2021 was a big year for the music industry’s biggest names. Drake, Kanye and Lorde all made long-awaited returns – though each to mixed results.
Billie Eilish took a tonal left turn with her sophomore record, Doja Cat cranked up the catchiness with her third, and Adele’s fourth record 30 was a reminder that she’s still the top dog when it comes to breakup balladry. And that’s not even mentioning Olivia Rodrigo, Lil Nas X, Taylor Swift’s early record do-overs – and the return of euro pop titans ABBA.
But, further afield, some of the very best music of last year was being released – and to far less fanfare than it probably deserved. From explorations of climate disaster and racial injustice, to infectious indie bops; from resurrecting long-dead genres, to making something wholly new; the underground of the music world sparked to life in 2021.
From the obscure to the absurd, including some underrated jams from slightly smaller big names, to some truly left-field picks, here’s a list of some of the highlights of last year, in no specific order, starting off with…
Noname – Rainforest
Simply one of 2021’s most stunning releases, Rainforest is a track that hits hard on a lyrical level in a way few can match. Backed by a lush, gorgeously constructed jazz instrumental, Noname weaves late-capitalist poetry, a manifesto for change in a world that so sorely needs it. There’s meaning bound up in every bar without feeling overwritten; it speaks to huge societal issues without feeling played out or preachy; most of all, Rainforest is just beautiful. A revolutionary songwriter in every sense of the word, if there’s a new world to be built from the disasters we’re living through, Noname has already penned the soundtrack.
Lil Ugly Mane – Porcelain Slightly
Once a grimy, uncompromising and twisted hip-hop artist, Lil Ugly Mane has turned a huge corner on his latest record Volcanic Bird Enemy and the Voiced Concern. Trading nihilism and distorted beats for fuzzy, lo-fi and slightly off-kilter guitars and samples, there’s more rock to Porcelain Slightly than there is the hip hop that Lil Ugly Mane built his career on. But – despite being a major departure from past output – there’s something warm, and nostalgic about the indie slacker-rock track that is immediately captivating. Folding in elements of 90s and 00s alternative rock and hip hop into a mellow, laid-back earworm, this is a truly underrated gem of last year.
Jpegmafia – HAZARD DUTY PAY!
It’s not an understatement to say that JPEGMAFIA is probably the most underrated hip-hop artist around right now. Blending the catchiness and vibrance of pop with grimy, experimental and flawless production, Peggy’s LP! was one of the year’s best underground hip hop records by a country mile. So, you might think it’s odd that the record’s best track, HAZARD DUTY PAY! wasn’t actually on the record – at least on streaming platforms. Due to an issue getting the beat’s sample cleared for release, the single is only available on youtube and bandcamp – but what a song it is. A funky, lush soul instrumental forms the backdrop for one of Peggy’s most uncompromising performances. Good enough to go toe to toe with Tyler, The Creator, Kanye or Kendrick, JPEGMAFIA is a rapper you absolutely should not sleep on.
Show Me The Body – Survive
Show Me The Body, like Noname, is another musical outfit defined by dissatisfaction with the world we find around us. Blending a huge range of influences from hip hop and industrial music, to sludge metal and hardcore punk, the NYC band are not for the faint-hearted. Rhythmic, driving, and never pulling a punch, they’re not a million miles from the post-punk wave that brought bands like Shame and IDLES to the top of the indie pile in the last few years. On Survive, Show Me The Body have distilled arguably one of their hardest hitting tracks to date, however. A stomping, raucous and vocally anti-police blitz, the song’s grim bite is a reflection of the tone shift in the USA in a post George Floyd world. If you need a song to be angry about injustice to, this is it.
Camp Cope – Blue
Heading down under, Camp Cope’s Blue was one of the most recent releases to make it on to this list, coming right at the end of 2021. A heartfelt indie-rock jam from one of Australia’s best bands, it’s the first track Camp Cope have released since their devastatingly honest and often emotionally raw How To Socialise and Make Friends. As catchy as they come, beautifully written and noticeably more mature than some of the band’s earlier work, Blue is a huge sign of what is to come from Camp Cope’s 2022 much-awaited third record. Jangly, bittersweet and mature, this is a properly good indie rock track.
Injury Reserve – Knees
One of the year’s most emotionally charged records, By The Time I Get To Phoenix was experimental hip-hop group Injury Reserve’s first record without founding member Steppa J. Groggs, who passed away in 2020. It’s of the few songs on the latest record to feature the rapper’s vocals – and boy does this single hit hard. A static, almost metronomic guitar stab rings throughout the track, accompanied by an almost entirely deconstructed beat – a stuttering backdrop for the band’s meditation on ageing, mortality and memory. Nearing the song’s close, Ritchie figuratively hands the microphone to the late Steppa – giving his bandmate a posthumous spotlight in way that’s just emotionally shattering. Unlike anything else you’ve heard this year, Knees is a true masterpiece.
Jeff Rosenstock – SKrAm!
To pick up the mood slightly, we go to the first oddity on this list. Singer-songwriter, punk multi-instrumentalist and utter genius Jeff Rosenstock released a record that seemed like a joke this year – but it turned out to be anything but. A total, honest-to-god Ska reworking of his 2020 gem NO DREAM, Ska Dream is a record that has no place being this good. Resurrecting a genre that should probably have been left to die in the 90s, SKrAm is just fun. Tackling economic and environmental collapse with trumpets, saxophones and an absolutely killer breakdown, this is the ska song 2021 never asked for, but absolutely deserved.
