Presenting: The Best Albums of 2021 featuring Jazmine Sullivan, Iceage, Julien Baker, Erika de Cassier, Low, Mdou Moctar, and more!
This year, no one could seem to agree on things. There was no Song of the Summer, no sure way to handle the pandemic, and no aligned agreement on a definite album of the year. However, anyone under the impression that new music just isn't as good as the classics is truly mistaken. There were a LOT of incredible records this year covering so many genres and styles. From the rising UK post-punks in Squid, Black Midi, and Black Country, New Road, the ambient jazz of Nala Sinephro and Phaorah Sanders and Floating Points, to the enriching R&B of Sault and Dawn Richard, there were so many incredible works this year that reinforced the power of the album as a medium that many still enjoy. Regardless as to whether or not you may have been disappointed with some of the biggest pop stars this year or if you're still waiting for a vinyl copy of something to arrive in the mail, I promise you'll enjoy something from this year's list.
50 BACHELOR | Doomin Sun
49 PARANNOUL | To See the Next Part of the Dream
48 MIA DOI TODD | Music Life
49 PARANNOUL | To See the Next Part of the Dream
48 MIA DOI TODD | Music Life
47 KA | A Martyr's Story
46 MADLIB | Sound Ancestors
45 SONS OF KEMET | Black to the Future
44 SNAIL MAIL | Valentine
43 ARLO PARKS | Collapsed in Sunbeams
42 MOGWAI | As the Love Continues
41 INDIGO DE SOUZA | Any Shape You Take
40 HOVVDY | True Love
39 NALA SINEPHRO | Space 1.8
38 MACH-HOMMY | Pray for Haiti
37 MR TWIN SISTER | Al Mundo Azul
36 DEAFHEAVEN | Infinite Granite
35 YOLA | Stand for Myself
34 VACANT GARDENS | Obscene
33 ENUMCLAW | Jimbo Demo
32 ARMAND HAMMER / THE ALCHEMIST | Haram
31 DAWN RICHARD | Second Line: An Electro Revival
30 CZARFACE / MF DOOM | Super What?
29 ERIKA DE CASIER | Sensational
28 BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD | For the first time
27 NASIMIYU | P O T I O N S
26 OLIVIA RODRIGO | SOUR
25 BLACK MIDI | Cavalcade
24 GROUPER | Shade
23 TIRZAH | Colourgrade
22 SQUID | Bright Green Field
21 SAULT | Nine
20 THE REDS, PINKS AND PURPLES | Uncommon Weather
19 LUCY DACUS | Home Video
18 MAKAYA MCCRAVEN | Deciphering the Message
17 NICK CAVE / WARREN ELLIS | Carnage
16 VIJAY IYER / LINDA MAY HAN OH / TYSHAWN SOREY | Uneasy
15 CHRIS CORSANO / BILL ORCUTT | Made Out of Sound
14 ICEAGE | Seek Shelter
13 GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR | g_d's pee AT STATE'S END!
12 JAPANESE BREAKFAST | Jubilee
11 JULIEN BAKER | Little Oblivions
10 DINOSAUR JR. | Sweep It Into Space
Most of my friends and followers probably aren’t surprised to see a new Dinosaur Jr. album on my year-end list, but I sure wasn’t expecting it. More than a decade into their reunion and the trio are sounding as good as ever, perhaps even their best. In the late ‘80s, the band rose from the hardcore scene and found their footing as one of the loudest bands in the game, but after three records, their original line-up disbanded and it transitioned into a J Mascis solo affair. Now, the band has released more records since reuniting than they did in their original run, and their second act may finally outshine the first go around. On their fifth post-reunion record, the trio feel settled in place. They’re not as hardcore as they once were, but their production is better than ever and their songs are confident, loud, and full of purpose. While their roots may be firmly planted in punk rock, their love for classic-rock still snakes its way into their sound and it’s perhaps what has kept them sounding so great after all these years. “Garden” is a stunning, under the radar jam that propels Lou Barlow to the front and positions him as the George Harrison of the group with a twist nestled in there to surprise you when you least expect it. Sure, nothing on the album will reach the heights of their massive jams like “Feel the Pain” or “Freakscene,” but where it may falter in terms of a producing another underground anthem, it more than makes up for in terms of well roundedness. From start to finish, there isn’t a weak moment on here and in total the sum is one of their best collection of songs yet and possibly the strongest entry point for anyone still looking for a place to start.
