First and most importantly, happy Twosday, everybody. This suddenly seemingly auspicious day seemed a perfect time to finally share our best albums of last year.
These projects tend to take us a while for a number of reasons, as we’ve said here before. First, although we keep a running list of favorite albums throughout the year, we like to wait until at least close to the end of the year to actually finalize the list. I know, most artists make sure they release work well before the end of the year to account for things like awards and the fact that most writers feel pressure to release their lists in, say, early October, but that’s one of the huge pluses about doing something entirely for yourself—no outside pressure and no one else to please besides yourself.
The other major reason is that we want the list itself to be both an audio and a visual project, pairing a playlist of tracks from those favorite albums from the year with an illustration we’ve created that pulls inspiration from each of the albums’ cover art.
So it takes a minute. Especially this year, as we worked to perfect the more detailed illustrations of each of these beautiful albums covers—we really wanted to respect all of the work that went into the original covers and didn’t want to rush our interpretation of them.
But, now, without further ado, on 2.22.22, we give you our favorite albums of the year, along with a playlist chronicling them and a hand-done, vector-based illustration we created of each of the album covers combined into a single piece.
The playlist—which you can find below and over on our Mixcloud page or via the Mixcloud app along with past mixtapes + playlists—starts with ten tracks from our top ten 2021 albums arranged by order of release; then we end the mix with five of our runners up, again, in order of release.
Below, original art for each along with some brief words on why we love these albums, then our runners up, and some other great albums that were released in 2021—a superb year for excellent music.
1. Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams – Jan29, 2021This one kicks off our mix because it was released earliest in the year amongst our favorite full-lengths, but it’s also easily the best album of the year and the best debut for an artist in a long time. If you haven’t heard this, drop everything right now and listen to it. Parks also just released a new single a few weeks back that we’re entirely in love with and that has us very excited for whatever follows Collapsed in Sunbeams.
2. Middle Kids – Today We’re The Greatest– Mar19, 2021We were lucky enough to catch the Sydney band Middle Kids back at a small club in Los Angeles at one of their first shows in the States. They’ve dropped a few singles since their excellent debut in 2019, but this is their first proper subsequent album and it displays growth in every aspect from the band. It’s one of those albums that, the first time I listened to it, I was like “THIS is the best song on the album.” Then I’d think the exact same thing on the next song and the next and the next. Love this band and can’t wait to see them play again soon.
3. Flock of Dimes – Head of Roses – Apr2, 2021
Front-woman Jenn Wasner has one of those voices—vocally, instrumentally, and in terms of her song-writing—that imbues the work with an unmistakable personality, be with her usually more traditionally guitar-driver duo Wye Oak, or with Flock of Dimes, a project that started out as more of a solo experimental project but has evolved into a new, entirely fleshed out entity. Like Arlo Parks, Flock of Dimes just released a couple of excellent new upbeat singles a couple weeks ago that are definitely worth checking out.
4. Bantug – 12 Songs About Loneliness – May14, 2021Easily one of the most overlooked independent pop artists in recent years—I have no idea why more people aren’t playing Bantug and shouting about this album from the rooftops (looking at you, KCRW). This Atlanta-born, Nashville-based artist announced last year that they were going to focus more on producing which, A) bums me out a little if it means less original work from them, but B) excites me if it means getting some Bantug-infused tunes from other artists.
5. Laura Mvula – Pink Noise – Jul20, 2021
English artist Laura Mvula has been on my radar for a while, but nothing really broke through for me until Pink Noise, where she pulls from all sounds fun, be it hyper-melodic, disco-infused funk or slickly produced, beat-driven pop—this album is all about bringing joy and hitting the dance floor. I love how Mvula throws somber and humble out the window with this work and focuses instead on what brings her and the listener happiness.