Turnstile – Blackout
It’s not every day that a hardcore punk band writes one of the catchiest rock records of the year, but you better believe that Turnstile managed that with 2021’s Glow On. Blackout captures everything the band does so well – blending their trademark buzzsaw aggression with honest-to-god catchy choruses, rich and dreamy production, and a few psychedelic notes – all whilst being just a lot of fun. Even if punk music isn’t your style usually – give this single a try. Groovy, energetic, vibrant and pummelling in just the right balance, with Blackout, Turnstile might just have carved out the shape of punk to come.
Dorian Electra – Gentleman (feat. Danny Brown) [Dollywood Remix]
Another reworked version of a 2020 banger, genderqueer hyperpop icon Dorian Electra returned in 2021 with some freshly beefed up remixes of their most recent record My Agenda. Unabashedly queer, flamboyant and drenched in irony, Gentleman wasn’t a true highlight prior to this remix, but now with a fatter bass and the unique vocal stylings of Danny Brown, this song is sure to get stuck in your head. It’s hard to capture just how good this track is without spoiling the bizarre twists and turns in store through Dorian Electra’s discography. An artist known for embracing some of the worst musical trends of the last 10 years, mashing them together, and making something unexpected, Dorian Electra is an oddball – but Gentleman is them at their very best.
Hey Cowboy! – Not 4 U
Spacey, serene and just a little bit weird, Hey Cowboy fit neatly into the niche that artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Faye Webster and even bigger names like HAIM have occupied for years now. Balancing indie sensibilities with dabblings into more niche genres like dreampop, shoegaze and bedroom pop, the band’s 2020 record Get in My Fanny Pack and Let’s Go was a shimmering slowburn of a record that went sorely underappreciated. Weird and ethereal simultaneously, Not 4 U may well be the band’s best track to date. Spurred on by a driving bassline, gliding vocal lines and a hint of dissonance that has become a staple of the band’s sound, this track is infectious, poppy and a real vibe.
Illuminati Hotties – Pool Hopping
What isn’t to love about Illuminati Hotties? Blending a fantastic sense of humour and wit with a fresh, energetic take on indie rock, the band’s third record is just such a summery breath of fresh air. Nothing typifies this more than Pool Hopping, the second single from the 2021 album, which comes with an almost hypnotically infectious bass riff that’s sure to pop into your head at 2am and keep you up for hours. The vocal performance is a huge highlight too, bursting at the seams with charisma and attitude. A great little earworm with personality oozing out of every beat.
Koyo – Moriches
There’s something really special about punk band Koyo that’s hard to put a finger on precisely. Between their high-energy riffs, early 2000s throwback songwriting and blend of melody and aggression, they’re not truly unique per se – but just really really good at what they do. Moriches is the band at their best, bringing elements of Foo Fighters-esque alternative rock together with pop punk and melodic hardcore inflections that make their music a dead-ringer for something off a Tony Hawk Pro Skater soundtrack. It’s fun, simple, catchy and comes from a place of love for a genre that’s fallen on harsh times in the last decade – and Koyo really deserve more attention.
Backxwash – I Lie Here Buried With My Rings And Dresses
Backxwash (pronounced Backwash) is something truly special. On paper, Ashanti Mutinta’s mix of black metal, industrial music, hardcore hip-hop and a deep rooting in occult imagery and themes might make for a slightly overdramatic sound, but the Zambian-Canadian rapper and producer’s recent output is anything but. Backwash’s 2021 record I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and Dresses received critical acclaim for being a dark, constantly surprising beast, and the eponymous lead single distils that all down into one 5-minute burst. Taking a hatchet to rap music and crafting something witchy and violent in the process, Backxwash might not be the most accessible artist – but she’s an innovative voice that can only get better in the future.
Jordana – Push Me Away [feat. Magdalena Bay]
Low-key, a little bit grunge-y, thoroughly post-Billie Eilish. All of these things capture just a part of Jordana’s hyper-online single Push Me Away, a song that does a hell of a lot with very little. Smart, fuzzy production drenches Jordana’s lax vocals in attitude, backed by bass and guitar riffs that add a fair bit of meat to the stripped back overall tone of the track – and that’s before we get to the feature. Magdalena Bay’s verse is fantastic – a flirty, floating contrast to Jordana’s flatter style, with crunchy chord progressions rounding out the latter half of the track.
Full of Hell – Industrial Messiah Complex
Finally, we come to the honorary entry on the list from the true extreme underbelly of the metal music scene. Full of Hell create utterly crushing walls of sonic violence by blending such wonderfully named genres as powerviolence, grindcore, death metal and noise music – and they really live up to their name on their first single of 2021. Bellowing, distorted and twisting, Industrial Messiah Complex is about as hard as Full of Hell has ever sounded. It’s a warped and hellish soundscape, with fragmenting production that makes the latter part of the single sound as if the music itself is cracking under the pressure of it’s own intensity. You’ll struggle to find something as mind-bendingly nightmarish from last year – and for that reason, this track deserves some real credit.