09 MAGDALENA BAY | Mercurial World
On their full-length debut, the duo that is Magadelna Bay take aim to conquer the galaxy with their intergalactic bops. The songs are chock-full of cosmic tapestries that encapsulate futuristic soundscapes all while honing in on the best elements of pop music over the past fifty years. Techno-lite and disco are undercurrents and drive the beats that will pull you to the dance floor in an instant. Elements of Japanese City Pop shimmer over these tracks giving off a neon glow that radiates with a deluxe intensity full of glittery rhythms and sparkly beats. Whispered vocals and bleary-eyed synths add to the lens, giving the album its nostalgic factor that evokes VHS-era pop with a swerve into ‘90s R&B and Euro-club heat. The production is immaculate and the mix perfectly calibrated. As “Dawning of the Season” gleefully drops into “Secrets (Your Fire),” the album hits a perfect bounce of divine pop. 90s lite, vaporwave, hyperpop, and glitch all find their way onto the album and play together in concert with utter ecstasy. It's easy to say this album sounds like the future, but that would be an injustice to its hallmarks of the past. At every twist, this record showcases a new, complex idea that feels equally like a glimpse into Pop's illustrious past while also sounding like the entrance music to another realm.
08 TYLER, THE CREATOR | CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
At some point in the past few years, Tyler the Creator took the throne as the best rapper on the planet (or at least until Kendrick makes his triumphant return). Sure there are others that headline festivals, have more social media followers, and spend more time on the charts, but no one is doing those things AND dropping records as great as Tyler. With his juvenile days behind him, Tyler has flipped the switch and is hitting his artistic peak. Flower Boy asserted him as a bonafide lead figure in the scene and IGOR was his pivotal shift to becoming a real Artist. Call Me If You Get Lost is a bit of reflection while still moving his game forward. It’s got the feels of a classic mixtape, courtesy of DJ Drama whose sharp shoutouts take us back to the mid-’00s, and feels like the next turning point in his already stellar career. His dexterity is off the charts with the likes of the free-flowing "WUSYANAME?" running up against "LUMBERJACK," two of the best songs in his career, and showcasing his wild talents with supreme authority. Tyler is in his comfort zone here, but nothing about it feels safe or comfortable, it still packs a punch and feels as invigorating on the tenth or twentieth listen as it did on the first. Almost a decade after rising as a terrifying teen threatening to take control of shock-rap and scare everyone on the internet, Tyler has made another classic and transformed himself into not only one of the biggest rappers on the planet, but one of the most dominant voices in music. He continues to raise the bar and assert himself as a force. There is no one out there quite like him.
07 TURNSTILE | GLOW ON
There was certainly a lot to FEEL in 2021 and whether it was rage, love, or something in between, there is a chance you felt it extra hard while listening to Turnstile’s incendiary GLOW ON. Much like Deafheven was for people in the past, Turnstile seemed to be the cross-over act that broke out of the pit and into the mainstream via their incredibly catchy hooks and hell-raising tenacity that are sure to make you scream along to “NOW IT’S A HOLIDAY!” Everyone needs to reach outside of their comfort zone every now and then, and GLOW ON seemed to be the moment for many this year. It’s a heavy record, but not without real moments of light. Dev Haynes appears for the glowing “T.L.C.” which cools things down for a moment and helps to soften the blow on an otherwise intense album. When I sent it to a friend this year, he pressed play and the opening twinkles of “Mystery” had him reply with “I’m dreaming” which abruptly changed to “oh wait, never mind.” The best opening track on an album all year, it launches forward with extreme force, exploding with a searing solo before collapsing on itself; blink and you'll practically miss it. The record is a journey and a fantastic one at that. A masterclass in hardcore for the masses.
