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Best Albums of 2021 – a digest of the best, best of lists for the year

Best Albums of 2021 – a digest of the best, best of lists for the year
Album reviews

Here’s a digest of the best albums of 2021.

The Guardian’s top 12 albums of 2021

12 Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales

The power struggle between reason and desire fuels the Philadelphia songwriter’s fourth release, which intersperses soulful swagger and forlorn blues with interludes by women describing what they mean by owning their sexuality. Sullivan’s compassion resonates in how freely her interviewees express what some might see as contradictions (threatened with a sex tape leak, the subject of Ari’s Tale shrugs, “That dick spoke life into me”). And her own songs could be righteous – Pick Up Your Feelings snaps impatiently, and she makes no bones about her own pleasure on the languid On It – but they’re also transparent about the ways that freedom and dignity don’t always look how you might expect. “I just want to be taken care of / ’Cause I’ve worked enough,” she sings on The Other Side. LS

11 Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under

The North Shields songwriter’s second album starts with a grim image of teenage desensitisation: a chronically ill parent, snuff videos, fist fights and arrests; rinse and repeat. The forecast hardly improves across Seventeen Going Under, on which hope is elusive amid Fender’s bitter depictions of feeling trapped by political alienation and inherited bad habits. And yet the sheer force of feeling in this record – tenaciously euphoric sax a la Springsteen, tempos that bob like a featherweight boxer hungry for their shot, a reckless taste for the epic – indicates a life force that won’t be stamped out so easily, one that, going by the rabid response to the album, has mass revivifying potential. Read the full review. LS

10 Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime

In Mdou Moctar’s world, riff and rhythm count but the solo is king. His grounding in the nomadic Tuareg style of assouf (desert blues) made him a popular option on Niger’s wedding circuit, but the guitarist breaks from convention by always doggedly following his fingertips to some place new. A decade’s worth of refinement has led to Afrique Victime, which streamlines the hooky onslaught of Moctar’s 2019 breakout LP, Ilana: The Creator, into something more well-rounded. Bassist and producer Mikey Coltun’s sequencing affords breathers between levee-breakers, giving necessary hush to introspective ballads Bismilahi Atagah and Tala Tannam, while allowing the molten psychedelia of Taliat and Asdikte Akal to sprawl. True to the music’s Saharan origins, there’s ample space here. Sometimes Mdou’s voice is barely above a whisper before the band join him in skyward invocations. Read more. Gabriel Szatan

9 Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams

As the beginning of 2021 marked almost a full year of the pandemic, many of us were experiencing some sort of impact on our mental health. So when Arlo Parks released her debut album in January, she found herself chiming with universal concerns. Addressing issues that had been triggered or exacerbated by lives stuck inside four walls – unrequited desire, sexuality, poor body image, prejudice, betrayal and depression – Parks emerged as an empathic, comforting voice. What makes Collapsed in Sunbeams so effective is that the music is the striking inverse of her themes – light, airy, her conversational voice vulnerable and childlike. Her songs are delicately but cleverly constructed, with ear-worm choruses and generous hooks; soulful, folky tones, gentle R&B and jazzy drumming; a shimmering sea of balm-like sound beneath which lurk those lyrical depth charges. Read more. Dave Simpson

8 Olivia Rodrigo – Sour

Olivia Rodrigo on the cover of her album Sour

Not since Britney Spears shimmied her way down a hallway dressed in school uniform has a debut single had such an immediate cultural impact: within four days of Olivia Rodrigo releasing Drivers License, the song had broken Spotify’s record for the most single-day streams for a non-holiday song; it would spend nine consecutive weeks at No 1 on the UK charts. Like Spears, Rodrigo also got her start with Disney, however, Rodrigo’s pathway to pop dominance wasn’t built on dance routines and Max Martin-penned bangers. Sour is an intimate, barbed, anxious and brilliantly crafted debut album about the butchery of heartbreak and the emotional hurricane that is being a teenager. Picture Rodrigo swooping in wearing a cheerleader outfit and Doc Martens while brandishing a baseball bat, her face still wet with tears. Read more. Alim Kheraj

7 Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg

Dry Cleaning frontperson Florence Shaw captures a generation’s internal monologue like never before: those bitchy, distracted, utterly unmindful thoughts that a consciousness poisoned by city life and digital media is powerless to stop. Shaw doom-scrolls through her own life, yet the London band’s debut album is often breezy and full of little situation comedies; her humour given ample space by the sturdy guitar-bass-drums trio who cleave to varied strains of stoner-garage rock. Ultimately there’s a profound poetry in how her observations hang together, a reminder that something can be built from the dumb flotsam of ordinary life. Read more. BBT

