The Top 50 Albums of the Year
From field recordings to the divorce album, via club experiments and self-care rituals. Music that soundtracked another unpredictable year in the pandemic. Here are the best albums of 2021
Lil Nas X
In just over two years, Lil Nas X has evolved from a fluke of a one-hit wonder to one of the most important pop stars of this century. He’s the very first of his kind: Black, gay, young, and able to defiantly craft his own narratives in a mainstream landscape that has always been reticent to accept artists of his ilk. Never has queer desire been performed like this on a platform this large; when Nas X belts “I want someone to love me” on That’s What I Want, the request is both simple and unsurmountable. Channelling deep emotions that are all too recognisable for queer people everywhere, with Montero, Lil Nas X has executed a stunning feat — a debut album that will not just go down as a great record, but as a step forward in pop music history.
KICK ii is testament to what we’ve always known: Arca is a pop alchemist. The standout in an anthology, KICK ii feels like a culmination of every sound the Venezuelan producer has experimented with since the start of her career, from hyperpop to trap and joropo to trance. Here, Arca is at her mischievous best; the Sia-assisted Born Yesterday is an industrial ballad that reaches an unexpected crescendo, while lead singles Prada/Rakata, with their looping dembow rhythms and pitch-shifted vocals, showcase her masterful ability to turn reggaeton on its head. But, at its core, KICK ii is a love letter to queerness and all its magical multitudes; a celebration of the sacred place that exists between binaries.
Ever had an imaginary girlfriend? Sega Bodega has one. She’s called Luci and, as you can tell from the album artwork, she’s made of light. On the aptly titled Romeo, the London-based producer invites collaborators – Charlotte Gainsbourg, Isamaya Ffrench and Arca – to join him on his sonic odyssey through the highs and lows of a new romance. It’s a ride that steers through gabber kick drums, breakbeat, pop-adjacent club sounds and experimental electronica. Romeo is wonderfully expressive in its longing for intimacy, too, with lines such as “I need nothing from you/ But to give me my time/ Isn’t that everything we wanted/ Just to feel alive” forming the emotional core of the album. In summary, songs about connection, built for crying in the club.
It’s Not What You Said, It’s Because You Spoke
As the founder of two expertly curated labels, TT and All Centre, DJ Pitch (a.k.a. Robert Venning) has long been a pivotal figure in the UK’s left-field, bass-oriented dance music community. On his debut album, which came out on the extremely reliable Edited Arts imprint from Brixton, Venning’s years spent breathing in the sounds and codes of London’s underground came to fruition. Spongey bass pulses, rich ambient textures, snappy dancehall syncopations and one carefully deployed David Byrne sample.
The appeal of Young Thug as a rapper is his unwavering dedication to experimentation – you never know what you are going to get, and you never get the same thing twice. Despite its title, Punk is not a punk album, at least not musically. Its rock influences are more folk-poppy, with swathes of acoustic guitar that form the backdrop to Thug’s stream-of-consciousness bars about everything from his mum’s love life to missing his son’s birthday because he was on tour. Young Thug has always threatened to go full-blown pop, and while this isn’t quite that, it feels like yet another step deeper into the psyche of an artist who, from the get-go, has always refused definition.
“Smooth sounds for end times,” goes the strapline for this side project from New York DJ and noted Funny Guy, Physical Therapy. Leaving behind the off-kilter pleasures of his genre-hopping dance aliases, Daniel Fisher allows himself a moment of introspection on Dead Rock – but if he’s having a dark one, he’s got a refreshingly goofy way of getting through it. Twinkly pianos and Muzak-y loops fall like a cool acid rain; new age synths and warped fingerpicking add a sickly hypnagogic quality redolent of olde James Ferraro. Beautiful and doomed, it’s a record for the endless present and impossible future.
Pray for Haiti
After years on the outs with vanguard hip-hop label Griselda Records, Haitian-American rapper Mach-Hommy made a triumphant return with his first project for the label in five years. Executive produced by head honcho Westside Gunn, Pray for Haiti is a natural fit for Griselda’s gritty-yet-opulent underground aesthetic, as crackling production meets Mach’s calming, often elastic wordplay. The lyrical tap dancing on No Blood No Sweat – “They saying that I’m top one/ More less the best/ Let’s travel through the vortex when Gore-Tex was a flex” – alone packs enough punch to mark Pray for Haiti as a 2021 rap highlight. Condensing complex wordplay into intense hits of wisdom and guile, Pray for Haiti sees Mach make up for lost time with a performance that arguably singles him out as Griselda’s 2021 MVP.
