To some, the album is the ultimate showcase of an artist’s vision and potential. To us, it’s the medium of choice for creatives across the underground and across the world to showcase new ideas, new sounds, and in some cases entirely new scenes. These are the top ten albums of 2021.
10. Sematary – Rainbow Bridge 3
Sematary throughout his extensive discography had been known to shift styles as a natural progression of his artistry, with Rainbow Bridge 1 carrying many of the same stylistic choices that he improved from Grave House (his debut effort with former collaborator Ghost Mountain), but Rainbow Bridge 2 later that year took things in a grittier and more Chicago drill-inspired direction. The black metal samples and witch house influence remained just as present, but he explored more of what influenced him with a slightly different approach.
Rainbow Bridge 3 takes every last one of these influences, distills them to their purest form, mashes them together meticulously with every element at their most abrasive, and screams them at you; even “Toothtaker”, one of the more tame ballads from RB2, has been redone and taken to new extremes, vocal layers crashing together and the beat recrafted as an industrial witch house masterclass. Wherever he may have felt uncertain or unsteady with his sound before, Sematary is loud and confident here in every regard, even bringing his monotone drawl to the point of throat-bleed screaming on several occasions throughout the tape. Older and more recent works alike are easier to pinpoint as falling within “the signature Sematary sound,” but this tape stands alone in his discography as a genre-defying and boundary-pushing gatecrasher of an album, establishing Sematary and the Haunted Mound label in the top tier of the underground and drawing eyes from all corners of the scene. – Steve (@xoxoarctic)
9. i9bonsai – ##seedling
“##seedling” is a look into i9bonsai’s low-poly universe. Released right at the end of 2020, bonsai keeps a mystical veil in motion across urgent and iridescent songs and verses. “No time2waste” is a highlight for its hook, which gracefully stumbles across bars; “And if I called, your phone, would you pick it up, because I’m starting to think, that we forgot this feeling”. Behind the cartoony haze, bonsai is an extremely effective songwriter, combining prankishness with deep emotional ripostes. On “fragranc”, they search for reason in the madness, playfully singing “Kicking shit, kicking rocks, don’t you think he took enough?”. Elsewhere, like on “thru tha screen” with Senses, chaos wins with unknowably heightened results. Madness only adds to this record’s sense of place, walking the line between euphoria and psychosis. – Jamie (@jadexhost)
8. Fax Gang – Aethernet
Nearly a year after it dropped, Aethernet is still a puzzle. It’s more cohesive than it seems at first, but still incredibly fractured. Crushed and distorted, it’s free from any expectations of cleanness but is loaded with fine detail. “Fallen” is a standout for close listening, full of longing guitars and runaway percussion courtesy of Fax Gang’s prodigal production team. Ultimately the songs don’t always add up, but each tune serves as its own portal and a unique net of ideas. The music at the core is so full of musical stimulants that it’s hard to care when one heaven snaps abruptly to the next.
Equally memorable are the many, many moments that see vocalist PK Shellboy really talking their shit. On “Shotgun” they are eternal and poetic – “Riding shotgun in the glove I got a gat, taking off the gloves so god above let me adapt, burner getting charged, I don’t wanna interact”. – Jamie (@jadexhost)
7. underscores – fishmonger
It’s rare for an artist to change up their style and get it right the first time, which is why underscores’ 2021 album, “fishmonger” stands out as a testament to the undergrounds’ versatility. The album swaps out their Bedroom-pop sound for a pop-punk influence not heard since the 2000s, and filters that emotional tone through modern experimental production techniques, to truly bring us a new wave of the future.
