Favorite Albums of 2021

Plugging music for my enjoyment

Photo from Mason Stoutamire

I don’t think lists outline the best or worst of anything. Compiling a list of my favorite albums serves me more than it does any reader. There is no album on this list that deserves any more praise than the others, I love all of them. I can admit to albums being exciting in different ways, though.

This year’s been ridiculous outside of music but in their innovations, each of these albums have reminded me to value novelty and never lose sight of how cool it is to listen to music. I’m only able to make this list by considering a ‘personal’ or ‘favorites’ list instead of a ‘top’ list. Each of my picks have struck me as critically appealing, incisive, and a great listen on any given day. For what it’s worth, here are my favorite albums of 2021 with attached sentiment:

15. Namasenda: Unlimited Ammo

Photo from PC Music

I was blending smoothies at my day job when I realized that hyperpop was dead. The ecstatic genre that brought dignified nerd culture to the main stage had fizzled out into a quarantine memory. I didn’t feel it in Charli’s new singles, I definitely didn’t feel it in the 100 gecs silence, and the rising Soundcloud genres were too far from the meme-mixed sound to even call hyperpop. Then came Namasenda’s Unlimited Ammo. The album runs more vindictive, exaggerated, and glamorous than any splurge of snares to-date. I was blown away with the thematic focus and deranged lyrics. “I hate you / You bust, you dumb fuck, out of your mind” is the album’s starting point. Namasenda’s Unlimited Ammo leaves hyperpop where it rests and uses its constituents to make a thoughtful exclamation mark.

Favorite Track: “Shots Fired”

Listen to the album here.

14. Ethel Cain: Inbred

Photo from Daughters of Cain

I was a huge fan of Tigers Jaw in high school. I followed their ex-member Adam McIlwee to his Wicca Phase Springs Eternal work where I found his feature on Ethel Cain’s “God’s Country (feat. Wicca Phase Springs Eternal)” from her sophomore album/EP Inbred. When I revisited the track after my first listen I realized that my subsequent obsession was eight minutes long. Ethel Cain’s gothic ambience draws a sincere moment out for all its worth. It’s beauty is reminiscent of an rural town where everyone (despairingly) knows everyone. Despite its short track list, each track is intimate and oddly American: questioning the foundations of religion, wishing for city lights, and being someone’s favorite hookup. The artwork is striking and definitely maps the album in a similar rustic, beige wasteland as Lingua Ignota’s SINNER GET READY. Hazy, seductive, and barren lies Inbred with one of the most remarkable sounds of the year.

Favorite Track: “God’s Country (feat. Wicca Phase Springs Eternal)”

Listen to the album here.

13. Dirty Bird: Virginia Creeper

Photo from Dirty Bird’s Bandcamp

This was the first year that I listened to deep house and I’m loving it. I found Dirty Bird (also known as Gum, in some circles) on Twitter and seeing his sincere love for music makes it so gratifying to hear him win. If he didn’t release Virginia Creeper, I would’ve placed his debut, self-titled album on this list. But he topped it in the same year by taking a thoughtful approach to world-building within the samples and claps. The album is meant to decorate the world in which an undead DJ traps a group of kids in a forest where they dance to death. Considering that storyline makes the album really enjoyable and takes the album beyond the dancefloor and into the critical sphere (for me, at least). I’m a sucker for fun that adds to a complete picture. If I was ever lost in a forest and heard anything close to Virginia Creeper, I’d keep dancing.

Favorite Track: “Steppa”

Listen to the album here.

12. Rx Papi & Gud: Foreign Exchange

Photo from Year0001

Going into the winter, I was at a loss of what to listen to. I didn’t know what to listen to because I surrounded myself with so many different worlds that were really specific. When I saw SBE’s Yung Gud with Rx Papi, a New York storyteller, I knew it was going to be exactly what I needed. Despite Rx Papi’s elusive, conversational rap style, I knew that Gud’s production would evolve the stories to the dark, dreadful soundscape they deserve. Track to track, the duo made Foreign Exchange more unflinching than I imagined. My favorite track, “12 Stout Street” literally features Rx Papi screaming, “How the fuck you gonna say I can’t come home to sleep? / How the fuck I come out your pussy and you / Choose your husband like you knew that nigga before me?” I don’t really care for missed rhymes on minimal beats without the huge kicks, the bars are too raw to go unnoticed. To Gud’s dreamy, pastel instrumental, Pap captures a reality that’s as real as it gets.

Favorite Track: “12 Stout Street”

Listen to the album here.

11. Maxo Kream: WEIGHT OF THE WORLD

Photo from RCA Records

This spot was tough because I knew Maxo and Tyler both released amazing albums in the same pocket; gritty, hard, storytelling albums. I loved their single, “BIG PERSONA (feat. Tyler, the Creator)” and I honestly think Tyler was a few crime-references away from taking the spot from Maxo’s WEIGHT OF THE WORLD. Not only does Maxo have the street tenure but he draws a clear line to his past and his present (including the vulnerable, complex middle). It sounds cliché but I’m impressed with how many ways Maxo explains how many dead ends he’s faced. Of the gold-tooth rhymes, “MAMA’S PURSE”, raps “I was tryna buy her love / But I really made it worse / Put a price tag on her love / But I can’t afford how much it’s worth,” You gotta respect the transparency and fortitude. If anybody showed a clear image of the long road to success, it’s Maxo Kream.

