The 50 best albums of 2021: 50-41 | Culture

This list is drawn from votes by Guardian music critics – each reviewer votes on their top 20 albums, with points being awarded for each placement. Check back every weekday to see our next tips, and share your own favorite 2021 albums in the comments below.


Agnes – magic still exists

The Swedish pop star’s long-belated fifth album embodies the platonic ideal of pop disco, permeated by Gaga (invigoratingly strict singing about the liberation of mind and body), Abba (piano stomps and trills), Donna Summer (the throbbing 24 hours) and Queen (melodramatic ballad). It transcends pastiche due to the strength of their songwriting (you could trade almost anything here on Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia) and the broke intensity of it all. LS


MØL – diorama

No more belief … Cult survival singer Kim Song Sternkopf (center) with band MØL. Photo: Sebastian Apel

“Blackgaze” combines the blastbeats and acid gurgling glottal chaos of Black Metal with the uplifting, even sentimental guitar dynamics of Shoegaze and has become a lively corner of heavy music – and the Danish quintet MØL became one of its best representatives with their second album . The atmospheric breakdowns make the explosive refrains land all the more justly, with singer Kim Song Sternkopf – a survivor of religious cults as a child – majestically blowing into the microphone. Tracks like Serf bring a groove metal sensitivity to vibrate everything. BBT


Some of the best musical stories of the year lived on the Virginia songwriter’s third record, her writing reinvigorated with subtle hints of pop drive and sand that recalled how Elliott Smith expanded his sound. Dacus reflects on her teenage years – of church and Bible camps, of burgeoning queer lust in the midst of a culture of shame and condemnation, of the fantasies that allow them to escape these restrictions – with such delicate curiosity that these vignettes seem less like fixed memories than forensic crime feel scene reconstructions. Read the full review. LS


Chai – WINK

The really self-confident rarely make a noise, and so it is with the third album by the Japanese girl group Chai. To blissful, dreamy synth pop that carries you along like a lazy river – occasionally spiked with classic rap throwbacks and arcade game electro – the foursome dreamily hymns the joys of eating, self-acceptance and protest that nourish their own relaxed Dealing with pleasure activism. LS


Stephen Fretwell – busy guy

Melody maker ... Scunthorpe singer-songwriter Stephen Fretwell.
Melody maker … Scunthorpe singer-songwriter Stephen Fretwell. Photo: David Levene / The Guardian

Stephen Fretwell, a songwriter loved by Elbow and Arctic Monkeys, washed pots in a Wetherspoon’s pub, his music career ruined amid fatherhood. He got to his feet and gave music another chance, apparently at the expense of his marriage. So these songs are the work of a really die-hard musician, and it shows – Fretwell has such a natural ability for a poignant melody, his simple, fingerpicked guitar is made eerie by the subtle ambient tones that sit behind it. BBT


For those I love – for those I love

Haunting memories seem to get longer and softer as they age, but this album is a reminder of how much jagged weight they have when you look back after just a few years or months. David Balfe, 30, reflects on a dead best friend, poverty, trauma and the intense aura of young friendships and creativity in long recitations to music that goes in the direction of techno and house. “You were told that you have to get cold to get old,” says Balfe, but he remains charged with human warmth through these songs. Read the full review. BBT


Black land, new road – for the first time

'Timeless tenderness' ... Black Country, New Road.
‘Timeless tenderness’ … Black Country, New Road. Photo: Max Grainger

There aren’t many top 5 charted albums by bands mixing klezmer, post-punk, jazz, and prog with lyrics about failed romance at a science fair, but Black Country, New Road did it. This success is a testament to how unique and fresh their sound is amidst the common guys of British indie, aided by a truly captivating front man, Isaac Wood. Whether it’s really him or a person, he’s haughty, easily hurt, lustful, clumsy, and incurably romantic – a wonderful, flawed character. Read the full review. BBT


Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt – Made of clay

For this album, recorded remotely last year, guitarist Orcutt improvised on Corsano’s drum tracks and watched the waveforms as he recorded “so I could see when a crescendo is coming or when it needs to be shut down,” he said . It’s reminiscent of a surfer’s mentality, and Made Out of Sound feels exciting, like the trustworthy unpredictability of the sea: absurd guitar creates calmer contemplation; burnished riffs get harder and softer, then they break down. The open sense of beauty is consistently undimmed. LS


Gojira – strength

Metal’s potential for thundering anger makes it the most naturally expressive music to vent the fear, confusion, and even shame of the climate crisis. “The greatest miracle burns to the ground,” complains Joe Duplantier, amazed and haunted, singing about the Amazon, but perhaps also the entire planet. Other songs are direct collective calls to save the earth (Into the Storm, Sphinx); Another World gets jaded and escapist, but made up for by The Chant, whose hearty chorus is what a post-apocalyptic band of survivors would sing while rowing through a flooded city. Fortitude is an album that examines mankind’s idiocy, but also its tenacity. BBT


The happy ecclesiastical energy of the house enriches the soul while listening to this long player by the US producer, which is also accompanied by the desire for optimism and sociability amid the dwindling pandemic. Like many of the best underground dance artists of the last few years (Skee Mask, Anz etc.), she tightly embraces the breakbeat-driven sound of the early 90s – Ride Free even has the same Peter Fonda sample as Primal Scream’s Loaded – and further enriches this bustling one , cymbal-heavy rhythms with lively details: rave melodies, declarative vocal samples, penetrating bass notes. Read the full review. BBT

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