The 25 best albums of 2021

2021 was billed as the year of reparations. As Western countries began to get a seemingly firmer grip on virus control, many hoped for a return to a state of ‘normal’ – a position that, at the end of the year, now seems impossible to return to.

This year saw yet more international and cultural challenges: the storming of the Capitol, the Taliban take-over of Kabul, the murder of Sarah Everard, the marginalisation of Indian farmers and countless other injustices around our world proved that despite the shared enemy of the pandemic, our world remains a fractured, dangerous and siloed place for many minorities.

One of 2021’s silver linings has been the re-emergence of live performance and travel – musicians, artists, performers and other creatives have been afforded more room to share the work they’ve made over the last two years with others. Further, we have seen another 12 months of rich, wide-reaching music releases, oftentimes tinted with political commentary, protest and escapism.

In light of this, Noise Narrative have picked out our top 25 albums of 2021 – check them out below:

25. Foshe & Bentley – Parlour Cucina

Parlour Cucina is a collaboration between drummer Mike Bentley and trio Fosche during a 6-week residency at the Sydney bar/restaurant which gives the album its name-sake. Originating from sunny down under, Parlour Cucina offers seven tracks incorporating sophisticated lounge jazz, psychedelia and house to set you in a toe tapping trance.

24. Mt. Mountain – Centre

No nonsense hazy stoner psychedelia. This is not a ground breaking, genre-defying album as with many others on the list. This is an album that knows what it does, and does it very, very well. The band’s vocalist Stephen Bailey has explained that lyrically the release is about the exploration of faith and experience of religion. On listening, this message is evident. However, you will not be castigated if at first this nuance is missed, for what is most striking is the compelling delivery of the doctrine of wig-out, head-banging psych-rock. With Centre, Mt. Mountain provide a new gospel, following the tradition of which the likes of Can and Kikagaku Moyo are notable prophets.

23. Gazelle Twin & NYX – Deep England

Voice as instrument is an age-old musical inclination that has long surpassed dialect and language. Gazelle Twin is the alter ego of Elizabeth Bernholz, whose discography spans across explorative, unusual and down right terrifying techno. Deep England is a reinterpretation of her 2018 album Pastoral, and she recruits all-female drone choir NYX to bring it to fruition. The result is an eery, full-bodied and sometimes ritualistic album that pushes the limits of what the human voice can achieve. Deep England (and Pastoral) are explorations into the darker side of rural England, and its often misconstrued ‘idyllic’ nature. This rework most certainly captures that sentiment, and as haunting as it may sound, continually warrants another listen.

22. Don’t Problem – LIMINALITY

South-London 8-piece jazz collective Don’t Problem’s LIMINALITY is a hard-hitting, triumphant work that joins the flowing river of England’s world-leading young jazz scene. Laced with funk, psychedelia and club music, this record is as joyful as it is powerful. The sound is full and unwavering throughout, which explains the recent attention given to the band from the likes of Mary Anne Hobbs and Jamz Supernova. The north star of LIMINALITY is its sound of unity — the drums, sax and wider brass ensemble gel together fittingly to provide a fresh and bold jazz album that will undoubtedly invoke dancing upon anyone lucky enough to stumble across it.  

21. Sons of Kemet – Black To The Future

Sons of Kemet returned this year with another dense offering. Group leader & saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings takes Black To The Future down a more structured road than previous releases, forgoing the band’s previously free-winding improvisational leans for a tighter, more lyric-heavy LP. The result is a record inherently invoking bodily dance, whilst ushering shrewd commentary on collective oppression. The majority of the record was written around and in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and Hutchings’ message of Diasporic unity shines through clearly across it. Featuring vocalists including Kojey Radical, D Double E and Joshua Idehen, Black To The Future rounds up a plethora of black cultures and genres into a release that successfully moves bodies and minds in equal measure. 

