Our team of contributors selected their favorite music of 2021. Azren Paul, Will Dodd, Sophia Zengierski, and Staley Sharples chose the top songs of the year, which can be found in the Spotify playlist. Read on for album reviews and song selections from each contributor.
“New Shapes” – Charli XCX, Caroline Polachek, Christine and the Queens
“DEAD FLOWERS” – HEALTH, Poppy
“The Walls Are Way Too Thin” – Holly Humberstone
“Chivalry Is Not Dead” – Hiatus Kaiyote
“Happier Than Ever” – Billie Eilish
“Big Boss Rabbit” – Freddie Gibbs
“Bunny is a Rider” – Caroline Polachek
“Anhedonia” – Chelsea Wolfe, Emma Ruth Rundle
“Unguarded” – Jordan Rakei
“Sit Around The Fire” – Jon Hopkins, Ram Das, East Forest
SINNER GET READY – Lingua Ignota
The latest sonic canvas from multifarious creative Kristin Hayter; SINNER GET READY is another breathtaking addition to a consistently flawless discography. Drenched in Wiccan subtexts, Hayter wraps discussions of personal trauma in a biblical case study, weaving rural religious imagery throughout the album to simultaneously mask and extrapolate on tumultuous past relationships. Shifting from the black metal leanings of her previous works in place of operatic orchestral arrangements and cultish vocal deliveries, tracks like “MANY HANDS” and “PENNSYLVANIA FURNACE” seep with a tender viscousness that makes this album one the most intoxicating and evocative listens I’ve ever experienced.
If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power – Halsey
I held an admittedly reserved optimism when Halsey first announced a partnership with two of my favourite composers in Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, for her latest project. To my delight, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is filled with the vocal performances and musical choices I’d always hoped Halsey would explore, turning in her popstar credentials for a considerably more experimental body of work. Delivering distortion-drenched post-rock on “You asked for this” and filling my How To Destroy Angels void with piano-electronica ballad “1121”, the album accounts the euphoria and dread of pregnancy and childbirth in a brutally honest and artistically revolutionary manner.
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – Little Simz
Riding high on the cusp of international success, no one would’ve blamed Little Simz for diving headfirst into pop territory. Instead, we were gifted with this incredibly introspective discussion of mental health, heartbreak, and familial turmoil told through an auditory mix of traditional West African influences and Ye’s Late Registration. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert feels steeped in theatrical nuance, a dazzling array of strings, brass, woodwind, and spoken word soliloquies presented like the score for a musical of Simz’s shared experience. There’s a seamless finesse between transitions, with the closing moments of each track introducing a lyrical or musical motif that’s expanded upon in the following song. On standout cuts like “Standing Ovation” and “Little Q, Pt. 2” Simz bares her soul, flexing lyrical poeticism as a testament to just how incredible her journey has been and how bright her future feels.
De Doorn – Amenra
Menacing, visceral, and utterly engrossing, this 5-track EP lurches between meditative ambiance and gut eviscerating heaviness. Exemplified in tracks like opener “Ogentroost” and “De Evenmens”, Amenra strategically utilise sparse moments of calm to add further impact to their barbarously weighty choruses, traversed by dualistically euphoric and utterly violent performances by vocalist Colin van. Eeckhout. Stepping away from their signature-titled Mass album series, De Doorn feels like a poignant turning point into denser sonic layers and richer chord progressions whilst retaining the band’s crushing signature flair for expansive post metal.
ALPHA – Charlotte Day Wilson
Charlotte Day Wilson’s voice is literal honey dripping straight from the comb and ALPHA encapsulates the majesty and poise of her vocal range in stunning fashion. Utilizing minimalist lo-fi percussion and soulful jazz-infused instrumentation places the focus firmly on Wilson’s innately soothing vocal layering and harmonisations. Wavy tracks like “I Can Only Whisper” accentuate Wilson’s aptitude for crafting gorgeously catchy hooks, further emphasized when frequent collaborators BADBADNOTGOOD replay the lead melody in a swagger-oozing solo of lustral release. Leading single “Mountains” displays newfound growth with a sweeping gospel-lead chorus backed by splintering percussion and crispy guitar licks that wrap perfectly around Wilson’s swooning vocal runs. I’d been hankering for a longer project from Wilson after 2018’s Stone Woman and this album satisfies that craving tenfold.
