Amidst a year of massive influx of music and entertainment, there seemed to be no safer place to turn to than the album experience. With artists releasing long-delayed records, lockdown-recorded and inspired albums, and lifelong passion projects, this year has been the best year for music in recent memory. It seemed like every week there were multiple major must-hear releases from artists across all genres and cultures, which made 2021 one of the most exciting years for music in my lifetime. In a time where the album experience feels fleeting, these records proved that they can make you feel things like no other medium can. From the resurgence of post-rock to some of the most honest pop songwriting of the decade, to euphoric jazz, all the way to anime-inspired electronic music, here are our 25 best albums of 2021.
Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
One of the biggest rising stars of the year, Arlo Parks delivers a poignant and stunning record with Collapsed in Sunbeams. Surely one of the most exciting new voices in music, Arlo’s songwriting is among the best of the year and is complemented beautifully by her magnificent vocals. Versatile and vulnerable, Arlo’s nostalgic work stays with you long after listening. This also won the Mercury Prize for 2021, the most esteemed music award in the UK.
Key Tracks: Black Dog, Eugene, Green Eyes
Big Red Machine – How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?
One of music’s most interesting duos delivers once again with their latest collaboration, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last. Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner are an exciting enough pair on their own, but they take this excitement to the next level by collaborating with some of the biggest talents in music including Taylor Swift, Sharon Van Etten, and Robin Pecknold. The result is remarkable, as the album is full of career highlights for everyone involved.
Key Tracks: Phoenix, Renegade, Reese
Black Country, New Road – For the First Time
Youthful, jagged, and phrenetic, Black Country New Road proves that they are one of the most exciting new groups in rock music. With ever-engaging genre bends and constantly quotable songwriting, For the First Time is some of the most provocative post-rock of the last decade. “Sunglasses” is one of the most iconic rock tracks of the year, while “Track X” offers a striking glimpse into love and loss among youth in the UK. The performances across the board are always compelling and masterful while vocalist Isaac Wood proves he’s a voice to celebrate.
Key Tracks: Sunglasses, Athens France, Track X
BROCKHAMPTON – ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE
Texas “boy-band” rap group Brockhampton is back with one of the best hip-hop records of the year. Chock-full of amazing features including A$AP Rocky, JPEGMAFIA, and Danny Brown, ROADRUNNER is yet another step forward for the already prolific rap group. With some of the most poignant lyricism of the group’s career matched with excellent 90’s-inspired production, Brockhampton’s evolution continues to be intoxicating in all the best ways.
Key Tracks: When I Ball, The Light, What’s the Occasion?
Clairo – Sling
The most honest and vulnerable songwriting of the year matched with absolutely killer production from Jack Antonoff. Clairo has been one of the most interesting young artists of the last few years and delivers her best record yet with Sling. With a strong focus on lyricism and sincerity, Sling is a superbly powerful journey reminiscent of works by Joni Mitchell and Carole King that will leave you dancing, sobbing, and inspired all at once. Sling is an unadulterated candid look at young stardom and its ensuing effects and is a truly unique emotional odyssey.
Key Tracks: Blouse, Amoeba, Little Changes
Cleo Sol – Mother
An intimate, warm, and openhearted album devoted to motherhood by one of the voices of SAULT? Sign me up. Mother is an experience unlike any other this year as its soul and simplicity speak high volumes. With two 8-minute tracks that shine as some of the year’s best, to the more modest tracks like “Sunshine,” Mother is an album that feels seemingly rare in today’s musical landscape – it’s an album that speaks directly from the soul with no intervening outside voices muddling it. SAULT, Cleo Sol, and Inflo are here to stay, and Mother further proves that. If you liked Adele’s “Hold On,” this is an entire record of exactly that.
Key Tracks: Build Me Up, One Day, 23
Dijon – Absolutely
The most danceable and heartbreaking indie rock of the year matched with killer vocals from Dijon himself. Produced by Mk.gee, Absolutely combines a charming DIY aesthetic with folk and R&B in such an emotive way. There are bops like “Talk Down” and “Many Times” that’ll have you dancing and singing to affectionate songwriting, while “Rodeo Clown” will leave you paralyzed from Dijon’s incredibly impassioned vocal performance. Everything here feels so fresh and every new listen feels as exciting as the last. For those waiting patiently for the new Frank Ocean record, listen to Absolutely—it’ll definitely fill that void.
Key Tracks: Talk Down, The Dress, Many Times
Floating Points & Pharoah Sanders – Promises
An earth-shattering, groundbreaking, and subversive jazz masterpiece. It’s hard to describe how monumental this record really feels, the listening experience is unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. The mesmerizing production from Floating Points combined with Pharoah Sanders’ legendary saxophone playing alongside the London Symphony Orchestra is something to behold. It’s 45 minutes of pure musical bliss and feels like a definitive moment for this era of the genre. This record proves that the album experience is alive and here to stay.
Key Tracks: The whole thing! That’s the only way to experience it!
