Best Albums of 2021
Photo: Guillaume Techer via Unsplash

The 75 Best Albums of 2021

Despite a global pandemic, musicians were far more active in 2021 and had time to create their finest work. It resulted in some of the best albums in years.

75 Mogwai – As The Love Continues

75

Mogwai – As the Love Continues

[Temporary Residence Limited]

Mogwai surprised everyone in early 2021 by returning to the airwaves with a pretty conventional rock song, by their standards, in the form of “Ritchie Sacramento”. The revered post-rock band surprised us further by explaining that the track and its parent album, As the Love Continues, was recorded not in their native Glasgow, or even the US (as intended), but in Warwickshire in the heart of England. That was with the Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann doing his stuff via Zoom in Buffalo, New York State; thanks, of course, to the pandemic.

Happily, though, the atypical Mogwai track, atypically recorded, turns out to be absolutely stunning in its verse-chorus-verse beauty, and with Stuart Braithwaite singing all over it in language that is actually comprehensible. It has a frosty intro, bathed in feedback and distortion, which gives way to a fuzzily moving lament to friends who have “disappeared in the sun”, “All gone, all gone.” But this doesn’t mean Mogwai has turned its back on epic and unpredictable instrumental pieces that mix guitars and electronics and have obtuse titles guaranteed to confuse your Google Assistant.

Hell no, for there are a further ten tracks to fit that bill nicely on their tenth studio album (and first since 2017). Moreover, they’ve introduced more weird sounds and variations to their repertoire and gone more cinematic. “To the Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate the Earth” is meditative and beautiful and could be the soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. “Fuck Off Money” deploys what appear to be vocoder effects and sounds superbly alien, while “Midnight Flit” makes urgent and dramatic use of strings, with the band firing on all cylinders. It’s an (intense) joy to have Mogwai back. – Adam Mason

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74

Altin GünYol

[Glitterbeat]

These days what does the “world music” moniker even mean? The Ethiopian legend Mulatu Atatke studied music in America and England before taking these influences back home and into his own style of music. The Turkish godfather of Anatolian rock Erkin Koray or ‘Erkin the Father’ started playing Elvis and Fats Domino cover songs before fusing his love of the West into his own Turkish sound. In more present times, Khruangbin bring Middle Eastern love to our ears, but the band are from Texas. Likewise, the personnel of Altin Gün was all Dutch when they formed and only later adopted Turkish vocalists. Whatever the origins of the music, the feelings we get are authentic for sure.

Yol (meaning “road”) is Altin Gün’s third album. As is the case of most of the albums created this past year, Yol is a child of quarantine. Being dismembered and working remotely, the band pieced the album together from afar. As we know by now, restrictions often free up the mind creatively. In this case, it brought new flavors such as drum machines, synths, and other electronic instruments and gadgets that would fit on a lap. Taking their set point from the late ’60s and ’70s psychedelic Turkish scene, Yol heads into the late ’70s and peeks into 1980. This is new sonic territory for the band, but the Turkish singing still keeps the listener enwrapped and spellbound.

When we can’t decipher the words or categorize them, the words and sounds go straight to the heart. Like our sense of smell that bypasses the prefrontal cortex altogether. How we react is pure honesty, then. Either we feel warm, fuzzy, and our feet come alive, or we don’t feel it at all. Yol may not possess the imminent warmth and joy of its predecessor, Gece (2019), but its focused songs and rhythms make all the leg muscles twitch the right way. All the way to Amsterdam. – Jesper Nøddeskov

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black midi Cavalcade

73

black midi Cavalcade

[Rough Trade]

Everyone’s favorite English noise-making riff-raff upped the gambit from their debut, 2019’s Schlagenheim, with a bombastic and shockingly ambitious sophomore outing so removed from a slump that it practically came kicking and screaming out of your turntable speakers announcing its brilliance. Where Schlagenheim toyed with jazz fusion, Cavalcade seems preoccupied with blending avant-garde editing techniques with post-hardcore volume and, maybe, the self-conscious angularity of King Crimson, if such a cocktail could be conceived.

