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Arts + CultureMusicThe best albums of 2021 (so far)

The best albums of 2021 (so far)

All that time stuck indoors last year is paying off—2021 has been bountiful when it comes to new sounds, from Madlib's post-DOOM triumph to Brijean's tropicalia expansiveness.

Coming off last year, most of the inhabitants of the world (the ones with common sense) got regulated to their interiors. We bunkered down, left to process in solitude in the middle of a world going off the rails on a daily basis. A chaos brought to you by CNN and Pepsi, without a fragment of leadership coming from the White House.

Well, looky-loo at you, 2021. You brought us a new president focused on fixing physical and political infrastructure, all while addressing challenges and providing solutions. By his side, the 49th vice president of the United States, the first woman to hold the position, and the highest-ranking woman official in US history, not to mention the first African American and first Asian American to get the gig. This country does clean up nice when it chooses to.

With millions of Americans getting vaccinated daily, people have even chilled with that binging on toilet paper situation. It is indeed, a new year, people. 

But still, we had to keep one eye on Minneapolis and the other watching a nation that produces a gun-related altercation daily. Everybody could use an edible or five, right?

You need a distraction. And if major music festivals like Bonnaroo, Newport Folk and Jazz, Outside Lands can plan far enough in advance to put on a big three-day show, having no idea what things will look like in five months, then 48hills can deliver the Best Albums of 2021 (so far) list.

I can’t remember the last time the entire country collectively discussed Black women in rock ’n’ roll. You can thank the almost flawless Tina Turner HBO documentary (Ike, once again, took too much air out of the room) and the cheeky “Genius: Aretha” anthology series from National Geographic. I look forward to more of those cultural discussions involving Tracey Chapman, Joan Armatrading, Nona Hendryx, Lianne La Havas, Merry Clayton … the list is bountiful.

We may revisit the AOTY (so far) list again in August, make some tweaks, adjustments, and such. 2021 has been a strong year for music dominating the cultural conversation. But enough already…..Let’s get to these records!


News of MF DOOM’s passing on December 31st of last year dropping like a kidney stone through the urinary tract. But Madlib’s impending release in the new year partially cushioned the anguish of a one-of-a-kind artist and emcee being gone. Forever. 

For Sound Ancestors, Madlib, who has known Kieran Hebden a.k.a. Four Tet for 20 years, pegged the producer to handle editing, arranging, and mastering duties.

“To have a big bold record like this, in a time when everything is sort of fragile and rundown, feels like a very good thing to be doing,” said Hebden on NPR this January.

From that combination we get a ’70s Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, in cruise control for 41 minuets, running on clean energy. Madlib is forever encyclopedic, surgical in backstroking through simple and unknown source material from previous eras. Pushing it with futuristic verve, making tunes, such as the melancholic “Road of The Lonely Ones,” as much a parable as a lost science fiction episode. Get that dirty beat and solemn vocal trick working with “Dirtknock” and see this creator separate himself from the young bucks, running straight into the traffic and playing HARD scenery jazz pieces on “One For Quartabe/Right Now,” 

And just in case folks forgot, “Two for 2-For Dilla” clears the air and lets us know why DOOM and Dilla, two Black men gone WAY too early, both before 50, JESUS, got on so well with the Los Angeles beatmaker born Otis Jackson, Jr. It’s kinda unfair, Madlib is a whole other wing of hip-hop unto himself. That, I’ll gladly take, errytime.

“The New Normal” drips with that psyche-rock, boom-bap, click clack, and “Chino” tugs from that Lynn Collins “Think” sample one mo gin. Baptize yourself in the electric relaxation—we’ve already stretched ova here. Nobody is pulling a hammy today. I’ve referred to “Sound Ancestors” in my house as “January Salve,” but it works every day of the year. Thank God, and Black Jesus too.


London’s Dry Cleaning, comprised of guitarist Tom Dowse, drummer Nick Buxton, bassist Lewis Maynard, and vocalist Florence Shaw, combine out-of-this-world, rigid instrumentals that draw influence from Black Sabbath to Augustus Pablo and Yuzo Koshiro. These arrangements buttress Shaw’s dart-accurate social scientist pen. She weaves her libretto through inner thoughts and outer observations, verbalizing Sofia Coppola’s nightmare: an introverted protagonist whose thoughts go running amok. 

With a turtle’s measure, gaps and spaces are left so that we can ponder what was just said—”I’ve been thinking of eating that hotdog for hours“—recounting the daily particulars we fabricate and then post, a litany of grumble-whine quibbles. 

Shaw doesn’t sing. Wielding a word racket is her speed. New Long Leg rattles and buzzes along uncontrollably with its nervy, edgy, rhythmic-assault-meets-frigid-cold-narrator-type fusion. Here, on a 10-song, 42-minute post-punk communique documenting isolation, cosmic alignment gets extracted from insane preoccupations. On “Scratchcard Lanyard,” air fresheners become mighty oaks, and Instagram filters time-travel as exotic destinations. Repeat listens reveal how expansive this band is on their own, and Shaw, at times, becomes the lucky one to stumble across such a lockstep-oriented wiry outfit. Dry Cleaning will go down in history as forever having concocted a nearly-flawless COVID-19 lockdown record.

