Despite the ongoing effects of the pandemic that live music shut down, the Philadelphia music scene continues to thrive.
This best-of list — which is alphabetized, not ranked — gathers 10 acts who did laudable work, releasing full-length albums, or at least EPs, this calendar year.
Don’t get mad (yet) if you notice that some prominent Philly music makers aren’t included here. It was such a good year that a bunch of Philly artists are included in my Top 10 lists for albums and songs of the year.
Besides those annotated below, there were many more worthy 2021 Philly releases. Among them: King Britt & Tyshawn Sorey’s Tyshawn & King, Langhorne Slim’s Strawberry Mansion, Matt Cappy’s Tales of the Tape, Arthur Thomas and the Funkitorium’s Funktar, Sharing Contests’ Slumber, and the Baylor Project’s Generations.
And special mention goes to the RFA, the Philly rock band who were already broken up when they released Late to the Party, one of my most listened-to albums of the year, in the very last days of 2020.
Carsie Blanton, Love & Rage. This tender and tough collection was written during the pandemic when Blanton was holed up in Philly with her Handsome Band. The rage is felt in protest songs like “Down in the Streets” and “S— List,” the love suffuses the album as a whole.
Dave Hause, Blood Harmony. The Roxborough-raised former leader of Philly punk band the Loved Ones wrote a recent USA Today article about how Taylor Swift “is infinitely more punk rock than I am.” Blood Harmony is Hause’s strongest solo effort, with songs cowritten on Zoom with his brother Tim and recorded in Nashville that treasure fatherhood and savor Jersey Shore glory days.
Hurry, Fake Ideas. This band is rarely in one. A hurry, that is. The fourth album by the Philly four piece who are a mainstay of Philadelphia label Lame-O Records satisfies with the yearning, wistful brand of jangle-pop that singer-guitarist Matt Scottoline has mastered.
Meek Mill, Expensive Pain. The fifth album by the Philly rapper and criminal justice reform activist is the first since his cause célèbre case stemming from a 2007 gun charge was put to rest. It’s a celebration of freedom on cuts like “Sharing Locations,” but is also introspective, considering the mental health consequences of gun violence.
» READ MORE: The best albums of 2021
Moor Mother, Black Encyclopedia of the Air. Camae Ayewa, the poet, songwriter, and activist who performs as Moor Mother, is a prolific creative force. Black Encyclopedia of the Air is the most accessible music to date by the artist whose work veers towards punk-metal and free-jazz and conveys the primal power of the blues.
Mannequin Pussy, Perfect. “I’m in control,” Marisa Dabice sings on this five-song EP recorded with producer Will Yip at Conshohocken’s Studio 4. “At least that’s what I tell myself.” Mannequin Pussy had a year of highs and lows: Dabice costarred in Japanese Breakfast’s “Be Sweet” video, and the band’s songs were featured in HBO’s Mare of Easttown, but the group’s gear was stolen in Akron, Ohio and hasn’t been recovered.
Rosali, No Medium. Philly songwriter Rosali Middleman steps into her own on No Medium, moving beyond the folkish sensibility of her first two albums. This soul-searching set was written on a North Carolina farm in 2019 and recorded with guitarist David Nance’s band, who give them a grand, rugged Neil Young & Crazy Horse feel.
Spirit of the Beehive, Entertainment, Death. The Philly trio shares a name with a 1970s Spanish art film about a young girl’s fascination with the 1931 Frankenstein movie. The band’s fourth album is a frighteningly good funhouse ride, a psychedelic sound collage that refuses to let the listener get comfortable.
Tierra Whack, Rap? At first, fans of wildly creative Philadelphia rapper Tierra Whack were disappointed when this project, which was released earlier this month and teased as the follow-up to 2018′s 15-song 15-minute masterwork Whack World, turned out to include only three songs, albeit inventive ones that display Whack’s unpredictable artistic approach. But it turns out Whack had another trick up her sleeve: Another three-song EP called Pop? released last week.
Armani White, Things We Lost in the Fire. This five-song EP is shot through with grief. Philly rapper White’s initial inspiration was a 2006 house fire in which four members of his family died; the story then fast-forwards to another fire in 2020 that left White homeless. Still, it ends with optimism, with White expressing in a word how he feels about being alive: “Grateful.”