The 20 Best Albums of 2021
The very best albums from the past 12 months – ranked!
What a year it was in the end.
The music business kept on going, despite numerous setbacks.
At the heart of it all – inventive, passionate, creative people creating some wonderful noise.
So, what stood out in 2021 from an album point of view?
Let's count it down – here are JOE's Best Albums of 2021...
#20. Billie Eilish | Happier Than Ever
The difficult second album cliché continues to look a bit silly when you have the likes of Billie Eilish and Happier Than Ever out there in the world.
While perhaps not as surprising as 2019 debut When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Eilish's sophomore effort benefits from a sense of familiarity.
She has built the foundations of her world – now she seeks to expand upon it.
Key Tracks: 'Oxytocin', 'Billie Bossa Nova', 'NDA'
#19. Lil Nas X | MONTERO
From social media sensation to chart-topping triumph, it's been a hell of an old town road so far for Lil Nas X.
Despite his runaway success and undeniable emergence as a legitimate pop culture icon, one couldn't help but wonder if he could compel over the course of a full album.
Or, for that matter, if he would take it seriously.
MONTERO shut those arguments down in style; showcasing emotional range and pop dexterity in equal measure.
A classic? Not quite, but clearly a record in which the artist gave every single thing he had.
Key Tracks: 'MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)', 'Industry Baby', 'Tales of Dominica'
#18. Tyler, the Creator | Call Me If You Get Lost
It would probably have been foolish to try and out-do the sky-scraping invention of IGOR, Tyler, the Creator's outstanding vibrant long-player from 2019.
And so he went the other way; diving deep into an often claustrophobic listener experience, sparking a triumphant return to rapping and once again crafting an undeniable narrative.
Key Tracks: 'Corso', 'Wusyaname', 'Juggernaut'
#17. Black Midi | Cavalcade
Outrageously pretentious or outlandishly brilliant?
Such are the kind of questions you conjure up when talking about Black Midi and their daring second album Cavalcade.
Full disclosure – this writer could not get into the London group's determinedly avant-garde approach on 2019's debut album Schlagenheim, yet this one seemed to do the trick and then some.
Honestly? You may well have the same 'No, not for me!' reaction to Cavalcade and it would be difficult to level major arguments against that, but this is a never boring, always searching bizarre symphony of a record.
Key Tracks: 'John L', 'Diamond Stuff', 'Ascending Forth'
#16. Crown | The End of All Things
Supremely moody adventure from a somewhat underground French two-piece atmospheric metal band by the name of Crown.
The End of All Things feels aptly-titled, skulking about as it does with the sense of a post-apocalyptic wasteland in the foreground, and those who survived feeling very conflicted about the world that remains.
Charmingly unvarnished vocals, strong melodies and imaginative electronica flourishes combine to great effect on an album that your angsty teenage self would have adored.
Key Tracks: 'Violence', 'Neverland', 'Utopia'
#15. Saint Sister | Where I Should End
Deserved winners of this year's Northern Irish Music Prize and almost certainly nailed on to be among the RTÉ Choice Music Prize nominations in January, Saint Sister played an absolute blinder in 2021.
The ever-captivating duo of Gemma Doherty and Morgana Macintyre found a new level of songwriting on their second album together, contrasting wounded melancholy with the brightest of possibilities on a truly beautiful journey.
Key Tracks: 'My Brilliant Friend', 'Karaoke Song', 'Any Dreams?'
#14. The War on Drugs | I Don't Live Here Anymore
Adam Granduciel has pretty much perfected his particular brand of throwback, deeply American indie rock by now to the point that his newest work comes to feel like something of a victory lap.
I Don't Live Here Anymore is admittedly not quite the near-perfect statement that was 2017's A Deeper Understanding, but its familiar trappings punch through in admirable fashion.
Shame about the artwork, but you can't have it all.
Key Tracks: 'Living Proof', 'Victim', 'Occasional Rain'
#13. Shame | Drunk Tank Pink
Released 15 days into January, Shame delivered the first great album of 2021.
The UK post-punk band has regularly been hurled into the conversation alongside the likes of IDLES, Fontaines D.C. and various other guitar bands that are keeping the genre going.
Of course, 'guitar music is dead' has long been a completely boring and easily disproven argument, often levelled by those who can't get over the fact that time moves on and the likes of Oasis can't actually live forever.
