BOTY: TOP 50 RECORDS OF 2021

50. JOHN CARPENTER – Lost Themes III: Alive After Death
[Synthwave, Progressive Electronic – USA – Sacred Bones]

The fact that most conversations about John Carpenter begin and end at his legendary contribution to horror and sci-fi cinema is a little bittersweet, because the maestro should absolutely be considered one of synth music’s most pioneering stars. Lost Themes III feels like business as usual and oh-so comforting and familiar. Whilst this record doesn’t exactly bring any new surprises or outlandish ideas to the fold, it does very well in reminding you just how excellent and important Carpenter’s music is. Here, Carpenter and collaborators bring some of their best written themes yet. They do say great things come in threes…!!!

49. CULT OF LUNA – The Raging River
[Post-Metal – Sweden – Red Creek]

Post-metal pioneers Cult Of Luna continue their recent hot streak by continuing to dare and innovate, self-releasing this 35 minute EP that acts as an amazing coda to their previous triumph A Dawn To Fear. The heavy cuts sound effortlessly crushing and atmospheric, with a surprising curveball collaboration with legendary singer Mark Lanegan providing a glacial ambient leaning beauty.

48. CONVERGE & CHELSEA WOLFE – Bloodmoon I
[Post-Metal, Gothic Rock – USA – Deathwish Inc. / Epitaph]

I’ve always loved the idea of metalcore legends Converge exploring their post-metal influences even further and Bloodmoon I is practically the answer to my desires. This is easily Converge’s most meditative, cerebral and slowest tempo album to date, but it is by no means lacking in intensity and energy. First conceived at Roadburn Festival 2016 as a special collaborative performance, Bloodmoon sees the Massachusetts titans teaming up with Chelsea Wolfe and Stephen Brodsky (Cave In, Mutoid Man, Old Man Gloom) to create a new set of songs. It truly feels like a collaborative piece where each artist is bringing their best qualities but also pushing into new places and stepping out of their comfort zones.

47. SPACE AFRIKA – Honest Labour
[Sound Collage, Ambient – UK – Dais]

Manchester, UK based duo Space Afrika take the influences of Massive Attack and Burial and implement them into something far more fractured and disparate. This sprawling opus traverses drone, ambient, sound collage, field recordings, spoken word conversations, trip hop and more, stumbling around high through early hours backstreets after missing the last bus home. Intimate and highly atmospheric, Honest Labour‘s vaporous sketches become a warm internal soundtrack to Britain’s urban corners.

46. JESSICA MOSS – Phosphenes
[Chamber Music, Ambient – Canada – Constellation]

Canadian string player and composer Jessica Moss is probably best known for performing in legendary post-rock and chamber ensemble A Silver Mt Zion, but with her solo albums has been pushing further into orchestral and classical composition. Phosphenes is a full on chamber piece, leaving behind the post-rock elements, and yet is still somewhat reminiscent to the stirring minimalism of those first two ASMZ records. There is a wonderful balance of sweeping high-end violin and what sounds like brooding low-end cello, captured so naturally that it sounds like subtle movements in the earth… A wind blowing through the trees, clouds drifting by slowly, and a waterfall breaking onto the rocks below. If A Silver Mt Zion captured the collapse of society, then perhaps Phosphenes captures the collapse of nature, whilst still bowing to its overwhelming beauty and majesty.

45. BLACK SWAN – Repetition Hymns
[Ambient, Drone – USA – Past Inside The Present]

A record I found great comfort in throughout 2021, anonymous New York based producer Black Swan has created this 80 minute opus of decaying, minimalist ambient tape loops whose title and album cover let you know exactly what you are in for. Floaty, heavenly and euphoric, Repetition Hymns has been a great album to put on in the background whilst typing up emails and articles, allowing my brain to switch between being hyper focused on my tasks, or just zoning out into a trance completely. Though this album is incredibly sparse, it’s one I’ve frequently returned to just to create a calming atmosphere at home.

44. JULIEN BAKER – Little Oblivions
[Indie Folk, Singer/Songwriter – USA – Matador]

Julien Baker is such an interesting protagonist, pouring her heart into her soul-searching lyrics dealing with faith, sexuality and her battles with substance abuse, told through loud and powerful vocals that feel like they can carry notes across entire continents. If Sprained Ankle was at times too shy and stripped back, and if Turn Out The Lights was at times too ambitious for its own good, then Little Oblivions certainly feels like Baker’s most balanced album, especially in terms of sound and production. Somehow Julien Baker still hasn’t quite fully captured the enormous raw power of her jaw-dropping live performances in a studio album format, but Little Oblivions could just be her best set of songs yet.

43. MONO – Pilgrimage Of The Soul
[Post-Rock – Japan – Pelagic]

MONO have never really strayed too far from their winning formula, but with every album these post-rock masters put out they still seem to deliver the goods, boasting an airtight discography. You kind of know exactly what you are going to get listening to a new MONO record, yet still they manage to leave the listener breathless with their sublime combination of beautiful melodies, dynamic crescendos and devastatingly loud finales. By this point in their lifespan as a band, MONO know exactly what their strengths are and just run with it, having built an incredible sonic relationship with recording engineer extraordinaire Steve Albini and fine-tuning all the details and dynamics.

42. CLAIRO – Sling
[Soft Rock, Folk-Pop – USA – Republic / Fader]

Clairo makes a very deliberate and organised change of pace from the dance pop and alternative R&B influences that were more present in her previous works. Sling does a remarkable job of capturing a ’70s warmth and nostalgia right down to the artwork and packaging which looks like a vintage Reprise Records release. The vibe is reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris and even Crosby, Stills & Nash, favouring piano, string arrangements and folksy guitars. Working with producer and engineer Jack Antonoff feels like the perfect pairing to achieve this sonic intimacy. Antonoff – who has recently produced albums by Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift and their own project Bleachers – is on a hot streak right now and has a knack for allowing big name artists to strip their sound bare and present their rawest, most honest and unrestrained performances.

