And so the sun sets on another year of music. This week the BPM staff have shared our top songs, overlooked records, and favorite EPs of 2021 all in a build up to the traditional album list.

The concept behind an “album” as an art form may get lost over the years, but we still find appreciation for them in the digital age. The following 50 albums cap off another tumultuous year in the world, which seems to be the norm lately. Nevertheless, throughout this year these are the albums that we reached for when we sought comfort, inspiration, and stability but also in our times of heartache and sorrow.

2021 was a year, that’s for sure, but as always music was the presence that kept many of us grounded.

Listen to a Spotify playlist of our highlights from our Top 50 Albums of 2021 here.


Grouper – Shade


For one of her most stripped-down efforts to date, Liz Harris aka Grouper hones calmness directness across nine songs she’s been assembling for the last 15 years. Shade is the singer’s latest excursion to find her moving closer to the hazy spotlight of her expression. A decade ago, Harris hid behind thick layers of ambience and muddled production, but here we are finally seeing her – sort of. Shade teeters between traditional and non-traditional Grouper, still minimal, but structurally it’s Harris exposing herself to her audience comfortably. 

Songs like “Unclean Mind” and closer “Kelso (Blue Sky)” are some of her clearest recordings, teasing a potential new direction, while opener “Followed the Ocean” pulls us back down. Since 2014’s Ruins, Grouper has been removing layers of shroud, garment by garment. It’s hard to imagine her next step after Shade. She’s never been the type to fully expose herself outside of the shoegazey side project Helen from a few years back, so suffice to say Shade might be the most accessible sound we’ll get from her, and it’s made better by that fact. – Tim Sentz


Moor Mother – Black Encyclopedia of the Air


Black Encyclopedia of the Air is a hypnotic gallery of historical hurt and longed-for resolution, a procession of rooms and exhibits that speak to Moor Mother’s creative intent. For years, she’s been modeling an experimental sound architecture that addresses the inequities of our social hierarchies while also pinpointing ways that change can, and must, occur. Without change, we cannot move forward, and if we cannot move forward, everything falls apart.

Across these 13 tracks, we’re exposed to spoken word revelation, fractured jazz textures, austere hip-hop rhythms, and various laboratory tests regarding odd percussive realignment. The passage of time can be an enemy or provide a sense of consolation to the ache of our lives, and these songs allow for both perspectives, though there is still much to be accomplished regardless of how you see the timeline. Moor Mother is offering assistance in wading through these complicated issues and with dealing with the weight of our personal baggage. This record is both salve and warning, a fiery call from the frontlines of social devastation and individual redemption – a wail to guide us from the depths and anchor us at a time when we need it most. – Joshua Pickard


TWICE – Formula of Love  (O+T=<3)


When considering the three-year gap between TWICE’s full albums Twicetagram and Eyes Wide Open, it was a wonderful surprise that their third album Formula of Love (O+T=<3) arrived only a year after the last. Across 15 tracks, the group delivered an eclectic, kaleidoscopic project that refused to be remotely predictable. Engaging in multiple genres from smooth electro-pop on “Scientist”, to the mysteriously bewitching “Last Waltz”, and even to 2000s-influenced R&B on “Espresso”, the group continued to conquer new sonic territory.

In a hugely successful effort to expand their already considerable international outreach, the inclusion of English tracks such as the deliciously retro “Moonlight”, the snappy and confident “ICON” – and of course, the phenomenally exuberant single “The Feels” – proved fruitful. The release is also notable for introducing three sub-units including the notable “Hello” (with members Nayeon, Momo and Chaeyoung) which is their most overtly hip-hop influenced track.

An album that is simultaneously packed with tunes yet never overstays its welcome, TWICE continue reaching new heights six years into their career. – JT Early


Divide and Dissolve – Gas Lit


Melbourne’s Takiaya Reed and Sylvie Nehill – aka Divide and Dissolve – have Cherokee and Māori heritage respectively. It doesn’t take much digging to realise just how fucked their ancestors have been by the West, yet they’ve been brought up in a world where they are told they should be thankful for what they have. To put it succinctly, they’ve been Gas Lit.

D/D fight fire with fire in their music. They don’t utlise words on Gas Lit (except a powerful spoken portion from Minori Sanchiz-Fung), as raw sound is the only way to fully express their righteous, furious indignation.

Just as the horrific realisation of the world’s ills creeps up on you unsuspectingly, so does D/D’s music. Haunting tendrils of sax lure you into their world, only for them to bring a 1000-tonne weight straight down on the back of your head with their grinding sludge rock onslaught. It’s a trick they repeat throughout Gas Lit, but one that never fails to make hairs stand on end, especially as they find new dimensions and dynamics to ensure maximum damage. Even without voices, Gas Lit is an unmistakable battle cry. – Rob Hakimian


Marisa Monte – Portas


Not many artists could release arguably their most charming album to date 30 years into their career – let alone after taking a 10 year break. Indeed, Portas is Brazilian singer Marisa Monte’s first album since 2011, and certainly ranks among her best work. For those of us who don’t speak Portuguese, naturally, it’s entirely an emotional experience, one of sound. Yet, this is just where it’s strength lies. Through its gentle instrumentation and her alluring, hypnotic voice, it has a truly calming effect. Even across 16 tracks, she never misses a step, taking us for a journey that will doubtlessly have you feeling better about whatever it is going on in your life before the album ends. It’s impossible to listen to Portas without emerging in a brighter mood than you went in with. Especially in these clouded days, a bit of sunshine couldn’t be more valuable. – Chase McMullen


Navy Blue – Navy’s Reprise

[Freedom Sounds]

On his third album in two years, Sage Elsesser aka Navy Blue, finds the perfect balance for his sound. Hardened exteriors paired with piano-laden samples help exorcise the man’s demons across Navy’s Reprise, which acts as the final act to the trilogy started with last year’s Ada Irin. Across these three records, Navy’s run the gamut on his dark and light characteristics, but it’s with Navy’s Reprise that he truly startles thanks to his colorfully intricate sounds and poignant lyricism.

Elsesser is still fresh-faced to the game, and he’s in good company with MIKE and Earl Sweatshirt, but his prowess expands on Navy’s Reprise, showing just how introspective the man is this early on in his journey. – Tim Sentz


Sophia Kennedy – Monsters

[City Slang]

One of the most underrated pop releases of this year, Sophia Kennedy’s second album Monsters dives into a distorted world of idiosyncrasy and juxtaposition. With a rich and soulful timbre, Kennedy’s dynamic vocals convey darkness with a sprightly theatrical slant that feels deceptively welcoming. Whether she is lamenting the privilege of ignorant, ignoble men (“Francis”), processing the grief of somebody’s absence (“I’m Looking Up”), or the mental exhaustion that accompanies pursuing goals (“Dragged Myself Into the Sun”), Kennedy presents grim subject matter in curious production packages.

