Great Records You May Have Missed is a monthly music column highlighting a handful of new releases we really enjoy that you might not have heard about elsewhere. It’s curated and written by former Paste music editor Lizzie Manno, so please tell her if you found something in here that you love. Explore all editions of the column here.
We thought we’d seen it all in 2020, but 2021 was inconspicuously filing its nails, waiting to bring new horrors as soon as we arrived at a new calendar year. In 2021, we cringed at Grimes’ increasingly horrifying and dystopian quotes about cryptocurrency and economic systems, debated the politics of “the guitar pedal industrial complex” and watched as bands canceled or delayed tours, many of which had already been rescheduled at least once before. But if you found time to listen to new music in 2021, hopefully you were able to distract yourself from the increasing number of musical artists who joined the dreadful NFT craze, or politicians’ enraging decision to force people to “live with the pandemic” instead of actively trying to curb it.
That nonsense aside, there were a lot of genuinely interesting albums that came out last year, and this monthly Paste column is a small attempt to dig into them. After combing through some of my favorite releases previously featured in the column and additional ones that made my year, I compiled the following list of 20 albums. It excludes non-LP projects, as well as any albums that were featured in Paste’s other year-end roundups.
Hopefully, you’ll enjoy this eclectic mix of LPs as much as I do. You’ll find everything from hip-hop and hardcore to folk-rock and doom metal, and as always, I tried my best to highlight albums that may not have crossed your path before, but deserve your time and full attention. It includes 11 albums previously discussed in the column and nine new additions.
If my math is correct, this column featured 51 different music releases in 2021, and I feel pretty damn lucky to have had the space to write about them. If you enjoyed this year-end list, I hope you consider checking out the regular editions of this column, which highlight a half-dozen cool new releases each month.
Check out the column’s accompanying Spotify playlist here.
There are many riches to be mined from Anna B Savage’s music, but the first thing you’ll notice is her voice. The billowing alto on her debut album A Common Turn could easily be identified from a lineup of singers, so transfixing that it inherently raises the emotional stakes of her songs. From towering and nearly operatic to hushed and nurturing, her voice changes like the wind: frequently and seemingly randomly, but also with complex purpose and majesty. Her voice often crumples and vibrates with stunning imperfections, heightening the earthiness of her art, and her unusual sense of melody induces a sense of mystifying, all-knowing beauty. Ironically, her lyricism revels in how little she’s actually able to make sense of things and grapple with day-to-day pains, which only makes her songs cut that much deeper. These days, people use “lol” like it’s punctuation, but sometimes you forget how powerful it is to voice how unsure and small you feel without immediately cushioning the blow with a punchline. Savage manages to do just that, while still preserving a sense of charm and wisdom in her writing.
New Zealand singer/songwriter Anthonie Tonnon is fascinated by systems. There’s an infinite number of strings being pulled by powerful entities at any given moment, which means, in some respects, our fate is left to the whims of a few. Tonnon’s understanding of this reality is then filtered through clever balladry—an arena often preserved for tales of love and heartbreak. But in many ways, Tonnon’s songs are still about romance. After all, if you think of global capitalism as a strong ocean current, it makes perfect sense that our emotions would ripple in relative unison. Tonnon’s third and latest album Leave Love Out of This perfectly captures this dynamic, but instead of picking the low-hanging fruit of writing love songs about the end of the world, he uses character sketches and historical fiction to illustrate the melodrama of the present mundanity. Once again, Tonnon displays a grasp for the way history actually unfolds. More than likely, we won’t suddenly wake up to the apocalypse—it will be a slow drip towards this scene, so steady, in fact, that it renders the masses virtually unaware of its progress. Tonnon writes with charm about callous corporations, the way our society devours the sacred altruism of the young, and the shifting sands of optimism and pessimism within each generation. At times, these songs evoke a bucolic, quaint landscape, with Tonnon’s slight lilt and bumpy guitar clangs. Then come the stylish synths and drum machines and affecting strings, bolstering a sense of cosmopolitan chic. Tonnon’s meticulous compositions are aided by another pop savant, The Beths’ Jonathan Pearce, who helped produce and record the album.
