2021 has been a wonderful year for music, and I’m excited to share some of my discoveries that have made me break down weeping, have had me singing at the top of my lungs driving in the car with my eyes closed, have had me rushing to open GarageBand to try and recreate the sounds and spaces that filled my headphones seconds earlier, and much more.
I present to you, my favorite albums of 2021.
21. Lori Scacco / The Order of Things
Released on my current favorite label, Longform Editions, Lori crafts a song that ties itself between two eras. The song was started “long before NYC went into lockdown in March 2020”, put on pause due to personal reasons, and then was finally finished in June 2021. The gaps in songwriting can be heard in the piece, I believe, and it’s for the best. It starts off as this frenetic synthesizer loop, then transforms into this pastoral, tranquil composition, then into a long, drone shimmer and then fuzz, and ultimately a looped sine wave, with solemn bursts of low bass notes. It is a piece of continuing evolution and change, while still being warm and comforting and emanating love. It is a piece that sits with you as much as you sit with it, and it’s easy to forget how quickly thirty minutes can pass us by.
20. Patrick Shiroishi /Hidemi
Patrick Shiroishi dedicated this album to his grandfather, a Japanese-American concentration camp survivor, whose name is the title of this album. Patrick tries to encapsulate Hidemi’s experience once he finally got out. Shiroishi plays a total of seven different saxophones throughout the piece, layering himself on top of himself. Riddled throughout is squelching, impeccably constructed harmonies, and time signatures so complex my friend and I couldn’t a finish a transcription of “Jellyfish in the Sky”. But most important is the reverence felt throughout the album, and especially the moments of pure, unbridled optimism and ascension that Patrick unleashes at the end of “What Happens When People Open Their Hearts” and throughout “The Long Bright Dark”. This album is a wonderful example of storytelling through sounds and emotions rather than words.
19. Godspeed You! Black Emperor / G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
Post-rock legends GY!BE return with their response towards the Trump administration and COVID. There is darkness and confusion for most of the album, addressing how “all current forms of governance have failed,” but there is hope in the last track, for all those who are “waiting for a new beginning”. Only Godspeed can even fathom the climaxes on this album, and I’m happy to say that this is a return to form for the band, maybe even their best work since they reformed back in 2010.
18. Kaatayra / Inpariquipê
Had to make some last-minute changes to this list as I was working on it to fit this one in because wow this is something completely new. Caio, a Brazilian black metal artist, fuses the jungle of his home country with the genre he’s mastered. It’s a whiplash of open, airy production and instrumentation with some drums and acoustic guitar attacks that take the album to its heaviest extremes. An intriguing listen with hopeful potential for the direction of future black metal.
17. Bill Orcutt, Chris Corsano / Made Out Of Sound
This album was made at the peak of the pandemic, where the two musicians had to send each other recordings of themselves playing so the other can solo over it, and like the best pandemic albums, you can’t even tell. The music in this album demonstrates the frustration having to make music in this environment but speckled throughout are instrumentals searing with an indescribable feeling of hope and joy and impatience all combined into one. It is frenzied, nonsensical, but euphoric and cathartic and beautiful in unorthodox ways. I wish this duo released an album every month, it’s wonderful to be able to listen to unstructured music that doesn’t noodle.
16. soil / haha
The latest album from Columbia, SC native Harry Driggers is a collection of short, lo-fi, intimate pop songs. Featuring plenty of digital keyboard and shoegaze influences, with second person and observational lyrics, this album is just a warm hug from a friend who isn’t around anymore. “sometimes clouds are more helpful until things become more clear” :’) . “personworld”, “2 hot”, and “in the future” are personal favorites, but there’s moments of greatness all across this short LP.
15. Little Simz / Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
After Kendrick Lamar shouted her out and Lauryn Hill took her on tour, Simbiatu has finally reached her commercial big break on Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. R&B styled background vocals and the theatrical, grand production courtesy of Inflo (who also produced Cleo Sol’s and Adele’s latest albums, as well as being the head of Sault) are gems, but the star of the show is Simbi by and far. Her flow is confident and relaxed but drops personal and elevated bars that challenge who she is and who she’s trying to be. An entrancing listen.
