2021 Albums of the Year; 20–11.

steve cuocci
12 min readJan 3, 2022


20. Ovlov — Buds
Infinite Buzz

The guitar tone on this record sounds like it was nurtured and grown organically at home while being spoken to gently and positively in the purest of daylight. It’s robust and full and gorgeous, scratching on the back of your ears like an ASMRian delight. The songs that the instrument is employed on somewhat remind me at times of Wilco (Strokes) and of Blonde Redhead (Eat More). Ethereal pedals and vocals are employed at times, drifting between headspins, getting lost in sunset thoughts. And back to back at times, there will be an upbeat, energetic, and fast-paced song that shows the band firing on all cylinders at a breakneck speed. I think the name of the game throughout is restraint, as there is a lucid dreaming attitude about it all, keeping the listener at a steady hum, rocked to a delicate sleep and not wanting to be disturbed or allowed to wake, but not sinking so deep that we lose the fantasy. Even the way the drums are recorded sound like they’re produced in a universe of static and being transmitted through a radio wave from a satellite in deep space. There seems to be a sunny disposition throughout each track, an album that will be perfect to throw on while sitting on the back porch with a beer and a book. Can’t wait.

Check Out: Strokes

19. Kipp Stone — Faygo Baby
Copasetic Confessional

A liquid smooth midwestern flow is the spotlight on this quick seven track EP. And while ‘sensitive’ isn’t the coolest, isn’t the best way to advertise a hip-hop record, I would say that the lyrics that lace this one front to back are in touch with reality, and illustrate a realistic portrayal of a man’s life. The examination of his day to day is on display in every verse that he’s put to paper, describing his relationships with people as flawed and imbalanced structures, describing his means and his situations as constructions of his behaviors, actions and history. This is one of the most authentic lyricists I’ve listened to in a minute, and truly, anyone can write a diary but Kipp doesn’t sacrifice any of his lyrical nuance or skill in order to put a highlight on honesty. This record reads as proof that you can give a rapper who is invested in his craft any subject, any target, including himself, and they’ll spit something that will have you sit back and rehearing the line in your mind again and again.

Check Out: Thoughts to Expand On

18. Deafheaven — Infinite Granite
The Pulse of the Void

Deafheaven’s legacy has been marked by extremes. Tunneled roars coupled with meditative explorations of the many ways in which metal can be framed as that which it is not. They’ve used their adjacencies to catalyze raw human emotions not only from the listeners, but very clearly from the band themselves. From the earliest moments of Infinite Granite, if you’ve dipped back through any measure of their library, you can see that this is going to be a whole new experience. The dimensions of the vehicle remain the same, though the blades have been traded for blooms. After my first complete listen through of this album, I had to find myself some forgiveness for spending so much of my time waiting for the axe to fall. Waiting for the sublime experience to blacken, waiting for the plowshares to draw swords. There have been few experiences in music where I thought that which was lurking around a corner had never come. And what makes these songs so beautiful is the fact that in their wake behind them, the band has set their own scales, waged their own wars on exactly what it means to terraform enormous places that have yet to be pioneered, and then to make a map in an image of their choosing. The songs are intense, but not abrasive. They compare more to staring out into a vast open expanse and having a revelation at the place we have in the universe. Songs that are stripped down still maintain the same sense of enormity that the bigger songs have as the audio flecks start to create a sonar effect of the space the soundscape has created. I think the thing I keep coming back to is the size, and that’s what speaks the most to me throughout this record. This is just such a beautiful place to get lost in.

Check Out: Great Mass of Color

17. John Dwyer, Ryan Sawyer, Peter Kerlin, Tom Dolas, Brad Caulkins, Kyp Malone, Marcos Rodriguez, Ben Boye, Joce Soubiran, Laena Myers-Ionita, & Andres Renteria — Moon Drenched
Disassociation Therapy

I wasn’t quite sure how to credit this one, because the album name, Moon Drenched, may have been the collective name? Or the album title? I wasn’t sure. So I wanted to be sure to at least credit people appropriately. This is a psychoactive freakout plugged into a modular pedal board and spun like a top into the night. Jazz is the closest genre I can tie to it, but I think if you took a Santana or Hendrix record and sewed all of the interludes, all of the guitar sounds that rested between the iconic solos, if you took Miles Davis at his most lucid, and trimmed around the edge and kept what was on the cutting room floor and baked them in a pot, Moon Drenched is what you’d end up with. It’s a phase out record, an album that will have your aura shiver into a kaleidoscope of colors both on and off the prismatic scale. Long howls from within the instruments yelp out, sounds that musicians would have to exorcise and enact through some unorthodox rites, through behaviors not typical of how you would use the instrument. These artists push music past its basic form.