A few years ago, I fell in love with Our Girl, a band fronted by The Big Moon’s Soph Nathan. Their debut album Stranger Today arrived in 2018, and to this day, I’m still struck by their compassionate songwriting and majestic guitar work. Shortly after getting into them, I learned that their bassist Josh Tyler also plays lead guitar in a band called Breathe Panel, which absolutely warranted a deep dive. The first song of theirs I heard was “On My Way,” taken from their 2018 self-titled debut, and its softhearted melodies were not only memorable, but also zigged when I thought they would zag, and they do so throughout the album. Breathe Panel make Sunday afternoon rock, which is often a type of music that allows listeners to predict the rest of the song as it’s unfolding, but this U.K. group peppers their songs with cerebral subtleties—you never know when a riff will tail off or do a few more pirouettes, or more broadly, which song sections will be lengthened or emphasized. Similarly with their second and latest LP Lets It In, their songs feel carefully constructed—their vocal inflections peak at all the right moments and their guitar interplay is clever, but never overbearing. They’re cognizant of sonic space and the range of emotional tones brought to life by their sounds, and despite their attention to detail, their music still has a looseness to it. Nick Green’s good-natured coos are a welcome through line in their songs, and they’re proof that gentle vocals can be quite versatile—he never completely opts for speak-singing, but his natural hums occasionally verge on that territory. Breathe Panel don’t feel the need to body-slam listeners with big choruses, either, but I still find their pretty refrains rattling around my brain, namely the calm opener “A Good Day” and the wistful “Spring.” Even more so than their debut, Lets It In is a solid work of intricacy and intimacy.
Rapper and poet laureate Rollie Pemberton (aka Cadence Weapon) received Canada’s coveted Polaris Music Prize for his newest LP Parallel World, which was also my favorite hip-hop album of 2021. Fittingly, the record features the award’s previous winner Backxwash, who lends a verse to “Ghost” and was recently profiled in Paste’s Best of What’s Next column. On Parallel World, Pemberton writes skillfully about the enraging manifestations of our hyper-capitalist age—widespread surveillance, political gridlock and the ever-evolving forms of racism—over contorted beats and wacky synths. It’s also a compelling portrait of what it’s like to be a Black creative living in a big city in today’s world—trying to remain confident in one’s work when external forces constantly seek to demoralize you and others with melanated skin, whether it’s getting smothered by a hostile police presence or being constantly subjected to dubious facial recognition technology. Sonically, the album is an immersive, sharp-witted concoction of rap, electro-pop, techno and house music, and perhaps unexpectedly, a well-executed smorgasbord of U.K. drill and grime—a nod to Pemberton’s long-held appreciation for the British incarnations of these subgenres—which also gets a boost from the London rapper Manga Saint Hilare, who appears on the album’s second track “On Me.”
Dedicated punk and hardcore listeners will recognize the source of the punishing yelps on Canal Irreal’s debut album. They belong to hardcore and queercore veteran Martin Sorrondeguy (also of Limp Wrist and Los Crudos), and they’re the type of proudly unkempt, harrowing screams that are hard to forget. On this Chicago band’s self-titled release, Sorrondeguy is backed by members of Sin Orden, and they rattle off gothic post-punk riffs and pummeling hardcore rhythms like it’s no one’s business. Sorrondeguy’s devilish snarls on “Glaze” could easily strike fear into the listener’s bones if they weren’t so playfully succulent, and likewise with his breakneck vocals on “Knockdown” if they weren’t so energizing. His voice—which fluctuates between English and Spanish—is the rambunctious motor of the album, but his bandmates lend far more than just fuel to keep him going—they create tantalizing, melodic firestorms of their own.
Texas duo Hovvdy have made a name for themselves with their delightfully off-center take on folk-tinged indie rock. But when Charlie Martin (one-half of Hovvdy) assembled his first solo album, Imaginary People, he discarded the band’s idiosyncratic touches in favor of more unassuming piano and acoustic guitar compositions. Martin’s songs contain whimsical, warm-hearted character sketches, which invoke rustic landscapes and lend the album a childhood storytime-like bliss. Martin builds these narratives with straightforward storytelling, but the emotions within are by no means simplistic or childish. He manages this feat without appearing overly earnest by marrying stirring imagery with irresistible tunefulness while appealing to our innate desires for home, love and friendship. “Madison” is perhaps the best encapsulation of this album’s powers, arousing thoughts and emotions relating to one’s own childhood neighborhood (“Such a pretty place we grew up in / Big red brick church on Abrams”), contemplating hard-to-swallow truths about adulthood (“Forget sometimes / Remember back to when / you did not need a reason / to come around”) and resting on easy-on-the-ear melodies that never lose their potency. Lastly, the album’s references to the cryptic “Mr. Heavy” character are an amusing nod to the larger Hovvdy universe.
