On the 11th of August, I attended my first gig in almost 18 months: Gorillaz at The O2 in London. Reader, let me tell you, I nearly cried at least four times and probably would have actually cried were the entire standing area not committed to going utterly apeshit from the very first note of the evening to the very last. Pre-pandemic, I was effectively living gig-to-gig. A way to structure the mess of my depression-riddled lonesome life, I’d hop between as many as possible looking for that group catharsis in listening to an incredible artist tear through these songs which helped provide some measure of comfort or release to myself and dozens of other likeminded people. The second that the stupid apocalypse kicked into high gear, I knew that they were going away for a long time and that such a change was going to create a gigantic hole in my life I’d have trouble filling. Except that then 2020 proceeded to drop a nonstop barrage of outstanding records – something like almost half-a-dozen excellent new ones on average per week – and the bandage over that gaping hole proved quite adequate for the time being.
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2021 wasn’t quite as bountiful a feast of exceptional albums, particularly since more than a few of the event albums either flopped disappointingly (hi, Lorde) or once again failed to show up (FINISH THE GODDAMN ALBUM, SZA). But there were a lot of damn great ones, all the same, designed to make the continued instability of live music slightly easier to bear. Below is just a very small sampling of some of our favourites. Joel and myself probably could’ve gone on for an entire novella swapping picks and effusive write-ups of said, but the mere suggestion almost gave our editor a heart attack, so we cut ourselves back to three each. Also, hey, have you checked out The Amazing Devil yet? Helen would like you to!
Let us know your favourite records of 2021 in either the comments or on the socials. Maybe in 2022, we can more reliably experience these songs out in public. Few things beat the sensation of belting out a killer chorus with hundreds of other people, especially nowadays when such connections are necessarily rare. – Callie Petch
Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic
One of 2021’s most anticipated albums almost didn’t make it on time. Initially bumped back to January 2022, but not before teasing us with a few singles, Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars finally released collaborative project An Evening With Silk Sonic on November 12th, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. Ear-worming melodies sit vibrantly atop body-moving grooves throughout the carefully curated 9-track collection. The two young artists draw energy from this showcase; their admiration for funk and soul seeping from their vocal performances on to buttery instrumentation.
Naturally, raw enthusiasm does a lot for their chemistry, but they’ve thought of many other ways to make this release feel like a seamless melding of their individual worlds. Nobody “gets all the lines” or the most time to shine, and the back-and-forth/call and response stuff is charming, where in less capable hands it could come across as a gimmick. If you’re going for nonstop bangers, half an hour is the absolute perfect length too. I already want more! Here’s hoping this isn’t a one and done. Phenomenal. – Joel Thornton
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Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
Two years ago, the then-17 year-old Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell dropped WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, one of the most arresting and confident debut pop albums of the century. Upon listening to it on release day, I could hear the landscape of pop music being rewritten in real time. Blending together minimalist bedroom pop with flecks of industrial, hip hop, dubstep, early-00s R&B swing, as experimental sonic touches by brother producer FINNEAS as sonic beds for alternately fun and believably menacing examinations of teenage ego, suicidal depression, and heartbreak. And, for once, I turned out to be bang on the money as overwhelming whirlwind chart, sales, critical, and award success followed, plus a slew of copycats. So, where does one go after something like that?
With Happier Than Ever, the answer turns out to be further inward. Eilish’s second album lacks a ‘bad guy’ or a ‘bury a friend’ or a ‘you should see me in a crown,’ although that’s not to say it doesn’t feature some bangers – ‘Oxytocin’s dark BDSM club dungeon bounce, ‘NDA’s subwoofer-ruining strut, the 00s-reminiscent venom of ‘Lost Cause’ to name a few. What it does have, though, is a richer depth, added maturity, and greater cohesion than her stellar debut. She barely ever raises her voice above that intimate whisper nobody else has managed to quite better just yet, and yet her indelible knack for melody and disarming lyrical confessions make tracks like the overture ‘Getting Older’ and sparse folk ballad ‘Your Power’ utterly devastating. Then when she does let loose on the title track, going scorched earth over the predatory relationship which ruined her so? Chills.
This woman literally only just turned 20 this month and she’s already this good! Happier Than Ever proves Billie Eilish is here for the long haul and I haven’t returned to a single album more this year than her outstanding sophomore. – Callie Petch
JPEGMAFIA – LP! (OFFLINE)
LP! is the single best thing JPEGMAFIA has put his name to yet.
The variety on this album would be admirable had he not executed on the ideas perfectly but, luckily, we don’t need to have that conversation. That’s the only thing that ties this batch of songs together: total commitment to whatever’s being attempted.
Britney Spears interpolation? Played straight down the line. Rakim-style, mile-a-minute, multi-syllabic rhyme-stacking spitfest? For sure. Peggy playing the piano, singing, using bloody wrestling promos for samples… it’s all here and a good half of it shouldn’t work.
Yet, it does. All of it does, and it is like nothing I’ve heard in some time. If experimental hip-hop is your thing, this is your album of the year. – Joel Thornton
St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home
Screw the backlash in certain quarters, this is Annie Clark’s second-best album. After having spent a decade and three exceptional albums charting her own sonic voyage with a jittery anxiousness and increasing conceptual remove, Clark finally relaxes and opens up on her sixth record. Paradoxically, given that it’s a 70s pastiche album impressively committed to excavating and replicating the sounds of those psychedelic, soft rock, and R&B records she grew up with. I think I’ve only heard one other album this year that sounded better than Daddy’s Home – and it’s still to come on this list, albeit not written up by me. Clark and co-producer Jack Antonoff meticulously recreating the warmth and glow of that era: a laidback cool in the bounce of that bass on ‘Down and Out Downtown,’ the deep luscious Wurlitzer powering ‘The Melting of the Sun,’ those Motown girl-group harmonies building up infectiously on the climax to ‘…At the Holiday Party.’ I could live in the aural glisten of this record.
