The Best Albums of 2021

On December 13, 2021

Below, you'll find an unranked list of 50 glorious albums that we felt were among the best to come out in 2021.

Selected and written by members of the VMP team, we feel deeply lucky to have titles from this collection accompany each of us on our ever-winding journeys through 2021. We hope these albums (and our thoughts on them) resonate with you, and that you might even find a few new selections to round out your listening queue and become as dear to you as they have to us. 

 

Arooj Aftab
Vulture Prince
On Vulture Prince, Pakistani vocalist, composer and producer Arooj Aftab is an expert at taking centuries-old forms of expression and evolving them to suit the present moment, creating something that’s never existed before but that’s inextricably bound to the past. She grew up listening to Urdu ghazals, a South Asian form of music and poetry that meditates on pain, longing, loss and separation and their complex relationship with love and beauty. In 2018, when she was partially through the process of making her third album — a record she’d originally intended to be more energetic and dance-oriented than her past work — her brother and close friend passed away.

She trimmed and shifted her existing material, and in the midst of her grief, turned back to the ghazal. She cut back on nearly all of the drums, and in their place, stringed instruments reign: acoustic guitar, stand-up bass, violin and harp, the record’s sonic centerpiece next to Aftab’s force of a voice. The result isn’t just the sound of pure grief, as one might initially expect, but an expansive and almost aching beauty where death and life, pain and joy, are in eternal and inseparable conversation with one another. This range of beauty that exists on Vulture Prince may feel like a bittersweet friend to the many of us who’ve wrestled with the depths of grief and made it out on the other side. I, for one, find it a near miracle on each and every listen that she was able to encapsulate it. — Amileah Sutliff


Dean Blunt
BLACK METAL 2
On his sequel to 2014’s Black Metal, British songwriter and general man of mystery Dean Blunt stays true to his esoteric, avant-garde brand of soundscaping while managing to make his poppiest, most accessible record to date.

BLACK METAL 2 finds Blunt untangling. He invites us into his world for 23 minutes to ride the steady wave of slacker drums while slinky guitars, detached vocals and ethereal choruses swirl around. Let’s be clear: It’s not an aimless ride — Blunt is as calculated and sharp as ever, guiding the listener through the anxiety and triumphs of existence. The apex of this push and pull arrives on “ZaZa,” as Blunt seamlessly glides from tight pop into serene nostalgia, setting the tone for the euphoric afterglow of “the rot.” Blunt proves on his 12th solo release that he has no intention of slowing down; he is running a marathon, and BLACK METAL 2 is just the first taste of runner’s high. — CB


Boston Bun
There’s A Nightclub Inside My Head
In my humble opinion, music is one of the strongest connections we have to our memories. One album can represent an entire personal era. One second into a song and we’re swept away into the scene where we first heard it or a precious moment soundtracked by it. There’s a Nightclub Inside My Head was released by Boston Bun at a delicate, pivotal time in most peoples’ lives, when the world was recovering from the onslaught of dismal episodes left by the 2020 pandemic. This album represents the lantern of hope that came afterward — the hope that normalcy would be around the corner. — Jillian Nguyen
boylife
gelato
VMP’s most recent Rising artist, boylife, spent the past four to five years working on this debut album. “Gelato is delicious,” he shared in an interview with VMP, “You have to eat it before it's fully melted, while it holds its shape. For some reason, that became the ultimate metaphor for each of these things that I've been living.” gelato is a self-portrait from the different chapters of his life painted with deep honesty. Each song forms a narrative that’s told through the knitting of noteworthy writing and production quality. And part of what tugs at you the most is that, while they capture snapshots of the artist’s life, the songs are adaptable to you as a listener, too. — JN


Bo Burnham
Inside (The Songs)
The brief six-week post-vax optimism I felt about the pandemic — I could see my friends again! — gave way to the realization that this was never going to end as too many of my fellow Americans decided to put their fear of a shot before the safety of those around them, and I began to question what I was doing spending every day in a never-ending doom scroll, attached to my phone. I could bounce between vaccine nihilism (We’re all gonna die!), climate cynicism (We’re all gonna die, no matter how many reusable bags I have!), various flavors of shitposting (Maybe we all deserve to die!). I searched myself on forums and checked my mentions, deep down hoping that someone would say something negative about me, so I could turn the negative feelings I was having inward on my favorite target, myself (Maybe I deserve to die!).