The album’s soundscape is varied from the dreamy minimalism of “Seventeen” to jaunty piano pop on “I Can See You”, but always punchy and exciting. Kennedy’s primary strength is in her ability to deliver polar opposites in a seamless combination. The embodiment of such duality is found in lead single “Orange Tic Tac” which has Kennedy devilishly switching from abject pessimism in the verses (“Manic pressure full time”) to a lyrically bright chorus (“Like a ghost in a suit / On the avenue / I’m floating downtown”). Like many tracks on the album, it is striking, effective and satisfyingly experimental. Monsters is simply a phenomenal record that revels in grey areas where situations are never what we quite perceive them to be. – JT Early


Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take

[Saddle Creek]

Brazilian-American songwriter Indigo De Souza is only a couple albums deep, but she isn’t afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve and lay her heavy burdens on the table. Her sophomore album Any Shape You Take is filled with somber track titles like “Die/Cry”, “Real Pain”, and “Kill Me”, yet the music imparts a surprising amount of hope and strength. 

Another surprise is the sheer amount of musical variety De Souza attempts on this record, and how well she pulls it off. Opening track “17” is an indie-pop gem, with pitch-shifted vocals and glassy synths, while album highlight “Hold U” employs funky guitars and electric drums, and “Bad Dream” cranks the distortion for a hard-hitting banger. Even as De Souza bounces between styles, her simple but effective lyrics and passionate vocal delivery help carry each song with a verve that’s truly a rare and precious thing to behold. – Grady Penna


The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore


I’m wagering that Adam Granduciel never imagined that people would mention John Cougar Mellencamp and the Eagles in the same breath as The War on Drugs. Then again, maybe he did, and we’re all just racing to catch up to his own cognizance. I Don’t Live Here Anymore doesn’t break the mold established on any of the band’s past records. They’ve always been besotted by aspects of Heartland Rock, but here they attain a sort of low-key euphoria where their bucolic impulses have been married to a grander sense of ambition and melodic theatricality. 

With no disrespect to Mellencamp or the Eagles (unless you want, then be my guest), Granduciel and the band have charted a course free of the banality so often attributed to these sounds. The grand journey, whatever that might be, lies at the heart of these songs. We’re always going somewhere, dealing with the fallout of the movement from place to another. Everything here is familiar but presented as if this was all such a radically new thing to consider. And maybe in their hands it is. I just know that I can’t wait to see where we end up. – Joshua Pickard


Deafheaven – Infinite Granite

[Sargent House]

The popularity of blackgaze and even black metal would be diminished to a mere glimmer and niche concept without the contributions of California observers of the dark and bleak, Deafheaven. But who in the hell thought it was a good idea to move away from the very formula that made them so adored? It’s a bold move, yet their fully-devoted transformation and transition into ethereal post-rock and shoegaze works wonders on Infinite Granite.

With their galaxy-consuming latest record, Deafheaven have become a borderline dream-pop outfit. Positive or negative, strong reactions continued to push Deafheaven to do precisely the opposite of what critics and fans wanted from them, and Infinite Granite became the catalyst that detonated the divide wide open. Yes, fans. Even longtime devotees have emerged from the aural haze and celestial woodwork of Infinite Granite, frustrated with the band’s lack of muscular metallic strength. 

But to resist change out of sheer discomfort seems rather insular, doesn’t it? An open mind to the astral magnificence of Infinite Granite yields a deep appreciation of Deafheaven’s desire to stray far from complacency. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to let your guard down for an album that sweeps you away into an endless void? It’s an inevitable experience, both daunting and oddly comforting in its immensity. – Kyle Kohner 


NTsKi – Orca

[Orange Milk / EM Records]

Orca begins sparsely, simply the sound of NTsKi’s voice, eventually layering itself and adding heavy breathing to the mix: and then it hits. Alongside the sounds of the titular whale, the album is suddenly consumed – absolutely awash – in sounds.

Brian Eno may seem like an unusual comparison for the young artist, but it fits. She fully embraces his thought of the studio as an instrument, drawing out more sounds and colorful layers than are to be found in just about any other album in 2021.

To listen to Orca is to absolutely bathe in sound, venturing right into the waters the artist so clearly idealizes. Layering her Western influences with an undeniably Japanese sound and approach, twisting between singing that borders on chanting in her native language with abstract dialogues in English, NTsKi has arrived essentially peerless, playing a game whose concept and rules only she seems to understand. It may take us some time to catch up with her, but the pursuit of Orca couldn’t be more thrilling. – Chase McMullen


Injury Reserve – By The Time I Get To Phoenix


The world burns. As the four horsemen slaughter their steeds, their blood acid-burning soil, a gigantic sun-faced entity harvests souls. This is the end – in more ways than one. An apocalyptic vision devoid of hope, Injury Reserve’s second album is an agonized battle cry.

Marked by the sudden passing of MC Stepa J. Groggs, it shatters into kaleidoscopic memories and hypnagogic whispers. But none of it is fantastical: the borderline schizophrenic battle rapping of “Outside” and grim lockdown imagery of “Ground Zero” characterize a dying world. 

Loss seems ever present – be it in the mournful “Top Picks For You” (“Your pattern’s still in place, algorithm’s still in action / As I scroll through I see a piеce of you is still reacting”) or via Groggs’ shadow in “Knees”, where he eerily ruminates “Shit, I can’t even grow no more / Well, at least not vertically”. But next to the cataclysmic, paranoid nature of synthetic online deserts in “Wild Wild West” and manic “Footwork in a Forest Fire”, these moments seem like teardrops in the lowest levels of hell. – John Wohlmacher


Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince

[New Amsterdam]

Arooj Aftab’s recent Grammy nominations for her 2021 record Vulture Prince are a shocking but welcome cherry on top of her great year. Vulture Prince is an album that blends seemingly disparate musical themes and stylings, from blues to jazz to Hindustani classical music to Urdu ghazals and poetry, into a warm, overwhelming, impeccable, emotional whole. It’s a delicate album, full of evocative guitars, harps, bass, and strings, buoyed by Aftab’s amazing, powerful voice. It’s an instrument that feels both of the past and the future, almost timeless, equally likely to have wandered in from a thousand years ago as it might be to be beamed in from the year 3000.

A crystalline product of multitudinous geography, hyaline production, and lush arrangements, Arooj Aftab has given the music world a rare treat with Vulture Prince, its seven songs unfurling at their own unhurried pace that could go on forever without growing tiresome. It clearly belongs in conversation with the best records of today. – Jeremy J. Fisette


Cleo Sol – Mother

[Forever Living Originals]

The tenderness and beauty of Cleo Sol‘s Mother seemed unrivalled in a year dominated by emotional eruptions of volcanic intensity. Over 66 minutes, Britain’s most elusive soul singer, who is also rumoured as one of the lead creatives behind the anonymous Sault, weaves a blanket of jazzy soul music of introspective rumination. Mother-Child relationships are in the forefront, but then so are questions of abandonment and domestic struggles.