Hiatus Kaiyote – Mood Valiant
With the hardest grooves of the year, intricate polyrhythms, and exuberant lyricism, Mood Valiant marks Hiatus Kaiyote’s radiant return after six years away. Loaded with shades of jazz, soul, and R&B, Mood Valiant is the most dynamic and resonant record of the year. “Red Room” delivers the year’s best bass-line, while “Stone Or Lavender” showcases the astonishing vocal talents of frontwoman Naomi Saalfield. With luscious instrumentation and dazzling performances, Mood Valiant is the best record of the band’s career.
Key Tracks: Red Room, All The Words We Don’t Say, Stone Or Lavender
Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take
Perpetually colourful production with stunning genre-fusion and taut songwriting, Indigo De Souza took her sound to another level on Any Shape You Take. From the affective opening track, “17” through the grungy “Darker Than Death” and funky “Hold U,” Indigo brings her electrifying personality and arresting vocal performances to every track. One of the most emotionally resonant records of the year packed with instantly memorable hooks and riffs, Any Shape You Take is some of the best indie rock of the year
Key Tracks: 17, Pretty Pictures, Hold U
Injury Reserve – By The Time I Get To Phoenix
In a decade loaded with forward-thinking rap, Injury Reserve continues to challenge the status of the genre and bring it to new heights. This has never been truer than on By The Time I Get To Phoenix, which brings completely new sound play to the genre with mysterious and poignant lyricism. Recorded before the tragic death of member Stepa Groggs, the group delivers a miracle of a record. Rap rarely feels as inspired and powerful as it does here, and the final three tracks provide an emotional climax that will shake you to your core.
Key Tracks: Superman That, Knees, Postpostpartum
Isaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning
With sharper words and a freer spirit, The House is Burning marks the triumphant return of one of the most incomparable artists in hip-hop. Top Dawg Entertainment’s Isaiah Rashad re-emerged into the rap scene this summer, and his record is a sensational blend of Southern rap and R&B. After five years of bumping the masterful The Sun’s Tirade, Rashad’s last record, Rashad shows that he’s still unmatched with his iconic staccato flows and newly relaxed demeanour. Featuring killer appearances by fellow TDE artists SZA and Jay Rock, this record verifies that Rashad can go toe-to-toe with the best in the industry and still be a shining star.
Key tracks: Headshots, From The Garden, Wat U Sed
Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
Songwriter extraordinaire Michelle Zauner returned this year with the emotionally-charged Jubilee, a record overflowing with lush production and mesmerizing lyricism. “Paprika” is the best opening track on a record of the year, and “Be Sweet” surely should have been one of the songs of the summer. Zauner’s gift for lyrical storytelling is fully on display throughout the record, as “Posing in Bondage” and “In Hell” showcase her talents masterfully. The final track “Posing For Cars” features the most emotionally cathartic and climactic guitar solo of the year, and will leave you wanting to experience the record all over again. Zauner is one of this generation’s truest talents, and Jubilee proves that emphatically.
Key Tracks: Be Sweet, Posing in Bondage, Savage Good Boy
JPEGMAFIA – LP!
Unapologetically himself, JPEG defied the music industry once again with his prodigious new record LP!. Released properly on Bandcamp, every track feels like a mission statement on his artistry and goes against every convention of popular rap music—which is exactly what makes it so enamouring. LP! features the best rap production of the year and JPEG takes yet another step forward with his obtrusive lyricism, proving himself to be one of the most unique and captivating artists in rap today. “REBOUND!” is one of the most confident singles of the year, and is JPEG at his best.
Key Tracks: REBOUND!, TIRED, NERVOUS & BROKE!, THOT’S PRAYER!
Laura Mvula – Pink Noise
Nostalgic 80’s dance-pop has become increasingly popular over the last few years, but no one has done it better than Laura Mvula on Pink Noise. What makes this record specifically great is Mvula’s tasteful songwriting matched with refreshing production and polished instrumentation. Reminiscent of the sounds of Grace Jones and Michael Jackson, Pink Noise brings a sense of urgency and evolution to this genre that has been so often miscalculated in recent years. Mvula’s vocals throughout are superb and each song feels paramount. “Got Me” is some of the most fun you’ll have with music all year, and will leave you completely hooked on this bold record.
Key Tracks: Got Me, Church Girl, Safe Passage
Low – HEY WHAT
Following up their last record Double Negative seemed like an impossible task, but Low managed to take their sound to luminous new levels on Hey What. For a band on their 13th record, Low continually evolves their sound and produces visceral rock experiences that no other group can. “Days Like These” is a monumental track for the group, as it takes a simple structure and brings it to life in such a unique and powerful way. In a time where the album experience can feel so manufactured, Hey What presents a relentlessly exhilarating and distorted adventure of release, and it is glorious.
Key Tracks: Days Like These, Don’t Walk Away, Disappearing
Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World
Catchy grooves blended with tight songwriting and imaginative production, Mercurial World is a hyperactive world of its own. Frenetically stylish and overflowing with bold synthpop instrumentation, Mercurial World offers some of the most exciting pop music in years. With influence from Grimes, Charli XCX, and Caroline Polachek, Magdalena Bay brings the synthpop genre to new heights while offering some of the catchiest songs of the year. Just try to get “Secrets (Your Fire),” “Chaeri,” or “Hysterical Us” out of your head—you can’t, and you won’t be upset about it.
