Top Twenty Albums of 2021

Top+Twenty+Albums+of+2021

Ryan Valenty, Staff Writer

 

2021, like 2020, was certainly an interesting year! The one good thing to come out of these anxious and disorienting times has been the increase in quality music in recent months. The pandemic has given artists time to reflect on their lives and refine their crafts, and the music of this year benefited greatly. This list is certainly biased towards my taste in music – of course – which tends to lean towards regional music, jazz, outlaw country, and psychedelic rock. Just a fair warning. There are certainly albums that I enjoyed from this year that aren’t on here, but I had to cut it off somewhere.

 

With all of that out of the way, here are, in my opinion, the best twenty albums from this year!

 

  1. Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime

Tishoumaren (West African psychedelic rock)

It’s tishoumaren (a genre known for being desert-esque), sure, but this album encapsulates the desert in a way that no other album I’ve ever heard does. The repetitive, hypnotic groove of each song feels like a sweaty heat wave drenched in reverb and fuzz. Naturally, as most tishoumaren is, the album is incredibly psychedelic – the sandy, drugged out buzz of songs like ‘Afrique Victime’ and ‘Chismiten’ resonate long after their run time expires. This is Moctar and Co.’s best effort yet (yes, ahead of Ilana: The Creator), and I hope his signing for Matador will really expose tishoumaren to the world.

 

  1. Grand Picture Palace – Grand Picture Palace

Chamber Jazz 

The first of many albums this year from the flourishing Belgian chamber jazz scene that I really loved. The arrangements are incredibly tight, the band has a noticeable chemistry, the solos are all fantastic (bass solo on ‘Maryward’ especially), and the production is excellent. Each instrument has its time in the proverbial sun on this record, and all 40 minutes feel fresh and innovative. There’s enough variety on this record alone to keep me satisfied until their next record. If you are interested in diving into the Belgian chamber scene, start here.

 

  1. Enji – Ursgal

Vocal Jazz, Mongolian Pop

Gorgeous, sparse vocal jazz with subtle hints of Mongolian urtiin duu weaved throughout. Enji’s powerful but subdued voice is one of the more captivating things I’ve heard all year. Rarely is the album more than a subdued backing track and her voice. This record popped up out of nowhere; Enji has established herself as one of the breakout artists of the year.

 

  1. Le Tigre (des platanes) – Terminus Radioso

Avant-Garde Jazz

This album is so much fun! The opening song, ‘L’oeil du Crabe’, grabs your shirt collar and yanks you into the album. It’s the perfect opener; the booming, steady drum sets the tone for the remaining tracks. The album often feels more like a sustained sprint than a marathon; Rarely does the band take a moment to breathe during the fifty minute run time, and the album is better for it. Blaring horns and thundering drums crack through glorious and inventive pieces, and each musician is on absolute fire.

 

  1. Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince

Chamber Folk, Ghazal

The instrumentation on this is gorgeous, sure, but the primary focus of this album are Aftab’s powerful vocals. Her vocals have gotten so much better since her debut album in 2014, which in turn makes the whole album feel more clear and focused. The ghazal and qawwali influence on this album take it beyond a typical chamber folk/art pop album and transform the record into a bold statement piece about Pakistani heritage and Sufi mysticism. 

 

  1. Fleet Foxes – A Very Lonely Solstice

Chamber Folk

Year after year, each record that Fleet Foxes release instantly becomes one of my favorites of the year. Songs that were on previous records lushly orchestrated pieces are stripped down to just the bare essentials. Robin Pecknold’s voice on this album is another highlight – the natural acoustics of the recording venue (a spacious cathedral) amplify his deep, smooth tone, and – in my opinion – make the songs better. It helps that two of my favorite FF songs are redone here.

 

  1. Patrick Shiroishi – Hidemi

Avant-Garde Jazz

Shiroishi (whom I was introduced to by another album on this list) manages to make a tight, flowing, and Stetson-esque avant-garde masterpiece that speaks to his Asian-American heritage and how to navigate that in the modern world. The pulsating and fluttering saxophone was mildly headache-inducing on first listen, but I’m incredibly glad that I returned. This is certainly an album that takes more than one listen to fully unwrap.

 

  1. Rostro del Sol – Rostro del Sol

Jazz-Rock, Heavy Psych

Extremely jazzy, extremely proggy, and extremely heavy psych rock. Normally progressive rock bores me to tears, but the addition of jazz elements into the album keeps it interesting. The psychedelic element also can’t be understated – the music seems to pulsate in a way that other psychedelic music can’t replicate. The riffs are insane, and that’s all I ever really want out of my heavy psych.

 

  1. Jaubi – Nafs at Peace

Chamber Jazz, Hindustani Classical

I love Hindustani classical music, and I love chamber jazz, so what could really have gone wrong here? Who knows – certainly nothing did here. The Hindustani classical elements blend with the jazzy bits gorgeously, and it reminds me of mystical Sufi music. Sarangi and tabla flood your ears with repetitive, hypnotic, and droning grooves that bring this record to the next level.