Infinite Granite – Deafhaven
Long known for pissing off genre purists, Deafhaven feel determined to continue reinventing themselves, with Infinite Granite shying away from the band’s black metal roots, in place of fragile clean vocals and soaring analogue synth textures. A love letter to shoegaze, this album’s interplay of tension and release is amplified by the mix of clean and distorted guitar tones alongside vocalist George Clarke dancing between delicate singing to vicious screams. Exemplified on tracks like “Lament for Wasps” and “The Gnashing”, the penultimate moments of which culminate in fervent guitar solos slicing through a sea of harmonic layers and crashing drum syncopations. Yes, there have been stylistic comparisons drawn to bands like Nothing, but that should NOT stop you from enjoying this 9-track journey.
Untourable Album – Men I Trust
The latest album from Canadian band Men I Trust is a binary warm blanket on a frigid day and an ice cream in the height of summer heat. Conceived during lockdowns and released without a label or publisher, their fourth album was developed eponymously without touring in mind, allowing the band to take further creative risks as they dive further into the dream-pop palette. The voice of Emmanuelle Proulx invokes liminal nostalgia with tracks like “Tree Among Shrubs” and “Serenade of Water” sounding like they were plucked straight from the trip-hop, analogue synth annals of 90s pop music. From the crackling percussion to the Mario-snow-level synths, Untourable Album is the perfect companion to driving or lounging in any weather condition.
CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST – Tyler, The Creator
No one world-builds quite like Tyler. Each project he drops feels like its own decentralized universe, a playground of concepts that extend throughout GOLFWANG, the album artwork, his outfits, and adjoining tour cycles with reinvigorated stage setups and visual presentations. CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST feels no different, a lavish sprawl of atomic bars and chasm rumbling instrumentals ranging from ferocious to chic, the listening experience feels eclectic yet thematically unified. Marquee heaters like “LUMBERJACK” and “CORSO” are filled with Tyler’s signature raspy venom, while wavier collaborations in “WUSMYNAME” and “HOT WIND BLOWS” illustrate how proficient the quality of his production is as it facilitates nothing short of melodic and lyrical excellence from features with Ty Dolla $ign and Lil Wayne. It’s difficult to wear your influences so boldly on your sleeve, but Tyler’s unashamed affinity for The Neptunes never feels like a hindrance, more so a prolific foundation that’s allowed a generational creative to stamp his own unique style amidst the cultural zeitgeist.
Home Video – Lucy Dacus
The angstier sibling of the boygenius trio returns with her third studio album, an autobiographical marvel of nostalgic storytelling that feels as vintage as it does modern. The mix on Home Video is absolutely immaculate, too often indie artists understate the impact of their instrumentals in favour of a wider vocal field, yet each track on this album comes packed with depth, body and drums that slice and punch through your speakers in vivacious fashion. Dacus bares brutal truths on the tender, yet murderous “Thumbs”—unpacked through a seminal episode of Song Exploder—and channels her affinity for rousing crescendos with sizzling euphoria in album closer “Triple Dog Dare.” Existing on the grittier edges of her contemporaries, this album is a perfect entry point into Dacus’ expansive catalogue and remains one of my most replayed projects of the year.
A Dream About Love – Circa Survive
After 17-years in the game and a somewhat dispersed release schedule as of late, this 6-track EP from Philadelphia alternative rockers, Circa Survive, demonstrates a gratifying evolution in the band’s emphatic sound. Following the 2018 release of The Amulet, A Dream About Love shies away from frantic time and key signature changes in place of carefully executed and keenly reserved indie and electronic elements. Vocalist Anthony Green is the unadulterated star of this release, tying these stylistic shifts together with the performative grace of a consummate musical veteran. “Our Last Show” and “Even Better” exist as perfect examples of the band’s ability to develop the kinds of genre traversing melodies that many of Circa Survive’s former contemporaries have struggled and failed to do since the 2000s emo boom. If this release is a snapshot of future output, sign me all the way up.
