Well, what a year. We started off in the depths of a lockdown, and as the year draws to a close it looks like we could be headed that way again, as the pandemic maintains its strangle-hold on day to day life. But throughout all the ups and downs of 2021, there’s always been music. For the first time in a very long time, I’ve kept up to date with new releases. It’s felt exhausting at times – amazing new music just keeps on coming – but it’s been fulfilling as well, and restored my faith in contemporary music. I definitely didn’t plan to listen to over 50 albums this year, but that’s what ended up happening, so here we are: my 50 Best Albums of 2021.
Firstly, a note on this list: I’m not claiming these are the definitive 50 best albums of the year – they’re just 50 albums I’ve listened to and liked (and in many cases, loved). Purists will note there are some EPs in the list – I don’t listen to enough EPs to warrant a separate list so they’re mixed in here (and in most cases, it’s an arbitrary distinction anyway). Secondly, I don’t really believe in star ratings or rankings – how you can reduce an album to a score out of 5, or compare something as different as say, gritty post-punk with cosmic ambience. So this list is presented in a very rough order of preference that gets more defined further down, and I have crowned one album specifically as my number one pick.
As always, this is just my opinion. I’d be glad to hear yours – which albums have I missed, who have I not given due to credit to, etc. Read on to delve in…
50: Parannoul – To see the Next Part of the Dream
The mysterious Korean bedroom producer known only as Parannoul became an unlikely minor sensation this year with their bandcamp release of distortion drenched shoegaze.
49: Radio Supernova – Takaisin
Exactly what you’d expect a Finnish psyche shoegaze band to sound like. Mystical, ethereal, rockin’ – at times it sounds like Radio Supernova are blasting these songs out from atop a glacier or deep within a cave, in a bid to wake sleeping giants.
48: Sofia Kourtesis – Fresia Magdalena EP
A heartfelt tribute to her family and hometown, Fresia Magdalena was built from field recordings taken in Lima, in Kourtesis’ native Peru. Building on those vibrant recordings, she channels a wide-ranging mixture of influences, from French-touch style Filter House; to the hypnotic polyrhythms of fellow South American turned Berliner, Ricardo Villalobos; to the riotous sample-blending of The Avalanches. Read the full review.
47: Bicep – Isles
On their second full-length, the Northern Ireland duo hone their formula for crafting crowd-pleasing rave music for the masses. The tracks on Isles (named in acknowledgement of the duo’s connection to the islands of both Britain and Ireland) are the ‘home-listening’ versions that would be tooled up for their run of sell-out shows across the summer. A prospect that had a huge cloud of uncertainty hanging over it in February, when the album dropped. Read the full review.
46: Floating Points & Pharoah Sanders – Promises
British electronic producer and classically trained pianist, Sam Shepherd, teamed up with spiritual jazz legend Pharoah Sanders for an album of deeply meditative jazz ‘movements’, with backing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Piano, string and sax play off one another in a delicate and unfolding dance over 45 minutes, but rather than an intellectual chin-stroking exercise, the result is something far more approachable and accessible than the description suggests, that can appeal to casual listeners as well as jazz aficionados.
45: Joy Orbison – Still Slipping vol 1
With its track titles that seem to have been scribbled on the back of a fag-packet, full of slashes and abbreviations, Still Slipping is more of a mixtape than an album. A chance for Peter O’Grady, the man behind the mysterious but ever in-demand club sensation, Joy Orbison, to show a different side. The tracks run the gamut of UK club styles, garage, bassline, house etc never quiet settling into one for too long, and are stitched together with fragments of recorded conversation between O’Grady’s own family. The intimacy of the snippets hints at another world behind the music, as well as reminding us of the moments we’ve all missed over the last 18 months, and that dance music needn’t be about pure hedonism.
44: L’Rain – Fatigue
The first thing that comes to my mind on hearing the opening moments of Taja Cheek’s second album as L’Rain is Oneohtrix Point Never’s most recent album, which was a disorientating and nostalgic trip through FM radio. On Fatigue, L’Rain takes a similarly collage-based approach, splicing samples, textures and extended recordings with her own voice, making this an intriguing and uncategorisable listen. A trip through a storied landscape populated by diverse characters and governed by dream logic.
