Congratulations. You’ve survived another year. Another year of a pandemic, another year of zoom calls & sticking cue-tips in our noses every other day, but most importantly another year of great music.
Opinions seem to be pretty mixed about whether 2021 was a good year for music, and I think that’s fair. Me personally, I thought there were a few more good albums than usual, but no absolutely mind blowing, instant classics that I know I’ll be listening to 10 years from now came out this year.
There were still albums I loved though, and this is a list of those.
Honorable mentions that were in the mix but didn’t quite make the cut (in alphabetical order by Artist):
Crowded House – Dreamers Are Waiting
Danny Elfman – Big Mess
Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
Kings of Leon – When You See Yourself
Rejjie Snow – Baw Baw Black Sheep
Royal Blood – Typhoons
20. Idles – “Crawler”
Idles have quickly become one of the most popular rock bands in the world in the last four years since their harsh, politically charged, stand-out debut album “Brutalism” came out in 2017. Subsequent releases have been similar in quality as their debut, but also similar in sound. They were due for a change.
“Crawler” definitely brought change. Two of the singles leading up to the album’s release, “The Beachland Ballroom” & “Car Crash” were my favorite new tracks of their respective weeks, and Idles attempted completely different sounds on both. The first half of “Crawler” had more deviation from the Brighton-based band’s norm with the opener “MTT 420 RR” or “When The Lights Come On”. Ironically where the album fell a little short was on the more traditional post-punk songs like “King Snake” towards the end of the album; definitely not bad cuts, but we’ve heard Idles do songs like this plenty of times before and do them much better.
It’s certainly not their best record, but I love hearing Idles try new things.
Favorite Tracks: “The Beachland Ballroom” “Car Crash” “The Wheel
19. J. Cole – “The Off-Season”
J. Cole isn’t quite polarizing – no one seems to hate him – but it does seem like opinions fall into one of two camps. 1) He’s the GOAT, he’s so smart, so woke, I’d drink his bathwater or 2) His early stuff is pretty good, but his last few records have been pretty mediocre.
If you’ve read literally anything I’ve written this year, you’d probably guess I’m in the second camp. “2014 Forest Hills Drive” is good, but it’s not a classic and his sophomore album “Born Sinner” is underrated, but also not a classic. Everything since then has been meh (“KOD”) to bad (“4 Your Eyez Only”, why the hell is that album title stylized like it’s 1996?).
So I wasn’t that excited about “The Off-Season”. Cole had only gotten preachier and preachier over the years without earning it in my eyes.
And thank god, it looks like noname dunked on him so hard he’s dropped all that. There is little to no ‘open your 3rd eye’ surface level social commentary on “The Off-Season”, which Cole’s last couple records have been riddled with. He cuts out (most of) the corny, eye-roll inducing bars, and just raps. Things are kept simple, and any attempts at sending a message come from a more genuine place of personal experience rather than trying too hard to be the trap Malcolm X.
Favorite Tracks: “a m a r i” “m y. l i f e” “1 0 0. m i l”
18. Adele – “30”
I got a surprising amount of disagreement from people when I said “30” was Adele’s best album a few weeks ago. There were people in my DMs singing the praises of “19” “21” and even someone caping for “25”.
I stand by my statement. “30” my not have the front to back stellar vocal performances like “19”, it may not be as instrumentally diverse and gripping as “21” (miss me with the “25” arguments) but it’s got some of the most sonically interesting songs Adele’s ever made. It’s as cohesive as any of her albums, and her voice is as strong as ever.
Favorite Tracks: “My Little Love” “Woman Like Me” “To Be Loved”
17. Molly Burch – “Romantic Images”
I wasn’t exactly a Molly Burch fan before this record. I liked “needy” but found most of her older work to be pretty standard indie-pop. Her voice had a distinct, breathy but husky quality to it I loved though, and the way she uses it on “Romantic Images” has made me a fan. Finally singing over some instrumental with some personality and energy, Burch’s singing doesn’t feel like it’s outclassing everything else on a song like on her past albums.
