Top 25 Albums of 2021
Yousef and Marion, KCSB’s music directors, have compiled their picks for the 25 best albums of 2021.
For me, this year has been as hard as can be. Dealing with my mental health and constant turmoil within my relationships, I’ve had to take steps back from the world because life just hurt so much. One can only absorb so much pain before it shows and seeps from one’s self. I had forgotten my ways this year. I became so obsessed with the people around me that I had lost so many pieces of myself. Even ego death pales in comparison to watching your own world crumble before your own eyes. There were too many days where I couldn’t even get out of bed. I’d sleep at sunrise and wake up in the late afternoon, not doing anything but living in my own mind; a constant anxiety about the world outside the walls of my living room. Last year, I quarantined by myself. I lived in solitude. What felt like breathless days empowered me to grow and become a better version of myself everyday. I was guided by Nipsey Hussle and Injury Reserve – I learned what it meant to be an activist in my own community because when I was confined to my childhood bedroom, I realized that my immobility meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. There was a world out there that I hadn’t explored.
Now, sitting here writing this introduction to this year’s new music, I was drawn to themes of growth. This year, I felt trapped inside my own body. Scared, perilous, unsure of what the next day would look like for me. I became a languid version of myself, living my life as free-form as possible, only accepting opportunity and never offering. A dusty, worn-in, Isla Vista couch was my home for months because I couldn’t get myself to be alone in bed after spending so long there in 2020. I wanted to be around people so much. I relished in my housemates’ personal lives, their stories, their adventures and misadventures. I dissociated from my own body and took on this sort of entity that lacked connection to myself but connected to everyone else in my surrounding life. Odd, considering I couldn’t even answer a text for the life of me. Music was a safe haven for me. Music was a reminder of my roots; the person I once was. I became my high-school self; my psyche was and still is embossed by Earl Sweatshirt. I grieved my loss of self to “Solace.”
I can’t say that this was an easy year. I would actually say that it was the hardest year of my young life. I worry because a lot of what I’m discussing here is unresolved; these are nonlinear anecdotes from this morning and from months ago. My life is in constant flux, but every single day, I count my lucky stars because I’m happy to be alive. I skateboard now. I ride around the streets carefree, with nothing but the hum of my wheels against the pavement and the rhythm of the music playing in my earphones. I practice tricks at the skatepark. I watch YouTube videos on how to ollie, proceed to fail, but still smile every time I get closer to landing the trick. I’m leading a simpler life. My days are filled with Mario Parties and brazen misadventures in Downtown Santa Barbara and Del Playa Drive. I have the comfort of my friends. I’ve gotten closer to everyone in my life; I’ve reattached to people who truly love me and care for me and only want me to succeed. I’m happy to be the work-in-progress that I am because I’m watching myself, slowly but surely, grow.
Life is hard, but goddamn, its soundtrack is flawless. By far, Injury Reserve’s album, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, has lent me a helping hand in my trying times. Coping with my own disillusionment, the late Stepa J. Groggs outlined for me a path to growth, even when the world around me was dire; even when I didn’t think that I still could grow. The experimental hip-hop outfit showcased to me that there is “no agree to disagree. It ain’t possible.” It was time for me to put myself first. Through heavy prog-rock samples and drums, I recognized my worth. Released on my birthday, September 15th, the album became a divine presence in my life. It couldn’t be a coincidence that my favorite rap trio would release an album when I needed it most. I took from it. I studied it. I learned from Stepa J. Groggs, Ritchie with a T, and Parker Corey. I repeated to myself on every hard night, “My knees hurt because I’m grown,” “Ain’t no savin’ me,” and “It rains, it pours, but damn,… it’s really pourin’.” Moments of anguish and turbulence were muted by their noisy instrumentals that constantly played on my bookshelf speakers and AirPods.
But it wasn’t all dark. CALL ME WHEN YOU GET LOST showed me how to have breezy fun in the summertime and The House Is Burning showed me that, even when life looks dire, there is still a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s years away. I gained an appreciation for electronica and classical music, hence my placement of Promises. And of course, most of all, you can see my deep love for abstract hip-hop. Armand Hammer and Ka marked my solemn days with tales of vehement retribution. They gave me songs that made me feel like I could move mountains, and believe it or not, now I think I actually can.
It’s been a hell of a year. I know that I’m not the only one who has lost a piece of themselves and is struggling to get it back, but I write this with a glimmer of hope in my eyes. It gets better. I promise. My bad days now are begrudgingly the worst, but I know that they’re still significantly better than how they once were. I can listen to the music I once loved again. Yes I’m struggling, but at least I’m proud of myself, and that’s something that I haven’t felt in a really long time.
By the Time I Get to Phoenix – Injury Reserve
CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST – Tyler, the Creator
For the first time – Black Country, New Road
Haram – Armand Hammer & The Alchemist
LP! – JPEGMAFIA
The House Is Burning – Isaiah Rashad
Pray for Haiti – Mach-Hommy
Promises – Floating Points & Pharoah Sanders
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – Little Simz
Talk Memory – BADBADNOTGOOD
Hitler Wears Hermes 8: Side B – Westside Gunn
A Martyr’s Reward – Ka
Disco! – MIKE
Death & The Magician – DJ Muggs & Rome Streetz
Make Drunk Cool Again – Rx Nephew
Spiral – DARKSIDE
Bo Jackson – Boldy James & The Alchemist
Van Goghs Left Ear – Zelooperz
Dope Game Stupid – Bruiser Wolf
Sound Ancestors – Madlib
Cavalcade – black midi
volcanic bird enemy and the voiced concern – Lil Ugly Mane
Frailty – dltzk
When Smoke Rises – Mustafa
Bin Reaper 2 – BabyTron
Music discovery has always held a very special place in my heart. Avid music fans know the feeling of finding that song, that album, or that artist- the ones that you can spin for hours and hours on end without getting tired of them. A similar feeling, which is almost as exciting as finding that music, is sharing that music with others. I hold a very privileged position as a Music Director at KCSB, one which pushes me to expand the scope of the music I listen to and look for. Additionally, as a music director, I get the opportunity to share this music with a community of wonderful volunteers, colleagues, and listeners who love music just as much as I do.
This year has been a total rollercoaster- characterized by both optimism and disappointment, full of ups and downs. One thing that I am especially grateful for is the constant release of new and inspiring music by extremely talented artists. In the worst parts of the year, these artists gave me something to look forward to and somewhere to turn to for joy. In the best parts of 2021, these songs were a wonderful soundtrack to very special memories.
The venerable Gonzo once said, “I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.” As the year draws to a close, I want to share with you the 25 albums (in no particular order) which acted as fuel for me in 2021.
The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life
Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
Woody Goss – Rainbow Beach
Ducks Ltd. – Get Bleak
Hiatus Kaiyote – Mood Valiant
Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time
Summersault – Secoya Moon
Greer – Happy People
Faye Webster – I Know I’m Funny, Haha
Jordanna, TV Girl – Summer’s Over
Dinosaur Jr. – Sweep Into Space
Snail Mail – Valentine
Pinkpanthress – To Hell With It
St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home
Jose Gonzalez – Local Valley
Ty Segall – Harmonizer
Even Cheadle – Fault Line Serenade
The Greeting Committee – Dandelion
Clairo – Sling
BADBADNOTGOOD – Talk Memory
Pond – 9
Neal Francis – In Plain Sight
Rodrigo Amarante – Drama
Bonifrate – Corisco