808s / Best of 2021 / Yearly Best Of

Best of 2021: Top 25 Albums

25) Poster Girl – Zara Larrson

Kicking off my 2021 list is an album that feels like it was ever going to happen. Poster Girl could easily have been a victim to that cycle of pop acts releasing endless singles and a full length record ending up as a bit of a mess. Thankfully this is Zara’s most consistently great album yet. Right Here, Ruin My Life, Love Me Land, Look What You’ve Done, FFF, Need Someone, Poster Girl; all pop music at its most fun.

24) Churches – LP

Can LP stop releasing her albums in the last month of the year, her previous record Heart & Mouth was a last minute inclusion and in 2021 a December release appears in my Best of 2021 ahead of albums I’ve been rinsing since before Spring. Churches is a great album though and possibly Laura Pergolizzi’s best yet. LP has found a style, whistle worthy soft rock mixed with a Pop sensibility with instrumentation that surrounds the listener. The One That You Love, One Last Time and the Title Track are highlights for me.

23) trying not to think about it – JoJo

JoJo will tell you this is a ‘Capsule project’ whatever the hell that is, but this is as much an album as the excellent Good To Know was in 2020. Her voice more emotive than ever, her lyrics more direct and personal that on anything she’s done before. ‘Usually people complement my positivity, but my sanity ain’t always there for me, it’s like that when you’re your biggest enemy’ on standout Spiral SZN shows her growth as a writer and her own personal mental health struggles she talks so openly about on this album. This feels like an album JoJo had to make, not to appear on end of year lists; but to heal deep wounds. I’m just thankful she’s shared this brilliant music with us.

22) Chemtrails Over The Country Club – Lana Del Rey

Of the two Lana Del Rey releases in 2021, Chemtrails was definitely my favourite. It captures the sides of Lana I’ve loved since the start, the mysterious haunting quality to her voice and the troubled but honest stories she tells in each song. Opener White Dress is a clear highlight and probably the best Lana has ever sounded vocally, but I also love Dark But Just A Game and the closing Joni Mitchell cover For Free which feels like the closing of a chapter in her life and career.

21) Stand For Myself – Yola

Yola has done it again, fusing country, soul, RnB, Pop and Rock into one powerful album. At times a call to arms, other times a celebration of her own identity, Yola does exactly what she says she will in that album title. Break The Bough is a storming wall of sound era anthem, the way she lets her voice completely go as she’s riffing gives everything this raw emotion. Vocally stunning on Starlight and If I Had To It Again, Yola doesn’t have to rely on sticking to one genre on any song here, it just sounds like a classic.

20) MONTERO – Lil Nas X

Brutally honest, heartfelt and completely himself on every moment of this, Lil Nas X has proven all of us wrong. Even the people who liked Old Town Road could admit that his debut EP showed promise, but lacked any clear artistry. Clearly what was missing was Lil Nas X himself, as he’s the reason this works so well as a debut album, his life, his experiences and feelings heard on every song. DEAD RIGHT NOW is a tough listen, while closer AM I DREAMING is almost beautiful in it’s use of guitar. Lil Nas X is a superstar and this debut album showcases who he really is.

19) star crossed – Kacey Musgraves

I saw lots of people talk about how star-crossed wasn’t as immediately great as Golden Hour was, but for me even that album, one of my top 5 albums of the 2010s, was a slow burn. star-crossed has been the same and it’s taken a few months for the more melancholy energy to gel for me, but now I really enjoy this album as another side to Kacey. All 4 of her albums have sounded drastically different to each other, even her voice sounds different here, almost like she’s struggled to find it again after the madness of her previous era. When she does find it on If This Was A Movie, Justified or my favourite track What Doesn’t Kill Me it’s truly special.

18) The Marfa Tapes – Jack Ingham, Miranda Lambert & Jon Randall

Miranda Lambert hasn’t missed being on my end of year albums list since she first made it in 2014 with Platinum, so seeing her here isn’t a surprise. What is very different is this album’s place as a completely live, acoustic record recorded with just two microphones amidst the sound of a campfire. In His Arms, Waxahatchee and Anchor are outstanding ballads, but interestingly it’s the more uptempo moments like Homegrown Tomatoes, Geradine and Two-Step Down To Texas where you really hear the rawness of the performance. All three performers have such chemistry together on this album, a moment in time captured on record.

