SEATTLE — What can we say about 2021? It sucked demonstrably less than 2020, but still mostly sucked. Matter of fact, the only things that didn’t suck this year were “Squid Game” memes and all the mighty fine music Washington artists put forth into the world. (How’s that for a segue?)
For the past three years, we’ve asked a bunch of local music smarties — writers, radio peeps, playlisters — to submit their choices for the top 10 local albums of the year, and the unending pandemic and inevitable collapse of society as we know it can’t stop us now! We happily present to you The Seattle Times’ Fourth Annual Critics Poll, a celebration of some of the incredible art created in our community.
Here’s how it works: Said music smarties sent us lists of their top 10 Washington albums of 2021, ranked or unranked. Using a sliding points system, we tallied ’em up to determine the “best” albums of the year. This year’s crop includes familiar faces who shook up their sounds, newcomers who made big impressions and the swan song of a beloved Seattle jazzman. Hope you enjoy.
16. Antonioni, “Antonioni”
Singer-guitarist Sarah Pasillas and her indie rock quartet made good on Antonioni’s first (and, unfortunately, last) album, trading in shimmery guitar pop with hints of dream rock and a soul-easing jangle. Elsewhere, the more melancholic numbers hearken back to rainy-day power pop of the ’90s, occasionally erupting in star-reaching guitar leads that would make My Morning Jacket jealous. Alas, the now-defunct Antonioni played its last show this fall, though Pasillas has since popped up for a few solo gigs.
15. The Jim Knapp Orchestra, “It’s Not Business, It’s Personal”
The Seattle jazz community lost an influential figure last month with the passing of composer, trumpeter and big band leader Jim Knapp. Around the time of his death, local label Origin Records released this 2009 recording that feels like a lovely parting gift from the cherished artist and educator — a set that’s at times hauntingly beautiful and uproariously joyous. Even in death, Knapp’s arrangements have never felt more alive.
14. Ayron Jones, “Child of the State”
If anyone has reason to pop that New Year’s Eve Champagne it’s this hometown guitar hero. The Kid’s massive-sounding national debut cranked up the guitars on tunes that have crushed Seattle crowds for years and added newbies showcasing the breakout rocker’s songwriting above his technical prowess. (Fear not, there’s no shortage of dazzling leads.) His introduction to the rest of the word yielded a pair of rock radio hits — including the chart-topping “Mercy” — and led to Jones closing the year opening for the Rolling freakin’ Stones and standing on the cusp of rock stardom. What’s more, he’s proudly waved the Seattle flag every step of the way.
13. Acid Tongue, “Arboretum”
After becoming early adopters of the pandemic livestream, these psych-rock staples reemerged from quarantine this fall with this irresistible glam-rock triumph. For a record conceived during a heavy period for singer-guitarist Guy Keltner, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and got sober during the recording, the highly collaborative album is a helluva lot of fun. Gleaming toe-tapper “Suffering For You” — featuring the hardest working woman in Seattle music, Shaina Shepherd, who had a breakout year herself — is one of many highlights.
12. Anthony Danza, “Straight Talk”
This Seattle rapper-producer hangs his Kangol bucket hat on updating vintage West Coast beats for contemporary palates and his latest (and arguably greatest) project to date is no exception. Whether cooling down on starry night riders (“Still Heavy”) or chopping up synthy bouncers (“Go 2 Work”), Anthony Danza’s rugged delivery finds a perfect synergy with productions cleaner than a new tracksuit. Danza’s doing for West Coast sounds what Big K.R.I.T. did for Southern trunk rattlers a decade ago.
11. Campana, “Matter of Time”
Campana’s never been afraid to put in the work. But the ambitious rapper went full Beyonce with his latest concept album and companion short film (directed by ace Washington crew swimteam) revolving around the day in the life of a reluctant hustler caught in a cycle of drug dealing and self-medication to provide for himself and his incarcerated father. It’s a testament to the vision and execution of an artist truly coming into his own.
10. Macntaj, “Big Bloc Meign”
A creative restlessness courses through this unclassifiable emcee’s first album since signing with a new label led by Sacramento rapper X-Raided this spring. With impeccably crisp phrasing, the earnest and playful Macntaj cuts through any beat he graces, delivering motoring tongue twisters, soulful reflections and half-sung passages with precision and personality. “Big Bloc Meign” will make you laugh, cry and blow out your car speakers.
9. Filth is Eternal, “Love is a Lie, Filth is Eternal”
This teeth-gnashing hardcore unit may have flushed its old unfit-for-print band name down the sewer, but hasn’t lost a shred of the brutality it conveyed. The pit-stirring foursome, featuring members of He Whose Ox is Gored, sound like a derailed freight train screaming across the tracks that separate punk and metal: fast, violent and unforgiving, a churning mix of thrash, punishing D-beat and good ol’ fashioned hardcore punk. “Love is a Lie, Filth is Eternal” is an immaculate catharsis, like attaining Nirvana in the half-second before an unavoidable car accident. Try not to blink.
8. Ryan Caraveo, “Northend Sweetheart”
It was a strong year for the Seattle/LA pop-rapper who lent an Avril Lavigne interpolation to Steve Aoki single “Complicated,” even joining the EDM heavyweight on stage at Lollapalooza this summer. But the steadily rising artist saved the best for his emo-tinged third album, a heavy-hearted set Caraveo’s described as being about “having a warm heart stuck in a gloomy place.” Local references keep hometown fans swooning (“She’s more Bellevue, I’m more Lake City”) through sugarcoated, mood-piece bops.