19 & Dangerous
“Broke all the stereotypes/ I make my rules/ I break all of your rules,” goes the hook of Bridgertn, the trap-infused R&B track taken from Ayra Starr’s debut LP. This defiant message sets the tone for an Afro-pop album which reveals a talent coming into her powers. The Nigerian-Beninese singer leaves few stones unturned as she seemingly explores all of her musical impulses, on her own terms. In Between is a candid, piano-led contemplation on depression, gently delivered in French, English and Yoruba, while the crystal clear vocals and syncopated rhythms of Bloody Samaritan are reminiscent of amapiano’s chugging sound. Like its title, 19 & Dangerous is a warning shot – a statement of intent from a young artist untroubled by convention.
Black Metal 2
Rough Trade Records
Despite his attempts to appear clandestine and unapproachable, a new Dean Blunt record is an event. Mysterious billboards appear. Lists of contributors circulate. Twitter feeds hum and group chats ping. As one of the most praised records of the last decade, the follow-up to 2014’s Black Metal was always going to attract attention and scrutiny. Luckily, it delivers in abundance. Despite the seven year gap, the album’s sounds felt comfortably familiar, all chorus-drenched guitars, boxy drum loops and half-sung vocals. However, this time around, Blunt’s voice is brought further to the fore, his lyrics more raw and direct than ever. A tentative invitation closer into the world of this singular British talent.
When country-pop’s finest said “divorce album”, many were anticipating a collection of punchy, driving-with-the-top-down bangers about moving on; a creative sister to her infatuated breakthrough record Golden Hour (written while falling in love). Instead, Kacey Musgraves delivered a meditation on marriage that’s more of a quiet exhale than a drunken howl at the moon. Always more Mazzy than Miley, Musgraves is a master of nuance, and Star-Crossed sees her picking through the dissolution of a relationship with grace and resolve. It’s described as “a tragedy in three parts”, but any drama is purely functional, with spoken-word interludes, callbacks and Spanish guitar providing structure for her non-linear path to healing. Though not without humour (the merch store includes stick-on rhinestone tears), Star-Crossed forgoes big displays of emotion in favour of something more muted – and more real.
Tuba player Theon Cross’ jazz-referencing work is imbued with a vibrational bass generated by the breathwork needed to sustain his enormous instrument. On his second LP, Intra-I, Cross filters his tuba through electronic effects that render its resonance into mutable, affecting forms. It’s apt that Cross calls his work “Afro-diaspora music” since this record sees him traverse genres ranging from the grime instrumentals of Play to Win, to the dub of Forward Progression II and the bobbing hip-hop groove of Roots. Importantly, the record plays as a tribute to his musician father, who passed away in 2020. On Watching Over (Bless Up Dad) we hear the breadth of Cross’ ineffable talent, holding symphonic melody and wordless emotion with only the force of his breath.
박혜진 Park Hye Jin
Before I Die
“I miss my sister, I miss my brother,” 박혜진 Park Hye Jin sings on album title track Before I Die. Created in isolation, the LA-based producer’s debut encapsulates a spectrum of lockdown-induced emotions. There’s desire in the tracks Can I Get Your Number and Whatchu Doin Later. There’s familial displacement, questions on mortality and the urge to just dance. Through it all, as disaffected and detached as Hye Jin’s voice sounds, there’s a sense of loneliness and longing that feels stifled and has nowhere to go. It travels briefly to the club via Hey, Hey, Hey and there’s hints of the outside world through the birdsong that appears in I Need You. But as Good Morning Good Night suggests, the days move in a repetitive motion – from the beginning to the end and round again. Doesn’t that capture 2021 so succinctly?
Siren Spine Sysex
Edinburgh’s Proc Fiskal brings an uncommon amount of personality and intimacy to his post-grime collages, and where his 2018 debut album, Insula, was a chronicle of street-level interactions and scrapbooked emotions, his second for Hyperdub is much wider in scope, both historically and geographically. Drawing on Gaelic folk music and Enya-esque vocals for hisfiddly sample manipulations, he brings the ghosts of his homeland into contact with the still-futuristic textures of eski clicks and 16-bit synth-struments. The result is a cleverly pastoral twist on a supposedly “urban” sound.