“I Must Apologise” – Pinkpantheress
“Affection” – Boys Noize & ABRA
“Cold Quartz” – Pholo
“5ives” – Sully
“Unloyal” – Summer Walker & Ari Lennox
“Stacked” – Ivy Lab
“$payforhaiti” – Kaytranada & Mach-Hommy
“The Daisy” – Ross From Friends
“Do That” – Alicai Harley & Tony Matterhorn
“Bushwa” – Latesleeper
Play With the Changes – Rochelle Jordan
This album—primarily produced by Machinedrum & KLSH—traverses through drum & bass, house, garage, and hip hop influences, resulting in one of the standout R&B projects of the year.
All Hours – Anz
Anz has been a consistent force in the UK club scene for years, and this highly versatile debut offering for Ninja Tune shows why she certainly will be for many more.
Of the four albums Arca released in four days (!!!) the second was my favorite—it felt like an evolution of her sound on her Stretch EPs in 2012.
Headz Gone West – Nia Archives
Nia Archives has emerged lately as a singular talent—not only is she a fantastic and soulful vocalist but at the same time her productions are capable of murdering a sound system, the title track is the perfect showcase for that.
Slitherman Activated – RXK Nephew
RXK Nephew’s eccentric, hilarious lyrics paired with the club-friendly stylings of New York electronic producers such as Color Plus, DJ Swisha, and Kanyon makes for one of the most entertaining hip hop projects of 2021.
Sweetness – Obongjayar & Sarz
A rising soul singer links up with one of the most famous Afrobeat producers, and their styles clash together in really phenomenal ways. “Gone Girl” in particular is a massive standout, but the entire project is a winner.
Painful Enlightenment – Jana Rush
In a fantastic year for footwork LPs, Jana’s manages to stand out with its jazz influences throughout, it’s truly one of the most unique albums in all of dance music this year.
Baile – FBC & VHOOR
On this project, rapper FBC and producer VHOOR take baile funk back to its roots in Miami Bass and electro in one of the best offerings this year.
Freedom – Ell Murphy
On this edition of stellar UK Garage label Time Is Now’s white label series, vocalist Ell Murphy is paired with some of the finest UKG artists for five tracks – the standout is “Hours” with the fantastic Stones Taro.
“Killing It” – Eee Gee
The Scandinavian Eee Gee stole my heart this fall with her new single, “Bad Person,” but in reviewing her work, it was “Killing It,” released earlier this year, that stood out as my top track of 2021. Strutting in with bounce and a certain relatability, “Killing It” perfectly emulates the strange and uncertain confidence that reflects this year.
“Psycho” – Masie Peters
“Psycho” marks a new pop-centric direction for singer-songwriter Maisie Peters. With an immediately intoxicating beat and the strategically staccato vocals, it’s easy to groove along—you’d be a psycho if you didn’t. Don’t forget to check out the acoustic version as well.
“Heart on the Line” – Eighty Ninety
Eighty Ninety delivers a remarkably emotional and universal track in “Heart on the Line.” From its subtle beginnings, “Heart on the Line” blossoms into a charming melodic reflection on the key moments in a relationship, pulling at your heartstrings with every note.
“Phantom Limb” – Mae Krell
Self-described as a creator of “sad girl indie,” Mae Krell created something very special with this year’s Phantom Limb. Hauntingly tragic, her ethereal voice has a depth and emotion here that may be unparalleled on this list.
“Better than Love” – Foley
Part of their 2021 EP Vacation—which I’ve had on repeat ever since it came out—Better than Love is a softer track that still encapsulates the crisp pop sound of Foley. Melodic synth paints a beautiful backdrop to this fresh track.
