I’ll leave the ‘best albums of the year’ lists to the people who know what they are doing. This is just a list of my favourite albums from 2021. Hopefully you will find some choices you agree with and maybe one or two you disagree with. Most importantly, I hope you find a few things on this list you aren’t familiar with and give them a go. I may play the chump occasionally for comic effect but I am actually pretty good at finding good music. These albums are all absolute corkers and no mistake.
I have listed the albums alphabetically because when I looked back at last year’s list, the order I had put them in was so obviously just how I felt that week rather than an objective measure of anything useful that I decided to try things a bit differently this year. To the annoyance of some of you, I have alphabetised people by their first name, not their surname. You can complain about that in the comments section if you like but it won’t get you anywhere. You’d be much better off recommending your favourite albums of the year to me instead. I’d actually like that.
- Agathe Cipres – Los Límites
The problem with doing these alphabetically is I start with an album that I can’t categorise and I end up looking like an idiot. Let’s call this one avant garde/ pop/ circus music/ tango/ electronica/ alternative for now and pretend that is a thing. Or we could just listen to it and worry about what genre it is later. Cool? Cool.
- Andrew Mbaruk – Grand Lunatic
Grand Lunatic is the slowest rap album you have ever heard, being played at 7/8 speed. It has a hypnotic, batteries-running-out-on-a-radio-as-your-favourite-song-plays, vibe. Mbaruk’s raps are winding stream-of-consciousness-esque riddles. It’s an odd album; obscure, niche. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea. I loved it though.
- Antônio Neves – A Pegada Agora É Essa (The Sway Now)
An album that throws you right into the deep end, opening with a track that sounds like a drunken Zebedee from Magic Roundabout driving a bus full of tourists into a chamber orchestra (but in a good way). Things do calm down a bit as the album progresses, but if you aren’t a massive fan of difficult Brazilian jazz you might want to give this a swerve. But if you are a fan of difficult Brazilian jazz… oh my.
- Anthony Joseph – The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running for Their Lives
Joseph’s lyrics, reflections on the Caribbean diaspora that sit somewhere between poetry, memoir, history and short stories, are brilliantly backed by a jazz band that knows when to let the words do the talking and when to turn things up to eleven.
- Anushka Chkheidze – Move 20-21
When it comes to electronic music I am very much a ‘I don’t know art but I know what I like’ kind of guy. I’m pretty ignorant of the subgenres and trends. I don’t know who the big and small potatoes are. So, I think Georgian producer Anushka Chkheidze is relatively obscure and that I am doing you a big favour by introducing you to this brilliant album, but she might be Carl Cox famous and I may now, as you read this, have proverbial egg on my face. It doesn’t really matter. The album is brill. Listen to Move, Move if you want an immediate smack of what she can do.
- Audiobooks – Astro Tough
If you haven’t heard The Doll (track one of Astro Tough) have you really experienced 2021 at all? (You have btw, I’m just being melodramatic for effect, but still, give it a listen, yeah?) What an album; the weirdness of it all, Evangeline Ling’s delivery, sometimes eerie, sometimes hilarious, that synth. I mean, blimey. I have seen a few comparisons to The Fall and while Audiobooks sound nothing like them, at all, I kind of get the reference.
- Azmari – Samā’ī
According to various write-ups of the band I read, Azmari are a Belgian band that blend influences such as ethiogroove, Turkish psychfunk, and dub into a new sound. Honestly, I don’t know nearly enough about any of those genres to confirm or dispute that, but it gives you a loose idea of what you are getting into. To my ears it sounds like the sort of album the Star Wars cantina band might have recorded after spending a year in Istanbul in the 1930s listening to John Coltraine records (which, I concede, would be impossible without a time machine, but we have already used a spaceship to get them to earth so what’s one more impossible thing for the sake of a metaphor?).
- The Bronx – Bronx VI
The Bronx straddle the divide between punk and rock brilliantly (except when they are releasing mariachi albums of course). I’m not sure what else to tell you really. The album rocks. That should be enough for anyone.
- Cadence Weapon
The second Canadian hip hop album on my list. This one is more mainstream than the Andrew Mbaruk album but no less interesting. Razor sharp raps about facial recognition technology, Justin Trudeau, etc.
- Clara Luciani – Cœur
It’s the French post-disco banger you didn’t know you needed. But you do need it. You do. Chock-a-block with seventies swagger and that sexy/sophisticated/intelligent atmosphere that British people like me are absolutely garbage at (I’m two out of three though, so not too shabby).
- Clever Girls – Constellations
An album that has grown on me over the year (to be clear, I liked it the first time I listened to it, I just like it even more now). Really good alternative rock type stuff.
- Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – I Told You So
OK. I am going to tell you this album, this Hammond organ album, is, at times, the funkiest thing released this year and you are going to doubt me. But, before you start to scoff, look what the album is called and consider that, when you listen to it, I will be able to tell you that I told you so about I Told You So. Don’t fall into that sort of trap, dude. Just put on your best dancing shoes and give the record a listen.
- Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth
Loud, sometimes raucous, always fun, hip hop/pop that I suspect you already know all about.
- Half Waif – Mythopoetics
Two classic albums in two years. Pretty good going that.
- Hania Rani and Dobrawa Czocher – Inner Symphonies
Look at me recommending records on Deutsche Grammophon. Very sophisticated, eh? Very la-di-da. Don’t be put off by the seriousness though, this is classical music very much in touch with human emotion. Those of you who read and listened to everything on my list last year will already know all about how good Hania Rani is. This album is every bit as good as Home.
- Índio da Cuíca – Malandro 5 Estrelas
From what I can gather from the internet, Índio da Cuíca is in his seventies, he has played the cuíca for several bands and artists in Brazil during his career, and this is his debut album of his own songs. I think. I don’t know if it is samba or carioca or what the difference between the two is, but I do know that it is a really really good album.
- Interspecifics – Aire V.3
Of all the albums on this list I don’t know enough about to describe well, this is the one that I understand the least. I think it was made by an art project based in Mexico, using the smog patterns in three cities to program music, possibly using AI during some part of the process. Any part of that previous sentence might be nonsense though, so take it with a pinch of salt. However they were made though, the three pieces of music on this record, each exactly ten minutes long, are haunting and sad and beautiful.
- Jane Weaver – Flock
I hadn’t heard Jane Weaver before I started doing The Best Music Recommended in the World but I’m up to speed now and as big a fan as the rest of you. Good recommending, everyone.
- Jennie Lowe – Ghost Tracks
Lowe’s voice is incredible, a whisper on the edge of breaking that can suddenly soar when the song requires it to. It’ll break your heart at twenty paces.
- Jorja Smith – Be Right Back
Technically a sort of stop-gap release between full albums but still very much deserving of a place on this list.
- Julie Doiron – I Thought of You
This album only came out at the end of November, so I haven’t listened to it as many times as I would have liked (especially when you factor in how much of my listening over the last month has been Christmas playlists) but it appears to be one of the best guitar albums of the year.
- Katherine Priddy – The Eternal Rocks Beneath
A folk album that seemed to arrive with quite a bit of fanfare and then disappear without trace when the end-of-year lists were being put together. Which is odd because it is an album I keep returning to and, in theory, everyone else should be like me, yes? When her next album wins the Mercury and goes straight to number one I’ll be able to say I told you. I’ll enjoy that.
- Kojaque – Town’s Dead
Hip hop is a global artform now, so it should be no surprise that one of the best rap albums of the year is largely concerned with the way Dublin has been transformed by gentrification. For some reason Town’s Dead hasn’t been as big in the UK as it has in Ireland but surely it can only be a matter of time.
- Krum – Black Lung
A single-producer-many-guest-mcs album that holds together brilliantly. Ultra Mag, featuring Solemn Brigham, will do nicely until Marlowe 3 arrives.
- Lael Neale – Acquainted With Night
Paring her sound back to little more than a voice and an omnichord, Neale has created an album that feels and sounds like what songs are before they exist as things. Does that make sense? Probably not. I’m bad at describing music. It is song as essence. Like being granted access to thoughts as they form. I don’t know. Something like that.
- Lidna – Terrario
Remember when I said Interspecifics was the album I knew least about? I had forgotten about this one. The only thing I know about Lidna is that they are from Barcelona. Oh, and that they made this dreamy electronic EP which is very good and that you should listen to.
- Little Simz – Sometimes I May Be Introvert
I know you don’t need me to tell you how good this is. I know you already know.
- Makaya McCraven – Deciphering the Message
By stitching together classic 1960s Blue Note hard-bop albums with samples from his own band, McCraven has created an album that is at once a tribute to the past and something fresh and new, as much hip hop as jazz, and proof (if proof were needed, which it wasn’t) that jazz has as much a place at the forefront of modern music as any other genre.
*turns to camera*
- Maple Glider – To Enjoy is the Only Thing
Songs that wrap around your soul so quickly and completely that you find yourself singing along to them way before you’ve learned the words.
- Mogwai – As the Love Continues
I don’t know who has changed the most since I saw Mogwai playing at the Reading Festival in the late 90s and thought they were the worst band I had ever seen, them or me. Probably me. Though they have changed too. Was I wrong about them then? Almost certainly. I was wrong about so very many things in the late 90s. (weren’t we all, eh?). Anyway, As the Love Continues is an absolutely gorgeous album.
- Mogwai – Zerozerozero
Told you I was wrong about Mogwai in the late 90s, didn’t I? Two albums on my favourites of the year. I’m going to have to go back and check out their back catalogue now, aren’t I? The thought of me ending up liking Come On Die Young, after all I’ve said over the years to one friend in particular, has me seething, mate.
- Nana Yamato – Yoakemae (Before Sunrise)
Perfect bedroom pop, partly sung in English, partly in Japanese, that (imo) transcends the indie records that inspired it.
