For the second year running it’s time to say nice music, shame about everything else. And now that Adele has apparently saved the idea of the album itself, here’s 30 good ones before we go back to shuffling and doom-scrolling for the holidays. Here’s the soundtrack of 2021.
30. AARON DILLOWAY & LUCRECIA DALT – Lucy & Aaron
Throw two fiercely singular noise and experimental electronic innovators together and things are gonna get weird. Still, it’s not as abrasive as Wolf Eyes, or as in-your-face surreal as Dalt’s solo experimentations as her vocals are warped into ghostly dust, bypassing the chilling monologues. It’s a deep, ASMR-fuelled fever dream with abstract electronic droplets, drone loops and just the right amount of Radiophonic Workshop playfulness.
29. MANSLAUGHTER 777 — World Vision Perfect Harmony
Manslaughter 777 is a new project from The Body’s Lee Buford and Braveyoung and MSC’s Zac Jones, exploring “bracing and imaginative takes on rhythmic-centric forms from dub, breakbeats, hip hop and beyond”. They hit dub, dancehall and hip-hop at dense industrial angles, with clattering, metallic percussion, glitchy vocal snatches and degraded jungle breaks — check out if you’re into Dalek, Scorn, The Bug or Justin Broadrick’s various explorations outside of the Godflesh parish.
28. PORTAL – Avow
Australian band Portal’s 2019 album Ion was a sort of bleached-out electronically frazzled avant-garde black and death metal hybrid that could rip the skin clean off a rhino. This follow-up is another descent into surreal, physically exhausting dissonance and sonic lunacy.
The band’s ritualistic alter-egos add to the idea that this shit is not quite human, with front-thing The Curator’s death whispers and animalistic roars retching between Uzi blast beats and chainsaw massacre basement guitar noise. A bonkers, diabolical thrill-ride.
27. MELJOANN – HR
Meljoann’s HR is an art-pop manifesto against office drone drudgery, corporate double-speak and the slowly turning thumbscrews of your own particular hamster wheel. The anti-capitalist concept album gets it all out in the open with track titles like ‘Overtime’, ‘I Quit’, ‘Trophy Wife’, ‘O Supervisor’ and the lead single ‘Assfuck the Boss’, using the office template to tackle identity and gender as well.
And what bops when you’re giving the finger to The Man — think Janet Jackson goes DIY glitch-pop, rammed with noise, wonky R&B and 90s new jack swing.
26. MADLIB & FOUR TET — Sound Ancestors
By all accounts, Madlib could well be the most prolific beatmaker out there, telling NPR last year: “I usually wake up and start, sleep maybe three, four hours a night”, the rest of the time crafting new hip-hop, jazz and electronic worlds and trawling through the history of popular music on dusty records. He’s released only a fraction of these creations, but his Rushmore head’s already carved with his collaborations with Madlib, J Dilla, and his Beat Konducta series, his Blue Note reworks and his literally thousands of beats floating round the internet.
This Sound Ancestors album has been in the pipeline for years, with Four Tet saying he wanted to be an editor and a curator of sorts. He took Madlib’s deluge of beats, edited, added extra layers of arrangement and steered it in a freewheeling direction, taking in soul, reggae, funk, hip-hop and beat surrealism, dropped into our consciousness with lead single ‘Hopprock’, a much-needed jolt of psychedelic joy on the first Monday of January.
25. ALAN VEGA — Mutator
The label Sacred Bones has been wryly invoking another late icon for an unreleased archive series from the Suicide frontman. They’re calling it the Vega Vault, and this one’s not gleaming purple. Mutator was a full unmixed lost album from the mid-90s that was unearthed in 2019, three years after the No Wave synth-punk year-zero legend’s death. This is raw, industrial, dirty fingernailed stuff, with Vega’s legendary half-whispered howls and wails preserved in crude oil. Holy shit, what a one-off.
