KEXP is counting down the best records of the year with our annual Top 90.3 Countdown. Ahead of the countdown, KEXP staff make the case for some of their favorite albums from 2021. Tune in to hear what makes the list on December 17.
In 2021, I was... distracted. Following the year the pandemic hit, where I lived too much inside my brain, stressing out over the state of the world, agonizing about where my life was going, and pining over someone I had chosen to leave, 2021 saw me look outward in a way that was perhaps a bit vain but also, I think, necessary.
The first couple of months of the year saw the insurrection on the Capitol, proving that humans are the worst and probably never going to get better, coupled shortly after with the death of my Aunt Marcia, one of the kindest, most precious women to ever grace this planet and who didn’t deserve the long, drawn-out death she got. Uncoincidentally, shortly after, I gave up.
I mean, really, in a world where the best people die too young and the worst gain all the power and the person who I thought loved me most was actually in love with someone else, why give a shit?! So, instead, I focused my efforts on the external. Maybe adorning these meat sacks we call bodies and the environments they reside in is really is all we can control. Curating the cutest, most Pinterest-worthy apartment, maxing out credit cards to finally nail “the vibe” I’ve spent eons trying to cultivate with my wardrobe, acquiring the perfect shag haircut, and going on an endless string of vacations, only further running myself into debt. Just a long string of vapid decisions, all in the name of distracting me from my thoughts, feelings, or anything real.
This focus on the outward appears to have time-warped me back to being a teenager – when it was perfectly acceptable for my life to be surrounded by nothing but clothes, boys, and my own personal mini-dramas. Perhaps this is why I’ve found myself gravitating less towards the pensive-songwriting-where-emotions-are-shrouded-in-poetry I call “Sad Girl Indie” that made up my entire 2020 and more towards the pristine heart-on-its-sleeve sheen of pop. When you think about it after they’ve spent decades figuring out how to manufacture serotonin in a song, why wouldn’t you go for the quick fix?
It’s possible that’s why, despite the 13-year age difference between us, I found myself spinning the female heir to Will Smith’s fortune’s latest album, on an (almost) embarrassingly regular basis since its release this summer. Or it could just be because the album fucking slaps. Titled lately i feel EVERYTHING, which is an ironic twist to my opening statements of this piece, WILLOW channels every feminist hero from my adolescence – Hayley Williams, Kathleen Hanna, Amy Lee - with a modern spin that feels fresh, despite wearing her influences rather blatantly on her sleeve.
The cheerleader-y opening of “1-2-3-4” on “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l” feels like stepping back in time, an incantation that opens the portal to the early aughts. Suddenly, I’m back to being a misunderstood teen, with no real issues in life beyond who’s going to sit with me at lunch tomorrow. Taking on the classic pop-punk theme of authenticity, Willow snarls, “I knew a boy just like you /He’s a snake just like you /Such a fake, just like you /But I can see the truth” while Travis Barker lays into the drums as only he can. Get real or GTFO, they proclaim.
After that absolute banger of a track, Willow pulls a 180 and goes full Bikini Kill for the second track, a 36-second ditty of poorly played instruments and primal screams of “Fuck you / for fucking up my heart / Don’t you ever get / Involved with me again.” Straightforward in its presentation and cathartic in its messaging, the song perhaps displays Willow’s own nostalgia for a kind of music she’s always had the money and influence to sidestep. A longing to just be a kid in the garage banging on the drums.
I think it’s important, at this point, to quickly overview the trajectory of the artist known as Willow. For those unfamiliar, she first burst onto the music scene in 2010 at the tender age of 10 years old with the Roc Nation-released single “Whip My Hair” that honestly went way harder than it needed to. While she might not have been taken seriously at the time, since then she’s been carving her own identity as an artist, trying on different shades of rock, soul, and pop for her following records – 2015’s ARDIPITHECUS, 2017’s The 1st, and 2019’s WILLOW.
Back to lately i feel EVERYTHING, from “Fuck You,” the record continues on in an all gas, no breaks fashion with the breezy “Gaslight” and the syncopated nu-metal of “Don’t SAVE ME” until "Naïve" which soars like a classic Paramore number as Willow belts “I need you to tell me when I'm being naive /'Cause I know I can be.”
The next few tracks breeze by in crunchy, head-bopping fashion until we reach the final three tracks, which hit heavy on the features. The first of the three, “Xtra” sees the incredible Tierra Whack effortlessly spill multiple verses about heartbreak over a wailing electric guitar, “You break everything that you touch /Make me wanna throw my food up /Man, you really went and fucked my mood up /You got me chopped and screwed up /Now you dead to me, so suit up.”
I go back and forth about the Avril Lavigne feature. A large part of me feels like I really could have done without it but, at the same time, A) the girl needs a job and B) whether we like it or not, she is allegedly our pop-punk princess. And it certainly does help with zapping oneself back to 2002. But set in between two perfectly placed and of-the-moment features – Tierra Whack and kickass garage rockers Cherry Glazerr, it seems like more of a cash-grab choice rather than an artistic one.
And with “Breakout!” the album is done at what feels like lightning speed. It doesn’t even take a full half-hour to go from start to finish, which is the record’s main downfall. That, and its unfortunate release only two months after Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR, which critics repeatedly compare lately i feel EVERYTHING to. Didn’t Willow know that two women can’t release similar genres of music in the same quarter?!
I kid, but I’m aware that lately i feel EVERYTHING has not exactly been a critical darling and it’s possible that I might be the only one out here calling it one of my records of the year. But I think that’s what makes it more precious to me. In a year where I’ve had more enthusiasm for making subpar fashion Tik Toks that no one watches rather than honing my writing or doing a lot of deep, critical thinking, it makes sense that my favorite album would be the one that just I and a handful of preteens are repeatedly rocking to.
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