Another tough year for most and for many certainly not one where taking the time to discover new music has been high on the agenda … for me, and for various reasons, the first half of the year in particular lent itself to having time for reflective listening and discovery.
My last.fm tells me that 2021 has been the 2nd or 3rd highest volume listening year since I started using it in back in 2008 and it looks like over 90% (ish) of that has been to albums released in 2021 so plenty of new stuff out there.
I could have listed a top 50 (or more) this year but that would mean more writing of stuff that no-one reads … check out the honourable mentions at the bottom though, there’s loads!
For those that haven’t heard some of the albums here, I’ve tried to link to Spotify (other streaming services are available) to make discovery easier. If you do like what you hear, please consider going to the Bandcamp link (or a record shop), where available, and buying the material in some form. Its tough enough for artists trying to make money from music in the current climate and Bandcamp allows them to make a way bigger cut from sales than any streaming service ever could … I want to be able to do these lists for years to come but we need a viable industry to be able to do that.
So, the list …
25: The Joy Formidable - “Into the Blue”In a world where Wolf Alice (and I like Wolf Alice) get all the plaudits and the big prize nominations, its criminal that The Joy Formidable are not huge.
Great song writing, production and crunching guitars … a sadly rare combination these days.
24: Abul Mogard - “In Immobile Air”While I’ve grown to appreciate ambient electronica more and more over the years, Covid lockdowns and working from home headphone sound tracking has taken my appreciation to a whole new level.
Serbian composter Mogard’s output over the years as been a staple of this genre for me with his 2015 release ‘Circular Forms’ being a key reference point.
“In Immobile Air” is perfectly titled as that’s where you feel you are for the entirety of its 40 minutes … Go there, it’s nice there!
23: Lea Porcelain - “Choirs to Heaven”The German duo’s follow up to 2017 darkwave influenced ‘Hymns to the Night’ is a more sprawling but consistent output that sounds like something that would have been chart threatening in the late 80’s.
Think Bunnymen / Furs crossover meets Depeche Mode with Cure tendencies … there’s more, but that’s surely not a bad start to tempt you in!
22: Hammock - “Elsewhere”I’m pretty sure the 15 years or so of Hammock’s output would tick most of my post-rock / ambient boxes but 2021’s “Elsewhere” is the first of their albums that I’ve taken the time to invest in and let breathe.
Like a really light touch Explosions in the Sky, this washes over you when given the opportunity in a way that can feed reflection and motivation in equal measure.
21: Damon Albarn - “The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows”A mixture of brilliantly written tracks that merge styles and influences from Damon’s previous incarnations with vocal styles that hint at Bowie and Billy Mackenzie, mixed with some experimentation that threatens to derail the vibe but never quite does.
20: Clark - “Playground in a Lake”The term ‘challenging but rewarding’ could be assigned to many of the albums in this year’s list but needs to be reserved for this largely experimental piece of work by, normally, electronic composer Christopher Stephen Clark.
With climate change as a background to this ambitious multi genre project, it’s a largely dark place that needs time to unveil the optimism that’s buried deep in the various styles that include neo-classical, opera, ambient and traditional electronica.
19: Iceage - “Seek Shelter”When the debut “New Brigade” dropped in 2011, not many would have bet that the then teenage Danish punks would deliver this polished effort that merges 70’s rock, a dab of gospel and smatterings of ‘Second Coming’ era Stone Roses.
Not the first entry here where the delta between debut and latest output is vast but positive.
18: Marconi Union - “Signals”A heavy element of ambient electronica in this year’s list and it was Marconi Union’s heavy ambience of 2012 release “Weightless”, that I used extensively to help my son get to sleep during the first Covid lockdown, that encouraged me to spend time with this release.
Significantly different, way more upbeat and layered, this has encouraged me to delve deeper into a varied and extensive back catalogue … well worth the effort.
17: Manic Street Preachers - “The Ultra Vivid Lament”A new Manics release is always looked forward to with some fear that it may just be the one that shows that they should have quit after the last one … they never quite get to that point and often surprise with some innovation that wasn’t expected.
“The Ultra Vivid Lament” falls into the latter category here, the same dark & politicised lyrical content remains but with an upbeat musical feel that can be unnerving at first with its Abbaesque piano led structure.
Go with it though, happy sounding Manics are exactly what the world needs right now!
