2021 was a great year for music. Artists seemed to have come out of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic full of creative ideas and personal anecdotes about which to base their art. Specifically in hip-hop, the sheer volume of albums released by big name artists is enough to cement 2021 as a successful year for music. In this article, I will be going through my 10 favorite albums released during this year. Keep in mind, I listen to mostly underground and experimental hip-hop, and less country and pop music; that bias will be reflected in the genre spread. Deluxe albums and EPs will not be considered. On top of this, I never separate the art from the artist, so external factors will be taken into account. With that, let’s begin.
20. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – CARNAGE (Neo Folk, Singer-Songwriter)
19. For those I love – For those I love (Electronic, Dance, Spoken Word)
18. Moor Mother – Black Encyclopedia of the Air (Spoken Word, Industrial)
17. Your Old Droog – TIME (Alternative Hip Hop)
16. Tyler, The Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST (Alternative Hip Hop)
15. Blu – The Color Blu(e) (Jazz Rap)
14. Black Country, New Road – For The First Time (Math Rock, Art-Rock)
13. Little Simz – Sometimes I May Be Introvert (UK Hip Hop)
12. Backxwash – I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses (Industrial Hip Hop, Metal)
11. Genesis Owusu – Smiling with no Teeth (R&B, Soul)
10. Slowthai – Tyron (UK Hip Hop)
Released in early 2021, this album holds strong 10 months later. As a U.K. rapper, Slowthai’s sound stands out from the abundance of UK drill and Dizee Rascal influenced artists that flood the scene (not necessarily a bad thing). I had first heard of Slowthai from his 2019 record, “Nothing Great About Britain,” a grimy, dark record in which Slowthai complains about British politics and culture. This album is a stark contrast, focusing on Slowthai himself. After all, the name of this record is Slowthai’s legal name. The record is cut into 2 parts, with 7 songs of high energy and aggression kicking the album off, and the last 7 being more low key, introspective, and at times, devastating. I prefer the final 7, but the first half is fun as well. He sounds hungry on “Tyron”, never slipping up on a flow, and adding crazy vocal inflections and vibrant personality in his typical Slowthai way. He also does not hold back on the lyrical side, letting the listener in on all the ugly insecurities he has, such as how his ADHD hurt his familial relationships, and his past suicidal struggles. It is a very honest and respectable release from Slowthai and I cannot wait to see where he takes his art next.
Favorite Track – “i tried”
9. Mach-Hommy – Pray for Haiti (Alternative Hip Hop)
Hatian Mach-Hommy does a great job shifting his sound on “Pray for Haiti ”. Known for low key bars on lo-fi instrumentals, similar to that of Earl Sweatshirt and Navy Blue, Mach Hommy retains his signature style, while incorporating elements of his record label Griselda’s gangsta-rap. Westside Gunn from Griselda appears often on this project, and his contributions are passionate and heavy, acting as the yin to Mach-Hommy’s yang. Throughout this album, Haiti is the main focus. Often, he transitions into Hatian Creole, and focuses on issues in Haiti from different perspectives. He is so precise with each verse, and matches the mysterious aspect of the instrumentals. This sounds like Mach-Hommy has regained full confidence while rapping, and is no doubt his best work.
Favorite Track – “Marie”
8. Spelling – The Turning Wheel (Art Pop)
When I heard that one of the largest music reviewers on the internet, Theneedledrop, gave this album a very rare 10/10, I thought it would be fun to check it out. To my pleasure, this album was fantastic. Spelling is an Oakland based art-pop singer who specializes in theatrical vocal inflections. These can be found in abundance on this record; the album sounds like a fairytale-like journey with her dramatic and beautiful vocals. The instrumentals add to this as well, varying from playfully urgent to light and whimsical, both styles retaining their conquest soundtrack feeling. Songs like “Little Deer ” are uplifting with triumphant horns and hopeful lyrics in the chorus, while the album’s climax, “Boys at School,” deals with the hardships of her adolescence. This track includes loud booming vocals that are complemented by dark piano and minor chord synths. All the songs are grand and instrumentally dense, regardless of tone, and perfectly represent the weird nature of art pop as a genre.
