Another year, another list of favourite albums released 3 months too late. At least I’m consistent in my poor timing nowadays, I suppose.
Either way, 2021 was a fun year for my music browsing. A good amount of healthy variety throughout, even if there wasn’t too much that truly astounded me. But yeah, I’m hoping this list will have a little something for all sorts, even if my tastes fell in a rather particular direction this year. (Perhaps someone will notice.) Regardless, I’ve spent more than enough time typing this out already, so with no more fuss to be had, here’s the 31!
Places 31 to 21
31: Ceschi – This Guitar Was Stolen Along with Years of Our Lives (Folk Punk / Pop Punk)
I get the feeling I may be underrating this album slightly with this placing, but it has the unfortunate position of being a heavily personal, down-to-earth political barrage of an album following a 2020 where Spanish Love Songs took my album of the year by doing this style damn near perfectly for me. So I’m already coming into this album comparing it to a masterpiece, which never helps. But it’s still a damn excellent album, hitting that great middle-point between folk-punk and punk-folk. It maintains a Jeff Rosenstock-level of pop-punk energy, though with notably grittier lyricism of course. There is a good chance I’m being unfair to this one, so check it out!
30: 池田亮司 (Ikeda Ryōji) – Technicolors (Noise)
This was a tough one for me to rank. To start with, this is probably one of the simplest pure noise projects I’ve heard in a long while. A series of 9 varied blocks of noise, much more meditative than harsh. What surprised me was how organic a lot of it was – at times these blocks felt more like field recordings than constructions… And then there’s the masterpiece of a b-side, “variation” which blended all 9 together into an organically shifting monolith, and which might honestly be my favourite pure noise track I’ve heard.
However, this doesn’t negate the fact that the a-side is essentially just 9 static, unchanging, 2-minute chunks of noise which don’t do too much on their own until Ikeda sculpts them on the 10+ minute b-side. Hence why this album finds itself on the latter end of this list. I adore many aspects of this album, but half of it is building blocks. The other half is a mansion.
29: Bent Knee – Frosting (?)
Ironically, the most controversial Bent Knee album is also the most “Bent Knee” the band has ever been.
Indeed, the shift from a more prog/art-rock driven style to what can only be surmised as “we do what we want” has been contentious in reception, but I’ll be damned if the heart isn’t still beating open on display. Whether it be hyperpop, noise rock, breakcore, off-beat synth-pop or, of course, art rock, all the elements that constitute Bent Knee (especially the members’ solo projects) are still fully within view, and the fact remains that they’re still some of the most fun songwriters out there.
28: Леле́ка (Leléka) – Сонце у серці (Sonce u serci) (Ukranian Folk / Chamber Jazz)
While I had most of this list decided prior to the year’s end, this particular entry has unfortunately become rather retroactively fitting as an embrace of the evocative beauty of Ukrainian folk. The atmosphere is delicate and serene, melding seamlessly with the jazz touches of the band. So much so that you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends. It is a true, homely folk-jazz album that shows love in equal measures to all of its sources.
27: Rabbit Rabbit Radio – Volume 4: The Animal I Am (Dark Chamber Pop)
I feel like there are few musical æsthetics that cater as specifically to my tastes as Rabbit Rabbit Radio, and this is probably my favourite album of theirs since 2013’s Volume 1. The music is homely yet eerie, comforting yet balanced with an uneasy edge that makes perfect sense coming from two of my favourite players from Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Songs like “Loving You” are as theatrically catchy as they are unnerving and Carla Kihlstedt’s voice is hauntingly beautiful without exception, especially highlighted on tracks like “All We Have of You” and “Fire Flower”. While they certainly have a unique sound of their own, each song also feels unpredictable, which is the exact balance I love to hear.
26: Michael Pisaro-Liu – Revolution Shuffle (Field Recordings / Plunderphonics)
Pull up a chair. Set down your tape recorder. Hit record. Hit play. Take in the street. Take in the state. Take in the sound.
“May you live in interesting times.”
