Well, it happened. 2021. You don't want to hear a load of nonsense about how it went, do you? You just want our list of best albums.
Here it is:
51. Remi Wolf - JUNO
Embodying sheer pop mayhem that can’t be compared to any other artist, Wolf is radically reinventing the genre on her new LP, Juno.
As a first full-length release, Remi Wolf has pulled off pop music that most artists couldn’t dream of. It’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t be captivated by her pure charisma and pop splendour. Juno is both a testament to Remi Wolf’s striking talent and an exciting promise of what is to come. (Vicky Greer)
50. Ashnikko - DEMIDEVIL
Delayed again and again due to merchandise and vinyl issues, Ashnikko's debut album DEMIDEVIL finally landed in January. Then still deep in a UK lockdown, the record came as a sour candy on a dry tongue: its hits were numerous, its subject matter unsubtle and its medium an explosive hyper-pop melee.
Fans were perhaps disappointed to discover that many already-released tracks made its way onto the album, but who could be angry at 'Daisy', 'Deal With It' and 'Cry' for long? Besides, DEMIDEVIL did deliver some new icons in the form of 'Slumber Party'—a TikTok juggernaut—and the mad, explicit Avril Lavigne cover 'L8r Boi'. (Jessie Atkinson)
49. Bull - Discover Effortless Living
Bull’s debut album Discover Effortless Living has sprouted from 2021’s unfertile soil just in time for spring. After having grown from York’s twisted roots only to be hand-picked by EMI Records years later, it's been a long time coming.
With a style that resists being weighed down by society’s seriousiousness or genre’s anal retentive restraints, Discover Effortless Living represents a stream of consciousness derived from their laidback personality. The album release is merely a generous pun of what’s to come, with their September tour dates booked and sunnier days on the horizon, maybe Bull is already there in spirit. (Maeve Hannigan)
48. Royal Blood - Typhoons
Like a mirrorball swinging into the hubris of 2021, Royal Blood’s third album Typhoons was a shot of glitter-clad energy that we all needed. Lyrically, it is an examination of frontman Mike Kerr’s sobriety and battles with addiction (“Wake up every morning, almost surprised I survived” opens standout single ‘Limbo’). In a year defined by healing, these were particularly apt songs to hear, and these words may genuinely help those in need or in similar places.
However, the real magic of Typhoons is the juxtaposition between the lyrics and the music; the heavy themes are balanced with some of the most fresh and energised rock you’ll hear in years. Like a breath of fresh air, Royal Blood ditch the blues for out-and-out disco, with nearly every track a floorfiller in its own right. Typhoons proved that Royal Blood are worth sticking with—they’re in it for the long haul. (Cameron Sinclair Harris)
47. Iceage - Seek Shelter
Copenhagen post-punks Iceage have continually evolved their sound over the last decade, moving away from post-hardcore into the sort of post-punk that’s been dominating the indie scene here in the UK and Ireland in recent years. On Seek Shelter, which evokes thoughts of everything from proto-punk to classic rock to Britpop, the five-piece produce a record that’s maybe less experimental than 2018’s Beyondless, but one full of earworms nevertheless.
From the groovy, funky 'Vendetta' to the anthemic title track, Iceage further cement themselves as one of post-punk’s most innovative bands, and Seek Shelter is a real gem in the 2021 alternative rock canon. It might be just nine tracks long, short even into today’s streaming era, but they pack an awful lot into those nine. (Adam England)
46. Joe & The Shitboys - The Reson For Hardcore Vibes Again
A funny, pertinent and well-executed example of punk—and musical—originality, The Reson For Hardcore Vibes Again is the second 7" album from The Faroe Islands' Joe & The Shitboys. Ten minutes in total, this follow up to last year's The Reson For Hardcore Vibes is an extension of the band's considerable live prescence: songs that are at once funny and pertinent trip along at an almost unbelievable pace, shedding wisdom and insanities as they go. (Jessie Atkinson)
45. Doja Cat - Planet Her
Quite potentially one of the best anthemic albums of the year, every song on Doja Cat's Planet Her is catchy, sexy and feminist. This album unapologetically explores the divine feminine and features special guests come from Ariana Grande on ‘I Don’t Do Drugs’, The Weeknd on ‘You Right’, JID on ‘Options’, Young Thug on ‘Payday’ and SZA on the unforgettable ‘Kiss Me More’.
These new club classics are to be enjoyed by all: 44 minutes of pure, out-of-this-world floor fillers. (Phoebe Scott)
44. James Blake - Friends That Break Your Heart
Friends That Break Your Heart continues on the impressive streak that James Blake began with his self-titled 2011 debut. This album demonstrates some of Blake's best writing in years; there's something interesting to be said for every track, and the whole thing takes the musician outside of his comfort zone whilst attempting to evolve into a new Blakeian era.
