The 45 best albums of 2021

What were the best albums of 2021? We break them down, record by record.

How’s that, kids! Another year down the pan. After the horrors of 2020, it wasn’t hard for 2021 to be a step up but regardless, there was definitely plenty to celebrate. The return of live music caused the music industry to breathe a collective sigh of relief – although it feels strange writing that with the tragedy of Astroworld still so fresh in our minds and with Omiicron threatening shutdown once again.

There was a LOT of great music. Music that had been held back, pandemic albums, new artists finally getting a chance to build a fanbase the old-fashioned way, show by show. We had breakout stars, the return of old favourites and a lot in between. Pop-punk made a comeback, women continued to dominate the pop sphere and a song about a bit of antique furniture buzzed around our heads all summer.

The album, as ever, remained an important medium for telling stories, creating worlds and conveying meaning. Here, we celebrate the LPs that really made their mark on the year that music returned. Let us present your WFH soundtrack for the months ahead: the 45 best albums of 2021. God knows, we’re going to need them. Charlotte Gunn.

45Liz Phair – ‘Soberish’

A cult hero for many young female musicians, ‘90s legend Liz Phair returned with her first album in 11 years this year and reminded us why she’s always been so vital. Wry, honest and still packed with her innate knack for crafting indie bangers, it brilliantly shared her perspective on life in her 50s – sober, sometimes single, but always entirely herself. Rhian Daly 

44Greentea Peng – ‘Man Made’

The soothing, laidback qualities of Greentea Peng’s sound can feel hypnotising, gently lulling you into a state of musical tranquillity and the release of her first full-length ‘Man Made’ this year showcased that talent perfectly. Merging jazz, hip hop, reggae and pop with beautifully flowing melodies and hazy instrumentation, ‘Man Made’ was a well-constructed, rich and enchanting debut. Arusa Qureshi

43Slowthai – ‘Tyron’

Split equally between heavy-hitting, uber bombastic hip-hop with a run of big-name guests (ASAP Rocky! Skepta!) and more meditative, introspective songwriting with another run of big-name guests (James Blake! Mount Kimbie! Deb Never!), Slowthai’s second album was a revelatory reckoning. It shared Tyron Frampton’s feelings of self-doubt and shame, as well as being home to a tender tribute to the NHS. Leonie Cooper

42The Staves – ‘Good Woman’

The Staves braved heartbreak, grief and, eventually, motherhood in the years since 2015’s ‘If I Was’, and their collective sorrow and catharsis was laced into the DNA of ‘Good Woman’. With a record brimming with grit (‘Careful Kid’), tender reflections (‘Sparks’) and toe-tapping melodies (‘Best Friend’), the Staveley-Taylor sisters once again found harmony in grounded songwriting and otherworldly voices. Emma Holbrook

41Doja Cat – ‘Planet Her’

Doja Cat has been on steady ascent to the top of pop’s mountain, but she stuck the flag in when she released ‘Planet Her’. From the endlessly replayable ‘Get Into It (Yuh)’ to the slinky R&B of ‘You Right’ and the giddy ‘Kiss Me More’, her third album was a home run of hits and made pop’s most eccentric voice unavoidable. Abigail Firth

40Hayley Williams – ‘Flowers For Vases / Descansos’

With her second solo album, Hayley Williams opted for a stripped-back folk sound. Despite the sparse approach, it felt large in its grief and emotionality, pairing vulnerable lyrics with catchy guitar chord progressions, haunting piano, stellar vocals and electrifying riffs – all of which Williams played herself. Spellbinding and deeply moving, it was Williams at her most personal and intimate. Truly masterful songwriting from a musician who never fails to impress. Aliya Chaudhry

39Black Honey – ‘Written & Directed’

Brighton’s Black Honey have always gone through band life as if they were commanding their own movie, so it made perfect sense that their second record’s title read like a credit on a film poster and its contents referencing iconic filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. With moments as big as a Hollywood blockbuster but with all the heart and intelligence of an intimate indie, ‘Written & Directed’ presented a gripping listen ready to soundtrack your own main character adventures. Rhian Daly

Read our review of ‘Call Me If You Get Lost’