Which is to say, I was primed for Bo Burnham’s masterpiece Netflix special, which tackles one man’s cynicism, worry over the internet, certainty everything he’s doing is meaningless and the general empty feeling you have when faced with the world’s problems and your only outlet is putting your feelings into a world where they’re turned into social media content. It helps that the songs are among the most catchy of the year — it was impossible to log on to TikTok for much of 2021 without some snippet of Inside playing — and that Bo doesn’t seem to have anything any more figured out than any of us. This isn’t a “this is how to fix it” it’s a “this is specifically how this is broken, and I wish I knew how to fix it,” which felt like the exact right message for me this year at the exact right time. I quit Twitter, blocked Reddit and tried to be less cynical. All thanks to an album with a song called “White Woman’s Instagram.” I need to live my truth. — Andrew Winistorfer 


Camp Trash
Downtiming EP
The thing I missed most in 2021 was not eating in restaurants, or going to movie theaters, or ducking out of a concert in the middle of a six-band bill, or being able to go to the grocery store without worrying some rich white woman in suburban Minnesota was going to accost me for wearing a mask “like a whiny lib.” I missed being able to be with my friends, sitting at a table in a bar, arguing about whether America’s best band is actually Thin Lizzy (who are Irish). I missed being half-drunk and picking up one of those rocks that property owners put on the corner of parking lots to prevent people from driving on the lawn, and moving it to the middle of a yard. I missed diving into bushes and screaming “You gotta want it!” like Walter Payton going for a touchdown and laughing my ass off with the guys who knew me when I was 19 and had more hair.

The album that put me the most in touch, at least spiritually, with my friends was Camp Trash’s debut EP, which feels like a night spent arguing in bars, wistfully remembering younger days and trying to get to where you belong in life. “Weird Carolina” is an ode to that friend who never leaves your hometown, the one you see every holiday season and pick up with like you were never apart, and “Bobby” is that friend’s theme song. Camp Trash’s debut LP — surely coming soon — is the only album in 2022 I’m looking forward to. — AW 


CHAI
WINK
This year, I found myself intentionally, and often a bit desperately, grasping at moments of levity. WINK is a reminder that they’re often not that far away, and don’t need to be complex to move the needle. After two brilliantly frenzied albums, the Japanese quartet’s Sub Pop debut serves us something a little more laid back, but certainly no less charming. In CHAI’s world, that mole you once hated becomes a celebrated chocolate chip. You’re a fun person simply because you say you’re fun. A bit of orange juice can be enough to rebound from life’s mistakes and create positive change. Every corner of the world offers a chance at unexpected wonder, and as they assure us in “ACTION,” everything is going to be OK. And how about donuts, huh? Surely, they’re something that’s worthy of a love song. — AS

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Isaiah Collier & The Chosen Few
Cosmic Transitions
Recorded in the famed Van Gelder Studio, Cosmic Transitions was inspired by John Coltrane’s 1965 opus, A Love Supreme, which was also compiled in the space. But where Coltrane saw his album as an offering to God, Collier’s work was about the human connection to outer space. “It is through Mercury [that] we think, speak, commute, and travel,” he wrote in the liner notes. “When this planet enters ‘retrograde,’ it shifts everything in the polar opposite direction.” Through a mix of hushed arrangements (on parts I and III) and frenetic free jazz (part V), Cosmic Transitions masterfully conveyed the lessons Collier learned from retrograde: forgiveness, humility, understanding and truth. It scores spiritual clarity, a reverence of the past as a guide to the future. — MJM


Erika de Casier
Sensational
If your brain, like mine, was gleefully and willfully inundated with late-’90s and early-aughts pop and R&B long before it could even think about developing a frontal cortex, you’re probably used to a certain… drama. Erika de Casier, however, brings a lighter touch and a mature sensibility to her future-facing nods to the genre, blowing UK garage, techno and breakbeat like fairy dust all over. As she leans into styles and borrows from eras known for excess and embellishments, de Casier is surprisingly minimal and restrained in her compositional and vocal approach. Her words come out in a sigh and sit at the tip of her tongue and lips (she originally learned how to sing in a whisper, as she didn’t want to disrupt her roommates) — smooth, rhythmic, sensual and, at times, vaguely threatening. Whether she’s calling a date out for being an asshole to the waiter (“Polite”) or roasting a partner for their vapid obsession with designer duds, she always bears a sharp wit and assured cool that makes you want to knock a few drinks back with her and lament about the ghosts of bogus lovers past. — AS


Indigo De Souza
Any Shape You Take
For any age, and especially for 24, Indigo De Souza’s got quite the grasp. Not necessarily on honoring her intended bedtime or sustaining a healthy breakup — as you’ll learn from listening to Any Shape You Take — but certainly on understanding her emotions and channeling them into damn good songs. On the record, she routinely showcases her moving lower vocal range in addition to her signature nonchalant slides into falsetto (peppering in some all-out pained screaming sampled from her fans and people in her life on “Real Pain”), dropping quippy, but impactful one-liners, one after the next (“No one asked me to feel this fucked up, but here I am! Fucked up”; “I’d rather die than see you cry”). There is clearly a bit of melodrama that ranges from earnest to jocular — she’s 24 for god’s sake! — but it isn’t in service of self-indulgence. At Any Shape You Take’s core is an open-heartedness and the sense that De Souza would rather pull you in to feel something, rather than put on a show for the sake of it. — AS


