The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 50 Albums of 2021

2021 has been a strange one: novel but repetitive, optimistic and dispiriting at the same time. Although live gigs have finally returned, the wider social situation with the virus has often felt precarious enough to be suspended at any moment. Much of that existential anxiety has crept into the art made in 2021, which has been as rich and inventive as any year that TSP has been operating.

Here, we present our fifty favourite albums from 2021, and it’s been an incredibly tough list to choose. Albums from big hitters such as Shame, IDLES, Lana Del Rey, Bicep, Slowthai and even former TSP Album of the Year winner St. Vincent have missed out. Read on, and let us know what you think!

50. The Bug – Fire (Ninja Tune)

Calling on a dazzling cast list of British vocalists and MCs – some old comrades, others newcomers – on Fire Kevin Martin flexed the more extroverted, aggressive muscles of his varied sound by bringing The Bug back to Ninja Tune for the first time in half a decade. (LISTEN)

49. Greentea Peng – MAN MADE (EMI / Universal)

Greentea Peng MAN MADE

While the strains of psychedelia, R&B and dub are clearly detectable in her work, Aria Wells is much more than merely their sum – her first Greentea Peng album MAN MADE is music for the future, a compound of diverse styles that never sounds contrived or with anything crowbarred in. (LISTEN)

48. Erika De Casier – Sensational (4AD)

Erika De Casier Sensational

Erika De Casier’s debut on 4AD was a collection of breezy, intelligent takes on late Nineties-early Noughties MTV R&B/pop that essayed the trials and tribulations of dating in narratives that refused to cast their protagonists as victims. (LISTEN)

47. Lucy Dacus – Home Video (Matador)

Lucy Dacus Home Video

On her third album, Lucy Dacus did with intelligence and grace what so many artists can only do with cringe-inducing sentimentality – indulge in nostalgia and memory. A warm patchwork of Dacus’s vocals and strong melodies, Home Video again leaves the listener with a strong impression of her personality. (LISTEN)

46. Pom Poko – Cheater (Bella Union)

Pom Poko Cheater

Brightening up a dark and locked-down January, Cheater was a colourful and eclectic extension of Pom Poko’s 2019 debut Birthday. While perhaps there was a certain weightiness to some of the louder and heavier tracks, it was a light-hearted and infectious affair full of key modulations and tempo changes. (LISTEN)

45. Manic Street Preachers – The Ultra Vivid Lament (Sony)

On their fourteenth album, the Manics showed that there was plenty of ideas and creativity left in them. Melancholic, reflective and largely written on the piano – an instrument that James Dean Bradfield basically learned from scratch – The Ultra Vivid Lament added a new dimension to the artistry of Britain’s longest-running and most venerable alternative rock institution. (LISTEN)

44. BADBADNOTGOOD – Talk Memory (XL / Innovative Leisure)

Five long years after their last effort and after the departure of keyboardist Matthew Tavares, it was heartening to see that BADBADNOTGOOD’s creative wells hadn’t dried up. Talk Memory, spearheaded by the epic lead single ‘Signal From The Noise’, was a reliably satisfying fusion of jazz, psychedelia and electronica. (LISTEN)

43. Crumb – Ice Melt (Crumb)

Crumb Ice Melt

On their second album, Crumb further explored the loungey, chilled-out psych-rock they established on 2019’s Jinx. Although they used unusual techniques like putting a condom around a mic then submerging it in water to record through it, the result of Ice Melt was one of greater clarity and sharper focus. (LISTEN)

42. audiobooks – Astro Tough (Heavenly)

David Wrench and Evangeline Ling once again provided clean, incisive production with quirky delivery on their second audiobooks album. Astro Tough was packed with dancefloor-orientated tracks that thematically concerned the anticipation of nights out as well. (LISTEN)

41. Soccer96 – Dopamine (Moshi Moshi)

Also constituting two-thirds of ace contemporary jazz trio The Comet Is Coming, the immensely talented Danalogue (Dan Leavers) and Betamax (Maxwell Hallett) emphasised their futuristic ethos as Soccer96. Dopamine, their third full-length album,was an intoxicating, propulsive mixture of jazz, prog and electronic music. (LISTEN)

40. Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time (Milk! / Mom + Pop / Marathon Artists)

