year in culture 2021

All the Music I Didn’t Get to Write About This Year … Until Now

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Getty Images

2021 was a roller coaster, a year overstuffed with major releases and dotted by unexpected tragedies that rendered it impossible to cover everything as it dropped. So, in addition to choosing the best of the best, it seemed equally fun to get a word in on some records from the last 12 months that I loved and didn’t get to write about, or simply didn’t even get around to listening to upon the initial rollout — from buzzer-beater end-of-2020 releases that got lost in the holiday shuffle, to works that got jammed up in the fray as Adele, Taylor Swift, Ye, Lorde, Drake, Billie Eilish, and others teed up albums.


The Weather Station, Ignorance

Toronto folk-rock outfit the Weather Station centers the talent and insight of singer-songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Tamara Lindeman, who marries probing lyrics to lilting vocals while the music swells and sways overhead like a rainstorm. On Ignorance, the band’s fifth album, Lindeman reckons with our rocky past and uncertain future across foreboding couplets covering global warming and racial disunity. “Thinking I should get all this dying off of my mind,” she sings over fluttering pianos and guitars in “Atlantic.” “I should really know better than to read the headlines.” The writing is earnestly dire, but the arrangements are intricate and sweet. There’s a limber, big-band folk sound at Ignorance’s core, but New Wave (“Tried to Tell You” ), jazz (“Robber”), and post-punk (“Parking Lot,” “Heart”) sneak into the mix. Ignorance captures the feeling of being alive right now, touching on coming to grips with historical horrors we can’t undo and wondering whether we missed our shot at sweeping, world-saving climate change.


Mustafa, When Smoke Rises

2021 was a year of harrowing losses, from learning that MF DOOM passed at the start of January, through the tragic deaths of music giants like DMX and Biz Markie, to these past few weeks where we lost Black literary luminaries Greg Tate and bell hooks as well as Memphis and Los Angeles rap stewards Young Dolph and Drakeo the Ruler. It’s hard to shake the feeling that life is cheap and hard and cruel. Everyone is mourning someone. On his debut album When Smoke Rises, the Toronto poet Mustafa wraps his head around calamity in inner cities in salute to Smoke Dawg, lifetime friend and fellow member of the Halal Gang hip-hop collective who lost his life to gun violence in 2018. “There’s a war outside and I can’t lose all my dawgs,” Mustafa sings in “The Hearse.” When Smoke Rises expresses the bleakness of the era with plaintive vocals and guitars, working with rap hitmaker Frank Dukes and electronic producers James Blake and Sampha on stately, grisly pop music, transforming what could be dreary into something dreamy.


Silk Sonic, An Evening With Silk Sonic

A collaboration between Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak is a no-brainer. Across albums like Malibu and Yes Lawd!, .Paak approaches contemporary R&B the way a funk singer would. Every Bruno Mars album contains a perfect period piece; he can nail the poppy New Wave of the Police (“Locked Out of Heaven”) and the slick, sultry soul of peak New Edition (“Straight Up and Down”). Working together as Silk Sonic after meeting on a tour in 2017, .Paak and Mars have crafted a love letter to Black music of the ’60s and ’70s. An Evening With Silk Sonic salutes Miracles-style guy-group soul in “Leave the Door Open” and “Put on a Smile,” fuses funk and rap on “Fly As Me” and “777,” dabbles in sleek roller disco with “Skate,” and floats off on the stoned soul closer “Blast Off.” They’re vulnerable love songs delivered with a smirk, a tricky but rewarding balance of wholesome puppy-love anthems and comically self-sure player parables.


Summer Walker, Still Over It

Still Over It, the sophomore album from Atlanta R&B star Summer Walker, goes for the jugular in the first verse: “London, did you screw this bitch for real? / They be on that groupie shit for real.” She’s talking to the producer, Atlanta beat-maker London on da Track, her ex-boyfriend and the father of her first child, a baby girl born in March. Still Over It is a diorama of a breakup, from accusations of unfaithfulness to supportive calls from friends to the chaotic freedom of the newly single. Songs feel like conversations we shouldn’t necessarily be privy to, like personal journal entries and closed-door arguments. “I wanna start with your mama,” the scathing “4th Baby Mama” snarls. “She should’ve whooped your ass.” The vibe is infectious. “Ex for a Reason” gets a cocky assist from City Girls’ JT; Ari Lennox talks grade-A trash on “Unloyal”; and “No Love” gets SZA talking about “designer pussy.” While it’s processing treachery, Still Over It surveys the full R&B landscape, touching on trap, neo-soul, bedroom jams, and Neptunes bops to complete its novella.


