2021: Music in Review

Pandemic Year 2: some steps forward, some back. I am still deeply grateful for not being directly affected by the virus and its ongoing variants, despite a spouse in healthcare and a child in the petri dish of elementary school - I've been able to work at home the majority of the time and continue my daily running regiment, and feel strangely disassociated with the world at large, a major indicator of general privilege.

On the music front, the lack of a clear consensus pick for best album made for deeper listening, with old favorite artists coming back strong and new contenders entering the fray. The work-from-home situation makes it generally easier to keep up with and discuss new music, though it of course remains totally unwieldy to stay totally on top of - hundreds of releases to contend with every week ensures that many are crowded out, lost or unheard at all. It would have been easy to cobble together a list of 100 releases but this year has felt like a transitory one: expected blockbusters from Billie Eilish, Kacey Musgraves, Lorde and Adele were generally underwhelming and insular; heavy hitters like Kendrick, Frank Ocean and Bjork were MIA; the list of expected 2022 releases already feels superior to 2021 (at the very least, there will be an LP-length Burial release marketed as an EP). The below list of 40 is all great-to-excellent, but nothing feels like an epochal release that will scream "2021" in the next decade, though those albums always tends to come out of nowhere (so maybe DONDA has a chance after all).

As is now standard, please see the below Spotify playlist of selections from the top 40 albums, presented in descending order. My feelings about streaming and using this platform could probably fill another page, but for convenience, there is hardly anything better. Please enjoy skimming and I hope you find something you like!

Albums of the Year

40. Hoavi, Invariant

The Russian producer's debut is a masterwork of drum programming and creamy textures, equal parts dub techno, pulsing footwork and nimble jungle, a modernized throwback to LTJ Bukem's beloved Logical Progression compilation. Best of all, Hoavi quickly followed this with an equally great ambient album (Music for Six Rooms) a mere month later.

39. St. Vincent, Daddy's Home

Destined to be a divisive album even before its release, Annie Clark's fifth St. Vincent album confounded expectations - those who wanted more of the guitar goddess were left wanting, while those wanting the full-blown idiosyncratic vision of a genius were sated. Full commitment to the style, and some of the best production of the year (despite being Jack Antonoff), daddy will be keeping the fire warm for years to come.

38. Genesis Owusu, Smiling With No Teeth

A hugely promising debut from the Ghanaian-Australian polyglot, this effort swerves wildly between genres and styles, less pastiche than reverence for the music he loves (reminding me somewhat of my beloved TV on the Radio). The "black dog" - long a metaphor for depression or death - makes repeated appearances throughout, as Owusu manifests it to grapple with race and anxiety, his personality tying the disparate elements together in an exhilarating whole. It will be exciting to see where he takes us next.

37. Lone, Always Inside Your Head

Matt Cutler has been making electronic music at the juncture where Boards of Canada meets the clubs for years, and his first album in five years is one of his most pleasurable, warm textures at loping rhythms, ideal for swaying on the beach or lost in your mind in the living room.

36. Garbage, No Gods No Masters

Although they have been going strong since their inception, Garbage made a big splash with their seventh album, a pointed take-down of capitalism, male toxicity and patriarchy set to some of their most barbarous and infectious tunes to date. Shirley Manson is a feminist treasure and her voice was a beacon of light and strength in an often miserable year.

35. Dawn Richard, Second Line

Yet again dropping one of the most underheralded releases of the year, Dawn Richard's full-bodied gumbo of style and context didn't shriek up the charts as it deserves, but nonetheless is a spectacular achievement of Afrofuturist R&B.

34. Nala Sinephro, Space 1.8

Ambitious and seemingly effortless, the Warp debut from harpist/modular synth-player Nala Sinephro is informed by the exceptionally fertile UK jazz scene (look out for Nubya Garcia) and is an exceptional example of utilizing the space in the title; these are unhurried and meditative works that flow into a seamless whole, topped by an incredible 17-minute closer that promises only greater achievements.

33. Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

The true winner of the Ye/Drake release date battle was Little Simz, who left both bloated megastars in the dust with her fourth album, a head-spinning collection of BARS and storytelling and excellent production. At 19 tracks and a full hour, it could be trimmed but her vision and charisma easily makes this one of the highlights of rap in 2021.

32. Boldy James & the Alchemist, Bo Jackson

After a god-like 2020, Boldy took it easy with only one release (plus a late-December addendum of bonus tracks); reconnecting with the Alchemist for more dead-eyed drug raps over lush production, excellence over all.

31. Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg

Foregoing any semblance to singing, Florence Shaw monologues her way through these spiky post-punk confections with wry observances about modern life, love and anxiety. A band who will be well-worth following.

30. Erika de Casier, Sensational/i>

The Y2K-era throwback you didn't realize you needed, de Casier's sophomore album is a cool-headed and clear-eyed look back at the millennial pop trends of skittering Timbaland-esque production, relentless hooks and Aaliyah-like vocals. You need to be polite to get with her.

29. Halsey, If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power

One of the more interesting pop stars I still never gave much time to, Halsey went for broke with this high-concept work about pregnancy, motherhood and a woman's place, co-written with and produced by Nine Inch Nails. My expectations were tempered, and this won't replace any of their classic works, but it was a visceral rush to hear Trent flex his pop muscles in such a broad way - most of this album could have been released in the halcyon alt-rock landscape of 1995 and crushed the competition. Most likely a one-off, but a big W for all involved.

28. Dream Theater, A View from the Top of the World
| Liquid Tension Experiment, Liquid Tension Experiment 3

You know exactly what you're getting with a new DT album in 2021 - eye-popping musicianship, creamy tones and no-holds-barred songwriting. Some of their heaviest material in some time, and a 20-minute title track that will grow to become one of their finest epics. As a bonus, the pandemic also inspired the side-project of John Petrucci, Jordan Rudess, departed drummer Mike Portnoy and bass wizard Tony Levin to release their first new album since 1999 - manna from the heavens for prog-rock nerds.


Yet another triumph of post-modern rap from Peggy, a dazzling display of deft experimentation and lazer-focused raps, scurrying from one great idea to another without dwelling on a single one - from leftfield electronica to ironic 80's arena rock to dub-drenched paranoia to an ear-twitching Britney interpolation. He operates at his own level and answers to no one.

26. Deafheaven, Infinite Granite

Reception for the former black metal band's new album was mixed and muted - gone were the ethereal shrieks and pummeling instruments, replaced with a poppier, gauzy sound and clean singing. Others' loss: I experienced this album at high volume while driving into the mountains for a half-marathon as the sun rose behind me, dispelling the storm clouds and illuminating the snowy peaks in a russet light, and it was magnificent.

25. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Carnage

One of the unreal artists currently plying his trade, Nick Cave has had a tremendous run of albums since 2013 - deeply heartfelt and almost spiritual works that yearn to make sense of a callous life he'd spent his youth chronicling. His collaborative effort with Bad Seed Warren Ellis is yet another masterwork of vignettes, Cave looking out from his balcony at a world slowly unraveling in cinematic slow-motion, searching for the kingdom in the sky.

24. (Parannoul), To See the Next Part of the Dream

Bedroom shoegaze from an unknown South Korean entity, with an absolutely blown-out production, these tracks are unafraid to stretch out for up to 10 minutes while keeping everything in the red. One of the most surprising and welcome discoveries of the year.

23. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, G_d's Pee AT STATE'S END

Perhaps realizing that pandemic reality is already much worse than any aural nightmare they could easily conjure, Canada's towering post-rock collective took it easy on us with this triumphant and hopeful album, despite the return of their beloved found-sound approach - two epic tracks and two shorter songs, neither which attempt to reach the caustic apocalypse of records past.

22. Lil Nas X, MONTERO

Casting off the albatross of one-hit-wonderdom like a queen, Lil Nas made one of the year's most unapologetically fun pop albums, showing that his ear for a pop hook was no fluke. From his trolling of conservatives to his fully realized visual presentation, he was the pop star we needed in 2021.