17) Heaux Tales – Jazmine Sullivan

The structure of Heaux Tales is why it works so well. Every song begins with an interlude with various women telling their own story before Jazmine uses this as the basis for a full song. It means every one of these songs has context you can instantly relate it to, making some of the moments that could seem selfish or materialistic make more sense in the context of a real story. Jazmine obviously sounds incredible on songs like The Other Side, Lost One and standout Pick Up Your Feelings. This isn’t an album to listen to with your family at New Year though, surely the filthiest thing on this list.

16) Pink Noise – Laura Mvula

If Laura Mvula says she’s going to do something she’s going to put absolutely everything into it. If she wants to reinvent her previous music with an orchestra you best believe it’ll be the most beautiful interpretation possible. If she wants to go back to the 80s, put some shoulder pads on, strap on the Keytar and get us dancing, then I have to oblige. Pink Noise manages to retain everything that made Laura’s previous music so musically intricate and detailed while capturing the feeling of 80s pop bangers. Remedy is a call to arms for Black Lives Matter, but a cursory listen sounds like a Prince track from Purple Rain. Conditional is storming hip-hop beats, while Church Girl is like Lucky Star but written by a black woman from Birmingham. Laura Mvula did exactly what she wanted to do with Pink Noise.

15) Who Am I? – Pale Waves

Of the recent ‘albums that sound like they should have been released in the early 00s’ a genre that includes music from Turnstile, beabadoobee and girlinred, Who Am I? By Pale Waves is my clear favourite. Start to finish this is the best music that Pale Waves have ever made, they had so much potential on their debut EP and album, but it feels like they’ve finally stopped trying to ‘find their sound’ and realized that there’s enough in their lyrics and performance to make a wider range of songs. Lead singer Heather sounds in command on Change, I Just Needed You and You Don’t Own Me while She’s My Religion becomes an instant classic here. Pale Waves have finally arrived.

14) Conflict Of Interest – Ghetts

One of the year’s first truly ‘great’ albums, I’ve found I’ve gone back to Conflict Of Interest a little less than some of the other Hip-Hop records that appear above it. That said this remains a true moment for one of Grime’s most important artists. The beats are consistently great, making it a worthwhile listen even as one of the longest albums on this list. Ghetts is the star on every song here, even when A-List stars start appearing by the halfway mark, his verses on Fire and Brimstone, Mozambique and Dead To Me are terrific, while the centerpiece of the record Autobiography walks through his career in breathtaking detail.

13) Magic Still Exists – Agnes

It has been 13 years since Agnes’ breakthrough hit Release Me, but even that was 3 years into her music career. So long into a pop career and releasing your greatest work yet? Agnes did that. Front to back this is the most engaging, catchy and heart pumping danceable pop music of the year. Part ABBA, part Euro House, part Kylie; in fact this is just 100% Agnes. Here Comes The Night, XX, Love and Appreciation, Fingers Crossed, 24 Hours and Self Made; this album never lets up. Even when it does for emotional closing ballad Magic Still Exists Agnes nails it.

12) An Evening With Silk Sonic – Silk Sonic

I’m going to be slated for loving this album so much. It features just about every criticism I had of Bruno Mars’ Grammy sweeping 24k Magic but I can’t explain it, with Silk Sonic it works perfectly. There’s a moment at the start of After Last Night where Bootsy Collins says ‘See normally I don’t stutter, but you d-d-d-d-do it to me’ before Anderson and Bruno say ‘SILK SONIC’ like every amazing 70s backing band. It’s equal parts iconic and hilarious and it defines what makes this album work. It’s not a patische, it’s music created with the same love and appreciation for the genre as the classic bands of the 70s did. Bruno and Anderson have never sounded as good as they do on Put On A Smile, while Leave The Door Open is so sickly smooth it’s ridiculous. A genuinely hilarious record, performed by musicians who absolutely adore this kind of music.

11) I Don’t Live Here Anymore – The War on Drugs

Maybe hitting 30 has unlocked the Dad Rock era of my life, but I Don’t Live Here Anymore has completely floored me over the last few weeks since hearing it for the first time. The scale of these songs is huge, I Don’t Wanna Wait and the title track are absolutely massive in scale. It’s a modern take on the likes of Bruce Sringsteen and Fleetwood Mac, it feels like a classic American Rock record, but also sounds so fresh too. The instrumentation on Harmonia’s Dream is so gorgeous, such a picturesque moment. This album surely has no place on a Sam Atkins end of year list, but maybe it’s the start of something new. Look out for Kasabian, Sting and Springsteen on my best of 2022 list.