Polo G, Hall of Fame

Raised in the shadow of Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green — a public-housing development that became a hotbed for gang activity before it was razed in 2011 — 22-year-old Polo G raps about the uncomfortable realities of inner-city life, where safety and stability are never guaranteed. Hall of Fame, Polo’s third album following 2018’s promising Die a Legend and last year’s solid The Goat, is wounded and tired. The smash hit “RAPSTAR” sets a tone early: “Anxiety killing me, I just wanna leave Earth / When they ask if I’m okay, it just make everything seem worse.” Hall of Fame is bleak, as full of musings on betrayal and trust as celebrations of the spoils of fame, often in the span of a single verse. The guest list speaks to Polo’s versatility: He can match trap crooners like Rod Wave, Lil Durk, and the Kid Laroi hook for hook. His command of impressive rhyme schemes makes the Lil Wayne collaboration “GANG GANG” soar. The album’s recently released deluxe version only extends the winning streak.


Wiki & Navy Blue, Half God

Wiki writes slice-of-life raps about the complexities of New York living. On So It Goes, the breakthrough 2015 album from his group Ratking, the Puerto Rican–Irish wordsmith groused about affluent transplants mucking up local culture and NYPD racial profiling. On this year’s Half God — produced by skater, model, and independent rapper and producer Navy Blue — there’s no subject too strange or personal for Wiki to turn into a killer verse. He kicks off “Can’t Do This Alone” telling the story of his birth, even expounding on his mother’s request for an epidural, then offers up a spooky story about an ex putting a curse on him. “Roof,” a celebration of a New York City rooftop hang, eventually gets into lurid detail about what he does when no one’s up there. Offbeat but always assured, Wiki dazzles with wordplay and storytelling, rapping just as sharply in the curbside rhyme sesh “Home” as he does bouncing lines off left-of-center hip-hop luminaries like Remy Banks, Earl Sweatshirt, MIKE, and Navy. The beats are as hypnotic as the words are gripping.


Playboi Carti, Whole Lotta Red

Depending on whom you ask, Atlanta rapper Playboi Carti is either the future of hip-hop or a regressive baby-talking mumble-rap scourge. Whole Lotta Red — Carti’s third major release, which slid out last year on Christmas Day after months of speculation — feeds both arguments. Some songs, like the Ye jam “Go2DaMoon” or the overstuffed and undercooked Kid Cudi collab “M3tamorphosis,” are surprisingly grating, but elsewhere, exquisite beat selection melds with offbeat ad libs and vocalizations to give Whole Lotta Red a fun-house feel. “Slay3r” is swag rap dressed in kids’-television melodies. “Beno!” and “Over” tout synth tones you’d sooner expect from a ’90s role-playing game than a modern rap album. Listen past the gymnastic yelps and grunts, and sometimes you catch a spooky turn of phrase that raises the question of whether this album’s flair for goths and vampires is purely aesthetic or proof of a harrowing depression. “I mix all of my problems with Prometh until I roll in my deathbed,” Carti croons in “ILoveUIHateU.”


Mickey Guyton, Remember Her Name

Earlier this year, mainstream country music’s biggest seller Morgan Wallen was caught on-camera using anti-Black slurs during Black History Month and cruised to double-platinum sales and awards nominations nevertheless, punctuating the many ways that necessary change feels overdue in that corner of the music industry. Black women shone brightly in the field in spite of this disconcerting state of affairs. Consider the career of Mickey Guyton, powerhouse Texas vocalist and a cable writer who spent half a decade being coaxed into writing safe, cookie-cutter tunes only to prove what she was capable of all along last year with “Black Like Me,” a heartbreaking tune about the many good-intentioned citizens the American Dream fails to reach. On her debut album, Remember Her Name, Guyton speaks powerfully to her journey in “Love My Hair,” “All American,” and “Different,” celebrating her skin, her features, and her history, qualities once thought to make a singer a tough sell in country music. Her conviction is moving. Her pride is infectious.


Amythyst Kiah, Wary + Strange

Tennessee singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah is quite literally a student of country music. She earned her B.A. in bluegrass, old time, and country music studies from East Tennessee State University and later joined Rhiannon Giddens’s country/folk supergroup Our Native Daughters, contributing to songs on the 2019 Smithsonian Folkways release Songs of Our Native Daughters. Kiah’s debut, Wary + Strange, is a product of studious refinement and a freewheeling trip down the pathways of American roots music, from queer love songs like the acoustic tearjerker “Wild Turkey” to the blues scorcher “Fancy Drones (Fracture Me).” The keynote is “Black Myself,” a rocker about fighting adversity: “I pick the banjo up and they sneer at me / ’Cause I’m Black myself / You better lock your doors when I walk by / ’Cause I’m Black myself.”


