With another chaotic year behind us it’s time to reflect on the records that got us through 2021. Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic for artists, it’s been another stellar year for music, with young popstars building on their promise, indie-rock stalwarts trying on a new skin, and modern hip hop icons reaffirming their position at the top of the game. Let’s just hope gigs are finally back for good in 2022 and we can finally hear these new songs in a live setting.
Without further ado, here are the 8 best albums of 2021, in alphabetical order. As always, we’ve put together a Spotify playlist with a little taster from each record—just scroll to the end to listen now. Don’t forget to check out our list of the best Irish albums of 2021 either, which you can find here.
Billie Eilish | Happier Than Ever
On the young superstar’s second album, she contends with the trappings of fame and somehow evokes sympathy in the listener—an impressive feat considering how unrelatable the difficulties of stardom are for most of us. Lyrically, this could easily make for an alienating record—see another highly-anticipated pop album released in 2021 that we won’t name—but Eilish has the songwriting chops to present the complexities of fame with endearing honesty.
Working alongside her brother Finneas once again, Eilish leans into more vintage influences, trading the menacing electronic backdrop of her Grammy-winning debut for something warmer and, often, more restrained. Early in the running order, a genre experiment like ‘Billie Bossa Nova’ hints at a desire to expand beyond the confines of the sound established on the first album, and by the end we arrive at a fully-fledged stadium rock anthem with the title track. Happier Than Ever confirms what we all suspected—Billie Eilish’s breakout debut was no flash in the pan, she’s here to stay.
Highlights: ‘Oxytocin’/’Happier Than Ever’/’Male Fantasy’
Dry Cleaning | New Long Leg
The droll stream-of-consciousness diary of Florence Shaw could be grating in the wrong hands, but the Dry Cleaning frontwoman manages to pull it off here. Accompanied by bandmates Lewis Maynard, Tom Dowse, and Nick Buxton, Shaw delivers observations on the tragicomedy of contemporary urban life over a backdrop of taut post-punk hooks. The lyrical snapshots captured by Shaw are the internal monologue of a dreary generation, ranging from the absurd to the profound—and they’re often very funny too.
In ‘Strong Feelings’, the narrator surmises herself with self-deprecating wit in the lines, “Just an emo dead stuff collector, things come to the brain/I spent £17 on mushrooms for you/’Cause I’m silly.” On ‘Scratchcard Lanyard’, arguably the highpoint of the record, she offers up lyrics that are brutally relatable in their sheer mundanity: “It’ll be okay, I just need to be weird and hide for a bit/And eat an old sandwich from my bag.” It’s in this ability to find profundity in the dim glow of the everyday that Dry Cleaning elevate their work beyond the sum of its parts.
Highlights: ‘Scratchcard Lanyard’/’Her Hippo’/’New Long Leg’
Grouper | Shade
Shade, the latest record from the inimitable Liz Harris, showcases the breadth of her talent across nine tracks and thirty-five minutes. With songs written over the past fifteen years, Shade almost acts like something of a career retrospective for Grouper. Not so much a greatest hits album, but a tasting menu for the rich depth of Grouper’s output to date, offering something fresh for longtime fans, while also serving as a neat entry point for newcomers.
Harris melds field recordings with whispery vocals to invite the listener into her sphere of existence, creating an incredible level of intimacy— with the hiss of the tape, the slide of her fingers along the strings, and the hushed vocals, you’re encouraged to lean in and sit right there with her. Strikingly, the conventional singer-songwriter elements of the vocal and the acoustic guitar are as exposed here as they have ever been on a Grouper record. While the lo-fi, woozy echo of ‘Disordered Minds’ veers into something resembling a straight-up noise rock song, ‘The way her hair falls’ offers sweet, stripped back romance: “There’s only me to see something pretty inside the day/The way her hair falls.” Some of the elements may be familiar, but Harris makes music unlike anyone else, and Shade is an immensely rewarding album of near-endless depth.
Highlights: ‘Unclean mind’/’Ode to the blue’/’Disordered Minds’
Japanese Breakfast | Jubilee
The third album from Michelle Zauner feels like a definitive moment for Japanese Breakfast. Having spent her past two albums dealing in grief due to her mother’s pancreatic cancer treatment (2016 debut Psychopomp) and eventual passing (Soft Sounds From Another Planet from 2017), Zauner announced her third record with an accompanying mission statement in which she declared that she was ready to write an album about joy.
Jubilee more than lives up to its name and billing as Zauner delivers a wonderfully bright and colourful indie pop celebration that concerns itself more deeply with melody than either of its predecessors, while losing none of the magic that made Japanese Breakfast so engaging to begin with.
