SCM’s Top 50 Albums of 2021
…And so we reach the end of another pandemic year.
While everything is still so all over the place, we can at least take solace in the fact that 2021 was yet another fantastic year for music. I won’t lie, I had thought that 2021 might end up being a “sleeper year” for music, the most recent of which for myself was 2014. However, when I started compiling this list, I realised just how much good stuff had been released in the last 12 months, and as a result every album on this list is worth your time. While my top choice was obvious, the ordering of the rest of the records took much longer than anticipated, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next 12 months the order changed.
But regardless, enjoy, and I will see you next year, when hopefully the world will be a little less sickly.
DISCLAIMER: Entry number 10 on this list has a cover some people may find offensive.
Honourable Mentions: Colleen Green – Cool, Snapped Ankles – Forest of Your Problems, Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!, Anna Phoebe – Sea Souls, Blu – The Color Blu(e), Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine of Hell.
50. IDLES – Crawler
Their first step away from their groundbreaking opening trilogy sees IDLES embracing new ground, and sliding into the grey areas between Post Punk and Electronic, and Hardcore and Noise. No surprise with Kenny Beats heading up production on this record. However, tracks such as ‘The Beachland Ballroom’ and ‘Car Crash’ show that the band still have a knack for writing ear-worm worthy Punk songs.
Ba Da Bing
New York-based artist and singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins’ sophomore record is a great collection of songs. Featuring elements of sophisticated folk, ambient soundscapes and sung/spoken storytelling, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is a record that does exactly what it says on the tin. Jenkins knows how to extract the wonderful from the everyday, with the single ‘Hard Drive’ being perhaps the best example of this.
48. Colleen – The Tunnel & The Clearing
Colleen returns with her eighth studio record, once again bringing a fusion of old-school electronica and baroque music. The Tunnel & The Clearing is definitely a slow burn of a record, but also an astoundingly beautiful one, and one that grows with every listen. Colleen’s vocals are as stunning as her electronics, wistfully gliding over reverberated and peaceful instrumentals. A must for any Electronica fan.
47. Virginia Wing – private LIFE
Private LIFE is another helping of the off-kilter music from Manchester group Virginia Wing. Once again, it’s hard to categorise this record as much as the rest of Virginia Wing’s discography; the layers and textures that accompany the semi-spoken word vocals could be, broadly speaking, categorised as Experimental Music. But that doesn’t do justice to what the group have made on private LIFE; it’s best just to sit back and take it all in.
Brace Yourself Records
It’s incredible the amount of noise that can be made by two blokes, a drum kit, a guitar and shit load of pedals. Nocturnal Manoeuvres is proof of the volume that can be achieved by this set up, and it’s also a damn good album in the process. John mix Hardcore Punk with Sludge Metal and the heavier side of Alternative Rock that finds melody in the wall of sound. Fans of IDLES, Mclusky and The Murder Capital will enjoy this record.
45. Porter Robinson – Nurture
Mom + Pop
Porter Robinson’s Nurture is a wonderfully colourful record. Rooted in Ambient, Indie Pop and Electronica, this album is strangely nostalgic, in much the same way as George Clanton’s Slide. Many of the standout songs on this album are pure bliss, including ‘Look at the Sky’, ‘Musician’ and ‘Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do’, and contain sounds that wouldn’t have been out of place on an old school Game Boy game.
44. Bicep – Isles
Isles is a great second effort from Northern Irish duo Bicep. Comprising of 10 nocturnal dance tracks, each with their own brand of vocal manipulation or effect, Isles comes through with an odd ear worm on every song. Lead singles ‘Atlas’ and ‘Apricots’ in particular are standouts on this record, both bringing a sense of hope and foreboding in equal measure. All this makes for great night-time listening.
Chrysalis / Partisan
Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay come together again for the second album as LUMP. Animal is a vast improvement on their debut, and sees Marling’s soft vocal harmonies soar over Avant-Pop beats and synths. ‘Climb Every Wall’ is the best example of how stunning vocal passages and retro psych passages can come together as one. If you’re a fan of Art Pop and Folktronica make sure to check this album out.
Gruff Rhys returns with another helping of upbeat yet somewhat nihilistic Indie Rock. At this point in his career, you can count of Rhys to provide some of most easily accessible, yet thought provoking music to come out of the Cool Britannia alumni, and Seeking New Gods is no exception. The highlight of the record comes with the closing track ‘Distant Snowy Peaks’, a glorious track which looks for hope in the majesty of nature.
