The end of the year is always an opportunity to look back, embracing winter’s implicit themes of decay and renewal. With the world still shrouded in the shadow of the pandemic, 2021 has been a peculiar path to navigate – sometimes we forget how isolated we remain, and how precious our moments of freedom truly are.
It’s a year that began in lockdown, and ends in political chaos. A year that saw live music return, but placed under the immense pressure of uncategorisable challenges. It’s a year that saw an absolute flood of new music, as musicians and producers reacted to shifts in the world by accelerating their creation.
Navigating our way through it all hasn’t been easy. When the process of collating our Albums Of The Year 2021 list began, no one at Clash could truly agree on a way to process all of this information. A few over-arching themes began to appear, however: it’s been a banner year for R&B, and for soul-drenched songwriting in all its guises; the process of shedding genre tags continues at an incredible, enriching pace; and a flurry of Black British voices continue to sit at the vanguard of culture, offering work that provokes, soothes, and inspires in equal measure.
Throughout 2021 we have worked closely with O2 Music, promoting the glorious return of live music to the stages of O2 Academy venues, The O2 and other venues as social restrictions lifted. The O2 Welcome Back series has brought the greatest performers from around the globe to the U.K for a triumphant and joyful run of homecoming concerts. Secure Priority Tickets for your next concert now.
As we begin to prepare for the future, it’s always important to take stock, to sift through the lessons of the past 12 months. We counted down the 60 Best Albums Of 2021 In Association With O2 Music – and in the end, there could be only one winner.
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60 Best Albums Of 2021 In Association With O2 Music
60. James Blake – Friends That Break Your Heart
The LP’s home stretch is up there with Blake’s best, not just in the tense penultimate title track and wet-cheeked closer ‘If I’m Insecure’, but on the lead single. ‘Say What You Will’ shows off the magic trick Blake’s perfected by now. Vocally, he’s unsettlingly beautiful. (Nathan Evans)
59. Bobby Gillespie and Jehnny Beth – Utopian Ashes
Aiming to pin down essential emotions in a personal way, ‘Utopian Ashes’ succeeds beyond their imaginations – a crisp, entrancing song cycle, it’s unaffected feel helps it linger long in the memory. (Robin Murray)
58. Eris Drew – Quivering In Time
“I guess as a trans person too, hearing it over and over again, the hypnoticness of it is was something where I felt different at the end than at the beginning, if that makes sense…”
57. Summer Walker – Still Over It
As the evening comes to a close for this writer, this album serves up Summer Walker’s best work yet. It’s brutal, yet romantic, it’s fun, yet flirty, it’s everything any listener could be wanting. A rollercoaster of emotions and she’s not even finished yet. (Josh Abraham)
56. Joy Anonymous – Human Again
“The reason why we want Joy Anonymous to have the same inclusive feeling as other anonymous groups is to let people feel like they are part of a real community, because I feel that is missing today. Without community and music we can easily feel lost and like the world is against us. But if you start with small steps of appreciating your feelings, you will always be part of Joy Anonymous.”
55. Baby Keem – The Melodic Blue
There’s been a thick fog around who Keem is, as he has not really allowed himself to be vulnerable and flesh out his humanity, similar to Playboi Carti. The Melodic Blue penetrates that mystery with tracks that highlight a different hue. (Nathan Evans)
54. Vince Staples – Vince Staples
It’s not easy to write an album about yourself without seeming egotistical, and it’s also not easy to write one which touches on themes of gang violence and poverty without falling into braggadocio or morbidity. On this album, Vince Staples has pulled off both. It may be a short album, but it’s an incredibly deep one. (Jake Hawkes)
53. Ouri – Frame Of A Fauna
“I really wanted to play with the voice as an instrument but also think carefully about what I wanted to say. I wanted to convey my story, really hone my songwriting, integrate all the instruments that I play and not exist in this one box where people see me only as an electronic music producer. I wanted to start my own sound and do it with all the tools available to me, and it started by singing more.”
52. Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic
The pair request on the album’s opener, ‘Silk Sonic Intro’, that you “don’t have us lock this groove down for nothing.” That the groove will be locked down is never in question. Silk Sonic are gonna do what Silk Sonic are gonna do. The only question is whether you or the unnamed love interest are joining them. And you should. ‘An Evening With Silk Sonic’ is a real good time. (Tani Levitt)
51. Sam Fender- Seventeen Going Under
By drawing on his own experience and stories, Sam brings politics to his music in a way that’s more impactful than anything Keir Starmer is doing at the minute. Dedicated to his hometown and all the people still there who are just like him, Sam’s screaming for all of them, making some big and beautiful for all our run down little towns. (Lucy Harbron)
50. Jevon – Fell In Love In Brasil
‘Fell In Love In Brasil’ is a sonic celebration of Jevon’s roots and culture that simulataneously illustrates the struggles faced growing up, having been sent to Coventry at 15 for his troublesome antics. The project kicks off with ‘Forest Fire,’ a dazzling track filled with infectious rhythms and sweet melodies that births an overwhelming urge to get up and dance. The self-proclaimed “Bad Boy From Inglaterra” weaves between Portuguese and English with his blazing bars and vocals, showing off his versatility as a musician. (Ana Lamond)
49. Mogwai – As The Love Continues
Over their 25 years as a band, Mogwai have grown self-assured in both their abilities and their limitations, and while some bands struggle to fit all their influences into a distinct whole, Mogwai confidently defy post-rock conventions and stick to what they’re good at; taking simple melodies and rhythms and garnishing them with an epic grandiosity. (David Weaver)
48. BadBadNotGood – Talk Memory
A sense of timelessness runs throughout the record; whilst the instrumentation and production is thoroughly modern, BBNG prove themselves grand pupils of 20th century jazz; ‘City Of Mirrors’ could be the soundtrack to the denouement of a Hitchcockian thriller; all romantic strings and dramatic brass, whilst ‘Timid Intimidating’ truly loses itself in a free-jazz universe, all smoky velvet woodwind and brass, percussion crashing over itself like the drummers of Coltrane or Davis’ bands at their best. (David Weaver)
47. John Glacier – SHILOH: Lost For Words
“John Glacier is big sparkle boss energy. I make music to rebuke and evolve. In all seriousness, music for me is an outlet which I use as a tool of expression – I make to feel and feel to make.”
46. The Weather Station – IGNORANCE
Toronto songwriter Tamara Lindeman beautifully offers musical arrangements that once again reinvent the tonality of The Weather Station. Since their last album in 2017, there is a new urgency in their overall rhythm that feels impactful, but still centres at the emotional. The methodical drumlines and pseudo pop melodies build throughout, but the music remains positioned in their folk tradition. (Rae Niwa)
45. Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over The Countryclub
A record that thrives on the most miniscule of details, ‘Chemtrails Over The Country Club’ is a project that rewards patience. Lana Del Rey seeks to slow down time, and lower the temperature of the air; it’s a world away from the chart-bound fireworks of her glossy peers, but its no less creative. An enchanting listen, her world-building remains absolutely undimmed on this triumphant, bewitching project. (Robin Murray)
44. Dijon – Absolutely
“We should go out/And dance like we used to dance/We should go out/And hold hands…”
43. Loraine James – Reflection
“I hate things being too confined, even in general life too. I don’t like things being too clean in my music. I think that also goes back to the days when I was listening to a lot of math rock bands through bandcamp from around 2012 and a lot of them were DIY and unsigned so there was a lot of roughness in the recordings which I loved…”
