Editor’s Pick: James’ Top Albums of 2021
If the last couple of years have been some of the most cursed in living memory, the various lockdowns have at least given me more time to enjoy music - more than ever on vinyl, these days. As always, I've found myself listening to lots of old stuff, but the long pandemic months have also been blessed with some really exciting new albums.
It's been amazing to start seeing live music again too, from watching Ed Sheeran celebrate hmv's 100th birthday in Coventry to seeing Sleaford Mods pack out the Brighton Dome and Confucius MC tearing up the stage with Jehst at the Green Door Store, to name a few highlights.
Some of the debut albums on the way from emerging talents like Yard Act and Wet Leg are already getting me excited for next year, but for now here's a look back at 10 albums released in the last 12 months that I've listened to more than most. Some you'll know, some you may not have heard yet, but every last one of these has brought me joy this year and I hope they do the same for you...
10. Tom Misch – Quarantine Sessions
Tom Misch is a relatively recent discovery for me, but having been a big fan of the Black Focus album by duo Yussef Kamaal I was led to Tom’s work via last year’s collaboration album with drummer Yussef Dayes, What Kinda Music – surely one of my most played albums in 2020 - and have been delving into his back catalogue ever since. His latest LP arrived online this year and is due a physical release early in 2022, but I'm squeezing it onto this list anyway because I'm a big fan of his work.
There have been plenty of ‘lockdown albums’ released over the last 18 months or so, but this is one I’ve found myself listening to over and over again. As a guitarist myself, I’m often struck by how little new “guitar music” I actually listen to these days – and I’m not even sure if this album falls into that category, stylistically - but Tom has a unique and emotive playing style that really appeals to me (if Yvette Young’s band Covet had released an album this year, I’m sure that would’ve found itself on this list too, for similar reasons).
9. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Raise the Roof
I’ve got a soft spot for Robert Plant. I love Led Zeppelin, but as much as I’d love to see them play live I also sort of respect Plant’s stubborn refusal to reunite with his former bandmates and trade on former glories – and besides, his last couple of solo albums have been genuinely brilliant.
I was a late arrival to their first collaboration but quickly fell in love with it. If anything though I’ve listened to their new album even more, with their dreamy take on The Everley Brothers’ ‘The Price of Love’ never far from the top of my playlist.
8. Leon Bridges – Gold Diggers Sound
An album that has gradually crept up on me over the course of several months, Leon Bridges’ latest offering strikes a really nice balance between old school soul and modern production. The track I’ve found myself listening to the most though has to be ‘Steam’, which has this funky, Prince-like vibe that I just can’t get enough of.
7. Royal Blood – Typhoons
Probably the only straight-up ‘rock’ album I’ve played on repeat this year, the Brighton duo have been consistently brilliant since their debut, but Typhoons adds an electro twist to their heavy, riff-driven sound – there’s definitely a bit of a ‘French Touch’ influence on the new LP, which conjures the likes of Justice and Human After All-era Daft Punk at times.
The title track, ‘Limbo’ and ‘Trouble’s Coming’ are all belters, but if there’s been a more gnarly riff and drumbeat combo this year than the one featured on ‘Boilermaker’, I haven’t heard it.
6. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Grey Area has been one of my favourite rap albums in recent years so I was really excited for its follow-up – and Simz didn’t disappoint. It’s taken a little longer to grow on me, but her partnership with producer Inflo pays off again here. As much as I loved the gritty, fuzzy production on Grey Area, her latest album feels much more cinematic than its predecessor and has some brilliant moments, especially ‘I Love You, I Hate You’, whch is one of the album’s real highlights for me.
5. Sault – Nine
Sault have pumped out a staggering amount of music over the last couple of years, and I’ve been enjoying every minute of it. Their most recent album Nine – their fifth since their 2019 debut – has been no different. ‘London Gangs’ is a particular favourite, as is the Little Simz feature ‘You From London’, but really their hit rate is just incredibly high given how prolific they’ve been to date. If you’ve slept on this band up until now I can’t recommend them highly enough.
4. Dave – We’re All Alone in This Together
Dave’s debut Psychodrama took a little while to properly catch my ear if I’m being honest, although I’ve since grown to love it, but the impact was definitely more immediate with his latest effort. From the opening track onwards, this is one of a handful of albums this year that I can just put on and let play all the way through, no skipping. And I’ve done that many, many times since it arrived in July.
3. Michael League – So Many Me
Probably best-known to most as the bandleader and bassist in Grammy-winning ensemble Snarky Puppy, Michael League’s solo debut arrived this year and has been gradually creeping upwards in my ‘most played’ list. As soon as I heard ‘In Your Mouth’ ahead of the album’s release, I knew I was going to love it.
So Many Me defies classification, but the blend of complex, often baffling rhythms and lush, melodic vocal hooks have kept me coming back to this album again and again.
2. Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
This was very nearly my top choice this year and, in truth, I’ve probably played this album more than any other in 2021. From start to finish, Promises is a thing of beauty - one that it's almost rude not to listen to in its entirety. Whenever I feel like something relaxing, this is the first album I reach for at the moment. Give it a play on a lazy Sunday morning and drift away on a cloud of auditory bliss.
1. Confucius MC – Somewhere
I have Kae Tempest to thank for introducing me to the work of Confucius MC, whose talent I really think deserves wider recognition. His output has been a bit sporadic over the years, but his latest album Somewhere was certainly worth waiting for. I’m a sucker for hip-hop generally, but especially that with a bit more of an old-school flavour and Somewhere is right up my street in that regard.
His lyrics are always thought-provoking and there are so many tracks I love on this album I don’t really know where to start; ‘Lanterns’ and ‘Robots on Mars’ are both excellent, as are ‘Light Years’ the dreamy closing track ‘Song for Everyone’, but I also particularly loved the jazzy (and somewhat nerdy) love letter to sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf, ‘Gazpacho Soup’. I'm already excited for his next one.