The 10 best tracks and albums of 2021

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The 10 best tracks and albums of 2021

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Arwa Haider and Nick Levine highlight BBC Culture’s musical picks of the year.

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From pop and electro to hip hop, jazz and punk, here are 10 albums and 10 tracks that are BBC Culture’s highlights of 2021.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Albums

Pink Noise by Laura Mvula

The first shimmer of Pink Noise – via British singer-songwriter, composer and producer Laura Mvula’s livestream set in early 2021 – felt like a vibrantly funky antidote to the seasonal (and ongoing pandemic) gloom. The full album proved to be a gloriously spirit-soaring return from this multi-ranging talent; Mvula has earned plenty of accolades over the past decade; at the same time, she’s been bluntly overlooked by her previous major label. Pink Noise is her third album; it highlights her extraordinarily radiant vocals and embraces ’80s synth grooves and references (on Magical, she sings of “throwing kisses in the purple rain”), yet also sounds exhilaratingly in the moment; from the vivacious pop blast of Church Gal, to What Matters (an elegantly poignant duet with Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil). This collection has even inspired its own Pantone shade (and gorgeously coloured vinyl); whatever the format, Mvula shows out as electric lady, soul siren and stylish innovator. (Arwa Haider)

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Montero by Lil Nas X

If any artist defined 2021, it was Lil Nas X, who proved that a black, queer and unapologetically sex-positive pop-rap artist can be a superstar. This scintillating debut demonstrates his ability to incorporate R&B and rock into his TikTok-conquering bops while collaborating with everyone from Elton John to Megan Thee Stallion. Along the way, he subverts hip-hop tropes with a casual shrug: “I don’t f**k bitches, I’m queer,” he spits knowingly on the chart-topping single Industry Baby. Most excitingly of all, it looks like this wildly talented 22-year-old is only just getting started. (Nick Levine)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Planet Her by Doja Cat 

A coolly assured, hotly insistent third album from US rapper, singer-songwriter and meme supremo Doja Cat, who strikes an intergalactic pose on David LaChapelle’s glossy cover portrait. Planet Her is loosely presented as a sci-fi concept album, but it’s essentially a platform for Doja Cat’s breathlessly assertive, immaculately produced, characteristically surreal hip pop, from the opening swish of Woman to the punchy raunch of Get into It (Yuh). Doja Cat isn’t shy about her varied inspirations; there’s a shout out to Nicki Minaj on the aforementioned banger, but also hints of Kelis throughout, and even an Olivia Newton-John disco sample on Kiss Me More (where she teams up with SZA). There’s a starry guest list throughout, including Ariana Grande, Young Thug and The Weeknd, but Doja Cat still shines as a singular star; even when she’s playful, she clearly means business. (AH)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Skin by Joy Crookes

When Joy Crookes says Skin is “an album about my identity”, the 23-year-old singer-songwriter isn’t exaggerating. Whether she’s singing about the gentrification of her south London neighbourhood on 19th Floor or the pain of seeing an ex with someone new on When You Were Mine, Crookes’ soulful debut is rich, intimate and uncommonly evocative. Unlearn You, on which she bravely recalls an experience of assault and abuse, is most affecting of all: the shattering highlight of a debut album that slowly sinks into your own skin like lotion. (NL)

(Credit: Columbia Records)

(Credit: Columbia Records)

30 by Adele 

In 2021, a number of strong albums explored themes of breaking up and moving on, including the latest works from Kacey Musgraves and Martha Wainwright. The hugely anticipated latest instalment in Brit superstar Adele’s catalogue was widely billed as her “divorce album” – and 30 certainly lays bare the heartbreak and turmoil of a marriage ending, but it also expresses a sense of personal and creative liberation from an artist who has grown up in the spotlight. While the first single release Easy on Me offered familiar piano ballad territory, Adele’s distinctly confessional, frequently wry songwriting weaves through nu-classic soul territory (My Little Love, where she addresses her young son, is devastatingly beautiful). It also takes in a pop hook-up with Max Martin (Can I Get It), a jazz interlude sampling piano great Erroll Garner, and nods to Carole King and Amy Winehouse (on the concluding Love Is A Game). It’s raw and smooth, worth hearing in sequence (Adele seemingly caused a fracas by removing the “shuffle” option on Spotify), and definitely a keeper. (AH)

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If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power by Halsey

In late August, six weeks after welcoming her first child, Ashley “Halsey” Frangipane released this bold concept album “about the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth”. Produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, it swaps the singer’s previous electro-pop sound for something grungier. On standout banger Honey, which features Dave Grohl on drums, she mixes bitter and sweet like iconic alt-rock hitmakers Garbage. It’s a viscerally intense listen from start to finish, but the folky ballad Darling offers a chink of light amid the captivating musical gloom. (NL)

