The Best Albums of 2021

With long-awaited returns from Adele, Ed Sheeran and Kanye West, blockbuster debuts by rising stars Olivia Rodrigo and Lil Nas X, and quietly confident follow-ups from Billie Eilish and Lorde, the album as a format is as impactful in 2021 as ever before. As a form of artistic expression as well as a commercial product, albums this year have been big and decisive. And despite the gloominess of much of 2021, many of my favourite records from the last 12 months are bold, joyful and full of heart, imbued with hope for a happier, less lonely new year.

10. Madison – Sloppy Jane

The first entire album ever to be recorded in a cave, Sloppy Jane’s 2021 LP Madison is too daring, audacious and downright strange not to love. The band that once included Phoebe Bridgers, has evolved from a coarse, scruffy punk outfit into a nebulous chamber pop group headed by Haley Dahl. Swerving wildly between kitsch and surreal, alienating and heartfelt, this latest project barely hangs together as an album. Instead, wintry, echoing and theatrical, Madison is a string of crystallised moments, some unsettling, others sublime: the blissfully melodic opening verse of ‘Party Anthem’; the swelling harmonies of ‘Wilt’; Dahl’s desperate, strangled cry at the beginning of ‘The Constable’; and the soft, hymnal coda that closes ‘Lullaby Formica’.

Listen to Madison on Tidal or Bandcamp

9. Seventeen Going Under – Sam Fender

Despite its heavy themes of poverty, political corruption, mental illness and violence, Sam Fender’s second album pulses with vitality, humanity and emotion. Every gleaming guitar riff, every exultant saxophone solo is fresh, dynamic and immediate, immersing listeners in Fender’s recollections of growing up in the Northern English town of North Shields. The propulsive anger of political tracks like ‘Aye’ and ‘The Leveller’ is broken up with stripped-back acoustic numbers like ‘The Dying Light’. But the greatest triumphs are the adrenaline-filled title track and the magnificent, life-affirming ‘Get You Down’.

Listen to Seventeen Going Under on Tidal or Bandcamp

Read my full review here

8. Urban Driftwood – Yasmin Williams

It’s hard to imagine a more pleasant sound than Yasmin Williams’ intricate guitar work. The 24-year-old American musician and composer’s third instrumental album Urban Driftwood is as delicate, fresh and inviting as a Spring afternoon. Williams has a unique style; she lays the guitar flat in her lap, sometimes playing it with one hand, kalimba with the other and tapping out the rhythm with tap shoes.

The aptly titled opener ‘Sunshowers’ is dappled with golden light, ‘Swift Breeze’ is rugged and windswept, a restless Celtic folk melody tugging at the edges. ‘Juvanescence’ cascades down the scale, infusing warm, earthy harmony into Williams’ light, breezy plucking. Immersed in nature, the album’s ever-changing textures transform the weather in Williams’ watercolour world, concluding with the nursery-rhyme tranquility of ‘After the Storm’.

Listen to Urban Driftwood on Tidal or Bandcamp

7. An Evening with Silk Sonic – Silk Sonic

No artists brought such uncomplicated fun to the pop charts this year than Silk Sonic, the much-hyped team-up between Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. The popstar, known for his playful 70s and 80s pastiches, and the soulful rapper/singer are a match made in heaven, together crafting unapologetically retro pop gems with irresistable hooks and slick, lavish production.

Big on emotion, the pair truly lay it on thick with the lush Motown sheen and majestic modulations of ‘Leave the Door Open’, the tongue-in-cheek bragadocious swagger of the James Brown-esque ‘Fly As Me’ and the self-pitying desperation of ‘Smoking Out the Window’. Bootsy Collins and Thundercat join the party for the luscious slow-jam ‘After Last Night’ but Mars and Paak prove themselves more than capable of the bringing the funk on their own. ‘777’ is a joyful explosion of scratchy guitar riffs, bombastic trumpets and bling era attitude, while ‘Skate’ is a sharp and shiny piece of pop brilliance.

Listen to An Evening with Silk Sonic on Tidal

6. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – Little Simz

Based on the title of English rapper Little Simz’ fourth studio album, it would be easy to expect a quiet, understated work of delicate poetry, but the incadescent grandeur of opening track ‘Introvert’ instantly dispels this idea. This orchestral splendour gives way to the slick, Marvin Gaye-inspired intro to ‘Woman’. Further down the album, a children’s choir alleviate the intensity on ‘Little Q, Pt. 2’, before Simz dives head-first into dance music on ‘Protect My Energy’ and embraces Afrobeat on ‘Point and Kill’.

‘People think because you’re introverted, you’re shy, or you’re not confident or know how to speak up for yourself,’ Simz explained to Vogue, adding ‘I got powers, bro, I got strengths. It comes through in these way; I channel it through my art.’

Simz’ ‘powers’ shine through not only through the album’s fiery soundscapes but also in her frank and direct lyrics. Each song is dense with meaning, never obscure or abstract but often conflicted, uncertain and nuanced, evolving from the personal, to the political, to the existential in the course of a bar.

