Just as I did with my personal roundup last year, I’ve opted to highlight a range of music – simply what mattered to me this year, regardless of its year of release. You’ll find a mixture of 2021 albums and much more. Thanks once again for reading, it means the world!
Boldy James & The Alchemist – Super Tecmo Bo
First and foremost, it feels important to shout out this late year release. So much so that it missed consideration for our various Year End coverage. Tightly constructed (and constrictive), the effort clocks in at a tidy 26 minutes. With absolutely no shade intended towards the strong Bo Jackson, this briefer affair feels like the more proper follow up to last year’s The Price of Tea in China. The Alchemist keeps things low key, offering some of his most understated work to date in places, while Boldy remains as confident as ever, continuing his absolutely epic run. There’s little I can say about James that I haven’t already: Detroit’s grimmer Guru, he never breaks a sweat, but does more with his laidback flow and distinct voice than most rappers do in a breathless rush. An absolutely essential last minute piece of greatness for 2021.
Ryosuke Miyata – Private Cottage
To my mind, this is underrated Japanese ambient master Ryosuke Miyata’s best work (with respect paid to the excellent Sea of Nebukawa). It captures its title (and artwork) perfectly, offering serene moments of respite for the weary mind that wish they had somewhere so ideal to escape to. A calming source amid an undeniably frenzied year, I turned to this one perhaps more than ever before.
Uriah Heep – Salisbury
For the most intense of music fans, there seems to be a certain pressure to appear that you’ve heard it all. To me this is more than a shame: the greatest joy I take from music is the unending feeling of exploration, the fact that there is always more to learn.
To that end, 2021 was the year I became truly entranced by Progressive Rock. To be sure, I’d heard the obvious essentials before, but perhaps Pink Floyd aside, I’d never done a full discography exploration, simply visiting a highlight here and there, for example, say, Camel’s Mirage, and nothing else they recorded (which turned out to be foolish, as Moonmadness is now easily my favorite of their LPs).
Indeed, Uriah Heep toe the line between Hard Rock and Prog, but skipping past that debate, they slotted right into my journey. For all the fantastical fun of Demons and Wizards and the brilliant heaviness of Look at Yourself, Salisbury emerged as my clear favorite. Hensley and Box are at the absolute peak of their powers, scorching through a set of tunes that do indeed toe the line between Prog Rock and something “harder”, with Byron going for broke vocally, as well. It’s just a damn party.
SleepResearch_Facility – Nostromo
Sometimes I think this is, simply, the most “me” album of all time: ambient music meant to embody the sounds of the titular vessel for Ridley Scott’s Alien as the crew still slumbered – long before the ensuing terror – it speaks to my inner science-fiction nerd, tributes perhaps my all time favorite film, appealsto my occasional need for absolute isolation, and, above all, is an absolutely, definitively unique experience. Even in the often muted world of ambient, there’s nothing else quite like it. A constant companion, whatever the year.
Vince Staples – Vince Staples
No album was as much of a “grower” for me in 2021: to be clear, I loved it right away, but it took time to truly appreciate just how much I loved it. As brief as it as bold, as dour as it is exploratory, it’s arguably Staples’ most bluntly personal date to work – which is saying a lot – with him digging through the skeletons (nearly literally) in his closet, combing through the regrets, perils, and pain that come with the life he was born into. A monolith to his artistry, it proves yet again that Staples is essentially peerless.
BANKS – III
Sometimes, we all just need to freakin’ wallow in it. For some reason eternally underrated by many critics, when she’s at her best, BANKS absolutely just captures emotional resilience and desperation alike. I don’t really think III hits with every single track, but when it does? Phew. Opener “Till Now” layers vocals til the end of time, the sheer power of BANKS’ voice gradually absolutely consuming the cacophony of sound. “Gimme”, the (clear) single, is a dominant bop, finding the singer at her most centered and confident. Following it immediately, however, is “Contaminated”, one of the album’s highs (and emotional lows): “we’re always gonna be contaminated.” Sadly for her, she’s at her best when she captures absolute desolation, picking up the pieces for herself and the listener in the wake of extreme emotional upheaval. From the clever double entendre of “Stroke” to the devastating one-two punch of closing tracks, “If We Were Made of Water” and “What About Love”, the album hits some real highs. Make no mistake, the greatest power is present in these last two tracks. When I was at my lowest in 2021, no songs spoke more readily: the desire that it all could have gone better rules over both songs. When the other person has completely moved on but you’re still overeating and overdrinking, she says it best – “Maybe if you just relearned my name…” The pain lingers past the album’s final notes, it’s no healer, but it’s certainly a ready companion.
King Crimson – Islands
Alright, alright, am I going to sit here and try and argue that Islands is King Crimson’s best album? No I won’t. Is it my favorite? Yes, yes it is. As warm as it is challenging, forget “Progressive Rock”, it’s progressive in the truest way possible: it pushes the listener towards new sensations and realizations. If this sounds like hyperbole, well, just listen to Islands on an adequate sound system with no distractions and a fully open mind. It’s as gorgeous as can be, mythic, transportive, massive. It manages to feel intimate and universal at once, reaching towards – and even reaching – the stars, all while spiraling all the way back to Earth. To my mind, this great, legendary band was never more perfectly in sync than they were here. At ease and on edge at once. Teetering across the needled blade verging towards something genuinely resembling perfection.
Pan Daijing – Jade 玉观音
Not every great album is one you can – or even desire to – visit often. Without question my favorite LP of the year, I nonetheless, truth be told, did not simply throw on Jade very often. Nonetheless, it was absolutely definitive: one evening in particular, I simply sat back with some whiskey on the rocks, burned some incense, turned off all the lights, and took the album in without pause in the pitch black, mouth practically agape. No listening experience in 2021 was more memorable. An absolutely uncompromising, boundless, destructive testament to Daijing’s sheer force of will, it’s nothing to be trifled with.