I finalized this list near the end of December but it took an unnecessarily long while to get the short blurbs written down. But it’s finally here – my favorite albums of the year. I have already posted my favorite EPs of 2021 last month, and I’ve also compiled a Spotify playlist of a hundred of my favorite songs from last year – in no ranking order. Anyway, let’s get to business.
30. Deerhoof – Actually, You Can
Noise rock in 2021, for me, hasn’t really sounded this bright, vibrant, and frankly, exhilarating. It’s so full of life – it’s like visiting a greenhouse and seeing the worms wiggling and dancing in the soil through some unearthly X-ray vision. The mixing sounds clearer than most of their previous output, but the punch is still there.
29. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – Candy Racer
Yeah, as weird as it sounds, KPP has released her best album ever in 2021. Nakata’s production has taken refreshing turns the past year, and this record is certainly evidence of it. Make no mistake though, Kyary’s Harajuku-neon-streaked, diabetically-sweet pop aesthetics are still present but they are presented through a more patience-testing yet inventive lens.
28. illuminati hotties- Let Me Do One More
While being an indie-rock album that’s unapologetically chock-full of personality, Tudzin’s songwriting still follows templates of establishing “indie” sounds. But she injects refreshing takes on almost every track. Not all of them pan out amazingly but I enjoyed the versatility.
27. Xiu Xiu – OH NO
Concept-wise, this album represents some of the most wholesome celebrations of friendship that I’ve come across all last year through these unconventional duets with people that have helped Xiu Xiu out during not-so-great times. The sonic palette or the songwriting doesn’t come off that, with them sounding demented and cryptic respectively – something that’s not new to Xiu Xiu but here it’s a shade more light-hearted… maybe.
26. Natalia Lafourcade – Un canto por México vol. 2
Sure, it’s not as catchy and tightly paced as volume one but the recording and the compositions are just as riveting. There’s a more rustic, cinematic edge to the production, and Natalia brings on guest performances that add more to her performances than take away. That album cover has an enigmatic yet enchanting quality to it, and a vast majority of the record reflects that.
25. Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
Again, I’ll concede that the album isn’t one catchy hit after another like her debut but if nothing else – this feels like an organic evolution of her as an artist. Her songwriting is a lot more mature and prominent, Finneas’ production takes some risks but often he hits a wonderful balance where the production and Billie’s vocals mesh together instead of just merely being layered onto the other. It’ll be interesting to see how she develops her sound from this.
24. black midi – Cavalcade
Even with the tracks sounding like a disparate, disjointed collection of ideas – they assemble together to form this freakish mechanical beast of a rock album with its limbs mutating and dancing to an unearthly beat, threatening to fall apart after each song but it miraculously holds on. Black midi continues to surprise, and I’m sure their next album will too.
23. Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic
Mr. Mars and Mr. Paak pack a level of chemistry that often comes off as heavenly in some of the tracks on this record. The production and recording are immaculate. Even with some of the songwriting losing its humor and novel charm here and there, the instrumental compositions set up a mood where it feels like these two are taking me out on a candle-lit date… in the most consensual and best way possible.
22. Black Dresses – Forever in Your Heart
While not as year-defining as their previous album was, Forever in Your Heart has captured my heart in a more caustic fashion. If Peaceful as Hell was about lighting that small fire of contentment in the midst of everything falling apart, this record is spreading that fire to destroy everything around them – and I’m still not sure how to feel about it. I hope Ada and Devi are doing alright, and I hope they keep making music, together or not. Gorgeous album art, by the way.
21. Weezer – OK Human
Weezer goes chamber pop and you know what – if it’s baroque, don’t fix it – and sound palette-wise I agree. The lyricism here sounds charming but it has a feeling of weariness that made me listen to this album quite often in the first half of 2021. Also, Cuomo’s sense of melodic choruses was on ultra-instinct mode or something – there were some serious earworms of hooks in the record.
20. Jeff Rosenstock – SKA DREAM
Jeff, what I initially thought would be a gag remake, actually put out killer ska renditions of the NO DREAM tracks. The feature performances are great and Jeff’s sensibility in track renaming is hilarious. Do I prefer this version over his original? Not really, but damn I gotta admit that there are some tracks on this that improve upon the originals in some way – especially some of the ones with the features.
19. Seiko Oomori – Persona #1
This is another sort of “remake” album with Seiko “covering” tracks she has written for other people in the past. Her performances here are consistently great, and the instrumentation takes on playful genre-clashing that feels equally refreshing and restless. It’s a goddamned Seiko-themed wonderland running on full-throttle over on this record – amazing.
18. Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
Yeah, this is my favorite Tyler record to date. This album is a beautiful amalgamation of everything Tyler has developed on and evolved from throughout his artistic trajectory, in terms of songwriting and instrumental tastes. Not saying that he doesn’t take any risks, I mean c’mon it’s a Tyler album – there are bold cuts, there are smooth cuts and there are cuts that cut just right (big oof on that joke but I’m keeping it anyway).
