(Cover image courtesy of EFF Photos)
God that was a year, wasn’t it? Year Two of the Plague shuddered to a close with the plague getting worse and so by trilogy rules you know that this is the last year. Unless this is a big 12-volume fantasy epic in which case, fuck, we’re boned. It was a big stupid year where everything that happened seemed somehow dumber than the thing that happened before it. A lot of musical artists seem to have risen to the challenge of living and working in this era, but then again what the hell else were they going to do? Go back to bartending?
At any rate, the less said of 2021 the better. Here are the hundred best albums that came out in this tumultuous year.
Half Waif – Mythopoetics
The album on which the production finally catches up with Nandi Rose’s stellar, galaxy-spanning voice.
Desperate Journalist – Maximum Sorrow!
Fierce Panda Records
If Siouxsie Sioux were making her best music today, it would just be Desperate Journalist.
Amythyst Kiah – Wary + Strange
Queer black country soul and blues, defiant and intensely personal all in one wrapper.
Cola Boyy – Prosthetic Boombox
Hailing from an impoverished town in California, Matthew Urango also suffers from spina bifida and scoliosis. Despite poverty and disability (or, more likely, because of it), the man brings the funk.
Steven R. Smith – In The Spires
Cold Moon Records
Imagine taking heavy shoegaze and nailing its shadow to the floor while letting the physical bulk of it float away. Now crack the edges with a hammer. Congratulations, you have your very own In The Spires.
Mustafa – When Smoke Rises
Regent Park Songs
Mustafa was a poet first from the age of 12, half his life ago. He’s since become a songwriter of note – writing for a host of Canadian elites including Drake, the Weeknd, and Justin Bieber, but When Smoke Rises represents something different: folky in a way, on the soulful side of hip hop, and nostalgic for days gone by when the gunned down still lived and walked the streets.
Bachelor – Doomin’ Sun
Palehound and Jay Som, together at last for the third time, along with members of Big Thief and Chastity Belt. Modern life, queer life, and life under the spectre of climate change combine into a glittering, albeit foreboding, collection.
Flyying Colours – Fantasy Country
Poison City Records
High-flying psychedelic rock with a solid sense of gorgeous melody-making that sounds electrically alive, even when the lyrics come off as a downer.
Home Is Where – i became birds
It is my heavy, solemn duty to inform you that the fifth wave of emo is upon us. More on this later, but this brief, eclectic blast of Gen Z folky hardcore should give you an idea as to where we’re headed.
Tune-Yards – Sketchy.
An artillery blast of heavy dance music that functions exceedingly well as a soundtrack for the slow-leak collapse of late capitalism. In other words, they’ve finally come home again.
Lost Girls – Menneskekollektivet
In the beginning, there is no word.
Conway the Machine – La Maquina
Grimy, with hard-hitting beats and the dope-nose fantasies of the Rust Belt desperate. Ten years ago if you’d told me Buffalo would have been a hotbed of great boom bap I would have laughed, but here we are.
Cadence Weapon – Parallel World
Parallel World is only Rollie Pemberton’s fifth album in the last fifteen years, so it’s good to see him on form and picking his targets quite well.
Porter Robinson – nurture
Mom + Pop
Takes its cues from hyperpop and EDM anthem-building, and some real emotional heft blossoms out from it.
Adele – 30
Your twenties start with fireworks but often end in something much darker – loss of faith, loss of direction, loss of relationships. Adele’s 30 is about her divorce, but it’s also about much more than that: it’s about figuring out, in the aftermath of personal apocalypse, where you’re going, what you’re doing, and how you can possibly get over yourself.
Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine of Hell
Sparse and mysterious, like a horror-novel Grouper with sharper lines and clearer distinctions.
Jungle – Loving In Stereo
Another collection of party-ready disco-funk, from a group that has already proven that they can do this sort of thing seemingly effortlessly.
Brandi Carlile – In These Silent Days
The Queen of Alt-Nashville brings a tough, wiry folk-rock sensibility to her seventh album. What else do you expect from someone who does Soundgarden covers like this.
The Muslims – Fuck These Fuckin’ Fascists
There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – Fool me once, shame on…shame on you. Fool me – fuck these fuckin’ fascists.
Nolan Potter – Music Is Dead
A pounding collection of home-recorded garage-psych music built on sturdy riffs and passages of nearly free-form noise. If this sounds like older Thee Oh Sees, check the label and ask again.
Ada Lea – one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden
Rustic-by-way-of-Montreal, Ada Lea trades in cathartic folk-rock like so many, but there’s a haunting quality about her music that belies an age-defying maturity.
L’Orange – The World Is Still Chaos, But I Feel Better
Mello Music Group
“Dusty” is a complementary word in certain circles of beatcraft; half the fun is crawling through milk crates (physical or digital, shouts out to r/VintageObscura) to find the oldest, rarest, most obscure stuff to flip into a sample. L’Orange, one half of Marlowe (the other half’s on here too), prefers his stuff to be caked in dust. Old jazz and radio snippets are his bread and butter, and he uses them here to devastating effect.
