Culture

The 50 best albums of 2021: 50-11


This list is drawn from votes by Guardian music critics – each critic votes for their Top 20 albums, with points allocated for each placing. Check in every weekday to see our next picks, and please share your own favourite albums of 2021 in the comments below.

50

Agnes – Magic Still Exists

The Swedish pop star’s long-delayed fifth album embodies the platonic ideal of pop disco, steeped in Gaga (invigoratingly stern vocals about freeing one’s mind and body), Abba (piano stomps and trills), Donna Summer (the thumping 24 Hours) and Queen (melodramatic balladry). It transcends pastiche on the strength of her songwriting (you could swap almost anything here on to Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia) and the going-for-broke intensity of it all. LS

49

MØL – Diorama

Faith no more ... cult survivor-singer Kim Song Sternkopf (centre) with band MØL.
Faith no more … cult survivor-singer Kim Song Sternkopf (centre) with band MØL. Photograph: Sebastian Apel

Blending the blast beats and acid-gargling glottal mayhem of black metal with the uplifting, even sentimental guitar dynamics of shoegaze, “blackgaze” has become a vibrant corner of heavy music – and Danish quintet MØL became one of its best exponents with their second album. The moody breakdowns allow the explosive choruses to land all the more righteously, with vocalist Kim Song Sternkopf – a survivor of faith cults as a child – venting majestically into the mic. Tracks such as Serf bring in a groove metal sensibility to help it all swing. BBT

48

Some of the year’s best musical storytelling lived in the Virginia songwriter’s third record, her writing newly amplified by subtle hints of pop propulsion and grit that evoked how Elliott Smith expanded his sound. Dacus reflects on her teenage years – of church and bible camp, of budding queer desire amid a culture of shame and damnation, of the fantasies that let her escape these limitations – with such tender curiosity that these vignettes feel less like fixed memories than forensic crime scene reconstructions. Read the full review. LS

47

Chai – WINK

The truly self-assured rarely make a noise about it, and so it is with the third album by Japanese girl group Chai. To blissed-out, dreamy synth-pop that buoys you along like a lazy river – occasionally spiked by classic rap throwbacks and arcade-game electro – the four-piece dreamily hymn the joys of food, self-acceptance and protest, nurturing their own laid-back take on pleasure activism. LS

46

Stephen Fretwell – Busy Guy

Melody maker ... Scunthorpe singer-songwriter Stephen Fretwell.
Melody maker … Scunthorpe singer-songwriter Stephen Fretwell. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

A songwriters’ songwriter beloved of Elbow and Arctic Monkeys, Stephen Fretwell was washing pots in a Wetherspoon’s pub, his music career having flatlined amid fatherhood. He hauled himself up and gave music another shot, apparently at the cost of his marriage. So these songs are the work of a truly inveterate musician, and it shows – Fretwell has such a natural facility for an affecting turn of melody, his simple fingerpicked guitar made eerie by the subtle ambient tones that sit behind it. BBT

45

For Those I Love – For Those I Love

Poignant memories seem to lengthen and soften as we age, but this album is a reminder of how much jagged heft they have when you’re looking back after just a few years or months. David Balfe, 30, reflects on a dead best friend, poverty, trauma and the intense vibrancy of young friendships and creativity, in long recitations set to music that reaches towards techno and house. “You’re told you need to grow cold to grow old,” Balfe says, but he remains charged up with human warmth on these songs. Read the full review. BBT

44

Black Country, New Road – For the First Time

‘Timeless tenderness’ ... Black Country, New Road.
‘Timeless tenderness’ … Black Country, New Road. Photograph: Max Grainger

You don’t tend to get many Top 5 charting albums from bands who blend klezmer, post-punk, jazz and prog with lyrics about failed romance at a science fair, but Black Country, New Road managed it. That success is testament to how particular and fresh their sound is amid the ordinary boys of British indie, further helped by a really arresting frontman, Isaac Wood. Whether it’s really him or a persona, he is haughty, easily hurt, lustful, clumsy and incurably romantic – a wonderful, flawed character. Read the full review. BBT

43

Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt – Made Out of Sound

For this album, made remotely last year, guitarist Orcutt improvised to Corsano’s drum tracks, observing the waveforms as he recorded “so I could see when a crescendo was coming or when to bring it down”, he said. It’s reminiscent of a surfer’s mentality, and Made Out of Sound feels thrillingly like the trusty unpredictability of broaching the sea: absurdist guitar begets quieter contemplation; burnished riffs harden and soften, then collapse. Throughout, the open-ended sense of beauty is undimmed. LS