The range on Fishmonger is incredible, with the punk-country sound of “70%” to the shoegaze and noise-rock influences of “Kinko’s field trip 2006”. My personal favourite, “Dry Land 2001” starts off as a catchy alt-rock song before breaking off into 5 minutes of a fragile and lush soundscape. Somehow underscores’ effortlessly chilled voice and their iconic repeated samples (“Best friend Ever!”, “Celebrity?”) bring cohesion to the project, giving us half an hour of heart-throbbing underground bangers. – Gray (@polygoncove)
6. Phixel – Misplaced Flora
Misplaced Flora is a massive achievement that places Phixel firmly amongst the pantheon of elite creators both within the hyperpop community and outside it. The production here is flawless from front to back, presenting a much more layered and instrumentally diverse set of songs than her first album Shapes & Colors. There’s less of a pop-oriented experience to this one, but the hooks and melodies are no less sticky and the features no less tasteful. ‘Headspace’ is an immediate standout from a songwriting perspective, a four minute posse cut with one of Phixel’s most infectious refrains acting as the song’s backbone. ‘Lemonade’ is as close to a pure hyperpop formula as Misplaced Flora gets, a snappy guitar creating what is possibly the best musical moment on the album. The real jaw dropper is ‘Wound’, however. A sprawling ambient piece that incorporates so many disparate, melancholy sounds into its vast soundscape, ‘Wound’ is the perfect closer for an album so fixated on damaged relationships, it feels like a scab forming over a long-standing injury. Even with happier material present on this album, it’s abundantly clear that one of Phixel’s biggest strengths is creating music that touches on some truly painful stuff yet always comes out the other side stronger. – Chris (@malenchanted)
5. Yuri Online + MH – YuriMH
Yuri Online’s collaboration with prolific underground producer MH unlocks new potential in them both. Yuri elevates on every track and explores the depths of his sound, rapping charismatically in French and English on opener “Vampire Bund” and singing with conviction on “Part of Me”. The tape prioritises energy over finesse, coating the project in searing mixtape charm. On “Ain’t Bout That”, Yuri is compressed into sibilance, whereas on “Grid” his voice clips and oscillates across autotune scales. MH claims some of the tape’s best moments too, conducting a 90s-ambient orchestra on “Doppelganger” and supplying plucky synth optimism on “Ghostland”. “YuriMH” is an exemplary project, one where the creators modulate and multiply as a true duo. – Jamie (@jadexhost)
4. dltzk – frailty
Frailty wonderfully blends electrifying production with the haunting feelings of insecurity that 18-year-old producer dltzk is experiencing as they get older. Opener “goldfish” provides gentle acoustic strums and reassuring vocals that dissolve into the eclectic, pop-punk track “your clothes”. I’ve got to say, the heavy nostalgia that envelops the latter half of “kodak moment” makes it the one I keep replaying. The ending production is reminiscent of the ending scene of a video game where you’ve successfully beat the enemy, saved the princess, and the small town is there cheering for you as the story comes to a close. I’ve revisited this album countless times, and with each listen the album further solidifies itself as one of my favorites this year. – Mars (@gayidiot49)
Coming off of the heels of “Teen Week”, the project dltzk released earlier this year, Frailty is a genre-defying record that seems to intersect most at Midwest emo, shoegaze, and the distinct brand of digicore that dltzk has helped pioneer over the course of the past year. Most of all, it works as an effective pop record, with a knack for catchy hooks (“your clothes”, “pretender”) and a shared affinity for melancholy-tinged guitarwork and dubstep-esque drops alike present throughout its thirteen-track runtime. The tweet that accompanied the release of Frailty simply read “allow me to re-introduce myself” with a link to the record after, and I think that statement, made opaque in some of the experimentation and lyrics explored in this record, perfectly encapsulates their intent with this focused release. – Steve (@xoxoarctic)
3. Quinn – drive-by lullabies
Having just turned 17, Quinn has already felt and dealt with the throes of fame and expectation, taking a hiatus long before work on the album began in order to recuperate and experiment musically with different styles and an increasing array of equipment teased on Twitter. This experimentation and creative growth blossomed into various side projects, but the magnum opus of her year was the experimental “Drive-By Lullabies”, an album that defies genre in order to embrace pure and unfiltered creativity. From lengthy pop-noise-drum’n’bass sagas to off-kilter purist hip-hop (the oldest track conceived on the project, aptly titled “12/25/18“), Quinn seems to synthesize every last influence and idea into her most original and brutally honest collection of work to date. With only her full-length debut effort, she has created a masterpiece–a mainstay of the underground scene–and demonstrated mastery in all aspects of her musicianship, first displayed in her explosive forays into hyperpop and adjacent scenes since the age of 15. As the creative director of deadAir Records, only she can tell what she plans to do next, but the process thus far has been more than trustworthy. – Steve (@xoxoarctic)
2. Kid Trash – SCISSORHANDS
