Northern Transmissions Best Albums of 2021
Was there ever a year that promised as much hope as 2021 had at its inception? With the anxiety and uneasiness of 2020, it seemed like we could only go up from there.
While 2021 did provide some relief from 2020’s ails, the unsureness of what is still to come remains at an all-time high. Like 2020, even throughout all its complications and unrest, 2021 provided an amazingly high caliber of new music that we were treated to.
There were the highly anticipated, Kanye’s exhausting rollout for Donda, Taylor Swift’s painstakingly recreated recreations. Quality releases from such notable standbys like LOW, The War On Drugs and Courtney Barnett, and breakout successes such as Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee. This year there was truly something for everyone. The pop world crowned a new queen in Olivia Rodrigo, Tyler the Creator added another solid release to his already solid repertoire and the art-rock crowd didn’t only get Brooklyn’s Geese and their wild debut album, Projector, but also superbly interesting outings from the UK’s Squid and Black Country, New Road.
We seemed to be teetering on the precipice of some massive shift all year long and while it mainly ended up being a game of two steps forwards, two back, the real shift in music was how democratic it all seemed to become. Perhaps streaming giants like Spotify and Apple Music don’t pay their artists anywhere near what they should but these platforms have certainly opened users listening worlds. Maybe because most of us were kept out of venues and bands are still not touring at the capacity they had been, most of our musical discoveries were found at home and our tastes have expanded, become more organic and gained a depth that was previously missing.
Take, for example, Northern Transmissions “Best Albums of 2021” list. Crafted together by suggestions from all our contributors, this list represents a diverse cross section of the best music that we were treated to in 2021. Heavy hitters such as Turnstile and Gorjira sit comfortably beside the dreamy Snail Mail and Lucy Dacus. Fresh faces like Clairo rub shoulders with veterans like LOW and Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra are all hanging out wonderfully alongside Dry Cleaning and Iceage. While 2021 may not have provided us with the promise of hope we wanted, musically it couldn’t have been any better.
TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2021
20. Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time
Courtney remains the reliable, relatable artist she’s been from the start, and I think this album will be a traveling companion to many people. Or just something you put on, and look out the window, and feel the time pass. Waiting for the next letter or phone call from a friend. In the meantime, we have Courtney’s songs to play on repeat.
19. Parquet Courts – Sympathy For Life
‘Sympathy For Life’ is influenced by the party itself. Historically, some amazing rock records have been made from mingling in dance music culture – From Talking Heads to Screamadelica. Parquet Courts’ goal was to bring that into their own music. You can feel this influence shuffling through in the many digital nuances that populate the group’s new album.
18. Gojira – Fortitude
Gojira’s new album Fortitude continues from where 2016s Magma left off, moving the band’s sound in new directions while retaining their signature riffing style. Magma marked a change for the band, expanding on the bludgeoning drums and guitars the band was known for and including more atmospheric parts while frontman Joe Duplantier expanded on his use of clean vocals on many of the tracks. The band found success with the album as it entered the Billboard 200 at number 24 and earned them two Grammy nominations.
17. SHAME – Drunk Tank Pink
Shame’s new record ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ encapsulates a queasy snapshot of life, where uncertainty and anxiety hang in the air with a foreboding menace. Given the current state of things globally, I think we can all find comfort in the band’s bravery by sharing their excellent album with the world.
16. Snail Mail – Valentine
Snail Mail has certainly had a million experiences since her debut album came out. Not only as an artist but just by being at that point in your life when you are growing so much every day as a person. As she sings on “Valentine”, “You won’t believe what just two months do/I’m older now, believe mе” and even with just an initial listen of Valentine you hear that truth implicitly.
15. Lucy Dacus – Home Video
Only about 60 people globally are said to have hyperthymesia, a condition where memory retention is all but perfect. While it’s unlikely that Lucy Dacus is among these ranks, Home Video, her third album, focuses on the past with remarkable precision. As she sings, she sounds less like she’s recalling and more like she’s collecting her thoughts about the moments in real time, no matter how mundane they might seem.
14. The Weather Station – Ignorance
On their previous four albums, The Weather Station traveled a familiar stylistic route, that of soft indie-folk music rife with indulgent guitars and subtle rhythms. With their fifth and latest album, Ignorance, the Canadian folk band takes the offramp into the suburban landscape of cool jazz flavored with pop aromas.
13. Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
Moctar himself delivers with Afrique Victime some epic crunging, ripping it up with a rapid-fire run of pull-offs before vigorously swiping his palms across his pickups. Like that accidental three-day concert, there’s a spectacular spontaneity to the studio piece—electric in every sense of the word.
12. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
It was literal seconds into the new Japanese Breakfast record when I knew it was all over for me. Jubilee, the third record from Michelle Zauner is an exuberant affair, punctuated with a keen perspective about everything that falls under the umbrella of life, love and all types of relationships.
11. Clairo – Sling
There’s something disarmingly inviting to Clairo’s lyrics. They’re the slightly ajar door that beckons you into a cozy parlour. They’re the amiable Host offering to hang up your jacket, the affirming pat on the back that “yes, you’ve made it to the right place.” You know you should be getting home, but you lay your head back, allowing yourself one more round of tales and 44 minutes and 33 seconds of inspiring assurance of Sling.
