Here’s the big one – 50 of my favorite albums (plus 11 honorable mentions) from this upside-down, majorly cursed year. The vibes were bad, but the music was good. At least we have that.
It’s interesting looking back at my Best of 2021 So Far list, where I alluded to some kind of post-pandemic world where the vibes would be thriving and the music would be healing in the latter half of the year. The first half definitely felt that way. I hadn’t felt such optimism in a long time. Then almost as soon as we crested into July we took a swift nosedive on the vibe-o-meter. Now it’s December and I’m feeling like it’s March 2020 again, maybe even worse. Not to get too mired in the negative talk, but that’s the landscape these albums have had to trawl through to get here. Chest-bursting hope and positivity and being flung down into the dank depths of pessimism and doom. At least in 2020 we were just in the muck together. This year it was either you believed it was over or you didn’t. It just be like that sometimes. You all know this. Y’all were there.
If you happen to be one of the musicians that made one of the albums on this list, I can’t say anything but thank you. Thank you for braving the elements and putting out your art. My 2021 would have been disastrous without you and I’m sure so many more would agree. For readers: I’ve linked Bandcamp pages (or equivalent purchasing options) to each piece of album art on this post. If you dig the record and you have some holiday bonus money, consider buying some music you see listed here. It would mean a lot to me if you did. And if you feel like leaving a comment about something you hadn’t heard before that you enjoyed, please go ahead! I put a lot of heart into arranging this collection of music, so I hope you enjoy regardless.
- Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince
- Doohickey Cubicle – Don’t Fix Anything 😉
- Foamboy – My Sober Daydream
- Insides – Soft Bonds
- Izzy Johnson – earth tones
- Laura Stevenson – Laura Stevenson
- Marissa Nadler – The Path of the Clouds
- M. Sage – The Wind of Things
- Wau Wau Collectif – Yaral Sa Doom
- Yasmin Williams – Urban Driftwood
- You’ll Never Get To Heaven – Wave Your Moonlight Hat For The Snowfall Train
Eau De Bonjourno
A child spends every day of their summer vacation building a labyrinthian sand castle that attracts the attention of a wandering zen meditation troupe, who inhabit the structure peacefully.
How lucky are we to have a group like Bernice, embracing an alien formula of sounds and bringing it down to human level and making it a livable fun house of unearthly delights with a bountiful garden out back. Now I’m not saying we haven’t heard anything like Bernice: they take on a host of styles like late 90s R&B, outsider pop, jazz, to ambient and seamlessly fuse them together into the smooth, ultra-groovy sculptures that we hear today. Thank you Bernice. This album was a nice relief in early 2021.
49. PSYMON SPINE
A man-sized Stretch Armstrong toy comes to life and cartoonishly struts down a busy fashion avenue, elongating his limbs around corners, until the hot sun causes him to drip and melt into an ooze.
If you close your eyes, it can be 2004 again. Plug into that unreleased DFA compilation that was hidden at the bottom of your mp3 library, which has taken the form of Charismatic Megafauna. Psymon Spine display a dangerous disregard for “normal” sounds on this record, wantonly blowing up lava grooves with melting bass, amorphous synthesizer and wicked guitar work. At times it really feels like the group have some sort of Matrix-like key to the universe, bending sonics to their will in search of the perfect groove while channeling the best dance punk ethos of the early 00s.
48. KARIMA WALKER
Waking The Dreaming Body
A cloud of fireflies waft into your room through an open window on a warm summer evening, casting objects you’ve grown numb to seeing in a new light.
Drifting between realms of consciousness, Waking The Dreaming Body explores the boundaries between folk and ambient, pairing minimal acoustic guitar-backed tunes with kaleidoscopic tape loops, disembodied vocal takes, atmospheric field recordings, floating synthesizer and a whole lot of space. With themes of waking, sleeping, dreaming and above all our connection to nature, Karima Walker has crafted an album that nearly perfectly captures the essences of those magic hours in the day where reality can be questioned, as we transport from one plane of existence to another.
47. CLEO SOL
Waking up to find your bedside plant flowering for the first time.
This album feels like magic. Cleo Sol has risen in profile over the last two years thanks to some great guest vocals on SAULT + Little Simz projects, among other things, and to hear her unleash this hour-plus beast, an all-encompassing vision, is inspiring. Her cool, soulful voice is endlessly approachable; it isn’t all flash and rah-rah, she’ll hit all the notes given to her with a nonchalant confidence and keep the mood smoothed over. I’m getting heaps of What’s Going On here (but let’s be real, that album touches all) thanks to its lush sound and production. Just a gem of a record.
In the middle of a post-human city park overtaken by vibrant flora, a hologram tour guide continues to make its rounds on their pre-programmed path.
I’ve been a fan of Wet since their first EP, and I’m so happy that their best work is still coming. Letter Blue still holds the magic songwriting of singer Kelly Zutrau and the ethereal production work behind her from their last few records, but there’s just something so moody and gossamer about the music here that’s another step past all the rest. I instantly gravitate towards the slower, more atmospheric tracks like “Blades of Grass”, “The Letter Blue” and “On Your Side”. Zutrau’s voice sounds so otherworldly when alternating between her unaffected and electronically-processed vocals. The shimmering piano and pockets of strings, pulsating electronics coalescing around her voice are the moments that make this album special. There are some good pop songs on here too, continuing to flex Wet’s prowess as effective songwriters, but if those bring you in, you should stay for the slower moments too. Gorgeous and hypnotizing.
45. DAWN RICHARD
Being outfitted with cybernetic parts to become an augmented humanoid and then starting a romantic relationship with the android from Björk’s “All Is Full of Love” video.