Dijon
Absolutely
The LA-based artist and producer Dijon Duenas, previously half of the duo Abhi//Dijon, made his solo debut this year with Absolutely. Often plaintive and always evocative, Dijon’s voice navigates a dynamic range of mood and emotion in the 12-track record that’s compacted into just over a half hour runtime. Absolutely winds unpredictably from the explosive energy of the single “Many Times” to the saxophone-smoothed meanderings of “Annie,” from the wrenching “Rodeo Clown” — containing Dijon’s vocals pushed to the literal breaking point — to the structureless “End of Record.” Asked about his views on genre, Dijon (who frequently creates in a meld of pop, R&B and something else entirely) told NME: “‘Many Times’ doesn’t sound like anything else right now, which of course is by design. If you introduce something a little different that can still be received on a global scale, just imagine what music other people will make.” That sentiment can be applied to the record as a whole; Absolutely has the kind of originality that’s set to inspire a world of new sounds. — Theda Berry


Vincent Neil Emerson
Vincent Neil Emerson
Like his labelmate Colter Wall, Vincent Neil Emerson makes stripped-down country music that places a premium on songwriting that sounds both passed down from generations and innately of the performer himself. Emerson’s sophomore album carries the banner for Texas country singer-songwriters, delivering songs from his unique perspective as a descendent of the Choctaw-Apache Tribe pushed off Louisiana lands by white settlers (“The Ballad of the Choctaw-Apache”), of a son of regular folks just fighting day to day (“High on Gettin’ By”) of a survivor of familial suicide (“Learnin’ to Drown”), all quietly eviscerating in their own way. Emerson’s beautiful, weathered voice is unadorned as he spools his tales, a beautiful accompaniment to the complicated, earned songs he sings. One of the year’s most peerless records. — AW


 

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony
Promises
Seven notes. They present themselves as a sort of cairn: carefully balanced atop one another with evident, ancient devotion to suggest that they’d always been, will always be, just so. And so the motif plays out like a megalith through Promises’ nine movements, not so much as an anchor but as a center, a totem at once heaven and earthbound, around which the cosmos spins in eternity. Even in the piece’s pin-drop passages, the deepening exhalations around those seven notes create a profound negative space in which Floating Points’ Sam Shepherd, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra spin stardust into stars and back again. Promises is many things — maybe everything — but it is most undeniable as the realization of its creators’ master plan. — Stephen Anderson
Green-House
Music for Living Spaces
My residence changed twice this year. The first move, from a home I’d known for five years, had been long-planned, the second hastily arranged when those plans cratered spectacularly. After a lockdown-heightened overfamiliarity with the same four walls, I was suddenly unmoored, alternately electrified and petrified by the overwhelming newness of my surroundings. Both times, a carload of beloved houseplants made the indelicate journey to christen the next space as “home.” They took the jostling about as well as I had: The peace lily was severed in a car door. The monstera scorched in previously unknown afternoon light. The fiddle-leaf fig recalled Nero’s tune while the world burned.

Through the commotion, I clutched Music for Living Spaces like a security blanket — let its unhurried pulses set a slower pace of life, allowed its implied optimism to osmote into my anxious mind. It became a salve for the places I’d been severed and scorched. As I settle deeper into this living space, the monstera gamely unspooling waxy fronds in a northward window once again, Music for Living Spaces continues to blossom in my headphones and in my heart. — SA


Grouper
Shade
Liz Harris has this uncanny ability to stay in your head long after the final note fades. As Grouper, she creates a blend of ambient music that has all the elements you’d expect: broad arrangements that evolve as they unfold, well-timed moments of stillness supplemented by lush field recordings. In years’ past, there’d been no clear way to get a read on what Harris was trying to say. On Shade, perhaps her most accessible work yet, it was as if she were reaching out from the void, singing through thick static on “Followed the ocean” and humming beneath muted guitars elsewhere. These songs span 15 years and commune with the way we find peace in moments of upheaval. They also pay tribute to Harris’ home region of the Pacific Northwest by sifting varied memories into a coherent stream of introspection. In the end, we get what we’ve always gotten from Harris: pieces of the journal, open for broader interpretations, but still a secret convo on which we’re eavesdropping. — MJM


Mickey Guyton
Remember Her Name
For years, Mickey Guyton fought to be heard in Nashville’s major label system, which didn’t know how to support a Black woman any better than they did 50 years ago when Linda Martell was briefly a star. She finally was given an opportunity and the budget to make her debut LP, this year’s best country debut. Guyton seizes her moment to deliver songs of personal empowerment (“Remember Her Name”), of remembering to love yourself (“Love My Hair”) and fighting racism (“Black Like Me” and “What Are You Gonna Tell Her”). Despite the bigger themes and purpose, Remember Her Name also brings levity in party jams like “Rose,” one of this year’s best scream-along-in-the-car songs. It took 10 years for Guyton to get to make this one, hopefully she makes another sooner. — AW