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Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra

Three seemingly different realms collide and hypnotically merge on this collaborative album from classically-trained electronic artist/producer Floating Points (aka Manchester-born Sam Shepherd), octogenarian US jazz-sax-legend Pharoah Sanders (pictured) and the London Symphony Orchestra. Promises was apparently five years in the making, and it comprises nine fluid “movements” rather than distinct tracks. It’s worth going with the album’s flow, and its atmospheric beauty seems to intensify across repeat listens; Sanders’s richly emotive playing immediately comes to the fore (he also delivers wordless vocalese in the central movements), but there are also haunting orchestral motifs and absorbing atmospheres. The effect feels expansive and vividly evocative: a kind of 21st-Century multi-genre multi-generational spiritual. (AH)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Prioritise Pleasure by Self Esteem

As Self Esteem, former Slow Club member Rebecca Taylor uses crisp electro-pop as a conduit for exploring life’s messiness. “Getting married isn’t the biggest day of your life – all the days that you get to have are big,” she advises wisely on her stunning spoken word number I Do This All the Time. That track, which she’s likened to a millennial version of Baz Luhrmann’s Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen), is just one highlight on an excellent second album that blends heart, hooks and humour into something utterly life-affirming. (NL)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Glow On by Turnstile

Baltimore punk five-piece Turnstile have built a steady fanbase since their 2010 formation, but they further ramped up the power and range on this third album for rock hotbed Roadrunner Records. Glow On channels the energy of Turnstile’s original scene into fiercely catchy hardcore tunes, such as Blackout (where vocalist Brendan Yates proves an irrepressible showman: “If it makes you feel alive/ Well, then I’m happy I provide”), and the brilliantly persuasive, heavily percussive Dance-Off. There are also rather gorgeous guest contributions from Blood Orange (aka Dev Hynes, who was formerly in Brit post-hardcore band Test Icicles) on the dreamy Alien Love Call and the splendidly frenetic riffs of the closing track Lonely Dezires. Glow On is a brightly refreshing blast – not strictly for the hardcore, but definitely born of it. (AH)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Collapsed in Sunbeams by Arlo Parks

With this award-winning debut, Arlo Parks succeeds in her stated aim of making music that feels “both universal and hyper-specific”. Black Dog offers a tender account of depression – “I would do anything to get you out your room,” she tells her struggling friend – while Eugene explores unrequited love through a queer prism. The 21-year-old Londoner, who is bisexual, wrote it about a straight friend she developed feelings for. Framed by balmy beats and lovely laidback melodies, her confessional indie-folk songs are very affecting indeed. (NL)

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Tracks

Future Starts Now by Kim Petras

With the Omicron variant dominating, the world isn’t quite ready for a post-pandemic anthem yet. But in late summer, when the global situation looked more positive, Kim Petras dropped a perfect pop song that seemed to capture our collective optimism. Recorded in the German-born singer’s LA wardrobe during lockdown, it’s a Daft Punk-inspired electro-house banger that harnesses the giddy thrill of a packed dance floor. “You’re more than just anybody,” she sings on the chorus. “Don’t give up, the future starts now.” Every time I hear it, I feel a little bit more alive. (NL)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Bipp (Autechre remix) by Sophie

Scottish-born, LA-based, Grammy-nominated electronic pioneer Sophie was widely loved and admired across international music scenes; her accidental death in early 2021, aged just 34, was a tragic shock and loss. Sophie had once declared that she’d only permit veteran duo Autechre to remix her music; their take on breakthrough classic Bipp came to fruition and turned out to be the last track released in Sophie’s lifetime. Autechre ease the vocal pitch of the original production and pay testimony to Sophie’s emotional directness (“Whatever you feel inside, I can make you feel better”) and exhilarating hyperpop hooks. It’s soulful, heady and alluring: a work of infinite beauty. (AH)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Good Ones by Charli XCX

Since she broke through on Icona Pop’s 2012 hit I Love It, Charli XCX has carved out an enviable niche. At her best, she hits a delicious sweet-spot between mainstream pop trends and her own, more leftfield sensibilities. Good Ones is a gleaming example of her unique alchemy: the rubbery 1980s beat slots in neatly next to recent Ed Sheeran and The Weeknd offerings, but her slightly otherworldly vocals add an unsettling edge. It’s a song about owning your poor romantic choices that’s a lot of fun to listen to. And if that sounds kind of perverse, well, that’s classic Charli XCX. (NL)

(Credit: Nimco Happy/Polydor Records)

