WRITTEN BY: John Peterson
It’s literally the last day of 2021, which means my opinion on the best music of the year is certainly the least of your concerns. Ready or not, here are my top albums and songs of the year. As a little bonus, check out my favorite underdogs (artists with under 50,000 listeners on Spotify). As a final disclaimer, due to the sheer volume of fantastic music being released in 2021, this list was incredibly difficult to make, and many great albums and songs got snubbed. If you don’t see your favorite artist, however, it’s probably because they’re bad.
TOP 25 ALBUMS:
1. Drunk Tank Pink by shame
The South London band’s second LP fires on all cylinders, tapping into the natural and instant appeal of the post-punk genre while flexing their creative muscles with an artistic vision of unmatched focus and class. Named after the scientifically-researched color used to pacify prisoners, Drunk Tank Pink emerges from a period of self-imposed isolation. Cloyed by the constant stimulation and excitement of touring, shame used this time as a spiritual and artistic palate cleanser. A visually striking album cover highlights a change in mood for the band, who have elevated their sound with masterful sonic landscapes and diverse songwriting. The record opens with the fast-paced “Alphabet;” dissonant feedback and four beats of clashing drum sticks announce shame’s arrival with brooding energy. Naturally, Charlie Steen’s powerful vocals tie the project together, demanding and sustaining attention with dynamic delivery and prophetic lyrics.
2. Animal by LUMP
As LUMP, Mike Lindsay and Laura Marling make music that crosses the boundaries between electronic and folk, classical and pop, synthetic and acoustic. For their second collaborative project, the team has created a truly sentient album that explores humanity and animalism. Plucky synths pulse like a heartbeat as Marling interjects with her theatrical prosody. Her tone and lyricism command the stage, even on off-kilter beats such as the 7/4 meter of “Gamma Ray,” where she initiates, “Excuse me, I don’t think we’ve been introduced.” Instrumentally, the airy higher frequencies glide above your head, granting plenty of psychedelic ear-candy as the bellowing lower frequencies maintain momentum. As far as the music of 2021 goes, no universe was more interesting or immersive than LUMP’s Animal.
3. Mercurial World by Magdalena Bay
Just a few years into their musical careers, the duo of Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin have struck gold with their synth-pop opus, Mercurial World. Although deeply entrenched in today’s internet culture, Magdalena Bay has created an album that is ultimately timeless with its stellar production and catchy songwriting. From end to beginning, Mercurial World is a virtual affair of cosmic proportions. As one banger seamlessly transitions into another, it quickly becomes apparent that this project has little to no filler. Inventive sonic construction, poetic diction, compelling chord progressions, and exciting melodies make Magdalena Bay stand out as an artist to watch. Drawing on the folklore of synth-pop and the internet, Mercurial World is anything but drab and nothing if not entertaining—a reinvention of the pop aesthetic in a manner that is both accessible and artistic.
4. Dawn by Yebba
Although Yebba has been in the industry for several years—working with Drake, Mark Ronson, Chance the Rapper, and more—Dawn is the first opportunity for listeners to see what she’s capable of on a solo project. With the spotlight finally resting on her, Yebba delivers one of the most engaging vocal performances of the year. Her powerful belting makes Adele quiver in her boots while her soaring falsetto reveals a delicate upper register. Take away her virtuosic vocals, however, and you’re left with a perfect frankenstein of an album, one that evokes pop trends of the past twenty years, from Amy Winehouse to Ariana Grande. The instrumentals are cinematic, lending an epic character to Yebba’s deeply personal songwriting (primarily dealing with the death of her mother, Dawn). Meanwhile, the dense orchestration is mixed to near perfection, with each element given its proper space, allowing for a monumental clashing of genres.
5. Time to Melt by Sam Evian
Time to Melt is an absolutely masterful blend of modern psychedelia and last century’s soul, pairing wet processing with concrete grooves. As synths and strings swirl above your head, drums and bass keep your feet skating on the ground. Drawing influence from John Coltrane and Marvin Gaye, Sam Evian has created an album that is immediately catchy, even as the details of its production and songwriting reward multiple listens. The opener, “Freezee Pops,” sets the tone of the album, establishing a dream-like landscape where Evian can reflect on love, the sun, and American inequalities. Meanwhile, “9.99 Free” takes you in a circle, treading lightly and infinitely until you arrive back at your beginning, pleasantly lost in reverie.
6. Jubilee by Japanese Breakfast
After publishing her hugely successful memoir, Crying in H Mart, Michelle Zauner cemented her year as one for the history books with her best album to date. Featuring personal narratives and imaginary stories, Jubilee is bubbling with the highs and lows of art and life. As always, Japanese Breakfast provides a wall of sound, but Jubilee sees new definition, accenting Zauner’s growing confidence as a songwriter. Although her delivery is otherworldly, her lyrics remain grounded in earthly experience. Like a cool aunt or older sister, Zauner approaches the trials of youth and beyond with sage-like maturity. On “Posing in Bondage,” she sings of the inevitability of struggle: “the world divides into two people, those who have felt pain and those who have yet to.” When you feel pain, turn to Jubilee for a guiding light.
