Remi Wolf – Juno
I got introduced to Remi Wolf this year and was immediately sad I didn't put her 2020 EP I'm Allergic to Dogs! on last year's list. She's just totally operating in her own field of rich, lush pop-collage that oozes with creative chaos— this one really does sound like the cover art. From the squelchy overdrive guitar and glossy Yamaha bell synth fighting it out on Liquor Store to the buckwild ups and downs on wyd, Juno is a tidal wave of nutty ideas smashing through your house and leaving you grasping at lyrical flotsam to keep up (in a cool way, I mean). Every track does so much inventing and exploring that I've forgotten and been reminded of at least one extremely cool bit for every extremely cool bit I can't possibly forget (the 'Five Guys' verse in Quiet On Set is masterful).
They Might Be Giants – BOOK
BOOK marks the first full-length TMBG release since I decided to get back into them last summer, which makes it probably my most anticipated album of the year. Any band making it past 20 albums is impressive; for them to keep inventing and exploring the way They have over the years to the tune of 21 highly different records— unified only by a short list of calling cards— is absolutely staggering. The singles, which started rolling out early this spring, teed me up for something of a counterweight to 2018's I Like Fun but a full listen shows that they've kept rolling right past it into somehow new unexplored sonic territory on the wider map of their latest arc, namely "energetic-sounding alt-rock music that gradually becomes more existentially distressing as you decode the lyrics." They describe BOOK on the vinyl listing as "a new phase," which I think is just as accurate as always.
Shady Monk & That Andy Guy – FUSION DANCE
I don't think there's a better recipe for a great record than this one: Two of the most talented guys I know, plus features from a bunch of other DESKPOP artists, collaborating on nearly an hour of grooves that explore chiptune, digital fusion, jazz, hyperpop, and VGM. This record truly has it all, and you can tell everyone working on it had loads of fun. That fun is dripping off this thing in between unbelievably solid composition and funky-as-hell production for an overall listen that'll make the corners of your mouth hurt from alternating between laughing and pulling the famous "funk face" every single song. (Yes, the skits are incredibly corny. That's a plus!)
Aaron Frazer – Introducing...
Dead Oceans / January 8
If you found this album in sufficiently beat-up shape at the record store you could easily make it through the whole A-side and a good portion of the liner notes fully believing that it's a forgotten gem from circa 1969 (provided you picked up the black pressing instead of the very cool transparent one). Frazer, previously of Durand Jones & The Indications, has a voice and a style that's comfortably timeless in this way, and his first solo record is pure sugar. Introducing... was recommended to me shortly after it came out as "the perfect Valentine's date album," a claim I tested and confirmed. Send your crush one of these tracks (maybe not Bad News, but one of the sweet ones) and see what happens. P.S: I'm awarding some bonus praise for most of the vocals being within my range, facilitating car-singing that's still bad but is at least in the same octave.
leon chang – leon mode
leon mode is a precision-crafted love letter to rhythm games that also bcc'd my own nostalgia for mid-teens Soundcloud culture. It's a VGM-fueled, blood-pumping, hyperelectonic ride that keeps the throttle almost constantly pushed to the max. If that sounds tiring, know that I too tend to take my high-energy EDM in smaller and smaller doses as my appetite for big BPMs dwindles. leon mode caters to this exact taste— which isn't to say it ever lets off the gas but instead that it avoids falling into a brain-pounding rut by evolving and shifting tone constantly, like a gently curving mountain highway engineered to keep you alert. This album sounds like skimming just the adrenaline from a boss rush with none of the jaw-clenching, and feels how I bet it feels to be one of those hardcore DDR guys who takes their shirt off at Dave & Buster's.
Giant Claw – Mirror Guide
Orange Milk / May 14
I've followed Keith Rankin for a long time just for his visual art, which is both lovely and uncanny in its blend of handicraft and virtual smoothness like nothing else I've ever seen. I'm happy to report that his music, produced under the alias Giant Claw, makes me feel the same way. The post-digital hyperrealism points at proto-vaporwave influences like James Ferraro while the lush soundscapes require an eye to the future, beyond the present surge of neo-y2k as a trend in fashion and album art and toward a possible future where the boundless power of technology once again amazes rather than oppresses us. The clash of smooth, designed-sounding swoops and flourishes versus crunchy, glitchy strings and hits give Mirror Guide the feeling of someone trying to contact you through a virtual dream.
