50 Best Albums Of 2021

• • •

Moor Mother – Black Encyclopedia of the Air

ANTI-

Lived in, luxuriated, deeply textured hip-hop transmissions from the dystopian future that we’re already living in – Black Encyclopedia of the Air feels like this as much as it feels like an accessible leap into the expanding Moor Mother universe of sound. She returns again with a radical new twist, displaying as much of a preternatural talent for moody cinematic rap as for cathartic scorched earth jazz and experimental ambient poetry and essentially everything else she’s blasted upon our ears in the last few years. This is as vital as any of her solo work or with Irreversible Entanglements and possibly easier for your friends to ease into as well. Maybe if they’re fans of Shabazz Palaces at least.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp

• • •

Walt McClements – A Hole in the Fence

American Dreams Records

Walt McClements conjured up seriously heavy, earthen astral travel music right here. Absolutely cosmic feeling yet thoroughly tactile and tangible in a huffing, creaking, breathing kind of way – you can feel the physical exertion right through the music. It’s honestly hard to believe this massive sound comes entirely from an accordion, the instrument my Polish stepfather played endless polka jams with during my youth. Galaxies apart, this one. Highly recommended for fans of Kali Malone or Mary Lattimore or Chuck Johnson.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Sleep D & Ad Lib Collective – Flashed Glass

Play On Records

Melbourne duo Sleep D (best techno of 2019) collaborated with the mixed chamber ensemble Ad Lib Collective for an album that feels almost like Boredoms and Steve Reich pairing up for some expansive deep house with tons of reverbed saxophone, oboe, viola, and synthesizers galore. It’s as buoyant and bubbly as it is yearning and romantic, an ebb and flow between gentle euphoria and questing adventure vibes.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Lone – Always In Your Head

Greco-Roman

Honestly I’m kind of in awe with the fact that Always Inside Your Head sounds like the electronica album I would hardly have dreamed of twenty years ago, just a perfect mixture of all the right ingredients to bliss-out turn of the century David. Cool thing is, this sleek, prismatic beat structure still does the trick for this elder millennial about to turn forty next year. I’m just gonna quote the Bandcamp page on this one because it says all I could say probably quicker than I’d say it: “This deeply textural and ethereal artwork is situated high above the clouds, amidst the heavens, occupying a stratospheric state where swathes of synthesized vapour and azure rays sound like a literal breath of fresh air. Influenced by Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine and William Orbit’s nineties hits, the LP leans towards a song-based sound and exists somewhere between trip hop on Mo’ Wax, 90s Warp, intelligent drum & bass and ambient house.”

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Greeen Linez – Secrets of Dawn

Diskotopia

This nearly 90 minute odyssey from Greeen Linez ended up being one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. Balearic beats, moody neon synths, pixelated deep house, and seeming lost JRPG flourishes bump and swirl the whole way through. They namedrop Larry Heard, Tangerine Dream, John Beltran, Durutti Column, Toshifumi Hinata, Gerald Donald and so many more of my favorite all-timers on the Bandcamp page and incredibly, they’re not wrong to do so. This is the type of album to get lost in, with so many twists and turns across its considerable length.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Native Soul – Teenage Dreams

Awesome Tapes From Africa

It’s frankly astonishing to realize that the guys behind Native Soul – Pretoria, South Africa duo Kgothatso Tshabalala and Zakhele Mhlanga are 19 and 20, respectively. Like all amapiano music, the sound here pulses with the lineage of deep house, jazz, folk, kwaito, and more, but their approach is so sleek, tightly focused, and restrained I couldn’t help but assume the artists were older upon first listen. I’m mentally brought back to the early Rhythm & Sound releases despite the way these glistening, synth-tinged compositions float far above that murky dub realm. Their mostly vocal-less approach, with a minimum set of elements looping together in zero gravity tracks, feels homogenous across the lengthy album – in a really good way.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Ryley Walker – Course In Fable

Husky Pants

Anyone who knows me for any length of time knows I’m not the biggest listener when it comes to rock. Sure, I still blast Flaming Lips on occasion, I love Can, and I listen to Steely Dan way too much, but when it comes to new rock coming out today, I’m mostly clueless. I kept hearing about Walker and had a bit of curiosity, but I never took the plunge until I read this interview where he detailed hitting rock bottom and finally finding himself in sobriety after a suicide attempt. His honesty about his lifelong struggle was compelling, and then I got to the part where he talked about his relationship to prog: “Punk and indie obviously disarmed prog pretty heavily in the 70s and 80s. Like: this is old-guard shit, but even the dorky stuff that’s about finding a mythical beast, I see it as the most free music.” I was sold. Honestly, at first glance I was reminded of the gentler side of Sonic Youth as much as anything prog, but since I’m a dummy when talking about rock at this point I’m just gonna say give it a listen.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Addictionproblem – Stop And Think About It

AP Music

I know virtually nothing about the artist behind Addictionproblem, but I couldn’t ignore a new collaboration with Joseph Shabason when I saw it appear on Bandcamp. His contribution to the moody slow motion track “Invisible” feels naturally woven into the fabric of the album as a whole – it’s a naturalistic plunge through fourth world rainforests and percussive desertscapes blending the overtly synthetic with tangible instrumentation, including woodwinds, live percussion, violin, piano, and some nearly Durutti Column-esque guitar tones. It’s kind of crazy that there are no professional reviews of this enigmatic album, but I hope at least someone checks it out thanks to this list. Beautiful hidden gem.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Irreversible Entanglements – Open the Gates

International Anthem

The release page calls the new Irreversible Entanglements album “ethereal shards of jagged onyx, a melancholic exploration of the post-colonial debris that surrounds us,” and I can’t really argue with that succinct, razor sharp explanation of what goes on during this sprawling, explosive jazz record of our apocalyptic times. Everything they’ve done before has been refined, revised, warped, elevated, subverted, submerged, and extrapolated into new permutations of tranced-out groove warfare. Open The Gates is as bracing and forceful as anything they’ve made before, yet somehow more open, fluid, mythological in scope – and most of all it’s really, really fun to listen to.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

DJ Manny – Signals in my Head

Planet Mu

DJ Manny takes the essential ingredients of footwork and stretches them in a new direction, with an intimate, languid sound full of warmth and tenderness, spaced out hand drums and cavernous reverb – alternately spiked by high energy curveballs that swerve into hammering club stompers and electro pulse twists on the signature percussive footwork sound. Skittering drum patterns over soothing ambient pads bring to mind the cozier end of 1990s breakbeat sounds, but the overall effect remains strikingly new.

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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