What could one say about the state of music released in 2021? No, not Music (2021) directed by Sia, but the albums, EPs, mixtapes, live-streamed performances, concerts, and NFTs that defined the past year. There were the usual yearly processes of loss and gains that indiscriminately shuffled in and out of the public’s consciousness — for every Olivia Rodrigo and PinkPantheress we got, a Daft Punk or Rascal Flatts had to go (the latter was to the great chagrin of InRO’s Editor-In-Chief Luke Gorham) — the likes of which felt more mundane compared to the continually dire COVID-related news that continues to ravage the nation. So things had to be a little more pronounced to really stick out from everything else going on (that, or they had to be even more tragic). To that end, undeniably the biggest music-related event of the year was the increasingly bumpy rollout of Kanye West’s tenth studio album Donda, with three stadium-sized listening parties, several delays, and an antagonistic press thrown into the mix for good measure. It was a release that, if one were to believe most working media critics, should inspire both outrage (DaBaby and Marilyn Manson’s involvement) and callous indifference; we felt… a bit differently then, and still do now (check back here in a few days, where we’ll offer up something of the ultimate contradictory opinion on the subject).
But it wasn’t the only contentious album we’ve backed in the past 12 months: we loved Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red, defended the likes of Bladee, and were the only ones seemingly sane enough to call out Tyler, the Creator on his bullshit. But purely contrarian we are not at InRO, and we didn’t simply define our taste by polarities; we also found room in our hearts for beloved bodies of work from the likes of Lana Del Ray, Billie Eilish, Nick Cave, Pharoah Sanders, and the aforementioned Rodrigo as well, with equal enthusiasm. Suffice to say, while underground and mainstream hip-hop largely dominated most of the discourse from the past year, it didn’t necessarily reflect on our top choices of the year. And so, along with several big-name releases, we included a project that supposedly summons earthly spirits (Iglooghost’s Lei Line Eon), an emo-electronic debut (dltzk’s Frailty), and a haunting portrait of abuse (Allison Russell’s Outside Child) in our group of favorites just for good measure. The state of music, then, as it currently stands, is in a good place; more accurately, it’s in a place where the likes of Maroon 5 flops hard, so upon further review, it might even be in a great place.
Today marks the commencement of our Top 25 Albums of 2021 countdown, beginning with 15 honorable mention albums from the year. Five of these we failed to previously cover and have so righted that wrong below, while the other ten are records we already gushed over earlier in the year (linked below). Next week, our publishing schedule will include 5 per day, beginning Monday (25-21) and culminating on Friday with our Top 5 albums. Paul Attard
As is the case with many of today’s most exciting new artists, Sematary is an Internet cult favorite, a mysterious bandcamp auteur who amassed an intriguing body of work (six mixtapes as of this writing) in a relatively brief span of time (three years). Hailing from North Carolina, the 20-year-old rapper/producer and Haunted Mound label head’s music sits at the very trendy (super 2011) intersection of southern horrorcore, witch house, drill, and black metal, with a rural gothic aesthetic to match (flannel and True Religion and upside down crosses). This year, as has been the case for the last two years, Sematary dropped a pair of mixtapes — Rainbow Bridge 3 and Screaming Forest — each excellent, though the former album stands out as his most accomplished work to date, the latter a worthy victory lap.
