Best Albums of 2021

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Photo Illustration by Zachary Holden

Pictured from left to right: Sematary, Giant Claw, Injury Reserve (Parker Corey and Ritchie with a T), Lil Ugly Mane, and Japanese Breakfast.

Zachary Holden, Entertainment Editor

The Tribe Tribune asked about 50 students from all grade levels to tell us their favorite album of the year. Some of the top finishers included Doja Cat’s album Planet Her and SIlk Sonic’s album An Evening with Silk Sonic. Because a lot of students stream singles instead of albums, many students told us their favorite artist from this year as well, with picks ranging from Drake to Olivia Rodrigo to BTS.

Other students mentioned Playboi Carti’s album Whole Lotta Red, Phoebe Bridger’s album Punisher, and Kid Cudi’s album Man on the Moon III, but those albums were technically from 2020 (not 2021).

The following Top Ten albums were selected by entertainment editor Zach Holden. Although Japanese Breakfast’s album Jubilee was nominated for a Grammy, the other selections might be new to readers. We recommend trying a new album each day during Winter Break.

black midi

No. 1 Cavalcade

Genre: Progressive Rock, Experimental Rock

No. 1. black midi’s avant-prong album Cavalcade.

black midi proved themselves to be one of the best new voices in underground punk rock with their debut album Shlaggenheim in 2019, so you can imagine many fans’ shock when they also made the best progressive rock album of the modern era with their sophomore album. 

Listening to this thing is like… well, it’s difficult to put into simple words. 

It’s like eating a living rubik’s cube. It’s like playing 3D chess, blindfolded. It’s like sticking your hand into a black hole only to grab onto the hand you just stuck in, if any of that makes sense. 

What I’m trying to say is that it makes the already complex even more perplexing. 

The second the album starts, John L hits the listener with an in-your-face assault of brass and guitars as vocalist Geordie Greep delivers some spoken word about John L, the king of… some place. The performance here is intimidating yet organized. It’s like being surrounded by a bunch of these zany, obtuse figures with swords, but rather than immediately stabbing you over and over again, they wait for every chance to make a critical blow. 

There are a few moments in the track where it goes silent for a few seconds before erupting back into action making it all the more tense. Overall, the song sounds like a progressive rock version of “Jerry was a Racecar Driver” by Primus. 

The track after that, Marlene Dietrich, is the exact opposite. It’s gentle, flowing with acoustic guitars and an orchestral backing, evoking feelings of a lush green hill. It definitely stands out as the most straightforward song on the album and a display of how unpredictable this album can be. 

“Ascending Forth” is the perfect end to this album. Not only does it have the catchiest line on here, “Everyone loves ascending fourths,” but it marks the grandest moment on the album with a full ensemble of brass, strings and guitars that goes through multiple phases. 

The orchestra finishes on the most elegant of crescendos. 

It’s an immensely beautiful moment from an immensely beautiful album that should be experienced by all.

Sematary

No. 2 Rainbow Bridge 3 [Explicit]

Genre: Trap Metal, Industrial Hip Hop

No. 2. Sematary’s trap metal/industrial hip hop album Rainbow Bridge 3.

No beating around the bush, Sematary has pushed the boundaries of trap metal to its absolute limit on this release, but who is Sematary? 

Well, he’s essentially if you took your average greasy whiteboy Soundcloud rapper, but swapped out his diet of Eminem with Chief Keef, Crystal Castles and Mayhem. 

What results is a sound that plays out shockingly well in execution, fusing the bass and percussion of drill with samples lifted from black metal and synths from witch house. 

Needless to say, his output has been incredibly unique in the underground music scene, but none of his projects could have anticipated any of his listeners for the vile, gruesome pit of noise that would be on this tape. 

Lyrically, Sematary makes numerous references to lethal weapons, necromancy, light paganism, dismemberment, cryptology, and overall demonic subjects, all of which are delivered in a manner that’s surprisingly catchy, tongue-and-cheek and extremely intense. 

It’s like cultism for the sake of irony with lines like “I live, I die, I live again. I’m comin’ with my army of skellingtons” showcasing a unique blend of campiness and catharsis. 

Sematary’s back-of-the-throat growl sounds like Chief Keef if the drill pioneer were a black metal vocalist. Nothing new for Sematary, but the production really brings his voice to life as the beats on here are distorted beyond repair. 

Yet, through all of the noise, there’s still a sense that there’s more going on in the mix. Before each track starts going, there’s either a sample or a guitar or a synth or something like that that sets the tone. Think of them like the calm before the storm. 

