Last year this time, we were looking back at the very-terrible-12-months we had just lived through with trepidatious hope that 2021 would be better. For musicians and their fans, this year was certainly a marked improvement. It seems plenty of acts dealt with the impossibility of playing live shows throughout 2020 by recording new content that got released this year. Personally, I got to enjoy fresh releases from all-time faves like Sleater-Kinney and fresher faces like Leon Bridges. Hell, even Iron Maiden released a new album! I also attended a live, in-person show for the first time in 2 years, watching my current favorite band, Titus Andronicus, play through the entirety of my favorite album, The Monitor. It was so exciting, I hardly noticed the packed crowd was about 50/50 on the mask-wearing front. When the show opened with the band ripping through a cover of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town,” the audience nearly jumped out of our collective skin, overwhelmed by the release of all that pent up energy. I even got to play live music, returning to guitar duties with Ruby Rae for two outdoor shows over the summer. At the second of those two shows, I realized how delirious I had gotten from the joy of playing live music when I happily sat through more than an hour of a three-hour set of Grateful Dead covers. Reality set back in when I turned to my friend after that first hour of jamming and said, “I’m pretty sure they are still only on their third song.” That kind of sums up where we are at as we close out 2021. It was a not-nearly-as-terrible-but-still pretty-awful year, and while we can take solace in the progress we’ve made, it feels, at times, like we are only one hour into a set of jam band covers that may never end. But don’t worry. Just like that group slogging through interminable Dead tunes, this pandemic will eventually end, and we can all go back to being instantly disgusted by jam bands. In the meantime, enjoy Unwinnable’s top ten albums of 2021!
– Ed Coleman, Curator
King’s Disease II, by Nas
In Kings Disease II we find Nas contemplating his positionality as a rapper at “king” status. Hailed by many as East Coast rap royalty, a respected elder at this point, Nas ponders the pressure of living up to those expectations, and the importance of resisting complacency in his given title. A rapper notorious for his aversion to features, KD II presents us with jaw-dropping verses from Lauryn Hill, Eminem, and more.
This album feels like an artist contemplating major moments in his life with new eyes, but it doesn’t always follow through on the promise, tracks like “Brunch on Sunday” feel fluffy compared to many of the track list. There’s a euphoric quality to tracks like “Store Run,” through which Nas’s bombastic flow is coupled with a Hit-Boy beat that acknowledges the 90s while presenting something new.
A king demands respect from his followers, but also must realize that respect comes with an expectation of a path being created for a new generation to rise. Kings Disease II is a blueprint for that.
Favorite tracks: “Store Run,” “No Phony Love,” “40 Side,” “Moments.”
– Phillip Russell
By the Time I Got to Phoenix, by Injury Reserve
The first time I listened to By the Time I Got to Phoenix, a few things grabbed my attention. First, the droning, experimental production. Then, lyrics alternately goofy (“I can’t eat no brown stuff, I like the toaster strudel”) and full of insistent refusal (“I ain’t goin’ through that, you can’t just force me through that shit. Nah, I ain’t gon’ do it, nah, I ain’t gon’ do it, I can’t.”). I can’t think of anything more lyrically representative of 2021.
But what pushed the album into my favorites were repeat listens. The experimentation touches every corner of the album. And being from the same desert as the trio behind Injury Reserve, I can attest to the need for it. If there wasn’t much of a Phoenix hip hop sound before, there is now.
– Don Everhart
Bad Operation, by Bad Operation
Bad Operation is a thesis. As Daniel Ray (trombone and keys) says in an interview with Brooklyn Vegan, “It’s about setting a new tone in the way we occupy public space with our music.” The debut LP is celebratory and longing, class consciousness as something you can dance to. Soulful arrangements carry Dominic Minix’s lyrics to the fore, a hopeful transmission from the depths of 2020 that unrelentingly centers anti-racism and coalition building. In a blossoming scene characterized by the influence of punk and emo, the New Orleans quintet is pointedly moody and groovy, Two Tone for the contemporary political moment. But it’s more than homage – Ska alone sells this LP short. This is the personal as political. This is New Tone.
– Autumn Wright and Sarah Feller
Inside (The Songs), by Bo Burnham
Bo Burnham’s comedy special, Inside, along with this album of songs featured in the special, was one of the best releases of 2021. Filmed entirely in a small room in the comedian’s guest house, Burnham performs twenty or so songs about the ridiculous state of the world and the crushing anxiety and isolation that comes with living in these pandemic times. I’ve known about Burnham for years, but hadn’t watched much before this special, as musical comedy acts don’t usually do it for me. This special changed all that.
It doesn’t hurt that the songs seem to reveal Burnham’s leftist leanings, writing about the evils of corporate hegemony, white supremacy, and not one, but two songs decrying Jeff Bezos. In particular, I recommend, “Welcome to the Internet,” a nightmarish masterpiece of a circus song about the worldwide web. Generations from now, when the survivors of the apocalypse drive around wastelands in search of guzzolene, wondering why we allowed our brain-worms to destroy the planet, we can just point to this song to explain.
– Ed Coleman
Nurture, by Porter Robinson
My first exposure to this year’s Porter Robinson album was due entirely to “Look at the Sky” being on one of Forza Horizon 5’s radio stations (FH5 is a legitimate contender for game of the year, don’t @ me), and you know what, discovering Nurture this way feels like coming full circle. My first exposure to Robinson was through the menu music for the first Forza Horizon way back in 2012, via his single “Language.” Back then he was still proving himself, as Skrillex and the late and great Avicii were both at the height of their powers. With Nurture, not only has he found his own distinct corner, but it also feels like a refinement of what he’s been working towards for the past decade.