“There’s no hope in these rooms of looped dreams / All these pictures looking at me”, she sings on “Don’t Let Me Fall”, observing the hard decisions and sacrifices women face when they decide to leave their life behind. “The little stars and the locked up dreams / The missing pieces – they’re in me”. Imagery of ever falling rain – the sadness of experiencing a torn household and grappling with a mother struggling with responsibilities – is contrasted by sunshine: the warmth and love that Sol’s own motherhood provides. It’s deep, spiritual music of the highest caliber. – John Wohlmacher


Dawn Richard – Second Line


Second Line is subtitled ‘An Electro Revival’ for good reason. If new breed was a relatively straightforward songwriting-focused R&B style for Dawn Richard, Second Line surrenders itself to the infectious flow of a good DJ mix. It’s a shockingly cohesive album, considering how its songs pulse in-and-out of club-ready house, hip hop, R&B, slower reflective pieces in the second half, even regular interludes of Richard’s mother over the phone without missing a beat. At this point, it’s not a surprise that Richard’s put out another great album – the joy is in the surprise of hearing how she shapes and conducts her disparate musical passions into such a cohesive statement of ‘Dawn Richard’. Intimate, nocturnal, and breathless. – Josh Sand


Anna B Savage – A Common Turn

[City Slang]

So many songwriters have used birds as a muse that Anna B Savage’s emphasis on them on her debut album, A Common Turn, might initially seem a bit redundant. Her songs are populated by corncrakes, doves, terns, and owl mugs. Black feathers cover her face on the album cover. The music encompasses the complexity of their species: at times grounded, at times soaring, always wondrous.

What makes these avian encounters and other moments described on A Common Turn so engrossing aren’t the moments themselves; it’s the awe that Savage conveys in recounting them. A lazy afternoon listening to Spice Girls and Arcade Fire, a subway ride, and a masturbation session are all turned into astonishing showstoppers through Savage’s passion, her message unignorable whether she’s leaning more towards a wounded howl or a more-reserved tone. A Common Turn is autobiographical songwriting at its finest, and it’s going to be a thrill to see Savage write her story further. – Mimi Kenny


claire rousay – a softer focus

[American Dreams]

There’s something deeply transfixing and yet mystifying about claire rousay’s work. On this immaculate album, rousay gives us pieces that are as much sound collages as they are minimalist music compositions. Her subtle but dazzling mix of mediums, which includes things like water and people chattering alongside placid drones, creates a world unto itself. Listening to a softer focus on headphones, in a dimly lit room, with your eyes closed, you feel as though everything around you is melding together, all definition effacing while the room creates an altogether new version of itself, noticeably but indefinably different than it was before. – Jeremy J. Fisette


Greentea Peng – MAN MADE


Greentea Peng is peerless. It’s no chance that MAN MADE was mastered by the same man who oversaw Lauryn Hill’s classic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill; he no doubt saw a similar spark in Peng. Her singing boasts a power beyond the capability of the written word to truly capture. Across genuinely lush instrumentation and production, she gets meditative, traversing just about every corner of our weary world, seeking to discover – and moreover, offer – some sort of medicinal cure for all the ills constantly invading our psyche in the modern world. If this sounds overly grand, well, simply give the album a listen. You’ll be sure to see for yourself. – Chase McMullen


Snail Mail – Valentine


“Let’s go be alone / Where no one can see us, honey,” the first words heard on Snail Mail’s second album Valentine, aren’t words of affection. They’re fraught with obsession and insecurity, the symptoms of someone who’s worried they might lose what’s closest to them. This loss is a worst nightmare that, for Lindsey Jordan, came true.

Heartbreak can be a surreal swirl of confusion and unbridled emotion. Moments of maligned acceptance (“Guess somebody finally tamed you / Never seen you look so sure,” she sings on “Headlock”) collapse into self-destructive heartache the next (“Drinking just to taste her mouth”). Jordan’s voice is huskier and the album’s songs feel more varied – see the intimate guitar ballad “c. et al.” that follows the sly and slinky standout “Madonna”. The driving force of Valentine’s is the law that love is a battlefield, but most importantly, Jordan returned to tell the tale. – Carlo Thomas


Loraine James – Reflection


In recent years, Loraine James has been a leading light in the rising tide of techno that has more intentions than to purely make you move, and with her second full-length, Reflection, she delivered a vital missive that mulled over racial tensions and personal trials, from deep in the heart of locked down London.

She takes some opportunities to show off her straight-up production skills, most noticeably on the skittering, perception-warping “Let Go” and “Simple Stuff”. She also takes up vocal duties on “Self Doubt (Leaving The Club Early)”, where she’s almost drowned out by multiple booming beats as she bashfully pontificates on her personal tics. Her voice appears again for another heartfelt moment in the atmospheric “Reflection”, a softly-intoned message sent to loved ones around the country whom she hasn’t been able to see during the pandemic.

However, the most memorable tracks are where she applies her techno tricks to hip-hop templates, enlisting diverse vocalists, largely underground rappers from around the UK, to hammer home the messages. There’s Le3 bLACK spitting on the grim truths behind the flashy surface of Black culture on “Black Ting”, where James provides a skeletal beat. The producer provides a Drexciya-esque array on “Insecure Behaviour and Fuckery”, which Nova matches with a low-key but vividly dense rap. Eden Samara provides a delectable vocal turn on “Running Like That”, taking James’ sound into R&B realms. Best of all is the closing Iceboy Violet feature, which is dedicated to all victims of police violence and is packed with determined bars, leaving the album with a promise for the future: “We’re Building Something New”. – Rob Hakimian


Spellling – The Turning Wheel

[Sacred Bones]

“Is this… is this Britney Spears?” It’s November 2021, and I’m listening to “Always” by Spellling. I liked Mazy Fly, but it in no way prepared me for this, a honey-sweet ballad with the chorus “Please don’t steal my heart” – to me it brilliantly recalls Britney’s “Everytime”.

Spellling’s Tia Cabral explained the unexpected front-half of The Turning Wheel to BPM: “They all felt outside of my character, songs I’d give away. But instead, I just embraced it,” she told our Jasper Willems this Summer. If this first side is her taking a lateral leap into new territory, the second is her digging deeper into her established sound: a spellbinding universe equally informed by tarot, Ursula K. Le Guin and Stevie Wonder. “Boys At School” is Tia at her most breathtaking, while “Revolution” (like a turning wheel – ha!) spins out toward transcendence before “Sweet Talk” wraps things up with a bow on top. A pleasant surprise and step forward from an artist bursting with talent. – Ethan Reis


Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage

[Goliath Enterprises]

Overwhelming emotion has always been an integral part of Nick Cave’s oeuvre, whether it takes the form of religious ecstasy, bone marrow-deep personal loss, or a raucous expression of identity within an insidious world. And his latest album with Warren Ellis, Carnage, is no exception. In fact, there are moments when we stop listening to an album and simply begin to see snapshots of Cave’s mental anguish at different points in his life. It’s hard to look at this album without the context provided by the past few Bad Seeds releases and the familial loss that haunted the songs therein. 

