We here at BPM believe the album format remains the ultimate expression for an artist, and, pleasingly, it seems most music makers still hold it in the highest regard – well, except for those who just stuff them with tracks to bulk out streaming figures.
That’s why we try to keep up a constant stream of album reviews, to promote them and provoke discussion around them. Of course, there are thousands of albums being released all the time – one probably just dropped while you were reading this. Inevitably, there are always albums that slip through the net, either because we didn’t have enough writers to cover them, the writer ultimately couldn’t find the time to write it, or we just didn’t even hear about it until way after its release.
So, before we reveal our EPs, songs and albums of 2021 throughout the week, we wanted to pick out the diamonds from the albums we failed to review over the course of the year, and give them their moment in the spotlight.
Andy Shauf has become a modern master of rich, story-driven concept albums. His 2020 album The Neon Skyline found a group of young-ish characters enjoying a night out on the town at their local bar, as the listener gradually learns about their troubled relationships, downtrodden backstories, and all other sorts of anecdotal world-building.
In 2021, Shauf is back with a companion album of sorts called Wilds, which takes some familiar faces and drops them into new scenarios. The record’s downplayed release is no indication of its quality, though, and Wilds finds Shauf staying in top form, blending carefully laid storytelling (“Spanish on the Beach”) with some of the catchiest tunes he’s ever conceived (“Jeremy’s Wedding (Wilds)”). Wilds may be the modest epilogue to its more prominent predecessor, but it also serves as an excellent interlude to Shauf’s next concept, whatever that may be. – Grady Penna
Animated Matter – Selkie
On Selkie, Hannah Elizabeth Cox and David Yann Robert, a.k.a. Animated Matter, navigate ambient soundscapes that are alternately lush and minimal, buoyant and chthonic, conjuring archetypal themes and evoking complex emo-cognitive responses. “teeming” features swells and contractions in volume that point to ontogenetical and ontological arcs. “current” revolves around sonic welters that occur as primordial winds and the shifting of geological templates, the piece at once celestial and stygian, hypnotic and anxiety-inducing. “found” opens with drone-y synths and inchoate melodies, Cox’s ghostly voice vaguely present, as if rising from beneath miles of water. Crafting sonic gestalts that place consciousness and the natural elements in a mytho-evolutionary context, Cox and Robert illustrate how the ache for physical and energetic deliverance is integral to the human story. – John Amen
The Bug – Fire
Recording as The Bug, UK producer Kevin Martin uses elements of grime, dancehall and electronic music to create earthquakes, whirlwinds, and other assorted natural disasters. His latest album, Fire, true to its name, scorches anything in its path, leaving nothing but burnt embers and the lingering smell of smoke in the air. This is the end of the world, and Martin deftly soundtracks the possible decline of the human race.
Staking out themes of social and political unrest, he emboldens the music to act as both warning and punishment for those with an able ear to the ground. Aggressive, complicated, and liable to place a few extra thumps in your heartbeat, Fire is a monster that demands confrontation, asking that we acknowledge and face our fears in the face of some grand impending doom. And make no mistake, if we don’t tackle these things head on, all that’ll be left are the ashes of what we once knew. – Joshua Pickard
CL – Alpha
To say CL waited on this moment is really to express very little at all. Ever since 2NE1 broke up – and even beforehand – many were waiting, expecting, a solo debut from the Korean legend. She was ensnared in a boggled attempt at an American takeover, promised success from none other than everyone’s least favorite industry douchebag, Scooter Braun, something that, to say the least, he completely reneged on delivering upon.
So, at last, she decided to do it on her own, finally releasing her debut album, ALPHA, via her own label, Very Cherry (with support from Sony). It’s no exaggeration to say she genuinely fought a battle to reach this point, and the music on ALPHA feels rightfully victorious.