This record actually typifies this year of music pretty well. Great singles like “Control” and “Heart of Gold”. No tracks that are complete masterpieces, but no immediate skips. It’s a collection of well crafted, well performed pop that plays well all together.
Favorite Tracks: “Control” “Back In Time” “Honeymoon Phase”
16. Bo Burnham – “Inside (The Songs)”
Ok. This is one of 2 entries I have on here with a bit of an asterisk to them.
Do I really think this is the 16th best album that came out this year? Absolutely not. But I listened to this album a lot this year while dealing with various levels of lockdown in Melbourne.
The special struck a chord with me back in June when Melbourne went back into lockdown proper for a 3rd time. Maybe it’s one of those ‘you had to be there’ records that won’t work for anyone who didn’t listen to it at the time. Maybe you have to have liked Bo Burnham before watching “Inside”. But this list wouldn’t have reflected my listening this year if “Inside (The Songs)” wasn’t on it. I highly recommend the Netflix Special these songs soundtrack to anyone who (somehow) hasn’t yet seen it, and then come back to this if it doesn’t hit you too hard with more lockdowns potentially still looming.
Favorite Tracks: “Sexting” “Don’t Wanna Know” “Welcome to the Internet”
15. Brockhampton – “ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE PLUS PACK”
One hip-hop record I was looking forward to was “ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE” by Brockhampton. I’ve really enjoyed every record they’ve put out since “SATURATION” and was expecting an album just as good if not better.
And while I’d actually say this is their worst record, the boy band’s output has been so strong in the last four years that this is still a really good LP.
The first five tracks are just as good as any first few tracks they’ve put out, but the middle of the tracklist has a serious dip (other than the Charlie Wilson assisted “I’LL TAKE YOU ON”). There’s also a distinct lack of Kevin Abstract & Merlyn Wood through much of the album.
The album closes well, especially with Joba’s story on “THE LIGHT PT. II” and thankfully the “PLUS PACK” deluxe version of the album makes up for the lack of a memorable Merlyn performance with “PRESSURE/BOW WOW” and the hilarious but hard-hitting “SEX”. I don’t know how two of the best tracks on the album ended up being cut from the original tracklist.
Favorite Tracks: “BUZZCUT” “CHAIN ON” “I’LL TAKE YOU ON” “SEX”
14. Vince Staples – “Vince Staples”
Rappers don’t often have self-titled albums, but it fits that this is Vince Staples’. Despite not really treading on any truly new subject matter, it’s clearly his most personal album yet.
Vince’s music has always had a confessional, honest element to it that along with his technical chops and distinctly laid-back delivery made him stand-out. Vince has always had a more genuine perspective on the familiar topics of gang violence and struggling than most rappers. These things are never glamorous or sexy on a Vince Staples record, and that’s definitely true on his self-titled LP.
I haven’t dared to attempt a best songs of 2021 list, but if I did “ARE YOU WITH THAT?” would be in the running for the top spot. Kenny Beats does a great job producing beats that accentuate Vince’s ability and fit his lowkey flow, although the beats do get a bit samey. My greatest criticism against the record is that it’s too short, coming in at just 22 minutes. If the worst thing you can say about something is that you want more, that’s a pretty good sign.
Favorite Tracks: “ARE YOU WITH THAT?” “TAKING TRIPS” “LIL FADE”
13. Billie Eilish – “Happier Than Ever”
Public opinion seems to have decided this record is a classic case of sophomore slump, and I guess I agree. Is “Happier Than Ever” better than “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”? In their entirety, I don’t think so.
But Billie has grown as a songwriter by leaps and bounds on “Happier Than Ever”. Right from the opener “Getting Older”, she’s clearly much more mature, and ready to write songs more genuine to her than the ‘I’m not like other girls’ edge-lord lyrics on “WWAFAWDWG”.
