Top 40 Albums of 2021
Twenty Twenty-One was another one for the books, that also zoomed by as we tried to get back to normal after the first wave of Covid, and normal fought back and we now seem to be right back where the year started. After a year of basically no live music, shows started to happen again. Things got loud again. The first show I went to I forgot to bring earplugs, and the sheer volume of guitars plugged into amps felt like a shock. In a good way, but I still wadded some cocktail napkins in my ears. Concerts may have stopped but music did not, and lockdown inspired records that may not have happened otherwise. Many of my favorites of this year were made during all of it — Covid, Black Lives Matter, the wild presidential election — and yet 2020‘s albums, which were largely made pre-pandemic, felt angrier and darker. Maybe it was just the environment they were released into.
In any case, 2021 was a good year for music. There wasn’t a clear #1 for, the way say Destroyer’s Kaputt or the Purple Mountains album were in their respective years, but there were lots of contenders. There were some surprises, even for this senior staffer who is pretty set in his ways. A bunch of records I gave «Album of the Week» to didn’t make the list (of course some weeks I had three Albums of the Week) and there were a few that didn’t get that status, or I didn’t review at all before, that rose up in the ranks. As always, the Indie Basement list is not any sort of definitive survey of 2021’s best records, just one nerdy dude’s opinion.
More: Indie Basement’s Best Reissues, Box Sets & Compilations of 2021.
INDIE BASEMENT – TOP 40 ALBUMS OF 2021
40. Absolutely Free – Aftertouch (Boiled Records)
Toronto’s Absolutely Free finally follow up their 2014 debut with this sky-high collection of soaring, proggy synthpop that may have been shelved in cold storage for some time but shows no sign of freezer burn. If Tangerine Dream and Steve Reich had ever teamed up for a vocal pop album, it might’ve sounded something like this.
Basement cut: «How to Paint Clouds» is so buoyant, it feels like you’re painting actual clouds, not painting pictures of them.
39. Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams (Transgressive)
I was a little late to the party on Arlo Parks, but when I finally put on her debut album — sometimes between its release and it winning the 2021 Mercury Prize — I wondered why I waited. A perfectly titled album, Collapsed in Sunbeams is immediately appealing, jazzy pop that goes down smooth, leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy, and is a perfect delivery vehicle for Arlo’s conversational lyrics and delivery.
Basement cut: Don’t you want someone to sing to you, «I’d lick the grief right off your lips / You do your eyes like Robert Smith,» like Arlo does on «Black Dog»?
38. Julie Doiron – I Thought of You (You’ve Changed Records)
While Julie Doiron has stayed busy with Eric’s Trip, Mount Eerie and other projects, I Thought of You is her first proper solo album in almost a decade. There’s no signs of rust, though, as this is another wonderful batch of tuneful, finely observed — and at times wonderfully over-the-moon — love songs with an easygoing charm and just the right amount of twang. Please don’t wait so long to make the next.
Basement cut: I Thought of You‘s title track balances confidence and vulnerability in a crackerjack pop song.
37. Vanishing Twin – Ookii Gekkou (Fire)
«Ookii Gekkou» roughly translates, from Japanese, to «Big Moonlight» and it’s an apt description for the lush, nocturnal and very alive music coursing through Vanishing Twin’s third album. If 2019’s Age of Immunology was an invitation into their mysterious world, this is the party, where Dave Brubeck, Stereolab, and Os Mutantes are the house band.
Basement cut: «Light Vessel» is a beachcomber day trip along a gorgeous coastline with your best robot pal
36. Lou Hayter – Private Sunshine (Skint)
Bloghouse survivor and former New Young Pony Club keyboardist Lou Hayter throws a stylish soiree on her debut solo album that really shows off her skills as a savvy pop songwriter and a producer with a love of all things ’80s. It’s a polite dance party but you’re all invited. Just don’t jump on the furniture.
Basement cut: Lou’s originals are great but her synthpop cover of Steely Dan’s «Time Out of Mind,» which seems to crib from the Doogie Howser, MD theme as well, is inspired.
35. Cold Beat – War Garden (self-released)
Named for the WWII «victory gardens» people started while food was being rationed, Cold Beat’s fifth album finds hope and humanity in a terrible year via elegant minimal wave synthpop that would sound great while planting cucumbers or blasting out over a dry-ice-filled dancefloor.