14. VOILL /Scendence
So, this is from SC native Sean. I’ve been keeping up with their band Jinxeye FKA the Earlibirds for a few years now, so it came to my surprise that the band’s drummer made an electronic album. It’s mind-melting. There’s plenty of D&B influence across the work but it’s twisted and slowed down and reversed and once you find out it was made by an experimental drummer then it all starts to click. A song was recently featured on Death Grips drummer Andy Morin’s Instagram not too long ago which is insane! 3Y3 Strip and Cellar are my favorites off an album filled with heat. Very excited to see Sean’s contributions to the scene around here in the future.
13. Wednesday / Twin Plagues
I tried to not let how nice this band is and my interactions with a few of them influence my feelings about this album, so here goes a non-biased blurb of this. Asheville band Wednesday have been on my little map since they released, I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone last year, and their sound has improved leaps and bounds since that previous effort. They’re not scared to show off the wider reaches of their influences, from sludgy opener, “Twin Plagues”, to the country ballad of “How Can You Live….” on this album. Jake does a wonderful job on guitar and Xandy lends their slide guitar to further help this band stand out from the crowded indie rock scene. And of course, Karly’s vocals can be beautiful and lonely, but also driven and angry. She delivers an incredible range and her lyrical content go from a time she dropped acid and saw a guy jump out a window to quoting some of her favorite writers and songwriters. Overall, each track is a banger, and the band shows its proficiencies of indie rock in all its subgenres.
12. DAWN / Second Line
This was just a super fun ride. I remember when it first dropped, and I checked out the CD from the radio station and I just refused to return it because I couldn’t take it out my car stereo. R&B from one of Diddy’s main people and a veteran in the scene. Wonderfully crafted melodies and super danceable beats and outstanding interludes, sprinkled with really sweet samples of her interviewing her mom and showing her New Orleans roots.
11. August, Yours Truly / In The Eyes of God
Taylor Elliott singing about his broken relationship with God and how his family ostracized him because of his lost faith and more all over chopped up samples giving the album a dark, industrial sound? My name is written all over this. In all seriousness though, this is a gorgeously haunting album with great DIY production and intimate, personal lyrics that aren’t afraid to expose this artist’s mind to whoever is willing to listen.
10. Esperanza Spalding / SONGWRIGHTS APOTHECARY LAB
Remember when Esperanza won Best New Artist at the Grammys over Drake, Justin Bieber, Florence and the Machine and Mumford and Sons back in 2011? Well, she’s back with a more scientific approach to her music-making, but keeping her influences in mind as well, specifically John Coltrane. He stated, “I would like to bring to people something like happiness. I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I'd like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he'd be broke, I'd bring out a different song and immediately he'd receive all the money he needed.” She references psychologists, music therapists, etc. to try and achieve this. A more profound understanding of her process and the purpose of each song can be found here. It seeks to remedy the inability to express love to a brother who feels lightyears away to giving yourself the courage to end a conversation you’re tired of being in. I really recommend reading the album’s website to begin to analyze how the components of each piece come together to realize the song’s purpose. But it also just feels like a breath of fresh air. It doesn’t sound like it was researched for months and months, it’s actually one of the most organic sounding collaborative releases I have heard this year.
9. They Are Gutting A Body Of Water, Full Body 2 /EPCOT
This EP is only four songs long but all four of them are up for songs of the year. Full Body 2 and TAGABOW just blow me away with this release. They both do an excellent job of picking up where mbv left off, while also still retaining their diy sound respective to each band. Plus, that cover art? Insane.
8. aya / im hole
I first discovered aya when I listened to their Flux Pavilion – Bass Cannon x Shawn Mendes remix back in late 2020/early 2021 and I thought to myself “oh ok, holy shit, they made this sound so much better than I thought it could.” After more than a year since that was released, I received an email from Bandcamp saying that aya just released a new album. I clicked on it immediately, and after hearing the whispered vocals contrasting against the deep bass on "what if I should fall asleep and slipp under", sent it straight to our music director, who said it hit even over his phone speakers. Overall, however, this album’s production techniques are nothing less than absolutely bonkers, one voice flitting in and out between the left and right cans of my headphones. Sounds were being pitched from oblivion to heaven in a matter of two beats, and then swirled and hammered, straitjacketed and unleashed within in seconds. The music and sounds on this release live in a dichotomy of each other and it is a gift and joy upon this world to be able to listen to it.