Zanski – Phenomena
Zanski has been a constant presence in my musical life since I was in mid-high school and really into "nu disco." Since then we've both done some reflection and some growth, and through it all he remains one of my favorite artists. Phenomena makes another step down the path of moody, intimate, delicately-crafted R&B that I would pitch as the ideal music for making out in the backseat of a car and then getting emotionally overwhelmed and having a long conversation about your secret hopes instead. Yes, I put this record on my "sad boy fall" essentials list— but there's much more to it than that might imply. Zanski explores the strange between-layers of consciousness, the challenges of avoiding the allure of self-pity, and the gnawing apathy we all carry around in modernity with a really beautiful synthesis of lyrics and analog sounds.
Glacci – Falling Into Forever
Moonbeams / August 26
I don't know if I totally understand its boundaries as a genre, but I spend a lot of time enjoying the combined meaning of the words "happy hardcore." This album is that, to me — high-energy kicks and a big club sound are backed up by a positive, cool vibe through the whole record. It's not seamless but it sounds like it could be, like this album was built to make a great live set someday just played front-to-back. Racing segments loaded with shredding loops and synth crunch pause at pools of ringing ambience right when you need them to. This is a fantastic working album, which I almost hesitate to say because it's also a fantastic just-listening-to album.
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Butterfly 3000
Flightless Records / June 11
As a now-longtime Gizzhead I was very excited to hear them dive into the niche this album occupies. It's not a totally new direction for them, but I now have the perfect record to recommend to people curious about listening to them. This album is Gizz distilled; microtonal riffs, synth fuzz and folky arrangement wash over each other like psychedelic waves. This, in my opinion, is where KG&TLW really thrives— exploring intricate compositions with lyrics about reality and unreality, woven together into an extremely strong showing that forgoes the rough edge of their more metal offerings to settle in a misty valley of geometric fractal jams that can worm their way into your head undetected until you realize you've been whistling "Shanghai" all day. This album feels like the soft, distant smile you might make at a tie-dye wall tapestry for a few hours after trying an edible for the first time.
Laura Mvula – Pink Noise
Atlantic / July 2
I know this album is on at least one other annual list, because my buddy played a couple tracks for me back in July and proclaimed that it was the album of the year. After listening to it in full a few times I'm inclined to agree. Mvula's work is totally new to me, and I've fallen deep into it since hearing this record, which is a massively successful exercise in songwriting where the final product is far beyond the sum of its parts. It's mesmerizing how easily the less-elaborate tracks like Safe Passage can put you in a groove with so few moving parts— just a straightforward beat, light bass, and Laura's masterful, layered vocal performance. Of course, the more complex tracks (especially Got Me, an 80s-dance-pop-tinged journey on its own) are just as great.
Ginger Root – City Slicker
Acrophase Records / August 20
I didn't want to do any EPs this year, but I also couldn't think about my favorite releases of 2021 without this placing near the top. Presented as "the soundtrack for the American adaptation of a fictitious Japanese film," City Slicker is Ginger Root (the solo project of Cameron Lew) performing at its peak. I love his previous work, especially breakout album Mahjong Room, for its emotional explorations into loneliness and reconciliation. But man, does it rule to hear GR just do a fun album that embraces its goofy premise to the max. Citypop and vintage funk influences saturate both the music and the visuals (especially on this year's "Music Video of the Year" winner, the truly delightful Loretta. Long live the 4:3 aspect ratio!) In a sense, this love letter to bubble-era Japanese funk-pop could read as a semi-ironic homage in the style of "future funk," but every detail is so wonderfully, earnestly fun that I wouldn't even say Ginger Root is paying homage to citypop— they're just making it.