Friends That Break Your Heart proves that James Blake is one of the most consistent artists of this decade, who will always be relied upon to produce original, beautiful music written straight from the heart. (Alex Rigotti)
43. Parquet Courts - Sympathy For Life
Seven albums down and Parquet Courts remind us that they are still living, still creating. You’d expect it to be hard for a band with such a unique sound to grow beyond the point of immediate recognition and bring something new to the table, yet in their most recent offering, Sympathy for Life, their sound is set free like a genius on a tangent.
It's a Parquet Courts déjà vu from an exposed and vulnerable angle. One that is entirely relatable but leaves you wondering—how? (Maeve Hannigan)
42. Nation of Language - A Way Foward
Coming one year after their debut Introduction, Presence—which made out 2020 end of year list—A Way Forward takes you on a journey of highs and lows. Boasting incredible explosions of sound, and intricate moments of bittersweet refuge, Nation of Language have found their forté.
By blending the organic with the synthetic, they’ve crafted a record so uniquely their own, they might as well have their own movement. Let’s call it “nation-core” for now—they’ll think of a better name in good time. (Joe Smith)
41. Low Hummer - Modern Tricks For Living
A fantastic new indie band who deserve far more attention than they have received, Low Hummer dropped their sensational debut album this year. Modern Tricks For Living is the blueprint for a new kind of alternative band, one who alchemise aspects of shoegaze with classic garage rock and unsettling post-punk. A manifesto for unsatisfied youth, Modern Tricks For Living doesn't actually offer any tricks of sorts, instead opting to mirror the lived experiences of so many of us: overstimulated by social media, streaming servives and advertising, exhausted by the grind of the identical everyday and the toxic temptation of getting blind drunk every weekend.
So far so indie. But Low Hummer are something different: an inventive group experimenting with all of the many flavours of guitar and synth music to create something with enormous wit and power. (Jessie Atkinson)
40. Paris Texas - BOY ANONYMOUS
If ever there was a fitting recipient for the music journalism cliché "appearing fully-formed" it is Paris Texas. The L.A. duo emerged out of obscurity in February with one of the hits of the year, the grungey hip-hop of 'HEAVY METAL'. A month later and they dropped the genre soup that is 'SITUATIONS'. A month after that and we got 'FORCE OF HABIT' plus news of their debut album (of sorts). Appearing in May, BOY ANONYMOUS consolidated all of that hype into one whiplash project that added 'AREA CODE' and 'CASINO' to the Paris Texas repertoire.
For such a new band to generate the kind of hype that immediately surrounded Paris Texas is rare. To follow that up with something as addictive and unique as BOY ANONYMOUS is quite extraordinary. (Jessie Atkinson)
39. CHAI - WINK
Japanese punk-dance-pop quartet CHAI returned in May with their third album, the succinctly-titled WINK. True to form, it’s wonderfully idiosyncratic: the opener is entitled ‘Donuts Mind If I Do’ and it’s followed by ‘Maybe Chocolate Chips’, which features Chicago artist Ric Wilson and could quite easily be a Glass Animals track.
Clocking in at 34 minutes with twelve tracks, CHAI prove to be more than adept at delivering delightful bursts of eclectic-pop perfection on WINK. All three of the band’s albums have been unique in their own way, but WINK—with it’s originality and gripping mix of styles—is their best yet. (Adam England)
38. Bicep - Isles
Much like on their first album, Bicep fluidly move between genres with a pallete that showcases their love for the dancefloor on Isles. The highs are high—nearly ecstatic at points—but even during its most elated moments, the album never fully lets go of its inherent sadness.
Isles is an album that, with its paradoxical layers of complexity, not only calls for multiple and detailed listens, but rewards attentiveness. “This is the home listening version”, Matt McBriar has said about the album, while also mentioning that “the live version will be much, much harder”. Dance music is not exclusively for dancing and Isles is a prime example of an album that can be placed in a different context effortlessly. (Sofie Lindevall)
37. Laura Mvula - Pink Noise
Take what you thought you knew about Laura Mvula’s music, and reconsider. The Birmingham singer might be most commonly thought of as a soul singer—one of the most popular in the UK over the last decade—but on July’s Pink Noise she took a more leftfield turn into ‘80s-inspired synthpop. Critically-acclaimed almost across the board, on Pink Noise Mvula turns to funky disco pop and electronic brilliance—while not forgetting to show off the vocals we all love.