Favorite Track – “The Future”
7. Nas – King’s Disease 2 (Hip Hop)
As the last track on this project is named, “Nas is Good”. In fact, he is good for 15 tracks of varying style on “Kings disease 2,” remaining in form so late into his legendary career as few rap icons can. This project is another collaboration with producer Hit-Boy, who lays simple, but intriguing beats. The abundance of features and beat switches throughout keep each track interesting, along with, of course, Nas’s impeccable talent as a rapper. He has not sounded this focused and consistent in a long time, and is able to showcase his versatility. “Nobody”
featuring Ms. Lauryn Hill is a wonderfully spiritual song, allowing Ms. Lauryn Hill to tell her story with both artists speaking on the lack of privacy artists receive. On the other hand, Nas teams up with A Boogie wit da Hoodie (Possibly my least favorite artist making music right now) and YG on “YKTV,” and it somehow works – even A Boogie brought an enjoyable performance. This album is another Nas victory lap, and proves once again why he is the greatest rapper of all time.
Favorite Track – “Count Me In”
6. Injury Reserve – By the Time I Get to Phoenix (Experimental Hip Hop)
Injury Reserve created an otherworldly album that serves as an incredible tribute to deceased band member Jordan Groggs. The duo of producer Parker Cory and rapper Ritchie with a T seem to find solace in their pain-filled music, showing their love for Groggs in each track. The production is as close as Injury Reserve have gotten to Death Grips level of insanity, and the dark tone perfectly compliments their grief and disapproval of the world around them. The instrumental-focused tracks “Outside” and “Storm” start and end the album, and contrast each other nicely, showing the growth the group has gone through since Groggs’s death, moving from urgency and pain to acceptance. The climax of the record, “Knees,” is one of the softest tracks with a verse and snippets from Groggs, transitioning into spoken word passages at times as he and the group dive into his personal struggles with alcoholism. This album wonderful and a fantastic tribute to Stepa J. Groggs – a very emotional listen. R.I.P.
Favorite Track – “Outside”
5. Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World (Synth Pop)
Magdalena Bay is a synth pop duo that creates fun, bopping music for any occasion. I do not listen to as much pop music as I wish I would, but I am so happy I checked this out. Each track is lush and sounds full. Every base note, each swell of instrumentation, each chorus is high energy, fun, and beautiful. Head vocalist Mica Tenenbaum does a great job of making Magdalena Bay’s tracks sound tongue and cheek, yet emotional when they need to. If you are wondering what I mean by this, watch the music video for “Secrets(Your Fire)”. The video is extremely ironic and comical, which directly contrasts the similarly high quality cut “Chaeri,” which talks about mental health and platonic isolation. This album makes me smile and want to dance, and sometimes that’s all I want an album to do.
Favorite Track – “Dreamcatching”
4. Donda – Kanye West (Hip Hop, Gospel)
Disclaimer – This blurb was written in 2021. Currently Kanye needs serious help for his mental health struggles, and I do not support his erratic social media use and public shaming of his ex-wife and those around her. This is making their divorce worse for their kids; I believe it should be handled privately.
I did not want to include this here – I truly did not – but Kanye West (whose legal name is now Ye) is a musical genius, and this album proves that once again. Let’s start with the issues, most of which are not music. First, the presentation. No album cover, lots of last minute changes, and a release date that even Kanye did not want all add up to the album feeling a little messy. On top of this, there are four part 2 tracks at the end, which are repeats of previous songs with new features and parts. These are useless. After listening to a long, 70+ minute record, I do not want to re-listen to a worse version of a song I already listened to. It doesn’t help that Dababy and Marilyn Manson are features, after Dababy’s homophobic comments, and Manson’s horrid abuse allegations. I never separate the art from the artist, as it is important to understand the art; these aspects do take away from the album. That being said … the music on this project is absolutely incredible. All the features do an incredible job, and perform with passion – Vory, Fivio Foreign, and Roddy Rich stand out in particular. From heavenly emotional tracks such as “Jesus Lord,” and “Come to Life,” to dark bangers like “Off the Grid,” and “Remote Control,” Kanye and his featured artists are in top form throughout. Kanye’s status seems to inspire artists to perform to their greatest ability around him, and it shows here. I regularly come back to “Donda” as a sort of comfort album for 2021, and it does not even include Kanye’s best track of the year, “Life of the Party”! There is not one track that I dislike, and it sounds like Kanye actually cares about this project, something that I have not heard since 2018. The music is great, but I caution people not to enjoy this without noticing Kanye’s struggles. NBe clearly needs help, and the last thing he needs right now is people to blindly lift him up no matter how erratic his decisions are.