The Bug – FIRE
The first Bug record from Kevin Martin in seven years launches back into it with some heavy dub and experimental dancehall sounds that sound uncommonly like a riot blowing up in your neighbourhood.
Abstract Mindstate – Dreams Still Inspire
EP Da Hellcat and Olskool Ice-Gre were underground legends in 90s Chicago hip hop but record company shenanigans and changing life priorities led to their demise. EP Da Hellcat became plain old Daphne Marshall, behavioural analyst, and for a long stretch of years that was that. Then one day she got a call from her old partner. Gre had gotten into A&R with G.O.O.D. Music and his boss Kanye wanted to exercise his bizarre chaos magic to resurrect the group. Now 49 years old, the duo bring that golden-age old school flow back on the wings of some crisp Kanye production. Most of us can’t fit back into our high school clothes or personalities, but Abstract Mindstate manage to make it seem as natural as existence.
Ishmael Ensemble – Visions Of Light
Moody electronic production paired with searing UK nu jazz makes for a hell of a fine experimental record from the Bristol collective led by saxophonist Pete Cunningham.
Yola – Stand For Myself
Easy Eye Sound
The former Phantom Limb singer puts Dan Auerbach behind the boards again to double down on her status as the reigning queen of outsider-Americana rootsy soul.
Midwife – Luminol
Equal parts shoegaze and dread, Madeline Johnson’s unquiet meditation on Year One of The Plague plays like a midnight summoning of the ragged spirits of the dead. Also contains an interpolation of an old Offspring radio hit that will keep you up at night.
Bleachers – Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night
Jack Antonoff, former Fun guy and latter-day Taylor Swift collaborator, spent 2021 digging through the Seventies for gems. The glitzy, glammy half of the decade he gave unto St. Vincent; the working-class, Boss-oriented half he kept for himself.
Attacca Quartet – Real Life
Sony Music Entertainment
A neoclassical string quartet that plays chamber music laced with 21st Century electronic production touches. Provides a classy touch to this neon dystopia cyberpunk story we’re in the first chapter of.
Laura Mvula – Pink Noise
A lot has been made in the last *checks calendar* far too many years about mining the Eighties for inspiration. Laura Mvula goes full-in on this. Her drums are gated. GATED. I’m talking “In The Air Tonight” bam bam bam. The rest of it goes pretty hard as well.
CHAI – Wink
A winsome whirlwind of bass-heavy indie studded with synths and chops and occasionally breaks. Sets out to deconstruct traditional Japanese notions of beauty and femininity and does a damn good job at it.
Snapped Ankles – Forest Of Your Problems
If you ever found a liking for the poppier bits on Jane From Occupied Europe then I am here to tell you that you’ll love Forest Of Your Problems. Just try not to overheat your brain too much on what it all means.
Lord Huron – Long Lost
Trading in their old ghostly ambient folk music for a more Byrds-oriented approach, Lord Huron’s concept album about a long-lost TV variety show delivers a lot of solid country-rock yearning.
Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
Going from one person and their acoustic guitar to a full-band setup can be a stumbling block for some artists, but boygenius member Julien Baker makes the transition exceedingly well.
Roosevelt – Polydans
An absolute banger of a disco record, and one that deftly weaves together multiple feel-good genres into a showcase of strengths.
Arab Strap – As Days Get Dark
Arab Strap continues their swampy mix of sex, drugs, and bad decisions, but they’re a whole hell of a lot less enthused about it than they were in their youth. Which makes sense, given their advanced age.
Really From – Really From
Like someone took a jazz record and American Football and put them in a saucepan with garlic and onions.
Chad VanGaalen – World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener
An all-over-the-place kitchen-sink psychedelic album, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
Staring down the collapse of orderly civilization within a scant few weeks never feels quite so right as it does when this album is on.
Jeff Rosenstock – Ska Dream
2020’s No Dream was great enough, one of the finest punk records of the last twenty years. Rosenstock and Co. spent part of the lockdown part of the pandemic reimagining it as a ska record, though, and as it turns out that slaps almost as hard.
Rosie Tucker – Sucker Supreme
As finely crafted a slab of modern power pop as you could possibly hope for.
Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind
A partial return to the sweeping, orchestral folk that made him famous in the first place, although I have to admit that had been hoping for some more electro Sufjan. Oh well.
Marissa Nadler – The Path Of The Clouds
Long-running Sacred Bones resident folkie Marissa Nadler hit her Neil Young period in 2021 and I am here for it.
Linn Koch-Emmery – Being The Girl
Alternative power-pop – many have done it but few better this year than Linn Koch-Emmery.
Grouper – Shade
The sound of barely-embedded childhood memories, roaringly quiet, blurred in one moment and then brought into sharp, intimately heartbreaking relief.
