Much like the year immediately preceding it, 2021 posed more than its share of challenges. As individuals, community members and global citizens, we all had to be more thoughtful than ever about what we owe to ourselves and those around us.
Whether as a balm or bridge, music continued to play a crucial role for me and many others. In a year brimming with things to pay attention to, it'd be easy to miss some great music. Here are five albums that might've passed you by but are worth every minute you give them.
Kississippi — Mood Ring
Kississippi, the name which Philadelphia's Zoe Allaire Reynolds records under, gives a handy glimpse of the sense of humor of the artist. That humor is all over her second full-length, “Mood Ring,” and it's both a tool for her and a bit of a deception. Reynolds artfully uses it on numerous tracks, but it also masks how incisive and searching she is as a writer.
“Mood Ring” is full of indie rock and pop gems, but the hooks never overpower the heartbreak Reynolds achingly explores. “Around Your Room” isn't just one of the album's best songs, but one of the best of the entire year. In it, she pleads for the return of a lost love, name-checks Cyndi Lauper's most well-known song and conjures all the nostalgia of first love. It's the kind of magic trick that gets under your skin.
Peyton — PSA
There's something about a great R&B record that just lives in your brain. The slickness of the grooves and warmth of the vocals can make the music seem more like an old friend than the thoughts of someone you don't know. “PSA,” the debut album from Houston, Texas, native Peyton expertly evokes these very feelings while adding her own flourishes.
Peyton Booker is the granddaughter of Theola Booker, a legendary Gospel singer, and that same passion and love of the craft is all over the songs on “PSA.” While R&B is the main genre, on any given track you'll hear classic soul or even shoegaze elements wafting through. For a debut album, “PSA” shows nothing but promise and I cannot wait to hear how she continues to experiment and blend genres to her will. The title says it all - start paying attention to Peyton now.
Isaiah Rashad — The House Is Burning
When Kendrick Lamar announced last year that he had just one album left to make on California's Top Dawg Entertainment record label, fans of their lineup could be forgiven for wondering what would happen without its biggest star. But thankfully Isaiah Rashad finally released his much-anticipated sophomore album, “The House Is Burning,” and put any worries about the label's future to rest.
Funky and introspective, the album follows a particularly difficult time for the Chattanooga, Tennessee, rapper — Rashad struggled with poverty and addiction issues and while it would be cliché to say he's emerged stronger than ever, there's a new vitality and wisdom in his music. It's never ponderous or preachy but remains immensely listenable throughout. And when you combine Rashad's writing with some top-tier production work, you get the year's best rap album.
Rostam — Changephobia
Making pretty music sounds like a simple proposition but doing it without being treacly or overly sentimental takes a real artist. As a member of Vampire Weekend, producer and solo artist, Rostam Batmanglij has been making some of the prettiest, most subtly layered music around for nearly 15 years. His second solo full-length, “Changephobia,” might be his most gorgeous collection of songs yet.
The songs he creates here are all quicksilver melodies and sharply written character studies. All the tunes bend and conform to Batmanglij's surprising sonic architectures, resulting in an album that is full of gems that sound completely different than the bulk of pop stars' tunes. For something a little less ordinary, “Changephobia” is something special.
Wild Pink — A Billion Little Lights
When describing the American west, some of the terms that could be aptly used include spacious, sprawling and complex. The same could be said of “A Billion Little Lights,” the third album from New York's Wild Pink. Which tracks, because the album was born out of a larger project all about the country's western expanse. And while this may be a shorter album than originally intended, no depth or scope was jettisoned in the process.
Channeling the same heartland rock that groups like The War on Drugs have brought back in style, with a literary perspective that owes as much to John Prine as it does Bruce Springsteen, “A Billion Little Lights” is full of songs to get lost in. The group's music has never sounded bigger. If they keep growing at this rate, there will be no stopping them.
Clarke Reader's column on culture appears on a weekly basis. He can be reached at Clarke.Reader@hotmail.com.