Dawn Richard can do it all. I’m serious. Check out her Wikipedia page or any interview from this year. Aside from owning a vegan food truck or working as an animator for Adult Swim, Dawn has been making some of the best futuristic R&B music over the last decade. Second Line sees Dawn both celebrate the rich musical and cultural history of her hometown New Orleans and cast tributes to strains of electronic music across a wide spectrum, from house to electro to bass. It’s a long, cinematic journey where even the quick interlude tracks are engaging. Not a minute is wasted, because obviously Dawn has no time to waste.
44. INJURY RESERVE
By The Time I Get To Phoenix
Every piece of your body has exploded but you still have full consciousness, your shattered remains slowly trying to reorient themselves in their new broken up state.
It’s just a gift that this album exists in the world. After the death of member Stepa J. Groggs in 2020, it seemed like the revolutionary hip hop trio Injury Reserve was over, right as it seemed like they were cresting to a new creative peak. Then this album came out of nowhere. Although it was nearly finished while Groggs was alive, the album still carries the weight of the world and loss on its shoulders, splintered apart by grief, paranoia and the deafening malaise of living in a world where its leaders don’t care that it’s collapsing in on itself. That the forests are on fire. That the atmosphere is deteriorating. That the people are being brutalized and spied on for profits. Parker Corey’s production continues to be light years away from all of his contemporaries, crafting futuristic, apocalyptic landscapes out of alien sounds. Ritchie with a T is still a lyrical shapeshifter. Great to hear Groggs as well, beamed in from another dimension. Just pain, but they’re not done. Thank goodness.
43. JOHN CARROLL KIRBY
A robed wizard with a long stocking cap sits in a California laundromat, flips a quarter in the air and casts spells thru the slanted mirror ceiling while waiting for their laundry to be done.
The groovemaster is back, Mr. JCK himself. As opposed to his revelatory, new age-leaning 2020 album My Garden, he’s here with a full band that gels together establishing plush grooves and an atmosphere of seeing a world-bending show in some sophisticated jazz club with like, a tasteful amount of tropical kitsch. Kirby’s masterful control of the keys is all over the record, showcasing his immense skill and knack for pulling out wicked solos, but the work from percussionists (particularly the vibraphonist!), flautists, bass players + more studio flourishes make the vibes on this album potent. I needed a lot of instrumental music to help place me into alternate universes and thankfully Septet is a fantastic one.
42. BEN SERETAN
Small leaves of a houseplant on a windowsill sway gently after a big sigh.
This is a record that has brought me an immeasurable amount of peace this year, a year where peace naturally occurring in the outside world was scant at best. Perhaps I’m ranking it higher since I have an emotional connection to it, but I’d rather err that this is a supremely crafted collection of piano works housed in open fields of worldly ambience. It goes past a robotic calming app’s pre-generated soothing sounds. The piano is undoubtedly human, and the little touch of including the creaky footsteps before and after songs further illuminates the physical space the album was recorded in. It was not concocted in a lab. It was done out in the field, by a person wanting to capture peace in a jar and offer it to us.
41. VANISHING TWIN
Space time-morphed crew members of a lost 50s space exploration conduct experiments on rogue matter caught in their tractor beam and provide a transmission hub for incoming intergalactic correspondence.
On Ookii Gekkou, Vanishing Twin bring you into space to watch an episode of The Twilight Zone. The twist is that you realize that the episode is about you going into space and being hunted down by the band members, who are actually aliens wearing the band’s flesh as camouflage, and the space station you’ve flown to is actually some living organism: half organic, half synthetic, floating deep in the cosmos. The aliens emit pheromone through ducts lining the wall, causing intense psychedelic hallucinations in both yourself and the aliens themselves. After you stumble through virtual reality jungles, recreated mod clubs full of otherworldly go-go dancers, a Spirited Away-like kitchen with steaming vats of culinary delights being pumped out by the dozen, you finally reach the exit. Then you realize you actually don’t want to leave. This is your home now, as you look into a mirror and see an alien face before you.
A comforter filled with concrete slowly crushes you the longer you hide in your room.
An angelic hammer has emerged from the Texan sprawl. A cudgel of heat, simmering with brutal distortion, weaponizing its self-hatred and worldly dismay into caustic thunder. I admire this album so much because it does what so many slowcore-adjacent bands of late have been too afraid to do: get really, really loud. Maybe I’m in the wrong circles but it really seems like ALEXALONEWORLD is one of the heaviest rock records I’ve heard in a minute, taking advantage of holy dynamics and engaging pacing in their arrangements, along with supplying a canyon’s worth of different guitar tones to keep each song feeling fresh. After listening a bunch and loving it I also read that some musical inspiration came from Yo La Tengo and Legend of Zelda, which means this was truly was made for me and I fell right into their trap.
39. INDIGO DE SOUZA
Any Shape You Take
A screaming cannonball jump into the community pool after dark and seeing your life’s most impactful moments play out in front of you in the deep end.
Immediately after my first listen of Any Shape You Take, I knew the world was in for something special. Not sure if there’s a record out this year that has such skying, wild melodies squished into such satisfying pop-centered song structures. The lyrics are simple and immediate, allowing the listener to be instantly in on the act. Not to say it’s not “complex” enough, but rather it displays platters of raw emotion for the listener and invites them in on the party. See the Midsommar-like shoutfest on “Real Pain” or discordant gang vocals on “Kill Me”. Melodies swing left and right, throwing haymakers on nearly every song. It’s a truly infectious experience that any rock or pop fan should check into.
38. BLACK MIDI
An eccentric scientist gone mad from testing his concoctions groovily conducts a symphony of tubes, bottles and beakers, making foaming potions in his dungeon laboratory like he’s under a spotlight on stage.
