Long overdue: My favorite albums of 2021

Poised to put a bike track and a zipline in the other-other crib: Tyler, The Creator.

One of the many things that hip-hop has in common with the Internet: before it belonged to the world, it belonged to the nerds. It was nerds who reveled in the minutia of the genre, and nerds who converted hip-hop from the Bronx party music of the yes y’allin’ period to the dense, skills-based, language-intensive, self-referential ‘80s and ’90 art form we remember so fondly. Golden Age hip-hop was extraordinarily nerd-driven, and we know this in part because only history nerds talk about Golden Ages. Rap’s pivotal early movers were nerdy people — politics nerds like Chuck D, obsessive record collectors like Rick Rubin, clever-clever culture jammers like Prince Paul, budding literati like Slick Rick, true gamesters like Kool Keith, theologians like Prince Be, autodidacts like KRS-ONE. Only a nascent form of popular music could have accommodated this. Lucky you, you got to live through it.

We nerds like block parties as much as the next normie, especially if there is a contest to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar. We’ve got a formula for that. But once we got our hands on hip-hop, it was never going to stay in the park. We nerds are not in the mood to throw our hands in the air and wave them like we just don’t care, and that’s because we do care. It’s been a bad day; things did not go right.  We need a larger-than-life scenario to insert ourselves into, some elbow-throwing braggadocio, some declarations of superpowers and application of those superpowers in a detailed storytelling context, words to memorize and samples to recognize. The brain requires some lighting up. The booty needs some backup.

Those crowd-pleasing Internet rappers who tickle millions via TikTok do not satisfy the same cravings. Idiosyncratic dudes wrote the original hip-hop rules, and there are still plenty of nerds out there experimenting with language and form and making grand statements. Take Tyler Okonma, creator of a sound that resembles no one else’s — a sound that amalgamates Stevie Wonder chords, sunshine pop, syrupy backing vocals and thick, blocky drums, a little tropical nonsense and murk in the mix, melted butter synthesizer, energetic, growly stung-on-the-ass-by-a-bumblebee rapping. These days, Tyler’s profile is like something straight out of the Sarah Records catalog: lovelorn, yarn-spinning, melody-drunk, fussy, bisexual, identified with Baudelaire. And butthurt, of course, because nerds are so often butthurt.

The reason Tyler is upset is one that ought to be familiar to nerds worldwide. A pretty girl has led him on and let him down. The catch, explained in detail on Call Me If You Get Lost, is that the pretty girl wasn’t fair game: she was already involved with one of his friends. Ever cagy, Tyler doesn’t come out and tell you this straight away — he hints at it, insinuates it, and dances around it for a good forty minutes, playing little mind games with his audience, his collaborators, himself, and with the girl, who he continually addresses out of the corners of his mouth while he’s yelling to the rest of us about his lifestyle. Then, on the penultimate track, the dam breaks. “Wilshire” is eight and a half minutes of sustained storytelling, and a full, minutely detailed catalog of the entire non-affair, from its flirty beginning to the acts of self-deception that sustained it to its inevitable conclusion in tears. “My shirt look like a showerhead got it,” Tyler concedes, proving himself as artfully lachrymose as Robert Wratten of Trembling Blue Stars, and just as adept at investigating the treacherous dynamics of infidelity. It was never going to end in dry eyes; Wratten could have told him that. The effect of “Wilshire” is seismic, excoriating, scalding; Tyler questions his motivations, her motivations, the motivations of his nearly cuckolded mate, searches around for an appropriate place to assign the blame, gives up, calls himself a bad person, and finally points the finger at love itself. “All the morals and power you have just vanish when a certain energy is nearing,” Tyler mumbles, exhausted, in the outro. He claims to have done the whole thing in two possessed takes. I believe him.

Why does it take Tyler fifteen songs, some of them ostentatiously blithe, all of them amped and frazzled and more than a little mad, to get around to telling us what’s eating him?  Well, remember: he’s a huge nerd. One who introduced himself with kill people/burn shit/fuck school, sure, but anybody who mistook that for an actual act of provocation didn’t know thing #1 about the desperate one-upmanship that characterizes the competition for attention among rappers, and teenagers, and boys in general. Even during the days when Odd Future was the scourge of the Moral Majority, Tyler was a master of indirection, a smoke-and-mirrors conjurer, concealing his wounded heart (and his queer sexuality) behind the monstrous mask of the angry emcee. Here and there, he’d let the façade slip; it’s not inaccurate to say that knowing when to let that guard down was, and is, central to his artistry. The Flower Boy album was one great game of peek-a-boo that culminated in a dance through a field of daisies. On Igor, Tyler falls for a male friend, but ultimately fails to outflank the friend’s heterosexual partner. But not until Call Me If You Get Lost does he rap the line that explains these sets, and maybe his entire writing career: “everyone I have ever loved had to be loved in the shadows,” he tells us on “Massa.” And as the sun goes down, no shadows hang longer than the ones we create ourselves.

