Annual Music Review 2021: The Year of Recovery

Cal W. Stannard
33 min readDec 10, 2021
www.instagram.com/calwst

What else is left to say about this past year that hasn’t already been said before? When I started thinking about this piece a month or so back, ‘The Year Of Recovery’ felt like a definitive, solid moniker but now I’m not so sure. Yes, in terms of the music business; festivals and gigs have returned to a degree but for how long — at least here in the UK — now feels precariously uncertain. On the plus side, where 2020 was a year of horror and confusion, in 2021 we were more canny, more collected and, for better or worse; more acclimatised to the way things are now. I myself returned to creative writing for the first time in years; some of which can be found on this blog. With regards to albums, there was a sense the artists had got passed the initial shock of what was happening; enough to make some sense of it and translate that into powerful statements. Whether that was taking stock of the world at large, or working on their own psyche on a personal level — revelations were found and shared. Some wrestled with sorrow while others rebelled by having fun. There were celebrations, commemorations and confrontations — sometimes all on the same album. There were some disappointments; 3 of my most anticipated projects — while great — fall at the very bottom 3 places of the list. But there were so many good surprises and artists who stepped up the game too.

It’s hard to pit year against year, but for once this one actually felt better than the previous, and that was definitely felt through the albums I loved in 2021. I listened to over 250 that came out this year and it was unusually difficult to hammer it down to a list of 100; so please indulge me reeling off a few that pained me to not fit on— largely because I just didn’t get enough time with them – albums from Sega Bodega, Yola, Children Of Zeus, The War On Drugs, Leon Vynehall, Spirit of the Beehive, Unknown T, Majid Jordan, Richard Dawson, Mansur Brown, William Doyle, Iglooghost, Alfa Mist, Tirzah, The Weather Station, El Michels Affair, Dawn Richard, AG Club, Lucy Dacus and Poté — ALL worth your time. Many of them feature in the playlist here that gathers my favourite songs of the year — a very different experience to sorting through the albums. I recommend flicking through it to see if you find something new to love. And for those of you really ready to nerd out; my Top 100 Albums of 2021 starts here:

100. Drake — Certified Lover Boy: Rap’s crown prince settles into a familiar groove. Few surprises, but some of his best songs from the past few years.

99. Young Thug — Punk: Featuring some of the rap alien’s most interesting left-turns for a while, even if he doesn’t keep it up for the album’s full 20 songs.

98. Isaiah Rashad — The House Is Burning: A slow burning return after 5 years away; Rashad had nothing to prove but his ability to carry a vibe.

97. 파란노을 [Parannoul] — To See the Next Part of the Dream: A Seoul bedroom-shoegaze album striking enough to burst right out of obscurity.

96. Lil Nas X — Montero: He had so much more than that one hit. A triumphant autobiographical celebration of sexuality, love and pop music.

95. Weezer — OK Human: My first return to a Weezer record for about 15 years; this lush chamber-pop album surprised and delighted me again.

94. Rochelle Jordan — Play With the Changes: Entirely produced by Machinedrum & Jimmy Edgar, Jordan picked up where Dawn Richard left off.

93. Kinkajous — Being Waves: The best undiscovered modern jazz album; recommended to me on this totally essential FB group for hidden gems.

92. Ski Mask the Slump God — Sin City the Mixtape: With so many of his friends and peers lost, it was a joy to hear Ski back and as devilish as ever.

91. Pink Siifu — GUMBO’!: A truly creative spirit ; soaring through rap, jazz, soul and psych with complete freedom and bold individuality.

90. Iceage — Seek Shelter: As wild and ambitious as another rock band who wrote about Shelter; this was another massive step up for a truly exciting band.

89. Turnstile — Glow On: Unlike any album I’ve really enjoyed since I was about 14, but their heart-and-soul grit and howl was infectious and fresh.

88. Darkside — Spiral: Somehow a whole 7 years since the duo’s last collaboration, Jaar & Harrington returned with another immersive sonic odyssey.

87. Roland Faunte — Needle and Thread: The best songwriter you’ve never heard of, his sophomore proved he deserved more than a cult following.

86. Cadence Weapon — Parallel World: The Jacques Greene collaborating MC won the Polaris Prize this year for his heady, technicolour project.

85. John Glacier — SHILOH: Lost for Words: Don’t be fooled by the name; Glacier is the best female MC in UK; produced by the one and only Vegyn.

84. Holy Other — Lieve: After a decade hiatus, hero of now defunct Tri Angle label returned with a stunning album of icy, enveloping ambient electronica.

83. Francis Lung — Miracle: Ex Wu Lyf guitarist makes good on promise with stunning album of Beatles-esque ruminations to lose yourself in.

82. Aesop Rock & Blockhead — Garbology: He may have the largest vocab in rap but he has the flow, charisma and the beats to match.

