The greatest records of the year are named in the second annual E/O album countdown.
You've had the songs, now it's time for the main event.
What were the greatest albums of the past 12 months? It all comes down to this.
There's been no shortage of records dissected on site throughout the year, with a total of 125 releases reviewed since shame's Drunk Tank Pink kicked off January and November wrapped up with Beach House's introduction to Once Twice Melody.
Before we get into the chosen few, there are always a few heartbreaking omissions to be had when narrowing down the field, so with a certain sense of regret I present these very worthy honorable mentions below (in chronological order), all of which are strongly recommended highlights from the year gone by:
Four Tet - Parallel
Jazmine Sullivan - Heaux Tales
Viagra Boys - Welfare Jazz
Nana Yamato - Before Sunrise
BRÍDÍN - Ocean Of Stars
Israel Nash - Topaz
Lord Huron - Long Lost
Vince Staples - Vince Staples
LUMP - Animal
The Killers - Pressure Machine
Indigo De Souza - Any Shape You Take
Lana Del Rey - Blue Banisters
Grouper - Shade
Silk Sonic - An Evening With Silk Sonic
The War On Drugs - I Don't Live Here Anymore
To a fantastic fifteen records, I say close but no cigar.
But what were the ultimate listening experiences of 2021 and why?
The greatest 25 albums of 2021 are named below, so let's dive in.
25. Promises - Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & London Symphony Orchestra
Released: 26th March
Best Tracks: 'Promises (Movements 1-9)'
Sam Shepard's exceptional compositional skills were on breathless display on Promises, a 46 minute symphony that brought together Shepard's Floating Points ensemble with revered saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra to craft a magnificent fusion of electronica, ambient and jazz all built within a modern classical aesthetic.
A heady collection of strings, saxophone, keyboards and computers all masterfully arranged into nine continuous movements, the resulting piece stands as the most impressive work of the British producer and DJs young career by some distance.
24. As The Love Continues - Mogwai
Released: 19th February
Best Tracks: 'Ritchie Sacramento', 'Fuck Off Money', 'Ceiling Granny'
Post-rock legends Mogwai made a triumphant return with As The Love Continues, a typically epic offering of hardcore instrumentals that found the Glaswegian veterans weaving in vocal and synth touches almost twenty years into their tenure.
The band's tenth studio album deservedly bagged them their first ever number one in the UK Album Chart, a truly incredible feat for a largely instrumental rock act in the modern era.
23. Twin Shadow - Twin Shadow
Released: 9th July
Best Tracks: 'Alemania', 'Johnny & Jonnie', 'Get Closer'
The soundtrack to my summer was the sumptuous fifth album from George Lewis AKA Twin Shadow.
This lightly exploratory affair skillfully blended genres as wide ranging as bachata, chillwave, 70s psychedelia and a whole host of tropical sounds under a delightful neo-funk umbrella. It's fitting that Lewis self titled this particular record, as the Dominican-American multi-instrumentalist and producer has never sounded more at one with himself than on the carefree half hour of Twin Shadow.
22. Small Talk - Soda Blonde
Released: 9th July
Best Tracks: 'In The Heat Of The Night', 'Holy Roses', 'I Still Have Feelings For You'
The former Little Green Cars transformed themselves from tidy indie rock outfit into 80s synthpop stars on the gloriously moody Small Talk. Frontwoman Faye O Rourke effortlessly steals the show, channeling Kate Bush and Florence Welch with her enigmatic presence dominating each dark groove that the band line up time and time again throughout this stylish arrival.
21. Green To Gold - The Antlers
Released: 26th March
Best Tracks: 'Wheels Roll Home' 'Solstice', 'It Is What It Is'
With its celebratory nature themes and the gossamer beauty of its musicianship, Green to Gold shared more than a few similarities with Fleet Foxes' Shore from last year, my eighth placed album from 2020.
While Antlers don't quite reach the dizzying heights that Foxes climbed to last year, the beloved Brooklyn indie vets delivered a performance befitting a band of their stature and experience on the subtly majestic Green to Gold.
