We have gone through another year, somehow, and now it is time to recap the best music of the year. 2021 was a year of starts and stops, with live music getting back into full swing, but sometimes only for a brief period. With the combined impact of live shows disappearing for over a year (for most) and the changing societal winds, the music made in 2020 emerged in full force all year.
Despite the lack of opportunity to test out new tracks, great music was made across the board. Whether it is the sublime blend of electronics, orchestral movements and jazz with Promises from Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra, the spellbinding stories told through electronic music from Fatima Al-Qadiri, the soaring breaks from Bicep or Tyler The Creator’s dextrous raps, this year delivered another incredible batch of albums.
We did our best to recap as much as possible, but obviously some incredible music didn’t make it when you narrow things down to 25. Go through the list and travel down memory lane with some of your favorites. If you didn’t catch some of these during the year, enjoy the ride. These are listed in no particular order, either by date or by ranking. All reviews are written by me unless otherwise noted.
Listen to other Best Of 2021 Music Lists.
1. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
One of the most beautiful and delicately crafted albums of 2021, Floating Points teamed up with jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra to create Promises. The album doesn’t have any pauses despite the different tracks and it feels as seamless as you will hear in a non-mix album. The project is built around a gentle piano motif that helps connect the album that Floating Points sprinkles in throughout like pixie dust. The combination of FP, PS and the LSO works together magically and is an album that should win awards.
2. Bicep – Isles
The pressure was on for the Irish pair after their breakout debut in 2017. Bicep has come to define an era of dance music with euphoric breaks and house music that soars beyond the club into the festival stage. It had been a long time coming for their self-titled debut in 2017 that incorporated some long-wanted IDs.
After a couple of years touring hard, they went back to their roots, literally, with Isles. It is an ode to their upbringing in Belfast and the power of electronic music as a way to connect people. The project doesn’t change what they have been doing, but rather builds on it with some vocal features and some turbo-charged tracks like “Apricot” and “X.” It has been a wild couple of years for Bicep and Isles continues to fuel their career trajectory to the moon.
3. Space Afrika – Honest Labour
Berlin / Manchester duo Space Afrika carried their momentum from 2020 into 2021 with their album Honest Labour. The project explores the boundaries of ambient music, mixing in eerie electronica, rap and more. There are spoken word interludes about family, personal growth and family that underpin the themes of this project. Honest Labour is 19 tracks in total, but keeps it moving from one song to the next without dragging its feet. The slow rolling ambient opener sets the table with familiar sounds, but then Space Afrika starts to slowly unravel the pieces of this album with a new twist after each track. This is an album that is complex, beautiful and something that feels essential this year.
4. Koreless – Agor
Welsh producer Lewis Roberts aka Koreless released his long-awaited debut album Agor this summer. The album captured a mythical view of the Welsh countryside he grew up in. The title Agor is the Welsh word for open, which embodies the sensory feeling the listener feels when immersing themselves in this album.
He grew up along the coast and the project ebbs and flows with the tides in its very detailed production. Koreless’ attention to detail made the process of putting this album quite difficult for him, constantly tuning, adjusting and creating new versions of each song. That intricacy reveals new pieces of the puzzle with each passing listen on an album that feels like it could have been made 500 years ago, but is also incredibly futuristic.
5. Loraine James – Reflection
Loraine James released her debut album For You And I towards the end of 2019 and was set to break out. The pandemic forced her and everyone else home, halting her career momentum, but also created the opportunity to make new music. Reflection is the result of that and shifting tastes in music towards grime and drill. The shuffling footwork, unflinching jungle and techno are still present, but there is growth into new sonic avenues.
This may not have the same relentless dancefloor energy as some singles or past EPs, but the project feels more complete. With drill, grime, R&B and trap, she found new ways to reflect on 2020 and the difficulties of being a Black woman. This expansion in her music created one of the best albums of the year.
6. Tyler, The Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
This summer, Tyler, The Creator released his latest album CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, which comes with a slew of features like Lil Wayne, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Domo Genesis, Lil Uzi Vert, Pharrell Williams and Brent Faiyaz. This one is different from some of his prior few records in that it is shaped like a mixtape with DJ Drama who helps introduce the project from the jump. He essentially becomes the host like he is overseeing a Gangsta Grillz mixtape, albeit in a more reserved role.
