While the last twelve months have been, er, interesting to say the least, one thing that’s for sure is that 2021 has offered up a vast array of incredible music. And that, we believe, deserves to be celebrated! So, to mark the occasion we asked an array of DIY contributors for their insights, totted up the totals and created our rundown.
From incredible debuts (Remi Wolf, Arlo Parks, Squid - we’re looking at you) to triumphant returns from the likes of Self Esteem and Little Simz, via bona fide pop masterpieces from Olivia Rodrigo and Lil Nas X, DIY’s 20 favourite albums this year have come from all corners of music.
Without further ado, we present DIY’s Best Albums of 2021. Dive in and enjoy…
20. Lil Nas X - Montero
Few album campaigns start off with a pole dance down to hell, but then again, few pop stars are like Lil Nas X. Having made his name with the country-rap viral hit ‘Old Town Road’ in early 2019, he silenced any one-hit-wonder doubters with the release of his debut studio album ‘MONTERO’ in September. With bigger hits than ‘Old Town Road’ coming in the form of title track ‘MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)’, and Jack Harlow-featuring ‘Industry Baby’, ‘MONTERO’ proves that Lil Nas X knows how to craft instant fan-favourites and pull off huge pop culture moments. But not only is it banger-packed, ‘MONTERO’ also finds Lil Nas diving deeper, exploring his difficult journey to stardom with introspective tracks blending pop, rap and trap. As he says on the Megan Thee Stallion featuring ‘Dolla Sign Slime’: “Top of the game, only twenty-two”. It’s hard to argue with that.
19. St Vincent - ‘Daddy’s Home’
Within seconds of the video for lead single ‘Pay Your Way In Pain’ landing back in March, it was obvious to all that St Vincent had perfected the art of pop star ‘eras’, having switched from the latex-clad, poker-faced shredder of ‘MASSEDUCTION’ to ‘70s NYC faded glamour in just as much ease as she’d arrived there previously from the bethroned ice queen of 2014’s self-titled record. With a partial adoption of the moniker of Warhol superstar Candy Darling in tow, as well as ever-prolific collaborator Jack Antonoff joining her on production duties, the album takes the sounds of her childhood - ‘70s FM radio mainstay vibes - and adds just a pinch of autobiography; the title referring to her own father’s return from jail.
18. Remi Wolf - ‘Juno’
On paper, a song that references Chuck E. Cheese and Two Girls, One Cup in one swoop should be a bit of a hot mess, but add in Remi Wolf’s kaleidoscopic pop soundtrack with her signature tongue-in-cheek style and she’ll have you singing along about an “orgy in Five Guys with five guys” instantly. Such is the magic of the refreshing funk-pop star, who delivers punchy and powerful pop gems all across her debut album ‘Juno’. From the aforementioned wild subject matter of undoubted album standout ‘Quiet On Set’, through to the soaring synths on ‘Guerilla’, and back to Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton references on hip-shaker ‘Sexy Villain’, you never really know what you can expect on Remi’s debut, but you’ll enjoy the colourfully chaotic ride every step of the way.
17. Halsey - ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’
There was always a darkness lurking within Halsey’s music, and who better to coax it out fully than Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, masters of deliciously dark soundscapes. ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ is a concept album based around Halsey’s pregnancy, and ties together exquisitely as a single piece of work (this idea is furthered by the accompanying feature-length film to the album). “You asked for this,” she says to herself about having a child on the song of the same name, and the record sees them emerge with personal epiphanies over exhilarating music that goes from sludgy guitars to indie-pop, frantic, skittish pop and beyond.
16. Snail Mail - ‘Valentine’
For any young star, being thrown into the limelight can be a tumultuous time. That’s a lesson that Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan learned fast after the runaway success of her critically-lauded debut ‘Lush’ back in 2018. But rather than break under that pressure, this year she returned with a follow-up that takes the turmoil and confusion of that time and emboldens it. Searingly honest and raw, there’s nowhere to hide on ‘Valentine’ - from the swaggering opener of its title track, to the luscious but bittersweet ‘Light Blue’, via the confessional ‘Mia’ - and that’s what makes this record all the more intoxicating.
15. Sam Fender - ‘Seventeen Going Under’
Sam Fender’s second album sees the North East-based songwriter mine personal tragedy and childhood to present universal truths. On its title track, he might sing of “the boy who kicked Tom’s head in” on the playground a decade ago in what could seem an obtuse anecdote, but his is songwriting that invites you into the story without barriers, helping you to reflect on your own troubles as a result. The music that backs him helps accentuate this sense of hope and personal breakthroughs – he takes cues from Springsteen, The Killers, The War On Drugs and other greats to make sounds that knock you off your feet and make you feel truly, brilliantly alive.
