50 Best Albums Of 2021

While I no longer rank the best music of the year, I still found myself feeling head over heels in love with a small subset of albums – the most personal of personal favorites, the music that spoke to my soul more than anything else released in 2021. While everything, absolutely everything on this list is worth the time to listen, explore, and engage, these albums sit just a little closer to my heart. Just as everything that came before, these are unranked and placed in the order which I first heard them.

• • •

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises

Luaka Bop

I never could have predicted the strange alchemy that brought together Floating Points, one of the most detail-oriented lush producers of today; Pharoah Sanders, my favorite living saxophonist and creator of some of the very best spiritual jazz records in existence; and the London Symphony Orchestra.. which obviously needs no introduction. The result is a melange of strings and synths and swelling ambience and heart-tugging emotion where Pharoah’s yearning, searching, questing saxophone maps out a swooning narrative over the most beguiling textural bedrock. I feel like an idiot even trying to capture what makes this album so special to me, so I’ll just say that it’s got all the ingredients in all the right places: they’re not doing anything new with the concept of orchestral-jazz-electronic combination, but they are crafting some of the most dazzling magic I heard all year with it.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

CFCF – Memoryland

BGM Solutions

I’ve been something of a massive CFCF fan over the years, dropping his tracks in mixtapes and album of the year lists pretty much every time he’s released something (including two in the top ten of 2015) and talking about his music so much that my friend Tyler likes to joke that I secretly am him. The guy simply keeps dropping fire that lines up exactly with a fresh combination of my various musical loves – those Night Bus mixtapes mixed some of the core, elemental artists who shaped my tastes growing up with some of my brand new favorites and they felt like a dream come true, something I never knew I needed to hear so badly. They were also just the beginning. From sophistipop to Reich-ian modern classical to fourth world deep house to balearic new wave to- you get the picture. Now he’s folding in trance, jungle, pop punk, and the glossy-complex sheen of peak-era Underworld and what sounds like a mess on paper is simply one of the most euphoric, romantic, and immensely generous albums I heard all year. And finally, I get a self-description of the jrpg vibe I often try to evoke with my mixtapes – but CFCF actually pulls it off here. It goes, “From the opening intro’s announcement of arrival to the final credits, it’s an album as film as RPG, with the listener as its protagonist.”

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Claire Rousay – a softer focus

American Dreams

Claire Rousay is one of the most interesting composers working today and this album is her masterpiece so far. A Softer Focus finds her moving from non-melodic experimental music to a living breathing ambient sound, pulsing with voices, violin, and cello, filled out with massive field recordings that envelop the listener completely. It’s almost an aural VR experience, the songs organically billowing up around your head like the shapes on the album cover, shifting with the natural cadence of wind and water. These songs feel like they were grown, not composed. The album isn’t just her best and most accessible release yet; it feels like a genre landmark already, destined to join the ambient pantheon.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Pauline Anna Strom – Angel Tears in Sunlight

RVNG Intl.

Angel Tears in Sunlight ended up becoming the brilliant composer’s final transmission, releasing just a couple months after her death. I wish so badly that she could have been around to witness its reception – because this is as evocative, vital, original, and overwhelmingly beautiful synthesizer music of the highest order, a heroic final followup to her early 1980s landmark recordings collected in the Trans-Millennia Music compilation. On this album, she’s got more creativity and emotional depth and nuance than most composers working today, including favorites of mine like Oneohtrix Point Never. The only disappointment is that we’ll never hear from her again, because this feels like the first step on a whole new journey. Strom appears on this year’s Airborne Lagoon mixtape.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Skee Mask – Pool

Ilian Tape

After 2018’s Compro, which featured in my top ten of that year and ended up one of my most-played albums of the entire decade, I had no idea how Skee Mask could follow it up with anything approaching that level of sustained techno wizardry. But that’s why I’m the listener and he’s the producer – dude came roaring back in 2021 with a 100+ minute juggernaut of dissolving breakbeats, warp drive ambient, jazzy braindance, and all manner of gravity-flipping techno in between. Songs are constantly erupting and evolving as they pull along. Fractured bass hits give way to rhythmless float. Distant percussion skitters gradually overwhelm the mix. Clouds of static-laden dub crunch will part, revealing sleek neon speedruns over glistening cyberpunk rooftops. When many producers drop an album this huge, the results can feel like a quantity-over-quality situation, but the only problem with this massive slab of shapeshifting mind-melters is that every track feels essential and endlessly explorable – there’s hardly any time to listen to the whole thing in one go. What a problem to have!

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Downstairs J – basement, etc

Inciensio

Downstairs J became my biggest surprise addiction of the year, going from an artist I’d never heard of to dropping my most-listened album of the summer by a wide margin. This is a deeply spaced out, dubby mixture of trip-hop and acid house, dusted with late 90s Korg synth textures and an utterly relaxed vibe, the kind of music that doesn’t need to reach toward greatness because it’s just already there, cruising. Cool bonus to purchasing one of the best albums of the year by a long shot: downstairs J will be donating 100% of their proceeds to Bedstuy Strong and to Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Space Afrika – Honest Labour