I’m gonna try my best here, there’s a lot to unpack in this one. black midi made a truly memorable debut in 2019, but I thought the amount of jagged aggression layered in its fractal-like folds would be incredibly hard to sustain over subsequent albums. So what does the band do? They do what every hard band should do at least once: go prog. They still have the radical experimentation that put them on the map and a good chunk of absolute skin-rippers that show off their insane talent (I will always shout out drummer Morgan Simpson) and songwriting moxie, but they’ve also left a lot of room to breathe in their tunes. They raised the ceilings to cathedral height. They embrace ballrooms. They incorporate an obvious emphasis on the overpowering timbre of horns and reeds. They embrace wild folk sea shanty-like vocal deliveries? Like I said, this thing is a trip. Not something I can put on at anytime, but it consistently blows me away each time.
37. NALA SINEPHRO
A bartender in a futurist-designed luxury space hotel stares wistfully out of the window as they shake someone’s drink, as patrons quietly illuminate the space with conversation and distant stars burn brightly across the galaxy.
I needed all the sonic medicine I could get this year and Space 1.8 was one of my go-to painkillers. It’s come at seemingly the perfect time: jazz is creeping back into the mainstream thanks to young performers being embraced by pop musicians, and “lo-fi vibe playlists” are more popular than ever. Thankfully, this album has a lot more meat on its bones than some run o’ the mill DSP fodder. Sublime performances bedazzle this cosmic journey of ambient jazz, interlocking across different movements and moods, telling an engaging story across its eight acts. The eternal jazz harp greats Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane smile from beyond at a new face in the canon, as Sinephro’s delicate arrangements on both harp and keys build dreamy, meditative zones for her players to operate in and her listeners to get lost within.
36. NATALIE JANE HILL
A locket with a picture of a deceased loved one buried in a plain of tall wheat grass.
One of the more beautiful folk guitar records of 2021, Natalie Jane Hill’s sophomore album showcases her brilliant playing ability as well as her talent for crafting gripping songs that move like a flowing river. No shade on more minimal folk records, but occasionally I’ll hear a song with just voice and guitar and think that it’s fine and that’s it. This embrace of deeper instrumentation like strings, slide guitar, piano, zither, and at times embracing elements of ambient country, offer a gorgeous, kaleidoscopic atmosphere unlike many other records in the canon. If you love records from Joan Shelley, Bedouine, Aldous Harding (specifically her self-titled debut), or other luminous folk contemporaries, do yourself a favor and get this in your listening queue.
35. MR TWIN SISTER
Al Mundo Azul
Gaining powers to turn every solid surface into malleable clay and stretching and bending reality as you see fit, turning it into a dreamy, surrealist-painting landscape.
If you’ve read this blog at all, you probably know how I feel about Mr Twin Sister. If you’re unfamiliar: they’re one of my all-time favorite modern groups and have virtually no bad songs. Although this album isn’t my favorite of theirs, it still boldly illustrates why they’re one of the most special acts in music right now, crafting body-and-mind-freeing dance pop with shades of influences adding new flavors into the formula. On Al Mundo Azul, MTS shifts into a band that wants to feel good all the time, making some of their most catchy, groove-centric and least complicated music of their career. Plus we finally get live highlight “Fantasy”. Cmon y’all, we’ve been waiting for that.
34. LEON VYNEHALL
A post-apocalyptic timeline where all life on Earth has reverted back into its most ancient, microbial form amongst a harsh, ultra-futuristic crumbling metropolis.
Leon Vynehall has transformed from a solid house producer to an artistic auteur that creates vibrant, beautiful worlds out of sound. His 2018 album and following tour laid the groundwork for the music here, which is idiosyncratic in the world of modern electronic music, fluttering across genre lines and blurring traditional song structures with obtuse sonic textures, discordant grooves and atmospheric vocal samples. It’s an album that takes the listener down into claustrophobic rabbit holes and up into euphoric heavens. Each time I listen I marvel at the detail in each composition, whether it be slower and more deliberate, or a quicker, dancefloor-centered burner. Like his 2018 tour, I can’t wait to see what he has planned to bring this to the live setting as well.
33. SASHA & THE VALENTINES
So You Think You Found Love?
Riding a horse at full clip on the edge of a beachside cliff, tall waves crashing below you as you hold up a majestic sword in one hand and a roman candle shooting off multi-colored heart-shaped fireworks into the air in the other.
Sasha and the Valentines follow in the steps of all the best indie pop acts of the last decade, making immediate, hooky and memorable tunes that make you feel young at heart again. A very basic comparison would be if Victoria Legrand of Beach House was actually the singer of Caroline Rose’s band and they’re opening for Alvvays. Or maybe Alvvays is opening for Sasha & The Valentiens. That’s how much confidence this young band has. But that’s a bit too “this band sounds like this band” for me to leave this note on, so just take my word that if you enjoy slightly psychedelic, catchy pop, you’ll enjoy this, no questions asked.
Digging your way out of a grave and flipping off all the shocked bystanders as you walk home covered in dirt.
This might be the most overlooked record on this list so far. I can’t believe more people aren’t freaking out about this like I am – it deserves it. I definitely enjoyed Rosali’s last album, 2018’s Trouble Anyway, with its low-burning folk & country-touched rock tunes. This time around Rosali has turned the heat WAY up, with nearly each song featuring buckwild, fuzzy guitars that cathartically scream over the mix. It’s still in line with her previous work, it just shreds way, wayyyy more. It’s got all the charm of a country rock record, with occasional slide guitar and banjo popping up here and there. It’s a triumphant record that burns down pieces of the past that are no longer necessary, carrying forth the essentials that make us who we are.
Entering a seemingly never-ending spa, where the steam gets thicker and thicker as wafts of clay, salt, coconut oil and other essential oils lull you into a hypnosis, floating and sweating between rooms.
