Best Albums of 2021
Author: Real Cool Vibe
Author: Real Cool Vibe
- Paris Texas - Boy Anonymous (Paris Texas)
In a world where so much new rap/trap/hip-hop sounds the same, Paris Texas comes along and drops something fresh. This duo from Los Angeles break the mold by creating a hybrid sound that is derived from a wide variety of influences. Utilizing guitars, synths/keys, samples, and beats they add interesting and unique textures to each track. These eight songs all sound different but the EP in totality is a cohesive artistic statement. The end result is a world-class first release by promising new artists.
RIYL : Basehead (“Casino”), Aesop Rock (“Pack 4 Da Low”), Mac Miller (“Area Code”), Outkast (“Situations”), Ghostpoet (“Force Of Habit” / “Better Days”)
- Eleventh Dream Day - Since Grazed (Comedy Minus One)
I was first introduced to Eleventh Dream Day in 1988 when they opened for the Meat Puppets somewhere in the East Village. I have been a fan ever since. This is the band’s 11th release and it is their first new record since 2015. This album continues to explore the bands alt-rock-neil-young leanings, perhaps a bit more quietly than on previous releases. With a 30+ year history and familiarity between the band’s members it is no surprise that this is a mature effort. With five of the album’s eleven tracks coming in at more than six minutes, it is clear the band has something to say. As always, the voices of Rick Rizzo and Janet Bean are in perfect harmony.
RIYL: X, Classic Alt-Rock
- The Natvral - Tethers (Kanine Records)
The Natvral is the new project from Kip Berman (formerly of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart). I would file this record under classic rock with an alt-folk-country chaser. This is the kind of record that I typically play from start to end. There aren’t any bad songs so there is no reason to turn it off. This one has album-of-the-year potential.
RIYL: Dr. Dog
LINK: The Natural - Tethers
- Madlib / Kieran Hebden - Sound Ancestors (Madlib Invazion)
Madlib is a multi-instrumentalist and producer who has worked with some of the biggest names in hip hop. Kieran Hebden is an electronic musician who performs as Four Tet. This album is a multi-year collaboration between two of the best-in-the-business.
Kieren Hebden: “A few months ago I completed work on an album with my friend Madlib that we’d been making for the last few years. He is always making loads of music in all sorts of styles and I was listening to some of his new 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. Not made into beats for vocalists to use but instead arranged into tracks that could all flow together in an album designed to be listened to start to finish. I put this concept to him when we were hanging out eating some nice food one day and 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 stretch and during that time I put together this album with all the parts that fitted with my vision”
RIYL: Instrumental Hip-Hop, Dope Beats, Red Snapper
- Herman Düne - The Cassette Tapes from Vinegar Hill (Yaya Tova)
Heman Düne refer to themselves as a band even though there is a member of the band named Heman Düne. While this “band” has been around for a while, I first heard of them in 2020 when they released the album Notes From Vinegar Hill. According to the band’s website, “Herman Düne is a French group from Paris established in 1999 as a trio including brothers David-Ivar Herman Düne and André Benouaisch (both brothers born in Paris to a Swedish mother and Moroccan father).” At some point the band relocated to California and started making music that emulates the Bakersfield and Laurel Canyon music that predated their arrival by more than a few decades. Their 2021 release, The Cassette Tapes from Vinegar Hill, are stripped down demos of songs originally found on the band’s 2020 release. It's a really nice complement to the studio album.
- Sundog - Cabin Fever (Dog Yard Records)
Sundog’s bio on Spotify describes them as a “psychedelic rock trio based in Anchorage, Alaska. I believe Cabin Fever is their second full length release. Basically, that is all I know about this band. Most of the vocals are handled by the female guitar player. The treatment on her vocals give their sound a Grace-Slick-60’s-vibe. For a more contemporary reference, her voice reminds me of Mattiel Brown of Atlanta based band Mattiel. The first time I heard Sundog it was their 2021 version of “Walking On The Moon” by The Police. If you are looking for an introduction to Sundog, this cover is a good place to start. After hearing it, I sought out Cabin Fever and I am glad I did. It has been in heavy rotation throughout the spring and into the summer.
