The 50 best albums of 2021

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

If you’re reading this, give yourself a hearty pat on the back – you made it to December with your faith in music still devout. Phew! Take a close look at this year’s truly brilliant album releases and you might just conclude that the last 12 months have been all about pushing things forward while taking stock of the past.

When Lana Del Rey released not one but two legend-sealing records, March’s ‘Chemtrails Over The Country Club’ and October’s ‘Blue Banisters’, the second – and better – collection found her excavating older, previously unreleased material in order to chart her decade-long rise to the top. Similarly, Brit-rockers IDLES swiftly followed up last year’s confrontational ‘Ultra Mono’ with the much more introspective ‘Crawler’, an odyssey into hardship that saw the band conclude: “In spite of it all, life is beautiful.” And what could be more 2021 than that?

Our number one record, too, is the sound of an artist who’s crafted a second album that’s deeply nuanced and personal, where its predecessor was made up of broader brushstrokes. It’s a record about regret, mistakes, legacy, family and self-realisation, a statement borne of lockdown-induced reflection that also pushes its author into uncharted territory.

So, now that we’ve taken stock of taking stock, and agree that this was a year of being understanding and thoughtful, let’s all argue on the internet about NME’s 50 best albums of 2021, shall we?

Jordan Bassett, Commissioning Editor (Music)

laura marling nme cover interview
Best albums of 2021

Words: Elizabeth Aubrey, Jordan Bassett, Mark Beaumont, Rhys Buchanan, Patrick Clarke, Rhian Daly, Alex Flood, El Hunt, Ben Jolley, Ella Kemp, Will Lavin, Dannii Leivers, Nick Levine, Sam Moore, Hannah Mylrea, Will Richards, Ali Shutler, Thomas Smith, Andrew Trendell, Jake Tucker, Jenessa Williams, Kyann-Siann Williams and Sophie Williams.

50. Doja Cat, ‘Planet Her’

50. Doja Cat, ‘Planet Her’

In a nutshell: TikTok-conquering artist builds brilliantly on the success of her breakthrough hit ‘Say So’

If Doja Cat remains shadowed by controversy, not least because she continues to work with producer Dr. Luke, it hardly shows in her music. The singer-rapper’s fabulous third album was defined by a certain lightness of touch as it glided from featherlight R&B (‘I Don’t Do Drugs’) to sultry sex jams (‘Need To Know’, ‘Get Into It (Yuh)’). Packed with TikTok-slaying melodies and plain-speaking putdowns, ‘Planet Her’ was an incredibly entertaining place to visit. NL

Key track: ‘Kiss Me More’

NME said: “If ‘Planet Her’ sounds precision-tooled for chilled summer listening, its choruses tend to linger like a Sangria buzz.”

49. Inhaler, ‘It Won’t Always Be Like This’

49. Inhaler, ‘It Won’t Always Be Like This’

In a nutshell: Energetic guitar music teeming with good intentions and even better vibes

Guitar music isn’t dead, but few people are more determined to keep it alive, kicking and thriving than Inhaler. The Dublin four-piece’s rousing debut offered catchy hooks and earnest lyrics propped up by frontman Eli Hewson’s powerful vocals (don’t worry, he’s come much further than just mimicking his dad Bono). Inhaler’s robust and rousing indie-rock has set up a bright future for these hopeful, likeable lads. EK

Key track: ‘It Won’t Always Be Like This’

NME said: “[Their debut] is teeming with nervous energy over trying to find balance in a world turned inside out.”