43: Hoavi – Invariant
Touted as Russia’s best kept electronic music secret, Hoavi produces lush, richly detailed and atmospheric sci-fi soundscapes. Stuttering breakbeats intersect with spacious pads and spectral melodies on this diverse and succinct album, which is one of a pair he has released this year.
42: Bewwip – Eigengrau EP
Frenetically mashed-up breakbeats and cosmic acid synths combine for some of the most dazzling ‘Braindance’ since its mid 00s heyday. Spain-based label Analogical Force seem to have taken up Rephlex’s mantle, currently releasing the best in ‘this sort of thing’. Eigengrau is a punchy EP boasting six tracks of breakbeat carve-ups, acid jams and bassy squelch, from the mysterious producer known alternatively as 4rd, presumably the secret spawn of Richard D James and Tom Jenkinson.
41: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee at STATE’S END!
In light of the apocalyptic events of the last 18 months, Godspeed may be feeling more than a little vindication for their longstanding anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist worldview. On God’s pee, they continue to put their well-worn techniques to devastating effect, going from rousing crescendo, to desolate beauty and back to exultant climax. Read the full review.
40: TM404 – Syra
Cerebral and moody analogue acid techno jams to fill that Plastikman shaped hole in your life.
39: DJ Seinfeld – Mirrors
Departing from the lo-fi house sound for which DJ Seinfeld was originally known, Mirrors is for the most part, a bright sunny record full of funky beats and day-glo colours that feels destined for sun-kissed festival stages. It’s hard not to compare it to Tread, the album released this year by London-based electronic producer and fellow lo-fi merchant, Ross from Friends. Aside from both artists taking their moniker from 90s sitcom characters, their releases bear the tell-tale attention to detail of a bedroom producer, as well as having an eye on the dancefloor.
38: Current Value – The All Attracting
Even at album number 13, the veteran German producer is still innovating within the framework of drum’n’bass. On The All Attracting, Tim Eliot takes a sound-design approach to d’n’b, resulting in an unusual and highly distinctive take on the genre. It almost feels like an inversion, where all the power is driven by the high-end, running on fidgety off-beat tempos. Technique and restraint are as much on display here as willingness to devastate the dancefloor, but bass-heads won’t be disappointed once they get to track 5 – the title track and collaboration with fellow sound-designer and beatsmith, Amon Tobin – which is an absolute banger.
37: Saint Etienne – I’ve Been Trying to Tell You
Saint Etienne have always been purveyors of nostalgia, since their early homages reinvigorated the sounds of the swinging 60s with the vibrancy of acid house and baggy beats. I’ve Been Trying to Tell You is no less nostalgic but is far more reflective; a moody collage of dreamy soundscapes that are as much reassuring as they are melancholy.
36: Viagra Boys – Welfare Jazz
Aptly named, Welfare Jazz is a sweaty, pulsing slab of gritty bluesy post-punk, that simultaneously skewers the old-fashioned stereotypical ideal of being a ‘man’ while also revelling in its debauchery and decadence.
35: Shackleton – Departing like Rivers
Disorientating, gloomy, hypnotic, tribal – Shackleton’s first solo album in nearly ten years is a real journey into the heart of darkness. Taking his by now trademark polyrhythms, organ chimes and queasy basslines, Sam Shackleton has crafted a challenging and idiosyncratic album.
34: Planetary Assault Systems – Sky Scraping
The don of UK techno, Luke Slater, proving he’s still on top of his game after more than 30 years. Fusing the simplest elements and classic analogue sounds into 11 blistering cuts of everything you want techno music to be: pounding, cosmic, cerebral and relentlessly energetic with layers of surging hi-hats, spacey synths and pumping kick drum. It’s impossible not to keep cranking the volume on this one; records like this are the reason I’ll probably have hearing loss in later life and if I one day have to watch TV with the subtitles on, it’ll be worth it.
33: Snapped Ankles – Forest of your Problems
The mysterious band of forest-dwellers come down from the trees once again hauling their home-made synths and clothed head to foot in ghillie suits. Though the intensity of the legendary live sets doesn’t completely come across on record, Snapped Ankles are undoubtedly one of the more original bands currently in the ascendancy. Read the full review.