6 Sault – Nine

On Sault’s fifth album in two years, spoken-word interludes baldly state the reality of racism in the UK while lyrics tell impressionistic stories that teem with loss and hurt, knives and guns. Yet the music offers transcendence: tightly melodic, luxuriously layered, instantly memorable without being cheaply infectious. London Gangs nods to the Chemical Brothers, grainily retro R&B, X-Ray Spex, hushed nu-folk and Auld Lang Syne. Bitter Streets is soulful 60s lounge music with a tricksy beat. The exquisite title track is pared-back psychedelic soul, proggy folk, cosmic Beatles and also none of those things. If you like the sound of Nine, apologies. Sault only made it available to stream and download for 99 days after its initial June release. Back then, the group said some of them hailed from “the heart of London’s council estates”, where the majority “get trapped in a systematic loop where a lot of resources and options are limited”. The unexplained erasure of Nine feels like a way to defy that lack of agency – proof that if Sault want to tightly control the distribution of their work, that’s their prerogative. Read more. Rachel Aroesti

5 Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost

Call Me If You Get Lost is a decadent and luxurious showcase of Tyler’s reverence and nostalgia for music’s past – Gangsta Grillz mixtapes, lovers rock, Houston R&B – channelled into his own present and future. Also central to this album’s beauty is the fact that Tyler can rap, crafting engaging tales out of deft, intentional flow. He has always been a romantic, but here he bears a softer side than ever, forced to recognise that love, so often, is about timing. “Come get lost with me,” Tyler offers on Blessed, late into an album that has already guided the listener through a bright, expansive and occasionally sentimental world, with the tracks melding into one another in true mixtape fashion. So often, we focus on beginnings and endings. Here, Tyler masterfully reminds us that life is all about the journey, growth, confusion, pain and magic in between. Read more. Tara Joshi

4 The Weather Station – Ignorance

Tamara Lindeman’s fifth album as the Weather Station had a lightning-in-a-bottle quality that nothing she had released previously could quite prepare you for. At the end of 2018, she said, she was driven “insane” by reading a New Yorker article by environmentalist Bill McKibben, written as California burned during the most destructive wildfire season in history. She subsequently poured her anger and grief into the 10 songs on Ignorance. The lyrics occasionally slipped into something approaching straightforward protest songs but, for the most part, they entwine “climate grief” with what sound like words about a failing relationship to startling effect. She also shifted her musical focus, bringing in a new expansiveness and gloss – synths, disco beats, strings, sax and flute that carry a distinct hint of jazz about them. In purely melodic terms, these are Lindeman’s strongest songs to date, filled with nagging hooks and gracefully unforced-sounding tunes; the sound is smoothly, warmly appealing: you could imagine singing along to them if the lyrics didn’t keep belting you in the gut. Read more. Alexis Petridis

3 Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

Introversion is considered synonymous with shyness, but on Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (an acronym of her nickname), Simbiatu Ajikawo demonstrates that she has no shortage of bold, cinematic vision. She makes up for a lack of travel during the pandemic by stamping her musical passport with the influences of a wide diasporic sound. Her Nigerian heritage is in fine hip-winding display on Point and Kill (featuring Obongjayar), while Protect My Energy layers motivational mantras over 80s Miami drums, balancing out the record’s heavier moments with a keen sense of play. And she is newly generous here with her vignettes of family life, driven by the desire to recalibrate her post-pandemic priorities as an aunt and sibling. On Little Q, she reconnects with a cousin on the other side of the Thames to learn more about his near-death brush with knife crime, while I Love You, I Hate You sees her attempting to find peace with a father who has disappointed her and to ensure she does not carry that fear of rejection into a new relationship. It seems to be working: I See You’s old-school R&B is blissful with sleepy Sunday morning vulnerability, while How Did You Get Here is a tearjerking stocktake of the artist’s journey so far. A gospel choir frames her determination and gratitude: “I’m the version of me I always imagined when I was younger.” Read more. Jenessa Williams

