XRAY DJs Pick The Best Music of 2021

Here we are at the beginning of 2022, the third year of a global pandemic. Why look back to 2021?

Because in spite of the innumerable challenges and heartbreaks in the past year(s), incredibly, artists made and released music into the world! Music that validates what we’ve been through, and expands the possibilities for who we can become. And because week after week, XRAY DJs showed up with the soundtracks a weary world needs to continue to cope, hope, rage, make, love, grieve, play, and just be.

So explore this wide-ranging list of albums and songs, take a moment to listen to the Best of 2021 shows, and stay tuned for the good things yet to come. We love you!

DJ Dijon Mustard – The Path Is the Destination (Mondays 3-4pm)

Favorite albums of 2021:
Mach-Hommy – Pray For Haiti (Griselda)
Isiah Rashad – This House Is Burning (TDE)
Dummy – Mandatory Enjoyment (Trouble In Mind)
Obay Alsharani – Sandbox (Hive Mind)

The through line for these five selections seems to be a penchant for collage. All of these releases resist distillation to just one genre, category or style and instead function as a mixtape of sorts. Just as modern listening habits have grown to include so many disparate sounds and voices, these artists evolved alongside with a statement that shifts and mutates, rarely retracing their footsteps, nor overstaying their welcome.

Favorite song of 2021: Mach-Hommy “Kriminel”

Bi-lingual bars, this artist is so elusive you can’t find the lyrics online, you just gotta listen.

DJ Tex Clark – Circa Rad (Wednesdays 7-8pm)

Favorite albums of 2021
Phone Voice – Cradle Tape
Cassandra Jenkins – Hard Drive
Julie Doiron – I Thought of You
Margo Cilker – Pohorylle
Torres – Thirstier

Favorite song of 2021:
Julie Doiron – “You Gave Me the Key”

Phone Voice is the music project of Chitra Subrahmanyam who is in Portland and listens to xrayfm on the regular. Cradle Tape is the debut and yes you can get it on an actual tape.
Cassandra Jenkins‘s Hard Drive seems to largely be a grief project mourning the death of David Berman (Silver Jews). It reminds me of Laurie Anderson and is so New York, beautiful and vulnerable.
Julie Doiron hasn’t made a record in a while and this one could be my favorite? “You Gave Me the Key” is joyous and genuine. If I could get it in the bottle I would drink it by the case.
Margo Cilker may not have reached my ears if it weren’t for Theo Craig’s Take It To The Bridge!. She is from Enterprise and makes my heart ache when she sings about the big wide open of Eastern Oregon. Wonderful backing musicians such as Jenny Conlee, produced by Sera Cahoone.
Thirstier by Torres is a symbol of sorts for me of the full time musicians able to (and hellbent) to keep working, touring, releasing all through the COVID slop. I got to see Torres at Doug Fir a few months ago. Rural queers drove hours to see her do her Nashville-style kindness that mixes with high art in the best way to my ears.

James Dineen – Sessions From The Box (Saturdays 2-4pm)

Favorite albums of 2021
5. Morricone Youth – The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog (Country Club Records)
4 Tommy Guerrero – Sunshine Radio (Too Good)
3. Vanishing Twin – Ooki Gekko (Fire Records)
2. Buke & Gase / So Percussion – A Record Of… (Brassland)
1. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg (4AD)

While Dry Cleaning is certainly not a surprise best album of the year (I know it made it on to a lot of lists), it does give me the angular post punk warm fuzzies hearkening back to bands like Delta 4, Pylon, and even shades of LiLiPUT. And let’s not forget that it is on the unimpeachable 4AD label.

Favorite song of 2021: Wet Leg – “Chaise Longue” (Domino)

If you can listen to this song and not dance around like an idiot, well, then humanity is dead.

DJ David Schilling – This Just In (Saturdays 8-9am)

Favorite albums of 2021
Mammoth WVH – Mammoth WVH (EX1)
Johnny Marr – Fever Dreams Pt1 (BMG)
Sun Atoms – Let There Be Light (Little Cloud)
Ayron Jones – Child Of The State (Big Machine)
The Shivas – Feels So Good // Feels So Bad (Tender Loving Empire)

Favorite song of 2021: Mammoth WVH – “Distance”

Mammoth WVH – Wolfgang Van Halen’s first project…excellent! Johnny Marr – legend – still got it. Sun Atoms – deep deep talent on this record…and it shows. Ayron Jones – the new guitar slinger – the man can play that guitar and write excellent music! The Shivas – waited a while for this one…and it delivers!