48. Kacey Musgraves, ‘Star-Crossed’

48. Kacey Musgraves, ‘Star-Crossed’

In a nutshell: Country-pop queen’s fifth album goes deep on her divorce

Musgraves’ critically-acclaimed 2018 LP ‘Golden Hour’ was always going to be a tough act to follow, but fans weren’t expecting her to bare her soul quite so brutally on the divorce-inspired ‘Star-Crossed’. Structured across three acts – from the excitable first moments of a new relationship to the crushing moment the divorce papers are signed – the sounds varied from soaring ballads to jazz and euphoric dance-pop. It made for an eclectic and emotional listen on a record that’s ultimately about survival. EA

Key track: ‘There Is A Light’

NME said: “Bolstered by its author’s frank pen and instilled with a sense of hope, it’s a powerful listen.”

47. Sault, ‘Nine’

47. Sault, ‘Nine’

In a nutshell: The anonymous collective’s disappearing album, which was available for just 99 days, only adds to their intrigue

Laughter often finds a way of breaking through even the bleakest of situations. Sault’s third album release in a single year opened with the sing-song laughter of ‘Haha’, tapping into the dark urge to cackle in the face of life’s cruel, twisted absurdity. Though many of ‘Nine’’s songs were led by repetitive, nursery-rhyme melodies, their jolliness was misleading. As the record progressed, it built a home for desperately sad tales of death, grief and brutality to find space. EH

Key track: ‘Fear’

NME said: “It’s impossible not to feel affected by the stories being told, but, despite ‘Nine’’s sadness, Sault channel optimism and hope for a brighter future into their songs.”

46. Nao, ‘And Then Life Was Beautiful’

46. Nao, ‘And Then Life Was Beautiful’

In a nutshell: A powerful beacon of hope from the Nottingham-born artist

Following Grammy and Mercury Prize nominations for her 2018 album ‘Saturn’, Nao took a step back to smell the flowers (sunflowers, in this case) for album three. Shifting from electronic music to her self-styled “organic R&B”, ‘And Then Life Was Beautiful’ saw the 33-year-old overcome the overwhelming demands of her success to demonstrate that, sometimes, it’s OK to just take time and explore life. KSW

Key track: ‘Antidote’

NME said: “‘And Then Life Was Beautiful’ is a true celebration of R&B, yet – despite its nostalgic nods – Nao has still created a record that doesn’t sound like anyone else.”

45. Young Thug, ‘Punk’

45. Young Thug, ‘Punk’

In a nutshell: The trap pioneer embraces the guitar on his hugely inventive second studio album

Young Thug is a trailblazing and prevalent voice in the rap world, but many were still surprised by the 180-degree musical turn he took for his second studio album. Pivoting from his typical synth and 808s-heavy rap sound to the acoustic stylings of guitars and drums, ‘Punk’ saw the melodic and sometimes-nonsensical lyricist shine as he collaborated with the likes of Post Malone, Doja Cat and the late Mac Miller. KSW

Key track: ‘Faces’

NME said: “‘Punk’ is so different from the rest of the music that he has been putting out – Young Thug shows that he can make hits that can transcend the rap world.”

44. Bleachers, ‘Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night’

44. Bleachers, ‘Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night’

In a nutshell: Super-producer Jack Antonoff’s third Bleachers album finds light at the end of the tunnel

Aided by musical pals Lana Del Rey and Bruce Springsteen, Antonoff’s third album under the Bleachers moniker was a razor-sharp collection that coupled earnest lyricism with lush instrumentals. From sax-fuelled belters (‘Stop Making This Hurt’, ‘How Dare You Want More’) to meditative moments (‘What’d I Do With All This Faith?’), ‘Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night’ was optimistic-pop at its very best. HM

Key track: ‘Chinatown’ (feat. Bruce Springsteen)

NME said: “Bleachers’ third album is their strongest effort so far – the most cohesive, with the most poignant lyricism and musical moments.”

