My top 10 albums: 2021

My top 10 albums from 2021

Well 2021 was at least a bit better than 2020 overall, wasn’t it?  After my marathon blogging efforts in 2020 I was much quieter over the last 12 months, but here are my top 10 albums of 2021 with accompanying Spotify playlist too (and you can see my corresponding list for 2020 here).

There’s definitely a bias towards old favourite artists of mine this year – but also some fresh selections including my number 1 pick, 36 minutes of jangly pop perfection that deserved much more attention than it received.   So, let’s count down from 10 to 1…

10. “Open Door Policy” by The Hold Steady

A slightly more subdued affair than 2019’s return to form Thrashing Thru The Passion, February’s Open Door Policy nonetheless continued the momentum from Franz Nicolay’s welcome return to one of the greatest live rock’n’roll bands around.  And so although The Hold Steady had to give their usual London residency a miss this March, they part compensated with a pair of live streams that did as good a job as possible of creating the euphoria of their actual gigs, where it became apparent that many of the songs from this then newly released album could nestle comfortably within the Steady canon.

9. “Flock” by Jane Weaver

A real grower of an album, March’s Flock saw Jane Weaver realise her retro/future pop visions impeccably.  Led off by the heavily rotated 6Music favourite Heartlow, Flock was full of similarly delightful pop tunes, recalling Stereolab, Broadcast and The Human League all at once.  And a great gig at Hackney Wick’s 9294 in early December really helped to seal my affection and elevate this into my personal top 10 of the year.

8. “Utopian Ashes” by Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth

Perhaps re-energised by some great career spanning Primal Scream gigs in 2019, Bobby Gillespie teamed up with Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth plus the rest of the Scream team (Innes, Duffy etc) to make perhaps the most pleasantly surprising album of 2021: July’s Utopian Ashes.  A clear homage to the classic duet projects from the likes of Gram and Emmylou, Lee and Nancy – and so therefore something very easy to get horribly wrong – instead Utopian Ashes turned out to be the most satisfying Primal Scream record since 2000’s ferocious XTRMNTR.

7. “Sympathy For Life” by Parquet Courts

Continuing on from the widescreen thrills of 2018’s Wide Awake!, October’s Sympathy For Life kicks off with the aptly titled Walking at a Downtown Pace and careers through a pick’n’mix of wayward pop confections. An album with a real sense of fun, “Sympathy For Life” was just the tonic to ward off the general tone of introspection and bored people reading their shopping lists that seemed to be omnipresent elsewhere in the indie rock world this year.

6. “Carnage” by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

By contrast, Carnage was a decidedly non-frivolous album, but a highly welcome palate cleanser for us Nick Cave obsessives non-plussed by 2019’s Ghosteen – aka the over-praised Nick Cave album by journalists who don’t really like Nick Cave.  Promoting Warren Ellis to co-headliner status, February’s Carnage instead picked up the baton from the sparse electronic experiments of 2016’s sublime Skeleton Tree, and added welcome extra heft on the likes of Hand of God and White Elephant.  It was then also a welcome treat to return to gig going in the company of this agreeably cantankerous duo at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls in September.

5. “I’ve Been Trying To Tell You” by Saint Etienne

Another welcome revelation of an album by a band 30 years after releasing a classic (see also number 8), I’ve Been Trying To Tell You sounds nothing like all like previous Saint Etienne records, yet still has their unmistakeable stamp.  This was a reinvention partly driven by Covid as Bob, Pete and Sarah all recorded their ideas remotely, backed up by a range of samples from barely remembered late 90s pop hits.  The loose concept was to evoke that optimistic period of time – also achieved through its ambient charms recalling contemporaneous acts such as Boards of Canada and even (on Blue Kite) My Bloody Valentine.  As with Jane Weaver’s Flock, I’ve Been Trying To Tell You was another record that took a little while to really embed itself, but I’m very glad it did; likely my most played album since its September release.