DJ JBJ – Hello Cruel World (Thursdays 3-4pm)

Favorite albums of 2021
1. The Black Keys – Delta Kream
2. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend
3. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – New Fragility
4. Damien Jurado – The Monster That Hated Pennsylvania
5. Squid – Bright Green Field

Favorite song of 2021: Aldous Harding – “Old Peel”

DJ Serious Moonlight – Intuitive Navigation (Saturdays 6-7pm)

Favorite albums of 2021
Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince
Nasimiyu – POTIONS
Lydia Ainsworth – Sparkles and Debris
Erika de Casier – Sensational
Tirzah – Colourgrade

Favorite song of 2021: Charli XCX, Caroline Polachek, Christine and the Queens – “New Shapes”

PHNM – PHENOMENAL DISCO (Saturdays 5-6pm)

Favorite albums of 2021
Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
Topaz Jones – Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma
Madlib – Sound Ancestors
Durand Jones and the Indications – Private Space
Turnstile – Glow On

Although there’s not much disco in these picks, I’ve kept these in heavy rotation nonstop. If you’re looking for a journey into many MANY sounds, run through these albums top to bottom.

Favorite song of 2021: Tyler, the Creator – “SIR BAUDELAIRE”

I’ve loved this song since I first turned on the album. It’s not long enough! DJ Drama comes in like a force of nature and you know it’s time. For another great use of the sample check out “Michael Irvin” by Westside Gunn.

Jeremy Schuyler “The Denim Dad” – PNKHSE Radio (Mondays 6-8pm)

Favorite albums of 2021
IDLES – Crawler (Partisan)
Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp – We’re OK. But We’re Lost Anyway. (Bongo Joe)
Hutch Harris – Suck Up All the Oxygen (Self-released)
Monokultur – Ormens Väg (Mammas Mysteriska Jukebox)
Print Head – Happy Happy and Hardcore Pop (Discos Peroquébien)

It would be impossible to rank thisi year’s favorites for me as they are wildly different, as are my reasons for choosing them. If I had to call out a favorite among this list however, it would not be limited to the album represented here, but instead the discovery of the band which continues to release cassettes faster than I can click buy: Print Head. I couldn’t tell you much about them aside from the fact that they are from Montreal and are releasing consistently great songs that never cross the two minute mark. The discovery of this band echoed the feeling of getting my first Minutemen tape (Post-Mersh Volume 1) in seventh grade and listening to it again and again. Absolutely essential s#@t here.

Favorite song of 2021: Turnstile – “Mystery”

While it wouldn’t necessarily be something I would play on PNKHSE, Turnstile’s breakthrough album Glow On is an undeniable force this year. An absolute feel-good hardcore record that is as groundbreaking as it is uplifting, and my favorite soundtrack to run to this year. The opening track is a “banger” as the kids say, and immediately pulls you into a vibe that you don’t want to leave.

DJ Ruth R. Ford – 80lb. Cardstock (Sundays 8-10am)

Favorite albums of 2021:
Country Tropics – Old Saw (Lobby Art)
Instant Night 12″ – Beauty Pill (Northern Spy)
Present Tense – FACS (Trouble In Mind)
Pale Horse Rider – Cory Hanson (Drag City)
Amnesty Box – *Latest Fad (Bandcamp)

It’s always impossible to narrow down to a Top 5, but these releases definitely drilled a hole into my head and helped define the feel and sound of the show in 2021. Honorable mentions to R. Reger, Adam Ostrar, Pearly Gate Music, and the Beacon Sound label.

Favorite song of 2021: Com Truise – “I Dream (For You)” (Ghostly Intl.)

Actually from December 2020’s In Decay, Too. The beats, the synth lines, the isolation.

DJ Bob Ham – Double Bummer (Tuesdays 11pm-1am)

Favorite albums of 2021:
Alina Kalancea – Impedance (Important)
Skee Mask – Pool (Ilian Tape)
The Telescopes – Songs of Love and Revolution (Tapete)
Wau Wau Collectif – Yaral Sa Doom (Sahel Sounds)
Darius Jones – Raw Demoon Alchemy (A Lone Operation)(Northern Spy)

Favorite song of 2021: Japanese Breakfast – “Be Sweet” (Dead Oceans)

DJ Jimbo – Wildin’ Out (Wednesdays 4-6pm)

Favorite albums of 2021:
Aesop Rock x Blockhead – Garbology (Rhymesayers)
Fuubutsushi – Fuubutsushi (Cached Media)
Various Artists – Amapiano Now (NTS)
Bacao Rhythm and Steel Band – Expansions (Big Crown)
Nightmares on Wax – Shout Out! To Freedom… (Warp)

Aesop Rock is on top of his game and (technically) a local artist to boot.

The entire Fuubutsushi four-album cycle of the seasons is incredible and worth your time.

Amapiano is a new-to-us exciting sound from South Africa, deep and groovy.