Lana Del Rey – Blue Bannisters
Her second album of the year marked a return to the storied gloominess that is her stock in trade, and if some of the lighter moments of Chemtrails Over The Country Club are missed, the instances of pure frisson here more than make up for it.
Lukah – Why Look Up, God’s In The Mirror
It’s not just that Lukah has bars for fuckin’ weeks – it’s that the boom bap production has some of the most soulful, experimental beatcraft to ever hold up such a collection of hard thuggery.
Moor Mother – Black Encyclopedia Of The Air
Moor Mother has made a name for herself as the poet laureate of the intersection between jazz and hip hop, working with her own Irreversible Entanglements as well as billy woods and Mental Jewelry. On Black Encyclopedia Of The Air she makes a case for being a strong solo artist as well, taking hip hop as her starting point before veering off into the esoteric and the profane.
Lil’ Nas X – Montero
Most people in Lil’ Nas X’s position become one hit wonders. When you get a first single as huge as “Old Town Road” it’s usually impossible to follow it up with anything meaningful. His first post-hit EP, charming but clueless, seemed to indicate an end to his career that was just as swift as its beginning. As it turned out, though, the dude had more tricks up his sleeve. One was that he was funny as hell; he made Twitter his own private playground and isn’t afraid to make fun of himself. The other is that he can command the charts as well as social media: between the title track, “Industry Baby”, and the trajectory of the album itself, he had another bona fide massive hit on his hands.
DNTEL – Away
Impossibly cool glitch-pop, made equally of dancefloor fillers and contemplative lullabies.
Parannoul, Asian Glow, and sonhos tomam conta – Downfall Of The Neon Youth
2021, as befitting a plague year, was a year of international collaborations. One of the more intriguing was Downfall Of The Neon Youth, a pinnacle of fifth wave emo recorded by two Koreans and a Brazilian and put out on a Michigan college dorm record label. It balances dream pop bliss with heavy, pummeling blackgaze, merging disparate strains of sound to create something briefly, startlingly new.
The Killers – Pressure Machine
I haven’t put Brandon Flowers on one of these lists ever – The Killers’ first two records came out prior to the official website formulation of them although I vaguely recall putting them on the Facebook countdowns I used to do. Everything after that has been nowhere close to making it, but then along comes Pressure Machine. Yes, it’s just Nebraska with extra steps but it’s country-fried Boss musings on how the Great Opiate Addiction came to crash upon the shores of the small Utah town he grew up in covers territory that other mainstream rock bands of their stature flat-out refuse to cover.
Lingua Ignota – Sinner Get Ready
Kristen Hayter moved out to rural Pennsylvania, picked up Catholicism, thrashed it around, and used it as another instrumental texture in her evolving noise aesthetic. It’s noise, to be sure, but there are church organs and dulcimers in there now.
Ty Segall – Harmonizer
The thing about Ty Segall in 2021 is that by now you know exactly what you’re going to get. What he loses in novelty now, however, he more than makes up in sheer volume-fueled power. Here’s the deal: lots of people the world over claim that rock and roll is dead and buried every single day, and not a goddamn one of them has clearly ever listened to Ty Segall.
Sault – Nine
Forever Living Originals
No, don’t bother looking for it, it’s gone. When the enigmatic British group put out Nine in late June they put the restriction that it would only be officially available for 99 days and then it would be gone. They were true to their word. If you, like me, fell heavily for the one-two punch of Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise), then you can imagine what you got with Nine, only it was somehow a distillation of the best parts of those two records into a sleek, streamlined long EP. I dunno; you can probably pirate it somewhere, but for me I think that would ruin the majesty of something I listened to so closely for three months and then never again.
Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
Hailing from Niger, this Tuareg guitarist fuses scorching early-80s guitar heroics, traditional Saharan folk music, and a fierce sense of political struggle a la Fela Kuti. A pyschedelic star in the making.
Part Chimp – Drool
A heavy-stomping good goddamn time, a headbanging merger of No Age and the Melvins tuned perfectly to erase all frontal lobe operations.
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage
The last three Bad Seeds album have been exercises in how to strip a band’s sound back to its essential core. Skeleton Tree in particular was Nick Cave via ambient pulses, nightmare-summoning drones, and little else besides sheer atmosphere. Carnage moves even further down this path – at times the songs may not even be there at all, your brain may merely be filling in the empty spaces where songs should be. It has much more in common with the sorts of soundtrack work Cage & Ellis have been doing of late, and that’s probably the point behind the attribution here.
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – L.W.
The ultra-prolific Aussie psych band only (!) released two records this year, a relatively quiet period for them. The better of the two was L.W., a follow-up to K.G. which was released very late in 2020. The album continued their explorations in microtones but tempered it with heavy dollops of the proto-thrash work they’ve also been exploring in the past few years.
Jane Weaver – Flock
Artful indie-pop that takes several pages from Bowie to craft a collection that brings the funk in a quiet, scattered, hazy way. Looks to soar into the stratosphere but remains anchored with earthy bass and drums.