20. Jarvis Cocker – Chansons d’Ennui Tip Top

Having swapped Yorkshire for Paris many moons ago, perhaps the only real surprise about Chansons d’Ennui Tip Top is that it has taken quite so long to arrive. A collection of twelve covers that pay tribute to the pop music of the country Jarvis Cocker has long called home, this record is a companion to the soundtrack of Wes Anderson’s newest film The French Dispatch. The vocal performance is vintage Jarvis, in that half-spoken, slurred style that has been his trademark since Pulp. You do wonder how many Sheffield natives would be able to pull this off, but it seems as though everything he touches, whether covering Brigitte Bardot or cleaning up on Celebrity Catchphrase, oozes cool.

19. Black Country, New Road – For The First Time

Brixton Windmill graduates Black Country, New Road’s debut is rife with musicianship and ingenuity; as lyrics oscillate between low and high society commentaries, the London band’s unique take on post-punk has plenty to unpack. As a group of early 20-somethings, the silliness imbued in this album could be interpreted as cringey, but the distinct insouciance delivered primarily by frontman Isaac Wood fits snugly with the nifty musical decisions the band make. Scaffolded by Jewish klezmer influences, For The First Time is a whirlwind that takes a few stabs to break into. Regardless, Black Country, New Road are positioned at the forefront of a fruitful new domestic movement that undoubtedly has twists and turns still to come. 

18. Female Species – Tale of My Lost Love

Earlier in the year, Numero Group presented Tale Of My Lost Love, a compilation of songs by Female Species, who were a group formed by the Gossett sisters (Vicky & Ronni) in the 60s. After a series of mishaps, they never released an album until this year. Listening to the album chronologically you can hear how their sound transformed over the years, playing a breadth of styles from garage rock, to folk to country-pop. What really stands out throughout the album are their ethereal harmonies, catchy hooks and sense of musicality.

17. Vanishing Twin – Ookii Gekkou

Such is the influence of Stereolab over esoteric pop music in this country, occasionally when a group comes along that also projects a retro futurist aesthetic (with a female lead singer to boot), they can be labelled mere pastiche. Vanishing Twin’s previous effort The Age of Immunology was a splendid record and finished strongly on more than a few of 2019’s roundups, but invariably saw them looped in with “For fans of: Stereolab, Broadcast, etc etc”. Hopefully Ookii Gekkou is the moment that sees them emerge from the shadow of those groups and establish their own unique voice. One of our editors, Oli, was fortunate to see them live on the Margate leg of their recent UK tour and they did not disappoint. A band well worth watching if they return to these shores once their North America trip concludes next year.

16. Henryk Debich – Zblizenie

As far as Bandcamp bios go, “founder, leader and conductor of the funkiest orchestra in Eastern Europe” would surely give any of the artists on this list a run for their money but Henryk Debich hardly lived what you could call a normal existence. Imprisoned in Dachau during WWII, it was after the conflict that he truly began to make his mark in music. All props have to go to Astigmatic Records for putting this sensational album together, which compiles the best of his and the Polish Radio and Television Orchestra’s output from 1974-1977. These tracks have the soaring qualities you usually associate with Axelrod, but if anything with drum breaks that feel even more vital and live. Essential listening for library fans.

15. Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales

Millennial RnB music has often been a vehicle for the expression of desire and appetite in the realms of sex and love, and Jasmine Sullivan’s fourth LP continues in this vain in emphatic fashion. Heaux Tales is a short manifesto of female sexual empowerment and discovery, and its richness is made even more remarkable given the record’s short 32-minute length. However, Sullivan’s latest is also a book of love and heartbreak, and she delivers her messages with infectious zeal. There is raw emotion, crudeness, desperation and confidence seasoned all over Heaux Tales, rendering it one of the standout RnB releases of 2021.

14. Marco Shuttle – Cobalt Desert Oasis

Some of the most memorable deep techno records of recent decades have taken listeners on some kind of journey away from their status quo; be it Fernando Falcao’s Memoria Das Aguas or Traumprinz’ rangy discography, what seems to have a lasting effect in this genre is an approach to sound design that paints the picture of another world. Marco Shuttle’s latest, Cobalt Desert Oasis, continues this thread — by channelling Cuban and Haitian rhythms, Iranian dress and Mesoamerican rituals, Shuttle crafts an electronic utopia in a meticulously minimal way. Cobalt Desert Oasis is a blurring of organic-synthetic boundaries, and it’s a package that would fit aptly in the turntable during a voyage to another land.

