From the Intercom: The 20 Best Albums of 2021
In many ways, 2021 felt like quite a tame year compared to the one that preceded it. The shock and the cultural anxieties of life during a pandemic became commonplace. There wasn’t another world changing virus permeating the world (though different variants are still making their rounds). Hope felt imminent. Things were looking up.
But for the writers and I here at From the Intercom, the ongoing global situation meant that a lot of our musical discoveries would still have to be done through the digital realm. With few live shows to go to and fewer showcases, a lot of us turned to algorithmic Spotify playlists, Twitter buzz and YouTube recommendations for our daily fix of new music. Surprisingly, this has led to quite a few unexpected appearances from all across the globe in our yearly rankings… as well as some all-too-familiar faces.
Curious to know what we found? Well, read on! – Li-Wei Chu
Special thanks to Karolyn Jaranilla, Justin Ricafort, and Jacob Ugalde for contributing. Thanks to Derrek Chow for the banner design.
88Rising/Various Artists – Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings: The Album
This year we witnessed Marvel’s answer to an Asian American superhero via the premiere of Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings which was embraced, to the relief of many. Moreover, Shang-Chi received an accompanying album overseen by none other than the musical collective 88rising.
From label favorites NIKI and Rich Brian to Grammy nominated hitmakers Anderson .Paak and Saweetie, the Shang-Chi album finds room for practically every artist to shine. Compiling an eclectic range from ballads to grooves to no-nonsense rap on the borderline of hardcore, there is something here for anyone — even if the entire album doesn’t thematically unite them. It’s clear that 88rising left the door open for artists (even Simu Liu) to collaborate on something monumental, and everyone gave it their all. Highlights include Masiwei and Warren Hue’s bulldozing verses on “Lazy Susan,” AUDREY NUNA’s dizzying flow on “Clocked Out!,” and keshi crooning on a bouncy bass with “War With Heaven,” all of which preview the exciting futures of so many young artists.
This record’s existence is something timely and triumphant. I predict this album will age incredibly well as a marker for how deep Asian America has immersed itself into mainstream pop. Plus, where else are we going to get keshi, Swae Lee, and DJ Snake in one place? –Justin Ricafort
Lightning Bug – A Color of the Sky
You may have picked up a running theme amongst many projects in 2021 of “accepting the unknown.” That’s what I get from it, at least. A Color of the Sky is another standout iteration of this theme, but here you feel the process of transformation through Audrey Kang’s deft vocal delivery, lyrics, and every poignant instrumental arrangement.
One distinct moment (arguably the best moment of the album) comes from its title track, where a dazzling swell of strings capture how vast, expansive, and magnificent the state of mystery can be. It may seem that accepting mystery arrives at a resolution, but after experiencing A Color of the Sky, you’ll find that acceptance is a starting point to move forward into uncertainty – with more trust in yourself and the process. –Karolyn Jaranilla
Parannoul – To See the Next Part of the Dream
If one can make an argument for DIY breakout artist of the year, I would make a strong case for Parannoul.
The Seoul-based anonymous artist had arguably the fastest ascent to stardom in recent memory, with To See the Next Part of the Dream instantly selling out at least three runs of cassettes, garnering the attention of top outlets like Pitchfork, Stereogum, and KEXP, and landing spots in many critics’ best albums list (including ours) – all for good reason. It’s rare to find a work so candid about escapism, delusion, and lethargy while being compelling at the same time. Perhaps Parannoul’s unconstrained honesty is something we’ve all thought of but never had the guts to put into words. It could also be the rough-around-the-edges production that accentuates their message.
Whatever it is, it’s captured the DIY community by storm and it’s safe to say they’ll be remembered and talked about for years to come. –Karolyn Jaranilla
Audrey Nuna – a liquid breakfast
There’s a few things that one can come to expect from an Audrey Nuna song: 1) tangled, playful wordplay, 2) hip hop hype, and 3) endless styleeeeee.