We’re All Alone in This Together
The “sophomore slump” could have been a real concern for Dave. On his Mercury Prize-winning debut Psychodrama, the south London rapper ingeniously crafted an album in the guise of a therapy session, extending his lyricism to encompass fierce protest against social ills, as well as introspection. On We’re All Alone in This Together, Dave delivers again. Musically, he meanders more extensively – touching on everything from Afrobeats to gospel, drill to atmospheric electronics – while lyrically, he also strays from a set theme; there is the braggadocio of the Stormzy-assisted Clash, while Three Rivers plays as an ode to the struggles faced by the Windrush generation. Where Psychodrama delivered the painful, intrapsychic birth of a star, We’re All Alone in This Together sees him using his voice more playfully and with purpose.
Pauline Anna Strom
Angel Tears in Sunlight
Pauline Anna Strom was an artist whose work resonated across different generations. In the 80s, Strom crafted a number of ambient works that didn’t, at the time, find its audience. She called it quits and sold her equipment. Angel Tears in Sunlight marks her first work in 33 years, produced before she passed away in December 2020. It’s an album of subtle contrasts – from dark ambience to glimmering synths, to sharp movement and slow sound, where asymmetrical shapes glide into the distance. Released in February, when the UK was in its third lockdown, Angel Tears in Sunlight dared us to imagine a brighter world, somewhere in the expanse of Strom’s Tropical Rainforest, or Equatorial Sunrise.
Lana Del Rey
On her second album of 2021, Lana Del Rey once again delivers what she does best: half-whispered paeans to the cultural deities of 20th century America, old Hollywood, 70s folk music, and coffee shop jazz. If Chemtrails Over the Country Club is Del Rey peering into the funhouse mirror of a post-Trump America, Blue Banisters is a resigned comedown, with songs about the relief and exhaustion that comes with the end of a faulty love story. It’s hard to think of a like-minded artist who is as committed to their own lore as Del Rey, but she has truly never missed her mark. With Blue Banisters, she continues to solidify her place as a singular force in contemporary music – a pop star that is a rock star, a rock star that is a pop star, and one of America’s most enduring musical storytellers.
Listening to Painful Enlightenment is like being a blindfolded passenger in a bumper car driven by Jana Rush: close enough that you share the sensation of each impact, but distant enough to never feel in control. And here is where the Chicago producer thrives – that space that teeters on the edge of total chaos, but deploys just enough restraint to outsmart you. At times, this sounds like brooding bass throbs and spasmodic hi-hats that are peppered with what sounds like vocal samples lifted from porn (Suicidal Ideation). Others, melancholic piano chords and meandering guitar solos depict Rush’s nuanced interpretation of her experiences with depression, like on the title track. You could call this a footwork album, sure, but what’s inside is a devilishly complex treatise on life’s roller coasters.
Harmattan opens with an improvised piece for piano that is strewn with references to styles of playing. It’s an audacious curtain raiser that says much about the third album from the south London polymath. For Klein, a shift into a classical register opens up new seams of sound and meaning. But this isn’t a straightforward interpretation, or even subversion. This being Klein, the path is indirect, the effect impressionistic. hope dealers, for example – described by the artist as an “R&B tribute song to grime” – calls to mind the emotionally charged ambience of William Basinski. But it’s skyfall, featuring the manipulated soprano of Charlotte Church, that provides rare insight into how Klein’s genius operates. Here, she plays the baggage which accompanies concepts like opera, pop culture, class and sincerity with as much deftness and sensitivity as the notes on the page.
It’s hard to believe that Agor is Koreless’ debut album. A decade since Lewis Roberts stepped out with the intoxicatingly minimal track 4D, the Welsh producer has kept it fairly low-key – bar his production work on FKA twigs’ 2019 album MAGDALENE – only releasing a handful of tracks under his own moniker. Translating to ‘open’ in Welsh, Agor continues to push Roberts’ use of spatial dynamics in electronic music. Opener Yonder is a paced, crackling take on ambient that stirs up feelings of unease. White Picket Fence and Frozen’s almost-medieval vocal abstractions stretch across the weightless chimes of the production. The meandering rave of Shellshock threatens to erupt into euphoria but never quite does. Joy Squad, with its hiccuped vocals and shuffled beat, takes us back to the space in which Koreless made a name for himself: the dancefloor. It’s an accomplished work for an artist that has been subtly shaping British dance music.