John Carroll Kirby – Septet
Stone's Throw / June 25
As happens to me sometimes, a Youtube comment has summarized this album better than I might be able to in this whole review. User 'Jimmi Jamma' says under the video for Rainmaker: "Herbie Hancock sent me here from the future, with one message, 'We must protect The Funk.'" Kirby's style of creamy-smooth jazz does indeed feel like a Herbie Hancock album from the future, and it does indeed yield a rich vein of Funk worth both protecting and capitalizing. Septet outdoes its name with eight tracks, each of them a chapter about a groove built from scratch in the story of a beautifully crafted psych-funk vibe. The attention to pacing in the way each song unfolds is masterful— even I, a traditional enjoyer of short tracks, have to admit that even the nine-minute finale Nucleo more than earns its time. I personally need to be in a specific relaxed mood to really enjoy this record, but on those days there's nothing else from 2021 that fits the same way.
Magic From Space – a fool n thee
Just by the laws of statistics, it's constantly getting harder to find music that truly sounds like nothing else I've ever heard. When I discovered this album in the purchase feed of Bandcamp power-follow Styles Munson I experienced one of those rare moments. This album truly feels like it's both magical and from space; the audio output of an alien artifact filtering the radio emissions of Earth through its own otherworldly logic. Rhythm schemes rise and fade into each other freely. Synths become voices, and voices are turned into synths. I could be describing a really sonically unpleasant avant-garde noise album, but instead everything meshes just enough to keep these tracks close to the border but firmly on the side of "extremely interesting, dynamic songs" and not "sounds."
tv room – The Great State of Maine
DESKPOP / November 5
Years ago I saw a post about how all music can be categorized by the artist's feelings toward their hometown, with country and emo music occupying 'love' and 'hate' on that axis respectively. It's really nice to hear something on the positive end that manages to be this weird and fun. Purportedly a project sponsored by the Attitash Multimedia Commission, The Great State of Maine is a bubbly, endlessly inventive, hyperdigital EP about nature, love, and falling in love with nature. The lens of the great outdoors gets pointed at themes of self-presentation, anxiety, the memories we attach to places, and stepping on a bug, all wrapped in the tactile collage of tv room's hyperpop style. I also really can't heap enough praise on the cliparty, public-access visuals that reveal more about the Multimedia Commission and its incredibly positive spokesman.I just really love the way this whole concept exists in a niche between realities— by the end you're so charmed by the idea of the premise that you don't care if any of the framing is real. One of my favorite creative projects of the year, musical or not.
Louie Zong – Vegetable Soul
Man, everybody loves Louie Zong. And he deserves it! In the past I've felt divided about including his work on my annual roundups— because he makes like ten albums a year and they're always great— but Vegetable Soul is a true gem (a diamond in the... pile of other diamonds?). Cool but warm, crunchy but smooth, a record that has an incredibly fun time laying down rock-solid funk and which I almost guarantee will turn any day around. Plus, look at those lil' guys havin' fun. Hell yeah.
underscores – fishmonger
I don't know if I really know how to talk about this one. Even from my position of really liking this album I can tell it's aimed at people slightly younger and much cooler than me, and as someone who really just avoided "hyperpop" altogether for a long time I don't want to misappraise fishmonger in a way that makes the rest of the genre sound grating or uninteresting. Anyway, I think it's really good. Post-rock and grunge influences collide with post-online, proudly-gen-Z glitchy production for a highly textural, highly cathartic listen that I have to recommend really diving into even if the autotune and intentional clipping make you feel very old.
Ehiorobo – Joltjacket
Any artist's second album is a precious thing. There's a call you have to make between sticking to your roots and forging a totally new path. Any choice between them can work, but when someone really opens the throttle into new territory, that's when you hear some exciting stuff. Joltjacket is exciting like that. Ehi's 2016 Limeade, which I still love, feels so different and comparatively tame that it could be from a whole different artist if Joltjacket didn't share its spirit of exploration and openly-outsider weirdness. Five years later, Ehi's lyrical and production style is bristling with crazy ideas that snowball together into something truly unique and totally fascinating. Don't do anything else while you listen to this record. Don't listen to it in the car. Put on some nice headphones and close your eyes. Collagey soundscapes burst like a dam with screaming-hot moments of hip-hop, noisy post-rock, and a bouquet of influences I can't even name. The Bandcamp writeup talks about Joltjacket as a rejection of the social expectations of black masculinity, and that spirit of cathartic acceptance makes it feel and sound like a joyful rejection of structures of all kinds.
