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U92's Best of 2021: Part One

The albums of 2021 were likely some of the first full pieces of art created and completed while in the midst of a global pandemic. The year's best releases saw artists grapple with prolonged bouts of interiority, grief, a deteriorating and polarizing socio-political climate, and the desperate need for connection. Despite that not all of these albums are complete bummers if you can believe it!

Over the next three days, we'll be updating this post with our best of 2021, starting with our honorable mention and our 25th through 17th ranked albums. 


HONORABLE MENTIONS: 

Dltzk, frailty - The official debut album from the young producer, frailty proves an exhilarating cross-genre experience. Making waves in hyperpop, emo, digicore, and IDM, without feeling tied down to any one of these sounds, frailty confirms Dltzk as one of the most forward thinking and eclectic producers working currently.


Arca, KiCK ii-iiiii - Avant-garde electronic artist Arca finishes up her ‘KiCK’ series with this string of projects released right at the end of 2021. Each album markedly different from the last, the Venezuelan producer explores elements of reggaeton, cumbia, dance-pop, house, ambient, and more all through her own uniquely defined experimental lens.


Genesis Owusu, Smiling With No Teeth - A wonderfully idiosyncratic debut from the Australian alternative-R&B artist, Smiling With No Teeth cements Owusu as a modern-musical renaissance man. Laid back soul, raucous rap-rock, and smooth-as-butter R&B are all presented in stride through the artistically confident voice of Genesis Owusu. 


Remi Wolf, Juno - Bright, audacious, and most importantly fun- Remi Wolf’s Juno is as fluorescent and full of personality as the singer herself. The kind of mythical pop album record where it feels like every one of these candy-coated, instantly accessible tracks could justifiably be a hit record. Do not let this one go overlooked.


Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine, A Beginner's Mind - On their newest record, Stevens and De Augustine come through with the most artistically inspired movie marathon you could imagine. Each track being inspired by a different film which the artists watched together, A Beginner’s Mind is a testament to the galvanizing force of a good artistic collaboration. 


LOW, HEY WHAT - The 13th full-length record from legendary slowcore act LOW, HEY WHAT proves that the band still has plenty of gas left in the tank. Creating tracks that are at once noisy and sparse, HEY WHAT is a gospel inspired post-industrial affair that is equal parts harsh and beautiful. 


Pink Siifu, Gumbo’! - As the title suggests, Gumbo’! is Pink Siifu’s kaleidoscopic, homebrewed love letter to southern hip-hop. Dreamy and jazzy, the album is dense yet Siifu’s smooth delivery and laid back approach throughout keep things from ever getting overbearing.


Yola, Stand for Myself - On stand for myself, the based artist Yola combines sounds of country, soul, Americana, and southern rock into one retro empowerment album which takes the sounds of rock music back to their earliest roots. The album is far more than just nostalgia bait  though, Yola’s voice as an artist ties each track together, making for a total package that is both timely and timeless.

 

Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime - Inspired by political turmoil in his home-country of Niger, Afrique Victime acts as guitarist and songwriter Mdou Moctar’s breakthrough album to much of the western-world. Hypnotic and meditative music that is also hard-rocking guitar worship, Afrique Victime transcends the language barrier presenting a visceral sonic depiction of the fallout of French colonialism. 


Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales - Released just eight days into 2021, Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales is a thoroughly modern masterclass on R&B storytelling. With over ten years in the music game, Sullivan hones her practice more than ever on this concept album surrounding modern dating, romance, sexuality, and humanity. 


Spellling - The Turning Wheel25. Spellling - The Turning Wheel

With no qualifiers, Spellling’s The Turning Wheel has the best production and arrangements of any album this year. This fact is made doubly impressivby the fact that said arrangements were all orchestrated and masterminded by Spellling (A.K.A Christyia Carbal) herself. With some 22 artists credited with the creation of the album, The Turning Wheel sees Spellling stepping away from her sparse dark wave and gothic roots- instead turning to a more full fledged progressive pop direction a la Kate Bush or Joanna Newsom. The results are nothing short of awe-inspiring. These vast swaths of acoustic instrumentation push Spellling’s already marvelous songwriting into vibrant new dimensions. With Carbal’s bewitching vocals and mythically compelling lyricism as the anchoring throughline, The Turning Wheel remains one of the year's most enigmatic listens.