I’m less keen on the title track than most people – it’s a little too gimmicky and pandering for me – but there are no bad tracks, despite the album running a bit longer than it maybe should. The production is less cohesive and cutting edge, but it’s interesting hearing Billie Eilish do a Bossa Nova song or a lamenting, pseudo-ballad like “Everybody Dies”. I’d much rather hear an artist evolve a bit and try something new that doesn’t land quite as well as their previous work than just re-hash an old sound over and over.
Favorite Tracks: “Getting Older” “I Didn’t Change My Number” “Everybody Dies” “Oxytocin”
12. Hayley Williams – “FLOWERS for VASES / descansos”
This album grew on me, not once but twice this year.
On my initial listen I came away with a ‘meh’ feeling. But on subsequent listens I kept finding myself thinking ‘oh yeah this track was great too’, over and over.
And then when I started compiling this list, “FLOWERS for VASES” started on the outside looking in, but the more I thought about it and listened to all these records, it kept moving up.
I do unfortunately know why this is. There are a couple songs on this album – “My Limb” & “Trigger” that I just do not like. The closing tracks are quite weak as well. Those relative duds and the fact that “FLOWERS for VASES” pulls the double cliché of being a) yet another stripped-down guitar record that’s dropped in the wake of Phoebe Bridgers AND b) a break-up album all at once, keeps impairing my perception of this album. It is imperfect, but very good.
If Hayley finds some middle ground between this record and her debut solo album “Petals For Armor” as far as scope and production go, she could make a truly great record.
Favorite Tracks: “First Thing to Go” “Wait On” “HYD”
11. James Blake – “Friends That Break Your Heart”
Despite only releasing one album that was just a bit disappointing with 2019’s “Assume Form”, “Friends That Break Your Heart” feels like a comeback album for James Blake. Maybe it’s because “The Colour In Anything” came out way back in 2016 and his classic debut is over a decade old. But I also think it’s because of the way he was able to reconcile his own personal happiness with his often somber music.
“Assume Form” isn’t exactly a kaleidoscopic peace, love and positivity fest but hearing Blake singing decidedly happier songs while trying to go a bit more mainstream with his sound didn’t quite mix well. “Friends That Break Your Heart” does a better job of navigating all this change by stripping things down a bit, allowing Blake’s vocals to take center stage more than ever. His trademark glitchy production style, and vocal effecting are still here, things are just not as busy as usual and it makes for a welcome change.
Some of Blake’s best ever vocal performances are on this album, and his songwriting has more perspective in a really refreshing way. “I’m So Blessed You’re Mine” and the title-track have not grown on me at all since writing my review, but the rest of the album does more than enough to make up for a couple duds.
Favorite Tracks: “Life Is Not The Same” “Funeral” “Say What You Will”
10. Amyl And The Sniffers – “Comfort To Me”
I love this album. I almost feel like to wax poetic about it would do it a disservice. It’s a punk/pub rock album that keeps things simple without being one dimensional. It’s high energy from start to finish, and never tries to be anything that it isn’t.
After many, (many) listens some of the performances begin to feel a bit rough around the edges in the wrong way, but honestly I may have just listened to this album too much. If you love punk music, don’t miss this one.
Favorite Tracks: “Security” “Hertz” “Knifey”
9. Lil Nas X – “MONTERO”
After one of the longest (almost 3 years), most bizarre & polarizing album roll-outs in recent memory, Lil Nas X final dropped his debut album this year.
I’ve been in his corner all the way, but I expected “MONTERO” to be a bloated collection of short pop rap songs optimized for streaming. While most of the tracks are under three minutes, to characterize them as streaming filler would be selling Lil Nas way too short. Across the whole record he shows a surprising amount of vulnerability, versatility, and vocal ability all over a series of really well produced beats. Throw in some standout features from Megan Thee Stallion, Jack Harlow & Miley Cyrus to close and you’ve got one of the best pop records of the year.
