The Best Albums of 2021

FRAN SLATER: Anna B Savage – A Common Turn

While I would say that 2021 has been a pretty vintage year for new releases, there is one album that soars above everything else. I’d never even heard of Anna B Savage when the year began, but she pretty quickly became the most exciting artist I encountered in the past twelve months, releasing an album that defies categorisation and yet feels warm and familiar too.

A Common Turn is, quite simply, the most jawdroppingly affecting album I have heard in years. It is rare for a songwriter to put themselves out there with so much honesty and yet also mix in some hilarity with the admissions of anguish. The songs are like the most relatable short stories you’ve ever read. They make you feel like you’re living through them with their writer at the same time as they remind you of moments from your own life.

And while the performance and writing chops of Anna would’ve been enough to make this album a contender for 2021’s best in their own right, the album is taken up to another level by the production choices. The crazy breakdown on ‘Two’, the haunting opening of ‘A Steady Warmth’, the chaotic flourishes on ‘BedStuy’.

Each song on A Common Turn is a classic, and  the album flows effortlessly throughout, but special mention has to go to ‘Chelsea Hotel #3’, ‘One’, and ‘Baby Grand’. These songs are the emotional centre of the album and each, in their own way, offer you a way into the world that Anna has created on the album. It’s a place you want to visit if you haven’t already.

JAMES SPEARING: Charlotte Day Wilson – Alpha

Every year this list is the perfect way to make all the other editors listen to your picks. This time around though, I’m not going to be relishing the inevitable arguments, and instead be feeling confident in Alpha and its ability to garner some sort of consensus. The others have mostly been reluctant to listen to Alpha so far and it’s a shame because I think a lot of them would like it.

reviewed Alpha on its digital release back in July. Despite the frustration of still not being able to hold a physical copy in the same year, I’ve hardly stopped listening since. The versatility of Charlotte’s voice is still as staggering as ever. It aches with emotion, but releases it so subtly and gently that you barely notice. The result is music to be calmed and soothed to.

With 11 songs in just 33 minutes, Charlotte doesn’t mess around. There’s no time for filler here. There is room however to embrace all sorts of stylistic influences from gospel to folk to smooth RnB. And, of course, Charlotte’s voice tackles all this with ease.

She’s the auteur of Canadian cool, writing, recording, producing and releasing the album on her own label, plus directing the music videos. Her talents abound. What more can I say? It’s superb and I cannot wait to see Alpha spinning round on my record player, whenever that may be.

MATT PAUL: Turnstile – GLOW ON

While keeping their hardcore punk core, Turnstile have not been afraid to incorporate moments from across the entire music spectrum. GLOW ON expands on their already adventurous sound, sneaking in moments of soft jams into their relentlessly high octane songs. Or pushing the crescendos even further with metal licks. This album is bursting with ideas. And they pretty much all work. Ultimately what is most important, though, is how this album made me feel. It’s fun, packed with energy, and a huge cathartic release. All things I needed this year.

TOM BURROWS: Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg

There’s a parallel universe where Dry Cleaning are a conventional post-punk band. Tight rhythm section, verse-chorus-verse, lyrics about social alienation. Their debut album would be competent but unremarkable. I’d have probably listened once and forgotten about it.

Thankfully, we’re not in that universe.

Eight months on from its release, I’m even more convinced of the genius of New Long Leg. It’s all about juxtaposition: the focused instrumentation and the deadpan, contextless lyrics would undoubtedly work to some degree in isolation, but the combination is electric.

It’s a masterclass in evoking modern life, where the profound and the absurd coexist. Take ‘Leafy’. Like all of this album, it’s a song wildly open to interpretation. To me it feels like the aftermath of a breakup, the narrator numbly navigating the mundanities of normal life to take her mind off the situation (“knackering drinks with close friends”), only to have the painful memory of it flash out of nowhere (“this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do”). It beautifully washes over you rather than providing a neat narrative. This year, album of the year was easy.

SAM ATKINS: Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend 

I’m a broken record at this point talking about how surprised I am to see Wolf Alice at the top of my best of 2021 list, but it is genuinely a shock. From indifference to the band, to obsession with every song here; nothing has defined the year like this.

The opening run of songs are incredible and beat for beat nothing in 2021 comes close. ‘Delicious Things’ buries itself inside your head, ‘Smile’ is electrifying, ‘Lipstick on the Glass’ is lyrically outstanding, and ‘How Can I Make It OK?’ is the year’s overall standout song. There’s magic in every moment, a band so in tune with each other and focused on creating the best album they could ever dream of making that Blue Weekend ends up being more than an essential album; it’s timeless.

WILL COLLINS:  Amyl and the Sniffers – Comfort To Me

The second album from Amyl and the Sniffers, Comfort to Me, bolsters the argument that they are one of the great contemporary punk bands. Effortlessly switching between social commentary, wry humour, and outsider anthems, this is the work of a band at the top of their game. Pummeling drums, rumbling bass, and frenetic guitars form a furious backdrop for Amy Taylor’s impassioned delivery. This is an album that has a lot say without being po-faced or slipping into meaningless aphorisms. It’s a lesson that many supposedly political bands could learn. By turns angry, joyous and anthemic, it is life-affirming stuff. It’s the album that I’ve found myself listening to more than any other this year, precisely for this reason. Put it on and turn it up loud!

