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Best New Albums Of 2021: 20 Essential Releases Of The Year
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List & Guides

Best New Albums Of 2021: 20 Essential Releases Of The Year

From British post-punk revivalists to all that’s good in hip-hop, the best new albums of 2021 make the future seem brighter than ever.

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It feels as thought we’ve seen it all this year: the good (Kanye West ascending to the heavens in Atlanta), the bad (the shock deaths of SOPHIE and Joey Jordison) and the hopeful (Britney Spears’ conservatorship coming to an end). And through it all we’ve been treated to some great records spanning dozens of genres. Here, we count down the 20 best new albums of 2021. Seeing us through a tumultuous first year of the new decade, and with the global economy and the artistic world slowly opening back up, they make the future seem brighter than ever.

Best New Albums Of 2021: 20 Essential Releases Of The Year

20: Coldplay: ‘Music Of The Spheres’

Coldplay don’t really do “normal” albums – that is, albums that go unhyped, unnoticed or which don’t come with a concept behind them – and Music Of The Spheres is very much in keeping with that tradition, adding another ambitious record to the group’s remarkable catalogue. Since their debut with Parachutes, 21 years ago, we’ve seen Coldplay cover almost everything – from post-shoegaze to post-Britpop, art pop and most points in between – and now they find themselves traversing space-rock territory, generating an electronically charged feel-good atmosphere with songs such as Higher Power, Biutyful and, especially, My Universe, which has some help from K-Pop kings BTS. Interludes named after planetary emojis tie the expansive, intergalactic concept together.

Must hear: Biutyful

19: Marina: ‘Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land’

Formerly performing as Marina And The Diamonds, Welsh singer Marina Diamandis made her breakthrough with Hollywood, a glamourous, audacious song that examined the American dream’s failings. Now, as just MARINA, she’s onto her fifth record, and Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land is one of the best new albums of 2021. Happily forgoing her sickly-sweet yet conscious pop formula, the album’s ten well-produced tracks opt for an uplifting dose of individualism on songs such as I Love You But I Love Me More and Venus Fly Trap (“Nothing in this world could change me”). It’s not all self-absorption, though: album closer Goodbye is an honest admission that an ex-lover will always remain a best friend.

Must hear: Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land

18: Iron Maiden: ‘Senjutsu’

Senjutsu is Iron Maiden’s 17th studio album, and it marks 41 years since the release of their essential self-titled debut. Frontman Bruce Dickinson – pilot, songwriter, beer-brewer and all-round metal god – sounds just as operatic and commanding as he did since joining the legendary outfit in 1981, and Senjutsu’s epic-sounding, Japanese-influenced concept suits his theatrical performance style excellently. There’s plenty to take from this record: those fond of the group’s mammoth ballads will enjoy the title track, Powerslave-era fans will welcome the galloping riffs on Stratego, and songs such as The Time Machine seem to tie most of Maiden’s history together in a grandiose, celebratory fashion.

Must hear: Stratego

17: Saccades: ‘Flowing Fades’

First and foremost, Flowing Fades is a nostalgic record. Wholly sun-drenched and oozing with shoegaze worship, it finds Saccades creating an inviting atmosphere that’s ripe for club-goers and sun-loungers itching to get back out into the open. Opener Islands Past is a scorching delight, with subdued, Mac DeMarco-like notes lazily sliding across the track, but there is more to the album than deckchairs and cigarettes (Like Everyday somehow takes synths straight off Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime and fuses them into a late-night holidaymaker’s anthem). If Saccades’ ability to forge stunning soundscapes is anything to go by, they should be ones to watch as the 2020s continue.

Must hear: Islands Past

16: Royal Blood: ‘Typhoons’

Royal Blood’s eagerly awaited third album straddles two vastly different worlds: the rumbling, muddy underbelly of blues-rock riffs and the hazy lights and dirty dancefloors of electronic rock. The pairing is executed well, and Typhoons comfortably employs several mammoth tracks to keep both sides of the party aligned. There’s an explosive opener in the shape of Trouble’s Coming, while bombastic cuts such as Boilermaker and the title track are proof that, while they continue to build on their 2014 debut album, the phrase “seven-year itch” is not present in Royal Blood’s dictionary.

Must hear: Boilermaker

15: The Black Keys: ‘Delta Kream’

With Delta Kream, The Black Keys further reinforce their status as the sleeping giants of contemporary blues-rock. Drenched in Americana and harking back to the blues’ glory days of the 50s and beyond, each record Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney produce feels just as large as its predecessors. With their latest effort, The Black Keys pay homage to their heroes with 11 covers of songs by the likes of John Lee Hooker and Junior Kimbrough. The pair have no trouble stripping back the material in the name of authenticity (Crawling Kingsnake sounds just as raw as it would have if they’d recorded it a century ago), and the album serves as proof that original bluesmen such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson are very much omnipresent even in this new, roaring 20s.