06 MDOU MOCTAR | Afrique Victime
Rock is dead. Well, that’s what it may feel like to many aging out of their time as the new voice of what’s considered “cool.” However, with the release of Afrique Victime, Mdou Moctar is here to fully convince you otherwise. It’s been a long time since a rock record has felt so expansive with its sound, as if it were here to challenge any concept of what rock and roll may sound like in the new decade. Sure, psych-rock is nothing new and there is plenty here to remind you of the spectacular sounds of the ‘70s or make you feel as if you’re reliving one of your uncle’s acid trips on your own accord, but Afrique Victime is also the sound of the future. It’s a forward-thinking album here to resurrect rock and roll and push it into a new realm. There are numerous dazzling solos here that feel like technicolor kaleidoscopic odysseys, almost like the music is painting its own picture with vivid color. The explosiveness of the title track is balanced with more tranquil moments like those of “Tala Tannan” which are the more mellow parts of the journey, the valley between the mountainous roar of psychedelic splendor. It’s a definitive statement and one that can fit itself into so many scenes all at once. A dazzling display of authority and confidence that is sure to set your speakers aflame.
05 LOW | HEY WHAT
A late-career masterpiece seemed to be on the table for several artists in 2021, but few captured it quite like Low. Following 2018’s Double Negative, an album many saw as one of their best, the duo somehow took things a step further. Polarizing crashes of sound were the anchors of the record and created a world that felt familiar, but also new. This is a powerful record, one that can assault with volume, but not with aggression. Even with it’s epic walls of sound that seem to come crashing around us all, it’s never something that feels too much. It’s a sublime experience where the noise meets the beauty and chaos meets wonder. It’s an album of epic proportions where scale takes on new meaning and at several points you may ask yourself, what exactly is this? Is it noise, drone, shoegaze, slowcore? Well, it’s something in between. An album that exists between worlds, a bit like the space between Kansas and Oz where things shift between color and black and white in rapid succession. It can feel dizzying at times, but it is also exquisite in execution. Barbed strikes of guitar hit like shrapnel, but the blankets of fuzz liquify them as soon as things get too heavy. It’s an unbelievable show of restraint from the band that seem to be able to reel themselves in at just the right moments and allow for the crystalized frequencies to form the protective layer around each song. This is a record for the ages, one that can still feel new every time you hit play and one that reveals new parts of itself with each listen.
04 THE WAR ON DRUGS | I Don't Live Here Anymore
The opening track on the new album from The War on Drugs isn’t a massive, crystalized synth epic full of range and elongated solos (but don’t worry, that’ll come later). What we hear first is the sepia-toned slow burn of “Living Proof,” a dusty guitar ballad that sets the stage before the door bursts open and full-color kicks in. After two monumental records, it was unclear how Adam Granduciel would continue and if he still had enough to say, but I Don’t Live Here Anymore not only rose to the challenge, but may have even surpassed its predecessors. Ever since Lost in the Dream, it’s been clear that this is a studio band, one set on incremental changes and knob twists that only a select few could possibly notice, but these little details would hang over Granduciel until the last possible moment when each small thing falls firmly into place. This feels even more true here, as if things somehow became even more elaborate and painstakingly touched-up to be sure not a single blemish would find its way through the mix. Familiar harmonies are still present and much like the classic appeal of the group, this feels immediately like a record that has been in your collection all along. The band knows their groove and sticks to it, but somehow still finds new ways to reveal their particular brand of heartland rock that feels neither old or too on the nose. The usual themes are present as well: the rain, feeling weighed down by the chains of life, and understanding things as you grow older, babe. It’s still the journey of discovery through the next phases of life and learning how to adjust along the way, with the assistance of sleek synths and widescreen guitar solos. The title track could be their most illustrious yet and the one that makes them of the arena-rock caliber to which they’ve seemed destined for years (this will be up for the test when they headline MSG early next year). The War on Drugs are in full cruise-control mode here, but that’s not to say they’re playing it safe. No, they’re cruising along at top speed and taking it all in, one mile at a time with the sun reflecting perfectly in their aviators. The top is down and the volume on the stereo all the way up. We’re riding off into an endless sunset and never looking back, babe.