- Griffin McMorrow


24. Black Dresses - Forever in Your Heart

The Canadian noise-pop duo’s comeback record (though they are apparently still disbanded) stands as their most brutal and apocalyptic release yet. With their constant genre-bending and tongue-in-cheek, chronically online lyricism, Black Dresses (composed of Devi McCallion and Ada Rook) have been an internet-era darling since their inception. Forever in Your Heart sees the duo looking back at more classically inspired industrial noise. The drill-like synths and bustling noise of the intro track call back to some of Throbbing Gristle’s more tuneful work, whereas the off-kilter grooves of a track like “Bulldozer” bring to mind early Nine Inch Nails. There is a good deal of catharsis throughout the album even as the group delve into these darker and more and more ruthless tunes. This catharsis is something of a balancing act which the band has always captured fairly well. However, tracks like the closer “(Can’t) Keep it Together”, which acts as the band’s earnest attempt at something approaching a stadium ballad, prove what new heights the duo are still able to reach- even while disbanded. 

- Griffin McMorrow



23. Tyler, the Creator - Call Me If You Get Lost

Following his most critically and commercially successful streak to date Tyler presents this remarkably uncommercial product. This isn’t to say Call Me If You Get Lost is inaccessible at all, on the contrary Tyler puts together some of his smoothest and most instant tracks yet; it’s uncommercial instead in its presentation, a fully detailed pastiche of a mid-00’s mixtape, complete with a dozen features from hot new rappers and consistent interludes and adlibs from the legendary DJ Drama (who in many way pioneered this sound). Tyler here continues character work akin to his hero MF DOOM, rapping under the moniker ‘Tyler Baudelaire’; a name which is loaded with referential poignancy for hip-hop heads to dissect. Such practice is commonplace for Tyler, who himself crafts this project with a hip hop head’s ear in mind- running the gambit from arrogant bangers, to R&B tinged love songs, to off-the-cuff story tracks which push past the 8 minute mark, tackling each with poise and mastery. In many ways CMIYGL acts as an apotheosis of Tyler’s work without the pretense which would usually bog down such a thing. 

- Griffin McMorrow



Black Country, New Road22. Black Country, New Road - For the First Time

The highly anticipated debut from the experimental English rock-band also stands as one of the most inspired and notable post-rock listens in the better part of a decade. Released on NinjaTune in early 2021 following a string of acclaimed singles and live performances, For the First Time is something of a revelation for rock music. Guitar here is the propulsive force leading most tracks, however, the record is notable for its greater interest in atmosphere and aesthetics as opposed to groove or melody. Speaking on the band's interest in this more esoteric rock sound, saxophonist Lewis Evan’s has said of the album “We've learnt our best asset: We can play quietly. We've taken that and used it so it's more dynamic. Intensity worked for us with those early recordings, like, 'Oh my god, this band is so intense and angsty,' but this record is a much more considered approach.” The referential, poetic, and histrionic lyrical motifs are endlessly compelling as well, being the sole consistency in the album's sound. Overall, on For the First Time BC,NR stick the landing and come through with one of the most essential rock releases of the year.

- Griffin McMorrow



21. Mach Hommy - Pray for Haiti

To those in the know, the Griselda collective have been one of the most influential noisemakers in the past decade of rap music. However, on Pray for Haiti longtime contributor Mach-Hommy may have raised the bar not just for himself but for the entire collective. The grimy, sample-heavy beats are familiar to fans, and features are largely kept in-house- this approach though gives Hommy the chance to stretch his legs, only about five years in to a commercial career he takes on the voice of an old pro as he digs deeper into his haitian heritage and love of rap history. Even as Hommy continues to breakthrough the underground, the elusive MC remains anonymous and notably obfuscates any attempt to make himself more easily known (he rarely does interviews, maintains no social media, and doesn’t even widely publish his lyrics) Still, with a portrait as fully realized as Pray for Haiti, a listener need not go to such lengths to get to know the artist, it’s all already there.
- Griffin McMorrow
 