The retro sounds here are, above all, fun. Whether it’s the sweeping crashes of ‘Magical’ or the juddering electro of ‘Conditional’, Mvula’s creativity shines through. Towards the end of the album, we get a rousing electronic duet which sees Biffy Clyro vocalist make an appearance, and their voices complement each other perfectly as they move around each other. It takes things down a notch in terms of speed and energy, but is a real highlight. It’ll be interesting to see where Laura goes next. (Adam England)
36. St. Vincent - Daddy's Home
Daddy’s Home, the sixth album by St Vincent, sees her ambling through an intriguing soundscape of woozy jazz and sitar riffs, dodging the traits of the mainstream to create an engaging display of alluring lounge-pop. Similarities of tone, lyrical creativity and late-night inspired groove can certainly be drawn with Arctic Monkeys’ idiosyncratic Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, but make no mistake: Daddy’s Home transcends more than just a pastiche of the City That Never Sleeps and its smokey nightlife.
Dishing out an evocative explosion of crooning melodies, abstract coolness and an ardent passion for motifs from a seedy metropolis, St Vincent succeeds in her exquisite vision. Daddy's Home is an album that’s unapologetically suave and full of excitement. It’s an album designed for repeat listens and sounds all the more magical when listened to in full. (Harrison Smith)
35. JPEGMAFIA - LP!
With an exclamation point at the end of every one of its songs (but for standout and centrepiece 'ARE YOU HAPPY?' and 'WHAT KIND OF RAPPING IS THIS?'), LP! from the ever-inventive, ever-prolific JPEGMAFIA is a vigorous schooling in what could be done with production techniques if only people would try. From the strange, whistling calls on 'NEMO!' to the heavily-treated, Britney-referencing vocals on 'THOT'S PRAYER', LP! is an absolutely wild ride.
JPEGMAFIA does everything he can with his fourth LP, from utilising stadium rock guitars on 'END CREDITS!' to satirising smartphone supremacy and the love-song clichés it has produced on 'KISSY EMOJI!', this is a truly inventive noise-rap album from top to tail. (Jessie Atkinson)
34. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis - CARNAGE
Carnage arrived out of the blue, a surprise release from frequent collaborators Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and whilst it impressed upon its release, its real beauty and complexities have slowly unfurled in the months since, most notably when performed live on stage.
Sonically, Carnage is a successor to Ghosteen, which saw Cave reflect on the tragic passing of his son. For Carnage, strings, light percussion and glitchy electronic synths wrap around your ears as Cave tackles grief, religion and love with his signature poetic prose. With Carnage, Cave and Ellis once again endeavour to discover a form of solace within the deep thralls of melancholy. The results are striking. (Philip Girouas)
33. The War on Drugs - I Don't Live Here Anymore
If ever you wish to feel the bittersweet sting of life; all of its beauties and all of its agonies, then you could do worse than use The War on Drugs as your soundtrack. This extraordinary group—first conceived in 2005—has been making life-affirming sounds for as long as many of their newest fans have been alive. With I Don't Live Here Anymore, they make something altogether sombre and jubilant, summery and wintery, light and dark. Six albums in and the Philly band still manage to strike awe into the heart of anyone who listens to their luxurious compositions.
Like A Deeper Understanding before it and Lost In The Dream before that, The War on Drugs have made a faultless album. (Jessie Atkinson)
32. Clairo - Sling
This juxtaposition of tender vocals and pensive, often ruminant lyrics is commonplace throughout Sling, Clairo’s eagerly-anticipated second album. More imposing than her 2019 debut Immunity, we move from bedroom to baroque pop with glistening strings and dreamy synth sounds...it’s unsurprising that Jack Antonoff has co-production credits.
Sling shows a more mature Clairo, displaying clear artistic growth and suggesting that the 22-year-old is becoming a real force to be reckoned with. It doesn’t feel as if she’s on new ground as such, rather that she’s built on the foundations of Fleetwood Mac, Taylor Swift and HAIM, amongst others. It’s the sort of record to live out your cottagecore dreams to, sat in front of a roaring fire with a cup of coffee and a dog by your feet: on Sling, Clairo has left the bedroom and has ventured downstairs. (Adam England)
31. Arlo Parks - Collapsed in Sunbeams
What more is there to say about Arlo Parks? Still just 21, the London singer-songwriter has had one hell of a year—which she kicked off by releasing her debut album Collapsed In Sunbeams back in January. Acclaimed by publications from NME to The Guardian to even Billboard, the album won the Mercury Prize—beating out the likes of Celeste and Wolf Alice—and got to number three in the charts, no mean feat for a debut. Intimate and personal, yet relatable and touching on everything from mental health to relationships, she’s firmly flying the flag for Gen Z.
It’s hard to pin down Parks’ music. It’s been described variously as indie pop, indie folk, R&B, soft rock and bedroom pop, and in truth there’s logic to all of these descriptors. Either way, she’s one of the most exciting young artists in the UK and beyond right now, and Collapsed In Sunbeams is a great way to announce yourself as a real talent. (Adam England)
30. Indigo de Souza - Any Shape You Take
Any Shape You Take had Indigo De Souza standing out from the crowd this year for her mastery of fresh, experimental music that’s impossible to confine to a single genre. Not only did she flow between electronic-tinged vocal effects and grungey distorted guitars with ease, but her songwriting boasted a real depth in their message.
