Best albums of 2021 by Arizona artists, Alice Cooper to Injury Reserve
Local music returned to the clubs in 2021 but it had never really gone away.
It just retreated from the stage as Arizona artists worked on new material to get them through the dread and isolation of the COVID-19 era.
Almost every record on this list was written and recorded in the midst of the pandemic. In some cases, the results were shaped by that experience. In other cases, not so much.
You’ll find both kinds of records on our look back at the year’s best albums made by Arizona artists — in alphabetical order. And by “album,” we mean proper albums as well as EPs that clocked in at more than 20 minutes.
Best albums of 2021: St. Vincent, Genesis Owusu, Sault, Injury Reserve and more
Having long ago established that he knows his way around the writing of a timeless pop hook, Andrew Cameron Cline of Weird Radicals steps up his game at the helm of Astrologer, joined by singer Candy Caballero. Don Bolles of the Germs also guests on a six-song adventure produced by Wyatt Blair that crashes the gate with a pair of songs that filter psychedelic songcraft through the urgency of punk. From there, they make their way through the suitably spacey “Satellite,” going full-throttle punk on “Mania” before downshifting into the bittersweet balladry of the breathtaking “Oblivion” and signing off with an existential monologue recited on a haunting bed of feedback-laden psychedelic background music.
Las Chollas Peligrosas, ‘Las Chollas Peligrosas’
This is what happens when six talented young women playing Latin fusion take what made them such an instant hit at Crescent Ballroom and apply it to a studio recording. The trick in any such endeavor lies in capturing the spirit of those live performances. And this self-titled effort definitely lives up to the challenge. An accordion leads the way on the spirited bilingual opener, “Saguaro,” and they follow through with a six-song effort whose highlights range from the dramatic balladry of the impassioned “Esperanza” to the anthemic “Stand Up,” a song that urges listeners to overcome their apathy and fight the power for a say in where we go from here.
Citrus Clouds, ‘Collider’
It’s the melodic sensibilities that make Citrus Clouds’ shimmering shoegaze stand up to repeated listens. And it doesn’t hurt that bassist Stacie Huttleston shares the vocal spotlight with guitarist/effects wizard Erick Pineda. They’re such different types of singers and both voices are perfectly suited to this type of music. After setting the tone with the pulsating Pixies-esque bass and cavernous guitar of “Honey,” they wander their way through the haze of such obvious highlights as “A Pastel Sky” and the aptly titled “In a Daydream.” It’s all very dreamy, even in moments as (relatively) raucous as the title track.
Civilia, ‘Past Lives’
In addition to singing and playing guitar, Cory Spotts produced and engineered Civilia’s latest effort. And you can definitely feel the decades of experience he brings to the proceedings, having cut his teeth as a producer on artists as heavy as Job for a Cowboy, Greeley Estates and Desole. It’s a great-sounding record, as powerful and massive as the songs require. Their sound is on the heavy side of shoegaze. Or the atmospheric side of alternative metal. However you choose to label it (the band itself prefers progressive rock), it hits like music meant to be enjoyed on an arena tour, from the bludgeoning riffs of the opener, “Alpha,” to the dreamier textures of “Lume.”
Alice Cooper, ‘Detroit Stories’
This is the sound of Alice Cooper paying tribute to a city that looms large in Cooper legend. He was born there. And although he met the other members of the Alice Cooper group in Phoenix, they were living in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Detroit when they recorded “I’m Eighteen,” their breakthrough single. It’s a worthy cause. And he and his collaborators, from longtime producer Bob Ezrin to the other three surviving members of the group that gave the world “School’s Out,” rise to the occasion. Highlights range from the punkish abandon of “Go Man Go” to the hard-rocking swagger of “Rock & Roll” by New York City’s Velvet Underground, which borrows the arrangement Ezrin used on a lesser-known cover by Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels.
Interview: How Alice Cooper’s history shaped ‘Detroit Stories’
Danielle Durack, ‘No Place’
“No Place” is what Durack likes to think of as her private heartbreak journal, an introspective album that offsets bedroom pop with more electrifying pathways to catharsis, much of it written as she was living through the heartbreaking dissolve of the most serious relationship she’d ever had. It’s the vulnerability that pulls you in, from an opening track reflecting on the breakup of an earlier relationship to the devastating heartache of the album-closing “Eggshells,” where she lays it on the line with “I can’t fight the feeling that we are slowly dying like those flowers you always bought me, all those insincere apologies.”
