The 50 Best Albums of 2021

    You don’t need us to tell you that 2021 was another strange year. But look to the music that defined the year and you’ll get a better sense of precisely what kind of strange: Whether smashing together different styles to create the most intensely maximalist experience (The Armed), pushing the boundaries of sound design as a means of deconstructing and restructuring reliable formulas (Low), or simply tuning into the state of the surrounding environment (The Weather Station), many of the best albums of the past twelve months thrived on some thrilling combination of beauty and chaos. It was the year dozens of bands were tagged under “post-punk revival”, but the ones that ended up standing out sound radically different from one another, creating something unique out of the familiar. Against a backdrop of persistent isolation and grief, artists found genuine ways of communicating and reaching towards hope, growth, and acceptance. Even indie, a genre notorious for its moodiness more than any distinct sonic signifiers, learned to embrace joy in the midst of hardship. Strange, but comforting nonetheless. Here are the 50 best albums of 2021.

    50. claire rousay, a softer focus

    claire rousay’s a softer focus begins with an assortment of non-tonal sounds and ends with a short instrumental track of simple beauty. In between those moments, the San Antonio-based sound artist zones in and out of the album’s fizzling atmosphere, which gently offers a peek into the dreamlike realm of creating. rousay has aptly described her music as “emo ambient”, but its hushed vulnerability never feels overbearing. On what might be her breakthrough release, she arranges a lush, serene backdrop and infuses it with carefully selected field recordings that situate the listener in everyday environments – a visit to the farmer’s market, clinking ice in glass – to subtly evoke the subject’s relationship with their surroundings as well as their own insular world. Even when it functions as a more overt inquiry into self-expression and loss, the voice is edited or obscured in a way that reflects the lonely, meditative process of mulling over the same thoughts. But particularly when they welcome string contributions from Lia Kohl, Macie Stewart, and Alex Cunningham, there is a warmth emanating from the compositions, like a hand guiding you through the blur of memory and rendering bits and pieces with striking clarity. –Konstantinos Pappis

    Read our interview with claire rousay.

    49. Arlo ParksCollapsed in Sunbeams

    One of the strongest singer-songwriters to emerge from the UK in many years, Arlo Parks artist has crafted a debut album that belies her youth with its mature narratives and sincere viewpoints. The London artist has a writerly understanding of observation and characterisation; it’s feasible to see her trying her hand at fiction in the future. The poetic songs that make up Collapsed in Sunbeams are soothing and introspective, contemplative and heartbreaking. Parks’ music was the emotional comfort blanket that many of us craved in this difficult year. –Conor Lochrie

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    48. BABiiMiiRROR

    As an artist, BABii showcases an incredible knack for world-building, an almost essential ability for any artist traversing the shapeshifting, buoyant realm of electronic music that she does. On her sophomore full-length, she not only expands her sound and narrative universe but finds ways to dynamically weave them into the personal storytelling and emotional vulnerability that marked her debut, HiiDE. Inspired by her reconnecting with her mother for the first time in 15 years, she digs through the wasteland of childhood memory and confronts a flurry of imaginary beings, strange artefacts, and unresolved feelings that all get sucked into the same vortex. She allows a bit of space for pop-leaning cuts like ‘SHADOW’, but more often than not, her use of repetition becomes sort of like a haunting embrace, and the most compelling songs on the album, like the 9-minute odyssey ‘VOiiD’, find her stretching out the darkness as far as humanly possible. It’s not clear if anything ever fills the absence, but what BABii is able to conjure simply by looking at her own reflection is nothing short of inspiring. –Konstantinos

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    47. Moontype, Bodies of Water

    The music Moontype make is marked by impressive technical precision, but that’s not the first thing that strikes you about it. That would be the synergy between its three members – Margaret McCarthy, Emerson Hunton, and Ben Cruz – who met while studying at Oberlin College before their friendship solidified after winding up in Chicago. Whatever mode they operate in, their debut album, Bodies of Water, remains both remarkably consistent and dynamic, making it one of the most memorable indie rock debuts of the year. Choruses wash over you like a tide, mathy riffs cause a delicate flurry, drums crash and brush against the pristine flow of melodies. McCarthy’s songwriting can be endearingly direct – “Lookin’ at you with my fuck me eyes/ Do you wanna get inside of mine” – or compellingly poetic, reflecting the thrum of daily life but keenly aware of natural forces beyond our control. Whichever direction their music leans towards, Moontype retain an earnestness that’s echoed in their quietly unassuming yet powerfully evocative arrangements. –Konstantinos

    Read our interview with Moontype.

    46. Nation of LanguageA Way Forward

    A Way Forward, the sophomore full-length from Nation of Language, finds the Brooklyn synth-pop trio expanding their scope in more ways than one. While 2020’s Introduction, Presence looked to the sounds of New Order, OMD, and Depeche Mode, the new LP goes further back to the very foundations of electronic music, exploring how those acts were influenced by their progenitors, and in turn, how Nation of Language can carve out their own space within the genre – which they’ve achieved by pushing their sound in exhilarating new directions while retaining the lush musicality of their debut. Early singles like ‘This Fractured Mind’ and ‘The Grey Commute’ showcased a band capable of reaching soaring heights, but it’s even more thrilling to hear how those tracks fit alongside more ethereal, haunting cuts like ‘Miranda’ and ‘Former Self’. Though their music might conjure a nostalgia for the past, it’s always in search of A Way Forward. –Konstantinos

    Read our interview with Nation of Lanugage.