Written and recorded over many months in lockdown, Things Take Time, Take Time is markedly sparser and more introspective than Courtney Barnett’s previous albums. Co-produced with Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa, characterised by lilting electric guitars and programmed drums, it made for an even more personal and engaging experience. (LISTEN)

39. Lady Blackbird – Black Acid Soul (Foundation)

Style and substance blended perfectly on Marley Monroe’s much-delayed debut album. Black Acid Soul immediately struck the listener as timeless, as though it could have dropped out of a wormhole from any point in the last seventy-or-so years of jazz history – this feeling wasn’t just because of the serene, controlled nature of the execution, but the rich wisdom of Monroe’s voice. (LISTEN)

38. Deafheaven – Infinite Granite (Sargent House)

George Clarke and co. risked an awful lot with Infinite Granite, departing radically from the black metal influences of their previous Deafheaven albums with a sound strongly dominated by shoegaze and prominent pop elements embedded within. The results were predictably lustrous and beautiful, however. (LISTEN)

37. The Weather Station – Ignorance (Fat Possum)

The Weather Station Ignorance

Tamara Lindeman took The Weather Station to new heights on Ignorance. Backed by a full band, these songs of grief and heartbreak doubled up as wounded laments and battle hymns for the natural world, bolstering the folk-pop template with synths, strings and gated percussion. (LISTEN)

36. Parquet Courts – Sympathy For Life (What’s Your Rupture?)

Although their profile has gradually risen over their decade or so together, Parquet Courts grew restless with their indie/post-punk template and opted to expand it for their seventh record. Influenced by dance, techno and hip-hop in the absence of nightlife and clubbing during the pandemic, Sympathy For Life was still recognizably them, yet suggested a fascinating future filled with possibilities. (LISTEN)

35. Du Blonde – Homecoming (Daemon T.V.)

On Homecoming, Beth Jeans Houghton pays glamorous tribute to the Nineties indie-rock scene in Boston with this scuzzy set of grimy riffs and sweet melodies. Guest spots from Ezra Furman and Garbage’s Shirley Manson can’t steal the spotlight from BJH, who’s audibly having immense fun throughout. (LISTEN)

34. Bobby Gillespie & Jehnny Beth – Utopian Ashes (Sony)

Bobby Gillespie Jehnny Beth Utopian Ashes

Rather than the beauty and beast collaboration that such a pairing might imply, Utopian Ashes saw both singers display pleasing artistic versatility on an album of sweet (and sour) country-influenced torch ballads narrating a jaded couple’s slow break-up. (LISTEN)

33. Arab Strap – As Days Get Dark (Rock Action)

Arab Strap As Days Get Dark

Released over fifteen years after their initial split, As Days Get Dark proved that Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton were no longer men out of time (or old before their time) in 2021. In fact, it was the slyly humorous tonic we all needed in the benighted first few months of the year, the duo’s art more at home now than at any point in the late Nineties and early Noughties. (LISTEN)

32. Goat Girl – On All Fours (Rough Trade)

Goat Girl On All Fours

Smoothing out the spiky edges of their excellent 2018 debut, Goat Girl opted for a more abstract, diverse palette of inspirations for their sophomore effort. On All Fours used stealth and subtlety as its strategy, as opposed to blasts of post-punk immediacy, while remaining grounded in the quartet’s commitment to innovation. (LISTEN)

31. Tyler, The Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST (Columbia)

Co-produced with Jamie xx and incorporating elements of jazz, reggae and synth-pop, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST continued right where Igor left off in terms of documenting the ever-expanding totality of Tyler, The Creator’s inspirations and artistic vision. (LISTEN)

30. Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime (Matador)

The hugely talented Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar moved to Matador for the first time for the explosive Afrique Victime, allowing him to access to a much wider audience. Recorded during touring breaks, these kinetic, psychedelic interpretations of desert blues show an effortless chemistry with a crack backing band. (LISTEN)

29. Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview On Phenomenal Nature (Ba Da Bing)

Weaving lyrics made up of direct quotations, anecdotes and dialogue into an impressionistic web and then setting them to gorgeous, hazy dream-folk, Cassandra Jenkins’ An Overview On Phenomenal Nature was a wonderful essay on grief and healing. (LISTEN)