16: Dinosaur Jr - “Sweep into Space”J Mascis, Lou Barlow & Murph aka Dinosaur Jr have been consistently banging out guitar driven alternative / indie rock classics, off and on, since the mid-1980s and never, ever, disappoint.
There has been little room for messing with the original formula over the years that consists largely of J’s husky voice over blistering guitars and screechy solos with a couple of Lou’s relatively sedate ballady efforts thrown in … this lack of variety is never an issue given that the output is normally of high quality.
“Sweep into Space” maintains the quality level of the back catalogue and can be argued to be one of their best which, across a dozen or so albums is not a bad place to be.
15: MONO - “Pilgrimage of the Soul”20 years after debut ‘Under the Pipal Tree', Japanese instrumental rockers MONO deliver another formulaic post-rock quite-LOUD-quiet set that sticks closer to the structure of recent offerings rather than their softer and more complex releases that many fans appear to consider their best.
While sticking to their core ethos, there are some left field tracks (by their standards) here, some that work and others that don’t.
For me, second track ‘Imperfect Things’, while simple, demonstrates that there is variety left in this band … certainly if you make it to three minutes and nineteen seconds in!
14: Floating Points - “Promises”Technically not just electronica composer Sam Shepherd aka Floating Points, but a collaboration with 80-year-old jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra that produces 45 mins or so of exactly the output you would expect from these distinct elements.
A seamless set of 9 movements that demand to be listened to as one.
If you struggle on first listen, commit to at least getting past the perfect 9 minutes of ‘Movement 6’ that could arguably stand on its own but makes so much more sense in context with the remainder of the album.
13: Daniel Avery - “Together in Static”A quick follow up to 2021’s schizophrenic ‘Love + Light’ that feels way more cohesive and a little retro but possibly slightly less impactful as a result.
The usual mix of ambience and dance floor electronica snakes in and out here and there’s an added element of Boards of Canada influenced composition dotted around that can never be a bad thing.
12: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis - “Carnage”For reason’s obvious to those that follow his story, Nick Cave’s output in recent years has been largely downbeat and reflective but probably the highest quality and most consistent of his extensive career.
“Carnage” seemed to drop from nowhere earlier this year and notably not under the Bad Seeds moniker but as a combined effort with fellow (recent) bad seed Warren Ellis.
While maintaining much of the downbeat simplicity of recent albums, particularly 2019’s ‘Ghosteen’, ‘Carnage’ includes dark unsettling moments that were commonplace pre 2013’s ‘Push the Sky Away’.
I was lucky enough to see Cave & Ellis deliver much of this live in their 2021 tour between Covid ending and Covid hitting again! Witnessing these songs being delivered in person adds to the impact in a way that can only be explained if you were there too!
11: Gary Numan - “Intruder”On what feels like the conclusion of a trilogy that started in 2013 with “Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind) and followed up in 2017 with “Savage (Songs from a Broken World)”, “Intruder” continues the bleak, post-apocalyptic theme with a collection of tracks written from the perspective of planet Earth to humanity to highlight the damage they have done, and continue to do.
10: Manchester Orchestra - “The Million Masks of God”In what feels like part II of Manchester Orchestra’s reinvention that started with 2017’s “A Black Mile to the Surface”, “The Million Masks of God” is not a collection of tracks that make much sense in isolation but a work that has to be appreciated in one sitting given its narrative.
None of the hard-hitting bangers of the first few albums here but as good an album as they have produced in totality.
Hope to get the chance to see this delivered live someday.
9: Sébastien Guérive - “Omega Point”An out of nowhere entry and I can’t remember where my first exposure to this came from.
Having a very similar vibe in places to my #2 album of last year, Ben Chatwin’s “The Hum”, French composer Guérive’s debut electronica release is inspired by sci-fi soundtracks and includes elements of pseudo ambience as well as more upbeat anthemic output.
My entry point to this album was pre-release tracks ‘Omega II’ and ‘Bellatrix’ both of which can stand alone but in the context of the entire album make even more sense.
The perfect headphone accompaniment to those tough working from home and need to get something delivered days.
8: Jonsi - “Obsidian”This dropped out of nowhere and I remember seeing a Facebook post about it when I happened to be chilling in a bath and already listening to something with a similar vibe so first listen landed well.
The next day, this accompanied my Sunday morning dog walk that allowed it to be focussed on and appreciated … I’ve been hooked since.