    45. ClairoSling

    While her debut album Immunity saw Claire Cottrill trade lo-fi bedroom beats for energetic indie pop, she once again harnesses the power of softness on her most recent record, Sling. The reverb-heavy bounce of Immunity is replaced by strings, saxophone and fluttering wind sections; Clairo’s vocals, deceptively delicate, hold each track aloft, conveying both tenderness and aching emotion. Sling channels 70s singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Carole King, layering warm harmonies and ambling piano melodies. Despite the record’s hushed tones, however, it offers immense depth by foregrounding Clairo’s strikingly introspective songwriting. Spanning fame, growth, and mental health, the subject matter is solemn, but great optimism can be drawn from the way Clairo carefully examines her emotions and slowly, powerfully finds the words to express them. –Martha Davies

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    44. IAN SWEETShow Me How You Disappear

    On IAN SWEET’s third album, clear-eyed songs become submerged in psychedelic textures, thoughts become glitched out, feelings both big and small explode out of the frame. After searching for the right dynamic between noise and structure on her first two albums, Jilian Medford pulls no punches on Show Me How You Disappear: these are her most compelling, melodic, and stickiest songs to date, tightly constructed and flowing seamlessly from one to the other. Written during and after Medford spent time in an outpatient therapy program for acute anxiety, the album evokes the overwhelming intensity of even the simplest emotions, circling around transformative mantras that take on a palpable quality: “I want to stop, I want to”; “I want to get better, better, better.” The music’s towering ambition feels pure, a natural extension of that want as much as her pop influences. When she sings “I want to feel the power of knowing/ Nothing, nothing/ I want to feel the power of holding/ No one,” it sounds like that power is already in her hands. –Konstantinos

    Read our interview with IAN SWEET.

    43. Lala LalaI Want the Door to Open

    You could call Lala Lala’s I Want the Door to Open one of the most resonant indie rock albums of the year, but that would ignore one of its greatest achievements – Lillie West dispenses with any limitations associated with that – or any – genre. On her third album, the London-born, Chicago-based singer-songwriter widens her sonic palette as a means of reckoning with the impossibility of her own desires. The album opens with the watery, light textures of ‘Lava’, but it’s not long until the feeling becomes oceanic in its vastness and just as pure in its intensity. It’s a record that delves into difficult questions without offering much of a resolution, but what’s impressive is that West sounds as comfortable and present in the expansive highlights like ‘Color of the Pool’ and ‘DRIVER’ as she does in the intimate environments of ‘Straight & Narrow’ and ‘Plates’. You’ll never stop chasing that feeling, but once you realize you might not even be able to open the door on the other side, it becomes easier to just walk around the labyrinth. –Konstantinos

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    42. TORRES, Thirstier

    “For a while, I was sinking/ But from here on out, I swear I’m swimming,” TORRES’ Mackenzie Scott declares on ‘Don’t Go Puttin Wishes in My Head’, a standout track from her latest album Thirstier. It’s a moment that could’ve been lost between the song’s titanic choruses, but Scott delivers the line with such fervour that it’s impossible not to believe her, let alone pay attention. It’s this rock-solid, wide-eyed conviction that marks the Brooklyn-based artist’s third album under the moniker, which is packed with one anthemically bombastic song after another, save for a few welcome electronic experiments. Thundering, exuberant hooks become a vehicle for Scott’s outsized ambition, but it’s the yearning that persists and powers her performances, taking the songs to another level: “The more of you I drink, the thirstier I get,” she admits on the title track. Scott’s songwriting has rarely sounded more potent, or joy more restless. –Konstantinos 

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    41. 파란노을 (Parannoul), To See the Next Part of the Dream

    Everyone loves a surprise breakout hit. Released independently and mysteriously by a South Korean musician, this shoegaze album is subtly masterful. Described by Parannoul themselves as an “active loser“ and “below average in height, appearance and everything else,” on To See the Next Part of the Dream, they are anything but: each resounding instrumental builds to a feverish conclusion, offering the listener catharsis. It’s a hazy dream of a record, almost impossible to describe. As Parannoul would probably like, it’s better to just enter his world unencumbered by prior knowledge and feel that instantaneous reaction. –Conor

    40. allie, Maybe Next Time

    A stream of ideas flows effortlessly out of Maybe Next Time, allie’s strikingly affecting debut under the moniker. Some songs seem to naturally absorb the environment around them; others directly confront hard truths about the self. Written in the summer of 2020 and recorded with their brother, Jacob Cuva, in the spare bedroom of their home – Cuva jokingly calls it a “guest bedroom pop” record – documents the dissolution of a romantic relationship between two people and manages to balance its overwhelming density – of emotions, of textures, of earwormy melodies – with the warm intimacy that blankets even its most devastating, distortion-heavy moments. This is an album that deftly weaves in elements of dream pop, emo, and indie folk without masking its reverence for ‘90s alt rock, but it’s allie’s earnest, heartwrenching songwriting that stands out the most. “I wish I could just give myself a hug,” Cuva has said while reflecting on their previous project, 2020’s Junior Coder’s Experiment. Maybe Next Time feels like just that. –Konstantinos

    Read our interview with allie.