17. Yola – Stand for Myself
Who could’ve thought that a country-soul album would be in my top 20 albums? Not me because this is probably the only album I’ve listened to from this genre cloud. The instrumentals are produced pretty much immaculately. Yola’s vocals have the heart to almost move me to tears, especially in Dancing away in Tears and the choruses are catchy as hell… or heaven.
16. Sematary – Rainbow Bridge 3
In stark contrast to Yola’s album, this is pretty much the most novel album on this list. The way it embellishes harsh noise on top of witch-house and trap elements is something I think will wear out if I listen to similar renditions of it, but the effectiveness of this batch of tracks is infectious. It took months to get the hooks from haunting my mind, and on top of all that, the lyrics are hilarious.
15. JPEGMAFIA – LP! (offline ver.)
With some of his best vocal performances and beats to date, this record is a massive “fuck you” to his record label and other people who have fucked him over. Concept-wise, it’s not a new thing but his approach is different – his material here comes off a lot more vulnerable yet equally as scathing as some of his best material off Veteran. Peggy continues to be the prolific and charismatic outsider in modern music, and this is my favorite LP from him so far.
14. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
I’ll be honest, I forgot about this record for a while but when I listened back to this for my finalizing my list last month – I reacted with the same level of awe as I did back when I listened to it for the first time. The compositions are surreal and have this transportative and mystical quality that’s somehow impossible to describe accurately in a blurb like this. It’s a “lightning in a bottle” kind of ambient album in terms of pacing and compositions.
13. SPELLLING – The Turning Wheel
I have to admit, over the months this album has grown on me quite a bit. The vocal range, the quality of the vocal performances, and the rich detail in the production are characteristics that were made more and more apparent with further listens, and the songwriting in the melodies has staying power. If there’s one mystical art-pop album you must listen to from this year, it’s this.
12. Sato Moka – Woolly
Sato Moka has embraced rock elements in her ice-cream brand of pop in this album, and the result is a tracklist that is just one hit after another. The album is around 52 minutes but the liveliness of the hooks, the quality of performances, and the deft pacing of the whole thing melt away any fatigue of listening to this wonderful playlist of a record. It’s the complete J-pop package.
11. Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind
I mean, it’s the prettiest folk album of the year. The instrumental palette is minimal and so are some of the vocal performances, which reminds of some Elliott Smith in the best way possible. Some of the minimal textures of electronic and acoustic elements are so moving in the most vividly nostalgic ways possible. The cute pop culture reference theme kind of went over my head but the emotional potency is undeniable.
10. Genesis Owusu – Smiling with No Teeth
It’s not often we get a debut album that’s filled with so much personality, so much in terms of sonic versatility in both production, genres, and vocal performances that display a kind of rare, simultaneous bravado and sincerity. This man is on point no matter what type of genre he chooses to shapeshift into throughout the album. Even with this impressive level of one-man-showmanship, the album’s pacing is as smooth as butter.
9. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
Last year, Zauner has given us an album that’s, in equal parts, both blissfully sweet and deeply introspective. The production, for the most part, sounds like every indie-pop producer’s wet dream with how the chamber instrumentation comes off so organic against the vibrant, pastel synths. Her vocal work throughout the album is heart-tugging in a sentimental sense and her lyricism elevates that sincerity in her performances.
8. Turnstile – Glow On
With riffs that make my eyeballs produce new floaters from all the headbanging, and arpeggiated synth lines that push that hardcore sound to the clouds – Glow On is the cleanest yet energizing rock album I’ve heard all year. There’s no track that overstays its runtime, the sound palette isn’t all that diverse but it’s tight. The instrumentals are immaculately mixed and the range on the vocal performances is refreshing to hear from a punk band.
7. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
SIMBI is an album that feels like a theatrical play on a planetary scale, a play which centers around Simz’ history, her relationships along with a heavy helping of vulnerable (and sometimes empowering) self-analysis of her as a person. It’s a very personal album but at the same time, the sound palette is some of the most inspired I’ve heard in any hip-hop or any album I’ve heard this year – Inflo is on another level on the production, and Simbi’s songwriting is potent, cutting and they hit you like a bag of lead blocks. It’s great to see the amount of positive critical reception it received. We don’t get albums this masterfully smooth and versatile every day.
6. Porter Robinson – Nurture
Porter’s Nurture is about remembering love – whether it be through the bittersweet nostalgia of his childhood or his temporarily euphoric yet permanently comforting contentment with his mortality and the mortality of his “musical career” – it’s clearly a deeply personal album for him. But he’s done something special with this project – he’s made a personal album that’s both inspired and inspirational. There’s an intimate and sincere simplicity in his songwriting which is accentuated by the androgynous, kid-like vocal processing on most tracks. The production on the tracks features these instrumental soundscapes that take inspiration from the often-cold and mathy J-pop time signatures and breathe life into them. This album feels like something of an opus from Porter.
