As it turns out, year two of a global pandemic was both markedly easier and infinitely more soul-sucking than its predecessor. But the one silver lining is that, much like in 2020, local artists released some truly great records. From oddball punk to heartfelt country, and triumphant rap to danceable indie-pop, 2021 had heaps of musical highlights. Not every LP addressed the times, but they all offer a varied perspective on Phoenix culture in the here and now.
Here are our 10 picks for the best albums from local artists/bands. Also, here's hoping that no matter what occurs in 2022, we can expect more music to further save the day.
Playboy Manbaby, Toxic Positivity
A late entry for the year, December's Toxic Positivity feels like a return of sorts for Playboy Manbaby. Between frontman Robbie Pfeffer's recent adventures on TikTok, and March's Now That's What I Call Songs We Made For The Internet, it felt like the band were really preoccupied with online weirdness. This five-track EP isn’t any less bonkers, but it is much more in line with past releases like 2018's Boundless Vanity. There’s lots of biting commentary dovetailing into punk hijinks. Or explosive garage rock barreling into alt rock and janky funk. And there’s even a real sheen of approachability without foregoing the band’s inherent oddball humor. It’s an album that feels like it hones in on the band's real shtick: making bonkers, totally great punk rock that's as much of an art project as it is a powerful social statement.
ROAR, Diamond Destroyer of Death
I’ve already written about this pop dynamo from Owen Evans and company a few times this year. Yet each time never fully captures or celebrates this LP accordingly. It’s like someone took early Beach Boys albums and the Nuggets compilation, melted them down, cast it all into a flying V guitar, and recorded some of the most surreal, emotionally resonant songs this side of the Strawberry Alarm Clock discography. It’s a seemingly perfect record for our times: gorgeous and uplifting one moment, before reminding everyone of the harsh dissonance of reality the next. The LP has been a constant presence this whole year, and it’s been something to explore with every new world event and fresh instance of heartache. Like the title vaguely promises, it destroys listeners in the most glorious fashion possible.
Mega Ran, Live ‘95
Every new Mega Ran album feels like a genuinely big deal. Amid a local hip-hop scene with some sizable talent, his releases are like watching a star further rise in real-time. Live ‘95 was certainly no different, as the extra-nerdy, always-verbose MC raised his game in grandiose manner. It wasn’t so much that he broke new barriers, but rather that this 14-track LP demonstrates the best instances of Mega Ran’s bag o’tricks. There were endless pop culture references, but done with more depth and nuance. He retained that tendency to be both motivational and uplifting, but there was greater prowess behind these statements. The production sounded sharper than ever, and the MC made sure he could always control the proceedings. In short, Live ‘95 is a layup from a seasoned pro on the verge of national success.
Asphalt Astronaut, andromeda
Tucson as a whole has a pretty diverse collection of artists. But that 109-mile distance can be a huge deal, and not enough tunes make it up north. But the earnest folk-pop of Jessica Tanner (aka Asphalt Astronaut) is a distinct outlier, and her latest, andromeda, deserves to be heard everywhere. The fact that it comes less than a year after the equally-great antares is just proof of Tanner's dedication and robust creativity. But this isn't just more from the savvy songwriter; there's lots of emotional and sonic nuance to this 10-track effort. It's just as likely to lull you in with its sheer beauty as smash you over the head with some weighty observation. All of those elements together make Tanner a shining star in the Southwest, and why every new project feels like she's taking more deserved space in our musical atmosphere.
Smooth Hands, Smooth Hands
Arizona has a rather long and storied history with great alternative rock. Just as many bands land adjacent to the grit of, say, Meat Puppets as they do the playfulness of a Gin Blossoms. But Smooth Hands are another beast entirely, and these self-professed "funky bois" are happy to occupy some hazy place in the middle. Their 11-track, self-titled LP is an amalgamation of chipper funk, sunny garage pop, heavy-hitting alt rock, and a smattering of good vibes and weird humor. The end result is something both familiar and foreign, a rock album that never settles and instead bounds between sentiments with an endless supply of positivity and great hooks. It's a record for fans of rock's endless optimism, and something that bucks trends and traditions alike. In short, it's a mostly perfect LP for Arizona.