Check Out: The War Clock

16. Pupil Slicer — Mirrors
Free From Mercy

This album ruthlessly applies the pressure. It is a vicious ransom note of forms and styles that promises no reward and asks for no currency. And yet for all its mercilessness, there is direction that can be functioned from the black neon pulses and the rumbling tectonics. In the midst of trying to sort out the violence, you will be able to find through lines the color of cloud, to trace the kintsugi in the fractures that have formed to make it a solid whole. If, when you come up for air you need a reprieve, you will find it in a pocket of acceptance of the new frenzy that the world has been shaped into by the blasts, by the hurt, by the menace. There are no fun parts, no moments that seem like they were planned for a great live performance. All of these seem like they were baked in a dark, small, sweaty studio out of necessity, the ingredients all noxious and foaming, terrible and distorted. I love the way this music makes me feel something absolutely gnarly, putrid and unforgivable. Something wrong.

Check Out: L’appel Du Vide

15. Knocked Loose — A Tear In the Fabric of Life
Face to the Flame

Jesus Christ. Listening to this record is like taking every pint of blood in your body out and playing the shell game with it, hoping only to find it all back in your veins by the end of it. It cuts the cords on your brakes and sends you onto the open freeway without a prayer. The stakes forever grow higher and higher. Things scream at you about survival, about regret, about never looking back. All of the songs on the record are joined together as if they are some late night radio program, and while there are only half a dozen songs, each one bares a new depth from which you might not escape. No compromise can be found, only the brace for impact. This record is like an injection, one which will dilate the pupils and turn your capillaries into open canyons.

Check Out: Where Light Divides the Holler

14. Lana Del Rey — Blue Banisters
Violets Under Glass

I hate this preface for any album, any artist, any song, but here it is: with this one, you actually have to listen. Lana’s legacy has been glamorous and elegant, with a lace of honesty and longing that is about the closest that many of us will come to seeing the woman in a flowing dress leaning on a piano singing her tears out. But for the uninitiated, for those who listened to ‘Video Games’ or ‘Summertime Sadness’ or ‘Diet Mountain Dew’ and decided to dive into the rest of her collection, I think a lot of it will sound the same, all of it tinted in the same faded photography and uncared for film stock. On this album, the first three songs (which I think she’s called ‘The Trio’) stick together like a length of diary written in the same locked journal, a story of loneliness, a story of someone trying to rejuvenate a love that surely existed (she knows it; she can still shape it with her fingers) but has died, has run, has disappeared. And she’s trying to reconstruct either it or herself. These first three songs aren’t particularly different from her other songs. Mostly they follow her format, and they sound fine. But it’s the narrative that turns it to gold. And I think the currency which Lana operates with on this record is her past, her nostalgia for it, her honesty about it and her desire to share it as openly as if she were speaking to a mirror. A lot of this record may be shining an accusatory light on my own personal shadow self, but the lyrics all seem to be speaking from the place of a woman who has trudged through it, has forgiven it all, has stood beside her deeply flawed man for years, and doesn’t expect the best from him, just wishes for it again and again. She sees a dream for the two of them despite the damage he’s done, and she keeps a level head. She wears the pain like a gown. Something about this record feels like a retrospective, like she’s looking back across her entire career, her entire life as if it’s something that’s already been lived, a historical account of herself. She is at the peak of her strengths and yet she has the wisdom to know that none of it can be put to use in retrospect, and without the footfalls the failures and the flaws, she wouldn’t be the powerhouse she is today. I love Lana. I loved ‘Born to Die’, I loved it a lot. But across the other records, the ones she slowly deconstructs her relationships, her perspective and herself, I think I grew to love her more. This is a record for all of the forgivenesses that we never deserved, for all the things we forgot that we didn’t think she noticed, for all the things she wore that we never mentioned, and all the ways that we let our existence try to speak louder than our participation.

