The year 2021 was an excellent year for music. From the emergence of pop–punk superstar Olivia Rodrigo to Tyler, The Creator’s return to his rap roots. From the motown merger of Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars with Silk Sonic, to the resurgence of Taylor Swift’s beloved brand of folk. There were many incredible albums which flew under the radar of popular music as well. Below, I’ll review some fantastic releases within popular genres which in my opinion, are the best that 2021 has to offer.
I guarantee that I have never heard an album like the latest from Black Midi. The trio has released a madly eclectic, yet coherent cacophony of tracks with “Cavalcade.” Their unique brand of post-punk is colorfully splattered here with shades of progressive, jazz, noise, art and math rock. From first listen, even from first glance at the album’s cover art, Black Midi demands your attention. The opener “John L” is dissonant and uneasy to unfamiliar ears, but its ear-wormy hook and dynamic shifts will soon win over any patient listener. “Slow” is a freight train of a track with its cascading guitar riff and propelling drum patterns, while “Diamond Stuff” is a meditative ambient piece which effortlessly crescends to a jazzy, euphoric peak. Black Midi transcends genres with grace on Cavalcade for a truly unparagoned batch of tracks.
Seven piece Black Country, New Road (BCNR) fire on all cylinders with their debut album “For the First Time.” The septet, boasting a violinist and saxophone player, produce compositionally complex art rock with post punk and jazz inflections. “Instrumental” is the most infectious piece of Eastern European-leaning dance-punk that will be heard all year. “Athens, France” is a dynamically shifting piece of math rock which slows to a patient halt and builds with nefarious intent, culminating in a stunningly beautiful outro of interwoven guitars. “Track X” is a soulful ballad which evokes a sense of nostalgia with plucky strings, delightful vocal harmonies, and a saxophone with a spring in its step. In just their first full release, BCNR flaunt a strong proficiency in many musical styles.
Porter Robinson’s acoustic tinged electropop album, “Nurture” feels like sharing a hug with an old friend who’s reassuring you that everything will be alright. Sonically blissful and lyrically optimistic, dance anthems like “Look at the Sky” will give you a sunny smile. “Something Comforting” is a homely acoustic tune with gentle guitars and pianos that usher in a pulsating EDM chorus. The short and sweet “Lifelike” features a gorgeous violin lead and bouncy, airy synth arpeggios. It would honestly feel right at home in the next Animal Crossing game. Robinson’s brand of electropop seamlessly incorporates folk and EDM influences for a sound that the word pretty does not do justice.
It can’t quite nail down Genesis Owusu, as “Smiling With No Teeth” includes traces of soul, hip hop, R&B, rock and techno. The Ghanese-Australian artist tackles themes of depression and racism, personified by the allegorical “black dogs” which he references throughout the album. “Don’t Need You” confronts these “black dogs” in a moment of liberation, where the pounding beat and shout along chorus will surely get your feet moving. The slow and soulful “Smiling with No Teeth” scrutinizes the hypocrisy of people seeking freedom from their burdens while refusing to help alleviate others’. Along with the folk-leaning “A Song About Fishing,” Owusu really has a song for anyone on his full length debut.
Injury Reserve exponentially evolved their experimental hip-hop with “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” although they did so mournfully, with the untimely passing of founding member Jordan Groggs. Consequently, the album sees the group at its darkest and most contemplative. “Superman That” features a glitchy beat and lyrically is nothing short of despondent. The song feels as if your rocket ship has lost all power as you’re plummeting back to earth. This attitude of hopelessness is shared on “Knees” with its staggered, pummelling instrumental. Feelings of sorrow, insecurity, and present-day pessimism are exercised throughout the album, which hopefully may provide solace to any listeners who share the group’s sentiment.
Barrington DeVaughn Hendricks, known as JPEGMafia continues to be unpredictable with “LP!,” where he blends elements of abstract, lofi and hardcore hip hop with pop and R&B. “LP!” sets itself apart in that there are two versions of the album available online. One is on all of the traditional streaming platforms while the other is available on the purchasing platform Bandcamp, each sharing songs and withholding exclusive cuts. “TRUST!” is an upbeat opener to the album with lofi hip hop production and positive lyrics. “SICK, NERVOUS & BROKE!” presents an airy, awesome wave of an instrumental with a vocal delivery gliding between yelps and croons. With a versatile tracklist, JPEGMafia reaffirms himself as a singular voice in modern rap music.
Although they are unique, maybe even alienating, variations of their respective genres, I hope that you’ll give these incredible albums a listen. Each of them execute a unique musical vision which is unlike anything anybody can hear anytime soon. In my opinion, they are the best that this past year had to offer.