In the few years since she’s been active, Audrey Nuna has been on a non-stop bum rush to the top, churning out hits that bring the heat. But on her debut album a liquid breakfast, she brings the introspective calm (“Space,” “Long Year”) along with the storm (“damn Right,” “Comic Sans,” “Cool Kids”).
Featuring Audrey Nuna’s signature slinky verses that occasionally finds her spitting alongside fellow hip-hop come-ups Saba and Jack Harlow, a liquid breakfast is a star vehicle for the singer/rapper – churning out addictive hits that invite subtle head-bobbing (“Baby Blues,” “Blossom”) and hard bangers. Whether you’re a fan of Audrey Nuna’s slower jams or feel like bouncing along to some ripper tracks, a liquid breakfast has got it all. –Li-Wei Chu
Jelani Aryeh – I’ve Got Some Living To Do
Throughout the diaristic entries on San Diego native Jelani Aryeh’s debut album I’ve Got Some Living To Do, there’s a sense that the musician is still just trying to find his place in the world – just like his album name suggests. But don’t mistake young naivete for lack of skill.
Though its author is only 20, the worldly songs on I’ve Got Some Living To Do buzz with a carefree vibe, capturing the highs and lows of moving through life. And at other times, Aryeh’s effortlessly cool demeanor makes the musician seem invincible, generating catchy pop hooks that can turn even an “ode about brunettes (“Stella Brown”),” and a song about troubling societal issues (“From These Heights”), into melodies that are perfect for driving down the California highway with all the windows down. With its unique blend of R&B, sunshine indie rock, and bedroom pop, I’ve Got Some Living To Do is a marigold triumph. –Li-Wei Chu
Arushi Jain – Under the Lilac Sky
Something special happens at the time between sunset and dusk. The sky changes color, the air gets colder, and the world seems to slow down before the night covers us all. On her debut LP Under the Lilac Sky, Arushi Jain captures that magical transitional point in time with her own performance of liminal art. A trained vocalist, coder, and expert of Hindustani classical music, Jain conducts an orchestra of modular synths – bringing to life a chorus of drones and beeps that soon become as all enveloping as that eventual darkness.
Woven into the fabric of the composition is also Jain’s own voice, serving as an additional guide that grants the album a melodic touch. Under the Lilac Sky is one of those rare albums that sits at the cross-section of culture, technology, and melody. With its highly improvisational feel and expansive compositions, it’s an album that lends itself to a rare form of sonic storytelling that glistens. -Li-Wei Chu
Subsonic Eye – Nature of Things
In Subsonic Eye’s third album, Nature of Things, the Singaporean five-piece group straddles the lines of jangle pop, midwest emo, and dream pop.
This balancing act is a decidedly different direction from their more solid dream pop footing, but it’s a risk that has paid off handsomely. Subsonic Eye finds a way to recline their melodies, bend already angular chordings, and tighten the whimsical in a way that rejuvenates the aforementioned genres on all fronts, making for one of the most refreshing listens of 2021. –Karolyn Jaranilla
Yeek – Valencia
We got a pulse: Yeek is on the move.
It feels like it’s been an eternity since 2017’s “Sebastian.” Remember the first time you heard “Only in the West?” Oh god. Yeek’s been dormant, but dreaming– and the ethereality of that fact has embedded itself like a delicious warm shower fog into his latest release Valencia. Yeek withdraws from his signature guitar riffs and leans hard into R&B, transforming his crispy staccato sound into what are undeniably his spaciest, danciest, and moodiest cuts yet.
“Lumbago” starts off with a buzzy electric organ, then perfectly introduces us to the album’s strongest and freshest throughline: the vocals. Yeek is unafraid to sing, swell, and growl throughout every track, putting us way closer to his emotion like we’ve never been. Tracks like “3000 Miles” and “Dirty Pillow” feature Yeek at such a gravelly texture that you’ll have to loop it just to be sure you heard it right. On the other end, Yeek’s melodies and production on “Back N Forth” and “M.H.” will summon you to the dance floor.
