Music Features

The 50 Best Albums of 2021

This is it! It's time to reveal our top albums of the 2021. A longstanding tradition since 2002, our full list consists of 50 albums selected by the entire No Ripcord staff.


50. Clairo
(Fader/Republic Records)

With her debut track, Pretty Girl, in 2017, Clairo looked to be the kind of artist who, despite clear songwriting talent, would remain a bedroom pop cult concern. Her debut album, Immunity, dispelled that notion and now, with Sling, she’s taken her sound to Laurel Canyon while still staying true to her DIY roots. Despite only being 23 years old, Sling is a record inspired by Clairo’s craving for stability and homeliness in response to a few years caught in the whirlwind of the music industry. If Carole King were an introspective Gen Z-er, she might have written Amoeba—an ode to chasing the highs of success and forgetting life’s priorities, centred around a gorgeous melody that unfurls throughout the track. In fact, it’s in the lyrics where the album's strengths lie— descriptive yet relatable lines crafted to snugly fit within the warm productions that show that, while Clairo might not yet be entirely comfortable with her place in the business, she’s a singular talent who’s going to be sticking around. - Joe Rivers

49. St. Vincent
Daddy's Home
(Loma Vista Recordings)

Every St. Vincent album brings with it a new iteration of Annie Clark’s musical persona. On Daddy’s Home, she's the bleary-eyed lounge singer on the subway home from a long night as everyone is heading to work. Her sixth solo album filters the smooth and sleazy sounds of the mid-1970s through her eyes. You can hear that in the Young Americans vibe of Pay Your Way in Pain and Somebody Like Me, or the tightly-wound funk of Down. But Clark, as usual, brings a whole range of styles and sensations to the forefront, like the gorgeous psychedelia of Live in the Dream or the anthemic support of …at the Holiday Party. It’s a more relaxed St. Vincent than we’ve seen in more than a decade, but her chameleon-like ability to fully embrace other styles and make them her own through her remarkable songwriting remains intact. - Joe Marvilli

48. Lana del Rey
Chemtrails Over the Country Club
(Universal Music)

Over the past 10 years, Lana Del Rey has mined wistful Americana so much she almost single-handedly brought the genre to its saturation point—so there’s a delight in being genuinely surprised by her sixth release. There was a palpable eye-rolling at the title Chemtrails Over The Country Club and its album cover, and yet, this charming record soon wins cynics over. It doesn’t try to match her career-high Norman Fucking Rockwell, and it doesn’t need to. Del Ray knows that by removing all the noise, this album will remind you—despite the bolder songs and grand arrangements in her catalog—there’s really just the one reason we all keep being drawn back to her work. A decade in, and still, nobody is capturing the glory and peril of nostalgia like she does. - Matthew Smith

47. Olivia Rodrigo
(Geffen Records)

A star since her tweens, it’s understandable that Olivia Rodrigo’s collection of teenage angst anthems wouldn’t sound like the average adolescent navel-gazing. And SOUR was all the better for it. While, at first, Rodrigo’s career-mindedness may have seemed at odds with her references to wallowing in gloom—crying on her bedroom floor or driving around listening to sad songs—it marked the album out as sincere rather than naked pandering to a target demographic. Despite the recurring themes of heartbreak, SOUR’s air of self-awareness also made it a great pop record—insistent, funny, and packed with variety as it bounced between Billie Eilish-indebted quiet drama and Taylor Swift-style power ballads, with more than a dash of early 00s’ pop-punk fizz. - Mark Davison

46. Modest Mouse
The Golden Casket
(Epic Records)

With so much time spent between releases, it’s easy to hold Modest Mouse in amber as they were in the late ‘90s—all distorted guitars and nervy screaming vocals. Listening to The Golden Casket back to back with The Lonesome Crowded West is a shock to the system, and maybe an unwelcome one for the “I liked them before they broke pop” crowd. But try to forgive them their foray into approachable dad rock; hell, who can go 25 years without evolving? You’ll be rewarded with yet unseen optimism and the musical equivalent of a Hieronimus Bosch painting: a trippy patchwork of sound and imagery at once beautiful and discomfiting (Isaac Brock’s decision to avoid guitars led to so much banging, clanging, and obscure instrumentation you’d think Tom Waits was back and had never taken up smoking). The Golden Casket is what happens when a band can grow unpigeonholed. - Gabbie Nirenburg

45. Parquet Courts
Sympathy for Life
(Rough Trade)

Parquet Courts provide an accessible entry point into their ever-impressive discography with an album that eases up on snark but sees the band continue to evolve. An embrace of improvisation and writing for the dancefloor creates their biggest-sounding and most (almost) polished album to date. There are still moments where Sympathy for Life sounds like Talking Heads, Lou Reed, or Primal Scream, but it’s still impossible to pin down a band who continue to move well ahead of their peers. - Matthew Smith

