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The best albums of 2021

TextDazed DigitalIllustrationMarija Marc

From Aya to Arca, Bladee to Billie Eilish, we look back on our favourite albums of the year

2021 was a year of sudden breakout success stories, from PinkPantheress to Olivia Rodrigo, but plenty of well-established artists dropped brilliant full-length projects too. The likes of Little Simz and Jazmine Sullivan delivered career bests, Danny L Harle and Eris Drew waited for the right moment to release stellar debuts, and Arca had a particularly prolific streak with multiple albums released in the same week. In a year somehow even stranger than last, here are the 20 albums we returned to the most.


Seven years after his acclaimed Black Metal album, cult London musician Dean Blunt unexpectedly released a sequel. Black Metal 2 uses a similar sonic palette to its predecessor – the lush Americana sound, the straightforwardly musical songwriting, the interplay between Joanne Robertson’s vocals and Blunt’s own – but it’s a shorter, stranger, and sadder album than before. A despondent streak runs through songs like “Sketamine”, a haunting folk ballad with shades of “Willow’s Song”, and lyrics like “Daddy’s broke / Up in smoke / What a joke” on “Nil by Mouth”. For all the desolation, the album ends on a surprisingly optimistic tone, or at least as optimistic as a song called “The Rot” can be. Maybe there is salvation, or at least some sort of comfort, out there. (Selim Bulut)


In the golden age of R&B, tracks like “No Scrubs” and “Independent Women'” rejected music’s tendency to rose-tint and romanticise relationships. Erika de Casier’s 90s and 00s-referencing Sensational, similarly, is an antidote to all the fuckery modern dating brings. Being unnecessarily rude to waiters? Nope. Playing with your emotions? Not into it. Love bombing with expensive gifts? OK, maybe that one sounds alright. While de Casier’s own production is revivalist in parts (Darkchild-esque harp plucks, choppy breakbeats, UKG organ stabs), the Danish artist puts a fresh spin on sounds from this era, while throwing in relatable lyrics about trying to look fancy on a budget and being overwhelmed by her skincare routine. (Felicity Martin)


At just 16 years old, Virginia rapper and producer quinn (‘p4rkr’ on Spotify, the name she used before coming out as transgender in 2019) has already achieved more than a lot artists do in a lifetime. Her breakout track “i dont want that many friends in the first place” amassed tens of millions of streams and saw her become the first artist from her SoundCloud scene to appear on the cover of the streaming platform’s hyperpop playlist. In this past year, however, quinn has distanced herself from the hyperpop label. Her debut drive-by lullabies flexes her skills as a producer, moving away from the saccharine tone of previous tracks, instead favouring elements of dark ambient and drum’n’bass. The album has a particularly anxious feel, with heavy guitar riffs and static freak-outs hurling listeners into a state of cognitive dissonance and digital disarray. (Günseli Yalcinkaya)


Billie Eilish ushered in a new era on her second album Happier Than Ever, shedding her trademark slime green roots in exchange for luscious blonde locks and cutting a breathtaking pin-up figure in nude and black corsets custom made by Alexander McQueen, Burberry, and Mugler. Alongside her new look came a thoughtful, softer sounding album, which pondered heavy topics like abuse of power (“Your Power”), fame (“NDA”), and relationships (“I Didn’t Change My Number”; “Male Fantasy”; “Happier Than Ever”), alongside more vulnerable, future-looking tracks (“Getting Older”; “my future”), and a gut-punching spoken word piece about the media’s obsession with her body (“Not My Responsibility”). It reflects an outspoken, politically aware artist who’s unafraid to take risks and do whatever she wants, no matter what the press says about it. (Brit Dawson)


With El Madrileño, C. Tangana proves himself a true legatee to the Latin pop that’s come before him. The album is fearless and open-hearted, an ambitious yet seamless sonic project that fuses bolero and art pop, trap and rap, bossa nova and reggaeton. Spanish cornets pump over electronic synths, and flamenco claps complement slick rhythm guitars that pay homage to Tangana’s roots in Madrid and the wider, ever-evolving Latin legacy. Traditions are filtered through an exciting, experimental lens with the storytelling and production, so Tangana’s steering of the project feels directorial. He has deftly chosen a cohort of collaborators which span continents, generations, and genres that percolate in the Spanish-speaking soundscape: cantaor-cum-electronic artist Niño de Elche, Mexican folk musician Ed Maverick, and 80s flamenco big hitters the Gypsy Kings among them. “Demasiadas Mujeres” speaks to a folkloric Spanish sound, while he hits bossa nova club banger heights with “Comerte Entera”. Among the many voices and style-switching, Tangana remains the focal point, envelope-pushing to both celebrate and level up Spanish-speaking music. (Anna Cafolla)