Interview: How Danielle Durack turned heartache into art on ‘No Place’
Rachel Eckroth, ‘The Garden’
“The Garden” will compete for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at the 64th annual Grammy Awards (although it should be noted that there is one track with vocals, “Dried Up Roots”). All but one song was written in Tucson, after Eckroth relocated from L.A. with her bass-playing husband/producer Tim Lefebvre. The couple spent a lot of downtime during the pandemic improvising on their synthesizers, drums machines, effects pedals and other “weird stuff,” Eckroth says, to arrive at the synth-driven, improvisational splendor of her first primarily instrumental album. It’s an esoteric effort that draws as much on funk as free jazz, fleshing out her stellar keyboard work with with contributions from guitarist Nir Felder and saxophonist Donny McCaslin (who, like Lefebvre, appears on David Bowie’s final album, “Blackstar.”).
‘Further out than jazz’:The Phoenix seeds of Rachel Eckroth’s ‘Garden’
Emby Alexander, ‘Soars Era’
There’s clearly something to be said for opening your album with a reference to Ringo Starr’s “Don’t Pass Me By,” as Michael Alexander does here, singing “You were in a car crash and you lost your hair… and now it’s growing back, it’s growing back, it’s growing back.” But Emby Alexander’s brand of odd, experimental chamber pop is more expansive than a glancing reference to the Beatles would suggest, its frames of reference spanning generations to arrive at something that feels timeless and contemporary in the same breath. The overall vibe is refreshingly upbeat, whether singing about UFOs on “Fell Into the Sun (UFO)” or hope on “You Can Do It.”
The Exbats, ‘Now Where Were We’
Few bands in recent memory have mastered the sound and spirit of Brill Building pop with the effortless charms of the Exbats, a father and daughter from Bisbee whose latest album kicks off with a jangle-rocking ode to Scooby-Doo’s relationship with Shaggy. As the subject matter of that song suggests, the Exbats tend to underscore their pop smarts with a goofy sense of humor. You can hear the fun they had conjuring songs as endearing as “Best Most Least Worst,” an effervescent throwback to the golden age of girl-group pop in which Inez McLain (the daughter) makes the most of every punchline, singing “It don’t matter whatsoever if you think I’m really clever.”
Exbats interview: How dad and daughter went from BFFs to bandmates
Flotsam and Jetsam, ‘Blood in the Water’
“Blood in the Water” is Flotsam and Jetsam’s fourth release since the return of Michael Gilbert, a reunion singer Eric “A.K.” Knutson sees as a pivotal moment in their late-career resurgence. And speaking of pivotal moments, the album arrived on the eve of the 35th anniversary of a debut that remains their calling card, a piledriving thrash-metal classic titled “Doomsday for the Deceiver” that remains the only 6K rating in the history of “Kerrang!” It’s too late now to live up to the promise of the next Metallica. But honestly? This album rocks with an intensity that makes it feel like they’ve been sitting on these tracks since 1987. And Knutson’s operatic vocals haven’t aged a bit.
‘We’re very hungry for it’: Why Phoenix thrash-metal legends feel their time is now
French Girls, ‘French Girls’
French Girls filter old-school punk as the Ramones defined it through ’60s garage, Del Shannon-esque falsetto (on the great “No Morals”) and the classic girl-group swagger of the Shangri-Las in a headlong sugar rush that barrels through 10 songs in just under 22 minutes. Bassist Che Beret is the perfect singer for the job at hand, a point that’s somehow abundantly clear before she’s even hit the deadpan monologue near the end of an opening track called “Crazy Yo!” (and long before she’s made the most of the sardonic “And he’s breaking hearts in his roller skates” in “He’s All That”).
Grim Moses, ‘Flowers for a Hater’
This Phoenix rapper sets the tone for “Flowers for a Hater” with the gospel-flavored soul of a cautionary tale about the limelight having “cast its spell over you,” as sung by a female jazz singer, before he’s made his first appearance on vocals. It’s a brilliant introduction to a hip-hop album whose prevailing tone is reflective, with a title track whose chorus finds him rapping, “For those that hated on me, yo, I love you so/ Without you, I would never have the strength to grow.” At least some of that credit should be shared with his producers: Camoflauge Monk, Solomon Strange and Goomson.
Teek Hall, ‘Fall From Grace’
The Detroit-born Phoenix MC has said this is his most ambitious record yet. And you can definitely hear that as he moves from strength to strength on a moody masterpiece that features guest appearances from Touré Masters, A-F-R-O, Mega Ran, Billie Essco, Vic Spencer and G1To The Rescue. Highlights range from the scene-setting drama of “Dante’s Inferno” (“We all make mistakes and act as if we shouldn’t”) to the lush orchestration and quasi-operatic chorus hook of “Bleak” and the murky, mesmerizing low-end that defines the headphone hip-hop majesty of “The Corvinus Brothers.”
