The 10 Best Albums of February 2021

Featuring Julien Baker, Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Cassandra Jenkins and more

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The 10 Best Albums of February 2021

The second release month of this young, weird year featured both stylistic swerves and commendable consistency; quick-hitting collections and a sprawling event album; long-anticipated releases and a pleasant surprise. Whether you’re in the mood to be uplifted, devastated or simply distracted, you’ll find what you’re listening for in these top 10 February albums, as curated by the Paste music team.

The Boys with the Perpetual Nervousness: Songs from Another Life

The Feelies-inspired Scottish/Spanish duo The Boys with the Perpetual Nervousness released their sophomore effort in early February, a 10-song, 26-minute collection of seamless pop-rock that does their namesakes proud. Andrew Taylor (Dropkick) and Gonzalo Marcos (El Palacio de Linares) recorded their parts in Edinburgh and San Sebastián, respectively, working from beyond-social distance to create an album that shows us the past through “Rose Tinted Glass,” allowing us to savor “a life that might never return,” per their album bio. This is lovely jangle-pop without an ounce of fat on it, sunny and soft, with the breezy energy that can only come from feeling truly carefree. From vocal harmonies and retro synth frills to an always-accessible blend of acoustic and electric guitars, The Boys paint from a familiar power-pop palette, but create something uniquely beautiful—not even these times of loss and isolation can take that away from us. —Scott Russell

Brijean: Feelings

Oakland duo Brijean followed up their 2019 EP Walkie Talkie with a new LP, Feelings, a vibrant cauldron of funky lounge pop, bossa nova, psych, jazz and IDM. Their Latin-inspired rhythms coexist with retro keyboards and dream pop vocals, and the whole thing sounds strangely boisterous and peaceful at the same time. Although you may find yourself torn between the urge to fall into a psychedelic trance and shuffle along to the beat, it’s a striking reminder of how exciting it can be to hear such a rich blend of cultures. It’s a detailed album that goes beyond mood setting—above all else, these songs are rooted in raw expression and possibility. —Lizzie Manno

Cassandra Jenkins: An Overview on Phenomenal Nature

The second album from New York City-based singer/songwriter Cassandra Jenkins revolves around the notion that “Nothing ever really disappears, it just changes shape,” as the artist herself opines. These seven songs, described in a press release as “ambient folk,” find Jenkins tracing the very universe’s through lines, considering the energy that animates our everyday lives and where it goes after we’ve moved on. “You’re gone, you’re everywhere,” she sings on “Ambiguous Norway,” a farewell to the late David Berman, who died in August 2019, just before Jenkins had been set to tour with him as part of his Purple Mountains project. Like human beings, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature overflows with nuance and an unknowable wonder, its instrumental alchemy blending restrained keys with jazzy horns and Jenkins’ sing-spoken hypnotism—nowhere as bewitchingly as on album centerpiece “Hard Drive.” On ambient closer “The Ramble,” the album finally transcends language entirely, setting chirping birds alongside the music, humankind and (phenomenal) nature made one. —Scott Russell

The Hold Steady: Open Door Policy

Craig Finn has said that the difference between his solo material and The Hold Steady’s songs is often one of scale. With The Hold Steady, Finn seeks big subjects to match the big riffs, while his quieter solo material can focus on smaller moments. If that distinction held true at first, the lines get pretty blurry on the band’s new album. There are still riffs aplenty, and big subjects, on Open Door Policy, but these 10 new songs mix them in among more textured arrangements and understated details reminiscent of Finn’s four solo albums. Maybe the most impressive thing about the band’s eighth album is how the group continues to push beyond its own boundaries. After a two-album stale patch a decade ago, The Hold Steady have rebounded to become more adventurous than they were before, and Finn’s storytelling has never been stronger. —Eric R. Danton

Julien Baker: Little Oblivions

In the past, singer/songwriter Julien Baker—acclaimed both as a solo act and as a member of boygenius alongside Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers—has stunned us with her ability to evoke powerful feelings using only her hushed vocals, confessional lyrics and sparse instrumentation. On her third studio album Little Oblivions, though, Baker’s self-described “bummer jams” have gained a new and arresting sense of scale, losing none of their poignance in the process. These are lush, expansive compositions, awash in everything from drum machines and synthesizers (“Highlight Reel”) to banjo and what sounds like theremin (“Heatwave”). But ever-present on Little Oblivions is the breathtaking introspection of Baker, alone at a piano (“Song in E”), pouring her whole heart into her songs. They’re more fearless than ever, with instrumental scope to match that of their overwhelming emotions. —Scott Russell