Key Tracks: Secrets (Your Fire), Chaeri, Hysterical Us
Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
If you haven’t heard of Mdou Moctar by now, you’ve been missing out on one of the best guitar players on the planet. His guitar virtuosity mixed with stirring Tuareg harmony results in some of the electrifying sounds of the year. From acoustic tracks like “Tala Tannam” to explosive electric tracks like “Taliat,” Moctar’s music constantly feels like discovering music for the first time. Everything on this record is so forward-thinking and leaves an impression of the sounds that are to come in the future. All of this mixed with Moctar’s guitar shredding make it an album you cannot miss.
Key Tracks: Tala Tannam, Afrique Victime, Chismiten
Nala Sinephro – Space 1.8
Sometimes, especially during this crazy year, you need music that can take you on a relaxing journey and leave you feeling consoled and zen. That is exactly what Space 1.8 did for music lovers, and it’s extraordinary in countless ways. For a debut record of a 22-year-old, its complexities feel like it was made by someone with lifetimes of musical experience. Full of brilliant collaborations, Space 1.8 perfectly weaves electronics and synthesizers with an incredibly stylistic jazz sound resulting in some of the most inspired jazz we’ve heard in years.
Key Tracks: Space 2, Space 4, Space 8
Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR
Anxiety, insecurity, and heartbreak bundled up into one perfectly eloquent debut album. Olivia Rodrigo pulls off vulnerability like no other, as she avenges the emotions of all of our past teenage selves while telling her own unique story. SOUR has no dull moments, as each song is a direct result of fluent imagery-filled lyricism and exquisite vocals. Rodrigo proudly shows off her impressive mental music library by embracing several iconic musical influences, making this album attractive to fans of Taylor Swift, Paramore, and all of the great singer-songwriters. Both Rodrigo and her debut album exude unmatched energy, enough to have anyone jumping around and screaming “good 4 u” on repeat.
Key tracks: brutal, driver’s license, good 4 u
Porter Robinson – Nurture
The most extraordinarily fun record to drop in 2021, Nurture is some of the most comforting and enthralling electronic music ever made. With influence from anime, video games, and ambient music, Porter perfectly matches beautiful minimalism with monumental dance tracks—the result is truly spectacular. You’ll hear something new every time you listen to this record, and every track feels like an affective statement from Porter. It’s rare that a record can make the world feel like a brighter place, but Nurture takes that concept and runs with it.
Key Tracks: Look At The Sky, Mirror, Something Comforting
Slowthai – TYRON
Northhampton rapper Slowthai returned this year with TYRON, a two-side record that delves into both halves of Slowthai’s persona: aggressive and compassionate. Both sides of this record are equally exciting and offer different looks into the mind of Tyron. “CANCELLED” is a big middle-finger to cancel culture, while “NHS” is a warmhearted and thankful dedication to the NHS workers in the UK—TYRON’s thematic range is endlessly refreshing. Slowthai managed to follow up his 2019 Mercury Prize record with something completely new, and it’s exceptionally compelling.
Key Tracks: MAZZA, feel away, nhs
The Weather Station – Ignorance
Exquisitely mixed with impeccable production, Ignorance is the ode to 80’s pop that we all needed this year. Toronto’s Tamara Lindemann proves yet again that she’s a talent to be widely recognized as she explores themes of heartbreak and helplessness in a purely poetic and danceable manner. Like the Fleetwood Mac and Pretenders albums of the 80’s, Ignorance perfectly balances musical style and lyrical substance with irresistible hooks and melodies—it’s a landmark record, and one not to miss.
Key Tracks: Tried to Tell You, Parking Lot, Separated
Turnstile – Glow On
Thundering production, emphatic vocals, and resounding riffs, Glow On is the best punk record of the year. The energy throughout the record is relentlessly contagious and ambitious, with boisterous singles like “Mystery” and “T.L.C.” that leave the listener itching to get into a mosh-pit with their best friends. Glow On proves that heavy-rock music can still be inventive in 2021, while challenging the idea of rock as an ostensibly dated genre. Everything here feels radically original, with amazing hardcore performances throughout. Blood Orange also makes two appearances, which are must-listens.
Key Tracks: Mystery, T.L.C. (Turnstile Love Connection), Holiday
Tyler, the Creator – Call Me if You Get Lost
Rap’s most intriguing artist returned this year with yet another completely fresh addition to his catalogue. Full of the classic braggadocious and confident performances you’d expect from Tyler, this record shows his personality in a way we haven’t seen in years. From the brilliant opening tracks “CORSO” and “WUSYANAME” through “WILSHIRE,” Tyler is as honest and charming in his writing as he’s ever been. Great sampling, stellar production, and chock-full of personality—this record has everything you’d want from Tyler and more.
Key Tracks: CORSO, MASSA, SWEET / I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE
Listen to our Best Albums of 2021 playlist on Spotify and Apple Music.