Our favourite lyrically dextrous Streatham kid is all grown up on We’re All Alone in This Together. On “Lazarus”, featuring DRB Lasgidi’s Boj, Dave is at his most charismatic, riding the wave of an effortlessly cool Afrobeats simmer hit whilst still tackling socio political commentary with ease. On “Clash” he holds his own bar-for-bar with Stormzy, gifting us the evergreen wisdom and cultural code, “don’t die for nyash”. The features list is equally impressive, with Snoh Aalegra, James Blake, and Wizkid all gracing the project in an assertion of staying power, versatility, and unique perspective. Packed with compelling stories, heart-wrenching confessionals and sprinkles of his playful boyish charm, it’s a natural progression from Psychodrama, but beefed up with a confidence that can only come on the backend of the kind of acclaim he received for his debut. Decidedly self-possessed and ambitious as ever, it’s a new prism for his pen to refract through and exhilarating to think where it may take him next. (Natty Kasambala)


Despite amassing a large cult following as part of the Drain Gang collective, Swedish rapper Bladee remains somewhat of an online enigma. The subject of multiple meme pages and fan accounts, he rarely agrees to interviews or posts on social media. But his elusive presence seeks only to bolster his status as an internet artist. On his surprise album The Fool, Bladee’s voice is disaffected yet sunny as Auto-Tuned vocals and child-like melodies are used to cloak complex emotions. Across 13 tracks, he explores themes of dreamy illusions, love, and existentialism, whether that’s pondering the duality of life in “I Think” or fooling around on the deceptively simple “Trendy”. The rapper’s fourth full-length release in little over a year, The Fool trades in the transcendental maximalism of those previous releases for a more pared back approach; still, the sound is unmistakably Bladee, and his introspective lyrics will give diehard fans plenty to chew on. (Günseli Yalcinkaya)


One of the front-running projects of the seismic Gen Z pop-punk revival this year, WILLOW’s lately I feel EVERYTHING leans into its sound with total conviction and authenticity. Opener “Transparent Soul” sets the tone for a thrashing, audacious whirlwind of piercing cries, whiplash tempo shifts, and hazy, electric production. And though the sonics remain true to pop-punk form, WILLOW’s perspective is refreshing within the genre. She sings solemnly of friends being hit with rubber bullets at a Bronx protest on “naive”, of self-discovery and searching on “G R O W”, and captures a distinctly modern brand of long-distance codependency on “Come Home”. And with seamless features integrated with everyone from Tierra Whack and Cherry Glazerr to Avril Lavigne and Travis Barker, the project is elevated as a cross-generational triumph. (Natty Kasambala)


In the opening weeks of 2021, a young singer-songwriter called Olivia Rodrigo seemed to appear out of nowhere with her power ballad debut single, “Drivers License”, which shattered just about every chart record going. This overnight explosion led to a number of ‘Who is Olivia Rodrigo?’ articles, explainers about the song’s Eamon and Frankee-esque meta-narrative, and op-eds about TikTok, Gen Z, and the future of pop music – although it probably says more about the scope of Disney and Interscope’s powers than anything else. After such a huge start to the year, debut album SOUR had high expectations, but delivered in spades, drawing from the contemporary canon of pop, rock, and folk to exorcise her raw emotions from heartbreak to apathy to cathartic rage. “deja vu” gave Rodrigo her second TikTok hit as users acted out faux (and pretty cringe) conversations with their exes, while anthem “good 4 u” became a universal summer smash, complete with a cinematic Petra Collins-directed video in which Rodrigo dramatically sets her bedroom on fire. (Sofia Mahirova)


The sprawling Arca-verse is alive. It prods at the boundaries of pop, makes sodden the fringes of the electronic underground, consumes reggaeton and trap, the ballad and banger archetypes, to birth something new. Thrillingly, this year’s staggered and surprise releases of KICK ii, KicK iii, kick iiii, and kiCK iiiii bust open the gates for the mutants (her fandom) to enter, explore, and enjoy all the self-states and layers of Alejandra Ghersi Rodriguez’s identity. Arca has been instrumental in chart hits for everyone from Kanye to Rosalia and Madonna, but the KICK tetralogy feels like the Venezuelan artist, musician, and producer’s most pop-penetrating yet. On KICK ii this is brought with an additionally ferocious statement of intent, warping what we know of the genre in the mainstream pop sphere with whip-cracking reggaeton percussion and wonky vocals. “Prada” is the pulsating nucleus of the entire collection, her vocals sliding between a wispy falsetto to a bellied baritone – Arca’s exploration of gender, identity, and selfhood imbue every modulation and lyrical shudder. KICK ii is showing us exactly how the traditional and avant-garde can intertwine their tentacles. It is all the more exciting knowing that she has so much life, love, and innovation to give. (Anna Cafolla)


