Well, it’s been another unprecedented year in a seemingly-endless parade of unprecedented years, but once again it has been a fantastic year for new music, as many of the fruits of what musicians had been up to under lockdown and responding to the global pandemic came to light. For me in 2021, the very best albums had something to say about the world we’re living in, and reflected a raw and true reflection on how we’re living right now, whether that’s coping with Covid-19, responding to Brexit and British exceptionalism, or simply exploring new ways to collaborate and work together as the world reshapes itself.
We’ve tried to include Bandcamp links wherever possible, so if you enjoy any of the artists in our 2021 top 20, please do click through and support their work – and here are our album of the year roundups for 2020, 2019 and 2018 too:
20. Andy Stott – Never The Right Time
Ever since hearing the first bass note hit in “Numb”, we’ve been in love with Andy Stott’s way of freezing time and making electronic music that feels simultaneously propulsive but held frozen in a single space in time. Alison Skidmore’s fragile voice remains the perfect accompaniment to dense but spacious productions, and though not much has changed over the years, we’re very happy to hear Andy Stott continuing to do Andy Stott things.
19. Mabe Fratti – Será que ahora podremos entendernos
Mabe has had a stunningly-productive couple of years since Pies sobre la tierra bowled us over in 2019, and this is absolutely its equal. While masterful cello playing and Mabe’s beautiful voice remain centre stage, there are more colours on the palette this time around, with little splashes of electronics and effects filling out the scene, as well as more dynamic shifts in mood, from the surprising aggression of “Inicio Vinculo Final” to the frantic cutups of “Que Me Hace Saber Esto”.
18. Poppy Ackroyd – Pause
A big year for Poppy Ackroyd, what with coping with living through a pandemic and having a baby, and so the story goes she spent much of lockdown grabbing every spare moment at the piano to create this album of introspection and reflection, and thank goodness she did, for it is rather lovely. On the one hand a simple, apparently no-fuss solo piano record recorded perfectly to sound close and intimate, as if we’re listening to her build the songs in real time, and on the other a listen that reveals new depths and moods with every listen.
17. Hawthonn – Earth Mirror
Pure pagan poetry from Hawthonn, who bring to mind the magick of the much-missed Espers on this fantastic trip into the netherlands of New Weird England. Song structures developed from dreams, beds of field recordings including horse shrieks and cracking ice and subject matter delving into niche occultism – this could have been a messy experiment, but it’s a fantastically-atmospheric work that deserves to soundtrack at least part of the next Robert Eggers movie.
16. A Winged Victory For The Sullen – Invisible Cities
A Winged Victory For The Sullen are back, and they’ve brought their best work since Atomos. To be fair, with an album based around Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the very book from which Cities and Memory takes its name, they could hardly go wrong. Anyhow, this record has all the classic AWVFTS hallmarks – the lush, reverb-drenched strings, the dubbed out pulse beds, the classic lilting O’Halloran piano parts – but keeps it fresh with most of the pieces only sticking around to make their point within three minutes, and even unexpected moment of bitcrushed distortion on “There Is One Of Which You Never Speak”. Consistently great.
15. Arushi Jain – Under the Lilac Sky
Modular synths + recontextualised Indian classical music in a meeting for the ages here, and it sounds incredible. A suite of six modular-led pieces designed to be listened to during the sunset hours, these are laconic, expressive deep listening spirituals of the highest order. The swirling vocals and modular sweeps go so well together, it makes you wonder why more producers aren’t going down this route.
14. Hannah Peel – Fir Wave
What a treat it was to see this being nominated for the Mercury Prize (and indeed two of this list, on that list). Sampling Delia Derbyshire works from 1972 gives the record a similar feeling of exploration that only comes when you tune into those early pioneering records from Ciani, Spiegel, Derbyshire & co., but with a massive update for 2021. It’s like a duet between two different ages of electronica – two ages united by the same spirit of possibility and delight.
12. Jerusalem in my Heart – Qalaq
“Deep worry”. That’s how JIMH’s Radwan Ghazi Moumneh translates the title of this striking album, making a virtue of lockdown by collaborating remotely with a stellar cast of contributors who each bring their own concerns, memories and talents to the table. The seven-part “Qalaq” suite that takes up most of the running time features ubiquitous collaborator Moor Mother along with Tim Hecker, Roger Tellier-Craig of Fly Pan Am and others, and is one of the most striking journeys into the heart of this year’s Hell that you’ll hear from any artist.
11. Valentino Mora – Underwater
One of those “hear this playing in a record shop and have to ask what it is moments” – congrats to the team at Phonica Records, who sold me a copy of this in an instant after hearing these pulsing, filtered kicks banging through their in-house sound system. A record for which the title speaks volumes, subterranean minimal techno/electronica that brings to mind the best work of Pole, if you replaced the glitches with lovely warm filter sweeps. Who cares about not being able to go to clubs in Covid Times, when listening to this transports you instantly to 3am in the backroom of a Berlin nightspot.
10. Loscil – Clara
Another long-standing star of our end-of-year roundups (and taking number one spot in 2019), Loscil is back and his new releases are always milestones for us. Clara would be remarkable if only for its provenance – every piece is built from samples from the same three-minute composition recorded by an orchestra in Budapest. And from this limited source material come wonderful things – tracks that shimmer like marble in the half-light, others that sound like heavenly choirs immersed underneath great lakes, and still others that soothe and caress the weary mind. An absolute master of his craft.