The 808 bells and crunchy guitars start the track “Chainsaw Party” before the bass and percussion comes in and blows out the mix. “Toothtaker” starts with some slow-moving acoustic guitar, acting as a breather in the runtime relative to the other tracks neighboring it with it having the least distortion. The piercing guitar on “Murder Ride” is like the howl of a werewolf, ready for its next hunt. 

While Rainbow Bridge 3 uses these traits a bit too consistently to the point of repetition, its manic energy manages to keep the listener in this odd state of rage and stupor throughout its 53-minute runtime. It allows for repetition to not be a huge problem at all. 

This mixtape is just the right thing for people who loved Whole Lotta Red and another level of that blood-pumping trap action.

Injury Reserve

No. 3 By the Time I Get to Phoenix [Explicit]

Genre: Experimental Hip Hop

No. 3. Injury Reserve’s experimental hip hop album By the Time I Get to Phoenix.

First off, Rest in Peace to Steppa J. Groggs. It’s a shame we had to lose such an important member of the hip hop community during a time like this. Secondly, god this is good. 

Injury Reserve is an Arizona alternative hip hop trio consisting of producer Parker Corey, rapper Ritchie with a T, and formerly, rapper Steppa J. Groggs and to whom this album is dedicated to. 

The group has focussed mainly on a blend of hip hop styles that’s equal parts outside-the-box and traditional with beats that are wild and eccentric and lyrics that flow with said beats well without compromising any accessibility.

However, By the Time I Get to Phoenix sounds completely different from anything the group has put out thus far. The beats Corey made for this album are almost too complex and diverse to sum up in a way that’ll do it justice. 

For example, “Superman That” sounds like it has five different drum tracks playing at once over these staccato guitars as Ritchie croons “Ain’t no saving me, ain’t no saving me or you” in autotune like he’s Kanye West in 2008, although Ritchie manages to sound better than 2008 Kanye. 

Even that description won’t prepare anyone for what they’d actually be hearing. 

The overall production seems like a spiritual continuation of the glitchy yet soulful beats on rapper Earl Sweatshirt’s opus, Some Rap Songs, which had a production style unlike any other at the time. However, where Some Rap Songs sounds like the album itself is drunk, By the Time I Get to Phoenix is an intense hangover, constantly sinking the listener into its thick melancholic haze. 

Any experimentality this project has going for it is only secondary to the sludgy, lethargic emotions this album conveys.

“Outside” starts the album with a sunburned progressive electronic piece, rapped over by Richie, detailing the concern of an invasion of his privacy by his own fans. He raps about how people online are trying to break their way into his life wanting answers, especially with how Groggs died, since his cause of death is still unknown, and Richie saying “No, that’s none of your business.” 

“Top Picks for You” is easily the most personal and emotional cut on here with a slow-moving instrumental that plays out more like an ambient piece and lyrics directly referencing the passing of Groggs. Ritchie compares the mental patterns that would happen in his head when he was with Groggs to an algorithm executing a code of sorts in lines such as “Grab the remote, pops up something you would’ve watched, I’m like ‘Classic, this some s— I would’a seen you watch and then just laughed at. Your patterns are still in place and your algorithm is still in action.” It’s a soul-crushing track that vividly paints the moving-on from the passing of a loved one.

In contrast, “Wild Wild West” portrays the paranoia of the quarantine through the lens of a conspiracy theorist that’s only gotten more conspiratorial as the quarantine continues and the beat captures the manic energy. 

“Knees” is the closest this album gets to Neo-Soul with Ritchie once more crooning over glitchy guitars and a time signature that does everything in its power to not expose itself to the listener. It’s a heavily emotional ballad that conveys a lot of the sadness of this record in a way that doesn’t feel desolate as much as it feels soothing.

By the Time I Get to Phoenix is a lot of things, yet through all of the sounds on here, it conveys what’s on its mind above all.

Lingua Ignota

No. 4 Sinner Get Ready [Explicit]

Genre: Neoclassical, Singer-Songwriter

No. 4. Lingua Ignota’s neoclassical darkwave album Sinner Get Ready.

If there’s one question that has arisen during quarantine, it’s got to be “has God abandoned us?” It’s one of the heaviest questions one could ask, let alone answer, but it really feels like God has put the human race on cruise control for a bit. It’s been an immeasurably frustrating past two years for billions across the globe, so how does this tie into the next album? 

Sinner Get Ready is essentially the embodiment of all of that frustration that has boiled up over the past few months. 

Kristin Hayter, aka Lingua Ignota, has concocted something consistently grand yet haunting. 