Favorite Tracks: “DEAD RIGHT NOW” “INDUSTRY BABY” “SCOOP” “VOID”
8. Little Simz – “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”
While one record did come later in the year to take that title, it still stands as an incredible album. Right from the gate with “Introvert” it’s clear that the level of ambition is on another level in comparison to Simz’s past albums, and that doesn’t let up. The tracklist covers all kinds of different subgenres and styles from grime to R&B to afrobeat, while still feeling cohesive thanks to the overarching themes of self-discovery, self-love and womanhood being explored so thoughtfully.
The skits can at times feel heavy handed, especially when the actual songs that bookend them flesh out their topics so much better. “Protect My Energy” has not grown on me, and still feels very out of place. But literally every other track on “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert” is great, and it’s one of the few hip-hops albums that dropped this year with no streaming filler, that’s worth listening to in sequence, in full.
Favorite Tracks: “Introvert” “Woman” “I See You” “Rollin Stone” “Miss Understood”
7. Death From Above 1979 – “Is 4 Lovers”
Don’t let the dumbass title (or the band’s dumbass name) put you off – this is a great rock record.
The super compressed, kitchen sink production is not for everyone, but it is for me. I absolutely love the industrial sound on “Is 4 Lovers” mixing with the punk riffs. It reminds me of some of the cyberpunky music you’d hear in movies form the early 2000’s that were ripping off the aesthetic from “The Matrix” except, y’know, it’s actually good.
Sebastian Grainger’s showman vocals soaring over the killer guitar work makes everything feel urgent, and in some moments operatic. Jesse Keeler’s drumming doesn’t often get the spotlight underneath the manic energy but when it does on tracks like “NYC Power Elite Part I” or “Mean Streets” he makes the most of it. The duo even manages to fit a piano ballad of sorts onto the tracklist with “Love Letter” that actually works as a pace breaker and doesn’t feel out of place at all.
If you like noise rock, or industrial rock, or punk rock or just music with lots of energy you should get on this album.
Favorite Tracks: “Modern Guy” “One + One” “NYC Power Elite Part I” “Love Letter” “Mean Streets”
6. Jpegmafia – “LP!”
And the title of best hip-hop album of 2021 goes to…
On “LP!” Jpegmafia has found a way to marry the more melodic, structured songwriting from his releases since 2019’s “All My Heroes Are Cornballs” with the more aggressive, anthemic style from his 2017 breakout “Veteran”. “LP!” feels just as cutting edge as that album without the darker undertones, and Peggy sounds more comfortable than ever.
Not to say that he’s ever not been comfortable in his own skin – part of Jpegmafia’s core appeal has always been his distinct presence on a record and that doesn’t change on “LP!”. He’s engaging on every single track, whether he’s ten bars deep into a breakneck flow or borrowing the chorus from “…Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears.
His much improved vocal chops and more importantly his tactful use of them are the difference. It made me think of listening to pretty much any Drake album after “Take Care” and on the 11th track I’m immediately rolling my eyes thinking “seriously you’re doing more singing?”.
That doesn’t happen on “LP!”. Peggy knows where to throw in the perfect amount of melody to heighten his songwriting, but not get grating. Jpegmafia is best as a rapper who sings a little and he knows that.
On top of his improved performance ability & songwriting, “LP!” has a lot more prominent sampling and layering than any past Peggy release. Whether it’s the aforementioned Britney Spears interpolation or tracks like “END CREDITS!” that open with a spoken sample, they’re used less to build the beat itself, and more to establish the color & sound palette of the track. Paired with his signature glitchy, experimental production style it makes for an album that never feels like it has a clear direction but in the best way.
“LP!” might be the last Jpegmafia album we get for a while apparently. Luckily he’s stepping back while he’s still on top.
Favorite Tracks: “DIRTY!” “ARE U HAPPY?” “REBOUND!” “SICK, NERVOUS & BROKE!” “THE GHOST OF RANKING DREAD!”
5. Wolf Alice – “Blue Weekend”
“Blue Weekend” seems to have run away with the mid-tier hipsters’ collective album of the year – the number of people who have thrown this album around as if they were the first to discover it has been astonishing. I can honestly only compare it to when I was 13 and Americans discovered the Arctic Monkeys.