Metal & Dust / Ministry of Sound
Californian Soil is easily London Grammar’s best record to date, but it’s also their least mainstream. The group have perfected the balance of Sophisti-Pop and Minimalist Indietronica and created a holistic concept album, however, don’t seem to have attracted the buzz their previous records have. This is a shame, as Californian Soil is a real treat of an album, and warrants coming back to time and time again.
40. Xiu Xiu – Oh No
Xiu Xiu’s most recent material has either been incredibly Pop centric, or harrowing. Oh No straddles a fine line between the two with Jamie and Angela teaming up with a series of collaborators including Sharon Van Etten, Liars, Twin Shadow and more. It may not be Xiu Xiu’s most coherent record, but it’s great to see the group stretch their wings and try new styles and ideas with their friends to hand.
One Little Independent Records
Canadian violinist Sarah Neufeld knows and understands her style and she does it well. Detritus is another collection of soothing, ambient numbers that showcase Neufeld’s talents as a composer. There’s definitely shades of her previous work with saxophonist Colin Stetson here, notably on the track ‘With Love & Blindness’, which carries a folk like rhythm with undertones of foreboding and mystery.
The Path of the Clouds is another stellar collection of songs from Marissa Nadler. However on this release she sounds more optimistic while also weaving these layered and intricate stories into the tracklisting. The song ‘Couldn’t Have Done the Killing’ is the Bond song we never got, while Nadler’s collaborations with harpist Mary Lattimore and singer Emma Ruth Rundle are matches made in heaven.
37. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ Carnage is a record that seems to capture a moment on spontaneous creativity with the two songwriters. Carnage is constantly tonally shifting, embracing the Avant-Garde and the Cinematic, like the soundtrack to a David Lynch film. The electronic qualities to the sound mix excellently with Cave’s poetry, highlighted particularly on the track ‘Shattered Ground’, where Cave sings his heart out over Ellis’ ethereal sythnersizers.
36. Nas – King’s Disease II
Mass Appeal / The Orchard
After (in this writer’s opinion) a rocky run of records, King’s Disease II reminds us why Nas is considered one of the greats. This album is near all killer, no filler affair, with Hit-Boy’s production complimenting Nas’s vocals perfectly. There’s some great features on here, including Lauryn Hill, Eminem and YG, and ‘Death Row East’ and ‘Nobody’ are two of Nas’s best song of all time. Don’t sleep on this album.
35. Poppy – Flux
After 2020’s stunning I Disagree, Flux is a slightly more to the point release from Poppy. The grand Thrash and Black Metal elements have been toned down, with Poppy instead bringing Grunge, Post-Hardcore, and Alt-Rock sounds into her music. Poppy’s songs are as tight as even, but her down to earth approach on Flux unfortunately might be mean that this record gets far less attention than it deserves. A real shame, as this album contains some of Poppy’s best songs.
34. Chvrches – Screen Violence
EMI / Glassnote
An explosive dream of Synth-Pop and lyrical references to Horror movies, Screen Violence might just be Chvrches best album. They recognise their status as a band at this point, and with this confidence comes tracks like ‘Violent Delights’, ‘He Said, She Said’ and ‘Good Girls’, tracks practically dripping with swagger and sheen. Screen Violence is a near all-killer, no filler affair, and will convince even the most stubborn of Chvrches deniers of their greatness.
33. JPEGMafia – LP!
Republic / EQT
Peggy’s fourth full-length record is more scattershot than his previous efforts, but lacks none of his trademark charisma, erratic beats and humour. The tone of his tracks range from dreamy (‘What Kinda Rappin’ Is This?’), to contemplative (‘Are You Happy?’) and self-reflective (‘Bald!’). Overall, this is another stellar entry in the JPEGMafia chronology and well worth your time.
32. Brockhampton – ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE
RCA / Question Everything
Without questions, ROADRUNNER is the best Brockhampton record since the Saturation Trilogy. The band feel refreshed on this record, and opening collaborations with Danny Brown and JPEGMafia confirm this. Elsewhere, tracks like ‘What’s the Occasion’ and ‘Don’t Shoot Up the Party’ are two of Brockhampton’s best tracks to date. Hopefully their teased follow up record exceeds the hype this album has set up.
31. Iceage – Seek Shelter
Seek Shelter is Iceage’s most accessible album to date. Nearly abandoning their Noise Rock aesthetic, the Danish group embrace Classic Rock, Proto-Punk and even flecks of Blues. Songs such as ‘Shelter Song’ have the kind of lush backing instrumentation you’d expect to find on a Rolling Stones’ record. The group nail the formula though, producing a tight set of tracks that will bring in new fans, and should appease their old ones.