- Natalie Holt – Loki: Original Soundtrack
Agatha All Along got most of the attention when it came to music on Marvel productions this year (and there is no denying it is something of a banger) but Natalie Holt’s wonderful soundtrack for Loki deserves praise too. Lots of praise. There was so much joy to be had from Loki that you could be forgiven for not immediately spotting how much of it came from the soundtrack. But it has been six months. There are no excuses any more. Give it another listen.
- Nervous Dater – Call in the Mess
For somebody who grew up on bands like The Breeders, The Lemonheads and Belly, this album scratches an itch – which isn’t to say it sounds like any of them, particularly, but that if it had been released in the 1990s it would have been ranked among their albums as a classic of the era. But it wasn’t released then. It was released now. Which makes it a classic of this era. Whichever way you look at it, this album is great. If I had ranked these albums this would have easily made my top five. The Dirt has one of the best choruses of any song released this year, Turn Them Ourselves in the Grave is the sound of the best concert you’ve never been to coming to an end.
- Planet Asia – Block Shaman
At the risk of these quick descriptions starting to sound generic, this is an excellent hip hop album that you might like if you like excellent hip hop albums.
- Portico Quartet – Monument
A really good electronic album or a really good jazz album, or both? You decide.
- Ramzee and Snaggapuss – Bronx Dundee
With seven songs in seventeen minutes, Bronx Dundee doesn’t have much time to do anything except reintroduce you to one of the most distinctive voices in hip hop and establish a sound (a sort-of lazy-sounding 90s-ish production which nicely complements Snaggapuss’s flow). Snaggapuss does find time to deliver about three thousand punchlines though. Not exactly a lost classic, but a lot of fun all the same.
- Rosie Tucker – Sucker Supreme
There are only so many ways of saying ‘the songs are very good on this album’ but the songs are very good on this album too. Album opener Barbara Ann (not a cover of the Beach Boys song) is big and bold and has one of the best choruses of the year (“Don’t fuck around / With a Louisville Slugger / Under your side of the bed / No one’s gonna hurt you now”) while other songs are small, and fractured, like early Liz Phair demos.
- San Salvador – La Grande Folie
Polyphonic choral music sung in an Occitan dialect, and mate, oh mate, this is good. Like, remember when you first heard Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares good.
- Sara Watkins – Under the Pepper Tree
An album of covers of songs that are most often associated with childhood which is aimed at adults? Sort of. Lullabies for grown ups? Maybe. It’s hard to describe. Proper soothing though. A proper nice balm in proper difficult times. It’s just a very good album is all.
- Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure
This was The Guardian’s album of the year so I’m going to assume you don’t need me to tell you that much about it. It’s good though, isn’t it?
- Shishi – Vilniaus skaičiuotės
The songs on Vilniaus skaičiuotės (which is more of a five track EP than an album, I suppose, but the borders between the two things are so vague now in the streaming era that I’m counting it as an album) are, I think, based on children’s counting games. That’s what I reckon after reading a couple of interview translated from Lithuanian by Google anyway. Songs like Burbualas ir Burbulienė seem to back that up but it’s very possible I’m not exactly right. Either way, the album is great. Think God is My Co-Pilot or The Yummy Fur or something like that (but also different to that).
- Sierra Ferrell – Long Time Coming
If I had tried to rank these albums in some sort of order, this one would very likely have been at number one. I don’t like much country music but when I fall for it, I fall hard. And Long Time Coming is just so very very good. It has a timeless sound, modern and yet grounded in tradition; a sound that would fit perfectly into any David Lynch film. Well, maybe not Dune, but you get the idea.
- Sofia Kourtesis – Fresia Magdalena
I have already established I don’t understand subgenres in electronic music. Is this post-house or just house? I don’t know. It’s great to dance to though.
- The Stone Giants – West Coast Love Stories
The Stone Giants are an Amon Tobin side project, a bit more rock-y, a little less dance-y, something like that. Ultimately though, it is an electronic album, one with good noises and human voices distorted and looped into beautiful sounds.
- Tele Novella – Merlynn Belle
Have you ever bought one of those haunted music boxes that slowly alter reality around you as you listen to them, forever changing the familiar into the surreal and making you question who and what you are? No? Well this sounds like one of those anyway.
- Th1rt3en & Pharoahe Monch – A Magnificent Day for an Exorcism
Without doubt, the album I have played the most this year, an angry rock/rap hybrid tangling a barbed wire narrative around the horror of the Trump (and post-Trump) era.
- Topaz Jones – Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama
An absolutely brilliant funk/hip hop/soul album that should have soundtracked a far better summer than we got this year.
- Turnstile – Glow On
An album that has featured heavily on end-of-2021 lists and guess what? I liked it too. How could I not? It is so much fun. More cowbells and handclaps on hardcore punk albums, please.
- ZelooperZ – Van Gogh’s Left Ear
ZelooperZ is part Danny Brown, part Ol’ Dirty Bastard, part a dozen other things and arguably the legitimate heir to Captain Beefheart. Funny, inventive, unpredictable and brilliant.
And that’s your lot. Please use the comments section to expand this list. The more recommendations the merrier.