Here at Wealth of Geeks, we've highlighted some of the best films of the year and ranked some of the best television series—including Squid Game and WandaVision—and now we're breaking down the best albums of 2021 (that you probably missed).
10 of the Best Albums of 2021 (That You Probably Missed)
It’s the best of times and the worst of times for music. The pandemic grinds on, which means that performing live and even collaborating remains a difficult risk for many performers.
Yet, at the same time, more music is available to more people all at once than at any time ever before in history. There literally aren’t enough hours in the year to listen to every release from everywhere in the world that came out in 2021. Every “best of list” is just a summary approximation of what the compiler happens to have heard—which is part of why year-end lists are fun. No matter how much music you hear to, you’re bound to find something great you haven’t stumbled on yet.
I did like many of the most popular records in 2021, including the great releases by Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, ABBA, and Kenny G (yes, Kenny G, dammit). My absolute favorites of the year were mostly at least a little less well-known, though. Footwork, Tuareg guitar, hyperpop, and Tropicalia: hopefully there’s something here that's new for you to listen to, and maybe love too.
The albums are ranked 1 to 10, starting with the best of the year.
Image Credit: Geffen.
1. SOPHIE (GetUp)
Scottish singer and producer SOPHIE released one full-length album before her sudden death in January 2021. But she was mostly a singles artist, and this wonderful playlist curated by Pascal Bertin at GetUp captures her mercurial, irrepressible sugared-up, and deconstructed muse. She drizzles experimental futuristic hyperpop hyperenergy over everyone from old guard inspirations like Madonna to fellow day-glo travelers like Arca, pausing for the occasional ear-bending, laserbeam rubber-band solo tracks like “Unisil.”
Exhaustive, eclectic, promiscuous, and celebratory, Bertin’s compilation shows that playlists can be works of art in themselves, and shows just how much music was lost when SOPHIE left it behind.
Image Credit: GetUp.
2. Mon Laferte—SEIS (Universal Music Mexico)
Chilean-born, Mexican-based singer/songwriter Mon Laferte has one of the most amazing voices in popular music. She’s recorded everything from Latin pop to indie rock to salsa, but this folk-tinged album inspired by regional Mexican traditions may be the one that most impressively showcases her range and her instrument. “Amado Mio,” with its strummed acoustic guitar and strings, is a torch song Julie London would die for, luxuriating in love as in a warm bath.
“No Lo Vi Venir” is an uptempo number with Laferte singing with a desperate edge that makes it sound like she’s waltzing on the edge of a cliff. But it’s on the flirtatiously defiant “La Mujer,” that Laferte really lets loose, going stentorian yodel for stentorian yodel with Mexican legend Gloria Trevi in an escalating crescendo of hog-calling girl power. 1940 Carmen, Mon Laferte’s indie-pop album of 2021, isn’t quite as spectacular, but it’s also worth picking up.
Image Credit: Universal Music Mexico.
3. Mdou Moctar—Afrique Victime (Matador)
The best guitar player in the world right now is Mdou Moctar. The Niger performer is in the Tuareg desert blues tradition of the better-known Tinariwen collective. But he also builds on the Hendrixes, Hazels, and Van Halens of the past to create a psychedelic barrage that alternately gentles you into bliss and rains down lightning. The seven-minute title track is an elegy to the victims of French colonial violence which believes that the best way to resist is very, very loudly.
If you’re a fan of classic rock, you need to hear this. If you’re not, you should check it out anyway; not many musicians in any genre play with this much skill and fire.
Image Credit: Matador.
4. Valerie June—The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers (Fantasy Records)
Memphis singer/songwriter Valerie June is best known for her mixture of Appalachian folk and blues. Her fabulous silver dress on the cover of The Moon and The Stars announces an exploration of different roots—60s and 70s R&B and late-night smokey heartbreak. The music is warm, lush and ethereal. Horns, keyboards, and bass lean together and sigh, while her piercing mountain twang slides through the arrangements like exquisite acid over exquisite velvet.
The great Stax records legend Carla Thomas shows up to sing backing vocals on “Call Me a Fool” as June growls and soars over strings, organ, and that perfect groove. The next song, “Fallen” is all quietly strummed guitar, and vocals so soft you can hear every breath. Lush or sparse, it all echoes with soul.
Image Credit: Fantasy Records.
5. Klavierduo Roelcke Gremmelspacher—Textures (Genuin)
There’s really something special about the way two pianos blend and clash, especially on the modernist works chosen here. Irmela Roelcke and Alex Gremmelspacher chase each other about like hyperactive fauns on Debussy’s “En Blanc et Noir” and try gamely but futilely to get into sync on Ligeti’s almost eleven-minute minimalist exercise “Self Portrait with Reich & Riley.”
