8 Great Albums We Discovered on 2021 Year-End Lists
We love list season. We really love making lists, and we also really love reading lists made by other music publications, individual critics, and musicians. In the long term, these lists help preserve a moment in time, remind us of what we loved years ago, and help introduce new generations of music fans to the music they missed out on, but in the short term, they're a great way to catch up on stuff you missed from the past year alone. Between our Notable Releases and Bill's Indie Basement columns, we review about 10-20 new albums a week (give or take), and we cover even more albums than that throughout our daily coverage, but with literally thousands of new albums released each year, that still means we miss stuff. We always discover great new music during list season, so we've put together a list of eight 2021 albums that we just got into after checking out stuff from countless year-end lists. Maybe some of these are new to you too, and if so, we hope you give 'em a listen.
Read on for the list, in no particular order. What albums did you just discover this year-end list season?
Cleo Sol - Mother
Forever Living Originals
I was already a big fan of UK soul singer Cleo Sol's contributions to Little Simz and Sault's albums, but her solo career flew slightly under my radar until I noticed her sophomore LP Mother popping up on year-end lists from Gorilla vs Bear and NPR, and it's quickly become one of my go-to albums. She made the album with producer Inflo, who's also a frequent Little Simz producer and a member of Sault, and he helps Cleo create a deep, blissful, jazz-informed backdrop that's perfect for her soaring, soulful voice. She delivers the kind of nostalgic, sentimental balladry that you feel like you've known all your life, and she's able to write songs that feel familiar without relying on overused clichés. It's sweet but not too sweet, easy to listen to but not easy-listening. Cleo put this out in August but I'm actually kinda glad it took me until December to hear it; its cozy warmth and underlying melancholy just goes so well with winter.
Self Esteem - Prioritise Pleasure
After a decade as one half of great indie-folk duo Slow Club, Rebecca Lucy Taylor had to do something different. Very different. She reinvented herself as Self Esteem, her solo project that mixes brutal honesty and dark humor with millennium-era big pop production. “I think I’ve found a way to be defiant and euphoric in response to trauma,” Taylor told Under the Radar. “At the moment I’m not really interested in subtlety. Who knows, maybe in the future I’ll make this gorgeous acoustic record that you can play at dinner parties but right now I want to be as loud and abrasive and angry as possible.” 2019's Compliments Please introduced Self Esteem to the world, but Taylor came into her own with this year's defiant, danceable Prioritise Pleasure that takes musical cues from Beyonce, Britney and Queen but thematically is entirely her own. Example: "Sexting you at the mental health talk seems counterproductive," she admits in the opening line of megacatchy "Moody." Prioritise Pleasure has garnered raves and has shown up on more than a few artist end-of-year lists. "If you're going to make a record that's all about self-doubt it's a good idea to make it very funny as well, and to give it a great crunchy pop production," Saint Etienne's Bob Stanley told us. "It reminds me of the first Streets album, only with Britney production values and fronted by Lucy Beaumont." Aidan Moffat put it very well in his year-end list for us: "The songs might be about self doubt, bad behaviour and sexism, but they're a joy to listen to." [Bill Pearis]
Dorothea Paas - Anything Can't Happen
Dorothea Paas was already a staple of the Toronto music scene before this year -- she's performed as a guest vocalist with U.S. Girls, Badge Époque Ensemble, and Jennifer Castle, and she's got various solo releases dating back about a decade -- but Anything Can't Happen is her first proper solo album and it makes one hell of a grand entrance. Her jazz-tinged folk stylings recall anything from Joni Mitchell to Weyes Blood, and these timeless-sounding songs could've come out at any point in the past 50 years and they still would've stopped people in their tracks. It's not just that Laurel Canyon-style folk music never seems to go out of style, it's that Dorothea's voice, delivery, and melodies are all so powerful that whenever she opens her mouth to sing, it's like nothing else in the world matters.
Allison Russell - Outside Child
Outside Child is Allison Russell's debut solo album, but she's been around for about two decades. She co-founded Po' Girl with Trish Klein of The Be Good Tanyas in 2000, and went on to play in the bands Sofia, Sankofa, Birds of Chicago (with her husband and frequent collaborator JT Nero), and recently Our Native Daughters (a supergroup that also includes Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla), but now she's doing it alone and Outside Child is a deeply personal record. Allison, who is now 39, opens up about her traumatic childhood, which included a stepfather who sexually abused her and years of homelessness. But the album doesn't feel mournful; in Allison's words, it's "about resilience, survival, transcendence, the redemptive power of art, community, connection, and chosen family," and the tone of the music is uplifting and hopeful. Allison, a French-Canadian who was born in Montreal and now lives in Nashville, pulls influence from the country music of her adopted hometown while also honoring her roots, singing in both English and French throughout the LP. It's a triumph of an album; impossible to pin down, easy to repeatedly listen to, and truly inspiring.
Yasmin Williams - Urban Driftwood
When an artist builds a career off of complex acoustic guitar instrumentals, their music often gets referred to as "American primitivism," but Yasmin Williams says she derives no lineage from that genre and rejects its problematic connotations, instead citing influences as diverse as jazz, R&B, Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, go-go, hip hop, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and West African music. She interprets all of that with little more than her acoustic guitar (plus minor embellishments from kora, kalimba, cello, and hand drums), and her wide palette of influences is a big part of why Urban Driftwood stands out from so many other solo guitar albums. Even if you aren't an avid listener of this type of thing, Urban Driftwood has the ability to draw you in. These are some of the most purely gorgeous compositions I've heard in 2021 in any genre, and just when you think the music might fall into the background, Yasmin brings in a melody that perks your ear right back up.
Rosali - No Medium
Philly singer/songwriter Rosali Middleman started out as a solo folk singer on her 2016 debut Out of Love before bringing in a full band (including Nathan Bowles, Mary Lattimore, and members of The War On Drugs, Purling Hiss, Spacin' and more) for 2018's Trouble Anyway, and she made this year's No Medium with a different backing band, which includes members of the David Nance Group, The War On Drugs keyboardist Robbie Bennett, and additional percussion on one song by The Walkmen's Matt Barrick. The album was recorded in 10 days, and, compared to the cleaner sound of Trouble Anyway, veers closer to the proto-grunge folk rock of early '70s Crazy Horse. At times, the album really rocks, which wasn't really the case for Rosali previously, but the warm, earthy tone of her voice keeps things feeling serene.
Rochelle Jordan - Play with the Changes
Toronto-born (but now LA-based) artist Rochelle Jordan's 2014 album 1021 caught the attention of Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar, who featured her on releases by their solo projects, J-E-T-S, and Sepalcure over the years, and this year she finally released a new solo album, Play With the Changes (on TOKiMONSTA’s Young Art Records), produced by both Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar with frequent Rochelle Jordan collaborator KLSH. With Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar involved, the album makes a noticeable departure from the airy R&B of Rochelle's early work, setting her powerhouse vocals against a backdrop of UK house and garage. It results in something that scratches a similar itch as last year's Jessie Ware album, blurring the lines between '90s R&B radio and '90s dance clubs in a way that's deeply nostalgic but still futuristic.
Space Afrika - Honest Labour
UK electronic duo Space Afrika's second proper album (and Dais debut) was named after "a legendary patriarch" from group member Joshua Inyang's Nigerian family tree (who was called Honest Labour "for his loyalty and resilience"), as well as the duo's work ethic, and they also call the album "an homage to U.K. energy, and an album about love and loss." Sometimes those themes pop up explicitly in the form of spoken word vocal samples, but this is also an album you can drift away to and sink into the psychedelic vibe it provides. It's an ever-changing collage of sounds, incorporating elements of trip-hop, ambient music, R&B, hip hop, and more, and covered in a smoky haze. It has moments of dense claustrophobia, and others that are bare and minimal. It's at times trippy, overwhelming, and beautiful, and sometimes all of that at once.