81. Adele — 30: Entering your 30s is tough, and no-one translated that better this year; weathering divorce and motherhood with utter class and raw honesty.

80. Navy Blue — Navy’s Reprise: Rapper, producer, pro-skater and model; Sage Elsesser is an enviable talent and this cemented his rising star seamlessly.

79. Feu! Chatterton — Palais d’argile: Were they Paris’ answer to Radiohead? Who knows why this album caught on; but it absolutely deserved to.

78. Andy Stott — Never the Right Time: The producer returned again with another stunning show of electronica (and amazing artwork too)

77. Arooj Aftab — Vulture Prince: Inspired by Urdu poetry and dedicated to her late younger brother, Aftab’s Hindi folk was a haunting mystery.

76. Sault — NINE: The mysterious London group hit us again with another transmission from the mist; lighter this time but just as singular and raw.

75. Joy Orbison — Still Slipping Vol. 1: A long overdue debut album that felt personal; a warm family scrapbook sonically akin to Crooks & Lovers.

74. Armand Hammer & The Alchemist — Haram: The smartest duo in rap teamed up with its savviest producer for an inimitable hip hop gem.

73. Shame — Drunk Tank Pink: Shame brushed off the sophomore slump and followed their amazing debut with another sharp post-punk assault.

72. Arca — kick ii-iiiii: All 4(!) of the albums released in Dec were bold and completely unique. A mammoth jewel in an already sparkling crown.

71. R.A.P. Ferreira — The Light-Emitting Diamond Cutter Scriptures: More spiritual poetry from an MC we don’t deserve. Each track a wonder.

70. Remi Wolf — Juno: Like skipping school to drink energy drinks this was pure joy & attitude from start to finish; with incredible production too.

69. Aminé — TWOPOINTFIVE: Aminé knows how to buffer the gap between albums. His POINTFIVE series continued this year buoyantly aided by Lido.

68. Ross From Friends — Tread: A sterling collection of other-worldly IDM to transport away from normal life and into a glitchy, technicolour dimension.

67. LV & Joshua Idehen — Ends: The best guest on Sons Of Kemet’s album teamed up with LV for a celebration and defence of the real London town.

66. Westside Gunn — Hitler Wears Hermes 8 Side B: With beats from Madlib and The Alchemist, Side B was more decadent and cooler than Side A.

65. Japanese Breakfast — Jubilee: A beautifully effervescent record from one ready to step out from under the weight of grief. Contagious resilience.

64. Madlib — Sound Ancestors: Aided to completion by Four Tet’s curation; this was a beautiful collection of the legendary producer at his very best.

63. The Armed — Ultrapop: Unlike anything else I enjoyed this year, Ultrapop refused to be defined or even understood. Pummeling and fresh.

62. Vince Staples — Vince Staples: Somehow massively a grower at only 22mins long, this was a change of direction from a gentler, more serious Vince.

61. Ty Segall — Harmonizer: Shamefully this was my first proper intro to Ty but what an incredible place to start. A fuzzy, psychedelic whirl of rock melody.

60. Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine — A Beginner’s Mind: For anyone who grew up with Elliott Smith and B-movies; this is unmissable.

59. black midi — Cavalcade: The Croydon weirdos followed up their debut with an even more esoteric album; but one with lofty aspirations of triumph.

58. Shelley FKA DRAM — Shelley FKA DRAM: Old name, new sound. DRAM was back as an R’n’B genius; the sexiest album made by a man this year.

57. Dean Blunt — Black Metal 2: Ever since BBF I’ve been fascinated with Blunt’s irreverent, mysterious style. This was his darkest, headiest yet.

56. Your Old Droog — TIME: I finally let YOD into my life and got hooked. Everything rap music should be: smart, loud and unpredictable.

55. Bicep — Isles: Darker and more insular than before, Bicep’s 2nd deployed ghostly female vocals to gripping effect; bringing a strange sadness to the sesh.

54. Brockhampton — Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine: A return to form, it centered on Joba as he viscerally processed his father’s suicide.

53. Mr Jukes & Barney Artist — The Locket: Jukes conjures warm, free-wheeling boom-bap for E7’s own Barney to skip through like a summer’s day.

52. Flying Lotus — Yasuke: Where Flamagra felt over-stuffed with guests, this anime OST was old skool FlyLo; 26 scraps of genius plucked out his psyche.

51. Stephen Fretwell — Busy Man: Fretwell’s ’04 debut broke my teen heart then he all but disappeared. His return was even more stirring as an adult.

50. Playboi Carti — Whole Lotta Red

I always defer this list until I’m sure all the year’s albums are out, but ridiculously WLR dropped on Christmas Day 2020. It wasn’t the only mad thing about it; from the artwork to the Bach organ riff, it was clear Carti was here to make an impact. Personally it meant I could finally discount him no longer; and found myself hooked on his punk-like approach to hip hop all year.

