In sitting down and getting to writing about the albums for my year-end list, I almost always feel a certain element of anxiety. This snag was in the works big time for 2021, the year we’re emerging from the doldrums and entropy of the COVID nightmare, and are finally supposed to be regrowing all our cultural limbs and dendrites toward purposes of real, bona fide communication.
But does music SOUND different in the wake of grocery stores full of face masks, empty toilet paper shelves and crushing, sequestered boredom? I argue that it does — actually earlier this year I did a post on the album Blitzen Trapper put out in 2020 about how it’s got this stately, melancholic sort of darkness, that, perhaps, a person relating from before the pandemic wouldn’t understand, or wouldn’t notice as significant.
2021 I think is the year in which we just KNOW this stuff is post-shutdown: the artists have had time to internalize all the necessary adjustments thrust on them the year before, and also how to readjust once society is revived again and all of our functions and bastions like festivals and theater showings resume. As for a supervisory, central atonement for all of this danger and ensuing resurrection, well, we’ve always got that Coldplay album to look forward to. For now, anyway, music in 2021 sounds as it ever has, pretty much, though I like to think that on this site I reward growth and artistic augmentation and punish stasis, all the while with burgeoning plans to issue a “Guided By Voices Tax” to certain unnamed artists out there.
MIKE – Disco!
Mystras – Empires Vanquished and Dismanted
Web Web – WEB MAX
Image Garden – Stone Tape
Jason Griff – Fireside Chats
Sunnata – Burning in Heaven, Melting on Earth
Ill Considered – Liminal Space
Jaubi – Nafs at Peace
Mother Nature & Boathouse – SZNZ
Om Unit – Acid Dub Studies
Social State – Sacrosanct
Abdullah Ibrahim – Solotude
Florian T M Zeisig – Music for Parents
Comit – An Ocean of Thoughts
Raquel Rodriguez – Sweet Side
Mimz the Magnificent & Dunn – Infinite Lawn
Jean Lapouge – Quadrilogie
Lars Danielsson – Liberetto
Rhys Langston – Stalin Bollywood
Fox – Squang Dangs in the Key of Vibes
50 Irreversible Entanglements – Open the Gates
Jazz five-piece Irreversible Entanglements doin’ it on Chicago label International Anthem dropped the bomb on us this year in the form of Open the Gates, an hourlong-plus of steady jazz pour to out-wind any and all. Like a few other but not many, they pepper a couple of little spoken-word messages within their full-bodied jazz soirees, keeping it dark but also universal, or urgent, to fit in with these times we’re in. Probably my favorite one of these comes in “Storm Came Twice,” a track which at certain points mocks a storm with thunderous drums and a shifting, polymorphous instrumentation. The voice says “The storm came twice / In honor of my mother / I am born again” and the results are as crazy and fun as you can imagine, with music so busy and urban that the “storm” could easily be rendered in interpretation as the streets themselves, too.
49 Nick Schofield – Glass Gallery
Bandcamp refers to Montreal’s Nick Schofield as a “composer” of his languid and serene songs of what otherwise could be generally classified as drone ambient, probably. Somehow he comes across as more organic than Emeralds, for one, anyway, with what inevitably strikes as a refreshing instrumentation cluster that can include analog harp and amplified bass, undergirding the central synthesizer themes. On “Mirror Image” one of these seems to mimic birds chirping, an effective tactic in bringing in the pastoral to the urban, sort of like a geographical foil of California’s REMOTEWORKER, who seeks to interpolate confrontational or riveting attributes into the apparently barren or derelict.
48 Morbific – Ominous Seep of Putridity
Isn’t that nice of Morbific, a metal band from Finland, to install all English album titles, song titles and descriptions? Wait, let’s see what they are — “ominous seep of putridity”; “ravening slasher creep”; “cadaveric maggot farm.” Hmm. Yeah, isn’t that nice? And ya know we usually don’t think to link the two to one another but we are living in a pretty da**ed America-first type of world, America being the most wasteful and also the most imperial of all the friendly nations out there, and maybe the warped priority system does reflect our paradigmatic language allotments. Anyway, Morbific rock out like a boisterous, able-bodied group of Scandinavians who know what purity is and have had it from their womb untimely ripped, drawing from grunge, hardcore punk, grind and more for their busy, intimidating but somehow universal brand of death metal.
47 WAYNE SNOW – Figurine
Having this neo-soul lounge session on this list makes me feel a little better about its credibility, like my site isn’t like just some robotic genre generator and actually caters some sense of discernment and taste to matters of the heart, if you will. And I don’t really want to get too deep into the semantics of what all these songs are “about” (there’s a terrible epidemic of that “what is this song about?” rubric in “music criticism” these days) but suffice it to say they all have an incredibly intimate, warm vibe, without being schmaltzy or sleazy, at that, transmitted in Berlin by the Nigerian-born WAYNE SNOW, whose dress and hairstyle certainly seem to encompass the same energy and forcefulness as his all-caps name spelling.
46 Common – A Beautiful Revolution (Pt. 2)
This two-album suite A Beautiful Revolution by Common in the last two years would seem to beg one main question: has the revolution come, like in the sense of what Gil-Scott Heron called for in the ’70s? And pointedly, I think I’m the wrong race to try to answer this question (spoiler alert: I’m white), and the brief reference to the concept in “A Beautiful Chicago Kid” doesn’t conclusively ascertain either way. Anyway, just as a fan of hip-hop in general and a fan of Common’s flow, energy and personality, even when he was at his most pro-black, I’m glad to hear him still tending to the final product in a way that will leave it organic, original and never commercial-pushing. From the ambient free-jazz “Intro (Push out the Noise),” with its gorgeous, rickety and treated guitar, the tone is set for something revelatory, and Common gets some help from Black Thought on the centerpiece “When We Move”; which gallops along briskly with the overarching mantra of “When we move / The whole world follows in our path”.
