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Top 50 Albums of 2021

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert: Little Simz sits hunched over shyly in a small chair, wearing a noisy chequered suit that matches the backdrop. Her hair is magnificent.

There’s never been a time when art wasn’t fascinating to talk about but my disposition dictates that the most interesting is invariably going to be “now”. Art informed by whatever is currently going on and the listener is living through is always going to be more exciting than that which we look back on, as easy and as pleasurable as that may be to return to. 2021 has been an unusual year in that it wasn’t the pandemic year—that was 2020—but the pandemic still isn’t over, we’re just inured to its impact. 2021 wasn’t the hellish downward spiral 2020 was, more the steady trudge back up to the surface where after twelve months of climb, daylight still feels far off. As much as it may be folly to try and define the character of anything so multifarious as the musical landscape, in the aftershock of a cultural reset like 2020 was, the scene is always going to feel a little odd. For much of the year, the standout releases were aftereffects of the previous year too with deluxe editions, remix albums and B-sides providing most of my listening material for the first six months of the year: Could Divine: RememberedUnlocked 1.5What’s Your Pleasure: The Platinum Edition etc. Even later in the year, some of the most discussed releases were the re-releases to streaming services of classic hip-hop mixtapes like Mac Miller’s Faces and A$AP Rocky’s seminal Live.Love.A$AP, or Taylor Swift‘s triumphantly expanded reissues of her early works Fearless and Red.

2021 was slow to deliver its standout records but deliver it did, with some superb releases across all genres, many of which I was able to embrace. Not all of them, and I had to stop listening and start writing somewhere so I’m resigning myself to the fact I may shortly be kicking myself for not having listened to Prioritise Pleasure or A Martyr’s Reward before writing. As things currently stand in the closing days of 2021, these are what I consider the year’s 50 most essential listening experiences.

50. An Overview On Phenomenal Nature by Cassandra Jenkins

A lush, comfortingly sad and eminently digestible piece of dreamy folk rock.

49. The Light Emitting Diamond Cutter Scriptures by R.A.P. Ferreira

Thoughtful and poetic abstract hip hop with esoteric imagery one could get lost in

48. Friends That Break Your Heart by James Blake

James Blake’s stunningly emotive vocals are the perfect vehicle for the impassioned portrait of growing in peace with one’s lonesomeness.

47. Heaux Tales by Jazmine Sullivan

Sullivan’s magnificently soulful vocals in a refreshing, soulful and sex positive offering of classic R&B

46. Vince Staples by Vince Staples

Despite its brevity, Vince Staples earns its self-titled status through the palatability and efficiency of it’s personal approach.

45. Super What? by Czarface & MF DOOM

A fittingly left-field, theatrical and acerbic last bow for the undisputed king of underground hip-hop.

44. Hey What by Low

A head-exploding and skin-prickling yet often shockingly accessible dose of post industrial noise.

43. Death DLX by Deathirl & TOTALFUCKINGBLISS

A daring, eclectic and alternately sweet and face-melting offering of experimental pop and hip-hop.

42. Solar Power by Lorde

Lorde’s wholesome change-up was maligned by some, but in blind defiance to the quality of the songs themselves, which were timely, sweet and sensitive.

41. Animal by Lump

The collaborative project between Mike Lindsay and Laura Marling return with one of the sweetest and most engaging offerings that the year in indie pop had to offer.

40. Glow On by Turnstile

A crushing and anarchic piece of dreamy post-hardcore, Turnstile balance sweet and sour beautifully on the catchy and flavoursome Glow On.

39. Demidevil by Ashnikko

Asknikko‘s brazenly obnoxious pop punk rap mixtape brings back the early 2000s in unapologetically queer, maddeningly catchy hyperpop style.

38. Pressure Machine by The Killers

The definitive 2000s rock band The Killers make a refreshingly absorbing and sincere dive into heartland rock, distilling small town ennui into a series of invigoratingly bitter portraits.

37. Punk by Young Thug

Though reception of this project was largely mixed or negative, I’ve really no hesitation in calling it my favourite Young Thug project and the best trap album of the year, adding introspection and nuance to Thug’s eccentric and outlandish brand.

