50 Best Albums Of 2021

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 to hearing half of it even if they stopped making the stuff after the calendar rolls over this time. But I always make sure to share the stuff that made a big impression on me, the stuff that moved me and opened my mind, the stuff I love. So here we are, with fifty incredible albums that everyone needs to hear.

Just like last year, this list is unranked. Albums appear in the order I discovered them, whether at release or months later. Except for the top ten, which appears on the last page – that’s a small group of albums that touched me just a bit deeper, spending significantly more time playing than the rest. I really can’t emphasize enough how everything here is fantastic, but I felt compelled to highlight a handful that totally ran me over in 2021, because there were definitely some artists who destroyed me in the best way possible.

But seriously, everything here is incredible and worth your time. Let’s go:

• • •

Shawn Rudiman – Flow State

Pittsburgh Tracks

Massive, shapeshifting, scifi-tinged Detroit techno from one of the most unheralded masters of the sound. Flow State is huge, very different from last year’s laser focused Conduit. This towering future vision from the heart of the genre brings to mind early Future Sound Of London, Pete Namlook, Global Communication, all sorts of weird-broadcast legends from the 1990s that feel like desperate attempts to reach out to life beyond our planet.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Yu Su – Yellow River Blue

Music From Memory

I called Yellow River Blue my first “hell yeah!” recommendation of 2021 and I think that’s a pretty great indicator of how enthusiastic her full length debut had me. The best thing is that it’s almost a year later and I’m still putting it on occasionally between new releases and old favorites. Yu Su makes dubby, housey, earthen, ecstatic, spacey, beautiful dance music and beyond and it just fits together so well here, synthesizing what made her best of 2019 euphoric debut EP and her more club-centric singles so uniquely infectious.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Madlib – Sound Ancestors

Madlib Invazion

I’ve been a Madlib fan since the beginning of my beat music odyssey, before Flying Lotus, before the whole LA scene exploded, before everyone really, except maybe the time-looping legend beyond the beyond, J Dilla himself. Madlib’s Beat Konducta series, his Blue Note remixes, his collaborations with Freddie Gibbs, and all the weird wigflipping stuff out in the wild built toward this frictionless descent through everything that makes his music work and flow better than anyone in the game. It was probably a stroke of genius, pairing with Kieran Hebden for arrangement, editing, and final master. Otis Jackson Jr has made music this vital, this fun, this unpredictable, but it’s never come together so effortlessly panoramic, big-picture, everything-good-amplified-just-right before.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan – Interim Report, March 1979

Castles in Space

I’m just going to quote the artist himself here because it’s rare someone can lay out their appeal so succinctly with such specificity. I love it:

It seemed like there were a lot of ersatz-soundtracks to lost John Carpenter films, or obscure giallo “classics”. I preferred to find inspiration from the surreality of the mundane, hence the creation of Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan. 1979 seemed the perfect point to be located in time, sitting on the razor’s edge between the post-war consensus and the dawn of Thatcherism. As the concept took hold, I tried to format the music according to the capabilities of a small, provincial recording studio in 1979. I limited the number of instruments available, the number of tracks available and so on. This really helped to shape the album and anchor the concept. As a teenager, I was into rock and looking for ever more extreme sounds – AC/DC gave way to Metallica gave way to Carcass. But by the 90s I heard Warp artists and that was me hooked. What they were doing could be far more brutal than anything by four sweaty long-haired guys with guitars. But it could also be funky, beautiful, ethereal, melodic and so much more.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

G.S. Schray – The Changing Account

Last Resort

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how this brings them into a similar headspace as those final two Talk Talk albums, which are absolutely some of my favorite recordings of music ever, and I get it. But I feel like Schray is doing something different here in tone and feel and I love it – don’t get me wrong – but it’s maybe not so spiritually aching.. and maybe more spiritually warm? An embrace from a friend, a nourishing evening with your wife and child, I don’t know. I put a track from this on the Airborne Lagoon mix and I also just kept listening throughout the year.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Emeka Ogboh – Beyond the Yellow Haze

A-Ton

A-TON is the sublabel of legendary German outfit Ostgut Ton and I’m so thankful it introduced me to this deep, dubby, bustling mixture of spaced out bass and crisp motorik percussion and field recordings from the artist’s home of Lagos. Nothing else felt so pulled right from a specific place on earth, so alive with the ambient noise of a city I’ve never been to. Not much else begged me to dial up the volume a little bit more with every track, not like this set of four ten-ish minute bangers and a slight outro.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Forest Robots – Amongst a Landscape of Spiritual Reckoning

Wormhole World

Fran Dominguez is a highly experienced mountain climber and hiker, a composer of richly textured, spiritually enriching music that flirts with slow motion rock and jazz and ambient and otherworldly spaces in between, and most of all a dedicated father who channels his experience raising a child in this torn world into beautiful music that transcends the needs for language to understand. As a fellow dad, I feel this stuff in my bones, especially with straightforward sentiments in the track titles, like “We Only Die Once, But Can Be Grateful Every New Day.” This is an adventure in carving meaning out of a confusing world and passing it along to those who matter most in life.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

The Zenmenn – Enter the Zenmenn

Music From Memory

Timeless, blissed out, nearly tropical, vaguely balearic, practically undefinable chamber groove music, pocked with steel drums and rubbery basslines and heavenly chimes echoing into the sky. I feel dumb trying to describe this one honestly, a gorgeous debut courtesy of Music From Memory, perfectly evoking the label’s name in the way it feels instantly familiar and warm, despite its playfulness bringing pockets of joyous surprise with every listen.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Elori Saxl – The Blue of Distance

Western Vinyl

The phrase “the Blue of Distance” was coined by Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost and refers to the phenomenon of faraway mountains appearing blue due to light particles getting lost over distance. Half of the album was written in the Adirondack mountains during summer amid lakes, rivers, and moss-laden forest floors, while the other half was conceived on a frozen Lake Superior island in deep winter. The sound is pure chamber-orchestral-ambient-ascension, as meditative and time-suspending as it is a phantomic flight between tactile instrumentation and production only possible in our age of everything online.

Listen and buy on Bandcamp.

• • •

Joseph Shabason – The Fellowship

Western Vinyl

Anyone who’s read this blog for any stretch of time knows that Joseph Shabason and his utterly inimitable saxophone sound has been one of my favorite things for years now. This third full length solo album, following last year’s maybe-very-favorite album from his Shabason, Krgovich & Harris trio, returns to what made his prior work so beguiling while also bringing new shades of genre-agnostic playfulness and a deeper sense of autobiography, charting the artist’s life span from adolescence on up through today, reckoning with the past and forging a path forwad.

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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