Today marks our Top Albums of 2021 countdown in earnest, beginning here with #21-25. Most albums, even if we previously covered them, have been revisited with new words and new writers, and everything in our Top 10 has been given this treatment. Check out our full Best Albums coverage (including our Honorable Mentions) all this week!
Lucero has always found themselves at intersections; sonically, the southern rockers have incorporated, and reconstituted, elements of alt-country, punk rock, cinematic soul, and bluesy folk, which their albums reflect. A typical Lucero set peppers in a few slowed-down, stripped-bare ballad-esque tracks amidst more generally rollicking rock fare, with lead singer/songwriter Ben Nichols’s lyricism embracing a similar duality in its move between intimate confessional and more rootsy, fabulist cuts. Nichols vacillates between poetic abstraction and narrative specificity — and while he rarely trades in outright dereliction or grotesquerie, his regular emphasis on the religious, the supernatural, and on humanity’s other soft miseries lends Lucero’s work an inflection that’s distinctly Southern Gothic. Given all that, it really shouldn’t surprise longtime listeners that the band’s eleventh record, When You Found Me, represents another new development: a right turn into classic rock territory. After all, these dudes are nothing if not born rockers.
Lucero’s major label detour, 2009’s 1372 Overton Park, saw the band open up their sound, adding a horn section, tightening song structures, and generally tilting toward more anthemic (country) rock. The decade since that album has seen the band both scale-up their sound (adding keyboards, pedal steel, occasional choral contributions) and refine the deployment of its new sonic accoutrements. Admittedly, it’s been a minute since the days of mandolin-plucking and upright bass, but after a whole mess of modulation across other recent efforts, Lucero have come up with the most calibrated, assuredly conceived waypoint for the past 10 years of their music. Fan-familiar elements remain: “Coffin Nails” is another haunted track written from the perspective of Nichols’s WWII-serving grandfather, while “Back in Ohio” is a jaunty rock diddy, an immediate earworm on the strength of its jammy piano smashing and raucous progression. But there are new eccentricities, too, ones that revitalize the band’s familiar sound and style. “A City on Fire” finds Nichols’s distinctive growl subsumed in a fuzzed-out melody of proto-metal droning, while much of the bridge and chorus boast a heartland rock sheen that playfully reminds of turn-of-the-‘90s John Cougar radio play.
This all makes for a vision that can feel admittedly ajumble at times, and while it is tempting to take some flourishes as mere musical cosplay on the band’s part, When You Found Me is still always committed to being a true Lucero record. More than ten albums deep into their career, this band has established a unique cadence — in instrumentation, lyricism, mood — and that very palpable identity undergirds even their grandest experimentation on this set. It’s an evolution that feels profoundly organic: if these guys no longer rep DIY troubadours touring the country in a van, as Lucero did through much of the 2000s, their maturity serves to deepen the material. Nichols was married in 2016, and as Lucero’s chief creative force, his blooming inevitably found its way into the band’s character. Among the Ghosts, the group’s last album and first recorded after Nichols’s marriage, was almost minimalist (by Lucero standards), a delicate reflection of the songwriter’s profound shift in circumstances. But it would take this album, arriving nearly five years later, for the expression of that milestone to reach full spiritual force. On When You Found Me’s title track — also its closer and emotional punctuation mark — Nichols writes a love letter to his wife, in the process reconciling much of the doubt and uncertainty that permeates this album, as well as reframing the travails and agonies that he’s regaled listeners with across two decades of songs. And so, when Nichols transforms his trademark hoarse drawl into a vulnerable, nasally almost-tenor, singing, “It’s alright, baby / I’m alright, darling / You got to me in time,” it feels more like a beginning than an end. Luke Gorham [Previously published as part of InRO’s January 2021 album coverage.]
333 is the second studio album Tinashe has released since becoming an independent artist, and you can hear it in the music. Maybe even more so than her first post-RCA release, 333 feels free — free to play outside the confines of genre, free to be as unconventional or straightforward as each song demands, and free to focus on crafting an entire album experience rather than chasing after hit singles. Although there are plenty of overlapping genre influences on the project, they all work in harmony: this is not the kind of product made by combining one-third pop, one-third R&B, and one-third hip-hop into a monogenre mass. 333 is fully a pop album, but it’s also fully an R&B album, and at a couple points it feels like a hip-hop project as well. It contains all these genres at once, but at the same time doesn’t have to be defined by any of them — Tinashe has created a project with its own constantly shifting sound that blurs genre boundaries.