Highlights: ‘Paprika’/‘Be Sweet’/‘Savage Good Boy’
Lucy Dacus | Home Video
In the follow up to her acclaimed 2018 record Historian Lucy Dacus looks back on her youth in Richmond, Virginia through the lens of adulthood. It’s a nostalgic, affecting journey into the past, as Dacus confronts her teenage struggles with sexuality, religion, and repression, ruminating on the interconnected nature of those powerful forces. These themes are as universal as they come, and those familiar with such coming-of-age narratives will no doubt relate, but the precision of Dacus’s songwriting is evocative of a very specific time and place, unique to her own youth.
Forbidden desires rumble against the backdrop of churches and bible camps, as we journey through vignettes of a young Dacus fantasising her way out of an oft-oppressive environment. The richness of her storytelling channels the best of Bruce Springsteen—Dacus’s lyrical north star—but her stories are entirely her own. Nowhere is her craft better realised than on the record’s closing track, ‘Triple Dog Dare.’ With juvenile optimism, the young narrator boils it all down to a microcosm of Home Video’s escapist imagination: “It’s a triple dog dare, you’re a chicken if you don’t.” Dacus has explored her past on prior records No Burden and Historian, but never with this level of clarity or storytelling nous—Home Video is her best album to date.
Highlights: ‘First Time’/’Going Going Gone’/’Triple Dog Dare’
Snail Mail | Valentine
Partially written while living back at home in Baltimore during the pandemic, the second record from Lindsey Jordan under the moniker Snail Mail is a huge leap for the young musician, both lyrically and sonically. Expanding on the hooky indie rock of her debut album Lush—though there are still plenty of tight, grunge-influenced hooks here too—Valentine incorporates synths and strings to build a richer sonic palette. The depth of songwriting has expanded beyond that of the debut as well, with Jordan drawing on her life experience in the intervening years for lyrical inspiration. She has dropped words like “catharsis” and “therapy” when discussing the album in interviews and, upon listening, it’s evident why.
Title track ‘Valentine’ is full of frustration and yearning, with Jordan inhabiting the anger arising from a breakup, a component often underrepresented in songwriting in favour of more straightforward sadness. Elsewhere, ‘Ben Franklin’ deals with a stint in rehab, while the gorgeous ‘Light Blue’ is a declarative statement of intense love: “I wanna wake up early every day/Just to be awake/In the same world as you.” Jordan is an honest assessor of her own faults, refusing to hide her insecurities or shield herself from the truth and it makes for a compelling half-hour as she processes heartbreak, rage and, ultimately, something approaching relief. Valentine is a record of growth for Snail Mail, reaffirming her position as one of the sharpest songwriters in indie rock.
Highlights: ‘Valentine’/’Ben Franklin’/’Light Blue’
St. Vincent | Daddy’s Home
After distinguishing herself as one of the most acclaimed and engrossing alternative artists of the past decade and change, the chameleonic Annie Clark returned with a brand new sound for a fresh era of St. Vincent on Daddy’s Home. Clark reinvents herself once again on her sixth studio album as we find our protagonist down and out in New York on a record that vividly snapshots the smoke and glamour of mid-seventies Manhattan while immaculately recapturing the psychedelic sound of its era.
Channelling the iconic figures of its time in Bowie, Reed, and Prince, Clark and production wizard Jack Antonoff execute a dazzling blend of funk, soul and jazz to paint a fluorescent portrait of 1970s NY, all subtly wrapped in a light electronic package that will just about remind you that you’re listening to a record in 2021. It’s another major success for St. Vincent as Annie Clark effortlessly transforms once more while delivering another unique entry into an already vastly impressive discography.
Highlights: ‘Pay Your Way In Pain’/’Down’/’…At The Holiday Party’
Tyler, the Creator | CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
An album that simultaneously boasts the production wizardry and profound songcraft of Flower Boy and IGOR while unleashing the hard bars and raucous energy levels that captivated audiences originally on early highlights Bastard and Wolf, Tyler’s sixth album is a hybrid in the best sense, containing a multitude of all the elements that have made the enigmatic rapper such a fascinating artist to behold then and now.
CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST finds an artist confronting his contentious past by skilfully incorporating and updating his previous work into the present, all the while adding yet another layer of eclecticism to his modern form. Blink and you’ll miss it though—you can rest assured that CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST is as much the beginning of a new chapter as it is the closing of a classic trilogy for the recently turned 30-year-old. As he enters a new decade in his life, the man who once proclaimed himself a walking paradox sounds more at ease with himself than ever before.
Highlights: ‘LUMBERJACK‘/‘SWEET/I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE’/‘WILSHIRE’