Once again, we are thrilled to share with you, our readers we are forever grateful for, the music that has ushered us through another tumultuous year. As is always the case when we annually celebrate our Top 50 Albums at Across the Margin, what we are proud to present here is simply the albums we are most thankful for in any given year (not particularly “the best”). Those which received the greatest play, moved us with the deepest emotion, and settled most soundly in our souls. So, without further delay, let’s step in and drop the needle…
50. Eamon O’ Leary — The Silver Sun
A truly wonderful and enchanting traditional folk album kicks off this year’s top albums countdown, brought to vivid life by singer-songwriter Eamon O’ Leary. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, O’ Leary currently calls New York City’s Lower East Side home and, remarkably, his latest album, The Silver Sun, was recorded in the eclectic neighborhood in a single afternoon. The under-the-radar folk phenomenon, who has previously collaborated with the likes of Beth Orton, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Anais Mitchell, and Sam Amidon muses about relationships and love lost yet somehow found again on the album. It’s a wonderfully blended concoction of guitar, mandola, organ, piano, electric guitar, fiddle, and bass that has been woven together to stunning results.
49. Leon Bridges — Gold-Diggers Sound
Pardon our frankness here, but Fort Worth, Texas singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Leon Bridges’ latest album, Gold-Diggers Sound, is straight-up baby making music. Featuring a smooth as silk offering of sultry and intoxicating R&B, Gold-Diggers Sound is assuredly a product of the pandemic era and a triumphant ode to the late nights Bridges’ spent recording at the Los Angeles-based studio the album is named after. The album celebrates Bridges’ “immersive experience of creating music in the same East Hollywood room where he lived, worked, and drank over the course of two years. The soulful collaboration between Leon as an artist and the space itself was so encompassing that he chose to name the album after the studio complex.” Gold-Diggers Sound was, rather appropriately, nominated for Best R&B Album at the 2022 Grammy Awards.
48. Yasmin Williams — Urban Driftwood
Yasmin Williams is one of the most impressive guitar virtuosos we have ever encountered. The charming story of her love affair with the guitar is delightful to behold. Williams grew up in northern Virginia where various genres of music ranging from smooth jazz to hip-hop were played in her household. She was introduced to the guitar after playing the video game Guitar Hero 2 and became instantly curious. Williams begged her parents to buy her a real electric guitar and once she received it and an amplifier, she taught herself how to play by ear. After a few years of playing the electric guitar, she taught herself how to play the bass guitar, 12-string guitar, and classical guitar before eventually deciding to switch her focus to the acoustic guitar because of the instrument’s versatility. While still only in high school in 2012, Williams released her first EP, Serendipity, which she recorded and mixed herself. Ever since that moment, her star has continued to rise, leading to this year’s phenomenal release Urban Driftwood, an alluring and dramatic journey of an album that needs to be heard in aggregate to be believed.
47. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard — Butterfly 3000
The prolific assemblage of prog rock geniuses from Down Under are at it again, and doing what they do best — releasing outstanding albums at a mind boggling rate. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard dropped a mammoth double album entitled K.G. and L.G across 2020 and 2021, their sixteenth and seventeenth respectively, and then proceeded to follow that up by releasing the captivating, psychedelic odyssey that is Butterfly 3000. Butterfly 3000, the band’s eighteenth album, is one of King Gizzard’s most psychedelic albums to date, a statement we know is saying a lot, but we would not make such statements if we did not believe in them so strongly. Butterfly 3000 was recorded in the band’s shared home during the pandemic (you’ll be seeing a lot of that from artists on this list), and presents a lush and sprawling sonic tapestry of synth programming, MIDI sequences, and the eccentric brand of rock n’ roll that only the Gizz is capable of.
46. UNKLE — Rōnin I
Kicking off with the theme music of a Shaw Brothers film, this mixtape session has all the energy and feel of a live UNKLE show, with pulse-pounding EDM interwoven with the group’s characteristic trip-hop. James Lavelle is joined by longtime UNKLE collaborators Philip Sheppard, Wil Malone, Jack Leonard and Alex Thomas on an album that features two brand new tracks (“‘If We Don’t Make It” and “Do Yourself Some Good”) that accompany seven brand new UNKLE remixes. Rōnin I is not exactly a return to form for UNKLE, as the musical landscape has changed too much since the late ‘90s to make such a claim. However, this album feels triumphantly back to basics just as it boldly asserts itself in a much-changed industry. With Rōnin I Lavelle and company really showcase their greatest strengths, creating multi-layered and nuanced electronic soundscapes that thread together into a cohesive whole, one that demands to be taken in as an album, listened to from beginning to end, every time.
45. Little Simz — Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Little SImz (wordsmith Simbiatu Ajikawo) describes her latest album, her fourth and entitled Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, thematically as being about “this introverted person that has all these crazy thoughts and ideas and theories in my head and not always feeling like I’m able to express it if it’s not through my art.” And this is exactly what Simz can be found doing throughout Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, exploring such profound issues such as race, women’s standing in society, the motivations behind her art, and gang violence. Wielding dynamic and pulse-pounding raps, Simz is a phenom when it comes to the art of storytelling rap, as heard in “Little Q, Part 1 and 2” which tells of a cousin she lost touch with who was stabbed, or on “I Love You, I Hate You,” which speaks to her relationship with her absent father. The north London rapper’s latest album, produced by frequent collaborator Inflo, is surely her most impressive to date, yet it still feels as though Simz’s talent are boundless and in many ways, she is just getting started.
