The Skinny's Top Ten Albums of 2021

Our albums of the year list includes everything from hip-hop and pop to ambient orchestral jazz, post-punk and more

Feature by Music Team | 01 Dec 2021
  • The Skinny's 2021 Albums of the Year

We polled our music writers at The Skinny to find out what albums they were obsessed with in 2021, ending up with over 200 to pore over. Fortunately, there were more than a few records most of us could agree on, resulting in our 2021 top ten albums of the year, covering everything from hip-hop and pop to ambient orchestral jazz, post-punk and more. Here are our top ten in reverse order, naturally.

#10: Lil Nas X – MONTERO

[17 Sep, Columbia Records]

If, like me, you’d dismissed Lil Nas X in 2018 purely because Old Town Road was a little too country, I implore you to give his debut record MONTERO a whirl. Not just because it’s way less country than that single might foretell, but because it’s a mighty and vital pop-rap album that gives the zeitgeist a rhinestone-studded lapdance.

Stacked with addictive beats and earworm melodies, MONTERO is a captivating album full of muscle and tenderness. It has all the bombast you’d expect from an established rapper, but with unapologetic queerness at its core. From the chart-topping, trumpet-laden INDUSTRY BABY, to the soulful SUN GOES DOWN, or the plaintive VOID, MONTERO sheds its bravado as it progresses, turning inwards. Lil Nas X muses on success, love, loss and being a gay Black rapper in an industry with a less than welcoming track record.

To his credit, Old Town Road is now the longest-charting number one single in Billboard’s history, which is no surprise given his proven virality and pop culture savvy on social media. We're well past his first rodeo; his fans are legion, and now he has Elton John, Miley Cyrus and Megan Thee Stallion as guests on his firecracker debut. Yee haw. [George Sully]

#9: Black Country, New Road – For the First Time

[5 Feb, Ninja Tune]

'Just to think I could've left the fair with my dignity intact and fled from the stage with the world's second-best Slint tribute act'. With a single self-deprecating line, Black Country, New Road lead singer-songwriter Isaac Wood sums up what his band's debut album For the First Time is all about. BC, NR's debut is a millennial take on Slint's classic Spiderland with a healthy dose of the musical experimentation of their close allies Black Midi, but with an ironic twist of middle-class satire akin to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. 

There are so many reasons why For the First Time shouldn't work, however, the album escapes ridicule for its, at times, ridiculousness because Wood is such a compelling classic literary focaliser, traversing a mad modern world in which everything is references, drugs, failed romances, privileges and confusing social media. Wood's hugely talented band are seemingly willing to go to hell and back with him to show his character's ever-changing shifting mental state, especially on the album's climax Opus, coming across as a more sinister or mischievous Arcade Fire. Assisted by Andy Savours' fantastic production, For the First Time feels simultaneously classic and contemporary and unlike anything else this year. [Adam Turner-Heffer]

#8: Squid – Bright Green Field

[7 May, Warp]

Squids are renowned for being smart creatures. Remember Paul, the football score-predicting octopus? Much like their namesake, then, Brighton-based Squid's first full-length possesses intelligent commentary and savvy thought processes. Take the band’s decision to shun their breakout hits of 2019, Houseplants and (arguably Paul’s favourite) Match Bet, with neither making the album. Or their insistence to avoid standard indie labels, instead sidling up alongside Aphex Twin and Flying Lotus on iconic electronic staple Warp.

The record is equally surprising. Narrator might open with an early Foals riff but soon escalates into eight-and-a-half manic minutes of drummer Olly Judge and Martha Skye Murphy wailing into oblivion. Documentary Filmmaker continues to push to the point of discomfort; guitars poke and jibe, vocals screech and horns blare. But it’s standout Paddling that transports you back to that blistering live performance on Later... with Jools Holland during that fuzzy interim earlier this year where bands popped up in remote settings without any kind of audience interaction. In this case, the fivesome, illuminated by strobe lighting, thrash it out in the basement of a multistorey car park. Standard Squid territory then. 

Unrelenting and top of their class, the band remain deep-sea explorers of genre and genius. [Cheri Amour]

#7: Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend

[4 Jun, Dirty Hit]

When Gorillaz were nominated for the Mercury Prize for their self-titled debut in 2001, Damon Albarn promptly withdrew the album from contention, claiming that winning it would have been akin to "carrying a dead albatross around your neck for eternity”. With Blue Weekend, Wolf Alice provide a powerful counter-argument; it seems as if clinching the prize in 2018 for Visions of a Life (ironically, now the weakest of their three albums), they’ve been freed up to experiment more, to follow their noses creatively.