5. Bladee – The Fool
2021 has turned this draingang naysayer into a fan, and this album was the gateway drug into appreciating what Bladee is trying to do. Sure, they engage in a lot of braggadocious luxury-brand-namedropping in their writing and their whole comes off shallow and in-line with cloud rap flex, not saying that’s not entertaining and enjoyable by themselves. There’s something more sincere that contradicts some of the elements of Bladee’s songwriting, especially on this album – this contradiction isn’t particularly hypocritical but rather human. In one track he is whimsically making hilarious yet self-aware complaints while being a lazy-ass hotel guest; and in another, he is grappling with self-contentment in the face of realizing that he often feels like he’s stagnant on I Want It That Way. The Fool sees Bladee come to an artistic peak in terms of lyricism, his vocal lines are infectious and, while the production is not as experimental, it has the signature dreamlike polish that’s unmistakable Bladee’s. I think Bladee will once again switch up his approach in his future projects but this is something special and it shows how much he has grown as an artist over the years.
4. Lingua Ignota – Sinner Get Ready
Like the seemingly incessant Centralia mine fire in Pennsylvania, Sinner Get Ready is silent compared to most disturbing, loud music but its effect feels equally as caustic as some of the most tortured industrial music I’ve laid my ears on. The songwriting and vocal performances are even more intense than her previous album, it mainly deals with the faith-questioning dilemma we all seem to face at one point, and the “answers” she comes to seem to be very much up to interpretation. The sound design is genius, the use of silence and the Appalachian folk elements come off demented yet earthly – like Hell is in Earth, and Hayter is opening up the chasm to reveal the Centralia furnace underneath. This record is both beautiful and absolutely brutal – it’s cinematic. It’s like looking at bright, dancing flames from afar against the evening horizon, but once you go near it, you find out it’s a house, and its dwellers’ screams are melding and melting with the crackle of the incessant flames. And with her coming out about her experience with terrifying levels of abuse, the record is made all the more potent.
3. Arca – kick iii
I’d be lying through my teeth if I say I’ve recovered from this album, my brain was split and spit through 8 different directions from the first listen. It’s easily the most visceral reaction I had when listening to an album this year (or maybe even in years) – it’s like the same awe I felt when I first discovered industrial hip-hop through Death Grips. Arca’s vocals sound alien yet divine in the final two tracks, while her more clubby and hip-hop-sounding tracks feature vocals that still sound alien but feral, cutting, and sexual in a violently possessive way. The production and sound design elevate that feeling of evoking a visceral response both ways. For the more flowery vocals near the end, the spaciness in the bass of Intimate Flesh and the string-like synths on Joya made those songs sound more beautiful. The rest of the album is a tight and versatile (and volatile) set of disorientating yet weirdly groovy industrial instrumentals with deconstructed structures that add to the sheer provocative other-worldliness nature of the vocals. Describing this album even further is going to drain my limited adjective vocabulary. This has to be a benchmark in her career and maybe even the electronic music scene on the whole.
2. Black Country, New Road – For the first time
How does a debut album sound like a magnum opus made by a band that sounds like they have the chemistry akin to seasonal vets? I don’t know how but BCNR really did it with this record. It’s just six tracks but these six tracks already have more body than any other rock album I’ve heard from the last couple of years, it’s comparable to late-era Swans. It’s amazing how well their musical virtuosity meets their vision for every instrumental here – and it’s only helped by the “smoother” mixing compared to the singles. That’s not to say there are no freaky guitar lines or odd grooves here and there to drive the intensity home, but they don’t overdo it to drown out the chamber instruments and Isaac’s vocals. Speaking of which, his vocals not only carry an unmistakable aura of anxiety but also a youthful tenacity to see it all through, even if everything gets swallowed by the rising flames. The songwriting is done in a storytelling manner for most of the tracks, through some vignettes that come off raw, cryptic yet strangely potent. It’s a damn near-perfect debut and judging by the teaser tracks, they seem to be cooking up another amazing record.
1. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage
In Carnage, Nick Cave writes about the mortality of our lives, our love, and our loved ones in a way that feels equally divine and devastating. He does it in a way that follows a tightrope between the cerebral and the visceral, some would call it gothic but there’s something more. Cave’s songwriting is as visual as ever, with some of the lines sticking with me to the point where I get vivid flashes of images whenever I think about them – I don’t think any other songwriter I’ve listened to in 2021 has done that for me. If nothing else, this album has cemented for me that Nick Cave is not just one of my favorite songwriters, he’s one of my favorite living writers. Ellis’ cinematic strings bring to life that heavenly aesthetic in songs in the latter half of the album, they are like white clouds cruising through a blindingly blue sky. Cave’s aged vocals croon against the soundscapes with just the right power. In darker, tenser songs in the first half – the production sounds mechanical, cold and Cave’s vocals grow teeth to tear through that. I know I’m generalizing the sound palette a bit, but I can’t overlook the elements that made this record so deeply moving to me. To me, this is up there with the Bad Seeds’ very best. And this much I know to be true – it’s my album of 2021.
That’s a wrap for my music-related year-end lists. Here’s to another great year for music!