After the endless shit storm of 2020, this year offered glimmers of hope, especially for music fans, as the world started to open back up and we were able to once again gather for events and live music shows. The year was also filled with a seemingly never ending supply of fantastic music. But even in a year of great music, there were still a few really special albums that stood out from the rest. So without further ado, here’s our pick for the 20 best albums of 2021.
Roane Namuh – Luvbalm
With Luvbalm, Portland beatmaker Roane Namuh crafted the ultimate summer mixtape with a collection of self-produced loops, edits and beats. Rooted in hip-hop, Luvbalm is much more than a “beat tape;” it’s a real journey, covering serious ground and spanning a wide variety of styles, from laid back ’90s R&B and rap infused drums gliding beneath dramatic synth lines and sensuous lyric samples to cosmic/spiritual jazz numbers to disco, Detroit house and more. Crucial listening.
The Zenmenn – Enter The Zenmenn
With their debut album, The Zenmenn presented a collection of laid back, magical synthscapes. Across nine songs, the album is a timeless trip that comes across as both forward-thinking and nostalgic, blending dream pop with new-agey vibes that don’t come across as too cheesy, combining a variety of tempos, instruments, styles and influences to create a warm, inviting and immersive listening experience.
April + Vista – Pit Of My Dreams
Washington D.C. based duo April + Vista returned with their first album since 2018’s You Are Here, and it was a stunner. With April George on lead vocals, violin and piano and mattVISTA on bass and production duties, the duo present a sound that’s lush and mesmerizing, rooted in electronic but with flourishes of organic instrumentation, including guest performers on cello, viola and drums. It’s really exquisite stuff that’s sure to please those who enjoy the moodier side dream of pop.
Reymour – Leviosa
Brussels-based band Reymour created one of the best albums of 2021, offering is a collection of exquisite leftfield pop. Vocalist Lou Savary’s timeless voice shines over a wide-ranging musical palette from bandmate Lou Bersier, who deftly navigates from electronic to new wave to no wave to synth-laden dreamscapes.
Joy Orbison – still slipping vol. 1
Billed as a mixtape and an album, still slipping vol. 1 is a journey that slowly unravels over 14 tracks that traverse the world of future garage, post-dubstep and bass music. Unlike most of Joy Orbison’s previous club-oriented work, the music here feels airy and delicate. The album is also interspersed with a series of voice notes from Joy Orbison’s family (his only contact with them during the year of lockdown), including the cousin who introduced him to the world of UK dance music that helped spark his life’s pursuit. These voices imbue the album with an air of intimacy and warmth rarely heard in electronic music.
Vegyn – Like A Good Friend
Much hyped producer Vegyn released his debut solo album, Like A Good Friend, to much anticipation and boy did it deliver. Vegyn is a producer with huge depth and range, and this was one of the best albums of 2021, showcasing an insular, multi-tempo sound with tracks built around chopped drums, atmospheric pads and swirling ambient noise.
The Pro-Teens – I Flip My Life Every Time I Fly
The debut album from Melbourne-based act The Pro-Teens is on some gritty, boom bap-laced soul, all dirty drums and melodies straight out of rap’s golden era. I Flip My Life Every Time I Fly is a groove-heavy session, laid down straight to tape using vintage analogue recording techniques. The band’s off-kilter rhythms bring vintage Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep beats to mind, mixed with the hard funk stylings of bands like The Fabulous Three and El Michels Affair.
Fears – Oíche
The debut album from London-based Irish artist Constance Keane (a.k.a. Fears) is a truly gorgeous achievement born out of some very real shit.Recorded over the span of five years, the album is a revealing, introspective look into a troubling time in Keane’s life. Described as “like a coming of age novel,” it was partially created during Keane’s time in psychiatric care. Oíche means “night” in Irish and it’s a fitting title for an album that’s best suited to nocturnal headphone listening. Combining stirring vocals, acoustic samples and moody electronic production to profound effect, Fears reveals a lush sound that’s simultaneously haunting and soothing.
Yu Su – Yellow River Blue
A sonically rich debut album from China-born, Vancouver-based electronic musician Yu Su, Yellow River Blue defies easy categorization. Danceable, uptempo tracks fuse into leftfield, ambient-leaning dub, and mid-tempo rollers, all imbued with atmospheric texture and far eastern melody. It’s a thoroughly listenable, well-rounded album from an electronic producer I can’t wait to more from.
