The List 2021

At the end of each year I make a list of the 20 albums I enjoyed the most. To be eligible, a record has to be of album length (>30 mins), and contain entirely (or almost entirely) new material; live albums aren’t eligible, and neither are cover records, or compilations.

20. Tyler, The Creator — Call Me If You Get Lost

Tyler hit 12th on my 2019 list with IGOR, an album that captivated and confounded me in equal measure, with its structural inventiveness. That was a poppier affair than we’re in for this time out — Call Me If You Get Lost is more interested in putting a spin on various rap sub-genres. Soul samples and R&B textures ebb & flow throughout another album-as-album exercise in layered production, restless structures, and tongue-in-cheek lifestyle boasting. Once again, Tyler made my favourite hip-hop LP of the year.

19. Weezer — OK Human

Imagine if you were a member of a church, or a friend group or something, and over the years you’d developed a bunch of rites or in jokes or whatever. If you were to try and bring a new person into that circle, they’d meet a wall of resistance in the form of the very shared customs and understanding that you had been enjoying for years. Which is to say: I would not know where to begin if I was tasked with explaining Weezer’s 2021 output to someone who hasn’t been along for the ride with this band for at least two full decades.

Here’s what I will say:

a) OK Human is a sneaky complex album. It was introduced as the lockdown project the band put together in lieu of releasing and touring their love letter to metal: Van Weezer. In truth it’s a pop-rock record with a freaking string section! I don’t think I’ve encountered that since Silverchair tapped Van Dyke Parks as a collaborator in 2002.

b) I wish this record had been released as a freakish Jekyll & Hyde double-album with Van Weezer, so that I could find room for both of them on this list. On balance, this is the more consistently enjoyable of the two LPs, even if it’s something like the band’s sixth best record overall.

c) The best track Weezer released this year (by a country mile) is ‘Sheila Can Do It’, which has been only lightly revised since its 1997 demo version. Take that for what you will.

18. Celeste — Not Your Muse

I was already infatuated with Celeste’s debut by the time it was shortlisted for the 2021 Mercury Prize. Its sonic warmth and thematic vulnerability made for a valued companion throughout year two of the pandemic.

‘Ideal Woman’ is the gentlest beginning, and a perfect showcase for both the richness of Celeste’s voice, and the candidness of her lyrics; ‘Strange’ is an equally tender paean on loss, and then the album begins to open up to a larger sound. What follows is a set of soul and R&B-inflected pop that never falters. The album’s single strongest track is still probably the understated bombast of ‘Love is Back’, but it’s in good company right through to the touching declaration in ‘A Little Love’: “Of all the things to be / I choose a kindness”.

17. Ben Kweller — Circuit Boredom

A round of applause, please, for the first record I listened to this year! Released on 1 January, Kweller’s sixth LP-shaped collection of rock-flavoured, pop-shaped confections as a solo artist has hung on effortlessly for twelve months to make this list. Eight songs and 28 minutes maybe pushes the boundaries of eligibility, but this is as note-perfect a piece of work as BK has released since his eponymous album 15 years ago. It contains all the flavours of Kweller that you know and love: pop stomper (opener ‘Starz’); vulnerable acoustic ballad ((part of) ‘Just For Kids’); & lo-fi crunchy: on album high point ‘Heart Attack Kid’.

If you’re not already a fan, Circuit Boredom isn’t going to change any minds. For the rest of us, however, your face is going to be hurting from smiling by the time you’re singing along to ‘Wanna Go Home’… and then circling right back to play the record again.

16. Ill Considered — Liminal Space

Ill Considered are a hyper-prolific improvisational jazz ensemble. The aptly titled Liminal Space is the group’s first recorded work to mix live performances with post-production elements. Here the central trio of saxophone, bass, and drums are artfully supplemented with additions from guest players, bringing a rich and full-bodied sound to initially improvised pieces.

This is complex and high-paced music, with some tracks (eg. ‘The Lurch’ and ‘Light Trailed’) featuring time signatures so complicated they can overwhelm. However, listening via headphones, and surrendering to the build and swell, I found few listening experiences more rewarding this year.

(Side note: the album features one of the year’s best covers, by Dutch artist Vincent de Boer.)

15. Koreless — Agor

‘Yonder’ is an expanding bloom of a curtain raiser before the real action begins, and then it’s off to the races for a half hour of dense electronica that plays masterfully with tension and release. There’s a wide instrumental palate at play throughout, such as on ‘White Picket Fence’: built out of eerie synths, fuzzy bass keys, and a somersaulting set of vocal samples played as an instrument. Likewise ‘Joy Squad’ makes use of dehumanised vocal stabs set amid a bed of alarming cinematic strings and skittering beats.