Frontman Geordie Greep is as wonderfully weird as ever on the LP, which seems to sneer at those who recommend these guys fall into order. The sax bleats alone are potent declarations of war. The chaos occasionally hints at Miles Davis – it’s hard to catch all the points of reference – and, by the time you’re done spinning the LP, you’ll feel as though you’ve inhaled a rather abundant aural meal. Shazbot – onward to LP #3, lads! – Justin Vellucci

LISTEN: Bandcamp

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Portico Quartet - Terrain

72

Portico Quartet – Terrain

[Gondwana]

Conceived in London during lockdown by members Duncan Bellamy and Jack Wyllie, Terrain feels like an after-dinner, parlor games kind of album, perfect for easing digestion. It explores territory chartered by Keith Jarrett and many artists associated with the famed ECM label. Though assuredly jazz, the notes, and chords have as much in common with western classical and popular music. The album could provide a palatable entryway for those who feel at sea in the more far-out corners of the jazz world.

Terrain comprises three untitled, long-form compositions loosely strung together by a rhythmic pitter-patter motif. Like good minimalists, Bellamy and Wyllie locate the groove and ride it like there’s no tomorrow—or rather, into tomorrow. Sounds of the saxophone and Hang (a sort of steel drum) bounce and hop across steadfast piano lines. As with their work of 15 years prior, Portico Quartet craft poignant melodies, though here we see the artists at their most delicate and deconstructed.

Despite the album title, the music feels fluid, gliding like a submarine through a subtly shifting undersea landscape. As our eyed eyes adjust to the relative dark, a reef system teeming with life is revealed. At moments, the deep waters grow murky as dissonance floats into the mix, only to clear up once more. The result is a sublime, cleansing journey, safely from within the confines of your own home. – A Noa Harrison

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71

HalseyIf I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

[Capitol]

It’s been fascinating to follow Halsey‘s musical career over the past seven years, as she has shown steady growth with each new album. Last year’s eclectic, aptly titled Manic was a creative breakthrough, but their 2021 follow-up turned out to be even better, thanks in large part to her new collaborators. It was a big surprise to learn Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are co-producers on If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, but it turns out to be a perfect fit. Firstly, they help steer Halsey’s ambitious ideas into a cohesive whole, and secondly, they bring a 1990s aesthetic that suits Halsey’s style impeccably.

She takes particular delight in exploring more rock-oriented sounds: “Easier than Lying”, “Honey”, and “You Asked For this” are marvelous shoegaze/industrial-informed tracks. Meanwhile, Reznor and Ross show just how well they can fit in a more pop-oriented milieu, as on the show-stopping “I am not a woman, I’m a god.” For all the high-profile guests – including Lindsey Buckingham, Dave Grohl, Dave Sitek, and Kevin Martin of the Bug – Halsey is the one person whose vision everyone defers to. This enthralling exploration of humanity’s millennia-old preoccupation with the Madonna and the whore firmly establishes Halsey as a first-rate auteur, not to mention one of the most fascinating pop stars in the world right now. – Adrien Begrand

LISTEN: Spotify

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Iron Maiden Senjutsu

70

Iron Maiden – Senjutsu

[BMG]

Swiftly recorded in late 2019 only to be delayed by the pandemic (surprise, surprise), Iron Maiden thrust their 17th album upon fans in September 2021, catching the public – including music media – unprepared. What they got was 82 monolithic minutes of some of Maiden’s most challenging work to date. Densely recorded and mixed to the point of almost sounding mono, Senjutsu at first sounds impenetrable, but more than any other Maiden album, this one benefits greatly from repeated, patient listening.

Formidable singer Bruce Dickinson, whose voice is slightly farther back in the mix than usual, is in superb form on his first recording since beating throat cancer. Bassist Steve Harris, however, is the star this time around, taking on the bulk of the songwriting and producing some of his strongest work in years. While the title track is the heaviest thing the band has ever recorded and “Stratego” sneaks in with its catchy, 1980s gallop, the real fun is to be had later on, as “Death of the Celts”, “The Parchment”, and “Hell on Earth” see Harris and the band digging deeper into their progressive side, with thrilling results. – Adrien Begrand

LISTEN: Spotify

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Aaron Lee Tasjan - Tasjan, Tasjan, Tasjan

69

Aaron Lee Tasjan – Tasjan, Tasjan, Tasjan

[New West]

Aaron Lee Tasjan is a musical chameleon. Because he performs so many rock styles so well, it’s easy to overlook just how good he is at all of them. The 11 tracks on his latest album sound like a lost jukebox full of cool b‑sides that should have been a-sides by British Invasion bands from the ’60s, glam rockers from the ’70s, new wave singles from the ’80s, country-rock jams from the ’90s, and TV theme music from this century.