Favorite Track: “WORTHLESS”

Listen to the album here.

10. Tirzah: Colourgrade

Photo from Domino Recording Company

Did I include this record because I wanted to plug my stellar review? Yes. Did I seriously think this album matched up with the others on this list? A million times, yes. I reviewed this album with Tirzah’s Devotion (2018) in mind, for comparison. With my deep dive and listening, I found this album’s backdrop so much more complex and fluid; the lack of shape In Tirzah Mastin’s life up to the album’s point precedes its sound. I can’t help but think of it as a jar of unstirred paint and I’m amazed at how clear I can imagine the patient colors. The robotic, driving synth on “Tectonic”, the cyclical lullaby on “Sleeping”, the ambient chamber-pop humming on “Sink In”. It’s completely nuts. Its endearing motifs of companionship and intimacy are likely going to make me cry one of these nights.

Favorite Track: “Beating”

Listen to the album here.

9. Yeat: Up 2 Më

Photo from Interscope Records

My ears liked Yeat before I did. I remember sending the album to a friend of mine, mocking how hard this rapper was trying to be Carti on rage beats. “22 songs, each with an average 2-minute run time? Why would I listen to Yeat when I could listen to Whole Lotta Red?” I thought. But after my first listen I had to run “Lying 4 fun” back for a second listen. Then a third. Then a fourth. And before I knew it, I was spinning the album as much as I could for a month straight. I can’t explain what makes Yeat so infectious but his slightly melodic vocals dominate the subconsciousness. Maybe it’s the odd pronunciation. Maybe it’s the trademark bell. Maybe it’s the devil on his phone. While he caught fire on social media, I grew to really admire the work — there’s something really cool about everybody getting behind an unconventional artist like Yeat. I’m a fan and I’m looking forward to seeing him innovating rap further than he already has.

Favorite Track: “Told ya”

Listen to the album here.

8. Black Dresses: Forever In Your Heart

Photo from Blacksquares Media

My close friend and I were recounting 1000 gecs and The Tree of Clues when he recommended this album to me, Black Dresses produced one of the 745 sticky remixes. Huge guitars, noise, and whimsical vocals fill 50 minutes in Forever In Your Heart. The electronic rock act tears apart generic labels and laughs at any attempt to capture its sound in words. It’s crazy because this album definitely contains a clear personality — I can only try to explain it as clearly as it appears. Each track reaches intense, liberating high points and all you can do is admire how exposed the Canadian-duo remain behind their walls of sound. “I don’t wanna do this anymore, I don’t wanna do this anymore / I don’t wanna prove I was wrong about you,” they conclude on “Ragequitted” with a fleeting vocal grain. There’s an industrial, metallic feel to their sound reminiscent of the late SOPHIE, flirting with hyperpop. But this album contains more rock and noise than your average hyperpop record. Following their tough road up to this point, including their disband in 2020, this album spirals from connection to harrowing isolation.

Favorite Track: “Waiting42moro”

Listen to the album here.

7. The Alchemist: This Thing of Ours (1 & 2)

Photo from ALC Records

I think it’s unfair to include segmented projects on a year-end list. But on the other hand, this is my personal list and I love these projects in-conjunction! Earlier this year, I had to pinch myself to believe that Earl and Navy Blue were on an Alchemist beat. Not only does the track work perfectly but it ushered in this near flawless run for The Alchemist. Both volumes of This Thing of Ours display so much talent across the underground/art-rap genres; each lyricist has such a unique pocket, you gotta love how The Alchemist crafts each of them with flying colors. The extended soul samples and quiet drums leave a space for artists like Earl, MIKE, Vince Staples, and Zelooperz to shine with some of their rawest lines yet. Deadpan and imaginative, nobody came to play. Considering how much the producer released with these artists in this year (not to mention Armand Hammer’s Haram), I’m surprised that a single producer could’ve gone so hard.

Favorite Track: “Miracle Baby (feat. MAVI)”

Listen to the albums here. (1) (2)

6. Midwife: Luminol

Photo from The Flesner

This is the first Midwife album I’ve heard and it’s incredible. I woke up and blindly picked the review on Pitchfork’s front page and I haven’t found a better blend of evolved shoegaze, ambience, and noise than what I found in Luminol. There’s a dread to this album that pairs well with the ongoing feeling that 2021 is just a continuation of 2020. Each track takes an existential angle on the horrors of right now — multi-instrumentalist Madeline Johnston appears muddled behind pensive loops, considering a betraying body, fleeting love, and estranged friends. Luminol resounds like an existential apocalypse that eases you into feeling complex hopelessness. I wasn’t impressed with Grouper’s release this year but Midwife made a new fan of me; this album reminds me of the ambient-shoegaze musician but goes further into the abyss than Grouper has gone in years. There are plenty of places for your mind to wander between each loop, whether it’s related to the lyrics or not. But your active listening is a guarantee across the six tracks.

