music / Columns

The Top 100 Albums of 2021 (#100 – 51): Kanye West, Lil Nas X, Adele, More

January 3, 2022 | Posted by David Hayter
Kanye West - Donda

2021 had it’s up and downs, but from a music lovers perspective it was a massive improvement on 2020 as live music returned across the world.

Nothing can rival the outpouring of pent up emotion and energy unleashed as artists desperate to perform met crowds longing for magic of the collective experience. Thousands of bodies, voices and spirits moved as one once more. Nevertheless, while live music stole the headlines, 2021 was another tremendous year for the album spurred on by artists who used 12 months of lockdown to collect their thoughts, experiment and evolve.

Only one question remains, who will top 411’s much loved, but entirely arbitrary album of the year countdown: let’s find out.

Disclaimer: As I note every year, I am only one man and I can’t listen to every great album released in 2021, so if you’re favorite is missing, there’s a good chance I haven’t heard it yet – so dive into the comments and spread the love.

100. Kanye West – Donda [Rap]

Ultimately, the trouble with Donda is that there’s too damn much of it. Few albums should run for nearly two hours, let alone ones that are patently unfinished and un-edited. At points it becomes almost impossible to tell good from bad. Could “Heaven and Hell” be Kanye’s great breaking point moment when, confronted by so much brutality, he falls back on his faith for psychological survival, or is an over-simplistic flow that drags on for far too long? Who can honestly say? Donda’s bigness destroys any and all context. It’s not a sharp and incisive commentary on the struggle that comes from being caught somewhere between left and right, rich and poor, devout and faithless. Nor is it an explosion of religiosity destined to honor West’s mother and cleanse his sins. Nor is it a dark and hard rap record destined to redefine and revolutionize worship music. Donda is simply too sloppy, too unfocused, and too sprawling to mean much of anything to anyone. Kanye West clearly cannot focus on a single artistic vision and he can no longer finish what he starts, for this reason there is little point listening to Donda in its entirety in current form. Nevertheless, I will return to many of its strongest cuts (like the divinely understated and oddly joyful “Believe What I Say”) in isolation and hope that one day I will hear the serenely tender “Moon” and “Jesus Lord” in their proper context – rather than on my own faith and struggle centric Donda playlist.

If I told you that a soulful Kanye West would spit his hardest and most timely bars over a selection of retro-futuristic noir beats with an inspired selection of guest stars who all bring their A-game (with the exception of Baby Keem), by all rights you’d expect a masterpiece. Instead, we have a deeply frustratingly muddle. Kanye might be masterful adept at detailing the tug of war between his impulsive excesses and spiritual beliefs, but he has lost his sharply honed artistic vision.

Donda is definitive proof that Kanye West is not washed, but he is lost.

99. Royal Blood – Typhoons [Rock]

Brighton based bass and drums duo, Royal Bloods are one of modern rock music’s great success stories. In the wake of the indie revival’s demise, in an age when guitar music’s obituaries were being written with alarming regularity and with little or no press, Royal Blood’s debut album shot to the top of the charts. Suddenly, a new generation of would-be moshers had a pair of heroes nonchalantly dispensing blistering riffs and earworm hooks. Royal Blood are arena headliners without the voice-of-a-generation baggage of Arctic Monkeys. Their albums arrive with little or no expectation and perhaps it’s that freedom that makes their transition to the dancefloor so effortless. Josh Homme’s arrival in the production booth no doubt encouraged their slide towards sleazier and more danceable grooves. Typhoons is an album that struts, vamps, purrs and smashes its way across the floor blending good and bad taste with a joyful disregard. This is a welcome evolution, Mike Kerr can be an overly literal and dreary songwriter at times, but in these sticky and subversive surrounds he feels free to be his most ridiculous self.

The blend of Royal Bloods typically brazen, static-laced assault with a heavy dose of Human After All era Daft Punk/Justice influences and Homme’s typically filthy and frivolous desert rock is a surprisingly natural fit. The result is oddly 80s, not in terms of sound, not remotely, but in the sense of the freedom that Royal Blood have discovered. Typhoons is so far removed from any notion of cool that the band can simply indulge their silliest and most surreal ideas – like the plinky plonky, falsetto-driven, accordion riff riding nonsense of “Either You Want It”. Of course, being a Royal Blood record, ever foray onto the dancefloor is backed by a bulldozing and tightly coiled riff as well as a dose of authority question paranoia. Sometimes the boys just cut loose and dive headlong into glorious gibberish. “Boilermaker” starts like a classic creepy rocker, stalking the streets with an antisocial unease, but it explodes into a hook so preposterous I can hardly believe Mike Kerr is singing it: “head like a cocktail shaker, living in a house like an old bodega”. How this disco-glam-alt rock romper stomper of a record concludes with “All We Have Is Now”, a longing Lennon-through-the-prism-of-Noel ballad that finds itself slowly melting into space I’ll never truly know. It’s just one more contradiction on a gloriously absurd LP.

98. Faye Webster – I know I’m Funny haha [Folk]

Atlanta songwriter Faye Webster’s fourth album serves as a reminder that sometimes a giant leap forward can come from taking a step back. I Know I’m Funny haha is the singer’s most conventional release to date: the production, while not exactly nostalgic, is straightforward. This is music that is beautiful and touching, but never flashy or distracting. Instead, Faye is given plenty of room to languish, reflect and drift on album that is almost drearily romantic. Her vocals are both fragile and luscious; her songs are quiet heartbreakers that never threaten to blossom into traditional ballads. Instead, Faye is content to drift on ripples of uncertainty as tears begin to stain her cheeks. The sound of this record is routinely divine, a somber slow groover that’s destined to pull many an unsuspecting listener into a week-long malaise. I Know I’m Funny haha is one long beautiful bummer.

97. CHAI – WINK [PUNK/R&B]

Well, well, well, this is a pleasant surprise. The sultry melodic and dreamy drift that lurked almost imperceptibly behind the raucous punk and agit-pop stylings of both Punk and Pink has been thrust into the foreground on Wink. Chai, the Japanese punk crossover stars, are no longer thrashing and are instead lounging on a series of luxurious and pillowy textures. Album opener, ‘Donuts Mind If I Do’, sets the done with its ungodly velvety textures as hanging organ tones and flourishes of guitar seem to drift endlessly. Chai’s punk spirit remains in the knowingly goading and ever-so-slightly out of tune singing, but these diversions are slight. The Japanese fourpiece have apparently internalised two decades of Western R&B in a year or less. “Maybe Chocolate Chips” cements the transition, as Mana’s vocals are skeletal, possessing a wonderfully sleepy and adlibbed aura sitting either side of a Ric Wilson’s rapped verse (yes you read that correctly). Chai have a gift for subversion, talking the most glorious and self-serious textures of grown up electronica and analogue R&B and blending them with punk-ish condescension and the raw joy of J-Pop. The end result is almost bewilderingly life-affirming. Chai are a four woman good vibes factory: a perfect blend of yawning drawls, coy cheekiness, oddball strangeness and genuine likeability.

This sense of freedom and experimentation makes Wink one of the year’s most surprising listens. “END” is a wild ride; a perfect hybrid of classic Chemical Brothers’ elasticity and Fat Boy Slim’s big beat bombast that soundtracks a wilfully absurd series of school girl chants (‘shut up, you go home and cool off’). Alternative R&B, lounge pop, big beat, glitch pop, deep house, neu-disco flourishes; Wink is one of those daffy records that feels coherent even as it branches off on a million little micro-deviations. Chai strangeness somehow holds everything together. “It’s Vitamin C” simply shouldn’t work. The instrumental blends intergalactic sparkles of sound with a powerfully heavy staggered piano line, while the vocals, which slowly float downstream one moment, are spat out like a spikey school girl rap the next. If there’s a criticism, it’s that Wink begins to sedately simmer as it approaches the final straight, with the band’s newfound soothing impulses beginning to dominate. Not that it matters, even in their most blissed out and scatter-brained moments, Chai’s music remains irrepressibly fun.

96. GARBAGE – NO GODS NO MASTERS [ROCK]

Shirley Manson is not fucking around and she certainly isn’t taking any prisoners. She is sick to death of a world ruled by greed, predatory men, racist institutions and both social and economic inequality. Far from running through this laundry list of socio-economic woes with a despairing woe-is-me-shrug or by delivering a high-minded lecture, she instead decides to, for a lack of a better term, throat fuck her enemies into oblivion. No Gods No Masters is not interested in compromise or increments, Garbage want to tear down the walls, crush the façade, shatter the illusion and rip apart our institutions. Shirley isn’t providing a cry-for-help, she is declaring war. This is zero-sum: win or everybody dies. The cool and alluring vocals of yesteryear are jettisoned and there is no swirling in the mix. Instead, she is right up in the listener’s face, while Garbage pound and pulse through a series of brazenly bombastic electro-rock squealers. Every inch of this record seethes. The drums thud and smash, the guitars drive and crash, and the electronics crassly pound and wiggle as Shirley puts on her 12” strap-on and shoves it directly down the throat of the patriarchy, the music industry executives and, well, anyone else whose happened to look at her the wrong way. In a cooler moment on “The Chemicals”, Manson reveals that redemption and forgiveness are now impossible; “Jesus wouldn’t save my soul, he checked out when we lost control; the end of the world we can never save”. Instead, the only heaven we can hope reach is a narcotic induced oblivion. No matter which way we turn, erasure waits: either the past is burned and the present radically reimagined or we plunge to the depths of absolute nothingness. Whether you agree with Manson’s thesis or not matters little, No Gods No Masters is a bravura rock and roll performance. Good taste is sacrificed for the sake of shock and while the more-is-more philosophy may be simply too much for some, that is the entire point of the record. Shirley wants you to wake the fuck up. Comfort is not an option, only phlegm spewing rage is acceptable.

95. J. Cole – The Off Season [Rap]

So with rhymes this deep, unobtrusive beats that mostly bang and a dose of hard-earned braggadocio, The Off Season must be an album of the year shoe in? Well not quite. Cole is wise and a marvel on the mic, but he’s also ridiculous petty. To his credit, this is a failing that he beautifully details on “pride.is.the.devil”; a track that exposes how trying to protect a fragile ego leads to an endless void of misery. Sadly, Cole proves too headstrong to take his own advice, as The Off Season quickly becomes obsessed with self-justification. Rap is a genre beset by big boasts and ludicrous claims, but that’s part of the fun. Cole’s problem is that he takes it all far too seriously. He tries to present himself as entirely above the fray, but in doing so he feels craven for recognition. At times The Off Season feels like the ‘but actually…’ of modern hip hop. Cole never misses an opportunity to humorlessly remind his audience how fast his concerts sold out, how wise his wisdom truly is, or to point out how his street level respect is more valuable than any short-term accolades. Nine times out of ten, he’s right, but that doesn’t make it remotely interesting to hear him drone on about his ‘pussy’ rivals and, at times, he feels outright hypocritical.

