What’s Good is a weekly new music newsletter by Pitchfork’s founder and former Editor-in-Chief, Ryan Schreiber. Launched in September 2021 as a companion to Schreiber’s long-running weekly playlist of the same name, What’s Good outlines the week’s most essential tracks and albums, with a special focus on new and emerging artists.
This week, it's two special editions for The Year in Music 2021. Today, I'm breaking down my 50 favorite albums of the year (with special focus on the top 10), to be followed by my 100 favorite tracks. Let's get into it.
1 : NALA SINEPHRO / SPACE 1.8
"Ambient jazz” is an idea that's endured for decades, with precedent from Alice and Miles to ECM and beyond, but a specific strain appeared in 2021 that seemed to purposefully, consciously merge these two styles together. Jazz soloists, duos, and ensembles integrated synths, pads, and processing. Brass, bass, and drums unite with emerging technology, warping familiar timbres into alien signals and drones.
No album performed this feat as masterfully as Nala Sinephro’s Warp Records debut, Space 1.8. The London artist's attention to detail and mastery of space is clear from its opening chord, which lingers and stretches into a resonant hum. Plucked and pedaled harp strings enter among distant birdsong and field recordings. Organic tones bleed into electronic ones, shifting shapes until an uncanny balance between the two is reached, where each takes on characteristics of the other. The sound can induce a form of light hypnosis, pulling the listener into a state of deep focus.
Notable guests and contributors appear in various configurations across the album’s eight tracks (guitarist Shirley Tetteh, drummer Eddie Hick, saxophonists James Mollison, Ahnansé, and Nubya Garcia), but Sinephro is the one and only constant, and her vision remains clear and steady throughout. She leads her players to a kind of impressionistic physicality, sketching the outlines of some place or environment, but leaves enough open space for the listener to color in the blanks.
2 : LOW / HEY WHAT
28 years is long enough for any band to exhaust all creative spark, compromise their artistry to numerous ends, and launch two, even three, reunion tours; very few acts remain as vital as the day they formed. Low, meanwhile, have managed the most inventive work of their career. HEY WHAT is blown out, bitcrushed, and utterly decimated, as though practices used during the loudness wars of the early 2000s— like “brickwalling” waveforms to artificially heighten volume range— were purposely applied to achieve strange sonic extremes. It drills like power electronics yet returns the Minnesota duo’s melodic songcraft to the same peaks reached on 2001’s Things We Lost in the Fire, making it curiously accessible— and wildly original.
3 : MACH-HOMMY / PRAY FOR HAITI and BALENS CHO
Mach-Hommy’s two albums this year, Pray for Haiti and Balens Cho, differ in tone and concept but attest to the same point: the Haitian-American rhymesayer is quickly earning his membership to the Greatest Rappers Alive club. On Pray for Haiti, his reunion with Westside Gunn, Mach gestures towards his native country as both philosophical concept and temporal marker, brooding on the long tail of colonialism, the importance of home, and, by contrast, the emptiness of the material things that are now within his reach. Balens Cho takes a smoother tone, with a mellower vibe courtesy of collaborators Sam Gendel (who handles sax on “WOODEN NICKELS”) and Montreal beatmaker Nicholas Craven (whose work features prominently). The album isn’t tied together by a theme, but it does show off his celebratory flipside: If Pray For Haiti is Mach’s statement of artistic intent, Balens Cho is his electrifying victory lap.
4 : SAM GENDEL / FRESH BREAD
A jazz enthusiast driven more by intuition than classical technique, Los Angeles musician Sam Gendel seems to view his instrument tone as a sculptor would a brick of clay: as a waveform to be stretched, squished, manipulated, and molded. While much of the avant-garde in 2021 worked to push electronics to new extremes, Gendel moved the needle forward simply by manipulating the sound of a 180-year-old instrument: the alto sax. He doesn’t take a meticulous, post-production approach to his instrument, but instead relies on pedals, vocal harmonizers, and other tools to shift its timbre in real-time. The first time I heard its sound, I strained to identify the instrument— and couldn’t. While Gendel was among the most prolific artists this year, his triple album, Fresh Bread, strikes me as the most inventive and sprawling work in ambient music since Oneohtrix Point Never’s genre-shifting Rifts.
5 : FRED AGAIN / ACTUAL LIFE (April 14 - December 17 2020)
London producer Fred Again broke out at the start of this year with his novel debut, Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020). A diaristic concept album full of uplifting dance music, sampling field recordings of his own conversations and experiences, this unusual record finds Fred channeling the world around him during a year of strife. Hushed voice memos and smeared street noise become distinctive textures in his hands, underpinned by crisp drums and throbbing bass. When we entered this past spring with only the promise of vaccines and a vague idea of post-COVID existence on the horizon, actual life was deeply missed. This music brought the outside world in.
6 : MAGDALENA BAY / MERCURIAL WORLD
Magdalena Bay have been working up to their debut album since 2017, but they arrived almost fully formed. The series of excellent singles and EPs that preceded it proved the L.A. duo capable of turning out tightly constructed capsules of perfect pop, with virtually every song they released bearing its own uniquely infectious, endlessly replayable qualities. That Mercurial World would ultimately serve as their moment of arrival was a clear certainty.
