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.

jungle Loving In Stereo

55

Jungle – Loving in Stereo

[Caiola Records/AWAL]

Jungle have stretched their musical muscles on Loving in Stereo. The British producers specialize in creating space for people to creatively move and groove to artistic backdrops with creative visual elements and muscular electronic instrumentation. Their rhythms bounce back in forth in loops and layers of reverberation on tracks such as “Talk About It”, “Truth”, and “What D’You Know About Me”. They invite listeners to trip over their own two feet in the best sense of the term.

On the more soulful tracks, such as “Dry Your Eyes”, “All of the Time” and “Lifting You”, the rhythms snake through a psychedelic tangle of sounds. These are tunes for the head as much as the body and offer a grander perspective on the dignity of human feelings, like putting a still life in a gilded frame. Overall, the songs on the new album are short. Most are under three minutes. However, one can easily imagine extended versions of each as they lend themselves to being set on repeat on repeat on repeat. It’s time to open the disco. – Steve Horowitz

LISTEN: Spotify

WATCH: YouTube


Hiatus-Kaiyote-Mood-Valiant

54

Hiatus Kaiyote – Mood Valiant

[Brainfeeder]

When Naomi “Nai Palm” Saalfield, Hiatus Kaiyote‘s lead vocalist sings in “Red Room”, “It feels like I’m inside a flower,” she does so with a lilt and sway that’s beguiling, intriguing, and enticing. It’s as if the Australian band (also consisting of bassist Paul Bender, keyboardist Simon Mavin, and drummer Perrin Moss) built the entire stretch of Mood Valiant to encapsulate that inside-of-a-flower feeling. Nai Palm’s vocals perform all sorts of Simone Biles-like feats of fancy, ranging from soaring and searing high notes to depth-plumbing lows.

The soul of this album resides in its cleanest and purest composition, “Stone Or Lavender”. Reminiscent of Nai Palm’s 2017 solo effort Needle Paw, “Stone Or Lavender” is a stunning ballad of piano and strings. It’s easy to imagine the busier tracks that comprise Mood Valient having similar humble origins, constructed perhaps from piano chords and a simple melody before being adorned by musical accouterments.

Yet, these embellishments add exciting flourishes, employing a soul-meets-funk fusion that undulates and fishtails (opener “Blood and Marrow”) with rumbling percussion beneath cascading and escalating piano steps (“Rosewater”). The music falls all over itself to match the journey Nai Palm’s voice is navigating. “Get Sun” knocks and bumps, “Sparkle Tape Breakup” juxtaposes a warm delivery against a delightfully cold rhythm, and Hiatus Kaiyote make chaos sound like beauty in “Chivalry Is Not Dead” and “All the Words We Don’t Say”. As the rhythms lurch forward like the cartoon Soul Train locomotive, the lyrics capture emotions that defy easy expression. Such emotions can only be communicated through the artistic amalgam of a well-crafted song. – Quentin Huff

LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: YouTube


53

Vince Staples – Vince Staples

[Blacksmith / Motown]

With his eponymously titled fourth release, Vince Staples moves further from the braggadocious and lyrically dense signatures of previous work, offering his most sober and restrained project to date. Over 22 inspired minutes, Staples offers a bittersweet tribute to his past, acknowledging people and places that were integral to his earlier life.

Adopting a more detached perspective, he unflinchingly examines the lingering effects of violence. On “Take Me Home”, he asserts, “I preach what I practice, these streets all I know.” On “The Apple and the Tree”, a character named Mama relays a story about her youthful proclivity for fighting. “Lakewood Mall” is narrated by a man who recalls a stop-and-search and a missing “pearl-handled” gun.