45 Kool Keith – Keith’s Salon
Sometimes it happens oddly with me and an artist where I can’t really connect with his early work, or in the case, the catalogue of Dr. Octagon, a former moniker of the New Jersey-born rapper Keith Thornton, and then something clicks, like a newfound sense of urgency or recognition of the craft. Of course, the great Dr. Octagonecologyst had plenty of room for improvement in the maturity department, and none of this to get the impression that Kool Keith is some stiff-necked square or political tree-hugger. Keith’s Salon is full of sexual references, diss lines, extravagant materialism and pretty much everything else that serves to make hip-hop something your parents don’t like. Keith’s Salon was produced by some no-namer who goes by Triple Parked… well, the beats are great, lively and kind of tense like a RZA vibe, and make perfect background tracks for Kool Keiths cavalier, off-the-cuff lyricism, as if his confidence far outweighs his interest in any rapper other than himself.
44 NCW – Senator’s Lounge
There’s such thing as being a low-profile artist, particularly in our current day and age. Serbia’s NCW, a techno artist who issues the official proclamation of “whatever producer from London… sometimes released on Apartment Records” on Bandcamp, actually has zero search results attached to him from “ncw serbia.” This album is out on “Apartment” records — so perfect, a modest, cramped lodging that seems to scream “I am not worthy of a house” or “There ain’t no room for a da** house where I stay.” And hey, maybe this music isn’t that good. But I think it is, all light, fluid and steady, with “Senator’s Lounge” stretching out into 10 minutes of acid house perfection the whirling, hissy synths in “Pale Nimbus” emulating a stormy sky of purposeful ideas.
43 Guided by Voices – Earth Man Blues
I’m not sure what’s more amazing — that Guided by Voices put out another new album this year after last year’s furious gaggle of new releases, or that someone actually COUNTED them all. Google’s got Earth Man Blues as GBV’s 33rd full-length to date and they seem to imply that’s a concept album about some apparently fictional character named Harold Admore Harold (sic) and his “coming of age and a reckoning with darkness.” Well, join the club. But then, this universal theme also helps Earth Man Blues really catch fire and grab the attention of the masses like me, theoretically, with “The Disconnected Citizen” harnessing the tranquility of Half Smiles of the Decomposed and weaving in a fresh six-eight time signature, for purposes of variety, phonetics, etc. Bob Pollard also seems to have discovered some new gadget that can swathe his vocals in this watery, obfuscating element. Hey, sometimes on your 33rd album you’ve gotta learn a new trick or two.
42 Pixelord – 99%
Compared with NCW, Pixelord is sort of a golden boy of the blogosphere, garnering a solid two pages and counting of press search results for his latest release 99%. The Moscow DJ seems to be full of nervous ticks that he lays down to wax — it’s a far more urban approach to IDM, in other words, with the proceedings blossoming into rhythmically full, balanced mixes just before the otherwise monotonous kick drums spasms start to wear thin. The party really gets going with “KAMON,” anyway, as Pixelord gets off his jittery Fruity Loops hands and gets into some serious sampling, beat braking and general sautéing of your mind, ensuring that, sugar, if you’re on shrooms listening to this stuff, you probably won’t be able to move.
41 Felled – The Intimate Earth
The patient, disciplined and full-bodied metal attack of Felled features a wide, eclectic array of styles and techniques, including an initial onslaught of rapid-fire snare jabs and the light but copious use of violin and viola as a complement to the basic heavy metal blueprint. These strings embark on “The Rite of Passage” in a strange and evanescent way, then, imbuing a vibe similar to the authoritative Godspeed You! Black Emperor material of apocalyptic melancholy and stately gloom, before plunging full-on back into speed metal fury. Cavan Wagner’s vocals, too, are a force of nature in their own right, astonishing these tracks with vengeful, noxious atonal roars that seem to suck you in like a tsunami with their baritone force. In a way I’m hesitant to call this band “promising” — a musical statement of any more poignancy and urgency than this one would certainly be quite the cataclysm.
40 Mick Jenkins – Elephant in the Room
Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins is on his sixth album with Elephant in the Room but he hits the ground running, urgent and hungry like he’s just unleashing his debut. His life trajectory looks astonishingly similar to Kanye’s moving to Chicago at a young age with a single mom, but his approach is the antithesis — the goofy rhymes and melodic, gospel-kissed beats step aside for gritty, minimalist trap production and earnest, direct discourse about street struggle. The haunting, hypnotic “Things You Could Die for if Doing While Black” carries the simple and stark chorus of “I just wanna live my life / I just wanna live my life”; with the beat harboring an overwhelming sense of mourning, complete with a “weeping” acoustic guitar, as if Jenkins is legitimately pontificating on whether he’ll ever be able actually to do just this. “Stiff Arm” unleashes the thesis statement with crisp, exciting terseness: “Our existence in the elephant in every room / How are we larger than life / And lurking in the shadows?”
39 Dungeon Serpent – World of Sorrows
Right away, you know Vancouver’s Dungeon Serpent are battening down the hatches and getting down to business, with the blistering grindcore groove of “Necroscope,” the opener on 2021’s World of Sorrows, summoning up as much rhythmic assertiveness and cathartic vibrato as you’d think would be humanly possible. On Bandcamp this band bills themselves as “Archaic death metal carnage from Cascadia.” Archaic? Cascadian? These guys sound like a bunch of sweaty, bearded bullies from St. Louis who just went into the studio and belted out music that was more bada** than the other sh** that was on Bandcamp that month.
