Coming out of the seemingly endless year prior, 2021 did not have a tough act to follow. Literally, anything that broke the streak of ennui and fear, felt huge. The music industry took a serious blow from the pandemic (and continues to) with local venues and musicians affected the most. Even with all the pressure, musicians stubbornly refused to acquiesce to the doom-and-gloom, though there was every reason to. Our favorite albums from 2021 celebrate the music that made our year special because it refused to quit.
Best Album Rollout:
ye – Donda
For the first twenty years of my life, the artist formerly named Kanye West was one of those artists that topped billboards and made huge waves in the industry but never really captivated me with his music. When my friend started talking about the listening parties with the extravagance of a Superbowl half-time show, my interest piqued and I started closely following the hype for the album. The idea of a living album, one that continually changes, is nothing new for Kanye, but with the release of the signature Stem Player, it enabled everyone to personalize the album and connect with the music on a more personal level. Between the album release on August 29th and October 31st (the last day of Spotify Wrapped data collection), I listened to Kanye for over a hundred hours with most of that being Donda. During this time, the album kept being updated with some better mixes and fixes to some oversights on the album. For most of this rollout, there was a growing discourse between Drake and West, but the two recently reconciled and played an amazing benefit concert for Larry Hoover, a man whose life is depicted in the amazing twelve-minute “Jesus Lord pt 2” with features from Jay Electronica and LOX members Sheek Louch, Jadakiss, and Styles P.
– John Lawler
Best International Album:
Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Slowly but surely climbing the international charts, London artist Little Simz or Simbiatu “Simbi” Abisola Abiola Ajikawo released her fourth album. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (SIMBI) marks her most ambitious project to date in September of 2021. Featuring bright horns, substantial string sections, and poignant lyrics, this album is an introspective dive into Simz’s emotional or personal struggles. While not as aggressive as her previous project Grey Area, Simz says every word with purpose and conviction to both celebrate her power and express vulnerabilities she faced as a black female artist. The luxuriously produced interludes divide the work into reflective thematic sections. Simz associates introversion with the ability to focus and navigate these challenging situations while also recognizing it can stagnate progression and may come from an insecure place. Overall, the album is incredibly immense and put together incredibly well. The writing, flows, and cinematic instrumentation is all evidence of Little Simz’s unmatched talent. Each work propels her closer to the mainstream, and while this isn’t my favorite project of hers, SIMBI is an exemplary showcase of her artistic evolution.
– Clover Weisinger
Most Online Album:
Porter Robinson – Nurture
If Porter Robinson’s Nurture is the most online album of 2021, then it captures a rarely hopeful side of the internet, one where a single song can change a person’s life and negative inner voices can be combatted with infectious positivity. Even though the album was written over the course of five years, it feels deeply rooted in the pandemic and the resulting social isolation we all experienced. Robinson filled tracks like “Musician” and “Mirror” with self-critical bashing, representations of his critics, and his own inner monologue telling him he should give up because he will never make anything valuable. However, Nurture sets itself apart through its refusal to give in to these voices and its hopeful rallying call to all the listeners. Robinson somehow makes 2013 empowering Roar by Katy Perry style pop music cool. At a time when nothing seems guaranteed, Robinson reminds himself and the listener that “I’ll be alive next year I can make something good.”
– Maizie Croom
Most Offline Album:
JPEGMAFIA – LP! (OFFLINE)
After the release of his breakout album, Veteran, JPEGMAFIA has undeniably made his mark in the scene of modern hip hop, be it quite obscure and alternative. The playful synth-esque production, the hard but unequivocal lines weaving in and out of pop-culture references, the invasive vocal distortion, the nonsensical percussion, the punchy reverbed kicks and 808s – That’s exactly what the sarcastically named LP! Is an amalgamation of. And it seems to take a liking among a more apprehensive and perverse group of hip-hop fans, although Peggy is gradually making his way into mainstream-ish Spotify curated playlists. On this project, the Baltimore rapper enrages into a rebellious fit against the music industry and labels while simultaneously snapping at women and white people, in the brash and unembellished manner that Peggy is so famously known for. If you’re looking to get into a fight with a scrawny weirdo who disagrees with your opinion on 1000 Gecs and the Tree of Clues at an underground rap club, this is exactly the project for you to listen to while doing so.