The Off Season feels paradoxical, like a press release informing everyone who’ll listen that Cole doesn’t care what the world thinks. Still, even in his most tiresome moments, Cole ensures that “punchin’.the.cloud” and “hunger.on.hillside” are shot through with harrowing moments of violent introspection (‘the shit pop off, I learned to duck under the canopy, till it cool off…died over a cross, just like the start of Christianity’). He might be a touch too condescending and lacking a little originality in his tales, but for all his ills there’s no denying the joy of hearing Cole spin a web of rhyme. He is a virtuoso and one of the greatest pleasures in modern music, be it on “amari” or “close”, is to simple sit back and listen rapt as Cole’s neural pathways fire at lightening speed as he leads the listener on a merry dance of intricate and twisting rhyme.

94. Remi Wolf – Juno [Pop]

Juno is the perfect encapsulation of the sex-positive, swagger dripping, life-is-awesome strain of 21st Century pop music. Sure, there’s plenty of neurosis underwriting Remi Wolf’s rainbow vomit full of optimism, but it’s never enough to kill the buzz. Juno is underwritten by excitement. Wolf is thrilled to discover new old sounds, 90s fashions, fresh fucks and new experiences. She’s not remotely glamorous and she’s often more than a little fucked up, but she’s always diving headlong into the next new experience. In a sense, Juno is a reminder that, despite what some other songwriters might have told you, being young is fucking great. You can dress like an idiot, dance atrociously, drink too much, act like a total muppet, make an endless array of mistakes and be really bad at sex and … it really doesn’t matter. The burden of time, responsibility and regret are yet to arrive. Whether she’s a playing “Sexy Villain” or pumping up her friends by shouting, “who do we appreciate, you mother fucker, you you motherfucker”. Remi Wolf doesn’t run from the neurosis that cripples so many of her peers, she acknowledges it routinely, but she refuses to shrink from existence. Juno is an album determine to car crash right into that next great transformative life experience.

93. BARRY GIBB – GREENFIELDS [COUNTRY]

The Beegees have an astoundingly deep songbook that has sadly been defined by the runaway success of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. The Beegees certainly produced some of the hardest hitting and most irresistible disco anthems imaginable, but the brothers Gibb were songwriters first and foremost, who migrated through proto-pop, psychedelia, folk and lush orchestration of 70s soft rock before alighting upon those insistent disco rhythms. Greenfields’ sees Barry take his incredible oeuvre to Nashville to re-record his greatest work alongside the modern greats of country music. Showing a breadth of knowledge, Gibbs is happy to rub shoulder with stadium fillers (Keith Urban, Little Big Town, Sheryl Crow), but also to embrace the grit of modern americana with Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Jason Isbell and Allison Krauss – as well as those stars who sit between the extremes (most notably Dolly Parton and Miranda Lambert). This broad survey is perfect for Gibb, a songwriter and singer who was always determined to stretch his sounds from the smoothest of radio funk all the way to the most insular of folk tales. The result is a luscious collection that manages to both reimagine and celebrate the glorious sounds of the 1970s. It’s a tribute to Gibbs’ belief in the project that not only does he serve up a countrified take on “Jive Talkin’” alongside Miranda Lambert, but he has chosen to resurrect “Butterfly”, a childhood song he wrote with his brother Robin, which is lent plenty of rusty ache by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings.

92. DEAFHEAVEN – INFINITE GRANITE [POST-ROCK]

Infinite Granite was an inevitability. One of these days, Deafheaven – a band who so artful married tender post-rock and shozegaze washes with Black Metal’s harsh brutality – were going to lighten up. Well, that day has finally arrived. Infinite Granite might better be labelled infinite waves, as any semblance of brutality has been replaced by great washes of rippling guitar noise. George Clarke vocals will prove more shocking than almost any other element of the band’s “new” sound. He whispers, coos, croons and melodically drifts on an album that feels content to absent mindedly gaze at its naval. It would be wrong to claim that Deafheaven have abandoned metal, instead the heavier crescendos that were once the life blood of the sound are now merely one element submerged within a larger, more elegant whole. “Villain” lilts and wanders through open spaces with a chiming indie riff as Clarke sings in his warmest timbre over a hypnotic rhythm that sits halfway between the arthouse and the nightclub. Of course, all this beautiful gentility cannot last and “Villain” soon crashes and smashes way into a smothering wall of scuzzy guitars that should threaten to choke the careful cultivated melodic elements, but instead they gently ascend as one. The results is a dreamier vision of Deafheaven, one which serves as a perfect showcase for Daniel Tracy’s drumming; his virtuosity often saves the band from slipping into a kind of pleasant mediocrity. George Clarke’s vocals and Kerry McCoy’s guitar both have a tendency to float towards a blissed out middle ground that sounds pretty, but unremarkable. “In Blur” is the perfect example of the strengths and weaknesses of this new vision of Deafheaven. The track is a sumptuous and pillowy journey into the shoegaze abyss: an ever evolving and tenderly evocative descent into sound itself. There’s only one problem, it’s almost impossible to remember anything about the song the second it finishes. Infinite Granite might be a delight to listen to, but it is one that makes no mark and leaves no impression. Worse, it is hard to differentiate from the legion of post-MBV sound-alikes that have been trying to stumble upon the most-heavenly-sound-in-existence for the last three decades. Deafheaven certainly sound better than most and McCoy remains masterful in his ability to take his audience on a slyly mutating six-minute journey, but in this new domain his band fail to stand out from the crowd. Infinite Granite will likely prove a transitional step towards the next great Deafheaven record. Whether that transformative new sound is built on the drifting-in-the-void eeriness of “Neptune Raining Diamonds” or the driving rhythms of “Other Language” remains to be seen, but for the time being Deafheaven are infinitely pleasurable, but strangely inessential listen.

91. STURGILL SIMPSON – THE BALLAD OF DOOD & JUANITA [COUNTRY]

Following the release of Sound & Fury, an experimental explosion of apocalyptic loathing forged in a hotel room and directed at false friends and industry weasels, there was a very clear sense that Sturgill Simpson wanted to withdraw from the extremes of modernity. In 2020, rather than launching his next foray into retro-futurism, Simpson decided to revisit his back catalogue through the medium of bluegrass on the really rather brilliant Cutting Grass. Simpson’s urge to strip away the modernity and the electro-psychodelic experimental side of his music comes to its head on The Ballad Of Dood & Juanita: an immaculately observed lost gem of country classicism. This conceptual narrative piece tells the story of a Civil War veteran who tours the country in search of his bride Juanita, who he intends to kidnap. Recorded in a veritable blitz, the album is rich in effortless artistry as Simpson blends backroads country with Latin grooves, picking his banjo and acoustic guitar with a thrilling intensity. The brilliance of the album lies in its breezy pacing. Simpson manages to fly through absurdly enjoyable asides about his horse “Shamrock” and faux marching songs “Epilogue” before launching into mythology laced tales of doom (“Ol’ Dood (Part II)”) and daring do (“Juanita”). Despite being slight in the extreme – the album’s 27 minutes fly by lickety split – The Ballad Of Dood & Juanita feels ungodly satisfying. Like a great campfire tale, its full of raucous humor, thrilling exploits, boozy sentimentality and a genuine love for the spirit and stench of the great American expanse. Those expecting the next great evolution in meta-modern country music will be sorely disappointed, but those seeking a rollicking good time provided by an impossible astute songwriter and musician will be thrilled. The Ballad of Dood & Juanita may well prove to be the perfect introduction to the delights of classic country music for modern audiences, even if veterans may have rightly expected both more depth, ambition and innovation.

90. LAURA MVULA – PINK NOISE [R&B/FUNK]

2016’s The Dreaming Room confirmed that Laura Mvula would not be confined to the pleasant respectability of Radio 2 worthy retro-soul and funk. Mvula had blossomed towards the avant garde, showcasing not only an ear for melody and an eye for daring stagecraft, but an ability to fuse genres and style with an imperial, yet sensual, ease. Pink Noise throws off any remaining shackles. The album is an explosion of sound, color and character. The funk is dialled up and juxtaposed with lyric sheet full of dejection, lost control and wasted tears. The eccentric staging that makes Mvula such a captivating live performance has made its way into both the production and the arrangements. The stabbing, wounded “Golden Ashes” sees Mvula switching being controlled whispers, desperate howls and angelic coos at the most irregular of angles as she confronts the shadowy power-brokers that control our lives. The tone of Pink Noise is similarly peculiar; clearly influenced by Nile Rodgers and Earth, Wind and Fire, but transmute through the heavy synthetic palette of the 1980s. Imagine Kate Bush’s freewheeling structures wedded to the chunky synths of the 80s funk and the haunting shimmers of the burgeoning goth scene. At times, the gimmickry and eccentricities threaten to obscure the towering and expressive timbre of Mvula’s voice. Is the Simon Neil assisted “What Matters” daring or muddled? Does it speak to the memory of a tender and human embrace or is it a satire of an insipid early afternoon teen romance from 1984? It’s genuinely hard to tell. Is Mvula playing at being David Lynch or Ariel Pink or is she wholeheartedly throwing herself into a sonic palette she genuine loves? On “Got Me” she does such a convincing job of emulating Michael Jackson in his pomp that it’s hard to care. Of course, being Mvula she underwrites this chart-ready funk stomper with a kind of headstrong anxiety: she is at her lover’s mercy, but she loves it. Pink Noise is odd, vibrant, reverent and sardonic all at once.