36. Black Encyclopedia of the Air by Moor Mother

A jazzy and abstract hip hop offering, the short length of which keeps it palatable despite its density and esoteric nature. This is the project that unlocked Moor Mother’s artistry for me and I’m looking forward to see what she does next.

35. Who Am I? by Pale Waves

An unapologetic early ’00s pop punk throwback, Pale Waves demonstrates that this style doesn’t need tinkering with to work in 2021 as long as the songwriting and performances are up to snuff, and this can go toe to toe with the best releases of that era.

34. Sour by Olivia Rodrigo

But if you like your 2000s style pop punk with a more contemporary flavour, Olivia Rodrigo more than justified her hype with an inexplicably good debut that solidified the nostalgic flavour of the modern pop scene.

33. The Plugs I Met 2 by Benny the Butcher & Harry Fraud

It’s another Benny the Butcher album. It sounds like every Benny the Butcher album and that continues to be a very, very good thing.

32. Civilisation by Kero Kero Bonito

Kero Kero Bonito finally sounding as good as I’ve been told to find them. Their avant-garde pop  sound continues to grow with each project and the Civilisation album contains their very best work to date.

31. The Off Season by J. Cole

I think it’s hardly a coincidence that J. Cole’s best project to date is also his most no-frills. Jettisoning the limitations of his past work and keeping his ear to the ground, Cole accentuates his fundamentals as a rapper, producer and collaborator with far and away his most satisfying release.

30. Call Me If You Get Lost by Tyler, the Creator

Tyler, the Creator continues to carve his own path while taking what feels like a well earned victory lap, providing an eclectic tour through his past sounds with a loose confidence and sense of vindication.

29. DONDA by Ye

Now that the hype has died down, DONDA still stands as potentially the high watermark in Ye’s post-My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy solo catalogue. It may lack for focus and direction, but each picture in its collage is a little too stunning to deny.

28. Surface Sounds by Kaleo

Kaleo‘s long awaited return brought us a flavoursome and muscular dose of vintage country blues rock that’s as catchy, passionate and gratifyingly replayable as any mainstream pop release.

27. …and Again Into the Light by Panopticon

A lengthy odyssey of atmospheric black metal, the unlikely mesh of Americana and devastating guitarwork presented by Panopticon, with their massive cavernous sand dunes of metal riffs makes for an overwhelming and sublime landscape to get lost in.

26. An Evening with Silk Sonic by Silk Sonic

In a team up that sounds a little too perfect, Bruno Mars and Anderson. Paak’s much hyped collaboration boasted all the vintage ’70s soul and funk’s classic era throwbacks you could reasonably want to hear in 2021.

25. For the First Time by Black Country, New Road

A disarmingly theatrical offering of post-punk, the vocal performances and character-driven writing behind Black Country New Road’s debut are ambitious and arresting, promising a bold and chaotic new voice in the already strange work of art-rock.

24. Afro Pessimist by CENSORED dialogue

CENSORED dialogue’s solo debut is a fearless outpouring of political and social alienation that boasts stunning production and a series of magnetic performances. Yet another trumpet heralding the arrival of a new generation of exciting new voices in independent hip hop.

23. To See the Next Part of the Dream by Parannoul

If you want to listen to all the best music of 2021, you’re going to have to get into South Korean Shoegaze. I don’t make the rules and Parannoul’s brand of melancholia-inflected emo is executed to perfection on this sophomore album.

22. Pink Noise by Laura Mvula

A dazzling and glamorous showing of pop and R&B from British singer-songwriter Laura Mvula, Pink Noise is a stunning and effortlessly palatable listen with one gorgeous display of glistening pop after another.

21. Pray for Haiti by Mach-Hommy

Rising star of the hip-hop underground Mach-Hommy seems to have found his milieu under the wing of Griselda founding member Westside Gunn, whose crew has been going from strength to strength these last few years and the abstract, intellectual rigor Mach-Hommy brings to the group is an elegant and edifying fit, with this being one of the most gloomiest and most elusive releases of the year, showing what wonders Mach-Hommy can work with a mic in his hand and the scope to breathe.