14. Hayley Williams - ‘Flowers For Vases / descansos’
While last year heralded the debut solo release from Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams, it came as little surprise that she decided to follow ‘Petals For Armor’ up so soon after living through one of the more reflective and isolating years in modern history. Where its predecessor used bold textures and sonics to explore the pain and grief of her recent years, on ‘Flowers For Vases / descansos’, she continues that contemplation in a quieter, more vulnerable space. A raw but still warm album which picks through the debris of life and ruminates on the lessons learned, this may be the most stark depiction of Hayley we’ve been offered so far, but the depths she traverses here are as astounding as ever.
13. Genesis Owusu - ‘Smiling With No Teeth’
Ghana-born, Canberra-based Genesis Owusu knows a thing or two about feeling like an outlier, and on his full-length debut - an ambitious, broad-stretching release that traverses rap, punk, neo-soul and more - he embraces every element of the idea: the good, the bad and the ugly. Populated with metaphors of black dogs (a dual nod to depression and the racial slurs that had been aimed at him throughout his life), ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ is a trojan horse of a record, luring the listener in with skittish, ping-ponging verses (‘The Other Black Dog’) and seemingly laid-back swagger (‘Don’t Need You’) whilst deploying tales of pain and rage. “Do you assimilate and try and fit in or do you go full-frontal with the outcast label? I chose the latter,” he told DIY earlier this year. On his debut, he showcased that attitude with gusto.
12. Japanese Breakfast - ‘Jubilee’
2021 has been quite the year for Japanese Breakfast. Not only did Michelle Zauner release her critically-acclaimed memoir Crying In H Mart - which subsequently debuted at Number 2 on the New York Times’ non-fiction bestseller list - but she also shared her wonderful third album ‘Jubilee’. Admitting she wanted to move past the explorations of grief that defined her previous records ‘Psychopomp’ and ‘Soft Sounds from Another Planet’, ‘Jubilee’ has, instead, a real focus on joy. That’s something that’s backed up in the record’s gorgeous and accomplished instrumentation; at times luscious, in other moments striking, ‘Jubilee’ is a multi-faceted, eclectic record that doubles as a real celebration of creativity.
11. Lorde - ‘Solar Power’
The title track of Lorde’s third album – a blissful trip through acoustic guitars and psychedelic haze, inspired by Primal Scream’s ‘Loaded’ – felt like the polar opposite of the breakup devastation of 2017’s ‘Melodrama’, as she delights in not picking up the phone (and then throwing it away altogether). The rest of ‘Solar Power’, though, conceals quiet desperation behind the sunny instrumentation and seemingly rosy outlook. Across the album, she wrestles with the life she chose and the one she left behind, finding answers to her problems but also uncovering even more questions. It’s a very different Lorde to the one we knew, but an artist that remains just as fascinating.
10. Squid - ‘Bright Green Field’
Squid’s debut was always going to go one of two ways. On breakthrough single ‘Houseplants’ - a yelping torrent of twitchy guitars and ruminations on gentrification - the Brighton gang proved they could make weirdo tunes that were also accessible; with their subsequent EP releases, meanwhile, they would bookend the hooks with obtuse tracks of spiralling drones and experimental noise. Debut album ‘Bright Green Field’ manages to tread the two sides of their contrarian sensibilities perfectly, however. Leaning into Ballardian themes of dystopia, and with its 11 tracks veering in length from 40 seconds to over eight minutes, at no point does it play it safe. Yet between the Foals-y ‘Narrator’ and the pinging, frenetic pay-off of ‘Paddling’ there are highlights you could hum along to as well.
9. For Those I Love - ‘For Those I Love’
A tribute of startling honesty, David Balfe’s ‘For Those I Love’ is a record that speaks deeply to love and friendship as our most powerfully redeeming form. Blending bedroom dance music and raw spoken word, it remembers both Paul – Balfe’s keenest friend and collaborator, lost to suicide in 2018 – and a wider sense of young Irish adulthood, with all the politics, poverty and late-night euphoria-chasing that forge bonds of mutual teenage survival. Though it often teeters on abject despair, songs like ‘The Shape Of You’ push hard to find their way to the light; “if you can grasp it/ own it/ deal with it/ you can heal with it.” In a year of great communal hardship, nothing sounds more soul-searchingly profound.
8. Olivia Rodrigo - ‘Sour’
It seems insane to think that, this time last year, the world only knew Olivia Rodrigo as a High School Musical-franchise Disney star. Having claimed 2021 as her own mere days into January with the release of world-dominating uber-hit ‘Driver’s License’ (the most streamed song of the year), the 18-year-old ends it as the artist that history will remember the last 12 months for - bringing pop-punk back into the mainstream with the Paramore-inspired ‘good 4 u’, and scoring a slam dunk global smash with her debut LP in the process. A record full of the high stakes emotional drama that comes with teenage-dom, ‘Sour’ wears its youth on its sleeve. Yet, between riffy, nostalgic hooks and the kind of songwriting that transcends age barriers, it became an album for everyone, breaking records at every turn.
