50 Best Albums Of 2021

• • •

Lionmilk – I Hope You Are Well

Leaving Records

I don’t think anything else sounded or felt like this in 2021 or really any years before. I Hope You Are Well is a meditative hour of “souljazz ambient therapy” as Lionmilk aka Moki Kawaguchi describes it. He originally crafted the music on home-dubbed cassettes for selective delivery to close friends and family struggling with mental health during the early wave of the pandemic last year. Now the precious gift is available to us all and I think it’d be a shame if you missed one of the most unique, nourishing pieces of music made during our new era so far.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

X.Y.R. – Waves Tapes

Constellation Tatsu

Waves Tapes is a compilation of three earlier same-titled tape releases from 2015 on up through this year. Although Russian synth sorcerer Vladimir Karpov also dropped a proper full length album this year (Anciente – it’s two 20min deep dive kosmische tracks and totally stunning) it was this more-casual release that ended up soundtracking dozens of nights of my life over 2021. Reading music, work soundtrack, meditation space… it’s just simply the most chill, transportive, physically soothing album I’ve experienced in a long time. The tunes themselves float on ethereal textures with a naturalistic flow that’s made it too easy to loop endlessly while other ambient records wait on standby.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Chee Shimizu & miku-mari – Reconstructions

ESP Institute

This striking nighttime dream journey began life as a two hour improvisation set at Japan’s only ambient festival, Camp Off-Tone (yes I wish I could go to this!) between the Tokyo DJ and guitarist pair. Chee paints with percussion samples and personal field recordings via four CDJs, mixing in live windchimes and chajchas to spine tingling effect, while miku-mari aka wields a guitar-controlled synth, Sound Tube software that was developed by none other than Hiroshi Yoshimura, and other live instruments like Tibetan bells and pyramid crystals. It’s a cumulonimbus float through all of these elements in turn, drifting through melodic, percussive, atmospheric sequences in a dreamy haze, subtle lightning flashing on a clear cool night. It’s as much environmental music as it is an ambient improv trip.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Arushi Jain – Under the Lilac Sky

Leaving Records

Arushi Jain makes the kind of wildly ambitious, almost-prog-leaning synthesizer music that reminds me more of Terry Riley than it does any of her contemporaries. This total odyssey of a debut sounds absolutely huge, blending mountainous modular synth and classical Hindustani music with her voice for an overwhelming, deeply resonant experience.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

L’Rain – Fatigue

Mexican Summer

When I first talked about her debut as one of the must-hear albums of 2017, I said “L’Rain makes dreamlike, jazzy soul music, fueled by the experimental krautrock energy of Broadcast and Stereolab. This is her first and only release and I can’t wait to hear where she goes in the future.” The incredible thing is that her evolution to Fatigue makes that descriptor sound so quaint and limited. The music here fits in no neat boxes, blending R&B and jazz, gospel and idm, blues and beats, noise and field recordings, never leaning fully in any one of these directions, always blurring the edges of sounds, vocals, the songs themselves. It’s as alive and otherworldly as anything I heard this year, but it also feels like such a spot on soundtrack for the way life feels now, two years into the pandemic.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Hoshima Anniversary – Jomon

ESP Institute

Jomon is a staggering future blend of jazz and deep house that takes a more nerdy, deep-dive, mosaic approach to the mixture than, say, Kuniyuki Takahashi (one of my favorite producers ever). The tracks here are as dense, knotty, shapeshifting, and surprising as they are cohesive when pulled back for a widescreen view of the eighty minute experience. Every single piece brings a new element to the table, a new warped reflection of his use of virtual traditional Japanese instrumentation to build tracks that range from atmospheric groove clouds to Detroit-tinged cyborg funk crossovers. Overall effect is one of an artist just exploding with creativity and deep knowledge of all the roots on display.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Facta – Blush

