Top 21 albums of 2021. (2023)

I have never had this many candidates for a best albums ranking before. I had this idea eight years ago that I’d make the length of my year-end album lists equal to the last two digits of the year, which would probably work until I was about 55 or so and who knew if I’d even still be doing these. Most years, though, I found that while there were always plenty of songs I loved, there were never quite enough albums, even accounting for the fact that every year I seem to find more new music to listen to, between the wonders of Spotify (for the listener, at least) and reader feedback. This year, though, I could have gone 30 deep and still had more to consider, even keeping the bar for inclusion reasonably high. I stopped this list at 21, to return to the old gimmick, but my honorable mentions include Amyl & the Sniffers’ Comfort to Me, Chime School’s Chime School, The Coral’s Coral Island, Deafheaven’s Infinite Granite, Inhaler’s It Won’t Always Be Like This, Khemmis’ Deceiver, Pond’s 9, Thrice’s Horizons/East, TURNSTILE’s GLOW ON, and Willow’s Lately I Feel Everything.

You can see my previous year-end album rankings here: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and my top albums of the 2010s.

21. Death from Above 1979 – Is 4 Lovers. I missed DfA1979’s first album when it first came out, but have been increasingly a fan of their work since they re-formed after a ten-year hiatus, and this is the best thing they’ve ever done – more mature and cohesive without losing the urgency or the fury of their first record. Highlights including “Modern Guy,” “One + One,” and the two-part “N.Y.C. Power Elite.”

20. Susanna Hoffs – Bright Lights. No, really, the lead singer of the Bangles put out one of the best albums of 2021. It’s a mélange of styles more appropriate to her age and this stage of her career, but damn if she doesn’t nail just about all of it, mixing in bits of folk, lite jazz, and torch songs for a record that manages to sound timeless. There’s one really ‘off’ track here (“Take Me with U”), but highlights include the oldies-influenced “You Just May Be the One,” “One of These Things First,” and “Name of the Game,” the last one featuring Aimee Mann.

19. CHVRHCES – Screen Violence. A welcome return to form for the Scottish electro-pop trio, with some of Lauren Mayberry’s best lyrics to date, built around themes of digital harassment and online hate, and better hooks than we heard on their last album, Love is Dead. Highlights include “How Not to Drown,” “Final Girl,” “California,” and “Screaming” (from the Director’s Cut).

18. The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore. This is the tightest, most accessible album from TWoD yet, with much stronger hooks than they’ve had before. I’ve become accustomed to the Bob Dylan impression – at which singer/songwriter Adam Granduciel winks in the lyrics to the title track – although I’m still not a fan of the song lengths. Highlights include “I Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “Harmonia’s Dream,” and “Change.”

17. Maisie Peters – You Signed Up for This. I’ve been a fan of Peters’ work since her first few singles, and while her sound has changed to something far more pop-oriented, the wit and insight of her lyric has only improved as she’s reached her early twenties, and it’s not as if her hooks have suffered from working with Ed Sheeran. Highlights include “Psycho,” “John Hughes Movie,” “Brooklyn,” and the title track.

16. Jungle – Loving in Stereo. Still fairly unknown in the U.S., Jungle have become quite popular in their native U.K. with their American R&B/disco throwback sound. This album, the duo’s third, is their most upbeat by far, a welcome antidote to a year of bad news. Highlights include “Truth,” “Keep Moving,” “Talk About It,” and “All of the Time.”

15. black midi – Cavalcade. The highly experimental English quartet returned with another album of challenging, unexpected, noisy tracks that defy any expectations you might have of a typical rock record … and yet somehow still manage to bring a weird sort of melody to their songs, something you can grab while you’re digesting the bizarre arrangements and tonal shifts. Highlights include “Chondromalacia Patella,” “John L.,” and “Slow.”

14. Emma-Jean Thackeray – Yellow. Thackeray is a trumpeter and bandleader from Yorkshire but is more than comfortable in American jazz and funk traditions, producing an album that refers back decades while still producing something fresh, thanks in no small part to the lush vocal harmonies on most of the tracks on this ebullient record. Highlights include “Say Something,” “Green Funk,” “Third Eye,” and “Sun,” the last of which has a nod to Parliament’s “Flashlight” in the chorus.

13. Mastodon – Hushed and Grim. A sprawling album of 15 tracks and 86 minutes, Hushed and Grim threads a difficult needle, maintaining some of the more mainstream sensibilities of their last album, Emperor of Sand, without giving up some of their more complex arrangements or expansive song lengths (six of the tracks run six minutes plus, and only two are shorter than 4:59). Every review I found was positive except Pitchfork’s, of course. Highlights include “Pushing the Tides,” “Teardrinker,” and “Sickle and Peace.”

12. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend. I respect the ambition here, and the highlights are very high, but when they go into quietcore territory they tend to lose me for the same reason I was tepid about their Mercury Prize-winning Visions of a Life – those songs lack the beating heart of their best tracks. Highlights include “Smile,” “How Can I Make It OK?,” “Safe from Heartbreak,” “Play the Greatest Hits,” and “No Hard Feelings.”

11. Manchester Orchestra – The Million Masks of God. One of the most unexpected albums of the year was this introspectiverecord from the Georgia quartet whose albums have all been thematic in some way, but who reached a new apex here on a record about death and grieving. The album hums along even as it moves between heavier numbers and mournful acoustic tracks, each of which stands on its own while contributing to a whole that is cohesive in sound and lyrics. Highlights include “Telepath,” “Bed Head,” “Annie,” and “Keel Timing.”