Favorite Track: “Enemy”

Listen to the album here.

5. Injury Reserve: By the Time I Get to Phoenix

Photo from Injury Reserve’s Bandcamp

I met a SF-native in one of my classes this fall and he recommended this album to me. I judged him to be an ASU, rugged, Marlboro type of guy but I was completely wrong about him and his recommendation. By the Time I Get to Phoenix is an amazing album with or without the grain of salt. I didn’t know about Groggs’s death prior to my first listen but you can feel multiple degrees of grief in the group in the album. There’s no pressure to perform anything but what the group feels. “Top Picks for You” is a jarring focal point of the album that reaches the heart in free expression. The omniscient algorithm in the wake of someone’s passing carries one of the most morose images from this year: “Your patterns are still in place and your algorithm is still in action / Yeah, just workin’ so that you can just, jump back in”. Tonally aflame, in pain, and moving forward is Injury Reserve with By the Time I Get to Phoenix.

Favorite Track: “Superman That”

Listen to the album here.

4. Jazmine Sullivan: Heaux Tales

Photo from RCA Record

In writing, it’s always gripping to see a character that isn’t perfect, one that’s held back by their vices and shallow truths with their ‘righteousness’. But Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales doesn’t have any vices. Even when you hear characteristic flaws like being materialistic or staying with a man for the sex, each track takes a plain-speaking tone that shows a woman’s best side. This album is a beautiful collage of empowerment. “You have tricked in your fuckin’ marriage / You have sex because you know your husband / Is gonna give you what the fuck you want the next day,” adds to the other girl-talk gems sprinkled across the album. With a collection of black women divulging their true feelings, you begin to understand that being a woman today is a full-time job — there’s no shame in the hustle.

Favorite Track: “The Other Side”

Listen to the album here.

3. dltzk: Frailty

Photo from deadAir Records

“Times like these, I try not to get upset / All I do is think about you and this is the thanks I get?” dltzk begs, before his anthemic vocals follow the chords. I was driving with my 14 year-old sister in the car when I had my first itch to hear “homeswitcher”, a highlight from dltzk’s earlier debut album Teen Week. She introduced me to the pioneer this summer and Frailty came out just in time for me to obsess over his work. Not only does the album mix the internet into walls of ever-bright noise but it’s incredibly consistent. The album ties the rollercoasters of a teenage romantic to digicore sensibilities without missing an ounce of angst. I love the whiny, emo vocals and the experimentation; Frailty truly feels like a cluster of 16-bit anxiety before the dance break. There isn’t much separating this album from the following two on my list. I have at least one Frailty itch in my head every day and everybody else should, too.

Favorite Track: “search party”

Listen to the album here.

2. Boldy James & The Alchemist: Bo Jackson

Photo from ALC Records

It’s been a great year for rap. And Boldy James takes my highest rap-placement because I think it goes the hardest. Paired with The Alchemist, I can’t name a song on this album that isn’t masterful and stank-face worthy. The bars are grounded in Boldy’s less-than-legal lifestyle in his hometown. Apart from the other rap albums released this year, Bo Jackson contains the story of a Detroit-native with a larger-than-life reputation (like the multi-sport legend, Bo Jackson). The beats are perfect for these character sketches: ever-present ties to the hood, a keen nose for fakes, and an ambition to never stop striving. Boldly James isn’t a deadpan lyricist but he comes close. The minimal inflection in his voice resounds like battle-rap but with an ounce of care. That ounce of care is enough to make lines like “Tellin’ niggas that he gang, no he motherfuckin’ ain’t”, from “First 48 Freestyle”, pierce like they do. At the album’s core is a rapper with a compelling story to tell and Boldy James sells it. Whether you choose to listen or not is up to you. Boldy doesn’t care.

Favorite Track: “First 48 Freestyle”

Listen to the album here.

1. Sega Bodega: Romeo

Photo from NUXX

As unfair as it sounds, I knew this album was going to be my album of the year when I first heard it — the world Sega Bodega builds across the 10 tracks is tightly knit and vast. Romeo is an ultraromantic album that chooses to love in spite of glaring differences. Musically, there are moments of experimentation that push the boundaries of Bodega’s house-grooves. “Only Seeing God When I Come” is filled with audio stutters and distortion before opening up to fragile keys and layered vocals. Before returning to the distortion. The album’s a night life album, for sure, with its minor chords and lyrical frustrations. “Naturopathe (feat. Charlotte Gainsbourg)” features some of the bounciest bass keys I’ve ever heard, mixed to near perfection. The album isn’t rigid but the groove-decisions are tried and true, elevating the experimentation to avant-garde. Romeo is a fun exploration of the heart that takes liberties wherever it wants to. There’s no need to warm up to it, it’s good at face-value.

Favorite Track: “All Of Your Friends Think I’m Too Young For You”

Listen to the album here.

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