Sonically, it’s droning, yet acoustic. It feels like a fusion of the hulking and overpowering feelings of Swans’ Soundtracks for the Blind and the funeral-esque, gloomy acoustics of Nico’s Desertshore

Hayter also makes use of vocal harmonies in a way that makes her presence seem larger and more daunting than it would otherwise. 

It’s incredibly droning in its pacing, as if to not just test the listener’s patience, but their devotion to the album itself. 

Sinner Get Ready is a project that paints religion, specifically Christianity, in this incredibly dark light, but not in a way that highlights its controversy over the years. 

It portrays Christianity as it is on a surface level and then twists it into something grim and intimidating and it’s conveyed in every single word she says. 

A perfect example of this would be the track “I Who Bend the Tall Grasses,” where Hayter doesn’t sing so much as recite a story about a person who is demanding God to kill an unknown man. The character that Hayter takes on viciously details about how much sacrifice they’ve made to God and how much they want the other person to die, even with there being no clear reason as to why the man has to die, other than vague details such as “he can’t help it” and “he belongs to me”. Yet Hayter’s character wants nothing else in the world other than the brutal end of the unnamed man. She performs this story in a way that repeatedly shifts in tone, yet remains consistently tense. She lets out a hair-raising scream before slowly quieting down to a somber weep and it never loses its tenseness. Its quieter moments are designed to lull you into a state of false security just so it can startle you with its next roar. 

In contrast, “Pennsylvania Furnace” is a slow-moving piano ballad, but even in the eye of the storm where all is calm, Hayter’s lyrics detail the psychological tactics in which Christianity uses to recruit people. The track towards the end becomes more grandiose with an ensemble of tinny horns and strings accompanying the mix. 

The subject matter may not be to many readers’ tastes. It is encouraged to those who object to the subject matter to look on Sinner Get Ready as a test of Christian faith. If you still think of yourself as a Christian after listening to Sinner Get Ready then may you be known for your unshakeable faith. Those who can see past the subject matter will find a complex, beautiful, and extremely dark work of art.

Giant Claw

No. 5 Mirror Guide

Genre: Progressive Electronic, Modern Classical

No. 5. Giant Claw’s progressive electronic/modern classic album Mirror Guide.

If you thought that last album was weird, get ready for this. Giant Claw, real name Keith Rankin, is an experimental music artist. He’s done some work as a member of the vaporwave supergroup Death’s Dynamic Shroud for albums like 2015’s I’ll Try Living Like This, which is hailed by fans and critics as a high point for the genre. 

Rankin was also responsible for one of the honorable mentions for this year, Faith in Strangers, which is an excellent mix of vaporwave and pop with irresistibly danceable beats, vocals whose purpose is to only further the mood as opposed to conveying lyrical meaning. 

Rankin’s Giant Claw albums pride themselves on their frantic unpredictability and cerebral deconstructions of popular music. His 2014 vaportrap opus Dark Web, for example, reshaped elements of contemporary r&b and trap into a flowing amalgamation of sounds. That’s his most accessible album. 

Other albums like his 2017 album Soft Channel are far, far more abstract and rarely have anything resembling a steady beat, but a variety of sounds crashing together whenever they feel like it and that’s not an understatement. 

Mirror Guide is undoubtedly an extension of Soft Channel, but far more mature, adding elements of modern classical music to the mix of scattered, abrasive electronics.

Despite the all-over-the-place nature of the album, it’s not difficult to find specific moments that ring out in some way. 

There’s the satisfyingly beautiful yet synthetic trumpets on “Mir-Cam Startup,” the string plucks on “Disworld” which seem to go on endlessly, accompanied by these androgenous vocals by NTsKi (Orange Milk signee from earlier this year). 

Perhaps the climax of the album, however, comes in the middle of the album with the track “Until Mirror,” which has a beautiful operatic vocal performance by feature vocalist Tamar Kamin, backed by the lushest instrumental backing on the album with synths that wash over the listener like a blanket. The overall experience is incredibly powerful and emotionally moving despite its avant-garde nature.

Mirror Guide isn’t for everyone, but enduring the storm means seeing the sunrise.

Lil Ugly Mane

No. 6 Volcanic Bird Enemy and the Voiced Concern

Genre: Singer-Songwriter, Plunderphonics

No. 6. Lil Ugly Mane’s plunderphonics album Volcanic Bird Enemy and the Voiced Concern.

Virginia rapper, producer, singer-songwriter, multiinstrumentalist Travis Miller, aka Lil Ugly Mane, is back with his first full-length album in six years. 

This album is the completion of a metamorphosis that Miller has been going through sonically. 

