Across the Margin continues its rollout of the Best Albums of 2021 with albums 20 — 11…
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.