13. Hamza Abo$$ – I’m Not Perfect

The case of Hamza Abo$$ is a curious one. The Seattle rapper is, by all accounts, an unknown. His monthly average of 780 listeners on Spotify this year make it all the more intriguing that his debut LP, I’m Not Perfect, features Mick Jenkins, Lord Apex and Fly Anakin. The release is a nostalgic nod to the bouncy and jovial early Mac Miller and Odd Future days – clean, melodic production lies underneath playful yet neat lyricism that touches on faith, mental health and youthful struggles. Albums like this are a rarity — being able to hold dear a gold mine of multi-layered music that nobody knows about is a thrill. It can’t be too long, though, before the wider rap world cotton on to this.

12. Joy Orbison – Still Slipping Vol. 1

Still Slipping Vol. 1 is less of a full-length debut album and more of a testimonial lap of honour that pays homage to the influences old and new that shaped Joy Orbisons’s productions and sets. Each of the fourteen tracks refuses to be labelled as a discrete genre, whilst making evident its inspirations. Meditative soundscapes, industrial IDM, skippy tech and drill sit beside each other with a coherence made possible by the sense of melancholy that runs through the album. It’s deeply personal too, with voice notes from loved ones interspersed throughout the album that inject sincerity and humour that connect the listener to the personality behind the persona. Understated, emotive and honest, this is the sound of an album born of the dance-floor but living in a bedroom. Looking back and turning inwards, Still Slipping Vol. 1 catches a modern giant in a state of personal and creative introspection.

11. Yu Su – Yellow River Blue

It seems like an eternity ago that Yellow River Blue dropped onto our desks at Noise Narrative. The UK was in the middle of another desperate lockdown and the weather was freezing (who remembers spending Saturdays in your local park with a few tinnies?) Simply put, things were an absolute mess. It’s no exaggeration to say that Yu Su’s sophomore record, arriving at the end of January, served up a slice of left-field electronic bliss that did a fair amount to thaw the general feeling of apathy. It sounds as good now as it did then – one of the first genuinely brilliant records released this year.

10. Ishmael Ensemble – Visions of Light

Bristol contemporary jazz band Ishmael Ensemble’s second album is a triumphant, cross-genre symphony that gets deeper with each listen. Fronted by Peter Cunningham, the group’s direction with this release turns from live sonics to a more studio-contained, production-heavy body of work. The result is a dextrous, rich album ranging from jazz to IDM to experimental, all whilst retaining a level of consistency and fluency. Visions of Light has everything — moods fly from high to low to everything more and the instrumentalists sound cleaner and more fuelled than ever. Ishmael Ensemble’s 2021 album is an opus of considerable depth.

9. Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victim

The Tuaregs are an ethnic group largely based in and around the Sahara Desert. Their culture is rich with tradition, music and generosity. Having spent a few weeks living with them in 2018, our founder Will has fond memories of their welcoming nature. Mdou Moctar and his band hail from this same lineage, and their raw psychedelic rock music has been explosive and uncontainable for years. Their latest, Afrique Victim, captures this sentiment beautifully, transporting the listener to the very room where the songs were recorded. What makes this release even fuller is Moctar’s rallying cry for change in his homeland of Niger, in which he cites the atrocities currently at play: ““If we stay silent, it will be the end of us.” Afrique Victim is a gift of cultural insight, delivered with a purity that we seldom get to hear.

8. Sean La’Brooy – Out Moving Windows

Yet another masterpiece from one of our favourite labels, Analogue Attic. A Recollection Of Everything Beautiful, the label’s 2020 release from Thomas Gray & Liam Ebbs, featured on our list last year. This year, co-founder Sean La’Brooy fills what is looking like the obligatory Analogue Attic spot. It is hard to avoid cliché when discussing their work, however each release is immediately recognisable and refreshing, but does not tire on listening. The label’s ethos is distinctive: ambient soundscapes and field recordings sit above classical instrumentation driven by a rhythm section that has wandered off the dance-floor and found itself lost in time and space. Out Moving Windows may be the most complete example of this to date.