Aaron & Cheyenne – Reverse Couple-Skate (Wednesdays 7-8pm)

Best 7” reissues of rare soul:
The Sweet & Innocent ‎- Express Your Love / Cry Love (Numero Group)
The Ultimates – Why I Love You / Gotta Get Out ‎(Brewerytown)

Best 7” releases of new music that sounds like rare soul:
Thee Sacred Souls ‎– Will I See You Again? / It’s Our Love (Penrose)
Bobby Oroza – I Got Love / Loving Body (Big Crown)
Jackie Mendez & The Rolas – Flame / The Younghearts (featuring Ron Preyer) – Keep On Walking (Noriega/Flame)

Best new releases that convincingly claim to be long lost Italian film soundtracks from the 1970s:
Sandro Galileo & Eraserhood Sound – Ribelle Di Mare (Eraserhood Sound)
Whatitdo Archive Group – The Black Stone Affair (Record Kicks)

Best full-length reissues in 2021:
Sun Ra – Lanquidity (Strut)
Akiko Yano – Ai Ga Nakucha Ne (Wewantsounds)
Various Artists – Tanamur City: Indonesian AOR, City Pop, and Boogie 1979 to 1991 (Cultures of Soul)
Various Artists – Belong To The Wind (Forager)

The Grand Yoni – The IMPACT! Sound (Saturdays 1-2pm)

Favorite albums of 2021:
Night Owls – You Got To Be A Man
Lozzy / The Mountaineers* – Better Let It Go / Bitter Soul
The Lions – Cumbia Rebel (Soul Rebel)
Martin Campbell – Ignorance & Poverty
Ranger Zero, JonnyGo Figure – Love Comes Back / Dread Situation

Night Owls have shown themselves to be a constant fount of reggae soul releases over the last few years. An all star band born out of the fertile ground of LA’s reggae scene, this release showcases two incredibly strong collaborations with nu-soul singer Sy Smith and Fishbone’s Chris Dowd, respectively. I’m very excited to see what 2022 brings us from these phenoms! Lozzy / The Mountaineers – From the Swiss Alps, Tip-A-Top records seemingly came out of nowhere with a grip of strong releases in 2021. Classic ska and rocksteady stylings that stay true to the original sound of Jamaica. Lozzy, aka Lorraine Bailey, has a distinctive voice that perfectly lends itself to this stomping tune. The flip cuts hard with an Upsetter-inspired intro and killer instrumental cut. The Lions, another entry from Los Angeles, have been a long time favorite of mine and this cumbia reimagining of the Wailers’ “Soul Rebel” is a treat. Martin Campbell is making some of the best roots music in the world, hands down. His grasp of 70’s style roots reggae is absolutely incredible and his voice is so unique that it adds a somber depth to any tune he’s voicing. Every one of his songs tackles important social and political issues and this one is no different. When his voice comes into the track with “Ignorance & Poverty have wrecked up my life, that’s reality,” it sends chills down your spine. This is crucial roots at its best. Ranger Zero – Channel Tubes in NYC has been releasing fantastic reggae singles for years now. This release, featuring crucial youth Johnny Gofigure is a testament to the current state of NYC reggae. Heavy, driven music informed by every era of Jamaican music.

Favorite song of 2021: The Bandulus – “Dear Lord” (Happy People)

I am a sucker for any song about staying strong during times of tribulation. Local heroes The Bandulus continue to deliver their unique blend of reggae and soul with this absolute banger. Released this year as a 7″ on UK label Happy People Records, this song is a fantastic anthem for a trying year. Dear Lord, help me live through this time of struggling. Stay strong brothers and sisters.

DJ Primitiva! – The Last Schmaltz On the Left (Sundays 9-10pm)

Favorite album of 2021: Ìxtahuele – Dharmaland (Subliminal Sounds)

Amazing dreamy esoteric album from Swedish band Ìxtahuele bringing to life the never-before-recorded music of Eden Ahbez! New (GOOD) exotica!! When does that happen? – Rarely! Looking forward to the documentary!!

Favorite song of 2021: Ìxtahuele – “Fire of the Soul” – Dharmaland

DJ Ed – Very Good Plus (Tuesdays 10-11pm)

Favorite albums of 2021:
Giovanni Di Domenico – Downtown Ethnic Music [Decay Music No. 4] (Die Schachtel)
Roxane Métayer – Éclipse Des Ocelles (Morc)
Orla Wren – The Blind Deaf Stone (Time Released Sound)
Ai Yamamoto – Pan De Sonic – Iso (Room40/Someone Good)
Raed Yassin – Archeophony (Akuphone)

A bit of drone plus emphasis on acoustic space (use of found sounds / field recordings / soundscapes / sampling) connects all these albums. Musique Plastique‘s (RIP) brilliantly conceived “Minimal/Cosmic” section, which initially sounds like a contradiction in terms (but isn’t), could house all of these otherwise quite different records. In the same realm: Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises (Luaka Bop), is a very close runner up.