7. Charlie Martin / Imaginary People
I know Charlie Martin’s main band Hovvdy released a new album this year as well, but this solo effort just keeps on calling me back. I think it’s the specificity of each song. Hovvdy’s album was mostly a general idea of all types of love and how people in their lives demonstrated it. But Imaginary People is just about people, with Charlie showing off his attention to detail on them and the feelings he gets from them. A very warm listen with great lyricism.
6. The Armed /ULTRAPOP
Lots of leaps and bounds in the hardcore scene this year but this album, with its traditional pop songwriting mixed with the noise and intensity of hardcore, scratches an itch deep in the pleasure centers of my brain. Maximalist songwriting at its finest. Lots of mythos behind the band as well, which is incredibly fun to read up on if you have the time. You might be able to tell me where their influences are coming from, but there’s no one like The Armed right now.
5. Giant Claw / Mirror Guide
Probably the most divisive on this list lol but this album is genuinely nothing I’ve ever listened to before. Apparently, it’s primarily a MIDI cello taken through the fun house of effects, but masterfully sprinkled with samples and vocals and drums. It is a strange, but addictive listen with moments of beauty and incredible production decisions that blow my mind. Keith Rankin looks at the MIDI interface and hugs it tight whilst stabbing it in the back. If that’s not enough of a description of the music, just look at the album art, that should make more sense. Please keep an eye on Orange Milk Records (which Keith co-founded) and embrace this (hopeful) future of electronic music.
4. The Spirit of the Beehive / ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH
The term “your favorite band’s favorite band” gets thrown around when this group is mentioned in a few music critic websites, and it’s easy to see why. Spirit of the Beehive take a sharp turn from their shoegaze debut and their heavily sample based previous album. I wrote a long paragraph for this, but it’s best summed up as: a trip where you take more than you can handle. The come up is just excitement to about to get over the edge, and then you look down at the drop and you see your inconsistencies, the people in your life’s lack of truth about you, why you’re still taking the drugs you take, and why you’ll never feel like you’re real. This album fully sucks you into its world, if you’re willing to endure the first 30 second of straight up noise (or just skip it lol).
3. Armand Hammer and The Alchemist / Haram
I reviewed this album in detail on the blog which you can check out here. A more concise summary is that this is a fantastic collaboration, with Al doing a fantastic job of “coming into Armand Hammer’s world” on the production side of things, keeping the sounds very dark and keeping you on edge, while billy woods and ELUCID pummel your ears with core-rattling criticisms of the music industry, politics, the hood, love, etc. However, they also have their moments of warmth. Falling Out the Sky featuring Earl Sweatshirt is an example of this and is one of the songs of the year. Transitions are also insane!
2. The Avalanches / We Will Always Love You
Technically this came out on Dec. 11, 2020, but a lot of sites published their year-end list of 2020 before this album was released so I’m acting like it was part of 2021. The Avalanches stated that this album’s purpose was to capture the idea of the Golden Record sent into space and the love story of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Toni and Robbie were both enamored by the idea of the love that Sagan and Druyan had that he included her brain waves following his marriage proposal to her in the Golden Record. The idea that her pure joy and love and excitement is floating in a rocket ship, potentially for infinity, deep in space, is so warm and inspiring. I feel like The Avalanches do a fantastic job of paying tribute to that love story. The music takes a step back from ’60s sunshine and manages to be modern and space-y without sounding cold. The transitions are incredible as well. It is a pure joy to listen to and is another example of the duo’s talent for stitching ambient, dance, yacht rock, and more seamlessly into a one-hour experience that touches upon all aspects of life.
1. London Symphony Orchestra, Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders / Promises
This album is one of those movies where you come out of it a changed person but when someone asks you what it was about you stand there stuttering and stumped. It is a genre breaking tour-de-force of musical expression and simply put, creation. It is the brainchild of English experimental electronic musician Sam Shepherd / Floating Points, disciple of John Coltrane and jazz legend Pharoah Sanders, and the revered London Symphony Orchestra. It welcomes you into its world with warm arms and surrounds you in it and takes you through the spectrum of human emotions without uttering a single word, if you surrender to it. It is a testament to the language of music and a gift upon the world. If there’s one album you listen to on this list, please make it this one.
Playing the music my Ecuadorian mother raised me on to spread the polyrhythmic essence of cumbia, salsa, merengue and more.