Mint Julep – In A Deep And Dreamless Sleep
A summer record released just before spring, In A Deep And Dreamless Sleep is a hazy dream pop record to conjure by. Deconstructs that old C-86 sound until it’s mere suggestions, impressionist brush strokes that imply jangly rock and new wave.
Snail Mail – Valentine
Raw and emotional, with all the ‘whatever’ stuff from Lush stripped away to make a breakup album that stands alongside the modern day pantheon of indie rockers as opposed to merely playing catch-up.
Irreversible Entanglements – Open The Gates
Moor Mother made a name for herself as a solo artist elsewhere but with her Philly freakout jazz group her spoken word sloganeering adds incisive weight to the rush of thick percussion and the wailing of the impassioned, pain-conjuring sax and trumpet lines.
Alfa Mist – Bring Backs
Pianist/beatmaker/bandleader Alfa Mist leads a smooth, soaring collection of London nu jazz that explores the concept of community-building in strange new places. The secret weapon here is Johnny Woodham’s sublime trumpet.
JPEGMAFIA – LP!
ETQ / Republic
Peggy’s last alleged album for a label at least goes out on a peak, putting together his caustic sense of humour and his knotted, weird wordplay with of-the-moment craftsman production. Presented here is the offline version, which restores many of the cuts Republic made.
Boldy James and The Alchemist – Bo Jackson
The Alchemist seems to be everywhere of late and his production really does take centre stage here. Boldy James is the kind of rapper who lets the beat shape the flow and so on an album like this he comes off as wildly inventive while not having to really do much at all.
Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
Like any young singer-songwriter she’s had “write what you know” drilled into her; these are songs about the trap of fame, the discomfort with the ever-present public gaze, the troubles with maintaining relationships at this level, and a response to the bullshit heaped on her by the vacuous trash media (see especially “Not My Responsibility”, which has its roots in a short video she started playing at concerts shortly before the plague put an end to concerts). It’s stellar stuff: she’s figured out how to get even more emotion out of her ASMR singing style, and her brother Finneas’ production expands on the strengths he showcased on the first record. Together they’ve proven that they weren’t just pop lightning in a bottle: these are kids growing into serious artists with decades ahead of them to find real roots. Even if the fickle public ended up being less enthusiastic this time around, oh well: going platinum on your debut means never having to say you’re sorry.
Backxwash – I Lie Here Buried With My Rings And My Dresses
Metallic rap that turns the forebrain off and revels in toxic levels of pure id and ego. Her previous Polaris Prize winning record was an exercise in mercy; I Lie Here Buried shows no such thing. It grabs you by the neck and savages you like a small rabbit until you squeak for mercy.
True Loves – Sunday Afternoon
Bands have been busily mining the Eighties for inspiration for a while but especially since the first crest of chillwave in 2008-09. Some people, most notably the new jazz bands springing up like crocuses after a spring rain, have been heading back into the deep cut Seventies. True Loves, straight outta rainy Seattle, are one such group. They take earthy dank funk and blow thick lines of that old street corner jazz all over it, making for a great racket to while away an, er, Sunday afternoon.
The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy
Positive Jam / Thirty Tigers
Bands with a stellar debut album are honestly a dime a dozen. Rarer are bands that made a name for themselves on a streak of white-hot albums. Rarer still are such bands that, after succumbing to the inevitable stale period that follows such a streak, come back with some of the best music of their careers. The return of keyboard wunderkind Franz Nicolay probably has something to do with it.
St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home
The kids in Dazed and Confused were of the opinion that the Seventies sucked, but the deeper truth of the matter that this was just a setup for a gag about how the Eighties had to be better. In the Nineties we thought the joke was about how wrong they were but in the end, way way down in the 21st Century, it turns out that we were both wrong: the Nineties sucked in a much more profound way, regardless of what my young niece may think about that. I mentioned earlier that people have mined so deeply into the Eighties that they’ve come out into the Seventies and that’s a pretty natural movement to take. Annie Clark, possessed of a chill New York weird that hung well with David Byrne and guitar skills that blow all of her contemporaries away, has now made her own foray into the decade. The indie kids who came aboard during her Strange Mercy days and the poptimists who clamoured to her Madonna mutation may grumble, but Daddy’s Home is a compelling homage to her convict father’s record collection: Bowie, Steely Dan, disco-era Stones and bong-era Floyd.
Cory Hanson – Pale Horse Rider
Tough-wrought country-cut folksongs shot through with psychedelic guitar work that shines like starfire. A rework of the L.A. country-rock aesthetic that roots it squarely in the apocalypse, making it an album made perfectly for the age in which it is released. It’s partly Neil Young, of course, but it’s Neil Young if he gave into the ghosts and let himself be haunted.