44. Mdou Moctar
Afrique Victime
(Matador Records)

If 2021 has taught us anything, it's that musical diversity is no longer excluded and has its place among the most valued and significant names of the year. Mahamadou Souleymane, the alma máter behind Mdou Moctar, is a great proof of that. This brilliant Niger-born Tuareg guitarist gives us the opportunity, along with his bandmates, to know what “desert blues” sounds like. Afrique Victime tries to keep alive those pickaxe and guitar solos that remind us of Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen, but without falling into an outdated nostalgia—taking us into a psychedelic and recondite journey under the sun. - Fran González

43. Sault
(Forever Living Originals)

NINE may be SAULT’s fifth album in just three years but the collective remains as mysterious as ever. No longer available (it was deleted 99 days after release), NINE continues SAULT’s unflinching tales of life for people of colour in the UK and the daily discriminations and disadvantages faced. Early tracks like London Gangs and Trap Life incongruously pair sing-song la-la-las with lyrics about police brutality and the glamorization of violence, the vocals providing a sweet undercurrent to the uncompromising subject matter. But it’s in the back half of the record that SAULT spread their wings and show how much they’ve developed in a relatively short time. Alcohol is a simple but unflinching story of substance addiction with its use of repetition, meaning there’s no glamour or fun attached to the struggle. You From London is perhaps the best song here, though, with guest verses from Little Simz about the grimness of life in the capital paired alongside an excited American voice who views Brits as a horse-owning, crumpet-eating novelty. - Joe Rivers

42. The Goon Sax
Mirror II
(Matador Records)

On their latest LP, Australian trio The Goon Sax strike the perfect balance between jangling pop-rock and sinister post-punk. The band delivers songs like The Chance, which pairs poignant lyrics with drooping guitar lines and complimentary piano keys. Meanwhile, Psychic and Tag are driven by synths with a tainted sheen that calls back to bands like Depeche Mode and New Order. Despite the extremes, The Goon Sax is most effective when blending these approaches to create a lane all their own. Temples, for instance, starts with an open-road guitar riff that opens into an eerily catchy chorus (all members share vocal duties). These efforts take Mirror II into unexpected territory, where your emotions are ambiguous but tangible. When, on Bathwater, the song slides into a slushy guitar groove, you can’t help but sway along; not with a smile, but a smirk. - Carlo Thomas

41. Genesis Owusu
Smiling with No Teeth
(House Anxiety/Ourness)

This year, Kofi Owusu-Ansah showed us that writing music that's free of labels and constraints fuels one's creative drive. The Ghanaian-born Australian-raised artist brought us a real bombshell where stereotypes have no space, and it's all the more rewarding for it. Funk, electronic, rap, punk, and soul with a sinister and theatrical psychedelic aura embrace the entirety of Smiling with No Teeth, which Owusu uses to launch messages loaded with denunciation and criticism (The Other Black Dog), pronounce his independence, or make a statement to take action against toxic people and places (Don’t Need You). - Fran González

40. Bachelor
Doomin' Sun

In the downpour of overproduced, envelope-pushing new music releases this year, it is a rare treat to find the kind of guileless, earnest rock that dream duo Jay Som and Palehound have produced on their first album together as Bachelor. Whither the guitar solo? To Doomin’ Sun! In a tight 33 minutes, a story of queer friendship and profound sexual tension plays out over a dreamy indie rock landscape. For the most succinct taste of what this record offers, head to Stay in the Car for Pixies-like fuzz and the perfect quotidian expressions of yearning: “I want us to get along/Be the ice cream left out in her sun/Plug into the speaker/And put on our favorite song”. But do yourself a favor and don’t skip around; this is an elegantly paced, cohesive record that deserves your attention from start to finish. - Gabbie Nirenburg

39. Shannon Lay
(Sub Pop)

Geist, Shannon Lay's fourth solo LP, offers an ethereal place to visit and reflect on, on which she crafts delicate pastoral folk in the tradition of singer-songwriters like Vashti Bunyan and Nick Drake. Lay, who once held a prolific presence in the LA-based garage-rock scene, began to take a calmer, more inward-looking artistic path in 2016 with her debut All This Life Going Down. But the differences between her early days and now couldn't be more pronounced, as she ornaments her loving confessionals with flourishes of orchestration, soft piano strokes, and hypnotic acoustic plucking. Lay's arrangements may soothe with a natural, lived-in quality to them, but they convey complex emotions that hide behind an autumnal warmth. “I have to get out of California/the days go by like smoke in the wind,” she muses on Awake and Allow, using simple imagery to veil hard truths that are better left unsaid. - Juan Edgardo Rodríguez

38. Dean Blunt
(Rough Trade)

As bewildering as Dean Blunt regularly is, perhaps his most pleasantly unexpected moves are his dives into accessibility. Even less expected was a sequel to his previously most accessible album, BLACK METAL, which not only upheld that album’s airy dream-folk vibe but paired it down even further to make the auteur’s most concise and catchy album yet. Blunt's collection of ethereal pop songs still lingers largely in the shadows, on which his droll musings puncture bright acoustic guitars and sweet, disembodied The Pastels samples. But the album’s lyrics, which surround grief, race, and the need to persevere through hardship, make BLACK METAL 2 Blunt’s most vulnerable and relatable work to date. - Peter Quinton