28. Sleaford Mods – Spare Ribs (Rough Trade)

Sleaford Mods Spare Ribs

Jason Williamson’s scathing wit and eloquent anger has always been the key attraction to Sleaford Mods’ music, but on Spare Ribs it was his partner Andrew Fearn’s time to shine. Easily the Mods’ most sonically adventurous album to date, fleshing out the skeletal, rolling beats of their trademark sound with even more diverse elements from krautrock to 808-heavy house. Proof that Sleaford Mods don’t need to sound vitriolic to be absorbing. (LISTEN)

27. Madlib & Four Tet – Sound Ancestors (Madlib Invazion)

Madlib Sound Ancestors

Working with Kieran Hebden on production, the legendary producer, DJ and archivist Madlib offers a masterclass in his art form as well as an ideal entry point for newcomers. Sound Ancestors was instrumental hip-hop par excellence, with the duo spinning atmospheric magic from the bare minimum, little more than some sparse beats and dusty, forgotten soul samples. (LISTEN)

26. Flying Lotus – Yasuke OST (Warp Records)

Flying Lotus Yasuke

Fulfilling a life-long ambition, Steven Ellison co-created a Netflix anime series with LaSean Thomas to tell the story of a Black samurai warrior in 16th century feudal Japan. Ellison wove the near-flawless soundtrack to Yasuke himself, a sumptuous blend of digital beats and electro-acoustic instrumentation. (LISTEN)

25. Tune-Yards – sketchy. (4AD)

Tune-Yards sketchy

Merrill Garbus used her fifth Tune-Yards album as a Trojan horse, smuggling conversations about political power structures, female autonomy and climate change inertia via inventive and catchy avant-pop. (LISTEN)

24. Hannah Peel – Fir Wave (My Own Pleasure)

Adapted from recordings by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s composers Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, Fir Wave was the album that deservedly put BBC Radio 3 broadcaster and musician Hannah Peel into wider popular consciousness. An economical but beautiful mix twisted the source material into hard electronic textures, restless ambient tracks and kinetic techno. (LISTEN)

23. The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore (Atlantic)

Now happily married and a first-time father, Adam Granduciel’s outlook on his latest War On Drugs opus was notably more optimistic, but didn’t want for that trademark sense of wistful (self) reflection. Gone were the gauzy guitar textures in favour of bolder, well-defined melodies and backing tracks, but I Don’t Live Here Anymore bore the rare wisdom of having achieved true contentment after long periods of struggle. (LISTEN)

22. Mogwai – As The Love Continues (Rock Action)

Mogwai As The Love Continues

Over ten albums plus countless EPs and soundtracks over twenty-five years, it’s easy to take Mogwai’s utter dependability for granted. As The Love Continues continued to create and exploit opportunities for invention in the minutiae of their post-rock sound under the stewardship of producer Dave Fridmann – what resulted is another great addition to a pretty peerless catalogue. (LISTEN)

21. Black Midi – Cavalcade (Rough Trade)

Black Midi Cavalcade

Albums that risk presenting the listener with too much to process at once often collapse under the weight of unrealised ideas, but Black Midi turned this into a virtue with their immensely detailed sophomore effort Cavalcade. Dealing with the pains and triumphs of the human condition with sections given over to math-rock, post-punk and free jazz, it was a textured sonic tapestry and a successful exercise in controlled chaos. (LISTEN)

20. Snail Mail – Valentine (Matador)

Cast as a saviour of indie rock at the tender age of seventeen with her first Snail Mail album Lush, you’d be forgiven if Lindsey Jordan flinched at least a little from the spotlight with Valentine. But while she explores the challenges of that time with typically frank lyrical honesty, Jordan is energised and confident throughout this emotional but economical masterpiece. (LISTEN)

19. Sons Of Kemet – Black To The Future (Impulse! / UMG)

Sons Of Kemet Black To The Future

Following up 2018’s Mercury-nominated Your Queen Is A Reptile would seem to be a tall order, but Shabaka Hutchings’ Sons Of Kemet emulated it with breathtaking ease. Emanating political urgency at every moment with its tense dynamics and the individual band members’ explosive performances, Black To The Future sounded both timeless and original. (LISTEN)