    39. Snail Mail, Valentine

    Even if Lindsey Jordan wrote much of her second album in the same bedroom where she penned her earliest songs as Snail Mail, and even if her mind is still burdened by the same unrequited yearning, her perspective has evidently changed. Every choice on Valentine reflects that complicated headspace: of knowing you have to move on but standing with one foot in the past and the other in the future, of being torn between reality and fantasy, of craving stability but finding yourself falling back in limbo. Because whatever previously coloured your outlook on life and love – some potent combination of idealism and nostalgia that ended up harbouring a whole lot of toxicity – has been abandoned without something there yet to sufficiently replace it. Percolating in that space, Valentine becomes an album about the growth that happens when you just want to lie down and collect your breath, without even realizing it. –Konstantinos

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    38. Circuit des Yeux, -io 

    Hayley Fohr was already making the most ambitious music of her career as Circuit des Yeux, but -io, the Chicago artist’s latest under the moniker, expands the scope of her work in ways that are at once sweeping, disorienting, and compelling. For all its astronomical references, you can hear the bones of these songs, which, though impressively arranged for and featuring a 23-piece orchestra, came together bit by bit, the initial process more solitary and less collaborative than before. The feeling of impending doom is never quite released, and instead of the explosive catharsis that tends to be a point of resolution for this kind of album, what it evokes instead is a kind of implosion, of something immense collapsing in on itself. It’s this idea that feeds into the striking ‘Neutron Star’, which ends on an imposing note: “Descend bold traveler and attain the center of the earth.” Astoundingly, Fohr finds the beauty in it. –Konstantinos

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    37. Katy Kirby, Cool Dry Place

    In less than 30 minutes, Cool Dry Place offers a striking introduction to Katy Kirby’s emotionally earnest, lyrically intricate brand of indie folk. The Nashville-via-Texas singer-songwriter’s debut LP is a shimmering and heartfelt collection of songs that spring from a place of radiant intimacy as much as they amble towards it, peeling themselves apart and forming back together in the process. Penning lyrics that feel personal even when she assumes an outside perspective (‘Juniper’, ‘Fireman’), Kirby has such a delicate way of capturing everyday moments of beauty and poetry that the codes of communication she comes up with – her ‘Secret Language’ – feel both new and familiar, wonderfully complex yet approachable. ‘Cool Dry Place’ opens with the lines “just another episode of tenderness/ in a long, long string of similar events,” and Kirby’s gift lies in the ability to hold each of them still just long enough so she can trace a line between them. –Konstantinos

    Read our interview with Katy Kirby.

    36. Grouper, Shade

    Some may dismiss ambient-leaning projects as background music, but the haunted folk of grouper invites active listening. Shade, like the rest of her discography, is full of character and nuance. Listening to her music, you might continuously find yourself asking, Where are those coming from? You might recognize the human attributes of Liz Harris’ voice or the faint echo of a familiar song structure, but are fascinated by the interior and exterior landscapes that surround them. Some moments on her latest release are reverbed-out and remote, others strangely accessible and intimate, and this rendering of space is partly what makes Shade a unique entry in Grouper’s catalog. But perhaps more interesting is the way it engages with time: a collection of songs spanning over a decade, there’s something captivating about the way it drifts through memories both abstract and palpable; “the blueness of your mind,” ‘The Way her hair falls’. In this process of rearranging, Grouper locates a beauty in the stillness that’s as impossible to ignore as it is to grasp. –Konstantinos

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    35. Emma Ruth Rundle, Engine of Hell

    For some listeners, Engine of Hell might sound like the calm after the storm, the kind that isn’t peaceful but dreadfully eerie. Coming off the heels of her recent collaborations with sludge metal band Thou, Emma Ruth Rundle’s latest is not only a departure from the merciless grandiosity of those projects, but also from most of the prolific singer-songwriter’s own solo work. Fans of 2016’s Marked for Death or 2018’s On Dark Horses will be quick to note the absence of the reverb-soaked, full-band arrangements and atmospheric textures that fleshed out her gothic brand of folk. On a handful of the songs, she trades guitar for piano, returning to the first instrument she learned as a way of accessing some of her earliest and most traumatic memories. For all its musical intimacy, though, the record feels less like a conversation between her and the listener than simply with herself. Yet for anyone who cares enough to listen, it opens up the same portal. –Konstantinos

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    34. Pom Pom Squad, Death of a Cheerleader

    It’s been a year for cheerleaders — from Olivia Rodrigo to Muna (ft. Phoebe Bridgers), everyone has been tapping into the hazy nostalgia of this high school archetype. But Mia Berrin, the singer-songwriter behind Brooklyn-based “quiet grrrl” band Pom Pom Squad, has been honing this aesthetic since she was in high school. On Pom Pom Squad’s debut Death of a Cheerleader, Berrin steps into and subverts the character of the cheerleader to explore a range of femininity and emotions that queer women of color, especially queer Black women, are often denied. But even cheerleaders feel the limits of living in a patriarchal society, with the tragedy of girlhood being the realization that your future isn’t full of possibilities but walls (The Virgin Suicides-inspired ‘Lux’ hammers this home). What sets Berrin apart from others dabbling in the “teen girl” aesthetic is her campy sensibility and the sonic tapestry she’s weaved out of 60s pop, grunge, and punk. Berrin’s vision is so clear and fully formed on Death of a Cheerleader that by the time the credits roll you’ll be cheering for more. –Alyana Vera

    Read our interview with Pom Pom Squad.