21. Iron Maiden, Senjutsu

England's Finest have found the elixir of life; how else to explain a 17th album, four decades into their career, that goes as hard as this? Once again coming back with their longest work to date, their second consecutive double album goes at the stately pace of the king surveying the battlefield on horseback before laying waste with its intricate, comforting attack.

20. Lingua Ignota, SINNER GET READY

Not as overwhelmingly heavy musically as 2019's Caligula, Kristin Hayter's fourth album instead utilizes Appalachian instruments and silence in her often overwhelming vocal attack, giving voice to the abused and downtrodden voiceless. Not the ideal soundtrack for your work Christmas party, but a stunning statement from an artist quickly accumulating a formidable body of work.

19. Joy Orbison, Still Slipping

The man behind the epochal dancefloor bomb Hyph Mngo at last dropped a debut album and made it sound like an intimate living room party packed with family and friends, casual spinning records and making small talk - a pointed comment on pandemic times locked out of the club if ever there was one.

18. Black Country, New Road, for the first time

The kids aren't coming up from behind - they've raced way ahead of the game. Perhaps it is something in the UK's water, but the recent crop of freaked-out spastic guitar rock bands has seen some incredible releases, not least of which is this London band's debut. Post-punk, free jazz, math rock, klezmer, quavering atonal vocals - all blended into a tangled work that becomes more knotted the more you listen. Their sophomore album is hardly more than a month away as of writing; be prepared.

17. aya, im hole

Hyperdub continues to push the boundaries with aya's debut, a nightmarish trip through fractals of electronic genres mutated beyond recognition, topped with pitch-shifted vocals and inscrutable stream-of-consciouness lyrics. Drums are used to topple the songs as often as they are to keep a rhythm -

16. Dave, We're All Alone In This Together

Cementing his place at the forefront of UK rap, Dave won a Mercury Prize for his piercing debut and followed it up with an effort of grace and power; lush booming production, dense verses and a couple of welcome posse cuts made this a superb sophomore album. The sky is the limit.

15. Squid, Bright Green Field

A London band who explore the places, events and architecture that exist within their debut, this barn-burner of a post-/kraut-/math-rock album took the hype from their early singles and set it aflame with the type of debut that may be impossible to follow. Very excited to see where the journey leads.

14. Lonelady, Former Things

Julie Campbell remains one of the most criminally underrated artists currently working, as her third album of excellent material and rich backstory dropped to a muted reception (at least on the North American continent) - originally envisioned as a techno album, the arrangements tend to skitter and pop all over the place, as the geography of the soul and her native Manchester fight for prevalence. A lyrical tour de force and a third straight masterwork.

13. Amon Tobin, How Do You Live

Tobin has carte blanche to do whatever he pleases on his Nomark label and he has kept us sated in the past few years with side projects, one-off tracks and meaty LPs like his eighth. As fantastic as he has ever been.

12. GAS, Der Lange Marsch

Signs point to this being Wolfgang Voight's final GAS album, what with the numerous call-backs to previous motifs from his past works. He made the bold choice of placing an insistent high-pitched beep throughout the entire album as a nod to his tinnitus and the album's translated title of "the long march"; I can only hear it faintly at considerable volume, so it doesn't bother me, though I understand others hate it.

11. For Those I Love, For Those I Love

If you have ever lit a candle for Mike Skinner's Streets project, this debut from the Irish producer/artist is one to cherish: a lump-in-your-throat tribute to a lost friend, and an emotional journey through nostalgic club nights, a spoken-word club record delivered in a poignant Irish brogue. At times unbearably sad (and often very Dublin-specific), there is always the undercurrent of hope that keeps your head up.

10. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra, Promises

A head trip of uncommon grace, this superstar team-up between an electronic musician, a free-jazz titan and, well, a symphonic orchestra reads like a mess on paper but becomes sublime on record, a truly collaborative bit of improvisation built around a motif of four 7-note chords. Once again, I have qualms about a Floating Points release being too short - much like Elaenia, this could comfortably have kept us drifting for another hour or so.