37. Big Red Machine
How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last?

For their return as Big Red Machine, Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon called in their wide array of friends for an immensely collaborative experience that highlights their diverse stylings for an emotionally rich look at childhood, family, and other personal relationships. Many songs on How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last? feature wonderful vocal performances over gentle pianos and guitars but leave room for more experimental offshoots, like the rhythmic Easy to Sabotage or the intricately weaved Magnolia. The album is best though as a vehicle for harmonies. There’s the moving Hutch, a tribute to Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison that features Vernon, Sharon Van Etten, Lisa Hannigan, and Shara Nova. The joining of Ben Howard and This Is The Kit on June’s a River and Taylor Swift’s appearance as backing and lead vocalist on Birch and “Renegade, respectively, are other instant highlights. But coming after a year of isolation, the entire album is a lovely dedication to the companionships that make our lives fulfilling. - Joe Marvilli

36. Aaron Frazer
(Dead Oceans)

As a member of retro-soul collective Durand Jones & The Indications, it’s no surprise that Aaron Frazer mines the past for inspiration on his debut solo album. Produced by Dan Auerbach (a man who knows a thing or two about classic sounds), Introducing… imagines Frazer as a post-Elvis teen icon—all pompadour, open-buttoned shirt and just enough smoulder to worry the parents of boomers. His vocals—a buttery falsetto—glide across pitch-perfect homages to 20th Century soul and Brill Building songwriting. On You Don’t Wanna Be My Baby, he’s the leader of The Stylistics. On Lover Girl, he’s practically doing doo-wop. On Leanin’ On Your Everlasting Love, he’s putting his heartbreak into the Great American Songbook. The danger with records that are so in thrall to music history is that you want to just go and listen to the originals instead. But on Introducing…, Aaron Frazer has enough personality and quality to keep you returning for more. - Joe Rivers

35. Black Country, New Road
For the first time
(Ninja Tune)

To their credit, UK collective Black Country, New Road is self-aware enough to understand their privilege and incorporate it effectively into their music. Their debut album, For the first time, is an ornate experience, full of sprawling post-punk arrangements. The opener Instrumental sees the members building on the same demonic riff. On Science Fair, Isaac Wood sways between masculine bombast and the juvenility of his situation (“Still living with my mother / As I move from one micro influencer to another”). The album’s explosive and biting centerpiece Sunglasses centers on the feeling of inadequacy. Here, as in the rest of the album, Wood’s voice is unnerving and worn—it carries the weight of someone generations older than him. To be fair, growing up as Gen Z is anything but tame, and 2021 offered little reason for optimism. For Black Country, New Road, even middle-class melodrama feels like the end of the world. - Carlo Thomas

34. Grouper

Liz Harris didn't feel like she had to make haste with her latest project, Shade. It took 15 years for the Oregon singer-songwriter to complete her 12th LP, on which she let the natural rhythm of her life decide its ultimate finality. Even if she's at her most gentle here, Harris is seemingly at odds with two opposing musical forces: the seductive hiss of white noise and the somber swing of folk. The contrasts between the two are minimal, always shrouded in mystery. But despite these seemingly incongruous shifts, it's her soft acoustic strums that dictate the album's mood. Harris does call forth curiosity and even a little apprehension with her intimate meditations, especially when she invokes stark moments of eeriness like on Disordered Minds. We're not quite sure what to make of it, but Harris sounds clearheaded and at ease—artfully enhancing the complexity of the emotions she's trying to process. - Juan Edgardo Rodríguez

33. Turnstile
(Roadrunner Records)

It’s been a while since an album from an extreme genre showed up draped in bright pink imagery and became an instant crossover classic. But few bands within the last decade were more ready to take the mantle of “next big thing” than Turnstile—hardcore punk workhorses who have established a feverish following, always displayed a knack for hooks, and have frequently stretched far beyond their genre’s rigid boundaries with endless imagination. Still, GLOW ON proved to be a surprise nobody could have predicted—the ideal encapsulation of their progress over the years forming a relentless pop-rock record which, after the past two year’s pandemic woes, served as the perfect reminder of just how “alive” music like this can make you feel. - Peter Quinton

32. Erika de Casier

Since she embarked on a new path with music label 4AD, Erika de Casier seemed convinced that she wanted to make us travel with her to the '00s R&B roots that helped her grow as an artist. The half-Portuguese, half-Danish singer found a way to express herself with no limits with that sound as a common thread on the whole album, whether she speaks directly to the guy who was horrible with her on a date (Polite) or tries to dismantle all the clichés of a toxic romance imposed by default (No Butterflies, No Nothing). More than a tribute to the noughties pop golden era, Sensational is de Casier's way of reaffirming herself in spite of all the obstacles she faces as a woman. - Fran González

31. Cloud Nothings
The Shadow I Remember

Dylan Baldi, songwriter for indie rock group Cloud Nothings, has always been great at writing mantras. His songs capture huge feelings in just a few words, making huge choruses out of longing, disappointment, and frustration. With Cloud Nothings’ seventh album, he’s just as strong as ever, writing some of the best songs of his career with Nothing About You and Only LightThe Shadow I Remember isn’t anything particularly new for the Cleveland quartet, but who needs to change when you can write a song as gorgeous as Nara and immediately follow it with the monstrous hook of Open Rain- Ethan Gordon