333 shows its genre mastery in how its standout tracks (of which there are many) cover all different kinds of musical styles. “Let Me Down Slowly” and “Last Call” are delicate, slow-burning R&B ballads, while “Undo (Back to My Heart)” and “The Chase” are passionate, pulsing pop tunes that hold nothing back. (It’s worth noting that these four songs are all next to each other in the tracklist; although albums typically start and finish strong and sag a bit in between, the middle third of 333 — the five-song stretch from the title track to “The Chase” — is a surprising, stunning career highlight.) Second single “Bouncin” is a playful and, as the lyrics say, “just vibing” pop-R&B cut, and even though its beat sounds a bit like clothing commercial music, it has one of the best toplines of the year, packed with hook after hook and a winking performance from Tinashe that brings it all together. Even “Pasadena,” which wasn’t the strongest calling card as a lead single, is much better when its laid-back, summery hip-hop vibes play as just one piece within the tracklist whole: after the intensity of “The Chase,” it’s a much-needed breather.
333 perfectly captures the ideal of the mixed-genre album. Although it feels like a cohesive whole, none of the songs quite capture the entirety of that whole on their own, and so every track becomes an invitation for the listener to go deeper and immerse themselves completely in the album’s world. For that reason, the project works best when listened to in full, but many of its songs are standouts even in isolation. It’s especially impressive when looking at the tracklist credits, where very few writer/producer names are repeated — except for Tinashe. Her voice, both literally and metaphorically, is what ties this album together, and 333 is a masterful execution of her singular creative vision. It’s some of her best work yet — and it still seems like she’s only getting started. Kayla Beardslee
23. Skee Mask
At more than 100 minutes long, Skee Mask’s Pool has the immersive depth and feel of an entire ocean. His previous full-lengths already had the feel of proper albums, yes, but here the German producer finds a way to simultaneously expand and refine his genre-blending sonic palette. Ultimately, Pool is an album so rich in its details and influences that it feels like a love letter to what informs it. There’s IDM, breakbeat, and drill ‘n’ bass. There are caustic outbursts and downtempo exercises. There‘s Detroit techno and bleep techno and ambient techno. The list goes on.
But more than offering a mental game in genre-mapping, Pool is always enveloped in a tenderness felt in both its meticulous editing and atmospheric warmth; these tracks don’t feel ostentatious or eye-roll worthy in their studied nature, but instead are just good-hearted dance tracks that are as fun to think about as they are to feel. Take “Testo BC Mashup” — the album’s longest track and a masterful centerpiece — which begins with scuffed-up warbles and bombastic, clanging gabber that could easily situate it in a contemporary hyperpop playlist, but it soon disintegrates into speckled synths blanketing a moody breakbeat. As the song mutates, it does so in stepwise fashion, changing the timbre of a kick at one point, changing the rhythmic flash of its synths at another, even taking detours into footwork-adjacent territories. All this shapeshifting would be a calamitous mess in the hands of a lesser artist, but Skee Mask ties it together in legible, exhilarating fashion.
More single-minded tracks are mesmerizing too, with the field recordings ambient murk of “Absence” acting as a meditative repose from the frantic beats of the rest of the album. Sometimes tracks take a single idea and run with it because it’s entertaining enough: “60681z,” for example, is all about its ability to occupy an electro sci-fi headspace without reaching total catharsis, while “Crosssection” takes a hazy R&B vocal and lets its vaporous melodies wrap around a pogoing beat. Every track brims with possibility, and the sheer length of Pool makes it seem like Skee Mask is excited to show you all his tricks, and to make listeners feel how limitless these familiar sounds really are. Joshua Minsoo Kim
22. Olivia Rodrigo
Offhand, it’s tough to recall another “event” album release that seemed to confound the mainstream music press in the ways that Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR did. Generationally, it’s an album that is quite obviously not for you if you’re someone who has made either a career or side hustle out of having opinions about popular music, and the result was a plethora of reviews that found writers resorting to pre-Poptimism tropes of patting a young woman on the head while offering heavily qualified praise. What makes SOUR so riveting is how of-the-moment it is, paying little to no heed to what conventional pop stardom or pop songcraft are supposed to embody, and offering only the vaguest of direct points of influence. Sure, Rodrigo is a singer-songwriter who has grown up listening to Taylor Swift, but the only instance in which she actually sounds anything like any of Swift’s many eras is the one time when she overtly cribs from a Swift song.