24. RA GERRA — New Vessels
Like Freddie Gibbs and Danny Brown, Limerick MC MuRli has an innate talent for rapping over any beat thrown at him. After emerging in the last decade in the pioneering Rusangano Family, he’s woven bars through rugged grime, R&B jams, tribal percussion, classic boom-bap, jazz, footwork etc etc etc, as well as his own highlife-influenced productions.
Ra Gerra is a collaboration with Irish producer Kobina that feels like a new band rather than a one-off placeholder collab. Kobina’s beats take the MC down a few new paths, from twinkling Plaid-like electronica, to downtempo trip-hop, screwed pop, ambience and motorik pulses on album highlight Pressure. A real back catalogue highlight for both parties.
23. SUNKEN FOAL — Two Moon Junction
“Recordings began with an 808 drum machine clone programmed to perform algorithmic polyrhythms” — when you read Sunken Foal’s press notes you know this could’ve gone either way. But Two Moon Junction never feels like an auto-generated frantic experiment, as the beat parameters are set within addictive rubbery electro, stuttery acid and Drukqs-style pitter-patters on the spectacular ‘Greyscale Dreamcoat’.
He takes these patterns and weaves in some organic hugs in the form of Buchla synth lines, guitar picking and striking upright piano passages that recall Murcof’s 2002 album Martes.
22. TOMAHAWK – Tonic Immobility
In an interview last year, Mike Patton seemed apologetic that the pandemic has slowed him down, but it’s all relative, remember. In the 12 months before that interview he’d put out the tētēma collaboration, resurrected Mr Bungle with Scott Ian and Dave Lombardo, sang the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme tune and took on an alter-ego as a Zoom Spanish teacher. For starters.
Thankfully for Tomahawk’s first album in eight years, Patton’s drenched it in another bucket of malevolence. With equal parts Faith No More, Mr Bungle, Battles/Helmet and Jesus Lizard, it hangs off Patton’s dark surrealist humour and berzerker vocal gear changes, with a restless backing of wiry noise-rock, widescreen Morricone-isms and two-faced crooning.
21. LITTLE SIMZ – Sometimes I May Be Introvert
This year we were all suffocating under hundreds of articles about who’ll play the next James Bond, with another shite culture war erupting over the suggestion that it might actually be a woman. But not many people noticed that London rapper Little Simz dropped a banger that’s more Bond than Bassey on her latest album.
‘Introvert’ is an OTT opening statement, with enough epic horns, strings and choral majesty that’d elbow Adele out of the picture. This orchestral grandeur is only one facet of her album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, which is rounded out with sumptuous soul and funk beats, jazzy R&B, ruffneck breaks and her thrilling, idiosyncratic flow.
There’s been a lot of head-scratching in recent years over her lack of mainstream success as hip-hop and grime dominates the culture, but this album might just do it.
20. Lost Girls: Menneskekollektivet
Jenny Hval often feels like a concept artist before a musician, with brilliantly rendered and realised projects such as 2016’s Blood Bitch — with vampire and menstruation themes — and the music-as-therapy vibes of The Long Sleep and The Practice of Love.
This debut album with long-time collaborator Håvard Volden feels like another attempt at deeper connection, even if it’s through abstract means. Menneskekollektivet (‘human collective’ in Norwegian) weaves Hval’s improvised vocals and Volden’s scratchy guitar sketches through lo-fi house, ambient drones and epic electro-pop, as Hval talks about storytelling through whispered spoken word and her spectral soprano.
19. ELEGIAC — Elegiac
This new album wrong-foots you from the first time you read the name and self-titled debut. There’s nothing sombre and meditative about this electronic and skronky jazz poetry psych-out from two perpetually restless avant-garde figures.
Elegiac is poet and Blurt vocalist/saxophonist Ted Milton with Graham Lewis of Wire, Dome and countless other abstract solo and collaborative ventures. They somehow make it intensely catchy, with Milton’s sax bursts and out-there surrealism reined in by Lewis’s gnarly bass pulses and electronic effects, and edits from composer and sound artist Sam Britton. There’s also a hint of Von Sundenfed, with Milton even outdoing the great Mark E Smith in out-there abstractions on ‘The Daffodil Women’ (“The photographers snap/ wearing plastic tiaras/ cardboard periscopes raised/ These are not toy soldiers.”) and that bass rumble… oooof!