9. Spellling, The Turning Wheel

A whimsical art-pop record that immediately commands your attention with its perfect production and sinuous songwriting. Tia Cabral has an acquired-taste type of voice, one that should be a comfort to those weaned on Bjork and Kate Bush records. This flew under the radar for most of the year but the pervasive joy of hitting play and going on her fantastic voyage was too much to resist.

8. Tirzah, Colourgrade

Her debut delivered a batch of classic romantic love songs; now Tirzah's sophomore album redefines what a love song is. Again the beneficiary of stunning production that favors the quiet moments and imperfections of life, these songs of love could be about lovers, friends, or children - a universal sentiment and a fantastic record.

7. Arca, KicK iii

Alejandra Ghersi has been a fixture of critical lists since her debut in 2014, and she has built up one of the most formidable discographies this side of Death Grips over the past decade. This year she delivered on the promise of four new kick albums; during the first week of December we were treated to four straight days of boundary-pushing releases, each more glorious than the last (ultimately I chose the relentless reggaeton of the third installment as the representative). Some will likely boil the five LPs down to an unassailable single album, but it is the breadth of her vision and willingness to scorch the envelope that pushes her to the forefront of pop: it is so much, but there is so much good. Who knows where she might go.

6. Loraine James, Reflection

Leveling up from her great 2019 debut and making it sound like mere collage, James turns her sights to unknown worlds within the electronic realm, taking all of her previous influences and making a seamless new beast out of them. While a brasher personality would hype themselves for creating such modern thrills, James is laid back: in her words, "if you don't like this, cool, skip it". But it would be better if you didn't.

5. black midi, Cavalcade

After their brilliant 2019 debut Schlagenheim, black midi shattered the idea of a sophomore slump. Their twisting arrangements could have devolved into a Gordian knot of incomprehensibility, but although tracks like "John L" and "Slow" careen wildly, the quieter tracks like "Diamond Stuff" balance them out. Ending with an instantly-legendary two final chords, they have upped the stakes for a third album immeasurably.

4. Shackleton, Departing Like Rivers

Although he has graced us with a long list of collaborative albums in the meantime, this is Sam Shackleton's first solo album in 9 years, and he gives us what might be the essential Shackleton release, all of his strengths and idiosyncrasies in one place.

3. Skee Mask, Pool

Arriving without fanfare in the high days of spring, Bryan Muller's new album for Ilian Tape doesn't deviate from the rich and enveloping ambient/jungle/dub sounds he perfected over his first two albums; indeed, this nearly two hour work can almost be too much ecstasy if mainlined in one. I found it best to be consumed as a buffet, whether in bites or shuffled or during a long run or just while watching my daughter at the playground during summer golden hours - sheer bliss.

Harrison Ford

2. Tyler, the Creator, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST

Ten years in the game, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more graceful career arc than Tyler's, from shock-rap leader of a wild collective to an impeccably groomed Neptunes-indebted producer who dabbles in Hollywood film scores. He has leaned on his singing voice on recent albums but swerves back into mixtape glory on his sixth album, with DJ Drama interjecting at a-near irritating clip over these lush tracks and vivid verses. There's no shortage of rappers who rap these days if you take the time to look (which I rarely do), but Tyler takes them to school. A throwback that manages to come across as a classic in its own right.

1. The Bug, Fire

Depending on your willingness to revel in the on-going pandemic, Kevin Martin's first album as the Bug in 7 years was either heaven or hell - these scorched-earth productions and furious guest turns left no middle ground. Roger Robinson sets the mood with a dystopic vision of the "fourth year of being cooped up" with "no end" before an air raid siren sets the bass at DESTROY and doesn't let up. A sobering monologue about the Grenfell Tower ushers us out of the apocalyptic party with bleary eyes - possibly the essential snapshot of our troubled and distressing times.

Songs of the Year

A playlist of 25 excellent songs from albums not represented above, in no particular order.