41. MIRA CALIX – Absent Origin
[Electronica, Musique Concrete – South Africa – Warp]

Mira Calix returns an album which may have the most misleading cover art I’ve seen this year. What looks like the sleeve to a bubblegum pop album holds within a very dark, unsettling and mind-scrambling host of sounds that borders on sounding like a score to an occult horror film. Calix draws from a wealth of experience in creating electronic music, experimental theatre and classical works, constructing Absent Origin through meticulous sound collage production techniques. Absent Origin is a very, very challenging record and one that many could be turned off by immediately, but I strongly admire the way that Calix finds intricate ways to pair sounds, moods, styles and noises that feel like they shouldn’t work together, yet somehow do.

40. SKULLCRUSHER – Storm In Summer
[Indie Folk, Singer/Songwriter – USA – Secretly Canadian]


Skullcrusher is not a death metal band but the alias of US indie folk singer/songwriter Helen Ballentine. She hasn’t even made her full length debut and yet the small amount of EP material that has been released through Secretly Canadian is incredibly exciting. Skullcrusher’s music is pretty, intimate, earthy and effortlessly expressive, told through Ballentine’s chilled out acoustic guitar playing and floaty vibe. Her sound exists somewhere between the blissed out melodies of Soccer Mommy and the cutting melancholia of Phoebe Bridgers. Storm In Summer builds on everything that made Ballentine’s self-titled debut EP so great, merely adding more layers and greater confidence. Though we live in a time where we have a huge pick of astonishing female indie folk musicians, Skullcrusher still manages to feel like an artist just on the cusp of superstardom.

39. NICK CAVE & WARREN ELLIS – Carnage
[Art Rock, Chamber Music – Australia – Bad Seed]

Usually when Nick Cave and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis get together on their own it’s to create immersive and atmospheric film scores, but not with this surprise release. Carnage very much restores some of the aggression and bite found in some of Cave’s older works as well as the duo’s Grinderman spin-off project. Sure it never quite reaches the drunken fury of ‘Get Ready For Love’, but Carnage sees a delightful return to the more confrontational side of an artist that some feared might have been lost, yet still balances well with some great ballads in the form of ‘Albuquerque’ and ‘Lavender Fields’. Further proof that Cave and collaborators are just an unstoppable force making outstanding records one after the other that are loaded with feelings and internal chaos.

38. YEAR OF NO LIGHT – Consolamentum
[Post-Metal, Sludge Metal – France – Pelagic]

It’s a little baffling that Year Of No Light haven’t been given as much praise as their post-metal peers as they have woven a robust discography of powerful, cinematic masterworks. Consolamentum is perhaps their grandest statement of all. Year Of No Light’s ability to craft alluring dynamics, driving rhythm sections and loud layered riffs has in itself reached peak crescendo. Built on enormous pummelling sludge riffs and grand spacey textures, the mammoth ebbs and flows, rises and falls that grace every song on Consolamentum are so epic and masterfully executed that even the likes of Cult Of Luna, Neurosis and Pelican should be tipping their hats in sheer awe.

37. JOY ORBISON – Still Slipping, Vol. 1
[Electronica – UK – XL]

Until now, Joy Orbison has been content to ride the single and EP format releases, and even this “album” is being marketed as a mixtape, which does compliment the flow and structure of the record. Implementing sampled field recordings of spoken word conversations is a signature of Joy Orbison – alias of London born producer Peter O’Grady – giving this record something of an obscure narrative thread highlighting interesting characters on nighttime streets, voicemail messages and late night parties. From start to finish, Joy Orbison takes you on a very well crafted journey of electronica, hip-hop, trap, house, ambient dub and more, all assembled with fine finesse and detail.

36. EMMA-JEAN THACKRAY – Yellow
[Jazz Fusion, Neo-Soul – UK – Movementt]

The UK is proving to be an absolute hotspot for bold new sounds in contemporary jazz with the likes of Comet Is Coming, Sons Of Kemet, Nubya Garcia, Soweto Kinch and countless others changing the landscape of the genre today. Step up Leeds born bandleader, producer, DJ and multi-instrumentalist Emma-Jean Thackray with her self-released smash debut full length Yellow. Thackray brings so much spirituality and soulful vibes to the fore here with a multi-faceted record that leans as much into jazz as it does funk and neo-soul; singing, playing guitar, bass, synths and trumpet. The interplay between all the musicians here is second to none outstanding, with such a vibrant production and mix to bring everyone out. Though Thackray runs the show and works it, there is still a very collaborative spirit that is always so essential in jazz. In particular the amount of low end, bounce, funk and groove throughout really gives Yellow a pulse and lift, kind of capturing that Brainfeeder Records vibe. Emma-Jean Thackray is really onto something here and it feels like we are hearing a really accomplished superstar in the making.

35. LITTLE SIMZ – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
[Conscious Hip-Hop – UK – Age101]

Following up from the amazing and highly acclaimed Grey Area record comes London rapper and hip-hop sensation Little Simz’ follow up Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. This album is double the length and the sheer scope and ambition poured into this project is really astonishing. Little Simz performs with live instrumentation and orchestral flourishes, with the record having the feel of a theatre piece and a concept album. This is enhanced with really creative interlude tracks that recall classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. Not only is the instrumental backdrop really rich and varied, but Little Simz delivers a vocal and lyrical performance to match, covering so many different topics and pouring in so much personality. Little Simz has made a massive record that has so many different elements to unpack, yet held my attention really well across multiple listens.