30. black midi
(Rough Trade)

The wild musical progressions of black midi found some refinement with their latest offering, Cavalcade, an often genre-bending 42 minutes of breakneck arrangements that avoid the trappings of pastiche in spite of sharing commonality with Mahavishnu Orchestra (John L) and American Football (Chondromalacia Patella). And while the group’s penchant for setting unexpected detours within the album’s 8 tracks inform much of Cavalcade’s composition, the retro-pop lean of Marlene Dietrich, the delicately rendered Diamond Stuff, and the semi-Bad Seeds propulsion of Dethroned mark an evolutionary step for a band that could very well have allowed their complex arrangements to confine them categorically. - Sean Caldwell

29. Katy Kirby
Cool Dry Place
(Keeled Scales)

One of the brightest debuts of 2021, Katy Kirby’s Cool Dry Place is also one of the easiest to play all day on repeat. Kirby insists that she fretted endlessly over the composition of these nine gems, but the seemingly effortless rush in which they fly by will have you questioning her veracity. Kirby sounds fully at ease with putting together a tune as she does at stringing together descriptive and somewhat off-kilter lyrics. Not to mention her way with genius-level song titling—Juniper has a refreshing punch, Peppermint is as bracing as it sounds, and Traffic! makes for a total tangle. No matter where Kirby goes from here, Cool Dry Place can always be returned to in order to recall a disarmingly charming beginning. - Mark Moody

28. Deafheaven
Infinite Granite
(Sargent House)

It seems almost serendipitous that a band like Deafheaven, known for their fiery, feverish, ferocious blend of black metal, shoegaze, and post-rock, would release an album that I can proudly place on my shortlist of Great Albums for Fall. Infinite Granite, the group’s fifth full-length studio effort, sees George Clarke, Kerry McCoy, and company turning in their screamed vocals, blistering tempos, and eardrum-obliterating tremolos for a more contemplative approach to blackgaze. Like Swans’ Leaving Meaning, it’s the sound of a band transforming into something subtle but beautiful—the same way trees do when their foliage fades from green to orange.- Jackson Glassey

27. Little Simz
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

Little Simz is utterly captivating on her fourth album, which cements her place as one of the most compelling voices in British music. From the orchestra’s first imposing burst, the London MC has the listener in the palm of her hands—whether pulling the curtain back on her internal struggles or leaning into the braggadocio swagger. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert not only builds upon the breakout Grey Area—coupled with an omnipresence on the live scene—but makes Little Simz a formidable figure who shows no sign of slowing down. - Matthew Smith

26. Lost Girls
(Smalltown Supersound)

We may not have had many opportunities to cut loose and just relax over this past year and a half. So Lost Girls’ improvisational debut album—the latest work from the prolific, multi-talented Jenny Hval and produced in collaboration with instrumentalist Håvard Volden—was a rare pleasure. A series of reflections on human connection, and the importance of art in an era when “everything is canceled,” Menneskekollektivet was the sound of solitary clubbing at home. Subdued, yet euphoric beats underpin Hval’s signature frank and suggestive lyrics—breaking at points into almost Beckettian monologues—where words, thoughts, and phrases shift through repetition to the point where their meaning breaks down completely into pure feeling. - Mark Davison

25. Lucy Dacus
Home Video
(Matador Records)

Home Video is both Lucy Dacus’ most kinetic and most personal album yet. From the opening moments of the Springsteen-esque Hot and Heavy—where she sings about our lost past versions of ourselves and our friends—Dacus grabs your attention with every word and melody. The range of musical styles on display here goes far beyond her previous work. First Time drives forward with a head-bopping, propulsive beat. Cartwheel floats away on a gentle acoustic pattern. Partner in Crime launches with a strangely appealing distorted vocal. But it’s Dacus’ gift for raw, uncompromising storytelling melded to strong instrumentation that makes Home Video succeed. Triple Dog Dare rewrites the ending of a friendship that could’ve been something more, punctuating a new chapter where they run away together as the song spirals into an extended jam. Thumbs hits hardest, where—over the low hum of a mournful synth—she outlines small, horrible details on her friend’s abusive, absentee father—her anger culminating with “I would kill him/If you let me.” It’s a song of love between two friends and the trauma that stays with us. Like most of Home Video, Dacus’ powerful lyrics and gift for melody turns these songs into cathartic purging and an opportunity to heal. - Joe Marvilli

24. Foxing
Draw Down the Moon
(Grand Paradise/Hopeless Records)

Does any band capture longing as well as Foxing does? On their fourth album, Draw Down the Moon, the St. Louis trio combines a swirl of songs about relationships, insecurities, economic anxiety, and grief into an all-encompassing hodgepodge of beauty. Lead vocalist Connor Murphy often sings as if he’s talking to the subject of the song, whether that’s hoping someone never leaves on the title track, expressing how much he misses them on Speak With the Dead, or something less tangible on BialystokDraw Down the Moon is an album of chock full of bittersweetness, anchored in 2010s indie pop and giant choruses that are consistantly moving and unforgettable. - Ethan Gordon