In the two decades since he made his first guitar out of handmade bicycle wires and discarded wood, Niger’s Mdou Moctar has released five albums. Each fuses traditional songwriting from his native Tuareg culture (a nomadic group who inhabit a vast southern stretch of the Sahara) with Auto-Tuned vocals, a drum machine, and gnarly guitar solos. Despite sporadic unrest in Niger and Mdou’s strong political opinions, he steered clear of partisan themes in his music until 2021’s Afrique Victime. The record – Mdou’s first release on indie heavyweight Matador Records, and his second recorded with a full band – grapples with colonialism, Pan-African solidarity, and Tuareg struggles. Mdou previously told Dazed that on title track “Afrique Victime” he’s “calling the whole world to stand up and revolt against the conditions we face”. In the refrain (originally in French) he states: “Africa is a victim of so many crimes / If we stay silent it will be the end of us.” Afrique Victime is a mind-bending journey into the assouf sound of the Sahara, via electrifying shreds, delicate fingerpicking, and urgent, intoxicating vocals, exploding into the mainstream consciousness like nothing else this year. (Brit Dawson)


Bitch, get it together, bitch!” Jazmine Sullivan harmonises on “Bodies”, the wake-up call that introduces the overarching theme of Heaux Tales, a Miseducation of Lauryn Hill-esque release exploring the intersections of womanhood, sexuality, money and more in 2021. In the decade since her “Bust Your Windows” era, Sullivan has mellowed, deepening her knack for soulful storytelling. The album’s structure is punctuated by spoken interludes from different womens’ perspectives which Sullivan then extrapolates into tracks about body image, misogynistic double standards, and the currency of sex. She presents these relatable ‘hoe’ tales without judgement, with the therapeutic space to feel the sometimes fun, sometimes dangerous cocktail of emotions that come with unhealthy fixations on the wrong kinds of men, just because “that dick spoke life into me,” (“Ari’s Tale”). The light neo-soul “WAP” energy of tracks like “On It”, “Price Tags”, and “Put It Down” come with their sobering counterparts. On “Girl Like Me”, Sullivan’s pen savages men “Makin’ us sad, makin’ us mad / Then say y’all don’t know why we mad,” flipping it back to them: “I ain’t wanna be, but you gon’ make a hoe out of me.” With character development worthy of Insecure, Heaux Tales is required listening for a grown girl R&B education. (Vanessa Hsieh)


As a DJ, Eris Drew has been in the rave game for a quarter of a century, but it took a pandemic to get her to lay down her first ever LP as a producer. The musician holed herself up in her studio in the bucolic expanses of rural New Hampshire and got stuck into creating the beautiful Quivering in Time. Flitting between warm, fuzzy familiarity (“Time to Move Close”), bouncy, sample-fuelled floorfillers (“Loving Clav”), and disjointed, echoing electro (“A Howling Wind”) the album takes listeners on a journey – or, more accurately, a trip – at a time when, for many, travel was not an option. (Emma Davidson)


That Danny L Harle’s mega Clubland Classics-indebted debut album would drop in the middle of a global pandemic was particularly bad timing, but at least gave us something to look forward to. Packed wall to wall with absolute bangers (m8), Harlecore offered a glimpse of what we were missing, as PC Music’s Lord of the Rave took us on a journey through a sweaty, heaving club and into rooms fizzing with euphoric trance (“On a Mountain“), berserk, careening hardcore (“Boing Beat”), and trippy, meandering chillout tracks (“Ocean’s Theme”, feat. none other than Caroline Polachek). It’s with deep regret that we are a bit too young to have made it to Wigan Pier, but thanks to Huge Danny and co, a new gen of ravers are getting a taste of its brilliant chaos. (Emma Davidson)


On When Smoke Rises, Canadian artist and poet Mustafa journals the complex arc of grief with aching vulnerability and potency. From his debut single “Stay Alive” (a protection plea for his friends) to emotional peak “What About Heaven” (which grapples with the concept of the afterlife on behalf of those who have passed) through to “The Hearse” (which deals with the tension of the conflicting anger and sadness of loss), it’s an incredibly intense yet cathartic statement on the power of softness and transparency to heal yourself and those around you. Sonically, it’s just as novel. Mustafa’s fluid, satin-like vocals cascade wearily over the modern minimalist production that evades categorisation: from mournfully-plucked acoustic guitars to pitched up vocal outcries or threadbare piano chords, making for one of the most resolute and memorable debuts of the year. (Natty Kasambala)