Armand Hammer & The Alchemist
Haram
Let’s address the elephant in the room: There’s no clear way to write about or decipher Armand Hammer’s music. We’ve all tried, with varied degrees of success, but the duo’s art doesn’t reveal itself until months or years later, if you even get it at all. That’s not to resign rappers billy woods and Elucid to some level of the great beyond where the music isn’t enjoyable. Quite the opposite. It’s that woods and Elucid are so brilliant and their rhymes are so intricate that we’re all trying to catch up. For Haram, they worked with noted producer The Alchemist to unpack the ubiquity of all things taboo across the spectrum of culture, moving between darkness and light with incredible nuance. Whether they were dissecting different meanings of the word “pig” on “Chicharrones” or pondering travel on “Falling Out the Sky,” Haram did it with the utmost excellence and precision, an inspired work that’ll keep revealing itself over time. — Marcus J. Moore


Helado Negro
Far In
In some ways, Far In, the follow-up to Roberto Carlos Lange’s 2019 breakthrough record This Is How You Smile and his debut on 4AD, is more accessible than previous iterations of the artist’s work. His prior six albums (and four EPs) don’t necessarily lack structure altogether, but possess a languid and fluid quality, unhurriedly shape-shifting between each sound and thought. In contrast, Far In is tangible, embracing and leaning into the groove as opposed to dancing gracefully around it. The creative pivot makes sense when you look at some key changes in Lange’s environment; leading up to and during the record’s creation, he was removed from his longtime home in Brooklyn, living in Marfa, Texas, with his partner Kristi Sword and collaborating with her on a multimedia art project called “Kite Symphony.” He leaned into connection and collaboration, compared to his more independent previous processes, and was deeply impacted by the natural environment around him. The result is a clean and complete work that brilliantly meditates on 2021’s ever-present themes like connection, community and the collective climate anxiety. — AS

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Hiatus Kaiyote
Mood Valiant
It’s appropriate that Hiatus Kaiyote’s third record, six years after their sophomore album, is titled Mood Valiant; this album has a boldness and assuredness firmly in line with valiance, with Naomi Saalfield serving as the band’s lead singer and heroine. Responding to the news of Mood Valiant being nominated for the Grammy for Best Progressive R&B Album — the first Hiatus Kaiyote record to receive that honor — Saalfield, aka Nai Palm, told Consequence, “I don’t know why, but this Grammy nomination feels extra special. The first one felt like a fluke, the second one felt more grounding, but this third one has me wired at 6:00 a.m. on no sleep, like a kid on Christmas Day … I feel a deep sense of pride and purpose in this work. Mood Valiant is deeply tied up in my sense of mortality and worthiness because of the illness I overcame while making it.” Mood Valiant truly is the best album from the band yet, building on the unique genre alchemy only Hiatus Kaiyote have mastered. — TB

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Japanese Breakfast
Jubilee
To release a vibrant work called Jubilee at a time like this is arguably a ballsy move. It’s an especially ballsy move after you’ve become known most prominently to many for creating art about pain, death and grief — and during a moment in time when it wasn’t uncommon to see someone weeping while reading your recent memoir on the train. But it was, after all, the year of Michelle Zauner, and she seized the occasion to create a complex portrait of joy in its many iterations. Not only did she assert her range via the god-tier video game soundtrack for the long-awaited Sable and a best-selling first book, Crying in H Mart, but her third album was undeniably as singular of a release as they come and a bold statement of what she’s capable of as a musician. It’s a proudly maximalist and often literary project where fact and fiction blur and collide, and where a sprawling, weightless ’80s-inspired synth-pop song (“Be Sweet”) can somehow sit comfortably alongside the actual saddest song you’ve ever heard (“In Hell”), but each and every moment renders you grateful to be alive and experiencing the full range. — AS


Topaz Jones
Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma
On his sophomore album, Topaz Jones is introspective about his roots, family, love, Black identity and so much more. While he released a short film alongside the album to visually illustrate its already moving sonic pieces with a story that is extremely personal, using childhood photos and video clips, each song itself encapsulates a powerful and poetic glimpse into his meditative mind. There’s a lot to contemplate as each song plays, and it takes more than just a few listens to fully understand, but Jones presents it in a funk and soul-infused chronicle that gives listeners just as much to enjoy. — JN


Katy Kirby
Cool Dry Place
The bittersweet “too short” album lament — the one about good, brief records whose final chords leave you with a sense of longing for at least one more track — is a wee cliché at this point, but I can’t think of many albums it rings as true for as Texas singer-songwriter Katy Kirby’s debut. As if the wistful heartache detailed on the contents of the record alone weren’t enough. Weighing in at just under 30 minutes (28 to be precise), Cool Dry Place is dangerously charming, melodically addicting (buckle up, you’re gonna be singing these little diddy’s all day long), and gone before you’d had a chance to totally let it hit you. And maybe that’s by design. “I had a very fun habit of getting involved with someone and then getting cagey once they needed or just wanted me more than I was comfortable with,” Kirby remarked in a statement regarding the album’s title track. “I thought this was very intelligent of me, being smart enough to know when to get out, before I got close enough to lose objectivity.” These types of keen, honest personal observations are plentiful on the record and possess an uncanny ability to take your breath away with the light-speed at which they’re delivered between fuzzy guitar strokes. — AS