Ever since the period of time when he started releasing these seemingly random albums, EPs, and singles on his Bandcamp page, it’s been evident that he has a knack for art forms outside of the sounds of his rapper persona on projects like his 2012 breakthrough album Mista Thug Isolation

Volcanic Bird shows the shifting away from hip hop into something between electronic and indie pop. Miller actually sings on this record. That’s how you know things have shifted for the self-proclaimed hood apparition. 

This thing manages to pull off something that only few would be able to do: “sound collage pop.” 

The sampling on here isn’t as seamless as albums like The Avalanches’ Since I Left You and Panda Bear’s Person Pitch where samples come together in an enchanting wall of sound that’s as catchy as it is psychedelic. It does, however, walk more along the lines between plunderphonic powerhouses like DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing and An Empty Bliss Beyond This World by The Caretaker. 

Volcanic Bird isn’t a complete departure from hip hop, at least in its core elements, like on the track “Beach Harness” which is a completely instrumental hip hop cut. 

There’s also a fair amount of alternative rock on here with tracks like “Headboard” and “Porcelain Slightly”. 

Miller sings of numbness, heartbreak, loneliness, and existentialism. Nothing new for Travis, considering his last two major albums, Oblivion Access and Flick Your Tongue Against Your Teeth and Describe the Present. On here though, Travis’ approach to lyricism and delivery makes it apparent that he’s going for a singer-songwriter tone. 

Lines like “Leading man just stutters when he talks / there were teardrops on his contract” display a level of melancholy like nothing else in Miller’s catalog. 

His voice is also deeper than usual, sounding like a sleep-deprived Lil Peep. 

The album cover says it all: an emotionally-distressed man trying to put himself together in this surreal, cartoonish world whose only purpose seems to be to consume him. 

If that particular situation sounds like your cup of tea, then this album is for you.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

No. 7 G_d’s Pee at State’s End!

Genre: Post-Rock

No. 7. Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s post-rock/symphonic album G_od’s Pee at the States End.

For fans of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, there simultaneously was and wasn’t a whole lot to expect from a new album.

The last few Godspeed You! Black Emperor albums received lackluster reception from fans and critics alike compared to the group’s more favorable 2000’s output. 

At the same time, if you know anything about Godspeed You! Black Emperor (who will be referred to as GY!BE from this point onwards), it’s that you can’t really expect a small amount from a band like GY!BE, especially considering this would be their first album in years. 

When it finally came out, it was praised as one of the best albums of the year.

Instrumentally, the band might not be as memorable as the material from their prime, but it’s still just as strong. 

They manage to up their sonic palette to be a bit psychedelic. The first track, among others, features guitar tones and performances that sound a lot like a Jimi Hendrix solo. 

Thematically, it’s not the same kind of gloomy as most GY!BE albums. 

Whereas albums like Lift Yr. Skinny Fists… and F# A# Infinity feel like they take place in these barren, near-deserted towns with few inhabitants, State’s End feels like an end of the world scenario from the inside. The people that once were the last spark of change in the world have become the catalyst for the end, tearing the world apart at the seams. 

It’s very reflective of the socio-political landscape of the quarantine era. 

Check this album out if you want something more accessible from the band that’s also an interesting change of pace from their usual sound. Listen to Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “A Military Alphabet”.

Japanese Breakfast

No. 8 Jubilee

Genre: Indie Pop

No. 8. Japanese Breakfast’s indie pop album Jubilee.

Japanese Breakfast is Michelle Chongmi Zauner, and she has made an album that music nerds and casual listeners can love: one of the most genuinely upbeat and cheery pop albums in a while. 

A lot of technically upbeat pop is as soulless as a Target back-to-school ad and Jubilee is proof that there’s more to pop than that. It’s immensely upbeat, sharing a lot of the same energy from albums like The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.

Zauner’s voice has a lot to do with this as it’s never dull at any point on the record. It’s incredibly clear and clean without sounding artificial. 

Instrumentally, this thing is outstanding as well. The live performances on here mesh well with the production which is also incredibly clean, leading to a sound that isn’t pure plastic, but also not too acoustic, making for an experience that doesn’t numb or bore the listener nor demand too much, rather, grabbing their attention the whole way through. 

Zauner’s crystal clear voice and authenticity is something to admire as well.

This is your post-pandemic spirit-lifting album. You’re welcome. Listen to Japanese Breakfast’s “Paprika” 

Fax Gang

No 9 Aethernet

Genre: HexD, Experimental Hip Hop

No. 9. Fax Gang’s HexD/experimental hip hop album Aethernet.