9. ILUITEQ – The Loss Of Wilderness
What’s that you say? A beatless ambient album dedicated to the devastating sorrow of natural landscapes lost to man-made climate change? Sounds like a barrel of laughs. Your loss sunshine, because this album by Italian duo Sergio Calzoni and Andrea Bellucci is beyond gorgeous, shifting through moods but remaining sorrowful and yet oddly optimistic all at the same time. “Glacier Ice Falling Into The Sea” is a stark warning built from sheet-ice drones, but it melts perfectly into the warm embrace of “A Possible Tomorrow”’s stately bass pulses, chiming guitar figures and criss-crossing synth pulses for a perfect finale.
8. Aging & Land Trance – Embassy Nocturnes
Collab of collabs, featuring the nocturnal jazz of David McLean’s Aging along with Land Trance, made up of members of Ex-Easter Island Head and Dialect (keep up at the back). But never mind all that – the real star of the show is the basement of Liverpool’s former Brazilian embassy, the space where this delightful album was recorded, and whose faded, smoky glamour permeates every note. This is a soundtrack to a proper hard-boiled 1940s Raymond Chandler crime noir. Pop this on, grab a fine whisky and dream of times when dames were dames and crimes were committed by men in trenchcoats, exclusively in the pouring rain at night in a seedy urban corner of LA.
7. Bell Orchestre – House Music
I am deeply suspicious of a lot of improvised music, lest it should be taken as an opportunity to commit a load of unfocused noodling to vinyl and destroy the planet’s scarce resources. But when it’s done well, it’s so, so good and, well, this is that. Pretentiously dubbed an “immersive ecosystem of an album”, the group miked up every room of a multi-storey house, parked themselves across those different rooms and let the magic happen over extended improvised sessions. Magic it is too, with tight control and loose interpretation from masterful musicians meeting majestically in the middle and dancing across the room together – there are so many moments of absolute inspiration in here that it’s a joy from start to finish. Special nod to the artwork too, which recalls prime Blue Note territory.
6. Bruno Bavota – For Apartments
When lockdown struck, Bruno Bavota tucked himself away in his apartment and made a load of music, and we should all be very glad he did. This double album set features one album of solo piano heartstring-tuggers, recorded so intimately you can actually hear the room creaking and living around the pieces. The real star, though, is the Apartment Loops album, on which Bavota turns to what is presumably an enormous rack of expensive synthesisers (to be fair, I’d never leave my apartment either…) to produce a sumptuous selection of looping modular delights. What’s perhaps surprising is that both the acoustic and organic sides of the record flow beautifully together as a complement to one another, a tribute to Bavota’s sense of melody and composition. Music to self-isolate to, in the best possible sense.
5. Tomaga – Intimate Immensity
A difficult album to write about, as the posthumous release of the final compositions worked on as Tomaga by our much-missed friend Tom Relleen and long-time collaborator Valentina Magaletti. Performing together over many years, the two had developed a preternatural understanding of one another’s music, and how to come together to produce transcendent moments together. Their live performances had been utterly spectacular for a long time, but this record is the closest their recorded output has got to those moments – it’s simply wonderful, and it sounds like no one else. Even the list of names that come into my mind when listening to this record should tell you how good it is – This Heat, Can, Harmonia, Beak>, Ash Ra Tempel, Manuel Gottsching, Boredoms… and that’s just on one playthrough.
4. Jim Wallis and Nick Goss – Pool
Now, I’ve listened to a lot of what might be vaguely termed ambient music this year, and this might just be my favourite of the lot. Nick Goss was fortunate enough to score an artist’s residency aboard a 183-metre tanker, which frankly sounds like my kind of dream gig and brings to mind Horatio Clare’s rather wonderful travelogue Down To The Sea In Ships. Goss collected “the tapestry of sounds from the bridge at night, the differing dialects spoken by the Italian, Indian and English crew, the bleeps and whistles of the navigation machinery and the ever-present sound of the ocean.” This collection of field recordings was built upon by the duo with the addition of piano, synths, washes of guitar and so on, which all sounds fair enough as far as it goes, but entirely fails to communicate the warmth, depth, humanity and mystery of this singular record, like being lost at sea and yet entirely at home, all within the same heartbeat. The way the field recordings and instrumentation play off one another is so natural, the field recordings are an essential part of each composition. It’s simply stunning stuff.
3. Gazelle Twin & NYX – Deep England
We’ve been long accustomed to expect great things from any Gazelle Twin release, but Deep England is absolutely stunning. It’s The Wicker Man done as a Black Mirror episode – and indeed features a positively demonic take on the former’s “Fire Leap”. “Glory” opens with two minutes of ye olde English church bells over an ominous pulse before the Pied Piper leads us along a path that takes in English exceptionalism, Brexit, occult folk tales and a cursed take on “Jerusalem”. Absolutely in a class of its own, and one of those few records that speaks absolutely of the time we’re living through.
2. The Bug – Fire
Looking back at 2021, if there’s one album that’s going to sum up the state of the world, it’s going to be Fire. This extraordinary work is the angriest record you’ll hear all year, self-righteous in its absolute indignation at how things ended up the way they are. From Flowdan to Moor Mother (hello again!) and long-standing collaborator Roger Robinson, it’s as if every voice has risen to the challenge of The Bug’s production and spat their fears and injustices right back at him. So all of that, but throw in danceable bangers, jaw-rattling bass and a conclusion with perhaps the definitive musical statement so far on the Grenfell disaster. An astonishing work, and it would take something literally perfect to knock it off the top spot.
1. Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
But then, this album is flawless from start to finish, like an all-time classic of jazz and electronic music that somehow emerged fully-formed in 2021. There’s everything from nods to the formalised looping of Steve Reich to the outer-space explorations of Sun Ra in this transcendent record, on which every contributor is on absolute world-class form. It demands to be listened to from start to finish, over and over again, and it will reward you with moments of clarity, contemplation, awe and spirituality. An outstanding accomplishment that deserves far more than our little album of the year emoji trophy —> 🏆