Welcome to the Feelings Spa, where you can spend all day in our aromatic hot springs and never prune up. Our naturally-flowing heated water comes straight from the earth and will soothe your muscles while the fragrant oils cleanse your sinuses and soul. Maybe you fancy a massage? Our skilled percussionists are not only conga maestros, they can also help you work out that kink in your neck you developed from working in weird positions at home for the last two years. Or maybe you’d prefer to spend the day at the beach with the perfect weather? We can do that for you. Here at Feelings, all your troubles can melt away if you put your mind to it and let our tropical grooves take you there. It is a fabulous luxury that comes at an unbeatable price. And once you pay the initial fee, you’re a member for life. Come back whenever you’d like and indulge in our healing waters. I can bet we’ll see you again very soon.
30. SAM EVIAN
Time To Melt
Lucid dreaming your way to the corner store to buy scented candles, kombucha and a mini oasis scene snowglobe while imagining the cashier is morphed like a funhouse mirror.
Time To Melt embraces my favorite parts of Sam Evian’s past work: when he lets loose and allows his most psychedelic, funk-focused pop tendencies come to the forefront of his lush dreamworlds. The music here feels free, casually bending and swaying to whatever surge in heat comes its way. The slinky guitar solos bathe in pools of syrupy effects, keyboards ooze in and out of the mix, pitches warp and shrink to let in pockets of hand percussion or a snazzy bass fill. Instrumentally it’s Evian’s most fleshed-out he’s sounded, with each song holding a fair share of unique ideas and sounds. It’s a deliciously sweaty, humid affair that has hints of sourness throughout, especially when the lyrical side reckons with the world we’re living in right now. But despite the tough realities we all face today, this may be Evian’s way of reminding us to stretch out and exhale once and a while. It’s good for ya.
29. CIRCUIT DES YEUX
Slow dancing with a marble statue version of yourself at an abandoned citadel at the top of a mountain before toppling your statue down a cliff.
As Circuit des Yeux’s Haley Fohr says herself, she does not make chill vibes. She makes music that cuts straight to the heart. -io is a load and a half, and Fohr’s voice continues to be one of the greatest forces in music today. It is grand and orchestral, with a string section accompanying the “traditional” rock elements on nearly each track. It’s a grand production, on par with operas and artsong, of decaying sanity and years of brutal emotion piling up on each other. It’s not something you can just dive right into and have a good time with. It’s something you sit down and plunge yourself into; its waves rocking you across atmospheres as Fohr acts as the grandmaster of spectacle. Please do not deprive yourself of this work if it interests you at all. I cannot recommend it enough.
28. SKEE MASK
A gang of futuristic eco-terrorists cause massive redwoods to burst through major highways while acrobatically grapple-hook flying through the newly-minted forests.
Skee Mask continues to flex on his contemporaries by putting out a nearly two-hour record that doesn’t feel like a single second is wasted. His control over sound design, dynamics and mood is nearly unparalleled, especially as he flits around different avenues of techno, ambient electronic, house and more, offering up distinct dream worlds over 18 tracks. I have to ding this record for being a bit bloated (and my bias for his last record Compro is showing – that thing is still so, SO good.) but the amount of ideas and execution on here cannot be denied.
Running on two hours of sleep on a five day orbit around the Earth, blearily looking down at streaking clouds and ocean layer through tired eyes and molten space glass.
I feel like I don’t need to say too much about HEY WHAT since it’s been one of the best-received records across the board. What I can say is that it’s admirable to see Low continue to take their sound the direction it embarked on with their 2018 record Double Negative, forging into digitally-charred and blistered regions of distortion, finding euphoria in caustically damaged and soured sounds. The fact that they can pack in these huge, absolutely blown out moments into the same songs with moments that are just as tender. Likewise, the fact that they’ve made these songs with spiky slabs of noise so accessible to the average listener as well is laudable in its own right. The more I listen, the more I love it.
A convenience store worker has an elaborate, mutli-monitor, VR-headset setup in the backroom of the store where they work on bridging the invisible gap between our world to the virtual one.
Whereas some albums or artists skirt around sharing their inspirations, memoryland is unafraid of stating its thesis or putting its heart on its sleeve: this album is a love letter to the late 90s/early 00s, specifically a slice of internet-fueled culture, powered by nerds in chatrooms and forums talking art, music and fashion. CFCF really achieved something special with this sprawling record, perfectly channeling the era with use of propulsive techno, dreamy electronics and blistering guitar. Tons of reference points (in my mind) pop up, namely anime like Memories, The Animatrix, Serial Experiments Lain, Tekkon Kinkreet, and I’m sure so many more to other listeners. Sometimes my chest gets tight with excitement while listening to the record, making me nostalgic for a time that my brain can trick me into thinking I remember. It feels like a portal to another world. Thinking back, it really is easy to believe that it was a purer, more revolutionary time for nerd culture, far removed from what it is today. Passionate NEETs sitting in front of their monitors, sharing their feelings and files about obscure media with strangers around the world. This is absolutely still happening, but that was the beginning. The foundational roots of this gargantuan network we operate within today.
25. LIGHTNING BUG
A Color of the Sky
A massive, orange-pink cloud is your best friend.
Setting an incredibly high watermark for dream pop everywhere. Upon first listen I thought this record was just mid, but something kept calling me back to try again. Once I checked it out a second time, it quickly became one of my most listened-to records of 2021. Its gentle, cascading bliss echoes through the canyons of my pleasure center, reverberating back into space. When appropriate, the volume knob turns up and the guitars turn skyward, illuminating the entire hemisphere with golden light (see specifically “I Lie Awake”). Any fans of Mazzy Star, Slowdive and Mojave 3… maybe even Beach House should have this on their must-listen list.
Doing a bunch of flips on a trampoline and getting really light-headed, then going down a mile-long waterslide.
I’m gonna go on record and say I don’t know anything about hardcore, punk or heavy music in general. If I think it sounds good and makes me feel a certain way, there’s a good chance I’ll like it. I have no infrastructure to base my opinion on when it comes to this album, which is wow, this album is so much fun. Fabulously produced, huge instrumental variance alongside the general fast-paced guitar & drums, vocal change ups – it’s all here. One thing I do know is that Turnstile’s shows are some of the most fun live experiences out there (unless someone gets some nasty ideas in the pit), and it really feels like the band is inviting anyone to come into their storm, not just the typical punk kids. If they’re enticing this shut-in music nerd to come down to a punk show, hell yeah I’m going. Thanks Turnstile! I’ll bring an hors d’oeuvres platter.