89. DAVE – WE’RE ALL ALONE IN THIS TOGETHER [RAP]

Despite the runaway success of the Brixton rapper’s Mercury Prize winning debut Psychodrama, Dave finds himself on the precipice of self-parody as he releases his almost painfully earnest sophomore LP. We’re All Alone In This Together is about as subtle as its self-help best-seller title. Nevertheless, overly direct, open book, conscious rap is both Dave’s greatest strength and most glaring weakness. When Dave is inspired by a worthy subject matter and puts his own messiah complex to one side, he is capable of penning soulful and wilfully cinematic epics that chart the struggle of immigrant communities, the black underclass, impoverished women and men crumbling under the mental anguish of a roadman mentality. At his best, Dave doesn’t bother with anything resembling songs, let alone bangers; he simply stares directly into his listener’s eyes and lays out a billowing tapestries of human agony and structural neglect. The trouble with We’re All Alone In This Together comes when Dave slips away from the BAFTA worthy depictions of our socially and politically constructed cages, and branches out towards the charts. The Stormzy is assisted “Clash” is already a drill banger, but it remains an empty and soulless celebration of designer watches and cars, but at least it has life and energy that the Afrobeat and loverman trio “System”, “Lazurus” and “Law of Attraction” lack. When Dave ditches the commercial shtick and delves into his scarred psyche he remains undeniable. “Heart Attack”, “Survivor’s Guilt” and “We’re All Alone” are tour de forces destined to leave the listener hanging on Dave’s every word and pregnant pause. Can Dave ever hope to find a middle ground between grand therapeutic excoriations and club ready jams? Who can say, but Dave’s ultimate triumph or demise will lie in the strength of his pen and his profound rumination of three generations of immigration, “Three Rivers”, suggests he may yet become the voice of generation; ‘Imagine the place where you the raise kids, the only place you live, say you ain’t a Brit; they’re deporting our people and it makes me sick, ‘cause they were broken by the country they came to fix’.

88. Park Hye Jin – Before I Die [Electronica]

It’s almost impossible to imagine that the same woman who sculpts Before I Die’s glorious and hypnotic electronic loops is the same one sleepily vibing on the microphone. The result is hard to reconcile, a sonic perfectionist and a lyrical impressionist. Across Before I Die’s 48 minutes of masterfully produced sound, South Korean production wizard Jin will flit between whimpering cries for human connection and rapid fire bars with an almost slovenly amateurism that spits in the face of futuristic grooves she’s riding. However, like M.I.A. in her pomp, rather than undercutting the brilliance of the music itself, Park Hye Jin’s feeble and rawness as a vocalist proves intoxicating. These stately sounds are transformed from something otherworldly and immaculate into something mundane and grubby. She is kitchen sink superstar DJ. She is desperate for paternal affection and a good fuck simultaneously: she’s clearly living the life and wasting her youth. The majestic guitars of “Good Morning Good Night”, the glorious bass line of “Can I Get Your Number” and “Y DON’T U’s” subterranean throb are placeholders for almost infantile chants. The result is a genuine headfuck. Park Hye Jin has created the least sexy and most desperate club music that may have ever existed. She’s has dragged down music traditionally designed for beautiful people (if high end music videos are to be believed) into the word of uncomfortable craving and squalid smallness. For that very reason, Before I Die proves both hard to process and strangely unforgettable.

87. Slowthai – Tyron [Rap]

Tyron is divided into two sides – one aggressive, one redemptive. Even on the banger heavy first half, Slowthai has this remarkable ability to highlight the tragedy and strength of heart that exists on nation’s scariest streets. Particular powerful in the wake of global lockdown is the rapper’s ability to address crippling mental health issues (“don’t let the mattress swallow you, wallowing, thinking what gonna do or gotta do”) even as he brags (“been bad since I stepped out the womb”). It’s this quality that makes Tyron’s second somber side the superior of the two.

Slowthai has a charisma that cannot be denied. For some inexplicable reason, he can not only get away with spitting the most trite or sentimental bars, but he can actually move grown men to tears. “nhs” is an absolute masterclass. One of the most beautiful song to come out of the UK’s rap revival. On one level it’s heart-breaking, a deep dive into depression, and yet, it finds inspiration not only in beauty, but the desire to keep moving forwards by embracing the miserable elements of life. Slowthai’s message is simple, the sliver-lining wouldn’t be sweet if the cloud didn’t exist. Tyron can’t quite reach the highest of heights for 35 straight minutes. There are a host of thrilling, but underbaked cuts. “Cancelled” and “Mazza” feel more like thrown together features, than journeys into the surreal and soulful world of Slowthai. Regardless, Tyron remains a fascinating study of a young man, raised on the streets, living and learning in the limelight, stumbling over his own worst impulses, but clawing his way towards the better-man he knows he is at heart. Slowthai is contrite and thoughtful, but unbowed – or in his words, he’s come “to terms with it, shit could be worse”.

86. Lorde – Solar Power [Pop]

Lorde wants you to lay with her in the sand and listen to her satirical dissections of the celebrity wellness industry and beautifully wile away the evening as she melodic whispers her way through tales of nothing in particular. Whether she fleetingly floating towards a grandiose chorus or eloquent bridge, she withdraws into something more spidery and illusive. “Stoned At The Nail Salon” perfectly encapsulates the new Lorde; having famously gotten on “her first plane”, she’s now flying home to drift away into a quiet, unassuming and happily pointless existence. The track is really rather marvellous, a delight to be admired, but one that leaves little or no impression. “Fallen Fruit” follows hot on its heels with its wounded campfire harmonies and somnambulist instrumentation. At times it’s almost painfully tasteful. Lorde has been listening to both Phoebe Bridgers and Sheryl Crow and decided that she’s interested in neither the scratchy darkness of the former nor the glossy arena-ready choruses of the latter. Instead, what is left is haunted soft-acoustic beauty: a shy and retiring majesty that has no interest in poking its head above the parapet.

It’s hard to label a record as pretty and intriguing as Solar Power a disappointment, it really does warrant deep repeated listening, but like Slow Train Coming, this album feels like a pivotal turning point in a great star’s career, but one that is wholly out of step with what is cool. In many ways it feels like a more tuneful successor to Arcade Fire’s Everything Now, an album whose satire was so indistinguishable from outright imitation that it verged on self-sabotage. As a result, Lorde’s superstar status may well disappear with this release, but her life as a quixotic spirit guide for a generation of female starlets who are determined to break off the beaten path may have just begun. Solar Power is not the work of THE voice of a generation, but that of a reclusive hermit capable of transforming the lives of those willing to seek her out on New Zealand’s glorious shores – just make sure to leave your new-age therapeutic goop at home.

85. WEEZER – OK HUMAN [ROCK]

Rivers Cuomo’s desire to chase hits and throw his bandmates headlong into even the most feckless of trends has resulted in more than a few disastrous chapters in Weezer’s back catalogue. However, all the melodramatic and at times bad taste experimentation has seemingly culminated on OK Human, Weezer’s really rather magnificent pop-rock musical about a socially anxious outcast drifting his way through a world of big data, social media and binge watching. Rivers has blown out these songs to their most ridiculous and syrupy extremes: whether solemn or hopeful, the result is an endearing if farcical collection.

The concept is genuinely compelling and at times it’s easy to imagine a curmudgeonly Thom Yorke walking the streets of LA with his hands in his pockets, avoiding eye-contact, wrapped up in his audio edition of Mrs. Dalloway as he sneers at the zombies that surround him. Of course, being Weezer, almost every inch of this overly sincere LP is somehow ironic. Even the orchestration feels wilfully trite, like a strangely sincere parody of Jeff Lyne. They know it’s silly, we know it’s silly, but we live a surreal age. The world is glued to screens (and loving it!), but while most songwriters are clutching at human connection, Weezer are diving into the digital abyss. Rivers, always one to swing for the fences, has zigged to produce a delightful goading pop-opera. OK Human is certainly saccharine and far too cute, but it isn’t sickening – in fact, Weezer’s latest is curiously charming.

84. Amyl and the Sniffers – Comfort to Me [Rock]

Okay time to hold my hands up and admit I got this one wrong. Despite including in Amyl and the Sniffers in 411’s best new artist lists in years past, I had the group down as your typical incredible live band who would spend their careers ripping it up on the festival circuit while releasing 7/10 records. The Melbourne punks’ debut seemed to confirm this prognosis, but you should never rule out progression especially when you’re dealing with a personality as charismatic and a songwriter as daring as Amy Taylor. Her cod-country performance on the Viagra Boys latest LP showed that Taylor could debase and electrify pretty much any style in the loose rock cannon and Comfort to Me allows her to get as wild, depraved, repugnant, sexy and deeply sarcastic as she wants. The Sniffers tend to get labelled pub rock, but this is no bar band. The guitar playing and the grooves on this record are shot through with a shape-shifting dynamism. Just as Amy will flit between spitting down your throat, staring lovingly in your eyes and crying in the corner, the band prove equally versatile. Make no mistake, their primary concern remains romping, stomping and scuzzing shit up, but while they may indulge in genre pastiche, The Sniffers can rip and snarl with avengence. “My body’s just my body, my name is just my name”, Amy Taylor is phenomenal at finding ways to both diminish herself, her hapless wannabee lovers and the world at large. She can be cruel, but her gift is to strip away the pretences that societal good graces build up and, in the midst of all her supposed bad behaviour, she let slip glimpses of a desperate, vulnerable and loveable young punk (“I’m not looking for trouble, I’m looking for love”).

83. Clara Luciani – Coeur [Pop]

Talk about bad timing. Clara Luciani took the French-speaking world by storm in 2018 with her triple platinum, award-winning debut Sainte-Victoire: a star was born. Then just as her fame should be reaching its apex, the world shutdown, the arenas closed and Clara Luciani found herself in lockdown. Remarkably, while some of the UK and US’ great pop minds used lockdown to explore the fracturing of relationships and get lost within their own stream of consciousness, Luciani spent her forced isolation imagining the glorious push and pull, chase and tease, and ups and downs of finding love on the dancefloor. Coeur (heart) is a luscious and immaculately produced collection of love songs that sit at the intersection of Abba’s throwaway pop supremacy and the great forlorn tear-jerkers of French canon that intuitively understand that even the sweetest of carnal delights come laced with a hidden agony. Love is both glorious and fleeting, a carrousel that brings both infatuation and misery on an intoxicating loop. Clara Luciani and Coeur’s great gift is their ability to embrace the whirlwind of romance. On an intellectual level she knows the next heartbreak is hiding in plan sight behind her latest lover’s eyes, but that won’t stop her throwing herself headlong into the next tryst. Coeur is all about getting lost in the movement and feeling of being young and alive.