We always knew Tyler, The Creator could rap, but over his past few albums, he was writing songs with both singing and rapping. This one he goes straight back to rapping, combining mixtape energy within the context of a Grammy-award winning, major label hip-hop star. He celebrates himself, his friends and what he has going on in his work, icing both braggadocio with an honest look at love and life.
7. Madlib – Sound Ancestors
Working with Four Tet, Madlib created a rich sonic tapestry of samples, short beats and vocals all woven together with extreme precision with his album Sound Ancestors. Four Tet helped outline the process of making this album that occurred over a few years. It was created using hundreds of different pieces of music that Four Tet helped arrange, edit, manipulate and combine. Madlib sent along tracks, loops, experiments and other ideas that Four Tet helped shape into the record we have today.
You can feel the luxurious and sample-heavy production he brings to the table isn't too busy and allows for plenty of space, but it also explores other avenues. He bridges rock, hip-hop, soul and electronic music in an album where the musical fragments were probably hard to understand at first, but now that they are pieced together, it all sounds delightful. It is both an ode to those who have come before us, but also keeps the path well worn for those heading into the future.
8. Dave – We’re All Alone In This Together
Dave released one of the best albums of the year in 2019 with PSYCHODRAMA. The pressure was on with his follow up We’re All Alone In This Together and he delivers. Dave expands his horizons with We’re All Alone In This Together examining the world around him with a fresh perspective on migration, violence, love and gratitude to one's family. “Three Rivers” examines the treatment of the Windrush generation who immigrated to the UK decades ago and some are now being ejected from the country because of discriminatory policies. He also looks at this in a broader context of the cruelty of closed borders to those in need, especially children.
“Heart Attack” is a personal and reflective view on the violence of London, and how it impacts children and parents. Dave has cemented his place as one of the best storytellers of a generation and this project helped prove that.
9. SG Lewis – Times
Music can do a lot of things. It can make us feel, think, look at the world differently, bridge gaps between folks, heal and also have fun. SG Lewis’ album Times falls into that last category. Working with the likes of Nile Rodgers and Robyn, he found collaborators that know how to write great songs. He merges disco with house and funk without sounding like he is trying to recreate the past. This album was for those looking to dance again and it serves exactly that. See him live and that becomes very apparent.
10. Eris Drew – Quivering In Time
Eris Drew released her triumphant album Quivering In Time not two months ago. Born out of a move in 2020 from Chicago to rural New Hampshire, she recorded the nine songs featured there. Quivering In Time plays out like a DJ set, or even a DJ set of DJ sets, with each song evolving within themselves.
With her debut album, Drew shows a deftness at making club-ready house music without getting stuck into monotonous build-drop formats. The songs are complex enough to keep you engaged the whole time and have the soaring energy to make you want to lose yourself to dance.
11. Fatima Al Qadiri – Medieval Femme
Kuwaiti musician Fatima Al Qadiri captured the spirit and sound of a long bygone era with her album Medieval Femme. The LP is a suite of baroque, electronic and dreamy compositions inspired by the classical poems of Arab women. It is designed to simulate a daydream through the metaphor of an Islamic garden. This album plays on the mysticism from those stories, drawing the listener into untold worlds.
She creates something from the folklore of stories often not told in the West. She captures the melancholy found in the poetry of Arab women from the medieval period to make you feel their emotion. Even if the words are distorted and heavily reverbed, you can feel the yearning in them from a distance, as if the voices whisper from another room.
12. Yu Su – Yellow River Blue
At the beginning of the year, Kaifeng-born, Vancouver-based artist Yu Su released an album that captured the time, while still feeling timeless. Written and recorded in different continents between August 2019 and March 2020, the album seeks to capture the feeling of touring, moving and trying to be accepted in various places over several years. It is an homage to her home beside the Yellow River in China.
Yellow River Blue covers a lot of ground between classic and modern. The album moves fluidly between pop, house, experimental electronic movements and ambient music with her voice being used as another piece of larger sonic puzzles. Yu Su crafted an album that captured the forlorn mood of distance, while creating comfort in her music.
13. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
One of the only indie rock / indie pop albums on this list, Japanese Breakfast’s album Jubilee is undeniable. An album to celebrate life, there are moments of serenity like on “Tactics” or pure disco joy with song of the year contender “Be Sweet.” She covers ground with love, nostalgia and memories of home. Jubilee was a shining star in a year that never really got out of third gear. It was a moment to celebrate life in its various forms, no matter the mood.
