Our top 40 records of the year, voted for by our contributors
It’s time to put another year in the bin and forget that most of it ever happened. But not all of it. We navigated a second uncertain year of the pandemic with a football tournament of our dreams (providing your dream was that we almost won), a shipping tanker getting stuck in a canal, Jeff Bezos going into space but unfortunately also coming back from space, and, most importantly of all, a lot of excellent music. The following 40 albums made it all worthwhile for us and our dedicated team of contributors. It might be our most varied list yet, and hopefully contains some new discoveries for you as 2021 squeaks to an end. We love them all, and really, very little separates any of them.
When Lee “Scratch” Perry passed away in August aged 85, we lost one of contemporary music’s most fearless and consistent pioneers. Fittingly, one of his final works was this collaboration with Canadian experimental group New Age Doom, with whom he made this hulking, grinding beast of a record, an odyssey through genre and timbre up to low-frequency Valhalla, with Perry our mischievous guide.
Margate future-pop savant BABii has been a compelling artist for a little while now, but on MiiRROR she takes an impressive leap forward. The influences of innovators like SOPHIE and Eartheater are more audible in her work than ever, yet this album feels like a key threshold for her to have crossed in her quest to forge a truly original sound; there’s so much to love here, and it seems like she’s only just getting started.
Noisy, uneven, occasionally antagonistic and frequently beautiful, Shade deserves to be a pivotal record for Liz Harris; a tying-up of career-long loose ends in the service of a new start, a simmering album that plunges her trademark sound into ever-greater depths of dissonance and introspection. It’s strange, flawed, and never less than completely absorbing.
The first of two Portico Quartet albums this year, Terrain is an understated, elegant gem, minutely detailed and delicately produced, every stroke of wood on cymbal feeling entirely necessary, every drifting sax line expertly timed. Were it not so masterfully constructed, it might feel a little too polite or polished for its own good; as it is, it borders on the transcendent.
Holed up in an artist community in Mexico City having been stranded by the pandemic, Guatemalan composer and cellist Mabe Fratti poured the nervous energy of those heady early lockdown days into this mysterious, uncertain record, rich with thawing synths and panting strings and augmented with the collaborative contributions of her fellow residents/strandees. “Lockdown record” may already be a played-out cliche, but if all such albums were as profound as this, perhaps there’d be a little more life in that idea yet.
It’s hard to think of many albums that evoke Calvin Harris one minute and Bikini Kill the next, but Japanese punks CHAI have managed to make one. Free of stylistic constraint – including, importantly, the stereotypes associated with the Kawaii culture that lazier commentators may be tempted to lump the group in with – and bursting with energy, this is a riot from a band on top of their game.
LA experimental hip-hop duo Paris Texas kicked off the year with one of the most explosive rap debuts we’ve heard in some time: the grinding, brutal ‘HEAVY METAL’. Their first full-length mixtape, BOY ANONYMOUS, followed swiftly, and delivered on the promise of that first single – futuristic, irreverent and uncompromising, it’s a hell of an opening statement.
Few dance scenes have had a global impact like Chicago footwork has over the past decade or more, and few artists have been as pivotal to that scene as Jana Rush. Painful Enlightenment is arguably her boldest innovation yet. Sly, sprightly, and explicitly sexy, it takes the conventions of the genre Rush helped create and turns them upside down.
Following Psychodrama, one of the most consistently acclaimed British albums of recent years, was always going to be a challenge for Streatham MC Dave – but he rose to it. We’re All Alone In This Together is another ambitious, narrative-driven opus from the still frighteningly young artist, cementing his status as a truly generational London voice.
A batshit night out in the company of such luminaries as MC Boing and DJ Mayhem, Harlecore may be the funniest dance record of the year, but that doesn’t mean it’s not sincere. Enormous beats and earwormy hooks are thrown into an irresistible trance/hardcore/drum and bass mix by PC Music affiliate Danny L Harle, and as daft as it is, it’s more unironically enjoyable than more or less anything else you’ll have heard in 2021.
A flurry of smart rhymes and slick, knocking beats, Call Me If You Get Lost is a masterclass from one of 21st century hip-hop’s most consistent superstars. A decade on from his rise to notoriety with Odd Future, Tyler continues to take his craft into uncharted territory – and in such style.