44. Heartless Bastards — A Beautiful Life
Heartless Bastards, the Ohio-bred and Texas-transplanted rock band, released their sixth album this year, a follow up to 2015’s excellent Restless Ones, A Beautiful Life. On their latest album, the aptly titled A Beautiful Life, frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom “shares a wide-eyed and radiant vision for harmonizing a broken world.” Co-produced by Wennerstrom and Kevin Ratterman (Strand Of Oaks, Jim James, White Reaper), A Beautiful Life finds Wennerstrom joining forces with the likes of guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo (Okkervil River), drummer Greggory Clifford (White Denim), multi-instrumentalist Jesse Chandler (Mercury Rev, Midlake), keyboardist Bo Koster (My Morning Jacket), guitarist David Pulkingham (Patty Griffin), and longtime Heartless Bastards bassist Jesse Ebaugh. The team is all assembled, and A Beautiful Life is emphatically a positively-crafted album, smartly focusing its aim at all the beauty that surrounds us in the world, rather than the pain that is its counterpart. However, the album pointedly admonishes those ills that thwart decency, such as greed, for instance on the song “How Low, where the lyrics “On and on it never stops how much do you really need / Oh how low will you go to get to the top / I hope we never really have find out” drive the message home flawlessly.
43. girl in red — if I could make it go quiet
Marie Ulven’s full-length debut album under the moniker girl in red is a departure from what the initiated have become accustomed to from the Norwegian artist. For longtime fans the album will seem thematically and lyrically similar to Ulven’s previous releases, but stylistically it is poppier, its range wider, its production grander. Producing the album herself alongside Matias Tellez and Finneas O’Connell, Ulven uses her songwriting prowess and ever-present lyrical candor to explore lost love, lust, self-examination, repressed pain, mental health, loyalty, fixation, reciprocity in intimacy, expectation, miscommunication, and dissonance. In the past few years Ulven has garnered a loyal following partly through her openness about her personal struggles, her vulnerability there for all to hear. if I could make it go quiet expands on the directness of Ulven’s lyrical style, her songs expressively underscored by her emotional recovery from the negative effects of lockdown in the early days of the pandemic. Ulven has always had a way of genuinely baring her soul in her songs, and this transparency has amassed for her a loyal following. if I could make it go quiet will undoubtedly continue to grow that following, and open up her music to many new fans.
42. The Weather Station — Ignorance
The Canadian folk music band The Weather Station, fronted by Tamara Lindeman, most recent offering has our deepest admiration in that it faces, head on, the emotional trauma that transpires when one contemplates the global climate crisis. Lindeman, when explaining the album’s title, Ignorance, says “it’s about this process of moving through denial into understanding.” Further expanding upon the title of the album in how it relates to dealing with humanity’s potential facing end times, The Weather Station’s Bandcamp page explains: “The title of the album, Ignorance, feels confrontational, calling to mind perhaps wilful ignorance, but Lindeman insists she meant it in a different context. In 1915 Virginia Woolf wrote: “the future is dark, which is the best thing a future can be, I think.” Written amidst the brutal first world war, the darkness of the future connoted for Woolfe a not knowing, which by definition holds a sliver of hope; the possibility for something, somewhere, to change. In French, the verb ignorer connotes a humble, unashamed not knowing, and it is this ignorance Lindeman refers to here; the blank space at an intersection of hope and despair, a darkness that does not have to be dark.” A darkness that does not have to be dark — we love that, and we love this album as Tamara Linderman’s gentle voice walks us through the horrors of today reminding us the best way to face the moment is with compassion.
41. Strand Of Oaks — In Heaven
When we praised Strand of Oaks’ 2019 album Eraserland in our Top 50 Albums of 2019 countdown, we thought so highly of it we could not have imagined the follow up would be as potent and impressive. We were wrong. Emphatically so. The Tim Showalter-led outfit’s seventh studio album, In Heaven, is just as musically enticing as its predecessor and is brimming with a depth of knowledge and insight born of sorrow and hurt. But the story of In Heaven isn’t anguish focused, but of resilience, of powering through. With assists from My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster, In Heaven highlights Showalter’s emotionally-charged songwriting prowess and ability to craft riveting, building soundscapes.“In Heaven was created with so much love,” explains Indiana-born Showalter, “my greatest hope is that it connects with people and provides a momentary space for reflection, joy, catharsis and whatever else someone might be looking for in their life.”
40. Fruit Bats – The Pet Parade
The Pet Parade, the ninth full-length album release for Eric Johnson’s indie-folk project Fruit Bats, gets better with every listen. As you take in the album, new portals of musical impressiveness are opened, and additional avenues of appreciation are unlocked. One song in particular, “Eagles Below Us,” has stuck in our mindseye and aroused us again and again with its magic. With a pleasing composition moving the listener forward through its gossamer lands, an effortlessness to its delivery and a warm and inviting overall feeling, it is a song best enjoyed on a sultry summer day, relaxing on backyard porches, watching as orbs of condensation on a cool drink shimmer in the dancing sunlight. That’s the kind of cure for the grayness of the past years struggles we can get behind, and “Eagles Below Us” is an apt window into the sort of enchantment this latest offering from Fruit Bats encompasses.
39. Mac Miller — Faces / Radiohead — Kid A Mnesia
This is the point, which invariably happens in all of our annual album celebrations, where we abandon our traditional countdown rules for the greater purpose…to call out incredible music in all its forms. In this slot we offer up two albums — a magnificent hip-hop mixtape that finally became available on streaming services this year and a re-release that “merged” two classic albums into one phenomenal experience. That mixtape is Mac Miller’s Faces, the follow up to the dearly missed Miller’s second studio album Watching Movies with the Sound Off (2013), an album that is known for chronicling the artist’s early struggles with addiction. Yet more than anything Faces highlights his absolutely phenomenal talent in the era when his skill set was beginning to peak. And the double album re-release we spoke of is a marriage of two of the famed Brit rockers Radiohead’s most celebrated albums, superbly entitled Kid A Mnesia — which merges 2000’s Kid A with 2001’s Amnesiac and is brimming with B-sides, demos, and rarities. They are both insanely remarkable. Get your ears on both ASAP!