Tyler, the Creator
Call Me If You Get Lost
“I’m not that little boy y’all was introduced to at one-nine,” Tyler, the Creator drawls just before the midway point of his seventh studio album. It’s true. A decade on from breakout single Yonkers, Tyler has long since moved past aggressive provocation, instead balancing out his biting bars with moments of real vulnerability. He does this most notably on Massa, where he admits, “Everyone I ever loved had to be loved in the shadows.” Taking IGOR’s sonic experimentation as a jump-off point, Call Me If You Get Lost possesses all the hallmarks of a killer mixtape (short songs, fiercely eclectic production, big name cameos, input from Gangsta Grillz-curator DJ Drama), but boasts the depth of an album. There’s no way 19-year-old Tyler could have pulled this off.
Sinner Get Ready
What do you do with trauma that’s been inflicted on you? Who will answer for it, and could there be a punishment great enough to match your pain? These are some of the questions buried deep within the Lingua Ignota project, as Kristin Hayter explores the forces of sin and retribution. In the case of Sinner Get Ready, Hayter chooses rural Pennsylvania as a locus for that sorrow, filling her lyrics with the area’s history of religious asceticism and using traditional Appalachian instruments to set a scene that is as desolate as it is sublime. Whether Hayter is calling on God to “intercede” on her behalf, or exposing the hypocrisies of the fanatic, it’s a monumental and often frightening record that ultimately finds freedom in resignation.
Seoul duo Salamanda make beautiful electronica that draws on Reichian minimalism and traditional East Asian music. Inspiration seems to be in no short supply: with three LPs out this year alone, they’ve wasted no time in mapping out their lush sonic world, with each release revealing another corner of their immersive sound. The latest, Sphere, is perhaps their best yet – a freewheeling stream of arpeggiated bells, tuned drums and FM synths that constantly shift between harmony and dissonance. Bursts of digital noise mimic birdsong and rainfall, and sheets of dubbed-out ambience lend the record a sense of space. Step inside and spend some time.
Queen of the South
Shaybo opens Queen of the South by declaring that she knows what it’s like to fail. It’s a bold claim for such a triumphant and full-bodied debut from the Lewisham rapper, whose ascent to royalty has been long and hard-won over the course of the last decade. On the Jorja Smith-featuring standout, My Sister, Shaybo ruminates on the toxic dynamics that women are often subjected to in relationships over lush guitar plucks and affectingly simple percussion. Perhaps tellingly, she also acknowledges her own trials and tribulations as an artist in the same breath: “I cannot get no sleep/ ‘Cause money ain’t guaranteed.” She’s well aware of the fickle nature of the game – but nonetheless, Shaybo is a jewel in UK rap’s crown.
to hell with it
The music press has made quite a stir about the industry’s “survival” in the face of short-form content: how can we really feel the passion and artistry of “real” music when those pesky Gen-Zers refuse to engage with anything longer than 30 seconds? Enter PinkPantheress. While the 20-year-old’s debut album, to hell with it, clocks in at only 18 minutes and 36 seconds, it’s packed to the brim with raw emotion and tumultuous beats, making it more than worthy of the hype it has garnered this year. Did her ultra-infectious hit Just for me first gain unbelievable notoriety on TikTok? Sure, but the story doesn’t stop there. With echoes of drum‘n’bass, UK garage and lo-fi pop, PinkPantheress is running circles around producers twice her age.
Ekizikiza Mubwengula, the debut LP from Nyege Nyege affiliate Don Zilla, evokes the kind of liberated feeling that can only be found on a dancefloor. Through crushing industrial techno and drum’n’bass, the Ugandan producer crafts each track with a razor-sharp attention to detail. Shots, with its syncopated beats and whirring machinery noises, is a masterclass in rhythm, while Bujingo’s disorientating loops make you feel like you’ve stepped into a new dimension. But there’s something inextricably spiritual about Ekizikiza Mubwengula, too. With its heady intensity and ability to move you, the record is an exemplary embodiment of the holy trinity of club music: energetic, joyous and utterly danceable.
Under the Lilac Sky
On her dreamy debut, Arushi Jain explores different facets of herself through sound. There’s elements of traditional Hindustani classical music from her childhood in India, and the modular synthesis from her time spent in California. The melding of these two worlds results in an album of deep, sumptuous textures and swirling electronics; a sound entirely of her own making. Threading through the compositions is the overarching theme of time and seasonality, with the aura of the music resembling the evening sun sinking into a pink horizon. In a year where it’s been important to be kind to yourself, playing Under the Lilac Sky is exactly that: a restorative listen, or a self-care ritual, for another strange, unpredictable year.