38 Elektro Guzzi – Trip
Vienna’s Elektro Guzzi does something I’d previously thought only Umphrey’s McGee capable — perform techno music on live instruments, rather than computer programming. And really, listening to this stuff, I have little or no conception of how they’re doing this. Not only are the grooves tighter than anything that would sound live, but the sounds themselves are so erratic and polymorphous that you’d swear it were the product of the autogun on a computer program, or at least a synthesizer, for Christ’s sake. But guitar, bass and drums it is, on Trip, according to Bandcamp, and I’m not really sure that this matters in terms of the music’s quality, but it certainly makes for a good storyline, anyway, kind of like looking into that briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or something thereabouts.
37 REMOTEWORKER – PINNACLES
Kharis O’Connell is the California DJ known as REMOTEWORKER, who, like Canada’s Caribou, you might say, conjures up the pastoral and wide-open with both his stage name and his general m.o. within IDM electronica. With REMOTEWORKER, there’s a theme of the run-down and the ominous, as in to designate a post-apocalyptic world or the end of hope and logic, roughly, with “traversing ghost towns and lost canyons” being among his explicated missions on Bandcamp. These are full, robust songs, though, grafted with dizzying rhythms and a punctilious, original approach to mixing, with murky, swampy bass guiding “Caverns of the Sun” into infinity and sampling used more as a verbal ploy than a cornerstone of the music’s melodic outplay.
36 Work Money Death – The Space in Which the Uncontrollable Unknown Resides Can Be the Place from Which Creation Arises
The dozen-or-so-piece UK jazz outfit Work Money Death rolled out a new two-track, 33-minute album back in February for our listening pleasure. What might surprise you, then, given how many people are in this band and also how unwieldy the title is, like a less ominous and more working-class-minded reincarnation of Fiona Apple, is how subdued, spare and careful this music winds up being. Opening track “Dusk” (to be followed ironically and exclusively by “Dawn) contains one steady, repeated bassline for an entire 17 minutes, rendering it of course mandatorily hypnotic and also authoritative in an intriguing sort of way. The rest of the band, that is, from pianist Adam Fairhall to saxophonist Tony Burkill to percussionist Sam Hobbs, are free to pretty much “jam” as they please, and this track doesn’t contain any apparent, obvious “arrangement,” but rather just the requirement for all the players to “feel” that bassline, that groove, and coddle with appropriately and with style, when they do chime in.
35 Portal – AVOW
Canada’s Portal is an absolutely singular and authentic take on metal, fusing speed and grind into this tight, compact gem of an approach, and, strangely, muffling the entire mix so that instead of resonating, the instruments possess this otherworldly kind of vacuumed effect, as if the sound is being sucked up, or has been recorded inside a carpeted closet. AVOW opening track “Catafalque” stumbles along, full of percussion starts and stops, like a rabid, vengeful animal close to death and He**-bent on wreaking havoc on anything in its path. Still, though, the musical blueprint stays tight and disciplined, and the guitar of Horror Illogium (that’s his name, apparently, according to Pitchfork) almost seems to cry with a wah-wah funkiness, for a second, before, like, twisting into 12 different demented shapes and self-destructing in a squall of sonic mortar.
34 ’68 – Give One Take One
Atlanta’s ’68 pipe in this year with a little more of a “loverboy” approach, harboring notions that they can sing and really, meeting not the worst results in the process. Their Bandcamp writeup seems to treat them like they’re something arcane or academic, comparing them to “Delta blues” — they’re a White Stripes cover band, basically, with a couple more tickling shifts in tempo and a little more layering to their Fender Stacks sonic assault. What gives this band a special sort of energy, anyway, is the creative penchant they have for giving their songs structural eccentricities, like one-minute gaps in the noise in which they even somehow seem to be channeling as much as energy as when they’re cranking up the rock volume and making your ears bleed.
33 Teenage Fanclub – Endless Arcade
It’s hard to explain the exact reasons why I like this last Teenage Fanclub album so much other than the fact that it just IS a Teenage Fanclub album, through and through — it’s got incredibly crisp, fresh vibe of UK twee pop that’s defined this Scottish quintet throughout all the most vital work of their career. Their 11th full-length album clusters a nice thicket of classic, catchy songs together, like the gentle, remonstrative “Home” and “The Sun Won’t Shine on Me,” equally melancholic and even verbally plaintive, to earmark the sunset sort of feel all of these songs tend to have.
32 Bobby Lee – Origin Myths
Calling Bobby Lee’s Origin Myths “post-rock” would be a little misleading, mainly because, given how the term is typically applied in the music world, it tends to usually wield a limited level of meaning. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. But if post-rock were tabbed with a musical journey as textural, ethereal and singular as Origin Myths, there would be absolutely no denying the efficacy and importance associated with that label that, otherwise, seems to pretty much mean rock that’s quirky (Modest Mouse) or instrumental (Tortoise, Don Caballero). Sheffield, UK’s Bobby Lee makes guitar sounds that sound like the death knell of all guitar sound — it’s like music that could soundtrack the closing moments of an apocalypse, and indeed sometimes almost seems too beautiful to be absorbed by mortal ears.
31 Paul McCartney – McCartney III Imagined
McCartney III Imagined is a very unique sort of album, spawned as a reaction to the McCartney III solo album of December of last year, and proviso of alternate producers, separately for each track. With this being the case, it roughly mirrors the Morrissey phenomenon where he writes all the lyrics and vocals to his songs but none of the music, except that all the songs were, theoretically, inspired by music McCartney already had a hand in (he’s credited for the brilliant acoustic guitar part on the opening track of his album proper, “Long Tailed Winter Bird”). At the end of the day, anyway, McCartney III Imagined plays as a big party, and little more, other than, obviously, a chance for some of the best musical acts on the planet to showcase their grooves and instrumentations. Of particular standout status, hardly surprisingly, is Khruangbin’s take on “Pretty Boys,” rife with texturally rich theremin and one of the funkiest, most hypnotic basslines of 2021. St. Vincent also does masterful work on “Women and Wives,” bringing juicy bass, cacophonous strings and watery backing vocals to the mix.