While this writer might have preferred the album focus more purely on her rapping – she’s at her best across the likes of braggadocious “Spicy” – there’s no denying that the album puts every side of CL’s talents on display: from her gift as (yes, indeed) an MC, to her voice, to her creative vision. Rather than settle into any one lane, she’s defiantly displaying just how good she is at just about everything. Ranging from pop – of both Western and Korean varieties – to hip hop to R&B to something in between them all, it’s quite simply a tour de force. How could we have let her linger in waiting for so long? – Chase McMullen
Dave – We’re All Alone in this Together
British rapper Dave has always been in love with the idea of storytelling as experience in sound. His songs feel completely realized, existing in a world where words contain considerable power, possessing the ability to shape our personal realities. We’re All Alone in This Together is a monument to his instincts as a narrator of painful memories and historical references which have molded him as an artist and as a person.
Musically, the songs teeter between full-on cacophony and more subtle arrangements that highlight the ache and desperation in his voice. Often, these stories are so personal and intimately sculpted that it feels in poor taste to impose ourselves. But he wants us to know what he’s been through, and how these experiences have molded his perspective on life. Dave knows that we need each other to survive – and not just to survive, but to live. –Joshua Pickard
Goat Girl – On All Fours
London’s Goat Girl came back strong with their second album; a fuller, more dynamic collection that drips with confidence – just listen to the way Clottie Cream snarls “I have no shame when I say ‘step the fuck away’” on the opening “Pest”. That resilience and power is exuded through every facet of On All Fours; Goat Girl’s sound may be rooted in indie or garage rock, but here they move it to several different planes through heady combinations of their elastic bass, versatile rhythms and polychromatic synths.
There’s the luminous brass-punctuated wobble of “Jazz (in the Supermarket)”, the way “Sad Cowboy” morphs into a house track, and the fidgeting and crackling psych-groove of “Closing In”, to name just a few ways in which they keep the energy flowing vibrantly throughout. Let’s not discount the lyricism either, which seems like reflections on our own society, seen through a warped, extra-terrestrial lens – but that doesn’t make the observations any less cutting or valid. One that reveals more depth and sonic intrigue on each repeat listen, On All Fours has remained in my rotation all year. – Rob Hakimian
Gruff Rhys – Seeking New Gods
Who’d have thought a damn volcano would inspire arguably Gruff Rhys‘ most intimate – and best – solo album to date. Centered around Mount Paektu, on the North Korean and Chinese border, the Super Furry Animals frontman digs into the mythical nature of the stratovolcano and uses it as a source to dig into all angles of his character, indeed, he breathes human life into the mountain, crafting it into a representation of both himself and the human condition.
If this sounds overly grand, never fear, the music is as immediate as his warm blend of psychedelia, rock, and pop has ever been. He weaves a grand historical, mythological context into a deeply personal narrative, a bizarre gem that in any other hands would never have worked so well. As inviting as it is unusual, Seeking New Gods is as transportive and ultimately healing music. It’s all too easy to get lost in its odd little universe, to emphasize with a place most all of us will never be able to visit. It’s a shame, because the album makes the location feel like a long lost friend. – Chase McMullen
Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
On If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, the charismatic Halsey delivers a sublime sequence, despite a glossy production MO courtesy of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that occasionally compromises the project’s immediacy.
The elegant and hook-y “Bells in Santa Fe” showcases Halsey’s natural vocal talent, her voice accented by classically inflected piano and string sounds. A distortion filter on “Lilith” gives her voice a 90s post-grunge vibe. On “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God,” Halsey revels in a Plath-Sexton-and-Olds-indebted self-portrayal, mining the ever-popular “narcissism-meets-self-loathing” template. “The Lighthouse,” with its bluesy and clamorous flair, gives the album added sonic range. The dated ring of the Reznor/Atticus production stamp aside, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is a further illustration of Halsey’s formidable talents, her dark-pop sensibilities and tragi-romantic mystique pretty much irresistible. – John Amen
Kacy Hill – Simple, Sweet, and Smiling
Who would have guessed, at least around the release of Like a Woman, that Kacy Hill would grow into one of the most compelling and emotive pop songwriters of her generation? Certainly not Kanye West when he let her go. As her 2020 effort, Is It Selfish If We Talk About Me Again, readily displayed, G.O.O.D. Music simply mishandled the talent they had on their hands.
