There isn’t much to say about 2021 that hasn’t already been said somewhere - it was chaotic, bizarre and unprecedented across all walks of life, and music in all its forms was hit hard.
We sure did get some great music out of it all, though, the recorded medium was as vital to us as it has ever been. Without further ado, here are our top 20 favourite albums of the year.
20. Lisa Gerrard & Jules Maxwell – Burn
Burn is such a different and diverse record. It’s a powerful combination of electronic cinematic soundscapes and alternative, transcendental world music. Burn is seven remarkable tracks like auditory Seven Wonders of the World; mystical, mesmerising and unique.
19. Low - Hey What?
18. The War on Drugs - I Don't Live Here Anymore
It feels like a fork in the road for Granduciel on this album, with major change afoot. Despite the clear signs of pain & upheaval with song titles such as ‘Wasted’, ‘Victim’ and ‘Change’, the LP is not without anthemic moments of optimism and hope. It is fitting that the album closes on a track such as ‘Occasional Rain’ with the realisation that periods of joy are always interspersed with sadness - an inescapable truth, and Granduciel has never shied away from speaking and singing this truth. For sure, the brilliance of LaMarca & Granduciel’s heavenly guitar riffs and Dave Hartley’s flawless bass line are very present.
17. Sleaford Mods – Spare Ribs
In this dire world situation, Sleaford Mods deliver a soundtrack for Covid and a treatise on the working man’s existential angst over the world's current state. Underneath the flash of the 24 hr news cycle’s scare porn, the Sleaford Mods provide a true picture of life during a pandemic and suggest that we will make it out the other side if we can use our common sense.
16. Gary Numan – Intruder
There is no doubt that this is a heavy, serious listen, with a rhythm that doesn’t stray too far off-beam from the industrial, synth foundation of Numan’s work. The production by Ade Fenton is super-slick, creating a wall of deafening sound, and Numan shows no sign of pulling back or slowing down. Although the message of the album is hardly visionary, it remains utterly shocking and devastating, which can be difficult to sit at ease with. However, the subject matter is something that should make all of us uncomfortable to begin to get people to take action and make a change in their own lives, no matter how little that change is. The time for talking is over; the time for action is urgently upon us.
15. Kings of Leon – When You See Yourself
For millennials, especially British millennials, the Kings of Leon has more than proved their worth through their first two LP’s. The commercial success of their fourth was the icing on the cake. Provided they make a timely return to the festival circuit when it is next possible, their legacy is guaranteed. The songs across When You See Yourself, where the lyrics and music are in unison with the often shy frontman Caleb painting a more intimate portrait of himself, will undoubtedly prove to be additional arrows to Kings of Leon’s bow of success.
14. The Lucid Dream – The Deep End
Following on from something that sounds more suited to being pumped out of the speakers in a club, the loud acoustic strums that open the closing 'High And Wild' would have many listeners forgetting that they are listening to an album by the same people. However, rules are something that The Lucid Dream have become impeccably good at breaking, and ending an album of acid house, techno, hip hop, dub, and drum n bass with a psychedelic folk epic is the sort of thing they have allowed themselves the freedom to do. And freedom is indeed the exact vibe the track evokes as the ship sails out of The Deep End and off into the sunset.
It can only make you wonder what they are planning next. One of the greatest expressions of versatility that you will hear this year, The Deep End sees The Lucid Dream stepping up to a whole new level.
13. Inhaler – It Won't Always Be Like This
Inhaler has made one hell of a debut album, which will undoubtedly ensure their continued relevancy and success within the Irish music scene and beyond. With the notable exception of the penultimate song, “What a Strange Time to Be Alive”, any of the songs on this record have the potential to be a big radio hit. There is a real sense of sincerity and thought put into the lyrics, but they are left open-ended enough for multiple interpretations of their meanings to be had.
There is a willingness to experiment with different genre style marks from song-to-song, while still delivering the expected indie-pop earworms. If you have been losing interest in indie rock, it would be worth checking out It Won’t Always Be Like This. It injects some new colour and vibrancy into the genre.