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14. Dusky – Joy
Dusky celebrate 10 years of putting out electronic music this year with their third studio album, and first on their 17 Steps imprint, titled JOY. This project was designed to be an expression of that moment when you can see live music again, which may be fleeting these days, but it was a joy to be back at venues again this year. At its core are the euphoric breakbeats with slices of sumptuous piano house and rave-ready melodies.
Though the melodic breaks genre has its roots in the 90’s and certainly leans on nostalgia, JOY doesn’t feel like a lazy callback to that era for cheap thrills. The combination of other genres and slick, modern production that crosses between breaks, trance, house and garage provides a platform for another quality album from these two.
15. Vince Staples – Vince Staples
Vince Staples turned back the clock by releasing a self-titled new album in July. This is his fourth album, plus various EPs, but he went back to his own name with this LP, which generally indicates more personal revelations about the artist. Produced by Kenny Beats, Staples emphasizes that this project helps to give people a better idea of who he is.
At 10 songs and a run time of just a tick over 22 minutes, the LP is breezy and fast paced, but he still manages to pack a lot into the project. Staples uses this album to examine his upbringing and his life from a long lens. He says that he is the only one to get out, but like he raps in “The Shining” he hasn’t moved to Malibu or Calabasas like other star rappers. He remains in North Long Beach, despite his other commitments. Staples feels very free creatively with this project, but the world he is exploring is still quite difficult. There is anxiety, solitude and potential peril ingrained in a past he can’t forget.
16. GCOM – E2-XO
An album that really flew under the radar this year, Tom Middleton dusted off his GCOM alias and released a 20-track odyssey in E2-XO. It is named after one of the many Exoplanets that scientists have been plotting deep in the night sky.
The album plays out like an exploration of space. E2-XO opens with a soft ambient opener, before a gritty and staggering salvo of drums. It is still on earth, but the project is shaking you to your core with the impact of climate change ravaging the earth. Middleton embraces the vastness, weirdness and chaotic nature of space.
The album eventually ends with the lengthy and aptly titled “Beyond The Milky Way” to take us to areas of space that we still know very little about. There is a vast universe out there that likely features structures, life and worlds far beyond our imagination. This album seeks to bring us there through music.
17. Jon Hopkins – Music For Psychedelic Therapy
Jon Hopkins has always toed the line between ambient, house, experimental and techno with his music. But after a trip in 2018 where Hopkins was invited on an expedition to a huge cave network, known locally as Cueva de los Tayos / Cave of the Oilbirds, under the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, Hopkins shifted away from his previous work with Music For Psychedelic Therapy. For four days, the 10 people invited lived in those very dark caves. His experience there shaped this record, while one of the people on the trip, neuroscientist and Wavepaths founder Mendel Kaelen, captured sounds from the caves with field recording equipment.
However, the title isn’t about caves, but rather psychedelic therapy. He worked advising on the playlist used for David Nutt's Imperial College psilocybin trial. Psychedelics have been a critical part of his own personal journey and their connection to music feels vital for him. Hopkins swerves with this album away from the dancefloor and to a calming, introspective view of nature and psychedelic therapy. It is soothing and calming in a time when both are needed.
18. Miguel Migs – Shaping Visions
Nearly a quarter-century into his recording career, San Francisco house legend Miguel Migs released his fifth studio album this past year and it's arguably his best work yet. Not much of a departure from the aesthetic he's always been known for but all-in-all, Shaping Visions is about as good as it gets when it comes to unadulterated deep-house in its most pure and sensual form.
"Chasing Time" featuring Samantha James and "Sensations" featuring Andy Allo immediately come to mind as tunes that epitomize the album's essence. Pull back these layers and you'll find other highlights that groove just little differently like the broken beat wonder, "Mood Lights" featuring Stephen James and the album's laid-back closer, aptly titled, "Before I Go." Martin Luther's soulful feature "Back Tonight" clocks in just a bit faster than the rest of the album but it's just as smooth and wonderful as all the entire album. – Danny
19. Parcels – Day/Night
Australian five-piece band Parcels released their two-part sophomore album earlier this year titled Day/Night. The group says the two albums are separate, but they still mesh well together. Day has more of the funk and disco that some may have been familiar with from a few singles in the past. It is brighter and cheerier, though it swivels between the pains of heartbreak and the heights of love.