10) SOUR – Olivia Rodrigo

‘I’m so insecure I think, that I’ll die before I drink’ the opening lyrics of the biggest teen pop record of 2021 is straight to the point. Of course SOUR is here. 2021 genuinely wouldn’t have sounded the same without Olivia Rodrigo, an overnight star of the kind I genuinely can’t remember witnessing. We went from surprise breakout ballad to full album of teen angst and genuinely amazing records in the space of a few months. It’s hard to fathom just how good this is as a debut album. 30 minutes and every song is a knockout. Good 4 u and drivers license are one thing, but the emotion and directness of traitor is incredible. ‘When she’s sleeping in the bed we made, don’t you dare forget about the way you betrayed me’ lyrically this album is outstanding even before you consider Olivia was 17 writing most of this. It sounds like teen album which as we say with a certain other teen star recently is definitely a good thing, no one has done teen angst this well in a decade.

9) Happier Than Ever – Billie Eilish

Speaking of that other recent breakout teen star, Happier Than Ever is absolutely not the follow up album I expected from Billie Eilish, but it’s all the better for it. This is confident, relatable and honest in a way that her debut wasn’t, it’s a completely different beast. It’s introspective and direct, songs like Growing Old and NDA addressing Billie’s unique circumstances and changes since she became the biggest new popstar in the world. The growth lyrically on Your Power is staggering, while I Didn’t Change My Number and Oxytoxin feel like a complete reinvention of her sound just minutes apart. It felt like lots of people had heard only Bad Guy, or the ‘dark’ songs from the debut record and didn’t know what to make of Happier Than Ever. For me it’s an evolution for Billie, there’s no way she could have sang the title track in the way she does here a few years ago. But it also feels like growth of her as a person, using her voice to say something as well as share her story.

8) 29: Written In Stone – Carly Pearce

The trademarked ‘Sam Atkins picks a country star you’ve never heard of in his top 10 albums list’ pick for 2021 is Carly Pearce, with one of the three ‘divorce albums’ on the list. I could have chosen the original 29 EP here, but I’ve gone with the extended full album release as it includes even more brilliant songs from an artist I had completely written off before this year. Tracks like Next Girl, Liability, Messy and Should’ve Known Better are written so delicately and every lyric is steeped with history and context. Never Wanted To Be That Girl with Ashley McBryde is gorgeously performed by both of them, while Your Drinkin’ My Problem lives up to that brilliant title. It’s the title track that floors me though, ‘From a Miss to a Mrs. then the other way around, the year I was gonna live it up, now I’m never gonna live it down’. It’s so frank and open about a very high profile showbiz marriage to a fellow country star in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever heard in the genre before. An outstanding record and the country album of the year.

7) We’re All Alone In This Together – Dave

I did not get the heaps of praise levelled on Dave’s debut studio album Psychodrama, Dave would perform these engaging and emotional performances and then the album itself left me a little cold. That didn’t happen with We’re All Alone In This Together, which has stayed with me ever since I first heard it. ‘But your asylum has got ou in a different war/Because the British wanna know what you’re living here for/We rely on migration more than ever before/They’re key workers but they couldn’t even get in the door’ the poignancy of Three Rivers is hard enough for me to hear, I can’t imagine how it must feel for the people subjected to the constant racism being aided by our current government. Dave is an expert of telling a story, where he brings in collaborators to help do the same, not go off and do their own thing. In The Fire’s incredible verses from Giggs and Ghetts are the best example of this, career bests for two Grime legends but working as part of the wider story Dave is telling. UK Hip-Hop continues to outclass American Hip-Hop on this incredible album.

6) Collapsed In Sunbeams – Arlo Parks

Collapsed In Sunbeams really stands out in my top 10 albums of 2021, it’s accessibility and smooth easiness could be seen as a negative to some, but for me Arlo Parks has gifted us with an album that’s chilled out by design. Lyrically she speaks in such a clear and honest way on tracks like Black Dog and Hurt that it allows for the music surrounding her to create this mood and atmosphere of breezy calmness. Porta 400 is a highlight for me, like walking along the beach on a balmy summer evening, while Just Go is funky and slinky. I found Collapsed In Sunbeams so easy to love, in a year with some pretty heavy records lyrically and emotionally, this felt like a welcome moment of easy enjoyment for me and it’s clearly one of my favourites.

5) 30 – Adele

There’s no point going into depth about the context of 30 ‘Divorce babes’, instead I have to focus on its place as Adele’s best work to date. For me she’s never pushed herself musically and lyrically like this, songs feel expansive and daring when she could easily have just thrown out a load more heart-break ballads. Instead the focus is on Adele herself, never moreso than on To Be Loved. Yes, it’s the vocal performance of her career, but lyrically she describes love and her own emotions like no one I have heard since George Michael. I can’t explain how emotional that song makes me, nothing in 2021 came close to how overwhelming I find it, so god knows how Adele is ever going to perform it. Outside of that, tracks like Oh My God, Can I Get It, Love Is A Game and Strangers By Nature feel so daring and exciting that they give back even more every time I listen. Her greatest album yet, it seems ridiculous to say, but Adele has never sounded better and never been more open in her music.