34. BLANCK MASS – In Ferneaux
[Sound Collage, Post-Industrial – UK – Sacred Bones]

British industrial techno producer John Benjamin Powers’ Blanck Mass project has shown a ferocious and gritty take on apocalyptic raving, but this latest effort In Ferneaux (inferno?) is his biggest curveball yet, opting for two side-length sound collages that show a firm descent into the post-apocalypse. There’s no screaming or dancing here, with incredible uses of field recordings and samples that tell stories leading to something closer to the world of Tim Hecker and Godspeed.

33. BACKXWASH – I Lie Here Buried With My Rings & My Dresses
[Industrial Hip-Hop – Zambia/Canada – Self-Released]

Backxwash delivers an aggressive and brutal slab of dark industrial hip-hop on their latest record. The alias of Zambian born rapper and producer Ashanti Mutinta, Backxwash commands your attention with their shouty raps and clanging industrial beats that recall the likes of Techno Animal through to Death Grips and JPEGMAFIA. Backxwash turns in a supremely pissed off and passionate performance, sounding completely in their element. Capping off a high energy, blood pumping, gut churning record is the magnificent ‘To Ashes’ which is built on an incredible beat that samples Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s iconic ‘Sleep’. I Lie Here Buried With My Rings & My Dresses was surely the most angry, fiery and maniacal hip-hop album of the year.

32. A SEA OF DEAD TREES – Garmonbozia
[Post-Rock – UK – Trepanation Recordings]

A Sea Of Dead Trees continues to have this astonishing isolated feel and a brilliant knack for building songs from the ground up out of loops, cycles, layers and melodies that pile on top of one another. Though there are strong influences of post-rock, shoegaze and even metal’s more atmospheric leftfield approaches, Robert Heath feels isolated in his own unique world of sound. A Sea Of Dead Trees never sounds particularly trendy, cutting edge or like he is drawing from popular tropes within the genres that influence him, but feels like he is making music for only himself because he feels compelled to do so. Listening to Heath’s music feels like you are glimpsing through a window at someone building a house brick by brick; handcrafting their own sound as a means of coming to terms with one’s own mortality, searching for catharsis, truth and comfort, resulting in a staggering and unique body of music loaded with feelings, beauty, pain and sorrow.

31. DREAMWELL – Modern Grotesque
[Screamo, Post-Hardcore – USA – Self-Released]

Rhode Island, US based screamo outfit Dreamwell have delivered one of the most colourful and explosive records of the year, pairing ferocious emotive post-hardcore with the glistening and dreamy textures found in shoegaze and post-rock. Modern Grotesque finds an exhilarating take on melancholy as chiming clean guitars glide across dynamic drums and pained screams. An astonishing work from one of the genre’s most promising talents.

30. PARANNOUL – To See The Next Part Of The Dream
[Emo, Math Rock, Shoegaze – South Korea – Self-Released]

South Korea’s Parannoul are seemingly the project of just one person which is surprising since they sound like a full band on this sophomore record which combines elements of shoegaze, emo and math rock very well together; like if American Football, Mogwai and My Bloody Valentine decided to merge into one entity. This one person bedroom project has exploded and with next to no PR has become a hit on Bandcamp and one of the most talked about releases in the indiesphere, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness. To See The Next Part Of The Dream is a little more ambitious than the scope of what the bedroom recording production can handle, but that is where Parannoul’s charm lays. Across these ten wonderful tracks are a great mixture of melancholy and hopeful feelings. Repeat listens have been rewarding, as with the album being so tightly layered and running at over an hour there is a lot to unpack here, but this opus has this triumphant tenderness that reflects an artist creating something big out of the small setup they are working in.

29. PUPIL SLICER – Mirrors
[Mathcore – UK – Prosthetic / Trepanation]

Screaming and smashing their way into the hearts of the UK underground metal scene come Pupil Slicer with their debut album Mirrors. The relative newcomers have rightly become one of the most talked about acts in a scene already bursting with immense talent. Like you’d expect from their Un Chien Andalou referencing name, Pupil Slicer’s music grabs you by the throat, kicks you about and cuts you in the eyes with their dizzying blend of mathcore, death, grind and industrial converging into a whirlwind of sonic violence, chaotic dissonance and spellbinding rhythmic complexity. Pupil Slicer are easily the most worthy contenders to fill the void left by the disbandment of mathcore heroes The Dillinger Escape Plan, with the ability to go toe to toe on festival circuits with the likes of Code Orange and Nails. Mirrors is an absolute workout for the senses delivered through sublime performances, detailed production and a confident sound. For all it’s aggression and sonic carnage that lays on the surface, underneath Pupil Slicer present a compelling, emotional and truly touching personal study of ones own battle with their mental health and dysphoria.

28. GROUPER – Shade
[Lo-fi Folk, Ambient – USA – Kranky]

There’s a rare juxtaposition in Grouper’s work where she has the ability to sound so empty and yet so full. Liz Harris’ understanding of lo-fi methodology is so fine-tuned that it gives Shade a very special quality – as if you are hearing a haunted record. The feelings and timbres of both the gentle performances and the sonic details work in tandem to create something sadly soothing. Shade sticks out as one of Harris’ most passionate records that captures this weightless, drowning sensation – where time has stopped, memories flash before your eyes and all there is left is quiet, stillness and vast bittersweet melancholy.

27. FLOATING POINTS, PHAROAH SANDERS & LSO – Promises
[Ambient, Jazz, Orchestral – UK/USA – Luaka Bop]

Defying the genre categorisation systems of record stores all over the world, the union of Manchester, UK born ambient musician Floating Points, legendary US jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and The London Symphony Orchestra feels like a perfect collaboration that draws in different genres so sublimely. Promises is one giant suite that cycles around familiar motifs, hooked down with Floating Points’ haunting piano melodies, allowing Sanders to wander freely and wrap around with vibrant saxophone soloing, as the LSO provide elegant and dramatic strings. Phenomenally well captured, this feels like a collaboration of dreams and more like an event than an album.