42. Tirzah – Colourgrade
Tirzah’s name is one we have become familiar with over the years, as her various projects loom large in the memory. Although it feels overdue, ‘Devotion’ captures and encompasses her distinctive musings of sparse soundscapes, looped break beats and confrontational emotive lyricism that lays all her truths bare. (Lois Browne)
41. TURNSTILE – GLOW ON
Penultimate track ‘NO SURPRISE’ plays as an airy interlude, prepping you for the last moments of this very beautiful album. Exploding into grungy farewell is concluding track ‘LONELY DEZIRES.’ Opening with what feels to be a very heavy finale, ‘LONELY DEZIRES’ surprises you with a progressive transition into softer, psychedelic guitar riddles. Walking you into a state of haze, ‘LONELY DEZIRES’ sees off the last 35 minutes as a distant memory. (Laviea Thomas)
40. Adele – 30
‘30’ – even by her own standards – has a personal importance and emotional resonance that arguably eclipses even the heights of her previous work. Opening discussing her divorce from Simon Konecki, it touches on motherhood, her need for independence, and the feelings of personal failure and emotional numbness that can follow. Musically, too, it’s her most diverse record yet – one that moves from soul-funk street symphonies to a country-pop stomper via Hollywood strings and – yes – heart-wrenching ballads, the kind only Adele can truly provide. (Robin Murray)
39. H.E.R. – Back Of My Mind
In its length and scope, there’s a feeling here of witnessing H.E.R. in 360 – panoramic R&B that more than justifies the wait, a sumptuous, multi-faceted jewel that seems to reveal fresh colour with each play. Speaking to Clash last year, H.E.R. seemed to perfectly encapsulate her approach, one that wrestles with unbridled freedom and personal expression: “You can’t put a label on something that touches everybody…” (Robin Murray)
38. Low – Hey What
At its heart ‘HEY WHAT’ feels like a country album dressed up as an experimental one. The tone, and inflection, of Sparhawk and Parker, especially Parker, wouldn’t be out of place from a classic country album from the 70s or 80s. ‘Disappearing’ feels like something Neil Young and Emmylou Harris would croon. Their stories of love, loss and redemption would also work well with a twangy, acoustic, backing track. However, with the crunching sounds of destruction, desolation, the vocals take on a far more interesting meaning than if the music was more conventional. (Nick Roseblade)
37. Madlib – Sound Ancestors
“A few months ago I completed work on an album with my friend Madlib that we’d been making for the last few years. He is always making loads of music in all sorts of styles and I was listening to some of his new beats and studio sessions when I had the idea that it would be great to hear some of these ideas made into a Madlib solo album. Not made into beats for vocalists to use but instead arranged into tracks that could all flow together in an album designed to be listened to start to finish.”
36. Children Of Zeus – Balance
Expanding their palette just a little, Children Of Zeus manage the delicate art of the follow up. Placing their artistry in a fresh context, ‘Balance’ feels just right, merging the sound of their debut with fresh elements, without losing the innate character that makes them feel so special. True trailblazers of a very specific strand of UK soul music, Children Of Zeus are way out in front of the pack. (Robin Murray)
35. Koreless – Agor
“I love that sort of threshold between something really sweet, but also really, it kind of feels like impending doom. That lovely line between the two, when they meet with the kind of opposites meeting. I love that. That whole era for me kind of did that. And yeah, I think you can’t really have one without the other.”