King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
Butterfly 3000
If you think the band’s name is fun, just listen to their records. Butterfly 3000 is an ambitious album that sees King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard fully embrace the psychedelic elements of their music. There’s a lot to appreciate about the album, including transitions so smooth that with a blink of an eye, it’s easy to miss them and find yourself in the middle of a new song. The band uses synths to tell the same musical motifs across the entire album, and its lyrical themes of drifting into dreams and fantasy make it a welcoming barrage of pensive, uplifting songs. — JN


Lightning Bug
A Color of the Sky
“All music is folk music.” In the streaming era, as we gleefully broadcast the breadth, depth, contradictions and quirks of our diverging music tastes through deliciously shareable data summaries, the maxim rings as true as ever. On their deeply rewarding third album, Lightning Bug tug at these fraying genre constructs — most especially those of kissing cousins, shoegaze and dream pop — to forge a collection of openhearted songs that feel immediately familiar yet wholly personal all at once.

It’d be easy enough to rattle off a host of ’90s-era Jazzmaster blasters to reference A Color of the Sky’s sonic touchpoints, though Lightning Bug transcends their influences in wielding shoegaze’s clouds of feedback to embrace, rather than envelop, the listener. In the eye of the hurricane, Audrey Kang’s voice rarely rises above a coo to deliver spartan verses that pang with quotidian tragedy and triumph, as on the early standout “The Right Thing is Hard to Do.” By the time the final, inverted chorus (“the hard thing is right to do”) rolls over like a thundercloud, it feels self-evident that the key to survival in a world with ever-new ways of excavating us must be to plant seeds in that freshly tilled soil. — SA


Lil Nas X
MONTERO
Artists who emerge with such massive hits the way Lil Nas X did are susceptible to the weight of expectations. It’s easier for an artist to be a one-hit wonder and fade from fame, leaving a single legacy behind, than it is to meet and exceed the expectations thrust upon them. But it seems like Lil Nas X operates on defying expectations, because beyond bending the genres he fused in “Old Town Road,” he rode the wave of his success to debut an album even bigger than his breakout hit. MONTERO showcases exactly who Lil Nas X is in a way that commands attention. The pure honesty in several aspects of his life, like his sexuality, where he came from and the pressure of fame, are all plainly spread across the album. And as listeners, we can either accept Lil Nas X’s honesty or get left in the dust to be bitter over his accomplishments. — JN


Little Simz
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
After a pair of concept albums — 2015’s A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons (VMP Hip-Hop No. 5) and 2017’s Stillness in Wonderland — Little Simz took a turn toward reality and became a breakout star with GREY Area in 2019. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert turns further inward, melding masterful technique and lyrical vulnerability, and has garnered Simz the true mainstream recognition she deserves. The record is mostly Simz alone, with just two features, Cleo Soul and Obongjayar, on the standout singles “Woman” and “Point and Kill,” respectively. The only other voice throughout is actress Emma Corrin (Princess Diana on The Crown), playing narrator and Simz’ inner voice. It’s a self-titled record of sorts, since its acronym SIMBI is another nickname for Simz (whose full name is Simbiatu Ajikawo). Like many successful self-titled records, SIMBI is a declaration of who Simz is, and a reintroduction of all she’s capable of. — TB


L’Rain
Fatigue
Brooklyn artist and polymath Taja Cheek’s second album, Fatigue, is one of 2021’s true musical gifts. For starters, the words “eclectic” or “genreless” don’t even begin to do Cheek’s sound justice. “Experimental” doesn’t feel quite right, either. Surely, she “experiments,” the verb, but the tracks on Fatigue are more realized, more calculated and more universally resonating than the word implies. Like change and growth, central themes in the follow-up to L’Rain’s grief-centered debut, the sound of the record is more alive than descriptors really allow for. “I generally try to remain as illegible as possible,” she told Tom Tom Magazine. “There is power in remaining indiscernible. I like to exist in a liminal space.” Fatigue is a sorcerer’s manifestation of this ethos: the twisted, woozy, melting basslines on “Suck Teeth,” the taunting, warped vocals on “Kill Self,” lyrics that are sometimes crystalline and sometimes find you straining to decipher (and sometimes literally appear backwards). How can a work so hard to define be so singularly affecting? L’Rain invites you to try to find out; lean into the confusion. — AS


Magdalena Bay
Mercurial World
Listening to Mercurial World is like a visit to the local candy store. It’s a long, sweet process that fills every wrinkle of your brain with a boost of serotonin, and no matter where you look, there’s always something new to be discovered. It’s essentially the same when it comes to the multimedia experience that the duo Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin craft with Mercurial World. But even with the bonus of stumbling upon the duo’s online video game world, the album doesn’t need to rely on supplementary visuals to be flaunted and enjoyed to its fullest potential. Packed with substance from the ironically titled tracks “The End” to “The Beginning,” Magdalena Bay leans on classic vaporwave and hyperpop aesthetics, while keeping their music fresh and dreamy to make that trip to the candy store memorable. — JN


MIKE
Disco!
Disco! is grounded. Disco! is honest. Disco! is just plain fun.

