KEXP is counting down the best records of the year with our annual Top 90.3 Countdown. Ahead of the countdown, KEXP staff make the case for some of their favorite albums from 2021. Make sure to vote for your favorites by December 10 at 6 PM PT and tune in to hear what makes the list on December 17.
In the peak of summer, I was getting chills. I imagine many of us were, with the arrival of new COVID variants, terrifying geo-political developments, and raging wildfires reminding us of a looming expiration date for humankind. And floating beneath it all, the creeping ease with which we all now live pandemic lives and the shudder-inducing fear that we’ll never work together long enough to be permanently rid of this plague. Outside fury and frustration, it’s rare for me to get chills these days. So when I feel — or hear — something that zings my corporeal being to life in a good way, I answer.
It’s funny how a record can change for you over time. I first heard Fred again..’s debut Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020) when it dropped in April 2021. Despite an artist friend immediately heralding it as one of the best albums of the year, I didn’t think much of it. A few months later, I was a gummy and a few spliffs deep when another producer friend played “Marea (We’ve Lost Dancing).” A beat mimicking a flute pulsed through my newly stooped speakers while he told me Fred had built each song on the release around vocal samples he found everywhere from Instagram stories to poetry open mic nights.
I didn’t know then that I’d heard Fred’s work before. Mentored by ambient god Brian Eno, the superproducer had a hand in 30 percent of the UK’s number one singles in 2019. He’s lent his expert ear to Charli XCX, Eminem, The xx, Jayda G, and many more, but it’s his solo work that washed over me in a new way that night. In a Delta-8 haze, the voice notes punctuated the textured synths and instrumentation as vocals repeated, faded, and tickled wounds from the past year and a half that I didn’t realize were still raw. I immediately felt myself reflected in the words I heard. This was emotional electronic music like I’d never heard it before.
The deeper I dove into who I was hearing on the tracks, the harder I fell for Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020). And it’s not an exaggeration when I say I get chills every listen through — When Kyle, who Fred met at a poetry night, anchors us in a sea of undulating synth with “I found you beautiful / I found you exploding.” When piano and twinkling percussion layer as we build towards the gratifying moment when Dermot Kennedy sings “I was lost… without you.” When Fred strips down to a few piano chords so Carlos, a construction worker he met after a show in Atlanta, can give us reassurance (or is it a prayer?) as he repeats “We gon’ make it through.”
Almost every track on the album inspires a fit of tingles that blossom in my core, igniting each cell in my body in its wake. Kyle, Dermot, and Carlos have become my dear companions and every fiber of my being resonates with sympathy and understanding for their wisdom and expression that Fred presents to us.
What Fred does best is create space for joy. Over the last year and a half, it’s been hard to give ourselves permission to indulge in the good when the wrong feels insurmountable. But embracing joy is survival and Fred is schooled in cherishing it when it’s in short supply. One of the most arresting samples on the album is from Julia Michaels, an artist with staggering credits as a pop ghostwriter. In a clip from her Instagram, she laughs with infectious earnesty after she says “You’re bringing back all my feelings / and I fucking love it.” The pandemic has stripped us of many luxuries, but indulging in the purity of our emotions isn’t one of them.
For physical catharsis, Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020) prescribes “Sabrina (I Am a Party),” which features the heaviest beat on the record. In the darkness, the slam poet asserts “I am a party / inside of my head / inside of my home,” a spliced excerpt from a poem on anxiety and depression. Whether I’m on the subway or walking down an avenue, Sabrina brings the dancefloor to me. It’s there where the anger and repressed despair, built up like calcium deposits on my spirit, can finally start chipping away.
“I can’t wait to see your face again.”
“I’m so tired of being strong.”
“I bench press my problems like add another weight.”
It’s Fred’s ear for sincerity that sets Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020) apart. He brings together a cast who present themselves honestly and purely through their samples, and it’s impossible not to meet them with the same vulnerability as a listener. The album becomes music therapy the moment you project your experiences onto it.
For me, the record is illuminated by my tears and laughter, my living room dance parties and long walks. It’s Fred who draws out each of these moments of isolation into complete emotional experiences at a time when restraint has become our default.
While I was researching the album for this piece, I came across Fred’s video for “Angie (I’ve Been Lost).” As the song started to play, subtitles appeared on the screen:
I spent most of last year on the phone.
It’s a whole long story and I can barely talk about it without crying to be honest. But typing is better!
I think the best way I can summarise it is that I fell in love. (I knowwwwwww)
And it was literally beyond unreal. Just beyond.
It was SO mad. Like jus life changing.
And then she got ill.
And then she got really ill.
And then life just became something else.
Realization dawned on me. I’d spent months listening to the album every day as a perfect pandemic release from someone who had turned the losses of COVID-19 into a sonic masterpiece. I had no idea that his loss was something so much deeper, so much more specific — and one that I couldn’t fathom.