23. LUNAR VACATION
Inside Every Fig Is a Dead Wasp
Drawing a dark magic summoning circle with your friends from high school to bring back a lost stuffed animal from childhood.
2021 has been one of those years that seems to be teeming with promising debut records from smaller, ultra-excited young bands that surely have bright futures in front of them. Lunar Vacation seem to be headlining this pack, with an album that is wall-to-wall hits of hooky, vivacious and inventive indie pop. Similar textures and tones from your favorite indie rock groups are present, but the depth behind these songwriters is apparent, as songs threaten weeks of rent-free tenacity in your brain with ease. Even the details are checked off, with little flourishes abound (see the hand percussion in “Mold”… are you kidding me?) It sounds like the band is having fun making music together, which is something we all need right now.
22. ROCHELLE JORDAN
Play With The Changes
Trying to make your way home in a futuristic, neon-lit cityscape through underground pipeline raves, Akira biker gang fights and gravity-bending fashion shows.
Rochelle Jordan has been a featured voice in many of my favorite electronic records over the last decade, so it’s no wonder that an album entirely dedicated to her acrobatic vocal versatility absolutely slaps. Enlisting some of the producers that she’s worked with previously like Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum, Jordan hammers home why she’s one of the more in-demand voices in electronic R&B. From uptempo club-busters to sultry confessionals, RoJo does it all.
Having a conversation with a past version of yourself through an unstable time portal in an abandoned old house.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that Grouper is a perennial favorite here, no matter what headmaster Liz Harris cooks up. Shade came together from 15 years’ worth of songs, whittled down and placed together to fit the theme of this album, which feels like what the title suggests: sitting in the shade during a hot day. In this case, the hot day is the last two years. Sometimes it does feel a bit disjointed compared to her other bulletproof records, but that’s hardly a criticism. Shade features some of Harris’ most straightforward songs to date, with simple guitar playing + vocals that aren’t mired in sonic space dust. I do appreciate that there are two and a half noisier cuts on here with “Followed the ocean” and “Disordered Minds”, giving a little instrumental variety. But with songs like “Kelso (Blue sky)” and “Promise” – how can any Grouper fan not go gaga over this record? It flows delicately like a wooded creek, dead leaves clogging certain parts but the water continues to find a way through. A shining, reflective ribbon on a cold day.
Being a test subject in experimental utopian capsule habitats that unexpectedly malfunction, rapidly shifting the climate, furniture arrangement and simulated time of day.
Ever-morphing and combusting with ideas, Dummy’s full-length debut takes pieces of light from experimental rock’s past and foreshadows a brighter future in the genre. The chugging motorik of kraut, the uncanny dissonance of Yo La Tengo, the high-diving stab of shoegaze, the spinning groove of Stereolab, the wafting ambiance of Japanese masters; all take part in this glorious tapestry of sound. Whereas similar contemporaries have opted to just take these influences and put them in a frame to hang on the wall, Dummy propels them forward, offering their own brilliant twists on what’s come before and displays a utopic future for rock and music in general.
19. LITTLE SIMZ
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Finding a hidden passageway in a back alley that’s a fast-pass monorail tour into scenes from your past, present and future, organized by a fairy godmother that knows all your secrets + desires.
Right from the opening seconds, Little Simz sets the tone for Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. Booming horns, marching drums and climactic strings and choir illuminate what the listener is in for: Simz’s biggest album to date. Sprawling over 19 tracks (including four interludes) and never feeling tired, SIMBI is a monumental piece of artwork that shows the versatility and vision of one of the best emcees in the game. From soulful and jazzy, to pointed and urgent, to poppy and hooky, Simz navigates life’s hurdles with ease and variety. Although I’m not a fan of interludes (give me songs!) and I still prefer her 2019 fireball GREY Area, this is still a must-listen for 2021 for all music lovers.
18. DANIEL BACHMAN
The headlights and radio of a decaying pickup truck sitting at the bottom of a lake suddenly turn on, emitting warped AM broadcasts via caustic bubbles to the surface.
How does one make an instrumental record about climate change and genocide? I dunno, listen to Axacan. Juxtaposing chirping frogs, lapping waves, and even whale songs with harsh industrial field recordings of boring drill drones, garbled radio static and falling trees, Axacan paints a stark picture of the planet being ripped apart by its human inhabitants. Cutting through and co-existing within this tornado of sound exists Bachman’s virtuosic guitar playing, as brilliant and powerful as ever, alongside other ambient musical accompaniment, primarily harmonium. At the time I thought his 2018 album The Morning Star was the most conceptual he could get with his compositions, but now this album makes that feel like a rough first draft. Metal crushing wood, smoke rising through the treetops, the last air bubbles escaping from a drowned man, a ghost come to haunt us. It’s a massive piece of work, a look in the mirror to see the trail of destruction we’ve left behind us as a country.
A massive room in an abandoned castle holding a single ornate mirror that reveals a hidden world, complete with an alternate version of you that’s been waiting for your arrival.
Hildegard is the brainchild of Canadian musicians Helena Deland and Ouri, who together make music that seems genetically modified to be 100% my thing. In this case, my thing is dark, throbbing, uncanny club music with ominous vocals and inventive twists in texture and tone on each track. What I mean by this is that there are synth tones on here that are out of the box a bit, but not for just weirdness’ sake. Many buzzy synth pop acts out here use a ton of wacky or inventive textures, but something it’s just for like “hey check out this cool sound”. Everything here feels deliberate. Throbbing and numb, feeling around in the dark through warping piano keys and bouncing strobes. It’s a quick, eight-song affair, but the duo make me more excited about the future of electronic and alternative club music than most other music I heard this year.