Peter Silberman & co. have consistently developed their songcraft over the last fifteen years and this growth was reflected in the supreme professionalism of the production (courtesy of Silberman himself) as well as a masterful instrumental showing on an album that boasts a rejuvenating theme in marked contrast to the band's most famous cult hit, the heart wrenching concept opus Hospice.
20. GLOW ON - TURNSTILE
Released: 27th August
Best Tracks: 'MYSTERY', 'BLACKOUT', 'HOLIDAY'
Turnstile fearlessly fused their hardcore punk compositions with everything from shozegaze to synthpop while creating one of the most captivating rock records of 2021 on GLOW ON.
A masterclass in genre fluidity, GLOW ON may be the heaviest album on this list but the Baltimore band's undoubted gift for melody shines throughout their engrossing takes on R&B, emo, indie, samba, dream pop and the other couple of hundred musical styles incorporated into this truly unique third album.
19. Woman On The Internet - Orla Gartland
Released: 20th August
Best Tracks: 'You're Not Special, Babe', 'Codependency', 'Bloodline/Difficult Things'
Woman On The Internet builds from the warm and relatable narratives of Orla Gartland’s earlier EP works to deliver the most cohesive statement of her young career on this debut full length, as the singer journeys every inch of her psyche across 11 tracks that range a veritable palette of emotions without losing the delightfully droll spark that pepper her stories for a second.
Whether comically ripping into toxic masculinity on indie pop banger ‘Zombie!’ or casually tugging heartstrings with the delicate, raw piano balladry of ‘Madison’, Gartland’s undeniable character shines brightly and connects deeply throughout this open reflection on the self-described chaos of her twenties.
18. Coral Island - The Coral
Released: 30th April
Best Tracks: 'Lover Undiscovered', 'Vacancy', 'Take Me Back To The Summertime'
What a wonderful surprise it was to hear The Coral craft an album as charming, warm and effortlessly catchy as Coral Island in 2021. The Britpop veterans' tenth studio album was a carnival of 60s Merseybeat and jangle pop just bursting with the kind of classic harmony laden melodies that led the British Invasion once upon a time.
James Skelly and his cohorts dream up a delightfully psychedelic concept, brought to life by some of the band's best ever songwriting across a double album comprising 24 tracks that somehow breezes by in just under an hour, and warrants many repeat listens thanks to the endlessly addictive skiffle of these Zombies and Kinks inspired numbers.
The result is a sheer joy to behold - twenty five years into their existence, The Coral deliver their magnum opus.
17. Collapsed In Sunbeams - Arlo Parks
Released: 29th January
Best Tracks: 'Hurt', 'Black Dog', 'Eugene'
Arlo Parks' slick indie pop come R&B goes down so smoothly on Collapsed In Sunbeams that you may miss the poetry in the Londoner's expressive journal entries. It's a deceptively simple, universally appealing formula that almost conceals the low-key beauty in Parks' relatable lyricism, which comprises a collection of portrait studies based on those who shaped the singer's adolescence.
This Mercury Prize winning debut was a comforting stable of the past twelve months for myself and many others, with Arlo's enchanting lyricism resonating stronger on each listen while its resplendent selection of beats never loses its allure for a second on repeat runs.
16. A Beginner's Mind - Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine
Released: 24th September
Best Tracks: 'Back To Oz', 'Olympus', 'Cimmerian Shade'
After his seemingly endless foray into the New Age instrumental abyss the past several years, it was nothing less than majestic to hear the sound of Sufjan Stevens picking up an acoustic guitar again.
The results were reliably spellbinding, as Stevens lead a typically gorgeous and comforting indie folk collaboration with frequent writing and touring partner Angelo De Augustine. Written and recorded during a film binge in an upstate NY cabin, with each composition taking direct inspiration from a corresponding movie, A Beginner's Mind is easily Sufjan's best work since the masterful Carrie And Lowell in 2015.
15. Sling - Clairo
Released: 16th July
Best Tracks: 'Ameoba', 'Just For Today', 'Joanie'
A luscious jazz folk symphony that presented a more classical acoustic version of Clairo, Sling was a major transition for the 22 year old bedroom popstar, but crucially never lost the vital intimacy of debut Immunity's hushed vocal stylings and thoughtful songwriting.