34. Mastodon – Hushed And Grim
Early on, Mastodon was quickly pegged as one of the most exciting prospects in 21st-century metal. On the strength of this ballsy behemoth of sound, they’re easily holding onto that crown while adding yet another shining jewel. ‘Hushed And Grim’ is a reminder of what makes the band so beloved while boldly stepping into a new chapter. They’ve never sounded so good. (Sam Walker-Smart)
33. SAULT – Nine
A project that wrestles with complex ideas, ‘Nine’ never quite settles. Masterful in its softness of touch, Sault know when to apply and relieve pressure; at moments it can be intense, yet others are bathed in a beatific R&B halo. Easing the project outside the confines of those two excellent – and definitive – releases, ‘Nine’ is the point where Sault turn back towards the sun. (Robin Murray)
32. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage
‘CARNAGE’ is a record that occupies a singular realm. Everything feels poised, curated, and contoured, an album that expresses itself over eight tracks and no more; it’s succinct without leaning into brevity, a beautifully intense song cycle that thrives on the closeness of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Indeed, throughout you’re put in mind of those voiceless moments in 2016’s One More Time With Feeling, the offering of a hand on shoulder, the side glances to ensure the others emotional security. ‘CARNAGE’ renders the unheard in pristine audio. (Robin Murray)
31. M1llionz – Provisional License
Continuing to solidify his reign as one of the most exciting acts to emerge from Black British music, he closes the mixtape out on ‘Hometown’ alongside treasured artist Jevon. Boasting their musical chemistry from start to finish, Jevon’s slick vocals contrast perfectly against M1llionz’s abrupt verses. Overall, this mixtape was worth the wait and something you can tell he’s really put time and effort into – unlike the usual microwave nonsense being distributed. Make sure you give this one a spin! (Elle Evans)
30. L’Rain – Fatigue
Brooklyn experimentalist Taja Cheek, aka L’Rain, waves her wand to fashion neoteric sorcery on this highlight from sophomore album ‘Fatigue’. Scrutinising generational trauma and familial disapproval, over four minutes, ‘Suck Teeth’ morphs from the tangible to the spectral. (Shahzaib Hussain)
29. Space Afrika – Honest Labour
“We’re relating to the same environment, although we’re totally ourselves – Black artists in the 21st century.” // Guardian
28. Cleo Sol – Mother
“I’ve never felt as present as I do now. I’ve always tried to embrace where I am in life, but at certain points you just get lost, and don’t have the awareness to navigate yourself out and into the light. I guess life happens in waves, and thinking of that always gives me peace in the moment.”
27. Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR
Brought to a close with the demo-like intimacy of ‘Hope UR OK’, this is a bravura pop experience. Marked by excellence from front to back, ‘Sour’ is the sound of a bold talent operating on their own terms – potent in its execution, revealing in its lyricism, it’s a record that finds Olivia Rodrigo effortlessly claiming her status as pop’s newest icon, and one of its bravest voices. (Robin Murray)
26. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
A record that exists on it own distinct terms, ‘New Long Leg’ feels a world apart from the staleness of so many groups tagged with the term ‘post punk’. Indeed, as a complete aesthetic statement, the debut album from Dry Cleaning hardly merits contemporaries at all – suffocating, surreal, and exploratory, it takes chances other groups could scarcely envisage. (Robin Murray)
25. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend
A record of sonic and lyrical renewal, ‘Blue Weekend’ takes the lessons learned across Wolf Alice’s nigh-on perfect one-two punch – ‘My Love Is Cool’ and ‘Visions Of A Life’ – while adding subtle differences. Definitely not a reinvention, it plays to the band’s strengths while amplifying new qualities, a record as bruising as it is subtle. Working to their own passions and desires, ‘Blue Weekend’ places Wolf Alice beyond the reach of their peers. (Robin Murray)
24. Greentea Peng – MAN MADE
Commissioner Gordon – who also mixed Lauryn Hill’s seminal debut album – is on hand to provide the final mixdown here, and it’s a bold gesture. Aligning herself to one of the greats, Greentea Peng seems to implicitly suggest that such gravitas should be afforded to her own artistry – with such evident excellence as this, it’s only right that she be granted the dignity her art sorely deserves. (Robin Murray)
23. Proc Fiskal – Siren Spine Sysex
“I was enjoying that Scottish tourism angle a lot. The music that I was sampling was that kind of music – very touristy, very stereotypically Scottish. The elaborate bullshit I came up with in my head surrounding the title was that I, sort of, envisioned this siren woman. A Scottish woman in the water, communicating through a spinal, inner-messaging. Fairy, pixie folklore. I thought it was funny, because it sounds like a bad tattoo. Yeah, that’s it, I wanted it to sound like a bad tattoo. Like a really massive tribal.”