On closing track “MHM”, Staples reiterates the impact of growing up around violence, noting how hard it is to overcome the habit. While his latest narratives are concise compared to previous offerings, his delivery is rife with subtle tensions, tonally complex, and consistently nuanced. His soundscapes too are more sophisticatedly sculpted and austerely intriguing, courtesy of producer Kenny Beats. Perhaps elusive, even ghostly, Vince Staples is a mid-career gem, a pivotal project for one of hip-hop’s most significant artists. – John Amen

LISTEN: Spotify

WATCH: YouTube


You Get It All

52

Hayes Carll – You Get It All

[Dualtone]

Hayes Carll is a seriously funny guy. In some songs, the Texas singer-songwriter sincerely pretends to be God lecturing human beings about despoiling the earth, an older man trying not to lose his mind and memories, and a husband who solemnly believes in the power of love. On others, Carll is a braggart who boasts about the absurd: a monkey is man’s best friend, he has his own money tree, and his lawyer spreads love all around. The thing is, Carll’s often the most serious when he’s being funny and vice versa. And he knows it!

All the songs on You Get It All are co-written, including several with his wife, Allison Moorer (who co-produced the record with guitarist Greenberg), and other notables such as Brandy Clark, Waylon Payne, and Pat McLaughlin. That yields two benefits. Carll’s consistent presence ties the 11 songs together, not only in terms of his voice but on a higher level of consciousness. He’s got an attitude, whether he’s complaining about social hypocrisies or praising the good things in life. Carll has a distinctive style due to his shaggy dog way of telling a tale. The other co-writers help ensure all the songs don’t sound alike, even if they share the same general outlook. – Steve Horowitz

LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: YouTube


51

Goat Girl – On All Fours

[Rough Trade]

With On All Fours, South London post-punk band Goat Girl fulfill the potential they showed on their 2018 debut. This is through darker and less exuberant songs than before, which merge ferocious guitars, futuristic electronics, and hypnotic harmonies with a heavy dose of environmental angst. Indeed, on this collection of 13 tracks, they prove to be a group who’ve found their sound and are now contemplating the big league (in indie terms, of course), all to the interminable beat of the climate crisis.

The scale of the quartet’s ambition and confidence is no more evident than on the astounding “Sad Cowboy”. This begins life in spacey synth territory reminiscent of Tangerine Dream, before some propulsive guitar work ushers in a rumbling rhythm, Clottie Cream’s wonderfully languid vocals on the theme of going insane (“Slippin’ my hold / It comes and it goes”), and, to finish, a synthy dance vibe worthy of Hot Chip.

In fact, it’s the manner in which Goat Girl so effortlessly mix seemingly discordant styles that makes this album so exciting. An intense rock groove meets a mournful chorus on the post-apocalyptic “The Crack”. A ridiculously bouncy tune meets a massive instrumental freak-out that sounds like the end of the world on “Badibaba”. Hell, the negative effect of environmental catastrophe on the human spirit never sounded so exhilarating. – Adam Mason

LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: YouTube


Screen Violence

50

Chvrches – Screen Violence

[Glassnote]

Three years removed from an all-out, pop-oriented effort with producer Greg Kurstin, Chvrches decided to reset, refocus, and figure out where they were going to take their distinct brand of synthpop next. Taking on production duties themselves, Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook, and Martin Doherty emerged with a fourth album that’s their most focused, driven work since their landmark debut The Bones of What You Believe. While exhibiting plenty of growth and experimentation, Screen Violence never for a moment feels forced, as each song plays to each individual’s strengths. Of course, Mayberry’s vocal presence is crucial, and she turns in her strongest work as both a singer and a lyricist.

Often dwelling on what it’s like being a young, assertive woman in the 2020s, Mayberry is candid, vulnerable, and indefatigable on such tracks as “He Said She Said”, “Good Girl”, and “Final Girl”. However, the biggest revelations on Screen Violence are when Chvrches dip their toes in vintage goth and dream-pop. “Lullabies” is utterly charming with its chiming guitars and thudding beat, “Nightmares” feels epic and cinematic, and “How Not to Drown” is a sensational duet with Robert Smith, whose emotion matches Mayberry’s step for step. – Adrien Begrand

LISTEN: Spotify

WATCH: YouTube


49

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – God’s Pee AT STATE’S END

[Constellation]

It starts with the soul-less counting of an anonymous but mechanized war machine and ends with what be the Montreal post-rock collective’s most mournful song to date, an intricate web of weeping strings, buzzing guitars, and plaintive synth washes. God’s Pee AT STATE’S END finds Godspeed You! Black Emperor saying, “Goodbye and, by the way, go fuck yourself” to the paranoia-laced Era of Trump with tracks like “Military Alphabet (five eyes all blind)”, master courses in how musical idioms beyond punk rock or hip-hop can be voices for bitter dissent.