2 Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend

Wolf Alice singer Ellie Rowsell has called Blue Weekend her least autobiographical album: whatever the inspiration, it tells a convincingly lived-in story of embracing nihilism following the rupture of friendships and romantic relationships. “I take you back / Yeah, I know it seems surprising,” she thunders on Lipstick on the Glass. It’s here that Wolf Alice come into their own as adept musical shapeshifters, using their broad influences to explore the extremes of alienation: there are woozy fantasies, self-destructive ragers; stunning anthems of anxiety. Big, confident pop-rock albums are rare these days – and their demise hardly bemoaned – but there’s an undeniable pleasure in finding one adventurous, ambitious and human enough to remind you why they used to be so essential. Read more. LS

1 Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure

In a pop landscape that often seems to be bottling it all up inside, Rebecca Taylor’s second solo album marked a hugely relatable uncorking of a lifetime’s worth of festering emotions, as well as her evolution into an out-and-proud pop star who dissects her emotions in pin-sharp, often darkly funny and always physically rousing testaments. The sheer heft and physicality of the album, all Yeezus beats and elastic melodies, is balanced by her ability to zoom in on the minutiae of life, paired with her economical wit. Often, Taylor is joined by a small choir of friends who reiterate and cosign her emotions: their presence anchors lead single I Do This All the Time, with its swelling coda of “I’ll take care, I’ll read again, I’ll sing again, I will” transformed into the ultimate act of defiance against those who once compelled her to diminish her desires and shrink her personality. After nearly two years of cooping up big emotions in restricted spaces, the bold, brash and beautiful Prioritise Pleasure hit like sweet relief. Read more. Michael Cragg

See the full to 50 here: The Guardian – 50 best albums of 2021

Pitchfork’s top 10 albums of 2021

10. Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg

One way to hear New Long Leg is as a cringe-tinged dramedy—like Fleabag or Girls—with Florence Shaw as the performer who knows exactly how to deliver her own script. This album is not the type to be nominated for a Grammy, but it really ought to get Emmys for writing and acting. The lyrics infest your brain with quotables that reverberate for days, but more than the words it’s Shaw’s intonation that’s so funny and so heartbreaking: the grudging cadences, the way she can inject an unreadable alloy of earnestness and irony into an inanity like “I can rebuild.” The self-portrait painted here is of a burned-out shell drifting numbly through a life that senselessly accumulates irritations, humiliations, discomforts, chores, and interpersonal skirmishes, offset by the tiny comforts of Twix bars and artisanal treats. There’s a personal dimension to the inner emptiness (a sapping break-up), but because New Long Leg’s release coincided with the depressive pall that swept over the world thanks to lockdown, Shaw’s interiority synced up perfectly with exterior conditions. It’s no coincidence that the most exciting rock record in years is about the inability to feel excitement. Within Shaw is a voice of a generation distilling how it feels to be alive right now: “Do everything and feel nothing.” –Simon Reynolds

9. Playboi Carti: Whole Lotta Red

Whole Lotta Red is an all-time heat check. Playboi Carti could have easily put out Die Lit 2, and everyone would have probably been fine with it. But that’s not how this Atlanta alien works. At just 25 years old, he has already reinvented his sound multiple times, from wavy plugg music to his baby voice era; whenever some SoundCloud copycats start to catch up, he jets toward new territory. On Whole Lotta Red, over blown-out beats that blend hypnotic melodies with drums that twitch and boom like a tweaked-out Godzilla, Carti yelps, shrieks, and croons as if he’s trying to exorcise a demon. Its meticulously layered-yet-effortless style will once again have all the wannabes scratching their heads for years. What a flex. –Alphonse Pierre

8. Mdou Moctar: Afrique Victime

Mdou Moctar first riveted listeners as a wedding performer in his home country of Niger; his live recordings circulated over shared SIM cards. Since then, he’s continued to find electrified approaches to the vernacular music of his Tuareg background with uninhibited guitar. On Afrique Victime, his first release for Matador, Moctar chases lively arrangements even further while excoriating the traumatic legacy of brutal French colonialism in Africa. His solos rip like lightning bolts across a storm of melody and rhythm, with Mikey Coltun’s bass roiling in ecstatic complement. The band charges through energetic and lightly psychedelic numbers (“Chismiten,” “Ya Habibti”), and find more knots to untangle in their quieter asides (“Asdikte Akal,” “Tala Tannam”). Its title track is a pure thrill, detonating as Moctar’s cohort locks into a churning groove from his sung invocation and only growing wilder from there. Reports of the death of rock have been greatly exaggerated: Afrique Victime is a uniquely vibrant and kinetic recording, one that proves that the future of rock music exists far beyond what any genre or geographic borders can define. –Allison Hussey