22. Dean Blunt – BLACK METAL 2
The musician’s labyrinthine catalogue has taught us to expect the unexpected, with Dean Blunt continually switching between genres and soundscapes. That said, his 2014 album ‘BLACK METAL’ remains a key touchstone for fans of his work, and it remains a project of real potency.
21. Joy Crookes – Skin
The misty-eyed haze lifts on songs like ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Wild Jasmine’ which are filled with guitar riffs and experimental sonics. Crookes twists through narratives of both new beginnings and old flames, finding value in tumultuous times. Inviting listeners to daydream, ‘19th Floor’ laments on belonging. With a string arrangement that wouldn’t feel out of place on the discography of Portishead, Crookes vocal comparably reaches untold altitudes. Across ‘Skin’, the 13 smooth jams showcase Joy Crookes not only as a vocalist or candid writer but as the new face of British soul. While many artists chase nostalgia, Crookes offers a different way forward by disregarding the traditional boundaries of classicism. (Hannah Browne)
20. Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
Ultimately ‘Happier Than Ever’ sits in a completely different realm from her debut. Pared back and finely contoured, it revels in subtlety, with a kind of crepuscular glow settling on her potent meditations. Whether it’s the glowing choral impact of ‘GOLDWING’ or the dense paranoia of ‘NDA’, it’s a record that revels in quiet contradiction. Patiently moving into a new era, ‘Happier Than Ever’ is shrouded in a transformative darkness. (Robin Murray)
19. Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure
‘Prioritise Pleasure’ is a strong offering with inspiring, soul-searching songs. The songs range from pop hits to serene tracks and Taylor shows that she can do it all with this second album. Self-acceptance is a major theme of this bold album and her complicated emotions can be felt by listeners in this stand-out album from Self Esteem. (Narzra Ahmed)
18. Rochelle Jordan – Play With The Changes
“This is the sincerest I’ve ever been. My fans know me for the classic R&B records I’ve made; I don’t want them to feel that I’m removing myself from that world. This record is true, honest, the part of me they haven’t seen but that I want them to see. This is the just the next phase.”
17. Lil Nas X – MONTERO
A colossal event release, ‘MONTERO’ excels the marketing spin by delivering one of 2021’s most daring, riveting, and honest pop statement. After months of anticipation, Lil Nas X speaks his truth – and the world is ready to listen. (Laviea Thomas)
16. serpentwithfeet – Deacon
‘DEACON’ is a triumph because it realises and relives love’s quiet, archived moments, be it romantic or spiritual. It’s a triumph because it reminds us R&B exists on a vast continuum, forever a source of inspiration and innovation. serpentwithfeet created ‘DEACON’ to celebrate companionships that bind the Black queer community together, but its message is universal; ‘DEACON’ celebrates love that is benevolent and bountiful and ultimately, restorative. (Shahzaib Hussain)
15. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders – Promises
‘Promises’ is five years’ worth of experimental soundscaping condensed into one mind-boggling harmonic journey. A highly accomplished piece of music, Pharoah Sanders and Floating Points both excel in their newfound exploratory duo with a piece of work which will go down in jazz-cross- electronic-cross-classical history. (Gemma Ross)
14. Squid – Bright Green Field
Having played sets at Brixton’s Windmill and with a penchant for angular riffs, they’ve become linked to the ongoing post-punk resurgence; while we certainly hear aspects of the futurism which drove Gang Of Four to such epic heights, they more readily recall the sense of possibility which lingers in Tortoise or Can, for example, or even (and in a different sonic field) Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s work. It’s this desire for the unknown which makes ‘Bright Green Field’ such a potent debut album. Succinct yet packed with stunning detail, it refuses to take the easy way out, and that stubbornness may see Squid outstrip their peers in a head-long race towards a re-engaged future. (Robin Murray)
13. Ghetts – Conflict Of Interest
Grime veteran Ghetts returned this year with his third studio album, ‘Conflict of Interest,’ delving into the past, present and future.
The project is a negotiation of the self, looking back over the seasoned MC’s decades-long career though a new lens. It is moments like ‘Autobiography’ that embellish the tracklist, unafraid to ask ‘Who set the levels? Mouth full of bars, true stories, Check the records, Where the f*** is the awards?’