“GOVERNMENT CAME”, with its desperate wails from short-wave radio, is about as crushing an indictment of alt-right conspiracy theorists as one could do without sending up a MAGA hat. The aforementioned closer, “OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN (for D.H.)”, is a poignant reminder that, above all else, GY!BE know the language of heartache. On this outing, the group trimmed off all the fat and laid their intentions bare, resulting in the group’s best post-reunion LP to date and a four-song set on par with classic GY!BE offerings like Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. – Justin Vellucci

LISTEN: Bandcamp


Cassandra Jenkins - An Overview on Phenomenal Nature

48

Cassandra Jenkins An Overview on Phenomenal Nature

[Ba Da Bing!]

“Farwell, Purple Mountains”. The death of David Berman affected many musicians and fans of alternative music, among them Cassandra Jenkins. Grief permeates her stunning second album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature. Amid her sadness and the fluctuation of the world, she finds solace in phenomenal nature, mindfulness, and piecing together life’s loose links. The album collects melancholic reflections on disparate observations into a scrapbook of meditative indie-folk. And it does it all in just 30 minutes.

Phenomenal Nature‘s illustrious second single “Hard Drive” is the nucleus of the record and one of the best songs of the year. Jenkins borrows from jazz and minimalism as doleful saxophone lines weave between twinkly guitar loops, and she dispenses aperçus with a thoughtful equanimity that’s comforting and captivating, ensuring a security guard’s pink lipstick is as memorable as her friend’s mother’s advice of jumping in the ocean. Many of Jenkins’ phrases grow more excellent from further rumination and will likely stick with the listener long after the closing chirps of “The Ramble”. Happily, the serene, wordless void of this final track grants us space to reflect on the preceding 20-something minutes. – Hayden Merrick

LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: YouTube


You Signed Up for This

47

Maisie Peters – You Signed Up For This

[Gingerbread Man]

“I am 20 and probably upset right now,” are the words that open Maisie Peters‘ first studio album, You Signed Up For This. It’s a proclamation that ultimately becomes the general theme of the record, a stunningly heartfelt depiction of 21st-century young adulthood. With a songwriting prowess comparable to that of Taylor Swift or Alessia Cara, Peters creates a loveable, introspective journey into the chaotic emotions that often accompany the transition into early adulthood. She also displays a clear knack for the kind of hooks needed to make an inescapable pop earworm, something sorely lacking from an otherwise stagnant year for pop music.

Although most of Peters’ previous work fits within the pop genre, You Signed Up For This is surely her most pop-focused effort yet, foregoing some of the more immature folk influences present on her initial releases. The album does make copious use of synths and the aforementioned hooks but there are still enough acoustic, heart-wrenching ballads to make for the perfect sweater weather soundtrack. But what makes You Signed Up For This compelling beyond its author’s self-examined talent is Peters’ confidence in sharing moments of young adulthood where she maybe felt anything but. – Jeffrey Davies

LISTEN: Spotify

WATCH: YouTube


The War on Drugs - I Don't Live Here Anymore

46

The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore

[Atlantic]

With Lost in the Dream and its follow-up, A Deeper Understanding, the War on Drugs fully and comfortably settled into their position as the 21st-century torchbearers of synth-driven folk-rock. (Think Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen tagging along with Edgar Froese and Lindsey Buckingham on a long drive down a barren highway.) I Don’t Live Here Anymore doubles down while at the same time expanding Adam Granduciel’s driving yet dreamy arrangements with lyrics that approach the melancholy and the celebratory with equal zeal.

The title track is one of the best singles of the year, as visions of the past refuse to abate while the narrator’s tone reveals resignation and acceptance in equal doses. That is hardly the sole highlight, however. From the slow burn of the opener, “Living Proof” to the steady glide of the closing “Occasional Rain”, I Don’t Live Here Anymore is a masterpiece of subtle, yet powerful beauty. – Mike Elliott

LISTEN: Spotify

WATCH: YouTube


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