82. JULIEN BAKER – LITTLE OBLIVIONS [SINGER-SONGWRITER/INDIE]

Well, this was unexpected. Julien Baker one of the most ferociously intimate live performers and lyricists on the planet, has taken a turn towards big booming guitars, pounding drums and echoey stadium sized sonics. Oddly, Baker’s maximalist turn is confined to the instrumentals. Her lyric sheet is as cripplingly insular as ever. She is still a woman tracing her psychological scars in public view. Baker doesn’t so much air her dirty laundry in public, as practice primal scream therapy in the open air. She is as battered and bruised as ever, struggling forward only to be confronted by fresh agonies and the ghosts of half-defeated traumas. “Favor” captures Baker’s ethos in one sublime half-sighed verse: “It doesn’t feel too bad, but it doesn’t feel too good either. Just like a nicotine patch, it hardly works, then it’s over”.

Little Oblivions is built on crippling insights and horrible snapshots of failure and awkwardness. Baker proves unremitting brutal in herself dissection, on “Song in E” she wishes that she were an acholic so there would be something else to blame other than herself and her restless subconscious for the state of her existence. Her lover could point to her drinking as an excuse for the awful things that she has said. Instead, Julien is cast as a prisoner of both her emotions and the strange machinations of her mind. She wishes those around her would let their anger and sorrow show so that she felt less like a pitiable alien. Oddly, her embrace of big, terse, rock aesthetics should be utterly at odds with the crawl-into-the-tightest-of-balls-to-weep intimacy of her song writing, but the boldness suits her. She might be oppressed and vulnerable, but she is a bulldozing brilliant performer capable of channelling her inner rage into captivating vocal performances. Baker has perfected strained-artful-smallness, so it’s about time she soared atop a wave of blood-letting.

81. L’Rain – Fatigue [R&B]

I was reluctant to embrace Fatigue. Something about the tone felt overly familiar. Countless artists have been mining the rich rain of beautiful sorrow that lies between the alternative R&B and dream pop sounds and it has become easy for these darkly angelic soundscapes to blur into one. Thankfully, as the year reached its end, I returned to Fatigue to discover a sumptuous and unnerving listening experience. Scratch beneath the serene drift, ominous gospels nods and all the intoxicating swirling and a very strange pop record is revealed. “Suck Teeth” is off-kilter, it feels derailed and with every passing second it slips further and further away from anything resembling normalcy. There are jazz illusions and odd time signatures galore on this record, but L’Rain is careful to keep the record only ever so slightly out of focus. Like a record player spinning a second out of time or a TV screen that’s ever so slightly under-saturated, Fatigue feels like a ghostly facsimile of a beautiful R&B record. The oddness isn’t just for show, it serves a narrative purpose: L’Rain is exhausted, she is wasting away, she is so tired of trying hard to achieve meaningful change. She hasn’t been beaten down or pushed back, but she is weary. The result is a kind of wonderful soul music that sings not of sorrow or resilience, but of weathered endurance and memory.

80. MADLIB – SOUND ANCESTORS [INSTRUMENTAL HIP HOP]

Madlib is no stranger to critical acclaim, his beats and gorgeously understated instrumentals have granted Freddie Gibbs’ finest bars an air of both eerie menace and cool sophistication. The producer is unlikely to garner as much attention for his largely instrumental beat work, but Sound Ancestors nevertheless represents a dazzling highpoint in the producer’s catalogue. Mixing skittish breaks with lingering jazz and indie ennui, while retaining plenty of street level bite, Sound Ancestors is a glorious and soulful listen. The record may be icy and immaculately composed, but it never feels detached. The breadth of Madlib’s talents are highlighted on “Dirtknock”, a scratchy and low-fi remix of “Searching For Mr. Right” by underground indie trailblazer’s Young Marble Giants. Madlib’s touch is light as he brings the great proto-xx sound of the 70s to new and unexpected audiences. Whether he’s dealing in dub, J-Dilla or flamenco guitar, Madlib is delicate and sensitive in his treatment of these sumptuous sounds, but never so respectful as to appear anonymous. The result is a pulsating and strangely unified collection of tender, lingering grooves. Serene-yet-unsettling, Madlib is in the midst of a remarkable purple patch.

79. ALAN JACKSON – WHERE HAVE YOU GONE [COUNTRY]

I got my boots, I got my hat, I’m bringing country back’. It’s tempting to roll-your-eyes at another legacy artist decrying the state of modern music, but when it comes to contemporary country, Alan Jackson may well have a point. From Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert to Ty Childers and Mike & The Moonpies, there is no shortage of brilliant music being made in 2021, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that listening to country radio where bland and braindead nods to bro-country and pop anonymity continue to reign supreme. Still, it’s a cheap line that Jackson knows will get a cheer, what’s more remarkable is Where Have You Gone itself: 90 minutes of sumptuously straightforward and immaculately composed country music. Is it too long? Of course. Is there a single original idea to be found on the record? Not a chance. Does it cement Alan Jackson’s legacy as an all-time country great? You better believe it. Full to the brim with tender reflections on aging, loss, parenting and coping, Jackson wrings out an incredible depth of sorrow by contrasting his immaculately smooth vocal with a lonesome lyric sheet. If he were from New York City, Jackson would have become the next great crooner. His vocal is only growing richer with age, both more comforting and wounded. Like blackberry wine or a long-awaited embrace, Jackson voice can tease out the romanticism in even the most pitiless of voids. Where Have You Gone only misfires when the tempo picks up and Jackson’s choruses feel a little forced and, at times, trite, but when he chooses to take his time and sink into his serenely unfussy surroundings, Jackson is undeniable.

78. HALSEY – IF I CAN’T HAVE LOVE, I WANT POWER [POP]

Halsey continues to fascinate precisely because she veers almost uncontrollably between her best and worst artistic impulses. Like many of her modern peers, she’s a natural over-sharer capable of turning even the smallest of slights into the grandest of catastrophes while showcasing a thrilling disregard for conventional genre. Sadly, this wild emotional axe-wielding also leads to mundane, over-dramatic and under-thought pop music. Halsey can be both bland and brilliant, incisive and utterly anodyne, a poetic soul and a platitudinous hack. The good news is that while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have introduced Halsey to an electronic rock palette that manages to rip and roar even as it tasteful lingers, they haven’t tamed Halsey’s excesses. Rather, Renzor and Ross’ creative focus and tonal consistency manages to anchor If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power sonically, while Halsey rips her subconscious to shreds lyrically. “Whispers” captures Halsey at her most Halsey, as she dances on a knife’s edge between her baser instincts and her powerfully analytical mind, or as she’d term it, the “camouflage to hide the lie that I’m composed”). The results is a pair of collaborators who perfectly disguise one another’s weaknesses. Halsey injects dynamism and a hefty dose of big clit energy into Reznor and Ross’ pretty-but-predictable pulsing and cascading synths. Halsey will never be Reznor’s delicate, decaying ghost in the machine. She’s a snarling, self-lacerating, balls out popstar who walks down the street screaming: “I am not a woman, I’m a god…I am not a legend, I’m a fraud…maybe I could be a better human with a new name”. At times, Halsey’s shtick can wear a little thin as she carefully toes the line between genuinely revealing insights into the soul of a conflicted woman and an emotional sloganeer spouting wounded aphorisms better suited to being splashed across a T-shirt than confided to a confidant. In the end it matters little, Halsey is a natural Rockstar; a charismatic and theatrical dynamo who was born to seethe and slide across these abrasive and scuzzily beautiful grooves snarling, “I don’t need no help to be destructive”.

77. Lil Nas X – Montero [Pop]

“…These harrowingly glimpses into Lil Nas’ early life only serve to make Montero’s throwaway bombastic pop more magnificent. The death baiting “Don’t Want It” is a thrilling turning point, as Nas escapes the monotony of wallowing and addiction to embrace his destiny as a world conquering popstar. The funny thing is that, once the listener has been introduced to the tortured and conflicted Lil Nas X, it’s hard to go back and enjoy the bulletproof king of throwaway chart pop. The man who is screaming from the depths of the abyss on “Life Of Salem” is the same one skipping through life and bragging about cars on “Dolla Sign Slime”? It’s testament to Lil Nas long term potential that his most compelling moments are not the incandescent hits, but those glimpses behind the curtain into an insecurity that haunts him to this day: “Yous a meme, yous a joke, been a gimmick from the go…ain’t the next big thing, you the next thing to go”. The admissions of self-doubt prove far more powerful than Drake’s faux-humble act and instead recall the insecurity Grimes showed on “California”. Both Grimes and Lil Nas understand that fame is a rug that could be pulled out from them at any moment and that they’ll have to work damn hard to retain it.

Fittingly, Montero concludes with the Miley Cryus assisted barroom ballad “Am I Dreaming”; providing the final confirmation that beneath his glistening Greek God of pop superstardom armor, lies a vulnerable, thoughtful and conflicted songwriter. GenZ popstars have been defined by their willingness to dispense with salacious and cripplingly secrets in a never-ending stream of consciousness. At first this technique felt shocking and revelatory, but soon the language of therapy became a gimmick, less a sign of vulnerability and more a willingness to do, say or reveal anything. Lil Nas X turns this convention on its head. On Montero, rather aping Halsey and laying everything bare, his debut album is presented as a gold plated onion. Each resplendent layer has to be torn away until Lil Nas is left wounded, naked and alone. This slow burn approach feels richer and more rewarding as Lil Nas takes his audience on a journey from pop perfection and camp excesses to a broken home in Atlanta and a nervous young man, alone in hotel room, unsure if his legion of fans will abandon him for the next passing fad.” Read Our Full Review

76. Greentea Peng – Man Made [Soul]

With the Omicron variant on the rise it might be a touch premature to celebrate the joys of live music, but after the year of sheer nothingness that was 2020, it was an absolute joy to return to the festival fields and discover new music live and in person. Greentea Peng might have had a fair bit of hype behind her, but I only encountered her music because I happened to get free tickets to see The Streets at Crystal Palace Park as a local resident. It was a great day without question, but the real shock came from seeing the nonchalant, blissed out and wonderfully unpolished Greentea Peng roll onto center stage and steal the show with her unflustered soul. That ability to make a connection and command a room without raising her eyelids, let alone breaking a sweat, is captured on Man Made. Sitting halfway between neo-soul and sleepy jazz, Greentea Peng, aka Aria Wells, spits knowledge like Lauryn Hill while vibing like Miss Dynamite. She has no trouble transcending her influences because she refuses to be as direct or confrontational as her forebears. Wells is content to daydream, layback and let powerful insights slip from her lips in less of a stream-of-consciousness and more a haze-of-serenity. Man Made is charged with frustration, sly political commentary and sorrow, but it is never overt. Instead, a tapestry of sound and soul unfolds with somnambulant gentleness.