20. A Magnificent Day for an Exorcism by Th1rt3en

One of the year’s boldest and most incisively political releases comes from underground rapper  extraordinaire Pharoahe Monch whose assault on the American post-colonial political climate takes absolutely no prisoners. Supported by the grimy rock and jazz influenced beats by Marcus Machado and Daru Jones, the mean and moody A Magnificent Day for an Exorcism is a must listen for any fan of underground hip hop.

19. Kick ii-iiii by Arca

Arca’s the kind of artist worth cheating to put multiple albums in the same slot for and since each entry in the Kick saga was dropped in such close proximity to the previous one, it’s arguable that they are intended to be seen as a single whole. Yet each album in the quintet presents a very different perspective on Arca’s unique creative vision and personality, but her diabolic personality always glows with an aspirational ferocity as she fires out offerings of hip-hop, reggaeton, glitch, ambient and club music, all refracted through her otherworldly lens.

18. For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her by McKinley Dixon

This jazzy and soulful piece of experimental hip-hop was one of the more under the radar surprises of the year, but is well worth seeking out for it’s rich, elaborate textures and McKinley Dixon’s rare mixture of authenticity, authority and approachability.

17. Smiling With No Teeth by Genesis Owusu

One of the year’s most uncategorisable neo-soul blends of hip-hop and funk comes in the form of this eclectic and exciting debut from antipodean artist Genesis Owusu whose phenomenally assured first album Smiling With No Teeth marks him as the year’s most promising new artist.

16. La Maquina by Conway the Machine

Conway the Machine has certainly earned him moniker through his astonishing productivity over the last few years emerging in my eyes as the standout member of hip-hop collective Griselda and this may be my favourite release of his yet, combining his tough exterior with an accessible and celebratory swagger that doesn’t feel like a dilution of the credibility that makes the whole crew so formidable.

15. King’s Disease II by Nas

As I write this, Nas has just announced another album that’ll have dropped by the time this article is published. There’s no other rapper of his generation who is matching the productivity, quality and relevance Nas has maintained throughout 2021 and thanks to the consistent production work of recent collaborator Hit-Boy, Nas will be entering his 27th year in the game with his reputation as one of the greatest of all time looking as indisputable as ever.

14. Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish

Leaving behind the trademark adolescent perspective that made her first album so refreshing and exciting was always going to be a necessary make or break transitional moment for Billie Eilish. It wasn’t going to play the same as an adult but but sounds like hers don’t come around very often. However, with Happier Than Ever, Billie managed to make a graceful sideways move into a more mature sound without sacrificing the fundamentals and experimental flair that made her and her brother so justly lauded.

13. I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses by Backxwash

A devastating explosion of experimental industrial metal hip-hop, the production throughout this album is devilish and gothic, and Backxwash‘s outrageous, magnetic personality creates a lucid, dynamic centre turning the record’s momentum into incisive, rebellious velocity.

12. Montero by Lil Nas X

The pop scene will never be good enough to deserve Lil Nas X, the first and least likely bona fide megastar of the 2020s, yet every one of the fifteen tracks here affirms his version of events, that no one deserves his crown more. He plays the system like no one else, but the most remarkable thing about him remains his unblemished record of absolute bangers. It’s absolutely surreal to look at how far he’s come since “Old Town Road”.

11. 30 by Adele

Adele’s return delivered a sweet, comforting and emotionally expressive dream to get lost in, brightened up with welcome genre detours and catchy melodies, diving into the dissolution of her relationship, depression, motherhood and sexuality with all the assurance, confidence and virtuosity that has characterised Adele’s illustrious career.

10. LP! (Offline) by JPEGMAFIA

It’s a shame JPEGMAFIA couldn’t get the sample for “Hazard Duty Pay” cleared for the online version because his usage of it is one of the most astonishing pieces of rap production I’ve ever heard. Fortunately, the whole Offline version is available on a pay-what-you-want basis on Bandcamp and I cannot recommend it enough. With every JPEGMAFIA release topping the last, LP! was exactly the final stamp on his artistry I had been expecting, securing his position as the most forward thinking and distinctive voice in modern hip-hop.