It’s a cozy, friendly, yet energetic blend of video-game music (like a forgotten remix of a track from 2009’s Flower), while also being the perfect backdrop for an AMV (Robinson did create “Shelter” too, afterall). Sure, it’s on the long side as it comes close to an hour in length, but I assure you: it is as fantastic to listen to in a racing game as it is to blast while driving IRL.
– Evan Dennis
Glow On, by Turnstile
In one of my Discord servers we got someone way up in arms against Glow On, the latest and greatest record from DC area rhythm stompers Turnstile. Whenever the album is mentioned this person (who is otherwise nice and lovely) just lets loose against their perception of the band’s 311-ass glossed-up nu-metal bullshit. Spoken like a true survivor of the 00’s, the last time overdriven guitars had any major presence on the airwaves, most of it by and for lunkhead victims of toxic patriarchy. But Turnstile has always worked to reclaim that energy, an arms-up celebration of life in the face of a relentlessly cruel world.
Glow On builds from that foundation, drum hits for big steps, full-frame power chords, studio spices to jazz the taste. These are the elements that usually burn through hardcore bands before a second album can drop, but here on Turnstile’s third they’ve expanded their sonic palette without losing that core slam. They’re jams for release and for healing, now more necessary than ever. If you can’t get on board well I just hope you have something in your life that charges you up like this record does for so many of us.
– Levi Rubeck
Home Video, by Lucy Dacus
On her third album, Home Video, Lucy Dacus reflects on her strict religious upbringing with tenderness and wry wit. The record sees the 26-year-old songwriter diving deep into some dark places, mining memories of growing up under the thumb of oppressive parentage and church leadership, and emerging with a collection of songs that remembers exactly how those times felt.
Yet these stories are told through the lens of someone who’s now a bit wiser and more capable of seeing those things for what they were, at times managing some sense of nostalgia even for experiences one might not ever want to relive again.
Her wordplay has also grown more clear and more clever at the same time. On the track “VBS” (an acronym for “vacation bible school”), she punctuates the line, “Playing Slayer at full volume helps to block it out” with sharp stabs of harsh distortion that pierce through the song’s straightforward indie-pop texture with calculated grace.
It’s in small moments like this where Dacus shows how much command she has over her craft. While her previous records were solid, Home Video feels like the breakthrough leap she’s been hinting at making.
– Ben Sailer
Jubilee, by Japanese Breakfast
For a few months earlier this year my partner and I were on the road constantly, moving our worldly possessions from our apartment in the Bronx to a small house in the Berkshires. A good portion of those drives were spent listening to Michelle Zauner’s voice, first in the form of narration of her new memoir Crying in H Mart, which recounts the difficult illness and death of her mother, then lifted into song for her latest and truly greatest album, Jubilee.
It was a specific emotional journey that wound up making the experience of listening to the music much more immediate and raw. Hidden in Zauner’s bright, silvery vocals is a picture of loss and growth, of a life changed forever by events outside her control. In Zauner’s hopeful chords, strummed out through layers of deep sadness, we felt a kinship of dramatic upheaval, of feeling unmoored and spinning.
Jubilee is an album that carries the hard-won confidence of maturity and survival. Even her more lighthearted tracks carry a tone of solemnity and grim seriousness underneath. It’s been inspiring to keep the album on repeat this past year, hoping that we too can ride the whirlwind of change and land on our feet, frightened and limping, but standing, ready to step forward into the next chapter.
– Yussef Cole
Call Me If You Get Lost, by Tyler, the Creator
Call Me If You Get Lost feels like the culmination of everything Tyler the Creator has ever worked on, from Goblin through to Igor. Instead of a rehash it feels like he is finally fully reconciling the different parts of himself as a person and an artist.
He doesn’t lash out as aggressively as he does in his early work, but still has that signature bite in “Manifesto.” He’s way more honest about his feelings on tracks like “Wilshire,” without having to couch them in melodramatic misogynistic violence, instead producing the more tender “Sweet/I Thought You Wanted to Dance.” It also finally feels like there’s a genuine self-confidence in “RunItUp” that isn’t just falsified bravado.
This album feels like Tyler finally coming into being at ease with himself as a person and an artist. If his discography was a film, this album would be the final shot of Moonlight, a closing on a troubled elongated youth and an entry into a world of possibility.
– Oluwatayo Adewole
Vince Staples, by Vince Staples
Vince Staples just keeps getting better. His ability to ride beats and keep a hypnotic flow going is unmatched for me. This self-titled album feels a bit like a reintroduction — approaching previous themes and the history of his neighborhood with more precision and clarity than ever before, over incredible moody and catchy production by Kenny Beats that doesn’t quite sound like anything Vince has rapped on before. When the producer and the MC are both putting up their best work yet, it’s just impossible to dislike an album.
This is the work of a mature artist, delivering a distinct and uncompromised sense of place and tone that would seem effortless to me if I hadn’t witnessed the steps taken to get there. Before this album, if someone wanted to get into Vince Staples, I might send them a playlist of my favorite songs. Now? Just listen to the self-titled and get ready for him to be one of your favorite rappers right away. My favorite tracks are “ARE YOU WITH THAT” (and its amazing music video), “TAKING TRIPS,” “LIL FADE” and “MHM.”
– 2 Mello