Melcher Oosterman Illustration
Illustration by Melcher Oosterman

16 Essential Albums You May Have Missed in 2021

From McKinley Dixon to Mia Joy and Udababy to Underscores, these LPs are excellent and deserve all the praise.
JT
Chicago, US
KC
Queens, US
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US
Emma Garland
London, GB
MO
illustrated by Melcher Oosterman
July 19, 2021, 6:21pm

The recent return to relative normalcy has been a whiplash-inducing shift in many ways, including in how we listen to and discover new music. Since so many artists delayed their planned 2020 releases for 2021, this year has brought a wealth of great new music each week. It can be hard to keep up, but we’re here to help.

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This list contains some of the under the radar releases that haven't gotten enough love in the music press or on streaming services. Many are artists who just haven't gotten their due yet. We're not including the household names, the artists we've already extensively covered in our Noisey Next series, or our favorite acts who've already rightfully received a ton of high praise on other websites. These are recommendations for good stuff you may have not discovered just yet.


Charlie Martin, Imaginary People 

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As one half of the understated indie rock duo Hovvdy, Charlie Martin has always written vulnerable songs that find their resonance in intimate moments. But with his solo material, Martin has channeled his soft-spoken songwriting into brighter, rootsy arrangements. Take “September,” a bubbly, acoustic guitar-led single where he sings, “This September / I’ll do it again / Commit myself to dreamin’ / I orchestrate it.” More than anything in his catalog, it shows Martin’s unfailing optimism and his lyrical commitment to compassion. Elsewhere, the tracks on Imaginary People shine with words of encouragement and friendship like on the gorgeous “June,” where he sings, “I’ll take my friend / Take her home / Feed her somethin’ / Help how I can / And I can stay a little while.” Martin’s songs exude kindness in a way that feels radical. —Josh Terry | LISTEN.

Fake Fruit, Fake Fruit 

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Oakland punks Fake Fruit know how to open an album. “No Mutuals” is instantly a guitar rock classic of the era with careening, kinetic riffs and frontperson Hannah “Ham” D’Amato shrieking, “I don't wanna know if we are mutuals / You look like a fool / I don't wanna wait to be christened as / Cool.” It’s blistering, acerbic, and completely unimpressed with social media artifice. While only a few songs of the 11 tracks on Fake Fruit match the intensity of its intro, it’s a uniformly electrifying listen especially on the bruising “No Space For Residence” and the 90s inflected “Stroke My Ego.” The real star is D’Amato, a dynamic and unconstrained vocalist who commands every song with each yelp, yell, or growl. —JT | LISTEN.

Floatie, Voyage Out

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Chicago quartet Floatie makes propulsive indie rock that’s complex and mathy but never loses its immediacy. While each member has come from local DIY mainstays (Hundred Heads, Date Stuff) they transcend their previous projects by joining forces on Voyage Out. From the start, opener “Shiny” proves the band has an equal penchant for guitar-based knottiness and pop earworms. This delicate balance works both in explosive doses like “Catch a Good Worm” and in woozy, slowly building numbers like “In the Night.” There’s a lot going on in the arrangements, and each listen reveals something more like a riff, a vocal flourish from frontperson Sam Bern, or a loose synth line that makes it a thrilling but too short LP. —JT | LISTEN.

Izzy True, Our Beautiful Baby World

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“I have hope that [humanity] is (very slowly) learning to be gentle,” Izzy Reidy, frontperson of Chicago’s indie rock band Izzy True, says in the press materials for their new album Our Beautiful Baby World. Though this LP takes a macro view of the world, the songs deal in simple moments that are colored in by much more forceful, expansive, and punk arrangements. Highlight “New Fruit” is the best example of this, with Reidy’s voice bouncing between jangly guitars in the verses. They sing, “Please tell me what’s the name / Of the new green fruit / Now nothing is the same.” It’s deceptively simple songwriting, but on songs like “Big Natural,” it branches out from indie rock with swirling saxophone skronks punctuating the guitar riffs. —JT | LISTEN

 Jusell, Prymek, Sage, Shiroishi, Setsubun (節分)

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The collaboration between saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi, violinist Chris Jusell, guitarist Chaz Prymek, as well as percussionist and keyboardist Matthew Sage started in the pandemic. Last fall, the ambient jazz quartet released the stunning Fuubutsushi (風物詩), an album that felt totally lived-in and organic even though each musician recorded their own parts remotely in different states. February’s Setsubun (節分) is a sequel to their 2020 LP, with heavily textured and evocative arrangements that calm as much as perplex. (In fact, this is the second installment of a four-part series tied to the seasons: there’s fall’s Fuubutsushi (風物詩), winter’s Setsubun (節分), spring’s Yamawarau (山笑う), and a forthcoming summer LP). But here, on Setsubun, the four are at their most contemplative and winsome with the siren-featuring closer “Hesitant Optimism” and the short but dense “Tsundora.” —JT | LISTEN.