Armand Hammer – Haram
Rapper Elucid and Billy Woods returned as Armand Hammer again in 2021, this time enlisting The Alchemist on production duty. Separately, these three already do their own thing and march to the beat of their own drum, so the result is the perfect pairing – sparse beats playing backdrop to idiosyncratic flows and dense lyrics. It sounds dope but also merits repeat listening to unpack everything. Brilliant stuff, one of the best albums of 2021.
Stimulator Jones – Low Budget Environments Striving For Perfection
Keeping fans on their toes, multi-instrumentalist/producer/songwriter and all around musical renaissance man Stimulator Jones released two albums in 2021. While his other release, La Mano, saw Jones becoming a one-man-band to create funk- and jazz-fuelled instrumentals, Low Budget Environments Striving For Perfection is a collection of hip-hop beats Jones has been creating since getting his first sampler as a teenager. Described by Jones as “tape hiss, turntables and THC,” it’s a timeless beat tape – all loops, and groove-heavy, no frills head nodders that strike the perfect vibe through and through.
Navy Blue – Navy’s Reprise
Navy’s Reprise continues New York rapper Navy Blue’s stellar run, beginning with the release of two excellent solo albums in 2020. Navy states early on in the lead track “Light” that “this is personal,” and the theme of his personal journey and struggles reins throughout the album. It’s a soul-bearing project that also also sounds soulful and deep. Overall, the production is lush and moving, vintage instrumental loops that aren’t quite “boom bap” but also not quite as minimal as Navy’s previous productions, many of which feature gorgeous melodies over snare-less beats. Taken together, Navy’s trio of albums released in the past year definitely cement his place as one of the best rappers out right now.
Madlib – Sound Ancestors
As Madlib’s first proper solo album, this one was sure to be special and it truly is. The songs on Sound Ancestors are taken from 100s of loops and beats recorded over the years during Madlib’s studio sessions, which were then arranged, edited, manipulated and mastered by Kieren Hebden (aka Four Tet) into a cohesive whole. The result puts Madlib’s immense talent as a producer on full display, a signature collection of iconoclastic beats in a variety of styles and tempos. One of the best albums of 2021, for sure.
Bremer McCoy – Natten
Danish duo Bremer/McCoy consists of Jonathan Bremer on acoustic bass and Morten McCoy on keys and tape delay. The two started out as a reggae group before transitioning to a sound that blends dub, jazz and neo-classical into a meditative whole. It’s an ambitious mix of styles, and Bremer/McCoy craft a sound that’s much fuller than their parts. Their 2021 offering, Natten, is a conceptual yet accessible series of atmospheric songs built around lush melodies that flow together into a gorgeous whole. Natten is Danish for “the night,” and as the title implies, this one’s best listened to after hours – it’s calming music for chaotic times, a soothing, regenerative listen.
Sault – Nine
Internet theories abound but little is known about this mysterious British band that burst onto the scene in 2020 with the release of two incredible, genre-bending albums, Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise). Nine is Sault’s third album in a little over a year and you might think such torrential output would diminish the quality of their music, but Nine finds Sault again elevating their game. Sonically, it’s as rich as ever, with the band exploring a wide range of styles and influences, from grime (“Trap Life”) to cinematic soul (“Bitter Streets”) to gospel (“Light’s In Your Hands”) to funk (“Alcohol”). Adding to their air of mystery, Nine was only available in all forms (streaming and physical) for 99 days, so if you haven’t heard it by now, sadly it may be too late.
El Michels Affair – Yeti Season
Proving they truly can’t miss, Yeti Season is another stone-cold stunner from El Michels Affair. Again branching out in a new direction, Yeti Season is an expansive endeavor, pairing El Michels Affairs’s nostalgic, cinematic soul sound with influences of Turkish and Indian psych funk. Not many bands could pull off such a dramatic stylistic switch up, but El Michels Affair are not your average band. Yeti Season also finds El Michels Affair spinning into more vocal-driven sounds, working with guest vocalist Piya Malik on four tracks to incredible result.