Sault have only been around for a few years, and they have yet to make their live debut, but in a short window, their five albums of forward-thinking soul have captured hearts and minds from all over the world. Sault vocalist Cleo Sol also releases music under her own name via the same independent label that spread the U.K. group’s songs far and wide, Forever Living Originals, and her debut LP Rose in the Dark arrived in 2020. Her album largely flew under the radar, but listeners will be able to detect similar kinds of sophisticated flair and emotional honesty that also make Sault so electrifying. Sol recently became a mother, so it’s only fitting that her follow-up record is a celebration of the gravitas of motherhood. The LP is titled Mother, and according to Sault’s Inflo, who produced the album, Sol recorded most of the vocals with her baby in her arms. Mother is the most understated release from the Sault universe so far, opting for slow piano numbers and tidy instrumentals that allow Sol’s vocals and lyrics to do most of the heavy lifting, heightening the record’s intimacy. Sol writes about the enduring love between generations, and how faith and resilience have only strengthened these bonds. Her compassion is unwavering, though she doesn’t shy away from describing the more messy, conflicting emotions that threaten one’s patience and commitment. The sudden gospel rush midway into “Don’t Let Me Fall,” peppered with lines about fostering love, is a high point, as are the delicately pretty vocals on “23,” which hover over harp swells. And if you’ve already devoured the grace of both Cleo Sol records, you can also hear Sol on “Woman,” a track from Little Simz’ new album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert.
While Wand frontman Cory Hanson’s first solo LP was beaming with dramatic orchestral arrangements, his latest, Pale Horse Rider, channels drama via country-tinged acoustic ballads, bolstered by pedal steel guitar, piano and his characteristically bewitching vocals. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill twangy psych record—Hanson’s imagery is thought-provoking and haunting, and his songs take you on unexpected sonic detours, like the sci-fi synth outro of “Angeles,” the hopeful ambience of “Necklace” and the divine, painstaking guitar wails of “Another Story From The Center of The Earth.” Hanson retreated to the desert to record the album, and it’s imbued with movement, celestial wonder and the struggle to cope in a world that doesn’t love you back. Though you can feel the mind-numbing expanse of this record, it’s also full of deeply personal and contemplative thoughts, communicated in artful, surreal terms. “Sometimes it’s so hard not to feel like a corpse dragging a soul on two broken wheels / I have often felt the edges of my body trying to escape,” Hanson coos on the dusty, relaxed “Limited Hangout.”
Divide and Dissolve’s latest LP Gas Lit smolders in a way that most albums do not. The Australia-based duo’s droning doom metal is coated with so much dense smoke that you practically have to wipe the soot off your clothes after listening to it. But thankfully, you can still make out figures through the fog—those figures being chugging percussion, heavily distorted guitar lines and sinister saxophone wails. It’s a heady, atmospheric listening experience, but once you lock into their grooves you won’t want to escape its clutches. Couched between brutal sheets of noise is a poem written and performed by Minori Sanchiz-Fung on their track “Did You Have Something To Do With It,” which hammers home the band’s mission of decolonization and the dismantling of white supremacy. “This is our time / What is certain, is life / Growing out of itself greater than the moment before / Within us, around us, in spite of us,” Sanchiz-Fung reads in a striking manner, offering a gorgeous token of motivation in the midst of our bleak world. It’s a compelling passage (and not just because it’s the album’s sole non-instrumental track) that only lends more earth-shaking power to their primitive pounds and guitar squalls.
On her latest record and the final installment of her album trilogy, Dominique Fils-Aimé is simply glowing. Three Little Words serves as a reminder of the artistic richness of the African diaspora and the timeless power of African-American musical traditions, but it’s also just a wonderful collection of songs and performances. Fils-Aimé’s brand of neo-soul revolves around her graceful, layered vocals and artful touches of jazz, R&B, pop and doo-wop, leaving a unique sonic imprint on each track. Her voice is generous and masterful, spinning tales of interpersonal and generational resilience over horns and rich bass tones. There are even flashes of the girl group golden era with its handclaps and dulcet melodies, as well as primal African percussion and didgeridoo.