Listen to Sometimes I Might Be Introvert on Tidal

5. Jubilee – Japanese Breakfast

‘Be sweet to me baby, I wanna believe in you, I wanna believe in something,’ declares Japanese Breakfast’s effervescent lead single to her dazzling third LP Jubilee. Michelle Zauner transforms this saccharine sentiment into an earnest expression of optimism and belief in people. This carries through onto her more sombre tracks too: the cold, metallic emptiness of ‘Posing in Bondage’ and the dark, thrumming alt-rock of ‘Posing for Cars’ both long for human connection to heal the loneliness. Completely devoid of cynicism, this honest, openhearted album delivers the most devastating songs of the year in ‘In Hell’ and ‘Tactics’ but also the most joyous with ‘Be Sweet’ and ‘Paprika’.

Listen to Jubilee on Tidal or Bandcamp

Read my full review here

4. For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her – McKinley Dixon

Virginia-based rapper McKinley Dixon and the wildly imaginative band of jazz musicians he leads hold some of the most overlooked talent in music today. Their third full-length LP For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her is a dynamic, unpredictable and colourful project that never stays still for long. Dixon’s take on jazz rap refuses to settle for a neat hook and a slick beat, instead incorporating harp, cello, flute and trumpet and taking staggering left turns into the unknown.

Take ‘make a poet Black’: Dixon’s heavy verse teeters precariously over pizzicato strings before being swallowed by a dark tunnel of sweeping strings, which leads us out into the cavernous, echoing space of a mystical piano interlude. Dixon’s band is given the freedom to experiment and improvise; the music is led as much by intuition as design, its changing moods and scenes drawing from the limitlessness of modal jazz. But grounding the record is the emotional depth and political conviction behind Dixon’s rapid-fire lyrics.

Listen to For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her on Tidal or Bandcamp

3. Daddy’s Home – St. Vincent

Unashamedly retro, unabashedly St. Vincent, Daddy’s Home is a vibrant, hook-laden collage of funk, soul, folk and rock, reflecting on family, womanhood and fame. Annie Clark pays homage to her heroes, from Stevie Wonder to Steely Dan to Joni Mitchell, serving up 70s colour with a side of her own thorny wit and corrosive energy.

Despite its rich and inviting sonic palette, the album is draped in doubt, fear and unanswered questions. While Clark grapples with complicated feelings about her father’s release from prison on the title track, anxiety twists her in knots on ‘My Baby Wants a Baby’, as she considers her reluctance to start a family of her own.

From the gritty funk of ‘Pay Your Way in Pain’ and ‘Down’ to the silken elegance of ‘Somebody Like Me’, Daddy’s Home is St. Vincent’s warmest and most accessible record to date, but it’s also one of her most personal.

Listen to Daddy’s Home on Tidal or Bandcamp

Read my full review here

2. Vulture Prince – Arooj Aftab

Dedicated to the memory of her younger brother Maher who passed away in 2018, Pakistani-American musician Arooj Aftab’s latest solo project Vulture Prince is a hypnotic alchemy of jazz, folk and Sufi music. Ethereal harp, quivering strings and acoustic guitar grace a spacey background, while Aftab’s mournful vocals lend an earthy warmth and closeness to the sparse first two tracks.

‘Inayaat’ introduces piano and trumpet into the album’s molten soundscape, a nice contrast with the cool reggae of ‘Last Night’. Electronics glimmer on the cool, underwater ‘Saans Lo’, and wail with sorrow on ‘Mohabbat’. Cloaked in sadness but glowing with warmth and empathy, Vulture Prince is a mesmerising nocturne, both elemental and intimate.

Listen to Vulture Prince on Tidal or Bandcamp

Album of the Year: The Turning Wheel – Spellling

From the enthralling, shadowy introduction to ‘Little Deer’, Spellling lures us into an entrancing realm where nature and humanity live in harmony, with music as their eco-system’s lifeblood. Elegant, otherworldly and whimsical, The Turning Wheel blends the wild, swooping strangeness of Kate Bush and the luxurious, melodic pop of ABBA to create a series of magnificently vivid set-pieces.

Despite her idealism and evidently boundless imagination, Chrystia Cabral’s lyricism is rooted in our reality and contemporary concerns. While ‘Emperor with an Egg’, on one hand, is simply an awe-struck ode to the emperor penguin, ‘Awaken’ faces the existential threat of the climate emergency. ‘The Future’ intertwines fantasy and sociopolitical reality. Lamenting ‘I live in the future, future, too many years apart,’ she puts a sci-fi spin on the timeless tale of star-crossed love, as well as voicing the very postmodern feeling of rupture with the past.

From the rousing, theatrical grandeur of ‘Turning Wheel’ to the thrumming, space-age ‘Queen of Wands’, every track adds another layer to Spellling’s beguiling, musical story world. One of her most affecting songs comes at the end of the track list with ‘Sweet Talk’. Cabral reflects on the presence of music and beauty across our universe and concludes on a humble note, making clear that with this glorious project, she merely contributes to the omnipresent, ancient and eternal act of music-making.

Listen to The Turning Wheel on Tidal or Bandcamp

Read my full review here

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