20. Alice Phoebe Lou - Glow

Every year, there seems to be at least one album whose parts don’t seem like they should add up to more than the whole. An album that, despite its flaws or derivativeness, remains endlessly compelling. It’s inexplicable, and Glow, the third album by South African born singer songwriter Alice Phoebe Lou, was that album in 2021. The songwriting across the album is incredibly tight. The lyrics are simple and clever and, while not overly thought provoking, are incredibly emotional and do a fantastic job of letting you into the mind of the author. Each song touches on different emotions, mostly centered on being in love or wanting to fall out of it. The real grab though is the atmosphere that Phoebe Lou manages to create throughout the record. She avoids sounding like any other generic #indie artist by injecting the writing with a unique jazz influence, surrounding the listener like a soft blanket without ever becoming too saccharine. The songs are warm and the production, although not dense, manages to wrap around you and suspend the listener comfortably in space with Lou’s soft vocal delivery. It’s a pure comfort album that still manages to be endlessly entertaining and welcoming on repeated listens.
- Anthony Wells



19. Fievel is Glaque - God's Trashmen Sent to Right the Mess

Those who began 2021 with an ear towards the Bandcamp sphere are unlikely to have missed Fievel Is Glaque’s mystifying debut, God’s Trashmen Sent to Right the Mess, which quickly made waves on the platform following its January 1st release. Now, over a full year since the buzz began, there’s still plenty worth revisiting about the record. On God’s Trashmen, American songwriter Zach Phillips and Brussels-based vocalist Marie-Amélie Clément-Bollée work alongside an impressive assortment of rotating musicians to craft 20 quirky jazz-pop vignettes. Given the album’s lengthy credits, it may come as a surprise that these recordings sound so raw and spontaneous. This lo-fi sound is foundational to this project’s charm and distinguishes it from the plethora of self-serious, immaculately produced baroque pop albums which consistently make the rounds. While the sound of God’s Trashmen is relatively consistent, the duo incorporates a variety of stylistic influences. These influences manifest by way of both the instrumental palettes and Clément-Bollée’s vocal performances. On the pristine, carefree “Decoy,” she sings entirely in French. “Sweet Tooth” sees her monotone, staccato vocals flow so constantly as to literally leave little room to breathe. On “Crooks Like Children,” she raps nonchalantly over a wonky, clanking beat. This all exemplifies one of the great successes of this release: it is never too buttoned-up to be playful and to take risks.

- Noah Spencer



18 Lost Girls (Jenny Haval & Håvard Volden) - Menneskekollektivet

A meditative, serene, and thought provoking minimalist techno and progressive house record. Jenny Hval and Håvard Volden come together for a relaxing, hypnotic auditory journey; a reflection of art, isolation, unstoppable change, and the reflection of the artistic process. Meandering about in a spoken word manner is the soothing voice of Jenny Hval, she encompasses a mode of pondering and reflection, exuding an energy and catharsis that connects with the listener. Despite its more experimental elements, at its core, Menneskekollektivet is a dance record. While none of the songs would probably be heard playing in clubs across Europe, the repetitive beats on offer here are certainly entrancing. Each drum and synth weave effortlessly with the vocal performances of Hval, bringing together a small yet extensive collection of five tracks that ought to act as a cornerstone for some of the more adventurous electronic music fans going forward.

- Tristen Rodriguez



Indigo De Souza
17. Indigo De Souza - Any Shape You Take

One of the most impactful musical moments of 2021 is hearing Indigo De Souza sing the line “kill me slowly, take me with you”. The opening words of album closer “Kill Me”, De Souza pleads plainly yet desperately with only gently strummed guitar chords as a backing. It’s the sort of lyric one would expect to be filled with angst, or defiance, or rage, yet here it is understated and elegant. This exact dichotomy bleeds through the entire record; the dichotomy between the lush and ferocious, the joyful and melancholy, the highs and lows of sensitive vulnerability. The album in its totality is a testament for what an exciting time it is to be a singer/ songwriter in this current year, unbound by any sonic expectations or limitations, De Souza gleefully adds flairs of synthpop, grunge, and even slight jazzy embellishes to these instantly heart wrenching and beautifully raw indie rock tracks. A supremely emotional listen, on Any Shape You Take De Souza is either howling in anguish or a fully assuring presence, in any case her words brim with empathy as she reminds the listener that no matter how it feels, you’re not alone. 

- Griffin McMorrow




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