Tracks often increase in intensity and complexity, pushing on when they feel almost like they should back off – but beyond these thresholds, Koreless often finds a place of euphoric calm.

14. Bicep — Isles

The second LP from Northern Irish electronica twosome Bicep is an exercise in treading the line between headphones and the dance floor. For me it became a go-to AirPods-in record — its grooves (some trance, some more propulsive) lushly mixed and captivating throughout a varied tracklist. Drawing on a deep pool of samples, from Hindi bops to Turkish pop, Bicep weave a rich and ever-shifting sonic tapestry. Album highlight ‘Apricots’ pulls together Bulgarian folk with a Malawian polyrhythmic vocal to astounding effect.

13. Japanese Breakfast — Jubilee

Here’s a band that I feel bad about having paid too little attention to previously. Two albums (Psychopop (2016) & Soft Sounds From Another Planet (2017)) have passed without me noticing, and it took — of all things — an exceptionally good video game soundtrack (for this autumn’s low key, exploration-focussed coming-of-age game Sable) to really put Japanese Breakfast on my radar.

I was only a couple of tracks into my first listen of Jubilee before I was almost literally kicking myself. Here was the soft-focussed, pastel-hued update to Bat For Lashes' sound that I hadn’t realised I wanted. Ambitious, expansive pop music that is unafraid to experiment with weirder tonal inclusions.

My former neglectfulness now corrected, band leader Michelle Zauner’s memoir is even on my Kindle ready for holiday reading, and I will certainly be awaiting whatever comes next musically.

12. Moin — Moot!

Here’s an unexpected pleasure from the summer. Moot! is a strangely out-of-time artefact deeply reverent of 90s post-hardcore. Intense no matter which of its numerous gears it’s operating in, it’s the closest thing to Fugazi or Slint that I’ve encountered in quite a while. ‘Right is Alright, Wrong is to Belong’ is a haunting claustrophobic crawl, whereas ‘Lungs’ is more animated, with wilder swings. Much of the album retains an almost live-seeming feel, owing to the record’s few-frills production, which only adds to its Sub Pop-adjacent charms.

Overall, it was an absolute pleasure to surrender time and again to the waves of distorted guitar, the inventive bass lines, and Valentina Magaletti’s frenetic percussion.

11. Ross From Friends — Tread

Felix Weatherall’s trick to making his second record for Brainfeeder was to write an additional piece of bespoke software that sat on his laptop and just began recording automatically when his compositions met certain parameters. This method, implemented to overcome procrastination and choice paralysis, has resulted in a diverse set of electronica that hangs together remarkably well despite the swings from track-to-track. ‘Revellers’ starts from a pure house foundation and builds something deep and sprawling; ‘Morning Sun in a Dusty Room’ is a three-minute slice of glowing ambience; and ‘Life in a Mind’ takes a soul sample for a kinetic trip punctuated by a brief, affecting melancholy dip.

10. Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, & Tyshawn Sorey — Uneasy

Earlier in the year I found myself returning repeatedly to the same video of Snarky Puppy performing their 10 minute opus ‘Lingus’ to a stunned studio audience. And, whilst Cory Henry’s keyboard solo is undoubtedly the showpiece, I became fascinated by the drumming of Larnell Lewis. This sent me on a bit of a jazz drumming journey in the middle part of the year, and I found Uneasy at exactly the right time to get hypnotised by Tyshawn Sorey’s intricate, constantly surprising work.

Alongside Sorey here are longtime collaborator Linda May Han Oh on bass, and Iyer at the piano. Each is an extraordinary player, and the combination feels natural and marvellous. This may be their first record together, but I certainly hope it’s not the last. The trio has fast become one of my very favourite configurations for jazz, precisely because of the way it allows for both interplay and the spotlighting of individual excellence. A few of the tracks here have been reworked from compositions originally for sextets or even string orchestras, and the increased intimacy is something I really valued: the opportunity to spend time with each of the exceptional players within the frameworks of these spacious arrangements.