Theon Cross – Intra-I
The tuba has always been the odd man out among brass instruments. It is more often a comedic prop than a respected instrument – an accompaniment to ableist bullshit about fat people walking when it should be viewed as an essential accompaniment to the low end of any jazz group. Theon Cross’ tuba should change your view on the instrument, hopefully; he’s been using it with Sons of Kemet for a while but here he is on his own, leading up a talented group and mixing jazz exploration with cutting, globally incisive hip hop.
The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
It’s not just a heartland rock pastiche; now this is who War On Drugs really are. With each successive release they double down on this dreamland sound, adding parts and layers while staying internally consistent to Adam Granduciel’s singular vision. It’s hard to say how much more they could even add. Another way of saying that is that this is War On Drugs at their absolute peak.
Parquet Courts – Sympathy For Life
Never let it be said that Parquet Courts were ever a band to rest on their laurels. Each album from Light Up Gold through to Human Performance felt like an improvement on the basic conceit of the band – a cool sunglasses-and-all Brooklyn take on obscure Nineties indie rock. Then they slowly began to add a mutation to the band – jazz-explosion spoken word stuff – and it made Wide Awake thrilling and varied. Now they stand halfway between the two styles, pulled this way and that between pocket-fit punk rock and Talking Heads-esque frail white boy funk. God only knows which way they end up flying off in.
Solemn Brigham – South Sinner Street
Marlowe is one thing – there is nothing, nothing, quite like Solemn Brigham flowing over a L’Orange beat. That happens here, of course, and “The Lore” is as great as anything on those first two Marlowe records. The variation of production on his solo album, though, provides a way to display just how good he is on anyone’s beats. It’s not lightweight, either; Solemn Brigham spends the album going over the street he grew up on with a lover’s eye for detail and a hater’s eye for the grime.
The Felice Brothers – From Dreams To Dust
Gently alcoholic E-Street type rock music that swings to its own domestic beat. Part Boss, part Leonard Cohen, and covered in sackcloth and ashes – all the better to tease out the absurd details of navigating modern living.
Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over The Country Club
Interscope / Polydor
After achieving a sort of intensely personal up-close focus on Norman Fucking Rockwell, the Poet Laureate of Sad Rich Girls took a step back and explored the sonic possibilities of distance. Her embrasure of a certain classical American aesthetic has made her deeply controversial in some circles, but authenticity requires you write about what you know.
Du Blonde – Homecoming
Beth Jeans Houghton may hail from Newcastle but her third, self-released record is pure Boston indie circa the early Nineties. These are tough, wiry rock ‘n’ roll tunes full of Pixies, Breeders, and Belly, and they bring a serious array of hooks to barb your tender little ears.
CHVRCHES – Screen Violence
Glassnote / EMI
Having released one of the best debut albums of the 2010s, it really seemed that the Scottish synth band had fallen into the diminishing returns trap. They had at least one more in the cannon, though, and it turned out to be one with some blistering firepower. Screen Violence contains some of the best propulsive synth-rock the band has ever put out, and like Crystal Castles before them they also realized the power contained in a good Robert Smith cameo.
Torres – Thirstier
An example of how much more explosive Thirstier is that Torres records that came before: Last year’s edition of this list featured Silver Tongues coming in hot at #100. A year later she’s in the top 20 and with good cause. Thirstier comes right out of the gate on fire and pounding, and from that first fusillade comes a constant barrage of hooks and thick guitar lines. For my money there were only maybe one or two songs that came out this year that were more exciting than the title track.
Mach-Hommy – Pray For Haiti
Griselda has made a name for itself and for Buffalo with hard-hitting, grimy boom bap that rewinds the clock back to the golden age of post-Wu bangers. Mach-Hommy takes his place atop the label with Pray For Haiti, a reunion of sorts with old friend Westside Gunn, who he’d been beefing with in recent years. His wordplay trades in the sort of killer lines that rappers used to be known for before the barred-out era, and his French/Creole sensibilities render them unsettling at times. The album inevitably gets comparisons to old sweet spot Wu (for me it’s more Supreme Clientele than it is Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, but the difference is marginal) but there’s something more going on here: a mutation, and a sublime one.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
A modern masterwork of ambient chamber music and impressionistic jazz blowing, the album would have been worth the price of admission just for the LSO and the old master himself. Floating Points, whom I’d never heard of previously, manages to stitch it all together and, unlike what a lot of bigger producers might have done, manages not to run roughshod over everything with his own voice. Everything in perfect balance, as the universe intended.
Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
Anyone who tells you that rock ‘n’ roll is dead is a dipshit. What they mean is that their pet band is 70+ and not at the top of the charts or whatever. The best in rock music circa 2021 takes its cues from the punk and post-punk movements, and Dry Cleaning is one of the hottest current bands that does. A raft of singles and a pair of well-crafted EPs got everyone used to Florence Shaw’s deadpan, spoken-word delivery; their debut record ups the stakes considerably. While taking considerable influence from bands like Wire and Joy Division (and, much like Sleaford Mods, a touch of the Fall), they expand on the possibilities presented by those first wave acts and situate them in an utterly contemporary milieu.