Apparently the closing chapter of his Rainbow Bridge trilogy, a tape series conceived to indulge Sematary’s penchant for melding his Sosa-like delivery (an oft-cited influence) with black metal inflected trap production, this final entry inevitably boasts Sematary’s slickest production work to date, perhaps not an essential quality for music this fuzzed out, but the superior mixing quality allows the already eclectic artist to get more dynamic, the vocals occasionally veering into a melodic pop punk groove. Burying his bars underneath plenty of distortion and liberally deployed tags for the ever elusive “DJ Sorrow,” the songs on Rainbow Bridge favor a cumulative vibe over lyrical depth, oscillating between knowingly goofy threats (“Turn your girl to a witch / now she dancin’ ‘round my fire”) and visceral descriptions of horror movie violence (“I’ma pull your teeth out and hang ‘em round my neck”). Rainbow Bridge 3 rides its premise out confidently for the extent of its 53-minute runtime, never stumbling into gimmickry or winking pastiche, Sematary’s instincts as producer and songwriter nearly too in sync with the tastes of the day, but in an ultimately irresistible fashion (a Harmony Korine sample on track 1, a House of 1000 Corpses allusion as title for track 2, etc.) No doubt walking a precarious line between artist and Internet figure, Sematary hasn’t yet faltered, and with Rainbow Bridge 3 he’s achieved his first significant triumph. With this stylistic chapter closing out on its highest note, Sematary exits 2021 an artist poised to blow up sooner than later. M.G. Mailloux
In a year where most mainstream rap albums not named Donda disappointed — looking at you Tyler, Jeffrey, Aubrey — and the genre was instead held aloft by such idiosyncratic hip hop upstarts as Bladee, MIKE, Pooh Shiesty, and JPEGMAFIA (as well as Doja Cat and Trippie Redd’s more radio-friendly contributions), Baby Keem occupies a strange liminal space. Content to remain an enigmatic MC across an array of features early on — a bid to stave off accusations of nepotism, certainly — Keem spent recent years catching attention for his distinctive high-pitched vocal whine, spitting all mess of hubristic juvenalia before just as easily sliding into melodic crooning. The recipe was ripe for breakthrough: possessing (or at least emulating) cousin Kendrick’s vaunted knack for boastful bars and syrupy slick flow, and after a pair of persona-building mixtapes, there was plenty of reason to anticipate what the rapper’s first studio production — expanded budget, talent pool, and all — would bear out.
The smorgasbord-style record that The Blue Melodic ultimately proved to be likely wasn’t what most expected, and it led to a notably mixed (if positive-skewing) response from critics and fans alike, but there’s legitimate appeal to be found in Keem noodling with the past decade’s worth of hip hop influence. Trap-heavy and littered with plenty of cooing and autotune, the product scans as pop-rap amalgamation: “16” sounds remarkably like a Views-era Drake cut, “scars” samples Kanye’s “Love Lockdown” — Keem loves the 808s — and “issues” features soft, minimalist production that could have easily been produced on Fruity Loops software circa 2004. If that all sounds too jukebox-y in conception to afford Keem the space to express a cogent, developed voice, that’s not off-base exactly, but it also results in an album that’s as genuinely surprising track-to-track as any this year, buttressed by legitimate skill — look no further than the rapper’s pummeling, propulsive first verse on Kendrick-collab “family ties,” or his slick flow switch-up on “south africa.” This production mode of recent rap history sampling isn’t a process that will be able to repeated, the threat of anonymity bleeding into extensive relistens of The Blue Melodic and prompting one wonder who exactly Hykeem Carter is when he’s not being someone else, but the alternatively sleazy and silly pleasures offer plenty of immediate gratification, and his craft seems primed to transcend if he can set aside his curatorial instincts and instead develop something more distinctly Keem. At the beginning of “vent,” Kendrick asks, “Have you ever been punched in your motherfucking face?” The Blue Melodic hits something like that: not likely to make a lasting impression, but landing with force in the short term, unignorable and leaving listeners at attention for what comes next. Luke Gorham
In spite of a raging pandemic that has put many bands in the worst financial positions in their careers, Turnstile has managed to have as good of a year as a band can reasonably have. With their newest release, GLOW ON, the band has moved from notability primarily in hardcore circles right into the mainstream, crossing genres along the way. With this shift, they’ve brought recognition to a sound that’s primarily lived in house shows and highly-curated festivals across the world, placing it inside the walls of major venues and garnering bolded placement on major festival posters. While this trajectory is reflective of a larger cultural shift in which the Midwestern basement has moved into the Internet sphere, it still speaks volumes to the specific boundaries that GLOW ON breaks. Hardcore bands can often be tough to define sonically, and while a primary association is the world of metal, one Turnstile definitely bears this out on the record, their singularity comes from how they also draw from such a broad array of influence, refusing to be placed into any particular box.