But Daddy’s Home is no mere genre exercise. If anything, it’s most reminiscent of David Bowie’s famed Young Americans in how Clark pulls these sonic touchstones into her world and makes them unmistakeably hers. ‘Live in the Dream,’ for example, reads on paper like a mash-up of two Dark Side of the Moon touchstones – ‘Us and Them’ and ‘The Great Gig in the Sky,’ to be precise – but in execution has a strung out, euphoric exhilaration all of its own thanks to Clark’s semi-detached multi-track vocals and climactic guitar pyrotechnics. (Seriously, a part of me ascended when that track unleashes in the last few minutes.) Lyrically, she paints compelling pictures of trainwreck housewives (‘Pay Your Way in Pain’), women who bristle at the prospect of motherhood (‘My Baby Wants a Baby’), and paying tribute to radical trailblazers too good for this sinful misogynistic earth (‘Melting of the Sun’). As studiously faithful to the inspired era as the record may be, you could even argue that it’s more playful than any St. Vincent album to date; ‘The Laughing Man’ even starts with a corny joke!
Sure, I admit that my brand legally requires I stan anything the St. Vincent name puts out. Whatever. Daddy’s Home is almost on par with Strange Mercy. I said what I said. – Callie Petch
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The Amazing Devil – Ruin
Despite lockdowns, social distancing, filming overseas, and a D&D game involving Artemisia de L’Aire facing off against a DM with a terrifyingly evil smile – Madeleine Hyland’s choice of words to describe Joey Batey, not ours – The Amazing Devil managed to brighten up 2021 for their ‘Dear Hearts’ by releasing their third album, Ruin.
First hinted at back in March, and with typically dramatic flourish, they released Ruin on Halloween, on Bandcamp, and one day later it was the bestselling album on the site, with their other two albums also back in the top tens. Although produced under difficult circumstances, the record is no less spectacular than what came before, with Hyland and Batey’s music grabbing the listener by the collar and immersing them completely within the lyrics. Unafraid to show their inner demons, especially in ‘The Old Witch Sleep and the Good Man Grace,’ or allowing a relatable vulnerability to the lyrics of ‘Drinking Song for the Socially Anxious,’ The Amazing Devil continue to awe. You should definitely get caught up in their musical whirlwind before the year is out. – Helen Balls
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Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is a needle-moving record for UK hip-hop.
Little Simz performs a live dissection of every fibre of her being: her thoughts, actions, identity, her fears and failures, her triumphs. There’s so much to tackle packed into an hour that it flies by like twenty minutes, the expert alchemy of the production giving so much to these stories.
SAULT’s man-at-the-wheel Inflo combines the luscious textures of R&B with goosebump-inducing string sections like they’ve never been apart. Even the more conventional brag-rap tracks like ‘Two Worlds Apart’ and ‘Speed’ feel like natural palate cleansers, distributed strategically so that the heavy haymakers continue to land. It’d be remiss of me to describe such a blatant love for music as “cinematic,” yet I can’t help draw the word to mind.
This is a window to an experience; I can envisage everything so clearly. Little Simz is operating at a level of artistry few will ever know. – Joel Thornton
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BICEP – Isles
Back in January, I suddenly really found myself missing the club. Like, really missing the club. Not that I actually went clubbing pre-pandemic, mind, but more the idea of it. Of going out, finding a dancefloor with a DJ dropping some groovy beats that you can just surrender yourself to, surrounded by dozens of other people all looking for the same thing, letting go of all inhibitions and fears to just be free for as long as the jams keep coming. I missed that communion. BICEP, the Northern Irish electronic bloggers-turned-musicians, similarly felt that loss thanks to the stupid apocalypse and, despite having already started work on their second album before the world had to shut down, channelled that specific longing into Isles, a dance record explicitly meant for home listening rather than replicating those closed clubs.
Not that you can really tell the difference when it comes to BICEP. Theirs is a brash, somewhat blunt-force mechanistic approach to dance music. Heavily indebted to 90s forebearers like Orbital and The Future Sound of London in the whirring breakbeats, ghostly female vocal samples, siren-esque synth strobes which power tracks like ‘Rever,’ ‘Cazenove’ and ‘Sundial.’ It can be moody, dark, evocative of underground raves at 2am when everyone’s decided to fuck the curfew. Isles lacks drops, for the most part, yet it constantly provides ineffable grooves and emotional sensations in its unconventional chord progressions and layerings. The standout 1-2-3 punch of ‘Saku’ – which melds garage with a tumbling dub that replicates the feeling of having an existential crisis whilst swirling through infinity – ‘Lido’ and ‘X’ is both caustic and beautiful; one of the best runs of any album this year.
The results are at once immediate – BICEP don’t really do growers – yet surprisingly long-lasting. Supposedly, the duo have “much, much harder” versions of this material on deck for their live shows, but Isles still goes hard enough at home to mitigate my FOMO of those club ecstasies. – Callie Petch