Injury Reserve – By The Time I Get To Phoenix
From university house parties along indie and punk bands to the summer festival circuit; the story of Injury Reserve in the years before the plague is one of a trio getting by on sheer energy and will to succeed. Things have gotten weird in the years since the plague broke, though. Steppa died suddenly, and even though the album was mostly completed by the time he passed on there is a palpable sense of grief and the slow crawl of recovery present throughout. By The Time I Get To Phoenix is a peak for experimental hip hop, with cut-and-blur production and surreal vocal delivery in large amounts. Anchored by bass, but only partly, it bubbles and slinks in waves that you leave you with that feeling of being awake and paranoid in the middle of the night. Ain’t no saving me or you.
Low – HEY WHAT
Low are closing in slowly on being thirty years old and they have been reduced to their core two members. Regardless, they continue to steam along as though no time has passed at all since I Could Live In Hope which came out when I was in the seventh grade. I am now 39. Somehow 13 albums in they are continuously capable of surprise, even in the midst of slow-burn, low-light anthems.
Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
There’s still a little bit of the old grime DNA present on these tracks, but there’s also the soaring orchestral stuff that Jay-Z first brought to the game two decades ago and also some cutting-edge Afrobeat stuff that wouldn’t sound out of place on Homeboyz Radio out of Nairobi (or Radio East Africa, for that matter). She’s only what, 19 now? And she’s already making the whole industry stand up and pay attention.
Viagra Boys – Welfare Jazz
Sweden’s Viagra Boys have been there, and it shows. Their relentless satire of the sewer-masculinity mentality of dudes at the bottom has an air of experience about it. These are songs about dudes who exploit women for a place to live, dudes who reel home wasted from the bar to their little flop house room to drink some more while they warm themselves over a hot plate, dudes who gamble on anything and everything, dudes who steal copper wiring to fund their drug addictions. Still, this sort of satire doesn’t land unless you can move to it, and they deliver a solid, constantly shifting collection of punk rock, heavy synth, free-jazz freakouts, and touches of country here and there (most notably the John Prine cover). To this end, RIP to guitarist Benjamin Valle, who died just before Halloween at the age of 47.
Amyl and the Sniffers – Comfort To Me
Most punk bands nowadays have gone off on a journey though post-signifiers and jazz freedom, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that (as we’ll see). Still, it’s refreshing to hear such a barrel-ahead straightforward taken on the venerable genre. Amyl and the Sniffers play punk fucking rock and they do it better than pretty much anyone else on Earth in this brave year 2021.
Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend
The band’s third album finds them taking art pop and making it take flight, burning through a variety of styles and sounds ranging from seductive power balladry to hard-churn rock ‘n’ roll. The traces of the heroes of the Eighties are all over the record, but it never once feels derivative; instead, they take those influences and make them dance to their own tune. Some people spent the first year of lockdown sitting on their hands and despairing. Wolf Alice spent it perfecting the structures they build songs out of, and then spent more of that time filling them in fully.
Black Country, New Road – For The First Time
The British music press often goes ballistic over bands on the strength of two singles. If you listened to them you’d think the greatest band in history came along every two weeks. So it went with Black Country, New Road; two singles in and The Quietus was proclaiming them The Best Band In The World. The weird thing is it’s usually NME doing the hyperbole; The Quietus is usually (a bit) more reserved. For a brief, shining moment the band deserved the nod, too. In a year in which post-post-punk exploded out of its art-house English home to make the world go ‘huh’, BC, NR brought the goods but also brought something else that made the transition from niche jazz weirdos to indie cultural touchstones a little smoother for all involved: a deep and rather obvious love of Spiderland. The band acknowledges it; they refer to themselves on “Science Fair” as “the world’s second-best Slint tribute band.” The Slint stuff is just a starting point; they blast a mean freak saxophone and their keyboards glitter like knife blades in the streetlights. The real joy lies in the way they mix together any sound that comes into their heads and then lays the cacophony out as though it made perfect sense. There are other bands that do this – more coming up, too – but Black Country, New Road manage to do it with a self-deprecating smirk, and that’s just as important as anything else.
Emma-Jean Thackray – Yellow
Jazz grew up eventually and put on a suit, allowing itself to soundtrack the oh-so-classy soirees of the millionaire liberal intelligentsia. Before that it meant something, and I feel like that’s a big part of London’s reclamation of it. There was always a political bent to it – fierce, wild music that was just as much black liberation and spirituality as it was odd chord changes and Mixolydian runs. There is much of that in bandleader Emma-Jean Thackray’s debut album, but with a wider scope: “to listen is to know and to know is to love.” It’s hippie jazz, if such a thing were to be capable of being considered. Yet before jazz was political it was dance music, and this is the key thing that Ms. Thackray remembers when it comes to her own jazz. Much like the masters who worked through the Seventies, it conjures up an image of the City as a relentlessly moving, insomniac actor moving from club to club. Here are the dank sounds of conversations on street corners, here are little electric keyboard fills like jokes in a packed diner.. Here is scuzzy funk bass, holding down the low end and pounding away like mad. Here are the strings, sighing like the doors closing on subway cars. It’s a masterful debut, the kind of album that can keep you sane in dark times.