GLOW ON, most markedly, is defined by an insatiable rhythm, whether it be on ripping hot tracks that blast through their already brief runtime, or slower cuts that still manage to sound like they should be played in the wettest basement you’ve ever been in. This sonic character makes some sense, as the band is composed of 5 percussionists, and these intertwining beats meld together into what ultimately becomes the driving force for the album, a sense of brutal crescendo that makes you want to put your head down and get in the pit. With features from the likes of Blood Orange and Julien Baker mingling with their harsh metal riffs, it’s not hard to see the musical personality that makes this band so damn likable to so many. Prior to GLOW ON, it was unclear whether Turnstile would exist as a flash in a bottle, relegated to cellars and 300-capacity venues for the rest of their career, but with this record, it’s made evident that whether they continue to release albums as a band, the imprint they’ve left on the hardcore scene will live on well beyond them. Achieving only this would be a great success on its own, but the fact that the album screams for — and rewards — repeat listens only speaks to how deserved the group’s meteoric rise has been. Andrew Bosma
Pop music as of late has become so… respectable. During yet another year where it was cool to collectively crown an 18-year-old as the Next Big Thing, music publications continued to turn inward, assess decades of their own misogyny-tinted taste (which, for the record, was a good thing), and champion releases that had massive PR machines behind them, the type of titles that major labels made sure that every second of recording time was polished and perfected before general consumption. Which makes a tumultuous entity like Doja Cat such a breath of fresh air within this increasingly stuffy space, as the unifying visual and sonic aesthetic of the delirious Planet Her is defined by a specific adherence to the blatantly ridiculous (read: Internet-based humor), personified best by its ruling governess and her many theatrical proclivities. As previously stated, she’s our most chaotic rapper-turned-pop-star since Nicki Minaj — who’s thanked by name at the end of the bouncy tribute track “Get Into It (Yuh),” with its short-burst chorus threatening to “Pop out with a truck,” delivered with a cadence somewhere between Onika and Playboi Carti — and one who’s unpredictable nature and robust versatility as a vocalist becomes her third album’s central strengths.
Take “Need to Know,” a track filled with absurd double entendres (“Tell me your schedule / I got a lotta new tricks for you, baby / Just sayin’ I’m flexible”) and performed with an exaggerated triplet flow, but one brimming with hyper-kinetic confidence, a choral tour de force that happens to include orgasmically squealed ad-libs hanging in the backing mix. Or the ways she pleads to “be your woman” on the project’s lush afrobeat opener, before further begging the titular question (“Boy, can we take off all our clothes?”) on the dancehall-infused “Naked,” and eventually landing in hyper-pop territory on “Payday,” with her raspy falsetto somehow out-weirding the routinely oddball Young Thug; that’s three vastly different genres traversed in the span of three consecutive tracks, yet presented in typical Doja fashion: as a big extemporaneous joke, one she’s let us all in on. Which is to say, she’s pretty funny, at times hilarious with some of her line deliveries — the high-pitched inflections and nefarious threats she hoarsely shouts at the end of “Ain’t Shit” (“I’m not gon’ key your car, I’ll call your fucking mom / You should have paid my rent, go get a fucking job”); the giddy glee of “Got imagination ’cause I’m childish” that follows shortly after — but is, by all means, a force to reckon with when not in a purely comedic context. Her biggest claim to world domination yet, the peppy “Kiss Me More” (essentially a stronger version of “Say So,” but if Ace of Bass penned it) is proof enough of her star-making abilities; if anything, the fun, breezy, and radiantly warm energy of the smash single feels almost too professional for a musical temptress like Doja. But like most of Planet Her, it’s only further proof of her cosmic, chameleon-like abilities that are hiding in plain sight. Paul Attard
Little Simz’s Sometimes I Might Be Introvert opens with one of the most striking singles of the year, a six-minute long rap epic that strides through tempo changes, a spoken-word outro, and a grand, shifting orchestral arrangement with unerring confidence. As a thesis statement for the project as a whole, “Introvert” seems almost impossibly ambitious — except the rest of the record then delivers on its promise. Producer Inflo incorporates a host of musical influences: along with standard hip-hop sounds and recurring orchestral instrumentation, there are touches of bossa nova (“Woman”), jazz (“Two Worlds Apart”), R&B (“I See You”), gospel-like backing vocals (“How Did You Get Here”), Afrobeats (“Point and Kill”), and even disco-adjacent synth shimmers (“Protect My Energy”).
Simz’s lyrics are similarly unrestrained. Although the album title is a backronym for her own name, Simbiatu, her writing both reaches inside her own mind and expands to tell the stories of others. There are tracks about love, social justice, her absent father, female empowerment, her cousin’s biography, and reflections on her own career path, and, depending on the song, Simz’s delivery can vary from commanding to comforting to playful. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is a project that aims to capture the reality of Little Simz’s perspective and life experiences, but it’s also aspirational, presenting honest self-understanding as the first step to becoming a better person (the title track, for instance, channels an inclination for quietness and solitude into a focused willingness to fight for change). She incorporates narratives bigger than her own life alongside personal insights, often making them feel like both simultaneously, and attempts to encompass not just herself but a portion of the surrounding world within the album. It’s this ambition, combined with Introvert’s musical diversity, that results in such a surprising, engaging, and impactful listening experience. Kayla Beardslee