26. CASSANDRA JENKINS – An Overview On Phenomenal Nature
[Art Pop, Indie Folk – USA – Ba Da Bing!]

This delightful sophomore record from US indie folk pop starlet Cassandra Jenkins presents something a little different to her contemporaries, pairing together ethereal saxophone, shuffling slowcore drums, spoken word narration, and textured electric guitar driven songs. Though only just exceeding thirty minutes, each song here has a distinct flavour and personality that always leaves me wanting more. Jenkins is a fantastic storyteller and the sound of this album feels like you are laying down on the beach as the sun sets, eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.

25. BRUIT< – The Machine Is Burning & Now Everyone Knows It Could Happen Again
[Post-Rock, Chamber Music – France – Pelagic / Elusive Sounds]

Surely the most beautiful rock album of the year, BRUIT<‘s immersive debut is the aural equivalent of staring at a Monet landscape watercolour painting. BRUIT<‘s ability to fuse so many different sounds together is remarkable, taking the listener on an epic journey of post-rock, chamber music, folk, ambient and even some metal riffing. The four lengthy pieces play like the four seasons, with a strong emphasis on dynamics and cinematic texture.

24. JON HOPKINS – Music For Psychedelic Therapy
[Ambient – UK – Domino]

Jon Hopkins body of music has always expressed a masterclass in detailed sound design and meticulous production, whether that comes with pounding beats or pools of soothing atmospheric piano and synths. For this latest album, Hopkins has dived entirely into the ambient aspects of his sound, reaching back to his early collaborations with the master Brian Eno. Music For Psychedelic Therapy lives up to the title and is certainly a cerebral and meditative wonderland favouring drawn out synths, ethereal drones and bubbling new age sounds. It’s the kind of record that feels like experiencing a deep dream with detailed and nuanced sound design touching every lobe of your mind.

23. JPEGMAFIA – LP!
[Abstract Hip-Hop – USA – Self-Released]

Peggy keeps on innovating, somehow managing to pull together abstract and experimental sounds and ideas in hip-hop and make it fairly accessible. It’s worth noting that not all of the songs here got sample clearances, and thus there exists a superior “offline” version of the album that isn’t on streaming platforms that has the entire tracklist. ‘Sick, Nervous & Broke’ is one of the wildest hip-hop odysseys of recent times and this whole record is just a real trip. Peggy is just such a loveable and endearing protagonist, and this is his most colourful and versatile set of songs yet.

22. MOGWAI – As The Love Continues
[Post-Rock – UK – Rock Action]

Scottish post-rock pioneers Mogwai have been one of the most prolific bands of the 2010s, often releasing no less than two albums a year if you count their numerous original scores, but taking a few years off after the lacklustre Every Country’s Sun has proven wise as they’ve now come back with their strongest effort in around a decade. As The Love Continues sharpens everything that makes Mogwai great, whether it’s slow Slint-worshipping math rock, technicolour instrumental rock, or even shoegazy alt-rock, it’s all here. Enlisting some friendly collaborators including Atticus Ross, Blanck Mass and Colin Stetson has only sweetened the pot. Mogwai sound so fired up and on form and with plenty of ridiculous track titles to boot.

21. SHAME – Drunk Tank Pink
[Post-Punk – UK – Dead Oceans]

Menacing post-punk Londoners Shame have fine tuned and expanded on all the great qualities of their promising debut and made an even more gripping, darker and more compelling follow up. Drunk Tank Pink is an exemplary British post-punk record with intense aggy performances, soul baring lyrics, scatty guitars and tight drumplay. Though not as experimental as some of their peers, Shame are instantly accessible and have some really outstanding snaky guitar hooks.

20. ULVER – Hexahedron
[Progressive Electronic – Norway – House Of Mythology]

Though Ulver have been putting out studio records of ever shifting genres fairly frequently since their inception, live performances and tours have been very sparse, not playing live at all between 1994 and 2009. Ulver now have a few live albums in their catalogue – including this latest one, Hexahedron – but even these aren’t your typical live records, usually a means for Ulver to explore specific sounds and performing unique new pieces of music for the stage that don’t appear on any of their studio albums. This is an exciting approach because it essentially means you can treat an Ulver live album in as high regard as a new studio album. Here the wolves explore lengthy jams of drone, spacey ambient and Tangerine Dream inspired synth arpeggios. Ulver are simply one of the most interesting, exciting and consistent bands to ever exist and just keep on giving, so don’t slouch on Hexahedron or dare make that “oh, it’s just a live album” face.

19. SUNN O))) – Metta, Benevolence
[Drone – USA – Southern Lord]

Alongside Ulver, Sunn O))) have made a fantastic case for why recent live recordings should be considered for BOTY lists. This BBC6 Radio session sees the drone pioneers capitalising on 2019’s organic and back to basics sister records Life Metal and Pyroclasts, performing cuts from each record in all their earthy and loud glory. Unlike on the studio versions, mega talented Swedish composer and organist Anna Von Hausswolff has joined the collective to perform on 30+ minute rendition of ‘Troubled Air’, giving the track a spooky makeover as well as capturing ambient qualities. More proof that Sunn O))) are one of the finest live acts on the planet.

18. LONELADY – Former Things
[Synth-Pop, Post-Punk – UK – Warp]

Manchester resident LoneLady’s third full length is her best work to date, creating a relentless groove machine of twisting and grinding rhythms. Boasting immaculate production and a whole host of flavoursome percussion, Former Things commands that you get up and move your butt. Though intricate and insanely catchy, Julie Campbell juxtaposes these colourful toe-tappers with lyrics that capture the hard feelings of isolation and possibly even bitter feelings towards the UK’s governments handling of the pandemic, if I’m reading into it right. Former Things is a record that is instantly accessible, and yet leaves you with extra food for thought on those repeat listens.