 

  1. Maurice Louca – Saet el Hazz

Avant-Folk

Louca continues his run of groundbreaking albums – his fusion of Arabic folk, jazz, and improvisation laced with psychedelic undertones is a breath of fresh air. Each track is performed with a different set of instruments, from the gamelan to the cello. Some of the tracks feel haunted; As each track on the album pops and crackles, you wonder if it is going to break.

 

  1. Black midi – Cavalcade

Avant-Prog, Jazz Rock

This album is… insane. It’s dense, chaotic, anxious, and quite enigmatic. I’ve listened to this album a bunch of times, and I still don’t know the lyrics. I still don’t know what instrument makes what sound on each track. Where did they find a doumbek? What even is a doumbek? How do you play “objects”? (seriously, look at the album credits) I mean, really, I don’t care how they did it, I’m just glad they did. It does wind me up, though – definitely not lullabies by any stretch of the imagination.

 

  1. Fuubutsushi – Yamawarau

Chamber Jazz, Ambient

Yamawarau is the third album out of a series of four that reflects each season. It’s chamber Jazz that borders on ambient at times, but like the other records in the series, never fully gets there. The tracks are both lush and sparse at the same time, and each member of the quartet contributes to that feeling in their own way. Patrick Shiroishi, whose album features earlier on this list, notably contributes to the spoken word tracks. The music seems to blossom in the same way that spring flowers do, perfectly capturing the spirit of the album cover.

 

  1. Ballaké Sissoko – Djourou

Mande Music

Gorgeous music that is rarely more than a string instrument and a voice. Sissoko is a master of the kora, a West African instrument that few remaining people can play proficiently. He also belongs to a griot family, meaning each male member of his family is employed as a musician. Sissoko teams up with French singers like Camille to create a dreamy and hypnotic atmosphere. Check this album out if you’ve never heard of the kora before.

 

  1. Kirszenbaum – Się

Polish Folk

This album is exactly what I love out of folk music; it feels so deeply rooted in the local tradition of the country while still delivering a fresh sound. The avant elements highlight the foresty feeling of the whole record, and it’s hard to listen to without picturing a dense, European forest.

 

  1. Jack Ingram/Miranda Lambert/Jon Randall – The Marfa Tapes

Country, Field Recordings

I adore lo-fi, hazy, fuzzed out music, and that is exactly what I got on The Marfa Tapes. Fifteen songs recorded in the stiflingly-hot West Texas desert, which leaves its mark on every track. These three also have fantastic chemistry, and the ambiance of the recording environment (crackling fire, tapping feet, laughter) add to the intimacy of this album. Miranda Lambert shocked me with this album. Truly one of the only times this year my expectations for an album have been totally upended.

 

  1. Joseph Spence – Encore: Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing

Acoustic Blues, Caribbean Folk

If you’ve never heard of Joseph Spence before, please give this album a shot. His steel-stringed guitar, tappin’ foot, raspy voice, and calypso-infused rhythms will bring you to a Bahamian sea-side porch that you won’t want to leave.

 

  1. Al-jiçç – Chants

Arabic Jazz / Klezmer Jazz / Jazz manouche

There are very few things in this world that I love more than jazz infused with regional music. Al-jiçç are a Portuguese jazz collective that infuse Jewish, Arabic, Romani, and African influence into their ground-breaking, horn-loving jazz. Klezmer and Romani music always tend to fuse particularly well with jazz, and that trend certainly doesn’t end here.

 

  1. Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future

Afro-jazz

Sons of Kemet are part of the absolutely thriving London jazz scene. The blaring brass on this record combines with rhythmic Afrobeat drumming to create SoK’s best album so far, and certainly their most enrapturing. The vocal tracks are honestly better than the instrumental tracks in my opinion – *Hustle* is in my top 5 songs of the year, and is certainly one of my most played. I hope SoK continues in this direction.

 

  1. Nezelhorns – Sentiment

Avant-Garde Jazz

Interesting avant-garde jazz that takes a few tracks to warm up to. After the adjustment period, you are confronted with blaring brass sections and a tight bassline. I think we’ve figured out the recipe to a good jazz release this year – lots of horns, lots of energy, and a killer bass player.

 

  1. Vincent Neil Emerson – Vincent Neil Emerson

Outlaw Country

One of the bright spots in the modern outlaw country scene that can’t seem to gain any steam. Emerson’s songwriting is the clear standout aspect of this record; Songs like ‘Learnin’ to Drown’ are reminiscent of the great Townes Van Zandt, whose influence on Emerson is evident. Emerson has the potential to be one of the vanguards of a 2020s country revival, along with Sturgill Simpson and Colter Wall.