Mndsgn. – Rare Pleasure
Stone's Throw / June 4
There's no other way to say it: This album fucks. It's smooth, dreamy, sexy, fluid, and truly captivating. Hallmarks of "lofi" are liberated from the algorithmic chains that name brings to mind; aspects of jazz, lounge and soft funk meet them in the middle, and the result is a chameleon of a record that sounds like cuddling on a snow day, drifting through space, lounging around the house, and/or chilling in a flow state at four in the morning. Each song flows into the next like warm honey, riding out their own natural cycles in absolutely no hurry. Rare Pleasure feels like an invitation to slow down and relax for a while; even the fastest track barely approaches a lazy samba.
TWRP – New & Improved
I need to level with you, reader: I was starting to think I was tired of TWRP. Yeah, the goofball character gimmick is fun, and their style of funky synthpop is charming, but after Over The Top (which, to be fair, I did end up mentioning last year) I was feeling less engaged with the overall sound than I was back in high school. Reader, New & Improved roped me back in and convinced me that TWRP still has it. It's with joy and a little relief I report that they're evolving beyond the "wow, cool '80s!" gimmick and exploring jazz-fusion with more complicated, nuanced compositions. Which isn't to say it's any less fun than ever—TWRP still brings the funk and puts up an incredibly entertaining record that gives new weight to their core message of unrelenting positivity by presenting it with a straighter face.
Music For Living Spaces
Leaving Records / May 7
If you've played Kentucky Route Zero: When Johnny and Junebug reminisce about seeing an ambient synth artist play a midnight show in a flower shop, and the way the space became part of the music, this album is what I imagine it would sound like. Spearheading the "plantwave" revival sparked by the online rediscovery of early synthesizer music, Green-House combines analog soundscaping techniques with a digital glossy finish, retooling the pioneering spirit of 1970s electronic music for a new era. At times, Music for Living Spaces is truly ambient, a mist of calming melody that evenly fills the room. At other times it climbs to the foreground, layered synth and vocal melodies asking for more attention and appreciation in a tidal cycle.
Macabre Plaza – An Old Smile
I'm not sure if I'm gonna be able to properly describe how happy this album makes me. In finding a copy of the cover art I learned that it's apparently classified as "utopian virtual," and while some shadow of that PrismCorp MIDIcore energy is present, I don't know if I'd really nominate An Old Smile as vaporwave. It feels too sincere, like the soundtrack to a thrift-store CD-ROM way better than whatever software it scores deserved. The difference might be that most "utopian virtual" tracks rely on nostalgic sounds and classic synth patches to set the mood. Macabre Plaza uses goofy MIDI instruments but applies them to totally sincere-sounding compositions that I just can't not smile at. A beautiful little treasure.
Woody & Jeremy – Gravy in My Coffee
W&J's debut Strange Satisfaction was an instant shoe-in for my 2020 favorites list, but I wondered, would the followup be as good? I'm happy to report that this second album both totally rules and totally surprised me with the lane-change it represents— they've gone from sounding like Vulfpeck to, in the best way possible, sounding like some guys you'd go see at a garage show. Gravy in My Coffee is a rougher, dirtier picture of the same ideas of longing, anxiety and struggling to belong that perfectly paints the differences between 2020 and '21 and, honestly, even the differences between June and December. Punk, funk, rock and psych influences clash and blend. There are peaks of yelling-with-the-windows-up catharsis (L.A. Drivers, Distant Lands) and valleys of lying-on-a-pile-of-laundry melancholy (Closed Eyes, She's A Stone) on a ten-track journey that geartooths beautifully and terribly with the way everything is an exhausting emotional gauntlet now.