She isn’t afraid to go down dark routes in her songwriting, but that doesn’t stop her from exploring the joy, too. Have a listen to the twists and turns of ‘Real Pain’ to see just how strong a musician Indigo De Souza is. (Vicky Greer)
29. Summer Walker - Still Over It
Summer Walker is, emphatically, still over it. The Atlanta artist continues to ride the wave of her massive 2019 hit album Over It—to delightful results. Still Over It is a natural follow-up to its predecessor and will undoubtedly reach the same streaming successes thanks to its sultry array of R&B slow-jams. As she continues her ascent to Drake-like levels of success, Summer Walker delivers a 20-track opus that sees her send a dizzying array of put-downs in the sweetest imaginable delivery.
With SZA even featured on the tracklist ('No Love'), Still Over It acts as 2021's answer to Ctrl. A sprawling, mellow R&B album, this is essential listening for the unbothered babe. (Jessie Atkinson)
28. The Vaccines - Back In Love City
Over a decade ago, London’s finest collective The Vaccines began their ascent into cementing themselves as one of Britain's best indie rock exports. From every full-length since What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?, the band's dominance in the indie space has grown.
Now on their fifth album Back In Love City, the five-piece are catapulting the fictional concept of a dystopian movie dreamworld, full of human emotion with flavours from the States, spanning a dynamic thirteen track line-up full of indie surf rock and western sounds on the band's dreamily good Back In Love City. (Katie Conway-Flood)
27. Tommy Genesis - goldilocks x
Tommy Genesis is well aware that her uber-sexual lyrics are consistently OTT. On 'mmm' she giggles as she delivers the line "I'm a big boy, baby/got a big dick, baby". Yet it's this oevre of "fetish rap" that the Canadian rapper has come to be known for—and excels at. On her third album goldilocks x, she neatly packages twelve hyper-produced tracks that draw from trap, emo and pop to result in something incredibly potent.
Standout cuts 'peppermint', 'a woman is a god' and 'men' are all top examples of rap at its best, but could equally make their way into a dance club night set. On 'baby', Tommy further proves her pop music chops while 'fuck u u know u can't make me cry' is full-frontal emo. With goldilocks x as her latest springboard, Tommy Genesis could go anywhere. (Jessie Atkinson)
26. Tyler, The Creator - CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
For some reason, it always feels like Tyler drops a new album at the exact moment you need it. CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST came through in June to give us all a bit of adventure after being stuck at home for so long. The album takes us on an in-depth journey through a sticky love triangle, and ultimately the heartbreak ensues, all whilst travelling on a musical whirlwind with Tyler.
Considering this was written during a turbulent 2020, it’s surprising the only mention of the pandemic is briefly in ‘Lemonhead’ and Black Lives Matter is only touched upon in ‘Manifesto’, even slightly dismissing the mainstream reaction to it: “'you need to say something about Black'—bitch suck my…”.
Personal favourites include: ‘Wusyaname’, a love letter anyone would be blessed to receive, ‘Sweet/ I Thought You Wanted To Dance’, a 10-minute long hip-swaying jam, and ‘Wilshire’, the 8-minute story which helps to fill in the missing pieces of Tyler’s broken heart. (Phoebe Scott)
25. Wolf Alice - Blue Weekend
Three albums into their career, and Wolf Alice already have a discography of classics. After their Mercury-winning Visions of a Life, Blue Weekend provided a further exploration into the creative mind of a band like no other. Lucid guitars and Shakespearean lyrics open an album that shifts from Los Angeles to London and all the way beyond the stars as Ellie Rowsell cements herself as one of the most dynamic and original voices of her generation.
Wolf Alice are a band without borders; they defy definition. Blue Weekend makes no apologies for refusing to sit still and fit into one sound; just as we are all mosaics of diverse thoughts, feelings and experiences, the indie disco riffs of ‘Smile’, the fuzzy hedonism of ‘Play the Greatest Hits’, the Enya orchestrations of ‘How Can I Make it OK’ and the delicacy of ‘The Last Man on Earth’ are all part of the Wolf Alice experience, and the world is much richer for it. (Cameron Sinclair Harris)
24. Lil Nas X - MONTERO
Lil Nas X could have been a one-hit wonder. In fact, it’s what everyone expected of him. He first took over the charts in 2019 with unexpected country-rap hit ‘Old Town Road’, and while he took home a lot of awards that year, pessimists believed that it would never happen again. Enter MONTERO, the debut album that saw him top the charts once again with an impressive run of singles, this time with charisma and confidence that you just can’t ignore. ‘MONTERO (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME)’ became 2021’s song of the summer, with ‘INDUSTRY BABY’ and ‘THAT’S WHAT I WANT’ following close behind.