It should be clear by now that Divide & Dissolve are the coolest thing to happen to metal in some time, and Gas Lit is a perfect distillation of what makes them so special. Vicious sludge, monumental drone and crushing noise, all refracted through the prism of determinedly anti-colonial, anti-capitalist political practice? Sign us up.
It’s been a big year for Michelle Zauner. Her first book, the memoir Crying In H Mart, was released to widespread acclaim and reflected on the death of her mother, debuting at number two in the New York Times bestseller list. She also released Jubilee, her third album as Japanese Breakfast, and it’s her best yet – poppier and more confident than ever, and an effervescent celebration of life.
A soul record in the truest sense of the word, DEACON is a bracingly spiritual piece of work from Josiah Wise, aka Serpentwithfeet. Initially restrained yet subtly ambitious, it’s an album in dialogue with Wise’s heritage and the infinite possibilities of his future.
Indie-prog mischief-makers Black Midi followed up 2019’s Schlagenheim with an album that didn’t so much invert their sound as expand it, both literally (their live band just keeps growing) and sonically (just listen to those multi-layered horn arrangements). It’s another hit from London’s fidgetiest contemporary rock group.
For several years now, Sassy 009 has continued to make some of the most low-key addictive pop out there, and Heart Ego is no exception. With its restless, neon-soaked beats and sly hooks, it’s the sound of meandering drives through dark cities, and very good indeed.
Akron, Ohio composer G.S. Schray is a gentle innovator, but an innovator nonetheless. On The Changing Account, he draws upon the subtle experimentation of genre-bending forebears like Mark Hollis and Joni Mitchell to create an ambient jazz record that’s as stylistically inventive as it is aurally soothing.
The sheer breadth of Kevin Martin’s recent work is astonishing. From his portentous accompaniment to Roger Robinson’s poetry as King Midas Sound to his future-dancehall collaboration with Miss Red, his contributions to bass music know few limits. Fire, his latest as The Bug, covers much of that spectrum – and is all the more mesmerising for it.
Having plugged away in the shadows of experimental ambient music for some time now, on Honest Labour Manchester duo Space Afrika take a step out into the light. There’s more melody and definition here than we’ve heard previously from the pair, and it creates an even more captivating, immersive experience than ever before – impressive for a project with a back catalogue that’s full of such moments.
As one of grime’s original pioneers, Ghetts has no right to still be one of the most exciting voices in UK rap this far into his career. But that’s exactly what he is, and Conflict of Interest might just be his most accomplished work yet; a sprawling record of novelistic scope, it rivals Kendrick Lamar for sheer ambition and narrative grace.
2018 album Double Negative having been something of a watershed for the Minnesotan slowcore overlords, expectations for Low’s follow-up record were stratospheric. Yet they have managed to meet them – and how. Hey What builds upon the anxious elegance of its predecessor and injects it with a newfound sense of hope; the sound of a band pulling back from the abyss in style.
In case you hadn’t noticed, UK jazz is having a bit of a moment right now – as it has been for the last few years – and although there’s no shortage of innovative new voices in the scene, reclusive producer, composer and DJ Nala Sinephro stands out. An ornate, engrossing statement of cosmic intent, Space 1.8 entirely deserves the weighty comparisons it’s getting with the likes of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders (more on whom below).
World-builder, myth-maker, yarn-spinner – there are so many ways to describe Iglooghost, and none of them quite capture the scale of his creative ambition. Lei Line Eon is another monumental achievement from electronic musician Seamus Rawles Malliagh.
A group capable of pleasing snooty crate-diggers and unabashed pop fans alike, Virginia Wing’s cocktail of slinky production, Laurie Anderson-esque semi-singing and debonair sax tangents continues to be distinctively compelling. Private LIFE is a more than worthy successor to Ecstatic Arrow, L&Q’s favourite album of 2018.
A heartfelt meditation on grief, love and friendship from Dublin artist David Balfe, For Those I Love caught many listeners off-guard when it emerged early in the year. Emotionally weighty yet surprisingly danceable, nothing has sounded quite like it before or since.