75. Biffy Clyro – The Myth Of the Happily Ever After [Rock]

George Michael had it right all along, “you’ve gotta have faith”. For 11 years following the release of the Only Revolutions, the album that transformed Biffy Clyro into festival and arena headlining behemoths, there was a sense that Kilmarnock rockers had become lost in their newfound bigness. 2013’s double album Opposites wasn’t bad by any means, it was a significant hit, but it did mark the moment when Biffy Clyro’s attack was stripped of its most jagged and dangerous edges and their ballads lost their bruised flesh and began to feel mawkish. Ellipsis tried to add some spite, but ultimately felt forced. If a sense pervaded that Biffy Clyro were now a MOR arena filler, then A Celebration of Endings and 2021’s really rather brilliant The Myth Of The Happily Ever After are a reminder of just how deliciously unusual a headliner Biffy Clyro truly are. Simon Neal has no interest in turning the clock back, he’s still breaking hearts with his ballads as often as he’s bludgeoning flesh with his guitar work, but the peculiarity has returned. The soaring, swooning hooks are destined to unite 50,000 strong crowd in songs, but the path to those climaxes wind wonderfully and are at times wilfully obtuse. Guitars stagger, loop, twist and dart with demented glee, reminding the world that before this band was melodic, it was genuinely weird. Equally, even when Neal is at his most tender, as on the Bieber boyband shimmering “Existed”, he retains a deliciously dark turn of mind, “I kissed the concrete lying face down on the road, trying to be at one with asphalt hoping it would sallow me whole”. The Myth Of The Happily Ever After is the sound of a powerhouse band having their cake and eating it too.

74. Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic [Soul/Funk]

Bruno Mars’ most ardent detractors would admit that, even during his most garish moments of bad taste, he has displayed an incredible nuanced understanding of classic soul, disco and R&B music. “Treasure”, to take just one example, was such an impeccable pristine recreation of an Earth, Wind and Fire smash that, to this day, it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t some long lost B-Side. Therefore, those who admire Mars the musician, even if they have qualms with his judgement as an artist, will be thrilled to learn that alongside Anderson Paak he has given up the ghost of originality. An Evening With Silk Sonic is an unabashed love letter to classic soul shot through with the swagger and edge of two 21st Century pop stars and plenty of R Kelly’s lurid 90s sexuality. Neither Paak nor Mars bother to disguise the fact that this clearly a vanity project, but the transparent silliness of this experiment makes it all the more enjoyable. All the greatest 70s melodies and harmonies are recreated and shot through will the silliest of sleazy seduction narratives. Is it all a joke? Sort of. Mars and Paak feel like they are playing the leads in their own buddy cop Blaxploitation movie, but while their words might be ridiculous, their love for this music is undeniable. This is a passion project and rather than being po-faced or reverential, Silk Sonic have decided to lean into absurdity and that sense of boyish glee transfers directly from artist to audience. An Evening With Silk Sonic is equal parts silly and sexy – and like the best fucks, it’s better when you take it less seriously.

73. GOJIRA – FORTITUDE [METAL]

The environmentally conscious, but unremittingly heavy French metallers Gojira have been so good for so long it’s easy to take them for granted. It’s been 20 years since they burst onto the scene with Terra Incognita and a 16 since the release of the jaw dropping From Mars To Sirius, the album that forever altered the band’s trajectory. In 2021, they are a different beast: more gorgeous in their playing, occasionally serene and undeniable triumphant, their grooves are luscious and Christian Andreu’s lead guitar proves poetic precisely when it is least expected. Album closer “Grind” is anything but, there is plenty of pummelling and despairing at the course humanity appears to be locked upon, but Gojira remain lyrical instrumentalists. Gojira have always had ferocious grooves, but perhaps the biggest difference between the hungry brutality of their early work and the arena-sized bombast of their latest is the sheer sense of control. Gojira no longer feel like they are clinging on to the reigns of their talent for dear life, on Fortitude they are masters of their domain. Each rich elastic groove is skilfully guided into both broad Sci-Fi horizons and coy tonal experimentations. “Another World” captures the breadth of their talents, it’s an urgent rallying cry to a complacent human race happy imagining that they’ll simply find another world to burn, but it plays out with an almost resigned sense of distance. “Amazonia” is wilder still. Andreu’s guitar is so elastic that it proves capable of mirroring the strange contortions of a native didgeridoo style instrument. All this technical wizardry comes at a cost. Gojira may be galvanised by the climate crisis as individuals, but Fortitude never quite captures the requisite sense of peril and danger. Instead, the riffs are simply too well heeled. The playing is satisfyingly meaty, but the terror of old is missing – where is the Gojira capable of crushing their audience to death and suffocating entire festival fields with their pitiless assault? The lyric sheet doesn’t help matters. It’s perhaps unfair to critique lyrics written in a second language, but Joe Duplantier’s words are a little too obvious for their own good. Thankfully, whatever Fortitude lacks in both menace and nuance it makes up for in diversity, Gojira are still wilfully creative and determined to experiment with new forms from the quiet hums of the title track through the skiddy post-rock/melancholic indie understatement of “The Trails”.

72. Marissa Nadler – The Path Of Clouds [Folk/Gothic]

The Path Of Clouds’ artwork might recall Kate Bush, but the biggest and most profound influence on Marissa Nadler’s latest is Lana Del Rey. Not in tone, subject matter or style, but in vocal texture. Marissa Nadler has always been able conjure the most thornily beautiful of noir folk balladry, but on The Path Of Clouds she has found a way to turn her breathy tones into soaring slow burning hooks. It’s not so much that Nadler’s music has gained impetus, although there certainly is a clearer sense of direction on her ninth album, instead she has embraced a sense of Hollywood grandeur. Even her most airy and dreamy laments now swoon and sweep across the broadest and most dramatically lit of landscapes. Her songwriting remains both craftily composed and alluringly abstract. Inspired by spending the lockdowns of 2020 obsessing over unsolved mysteries, The Path Of Clouds is less a investigative who-dunnit and more of a gothic dreamscape dedicate to the idiosyncratic strangeness of disappearance itself.

71. BOBBY DOVE’S – HOPELESS ROMANTIC [COUNTRY]

No genre quite captures the intersection of tragedy and comedy quite like country. Bobby Dove, the latest songwriter extraordinaire to arrive from the great white north rather than music row, has delivered a debut album that is almost poignant in its flippancy. The title track and album opener sets the tone. Bobby finds herself laughing through her tears and aimlessly killing time before a gorgeous swooning 50s string arrangement welcomes the listener into its pillowy embrace alongside the lilting twang of guitar. Then, with a crushing tone of acceptance, Bobby coos; “my heart’s been stranded and I’ve been branded, a hopeless romantic”. Her vocal fluctuates with the sorrow of someone whose putting on a brave face as they watch the lives of their friends and loved ones pass them by as they wait for a lover who simply refuses to arrive. It’s worth dwelling on the opener because it frames Bobby’s entire ethos; merging the warming tones of a romanticised yesteryear with the sorrowful strength of a woman determined not to let the cracks in her façade show. She tries to laugh it off and has a wonderful turn of phrase, but there’s no escaping the tears on this dignified, but despairing collection. The playing on Hopeless Romantic is uniformly sublime, providing the heart wrenching subtext that Bobby is trying to disguise with her brave, sunglasses clad, face. The tearjerkers are so sumptuous that it’s easy to overlook the gorgeous boogie of “Gas Station Blues” which asks, “did you steal my heart from me honey, or did I give it up from the start?” Hopeless Romantic’s golden-era swing and Bobby Dove’s innate understatement stop the album from sliding into miserabilism, instead it’s the sliver of hope that make makes “Chance In Hell” and “New Endings New Beginnings” so damn devastating. Bobby Dove will find the right girl, you just know it, even if she’ll have to spend her whole life waiting.

70. DEMI LOVATO – DANCING WITH THE DEVIL .. THE ART OF STARTING OVER [POP]

Dancing With The Devil… could not be further from “Cool For The Summer”. It’s almost impossible to imagine that the same Demi Lovato who embodied carefree escapist joy is now a wounded balladeer struggling for survival in the shadow of her vices. Then again, that’s part of what lends Dancing With The Devil… its insidious power: even one of the most joyous public faces of positivity can fall to pieces in private. Lovato survived her overdose and is battling to overcome alcoholism, but this very public trauma has allowed her songwriting to blossom in new directions as sorrow, despair, recovery and heartache loom large. This more macabre undercurrent enriches her work, both directly and indirectly. “Easy”, a sly song that details how the star conceals her emotions to make a break-up look effortless, is full of incisive and unguarded lyrics (“The hardest part of leaving is to hold the heavy breathing back from showing how hard it is for me”). Even a seemingly silly throwaway like “Lonely People” is full of venomous self-critique and skewed commentary on partying through the sorrow. Unsurprisingly, the big ballads and confessional touches steal the show. The raw despair that leaks from the naked cry for support (“Anyone”) through to “ICU (Madison’s Lullabye)” – a powerfully understated track that details how Demi tried to hide her darkness from the young and innocent fans who worshipped her.

If there’s a problem, it’s not that Lovato eventually indulges in lighter songcraft, “Met Him Last Night” with Ariana Grande is genuinely charming, but that Dancing With The Devil… is simply too long. There is an anguished masterpiece hiding within this leviathan. Trimmed to 35 minutes Demi may well have released an album of the year contender; as it stands the album loses steam even if the quality never truly dips. “The Kind Of Lover I Am” is a breezy return to bi-sexual self-confidence, while “15 Minutes” should be shrewd critique of the pop industry, but it feels overbaked. The trouble lies in Demi’s embrace of the wild-vocal fluctuations of post-millennial pop. The yo-yo delivery can be both sweet and almost obnoxiously catchy, but these wilfully whacky vocals have a nasty habit capable of undercutting carefully crafted lyric sheets. Nevertheless, it feels churlish to complain, this is easily Demi Lovato’s best album to date, driven by strident and thoughtful lyric sheets that cuts to the bone as the star reflects on who she has let down, the impossible standards she’s fallen below and her newfound sense of purpose. “Melon Cake” perfectly encapsulates the new Lovato by detailing the cruellest of industry practices with the effortless aplomb of a woman who is no longer content to dance to the rhythms of her supposed masters. Self-acceptance is damn hard work and, to her credit, over 57 minutes Dancing With The Devil… never feels labored.