With contributions from Elton John, Megan Thee Stallion, Miley Cyrus, Doja Cat and more—an incredible selection for a debut album—Lil Nas X has already established himself as a legend. “I told you long ago on the road, I got what they waitin’ for”, he says on ‘INDUSTRY BABY’. Well, Lil Nas X, now the whole world is listening. (Vicky Greer)
23. Mdou Moctar - Afrique Victime
It’s probably a toss-up between Mdou Moctar and Songhoy Blues if we were to decide the biggest act to come out of the Sahel in recent years, but with the release of Afrique Victime the Niger-born musician might just nick it. Moctar and his band are at their best on the album, released on Matador Records, who boast the likes of Pavement, Perfume Genius and Snail Mail on their roster.
The enthralling mix of desert blues and guitar rock we’re treated to on Moctar’s latest album showcases his clear talent - the Tuareg artist plays in a classic Tuareg style, and sings in the language of Tamasheq - and make no mistake, this guy can play. His guitar skills are at the forefront of the album’s opening tracks, which set a psych-rock tone, while Tala Tannam is a more muted acoustic affair but no less enjoyable. It’s followed by a short yet incredibly atmospheric piece of music, Untitled, before we go into Asdikte Akal, which has more of a celebratory sound.
The penultimate - and title - track is stunning, clocking in at over seven minutes, and the closer, Bismilahi Atagah, is a slice of indie-folk-blues brilliance. Simply put, it’s a must-listen. (Adam England)
22. Drug Store Romeos - The world within our bedrooms
Drug Store Romeos did things the long way. Starting out in Fleet as teenagers, the trio spent their weeks at school and their weekends (and weeknights) lugging gear to London and back on the train so as to play any gig they could get. Tastemakers The Windmill, in particular, loved them. In 2019 they signed to Fiction and dropped their first single-proper 'Now You're Moving'.
Three years later, still barely drinking age in the U.S.A., and Drug Store Romeos gifted us with The world within our bedrooms, a remarkable portrait of trip-hop dream-pop made anew. (Jessie Atkinson)
21. Dry Cleaning - New Long Leg
20. Surfbort - Keep On Truckin'
There were only a few weeks of lead-in to Surfbort's new album Keep On Truckin'. Landing in October, the 12-track, 30-minute album shows a genuine move forward for the New York band, who are fronted by the dynamite multi-hyphenate Dani Miller and backed by a rabble of elder punks. On Keep On Truckin', Surfbort retain some of the batshit delirium they're known for ('White Claw Enema Bong Hit'), but considerably shift their sound towards poppier hooks and softer pallettes ('Big Star', 'Never Nude') too.
Thanks in part, Dani told us, to producer Linda Perry, this is an album with a handful of radio-friendly, addictive hooks that, tangled up in the gnarly pedigree of the band, make for something totally distinctive. Throw in the prevalent theme of mental health and you've got an endlessly-listenable punk album with a heart of gold. (Jessie Atkinson)
19. IDLES - CRAWLER
Take what you thought you knew about IDLES, shake it up a little and turn it on its head, and you’ll have CRAWLER. After last year’s Ultra Mono, which got the five-piece a number one album but divided listeners, they’ve gone in a slightly different direction, and it’s a breath of fresh air.
Perhaps more introspective than most of their previous work, the band toy with noise rock, industrial, glam and more—and we get singing from frontman Joe Talbot here too. It’s not as brash and in-your-face as previous material, and the lyrics not as on-the-nose, but there’s one sucker-punch after another here, on an album that’s sure to live long in the memory. It’s the sort of album that works whether you’re sitting down with the vinyl at the end of a long day or listening to it with your Pumpkin Café latte during your morning commute. (Adam England)
18. Jazmine Sullivan - Heaux Tales
Knitted together by a series of "tales"—spoken word confessionals about love, sex and betrayal—Jazmine Sullivan's Heaux Tales manages to reinvigorate the tired trope of voicenote interludes thanks to a concisely-produced, lush and dynamic flourish. Songs like the huge 'Pick Up Your Feelings' and Ari Lennox collab 'On It' lie beside tales told by Antoinette, Ari, Donna, Rashida, Precious and Amanda to create a neat mini-handbag woven through with golden thread and filled with heartbreaking truths and humorous asides.
All told, Heaux Tales is an album that refuses to stew in R&B clichés of old and instead makes for something subtly fresh. (Jessie Atkinson)
17. Mogwai - As The Love Continues
With As The Love Continues, Mogwai became ambassadors for the success of UK guitar bands in the album charts this year, scoring their first Number 1 in their 25 year career. Supported by Tim Burgess, Robert Smith and even Elijah Wood, it couldn’t have happened at a better time for them; Mogwai were in fine form with their mix of prog-rock soundscapes and electronic adventures.
