Olivia Rodrigo – Sour
With her debut effort Sour, Olivia Rodrigo gives a voice to teens of her own generation while also reminding us of the enduring appeal of rebellious young women. She manages to create something uniquely and unabashedly her own simply by refusing to be anyone but the current version of herself—messy emotions and all. Rodrigo also puts her own spin on the eclectic sounds of her predecessors, with everyone from Lorde to Alanis Morissette.
The difference now, of course, is that the cultural appetite for female anger has been completely redefined, thanks in large part to the rise of social media, the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, and abject governmental failure on a global health crisis, among other things. Sour‘s ability to play between the lines of angsty rebellion and imperfect young human being who’s aware of the ample room left to grow is surely what resonates most with listeners of any generation. And after all, if there was ever a time the world needs your anger, it’s now. – Jeffrey Davies
Black Country, New Road – For the First Time
London’s Windmill scene has generated quite the buzz. In 2021 alone, it birthed Black Midi’s sophomore album as well as debuts from Squid and Black Country, New Road. While these acts share an affiliation with the Speedy Wunderground label, their commonalities mostly end there. Each group takes a fresh and eclectic approach, pairing high musical ambition with the chops to match. It’s difficult to pin down what this sound even is.
Well, if it’s one thing, it’s rock music. And in this writer’s opinion, it’s the most exciting thing to happen to rock in… too long. For the First Time has drawn comparisons to Slint, Swans, and others, but there’s no clear lineage to trace back for this seven-piece. These young 20-somethings have clearly logged many streaming hours across the musical spectrum. Album standouts include epic centerpiece “Sunglasses” and the klezmer-inspired jams that bookend the album. But each of the six tracks is a labor of love that stands on its own. The songs undergo dramatic swells and lulls, sometimes skronky, sometimes serene. Most distinctive are the Guest’s baritone croak and verbose lyricism, which comes as puzzle-piece narrative poetry.
These lines have a way of inviting us into the band’s world, often through a sort of self-mythology. Take the lyric from “Track X”: Dancing to Jerskin, I got down on my knees / I told you I loved you in front of Black Midi. It’s odd but so charming. These inside references connect us with the people beyond the music they make. In doing so, the musicians legitimize their lives as art. It all makes you want to pull together a ragtag group of friends and form a collective. Because hey, Black Country is living proof that sometimes, you actually make it.
Funnily enough, the release of For the First Time was an almost perfunctory act. Their two singles from 2019 had garnered the band plenty of attention, and the live bootlegs floating around gave fans a pretty clear idea of what they were in for. By the time of its release, their subsequent album was already written, and as of late 2021, we’ve seen two lovely new singles that usher in a new musical era for Black Country, New Road. – A Noa Harrison
Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
Mdou Moctar has come a long way. Afrique Victime, his sixth album, is his first on Domino Records. Walls, fences, and barbed wire are once again coming up, but musical barriers have long since gone. Mdou was born in Niger, raised on Tuareg desert blues, and taught himself to play on his homemade guitar. Out of earshot of western radio and television most of his life, Mdou later discovered Prince and Purple Rain and that had a huge impact on his playing style and how he approached and incorporated western music.
Our mother tongue is important. Mdou’s voice is another instrument. The phonetic beauty is woven into the music. You have no idea what he’s saying or singing, but you get it. You can translate it, but it matters little. Afrique Victime sounds like western guitar music served to us upside down. Jubilant. Guitar playing unrestrained by history mixed with electronic flourishes and handclaps. This is what a thirst for making music sounds like.
Fantastically and fittingly Mdou’s talents initially found an outlet through the cell phone trading networks of West Africa and his music quickly went viral. Nomadic music. Isn’t that the very nature of music? Keep moving, keep evolving. – Jesper Nøddeskov
Deafheaven – Infinite Granite
As of this writing, there are still people who haven’t forgiven Deafheaven. Some fans who still worship at the temple of their debut album Sunbather feel that the San Fransico blackgaze outfit’s new record Infinite Granite is “too accessible”. Although singer George Clarke’s throaty growl can still be heard on tracks like the galloping closer “Mombasa”, the beauty of Infinite Granite is just how far the band stretch their sonic abilities, making the guitars ring and echo while toying around with waves of synthesizers.