10. Gojira – Fortitude. The best metal album of 2021 came from the group I’d call the best metal band working today. Gojira explores the edges of extreme metal without succumbing to its excesses – an affliction that cursed Carcass’ 2021 album Torn Arteries, which took a step back from their Surgical Steel peak – and without losing track of the guitar riffs that make metal compelling. Highlights include “Another World,” “Born for One Thing,” “Amazonia,” and “Into the Storm.”

9. Cœur de Pirate – Impossible à aimer. Béatrice Martin may be saying she’s impossible to love, but I fell for this album right away – she dives heavily into lush pop sounds from the 1970s, such as the lovely string arrangement that opens “On s’aimera toujours,” while continuing the piano-driven focus from her instrumental EP Perséides, all showcasing her beautiful voice (which continues to impress even after recent surgery on her vocal chords). Highlights include “On s’aimera toujours,” “Tu peux crever là-bas,” and “Tu ne seras jamais là.”

8. The Lottery Winners – Something To Leave the House For. The most recent release on this list, Something to Leave the House For just dropped on December 4th, with most of the fantastic singles they’d released in the prior year appearing on this album, which is a banger all the way through. The Mancunian quartet have a knack for churning out pop tracks with undeniable hooks, the sort of songs that get stuck in your head but you don’t really mind because they’re the feel-good kind of pop tracks. Highlights include “Much Better, “Favourite Flavour,” “Sunshine,” “Start Again” (with Frank Turner), and “Hotel DeVille,” although the March single “Bang” (with the Wonder Stuff) didn’t make the release.

7. Royal Blood – Typhoons. Production help by Josh Homme made a huge difference for the English duo, as their sound here includes more funk and disco elements, similar to the way Homme’s Queens of the Stone Age expanded their song after working with Mark Ronson on their last album. Highlights include “Boilermaker,” the title track, “Oblivion,” and “Trouble’s Coming.”

6. Foxing – Draw Down the Moon. The St. Louis trio’s blend of post-rock, emo, metal, and even more came together on this masterful album that is as ambitious as any record I heard this year – and succeeds, incorporating all manner of styles and genres within songs, demanding that you keep up with the rapid textural and sonic shifts, without forgetting the essential element of melody. It’s a record that rewards careful listening and patience, as so many tracks end somewhere completely unexpected. Highlights include the title track, “Go Down Together,” “Bialystok,” “737,” and “Beacons.”

5. Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime. One of the most globally acclaimed albums of 2021, Afrique Victime may help introduce Moctar’s blend of traditional Touareg music and western guitar rock to a wider audience. The fretwork here is incredible, more than enough to pull in anyone who plays guitar or enjoys that style of music, but even if you’re not into that specific aspect, this album just flat-out rocks. Highlights include “Chismiten,” the title track, and “Taliat.”

4. Geese – Projector. If I called these Brooklyn teenagers/early twentysomethings the American black midi, would it feel like enough of a compliment? Geese are experimental, but their base sound derives far more from post-punk traditions like Television, Suicide, and Wire than the noise-rock antecedents of black midi – and the result is a more accessible and delightfully weird debut album. Highlights include “Rain Dance,” “Low Era,” “Disco,” and the title track.

3. Kid Kapichi – This Time Next Year. This Hastings quartet blends a strong Arctic Monkeys musical and lyrical sensibility with heavier guitarwork, veering into punk territory, with a series of working-class anthems where singers Jack Wilson and Ben Beetham rage against various machines. The band produced and released the album themselves, which might be why it hasn’t appeared on many year-end lists, but it was clearly the best straight rock album of the year for me, and one of the only truly no-skip albums of 2021. Highlights include “Working Man’s Town,” “Sardines,” “What Would Your Mother Say,” “Don’t Kiss Me (I’m Infected),” and “Self Saboteur.”

2. Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams. Winner of this year’s Mercury Prize, this debut album from the 21-year-old British singer-songwriter features nearly all of the singles I’ve included on my playlists from Parks over the last two years. Parks’s voice is gorgeous, soft and somewhat high-pitched, yet able to fill all the spaces left by the minimalist R&B, jazz, and folk music that backs her up across the album. Her lyrics are close and intimate portraits of pain and hope around stories of broken hearts, damaged families, and other stories, replete with little details (“Dragonfruit and peaches in the wine,” “Wearing suffering like a silk garment or a spot of blue ink”) that provide the images to the short films she’s creating with every track. Highlights include “Black Dog,” “Green Eyes,” “Hurt,” “Hope,” and “Caroline.”

1. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. I called it in September, saying this was the best album of 2021, and that has more than held true, not just on my own list but on the non-scientific compilations over at albumoftheyear.org. The title is a backronym for Simbi, Simz’s nickname among her friends, and also introduces the listener to the profound lyrical themes she’s about to cover, including her difficult relationship with her biological father (“I Love You, I Hate You”), global feminism (“Woman”), the dichotomy required of people with public personae (“Introvert”), death and grief (“Little Q”), and more. The album features spoken-word interludes from Emma Corrin, who played Princess Diana Spencer on seasons 3 and 4 of The Crown, and tremendous guest appearances from Obongjayar and Cleo Sol. And the music, which incorporates elements of Afrobeat, British and American hip-hop, and old-school soul, is compelling just about the entire way through, providing a strong backdrop for Little Simz’s rapping while delivering a series of memorable hooks. It’s one of the best albums of the century so far, and if it doesn’t make Little Simz a star around the world, that’s our loss. Highlights include the songs mentioned above as well as “Point and Kill,” “Rollin Stone,” and “Protect My Energy.”

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