2021 has been a strange year by anyone’s standards, and music has been a constant crutch for people to turn to in times of uncertain society and certain destruction. There’s been an incessant stream of albums from artists old and new who have functioned as the soundtrack for this rollercoaster period in human history.
The last two years have affected artists, too, and music has been their vehicle to guide them back to shore from the stormy seas of the global pandemic. As our selection of the best albums of the year shows, not everyone has reacted in the same way. Some used the time to introspective reflections on their life and expression, whereas others took the opposite route and sought escapism or brutal destruction.
Music has always been by our side throughout the good times and the bad. Whether this was during the bleak cold months we spent locked up inside our homes, confined to our households or soaking in the summer sun after restrictions lifted, these albums have been with us every step of the way.
When we look back in years to come at 2021, it’ll be remembered fondly for its music if not for anything else. Narrowing this list down to just 50 albums was a gruelling task, and all of the names which feature made us feel something inside, which makes each one a worthy addition to your record collection.
Below we have our 50 favourite albums of 2021.
The 50 best albums of 2021:
50. How Beautiful Life Can Be – The Lathums
What a year it’s been for Wigan’s favourite songwriters (sorry, The Verve). The Lathums have hit their creative stride this year and captured the hearts of the nation in the process. Their debut album, How Beautiful Life Can Be, hits all the right sweet spots.
There are flecks of British royalty like The Smiths, The La’s and early Arctic Monkeys, and they tap into that sense of Britishness that only we from this sceptred isle truly understand. Considering they’re only in their early 20’s, the future looks incredibly radiant for The Lathums. The world is theirs if they want it, and How Beautiful Life Can Be, is sure to be a mainstay of record collections for years to come. Frontman Alex Moore has the makings of a future legend.
49. In These Silent Days – Brandi Carlile
2021 has been a bummer for pretty everyone, however, the return of Brandi Carlile helped to quell the feeling of total hopelessness felt by music lovers across the world. Grandiose, emotive and heartfelt, Carlile shines on In These Silent Days. Her voice is incredible, and the performance on the opener, ‘Right on Time’ shows this clearly.
There are nods to Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, and dare we say it, Dolly Parton on her latest offering. It is one of the most consistent long player’s that 2021 has been graced with. Possibly her masterpiece, In These Silent Days is one of those rare albums that can carry you through rain or shine, showing her real genius.
48. Projector – Geese
The New York teens, Geese, have had a good crack with their debut album, Projector. Ostensibly a post-punk record, there’s new-wave, art-rock, psychedelia and of course, post-punk, mixed together for what is a dynamic experience. The influence of Ought is clear as day, as is the work of The Modern Lovers, The Strokes, Iceage and Preoccupations. Maybe guilty of being a bit samey in terms of composition at some points, but Projector is still a commanding effort, leaving us with the huge question, where do Geese go from here?
If they follow in the footsteps of their labelmates IDLES, Chubby and the Gang and Fontaines D.C., building on a rumble of brooding post-punk tension and leaping into new directions, Geese are sure to hit some heights in the coming years.
47. Happier Than Ever – Billie Eilish
I don’t think anybody was surprised when Billie Eilish’s second studio album, Happier Than Ever, was released to critical acclaim. The modern answer to heavyweights such as Madonna or Prince, Eilish and brother-cum-producer, Finneas, continue to surprise and delight us on Happier Than Ever.
Musically diverse, it contains elements of jazz, trip-hop, electro and chamber pop, as is perhaps the most consistently surprising album of 2021. Billie Eilish has set the world on fire. She’s had an incredible 2021 with the release of Happier Than Ever and her James Bond soundtrack, and it’s likely that she’s to be the topic of discussions for many years to come. She and Finneas have recreated pop for the modern era, and at only 19 and 24 respectively, it’s hard not to be impressed.
46. On All Fours – Goat Girl
London quartet Goat Girl outdid themselves on On All Fours. There’s still the Gun Club influence, just this time it’s imbued with psychedelia and electronica. It goes many steps further than 2018’s debut record, and is a real delight. Frontwoman Lottie Pendlebury really comes into her own, and musically, the band have matured greatly. Augmented by the production of Speedy Wunderground’s Dan Carey, Goat Girl confirmed that they weren’t just a fleeting name. They’re here to stay.
With many different angles that you discover upon each listen, it’s a record that keeps you on your toes. We hope that they continue on this journey of musical experimentation because they’ve got the capacity to become a really influential outfit.
45. How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? – The Big Red Machine
On How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, Big Red Machine confirmed themselves as America’s supergroup du jour. Gorgeous indie-folk, you can’t help but think that Big Red Machine are a steadfast, American answer to Canadian heroes Broken Social Scene. The brainchild of Aaron Dessner of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame, Big Red Machine’s return was welcomed with open arms.
There are cameos from Anäis Mitchell, Taylor Swift, Sharon Van Etten and Robin Pecknold, to name but a few, and it’s simply incredible. Tracks like ‘Phoenix’, ‘Mimi’ and ‘Latter Days’ confirm that Dessner and Vernon have got a brilliant thing going, and we can’t wait to see where they go next.
44. Sketchy – Tune-Yards
As we close out the year, and the days draw shorter, California indie duo, Tune-Yards provide the UV that we all need. Recorded at their Oakland home studio back in the pre-pandemic world of 2019, on Sketchy, Tune-Yards really shine.
It’s leftfield, off-kilter pop that fits into the same loose bracket as Animal Collective, The Avalanches, Jagwar Ma, Captain Beefheart and perhaps even Deerhoof. Hard to pigeonhole, musically it is very hypnotising (no pun intended, I swear). There are specks of every genre under the sun, and if Tune-Yards were British, it would be exactly the type of album nominated for the Mercury Prize. If you want something refreshing, this is the album for you.
43. Loving In Stereo – Jungle
Jungle’s return has been a success. It’s seen them incorporate more instrumentation, and the swooning opener ‘Dry Your Tears’ sets a precedent for the rest of the record. The production is crisp, and the band see themselves develop on Loving In Stereo.
There’s still that uplifting neo-soul that we all love, but this time it just feels like Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland are entering their creative zenith, by expanding their dynamic palette. Catchy, with basslines galore, you’ll have a hard time not moving to this record. We cannot wait to catch them next Summer.
42. Spare Ribs – Sleaford Mods
Sleaford Mods are one of the most important bands out there. The combination of frontman and lyricist Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn is a winner. They’ve consistently churned out records since their inception in 2007, and their commentary on the condition of everyday Britain in the age of austerity has taken the plight and anger of many onto the global stage. Their fusion of mod, hip-hop, electronic and punk influences on Spare Ribs, confirm them as a spiritual successor to both The Fall and John Cooper Clarke. They’re also so much more than that, though.
Spare Ribs sees the band go even more expansive and broaden their sonic arsenal. Featuring takes from Billy Nomates and Australian punk heroine Amy Taylor, at points the band channel Sex Pistols and at others IDM legends like Autechre. Their sound emulates the melting pot that is modern Britain, and we love it.
41. Vince Staples – Vince Staples
Vince Staples is one of the most consistent rappers of the past decade. He returns with his unmistakably perceptive lyricism and ballasted by the work of Kenny Beats and others, we see him at his most candid yet. It’s a solid piece of work that features some varied instrumentation, but it never overshadows the Compton rapper. It places Staples’ delivery right in the centre of the mix.
One can’t help but think it’s going to be hailed as a future classic and the record contains some of the real-life, scarred substance that made Kenrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly so iconic. Musically, lyrically and production-wise, Vince Staples is 3D. There’s trip-hop, jazz, electronica and some expert use of strings. ‘The Apple & The Tree’ is a delight and Brittany Fousheé’s guest vocals on ‘Take Me Home’ are stunning. Vince Staples has returned to us, rejoice!
40. Tyron – Slowthai
With his appetite for destruction, UK rapper, Slowthai, has managed to inject a much-needed dose of dissent into the nation’s music scene. Boasting socially-conscious lyrics, imaginative production and an intense live show, Slowthai has come to represent a new age of UK rap.
Tyron sees him dial back the nihilism of his Mercury Award-nominated 2019 album Nothing Great About Britain and replace it with a technicolour haze of artfully selected samples, industrial textures and impressive collaborations.
39. For the First Time – Black Country, New Road
What’s that sound? It’s the underground bubbling to the surface. Bringing sonics borne from the backrooms of sticky south London pubs, Black Country, New Road have seen all kinds of hype in 2021, being named a band of the moment by pretty much every publication out there – and it’s easy to see why.
Their avant-garde blend of free jazz, post-punk, and self-deprecating spoken word has been heralded by many like the sound of a new age crashing into view, with tracks like ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Sunglasses’ falling somewhere between confession, comedy, and satire. Refusing to pause for a wheezy, asthmatic breath, Black Country, New Road are already throwing new material our way in the form of their Concorde EP. It’ll be interesting to see if they can keep this momentum going.
38. Chemtrails Over The Country Club – Lana Del Rey
2021 saw Lana Del Rey return with all the melancholic flair we’ve come to expect from the ‘Born To Die’ singer. Having curated a style that blends doom-laden pop arrangements and subtle cultural criticism, it’s not like Del Rey had any lack of subject matter in 2021 – a year that, just 11 days in, saw supporters of Donald Trump storm the Capitol building.
With Chemtrails Over The Country Club, Del Rey replaced the grand sweeping musical gestures of her previous album, Norman Fucking Rockwell! with quieter moments of real insight, revealing stories focused less on the west coast characters that have come to define her output and more on the disillusioned voices emerging from America’s heartland.
37. Any Shape You Take – Indigo De Souza
Treading the line between anthemic pop, artfully produced hip-hop, and folkish grunge, Indigo De Souza has marked herself out as one of the most inventive young singer-songwriters of the year.
Her debut Any Shape You Take offers up a selection of shapeshifting, angst-driven sonic gems – each with varying levels of introspection. But where her contemporaries revel in holding something back, De Souza makes no attempts to hide, allowing her elastic vocals to weave an incredible strain of virtuosity through this whole record.
36. HEY WHAT – Low
Low made their triumphant return this year, with an album that, to many, marked a surprising shift in gear. This surprisingly clean-cut offering from Minnesota’s funeral-pop three-piece, Low, sees the band adopt a wayward and amorphous blend of spiritual, glitch-core, and grunge.
It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the method behind the glorious madness that is Hey What. Indeed, on first listening to ‘Days Like These’ and ‘White Horses’, I was stuck with the image of The Soggy Bottom Boys from O Brother Where Art Thou? Being thrown into an industrial blender, and I still haven’t managed to shake it.
35. I Know I’m Funny Haha – Faye Webster
Existing somewhere between a ‘70s muzak composer and ‘00s nu-folk songstress, Faye Webster has established herself as one of America’s finest young purveyors of syrupy-sweet jazz-pop.
Offering up a selection of softly spoken confessions, I Know I’m Funny Haha, sees Faye Webster blend the mellifluous cool of Robert Glasper with an introverted charm that is, at once endearing and quietly mesmerising.
34. For Those I Love – For Those I Love
David Balfe’s unique talent has seen him receive much critical acclaim this year. Boasting lush production and novelistic lyrical skill, his recent album serves as a balm in a time of mourning. The album is as rich in silky production as it emotional integrity, which proves a heady mix for any listener.
Written in the wake of his friend’s untimely death, For Those I Love offers a moving illustration of a grieving man stuck to the dancefloor. At once universal and introspective, tracks like ‘You Stayed/To live’ evoke countless ghosts even as Balfe dances the night away. It is a phenomenal achievement that continues to haunt its listeners.
33. Sling – Clairo
Clairo is one of those songwriters who seems to absorb the world into the fabric of her songwriting. Whereas 2019’s electro-driven Immunity flowed with cautious optimism, her 2021 sophomore album seems to belie the forced isolation that has come to define the last two years of our lives.
Clairo’s fragile blend of sauntering vintage instrumentation and accessible pop songwriting makes Sling the perfect album to see out the year – a rainy day companion with a heart of gold. Clairo’s future continues to get brighter like the rays of solar pop sunshine breaking through those clouds.
32. Ignorance – The Weather Station
Few artists gave off the level of enigmatic cool that Weather station did this year. Withs jittering, paper-thin vocals, inventive arrangements, and serpentine songwriting, they have established themselves as one of the most refreshing indie-folk groups of the last few years,
Following the release of Weather Station’s self-titled 2017 offering, Ignorance sees the Canadian outfit do away with meaningless strumming and embrace something a great deal more angular. From the first tentative snare beats of ‘Robber’, we willingly fall into the palm of Weather Station’s collective hand, allowing them to take us anywhere they’d have us go.
31. Nine – SAULT
Having already cemented their cult status with two incredibly dexterous and intoxicating albums, in 2021, the ever unsatisfied anonymous producers behind SAULT decided to revolutionise the way we think about music.
Releasing their third studio offering Nine for just 99 days, SAULT made an assault on the function of recorded music, stripping it of any sense of permanence in the hope that its inevitable disappearance might allow us to appreciate its offerings all the more. They certainly succeeded. Nine saw SAULT document the life of the city of London through a concise exploration of the music created by its residents over the last 50 years. A truly astonishing album.
30. An Evening with Silk Sonic – Silk Sonic
Silk Sonic have thrown the 1970s back into the cocktail shaker and we’re all here to lap it up and throw our worst shapes. With an all-star band the record purrs with Motown quality as musicians unfurl a silken sound with butter cutting ease. Very rarely do note-perfect arrangements soar this freely, but with Bootsy Collins in the mix it’s no surprise that the sonic explosion captures the vibe of a studio party.
With a slew of stars in the mix, the project is primarily helmed by the ‘superduo’ Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak who first linked up back in 2017 on tour where the first seed for this debut bloom was planted Over the last four years, this record has travelled from the realm of a pipe dream to the sort of joyous finished product that has you asking why they’d ever work apart again.
29. Drunk Tank Pink – Shame
With their debut album, Songs of Praise, Shame established themselves as one of, if not the most important voice on the emerging English rock scene. However, with a range of imitators setting up shop on their turf in the interim and the world suddenly thrust into turmoil, their next step had to be a guarded one. When Drunk Tank Pink finally came around, it punctuated the lockdown malaise with some much-needed exultation.
With everything Shame have released so far, there has been a sense of immediacy and a caustic cognizance of the current state of things. Their debut album, Songs of Praise, grabbed the sleepy UK music industry by the scruff of the neck and shook it about like a flat pack wardrobe on a fault line. This sophomore follow-up was a record that gorgeously elucidated the need for both reflection and deliverance in music moving forward. And with Charlie Steen at the helm they ooze poignancy with a pointy edge, probing and piercing at politics, philosophy and beyond.
28. Little Oblivions – Julien Baker
Over the last ten years, one of the best current music circles has been female indie singer-songwriters. Back in 2015, Julien Baker joined the fold with her debut record, Sprained Ankle, and since then she has gone from strength to strength. Her latest album is perhaps her best yet, with a well-rounded slew of songs on offer, showing that she can scream, croon and strum along to wherever her muse takes her.
The album might not be blessed with a string of obvious singles, but on this occasion that is to its credit. The songs don’t stretch or strain to anything other than they were intended to be. With Little Oblivions Baker isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, she merely relies on her ability to craft the sort of introspective ditties that sport their vulnerability as a source of power and the tracks soar as a result.
27. Afrique Victime – Mdou Moctar
As the premier band of the Desert Blues movement, Mdou Moctar are not only one of the best guitar bands around, but they are also one of the most important bands of the moment full stop. They are the pioneering frontier that captures the sound of an almost monolithic past colliding with the uncertain presentiment of climate change means that the music’s significance is not psychosomatic, nebulous or ascertained after the fact, but a glimpse into the hereafter. The output is a bold invocation of a future that is likely to affect a billion people directly. Yet, it offers a glimmer of glistening hope from this glum situation.
They are not a band who found international acclaim the easy way, but now that the world has heard their songs, the message is an inviolable triumph. Behind the scintillating arpeggio guitar work and bluesy rhythmic riffs, is a sense of depth that proves transcendent. Afrique Victime might be more produced than previous efforts but the added gloss erodes none of the rustic weight in the welter of this spiritual collection of trance-inducing melodic tracks.
26. Black to the Future – Sons of Kemet
Black to the Future begins with ‘Field Negus’ and a scathingly unflinching dirge on the existence of slaves. This is a sure-footed step indicative of an album that has honed its intent down to the letter. Thereafter, neither the jazzy vibes nor any of the splurging imagery takes one step back in its considered race towards the equally brutal conclusion of ‘Black’.
With cutting and acerbic tones throughout Black to the Future may well be the most vital jazz album of recent times. There is self-evident importance to this record but that doesn’t confine the sound of the album into something linear, rather it fuels it with explosive sonic outburst free to wax and wane as it pleases. There might be highs and lows on the record’s journey, but if meaningful change is to flower from the Black Lives Matter movement then this sort of creative cognizance is needed, making it just about the most important album of the year.
25. Cavalcade – black midi
Originality is the hardest thing to achieve in art, not merely because everything has been done before, but because for something to escape the clutches of being obviously conceited it can’t actively strive for originality, it is a label that has to be applied after the fact. Black Midi have it in such a spade load that they can go straight from the manic maelstrom of discordant sound on ‘John L’ straight into the Riviera basked reverie of the Grizzly Bear-esque ‘Marlene Dietrich’.
Cavalcade is a splurge that may well prove daunting for some. It is not a record that welcomes you gently. Math rock sits alongside oddly tuned basslines and wild production flourishes, but once you’ve settled in it proves to a warm bath akin to Frida Kahlo’s ‘What the Water Gave Me’ whereby sudden hammer-on solo’s race into view as readily as the weird cascade of imagery that the sound induces.
24. Isles – Bicep
Sharing their sophomore album at the turn of the year, amid a global pandemic and a systematic shutdown of nightlife everywhere, somehow Bicep managed to release one of the dance records of the year.
Belfast boys Bicep delivered their second album, Isles, at a time when the idea of going to a rave is now a distant memory. The record offered a pertinent reminder of those incredible memories attached to hazy days in the past, our now present, and may be taken away from us once more. The album arrived just a day after the inevitable cancellation of the Glastonbury Festival but followed up their 2017 effort with a renewed sense of self.
Whilst the debut album laid out precisely who Bicep was and pulled in influences from different parts of UK dance history onto a tight record, that made for an enthralling listen, it wasn’t as well-rounded as its follow-up. On Isles, they took things up a notch to produce a cohesive album that flowed together effortlessly and brought a much-needed euphoric form of escapism for its listeners.
23. I Don’t Live Here Anymore – The War On Drugs
For a band eternally drenched in the rays of summer in the minds of many fans, it came as a bit of a surprise to see a snowy white album cover when I Don’t Live Here Anymore was announced. Up until this point, The War On Drugs have proved the ultimate top-down driving band, but this marked departure kept things as fresh as, well, as a fresh dusting of clean white snow.
Softer, mellowed and with sparser instrumentation the journeys you embark on with I Don’t Live Here Anymore are very much of the pillow-propped variety rather than racing highways. However, the repetitive drumbeat department remains and the central tenets of the previous outings still soar, etching the band out as an outfit with a sound to call their own. Things might be slower, but it is no less blissful than they always have been.
22. Far In – Helado Negro
Ahead of the release of Far In, Helado Negro made the switch to the 4AD label. The move saw 4AD acquire an artist who had reached a level of maturity and self-awareness with his art that he was able to play to his strengths and craft a triumphant career-high. Helado Negro has always proved prolific with his creativity, but Far In almost seems like a step back, the reflective sort that can often result in the two steps forward that Far In has undoubtedly achieved.
In hushed tones, the album unspools at a breezy pace ideal for coffee sipping summer walks or Saturday morning showers to set the weekend off on a sanguine note. At over an hour-long it is an album that asks for nothing other than your time and gives back so much more — it is meditative yet focused and refreshingly coherent in an era where so many other artists would be tempted to throw an unnecessary spanner into the works at some discordant juncture.
21. Prioritise Pleasure – Self Esteem
Prioritise Pleasure is an intense experience. It is unabating in both its use of dramatic production and casually blunt lyrics that slap you around the chops at each and every turn. It seems unhinged by design and as such perfectly crafted, after all, in the opening track ‘I’m Fine’, Rebecca Taylor announces, “There is nothing that terrifies a man more than a woman that appears completely deranged.”
For some people, the glaringly bold front of the record might prove to be too vast to clamber over, but if you do assail the walls of towering intent then, housed within, is an important elucidation of the current situation that young women face. Once paired with the bravura of the bristling pop production what you are left with is an opera that oozes vitality.
20. Comfort To Me – Amyl and The Sniffers
Punk rock is never dead. It comes and goes when it pleases, happy to live in the margins as the mainstream every once in a while takes notice of the strange noises emanating from ratty clubs and dingy recording studios dotted across the world. The “punk rock” that pop audiences liked this year was mostly restricted to Olivia Rodrigo, but for those looking for a harder-edged, there was another female-focused group sitting venom and just waiting to be discovered.
Lead singer Amy Taylor has one mode and one mode only: full throttle aggression. Whether it’s begging to be let into a pub, raging against the industry that sexualises any female-fronted band on, or just telling some asshole to piss off, the snarl and spit can be felt like she’s in the room with you, tearing up your clothes and punching holes in your wall in real-time. Behind her, drummer Bryce Wilson, guitarist Dec Martens, and bassist Fergus Romer lay down manic backbeats that range from frantic to downright dizzying.
Energy won’t get you far, which is why it’s a good thing that Amyl and The Sniffers have songs. You’ll see ‘Security’ on our 50 Best Songs list, but ‘Guided By Angels’, ‘Hertz’, ‘Capital’ or ‘Don’t Need a Cunt (Like You to Love Me)’ all could have made the list as well. For anyone who dug the faster and more snide edges of pop-punk this year, come over to Comfort To Me when you’re ready for the real thing.
19. Call Me If You Get Lost – Tyler, The Creator
Tyler, The Creator had been building his own version of rap music for well over a decade. Starting with his off-kilter group Odd Future and extending into his first solo albums, the artist spearheaded experimental blends of hip hop, soul, rock, and pop, following his muse wherever it took him.
Sometimes that was probing his personal life on Flower Boy, or going full deconstructionist on Igor. Sometimes it meant putting out an entire EP dedicated to Christmas-related material inspired by The Grinch. But through it all, it was rap through the looking glass: a wonky, alternative universe of hip hop that only made sense if you dove in headfirst.
It’s a testament to Tyler Okonmo’s artistry that, when he decides to make the most straightforward album of his career, it still retains the most unique qualities that make him stand above all others in the rap game. Call Me If You Get Lost is just as exciting as anything the artist has ever put out, but it’s packaged in a more direct and crowd-pleasing form.
18. The Nearer The Fountain More Pure The Stream Flows – Damon Albarn
Who would have thought that the legendarily eclectic Damon Albarn had any new facets of himself to show? He’s defined an entire movement of British culture with Blur, spearheaded the modern genre mixing of pop music with Gorillaz, and carved out a more introspective niche with his solo debut Everyday Robots. Albarn’s shown more personalities than James McAvoy in Split, but little did we know he still wasn’t done.
For The Nearer The Fountain More Pure The Stream Flows, Albarn lets his normally frantic mind rest for a bit, giving up control to his accompanying musicians and letting compositions flow with a kind of unhurried languidness. But things never get slow or boring. Rather, Albarn is able to tap into a palpable sense of longing and desire that finds him at his most gorgeously elegant.
Maybe that’s because he based the album’s entire concept around the natural beauty of his new home, Iceland. Maybe it’s because Albarn has finally gotten comfortable with putting his own name out front and centre. Whatever the case is, The Nearer The Fountain More Pure The Stream Flows feels like the first time we’ve seen Albarn completely unguarded, with flaws and faults all adding to the fantastical tapestry of sounds.
17. Seventeen Going Under – Sam Fender
Amid last year’s initial lockdown and being forced off the road, Sam Fender used his time shielding to address personal problems he’d bandaged over for a decade. The result was Seventeen Going Under, on which the 27-year-old stakes his claim for being an essential voice in modern Britain.
A towering step up from his debut, Hypersonic Missiles, Fender ditched the social commentary impetus of his first album and switched the microscope on himself for the reflective sophomore effort. On Seventeen Going Under, the Shields singer delivers a brutally honest recount of his formative years while carving out euphoric rock from the darkest of subject matters.
‘The Dying Light’ offers up the album’s most poignant moment as Fender’s vulnerability showcases him at his most defenceless, as he weeps, “But I’m alone here, Even though I’m physically not, And those dead boys are always there, There’s more every year,” before later adding, “I must repel thе dying light, For Mam and Dad and all my pals, For all the ones who didn’t make the night.”
16. As Days Get Dark – Arab Strap
“I don’t give a fuck about the past.” That’s how Arab Strap open the first song on their first album in over a decade and a half. The Scottish post-rock institution had never been particularly worried about their perception or their legacy, but right off the bat, As Days Get Dark wants you to know that nothing that you may have known about the duo matters in the slightest here. The slate is wiped clean, and an entirely new world is waiting to be explored.
Retaining all the fury and confrontation of their best work, As Days Get Dark finds Arab Strap firing off song after song that dares you not to find the beauty in the squalor. There’s the numbing monologue of discontent on ‘Another Clockwork Day’, the orchestral flourishes that lives in the grimey underworld (“a shower without soap”) on ‘I Was Once a Weak Man’, and the heavenly synths that backup the hellish backdrop of ‘Tears on Tour’. Death, depression, broken dreams – it’s all on the table, ready to be met face to face whether you’re ready or not.
Despite the dreary nature, there are still hilarious moments to be found: “I cry at rom-coms, dramedies, the news and children’s films/The Muppet Movie, Frozen, Frozen 2.” But it never feels like levity or comic relief. It all goes into one big stew and pops up at random intervals, just like how it does in real life. The greatest triumph of As Days Get Dark is its ability to reflect reality with painfully precise accuracy: mundaneness, triumph, tragedy, and disconnect all intact.
15. Glow On – Turnstile
Turnstile have really achieved something with Glow On. They’ve somehow managed to fuse together a series of rather disparate genres. By the dawn of 2021, they were already one of the most well-respected hardcore bands out there, and their last studio effort, 2018’s Time & Space is a classic. They teased where they were going on Time & Space, but I doubt anybody expected Glow On to be such a masterpiece. There’s still the stellar, groovy NYC style of hardcore of their 2013 EP Step 2 Rhythm, but it’s been augmented.
They’ve managed to take hardcore in a completely different direction. Whilst their contemporaries such as Vein and Jesus Piece have taken the genre on a brilliantly unrelenting industrial influenced journey, Baltimore’s favourite sons have gone the other way. It’s sun-inflected, with atmospheric electronic instrumentation and dreamy production. There’s bits of Life of Agony, Faith No More, Nothing and then there’s the much-lauded Blood Orange appearing on ‘Alien Love Call’. This shows the juncture that they’re at.
‘Don’t Play’ is the perfect reflection of this. Heavy grooves, with classic hardcore vocals, belted in unison, but a piano-driven and slightly bossa-nova influenced chorus. Turnstile have reinvented themselves on Glow On, even bassist Franz Lyons’ short but sweet dream pop piece ‘No Surprise’ is a welcome treat. Purists might add that at points, the record is guilty of being too pop-driven and cheesy, but as a whole, it’s a real banger. The future is incredibly bright for the band. It’s going to be interesting to see what effect the album has on the hardcore scene at large. In a few years, we may be looking back on this as a momentous point in the scene’s history.
14. Carnage – Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Here’s a true statement: Nick Cave has never released a solo album. Sure, his work in the Bad Seeds is largely centred around him and him alone, and he’s done solo liver performances like the one that made up the Idiot Prayer film. But Cave doesn’t work solo, and the proof is in Carnage, the closest that Cave has ever come to being unequivocally himself.
But it’s not just him, and his collaborator is the most important distinction on the album: Warren Ellis, longtime Bad Seed and collaborator with Cave on a number of film scores as well as his appearances with Cave in the band Grinderman. For nearly 30 years, Ellis has been the eclectic and vibrant yin to Cave’s darker, more introspective yang. Their shared ability to conjure up magic is all over their most recent collaboration.
Whatever kind of subversive allure Cave and Ellis still have as legendary figures of the alternative rock world can be felt on Carnage: moody, dense, and at times deliberately difficult, the album nonetheless moves with the kind of grace and beauty that Cave can’t help but conjure up, even at his most dour.
13. Collapsed In Sunbeams – Arlo Parks
Arlo Parks was always in danger of not living up to the hype. Let’s call it “The H.E.R. Paradigm”: an artist whose music is all well and good, even occasionally transcendently great, but is so quickly eaten up with institutional praise and high-profile awards that it’s hard to form your own opinion. You’ve been told this person is great before you’ve even heard any of their music. There’s a warped perception, and that inevitably leads to a sceptical entry.
Well forget the Mercury Prize, forget the Grammys, forget the recommendations from famous figures. From the opening prayer onwards, Collapsed in Sunbeams is the funkiest and most soulful meditation on pain, identity, adulthood, and joy released this year. Those might be weighty topics, but the songs that accompany them, from the summery feeling of ‘Too Good’ to the jazzy acoustic strums of ‘Black Dog’ and the dark drive of ‘Eugene’, are so delectable that Parks can’t help but be uplifting.
It may sound strange, but all this praise and adulation might actually have a detrimental effect on Parks and Collapsed in Sunbeams. Part of it feels inorganic, especially the focus on Parks’ young age. More than anything else, the focus should be on the music and the message that Parks is communicating. There’s nothing better than entering Collapsed in Sunbeams with an open mind because it refuses to disappoint.
12. As Love Continues – Mogwai
It’s hard to think of any other band that’s had culture catch up to them in quite the same way as Mogwai. The group’s dense, largely instrumental compositions were beguiling to those who saw the seeds of a majorly successful rock band who could ascend to god-tier status if they just got out of their own way. Instead, Mogwai stuck to their guns and forged their own path to success.
But as the world disintegrated around them, and as music began to homogenize into a relatively bland paste that let all styles mingle and co-exist freely, Mogwai emerged as one of the most distinctive and uncompromising acts to repeatedly stake their claim to greatness. All it took was time for the rest of humanity to eventually agree, and As Love Continues became the first album in the band’s 25-year career to hit number one on the UK Album Charts.
It’s a well-deserved honour, since As Love Continues is Mogwai at their most grand and their most laser-focused. Letting vocoder and looping guitar melodies take up the space usually helmed by a singer, Mogwai have fine-tuned their best aspects to create the ideal version of their sound: gigantic sprawling guitar rock that has enough texture and ambience to truly send you into the stratosphere. They had done it before, but never to the extent that As Love Continues does.
11. Promises – Floating Points, London Symphony Orchestra, and Pharoah Sanders
Here’s a proposition for you: electronic musician Sam Shepherd, also known under the alias Floating Points, pairs up with legendary experimental jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders for a full-fledged musical opera that is brought to life with the London Symphony Orchestra. Grandly ambitious in scale and almost impossible to pull off, the resulting album Promises, is quite simply the most stunningly gorgeous LP of the year.
The rightful heir to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, and Brian Eno’s Apollo, Promises is the perfect nexus of classical, ambient, and jazz. In an era where lofi beats and white noise are the necessary soundtracks to most of our lives, the collaborators on Promises do what few masters have been able to actually accomplish: create music that’s as fascinating to pick apart as it is to simply let wash over you.
Sanders is in top form, taking the lead role and exploring the space laid out for him. Shepherd provides the background that pushes and pulls at Sanders to pry the inspired runs out of the genius. For all its epic scope, the London Symphony Orchestra is remarkably subtle, and the combination of all three produces one of the most hypnotising listening experiences to ever find its way into the mainstream.
10. Valentine – Snail Mail
At 22 years old, Lindsey Jordan was faced with a crossroads. Having left a rehab facility at the end of 2020, Jordan could have easily fallen apart and shelved her musical project, Snail Mail, forever in favour of nurturing her health. Instead, she gathered up an artistic remedy and returned more assertive than ever, emerging as a fully formed leader of indie rock and producing her second album, Valentine.
Although she’s more concerned with love than ever, it comes with some distinct jagged edges: “parasitic cameras” are intrusive on the album’s title track, while post-rehab fragileness hangs over ‘Ben Franklin’. Ultimately, Jordan recognises her need to change or get lost in her own darker tendencies. As she states on album closer ‘Mia’: “I love you forever, but I gotta grow up now.”
With Valentine, Snail Mail does more than just defy the sophomore slump. Instead, Jordan rises to the top of the indie rock world by evolving and improving just about everything from her first album while still retaining her signature voice as a songwriter. In the process, she makes a strong case for herself being crowned the new queen of indie rock.
9. Home Video – Lucy Dacus
Home Video is the third album by the intriguingly beguiling Lucy Dacus, and it’s her most compelling effort yet. Over the course of the album, she presents a series of vignettes that cultivate to create a cinematic coming-of-age masterpiece.
Dacus’ storytelling instincts are riveting, with each song focusing on a different meaningful character from her hometown in Virginia. Through these distinctive voices, she demonstrates a complex relationship with the record’s main protagonist, the town itself. It’s the town where Dacus discovered herself, but it is also a source of anguish. This battle rages throughout the sepia joy of Home Video.
Over the course of the album, Dacus expertly uses Richmond as a framework to also unleash the full breadth of her sound. The full-throttle, ‘First Time’, expresses a thrilling energetic side to Dacus. Contrastingly, ‘Triple Dog Care’ slowly builds up over eight captivating minutes to bring Home Video to a crushing, heartbreaking crescendo.
8. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – Little Simz
Little Simz’ 2019 album, Grey Area, landed her with a deserved Mercury nomination and, coupled with her triumphant performance in Top Boy, a wider audience than ever before. On Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, she deals with the perils of success and her attempts to separate “Simz the artist” and “Simbi the person”.
Including interludes, Sometime I Might Be An Introvert contains 19 tracks in total, but Simz makes sure it never drags, and in fact, could be even longer. On the theatrical record, each song is carefully placed next to one another and there’s never a second squandered.
The extended running time of Sometimes I Might Be Introvert allows Simz to flex her creativity in various swirling directions. Thankfully, despite the contrasting sub-genres she visits along the way on Introvert, cohesiveness is never an issue for Simz, even when Emma Corrin revives her role from The Crown. The album is one of 2021’s most ambitious releases, and Simz is rightfully reaping the rewards of her inventiveness.
7. Crawler – IDLES
Although IDLES’ third album, Ultra Mono, was the most commercially successful of their career and gave the Bristolians an unlikely number one, they were running the risk of becoming a cartoon-punk pastiche of themselves.
For their fourth chapter, they decided to take a different step and enlisted the help of Kenny Beats to create Crawler, their most personal record yet.
Frontman Joe Talbot is evidently in a much clearer frame of mind than he was for Ultra Mono, and it translates on the new record. ‘Meds’ finds the singer coming to terms with his sobriety and understanding who he truly is underneath the substances in one of the band’s starkest reflections.
The new, upgraded version of IDLES sees them wear their newfound success on their shoulders with pride. Crawler is an atmospheric collection of songs, and while the group still unload their angst on the album, it’s channelled more precisely and considered than their previous work combined.
6. Blue Weekend – Wolf Alice
After Wolf Alice’s second album, Visions Of Life won the most prestigious award in British music, the Mercury prize, the London group, vanished for two years before returning with a curveball in the shape of the eerie ‘The Last Man On Earth’.
As a comeback single, it did everything it was supposed to — signalling an evolution of the group. Still, on Blue Weekend, Wolf Alice demonstrated that their new, quainter sound could comfortably sit side by side with the riotous anthems we’ve come to expect.
‘The Beach’ acts as the opener and closer thanks to an extended reprise. The delicate effort expresses their calmer traits, yet, in between the two versions, Wolf Alice uncover room for explosive full-tilted rock on both ‘Smile’ and ‘Play the Greatest Hits’. Ellie Rowsell’s lyrics flirt between the humourous and the sincere, which is a difficult balance to get right, but she makes it look easy.
Blue Weekend is an addictive album full of swagger, confidence, and proof that Wolf Alice are the most crucial British guitar band to have emerged over the last decade.
5. Sympathy for Life – Parquet Courts
Sympathy for Life is Parquet Courts biggest leap forward yet, with ambient, space, dub, repetition, and exploration being the building blocks from which the band have constructed their latest LP. But nothing could mask the band’s signature ragged energy, even if it’s refined onto their most ambitious album yet.
Thematically, the album plays exactly like a night out, from the exuberant anticipation of ‘Walking at a Downtown Pace’ to attempting to forget your problems in ‘Black Widow Spider’ to the full embrace of ‘Marathon of Anger’ that finds you trying to what to actually be angry about. By the time album closer ‘Pulcinella’ comes around, the hangover has set in, but the memories made continue to linger.
Parquet Courts had been building to this point for years, establishing their indie-punk bona fides on Light Up Gold, exploiting their experimental side on Human Performance, and proving they could also be pretty damn exciting as a good time party group on Wide Awake! Taking all the best parts of their past work, Sympathy for Life is a culmination that finally allows Parquet Courts to be all things for all people.
4. Things Take Time, Take Time – Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett’s 2018 sophomore album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, was rightly heralded as a masterpiece. Surprisingly, for the follow-up, the Australian decided to navigate her artistry in a whole new direction, yet, her ethereal songwriting still shines bright.
Her last effort was immediate and grabbed you by the scruff of the neck. In contrast, Things Take Time, Take Time is a slow burner that vastly rewards the listener for investing multiple listens, with a different delight rising to the surface each time.
By stripping back her sound, Barnett has laser-focused on not just the simplicity of her sonic structures, but lyrically too. Admittedly, it’s not a boundary-breaking record, it’s not going to change the face of music as we know it, but, honestly, after a year of tumultuous change, it really didn’t need to be. Instead, Barnett offered up a comforting coterie of snapshots from her life that isn’t trying to be any more challenging than the coffee overfilling. While the smell of roasted folk-rock spreads across the airwaves let Barnett’s breathtaking way with words make Things Take Time, Take Time a blissful experience from start to finish.
3. Bright Green Field – Squid
There’s something particularly brilliant about Squid’s version of the jazz-infused post-punk that seems to be circulating our airwaves of late. It may be that they present their sound without a hint of irony or indeed the haughty indignation of a Range Rover driver. It may also be that their delivery is so deliberately antagonistic and well-defined that it feels like a violent jolt to the eardrums. But, in truth, Bright Green Field is an album that encompasses everything that it is to be a true artist. Uncompromising in creative integrity and yet somehow universal.
Within the compressed vision of a dystopian Britain that the band provide we get to find freedom only in the expressive genres they bring to the bread and butter of angsty punk drive. There are flecks of funk, dub, krautrock and everything in between. Through these expressions, we get to feel the resonating anger that pings around our island with wreckless abandon in 2021. For that reason alone, the album deserves high praising and its high entry spot.
There’s toxicity to the Bright Green Field that feels particularly apt right now. When the world seems on the brink of collapse and the only people capable of stopping it are the ones slowly edging it towards destruction, we can at least find solace in the powerful and raucous disdain that bands like Squid are providing. The world is falling apart, at least we have the perfect soundtrack.
2. Jubilee – Japanese Breakfast
Michelle Zauner from Japanese Breakfast initially used the project as a creative crutch to cope with grief after losing her mother. However, on her third album, things have progressed and Zauner turned over an exuberant new leaf, in an attempt to celebrate the brighter side of life.
Zauner said that the switch-up was a conscious one as she wanted to test herself as a “sad indie girl” by writing about joy. It’s a move that she did so majestically, and Jubillee has been an ever-reliable dosage of euphoria throughout testing times this year. ‘Be Sweet’ is laden with a contagious groove and bassline, making anybody with a working pulse feel compelled to shake their hips and let the song take over them.
It’s the Zauner special: a somewhat unexpected but joyfully robust burst of positive and negative feelings that can be ragged, imperfect, and delightfully bizarre but retaining a certain warmth and immediacy that invited you in and encourages you to think about the way you live your own life. It has the ability to enthral and mesmerise in equal measure, but also to emphatically pulverise. It’s deep, but that deepness is rewarded with a truly one of a kind artist.
However, the album’s piece-de-resistance comes with the ear-splitting seven-minute curtain closer, ‘Posing for Cars’, which ends Jubilee, leaving you pining for more. Jubilee is what happens when a one of a kind artist is working at the top of her game. Unencumbered by any need to establish her style or voice, Zauner instead shoots for the moon and lands high above just about anyone else in terms of quality songwriting and exciting progressive musicality. It’s her best album yet, and it will be an incredibly high bar to pass.
1. New Long Leg – Dry Cleaning
To be ‘Album of the Year’, an artist needs to provide a record that you previously didn’t know you wanted in your life, but as soon as the needle drops you know it was the elixir your dried-out brain was craving all along. Dry Cleaning skilfully saturated our poor cerebral cortexes with their debut record New Long Leg.
There’s no denying that lead singer Florence Shaw is the main draw of the London-based quartet, but even calling her a lead singer is a bit of a misnomer. Through all forty minutes of New Long Leg, “singing” appears on precisely zero minutes of the run time. She’s a true originator, and this year she has reinvented the very notion of a vocalist.
Shaw’s words are so plainly stated that you immediately want to read the lyric sheet and internalise the message she emits. Every time she manages to punctuate her words with daggers like “Every day he’s a dick” or “This absolutely huge fuck up,” and you feel it pierce your gut. The visceral appeal of her delivery is what will keep you coming back to Dry Cleaning: the diction and direction of Shaw’s singular lyrical style. This dry delivery is all backdropped with electric energy from the rest of the band throughout to create an intoxicating cocktail, one we’ve been drinking all year long.
Courageous, creative and as tough as concrete to your teeth, New Long Leg is the album we wish 2021 could’ve been.
Below, we’ve got a perfect playlist capturing our 50 favourite albums of 2021.