In an instant, the album changed. Suddenly, the lyrics I’d grafted my own experiences onto meant something entirely different and new lines stood out to me as portraits of Fred’s experience:
“I want to run in there and steal you out / unplug the wires and kiss your mouth. You don’t need another whiteboard evening / But I need you breathin’. / Before my needs, she’s all I need / I know it won’t be long / and I know you’re holding on / I’m so tired of being strong.”
Apart from the voice notes that bookend the album, “Me (Heavy)” is the only track where Fred forgoes a feature and instead centers himself. Atop the sparseness of a melancholy beat, he meets us barely above a whisper, contrasting the vigor of those he samples. His piano weeps in the background when he ends with “I found you exploding / I found you beautiful / I don’t know a thing I could feel more heavy / Babe, I’m ready.”
I had seen Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020) as a representation of my pandemic, with Fred’s production holding these vignettes together to paint a universal picture. Now I realized that Fred was using these voice notes to tell his own story, one of profound love and profound loss.
During the ten or so listens that followed, my heart broke anew each time. Different chills replaced the ones I’d felt before as I began to see it not just as a pandemic record, but as a tribute. Fred seems to chronicle the arc of his relationship, from finding someone in the smoking chaos and deep diving into love to his mournful reconciliation with reality. He speaks to her through the lyrics, orchestrating a global choir of emotion into a masterful work that memorializes their love, memorializes her. In the process, he has crafted a love letter where “these songs will hold and hide your name,” a letter that has resonated with fans around the world.
On December 5, 2021 I went to the Music Hall of Williamsburg to see Fred again.. With the album weighing more heavily on me than before, I wasn’t sure what I would end up getting out of seeing these songs live, songs that had meant so much to me but whose meaning had completely changed. It was painful to listen to the album with this new perspective and I was contemplating loss and heartbreak as Brooklynites filled in the crowd around me, sipping out of plastic cups and engaging in pre-show chatter with friends.
The same anticipation that precedes every concert hummed in the air, but when the house lights went down the energy changed. Fred walked out as a video of Kyle played on a screen behind him; in response, people around me clutched their chests, grabbed the shoulders of friends who wore face-splitting grins, and hands covered faces as we heard the familiar lines “I found you beautiful / I found you exploding.” Tears welled up in my own eyes as I thought about all the unspoken loss housed in these bodies that I was bumping shoulders with, loss that we would never share.
But we would share something else. When the saxophone refrain gave way to the drop in “Kyle,” the crowd exploded. Bodies lifted into flight basked in blinding, glittering light, and after so much time: release. There wasn’t a single person who wasn’t moving, who didn’t know the words to every song, who wasn’t indulging in this moment that Fred had made for us. More than pain, I was surrounded by love. Everyone there had been waiting for months to hear a record that meant so much to each of us, in a holy space where together we could acknowledge the hurt and also heal.
Fred closed the show with a highlight from his most recent full-length, Actual Life (February 2 - October 15 2021). “Billie (Loving Arms)” manipulates Billie Ray Martin’s 1994 classic “Your Loving Arms” into a triumphant dance track about letting the love in. I was just left of center stage in the middle of the crowd when the song began, about where a mosh pit would typically break out. As the song built towards the drop, no mosh pit. Instead, strangers slung their arms sloppily across one another’s shoulders, people gingerly gripped each other with grins that belonged on the faces of old friends, and everyone on the floor came together in a massive group hug.
There are so many reasons Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020) is my album of the year. Fred again.. beautifully samples our world in lockdown, captures the essence of this era of uncertainty, and holds space for all the highs and lows that come with it. Not only does it deliver one of the most creative uses of sampling I’ve come across, but Fred’s production expands and deepens the feeling of each vocal sample to the point where he can manipulate emotion as deftly as he does synth, as if joy and frustration were Logic presets. Fred stitches together these isolated lives into a single tapestry of loss and in the process, provides a vital dose of hope.
It’s always interesting to discover that an artist you love had something different in mind when creating than you did when listening, but a good album evolves over time and the best albums grow with you forever. It’s not the differences but the similarities in experience that make music resonate with us, and that make Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020) universal. In the safety of the music, I met Carlos, Dermot, and Kyle, got to know Sabrina, Julia, and Billie. It’s an album I bonded over with my friends, it’s what sold out Fred’s New York shows in mere minutes, and what brought all of us together that night.
Yes, there’s pain and loss, but hope and healing win because they must. Even if it feels impossible, they must. Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020) represents the most hard-fought hope and it gives me the strength to stay as optimistic as I can and to keep feeling deeply, even if it’s painful. Fred’s friend Marea said it best in a voicemail she left him, which he sampled for the debut’s club-ready standout “Marea (We’ve Lost Dancing)”:
“For me, hope has really been essential. Hope is not just a feeling, it’s a strategy. It is something that you have in spite of every rational reason to not have hope. Optimism and faith and hanging on when it doesn’t even maybe make sense to hang on — it’s a strategy. This year we’ve had to lose our space. We’ve lost dancing. We’ve lost hugs with friends and people that we loved, all these things that we took for granted. If I can live through this next six months, day by day… If I can live through this, what comes next will be marvelous.”
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