12. Crowded House - Dreamers Are Waiting
The quality of this release is ever-present as each track is engaging and intelligent. The sonics are filled with familiar yet unique touches, harmonies that soar, the classic Maori strum of Crowded House legend and solid accompaniment, all making for a memorable experience. The songs get under your skill with each repeated pass.
Dreamers Are Waiting will be welcomed with open arms by Crowded House fans but is also a winning release for anyone interested in music that is something more than the latest studio fad. The album is precision-crafted, nuanced and pays off in the end. Crowded House has always acknowledged the world and its dark corners and offers a refuge if for only a 45 min period from the world’s discord.
Each recording from Finn offers the latest communiqué of all the things he has learned since the last release. 11 years is almost too long to wait for Crowded House’s “Comeback”, but Dreamers Are Waiting justifies the wait.
11. Mogwai - As the Love Continues
Joining the dots between old and new Mogwai, As The Love Continues is made the more impressive because this is their 10th studio album, not including all the soundtrack LPs the group have issued over the years. Subtly broadening their range to captivating effect, here's another fine album to add to a remarkable discography.
10. Manic Street Preachers – The Ultra Vivid Lament
From start to finish, The Ultra Vivid Lament was conceived as an instant-pop, dream world soundscape which both soothes and unnerves without the necessity of the punk fuelled anger of a lions roar. The adrenaline-fuelled glam-punk lion's roar can be heard copious times with imagination and passion in so many ways across the Manics back catalogue, which will undoubtedly be played again when the band go back on tour; hence there was no need to repeat that formula across this album. Whilst another glam-punk album could have been overbearing, a glam-punk cameo will always be welcomed and sacrosanct.
9. St.Vincent - Daddy's Home
8. Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
7. Damon Albarn – The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows
Damon Albarn placed a lot of emphasis on getting an array of primarily natural sounds together for this record. For him, being close to mountains is the source of finding this perfection. Damon did not look back on what he had tried and tested before to great commercial success. Instead, he embarked on his journey and started again as if he was once again finding his way in the world. Whether Albarn felt spiritually lost, he has found himself again with The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows.
6. Garbage - No Gods No Masters
No Gods, No Masters is an unapologetic look at the state of society and humankind circa 2021. It is a must for veteran Garbage fans. The release is an inspiring and sometimes challenging outing that ultimately pays off fantastically. Garbage delivers a release that is quintessentially Garbage yet completely in touch with the current age. Garbage with No Gods, No Masters adds another success to their discography.
5. Little Simz - Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
4. Steven Wilson - THE FUTURE BITES
3. Duran Duran – Future Past
‘Falling’ featuring Bowie’s pianist Mike Garson has fantastic credentials on paper, but the finished product fails to deliver a final, closing knockout blow, albeit with a poignant touch of ‘Planet Earth’ synths to fade out the LP. Overall, this is a classy, hook-laden album that delivers a respectful nod to their hey-day past, with more than enough quality & craft that points to a relevant and abiding future for Duran Duran.
2. The Anchoress – The Art of Losing
1. Wolf Alice - Blue Weekend
There isn’t a weak moment on Blue Weekend, it’s an excellent listen, and for Wolf Alice fans, it’ll be well worth the four-year wait. It will serve as an introduction sure to open a rabbit hole into the band’s previous output for those not yet converted.
Wolf Alice now have to be considered among the UK’s best current bands, and Blue Weekend is an addition to their catalogue that should ensure they secure top billing when festivals return.
XS Noize: Albums of the year 2021 compiled by Mark Millar and Dan Volohov from lists by Marija Buljeta, Michael Barron, Randy Radic, Aaron Kavanagh, David Ham, Alina Salihbekova, Lori Gava, Keiran Brennan, Sean Crossey. Daniel Lynch, Lee Campbell, David McElroy, Ashley Kreutter, Amanda Stock, Neal McClelland, Ben Scott