A man with an admirable disregard for what people think of him, Dean Blunt has always operated entirely on his own terms. Yet Black Metal 2, an expansion and inversion of its much-beloved namesake and predecessor, manages to be a crowd-pleaser almost by accident, thick with atmosphere and longing yet bracingly direct when it needs to be.
The second album from avant-garde R&B artist Tirzah, Colourgrade is a subtle triumph of sharp melody and masterful production, walking a tightrope between the dissonant and the accessible without ever entirely falling off in either direction.
Their reputation as one of the UK’s premier live acts long since secured, Bright Green Field is a debut that gave Squid the room to stretch out and explore the outer reaches of their new wave-influenced sound. It’s an unmissable journey through the infinite potential of a special band.
Fresh from producing another of this year’s best records – Anna B Savage’s A Common Turn – the former East India Youth man follows up his debut album under his own name with a truly magisterial work of pastoral, proggish, thoughtful songcraft, as quietly adventurous as it is plaintively lovely.
Over a decade into their career, Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn still sound like no other group on the planet, and Spare Ribs may just be their masterpiece. The rhymes are funnier, the beats harder, the hooks bigger, the collaborations – a relatively novel thing for Sleafords – nigh-on perfect. The bollocks.
What’s so impressive about New Long Leg, Dry Cleaning’s debut collection of deadpan anti-anthems, is how much it manages to achieve from its relatively sparse constituent parts. You’d think that their rattly garage rock-plus-spoken word schtick might feel a little restrictive over the course of a full album – but you’d be very wrong indeed.
On which the worst-kept secret in UK rap – that Little Simz is her generation’s essential MC – exploded into the spotlight for the very few people left who’d not been paying attention. Fluid, funny, and incredibly smart, SIMBI is the record that deserves to send Simz to superstardom.
Bandleader, tuba player and collaborator extraordinaire Theon Cross may be the hitherto unsung hero of the London contemporary jazz scene, but not anymore. Intra-I is a hugely personal, intimate record, genres and textures colliding with each other in the pursuit of a connection with Cross’ heritage following the death of his father. Surprising, engrossing, and utterly vital.
Blessed with one of the most striking voices in the game, with the songwriting chops and lyrical wit to back it up, Anna B Savage was always going to make a very special debut album. With the production assistance of William Doyle, she exceeded all expectations; A Common Turn is stunning.
A true icon of free jazz and avant-garde music more widely, Pharoah Sanders has nothing left to prove at the grand old age of 81. That’s what makes this collaboration with Floating Points and the LSO even more remarkable – not only is it a breathtaking aesthetic feat (one forever growing ambient jazz track), it’s also a resounding statement of modernistic, future-facing creative intent.
British pop’s weirdest electro duo are back, with tunes that are stranger, funnier, and downright bigger than ever. Yet beneath the ridiculous lyrics and gonzo synths, there’s real heart on Astro Tough – moments like the yearning chorus of ‘First Move’ signal a newfound tenderness for David Wrench and Evangeline Ling. Come for the laughs, stay for the tears.
This album from slow-burning avant-folk storyteller Cassandra Jenkins is the kind of record you can move into and live inside for months. Instrumentally impressionistic while lyrically specific, it’s a piece of work which gives back as much as listeners are willing to put in; trust us, your persistence with it will be richly rewarded.
Hilarious and profound in equal measure, Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s second album as Self Esteem marks her final transition into the globe-straddling pop behemoth she’s always threatened to become. A gut-punchingly emotive paean to thirtysomething womanhood, it’s the smartest and most moving pop record of the year.
Dean Blunt, Vegyn, Shygirl: the list of John Glacier’s collaborators, fans and affiliates includes some pretty impressive names. Yet SHILOH: Lost For Words is an utterly singular record from the elusive East London artist; a shifting, sinuous work of experimental hip-hop that’s as sly and inventive as anything you’ll have heard in 2021.
Because you can’t really give an album 10/10 and say it’s “everything a rock band can do”, and not say it’s the best of the year, can you? For The First Time is a thrilling document of the early development of one of the most gifted bands around – a sensational collection of wiry, unpredictable love letters/drunk texts to 21st century youth that endures far beyond its all-too-brief runtime.
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