32: Citrus Clouds – Collider
If you didn’t know that shoegaze/dreampop trio, Citrus Clouds were from Phoenix, Arizona you’d swear that Collider was the work of a mid-90s band probably heralding from some nondescript British town, hiding behind their fringes and effects pedals. A beautiful giddy swirl of everything you like about 90s shoegaze, semi-intelligible lyrics about love and longing, pop melodies hidden under a wall of noise and of course tons and tons of reverb.
31: Tropical Fuck Storm – Deep States
Another album that made no secret of being influenced by the claustrophobia and deprivation of lockdown, filtered through the prism of Gaz Liddiard’s – and now in addition bandmate, Erica Dunn’s – restlessly inventive song-writing. On Deep States the Aussie Dadaist art-punks condense all the boredom, rage and confusion, not just of the pandemic but of our polarised and (mis)information-saturated age, into 10 scorching tracks.
30: Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
Jubilee is a mature pop record whose themes cover everything from loss, to artistic inspiration to billionaires needing to repopulate the world after an apocalypse. Throughout it all Michelle Zauner sounds thoughtful, joyous and bursting with ideas, at times sounding like the whimsical chamber pop of Camera Obscura and at others, such as on the addictively saccharine Be Sweet, like an 80s pop star.
29: Mouse on Mars – AAI
German experimentalists, Mouse on Mars, employed a bespoke software as a means of collaborating with Artificial Intelligence on a record that can be seen as both a demonstration of the power of AI as well as a treatise in defence of its role as a creative force. The results are confounding and impenetrable at times, but thanks to the trio’s inherent musicality and long running partnership with drummer, Dodo NKishi, playful and inventive as well. Read the full review.
28: Vanishing Twin – Ookii Gekkou
Vanishing Twin’s presciently titled 2019 debut, The Age of Immunology was expansively outward looking in its embrace of continental ideals and aesthetics. On Ookii Gekkou (Japanese for ‘big moonlight’) it feels like they’re casting the net even wider and exploring more far flung musical territories. While the music may sound eccentric at times (think Birmingham oddballs Pram, more than the oft-compared Stereolab) it’s clear this group of psychedelic troubadours know where they’re headed.
27: Low – Hey What
Hey What is like a desolate and frozen landscape punctuated by moments of startling beauty. The husband and wife duo of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have always used a minimalist sound palette, letting space and silence do the work of creating tension and drama. This technique is in full effect here, with the addition of searing bursts of electronic noise that stand in stark contrast to their delicate vocal harmonies.
26: Moritz von Oswald Trio – Dissent
For his revolving trio of musicians and producers, this time around the techno pioneer Moritz von Oswald has enlisted the services of jazz drummer Heinrich Köbberling and experimental producer, Laurel Halo. Between them, they lay down extended jams that range across jazz, techno and dub. At times languid, at times tense and at others cerebral, but always anchored by an irresistible groove.
25: Ross from Friends – Tread
Another producer moving away from the lo-fi sound, Tread walks the line between heady anticipation and straight-up euphoria, but beneath the wonky beats and diva samples, the production is deceptively detailed. The album is a memoir of sorts, a record of the creative process that Felix Weatherall followed after creating his own piece of software, Thresho, which recorded all his musical experiments in a timestamped journal.
24: Tobacco – Fucked up Friends 3
Who needs enemies, with friends as fucked up as these? On FUF3, the man behind the most excellent Black Moth Super Rainbow continues to expand his gorily gothic day-glo Halloween world, gleefully plundering the seediest seams of the 80s for all that is trashy, grim and horrifying. This lurid, graffiti spattered work is not Tobacco’s richest or emotionally complex, but it’s a whole bucket of synth-driven fun. The soundtrack to a Boards of Canada fever dream. Read the full review.
23: µ-Ziq – Scurlage
Veteran IDM-head, Mike Paradinas, brings us 12 new tracks written while holidaying in Wales. There’s something drawn from almost every phase in his varied career on Scurlage; processed breakbeats, chirpy synth melodies, dense layers of sound and wistful ambient. Read the full review.
