ACRN’s Best Albums of 2021

20. Parannoul – To See the Next Part of the Dream, [Self Released; 2021]

By Ethan Bloomfield, Staff Writer

Korean mystery artist Parannoul released a hidden gem for 2021: To See the Next Part of the Dream, a shoegaze album that expresses a level of skill not heard in the genre in many years. As this is his debut, this makes it all the more impressive that every song has interesting and varied texture, the vocals are emotive and expressive, and the record is as cohesive and moving as it is. The intro track, “Beautiful World” hooks the listener in with its masterful sound effect sampling and decedantly layered guitar fuzz, and it only gets better from there. “White Ceiling” is an emotionally gripping whirlwind of a track, showcasing the frustration and boredom of being trapped in one place, and “Youth Rebellion” is a fun and breezy experience like its title suggests — from start to finish, To See the Next Part of the Dream is well-made and more than competent for a self-produced and independent artist. Tried and true shoegaze has gone a long time without a landmark release, and Parannoul’s debut feels like that: a significant record that any fan of the genre will look back on as something truly special. This album rocks, and if you missed it this year (and there’s a good chance you have), give it a chance. 

ListenParannoul – To See the Next Part of the Dream

19. Sugar Wounds – Calico Dreams, [Self Released; 2021]

By Lane Moore, Reviews Editor

Sugar Wound’s Calico Dreams is a rare album. At its most quiet, I feel as though I’m hearing the menu music that would play if I could put my consciousness on pause. At its loudest, I still feel an impossible serenity, like I’m aware of my own chaotic dream as it plays out. The whole project has the context of a blissful and pure sleep, which seems pretty unfeasible considering that Calico Dreams is a bonafide cybergrind album. Thanks to the wholesome imagery that imbues the album, the idea of a cat enjoying a peaceful sleep, the ambient and shoegaze sensibilities that litter the project make perfect sense and serve as a saccharine point of accessibility for grindcore music.

Programmed grindcore drums have never sounded this good, except for maybe on that one eatmewhileimhot! release, and the fact that Sugar Wounds is just one guy makes the cohesiveness of concept and performance on Calico Dreams that much harder to believe. From cloudless ambiance to splendid cacophony, songs like “Every Color” and “Goodnight, Midnight” carry an incredible dichotomy of abrasiveness and tranquility. Each song is its own sweet dream, verging on sour from time to time.

ListenSugar Wounds – Calico Dreams

18. Dean Blunt – Black Metal 2, [Rough Trade; 2021]

By Ethan Hoffer, Staff Writer

British singer-songwriter Dean Blunt is no stranger to experimenting with his sound, especially in a more somber and obscure tone. BLACK METAL 2 continues this streak serving as an unexpected sequel to the BLACK METAL project he released back in 2014 and as expected, it is just as good as the first. Dean Blunt puts his most cynical lyrics on display straight away on the opening verse on “VIGIL”: “She will never see her son again / I can / Cause no one’s gonna save me” and continues to use these dark themes throughout the project. Combining vocals with the heard-hearted guitar strums, Dean Blunt fills the atmosphere with a mixture of comforting and unsettling feelings, with these feelings of comfort coming almost entirely from Joanne Robertson, a familiar feature on BLACK METAL 2 and many of Dean Blunt’s other projects. Dean Blunt gives a reflection of his quite genuine emotions and experiences, wrapped up in a sorrowful, yet beautiful way that serves perfectly as a soundtrack to a long trip returning home.

ListenDean Blunt – Black Metal 2

17. POLO PERKS <3<3<3 – i.c.f.m Pt.3 / fortheonesilost, [Self Released; 2021]

By Lane Moore, Reviews Editor

When I heard the I Set My Friends on Fire sample on Punk Goes Drill, I was baffled and impressed. Pure fucking genius, but I wasn’t sure if it was a one-off deal. Then I heard Q Lazzarus’ “Horses” sampled on i.c.f.m Pt. 3 / fortheonesilost, and I realized that I am fortunate to be alive during a renaissance like none other––Perks is simply on a whole other level. Rivaled only by RXK Nephew in terms of sheer output, 2021 saw three Polo Perks LPs, each defined by a stunning display of stylistic consistency and sample curation. 