38Adele – ’30

It’s unbelievable to think Adele could ever become a bigger star, but ‘30’ was arguably her most important album yet. Delving into her divorce, the world was watching as she made her return six years after ‘25’, and she didn’t disappoint. Reliably stunning with the occasional curveball, ‘30’ is a heart-wrenching tale of a broken marriage, told as candidly to her boys as to the world. Abigail Firth

37Lana Del Rey – ‘Blue Banisters’

While Lana Del Rey began by drawing on decidedly vintage influences, ‘Blue Banisters’ brought her all-American songwriting firmly into the present. On the Miles Kane-featuring ‘Dealer’ old-timey vocal melodies collided with contemporary beats, with magical effect, while ‘Black Bathing Suit’ reflected on her own artistic lineage during a “grenadine quarantine”. “You name your babe Lilac Heaven, after your iPhone 11,” she lulls with soaring sincerity on the fiercely witty closer ‘Sweet Carolina’, “‘Crypto forever,’ screams your stupid boyfriend, fuck you, Kevin.” Touché. El Hunt

Read our review of ‘Blue Banisters’

36Bleachers – ‘Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night’

One of the most subtly star-studded albums of the year – who else had The Boss, a lowkey Lana Del Rey feature and a co-write from celebrated author Zadie Smith on their record? – Bleachers’ third was built on desperation and urgency. Along the way, it found incredible beauty, frontman Jack Antonoff working through the complexities of life with some of his most enlightening lyrics yet and string-laden arrangements filled with poignancy. Rhian Daly 

35Tirzah – ‘Colourgrade’

Written alongside collaborators Mica Levi and Coby Sey, Tirzah’s second full-length record, was an otherworldly piece of work, full of unsettling sounds and off-beat, distorted lyrics that explored her journey into motherhood, both in mind and body. Charlotte Gunn

34Ghetts – ‘Conflict of Interest’

The London grime veteran kept his cool on his major label debut, despite a starry-eyed guest-list that includes Stormzy, Skepta, Dizzee Rascal, Ed Sheeran, and Emeli Sande. The record’s expansive soundscape and storytelling deserved several long listens, as Ghetts wrangled with dual identies of Ghetts the artist versus Justin Clarke the man, yet its fresh outlook hinted at an exciting future for the genre. Kate French-Morris.

33Goat Girl – ‘On All Fours’

On their second album, south London post-punks Goat Girl turned their focus from bigger, country-ravaging issues to smaller, more everyday tales. So too did their sound change,  going the opposite way from their subject matter and expanding into larger webs of experimental punk and even into new synthy territory. Rhian Daly 

Read our interview with Goat Girl

32Hannah Peel – ‘Fir Wave’

A British electronic record that served as a history lesson in the roots of the genre, Hannah Peel dove into her Filofax of sonics, to rework sounds by Delia Derbyshire and KPM, in a sprawling work that melded orchestral, atmospheric and beatific waves that were entirely worthy of that Mercury Prize nomination, if not a win. Charlotte Gunn.

31Kacey Musgraves – ‘Star Crossed’

“Let me set the scene, two lovers ripped right at the seams,” sings Kacey Musgraves in the opening moments of ‘Star-Crossed’, “they woke up from the perfect dream, I signed the papers yesterday”. It’s an introduction that flings you straight into the messy, heartbroken core of her cleaner-sounding, poppier, fifth album. While ‘Golden Hour’ stuck a middle finger up at patriarchal expectations, they creep back into the fringes of a relationship that has fallen apart, here, and resisting them feels more complicated. Such is life. “I just wanna be a good wife,” she pleads, despite herself. El Hunt

Read our review of ‘Star Crossed’

30Willow – ‘Lately I Feel EVERYTHING

Willow Lately I Feel Everything

While Olivia Rodrigo led the pop-punk chart resurgence, Willow was paying it homage in a different way. Bringing on board the original punk princess Avril Lavigne and drumming legend Travis Barker, she pulled the genre bang up to date with lo-fi vocals and brutally honest lyrics that gave pop-punk a new perspective. Abigail Firth

Read our review of ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’

29Julien Baker – ‘Little Oblivions’ 

Being open comes naturally to Julien Baker, but that doesn’t make her music anything close to easy listening. Her third album was a sonic gut-punch, with the Tennessee singer-songwriter ramping up her sound to something big, beefy and bracing – the perfect foil to her intimate proclamations. ‘Little Oblivions’ they might have been, but their impact was huge. Leonie Cooper