9. Stand For Myself by Yola

Yola’s blend of country, soul, blues, heartland rock is perhaps the easiest sell on this list. Her compositions and performances are so barefacedly brilliant, glittering with charisma and a bustling charm and warmth that speaks for itself that it should be immediately evident why it landed her comfortably inside the top ten.

8. By the Time I Get to Phoenix by Injury Reserve

Released in the wake of the passing of key member Stepa J. Groggs, Injury Reserve’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix is a bittersweet experience that at once laments the loss of one of the scene’s truest voices, while also celebrating the unique presence that his group have been and we hope will continue to be. By the Time I Get to Phoenix is one of the most unique and extraordinary sounding pieces of experimental hip hop I’ve ever heard and one can only hope it will serve as a blueprint for a generation of aspiring artists and not merely the high-watermark for rap production in the 2020s it currently is.

7. Tyron by Slowthai

UK rapper Slowthai is fast proving himself one of the most formidable, unique and exciting voices in modern hip-hop, and with this, his second album, he shows new dimensions that make his work more invigorating than ever. Front loading a tracklist with aggressive hype tracks before closing with a second half of introspection and vulnerability is a familiar tactic, but with this fat-free release Slowthai gave the year it’s first true highlight and demonstrated the benefits of this approach better than any artist since Big K.R.I.T.

6. Carnage by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

The recent works of Nick Cave have often felt remote or inaccessible to me, but on the closing track, when he described himself as a “four-hundred pound octopus covered in a sheet”, I felt seen in a way that’s impossible to put into words.

5. Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine by Brockhampton

For Roadrunner to hit a bit of a lull in its middle stretch but still be one of the top four best albums of the year is testament to just how fantastic it’s highest points are. There’s multiple song of the year contenders on here in a tracklist stacked with lively, bold, catchy, poignant, emotionally expressive and just plain hype alternative hip hop (including my own Spotify Wrapped most listened to song “Buzzcut”). It’s arguably a new high point for Brockhampton as a whole and an indisputable highlight for hip hop in 2021.

4. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert by Little Simz

My rap album of the year though is Little Simz Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, easily the most ambitious and artistically defining statement made by any rapper this year, with a personal, holistic, comprehensive and articulate self portrait given as grand, cinematic and eclectic a presentation possible. The year’s indisputable future classic.

3. Sinner Get Ready by Lingua Ignota

Lingua Ignota just doesn’t miss. In carving out a lane entirely her own lane in neoclassical darkwave drone music that often borders on audio theatre, she has created some of the most overwhelming and all consuming pieces of artwork in recent years. Her dissections of themes of religion and domestic violence with a ruthless carnivalesque grandeur and biblical scope, collapses medievally apocalyptic imagery into an emotionally authentic place of trauma and moral bereavement. Sinner Get Ready is a stunning and devastating return to her world of torment and venom, taken in bold new directions by experimenting with elements of neo-folk through which her work gains a new dimension of subtlety and satire.

2. The Turning Wheel by Spellling

It was excruciatingly close between these final three, but it’s hard to deny that the other two are going to be an acquired taste that many will find off-putting or even triggering. By comparison, you’re not going to find an easier album to recommend than The Turning Wheel, a gorgeously arranged offering of resplendent art pop with magnificent vocal work, and one sterling composition after another. There’s not a single moment here that rings false or feels like it can’t keep step with its track-mates, and the more oddball her song topics become the more endearing and rewarding Spellling’s work becomes. An unqualified triumph.

1. Forever in Your Heart by Black Dresses

One of the year’s darkest, tensest and angriest releases, Black Dresses Forever in Your Heart may have a lot in common with their undisputed masterpiece Peaceful as Hell, but the somatic effect is the complete opposite. While Peaceful as Hell was liberating and cathartic in the extreme, Forever in Your Heart is the year’s most claustrophobic bad-mood album, a spitting, boiling pot of venom, shredding left and right with the harshest and most electrifyingly pessimistic songs of the year. The once a generation vision and chemistry and Ada Rook and Devi McCallion have may be easy to turn away from, but once you get the ear for it, it’s truly mind-expanding.

Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account.
Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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