22: Damon Albarn – The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows
One of the greatest pop chameleons of the last 30 years is in a contemplative mood, with music inspired by the brutal and beautiful landscapes of his adopted second home in Iceland, and lyrics reflecting on the loss, isolation and tenacity of the last 18 months.
21: Tirzah – Colourgrade
An intimate portrait of motherhood, love, and those quiet stolen moments that happen behind drawn curtains while the world goes on outside. Immersing yourself in Colourgrade for the entirety of its forty-minute duration is an experience akin to being cocooned in a soft, warm duvet, in a state somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, as reality melts into daydreams and your limbs melt into the bed. Read the full review.
20: Dryft – From Stasis
I’m not sure whether the title is a nod to Mike Cadoo’s long awaited return to releasing music, or our collective emergence from the stasis of the pandemic. From Stasis nods to his classic album, Formless, (recorded as Gridlock), with epic atmospheres, sense of infinite space and beats that pummel with ten tonnes of bit-crushing pressure. The gradual build from serenity to deafening crescendo will be enjoyed by fans of post-rock and industrial music alike.
19: Pond – 9
Their imaginatively titled 9th album finds the Aussie psyche merchants on top of their game and fully in command of their patented brand of psychedelic disco funk. Surely long overdue proof that they’re a force to be reckoned with and not just some dudes who played with Kevin Parker.
18: Nightmares on Wax – Shout Out! To Freedom
The king of downtempo and laidest-back beatsmith there ever was sounds fresher in 2021 than he has in years. Shout out to Freedom is an eclectic mix of tracks, featuring a diverse range of vocal collaborators and touching on everything from hip-hop, soul, dub and more in a celebration of the human spirit against adversity. Just the record to lift your spirits as freedom seems to be in short supply once again.
17: Facta – Blush
With lilting floral melodies and tropical beats, Blush is the soundtrack to an after party in a beach bar where the sun never sets, the mimosas never run dry and there’s never a queue for the toilet. Facta builds his tracks around melody but the rhythm is always bouncy enough to keep you swaying. Think of a cross between the nostalgi-rave of Lone and the baroque melodica of Plaid.
16: Ulrich Schnauss & Jonas Munk – Eight Fragments of an Illusion
A deep and dreamy ride through cosmic ambience, harking back to seminal synth pioneers Tangerine Dream, of whom Schnauss is now an honorary member. The unobtrusive nature of Eight Fragments made it my go to for the ‘working from home’ soundtrack. But don’t be mistaken – thanks to the duo’s melodic sensibility, attention to detail and commitment to producing the most lush-sounding record possible, it’s also an album you can lie back and let take you on a trip.
15: Loraine James – Reflection
Along with all the negative effects of the pandemic – isolation, anxiety, loneliness – for many it was the catalyst for periods of prolific creativity, with no distractions from the outside world. If her debut, For You and I, was the expression of James’ identity and experiences growing up in Enfield, North London, then Reflection feels like an expression of young black identity more broadly in the UK today, coming at a time of huge upheaval with a new generation confronting issues of race in the wake of the global BLM movement. That aside, Reflection is a sprightly, unpredictable record that wears these weighty issues lightly. Primarily driven by James’ beat making skills, subtle way with melodies and varied choice of vocal collaborators. Refusing to be pigeon-holed by the many categories of urban music, or by the expectations of a gay, black female artist, Loraine James makes ‘experimental music’ that transcends those boundaries. Read the full review.
14: Leon Vynehall – Rare Forever
Leon Vynehall proves himself a true chameleon on Rare, Forever, leaving behind the expansive transatlanticism of Nothing is Still and turning the mirror inwards. Taut and tense, like the body of a snake that adorns the front cover, and full of coded references. Levels of tension undulate throughout the album’s length, reaching their peak on tracks of lithe twisting techno, then decreasing on softer interludes of jazz and organic instrumentation only to rise again with the incursion of brief snippets of recorded voice. Read the full review.