Night on the other hand is much softer and subdued. It is more contemplative, not ignoring the first part, but offering a different perspective on love, loss and nightlife. With 20 songs to get through, the group contemplates love, family, grief, identity and isolation between the two albums. Many of the themes carry on from one album to the next or swing 180 degrees to the opposite side of that idea.
20. Keinemusik – Send Return
&ME, Rampa & Adam Port reunited as Keinemusik for their second album together, Send Return. This project allows them to indulge the melodic house that has been key to their individual rises over the past decade, while also exploring some different musical avenues.
There are songs which provide a very different outlook on things for them like “Pussy Power” that cedes the thematic control to Nomi Ruiz about female empowerment. They open the LP with breaks and then close it towards 80’s synth-pop on “Pay To Play,” adding a smattering of melodic house in its various forms in between. The trio expand their musical horizons with this album without leaving behind the familiar.
21. MNDR – Hell To Be You Baby
Hell To Be You Baby was 9 years in the making. That is not to say MNDR (Amanda Warner) hasn't been making music during those years. Between producing other artists, writing hit songs and winning Grammys, Warner has released a multitude of singles and made guest appearances on other artists' songs…oh, and she became a mom!
This album (possibly her last) is a culmination of all of her life experiences wrapped in a lovely electro-pop blanket. Warner's focus has always been to support fellow LQTBQIA+ artists and this album is no exception, featuring artists like SSION and Empress Of. The standout Mark Ronson-produced title track is even in the public consciousness thanks to the Google Pixel 6 ad campaign. If you want to dance, chill, cry, scream or just sing along, there is no more distinctive voice and captivating musician than MNDR's Hell To Be You Baby. – Kristi
22. Kylie Minogue – Disco: Guest List Edition
Kylie Minogue's Disco: Guest List Edition is the complete package. Not only does it offer the full 16 track version of the original album, but it has four collaborative tracks, "A Second To Midnight" with Years and Years, "Kiss of Life" with Jessie Ware, "Can't Stop Writing Songs About You" with Gloria Gaynor, and "Real Groove (Studio 2054 Remix" with Dua Lipa. Kylie has always been a bit of a pop chameleon, and diving into her inner disco diva has been one of the most immersive listening experiences of her storied career. Every second of this album should be enjoyed while wearing something shiny or with sequins, basking in the glow of a disco ball! – Kristi
23. Fred Again… – Actual Life (April 14 – December 17, 2020)
Fred again… had quite the electric year. Starting with his first release Actual Life (April 14 – December 17, 2020), released on April 16th, and then his latter release, Actual Life 2 (February 2 – October 15, 2021), on November 19th, his music brings genuine enjoyment and joy out of anyone who listens to his music.
He was on a U.S. tour over the last few months, where tickets sold out immediately and extra show dates had to be announced. The energy surrounding Fred and his fans is infectious, as can be seen here, where he crashed the party of Subway DJ and started a party in the streets of New York. We’re really excited for what Fred has in store for the new year, and curious to see what videos of people singing or living life incorporate themselves into his music. – Charles
24. Porter Robinson – Nurture
Nurture was an incredibly refreshing album from Porter Robinson, an artist known to be vocal about his slumps, challenges, and history of disowning his old music out of frustration with the dance music industry. From his second Second Sky Festival in San Francisco, to his North America Nurture tour where he brought his amazing show and visuals with support from Jai Wolf and James Ivy, so many fans were able to experience the new live show. The album is immensely emotional, evoking feelings of sadness, happiness, and that things can get better.
While Nurture was great to stream and listen to, experiencing it in person with thousands of happy fans was something else. We missed the energy, the feels, and excitement that live shows bring. Porter’s new tour helped fill a musical gap for many of us, and we’re sure European fans are looking forward to his Europe tour next year. – Charles
25. RÜFÜS DU SOL – Surrender
There have been few success stories in dance music like RÜFÜS DU SOL over the past five years. They have gone from local heroes in Australia to a globe-trotting, festival headlining act with their blend of live instruments, moody vocals and soaring electronics. This year they kept that spark alive and very well with their fourth album Surrender.
There are the bright, soaring and cheery moments that explode out of the speakers, in addition to the heartbreak and chugging beats that underpin much of the record. They have mastered the live feeling of progressive, melodic and dancefloor-ready electronic music. The trio delivered another album worthy of best of consideration.