By Ellis Keipper
The past year in music has been one of the most exciting and refreshing in a very long time. During the pandemic, many different album rollouts and tours came to a sudden halt. Many of the industry’s biggest artists took the chance to step out of the spotlight and take more time working on their upcoming projects. In 2021, we, as fans, saw the return of concerts which made a huge impact on how we viewed and consumed the music that was being released.
Before I get into the list, I will address potential discrepancies. This is my personal favorites list. Obviously, I haven’t listened to every single album that has been released this year. Some projects on this list warrant more discussion and thought from me than others. On the topic of reissues: there were a number of different albums that got reissued and re-released this year from artists like The Weeknd, Mac Miller, and Radiohead. Those projects will not be a part of this list. Let’s get into it.
20. To Hell With It by Pink Pantheress
Pink Pantheress is way more than a Tik Tok artist. Her newest mixtape is just proof of that. Her music is soft, somber, and full of emotion. Starting with the retro-sounding Pain, this album has one of its biggest hits which is well worth the hype. The lyrics describe her reminiscing on a failed relationship, wishing it had gone better. The song is short and sweet as is the case with the rest of this tape. This works well to her advantage as many of the songs on this project are absolute earworms and remain swirling around your head for long after the song is over. The beats on this tape are fun, playful pop beats with a flare of electronic drum patterns that sound like something off of an Aphex Twin album. My favorite songs are Pain, I Must Apologize, and Break It Off.
19. Hitler Wears Hermès 8: Sincerely Adolf by Westside Gunn
Westside Gunn is a rapper who has had one of the most consistent and dense catalogues of music from the last 5 years, and this album is the culmination of all of it. This is what I believe is meant to be one of his last projects or possibly his last. Released in two separate parts, this album clocks in at around an hour and 45 minutes, but it is worth every second. Gunn has always been one of the flashiest and luxurious rappers working in the industry. His rags to riches story is truly a spectacle to watch, especially considering just how long he’s been working to achieve his status. The Hitler Wears Hermès series has been a staple of his career since his early days, so it’s only fitting that he squeezed one more in before he went out. The album features some of Gunn’s most forward-thinking production as well as some of his catchiest hooks and flows. Almost every track on the album contains a feature from at least one member of Griselda (Gunn’s self-owned label) as well as many others from hard-hitters in the rap game such as Tyler, the Creator, Lil Wayne, and 2 Chainz. It contains everything a fan of Griselda could hope for. My favorite tracks include Forest Lawn, Margiela Split Toes, and Westheimer.
18. Disco! by MIKE
This album earns its title, Disco!, but not in a traditional sense. MIKE is a rapper who has always made muddy, sample-heavy rap music about depression and growing up in Brooklyn. This album continues this streak, while making small tweaks to the formula. Disco! is very soulful and colorful for a MIKE record. Right out the gate, he comes with the boisterous, upbeat Evil Eye. This song definitely meant that we were in for something different on this album. I think the most important track on the entire project is Aww(Zaza). This song is essentially about MIKE finding some kind of solace or acceptance with his depression which is the central theme of this album. This album is an essential for anyone trying to get into underground New York hip-hop. My favorite tracks are Evil Eye, Aww(Zaza), and At Thirst Sight By Assia.
17. Montero by Lil Nas X
Lil Nas X is here to stay, and I am ready to see what he has next. Many know Nas from his massive 2019 hit, Old Town Road. Dominating the billboard charts, it soon became the longest running number one hit. Many people, myself included, thought he wouldn’t amount to much past this, but oh… we were so wrong. First, he came out with his controversial banger, Montero (Call Me By Your Name). Nas famously gave a lap dance to Satan himself in the music video for this song. Those that were on Twitter around the time this came out know how hilariously insane some of his comebacks were to angry Christians who deemed this inappropriate for their kids to watch. Next, he came with the explosive single, Industry Baby, which sported an equally extravagant, controversial music video. And then, he dropped his album. If Montero proves anything, it’s that Nas is here to please nobody except himself. Nas is tragic when he wants to. He’s fun when he wants to. He’s sexy when he wants to. Everything on this album wreaks with personality, and I’m here for it all the way. Pop is a genre which is often criticized for being overproduced, but in this case, the grandiosity does so many favors for Nas. I’m sure you’ve already heard this album, but in case you haven’t, I definitely recommend it. My favorite tracks are Montero (Call Me By Your Name), Industry Baby, and Life After Salem.