Clout chasing aside – this album is great. The opening track “The Beach” is a bit weak, I’ll admit, but it sets up a satisfying conclusion for the record with the much more impactful “The Beach II”. And everything in between is fantastic.
It’s the most versatile rock album I listened to this year, effectively going from garage rock, to indie-rock, to shoegaze, to folk-rock, molding performances to match while still having a clear signature sound across the whole album.
Ellie Rowsel doesn’t have a massive range or overpowering vocals, but she understands the assignment on every track. Her voice sounds clear and harmonizes on “Safe From Heartbreak (if you never fall in love)” then sultry on “Feeling Myself” then shouty and wild on “Play the Greatest Hits”.
Wolf Alice have been critical darlings for a while, and they continue to deserve it. Don’t let the hype machine scare you away. This one lives up to it.
Favorite Tracks: “Smile” “Play the Greatest Hits” “Feeling Myself” “The Last Man On Earth”
4. Maggie Rogers – “Notes From the Archive: Recordings 2011-2016”
This is my other asterisk album. Not only did this record come out in 2020, the actual music was recorded (and in some cases released) years ago.
But… “Notes From the Archive” was released in the last days of December, and I didn’t get to it until January. And much like the other asterisk album, I’ve listened to it so much this year there was absolutely no way I could leave it off my list.
The difference between this asterisk and “Inside” is that I will stand by this album as one of the best of the year. I’m listing the version without commentary here because I most often did not listen to the commentary version, but I strongly encourage listening to it on your first listen.
Rather than being the usual cash-grab or vanity project that most B-side/compilation records tend to be, “Notes From the Archive” feels like it was actually curated and packaged for Maggie just as much as it was for her fans.
Through the commentary you get a lot of insight into her writing process, how she’s grown as a musician and – even more telling – where she thinks she’s regressed. It’s a very intimate experience, and the music matches that atmosphere.
Things start off leaning more towards rock music on the first segment of the tracks, but even those tracks have the sentimentality behind them that most of Rogers’ writing does.
The middle “Blood Ballet” portion is in my opinion the peak of the experience, both in the songs and where we find Maggie as an artist. And while the closing section doesn’t stand up to the music that has preceded it, the reverse chronological order of the recordings really adds a layer of perspective that makes those songs interesting in their own way.
Have I backed this up enough to justify this? I don’t really care if I haven’t – this album is great. Make some tea, get comfortable and listen to it on your own. If you’re a fan of Maggie Rogers or find exploring the musicians’ mindset interesting at all, you’ll have a good time.
Favorite Tracks: “Steady Now” “Blood Ballet” “Symmetry” “Little Joys” “On the Page”
3. Alice Phoebe Lou – “Glow”
Quite a few albums surprised me this year (for better or worse) but I don’t think any album did so more than “Glow”.
I wrote about how I stumbled upon Alice Phoebe Lou and eventually the album a few weeks ago. But just to illustrate how little I expected to love this album:
If I can help it, I will always listen to an album for the first time at night with my proper over-ear headphones through my laptop, or my speaker I spent too much money on during the 1st year of my undergrad and will do nothing but listen. Best audio quality my devices can give me, all attention on the music.
The first time I listened to “Glow”, I was doing a 7 a.m. commute to work that included 1 train change and finished with a bus ride, listening through my Bluetooth headphones.
All of this is to say, the odds were against this album impressing me on first listen, and it absolutely captivated me. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s gorgeous, and written with an individual style that only grows more and more charming.
“Glow” is fairly minimalist, but there’s bits of production flair like the vocal effects on “Only When I” or “How To Get Out Of Love”. Alice is great at picking moments that need accentuating beyond the simple guitar instrumentation without losing any of the lovely homespun quality of the album.
I’ve probably recommended this album more than any other this year. Most recommendations people ask for are specific enough, or you know someone’s taste is specific enough that recommendations need caveats like “if you’re into A then you’ll like B”.
My only caveat for “Glow” is if you’re the kind of person who uses the word ‘soft’ and always means it as an insult – it’s probably not for you. You know who I mean.