30. Saint Etiene – I’ve Been Trying To Tell You
The tenth studio album from trio Saint Etiene, I’ve Been Trying to Tell You is a beautifully concise record that mixes elements of Pop, Ambient and Cool Electronica together into a meditative blend. Tracks such as ‘Little K’ and ‘Pond House’ act like shallow baths of warm water, enveloping and relaxing the listener. Bob Stanley has described this record as being rooted in optimism, and that definitely comes through in this collection of tracks.
The wistful and melancholic tones of Indigo Sparke’s Echo call to mind artists like Cat Power and Feist, and a great deal of this album’s sound feel indebted to that era. With every song almost entirely centred around Sparke’s guitar and vocals, tracks like ‘Bad Dreams’ and ‘Baby’ call to mind a beautiful uneasiness that can be found on albums such as Moon Pix. This is such a promising debut by Indigo Sparke, and it’ll be great to see which direction she goes in next.
28. Penelope Isles – Which Way To Happy
The opening track to Penelope Isles’ second album is simply called ‘Terrified’ and this is a good indication as to the mood of the album. While the peppy step of Penelope Isles’ debut can be heard throughout this album, there’s also an impending sense of dread and fear. This often manifests itself through sound, notably on the Radiohead-esque song ‘Sailing Still’, a song that is under constant threat of being engulfed by it’s own instrumentation.
With songs that call back to the work of Nico, Anna B Savage’s A Common Turn is filled with longing and euphoria. Singing candidly about incredibly intimate relationships, Savage’s storytelling is what really drives this album, with her shifting and evolving instrumentals growing as the tone of her voices changes. This album is like reading love letters or a diary belonging to someone else; a window into another’s life that you weren’t meant to be a part of.
26. Ritual Cloak – Divine Invasions
Cardiff based duo Ritual Cloak’s second album is a mesmerising blend of Post-Rock, Math Rock and Electronica. Almost entirely instrumental, Divine Invasions is a masterclass in layering sounds, building a wave of music and weaving together intricate layers of instrumentation. Highlights include the singles ‘High Teens Low Twenties’, ‘White Noise’ and contemplative ‘Conversation (Blackmail)’.
25. Snail Mail – Valentine
As with so many albums on this list, Valentine is another example of an artist doing it better second time around. Snail Mail’s songwriting on this album feels so much more refined than on her debut. ‘Ben Franklin’, ‘Glory’ and the title track are such tight Indie Rock songs, and at 10 tracks and 31 minutes in length, Snail Mail has boiled down this album to the bare essentials. I’m a big fan of this record and can only see it growing on me.
24. Bo Burnham – Inside (The Songs)
Imperial / Ingrooves / Republic
Effortlessly combining comedy and commentary, the music from Burnham’s spectacular Inside special is just as good without the visuals. Mixing fully fledged songs with comedic ditties, Inside (The Songs) tackles the topics on our minds and at our fingers during lockdown. From FaceTime with relatives, mental health, systemic racism, sexting, and ordering goods from Amazon, Burham does a spectacular job of boiling down the human cost of the pandemic.
To Enjoy is the Only Thing is the beautiful debut album from Australian singer-songwriter Maple Glider. Rooted in Folk and Chamber Pop, this record is for anyone whose taste land’s somewhere between Joni Mitchell and Weyes Blood. This is an outstandingly gorgeous record, and one that deserves way more attention that it seems to have received. ‘Swimming’ and ‘Good Thing’ in particular are highlights from this album.
22. Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
Personally, I’ve never understood the hype around Halsey. However, when partnered with Attitcus Ross and Trent Reznor, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is a triumph. Halsey’s voice perfectly fits in with Reznor and Ross’ erratic, ethereal and tense soundscapes. Tracks such as ‘I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God’ and ‘Easier Than Lying’ are not only some of Halsey’s best, but some of the best of 2021, the singer’s empowering message woven into the DNA of the music.
21. Afro Cluster – The Reach
The debut album for a staple of the Cardiff music scene, Afro Cluster come through with a classic blend of Hip Hop, Funk, Soul and Jazz, all with strong political lyrical undertones. Emcee Skunkadelic takes the lead dropping bars about inequality within the current social climate on one of the most relevant records of the year. Released amongst an absence of live shows, The Reach scratched that itch with it’s vibrant, colourful and energetic compositions.
Bristol Nu-Jazz collective Ishmael Ensemble return with Visions of Light. Effortlessly combining dissonant Jazz with processed beats and manipulated vocals, the group bring a range of emotions to this album. ‘Some Centre’ is one of the most beautifully intense tracks of 2021, ‘Looking Glass’ sounds like a more upbeat version of a song from Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, while ‘Wax Werk’ is off-kilter Electronica at it’s finest.