(Credit: Nimco Happy/Polydor Records)

Isii Nafta by Nimco Happy

It’s hard to resist breaking into dance moves when you hear this joyously catchy polyglot pop tune turned global TikTok hit from Nimco Happy: a Kenya-raised singer with Kenyan and Somali heritage, who was previously a member of Nairobi-based band Fan-dhis. Isii Nafta (aka “I love you more than my life”) features declarations of love in Somali, Swahili, Arabic and English, and was an established party anthem and wedding favourite across Somalia before it was picked up as a digital inspiration by more than 100,000 TikTok creators, spanning the Somali diaspora to high-profile new fans including Cardi B, Bella Hadid and Drake. Nimco has been sweetly upbeat about this sudden recognition; “I believe that I am carrying Somalia’s name on my head and shoulders,” she told BBC’s This Is Africa programme in November 2021. Following millions of views, a major label distribution deal should now mean she earns due props for her worldwide bop. (AH)

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Got Me by Laura Mvula

This delirious update of Michael Jackson’s 1980s sound isn’t just gutsy and unexpected – Mvula was previously known for orchestral ballads – but utterly brilliant. The British singer-songwriter glides from low and lusty on the verses to raw and rapt on the choruses, sounding like an artist who knows she’s just hit the electro-funk jackpot. Plus, by including a dreamy and comparatively subdued middle eight, Mvula cleverly ensures her homage isn’t too on the nose. Few pop songs bottle joy quite so potently as this one. (NL)

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Cosmosis by Tony Allen, Ben Okri and Skepta

Just before the pandemic effectively shut down the world, the visionary drummer and Afrobeat innovator Tony Allen (pictured), award-winning Nigerian British novelist and poet Ben Okri and hip hop/grime MC Skepta were immersed in a studio session that would eventually yield Cosmosis. Allen would sadly pass away in April 2020, aged 79; Cosmosis would appear as a psych-jazzy stand-out on his posthumously released 2021 album, There Is No End, and the collaboration pays testimony to his inimitable rhythm and creative drive. Okri’s commanding spoken word delivery features lines from his poetry collection A Fire in My Head; the collective groove feels incendiary, uncompromising and optimistic. (AH)

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I Wanna Be Your Slave by Måneskin

Eurovision has always thrived on surprises, but this year’s contest threw up an almighty curveball. After becoming the first band to win in 15 years, Italian four-piece Måneskin snowballed into a global sensation, even cracking the Billboard Hot 100 with a funky cover of the Four Seasons’ Beggin’. Still, it’s this strutting original song that proves their Eurovision banger Zitti E Buoni was no fluke. “I wanna be your slave, I wanna be your master,” sings swaggering frontman Damiano David over jagged guitar riffs. It’s a song that makes pogoing in a sweaty moshpit seem far sexier than it actually is. (NL)

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Introvert by Little Simz

The opening statement of intent from this London MC and actress’s much-acclaimed fourth album is a superbly epic cut, heralded by lavish cinematic strings before her sharp, perceptive wordplay cuts in. Little Simz (aka Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikawo) has earned her place in the spotlight over more than a decade, but Introvert is still a startling piece of modern-day storytelling, spanning personal battles to political diatribes over an urgent pulse (“My speech ain’t involuntary/ Project with intention straight from my lungs/ I’m a black woman, and I’m a proud one”. The track is a one-woman odyssey, and the clarion call of a headstrong talent building her own legacy. (AH)

(Credit: Getty Images)

telepatía by Kali Uchis

According to Uchis, a Colombian-US singer with a Grammy and two albums to her name, this bilingual slow-burn started to go viral around Valentine’s Day. It’s easy to see why telepatía connected at this time: sung with palpable longing in Spanish and English, it’s a celebration of “making love telepathically” that struck a chord with anyone missing a loved one. Still, there’s something timeless about telepatía’s beguiling groove that would have broken through in any year. It’s not just gorgeous to listen to, but unusually soothing, too. (NL)

(Credit: Getty Images)

Don’t Shut Me Down by Abba

The concept of a comeback from iconic Swedish quartet Abba floated like pop fantasy for many years – and then, amidst the frankly strange days of 2021, it suddenly happened. Don’t Shut Me Down materialised as a dual single release with I Still Have Faith in You; both new tracks evoked classic Agnetha and Frida harmonies, but this one strikes a particularly triumphant note, from the unmistakable melancholy of its opening scene through to the rousing chorus: “I’m not the one you knew… I’m now, and then, combined”. It remains to be seen what the world will make of Abba’s virtual concert performances, but this post-disco anthem has definitely sealed its place on party playlists. (AH)

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