17. MAPLE GLIDER – To Enjoy Is The Only Thing
[Indie Folk, Singer/Songwriter – Australia – Partisan]

Singer/Songwriter Tori Zietsch AKA Maple Glider marks a huge impression with this debut full length. Maple Glider’s effortlessly beautiful and sorrowful music really transports me to another place, from the striding yet dreamy singing, the sparse yet delicately rich folk instrumentation to the incredible storytelling lyrics and arrangements. Sometimes the production is so stripped bare that it sounds like it’s just you and Zietsch sitting in a darkened lounge together at night, the embers on the fireplace gently illuminating the room. Maple Glider has a remarkable ability to find strength and power through sparse arrangements and quiet recordings. There is no need for drama or bombast here, as Zietsch grabs hold of you and mesmerises without breaking a sweat. To Enjoy Is The Only Thing could go down as one of those great quiet recordings in the spirit of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and PJ Harvey’s White Chalk, where the bare beating heart of the record is exposed, needing very little else to make a huge impression.

16. KAATAYRA – Inpariquipe
[Brazilian Folk Music, New Age, Black Metal – Brazil – Self-Released]

Brazilian one man project Kaatayra was one of my favourite discoveries of 2020, releasing two epic full length albums combining savage atmospheric black metal with extensive passages of meditative Brazilian traditional folk music and new age, sounding akin to the likes of Laaraji and Jon Hassell. Kaatayra has only gone further with Inpariquipe to create something much more unique and forward-thinking, softening the black metal elements and finding a surprising warmth and beauty from the blast beats and tremolo picked guitars. Hugely atmospheric and meditative, Kaatayra has come out with one the most elegant approaches to metal since Alcest burst onto the scene over a decade ago.

15. AROOJ AFTAB – Vulture Prince
[Chamber Folk – Pakistan/USA – New Amsterdam]

New York based Pakistan born musician Arooj Aftab delivers a haunting yet incredibly beautiful chamber folk record, Vulture Prince. Just listening to the first minute of opener ‘Baghon Main’ should capture you and gives a great idea of the detailed soundplay that is about to unfold. The sonic depth on display is so rich and detailed, sounding reminiscent of Nick Drake’s debut album Five Leaves Left. The acoustic guitars and sorrowful strings compliment each other so well and are very tightly wound, with Aftab’s siren-like vocals becoming another masterful layer on top. Her baritone voice is sleek and smooth, gliding atop these wonderful instrumentals throughout the album with such a commanding yet controlled presence.

14. INDIGO SPARKE – Echo
[Indie Folk, Singer/Songwriter – Australia – Sacred Bones]

Indigo Sparke’s full length debut comes amongst a whole host of Australian indie folk musicians who are absolutely smashing it lately. Echo is a transcendent force of brittle folk arpeggios that aim to soar to the stars. The sheer confidence, powerhouse performances and richness of sound captured by Indigo Sparke on this album feels like the mark of an artist far beyond their years and experience; to think that a record this moving and accomplished is her debut adds even more weight to the experience. Echo is a perfectly captured contradiction that simultaneously sounds tiny and bare, yet as monumental as a phoenix bursting out of the flames.

13. DIVIDE & DISSOLVE – Gas Lit
[Drone Metal, Noise Rock – Australia – Invada]

In what was one of my favourite new discoveries of 2021, Australian duo Divide & Dissolve have come at the metal genre with such an outsider perspective, with the duo of Takiaya Reed and Sylvie Nehill not being devout metalheads, but rather lovers of slow, heavy, loud and primal sounds. This largely instrumental record is doomy, noisy and very loud, trading in vocals for ethereal wanderings of saxophone and the occasional socio-political spoken word poems. Gas Lit is an incredibly refreshing approach to doom and sludge, sounding so urgent and vital whilst stretching the boundaries of the genre. A fuzzy, colourful and hypnotic rush of creativity and personality.

12. ENDLESS BOOGIE – Admonitions
[Blues Rock, Psychedelic Rock – USA – No Quarter]

Endless Boogie are definitely a band who live the fuck upto their name, and Admonitions is the proof! The NY based psych-blues rockers aren’t afraid to let a groove ride out to the ends of the earth on this 80 minute long behemoth. Featuring two tracks that exceed 22 minutes, Endless Boogie will pick out one fantastic riff and groove and play it out ’til the song fades out, rarely even changing to a new chord or motif. This painstaking approach creates a mesmerising and hypnotic vibe that will have you lost on the dancefloor (or just headbanging in your bedroom if you prefer). The first half of this epic album is a party, but gradually slows down to ambient crawl as the night draws to a close. Endless Boogie deliver so much dedication to their craft, with astonishing vintage production and a captivating atmosphere. None of these songs feel as long as they really are, but the boogie, is well and truly… Endless…

11. KACEY MUSGRAVES – Star-Crossed
[Country Pop – USA – Polydor]

Fusing country and pop together, starlet Kacey Musgraves channels the sadness, fears and memories that have come from her recent divorce, told so directly and honestly. The pairing of glitzy dream-pop inspired production meets so well with these raw lyrics, creating an intriguing contrast where sticky sweet melodies sit with melancholic emotions. Every instrument and vocal has the reverb turned up to create this elegant bokeh sound that pairs folky guitars with dreamy synths. The way Musgraves turns the experience of flipping too far back on one’s Instagram to reveal photographs that uncover painful memories on ‘Camera Roll’ is such a universal feeling. Musgraves even critiques experiences of using dating apps on ‘Hook-up Scene’. Exquisitely versatile and bittersweet, Kacey Musgraves has created a compelling breakup record for the social media age.

10. EMMA RUTH RUNDLE – Engine Of Hell
[Singer/Songwriter, Chamber Folk – USA – Sargent House]

In today’s world of social media it can be hard for any artist to remain private and mysterious, perhaps leading to an opposition entirely where musicians are creating records so intimate that you feel like you are alone in a small room with them, hearing these songs played to you inches from your face. Such is the case with US songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle’s latest album Engine Of Hell, which comes across so personally revealing and stripped down as if the artist is standing before you nude.