Favorite Track – “Jesus Lord”
3. Black Midi – Cavalcade (Prog Rock, Math Rock)
Following 2019’s “Shlagenhiem,” which made me want to punch a hole in my bedroom wall with its unruly aggression, I was surprised to see the band lay back a bit on “Calvacade”. While I do miss the mathy, uncontrolled instrumentation, “Cavalcade” controls the chaos, sounding calculated and intricately paced. There are still loud, weird moments such as “John L,” but also beautiful emotional cuts like “Ascending Forth,” a testament to the band’s versatility. Head vocalist Geordie Greep softens his vocals quite a bit here, scarcely but powerfully lifting them when the instrumentals rise. For me, the best tracks here are the ones that contain high energy moments matched with compelling calmness, such as “Slow,” my personal favorite song of the year. This track builds up masterfully, and encapsulates the fun and crazy energy with a fantastic saxophone solo during the bridge and loud guitar riffs. There are a few one dimensional moments here and there, but Black Midi created a great project full of passion and fun creativity.
Favorite Track – “Slow”
2. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises (Electronic, Jazz)
I had been well aware of Pharoah Sanders legendary status in jazz before this year, having loved works of his such as “Karma,” and contributions on Alice Coltrane’s “Journey in Satchidananda,” and was excited to check this release out for him alone. On the other hand, I had never heard of Pharoah Sanders, and did not know what to expect from this jazz-electronic fusion. The result of this team, including the great London Symphony Orchestra, is a soft and lovely one take 9 movement jazz opera. The project revolves around a repeated piano loop, with each movement adding new instruments or vocals, such as Sander’s saxophone, violin, scat singing, and others. Each of Sander’s notes are pillowy and light, gently resting on top of the piano loop while carefully shifting in and out of focus as the song picks up and fades. The work reaches an emotional climax at “Movement 6,” where the London Symphony Orchestra’s violins enter and engage in an 8 minute long crescendo that explodes with a tear jerking note towards the end of the movement. This project takes the listener on a journey, and is one of, if not the most beautiful, listen I have ever had. No words can do the beauty of this project justice, and I highly recommend this to enjoyers of any genre. It “Promises” is an instant classic that serves as the exclamation point on Sander’s incredible career.
Favorite Track – “Movement 6”
1. Armand Hammer and The Alchemist – Haram (Underground Hip Hop)
For a list full of such theatrical productions, Armand Hammer shows the power of simplicity and atmosphere on Haram. Billy Woods and Elucid have been prominent names in the underground scene for a while, but being paired with fantastic producer The Alchemist adds a new dimension to the duo’s despondent lyricism. Rarely do songs extend over 3 minutes on this album, yet each verse covers societal issues like racism, bodily autonomy, police brutality with such depth and believable pessimism. Their soft spoken words seethe with fragments of aggression as they rap over dark and grimy production courtesy of The Alchemist. Each beat is jazzy yet bleak, full of sample loops and distortions that are filled with versatility and complement each verse well. On top of these positives, each feature brings their A-game. Earl Sweatshirt on “Falling out the Sky” and Quelle Chris on “Chicharrones” provide two of the best verses they have given in a while, and they match the flawless songwriting Armand Hammer displays. Rap as an artform does not have to be grand, and “Haram” is a testament to that. With unique song structure, low key instrumentals, and thoughtful lyrics, Armand Hammer created a project that is simple, yet thrives in rebellion as the pioneers of the genre did. While not the most stunning release of the year, I came back to this almost every day since its release, and thus it takes my #1 spot.
Favorite Track: “Falling Out The Sky” (with Earl Sweatshirt)