69. VIAGRA BOYS – WELFARE JAZZ [POST-PUNK]

Viagra Boys’ romper stomper of a debut record overflowed be gobby humor and broken grooves, but it felt like a glorified live record. The type of music that would feel blistering when crammed in sweatbox with an overloaded soundystem and no room to breathe, but feels somewhat redundant when sitting at home tapping your toe. Well lucky for us, Welfare Jazz takes the eclectic punk experimentation of their debut and transforms it into something, if not exactly slicker, then bolder, more coherent and more ambitious. Welfare Jazz is a lurching, stomping, smashing journey, which retains the fizzing energy and the urgent desire to move that defined their debut. The best comparison might be Iggy Punk’s The Idiot. The spirit of punk and the sardonic snarl remains, but under the hood there has been a fundamental shift towards something ever-so-slightly avant garde. There’s even a post-punk country turn thrown in for good measure at the death. Amy Taylor arrives with a comically put on accent drawling: ‘He ain’t been laid in a month of Sundays/I caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies’. Don’t worry, Welfare Jazz is still a broken pub disco record that wears its amateurism on its sleeve, but this time the Viagra Boys are cutting a whole lot deeper. That being said, if you dare take them too seriously, Welfare Jazz will happily spit in your eye.

68. BABii – Mirror [Electronica/Pop]

BABii is shot through with the radical ambition and DIY work ethic of a great future-pop visionary. Like the vast majority of listeners to Mirror, I have not read the accompanying book, played its alternative reality game or gone to see her experiential show that apparently exists in the back of a van, but that hardly matters. The mere fact that she is obsessing over every element of her art is inspiring: it’s exactly what you’d hope young creative would be getting up to. Mirror, however, needs no accoutrements. The music is more than enough to fall in love with. BABii’s music is a dark, whisper-laden blend of deeply seductively misery that slides insidiously beneath the skin. The brilliance of her music lies in the fact that, while it is both undeniably pretty shimmering between chunky slabs of electronica and heavenly slithers of artificial sound, it is underwritten by an incredible sadness. There is so much emptiness that BABii has no interest in filling vocally, instead she’s happy to let her lyrics linger in this harrowingly alluring void. “TRACKS” is sublimely cruel as her lover’s disregard, his very absence, leaves physical scars across BABii’s psyche. “DRIFT” slaps like a very literal car crash, but the cause of all this carnage is an emotional disengagement – the slow motion evaporation of a bond that once existed. The futurist halcyon wonderland forged between Grimes, Sophie, AG Cook, Holly Herndon, Rustie, Charli XCX, Let’s Eat Grandma and a million other pop visionaries might feel long in the tooth in 2021, but Mirror is a reminder that the sliced and diced sound of future remains essential for telling thoroughly modern stories of love and loss. BABii’s music may be alien and divine, but her heart and soul is deliciously kitchen sink.

67. Beach House – Once Twice Melody EP [Dream Pop]

Note: Okay, I had to put a limit on how highly an album teaser could rank, so Beach House go no further than 67.

Sometimes it’s better in life to be late to the party than to never arrive at all. For a decade or more I was a Beach House sceptic. Despite being one of the most universally admired and genuinely innovative dream pop outfits in modern music history, I couldn’t get never truly understand what all the fuss was about. Teen Dream left me cold, but then in 2018 on 7 – more of a glorious victory lap than a genuine breakthrough – I suddenly “got it”. I didn’t go back and revise my opinion of their past work, instead I fell in love with this latter day, less revolutionary, but undeniably perfect sounding duo. The eight tracks that have been released in advance of next year’s double album Once Twice Melody only cements the sheer divinity of Beach House’s sound. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally’s music is without flaw. It is seamless; every pulse, click, oscillation, haze and whispery vocal lament feels organic. What’s remarkable is that while every element of Once Twice Melody feels right, it never succumbs to predictability. Instead, the listener can fall back into the band’s pillowy embrace and simply be swept away. Beach House are careful never to feel staged managed in their perfection, progression and momentum are key. Everything may well be in its right place, but nothing is stationary and no sound is fleeting. Their music is pretty, but not pretty for pretty’s sake. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine how the full 18 track LP will better this divine taster.

66. Margo Cilker – Porhorylle [Country]

Don’t let the sweetness fool you; Margo Cilker is going to break your heart. Porhorylle is an absolutely crushing listen without sounding remotely maudlin or morose. Instead, Cilker leans into the warmest and sparsest of roots arrangements to weave her tales of hard work and pitiful rewards. Cilker possesses a sumptuous turn of phrase capable of turning the mundane flotsom of existence into the most beautiful wistful poetry. “It seems like such an inconsequential thing”, that’s how she describes the way her heart sways when she remembers a friend singing to her by the roadside or finds her self rapt watching water following from a faucet. Grand plans and big romantic gestures are lost of Cilker, but instead she finds the poetry in randomly little incidents. This obsession with minutia proves devastating whether Cilker’s words wind around one another in tight intoxicating spirals or slip from her tongue with a reluctant clumsy despair. Cilker has an incredible ability to deliver the most quietly romantic or cripplingly affecting lines while audibly laughing or smiling. Far from undermining the heft of her words, it adds a great humanity to Pohorylle. Cilker stifles a laugh as she delivers the bad news and sounds teary eyed when reflecting on the most precious of memories. It’s no surprise that when “Tehachapi”, the big break-up hit single arrives, it is not an over-baked brooding ballad, but a plinky-plonky comedy. Of course she’s can laugh off heart break: Cilker was born to leave. She is traditional travelling singer, ghosting her way across America and riding the great open road. Given that smallest of details can send Cilker into the deepest of revelries, perhaps it’s too painful for this troubadour to stay in any one place. She’s seen her friends and loved ones become trapped in despairing or simply boring situations and she cannot allow that to happen to herself. But therein lies the tragedy of Porhorylle, Cilker has the illusion of freedom. She has the endless horizon of wide-open road, but really she’s stuck between commitment and escapism. “I a woman split between places and I’m bound to lose loved ones on both sides”. She’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t, so she keeps on moving, documenting the misery of others less it becomes her reality.

65. BROCKHAMPTON – ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE [RAP]

Kevin Abstract’s boyband are prolific in the extreme. Six albums and one mixtape into their four-year career, the hip hop collective still feel like a raw onslaught of energy and ideas. Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine sees Brockhampton honing their eccentricities and pulling the focus into the foreground. The result is a dizzying assault of hooks, melody, desperation and social commentary played at a demented pace. “DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY” skips between critiquing and satirising both the pressures of white society and black gang culture before warping into a meditation of suicide and catastrophe. Each idea is intriguing in its own right, but Brockhampton blow through all this heavyweight thought at lightning speed as they race to get to the next buoyant hook. “I’LL TAKE YOU ON” couldn’t sound anymore different, it’s a delicious riff on 90s boyband pop (you can practically hear the dance routine), but rather than singing softly to a girl in her bedroom, Brockhampton slide through the verses with a demonic intensity. Remarkably, despite the sugary gloss, the track ends up mutating into a touching social commentary (“baby you could lift me out the struggle that I fell intoI just need a way to keep pushing through”), backed by Charlie Wilson’s aching vocals.

Brockhampton records are posse cuts by nature, being 13 strong, that comes with the territory, but Roadunner… feels particularly overwhelming. Guest stars litter the tracklist adding into the insane blend of conflicting voices. Danny Brown feels right at home, JPEGMAFIA is strangely subdued, but showcases his lyrical talent by embracing a sense of composure, while A$AP Rocky & A$AP Ferg feel siloed, too cool to truly fit in with Brockhampton’s genre bending bombast. Roadrunner… is a more is more record, so much so that its thoughtful subtleties and tender soul struggle to assert themselves. There is power in having both horror and sweetness burst through and corrupt the buoyant surface, but like so much of Brockhampton’s best material, it feels somewhat lost in the shuffle. The most powerful phrases prove transient. This is no doubt fitting, these are young men after all. Nevertheless, after the tear-stained Ginger, Roadrunner… is a welcome return to raw exuberance: a catastrophic collision of misery and euphoria. Brockhampton are to be cherished, they are perhaps the only outfit who could ever hope to successfully blend the moribund majesty of “WHAT’S THE OCCASION?” and the harsh sobriety of “The Light Pt. II” with the sugar of “I’LL TAKE ON YOU” and the brazen insanity of “BUZZCUTT”.

64. THE KILLERS – PRESSURE MACHINE [ROCK]

For all their ubiquity, The Killers will no doubt be remembered as one of the more peculiar festival headliners of the modern age. Just four years removed from the glitz and stomp of Wonderful Wonderful and a year after the magnificent Exploding The Mirage, an album that merged The Killers flashy impulses with Brandon Flowers’ Springsteenian daydreams, comes the band’s most down to earth and defiantly understated release. The Pressure Machine in question is mere existence in half-forgotten, backroads, working class, Christian America. These gentle, often acoustic tales speak of escape and suppression. There are those who throw their bodies in front of moving trains to end the tedium, while others succumb to opioids or become trapped in the very common crisis of marriage and extortionate rents. If this record had been released just last year, these tales would have been romanticised and blown up to gargantuan proportions in a marriage of sequins and boot cut denim, but on Pressure Machine they remain repressed. The Phoebe Bridgers assisted “Runaway Horses” is heart-breaking precisely because The Killers allow the track to twist on the vine, vulnerable and unadorned. The Killers haven’t lost their experimental streak: there are drum machines, alien soft rock guitars and synths alongside the nods to country and Americana. Rather than shattering the illusion, these Hollywood flourishes only enhance the authenticity: Brandon Flowers might be walking dust-strewn and destitute dirty roads, but he’s walking them in a skinny-fit powder-pink three-piece suit. Better still, by focusing on the fragile humans at the heart of his narratives, Flowers has jettisoned the forced romantic imagery that has blighted much of his modern songwriting. Instead, The Killers simply convey more with plain-faced description: be it a hard-up woman being undressed in a moment of abject desperation or a man lying back, gazing up at the stars and contemplating his insignificance. How these songs will fit alongside “Somebody Told Me”, “The Man” and “Human” in a live set remains to be seen, but in isolation Pressure Machine is a quiet and understated beauty.