They really are the best when it comes to making atmospheric music that takes you to other worlds. They’ve since picked up the Scottish Album Of The Year Award, so it looks like the love is going to continue for a long time. (Vicky Greer)
16. Silk Sonic - An Evening With Silk Sonic
After leaving fans waiting for nine months on only three singles, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak dropped one of the most enjoyable collaborative albums of this year: An Evening With Silk Sonic. Both their respective careers delved into the retro sounds of the '70s, but it’s here where Mars and .Paak truly indulge in their love for soul and funk.
Mars and .Paak have so much personality that it’s barely contained in the 31-minutes they share. They get braggadocious on tracks such as ‘Fly As Me’, or ‘777’, a track set in the confines of a casino where Mars and .Paak spend a hedonistic night. There’s also a softer, seductive side to the boys, as seen on single ‘Leave The Door Open’, or on the dreamy ‘After Last Night’, narrated by legend Bootsy Collins. They’re also as charming and as witty as ever, as seen in their hit ‘Smokin Out The Window’, where the boys exchange their woes about a gold digger who turns their lavish mansions into ‘Chuck E Cheese’ and leave them lonely.
Ultimately, Mars and .Paak are two incredible musicians who have crafted nine tightly-written songs, each excellently produced and performed. It’s a welcome detour from their solo careers, and a collaboration that we hope to see in the future. (Alex Rigotti)
15. Olivia Rodrigo - SOUR
She’s the latest popstar to make millennials feel old, but don’t let that put you off Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, SOUR. Sure, there might be five hundred albums about messy breakups, but Rodrigo’s smart genre fusion, intelligent writing, and incredible voice helped her to become 2021’s breakout diva.
The singles from SOUR have put Rodrigo’s name on the map, and for good reason. ‘driver’s license’ is a heartfelt tale about what could have been, balancing its sincerity with moments of theatre (such as the dramatic, dreamlike bridge). On other tracks such as ‘déjà vu’ and ‘good 4 u’, Rodrigo lets herself become deliciously bitter, all soundtracked by the familiar sounds of '00s pop and rock.
It’s the deep cuts that really prove that Rodrigo has the ability to sustain attention for an entire album; on the Taylor-Swift-sampling ‘1 step forward, 3 steps back’, Rodrigo details the extreme split personality her ex treats her with. ‘hope ur ok’ is a surprisingly sweet closer, dedicated to the LGBT community and Rodrigo’s well wishes towards her queer friends after some rough childhoods. SOUR is brimming with personality and talent, and it marks a wonderfully strong start for the Disney alumni. (Alex Rigotti)
14. Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever
Pulling off a sophomore album is no easy feat—especially when your debut was certified multi-platinum in numerous countries, helped you sweep the major Grammy awards, and cemented you as a music legend. The stakes were even higher for Billie Eilish, whose single ‘NDA’ had convinced legions of TikTokers that the starlet was truly entering her flop era. But Eilish proved everyone wrong by releasing her more sophisticated approach to pop on Happier Than Ever.
Songs like ‘Billie Bossa Nova’ and ‘Oxytocin’ would signal a mature, more sultry evolution in Eilish’s content, where she’s not afraid to purr salacious lines such as "Can’t take it back once it’s been set in motion/You know I love to rub it in like lotion". This maturation would also be seen in some of Eilish’s best songs, which involve confronting the uncomfortable emotions that arise from a toxic relationship. On ‘Your Power’, she addresses the humiliation and anger felt from being taken advantage of at a younger age, whilst ‘Happier Than Ever’ devolves into a cathartic pop-rock breakdown about a particularly shitty ex. Happier Than Ever demonstrates impressive emotional clarity from the teenager, and its willingness to put everything on the table and execute it with stylistic diversity and confidence shows why Billie Eilish is a musician for the ages. (Alex Rigotti)
13. Charli Adams - Bullseye
With her cogent but varied debut record Bullseye, Charli Adams positioned herself as a natural heir to Soccer Mommy. The Alabama-born Nashville resident took quite a left-turn to become the maker of one of 2021's best debut albums. Growing up in a god-fearing community as a cheer captain and worship leader, Charli could well have ended up as something quite different.
Instead, at 17, she moved to Nashville to become a new version of herself. The transformation makes its way onto Bullseye, which tackles these life changes in a soft, dreamy palette of indie pop. Each song here is unskippable, but 'Cheer Captain', 'Didn't Make It' and 'Bullseye' are absolutely stonking examples of confessional songwriting wrapped up in a synth-and-guitar-coloured package. Thank God Charli Adams didn't allow herself to stew in her small town. (Jessie Atkinson)
12. Emma-Jean Thackray - Yellow
A triumph by the multi-talented, multi-hyphenate Emma-Jean Thackray, July release Yellow is a joyously listenable and danceable debut album. Throughout, connections between jazz, disco, R'n'B, funk, hip-hop, dub and head-expansions meld with freedom, positivity, and worldly consciousness; resulting in a hugely addictive album of groove-locked, spiritual, psychedelic, horn-busting, chant-laden wonders.