Must hear: Crawling Kingsnake

14: Gojira: ‘Fortitude’

Along with the likes of DevilDriver, Machine Head, Mastodon and Lamb Of God, Gojira are assuredly one of the biggest metal bands of the 21st century. For two decades, the French outfit have crafted mammoth metal records, from the explosive L’Enfant Sauvage to the groove-ridden The Way Of All Flesh, and their latest release, Fortitude, finds Gojira just as fierce as ever, honing their craft to include world-influenced, bassy undertones (Amazonia) and laidback Southern rock tunes (The Chant). Fundamentally, Gojira are environmentalists; the fact that Fortitude is one of the biggest-selling metal records this year indicates that millions of metalheads are, too.

Must hear: Amazonia

13: Sweet Trip: ‘A Tiny House, In Secret Speeches, Polar Equals’

The Bay Area’s Sweet Trip gained cult fame after the release of their 2003 album, velocity : design : comfort., which was heralded as a Second Coming for shoegaze and dream pop. It’s been 12 years since their last studio album (You Will Never Know Why) and, clearly, the group, now a duo, have been reminiscing about their ethereal early days. Surviving A Smile would be a vaporwave tune if it were instrumental, and most of the tracks towards the middle of the album evoke a sense of Moon Safari-era Air, with the added layer of Valerie Cooper’s soft-as-silk vocals. Sweet Trip’s ability to switch between intelligent electronica and comfortable, rhythmic pop is proof that they can acknowledge their past while still looking to the future for inspiration, however long it may take them to follow-up this entry among the best new albums of 2021.

Must hear: Surviving A Smile

9: Madlib: ‘Sound Ancestors’

Mighty collaborator Madlib has taken no time off between the releases of Bandana (2019), The Professionals (2020) and this year’s Sound Ancestors, enlisting the help of electronic virtuoso Four Tet for a record dense with licks, loops and samples that showcase just how good a producer and beat-maker Madlib is. Easily one of the best new albums of 2021, there’s something for everyone here: from Dirtknock’s trip-hop foundations to the Daft Punk-esque The New Normal, Sound Ancestors underscores Madlib’s confession that he’s a “DJ first, producer second and MC last”.

Must hear: Dirtknock

8: Arlo Parks: ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’

Arlo Parks’ first foray into the music world is a shining one. Opening Collapsed In Sunbeams with its spoken-word title track, she instantly grounds the record – listening to it is like sitting with the singer in her kitchen in London. It isn’t long, however, before the album fully takes shape. Every track feels carefully honed: Hurt, Too Good and For Violet are complete, independent works that slot seamlessly into a record on which Parks is self-assured without being cocky, letting the immaculate details of her backing vocals form sturdy support to her gorgeously simple yet intricate take on contemporary R&B.

Must hear: Hurt

7: Goat Girl: ‘On All Fours’

Amid yet another post-punk/indie revival in British music, Shame, Squid and Black Country, New Road all deserve honourable mentions, but it’s Goat Girl’s On All Fours that brings a much-needed diversity to the table. With its necessary exploration of feminist themes, the album is a rich listen full of intriguing synth work and labyrinthine musicianship – Jazz (In The Supermarket) being the strongest example – that finds Goat Girl surpassing their stellar 2018 debut album with one of the best new albums of 2021.

Must hear: Jazz (In The Supermarket)

6: Tyler, The Creator: ‘CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST’

Tyler’s previous album, Igor, was heralded as his best work and rightly earned a Grammy for Best Rap Album. CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, however, seems to have gone under the radar. A defiant, uncompromising record that expertly matches the rapper’s love of eclectic, hazy instrumentals with his signature staunch vocal ability, tracks such as SIR BAUDELAIRE and WUSYANAME feel like accomplished extensions that only further secure Tyler’s position as one of the most talented stars of his era.

Must hear: Sir Baudelaire

5: Dean Blunt: ‘BLACK METAL 2’

BLACK METAL 2 sees an improved Dean Blunt, unafraid to experiment and toy with a plethora of genres to great effect. Impossible to truly categorise, the direct sequel to the art-pop songwriter’s 2014 effort is a more accessible effort that again showcases his penchant for straddling the avant-garde and the popularly-inclined, making for one of the best new albums of 2021 in the process. Tracks such as NIL BY MOUTH and MUGU are fine examples of Blunt’s tendency to merge the two, while lyrics covering alcoholism, street life and personal strife run throughout the album. Another chapter in Blunt’s now ten-year career, BLACK METAL 2 confirms his status as one of Britain’s most dazzling underground talents.

