The best albums of the year lists are definitely making the rounds on the interwebs. Maybe you saw Uproxx’s Best Albums Of The 2021 already? Or our genre-focused year end round-ups in hip-hop, indie, etc… They’re filled with killer releases from across the spectrum. Same goes for lists from other outlets that all highlight the prevalent music that marked this past year.
But damnit if there wasn’t some incredible music put out in 2021 that didn’t get the same shine as Olivia Rodrigo, Jazmine Sullivan or The War On Drugs. Below, you’ll find our picks for the best albums of the year that were slightly off the radar. Or maybe you’re just that in tune with things that you didn’t miss these at all? Regardless, these are positively ten of the best albums of the year and they deserve your attention.
Charlotte Day Wilson — Alpha
The Toronto-based singer and producer had put out two EPs in the past that yielded singles like “Work” and “Doubt” that effectively put her on the map. But Alpha is her proper full-length debut and it’s a stunning fully-formed collection of songs that sounds like nothing else. On “Take Care Of You” featuring Syd, Day Wilson morphs her voice on the hook to lay the groundwork for her and Syd to show why they’re two of the pre-eminent Queer vocalists today. “Lovesick Utopia” is one of the most intriguing productions of the year that flashes Day Wilson’s chops as more than just a singer. There are also appearances from fellow Canadians Daniel Caesar and Badbadnotgood, and Drake even picked up a sample of “Mountains” for his track,”Fair Trade,” off of Certified Lover Boy.
ALLBLACK — TY4FWM
Packing slick sports references in his bars at every turn, Allblack is a certified play runner who’s been killing the Bay Area street rap game. On “Ego,” he spits over Kenny Beats’ production: “Big bread, hero / Pressin n*****s, Deebo / At the bank more than Harden at the free throw / All this cash that I’m gettin’ f***in’ up my ego.” He raps about his past life as a pimp on “Life Of A P,” a hyped-up old-school G-Funk beat with Kossisko on a deft hook. TY4FWM is an album about gratitude though (heck, it’s in the title) and Allblack spends time shouting out the cats who’ve been there with him through thick and thin, and the ones who came up with him along the way. He’s on a French Montana level with the sheer volume of features, but they all pop off, like the 2Pac-inspired “War Stories” with Mozzy and Peezy, and the rough and tumble “We Straight” with Vince Staples over a sick beat by Cal-A.
Aaron Frazer –Introducing…
Easy Eye Sound, the label helmed by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, had an incredible year, with standout releases from Yola, Shannon Shaw, Robert Finely, and more. But none felt as true to its retro-minded aesthetic than the debut album by soul singer Aaron Frazer. For the uninitiated, Frazer is the drummer and high-pitched vocal yin to Durand Jones’ yang in The Indications. On Introducing…, Frazer more than holds his own as the singular focus on the classic soul vibes of “You Don’t Wanna Be My Baby” and the groovy R&B of the flute-inflected “Bad News.” Auerbach produced the album himself and it’s the little details he employs — the way the horns hit on “Can’t Leave It Alone” or the deliberate way Frazer’s voice is mic’d on “Bad News” and “Lover Girl” — that paint the perfect canvas for his label’s new star to sound like a reincarnated 1950’s heartthrob.
Alfa Mist — Bring Backs
The rise of London’s modern jazz movement cannot be understated and pianist, producer, and rapper Alfa Mist is among its most prolific products. This is jazz music for hip-hop heads that’s tailor made to both groove to, or burn to. On “Mind The Gap,” Alfa opens singing over an arrangement of his masterful keys, a shrewd drum beat, and hypnotic horns. “I take my time, so they only see me in the right state of mind… we all rise and decline,” he sings, before giving way to Lex Amor coming in like a young Martina Topley-Bird. There’s a lot to like on Bring Backs, from trip-hop soundscapes to jazz drum breaks, in a welcome journey of the mind all around.