Basement cut: «See You Again» is a gorgeous dreampop eulogy to those lost to Covid.
34. Mega Bog – Life, and Another (Paradise of Bachelors)
«Take me for the music, take me for a human,» Erin Birgy sings on «Flower,» the opening cut on Mega Bog’s Life, and Another. «Any fool who sleeps or dreams can find me.» Mega Bog’s songs exist in the realm between sleep and waking, deep with meaning — and jazzy melody — even if you struggle to decipher it the next morning. It’s rewarding to try, though.
Basement cut: Warm and inviting, «Flower» is a perfect introduction to the wonderful, weird world of Mega Bog.
33. Dinosaur Jr – Sweep It Into Space (Jagjaguwar)
Nearly 40 years into their career, Dinosaur Jr are still delivering the indie rock goods. They don’t need help at this point to do so, but having pal Kurt Vile co-produce adds lift to J, Lou and Murph’s sails. It may be easy to take them for granted these days, but Sweep it Into Space reminds you why you loved them the first time.
Basement cut: Lou’s «Garden» is the album’s thoughtful outlier and best song.
Pick up an exclusive splatter vinyl copy here.
32. Mogwai – The Love Continues (Rock Action)
Like an Airbus superjumbo, post rock greats Mogwai make something impossibly heavy soar. Working remotely with Dave Fridmann during lockdown, the Scottish band are still adding new tricks to their repertoire 25 years into their existence.
Basement cut: Though they’re mostly known as an instrumental band, «Ritchie Sacramento» shows they can sing just fine.
31. Field Music – Flat White Moon (Memphis Industries)
Polymath siblings Peter and David Brewis follow up two of the more difficult albums in the Field Music catalog — 2018’s complex Open Here and 2019’s historical concept album Making a New World — with this instantly likeable record that was inspired by Prince and De La Soul, and features some of their most immediate pop songs to date.
Basement cut: The piano and flute in the wildly romantic «Orion from the Street» twinkle like the constellations.
30. Dinner – Dream Work (Captured Tracks)
After two albums of fun if goofy melodramatic dancepop, Anders Rhedin shows off the softer side of Dinner. Inspired by empty city streets during the pandemic and recorded in hushed tones that wouldn’t disturb his neighbors, he fell into a sound that truly suits him — somewhere between The Radio Dept and The Jesus & Mary Chain — with a great bunch of songs, too.
Basement cut: There are many wonderful duets on Dream Work, including ones with Molly Burch and Lina Tullgren,» but «How We Talk» with Charli Hilton (Blouse) is the most magical.
29. SAULT – NINE (Forever Living Originals)
While the fifth album by the enigmatic UK collective, led by equally mercurial producer Inflo, may not have gotten the attention that their two «Untitled» 2020 albums did, or Little Simz’s Inflo-produced Sometimes I’m Introvert (not to mention Cleo Sol’s Mother), NINE is still better than 99% of what got released this year. It’s another dazzling mix of psychedelic soul, afrobeat, hip hop, dub, and postpunk. Did another artist have their fingers in as many great records this year than him?
Basement cut: «You From London?» is further proof that Inflo and Little Simz are a match made in heaven
28. FACS – Present Tense (Trouble in Mind)
Chicago trio FACS have gotten better with every record. They were masters of mood right out of the gate, creating a bleak postpunk atmosphere that had the pull of a black hole but sometimes left you feeling empty. Present Tense, though, maintains the paranoia while crafting hooks that you willingly walk toward.
Basement cut: «Strawberry Cough» is everything FACS do well, expertly mixing groove and dread.
27. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg (4AD)
The incongruous mix of dryly delivered spoken-word vocals over revved up, noisey grooves are a tasty combo that has been a staple of post-punk from the start. Dry Cleaning have both killer grooves and a master of deadpan, Florence Shaw, leading things with just the right amount of awkward. Few bands make the mundane feel so visceral.
Basement cut: On «Leafy,» Shaw urges us to «Never talk about your ex, never, never, never, never, never slag them off because then they know, then they know.» We know, we know what she means.
Pick up a vinyl copy here.
26. Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life (Rough Trade)
Parquet Courts have dabbled in danceable rhythms on their last few albums, but they dive in headfirst on Sympathy for Life, their most groove-oriented album to date. Many groups have made a similar pivot — like Talking Heads who are clearly an influence here — but this feels like a natural progression and is clearly the same band who gave us Light Up Gold.
Basement cut: «Zoom Out» is a bongo-fueled call to arms that urges us to look at the bigger picture.
Pick up a vinyl copy here.
25. Pays P. – Ça v aller (Peculiar Works)
On their debut album, Parisian trio Pays P — brothers Lucas and Pablo Valero (guitar and drums) and singer Laura Boullic — create a hurricane of indie rock guitar fury that threatens to blow away anything not battened down. It’s an exhilarating ride that knocks over language barriers in their jetstream, too.
Basement cut: Not a direct translation but pretty sure «Vassili voir» means «Absolute ripper» in French.
24. John Grant – Boy From Michigan (Partisan)
John Grant’s fifth album is a concept record about growing up in — and escaping from — small town America that could only be made by an expat living in Iceland, produced by an equally idiosyncratic Welsh wonderkind (Cate Le Bon). Boy From Michigan is funny, moving, tuneful, and very personal, and Grant needs all 75 minutes of this double album, his best yet, to tell his tale.
Basement cut: The title track opening cut sets up all that is to come over a deliciously glammy g-funk backing.
23. Guided By Voices – Earth Man Blues (GBV Inc)
Robert Pollard is so prolific he misplaces more songs than most other artists write. Here’s a whole album of those lost songs and other strays, refashioned to fit a concept album narrative about a school play. Earth Man Blues‘ story may only make sense to Pollard, but the songs work on their own, making for GBV’s best album in at least a decade. What else is in your trash, Bob?
Basement cut: «Trust Them» is an anthemic, instant Pollard all-timer.
22. Matt Berry – The Blue Elephant (Acid Jazz)
No longer a cult comedian thanks to hit vampire sitcom What We Do in the Shadows, Matt Berry remains on the fringes with his music career but it is no less extraordinary. Like most of his work, The Blue Elephant feels like it’s a lost treasure from another era, in this case a deep dive into groovy ’60s/’70s psychedelia, full of amazing basslines, jazzy drumming and swirling keyboards:
Basement cut: «Blues Inside Me» delivers two earworms in one — a fruggable Walker Brothers-style number before transforming into a chugging pop rocker.
21. Ducks Ltd – Modern Fiction (Carpark / Royal Mountain)
Toronto duo Ducks Ltd are clearly inspired by bookish ’80s UK guitar indie, and while they might agree that shyness is nice, there is nothing wimpy about their debut album. Modern Fiction is endlessly hooky janglepop played with gusto, conviction, and wit. They may promise never to break hearts but the same cannot be said of guitar strings.
Basement cut: «18 Cigarettes» earns an immediate place in the Hall of Great Indie Smoking Anthems.
20. Karen Peris – a song is way above the lawn (Bella Union)
Billed as a kids album, The Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris has made an achingly beautiful, often melancholic work that evokes what it feels like to see the world through the eyes of a child, with no pandering or condescension. Songs are dressed in minimal arrangements, often not more than piano and her fragile voice, giving these trips to the zoo and the library a poetic grace that may awaken misty memories of youth deep inside you.
Basement cut: «This is a Song in Wintertime,» about an excursion to the movies, may make you well up with happy-sad feels.
19. Greentea Peng – Man Made (AMF Records)
While steeped in ’80s acid jazz, ’90s triphop and conscious rap, ’00s lounge and other chilled out styles, this Greentea has a flavor all its own. Man Made is a dazzling debut, featuring lush and funky production — she calls it «psychedelic R&B» — and Peng’s blunted delivery urging unity and positivity in a world of chaos.
Basement cut: «Satta» would fit perfectly between Ms Lauryn Hill’s «Everything is Everything» and Mos Def’s «Brooklyn.»
18. Quivers – Golden Doubt (Ba Da Bing)
«After the serotonin is gone, can you still fall in love with someone?» On Australian band Quivers’ new album, the answer is an emphatic, all-caps YES. They make their case with chiming guitars, swooning earworm choruses and world-weary but hopeful lyrics. Golden Doubt recalls the ’80s golden age of wistful, romantic pop (Go-Betweens, Prefab Sprout) and it turns out they do still make them like this.
Basement cut: With its pulsing bassline and lovelorn, wind-in-its-sails chorus, «You’re Not Always On My Mind» is, like the whole album, quietly spectacular.
17. Snapped Ankles – Forest of Your Problems (Leaf)
There’s no other band quite like London’s Snapped Ankles, who claim to live in the trees (they look like it), craft motorik dancerock using instruments fashioned from broken branches and driftwood, and are here to warn us about the dangers of technology and big real estate. Forest of Your Problems, their third album, is like LCD Soundsystem being fronted by Dr Seuss’ The Lorax, which is something you may not realize you need in your life. Bring on the woodland revolution!
Basement cut: On «Shifting Basslines of the Cornucopians,» the band note «It’s a great time to be alive…if you’ve got your own hedge fund,» which in their case may or may not be a shrubbery pun.
16. Fake Fruit – Fake Fruit (Rocks in Your Head)
Hannah D’Amato has been leading Fake Fruit though various lineups and various cities for five years, but didn’t find her footing until landing in San Francisco with a steady, talented group of bandmates and a champion in Sonny Smith (Sonny & The Sunsets) who tried to get band signed to a proper indie before just putting this album out himself. Fake Fruit has the energy of a debut but the assuredness and nuance of a third album, using standard indie rock parts but making them feel brand new.
Basement cut: Album opener «No Mutuals» opens like Pink Flag-era Wire before shooting off into the sun.
15. Lost Girls – Menneskekollektivet (Smalltown Supersound)
Having collaborated for a decade, Jenny Hval and Håvard Volden made it official with Lost Girls, an electronic duo where improvisation leads to inspiration which leads to new and exciting musical territory. The five lengthy, beat-driven songs on their debut, Menneskekollektivet, are a midnight drive with the headlights off, guided by the moon and intuition. You may not know where they are taking you from one minute to the next, but by the end you’ll follow them anywhere.
Basement cut: Haunting, ethereal disco number «Carried by Invisible Bodies» might be Lost Girls’ mission statement, but hypnotic 15-minute trance workout «Love, Lovers» achieves true transcendence.
14. Dean Wareham – I Have Nothing to Say to the Mayor of LA (Double Feature Records)
Dean Wareham found his lane on Galaxie 500’s 1988 debut and has rarely swerved from the warm strum that Lou Reed gave the world 20-some years prior. You wouldn’t want it any other way, as Wareham has honed this lazy, soft and slow style into one that is uniquely his own and never goes out of style. Following a couple covers albums, Dean gives us his first batch of original material in seven years and he’s clearly been saving up the good stuff. Songs like «Cashing In,» «Why Are We in Vietnam?» and «The Last Word» ripple with wry wit, wistful ruminations of the folly of youth and raggedly elegant solos, all while making the most of those same four or five chords.
Basement cut: «Cashing In» is how you grow old gracefully.
13. Arab Strap – As Days Get Dark (Rock Action)
It’s been 15 years since the last Arab Strap album but Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton pick right back up where they left off — or at least their camera is still pointed in the same place, still soaking in the seedy, sordid and carnal. «I don’t give a fuck about the past, or glory days gone by,» Aidan Moffat whispers in that breathy baritone brogue of his, «All I care about right now is that wee mole inside your thigh.» The music, dark and sensuous, is as vivid as the lyrical vignettes, making for one of Arab Strap’s best-ever albums.
Basement cut: «Here Comes Comus» sounds like Sisters of Mercy and is about, according to Moffat, «the god of nocturnal excess and my inability to ever refuse him.»
12. Sleaford Mods – Spare Ribs (Rough Trade)
Sleaford Mods started as something that was considered by some as a novelty — Jason WIlliams creatively swearing atop post-punky loops from Andrew Fearn — but nearly 15 years on it’s proven to be an enduring formula. Spare Ribs is their 11th album and builds off 2018’s Eton Alive, taking their sound into poppier, clubbier territory. It would be wrong to call this a kinder, gentler Sleaford Mods — Williamson is still plenty fired up, dropping F and C bombs left and right — but he’s choosing his moments to strike more carefully. Fearn, meanwhile, has never been more sublime with production. Spare Ribs is their catchiest batch of songs to date and they show no signs of running out of bile or beats anytime soon.
Basement cut: «Mork n Mindy,» with its earworm chorus courtesy Billy Nomates, rivals «Kebab Spider» as Sleaford Mods’ biggest banger.
11. Matt Sweeney & Bonnie Prince Billy – Superwolves (Drag City)
Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham (Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) bring out the best in each other, even if it takes some time to do so. A lot of time, actually. It’s been 15 years since they made cult classic Superwolf and they’ve spent the last five working on this one, often apart, as Will sent lyrics via postcard while Matt worked to find just the right melody. It was worth the wait and Superwolves is a subtle beast that shows its true stripes on repeated listens. Sweeney’s playing, aided by Mdou Moctar on a few tracks but more often than not unadorned, is quietly spectacular, finger-picked and intricate but not flashy, leaving plenty of room for Oldham’s wondrous voice, whether it’s whispering in your ear or howlin’ at the moon.
Basement cut: «Make Worry for Me» is a helluva opener, all foreboding mood, with Oldham growling «I’ve got monsters inside me that must be born, let me shut up my mouth and blow this horn» as Sweeney lets rip a smoldering solo.
Pick up a vinyl copy here.
10. Ty Segall – Harmonizer (Drag City)
Having long left the garage for headier, more complex psych, Ty Segall continues to do things you didn’t used to associate with him. His 2019 album, First Taste, had no guitars and this one is awash in vintage synthesizers and analogue effects. Harmonizer, and Segall’s studio where he made the album, is named for the Eventide H949 Harmonizer, a piece of pitch-shifting studio equipment that gave both Bowie’s Low and Def Leppard’s Hysteria their signature (and very different) sounds. Nearly every instrument on Harmonizer is run through the thing, giving the album an alien sheen. Make no mistake, this record rips — and is an incredible album — but it’s doing so from another planet.
Basement cut: «Feel Good» features lead vocals by Ty’s wife, Denee, and offers a path into other uncharted territory — new wave.
Pick up a vinyl copy here.
9. LUMP – Animal (Partisan)
Lump, the duo of Laura Marling and Tunng’s Mike Lindsay, were a bit murky and formless on their 2018 debut, but they’ve risen up out of the swamp with its follow-up. Animal is forest floor pop, big night music full of elastic fretless bass, mossy synthesizers, woodrot piano, and woodwinds that circle slowly around tree trunks. Marling’s breathy vocals and close harmonies complete the picture, and the songs are just better this time, hookier, with more than a few proggy dancefloor bangers, too. Animal is an impressive beast indeed.
Basement cut: «Climb Every Wall» is reptilian disco with a rattlesnake rhythm section.
8. Silver Synthetic – Silver Synthetic (Third Man)
New Orleans’ Silver Synthetic were formed by members of other, more raucous, garage punk groups who wanted a musical outlet where they could, you know, chill. Their debut album is a real cool time indeed, drawing on a wide variety of ’60s/’70s psychedelic guitar pop (The Kinks, Big Star, Television) with undeniable hooks, heavenly harmonies and stellar musicianship. If you are also down with a little noodling, Silver Synthetic provides a pasta factory’s worth, all deliciously al dente and made with purpose. The jamming never gets in the way of the songs, though, and there’s not a mediocre one on this fantastic record.
Basement cut: The magisterial «Chasm Killer» is a baroque gem with the album’s best guitar solo.
7. Low – HEY WHAT (Sub Pop)
How do you follow up a game-changer of a record? If you’re Minnesota duo Low, whose 2018 album Double Negative ripped apart their sound while keeping their soul intact, you push things even further. Working again with producer BJ Burton, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker take blowtorches, bandsaws, and ball-pin hammers to their signature, sublime brand of slowcore, and then melt it down into liquid metal. HEY WHAT is a record where you may wonder if your stereo is malfunctioning, if your wifi is on the fritz, or if someone slipped something in your drink. Instrumentation is distorted to the point where you’re not sure if what you’re hearing are guitars, keyboards, or slowed-down recordings of garbage trucks. But then come Sparhawk and Parker’s voices, searing through the maelstrom like a beam of pure light even when what they’re singing is as heavy as the music: «When you think you’ve seen everything, you find yourself living in days like these.» We can all relate. The effect, the voices and music, can be overwhelming, but also cathartic if you let Low’s beautiful noise wash over you.
Basement cut: «White Horses» — behold the power and the glory of Low in 2021.
Pick up a vinyl copy here.
6. The Besnard Lakes – Are the Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings (Full Time Hobby / Flemish Eye / Fatcat)
«Epic» is a four-letter-word in the world of music criticism but when it comes to Montreal’s The Besnard Lakes, no other term succinctly describes their brand of widescreen rock as perfectly. Jace Lacek and Olga Goreas don’t so much write songs as build spacecraft out of guitars and synthesizers, drums and bass, amplifiers and effects pedals, and they fuel them with ethereal melodies and harmonies. Their first album in five years, Last of the Great Thunderstorm Warnings is arguably their best creation to date, gleaming in the sun, flying slowly over trees and buildings. It changes the gravity, pulling you up into its warm, shining orbit. If Hans Zimmer can’t score the next Dune movie, Besnard Lakes could fill in.
Basement cut: You gotta listen to this as an «album,» man! But «Raindrops» is awesome.
5. The Weather Station – Ignorance (Fat Possum)
Ignorance is the record where the weather actually becomes central to The Weather Station. What was once the ultimate small talk subject now threatens to be an extinction level event, but Tara Lindemann puts rising temperatures and melting icecaps in a very personal context. She makes her case via elegant, moving, string-laden sophistipop that’s influenced by the ’80s but free of nostalgia, with lyrics that hit like breakup songs. Sometimes they are breakup songs. There is no preaching, but Tara and her band make a wonderful choir, and many who listen to wonderful songs like «Robber,» «Atlantic» and «Parking Lot» may not even realize at first what the songs are about, but listen enough and Ignorance may shift the way you look at the world, and our place in it.
Basement cut: «Tried to Tell You» opens your eyes to what’s in front of your face with a melody right out of Fleetwood Mac.
Pick up a vinyl copy here.
4. Saint Etienne – I’ve Been Trying to Tell You (Heavenly)
Nostalgia has been baked into Saint Etienne’s style, working samples of ’60s Northern Soul and «kitchen sink» dramas into synthpop sound, but they’ve never done so like this before. Using samples of UK pop hits from the years just prior to 9/11, slowed down to a hazy crawl, I’ve Been Trying to Tell You is a half-remembered dream of the world’s last carefree era, before the internet and politics would change things forever. Occupying a liminal space where memories play like loops, frozen forever in time — yes, it’s a mood — this is a record unlike anything Saint Etienne have made before, while still sounding only like them. It’s also one of their best. Not many bands who’ve been together for 30 years can say the same.
Basement cut: «Pond House» is like a time machine back to an endless summer adolescence you may or may have not have experienced yourself.
3. Gruff Rhys – Seeking New Gods (Rough Trade)
Originally envisioned as a biography about active East Asian volcano Mount Paektu, Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys turned the idea into a literal rock opera, before reworking the songs into much more personal ruminations about man’s transitory place in our earth’s history. (Mankind are tenants who have forgone renter’s insurance.) Songs were worked out with a full band while on tour, and recorded at the end of it in Joshua Tree. Despite its beginnings, Seeking New Gods‘ is Rhys’ least high-concept record in a while, instead putting the focus on the song, and the album has his best bunch — thoughtful, moving, melodic, perfectly arranged and produced — in over a decade. In fact, it’s one of Rhys’ best albums, be it solo, SFA or other. This mountain is all peaks.
Basement cut: Set to a rollicking piano riff, «Loan Your Loneliness» is the kind of glammy pop song few do as well as Gruff.
2. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (Age 101 Music)
Having released one of the best albums of 2019, some may have wondered how Little Simz would follow up GREY Area. Clearly, she was not one of those, and now that album feels like just an appetizer for this. Even if you didn’t look at Sometimes I Might Be Introvert‘s 65-minute runtime or 19-song tracklist, it only takes about 10 seconds of the title track / opening cut to realize the scope, ambition, confidence and sheer talent at play here. Working once again with producer and SAULT svengali Inflo (as well as regular collaborator Cleo Sol and Obongjayar), this isn’t an album, it’s a globe-trotting epic full of sweep and swagger, orchestrated battle royales, intimate character moments, showstopping choreographed set-pieces and joyous bacchanals. Little Simz is writer, director and star, is in full control, never lacks focus, has incredible flow, and sticks the landing. And unlike some works of this scale, it’s over too soon. As for how she’ll follow this one up, it’s not for us to worry, only for us to wait.
Basement cut: Too many high points to choose, but «Woman,» featuring Cleo Sol on the chorus, celebrates ladies around the world in the most luxe setting possible.
1. audiobooks – Astro Tough (Heavenly)
Now! (in a minute), the 2018 debut album by duo audiobooks (aka David Wrench and Evangeline Ling), was one of the weirdest, most wonderful surprises of that year. It was a record that defied categorization or description of any kind, apart from «totally bananas but awesome.» The question wasn’t how would they follow it up, but if they would at all. The album was such a rare bird, it had «One-Off» written all over it. But Wrench and Ling have done it again, and somehow Astro Tough is both much further out there and more approachable than their debut. The first take spontaneity of the Now! gets edited and shaped into things that more resemble what most people consider «songs,» with choruses and occasionally middle eighths, and yet it’s still the most bonkers pop record you’re likely to hear from 2021. It’s also totally brilliant, mixing synthpop, heavy prog and psych, postpunk, spoken word, performance art, disco, techno, dub reggae, ’60s pop, ’70s glam and most of The Fall’s catalog into a mortar while Ling pulverizes it via a bravura vocal performance that should really get her some voiceover work. She is the glue, the beating heart, the mischievous gremlin, the precocious child and wild horse of audiobooks that electrifies every song. (Her utterance of «Uh! Yuck» on «Blue Tits» may be the best two seconds on the album.) None of it would work, though, without Wrench’s inspired production and inventive arrangements that make Astro Tough so fun and replayable. It may still be too unpidgeonholable for many but for those who like their pop cut with a giant splash of eccentrism, audiobooks are the genuine weirdo geniuses you’re looking for.
Basement cut: Ling gives her best vocal performance on «English Manipulator,» suffering advances from a mansplaining idiot, all set to a deep electro-dub groove; but «La La La It’s the Good Life» is the manic party banger of choice.
And here’s a 70-way tie for #41 in alphabetical order:
Amyl & The Sniffers – Comfort to Me
Anna Fox Rochinski – Cherry
Anika – Change
Beautify Junkyards – Cosmorama
Bertrand Burgalat – Rêve Capital
Black Marble – Fast Idol
Blunt Bangs – Proper Smoker
Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth – Utopian Ashes
CFCF – memoryland
CHAI – WINK
Chime Shool – Chime School
Cindy – 1:2
Cub Scout Bowling Pins – Clang Clang Ho!
Damon Albarn – The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows
Django Django – Glowing in the Dark
Dummy – Dummy
Goat Girl – On All Fours
Gustaf – Audio Drag for Ego Slobs
Hard Feelings – Hard Feelings
Helado Negro – Far In
Iceage – Seek Shelter
Jane Inc – Number One
Jane Weaver – Flock
Jarvis Cocker – Chansons d’Ennui Tip Top
Jim Bob – Who Do We Hate Today
José González – Local Valley
Juliana Hatfield – Blood
Kings of Convenience – Peace or Love
Kiwi Jr – Cooler Returns
La Femme – Paradigmes
La Luz – La Luz
Liars – The Apple Drop
Lonely Guest – Lonely Guest
Luke Haines – Setting the Dogs on the Post Punk Postman
Major Murphy – Access
Maxwell Farrington & Le SuperHomard – Once
Mild High Club – Going Going Gone
Modern Nature – Island of Noise
Moontype – Bodies of Water
Mr Twin Sister – AL Mundo Azul
MUNYA – Voyage to Mars
Museum Of Love – Life Of Mammals
Nation of Language – A Way Forward
P.E. (PILL + Eaters) – The Reason For My Love
Paul Weller – Fat Pop Vol 1
Pip Blom – Welcome Break
Piroshka – Love Drips And Gathers
Sam Evian – Time To Melt
Shame – Drunk Tank Pink
Sonny & The Sunsets – New Day With New Possibilities
Steve Gunn – Other You
SUUNS – The Witness
Teenage Fanclub – Endless Arcade
TEKE::TEKE – Shirushi
The Bevis Frond – Little Eden
The Chills – Scatterbrain
The Coral – Coral Island
The Goon Sax – Mirror II
The KVB – Unity
The Notwist – Vertigo Days
The Reds, Pinks & Purples – Uncommon Weather
The Umbrellas – The Umbrellas
Tindersticks – Distractions
Tropical Fuck Storm – Deep States
TUNS – Duly Noted
U-Roy – Solid Gold U-Roy
UVTV – Always Something
Viagra Boys – Welfare Jazz
Virginia Wing – private LIFE
Vivien Goldman – Next is Now
And here’s a 137-song, nearly nine-hour playlist with songs from all Top 40 albums (except SAULT which isn’t on streaming services), along with a whole bunch of other stuff I liked this year: