The 10 Best Bay Area Albums of 2021

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Miko Marks' 'Our Country,' Kevin Allen's 'Nothing Lasts Forever' and Destroy Boys' 'Open Mouth, Open Heart' (left to right) made our list of 2021's best Bay Area albums. (Courtesy of the artists)

There was no return to normal in 2021. In a weird, in-between year, many of us were grateful to gather again in homes, concert halls and dive bars for some much-needed spiritual sustenance. Yet the pandemic has forced us to constantly calculate risk and make adjustments to how we move about the world, and the best music of the year helped us navigate this time of buffering.

When KQED Arts & Culture looked back on the year in Bay Area music, we saw that the most compelling albums helped us contemplate our relationships to ourselves and our communities. We saw lyricists and instrumentalists reaching new heights of their powers, in terms of both craft and concept. They asked questions instead of speaking in absolutes, and nudged us towards empathy, understanding, catharsis and even joy.—Nastia Voynovskaya


Ian Kelly, Kells is D.E.A.D. (Jamla Records)

Ironically, sunning in the aura of your authentic self often requires a symbolic death. Kells is D.E.A.D. is Oakland rapper Ian Kelly’s sophomore album and it shines. With a narrative blend of catchy hooks and metaphors for days, the project chronicles the passing of Kelly’s former rap moniker. Be sure to listen on repeat to catch the wordplay. He spits, “Too many questions with no question marks / You’s a mark if you can’t spit your heart inside of this art” on my personal favorite, “Make Room.” On the standout track “Soul of a Man,” he proclaims, “Life after death / So my time spent is a pit stop.”

With unexpected sample flips and features by Reuben Vincent, GQ and Heather Victory, Kells is D.E.A.D. is a testament to rebirth. Not many local rappers stepped into 2021 with such audacity, but Kelly stays humble. He’s signed to Jamla Records (9th Wonder’s independent record label) and is part of rap group Grand Nationxl, so the future looks bright for this agile lyricist.—Maddy Clifford

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hawak, nước (Zegema Beach Records)

nước is a multifaceted Vietnamese word: It means “water” most commonly, but can sometimes mean “country” or “nation.” It’s a slippery meaning appropriate for the title for hawak’s debut album, a screamo tone-poem exploring the liminality of refugees, immigrants and their children. It channels the pain of living an unstable, contradictory identity—“You ask yourself / Mày là ai?” (Who are you?) singer Tomm Nguyen shouts at the climax of one track. But the album isn’t content to wallow in Asian American existential despair without charting a way out. All the navel-gazing exploration of identity finally leads outward to a renewed faith in community in the last track: “We’re here with you! / We’ll stay with you! / We’re still with you!”—Adesh Thapliyal


Miko Marks & the Resurrectors, Our Country (Redtone Records)

The Bay Area isn’t Nashville, but our country music artists possess a soulfulness and political consciousness that stand out in a culturally homogenous industry. In fact, country’s exclusionary gatekeepers almost cost Miko Marks her career in the 2000s. At the time, labels loved her sound but told her in euphemistic terms that she wasn’t a fit for a record deal, likely because of the color of her skin.

Undeterred, Miko Marks & the Resurrectors made a fierce comeback in 2021 with Our Country, her first full-length release in 13 years. The foot-stomping, piano-driven opening track, “Ancestors,” grounds Marks in a courageous lineage as she prepares to speak truth to power. Her observations are clear-eyed as ever on “Good Night America,” an acoustic, slide-guitar eulogy for the American dream that indicts the nation’s hypocrisy. The folk ballad “Travel Light” burns slow like a smoldering campfire, and the gospel-steeped “Mercy” offers a prayer for strength. On Our Country, Marks brings out tenderness and grief with the sheer emotion of her voice and lyrics, and gives us spiritual resolve to continue the fight for justice.—Nastia Voynovskaya


Keshav Batish, Binaries in Cycle (Woven Strands Productions)

As the scion of a celebrated musical clan, Keshav Batish is making his own way in the family business. Son of Mumbai-born sitar and tabla virtuoso Ashwin Batish, whose parents were both renowned musicians in North Indian classical music and beyond, the Santa Cruz-raised drummer and composer makes a dazzling debut with Binaries in Cycle. While focusing on Batish’s intricately constructed originals drawing on his jazz and Hindustani musical training, the album includes two ringers, Ornette Coleman’s bouncy, rarely played tune “Police People” and Thelonious Monk’s standard “We See.”

But it’s the pieces he designed for the quartet that consistently impress. The opening, nearly 13-minute title track is a quicksilver odyssey that feints, darts and spins around his crisp and supple cymbal work; “Gayatri” is stately and incantatory. Recorded August 2020 as part of the Mondays with Kuumbwa virtual performance series, the album features pianist Lucas Hahn and bassist Aron Caceres, Batish’s musical collaborators since junior high, and Israeli-born alto saxophonist Shay Salhov, a more recent connection who’s a generation older than his bandmates. Heady and gutsy, pensive and joyous, Indian and American, Batish’s music embraces duality as a path to a highly personal sound that promises discoveries to come.—Andrew Gilbert


Destroy Boys, Open Mouth, Open Heart (Hopeless Records)

With October’s Open Mouth, Open Heart, Destroy Boys offered up 13 tracks of cathartic, angst-combating, middle-finger-pointing post-punk. The trio’s third album didn’t just signal their graduation from teen maybes to young contenders, it ignited an already faithful fanbase into a downright fervent one. And for good reason. Open Mouth, Open Heart fearlessly combines punk rock defiance with riot grrrl snottiness, and centers it all with empathetic lyrics and stirring melodies.

Each song offers an unfiltered, visceral glimpse into the real-life strains and struggles of frontwoman Alexia Roditis. “Drink” is about breaking addiction cycles. “Locker Room Bully” pushes back against social media toxicity. “For What” challenges police brutality. And halfway through the album is a 50-second spoken word interlude about living with anxiety. For the first time, the band also included two Spanish language songs—“Lo peor” and “Te llevo conmigo”—to honor Roditis’ Argentinian heritage.

On “Escape,” the band declares: “I don’t see anyone asking anyone of any other profession, except for artists, what their plan B is ... You know, I could really do without hearing that question ever again.” After Open Mouth, Open Heart, they shouldn’t have to.—Rae Alexandra


Stunnaman02, I Gotta Feel It (EMPIRE)

Years from now, when we look talk about “coming out of quarantine,” we’ll get to that part in the conversation where we discuss the songs of the era. That’s when someone will mention Stunnaman02’s “Big Steppin,” and chances are they’ll hit the dance that accompanies it.

The track has been played in clubs and brunches, and remixed for the 49ers. The Warriors have even danced to it on the court. Beyond the motivational lyrics and uptempo beat, it’s the dance that has really carried the song. (For 170 consecutive days, Stunnaman02 posted videos of himself “Big Steppin’” everywhere from the East Bay Hills to Hawai’i.)

While many artists flood the market with album after album, Stunnaman02 dropped two projects this year. “Big Steppin’” was featured on the QuakeBeatz-produced album I Gotta Feel It. Admittedly, the lead single tends to overshadow the rest of the track list, but songs like “Buzzin’” and “Chimmy Wit It” featuring Gunna Goes Global slap nonetheless. Yet it’s “Big Steppin’” that this album will be known for. And if we’re discussing music that came out of the Bay Area in 2021, it’s mandatory that this track is mentioned.—Pendarvis Harshaw


Bachelor, Doomin’ Sun (Polyvinyl Record Co.)

If only more of 2021 lived up to the experience of listening to this album. Both intimate and expansive, Doomin’ Sun has a track for every mood. Full of pent-up energy? Sing along to “Stay in the Car.” Need four minutes of dreamy introspection? Skip over to “Aurora.” The story behind Bachelor (Bay Area native Melina Duterte of Jay Som and Palehound’s Ellen Kempner) and their first release is one of long-term musical admiration, culminating in a two-week recording spree in January 2020. Written before lockdown and released mid-pandemic, Doomin’ Sun is anything but dated. Duterte and Kempner’s songs about ecological collapse, queer love and the endless scroll of online life alternately shimmer and yelp, their warn and easy harmonies providing evidence of a musical collaboration I didn’t realize I was desperate to hear.—Sarah Hotchkiss


LaRussell, Cook Together, Eat Together (Good Compenny/Corite)

Some rappers brag about success. On Cook Together, Eat Together, LaRussell discusses it, analyzes it, computes it. In a steady stream of one-liners containing more truth than comedy, the Vallejo rapper has his eyes open to the world, not surprised by his success so much as gratified at the results of putting in the work. “Look at how it panned out,” he raps on the E-40 flip “Sprinkle Me,” “They offer you a seat when you stand out / Got a handful without a handout.” (The boss himself drops in for an anointing guest verse.) As the album title suggests, LaRussell puts on for his town, not least with his Good Compenny video series, which showcases young Bay Area talent. Like his peers, LaRussell is still hungry; across Cook Together, his voice occasionally cracks in desperation. But it growls with determination, too. This is grown rap from a young star in the making.—Gabe Meline


Joel St. Julien, Empathy (Land and Sea)

At a time of national reckoning, Haitian-American composer and sound artist Joel St. Julien gives listeners the gift of compassion. On his 2021 release Empathy, the San Francisco-based artist’s instrumental music takes listeners on a healing journey.

With its ambient sounds and lush synthesizers, St. Julien’s music pulls us into the present, much like meditation. On the first track, “Empathy I” the song’s sonic synths and bouncy tempos echo the rumblings of unresolved conflict. On track six, “Where I am,” the rich sounds and soothing tones convey catharsis.

Like therapy, Empathy invokes a contemplative state, and St. Julien’s compositions become the catalyst for introspection, emotional examination, and resolution.—Juli Fraga


Kevin Allen, Nothing Lasts Forever (Grand Nationxl)

Nothing Lasts Forever tells a lot of different stories about Bay Area hip-hop in 2021. For starters, it represents the fully-formed rebirth of erstwhile hyphy rapper Erk Tha Jerk as Kevin Allen. Next, it shows Allen as a master orchestrator who thoughtfully positions a cadre of ascendant artists. Among them is Ian Kelly, who hops on the jazz-inflected “Radio Raheem.” Guapdad 4000, who made noise well outside the Bay with his album 1176, is on the masterful canvas of “Unwind.” Jane Handcock, who was prominently featured on both Dame D.O.L.L.A.’s underrated Different On Levels The Lord Allowed and on Snoop Dogg’s star-studded The Algorithm, elevates both “Childish” and “Oh, The Irony.”

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But the through line here is Allen. He started working on his solo album last year, before realizing that there was a legitimate collective brewing in the studio. His group Grand Nationxl’s fantastic Twice on Sunday was born instead. Now on Nothing Lasts Forever, the crew is back to help prop up their leader, and Allen is a sage-like presence we don’t have enough of in Bay Area rap these days. “What’s the point of having tools if you lack the screws?” he raps on album opener “Franklin Saint,” one of the many grateful moments filled with poise and commitment to what he’s building in the present. Now the challenge is to maintain longevity with it all, and with Allen at the helm, all the elements are in place.—Adrian Spinelli