2021 was a year of cautious optimism and dashed hopes, of cross-country tours and last-minute cancellations. But the studio, it seemed, was a place of solace for many Massachusetts artists. A number of our critics’ favorite local albums were written and recorded during the deepest part of the pandemic; these musicians found plenty of material to mine from that time, some of it painful, some of it transcendent. Below are the artists whose work touched us most deeply, from yet another year like no other:
Fabiola Méndez, 'Afrorriqueña'
At the tender age of 25, Fabiola Méndez – a member of this year’s ARTery 25 artists of color to watch – has made it her mission to return prestige and significance to Puerto Rico’s national instrument, the cuatro, a small cousin of the guitar long considered a relic of a bygone musical era. That is a task in itself. With “Afrorriqueña,” Méndez’s second studio album, she sets herself a new challenge: to encapsulate the experience of Puerto Rico’s Afro-Latinas through the work of the island’s poets. The writers from whom Méndez draws her inspiration all explore the intersection of race and gender in their work, and include the revolutionary mid-century feminist Angelamaría Dávila and Méndez’s fellow ARTery 25 cohort member Yara Liceaga-Rojas. The songs on “Afrorriqueña” are at once sophisticated and heartfelt, showcasing Méndez’s jazz chops and a sweet melodic sensibility. The genre of “fusion” is a tricky business; it can be tempting to do too much, especially with a band as facile as the one Méndez assembles for “Afrorriqueña.” But the group merges Latin, jazz and folk influences with confidence and joy, thanks in large part to its leader’s clarity of vision. On “Afrorriqueña,” Méndez knows exactly what she wants to say. —Amelia Mason
Marissa Nadler, 'The Path of the Clouds'
Marissa Nadler makes music that exists in the realm between life and death. Of three of the lushly arranged songs on her exquisite ninth album, “The Path of the Clouds,” Nadler told me back in October, “All three stories have people that disappeared and were never found again.” These tales, taken from episodes of the television show “Unsolved Mysteries,” as well as her own trying experiences, coalesce in a record driven by rebirth and metamorphosis, a smoldering and brooding body of work dripping with melody and sticky grooves. With this release, Nadler takes a bold step forward to a new career high. —Charley Ruddell
Lucy, 'The Music Industry Is Poisonous'
While the big streaming playlists shove teenage angst down your throat, Lucy’s “The Music Industry Is Poisonous” transports you even further back to days of singing playful songs on the school bus. These songs don’t try to be funny; they’re radically earnest. They feel human and handmade, as though they were taped together for a science fair, full of chintzy keyboard and stock drum sounds and old-timey aphorisms. Lucy transmits his thoughts in cryptic turns of phrase, sometimes getting jarringly specific about things like names of his elementary school teachers. “They say the first cut is the deepest…wild! I don’t believe it,” goes one line. “The Music Industry Is Poisonous” leaves no distance between the listener and Lucy’s handiwork, a strange intimacy that has often led people to describe Lucy as “outsider music.” The thing about that label, though, is it belies the influences that peek through. On “Turn Page,” Lucy does what feels like an Atlanta trap flow with a voice transmitted from pop radio 40 years ago. On the final song, “Lucky Stars,” he interpolates a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song. And through it all, you can hear the spirit of the last decade of internet rap: the clunky sound design of early Odd Future, the murky textures of Swedish collective Drain Gang, the bizarre GarageBand experiments of his former collective Dark World. His music unlocks the child in all of us. —Mano Sundaresan
BoriRock, 'D1: Freakazoid Summer'
Not too many more artists are stickier than BoriRock. (Sticky in the way people gravitate to the artist and his music.) The Dorchester native has been absolutely crushing it lately. His personality keeps people engaged and it’s shining through in the music. His ad-libs get stuck in your head to a point — it’s tough not to like a song. After releasing “It’s Me” in January, the height for him musically this year came with the release of his project “D1: Freakazoid Summer.” One song I kept on rotation was “SAY DAT.” Produced by Maka, the beat feels monumental. A sensory overload — a good one with mariachi vibes. BoriRock slides on the beat blessing it with catchy bars. Perfect for the car ride to the function or getting your night going at home before heading out. —Noble
Future Teens, 'Deliberately Alive'
“Deliberately Alive” is Future Teens at its finest: witty, thoughtful, cathartic. The self-described “bummer pop band” rose to local fame with its 2017 debut album “Hard Feelings,” a joyfully depressive catalogue of distinctly 20-something millennial concerns: breakups, dating apps, existential ennui. Since then, the band has put out one more studio album, but in some ways “Deliberately Alive” — an economical five-song EP — feels as significant as a full-length LP. It retains the loose, hook-driven energy of the band’s early work, but demonstrates a maturing lyrical sensibility. These are songs about growth and self-reflection, about what it means to get older and stick around. As always, Future Teens makes it fun to sing about the hard stuff. —Amelia Mason
Juliana Hatfield, 'Blood'