13: Lone – Always Inside your Head
As Lone, British producer Matt Cutler has explored many facets of electronic music, from 90s rave, to trip-hop, to Boards of Canada inspired downbeat – always filtered through his lens of kaleidoscopic technicolour. Always Inside your Head draws on the spiritual side of rave music, by combining lush ambience, ethereal female vocals, surging breakbeats and Lone’s signature sprinkling of new-age crystal dust. Imagine a restorative wellness retreat hidden in a secluded valley that transforms into a hedonistic rave come nightfall.
12: Gacha Bakradze – Obscure Languages
The myriad genres and subgenres of electronic music can often seem like indecipherable languages to those unfamiliar with the various intricacies that differentiate them. An album like Obscure Languages by Gacha Bakradze acts as something of a Rosetta Stone, connecting disparate styles and suggesting new ways they might relate to one another. Over the course of a little under 45 minutes, this Georgian producer incorporates light-footed techno, electro and breakbeats into elegant and spacious soundscapes; never lingering on any one style too long but managing to tie everything together with a deftness of touch. Read the full review.
11: Daniel Avery – Together in Static
Together in Static immortalises Avery’s ‘global stream’ concert, beamed live from St John’s Church, Hackney, in June 2021. A time when the club scene had been brought to its lowest point by the pandemic, and gathering indoors for a night of communion seemed like an impossible dream. This collection carries the torch from his 2020 stand-out LP, Love + Light, which dealt equally in ethereal droning ambience and gut-quaking techno pounders.
The celestial pads and sombre bass-tones of opener, ‘Crystal Eyes’ would certainly make for a transformative experience if witnessed live in the awe-inspiring church. And there are several moments here, such as ‘Nowhere Sound’ and ‘Hazel and Gold’ that are infused with the same optimism and ragged euphoria of dance music’s early 90s halcyon days. Together in Static is Avery’s document of a strange time and a neat encapsulation of the feelings – hope, uncertainty, anticipation – we all shared through it. Read the full review.
The Top Ten
10: Space Afrika – Honest Labour
The Manchester duo of Joshua Inyang and Joshua Tarelle take us on a journey through the city after dark; as Tarelle characterises it, “Manchester in the rain, hoods up, nighttime, lamp posts, puddles, amber lights beaming”. The 19 vignettes on Honest Labour encompass a surprising range – that surpasses the spectral dub techno of 2018’s’ Somewhere Decent to Live – ambient, grime, shoegaze, hip-hop are tied together by atmospheric field recordings. This “inner-city ambient for chaotic living” (again Tarelle’s description) is in the same territory as fellow night travellers, Actress and Burial but offers a clearer window into the emotional lives of the souls who populate it.
9: Nation of Language – A Way Forward
Hot on the heels of their debut last year, A Way Forward sees this Brooklyn-based trio continue their love affair with 80s synth pop. Lovingly recreating the iconic sounds of OMD, Depeche Mode, The Human League and many more besides, in a way that sounds instantly recognisable yet also fresh. Their song-writing continues to mature and the album’s opening, comprising the trio of belters, ‘In Manhattan’, ‘Across that Fine Line’ and ‘Wounds of Love is surely one the strongest of any release this year, with each track surpassing the one before. Read the full review.
8: Spirit of the Beehive – Entertainment, Death
Listening to Entertainment, Death is like being trapped in a car while someone constantly fiddles with the radio dial (while simultaneously swerving across the road), so disorientating and maddening is the band’s penchant for not sticking to one style for more than a minute. Having found it frustrating initially, returning to the album 6 months later was curiously much more enjoyable. True, the band’s ability to fuse elements from the last 30 years in a swirling kaleidoscope, continuously cycling through different styles and rearranging them in unexpected patterns can make you feel like a character in an Adam Curtis film. Read the full review.
7: Darkside – Spiral
Over the last decade and more, the Chilean born and New York based producer Nicolas Jaar has been subtly rewriting the rulebook on what constitutes electronic music and its many myriad forms. His work as Darkside, a collaboration with guitarist Dave Harrington, manages to be moody and atmospheric yet at the same time irresistibly catchy, combining extended psychedelic grooves, richly detailed atmospherics and unexpected earworms. Yet despite the music’s free-roaming and experimental nature, Spiral is a record of intense focus. So much so, that at times there’s a palpable feeling of ceremony about proceedings – as if these two musicians are engaged in some kind of ritual to summon occult forces. Read the full review.