23. Ducks Ltd.
Modern Fiction

I’m all for trying to broaden my horizons but sometimes it’s preferable to listen to something comforting and familiar. If that sounds like the faintest of praise, or even a dig at Ducks Ltd., it really isn’t my intention. An end of year list would be an odd place for that anyway. Modern Fiction is not a groundbreaking record but it doesn’t need to be. Evoking the classic sounds of Sarah, Slumberland, and other beloved indie-pop labels of the 80s and 90s, this taut debut is right up there with anything I’ve heard this year in terms of pure enjoyment. Sometimes that’s all you need: great songs, smart lyrics, and impeccable taste. - David Coleman

22. The Armed
(Sargent House)

The Armed are a lot of things—most of which are too cryptic and confounding to try and unravel here—but the least impenetrable thing about them is easily their music. That in itself is a loaded statement considering the banshee screams and serrated noise which make up much of their latest album, ULTRAPOP, but don’t let the importance of that title pass you by (rest-assured the band definitely won’t). The Armed have previously made pop out of hardcore in its most brutalizing form with 2018’s exceptional Only Love, but ULTRAPOP shows that fascination spun into outright obsession. It’s not the sound of an extreme band softening their sound for greater accessibility, but a band perfecting the art of making grotesque noise undeniably beautiful to the point where it’s irresistible. - Peter Quinton

21. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra
(Luaka Bop)

If the pairing of electronic music composer Sam Shepherd (DBA Floating Points) and legendary jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders seems incongruous, wrapping the package with backing by the century-old The London Symphony Orchestra is the icing on that improbable cake. Shepherd’s simple “wave of the wand” motif provides a touchstone to the proceedings, but it’s what goes on around that which gives Promises its magic. Sanders' entry on the first passage is a thing of beauty, but his fluttering vocalizations on Movement 4 are a recorded treasure. Shepard holds court on Movement 7, while the orchestral swell of the symphony makes its most prominent showing on Movement 6. But it’s Sanders’ coming out of retirement that is the real reward here. He, of course, makes his virtuoso mark on yet another recording, while also sparking his imagination and giving the album its prevailing sense of calm.  - Mark Moody

20. The Weather Station
(Fat Possum)

Tamara Lindeman’s migration to a more rock-oriented terrain is as smoothly integrated on Ignorance as the insidious acts of governments and big businesses that the album’s lyrics sometimes point towards. The confident burble of The Robber masks the ravages of colonialism, while the cooly conveyed closer Subdivisions braids the tale of a breakup with the rampant development around her. Ignorance is a confident step forward along Lindeman’s creative path, where the heavier sound—like on the steady thump of single Tried to Tell You—is made buoyant by carefully placed sprinklings of strings, brass, and piano. - Mark Moody

19. Squid
Bright Green Field

If you’re missing the absolute absurdity of David Byrne’s lyricism and vocal flair, may I introduce you to Ollie Judge, Squid frontman and narrator of our latest dystopia? Bright Green Field, Squid’s long-anticipated debut, is a frantic, mechanical opus, so bloated with anxiety that it falls over itself—one odd choice to the next. Shaking off the (slightly) more straightforward pop-punk of 2019’s singles Houseplants and The Cleaner, the tracks on Bright Green Field spit at the artifice of accessibility. Jerking incongruously between seconds-long interstitials and spiraling, 8-minute screamers, addictively catchy drum beats cut short by horns as sharp as sirens, and psychosis-twinged lyrics (the very first line bodes well: “As the sun sets on the GlaxoKline/Well, it's the only way that I can tell the time”), this is a record that really wants to stress you out. Let it; didn’t you need a soundtrack for your doomsday panic? - Gabbie Nirenburg

18. Snail Mail
(Matador Records)

On Valentine, the new album from Snail Mail, love is unfortunately aligned with bitterness. “So, why’d you want to erase me, darling valentine?” sings Lindsey Jordan on the title-track, perfectly capturing how horrible it feels to be left behind by someone you care for. And while Jordan talks about the decay of love with God-given expertise, the album’s most surprising moments come with the instrumentation. Compared to Lush, Jordan’s debut, there’s a poppier texture to the production on Valentine: touches of synths throughout add a slinkiness to songs like Madonna and Forever (Sailing), while Ben Franklin thrives on an unexpected alt-pop groove. For her sophomore album, it’s like Jordan put her clearly defined indie pop in italics. - Ethan Gordon

17. shame
Drunk Tank Pink
(Dead Oceans)

On Drunk Tank Pink, shame make a giant leap towards the avant-garde side of post-punk—taking a more contemplative look as they adjust to their post-tour blues mixed in with surreal undertones. The South England five-piece doesn't intend to speak to the moment but speak specifically to theirs, figuring out what comes next when everything stops after a period of constant movement. They could've stuck to the primal fury of 2018's Songs of Praise, but instead, outsmarted their contemporaries with an apolitical, yet powerfully-charged message about sticking it to the doldrums. - Juan Edgardo Rodríguez