Perks’ aptitude for choosing beats is just as important as his vocals, as each defines his serenely claustrophobic style. Nearly every instrumental on i.c.f.m Pt. 3 / fortheonesilost features kick and bass that clip into oblivion, and Perks pairs this suffocatingly huge low-end with his loose and murmured vocals, layering them to create a sonically-congested and heartfelt vibe. Ethereal synth leads that could easily shimmer across a Eurodance track are all over i.c.f.m Pt. 3, adding a sense of glimmering hope to songs that are otherwise melancholy and without melody––a beautiful juxtaposition. Perks also raps over beats that already have vocals (“Horses”, “Paparazzi”), a style that indulges the shoegaze sensibility that musicality doesn’t necessarily equate to discernibility, that vocals themselves can just be a noise in the background.

ListenPOLO PERKS <3<3<3 – i.c.f.m Pt.3 / fortheonesilost

16. Isaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning, [Top Dawg Entertainment; 2021]

By Kwase Lane, Features Editor

This may be the thirst for a new Isaiah Rashad project talking, but The House is Burning is the perfect follow-up to his magnificent album, The Sun’s Tirade. Rashad’s been away for a half-decade since his last release and his story has been one of growth, not only musically but in his personal life as well. Zay’s been on an odyssey. One that saw him in rehab, leaving California for what he thought was forever for his home state of Tennessee, and eventually returning to give us this masterpiece. 
The House is Burning is packed with the same Isaiah Rashad flair you’ve come to love. Staggering revelations are couched in unassuming instrumentation and delivered by Rashad’s comforting vocal timbre. For instance, in ”Headshots (4r Da Locals)” Zay will have you grooving to a track about gun violence before transitioning into “All Herb” a psychedelic song about how people smoke to escape life’s woes. As if this wasn’t enough, Rashad’s gone one step further, lacing more R&B elements into this lp than any of his previous projects. Zay sharing tracks with seasoned crooners like Smino and SZA lets these soulful aspects pop and demonstrates just how versatile Isaiah’s laid-back cadence can be. Zay’s been to hell and back these last 5 years but it seems he’s come away from it no worse for wear. All that being said, every journey should have a prize like the House is Burning waiting at its end.

ListenIsaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning

15. Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic, [Aftermath Entertainment; Atlantic Recording Corporation; 2021]

By Ethan Bloomfield, Staff Writer

Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s debut as Silk Sonic,An Evening With Silk Sonic, burst onto the scene relatively recently in a flurry of confidence and sexual energy that would make Marvin Gaye blush. The duo’s motown, disco, and funk inspired homage to the ‘70s rocketed up the charts in November, and for good reason: the silky smooth vocals (pun intended), the lush and feel-good instrumentals, and originality in a space largely untapped for many years, especially not in full length LP form, makes for an album worth talking about. Tracks like the unstoppable “Smokin Out the Window”, “Fly As Me” or the effortlessly sexy “After Last Night” featuring the impeccable bass work of Thundercat and Funkadelic legend Bootsy Collins show an attention to detail and flair for style that makes this album stick out against every other pop record this year. 

ListenSilk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic

14. Burial – Chemz / Dolphinz, [Hyperdub; 2021]

By Lane Moore, Reviews Editor

UK garage is cool and catchy, but the songs are so brief! Wouldn’t it be something if Burial made a 12-minute-long garage track? Well, we can all rejoice because Burial did just that with the Chemz/Dolphinz EP––he even provided a 9-minute ambient track, presumably to allow us all some time to process the longest garage track ever conceived.