Beyond that, SOUR is the sound of a generation that has been raised to be generalists, taught-to-the-test on a wide range of disciplines. So here is Rodrigo, possessed of an obviously fantastic singing voice, capable of constructing a perfect bridge when she feels like it, which is not all that often, and willing to lay bare her vulnerabilities at one moment only to hide behind vague platitudes a few moments later. But she also doesn’t sound like Billie Eilish or Harry Styles or Swift or really any other current pop act for more than a fleeting instant, so the impulse is to say she doesn’t yet know what she’s doing or who she wants to be. I don’t buy that. Songs as captivating as “driver’s license” and “deja vu” don’t emerge from a vacuum, nor do homages to The Breeders’ “Cannonball” (on opener “brutal”) happen by happy accident, and the songs on SOUR are, to a one, too interesting in their structure and content to deny Rodrigo’s agency in creating them. SOUR is the year’s finest and most fully-realized debut. Jonathan Keefe
The music of noise rap antagonist JPEGMAFIA has often straddled the line between observer and participant: wry in its reportage of our shared pop cultural and political lexicons, while forceful enough that listening to his music can be tantamount to being physically shaken. His 2018 album Veteran was many listeners’ proper introduction to these agitations, and became something of a sleeper hit in Internet music circles, its allusions to #trending topics striking a chord at a moment during which art that pointedly commented on uncertain times possessed a high level of purchase. The album was indeed “of the moment,” though the music JPEG has released since has arguably outstripped the somewhat rigid parameters that Veteran’s then-present tense set for itself. 2019 follow-up All My Heroes are Cornballs — with its post-Blonde blend of rapping and singing, and increasingly agile, fluid production from JPEG himself — expanded his music’s emotional range beyond these shock tactics, and his two subsequent EPs expanded that range further still, presenting a bifurcation of his more accessible (EP!) and avant-garde (EP2) selves. On his latest album, LP!, JPEG is a man unified, if mainly in near-omnipresent and omnidirectional fury. Yet the continued creativity with which JPEG contorts himself and the structure of his songs prevents LP! from being a rote spectacle of aggrievement, its 20-song tracklist filled to the brim with eccentricity and self-assurance.
Somewhat notably, LP! exists in two different versions: an abbreviated “online” version released on Spotify, and a longer “offline” version released via the “pay what you want” model on Bandcamp. The “offline” LP! is the more complete effort per JPEG, who released a statement on Bandcamp in tandem with its release describing his negative experience in the music industry and desire to be “free as hell” after his label contract expires (which has occurred with the release of LP!). The note aptly sets the tone for the album proper, which — after an initial feint on glistening, skittering opener “TRUST!” — tears into its laundry list of enemies with the energy of a man possessed, burning bridges with seemingly gleeful abandon. “END CREDITS!” is one such fantasy of violence, opening with a sampled threat from AEW wrestler Arn Anderson before leading into glorious noise-rock freefall, JPEG detailing a growing body count with audible excitement. After an initial mechanized wind-up, “REBOUND!” becomes similarly volatile, its initially untargeted dismissals of presumed peers followed by laser-precise shots aimed at fellow underground favorite Armand Hammer in JPEG’s second verse (“THE GHOST OF RANKING DREAD!” further fans the flames, though both parties have reportedly squashed their beef since the release of LP!). This least-constrained version of JPEG on LP! is a captivatingly loose cannon, turning his earlier Twitter fingers into trigger fingers where specific opponents have drawn his ire, and adept as ever in his more broadly applicable intimidations on songs like “BMT!” and “DIRTY!”
Though less flashy than his verbal theatrics, JPEG’s work behind the boards on LP! is equally liberated. Condensing the form-bending qualities of Cornballs into briefer bursts, the album’s post-Internet palette of brittle industry and oddball genre exercises (produced almost in full by JPEG) makes a persuasive case for the variety of its creator’s listening habits. On muted album closer “UNTITLED!,” forlorn keys and the white noise desolation that surrounds them resembles Tim Hecker if remixed by Nosaj Thing; earlier, the surprising glitch-hop of “NEMO!” recalls Autechre at their most impish. JPEG’s more organic productions on LP! are also highlights in a literal sense, leavening the album’s hostile tone with sampled vocals whose uplift gestures toward religion and salvation (“HAZARD DUTY PAY!,” “THOTS PRAYER!”). In these ways and more, LP! can sometimes resemble Kanye West’s recent Donda, which struck a comparable balance between defiance and revery, and whose self-justifications were also communicated by way of embodying an ideal. These shared qualities are especially apparent on LP! centerpiece “TIRED, NERVOUS & BROKE!,” which opens with livewire shit-talking from JPEG over rumbling drums, and later fades into an in-studio conversation with none other than R&B singer Kimbra. The pair chat idly before co-performing an unadorned piano ballad that lays out some of JPEG’s future aspirations (“I don’t want to be sold out baby” and “I don’t want to be stressed out for profit,” among them). Though quieter in tone than JPEG’s Bandcamp manifesto, the message is functionally the same: the need for complete control over his creative vision, more fully realized than ever on LP! Mike Doub [Previously published as part of InRO’s October 2021 album coverage.]