After the chaos of 2020, we went into 2021 weary but optimistic about what it would bring. With vaccinations against COVID-19 on the horizon, it seemed life might return to some kind of normalcy. Of course, we didn’t count on the numerous variants coming through, nor the number of people who refused to get vaccinated and help stop the spread of this virus.
Like in many stressful times, music has been a source of comfort this year. We’ve discovered and rediscovered countless great albums. The return of concerts have made seeing our favourite artists perform live feel even more special than before, even if some concerts were inevitably cancelled.
It’s impossible to cover every album released in a given year. But there are some we want to make special mention of now. These are Northern Transmissions’ Best Overlooked Albums of 2021. Here’s hoping for a better 2022 around the world.
Dawn Richard – Second Line
The first song proper on Dawn Richard’s sixth album is titled “Nostalgia,” which may seem a little curious for an album with such futuristic vibes. But Second Line creates the future through the past, merging sounds from Richard’s hometown of New Orleans, Chicago, and beyond with vocal performances equal parts rapturous and intimate. With her mother, Debbie acting as a guide through this journey of sound and self, Second Line is a first-rate showcase of looking forward and backward all at once.
Boldy James & The Alchemist – Bo Jackson
On their third team-up and second in two years, Detroit rapper Boldy James fits his deadpan-but nimble flow over veteran producer The Alchemist’s surreal spin on boom-bap. James’ verses are laced with narcotics and bullets, but his vivid accounts eschew glorifying or moralizing. It’s an album as versatile as the All-Star athlete it’s named for. Can they make this an annual tradition?
Geese – Projector
2021 was already spoiled for post-punk acts taking the genre beyond tense basslines and nihilistic sloganeering when Brooklyn band Geese dropped their debut album in October. While it feels like the young fivesome came out of nowhere, they’ve been quietly building up a buzz for some time, and Projector operates as a debut should: nodding towards its influence (Television, The Strokes) while also leaning into unexpected but welcome detours at the right moments, like the harried psychedelia on the back half of “Fantasies / Survival.”
Adult Mom – Driver
Adult Mom’s twangy bedroom pop doesn’t seem like the most natural fit for Epitaph Records, home of sonically heavier bands like Touché Amoré and Converge. But in terms of emotional heft, they’re right at home. Founding member Stevie Knipe combs through the difficulties of losing love with lyrics both insightful and wry. In 30 minutes, Driver lets you experience the exhilarating highs and painful lows of a tumultuous relationship.
Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take
Like with many breakup albums, the lyrics on Any Shape You Take are largely delivered in the second person. But Indigo De Souza expresses herself in ways both nuanced and unabashedly direct. On her second album, the North Carolina musician deftly proclaims both her love for the other person as well as her awareness that, sometimes, you have to let go. And sometimes, in the case of one chills-inducing moment, you just have to scream.
Lingua Ignota – SINNER GET READY
Abuse allegations against Daughters frontman Alexis Marshall put SINNER GET READY in a disturbing new light, but Kristin Hayter’s fourth album as Lingua Ignota was already visibly haunted before she released her ~7,000-word testimonial. Hayter’s anguished vocals echo against clamoring piano chords as she speaks of the pain she’s endured and of the forces who allow it to occur. SINNER GET READY is perhaps this year’s most courageous – and most difficult – musical statement.
Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future
British jazz outfit Sons of Kemet recorded much of their fourth album in 2019, but it sounds like it could’ve been recorded yesterday. Contorting melodies are juxtaposed with rap verses and spoken-word rallies against subjugation. And even when no words are heard, the urgency is unmistakable. Is there a song title more appropriate in these times than “Throughout The Madness, Stay Strong”?
Deafheaven – Infinite Granite
Some were disappointed to see Deafheaven move away from the blackgaze sound that dominated their earlier albums, but Infinite Granite bears no sign of indecision. The foundation is cleaner than before, with shimmering guitar melodies and George Clarke delivering his contemplative lyrics as croons rather than screams. But the thrill persists, showing Deafheaven can still annihilate with euphoria, blast beats or no.
Mustafa – When Smoke Rises
Toronto singer and poet Mustafa’s raspy falsetto recalls ANOHNI and Sampha, who makes an appearance on his tender debut album, When Smoke Rises. But nothing about it feels studied from any source but his own thoughts. Over delicate guitar and piano lines, Mustafa sounds like he’s whispering the secrets of the universe while also opening himself up for any additional guidance.
Pom Pom Squad Death of a Cheerleader
Pom Pom Squad vocalist Mia Berrin recalls other raging indie frontwomen, like Mannequin Pussy’s Missy Dabice and Cherry Glazerr’s Clementine Creevy. But she stands out for her lyrics, which confidently switch from petulant to remorseful, sometimes during the same song. On debut album Death of a Cheerleader, Berrin casts herself as a fuck-up in search of redemption who can never quite help herself. It takes some real maturity to be this bratty.