7. Eris Drew – Quivering In Time

Chicago nightlife veteran Eris Drew’s Quivering In Time is an album to be treasured. Presenting more as a continuous, compelling DJ set, this collection of songs is a joyous gift, rife with powerful dance-floor cuts that prove her unequivocal understanding of house music. The New Hampshire producer has been a mainstay across the festival and nightclub rosters around the world for a while now, and with Quivering In Time, Eris Drew leaves her personal stamp in the annals of dance music history.

6. Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises

If you mix a legendary jazz saxophonist, the world’s most recorded orchestra and one of the UK’s most treasured singular musicians, what do you get? The simple answer: a modern masterpiece. It isn’t very often an album lives up to the hype after being five years in the making, but Promises more than manages it. Kieran Hebden called it back in February. The best album to come out this year? Very possibly.

5. Mach Hommy – Pray For Haiti

Underground torch-bearer Mach Hommy released two outstanding records in 2021, testament to his work-ethic and unwavering talent. Pray For Haiti, the first of these two releases, is a comprehensive, complicated exploration into Hommy’s native Haiti, curated by Griselda companion Westside Gunn, whose features across the album add the perfect dose of playful grit. The production on Pray For Haiti is unmistakably Griselda-laced; grainy, often drum-less, arbitrary and brave. Mach Hommy’s lyricism here is his best yet, deep-diving into personal struggles and societal worries that hit us harder than previous braggadocious releases.  

4. Space Afrika – Honest Labour

For anyone who read Noise Narrative’s review of Cosmic Roots 2021, it will come as little surprise to see Honest Labour near the top of this list. Loraine James probably said it best back in November: “Space Afrika are the now and the future”. This is a stunning album, sonically reminiscent of the murky, urban soundscapes invoked by the likes of Burial, Actress or Tricky. Despite the critical acclaim of their previous LPs, 2021 has been something of a breakout year for Mancunians Joshua Inyang and Joshua Reid, at least in terms of mainstream recognition. Live slots at WHP and two nominations for DJ Mag’s Best Of British Awards 2021 represent a leap forward for a pair whose music has been seen as more suited to introspective experiences rather than huge club or festival stages. Their next move will be fascinating.

3. Wiki – Half God

New York rapper Wiki’s angst and passion is felt fully on Half God, a complex yet complete album that offers up verdicts on life growing up in the city. Produced entirely by Earl Sweatshirt affiliate Navy Blue, the release veers away from Wiki’s past penchant for flashy, flexing lyricism and more towards a woozy, storytelling route that feels more at home on top of the jazzy, misty beats beneath. What makes this record so incredible is its ability to visualise a life within a city for a foreign listener. We’re afforded insight into the twists and turns of community life in Brooklyn through Wiki’s masterful words, and the soundscapes that complement it are the vital finishing touches that paint the picture. One of the best hip-hop records of 2021.

2. The Zenmenn – Enter The Zenmenn

Music From Memory is a label that doesn’t seem to miss. When the Dutch label introduced us to The Zenmenn earlier this year, we were blown away by the depth, diversity and uniqueness of their debut album. Every so often, there are records that remind you why you like music. These sort of checkpoints are few and far between, but when they arrive, you can’t miss them. Enter The Zenmenn sits comfortably in this category – a sonically rich album with a panel of sounds that traverses cultures. Each cut has its place on the release, and it’s difficult to put your finger on why. The sound is warm, pensive and full, and guides the listener on an aural path seldom travelled. For more, read our interview with The Zenmenn here.

1. Nala Sinephro – Space 1.8

If there was a more accomplished debut than Nala Sinephro’s Space 1.8 to arrive in 2021, we certainly haven’t heard it. This is a deeply personal album from the Caribbean-Belgian 22-year-old; spiritual in a way that bears comparison with the great Alice Coltrane, yet offering a sumptuous blend of electronics that feels simultaneously modern and fresh. A recent performance at Hackney’s EartH cemented her position as a crucial voice in ambient jazz circles. Quite simply an artist already in complete command of her music and the cosmos that surrounds it. Our richly deserved record of the year.

Contributions from Will McCartney, Oliver Ainley, Will Mackereth & Tia Cousins.

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