Amyl and the Sniffers, Comfort to Me

Melbourne punk quartet Amyl and the Sniffers have the coarse sense of humor you might expect from a band whose name delivers a joke about poppers. Singer Amy Taylor is a blast, a no-nonsense presence even in her love songs, as sophomore album Comfort to Me often bears out in hilarious detail. “I’m not looking for trouble, I’m looking for love,” she sings in “Security.” “Let me in your heart.” “Get on my level, or get out of my way,” she howls at the top of the misfit call to arms “Freaks to the Front.” Amyl and the Sniffers serve sinewy punk rock with an intriguing mix of interests. You’ll think of Courtney Barnett, with whom the band shares a hometown and a producer. You’ll catch a whiff of ’90s skate punk in “Choices,” a bit of the ’70s British strain in “Security,” and shades of the proto-grunge of Seattle’s Wipers throughout. Light on its feet but thrillingly heavy, sweet in spite of its veneer of crassness, Comfort to Me impresses.


The Muslims, Fuck These Fuckin Fascists

In a year plagued by mass death, avoidable disasters, and fracturing allegiances, North Carolina punks the Muslims refuse to mince words. “Your racist dad is a piece of shit and THIS IS NOT A SAFE SPACE,” their Bandcamp bio warns. The Muslims’ fourth album, Fuck These Fuckin Fascists, processes tragedy through biting humor and brutal honesty, commiserating with the plights of downtrodden Americans and calling architects of injustice to the floor. “Crotch Pop a Cop” is a peppy ACAB anthem. “Illegals” mocks the fearful exclusionism of bigots. “Froot of the Loom” offers encouragement to queer youth: “Baby gay, do not be ashamed / They wanna hold you down, wanna see you drown / Tell ’em kiss your ass / You chose to be you, they chose to be trash.” The Muslims’ messaging may be blunt, but the hooks entice.


Tierra Whack, Rap? / Pop? / R&B?

On 2018’s brilliant Whack World, Philly rapper and singer Tierra Whack worked exquisitely in miniature, packing worlds of intrigue into songs that cut out at the minute mark. She took her time on a traditional follow-up. Rolling out nine songs this month in three EPs took some of the pressure off. Rap?, Pop?, and R&B? pry Tierra’s varied talents apart. The first EP works on intriguing flows, peaking at the soul samples and start-stop rhymes of “Millions.” Things get weirder on Pop?, which zips from Dungeon Family funk-rap (“Body of Water”) to blues rock (“Lazy”) and gorgeous folk (“Dolly”). Then R&B? delivers the haymaker, a trio of painfully frank songs about love and loss where the playfulness of the other collections is reined in to make room for a conversation about depression. It feels like a transitional work, like Whack working out a plan to evolve after the critical acclaim for her skeletal, sometimes avant-garde debut. Some songs are better than others; Pop?’s “Lazy” introduces a great riff but slowly runs out of steam, and Rap?’s “Stand Up” is fun if plodding. But when Tierra Whack chooses to devastate — a feat R&B’s “Heaven” achieves using only ten words: “Heaven has all my favorite people / I wanna go there” — we’re powerless to resist.


Baby Keem, The Melodic Blue

Baby Keem was an inevitability, a rapper born in the year 2000 for whom the early 2010s’ moral schism dividing strip-club trap jams and philosophical-story songs doesn’t much matter, who’s conversant in both the hooky, horny work of Future and the prideful politics of Kendrick Lamar. It likely helps that the latter is Keem’s cousin and co-founder of pgLang, the brand-new entertainment company for whom Keem’s debut album, The Melodic Blue, is the inaugural release. Blue has heart and range: On “Pink Panties,” Keem is a G-funk crooner sailing out wild innuendos. “Gorgeous” nails Travis Scott’s tuneful detachment as capably as La Flame himself. On “Range Brothers,” he lures Kendrick out of his comfort zone with choppy Blueface flows. The dualities in Keem’s art are never more apparent than in the middle stretch of Blue, home to both the pain and prayer of “Scars” and the riotous “Cocoa”: “Little baby, can I be your man? / I might have to buy her OnlyFans.” The album is promising if imperfect. Great beats and a bounty of quotables suggest Keem’s one to watch.

All the Music I Didn’t Get to Write About in 2021 Until Now