Real fans know that Deafheaven’s strength has been in their flowing sense of melody, and even if memorable songs like “Great Mass of Energy” sound more like Britpop than they do like Liturgy, Infinite Granite is full of infinite pleasures. These are sturdy, catchy, and deftly composed numbers as if Deafheaven wants to challenge themselves with whole new genre shifts. Thankfully, they have capably stepped up to the challenge. – Evan Sawdey
Injury Reserve – By the Time I Get to Phoenix
There’re moments in the exploration video game No Man’s Sky where you land on one of 18 quintillion planets, and you are instantly met with outlandishly harsh conditions. It could be extreme heat or off-the-charts radiation. It’s much like the environment that overwhelms your ears on first listen to By the Time I Get to Phoenix.
The Tempe, Arizona hip-hop trio, completed By the Time I Get to Phoenix under the bleakest of backdrops. In 2020, founding member Jordan Alexander Groggs, aka Stepa J. Groggs, died at age 32. Surviving members Ritchie With a T and Parker Corey provide one of 2021’s most striking introduction tracks with “Outside”, a punishing, claustrophobic slow burner that veers into the punkish “Superman That”. While Injury Reserve makes use of noise rock, avant-garde hip-hop, and broken beats, the unifying theme is paranoia and survivalism.
Much like 2021, there is a “what the fuck did I just experience?” aspect listeners will likely feel at the end of By the Time I Get to Phoenix. However, few albums this year made as big of an impression in its lean 40 minutes of time. It’s a disorienting, but oftentimes euphoric and life-affirming listen. And in 2029, don’t be surprised if we look back on this album when we talk about the sounds that uniquely defined the 2020s. – Sean McCarthy
Rochelle Jordan – Play with the Changes
As the world gradually reopened in 2021, people returned to spaces forever changed, physically and psychologically, by the (still ongoing) pandemic. Nightlife, one of the most missed qualities of pre-Covid days, is now back, too, but in a state far different than before, at least to those with the wherewithal to consider the risks it now poses. Rochelle Jordan, too, entered 2021 after a period of career stagnation, a purgatory she emerges from not entirely stronger than before (“Broken Steel”) but certainly more prepared to face it (“Count It”).
Cohesive, poignant, and most importantly, earwormy as all hell, Play With the Changes sees her reentering a new world and artistic stage with an admirable level of assurance. It kicks up the tempo on her R&B roots with bits of new jack swing, drum ‘n’ bass, and something like that of fellow Canadian Kaytranada (“Already”), tonal shifts she questioned for herself during recording. While one might use this new sound, especially upbeat dance tracks, to overpower such doubts, Play With the Changes directly addresses them.
Jordan deals with uncertainty using tactical precision, keen enough to pick up on problems but self-aware enough to not assume the answers. This calculated effort manifests in her voice, rarely ever raised – her candid lyricisms and nimble cadence are enough to establish both her swagger and ethos. Rather than pine for worlds or relationships that are, at least for now, out of reach, Play With the Changes adapts to the ones we have already. Most importantly, it never explores how to shrink ourselves to fit within them, but instead how we can grow into them. – Mick Jacobs
Lil Nas X – Montero
Casual observers might have been distracted from Lil Nas X‘s music by his social media activity, his fast-food commercials, his Satan Shoes containing human blood, or his giving Satan a lap dance in the video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”. That’s somewhat understandable. What’s inconceivable is passing up Montero, Lil Nas X’s full-fledged debut, when everything about it is so compelling.