Black Country, New Road
For the First Time
Discussing For The First Time back in January, Black Country, New Road guitarist Luke Mark told Crack Magazine, “I think it’s what the first album should be: a representation of that first set of songs and how they’d be played live.” While not factually incorrect, it proved a misleadingly simple summation of what turned out to be a dazzlingly complex and deeply original debut dabbling in freeform jazz, post-rock, no wave and klezmer. It’s fucking funny too, thanks to Isaac Wood’s self-lacerating, middle-class monologues, which are frequently peppered with jarring details (SSRIs, Kanye, Cirque du Soleil) and delivered in the quivering tones of a quasi-adolescent. Thankfully, the follow-up is already in the bag.
Ten Percent Music
Provisional Licence, the debut project from M1llionz, does much to reveal the creative ambitions and scope of one of UK drill’s biggest stars. Essentially a concept album recounting a car journey up the motorway with a woman and a strange package, the mixtape displays the Birmingham native’s knack for infectious wordplay, potent imagery and expansive storytelling. From Intro – an intense tale of jail time, moving weight and playing the cards the system dealt him – to the final act’s Hometown, M1llionz attains a scale and range that his previous singles and blockbuster videos hinted at. Meanwhile, Bando Spot – interpolating 50 Cent’s infamous Candy Shop – and Regular Bag are just really, really fun to listen to.
For her fourth album, Kedr Livanskiy finds solace in her surroundings. It’s a work where machine-made sounds reconcile with the palliative hums of nature. The result is otherworldly and sensory, moving between textures without breaking the mood, whether it’s the vocal loops of Celestial Ether that consume you like nightfall, the echoed melodies and rhythmic breaks of Your Turn, or the arpeggiated harp pluckings of Storm Dancer, which build like a ritual chant. Livanskiy once told Crack Magazine that “in nature, you can find a reflection of any human feeling or emotion”. It’s a quality that runs throughout Liminal Soul – an album which gleefully inhabits the space between the synthetic and the organic.
Side Chick Records
There’s an authenticity that shines bright throughout Tomu DJ’s work. First coming to our attention via a rapid stream of Bandcamp self-releases earlier in the spring, it was clear that this was an artist with an original voice aching to be heard. There were pronounced threads throughout: beaming, emotive melodies; sticky, tripped-up drums; a deceptively simple production style. The range of genres touched on – from footwork to downtempo to house – evidenced a producer at an omnivorous stage in their journey, and debut LP FEMINISTA was the wonderful crescendo to a period of intense creation. Gentle and dreamlike, but with a healthy dose of psychedelia, it’s a meditative stroll of a record that invites and rewards frequent returns.
After slipping out a woozy debut album in 2017, Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist Taja Cheek made a bigger splash this year with this spellbinding follow-up. Fatigue is a fractious whorl of whispered and crooned vocals, waterlogged strings and saxophones, voice memos and field recordings; it’s also a crumpled journal of hard-won revelations on grief and fortitude. No other album this year felt so hard to classify, drawing on jazz, hip-hop, psych-rock, orchestral pop and lo-fi ambient – but always held together by emotion rather than muso showmanship. This is boundless music in the spirit of downtown seekers and single-minded poets like Arthur Russell, Julia Holter and Moor Mother.
Still Over It
Summer Walker definitely didn’t invent the breakup album, but she is doing her damndest to perfect it. Still Over It chronicles the journey of a woman who is, well, still over it, as she tries to rid herself of her triflin’ man for good while not losing herself in the process. That narrative, full of cheating, drama and broken promises, is expertly woven around the type of R&B that aches for a blunt and a glass of Henny, with muzzy trap beats skittering over Walker’s hypersmooth vocals. Ex for a Reason, Toxic, Constant Bullshit… even through its song titles, Still Over It reads like the diary of someone in the trenches of an ongoing war, because in a way, that’s what it is. But it’s not voyeuristic or exploitative of Walker’s own heartbreak; even at the absolute depths of her relationship, she remains in total control.
Quivering in Time
T4T LUV NRG
They don’t make ‘em like this any more – except when they do. Chicago dance maverick Eris Drew pulls off the impressive feat of writing a dance LP which, first off, actually works as a home listening album, digestible in one sitting. Second, and most impressive, Quivering in Time captures the feeling of one of Drew’s legendary DJ sets: vinyl scratches harking back to old school hip-hop, samples laced with surreal and psychedelic humour, and a deep, throbbing musicality that connects with those transcendental early mornings on the dancefloor.