    33. Squid, Bright Green Field

    After showcasing an impressive command of space in a series of well-received singles that leaned more heavily on nervous ecstasy than apocalyptic gloom, Squid’s debut LP not only confirmed the art-rock outfit can achieve the same impact in the album format, but also revealed the true scope of their ambitions. Even at its most jittery and wildly experimental, Bright Green Field never loses its sense of control, zooming out of a specific scene to paint a grander and more frightening picture. Even as it blends element blend of jazz, krautrock, funk, and post-rock, most exhilarating is the fact that the music seems to be fuelled by a fusion of restless and infectious energy, rarely abandoning one in favour of the other. Bright Green Field lays out a scene both massive and claustrophobic, its characters as lost as they are connected, all – narrator included – aching to break free. For them, the release never really comes, but it’s safe to say Squid will keep up the momentum. –Konstantinos

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    32. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Carnage

    2019’s hauntingly beautiful Ghosteen marked the end of a trilogy, but the glimmers of hope that seeped through its serene, ethereal soundscapes gave way to no real resolution. Cave’s latest collaborative album with longtime Bad Seed Warren Ellis is similarly if not more amorphous, once again eschewing narrative conventions in favour of a more impressionistic style of writing. Written during the early stages of lockdown, Cave and Ellis’ first non-soundtrack album as a duo leans into the stark minimalism of their recent material while pushing their sound – sometimes tentatively, sometimes more aggressively – into bold new territory. At times surprisingly topical but always resonant (‘White Elephant’), Carnage reckons with themes of death, suffering, and the apocalypse, furthering Cave’s artistic trajectory and opening up new possibilities for future collaborations. The unrelenting forces of death and destruction loom as large as ever, but Cave allows himself to capture moments of peace and hope in the midst of all the madness. –Konstantinos

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    31. Hand Habits, Fun House

    On previous Hand Habits albums, Meg Duffy’s inward-looking folk seemed to blanket a pervasive sense of anguish and unease. With production from Sasami Ashworth, Fun House, their most fully-formed and rewarding effort to date, anchors in a more dynamic sound, opening up new avenues of emotional expression. As Duffy takes the time to dig into the past, those feelings have the space to unravel and take on different shapes, becoming a propulsive force on tracks like ‘More Than Love’ and eventually boiling over on ‘Gold/Rust’. Duffy approaches these experiences with a calm fortitude, a perspective that allows for movement and discovery without drowning out the songs’ emotional intensity, while contributions from the likes of Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas and Big Thief’s James Krivchenia lend the songs a comforting familiarity. The qualities that marked Hand Habits’ music in the past – its remarkable patience and tender beauty – are all amplified, making Fun House sound less like a departure than a homecoming. –Konstantinos

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    30. illuminati hotties, Let Me Do One More

    This year saw LA-based engineer-producer Sarah Tudzin, the mastermind behind illuminati hotties, present a project she’d been ready to share since 2020, before the controversy surrounding indie label Tiny Engines motivated the spontaneous release of Free I.H.: This Is Not the One You’ve Been Waiting For. An enduring frustration punctures this record, too, complemented by a thirst for post-breakup reinvention and compellingly captured in rapid instrumentals, catchy hooks and satirical humour. It is the juxtaposition between these infectious pop-punk tracks and the surprisingly vulnerable acoustic pieces, though, that showcases Tudzin’s musical brilliance and flexibility. Milder melodies combined with poignant lyricism in ‘Threatening each other re: capitalism’ and ‘Growth’ introduce an emotive depth to the project. Inspiring both frenzy and tranquil self-reflection, Let Me Do One More cements Tudzin’s place as a self-proclaimed “tenderpunk pioneer” and leaves listeners eager to hear illuminati hotties continue their musical journey under their own imprint label, Snack Shack Tracks. –Gerda Krivaite

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    29. Xenia Rubinos, Una Rosa

    Una Rosa is Xenia Rubinos’ most fully-realized and resonant release yet, effectively translating her innovative, fluid approach to genre and storytelling into an enduring statement. Here, the playfulness that marked her 2013 debut Magix Trix takes the form of high drama as she and longtime collaborator Marco Buccelli trade out the crunchy, abrasive sonics of her previous albums for a more expansive and cinematic palette that can feel confrontational and soulful at the same time, just as her fusion of styles a fusion of sounds feels both organic and futuristic. Its dreamlike theatricality renders the memories and disparate influences that have shaped the singer’s formative years in stark, vivid detail, while its intuitive flow makes it feel like we’re entering a space of active imagination rather than reflection. Though Una Rosa is divided into a fiery A side and a more introspective B side, one of its biggest accomplishments is that it resists clear definition. –Konstantinos

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    28. black midi, Cavalcade

    It’s a breath of fresh air to witness the rise of the accomplished black midi. Not since arguably the Arctic Monkeys has there emerged a UK band that feels destined for the very top. Their modern-day style of progressive rock weaves and wanders wherever it pleases, an unsettling and profound journey that drags the listener everywhere. This is smart and cerebral rock music, but never done in a way to be aggravating. Rather, black midi are four musicians who trust in their own innate ability. Their expressionist soundscapes are theatrical and fantastical, without ever indulging in too much excess. –Conor

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    27. Foxing, Draw Down the Moon

    For an album that features 10 variations on the theme of “cosmic significance,” it’s remarkable that Draw Down the Moon never veers into conceptual vagueness or self-indulgence. As a whole, it’s less of a stylistic shift than a refinement of the qualities that arguably made Foxing’s 2018 record Nearer My God their most accessible effort to date; by toning down some of the chaotic density of that record and delivering one stadium-sized hook after another, they’ve managed to make its populist framing feel convoluted by comparison. But the new album is still a sprawling, ambitious collection of songs, one whose bold, genre-bending vision is always in service to something greater than artistic validation and whose infectious familiarity is more than just a bid for mainstream success. Foxing seem all too aware that these metrics have little bearing in today’s music economy for them to care about anything other than their own creative instincts, which have once again pushed their music to thrilling heights. –Konstantinos

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    26. Wild PinkA Billion Little Lights

