10 Best Albums of 2021

I think it’s cheating to publish a best albums list during the year in question – like, what if the best album ever is released on the 15th of December? That wasn’t the case this year, but a lot of my favourites turned up late in the piece – 7 of the 10 albums here were released in the back half of the year, and an eighth came out in late June.

Here’s my top ten – obviously as a one-person website, I can only scratch the surface of all the fabulous music out there. Flock of Dimes and Richard Dawson’s botanic-prog collaboration with Circle were the unluckiest to miss out. To show where my choices register among general critical consensus, I’ve included each album’s rankings from the end-of-year-list aggregator Album of the Year. I agreed with critical consensus more than usual – their top three records all made it onto my list.

10 Best Albums of 2021

#10 Sun-El Musician – African Electronic Dance Music

Genre: African Electronic Dance Music
The prolific South African DJ and producer is back with his third album in just over three years, following 2020’s sprawling triple album To The World & Beyond. It’s gorgeous and its spirituality gives it depth. Highlights include Simmy’s luscious lead vocal on ‘Higher’ and the lovely groove of ‘Amateki’.
AotY Position: Not listed

#9 Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World

Genre: Arty synth-pop
The Miami duo of Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin used to play progressive rock together. This spoils over into their synth-pop, with choruses like “They say I’m dancing with my demons/This is the dawning of the season”. But Magdalena Bay‘s debut album is buoyant, imaginative, and immersive.
AotY Position: Honourable mention

#8 The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore

Genre: Heartland rock
Adam Granduciel doesn’t do anything wildly original. On I Don’t Live Here Anymore, it’s fun spotting which 1980s heartland rocker The War on Drugs most resemble – sometimes it’s Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Don Henley, or John Mellencamp. But the songwriting is strong, with Granduciel’s unpredictable phrasing keeping the record fresh. The harmonies of Lucius lift the title track to a beautiful conclusion, complete with 1980s gated snare.
AotY Position: #24

#7 CHVRCHES – Screen Violence

Genre: Synth-pop
Scottish synth-pop trio CHVRCHES took a significant step forward with their fourth album. There are great pop tunes like ‘Good Girls’ and the impossibly ascending ‘Final Girl’. There’s also some toughness – there’s some rock punch behind the trio’s synth-based arrangements, while The Cure’s Robert Smith guests on ‘How Not To Drown’. Lauren Mayberry’s Scottish accent is charming.
AotY Position: Honourable mention

#6 Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & The London Symphony Orchestra) – Promises

Genre: Jazz
Promises is an intergenerational collaboration – a 30-something electronic producer, an 80-year-old jazz saxophonist, and a venerable orchestra. It feels like tokenism including it since this site rarely dabbles in jazz, but it’s gorgeous – beguiling like Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way.
AotY Position: #3

#5 Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost

Genre: Hip-hop/R&B
Hip hop auteur Tyler, the Creator is in the midst of a golden streak, following up 2019’s Igor with another top-class record. At the height of his powers, he’s able to pull off audacious pieces like the ten-minute neo-soul medley ‘Sweet – I Thought You Wanted To Dance’ and the jazzy silliness of ‘Cold Wind Blows’. It’s his grumpy hip hop that’s still the focal point though, on ‘Wusyaname’ and ‘Corso’.
AotY Position: #2

#4 The Weather Station – Ignorance

Genre: Sophisti-pop
Canadian Tamara Lindeman is back with her fifth album fronting The Weather Station. While she came from a folk background, her music’s evolved to the point where she’s closer to the textural sophistication of Talk Talk. Ignorance is based around the climate crisis, but it’s more gorgeous than preachy. Songs like ‘Robber’ and ‘Subdivisions’ are lovely.
AotY Position: #12

#3 Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

Genre: Hip hop
Produced by Sault’s Inflo, Little SimzGrey Area was unlucky to miss my 2019 best-of-list. Grey Area was a taut, tight record; in contrast, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is a colourful and wide-screen effort. Cleo Sol adds her gorgeous voice to ‘Mother’, while ‘Protect My Energy’ recalls the disco-pop of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
AotY Position: #1

#2 Cleo Sol – Mother

After an unsuccessful start to her solo career, Cleo Sol took a hiatus between 2012 and 2017. She returned as the lead singer of Sault and with the impressive solo debut Rose in the Dark in 2020. Her sophomore album lifts the game, a lovely record of relaxed soul, again produced by her Sault bandmate Inflo. Simple songs like ‘Heart Full of Love’ are beautiful, although she’s also enjoyable on more ambitious material like ‘Spirit’ and the gospel of ‘We Need You’.
AotY Position: Honourable mention

#1 Snail Mail – Valentine

Genre: Alternative
Lindsey Jordan’s sophomore is a step forward from her teenage debut. She adds stronger tunes and stylistic variation to her 1990s-inspired alt-rock. The raw emotion and gritty guitar of songs like ‘C. Et Al’ and the title track is Snail Mail‘s focus, but she shows versatility on tracks like ‘Ben Franklin’, with its danceable rhythm section, and the smooth sophisti-pop of ‘Forever (Sailing)’.