Turnstile are still a hardcore band. The Baltimore five-piece have always danced along the margins of the genre, harnessing the transformative power of punk and spitting it out as something entirely their own. But their radiant fourth album, Glow On, uplifts hardcore as much as it transcends it. Here, their groove takes on new shapes: Latin timbale breakdowns (Blackout), shoegaze-indebted indie (Underwater Boi), even R&B-inspired balladry (Alien Love Call with Blood Orange). T.L.C. (Turnstile Love Connection) is the two-minute throwback that speaks to their frenetic roots. As the song nosedives into a synth-charged beatdown, Brendan Yates impassionedly shouts: “I want to thank you for letting me be myself/ I want to thank you for letting me see myself.” It’s a sublime – even spiritual – end to a record that makes you feel like you truly belong to something.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Self-taught Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar often earns comparisons to Jimi Hendrix with his left-handed aptitude for thrilling distortion and unmissable live shows. Hendrix is a flattering touchstone but the two guitarists make music from vastly different mindsets. On Afrique Victime, Moctar defiantly steps out of Hendrix’s shadow and instead puts forward the fullest vision of his desert blues. There’s the intensity of increasing pace on opener Chismiten, as well as the title track’s clattering solo, all combining to create an energising record of focused intent. And with Tamasheq lyrics lamenting the postcolonial exploitation of Africa and the endemic violence in his home country of Niger, Moctar’s playing takes on an expressive urgency that renders this album all the more vital.
Harpist and composer Nala Sinephro harnesses the intrinsically soothing qualities of her stringed instrument on her debut album, Space 1.8. Written as self-care, the resulting eight compositions take the form of improvisations cataloguing the physical spaces they were created in. Sinephro’s jazz-influenced soundworlds envelop the listener, producing a suite of mood music that moves from the warm glissandos of Space 1 to the ethereal lines of Nubya Garcia’s saxophone on Space 4, from the devotional textures of Space 7 to the rhythmic charge of Space 3, which was cut from a three-hour jam session. She may follow in a formidable lineage of jazz harpists, such as Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, but Space 1.8 places Sinephro in her own lane.
Circuit des Yeux
Circuit des Yeux’s sixth album begins with an exhalation of breath, perhaps a sigh of resignation. -io is an album preoccupied with loss, a place conjured by Haley Fohr, where “everything is ending all the time”. As such, the record exists in a permanently heightened state, its emotional register set to operatic. This is especially true on tracks like Sculpting the Exodus, with its thunderous organ and drum tattoo, but even in its quieter moments, the album transmits an intensity that recalls Scott Walker. Which leads us to that astounding voice. Never not arresting, Stranger sees Fohr’s expressiveness taken to new extremes, exploring the extent of her sweeping vocal range before collapsing into unnerving vocalisations – the distillation of the catharsis that the album as a whole embodies. So, that opening breath: a sigh of resignation. But also a moment of release.
Night in Tijuana
Kelman Duran is a man of few words. Over the last couple of years, the Dominican producer has been hypnotising dancefloors with his meditative, dembow-infused take on club music – all while keeping a relatively low profile. Night in Tijuana builds on this introspective quality, only this time he’s turned his gaze outwards. Written during a curator residency in the titular border town, Duran explores the joys and sorrows faced by the Latin community: immigrant angst is felt in the tension-raising strings of Human Resources; Freddie King is a polyrhythmic ode to Latin percussion; Dancehall, Audubon Ballroom is a heads-down homage to the Afro-Caribbean genre. It’s a work that is as textured, rich and complex as the diasporic surroundings it was created in. Music for the isolated, meant to be heard together.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Across GUMBO’!’s 18 tracks, the prolific Baltimore-based rapper stirs in jazz, punk, trap and industrial to create something that reimagines the parameters of underground rap. Richly rewarding, it’s almost as if each track serves as their own wunderkammer – those rooms that, upon entry, astound you with detail. While Siifu’s hazy lyricism is the focus point, he’s given ample support from his collaborators, from The Alchemist’s soulful production, Bbymutha’s assertive city girl bars and Georgia Anne Muldrow’s blissful crooning. Intensely prolific, Pink Siifu is one of those artists who edges forward with each release he drops – and this was his boldest step yet.