42

Gojira – Fortitude

Metal’s potential for thunderous anger makes it the most naturally expressive music to vent the fear, confusion and even shame of the climate crisis. “The greatest miracle is burning to the ground,” laments Joe Duplantier with bafflement and urgency, singing about the Amazon but perhaps also the entire planet. Other songs are direct rallying cries to save Earth (Into the Storm, Sphinx); Another World turns jaded and escapist, but is offset by The Chant, whose hearty chorus is the kind of thing a post-apocalyptic band of survivors would sing while rowing across a flooded city. Fortitude is an album that surveys humanity’s idiocy, but also its tenacity. BBT

41

The joyous ecclesiastical energy of house enriches your soul on listening to this full-length from the US producer, which also chimes with the desire for optimism and gregariousness amid the waning pandemic. Like a lot of the best underground dance artists in recent years (Skee Mask, Anz etc), she firmly embraces the breakbeat-driven sound of the early 90s – Ride Free even has the same Peter Fonda sample as Primal Scream’s Loaded – and further enriches those busy, cymbal-heavy rhythms with zesty detailing: rave melodies, declarative vocal samples, penetrating bass notes. Read the full review. BBT

40

Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over the Country Club

Who is Lana Del Rey really? The question that has animated her decade-long career has sometimes riled her, but the first of two albums she released this year turns introspective to consider the matter. Was she happiest as a 19-year-old waitress listening to Kings of Leon, as she sings in stunning falsetto on White Dress? Is she most herself as a sister, a lover, a star, an adopted Californian – or embracing her wanderlust and escaping all that? The myth and melodrama, at least, remain unchanged on a Lana album made with an unusually light touch. Read the full review. LS

39

Hayley Williams – Flowers for Vases/Descansos

With pop-punk surging this year, Paramore’s influence may never have been stronger – but the band’s flag bearer continued to burrow away from incandescent rock into stranger, subtler sounds. Williams’ second solo album in two years observed the dying days of her marriage, and how the reliability of sadness became its own sort of safe harbour. That strange sense of comforting desolation hums through in acoustic guitar and ghostly piano, although Williams’ innate way with a vocal hook provides the defiant life force. LS

38

Using synths to crack open a portal out of the drab ... Goat Girl.
Using synths to crack open a portal out of the drab … Goat Girl. Photograph: Holly Whitaker

The south London quartet’s debut was garage rock with a touch of psych; this sophomore album grandly scaled that second element up, using synths to crack open a portal out of the drab, repressive everyday. The bigger ambition was partly predicated by one member surviving cancer, and the band don’t shy from big questions about life and death: the climate crisis, capitalism and the struggle to be allowed one’s truth and identity are among the topics broached. BBT

37

Erika de Casier – Sensational

Any crush has a delicate alchemy, and liable to lurch towards obsession or revulsion as the fantasy of someone duels with the reality. On the second album by the Portuguese-born Danish songwriter, her would-be lover may be a braggart who is rude to waiters, but that smile is irresistible: what are you gonna do? Her minimalist take on turn-of-the-millennium R&B shivers with sensitivity, essaying every heart flutter and gut punch in plush bass, glassy percussion and elegant strings, while De Casier’s coy delivery brims with a beguiling sense of mystery. Read the full review. LS

36

Aya – Im Hole

This is the kind of slippery, funny, explosively creative record that perhaps could only be made in the UK. Yorkshirewoman Aya Sinclair mulches various bits of club culture in to a fetid, sweating mass – grime, breakbeat, drill, the off-kilter electronics of Autechre, the hyper-contemporary bass shudder of the late Sophie – and threads vocals through it, her surreal non sequiturs and body horror hovering on the edge of rap. BBT

35

Aly & AJ – A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun

It’s one of pop’s sweetest narratives: former child stars escape the machine to make a great, offbeat record. Fourteen years after their last album, one-time Disney performers Aly and AJ softened their synth-pop pedigree in this dreamy collection of west coast pop-rock, a vision of Robyn-gone-Laurel Canyon that also might sate anyone left hoping for a bit more brooding from this year’s Kacey Musgraves album. LS

34

The psychedelic, shoegaze-y haze has gradually lifted from Adam Granduciel’s band, burned off under a rising sun as their success has grown. He now stands in the midday of his career, with this fifth album fully embracing bright, mainstream classic rock. Powered by those distinctive WoD backbeats, which match the tirelessness of Granduciel’s search for love, perspective and contentment, these songs are huge in scale: both the arrangements and the strength of feeling. Read the full review. BBT