6: Clinic – Fantasy Island
One of those rare bands who’ve managed to constantly evolve, yet all the while sound exactly like themselves and no one else, back for album number nine, Clinic remain as fiercely idiosyncratic and uncompromisingly odd as they did on their debut, over twenty years ago. Dripping in sleaze and tawdry glamour, Fantasy Island takes listeners on a magical mystery cruise to a destination more familiar than at first it seems. Pack your sequinned jacket and clip on your tie for a big slap-up, 1970s cocktail rhythms to start followed by post-punk, dub and disco for desert with plenty of vibe on the side. Read the full review.
5: µ-Ziq & Mrs Jynx – Secret Garden
Secret Garden is the result of collaboration between two artists sharing a melodic sensibility, the stalwart IDM producer, Mike Paradinas and one time signing to his Planet Mu label and cat lover, Mrs Jynx. Both had gone through the pain of losing a parent to cancer and the pieces on this album, which were rapidly worked up in a matter of weeks, are beautifully understated meditations on loss and the therapeutic healing power of music. The pair came up with the title in reference to the ‘unexpected melodic vista’ which unfolded before them, and the music here feels like it belongs in a special hidden place. At times deeply melancholy but also optimistic, everything here is beautifully light and airy with lush pads and gentle beats that never drag, it’s refreshing to find such complicatedly pretty melodies in what can be a forbidding genre.
4: Andy Stott – Never the Right Time
Continuing to expand his monochrome musical world, along with long-time collaborator, operatic vocalist Alison Skidmore, Andy Stott casts his net even wider for album number six. As well as the familiar distortion and reverb integral to his sound, Never the Right Time is also tempered with a languid softness. The smoky guitar noodling on the pair of tracks, Away not Gone and Never the Right Time, that bookend the album call to mind Portishead and the Cocteau Twins. While elsewhere, disembodied rave synths and rumbling sub-bass haunt the deserted warehouses and basements of clubland – this was Stott’s ‘lockdown’ album, released after the first year of the pandemic, when the re-opening of nightlife was still a distant prospect. Another chapter in the career of a unique and accomplished artist. Read the full review.
3: Skee Mask – Pool
With a bumper selection of tracks released out of the blue and pointedly kept off Spotify, Skee Mask proves himself master of the breakbeat techno genre he helped create. Endlessly spacious pads set the stage for breakbeats to soar and explode like fireworks, ricocheting back and forth among featherlight melodic synth lines. Much of the album was the product of jamming sessions on analogue gear, and this shows in the free-flowing nature of the music. So lush and seemingly effortless are these productions, they feel like the work of a true virtuoso. Now that Bryan Muller has thoroughly mined this style, I keenly look forward to where he might take us next. Read the full review.
2: Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
Florence Shaw’s deadpan, spoken-word vocals are such an integral part of New Long Leg, that your feelings on them will likely determine your enjoyment of the whole album. Love ’em or hate ’em – I was instantly hooked on Shaw’s bone-dry acerbic style; littered with bizarre non-sequiturs interspersed with moments of brutal clarity that circulate through your brain for days after. The interplay of wiry guitar lines and thrumming bass, held together by John Parish’s (of PJ Harvey fame) masterful production, create just as many moments of exquisite tension and releases as Shaw’s lyrical poetry. The combination is what makes this album so worthy of repeated listens. Instant classic.
Gazelle Twin – Deep England
Elizabeth Bernholz’s collaboration with the NYX ‘drone choir’ is a startling, haunting and downright spooky re-imagining of the state of the nation in 2021 – not to mention the most original and unusual album I’ve heard this year. Gazelle Twin synthesises meditative vocal pieces, eerie drones and acapella voice effects with elements drawn from deep in our murky medieval past – spells, rituals and incantations – to conjure a macabre and sinister vision of England. A haunted land that runs on ritual and ceremony, where the population lives in fear of witches, demons and feral gangs of social media trolls. You’ll never look at a silver car, a retail park or a cul de sac the same way again. Read the full review.