Favorite song of 2021: Spunkmeyer Opening Credits – Spunkmeyer (Ramophone Records)

It slaps. And it’s my theme music for Very Good Plus.

DJ Scili – The Sound of Pictures (Sundays 7-8am)

These soundtracks feature an excellent assortment of movie scores and movie songs.

1. HER SMELL Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Keegan Dewitt. Double LP, includes a 7” EP soundtrack with music by Alicia Boganno, Anika Pyle & Elizabeth Moss. (Paragon Records)
2. BLAZE Original Cast Recording, music by Ben Dickey, Alia Shawkat, Josh Hamilton, Charlie Sexton, Alynda Segarro. (Cinewax Records)
3. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU Original Score, music by Tune-Yards. (4AD Records)
4. GHOST DOG The Way of The Samurai, music by the RZA. (36 Chambers Records)
5. ME YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW Original Score, music by Michael Andrews. (Everloving Records)

Dave Cantrell – Songs From Under the Floorboard (Wednesdays 9-10pm)

Favorite albums of 2021:
Kill Shelter/Antipole – A Haunted Place (Manic Depression)
Girlfriends and Boyfriends – The Fallacy of Fairness (FDH Records)
Camlaan – Circa 1983 (Cold Transmission)
Push Button Press – Black Swan (Cold Transmission)
MEKONG – End of the World (Icy Cold Records)

As always, the abundance of breathtaking darkwave coming in from all directions was unimaginably vast and relentless, which is to say GREAT!! Picking any ‘top 5’ is a fool’s errand, whether it be in a particular genre or, more ludicrously, generally across all genres. Nonetheless, I have to feel good about this Top 5 as it traverses a broad (if not fully comprehensive) spectrum, ranging in origin from Scotland to Krakow to Indonesia to Florida to Vancouver BC.

Favorite song of 2021: Kill Shelter/Antipole – “Raise the Skies”

Mike Jedlicka – Optic Echo Presents (Tuesdays 6-8pm)

Favorite albums of 2021:
Claire Rousay – A Softer Focus
Andrew Tuttle & Padang Food Tigers – A Cassowary Apart
SUSS – Promise
Jake Muir – Mana
Space Afrika – Honest Labour

DJ Wednesday – Six Beats Under (Mondays 10-11pm)

Favorite albums of 2021:
Actors – Acts of Worship (Artofacct records)
Lycia – Casa Luna (Lycium Music)
Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine of Hell (Sargent House)
Lisa Gerrard and Jules Maxwell – Burn (Atlantic Curve)
Last Ice – Last Ice (No Movement records)

So much great music came out in 2021 so it was hard to pick but the top 5 to represent the span of my mood, style and albums I listened to relentlessly… but these are solid choices for any somber mood or a dark cloudy Portland day- which quite frankly also suits me well too. ^^V^^

Favorite song of 2021: Strange Boutique – “Jet Stream” (Self-released)

The song is amazing and I am always inspired when I hear it.

DJ Nate C – Heavy Metal Sewïng Cïrcle (Wednesdays 10pm-12am)

Favorite album of 2021: John Carpenter – Lost Themes III

The classic horror director may have lost his touch on screen, but his rebirth as a composer of creepy synthesizer music for films that don’t exist has been my favorite new music of the last decade. The third in his Lost Themes series came out way back in February of 2021, and is still my favorite album I’ve heard all year.

Favorite song of 2021: Voivod – “Planet Eaters”

French Canadian scifi-Favoriteprog-metal band Voivod has long been an all-time favorite. The single for their 2022 album Synchro-Anarchy proves that nearly 40 years in, they’re as inspired as ever.

DJ Skull – Strike of Death (Saturdays 2-3am)

Favorite albums of 2021
Diabolizer – Khalkedonian Death (Everlasting Spew)
Nunslaughter – Red is the Color of Ripping Death (Hells Headbangers)
Cannibal Corpse – Violence Unimagined (Metal Blade)
Evil – Possessed by Evil (Nuclear War Now!)
Anti-Ritual – Expel the Leeches (Indisciplinarian)

2021 was a solid year for extreme metal with a good mix of established bands and newcomers putting out solid releases. Hard to look past Cannibal Corpse showing once again they are top of the mountain for death metal with their 15th full length, 31 years after their first. This despite changing their lead guitarist to boot. Nunslaughter also impressed once again with their first full length in 7 years that captured their style perfectly and showed their continued ability to batter eardrums. The debut from Turkish death metallers Diabolizer is incredible, showing off immense power and speed and fantastic songwriting. For a straightforward ripper look no further than Evil from Japan, riffs galore and a touch of fun to boot make it a favorite. Rounding it out with Danish hardcore band Anti-Ritual who bring melody and great politics to the 2021 party.

Favorite song of 2021: Diabolizer – “Cloaked In An Aura Of Madness”