“Two Roads” – Valerie June
Country for a new age, Valerie June has a riveting voice that anchors any track. But Two Roads stands out compositionally for straddling the genre-line between country, folk, and blues. An arrangement that really lets the vocal lead, Two Roads is reflective and engaging for the listener.
“Oh My God” – Adele
Unlike Easy on Me, Oh My God off Adele’s 30 is a very different sound than we’re used to from the British singer-songwriter. It’s rougher, bolder, and more experimental. I’ll always take a ballad with her incredible vocals, but, oh my god, it’s refreshing to see Adele go in a new direction.
“To Get Over You” – ROSIE
Known for being decidedly herself in her art and everything she does, ROISIE has put out singles this year that contain a great deal of honesty. What sets To Get Over You apart is that combines that with something very commercial and easy to listen to.
“Mountain Man” – Annabel Gutherz
Something to cleanse the pallet, Annabel Gather’s Mountain Man is proof that simple can be exceedingly effective. Written to celebrate the love between her cousin and her ex-boyfriend, Mountain Man boasts lush lyrics and a charming guitar that is both nostalgic and aspirational.
“A House Divided” – Zander Hawley
A simple guitar riff opens Zander Hawley’s A House Divided. But the momentum picks up, augmented by drums and violin, as Zander is joined by another vocalist and an instrumental solo. Each second leads to this crescendo that’s very satisfying as if you’ve gone on a journey with the artist—and you have.
“homeswitcher” – dltzk, kmoe
“Duo” – Sam Gellaitry
“U Just R” – Machinedrum, Jorge Elbrecht
“So Good” – Good Times Ahead
“When You Pull Up” – Shakka
“Your World” – Hex Cougar, Pauline Herr, So Sus, SEJO
“I Think…” – Bladee
“Rider” – Mereba
“Higher” – KETTAMA
“Equals” – Jasper Tygner and Joe Hertz
Heaux Tales – Jazmine Sullivan
Heartbreaking, maddening, and true, Heaux Tales is an empowering rallying cry to women simply trying to navigate the human experience in a world that takes more than it gives to them. Jazmine Sullivan’s achingly powerful voice commands attention from the jump, as she expertly weaves her way through sultry R&B-pop (“Put It Down”) and devastating ballads (“Lost One”). The six interludes on the album are raw confessions from women in Sullivan’s life, frankly discussing the difficult balancing act that women, particularly Black women, are forced to contend with when it comes to love, sex, career, and self-worth. A conceptual album that’s just as much of a personal diary as it is a musical masterpiece, Heaux Tales is essential listening for everyone. In a recent interview with NPR, Sullivan explains the necessity of the album’s message —”Not only can we have [safe spaces] within our own inner circles, but let’s expand it. Let’s all look out for each other and have great intentions for each other and want the best for each other and even check each other if need be. Let’s make this a movement.”
dltzk is changing pop, indie, and electronic music with their hyperpop (and digicore) destruction of old methods. Speaking from a personal point, I truly feel that dltzk transcends all artists operating in this space. Their discography is fresh, bold, and exhilarating; listening feels like falling in love with music for the first time. If you’re new to dltzk, their Teen Week project is a great place to start—it sparked attention across the industry thanks to blistering singles like “52 blue mondays”. Their side project, leroy, launched a new microgenre referred to as “dariacore,” which serves as a catch-all term to describe putting Gen Z soundbites in a blender then running over them with a monster truck. Together, all of these influences come together in dltzk’s latest, a deeply personal and ephemeral look at the struggles of growing up. frailty is a shockingly impressive follow-up and represents the significant growth and evolution dltzk’s made as an artist in 2021 alone.
Phenomena – Zanski
A beautiful album that blooms with color and texture, Phenomena fills the mind’s eye with swirls of oil-slicked kaleidoscopic hues realized through sound. Created by Canadian indie producer Zanski, Phenomena is a full extension of the world he’s built through his YouTube series of the same name. A warm, crackling haze coats each guitar pluck and melody, enhancing the psychedelic, dream-like nostalgia of Zanski’s compositional choices. This album is one that you’ll return to, like a familiar memory of a far-away feeling.