Sustaining the perfect balance of uptempo bangers with a darker, more atmospheric production that lend itself to Ghetts’ immaculate storytelling. This shines brightest on tracks like ‘Sonya,’ that seeks to tell the tale of a distant school friend whom, Ghetts suspects, has turned to escorting. The MC sets himself apart, exploring themes which are often shied away from and challenging not only himself, but his listeners in turning.
Holding a range of features including Giggs, Skepta, Jaykae and Moonchild Sanelly, the project weaves through an array of sounds, from grime to hip-hop and UK Garage. Taking his razor sharp bars to new levels, Ghetts continues to carve his legacy. (Ana Lamond)
12. Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales
For Jazmine, personal happiness, peace and integrity is held in higher regard than acquiescing to the pressures that come with being a household name. “I feel appreciated from the people that love me and know my music. The fact that my people pack my shows out and get excited about my projects when I put them out. That’s what I care about. So, I do feel like I kind of get my flowers”. (Interview: Sope Soetan)
11. J. Cole – The Off Season
“Rest assured, the best is here in the flesh and that’s for sure.” When J. Cole rapped these words in a freestyle over the ’93 Til Infinity’ beat, the hype for his newest album, ‘The Off-Season’, reached astronomical heights. Fortunately for fans, they did not have to wait long, and the North Carolina rapper did not disappoint.
‘The Off-Season’ is a solid project with no expiration date and can easily be digested for months and years to come. While some fans may be eager for more, The Off-Season is a great appetiser for the main dish and contains just enough for those that have been waiting for three years on The Real. (Sade Hawthorne)
10. Joy Orbison – Still Slipping Vol. 1
Peter O’Grady aka Joy Orbison, has thrived as a conduit between utilitarian club music and nocturnal electronica for over a decade. His first full-length project extends the vaporwave feel of 2019 EP ‘Slipping’, spliced with a host of underground voices adding heft, texture and resonance to an experience that is as much defined by familial history as it is the spirit of self-discovery.
Over 14 tracks, a collage of grainy, quotidian voice notes from O’Grady’s inner circle perforate a compendium that spans house, 2-step, garage, glitchy and globular techno. Final track, ‘born slipping’, captures the cursive, quietly disarming nature of Joy Orbison’s work; steeped in reality yet borderless and impermanent.
With ‘Still Slipping Vol. 1’ Joy Orbison manages to fashion a morphic experience with an organic lifeforce. (Shahzaib Hussain)
9. Isaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning
After a five year hiatus, Isaiah Rashad released his highly anticipated comeback album, ‘The House Is Burning’ and indeed, he delivered. As if he never left, the TDE wordsmith carries himself with ease over his signature, laidback production. – Despite his composed delivery, the last years have seen Rashad in a near-poverty state, struggling with his mental health and addiction. Yet, his third studio album holds an uplifting quality, one of acceptance which lays the foundations for soulful charmer, ’Headshots (4r Da Locals).’
Paying homage through his sound, the Chattanooga rapper samples the likes of Project Pat and Three 6 Mafia throughout, with a range of features from Smino to Duke Deuce. Merging forces with Lil Uzi Vert on ‘From The Garden,’ the pair exchange flows and bars over a menacing, hard-hitting trap beat. Alternatively, ‘Score,’ brings together the best of R&B with SZA and 6LACK, reflecting on their own love interests, a longing for a ‘ride or die’ through their own, individual artistic expression. One can see why this is one of Rashad’s favourite cuts off the LP.
‘The House Is Burning’ is introspective, it is multi-dimensional and unarguably worth the wait… (Ana Lamond)
8. Clairo – Sling
“It’s strange, because I haven’t actually seen that many people since releasing my second record. I’ve been home, with my dog, and I haven’t been doing much in my daily life. Which is what I wanted, so I’m really happy. I think living through all this does me more appreciative of nature in general. Hopefully it’ll now be easier to locate those moment on tour – now I know what to look for that makes me happy. So if I see a field or a park then I’ll probably go there! I’ve been learning about myself, learning about the things that bring me tiny joys.”