    John Ross has been steadily expanding Wild Pink’s sound and vision with each album, and A Billion Little Lights is the project’s most cohesive and inviting effort to date. With production from David Greenbaum, the follow-up to 2018’s Yolk in the Fur incorporates more sweeping layers of bright, glossy synths to match Ross’ ambition, deftly balancing not just the sounds but the romantic grandeur of heartland synth-rock with the sensitivity and warmth of late 2000s indie. Against this sprawling canvas, intimate thoughts both culturally prescient and existential – the infinite expanse of the universe and our own place in it – sparkle out of the shadows. Because it straddles the line between fantasy and nostalgia, the result feels both familiar and out of reach, as if chasing a vision that’s yet to fully materialize. But even if the mythology of the American West does not particularly move you, this is a band that can make a song about any place feel close to home. –Konstantinos

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    25. Black Country, New Road, For the first time

    It can be difficult to wade through the recent UK post-punk revival, such is the swarm of new bands, but there’s a reason that Black Country, New Road have made their way to the front of the pack. Their debut album used dark post punk as a mere base as the seven-strong outfit traversed genres such as free jazz, math rock, even klezmer. In Isaac Wood, they have a frontman with the poetic words and distinct howl to lead this band for many years going forward. When any critic insists that rock music is dead – how tiresome – simply play them For the First Time. The kids are alright. –Conor

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    24. Arooj Aftab, Vulture Prince

    In summing up her revelatory new album Vulture Prince, Arooj Aftab has described it as being about “revisiting places I’ve called mine. Places that don’t necessarily exist anymore.” As a listener, you don’t need to be familiar with those places to get a sense of their deep resonance, which the Pakistani-born, Brooklyn-based singer communicates by conjuring a devastating beauty that transcends genre traditions or potential language barriers. (Aftab’s Best New Artist Grammy nod might have been shockingly unexpected, but it shouldn’t be.) Created in response to the death of her younger brother, Vulture Prince draws inspiration from traditional Urdu ghazals, displaying a reverence for the form while recontextualizing it against stripped-back instrumentation that includes harp, acoustic guitar, double bass, and synths. At the center of it all, Aftab’s crystalline, elastic voice serves as the connective tissue between past and present, carrying a depth of feeling that transports the listener into a realm where sorrow can briefly take the form of acceptance. –Konstantinos

    Read our interview with Arooj Aftab.

    23. Faye Webster, I Know I’m Funny haha

    Webster’s 2019 album Atlanta Millionaires Club, although great, felt like a breezy anomaly upon its release, but this follow-up album has confirmed Webster as a talent that’s here to stay. It’s a quietly moving record: it might bypass you on the first few listens before you soon notice its soft emotion lingering in your mind afterwards. Webster is wickedly funny under the slight surface and is one of the strongest lyricists working today. Beautiful wafts of slide guitar also rush through the album, Webster’s songs belonging in every genre from alternative country to indie pop. –Conor

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    22. Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime

    Mdou Moctar and his band continue to refine their approach on Afrique Victime, tightening its predecessor’s full-band sound without scarifying its spontaneity and live dynamics. Its main strength is not originality as much as a heightened sense of control: while previous Mdou Moctar albums have pushed boundaries, Afrique Victime brings a new dimensionality to the band’s explosive, consistently exhilarating sound, fusing the Tuareg guitarist’s various musical touchpoints – from guitar legends such as ZZ Top and Eddie Van Halen to African artists like Abdallah Ag Oumbadougou – while allowing other elements to take more space in the mix. The juxtaposition of organic and electronic textures in particular simultaneously gives the album an earthly and surreal quality. If the word “incandescent” can be used to describe most of Mdou Moctar’s catalog, Afrique Victime’s most resounding moments approach something resembling transcendence. –Konstantinos

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    21. The Armed, ULTRAPOP

    Capital lettering isn’t enough to prepare you for the maxed-out abrasion of The Armed’s fourth album, ULTRAPOP. What the Detroit collective pull off is slightly more complicated and pretty straightforward at the same time: this kind of music definitely isn’t for everyone, but it’s the most accessible a 40-minute record can sound while funneling everything that can broadly be described as extreme music into one thrillingly cohesive package. The album title does a decent job of approximating its ethos, though; the band’s attempt to organize chaos gives the impression of a dozen minds operating at once, with the single purpose of magnifying “all culture, beauty, and things.” It works clearly within an established pop framework, tearing it up but keeping the vocabulary. Maybe they call it ULTRAPOP because another fashionable term doesn’t quite do the trick. Or maybe it’s an invitation to enjoy it for what it is – maximalist, cathartic, overwhelming and irresistible – genre be damned. –Konstantinos

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    20. Lucy Dacus, Home Video 

    Lucy Dacus has a knack for evoking the past with breathtaking precision – even if the scenes she describes are brimming with the messiness and unpredictability of adolescence. While whirring guitar and frenetic drums inject shuddering energy into many tracks on Home Video, Dacus’ stories are never swallowed but rather elevated by any instrumentation surrounding them. She traverses the rocky planes of her religious youth with exhilarating honesty and appropriate wit, lending the entire record a sense of carefully crafted but never overwrought nostalgia. With contributions from Dacus’ boygenius bandmates Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker, Home Video unfolds into a sharp but ultimately empathetic exploration of identities both abandoned and evolving. Rejecting the rigidity and censorship that characterise so many of the memories she shares, Dacus is open and self-assured on this record, finding liberation in the power of her own songwriting. –Martha

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    19. Magdalena Bay, Mercurial World

    It’s only fitting that one of 2021’s best pop albums grapples with the strange and overwhelming nature of existence, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Magdalena Bay coming up with Mercurial World. “Matt, Matt, wake up,” Mica Tenenbaum whispers on opening track ‘The End’, “I was thinking about how there’s no true end to anything/ Everything comes from and goes to the same place: NOWHERE.” Between laying out an abstract theory of time, the duo’s debut album is also a document of them falling in love with different strands of pop music and creating their own version of it, one that feels at once playful and sincere, kaleidoscopic and intimate. For all the cosmic questions it raises, Mercurial World is ultimately anchored in the present, determined to stretch a shared moment into infinity. If there’s one truth about their universe, it’s that it’s bound to keep expanding. –Konstantinos

    Read our interview with Magdalena Bay.