Beside its length, “Chemz” is a standard garage track that features angelic vocal samples, lush synth stabs, and snappy snares and tambourines. It’s a stellar track, and that first line when the beat kicks in––”Just can’t explain what I feel when I’m around you baby”––is seriously enthralling. “Dolphinz” feels like an unconventional accoutrement to “Chemz”, as the track is almost entirely ambient pads and textures with some occasional AI vocaloids. Altogether, the EP is a refreshing spin on UK garage, and “Chemz” is certainly dance music fit to shake the motionless monotony of quarantine.

ListenBurial – Chemz / Dolphinz

13. Lingua Ignota – SINNER GET READY, [Sargent House; 2021]

By Venus Rittenberg, Staff Writer

Lingua Ignota is one of the most important artists of the contemporary experimental music scene. ALL BITCHES DIE and CALIGULA alone have earned her this honor, they are incredibly impressive musically, and absolutely brutal lyrically. No one else writes so poignantly about intimate partner violence and the desire for revenge upon one’s abusers. SINNER GET READY is no exception, it continues her streak of brilliant ponderings upon revenge and abuse. Listening to her truly puts one into the mind of a victim. The way she writes makes it clear that she’s a scholar. She’s just simply incredibly talented.

But SINNER GET READY varies from Lingua Ignota’s other projects. Most of the industrial influences have evaporated, and although the aggression and intensity is still there, it comes out in different ways. The album is much more folk-oriented than ALL BITCHES DIE and CALIGULA. It’s more like the song “FRAGRANT IS MY MANY FLOWER’D CROWN” from CALIGULA, which has a softer approach to the violence of her music.
It would be wrong to discuss SINNER GET READY and not discuss the nasty details of the album’s subject matter. On December 9th, 2021, Kristin Hayter (Lingua Ignota) posted a piece confirming something she had already alluded to. She made claims that Alexis Marshall of Daughters had been emotionally and sexually abusive throughout their nealry-two-year relationship. She stated that this is what SINNER GET READY is about, which makes the album that much more impactful. You can read an article about the situation here.

ListenLingua Ignota – SINNER GET READY

12. Jeff Rosenstock – SKA DREAM, [Polyvinyl; 2021]

By Venus Rittenberg, Staff Writer

In 2020, amidst the early days of the pandemic, shortly after the lockdown had been lifted in Ohio, Jeff Rosenstock released his fourth solo album, NO DREAM. The album, for me at least, perfectly captured the feelings of those early pandemic days. The album saw Rosenstock continuing with his flawless pop-punk formula, crafting some of the catchiest music about self-hatred and anti-capitalism that exists.

On April Fools’ Day 2021, Rosenstock announced his intent to release a ska version of NO DREAM, which many assumed to be a joke. However, on April 20th, 2021, Rosenstock dropped SKA DREAM.
Ska is not a genre that Rosenstock is new to. With his previous bands, the Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry! he made several ska-punk albums, and while ska dream is more of a traditional approach to ska, his experience shines through. The album is leaking with fun. Whereas NO DREAM was pretty depressing, even by Rosenstock’s standards, SKA DREAM was just a fun album you could skank to with your friends. Ultimately, SKA DREAM sees Rosenstock’s fun-loving personality shining through his most-depressing album, revisioning it as a good time.

ListenJeff Rosenstock – SKA DREAM

11. Bladee – The Fool, [YEAR0001; 2021]

By Adrian Woods, Staff Writer

As the years have gone on, Bladee has become one of the most interesting artists in the underground rap scene, starting his own rap group “Drain Gang” with Ecco2k, Thaiboy Digital, Whitearmor and Yung Sherman, and even growing a following of fans called “drainers”. Bladee has gotten more and more traction and has improved with each new album he has released, and “The Fool” is no different. This new album has pushed its production to more of a synth-pop and dance tone to it, which is a major switch of what he started off being influenced from in the beginning, Eurodance and IDM. And this switch is a massive improvement from his past albums. His vocals on the album sound soft and maybe even shy, but his voice has become layered and clearer with this new album. Each track has its own different tone to it. Songs like “I Think” and “Trendy” are very meditative and introspective, and “Bby’ and “Thee 9 Is Up” are real adrenaline rushes of songs. Bladee has been on the up and coming and does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