Tyler, The Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
Tyler takes his new character, Sir Tyler Baudelaire, on a luxury-rap vacation to Europe and beyond; he leaves his home city of Los Angeles behind to discover, like so many other rich talented tastemakers before him, that there’s a whole wide world out there to experience. He also takes back the mic in a sense; he did far more singing and experimental melodic work on Flower Boy and IGOR than bar delivery but he evens the ratio out a little more here. It’s a wiser, more globally-minded Tyler on that mic, though; he talks about how he doesn’t even like the word “bitch” but it just sounds so cool when you say it, popping his local bubble the first time he took a plane out, all wide-eyed, and muses on wanting to rail Justin Beiber. He’s not alone, either; a lot of names show up and bring their A game. 42 Dugg, Ty Dolla Sign and Lil Uzi Vert show why they maintain their position in the game. Wayne shows up and spits his best bars in a long, long time, and OF stoner boy Domo Genesis returns in rare form. At the very least, we’ll look back at this as the perfect ending to a globe-trotting three-album run.
Lucy Dacus – Home Video
Quick, who’s the best member of boygenius? If you said Phoebe Bridgers, think again. Although that’s a great answer! It’s just that Lucy Dacus made one of the best pop rock records ever, that’s all. She ditched the oblique songwriting style that made her a decent second choice and wrote songs with clear, pithy images embedded in songs that get in and out before the radio audience gets bored. It’s not just this, of course, or we might as well just praise pop-turn Liz Phair ferchrissakes. It’s that her stories of being young and confused speak to anyone, regardless of the details. Let me put it this way: I’ve never been a tenderqueer girl at vacation bible camp in the 2000s forced to choose between the way I feel and the way the camp administration wants me to feel. Despite this, this is all highly relatable stuff, owing to the writer’s eye Dacus has for details that draw you in and keep you invested.
(*Hank Scorpio voice* No one ever says Julien Baker).
Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
Between this album and her memoir, Crying In H Mart, Michelle Zauner had one hell of a successful year. Jubilee was a departure from the themes she visited in her book, however; it was a departure from the themes of her last two albums as well. The grief that was generated from losing her mother to pancreatic cancer in 2014 informed all of those, but Jubilee strikes out in a different direction altogether. It’s about the joy of living, a necessary irony in the Plague Years, and it largely lives up to the name she gives it. It’s equal parts alt-rock and city pop, and the mixture allows Zauner to really let herself go, seemingly for the first time. The hints of her pop songwriting powers were always present to an extent; Pyschopomp was more Asobi Seksu than it was My Bloody Valentine, after all. Still, “Be Sweet” is a pop single without equal this year, and if it sounded a bit disconcerting blasting from the car stereo in a summer of tension and paranoia, so much the better.
black midi – Cavalcade
black midi’s style could be reckoned as a free-jazz/punk maze that the listener falls into and has to figure out the path to exit. Their second record ups the ante on this feeling by defining the boundaries of this maze a little better. There are guideposts to help you along now, in the form of a thrashing motif that raises the question of what we would do if Primus was good. The newfound cohesiveness to their music is intentional. Schlagenheim, their debut, was largely improvisational, free-spirited hardcore built out of jams. Cavalcade was approached in the opposite fashion, with concrete ideas sketched out before getting into the studio together. There’s something very King Crimson about the result; some have made passing reference to Eighties-era Crimson but I’m often reminded of Larks Tongue In Aspic when listening to Cavalcade, especially in terms of the sudden, often jarring, leap between the quieter moments and the all out full-band crunch. At any rate, prog rock got boring after a while in the Seventies, with too much of a focus on respectability and orchestras. The new generation seems to have done a good job with jettisoning all that bullshit so far and focusing on what really matters: blowing people’s minds.
Sons Of Kemet – Black To The Future
We come back around to the idea of jazz as being political music, and here on Black To The Future Sons of Kemet center around this concept. They do more than just jazz, of course – this is a crash course in a multitude of black music forms, including jazz but also soul, soca, dub, calypso, Afrobeat, and funk. This thick stew is moved relentlessly by the rhythms they conjure from within and propelled by Theon Cross’ slabs of tuba. Lyrically they are strident, ready to throw down at a moment’s notice and providing the fuel to protest anywhere, anytime. As I’ve said before, though, all of the sloganeering in the world won’t move the people’s feet and so it’s radically important that they are musically as good as they are. Shabaka Hutchings’ saxophone playing captures both the tropical funk of the rhythm and also blasts out melodies that stick in the head far more than the people who have previously used the instrument to chase after Coltrane’s blizzard of notes. It’s much more akin to Miles Davis’ playing: slick, cool, street-level stuff that cuts and runs in quick flashes. Overall it never loses its way, though; it may be political, sure, but it’s another album that remembers that at it’s heart all of this music is party music. Or, as Emma Goldman once said, “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution.”