30 Stress Angel – Bursting Church
Brooklyn’s Stress Angel chime in with their debut album Bursting Church this year, sounding very much like a band that’s at their pinnacle and not still getting their feet wet with playing together. According to Angry Metal Guy, only one of the members was in a former band, Natur. But we’re reaping some serious tightness and professional savvy here, anyway, in the form of a full-bodied mix illustrating some blistering, roaring grooves. The same article dubs this band as “death metal” and indeed the vocals from Manny Sores (really) are fast, relentless and pretty snarly, but the tempo changes in the self-titled centerpiece will have you harking back to Pantera and some of the other pros of yore, setting this band up for big things, in years to come, if their focus and dedication can match their ambition.
29 La La Lars – La La Lars III
La La Lars is a Swedish five-piece jazz ensemble named, apparently, after the drummer, credited on Bandcamp as Lars Skoglund. And this sort of back-spotlighting attitude seems to drive this m.o., as a general rule, as this music has a continuous penchant for playing as light and balanced, rather than the zealous, semantic work of one crusader or egomaniac. Carl Bagge’s breezy, whimsical piano plays a prominent role in crafting the album’s mood, melodically bolstering the drumming of Skoglund, which, indeed, seems to always have textural and rhythmic legs of its own helping to make this album a gold-star experience.
28 Cadence Weapon – Parallel World
I was introduced to Cadence Weapon in 2008 when his second album Afterparty Babies dropped and gathered some acclaim from Pitchfork. Upon several listens, it immediately became my go-to for “hippie rap,” with its sugary, melodic beats and wide-open, slightly goofy approach to lyricism. Still, it always slammed me back to earth with some hard-barked wisdom a la “Limited Edition OJ Slammer,” which indicts papa razzi: “Denzel got robbed / And I’ll never forget the look he took / From the ceremony phony franchise”. After a couple of slightly underwhelming releases, anyway, he’s back this year with Parallel World, honing his wordplay and readily doing verbal battle with anything in his path, over fresh, eclectic beats and quick, focused song structures.
27 T_A_M – Local Ghost
2021 brought us the second full LP from Scotland DJ T_A_M, Local Ghost, a sporadic but fully developed scratch-and-sniff journey marrying the hodgepodge approach to rhythm of Chris Clark and the melodic auspiciousness of Four Tet. “Grump” is one of those great tracks like Clark’s “Night Knuckles” that’s built on this kind of phantom groove where, antithetical to monotonous, formulaic techno, the percussion makes strategic, mindful appearances, toward guiding the track’s element of tension and release. Things only get murkier and more dream-like, then, on the title track, flanked by this noxious bass synth and letting fly any number of ephemeral melodic tapestries for a disorienting adventure in absurdist electro jamming. No, this stuff’s probably not going to be featured on Jock Jams 9, but for purposes of meditative squalor and a need for unorthodox instrumentations within IDM, you’d be hard-pressed to find an earthly parallel.
26 L’Orange & Namir Blade – Imaginary Everything
Imaginary Everything is the stoned-out, sample-heavy collaboration between North Carolina producer L’Orange and Nashville rapper Namir Blade. As far as alternative hip-hop goes, it’s about as thumb-nosed and rude as you can get, opening with a spoken-word bite directed at someone not to spill “Yack” on his coat because “It costs more than you do.” From there, the beats get trippy, glowing and iridescent, with the standout “Lyra” governing over most of the proceedings with its minimalist rhythm guitar chord progression, and even some Joe Walsh axe frills to pepper “Nihilism” as something that sounds futuristic, within boom bap, at least.
25 Curtis Harding – If Words Were Flowers
Curtis Harding kind of looks like a black gypsy in his picture, walking around what looks like a pretty wide-open space like a beach with a white cotton robe-shirt type thing, holding an acoustic guitar on his shoulder. His gaze is distant, as if peering into a sunset, and his music itself seems to possess this sort of overarching wisdom, or finality. Even the title track love song opener seems silvery cool and collected, like the amorousness he’s transmitting is more a deep understanding than a fleeting, volatile feeling he’s experiencing. Elsewhere, you won’t believe me, but this guy even looks like Curtis Mayfield and lots of times the mixes sound akin to the soul legend too, with smooth, funky grooves and draping string sounds flooding the atmosphere almost more like a shriek of danger than a boon of celebration or vibe. “Hopeful” has got to be the centerpiece with its sublime chorus of just the title word, sung in harmony by some sisters with some pristine pipes, and a bunch of clear diction from Harding like a guiding hand through our combustive world today.
24 Evidence – Unlearning Vol. 1
Dilated Peoples disciple of yore Evidence drops a typically direct, cold slab of hip-hop wisdom in our laps this year, sounding just as fresh as he did on last decade’s classic Cats & Dogs, and even more focused and full of an intriguing sense of urgency. It’s a good album just to sit back to and marvel in a person’s considerable wealth of compunction, mistrust and umbrage with the world around him, with the central theme of the album being the obligation to “unlearn” all the bullsh** fed to us by the outside world. My favorite might be “Sharks Smell Blood,” with a beat that’s almost impossibly tense and ominous, like a lo-fi version of Biggie’s “Gimme the Loot,” and the clever quip of “Vultures smell me when I hit the skunk / Sharks smell blood”. Also this is the second straight album on this list to feature Fly Anakin, who comes across as a more ghetto, witty and pi**ed off permutation on BJ the Chicago Kid, putting that quirky delivery to block-chopping verbal mayhem.