7. Wild Powwers, “What You Wanted”
Few do heavy and harmonic as well as this grunge-indebted trio on its colossal new album. Guitarist-singer Lara Hilgemann’s majestic leads shoot through mud-splattered stoner-rock grooves like sunbeams through dark clouds, while bassist Jordan Gomes and hard-pounding drummer/taco pop-up legend Lupe Flores bring the rhythmic thunder. One of the most dynamic rock bands in town, and that’s saying something.
6. Left at London, “t.i.a.p.f.y.h.”
Boundlessly clever songwriter Nat Puff flashes her indie-pop chops and graceful genre-fluidity across her new seven-track album. Epic 10-minute opener “Pills & Good Advice” is a masterfully ambitious suite, evoking everything from Radiohead to hyperpop, and loaded with twists and turns. The Seattle maverick’s eclectic, high-IQ pop tunes feel both timeless and of-the-moment, thanks to her nuanced, era-spanning attention to songcraft and deftness working with a broad and contemporary sonic palette.
5. Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, “I Told You So”
Led by organ virtuoso Delvon Lamarr, this Seattle soul-jazz ensemble was hotter than a heat dome in 2021. Laden with steamy pavement pounders and deep-grooving cool-downs that hit like a summer spritz, the instrumental trio’s sophomore album topped Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart upon its February release, knocking off genre heavyweight Norah Jones. Lamarr and guitarist Jimmy James — who dropped another exceptional record with his instrumental soul brigade the True Loves this year — trade off side-winding leads steeped in vintage funk and soul, forming one of the headiest one-two punches in town. After a big year, Lamarr and crew show no signs of easing off the gas, with another album arriving in February.
4. Enumclaw, “Jimbo Demo” EP
A strong but seemingly innocuous demo tape became one of the coolest stories in Washington music this year after a shout out from KEXP scribe Martin Douglas sparked a ripple of praise across national indie blogs. Anchored by hip-hop party thrower-turned-rock singer Aramis Johnson, the self-proclaimed “best band since Oasis” embeds shimmering house-show anthems with undeniable hooks as infectious as anything those quarrelsome Brits ever conceived. The Tacoma baby band’s hummable melodies — think slacker rock ditties awash with a shoegaze-y warmth — have been rattling around our head since the spring release of “Jimbo Demo,” which drew some label interest and helped the quartet score an opening slot on tour with Pennsylvania shoegazers Nothing.
3. Parisalexa, “Finishline” EP
Just when it looked like it might be a quietish year for the Seattle R&B darling, Parisalexa dropped off her first project with Payday Records last month to satiate fans. Suave and sultry as ever, the pop-savvy singer-songwriter glides through six distinct tracks ranging from joyous funk-pop romper “Lucky” to the dimly lit “Overdrive.” Not unlike 2018’s garden-y “Bloom,” Parisalexa weaves thematic throughlines across some of the songs (albeit a little less heavy handedly), this time turning to the roads and raceways for metaphorical fodder while navigating love’s complications and young adulthood.
2. Travis Thompson, “BLVD BOY”
The Burien bar slayer has taken the Seattle hip-hop scene by storm in recent years and came out swinging this summer on his most variegated project to date. Over an album that cohesively runs the gamut from classic West Coast bangers (see G-Eazy assisted flamethrower “Dead Prezis”) to the soulful melodic raps that have become a Seattle specialty (“Any Minute Now”), Thompson expands his sound with help from his go-to producer/roommate Tyler Dopps. Thompson’s verses are as taut and sharp as razor wire, his command of melody more mature, morphing into an entirely new strain of smooth on the misty “Crossfaded” — a song unlike anything else in his catalog. For the first time, Thompson solicited some big-name features, yielding a rewarding exchange with Southern rap great Juicy J. Still, it’s hard to top the puckish swagger of “Odd Jobs” — a no-nonsense boom-bap cut with Tacoma stalwarts Glenn and Khris P, whose guest spots were the result of a tequila-fueled studio session during a daylong Tacoma hang. It plays like a Seattle-Tacoma handshake that should have local rap fans grinning from Lakewood to Shoreline.
1. Jarv Dee and Bad Colours, “BlakHouse” EP
Few releases had the town talking as much as Jarv Dee’s spectacular sonic twist. The respected emcee with a penchant for savory weed raps first endeared himself to Seattle’s hip-hop community a decade ago as a founding member of the Moor Gang collective, later signing with Jay Park’s H1GHER MUSIC. With his first project since amicably splitting from the label, the wily rap vet pivots toward dance music with this exhilarating collaboration with East Coast producer Bad Colours, blending hip-hop and house beats. The rejection of broken systems never sounded sexier than it does on the euphoric “Black Skin,” with fellow Seattle luminary Stas THEE Boss waving a middle finger to systemic racism from the middle of the dance floor. It’s lose-yourself music that also doesn’t shy away from weighty subjects, with Jarv later denouncing the NRA and racist stigmas around Black gun ownership on the hand-clapping “Nothing Changed.”
“This is the sound, rebelling on the slave ship,” he declares on heart-racing closer “All Mine,” following up with a classic Jarvism: “I do what I want/ I’ll take a drug test while smoking a blunt.” Whether “BlakHouse” is a one-off twist in Jarv’s career or the beginning of a new direction, no artistic statement thumped harder in 2021.