38. Ryley Walker And Kikagaku Moyo — Deep Fried Grandeur
A psych rock guitarist extraordinaire teamed up with the outstanding Japanese psychedelic band from Tokyo, Kikagaku Moyo to craft one of our favorite live releases of 2021, Deep Fried Grandeur. We couldn’t paint a better picture of the album than Ryley Walker already has, so here’s his words: “So, the group came together at Le Guess Who? Festival in Utrecht, Netherlands in 2018. I was asked by the organizers to find another group at the festival to collaborate with for a one-off performance. I was immediately drawn to Kikagaku Moyo. We share similar guitar scuzz and riff heavy improvising when playing live. Seemed like the most fun and natural thing to do. I was in the middle of a European tour, so I had my full backing band. So with KM and me, nine mother fuckers total on stage wailing. It was a lot of SOUND. So we passed the live recordings off to Cooper Crain of CAVE and bitchin bajas to tweak the levels and add some sprinkles. He shaped the raw recordings into a cohesive piece that works for a 40 min slab. We had an afternoon of rehearsal and it was mostly just drinking espresso, smoking cigs and saying ‘man, we’ll be fine.’ And it was great.” Late in the day that the album was released, February 5th, Walker tweeted “My joke record label’s record that every other label passed on has the #1 selling album on Bandcamp. Not a dime to PR. All the money split between the people who play on it. Thank you for the support!”. It’s tweets like that that make everything about this album’s release and its success just that much more satisfying.
37. Madlib — Sound Ancestors
While billed as a Madlib solo effort, truth be told the latest effort from the West Coast born hip-hop producer, and DJ, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Otis Jackson Jr. is a collaboration with Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden. As Hebden, a longtime friend of Madlib, tells it, “I was listening to some of his new [Madlib’s] beats and studio sessions when I had the idea that it would be great to hear some of these ideas made into a Madlib solo album…arranged into tracks that could all flow together in an album designed to be listened to start to finish…we decided to work on this together with him sending me tracks, loops, ideas and experiments that I would arrange, edit, manipulate and combine. I was sent hundreds of pieces of music over a couple of years.” Born of that, and unbelievably, is Madlib’s proper debut Sound Ancestors, an album that is chock-full of varied, yet seamlessly flowing, soundscapes that are funky, smooth, and engaging.
36. Vince Staples — Vince Staples
Relative to his prior releases, the Long Beach, California rapper Vince Staples’ latest album is more subdued and could aptly be described as a slow-burn. But this statement does not mean that Staples’ self-titled album, produced by the incredibly gifted Keny Beats, doesn’t hit hard. Employing a mostly monotone lyrical approach throughout the self-titled album, the rapper’s oft-playful yet clever rhymes breeze over producer Beats’ smooth and intricately woven soundscapes. This collaboration works to create a very personal story across the album, one chronicling where the artist came from and how life has changed as his star has risen. Vince Staples’ Vince Staples opens the door to a past burdened by poverty and gang violence, and finds an artist brave enough to lay out exactly how it affected him, and how he found a way to grow from it.
35. Liz Cooper — Hot Sass
Liz Cooper’s sophomore album Hot Sass is a fiery discharge of exciting garage rock that finds us thrilled with this phenomenally talented artist’s future prospects. For those not familiar with the Baltimore native, who recently shed Nashville for Brooklyn, New York, Hot Sass is a departure for Cooper, and an exciting change of tone from her 2018 debut Window Flowers (released under the moniker Liz Cooper & The Stampede). Produced by Benny Yurco (Michael Nau, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals), Hot Sass feels risky and unhinged, as if by design, and reveals a bold yet fresh direction for the artist. Exemplifying Cooper’s audacious new mentality is the odyssey that is “Lucky Charm,” an eight minute plus jaunt that builds methodically from the onset, where Cooper’s vocals don’t show up until three and a half minutes into the track, and features whirling guitars and adventurous changes, all buoyed by a charging bassline that just won’t quit.
34. John Andrews & The Yawns – Cookbook
New Hampshire based folk artist John Andrew, along with his “imaginary” band The Yawns, released what is assuredly one of the most relaxing albums of the year. While this might not read as a compliment, we certainly mean it to be one, as John Andrew’s music is “simple and endearing, inspired by mid century love songs.” Take “New California Blue” for instance, an ode to Joni Mitchell, where piano delightfully dances behind Andrew’s gentle crooning. Or, “Easy Going,” a gorgeously mellow song that is equal parts sentimental and heartfelt. Endearingly, the artist’s mother wrote the bio for Cookbook, and closed it with this gem of a line when describing the album: Have you ever seen that painting of dogs playing poker? It might as well be what they were listening to as the bulldog pushed his chips forward.” Perfectly put John’s mom.
33. Rose City Band — Earth Trip
Portland, Oregon based Rose City Band’s latest offering, entitled Earth Trip, arrived at the most ideal of times, summer. The soothing, melodic songs that a band as talented and grounded as Rose City Band craft meander with the patience and carefree ease of an inviting midsummer day. The first single off the Ripley Johnson (Wooden Shjips, Moo Duo) fronted band, “Lonely Places,” is a perfect example of the sampling of cathartic songs to be found on Earth Trip. The song is a delight, finding an acoustic guitar frolicing harmoniously with a pedal steel guitar as Johnson’s weightless voice mingles in and drifts above. Fortuitously, this is only one of many joys found throughout Earth Trip, an album that feels like a sanctuary port from the stormy seas of life and we find ourselves often seeking it out when we are in need of elegant guitar play and harmonious, beautiful melodies to soothe one’s weary soul.
32. Julien Baker – Little Oblivions
Julien Baker’s recent compositions, time and again, commence with a whisper and culminate with a ferocious bone chilling roar. But that journey, from opening note to inspiring climax, is one that feels satisfying to earn, as Baker’s songs are notoriously laden with deep emotion and heavy, thought-provoking sentiments.. Little Oblivions is Baker’s third album, yet her first featuring complete instrumentation and the accompaniment suits her potent arrangements perfectly. There has always been a power, a realness, in Baker’s work, yet throughout Little Oblivions that might swells to heights we have yet to see from the talented singer-songwriter. With all that said, a paired down Julien Baker still hits so very hard, as exemplified in “Crying Wolf,” a track that is tempered and heart-wrenchingly beautiful. Regardless of how voracious the delivery, Baker’s profound, deeply relatable lyricism and her mighty vocal abilities find her one of the most enthralling acts in all of indie-rock, now and surely for years and years to come.