– Aditya Devas
Best Album by a Trans/Non-Binary Artist
Arca – Kick ii
Non-binary dance legend Arca has been shaking up the club world during the past two years with their KICK series. Their novel blending of reggaeton with unconventional samples and song structures feels like a genre in itself, reflecting Arca’s reinvention in gender expression. KiCk i took an abrasive, rave-like approach; KICK ii stirs up a blend of tracks that might be more at home on a Latine dance station, at least at the start. This isn’t to say that these are tame tracks – auditory artifacts like gory squelching samples and layered, ghostly whispers make Arca’s chaotic, yet controlled style evident. As the album progresses, you enter more expansive, synth-tinged territory. Throughout, you are met with emotionally and sexually charged lyrics, bursting with confidence and queer pride, all central tenets of Arca’s lyrical methodology.
– Ethan Cabrera
Most Stress-Inducing Album
Lingua Ignota – Sinner Get Ready
From another dark and stressful year comes art reflecting those conditions, so it seems fitting we receive Sinner Get Ready in the midst of (another) tumultuous year in a pandemic.
Lingua Ignota has always made dark music. It often comes from exploring trauma and abuse, filled with howling shrieks, earth-shaking distortion, and epic vengeful lyrics. Sinner Get Ready, however, takes a slightly different route than her previous work. After moving to rural Pennsylvania and living in isolation for several months during the pandemic, the sounds of Appalachian folk have permeated her music, culminating in a sort of freak-folk bluegrass monster. This new sonic toolset serves her well, as organs and discordant banjos tangle to create hypnotic drones that lock you in your seat as Hayter preaches fire and brimstone sermons for the damned. Her archaic lyrical style is on full display, providing easily some of the most striking and harrowing imagery I heard last year. While the absence of the industrial and noise leanings of her past work make seem to take off some of her music’s signature edge, the more organic instrumental palate gives the album are more pensive and meditative atmosphere. The result is a trance-inducing, gut-churning Avant-folk opus, perfect for gazing vacantly into the forest to. Or your apartment wall, whichever is most available.
– Worth Carlin
Best Album for Cutting Onions
Injury Reserve – By the Time I Get to Phoenix
Absolutely pulsating, the beats have a life of their own. The album produces a visual spectacle with just the sounds that encompass Injury Reserve’s latest project. For the uninitiated, prepare to be awed by the distorted message that comes across, incoherent and melancholic for the modern-day depressed. The namesake By the Time I Get to Phoenix, resembles the hip hop group’s long return to their home state while taking a volunteered detour along the way. A personal favorite, “SS San Francisco” is familiar for anyone of Generation Z, as the mid-2010s Soundcloud revival becomes animated. Synthesizers and groove boxes are heard throughout the piece, so for music producers out there, get ready to take note of the instrumentals provided and bring an extra pen, you may run out of ink. There is a blend of past and present instruments in a constant conflict of behavior, and it is the task of the audience to figure out who’s in control. Take a breather after listening, then remember to play this record during your trip to Arizona.
– Ethan Alborz
Best Album Released by an Artist/Group in 5+ Years
Isaiah Rashad – The House is Burning
Very rarely is a 5-year wait for an artist’s next album considered “worth it.” Isaiah Rashad takes no notice of the odds; The House Is Burning slapped from day one and hasn’t let up since, exceeding expectations on every front. From the laid-back R&B smoothies like “Claymore” and “Score” to the high-energy bangers like “True Story” and “From the Garden,” Rashad’s hard work comes through loud and clear through gem after gem presented on this record. Improvement upon his prior work The Sun’s Tirade can be observed in how catchy the hooks and choruses have become, as well as instrumental upgrades through better beat selection. As Rashad’s first project with every track recorded while sober, it represents far more than just a great project, marking a milestone in his own life going forward. I’m glad Zay took his time with this one.
– Enrique Cardenas
Best Album to Get Energized to After a Burnout
Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World
The Covid-19 pandemic codified a new (or very old) genre of art: The Pandemic Piece. These works root themselves in the existential question we seem to ask ourselves over and over when the present does everything to burn us out: How will the future remember the world at its lowest? Notable examples include Shakespeare’s King Lear, written during an outbreak of the plague in Elizabethan London, and the 14th century Decameron, a pandemic piece by the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. The youngest entry into this exclusive club, Magdalena Bay’s Mercurial World doses the drab world with its own brand of pure, cavity-causing, Pop.
Like a compilation soundtrack of all of the genre’s best moments from its mainstream beginning, “Mercurial World” interpolates Madonna’s “Material Girl” with its EDM-inspired chorus, to left-field experiments, Mercurial World is the Pop-world’s Decameron. In tracks like “Halfway” and “The End”, lead singer Mica Tenebaum sings end-of-the-world, dance-floor philosophy over punchy synth-lines and production straight out of any Blade Runner movie. Though not written in Iambic Pentameter or Medieval Italian, Mercurial World prefers the catchy over the canonical, and what good is escapism that reminds us of gloom, anyways?
– Blake Bathman