DAIS

Returning after their groundbreaking hybtwibt? mixtape (see 50 best albums of 2020) to a new soundworld of their own creation, the UK pair of Joshuas – Inyang and Reid, respectively – under the Space Afrika moniker have continued in this new vein they call “overlapping moments.” The album plays out as a constantly shuffling mosaic of ambient pads, percussion, rhythm and texture, dialogue, sung and rapped vocals, washes of shimmering strings, loping guitar, downtempo beats, and beyond. What could sound like an ever-flipping radio dial actually comes across more like a foggy miasma of sound from which elements emerge for brief moments before absorbing back into the whole. There’s a cohesive, all encompassing atmosphere here, muggy city streets at night pulsing with unrest and desire, wandering souls, music from the subconscious bursting through in cosmic eruptions of passion.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Nala Sinephro – Space 1.8

Warp

Nala Sinephro is a 22 year old Caribbean-Belgian composer, producer and musician working here on her solo debut with a meditative, dreamlike approach to jazz, peppered with field recordings and warm synth whorls. The music is astonishingly mature and organically developed, especially considering her young age – I’m reminded of Alice Coltrane’s spaced out spiritual harp and organ combinations as well as her grand-nephew Flying Lotus’ more contemplative moments between those brash, big beat explosions. In some ways, Space 1.8 feels like the expansive, electronic-tinged modern jazz fusion album I’ve always wanted ever since hearing Flylo’s god-tier live action rendition of “Drips/Take Notice” with the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Ensemble over ten years ago. Except, it’s somehow more nuanced, ambitious, and powerful than I could have imagined. Truly bewildering to think of how young she is and how bright her future is looking right now.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Hiroshi Minami / Eiko Ishibashi – Gasping_Sighing_Sobbing

self released

I have no idea what to say about this beguiling mixture of ambient, ghostly jazz and oneiric waves of synth space. It’s beautiful, mysterious, soothing, searching, yearning, sad, contemplative, and utterly unlike anything else I heard in 2021. Field recordings drift out from the haze of echoed piano and upright bass, songs billow up and dissolve without notice, a righteous sense of space and place evaporates as the final notes ring into the darkness. I’m just going to quote the strangely lovely bit of prose Hiroshi Minami wrote for its release:

A porcelain girl is looking up at the sky by a stream on another planet.
Sighing.
For some reason, even though she is in the middle of nature, there are extremely advanced radio waves all around, and they catch the many thoughts that the girl dreams up.
“This melody I’m singing feels like I’m wearing clothes made of new fabric that feels good against my skin. It’s like this wide open meadow. It’s like looking up at the breathtaking blue sky.”
The moment the electromagnetic waves from the planet were suddenly received in the future in New York, my Globe lost its constellation.
And somehow, nightfall was replaced by pre-dawn, and the color of the sky turned into a sobbing mystery of nature that humans had forgotten.
My favorite Lili Boulanger is looking at the Tokyo Tower. In the midst of all this, the memory of the Apollo moon landing in the 60’s, the endless futurism of the universe, and the European air inside of me all came together to create a sound that became music through the peaceful dreams of Miss Ishibashi.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Tomu DJ – FEMINISTA

Side Chick Records

FEMINISTA, despite being created in the wake of intense personal pain and change, feels like the most simply joyful dance record of the year, bursting with an almost childlike sense of wonder and awe at the way these sounds – alternately crunching and gentle, forceful and playful – interact and clash and resolve in the most euphoric ways. Flashes of balearic bliss shine through brittle synth pads and reflect on gently strummed guitars and hushed, intimate drum sounds. The bass often gives way for little flights of melodic wonder, plucked sounds from childhood memories bringing warmth and a hint of sadness at the loss along the way. Urgent breakbeats, twinkling piano riffs, and wiggly synth pop signifiers all dance and float around a rhythmic core that locks the whole set together in a cohesive, lofi-adjacent pocket universe of sound. The balance of sincere healing vibes and playful silliness makes it the most relatable album about recovering from devastation without a single word being sung.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Fuubutsushi – Shiki [boxset]

Cachedmedia

So you’ve probably noticed that this makes eleven albums in my top ten. I couldn’t help myself. Even more – this is actually a boxset packaging the four “seasons” of Fuubutsushi output over the last year. That’s four albums’ worth of music right here. Fuubutsushi, Setsubun, Yamawarau, and Natsukashii were released from September 2020 through August of this year under the name Jusell, Prymek, Sage, Shiroishi, aka the four musicians behind it: Chris Jusell (violin), Chaz Prymek (guitars, field recordings, voice), Matthew Sage (keyboards, percussion, voice, field recording), and Patrick Shiroishi (alto saxophone, clarinet, flute, glockenspiel, samples, whistling, voice). The quartet work fluidly despite their long-distance collaboration, blending gentle ECM eclecticism, cool jazz, folk music, sophistipop, post rock, and an deep ambient undercurrent into songs that sound and feel like no one else on earth right now. As the release page for this boxset puts it, the music “falls into valleys, at times in soars far above the surface, it falls and collects in puddles and lakes, it thaws and runs like rivers, it collects in snow banks and freezes solid.” I think describing it as atmospheric water is just fine, because these four albums comprise an all-encompassing experience, a sound world made for full immersion, breathing in and soaking up the intimate details and the global style mosaic in relaxed, unhurried fashion. Take your time and listen to them in order: fall, winter, spring, and summer, a whole year of natural evolution and camaraderie between artists connected across the Earth.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Thank you all for reading. I sincerely hope you find some music to fall in love with here, and that some of these artists find new fans and get some well deserved sales. I know I missed a lot of great music, as I do every year, and gladly welcome any suggestions in the comments. Also, keep an eye out for 50 More Best Albums of 2021 coming soon!

• • •
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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