    18. Tyler, the Creator, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST 

    CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST sees Tyler take on the persona of Sir Baudelaire, referencing the prominent French poet whose life, marked by self-indulgence, creative success and opulence, does lend itself to comparison with that of the hip hop artist’s. In the backdrop of synth-infused production and dense beats, Tyler boasts his material wealth and accomplishments, calling out his critics and the media industry for dismissing the vulnerability that permeates his musical work. Offering social commentary, tracks like ‘Manifesto’ expose the racism embedded in performative activism, while personal pieces like ‘Wilshire’ are testament to Tyler’s emotive storytelling abilities. Though encompassing an eclectic mix of genres – exhibiting ‘90s RnB, reggae, jazz and neo-soul influences – the tracks steadily bleed into one another, with the experimental boldness of the album rendering it a gorgeous body of work. “I’m not that little boy y’all was introduced to at one-nine,” Tyler tells us in ‘Massa’, and the richness of his artistic development has never been more obvious. –Gerda

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    17. Indigo De Souza, Any Shape You Take

    It’s nothing short of impressive what Indigo De Souza accomplishes on her second album, Any Shape You Take. She embraces climactic 1980s balladry on ‘Darker Than Death’ and sly cozy R&B on ‘Hold U’. On the closer ‘Kill Me’, De Souza sees love get the better of her and consume her. What starts as a quietly sinister guitar tack explodes with her shouting again and again, “Tell them, that I wasn’t having much fun.” Indeed, her ending a toxic relationship informed much of the songwriting on this album, giving Any Shape You Take a distinct cohesiveness despite the genre-hopping. “Cause you know it’s gonna be for the better/ But it’s so hard to give it up,” she confesses on the thumping indie pop gem ‘Pretty Pictures’. Yes, De Souza isn’t afraid to show her pain, but she’s also wielded it into something equally self-assured. –Carlo Thomas

    Read our interview with Indigo De Souza.

    16. Lingua Ignota, SINNER GET READY

    After retreating to rural Pennsylvania, Kristin Hayter’s latest album as Lingua Ignota foregoes the harsh sonics of 2019’s Caligula but burns with a similar kind of righteous anger. Using Appalachian folk instrumentation to evoke the desolation of her environment, Hayter examines the region’s ties to religious fanaticism in ways that are immersive and ruthless despite the album’s comparatively minimalist framework. Because it relies less on sheer sonic dissonance, the album’s ambivalence is instead portrayed through a combination of musical ambiguity and lyrical prowess: Hayter’s uncompromising voice embodies the same concepts her lyrics revolve around – piety, suffering, retribution – without establishing a clear position or passing judgment. Both concealed and deepened by the abundance of biblical and cultural imagery, the personal resonance of SINNER GET READY is what grounds it in something viscerally, indefinably human. “Life is a song, a song,” she muses on the stirring ‘Perpetual Flame of Centralia’, and its beauty lies in hearing the “wounds that stung before now sing.”–Konstantinos

    Read the original review.

    15. Ada Lea, one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden

    Ada Lea’s songs can be at once dizzy and straightforward, vulnerable and explosive. On her sophomore album, co-produced with Phoebe Bridgers collaborator Marshall Vore, the Montreal-based songwriter moves away from the swirling chaos of her 2019 debut what we say in private to depict a different kind of messiness: a world of memory and experience both palpable and out of reach. Emulating a “very Proustian passage of time,” as she sings on ‘saltspring’, Alexandra Levy structured the record around her native Montreal, straddlung the line between reality and fantasy as she spins a complex web of vignettes, her writing alternately impressionistic and diaristic, intimate and direct. Like a recurring dream whose true meaning reveals itself over time, the striking details that seep into the corners of the album imprint themselves more firmly in your memory with each repeated listen – and for each moment of drama that draws you in, each ‘damn’ that sweeps you away, there’s a whole other map of feeling for you to explore. –Konstantinos

    Read our interview with Ada Lea.

    14. The War on Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore

    Big-sky and big-hearted rock might not be what’s cool in current music but Adam Granduciel’s band is much too excellent at what they do for that to matter. On their fifth album, The War on Drugs are at the peak of their powers. This is a collection that confirms Granduciel as belonging in the lineage of other American songwriters like Bob Dylan and his personal hero Bruce Springsteen. It’s testament to these songs that you can imagine listening to them in an intimate space and a massive stadium. Classic rock at its finest. –Conor

    Read the original review.

    13. SPELLLING, The Turning Wheel

    The fantastical worlds Chrystia Cabral creates as SPELLLING seem to grow and expand at an alarming rate. On her third album, she employs ornate, ambitious instrumentation that builds continuously upward until the synth-infused bedroom landscape of her earlier recordings feels like a distant reality. Yet even as it leans fully into the fairy tale qualities of her songwriting, the double album feels all but removed from matters of the Earth; if anything, the storytelling is more resonant than ever, rooted in the idea that all life is connected. Throughout the LP, Cabral inhabits characters who live their own internal fantasies while being all too conscious of the outside world: The cost of sinking into a daydream, she suggests, is being unable to escape the throes of alienation. Yet her own presence remains bewitching and dynamic, her ability to dramatize that conflict anchoring you in the moment: “All we want is right here/ All we need and more/ Let your heart surrender/ Let your heart transform.” –Konstantinos

    Read the original review.

