My Top Twenty Albums of 2021

It has been another great year for music. We didn’t get live music back until the second half of the year, but a lot of artists had clearly been using their time productively during the lockdowns in 2020 and the first half of this year, and we’ve seen that come through in the number of excellent albums, EPs and singles. This review focuses on albums, which I’ve acknowledged previously doesn’t tell half the story these days; but they still lend themselves to a good list!

1 – Promises by Floating Points, Pharaoh Saunders and the London Symphony Orchestra

My top choice, no contest this year. A glorious electronic jazz symphony. A thing of great beauty, atmospheric and dramatic in equal parts. Composed by Sam Shepherd, who records under the name of Floating Points, in collaboration with jazz icon Pharoah Saunders and the LSO. Pharoah Saunders’ sax playing is a thing of wonder, while the gradual emergence of the LSO’s strings halfway through the piece, rising to an unnerving crescendo, never fails to enthral. The first thing you hear is a simple seven note motif played on some kind of keyboard. It is ever-present through the album, a point of stability that is soothing and haunting at the same time. Around it the sounds ebb and flow, erupt and subside. It is an epic journey – to appreciate it fully you have to listen to it from start to finish. An astonishing piece of music, a true work of art, which took five years to bring to fruition. It was worth the wait.

2 – Echo by Indigo Sparke

I stumbled upon Indigo Sparke’s music through Spotify’s algorithm. I’d been playing some Julia Jacklin and when that ended, a song called The Day I Drove the Car Around the Block came on. I liked it so checked out the artist – and made my acquaintance with Echo. It’s a beautiful, sparse record – no surprise that the album cover features Indigo in what I take to be the Australian desert. File under folk, I guess, but there’s an echo and space in this music reminds me a little of a favourite from a few years ago: Light on Our Limbs by Daisy Vaughan. Songs like Carnival and Colourblind are amongst my most played of the year, but the whole album is completely captivating.

3 – Man Made by Greentea Peng

Greentea Peng is the stage name for singer and songwriter Aria Wells. I first heard her when she released a song called Used To, back in 2018. It was jazzy and soulful and sultry – Erykah Badu came to mind, maybe even Grace Jones. Since then, and before the album, she’s released some great singles like Ghost Town, Soulboy, Mr Sun and HuMan, which draw on reggae and dub and hip hop as well as jazz and soul. A potpourri of the sounds of the London streets. Man Made builds on these foundations. It has an audacity and a swing about it that really comes through on the stage. There’s a strong reggae vibe to it again, with some wonderful dub sounds. The bass lines have a groove that make it impossible not to want to dance – or sway. It’s a celebration, but also a protest against the oppressors. Aria Wells is not the first person to sing fight for our right to party, but when she did during Jimtastic Blues in the closing show on the Sunrise Arena at Latitude, it felt like a call to arms. Militant dubwise dance music – maybe that’s a good summary of Green Tea Peng and Man Made.

4 – Bring Backs by Alfa Mist

Alfa Mist, as a teenager in east London, cut his musical teeth as a producer in hip hop and grime. But he loved the jazz music he was hearing and taught himself piano and has become a master of his craft. This is his fourth album. It’s cool, cool jazz, infused with hip hop and soul – those sounds of London again. His keyboards lay the base for his fellow musicians to flourish – guitar, trumpet, sax, with guest vocalists Lex Amor and Kaya Thomas-Dyke (who plays bass too). A poem about roots and the sense of belonging in a new city weaves its way through the album, adding to the sense of contemplation. His recent concert at the Barbican revolved around this album and is possibly the best I’ve seen this year.

5 – Visions of Light by Ishmael Ensemble

Ishmael Ensemble are a collective from Bristol, led by saxophonist and producer Pete Cunningham. You may have read my review of their brilliant gig at the Jazz Café in November, part of the London Jazz Festival. It’s jazz but not just jazz – there is a strong element of that great Bristol sound of the 1990s, the sound we call trip hop. When Holysseus Fly is singing on songs like Feather and Empty Hands you are transported back to Elizabeth Fraser on Teardrop. This album is in a place where jazz, dance and electronica intersect – fusion at its best.