Messiaen’s majestic “Visions de l’amen” which closes the disc manages to transform dissonance into sweeping romanticism. I don’t listen to a ton of classical music, and I’m not sure how I stumbled on this obscure German release. But I’ve been grateful I did ever since.
Image Credit: Genuin.
6. Lina Tullgren—Visiting (Ba Da Bing Records)
Ba Da Bing records is doing a series of albums where artists try something completely different from the music their known for. Lina Tullgren has put out a couple folksy, quirky indie-pop albums. But for Visiting she returned to her first childhood instrument, the violin to create Pauline Oliveros like deep listening drones.
There are technically three tracks, but really it’s just 27 minutes of Tullgren scraping and sawing away, letting each tortured note sustain and fade before the next crawls slowly and painfully out of the quivering instrument, and/or slicing them open before they can make a break for it. It’s like blissing out to nails on a chalkboard—unendurable and mesmerizing.
Image Credit: Ba Da Bing Records.
7. Portal—Hagbulbia (Profound Lore)
Australia’s weirdo masked anonymous death/black metal coven Portal has always flirted around the edges of structureless dark ambient howl. On Hagbulbia they consummate the relationship. This is five tracks, 39 minutes of blaring harsh noise wall. There’s no song structure and for the most part no grooves or rhythms.
Instead, you get layers of feral white noise rising like the blast of the abyss with occasional lumps of falling metal as counterpoint. In the distance. Vocalist The Curator roars indistinctly like a demon devouring its own soul. If you want a melody or a tune or a beat in your listening experience, you should avoid this. If you seek the bleak beauty of annihilation, step on through.
Image Credit: Profound Lore.
8. Juçara Marçal — Delta Estácio Blues (QTV)
Singer/songwriter Juçara Marçal has quietly been putting out a series of stunning albums on the experimental Brazilian label QTV. Her latest, Delta Estácio Blues, a collaboration with guitarist Kiko Dinucci, was inspired by American producer Paul White’s broken soundscapes. It’s a wide-ranging set, from the traditionally-inspired vocals against glitch and static backing of “Vi de Relance a Coroa” to the rough, baile funk-meets-industrial clatter of “Crash” to the bizarre hoarse bellow of “Oi, Cat.”
Like M.I.A., Marçal draws on a wide range of influences to create a unique hybrid of noise and pop. Like her Tropicalia forbears, her work is explicitly antifascist; her lyrics denounce Jair Bolsonaro and the regime that would love to eliminate the eclectic, multicultural, Black Brazil that Marçal loves.
Image Credit: QTV.
9. RP Boo—Established! (Planet Mu)
“All my life I’ve loved to dance,” the sample repeats over and over and over and over on the first track of RP Boo’s latest. Boo (aka Kavain Space) was one of the Chicago innovators who sped up house music in the late 1990s, using rapid-fire, iterated often profane samples to create dance music fast enough to snap a limb too.
Established! celebrates Boo’s transition from next young thing to old school legend, but he hasn’t slowed down or missed a step. His remains one of the most dazzling and bewildering talents in contemporary music. “All Over,” which makes it clear that Phil Collins was meant to be a footwork artist all along, is enough on its own to get Established! onto this list.
Image Credit: Planet Mu.
10. Genesis Owusu—Smiling With No Teeth (Ourness)
Australian rapper Genesis Owusu makes joyful funk about Black oppression and Black resistance. Smiling With No Teeth, his debut album, touches on Funkadelic, Prince, and OutKast, but the oddball antiracist energy is all his own. The album spins around the idea of the “black dog,” which is both a racial slur and a symbol of depression.
Owusu gargles, yodels, and sings “All my friends are hurtin/but we’re dancin’ dogs” he exclaims on “The Other Black Dog” over a churning boogie that would make even the tiredest canine get up and bite the hand that’s trying to put it down. No matter how many teeth he’s got left, Owusu keeps coming for injustice and smiling while he’s doing it.
Image Credit: Ourness.
What else?! The last ones I took off the list were Torres’ Thirstier, a wonderful raucous rawk album, and the death metal/punk hurricane that is Pupil Slicer’s Mirrors. Emmylou Harris released a live album from 1990, Ramble in Music City, that is a must-listen. And I still really need to listen to Curtis Harding’s latest album, and the Bollywood Bellbottoms OST, and Arca’s four (four!) releases this year. And, and, and…well, you get the idea. There’s lots of great music to play as 2022 comes in. Then we can all start listening for next year.
Image Credit: Pupil Slicer.
More Articles by Wealth of Geeks
Image Credit: Warner Bros.
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Featured Image Credit: Maggie Lovitt.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.