Matty Healy of Wolf Alice’s Dirty Hit labelmates The 1975 often talks about “creating as you consume” and Blue Weekend is a rock record for the playlist age, a kaleidoscopic effort that encompasses everything from soaring balladry (The Last Man on Earth) to furious punk (Play the Greatest Hits), with room in between for the grungy 90s crunch of Smile and the atmospheric contemplation of No Hard Feelings. This is the sound of a band fully growing into themselves, and proof that, subjective as they might be, major prizes can be fuel for the creative fire as much as they are exercises in back-slapping. [Joe Goggins]

#6: Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

[4 Jun, Dead Oceans]

From the opening riff on lead single Be Sweet, it was clear that Michelle Zauner’s third album as Japanese Breakfast was going to be a very different affair. Stepping away from explorations of very personal pain and grief on her first two records, Jubilee is an album all about harnessing and expressing joy.

Released just a few months after her memoir, Crying in H Mart, there's a real sense of Zauner getting back to herself on Jubilee. Album opener Paprika thrusts us into Zauner’s new sonic world, full of lush, grandiose strings and percussion, as she asks 'How does it feel to be at the centre of magic?'

Jubilee isn’t an album entirely devoid of any sadness, though, with Zauner channeling different characters to explore themes of longing and loneliness. On Kokomo, IN she sings from the perspective of a teenage boy 'passing time just popping wheelies' and reminiscing over a past relationship; on Posing in Bondage she embodies the persona of someone 'done up and drunk' longing for their partner’s affection.

With Jubilee, Michelle Zauner breaks into new territory sonically and lyrically, while solidifying her expertise in character profiling, and it’s her most vibrant work to date. [Nadia Younes]

#5: Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises

[26 Mar, Luaka Bop]

While it could easily have been a case of 'too many cooks', Promises showcases the best of electronic, jazz and classical. Sometimes through interplay between the styles, sometimes through an unadorned solo, but despite being the work of dozens, the hive-mind is strong here.

Variations around the central harpsichord motif create a meditative experience as the movements blur into each other and out of time. Sanders dominates the early sections with his yearning, mournful sax, before letting in Sam Shepherd's drone. He pops back for some wordless gabbling in the fourth movement, offsetting the occasionally stark instrumentals with warmth and intimacy. In the sixth movement, a gorgeous cello solo, elegiac and reticent to begin with, is joined by a full string section for the album's most uplifting moment. Alongside synthesised bird noises, Sanders gives a final, full-throated sax run in the seventh movement, leaving the final ten minutes to be buoyed by a murmuring organ and more ethereal strings.

The dream logic ebbs and flows; the intergenerational, inter-genre conversation weaves a silken tapestry; always in motion, impossible to capture in any one moment. As we're buffeted along by the winds of fate in a chaotic world, at least we've got a beautiful soundtrack. [Lewis Wade]

#4: Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg

[2 Apr, 4AD]

As Drew Barrymore definitely originally brought to wider attention, the phrase 'cellar door' is said to be one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language. However, the true euphonic pinnacle surely has to be this sentence coined by Dry Cleaning's Florence Shaw: 'The last thing I looked at in this hand mirror / Was a human arsеhole'. The way she draws out the final two words – melismatic if Shaw had any concern for notes or melody – is indicative of her anti-ASMR, deadpan humour, mundane non-sequitur language that pulls the rest of her band’s fluctuating, tangled post-punk along. Shaw’s lyrics atom bomb the idea that songs should be critically analysed as wholes: try figuring out the meaning of verses here, even how one sentence connects to the next. You could pore over it forever. Teach this in Higher English.

Shaw’s delivery of her poetry of the everyday is the star. Even her insults are superior: 'That silly woman’s done a too-straight fringe', 'You’re a spoon, pal', 'You actually smell like garbage'. New Long Leg is 2021’s artistic conveyance of malaise – not as sadness or depression, or anger, but of deadening, mind-numbing sameness. 'Do everything, feel nothing'. It’s so much fun. [Tony Inglis]

#3: Low – HEY WHAT

[10 Sep, Sub Pop]

'It's not the end, it's just the end of hope', Low declared on 2018's masterful, still shocking Double Negative. The slowcore duo had reinvented themselves to fit the desolate mood of the world at the time. The world has only gotten darker since. HEY WHAT, the spiritual sequel to Double Negative, captures this new reality and finds communal comfort on the other side.