63. Employed To Serve – Conquering [Metal]

Woking’s finest are here to stay. Don’t let the artwork and the stately slow burning album opener fool you, Conquering is not Employed To Serve’s moment to either mellow out or get conceptual. They are still stacking layers of elastic hardcore bombast atop the sexiest-stop-start grooves in modern metal. However, what sets Employed To Serve apart from your run of the mill pit starters is their wildly ambitious approach to composition. The band will cave in a series of load bearing walls directly onto your cranium, but they also want to experiment with both form and direction. Conquering is heavier than it’s predecessor and overflowing with pummelling (and, on occasion, galloping) riffs, but the lead guitar is given a long leash for both silky licks and impressionistic forays into naval gazing. If there is a weakness it’s Justine Jones’ vocal, at times she sounds ungodly (“We Don’t Need You”) in other moments, even on cracking tracks, she can sound thin (“Universal Chokehold”). Thankfully, this matters little as Jones leads the listener on a unrelenting dance towards the fittingly apocalyptic “World Ender”. Conquering is one of those wonderful metal records that manages to sound deranged, pitiless and wilfully awkward without ever failing to provide the most alluring and primal of grooves.

62. ICE AGE – SEEK SHELTER [ROCK]

This ain’t no place for a sightseer’. Once upon a time, the idea of Elias Bender Ronnenfelt sneering those word’s would give rise to an atmosphere of lurid menace, however, in 2021, Elias just sounds tired. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Iceage’s fifth studio album, Sheek Shelter, sounds exhausted, as if these post-punks have finally been worn down by a strange combination of hard living, an unceasingly disappointing world and their own professionalism. Truth be told, in 2021, these Danes are too damn good to sound like spiteful and scuzzy amateurs. Instead, they have the well-earned insouciance of a generational talent. “Drink The Rain” and “Gold City” capture this new era of Iceage perfectly. The former is a wonderfully unkempt love song, a lounge singer strolling through an abandoned luxury hotel bar crooning about a woman who isn’t there for an audience who aren’t listening. The latter sees Iceage taking the sly country nods of Beyondless and blowing them out into a sprawling anti-heroic epic. It’s as if Springsteen has ODed, broken up with E Street Band and found himself touring dive bars with The Hold Steady. The result is pure romantic vagabond shabbiness. However, at this stage, Iceage struggle to keep up the pretence. They might have a vagrant spirit, but these boys are incredible rock and roll musicians trying their best to repress their flair for towering arena ready laments. Like Elton John on Tumbleweed Connection, Iggy Pop on The Idiot, David Bowie on Low or the Happy Mondays at, well, any point – Sheek Shelter might try to sound like a depressing blizzard of booze, pills and avant garde postures, but at its core is a raging rock record. The time is fast approaching when Iceage may be forced to make a decision: their artistic ambitions and genre hopping virtuosity are clearly outgrowing their ability to sound like wild and disinterested gutter punks. Is it time they stopped artfully holding back and just let rip? Maybe. For the time being they are revelling in the romantic hardship of what they call, ‘a constant temporary’, even if it seems like their wild and weary days are numbered, ‘We’ve been nesting, we’ve been caught up, we’ve been domesticating’. Seek Shelter culminates with “The Holding Hand”; a grandiose and despairing bombardment that feels ungodly oppressive. Ronnenfelt recalls The Great Gatsby’s final line, as the band row onwards, drawn forward by an unnameable force. It’s a brutal and poetic gesture: Iceage somehow holding together while being pulled in a million little conflicting directions.

61. Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, Jon Randall – The Marfa Tapes

Miranda Lambert is a fantastic, raucous and salacious country-pop arena-rocking superstar and yet, selfishly, I wish she would jack it all in a spend the rest of her career releasing roots records. Of course, Lambert’s brilliance lies in the fact that she can be both the headliner and artiste. She proved it with the Pistol Annies and on The Weight Of These Wings, and it’s no surprise that songwriters Jon Randall and Jack Ingram wrote for the latter. However, it is absolutely thrilling hearing Lambert strip away any last pretence of superstardom and very literally get back to the farm. These 15 sublime earthy ditties feel like they were crafted by a campfire, precisely because they were. Recorded at a ranch in Marfa, there is no sense of musicians making art or a popstar making a statement, instead this is the sound of three dear friends who know the American songbook like the back of their hands singing together at sunset. There’s a sweetness and a shabbiness to The Marfa Tapes, but rather than making the listener wonder how these songs would have sounded had they ended up on lipstick rocking Wildcard or the immaculate The Weight Of These Wings, they feel perfect just the way they are. If anything, these songs provide a glimpse into the real Miranda Lambert. Even when she’s at her sassiest (“Geraldine”), she never feels contrived or like a superstar artificial recreating a poor man’s good time. Instead, she comes across as a genuine hoot, a natural country starlet delivering withering put downs with beer in hand.

60. Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth [Alternative R&B/Indie]

Good luck trying to define Genesis Owusu’s sound, the Australian star is experimental extreme and fond of rushing from lurching lows to glorious airy highs. They don’t sound remotely alike, but Genesis Owusu at times feels like R&B’s answer to JPEGMAFIA, a madcap sonic fiend who finds experimentation so easy, it’s practically a joke to him. The result is an infuriating brilliant record where at times you’ll wonder if Owusu is laughing in your face as he sings backwards or allows the most glorious of potential hooks to drift off in favor of some sumptuous, but largely aimless vibing. Owusu backstory is defined by brutality and being forced into a box based on his race or identity, that perhaps it’s natural that his music violent kicks and bucks against anything resembling a norm. What’s remarkable is that, even at his angriest and rawest on “Whip Cracker”, where he very literal puts white supremacists back in their box, the result is not brutality, but a gloriously sexy slice of dreamy R&B that slowly migrates into funk work out backed by deliciously demented prog-rock guitar solo. Were Owusu not so strident and righteously pissed off it might well be a love song, or a seductive and sleazy affair. This is typical of Owusu, his approach tone, mood and message are rarely aligned, but they never quite sound discordant either. Smiling With No Teeth is a work of raw musical wizardry.

59. BLACK MIDI – CAVALCADE [ALTERNATIVE]

London experimental rocker’s black midi are faced with a fiendishly difficult task. Their debut album Schlagenheim was so wonderfully, endearingly strange, that their fans now expect eccentric genius, unpredictable angles and curious diversions. In short, when we already expect the unexpected, how does a furiously inventive band respond? Well, black midi don’t exactly sidestep expectation. Cavalcade is still delightfully mathy, full of sly jazz illusions, noodling asides and start-stop-riffs, even as the band embraces a newfound lounge-lizard sensibility. The resulting sound is suitably demented. On “Chondromalacia Patella” it feels like David Bryne has been possessed by Mark E. Smith and hurled headlong down the stairs before slamming into a wall of frenzied, atonal, ear-bludgeoning sound. It’s barmy and brilliant stuff, but it’s all foreshadowed by soft-crooning and followed by sadistic whispers. It’s tempting to label Calvacade a progressive regression; through masterful playing and ungodly strange compositional quirks, this ferocious outfit manage to slide from punk iconoclasm to mid-afternoon-hotel sleaze without batting an eyelid. It would be easy to be bamboozled by the bewildering randomness of black midi’s sound, but at the center of Cavalcade lays six minutes of gentle sonic exploration. “Diamond Stuff” ruminates on a single delicate riff and is in no hurry as it dwells on a series gorgeous and lonesome tones. It’s a welcome reprieve from the jabbing, stabbing, sliding, paranoid tension that underwrites the band’s demented, broken spiral staircase of a modus operandi. Cavalcade is a fabulous little rock record. Could it use some honest to goodness songs? Perhaps, but it’s hard to care when you find yourself trapped bobbing along like helpless marionette to “Dethroned’s” skidding guitars and slippery percussion.

58. NAS – KINGS DISEASE II [RAP]

Let’s not pull our punches, both the critical community and rap’s old head have been willing a Nas revival into existence since the turn of the millennium. Nas has certainly given his fans plenty of reason to hope. Life Is Good and King’s Disease suggested that, after flirting with the abyss, Nas would age into the cocksure and introspective elder statesmen the rap game needs: one with an unquestionable pen and a social conscious. Well, if Nas had flattered to deceive for too long, Kings Disease II is the moment when fans can finally rejoice: Nas isn’t back (he’s been back), but he has finally ascended the throne and become the Godfather figure he always should have been. Sure, the are little or no concessions to modernity and Nas still has a nasty tendency to rhyme his way into a clunky storytelling blackhole, but more often than not he sucks the listener in with a devastating spiral staircase of rhyme. “40 Side” is a close as Nas comes to releasing a trap banger, but Nasir gets too amped up and his cool bouncing hook quickly ratchets into a freewheeling barrage of bars. Fittingly, this slide towards modernity is paired with the posse cut throwback “EPMD 2” that sees EPMD astutely pointing out that the black community needs “interest” not “stimulus” to escape the poverty trap. Nas clearly has a lot to get off his chest. He is simultaneously toasting to his success at having escaped the streets that should have claimed his life while bringing up the bodies from his 90s rap heyday and reflecting on how his community can change their lot in life in 2021. What makes King’s Disease II so thrilling is the sense that Nas can and will do the unexpected: one moment he’s got his head down stacking the syllables and switching up his flow on a tour de force solo cut, the next minute he’s vibing with YG, Lauryn Hill, Eminem or Hit-Boy. The message reads loud and clear: Nas might be a throwback to the golden age of hip hop, but he isn’t a dinosaur, and he will embrace modernity on his own terms. The album only falters when Nas gets too deep into his “mob shit” – Nas is too good a storyteller to waste his time bragging about cars and respect. In fact, King’s Disease II thrives when Nas embraces introspection on “Nobody”, where he dreams of escaping modern existence altogether while admitting he worries that his girl will get home safe at night. This blend of vulnerability and braggadocio is something that an older wiser head should provide. Nas should be proud of his success, but confident enough in his status to admit weakness – or as Lauryn Hill aptly puts it on her scorched earth verse, “pride and ego over love and truth is fucking reckless”.

57. JAZMINE SULLIVAN – HEAUX TALES (R&B)

Heaux Tales starts with a strident treatise on a woman’s right to find sexual satisfaction on her owns terms and it would be natural to expect a headstrong, overly-literal, “love yourself” record to ensue, but Jazmine Sullivan is far too canny for that. Instead, what unfolds is a sexy, sensual, brazen and beautifully sung take on the vacillating power dynamics of lust. Jazmine is never holier than thou. One moment she’s on cloud nine, positively craving her lover’s cock; the next she’s snappily joking with her girlfriends that the only reasons she sleeps with her man is to make sure that he actually does things for her. Between these visceral and cynical extremes Sullivan reflects on knotty human circumstances. Across Heaux Tales she will succumb to her libido and cheat on her girlfriend, only to then own up and take responsibility for this rash moment of pure hedonistic foolishness. Later she’ll find herself depressed in her bedroom, dreaming of a rich rapper to take her away from her mundane life and “buy [her] a booty”. This is Jazmine Sullivan’s greatest strength: she has her head screwed on straight, but she’s not beyond temptation. She wants to transcend and ‘do better’, but she’s just as susceptible to luxury dreams and cheap fucks as the rest of us. The hooks could be tighter, but the performance, palette and meme-worthy lyricism are there in spades.