Check Out: Arcadia

13. Manchester Orchestra — The Million Masks of God
A Man Transcended

Without question, Bed Head was one of the greatest singles I’d heard leading into a record. It captured me immediately, and when I knew the record was coming out in a few months, I made the mistake of expecting the album to be 10–12 versions of this song with little variance. I must have forgotten that two of Manchester’s albums are some of my favorites ever, and that throughout their entire library, the diversity is vast. So when I started creeping through the singles, and then the release, I was a little nonplused. So selfish. The more I listened, the more I found a direct line to a sentience that Andy Hull was speaking to. The more it felt like a gift that I was able to take part in, like I had wiretapped his conversation with Om and was eavesdropping on revelation. I stepped back and had to accept that none of their records are ever direct throughlines on a theme, but instead entire installations. I had to accept that each album is a different season, a different form of communique, each of them approaches a central theme in languages broad and unfamiliar. I watched a “studio” live performance of “A Black Mile to the Surface” and instead of letting it inform me, I let it put that record (and its expectations) to bed. When I was finally ready to sit with The Million Masks of God (what an album title), it was new and beautiful. There is clarity in these songs, a distinct lack of slow-boiled rage and pent-up frustration. These songs seem to have opened up like blooming leaves. The size and swell of the songs feel like enormous moments of understanding and acceptance whereas they used to feel like the enactment of… vengeance? Or inflicting some kind of final say. There is no external conflict, no jury or antagonist. This feels like a conversation with a deeper self, a slowly rising glowing orb of light from the chest to the skull. The voice of a child chimes in time and again, recounting the parable of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a story that is an early warning against the ploys of breaking the trust of innocence. And in the end, when that child tells us what the lesson they learned from the tale is, there’s that same cyclic sense of closure where all fables should end, the sense that since we have learned what The Boy learned, that we will never do it again. That we will learn the weight of the contract of trust and never breach it again. In the same glow that the band basks through these songs of hope and faith, we can sink into a state of composure through these same songs, trading their older messages of loss, of regret, of loss for affirmation, for strength and for acceptance.

Check Out: Dinosaur

12. Mick Jenkins — Elephant In the Room
Product of Understanding the Craft

The textures on this hip-hop record are exquisite. The slow care put into the production is what really makes it stand out above all else. Jenkins’ rapping style is carefree and loose, something that allows the verses to breathe, lets you wrap your mind around them without having to sift through throngs of flossing and bragging, instead crafting a steady diet of street stories, smoke sessions and class struggles. The songs are written with a strong sense of how to illustrate a message, how to attack a rhyme with a motive without letting it get lost in showing off how clever the bars are going to be. I love how the hooks come in without feeling like we’re traveling down a canal, caught in the locks, made to endure the chorus written in one room and combined with the rhyme penned in another. Mick has the ability to know exactly when to stick with the rhyming in its purest form and then switch lanes fast to the mumble style without leaning too heavily into making it sound like he’s doing it to bring the record into the light of relevance. There is such a concerted interest in maintaining the presence of “good music” throughout the album as well. Just such a great record. Always gonna have eyes on Mick from now on.

Check Out: Things You Could Die For If Doing While Black

11. Big Brave — Vital
A Rending Communion

The music this band creates has always incited some kind of ritual mania within me. The heavy chords that repeat and rain down like igneous tephra marry with the yelping witchcraft of Robin Wattie’s vocals to create a forty minute incantation. The sounds that linger in the boiler room of the factory of this record speak of a haunting, of an exorcism, of a wicked blessing. There are sounds of anvils, of humming diodes. There are enormous landscapes of ruined cities reaching like broken teeth from the black miles of sand. There are ironed out and exhibitionist silences. It’s a beautiful darkness.

Check Out: Abating the Incarnation of Matter