Peeling back every layer from Rundle’s metal-flirting highly atmospheric and textured alternative folk of the past, here she delivers this astonishingly bare set of ballads recorded so intimately that you can practically hear the minute details and ambient qualities of the studio itself. Recorded with binaural microphone placements, every breath, gasp, creak of piano pedals and squeaking of fingers gliding across acoustic guitar strings is captured in painstaking detail. In fact these natural recording qualities become compositional elements in themselves. The songs here are wonderfully quiet and restrained, finding the wholesome beauty of small melodies and arpeggios. Of course Rundle’s passion, lyrics and vocals themselves become so raw and invested, through sheer emotion if not necessarily through volume. Engine Of Hell is the sound of an artist at their most vulnerable and exposed, capturing their most private feelings behind closed doors through the majesty of music.

9. AMENRA – De Doorn
[Sludge Metal, Post-Metal – Belgium – Relapse]

Pained and emotional post-sludge titans Amenra returned with a daring shake-up of their winning formula, stepping out of their Mass (I-VI) series to make this all Flemish language self-produced and recorded opus which invites second vocalist, Oathbreaker’s Caro Tanghe into their lineup.

Sure, the blueprints of Amenra haven’t changed a great deal. They’re still making lengthy atmospheric sludge tracks that slowly unfold with the pacing, dynamics and gradual build ups you’d expect from post-rock bands, with just as much attention to texture, atmosphere and ambient qualities. Their knack for luring the listener through patient, eerie clean guitar passages into riff explosions and howling vocals is still as sharp as ever too. Yet these elements feel heightened and more fine-tuned through bassist Tim De Gieter’s excellent recording and production. The guitars sound monolithic, the drums pound and stomp the ground, and Van Eeckhout’s screams are more prominent in the mix than ever, no longer shielded behind their fellow performers. Amenra once again present a masterful tour-de-force of pure emotion and catharsis that could just be their best work to date.

8. INJURY RESERVE – By The Time I Get To Phoenix
[Glitch-Hop – USA – Self-Released]

As much as I love hip-hop, it’s not too often that I hear a hip-hop album that can move me to tears, as usually it’s about capturing a lively energy. Injury Reserve are a band who absolutely transcend their genre and I’d go as far to say this is one of the most unique sounding albums I’ve heard in 2021. If you can imagine combining the tones and aesthetic of contemporary hip-hop, the squelchy, erratic beats of classic Warp Records ambient techno producers, the jam vibes of neo-psychedelia and even the dense textures of shoegaze then you might come somewhere close to describing what Injury Reserve have achieved on this sophomore record.

Born out of personal disaster, between the start and the finish of writing and recording By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Injury Reserve emcee Steppa J Groggs passed away, and upon completing this record it was rejected by their label Loma Vista for being too abstract and experimental, resulting in the remaining duo being dropped. Yet despite the odds, Injury Reserve have triumphed with this moving, transcendent and boundary pushing work of art. I have to admit, outside of a few highlights, I was fairly ambivalent on my first full listen. But the two emotionally hard-hitting singles ‘Superman That’ and ‘Knees’ as well as Brian Eno sampling finale ‘Bye Storm’ stuck with me afterwards and reeled me back in for further listens. I still feel like this album is slowly growing on me more and more but ultimately I stand in awe of just how different, how daring and how absolutely sincere this record is. It genuinely sounds like NOTHING else released this year or even anything before it. Hearing Groggs sing the chorus “Ain’t no saving me” posthumously on ‘Superman That’ is crushing and haunting, whilst ‘Footwork In A Forest Fire’ sounds as insane as an Aphex Twin song, plus the shoegazy dirge ‘Knees’ is one of the purest and most beautiful songs of the year. By The Time I Get To Phoenix is a rare one-of-a-kind record that I believe will still be studied and talked about for years to come.

7. HALSEY – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
[Art Pop, Industrial Rock – USA – Capitol]

I feel like the last five to ten years has been the age of surprising collaborations. In a time where creating studio quality music from home is more affordable and obtainable, artists can even make music and record together without even stepping into the same room. Whilst the latter isn’t the case for Halsey and NIN producers Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, I don’t think anyone quite saw this union coming, but it sure made for one of the best surprises of the year. Here we have a great example of two very different worlds coming together and finding the best aspects of one another and creating something new, and yet warmly familiar. From a NIN perspective, it’s fantastic to hear them hone in and make some of their catchiest and most pop-focused productions ever. Whilst Halsey has pushed herself into losing her inhibitions, going harder, wilder and noisier. From the demonic screams and noisy distortion of ‘Easier Than Lying’, through to the reflective and powerful ‘You Asked For This’ and of course the empowering raunchy stomp of ‘I Am Not A Woman, I’m A God’.

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is a daring triumph that is sweet and manic in equal measure, made during Halsey’s pregnancy and successfully channelling the hopes and fears of imminent childbirth and motherhood. Simply one of the most immediate, gripping and versatile pop records of the year and a wonderfully unlikely pairing.

6. VIOLET COLD – Empire Of Love
[Blackgaze – Azerbaijan – Self-Released]

Is Empire Of Love the happiest metal album ever made?!? Azerbaijan based black metal multi-instrumentalist Emin Guliyev has gifted the world with this empowering self-released album during LBGTQ+ Pride month, fearlessly merging their national country flag with the rainbow colours associated with Pride. This bold album serves a strong and well-timed retaliation to Azerbaijan’s largely homophobic, transphobic and hate-fuelled intolerance. But to back it up, this album is absolutely incredible in it’s own right.