6 – Collapsed in Sunbeams by Arlo Parks

2021 has been an incredible year for Arlo Parks. She released this album in January, having already built up a strong following through a series of mellow, catchy singles with heartfelt sentiments. Some of those songs, like Black Dog and Eugene, made it onto the album; the newer tunes continued to address the challenges faced by her generation in today’s harsh world. There’s a disarming openness about her lyrics, aligned to soulful, jazzy beats with an indie streak – she has covered Radiohead’s Creep. She has become something of a voice for her generation – the super sad generation in one of her signature tunes. It was recognised when Collapsed in Sunbeams won this year’s Mercury Music Prize.

7 – Californian Soil by London Grammar

When this album came out in April, I listened to it a couple of times, concluded it was more of the same with a few more dance beats than before. Nothing as memorable as Strong or Rooting for You from the first two albums. But before I went to see the band at Alexandra Palace in November I put it back on a few times and I realised what a good album it was. Yes, the beats are a little more uptempo than usual, but what still gets you is Hannah’s voice. A thing of great beauty, tinged with sadness, even when she is singing against a dance rhythm. London Grammar albums don’t come round very often – this is the third in eight years – so Californian Soil is something to treasure.

8 – For the First Time by Black Country, New Road

How to describe Black Country, New Road? Avant-garde post-punk? Jazz-prog rock? All of this and more. For the First Time seemed like a bit of a placeholder at first, as it has only has six songs, two of which, Athens, France and Sunglasses, had been around for a while. However, both have been significantly re-worked. I particularly like the new, fuzzy guitar intro to Sunglasses. And it’s still as bonkers as ever. What’s so good about this album is that there is so much going on that every listen reveals something new. Singer Isaac Wood sounds like he’s on the verge of some kind of breakdown. Georgia Ellery’s violin and Lewis Evans’ sax contribute hugely to the richness and unpredictability of the sounds. This was shortlisted for the Mercury Music, and if the judges had been feeling adventurous they would have won it.

9 – Blue Weekend by Wolf Alice

This one was shortlisted too, but they won it for their last album, so it was not that likely they could do it again. Blue Weekend sees Wolf Alice take another step towards polished pop, though they haven’t embraced dance beats yet as so many do. It was another album that grew on me, after an inconclusive initial reaction. I missed the guitar riffs that were such a great part of My Love is Cool and, in a different, 70s rock way, Visions of a Life (the Mercury winner). Smile is the standout rocker; Play the Greatest Hits is a bit weak. But as the essence of the songs emerged I began to appreciate a grandiose beauty in many of them, and none better than the solicitous How Can I Make it OK? and the anthemic The Last Man on Earth. The latter will be Wolf Alice’s lighters out moment for years to come.

10 – Sera Que Ahora Podremos Entendernos by Mabe Fratti

Mabe Fratti is a Guatemalan cellist and composer, based in Mexico. The album title in English is Will We Be able to Understand Each Other Now? That sense of unease permeates the album as Mabe Fratti’s wistful vocals float over a soundscape of juddering and looped cellos, synths, discordant guitars – and a bit of birdsong! There’s a strange beauty to it, which occasionally brings to mind Kate Bush or even the Cocteau Twins, but really I haven’t heard anything like it before. Another discovery courtesy of 6 Music.

11 – On All Fours by Goat Girl

More skewed rock’n’roll from the south London post-punks, with less rock and more roll than before. In lockdown Goat Girl have embraced electronics and dance sounds, never more so than in the lead single Sad Cowboy, which shifts gear near the end and goes all techno. The trenchant views on life and politics remain, but Goat Girl are a very different band to the one I first saw supporting Moonlandingz (A Fat White Family offshoot) at Village Underground in Shoreditch in 2017. Slicker, less punky, more mature. And just as intriguing.

12 – As the Love Continues by Mogwai

I only really got Mogwai in 2019, after seeing them play at Latitude. Those slow-building sweeps of guitar transformed from dirges to epics in the live arena. They were even better this year at Green Man, under the night sky, with the Black Mountain in the background. As the Love Continues probably isn’t that different from most of its predecessors, though it almost goes pop with Ritchie Sacramento – which has singing on it! It reminds me of Slowdive. Ceiling Granny rocks like Smashing Pumpkins; but really there’s no-one else like Mogwai. Just let the waves of sound wash over you.