7. For Those I Love – For Those I Love
Unrelenting in its honesty, For Those I Love’s debut album refuses to surrender to the darkness. ‘Birthday / The Pain’ is sonically one of the lightest moments on the record, the sugar-sweet house elements adding bright colours to his palette. Lyrically, though, it’s both an encapsulation and a critique of the desire for escapism. His poetry is brutal and unrelenting, the moments of light all the more intense for the surrounding darkness.
A nine-track song cycle, David Balfe’s debut album ends with ‘Leave Me Not Love’, his voice echoing the very first lyrics on the project. Coming full circle, he finds much has been learned but nothing has changed; the system hasn’t altered, but then he hasn’t either. It’s a story of survival, a project remarkable in its completeness. ‘For Those I Love’ is a truly exquisite achievement in which the redemptive hope that love and friendship provide is never allowed to sink beneath the waters. (Robin Murray)
6. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
This latest incarnation of Japanese Breakfast has distilled all the heart and feeling fans have come to love and sprinkled it with some fairy dust and rocket fuel, propelling it to a new level of musical possibilities. It’s fun and fearless and with enough depth to have the songs stick to your ribs. It’s intelligent pop done right. – ‘Jubilee’ may be the sound of one person’s desire to chase after sunnier horizons, but after the horror show we’ve all been through, it makes damn fine accompaniment for any listener looking forward. She’s landed three knockouts and is only getting stronger. (Sam Walker-Smart)
5. Tyler, the Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
No one role plays better than Tyler, the Creator. On his seventh studio album, Tyler invoked and cross-examined the excess of turn of the millennia hip-hop, taking the listener on a VIP trip through the highlife. Integrating spacey soul beamed in from the 60s and the narratorial voice of DJ Drama – a deft, knowing nod to his Gangsta Grillz mixtape – Tyler’s cocksure tales of gloss and grandeur is given the cultivated, artificial home of a genre too confined, too fringe to hold a voice like his.
Running in tandem with arguably Tyler’s most rap-leaning release, is a searing portrait of a man battling with his conscience; chasing destination after destination, seeking clarity for past indiscretions. Manufactured characters aside, Tyler, now 30, knows how to engineer visceral, emotionally-charged soundbites; the eight-minute odyssey ‘WILSHIRE’, surges with pain and pent-up anguish, as he professes his love for his friend’s girlfriend. Cue dramatic tension.
‘Call Me If You Get Lost’ is both a blockbuster stadium tour and a confessional one-man show; an interior, surrealist melodrama from one of the most provocative minds in music. (Shahzaib Hussain)
4. Erika de Casier – Sensational
Erika de Casier mastered an artful transfiguration of MTV-era melody into something wholly original on debut album ‘Essentials’. On follow-up ‘Sensational’, produced alongside frequent collaborator and Regelbau Collective’s Natal Zaks, the Y2K R&B idée fixe remains, but Erika’s storytelling packs a darker and sexier punch.
On the quiet storm saunter of ‘Polite’ and ‘All You Talk About’, Erika, or her vampish alter-ego Bianka, castigate ambivalent lovers and the rubrics of dating, denouncing mansplainers and the fragile male ego with whip-smart, close to the bone lyricism. By contrast, a deep yearning for storybook romance defines tracks like ‘Insult Me’, where a mournful vocal reverberates over a spare techno backdrop, playing out a tale of lovers out of sync.