23 Stone Giants – West Coast Love Stories
I actually got word of this strange and wonderful project by way of a promotion e-mail, at first scoffing at that cutesy album title and equating it with like Melrose Place or something “sunny” and cheesy like that, but soon finding a node of focus and originality off of which the vibes glide like California oranges. Well, part of the eclectic vibe could be attributed to the nomadic behavior of lead singer and producer Amon Tobin, who according to Bandcamp is Brazilian but claims LA as the home base for this hazed-out, woozy ride in incoherent psychedelia. Along these lines, you’d have to call the otherworldly second track “Metropole” the centerpiece, I would think, with its echoing vocals that are utterly annihilated with swathing emulsifiers and its oblong approach to phrasing punctuated by a plain but texturally rich synth bath. In fact, in hindsight, I see that WCLS is basically the antithesis of the reductive, cloying beach-bimbo fare as which I’d originally tagged it. Commercial ambition is not in wide supply here, in other words.
22 Damu the Fudgemunk – Conversation Peace
Damu the Fudgemunk hails from DC, a silver-tongued, rough-throated emcee whose Conversation Peace of this year plays as a boom-bap update on Drake, without the mimicry. Like Drake, that is, he’s got a way of wedging himself into your mind by being just a little more up-front and realer than any other rapper off the streets you’ve ever imbibed. Take the beginning of “Reporting”: Damu is basically spouting a stream-of-consciousness monologue just emphasizing the fast pace of life and all the craziness going on around him. With a fresh, soulful beat complete with sampled strings that seem to ache physically along with the rhythm, “Reporting” then goes on to conjeal as a concise statement in nice-guy rap, taking exception to all the mandatory metamorphoses we’re bound to undergo on a given day, while “Enchanted Spirits” shows off a college-influenced wilderness of a vocabulary, with the tight flow, clear delivery and undeniable originality keeping things all the while from coming off preachy or postured.
21 Don Lifted – 325i
It seems like all the best hip-hop artists on Bandcamp are the ones with no bio or novel-length explanation of their album or music — they just let it drop as is and let everything else sort itself out. 325i from Memphis’ Don Lifted is the epitome of this quiet confidence — a fresh, gorgeous exercise in old-school boom-bap with serene beats soaked in Cigarettes after Sex guitar. No, really. This stuff is the definition of original and the emcee barks off-the-cuff like it’s nothing, channeling the rugged weariness of Ka, vaguely, in the process. Actually, I think the Bandcamp page, in strident, unparalleled minimalism, even fails to state the artist’s real first name, referring to him just as a “Matthews” character bequeathing of “eclectic production” and indeed, this project has the feel of a solo effort, with its natural way of crumbling in your hands within this special feeling that constantly blends melancholy and hope the way only American music can.
20 The Vaccines – Back in Love City
Something about the whole ceremony just seemed to be mounting for this last Vaccines release, Back in Love City, which follows the straight-ahead mod-rock attack of Combat Sports of three years ago. Lo and behold, The Vaccines have chosen to evade the pressure of the post-shutdown LP by making a complete left turn stylistically, diving full-on into coked-up, virile city rock, letting drum machine flank most of these grooves and handing out sugary synth riffs like they’re mini-bibles. In terms of the songwriting, though, it’s as strong as ever, even if the lyrics can seem thrown-together sometimes: these songs have a way of moving and morphing into catchy, classic choruses swiftly enough to keep your head spinning.
19 Chimpo – Outside
Chimpo is a British rapper, according to Bandcamp. Let’s see, he looks white, sounds Jamaican, and somehow over these glossy, glamorous beats has a way of still sounding hard, letting opener “Whalleywood” just chill and tell the story of his upbringing, and generally taking the Tricky playbook of just laying back and letting the wordplay and production (Chimpo produced the record as well) establish the music’s swagger. The results make for something supremely listenable, wherein Chimpo takes that British accent, typically a handicap in rap, and flies that kite with a winning sneer, soundtracking Britain’s “Northern Jungle” and everywhere else too.
18 Dream Unending – Tide Turns Eternal
Patience, certainty and expansiveness are the main operatives in this Pittsburgh metal duo’s debut Tide Turns Eternal, a project that seems to have sprung with the express mission of spiritual replenishment and renewal. Justin DeTore’s vocals are ironically entrenched in what could almost be described as complete oblivion, then, gargled out as if by Darth Vader on his vengeful, maniacal death bed, to where they’re honestly pretty hard to understand. But Dream Unending let texture and song structure do much of the heavy lifting here, letting long, full-bodied songs unfurl wherein purposeful phases and turns are juxtaposed closely and copiously. “In Cipher I Weep,” in particular, is an example of a track that explodes into chaotic glory at the six-minute mark, accelerating into a commendable prog-metal climax, drawing from Midwest grunge but remaining distant and ethereal, like a topic universal enough that everyone can relate to it.
17 Cub Scout Bowling Pins – Clang Clang Ho
Clang Clang Ho is the roaring debut LP from this Bob Pollard side project, emanating in 2021 as a perfection reflection of Beach Boys and general ’60s pop and racing through the tracks in a typically Pollard way, bashing the notion of staleness right out of the park and maybe even making you wish they’d stay a little longer, in certain instances. “Flip Flop World” is classic, timeless pop, putting to work this strange and cool vocal effect that sort of swathes Pollard in this watery element, as if to punctuate a certain compelling sort of psychosis he’s wielding about the fact that the casual has pervaded out society and spread like wildfire, with nothing esteemed or official anymore. But again, he races through these songs like such a crazy mad scientist that it comes off as doubly refreshing, in this day and age when rappers are likely to repeat one phrase eight times in a song before they get on to something else.
