Yearly Yinz 2021: Albums

Here we are, back at it again with some more Yearly Yinz action, this time for Bored In Pittsburgh’s favorite local albums of 2021, arranged chronologically. This is not a “best-of” list, but a collection of works that resonated especially deeply. As always, there were far too many excellent releases to include everything, but here goes.

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Calyx – Stay Gone

I guess you could call Calyx a pop-punk group, but the tag undersells their essence. The trio uses caffeinated drums, spritely bass, paint-splatter guitars, and recklessly yelped vocals to create a frenzied torrent of pure feeling. February’s Stay Gone (Plastic Miracles/Ethospine Noise Records/Chumpire Records/Salinas Records, whew!) is a restless, wanderlusty affair that barrels from California hills to Jersey highways within single tracks (looking at you, “Pacific Light Wave”), buoyed by Caitlin Bender’s irrepressible delivery—a headlong barrage of road trip references, imagery both humorous (“You’re gonna help someone/Like the old white men in all their posters/Needing better blood,” from “Money Blood”) and cryptic (“I devour crumbs like feasts/I collect dust like diamonds,” from “Starve The Romantyx”), and whoooaaa whooaaaas flung like war whoops. One of the most freeing records to come out of a year of languishing.

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Sara Renberg – Butch Spring

It’s no surprise that Sara Renberg is a poet as well as a musician; she has a knack for meticulously crafted lyrics that feel like spontaneous toss-offs. Take this observation from “Will You Still Want Me,” the opener to March’s Butch Spring (Antiquated Future Records): “On Saturday nights, the dykes from the suburbs all cluster by the door/And the jock girls play pool and they hog the jukebox, but stay off the dance floor.” Those images, although delivered casually, contain entire lives and relationships within their bounds. The rest of the album follows suit; scrappy guitars trickle around shabby drums as Renberg details a humbling, confusing, and sometimes joyful reckoning with her own identity. Like a Yinzer Courtney Barnett, she dryly unspools half-spoken, half-sung witticisms that will make you chuckle, and then say, “Oh shit, that’s heavy.” Lean in, because you won’t want to miss a single word.

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Ron Mist – A Celebration of Being Alive

Quick! What is dancing? Aliens have invaded Earth, and they’re going to wipe out humanity unless you can answer that admittedly open-ended question. A Celebration of Being Alive (Power Nap Records), the April release from Ron Mist (not a 70s adult film actor, but the DJ pseudonym of String Machine keyboardist Dylan Kersten), provides an answer through 13 tracks of unadulterated, body-moving rhythm. Each piece begins with its own response to the query posed by our celestial aggressors—thesis statements, if you will—before the rump shaking begins. “Dancing is a living fossil of our experiences” leads into bombastic dubstep on “(The Sun Doesn’t Care About) Fossils.” “Dancing is a physical form of expression” introduces the pitch-shifted laser jam of “Cycling.” Mist shuffles through a head-spinning collection of styles, but the album’s mission statement is “Floor Have Mercy,” which centers on the phrase “Dancing is a mercy on human beings bound by necessity.” By the time the aliens, now satisfied, bust a move on closer “Ah, Shoot!!!”, you’ll agree that dance is our savior.

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Memory Wound – Lillian Drip

What is music if not organized sound? A reductive definition, for sure, but it does the job. While some artists arrange their sonic components into tidy motifs and refrains, punctuated here and there by a bridge or an interlude, others use a looser definition of organization when plying their trade. On April’s Lillian Drip (Orb Tapes), Memory Wound’s Brandon O’Neill acts as the architect of an insular clockwork universe, layering tape loops, static bursts, field recordings, and instrumental snippets like tectonic plates and allowing them to drift where they may. The results are immersive and hypnotic; “Radium Leaked Light” deploys a plinking cello the way a horror director would a creaking floorboard, “Lead Moon” bathes gurgling synth in primordial drones, and “Holyland” translates airport chatter into the language of disjointed, pre-sleep thought. An elemental thrum underpins the entire work, as if the album itself were alive and breathing, an amorphous organism suspended in a glimmering void.

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Emily Rodgers – I Will Be Gone

I Will Be Gone (Shimmy-Disc), the April release by ethereal balladeer Emily Rodgers, was recorded over the course of six days in the artist’s attic. Produced by Kramer (of Galaxie 500, GWAR, Bongwater, and many other fames) and assisted by guitarist Erik Cirelli, the album is a rustic, spare totem of grief and loss. Inspired by the death of her brother fifteen years ago, it sees Rodgers improvise her haunting vocal lines overtop meditative spiderwebs of guitar, with the occasional piano chord lapping at the edges of the mix. Although the eight tracks feel tethered to a specific physical and emotional space, each stands on its own, with the plaintive violin accents of “Down,” “I Will Be Gone,” and “Believer” making an especially poignant impact. The album’s emotional directness makes for a difficult listen, but the pain has a cleansing effect.