HexD is an odd sound to sum up. It’s a sound that almost exclusively appeals to Gen Z, a group of people who grew up on the internet, their childhood playing roughly assembled web games, watching YouTube videos during a time when the highest video resolution available was 144p. 

HexD is a genre like vaporwave that is meant to appeal to the nostalgia of its listeners while also portraying an abstraction of those early-internet memories by fusing it with the styles of the past and present. 

HexD results in a sound akin to listening to music from a bunch of arcade cabinets or on the world’s cheapest speaker where it’s more about the texture than anything. 

One of, if not the most notable artists in the genre is a trans-continental collective known as Fax Gang, consisting of rapper PK Shelboy and producers Blacklight, GLACIERbaby, NAIOKI, and maknaeslayer. 

Their style is more on the side of HexD that takes influence from trap music with the booming bass and persistent hi-hats the genre is known for, bitcrushed to the point of euphoria and where the vocals are indistinct.

Their debut album, Aethernet, is a testament to the popularity they’ve gained in the underground. It takes the sound from their previous works and gives it a lot more breathing room for new ideas to be explored, which is possibly why this has been so off-putting for many of their fans. 

Right off the bat, the song “Anything to Gain/Nothing to Lose” displays this feeling excellently with its harmonious vocals, uplifting lead melodies, and lyrics about easily moving on in life after the realization that material wealth is all an abstract concept that ultimately is for brief satisfaction, all with just the right amount of distortion.

“Reality/Dream” starts off with this glistening synth arpeggio and drums that become more and more danceable as the track continues, only for the track to wind down in intensity towards the end. It also features these shouted vocals from this song’s feature, ALIEN DAY, that blend into the mix with satisfying viscera. 

“Fallen” is a song that leans into the group’s trap side a lot more than the other tracks with most of the surrounding soundscapes that dominate the other tracks on here being subdued to allow the vocals and drums take center stage on here, which is only emphasized further by an incredibly beautiful, high-pitched vocal sample that appears towards the end of the track. 

Easily, this album is this year’s highpoint for the HexD scene and alternative music as a whole.

Parannoul

No. 10 To See the Next Part of the Dream

Genre: Shoegaze, Emo

No. 10. Parannoul’s shoegaze/emo album To See the Next Part of the Dream.

Parannoul is a South Korean rock artist whose catalog of music is pretty short and relatively new, so it can come as a shock to how powerful the material on here is. To See the Next Part of the Dream is an amazing emo album with just the right amount of shoegaze. 

Right off the bat, the lo-fi vocals may be a turn-off for many listeners. They have this peculiar texture to them as the actual sound of the vocals can make the listener’s larynx vibrate at the same frequency. It’s a weird quality for sure, but as the album continues, they fade into the mix more and more. By the end, it becomes apparent how great they sound in the context of a shoegaze album. 

One of the things that makes legendary bands like My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins so appealing is that the vocals are so dissonant and just out of reach of understanding like they’re another instrument that adds to the soundscapes. 

The fact that an English-only speaker can’t understand the lyrics because of the language barrier kind of makes the album better, because in a sense, it perfects that age-old art. 

There’s undoubtedly other albums that also have blurry vocals in a foreign language, but none have gotten this much buzz from fans and critics alike. 

Due to the lingual divide, the only indication to listeners that this, in fact, is an emo record are the performances. Man, do some fireworks go off on this album, especially the drum solo on “Youth Rebellion.” It’s the kind of musical moment that makes you think “how do people even listen to k-pop after that?”

The vocal mixing may turn off new listeners, but it’s nothing grating. The performances and production are worth the listen even if you aren’t a fan of the vocals. Listen to “아름다운 세상(Beautiful World)”: “아름다운 세상(Beautiful World)”

 

Zach’s Honorable Mentions for Album of the Year

  1. Low’s Hey What
  2. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & The London Symphony Orchestra’s Promises
  3. RXK Nephew’s Slitherman Activated [Explicit]
  4. Iglooghost’s Lei Line Eon
  5. Silk Sonic’s An Evening with Silk Sonic
  6. Osquinn’s Drive-By Lullabies [Explicit]
  7. Nami Ga Uku’s 外気圏が飛ぶ A Message to Toko Shinoda From Eternity’s Gate
  8. Kanye West’s Donda
  9. Codex’s Knifemaw Wildstyle
  10. Black Country, New Road’s For the First Time [Explicit]
  11. JPEGMAFIA’s LP! [Explicit]
  12. Death’s Dynamic Shroud’s Faith in Persona
  13. Acetantina’s Carmen Windstead
  14. Left at London’s ’s T.I.A.P.F.Y.H
  15. sonhos tomam conta’s’s Hypnagogia