13 – Good Woman by The Staves

It’s six years since the Staves’ last album, If I Was, which was produced by Justin Vernon. In that time there have been break ups, their mother died, and one of the sisters, Emily, had a baby. On the recent tour it was just Jessica and Camilla, with a backing band. Good Woman is a reflection on all those experiences: quite subdued lyrically, but defiant with it. The trademark harmonies are more restrained, but as lovely as ever. This is a mature, melancholy album that soothes you as it moves you.

14 – A Color of the Sky by Lightning Bug

Lightning Bug are a New York band, led by singer Audrey Kang. I’d not come across them until I heard the single The Right Thing is Hard to Do on 6 Music. I loved it: a slice of dreamy guitar-laden pop, with a lovely melody and Audrey’s delicate vocals floating on the breeze. In fact I liked it so much that it turned out to be my most-played song on Spotify this year. The band’s sound has been described as shoegaze, and I suppose it is, but there’s a stronger folk element in it than most of the music in that category. It’s simply gorgeous, from start to finish: music to wallow in.

15 – In Your Hands/ In This House (2020) by Lewsberg

Lewsberg were another 6 Music discovery this year. The first song I heard was Through the Garden, off In This House. It was the most Velvet Underground-like sound I’d heard since what? The Strokes? Jonathan Richman? The Feelies? And there was a guitar solo at the end that had me thinking of Television. They must be from New York, I thought. And then a couple of months ago, I heard an even better tune, Cold Light of Day, with some brilliant guitar again. I looked up the album, to find it was from 2020. And yes, listening right through it was like listening to the Velvets (especially the 1969 live album); but it wasn’t parody, it was clearly love. I noticed that there was a 2021 album too, In Your Hands. It had less of the guitar, but more violin. Dreamier – Pale Blue Eyes rather than Waiting for the Man or White Light White Heat. Put them together and you have a great double album. Oh, and they’re not from New York, they’re from Rotterdam in Holland!

16 – You Signed Up For This by Maisie Peters

I’ve been listening to Maisie Peters’ music for two or three years now, ever since I read an article in Line of Best Fit declaring that she was making the best observational pop of 2019. I’m not sure I’m an expert on observational pop, but I liked what I heard, principally the songs on a 2018 EP called Too Nice for a Jacket. That included a lovely ballad called Feels Like This, which still features in her live show. Since then she has released a string of singles and EPs, with unfailingly catchy melodies and yes, those acute, often wistful observations. She has built up a loyal following and made a triumphant appearance on the main stage at Latitude this year. You Signed Up For This feels like the culmination of this stage of her musical journey. It’s very polished, with the inevitable dance beats lurking in the background. There’s surprisingly little from the back catalogue, and for me, it doesn’t have quite the same depth or quality as some of her earlier songs. But it’s still a very good pop album, with the singles John Hughes Movie and Pyscho the highlights. The latter is a dead ringer for Carly Ray Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe. A pointer for things to come?

17 – I Know I’m Funny Ha Ha by Faye Webster

I first saw Faye Webster supporting Julia Jacklin at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in November 2017. I liked what I heard and loved her self-titled album of that year, her second. It was country-pop with a nod to Rumours era Fleetwood Mac. Alone Again was a real heartbreaker. The next album Atlanta Millionaire’s Club was lush, but didn’t have quite as memorable songs, apart from the lovely Kingston. This latest album is even more sumptuous, has better songs and… she seems happy. I think she has found love, and this is captured wonderfully in the song In A Good Way. When I first heard that in 2020 it was on repeat for a while – it was so beautiful! You make me wanna cry, in a good way… The steel guitar is as mellifluous as ever, the violins sigh, the piano swoons. There is variety in the album – Cheers is almost rocky, Both All the Time has a hint of Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door. But mostly you get to wallow – in a good way.

18 – How Long do You Think it’s Gonna Last? by Big Red Machine

Big Red Machine is a collaboration between Aaron Dessner of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. They started working together in 2016 and released a debut album in 2018. With the pedigree of those two, you know what you are going to get. I’ve not heard the first album yet, but this one is a journey through Americana, with some modern production touches. The opening song sets the tone. A lovely vocal from guest Anais Mitchell, a chorus with a touch of Springsteen and Justin Vernon’s falsetto taking it higher. There are guests galore on this album, including Taylor Swift on two songs, Birch and Renegade. No surprise there, as Aaron Dessner was instrumental in the making of Folklore and Evermore. It’s a long album, at over an hour, but it maintains a coherence despite all the different participants – even Ben Howard and This is the Kit get a look-in. I’m still quite new to this one, and suspect it will be getting a lot more airplay.

