutely. 

Wiki, Half God (Wikset Enterprises)

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New York is back. 27-year-old Manhattan resident Wiki (birth name Patrick Morales) and his producing partner Navy Blue have made an entire hip-hop album that’s intelligent, funky, and truthful. I don’t listen to new rap often, but I want it to sound like this when I do.

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