A quality a number of these albums possess in abundance is versatility, displaying said quality either in their varied tracklists or as cohesive clashes of genre that seem eager to tear the word “genre” itself apart. UK artist Kid Trash is no stranger to this, having released the hyperpop-influenced LP “Slasherr” the year prior, its songs wearing on its sleeve the raw creativity and influences of the artist at the helm of it—the undeniable quality of which landed the tape at the top of the 108MICS top albums of 2020. Their new effort “Scissorhands” reaches similar creative heights, EDM and pop roots digging themselves in and weaving themselves under Kid Trash’s explosive vocals, ringing in at a cozy fifteen songs that doesn’t feel a moment over-welcome. The tracklist isn’t bloated, however, despite outnumbering their previous full-length by a full five tracks; the album itself is just over five minutes longer than Slasherr with any fatigue reset throughout its runtime by features from many of Kid Trash’s peers (e.g. Misaku Foxx and KURU appearing on the titular track alongside emerging artist Lucy Lohan). The production doesn’t become stale and neither does Kid Trash’s performance—their sticky hooks, passionate delivery, and earworm one-liners ever-present—leading to an extremely enjoyable listen for both old and new fans alike. – Steve (@xoxoarctic)
This is a mind-blowing project for so many reasons. Kid Trash’s 2020 album Slasherrr was a turning point in their career that fused contemporary digicore sounds with very distinct alt-rock and edm flavours that resulted in an instant genre classic. Trash’s longevity in the game has given them the opportunity to eclipse almost all of their contemporaries and on Scissorhands they did it again. The first four songs here are a perfect suite, leaning heavily into festival pop and trance music to make a hypnotising quartet that sets the tone for what will follow. Trash’s vocals have never been better, matching their collaborators’ energy perfectly on songs like ‘On N On’ and the drill-inspired title track. Their production reaches new heights too, best displayed on now iconic single ‘Palm Angels’ and more experimental cuts like ‘Me’ and ‘3scape the Fate’. Their friends show up here too, Maple produces the epic ‘ACW’ while BLOODiDOL adds in a moment of tranquility with ‘Council Houses, Codeine’. This album features a crazy amount of outlandish songwriting choices, cementing Trash as the most talented artist in their league. Front to back Scissorhands is basically flawless, and it says a lot about its creator that each and every track is as memorable as it is. ‘Ouch!’ is basically poetry, and caps things off perfectly with lyrics that are part celebration, part condemnation. Well deserving of its place on this list, and with two classics under their belt in a row I can only assume that Trash’s streak of brilliance will continue into the new year. – Chris (@malenchanted)
1. Wave Noir – Eclipse
Wave’s moody, nocturnal masterpiece is a superb set of songs that reflect both the solace and loneliness of our current social climate and Wave’s personal struggles, which are expressed so beautifully and concisely here that it feels like these circumstances were always intended to occur for this project to take shape. How else would we have got ourselves a song as tear jerking as ‘Before I Leave’? This is hands down the best 15 minutes that you could spend on anything this year, so strong is its atmosphere and mood. Wave is one of the best rappers that the UK has to offer right now, his skill on the microphone is unmatched from a technical perspective and his lyrics are always succinctly delivered in a way that only he can. The various producers and guests that came together to create Eclipse are also worthy of praise, but it’s Wave’s singular vision for this project that truly brings it all together. Any song here can be enjoyed individually, but as a seven track experience this thing is truly transcendental. I’m incredibly happy that we’ve been able to place this project as album of the year, because although it’s been a year full of quality releases this selection of songs is unquestionably the work of someone whose love and deviation to their art is unquestioning and the results show as much. – Chris (@malenchanted)
Wave Noir’s debut project is truly exceptional. In just 15 minutes the UK rapper creates a blockbuster album, with the humble beginnings growing into cinematic ambition. “Eclipse” is an odyssey, a rich and empathetic history of one man’s mind that coincides all too well with the dark and unpredictable times we find ourselves in. Noir merges influences with unmatched confidence, bringing his best on each of the seven tracks, distilling profound expression into his gruff monotone. On “Lockdown”, he’s quietly concerned but still focused as he raps about “stories to tell”. “Luv + Hate”, still rapped in the same voice save for Rj London’s resonant feature, is far more dynamic. Noir’s approach to flow is subtle, measured, and enigmatic.
“Etro’s Kin” and “Atlantis ‘85” are the best songs here. The first is a grandiose affair, full of hollywood strings and backed by transcendent backing vocals from John Alone. Noir is morose and invulnerable, unafraid of death but shaken by his own feelings; “Days of grace leaving, swear I’m tryna break even”. “Atlantis” is at the other end of the “Eclipse” spectrum, flying high on talent and moody atmosphere. Tumultuous nostalgia courses through the song’s tape warped beat as Noir again fights to keep internal thoughts in line; “Losing track of time, that’s from the problems on my mind, feeling under watchful eye, best remember boy’s don’t cry”. His honesty is compelling. Resisting the urge to get lost in “Eclipse” becomes harder and harder as each story falls into place. – Jamie (@jadexhost)