Carnage both continues the skeletal framework established on Ghosteen and builds something a bit more muscular to help stave off the hurt for a few minutes at a time. We’re offered glimpses into Cave’s usual spiritual references (a “kingdom in the sky” is mentioned more than once) as he attempts to find some sort of solace in a terrible world. How can we find hope in the chaos of our lives? Is it even possible given our current circumstances? Cave and Ellis seek to show that there is always a light battling against the darkness, a constant feud between the devils we are and the angels we hope to be. – Joshua Pickard


Iceage – Seek Shelter

[Mexican Summer]

For some, a band’s move into a more accessible sound automatically implies a dip in quality or, worse, the succumbing to ‘selling out’. Leave it to the Danish band Iceage to dismantle these notions with zero subtlety on their fifth album Seek Shelter. The thumping “Dear Saint Cecilia” is a roaring punk rock track with Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s pleading vocals ripping through the noise. Songs like the shuffling “Vendetta” and “Drink Rain” wear a teasing, sinister sheen, while the ballad “The Wider Powder Blue” twinkles with sincerity.

Underscoring these songs is the urge to bop your head, tap your foot, or, I daresay, sing along. Take opener “Shelter Song” – sure, it’s a 1990s alt rock-inspired ballad aided by a gospel choir; sure, the song’s chorus relies on familiar phrases – “They kick you when you’re up, they knock you when you’re down.” But also, who cares? Like the rest of Seek Shelter, the song is a dramatic and enveloping experience. – Carlo Thomas


Hana Vu – Public Storage


With Public Storage , 21 year-old Hana Vu offers a subtly eclectic yet notably cohesive set. On the title song, a catchy melody unfurls amidst moody atmospherics. “Aubade” includes one of 2021’s most captivating and subtly danceable rhythms. “Keeper” features a synth-y intro, Vu continuing to explore her knack for verses and choruses that are hyper-accessible yet understated, as if, perhaps, she’s driven by a commitment to unabashed self-expression and an urge to maintain privacy or avoid feeling exposed – an alluring meld of confidence and modesty. With “Maker,” she borrows from the chamber-pop and alt-folk playbooks, blending electronicsand acoustic soundings. In this way, Vu concludes a consistently engaging project, mining various genres and subgenres while definitively asserting her own voice and style. – John Amen


Lost Girls – Menneskekollektivet

[Smalltown Supersound]

The greatness of Menneskekollektivet, the debut album by the Norwegian duo Lost Girls (Jenny Hval and Håvard Volden), rests in its rawness, its unpredictability. “In the beginning, there is no word, and no ‘I,’” Hval states on the album’s opening and title track, a line that feels like a commentary on the creative process (the spoken word has had quite the year, and Hval’s delivery shouldn’t be overlooked). The album’s highlight, “Love, Lovers”, evolves from a quiet intimate experience to an explosive industrial-house track with Hval’s cooing evoking the darkest disco floor. Listeners have no idea where Lost Girls will go.

The album closes on “Real Life”; the song’s composition – which has Hval’s vocals over Volden’s playful and seemingly improvisational guitar playing – feels almost skeletal compared to what came before. “When we die we become paper / Charcoals and a marker pen,” Hval postulates as she wonders about life after death. Is this the best metaphor Hval could use? Maybe, maybe not; it stays with you nonetheless. – Carlo Thomas


Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

[Dead Oceans]

Michelle Zauner had a hell of a year. She released her first-ever book, the poignant and powerful memoir Crying in H Mart, which was an instant bestseller. And she also put out her third record as Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee. By some measure her sharpest and finest record yet, Jubilee is bright, catchy, and nothing but forward momentum — even the slower cuts burst forward with a certain diamond-cut urgency that feels more pointed than prior albums. Songs like the soaring “Paprika” and the 80s-indebted “Be Sweet” are punchy and sticky, while more emotive and searching cuts like “In Hell” are melancholy and tender. Best of all is “Posing in Bondage”, where Zauner describes the specific feeling of waiting for someone to notice how hard you’ve been trying over there. It’s a varied and textured album, full of the frankness and cleverness Zauner has been known for, but it’s also catchier and clearer than ever before. – Jeremy J. Fisette


Vince Staples – Vince Staples

[Blacksmith / Motown]

Where certain megastar rappers release grossly overstuffed albums that come close to challenging the runtimes of your average Marvel movie, Vince Staples takes just 22 minutes to rule the rap game in 2021. On his very purposefully self-titled latest album, Staples is more unfiltered than he has ever been. This album may be short, but it’s as dense as a neutron star, and is built for repeat-listening. Gradually, Kenny Beats’ instrumentals, which initially strike you as strangely uninviting and anxiety-inducing, tap into something subconscious: a vibe tempered by depression, a kind of suicide-chill.

“Dead homies” haunt Vince Staples; the hood is endless and populated with ghosts, every street corner holds a memory of past misdeeds, and every turn holds the potential for danger, so you best have your gun tucked into your shorts. There is so much to unpack on Vince Staples, from the knotted verses to the detailed production; there’s simply no fat on this thing, it’s all muscle, lean and tense from a lifetime spent looking over one’s shoulder. You can keep your Dondas and your Certified Lover Boys; they spend far too much time saying not much at all. Vince Staples speaks volumes through brevity. – Andy Johnston


Backxwash – I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses

[Ugly Hag]

The trans experience is so greatly misunderstood and misrepresented. Media narratives present the idea that to be trans is to be in pain, but not understanding that the pain often comes not from being trans, but from being in a society that’s actively resisting your existence. 

Ashanti Mutinta, also known as Backxwash, is a rapper, producer, immigrant, and trans Black woman, having to contend with hostility on at least four different levels of intersectionality, with oppression coming from forces proclaiming righteousness. On her immense third album, I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES, she and her guests push through an industrial clamor of her own making to tell of the horrors they’re made to face but never diminishing their resistance with which they’re fighting back. DRESSES is a reclamation of identity that shows the ferocious overwhelm of daring to be authentic. – Mimi Kenny


Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – Candy Racer


A decade on from the viral success of “PONPONPON”, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and producer Yasutaka Nakata are still going strong. Over the years their particular combination of Euro-style club beats and elements of 90s Shibuya-Kei music has evolved to the point where it is often mistaken for hyperpop. However, where hyperpop draws heavily from maligned turn-of-the-millennium genres like pop-punk and third wave ska, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu takes a more traditionalist approach, drawing from Japan’s rich, unique history of pop music dating back to the 1970s. 