To get him through those first fourteen tracks of darting from shadow to shadow, limping, hemorrhaging, and hollering as he dashes, switching styles and flows, entertaining/distracting you with lovely tessellations of words, Tyler demands a pep talk. And since, as he often reminds us, he’s got a big budget now, he’s shelled out for copious hype from hip-hop’s cheesiest, and therefore most effective, hype man: DJ Drama. For those who don’t remember the craziest excesses of the mixtape era, Drama was the big-voiced dude who screamed all over those Gangsta Grillz compilations he put together in the ‘00s. No bragging too outrageous, no superlative too absurd, every hypercharged claim designed to make the fact-checkers’ hair stand on end and turn white. On Call Me If You Get Lost, Drama is Ricky Linderman to Tyler’s Melvin Moody, Jordan Catalano to Tyler’s Brian Krakow, Drillbit Taylor to Tyler’s Ryan the Geek. He’s the authenticator, the bodyguard, the cool guy, filling the air with boasts about Tyler-supremacy so wonderfully ludicrous that they practically satirize themselves: “This is what it sounds like when the moon and the sun collide!” “Just too lavish to post on the ‘gram!” “We on a yacht! A young lady just fed me French Vanilla ice cream!” Soon it becomes apparent that without this supersonic act of sustained puffery, Tyler would be sunk — he’s taken an L, as he tells us several times, of the worst kind. He’s wiped out and weary, unsure of his ethics, worried about his desirability, and angry that his opulence hasn’t bought him what he really wants.

Is this not what we’ve asked of hip-hop from time immemorial?  What rap fan among us hasn’t chased away a terrible event by hollering along to a ridiculous boast track, or lost ourselves momentarily through identification with a bad boy or girl, someone irresistible, larger-than-life, able to fend off slights and laugh away heartache in the offhand manner we always wish we could?  Because swagger is just the wounded soul’s attempt to transcend its own frailty.  If hip-hop wasn’t a tonic for misfortune, we wouldn’t keep mixing it up with the blues. Tyler once tried to dispel his own insecurities by being as foul-mouthed and equal-opportunity-offensive as he could. That’s an old game, and one that was a little beneath him, even when he was a teenager; older, wiser, and more heartbroken, he’s more self-conscious about his own strategies.  Funnier and more ironic, too.  

As he does not have patience with half-measures, he’s also all in with the mixtape conceit. Call Me If You Get Lost is full of guest verses — amazingly good guest verses, including some actual quality rapping from Pharrell (!) and searing bars from Lil Wayne that had to have been unearthed from a mid-’00s time capsule. Astoundingly, none of this upstages Tyler in the slightest, or interferes with the through-stories or scene-setting; it’s all perfectly paced to generate excitement and add color to the protagonist’s journey to self-excoriation, or enlightenment, or some amalgam of the two.  It helps that Tyler is, when he wants to be, one of the very best rappers around: an oaken-voiced growler with immediate vocal I.D., supreme intelligibility, and a wry undercurrent running through everything he says.  

I’m not often right about artists’ futures.  With Tyler, I always knew.  Back in 2011, when the New York Times and NPR were wringing their hands over Odd Future and Australia was considering extradition, I wrote in a family newspaper that Tyler was a traditionalist entertainer at heart, one with a firm grasp on pop compositional strategies and an ear for jazz and soul harmony, and that this would all become apparent in the long run. Anybody who watched Tyler at awards shows, sitting with his momma and clapping like a schoolyard goof to artists he liked, had to recognize that this was not the goblin of the popular imagination.  He was always a good bet to make classic albums.  He’s done three of them now — none better than the brilliant, beautiful, lovelorn, generous, travel-happy set he gifted us last summer. One for the aficionados and the rap obsessors, the heartbroken and bewildered, and those willing to have a good laugh, and a good cry, at Tyler’s expense: 

Best Album of 2021

Best Album Cover

Caroline Kingsbury — Heaven’s Just A Flight. What can I say?, I like kissing, and nice shoes, and well-lit parallelograms.

Best Album Title

Saint Etienne‘s I’ve Been Trying To Tell You. Good handle for a mostly-instrumental set from a normally wordy group.

Best Liner Notes And Packaging

Natalia LafourcadeUn Canto Por Mexico, Vol. 2

Most Welcome Surprise

I thought I had Magdalena Bay pegged as mere ‘net content providers, not synth-disco provocateurs with a stack of prog classics to pinch textures from. They sure showed me.

Biggest Disappointment

For instance, this year, Magdalena Bay out-progged the suddenly ham-handed Steven Wilson. I’m not really sure what he was doing with The Future Bites. While I agree with his points about commodity fetishism and alienation, it all sung about as well as treatises usually do. I love an argumentative record, and I’m usually willing to sacrifice a little melody on behalf of a good polemic. But some albums are better as essays, and this was one of them. And if Steven were to sit down and write that essay, I’m sure I’d read it. So maybe he should?

Album That Opens Most Strongly

The first three songs on Mito by La Lá (Giovanna Nuñez) are a gorgeous fusion of Peruvian folk, pan-Latin jazz, bossa nova, and tweepop. The rest of the album isn’t up to that very high standard, but it’s all very good; this was a strong contender for the #20 position on the list above.