Reissues/Live Albums

DJ Sprinkles, Gayest Tits & Greyest Shits: 1998 - 2017 12-Inches & One-Offs
Two discs of DJ Sprinkles at her dubbiest, deep-house best, with tracks ranging over two decades (including the era of the masterpiece that is Midtown 120 Blues) in a bespoke package - probably my favorite release of the year.

Seefeel, Rupt + Flex 94-96
Warp Records re-released the British post-everything band's discography in a handsome embossed box; bewitching and inscrutable.

David Bowie, Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001)
The Bowie box I was personally most excited for, despite the ruthless erasure of the entire Tin Machine enterprise, this is where Bowie acts as elder statesman in the eclectic 90s, possibly only chasing the modern sound rather than leading it, but doing it extremely well. The lost Toy album (and its atrocious artwork) is worth the admission alone.

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle
A double-hit of Pharoah Sanders in 2021 came with this rediscovered live set of the canonical Coltrane work, merely another stop on his restless journey. The album is given a radical workover on stage, extended and wilder, some of the finest jazz you'll ever encounter.

Can, Live in Stuttgart 1975 / Live in Brighton 1975
The alchemical interplay between the members of Can is on full display on these, incredibly the first officially released, single-show live albums from their mid-70's peak. You'll catch snatches of familiar tracks like "Vitamin C" and "Mushroom", but mostly you'll be blown away by the musicianship.

Sunn O))), Metta, Benevolence - BBC 6 Live: On the Invitation of Mary Anne Hobbs
Three incredibly loud and gloriously crushing renditions of tracks from their excellent 2019 releases, it can't approximate the true live experience but you can always attempt it by maxing your stereo.

Honorable Mentions

Prince, Welcome 2 America
Not sure if this is a reissue or a new album but certainly worth a mention; a lost/unreleased Prince album from 2010, and one of his most openly political works ever - anything from the Purple One is worth your time.

Kruder & Dorfmeister, 1995
See above: an unreleased collection of tracks produced by the legendary downtempo Austrians in the titular year, this may or may not count as their first-ever studio album. Timestamped but timeless.

ABBA, Voyage
Here's something I've never in my lifetime could type: a brand-new ABBA studio album. As endearingly scattershot, syrupy and charming as any of their previous works.

Jon Hopkins, Music for Psychedelic Therapy
Designed, like much of his discography, to soundtrack a chemical trip, this time augmented by (literal) jungle sounds from Ecuador.

James Blake, Friends That Break Your Heart
Blake continues his singular run as producer extraordinaire on his fifth album, some of his best work in years.

Elbow, Flying Dream 1
The classy gentlemen of Elbow release their most gentle, lovely album to date in order to soothe frayed nerves.

Darkside, Spiral
The surprise return of what most people assumed was a one-off project, Nico Jaar and Dave Harrington returned strong with a sophomore album of molten guitars and crisp textures, meandering and occasionally finding the magic that propelled their debut.

Arlo Parks, Collapsed in Sunbeams
The reigning Mercury Prize winner, this debut from the London R&B poet/artist is heartfelt, anxious and very promising.

Women With Guitars
Shoutout to TORRES' Thirstier, Japanese Breakfast's Jubilee, Snail Mail's Valentine, Lucy Dacus' Home Movies, and Julien Baker's Little Oblivions - five excellent albums I didn't want to choose between that prove the continued relevance of the guitar.

Kanye West, DONDA
I'm inclined to give Ye the benefit of the doubt for following his own muse, because there is an excellent album in here somewhere, you just need to really search for it through the endless tracks and ongoing updates.


The War on Drugs, I Don't Live Here Anymore
Reigning in the sprawling cosmic rock of their 2017 release, War on Drugs came through with an streamlined effort that became less distinguishable from their progenitors.

Adele, 30
It's baseless to hope for it, but it's also obvious that Adele would slay over some new production methods - she has mastered the exceptional weepy piano ballad, is it too much to hope that she might explore some cutting-edge dance or electronic sounds at some point?