Still, it's nice to get regular shots in the arm, all the same. All the shame, maybe? No, that doesn't work. What does work, though, is Drunk Tank Pink; a tremendous, quite essential cold cup of coffee.
Key Tracks: 'Alphabet', 'Snow Day', 'Station Wagon'
#12. BROCKHAMPTON | Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine
One of the most prolific acts in all of music right now; Brockhampton overcame some difficult personal issues and shook off the 'hipster boy band' tag that stuck to them like glue with their sixth studio album.
Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine is one of the most arresting yet meandering – in a good way! – listens of 2021, as likely to draw you into a mosh pit as it is to provoke an existential crisis.
Everyone in the US-based collective – which includes Belfast producer Ciarán McDonald, a.k.a. Bearface – gets a chance to shine here, whether engaging in tragic real-life flashbacks or simply inhabiting that few others can create.
Key Tracks: 'Buzzcut', 'The Light', 'Don't Shoot Up The Party'
#11. Snail Mail | Valentine
Having dazzled the indie world with her debut offering Lush in 2018, Snail Mail's Lindsey Jordan nailed the next chapter with almost alarming ease.
Still just 22, Jordan brings a fascinating world-weariness to her art, gifting new life to old ideas as she traverses matters of the heart quite expertly.
All in a little over 30 minutes, too. Magic.
Key Tracks: 'Valentine', 'Ben Franklin', 'Glory'
#10. Mogwai | As the Love Continues
Proof that the good guys win sometimes came in the form of Scottish post-rock titans Mogwai finally landing a UK number one album after 24 years of trying.
Sure, climbing to the top of the charts may not mean what it once did in terms of the actual amount of units shifted in order to get there, but for a hard-working independent band like Mogwai, it felt like a victory.
More to the point, As the Love Continues – their 10th studio album, no less – unlocked some fresh gems from a band that has always tested the glass ceiling.
Mogwai's style of almost exclusively instrumental music can arguably only so far but they're intent to keep finding new, frequently life-affirming paths for us to follow them down.
Key Tracks: 'To The Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate Earth', 'Richie Sacramento', 'Supposedly, We Were Nightmares'
#9. Halsey | If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power
Halsey pulled off one of the smartest coups in recent years when she successfully convinced Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to come on board and produce their newest album.
If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power represents a major tonal shift for a pop star that had maybe yet to fully capture their identity across the course of a project.
From the opening seconds – which harken back to Reznor and Ross' work on The Social Network, particularly 'Hand Covers Bruise' – it's clear that we're listening to a deeply personal statement.
And that's the crux here – yes, Halsey engaging two of the world's most sought-after producers to work on a pop album instead of a film score was a masterstroke, but this is without question a uniquely Halsey album.
Not only that, it's infinitely more interesting take on motherhood and relationship strife than the Adele album you got your mum for Christmas.
Key Tracks: 'The Tradition', 'I Am Not a Woman, I'm a God', 'The Lighthouse'
#8. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis | Carnage
The first non-score album from Nick Cave & Warren Ellis that doesn't feature the Bad Seeds branding; Carnage is yet another gut-wrenching, soul-searching assault on the senses from the pair.
Recent years have imposed intensely difficult circumstances upon Nick Cave in particular, with the loss of his teenage son Arthur reflected in 2016's Skeleton Tree and magnified in 2019's Ghosteen.
Carnage isn't exactly a sunshine-laden change of pace, but it confirms what longtime fans have known forever – these two men make each other better – as performers and as people.
Key Tracks: 'Hand of God', 'White Elephant', 'Balcony Man'
#7. Kanye West | Donda
Donda, the 10th studio album from Kanye West, is without question an exhausting experience.
Finally materialising without ceremony on a Sunday afternoon after weeks - nay months – of hype and teases, Kanye's 27-track, near two-hour-long epic is a notably problematic record even before you get to the involvement of the likes of Marilyn Manson, DaBaby and Chris Brown.
There is simply too much content here. If you detest Kanye, this will only add further ammunition to your weapon of choice. If you adore Kanye, you're placed in the difficult position of thinking there is a genuinely amazing work of art in here, but only if you get it down to about 10 or 11 tracks.
Donda contains some of his best songs in years – 'Jesus Lord pt 2' might be an all-time top five effort, for instance – but it's also messy and overwhelming. That said, it doesn't feel 109 minutes long and it's clear that Kanye West has realised yet another extremely Kanye West vision.