4. “Infinite Granite” by Deafheaven

After being surprised by Haim making no.4 in my 2020 list, this year’s fourth spot again comes from unlikely quarters: the “blackgaze” of San Francisco’s Deafheaven.  Known for blending the perhaps improbable bedfellows of black metal and shoegaze, 2013’s heavily praised sophomore album Sunbather wasn’t a record I could really get on with.  However, dialling down the vocal histrionics and amping up the dreampop on August’s “Infinite Granite” proved much more appetising – to me at least.  This change in direction has apparently proved somewhat divisive but I’m all up for the crystalline riffs and controlled onslaughts that Infinite Granite delivers.

3. “Sweep It Into Space” by Dinosaur Jr

April’s Sweep It Into Space is the fifth album by the classic Dinosaur trio of J, Lou and Murph since their triumphant reunion in 2005 – and continues their perhaps unlikely long streak of great records since getting back together.  Has there ever been a rock band that has reformed so successfully and consistently produced music that stands up to their classic era?  Just compare and contrast with their contemporaries Pixies for example.  Anyway, Sweep It Into Space had a slightly lighter touch than its more sludgy predecessor Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, albeit still with plenty of trademark J Mascis guitar action.  And as well as the pop magic of lead single I Ran Away, Garden really stands out, one of Lou Barlow’s best tunes in years. 

2. “Seeking New Gods” by Gruff Rhys

After somewhat losing track of Gruff’s solo output over the last few years, May’s Seeking New Gods came to my attention due to its great lead-off single Loan Your Loneliness.  This was to prove the gateway to a collection of songs that I think outranks 2011’s Hotel Shampoo, and perhaps even edges all Super Furry Animals albums bar Radiator (high praise indeed!?).   As usual with a Gruff Rhys LP, Seeking New Gods is based around a loose concept – this time about an ancient volcano on the China/North Korea border – but it’s up to the listener how much they want to read into this, or just get enveloped in the beautifully melancholic melodies throughout.  I generally opt for the latter.  And Gruff’s pride and confidence in the album was evident from him choosing to play it start to finish on his October tour, including a really fun gig at Camden’s Electric Ballroom.

1. “Cooler Returns” by Kiwi Jr

My favourite album of 2021 has many similarities with my favourite album of 2020: both are a band’s second album of jangly pop tunes released on Sub Pop.  But whereas Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have crossed over to relative success, Kiwi Jr remain something of a niche concern.  Hailing from Toronto, Kiwi Jr first came to my attention upon Cooler Returns’ release in January, when in quick succession I saw tweets praising the album from Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn and one of my favourite music journos Michael Hann as well as a trusted mate’s text doing the same.  And yes, Kiwi Jr’s sparky but spiky songs would sit firmly in any Venn diagram of my favourite ever guitar bands – with Pavement, Parquet Courts and The Hold Steady all cited in reviews by both Pitchfork and The Guardian.  Anyway, Cooler Returns comprises 13 songs of playfully sardonic glee that I couldn’t stop returning to in 2021– and I’m just hoping Kiwi Jr can make it to London in February for their planned gigs over here.

…and my top album of December 2020: “We Will Always Love You” by The Avalanches

But according to Spotify*, Cooler Returns was not my most played album of 2020 – instead that honour goes to We Will Always Love You by The Avalanches.  Released at the tail end of last year, on 11th December 2020, this is retrospectively a big miss from my top 10 of 2020 (which I published on 6th December 2020). 

A wonderfully ambitious album with a huge roll call of guest stars – including everyone from Johnny Marr to Tricky, Neneh Cherry to Perry Farrell, Kurt Vile to Karen O etc – We Will Always Love You is a fantastic dance/space rock hybrid which sounds to me like the third record in a trilogy starting with Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, travelling through Daft Punk’s Discovery to end up here.  Hard to pick out stand-out tracks, this is a double album to dive deep into and properly explore – it’s well worth the trip.

*I’d like to also make it clear that I bought physical copies of all these records in 2021 – great to have of course, but I’m also old fashioned in that I’d quite like musicians that bring so much joy to actually get properly rewarded for it too.

Honourable mentions: 5 more great albums from 2021

  • “Endless Arcade” by Teenage Fanclub
  • “Jubilee” by Japanese Breakfast
  • “Barn” by Neil Young & Crazy Horse
  • “La Mort Du Sens” by Gnod
  • “Earth Man Blues” by Guided By Voices

Spotify Playlist: My 21 from 2021

Featuring songs from my favourite albums plus a couple of other favourite tunes from the year…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s