Black Encyclopedia of the Air
In Crack Magazine’s cover story, Camae Ayewa, better known as Moor Mother, told us, “I guess my main goal is to be more accessible.” She was speaking about Black Encyclopedia of the Air – the Philadelphia poet and sound artist’s fifth album. The record is produced by Olof Melander who applies a level of gloss which there hadn’t been previously. Refined – yes. Watered-down – never. As the title suggests, Ayewa interrogates and dissects the very nature of the forces that surround her. Pulling past, present and future into a maelstrom of her own design, her words are bedded into the rhythms and shapes of the instrumentals more than any previous work. “And now here I am in this place,” she asserts on opener, Temporal Control of Light Echoes. A newfound immediacy from one of contemporary music’s true originals.
Pharoah Sanders, Floating Points & the London Symphony Orchestra
On paper, pairing spiritual jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders with electronic producer Floating Points and the LSO seems a complicated concept – one at risk of subsuming Sanders’ tone within layers of overbearing arrangements. Yet, the resulting album is so subtle it exudes profound emotion even within the pockets of silence. Floating Points is a masterful orchestrator, framing Sanders’ soloing around a seven-note refrain and background swells of strings. You can almost hear Sanders’ breath as it vibrates his reed to produce long, brushstroke-like notes, while the later movements that see him sing melody contain a similar sense of vulnerability. Promises is ultimately a work to be felt as much as heard; an act of reverence for an older pioneer, told by a new generation of acolytes.
Bright Green Field
From the “concrete island” bearing down on G.S.K. to the suburban claustrophobia detailed on Pamphlets, the vistas of Bright Green Field are anything but verdant. Taking its name from Anna Kavan’s 1967 short story and inspired by Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism, Squid’s debut album is a place where the ominous and the absurd coalesce, prompting prickling unease just as often as wry smiles with its surreal lyrical juxtapositions and disorienting use of repetition (most notably on Narrator). “That’s why I don’t go outside!” vocalist Ollie Judge yelps persuasively on Pamphlets, momentarily making an indefinite lockdown appear attractive. But most impressive yet is the way in which the Brighton-formed five-piece manage to make sense of a melee of musical influences, extending from jazz to krautrock, post-punk to funk. It’s a wall-to-wall triumph.
Weight of the World
Across previous projects Punken and Brandon Banks, Maxo Kream has proven a larger-than-life character capable of balancing the tragedies of his past with the success of his present. This dichotomy is at its most heightened on Weight of the World. For his third album, the Houston rapper ponders the darkness of his family history of drug abuse, petty crime and death in heartbreaking detail (most memorably, on opener Cripstian, where he recounts his grandmother falling gravely ill with Covid and his cousin’s suicide). But he also takes time to revel in the path he’s chosen for himself (Big Persona), soundtracked by luxurious, intricately crafted production that retains a bounce. There’s something uniquely affecting about lush soul samples scoring a rags-to-riches story, too – and make no mistake, for all of its downcast realism, Weight of the World is soul-stirring.
a softer focus
The act of listening, really listening, can sometimes feel like a luxury. The sensory overload of modern life precludes the mental space needed to commit. Then, along comes an artist like claire rousay, with an album like a softer focus, to make those distinctions feel worthless. Here, tactile symphonies of field recordings ground you touch-tight with the sound artist as she drifts throughout a day – ‘background’ noise as entry points to infinite stories. From these cues, entire terrains unfold, traced out in piano, cello and synthesiser. But it’s the way found sounds and harmonic elements work together that truly compels, as on the nearly nine-minute peak chroma, where indecipherable chatter becomes as emotionally loaded as soaring organ pads, and the moments of silence, devastating. Taken as a whole, a softer focus heightens how you perceive sound, noise, life.
In 2020, Australian artist Banoffee confronted her intergenerational trauma via glittering alt-pop on Look at Us Now Dad. A year later, follow-up Tear Tracks tackles a different kind of trauma: the life-altering breakup. As if to depict the messy dissolution of her long-term relationship, the songs channel that same chaotic energy; the hyperpop-leaning production is fragmented but emotionally affecting, the raw lyrics at once grief-stricken and rage-fuelled. Whether contemplating her ex’s face when she cries (Tapioca Cheeks) or vocalising the paranoia that the sex won’t be as good with future partners (Never Get To Fuck Any1), Tear Tracks is a stunningly relatable document of heartbreak.