She’s hit a homerun again with Simple, Sweet, and Smiling. Don’t let the title or that glossy, pinup cover fool you: it’s pointed satire. Written during a series of panic attacks, it’s an album full of wishing one was perfectly stable, happy, and in self-control, but being anything but. In other words, it’s deeply relatable to more than a lot of us. With a nostalgic, bright sound that yearns for the past while pointedly offsetting her pained lyrics, yet never sounds saccharine, Simple, Sweet, and Smiling is an album from a woman mature beyond her years, and easily one of 2021’s most enjoyable, empathetic, and unsung pop albums. – Chase McMullen
Kinlaw – The Tipping Scale
Kinlaw was a dancer and choreographer before she was a fully-fledged solo musician, and it’s a skill and quality she has carried forward. On her debut album The Tipping Scale her voice swims, glides, and slips between the icy synths and textured drum machines, like she’s moving her whole body with each note she sings. With a deliberate tone and delivery, sometimes Kinlaw drops to a spoken word moment with the ease of Jenny Hval, making The Tipping Scale feel personable and direct at points, despite its cold and sometimes desolate tone.
If not a sort of sister record to Half Waif’s The Caretaker from last year, I always heard The Tipping Scale at least as a close cousin. It draws you in that little more each time, slowly unfurling another layer with each listen; it’s allure comes from wanting to find that shining centre, but Kinlaw always keeping the listener an arm’s length away. It’s a deliberate arm’s length though, which is no surprise from a trained dancer; “If I’m a choreography / I’m moving out of time with you now”, she utters on “Two Poets”. Kinlaw might be referring to a relationship wearing away in this instance, but it also serves as the perfect example of how she always seems that little bit ahead or behind us. Whichever way it is, the result is alluring enough to keep you coming back to try get in time with her. – Ray Finlayson
Kyron – Ascending Plume of Faces
[Library of the Occult]
One of the most surprisingly wyrd albums of 2021 came with this very late entry. An album situated somewhere between Library Music, Warp records IDM and Hauntology, Kyron‘s Ascending Plume of Faces conjures the strange image of an alternate reality, where Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin released their first material in the mid 70s, using Moogs and Mellotrons, field recordings and broken tape samples to create their sonic sigils.
Coming from the arcane Library of the Occult online label – a treasure trove to those hungering for the wyrd – the haunted quality of Kyron’s music still never feels overtly sinister or scary. If it were a drink, it would be a Negroni: slightly bitter, enriched with a deep and luminescent colour, invigorated with a dark night time aura and a hint of the unfamiliar. – John Wohlmacher
Lil Ugly Mane – volcanic bird enemy and the voiced concern
Ok, this one is on us – we messed up. Lil Ugly Mane‘s volcanic bird enemy and the voiced concern is, easily, one of the best albums of 2021. A sprawling psychedelic Pop masterpiece that defies genre conventions, hits the Zeitgeist and delivers about… maybe a dozen hit singles. It’s beautiful and genuinely unsettling, a sibling to Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition in tone and attitude. And there really is no excuse for why most of us only stumbled over this around the time of our year end list tally-up, resulting in a post-list realization for some that, damn, this could have been a top five contender.
As I said: yeah, this one is on us…But we should have been aware of what a great track “Benadryl Submarine” is, of the unsettling political undercurrent to “Human Fly”, of the strange, Caretaker-like hangover of “Styrofoam”, grooved to the beautiful underwater bop of “Discard” and headbanged to the My Bloody Valentine-referential shoegaze of “Headboard”. Maybe then we would have agreed earlier that Lil Ugly Mane is like a Zoomer Beck: a man who manages to transcend rap and rock conventions in order to deliver diaristic cartoon short stories for a clueless generation. – John Wohlmacher
Lloyd Taylor-Clark – Swan Songs
Truly an unassuming and quietly plucky little record, Lloyd Taylor-Clark‘s Swan Songs is a wonderful and delicate album that slid by as calmly and gracefully as the album’s titular bird along a pond on a peaceful summer’s day.