Drawing from a pantheon of synth-pop that spans the last 50 years, Magdalena Bay’s sound fits snugly into the neo-disco movement presently owning the airwaves while incorporating psych, glitch, and electro with a healthy dose of the chillwave, shoegaze, and vaporwave that reared them. These varied influences— along with their ear for structured transitions, inventive sequencing, and songwriting ability that’s staggering in its consistency— help the album remain fresh and engaging as a complete listening experience, even while its individual tracks stand solidly alone.
7 : DEAN BLUNT / BLACK METAL 2
Black Metal 2 opens with recursive layers of orchestra and Dean Blunt’s ghostly baritone, painting a harrowing scene: a world defined by loneliness and fear, as inescapable realities of the black experience. Blunt’s ruminations fill these introspective atmospheres, joined by jangly, lo-fi guitars and dreamy vocals from returning collaborator Joanne Robertson. This is the rare sequel album that does justice to the spirit of the artist’s original work: Black Metal’s most abrasive sonic edges have been sanded away, leaving a softness that serves as a foil to Blunt’s singular, truthful pen.
8 : BADBADNOTGOOD / TALK MEMORY
BADBADNOTGOOD began as a celebration of hip-hop’s musical lineage: a unit of young jazz musicians who bonded over their love of rap and quickly found themselves working with vaunted names like Ghostface Killah and Tyler, the Creator. By contrast, Talk Memory is a return to their roots; it feels like the turning point at which this band starts to make their own inroads into a rich tradition of psychedelic jazz.
Culled from a series of longer improvisations, these tracks feature appearances by some of BBNG’s earliest influences: New age progenitor Laraaji appears on the mystical “Unfolding (Momentum 73)” and Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai provides distinctive arrangements across several tracks. This is the sound of a band challenging itself to go further, play deeper, and embrace the past to plot out a new future.
9 : JOHN GLACIER / SHILOH: LOST FOR WORDS
John Glacier and producer Vegyn treat rap music like a disassembled puzzle; disparate pieces to be put back together. The East London rapper’s debut album SHILOH: Lost For Words drenches her measured, borderline sardonic delivery against sweaty club grooves and broken beat fragments. It unfurls like a beat tape or a sketchbook, but Glacier’s true power rests in her ability to pack that rawness into every bar, half-sung hook, and hyper-stylized musing.
10 : FLOATING POINTS, PHAROAH SANDERS & THE LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA / PROMISES
Promises feels out of space and time. A magnificent collaborative achievement between Floating Points, the London Symphony Orchestra, and spiritual jazz legend Pharoah Sanders, these 45 minutes of music glide through the worlds of classical, electronic, and jazz improvisation. Against the backdrop of a single repeating harpsichord phrase, Sanders and Floating Points move slowly, interjecting with saxophone, organ, and quietly intoned human speech. In the pauses between sounds, you can almost hear them listening to one another, feeling out the sound, walking on a path they’re constructing in real-time.
11 : JAZMINE SULLIVAN / HEAUX TALES
12 : DJ MANNY / SIGNALS IN MY HEAD
13 : L'RAIN / FATIGUE
14 : JPEGMAFIA / LP!
15 : MAKAYA McCRAVEN / DECIPHERING THE MESSAGE
16 : BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD / FOR THE FIRST TIME
17 : LITTLE SIMZ / SOMETIMES I MIGHT BE AN INTROVERT
18 : MADLIB / SOUND ANCESTORS
19 : ARMAND HAMMER / HARAM
20 : GABRIELS / BLOODLINE
21 : INJURY RESERVE / BY THE TIME I GET TO PHOENIX
22 : REMI WOLF / JUNO
23 : ARCA / ii - iiiii
24 : TYLER, THE CREATOR / CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
25 : DRAKEO THE RULER / THE TRUTH HURTS
26 : SUSS / NIGHT SUITE
27 : ROSIE LOWE & DUVAL TIMOTHY / SON
28 : CASSANDRA JENKINS / AN OVERVIEW ON PHENOMENAL NATURE
29 : MOSES SUMNEY / LIVE FROM BLACKALACHIA
30 : DOSS / 4 NEW HIT SONGS
31 : BOLDY JAMES & THE ALCHEMIST / BO JACKSON
32 : SILK SONIC / AN EVENING WITH SILK SONIC
33 : AEON STATION / OBSERVATORY
34 : FOR THOSE I LOVE / FOR THOSE I LOVE
35 : PINK SIIFU / GUMBO'!
36 : CFCF / MEMORYLAND
37 : GROUPER / SHADE
38 : SLOWTHAI / TYRON
39 : ERIKA de CASIER / SENSATIONAL
40 : CARMEN VILLAIN / SKETCH FOR WINTER IX: PERLITA
41 : SAULT / 9
42 : PARIS TEXAS / BOY ANONYMOUS
43 : TIRZAH / COLOURGRADE
44 : CLEO SOL / MOTHER
45 : PAULINE ANNA STROM / ANGEL TEARS IN SUNLIGHT
46 : VARIOUS ARTISTS / JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
47 : HIATUS KAIYOTE / MOOD VALIENT
48 : JOY ORBISON / STILL SLIPPIN VOL. 1
49 : PROC FISKAL / SIREN SPINE SYSEX
50 : KORELESS / AGOR
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[Special thanks to Dutchtide's Midnight Breeze series for use of their artwork.]