18. Saint Etienne – I’ve Been Trying To Tell You (Heavenly)

Although it ostensibly saw Saint Etienne return to sample-based aesthetic of their very earliest albums, I’ve Been Trying To Tell You was a downtempo reverie. Thematically concerned with the distorting effects of nostalgia upon accurate collective cultural memory, Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell took the listener through an autumnal, dreamlike sonic voyage that represents a new vein of artistic inspiration for them as they embark upon their fourth decade together. (LISTEN)

17. Park Hye Jin – Before I Die (Ninja Tune)

An immersive bedroom pop experience traversing K-pop, hip-hop, techno, house and indie, Park Hye Jin’s debut album proper was written and recorded entirely under lockdown and reflected on deeply personal anxieties, but taking time to lose itself in the reveries of nostalgia. Sung and rapped in a mixture of Korean and English, the producer excavates emotions and sets them to ear-popping productions that linger hard. (LISTEN)

16. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage (Goliath)

Nick Cave Warren Ellis Carnage

It had been quite a while since Nick Cave indulged his classic, blood and thunder style. Carnage, completed solely with his trusted Bad Seeds lieutenant Warren Ellis, was much more than a decks-clearing exercise, with Cave’s lyrics describing and evoking the forces of nature – implacable, immovable, often hostile but also dependable – and man’s helplessness in the face of them, set to Ellis’s hammering, noisy and repetitive musical motifs. (LISTEN)

15. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend (Dirty Hit)

Wolf Alice Blue Weekend

While it perhaps didn’t tell us much that we didn’t already know about them, Blue Weekend was another step on Wolf Alice’s inexorable path to being remembered as greats of the Brit rock canon. With a big hitter on production in the shape of Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Coldplay, Björk) they magnified all of the appealing aspects of their artistry – Ellie Rowsell’s theatrical yet detached delivery was more emphasised, and Joff Oddie’s guitars sounded even grander and deeper. (LISTEN)

14. Julien Baker – Little Oblivions (Matador)

Julien Baker Little Oblivions

Lyrically relentless in her self-analysis, it was business as usual on Julien Baker’s third studio album in terms of themes – dependency, unhealthy coping mechanisms, ruminations on morality. Where Little Oblivions was revolutionary was in its sonics – introducing louder guitars, percussion and drum machines to thicken the sonics and provide a grander platform for Baker’s painfully incisive songwriting. (LISTEN)

13. The Anchoress – The Art Of Losing (Kscope)

Catherine Anne Davies drew on the baroque pop of artists like David Bowie and Scott Walker for her second album The Art Of Losing. The product of five years’ work, it was a sumptuous and detailed collection of dark alternative pop, prominently featuring synths and strings and expressing themes of grief, fury, trauma and loss, borne from Davies’ own experiences. A more intensely personal listening experience was hard to find in 2021. (LISTEN)

12. Jane Weaver – Flock (Fire Records)

Having gradually built a substantial cult following over nearly a quarter of a century with her spellbinding brand of psychedelic rock, Jane Weaver opted to make a pop record with her eleventh album Flock. That is, to say, her version of a pop record, applying populist production techniques to a slew of esoteric influences, from Australian punk to Lebanese torch ballads, foregrounding the hitherto latent melodic elements in her music. (LISTEN)

11. Low – Hey What (Sub Pop)

After their stunning reinvention on 2018’s Double Negative, slowcore veterans Low teamed up once again with producer BJ Burton. Repeating one’s self is rarely a virtue in pop, but when you subvert expectations as radically as Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk did, “the same again” is more than acceptable – scorched, scarred digital manipulations and booming percussion dominate the mix, but they don’t drown out the couple’s pristine vocal arrangements. (LISTEN)

10. Dave – We’re All Alone In This Together (Dave / Neighbourhood Recordings)

Dave We're All Alone In This Together

Following up a smash commercial and critical success like Psychodrama would be daunting for many artists, but not old Santan Dave. Inspired by themes of community and identity, galvanised by the trauma of lockdown compounding the problems faced by young Black people in society, We’re All Alone In This Together was another masterclass in storytelling, cementing his position as Britain’s finest rapper. (LISTEN)