BENNY SINGS—MUSIC (Stones Throw Records)

Beaucoup streams on Spotify can revive any career—at least, that’s what happened to Tim van Bkerestijn a.k.a. Benny Sings. Co-writing the Rex Orange County’s 2017 mega-hit “Loving Is Easy” brought him back from singer-songwriter purgatory. Delicious piano riffs and tree trunk low-end boom are the trademarks of his songwriting process, which has made music for Mac DeMarco, Emily King, KYLE, Tom Misch, Cautious Clay, and Anderson Paak.

Music, Sings’ second release for Stones Throw and seventh in total, expands on his ’70s soft-rock-meets-hip-hop-rhythm-jacket production style. Think yacht rock golden gawds meets bliss that thumps lubrication vibes that feels straight out of Terrestrial AM Radio.

“Rolled Up,” its hummable earworm duet with Mac DeMarco, gets over with just a touch of that Benny post-disco glimmer. With lyrics that describe the indoor mania the world is currently going through, it’s the melody, quirky bass, and piano interplay that makes you wanna bounce your world-weary shoulders a bit to the AOR thickness.

We believe this guy, no matter if he’s singing a Craigslist Missed Connection scenario or about his bird running out on him over a pack of smokes. Benny Sings the brand—even with the lite Whole Foods grocery shopping vibe—succeeds with that ‘Kermit in a Komono’ vocal lick. Tim van Bkerestijn jots everything down, flipping it all into killer lyricism.


For some reason Fake Fruit, the self-titled debut release by the Vancouver-formed, Bay Area-polished band, showed up in a year when we all could use some finely-tuned sass on stage.

The band is fronted by the suffer-no-fools Hannah D’Amato with guitarist Alex Post and drummer Miles MacDiamond. (Bass players in this band get misplaced like burner cell phones.) Fake Fruit can be felt in the throes of a jangly art-rock television-esque narrative, or a quick-cutting Wire, Pylon, or Minutemen friction haze. It really does not matter. 

Even if Fake Fruit’s vibe shifts, it’s always Hannah D’Amato’s show. Whispering, questioning, shouting, blowing off steam with that sublime off-kilter timing, with shouts and shrills worthy of being converted to paragraphs of disillusionment by author Paul Beatty. Her words carry over broken dick chords and kvetching double-time riffs.

We may have to wait to catch these hilarious clapbacks live from a stage near Mission Street, but it’s a worthy endeavor. Meanwhile, catch these jokes, sick burns, and post-punk revelry from a Bay Area band just starting to spread its gospel national as you can.

BRIJEAN—FEELINGS (Ghostly International)

When collaborative projects such as Brijean come strolling along, just watch.

Built-up over tropicalia expansiveness, house music posture, and ’70s mellow disco flair, Brijean is made of Brijean Murphy and Doug Stuart, a thorough stretch. The group is reminiscent of those yesterday/tomorrow outfits—Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band comes to mind, aesthetically. This Oakland-based duo presents a tasteful symmetry between modernism and sentimentality. Every time their 2019 debut mini-album Walkie Talkie came on, it carried the feeling of a hazy heater.

Feelings, their sophomore release arrived loaded up with joints, even between the jams. There are intimate, transitory exchanges when Murphy’s voice coos down into that pitter-patter, Astrud Gilberto-remote latitude—slow-moving, deep-feeling hypnosis. It’s a lavishness, full of chakras aligning enchantment, that few bands today barely touch. Chest-out, lounge-y strains such as “WiFi Beach” combine Stereolab cool with bossa nova funked-up groove, featuring wood-block atmospherics. Feelings, much like the band, never disappoint.


Octo Octa’s recent She’s Calling, a three-track EP pulsating with emotion and belief, presents a rave haven. Circling back to those cherubic textures found on 2019’s For Lovers EP, this record was put out on her T4T LUV NRG imprint, co-founded with partner Eris Drew. In the same way Earth Wind & Fire are looked upon as the Black Beatles, breakbeat is elemental, the founder, the genesis to all forms of electronic music. 

“Spell For Nature,” the strongest spoken word track by the artist in the past couple of years, illuminates how the right combination of churchy-organ riffs, gear-head drumfire, and dramatic piano loops can fortify an indestructible human spirit. Channeling her own frequencies, Octo Octa again stands right on time.


With tiny woodblock percussion acting like gentle talking wind, and a high-tension dirge remaining pronounced from start to finish, these boggy, phantom narrows announce Christina Chatfield’s ambient long-player of a project with steely reserve. “Luna,” the lead track from the local electronic wiz’s long-awaited debut album, gives off visions of ancient warriors from preceding times, fashioned in wooden battlefield attire, mirroring one another, illuminated in the moonlight, executing some type of primordial ritual. 

The album’s eight-song, 66-minute ambient gambol makes great use of buffered voices, pastel melodic textures, and drone-y sound-worlds that seduce. It contains woozy daydreams that actually get these slow-rolling environs to stimulate thought, not detract. Chatfield keeps the discord rooted in atmospherics—o hi-hat or snare release, rarely moving into the upper BPMs.

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John-Paul Shiver
John-Paul Shiverhttps://www.clippings.me/channelsubtext
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to 48 Hills since 2019. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in the Wire, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK, and Drowned In Sound.

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