For the rest of you, I hope you’ll give my favorite indie record of the year a listen.
Favorite Tracks: “Only When I” “Glow” “How To Get Out Of Love” “Lover // Over the Moon”
2. Hiatus Kaiyote – “Mood Valiant”
I went back and forth with “Mood Valiant” and my #1 over and over. It would probably be more accurate to call them 1A and 1B, and if I re-wrote this list in a month it might be the other way around.
I spent most of 2021 living in Melbourne, so it’s fitting that one of Melbourne’s most beloved bands lands so high on my end of year list. Despite the cult status they have in the city, I’d personally never heard Hiatus Kaiyote’s music before this year when the singles “Red Room” & “Get Sun” made it to radio. The band’s versatility and each member’s individual ability was on full display on these singles and I was hooked.
Despite how good those tracks are, “Mood Valiant” is the rare album whose deep cuts outshine strong singles.
Nai Palm’s super expressive voice manages to dominate the record while complimenting the neo-soul instrumentation, especially on cuts like “And We Go Gentle”. The band feels and sounds so in sync with each other across the whole album.
Which is important, since there’s so much going on instrumentally on most tracks. “Mood Valiant” is a neo-soul album by any definition, but the splashes of jazz influence are what puts it over the top. “Get Sun” is the best example and the busiest track on the album, but “All the Words We Don’t Say” or “Chivalry is Not Dead” are just as dynamic and ambitious.
I’ve gone back and listened to past Hiatus Kaiyote records after falling in love with this one, and “Mood Valiant” is easily where the band’s talents shine the most. It’s a vibrant, creative album that only gets better the more you hear it, especially listening in sequence. With a slightly stronger opening it’s probably my favorite album of the year, but as it is it’s still fantastic.
Favorite Tracks: “Chivalry Is Not Dead” “And We Go Gentle” “All the Words We Don’t Say” “Sparkle Tape Break Up” “Stone or Lavender”
1. Genesis Owusu – “Smiling With No Teeth”
My favorite album of 2021 is “Smiling With No Teeth”, the debut LP from Genesis Owusu.
Genesis Owusu is definitely the most exciting new act I found this year. He’s been dropping singles for a few years, but I first heard his music one morning early this year watching the music video for “The Other Black Dog”. The song and the video were wild and vibrant, and Owusu immediately stood out as an incredibly versatile, unique talent.
“Smiling With No Teeth” came out soon after and I don’t think I’ve listened to any album more this year. If you have to pigeonhole it into one genre I suppose it’s R&B, but to call it just an R&B record does not do it justice. It’s the epitome of genre-bending, with splashes of hip-hop, prog-rock, neo-soul, electronica. The production & instrumentation is varied, and expertly catered to each song while remaining cohesive as an album.
Still, the clear USP of the album is Genesis Owusu himself. He’s a great singer with a silky smooth tone. A technically talented and lyrical rapper. Genesis is such a special performer, bouncing between cool, calm, collected philosopher to furious revolutionary to introspective recluse across the album, each persona just as believable and engaging as the last.
So much so that you’d be forgiven for missing out on his fantastic writing ability. The core theme & story of Owusu battling depression – the ‘black dog’ character – is deftly weaved through the album, but he also discusses colonialism, racism & interpersonal relationships.
Nothing is discussed in a vacuum, capturing the complexity of struggling with mental health and how it impacts every aspect of your life. All of this is done with poetically written lyrics, colored with a refreshing level of honesty and self-awareness that Owusu uses to make discussing such heavy subject matter still come off as charismatic.
This album hits a perfect sweet spot in balancing accessibility & catchiness with experimentation, as well as confronting subject matter with relatability. There’s a touch of retro to it while being undeniably forward-thinking. It’s the best depiction of where music is as a whole in 2021, and my favorite album of the year.
Favorite Tracks: “Waitin’ On Ya” “Don’t Need You” “Whip Cracker” “Easy” “Bye Bye”