Whether Violet Cold weaves in shoegaze, dream-pop, post-rock or even outlandish passages of trap music AND banjo playing, it’s rare that an extreme metal release has given me such a big smile and shot of radiant energy. In just shy of forty minutes, Violet Cold has crafted an outrageously beautiful, camp, and yet badass masterwork of forward-thinking, fist-pumping, heart-warming, soul-searching metal mania that continues to push the genre into even stranger and bolder new territories.

5. CHVRCHES – Screen Violence
[Synth-Pop – UK – Glassnote]

With their fourth studio album, Glaswegian synth-pop trio CHVRCHES went from being a band I only had a casual interest in to fully immersing myself into this record over and over. It’s truly one of the stickiest and comforting album experiences I’ve had this year, achieved by a band tightening up all the screws. Screen Violence is jam packed with soaring melodies, hard-hitting production, cinematic textures and cathartic lyrics but never becomes overcomplicated, and is a pop record through and through.

My excitement for this record arose from reading an interview with vocalist and lyricist Lauren Mayberry in Amy Raphael’s book A Seat At The Table, explaining her experiences behind the scenes in the music industry and where feminism holds its place today. Her personal experiences and musings are brought into the lyrics here, crafting conversations with a male figure with an inflated ego on ‘He Said, She Said’ and tackling mental health on the outstanding ‘How Not To Drown’ featuring a killer guest vocal from Robert Smith. Even through writing about topics such as grief and domestic violence, this album still retains an amazing balance between tackling very tough subjects, yet capturing a sweetness in their presentation. For all the sadness that lurks beneath ‘Violent Delights’, it’s impossible not to be swept away by the elegant synths as well as one of 2021’s boldest choruses. Screen Violence is a most compelling host of rapturous contradictions.

4. TAYLOR SWIFT – Red (Taylor’s Version)
[Pop, Singer/Songwriter – USA – Republic]

Including this re-recording of an old album so high on my 2021 list felt like a controversial decision since this songs were already released back in 2012. Yet I feel like Taylor Swift is tapping into something innovative by deciding to re-record her first six albums one by one. Whilst the main motivation is to stick it to former label Big Machine and freeze them out by reclaiming all of her old back catalogue from the ground up, Swift is also changing the landscape of contemporary music whilst she’s doing it. And the cherry on the cake is that these new versions are sounding better than ever before (even if played side by side they sound almost beat for beat identical).

Red (Taylor’s Version)‘s main disc exists somewhere between a new album and a re-issue, blurring those lines. But even if one were to dismiss the idea, a whole second disc of unreleased and unearthed songs are also presented here that are just as good as the main event itself. Swift has even taken some songs and ideas from the original Red sessions that weren’t fully realised and fleshed them out, inviting contemporary favourites such as Phoebe Bridgers and Chris Stapleton along for the ride. Even judging on the merits of the second disc alone, this is an astonishing work that absolutely lives up to 2020s astonishing Folklore and Evermore albums. In particular, ‘Nothing New’ (ft. Phoebe Bridgers), ‘I Bet You Think About Me’ (ft. Chris Stapleton) are phenomenally good, and the spellbinding aural short-film ‘All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)’ is a breathtaking epic that proves Swift is one of the best lyricists and storytellers out there right now. Oh and we already knew the original Red album is a landmark in pop music itself, so who can really deny this two-hour marathon of sheer brilliance!?

3. DRY CLEANING – New Long Leg
[Post-Punk, Spoken Word – UK – 4AD]

In what is truly one of the most exciting guitar dominated records of the year, London based newcomers Dry Cleaning take all the best parts of classic post-punk bands such as Wire, PIL and Television and put their own spin on it. Of course the band are very much elevated by the bizarre spoken word non-sequiturs of vocalist Florence Shaw, piecing together tweets, overhead conversations and a whole host of strange stream-of-consciousness musings. Shaw’s delivery is refreshingly blasé and controlled, rarely if ever breaking into anything too anguished or emotive, keeping this seemingly monotone flow like she has recorded every take sat down with a cup of tea and a cigarette in hand.

Not only are Shaw’s lyrical observations sharp and presented in such a compelling manner, but the way they duck and dive around the band’s supreme performances is intricate and tightly wound. Dry Cleaning come across like the John Cooper Clarke of the social media generation, sounding so British that it’s almost painful, painting their own vision of what post-punk should be today, and it’s fucking excellent. YABBA!

2. BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD – For The First Time
[Post-Punk, Spoken Word – UK – 4AD]

2021 has been an outstanding year for British post-punk so much so that it feels like a new renaissance of intense, chaotic and anxious bands are tapping into the zeitgeist. For most of this year, Black Country, New Road and Dry Cleaning have been two of my most listened to artists, who have been duking it out for the top spot as I adore them both so much in different ways. And that’s a tough thing to comprehend when I don’t want to put either – nor any – artists into competition with each other. Whilst Dry Cleaning are elevated by the spoken word rambles of vocalist Flo Shaw, I feel like BC, NR are a band who elevate each other as an ensemble. The way that each band members’ instruments, be it violin, clarinet, keys, drums, guitars etc. wrap around each other is really astonishing, resulting in such a flavoursome and dynamic record that feels so much bigger than the six track 40 minute runtime implies. The press have tried to compare them lazily to bands like Slint and Arcade Fire, but I think BC, NR are completely in their own world and one of the hardest bands I’ve heard this year to pigeonhole.

For The First Time is an absolute thrill ride of a debut, built on absolutely menacing, noisy and blistering performances, sounding like the school band has gone amok on some Fear & Loathing-esque rampage. They can simultaneously channel the drawn out grandeur of Godspeed, the winding chaos of Fugazi, and the manic inner torment of Bright Eyes without sounding like any of these bands. The icing on the cake is vocalist Isaac Woods’ self-reflecting diatribes that range between spoken word and maniacal shouting; as if you, the listener are his therapist listening to every last terrifying and desperate inner thoughts and anecdotes, left in both panic and enlightenment.