Montero represents a sense of vindication for the formerly assumed one-hit-wonder who made “Old Town Road” with Billy Ray Cyrus. There, Nas was melding hip-hop and country in ways that might have made Nelly say, “That’s what I meant to do,” in reference to his own “Over and Over” track with Tim McGraw. Here, Nas is still our favorite collaborator, but these pairings never dilute his presence or the rumble in his voice. He’s brazen alongside Doja Cat (“Scoop”); embodying the viewpoint of his haters with Sir Elton John’s assistance (“One of Me”); living ostentatiously with Megan Thee Stallion (“Dollar Sign Slime”); and longing to be remembered in a duet with Miley Cyrus (“Am I Dreaming”).
Genre exercises in hip-hop, rock, pop, and samba-infused funk sound authentic. Partially bright (as in the gargantuan sound and rhythm of the title track and opener) and partially filled with sorrow and ennui (“Dead Right Now”), Montero finds Lil Nas X becoming increasingly at ease at the intersection of race, youth, queerness, and melancholy. The world usually seems more comfortable discussing only one of these at a time, if at all, rather than all at once. What makes this album so special, aside from the grooves, is listening to Lil Nas X declare his identity while defying simple characterizations of that identity. – Quentin Huff
Dave – We’re All Alone in This Together
It’s remarkable to think of all that London’s Dave has accomplished. The 23-year old’s 2019 debut Psychodrama broke numerous records and won every award it was nominated for, and it’s hard not to see this follow-up garnering the same response. Even more ambitious and versatile than his excellent debut, We’re All Alone in This Together is the thunderous sound of the young auteur throwing down a gauntlet.
Bar the hollow materialism of the Stormzy-featuring “Clash”, We’re Alone in This Together is rich with nuance and insights. “Three Rivers” empathetically portrays the immigrant experience. Meanwhile, the fantastic posse cut “In the Fire” sees its contributors (Giggs, Fredo, Ghetts, and Meekz) adroitly commenting on the state of contemporary UK race relations. Then there’s “Heart Attack”, the album’s pièce de résistance. Across its cinematic nine minutes, Dave delivers one of the most poignant pieces of spoken-word poetry you’ll hear all year. It’s a remarkable album, yet what’s most exciting is you get the sense that Dave still has so much more to give. – Tom Morgan
Kacey Musgraves – Star-Crossed
Even on an emotionally fraught divorce album like Star-Crossed, Kacey Musgraves‘ inclusive and welcoming queer vibes are still front and center. Here, the singer is already at peace with the turn that life has taken, even in moments of bitterness. It’s a reminiscent, grateful kind of melancholy that indicates Musgraves took her time crafting these new songs because there might only be one shot to say them right.
Expanding on the psychedelic country-pop from Golden Hour (and interestingly the one that got her shunned from the traditional country landscape and accepted by the mainstream), Musgraves continues to make use of her signature wounded wit to expose the hypocrisy that often lies within heteronormative gender roles. Although the album is made up of downhearted themes, there’s still something cheerful to be found within Musgraves’ vocals that makes us somehow grateful to be sad—happy and sad at the same time, if you will—because it’s evident through the singer’s existing discography that she knows people who have known sadness know themselves better thereafter. With Star-Crossed, Musgraves is reminding us that there’s still always something to be celebrated within feeling blue. – Jeffrey Davies
Sleaford Mods – Spare Ribs
Spare Ribs is perhaps Sleaford Mods‘ high watermark, a searing masterpiece of social commentary, childhood memories and recovered trauma, scathing wit, punk energy, funk, and hip-hop influences, and much more. This is a record with no fat and no filler. Andrew Fearn and Jason Williamson are absolutely at the top of their respective games here, and in uncanny lockstep between Fearn’s woozy and unsettling soundscapes and the high-wire act of Williamson’s breathtaking and excoriating lyricism.
The whole thing is a relentless and immaculate dissection of contemporary British life that never lets the listener up for air or off the hook. In short, this should be a required text for our times, and there is so much happening at once that it’s as hard to imagine how they keep all of these balls in the air as it is for the listener to assimilate all of the codes, signals, and references that Fearn and Williamson unload on us here. — Rod Waterman