31. IDK — USEE4YOURSELF
We fell deep for Maryland based rapper IDK’s skills when we came upon 2018’s “ONCE UPON A TIME (FREESTYLE),” a banger of a track that we will never stop rocking and celebrating. Soon after, his debut album, Is He Real?, stunned us in 2019 (spoiler alert – he was real AF), and this year, IDK’s USEE4YOURSELF solidified his stature in the game. While the album features phenomenal performances by guest artists such as The Neptunes, Slick Rick, and Young Thug (to name a few) and those tracks most assuredly bump, it’s the more intimate songs where IDK truly shines. In those moments he slowly walks us into his past, impressive songs like “1995” and “Hey Auntie,” that allow the listener to peer behind IDK’s curtain and reveal not just an artist who can spit powerful bars, but one that has countless impactful and inspiring stories to tell.
30. Matt Sweeney & Bonnie Prince Billy — Superwolves
The long awaited sequel, sixteen years in the making, to esteemed singer-songwriter Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Billy) and guitar virtuoso Math Sweeney’s outstanding album Superwolf finally came to fruition this year in the form of a sprawling, lush, and gorgeous offering entitled Superwolves. Everything you’d expected from the talented pairing is on display on Superwolves — the intricate guitar arrangements, thought provoking and unparagoned lyrical stylings, profound emotional affectivity — and to add to the resplendence several of the tracks feature Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar (more on him later!). The addition of Moctar and his band’s unique sound adds a pleasing West African element to the album’s already rich sonic tapestry. While Superwolves ideally should be absorbed in consummate, one of our favorite tracks, “Make Me Worry For Me,” which fittingly leads off the album, is dark and menacing, confident on the verge of cocky, and a song that marks a biting return for a beloved indie rock project that his been profoundly missed.
29. Black Midi — Cavalcade
We are increasingly coming upon comparisons of Black Midi, an experimental English rock band (the name is derived from the Japanese music genre black MIDI), to the gods of funk-metal Primus, a resemblance that makes a great deal of sense when you give over to the offerings on the bands latest, extremely spirited and innovative album, Cavalcade. For a taste of Black Midi’s sophomore album, we would like to point you to a funky, gyrating and ultimately dreamlike ditty curiously entitled “Chondromalacia Patella.” According to the band’s press kit, “Chondromalacia Patella,” is a song about convalescence and, if curious (as we sure were), the name refers to a type of knee injury that reportedly one of the band members suffered while running. So yeah, Black Midi, like Primus, is a weird band, and like Primus, they are tremendously talented. Their latest album is chock full of songs that are equally jarring, seductive, and energetic AF. “John L” kicks off the album and we advise you to buckle up for the wild, and entirely gratifying, ride.
28. IDLES — Crawler
On the opening track “MTT 420 RR,” off the IDLES 2021 album Crawler, lead singer Joe Talbot passionately wails “Are you ready for the storm?” again and again. Take this as a warning and heed that warning. The fourth full-length release for the British punk band, co-produced by Kenny Beats (mentioned previously in the countdown, hailed for his work with Vince Staples), is absolutely brimming with potent headbangers. Yet amid all that righteous chaos you can find moments of stark introspection, and shocking reserve (for example, the startlingly soothing song “Progress”). IDLES finds a way to just keep getting better and better as they mature, exploring new sounds, displaying a vast range in abilities, and increasingly exhibiting unexpected emotional depth. Crawler stands as proof positive of this heightening of the bands abilities and the expansion of their songwriting range and proves once-again that they are one of Britain’s most intoxicatingly talented bands.
27. James Blake — Friends That Break Your Heart
“Coming Back” by British singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer James Blake, featuring the goddess SZA, is easily one of the most impressive songs we have heard all year. Thing is, so is “Lost Angel Nights,” “Friends That Break Your Heart” (absolutely devastating to behold), “Funeral,” And “Life Is Not The Same.” Truth be told, if this latest treasure of an album entitled Friends That Break Your Heart were Blake’s debut or even sophomore album, we might be here hailing it as one of the top albums of the year, but we fear that we are beginning to take Blake’s brand of gorgeous, inspiring melancholy for granted. Fortunately, Friends That Break Your Heart serves as a stark and honest reminder of Blake’s genius, and of how he can tear you apart with one song and then build you back together better in the next. It’s an absolutely heart-wrenching, honest album, and another testament to Blake’s otherworldly talents.
26. Jason Isbell — Georgia Blue
Proving to be a man of his word, singer-songwriter Jason Isbell triumphantly came through on his vow to record an album of songs by artists from Georgia if the state went to Joe Biden and Democratic candidates in the 2020 election, which it inarguably did. On top of that, Isbell assured that all of the proceeds from Georgia Blue would be donated to Georgia based non-profit organizations. It does turn out, however, that the intent of Isabell’s latest album wasn’t all altruistic. As Isbell puts it, “I will admit my motivations were a bit selfish. For years, I’ve been looking for an excuse to record these songs with my band and some friends. The songs on this album are some of my favorite Georgia-related songs,” ones by the likes of Precious Bryant, James Brown, and Gladys Knight. The grouping of artists that help Isbell deliver on his promise is flat out jaw-dropping, including Amanda Shires, Brittney Spencer, Adia Victoria, Brandi Carlile, Julien Baker, Béla Fleck, Chris Thile, Steve Gorman, Peter Levin, and John Paul White. Anything Isbell touches turns to gold, but with time-tested material by some of the most gifted artists of all time, crafted with an all-star cast, the politically-inspired Georgia Blue is an absolute treat.
25. Terry Gross — Soft Opening
Being ardent fans of post-rock thrashers Trans Am, we continually keep an eye on the various projects the trio embraces. Thus, when we saw that multi-instrumentalist Phil Manley of Trans Am had teamed with bassist Donny Newenhouse, who co-owns a studio with Phil called El Studio, and drummer Phil Becker, we were instantly intrigued. What started as just playful studio jam sessions morphed into something more, a project curiously entitled Terry Gross. As the band began improvising as a way to test the boundaries and capability of the studio they were recording in, songs came into focus, and an album christened Soft Opening came into being. Because these songs were born of jams, there is a live feel to the three song, thirty-eight minute whirlwind of an album. The artists, three self-described “sonic scientists traversing the borderlands of rock,” unleash a fury of sound across Soft Opening, crafting an album that is driving, wholly absorbing, and unreservedly brimming with extravagant energy.
