50 Best Albums Of 2021

• • •

Kraig Kilby – Satori

Just Us Records

I just looked on the bandcamp page as I was completing this list and realized that I’d left a dumb little blurb that kinda makes sense when I revisit Satori yet again: “is it future or is it past?” incredible blend of synths, funky drum programming, spacey trombone, kalimbas & more in a timeless whirl. Sure, why not describe an album recorded mostly over forty years ago that sounds like tomorrow and yesterday and nowhere in between that way? This album is both achingly avant garde and straightforward, down & dirty dancey and chill at the same time, a groove-centric expansion into electronic textures while remaining locked to the pulse of fun. It’s a shame this had to be shelved for so long after it was created, but I feel like the world is now better prepared to accept fusion this radical. I love this relevant bit on the Bandcamp page: The white-hot rhythmic core of Clark, Jackson, and Kilby, alloyed with Kilby’s production flourishes and knack for aural texture make Satori play like a record collector’s fever dream of a psych-jazz grail. If it had been released at the time, it would have most likely become one– but the universe had other plans.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

MPU101 – MPU101

Ilian Tape

This was the third Ilian Tape release arriving in the mail this year, always a welcome site on my doorstep, and the third record that saw the label branching out in a distinct direction this year. MPU101 often feels like a kosmische adventure built with the scifi sheen of Detroit techno in the mid 1990s, guys like Detroit Escalator Co. mingling with Klaus Schulze in some nocturnal echo of BBC radiophonic interludes.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp

• • •

Anthony Naples – Chameleon

ANS

Chameleon marks the first time Anthony Naples wrote the music on instruments first – guitar, bass, synthesizer, drums – and it feels immediately clear when you listen. There’s a more songlike structure to many of the tracks, with patient, jazzy buildups and warmer, spacey jam vibe across the entire set. It’s as exciting and psychedelic as anything Naples dropped before, but far more tactile, physical in its approach and feel. It’s easy to dream about seeing this music performed by a live band, blowing my hair back in some dark little venue – and I’m someone who is obviously very much in love with purely electronic sounding dance music.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Moritz Von Oswald Trio – Dissent

Modern Recordings

Moritz Von Oswald Trio (now featuring Laurel Halo and German jazz drummer Heinrich Köbberling instead of Max Loderbauer and Vladislav Delay) is finally back six years after Sounding Lines, their then-loosest feeling set so far. It’s no surprise that they’ve floated even further away from the laser-precision live action techno of the debut by this point, but Dissent honestly feels like a full blown deep space jazz album by a tight knit band. The sound erupts like noisy industrial Afrobeat, toppling into pitch-black slow motion funk, oneiric Teo Marcero interludes, Rhythm & Sound streetscapes, all reverberating in the hollow space of its namesake’s signature dark, dubby production technique.

Listen and buy on Boomkat.

• • •

Mount Maxwell – The People’s Forest

Hotham Sound

The People’s Forest is packed with micro-earworm moments and nourishing synths and playful crunchy percussion. It’s got a skyward gaze, nostalgia for futures never realized, packing a kind of childlike optimism inside an arpeggio-laden, hermetically sealed little sound world. When the loose, hip-hop fueld drums kick in over warm synthesizer pads, you’ll probably feel the same warm sense of familiarity I picked up. Music for fans of Boards of Canada, sure, but Mount Maxwell has a wide open pastoral landscape and identity all its own.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp

• • •

Shackleton – Departing Like Rivers

Woe to the Septic Heart

Sam Shackleton finally made a true solo album after so many years of collaboration LPs with artists like Ernesto Tomasini, Anika, Wacław Zimpel, and of course Vengeance Tenfold, plus a pair of full band efforts under the Tunes of Negation name (best of 2019 and 2020 sets), and it absolutely revels in the highly specific, evocative elements his music has always been built on. I like his earnest quote on the Bandcamp page, revealing that Departing Like Rivers “is intended as a psychedelic album as much as anything. You can listen to it in a more meditative way without getting distracted by the details. I suppose that is why the frequency spectrum is more similar to my earlier work, but there is a lot going on under the surface and it can be quite demanding if you are paying attention.” Like yeah, that’s kinda the whole thing with Shackleton, whose arrangements always feature enough open space to see the muscular-skeletal rhythm beneath the often murky, reverb drenched textural surface. Good dude, you either like his sound or you don’t, because this sounds above all like no one else.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp

• • •

Tirzah – Colourgrade

Domino

“The album explores recovery, gratitude and new beginnings, presenting a singer having discovered the type of love that is shared between a mother and a child for the first time.” As a parent myself, I can really feel the warmth of that sentiment radiating through the tape hiss and distant guitars, the slow-motion alien soundscapes and molten, often startling production by Mica Levi. Colourgrade is bursting with fractured love and interstitial flights of loneliness and connection, intimate in its close-up warped vocal delivery and compressed pockets of drum propulsion. It’s as avant garde as an R&B album could be while remaining effortless to fall into and drift along on repeat.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp

• • •

Soshi Takeda – Floating Mountains

100% Silk

The moment I first heard Soshi Takeda’s Floating Mountains, I tweeted “oh you’re telling me this is bursting with spacey balearic blissout tunes made with 90s hardware?? and it’s just exactly my kind of thing? yes please. it sounds just like that cover art looks.” And honestly that kinda-dumb, knee-jerk reaction is so spot on that it’s now on an end of year list. This is simply one of the most delightful pieces of music I heard all year on a minute-to-minute basis. Every element slaps and the album ends well before 40 minutes are up, leaving me wanting another go-round every time.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp

• • •

Hoavi – Invariant

Peak Oil

Pointillist, breathtaking riff on suffocating nighttime neon tinged cyberpunk city walking music. Atmosphere billows up and overtakes any semblance of melody or warmth – Hoavi drifts far from the jungle, drum & bass, and recognizable techno realms from which it seemingly disembarked. The Bandcamp page is packed with terms like “sci-fi dimension floor-filler” and “contemplative evocation of a world in which time collapsed in on itself and liquid had embraced footwork” and even “dub-tech evisceration” but I think it’s simplest to just say that this is dark, futuristic beat music that often inverts expectations while still giving way to moments of head nodding bliss.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp

• • •

Li Yilei – 之 / OF

Métron Records

‘’之 / OF is a word that can be used as a preposition to express the relationship between a part and a whole. It is an unfinished tone, a broken sentence, a start and a whole. It is sustainable, full of potentials and longings.’’

‘’I tried to portray each song as a short, scattered poem – a moment that I captured to represent each hour.’’

I took the two quotes above directly from Li Yilei herself, describing the album she recorded while making a last minute trip back to her home of Shanghai during the initial lockdowns of the pandemic in 2020. The album is a gentle storm of analog synths, vocal samples, field recordings, and the tactile warmth of violin and gugin interplay. The music evokes the whole range of emotions she experienced during this cultural and social shift into isolation: emptiness, melancholy, grief, panic.. but also hope, healing, and joy in creation, highlighting humanity’s fraught relationship with nature.

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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