Created to accompany an NYC gallery art installation of the same name, Icelandic Sigur Ros co-founder Jonsi has created a piece of work that combines the sonic styles of his previous solo work, Sigur Ros and a large dose of ambient electronica.
Probably needs the right listening conditions to fully appreciate (I recommend a bath and a dog walk) however accompaniment to year end headphone reflection highly recommended.
7: Godspeed You! Black Emperor - “G_d's Pee AT STATE'S END!”The experience of listening to a GY!BE album is mostly always the same, regardless of how many times you hear it … Press play / drop needle in full knowledge that a challenging and disjointed hour or so is coming up but come out the other end desperate to do it all again or dig out earlier albums and repeat.
It takes a while to ‘get’ GY!BE .. it really is hard work, and this one is no different as various tracks appear to wander aimlessly for ages before coming to life or leading to the next one that starts to add colour to the overall scene.
I always listen to GY!BE imagining that the entire ensemble are in front of me playing the album live … it seems to make sense.
If you’ve never heard GY!BE, you really want to start with this one, and you can’t commit to 53 minutes … use the 11 and a half minutes of snappily titled ""GOVERNMENT CAME" (9980.0kHz 3617.1kHz 4521.0 kHz)" as a sampler, the enlightened will then delve deeper, no doubt!
6: Dusted - “III”The third (clues in the title!) album from project largely, if not exclusively, consisting of Brian Borcherdt more commonly associated with Canadian electronic noise masters Holy F**k.
All three of Dusted’s albums could not be further away from the HF sound in that they are subtle, stripped back and focussed on subtle delivery of great personal stories.
2012’s debut ‘Total Dust’ was one of my favourites of that year but ‘discovered’ too late to make that year’s list if I remember correctly … I still class it as an almost perfect album.
2018’s follow-up “Blackout Summer”, while good, didn’t come close to the completeness of the debut for me.
First few listens to “III” suggest a similar lack of cohesiveness but repeat listens tease out the subtleties of instrumentation, production and song writing that make this a close run thing with the debut … that’s high praise and its deserved … a magical listen if you have the time to invest.
5: Storefront Church - “As We Pass”Spotify gets some stick sometimes but the role it plays in new music discovery these days cannot be underestimated.
A case in point is Lukas Frank’s Storefront Church who I would never have come across had Spotify’s algorithms not put opening track “After the Alphabets” in my weekly ‘Release Radar’ playlist and make me look forward to the album release for what seemed like months.
While there are many influences and styles showcased across this hugely consistent album, you can’t escape the Radiohead meets Chris Isaak sound that, combined with creative song writing and energy, leads to what would be the perfect soundtrack to staring out the window of a car / plane / train were anyone actually going anywhere these days!
4: Arab Strap - “As Days Get Dark”Sixteen years after previous release “The Last Romance” (2005), Falkirk’s finest deliver one of their most consistent albums in a genuine triumphant return.
Some of the edginess of the early output may be gone but the Scots brogue delivered storytelling poetry of Aidan Moffat and complex musicianship of Malcolm Middleton maintains the levels of old and their respective solo careers.
Lyrically, “As Days Get Dark” maintains a theme of recognising ageing from the perspective of various characters that will strike a chord with much of the original fanbase that will now be largely ensconced in middle age … aye, including me!
Over the years, and in his various guises, listening to Aidan feels like he’s sitting beside you telling stories and, as challenging as they often are, its always a comforting listen in a strange way … having these stories set to Malcom’s musicianship just completes things.
3: We Were Promised Jetpacks - “Enjoy the View”You can never accuse WWPJ of being formulaic or one dimensional. While there is a consistent and recognisable sound to them (it’s probably Adam’s vocals to be honest), their back catalogue since 2009’s debut ‘These Four Walls’ has demonstrated a wide range of styles painted in various shades of darkness.
“Enjoy the View” is all over the place … in a constructive way. It has elements of various musical styles that loosely connect but feels like experimental new beginnings.
The first album after losing a founder member will do strange things to the creative process I’m sure and this, probably accompanied with the various states of mental uncertainty the entire world has felt over the past two years, has led to not a new sound, but several new sounds all meshed together.
There does appear to be a consistency in the lyrical theming to a certain extent along the lines of there being a lot of bad stuff behind them and an optimism of what’s to come … that’s what I took from immersing myself in this over the last few months and I’m on board.