16. An Evening With Silk Sonic by Silk Sonic
The pairing of Bruno Mars and Anderson. Paak is a match made in heaven. With both artists already having an extensive background in soul and funk music, a collaboration between the two has been long overdue. Luckily, the wait was worth it because the result was one of the best collab albums to come out in a long time. They came out swinging at first in March with the massive hit, Leave The Door Open. From the day it dropped, everyone knew that these two were capable of something different. 8 long months later and 2 more singles, we finally got the album. This album is flashy, soulful, and sounds like something straight out of the 70s. Songs like After Last Night and Put On A Smile are just bleeding with soulfulness and longing. This album does such an amazing job capturing a feeling that is so far gone from this generation’s music.
15. The House Is Burning by Isaiah Rashad
It was 5 long years between the release of this album and Isaiah Rashad’s previous album, The Sun’s Tirade. This time, for Rashad, was full of adversity and struggle as he had to manage homelessness and drug addiction. He spent his time couch surfing when he wasn’t in rehab battling his addiction. This especially hits home for me, as I saw him in concert during this time. I had no idea this is what he was dealing with behind closed doors. The album that came out of this is surprisingly hopeful and cheery. Notably, this album takes Rashad back to his roots in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Many of the tracks on this album take heavy influence from Memphis legends like Three 6 Mafia and Tommy Wright III. He also makes good use of his southern contemporaries such as Duke Deuce, YGTUT, and Jay Worthy. On the surface, this album may not seem like much, but multiple listens reveal Rashad’s cheerful outlook on his future considering his rough and broken past. My favorite tracks are RIP Young, Hey Mista, and THIB.
14. Tyron by Slowthai
This album did exactly what I was hoping for Slowthai to do on his long anticipated follow up to his 2019 debut, Nothing Great About Britain. To roll out his double album, he made sure to give us an idea of what we were in for with the quiet and personal Feel Away featuring James Blake and Mount Kimbie. The next big step Slowthai took in releasing the album was the release of the song Mazza featuring A$AP Rocky. This track is explosive and energetic. The two singles highlight the duality of the album which was split into two parts representing his ADHD. The first half of the album is buzzing and energetic. It is full of bangers, and the pacing never gives you time to breath. The second half of the album is personal and intimate. This may not be as good as his last effort, but I think what this album does better is that it pushes Slowthai in a better artistic direction that I hope to see him explore further on future efforts. My favorite tracks are Mazza, I Tried, and Feel Away.
13. Shut The F**k Up Talking To Me by Zack Fox
If you had told me a year ago that Zack Fox would unironically make one of my favorite albums from this year, I would’ve thought you were hilarious. Zack Fox is most famously known for his controversial song with Kenny Beats titled, “I Got Depression (Jesus Is The One).” Going into this album, I expected a collection of songs similar to this, but what I got was much more interesting and entertaining. Zack’s lyricism is witty, brilliant, and hilarious as his constant use of similes and metaphors continues to be creative and hysterical. There are a countless number of examples of this on the album, but where this album truly shines for me is on its titular outro track. This track came to me as the biggest surprise on the album as it contained a beat made by the legendary hip-hop producer, The Alchemist. My favorite tracks include Fafo, Shut The F**k Up Talking To Me, and Mind Your Business.