The Weather Station: Ignorance

A Canadian singer-songwriter with an aura of purposeful solitude, a gift for drawing insight and revelation from minute observations of relationships and environments, and an ear for melodies that dip, wind, and double back like trains of thought. After a few great albums, most of them sparse and muted, she assembles a band that can channel the exuberance of her era’s pop rhythms and twist them toward her own idiosyncratic ends. Far from dampening the music’s acuity and expressiveness, making them softly palatable, these new grooves accompany some of the sharpest songs of her career. Weather Station bandleader Tamara Lindeman might be tired of hearing Joni Mitchell comparisons at this point, but the resemblance is uncanny: Ignorance is something like her Court and Spark.

Not that it sounds much like Mitchell’s 1974 masterpiece. Where that album is warm and jazzy, Ignorance is single-mindedly propulsive, befitting songs concerned with the shrinking possibility of love on a planet hurtling toward collapse. Multiple percussionists provide an unflagging beat; strings, woodwinds, and electronic keyboards float above these girders like an iridescent sunset after a wildfire. Lindeman’s inimitable voice wanders the spaces between, taking in trees choked by buildings, birds alighting on rooftops, a world that hangs over her with the indifference of a secondhand jacket. Perhaps the comparison has more to do with the space Court and Spark opened in Joni’s canon, making room for the run of wonderful and profoundly strange albums that came next. After this, it seems, Tamara Lindeman can do anything. –Andy Cush

6. Turnstile: Glow On

After the world spent 18 months at home, the Baltimore band Turnstile unleashed Glow On unto a rapidly-growing audience that could not have possibly been better primed to receive its 34 minutes of nonstop feeling. Is this post-hardcore? Pop hardcore? Streetwear Fugazi? Do you “have to see it live to get it”? No matter how you square their multitudes, Turnstile know that hardcore is fundamentally interactive music—you don’t just listen; you participate; together—and Glow On facilitates it. This might mean screaming along to the tidal hooks of “Mystery” and “Holiday” to lock in with a kinetic crowd. It might mean having a moment of connected introspection with lyrics like “I just need to know I’m working for the big prize” or “Can’t be the only one” or “Thank you for letting me see myself” (just like those Turnstilemaniacs nodding along in the sublime Turnstile Love Connection film). Or maybe it means allowing Glow On’s hypercharged riffs and blast beats—its synth arpeggios, sing-rapping, Caribbean rhythms, and Dev Hynes harmonies—to fluidly eclipse your misfit soul, clarifying that it belongs here. –Jenn Pelly

5. Low: HEY WHAT

Nearly 30 years into their career, Low have moved beyond simply writing great songs: They are now focused on the way those songs travel from the speakers to our ears: a strange, circuitous journey that makes HEY WHAT feel like genuinely new territory. It is easy to imagine any of these 10 warped, noisy pieces of music in stripped-down arrangements. In fact, most of the songs tease that kind of delivery: Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s voices arrive in unison like folk singers, stripped of effects and clear in the mix, every word audible and sung in simple, hummable melodies. But with producer BJ Burton, Sparhawk and Parker interrupt and distort themselves, filtering their stark, psalm-like compositions through the kind of processing that makes a guitar solo squeal into feedback, or the sound from your speakers clip into static. It is a beautiful, adventurous album from a band who is letting their music fall into disorder and who, in doing so, have never sounded more in control. –Sam Sodomsky

4. Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / The London Symphony Orchestra: Promises

It begins atomically, with a building block made of seven notes twisting around like a helix. Around this motif Promises blinks to life, a self-regenerating ecosystem in nine movements. This hybrid electronic/jazz/orchestral piece doesn’t feel composed so much as monitored by Sam Shepherd, the boundless electronic composer who performs as Floating Points. Whether arranging the London Symphony Orchestra’s oceanic swells or tapping out notes on a harpsichord that seems to be falling slightly out of tune, Shepherd lays down a framework for the eminent free jazz saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders to follow and then thrillingly disregard.