9. St. Vincent — Daddy's Home

An artist as restlessly inventive as Annie Clark was never likely to settle for making more of the same. So, Daddy’s Home heralds a new look, a new persona, and a new sound. A very definite 90-degree turn from Masseduction (6th in 2017), here 70s synth tones colour the album’s experiments with soul, blues, and even hints at psychedelia (‘Live in the Dream’). But, as always, Clark’s treading her own path through these pastures. ‘The Melting of the Sun’ manages to be both melancholy and unsettling, interweaved with a stirring soul background vocal. ‘Down’ borrows the vocal progression from Nirvana’s ‘You Know You’re Right’, and transplants it into a funk-rock setting. And ‘My Baby Wants a Baby’ is a brilliant, cutting, tongue-in-cheek update to Sheena Easton’s Prozac-happy 1980 anthem to obedient housewifery: ‘Morning Train (Nine to Five)’.

Clark remains consistently one of the artists I’m most fascinated by. I haven’t yet got around to the recently-released documentary / horror movie (?) The Nowhere Inn, but I’ve every faith it’s a continuation of her ceaseless playing with persona and form. I will happily follow wherever she chooses to go next.

Side note: this record also brings producer Jack Antonoff back to my list for the forth year out of the last five. Varied as the sounds have been across his projects with St Vincent and Taylor Swift, he’s reaching the status of producer whose name alone will make me try a record.

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

When Halsey hit second spot on my list last year, it was with an emo / pop-rock album peppered with outside influences: folk, R&B, Korean rap…. It was a curious mix that worked supremely well on me, but certainly left me perplexed as to what a follow-up would sound like. I would not have predicted the menacing, polygenre tour-de-force that this collaboration with Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross has yielded.

At heart Halsey has described the record as a concept album about the beauty and horror of pregnancy and birth. Many of their lyrics have a destructive bent, even when fascinated by acts of love and creation. Tender vocals over a sea of dark synths; a mélange of hopes and fears. It’s a tension that makes for a record constantly wrestling with itself, content only to keep moving forward and growing as it goes.

‘Easier Than Lying’ would be at home on a Grimes record, and ‘Girl is a Gun’ (with its hyperkinetic breakbeat) could be a lost Robyn classic. Over here we have Lindsay Buckingham fingerpicking guitar on the simple, beautiful ‘Darling’. Two tracks later, here’s Dave Grohl providing drums for the bittersweet straight-ahead rock of ‘Honey’. More than three months since the album’s release, I’m still trying to figure out how it works as well as it does. Like Manic the recipe and the dynamics at play are a mystery, but the results are inarguable.

7. Madlib — Sound Ancestors

When MF DOOM passed toward the end of 2020, I found myself returning to one record in particular: 2004’s Madvillainy colab between the late rapper and producer Madlib. In turn I had originally come to that record primarily via a 2005 EP of remixes by Four Tet. So, it felt like a circle completing itself in some way, to tune into Sound Ancestors. Here Kieran Hebden is on editing & arranging duties, and the result is a constantly shifting soundscape of beats and interweaving vocal samples.

I don’t listen to nearly enough instrumental hip-hop, with my most prominent touchstone being J Dilla’s 2006 LP Donuts – a record I considered during last year’s effort to figure out my all time favourite albums. There’s a nod to Dilla here (on ‘Two For 2’), and the highest compliment I can pay Sound Ancestors is that it’s operating in the same rarefied air as that masterpiece.

6. Jade Bird — Different Kinds of Light

I had been so impatient for a follow-up to Jade Bird’s debut (2nd place on my list in 2019) that the universe decided to play a trick on me. Like many artists, her entire tour was postponed multiple times throughout the pandemic, including the shows to which I had tickets. My disappointment at missing my opportunity to see how she does it live was alleviated, however, when she scheduled a series of intimate album launch shows – one of them a literal three minute walk from my front door. That show, which was simply Bird solo with an acoustic guitar, proved beyond any doubt that she is the genuine article.

The self-titled debut album was so good that I had all but convinced myself it was impossible to follow up. In that respect, Different Kinds of Light proved me entirely wrong in the best way possible. Not only are there multiple songs here every bit as captivating as the cream of the first record, there’s also an admirable sense of Bird expanding her sound – exploring further some of the avenues of country and Americana that the first record hinted at. Best song on the record? Pick anything beginning with an ‘H’ and I won’t argue.

5. Low — Hey What

Back when I gave Low 6th place on my 2018 list, for Double Negative, I remarked upon my ignorance of the band’s substantial back catalogue, and suggested that it was an error I should fix. Well, I am ashamed to admit that I have not done that work. Instead, I waited until Hey What came out this September, to experience all over again the shocking power of their brand of colossal-sounding, meditatively paced rock.