09. For Those I Love – For Those I Love (September Recordings)

An enervating mix of spoken-word consciousness about themes of community and introspection set to a shifting musical backdrop of Fuck Buttons-esque electronica and beats influenced by hip-hop and house. David Balfe’s forceful Irish brogue is both hard-edged and vulnerable, making ‘For Those I Love’ like a more abstract and poetic version of Mike Skinner’s work as The Streets. (LISTEN)

08. Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure (Universal)

An album unabashedly dedicated to promoting positivity and self-love, Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s second Self Esteem record Prioritise Pleasure could have been a total car crash, the audio equivalent of an inspirational Instagram quotation. The fact that it turned out to be the year’s most joyous outright pop record was not simply a case of the context of the benighted year in which it emerged – tracks like ‘I Do This All The Time’ were instant pop classics as well as revealing of an incisive artistic mind. (LISTEN)

07. TORRES – Thirstier (Merge)

TORRES Thirstier

Barely three years after a huge career setback with her acrimonious split from 4AD, Mackenzie Scott pulled off a breathtaking power move to nudge her TORRES project nearer the mainstream with fifth album Thirstier. A virtually flawless display of virtuosity and musical diversity – the crunchy garage-rock of ‘Are You Sleepwalking?’ to the stately power pop of ‘Don’t Go Puttin Wishes In My Head’ – it felt like a throwback to a time when artists could mature in public. (LISTEN)

06. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (Age 101 / AWAL)

Addressing a number of themes from the music industry and societal dislocations to family and trauma and setting them to sweeping orchestral productions, Simbi Ajikawo’s fourth full-length was the cinematic masterpiece she’s been threatening to make since the start of her career. To make art that’s at once so personal and yet so big-sounding and overwhelming is a tricky task, but alongside Sault’s co-founder Inflo behind the production desk, she made her magnum opus. (LISTEN)

05. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee (Dead Oceans)

Japanese Breakfast Jubilee

Michelle Zauner delivered a stylish and diverse album of shape-shifting pop for her third Japanese Breakfast album Jubilee. But the superficial differences in comparison to her first two records also applied to the thematic content – the tones of grief from before were replaced by ones predominantly of joy. While the gregarious synth-pop banger ‘Be Sweet’ was one of 2021’s finest singles, the most satisfying moments were the slower ones, such as the lush orchestral pop of ‘Kokomo, IN’. (LISTEN)

04. Black Country, New Road – For The First Time (Ninja Tune)

Black Country New Road For The First Time

Pulling post-punk, krautrock, math-rock and free jazz into thrilling new shapes, Black Country, New Road’s For The First Time represented one of British indie’s finest debuts for years. Given their predilection for genre-mashing, what was pleasing was that the group opted to emphasise atmospherics, tension and dynamism over just cramming in as many ideas as possible for their first statement – over six immersive tracks, they took their time in exploring each direction. (LISTEN)

03. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg (4AD)

Dry Cleaning New Long Leg

Arguably the single most hyped British indie release of 2021, Dry Cleaning surpassed even the most optimistic projections for their debut long-player. Fusing Florence Shaw’s stream-of-consciousness sprechsegang vocal style to her bandmates’ spiky combination of hard rock and arty post-punk, all under the guidance of PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, New Long Leg suggests almost endless possibilities for this exciting band’s future. (LISTEN)

02. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises (Luaka Bop)

Floating Points Pharoah Sanders Promises

The result of five years of remote collaboration and painstaking editing, Promises is one of the most plainly beautiful albums in recent memory. Sam Shepherd, an electronic music maverick untethered to any one way of working in ten years of recording as Floating Points, worked with octogenarian jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and The London Symphony Orchestra to produce a nine-movement suite of spiritual, meditative instrumental music spanning the gaps between spiritual jazz, cosmic psychedelia and symphonic gravitas. (LISTEN)

01. Squid – Bright Green Field (Warp Records)

Squid Bright Green Field

The title and artwork for Bright Green Field disguised the true nature of the album’s content – rather than being airy or pastoral, Squid presented engaging formulations of post-punk, funk, jazz and krautrock executed with manic energy, accompanied by lyrics that evoked dark visions of an imagined urban cybersphere. While it was grounded in art-rock traditions, this was a post-genre sound, and one of many incredibly fine British alternative rock debuts in 2021. (LISTEN)

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