On Disco! 23-year-old New York-based rapper MIKE sits down right across from you and talks about it all, straight through a blown-out SM58. This is one of those records you can almost smell the environment of: You’re in a basement with your friends, and yes, there’s carpet (and yes, it’s taken a few thirsty and unexpected gulps of cheap beer). And yes, there’s always a J lit, and yes, you are feeling good and alive. It’s like you’re a newborn baby in the universe — if only for the 43 minutes that Disco! lasts. — CB


Mndsgn
Rare Pleasure
The producer born Ringgo Ancheta had long been considered one of the best beatmakers in rap. But over the past three years, beginning with 2018’s Body Wash, he broadened his aesthetic to incorporate more melodic textures, eschewing the turn-knob approach associated with electronic music. Featuring an all-star cast of talent, including Swarvy as musical director; Kiefer on keys; and Anna Wise and Fousheé on vocals, Rare Pleasure is a ’70s soul-inspired collection of delicate arrangements set against a bright backdrop. The music slowly ascends, culminating with the scene-stealing “Medium Rare,” on which Mndsgn sings of pushing past the mundane. “Fear is just a comfy queen-size bed,” goes a line from the track. “Won’t you get up and start your day?” All told, Rare Pleasure reminds us that, no matter what life presents us, a chance to restart is just around the corner. You just have to rise and get along with it. — MJM


Kacey Musgraves
star-crossed
Some of the greatest albums of all time are divorce albums — D-I-V-O-R-C-E, Here, My Dear, +Justments, Phases & Stages — so it stands to reason that Kacey Musgraves’ own song cycle devoted to the aftermath of her marriage to Ruston Kelly is her most complete, well-rounded album. It succeeds not in its fireworks of emotion, in some grand unconscious coupling, but in its quiet, contemplative moments. The devastating specificity of memory on “camera roll,” the way she had to make herself small on “breadwinner,” the random way grief unspools itself across your life on “justified,” and the way being a good partner sometimes means being bad to yourself in ways you don’t like on “good wife.” It was the anti-cuffing season album of 2021. Her last album, about the love that led to the marriage that led to the divorce, made her a superstar. This one made her an icon. — AW


Mustafa
When Smoke Rises
The most heartbreaking albums often don’t appeal to a vague, collective mourning, and instead drill down on particulars so piercing that listeners can feel the anguish — even if they’ve never experienced anything like it themselves. With his first record, When Smoke Rises, Mustafa has created a hyper-realistic portrait of grief and love in Regent Park, his Toronto neighborhood. When Smoke Rises takes specific pain, wraps it in acoustic sounds and soothing vocals and makes it into one of the most affecting records of 2021. Mustafa is also a poet, and it shows in the many lyrical flourishes throughout the album, including lines like: “If she runs her fingers through my past / She may lose the softness in her hands” and “Full speed on any street, I won’t take a break to you / My patience and my peace, I feel all of the rage for you.” The only feature on the project, Sampha — notorious for making soft, sad music himself — is a seamless addition to the standout track “Capo,” but otherwise, it’s a true solo endeavor. When Smoke Rises is a quiet but riveting debut. — TB


Pino Palladino & Blake Mills
Notes With Attachments
With its entendre-laden title and “do we need a cover?” cover, Notes With Attachments’ only outward suggestion is that context is not a prerequisite. Sure, you can’t un-know Palladino’s decades as the Soulquarians’ (and everybody’s) go-to bassman, nor Mills’ ascendant, seemingly omni-hyphenate musicianship. But met on its own terms, the duo’s arresting debut strikes as the very sound of creativity, bottled.

Culled from years of loose voice memos and hashed out with a handful of ace instrumentalists, Notes unfurls as a patchwork of jittery through-composed pieces, the group’s airtight interplay in constant conversation with uncanny baubles of skronks and samples. Palladino, Mills and Co. skew the lines between “live” and “larger-than-life” as they pluck heady melodies from thin air, woodshed them in real time and give the next muse breathless chase. Altogether, Notes With Attachments is a dense, dazzling collection from two masters with nothing to prove and everything to prove it with. — SA


Pink Siifu
GUMBO'!
“You can lump me in with anybody you want to, but my music is everything,” Pink Siifu told The New York Times shortly after GUMBO'!’s release earlier this year. He added, “It’s a slow meal. You at grandma’s house, you ain’t gotta rush.” His latest record is exactly that, something to savor — it’s on the longer side, with 18 tracks and an hour-long runtime. The title-track and opener, “Gumbo’! 4 tha Folks, Hold On,” is a team effort (five collaborators are credited: Big Rube, Liv.e, V.C.R, Nick Hakim and DJ Harrison); it’s a welcoming, neo-soul-tinged intro to the record. GUMBO'! expands to encompass a wide range of emotion, and an even wider range of features including The Alchemist, Georgia Anne Muldrow, BbyMutha and more. It borrows from Southern rap, but it doesn’t just regurgitate its influences. It’s collaborative and wide-reaching, but distinctly Siifu’s own. — TB


