The concept of the ‘producer’ is ever-changing. Once reserved for those working behind an expensive mixing desk and shrouded in soundproofing, the term’s now applicable to just about anyone who makes, records and releases music, and - thanks to the continued advancement of music technology - there are now more people doing that than ever before.
Though producers like Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner are showcasing what can be achieved with big names, a big studio and even bigger ideas, some of the best music continues to be made outside of a quote-unquote professional setting.
From Fred Again making tunes on public transport to Jon Hopkins recording in the woods, 2021’s best producers are proving that you don’t need a million-dollar set-up to create truly phenomenal music. Find out who you voted in as the year's best below.
1. (Winner, 2021) Jon Hopkins
Taking the top spot this year is Jon Hopkins, who clearly made an impression on our audience in 2021, placing respectably on our Best Albums and Best Tracks lists after releasing the ambient opus Music For Psychedelic Therapy in November.
It's a brilliant record, with laudable ambitions: after spending a decade recording cinematic, techno-influenced electronica, Hopkins decided to renounce the 4/4 pulse and record beatless soundscapes fit for use in healing psychedelic experiences, experimenting with some adventurous field recording techniques while he was at it.
2. Tyler, the Creator
There's more than a few sides to Tyler, the Creator. To many, he's known as the progenitor of Odd Future, the collective responsible for launching the careers of Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt and influencing a generation of leftfield hip-hop artists.
Or you might know him as the brash, cocksure rapper whose lyrics shocked ex-PM Theresa May so deeply that she barred him from entering the UK. See past the controversy, though, and Tyler's a wildly imaginative producer and musician who builds a new world around each album he records.
3. Floating Points
We don't think we've seen a single end-of-year list this December that excluded Floating Points and Pharaoh Sanders' cosmic-orchestral-jazz masterwork Promises, and we're not surprised. It's a stunning record, and represents the completion of Floating Points' decade-long transition from underground electronic artist to one of the most ambitious and talented producers working in any genre, period.
4. James Blake
James Blake is one of those rare talents who happens to be both a boundary-pushing producer and a truly gifted songwriter. He's come a long way from the post-dubstep experiments with which he began his career, transposing his adventurous style of production on to heartfelt, expertly constructed ballads like Life Is Not The Same, from the 2021 album Friends That Break Your Heart.
5. Jack Antonoff
Throw a dart at the indie-pop charts these days and you'll probably hit a song that Jack Antonoff's worked on. Not content with contributing to Taylor Swift's epoch-making re-recordings of Fearless and Red, this year saw Antonoff behind the boards for Lorde's Solar Power, Clairo's Sling, Lana Del Rey's Chemtrails over the Country Club and St. Vincent's Daddy's Home. He must be doing something right.
6. Loraine James
Loraine James' Reflection marked her out as one of the most inventive producers working in electronic music, one that's pushing the oft-derided category of 'intelligent' dance music forward, out of stagnation and into a new decade.
Synthesising the influence of Squarepusher and Aphex Twin with drill, footwork and R&B, she's laying down a template for a new generation of electronic artists - the final track on Reflection's titled "We're Building Something New", and we're inclined to agree.
7. Fred Again
After racking up production credits on tracks from a who's-who of pop artists over the past five years, Fred Again decided to focus on himself in 2021, releasing two albums that skilfully document his emotions and inspiration through sample-heavy dance music.
Possessed of an unbridled enthusiasm for music-making, Fred invites fans to witness and even participate in the process through social media, smashing the stereotype of the mysterious, unapproachable producer in the process.
2021 was a huge year for Ed and Tom Russell, the brothers that make up UK duo Overmono. After releasing a 10/10 edition of the 'Fabric presents' mix album series, they soundtracked our collective return to the dancefloor with two indisputable anthems (Bby and So U Kno) that cemented their status as UK dance royalty. Long may their reign continue.
There's nobody doing it quite like Arca is. After releasing the first album in her KiCk series last year, she followed it up this year with four more, released concurrently in November.
It's a bold move, dropping four albums and 47 tracks at once, but not quite as bold as the mind-bending sounds they contain, which dissolve the boundaries between abstract IDM, high-octane club music, sultry reggaeton and maximalist pop, reforming the genres in her own image.
10. Aaron Dessner
Aaron Dessner caught the ear of Taylor Swift through his work with indie rock darlings The National and Big Red Machine, a collaborative project with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.
After lending his folky, sensitive touch to 2020's Folklore and Evermore, he contributed to the re-recordings of her back catalogue in 2021, while finding the time to produce Ben Howard's excellent Collections From The Whiteout and pen a heartrending score to Mike Mills' 2021 film C'mon C'mon. We can't wait to see what Dessner does next.