16 Mega Ran – Live ’95
I’m not really too sure about this artist moniker — I’m guessing it’s a reference to the old Nintendo video games Mega Man and just a sustenance of the emcee’s overall attachment and allegiance to video games, combined with perhaps some sort of self-immolating sense of humor. Regardless, this album is an hilarious and awesome exercise in spirited old-school boom-bap, centered primarily on the video game (which would have by my guess corresponded with the original Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo systems) known as NBA Live ’95, but incorporating its concepts and its mojo, if you will, into everyday life. For instance, on “Comeback Player of the Year,” he spits the lines “I’m the equivalent of being undrafted and playing overseas / Averaging 30 and never making it to the league”; this analogy of course meant to apply to his struggling rapping career, now privy to a presumably limited amount of success from Bandcamp fame but cool anyway, for sure. There’s no listing of who made these nasty beats, which are kind of like an even more organic update on Count Bass D, but writer and emcee Raheem Jarbo is given co-executive producer rights along with Jeff Moses. All in all, a lot of energy and electricity went into making this album and it should appeal to all old-schoolers who, true to form, worship the ’90s.
15 Bruiser Brigade Records – TV62
These records of production teams with like a million different rappers on them are always a tough flag to pin down, especially when, like Detroit’s Bruiser Brigade, they seem staunchly defy the notion of letting any information on about themselves. Either way, the final product here is utterly undeniable, with Bruiser Wolf’s awesome and bizarre high-voice rapping effect making a hilarious complement to the constant references to drug dealing and street promiscuity, and Danny Brown, who’s listed as executive producer for the project on Bandcamp and whose rap showcase “Dylon” shows that he may be just now hitting his prime as an artist. I didn’t think this could still happen, anyway — a hip-hop record that sounded up-to-date and stalked with an attitude but still possessed that original Golden Era spirit and energy.
14 Drake – Certified Lover Boy
I was prepared to be more nauseated than I’ve ever been before and in a way that would have been funny if he’d come out and issued like a Frank Ocean song about condoms first, which is what I was expecting. But Drake strikes again, entering on vocals on “Champagne Poetry” sounding like he has a newfound focus and, if not a wealth of new ideas, at least enough sense of what music is and distaste for what others seem to think it is to make this an entertaining listen. “Champagne Poetry” samples this strange vocal that’s sort of a runoff of the Beatles’ “Michelle” and actually this overall track, which spans 5:36, starts to possess the polymorphous, musique concrete elements of George Martin and company, as this gospel sample comes in halfway through and completely alters the mood, like some trippy adventure in psychedelic rock. Elsewhere, Drake knocks up boom-bap beats like “Papi’s Home” with some Kanye-like sh** talking, painting elaborate tales over these mournful basslines and samples that remind you he was never really ready for this stuff anyway.
13 Acid Dad – Take it from the Dead
You can hate Acid Dad if you want. They’re from New York. They’re funny and they have good production. I mean, it seems too easy. They do this alternative rock sh** like it’s 1995 still (actually there’s a line in “Searchin’,” the opener on Take it from the Dead that says “I’m still stuck in the ’70s). And maybe it hurts them but the real point is that Take it from the Dead is the most astute update on Real Estate’s Atlas to date, marrying that liquidy, serene guitar sound with an orchestral, synth-laden mix that’s just barely, and refreshingly, not quite ready for arena rock. And of course, the vocals from Vaughn Hunt have that cocksure sort of placid certainty you want in that area, coming across as, rather than apathy, just the ease of knowing he’s walking upon his vision and not something else.
12 Lantlos – Wildhund
Germany’s Lantlos bubble up this year with a metal album that’s like that friendly version of Cartman who comes from the other planet — the guitar onslaughts are flanked by mellow, tonal vocals and textural keyboards that cut through the dirt with some nice, approachable vibrato. I’ve made the comment on this blog before that they sound a lot like Hum, who just released their career masterpiece last year, Inlet. Trust, then, that the structural unorthodoxies and general “metal” aspects like percussion polyrhythms and combustive, unpredictable approaches to rhythm, in general, are in no short supply here, juxtaposed closely enough to fit this stuff for radio, too.
11 Perila – How Much Time it is between You and Me?
The second consecutive German entry on this list takes the form of electronica visionary Aleksandra Zakharenko, or Perila, for short, in all her Pitchfork-lauded, emotionally multifarious journeys in texture. “Air Like Velvet” right away has that cool synth groan of one of the mellower Yellow Swans tracks, with a lot more going on, like little intermittent blips of addled noise (similar to Yellow Swans’ tactic of putting all the noise on the first track, in a sense). “Time Date,” then, which acts as an ostensible title track, marries a spoken-word vocal sort of like Khruangbin’s “Connaissais de Face,” but with, instead of funk-rock, this indescribably intricate and obfuscated cluster of percussion sounds, which act like thought modules in the listener’s head bouncing around and off the skull, trying to parse Zakharenko’s puzzling romance paradigm she’s administering here.
10 St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home
Dirty, dirty, dirty. That’s how this whole thing feels, with that Mia Wallace album cover, the “daddy’s home” title calling to mind her long-time producer Jack Antonoff (who co-wrote on five of these songs), right down to the total aesthetic transformation from awkward, dark-curly-haired choir girl to blond tramp. This whole project is dirty like New York is and indeed this is a very, very New York album, what with the constant urban imagery, the James Brown reference of “Down and out Downtown” and just the loud and clear knack this music has of playing as an amalgamation of pretty much everything under the sun, and everything Clark has done in her career, too, for that matter. Is this her magnum opus? Well, the desperation is there, right away, for sure, with “Pay Your Way in Pain,” which opens with a sound bite of fu**ing, and on which it doesn’t even seem to matter what Clark emits lyrically as long as it’s down and out, gross and in pain. Whatever happens in the future for this musician, there’s some serious crafting of persona on this album, her platitudes and eccentricities making the perfect, tense foil for Antonoff’s more pop-minded, show-bizzy production.