With lines like, “She hit me with mahal kita,” we are god damn blushing. Yeek is in love with this new identity and we’re lucky to be along for the ride. – Justin Ricafort
Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic
The entirety of Silk Sonic’s debut album feels like a hidden treasure lost in the back of a record shop for 40 years, or a dusty old gem recovered from a vintage Motown studio. It’s almost too good to be true; after all, how often do two of the biggest names in contemporary funk and R&B collaborate to make a true-to-the-tune 60’s/70’s themed disco album? And not only that, who knew they would stick the landing?
But when you look at the super-duo’s influences—from Bruno Mars’ 80s themed 24K Magic to Anderson .Paak collaborating with the likes of Smokey Robinson—it was only a matter of time before this would happen. The album and its aesthetics stay true to their influences while blending them into a more modern style. “Skate,” “Leave The Door Open,” and “Smokin Out The Window” are obvious highlights, mixing old school golden beats with the smooth confidence and harmonies of Mars and .Paak. Moreover, the album feels like it was made to be spun on vinyl, with the opening and closing tracks making perfect tunes to get a party started, and to keep it going long after the album ends.
Of course, this album isn’t meant to please every demographic, but for the demographic it is for—namely fans of old and new classic Motown and R&B—An Evening With Silk Sonic hits just the right spot, giving you a chance to feel like the good old days never really left. And who knows, it may just spark a true revival of the disco genre. –Jacob Ugalde
Enji – Ursgal
Ursgal, the sophomore album from Mongolian singer Enji, feels like being suspended in a still moment in time: where thoughtfully arranged guitar, double bass, sax, trombone, Enji’s clear cut vocals and your ears are the only things occupying such a sacred space.
This masterfully paced and outstanding blend of jazz and traditional Mongolian folk music make for one of the most arresting works this year. Songs like “Gangii Mod,” “Sevkhet Bor,” and “Ursgal,” where Enji’s vocals soar to lofty heights, create for singular moments where one can’t help but stop everything and experience the best of what Enji, and jazz music as a whole genre, have to offer. –Karolyn Jaranilla
Mini Trees – Always in Motion
After ‘Slip Away’ topped our list of Best EPs last year, Mini Trees (aka Lexi Vega) returned to release her debut LP Always in Motion.
Originally intended to be another EP, 2020 allowed Vega more time to find her artistic voice and challenge life’s big questions (as most of us probably did too). One would imagine pondering the end times would conjure up darker sounds, but Vega has a special knack for making songs like “Doomsdays” danceable. Always in Motion also dips into deeper, more abstract themes that are expanded with a nuance that is deeply contemplative. It’s an earnest tug and pull of having questions and finding answers.
In the end, not having all the answers can be okay, and that’s something Vega captures with a lot of care and thought. –Karolyn Jaranilla
Dijon – Absolutely
When I first heard “Big Mike’s” in that soon-to-be-classic-and-often-revisited Youtube video, I felt like I was stuck to the ceiling. There’s so much fullness, so much practice, so much joy. How can they look so happy indoors after countless months? What is the secret, Dijon?! Life isn’t fair!
Dijon made good on his word and released his soaring debut album Absolutely in November to some absolutely eager ears and loving reception. To the uninitiated, Dijon’s unique brand of Americana infused neo-soul has been on every cool person’s playlist for the past couple years. His array of interests and talents are on full display on Absolutely, which feels like listening to an album being made during an extended jam session at a party, complete with people talking and singing over each other. “Many Times” will undoubtedly be the song forever associated with Dijon defined by a rampant, slick sound that feels completely new. At the same time, this album wouldn’t be out of place wearing a cowboy hat on a rocking chair. Songs like “Rodeo Clown” and “Annie ” could be heartaching porch sermons strummed with longing. Other highlights include “The Dress,” a babymaker slow jam straight out of the early 90s and “Talk Down’s” addictive boogie-down drum loops.