Album That Closes Most Strongly

It’s hard to beat the one-two-three punch that closes Any Shape You Take: the party at emotional ground zero of “Hold U,” followed by the gesture of radical acceptance on “Way Out,” followed by the suicide chorus — so dark it’s downright hilarious — of “Kill Me”. But there’s simply no topping the conclusion of Illusory Walls. The World Is A Beautiful Place caps two fifteen-plus minute epics with the fiercest accusation hurled at God since Randy Newman’s Sail Away, and then marches through a glorious callback to “Getting Sodas,” the finale of their first album, with David Bello and Katie Dvorak singing, as hard as they can, keeping their little flames lit against the odds. For an hour and change, they outline, in unsparing verse, all the ways in which the cruel and competitive world we’ve made is killing us all. They know they’re going under, too. But they won’t go down without a fight. And to that end…

Album That Most Deserves A Laser Show

Illusory Walls might be the best progressive rock album any band has made since Fish left Marillion. That it’s also 100% emo is largely incidental, but it does further raise stakes that were already high. I’ve got to think Roger Waters would approve.

2021 Album I Listened To The Most

Cassandra JenkinsAn Overview On Phenomenal Nature. We saw Phenomenal Nature at the Breuer, too, and I believe we talked to the same security guard that Cassandra did. Maybe she was there when we were there. We wouldn’t have known. We’d just staggered up from the hospital after getting bad news from the doctors, and we were reeling. I would have identified with Cassandra’s flight from grief and psychological disintegration in any case; the fact that we shared the experience of the Mrinalini Mukherjee show was too sweet a coincidence to waste. So when Perry with the gemstone eyes assures Cassandra that 2021 would be a good year, and encourages her to take a deep breath and count to ten, you can be sure I counted along.

2021 Album That Wore Out The Quickest

Pom Pom SquadDeath Of A Cheerleader

Most Convincing Historical Recreation

Cool GhoulsAt George’s Zoo. Moby Grape, somebody still loves you.

Best Sequenced Album

I always kinda liked the loopy, pot-zonked Uruguayan singer-songwriter Juan Wauters, but I doubted he had the focus necessary to make a great album. Sometimes strange circumstances catch you and blow you wide open, though, and in 2020, Wauters was between cultures, cornered by the global health crisis, and possibly out of doobage. The fog lifted, and Wauters delivered what I’ve come to see as the definitive musical document of the early pandemic era in New York City: bewildered, guarded, hopeful, sometimes hippie-angry, and sometimes even angry-angry, spiked with the voices of those left to bear the brunt of the storm. And for those who skipped town for Wyoming or wherever, hiding out on a farm while poor people kept NYC running, Wauters has a message: to you, the city was never camaraderie/it was only a commodity. He’s not going to forget. So I won’t, either.

Crummy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

Ashley MonroeRosegold. I love Ashley enough to give her the benefit of every doubt, but those were some limp corn cakes.

Album That Sounded Like It Was Fun To Make

Aaron Frazer‘s pure soul workout Introducing…

Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make

CHVRCHESScreen Violence

Album You Learned The Words To The Most Quickly

The Ballad Of Dood And Juanita. Hey, I remember entire episodes of The Dukes Of Hazzard, too. Also…

Album That Should Have Been Longer

Dood And Juanita. I needed one more expository number in between the tragic death of Sam the Hound and Dood’s miraculous rescue by the Cherokee. Maybe something with Uncle Jesse in it.

Album That Should Have Been Shorter

Donda, of course. It’s very good, though. Don’t deny yourself it’s pleasures because… aw heck, I’m tired of running interference for this fucking guy. If you never want to hear Kanye’s voice again, I can’t blame you.

Album That Turned Out To Be A Whole Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Thought It Was At First

Montero. Initially, I was annoyed that Lil Nas X had exchanged wry, subversive Internet-era commentary for over-the-top mallpunk. Then I remember that I’m from New Jersey, and here in New Jersey, we know that one good over-the-top mallpunk song is worth all the wry, subversive content on the Internet. And Montero has more than one good over-the-top mallpunk song on it.

Album That Was The Most Fun To Listen To

Kiwi Jr. — Cooler Returns

Album You Regret Giving The Time Of Day To

Lorde’s phone-it-in Solar Power.

Album You Feel Cheapest About Liking As Much As You Do

See tomorrow’s essay.

Album You Don’t Feel Cheap About Liking In The Slightest

I’ve written a lot about Morgan Wallen this year, and I don’t suppose I’ve convinced anybody of anything, because Morgan is a very hard guy to warm up to, and this is not a time in American history when we ought to be humoring the perspectives he gives voice to on the aptly-titled Dangerous. Nevertheless, I’d like to point out that a lot of country bumpkins have attempted to fuse roots music and hip-hop rhythms. Some have even done it pretty well. But nobody has even made that integration happen half as seamlessly as Morgan did on Dangerous, and yes, you can go ahead and call that ironic if you like. I’m just glad it happened, and I’ll continue to celebrate it. When Morgan closed 2021 by saying he’d like to work with Kendrick Lamar, I don’t think that was just a marketing move. I see that as a backchannel in the culture wars, and one that our showbiz diplomats might do well to keep open.

Okay, singles and stuff tomorrow!