Olivia Rodrigo, Sour
Not sure if the debut from a Disney industry plant should be considered a disappointment, but it would be nice if, amidst all the hype, the kids were more interested in pushing pop forward on their own terms rather than relitigating the pop-punk sounds of Y2K Past.


Far be it from me to dump on music that people may love; who am I to say that Coldplay's newest album continues their back-and-forth from "worthwhile artistic endeavor" (2019's Everyday Life) to "brazen mainstream chasing" (this year's Music of the Spheres) - I'm happy they finally got a #1 single after 13 years, even if they had to piggyback on the sensational (and increasingly watered-down) BTS. New Ed Sheeran music? I need it like I need a cancerous mole, but don't let me stop you enjoying it. Justin Bieber returned with some more soulless pop jams that had the excitement of a bowl of pablum. Country singer Morgan Wallen released a giant double-disc of tracks as a data dump that went to #1, drunkenly shouted some racist shit in a video, performatively got "canceled" then ended up an even bigger star than before: the album stayed at #1 for 10 weeks straight and 700,000 tickets have been sold for his upcoming tour - that's a whole lot of "well, it's not SO bad to so casually and reflexively shout racist shit" attitude in 2021. However, we can all agree that Drake is now and has ever been absolute balls, and Certified Lover Boy is a joyless turd, the aural equivalent of Robert De Niro as the fat, sagging, crag-blasted Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull", covered in smug flop sweat. Boo these men.

As always, the passing of artists young and old tends to be the worst news of the year and this space offers me a chance to look back and pay tribute to them. Here is an abridged list of those we lost in 2021.

Sylvain Sylvain (January 13) - the guitarist of the New York Dolls was 69.
Phil Spector (January 16) - hugely influential producer and convicted murderer, dead at 81.
SOPHIE (January 30) - the future of pop no more, the Scottish transgender hero died in a tragic accident at 34.
Chick Corea (February 9) - the jazz fusion pianist legend was 79.
U-Roy (February 17) - the Jamaican reggae legend was 78.
Bunny Wailer (March 2) - one of the legendary Wailers was 73.
DMX (April 9) - once the biggest rap star in the world, the Queens legend was only 50.
Black Rob (April 17) - best known for his killer track "Whoa", the critical sideman was 51.
Shock G (April 22) - a member of classic rap combo Digital Underground, he was 57.
Gift of Gab (June 18) - the Blackalicious rapper was a huge talent and a huge loss at only 50.
Biz Markie (July 16) - more than just a friend, but a legend of the game, he was 57.
Peter Rehberg (July 22) - Austrian-British producer and founder of the Edition Mego label, was only 53.
Joey Jordison (July 26) - the monster behind the kit for much of Slipknot's career, Jordison was only 46.
Kelli Hand (August 3) - the Detroit techno producer was 56.
Don Everly (August 21) - the golden-voiced singer was 84.
Charlie Watts (August 24) - a legend among legends and nobody's drummer, the dapper Watts was 80.
Lee "Scratch" Perry (August 29) - perhaps the single most famous reggae artist and a true trailblazer, Perry was 85.
Sarah Harding (September 5) - a member of UK sensation Girls Aloud, Harding was only 39.
Andy Barker (November 6) - a member of seminal acid house act 808 State, Barker was 53.
Stephen Sondheim (November 26) - a titan of the theater, the legendary American composer was 91.
Janos Kobor (December 6) - the long-time singer of Hungarian prog legends Omega, Kobor was 78.
Steve Bronski (December 7) - the Bronski Beat keyboardist was 61.
Robbie Shakespeare (December 8) - essential reggae bassist and one half of the enormously prolific Sly & Robbie, he was 68.
Mike Nesmith (December 10) - the Monkees guitarist and all-around hipster was 78.
Leonard "Hub" Hubbard (December 15) - the long-time bassist for the legendary Roots was 62.
Drakeo the Ruler (December 19) - the highly influential LA rapper was only 28.

Thanks for sticking around and see you all in 2022!