WAMM’s picks: the best albums of 2021

by WAMM Staff

For your year-end reading and listening pleasure, a little round-up of some of our favorite EPs and albums by Memphis artists released in 2021.

Lukah – Why Look Up, God’s in the Mirror

With two of this year’s most critically acclaimed albums under his belt, South Memphis rap revivalist Lukah had one of the most impactful breakout years in recent memory. His triumphant September release “Why Look Up, God’s in the Mirror” is a masterclass in gritty street tales and wickedly clever lyricism that earned the burgeoning rap star attention from NPR, Pitchfork, and the New York Times, among others.

New Memphis Colorways – It Is What It Isn’t

Last spring, multi-instrumentalist Paul Taylor released his third project as New Memphis Colorways, a retro-futuristic blend of jazz, funk, and electronica that sounds more like a full orchestra than a one man band. Although the novelty of Taylor’s virtuosic talents are what initially hooked me in, the album’s joyous energy and adventurous spirit are what kept me listening all year long.

Jordan Occasionally – Indigo

On their debut album “Indigo,” artist/activist Jordan Occasionally emerges with a fully-formed sound that belies their youth and relative inexperience. Driven by the singles “Don’t Stop” and “Issaparty,” the album’s upbeat disco-soul was a welcomed salve to a largely downbeat year.

Reigning Sound – A Little More Time with Reigning Sound

On their 20th anniversary as a band, Memphis’ Reigning Sound reunited their original line-up and released one of this year’s finest local releases, proving that the passage of time has done nothing but sharpen their skills. As with their best releases, “A Little More Time” is a celebration of classic rock and soul that somehow resists nostalgia.

Elizabeth King – Living in the Last Days

For the past couple of years, Memphis-based Bible & Tire Records has worked diligently to unearth some of the region’s most soulful gospel records, often created by artists who have been lost to time. Enter Elizabeth King, the 78 year old gospel artist who was discovered from her recordings with the D-Vine Spiritual label and given the opportunity to record again for the first time in decades. The album, which features a who’s who of local session musicians, is a joyous and timeless treat.

The City Champs – Luna ‘68

If Booker T. & the MGs had been invited to perform in the Mos Eisley cantina from Star Wars, it probably would have ended up sounding strikingly similar to the instrumental grooves on “Luna ‘68.” In many ways, the City Champs’ third album can be seen as a chilled-out companion piece to New Memphis Colorways’ frenetic “It Is What It Isn’t,” both of which embrace a vision of the future by relying on the sounds of the past.

Daz Rinko – Sweet Jeezy

The singles Daz released in 2020 – “Juice” and “Candy Mane” – were some of our favorite of the year, but we’d be lying if we said we haven’t been dying for a fuller release from one of Memphis hip-hop’s most unique voices since he dropped Black Boy Joy in 2017. Daz and his longtime collaborator and producer CMajor have done it again with Sweet Jeezy.

Don Lifted – 325i

Once upon a time we heard a rumor that prolific multi-talented and multi-discipline artist Lawrence Matthews might retire his Don Lifted persona, and that rumor sent us into a spiral of sadness and dread. So bless you, 2021. And bless you, Fat Possum Records. And most of all, bless you Don Lifted. 325i is the perfect evolution – where Alero and Contour may have trafficked in nostalgia, this album feels very much rooted in the present while maintaining the sometimes distorted and unsettling, sometimes ethereal and transporting ethos of Don Lifted.

Mononeon – Supermane

For all the attention Mononeon gets for his bass playing – and like, yes, obviously, YES – our favorite thing about his 2021 album Supermane is without a doubt his charming, uncanny vocal delivery. This record was a departure from some of his past solo work, but seemed all the more personal for it – we particularly love “We Somebody Y’all” and “Grandma’s House” (complete with a cameo from Grandma herself!)

Louise Page – Play Nice

We love the big-band version of Louise Page – she’s a bandleader whose prowess on her instrument and powerful voice are both suited to the role – but this EP totally stole our hearts this year. With everything stripped away, Louise Page presents a group of songs that are cutting and evocative, with no extra adornment to separate or shelter you from the way she’s making you feel.

Southern Avenue – Be the Love You Want

Southern Avenue had a pretty big 2021, even if you don’t count the masterpiece that is Be the Love You Want: they toured with Jason Mraz (who they also cowrote songs with, oh, and he directed their music video too??) and they even welcomed a new member to the band (congrats to Tierinii and Ori!) but we don’t think she’s ready to take lead just yet. This album is replete with all the things you’ve come to expect from Southern Avenue – guitar shredding, super danceable, powerhouse vocals, melodies you can’t shake – with an elevated feel to the writing and production from a band that’s clearly constantly growing.

John Paul Keith – The Rhythm of the City

John Paul Keith can traverse the many corners of what one might call “roots” with ease – he can rockabilly, he can Americana, he can acoustic-singer-songwriter – but we kind of like him best when he straight up rocks. Lucky for us, that’s what he delivers on Rhythm of the City – we’re talking big horn sections, minute-long guitar solos – and we’ve had it turned up to 11 since it dropped in February.

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