LISA WHITEMAN: Andrew Hung – Devastations

My Album of the Year is Devastations by Andrew Hung. I fell deeply in love with ‘Promises’ when released in April this year and the record, start to end, is bitter joy. Andrew puts his soul into every part of Devastations and the energy is palpable; sound wise, it’s like when goths turn up at a new wave disco and I am absolutely here for it. He is an ultra talented artist and has a wonderful dog too.

I’m giving honourable mentions to Arab Strap, for releasing my very close second album of the year, lyrically typical but the strongest stuff they’ve done in my opinion, Mogwai, the fucking gorgeous noise monsters,  Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, My Morning Jacket, Gruff Rhys, and The Anchoress.  I can’t not nod to Prince, whose album I repeatedly tried and failed to review, who, from beyond the grave, remains a beautiful dirty sounding sod. I love and miss him hard.

FRAN SLATER: Squid – Bright Green Field

Post punk music is often accused of being overly serious and lacking in the fun factor. In the case of Squid’s Bright Green Field, that really couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s hard to think of another record from the last few years in which a band were so clearly enjoying  themselves, so obviously doing what they love, and so strongly combining to create something majestic. Squid jam out on epic ten minute songs, scream their way through three minutes of madness, and build each track into a captivating climax.

They wear their influences on their sleeves. You can hear remnants of Radiohead in the tunes and hints of David Byrne in the vocals, but of all the albums that make up the very loosely named post punk revival of the last five years, Bright Green Field is the most innovative and exciting offering so far. They stand out above their rivals in the field because of how they meld several genres together, meaning that this is an album that keeps you guessing and is still revealing new things nearly a year after release. 2021 wasn’t really the year when guitar bands led the way, but Squid did their bit by putting out an album that should be near the top of every end of year list.

JAMES SPEARING: Anna B Savage – A Common Turn

What more can I say that we haven’t already said about Anna B Savage this year? The first time I listened to A Common Turn (thanks again for Fran for the recommendation) the effect on me was immediate. Her uniquely varied vocal style, her impossibly personal lyrics, and production that keeps you constantly on your toes all jumped out at me like a frog on a pogo stick. On a trampoline.

Moments like this are what motivates me to keep listening to new music every week. 47 minutes later I knew things about Anna that I don’t know about people I’ve known for years. And now several months later I’m still hearing new things in the album each time I go back. Oh, and as a fellow bird nerd, I of course loved all the mentions of corncrakes, common terns (see what she did there?), and unidentifiable grey-eyed ducks in her music this year.

So again, what more can I say? It’s the album of the year.

MATT PAUL: Girl in Red – If I Could Make It Go Quiet

Girl in Red does not hold back. Within thirty seconds of pressing play, this album has laid bare their inner anxieties and struggles with mental health. This blunt revelation is not really treated as a big ‘bare all’ moment. The everyday tone is kept throughout if i could make it go quiet. It’s just life. This is all then wrapped in wonderfully upbeat bedroom pop, as this album delivers hit after hit. There is an easy comparison to be made to the Billie Eilish debut. That was my AOTY in 2019, so it is no surprise I like this one so much.

TOM BURROWS: For Those I Love – For Those I Love

It took several months for me to find my way to David Balfe’s debut album as For Those I Love, but I’m so glad I did. Spoken word vocalists have dominated my favourite music this year, and I feel that’s a testament to the quality of artists who’ve found a way to use music to support an ostensibly non-musical style of vocal delivery.

Balfe used house music, a genre with a seemingly euphoric sound, to communicate a whole range of emotions from grief and despair to joyful nostalgia and hope. It’s littered with especially impactful moments – using alcohol as a coping mechanism on ‘The Myth / I Don’t’, the childhood revelations of how brutal the world can be on ‘Birthday / The Pain’, the acceptance that pain will bring healing on ‘The Shape of You’.

It knocked me sideways when I first heard it and I haven’t stopped listening to it. David Balfe has a love, and it’ll never fade. Neither will this terrific album.

SAM ATKINS: Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

I’m glad I waited until seeing Little Simz perform the music from this album live before writing about it, because it solidified my feeling that some of her all time greatest moments are here.

The ambition is staggering. Nobody is even attempting to create music as dense, personal and memorable as this in the way that Simz is and it comes together as one of the years ultimate stand outs. ‘Point and Kill’ into ‘Fear No Man’ is immediately satisfying, while ‘Woman’ and ‘Standing Ovation’ are steeped in soul. ‘I Love You, I Hate You’ is probably her greatest lyrics yet, while ‘Introvert’ is a world conquering moment.

Little Simz was already the best rap artist in the U.K. and this is the album where thankfully the rest of the world finally realised that.

WILL COLLINS: Arab Strap – As Days Get Dark

I awaited the return of Arab Strap after so long away with trepidation. Would it be up to the standard of their earlier work? Fortunately the answer was a resounding yes. It’s no surprise really. The records they have been involved with in the interim have been uniformly brilliant, and that run of form was continued with As Days Get Dark.

Their ability to mine the mundane and the miserable for downbeat poetry remains unabated. Whilst their lyrical focus remains familiar, the music has become richer and more wide-screen, without sacrificing the lo-fi immediacy they have become known for. Although the trusty drum machine still makes an appearance,  it’s also joined by strings, synths, and gorgeous instrumentation. It’s a brilliant return that retains what made them so great before whilst also staking out fresh territory for the band.

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