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Sleep Movies – Melt Transmission

Skylar Brimmeier, the figure behind Sleep Movies, has described his artist pseudonym as “something a child who never heard the word ‘dreams’ before would say to describe their dreams to another person.” Fittingly, Sleep Movies’s July release, Melt Transmission (Crafted Sounds), sounds like music created by a child who has never heard music before. It’s sloppy in the best way–unquantized and unpolished—and contains a measure of innocence despite its dystopian themes. Like the garbled cry of an artificial being trapped behind a glowing, pixelated screen, the album’s music is melancholy, disjointed, murky, and futuristic. Digitized beats stutter and crawl, synths impersonate guitars and vice versa, and Brimmeier’s manipulated voice struggles to make itself heard amidst the quease. There are bangers (“Am I Abyss?”), burners (“Miley’s Iris”), ballads (“5G DAYDRM”), and blurs (“Phosphenes”), each given a psychedelic, otherworldly finish. If humanity is marching toward a technocratic, algorithmic hellscape (it is), this album can be your soundtrack for the slog.

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Hardo & Deezlee – Fame Or Feds 3

A DJ Drama-hosted Gangsta Grillz mixtape is a rapper’s rite of passage; artists from Pharrell to Lil Wayne have elevated their craft when backed by the Philadelphian’s signature shout. Plus, without Drama’s trailblazing influence, DJ Khaled might be just another dude braying on a jet ski. In July, veterans Hardo and Deezlee brought Drama to Pittsburgh for Fame Or Feds 3 (Trap Illustrated/SinceThe80s), a relentlessly hard-hitting collection of street tales that marks another strong entry in the Gangsta Grillz series. The two rappers are well-matched, with Deezlee playing the more animated counterpart to Hardo’s dead-eyed don. Both pack their bars with economical wordplay and gritty, unapologetic details, their words given solemn significance by the instrumentals’ murky piano and string accents. At its thrilling peaks (the knocking “I Can’t Dance,” the flickering “Corrence,” the menacing “On The Go”), the album will have you up and zombie walking across the room.

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Flower Crown – Heat

Since its inception, the Flower Crown undertaking has grown in size (from two members to five) and scale (from shoegazey cocoons to shimmering anthems). September’s Heat (Crafted Sounds) represents the most expansive iteration of the group’s sound. Filled with thunderous dancefloor drums (“Through It,” “King Cool”) and pearlescent guitar jangles (“The Billy,” “Islands In The Sky”), the album’s ten tracks buoy frontman Richie Colosimo’s echoing voice as opposed to burying it, allowing lyrics about buzzed beach days, ambivalent love affairs, and tentative optimism to ring freely amidst rapturous clouds of synth. There are even departures from the traditional dream-pop template; “Intro” suggests M83’s widescreen electronica, “Interlude” features a tropical flute, and the stunning “All That You Ever Need” waltzes and sneers like a long-lost Oasis power ballad. The Flower Crown boys have shed the depression blanket and ventured, bleary-eyed, into the sunlight.

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Benji. – Smile, You’re Alive!

Part of rapper/producer/bassist Benji.’s daily routine is to tweet the phrase, “Smile, you’re alive.” Before you start rolling your eyes and grumbling about toxic positivity, know this: a few years back, Benji. went out for a walk with plans to jump off the 10th Street Bridge. He decided against the action, and when he returned home, he watched a video in which the wise Sadhguru emphasizes the importance of life itself. Fast forward to September 2021, and Benji., having already experienced success with the Atlanta-based Spillage Village collective, dropped Smile, You’re Alive! (SinceThe80s/Misra Records), symbolizing his rise from the swamps of depression; sure enough, the first voice you hear on gentle opener “Rain” is Sadhguru’s. Benji.’s bars, half-rapped and half-sung, hit like a hug, even when they aren’t explicitly addressing life struggles or mental health. Overtop instrumentals that range from exuberant bangers (“East Side Bounce,” “Black Satin,” “Wave”) to soulful slow-burns (“Sanctuary,” “Elevate”), Benji. revels in the joy of existence. Features from Pittsburgh staples like PK Delay, Mars Jackson, and Livefromthecity make it a communal celebration. So, I’ll say it myself, because Benji. means it: smile, you’re alive!

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feeble little horse – Hayday

Don’t get me wrong—May’s modern tourism was a great debut for noise-poppers feeble little horse (named after a line in Kafka’s The Castle), but the group truly hit its stride once Lydia Slocum signed on as bassist and singer, setting the stage for the release of October’s Hayday (Julia’s War Recordings). On this album, the band takes the traditional slacker rock canvas, crumples it up like a wad of paper, roughly flattens it out again, adorns it with doodles of cigarettes and old food, Xeroxes it onto plastic film, rips it into pieces, vacuums it up, spits it out, and then raggedly reassembles it with glue and rusty staples. Backed by overdriven guitars, glitchy synths, and compressed drums, Slocum delivers her lines in a detached monotone that betrays moments of bitter humor (“Chores”), vulnerability (“Tricks”), and nostalgia (“Picture”). Most importantly, the songs are catchy as fuck.

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