03 JAZMINE SULLIVAN | Heaux Tales
Best of luck finding a better voice on any album this year (and yes I see you, Adele). Jazmine Sullivan returned from a five-year drought with an instant classic and of the moment album that cements her as one of the R&B greats of her generation. A deeply personal collection of songs, Sullivan puts herself on the line and speaks her demands. This is a raw, emotional record that asserts itself as one of the most powerful releases of the year. Jaz isn’t laying down for anyone and she’s brought along her friends to help spread the word. Through vignettes of personal tales of strife and success, we’re invited into some of the most private moments between Sullivan’s bombastic display of vocal prowess. The control and range throughout the record is unlike any other and pushes Sullivan to the upper echelon of vocal dominance. As much as there are moments of regrets and mistakes, Sullivan repurposes those as moments of learning and reframes them into opulence. Toxic energy is morphed into purges of virtue. “Pick Up Your Feelings” might be the real moment and closest you’ll get a “bop” on here, but at its core it’s a song of self-love and reassessment. “No more, benefits / Pop-up visits / Hands tied, no grip / I ain't got the room for extra baggage.” This is a proclamation and an anthem for self-worth. An ode for all those who’ve been played and wronged and who need no one, but themselves and their best friends. Nothing can take away the love Sullivan has for herself and her girlfriends and it’s a reminder that we should all know and feel this for ourselves as well.
02 FLOATING POINTS / PHAROAH SANDERS / THE LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA | Promises
An unlikely pairing for the ages. An up and coming electronic producer responsible for wonderful, club-ready beats meets up with a jazz icon to create something so out of this world and uniquely beautiful. Promises was an unexpected release that seeped into the minds of listeners around the world with ease and grace. Over the course of several movements, a reflective, repeated pattern set the theme for a masterpiece of ambient jazz. Delicate piano motifs, lush string arrangements from the London Symphony Orchestra and Sanders’ astral seeking riffs coalesced into something truly splendid. This isn’t like anything either artist has created before and it is without question a late-career triumph from one of the greatest saxophone players of all time. The album feels like a meditative daydream, one capable of transporting you through time and space. It’s a record that blends itself into the background and there are stretches where it melds into your subconscious to the point you forgot it’s even there, it feels natural and part of your everyday experiences. There are also parts that perk up your ears and bring you directly back into the album, transfixed by what you’re hearing. There is so much to unpack in this record, but nothing about it feels impenetrable or challenging, it’s a free-jazz odyssey full of rich, sublime textures, smile-inducing mumblings, and tranquil melodies. As a whole, it transcends every label that could possibly apply to it and it ascends to the upper echelons of what music can actually be and the impact it can have on an audience.
01 CASSANDRA JENKINS | An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
At the center of Cassandra Jenkins astonishing album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature lies “Hard Drive,” a luminous single that combines spoken-word poetry with ambient textures and rhythmic propulsion. The track is a journey full of action and traverses the cosmic plan as we are led through a healing mission bringing us back to our center. It’s one of many moments on the album that shines with brilliance, but it rises like the North Star and becomes the centerpiece that leads us home. Cassandra invites us into her world and shares deeply personal stories that also feel like truly relatable memories. This is an album that is rich with storytelling, but also one that is intimate enough to make you wonder if she’s talking about her own struggles or if she is somehow aware of exactly how you feel as well. Fleeting jazz melodies punctuate the atmospheric moments bejeweled by textured synths, yet there is also remarkable guitar work and a solo that is sure to melt your soul. And then there is her voice which acts like a balm and paints each song with pastel tones that enrich and fortify the music. It’s hard to describe it as any one thing, but that is also what makes it so striking. It breaks the mold and rises to the occasion as something so special and all its own. There is really nothing that sounds quite like it. Through turbulent themes that include death, loss, and discovery, we are taken on trips to search for self-identity. It’s as much an album as it is a mission statement and guide towards self-preservation. These past few years have been difficult for so many of us and Jenkins reveals such vulnerability that at times it can make you break down with emotion. You’re not alone, she reaffirms, and her songs act as a salve for bleak moments while still highlighting the warmth and sparkle that awaits us on the other side.
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