49. Arab Strap — As Days Get Dark

Scotland’s best band ever finally reunited after 15 years apart to deliver another diamond in their discography. While there were tales here of fatherhood, age clearly hadn’t cleaned up Moffat & Middelton’s fixation with the sleaze and misadventure of the night. As with their best work; it was equal parts depressing, hilarious, filthy and nihilistic; who else can promise you that? Also: artwork of the year.

48. Kenny Mason — Angelic Hoodrat: Supercut

By 2021 lots of young rappers had mined the sounds of 00’s metal and emo and incorporated them into their music, to mixed results. However some, such as Atlanta’s Kenny Mason completely nailed it. You only have to listen to ‘Play Ball’ or his unreal Cave Freestyle to hear how he kills it. But most importantly his many flows are impeccable; promising a long, bright career ahead.

47. Squid — Bright Green Field

Along with BC, NR and black midi, Squid were responsible for getting me excited about weirdo British indie music again in 2021. Their debut, released on the legendary Warp label captured everything great about the movement; disorientating, intelligent and completely untethered to commercial pursuit. The repeated “I play my part” from ‘Narrator’ bounced round my skull all year.

46. Throwing Snow — Dragons

Throwing Snow continues on his trajectory of being one of the most under-celebrated British producers working today. The album title was a simple but effective descriptor: Dragons is gargantuan in sound, dark and threatening but majestic too. Songs like ‘Brujita’ pulsate with cinematic menace that yawns above you like a mountain. For fans of Jon Hopkins, Moderat and the like: this is essential.

45. Tigercub — As Blue As Indigo

I joke that each year gives me 1 new ‘rock band’ that I accept into my rotation and whose album I get super into. In 2021 it was the dizzying sophomore from hometown heroes Tigercub. Absolutely packed from start to finish with the kinds of riffs you can’t figure out why no-one has written before, it sweeps you up from the first song and doesn’t let you loose from its jaws til the very end.

44. Silk Sonic — An Evening with Silk Sonic

An eternal roll-out threatened to derail this project for me. 1 single was all we had for about 8 months and personally; by the time the album surfaced I felt it had to be pretty stupendous to make me revisit a song played to oblivion. Stunningly: it absolutely was. What could have been a fun 60s/70s cosplay between pals had produced a note-perfect homage to sexier times. This! Bitch!

43. Low — HEY WHAT

I was quite slow to Low’s groundbreaking previous album in 2018 but this time round I was ready. HEY WHAT I think is best summarised as unholy noise. The distortion and twisted static is tempered by the husband and wife duo’s strikingly clean vocals. It sort of sounds like someone playing you out at the end of the world; in the most electrifying way possible. What can’t they do?

42. Jazmine Sullivan — Heaux Tales

The first amazing album of the year, just 1 week into 2021 Jazmine Sullivan staked her claim for R’n’B royalty. With a powerful, almost androgynous voice she sang tales of independence, passion and sexuality with an irresistible fire. The songs were interspersed with accounts from female friends about their struggles with love; making the record feel bigger and more important.

41. Boldy James & The Alchemist — Bo Jackson

Who’d have thought after last year’s exceptional Price Of Tea.. that these two would so quickly be able to capture lightning in a bottle again? Once more The Alchemist furthers his renaissance period and demonstrates that — while he can produce for anyone and kill it — it’s Boldy’s voice that perfectly rides his eerie, sample heavy moods. Every line is crucial, every beat hits perfectly.

40. Cleo Sol — Mother

The lead singer for elusive group Sault, Sol’s solo record was all the more gripping for its openness. Mother sees her explore the dizzying joy and gentle majesty of having a newborn child better than any I’ve heard attempt it in the past. The backing vocals and harmonies throughout really elevate the songs from hushed lullabies into sacred dedications. A beautiful glimpse into bliss.

39. Mach-Hommy — Pray for Haiti & Balens Cho

When the mysterious Haitian reunited with Griselda for PFH back in May it was a thrill to hear him revitalised alongside those old friends again. But this month he returned to show us he wasn’t slowing down with the even better Balens Cho. Truly a one-off; Mach is a rapper for people who like jazz music and long documentaries — sometimes dense but so, so rewarding when understood.

38. Nas — King’s Disease II

After last year’s very good return to form; a second full team-up with Hit-Boy threatened to be largely offcuts that didn’t make the first. Stunningly; the opposite was true, and KDII was even better (and not just because Lauryn Hill was here.) This time round it’s like Hit-Boy understands even better how to work with Nas’ flow; so whether the song is propulsive or reflective, the MC fits perfectly.