You’re not too late to hop on the Dijon hype train! He is doing something really, really cool right now and you need to show your favorite cousins now. – Justin Ricafort
Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR
Every generation has its transcendent Disney star, and Gen Z’s is Olivia Rodrigo. With the debut of SOUR this year, Olivia hit the nerve between Taylor Swift and Paramore that none of us knew we needed.
If you’ve only heard “driver’s license,” you’re missing out on some instant classics including the climactic “deja vu” and tender guilt-stricken heartbreak on “favorite crime.” Olivia’s palette is explorative and exciting to bear witness to. Lifting the sentiments of suburban malaise, HAGS on your senior yearbook, and texts from your hometown friends, she has embodied romantic wanderlust effortlessly. Listen to this album on your drives and be taken back.
Olivia, as a fellow Filipino American from the 951, I’m very happy you exist. -Justin Ricafort
Joy Crookes – Skin
If you haven’t yet heard of the arresting power of Joy Crookes’ voice, you’re in for a treat. Spin any song from the young UK singer’s debut album, and you’ll quickly fall head over heels over Crookes’ melodic, wise and worldly vocals. On the young songstress’ debut album Skin, Crookes puts that seasoned voice to good use, establishing her as one of soul’s next great singers. From swooning ballads, upbeat sing-alongs, and the aching intensity of songs like “Power” and “Skin,” Crookes wields her words like a sharp sword – creating cutting, intense visual scenes and commentary from her own life.
Exploring the emotional gamut of love and grief, while also touching upon political and familial issues, the songs on Skin are a powerful testament to not only Crookes’ songwriting skills but also her tendency to make even the most personal stories resonate with all who are lucky enough to hear them. –Li-Wei Chu
Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince
When I first heard “Mohabbat” back in March, it was (still is) the most stunning lead single I heard this year.
Aftab’s adept skill in blending Pakistani classical music and folk offered a glimpse into the world of Vulture Prince, but nothing else could have prepared me for what the rest of the album would bring. Darian Donovan Thomas’ exquisite violin solo during the second half of “Baghon Main;” “Diya Hai’s” deeply personal backstory, Maeve Gilchrist’s fastidious harp in “Inayaat;” the noir dub reimagining of Jalaluddin Rumi’s Hidden Music poems in “Last Night;” “Mohabbat’s” palpable sense of longing; the affective subtlety of “Saans Lo;” and the effortless cohesion of the instrumental arrangements in “Suroor” are just a lightning round of highlights in an album densely packed with truly remarkable moments.
“Vulture Prince is about revisiting places I’ve called mine. Places that don’t necessarily exist anymore.” Aftab once said. By making this album, Arooj Aftab has actually created a reflective space to mourn, breathe, and accept. –Karolyn Jaranilla
boylife – gelato
For a few years now, Ryan Yoo has hopped from side-project to side-project as a vocalist, testing the limits of his musicianship. There’s the deceptively uplifting sounds of mmmonika, with which Yoo joyfully rattles away deceptively bleak lyrics over a fanfare of upbeat indie pop jams – punctuated with ironic exclamation points. There’s the gushy Common Souls project, in which Yoo croons over lush, smooth beats made by multi-instrumentalist Nick Velez. But on Yoo’s debut album under his solo moniker boylife, the Los Angeles singer dives into these familiar realms as well as bravely ventures into uncomfortably personal territory.
On gelato, Yoo turns inward – moreso than on any other project he’s been a part of. Everything’s on full display here. gelato is an album that is informed and shaped by Yoo’s identity as well as his bipolar diagnosis, reaching shrieking chaotic highs as well as rock-bottom depressive lows. You’d be forgiven for losing yourself in the clamor of gelato – Yoo’s mix of R&B, alternative hip hop and glitchy experimentalism has something that can appeal to everyone, even if it’s hard to take in all in one sitting.
At times challenging and uncomfortable, gelato is a twisted and honest self-reflection that gorgeously strips its creator down to his very core, flaws and all. –Li-Wei Chu
Ayano Kaneko – よすが (Yosuga)
Even if you don’t understand a word of Japanese, the music of Japanese singer-songwriter Ayano Kaneko is able to transcend language.