19. Spellling – The Turning Wheel
The Turning Wheel is all shades of Pop. From the Lounge Jazz and Soft Rock influence on opener ‘Little Deer’, to the ominous Chamber Pop of ‘Emperor with an Egg’, to the Ballad and Prog-Pop influence on ‘Boys at School’, there’s something for everyone on this LP. Spellling does a stellar job of reinventing herself and completely altering her sound from her first records, and in doing so has created one of the best records of the year.
18. Black Country, New Road – For the first time
Where bands like Black Midi and Squid failed, Black Country, New Road succeed. For the first time is the perfect introduction to this band, combining their existing tracks with new songs like ‘Science Fair’ and ‘Track X’. It’s really great to see BC,NR coming in strong with their debut, with elements of Free Jazz, Math Rock and Spoken Word with fantastic Dadaist storytelling throughout. Here’s hoping they continue this pattern with their sophomore record in 2022…
17. Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
A worthy winner of the 2021 Mercury Prize, Arlo Park’s debut album is a great combination of RnB, Soul, Pop and Hip Hop. Parks wears her heart on her sleeve with candid modern poetry that references pop culture and relationships in the 2020s. Collapsed in Sunbeams that feels completely likeable; the chirpy instrumentals and Parks’ smooth vocals show why she has won so many people over this year.
16. Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
Darkroom / Interscope
Perhaps the most controversial opinon you’ll find in this article, is that I much prefer Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever to her debut. Indeed, this record could be viewed as a response to first record, with many songs on Happier Than Ever addressing the (unfair) critique Eilish has received regarding her body. Elsewhere, she discusses drug use and personal relationships, all over a series of muted yet impactful instrumentals that are, in this writer’s opinion, excellently formed.
15. Moor Mother + Billy Woods – Brass
Brass is a surprisingly existential listen, for two reasons. Firstly, Moor Mother and Billy Woods’ storytelling is colourful, with one hand dabbling discussing the matters of the Earth, and with the other talking about the matters of the universe. Secondly, the instrumentals are incredibly eerie, always keeping the listener on edge. Songs like ‘Furies’, ‘Giraffe Hunts’ and ‘Arkeology’ are tense listens, each bringing a unique flavour to the project.
14. Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic
Aftermath / Atlantic
The Superduo of Anderson.Paak and Bruno Mars come through with their debut studio record. A total homage to Funk, Soul and Disco, An Evening With Silk Sonic is 31 minutes of fantastic fun. From the incredible ‘Leave the Door Open’ to the swaggering ‘Fly As Me’ and the wide-eyed ‘Smokin’ Out the Window’, Paak and Mars indulge themselves. With compere Bootsy Collins as the cherry on the cake, this record will please the old school funk-ers and the Gen Zs alike.
13. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
It’s quite insulting that after three great records, Michelle Zauner aka Japanese Breakfast is only now receiving a nomination for Best New Artist at the Grammys. But the timing is apt; Jubilee is easily Zauner’s best record, not only showing off her range as an artist but her songwriting ability. ‘Slide Tackle’, ‘Be Sweet’ and ‘Savage Good Boy’ are some of Japanese Breakfast’s most charming songs to date.
Method / Interscope / AWGE
Much like Billie Eilish, I didn’t really vibe with Slowthai’s first record at all. Tyron is a different album entirely. Acting as a mini double-album, Tyron‘s first half is the “bangers” section, with songs like ‘Cancelled’ and ‘Mazza’ are some of Slowthai’s best. The second (and better) half of the album touches on the complete opposite themes. Slowthai goes deep into his psyche, with highlights including ‘I Tried’, ‘NHS’ and ‘Push’ featuring Deb Never.
11. Turnstile – Glow On
If you’d have asked me at the start of 2021 if I thought Hardcore Punk band Turnstile would produce one of my favourite records of the year, I would have been sceptical. But Glow On is fantastic; a Melodic Hardcore album that isn’t afraid to take instrumental risks, and features some nice collaborations with Dev Hynes from Blood Orange. On top of this, the reply value is fantastic, with tracks like ‘Underwater Boi’ and ‘Mystery’ being two of the best of the year.
10. Armand Hammer + The Alchemist – Haram
Billy Woods and Elucid’s brooding, gritty style is paired with The Alchemist’s unique style of plunderphonics for a winning combination on Haram. Perhaps the best Armand Hammer album so far (maybe a hot take), Haram feels like a series of dark vignettes; short stories that pull the listener in compelling lyrics and The Alchemist’s trademark range of samples and audio clips. It’s not an easy listen, but always a compelling one.
9. Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth
Ourness / House Anxiety
With instrumentals comprising of Neo-Soul, Psychedelic Rock and Punk, Gensis Owusu crafts some of the best Hip Hop to come from 2021. His candid and open lyrics touch upon racism and mental health, and Owusu’s knack for crafting a hook can be heard ‘Don’t Need You’, ‘Whip Cracker’ and ‘Drown’ featuring Kirin J Callinan. All this leads to the most promising debut album of the year; I can’t wait to see where Owusu goes next.
8. Tune-Yards – sketchy.
While 2018’s I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life was a… patchy record, sketchy. picks up perfectly from where Nikki Nack left off. Tune-Yards return to form is a triumphant one, with tracks ‘Hypnotized’, ‘Hold Yourself’ and ‘Make It Right’ ranking amongst the best material from Whokill. Sketchy. also feels like perhaps the most accessible Tune-Yards record to date, with Merrill and Nate happily working their Indie Pop-centric angle.
7. Tyler, the Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
Tyler, the Creator’s rounds off his trilogy of records with CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST. It would be a lie to say that this record isn’t incredibly indulgent, but Tyler has earned it, and this record is fantastic. Some of Tyler’s most Avant-Garde songs appear on here, and the results make this record feel more like a mixtape. But Tyler continues to weave amazing, entertaining stories in his rhymes, proving once again that he’s still one of the best in the game.
6. Lingua Ignota – SINNER GET READY
Lingua Ignota has always had a knack for creating harrowing music, and SINNER GET READY is absolutely no exception. Aptly titled, this record focuses on the hypocrisy of organised religion, but also dabbles in themes found on her previous records, notably Caligula. As always, SINNER GET READY is far from an easy listen, but it’s an incredibly rewarding one that reveals more with each listen. It may even be Lingua Ignota’s best to date.
5. Faye Webster – I Know I’m Funny haha
I Know I’m Funny haha is a soft album with a heavy heart. The instrumentals are gorgeous, combining elements of Country, Indie Pop and Lo-Fi music, but the lyrics are delivered with heapings of dry whit and self deprecation, something perfectly reflected in the title of this project. There’s an emotional weight to this record that’s absent from many other albums in this genre, and that’s testament to Webster’s mature songwriting and tender vocals.
4. My Name is Ian – Fantastic Company
Having previously centred their music around Indie rock (see: Los Campesinos) My Name is Ian broadened their approach on their new record, moving towards the funkier side of Synth Pop. ‘Where Is the Time?’ with HMS Morris is testament that this shift was for the better, and ‘For Love’ and ‘What’s The Point?’ just confirm this. The humorous edge to this record comes to a head on the song ‘A Thousand and One Songs to Hear Before You Die’, a song where the lyrics are entirely made up of other song titles.
Age 101 / AWAL
The thing that surprises most about Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is the grandiosity of it, especially following 2019’s insular Grey Area. But that’s far from a bad thing – in fact I’m really glad Simz made an album like this. From the bombastic opener ‘Introvert’, the album continues to throw an incredible stream of bangers at the listener. From the endearing ‘Woman’, to the nostalgic ‘Little Q, Pt. 2’ and the pumping ‘Point and Kill’ and ‘Fear No Man’, amongst others. It’s fantastic getting to see Simz stretch her wings in this way, and the results are fantastic.
2. Emma-Jean Thackray – Yellow
Effortlessly combining Free Jazz, P-Funk and Space Music, Yellow is an absolutely beautiful listen from London-based musician Emma-Jean Thackray. At 14 tracks and 50 minutes in length, Yellow transports the listener across the cosmos, discussing love, enlightenment, and harmony across the universe. Highlights include the smooth P-Funk jam ‘Golden Green’, erratic opener ‘Mercury’ and the fittingly haunting ‘Spectre’. But as a complete record is where Yellow truly triumphs; settle down, start from the top and let it guide you on a spiritual journey.
1. Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure
Rebecca Taylor’s Twitter bio describes herself as “The Joker for single people”, and upon listening to Prioritise Pleasure, it’s not hard to see why. Taylor tackles the brutal nature of relationships in the 2020s on tracks like ‘Fucking Wizardry’ and ‘You Forever’ while ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ emphasises the importance of putting oneself first. The heartbreaking ‘I Do This All the Time’ is a song where Taylor wears her emotions on her sleeve, tackling the fallout and complications of a relationship ending. Opener ‘I’m Fine’ is a sharp and cutting commentary of sexism, while also immediately pulling the listener into the record. On top of her cutting, moving and often hilarious lyrics, every instrumental on this record is a fucking bop. Bangers from front to back. What else could you want?!