37. IDLES — Crawler

Ultra Mono was ‘jumping the shark’ personified in album form. Thrillingly though, Crawler corrects everything that was wrong with it. It’s adventurous, experimental but most interestingly it’s subtle. Joe Talabot ditches sloganeering for unflinching analysis of his addiction and the mistakes it led him to make. They sounded like a new band; one suddenly impossible to predict again.

36. James Blake — Friends That Break Your Heart

Blake’s last album marked a change, inviting in producers and guest vocalists to create a more inviting sound. His latest continued on this trajectory but this time the melancholy of his earlier work returned somewhat. You only have to listen to the title track or ‘Life Is Not The Same’ (my most played song of the year, Spotify has just told me) to hear that singular sadness that none can match.

35. slowthai — Tyron

After that awards show debacle at the start of 2020, it was unclear where Slowthai would end up. The answer, it seemed was the US as he teamed up with producer Kenny Beats, A$AP Rocky & more for his sophomore. But it could also be said he went inward — while the album’s first side revisits the bile of Nothing Great, Side B shows a gentler introspection which hinted at a deep well of emotion.

34. Sons of Kemet — Black to the Future

The only 2021 record I owned on vinyl (my turntable broke) Black To The Future was a must-have jazz album. Off the back of their Mercury nod, Shabaka Hutchings and his band returned this time adding guests vocalists to their mix. Moor Mother, Kojey Radical and D Double E were all inspired invitees, but Joshua Idehen shone brightest with righteous rage at hate-filled Britain.

33. Wiki — Half God

I’d really admired Wiki’s last 2 solo albums, but the prospect of a whole LP produced by Navy Blue really piqued my interest. Their collaboration brought about what I think is quite inarguably Wiki’s strongest project to date; acting as the ultimate guide to NYC from the special perspective of one of its most brilliant Nuyoricans. With each release Wiki gets more treasured and harder to imitate.

32. Left at London — t.i.a.p.f.y.h.

One of the most interesting and ambitious albums of the year; Left At London is a musician, poet, comedian and trans-woman from Seattle. She went viral in 2016 on Vine but is an artist full time now. Her voice has a really beautiful quality to it and every song is surprising and different from the last. The sound of a true talent unfurling her wings and passionately marking her ground.

31. IDK — USEE4YOURSELF

Ever since 2017’s IWASVERYBAD I knew IDK had something special. This was a continuation of the personal themes from his last album, but delved even deeper into the traumatic details of his relationship with his late mother. Co-produced entirely by the man himself, it was like therapy over amazing beats. Also includes the first of 2 DMX samples this year to bring tears to my eyes (see also: Donda)

30. Self Esteem — Prioritise Pleasure

When I first heard ‘I Do This All The Time’ back in April, it felt like a moment. Her thick Sheffield accent poeticising the struggles of being a woman in 2021 was so powerful. The rest of the album doesn’t let up; from the spoken accounts of how friends are forced to stay safe out at night on the intro, through the post-Yeezus soundscapes and gospel flourishes; it’s a special album.

29. Topaz Jones — Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma

The perfect sunny day album, DGTYM was my first intro to the fantastic talent of Topaz Jones. Blending funky upbeat rap with lush instrumentation; fans of Anderson Paak and Smino will find much to love here. The chorus of voices singing together on ‘Black Tame’ encompasses the pure joy that inhabits every song on the album. Fittingly, Phonte shows up on ‘Who?’ and it sounds like a torch-passing.

28. JPEGMAFIA — LP!

Only Peggy would be denied sample clearances only to release the ‘official’ album with them included for free on Bandcamp. LP! was another gem in his twisted crown; pushing everything further. More experimental, but more melodic. It was angrier, but funnier too. And most importantly it was harder to pigeon-hole than ever, but will likely win him even more fans, deservedly so.

27. Conway The Machine — La Maquina

This year, Conway finally cemented himself as my favourite Griselda member hands down. Last year’s FKTAG saw him peak in his current sound but La Maquina was a stunning display of branching out for the MC; dallying with more modern production sounds to thrillingly menacing effect. And getting Ludacris and JID on a track together? Masterstroke.

26. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra — Promises

Following 2019’s pummeling Crush I could never have predicated Floating Points would follow with a what is essentially a contemporary classical album. Anchored around one short chord sequence played on a harpsicord, Sanders and the LSO create a spiritually cosmic atmosphere with saxophone and strings. Truly a one-off and one that continues to reveal itself.

25. serpentwithfeet — Deacon

The very existence of an album like this in 2021 felt like a triumph amidst the darkness all around us. Coming in at under half an hour long, it was all too fleeting but so sweet while it lasted. A majestic celebration of black, gay love at its most honest and intimate — it felt like being invited into the most private and delicate setting between lovers. serpentwithfeet is in love and wants you to know. There was room for platonic love too, on single ‘Fellowship’ whose chorus “I’m thankful for the love I share with my friends” felt so poignant now more than ever. The whole album feels like a heady summer evening; drunk on the whimsical minutiae of being in love and being free.