28Amyl and the Sniffers – ‘Comfort To Me’

From the positive punk of ‘Guided By Angels’ to the coruscating ‘Knifey’ – a song about a woman wanting to walk home alone in the dark who foists brutal revenge on anyone who threatens her safety – ‘Comfort To Me’ saw Amy Taylor take the crown as one of 2021’s most vital voices. Leonie Cooper

Read our Cover Story with Amyl & The Sniffers

27Dry Cleaning – ‘New Long Leg’

Do everything feel nothing,” Dry Cleaning repeated on the first track of their debut album ‘New Long Leg’. Though that particular song, ‘Scratchcard Lanyard’, was written before the pandemic, in our rather more “do nothing feel nothing” times the post-punk band’s new album envisioned today’s restless, often senseless mood. Kate French-Morris.

26Claud – ‘Super Monster’

Offbeat pop hero Claud opened up on an indie-pop gem of a debut from Phoebe Bridgers’ Saddest Factory Records. With wonky synth lines, transphobic clapbacks and Prince-inspired hooks, ‘Super Monster’ was an impossibly catchy debut from an artist who wore their heart on their sleeve and as they told us, “feels things really deeply”. Charlotte Gunn

25Pom Pom Squad – ‘Death Of A Cheerleader’

The grunge album 2021 needed. Mia Berrin’s perfectly-constructed high school aesthetic rolled in like a John Hughes movie, with the perfection of the cheer squad but the edge of the kids smoking a blunt behind the bleachers. The Brooklyn band offered up camp horror, doo-wop wooze drenched in guitar, and the kind of representation Mia Berrin always craved as a queer teen of colour on their debut LP. Charlotte Gunn

Read our interview with Pom Pom Squad

24Celeste – ‘Not Your Muse’

As an artist firmly on everyone’s ones-to-watch list in 2019/2020, the release of ‘Not Your Muse’ this year reinforced exactly why Celeste deserved such high praise. Her debut was confident and cinematic, with moments that ranged from quiet and heart wrenching to up-tempo and full of fire. Celeste’s jazz-infused soulful vocals took centre stage with power and tenderness all the way through. Arusa Qureshi

23Japanese Breakfast – ‘Jubilee

Michelle Zauner’s third album arrived shortly after her memoir ‘Crying in H Mart’, named after an article she wrote about losing her mother. Although the album discusses similar themes of grief and loneliness, its soundscape is quite the opposite. Emotional confessionals backed by cinematic strings and aggressively bright instrumentals, ‘Jubilee’ is an optimistic look at learning to feel again. 

22Snail Mail – ‘Valentine’ 

Snail Mail Valentine

Young love sucks, but at least the heartbroken of 2021 had Snail Mail’s stunning second album to wallow and wail to. On the title track, she yelled one out for those struggling to come to terms with their loss (“So why you wanna erase me?”), but as the record progressed shared the different stages of her journey to acceptance with emotion that packed a punch and floating indie-rock that wrapped itself around your heart. Rhian Daly

21Sam Fender – ‘Seventeen Going Under’

On his second album, Sam Fender looked inward, to tell stories of his own life. Growing up as a young man in the north east of England, examining toxic masculinity. male suicide and how his family in particular, have still felt the effects of Thatcher’s Britain, it was a bold step forward from a young man with a lot of smart things to say about this country. Charlotte Gunn.

20Sault – ‘Nine’ 

If anyone taught us good things don’t always last this year, it was Sault – the anonymous neo-soul collective who only made their fifth record available online for 99 days. If you weren’t late to the party, you would have heard an astonishingly accomplished album that took aim at police brutality and social injustice, and explored gang culture and a life of struggles. Rhian Daly

19Lucy Dacus – ‘Home Video’ 

A multi-textured scrapbook of memories from Lucy Dacus’s queer coming of age in a strict Christian community, ‘Home Video’ was a nostalgic blast of burgeoning sensuality and its resultant repression. The result was some of the most exquisitely crafted indie-pop songs of the year. Leonie Cooper

18For Those I Love – ‘For Those I Love’

David Balfe’s beautiful tribute to his friend and musical partner Paul Curran, who died by suicide in 2018, examined grief and all its complexities on a debut album so poignant and accomplished, it shone bright for the both of them. So much music about loss is told through acoustic guitars and mournful strings, but Balfe paid truer tribute to both his friend childhood through the use of bedroom dance music. A truly breathtaking debut. Jenessa Williams.