Porches
All Day Gentle Hold !
On All Day Gentle Hold ! Aaron Maine pumps out 25 minutes of sugar-sweet bubblegum bliss, proving that Porches’ fifth album is his fastest and poppiest record yet. Sticking to his bread and butter of synths and pouty vocals, he slots in guitars and more rock-adjacent drums (“Okay” feels like I’m headed to the beach in a wood-paneled station wagon). If the past two years have been good for anything, it’s been trying out something different, and the new outfit for Porches is fun as hell. — CB


Olivia Rodrigo
SOUR
“How do you do, fellow kids?” — AW

RÜFÜS DU SOL
Surrender
RÜFÜS DU SOL are an Australian electronic trio who packages progressive house elements into uplifting pieces to hold onto. They recorded their fourth studio album in the heart of Joshua Tree National Park, giving in to the natural beauty their music has been so closely associated with and ultimately stepping out with Surrender. The album renders so much heart and soul even in its purely darker instrumental and electronic interludes. Even looking past the vocals in their music, the trio have a way of being so distinctly themselves, a feat that can be difficult to achieve when it comes to the realm of electronic music.  — JN


serpentwithfeet
DEACON
In an interview alongside poet Danez Smith last month, serpentwithfeet told Document Journal: “I think one goal of mine as a creator is to become less heavy-handed. To trust. I always ask myself, who is the audience? Do I trust that they’re gonna get it?” He added, “Over the years, I’ve given myself more and more permission. That’s that. I’m assuming that you’re there with me.” With his latest record, DEACON, that goal has been realized. After a debut drenched in darkness, serpentwithfeet came into the light. His sophomore record explores his joyful side — there are no breakup songs, and the focus is connection — but it’s not untethered happiness. This record exemplifies choosing to hope as an active practice (à la Mariame Kaba), filled with the kind of optimism where you hold love and pain at the same time. — TB


Sturgill Simpson
The Ballad of Dood & Juanita
Sturgill Simpson’s “comeback” album — his first of country-centric material since 2016 — is a concept album set in the post-Civil War era that actually tells the story of his grandparents’ love affair. It’s as out-there and high-minded as Simpson’s best work, but at its core, it’s one of 2021’s most beautiful, unadorned albums: a song cycle concerning cowboys, their horses and the women they love (and who love them back). It was the year’s best album with a song about a horse, in a walk. — AW

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Nala Sinephro
Space 1.8
The composer Nala Sinephro once faced a health scare that made her assess her mortality. In need of respite, she crafted the music for what would become her debut album, Space 1.8, a merging of ambient and cosmic jazz as a way to cope. “Recording the album was deeply medicinal and what my body needed at that time,” she once said in a press release. “I became more focused on the inner workings of the body and created a sonic world that helped me heal.” Space 1.8 reflects her commitment to meditation and was driven by her interests in physics and psychoacoustics (or the study of how humans perceive sound). Highlighting this interest, Sinephro manipulates synthetic sound waves, tweaking the frequencies to undulate through the left and right channels, increasing and decreasing the volume to give certain tracks an oceanic feel. Elsewhere, “Space 4” is an upbeat swell of hypnotic droning, periodic horn blasts and staggered live drums that gets more aggressive as it unfolds. It’s the past and present coming together at once, the spirit of the ancestors in a new form. — MJM


Cleo Soul
Mother
You know the voice of Cleo Sol, even if you didn’t realize it was her. A member of the band Sault, her emotive soprano has been imprinted across the spectrum of soul and dance music over the past two years. For her latest solo album, Mother, Sol opts for expansive R&B and gospel that she uses to dissect the nuances of motherhood. These songs ponder, calmly unfolding without losing focus. They feel like journal entries; on tracks like “We Need You,” “23” and “Sunshine,” there’s a sense that she’s conversing with someone (perhaps a child), giving them the tools they need to survive later. Overall, though, Mother is a guidebook that any of us can follow. The struggle to live abundantly is an ongoing fight. — MJM


SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE
ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH
SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE takes a turn at the wheel and jumps straight into a wormhole that warps, distorts and reveals a psyche rooted in dark thoughts and paranoia. ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH leans into the space between the worlds of “traditional” alt-rock and something new; the push and pull between organic and synthetic; dissociation and “help I’m losing my fucking mind right now — let’s blast it,” while occasionally landing on moments of clarity — a soft-footed tight rope act between the two. — CB


Jazmine Sullivan
Heaux Tales
Heaux Tales is an ambitious concept album (although Sullivan calls it an EP) centering Black women’s lust, loss and love. Sullivan’s voice is unparalleled, and so is the storytelling. Heaux Tales is honest and ambitious, in more ways than one. As Sullivan told NPR, the project goes beyond the music: “Not only can we have [safe spaces] within our own inner circles, but let’s expand it. Let’s all look out for each other and have great intentions for each other and want the best for each other and even check each other if need be. Let’s make this a movement.” — TB