Sanders is the central voice and shining star of Promises, his first major recording in a couple of decades, and one of 2021’s greatest musical gifts. He trots to one idea, floats to another, then sprints to a third, exploring the universe Shepherd has cast for him and spinning out new meanings for its restless, incessant seven-note central motif. This is the endless joy of Promises: listening to Sanders feel his way through this alien world as if newly born into it. It leaves such a unique impression that although you are listening to music, you are also witnessing its evolution. –Jeremy D. Larson

3. Tyler, the Creator: Call Me If You Get Lost

Even by the maximalist standards of Tyler, the Creator’s previous albums, there’s kind of a lot happening on this one. Call Me If You Get Lost is a formal homage to aughts-era rap mixtapes. And it’s a concept record about luxury living narrated by the artist’s fur-capped alter ego, Sir Tyler Baudelaire. And it’s a reckoning with the shock-jock narrators of his early material. And it’s a rambling apology to the other two (possibly famous) members of a broken love triangle. But Tyler manages the conceptual overload using all the tools in his box, shuffling moods with beats that touch down in jazz, reggae, and bossa nova, and rapping like he hasn’t in years, free-associating over wild verses that sometimes pull on five or six story threads at once. You know the old advice about giving the task you need done right to a busy person? Maybe there’s something to it. –Lane Brown

2. L’Rain: Fatigue

In the hands of Brooklyn artist Taja Cheek, music can be nonlinear and unpredictable without sacrificing grooves and hooks. As L’Rain, her blend of hi- and lo-fi techniques spawns songs that call for a half-dozen genre descriptors—avant-garde, psych-soul, with a side of musique concrète?—and refuse to resolve in an expected way. Her second album, Fatigue, is a symphony of fleeting, hyper-specific sound, from the opulent keyboard arpeggios that open “Two Face” and the swampy bass driving “Suck Teeth” to the heartfelt guitar interplay on “Blame Me” and the ingenuous rhythmic repetition of the phrase “make a way out of no way”—a line borrowed from Cheek’s late mother, Lorraine—on “Find It.” L’Rain songs can be one small idea or 10 overlapping ones, 17 seconds or six minutes, built around a single loop or encompassing upwards of 20 players. The works on Fatigue mimic the nature of grief and change, the haze and backsliding and dark thoughts. Through these vivid fragments, Cheek’s worldview comes across clearly: The best way to achieve growth is through unhindered exploration. –Jillian Mapes

1. Jazmine Sullivan: Heaux Tales

On her previous album, 2015’s Reality Show, Jazmine Sullivan made it clear who her music was speaking to and intended for: women who hover outside the frame in a thick, stifling haze of stereotypes. Heaux Tales is a similar, vastly more ambitious corrective whose characters surrender to varying shades of anger, shame, sex, and abandonment. Vulnerability, as she sees it, is a cyclical, always uncomfortable, sisterly burden. But the simple act of owning and sharing each other’s flaws can beget something that resembles growth. Catharsis is possible because Sullivan chooses to amplify the ugly narratives women hold and reframe them as purges, and then package them as confessional R&B.

In this intimate space, she can embrace the power and duality of toxic love. “Girl Like Me” is both a meditation on the virtues of so-called ho living and a supervillain origin story where a cheater sparks her metamorphosis from good girl to maneater. She’s dismissive but maybe also desires protection. “You leave me with no choice,” Sullivan relinquishes. The album’s emotions live in steady disharmony that way. Next to the sublime detachment of “Lost One” is the orgasmic poetry of “On It” and the cold-shoulder eviction notice “Pick Up Your Feelings.” These songs conjure memories of disappearing soulmates and raging fuckboys who did or didn’t help you see yourself.

But it’s the visceral interludes from women in Sullivan’s orbit that give the project the feel of a Terry McMillan novel, or a community of complicated Zolas made dimensional through song. As liberating as it is to be naked, there’s no erasing the fear part, nor the circle of trust it takes to say the quiet parts out loud. Heaux Tales wins because Sullivan holds the therapies of sisterhood sacred, confident no one can take them away. –Clover Hope

See the full list here: Pitchfork – top 50 albums of 2021

Best Folk albums of 2021

The best Folk, Roots, Alternative and Global Music releases as chosen by Folk Radio.See the full list here: Folk Radio’s Albums of the Year 2021

Highlights include these: Katherine Priddy: The Eternal Rocks Beneath, Alasdair Roberts og Völvur: The Old Fabled River, Eamon O’Leary: The Silver Sun, Gnoss: The Light of the Moon, Martyn Joseph: 1960, Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys: The Wishing Tree, Josienne Clarke: A Small Unknowable Thing, Karine Polwart & Dave Milligan: Still As Your Sleeping.

Best Classical Albums of 2021

See the NPR top 10 here: The Top 10 Classical Albums of 2021

Best rock albums of 2021

From classic rock and culture: Best rock albums of 2021

 

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