1. LINGUA IGNOTA – Sinner Get Ready
[Chamber Music, Avant-Folk, Darkwave – USA – Sargent House]

I really grappled between my top three releases presented here for most of the year long, but I knew in my heart Lingua Ignota’s third full length album Sinner Get Ready is the most astonishing record I’ve heard this year. Interestingly it has been riding with me in the passenger seat on a multi-phased journey for most of 2021, meaning different things to me at different times of the year.

Firstly I was gifted an advance promo copy of Sinner Get Ready two or three months before the official release date and I knew from my very first listen that this would be a game-changer. The significant growth in sound and approach was evident right away, favouring a more natural, earthy sound and production from Kristin Hayter, dropping electronic and power-noise components entirely in favour of chamber instrumentation. Hayter’s voice has never sounded this natural, largely free of distortion and the maniacal screams of her previous work. I felt so fortunate that I was able to spend plenty of time with this wonderful record before any other reviews or outside opinions came to the fold. For those couple of months prior to release date, it felt like this record was mine alone.

By the time Sinner Get Ready was officially released it was absolutely no surprise to me that the critical response was overwhelmingly positive, but to read just how much this album has meant to people and how much it has moved them really floored me. This is the kind of record that leaves people in tears and helps us come to terms with our own inner demons. So the release period of this record in August was a really heartwarming time and I began to love the album even more and really understood further the emotional power and hold that Hayter has on music lovers. This especially comes from some of Hayter’s deep dives into full on balladry. The two lead singles, ‘Pennsylvania Furnace’ and ‘Perpetual Flame Of Centralia’ are both lead by elegant piano playing and soaring, escalating singing that gradually tugs and tears out your heart. The four to five minute mark of ‘Pennsylvania Furnace’ alone is seriously one of the most gut wrenching music moments of the entire year – as powerful, exquisite, spine-tingling and moving as an entire orchestra riding the final crescendo of a symphony.

I picked up Sinner Get Ready on both vinyl and CD and took pleasure in enjoying the nuances of these recordings on different formats. Even when If I wasn’t actively spinning this record it has rarely strayed from my thoughts. Though the lyrical content of this album chronicles Hayter’s move to Christian dominated rural Pennsylvania, USA, tales and samples of real life religious devotees and Hayter’s own grappling with faith and devotion; Sinner Get Ready took on another transformation late this year, just as I was compiling this very album of the year list. Hayter vocally went on record to chronicle the mental, physical and sexual abuse inflicted upon her by former partner and musician Alexis Marshall – including an incredibly difficult to read written account. Once again my experience with this album went through another change. Perhaps Hayter was also expressing the frustration, vulnerability and torment of her personal life and abuse of this horror story – a subject matter familiar on her older works, and something I hoped Hayter would be able to move away from. But if anything Hayter’s bravery in being vocal about her abuser only reinforced the incredible power of this masterwork for me all over again.

From the maniacal physicality of ‘The Order Of Spiritual Virgins’ loud, hammering pianos through to the uplifting and ethereal ‘Man Is Like A Spring Flower’, I’ve not heard another record so affecting, so nuanced and so emotionally and sonically powerful in 2021. A true landmark in raw, cathartic and utterly challenging music as well as Lingua Ignota’s best release to date.

//

Check out the Spotify playlist with 100 tracks!

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE!!! There were soooooo many incredible records this year that I’m also going to through out a bunch of very honourable mentions. Albums that appeared in previous drafts of this painstaking list or just more great records that deserve a shout out…

AEROSOL JESUSSurvive
AQUILUSBellum I
ARMAND HAMMER & THE ALCHEMISTHaram
BLACK MIDICavalcade
DEAN BLUNTBlack Metal 2
THE BODY I’ve Seen All I Need To See
CARA NEIRPhase Out
CHIHUAHUAViolent Architecture
CIRCUIT DES YEUX-io
CLARKPlayground In A Lake
DARKTHRONEEternal Hails…..
DEAFHEAVENInfinite Granite
DEATH GOALS The Horrible & The Miserable
LANA DEL REYChemtrails Over The Country Club
DUNCAN EVANS & WILDERNESS HYMNALUntil Liars Fear You
ETHEREAL SHROUDTrisagion
FLYING LOTUSYasuke
GAZELLE TWIN & NYXDeep England
GNODLa Mort Du Sens
GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPERORG_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
LORAINE JAMESReflection
JAPANESE BREAKFASTJubilee
KAYO DOTMoss Grew On The Swords & Plowshares Alike
LIL NAS XMontero
LIL UGLY MANE Volcanic Bird Enemy & The Voiced Concern
LINGUA IGNOTAAgnus Dei
LOW MODERLow Moder
LOW ROARMaybe Tomorrow…
FRANCIS LUNGMiracle
MADLIBSound Ancestors
MAGDALENA BAYMercurial World
MATT SWEENEY & BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLYSuperwolves
BUCK MEEK Two Saviors
ANNA MEREDITHBumps Per Minute: 18 Studies For Dodgems
MOLDiorama
MOON WIRING CLUBGhost Party Delirium
MARISSA NADLER The Path Of The Clouds
GENESIS OWUSUSmiling With No Teeth
PANOPTICON…And Again Into The Light
PORTRAYAL OF GUILTWe Are Always Alone
CLAIRE ROUSAYA Softer Focus
SAINT ETIENNEI’ve Been Trying To Tell You
SKEE MASKPool
ASTRID SONNEOutside Of Your Lifetime
STILL { }
SUFJAN STEVENS & ANGELO DE AUGUSTINEA Beginner’s Mind
SUGAR WOUNDSCalico Dreams
TYLER, THE CREATORCall Me If You Get Lost
VICTORY OVER THE SUNNowherer
WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOMPrimordial Arcana

Thanks! See you in 2022!


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