Tyler, The Creator
Call Me If You Get Lost
Ten years ago, Tyler, The Creator was not the refined rapper/producer we hear now. Sure, the talent was there: Alongside Earl Sweatshirt, Syd and Frank Ocean, his Odd Future collective set a new standard for hardcore rap in the mainstream marketplace. But he also ruffled a lot of feathers and got himself banned from entering the UK for at least three years in 2015. Just two years later, he became more of an artiste; his subsequent albums, Flower Boy and IGOR, proved he was more than just the bratty kid who hated the world and ate roaches for shock value. He’d been growing up and refining his sound along the way. And judging from the excellent Call Me If You Get Lost, he’s been doing some studying, too: It’s an album of gravel-throated rhymes and rugged beats that show an allegiance to ’90s hip-hop and mixtape culture, saluting a bygone era of rap without imitating it. Instead, this feels like an homage. It all makes for a masterful LP that wholly imparts his creative vision. — MJM


Vanishing Twin
Ookii Gekkou
“And so I emerged from this quantum field.
What is this simulation, and why am I here?
I have hands. And I have… eyes.
And I have things inside me.
I pulse so strangely.”

So begins “The Organism,” the dizzying Side A closer to Vanishing Twin’s third LP. Amid a clamor of marimba arpeggios and synthesized mewls, the disembodied monolog is no more scrutable in situ, but it nonetheless sums up the collective’s audible awe at their own self-discovery. More than psychedelic body horror, Ookii Gekkou plays out as Vanishing Twin’s mutant-superhero origin story: the sugar, the spice, the everything nice, comprised of half-remembered shards of Italian library music, tempura-fried funk and nervy motorik groove, refracted back in thrilling prisms as you hear the group grasping the depth of their powers. — SA


Vindata
With Opened Eyes
Before Jared Poythress left Vindata less than a few weeks ago, he and Branden Ratcliff gave us the gift that is their debut album, With Opened Eyes. Even by today’s standards, where genres rarely capture the full scope of what artists accomplish in their sound, Vindata pushed the boundaries of the album. The two initially stepped into the music industry intending to become hip-hop producers but, really, no single genre could truly define the duo. Hip-hop, gospel, R&B and electronic music ultimately influenced the two and formed the iteration of Vindata that would release With Opened Eyes. The album goes from vibey jams to contemplative songs that relish in tender moments. — JN


Hana Vu
Public Storage
The continuing pandemic has taught us more about confinement and how we react to it than we likely ever hoped to learn. Hana Vu’s debut full-length, Public Storage, is about the literal and metaphorical containers in our lives. With cathartic, grungy peaks like “Gutter” and softer resigned synths like on “April Fool,” Vu captures many facets of isolation and misperception. Aligned with the reemergence of pop punk, Vu’s stepped out of her previous label of bedroom pop and into something darker. Public Storage is seeped in pessimism, witnessing the failures of higher powers and the people who are supposed to love us the most, but doing so with confidence and strength. On earlier projects, Vu kept her distance, vocals often buried in layered production, but Public Storage brings her voice into the open. — TB

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Joshua Ray Walker
See You Next Time
Taking place in a honky-tonk near closing time, the characters of Joshua Ray Walker’s third LP, See You Next Time, are down on their luck in life, love, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These are folks who dumpster dive, who think they’re the hottest person in this bar and buy their paramours flowers at the gas station. But none of the character sketches feel judgy or mocking; Walker imbues them with empathy, grace, and understanding, painting mini-portraits in his songs, using his ace songwriting and peerless voice. For the second straight year, he’s one of country’s Ones to Watch. — AW

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Wednesday
Twin Plagues
My brain when I listen to the Asheville five-piece Wednesday’s second album:

“Alright the push and pull between single, stand alone vocals with sparse guitar accompaniment to full, crashing band washing over you is pretty cool… Actually, it feels so good; I think everything is gonna be ok… I haven’t really felt this good in awhile — wait holy FUCK, it’s so cathartic and I’m crying and I’m also head-banging really hard wtf, is that a steel guitar? Ok I’m in it… bro, the story being told on this song about the dog? Too brutal… I feel like I’m floating above my body? Interesting. Ok well… can’t wait to put this record on again in about 15 minutes.” — CB


Yasmin Williams
Urban Drifwood
I’m gonna try to save you some money on cocktails or online shopping, or whatever green juice you think is gonna give you some sense of control back, and give you a quick recommendation for when it all becomes too much. Set your alarm for 6 a.m. (sorry), get up, move your body for a little while, in whatever way suits you, and while you’re showering for your day, play Urban Driftwood, softly, but loud enough to hear each and every immaculate detail. In my personal (and extensive) experience of this formula, you’ll be far less likely to snap at your partner, coworker, roommate or self later on. Yasmin Williams’ method of finger-style guitar is virtuosic, unconventional and inventive to the point of being visionary. It certainly helps to witness her play to understand her approach. She uses nearly every body part, every tool at her disposal, wearing tap shoes and securing a finger thumb-piano to the body of her instrument. It’s mesmerizing to witness, and even more so to feel. But beyond and beneath her astonishing technical prowess alone lies a potent emotional force that both calms and staggers — like the sight of a loved one after a long time spent apart, or storm clouds opening up suddenly to reveal the sun. — AS


 


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