Full of warm fingerpicked acoustic guitar and softly introspective daydream-like lyrics, Taylor-Clark sounds as wistful as someone who has been conjuring acoustic landscapes for decades. Reminiscent of the inspiring wholesome folk of both the likes of Bert Jansch and Vashti Bunyan, but also modern takes like the soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davis, the music on Swan Songs sounds like it has been delicately collecting dust on your shelf since the late 60s. Mixed wonderfully by friend Nathan Ridley, the additional percussive clack and ascending guitar line on “London Water” or the finger drums on “Jawbone” add splashes of colour to Taylor-Clark’s inventive and sometimes slightly abstract arrangements. Pining after the streets of London, Taylor-Clark serves up a small dose of reminiscing that is fixated half on images out his window and half in his head. Swan Songs is a welcome walk along this imaginative line. – Ray Finlayson
Madi Diaz – History of a Feeling
Heartbreak is as common a songwriting subject as they come, and yet there is something special in how singer-songwriter Madi Diaz contributes to that age-old conversation on her newest record, History of a Feeling. Diaz’s strife is communicated through matter-of-fact, almost painfully-detailed stories, sung with her steady, emotive voice.
One of the more interesting tricks Diaz plays on History of a Feeling is that she doesn’t let herself off the hook, acknowledging her own mistakes while lamenting those of her partner. Songs like “Nervous” see Diaz basically denying the self-betterment she knows she needs; on “Crying in Public” she’s haunted by these sorrowful feelings, spiking up at the least opportune times; on “Man in Me” she admits “I’m not proud of kicking in your bathroom door”, unable to take her hurtful words back; but then on “Think of Me” she’s acidically dressing down her former partner.
The album ends with a delicately powerful one-two punch, with “New Person, Old Place” observing her inability to grow and heal unless she gets herself out of her complacency, and “Do it Now” begging for a decision to be made (“If you’re gonna love me, do it now”). History of a Feeling is a beautiful, blisteringly direct record, with Madi Diaz being at the height of her powers, adding a fine gem to the world’s collection of break-up albums. – Jeremy J. Fisette
Margo Cilker – Pohorylle
There are voices that breathe certain geographies. Loretta Lynn embodies Kentucky, while Joni Mitchell exists as the perpetual spirit of Laurel Canyon. And now we can add Margo Cilker as the voice of the Pacific Northwest, though she does make a few stops from Nashville to Lake Charles, picking up a bit of that sweet Southern twang.
On her debut record, Pohorylle, she develops a gorgeously realized rurality free of the burdens of her folk and country influences. These songs watch their breath in the night air and shiver as the cold sneaks in through cracks in the walls. In the same way that Lucinda Williams can bring you to your knees with just a simply spoken memory, Cilker can reach into your heart and find things that you thought were long buried. She does so gently but with enough conviction to bring a tide of tears down your cheeks. – Joshua Pickard
Sarah Mary Chadwick – Me and Ennui Are Friends, Baby
[Ba Da Bing!]
What does pain do exactly? Does it make us more rounded human beings? More experienced? There is, of course, no easy answer, and Sarah Mary Chadwick knows this probably more than most. Her most recent album, Me and Ennui Are Friends, Baby, is pain as music. Moving between death (of her father and a close friend), attempted suicide, and the breakdown of a long-term relationship, Chadwick spares very little here.
Her approach is unflinching and devastatingly direct; “I’m scared of dying but that / Won’t stop me trying / Tried to end it all, I’d not tried lately / August 11 2019,” she recites on the title track. Me and Ennui Are Friends, Baby is not an easy listen. For the most part it’s almost hellishly bleak and distressing, and it’s nowhere near my most played albums of the year. But its significance and unshrinking presentation is apparent from the very first listen; it’s no more than Chadwick singing over unadorned piano, like someone took the theatrics away from Amanda Palmer but kept the rawness.