18. GAZELLE TWIN & NYX — Deep England
Gazelle Twin’s Pastoral (Moo Kid’s 2018 album of the year) was a grotesque vision of festering English nationalism, with Elizabeth Bernholz oozing it through the surrealist lens of Wicker Man paganism. Somehow, this rework of sorts with the all-female NYX choir is even more unnerving, with pitched-down voices and repurposed wind instruments adding a greasy film of folk-horror dread.
She followed it up a week later with an actual electronic drone horror soundtrack with producer Max de Wardener. The Power is set in a crumbling 1974 English infirmary during the miner strike blackouts, with decaying synth lines wafting under the rusty cast iron beds. This is England.
17. DRY CLEANING — New Long Leg
I can’t remember any other guitar band in recent years that’s been so utterly dominated by the vocalist. Florence Shaw’s bandmates have an impeccable post-punk palette, calling on the likes of Sonic Youth, Wire and Gang of Four, but Shaw’s half-shrugged spoken word observations hit some miraculous sweet spot bullseye between surreal/mundane, wit/sorrow, and Fleabag/Mark E Smith. “Thanks very much for the Twix!”
16. SENYAWA — Alkisah
Javanese duo Senyawa opened their 2018 album Sujud with the track ‘Tanggalkan Di Dunia’ which means ‘Undo the World’, and they’re in similar apocalyptic terrain on this colossal concept album about the collapse of humanity.
There’s an utter disregard and contempt here for the established order of things, from the ritualistic chanting and primitive drone metal passages on self-made instruments, to the distribution of the album — released on 40 different labels worldwide, each one with their own artwork and localised remix projects. I went for the vinyl from Beirut’s Ruptured Records — covered earlier year in a Moo Kid Always Read the Label feature.
15. ARAB STRAP – As Days Get Dark
Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton’s first Arab Strap album in 16 years is a black-hearted antidote to the in-this-together spirit of the last 12 months. You can’t polish a shite year, but you can make it more profoundly debauched, with Moffat sneering through middle-aged depravity like Francis Begbie at a Leonard Cohen open mic poetry night.
From masturbating to old JPEGs of his wife while she sleeps, to grim condom and syringe-scattered bedroom scenes and early-hours kebab missions, his characters are sleeping, fucking and drinking to forget.
14. FOR THOSE I LOVE – For Those I Love
Dublin artist David Balfe’s debut album as For Those I Love is a poignant tribute to his friend Paul Curran who died while he’d been working on the music that eventually formed the record.
The pair grew up playing in hardcore bands, and that camaraderie is reflected in the spoken word passages, along with honest and evocative depictions of inner city life, longing, mental health issues and the precious love of friends. It’s a raw and emotional album, with voice messages and direct lines to his friend, among the electronica and post-rave melancholia.
His live shows have also been a tribute, part wake and part tribute to friendship, with minimal lighting and a simple projected backdrop. His Olympia show has gone down as one of the most cathartic and poignant communal events in a cruelly cut short return to live gigs, and people will need more of this if and when we do get back to normal.
13. DEAN BLUNT — Black Metal 2
The artwork just takes the plain Black Metal cover from 2014 and sticks a neon green ‘2’ from Dr Dre’s 2001, but this is the only nod to high fidelity on this short, splintered sequel from the enigmatic Londoner. Between the lo-fi keys, guitar sketches and Blunt’s hazy baritone, there’s also the odd glint of TV on the Radio, Ariel Pink or even the heavy-lidded poetry of King Krule. One of those repeat repeat repeat albums this year.
12. THE BODY – I’ve Seen All I Need To See
The Body don’t leave you guessing too hard about their state of mind. Previous album titles include: I Shall Die Here; No One Deserves Happiness; Mental Wounds Not Healing, and the Sylvia Plath-referencing I Have Fought Against It, But I Can’t Any Longer.