24. Genesis Owusu — Smiling With No Teeth

Sometimes an artist comes out with a debut album so fully-formed in sound and character that you have to check twice that they’re not already megastars. Australia’s Genesis Owusu totally pulled that off in March this year, with a record bursting at the seams with personality and musicianship. Pulling from artists as diverse as Kendrick to Death Grips, Prince to George Clinton, it’s a thrilling melting pot of sound and ideas. It could all fall off the rails if it wasn’t for Owusu’s cool songwriting which covers themes of depression and ostracisation with lightness of touch and inimitable swagger. After Smiling there’ll be plenty of people watching where he goes next, me included.

23. Mick Jenkins — Elephant In The Room

Mick Jenkins’ 2014 mixtape The Water[s] remains in my top 10 rap projects of that decade; which — for me and many others — gave his subsequent output a very tough act to follow. There are moments of perfection in all his albums but on this year’s EITR it felt like he finally brought it all together with a statement as good as his very best. The beats are consistently masterful, the flows solid and the lyrics are socially conscious without losing their cool for a moment. It’s everything that a modern hip hop album should be. No doubt he’ll remain the best rapper you’ve never heard of, but for those in the know we feel very lucky to have Mick. I hope he keeps doing his thing for a very long time.

22. J. Cole — The Off-Season

The return of Jermaine Cole in 2021 was heralded with an incendiary radio freestyle which saw the rapper hungrier than kids half his age on the come-up. The album that followed was a flawless demonstration of why he has a place on hip hop’s Mount Rushmore. The beats were impeccable, the flows were numerous and dizzying; hell he was even back with guests on a solo album for the first time since 2013. In some ways the album almost suffered for being quite so good — there were no questionable choices that got people arguing but just 40 minutes of Cole flowing effortlessly through braggadocio to family matters, riches to roots without a single misstep to be found.

21. BADBADNOTGOOD — Talk Memory

We’re in the middle of an incredible boom in fantastic modern-jazz music. The UK has it great with the likes of Sons Of Kemet, Yussef Days and Ezra Collective, but the US has BADBADNOTGOOD. I’ve followed their music for years, particularly enjoying their hip-hop work But on Talk Memory they finally fully embrace capital-J Jazz and have crafted a near perfect rumination on everything that makes the genre a thrill, even over a hundred years later. Karriem Riggins and Terrace Martin both pop up just to add serious heft to the album’s credentials — but they don’t need the help; warm but wild, familiar but free, BBNG have ascended to a height that few can reach.

20. Ghetts — Conflict of Interest

Not since Stormzy’s debut has a UK rap album felt this blockbuster; this widescreen. Conflict Of Interest shares more with Big Mike than just feature space — they both blend hard-nosed street stories with personal introspection and manage to show both aggression and vulnerability equally. The album is a who’s-who of the current scene, with Skepta, Dave, Jaykae, Pa Salieu and Giggs all showing up — but there’s space for Emile Sande and Ed Sheeran too (who knew he’d appear anywhere on this list..) Ghetts is forever the star of the show though, his inimitable flow cutting through every kind of beat. It’s the sound of a man who’s put in the time, and earned the throne.

19. Dave — We’re All Alone in This Together

It must have been hard to follow Psychodrama’s Mercury Prize and Brit Awards win, but after a 2 year break he returned with an album just as vital as his debut. It’s not hyperbole to call Dave the most important voice of young London — he is still spitting righteous venom for a country that doesn’t care about people who look like him. This is best demonstrated on James Blake-produced ‘Three Rivers’ which charts 3 generations of immigration in Britain. But it’s the personal stories that cut deepest — the sound of Dave’s mother sobbing inconsolably at the end of 10-minute epic ‘Heart Attack’ makes me break down every time I hear it; the pain of her hardships without end.

18. Baby Keem — The Melodic Blue

Keem’s last album DIE FOR MY BITCH was my most listened to album last year — there was something about it that I couldn’t stop playing. There’s a sweet spot he inhibits between new-school attitude and a dedication to real artistry, and on this project he continues to develop both. Sonically the album moves at breakneck speed; beat-switching multiple times each song like an attention deficit. But listen closer and you can hear brand new ideas spilling out of every moment. Keem brings big cousin Kendrick Lamar and spiritual predecessor Travis Scott along for the ride, but more surprisingly Rosalia and serpentwithfeet are present too. It sounds jarring, but the future often is.