Must hear: Nil By Mouth

7: Injury Reserve: ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’

Injury Reserve are unafraid to push boundaries. With their early mixtapes and EPs, through to their self-titled 2017 debut album, the Arizona outfit were pigeonholed as wilful experimentalists, and, as one of the best new albums of 2021, By The Time I Get To Phoenix only furthers that reputation. Continuing to wreak havoc on convention while forcing listeners into a realm of uncompromising glitch-pop (Superman That), hard-hitting lyricism (Outside) and R&B/rap balladry (Postpostpartum), the group seem to be suggesting that, with Death Grips supposedly finished, they are next in line to take the throne of leftfield hip-hop.

Must hear: Postpostpartum

4: Czarface And MF Doom: ‘Super What?’

There’s something bittersweet about MF Doom’s first posthumous album. On the one hand, Super What? is chock full of everything great about hip-hop: original and interesting ideas enveloped in infectious instrumentals, old-school rap performances and a tidy essence of plunderphonics. On the other, MF Doom is no longer with us to consciously continue his near-immaculate legacy, leaving us to enjoy massive numbers such as Czarwyn’s Theory Of People Getting Loose and Young World on our own. Still, Czarface and the other talented few that made it onto the record (including Del The Funky Homosapien, no less) can rest assured they’ve only strengthened Doom’s legacy with yet another certified classic in the alternative hip-hop canon.

Must hear: Czarwyn’s Theory Of People Getting Loose

3: Dry Cleaning: ‘New Long Leg’

Formed in South London in 2018, Dry Cleaning fuse late-70s twangy guitar with unfazed vocals from frontwoman Florence Shaw on a fresh, humorous and unwavering debut album that stands as a testament to the quality of the current post-punk scene in Britain. A little bit Pretenders and a little bit Gang Of Four, New Long Leg wears both its heart and its influences on its sleeve. It might take a few listens to catch all the inner-monologue-like lyrics (“I’ve come here to make a ceramic shoe and I’ve come here to smash what you made” is a highlight), but repeated listens provide satisfaction in a way that only post-post-punk can.

Must hear: Scratchcard Lanyard

4: Little Simz: ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’

It’s easy to forget that Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is Little Simz’s fourth record. She’s been active since 2010 and has consistently dropped new music since releasing the Stratosphere mixtape 11 years ago. It’s been one giant leap since then, with Sometimes I Might Be Introvert scoring the London native a No.4 spot on the UK albums chart, as well as No.1 on the indie listing. Offering an array of musical experiences – smooth neo-soul on Woman; theatrical spoken-word on Gems – Interlude; grime worship on Rollin Stone – there’s a lot to take in, but it all comes together to create an early contender for one of the finest British albums of the 2020s.

Must hear: Woman (featuring Cleo Sol)

3: Shame: ‘Drunk Tank Pink’

No dreaded sophomore slump plagues South London post-punk outfit Shame. Drunk Tank Pink captures exactly what they set out to capture, and, as one of the best new albums of 2021, is a welcome follow-up to their magnificent debut, Songs Of Praise. The few initial criticisms of that record centred around frontman Charlie Steen’s apparent lack of vocal range (hint: he dismissed this on Angie, the debut’s closer), but Drunk Tank Pink does not concern itself with a change in musical approach to accommodate this. Alphabet, Born In Luton and Water In The Well are Shame at their very best: raucous, playful and unafraid to smash through the ceilings of contemporary post-punk.

Must hear: Born In Luton

2: Wolf Alice: ‘Blue Weekend’

By some accounts (including their manager’s), Wolf Alice are the best British band around today, and Blue Weekend may just be the final assurance needed to sustain that notion for the foreseeable future. Following on from huge successes in the shape of My Love Is Cool and Visions Of A Life, the album wraps up an unofficial holy trinity of original and captivating work from a band that are constantly reinventing themselves. This time, they’ve opted for a reflective record that details ghosts of the past and the throes of being in their late 20s, and the tracks that do this flawlessly (Delicious Things, How Do I Make It OK?) stand firmly as some of their finest yet.

Must hear: How Can I Make It OK?

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders And The London Symphony Orchestra: ‘Promises’

Not many would put a 30-something Mancunian electronic artist and an octogenarian free-jazz titan together. Sam Shepherd, better known as Floating Points, clearly would, as he and legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (with the assisted magic of the London Symphony Orchestra) somehow intertwine their contrasting musical backgrounds to forge one of the greatest ambient works of all time. Almost a love letter between the versatility of electronica and the immovable force of classic composition, Promises provides a wholly unique and inspiring listen that tops our list of the best new albums of 2021.

Must hear: Movement 1

You’ve seen the best new albums of 2021, now check out our best reissues of 2021.

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