    12. Spirit of the Beehive, ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH

    There’s entertainment and then there’s death. On their latest, the Philadelphia-based trio Spirit of the Beehive prove that they understand this more than most. On opener ‘ENTERTAINMENT’, distorted and jittery synths cut to glistening guitars. ‘THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN’T DO’ taunts listeners with a teasing hook while Rivka Ravede’s faraway ominous vocals float above. Everything they do pulls listeners further into their difficult and beguiling world. Make no mistake, the album’s few respites never lack in their immersion. ‘THE SERVER IS IMMERSED’ is an intimate song that wallows in bedroom indie rock and electronica. On ‘IT MIGHT TAKE SOME TIME’, beds of keys and synths are cut with fits of electronic squeals and buzzes. “Life is but a dream” goes the children’s rhyme, but Spirit of the Beehive shows how kaleidoscopic an experience it can be. –Carlo

    Read the original review.

    11. Strand of Oaks, In Heaven

    In Heaven is the first Strand of Oaks album Tim Showalter recorded since moving to Austin, Texas, and though it finds him determined to leave a lot of things behind, part of its magic is in the way it brings together different elements that have marked his work in the past. His most expansive and resonant collection yet, the album journeys through loud, anthemic rock, psychedelic freakouts, ’80s-inspired synths, subtle Americana, dramatic ballads, and at least one straight-up pop song. Soundscapes grow and then fade into the ether; words tumble out in a cryptic, stream-of-consciousness fashion, then rejoice in a climactic, profoundly simple chorus. Faced with insurmountable loss and uncontainable joy, Tim Showalter looks to the universe for inspiration, to the patterns he and not even science can explain, and realizes all he has to show for himself – and all he really needs – is a sense of humanity. –Konstantinos

    Read tour interview with Strand of Oaks.

    10. L’RainFatigue

    Fatigue opens with a question that weighed heavily on the Brooklyn artist’s mind during the making of the album: “What have you done to change?” But it’s a line that gets looped on ‘Find It’ that serves as a sort of guiding force behind the music: “My mother told me/ Make a way out of no way.” Working with a close circle of musicians, including co-producers Andrew Lappin and Ben Chapoteau-Katz, Taja Cheek weaves disparate fragments into kaleidoscopic soundscapes that are in perpetual motion, fusing elements of jazz, R&B, and neo-psychedelia as she sifts through intense emotional states – fatigue, yes, but also joy, fear, relief, and hope, which meld and liquify much like the sounds that underpin them. Textures rise and fall, memories fade in and out of focus, but Cheek’s attempt to evoke and recontextualize life’s most precious moments is rooted in the pursuit of something new and exciting. It might be driven by the desire for change, but Fatigue radiates with the thrill of discovery. –Konstantinos

    Read our interview with L’Rain.

    9. Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg

    New Long Leg is an intensely impressionistic debut that solidifies Dry Cleaning as one of the best post-punk bands right now. Lead singer and perpetual monotone Florence Shaw’s songwriting style has only gotten more abstract, with non-sequiturs, bizarre imagery, and cheeky one-liners all strung together like some found art masterpiece. The London-based quartet’s sound has also ventured out—clearly influenced by guitarist Tom Dowse’s background in metal—with the band’s tightly wound instrumentation uncoiling into a more muscular and meaty kind of rock on cuts like ‘A.L.C’ and ‘Every Day Carry’. The cumulative effect of Shaw’s patchwork lyricism and the band’s brooding sound is an absurdist view of the modern world that is familiar but different enough to be unsettling. New Long Leg proves that an album doesn’t need a coherent narrative or heavy-handed message to be compelling. Instead Dry Cleaning pass the baton, inviting you to journey through their surreal world and see what sticks long after the record has stopped spinning. –Alyana

    Read the original review.

    8. Little Simz, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

    “I don’t need no sympathy, promise they will remember me/ That’s my word to keep, you might learn from me,” Little Simz sang on 2016’s ‘One in Rotation’, and with Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, she’s delivered her most definitive and ambitious statement yet. Rather than adhering to the conventional view of an introvert as seen from the outside, she pierces through preconceived notions to portray the inner richness of a mind that’s constantly racing and evolving, crafting an album that’s grand in scope and theatrical in presentation. But perhaps most fascinating is the way it takes stock of Simz’s status as an artist in the public eye, wrestling with a lot of the same questions that have followed her up until this point. On ‘Standing Ovation’, she calls herself out: “Why the desperate need to be remembered?” Torn between elevating and scrutinizing her voice, SIMBI turns the battle of centering the self into a source of strength and inspiration. –Konstantinos

    Read the original review.

    7. The Weather Station, Ignorance

    Slowly, unpredictably, the world spins around Tamara Lindeman’s voice. On her fifth album as The Weather Station, the Canadian singer-songwriter expands her sonic vision through an array of strings, woodwinds, and synths, but it’s her use of rhythm that feels most strange and otherworldly, yet completely of this earth. You might not be able to tell it’s on the brink of collapse, but Lindeman’s words give something away: she’s by turns enraptured and devastated by this environment, and the more its beauty grows, the more subtle and evocative her delivery becomes. Ignorance might form its own ecostystem, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a home for Lindeman’s thoughts, spilling small observations and big feelings against a sprawling canvas: “It does not matter to the world if I embody it/ It could not matter less that I wanted to be a part of it/ Still, I fumble with my hands and tongue, to open and to part it.” –Konstantinos

    Read the original review.

