At the start of the year, I set myself the aim of listening to more than 50 albums. That still seems to me like a good number. It requires a continual investment in searching out and appreciating new music, but rejects any notion of expertise or authority. I achieved my target while completely losing count (I’m sure Spotify didn’t) and did my utmost to enrich the experience by thinking about and writing about what I heard.
At year’s end, these are the albums I invested time in listening that reflect the best of 2021, with some thoughts as to why. In alphabetical order:
Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince
Black Country, New Road – For The First Time
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & LSO – Promises
Gilligan Moss – Gilligan Moss
Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
Valerie June – The Moon and Stars
Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Really From – Really From
Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future
The Weather Station – Ignorance
THE SOUND OF 2021: BRASS
Brass was integral to a good number of the records that really hit in 2021. Not only on jazz or soul albums like Sons of Kemet, Pharoah Sander’s immense contribution to Promises, or the Southern vibes of Valerie June’s record, but also on rock records from Black Country, New Road, Cassandra Jenkins, Really From and The Weather Station. The sound of saxophone or trumpet felt more than fashionable, it felt like a deep earthy exhalation of where things are.
THE YEAR AFTER BLACK LIVES MATTER
Sons of Kemet and Little Simz set the tone for the developing conversation on racial injustice that was so essential to 2020. While both albums know their own mind, neither are straight protest albums. Sons of Kemet sit with the combustible righteous anger that explodes to the surface, but their album chooses to journey deeper to the source. Little Simz explores the contradictions and compromises in the ‘sometimes’ spaces between public perception and the realities of individual identities. In America, Really From confront issues of ethnic identity as they impact Asian-American and Hispanic people, while Valerie June focused less on the hurts and more on the medicines for dreamers to heal by.
CONFRONTATION vs COMFORT
In many ways, it’s still too early for music to do the deep reflection and feeling required to fully respond to Covid. It can be said reasonably confidently that the majority of the great lockdown albums are still to be released. However, Covid impacted the way each album ‘hit’ in 2021, even though most were songs written before. Cassandra Jenkins’ exploration of the grieving process, The Weather Stations’ environmental laments, and Arooj Aftab’s mourning for a brother all connected to the worldwide trauma of Covid. Looking at the list of albums above, perhaps it is a list that is built for comfort. It’s charming to watch a band like Black Country, New Road grow up so fast, drawing from bands that have come before, knowing that they are rocketing on an incredible trajectory. 2022 will be their year. Gilligan Moss put out an electronic album whose only concept is to invite you to dance. It is intended as a compliment to say they made the least-complicated fun record of 2021.
There are many bands and artists that are still experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in 2021. But it is enough in this stressed, dark year for an album to be beautiful. Whether that beauty is found in the ocean sized orchestral sweep of Floating Point’s Promises, Arooj Aftab’s unadorned voice matched with an acoustic guitar, or Cassandra Jenkins’ lyrics, music has a job to tell the truth that heals as well as the truth that hurts.