17. Villagers — Fever Dreams

I lost track of Villagers AKA Conor O’Brien after his very good 2010 debut; largely because it came at the end of my major fascination with the new movement of UK folk music. It’s been so long in fact that he’s gone grey since I last listened to him. I’m not sure how I ended up throwing his new album on but I’m so glad that I did. A lazy comparison would be to The Beatles, but Fever Dreams does have that same sense of mystical and enchanting allure that makes the title feel very apt. If you’d told me at the start of 2021 that a Villagers album would rocket into my Top 20 I’d never have believed you, but I’ve come to really treasure this one. A real album’s album.

16. Ka — A Martyr’s Reward

What’s immediately interesting about Ka’ latest record is that that he moved away from the conceptual writing that saw him assign an allegorical theme to every album since his 2013 sophomore. Long time fans of the rapper will recognise that the man doesn’t need a central motif to tie his poetry together; his pen is as silencing as its ever been. This time, the 49 year old is reckoning with his place in society. The word ‘monastic’ gets thrown at Ka by writers a lot, but A Martyr’s Reward throws it right back in their face with direct missives on cultural commodification, social responsibility and the desperation of poverty. As the album’s title suggest; he knows that there is a greater reward than universal recognition, and he strives for it.

15. Little Simz — Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

SIMBI is quite simply the sound of an artist reaching the peak of her powers. Heralded by the godly single ‘Introvert’ it’s obvious from the get-go that something important is unfolding. The full band on each song gives a huge sound to the album. Lyrically she pulls off that awe-inspiring spectacle of straddling both inter-generational racial hurt as well as intimately personal matters. Simz tackles gang violence and corrupt governments one moment, then address her absent father and fractured relationship with her sister the next. It’s tempting to call her the female/UK Kendrick Lamar in that way, but she really is her own artist and this shows that the sky is now the limit.

14. Injury Reserve — By the Time I Get to Phoenix

When news came last summer that Stepa J. Groggs, 1/3 of my favourite rap group had passed away I was devastated. He was a crucial voice in one of the most innovative and experimental forces in hip hop who were only getting greater with time. The surviving members finished their final project without him and “stayed true to his constant insistence while recording to simply make some weird shit.” The result is an experience. It’s one of the most sonically challenging records of the year — completely breaking free from genre and convention. But there is raw human emotion tying together the avant-garde and it cuts deep. “Shit, I can’t even grow no more” RIP Groggs.

13. Spellling — The Turning Wheel

Not since I first fell for Joanna Newsom or heard Kate Bush for the first time have I enjoyed being inside the world an artist conjures as much as this one. I heard early single ‘Boys At School’ somewhere by chance and made a note of the name and release date for her album because I had a feeling it could be special, but listening through to the whole thing totally bowled me over. There are so many gorgeous twists and turns; like how ‘Revolution’ suddenly turns on its heel halfway through and goes from lilting chamber pop into skiffling drums, blaring horns and urgent piano. It’s an album brimming with these moments of wonder and delight and there was nothing else like it.

12. Black Country, New Road — For the First Time

This year BC,NR completely rekindled my love for new guitar bands. There’s 7 of them, including a saxophonist and a violinist, they’re young, daring and crucially, they’re pretty odd. Musically they sound like Arcade Fire having a breakdown, or if Slint grew up frustrated in rural Cambridge. There is a frantic madness to the album and frontman Isaac Wood acts as the ringleader of the unholy collapse. He has a deranged quality about him reminiscent of Mark E Smith or David Byrne and his confessional lyrics on ‘Sunglasses’ are what first hooked me. I’m on the edge of my seat for its full 10 minutes, and when he squawks “I am more than adequate!” you really hear him crack.

11. Lingua Ignota — Sinner Get Ready

Some art elicits admiration more than enjoyment and Lingua Ignota’s music is an extreme example of that sensation. Sinner Get Ready could be categorised as ‘death folk’ — the artist utilised rural instruments native to the Appalachian region where she lived while recording the album. Her impressive classical vocals unfurl in layers against mandolins, harpsichord, banjo as she dresses herself in the traumatising cloak of fanatical religious traditionalism. The result is unlike anything I’ve ever heard; something like awakening to find you’ve been abducted by a cult. Listening front to back really is an experience; one that you need time to recover from before venturing into again.

10. Backxwash — I Lie Here Buried With My Rings And My Dresses

I was introduced to Backxwash — transgender rapper from Zambia via Canada — through last year’s Polaris prize-winning album God Has Nothing to Do With This.. and was not quick to forget her. Its follow-up is every bit as pummelling and even more terrifying. From the opening spoken sample “The purpose of pain is to get our attention that something is wrong…it’s in this sense that a little bit of pain is a good thing” you know that what’s to come will not be a breezy listen. The album’s lyrics centre around addiction, depression and the horrors of being in more than one of society’s most oppressed and ostracised groups. When she wails “on the verge of losing my soul” you can hear that she means it. The fact clipping. contributed production to one of the songs should give you an idea of the traumatic soundscapes on show here; but it’s hard to say whether the instrumentals or the lyrics are more gripping. Backxwash’s experience is horrifying, but we owe it to her to bear witness to her truth without cowering away.