    6. Cassandra Jenkins, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature

    The photograph that graces the cover of Cassandra Jenkin’s marvelous second album is taken from Ole Brodersen’s ‘Trespassing’ series, in which the Norwegian photographer introduces objects such as floats, lights, and kites into a landscape, recording their movement during one long exposure. In referring to the light that spins around the center of the cover, Jenkins found herself calling it “the ghost” – a word that normally invokes a world of mystery, death, and dreams. The singer-songwriter certainly inhabits that world on An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, which was recorded mere months after the death of her would-be tourmate, David Berman, but what animates her songs is a fascination with a kind of wondrous presence that often goes unobserved, in nature and in people. With graceful, meditative resolve, she taps into what appears to be an empty space and captures movement where others would find only stillness. She makes no attempt to figure out where that strange light came from, but she does invite you to take it all in. –Konstantinos

    Read our interview with Cassandra Jenkins.

    5. Turnstile, GLOW ON

    Turnstile’s GLOW ON is forceful, catchy, and if you’ve heard even just a couple of songs from it, probably the most fun you’ve had listening to music this year. The Baltimore band inject their latest full-length with 34 minutes’ worth of adrenaline-fuelled riffs, irresistible grooves, and enough moments of introspection to have you wondering if any of this matters before shaking it all off with another cathartic breakdown. Every song here sounds both anthemic and physical, but it’s a testament to Turnstile’s wider vision that its musical ambition and experimentation don’t go unnoticed – just like Brendan Yates’ meditations on loneliness and existence at large, they’re part of what make the album endlessly rewarding and totally unpretentious. Turnstile make music that feels life-affirming because it has to. You’ll want to play it again, play it loud, and play it together. –Konstantinos

    Read the original review.

    4. Half Waif, Mythopoetics

    In her spectral, deeply evocative music as Half Waif, Nandi Rose manifests a constant inner battle between passivity and unbridled emotion. On her fifth studio album, the Hudson Valley-based artist unlocks the full depth of her songwriting, melding her layered synth textures with a more organic array of sounds. This fusion makes for the most immersive evocation of Rose’s persistent lyrical concerns yet: the introductory piano ballad ‘Fabric’ finds the subject flirting with the impulse to hide away from the world, but the shimmering melodies of ‘Swimmer’ open up to the possibilities of human connection – even, and especially, in the midst of illness and loss. Where last year’s The Caretaker imagined a better future while relaying anxiety in palpable terms, here darkness intrudes on the mind in the form of a metaphor while feelings both immense and mundane carry the charge of a real, swelling sensation. The results are breathtaking, and Rose is graceful enough to hand us the key: “I believe in something more/ Than what’s in front of me.” –Konstantinos

    Read the original review.

    3. Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee

    It’s difficult to remember someone having as good an all-round artistic year as Michelle Zauner did in 2021. As well as seeing her memoir, Crying in H Mart, become a best-seller, as Japanese Breakfast she dropped the best album of her career so far. From the moment the mariachi-esque horns of ‘Paprika’ open proceedings, a triumphant and joyful collection unfolds. Having gone through such tragedy in recent years, Jubilee is the sound of someone reclaiming their life. It’s well-deserved but ultimately strange that Japanese Breakfast has been nominated for Best New Artist at the 2022 Grammy Awards; she’s been this good for a long while now. –Conor

    Read the original review.

    2. Low, HEY WHAT

    Low’s awe-inspiring 13th album finds them refining the otherworldly language they’ve been building with producer BJ Burton, who first teamed with the band on 2015’s Ones and Sixes, a rejuvenating record that still couldn’t prepare listeners for the boldness of Double Negative. But where that album’s eerie experimentation and vocal processing set a barrier between the band and their audience – and its inevitable political resonance makes it feel tied to a specific era – HEY WHAT feels timeless and immediate, inviting us to fully absorb each abrupt turn by retaining the frail humanity at its center. While Double Negative’s abrasive production left nothing unscathed, HEY WHAT gives room for the two voices to interact with one another and the shifting environments around them, plowing to the front of a mix that repeatedly tries and fails to cut through them. In this bleak, damaged environment, Low have never sounded more urgent or alive. –Konstantinos

    Read the original review.

    1. Porter Robinson, Nurture

    In the seven years since his breakout debut Worlds, which catapulted the North Carolina producer to international stardom, Porter Robinson struggled to overcome an intense period of depression and creative drought that left him convinced he might never make music again. He emerged with Nurture, a sprawling and intimate collection that flits between soaring, euphoric pop, exploratory ambient passages, and blissed-out electronica – not so much mirroring the highs and lows of success as it does the pure rush of experimentation and discovery. Where his past work sought joy in the sharing of imaginary spaces, here his curiosity stems from stepping into the outside world and finding beauty in the everyday: “Everything we need is already here” is the album’s tagline.

    Nurture is grounded in reality, avoiding the deliberate self-indulgence of Robinson’s other project, Virtual Self. Given its personal significance, you might get the impression that the album exists in a vacuum, but Robinson’s vision is so bright and kaleidoscopic, so sincere in its expression of both joy and sadness, that it’s impossible not to immerse yourself in its wonderfully strange, life-affirming journey. Besides, you don’t have to dig deep to hear how Robinson’s influence has echoed through the electronic and pop music landscape; not only in the years following Worlds, but even in 2021, with the rise of artists like dltzk, the 18-year-old producer whose shapeshifting records explode with a similar sense of boundless inspiration. As dozens of hyperpop-adjacent microgenres continue to proliferate and contemplate the nature of their own existence, Nurture lights the way: Let your imagination wander, but hold yourself close, and don’t lose sight of what’s in front of you. –Konstantinos

    Read the original review.

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