Sam Evian – Time To Melt
Recorded at Evian’s Flying Cloud Studios in the Catskills, Time To Melt is a gorgeous expression of psychedelic pop music. It’s gentle enough to soothe, but built intricately to stimulate. Evian, who has produced albums for similarly trippy folk artists like Cass McCombs, Blonde Redhead, and Okkervil River, is dashing on his third solo release. The combo of sweeping strings, Rhodes keys, and unpredictable horns on “Knock, Knock,” make the existential jam flow like a pristine stream. “Dream Free” features vocals from his partner Hannah Cohen and is a celestial electric number that like the album, is built for those who want to ponder the intricacies of the cosmos and the constructs around us.
Glbl Wrmng — glbl wrmng vol. 1
Presented by rapper Pell as a compilation that showcases the strength of the New Orleans hip-hop community, glbl wrmng vol. 1 was all that and then some. It represents the diverse sound of New Orleans rap, from the syrupy “Well Sh*t” featuring Paasky, to the shimmering and hopeful “Technicolor” with LeTrainiump and Dominic Scott to the twisty, sticky production of “N95” by Malik Ninety Five and Bryant Keith Malonson. Pell appears on every track and is a confident and stoic facilitator throughout all of it, for a veritable discovery trove of collaborators. There’s 16 tracks on the album that each seem to scratch a different sonic itch, as the collective searches for hope and peace amid tumultuous times. None are more affecting than “Take Time” with Pell and Kr3wcial finding harmony in hip-hop, in more memorable fashion than just about any cut I spun this year.
Ross From Friends — Tread
The Brainfeeder-signed producer courses through the electronic music spectrum jumping from techno, to vaporwave, to drum and bass and more. Don’t let the name fool you, this is serious stuff fronted by British producer Felix Cleary Weatherall that understands both the nuances of big room bass and chill out. Samples under beats often call back to Detroit disco and techno, like the well-enacted tear down and build-up of “Life In A Mind.” It’s almost as if you’re witnessing the bones of a track’s construction as it’s being laid down.
LUMP – Animal
While Laura Marling is one of the best modern folk singers on the planet, her electronically-minded side-project with producer Mike Lindsay (of Tunng) is proof that her penchant for exploration sees no bounds. The second LUMP album represents the continuity of the vessel Marling has found for material that doesn’t necessarily fit into the tightly-wrapped warmth of her acoustic guitar. But she’s a dynamite lyricist no less and on “Bloom At Night,” she sings:
“I predict that this affliction lasts for life
I suspect that you’ll regret your lust for light
I suggest that you address your appetite
For to be seen to cast your beam across the night”
Animal is an album about escape and embracing your inner beast in the process, and Marling places another mighty feather in her cap over Lindsay’s entrancing production.
Larry June — Orange Print
Yes, it’s another Bay Area hip-hop album, because if there’s any scene that consistently falls beneath the surface, it’s Bay Area rap. June is from San Francisco and Orange Print illustrates the culmination of his never-ending hustle. This is a dude who consistently puts out multiple records each year and he’s finally made it, but is somehow only now getting on the same scope nationally as rappers from more prominent enclaves. On “Intercepted,” he relishes on finally starting to get his flowers “Hard times, we prevailed, spent years manifestin’ / ‘Nother day, another lesson, took it all as a blessin’.” There’s an aura about June on Orange Print that emanates comfort for where he’s at in life. He’s not concerned with what people are doing outside of his sphere anymore, and it lets him spit about success, wisdom, and his signature health conscious calling card with poise and couth.
Alice Phoebe Lou — Glow
The South African indie singer-songwriter put down one of the most beautiful and spacey releases of the year. Her staccato is unwavering on “Only When I,” her jazzy coo is reminiscent of Billie Holiday on “Dusk,” and she channels her inner-Angel Olsen on “How To Get Out Of Love.” When Lou sings, it always feels as if the stars are her audience and her voice just grows into infinite spaces. Her sweet delivery over a clarinet on “Lonely Crowd” will send you right into the night sky. Yet, Glow is a perfect companion piece for sleeping in, having breakfast at noon, and just spending your whole day at home in your sweatpants.