RIYL: Mattiel, Grace Slick
LINK: Sundog's Website
- Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall - The Marfa Tapes (Vanner Records)
When Michele Shocked released “The Texas Campfire Tapes” in 1986 it was something of a revelation. The music on the album was recorded on a Sony Walkman during an impromptu performance sitting by a campfire at a folk festival. The recording wasn’t high quality. It didn’t need to be. The songs and her performance were perfectly suited to the setting and the primitive recording equipment captured a truly authentic vibe. I always wondered why more artists did not take to this lo-fi alfresco approach to recording. Then, 35-years later, comes this record from three friends trading songs around a campfire. If you listen to this record outside it’s almost like you are there.
RIYL: Lo-Fi Campfire Country
- William The Conqueror - Maverick Thinker (Chrysalis Records)
UK label Chrysalis Records has been around for more than fifty-years. I am not sure if they are considered a indie or major label but I do know they have had a long and distinguished history releasing a wide variety of European and American artists. This record, by the UK band William The Conqueror, is interesting because this is not the type of music typically released by today’s major labels. This record is not going to generate the sales of a mainstream pop album. Instead, it will be enjoyed by a smaller audience that still enjoys a good old fashioned three-piece rock band playing quality rock tunes. It is worth mentioning that this record was recorded at Sound City in Los Angeles - birthplace of many of the greatest recordings in rock and roll history.
RIYL: Country Westerns, Alejandro Escovedo
LINK: Sound City - Movie
- Nia Wyn - Take A Seat (Nia Wyn)
This EP is perfect in every way. Eight well crafted Neo-soul tracks featuring a hyper talented vocalist-guitarist, great songs, really nice arrangements, and first-class production. In a recent interview with DIY Mag (https://diymag.com/2021/04/09/get-to-know-nia-wyn), Wyn name checks Bob Dylan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Simz, and Mac Miller as inspirations. Seems like she gets it!
RIYL: Neo-Soul, Hip-Hop Soul, Amy Winehouse
LINK: Nia Wyn (Soundcloud)
LINK: Nia Wyn (YouTube)
LINK: Nia Wyn (Bandcamp)
- The Hold Steady - Open Door Policy (Thirty Tigers)
I’ll go ahead and say it, I think The Hold Steady’s 2006 album “Boys And Girls In America” is one of the best Classic-American-Rock albums of all time. I put this record in the same category as “Born to Run”, “Damn The Torpedos”, and “Bat Out Of Hell” - three better known albums that defined their era. “Boys And Girls In America” in-part gets this distinction due to the quality of the song’s, the production, and the band’s performance. What really sets this record apart is the way it so perfectly captures and documents 20-something culture in the aughts. The band’s new album, “Open Door Policy”, succeeds in different ways. The band’s playing is looser and has more nuances and textures than previous releases. This gives vocalist Craig Finn an updated sonic palette for his verbose-lyrical-stories. This new record isn’t a major overhaul but more akin to a veteran band paying attention to the details.
- Dry Cleaning - New Lost Leg (4AD)
Dry Cleaning is a London based post-punk band that formed in 2018. The band's music serves as a backdrop for vocalist Florence Shaw’s spoken word observations which are revealing, compelling, and sometimes funny. Musically, guitars ring out as a counterpoint to Shaw's dour vocals while the rest of the band lays down a rhythmic foundation that propels the music forward.