Candy Racer plays like a journey back in time, surging out of the gate with its dancefloor-ready chiptune-and-techno title track, making its way back through time to the City Pop homage “World Fabrication”. For those unfamiliar with Japanese pop, Candy Racer would make for a good primer, but for those already in the know, it’s Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s strongest offering yet. –  Harrison Suits Baer


Squid – Bright Green Field


Squid are a band initially from Brighton and nowadays based in London. That move had a great effect on the perspective that we see on their debut Bright Green Field. They’ve created a fictional city experience, which both feels based on the realities that they faced, as well as on pure imagination. It is conveyed by the lyrics, which are in some ways reminiscent of the Rashomon approach of telling one story through multiple sets of eyes. 

Squid’s instrumentals begin as cold, straight and almost mathematically calculated post-punk intros and progress into an absolutely chaotic and insanely energetic climax. The band have admitted to constantly visualizing their music, which may be the reason why some films come to mind when listening to their debut. With the permeating absurdity on Bright Green Field, the listeners experience fear and anxiety of modern city life, which is counteracted with a great sense of hopefulness, which probably has its roots in the sunny seaside of Brighton. – Aleksandr Smirnov


King Woman – Celestial Blues


Everyone wants to be like Lucifer – nobody wants to fall from heaven. Having your wings cut off hurts, after all. In a gesture of absolute defiance, Kristina Esfandiari bares her back on the front cover of King Woman‘s Celestial Blues, two deep cuts still seeping blood. On the nine songs contained therein, the singer embodies an ancient mystic, channeling the doomed Morning Star’s perspective. Likening him to a Joker-like scapegoat, she marries iconic imagery to swelling, doom-laden metal riffs: occult R’n’B. Slowly unravelling, Celestial Blues’ stories of cosmic suffering turn into hymns of emancipation and resurrection, allowing Esfandiari personal catharsis. As looming as Lucifer Morning Star has become in modern pop culture, the Iranian-American singer is the standout on a record without weak moments. An elysian blessing of infernal proportions, Celestial Blues is 2021’s untold, dark, luciferian masterpiece: a battle cry for lost souls. – John Wohlmacher


Karima Walker – Waking the Dreaming Body

[Keeled Scales / Orindal]

As the title says, Waking the Dreaming Body is an album of transitional states. Be it the slow yawned return to reality from a subconscious left to wander aimlessly during slumber, or that reconnecting with reality after staring into the distance for just that little bit too long, Karima Walker marvellously captures these in between states. Opening track “Reconstellated” is positively ready to evaporate into the surrounding air, much like the dissolving end of “Softer”. Everything here sounds like it could disappear before your eyes – and on the extended swathes of windy ambience on “Window I” they do just that every so often, the noise evaporating into silence. Walker re-establishes herself as she reconstructs (and deconstructs) her music; soft acoustic ballads and water-damaged piano chords become one with the surrounding natural world. It’s like music returning to nature by being swept away by gentle zephyrs, or by disintegrating into stardust, set to take its place in the night sky. Liminal spaces never sounded so beautiful.  – Ray Finlayson


Pink Siifu – GUMBO’!

[Dynamite Hill]

Looking like some psychedelic contortion of The Mask on his album cover, Pink Siifu gave us an accurate preview of his shape-shifting abilities as an artist. Siifu, who shined last year as one-half of the DOOM-influenced FlySiifu’s, shows a special talent for diversity on GUMBO’!.

Here we have a delightful mix (hence the album title) of punk rock energy, Dungeon Family grooves (featuring Big Rube himself), hallucinogenic bangers and laid-back stoner rap. And that’s all in the first 10 minutes. Speaking to Sonemic earlier this year, he described approaching the project as a greatest hits: “I really want y’all to take this in, have some fun, and play it loud.” Follow his advice and you’ll get it, straight up. – Ethan Reis


Portrayal of Guilt – We Are Always Alone / CHRISTFUCKER

[Closed Casket Activities / Run For Cover]

Austin hardcore trio Portrayal of Guilt bookended 2021 with January’s We Are Always Alone and November’s CHRISTFUCKER. Those album titles, while stark, only touch the tip of the darkness of these two slabs of inescapably brutal hardcore.

It started with “The Second Coming”, the opening track of WAAA, where Matt King spat acid as he informed us “The sky is falling / Hope is dwindling.” Everything after that point exists in a world where the sky has indeed fallen, but hope, while dwindling, still exists – only to fuel PoG to create ever more scabrous and black songs.

Throughout, the trio thunder with the power of a battalion of horses; King’s guitar and Blake Given’s bass melding heavy melodies, which are whipped into a frenzy by the industrial churn that is James Beveridge’s drumming. What might seem like a wall of ugly noise to a newcomer is actually full of atmosphere and luminously bruised hews. The loud-LOUD-loud dynamic is perfected, opening a portal to euphoric acceptance of life’s pointlessness. Just see the way in which the line “an endless cycle of ache” sounds heroic amidst the pyre of pain that is “Masochistic Oath”, or the way “Garden of Despair” slithers, bounces and destroys with genuine excited energy even though the band remind us once again “the pain never ends”.

If there were any cracks of light on WAAA (and it’d be fair to say there weren’t), they were completely shut out on the following CHRISTFUCKER. A move to beloved indie label Run For Cover did not temper PoG’s despair one bit, and nor would we have wanted it to. The only detectable change was a greater attention to dynamics, both in the playing and the recording, adding more hues to the black. “The Sixth Circle” exemplifies this, as it features cascading riffs the size of tsunami that are made even more impactful by the clarity of every drumbeat and nihilistic grown. It’s a trend that’s maintained through the rest of the 30-minute deluge; from the sidewinding insanity of “Sadist” to the anti-matter swallowing hiss of “Bed of Ash” to the trillion-tonne piledriver that is “Possession”.

We Are Always Alone welcomed us to 2021 by reminding us that the worst of 2020 was far from over. CHRISTFUCKER closed out 2021 by offering us a glimpse of the future: it’s all flames. At least we have Portrayal of Guilt to soundtrack the inevitable apocalypse. – Rob Hakimian


serpentwithfeet – DEACON

[Secretly Canadian]

It should never feel difficult to give love and to be given it in return. Working as serpentwithfeet, musician Josiah Wise has been discovering that love comes with its own traps and tribulations and obstacles to its realization. Previous records have dealt with various romantic fantasies and the ways in which they molded his own viewpoint on the consequences of affection. 

On DEACON, however, it seems that he’s finally found someone to match his lovely warmth on a similar emotional wavelength. Making his way through avenues of gospel, R&B, and soul, he creates a joyous ode to Black queer love and the details that feel so relevant and necessary for anyone in the thrall of physical and emotional adoration. His voice is as mesmerizing as ever, a wondrous thing filled with the bliss of companionship. There’s less overt drama here than on previous outings, with Wise opting instead to focus on the pleasures of simply being with someone and inhabiting the same physical space for as long as possible. 