33

PinkPantheress – To Hell With It

An after-hours rite of passage ... PinkPantheress.
An after-hours rite of passage … PinkPantheress. Photograph: Brent McKeever

In the TikTok phenomenon PinkPantheress’s micro-pop gems (only two songs on her debut project exceeded two minutes), classic drum’n’bass samples double as nagging memories and overwhelming rushes of adrenaline, swirling around lyrics about obsession and disappointment made more sinister by her innocent, breathless voice. Fourteen years ago, Burial’s transient, lonely, sodium-lit sound became associated with the experience of sitting on the night bus. PinkPantheress makes music befitting another after-hours rite of passage: that bleary-eyed, rueful stumble through bright lights and swarming crowds as you try to hold it together. LS

32

Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature

The New Yorker’s second album is almost confrontationally still: brass like wisps of smoke, guitar a gentle thrum, softly puddling cymbals. Once the aftershocks of a loss have settled, Jenkins takes stock of what’s gone for good – Ambiguous Norway orbits her memories of David Berman, whose band Purple Mountains she was set to tour with prior to his death – and how learning how to trust again might yet retrieve her stolen sense of peace. LS

31

Low – Hey What

Low’s last album, 2018’s Double Negative, was a total reinvention 25 years into a virtually undented career – a staggering achievement for any band. Yet somehow Alan and Mimi Sparhawk transcended it with this follow-up, bridling its predecessor’s swashbuckling noise until it splintered, and contrasting it with electronic reimaginings of the forlorn atmospherics that made their name. The sheer invention contrasted devastating lyrics about hitting a wall – drawn from the couple’s experiences dealing with Alan’s depression – imbuing these static hymns to limits and perseverance with a superhuman sense of determination. Read the full review. LS

30

There’s a wonderful sense of liveness to this record, evoking a dive bar with a fug of weed smoke sitting at shoulder height. On stage is London-born Aria Wells, whose delivery is natural and improvisatory: vowels that bend drowsily downwards, or rap flow that sits on top of the beat without being too fussily precise. Behind her a band shuffle through a selection of grooves – reggae, neo-soul, hip-hop – that add up to a sensual, instinctive album that you could imagine Amy Winehouse making on a different timeline. Read the full review. BBT

29

Clairo – Sling

A strong self-preservationist streak ran through several highly anticipated albums by pop’s young women this year, with the likes of Billie Eilish, Lorde and Kacey Musgraves opting for lower-key sounds that poured cool water on heightened expectations. Among them was Clairo, whose second album left behind bedroom electro-pop for perfectly turned miniatures of Carole King’s warm classicism. Irrepressibly, sweetly funky, it sounded like music for pushing the furniture back and dancing on the living room rug – and Clairo’s lyrics, about breaking with relationships that no longer served her, underscored that joyful intimacy. Read the full review. LS

28

Every stage of a breakup is sung in chronological order here: marital worries, hope for the relationship being good enough, worsening arguments, split, poignant staring at old photos, perspective gained, exciting/depressing ventures on to dating apps, eventual feeling of true freedom. Swerve a couple of tepid chillout-compilation moments and along the journey you alight at some of Musgraves’ prettiest songwriting, nicely leavened with her straight-talking, wearily dismayed tone of voice. Read the full review. BBT

27

St Vincent – Daddy’s Home

St Vincent at the 2021 Pitchfork music festival, September, 2021.
Rich lyricism … St Vincent at the 2021 Pitchfork music festival, September, 2021. Photograph: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images

It was perhaps slightly overshadowed by its backstory: Annie Clark’s father’s release from prison, which, for some listeners, cast the entire record in an unsympathetic light. But its lyricism was much richer than one man, and its 70s-inspired music richer still: psychedelic soul, cabaret songcraft, prog ballads, cosmic funk. Clark remains a highly literate and shapeshifting songwriter, where half the fun is working out how much is ironised and how much is real. Read the full review. BBT

26

Mogwai – As the Love Continues

In a feat of lockdown recording, Dave Fridmann produced Mogwai’s 10th studio album over Zoom and Atticus Ross directed an orchestra in Budapest via remote connection from Los Angeles. The classic Mogwai physicality remained undimmed by these virtual limitations, however, swerving between twinkling beauty (Dry Fantasy) and pleasingly barbed dirges (Ceiling Granny), and chucking in a new bag of glitter (Supposedly, We Were Nightmares) for good measure. Happily for all involved, it became their first UK No 1 album. Read the full review. LS