It was a strong year for American female indie artists, something that’s not reflected on this list apart from this #1 – Flock of Dimes, Japanese Breakfast, and Lucy Dacus all released strong records that I wasn’t able to squeeze onto this list.
AotY Position: #19

What were your favourite records of 2021?

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  1. Thanks. I don’t listen to many if the genres You referenced in your top 10 list. That’s not to say that it isn’t all amazing music, obviously.

    I’m sure it is!

    I listen to mainly “Indy/Alt rock” so I’m very familiar with both “ Chvurches” and “the War on Drugs”.

    Both great artists/ bands but when people tell you that CH and TWOD songs are staring to sound a bit samey- they might have a point.

    There’s new Tame Impala coming soon, and much more for 2022!

    Let’s see what happens, and keep up the good work!

    • There’s a lot of big stuff hitting in early 2022 – Mitski (my favourite of 2018) and Big Thief (my favourite of 2019) are both releasing new albums in early February.

  2. I just don’t understand saying the War on Drugs album is Americana. My belief is that music developed by Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch, Teddy Thompson, Jeff Tweedy and the like is Americana. This sounds like pop to me

  3. Alt Nation named the Italian band “Manneskin”’s album number two for 2021.

    BBC listed it as number one.

    I have an open mind about these things but sometimes I just don’t get it.

    Maybe I’m getting old!

  4. A very interesting and varied list. I also struggle with finalizing a year end list before the year is out. I usually start counting down my list in November and wrap it up just before New Years. (This year was a bit different.) However, I find that very few new albums are released from mid-November to the end of the year so it’s rare that something mind-blowing comes up that misses the list because it is released so late in the year.

    On a side note, everyone really likes the new War on Drugs. I think it is just okay. I really liked their sound during the Slave Ambient days (and even Lost in the dream) but the last two feel (for want of a better word) ‘meh’ for the most part.

    • There was a bit of stuff that I liked that came out pretty late this year – Richard Dawson & Circle’s album was late November, and Tricot on December 15.

      I don’t know the War on Drugs earlier stuff very well – planning to go back and cover it sometime.

  5. Wow, absolutely no overlap between our lists, but I guess it’s not really that surprising.

    Just like you, I’m a one-man show, which limits the number of albums I can review. Based on what I’ve seen on your blog, it’s also safe to assume that our pools of albums we reviewed from which we then picked our favorites had very little if any overlap.

    Perhaps tellingly, my favorite tune in your playlist is by The War On Drugs. I included one of the songs (“Change”) from their latest album in an installment of my Best of What New feature.

    I also find the idea intriguing that a 30-something electronic producer and an 80-year-old jazz saxophonist came together for a jazz collaboration, together with a symphony orchestra! The track you included in your playlist sounds cool!

    • There’s a lot of music out there – I try to find my zone of stuff that’s not too weird and not too derivative, and stands up for repeated listens. I probably miss a lot of good stuff though.

  6. I look forward to your list every year. Such an exciting mix of albums! Thrilled we agree on The Weather Station’s lofty position. Snail Mail came so close to breaking into my top ten. Definitely one of the best indie records of the year. I’m a bit smitten by Magdalena Bay.

    • Cool – thanks for the encouragement. I like Magdalena Bay a lot – has an aura of mystique around it, and it’s a fun mix of pop hooks and arty pretentiousness.

  7. I haven’t heard any of those albums, although I do know some of the bands (thanks to my new release posts each week). I do want to check out The War on Drugs as I hear so many great things about them.

    • Yeah, I think The War on Drugs is the only rock album on there. Snail Mail rocks a bit, but in a more raw/indie kind of way.

  8. I thought you might have had the Wolf Alice and Manchester Orchestra albums on – since you reviewed them positively (we’re they both 2021?)

    But obviously you listen to a way broader variety of styles than I do, so the choosing universe is much larger.

  9. A gorgeously varied list with many a talent. I’m not as wide in my genres but a couple of these would definitely slot in my top ten – Weather Station, War on Drugs and Snail Mail have all seen heavy rotation from me

  10. Great List! Question: Is it still cheating if I wait ’til December 31 of the year in question to post my list? I like to wait til after Christmas in case I get albums as gifts…

  11. I heartily agree with you about lists coming the following year. Although artists should be banned from releasing new music after 1 December – curse you Neil Young!

  12. Thanks for the great list. Also, keep your eye out for The Beaches. A great Canadian Gurl Band. They have awesome songs and have been together for years and started out as another band when they were teens. They deserve to be bigger. Here’s 1 of their great songs:


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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person. It features album reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.

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Graham Fyfe has been writing this website since his late teens. Now in his forties, he's been obsessively listening to albums for years. He works as a web editor and plays the piano.

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