First thing I always say is this isn’t really a “best of” list, so don’t get angry with me about albums that are missing. We’re all friends, right? What these albums are most definitely are though, are the albums that I’ve enjoyed the most in 2021, the ones that I’ve listened to more than anything else. (In no particular order.)
Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend
Critics loved the first two Wolf Alice albums but Blue Weekend is their tipping point, where they move from critical darlings into the real mainstream. Headlining Latitude and subbing Reading & Leeds in 2022 are the tip of the iceberg for this foursome. Whether it’s the grungy throbbing of ‘Smile’, the delicate hum of ‘How Can I Make It OK?’, or the gentle rousing of ‘Lipstick On The Glass’ this is a masterpiece. The epitome of all killer no filler. It’s practically impossible to choose the best song as there are so many, but there’s not been a more beautiful or crushing song in 2021 than ‘Safe From Heartbreak (if you never fall in love)’. Buy Blue Weekend now or stream on Tidal.
Lou Hayter – Private Sunshine
Private Sunshine is a delight. With its winding disco-pop opening (‘Cherry On Top’) through soulful-pop (‘Telephone’), 80s nightclub bops (‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’), Bananarama-ish pop (‘Time Out Of Mind’), luscious chill-pop (the title track), and beat-heavy dance (‘This CIty’) Lou Haytner has made a joyful journey through the highs of pop music through the decades. It’s just what we need in 2021. Buy Private Sunshine now or stream on Tidal.
Kate Vargas – Rumpumpo
There’s something wonderfully eccentric about Kate Vargas; latest, the uniquely titled Rumpumpo. Whether it’s the nonchalant slacker rock of ‘Honeydripper’ or the acoustic ‘Everything Forever’ it’s Vargas’ voice that the star of the show. A raspy thing of beauty, the New Yorker uses her vocals to deliver heartfelt emotion, raw passion, and some lovely melodies. With song titles like ‘Spit 3 Times’ (btw, a bloody marvellous old school blues sounding tune) and ‘Glorieta To The Holy Place’ the music is as endlessly interesting as it sounds like it should be. Buy Rumpumpo from Bandcamp or stream it on Tidal.
Beverlee – Purple Violin
“Queer, left-of-center pop” is Beverlee’s own description on Twitter and it’s perfect. At times Purple Violin is pure pop in its sound, at others it’s off-kilter. Lyrically however it’s never pure pop, it’s more interesting and diverse than your mainstream pop. With Abby Diamon adopting the moniker Beverlee as a tribute to Beverlee Jacobson who was shot by her Hell’s Angels boyfriend in 1970 this was never going to be your run of the mill pop album. Songs like ‘White Piano’ and ‘6X’ have all the trappings but none of the banality of pop. Others, like ‘Logic Is Lost’ and ‘I Missed Seeing The City’, reinforce the fact that Purple Violin is infintely more interesting than anything you’ll have heard on the radio or pre-manufacture playlist in 2021. It all goes to show that endlessly fascinating subject matter can sound every bit as accessible as another song about straight relationships. Stream Purple Violin on Tidal.
Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure
This is not an original choice. Rebecca Taylor (i.e. Self Esteem) is on practically every best of list of 2021, including the best album and best song on The Guardian’s lists. That suggests that it’s well deserved, and it is. Prioritise Pleasure may feel like it’s come out of nowhere but if you experienced the Self Esteem effect at any of the festivals this summer (Green Man was one of the most emotional festival sets I’ve experienced) or heard lead single ‘I Do This All The Time’ when it was released in April 2021 you’ll have known something special was on the way. It’s extremely honest, relatable, funny, real, catchy, and brilliant. Saying important things about society and mental health while kicking out amazing tunes. It’s the very definition of all killer no filler, but if you’re making me choose, start with ‘I Do This All The Time’, ‘Moody’, ‘The 345’ (opening line: “I just want to let you know there’s a point in you”) or my personal favourite: ‘Fucking Wizardry’ which is a lesson in songwriting all on its own. Buy Prioritise Pleasure now or stream on Tidal.
Tristen – Aquatic Flowers
When you hear an artist is from Nashville it’s usually a safe bet that they’re going to be putting out something approximating country music, or maybe Americana. Well put those preconceptions to one side; Tristen is a genre-jumping songwriter and artist with no boundaries. And there’s nary a banjo in sight on Aquatic Flowers. ‘Complex’ is a vibrant opener that sets the tone, ‘Hothouse Flower’ has a 60s Laurel Canyon feel to it and ‘Athena’ is a determined grunge-popper with a hint of psychedelia to it. Varied and with a high-quality bar, Tristen has hit her stride. Buy Aquatic Flowers now or stream on Tidal.
Carly Pearce – 29: Written In Stone
Dressed up in a mainstream country radio pop outfit, Carly Pearce’s latest is a stone-cold character assassination in the truest style of classic country music. Coming hot on the heels of 2020’s loved up self-titled album, 29: Written In Stone is a complete 180 flip. Full of witty lyrics – just the titles of ‘Diamondback’, ‘Liability’, and ‘Next Girl’ send you in two directions – and punch to the gut songs like ‘What he Didn’t Do’ and ‘Your Drinkin’, My Problem’ this is the post-break-up record Adele wishes she could write. There’s no self-serving navel-gazing here, it’s all no bullshit, moving on with my life, calling you out Michael Ray stuff; gusty and brilliant. Buy 29: Written In Stone or stream it on Tidal.
The Anchoress – The Art Of Losing
Releasing an album earlier in the year usually makes it harder to be remembered when the calendar flips to winter and the best of lists come churning out, it’s a testament to the unbelievable quality of The Art Of Losing that it’s all over the year-end lists. If ‘5AM’ is the best song here – and it is – with its serious subject matter accompanied by a delicate piano, then ‘The Exchange’ is the crowd-pleaser, all rousing chorus and purposeful vocals. And those two songs showcase everything that The Anchoress does so well here, pathos and heart, pain and passion, all with melodies and riffs to spare. Buy The Art Of Losing now or stream it on Tidal.
Margo Cilker – Pohorylle
There are so many new artists in country music in 2021 that it can be hard to make an impression, but that’s not a thing for Margo Cilker, certainly not when you’ve got songs of this quality. Sweeping fiddle, plodding drum beats, perky piano, and some supreme vocals all add up to 2021’s most exhilarating country debut. The story of ‘Kevin Johnson’ is injected with jovial piano, which is matched in its pep by ‘Tehachapi’ and its horn section. ‘Brother, Taxman, Preacher’ adds another dimension, but then so does each of the nine songs here. Buy Pohorylle now or stream on Tidal.
Damon Albarn – The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream
I’m not sure there’s an artist around more defined by something (Blur) that couldn’t be more irrelevant to the majority of their output over the last 20 years than Damon Albarn. Veering from genre to genre, you sometimes forget he’s also a key part of Gorillaz, moving from African influenced music to classical scores, his most commercial work outside of the big two was his previous solo album, 2014’s Everyday Robots. But the 2021 version of Albarn couldn’t be further away from that sound. The Nearer TheFountain, More Pure The Stream is a beautiful, understated thing, driven by chilled out beats and keys, the music drifts across you like a dream. A highlight is the spaced-out ‘Polaris’, which is the least likely sing-a-long you’ll ever have heard, yet it took on that status at his low-key Latitude set. For moy money, the most interesting mainstream artist around, delivering ones of the quietest, most interesting records of 2021. Buy The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream now or stream it on Tidal.