The Portland duo don’t venture too far from bleakness and abject suffering, pounded into shape by Lee Buford’s piledriving drums and Chip King’s acrid guitar distortion and retching, feral howls. The blunt force trauma and relentless devastation of the titles, lyrics and their delivery always seem to land heavier than more performative shock-tactic metal.
Their latest record is called I’ve Seen All I Need To See, and it’s their first as an actual stripped-back duo for years after a series of collaborations. It could be their most intense work yet — an industrial vice compressing every tonne of malevolence and dischord into black dust you can’t get off your skin.
11. FLOATING POINTS, PHAROAH SANDERS & THE LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA – Promises
Promises was one of the most polarising albums of the year — hailed by some as a transcendental ambient jazz masterpiece, while also igniting an unlikely culture war with jazz purists. A doom-scroll through Twitter and you’d have thought Sam Shepherd (Floating Points) kidnapped the 80-year-old tenor sax titan and whitewashed him into playing nursing home Muzak. “The emperor’s new shellsuit,” went one zinger.
True, there’s no shrieking atonal fireball solos from Sanders, but his gentle playing weaves beautifully through these nine movements, performed by Shepherd and the LSO. Between the album’s leading seven-note chiming motif, moments of celestial near-silence and stirring string passages, Sanders never feels sidelined — he’s just choosing his moment.
10. SUNN O))) with ANNA VON HAUSSWOLFF — Metta, Benevolence
Just as Swans albums evolve and shapeshift through chance mutations and extreme graft and repetition on stage, the most recent Sunn O))) records Life Metal and Pyroclasts got an intense rework on this special session for the BBC’s Mary Anne Hobbs.
Touring partner Anna Von Hausswolff joined to add gothic choral vocals and pipe organ synths among the colossal drone metal distortion and endlessly decaying chords, with a full live band improvising around three pieces from the source albums.
9. SHACKLETON — Departing Like Rivers
Shackleton’s music doesn’t make you feel like you’re on drugs. Shackleton’s music is drugs. This new album follows experiments on the outskirts of free jazz, supernatural chanting and years of rhythmic upheaval since he emerged as a true outlier of the dubstep era.
The hour-long piece over seven tracks feels like a ritualistic trip, with chiming bells, gongs and muffled vocal incantations and snippets darting between dense smoke.
8. LOW – HEY WHAT
“We really wanted to punch some new holes in the possibilities of music,” Low’s Alan Sparhawk told The Guardian on the release of the duo’s 2018 masterpiece Double Negative. Their 13th album follows the same rip-it-up sonic blueprint of hyper-compressed, digitally sandblasted guitars, jagged drones and electronic ambient decay — a monumental evolutionary cycle from their 90s indie-rock minimalism and the so-called ‘slowcore’ named after them.
While Double Negative’s vocal abstractions were often overpowered by abrasive textures, on HEY WHAT, Sparhak and his wife Mimi Parker’s vocal harmonies rise through the cracks for a spiritual update to a band redefining the sound of guitar music.
7. VENUS EX MACHINA – Lux
Nontokozo F Shiwa has arrived at her debut album after a tangled musical journey, from singing in the church choir in Zimbabwe, to studying Sound and Music Computing in London, scoring films, hosting installations, performance labs and building interactive digital and AI systems.
She’s created an immersive, tactile electronic universe out of waspy basslines, ghostly radio transmissions, sci-fi ambience and a Fiedel-style Terminator metallic finish.
6. MOIN – Moot!
As Raime, Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead crystallised the sound and visual aesthetic of cult label Blackest Ever Black — monochrome cold wave and post-punk visuals and a disembodied, dread-filled electronic dub with empty brutalist car park undertones.
In 2021 they leaned into their Moin project with drummer and previous collaborator Valentina Magaletti, of Tomaga, The Oscillation and many other underground projects. It’s an elastic guitar and bass-driven instrumental groove that nods to Slint or Fugazi’s later dubby experiments, with Magaletti’s stuttering rolls and the liberal disorientating vocal samples adding a pulsing kinetic energy throughout.