There are moments on DEACON when darkness threatens the horizon, but it is quickly dispelled and replaced with a contentment that’s explored so intimately it feels as though we shouldn’t even be listening. – Joshua Pickard


Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature

[Ba Da Bing!]

Cassandra Jenkins is good for the soul, and if you ever feel like you need some aspect of your life or chakra realigned, then An Overview On Phenomenal Nature is the prescribed medicine.

Like a hearty, warm soup, Jenkins tickles that area inside your chest that makes everything feel like it will be okay. On her wonderful album An Overview On Phenomenal Nature she wanders around the world quietly, looking for answers and meaning. There’s trips to Norway to dive into freezing water in “New Bikini” (“The water / it cures everything”); conversations with an insightful security guard and a thoughtful bookkeeper on “Hard Drive” (“The mind is just a hard drive”); and pondering at clouds in the sky on “Ambiguous Norway” (“I see a range of cumulus / The majesty’s transmutation / Distant, ambiguous”).

Phenomenal Nature, wrapped up in gently scuffling drums, pleasingly meandering sax, and soft guitars, is wholesome and easy to digest. You might not find the answer, but every time you listen you might just find an answer to something you need a response to, even if you didn’t know you did. “All I want is to fall apart / In the arms of someone / Entirely strange to me,” Jenkins muses delicately on “Crosshairs”, and that might just be it. Realignment comes with repeated listens, so take another dose Phenomenal Nature as and when required. – Ray Finlayson


Helado Negro – Far In


With Far In, Roberto Carlos Lange, aka Helado Negro, further stylizes the electro-pop honed on 2016’s Private Energy and 2019’s This Is How You Smile, mixing glossy production approaches and an au courant DIY vibe.

On “Wake Up Tomorrow,” Lange’s voice shimmers amidst a flamenco-style guitar, snare beats, and ambient flourishes. With “Gemini and Leo,” he employs a Latin-inflected percussive palette. The languid chorus of “There Must Be a Song Like You” – the title repeated four times – is perhaps 2021’s most infectious pop hook. On the closing track, “Mirror Talk”, Lange’s echoey voice meanders dreamily through a quasi-psychedelic blend of electronica and chamber pop. The set, an hour-plus in duration, unfolds fluidly, a listener enthralled by Lange’s transcendent voice and seductive soundscapes. – John Amen


Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg


On “Scratchcard Lanyard”, Florence Shaw purrs, “do everything and feel nothing,” hinting at the aesthetic that informs Dry Cleaning’s full-length debut, New Long Leg: sonic expressionism contrasted with Shaw’s punk-inflected spoken-word delivery. This tension is further explored on “Leafy”, sultry bass and buoyant guitar parts undergirding Shaw’s aloof yet slightly volatile vocal. On the title song, Shaw’s voice occurs as similarly disembodied yet tense, bolstered by a shuffling beat and brassy guitar riff.

Lyrics are 21st Century Dada meets social-media-inflected diarism (imagine Gertrude Stein with a Twitter account). On closer “Every Day Carry,” Shaw occurs as a schizophrenic ghost, delivering disjointed images and epigrams as if they’re being generated by a supercomputer, instrumentation flaring in the background. New Long Leg oozes enthusiasm and cynicism, energy and ennui – a distinct work of art and anti-art. – John Amen


Circuit des Yeux – -io


Haley Fohr, also known as Circuit des Yeux, is not of this world. On her fourth full-length album under that name (Fohr also records as Jackie Lynn), -io, her near-androgynous baritone dodges in and amongst playfully ornate arrangements that are out of space and out of time, simultaneously deeply indebted to her forebears, and startingly novel-sounding. 

There’s a heavy dose of Scott Walker in the twisted crooning of “The Vanishing”, Third-era Portishead krautrock in “Dogma”, the PTSD-streaked art-pop of Xiu Xiu is strewn liberally amongst moments of arch-theatricality, Lingua Ignota, and yet, there also moments of quiet, vulnerable introspection, of disarmingly wounded beauty. Written in the aftermath of devastating personal loss, -io, sees Fohr retreat into an inner world that somehow mirrors the vast, implacable expanse of the universe, in all its wonder and terror. 

This vastness finds its expression in the grandest compositions of Fohr’s career, which would be all style without substance, if not for the impeccable quality of the songwriting on display, and her deeply impassioned performances. Fohr has sent out a signal from the planet -io that will go on repeating until the slow heat death of the cosmos takes us all. – Andy Johnston


Ka – A Martyr’s Reward

[Iron Works]

The sample that opens Ka‘s sixth album proclaims that they’re going to show it to us in black and white, and yet A Martyr’s Reward is the Brownsville underground rap legend’s most colourful album in some time. There are stylistic nods to psychedelic rock, trip-hop and even Radiohead-esque electronica-tinged krautrock in amongst Ka’s signature looping samples and old school New York hip-hop rhythms. And where his work has been mostly characterised by a noir-ish, downbeat mood, A Martyr’s Reward makes ample room for light and warmth and, on the likes of “Sad to Say”, genuinely wistful beauty. 

As Ka raps about the path that’s brought him to where he stands, and the threat of falling, he explores how his identity, his sacrifices, his success and his failures are irrevocably intertwined with the identity, sacrifices, success and failure of his people, of his community. The fact that for the second consecutive year, I am writing about a Ka album for BPM’s end of year best of list, is proof, if it were even needed, that he remains as consistent as his gravelly, monotonous delivery. Long may we reap the rewards. – Andy Johnston


Tyler, The Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST


Do we really know who Tyler Okonma is? Over the years, we’ve been presented with a host of personalities reflecting his evolving private and professional life. Offensive firebrand, purveyor of youthful ennui, and self-reflective scoundrel. There are just a few of the identities that he’s inhabited since he released Bastard in 2009. And he’s made his name by fully embracing the complexities, hypocrisies, and various other problematic aspects that have arisen due to his complete submersion within each perspective. 

Whether you stand in awe of the unexpected maturation in his later work or just can’t separate the earlier horrorcore tendencies from his current position as one of hip-hop’s greatest innovators, there’s no denying that Tyler, The Creator has shaped the landscape of rap music and will continue to do so while other rappers have come and gone and been swept into the forgotten recesses of the genre.

After the dense cauldron of sounds he presented throughout 2019’s IGOR, it was difficult to predict where he’d land on his next record. But now that we’ve been able to spend some time with CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, it’s become apparent that Tyler isn’t done adapting to his surroundings. In this case, it means looking back to mixtape aesthetics and sharing a collection of songs born from a grimy laboratory filled with exposed wiring, assorted body parts, and a lifetime’s worth of abandoned melodies. 