Nature System – RamonPang
Staking out his sound, RamonPang sets the tone for himself as an artist with his debut album Nature System. Utilizing a wealth of recontextualized samples, the producer darts across electronic genres, diving into experimentation with a collection of songs that represent the ethos behind his project. Nature System also sparked this meme, and if I had to see it, you do too.
Dawn of Chromatica – Lady Gaga
The ultimate Lady Gaga dance-pop album is manifested in Dawn of Chromatica, with a 50-minute listening experience that feels like the equivalent of dumping a lot of Pop Rocks into your mouth at once. Though it’s a remix album, Dawn of Chromatica features some of the most forward-thinking artists and producers, bringing the fantasy world of Gaga’s concept into overdrive with super-charged, soaring club tracks. The album feels especially exciting with the way it bridges electronic and pop music, a clear influence of late producer and PC Music icon SOPHIE. The experimental production on Dawn of Chromatica is indicative of Lady Gaga’s ability to recognize and celebrate the impact that PC Music’s sound has in shaping modern dance music today. In a year marked by a great loss in this community, we needed an album that reminded us of the joy of living.
Songs of Vienna – Cid Rim
Songs of Vienna is a playful collection of ideas, with CID RIM (Clemens Bacher) refusing to shy away from his values as an artist. Extracted from the ground of experimentation, Songs of Vienna consists of compositions mined from personal creative time CID RIM would schedule for himself in between pop sessions in London. His relocation to England sparked a deeper artistic appreciation for the European city he calls home; Vienna’s cultural scene inspired CID RIM and his friends to bend the rigid structural categories of pop, jazz, and IDM and shape them into a malleable, genre-eluding form unique to their artistic intentions. Songs of Vienna is an imaginative, conceptual look at the ways in which places shape us. Carrying traces of his former self from city to city, CID RIM distills his core essence as a musician by allowing his past experiences to guide him forward.
I’m Just F***king Goofin Y’all – Yung Skrrt
In a moment where it felt that we might be peak online, the meme humor and experimental rap beats of Yung Skrrt became a way to express what it’s like to be constantly plugged into the Internet as a creative. Avant-garde yet unassuming, I’m Just F***king Goofin Y’all is essentially a concept album—the sonic equivalent of your iPhone search history coming to life over boundary-pushing and distinctive production. The comedy of the lyrics belies the addictive quality of Skrrt’s percussion and songwriting, which emphasize his versatility as a musician. Sometimes, it’s the sheer delight of being silly that brings artistic fulfillment (see: “McDonalds”).
Tansuri – Tutara Peak
Tutara Peak stepped away from duo Ekcle to explore his own role as a creator, and his debut EP Tansuri thrillingly proves that the artistic risk paid off. Channeling Jon Hopkins and Four Tet, the natural sounds and gently-tumbled synths that shine through in Tutara Peak’s productions intensify the immersive element of the project. Approachable in style despite its experimental face, the substance of the tracks is revealed more and more with each listen, making Tansuri an endlessly wild adventure through electronica.
Gravy in my Coffee – Woody & Jeremy
Gravy in my Coffee, the sophomore album from Chicago duo Woody & Jeremy, is a strange little album. The smattering of songs on the project play out like goofy jam sessions, exuding the spirit of Weird Al cosplaying as a guy that lives in Logan Square with his psych-rock bandmates. This improvisational approach to music-making gives Woody & Jeremy room to cast spellbinding guitar licks and drum loops into the atmosphere. Call it homesickness, but Woody & Jeremy capture Midwestern humor with spot-on irreverence, adding a sentimental charm to the album.
01953 – Tisoki
Tisoki’s long-awaited debut full-length album allows the producer to truly step into his legacy as an influential force on dance music. 01953 is a well-paced showcase of some of the most energetic songwriting in EDM. Exploring wave, garage, trap, house, and more, Tisoki maintains cohesion on 01953 thanks to his innate sense of melody and tightly balanced sound design.