Injury Reserve, ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’
The Tempe-spawned experimental hip-hop trio lost Stepa J. Groggs in the midst of tracking “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” a family tragedy that couldn’t help but haunt the album Ritchie with a T and Parker Corey brought in for a landing on their own after being too struck with the loss to continue at first. As they tweeted this summer, they eventually regrouped because the tracks “still resonated fully (in some respects even taking on what felt like haunting pre-echoes) and above all else stayed true to (Groggs’) constant insistence while recording to simply ‘make some weird (expletive).'” They definitely honored that insistence. Corey layers abstract chaos on unsettling cacophony in dense, disorienting tapestries of noise while Ritchie with a T seems to carry the weight of a world gone mad on his shoulders “as we walk through this valley of death” where there “ain’t no savin’ me… or you.” But nothing haunts as much as Groggs’ final rhymes.
See where Injury Reserve placed on our countdown of the year’s best music
Mega Ran, ‘Live ’95’
This is Mega Ran’s “Basketball Diaries,” an album-length reflection on a sport that meant the world to him as he was growing up in Philly — “hooping at the park,” as he raps on the opening track, “until the street lights flicker.” The vibe is as nostalgic as the introspective lyrics on an album named for a game-changing videogame whose title conveniently references a pivotal year in the schoolteacher-turned-rapper’s life — the year he left for college. Every song here draws on personal experiences, from the conversation with his mom, who didn’t want him spending money on Air Jordans, to “Comeback Player of the Year,” in which he asks “Who could write a song about a Knicks Player and then be rapping at the Garden, a few years later?” The answer, of course, is Mega Ran.
Interview:How Mega Ran rediscovering his passion for hoops while making ‘Live ’95’
The Rebel Set, ‘Modern Living’
There’s nothing especially modern to the way these Phoenix rockers have chosen to live in the course of 12 Farfisa-laden throwbacks to the golden age of the ’60s garage, recorded with Matt Rendon of Resonars fame at Tucson’s Midtown Island and “a secret pandemic hideaway.” It sounds like they’re auditioning to play a high-school dance in that mid-’60s sweet spot where bands like ? and the Mysterians were topping Billboard’s Hot 100 with songs that would’ve sounded right at home alongside such obvious highlights as “The Party’s Over” and “Spaces.” You can hear the fun they had recording it. And that’s what ultimately matters on this sort of record.
Roar, ‘Diamond Destroyers of Death’
“Devil Destroyer of Death” is a modern masterpiece of psychedelic chamber pop that feels a bit like an album-length suite. There’s a dynamic range to the arrangements here that guarantees the moments meant to be majestic are, in fact, a thing of wonder, from the time they hit you with the cinematic splendor of the chorus hook that appears as if by magic on an opener called “Copperfield,” when Owen Evans tells you “I can make the world disappear.” And it kind of does disappear for the length of the album that transports you to a world of Evans’ making as he navigates the loneliness while paralyzed by fear before signing off with a bittersweet mantra of I “I don’t need anyone/ I don’t need anything/ I’ll be fine on my own/ At least I’d like to think so.”
Camille Sledge, ‘Streetlights & Lullabies’
Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra’s Leader of Rituals has been working on a solo album for a while now. But the singer found she had more time to think it through when everything shut down for COVID-19. This is the first of seven solo records she’s been working on — a hip-hop mini-album primarily produced by her husband, it set the scene with a track that finds her rapping, “I am a poet and I call it like I see it.” There’s a bit of a Lauryn Hill vibe to the organic blend of social commentary and introspection, from that opening cut to the uplifting soul of “Girl” and the insistent funk intensity of “1st World Problems.”
Sydney Sprague, ‘Maybe I Will See You at the End of the World’
This Phoenix rocker effortlessly channels the spirit and sound of such ’90s alternative icons as Veruca Salt and Juliana Hatfield on the brilliantly titled “Maybe I Will See You at the End of the World,” although she’s more likely to say she’s inspired by Avril Lavigne. You’ll also find a subtle hint of country in the mix, from the opening verse of an opening track called “I Refuse to Die” (before the power chords come crashing in) to the acoustic-guitar-driven “Quitter.” But what ultimately matters is the raw emotion of the songs themselves. This is the kind of record that immediately leaves a mark.
It’s been a minute since Gabriel Sullivan and fellow XIXA member Brian Lopez began incorporating chicha, an intoxicating Peruvian blend of cumbias and psychedelic rock, into a sound they labeled mystic desert rock. On “Genesis,” those elements are filtered through their love of old Spaghetti Western scores, Tejano and a brooding vocal presence, courtesy of Sullivan, that often ventures into territory best described as gothic. It all comes together to brilliant effect on such obvious highlights as breathtaking opener “Thine is the Kingdom,” the majestic chorus hook of “Genesis of Gaea” and two tracks featuring the Uummannaq Children’s Choir.
Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.
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