The question is; how much of it can you stomach?
Key Tracks: 'Moon', 'Come to Life', 'Jesus Lord pt 2'
#6. Parannoul | To See the Next Part of the Dream
A year in music gives one the chance to discover a previously completely unheralded artist, even those who would prefer to keep their real identity a secret.
Little is known about Parannoul apart from the fact that they are an anonymous student based in South Korea who, if their official profile is anything to go by, don't have a high opinion of themselves.
"This is an album about a person whose body is an adult but mind is still a child, due to the wide gap between ideal and reality," notes the artist in question.
"He believes he is talented, and he thinks he will definitely become a world tour rock star in the future. In reality, however, he had never played a guitar while he was 21, his singing skills are fucking awful, and is below average in height and appearance and everything.
"How will he react now, who has just faced reality as an adult after adolescence?"
All of which reads extremely harsh especially when you take this album into consideration – nothing else released in 2021 sounds like this. A three-line description wouldn't do it justice.
Trust this writer. Seek it out today.
Key Tracks: 'Beautiful World', 'White Ceiling', 'I Can Feel My Heart Touching You'
#5. Vince Staples | Vince Staples
There's a strange narrative surrounding Vince Staples and his fourth studio album; that being that the wildly talented hip-hop artist somehow isn't 'fun' anymore.
This feels like a weird thing to throw at a guy who broke out in 2015 with Summertime '06, a searing double album that took no prisoners while announcing a fearless new star who wasn't exactly shy about the darkness that had informed his life up until that point.
Staples' self-titled chronicle gets a lot done in 22 minutes and while it certainly eschews bangers in favour of numerous inner conflicts, its author is once again in peerless form.
Key Tracks: 'Are You With That?', 'Law of Averages', 'Take Me Home'
#4. For Those I Love | For Those I Love
Though it first surfaced in the summer of 2019, the astonishing, finally properly re-released debut album from For Those I Love a.k.a. Dublin spoken-word artist and producer David Balfe, is a bolt of electricity felt all too rare in recent years.
An unflinching and raw tribute to a departed best friend, For Those I Love encompasses a myriad of emotions and societal issues against a backdrop of infectious samples and pulsating electronica flourishes.
Though conceived to honour a select group of people, the music and Balfe's spirited delivery allow the listener to project their own life experience upon a most vivid canvas, the result true and unforgettable communion.
Key Tracks: 'I Have a Love', 'The Shape of You', 'Birthday / The Pain'
#3. Turnstile | Glow On
In terms of pure joy, Turnstile's Glow On is really rather hard to beat.
Something of a breakthrough album for the Baltimore hardcore punk outfit – it's their third overall – Glow On is a wonderfully relentless listen, one that makes you crave the sweaty intimacy of cramped dive bar gigs where you inevitably leave having acquired both new friends and bruises for your trouble.
Throw in the presence of the always-welcome Blood Orange to lend some heavenly pop stylings here and there and you have one of the most daring, guitar-powered pop albums of this or any other year.
Key Tracks: 'Blackout', 'Holiday', 'Alien Love Call'
#2. The Armed | Ultrapop
And if you really can't get enough of daring, guitar-powered pop albums, well, I give you The Armed.
Ultrapop feels somewhat of an ironic title given the sheer amount of distortion laced throughout this album but then you'd expect to find tongue firmly in cheek from a collective that up until recently were entirely anonymous.
Even with their grand unveiling in early 2021, many still speculate as to whether or not actors have been hired to pretend to be in this group. When the music is this fantastic, frankly, who cares?
Key Tracks: 'All Futures', 'An Iteration', 'Average Death'
#1. Deafheaven | Infinite Granite
And finally, our number one album of 2021 goes to Deafheaven.
Long saddled with the 'hipster black metal' tag, the Californian band have been leaving a high-pitched impression for the past decade.
During that time, they released Sunbather, a genuine masterpiece that threatened to register as some kind of never-again mountain of quality. Though strong albums would follow, another flawless statement looked to be beyond them.
At least until Infinite Granite came along, dialling down frontman George Clarke's divisive witch-like shriek in favour of a full commitment to more mellow new romantic stylings previously hinted at.
To finish, I'll just go ahead and say that maybe my most favourite thing about music is when it provokes a physical reaction and takes you to another world entirely.
Infinite Granite does that. You can see this thing. You can live there. And it's exceptional.