24. The War on Drugs — I Don’t Live Here Anymore
The fifth full-length release by the Adam Granduciel led Philadelphia rock band, entitled I Don’t Live Here Anymore, was four years in the making. The long awaited follow-up to 2017’s stunning A Deeper Understanding, The War On Drugs latest album is assuredly their most straight-forward, accessible and concise offering to date. While the hardcore WOD faithful could view the absence of extensive jams or the ultra clean production of the album as a misstep, there is something truly magical about the boiling down of all that is special about Granduciel’s droney, inspiring brand of rock that encompasses I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Following the affecting, slow build that commences the album’s first track “Living Proof,” what follows is a breathtaking collection of arena rock anthems. I Don’t Live Here Anymore persists as an album that highlights a fully realized and confident band, where Granduciel’s lyrical talents are wholly audible and the band’s musical talents entirely digestible in a manner that can be easily viewed as a mammoth leap forward.
23. Cassandra Jenkins — An Overview Of Phenomenal Nature
“I’m a three legged dog / working with what I got / and I’ll always be / looking for what I lost,” commences the brilliant songstress Cassandra Jenkins’s latest album, An Overview Of Phenomenal Nature, a cryptic but poignant line which serves as a hint to the sort of depth that would lie ahead. The Josh Kaufman-produced Phenomenal Nature, a follow up to 2017’s Play Till You Win, is a grouping of heartfelt reflections on the complicated puzzle that is life and an ode to nature, the pure healing balm that has the ability to ease some of the pain of the human journey, if only momentarily. Jenkins, it is worth noting, was set to open up for Purple Mountains on tour before the beloved poet and musician David Berman passed away. They had worked together, and their artistic bond can be felt throughout this introspective album, particularly on the track “Ambiguous Norway,” which serves a stunning, if not heart-wrenching, ode to the loss of such an unparalleled talent.
22. Tonstartssbandht — Petunia
Tonstartssbandht is an American psychedelic, noise rock band consisting of the sibling duo Andy and Edwin White. The brothers hail from Orlando, Florida, and released their eighteenth album this year entitled Petunia, easily their most accessible and compelling offering to date. Comprised of little more than a 12-string guitar and a drum kit, Andy and Edwin brought Petunia to life in the midst of the pandemic and there is an intimacy and patience that can be found on the album because of it. Rock critic James Christopher Monger described the songs on the album as “like a Krautrock Grateful Dead having a go at Pet Sounds,” and we couldn’t agree more. Petunia is a wonderfully melodic, spacious album, easy to get lost in. Petunia is a masterclass in jamy-filled neo psych folk, rife with delightful, novel guitar hooks lurking around every corner, intoxicating overlaying twin falsetto from Andy and Edwin, and increasingly compelling musical wanderings that are equal parts hypnotizing and cathartic.
21. Curtis Harding – If Words Were Flowers
Curtis Harding’s third solo album, If Words Were Flowers, is the shot in the arm of positivity we have been craving. The album’s title was inspired by something Curtis Harding’s mother — a travelling gospel singer who often brought Curtis along for the ride and taught him to sing — told him: “Give me flowers while I’m still here,” a reminder to celebrate people while they are still with us. With that singular thought in mind, we choose here to acknowledge and celebrate the remarkable achievement Harding has realized on such an extraordinary album as If Words Were Flowers. While a sonic palette pervasive with classic soul provides the foundation for the talented Atlanta singer-songwriters work, intermingled into the album is new-wave R&B, funk, soft jazz, pop, gospel, and even psych rock intonations. Harding’s talents seem limitless, especially considering he was part of the hip-hop group Proseed, and has traded bars with fellow Atlantean Cee-Lo Green, and his rhyming prowess can be found on one of If Words Were Flowers’ standout tracks, “Hopeful.”
20. Black Country, New Road – For The First Time
One of the most impressive debuts released in 2021 was crafted by a seven piece band hailing from London, England (via Cambridge) called Black Country, New Road. Their debut album, For The First Time, features an opening track entitled “Instrumental” and the song immediately whisks the listener to the heyday of post-rock in the 1990s, making it evident that Black Country, New Road isn’t your ordinary rock band. Lead singer and guitarist Isaac Wood’s lyrics are half-spoke, half-sung and are both witty and compelling, a fact that is ever-present on the album, especially on the song “Athens, France,” which invokes impressions of the legendary post-hardcore band Fugazi. Recorded with Andy Savours (My Bloody Valentine), For The First Time presents a grouping of musicians that could best be described as a punk rock experimental orchestra. “We wanted it to sound exactly how we love to sound live,” says saxophonist Lewis Evans, a goal that was triumphantly achieved. For The First Time encompasses only six songs, yet we have been left on the edge of our seats eagerly awaiting what comes next from this fascinating young act.
19. Arlo Parks — Collapsed in Sunbeams
Fans of poet and singer/songwriter Arlo Parks were eagerly awaiting the release of her pandemic-delayed debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams. Her songs on this laudable first album explore life from its most melancholy episodes to its most hopeful moments. Her lyrics convey the beauty to behold in the struggle of life. She openly shares with listeners anecdotes of her personal trials. At the same time she sympathizes with the struggles of others, some of them her dearest loved ones, others strangers she’s observed from afar. Though her songs vary in storytelling and poetic discourse style, a unifying theme in the album is the empathy within each of us when we acknowledge that all of us feel pain, that all of us need love. There’s nothing profound in the way this sentiment has been paraphrased here, but the beauty in Parks’s poetic lyricism creates vivid imagery in listeners’ heads. This is what makes Collapsed in Sunbeams such a remarkable sonic journey. While there’s something for fans of every musical genre to enjoy here, from spoken word to R&B to indie-pop to folk, it’s Parks’s enthralling lyrical compositions that accentuate the artistic grace of her first full-length outing.