HUSHPUPPY is the solo project of Zoë Brecher, who’s previously drummed with Sad13, Bachelor (Palehound and Jay Som), Kalbells and Sammus, among others. Last April, she reissued her debut album, Singles Club, via Babe City Records, and although it’s just 17 minutes long and was recorded with a single microphone, it’s the perfect jolt of sun-soaked pop. Combining lo-fi rock and noise-pop with a dash of ’60s girl group flare, these short tracks capture the bliss of uncomplicated love, both romantic and platonic. Brecher’s songs radiate with the invincibility of youth and contain a deep appreciation for lesbian relationships, and they pack a decent helping of melancholia, too. Her positively sloppy, dewy-eyed vocals dazzle over scorched noise and plain guitar strums alike, evoking a never-ending summer day spent with friends. Her ear for melodies makes Singles Club feel as much like a cherished cult act’s greatest hits collection as it does a scruffy cassette tape.
Although it’s not the central feature of his music, Kiran Leonard has quite a range. The U.K.-based singer/songwriter has been releasing music since his early teens, playing dozens of instruments in the process and boasting a discography that spans art-folk, ambient, prog, jazz, psych-rock, pop and noise music. More than most artists’, his music rests on the nuances of vibrations and tones, and the relationships between chords—you get a sense that he views music as delicate chemical reactions, capable of triggering infinite shades of emotion. Stylistic versatility is not the main attraction, but rather a means to an intangible creative end. His most recent LP, 2018’s Western Culture, is an album I return to frequently. Despite being slightly more conventional by his own left-field standards, the record feels like a boundless sea of inspiration. His lyricism utilizes an old-world, literary lens to diagnose the political and societal failures of today, and his melodies fluctuate in spellbinding fashion. Admittedly, his latest project Trespass on Foot will require more of your attention than Western Culture, but it’s worth the mental and emotional investment. The album consists of two parts, with the first accounting for tracks 1-5, and the second for tracks 6-16. Leonard describes part one as “long droning meandering songs but songs nevertheless,” while part two is marked by a more reined-in, acoustic sound, and was made with friends who lent strings, clarinet and vocals. Both showcase his knack for ambient folk warmth and offbeat art-rock motifs, and his ability to mangle his own songcraft to satisfying effect. As previously mentioned in this column, “Sights Past” is one of the best and most affecting songs I heard in 2021. Throughout its 17-minute runtime, it traverses a wide array of vague, yet artfully described concepts—shame, vulnerability, identity, belonging and memory—but what’s most impressive is the way it breaks you down with precise, aching melancholia before surrendering to uncontrollably passionate angst, effectively sewing you back together.
The poems of Indigenous writer, scholar and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson are jarring, but that’s part of the appeal. They’re packed with familiar elemental language, but spliced in a way that both baffles and inspires. Seven of Simpson’s poems appear on her recent LP Theory of Ice, in which she compares the melting of ice to “skin departing bone,” likens social media followership to hunting and gathering (“gathering followers like berries / feeding fish to insecurity”) and bestows a lake with the ability to write its own resignation letter. She skillfully uses poetic devices to both honor the complex beauty and truths that exist within nature, and to condemn settler colonial violence in its many forms—capitalist greed, environmental desecration and the cynically constructed barriers to cultivating tangible community. Her poems sit alongside a stirring rendition of Willie Dunn’s anticolonialist protest song “I Pity the Country,” and they’re starkly and lovingly read aloud by Simpson over a backing band who lends folky, wispy instrumentals with a subtle art-pop mystique.
