Exclaim!'s 50 Best Albums of 2021
Published Dec 01, 2021After 2020's many delays and cancellations, 2021 was a year of blockbusters. Pop superstars returned after several years of silence, the world's biggest rappers went head to head, and rock icons continued their historic runs.
And yet, most of those huge albums didn't make our year-end list. Instead, the best albums of 2021 were more of a mixed bag: surprising debuts from new talent, the career pinnacle of a beloved Canadian indie songwriter, and rising rappers whose artistry reached new heights. No one could have predicted the events of 2021 — so it's only fitting that the best albums of the year are just as unexpected.
Scroll down for Exclaim!'s top albums of 2021.
50. Rochelle Jordan
Play with the Changes
It may have taken years for Rochelle Jordan to finally unleash her debut album, but all that anticipation paid off with the results. Play with the Changes is a testament to Jordan's eclectic tastes anchored by her measured vocals, always pitch perfect and never showy. Alongside her core producer trio of KLSH, Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar, Jordan travels through genres — many embedded in UK dance culture — without ever sounding like a visitor.
49. Dry Cleaning
New Long Leg
This was the year that everything came apart. Florence Shaw, unblinking in the eye of the storm, gave words to that unraveling. In the crabwise post-punk of Dry Cleaning's New Long Leg, every simple thing is shredded and stuck back together in unwieldy patterns, gummy with glue and heavy with possibility. The exact meaning of Shaw's papier-mâché of mundanity is rarely clear, but the record's great gift is that it invites you to find your own.
to hell with it
On PinkPantheress's debut, to hell with it, she nearly perfects the art of making short songs ideal for the TikTok generation. Across 10 bite-sized tracks, she infuses UK garage music with modern R&B soundscapes to make an album that's both sticky and intimate. She sings with a tenderness that's never outmatched by the speed at which each song ends. Songs like "Passion" and "Nineteen" barely edge out the two-minute mark but evoke more emotion than many other than her pop contemporaries.
47. Ducks Ltd.
Few albums this year sound as buoyant without verging into ignorance as Modern Fiction. Toronto jangle-pop duo Ducks Ltd. aren't afraid to dig into murky emotions — "I'm dumb as shit, yet I persist," sings Tom McGreevy during opening number "How Lonely Are You" — but the upbeat, guitar-driven arrangements turn disappointment and isolation into springboards for growth. Striding knee-deep into life's many frustrations with smiles on their faces, Ducks Ltd. use engaging songwriting as a means to keep moving forward, couching each morose sentiment in plenty of charm.
46. Illuminati Hotties
Let Me Do One More
(Snack Shack Tracks)
Crackling with energy and caustic humour, the second official album from LA's Illuminati Hotties is full of great songs, but mostly it's full of the hilariously charismatic Sarah Tudzin, who delivers plenty of memorable vocal performances. The product of a fresh start after a period of label woes, the feeling of joyful renewal on this album is palpable — and relatable; we've all had our label woes lately.
45. Yu Su
Yellow River Blue
(bié/Music from Memory)
Yu Su's debut LP takes its name from the world's most sediment-laden river, also known as "The Cradle of Chinese Civilization," which has devastated cities like her hometown, Kaifeng, with fatal floods. Lacing dubby, dewy techno prevalent in the Pacific Northwest, luminous pop and menacing clatter with traditional Chinese instruments like the pipa, Yellow River Blue taps into the calm and strife of life while expressing Yu Su's anxieties about her dual identity as a Chinese national who's lived in Vancouver for nine years.
Leslie Ken Chu
Like few others, Shad continues to be a rapper who can make you think deeply and laugh hard within the same verse. On TAO, he surveys the decline of Western civilization, which is so mired in distractions of our own making, our bloodshot eyes have long lost sight of the prize. And yet, Shad still mines hope and humour from our collective malaise, and frames his observations within a stunning, energetic hip-hop expression.
43. Thierry Larose
Thierry Larose's debut album is gloriously lush and eclectic, with roaring guitar and sweeping orchestral arrangements that create a vibrant, varied, cohesive soundscape. Paired with Larose's throaty voice, the songs create a sense of bittersweet joy that feels nostalgic, making it wonderfully unsurprising how Larose finds songwriting inspiration in the romanticism of Richard Linklater's Before trilogy. As we continue to navigate collective uncertainty, there's something deeply comforting about an album like Cantalou that incites that special sensation of warmth and goodness while still being electrifyingly fresh.
42. The Armed
In the world of the Armed, everything is one giant art project. But as ULTRAPOP makes clear, the mystery behind revolving band members, farcical videos and legendary live shows comes secondary to what they've managed to lay down on wax. Pushing together prancing guitars, metalcore drums, harmonious vocals and layered synths, the Detroit band deconstruct what hardcore means in 2021 — it may even make you question why you ever cared what it meant in the first place.
41. The Zolas
Come Back to Life
On their fourth LP, the Vancouver trio feel the compression in their infectious, rib-sharp hooks: end-weighted lines steeped in pop culture quips and sociopolitical commentary (from governmental abuse of First Nations communities and the HIV epidemic to the climate crisis and wealth disparity), revealing themselves anew with continued attention. Britpop nostalgia finds modern urgency in eclectic, lurid textures alchemized from '90s cult classics — and not a frame is wasted, unspooling both timely and timeless.
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