7. Absolutely by Dijon
Dijon has released several ear-catching singles and EPs prior to Absolutely, but the Baltimore singer’s debut album is a definitive step forward that cannot be ignored. There’s a scintillating looseness to the entire project that spawns from the live nature of the songs’ creation and recording—a breath of fresh air that has the potential to alter the direction of modern RnB. Although Absolutely at times feels half-baked, this is ultimately part of the album’s charm. Artistic inspiration is a fleeting thing—at best it comes in waves and at worst it dries entirely. With tracks like “Annie” and “Talk Down,” Dijon and friends (most notably Mk.gee) capture the exact moment of inspiration between a group of musicians. The energy of the room is pervasive and infectious, gifting beauty to and finding passion in every stray vocal, creaking floorboard, runaway piano, or buzzing guitar amp.
8. Any Shape You Take by Indigo De Souza
For her sophomore effort, Any Shape You Take, Indigo De Souza expands on all the compelling features of her first album. Retaining a grungy, live-band feel, the songwriting has somehow improved; each track matches confessional lyrics with stunningly dynamic vocal performances. As the title suggests, Any Shape You Take is amorphous, shifting styles with ease. Some of the cornier aspects of De Souza’s music are overpowered by the sheer brilliance of her malleable songwriting and passionate delivery. She leans deep into an intimate emotional reservoir that is always supported by strong melodies—both vocally and instrumentally. The downstroked guitars chugging on the chorus of “Die/Cry” are just as intoxicating as De Souza’s falsetto on “Darker Than Death,” singing, “Was it something I said?” Heavy or light, sweet or sour, Indigo De Souza’s perpetually honest voice is one of the strongest in contemporary indie rock.
9. Things Take Time, Take Time by Courtney Barnett
Many works of the past couple years have taken inspiration from the pandemic, but few have spoken to me like this one. Things Take Time, Take Time recreates the blueness of life during covid, painting a monochromatic picture that explores every timbre of the color. Like the nine splotches of blue on the album’s cover, the songs separate into distinct moments, piecing together a new life out of what has been broken. Several of the songs began as letters, and the album plays in the same way, Barnett’s sincerity shining through as both passionate and reserved—jaded yet optimistic. The Australian singer-songwriter dives headfirst into simplicity, embracing the joy of a quick rhyme and the poignance of a repeated phrase. Whether a line lands on a rhyme or not, however, you know the sentiment is genuine, and you’re glad Barnett found the words for it.
10. The Marfa Tapes by Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall
With this collaborative album, Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall have rediscovered the heart of country and the soul of music. Recorded with two microphones, two guitars, and three voices on a ranch in Marfa, Texas, The Marfa Tapes is an exercise in austere songwriting. The rough exterior belies a refined core, however. Highlights like “Breaking a Heart” and “Two-Step Down to Texas” are so strong you would swear they were covers of country standards. From toe tapping to post-song banter, vulnerability and camaraderie are captured in audio as each musician shares their art in its most intimate form. Like any good (or bad) country album, themes of heartbreak, drinking, God, and Texas dominate the lyrical content. But in a genre that is becoming increasingly defined by its tasteless production and crass lyrics, to hear an album as true and raw as The Marfa Tapes is inexpressibly refreshing.
11. Doomin’ Sun by Bachelor
12. All Day Gentle Hold ! by Porches
13. Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night by Bleachers
14. Sling by Clairo
15. CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST by Tyler, The Creator
16. Let Me Do One More by illuminati hotties
17. Cavalcade by black midi
18. Juno by Remi Wolf
19. For the first time by Black Country, New Road
20. SINNER GET READY by Lingua Ignota
21. A Beginner’s Mind by Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine
22. TYRON by slowthai
23. Daddy’s Home by St. Vincent
24. True Love by Hovvdy
25. Where Have All the Flowers Gone? by Deb Never
TOP 30 SONGS:
1. “Daddy’s Home” by St. Vincent
2. “Knock Knock” by Sam Evian
3. “Life Is Not The Same” by James Blake
4. “Many Times” by Dijon
5. “Fellowship” by serpentwithfeet
6. “Savage Good Boy” by Japanese Breakfast
7. “Stop Making This Hurt” by Bleachers
8. “Boomerang” by Yebba
9. “Massa” by Tyler, The Creator
10. “I Deserve” (w/ NOS.) by Smino
11. “Swimming Big” by Porches
12. “MAZZA” (ft. A$AP Rocky) by slowthai
13. “Just Wrong” by Pino Palladino and Blake Mills
14. “Apathetic” by patchymate
15. “Kill Me” by Indigo De Souza
16. “Sorry” by Deb Never
17. “t-shirt” by Shura
18. “I WHO BEND THE TALL GRASSES” by Lingua Ignota
19. “Love Proceeding” by BADBADNOTGOOD
20. “Liz” by Remi Wolf
21. “Musician” by Porter Robinson
22. “Pale Interior” by Grouper
23. “Track X” by Black Country, New Road
24. “John L” by black midi
25. “REBOUND!” by JPEGMAFIA
26. “Going Going Gone” by Lucy Dacus
27. “Blouse” by Clairo
28. “fafo” by Zack Fox
29. “Car Crash” by IDLES
30. “Just for me” by PinkPantheress
TOP 10 UNDERDOGS
1. Avian by patchymate
2. Garden Bed by 22° Halo
3. Love (?) by Tom Kuntz
4. “Strange How” by No Lonesome
5. Hayday by feeble little horse
6. “Big Body” by Nathan Bajar
7. “talia” by torr
8. Death Takes a Holiday by Bad History Month and Nyxy Nyx
9. “Munck” by Carly Cosgrove
10. Guise by Bleary Eyed