Summer Walker is R&B’s most evocative, ‘I feel very attacked’ contemporary storyteller. She shines in the lyrical seeth and fury, bringing the intense honesty that fans love her for, and backing it up with sax, bluesy beats, and Usher-like 90s hooks. Her honeyed vocal modulation and astute lyrics find beautiful melodrama in the mundanity of a complex relationship and a protracted breakdown (with ex and collaborator London on da Track). “So why you puttin’ on for The Shade Room and Insta?” she demands on the opener “Bitter”, addressing some real-life spats (the song ends with Cardi B voicemail that became a daily affirmation for me for quite a while). Collaborators are gorgeously curated, as is the sonic progression through all facets of R&B. There’s the poppier “Ex for a Reason” with a ricochet of a rap feature by JT from City Girls; a sensual, sexy team up with SZA to parse defending a guy that isn’t good enough for you, “No Love”; and the delicate, incredibly hot “Screwin” with an on-form Omarion that gets deep on make-up-break-up manipulation. The careful storytelling arc assures that we – and Summer – reach beautiful moments of catharsis. Summer continues to bloom! (Anna Cafolla)


Pop-rapper and shitposter supreme Doja Cat knows how to whip up a social media storm, whether that’s launching a viral TikTok trend with 2019 hit “Say So” or spurring online controversies with a slew of offensive tweets and bad COVID takes. These attempted cancellations, however, have only bolstered the artist’s reputation as a harbinger of viral hits. On her third studio albums Planet Her, Doja rapper blasts off to an otherworldly kingdom where “all species and races of space exist in harmony”. Featuring 14 tracks in under 45 minutes, the tracks are short and mid-tempo, with TikTok-friendly melodies that wash over you like a spacey haze. And with album artwork courtesy of David LaChapelle, and contributions by Ariana Grande, Young Thug, The Weeknd, it’s an irrevocably chic ride. (Günseli Yalcinkaya)


On im hole, aya’s deeply personal debut, the UK producer grapples with themes of identity, transformation, and loss. The album is in a constant state of flux. There’s the sense of being sewn up and sewn into things, of seams splitting apart and emerging as something new. Or, as aya told Dazed in a recent interview, “psychotic breaks and intense neurodivergent moments where everything feels like it’s coming apart”. Free associative thoughts, voice notes, and late night musings combine into a cohesive whole (or ‘hole’) and reveal new layers with every listen. A complex yet cohesive listen from one of Britain’s brightest musical talents. (Günseli Yalcinkaya)


It’s a coincidence this record came out the same month as the latest in a certain spy film series, as Little Simz’s fourth studio album had Big Bond Energy. Proof that sometimes making art with someone you know closely can have the best results, Simbi put the LP together with childhood friend and producer Inflo, bringing her inner monologue – something we’ve all been forced to confront over the past year or so – to the forefront amid a lush backdrop of cinematic strings, silky jazz, 80s pop, and slick soul. At times brutal in its honesty, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (sorry, grammar nerds) confronted the 27-year-old’s complex family issues, knife crime, Black womanhood, love, sorrow, and more. One of the tracks (“Venom”) even became a TikTok trend-turned-feminist anthem, and if that’s not a measure of success, I don’t know what is. (Felicity Martin)


At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, there has never been an album campaign as good or with as many absurd meme moments as Lil Nas X’s Montero. In September, he announced the imminent arrival of his hotly-anticipated debut with a Beyoncé-esque pregnancy shoot (complete with enormous baby bump) followed by a baby shower that no one turned up to, and finally a birth. Lil Nas’ unrivalled knowledge of internet culture and ability to make a viral moment is as important to Montero as its tracks. The 22-year-old’s innovation as a child of the internet and an openly gay, Black artist has captivated audiences well outside of his target market – hence Montero’s list of impressive collaborators, including Megan Thee Stallion, Miley Cyrus, and Elton John. But Lil Nas is more than a meme, and the album’s songs are of course essential to its success. The cross-genre tracks and their accompanying videos grapple with queer themes and explicit displays of sexuality. “THAT’S WHAT I WANT” sees Lil Nas hook up with his football teammate, before finding out he has a wife and kids; in “INDUSTRY BABY” (which features the lyric, “I don’t fuck bitches, I’m queer, ha”), Lil Nas and a group of buff prisoners dance naked in the communal showers (he’s in ‘prison’ because of his IRL Nike lawsuit). Famously, in the sexy, sacrilegious visuals for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”, Lil Nas pole dances into hell before lap dancing for the devil, murdering him, and then taking his throne. It’s truly bizarre, ingenious stuff. With Montero, Lil Nas X has proved that he’s so much more than the one-hit wonder some originally pegged him to be – hell, he had 11 songs from Montero chart all at once. He is the unequivocal sound of surviving 2021. No further questions. (Brit Dawson)