16. JAPANESE BREAKFAST
A cloud of birds carrying you over a botanical garden full of your friends and loved ones cheering below you.
Undoubtably one of the biggest records of the year – how the heck do I need to sell you on this one at this point? What I can say is that Japanese Breakfast’s ascension into one of the most beloved acts in music today makes my heart swell with happiness, as it seems like Michelle Zauner is one of the best people in the biz. This is a record that covers a huge spectrum of sounds and emotions, from jubilant (see title), to remorseful, to pained, to lowkey; it’s all here. We’ve heard these things on a J-Brekkie record before. Only difference here is that everything is scaled way, WAY up from previous releases. Better production, deeper instrumentation, more immediate hooks. It’s Japanese Breakfast 2.0. Let’s go.
15. SUFJAN STEVENS & ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE
A Beginner’s Mind
A paper crane hanging in a warm attic softly drifts in the breeze let in through a stained glass window.
Not seeing this on many Best of 2021 lists yet. What gives? I’m not a massive Sufjan stan so it’s not like I’m only putting the album this high because my stan card will get revoked if I don’t. No, this album is purely a return to the whimsical, pop-folk songwriting for Sufjan, while also adding fellow singer/songwriter/label-mate Angelo De Augustine to the mix, proving to be an elite, synergizing combo. The duo watched movies every night for inspiration behind the lyrics and themes of each song, ranging from The Thing to Silence of the Lambs to Bring It On Again. The whole album feels like you’re sinking into a massive, comfortable mattress while flipping between these pillowy dream worlds the two sensitive voices illustrate for you. The touching instrumental arrangements hit on each song, lending a fairy-tale like atmosphere to some of them. Sufjan still has it. Angelo has it. We know this!
14. FOR THOSE I LOVE
For Those I Love
Being ground into dust by grief then slowly becoming more hydrated back into a human being as time passes.
A devastating piece dedicated to the loss of a best friend. In this case, the bond was as deep as possible, like an extension of one’s own self. David Balfe’s heart-wrenching spoken word poetry relives moments of glorious friendship, rages against societal norms surrounding mental health & poverty, and throbs in real-life grief overtop propulsive electronics, soul-samples and field recordings of Balfe and his friends hanging out. The true sense of brotherhood between Balfe, his departed friend and the rest of his mates is glowingly apparent and instantly admirable. I’d have to wrack my brain to try and remember another record that pays tribute to close friendship like this one does, plunging lyrical topics into whole new realms of love and the self for the average listener. Refreshing would be an understatement and despite its devastating moments, For Those I Love is bursting at the seams with love, leaving the listener thinking about their own friends in the same way.
13. DRY CLEANING
New Long Leg
A J.D. Salinger novel protagonist escapes the story they’re bound to, hijacks a car and buys a house in the American southwest to live a life in peace.
I will never be as cool as this record. I’ll put it on while riding the bus, watching the cars lurch past and the general populace of 1st Ave go about their business. I’m sitting in a window seat alone, but in reality Dry Cleaning is like a cool imaginary older sibling beside me. To the naked eye, I am a nerd with newly bad skin and a huffing, puffing, masked face, looking out the bus window. With New Long Leg, I am a Sonic Youth album cover. I’m in the backseat of my sibling’s car, being picked up from middle school, stuffed between their cool friends and careening around tight corners. I’m taken to the edge of the quarry to throw rocks and listen to them talk about what books and movies they had loaned from the library that week. What they did that week at their mundane day jobs. What art exhibits they’re wanting to go see in the city next weekend. My imaginary older sibling doesn’t have to bring me along places, but they’re kind enough to. They’re looking out for me. An aura of prickliness but never approaching uncaring. So yeah that’s what I’m feeling like for this one, I’d say more but I’m getting off here. See ya!
12. GENESIS OWUSU
Smiling With No Teeth
Sinking into a pit of quicksand outside a flashy neon display, draped in glittering gold jewelry, lavish furs and silk scarves.
Now if we wanna talk about IDEAS: Genesis Owusu has ideas AND he has the execution. The Australian performer dazzles with a labyrinthian colossus of funk, soul, hip hop, rock, pop and more on his debut LP, with the next catchiest song spring-loaded and waiting for you around every corner. The sheer variety of sounds all fitting together on this project, held together by Owusu’s magnetic vocal performances, is pretty incredible. Every listener should be saying “where the hell did this guy come from?” probably by the third or fourth song here. It’s that immediate what kind of record you’re in store for. What we do know is that this guy is absolutely going to be on the next Gorillaz album. The blueprint is there. Having more personalities and talent in the realm of music today like this is always a plus, so please be sure to keep your eyes on Mr. Owusu so you’re not left in the dust next time.
Stand For Myself
The climactic scene from a 50s coming of age film is a 50-minute long prom sequence, full of dazzling lights, golden tinsel, tears, people doing flips in the dance circle, a live band, kicking the bully out of the dance and then extending out a hand in friendship, and a simultaneously occurring car chase.
I’m usually not a big rock / soul / country kind of guy. I’m also not the type of guy that immediately gravitates toward an album if I see “produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach” in the PR. So you should know by that metric that this album is damn good if you’re seeing it ranked as my #11 album of 2021. Stand For Myself is banger after banger after banger of rich, soulful country, blues, rock and pop, fueled by the endless motor of Yola’s seismic voice. There’s plenty of variety on the record as well, from sweeping ballads and fired-up room-rockers. Even if you’re not someone who feels moved by music you’d probably hear on some boring community radio station run by people who think Arcade Fire is the cutting edge of rock today, I guarantee you’ll find merit and return from this massive record. PHEW.
Getting a static shock from an old wooly couch that blows you through your home’s front window.