5. NUN GUN — Mondo Decay
Awesome idea, this — Lee Tesche and Ryan Mahan of Algiers team up with artist Brad Feuerheim for a multimedia project that involves a series of photographs, essays and a cassette of Italian exploitation soundtracks reworked into industrial dub and noise collages, with various guest vocalists.
As an added layer, the tracks were written and recorded at normal speed, then chopped and screwed into disorientating grinds. Even the voices get distorted — if you’ve been a fan of Mark Stewart’s malevolent shrieks since his Pop Group days, get ready for him to be reborn as a pitched-down paranoid preacher railing against “digital dictatorship” on ‘Stealth Empire’, which sounds like The Orb if they were on the same brain-wrong drugs as Al Jourgensen in the early 90s.
4. NICK CAVE & WARREN ELLIS — Carnage
As surprise album drops go, this one was always coming. Since 2013’s Push the Sky Away, Warren Ellis has become the greatest Bad Seeds band leader so far, with his impressionist synth abstractions dissolving the battered noise-rock and Old Testament clamour of departed disciples Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey.
Not sure whether it was only lockdown that barred the other Bad Seeds, but this is no low-fat skimmed version. Ellis’s synths, strings and gospel arrangements land perfectly with Cave’s visceral imagery, from the ultraviolence of ‘White Elephant’ to the melancholic beauty of ‘Balcony Man’. What a pair… what a masterpiece.
3. SPACE AFRIKA – Honest Labour
Besides the album artwork of a drizzly, halogen-lit bus shelter, Space Afrika evoke the melancholy introspection of the ‘night bus’ feeling more powerfully than Burial, or the endless stream of DJ Screw disciples on Soundcloud over the past decade or so.
Honest Labour feels like a day in the inner city life of Joshua Tarelle and Joshua Inyang’s home of Manchester, told through droney ambience and static, and muffled string-led hip-hop and breaks. It’s elevated by spectral guest vocals from Bianca Scout and La Timpa, snippets of dialogue about the meaning of love, and spoken word passages and bars from kinseyLloyd and Blackhaine.
2. DIVIDE AND DISSOLVE – Gas Lit
Australian duo Takiaya Reed and Sylvie Nehill create dissonant jazz and colossal drone and doom metal netherworlds out of guitar, drums, saxophone, and I’m guessing a rack of effects pedals that goes on forever.
They do give you the odd nervous breather with dread-filled 70s horror movie interludes like the intro on ‘Denial’, but elsewhere this is a dense, brain-splintering exercise, given even more weight through its themes addressing race, gender and the climate crisis.
1. THE BUG – Fire
When the reviews dropped for Fire, Kevin ‘The Bug’ Martin felt compelled to correct a few takes that the record was an act of aggression. True, in parts this album is heavier than a lot of extreme metal, but Martin’s spin on dancehall, dub and sound system culture aims for ecstasy through sheer physical impact.
This is The Bug’s first album since 2014’s Angels & Devils, but Martin has left many bomb craters along the horizon in recent years, adding bass heft to artists such as Earth, Miss Red, Dis Fig and Fennesz, as well as inner space introspection as part of King Midas Sound and his ambient solo series under his own name.
This one often feels like a logical double-drop companion to 2008’s London Zoo — basslines hitting your chest like a medicine ball, dense layers of industrial-strength gunk and a general feeling that plaster might start flecking off the ceiling. The death ship foghorn that blasts on ‘Pressure’, right after Roger Robinson’s melancholy opening monologue, is a genuine jump scare.
As usual he’s assembled a superhero squad of MCs, from the poetic introspection of Roger Robinson, to Moor Mother’s fist-up sedition, old pal Flowdan’s dastardly baritone bars, and an even deeper growl from Nazamba on the apocalyptic ‘War’.
After his 2020 ambient series Frequencies For Leaving Earth, Martin has crashed back down like a future dub asteroid, creating some of the most vital, joyous and defiant music on the planet.