10. Tyler, The Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, [Columbia; 2021]

By Adrian Woods, Staff Writer

Tyler, The Creator returns to his rap roots after IGOR, which was an R&B, funk, and neo soul album, something completely different from what he had ever done, and has returned with what is his best rap album to date, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST. Even if it doesn’t live up to the concept and emotional ties of IGOR, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST once again has made an album that is uniquely different from every one preceding it, but also familiar, mainly due to many returning features, including Lil Wayne, Pharell Williams, and Domo Genius, but Tyler brings on many new features that have never been on any of his albums, including NBA Youngboy, Brent Faiyaz and Lil Uzi Vert. Returning or new, the features on this album are all great, but it wouldn’t work without the creative instrumentals Tyler raps over. Throughout the album songs are filled with moods with each song, with songs like LEMONHEAD and JUGGERNAUT very upbeat and heavy songs, SWEET / I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE, WILSHIRE, and WUSYANAME having a more chill mood to it, and the multiple interludes giving the album a comedic but also real side as Tyler explains what is going on his real life. It’s the perfect blend to make one of the best rap albums of the year.

ListenTyler, The Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST

9. Doja Cat – Planet Her, [Kemosabe; RCA ;2021]

By Amy Szmik, Copy Editor

Nobody is doing it like Doja Cat right now. The rapper and singer has won various awards, broke a world record and cannot be stopped. She is currently one of the most listened to artists in the world and has headlined major festivals all year. Not only was 2021 her year, she also graced her fans with the spectacular Planet Her album. Showing off her versatility as a singer as well, Ms. Doja Cat’s album received critical acclaim from fans and critics alike. 

She has always been known for her creativity as an artist, but Planet Her really encapsulated her talents. She switches up between songs whether it’s a slowed R&B track like “You Right”, or the pop-rap song like “Get Into It (Yuh)” she easily showcases herself as a multifaceted artist. Addictive beats alongside her voice create an immersive experience with this album. 

Planet Her is an album that Doja Cat should be proud of. She holds nothing back on this album that oozes with her confidence. She really dives into the pop genre, mixing it with other genres to create her own sound. An album full of anthems, it doesn’t matter who you are, because anyone can enjoy Doja’s work and they should.

ListenDoja Cat – Planet Her

8. Sickboyrari – Chain Gang Halo World, [GothMoneyRecords; G2K; 2021]

By Lane Moore, Reviews Editor

A step away from the distinct style of Nokia Talk 2002, Chain Gang Halo World takes a page out of the hypertrap playbook but still exemplifies Sickboyrari’s irreplicable and ever-changing approach to trap. Notably busier than Nokia Talk, the glossy instrumentals on Chain Gang Halo World are soaked in reverb and delay, and though tracks like “Spaz Wit Dem Bandz” have an ethereal and heavenly energy, they’re somehow Rari’s hardest and loudest tracks thanks to the clipping kicks and front-and-center basslines that drive the songs. The album contains some of Rari’s most unconventional tracks: “Infrared (Country Boyz)” introduces liminal weather channel vibes, like a reimagining of Nonlocal Forecast’s unearthly neo-jazz, and “Baby 9” sees Rari trying out some kind of 645AR impression. 
Despite Rari’s new sound on Chain Gang, his dejected delivery and mournful tone remain the same; Rari sounds tearful on tracks like “Locked In Like Gang Ties”, singing “When I call can you please pick up the phone / Lay my heart, it spill for you inside the styrofoam.” Celestial synths and snappy 808s once again prove to be the perfect medium for Rari’s vocals.