Katie Mae & the Lubrication, Yellow Medicine Hills
There's a sense that country music in Arizona is all but boot-scootin' at some dive bar or spending all three days at Country Thunder. But Katie Mae & the Lubrication are a profound reminder of the simple, more earnest country music that permeates this great state. The collective's latest EP, Yellow Medicine Hills, is a five-track encapsulation of country's sheer level of nuance. There's plenty of extra poignant introspection, a heaping helping of rebel attitude, and lots of grit and muscle. All that's always focused through the group's "interpretive" take on the genre, and that means things always feel more open and inventive in exploring what's to be found on the musical prairie. It's a musical experience made for block parties, quiet nights, and everything in between. Just make sure to always have a cocktail and/or beer or two handy.
Sean Avery Medlin, I Never Left EP
There's at least some common ground and a lingua franca between great poetry and true hip-hop. Few know that lesson so astutely as local rapper/poet Sean Avery Medlin, who in 2021 released his debut poetry collection (808s & Otherworlds) and a 14-track EP, I Never Left. Because of this dual nature, Medlin knows how to get inventive with his lyrics and his approach, and the record feels all the more compelling for it. Whether he's laying down some braggadocios line, or shouting into the dark, he knows how to change things up to maximize the sheer emotional potential. And he's supported in that effort by similarly shapeshifting production, which both matches his vibes and pushes him toward greater heights of prowess and vulnerability. This EP feels like a powerful statement from a multifaceted talent, and proves that the best hip-hop always zigs when you think it ought to zag. Breakup Shoes, Narratives EP
If anyone's going to make it big from Arizona (and there's plenty of great possibilities), Breakup Shoes are a likely candidate. They've already gotten to work building themselves up as quite the national touring act, and that continued exposure will grow as they launch subsequent outings. Luckily, though, they also have the music to back up their new road dog ways, and this year's five-track Narratives EP feels like the kind of effort for making any sizable career moves. This heart-firmly-on-sleeve music checks all the right boxes: approachable, hugely sentimental lyrics; great hooks and all the accompanying vibes; and just a dash of edge and grit. But the band aren't like similar acts — they're happy to tweak their pop stylings to come off as both a nostalgia act and something entirely refreshing. No matter where their aspirations take them, Breakup Shoes have a bright future as a compelling pop act.
Citrus Clouds, Collider
Much like the new ROAR album, Citrus Clouds’ latest effort, Collider, has also stuck around for much of this calendar year. This trio has a decidedly fresh take on alternative and dream pop alike, and they're totally willing to try new things to blur the lines in the name of pure connection. There's just as much dreamy vibes as there is dissonance and crunch on this 10-track LP, and that balance goes a long way in making the listener pay attention and engage earnestly with the record as a whole. But be sure to dig a little deeper, too, as the lyrics may be a bit minimalist but these mantras and pseudo-poems really enhance the sonics. Collider is basically a giant Doc Marten forward for Citrus Clouds, and proof that their best work is still ahead of them. For now, though, just hit play and let this creature take you wherever it may.
Teek Hall, Thirty Six
Aging in general is weird, but there's something extra odd about 36. Likely because you're too young to be a headstrong newbie, but not yet old enough to embrace the wisdom of middle age. Phoenix's own Teek Hall understands that, and celebrated his own 36th birthday with a seven-track EP alongside producer G1ToTheRescue. Hall uses his unique flow — forged in the streets of Detroit, but tempered right here in the Valley — to discuss things both heady and heartfelt and utterly left of center. Like any true musical companion, G1ToTheRescue provides similarly multifaceted production, top-notch beats drenched alike in nostalgic samples and trippy experimentation. This EP isn't just about getting older and life's splendid challenges, but how we move through life and still manage to find joy, humor, confidence, power, and whatever else required for true fulfillment. Here's looking toward Hall reaching 37 and beyond.