Despite the dazzling set of instrumentals on display, Clairo's vocals were the undoubted star instrument throughout Sling, warmly enveloping the listener as the hi-fi production bathed Cottrill's whispered mezzo soprano in a new light.
A phenomenal leap forward that retained the power of its artists narrative work and songcraft, while confirming Clairo's status as one of the most exciting young songwriters of her generation.
14. New Long Leg - Dry Cleaning
Released: 2nd April
Best Tracks: 'Scratchcard Lanyard', 'Strong Feelings', 'Her Hippo'
It would be impossible not to include the wittiest and most addictive album of the year in New Long Leg from London's Dry Cleaning.
The wave of post-punk bands dominating indie rock music in 2021 can be difficult to differentiate at times, but Florence Shaw's sardonic spoken word vocals and stream of consciousness narratives make Dry Cleaning one of the most distinguishable and unique bands in the world right now.
The fact that their ice cool frontwoman is being backed by some of the best guitar tracks of the year doesn't exactly hurt either.
13. Home Video - Lucy Dacus
Released: 25th June
Best Tracks: 'VBS', 'Thumbs', 'Brando'
The gorgeous alto of Lucy Dacus was on breathless display throughout Home Video, the third album and best to date from boygenius' secret weapon.
Dacus' warm, soothing vocal commands a series of autobiographical tales that take us on a bittersweet trip back to our narrator's teenage and young adult years in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. The result is a poignant, nostalgic coming of age novel set to immaculately woven alternative pop ballads that encompass some of the most outright beautiful tracks you'll hear this year.
12. Valentine - Snail Mail
Released: 5th November
Best Tracks: 'Valentine', 'Madonna', 'Glory'
Following the breakout success of debut hit Lush in 2018 while she was still just a teenager, Lindsey Jordan returned wiser on Snail Mail's irresistible sophomore album.
With an infectious and altogether more accessible guitar pop sound to contrast the lo-fi rock of its predecessor, Valentine was a stunning meditation on love and heartbreak that saw Jordan evolve at an impressive rate.
11. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert - Little Simz
Released: 3rd September
Best Tracks: 'Introvert', 'Woman', 'Miss Understood'
In the month of October when two of the biggest names in music released the most anticipated records in rap this year, Kanye and Drake were put to shame by a somewhat unlikely candidate in Islingston's own Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikawo, AKA Little Simz.
A furious outpouring and full realization of the potential that Simz has consistently demonstrated over the past six years, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert boasts a dazzling blend of Afrobeat, classic hip-hop, modern soul and jazzy R&B executed with a thrilling orchestral flourish that powers the cinematic narrative Simz explores throughout this 19 track opus.
Blisteringly confessional, highly lyrical and staggeringly ambitious, SIMBI was delivered with the extravagance befitting such a concept, as Little Simz boldly drew a line in the sand between herself and the rest of British hip-hop on a landmark album both personally and provincially.
10. An Overview On Phenomenal Nature - Cassandra Jenkins
Released: 19th February
Best Tracks: 'Michaelangelo', 'New Bikini', 'Hard Drive'
Cassandra Jenkins' sophomore album possesses a beauty that was seldom if ever equaled throughout the year, and a quality of songcraft that most songwriters would struggle to attain throughout their careers.
Jenkins is the purest of musical talents, a special breed crafting mythical stories set to delicate songs that deserve to be treasured and sacredly passed down from generation to generation in a manner befitting a precious family heirloom. An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is a gift to the self, so cherish and keep it... in fact, forget that you read this because I want it all to myself.
9. TYRON - slowthai
Released: 12th February
Best Tracks: 'nhs', 'feel away', 'adhd'
One of the most outstanding rap albums of 2021 came from Northampton of all places. Tyron Frampton's blisteringly raw talent burns brighter on TYRON even more so than his ferocious 2019 debut Nothing Great About Britain. This time around our narrator turned the microscope away from his country and onto himself, blasting through an intensely candid self portrait in thirty five whirlwind minutes.