Iceage – Seek Shelter
Iceage formed in Copenhagen when its members were just teenagers; their first music was harsh, dense, and thrilling, although their flirtation with Danish fascist symbols was disturbing. They’ve grown quite a bit since then, maturing into world-weary young men whose music still retains the hard edge of their youth but with a greater sense of songwriting, rather than blasts of pure noise. The path from New Brigade to Seek Shelter is one of slowly adding layers and styles until it resembles a musical Ship of Theseus: it’s the same band, ostensibly, but is it? All the parts are still there but they’ve been reshaped and reworked until they’ve become something different entirely. They’re still harsh, dense, and thrilling, but the direction of those aspects has turned around. They’re harsh – but they have an expanded sense of melody that works hooks of beaten steel, and they use them to get you through the tongue and hold you fast. They’re dense – but their songs are filled with pockets of air that rise into the sky to become beautiful, like hydrogen airships capable of bursting into flame at any given moment. They’re thrilling – that’s one thing that has never changed from the time they were seventeen until now.
Squid – Bright Green Field
In a year when jazz and punk rock made a lasting merger and, in doing so, finally provided something good to have come out of English rock since Arctic Monkeys, Squid stood head and shoulders above the competition. They take the ideas inherent in funk, jazz, New Wave, krautrock, and punk, and pummel them with blunt objects until they’re just so much scattered dust. Then, led by drummer/howler-in-chief Ollie Judge, they painstakingly rearrange that dust until it’s made into something wholly new. It’s a brute-force approach to the act of making music but it has an odd delicacy about it; there are moments where your feet leave the floor (or the other way around, perhaps) and you are left floating in the void, waiting for the next storm of noise and passion to bring you slamming back into the Earth. It’s the same sort of playful tug-and-go dynamics that early Smashing Pumpkins used to great effect, although Squid’s approach is infinitely more subtle than the fabled Pumpkins Reset. It’s a debut album that’s going to be talked about years from now, when people are taking stock of the don’t-call-it-a-scene and discussing the landmark albums that emerged from it.
Armand Hammer and The Alchemist – Haram
“Don’t make a promise you can’t keep / Don’t make a keepsake out of grief.”-“Sir Benni Miles”
Armand Hammer have always been a cut above. Last year’s Shrines was a stellar entry in a year already overflowing with great hip hop, and I have been an evangelist for billy woods’ Hiding Places since it’s release. This time around they settled on a single producer to do an album with, and, showing a surefit of good taste, they chose Daniel Maman – The Alchemist. His production has been a standout on collabs with people like Prodigy, Freddie Gibbs (Alfredo being a career highlight), and especially his work in the last few years with Boldy James. On Haram he conjures up a consistent, coherent set of backing tracks that are both hazy and ominous, two things that both members of Armand Hammer excel when rhyming over. The sole exception is “God’s Feet”, produced by Earl Sweatshirt (who guests on a different track, the sublime “Falling Out The Sky”). It fits in so well, however, that you’d be forgiven for not checking the liner notes and assuming the Alchemist did the whole thing.
Haram is smoked-out and a little paranoid, although it’s forgivable given the subject matter. This is postcolonial hip hop, an airing of grievances big and small (mostly small) on the wrongs done to colonial peoples, especially their struggles in the capitalist hellscape of North America. Woven in between that are examinations of daily struggles with working, finding love, and food references that should put Action Bronson to shame. “Chicharrones”, with Quelle Chris, takes aim at the reactionary gender politics of people whom otherwise swath themselves in the mantle of being a leftist. “Roaches Don’t Fly” implores you to kill your landlord before delving into the constant shifting of the meaning of words. The whole record approaches the idea of what is forbidden by the dogmas under which we live our lives (hence the name) and the awkward dual nature that having to do/use/enjoy those things embeds us into.
If there’s a grim sense of mortality haunting Haram, the group come by it honestly. Both rappers are in their 40s in a genre where you’re either dead or fallen off by 35. MF DOOM passed recently and he was only 50; the idea that there might not be too many years left to go seems to lurk in the shadows of some of these rhymes like a ghoul waiting for the right moment to leap. The flip side to this is the feeling that they’ll keep doing this as long as they’re able; woods said, on Hiding Places, “Quit my job to kick raps instead / So, family meeting: Everybody gotta start bringing in bread” and you get the sense that he was really only half-joking. Backwoodz is their own label; like Jay-Z, the duo wanted to show that rappers didn’t need to be beholden to suits and their business decisions to make music. So far, so good.
2 thoughts on “The 100 Best Albums of 2021”
The WordPress post kind of had every fifth entry in it, at least for me, so I had to go to your site to read the whole list.
WordPress’ feed is kind of garbage lately I’ve noticed. Not on every post either, but on random ones.