Just seconds into the new Mndsgn album, you can tell that the artist behind these songs grew up around a wide array of music. Ringgo Ancheta, the Los Angeles-based artist behind Mndsgn, cites “soundtrack music, samba, exotica and ‘70s/’80s library records” as inspirations for his new LP Rare Pleasure, and the vivid colors start pouring in right away. Not only that, but Ancheta is also a celebrated producer and beatmaker, having worked with the likes of Danny Brown, Quelle Chris and Tyler, The Creator, and that experience is glaringly evident, too. The album is marked by dazzling rhythms, which have an elegant, enlivening push and pull. Lounge-y records don’t always sound this bubbly, this alive, but Ancheta knows how to provide magnetism while preserving a slow soulfulness. Songs like “Slowdance’’ and “Hope You’re Doin’ Better” bloom with so many tuneful, carefully balanced ideas, like layers of satiny vocals, sophisticated piano or mellotron noodling. The textures are plentiful, but never overwhelming, so whether it’s a masterful funk bass line or the subtle reverberation of a ride cymbal, it only enhances Mndsgn’s lush garden of sounds. Bursting with the vibrance of a big city and coupled with a relaxed ease, it’s the perfect album to accompany an outdoor evening meal.
You may or may not have read some of the buzz around an enigmatic emo-shoegaze artist from Seoul who records under the name Parannoul. He released a tape in 2021 called To See the Next Part of the Dream via Michigan-based label Longinus Recordings, which sold out with impressive speed and also garnered critical acclaim. The record’s starry-eyed, densely packed soundscapes immediately struck a chord—songs bursting with that much rawness and life don’t come around too often. If you’re familiar with Longinus Recordings more broadly, you may also recognize artists like Asian Glow (who also plays in the shoegaze outfit FOG) or sonhos tomam conta. Those musicians, along with Parannoul, have proven themselves individually as skilled songwriters of genre-hopping atmospheres, so the fact that they teamed up for an album is an intriguing prospect. The result of this trio’s collaboration is the 10-track Downfall of the Neon Youth, wherein each song alternates writing credits and arguably bests the immense promise of To See the Next Part of the Dream. Spanning three languages and countless rock, emo and metal reference points, they let ambitious songwriting, detailed production and unbridled emotion carry them, and unsurprisingly, it gets them pretty far. It’s immersive, dynamic and cinematic, and if this is where fifth wave emo is headed, maybe I’ll have to dial back the comments about my general distaste for emo.
Skydeck’s groovy, pop-oriented music falls somewhere between electro-pop and post-punk, mining the sounds of ’80s new wave while speaking to the grave anxieties of the present. Armed with a keen understanding of our demoralizing economic reality and relatable fears about the future, their songs are as sharp-tongued as they are stylishly magnetic. The Australian duo’s second album Coupon opens with “Dogshot,” which showcases this mix of inspired wit and earworm-y goodness. The bass-driven pop tune centers on the gig economy and the way capitalism tends to mutate in terrifying new ways (“Nothing’s changed, you just call it by a different name now”), and I can’t say there’s another 2021 song I’ve hummed more fervently than this one. Their FM synths and programmed drums bring a sterile, retro sheen to everything they do, while their guitars add dynamic distortion and a much-need rawness. Their songs are versatile, in large part due to the contrasting styles of their vocalists—Dom Kearton opts for melodic pop, while Mitch Clemens speaks in a self-assured low tone. Clemens brings a pensive dread to songs like “No Change” and “Salt,” while Kearton gives their songs a kick of bittersweet joy. The forlorn nature of Coupon often fills out the foreground, which makes for a cathartic sulk, but don’t underestimate Skydeck’s euphoric abilities. The candescent guitar warbles on “Uptight” are sublime, and the enlivening melodies of “Anthony” end the album on a heartwarming high. Coupon finds the band, like many people, at the crossroads of “a better world is possible’’ and “we’re beyond fucked,” and while this album won’t push you one way or the other, maybe it’s enough to know we’re not alone—but if it’s not, then holy hell, Skydeck are just plain good at pop music.
Heaven’s Just a Cloud, the new Spirit Was album and solo project from LVL UP’s Nick Corbo, feels like a dream that’s undeniably sinister but oddly warm nonetheless. It’s peppered with doomy folk, ambient clamor and even a brief flash of black metal, but it has a tender charm thanks to Corbo’s slow-crawling vocals and cavernous guitar tones. The album’s melodic rock is surprisingly intimate despite its somber, mythical lyricism and wide array of textures. Corbo’s lyrics suggest an inner turmoil and possess a poetic escapism—throughout his search for rejuvenation and deeper abstract truths, there are frequent references to oblivion, otherworldly beings and the elements. Just like the album as a whole, each of these types of imagery are capable of sparking both fear and wonder—images like shadows, spirits and gardens are as old as time and contain infinite meanings. Boasting both absorbing sonic tones and transportive catharsis, it’s a particularly great album to listen to on headphones from the comfort of one’s own space. If you like twisty or darkly beautiful songcraft, I can’t imagine not falling under this LP’s spell.
