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The best albums of 2021

“Afrique Victime”. By Mdou Moctar
The most vital, thrilling rock music of the past decade has often come not from Britain or America, but from west Africa—specifically from Tuareg musicians playing what has become known as “desert blues”. In the wake of Tinariwen and Imarhan (and others), Mdou Moctar has established himself as the new figurehead of the scene. He is an astounding guitarist, but it’s never shredding for the sake of it: every note on “Afrique Victime” served the melody, not the player’s ego.

“Coral Island”. By The Coral
The Coral’s latest work was a rare thing: a double album that feels trim and muscular. All the band’s inspirations were evident on “Coral Island”—The Everly Brothers and pre-Beatles pop; psychedelia; garage punk—and the quality of the songwriting was stellar.

“Crawler”. By Idles
Those who thought the rock quintet were one-trick ponies got a shock from “Crawler”, which displayed a hitherto unsuspected versatility from the band. Joe Talbot sang (and sang pretty well) rather than shouted, and “Crawler” offered the listener aural pleasures rather than just the catharsis of pure noise. It was the sound of a group who know there are new worlds to conquer and are intent on doing so.

“Glow On”. By Turnstile
If you want your punk rock to be not in the least ambivalent about being punk rock, then Turnstile, a band from Baltimore, had just the thing. “Glow On”, their third record, was a modern take on the hardcore genre of the 1980s with all of the requisite force, power and velocity. In a year when hardcore was more visible than it had been for some time, Turnstile offered proof of its capacity to thrill.

“Ignorance”. By the Weather Station
The breakthrough album by Tamara Lindeman (the frontwoman of the Weather Station) was a lush, richly melodic collection of soft rock, so artfully composed and arranged that it would have sounded wonderful at more or less any point in the past 40 years. Its chosen subject—the climate crisis—was of its time, however. Rather than pile on vague threats of apocalypse, Ms Lindeman rooted her songs in the specific, making them beautiful as well as foreboding: “Laid back in the grass of some stranger’s field/While shearwaters reeled overhead.” A wonderful album.

“Infinite Granite”. By Deafheaven
The Californian metal band (pictured right) had been slowly peeling away the extremity from their music for some time, but on their fifth album they finally made the record they seemed to have been grasping towards. “Infinite Granite” was full of guitar effects, with a dreaminess that was bewitching. Beneath it all, though, the drumming of Daniel Tracy gave it a power that meant the group’s metallic roots were not betrayed.

“Isles”. By Bicep
The nature of youth revolutions is that the people involved in them grow up. That is not always something that can be done with dignity, as anyone who has been to a punk-revival show can attest. You might not have thought dance music—the home of the pilled-up, the gurning and the unselfconscious—would be much of a place to grow old gracefully. But artists such as the Chemical Brothers and Underworld have managed to get bigger in middle age, and “Isles”, an album by Bicep, a Northern Irish duo, was dance music that didn’t demand you take to the floor. Though the beats-per-minute stayed high, the music itself was shape-shifting and designed as much for the ears as the feet. Dinner-party hit feels like a backhanded compliment, but it’s not meant to be.

“Magic Mirror”. By Pearl Charles
For “Only For Tonight”, Pearl Charles looked to the music of ABBA for inspiration. The softest, creamiest soft rock—think Carole King, Carpenters, Fleetwood Mac—was the prevailing mood elsewhere on the record. But “Magic Mirror” is easy listening about hard feelings: that ABBA-esque number takes the theme of “Dancing Queen” but instead of finding fulfilment on a night out, Ms Charles is distraught at her own motivations: “Didn’t I know/Wasn’t made for a one-night stand/Shouldn’t have played this like a man/I don’t think I can.”

“New Long Leg”. By Dry Cleaning
British indie rock is going through a wave of sprechgesang right now, and the pick of the bands who speak instead of sing is Dry Cleaning. The star is Florence Shaw, whose lyrics—sometimes overheard snippets of language—are gleefully, marvellously deadpan, even at their most absurd. “Would you choose a dentist with a messy back garden like that?/I don’t think so.”

“Prioritise Pleasure”. By Self Esteem
Rebecca Taylor’s (pictured left) reinvention since leaving the folk-pop group Slow Club has been extraordinary. Her second album as Self Esteem was a giant finger-up to anyone—well, any man, really—who would pigeonhole her with their own expectations, be they musical, emotional or sexual. “Prioritise Pleasure” was presented not with wailing and gnashing of teeth, but in bright, maximalist electronic pop in which Ms Taylor interrogates herself and others without self-pity. “Stop trying to have so many friends,” she advised herself on “I Do This All The Time”: “Don’t be intimidated by all the babies they have/Don’t be embarrassed that all you’ve had is fun/Prioritise pleasure.”

“Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”. By Little Simz
Four albums in, Little Simz finally reached the very cusp of stardom. It wasn’t just “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”: this year she triumphed at festivals and made show-stealing appearances with Gorillaz. The centre of it, though, was the album, which was both musically imaginative—the use of orchestral backing gave it a cinematic sweep unlike the electrified claustrophobia of much contemporary hip-hop—and lyrically adept, with the artist questioning her choice of career on the excellent “Standing Ovation”.

“Stand for Myself”. By Yola
One of those artists for whom the pandemic was more than an inconvenience, Yolanda Quartey (pictured centre) was seemingly poised for a big breakthrough before the world shut down. All the plans to tour, or to star in films, had to be shelved. Instead she focused on making an album that sounds like it was uncovered in some long-lost archive: “Stand for Myself” was retro but perfectly done (it was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who has a sideline in helping others sound like it’s 1972 again). There was deep soul, sophisticated disco-pop, slick country and earthy R’n’B. Sometimes this kind of thing can feel like an exercise in genre box-ticking, but “Stand for Myself” was thrillingly alive.

“Surrounded by Time”. By Tom Jones
The lead single, a version of Todd Snider’s “Talking Reality Television Blues”, suggested that the great Welshman was not going to waste the late stage of his career on easy cabaret. The fourth album in an astounding resurgence, “Surrounded by Time” highlighted Mr Jones’s willingness to experiment, his manager (and son) Mark Woodward’s clever guidance, and producer Ethan Johns’s musical smarts. The record was fantastic, easily the equal of similar renaissances in the careers of Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen.

“They’re Calling Me Home”. By Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi
A singer from North Carolina and an instrumentalist from Italy, living in Ireland, recording songs from assorted traditions (and some of their own compositions): if nothing else, “They’re Calling Me Home” is proof that folk is not parochial music and that different cultures share common experiences. Ms Giddens and Mr Turrisi made an album that sounds marvellous—her voice is a thing of wonder—and in which an Appalachian ballad such as “Black as Crow” can feel umbilically tied to “When I Was in My Prime”, a traditional English song.

See also:
The best albums of 2020
The best albums of 2019


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