6. Clairo – Sling – Jul16, 2021
After Clairo’s debut full-length—which made our 2019 list—this is not at all what I expected. Subtle, understated, often quiet—it’s one of those albums that makes you really lean in and pay attention. But once I did, I couldn’t stop listening to it. And once you dive into it—especially the instrumentation, with it’s intricate bass lines and funky organs—it’s one of those albums that, for us at least, becomes something that’s played in the house or studio at least weekly. Dare I say a new classic?
7. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be An Introvert – Sep3, 2021
AGHH, Little Simz—she is so, so good. Her work, from the beginning, has imbued the very best of hip hop, jazz, spoken word—everything she brings into her music becomes her own in the most impressive, beautiful way. After some old-school, bedroom-recorded EPs and introspection born of the lock-downs, she poured creative energy into a sparkling studio LP and we love it. If you ever get a chance to see her live, do it. Also, this one was totally our favorite cover to illustrate.
8. Lala Lala – I Want the Door to Open – Oct8, 2021
I’m honestly late to the scene with Lala Lala—the stage name for Chicago’s Lillie West—but I absolutely love her unique voice and vision for this music. Strange, experimental, but with pop sensibilities and melodic roots serving as the backbone for the album and every track on it. Her unmistakably distinct vocals pull you in, the song-writing and shifts in atmosphere keep the music ever-intriguing and enjoyable.
9. James Blake – Friends That Break Your Heart – Oct8, 2021
I’ve tried for years, very unsuccessfully, to not like James Blake. Be it his voice that I tell myself should be annoyingly pitched and grating but I love for some reason, or his glitchy electronic instrumentation that I secretly wish I had written, or the fact that my wife and friends constantly make fun of me for liking the guy that wrote “You’re Beautiful” (he didn’t; that was James Blunt), something in me doesn’t want to love James Blake. Alas, I love James Blake, and especially this album. Plus, SZA, so.
10. Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life – Oct22, 2021
NYC art punks (I’m sure they hate that term—if anyone reading this knows them and they want something else there, let me know) have had our ear since we first heard the buzz about them, but this album’s one of their best yet. Another LP that just showcases the four-piece’s growth since they formed a decade plus back, the depth of influence and how they channel that into original work is both impressive and fun as hell to listen to. If I could be a fourth as cool as these guys…well, I’d be a lot cooler.
Then runners up:
easy life – life’s a beach – May28, 2021
Funky, fun pop that leans hip hop, this debut full-length from longtime favorite Leiscester group almost, almost, almost made the top ten (as did many of these)…partly because it would have meant we’d get to illustrate our exact Volvo driving into the ocean. We may still, just because.
Cautious Clay – Deadpan Love – Jun25, 2012
Another excellent debut album that I think a lot of people have been eagerly awaiting for a long time, Clay—AKA Joshua Karpeh—brings maturity and subtlety in tone to his first full-length.
Efterklang – Windflowers – Oct8, 2012
Danish band Efterklang has been a favorite of mine since I first discovered them through the weekly newsletter from NYC’s Other Music (RIP) back in the early aughts. Through the years, they’ve evolved from glitchy choral electronic to melodic pop to a more subdued song-writing. This album—their seventh studio LP—builds from their last one and infuses a little more upbeat pop into the mix.
Self-Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure – Oct22, 2021
Self-Esteem is the aptly named musical project from English multi-instrumentalist and front-woman, Rebecca Lucy Taylor, who’s spoken extensively about the stage name being a nod to the evolution of her own personal confidence in self. This album is full of deep-yet-approachable, inspirational lyricism and dance floor bangers and it is excellent.
Finally, last year really was a year full of great music—far more than can fit in a top however many list. So also please do not sleep on the new ones from Elder Island, Nation of Language, Snail Mail, Half Waif, James Vincent McMarrow, Hand Habits, Andy Shauf, Lucy Dacus, Japanese Breakfast, Jax Anderson, and Sloppy Jane. That last one was recorded in a cave in West Virginia.
And, yes, obviously the new John Mayer is excellent and we can’t stop listening to it, alright‽