Plenty of bands are happy to construct an album by simply glueing together songs that could easily exist on their own. To be clear, that’s a perfectly fine way to go about it, but it doesn’t necessarily take advantage of the opportunities presented by the format. New York City duo Test Subjects run absolutely wild with those opportunities on their debut album Study. It utilizes spoken-word passages, unconventional sound effects and satisfyingly cohesive lyrical themes, dropping listeners into the band’s own mad scientist-like cinematic universe. To give you a sense of its playful silver screen quality, Study opens with an ominous voice guiding someone dubbed “test subject 16” down a hallway, and they accidentally open a door that triggers a preview of the last song on the album, resulting in a swift door slam and a reply of “Oops! Wrong door!” I hesitate to use the term “rock opera,” because I know it has both lame and showtune-y connotations, but listening to this album really does feel like you’re watching a wonky, heartfelt two-person stage show or a not at all obnoxious coming-of-age musical film. The album is peppered with bubbles, pencil scribbles, school bells and moans, placing you in a funhouse of suburban teenage longing and school drama. To accompany those sounds and themes, they cook up a synth-pop storm that encompasses funk, prog, new wave and ’00s pop/rock, folding in the party-ready fun of Confidence Man, the nostalgic radio pop of Michelle Branch and the why-the-fuck-not weirdness of Sparks. But underneath all the amusing bleep bloops and interludes also lies a tender heart, just trying to make it to the next school bell and feel seen and loved.
Named after a song from Can’s 1969 debut Monster Movie, Montreal band Yoo Doo Right are truly something special. Their debut album Don’t Think You Can Escape Your Purpose melds post-rock’s twisty mystique with krautrock’s contagious pummeling and space rock’s hypnotic drone. Sometimes vigorous and verging on total collapse and sometimes delicate and measured, it’s a gift that never stops giving. They really nail this push and pull on the seven-minute scorcher “1N914,” a brawny yet intricate track that folds in shoegaze and psych. “Join, Be Curst” even taps into dusty death rock, while mighty closer “Black Moth” adopts doom metal throbs. While many post-rock or psych artists are content with merely trotting out these genres’ respective tropes, Yoo Doo Right are hellbent on breaking new ground. With their ever-evolving, smoldering guitars and synth tidal waves, you never know what’s coming down the pike with this album—apart from impressive musicianship and dynamic songwriting—but rarely does a note or mood feel out of place.
Noah Kardos-Fein is no stranger to the world of industrial music. He’s been making discordant songs as YVETTE for almost a decade, but after several years without releasing anything, the subversive New York-based artist is back. His debut album Process came out in 2013, followed by the 2015 EP Time Management, with the former characterized by violent percussion and prickly no wave turbulence, and the latter by guttural electronics and a more reined-in sound. Though it came out six years ago, “Sell It Off,” the final track from that aforementioned EP, was a decent indicator of the sounds to come: moody, cacophonous instrumentals with a surprising dash of punchy, melodic pop. How The Garden Grows, YVETTE’s second and latest full-length, picks up where that song left off, sprinkling entrancing hooks across their weighty industrial rhythms. It manages to preserve their precise, jarring force and evocative, perturbed moods, all while planting nuggets of life-affirming pop that will keep you coming back for more. “Pretty” isn’t necessarily a word you would use to describe their previous material, but it could easily be applied to “For a Moment” and its gorgeous vocal melodies. And there’s plenty of beauty to be found in their harsher sounds, too—tracks like “B61” and “Contact High” feature sonic melodrama and affecting performances. If you’re wondering whether metallic, avant-garde clamor could ever coexist with pop’s soaring heights, and still convey cogent themes and accessible emotions, this album should quash that doubt.
Lizzie Manno is a music writer, Coldplay apologist, bread lover and Spongebob memer. She’s a former Paste editor, with bylines at Stereogum, Billboard, Flood Magazine, The Recording Academy and Cleveland Scene. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno