Top 10 Albums of 2021
Here it is, the biggest and best countdown of the year. For those of you that read this countdown, know it is truly and utterly the most important one. What’s that? Pitchfork, you say? Rolling Stone? I’m afraid we don’t know them here, best to forget about them, honestly.
Here, I’ve gathered the ten best records that I have heard all year — counting down from 10 to 1. Of course, there are some honourable mentions too. So let’s get on with those first, shall we?
“Sympathy for Life” by Parquet Courts
Less catchy than their previous effort, the jumpy and charismatic Wide Awake!, follow-up Sympathy for Life is a solid release for Parquet Courts nonetheless. Far from the heights of the band’s best work, their foray into synth-tinged garage rock is admirable and bouncy. It’s still fun, it’s still groovy, it still oozes cool.
“An Evening with Silk Sonic” by Silk Sonic
‘Leave the Door Open’ is an easy contender for song of the year, but the follow-up album didn’t quite meet expectations. A fun listen in which Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak bring their A-game vocally, whilst its short run time lets the album down. Its unwillingness to divert from the records that inspired it sometimes borders on parody, but nevertheless, in one of the more depressing years in recent times, this album is certainly a remedy.
“Garbage” by Aesop Rock & Blockhead
The long-awaited reunion between hip hop’s lyrical miracle poster boy and one of the underground’s most prized producers was a stellar effort. It’s not either’s best work, but Aesop brings some typically clever bars to the table and his rhymes compliment Blockhead’s eclectic selection of beats impeccably. Essential listening for fans of either artist.
“Butterfly 3000” by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard
Eighteen albums into their eleven year career, King Gizzard still manage to be surprising. A much-needed departure from the microtonal experimentation of their last couple of albums, Butterfly 3000 is a diversion into softer, dance-inspired dream-pop. Through Butterfly 3000’s acid-infused, psychedelic wonder, King Gizzard create something that is genuinely care-free and happy.
“Half God” by Wiki
One of the best MC’s in the game today, Wiki’s penmanship can never be in question. A long, heady listen, Half God is proof that Wiki is here to stay. His best work since parting ways with Ratking, the rapper paints vivid pictures of life in New York City, and all-star collaborations with Earl Sweatshirt and Navy Blue culminate in a potent, must-listen for fans of underground rap.
“The Fool” by Bladee
Bladee’s most accomplished and well-rounded project yet. Having spent years carving away at what was, if we’re being honest, a very amateurish sound, The Fool was released to fan and critic praise alike. It isn’t like Bladee has suddenly switched it up dramatically, it’s still melancholy, it’s still drowned in effects, but the songwriting is phenomenally better. Emerging finally from Yung Lean’s shadow, Bladee is at last the exciting artist he set out to be.
“To Hell With It” by PinkPantheress
PinkPantheress has had one hell of year. From unknown artist making garage-inspired minute-long bedroom hits to blowing up on TikTok, her debut mixtape was always going to be nothing short of glorious. Brief and to the point, To Hell With It is a showcase of the talent PinkPantheress has hidden away for her next release.
“Valentine” by Snail Mail
Lindsay Jordan delivered another set of stellar songs on Valentine, her sophomore effort. The grungy, singer-songwriter blend is just as captivating the second time round, but while the songs are great, it doesn’t bring much to the table that wasn’t already there on her debut. Nevertheless, you would be hard pressed to find anything to dislike on Valentine if you loved 2018’s Lush.
“Call Me If You Get Lost” by Tyler, the Creator
After Flower Boy and IGOR, Tyler has earned his braggadocio album. Packed with certified bangers (and a couple of more personal hits thrown in for good measure), this record is Tyler’s most accessible. It hits all of the right buttons to make this a good rap record in 2021 while also maintaining Tyler’s penchant for retro RnB throwbacks. A worthy addition to what is turning out to be a stellar discography.
“Jubilee” by Japanese Breakfast
It’s been a good year for Michelle Zauner. Her memoir is a New York Times bestseller and her band Japanese Breakfast released their best record yet this year. Jubilee is high on the list of killer pop records for 2021 — it has catchy songs, as well as lush instrumentation that is backed by, as the title suggests, joyous sentiment. What’s not to love?
“HOFFA” by Dave East & Harry Fraud
HOFFA is the best rappidy-rap album of the year, and perhaps the most underrated. Dave East’s signature Harlem growl makes him the perfect candidate to snarl and stomp his way through fourteen honest-to-god, pen-to-paper, certified mob-inspired bangers.
Layered with audio snippets of the real Jimmy Hoffa, Harry Fraud does an excellent job at making his cinematic production style work for East, and while there isn’t necessarily a narrative running throughout HOFFA, the two artists create a formidable atmosphere together. Fraud’s sample-based production is the perfect partner in crime to East’s violent vocal style. Easily one of this year’s best collaborative projects, where both artists have ample space to shine. A vivacious and elaborate number of sparkling bangers that embrace the narratives and wealthy extravagance of organised crime on East’s and Fraud’s terms, HOFFA is a clean-cut selection of tracks that put the duo’s talents front-and-centre.
“Juno” by Remi Wolf
Even if the industry sees fit to more-or-less ignore Remi Wolf’s talent (for now), nobody could deny Remi this year’s award for the album jam-packed with the most fun. There’s colour and hyperactivity hidden inside every bouncy synth and booming kick of Juno, and it feels that after a number of singles and EPs, Remi Wolf has finally found her stride.
In a time of dark RnB and trap-laden hip hop bangers, Juno stands out as an album that is both sexy and welcoming. Remi embraces her own identity unabashedly, with standout ‘Sexy Villain’ beckoning listeners to do the same. A slower, provocative tune that begs you to brush the dust from your hips and dance. Meanwhile, ‘Quiet on Set’, the album’s obvious floor-filler, bumps and bruises its way through hilarious one-liners to reach an infectious hook. ‘Buzz Me In’ on the album’s tail end is a personal song in which Remi lambasts herself for showing up at her ex-lover’s door. It’s precisely this versatility that makes Juno such a raucous listen; contagious in its hooks, often funny in its verses, sometimes slower and sexier, but always staying true to its colourful aesthetic. Remi Wolf struck gold on her first attempt, and if this is her debut album, we have a lot to look forward to.
“NINE” by SAULT
An eclectic and utterly unforgettable release from London’s premium (anonymous) collective. For the past few years, SAULT have been at the forefront of Britain’s most interesting music — their two previous albums, Untitled (Rise) and Untitled (Black Is), were both released in 2020 to critical acclaim. With instrumentals that ping-pong between the grinding gears of industrial music and jazzier hip hop beats, and everything in between, SAULT have garnered an audience for their punchy black-centric lyricism and diverse array of musical styles.
On NINE, the collective (who have remained almost entirely anonymous as of this list) continue to expand upon on their already huge sound. Standout ‘Bitter Streets’ is a call-back to the colourful trip-hop mixes of the 90’s, where ‘London Gangs’ is high tempo, near-punk affair, and ‘Alcohol’ is an out-and-out smooth RnB cut. Despite the array of drums, guitars, vocal styles and tempos that are scattered across NINE, it never fails to feel uniquely black-centric and British, to great avail. Features from Michael Ofo and Little Simz are the closest we’ll come to putting a face to the music here, but anonymity adds a great deal to SAULT; its collaborative in the best possible way, without ego and with complete freedom to make whatever they see fit.
Sadly, you’ll have to head to YouTube to hear this one (or go support your local record store). The collective have permanently removed NINE from streaming services, so grab a copy where you can.
“Nurture” by Porter Robinson
Following a seven-year absence, Porter Robinson returned in 2021, blessing us with one of the most life-affirming and introspective records of the year.
Pitch-shifting his vocals through an admittedly lengthy collection of songs, Porter Robinson treats us to the sweet, the hopeful, the dour moments that are personal to him. Suffering from depressive episodes following the release of his beloved debut, 2014’s Worlds, Robinson drifted away from the watchful eyes of expectant fans, and retreated into writer’s block and creative limbo. Though a struggle, Robinson emerged from the fray with Nurture — a beautiful record that affirms to us just how grateful Robinson is to be alive. Embracing softer, ambient textures that contrast his earlier work, Nurture is a colourful and warming project that at once appeals to the quick embrace of Tik Tok culture and to listeners looking for something more emotional and personal. In today’s landscape of coronavirus and turmoil, finding joy is learning to appreciate how much meaning life’s small brushstrokes of happiness can hold in it’s bristles, and that, ultimately, is what Nurture is about.
“Still Slipping Vol. 1” by Joy Orbison
There’s something exceedingly difficult about weaving a narrative throughout an instrumental record, but with Still Slipping Vol. 1, now veteran UK house magnate Joy Orbison masters the process. Using voice clips of his family talking; phone calls with siblings, mundane moments that pass over kitchen tables, the laughter and wholesome stability that family offers.
Musically, Still Slipping Vol. 1 straddles a fine line that hangs precariously over several genres, 2-step and garage play their part while post-dubstep rears its head now and again, but Joy Orbison makes light work of anything he puts his synths to. Each song flows effortlessly into the next, and at no point does any one part feel detached from what has come before it. While moments on Still Slipping Vol. 1 could veer into depressing territory, Joy Orbision keeps things positive — each recording of his family feels like a genuine moment, a throwaway conversation held onto, friendly banter between loved ones, it all feels real and necessary, with each instrumental acting as the perfect accompaniment.
“Crawler” by IDLES
The Bristol punk’s follow-up to 2020’s thrashing, white-knuckled Ultra Mono is an unexpected, but necessary departure from the beaten path. Where the aforementioned Ultra Mono was a blazing, punchy effort that hit you so bluntly with its lyrics that it was impossible to miss the point (impossible to miss like a giant pink ball hitting you square in the face, as it’s album cover depicts), 2021’s Crawler is a decidedly different kettle of fish.
Don’t be mistaken, IDLES haven’t gone loopy and released a techno album or anything. But what they have done, without losing their anarcho-political roots, is get personal. Influenced by singer Joe Talbot’s years spent in the depths of addiction, Crawler growls slowly into gear with ‘MTT 420 RR’ before the band tear the band-aid off with ‘The Wheel’. What follows is a downward spiral into damage and depravity that sounds both familiar for IDLES and decidedly progressive. There’s more than enough gruff guitars and hammering drums to please veteran listeners, but the album also carries with it a scrappy melancholy; introspection and theme take precedent on Crawler — a precedent that offers the band a new and welcomed direction to go in.
“Sling” by Clairo
Following her bedroom-pop success a few years ago, and an excellent debut filled with catchy, soft rock melodrama, Clairo seemed destined to follow up with a more commercially appealing record. Instead, we got Sling, an album that dials it back further, with more acoustic instrumentation added to the fold and the expertise of flavour-of-the-month producer Jack Antonoff.
And thank God. Because while Clairo’s talent is never in question, Sling is more than any of us could have wanted or expected.
Sling is more than folk record, its more than a collection of ballads, and its more than a singer-songwriter crooning. Sling, more than anything, gives agency to topics many artists of Clairo’s calibre are unable to touch upon. ‘Blouse’ in particular, is a vital song that speaks of the plight of the contemporary woman; a conversation in the kitchen with a man, midway through a sentence before realising he’s staring down your blouse. ‘Reaper’ contends with young motherhood, while standout ‘Patridge’ is a lament on a one-sided relationship with a man who takes without giving. Sling is essential to a dialogue in 2021; relationships and experiences that Clairo draws from to create a raw and introspective record. An incredible sophomore effort, Sling is understated sonically but loud in its subject matter, Clairo’s lyricism is poetic and beautiful.
“GLOW ON” by Turnstile
Turnstile are likely the biggest thing in hardcore punk music right now, and for good reason — they have everything a hardcore band typically has; the violent guitars, the searing vocal performances, and all the minute-long songs you could possibly want to kickflip too. But with two bone-crushing, mosh-inducing, sweaty hardcore punk albums behind them, the Baltimore five-piece prove on their latest full-length, GLOW ON, that they aren’t interested in being like every other hardcore trailblazer before them.
Don’t be mistaken, GLOW ON packs plenty of punch — songs like ‘DON’T PLAY’ and ‘HOLIDAY’ show the band at their typical best, with accelerating riffs that hold no bars and vocals that waste no time in getting to the point. But by the time we reach track four, ‘UNDERWATER BOII’, it’s clear that vocalist Brendan Yates intends to use GLOW ON to flex his impressive vocal chops rather than simply thrash and stomp his way through another psychotic banger. Whilst Turnstile don’t abandon their hardcore roots by any means, they drag the genre kicking and screaming onto a new path that has the potential (god-willing) to bring hardcore punk back to the masses.
‘ENDLESS’ and ‘FLY AGAIN’ come at a perfect point midway through the album’s runtime, pushing infectious melodies over walloping drums and guitars, before the band turn their sights on two (yes, two) collaborations with progressive-RnB crooner Blood Orange. ‘ALIEN LOVE CALL’ in particular stands out for its uncharacteristically calm approach, with Blood Orange’s mellow spoken word filtering through in the latter half of the track. On GLOW ON, Turnstile seem not to be clasping for their hardcore punk stripes, they earned those long ago. Instead setting their sights on worldwide dominance. A thrashing, melodic, and subtly experimental record, GLOW ON is a pulsating and catchy barnburner of an album.
“Vince Staples” by Vince Staples
Since his debut album, the critically lauded Summertime ’06, Vince Staples has treated us to small rebellions of experimentation. I say that because unlike many of his peers, Vince has expanded his sound quite dramatically over the past seven years — venturing into distorted, industrial production on 2017’s Big Fish Theory, and the ambitious radio-inspired project FM! in 2018. But while all his past projects have given us small doses of a complex individual raised in harsh surroundings, its on his latest project that we appear to get Vince Staples in his rawest form.
On his self-titled album, Vince gives us snapshots of the difficult environment he was raised in — hardly an unfamiliar sound to those familiar with the Compton-born rapper, but there’s a melancholic honesty in this project. Perhaps its the more melodic approach to his vocals on album opener ‘ARE YOU WITH THAT?’, or the comparatively bombastic production of Kenny Beats on ‘LAW OF AVERAGES’. It’s this juxtaposition that keeps the album so refreshing. Where many rappers this deep into their career are riding the tailcoat of their best album, Vince Staples is writing his best material now. Undoubtedly ten of his best songs, Vince Staples is at once booming and lowkey, smooth but poignant, and undoubtedly the best hip hop album this year.
“A Beginner’s Mind” by Sufjan Stevens & Angelo de Augustine
Of all of this year’s best albums, A Beginner’s Mind has the best conception story. Spending their days watching old movies, veteran folk legend Sufjan Stevens and soft-sung newcomer Angelo de Augustine drew from those films to write the songs that would become this year’s best album. That’s right, there’s a song about Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth on here. There’s a song about She’s Gotta Have It on here. There’s a song about Point Break on here. It may sound ridiculous, and without context the concept of the album kind of is, but Sufjan and Angelo bring an emotional depth and raw performance to each of the fourteen tracks on offer here that makes that ridiculous concept become deeply introspective, meta, and utterly wonderful.
Sufjan and Angelo’s voices, scarily similar, compliment each other perfectly. Abstract lyricism gives deeper context to the films this collection of songs is inspired by, tearing the screen down to reveal a complex universe beneath — ‘Cimmerian Shade’ is written from the perspective of Buffalo Bill, the serial killer who suffers from gender dysphoria in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, with Bill asking director Jonathan Demme why he was created. ‘Lady Macbeth in Chains’ is a sonically upbeat number, in which Sufjan and Angelo harmonise beautifully, while fans of Sufjan will be more familiar with the melancholy tones of ‘Murder & Crime’. In fact, A Beginner’s Mind is a return to form for fans of Sufjan’s more classic era; some songs here share blood with songs from his 2005 epic Illinois. Folksy, sombre and subtle affairs that introduces a gagle of interesting characters and kooky places. The best of Sufjan is brought out by Angelo de Augustine, a soothing and elaborate songwriter in his own right. Together, the pair deliver us 2021’s most genuinely well-written and performed, and deftly gorgeous projects.
Written by Connor Cudmore.