Whether furiously recounting tales of his youth and hometown, laying down some comedically braggadocious rhymes on a typically eccentric address or conducting a visceral examination of his own mental health struggles in gritty detail, slowthai was at his show stealing best on a magnificent sophomore record.
8. OK Human - Weezer
Released: 29th January
Best Tracks: 'All My Favourite Songs', 'Aloo Gobi', 'Here Comes The Rain'
If you'd told me at the start of 2021 that I'd be including Weezer in the discussion for best albums of the year by December, I'd have said you were taking crazy pills. But it's with great joy that I name OK Human as the most pleasant surprise of my year, as Rivers Cuomo & co. delivered an endearing quarantine masterwork this past January that I still can't get enough of eleven months later.
By ditching the guitar that made them 90's rock icons while retaining the sugar sweet melodies and undeniable chorus hooks on a series of charming home diaries set to shining string and piano ballads, Weezer triumph on the most unexpected and welcome record of their post millennium career.
If you've fallen out of love with Weezer somewhere along the past twenty years but 'Say It Ain't So' still gives you goosebumps, then you need to hear this album and let it soothe the pain of Ratitude and Hurley.
And guess what? Van Weezer fucking rocked, too!
7. Ignorance - The Weather Station
Released: 5th February
Best Tracks: 'Robber', 'Atlantic', 'Parking Lot'
The climate crisis isn't exactly the most accessible topic to center an album concept around, but such is the majesty of Tamara Lindeman's songwriting on Ignorance that it brings an issue often presented as vague or distant into devastating focus, outlining the impact of the crisis with an unexpectedly emotional perspective that humanizes the problem like no media I've heard, seen or read before March 2021 or since.
As profound as Lindeman's lyricism is throughout these ten tracks, as much power lies in the musical execution of her fifth album, which sees The Weather Station complete a staggering evolution from their humble folk beginnings into the full blown rock orchestra presented in all its euphonic glory on Ignorance.
6. For the first time - Black Country, New Road
Released: 5th February
Best Tracks: 'Science Fair', 'Sunglasses', 'Track X'
There were so many accomplished bows onto the main stage over the past twelve months that it was hard to keep up with the amount of new talent emerging every week, but I can confidently state that there were no debuts quite as undeniable as this.
A young band that arrived under a tremendously rare wave of hype from the British, wider European and American music press but couldn't have cared less, Black Country came across as a group of mates whimsically jamming their wild jazz punk concoctions for no one but themselves. The results are best experienced as an immersive whole in order to truly behold the spectacle of freewheeling abandon, erratic improvisation and sheer musicality that BCNR unleash on For the first time.
5. Daddy's Home - St. Vincent
Released: 14th May
Best Tracks: 'Pay Your Way In Pain', 'Down', '...At The Holiday Party'
After distinguishing herself as one of the most acclaimed and engrossing alternative artists of the past decade and change, the chameleonic Annie Clark returned with a brand new sound for a fresh era of St. Vincent on Daddy's Home.
Clark reinvents herself once again on her sixth studio album as we find our protagonist down and out in New York on a record that vividly snapshots the smoke and glamour of mid-seventies Manhattan while immaculately recapturing the psychedelic sound of its era.
Channeling the iconic figures of its time in Bowie, Reed and Prince, Clark and production wizard Jack Antonoff execute a dazzling blend of funk, soul and jazz to paint a fluorescent portrait of 1970's NY, all subtly wrapped in a light electronic package that will just about remind you that you're listening to a record in 2021.
It's another major success for St. Vincent as Annie Clark effortlessly transforms once more while delivering another unique entry into an already vastly impressive discography.
4. CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST - Tyler, The Creator
Released: 25th June
Best Tracks: 'WUSYANAME', 'LUMBERJACK', 'WILSHIRE'
An album that simultaneously boasts the production wizardry and profound songcraft of Flower Boy and IGOR while unleashing the hard bars and raucous energy levels that captivated audiences originally on early highlights Bastard and Wolf, Tyler’s sixth album is a hybrid in the best sense, containing a multitude of all the elements that have made the enigmatic rapper such a fascinating artist to behold then and now.
CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST finds an artist confronting his contentious past by skillfully incorporating and updating his previous work into the present, all the while adding yet another layer of eclecticism to his modern form. Blink and you'll miss it though - you can rest assured that CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST is as much the beginning of a new chapter as it is the closing of a classic trilogy for the recently turned 30-year-old.
As he enters a new decade in his life, the man who once proclaimed himself a walking paradox sounds more at ease with himself than ever before.
3. Chemtrails Over The Country Club - Lana Del Rey
Released: 19th March
Best Tracks: 'White Dress', 'Tulsa Jesus Freak', 'Not All Who Wander Are Lost'
After a tumultuous 2020 that saw her come down with a bad case of foot in mouth disease, it was nice to be reminded that Lana Del Rey is one of the premier songwriters in the world when she lets the music do the talking, and the Gothic neo-folk of Chemtrails Over The Country Club left no doubt that we are still witnessing an iconic artist at the peak of her powers.
Del Rey's seventh album was in the seemingly impossible position of following an all time classic record but it's a testament to the enduring ability of its artist that Chemtrails stands not only as a worthy sequel to Norman Fucking Rockwell! but a major achievement in its own right that arguably sits a comfortable second place in Lana's catalogue at the time of writing.
And if that weren't enough, LDR dropped her eighth studio album just seven months later, continuing her rich vein of form with Blue Banisters, a relatively brighter and bluesier collection that contrasted nicely with its sister record. The fact that Banisters goes down as the inferior of the 2021 duo only speaks to the level that Del Rey is operating at right now.
2. Jubilee - Japanese Breakfast
Released: 4th June
Best Tracks: 'Paprika', 'Be Sweet', 'Savage Good Boy'
The third album from Michelle Zauner felt like a definitive moment for Japanese Breakfast.
Having spent her past two albums dealing in grief due to her mother's pancreatic cancer treatment and eventual passing, Zauner announced her third record with an accompanying mission statement in which she declared that she was ready to write an album about joy.
Jubilee more than lived upto its name as Zauner delivered a wonderfully bright and colourful indie pop celebration that concerns itself more deeply with melody than either of its predecessors, while losing none of the introspective dark magic that made Japanese Breakfast so engaging to begin with.
It's an evolutionary moment for the 32 year old Korean-American, and one you feel should bring some deserved mainstream recognition to coincide with the release of acclaimed memoir Crying In H Mart and its upcoming film adaptation, which will bring her story to a wider audience in 2022.
A landmark record in the career of Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee was a coming out moment for Michelle Zauner as she blossomed and thrived on the most vibrant, joyful record of 2021.
1. For Those I Love - For Those I Love
Released: 26th March
Best Tracks: 'To Have You', 'Birthday/The Pain', 'You Live/No One Like You'
It's gotten harder and harder over the past twelve months to return to the heart wrenching tale of love and loss that David Balfe spins on For Those I Love for the sheer emotional toll that it can take on any given listen. Yet every time I go back, I'm reminded that through the grief and tragedy Balfe examines as he tries to understand the death of his best friend Paul Curran, there is light at the end of the darkest of tunnels. It's the kind of life affirming perspective that only a work of enduring greatness can achieve, the kind of reward that you only feel after experiencing art of a complex and affecting nature almost too acute to verbalize. For Those I Love is all these things and more.
A songwriter so capable of capturing the human state is a powerful and lasting one, so expect Balfe to be celebrated by North Dublin, Ireland and (if there is any justice) the rest of the wider music world for years to come. If you had asked me on January 1st what the best album of the year would be, I might have had a hundred potential answers but I never would have imagined that the frontrunner was living within a five minute radius of where I'm writing to you from. This is no sentimental favourite though - if you haven't heard it yet wherever you are, you are doing yourself a disservice.
For Those I Love is the album of the year.
Thanks for reading - if you wanna enjoy the best moments of the above list then check out this handy Spotify playlist below!
A massive thank you to everyone for reading Either/Or in 2021. Enjoy the holiday season and see you all for more of the same in 2022!