In other words, one minute he’s Elton John, the next he’s Tom Petty, etc. Tasjan writes clever lyrics whose songs are full of insights about the modern world and the innate desire for connections with others, often with a winking eye and his tongue in cheek. Although he sardonically sings on “Computer of Love”, “May the guitar rest in peace / for it’s dead once more,” he is also an underrated electric guitar player who gets the full range of sounds out of his box of effects. – Steve Horowitz

LISTEN: Bandcamp

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tough cookies

68

Low Cut Connie – Tough Cookies: Best of the Quarantine Broadcasts

[Contender]

When COVID first reared its ugly head back in March 2019 and live shows were canceled, Low Cut Connie‘s Adam Weiner took to his spare bedroom and started broadcasting bi-weekly for his fans. He christened the sessions as “Tough Cookies” as he preached, sang, and played his heart out (with the help of bandmate Will Donnelly) to lift our spirits. By the time each livestream ended, Weiner would be covered in sweat and wearing a big smile (if little else).

Tough Cookies: Best of the Quarantine Broadcasts collects 23 of the best performances that reveal both his influences and originality, from the funk of James Brown (“Doing it to Death”) to the Hebrew “Mourner’s Kaddish” in honor of the recently deceased Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Just like one never knew what Weiner would do next, this compilation jumps all over the place from danceable Lana Del Rey and Cardi B covers to definitive Bob Dylan and Grandmaster Flash word spiels. Still, the music and Low Cut Connie always inspire. – Steve Horowitz

LISTEN: Spotify

WATCH: YouTube


Music for Psychedelic Therapy

67

Jon Hopkins – Music for Psychedelic Therapy

[Domino]

Everything in our daily lives has its own vibration and sound that influence our well-being. Our very being is full of these waves, too. Therefore choosing the sounds and music that calm us down, clear our vision, and reconnect us to ourselves is the task. Maybe more so than ever. Jon Hopkins is back with an album experience meant to guide you to that place of connectedness. Hopkins initially conceived the music to accompany a psychedelic therapy session, but the album functions as a therapeutic trip in its own right. Here the music is not only a mood-bringer – an aside – but the means as well as the goal tied up in one.

There’s much more to it, though. This is not intended as an ego trip. There more we are connected to ourselves, the more we feel a shared connectedness. No one’s an island. Even in the deepest caves on the earth where Music for Psychedelic Therapy was conceived, this connectedness is felt. When you ever feel the need, feel in distress, or feel alone, give ourself an hour and step into this album. It’s music that will make you face the world, strengthened. Not music to distract you from the daily blows of the world. Take that first step and let the music do the rest. Music for Psychedelic Therapy is a gift not only to yourself but to all the ones in your life, too. Share it. – Jesper Nøddeskov

LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: YouTube


John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band - Leftover Feelings

66

John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band Leftover Feelings

[New West]

You could have anticipated that John Hiatt and Jerry Douglas would make a great record once they formally got together, and you could still be surprised by Leftover Feelings. The artists spend much time working through memory and reflection, often with a bittersweet or even purely sad look at the past. They’re too energized to stay in that place, though, and the roots of rock ‘n’ roll show through with a particularly rollicking effect.

The album gathers a bunch of master artists, and they tell their stories as much through their musicianship as through their verbal lyricism. Each song picks its own tone, moving from autumnal to midsummer while seeing through a specific vision. Hiatt and Douglas know what they want to accomplish with their record, but they do it by always circling to a new spot, finding a new way to slide in a guitar part or a new twist on their imagery. Hiatt has found the perfect partnership for his songwriting, even exceeding expectations. – Justin Cober-Lake

LISTEN: Bandcamp

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