RIYL: Black Country New Road, King Missle
- Billy Nomates - Emergency Telephone (Invada Records)
My introduction to Billy Nomates (aka Tor Maries) was a video of her first ever public appearance in a UK record store. Singing over prerecorded music in front of a dozen people it was instantly clear Nomates was a talent heading for a bigger stage. Nomates’ synth and beat based music brings just the right vibe and sense of urgency to her auto-biographical working-class lyrics. Emergency Telephone is a 5-song EP that follows Nomates self titled debut from 2020. I look forward to what comes next,
LINK: Billy Nomates (Bandcamp)
LINK: Billy Nomates (Youtube)
- John Dwyer, Nick Murray, Brad Caulkins, Greg Coates & Tom Dolas - Witch Egg (Castle Face)
John Dwyer is a musician and one of the founders of Castle Face Records. He has been in a number of cool bands and put out lots of records. This group’s brand of punk-jazz-fusion is an exciting new direction. This record should appeal to people that listen to traditional jazz as well as an audience that gravitates towards more experimental music.
John Dwyer - synthesizers, guitar, electric bass, hand-percussion, flute, mellotron, tapes & effects
Nick Murray - drums, percussion
Brad Caulkins - tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, selmer electric sax
Tom Dolas - wurlitzer piano, clavinet
Greg Coates - acoustic bass
RIYL: Claw Hammer - ‘Scuse The Excursion EP, Sunwatchers, Punk Jazz
LINK: John Dwyer - Witch Egg
LINK: John Dwyer - Wikipedia
- Alostmen - Kologo (Strut Records)
Alostmen are from Ghana. Their music is a melting post of styles played mostly on traditional African instruments. The band’s bio states, “Alostmen’s music is based around the Frafra traditions of the Kologo, a stringed lute, using traditional instrumentation in entirely new ways…. The band comprises Stevo (kologo, vocals), Jo Ajusiwine (goje fiddle, vocals), Aminu Amadu (talking drum) and Sowah (gome box, djembe and conga) while featured guests include highlife legend Gyedu-Blay Ambolley and Ghanaian stars Yaa Pono and Medikal.”
RIYL: Pekos/Yoro Diallo, African Music
- Jeremiah Fraites - Piano Piano (Dualtone Music Group)
Jeremiah Fraites is a multi-instrumentalist and a founding member of the The Lumineers. This solo release features gorgeous down-tempo-piano-ballads with sparse accompaniment of percussion and strings. Fraites’ cover of Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” is not on this album but it was also released in 2021 and is worth checking out.
RIYL: Instrumental Piano Music, Ann Margaret Hogan
- Black Midi - Cavalcade (Rough Trade Records)
In November of 2018, Black Midi played a show in Reykjavik, Iceland that was recorded to video by Seattle radio station KEXP. This video was so dynamic that it immediately put Black Midi on the map as one of the most innovative new bands in the UK - seven months before they had put out an album. Subsequently, the band’s first album was released in June of 2019 and it was well received. If it wasn’t for Covid the band would have spent the summer of 2020 playing festivals throughout Europe and the States. Fast forward to 2021 and the band of four is now down to three members. Guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin took a break from the band and was not included on the band’s latest album. To record their latest album, Black Midi went back to the studio one-man-down and faced with the challenge of avoiding the sophomore slump. In response the band recorded a complex album featuring everything from bombastic-punk-jazz to torch songs. Instead of dumbing down their vision and trying to grow their audience the band decided to make a record for the adventurous fans who they already brought to the party. Bold!
- Morcheeba - Blackest Blue (Skye & Ross)
Morcheeba's brand of downtempo-electronic-soul has remained consistent and entertaining over a 25-year career. The band’s latest album, Blackest Blue, it their 10th release. It is a paired down affair that closely resembles the softer side of the band’s back catalogue. This record has a number of standout tracks that would work well on a late-night-mix-tape.
RIYL: Electronic Soul
LINK: Morcheeba - Live Berlin
- Virginia Wing - private LIFE (Fire Records)
Virginia Wing is the musical collaboration of Alice Merida Richards and Sam Pillay. They are an art pop group. A review on Pitchfork stated, “Virginia Wing make music that triangulates left field jazz, ashram-dwelling new age, and warm synth-pop into something that feels calm and centred”. Their synth and beat based music features electronic flourishes and organic textures that keep the music interesting. Private LIFE includes a mix of uptempo and slower tracks. The slower tracks typically feature spoken word vocals. These songs take on a spacey-psychedelic bent. This record is on the accessible side of experimental music.