The "Do-It-All" nature of the accomplished musician, singer, composer and producer captures the autodidact spirit of influences Madlib and Brian Wilson, bathing it in a very personal aura. Thackray says: “I wanted the whole thing to sound like a psychedelic trip. You put on the first track, it takes you through this intense thing for almost an hour, and then you emerge on the other side transformed.” In that, and more, she succeeds. Yellow is an essential album for 2021. (Benjamin Graye)
11. Sam Fender - Seventeen Going Under
Sam Fender has always looked at the bigger picture, whether that be penning songs about white privilege, male suicide or even the creation of devastating 'hypersonic missles' on his debut record. With Seventeen Going Under however, Fender turns his gaze inwards for a mature and reflective follow-up.
Fender has the ability to turn his strife into powerful, empowering rock anthems. On the glorious title track, saxophones swoon over an almighty drum beat as Fender grapples with the temptation he faced, at 17, to deal drugs just to support his mother. ‘Get You Down’ is another epic—a roaring festival-ready heavyweight—that speaks of his romantic self-destruction, wrapped up in gorgeous melodies.
At the album's very core is a message of hope, and prevailing through it all is that incredible level of maturity in his songwriting that has made Fender such a relatable figure many have turned to in their own darkest moments. (Philip Giouras)
10. Du Blonde - Homecoming
Homecoming is a testament to the indie artist. Du Blonde ditched her record label and produced one of the most fun, moving and well put together grunge-pop albums in recent memory with this record. The whole LP is filled with sweet harmonies, energetic production and fluctuating emotion. This rings through when you pair the bouncy tempo of a song like 'I’m Glad That We Broke Up' (a collaboration with Ezra Furman) with something a lot slower such as 'All The Way', but regardless of tone, Du Blonde nails every second.
From opening burp to closing chord, Homecoming is a classic. (Dale Maplethorpe)
9. Arab Strap - As Days Get Dark
As Days Get Dark, Arab Strap’s comeback album after 16 years without new music, is a crawling, leeching, slow burner. If albums had scents, this would smell of cider, petrichor and day-old cigarettes. Aidan Moffat’s delivery is unforgettably sinister; As Days Get Dark is an album that sets out to unnerve the listener, and doesn’t it do just that!
The world created through these harrowing beats and shimmering guitars is home to one of the year’s most cohesive and quietly devastating albums. Moffat uses Aesop imagery on ‘Fable of the Urban Fox’ to create a powerful comment on immigration and this country’s response to it, he builds a biblical temple for himself within the “empty, filthy streets” of ‘Kebabylon’, and album highlight ‘Tears on Tour’ is a self-deprecating, yet surprisingly liberating, ode to the act of crying; “the audience would join me in a long collective cry”. Get your Kleenex at the ready, folks. (Cameron Sinclair Harris)
8. Little Simz - Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
After the success of her most recent album GREY Area, it was no surprise that Little Simz would be back with a bang. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert marks Simz' escape from ‘wonderland’ as well as her navigation of inner demons, coming to terms with family relationships and understanding what it means to be a woman in the music industry.
The album begins with the rather aptly named ‘Introvert’ which builds up into a full orchestra performance leading us to the grand scale of production we’re about bear witness to and proving Simz’ artistic growth before she’s even opened her mouth. Although Simz may now be a “London-born estate girl to international sensation”, her fame does not stop her from remaining grounded. She even discloses personal traumas here, including her tumultuous relationship with her father and being stabbed during her teenage years.
If this album is anything to go off, Little Simz is about to have another incredible year ahead.. (Phoebe Scott)
7. For Those I Love - For Those I Love
Bursting with tangible sadness, burning frustration, and shining hopefulness, For Those I Love is an album that impressively deals in both the agony and the ecstasy.
David Balfe’s project is a nocturnal journey inspired by personal loss and societal critique, soundtracked by glitchy synths, rattling drums and hypnotic pianos resulting in a record that sounds like it belongs in the haze post-warehouse rave. His distinctive Dublin delivery of the refrain “I have a love, and it never fades” rings out often, like a calming mantra to help centre his thoughts amidst the surrounding dark. (Ryan Bell)
6. McKinley Dixon - For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her
You might not have heard of McKinley Dixon yet. But you will. The Virginia-based rapper and musician is a jack of all trades and a master of all, his compositions straddling hard-edged, sensitive rap and light-as-air jazz. The whole thing comes packaged in a vaguely alternative packaging, thanks to a teenage love for bands like My Chemical Romance.