The white-hot panic and despondency of the last record is present in their use of distortion and feedback, but they've learned to work within the noise rather than become buried under it. Clean hymnal vocals ground us in even the noisiest moments, and warm washes of ambience bring welcome breathing space. These are songs that survey the rubble to find light, connection and even hope amid the murk. 

The songs on Double Negative often disintegrated in front of us. On HEY WHAT they persist – even reach out and beg us to sing along at times. Humans are natural, stubborn adapters. We often keep going even when we're aware of the futility. For all its wild experiments and harsh textures, HEY WHAT is the sound of the dust settling, of the sun coming back over the horizon, of days like these. [Skye Butchard]

#2: Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure

[22 Oct, Fiction Records]

When Prioritise Pleasure was released, Rebecca Lucy Taylor, aka Self Esteem, took to social media to share a photo of the tracklist with the comment: “it’s yours now” and a red heart emoji, feeling at once freeing and hugely emotional. While Taylor’s debut, Compliments Please, was a rush, the sound of an artist finally standing under the heat of her own spotlight, Prioritise Pleasure is so much more; perfectly-paced, powerfully cathartic, funny and hugely relatable, it's the most glistening pop record of the year.

Filled to the hilt with punch-the-air bangers (Fucking Wizardry, Prioritise Pleasure), bass that slaps (You Forever, Moody), rollicking drums (How Can I Help You), crushing ballads (I Do This All the Time, The 345) and lines like ‘To even get near to me / Was some fucking wizardry’ and 'I just wanna let you know there's a point in you', Prioritise Pleasure is for anyone who’s ever doubted themselves. It's for anyone who’s not felt brave enough; for anyone who’s been harassed; for anyone who’s not been taken seriously; for anyone who’s found themselves in a toxic relationship; for anyone who’s had their heart broken; for anyone who’s made mistakes; for anyone who’s felt like they’re not enough. It's yours now. [Tallah Brash]

#1: Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

[3 Sep, Age 101]

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is a phrase that most of us have probably uttered this year, as reclusiveness and quiet find new currency. Fresh from successive lockdowns and two shit years, frank conversations about mental health are the new vogue, and introversion is suddenly not as difficult to live with as it once was.

In this vein, Little Simz addresses the tension that she feels between 'Simz the artist or Simbi the person' – the expectations placed on her as she rises to rap star fame, and her conflicting anxiety and introversion. Broken up by several musical interludes voiced by The Crown’s Emma Corrin, the album’s pacing resembles a play, or a hero’s journey, where our protagonist battles to reconcile her two sides.

Inflo’s production deftly draws out the introvert’s rich internal life, slipping from the ostentatious military fanfare of the album's opener to glitchy grime-inspired bass on Rollin Stone and a blasé afrobeat cool on Point and Kill. This shifting backdrop frames a uniquely confessional style for Little Simz that seeks to exorcise old demons – namely her absent father, a feud with her sister, and a niggling feeling that, coming from the 'ends', she doesn’t deserve her successes.

Little Simz’s anxiety isn’t just personal, but a symptom of the endemic racism that impacts the mental health of Black people globally. The opening track references apartheid, gentrification, and 'the blood of a young messiah' (alluding to George Floyd’s murder). On Little Q, Pt. 2 she raps with striking empathy about the boy who stabbed her cousin and put him in a coma, touching on the weight of internalised racism in the line: 'I could have been the reflection that he hated'.

As an antidote to such heaviness, Little Simz celebrates Black excellence. She replaces tired stereotypes on Woman with a shout-out to the global diaspora, rapping 'melanin dripping' with evident pleasure before belting out the clarion call, 'All I see is Black stars and I friggin' love it, yeah, yeah / Time's up, tell the people that we comin', yeah, yeah'. It’s time for Black people, and especially Black women, to have their time in the sun, and Little Simz is lapping it all up, introvert and all. [Becca Inglis]

Here's a playlist featuring some other songs from these ten brilliant releases.