7. Turnstile - ‘GLOW ON’
2018’s genre-bending ‘Time & Space’ album hinted that hardcore heroes Turnstile had a masterpiece in them, and they delivered blisteringly on August’s ‘GLOW ON’. While keeping the fundamental energy and spirit of hardcore, the album dips into dreamy ballads (with help from Dev Hynes), washed out, shoegaze-inspired indie and the heaviest breakdowns they’ve ever recorded. “You really gotta see it live to get it,” Franz Lyons sings on ‘NO SURPRISE’, and while that’s somewhat true, ‘GLOW ON’ puts the exhilarating joy and energy of the best live show in the world onto tape brilliantly.
6. Arlo Parks - ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’
If the phrase ‘slow and steady wins the race’ were to be applied musically, Arlo Parks would be one of the first names that came to mind. About as understated as it’s possible to get, the singer-songwriter’s softly-delivered, immaculately-spun tales have woven their way around to make her one of the biggest breakthrough artists two years running. January’s ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ shows her as an open book (‘Green Eyes’), a master at making poetry from the quotidian (‘Caroline’), and able to paint such vividly stark pictures (the heartbreaking ‘Black Dog’).
5. Black Country, New Road - ‘For The First Time’
Black Country, New Road’s debut album may only be six tracks in length, but ‘For the first time’ is an intriguing, complex beast. Fans of music that’s more direct, look away now, for this is a record which meanders and builds; an intricate - at times, tension-laden - puzzle which is designed to get lost in. But don’t be deceived, ‘For for the first time’ is deceptively accomplished, veering from the twisting and turning of introduction ‘Instrumental’ to the almost-unhinged declarations of ‘Science Fair’ and then back again with ease. It’s little wonder the septet bagged themselves a Mercury Prize nod so early in the game, really.
4. Little Simz - ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’
For some time prior to 2021, the name Little Simz and the word ‘underrated’ were all-too-often adjacent. She’d got the ear of her peers: Damon Albarn inviting her onto Gorillaz’ tracks and tours, praise from superstar Kendrick Lamar, and guesting on further numbers from the likes of Ghetts, alt-J, and Khalid. 2019’s ‘GREY Area’ pleased critics, but it barely scraped the UK Top 100. Enter Top Boy: the rapper’s star turn in the celebrated Netflix drama went some way to getting her name into mainstream consciousness. Earlier this year you couldn’t scroll TikTok for more than a few minutes before ‘Venom’ made an appearance. So that September’s ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ found its way to the heady heights of Number 4 in the UK, via the gorgeously grandiose introduction of the video for lead track ‘Introvert’ was both no surprise, and completely deserved.
3. Dry Cleaning - ‘New Long Leg’
Few albums have reflected our strange, manic collective state of mind in 2021 like Dry Cleaning’s debut. After a pair of EPs that set absurdist poems about the mundanity of day-to-day life over catchy post-punk rhythms, the debut album pushed the 4AD-signed quartet into even more singular territory, with Florence Shaw a unique and brilliant narrator for our times. “Do everything and feel nothing,” she repeats on ‘Scratchcard Lanyard’, reflecting a year spent doom-scrolling on an album that draws from the past musically but feels brilliantly 2021.
2. Self Esteem - ‘Prioritise Pleasure’
Every so often, an album comes around that manages to articulate a universal feeling so acutely that it seems impossible to think no one had done it before. With Self Esteem’s debut ‘Compliments Please’, Rebecca Lucy Taylor had already set out her stead as a songwriter with a proudly different viewpoint to most. However on ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ she exploded her own horizons - lyrically and musically - into a record whose impact has reverberated into something akin to a genuine cultural phenomenon. And rightly so. Witty, world-weary and unashamedly contradictory in its stance, ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ is Fleabag in musical form: an album that rages and flirts and sexts and sighs exhaustedly all at the same time. It is large, it contains multitudes, and it elbowed a space (and a very female space at that) for them all to exist concurrently, whilst setting them to a forward-thinking, plush pop soundtrack for the ages. It’s hard to think of a record in recent years that was so very much needed as this.
1. Wolf Alice - ‘Blue Weekend’
Ahhh Wolf Alice, where do we start? While it’s almost certainly no surprise that the quartet’s third album has been crowned DIY’s Album of the Year [we know what you’re thinking, okay? - Ed] there’s more than enough good reason for it. While there were high hopes for the follow-up to their 2018 Hyundai Mercury Prize-winning ‘Visions of a Life’, admittedly, it could’ve gone either way. But from the moment the band shared a first taste of ‘Blue Weekend’ back in early 2021, the stakes were quickly raised higher. The serene, grandiose reflection embodied within ‘The Last Man On Earth’ - and its swelling orchestral moment, to boot - showcased a band intent on rallying against the boundaries of expectation, unafraid to divert from the well-trodden path of indie greats before them. And that’s an attitude that flows through the album’s veins, which is why ‘Blue Weekend’ feels so spectacular. A record which sees the band harnessing their strengths and fearlessly creating something altogether bigger and bolder, the fact they nailed the execution makes it all the sweeter.
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