Maple Glider, To Enjoy Is the Only Thing 

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No other folk artist has had a fully-formed and breathtaking debut album as Melbourne singer-songwriter Tori Zietsch. As Maple Glider, Zietsch’s songs, anchored by her soaring voice, are beautiful and gut-wrenchingly honest. Zeitsch’s voice is stunning and hair-raising, and she shines in her lyrics, especially on the devastating “Good Thing.” “But I guess that's how we learn / By setting fire to things that bring us life / Before we've got to watch them burn,” she sings. It’s a song about a breakup, but the way she sings it, it feels like its stakes are life and death. —JT | LISTEN.

McKinley Dixon, For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her 

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Richmond, Virginia rapper and poet McKinley Dixon treats his album For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her like an auteur directing a masterpiece. In fact, this LP serves as the closing chapter in a trilogy that includes 2016’s Who Taught You to Hate Yourself? and 2018’s The Importance of Self Belief. There’s a righteous clarity in his creative vision for the LP, both in the sprawling and genre-traversing arrangements and in his  defiant lyrics that tackle generational trauma, systemic racism, grief and familial bonds. Opener “Chain Sooo Heavy” and the horn-laden “Never Will Know'' especially shine, but the unflinchingly autobiographical “Mama’s Home” features guest Alfred. joining with lines like, “And I’m a motherfucking human, rapping lucid on the harp / I'm probably down to die for my art / I definitely don’t know what I’m doing / And I’m moving through the bullshit, by my prayers and angels / Close to familiar / But at best I’m a stranger.” —JT | LISTEN.

Mereba, AZEB 

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War is a constant theme across AZEB’s seven tracks, but Los Angeles-based Mereba isn’t referencing tension abroad—she’s speaking of what’s happening on American soil. “Freedom for my people is urgent / Tell me who are you servin’?” she sings on the folksy “News Come.” She’s not afraid to acknowledge that this war she sings about—one waged against Black Americans—and the system that enables it, may be new to some, but not everyone. In a time that has felt ripe for shattering cultural and societal norms, still there is a rush to return back to how things were. Though on “Go(l)d,” Mereba doesn’t think that’s possible. “...We’re not the same / Oh, ‘cause a lot has changed.” —Kristin Corry | LISTEN.

Mia Joy, Spirit Tamer  

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Throughout Spirit Tamer, Mia Rocha’s debut LP as Mia Joy, her soft voice floats over reverb-laden guitars and spectral arrangements. These songs excel in patient, unhurried atmospherics, commanding attention through subtlety, and it’s Rocha’s intensely personal songwriting that leaves the most powerful impression. Take the ethereal “See Us,” where Rocha sings, “I’m not my father, you're not your mother / I know we can make it different for us” or the brooding “Haha,” which features lines as unsettling as “I tried to keep my body in one piece / My skin, its sheds in my sleep.” Spirit Tamer is the perfect come-down from a turbulent year. —JT | LISTEN.

Renée Reed, Renée Reed 

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Hailing from Lafayette, Louisiana, Renée Reed describes her music as “fantasy folk from the cajun prairies.” Just listen to a song as transportive as “Neboj” and it’s obvious what she means. Steeped in Acadian musical history and the lore of her home state, Reed makes folk music that feels relevant today but couldn’t have been made without centuries of musical tradition. On “Où est la fée,” she sings in French and is backed by almost spooky organs and piano. It’s unsettling and gorgeous, a balance Reed strikes expertly throughout the LP. —JT | LISTEN.