12. Sling by Clairo
Clairo’s 2019 album, Immunity, broke her out of bedroom pop which, at the time, was a genre that fleeted with life just as soon as it came onto the scene. The album shifted her closer to a much softer, personal indie-pop mood that she continued in volumes on her newest album, Sling. Enlisting the help of veteran pop producer, Jack Antonoff, this album is rich with sleepy, soft instrumentals that make you want to cuddle up next to a warm fire on a cold winter day with someone you love. I was on a backpacking trip in New Mexico when this first came out, and listening to this while on my hikes matched the isolation I felt perfectly. The album’s subject matter deals with Clairo’s desire to feel more equal in her relationships. “Why do I tell you how I feel when you’re just looking down the blouse?” This is among many of the powerful lyrics sprinkled tastefully throughout the album. My favorite tracks are Amoeba, Zinnias, and Blouse.
11. Rainbow Bridge 3 by Sematary
Sematary is an artist that remained in my peripherals for a long time before this mixtape came out. When it did, there were people I know that had never been into this guy, who were raving about it. It made me curious. I eventually checked it out, and I was so surprised with what I got. This album is just so hellish and distorted; I love every second of it. Tracks like God’s Light Burns Upon My Flesh and I’m A Sinner are just so fresh and exciting to listen to compared to what’s in the mainstream right now. There aren’t many that are doing it quite like Sematary right now. His music is like a mix of Chief Keef and Death Grips. My favorite tracks on this album are God’s Light Burns Upon My Flesh, Chainsaw Party, and Toothtaker.
10. For The First Time by Black Country, New Road
This album was kind of mysterious, for me, coming into it. I heard a lot of things about this band when the album came out, but I had never heard of them. When I looked them up on Apple Music, I found almost nothing about them. They didn’t even have any related artists. So going into this, I had no expectations. This album was one of the most intense listens I had this year. Expressing their many frustrations with British culture and daily life. Isaac Wood sings his heart out hoping for any kind of break from the cycle. This album is 6 tracks long and full of post-punk bangers. My favorite tracks are Sunglasses and Athens, France.
9. The Life of Pi’erre 5 by Pi’erre Bourne
This album was kind of like a birthday present for me. It came out the day before my birthday, and I was immediately obsessed with it for a long time. Pi’erre Bourne is an artist mainly known for his production alongside the likes of Playboi Carti and Young Nudy. While his work with them is great in their own respects, his solo music is truly special. His voice is so incredibly smooth and addicting to listen to. The best way to describe this album is like candy. Everything is just so sweet, and sugary and I cannot get enough of it no matter how much I listen to it. Pi’erre fits so smoothly into the category of rapper who uses auto-tune as a tool to enhance his voice rather than a crutch. This album is just so much fun to listen to; I love it. My favorite tracks are Biology 101, Practice, and 4U.
8. Roadrunner by Brockhampton
Through a series of unfortunate events, this unintentionally became the final album from Brockhampton. In my opinion, this is still a great note to leave off on. This album contains, by far, the best rapping from the collective as well as some of their most explosive features from the likes of Danny Brown, A$AP Rocky, JPEGMAFIA, and more. Prior to this album’s release, it was announced that this would be the second to last album from the group, so the central theme around this album I think was that it was meant to be the beginning of the end. The group decided to release fan favorites such as Bankroll and Chain On. This album also includes The Light and The Light Pt.2 which both see Joba recounting the events surrounding his father’s suicide and Kevin Abstract reflecting on his relationship with his mother, and how he still struggles to talk to her about his homosexuality despite being so famous and publicized. This album feels more or less like a return to form for the group following a rocky couple of years. Anyone who is a fan of them probably loves this album. My favorite tracks are Bankroll, The Light, and Buzzcut.