The Melodic Blue
With a clutch of blockbuster collaborations to his name and operating under the watchful mentorship of older cousin Kendrick Lamar, Baby Keem’s future seemed written. Especially when, a week after his feature on Kanye West’s Donda – a guest appearance which pierced through on an otherwise bloated listen – Keem dropped his debut studio album. Yet, while The Melodic Blue has flashes of pop star instinct, there’s an expansiveness that quietly sidesteps his heir-apparent status. Scientifically constructed trap beats, Auto-Tuned hums, breathless ad-libs and occasionally bizarre lyrics driven by timbre and shape over meaning all suggest a clearing of the tunnel vision which defined his mixtape era. Instead, Keem’s ability to drift between styles is on full display.
Conflict of Interest
Magnum opus is a lofty term, but Conflict of Interest is undeniably Ghetts’ finest work to date. Fans invested in Justin Clarke’s story from the beginning always knew he was capable of a masterpiece of this scale, and this year, he delivered. Balancing an affinity for the cinematic with refreshing honesty, Ghetts returns to his familiar territory of gangsterdom and relationships. But this time, it’s given a new impetus by the incredible soundscapes on display, from Skengman’s gorgeously minimal orchestral production to Good Hearts’ tribute to old school UKG. Ghetts is never more masterful than when he is in a reflective mood, examining himself and the experiences that shaped him. This is his most rousing iteration of it yet.
It might be tempting to slap a label like ‘ambient’ on to the latest work by Space Afrika, but that would be a disservice to the depth and complexity of Honest Labour. For one, it demands a lot of the listener: tones and timbres change frequently; gently unfurling pad sounds give way to jagged field recordings or extended loops of noise. There is also a momentum to the album that sits uneasily with terms like ambient. While slow and gentle in places, it has a probing, inquisitive quality in others, with sampled snippets of conversation on love and relationships adding intimate layers to this sprawling meditation on human connection.
After the gnarly club experiments of her early releases, aya’s debut LP was bound to have some bite – but few could have expected the volatile delights of im hole. With its spiky self-analysis delivered in surreal, ketamized lyrics (also collected in a stunning clothbound book), its binary-busting vocal processing, and its groggy inversions of UK bass mechanics, im hole is an idiosyncratic take on “trans art” – with all the baggage that entails – and one which succeeds at being personal, political and punk AF all at once.
SHILOH: Lost for Words
PLZ Make It Ruins
Over the last two years, the desire to connect has often been expressed through the urge to share. And keep sharing. These days, we expect artists to dance across every social media channel for recognition. Sometimes, this means revealing the most intimate aspects of their lives – what they eat, who they love – or risk getting lost, a casualty of the metrics of visibility.
And then there are the outliers who decide when to be seen, on their own terms. John Glacier is an artist known to be deeply elusive, a rapper-poet hybrid from east London who tends to shun publicity (her Instagram bio simply reads, “I have no name nor number”). Before her full-length debut, Glacier’s music consisted of choppy demos posted on a throwaway SoundCloud account, full of snippets of self-produced beats, synths and odd samples. This was when she wasn’t appearing on tracks with artists like Ragz Originale and LYAM, which now read like glimmers of intent, closely guarded.
SHILOH: Lost for Words feels like a natural waypoint in her journey so far. Whereas most information about her is locked away, the music on her debut album knows when to obscure, and crucially, when to reveal. She’s aided by Vegyn and a handful of trusted producers, who, across 12 tracks, establish a late night mood that rankles and unsettles. There are no features here, further heightening the contained, closed-off aura. And it’s within these conditions that Glacier’s imagination flourishes.
Nowhere is this more evident than in her distinctive stream-of-consciousness art-raps. A resolutely deadpan delivery hides striking tonal shifts, moving from moments of startling clarity (the scene-setting of Trelawny Waters’ “Sublet in Norwood/ Outside of town”) to experiments with religious iconography, most notably on Platoon, as Glacier raps, “Gabriel cover me” before landing on the haunting image of “empty souls in a jar”. All of this is underpinned by a limber production style that invokes everything from early 00s hip-hop and R&B nostalgia (Timing) to pointillist, video game-inspired soundtracks (Cryptomnesia). Throughout, Glacier’s vocals are muffled and slightly distorted, as if recorded through a VHS camera, creating a sense of comforting familiarity.
This is not an album that is glossy nor refined – deliberately so. Instead, it’s a project that feels acutely personal, capturing and refracting mutable emotional states. Yet, for an artist that is so seemingly insular, she has managed to create a language that is emphatically universal; a work that communicates the mercurial nature of the human condition with an unaffected ease. On Boozy, Glacier seems to put it best herself: “I’m not better, I’m just different.”