RIYL: Sneaks, The Go! Team
- Widowspeak - Honeychurch EP (Captured Tracks)
Widowspeak are an indie-rock-pop duo from Brooklyn who would not sound out of place on 1970’s AM radio sandwiched between Fleetwood Mac and Dionne Warwick. This five track EP includes three Widowspeak originals as well as two covers. The first cover is “The One I Love” by REM and the second is “Romeo And Juliet” by Dire Straits. If you like this EP, I recommend the band’s last full-length album called Plum.
RIYL: 70’s AM Radio
- Anchorsong - Mirage (Tru Thoughts)
The London-based Japanese producer Anchorsong, aka Masaaki Yoshida, creates soundscapes constructed with wind instruments, percussion, and layered voices. Utilizing complex rhythms, synths and samples, including everything from galloping horses to Brazilian Bossa Nova records, Masaaki produces electronic soundscapes that have an organic soul.
RIYL: Color Filter
- Ceramic Dog - Hope (Northern Sky)
Ceramic Dog is Marc Ribot - guitar/vocals, Shahzad Ismaily - bass, Chess Smith - drums. The musical output of these highly accomplished musicians lives somewhere between rock and electric jazz. This band’s main attraction is the virtuosity of all three members and their chemistry. While a new Ceramic Dog studio album is always welcome, this band really shines in a live setting. Luckily there are a number of YouTube videos that help me scratch that itch. When playing live, band members improvise and play off one another - stretching and bending songs with a dynamic energy that is thrilling to watch. This album’s release will ultimately lead to more footage of Ceramic Dog on tour. Can’t wait!
RIYL: Lou Reed, Punk-Rock-Jazz
- Timbre Timbre - Dissociation Tapes Vol. 1 / I Am Coming To Paris (Timbre Timbre)
Timber Timbre is a Canadian band featuring Taylor Kirk. They released two EPs in the first half of 2021. Dissociation Tapes was originally released on cassette in 2019. This year it was released digitally on streaming services. Another EP titled I Am Coming To Paris is new for 2021. I would describe these records as dead-pan country blues. The songs’ spare and beautifully constructed arrangements are paired with lyrics that are rich in content. This is a band that plays attention to the details. Both EPs are equally good. I would have trouble picking a favorite.
RIYL: Folk Blues, Smog, Bill Callahan
- Courting - Grand National (Nice Swan Records)
Grand National is the debut 4-song EP from five-piece band Courting. They sound like a UK version of Parquet Courts circa 2013’s Light Up Gold. This album features rhythmic, guitar driven music and showcases the bands ability to extend a song with punk-groove-jams. This 13-minute release is a promising introduction.
RIYL: Groove Oriented Punk Rock, Parquet Courts
- Mustafa - When Smoke Rises (Regent Park Songs)
This album might prove to be more than the sum of its parts. Only time will tell if “urban-folk” becomes a thing. If it does, Mustafa might get credit for creating a whole new genre. Mustafa’s Wikipedia page for the album says, “When Smoke Rises is the debut studio album by Canadian musician and poet Mustafa. It was released on May 28, 2021, through Mustafa's Regent Park Songs imprint. The album was produced by frequent collaborator Frank Dunes along with James Blake and Jamie xx and written with Simon on the Moon and Sampha. The album is self-described as 'inner city folk music' and is thematically centered on Toronto’s Regent Park community.” Looking at the liner notes for this album there are more than twenty musicians and vocalists credited - some of them established artists. How all these people came together to produce this album I have no idea. What I do know if a lot of talented people think Mustafa is the shit. I think so too!
RIYL: James Blake
- Squid - Bright Green Field (Warp Records)
Bright Green Field is the debut studio album by British band Squid. This album should appeal to fans of contemporary UK-post-punk. The band uses angular guitars, synthesizers, propulsive beats and percussion to create extended groove oriented punk jams.
RIYL: Pixies, Sonic Youth, Ian Drury
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