Katy Kirby: Cool Dry Place

The inevitable messiness of life is what makes it so painful, interesting and enjoyable, but learning to be okay with it all is much easier said than done. Nashville-via-Texas singer/songwriter Katy Kirby is well on her way in that journey. On her debut album Cool Dry Place, Kirby tries to decide what’s worth holding on to and what’s worth seeking, but also allows herself the freedom to pause and just revel in precious moments, like a drunken walk home (“Peppermint”) or the fantasy of protecting someone you love (“Eyelids”). Whether slipping into playful metaphors or arriving at an important realization, Kirby sounds, at once, comfortable and uncomfortable with the fluidity of interactions and situations, which is what makes this record more than just an incredibly pleasing collection of songs. Wants and needs are blurred, relationships shapeshift, but more than anything, a human desire for intimacy and understanding underpins it all. After dropping in and out of school, religion and recording music, Kirby is searching for a sustainable source of warmth—whether a person, a plant, Target lingerie or “a secret chord that David played.” —Lizzie Manno

Kìzis: Tidibàbide / Turn

Algonquin two-spirit artist Kìzis (who’s previously recorded as Mich Cota) has released what may be one of the most ambitious albums of 2021. Tidibàbide / Turn is a four-hour LP, bursting at the seams with reverent chants, throttling techno, compassionate electro-pop and amorphous, string-laden compositions. There’s even an alternate national anthem that more accurately reflects Canada’s mistreatment of indigenous peoples (“No Canada”). This album is clearly meant to be an event—one that requires listeners to plan ahead and make time for. No detail has gone overlooked, but it’s also inherently imperfect. It’s a triumphant coming together of dozens of guest musicians (including Beverly Glenn-Copeland and Cub Sport’s Tim Nelson), and though they impressively execute Kìzis’ spiritual, altruistic vision, there’s a carefree spirit where missteps are embraced. Tidibàbide / Turn has a warm glow, one that radiates with the knowledge that it may not be for everyone, but will be deeply cherished by those who connect with her ornate songs and singular psyche. —Lizzie Manno

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis: Carnage

For such a literate person, Nick Cave does his new album with Warren Ellis a bit of a disservice by choosing to describe it as “a brutal but very beautiful record nested in a communal catastrophe.” That is, of course, an accurate description of what this music is, but it doesn’t really encompass everything Carnage can blossom into once it reaches the listener’s ear. Part of what’s made Cave and Ellis’ voluminous body of work so beguiling is the way that primary-color descriptors like “brutal” and “beautiful” lose their meaning in the endless shades the two musicians have at their disposal. And to prime the audience to expect something that slots neatly into Cave’s setup is to constrain an extraordinarily complex work of art. Regardless of how the COVID backstory makes the music relatable, the ambiguity here—both disorienting and rewarding—is one of Carnage’s main selling points. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

The Weather Station: Ignorance

Ignorance, the fifth and best album by The Weather Station, is the kind of album that arrives in the middle of an artist’s discography and marks a clear, penetrating break with everything that came before it. Think The Dreaming, or Kaputt: abrupt stylistic leaps that subvert and explode whatever category the artist previously seemed to occupy. In The Weather Station’s case, that category was folk music. For more than a decade, the Canadian band—led by singer and former child actor Tamara Lindeman—specialized in delicate indie-folk, rooted in fingerpicked guitars and light, rustling percussion. 2015’s Loyalty and 2017’s self-titled follow-up enlarged the band’s sonic range and empathetic lyrics, but still operated within the folk tradition. Ignorance is a departure. More specifically, this album is a stunningly assured plunge into a sleek, buzzing jazz-pop wilderness. Lindeman’s guiding impulse here is rhythm: interlocking polyrhythms (“Robber”), hi-hats that rattle and hiss like gently persistent metronomes (“Wear,” “Separated”), even some outright four-on-the-floor beats, which spring to life on the sparkly disco-pop of “Parking Lot” and “Heart.” —Zach Schonfeld

Wild Pink: A Billion Little Lights

A Billion Little Lights is Wild Pink’s third album, their first since 2018’s acclaimed Yolk in the Fur, and their debut on Royal Mountain Records. It’s also the Brooklyn trio’s most nuanced and consistently satisfying release yet, a collection of anthemic, Americana-infused rock songs that, more than ever, justify the band’s comparisons to The River-era Springsteen torchbearers like The War on Drugs. Rather than recording all of the album’s instrumentation himself, as on past Wild Pink releases, principal songwriter John Ross recruited an array of collaborators, including producer David Greenbaum (Beck, Jenny Lewis), vocalist Julia Steiner of Ratboys and steel guitarist Mike “Slo Mo” Brenner of Songs: Ohia’s The Magnolia Electric Co. Sweeping and intimate in equal measure, A Billion Little Lights feels like taking to the open road with someone you love. — Scott Russell