Though we’re not nearly out of the woods yet, this year has seen something of a comeback for the music industry, with artists and producers climbing bleary-eyed out of their bedrooms and returning to studios and stages across the globe to do what they do best.
In celebration, we’re recognising some of the most creative sounds produced by music-makers in 2021. To that end, we asked you to vote in your pick of the year’s most outstanding album releases, focusing on artists, bands and producers that have impressed you with their music-making abilities, and not just the music they’ve released.
There was inspiration to be found in every corner of the musical landscape this year, from the irrepressibly funky R&B of 2021's winner, Silk Sonic, straight through to the glitched-out experimental hip-hop of JPEGMAFIA and the cosmic jazz of Floating Points & Pharaoh Sanders’ Promises. Let's find out which albums you voted as the best to come out in 2021.
1. Winner, Best Album of 2021: Silk Sonic - An Evening With Silk Sonic
Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak brought us some much-needed light relief in a year of uncertainty with their retro-tinged ode to '70s R&B, An Evening With Silk Sonic. Produced by the duo themselves alongside D'Mile, Brody Brown and Charlez Moniz, the record recreates the velveteen sound of classic, golden-era funk, soul and R&B through old-school recording techniques and painstaking attention to detail in the production process.
2. The War on Drugs - I Don't Live Here Anymore
The War on Drugs continued to perfect their own brand of anthemic, heartfelt rock music on this year's excellent I Don't Live Here Anymore. Meticulously recorded and produced by frontman Adam Granduciel and engineer Shawn Everett in seven different studios over a three-year period, this album's epic, luxurious sound resonates for months after listening.
3. Tyler, the Creator - Call Me If You Get Lost
Coming in number three on our Best Albums list is a project that's not really an album: it's a mixtape. For many rappers, the mixtape is a byword for album-length projects that aren't intended to be taken as grand artistic statements, but for Tyler, it's a free pass to indulge his most irreverent sensibilities. Produced by the rapper himself with contributions from Jamie xx and Jay Versace, Call Me If You Get Lost filters synth-pop, jazz, boom-bap, soul and reggae through Tyler's kaleidoscopic lens.
4. Floating Points / Pharaoh Sanders / The LSO - Promises
This mind-melting collaboration brought together one of the most visionary producers in electronic music and a living jazz legend, and as if that wasn't enough, backed them up with one of the world's foremost symphony orchestras. A sonically adventurous work split into nine movements, Promises places Sanders' expressive tenor saxophone front and centre, shrouded by a shimmering, cosmic backdrop of strings and synthesizers.
5. Halsey - If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power
Billed as a concept album exploring "the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth", Halsey's If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power boldly explores feminist themes through incisive lyricism set against dark and claustrophobic production from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. A world away from the arena-pop with which they made their name, If I Can't Have Love is a rebellious record that cements Halsey's reputation as a gifted songwriter.
6. Jon Hopkins - Music For Psychedelic Therapy
Jon Hopkins went off-grid in more ways than one when making his latest album: after decamping to the Ecuadorian jungle to make field recordings in caves, he renounced the scorching techno beats that characterised his early work to produce the immersive, beatless soundscapes that became Music For Psychedelic Therapy. Some of the finest ambient music we've heard all year, this one's got us hoping Hopkins stays off the grid for a little while longer.
7. JPEGMAFIA - LP!
JPEGMAFIA's sound is shaped by the internet. Nowhere is that more evident than his latest album, LP!, which was released in two versions: the 'online' version, made to satisfy his label and released on streaming services, and the 'offline' version, released unofficially and laden with uncleared samples.
You can hear it in the glitchy, digitally clipped sonics of his beats, in the hyperactive stream-of-consciousness lyrics, in the meme-worthy intertextuality of his obscure pop culture references and genre-hopping disregard for just about every hip-hop convention. It's fitting, then, that the internet has voted LP! in at number seven on this very poll.
8. Low - HEY WHAT
There aren't many bands on their 13th album that can still claim to be reinventing their sound with each release, but Low are doing just that on HEY WHAT. Working with producer-of-the-moment BJ Burton, the pair recorded a stark and dramatic post-rock album that's built around his radical and unique production style, carving out space for their plaintive, austere songwriting amid blasts of ferocious noise and speaker-frying distortion.
9. aya - im hole
A few universes away from the comforting familiarity of Silk Sonic, aya's music lives in an alternate dimension populated by jagged, deconstructed club beats, dense, claustrophobic sound design and garbled, processed voices whispering lyrics like "come over and we can fuck the void out of each other". One of the year's most intriguing records, im hole is as sonically innovative as it is confessional, injecting a ketamine-laced dose of personality into music that's abstract and experimental.
10. Madlib - Sound Ancestors
Madlib loves sampling vinyl so much he brought his portable turntable on the train with him, and it shows. On his latest, Sound Ancestors, he recontextualises sound from a dizzying array of sources, mining Brazilian free jazz, '50s proto-hip-hop, and even Welsh post-punk for snatches of inspiration expertly threaded together to form one of this year's most imaginative records.