The Best Albums of ‘a rough year’

Nikolai Gentes, Staff

To put it lightly, 2021 was a rough year. With Covid-19 and perpetual social issues running amuck, I think I can speak for all of us when I say that I hope 2022 fares better. 

However, if there was one thing that kept my spirits up during the tumultuous 2021, it was music. So as we head into the new year, hoping for something better, let’s go over the five best albums released last year.

  1. “Cavalcade” by black midi

Rock collective black midi evolved past the harsh noise of their studio debut “schlagenheim” in a favor of a more progressive and versatile sound on 2021’s “Cavalcade”, and, boy, was it thrilling. One of the most hard-hitting releases of the year, “Cavalcade” is packed full of black midi’s usual tension and loudness, but served with a more technical edge that makes it a proud representation of rock’s modern capabilities when bands decide to push themselves. The amazing opening track “John L.” immediately gets your blood-pumping with its terrific instrumentation, vivid storytelling, and ever-evolving sections all packed into a relatively compact five-minute run time. It’s pure erratic joy from start to finish. The following “Marlene Dietrich” is an acoustic ode to the late actress which displays a newfound degree of versatility for black midi. Other highlights include “Hogwash and Balderdash”, “Slow”, and “Chondromalacia Patella” (try saying that five times fast). A terrific album stuffed full of thrills and surprises, “Cavalcade” cements black midi’s status as one of the best and most exciting modern rock acts.

  1. “An Evening With Silk Sonic” by Silk Sonic

Throwback albums have a tendency of being hit or miss. With how many failed 80s odes we’ve gotten over the past few years, I was slightly skeptical of Silk Sonic’s plans to pay tribute to traditional 70s soul and R&B. To my pleasure, they put those fears to bed the minute they released “Leave the Door Open”, the first single off their seminal record “An Evening With Silk Sonic”. A duo composed of already established stars Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, Silk Sonic is one of 2021’s best new artists whose lovely rehashing of the tried and true sound of 70s soul makes for one of the most fun albums of the year. Thanks to its immaculate production, clever songwriting, terrific vocal performances and stellar hooks, “An Evening With Silk Sonic” dishes out renditions of the classic soul sound in a way that is a bit predictable, but nonetheless incredibly entertaining. The album’s passion and admiration for the genre rises above its tropes. Bruno Mars’ singing soars throughout the record’s entire runtime, and .Paak’s occasional vocal contributions and numerous moments of instrumental mastery make this album an incredibly satisfying and highly enjoyable project despite its rather trim 31 minute run time. An obvious highlight of 2021, “An Evening With Silk Sonic” is not only an admirable tribute to a great era of music, but also a fantastic album in its own right. Easily one of the most infectiously danceable albums I’ve heard in quite a while. 

  1. “LP!” by JPEGMAFIA

With “LP!,” New York born rapper JPEGMAFIA not only managed to craft the best hip-hop album of 2021, but also one of the most daring. Chalked full of experimental goodness and ethereal bits of production, “LP!” is, at times, mind-expanding, fun, hilarious and touching. Set to be his final release on a major label, this record features lyrics revolving around the music business and the hardships it put on JPEGMAFIA, as well as songs detailing struggles with loneliness and mental health. Both of these key elements give the album both a personal and relatable edge, specifically on tracks such as “ARE U HAPPY?”. Other songs radiate more confidence, like the opener “TRUST!”, “REBOUND!” and, my personal favorite, “SICK, NERVOUS & BROKE!”. All of these outstanding songs and different topical perspectives create an album with a wide range of emotions that never get stale. Each song contains terrific writing and passionate performances that make the album consistently terrific, and its numerous quotable lines and infectious choruses make it impossible not to sing along to. With how brazingly intriguing, impactful, explorative and fun “LP!” is from front to back, it’s an obvious top three album of 2021, hip hop or otherwise.

  1. “Sinner Get Ready” by Lingua Ignota

Of all the records to come out in 2021, none were as harrowing, dark, and intimidating as Lingua Ignota’s “Sinner Get Ready”. Delving into the sounds and styles of neoclassical darkwave, pagan music, and Appalachian folk music, it’s a record that sounded like no other from last year. Its uniqueness is only furthered by its conceptual lyrics revolving around religion, loneliness, abuse, and mental illness. All of this works to craft an album that stuck out like a sore thumb amongst its contemporaries in the best way possible. From the murderous desperation of “I WHO BEND THE TALL GRASSES” to the beautiful devastation of “THE SOLITARY BRETHEREN OF EPHRATA,”, it’s a record that tackles a litany of themes and topics in a way that is not only terrifying, but also incredibly thoughtful, as Ignota’s talent for crafting music that moves its listener just as much as it makes them want to hide in a corner remains consistent on “Sinner Get Ready”. Incredible vocal performances from Ignota herself, as well as a tasteful utilization of background singing on tracks like “MANY HANDS”, “REPENT NOW, CONFESS NOW” and the aforementioned “I WHO BEND THE TALL GRASSES”, makes “Sinner Get Ready” a record that’s just as exciting vocally as it is lyrically, sonically, and conceptually. With the rustic approach Ignota took to the album, its atmosphere works perfectly well in tandem with the album’s themes. The same can be said for nearly every detail present on the record, as each and every element from “Sinner Get Ready” compliments one another in a way that both amplifies its message, and makes it one of the most well-rounded albums of 2021. With as utterly spine-chilling, challenging, and unmatched as “Sinner Get Ready” is, was, and will likely continue to be, one can only imagine where Ignota will take us on her next project. 

  1. “For the first time” by Black Country, New Road

There was no shortage of highly acclaimed post-punk albums in 2021, with Squid’s “Bright Green Field” and Dry Cleaning’s “New Long Leg” being among some of the more well-received, but among the pile, there was one record that always stood ridiculously high above the rest in terms of quality, and that’s the immaculately tense debut of England’s own Black Country, New Road, “For the first time”. With tight grooves, anxious lyrics, paranoia-tinged singing, and terrific melodies, “For the first time” was my pick for Album of the Year the moment I first heard it, and even with how many months have passed since its release on Feb. 5, 2021, and it still holds that title. Incorporating jazzy elements into its experimental soundscapes, this album often manages to be just as catchy and memorable as it is panic-ridden and nervous. It’s a record that hooks you in right from the very start with just how layered, well-defined, and detailed it is, as there are just so many little things to love about this album. From the slow buildup and eventual explosion of the opening track, to the incredible beginning riff of “Athens, France”, to the utterly manic bridge of “Sunglasses”, and the impossibly danceable instrumental breakdowns of “Opus”, you’ll find yourself struggling to pick a favorite track by time the record closes out. With how often critics like to call rock music “dead”, Black Country, New Road are an aggressive and satisfying reminder of just how much life the genre still has in it. With just how pained, unstable, and meticulously stressful “For the first time” is, you’d not only be hard pressed to find a better album from 2021, but also a more fitting representation of the year’s ethos.