This has been another impressive year for music both in the indie scene and the mainstream industry. Bands and solo acts of all backgrounds have delivered some of the most creative and daring music in years (with the exception of Ed Sheeran). Here are my top 10 favorite albums of 2021.
Honorable Mentions: These albums made a lasting impression on me and I enjoyed them very much but, sadly, did not make my top 10 list. They are wonderful albums that still deserve your attention and are listed in no particular order.
“Jubilee”- Japanese Breakfast
“Untourable Album”- Men I Trust
“Dreamland 2021”- Zhu
“Promises” – Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders
10. “An Evening with Silk Sonic”- Silk Sonic
This album came out at the tail-end of the year but still made an incredible impression this year for both its flawless hegemony of classic soul and R&B and its infectious catchy-ness. The teasers released over the summer ruled the airwaves and when the album landed, I heard it every day from someone on campus or from someone’s car window on the way to school. The retro throwback to Motown and R&B is undeniably derivative, but its optimism and distinctiveness have left me titillating-ly feverish.
9. “For the First Time”- Black Country, New Road
Post-punk isn’t dying but it has definitely seen better days. Since the loss of Joy Division, the only pioneers of the genre still kicking are Nick Cave and Tom Waits; everything else has felt derivative of Joy Division. That was my opinion until I heard “For the First Time.” This album draws on the foundational elements of post punk invented by the music of the aforementioned artists but infuses them with fresh life and a new experimental edge. I’ve never heard anything like it, yet, it feels like an old friend or a reliable classic.
8. “Call Me If You Get Lost”- Tyler the Creator
Tyler can do no wrong. After the massive success of “IGOR” and its perfection of his sonic style I wasn’t sure what direction he would take next, but this was the perfect step forward. Accompanied by DJ Drama, “CMIYGL” is reminiscent of both Tyler’s early work and rap mixtapes spliced on the tape recorders of the 90’s. The ethereal production of DJ Drama, as well as his skit-like, shout-outs combine with Tyler’s creative melodies to create something entirely new out of the ashes of their previous work. Creative and likeable, Tyler’s new album showcases the wide creative directions Tyler can dive into and excel at.
7. “Carnage”- Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
This is my favorite COVID-19 album to come out of 2021. Riding on the latter end of COVID-19 related albums, “Carnage” is clean, precise and packed with poetic songwriting and grandiose sonic engineering. Ellis’ production design creates an excellent atmosphere for Cave’s Flannery O’Connor inspired lyricism and their attempt to invoke sadness and remorse on the events of COVID-19 and BLM resound as tasteful and poignant. I took a break from this album and was worried when I came back to it it would lose the potency that came with its situational context, but that wasn’t the case at all, it now serves as a portrait of the complicated emotions incited by the turbulence of the past two years.
6. “OH NO”- Xiu Xiu
Xiu Xiu’s last album “Girl with Basket of Fruit” was what my mom calls “just f—— noise” and I was expecting more of that from this new project but this collaborative album stripped back into a sensual project. The elaborate song structures and the distorted pop formulas of his early work made a return but were infused with the melancholic airs of his recent album, minus the horror and terror. Despite its minimalist instrumentation, the songs are captivating and hypnotizing. Deeply emotional and intensely intimate, “OH NO” might be my new favorite Xiu Xiu album after “Girl with Basket of Fruit.”
5. “SINNER GET READY”- Lingua Ignota
I could not have been happier with the sound of this album. Ignota has refined her haunting, almost crippling, ethereal aesthetic; the encompassing cathedral-like vocals and distorted, thundering accompaniment of organs and strings are the perfect blend of music and noise that delivers the most intense musical experience I have ever listened to. The lyrics of religious trauma and sexual abuse are raw and unapologetic; the expression of grief centered on her own personal trauma is expressed with such violent vivacity, I can barely even absorb it. I found this album to be transformative and boundary defying; pushing the limits of individual expression through chaotic sound.
4. “Haram”- Armand Hammer and The Alchemist
Renowned hip-hop producer, The Alchemist, is at the top of his game right now. Every year he works with some of the best underground hip hop artists to create new and exciting projects that deliver his stylized, analog sound blended with the idiosyncrasies of his collaborators. This time he has teamed up with New York underground hip hop duo, Armand Hammer, on their latest project “Haram.” A mix of psychedelic and old-school, “Haram” tackles the struggles of inner city life and racial injustice in a brutal and honest depiction that is reliably on brand for Armand Hammer. The inclusion of The Alchemist’s production softened the sharp edge of Armand Hammer’s previous work but the dulled production and sonic design allowed for Armand Hammer’s abstract and existential concepts to come through. Hardcore, but surprisingly palatable, Armand Hammer retain their lyrical realness with the musical surrealness of The Alchemist.
3. “ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH”- SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE
How many genres can you fit into a single album? SOTB must have been trying to tackle that exact question when they wrote their newest album, because this thing jumps from genre to genre almost every thirty seconds. It traverses through elements of noise rock, vaporwave, industrial, pop, and who knows what else in a matter of minutes. It’s like a dark ride at the fair; around every corner something new jumps out at you and even the calm rides give you a startle. Now, any band could splice together a couple different genres and sounds and it would be considered unfocused, but what separates this album from the rest is its pinpoint precision. Despite being unpredictable, everything moves exactly when it has to and with detailed accuracy. My best description? Purposeful noise.
2. “Dawn of Chromatica”- Lady Gaga
Take me back to the discotheque Gaga. I loved Gaga’s 2020 album “Chromatica ” but found that its primary flaw was its lack of variety and repetitive aesthetic congruence. “Dawn of Chromatica,” a remixed compilation of her previous work, solves that problem. The inclusion of artists at the forefront of experimental pop such as, A.G. Cook, Dorian Electra, and Charli XCX give this album the stylistic variety its predecessor was missing and brings the variability and energy of the dance club ambiance to life.
1. “Nurture”- Porter Robinson
The insurmountable pressure to follow up on one of the biggest EDM albums of the decade was not only the goal of this project but also the theme. Pouring his anxiety into his work, Robinson made an entire album focused on dealing with the stress of following up his 2014 debut and how he processed the depression surrounding his feelings of inadequacy in ever following it up. His lyrics and his music are centered on his overwhelming task of surpassing his former album, but that focus is precisely what allows him to accomplish it. “Nurture” is so personal and so hopeful in the face of existential despair; it just breathes so much heart into an entirely artificial form of music. “Nurture” spoke to me in such a tangible and emotional way; it’s the warm hug we all needed after such a challenging year and an invitation to love oneself.
Written By: Tony Le Calvez