I was due to see them live a few weeks ago in Aberdeen but was going to have to miss it due to a funeral but they had to cancel last minute due to a covid scare and means rescheduling for a date I’ll hopefully be able to make … see, bad stuff gone, optimism to follow … it all comes together!
2: Mogwai - “As the Love Continues”Another year, another list, another Mogwai album … cannae be angry!
Something’s changed with this Mogwai album though … it’s taken a while (studio album #10) but mainstream recognition seems have happened eventually, culminating in a Mercury Music Prize nomination and Scottish Album of the Year award.
The album itself has a great blend of the various guises of Mogwai including the staple quiet-LOUD-quiet of ‘Pat Stains’ & ‘It’s What I Do Mum’ to the soundtrackesque ‘Dry Fantasy’. We also get the closest thing Mogwai have done to a banging indie pop tune in ‘Ritchie Sacramento’ that includes a vocal effort from Stuart that goes way beyond a token effort, nails it!
For the uninitiated, it has always been difficult to recommend a Mogwai album to start with but “As the Love Continues” makes this easy … start here, it has it all.
Just don’t be expecting too many Stuart vocal led pop bangers as you continue through the back catalogue!
1: Deafheaven - “Infinite Granite”I was first exposed to Deafheaven around 2018 when previous album ‘Ordinary Corrupt Human Love’ was recommended to me as a good post-rock / black metal crossover … I tried, I really did, but could not get on with frontman George Clarke’s screamcore vocal style so gave up.
During 2021, a few Deafheaven tracks including “The Gnashing” and “Great Mass of Color” dropped on my Spotify ‘Release Radar’ weekly playlist that stood out with their big guitar sound and shoegazy (but clean) vocals that made me go back and revisit the previous album.
I still struggled with the vocals but really got hooked by the musical style so looked forward to hearing what ‘Infinite Granite’ would deliver when it was released.
On first listen, and to those with no previous exposure to Deafheaven, ‘Infinite Granite’ likely comes across as a nice, polished effort that appears to have missed one of the many shoegaze revivals in recent years. Repeated listens reveal a beautifully layered collection of tracks that stand up to many, many listens and grow over time … I was worried this wouldn’t be the case as most of the tracks hit home on first listen and that can often lead to a short attention span.
What makes ‘Infinite Granite’ a masterpiece in my view though is the subtle teasing of George’s previous vocal style across a couple of the earlier tracks, that may be missed by those with no previous exposure, and the climax that is final track “Mombasa” …
The 8 minutes or so of ‘Mombasa’ builds from nothing to a point around half way where it suggests a relatively weak, but very polished, conclusion to an otherwise powerful album … then at 5:25, the track explodes with both crescendo guitars but more importantly the re-emergence of George’s metal scream core vocals … it not only works as a perfect conclusion to a stunning record, it also provides a retrospective gateway to the back catalogue that cannot be ignored.
A great album in isolation, a brave masterpiece in the great scheme of things.
The Notable Mentions
This isn’t just all the other albums I’ve heard this year (there are many more), these are the ones that could, with a change of wind direction, easily have been on my list above and deserve being checked out if you have the time.
So, in alphabetical order …
A Winged Victory for the Sullen - ‘Invisible Cities’
Alessandro Cortini - ‘Scuro Chiaro’
Blanck Mass - ‘In Ferneaux’
CHVRCHES - ‘Screen Violence’
Common Sage - ‘It Lives and it Breathes’
Constant Smiles - ‘Pargons’
Desparate Journalist - ‘Maximum Sorrow’
Eliza Shaddad - ‘The Woman You Want’
Genghis Tron - ‘Dream Weapon’
HTRK - ‘Rhinestones’
Idles - ‘Crawler’
Iron Maiden - ‘Senjutsu’
James - ‘All The Colours of You’
Jason van Wyk - ‘Threads’
Lomond Campbell - ‘LUP’
Loscil - ‘Clara’
Modest Mouse - ‘The Golden Casket’
Moin - ‘Moot!’
Quicksand - ‘Distant Populations’
Rose Rieble - ‘Do Not Move Stones’
Saint Etienne - ‘I've Been Trying to Tell You’
Sebastian Plano - ‘Save Me Not’
Slovenly Hooks - ‘Slovenly Hooks’
Stephan Bodzin - ‘Boavista’
The Notwist - ‘Vertigo Days’
Turnstile - ‘Glow On’
Wolf Alice - ‘Blue Weekend’