17The Weather Station – ‘Ignorance’

The fifth Weather Station album saw Canadian folkie Tamara Lindeman heading directly to the dancefloor. Coming six months or so before ABBA’s surprise return, ‘Ignorance’ plugged into the Swedish pop titans’ elegant energy, swapping guitars for keyboards and letting loose majestic sad bangers like ‘Heart’ and ‘Separated’, which found the joy in her pain. Leonie Cooper

16Halsey – ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Undoubtedly their best work yet, Halsey is one of pop’s best shapeshifters. For their fourth album, they enlisted Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, both OST veterans, for this concept album about the highs and lows of pregnancy. Anchored by vivid lyricism and erratic instrumentals, it felt like this was the album Halsey had spent her whole life working towards. Abigail Firth

15Laura Mvula – ‘Pink Noise’

There was an overwhelming sense of joy on ‘Pink Noise’ as Laura Mvula embraced and drew out her love of ‘80s dance-pop. This was an album bathed in synth, lush vocal hooks and sparkling riffs that all signified a feeling of freedom in Laura’s return. Her trademark quality of smooth neo-soul was still in there, but ‘Pink Noise’ felt a bit bolder with elements of pop, funk and disco thrown into the mix. Arusa Qureshi

14Tyler, the Creator – ‘Call Me If You Get Lost’

While the success of Tyler, the Creator’s 2019 Grammy-winning album ‘Igor’ prompted many to label it his best work yet, ‘Call Me If You Get Lost’ arguably supersedes this. Made up of short vignette-like tracks, with the exception of the epic ‘Wilshire’ and ‘Sweet/I Thought You Wanted to Dance’, the album is a multi-coloured symphony of Tyler’s ever-evolving sound – chaotic, comedic, tender and wholly compelling. Arusa Qureshi

13Remi Wolf – ‘Juno’

With her zany, technicolour aesthetics and upbeat funk-infused pop, Remi Wolf has become somewhat of a darling of the TikTok generation. This doesn’t come without merit though, as this year’s multifaceted and forward-thinking debut ‘Juno’ highlighted. With tracks that take on themes like alcoholism and break-ups and with nods to R&B, soul and hyper-pop, ‘Juno’ is a celebratory and yet introspective release that positions Remi as one of pop music’s most exciting innovators. Arusa Qureshi.

12Turnstile – ‘GLOW ON’

Turnstile’s ‘Glow On’ traversed a lot of stylistic terrain beyond hardcore, pulling across both genres and eras. Weaving together an unexpected winning combination of crunching riffs, glittering pianos, bouncing bongos, shimmering synths and wailing solos, the record managed to be rough and tough and at the same time, melodic and full of grooves. Overall, it was hard-hitting, constantly surprising and endlessly fun. Aliya Chaudhury

11Lana Del Rey – ‘Chemtrails Over The Country Club’

Fame was the name of the game on Lana Del Rey’s seventh album, with the LA transplant looking back on days when she was just Lizzy Grant, a waitress in a ‘White Dress’ and distilling her present into paparazzi car chases (‘Wild At Heart’) and party’s at Madonna’s manager’s house (‘Dark But Just A Game’). Her lyrical reflections were made even more powerful by the gorgeous folk and breezy pop she wrapped them up in, proving that even if she wasn’t a fan of fame, she definitely deserved the acclaim that came with it. Rhian Daly

10Arlo Parks – ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’

Arlo Parks’ debut ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ delivered catchy choruses and sugar-sweet melodies, while navigating genres as different as rock and trip-hop. Even in its louder moments, Parks still managed to create a powerful intimate feel, a combination of her casual and delicate vocals, her visually descriptive lyrics and the careful construction of sounds. This isn’t an album that’s easy to forget. Aliya Chaudhry

9Girl In Red – ‘If I Could Make It Go Quiet’ 

