Top 25 albums of 2021

 Top 25 albums of 2021

2021 has been written-off by many in terms of music-related thrills; but I’d argue that even though we were lacking in big A-list blockbusters compared to last year (Dua! Kylie! Gaga! Taylor x2! Rina!), we did still get lots of good stuff – and actually I think that’s more apparent with albums than it was with singles.

Aaaaand so, to that end here are my 25 favourite records of yet another cursèd year.

As ever, I’ve ranked them using a balance of ‘what is actually very good’ and ‘what has brought me lots of joy’; which might explain why some patchy / fairly basique efforts rank a little higher than some of the more universally lauded critical darlings. But I love ’em all, and this year more than any other, ranking them felt kind of perfunctory. What can I tell ya, I’m a Ranking Gay!

I would also like to shout-out some wonderful EPs, mixtapes and “mini-albums” that don’t feel long enough to be included here: To Hell With It by PinkPantheress, I Wonder If You Wonder by Grace Davies, One Foot In Front of The Other by Griff, Prelude by Lauren Jauregui, and L Devine’s two-part Near Life Experience. I’ve also left out deluxe repackages, Greatest Hits, and Taylor Swift’s re-recordings.

Here, for context, have been my previous end-of-year No1s:

2010: Lights – Ellie Goulding
2011: 21 – Adele
2012: Electra Heart – Marina and the Diamonds
2013: Salute – Little Mix
2014: 1989 – Taylor Swift
2015: Breathe In Breathe Out – Hilary Duff [blog]
2016: Lemonade – Beyonce [blog]
2017: About U – Muna [blog]
2018: Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves [blog]
2019: thank u, next – Ariana Grande [blog]
2020: Sawayama – Rina Sawayama [blog]

You can see my Top 50 Singles of 2021 here, and Top 10 Movies here. TV to follow!


25. If I Could Make It Go Quiet – Girl In Red

Release date: April 30
UK chart peak: 7
Metacritic score: 77
Stream: Spotify

As debut albums go, not many come as promising as this; a brilliant collection of indie-pop tracks that – despite the record’s title – sound ready to rip the roof off at crowded gigs. Serotonin provides the brightest burst of Big Hit Energy, and bigger things from this Norwegian queer-icon-in-the-making feel inevitable.


24. Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land – Marina

Release date: June 11
UK chart peak: 17
Metacritic score: 77
Stream: Spotify

Marina was back to her playful, thoughtful, biting best on this; a characterful record that reminded me quite a lot of the Family Jewels era. The energy is turned firmly up throughout, but actually it’s heartfelt, ethereal closer Goodbye that’s a real favourite for me.


23. Lately I Feel Everything – Willow

Release date: July 16
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score: 79
Stream: Spotify

Blink and you miss it (it’s not even half an hour long, and only two songs clock in at over 3 minutes), BUT what a mighty return to the big leagues for Willow!! The one-time hair-whipper brings high-energy pop-punk !ANGST! on this; a firework of an album that comes complete with input from Travis Barker and Queen Of The Genre Avril Lavigne.


22. Troubled Paradise – Slayyyter

Release date: June 11
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score:
Stream: Spotify

The more hyperpop-y elements of Slayyyter’s work don’t always reel me in, but she’s a fucking master at what she does: Troubled Paradise is dripping with personality, gay-club-ready beats and colourful choruses. This is only her debut full-length album – she already feels like a pop mainstay.


21. Heaux Tales – Jazmine Sullivan

Release date: January 8
UK chart peak: 79
Metacritic score: 83
Stream: Spotify

A deserving Album of the Year winner at the BET Awards, Heaux Tales already feels like a classic – I can’t believe it only came out this year. Jazmine has always been a superstar (Bust Your Windows, anyone?) but on this, her first album in six years, she sounds better than ever. The VOCALS!


20. Grown-ish – LOVA

Release date: January 22
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score:
Stream: Spotify

I discovered LOVA on a flick through Sweden’s New Music Friday playlist, and Grown-ish is a wonderful little album; packed with fizzy, uplifting, occasionally guitar-driven pop: Dance For The Hell Of It was the song that first caught my eye (ear?), and wouldn’t sound of out of place on an early-2000s Ashlee Simpson album.


19. Blue Weekend – Wolf Alice

Release date: June 4
UK chart peak: 1
Metacritic score: 91
Stream: Spotify

Honestly, I’ve only really burrowed in to this album over the last couple of weeks. Would it have been higher if I discovered it sooner? Perhaps!! But it’s a stunning collection, and one hell of a way to follow something that won the Mercury Prize. No Hard Feelings is the track I’ve gone back to the most; but Smile also sounds amazing with the volume up, and Play The Greatest Hits is such a great song title.


18. Star-Crossed – Kacey Musgraves

Release date: September 10
UK chart peak: 10
Metacritic score: 78
Stream: Spotify

Addressing her divorce, there’s a sense of ‘well, it is what it is’ on this album: not much anger, not much devastation, just a level-headed, thoughtful, intermittently sorrowful collection of songs that showcase Kacey’s ability to tug at the heartstrings without much pomp and ceremony. She sounds GORGEOUS as ever (Angel is a particular highlight for me), and even though this didn’t feel as much of a ~moment as Golden Hour, it still more than hit the mark.


17. Voyage – ABBA

Release date: November 5
UK chart peak: 1
Metacritic score: 72
Stream: Spotify

It’s a new ABBA album! A whole ALBUM!!!! In 2021! Voyage is such a welcome record; and so quintessentially ABBA. A song about preserving the bees? A bop about keeping an eye on Dan? Sure!! No Doubt About It is the biggest banger, but Don’t Shut Me Down is – as I’m sure we’re all aware – simply one of the best songs of the year. Masters!


16. Still Over It – Summer Walker

Release date: November 5
UK chart peak: 5
Metacritic score: 85
Stream: Spotify

Perhaps my favourite outright R&B record of the year, Still Over It is a star-studded, hour-long winner that tours a variety of emotions and moods without once sounding anything less than cohesive. Picking a favourite is extremely tough, but I’d go with Constant Bullshit.


15. 30 – Adele

Release date: November 19
UK chart peak: 1
Metacritic score: 88
Stream: Spotify

The world’s biggest singer-songwriter took some relatively bold swings on 30, and I think it totally pays off. If I were to liken it to any of her past records, it’d probably be 19 – at least musically. Lyrically and vocally, she’s at her wisest and most mature; and whilst she doesn’t sound particularly bothered about churning out !HITS!, 30 is still an emotional tour-de-force and a total class act.


14. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – Little Simz

Release date: September 3
UK chart peak: 4
Metacritic score: 88
Stream: Spotify

I have half an eye on this for Album of the Year at the BRITs, you know; and it must be a frontrunner for the Mercury Prize next autumn as well. SIMBI is cinematic, intricate and – despite a 65-minute running time – totally, consistently riveting. The production is excellent (shout-out Protect My Energy for the mid-album bop) but Little Simz herself is the star: she leaves you hanging on her every word.


13. A Touch Of The Beat Gets You Up On Your Feet Gets You Out And Then Into The Sun – Aly & AJ

Release date: May 7
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score:
Stream: Spotify

A mellowed-out, sun-drenched guitar-pop album that feels warmer and warmer the more it’s listened to, A Touch Of The Beat… is the duo’s first independently-made project, and what a body of work it is!! A Symptom Of Your Touch is the standout for me, but I’m still – even now – finding new things to love about it.


12. Screen Violence – CHVRCHES

Release date: August 27
UK chart peak: 4
Metacritic score: 81
Stream: Spotify

I wasn’t as excited by the lead-in singles for this era as I was for CHVRCHES’ previous albums, but actually Screen Violence is up there with their very best. The gigantic synthy production and biting lyrics are sharp as a knife; Lauren Mayberry speaking sagely about an array of heavy subjects without losing the band’s knack for a big fuck-off chorus.


11. 333 – Tinashe

Release date: August 6
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score: 34
Stream: Spotify

Independence continues to sound exceptionally good on Tinashe, and 333 is another delight of an album. The arena-sized, Stargate-produced The Chase is my favourite, but the whole thing is a luscious listen; the sound of an artist who fully knows who she is and what she wants to make. What can’t she do?!


10. The Yearbook – Baby Queen

Release date: September 3
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score:
Stream: Spotify

I’ve seen this technically classed as a mixtape, but at ten tracks long, I’m bunging it in anyway. Following Baby Queen’s excellent arrival in 2020, The Yearbook really firmed her up as a big-time One To Watch: Dover Beach is one of my absolute favourite songs of the year, and stuff like Raw Thoughts and American Dream also masterfully couple buoyant production with wry storytelling.


09. Poster Girl – Zara Larsson

Release date: March 5
UK chart peak: 12
Metacritic score: 72
Stream: Spotify

Look, firstly any album that houses Ruin My Life is pretty much guaranteed a Top 10 end-of-year placement. Secondly, although there remains the distinct sense that Zara is capable of something more cohesive and more boundary-pushing than this, Poster Girl – finally released after what felt like a century of delays – is still a really strong collection of pop songs; from the slick title track to the gorgey piano-driven boppery of Need Someone. Having Talk About Love as the only single around the time of its release was certainly A Choice, but I hope its struggle to find its footing commercially won’t derail a follow-up.


08. Who Am I? – Pale Waves

Release date: February 12
UK chart peak: 3
Metacritic score: 62
Stream: Spotify

Pop-rock made its mainstream global comeback via artists like Olivia Rodrigo, Willow and of course Avril Lavigne herself; but here in the UK, Pale Waves were delivering peppy guitar-driven goodness right back in January. Who Am I sounds like high school corridor scenes in teen movies from the 2000s; and lead singer Heather Baron-Gracie’s songwriting deserves much wider recognition.