Emotions roll deep on the musician’s latest, bringing a rockist edge to the musician’s folk and pop-inspired roots. Though jovial and upbeat at times, the songs on Yosuga are colored with a melancholic energy. Like many other artists, 2021 signaled a sea change for the musician, putting her life on pause. An album birthed from anxiety and depression, Yosuga is effused with those uncomfortable feelings that can only banished with Kaneko’s cathartic high notes (“抱擁”) and straight up rock-out moments (“爛漫”). But even with that dark cloud festering behind her, there’s a sense that things will eventually work itself out in the end, like it always eventually does.
Even in isolating times (fans of Kaneko’s definitely need to check out the acoustic accompaniment, Yosuga hitorideni), Yosuga acts as a salve that quells our fears, even if just for a moment. With little more than that raw and powerful, yet reassuring voice, she’s able to grip her listeners with a wholehearted earnestness.
In a year of sadness, Yosuga tells us what we need to hear. –Li-Wei Chu
Really From – Really From
Really From’s self-titled album answers the question “Where are you really from?” by reflecting on experiences surrounding racism, inter-generational trauma, and complicated parental relationships.
By incorporating elements of jazz, electronica, and emo on an established bed of math rock, Really From are able to portray all the feelings associated with confronting such topics with acute candor. Everyone has a voice here, from Chris Lee-Rodriguez and Michi Tassey’s tandem vocals for almost half of the featured tracks, Matt Hull showcasing his trumpet in all its glory on “Last Kneeplay,” to Bryce Sanders dynamic drums adding a lively pulse to almost every song.
One can’t help but feel empowered hearing a band masterfully and unapologetically convey feelings that are often conventionally suppressed. –Karolyn Jaranilla
Jaubi – Nafs at Peace
The Qur’anic concept of the nafs (“soul” in Arabic), identifies three states of the soul. There is one that easily gives in to temptation, one that represents an internal battle renouncing sin, and finally a soul that has defeated sin and reached true peace.
In Nafs at Peace, Pakistani instrumental quartet Jaubi channel personal struggles to these concepts to reach the album’s namesake. The central thesis to Nafs At Peace, “Straight Path,” best represents the group at the cusp of enlightenment, which is masterfully expressed through nimble tablas, flurried flutes, and swift Sarangi. It bears similarities to standalone single “Satanic Nafs,” the first of the Nafs Sonic Series. Both showcase inner struggle involving the aforementioned instruments, but whereas “Satanic Nafs” darker undertones portray a soul deeply entrenched in transgressions, “Straight Path’s” triumphant end signals transcendence.
Nafs at Peace has wonderful pacing, providing a clearcut exposition and rising action (“Seek Refuge,” “Insia,” and “Raga Gujri Todi”), clear cut climaxes (“Straight Path,” “Nafs at Peace”), and lively falling actions (“Mosty,” “Zari”) — just as if you were listening to a story.
In short, the concept is clear, there’s never a dull moment, and it’s certain to be a modern classic. –Karolyn Jaranilla
Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
2021 was the year of Japanese Breakfast.
Between releasing her bestselling memoir Crying at Hmart, soundtracking an entire video game, and headlining a national tour, Japanese Breakfast’s (the moniker of multi-hyphenate artist/musician/writer Michelle Zauner) ascent this past year was nothing short of spectacular. However, Jubilee, the third studio album by the artist, is by far her crowning achievement – even in a year so full of wins.
From the crashing gong of “Paprika” to the dark wave musings of “Posing in Bondage” and the mushroom-fueled psychedelic guitars of “Posing for Cars,” Jubilee is an overwhelmingly confident record that doesn’t just revel in the sounds of joy – it wholly encapsulates it. There’s a boundless energy here that glides along and brings you along for the ride, hitting peak after peak without ever sounding tired or worn.
If there’s only one album that you have time to listen to this year, this is it. -Li-Wei Chu