Marie Ulven’s long-awaited debut album as Girl In Red saw her morph from bedroom indie artist into full-blown Taylor Swift-style pop iconoclast swapping twee cardigans for baggy hoodies. Kicking off with the stadium-worthy ‘Serotonin’, before reaching into gracefully downbeat territory – see the staunch but swooning ‘Midnight Love’ – the album might have been brief, running at just 33 minutes, but it shone brilliantly. Leonie Cooper

8St Vincent – ‘Daddy’s Home’

St Vincent Daddy's Home

On ‘Daddy’s Home’, St Vincent borrowed from the wardrobe, record collection, and social unrest of the seventies – but ‘Daddy’s Home’ was was much 2021 as 1971. Thematically, it was an album that tackled the incarceration and release of Annie Clark’s father, who was jailed for stock manipulation crimes ten years ago. But its aesthetic was one of decadent debauchery, another considered reinvention from a truly shapeshifting artist. Kate French-Morris.

7Lorde – ‘Solar Power’

On her third album, Lorde went back to her – and all of our – roots, taking inspiration from Mother Earth to create a singular record that paid tribute to our planet, as well as examining the star’s relationships with fame, peers and herself. Getting down with the environment also meant stripping away the synths and 808s, in favour of more low-key – but still as impactful – acoustic guitars. Rhian Daly

6Jazmine Sullivan – ‘Heaux Tales’

Upon the release of Jazmine Sullivan’s fourth album, two things stood out above all else: the singer-songwriter’s unbelievable vocal range and her innate skill as a storyteller. ‘Heaux Tales’ acts as an anthology of women’s experiences and insights into love, romance, sex and more. With R&B beauty and gospel tones, Sullivan leads us through different narratives across eight tracks, connected by honest spoken-word interludes. Arusa Qureshi.

5Self Esteem – ‘Prioritise Pleasure’

Self Esteem Prioritise Pleasure

Within the twisted-pop of Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s second album ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ lay an important question – how to celebrate and love ourselves in a culture tainted by rampant misogyny? Throughout, Self Esteem shared her own journey to acceptance with magnetic wit and generosity. “I’m breathing in, one, two, three,” she chanted on the title-track, a mantra for the record as a whole. “Prioritise pleasuring me”. El Hunt

Read our review of ‘Prioritise Pleasure’

4Clairo – ‘Sling’

It wasn’t just us getting reflective during quarantine – locked down with her family and new puppy Joanie in Atlanta, Clairo began to think about what motherhood meant in her life and realised domesticity might actually be something she desired. Those musings formed the basis of her stunning second album; a lush, inquisitive record that pulled from Carole King and Joni Mitchell, but presented an artist very much moving forward in her own lane. Rhian Daly

3Little Simz – ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ 

Modern society often feels like it’s fuelled by our need for validation, an idea that Simz tackled on her flawless fourth album. “Why the desperate need for an applause?” she asked on ‘Standing Ovation’, ironically at the same time as making a record that deserved just that. ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ sent her already lofty star even more stratospheric, sealing her place as British rap’s most profound heavyweight. Rhian Daly

2Wolf Alice – ‘Blue Weekend’ 

There was no doubt that Wolf Alice were already one of the UK’s greatest modern acts before ‘Blue Weekend’, but the band’s third record truly cemented that as a cold hard fact. Ellie Rowsell was more commanding than ever, flying through her register to deliver dizzying sopranos and snarled punk mayhem, while guitarist Joff Oddie, bassist Theo Ellis, drummer Joel Amey and Rowsell’s guitar weaved cinematic future classics to form the fabric of a no-skips gem. Rhian Daly

1Olivia Rodrigo – ‘SOUR’

If you had told us in 2020 that our record of the year wouid be by a former Disney child star who was yet to release anything, it would have been met with disbelief but in truth, there was no album in 2021 more pure, more unifying and more needed than Olivia Rodrigo‘s ‘Sour‘. Tackling the universal themes of first love and heartbreak with whip-smart lyrics and a raucous pop-punk energy, Rodrigo made an album that spoke of the teenage experience but resonated much wider. Her raw emotion was impossible to not find endearing, her specificity, somehow made her even more relatable. It was a masterclass in pop songwriting from start to finish and with seven Grammy nominations to show for it, the perfect fuck you to the boy who burned her. Charlotte Gunn