ListenSickboyrari – Chain Gang Halo World

7. Black Country, New Road – For the first time, [Ninja Tune; 2021]

By Venus Rittenberg, Staff Writer

The 2010s saw a third wave of post-punk rise to prominence. Artists like LCD Soundsystem, Have a Nice Life, and Parquet Courts were turning the genre into something new, and something amazing. As the decade progressed, so did the scene, diversifying and growing as it went. More bands and sub-scenes came about. One scene popped up in the late 2010s in England, sometimes called the Windmill scene, named after the venue many of the bands played their early shows in. 
No band from this “Windmill scene” radiates talent as much as Black Country, New Road. Frontman Isaac Wood is an incredibly talented writer, and every musician in the group is brilliant. It’s like Slint meets post-punk meets melodic saxophones. And it’s incredible. For the First Time is the group’s debut, and it feels less like an album and more like a snapshot, a snapshot of where the band is at right now. 2019 and 2020 were filled with live performances from the band, songs that didn’t make the album, songs that were heavily altered for the album, and covers. For the First Time is a picture of this time in the band’s evolution. It is a promise of the greatness that is to come.

ListenBlack Country, New Road – For the first time

6. MIKE – Disco!, [10k; 2021]

By Ethan Hoffer, Staff Writer

Disco! is soulful at its core, and a step outside the darkness from his past two past projects weight of the world and tears of joy, both of which show MIKE in a more grief-stricken and melancholy state. The line “Uh, I think rappin’ saved my life today” is a complete representation of Disco! as he recovers from past pain by expressing himself on the mic through unique poetic verses reflecting on personal experiences, including lines of remembrance of his late mother. While Disco! has its gloomy moments, it serves as a progression in healing from the passing of his mother and this album could not have demonstrated this any more beautifully. Lo-fi production covered in soul and funk samples under his producer alias dj blackpower demonstrates MIKE’s talent to rap clever rhyme schemes while also creating well-crafted profound instrumentals that set the melody for the project. MIKE’s sorrows are not completely gone, however, there is much more bliss to be found on this record.

ListenMIKE – Disco!

5. POLO PERKS <3<3<3 – PUNK GOES DRILL+** 2020 (HOSTED BY @SHOKURADIO), [Surf Gang; 2021]

By Kiah Easton, Editorial Director

Few feelings hit as deep as nostalgia. As we grow we collect emotional artifacts that remain linked to a period of time; a net of emotional trigger points scattered throughout time.

Polo Perks <3<3<3 and Surf Gang seem to understand this idea and beautifully exploit it within PUNK GOES DRILL+** 2020 (HOSTED BY @SHOKURADIO). Sampling 2000’s classics from Flight Facilities “Crave You” to “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol, producers on this project take those fragments from the past and augment them with heavy 808’s, drill hi-hats and crisp snares. Polo Perks <3<3<3 duets rather than fights the prominent samples, creating an impressively graceful dance that evokes a range of emotions; head bops and happy tears. 

Drill is a fairly specific genre with a barrier to entry in terms of accessibility. The universally popular samples hidden within each song inject a latching point for listeners, while Polo’s gentle but demanding flow inserts his own narrative on top of the sonic history. Polo Perks<3<3<3 has created something multifaceted, intersecting the nostalgia for a time period, his own history and the history of drill itself to create a maximalist mesh of art and culture built to create more emotional artifacts for the current time. Unforgettably unique, PUNK GOES DRILL+** 2020 (HOSTED BY @SHOKURADIO) brings a new perspective worthy of examination.


4. Luca Rain & Fatshaudi – Dance All Day / Make Believe, [Self Released; 2021]

By Kiah Easton, Editorial Director

Some of the best love songs aren’t a story, but a container. Something that pulls out individual moments of connection and strings them together, creating something unique. Dance All Day/ Make Believe is a tiny pearlescent box, sparkling in the yellow morning sun. 