9 Mello Music Group – Bushido
Arizona production team Mello Music Group stomps back in in 2021 with the crisp, tight and old-school-minded Bushido, toting the likes of L’Orange, Homeboy Sandman and Open Mike Eagle for rapid and stout displays of verbiage. One standout is “One of the Last” with Marlowe, an explicit homage to the old-school, and his proclamation that he’s “One of the last to change my baggy jeans to being stylish”. The real draw of this music, though, fitting as it is a producer’s album, is the beats, which are funky and boom-bap ready but also just hypnotic in the sense that you could be listening to a sampled instrument and finding it to be the primary showcase of the music, while still having no idea what it actually is. Producers hone their skills at compiling a final product and that’s just what this is, professional-grade at that, ready to bang out in commercial kitchens, automobiles, bonfires, or anywhere you gotta feel the beat.
8 Jason Griff & Alaska – Human Zoo
It doesn’t happen often in this “age of information” in which we’re currently glued that I look for bios online on somebody and I can’t find ANYTHING. I mean, I could probably find out where my old guidance counselor ate lunch yesterday, if I tried hard enough. I did get this rather tickling list of “Alaska’s 10 best rappers ever,” but this dude is NAMED Alaska, and before you can try to analyze him or figure him out, he’s already spat laps around your favorite rapper in dizzying wittiness and natural, fluid style. I do believe I’ve opened up a file on this Jason Griff figure, anyway, the Chicago producer behind these juicy, lively but chill beats that are kind of like the work of Dan the Automator with the corny theatrics turned down a notch. Lyrically, then, Alaska brings the whole gamut from B.S. battle-rapping to the stupefyingly moral “Tyranny of Evil Men,” which finds him bragging that “Since I remember I’ve been living in the last days” and generally weaving a rhetorical web so disillusioned and street-ready that it’s hard to imagine anyone’s misanthropic sneer penetrating it.
7 Juggaknots – Hindsight
Hindsight became easily my favorite hip-hop album of this year immediately when I heard it by way of what came across as really fresh, direct rhetoric over lively, sample-heavy production, and the New York accents certainly don’t hurt. “Road Rage” feat. Sebb Bash utilizes a beat that maximizes the time knobs on a dominant hat and snare, and samples a car horn, for a singular head-scratcher in berserk hip-hop mayhem. The album features a beat from Black Milk, “The Uninvited,” a pretty jazzy, straight-ahead groove that seems so assimilated to the current project as to suggest Milk has maybe been spending some time in the Big Apple with these cats. The real standout, anyway, is “Devil’s Advocate” feat. Breeze Brewin’, on which the album’s central emcee gets on and hashes out reams of Trump evils over a beat that absorbs the main piano run of “Hail to the Chief.” It’s Breeze Brewin’s steady, business-like flow, though, with a verbose attention to detail and fresh vernacular in its indignation, that helps make this track a classic and cap off an LP that as a whole is equally energetic and captivating on every listen.
6 Emil de Waal – Vente
It’s been the decade of chicken fingers at Taco Bell, tacos at Burger King and jazz from Scandinavia, as drummer Emil de Waal teams up with clarinetist Elith Nykjaer, multi-instrumentalist Gustaf Ljunggren and organist Dan Hemmer for a light, digestible classic with the plangent feel of old Duke Ellington tracks. The quartet dispatches from Copenhagen, with various members funneling in from other parts of the great north country, and despite its ironic locale, this music is nothing if not grounded. Beautiful album centerpiece “First Song (For Ruth)” sidles along under smooth, silvery electric guitar before exploding into a fine saxophone climax, all to, surprisingly, end at the four-minute mark. And I would say the short anatomy of the songs represents the one drawback of this album, but to be honest, at least on my first listen, everything is transmitted with such feeling and authenticity that the curious choices of song structure didn’t seem to bother me — the album still plays as a full-bodied exploration of the genre and a massaging antidote of a music-lover’s deep itches.
5 Yosuke Watanabe – (My Invisible Tree)
(My Invisible Tree), rendered in parentheses for the fact that it’s a translation from the artist’s native Japanese, is what you might call the hubristic work of percussionist Yosuke Watanabe (the second straight album on this list whose artist moniker is the percussionist member of a band). After the first track, that is, “(Free and Alive),” which is basically a big drum solo, we get a litany of fine, virtuosic performance from any number of seemingly random people, as in the fiddle madness pervading “(Dashing),” which does albeit feature some pretty impressive, boisterous and rapid drum fills, and the incredible “(Spree),” which finds the instrument doused in muffled reverb for a truly unique effect. All in all, (My Invisible Tree) seems to pay homage to music in its original form, as in when there were no methods other than just banging a drum out in the open, with all of these cuts pummeling out with relentless, primordial energy.
4 The Lucid Furs – Da**! That Was Easy
Detroit’s The Lucid Furs hit local studio Toneworx this year for their third full-length, Da**! That Was Easy, a multifarious rocking mastodon of an album that draws a blueprint from Band of Skulls and a sense of freedom, virtuosity and epic from Led Zeppelin. The quartet is a great band, each capable of transcending the usual in their own way, but at the crux of the band’s sound is the incredible voice of Karen O’ Connor, approximating a kind of more twisted Grace Slick with the stalwart fury of Patti Smith. On a musical level, then, the band avoid falling into the trap of “Zeppelin cover band” (although even a Zeppelin cover band would be pretty eclectic, let’s be honest) pretty much in flying colors, as opener “Right on My Level” struts in all funk-tified like a more virile reincarnation of the Talking Heads, giving way to a guitar solo from Gordie Kasza that seems to say, “Oh you don’t think I’m Jimmy Page… Listen to THIS.” Dan Regender delivers glove-tight grooves and fills on the drums and in general this is a band that’s going to be making a lot of scenesters and studio-hacks jealous for years to come.