25

Madlib – Sound Ancestors

Communing with sound ... Madlib.
Communing with sound … Madlib. Photograph: Roberto Flores

A relatively austere and serious release from the collagist hip-hop beatmaker, letting his fabled samples really stretch out and inhabit the songs instead of chopping between them – a result of Kieren “Four Tet” Hebden arranging the album. There’s still room for Madlib’s trickster energy though, as found in a chaotic blurt of mayhem-inducing rap duo MOP. The title track is spiritual jazz, but that genre’s mood pervades the entire album, as Madlib communes with more than half a century of sound. Read the full review. BBT

24

On her second album, Billie Eilish not only defied the tacit assumption that there’s nothing less appealing than complaining about the ravages wrought by fame but reinvigorated the cliche by toying deliciously with concealment and exposure. She sings about sexual fantasies and clandestine assignations and the power she can wield to keep her partners quiet, flexing her ability to carry on in secret – despite manifold violations of her privacy – as if it were a coveted jewel. She and her collaborator brother Finneas brought the same thrill to intimacy as they did to adolescent fears on her debut, tracing the scope of Eilish’s newfound commitment to her own pleasure in dreamy golden-age classicism and hormone-spiking techno. She let her listeners share in sensation even if the details were off-limits. Read the full review. LS

23

Floating Points, London Symphony Orchestra and Pharoah Sanders – Promises

Promises is an album that rewards patience. Not only was it Pharoah Sanders’ first major recording in a decade – and a record five years in the making itself – but its nine movements unfolded with a rare subtlety. A chiming refrain written by Sam Shepherd (AKA Floating Points) and played by the LSO sparkled like dawn’s first light, its sense of potential undimmed over 45 minutes of repetition. Sanders’ saxophone playing, lightyears softer than the blazing attack that made his name, activated that magic. The harmony between them generated its own sense of orbit, with cello and violin solos and the moving spectacle of Sanders’ singing voice balanced in a kind of celestial harmony. Read the full review. LS

22

Laura Mvula – Pink Noise

After enduring the humiliation of her old label dropping her with a seven-line email, Mvula donned the musical equivalent of shoulder pads – namely the 1980s’ gated drums, pugilistic bass and immaculately buffed synths – for this supreme display of confidence against the odds. The stylisation never comes at the expense of heart, either: Mvula delves deep as she searches for freedom in desire, art and within her own body, stretching her voice into majestic, wild anthems of liberation. Read the full review. LS

21

The Coral – Coral Island

Ballads for lonely fishermen ... the Coral.
Ballads for lonely fishermen … the Coral.

Few of their peers from the 00s indie boom are so hale and hearty; 20 years into their career, the Merseyside band made their most ambitious album, and one of their best. It’s a double concept album about a seaside resort, and captures those towns’ blend of buckets-and-spades buoyancy and out-of-season malaise; gorgeous harmonies flow through jangling psych-pop and touches of northern soul, though there’s also creepy rockabilly emanating from the ghost train and ballads for lonely fishermen at the end of the pier. Read the full review. BBT

20

Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince

The year’s biggest musical revelation ... Arooj Aftab.
The year’s biggest musical revelation … Arooj Aftab. Photograph: Vishesh Sharma

The year’s biggest musical revelation came from Pakistani composer Arooj Aftab, who set traditional Urdu ghazals (and an adaptation of a poem by Rumi) amid harp and strings that rippled and ran as clear as a fresh stream. In her rich, meditative vocals, Aftab weighed the beauty of a single phrase and tenaciously addressed existential disappointments; her small ensemble shapeshifted between intricate filigrees and paring back to make a virtue of space. Made in response to the death of her younger brother, and released into an unprecedented global experience of grief, Vulture Prince was a refuge for solace and contemplation. LS

19

Dave – We’re All Alone in This Together

“It’s like flying first class on a crashing plane,” Dave says of his fame and wealth at the outset of his second album. Few rappers have sounded so ill at ease with critical and commercial success as him – even when firing off bars about gorgeous women, there’s a wary, jaded tone to his voice. And in many ways, nothing has changed: he remains angry at the government over immigration and social mobility, and relationships certainly haven’t got easier. “Love’s a film and I’m just flicking through the parts I’m in.” That sense of a man looking down at his own life is Dave’s tragedy, and what makes his tracks such, well, psychodramas. Read the full review. BBT