These 16 tracks act as a primer of sorts for Tyler’s career, a way for him to examine his own creative impulses while drawing out the best in the musicians around him. There is blood all over these tracks, with Tyler recalling years of pain while also managing to inject a helping of sordid humor and honest pathos into the darkest corner of his experiences. 
CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST is a living breathing exploration of all the musical instincts hardwired into Tyler’s brain. Sprawling, often bewildering and heartbreaking, it’s exactly what he wants to say right now and exactly how he wants to say it. – Joshua Pickard


Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure


It feels too often cliché when we talk about how an artist can come into their own voice on a particular project. This line of thinking seems slightly disingenuous as it implies that their past work is free of appreciable merit, and that this is the thing they should be remembered for, that they should be proud of. I’ve seen this reasoning applied in recent critiques of the latest record from Rebecca Taylor under her guise of Self Esteem. Prioritise Pleasure is certainly a definitive statement from Taylor – and one that refuses to be bound by either genre or her own musical history. 

But to view it in a vacuum apart from everything that has come before does it, and her, a disservice. These songs demand a great deal more excavation, if only to unravel the full picture of what she has accomplished. We must see how her past experiences in indie pop duo Slow Club have given her a suitable pop perspective through which she creates tales of heartache, social horrors, and self-confidence. This is all lensed through a decadent theatricality which she uses to pull apart our emotional connections to these specific sounds.

These songs feel less like individual declarations and more like a coherent philosophy, a cohesive core of thought around which she relates the struggles, joys, and alternating tides of relationship nuances that have shaped the way she sees the world around her. It’s such a fully formed world that any single part feels as though it contains multiples of crisscrossing narratives. Her voice is insistent, bitter, playful even at times, and decorates these songs with a painterly precision. There are moments of brash dissonance, silky pop persuasiveness, and undiluted sentiment. 

Despite the ecstatic nature of much of her work here, this is still a confrontational record, and she uses these musical standoffs as a way to peel back the realities that she faces every day. There are points here that she really shouldn’t have to make, that no one should have to make, but this world is full of terrible things and the consequences of these terrible things. Prioritise Pleasure is Taylor’s way of addressing these unfortunate truths and pushing back against the complacency that allows them to maintain such a prominent hold on our lives. – Joshua Pickard


Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – Haram

[Backwoodz Studioz]

Armand Hammer have released an album almost every year for the last handful of years – not to mention all the other projects that Elucid and billy woods have put out in that time. On the one hand, you could say they’re overflowing with inspiration, on the other, you could say that the world just keeps providing them with more targets for their uncompromising poison bars. On Haram, the duo are here to dismantle perceptions and deliver harsh truths about the ills that plague their history, society and artistry. 

Working with The Alchemist this time around hasn’t changed their approach, but it has certainly given their music greater heft. His detailed production helps to bring out the grey areas of their raps; he doesn’t put their cutting admissions on a pedestal, nor does he shroud them in darkness, but, by providing muted samples and walls of amorphous synths, he allows them to exist in an in-between. In this mindset, we can listen to the duo pontificate about slums in Venezuela, reflect on their brutal upbringings, or relay stories about strung-out sex workers, and remain hooked-in observers, just a breath away from the conversation. Armand Hammer aren’t here to send a message, they’re here to open your eyes to the horrors seeping out of every crack of society and challenge you to decide what your reaction will be. – Rob Hakimian


Spirit Of The Beehive – ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH

[Saddle Creek]

Philadelphia’s Spirit of the Beehive masquerade as experimental musicians while underneath they have a soft and warm pop underbelly. They’ve been parading around like this for years, fusing shoegaze, sampling, and psychedelia with granular pop. But the not-so-secret weapon of ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH is the full immersion of the weird.

Previous efforts, like 2018’s stellar Hypnic Jerks, found the band pushing their own boundaries further and further, and Spirit of the Beehive don’t sound like anyone else on ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH. Refined to just a trio, and on a new label, Spirit of the Beehive have explored the right sectors of the mind to give their latest a fuller and more gigantic sound. From the vocal shredding of “THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN’T DO” to the 60s-psych-pop-indebted “THE SERVER IS IMMERSED”, Spirit of the Beehive make their ultimate pitch to become the new purveyors of deconstructed pop, a torch previously carried by Deerhunter and Animal Collective. 

The digitized depressive state illustrated by a song like “WRONG CIRCLE” is really only the tip of the iceberg of the album’s nervous disposition. It’s one that begs for its protagonist to find meaning in a different way. And, if you ask the band anyway, that leaves two options: entertainment, or death. – Tim Sentz


Black Country, New Road – For the first time

[Ninja Tune]

Londoners Black Country, New Road are singers of the anxieties of the modern world – not only lyrically, but through their instrumentation and arrangements as well.  

For the first time makes seamless jumps between Gypsy-style jazz, Britpop-esque sensitivity, math-rock-influenced riffs, and something bizarre reminiscent of late 80s no wave. Most put it under ‘post-punk’, but that is an understatement of what this debut is; BC, NR are much more than that. Both the ever-changing sound of each track and the words therein persuade listeners to drop these irrelevant thoughts and focus on something consequential, like how it makes us feel.

There is a macro level to these lyrics. Isaac Wood’s unique and deeply personal approach to songwriting creates a brilliant juxtaposition between our inability to completely tune the crumbling world around us and the things that make it all worthwhile, like love, expressing ourselves, hoping to never feel like you’ve “always been the guest”.  Although most of the lyrics could be perceived as negative or pessimistic, there is no regret in them. BC, NR don’t wish for the world of today to have been different; they know it will continue changing, so there is no use crying about it. After all, in the end “what we built must fall to the rising flames”. – Aleksandr Smirnov


Pan Daijing – Jade 玉观音


There’s something wrong with this album. No, not in the way you think, not in its mix or incessant industrial shuffle. Something about it is… deeply at odds with reality, or at least our understanding thereof. It has the soothing, calm assurance of a horror film plot, leading the protagonists like pigs to slaughter. The fact that it is named after a precious stone – a beautiful material that looks like solidified, green liquid – can’t hide the outright demonic quality of some of the entities encased therein. There’s the strange goat of the second track, which seems more like an odd type of bug, buzzing over whispered, barely audible vocals. 

On “Tilt”, the protagonist encounters a person in the street whose mocking laughter and raspy, inhuman voice is the stuff of nightmares. “Let” has the speaker bath in the ocean, pondering the possibility of a doppelgänger and – possibly – their own death. But the meaning is veiled, hidden in ghostly labyrinths of atmospheric xylophones and distant (clarinet?) screams. 