For this recording at least, the band is now down to a duo (bassist Steve Garrington having departed last year). The interplay between Mimi Parker & Alan Sparhawk (who are also married) is the band’s defining strength however, particularly their exceptional vocal harmonies, which retain the power to soothe and stir even when under several layers of detuned, distorted cacophony.

Maybe a second truly exceptional album in a row will finally push me to go back and explore three decades of output. There’s every chance Low could turn out to be one of my favourite bands.

4. Bachelor — Doomin' Sun

Jay Som took top spot on my 2017 list for the exemplary lo-fi bedroom pop album Everybody Works; and Palehound I (shamefully) have no prior familiarity with. As such, I didn’t know exactly what to expect when coming to their collaboration: Bachelor. What I found was a half hour of subtle but raw interrogations of the complex textures of love between women. The sonic palate is less synth and a little more guitar-centric than Jay Som’s solo work, but it’s still operating in largely the same spaces as I found so magnetic from Everybody Works & Turn Into (2016).

Above all, this project appears brimming with the energy of two likeminded musical souls, effortlessly complementing one another in telling shared stories. ‘Back of My Hand’ is a declaration of admiration, powerful despite its relaxed flow. ‘Sick of Spiralling’ is, in some respects, that song’s flipside: fuelled by fear as well as love. To my mind though, the album’s high point is the Pixies-meets-That Dog blur and buzz of ‘Stay in the Car’.

3. Priya Ragu — damnshestamil

Thought and prayers to anyone who has to decide how to file this record by category. Opener ‘Leaf High’ — as well as being an introduction to Ragu’s soaring, honeyed voice — is an exemplary piece of low key soul with a hip-hop inflection. It also contains a lyric referencing “paper planes”, which I couldn’t help but read as a sly nod to Maya Arulpragasam — aka MIA — with whom Ragu has in common both Tamil heritage and musical eclecticism.

Three minute pop gem ‘Good Love 2.0’ has song-of-the-summer energy, and ‘Lockdown’ is an infectious mix of R&B and hip-hop across a South Asian-inflected beat. It shifts between adamant and euphoric with ease, an admirable trick that is also at work on one of the record’s several highlights: ‘Chicken Lemon Rice’.

‘Forgot About’ is a straight-ahead R&B ballad of exceptional quality. Here, as elsewhere, some of Ragu’s choices of vocal inflections remind me of no one more strongly than Janet Jackson – a comparison I do not make lightly. I am excited to see where she goes after a debut like this.

2. Turnstile — Glow On

The number of guitar bands that excite me has certainly waned over the last decade or so, but alongside Biffy Clyro and a resurgent Deftones, Turnstile prove here that there’s still plenty of life in the scene if you know where to find it. I certainly did not expect to be making two comparisons to Fugazi when writing this year’s list, but just like with Moin, it’s the Washington legends' influence that I hear as coal to Turnstile’s roaring fire.

Turnstile’s update to hardcore, however, is inflected with synth atmospherics and an armload of borrowings from other genres. It actively rejects hardcore’s (often misguided) reputation for self-seriousness, partly by unashamedly embracing anthemics, whilst retaining the source material’s commitment to volume and enthusiasm. Glow On is an exercise in loud, direct sincerity distilled into concentrated sub-three minute bursts of whatever-works rock.

PS. hearing guest Dev Hynes in a hardcore setting sent me back to Test Icicles' For Screening Purposes (14th on my list in 2005), and it’s still a lot of fun.

1. Olivia Rodrigo — SOUR

Olivia has experienced a break-up, and her former boyfriend is now with someone else. This very specific scenario is the impetus behind at least seven songs on SOUR, making it a kind of concept album about a heartbreak tinged with feelings of anger and inadequacy.

Some of the guest writing credits give a hint of the sonic palate. Hayley Williams helps inject some Paramore power-pop into ‘Good 4 U’, and Taylor Swift’s recent sensibilities are evident on ‘1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back’: a fragile piano ballad of surpassing beauty. Then there’s ‘Deja Vu’, as powerfully self-assured as it is potently infused with bitterness — tellingly it was written by the superhero team-up of Rodrigo, Swift, and Annie Clark.

Honestly though, there is not a weak song here, and there are several that are truly world class; perhaps the best of all is the achingly vulnerable, yet steel-spined, ‘Traitor’. Unimpeachable song of the year material.

Ultimately, nothing can compete when a three minute pop gem goes off in my chest like a cherry bomb, and this year Olivia Rodrigo came armed to the teeth.