The CT fuzz dawgs have risen fro like a phoenix to supply us with potentially their best album ever. The hits just don’t stop coming here, squeezing eight songs into 25 minutes of near-perfection. All killer, no filler. When the band wants to go heavy, they pile it on: get ready for intense, fuzz-driven rock that’ll knock the plaque off your teeth. When they want to start tender and build up and flex those dynamics, oh they’ll do that. There’s even a crushing saxophone solo. There are dimensions here. There is clear thought put into each song here. To give you any indication on how much I’ve already listened to this album: it came out in mid-to-late November and it’s already one of my most listened-to records of the year. All hail the fuzz. All hail the CT kings.
9. MDOU MOCTAR
A massive bonfire lights up an entire town, emitting softball-sized embers into the sky that sizzle out like fireflies.
Over the last few years I’ve picked up a mantra: “if you haven’t seen a North African Tuareg rock group perform live, you haven’t lived.” Mdou Moctar have been working their asses off over the last few years, steadily rising in profile by constantly touring in the US + EU while relentlessly recording their electrifying brand of desert blues. When the group really get going, that’s exactly what it feels like: your body has been struck by lightning and you feel its energy coursing through your veins, spurring you to move in wild ways. Masterful guitar work (and let’s be honest, do NOT sleep on the drummer!) take the lead on these songs, showing that there is a bright future for guitar-based rock, it’s just not in the usual places it’s been in for the last 50 years. Now that you know this, it’s time to consult your calendar so you can see them live. You’re welcome.
8. BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD
For the first time
The smartest kid in your high school class is embarrassed in front of everyone at the talent show and goes on to write a morbid doomsday-like musical featuring every classmate.
Music that sounds like it has clammy hands in the best way. Orch-dorks (wait wait don’t click away yet) in the talky UK post-punk camp differentiate themselves from their peers by sheer volume. Now where bands like Shame use the term volume relating to the amount of literal noise they put out and with black midi the amount of notes and sounds being pounded out all at once, BC,NR embraces volume in terms of variety and depth of sound thanks in part to seven members up on stage playing saxophone, violin, piano, guitar and bass and flexing their self-taught and prestigious instrumental skill. They flip between a raucous cacophony of sound to calculated, deliberate instrumental movements like nothing. Like their contemporaries though, they rail against the modern dystopia our youth has found themselves in, hilariously namedropping tons of cultural and consumer touchstones in the nearly spoken-word lyrics. Our characters have meltdowns at Cirque Du Soleil shows and copycat bourgeoisie parents. They even write lyrics about their own lyrics for other songs. It’s relatable and hysterical in the same breath.
7. KATY KIRBY
Cool Dry Place
Building a pillow fort with a clear view of the starry sky on the site of your childhood home that had been demolished 10 years prior.
Hit after hit after hit after hit. This album has more songs that will get stuck in your head than a Best Of compilation. Tender, genuine and earnest pop and folk songs that carry a spark I haven’t heard on record in quite some time. You will be singing along to every song by the second or third listen. Again, continuing the trend of totally fantastic and promising debut albums in 2021. I don’t want to get too lofty and comparative in my descriptions (especially since the record I’m comparing it to wasn’t a debut) but I’m getting serious Mitski Bury Me At Makeout Creek feels from the potential behind Katy Kirby as a songwriter. Yeah, it’s that serious. Watch out for the sophomore album that breaks the ceiling open. I should also mention that she put on my first concert since the start of lockdown and everyone – I mean EVERYONE – was singing along. Get to know if you plan on seeing the band live. Learn the words!
6. ERIKA DE CASIER
An etiquette instructor in a snappy white suit is seen having a tense exchange on their cellular phone in the estate’s rose garden, concluding with snapping the phone shut and striding back inside.
Although this might be a controversial opinion, I have to say it. I think Sensational is better than de Casier’s debut Essentials. Now before you close the tab, hear me out. Where Essentials introduced us to Erika’s flawless time warp back to golden Y2K-era R&B and sees Erika chilling and having fun, Sensational deepens the sound and stakes on almost every level. There are moody, minimal moments where de Casier is truly upset with her partner disrespecting her. Likewise, there are moments of de Casier reassuring her own strength and personal growth with tracks like “Better Than That” and “Busy”. There’s a touching, string-laced interlude. Dipping back to the matter of sonic depth, the amount of little details in the mix have not gone unnoticed on my end. All the little flourishes of hand percussion, covert bass leaking out in pivotal moments, the sleigh bells in “Friendly”, the cuíca drum in “Secretly”, the tasteful triangle on “Make My Day” – it’s all here folks. It’s so relieving to hear Erika retain the initial magic that made her debut so exciting and showing off substantial growth in just two years. Now if anyone is able to help me score a ticket for her debut NYC show…
You’re granted one vision from your past while on your deathbed and you choose to watch a post-storm sunset reflected on a small tide pool full of luminescent crystals.
After I saw L’Rain open for both Ava Luna and Grouper in the same week in 2018, I knew they were in for great things. Their sophomore album Fatigue likewise points to a bountiful legacy for the project, with inventive songwriting, arrangements and production, spinning a patchwork of psychedelic pop, soul and even ambient that sounds unlike anything else this year. Sounds flow freely through a hazy dreamworld, like you took a wrong turn on your way home and found yourself in some sort of floating dimension, while the backbone of each song is held up beautifully by a skeleton of abundantly talented musicians. This album also approaches interludes correctly: they should be quick, people! They flash in and out of the narrative structure of the album, adding in disorienting field recordings or instrumental motifs before the next song kicks off. There’s a decent amount of dream pop on this list, but Fatigue stands out among the pack thanks to its bold moods, engineering and execution. I’m seeing them open for Animal Collective next year and I couldn’t be more excited, a match made in heaven.
4. SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE
Staying up for two full days watching unmarked VHS tapes from a dumpster, then hiking to the top of a wooded mountain and burying yourself in litter you collected on the way.
A rollercoaster ride into your own grave. Part paranoid, part lucid, part sedated, part self-destructive peak experimental rock collage where all the instruments seem to be processed on top of each other at times, held together by glitter glue and saliva. There are moments of respite, passing by like a refreshing breeze, but they’re easily washed away by digital interference or slowly turned sour as the batteries start to die. It sounds like being deprived of sleep and subsequently feeling doomed in a grocery store in the middle of the day, staring at the waxy lobes of a bell pepper for 20 minutes while thinking about the floor falling out from beneath you. A tongue-in-cheek infomercial for a device that implants a permanent smile onto your face, marketed towards workers in the service industry via TVs in the staff bathroom. Sound collects on spools and becomes tangled in a mess, jamming the machine. It’s not a whole bummer, there’s a fair amount of well-lit moments of levity, but it’s a harrowing journey for the uninitiated. But once you put on the ENTERTAINMENT uniform, you’ll feel right at home.
The Turning Wheel
A cliffside greenhouse obscured by massive clouds holds the key to eternal life via a rare strain of herbs, as an ageless witch guards it with deceptive magic.
Like tuning into a community theater project on your local access television channel, but the troupe has stretched every dollar to its maximum potential and puts on something akin to legendary Broadway musicals. The Turning Wheel is a drama on a massive scale, with SPELLLING leveling-up her gothic chamber pop sound to new heights and crafting multi-layered movements of strings, pounding piano, sci-fi synth and psychedelic embellishments. Nearly every track trembles with mystical energy, with Chrystia Cabral as the all-arching narrator that brings these magic moments alive. She’s the headmaster in this domain, conducting her brilliant orchestra with ease. The album is nearly an hour and it flows perfectly, deliberately organized to feel like two halves, light and dark, around centerpiece “Boys at School”, a song that drew an extended, hysterical applause when I saw it performed live. It’s immaculately produced, each element of the sound coming through clearly and the majestic vision placed at center stage. A monumental work.
2. FLOATING POINTS, PHAROAH SANDERS & THE LSO
One of those albums that when it was announced, the expectations immediately flew through the roof. Look at it this way: a modern electronic wizard meets a literal living legend of jazz, all backed up by a prestigious orchestra. There’s almost no way this could have turned out bad. Spoiler alert – it turned out great. I don’t think we could have imagined the final product being like this, but it lived up to the massive expectations that were set beforehand, in my head anyways. The album carries a minimal motif across nine movements and 47 minutes, telling an engaging, poignant story in the process. It delivers true weightlessness. A collage of stars and faraway galaxies, twinkling across a grand expanse of space. An album you put on to let go to earthly tethers to. An album we’re all lucky to have in our lives.
1. CASSANDRA JENKINS
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
Sitting with your best friend by the ocean, watching blown dandelion spores float off into the current.
Well folks, here it is – my favorite record of the year. Not much in 2021 has comforted me more than this tender collection of music here. Ethereal folk with touches of jazz and ambient country. A pure salve against hard times. Despite a lot of the lyrical subject matter being culled from a traumatic event, listening to this album is like being with a friend or a benevolent, comforting presence. Gentle, reassuring and fully human. Like a friend coming to pick you up after a fall. A masterful balance of slowness and substance. Just plain immaculate. I’ve returned time and time again to be wrapped up in this album’s universe. Feels like my favorite moments of sitting, watching people pass by, watching the shore, watching wind blow through trees.
When this album came out earlier this year and it felt like the end of the pandemic was right around the corner, with vaccines being more widely available and the weather improving, it was my truest hope for the sound of collective relief. It turned out that the pandemic will almost certainly never end, but this album still kept me level-headed and in a zone of peace despite what felt like a crumbling world around me. It reminds me of going for runs on the East River Park. It reminds me of my beautiful trip upstate with my partner. It reminds me of seeing the trees grow buds after a snowy winter. I’ve imbued all these personal memories onto this record, and I think it has room for you to do the same. Thank you Cassandra for your work, myself and so many more people this year are incredibly grateful for you.
- Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview On Phenomenal Nature
- Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The LSO – Promises
- SPELLLING – The Turning Wheel
- Spirit of the Beehive – ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH
- L’Rain – Fatigue
- Erika de Casier – Sensational
- Katy Kirby – Cool Dry Place
- Black Country, New Road – For the first time
- Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
- Ovlov – Buds
- Yola – Stand for Myself
- Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth
- Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
- For Those I Love – For Those I Love
- Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind
- Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
- Hildegard – Hildegard
- Daniel Bachman – Axacan
- Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
- Dummy – Mandatory Enjoyment
- Grouper – Shade
- Rochelle Jordan – Play With The Changes
- Lunar Vacation – Inside Every Fig Is A Dead Wasp
- Turnstile – GLOW ON
- Lightning Bug – A Color of the Sky
- CFCF – memoryland
- Low – HEY WHAT
- Skee Mask – Pool
- Circuit des Yeux – -io
- Sam Evian – Time To Melt
- Brijean – Feelings
- Rosali – No Medium
- Sasha & The Valentines – So You Think You Found Love?
- Leon Vynehall – Rare, Forever
- Mr Twin Sister – Al Mundo Azul
- Natalie Jane Hill – Solely
- Nala Sinephro – Space 1.8
- black midi – Cavalcade
- Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take
- alexalone – ALEXALONEWORLD
- Vanishing Twin – Ookii Gekkou
- Ben Seretan – Cicada Waves
- John Carroll Kirby – Septet
- Injury Reserve – By The Time I Get To Phoenix
- Dawn Richard – Second Line
- Wet – Letter Blue
- Cleo Sol – Mother
- Karima Walker – Waking The Dreaming Body
- Psymon Spine – Charismatic Megafauna
- Bernice – Eau De Bonjourno