Sun Seeker, A Sunrise in a Basement 

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Nashville indie rockers Sun Seeker write melodies so effortless that the trio’s debut LP, A Sunrise in a Basement, is probably the year’s breeziest listen. Compared to their local peers, this trio eschews rootsy Americana for potent power pop, boasting tightly wound and hook-laden singles like “Gettin’ Tired” and the ebullient “Button Up.” Frontman Alex Benick is an inviting presence on all these songs, especially the melancholic, boozy, and subtly twangy “Nobody.” But when he’s backed by guest vocalists Liza Anne and Emily Hall on tracks like “Raining In My Head” the harmonies are outstanding. Each of these ten songs are so easy to love that it’s impossible to not root for this band to take the next leap forward. —JT | LISTEN.

Tex Crick, Live In... New York City 

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While finalizing his first album, Tex Crick pretended to be a jilted wife looking for proof of a cheating husband’s infidelities and hired a private investigator so he could be followed and photographed around Manhattan. While the P.I. didn’t find any evidence of wrongdoing, the New Zealand-born songwriter ended up with a gorgeous, Central Park-shot album cover for his debut Live In… New York City. Though Crick is a prankster (Live In… New York City isn’t even a live album), he takes his reverence for 70s songwriters and timeless melodies seriously. Across ten understated by stunning piano-led tracks, Crick expertly sets a laidback mood. Songs like “Sometimes I Forget” and “The Way You Are” stand apart from the bunch but the whole thing is a seamless testament to how thoughtful a properly sequenced album can be. —JT | LISTEN.

Tha God Fahim, & Your Old Droog, Tha Wolf on Wall Street 

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On this EP, frequent collaborators Tha God Fahim and Your Old Droog trade bars over spacious, 90s sample-driven beats produced by Fahim. The production fits the duo like an Armani suit, which is fitting, given the album title. The pair has released multiple projects this year—both together and solo—though you might’ve missed them in the new releases section of Spotify or Apple Music. That might be a calculated move. “Strategic planning / All organic, no streaming farms,” Droog raps on “Cannon,” a brief but accurate summation of both of their paths to acclaim. Fahim describes why their pairing works on “Gupta,” featuring Mach-Hommy. “Two heads is better than one / that’s if we all coherent.”  —Ashwin Rodrigues | LISTEN.

Udababy, Udababy LP 

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Udababy is the rap duo of Chicago’s Joshua Virtue and Davis, co-founders of one of the city’s most essential underground labels, Why? Records. In both their solo careers and this collaboration, a Bandcamp-exclusive, Davis and Virtue thrive on absurdist, politically-charged lyrics and inventive, crate-digging samples. Udababy LP feels vital, a document of Chicago hip-hop weirdos and reverent rap heads cooking. There’s a freewheeling spirit and an unbridled swagger throughout the tracklist that has just as much bite as acts like Armand Hammer and their hero MF Doom. —JT | LISTEN.

Underscores, fishmonger 

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This album is probably the most efficient answer to any future civilizations asking what music was like in the 21st century because it contains absolutely everything in just over 30 minutes. Opening with lap steel-driven garage rock before taking a playful ride through hyperpop, pop punk, Soundcloud rap, emo and more, fishmonger takes a baseball bat to nostalgia and puts the pieces back together in a dizzying order that’s just recognizable enough.

It’s the first long-form project California-based artist Devon Karpf has released under the underscores moniker, and not a single second is spared or wasted. The album’s ten tracks are constantly interrupting and tripping over themselves, refining two decades’ worth of sounds into bite-sized anthems that bristle with a sense of youthful excitement and impatience. Smart, inventive songwriting from the cutting edge of pop music. —Emma Garland | LISTEN.

Various Artists, Big Femme Energy, Vol. 1  

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Big Femme Energy is exactly what it sounds like: a female-driven compilation of features from rappers like Rapsody and R&B offerings from songstresses like Kiana Ledé. Even the producers and engineers are women. Brimming with positive affirmations on songs like Sinead Hartnett’s “Crown,” Big Femme Energy doesn’t get so saccharine that it doesn’t reserve space for the range of emotions a woman can feel. “If There Really Is a God” by Australian singer SAYGRACE is a beautiful standout track, with her velvety vocals adding a layer of emotion to the song. Interpolating Brandy’s “Have You Ever?” SAYGRACE contemplates an unrequited love so heavy that it hurts. “It’s so cruel to fill my heart with fire that only burns for you,” she sings. Even in these musings, the compilation’s mission is still at the top of mind. The God SAYGRACE sings about is also a woman. There is beauty in the details. —KC | LISTEN.