10. Squid – Bright Green Field
Squid’s debut album ‘Bright Green Field’ is a rich melting pot of disparate influences; it’s where discordant post-punk aligns with jazzy rhythms, math-rock tendencies and pockets of ambient calm that spasmodically erupt into feral cavalcades of noise. It’s the unified result of five people’s creativity colliding and coalescing at the same time.
9. Iceage – Seek Shelter
Opening right up with one of the greatest songs they have composed yet, “Shelter Song” hit me right in the guts on the first listen with a completely impassioned piece of music and lyrics from Danish shapeshifters Iceage. When frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt sings “They kick you when you’re up, they knock you when you’re down” with the backing of the Lisboa Gospel Collective it’s positively chill-inducing, and Seek Shelter begins its journey as another incredible evolution in this bands discography.
8. Tyler The Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
Call Me If You Get Lost (stylized in all caps) is the sixth studio album by American rapper and producer Tyler, the Creator. The album was released on June 25, 2021, through Columbia Records. The album is narrated by DJ Drama and features guest appearances from 42 Dugg, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Ty Dolla Sign, Lil Wayne, Domo Genesis, Brent Faiyaz, Lil Uzi Vert, Pharrell Williams, Teezo Touchdown, Fana Hues and Daisy World. Tyler produced the album himself, with additional production contributed by Jamie xx and Jay Versace.
The cover art depicts an identification card for a character named “Tyler Baudelaire” in reference to the French poet Charles Baudelaire, whose work has been regarded by music journalists as comparable to the explicit nature and themes of Tyler’s music. Genres on the album span hip hop, pop, jazz, soul and reggae.
7. The Armed – ULTRAPOP
There’s always been an air of mystery around The Armed, they’re a group that has dodged the spotlight and embraced a clandestine persona up until now, on the eve of dropping their fourth LP ‘ULTRAPOP’.
6. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
Following on from 2019’s duo of releases, ‘Sweet Princess’ and ‘Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks’, South London quartet, Dry Cleaning have readied their debut album ‘New Long Leg’. Building on their previous work, the group upped the ambition and the complexity found in their stark post-punk, that’s accompanied by Florence Shaw’s deadpan, spoken word delivery.
5. Black Country, New Road – For The First Time
Strap yourself in for a twisting ride of ups and downs with Black Country, New Road’s debut album, For the First Time. The Cambridge, England seven-piece have built a following based on the strength of their singles “Sunglasses” and “Athens, France” and raved-about live shows. The album, recorded live over six days with My Bloody Valentine producer Andy Savours, captures the band in their present moment, tuned up after a year of extensive touring.
4. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is the fourth studio album by British rapper Little Simz, released on 3 September 2021 by Age 101 Music and AWAL. The album succeeds the Mercury Prize-nominated album Grey Area, released in 2019, and the five-track EP, Drop 6 (2020). It is supported by five singles: “Introvert”, “Woman”, “Rollin Stone”, “I Love You, I Hate You” and “Point and Kill”. The album is produced by frequent collaborator Inflo, and includes guest appearances from Cleo Sol and Obongjayar.
3. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises: Chapter I
A body of work that’s been half a decade in the making. A cohesion of three musical visionaries. A combination of elegance, subtlety and sophistication; where jazz, electronics and strings coalesce in a perfect union. ‘Promises: Chapter I’ is a collaborative record by electronic artist and composer Floating Points (aka Sam Shepherd), iconic jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the equally legendary London Symphony Orchestra. The project was conceived across the Atlantic Ocean, with Shepherd and Sanders working out of Los Angeles, while the London Symphony Orchestra produced their parts in London at Air Studios.
2. LOW – HEY WHAT
LOW’s 13th album, HEY WHAT, has the kind of gusto you’d expect from acts on their first or second releases. As with 2018’s Double Negative, it’s an affirmation of Low as a creative force that effortlessly fits into the shape of what stylistic container it’s placed in. It’s not impossible to imagine a Low electropop album worth hearing more than once.
1. Turnstile – Glow On
Once in a while a special act comes along that shake things up. The sort of artist that makes music lovers question genre, while having no regard for tags or pigeonholes themselves. On 2018’s ‘Time & Space’, Turnstile delved deep into a sound that harnessed their penchant for punk and hardcore but branched out into soul, jazz and dance music, all in 25 minutes. Slap another ten minutes on the run time and even more deviations off into a multitude of different styles and you have the Baltimore group’s third LP ‘GLOW ON’.
Follow the entire playlist on our Spotify page:
Intro Best Albums 2021 by Adam Fink
Credits Best Albums 2021: Charles Brownstein, Alberto Dal Santo, Adam Fink, Adam Williams, Jahmeel Russell, Mimi Kenny, Greg Walker, Gregory Adams, Katie Tymochenko, Leslie Ken Chu, Stewart Wiseman and the rest of NT’s family.
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