2020 was the year of the curveball. Yeah, OK, that’s obviously an understatement, but if we’re specifically looking at music released last year, there was a trend seemingly unrelated to the then-new new-normal of bizarre collaborative tracks dropping from a surprising pairing of artists. Between full LPs of head-scratching alliances courtesy of Gorillaz, The Avalanches, and HEALTH, artists like 100 gecs and Dorian Electra entered the picture, whose chaotic tractor beams sucked in guest verses from an impossibly wide variety of artists—many of whom, like Rebecca Black and Chiodos, you may not have even thought about in a decade.
But in continuing the 21st century trend of every year being just like the last one only much more so, it felt like a common occurrence in 2021 that rather than seeing a loose single from these unexpected pairings, artists were committing to the bit with a full LP’s worth of collaborations. A quick glance at most websites’ Best Albums lists and you’ll see Pharoah Sanders & Floating Points’ names together, while Anderson .Paak & Bruno Mars have been topping the Best Singles charts with their recent record as Silk Sonic. Meanwhile Nick Cave & Warren Ellis released their first record without the rest of the Bad Seeds, Laura Marling & Mike Lindsay made their return as LUMP, and Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou shared more cuts from a union they formed in 2020. And, as the examples set by artists like Jade Jackson & Aubrie Sellers (who released their debut album as Jackson+Sellers) are beginning to prove, we may finally be seeing whose new mutual friendships blossom during lockdown.
Whether or not the following list of artists linked up due to quarantine-induced boredom or not isn’t important—here are 10 of the most intriguing collaborative projects we heard over the course of 2021.
Aesop Rock & Blockhead, Garbology
This entry on the list is unique in that Aesop Rock and Blockhead obviously have a history together—the producer crafted beats for half the tracks on Aes’s breakout LPs Labor and None Shall Pass before Aesop released a slew of entirely self-produced albums (as well as a full-length collab that probably would have been a better fit for this list: Malibu Ken with Tobacco in 2019). Garbology not only saw the pair reunite after last year’s Spirit World Field Guide (which featured production from Hanni El Khatib and Leon Michels), but marks the first full-length release entirely produced by Blockhead, thus finally warranting a separate “Aesop Rock & Blockhead” Last.fm page.
Armand Hammer & The Alchemist, Haram
The past couple years have been an insanely prolific period for full-album collabs within certain pockets of hardly-underground-at-this-point hip-hop artists, with The Alchemist alone placing his revered name alongside those of Freddie Gibbs, Boldy James, Conway the Machine, and Action Bronson on LPs and EPs. The most surprising of these, perhaps, is his album with Armand Hammer, the latest export from New York’s grimy DIY scene to the festival stage. Not only did billy woods and ELUCID talk the much-in-demand producer into scoring their latest installment of murky duets, but—as they told us—Alc insisted on swapping his signature sound for something considerably more in line with the AH discography.
The Body & BIG|BRAVE, Leaving None But Small Birds
It’s certainly no surprise to see The Body release a full-length album alongside another artist within the realm of metal, nor is it a surprise to see the duo drop a full-length less than 10 months after their last LP. But from the opening auto-harp strum of lead single “Oh Sinner” it was pretty clear that Leaving None But Small Birds would be quite a deviation for both bands, the record’s traditional folk and country influences mostly dampening the groups’ post-metal proclivities. While Chip King’s distant shrieking and BIG|BRAVE’s monolithic drone sound may be absent, there’s a certain lethargic ambience to these sprawling tracks which ensure us we’ve got the right “The Body” and “BIG|BRAVE.”
Converge & Chelsea Wolfe, Bloodmoon I
Me and the two guys I always see stalking around my neighborhood with a giant Jane Doe patch on their jean jacket cutoffs have patiently been awaiting a new Converge record for four years now, and Bloodmoon I presented us with several interesting developments. In addition to the Roman numeral in its title suggesting future Bloodmoons, and the fever-inducing pained scream Jacob Bannon lets out on the record’s lead single, the album is Converge’s first album-length collaboration with Chelsea Wolfe onboard (not to mention Stephen Brodsky, though he’s a former member of the band so I guess it’s not that special. I mean it is special, but, you know). The album dropped a little over a year after Wolfe put out her debut record with Jess Gowrie as Mrs. Piss, which also ruled.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Emile Mosseri, I Could Be Your Dog (Prequel)
You may know Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith for her spiritual-ambient, prog-electro, nu-new-age tunes she’s been churning out for a decade or so (or from her collaboration with Suzanne Ciani), and you may know Emile Mosseri for his spiritual-ambient, prog-electro, nu-new-age scores he’s written for movies you’ve probably seen like Minari and The Last Black Man in San Francisco (or from his collaboration with Angel Olsen for Miranda July’s Kajillionaire OST). Yeah, OK, this one actually makes a lot of sense. Stay tuned for a part two to I Could Be Your Dog (Prequel) in 2022.
Lost Girls (Jenny Hval & Håvard Volden), Menneskekollektivet
Maybe I don’t listen to enough Jenny Hval not to be rocked by this, but the debut full-length from this iteration of her collaboration with Håvard Volden (they were once Nude on Sand, a free-folk project sharing a similar (yet unplugged) energy) feels like the precise opposite of the intellectual musings over tight electronic instrumentation that her solo records take on. She’s letting loose here in a way her Sacred Bones output (and so far her lone 4AD single) hasn’t permitted her to, sometimes barely coherent as you picture her wandering around the venue with a wireless mic, staring off into space, while Volden produces a minimal techno beat for up to 15 and a half minutes.
Richard Dawson & Circle, Henki
Had to fact check that this was, in fact, a weird pairing of artists to make an entire album together, as I’m hardly familiar with either faction of the unit that is “Richard Dawons & Circle,” so if you’re ignorant like me I guess all you need to know is that Dawson is an English freak-folk guy, and Circle is…very much not that. There’s hardly any of that folk background on Henki, which instead mostly exhibits the latter artist’s proggiest and krautist instincts. At times the record feels so enmeshed in that ’70s prog scene that it’s surprising the album cover hardly resembles vintage sci-fi novel covers.
Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine, A Beginner’s Mind
Midway through 2021, I think it was pretty fair to say that Sufjan was off the hook for releasing any more new music this year after following up 2020’s majestic and fairly epic The Ascension with literally five entire albums. But dude got right back up on his horse and just a few months later A Beginner’s Mind, his collab with labelmate Angelo De Augustine, was out in the world in all of its chamber-folk glory. Like any responsible artist with a split discography, I guess he felt the need to appease the population of his fanbase he’d neglected for at least six consecutive LPs.
Undo K From Hot (Zach Hill & Nick Reinhart), G.A.S. Get a Star
Zach Hill and Nick Reinhart quietly teaming up for a one-off (?) LP in the middle of the year is like if two guys from black midi and Squid did the same thing a decade from now—while the NorCal math rock scene isn’t quite what it was at the end of the ’00s, and Hill’s SEO name has been altered from “Hella’s Zach Hill” to “Death Grips’ Zach Hill,” the Undo K From Hot LP still possesses the same thrillingly over-the-top instrumentation “When a Vegan Eats a Vegan” once did, despite being sucked into the chaotic world of industrialist, post-dubstep, digital-hardcore glitch.
Youth Code & King Yosef, A Skeleton Key in the Doors of Depression
Almost feels unnecessary including YC and KY on this list, as both artists’ music sounds made for each other. But the final product of the industrial-horror threesome’s labors may be the best work each of them has released as individuals, the nearly 30-minute Skeleton Key in the Doors of Depression blurring the line of collaboration between the former’s glitchy screamo fit for a HEALTH feature and the latter’s metallic trap.