16. Faye Webster
I Know I'm Funny haha
(Secretly Canadian)

There’s a palatable self-awareness—and self-deprecation—that underscores Faye Webster’s I Know I’m Funny haha. The album never moves out of first gear: the twang-tinged Better Distractions and title track glide along with soft mid-tempo drumming and twinkling piano keys. Meanwhile, In A Good Way is a blissful and unpretentious declaration of love (“I didn't know that you were right in front of me”). And yet, Webster never lets listeners off the hook: there’s real depth and pain in this album. Better Distractions is, in part, about hoping a lover will open up to her, while the melancholic Both All The Time wallows in gut-wrenching loneliness. All of this is to say that Webster pulls off an impressive balancing act: I Know I’m Funny haha is slacker rock at its most polished, funny, and honest. - Carlo Thomas

15. Low
(Sub Pop)

Following on from the boldly broken sound of 2018’s Double Negative, Low continued to push into stunning new directions on their 13th album. While HEY WHAT may have been Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s first LP as a duo in their almost 30-year career, it further confirmed that they forge their own unique path—there’s no one else around quite like them. Combining the couple’s recent experiments in distortion and decay with traces of their earlier knack for sweet lullaby-like melodies and blissful harmonies, HEY WHAT molded both the old and the new together expertly to create a work by turns disturbing, soothing, and rousing, but always sublime. - Mark Davison

14. Iceage
Seek Shelter
(Mexican Summer)

It's safe to say that the latest post-punk wave has hit its highest point and with no signs of stopping anytime soon. So how did Danish institution Iceage respond to this? Well, they made a sharp pivot into dark, sensual Britpop, of course. As they begin their second decade together as a band, Elias Bender Rønnenfelt and company again upend expectations with a more straight-laced but no less ambitious rock album that explores and confronts the earthly and the divine. It's also their more musically rich and optimistic: from beatific Christian hymns (Shelter Song) to mystifying raga-rock (High & Hurt), the band breaks new sonic boundaries without turning away from their abrasive punk roots. On the romantic kiss-off Love Kills Slowly, he pays homage to Serge Gainsbourg's sleazy orchestral pop. But as the album's breathtaking finale, The Holding Hand, proves, Iceage continue to be masters of the slow build—a goth-rock epic that rewards with every listen. - Juan Edgardo Rodríguez 

13. Kiwi Jr.
Cooler Returns
(Sub Pop)

Leave it to Toronto, Canada’s wry indie-rock purveyors Kiwi Jr for bringing the genre back to a time when quippy non-sequiturs were the norm on Cooler Returns. That's not to say there's a lot of heart behind the four-piece band’s easygoing tunes—supported by clean guitar tones and jangly rhythms—which are filled with more references than your typical Quentin Tarantino film (conversely, there's a reference about the film veteran's work, of course.) Some of the chuckle-inducing stories here concern a film crew worker and the mindless drudgery of his role, a man who learns about his haircutter's breakup midway through his haircut as Tomb Raider plays in the background, and an unlikely meet-cute that takes place during a dull shareholders meeting in Omaha. Come for the clever takes, stay for the unassuming songwriting prowess.  - Juan Edgardo Rodríguez 

12. Nick Cave/Warren Ellis
(Goliath/AWAL Recordings)

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, whose collaborative extracurriculars outside of The Bad Seeds normally revolve around composing film scores, crafted an engrossing 8-track LP that was written and recorded while COVID-19 interrupted life on a global scale. The creative endeavor is no less a mood piece than Cave’s most recent work with The Bad Seeds—the melancholic and vulnerable tone of both 2016’s Skeleton Tree and 2019’s Ghosteen resultant from the tragic death of Cave’s son—but it is livelier and certainly more varied. Pointing immediately to the near-Massive Attack pulsations of Old Time that run beneath eerie, floating orchestrations, and to White Elephant, the pseudo recall of the brazen gunman at the center of Murder Ballads highlight Stagger Lee (“I’ll shoot you in the fucking face”), Carnage is at least structurally playful. That said, there’s still no lack of darkness or emotional investment—the pandemic having contributed directly to Albuquerque. Cave sings, “And we won’t get to anywhere, darling / Anytime this year…,” and there may not be a more perfectly written summation of that entire stretch of months. - Sean Caldwell

11. Arlo Parks
Collapsed in Sunbeams
(Transgressive Records)

In a year where we started to talk openly about mental health with no prejudices—breaking preconceptions and perceived barriers—we have to acknowledge the ones who contributed to the cause through their music. One of those brave artists was the young and talented British singer Arlo Parks. The 20-year-old's debut LP, Collapsed in Sunbeams, is filled with stories of honesty and vulnerability that ring true—and it's impossible not to see yourself in them. The sweetness with she sings Caroline’; the way she mentions how she wants to lick the grief right off our lips on Black Dog; the subtle wink to Twin Peaks on Hurt: these are just some of the ways the London-born artist uniquely reveals her inner feelings. She embraces us with emotional confidence—and a touch of urban soul—and we cannot help but fall for her charm. - Fran González