7. Gumbo’! by Pink Siifu
Pink Siifu has always been one of the biggest chameleons in underground hip-hop. I have followed him pretty closely since the release of his 2018 album, Ensley. With Siifu, you never really know what you’re going to get in terms of style; however, the quality is always there. Where Ensley was very mysterious and chill, his 2020 album was abrasive as hell. His newest release, Gumbo’!, is, in my opinion, his best work yet. Siifu’s versatility and skills as a rapper and as an artist really take hold on this project. He really shows that he can do anything. One really amazing aspect about this album is the unpredictability of it. Around every turn, there’s a new sound, a new rhythm, a new beat, a new flow ready to catch you off guard and the fact that Siifu is able to continuously pull this off time and time again for a whole hour is incredible. One great example of this is the transition between the intro track and the second track, Wayans Bros. Where the intro was very soulful and warm, the second track on the album instantly explodes with harsh, aggressive energy. It doesn’t take long for the album to shift back into its smooth jazziness either. The best way to describe a lot of the songs on this album is that they often feature either mellow trap beats or warm, rich jazz samples. The best example of the latter is on the track Living Proof (Family). This song contains a beat from the Alchemist who always brings standout moments on whatever works he gets featured on and this is no less. The beat on this song is trippy and kaleidoscopic, and Siifu comes with an equally woozy and stumbled performance. As the name, Gumbo’!, refers to, this album is a spicy and warm ode to southern hip-hop. Pink Siifu is an artist that needs to be on everyone’s radar because of how creative and innovative each of his projects are as he seems to reach new heights.
6. Lp! by JPEGMAFIA
It’s amazing that JPEGMAFIA is continuously able to find new corners of his sound and absolutely thrive. After making two of my favorite albums of all time and then dropping two EPs that I would consider just mediocre, I started to lose faith he would be able to do it again. But, he did. Lp! was released with two different versions seemingly by surprise on JPEGMAFIA’s birthday. The online version is the one you can find on streaming services perpetuated by Peggy’s label. The offline version is exclusive to Bandcamp and is much more stripped down and longer. For the sake of the review, I will be talking about the offline version because I consider that one better. First, we need to talk about Hazard Duty Pay. This song contains a sample of Anita Baker’s Ain’t No Need To Worry which disappointingly didn’t get cleared to drop on streaming services. The sample is used in such a genius way as Peggy cuts and splices the vocals and synths for such a beautiful song. Now is probably a good time to mention that JPEGMAFIA mixes, masters, produces, and records all his music by himself. Everything he makes is 100% his vision. Peggy’s verses on this song are equally as explosive and confrontational as the beat behind him. Another amazing highlight is on Thots Prayer! where the entire hook of the song is an interpolation of Baby One More Time by Britney Spears (who doesn’t love Britney?). Long time fans of Peggy will know that this isn’t the first time he’s covered an extremely famous pop song (he has one for Carly Rae freaking Jepson’s Call Me Maybe) for one of his songs and it’s always a delight to hear him do it. My favorite tracks on this album are Hazard Duty Pay!, Thots Prayer!, and Tired, Nervous & Broke!.
5. You Heat Me Up You Cool Me Down by King Krule
This album is a complete reimagining of some of King Krule’s best and most popular songs. Normally, live albums don’t do it for me, but when it comes to Krule, you’re always in for something special. This album contains recordings of his songs and the 3 live shows he was able to squeeze in between the release of his 2020 album, Man Alive!, and the complete lockdown the world experienced for the rest of that year. What Krule did during these performances cements him in my mind as one of the best musicians of the last 10 years. Krule does everything possible to change the way these songs are meant to be listened to. Everything from changing the lyrics, song structure, and vocal melodies to adding new instruments entirely, this album continues to blow me away every time I listen to it. This album rekindled what I missed so much from before the pandemic–live music. The live setting makes songs like Comet Face and Stoned Again sound so much darker and grittier than the studio versions. I can only imagine what it might’ve been like seeing these performances live. My favorite tracks are Out Getting Ribs, Stoned Again, and Alone, Omen 3.