Wisdom Teeth

The fact that this was dropping on Wisdom Teeth – the label responsible bringing me for K-Lone’s Cape Cira, one of my ten favorite albums of 2020 – meant an instant buy after hearing maybe thirty seconds of the first track on bandcamp. Bright, buoyant, lushly appointed dreamscapes bounce to the rhythm of Balearic blissout beats, all awash in a luxo-futuro-natural-techno hypnostates. It’s dreamy beach music for cyberpunk nerds.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Dam-Funk – Above the Fray

Glydezone

This year Dam-Funk breathed new life into his work with some real fusion magic, blending his ambient funk Garrett persona (with three gorgeous Private Life albums released by Music From Memory) with his main strain of synth-blasted, dream-weaving boogie funk. Gone are the vocal features and collaborations with artists like Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, Junie Morrison, and more. This is a pure uninhibited meditative space funk transmission from the man’s peaceful heart to our ears. The cover hints at this new direction, leaning into that contemplative, minimal look of the Garrett records while retaining the nerdy futuristic prog outlook and romantic swoon of his mainline music. His endless quest to keep a positive, uplifting attitude about his art and his engagement with the world is paying dividends. Dam-Funk is still Searchin’ 4 Funk’s Future and it feels amazing to Keep Lookin 2 The Sky with him.

Listen on any major streaming platform, buy digital on Bleep, or CD on Red Line.

• • •

Amapiano Now

NTS compilation mix

I know this isn’t technically an album, but it was an integral part of the summer of 2021 and it’s as cohesive as anything else on this list, besides. This is the warm little center of the amapiano galaxy as far as my listening went this year. The selectors at NTS chose an endlessly listenable set of tunes that interlock like the best planned album over the course of nearly two hours. There’s not a bum note in the pack, each expertly mixed track flowing seamlessly into the next, guiding your ears through some of the most inviting, warm, yet radical dance music being produced in the world right now.

Listen or buy on all platforms here.

Sleepy Rich – Solaris

Ilian Tape

It felt really surprising to hear Ilian Tape flying so far outside its highly specialized sound zone with this impossibly fluid and funky set of space beats. Solaris feels like the missing link between the weirder edge of German techno and the LA beat scene personified by artists like Flying Lotus, Tokimonsta, Thundercat, or even Dam-Funk. Bulging, rubbery bass notes glide over 8bit arpeggios and off kilter percussion, setting off those west coast sunset visions in my mind, but it’s all wrapped in a distinctly sleek, dark-tinted atmosphere that sits adjacent to label mate Skee Mask’s sound.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Top 10

22 thoughts on “50 Best Albums Of 2021

  1. Thank you so very much! I am always looking forward to your list. I can’t wait to go over it.

    All my very best, Urban

    ________________________________ Von: Optimistic Underground Gesendet: Thursday, December 16, 2021 10:27:53 PM An: urban.hofstetter@live.de Betreff: [New post] 50 Best Albums Of 2021

    David James posted: ” Well, we survived another year of this pandemic and things seemed to get progressively worse and weirder as the months rolled on. But in 2021 as in every year, there’s always such an overabundance of brilliant music that I’ll never, ever get around t”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good question! I run my computer and turntable through a fiio K5 pro, and my main headphones are Sennheiser 560s. Speakers are Mackie cr4. Pretty modest setup but fwiw these headphones are an incredible price / performance ratio, and I love how they sound. I like Sennheiser’s neutral tuning and I do use software EQ when I want. How about you?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am on Head-fi.org as szore

        My current rig is portable: Shanling M8 DAP, Audeze LCD-2C headphones. I also have a custom Empire Ears Valkyrie IEM with a PWAudio Monile50s cable.

        My weekend project will be to check out all the albums on this list! My current library has over 21,000 albums.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent work, David! It’s so heartening to find others who share essentially the same taste in music. I veer slightly more toward the Balearic/deep house side of things — and have a few additional recommendations if you’re down! — but there is SO much gold on this list. Thank you. And excited to see your next installment soon. – Eric

    Liked by 1 person

  3. First time commenter! I check out your site every year looking for your list(s). Thanks as always. Weirdly it’s one of my favorite annual traditions to go through it.

    Liked by 1 person

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