Environmental storytelling is the game here. Every 1 minute chunk of this 106 minute long album, be it one of many sequential establishing shots, in medias res, or the aftermath, is stitched together with deliberacy to set the soundscape of Los Angeles in the midst of “interesting times”. The subtle joy, the overt anger, the music of both, the loss, the hope, the frustration, the potential death of the world, the politics of those killing it, those enforcing it, those fighting it and of those who die on the side-lines purely as collateral. It is media. It is field recordings. It is composition. It is violence.
It is a collage of just one piece of the now, largely focused on one place of the now, but with a microscopic lens on the details which would usually end up demoted to backdrops in the pictures of a history book.
25: Hippotraktor – Meridian (Progressive Metal)
It’s been too long since I’ve heard a straight up pure progressive metal album that I’ve enjoyed this much. All the hallmarks are still there, the riff/groove-focused songwriting, the rhythmic drive, harsh vocals that would make Jens Kidman proud, meshed with clean vocals that sync perfectly. It is a definitive prog metal album, yet executed with so much tastefulness, care, and attention to detail that it almost puts the entire rest of the scene to shame by comparison.
24: A Formal Horse – Meat Mallet (Progressive Rock)
It’s funny thinking back to my first listen of this album and how it completely bounced off me. Yet I found myself coming back to it again and again, driven by some weird compulsion to revisit its almost punkish take on prog. (Or is it a proggish take on punk?) It has the attitude of a band raving political in their garage and yet at the same time the strange whimsy of songwriting found in prog. Regardless of how the balance is achieved (and oh, is it achieved), both the punk and the prog of this album are assuredly British. There is an off-kilter wit here that meshes really well with the more direct scrutinising the band aims for.
23: Æsop Rock & Blockhead – Garbology (Hip-Hop)
I’ve never really been one for a lot of Æsop Rock’s more openly collaborative work. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed it; I just think that a lot of the collaborations he’s been involved in haven’t meshed as well as his solo work. Æs’s æsthetic and sensibilities are often so distinct and almost hermetic compared to the more conventional voices of the hip-hop world that it’s rare to find someone who can embrace and gel with his style. He is the “cold-blooded coyote king”, an expert at doing his own thing.
The exception to the rule however has always been Blockhead. From the start, Blockhead’s beats have been a wonderful parallel to Æs’s lyricism in both æsthetic and function. Given how much both have evolved and changed since their last collaboration, it’s worth noting that said familiarity is still there. You can tell the two deeply understand and relate to each other musically, and sure enough, that’s reflected throughout the album. When Aesop puts up his guard, the music follows, and when that guard comes down, Blockhead lets the scene breath.
Overall, this album is yet another impressive step Æsop Rock has taken on his path of self-exposure, discovery and understanding in relation to the world and people around him, as well as their ends; a path he has been walking with an iron-claw grip on the finest tightrope since The Impossible Kid.
22: The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Illusory Walls (Indie Rock / Post-Rock)
It’s been fascinating taking in the reception of this album. To arguments of “the band is abandoning their emo styling”, I’d say “so?” To arguments that the new sound is cookie-cutter, I’d respond “what?”
While yes, the sound is more typically “indie rock” at its core, there is a fusion of post-rock and even a touch of prog here and there that still makes the album stand out heavily from its peers.
Admittedly, the album is very front and back-loaded. The first few tracks open with a great surge of energy. The middle however, is fairly drab, and is the only part where I could see the arguments of being “bland” applying a little; it fades into the background quite easily.
Yet it’s immediately evident that the intended highlight of the album is the final two tracks, which maintain a unique spin of post-rock that could even put a large chunk of the genre’s greats’ output to shame. Truly this is the sound to carry the band’s namesake to music.
21: Ka – A Martyr’s Reward (East-Coast / Conscious Hip-Hop)
“Came in framing my wrongs; that’s what my writing depicts. That’s enough praise for me.”
On his latest album, Ka breaks away from some (not all) of his signature abstraction to breach the more direct and personal questions of his upbringing, and his role now as someone from that life with the opportunity and voice to speak truth to it. It’s an album that’s tired and jaded but also rife with experience.
To reflect this, the beats have been gently boiled away into a delicate haze that engulfs the air of every lamplit main street and puddle-lit back-alley that Ka wishes to take you through, casually but carefully reminiscing about what was lost and what was gained from the losing. Though this album may be quiet and meditative, it’s still one that asks for the listener’s full attention.