10. Tyler, the Creator
(Columbia Records)

Tyler, the Creator has always worked best when doing a balancing act. With his most vibrant work, he’s matching his classic brashness with hints of sweetness. On CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, Tyler dances atop that tightrope, having the looseness of a mixtape paired with the confidence of a masterwork. It’s interspersed with DJ Drama ad-libs, fun but sinister beats, and a handful of the loveliest songs that Tyler has ever been involved with. What sticks out the most are Tyler’s musings on heartbreak and love, which are situated between glamorous boasting and his downtrodden flow on the album’s strongest songs. The melancholy that underlines CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST is summarized best on Sweet“I wish we had better timing, I’ll save a dance just for you.” - Ethan Gordon

(Saddle Creek)

On the surface, SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE’s latest album ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH might feel impenetrable in its sonic density. The album’s 36-minute runtime is bursting with electronic noise (THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN’T DO), switch-ups in musical direction (GIVE UP YOUR LIFE), and melodies that border on the disorienting (I SUCK THE DEVIL’S COCK). And for all the noise, the band makes plenty of room for accessibility. WAKE UP (IN ROTATION) revolves around playful dream-pop guitars, while the jazzy synths on RAPID & COMPLETE RECOVERY evoke something akin to a cruise through hell. The album’s title implies a journey that leads to death—and, by extension, hell—but not before a life lived with experience. As the saying goes, “there’s a method to the madness,” and the Philadelphia-based trio has created something as complex and intricate as, I daresay, entertaining. - Carlo Thomas

8. Cassandra Jenkins
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
(Ba Da Bing!)

Cassandra Jenkins’ masterful An Overview on Phenomenal Nature succeeds on many levels—musically certainly, but the album also manages to walk the fine balance between thought and feeling. A reflection on recovery after loss, breakout single Hard Drive is the album’s head; while two songs later, Jenkins gives us the work’s ever pulsing heart in Ambiguous Norway“You’re gone, you’re everywhere,” she sings on the latter, which forms the knot in the throat that many of us felt in the aftermath of David Berman’s death so shortly after his return to music. The balance of the album assuredly finds a way through to healing. From the kick-in of the drums on the folky opener Michelangelo to the “safe space” meandering of the final notes of The Ramble, Jenkins deftly avoids the morbid and morose in favor of finding a way forward through the fog. If Jenkins found herself turned upside down and grayed out after the loss of her friend, the listener is treated to a half-hour assemblage of the parts and pieces that brought her back to life. - Mark Moody

7. illuminati hotties
Let Me Do One More
(Snack Shack Tracks/Hopeless Records)

Like a melty scoop of ice cream, every moment of Let Me Do One More is sweet, tantalizing, and eager to slip through your fingers and stain your high-tops. For a producer/engineer/singer-songwriter with such proven pop expertise, few artists can remain so catchy while refusing to play by the rules like Sarah Tudzin. At times you’ll find more straightforward songs, like the moody Protector or the punchy Cheap Shoes, which in their own right add thrilling shifts in temperature to the album. Often, however, moments within songs will do their best to throw the listener off its scent—the whiplash from atonal skronks to sugar-fed hooks in MMMOOOAAAAYAYA, the right turn into lonesome country halfway through u v v p, the attack-mode collage of Joni. There have been many great rock records in 2021, but few thrived in unpredictable splendor the way illuminati hotties’ latest does. - Peter Quinton

6. Sons of Kemet
Black to the Future
(UMG Recordings)

If there's a predominant theme behind Sons of Kemet's exhilarating fourth LP, Black to the Future, it's that community is sacred. The potential for cultural connection leads to action, an approach genre-bending jazz mastermind Shabaka Hutchings doesn't take for granted. The Barbados-raised saxophonist/clarinetist—who's been at the forefront of the London jazz scene with his other projects Shabaka and the Ancestors and The Comet is Rising—translates the celebratory spirit of his homeland into a thought-provoking experience that hits every nerve of your body. But let's be clear: even if Hutchings brings a certain joie de vivre to his music, the concept of oppression occupies his creative mind.

Many of the themes here include colonial imperialism, the need to hustle as a means for survival, and the importance of memory. Whether he brings along poet Joshua Idehen to contextualize the Black Lives Matter protests on Field Negus, or has grime artist D Double E provide vocals on the dance-oriented For the Culture, Hutchings makes the case that joy and resistance are one and the same. But it's his performances that convey what words can't, like on Let the Circle Be Unbroken, on which he fools us with a traditional, Latin-infused melody before it descends into an unhinged display of tuba-led gags and grunts. Hutchings even points us to the album's message with a singular poem, spelled out with each song title, a testament of his intense dedication to his art and craft. - Juan Edgardo Rodríguez

5. The War on Drugs
I Don't Live Here Anymore

There’s so much about The War on Drugs that shouldn’t work: the classic rock homages, the lyrics that don’t always stand up to scrutiny, the power ballad tropes. Yet through sheer force of will and musical alchemy, Adam Granduciel doesn’t just make it work but turns it into a huge success story. I Don’t Live Here Anymore hardly veers from The War On Drugs template, yet it’s their finest work to date. Melodic guitar lines that you’ll swear you’ve always known bob and weave through Granduciel’s irresistible, weather-beaten croon, evoking wide open spaces, movement, and feelings of freedom. Every detail of I Don’t Live Here Anymore has been pored over, considered and given a radio-friendly sheen. You could argue The War On Drugs aren’t doing anything new, but they’re playing the music they love and, five albums in, they might have just perfected it. - Joe Rivers