19 – Colourgrade by Tirzah

I’d always thought of Tirzah as a soul/R&B singer, albeit a leftfield one. With Colourgrade the soul gets twisted and turned and the leftfield emerges victorious. It’s no surprise that one of her collaborators is Mica Levi, whose band Good Sad Happy Bad made one of the best albums of 2020, Shades. Singer and DJ Coby Sey is in the mix too. There’s a lot going on throughout this album, and sometimes very little at all. There’s a lot of space in the sound; the beats are insistent but often quite ponderous. It has an eerie, dream-like quality. I can hear a bit of the Bristol sound in there – Tricky perhaps – but if you speeded it up I suspect you might be moving into grime territory. I’m all over the place on this one, which I imagine is the intention. Its closest relation on this list is probably Mabe Fratti. Weird, for sure, but fascinating.

20 – I Don’t Live Here Anymore by The War on Drugs

I’ve loved the last two War on Drugs albums, particularly 2014’s Lost in the Dream, which remains one of my favourite albums of the 2010s. And Thinking of a Place, from 2017’s A Deeper Understanding, has some of the finest searing guitar you could hope to hear. Singer and guitarist Adam Granduciel is not one to look on the bright side of life, but he shares his pain in an affecting and uplifting way. The latest offering, I Don’t Live Here Anymore, might suggest a moving away from old habits, but musically it’s largely more of the same. From the first, gentle bars of Living Proof you are Lost in the Dream (the song) territory, with a delicate guitar solo at the end that adds to the poignancy. Next up is Harmonia’s Dream, which chugs along in the manner of Red Eyes and Burning. And so it continues, in an ultimately very satisfying way. Americana at its most epic.

Honourable mentions

There are many of course. Often because I haven’t quite got listening to them properly yet. Or perhaps they aren’t quite good as I would have expected – see Kacey Musgraves, Snail Mail, Chvrches. Or maybe they are just really good in parts, but don’t sustain over a whole album.

So, in no particular order, album name first:

Beta – Beige Banquet; Going to Hell – Lande Hekt (singer with Muncie Girls); Cheater – Pom Poko; Bright Green Field – Squid; Alternate Endings – Snowy Band; Going Going Gone – Mild High Club; Uneasy – Vijay Iyer; Screen Violence – Chvrches; Star-Crossed – Kacey Musgraves; Valentine – Snail Mail; Flora Fauna – Billie Marten; A Common Turn – Anna B Savage; Behave Myself – She Drew the Gun; Raise the Roof – Robert Plant & Alison Krauss; Jubilee – Japanese Breakfast; Monument – Portico Quartet; Rare, Forever – Leon Vynehall; Yellow – Emma Jean Thackray; Glow On – Turnstile;  Comfort to Me – Amyl and the Sniffers; The Mutt’s Nuts – Chubby and the Gang.  

EPs, singles, tracks

As I noted at the beginning, albums only tell half the story these days, if that. There are so many good EPs, singles and tracks off albums that don’t make the selection that have been real favourites this year. I’ll return to this subject after Christmas.

In the meantime, I hope your circumstances allow you to enjoy the festive period. There is always music to help you through.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
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5 Responses to My Top Twenty Albums of 2021

  1. A good list as always, John. Some familiar, others that will be a discovery.

    Wish you and your family Merry Christmas and a good 2022!

  2. There’s a lovely Fleet Foxes album that was released earlier this month – ‘A Very Lonely Solstice’. Thought you might like it if you haven’t already heard it.

    • …I suspect it is a set of barebones versions of their earlier songs. It’s been a long time since I heard the band so I have lost familiarity with the songs but I do recognise “Helplessness Blues”.

  3. fgrtommo says:

    Great choices and some interesting ones I will try out. Thanks. I’d have pushed Billie Marten and Portico Quartet up from your ‘nearlies’ but loved many of your top 20. Good to see Greentea Peng, Alfa Mist and Faye Webster in there – they were completely new to me until about a month ago. Happy New Year!

  4. Paul says:

    Btw I should have added that my favourite album of the year was Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg.

    I’m enjoying playing your selections that I wasn’t familiar with – thanks again

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