In recent years, there’s been a renaissance of incredible female industrial musicians, all of them bringing a unique perspective to their sound. Pharmakon’s anguished body horror and Puce Mary’s political noise come to mind, but the closest comparison should be Sadaf’s “History of Heat”. Where the Iranian musician was influenced  by New York to craft dark rhythmic poetry, Pan Daijing marries a unique sense of Asian horror to the dark avant-garde electronica typical for Berlin. 

What exactly it is that haunts JADE remains elusive – and maybe it is something far older and far more significant than it appears; something which raises its head occasionally, as on Throbbing Gristle’s D.O.A. or SPK’s LEICHENSCHREI, to signal to us that it’s been there all along, nameless, hungry and devoid of empathy. Maybe it’s on this record, or waiting in an alley, laughing behind our backs, taking something from us we didn’t even know we possessed. – John Wohlmacher


Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises

[Luaka Bop]

Seven notes. A ripple of something between a piano, harpsichord, and celeste, is perhaps the most defining sound of the year. Those notes, played repeatedly by Sam Shepherd (aka Floating Points) are the beginning touch stones for some of the most exquisite and enchanting music of 2021. 

They are just one point, though, on a record full of supremely talented players. Not only does Shepherd wrangle in the divine swell and full force of the London Symphony Orchestra, he gives the spotlight to veteran saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, whose playing truly brings the record to life. A lucid weaver of musical strings that tie all the ambient-like glistens of keys and crescendos of strings together, Sanders feels like both the alien language you want to decipher and the translator turning the wordless environment into something tangible and comprehensible; when he speaks wordless flutters of his own voice on “Movement 4” you remember for a brief moment that this is music of earth.

It’s a repeated metaphor and simile, but Promises really does have an otherworldly, celestial quality to it. When everything burbles up to a peak on (especially during the album’s second half, when the LSO swim into the picture fully and almost threaten to take the spotlight away from Sanders entirely), it’s like you’re whooshing through nebulas and exploding supernovas, stars surrounding you and gaseous forms peppering the landscape. (It also makes the moments of pin drop-stillness and silence all the more affecting and stirring.) 

And that seven note refrain – a sort of Close Encounters-like communication device for all the musicians to work from, tethering the listener to a fixed point that magically always feels just out of reach – is our Rosetta Stone for this world. Decipher it, and Promises will surely only burst open with more life. But even without any translation, this magical, extra-terrestrial album will enrapture in ineffable ways we will try to put words to for decades to come. – Ray Finlayson


Lingua Ignota – SINNER GET READY

[Sargent House]

No artist manages to wrench out a tear and shiver of fear like Kristin Hayter; Lingua Ignota. Her last record, 2019’s Caligula, was a brutalizing albeit empowering listening experience, but one that also brought with it trigger-warning-worthy trauma almost impossible to take in all at once. With the horrifying heft behind Hayter’s howl driving this unrivaled exorcism of righteous rage, and given the pained stories written upon her heart, we could easily have expected her to make a record cut from the same cloth as Caligula.

But there’s nothing easy about Hayter’s music, neither in how it’s consumed nor created. On the memorably titled SINNER GET READY, Hayter proves with sea-parting power that she could pack an emotional punch just as devastating when she’s not screaming until her vocal cords are fried or when the sounds enveloping her voice are neither blistering nor murderous.

By removing the usual dense layers of harsh noise and traumatic screams, which kept some at arm’s length in the past, she’s drawn in people and made them invested in her continual story of consuming hell followed by rebirth. And, those willing to wade through her toiling waters are presented with an impossibly devastating experience that can hardly be fathomed. Now, listeners can see and hear Hayter. Truly, truly I say to you, she is Lingua Ignota, she is all-embracing in her communication of the pain that has haunted her – and that which is embodied by the spirit of human depravity. – Kyle Kohner


black midi – Cavalcade

[Rough Trade]

To place expectations upon post punk’s beloved weirdos black midi would be a gesture of immense disrespect toward just how inventive this outfit has become and will continue to be. 2019’s Schlagenheim was everything and nothing we’d ever heard – grating, explosive, daring, yet steeped in traditional prog and jazz. It was a phenomenal debut that was uniquely black midi, and something only they could create but never again. 

But alas, the youngsters from England returned, just two years removed from releasing one of the best experimental rock debuts in recent memory, with a work of art far more composed yet somehow more bizarre. Cavalcade sees its axe-wielding surgeons transition from their unfettered thirst for habitual improvisations and spastic freakouts, opting for more patient and operative postures, and yielding sprawling epics that are nothing short of jawdropping. From the mouth-frothing monstrosity of “John L” to the tender-hued bossa nova of “Marlene Dietrich”, Cavalcade sees black midi, once more, keep listeners on their tired, aching toes. 

Even those who think they’ve surrendered to black midi’s unexpected antics will have their spinning minds inevitably trying – and failing mind you – to navigate and predict Cavalcade’s labyrinthian wiring of adventurous art-rock. There may not be enough words to string together and capture what black midi is doing for the post-punk genre and even the future of guitar music as a whole. But whatever that significance may be, it will remain – undefinable, ever-changing, and uninterested in the boxes placed prematurely fitted to their evolving sound. – Kyle Kohner



[Sub Pop]

Low, the married duo of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, have spent the nearly 30 years together writing and performing their music with the hope that it changes the world, and HEY WHAT may be their boldest reach yet. Here, they opted to repurpose the fractured displacement of its astonishing predecessor Double Negative and drive home a new message of hope and remediation.

The message is heard loud and clear on HEY WHAT – with an emphasis on the loud, as Low reach sonic breakthroughs once thought impossible for a band traditionally classified as slowcore. The stunning opener “White Horses” nearly reinvents the sound of guitars altogether thanks to producer BJ Burton, while the blitzkrieged “More”, with Parker’s quivering vocal, skitters across the eardrums like a pensive angel. 

The healing process after a trauma is a long road, with obstacles and setbacks; and progress always seems to take two steps forward and five steps back. During the writing process, Low’s home state endured rioting as a result of police brutality, and the rest of the world watched and burned with it. Low don’t necessarily fan the flames with “The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)”, but rather institute an establishment of responsibility for our actions by way of it’s chorus “And I know what they want / to forget the hurt / But either side you’re on / It’s not what you deserve.”

Activism has always been at Low’s center, but this late career reinvention that started with 2015’s Ones and Sixes represents a stronger awakening within them. While HEY WHAT is filled with reflection and honesty about their own relationship (“Don’t Walk Away”) and reservations about moving on (“I Can Wait”), most resounding is the notion that society can reconnect if we simply understand our place here and rebuild what was destroyed. HEY WHAT, just like Double Negative, is very of its time, and acts as a signal of the gradual replenishment of our faith in humanity, which is extremely valuable in an era that doesn’t seem to harbor much of it.  – Tim Sentz

Catch up with the rest of our Best of 2021 content here.

Listen to a Spotify playlist of our highlights from our Top 50 Albums of 2021 here.