4. Wolf Alice
Blue Weekend
(RCA Records)

Pushed into the spotlight during a dearth period for British rock bands, Wolf Alice has always seemed like a band in conflict with themselves and their influences. Their great songs helped them score award nominations on both sides of the Atlantic, but as a whole, their albums still felt a mishmash—like a band trying to be all things to all people. They manage to change course on their impressive third album, their most confident and ambitious yet. On paper, little has changed: Wolf Alice still blend '90s alternative influences, shoegaze, and modern pop into their indie rock, but more considered songwriting and the production of arena-rock expert Markus Dravs elevates these songs well above anything they've released before. During the cinematic thrill of Delicious Things, it’s easy to question why they aren’t the biggest rock band in the world. While in the quieter moments, it’s tempting to want to cling to them as your secret for a little bit longer. On Blue Weekend, Wolf Alice finally live up to their billing. And for the first time, they seem to believe it too. - Matthew Smith

3. Dry Cleaning
New Long Leg

South London’s Dry Cleaning observation-speak’d a record this year with the enigmatically titled New Long Leg. With producer John Parish (PJ Harvey) on the knobs and the indie-centric illustriousness that goes along with being a part of 4AD’s seminal roster, Dry Cleaning’s often motorik rhythms and tight riff-n-bass exchanges offer soundtrack to vocalist Florence Shaw’s dry eloquence. “Just an emo dead stuff collector,” Shaw states in Strong Feelings, stacking adjectives and phrases meaningfully enough to evade what could otherwise be perceived as well-earned relegation to the pretension pile. While Dry Cleaning’s lean toward post-punk’s steady repetition and bass-thick propulsion evoke immediate references to Lizzy Mercier Descloux or Delta 5, the showy thematic riff of Unsmart Lady and the R.E.M.-tinged Her Hippo prevent New Long Leg from sounding confined to formula. This is a well-crafted outing deserving of its accolades. - Sean Caldwell

2. Japanese Breakfast
(Dead Oceans)

After the heaviness and sorrow found throughout Japanese Breakfast’s first two albums—as Michelle Zauner worked to process the death of her mother—Jubilee is all about hard-earned joy. From the opening moments of Paprika, with its regal horns and ascendent chorus, the record makes its mission statement clear. The result is their best album to date. Using her voice and her band’s talents to the best of their collective ability, Zauner brings her strong knack for melodies to virtually every song here. Be Sweet is the best 80s anthem to come out of the 21st century, with popping bass lines and scratchy funk guitar. Sit glides from fuzzed-out guitars to sparkling piano lines, like driving through a storm towards clear skies. Slide Tackle and In Hell get an extra push from lovely touches of brass. Savage Good Boy combines a shuffling percussion with echoing piano chords for a biting take on billionaires. Posing in Bondage sounds both earthly and alien, like it was pulled from the world of Blade Runner.

Closing with Posing for Cars, Zauner and the band take a victory lap—moving from what seems like a low-key acoustic wrap-up to a sunrise synth landscape, before she rips out a stunningly epic, lengthy guitar solo. It feels like the sound of letting go of her pain, an expressive cleanse that will leave you smiling. It’s thrilling to hear an artist at the height of their powers, and on Jubilee, that’s exactly where you can find Japanese Breakfast. - Joe Marvilli

1. Self Esteem
Prioritise Pleasure
(Universal Music)

For every woman who has ever made herself small to pacify men’s egos, who has emotionally labored a man into a better version of himself only to be left behind, who has ever been told she is “too much,” who has walked home with a set of keys between her knuckles or apologized just for existing, Rebecca Taylor has made more than a record—she has made a manifesto. Prioritise Pleasure exists in the gossamer veil that separates confidence and insecurity.

Unlike the slick pop fortresses of the known greats, standing tall for Taylor doesn’t mean putting up an indestructible front. The record is so real, so intimate, that at times it is physically painful to listen to. The songs tie one into the next, tracing the nonlinear path of heartbreak and recovery. A pounding tribal rhythm pulses defiantly on the more confident tracks (Fucking WizardryHow Can I Help You); a supportive female chorus props up Taylor’s less defended moments (I Do This All the Time, The 345). Even at her most pop-ready, she’s determined and caustic, crooning on Moody that “every night spent this way is destructive/Inevitable truth of accepting you is what the next task is” before launching into a playground chorus fit for aerobic choreography. But it’s the most painful moments where Taylor shines the brightest; the ironic tension between nervous desperation and the uncompromising self-worth that grows out of it. And if you’re not a woman or you haven’t experienced anything she’s singing about, well lucky you, because you get to listen, too. - Gabbie Nirenburg


So there you have it: our top albums of 2021. We'd love all of you to chime in and tell us what were your favorite albums of this year by reaching out to us via our official Twitter (@noripcord), Instagram, and Facebook accounts. We hope you enjoyed the list and our coverage of the year; wishing you all the best for the holidays and see you again in 2022.