For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her is as good an example of contemporary rap music as you are likely to find. From the deceptively brash sounds on the frustrated 'Chain Soooo Heavy' through to the gentle confessional 'Twist My Hair', this is an album that those seeking out lesser-known 2021 releases should not sleep on. (Jessie Atkinson)
5. Pinkpantheress - to hell with it
Breakout TikTok star PinkPantheress only has 18 posts on her account, but those posts have shot her to fame in just a matter of months. Her debut mixtape to hell with it pulls all of those viral songs together, almost singlehandedly bringing back garage and tinges of happy hardcore for the modern era.
to hell with it contains ten songs—eighteen minutes in total—but each track is so catchy that you only need twenty seconds to get addicted. The rushing breakbeat on ‘Break it off’ is sure to be a hit at future PinkPantheress shows, whilst the sombre ‘Just for me’ has soundtracked many a TikTok with its pleading chorus: "When you wipe your tears, do you wipe them just for me?". Meanwhile ‘Passion’ is a solemn admission of defeat, as the young star narrates her energy-sapped existence against a subtle garage beat.
PinkPantheress is adept at finding earworms and has already developed her own voice and style; to hell with it is the beginnings of what looks to be an exciting future for the artist. (Alex Rigotti)
4. Sons of Kemet - Black To The Future
Fifty listens in and you'll still wonder how you could possibly blend chaos with rhythm and harmony as well as Sons of Kemet do on their latest album Black to the Future. This album is a 50-minute masterpiece that takes influence from the disorientation of free jazz and pairs it with a rhythm that has its roots in hip-hop and grime, whilst also adding spoken word features from the likes of Joshua Idehen and Kojey Radical—each one more beautiful than the last.
This LP manages to capture feelings of anger, frustration, grit and determination and place them in front of you in a way that is messy but also very accessible and an absolute treat to listen to. (Dale Maplethorpe)
3. Amyl and The Sniffers - Comfort To Me
Aussie quartet Amyl and The Sniffers returned this year with the perfect follow-up to their 2019 self-titled: Comfort to Me is a true step-up in sound, songwriting and lyricism, not to mention stellar production, which gives the record the heft of a Queens of the Stone Age record. Amyl's sound is more mature on this LP and the band give themselves creative license to write in superb instrumentation, some face-melter solos and some wonderful lyrical content from Amy Taylor.
The lyrics are one of Comfort to Me’s real strengths—Taylor opens up about love and life, as well as violence against women and more political topics (‘Capital’ being the anti-capitalist anthem of the summer). These tracks are overall more rounded and polished than any of The Sniffers’ previous work, but this enables them to establish their musical talent and songwriting skill.
Amyl have shown such growth with this record it is hard to tell where they could go next. The sky is the limit for Amyl and The Sniffers: their clear talent and punk attitude will continue to set them apart from many other modern rock bands. (Charlie Brock)
2. Sleaford Mods - Spare Ribs
In January this year, two years on from Eton Alive, Sleaford Mods returned with their best ever drop: the grimacing, invigorating and totally genius Spare Ribs. Political like no one else while also providing the perfect, aggravating soundtrack for early morning after-party, Spare Ribs is the most essential of colloquial albums made by two men who are not only angry about the status quo but motivated enough to actually say something about it.
Here we receive the most candid of lyrics about the people who rule over us: Jason Williamson is perhaps the most underrated poet of our times. Who else could put the line "Let's get Brexit fucked by an horse's penis until its misery splits/Ugly rich white men get shagged by it," in a song and really mean it. Then there's the soundscape that this anti-Wordsworth supplies his words to: Andrew Fearn's throbbing use of synths and assorted electronics are mad alchemy. Spare Ribs is, as our original reviewer attested, "fucking faultless". (Jessie Atkinson)
1. Self Esteem - Prioritise Pleasure
In the closing moment’s of ‘I’m Fine,’ you hear the words: “If we are approached by a group of men, we will bark like dogs/There is nothing that terrifies a man more than a woman that appears completely deranged”. It's swiftly followed by a feral howl. It’s utterly chilling. It’s also the first example of the genius of Self Esteem.
Over the course of a cohesive, thrilling and empowering thirteen tracks Rebecca Lucy Taylor tackles the intricacies and dangers of simply living life as a woman. Title track ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ is a defiant statement of rediscovering pleasure and putting her needs centre stage, on ‘Moody’ Taylor reclaims years of her emotions being dismissed, whilst ‘How Can I Help You’ is an incredible middle finger placed over Taylor’s thunderous drumrolls.
Sonically the album is grandiose. Flourishes of Kate Bush and Kanye West can be heard across tracks such as ‘It’s Been A While’ and ‘You Forever’, whilst divine strings elevate ‘John Elton’ and ‘Just Kids’ into moments of triumphant beauty. The albums crowning jewel, however, is the jaw-dropping ‘I Do This All The Time’, a sensational spoken word epic that floors you. Simply faultless, this is a perfect record. (Philip Giouras)