‘Sensational’ is a hyperreal collaboration between ‘The Writing’s On The Wall’-era Destiny’s Child and ‘Love Deluxe’-era Sade, suffused with the mistier overtones of UK garage and trip hop, Scandi trance and house. Where ‘Essentials’ occupied the realm of chaste mood music, ‘Sensational’ is the caustic, audacious, more compelling alternative. (Shahzaib Hussain)
3. Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams
“I think spending a lot of time by myself is something that I’m not necessarily that used to. I became very self-aware in a weird way. For me, I was also making a conscious effort to ground myself and to practise self-care because I was throwing myself into my work completely. And it wasn’t as easy as: oh, I’ll go and see my friend for a coffee. I had to actively invest in my own mental health and sanity.” “When I’m really immersed in the work I definitely feel like it’s a meditative state. It’s weird to say, but it feels almost as if the songs are writing themselves. I’m just a vessel for thoughts and for the words. It’s almost like an emotional outpouring and I feel very in touch with myself and in touch with what I want and in touch with the messages that I want to put out there. That doesn’t happen all the time but for the songs that I’m proudest of there is this sense of feeling completely quiet and sure about what I want to say. And that’s what I chase. That state of mind.”
2. Dave – We’re All Alone In This Together
‘We’re All Alone In This Together’ arrives on the tail of hit singles, almost universal acclaim, and the biggest awards in the land. Perhaps its most personal message, however, is Dave’s uneasiness with this profile – the record begins (‘We’re All Alone’) and ends (‘Survivor’s Guilt’) with warnings of what lies behind the glamour, a search for meaning that you suspect has only just begun.
A wonderful, inspired experience, Dave’s second album seems to pick up the listener and deposit them somewhere entirely new. He draws on the many splintered facets of UK rap – and other sonic traits besides – while somehow transcending them. Literate, wise, and emotionally devastating, ‘We’re All Alone In This Together’ places Dave at the absolute pinnacle of British music. An all-time great? We’re in absolutely no doubt. (Robin Murray)
1. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Little Simz isn’t known for being the most vocal rapper on a scene teeming with braggadocio and testosterone, and although her fourth studio album references her introvert nature, this is the most she’s ever said and she hasn’t wasted a single word.
‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ (also an acronym for her name S.I.M.B.I) is as personal as it gets for the North Londoner, touching on her past, present and future with herself and the relationships around her. With the entire nineteen track album produced by frequent collaborator Inflo (Sault, Cleo Sol, Adele), there is a comforting cohesiveness to the project, which makes sense considering how swiftly it was put together, working between London and Los Angeles pre-pandemic.
As Simz tells her story, the album is punctuated with interludes narrated by The Crown star Emma Corrin as Simbi’s regal fairy godmother, dropping encouraging gems for our protagonist on her journey. Elsewhere, Simz calls on Sault collective collaborator R&B songstress Cleo Sol for the celebratory ‘Woman’, an ode to the women that have inspired Simz – from ‘Miss Tanzania who wants to know about the Sukuma tribe’ to ‘Miss Jamaica who understands food for the soul’.
Tapping into her Nigerian heritage on ‘Point And Kill’ with genre-defying Obongjayar, both of the album’s lead singles tap into the wonderfully layered identity of Little Simz – a Black, Nigerian, Londoner who is a woman. However, she also ventures into unchartered territory in ‘I Love You/I Hate You’ addressing her tumultuous relationship with her father “never thought my parent would give me my first heartbreak/ anxiety giving me irregular heart rate/ used to avoid getting into I really feel about this” she raps, in what seems an almost intrusive listen into the innermost thoughts of one of the most notoriously private UK rappers at the moment.
S.I.M.B.I is an introspective invitation to witness our heroine navigate and balance her natural introverted state with the expectations of the world around her, through her own wonderland of love, pain, victory and most of all, peace. Little Simz seems to be at peace with herself by the project’s closer, ‘Miss Understood’, noting how all she wanted for herself was credibility – which there is no shortage of, she’s been nominated for a Mercury with ‘Grey Area’, become the first female act to headline O2 Academy Brixton three times over, and recently won a MOBO for Best Female Act – whilst acknowledging her pursuit’s impact on the relationships around her. If there’s one thing this album proves, it’s that this is truly Simbiatu’s world and we’re just living in it. (Rahel Aklilu)
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