18

Turnstile – Glow On

The compressed, febrile sound of 80s punk rock is resurrected for this terrifically entertaining record, where the jams are not just kicked out but also sent off the nearest cliff. The monstrous chug of cock-rock rhythm guitar underpins lead lines made for whipping a mane of hair around to, and Brendan Yates’s vocals have something of Perry Farrell’s yelled pronouncements to them. But there’s a dream-pop softness, too – not least in two songs with Blood Orange guesting – that adds emotional range. BBT

17

Tirzah – Colourgrade

South Londoner finds a new singular language ... Tirzah.
South Londoner finds a new singular language … Tirzah.

The intimacy of new parenthood, where the world shrinks to a few rooms, is expressed in a new singular language by the south London musician (she also evokes the strangeness of those circumscribed Covid lockdowns). Breath, touch, kisses and sleep fill her songs, which conjure dub, hip-hop, post-punk and folk as if trying to remember them from a previous life. This album has the kind of utterly natural beauty that other artists strive towards, but will never reach because of that very striving. Read the full review. BBT

16

Deafheaven – Infinite Granite

For their most mainstream album yet, the band’s screams abated, the drums slowed their gallop, and the guitars took on a prettiness that recalled Coldplay at times. For certain metalheads, these are unforgivable sins and Deafheaven remain a divisive band – but for the rest of us, this is a stirring blend of arena rock and shoegaze that seems to fill the sky. Read the full review. BBT

15

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis – Carnage

The spirit of Scott Walker fills this idiosyncratic and brilliant album, which pumps with blood as bright and oxygenated as its red cover text. Freed from the occasionally sentimental and over-sumptuous backings of recent Bad Seeds albums, Cave and Ellis stalk off into a wilderness fringed with cyberpunk detritus: strange bits of production prowl at the edges of these violent songs. In its second half, the sky turns gentler as Cave ponders ageing across four ambient ballads: “I’m 200 pounds of packed ice / Sitting on a chair and in the morning sun” is as good an image for the inevitability of death as you’ll find. Read the full review. BBT

14

Lil Nas X – Montero

Witty and frank ... Lil Nas X in LA, November 2021.
Witty and frank … Lil Nas X in LA, November 2021. Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

One of the most proudly queer pop records ever released, where sex isn’t veiled in metaphor but detailed right down to where the ejaculate lands. Lil Nas X writes wittily about lust and witheringly about his rivals, but there are also frank admissions of loneliness and doubt as he navigates his way into the lasting fame that is assured by his stunningly good top line melodies. Read the full review. BBT

13

Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

Michelle Zauner weaves beguilingly strange fantasies of how fulfilment might look throughout her third album as Japanese Breakfast. The rapturous Paprika considers how it would feel to “stand at the height of your powers” as an artist, but other songs about desire – for other people, and for life – explore agency and submission in striking shades of grey. The musical roles on Jubilee are just as mutable, shapeshifting convincingly from New Order-era pop to the brassy filigrees of early 2010s indie, and the arrangements give Zauner space to wonder. LS

12

Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales

The power struggle between reason and desire fuels the Philadelphia songwriter’s fourth release, which intersperses soulful swagger and forlorn blues with interludes by women describing what they mean by owning their sexuality. Sullivan’s compassion resonates in how freely her interviewees express what some might see as contradictions (threatened with a sex tape leak, the subject of Ari’s Tale shrugs, “That dick spoke life into me”). And her own songs could be righteous – Pick Up Your Feelings snaps impatiently, and she makes no bones about her own pleasure on the languid On It – but they’re also transparent about the ways that freedom and dignity don’t always look how you might expect. “I just want to be taken care of / ’Cause I’ve worked enough,” she sings on The Other Side. LS

11

Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under

The North Shields songwriter’s second album starts with a grim image of teenage desensitisation: a chronically ill parent, snuff videos, fist fights and arrests; rinse and repeat. The forecast hardly improves across Seventeen Going Under, on which hope is elusive amid Fender’s bitter depictions of feeling trapped by political alienation and inherited bad habits. And yet the sheer force of feeling in this record – tenaciously euphoric sax a la Springsteen, tempos that bob like a featherweight boxer hungry for their shot, a reckless taste for the epic – indicates a life force that won’t be stamped out so easily, one that, going by the rabid response to the album, has mass revivifying potential. Read the full review. LS



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