4) Screen Violence – CHVRCHES

Screen Violence isn’t a revolution, in fact CHVRCHES have never sounded more like CHVRCHES before, but that’s why this album resonated so much with me this year. Lauren, Ian and Martin sound like the band they were always meant to be on this record; so clearly the best album of their career. Violent Delights rushes into view at lightning pace, while Good Girls is pop perfection. Final Girl, Lullabies, Nightmares, every song is so deeply layered and musically exciting. They’ve captured the dark energy that has always made them one of pop’s most intriguing acts. Yes they can write big pop hooks, we heard that on the previous albums, but here there’s desperation and anguish in the music as well as lyrics. I liked How Not To Drown QUITE A BIT, and the rest of Screen Violence captures the same danger and resistance for it’s 40 minute runtime. CHVRCHES were always good, this year they were truly great.

3) In These Silent Days – Brandi Carlile

I bought the vinyl for In These Silent Days on release day after one cursory listen in a ‘well why not’ moment. At that point, I definitely didn’t expect it to become one of my albums of the year, but I can’t explain how much this album has lodged itself in my soul. It’s a classic album, these songs sound like standards that Brandi has collated from country, americana and rock history. There’s a sense of analog era music on tracks like Letter To The Past, Throwing Good After Bad and This Time Tomorrow, there’s a raw edge to everything and the way the music has been produced is incredible. Vocally Brandi continues to absolutely nail it on Sinners, Saints and Fools, Right on Time and Broken Horses stacked with drama and emotion; it’s here where she showcases her greatest talent as a songwriter. Musically diverse and reaching from throughout music history for influence In These Silent Days is a very special album from an artist I had always appreciated but now absolutely love.

2) Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – Little Simz

I wrote back in 2019 ‘Three albums in, she has delivered a career changing and career defining album’ when talking about Little Simz’s GREY AREA which sat at the top of my albums of the year list. I could quite easily rewrite that exact quote and change Three to Four, because my god she has done it again. Just 2 years after releasing such an ambitious, daring and outstanding album to do it again with even more ambition, even more scale and even more eyes watching her this time, it’s wild that Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is as good as this. The ambition is the greatest thing here, Simz has created a musical journey across these songs, orchestral arrangements more lush than anything this side of a Bond Theme, soulful vocals with more emotion than ever and bars more fiery than ever. We are well past the ‘when will Little Simz finally break through’ moment now and SIMBI manages to feel like the culmination of nearly a decade of mixtapes and albums, pulling together as a concept album that leaps between genres and styles effortlessly. Introvert, I Love You, I Hate You, Woman, Fear No Man, Standing Ovation and How Did You Get Here; Little Simz just makes albums this good it’s not a shock anymore she’s just that good.

1) Blue Weekend – Wolf Alice

The first time I’ve picked an actual ‘band’ as my album of the year (Florence and Bon Iver are basically solo acts aren’t they?) Wolf Alice’s Blue Weekend may seem like a surprise favourite based on the rest of the list. Put simply though, these 11 tracks are the best collection of songs I’ve heard in 2021. It’s genuinely as simple as that. Wolf Alice are not a band I was ever that interested in, but just minutes into Delicious Things I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. By the time How I Can I Make It OK? I was so enamoured I just didn’t understand how this was the same band who had won the Mercury prize with an album I’d already forgotten about. Since then I’ve fought every instinct to put this at #1, every new release ‘Is it better than Wolf Alice’ like I couldn’t accept the grip this album had on me. It’s all over the place, Play The Greatest Hits is wildly over the top, Feeling Myself is a dreamscape of synthy sounds, while Last Man On Earth feels like it needs Live and Let Die style flames when it all kicks off; but every second of this album feels necessary and worthy of being here. It’s a band just letting the songs speak for themselves, they don’t sound like they are worried about not being ‘cool’ or that they have to prove their ‘authenticity’ by being a seriousface band for ‘proper music fans’, they just created some properly brilliant music and clearly love every moment. Lipstick On The Glass is an utter thrill to hear, Smile is raucous and full of energy, while No Hard Feelings is delicate and pretty. No album in 2021 gave me the joy and awe that I feel whenever I hear Blue Weekend, an outstanding album from a band I wouldn’t have ever predicted would be near my end of year lists.

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