The Best Phoenix Albums of 2021 (So Far)

Lauren Sarah Hayes released the excellent Embrace in early 2021.
Lauren Sarah Hayes released the excellent Embrace in early 2021. Tobias Feltus
How does one accurately explain or gauge the Valley's music scene? There's no tried and true method to fully explore the mish-mash of diverse and exciting sounds, be it pop, noise rock, punk, folk, rap, country, or however you'd classify Treasure MammaL. Yet here we are regardless, having assembled 12 of the best albums released in the first half of 2021. Is this in any way a "complete" picture? Not at all. But let's say that it is a great snapshot of what makes our scene so exciting, life-affirming, and unwaveringly cool.

Lauren Sarah Hayes, Embrace

What motivated a Scottish-born musical improviser to wind up in Tempe? Lauren Sarah Hayes made waves across her native Europe, including sold-out shows in Scotland and Germany as well as taking part in the New BBC Radiophonic Workshop. But now Hayes finds herself based out of the Valley, and her experimental take on pop and techno has instantly added credibility to the state's rich electronic underground scene. In February, Hayes unveiled her latest, Embrace, in which she "bends and sculpts sound" to create four tracks that are as bizarre and unnerving as they are genuinely compelling and beguiling. Forget the why and how of Hayes' story; she's a profound talent breaking new grounds, and we're mostly just lucky she'd call Arizona home.

Violet Choir, Violet Choir EP

Late 2020/early 2021 seemed like a less than perfect time to launch a new musical project. But Jesse and Mickey Louise Pangburn aren't exactly rookies, having previously garnered local praise as both The Prowling Kind and MRCH. This latest iteration, Violet Choir, builds on that core of extra sleek electronic music, and their debut self-titled EP feels like the best encapsulation of what makes the Pangburns such pros. Whether it's the extra sexy grooves of "Don't Come Around," or the Kraftwerk-esque weirdness of "Friend Song," the five-track EP is both a celebration of and a case for the rich future of electronic music across the Southwest. If this is what the duo have to offer in the worst of times, then here's to what comes in the "new normal."

Grim Moses, Flowers for a Hater

Phoenix rapper Grim Moses claims to distill "life and experience in a broken world" into "audio waves for your listening dis-pleasure." That might make for great for PR, but it also ignores something far more interesting. Case in point: his latest album Flowers for a Hater, which Moses claims is dedicated to those who "support the culture." It's a more than apt description; with tracks like "Cream Bronze," a mostly unassuming jam comprised of a syrupy soundscape and impressive wordplay, this nine-track LP is an earnest and unflinching collection dedicated to the essence of great local hip-hop. Because under all that flexing and weird vibes, Moses' music is a distinct mix of ideas and energies that's a distinct pleasure to spin. Now salute that.

Citrus Clouds, Collider

There's already been plenty written about Collider, the latest LP from dream-pop outfit Citrus Clouds. But here we are, once more offering praise for a genuinely excellent album that feels like a true accomplishment. It's not just a record filled with dreamy vibes, earnest melodies, and heart-on-sleeve lyrics — it's also the representation of the band's development after six-plus years of existence. Even more than that, it's a kind of symbol for the larger Valley music scene, a perfect encapsulation of the evocative and earnest art that is made here day in and day out. Don't just think of this as some artifact that has to be studied or worshipped. Instead, just push play and let this slice of desert dreaminess roll out of your speakers and deep into your ears.

Playboy Manbaby, Now That's What I Call Songs We Made For The Internet

Let's just get this out of the way: This is a dumb album. It's like the best (or maybe worst?) parts of Tiny Tim and The Aquabats rolled together, resulting in silly 30-second songs titled "Smashed Hotdog" and "The Dollar Store." Yet that very asinine nature is what makes it so excellent. After frontman Robbie Pfeffer spent 2020 building an audience on TikTok, it only made sense to further lean into the "silly dude on the internet" shtick. The end result feels in line with Playboy Manbaby while also pushing the weirdness and stoner humor to all-new heights (or, again, maybe depths?) There's no way to not live at least partially online these days, and Playboy Manbaby have forged a soundtrack that encapsulates that silly irony of our post-modern condition.

Jerusafunk, JFUNK

Phoenix psych-funk outfit Jerusafunk couldn't have picked a better place to record their second full-length album, JFUNK. Oracle, Arizona, is home to both Biosphere 2 and a rich history of mining, a wacky convergence of energies that could only happen in the southern deserts of Arizona. The band responded in kind by forging a totally bonkers, eight-track collection that both references and recycles everything from bossa nova and klezmer to samba and Thai music. It's music that's sensuous, unwaveringly curious, totally unbalanced, and, perhaps most of all, deeply infectious. Wherever their travels take the band next, this record is undeniable proof that Jerusafunk are on a journey to somewhere perpetually hip and transcendent.