3 Liars – The Apple Drop
On Liars’ 10th album The Apple Drop, the sense of tension and poignancy seems stronger than ever, as if the entire life of singer Angus Andrew is just composed of the mission of assuaging these unimaginable maladies that permeate his entire being. Ironically, as Andrew and this band have been pretty much synonymous with “nomadic” throughout their career, venturing through Germany, New York and southern California for their musical exploits, The Apple Drop finds Andrew taking up lodging in his original country of Australia, enlisting his wife Mary Pearson as co-lyricist and using a session on the judge for the Australia Music Prize, according to Pitchfork, as a springboard for this project. Everything, in general, going on here, seems pretty funky, swampy and ethereal with a sort of ever-present reverb cloaking the bass sound, and this synthesizer shtick pumping out pretty much nothing but angular, undulating sounds. The Apple Drop, perhaps more than any other in this band’s career, is an ode to music for music’s sake, with a particular ear for freshness, the otherworldly and, despite Andrew’s general lyrical verbosity, letting the sounds themselves make the statements.
2 Solemn Brigham – South Sinner Street
South Sinner Street comes this year as the debut work of Solemn Brigham, formerly of the duo Marlowe with producer and fellow North Carolinan L’Orange. As a whole, South Sinner Street is one big platform for Brigham to get on and show off his flow and incredible lyrical skills, which are constantly undergirded artistically by a deep, explicit sense of ghetto struggle and hard-won wisdom. Solemn Brigham walks, talks and acts like a born emcee, and what’s more, musician, letting “Vantablack” roll out in sing-song, instead of rapping, toting all the while a cavalier, ghetto sort of attitude as to assimilate it to the genre. The verbiage is unflaggingly grounded and grim, a la “You won’t find us on the map / No silver lining / Ain’t no light escaping that” and “If you still on the same corner / You was gettin’ bread at in high school”; but the overall feel of the project remains lively and victorious, like a grittier permutation on Mega Ran who’s faced as much struggle but is also laced with the Southern sense of honesty and hospitality compelling him to let us all into his world. “Vice North” is a dizzying display of rhyme play and kitschy wisdom, a chatterbox session unleashing the diatribe of “See / To defeat the man / You’ve gotta deceive the man / But in order to be the man / You’ve gotta feed the hand / And if you be the man / You’ve gotta please the fam / But in order to please the fam / You’ve gotta feed the fam / And heed the land”; the whole thing kind of comes as foolish once you analyze it, but while it’s happening, it’s dizzying, stupefying stuff, bespeaking a rich disposition of disillusioned struggle a pyrotechnic-like gift for words.
1 Miracle Legion – The End as Predicted
Over the past half decade or so, Miracle Legion has just been kind of creeping and creeping into my psyche as something I should maybe check out and try to really soak up. I’d gotten into a couple of solo albums by Mark Mulcahy, their lead singer, and these tended to be satisfying but somewhat bare and mellow works full of easy, digestible songwriting like a more universal take on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, roughly. The messages were generally good surrounding all the project, including some praise from Thom Yorke. But Miracle Legion… man… it just seemed like if they were really that great I would have heard them by now. According to Wikipedia, they formed in 1983 in New Haven, Connecticut. Now, I personally have a funny story about New Haven: my dad lived there for a brief spell in the summer and fall of 1997, when I was in eighth grade, and my sister and I went out there to visit him. We caught this local band Mighty Purple at a bar that I think was called Toady’s (they were nice enough to let all ages in), my sister commenced to fall madly in love with them, I for one fell asleep but by and large enjoyed the music and what’s more, formed an impression of the scene and of that town as, if not an epicenter of indie rock, at least a quality vessel thereof. Along these lines, Miracle Legion typically gets lumped in with R.E.M., and there was even a bizarrely reductive blurb on this album’s Bandcamp page claiming that Mulcahy sounds exactly like Michael Stipe, or something along those lines. I’m a huge fan and this hadn’t even crossed my mind as a possibility. But while this band’s date of genesis does imply some R.E.M. influence and they generally adhere to overarching tenets of college rock, they’re very, very far from being the R.E.M. ripoff they’re typically pegged as, and that might have in turn prevented me from accustoming myself with them sooner. And it’s not like I want to defend my “coolness” here or anything: it just actually is puzzling to me that it was such a personal surprise how much I enjoyed The End as Predicted.
The End as Predicted is a live album recorded in San Francisco’s venue known as The Chapel, capturing what, unbelievably, is a complete run-through of the last concert the band has ever performed, and what they claim will permanently be the last one ever. The performance took place on April 29, 2017, and follows an LA gig from the night before, poignant for some entertaining stage banter about the drive up, including one brief mention by Mulcahy that they’d been listening to a lot of TOOL (TOOL of course being those charming poster boys of the LA-borne desire for apocalypse, roughly). As for the music itself, though, it’s a confident, disciplined and always lively and original take on lo-fi, like if Yo La Tengo had a little more machismo, guitar virtuosity and maybe even sense of humor about them. The guitar sounds itself, for lack of a better explanation strategy, just SOUNDS like classic alternative rock, like “Everything about You” by Ugly Kid Joe, the prompt method of “Country Boy” of immersing itself in hearty harmonica grafting out the tune’s unique feel and playbook. And in general, for all the midtempo, conventional songwriting techniques and median, regular-dude aspects of Mulcahy’s vocals, it’s just this music’s almost obstinate and even defiant originality, coupled with some aw-shucks honesty and self-deprecation, that helps to send this stuff over the top, in my book. Now this band is done, apparently, and maybe some people feel that they basically wrote the same song over and over. Well, if that’s a case, it’s a good song, it’s a song full of feeling, it’s one that’s their own and that they loved getting up to play and sing.
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