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2021 has been a huge year for music releases, a big improvement from the understandably slow last couple of years (although there were still some gems).
From mainstream artists like Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Lorde and Adele to the rising names in the alternative scene such as Phoebe Bridgers, Charli XCX, Black Midi and many more, it’s been a busy year for everyone.
It’s always hard to narrow a list down to five albums in a year as abundant in quality releases as this one has been. Even in its first couple months, 2021 has had some great full-length offerings.
Regardless, I’m still up for the task. So without further ado, here are the top five albums of 2021.
5. Black Country, New Road – For the First Time
The UK-based group Black Country, New Road blew minds this year with the dynamism, experimental risks, and influential depth (and debts) displayed across For the First Time’s six tracks. What this record proves is that they are the spiritual successors of bands like Slint, with their modern take on the bridging of cold, calculated math rock with the equally cold, but opposingly emotional textures of post-punk. But those descriptors only cover the surface of this record’s no holds barred approach to mutating past styles into dazzlingly original songs.
4. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
Spiritual jazz legend Pharoah Sanders teamed up with The London Symphony Orchestra and electronic producer Floating Points to create Promises. It consists of nine “movements” each of which builds on a central motif of synthesiser, piano and harpsichord. Sanders’ saxophone creates an interesting atmospheric contrast to the dreamy composition of both Floating Points’ contributions and the London Symphony Orchestra’s string sections. This is a meditative listen that is accessible to those who aren’t accustomed to jazz or classical music; you don’t want to miss out on this one.
3. JPEGMAFIA – LP!
JPEGMAFIA’s latest record sees his deconstructive approach to rap qua the “internetization” of the whole music industry, hit its artistic peak. This is an uncompromising collection of tracks that sees Peggy returning to straight up bars (“REBOUND!,” “BMT!,” “CUTIE PIE!”) after the bold ventures into experimental R&B on his previous record. The production on this project is top notch, incorporating that signature use of excess sounds and odd samples (pots, pans, the shaking of pencils) through a digitalized matrix that we’ve come to recognize as Peggy’s distinct style.
Yet, this release doesn’t sacrifice the listener’s enjoyment for being off-kilter for the sake of provocation like a few moments from 2018’s Veteran did. On LP! JPEGMAFIA has synthesised his last two albums into a single album that has both the cutthroat energy of Veteran as well as extremely catchy hooks, tasty melodic flourishes of 2019’s All My Heroes Are Cornballs, as well as some of the best lines of his career to boot.
2. Black Midi – Cavalcade
Black Midi’s sophomore LP is in many ways what you’d expect after 2019’s Schlagenheim, in that there’s not much to expect except that your notions of what this band’s sound is are going to be subverted. Midi is clearly the progeny of King Crimson, but a King Crimson from the digital age where neuroticism is openly embraced. Cavalcade also shows a softer side of the English band with serene tracks like “Diamond Stuff” and “Marlene Dietrich”. However, these moments always carry an air of anxiety behind the relaxed ambiance, feeling so fragile at times it’s like they could break at any moment. But that kind of aesthetic anxiety is what makes Black Midi so in tune with this generation of listeners.
1. Injury Reserve – By the Time I Get to Phoenix
Injury Reserve pulled off a kind of miracle with Phoenix. After the loss of Stepa J. Groggs (one-half of the vocals of the group) in the summer of 2020, the group was left with only Richie with a T on the mic and Parker Corey on production amidst the early stages of COVID-19. No one knew if Injury Reserve would ever drop anything again. But then, on Sept. 15 of this year, their second full-length record was released. Despite receiving very little promotion, it still garnered critical acclaim.
Fans have mused online that this record marks the beginning of a kind of “post-rap”, and it’s easy to see why. This record evades all types of categorization; it is a rap album, but that also fails to capture what the duo (alongside the help of Bruiser Brigade rapper ZelooperZ) have done here. It’s as if the boys have condensed all the pressing crises facing us today and channeled it through this album. The bombarding feelings of depression, anxiety and isolation as seen on “Superman That”; global warming and the fires that ravaged the West coast this last summer (“Footwork in a Forest Fire”); the proliferation of conspiracy theories and the general fracturing that media is exacting on everyone’s ability to think rationally at the moment (“Wild Wild West”).
That’s what makes the final track, “Bye Storm,” so redemptive and a masterpiece in its own right. It features a sample from Brian Eno’s classic record Here Come the Warm Jets to create a cathartic atmosphere of distortion as Richie shares extremely personal bars about the importance of loved ones, even those lost. This whole track sounds like a coming to terms with the tumultuous moment we’re all living through, as well as a cautiously optimistic call that maybe we can start to move forward from the storm that has been the last couple years.
Honourable Mentions: Sometimes I Might Be Introvert by Little Simz, Volcanic Bird Enemy and the Voiced Concern by Lil Ugly Mane, Sinner Get Ready by Lingua Ignota, An Evening With Silk Sonic by Silk Sonic, Smiling With No Teeth by Genesis Owusu, Red (Taylor’s Version) by Taylor Swift, and I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses by l.