07. Sour – Olivia Rodrigo

Release date: May 21
UK chart peak: 1
Metacritic score: 83
Stream: Spotify

As ancient as it makes me feel to know that pop’s newest megastar was born in TWO THOUSAND AND THREE, there’s absolutely no denying the blockbuster quality of Sour. Label Geffen threw the kitchen sink at this campaign and it was worth it; the relatable and unpretentious teen angst of songs like Traitor, Good 4 U and 1 Step Forward 3 Steps Back giving the whole thing endless replay value. Every few years, a new popstar appears as if from nowhere and takes over the world (it happened four years before Olivia was born with one Britney Jean Spears!!) – and now, it’s all eyes on what she does next.


06. Dancing With The Devil… The Art of Starting Over – Demi Lovato

Release date: April 2
UK chart peak: 2
Metacritic score: 73
Stream: Spotify

Even as a long-term Demi stan, I wasn’t expecting much from this – maybe just because none of the lead singles caught fire in the way they have in the past. But Demi has rarely been on better form than they’re on here: sure, the album has a couple of skips, but the sheer length of the thing means there’s plenty of great work to make up for it. The vocals are brilliant, the songwriting is honest and sharp, some of the melodies are ridiculously catchy (good luck getting My Girlfriends Are My Boyfriend out of your head!!) and on songs like 15 Minutes, Butterfly and Carefully, they find beauty in subtlety. I was pleased this charted so highly, but it was still far too underrated for my liking!


05. Prioritise Pleasure – Self Esteem

Release date: October 22
UK chart peak: 11
Metacritic score: 92
Stream: Spotify

Deservedly named Album of the Year by Christ-knows-how-many critics, Prioritise Pleasure is pop at its most affecting, thoughtful and witty. The semi-spoken-word-y I Do This All The Time is the headline event but the album is peppered with works of genius; from the infectious You Forever to the epic Still Reigning. And is there a better opening lyric than Moody’s “sexting you at the mental health talk feels counter-productive”? I think not!


04. Montero – Lil Nas X

Release date: September 17
UK chart peak: 2
Metacritic score: 85
Stream: Spotify

As I said on my singles rundown, I feel like Montero was such a surprisingly affecting listen because it was not only boldly horny, but also pretty vulnerable. The title track is obviously the main attraction, but there’s so much good stuff; the look-to-camera cheek of Industry Baby, the brilliant Megan Thee Stallion feature on Dolla Sign Slime, the unexpected broken-hearted sadness of Lost In The Citadel and the existential crisis of Void… and this is only his debut album! Imagine what new heights he’ll go on to scale from here!!


03. Collapsed in Sunbeams – Arlo Parks

Release date: January 29
UK chart peak: 3
Metacritic score: 83
Stream: Spotify

This year’s Mercury Music Prize-winning album was… one I’d actually heard! After turning heads in 2020 with singles like Black Dog and Hurt, Arlo’s full-length album is a total treat; a beautifully written collection of songs that know when to charm you with poetic verses and when to get an irresistible topline lodged in your head. Seeing this performed live was a real music highlight of my year.


02. Pink Noise – Laura Mvula

Release date: July 2
UK chart peak: 21
Metacritic score: 89
Stream: Spotify

When Safe Passage dropped back in Q1, the pop world sat up and listened… and when Church Girl and Got Me followed, I was all-in on what had the potential to be one of the most exciting album eras of the year. For me, Pink Noise absolutely followed through on that promise. Laura’s usual knack for gorgeous lyrics is married brilliantly with big melodies and danceable production; ticking off everything from lust to hurt to social commentary to hope. The extremely powerful Remedy is an easy highlight, as is the glorious closer, reminding us to “remember the night comes before the dawn”.


01. Magic Still Exists – Agnes

Release date: October 22
UK chart peak:
Metacritic score:
Stream: Spotify

This is Agnes’ first full album in nine years, and what a fucking triumph it is!! On Magic Still Exists she reintroduces herself as a totally assured disco goddess; backing up the sensational singles Fingers Crossed, 24 Hours and Here Comes The Night with more slam-dunks that don’t just meet that high bar, but in some cases (Selfmade, Love And Appreciation) actually soar even higher. It’s not a long album (of its 11 tracks, four are brief sort-of-interludes) but it feels completely whole – watertight, filler-free, late-night perfection. It’s an artistic masterclass that still feels totally accessible, totally danceable, and so much FUN! It’s just pop at its best. Tour when??


A playlist containing some of my favourite tracks from each album is here:

Shaun Kitchener

http://www.shaunkitchener.com

Scriptwriter for the theatre and TV (currently Hollyoaks) and freelance entertainment ~reportage.