8OhEight, 'Pay-Per-View'

Technically speaking, "Pay-Per-View" is a 20-minute piece composed of 16 or so smaller "songs." But since the DJ/producer insists we listen to it "without interruption," it sort of feels like an album in the purest sense of the word. Which is to say, it's this huge, deeply complicated soundscape, one that spins in everything from found footage and boom-bap beats to a deluge of soul and funk and even psychedelic music. But, as 8OhEight promises, "everything is on purpose and thought through," and thus you get a real sense of the producer's skills, insights, and expert use of sonics to convey ideas and emotions with lethal efficiency. The fact that the "song" titles reference old-school WWE and The Meteor Man are only a sweet, sweet bonus.

ROAR, Diamond Destroyer of Death

In discussing the standout song "Opposite of Flowers," we mentioned the sheer complexity of ROAR's Diamond Destroyer of Death. But the group, led by mastermind Owen Evans, proved that song is more than an abstract storyline or another "song hidden in songs," and the LP proper does much of the same. These 10 tracks feel like a ride on some wonderfully twisted carnival ride titled "The History of Pop Music." Whether it's the big, shimmery vibes of "Paralyzed," the heartbreaking ballad "Take Me," or the otherworldly jangle-pop of "Reaction Video Dream," Evans and company take everything familiar about '60s-leaning pop, mess with its structure, and create something both familiar and groundbreaking. Still, ROAR doesn't so much break ground as they obliterate the earth around us, and we're more than happy to float through the trippy void right alongside.

Secret Attraction, True Love EP

Releasing a love-themed EP on Valentine's Day is, admittedly, a potentially hokey, definitely cheesy career move. Unless, of course, you're singer-songwriter Derek Wise (a.k.a. Secret Attraction), who filled the three songs of the True Love EP with his trademark sentimentality and razor-sharp musical chops. Whether it's the super sleek title track, the similarly dreamy "Grey," or the extra lush "Devotion," these three pieces feel like a deliberate ode to synth-pop of the mid-'80s. But Wise simply isn't satisfied with indulging mere nostalgia, and he manages to apply both a modern sheen and newer production techniques to make the EP feel fresh and new. Will you fall in love with this EP? Maybe, but you'll for sure catch some big-time feelings.

Sydney Sprague, maybe i will see you at the end of the world

Regarding her debut album, Phoenix-born Sydney Sprague told New Times that she was hopeful just to have "a world for me to put these songs into," and thus the record was a way to "hope for the best and expect the worst." As it turns out, though, it's the rest of the world that should feel lucky to have Sprague's songs floating about. Bounding between earnest folk, anthemic alt rock, and sentimental pop, Sprague's 10-track collection is a musical achievement far belying her 29 years of life. Whether she's talking about rugged optimism ("i refuse to die"), deep heartache ("what u want"), or the ins and outs of aging ("end of the world"), Sprague's voice is an unflinching light in the dark. Here's to whatever comes next.

Multiple Artists, Keep It Safe, Keep It Accessible

In the grand tradition of truly great compilation albums, Keep It Safe, Keep It Accessible accomplished its two essential goals. The first was that this 17-track album, organized by MT Threat Productions, raised money for a good cause, the Abortion Fund Of Arizona. And all of that was on the back of truly great music from a slew of local artists. There's Playboy Manbaby's totally rollicking "Car on Fire," the utterly cutting "Never Owed You" from singer-songwriter Sarah Familiar, Jack Dillinger and the Bandits' garage pop jam "Yellow Scarf," and even some weird experimental tunes from Mouse Dog Bird ("Wolf Tree"). Whatever your tastes, this comp provided fans with the best possible excuse to buy new music.

Jack Arthur, Light Leaks

And speaking of compilations, we first spoke of Jack Arthur in February as the organizer for I'm Working on Myself Vol. 1 (benefiting the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual & Domestic Violence). But Arthur is an earnest singer-songwriter in his own right, and in January released Light Leaks. The 14-track album sees Arthur bounding from different sounds and sentiments, be it the slightly twangy "Mars," the blown-out orchestral weirdness of "Icarus and the Melting Point of Wax," or the lo-fi version of The Killers that is "I Just Want to Feel Something." Is this ongoing sonic identity crisis always the most compelling? No, but it's still fun to listen as Arthur pours his heart into every new track. In that very specific sense, Arthur is clearly a talent to watch.

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Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.
Contact: Chris Coplan