Perfectly fleeting in length, the pair of songs work together to beautifully convey their message. “Dance All Day” floats through your ears, the instrumentation carrying a sense of infectious freedom. Fading into existence, fatshaudi delivers their vocals above the instrumentation with a delicate beauty, “Swing with you, just like two blades of grass, dancing with the sun as it reflects of the glass, no other time like this, I feel just like me, so pinch me say wake up from your dream” Simple enough to highlight just what is necessary, the lyrics paint a picture that not only leaves room for personal engagement but reflects the sonic elements of the instrument with grace. The title fits the euphoric bliss of the song. If you’ve been lucky enough to be in love, imagine dancing around with someone in the living room, eyes closed. 

“Make Believe” continues the euphoria harnessed in “Dance All Day”, with similarly bubbly instrumentation and vocal delivery. “You make me believe in magic, heart tells me can you imagine me and you? Is this real or make believe?”. With few barriers to understanding, the lyrics highlight a pure universal image of falling in love. 
Dance All Day / Make Believe plays on a loop in my headphones. Smiling ear to ear I shake around uncoordinatedly while I walk down the street. The best art augments your reality and adds something of value to your life. These songs bring me to moments of beauty without fail, whether or not they do the same for others depends on their lived experience. Either way, I think you should listen to it for yourself.

ListenLuca Rain & Fatshaudi – Dance All Day / Make Believe

3. RXKNephew – Crack Dreams 2, [NewBreedTrapper; 2021]

By Kwase Lane, Features Editor

RXKNephew’s output is unparalleled. I mean, he released 400 songs this year alone. There are a fair few that, unfortunately, are not worth a listen, but this project is immaculate. If you’ve ever heard an RXKNephew song, then you’re familiar with his habit of rambling over a beat. Crack Dreams 2 offers a look at a more polished version of RXKNephew. Even when he’s being more conservative lyrically, RXKNephew’s tracks embody a tempered understanding of the pain others may hold and an astounding mass of contradictions. In “Man of Sin” Nephew laments his shortcomings, but when his grandmother asks that he forgive others he tells her to “mind her business.” It’s hard to tell whether these juxtapositions stem from hypocrisy or a genuine desire for self-criticism, but either way, it provides an interesting look into the worldview of one of the most chaotic content creators alive today.  

ListenRXK Nephew – Crack Dreams 2

2. Injury Reserve – By The Time I Get To Phoenix, [Self Released; 2021]

By Leo Debatin, Staff Writer

Injury Reserve’s latest album By The Time I Get To Phoenix shows the band’s ability to further develop their style, despite the recent death of one of their lead vocalists Steppa J. Groggs. While being rhythmically disjointed and aesthetically outlandish, the project still manages to come off as their most cohesive project to date. The apocalyptic album cover also perfectly encapsulates the industrial, yet psychedelic energy that remains present throughout the entire album. This otherworldly feeling is best shown on the album’s initial single Knees, which is their most emotional and poetic song yet. It’s currently unclear what Injury Reserve plans to do next, or whether or not they will do anything new at all, but regardless this album has proven itself as one of the most important records this year.

ListenInjury Reserve – By The Time I Get To Phoenix

1. JPEGMAFIA – LP!, [Republic; EQT; 2021]

By Kwase Lane, Features Editor
Peggy’s LP! was a bit polarizing for the folks at ACRN, but it snagged the top spot on this list nonetheless. This album is a departure from JPEGMAFIA’s trend of sonic innovation, but his newfound consistency shouldn’t be overlooked. LP! offers a far more even and easily parsable listening experience when to compared to Peggy’s earlier projects. What adds even more is the project’s subject matter. Between the fractured, online-offline release of LP! and JPEG’s penchant for late-night, drunken tweeting this album gains new meaning. The boastful persona feels more hollow like Peggy’s trying to convince himself of his bonafides more than anyone else. Drama aside, LP! has some of the best-produced songs in JPEG’s catalog. Tracks like “DIRTY!”, “TIRED, NERVOUS & BROKE!” and “🔥” stand out for their slick incorporation of elements that might’ve been more jarring in an earlier Peggy project and nearly every song fills a room as few others can. LP! may not be everyone’s favorite but it has definitely earned its place alongside JPEG’s other albums and on this list.  


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