56. Charles Wesley Godwin – How The Mighty Fall [Country]

Country music is often considered the storyteller’s medium and Appalachian country superstar-in-waiting Charles Wesley Godwin’s How The Mighty Fall epitomises the art of spinning a good yarn. Godwin doesn’t deal in confessional tales, instead he turns to the enviroment, to his immediate surrounding and to history for inspiration. The result is love songs spawned from graffiti, blood feuds setting stage for rooting tooting rockers and an entire family history re-imagined a tenderly plucked murder ballad by the name of “Cranes of Potter”. Charles Wesley Godwin has one of those gorgeous timbres that manages to utterly inhabit a song. He might deal in fiction and historiography, but for the three or four minutes that’s he’s singing you will believe that he’s lost either his daughter or farmland. Whenever he chooses to slow things down and narrow the record’s focus to a clear narrative, Godwin has an incredible ability to suck the oxygen out of the room, leaving you hanging on his every word. It almost becomes disappointing when he rocks out, not because the songs are weaker (they most certainly are not), but because that magical time standing still quality is absent. The ultimately compliment that I can pay to How The Mighty Fall is simply to point out that the arrangements prove just as inventive and enrapturing as Godwin’s songwriting. “Gas Well” is a remarkable five-minute odyssey that tells a heart-breaking tale back by a guitar driven arrangement full of unexpected changes of tempo and mood that I will not spoil here.

55. Robert Plant & Allison Krauss – Raise The Roof [Americana]

Music lovers can collectively exhale. Raise The Roof, Robert Plant and Allison Krauss’ sequel to Raising Sand, the duo’s 2007 master class in Americana, proves a perfect companion piece to its predecessor. In fact, Raise The Roof may well surpass Raising Sand – although that’s simply too tricky to assess in the eye of the storm. Raising Sand was a stunning triumph, a serenely weathered and entirely unexpected collaboration that caught the world off guard. Raise The Roof, on the other hand, arrives with 14 years worth of anticipation. In spite of the implausibly high standards these sweeping hybrids of roots rock, blues, folk and 60s pop sound utterly divine. The biggest leap forward comes from the decision to bridge the Atlantic, allowing the fay and mystical British folk scene to flow into the terse and dusty dessert highways of the American heartland. Krauss and Plant’s music will always sound weather worn, but T Bone Barnett is careful to retain a lightness, delicacy and soft-focus in his immaculate observed recreations of yesteryear. If there’s a weakness, it’s that Plant no longer throws himself into the hooks, so fittingly Raise The Roof proves better when it drifts on breeze or lingers seductively. Krauss has never sounded better than on Allen Toussaint’s darkly alluring “Trouble With My Lover” and the winding pitter-patter march of Bert Jansch’s “Don’t Bother Me”. Not to be outdone, Plant is having the absolute time of his life as he gives Merle Haggard’s “High and Lonesome” a gyrating, blues-evangelist menace that proves disturbingly sexy. Plant and Krauss are a perfect pairing, so please, don’t make us wait another 14 years for the next instalment.

54. BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD – FOR THE FIRST TIME [POST-ROCK]

This is what a debut album should sound like. Black Country, New Road are the kind of wildly inventive, genre subverting, live show destroying, young band that evoke the spirit of the post-punk era. Evidently no one has told Isaac Wood and his seven-strong cohort that indie has settled into a cosy retirement as a genre of relevance. Every second of For The First Time feels urgent and essential. Their music is bursting at the seams, desperate to stretch out into strange new directions, groping toward both their influences and fleeting impulses. Isaac Wood is on one. Lyrics pour from his lips with a wonderful carelessness, like his most overly dramatic bedroom philosophising is escaping his diary and being vomited up on stage. Rather than feeling trite (or like over-educated know-it-all rockers), Black Country, New Roads instead capture the over-sharing, under-paid, and political anxious tensions of the moment. Like The 1975’s “Love It If We Made” sung by Nick Cave with the jittery awkwardness of The Feelies replacing the macabre languor of the Bad Seeds.

For The First Time isn’t remotely interested in genre. At times there are sensuously orchestrated stretches of understated jazz fusion, but they soon give way to the snorting textures of post-hardcore, the skittish amateurism of the 70s post-punks and the ear-piercing thrills of raw noise. “References, references, references, what are you on tonight? I love this city, despite the burden of preferences”, for all their overthinking and the undeniable math-y sophistication of their grooves, Black Country are not burdened by either their influences or their pretentions. Instead, For The First Time is defined by its dynamism. This young collective want to rip into life itself. Their narratives might be over-burdened with grizzly self-doubt and alienation, but they thrive on immediacy. They are living and experimenting their way through all the nastiness and neurosis to deliver a God awful, but undeniably brilliant, cacophony of sound. The nine-minute centerpiece “Sunglasses” is both For The First Time’s most simplistic offering and its most deprave roar as the what was once repressed comes screaming forth: “I am more than adequate, leave my Daddy’s job out of this, leave your Sertaline in the cabinet, and burn what’s left of all the cards you’ve kept”. This is gnarly stuff.

53. Arca – Kick ii-iiii [Alternative/Electronic]

Where to begin with Arca’s surprise simultaneous release of the three follow up albums to 2020’s KiCk i – well perhaps by simply admitting and acknowledging how overwhelmingly brilliant it all is. Arca has been revolutionising pop music since 2011 – this, after all, is the woman Bjork turned to when she needed that new sound to document and process a devastating break-up. However, if Arca has made a career on the back of jarring, bold, strangeness, then Kick ii, iii and iiii are surprisingly easy to listen to and undeniably beautiful in their quieter moments. Perhaps the modern pop palette has finally caught up to Arca’s headspace and the serenity behind her innate and proudly queer otherness stands revealed. Nothing is ever as it seems, the music always feels as though it is slipping inperceptively out of time whether Arca is disembowelling Regaton on Kick ii or elevating chamber pop to even greater heights on Kick iiii. It takes a special kind of talent to intuitively understand both the hottest club music on the planet and the most alien anti-music designed to unnerve and intellectualize even the most straightforward of situations. Oddly, after listening to nearly two hours of the most deranged and different music on the planet the word that lingers on the tip of my tongue is accessible: Arca is such a perfectionist that, even as she stretches out, pulverizes and then precedes to drive alien race car or dentist’s drill (who can honestly say?) across the beat, it still sounds divine. If Arca wanted to she could clearly create dance and R&B music that slaps ungodly hard in a conventional sense (and, in her own way, she does), but truth be told she has no interest in doing anything aside from expressing herself in sound. Alien, other, disturbing and divine: Arca is still the future of music and music of the future simultaneously.

52. Nala Sinephro – Space 1.8 [Jazz/Ambient]

Some album’s exist to make a mockery of lists like this one. After all, how is that the mellifluous and deliciously thoughtful ambient Jazz of sits between the garish synthetics of Arca’s otherworldly identify pop and Adele’s wine guzzling break up album? Truth be told it doesn’t make much sense and comparing sounds is largely useless, but it does highlight how a piece of sublimely judged and intuitively played instrumental music can rival the poignancy and emotion of traditional narrative works discussing otherness and heartache. Nala Sinephro is a magnificent composer who knows how to conjure the beauty and tension of our quietest and innermost spaces. Confining herself to pedal harp and synths, Sinephro sets the stage for her guest stars to flourish and flourish they do. Nubya Garcia, an award winning saxophonist who shot to international stardom with 2020’s The Source, has never sounded better, purer or more at ease in her playing than she does on Space 1.8. Sinephro’s compositions are so beautiful as they deftly unfurl in their quietest moments that it almost comes as a shock when “Space 6” arrives to remind the listener that Sinephro isn’t afraid to get knotted, trippy and stuck between phases. In these moments, Space 1.8 shows us that modern jazz is just as daring in its embrace of ambient synthetic sonics as the best works by Tim Hecker or Oneothrix Point Never. Space 1.8 is a spiralling, multi-layered delight, built on the back of Nala’s spectacularly subdued harp that allows each and every one of her fellow travellers to flourish and expand their minds in the process.

51. Adele – 30 [Pop/Soul]

The return of Adele, the world’s premiere record shifter and soul siren, would be monumental in any year. In 2021, however, the stakes have been raised as 30 arrives in the wake of the singer’s divorce. Given the incredible power of Adele’s instrument it would be tempting to assume that her post-breakup LP would eardrum bursting assault of sky-scraping balladry interspersed with husky sighs of regret and pained howls, but nothing could be further from the truth. 30 is instead a introspective masterclass in self-reflection as Adele, with wine glass in hand, contemplates how to move on from, cope with and explain to her child the dissolution of her relationship. Adele achieves this by keeping her cool vocally no matter how deeply she delves into her feelings, while simultaneous offering up an experimental approach to genre and instrumentation. Like the new singleton dipping her toes in the water, 30’s opening run is simply tremendous as Adele glides between neo-soul, funk, classic balladry, nu-jack swing, and Ed Sheeran-meets-Suzanne Vega syncopation before culminating with the masterful Elton John/Billy Joel adjacent tour de force, “I Drink Wine”. Ironically, despite suggesting she’ll drown her sorrows, the singer is in fact looking for substantive closure and personal evolution. She also wants to fuck. “Can I Get It” is less a question and more of an ultimatum to the single men of the world, but Adele’s façade inevitably cracks. She can no longer handle the solitude she used to crave. She can tell her self to be patient, but she’s routinely swept away on currents of grief. By 30’s end Adele is approaching the foetal position as she cries, “all I do is bleed into someone else”. The album’s climax is less daring than the first two thirds, but if Adele’s wailing balladry proves predictable lacerating that’s hardly a sin. 30 is less hit laden than it’s predecessor, but it’s hour-long contemplative narrative and brazen smorgasbord of soulful experiment may make it Adele’s most intriguing and affecting to date.

article topics :

Top Albums of 2021, David Hayter