18. Noga Erez — Kids
Israeli singer, songwriter, and producer Noga Erez is one of our most prized discoveries of 2021. The talented Erez has the ability to spit fire raps, dropping poignant dexterous rhymes at a frenetic pace, yet can turn on a dime towards enchanting melodies, highlighting her vast vocal abilities. Her sophomore album, Kids, brought to vivid life with the help of her creative and life partner Ori Rousso, is brimming with sharp lyricism that deals with “the personal and the political; mortality and loss; war and peace, insecurity and ambition.” Erez disclosed that the album’s title is a reference to the “deep connection between parents and their children, and how generations are passing on knowledge, but also issues and how that relationship is important,” yet the album is about far more than familial affairs. There are songs chastising an abusive ex, that explore her feelings about mortality, and others expounding upon her political leanings. Kidz is an album which features an enchanting collage of Erez’s thoughts and ideas dispatched with other-worldly passion.
17. Nas — Kings Disease II
Nas’s late career and current successes can be attributed to many things, chief among them is his supernatural lyrical talents. But his collaborations with renowned producer Hit-boy on 2020’s King Disease (which snagged the Queensbridge, NYC rapper his first-ever Grammy, for Best Rap Album) and recently on 2021’s King Disease II, is assuredly a leading reason why we find the forty-seven year old Nas at the top of his game. The synergy between Nas and Hit-Boy is uncanny, and while King’s Disease II features guest appearances from A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, Blxst, Eminem, EPMD, Lauryn Hill, and Charlie Wilson, Nas’s verses on track after dazzling track are breath-taking. Nas sounds exceedingly comfortable and at ease throughout his thirteenth album, relishing in all the gifts his fruitful career has garnered him while offering thoughtful reflections on his storied journey towards his rightful place as hip-hop royalty.
16. Japanese Breakfast — Jubilee
It has been a remarkable 2021 for Michelle Zauner, known to music fans as Japanese Breakfast. Not only did the multi-talented artist and writer release a widely-praised, deeply moving memoir entitled Crying in H Mart (now set for a feature film adaptation!), but on June 4th she released her third album, a tremendous work of art entitled Jubilee. The album signals a shift in focus for Zauner while staying true to her well-crafted indie aesthetic. In contrast to the tone and overall feel of her previous two albums, ones crafted through hardship and loss, there is a current of joy and celebration bursting forth on Jubilee. It’s an exaltation that is exhibited whole-heartedly in the ultra funky song “Be Sweet,” a bass driven, synth heavy, emphatically danceable song. “Be Sweet,” written with Jack Tatum of Wild Nothing, is a taste of the hard-earned optimism found throughout Jubilee, and a crafty, well maneuvered shift in tone for an artist whose creative possibilities continue to appear limitless.
15. Terrence Martin — Drones
To describe LA super producer and saxophonist phenom Terrace Martin’s latest album, Drones, as a star-studded affair is underplaying the extraordinary cast of artists Martin recruited for the project, musicians such as Snoop Dogg, Leon Bridges, Cordae, Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Arin Ray, YG, Smino, and Robert Glasper. True to form for the genre-crossing production wizard, Drones encompasses elements of R&B, jazz, and hip hop and the production throughout Drones is, unsurprisingly, genius. The album’s soulful and all-encompassing sound is a nod to the fascinating, oft-disconcerting age we live in. Martin explains, Drones is “about how we are just the phone and everything controls us. We’re like fuckin’ robots, man. And it’s not just us. Everybody always says the younger generation is so on the phone, but naw, everybody is addicted to the phone.” But while Drones does critique humanity’s addiction to technology, the album is far from somber. In fact it’s full of a buoyant energy and a deep affection that shines with a sense of hope, allowing the listener to consider that humanity might have the capacity to deal with the abundance of madness that now seems prevalent. As Martin puts it, “the whole point of Drones is just to restore a feeling that me and my colleagues feel that the world is lacking right now. Going back to love, compassion, and trust.”
Essential tracks: “Drones (feat Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Ty Dolla $ign, James Fauntleroy),” “This Morning (feat Arin Ray, Smino),” “Work It Out (feat Cordae),” “Griots Of The Crenshaw District (feat Hit-Boy, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper).”
14. Silk Sonic — An Evening With Silk Sonic
When the Oxnard, California singer, producer, rapper, and drummer Anderson .Paak paired with the international pop sensation Bruno Mars to form the superduo Silk Sonic we knew there was going to be magic made. Let’s not forget that these two gifted artists have fourteen Grammy Awards between them (with more assuredly on the way) and it is uncanny to bear witness to how effortlessly and brilliantly their skill sets amalgamate. An Evening with Silk Sonic is hosted by legendary singer-songwriter and bass guitarist Bootsy Collins, which is positively apropos as the album is dripping with the sort of funk Collins is famous for. The album, with its lush and intoxicating nine tracks just oozing with 70s funk and R&B nostalgia, serve as an ode to the soulful music of that era. Word is .Paak and Mars are gearing up to take An Evening With Silk Sonic on the road, and you can count on this being one of the most coveted tickets in all of live music.
Essential tracks: “After Last Night (with Thundercat and Bootsy Collins),” “Fly as Me,” “Leave The Door Open.”
13. Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life
Parquet Courts, an arresting rock band from New York City, have never shied away from their infectious brand of danceable, electronic-inspired music. Their varied stylings of rock music has always been the sort of elixir to get even the most obstinate of souls grooving across the dancefloor. Add in their penchant for lyrical questionings of the irrational, and oftimes uncertain, nature of our modern times and you get a strong sense that the band is most firmly rooted in the “now.” Yet with the release of their latest creation, Sympathy for Life, Parquet Courts have crafted an album that more perfectly embraces their dancefloor aesthetic while also opening up their sound to a greater audience. If their previous albums were notable for their ingenuity, insight, and punk rock stylings, Sympathy for Life will be remembered as the moment when the band stopped looking around and asking so many questions and decided to just write great music to make you want to shake your ass. Because when we all converge around a common cause, and a common groove, real power is born.
Essential Tracks: “Walking At A Downtown Pace,” “Plant Life,” “Homo Sapien.”