4. Call Me If You Get Lost by Tyler, the Creator
It’s hard to put my finger on what makes this album so special to me. Maybe I’m just biased because Tyler, the Creator is my favorite artist of all time. It seems every time he comes out with a new album, it becomes my new obsession for the next few months. This album continues the streak of what people have deemed the “new Tyler” era since he released 2017’s Flower Boy. Many people, myself included, expected him to make his sound on this album even more experimental than his last album, Igor, but surprisingly, Tyler went back to his roots on this one. This album is Tyler’s long overdue victory lap after years of Grammy nods and chart-topping albums. Songs like Massa and Manifesto reflect on Tyler’s past and his road to stardom in an entertaining and fun way. The latter of which even features a verse from Domo Genesis, who is a long time friend of Tyler’s. What makes this significant is that this was the first collaboration between the two of them in 8 years. Another fun moment on the album is on the song Lumberjack. This song recounts the days following Tyler’s win at the 2020 Grammys. He raps about buying a car and driving to Utah to go sledding, which he literally did after he won his Grammy. This album also fulfills Tyler’s lifelong dream of having a DJ Drama-hosted project. Per usual, Drama’s inclusion on the album is tasteful and plays into the lightheartedness of the project. Overall, I think this is easily one of Tyler’s best albums. My favorite tracks are Wusyaname, Hot Wind Blows, and Sweet/I Thought You Wanted To Dance.
3. Cavalcade by Black Midi
This album is like controlled chaos. From a technical standpoint, this is the best album of the year in my opinion. Black Midi has always made dark and brutal music but did so in this album more than ever; they break down every single expectation you might have going into it. From the intense wall of sound that is John L to the soothing and quiet Ascending Forth, this album is ripe with lush instrumentation. Notably, the band makes great use of more orchestral instruments such as saxophones, horns, and strings that create some of the most head-throbbing instrumental breakdowns you can imagine. In the new era of post-punk rock, this album is one of the genre’s biggest standouts and for good reason. My favorite tracks are John L, Slow, and Hogwash And Balderdash.
2. By The Time I Get To Phoenix by Injury Reserve
Following the unfortunate passing of Stepa J. Groggs, bandmates Parker Corey and Ritchie with a T found themselves without a third member to one of the most tight-knit rap groups in the underground. Many fans, not unlike myself, wondered if or how the now duo would continue making music together. 15 months later, they would return with one of the most heartbreaking albums I have ever heard. This album is the musical representation of grief and loss. Every wall is broken down on its second track, Superman That. Ritchie, on this song, sounds like he is screaming for some kind of help or solace now that his best friend is no longer a part of his life. The track, Top Picks For You, depicts Ritchie not being able to continue normal life without being reminded of who he lost. He raps about not even being able to turn on the TV without a show coming up that Groggs would have loved if he were alive to see it. The track, Knees, was actually recorded a few months prior to Groggs’s death. It contains the only posthumous verse from him on the entire album. The verse is harrowing and at times hard to listen to as he raps about his alcoholism, and how he doesn’t think he will last much longer if he doesn’t stop drinking. The production on this album matches its lyrics very well as it is disjointed and muddy. At times it can feel like Parker is trying to attack his listeners with the beat. Many have noted that this album may have birthed a new subgenre of experimental rap. The final lines of the album are, “it rains, it pours, but damn, it’s really pouring.”
1. Bo Jackson by Boldy James & The Alchemist
Boldy James & The Alchemist as of late have been two of the hardest working artists in their own respective fields. I can’t even call this the newest album from the duo. This album, Bo Jackson, is the fourth collaborative effort from them and it is, in my opinion, their best. Boldy James has always been noted for his nonchalant demeanor when rapping about things like drugs and murder. What sets him apart from other gangster rappers is that his frequent (and I mean very frequent) use of literary devices such as similes, metaphors, allusions, and many more make him a truly masterful lyricist. The Alchemist is a producer who has always been able to shape his own mold around any rapper that hops on his beats, and this project is no exception. Given that, prior to this, the duo already had a large body of work together, it’s amazing to see they still managed to push the limits of what they were capable of when they worked with each other. The beats on this album are bustling and swift. They enable Boldy to use complex flows and rhyme schemes. The track, Steel Wool, is the best example of this. Boldy’s flow is precise and cutthroat as he runs to keep up with the equally fleeing beat behind him. Boldy takes no prisoners on this album as he tells very dark, violent stories about his experience dealing drugs and ducking cops. This, in my opinion, is the best album to come out this year, and it is my favorite rap album of the decade so far. I highly recommend it to just about anyone. My favorite tracks on this album are Steel Wool, Illegal Search & Seizure, and 3rd Person.