9. Dijon — Absolutely

Dijon’s sound is hard to classify. The singles and EPs that preceded his debut album could all have been from different artists if it wasn’t for one unifying factor — his voice. Somewhere between the soulful allure of Frank Ocean and the pop-leaning melodies of Ryan Beatty, it instantly pulls you in. Sonically Absolutely reminds me of Bon Iver’s 22, A Million in that it is vaguely anchored in folk sensibilities in there somewhere, but every song does something new, inventive and magical with the format. You only have to glimpse some of the session videos he’s been posting for each track to see the artistry and sheer musicianship that has gone into this record. Every song is a marvel, but the first time I heard ‘Rodeo Clown’ I teared up completely by surprise. The yearning and desperation in his cracking voice went through me like a hot knife. There’s something special about the way Dijon writes; that even when you sense he’s writing in character — the overwhelming passion in his delivery makes the stories universally relatable. A real late-entry surprise.

8. Tyler, the Creator — Call Me If You Get Lost

The last 5 years have been an explosion of creative evolution for Tyler, the Creator. Cherry Bomb saw him take a left-turn into lo-fi experimentation, Flower Boy had him open up about his bisexuality and Igor took him away from rapping altogether. In many ways, the next surprising thing he could do in 2021 was release a relatively straight-forward ‘hip hop’ album — so of course, that’s what he did. CMIYGL immediately makes a place for itself among rap heritage by having it hosted by legendary DJ Drama, whose Gangsta Grillz mixtapes have helped secure the legacies of Jeezy, Lil Wayne, Meek Mill and many more. When lead single ‘LUMBERJACK’ sampled Gravediggaz you knew he was back meaning business; and there are plenty of other songs here with knocking beats and bars on top of bars. But there are gorgeous instrumentals and singing too. The guest features all bring their A-game with unexpected stars turns from the like of Youngboy NBA, 42 Dugg and Teezo Touchdown ensuring things never get boring for a second.

7. Gazelle Twin & NYX — Deep England

In 2018 I watched Alex Garland’s exceptional film Annihilation and it really stuck with me; partly because of the singularly haunting score by Ben Salisbury & Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. In 2019 I got the same uneasy and hypnotic feeling from Holly Herndon’s Proto album and this year it reached me once again with electronic drone choir NYX’s reconstructions of Gazelle Twin’s 2018 Pastoral album which challenged the notion of British jingoism against the backdrop of rising fascism. NYX takes the source material and, using an orchestra of gasps, sighs, wails and screams, gives the project a truly terrifying new mutation. The result is like getting lost in the countryside; the trees and branches coming to life to strangle you — it’s completely immersive to the point of suffocation. Having moved to a self-described ‘medieval market town’ at the start of this year; I felt like I had the perfect backdrop against which to really experience the record and it made a huge impact on me. Try it if you dare: you’ll never want to leave the city again.

6. Mustafa — When Smoke Rises

Sometimes an album doesn’t need to be doing anything showy or loud to complete capture your attention. Mustafa knows this, and the 8 songs on his short debut album are like hushed hymnals; ushering loved ones through safe passage to the next life. The 25 year old poet-turned-singer hails from downtown Toronto’s infamous Regent Park neighbourhood. Born to Sudanese parents he grew up as part of local hip hop collective Halal Gang, but in 2018 one of its members Smoke Dawg was shot and killed outside a nightclub. His loss casts a long shadow over the album (not least on the title and cover) and it’s clear that Mustafa is heavily impacted by the premature deaths of several friends and relatives through violence. His voice works like a balm attempting to bring peace both to the dead and the living left behind. ‘Stay Alive’ acts as a plea to the latter, while ‘Ali’ and ‘What About Heaven’ both deal directly with the process of grief. It’s telling that both James Blake and Sampha worked on the record as this feels like the passing of the mantle to someone special.

5. Koreless — Agor

When you’ve waited a full decade for an artist’s debut album to come out, and it’s somehow still shockingly good — you know that you’re dealing with something special. Koreless first blew my 20 year old mind with a double-A side on small electronic label Pictures Music in the midst of the ‘Post-dubstep’ boom. Between then and this year he had about 3 official releases, but the slow drip of YouTube rips from DJ sets hinted that his best work was still yet to come. This reached fever pitch for me with the appearance of ‘Joy Squad’ in various mixes, which I played to death and yet still blows my mind to hear in its rightful place on this brilliant album. Like the album’s cover, the music on Agor (Welsh for Open) captures the fascinating intersection between organic and synthetic; natural and unnatural. The sound palettes throughout are unmistakably electronic; man-made. But the breathy vocals samples carefully woven through the music give the technology a living, feeling sentience that makes the album totally hypnotic. I only wish there was more of it.

4. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis — Carnage

In 2019 I named Nick Cave’s Ghosteen my Album Of The Year. After Skeleton Tree was tainted by the tragic loss of Cave’s son, Ghosteen faced it head on; with poise, intimacy and devotion. For this year’s Carnage, Cave shed all The Bad Seeds but his closest; multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis. But this was a red herring for those expecting a more intimate approach — in fact his latest is more expansive, animated and big-sounding than anything he’s produced for years. For this album, the focus is once again on the wider world; with lockdowns and protests each anchoring the music in the here and now. The album’s centre-point and longest song ‘White Elephant’ is absolutely incendiary — about as far away from the ethereal haze of Ghosteen as you could get. But Cave is still deeply introspective too, as well as romantic. The couplet “There’s a madness in her and a madness in me / And together it forms a kind of sanity” is probably the most beautiful lyric I’ve heard all year. On Carnage the artist sounds ready to look ahead again, and upwards to the sky.

3. Fred Again.. — Actual Life (Apr 14 — Dec 17 2020) & Actual Life 2 (Feb 22 — Oct 15 2021)

Much like The Range’s Potential or Burial’s discography before that, Fred Again.. is part of a lineage of producers who can hear something in ordinary snippets of conversation, or a hummed, half-sung melody and transform it into a transcendent and stunning piece of music. Fred has previously worked with everyone from Ed Sheeran to Stormzy but many of the most touching moments on his 2 solo albums released this year come from spoken word artists the producer found on Instagram, or simply a friend singing a lullaby to her newborn baby. There’s a vulnerability and a deep empathy that runs through the record which felt so rare this year. ‘I Am A Party’ captures mania and anxiety with striking accuracy, while ‘Deep Diving’ is the sound of gently falling in love. Of course, ‘We’ve Lost Dancing’ was the big hit and is a highlight. No other song this year really broke through the hopelessness like this one did; it offered what we needed most in the cold lockdown of February 2021, complete abandon and sweet human connection.

2. Kanye West — Donda

As with much of Kanye’s post-Yeezus work; there is a lot wrong with Donda. A bonus track features Marilyn Manson; accused of assault, abuse and worse. The album is over an hour and three-quarters long, with weird sequencing and songs that don’t fit. And on top of it all, what started as a tribute to his late mother ended up as a dumb sales-war with Drake. So why can’t I stop listening to it, even after the dust has settled? I quit being a Kanye apologist around 2018, so it can’t be blind devotion. All I can say is that this album, warts and all, came to me right when I needed it most, and many of the songs here have buoyed me, comforted me and in some ways rescued me. The child in me who was raised in church is lifted by the beautiful gospel throughout (something only fleetingly achieved on his last album) The rap fan in me is thrilled with Kanye’s best songwriting and most restless sonic experimentation in years. And the father and husband in me is moved by his honesty and his struggle. What can I say. He’s still a genius, even now.

1. For Those I Love — For Those I Love

It’s not often these days that I feel moved enough (or make the time) to write an honest-to-god album review, but that’s what this record did to me back in May. For anyone whose best friends have been the most permanent, unmoving support in their lives, this is a deeply moving album; one that stops you in your tracks and shakes you to the core. With a stunning deftness of hand it forces the listener to reckon with brotherhood, grief and self-destruction in ways that I can’t recall any other album ever having done. But more amazingly, it often does it in a way that you can dance to. From the same catharsis-by-euphoria playbook that producers such as Jamie xx and Caribou draw from, FTIL has crafted something both weighty and weightless in equal measure. It feels like the kind of statement an artist can only make once and if that is the case, I’m so glad that he did. I implore anyone who listens to music in order to feel something to block out 46 minutes and sit and live with this absolutely singular collection of songs. But before you do, check in on your mates and tell them how you love them.

Read my full review here:

BONUS ROUND: Top 15 EPs Of The Year

The Alchemist — This Thing Of Ours 1&2
Benny The Butcher — The Plugs I Met 2
Big Sean & Hit-Boy — What You Expect
Bob Vylan — We Live Here
Burial & Blackdown — Shock Power Of Love
Clams Casino — Winter Flower
Clarence Clarity — Vanishing Act I: No Nouns
Deb Never — Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
Drake — Scary Hours 2
Gabriels — Love And Hate In A Different Time
JAHMED — Armani
Kaytranada — Intimidated
Tierra Whack — Rap? / Pop? / R&B ?
Tkay Maidza — Last Year Was Weird Vol. 3
Vegyn — Like A Good Old Friend

Thanks for reading — have a very happy end to the year and a great start to the next x

--

--

Cal W. Stannard

I write short stories, lyrics without songs, talk about music and mental health and share photography. “I speak that ugly elegant”