Juliana Hatfield is one of the rare artists whose records just keep getting better and better, and her first few were pretty hard to beat. Earlier this year, well over 25 albums in, Hatfield’s “Blood” arrived from the intersection of deeply melodic pop-rock songwriting and the trauma stemming from the last five years of American politics. “Blood” is certainly gory, but its thematic violence is only a touch more arresting than joyful exuberance of its music; it boldly illuminates Hatfield in her most inflamed and liberated state, somehow both approachable and practically foaming at the mouth. —Charley Ruddell
Gio Dee, 'Designer Casket'
An effortless hit maker, Boston’s Gio Dee has been among the best in the state for years in hip-hop. He’s had at least one project a year come out since his EP “MYB (Mind Yo Business” came out in 2015. His newest — “Excited For The Hate” — is on the way. Gio Dee is synonymous with consistency and if he doesn’t feel a project is worthy enough for his supporters, he will make sure he has amazing singles to tide them over. His most impressive is “Designer Casket.” The music video for the track follows Gio Dee around a cemetery and church while he is draped in fine fabrics, speaking his mind to us. “If you don’t stand for something then you’ll die for nothing/ Coming where I come from, n----- ain’t do what I’ve done.” “Designer Casket” is a swagged out cut that will leave you bobbing your head. If that one’s not enough to convince you of Gio’s abilities, check out another single from this year called “Way Up.” —Noble
Van Buren Records, 'BLACK WALL STREET'
When Van Buren Records played “BLACK WALL STREET” cut “FOXY BROWN” on their tour, they did it like a game of “Street Fighter.” Ricky Felix was the judge, and two by two, the rappers faced off, trading bars while staring in each other’s eyes. The question Ricky posed at the start: Who’s the best rapper in VB? Earlier in the year, the group’s debut album “Bad For Press” showed us how a sprawling roster functioned as a unit: as unabashed competitors, sparring partners with slice-and-dice raps. But their follow-up EP, “BLACK WALL STREET,” cuts even deeper. Looser and more immediate than their album, it showcases the rappers in deep focus, sharpening their collective mind through swift baton passes between the members. Recorded with producer AzizTheShake in LA, “BLACK WALL STREET” is what a major label would bill as VB’s debut album, but really, it’s just a heat check. —Mano Sundaresan
In the aftermath of a mental break, Sai Boddupalli picked up music again. The resulting music found on “VIMS,” the IDM electronica debut from Boddupalli as Mercet, is practically buzzing, a complete piece that pulses and contorts like an organic lifeform. Drawing influences from artists like Baths and Aphex Twin, “VIMS” connects the mechanical to the organic, a collage of swarming synths and choppy drum breaks that sound like they were harvested from the depths of the earth, or from deep outer space. It’s one of the most compelling releases to come out of Boston this year. —Charley Ruddell
Roxbury’s Oompa is one of Massachusetts’ best live performers. Hands down. Her show at Paradise Rock Club in October was one of the best hip-hop shows for an independent artist this year and she’s been nominated for Hip-Hop Artist of the Year via the Boston Music Awards. It has definitely been an eventful year for Oompa. A shining light in her catalog was definitely “LEBRON” of her new album “Unbothered.” Oompa revisits her days on the basketball court while sending up a message of self-worth and being great. (The song gained traction outside of the state also. Ebro Darden of Hot 97 FM in New York and Revolt TV took notice.) This is a feel-good cut you can play “in the gym, the grocery store, or on ya way to ya baby mom house,” Oompa says on an Instagram post highlighting the song. The music video for “LEBRON” showcases Oompa’s hometown. Shot right in the legendary Malcolm X Park (formally known as Washington Park), Oompa brought out the cool kids, the athletes, an old school car or two, homies from the hood, kids from around the way and more in a solid display of community collaboration. “LEBRON” was a success in every way. —Noble
The Real Chris Kaz, 'The Bed I Made'
On his first full-length studio album, “The Bed I Made,” Worcester musician Chris Kazarian, aka The Real Chris Kaz, is a man of multitudes. He writes all the songs, plays all the instruments, mixes all the tracks; his voice, stacked upon itself in dense harmonies, is a chorus of many thoughts and moods. Previously, Kazarian distinguished himself as a charismatic frontman in exuberant funk band settings. “The Bed I Made” is more interior, an album replete with references and ideas that Kazarian says was 10 years in the making. He cites a vast catalogue of influences, from Miles Davis to Moses Sumney to Radiohead (I hear Dirty Projectors and the Beatles, too): creators as experimental as they are emotive. Kazarian, too, is a musician devoted to the strange and the cerebral, but his songs are suffused in feeling.
The Kyle Rittenhouse verdict came down as I was listening to “When Will We Get To Live?” — Kazarian’s slow-burning song of protest. “He gets to live/ When our brothers and sisters are dying,” Kazarian begins. “He gets to live/ When our mothers and fathers are crying.” And then, later: “He gets to hold/ AK-47s.” A series of three deep drum hits, like a heartbeat, and then a pause, like a question. “When will we get to live?” Kazarian whisper-sings in a raspy falsetto. Gradually, his voice gains strength. Then the snare kicks in, and the music rises, like a warning, smoke into the air. “We got a right to live/ We got a right to live,” Kazarian sings, over and over, a mantra of defiance that, after a time, reaches ecstasy. —Amelia Mason