12. Darkside — Spiral
After six long years Darkside, the duo of musicians Nicholás Jaar and Dave Harrington, have returned from their self-imposed hiatus. Since 2013, when Darkside released their first and only album, Psychic, a record whose psychedelic and bluesy electronic production stood out amongst a sea of indie rock, producer Jaar has released seven albums and multi-instrumentalist Harrington has released two albums and has collaborated with a dizzying array of musicians on countless projects. Spiral follows seamlessly where Psychic left off, finding Darkside sticking to what they do bestt: whirling guitars, layered flowing beats, gleaming syths, and patient meticulously constructed exploratory jams which journey toward electronic eruptions. Spiral is another soaring, psychedelic masterpiece for Darkside, and an album that is well worth the eight year wait and we have our fingers firmly crossed that Darkside shelves any thoughts of lengthy haitises moving forward.
11. Various Artists — Highway Butterfly: The Songs Of Neal Casal
Highway Butterfly: The Songs Of Neal Casal is a tribute crafted lovingly by an all-star cast of phenomenal musicians to honor the singer-songwriter-guitarist Neal Casal, who died by suicide in August 2019. Casal’s music career included performing with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Circles Around the Sun, Beachwood Sparks, GospelbeacH, and Hard Working Americans, along with countless other projects and collaborations. Casal also had a flourishing solo career, releasing fourteen delightful albums. It is Casal’s closest friends and collaborators behind this outstanding tribute album, as Highway Butterfly: The Songs Of Neal Casal was co-produced by longtime musical companions Jim Scott and Widespread Panic/Hard Working Americans bassist Dave Schools. In all, 130 musicians participated in the effort, covering forty-one of Casal’s original songs. A few of those musicians include (hold onto your hat), Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Warren Haynes, Circles Around The Sun, Susan Tedeschi & Derek Trucks, Billy Strings, Hiss Golden Messenger, Fruit Bats, Steve Earle & The Dukes, Jonathan Wilson, Vetiver, Shooter Jennings, Beachwood Sparks & GospelbeacH, Marcus King, Eric Krasno, J Mascis, Cass McCombs, Johnathan Rice, Leslie Mendelson, Oteil Burbridge & Duane Trucks, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Tim Bluhm, Mapache, Puss N Boots, The Allman Betts Band, and many others.
10. Wild Pink — A Billion Little Lights
To say that Wild Pink wowed us with their recent album, A Billion Little Lights, would be a massive understatement. The third album from the New York City based rock band is absolutely loaded, a ten song journey that incorporates fiddles, violins, wurlitzers, saxophones, accordions, pedal steel guitars, and a variety of richly textured synths and keyboards. Where should you start with this outstanding album? At its top of course, and then simply let it ride. However, the apple of our eyes among this stellar batch of songs is, “Family Friends,” a song that the band describes as “musings on day-to-day stasis.” It’s a delightful tune whose dreamy feel and uplifting chorus of “Hold on tight, Stay right here, Blood sisters, Dazed and pure, Lights spin around, Like stars that fall down, Come back home, Dream all night,” is all-encompassing and wholly invigorating, as too is the entirety of their brilliant new album.
9. Isaiah Rashad — The House Is Burning
It’s been a difficult few years for the outstanding rapper from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Isaiah Rashad. For years, Rashad has been one of the most consistent and exciting voices in all of hip-hop, but personal struggles with alcohol and depression have crippled his output. This rough patch in the artist’s life has included stints of near poverty and time in an Orange County rehab facility. These difficulties are explored throughout Rashad’s latest album, The House Is Burning, one which finds him ruminating on his rehab, depression, and his eventual mortality. While introspective and rife with thoughtful, personal rhymes, the fact of the matter is The House Is Burning also bumps. It’s an album overflowing with that bounce that gets the party started while offering profound insight into Rashad’s complicated headspace.
8. Dave — We’re All Alone In This Together
David Orobosa “Dave” Omoregie is a British rapper, singer, songwriter, record producer and actor whose second album, We’re All Alone In This Together, presents an artist gifted in crafting sharp, thought-provoking rhymes. But what impresses us the most is Dave’s cutting social commentary present on the album. Take for example, the deeply affecting “Three Rivers,” where the talented rapper rhymes about the experience of the Windrush Generation, a generation of people who travelled from the Caribbean to Britain between 1948 and 1973 following World War II to fill labor shortages. In time, many of the Windrush Generation were falsely deemed as “illegal immigrants” by the UK government and they began losing access to housing, healthcare, and bank accounts. Many were placed in immigration detention centres or deported to countries they had not lived in for decades. Dave tells the story of those who came to a country as heroes, and whose lives were destroyed eventually by racism in an entirely engaging manner, displaying the sort of narratives and insight you will find throughout We’re All Alone In This Together.
7. Mdou Moctar — Afrique Victime
Mdou Moctar, for those unindoctrinated, is a Tuareg songwriter and musician, one of the first musicians to perform modern electronic adaptations of Tuareg guitar music. His rise to fame is a fascinating story, as he was raised in a family disapproving of electronic music, yet this didn’t hold Moctar back from chasing his passion. He began to concoct makeshift guitars using strings made from bicycle wires. In time, as his talents blossomed and his equipment modernized, he recorded songs on mobile phones and memory cards to be distributed throughout West Africa, and he was finally discovered by Sahel Sounds label founder Chris Kirkley. Years later, we find a fully formed, awesomely talented Moctar releasing one of 2021’s most impressive albums, Afrique Victime, one you have to hear firsthand to understand Moctar’s gift. The opening track, “Chismiten,” is the perfect introduction to Moctar’s jaw-dropping talents, a song that starts out in fifth gear, and never lets up.
6. Brockhampton — Roadrunner: New Light, New MachineThere is no better song, in our humble but emphatic opinion, that represents who Brockhampton is, and what they are capable of, than “WINDOWS,” an album off their sixth studio album Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine. The reason being is that “WINDOWS” is the only track on the album to feature contributions from all seven of the famed hip-hop collective’s main vocalists, as well as uncredited vocals from frequent Brockhampton-collaborator Ryan Beatty. The song is produced by all three of the groups’ main producers, Romil Hemnani, Jabari Manwa, and Kiko Merley. Add to that mix, “WINDOWS” marks the band’s first collaboration with SoGone SoFlexy, who is signed to Brockhampton members’ Kevin Abstract & Romil Hemnani’s record label VIDEOSTORE. Yup, the whole team is in the mix, and the results are phenomenal, and so is the entirety of Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine.