Records like these are important. Even the glimpses of light and humour amidst the despair (the almost dreamlike haziness of “Full Mood”, the diverting remark about the waiter at the end of “A Mother’s Love”) feel like they are coming after a traumatically sad day. It’s disarmingly healing and maybe even soothing at points, but still consistently difficult to divert your attention from when it’s playing. To paraphrase Nietzsche, the pain might not make us better, but it will change and maybe even strengthen us. One can only hope that Chadwick has come out of it all stronger too. – Ray Finlayson
Skee Mask – Pool
It’s fair to say that German producer Bryan Müller aka Skee Mask is more concerned with the integrity of his music than trying to adapt to the modern marketplace. Following his breakthrough with 2018’s Compro, he’s released a series of EPs, only one of which is on streaming platforms, and now Pool, an uncompromising 1h43m album that can only be heard through his Bandcamp. But, those who have purchased the album will know that it’s worth every penny and every second as it transports you to every corner of the multiverse.
He eases us in with the first few tracks, giving as a smooth lift off with light thrusters, fizzing ambience all around. Things start picking up with the beat-heavy “Rdvnedub” and from there we’re shifting through intergalactic gears with fluidity, speeding through the celestial sparkle of “CZ3000 Dub” and finally hitting warp speed on the lightspeed quest that is “DJ Camo Bro”. From that trio onwards, Pool is a literal deep dive into the the sonic treasure trove that Müller has unlocked, and in doing so he’ll also unlock new portals in your imagination. The 100 minutes passes in a flash, whether you’re dancing, working or zoning out, but don’t be surprised if you’re a little dizzy after. – Rob Hakimian
SLONK – Where Do You See Yourself In Five Years?
A quarter-life crisis is a feeling matched only by its midlife adjacent. Even then, turning 25 is arguably a more pivotal and anxious time that is difficult to grasp and communicate when it seems like shit is hitting the fan every damn day. The depressive mid-20s is a season of sudden and ceaseless dismay made more desperate as the excuse of one’s maturation, or lack thereof, fades away, yielding to the harsh surprises life deals to those who’ve failed to learn from their mistakes. This is a time and mental headspace shared by many, especially by yours truly. Unfortunately, it’s often impossible to communicate this unavoidable dilemma with precision and without toiling under the weight of existential dread.
Thankfully, writing songs about dashed potential and aspirations is the calling card of Joe Sherrin, aka SLONK. On his latest record, aptly titled Where Do You See Yourself In Five Years?, Sherrin absolves his listeners of these burdened sentiments of inadequacy through many shared chants and jaunts amidst the desperations of his own quarter-life crisis. There’s nothing groundbreaking happening with this quaintly emo, gang vocal-ladened project. Still, its earnest, lo-fi charm is enough to heartbreakingly capture the towering expectations often poured onto us as children, but never met. – Kyle Kohner
Tinashe – 333
That the industry apparently couldn’t figure what to do with Tinashe is a shame. That she’s rebounded so well as an independent artist is a triumph.
On 333, Tinashe’s second album since going solo, the R&B singer flaunts her confidence with songs both too fun and too personal to warrant any record label meddling. In a more just world, the Hot 100 would be ruled by tracks like “Bouncin’” and “The Chase”. But, knowing Tinashe was able to create them without compromise makes them all the sweeter. – Mimi Kenny
Ulla – Limitless Frame
It seems ambient sound artist Ulla’s evolution is truly unending. 2020’s Tumbling Towards a Wall felt like something of a peak at the time, and what a foolish notion that was.
Limitless Frame, much as its title implies, expands her sound ever outwards, keeping Ulla at the very forefront of experimentation within her chosen genre. It spirals and unfurls, coils and retracts, all by turns. In a genre all too often lambasted (or at least playfully mocked) as ‘sleep music’, Ulla’s craftsmanship offers seemingly endless possibilities, rewarding the attentive listener with layer upon layer of unique sounds and ideas. To say it ranks among the year’s best ambient works is to put it lightly. – Chase McMullen