5. Big Red Machine — How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?
The second full-length release for the collaboration between Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner under the moniker Big Red Machine features guest appearances from Fleet Foxes, Lisa Hannigan, Ben Howard, Ilsey, La Force, Anaïs Mitchell, Naeem, Shara Nova, Taylor Swift, This Is The Kit, and Sharon Van Etten. Yet the artists recruited to help bring this magnificent work of life fit so seamlessly into the fold of what makes Big Red Machine’s sonic charm so special that it’s more apt to look at the project not as a band but as a community. Or as Dessner puts it, “it’s like a laboratory for experimentation and also a vehicle to collaborate with friends and try to grow.” The ethos of the band appears to be that the door is always open for collaboration, and with Vernon and Dressner working in concert with such remarkable musicians, so much magic is born. But it is very much worth noting also how deeply personal How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? is to Aaron Dessner. “This is Aaron’s record,” Justin Vernon plainly starts in a NY Times feature, exemplified in the three songs found on that album that Aaron’s tackles vocally alone: “Magnolia,” The Ghost of Cincinnati,” and “Brycie,” the latter of which persists as heartfelt ode to Aaron’s twin brother who helped him through his battles with depression in life. Dessner has documented how music has helped in guiding him through his struggles, and a vast variety of gorgeous musical catharsis can be experienced throughout the entirety of How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, a gorgeous, calming, and heartfelt melodic adventure.
4. Tyler, The Creator — CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
One would think that following up on the success of 2019’s Grammy Award winning album Igor would be a challenging feat for the renowned, and oft-controversial, rapper Tyler ,The Creator. But step up to this task is exactly what Tyler did as his sixth full-length studio album finds the artist at his most potent. CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST is crowded, and it may be months before we fully unpack it, but we will enjoy every minute of trying. Melding his brand of ferocious, introspect, and always honest hip-hop with jazz, funk, soul, and even an eight-and-a-half minute song (“Wilkshire”) of breakbeats funk guitar where Tyler waxes poetic about a failed relationship and his fluid approach to sexuality, Tyler leaned into this one with all he had. A complex work of art, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST introduces listeners to Tyler’s newest persona, one Sire Tyler Baudelaire, a nod to prominent French poet, essayist and art critic Charles Baudelaire. The album is hosted by the legendary master-of-ceremonies / hype man DJ Drama, whose interludes continuously set the table aptly. With appearances from 42 Dugg, Daisy World, Domo Genesis, Brent Faiyaz, Fana Hues, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Wayne, NBA YoungBoy, Teezo Touchdown, Ty Dolla $ign, and Pharrell Williams. While 2021 was another distinguished year for hip-hop releases, we can assuredly state that CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST is our pick for the best hip-hop album of 2021.
Essential tracks: “Corso,” “Lumberjack,” “JUGGERNAUT (feat Lil Uzi Vert, Pharrell Williams),” “WUSYANAME (feat Youngboy Never Broke Again, Ty Dolla $ign).”
3. St. Vincent — Daddy’s Home
St. Vincent’s (Annie Clark) latest album, Daddy’s Home, is an expressive triumph. The sixth full-length release for Clark is an album inspired by her father’s 1970’s record collection, hence the name, and is co-produced by accomplished producer Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde, Lana Del Rey). There is a broadness of depth across the album, finding Clark exploring her past in a deeply personal and emotional way. The musical soundscapes, nuanced and potent, and the splendid power and emotion present in Daddy’s Home make it clear that St. Vincent has fully arrived as one of this generation’s most extraordinary acts. There isn’t a song on the album that doesn’t touch us in one way or another. They are all impactful in their own way. One of our favorites, “Down,” is a thick and funky, yet sexy stunner — that will get you started, but don’t stop there. We highly recommend you circle back to the top of the album where the equally sultry, Prince (or Bowie?)-inspired funk fest that is “Pay Your Way in Pain” resides. After that we suggest you just sit back, dive deep and let what remains of Daddy’s Home wash over you.
2. Valerie June — The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
Memphis-based singer/songwriter Valerie June’s latest album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, is a melodious adventure through the lessons of love and loss, and the most impressive release yet from an extremely talented songstress. June’s ability to seamlessly blend a mélange of blues, gospel, African rhythms, folk, delicate soul, and country, is awe-inspiring. Co-producer Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, Alicia Keys) has helped June craft The Moon and Stars into an album that is conceptually deep, featuring a lush tapestry of compelling songs woven together with strings, flutes, and chimes while a well-crafted narrative promotes perseverance and believing in oneself. A great place to immerse yourself on this album is the bewitching track “You and I,” an alluring, and outright uplifting song that soars on the wings of June’s divine vocals.
1. Adia Victoria — A Southern Gothic
The aptly titled A Southern Gothic, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Adia Victoria’s third album, magically transplants listeners far below the Mason Dixon Line on a haunting, melodious, and flat out gorgeous journey. “I wanted you to get that ethereal feel of the South. The humidity of it, the heat. I wanted this record to encapsulate the extremes of the South”, Victoria said of the record. Executive produced by the great T Bone Burnett, A Southern Gothic is replete with deep blues and evocative soul music, and and the expressive narratives found within each song shine a light on a truly gifted storyteller (see “Dark Water Blues” about a Black woman refusing to help a drowning white man in a flood). The guest contributions on the album are choice, including a gorgeous duet with The National’s Matt Berninger on “South for the Winter,” and fellow Nashvillian Jason Isbell who lays down a soulful, fiery guitar solo on “You Was Born To Die” (both songs also feature backup vocals from Margo Price!). A Southern Gothic is a mighty tribute to the South, its troubled history as well as the wide-ranging abundance of harmonious beauty that can be found there.