43. Dry Cleaning, ‘New Long Leg’

43. Dry Cleaning, ‘New Long Leg’

In a nutshell: Witty, wry and dry dissections of ordinary life that find a kaleidoscope of emotion in day-to-day banality

On ‘New Long Leg’, Dry Cleaning vocalist Florence Shaw ruminated on oven chips, discarded air fresheners and that little bit of your nose you can see in the corner of your vision when you close one eye, and made it all seem completely entrancing. Her louche and languorous meditations, backed by slick hooks from the rest of the band, made for one of the most unique and fully-formed debut records we’ve heard in a very long time. PC

Key track: ‘Scratchcard Lanyard’

NME said: “While in some ways akin to the wiry, sung-spoken trend of post-punk bands emerging from the UK in the last few years, the band also sit apart due to their more playful subject matter and brilliant refusal to take themselves too seriously; it’s something the modern punk scene is crying out for.”

42. Vince Staples, ‘Vince Staples’

42. Vince Staples, ‘Vince Staples’

In a nutshell: Long Beach rapper’s link-up with Kenny Beats is a match made in rap heaven

If you weren’t a fan of ‘DONDA’ and ‘Certified Lover Boy’s elongated runtimes, then might we suggest Vince Staples’ self-titled record? Produced entirely by the permanently in-demand Kenny Beats, ‘Vince Staples’ clocked in at just 22 minutes and, crucially, didn’t waste a single second. Staples’ knowing and often-harrowing bars about danger, death and despair (“Don’t get murdered,” he sighed on ‘The Shining’, “we dying broke or live with broken hearts”) were pushed to the forefront by his producer’s reserved approach, permitting the eponymous – if reluctant – star of the show to shine. SM

Key track: ‘MHM’

NME said: “With ‘Vince Staples’, Kenny Beats has helped Long Beach’s finest release another spectacular record.”

41. Joy Crookes, ‘Skin’

41. Joy Crookes, ‘Skin’

In a nutshell: The powerful journey of a young woman reckoning with adulthood

The NME 100 alumnus blended R&B, modern soul and pop on a masterful debut that explored the personal and political turmoil of entering adulthood. Tracks like the emotive ‘Unlearn You’ saw Crookes be more vulnerable than ever, while snippets of sounds from her everyday life found their way into the likes of ‘19th Floor’, making the record feel like an intimate diary confessional. EA

Key Track: ‘Kingdom’

NME said: “Crookes allows herself to revel in her own possibility of healing, singing directly about her past and who she wants to become, letting her formidable voice guide the way: cool, curious, full of momentum.”

40. Black Country, New Road – ‘For The First Time’

40. Black Country, New Road – ‘For The First Time’

In a nutshell: Avant-garde pretension and post-punk power from the wildly experimental seven-piece

Across Black Country, New Road’s debut album we encountered unrelenting waves of Jewish klezmer music, flashes of dissonant post-punk, tender ballads and much, much more. Orchestrated by its sardonic, beaten-down narrator Isaac Wood, the music posed far more questions than it answered, hinting at an extremely exciting future. We haven’t a clue about what it’ll sound like, though. WR

Key track: ‘Sunglasses’

NME said: “Their peak may be years away yet, but this is still some of the most exciting music you’ll hear until then. We’re not sure what more you could ask of a debut.”

39. Easy Life, ‘Life’s A Beach’

39. Easy Life, ‘Life’s A Beach’

In a nutshell: The soundtrack to a woozy night out with a relatable, messy narrator

Easy Life’s debut tackled feelings of resilient hope and existential dread with the same comforting grin you’d get from having a conversation with a best mate at the pub. Vocalist Murray Matravers acted as your friendly tour guide through an empowering record that covered despair, self-hatred and lairy nights out, while the band dabbled in everything from jazz and indie to emo. The Leicester band know that life isn’t easy – but that isn’t going to stop the party. AS

Key track: ‘Skeletons’

NME said: “‘Life’s A Beach’ toes that line between serenity and uncertainty.”

38. Tomorrow X Together, ‘The Chaos Chapter: Freeze’

38. Tomorrow X Together, ‘The Chaos Chapter: Freeze’

In a nutshell: Leaders of K-pop’s fourth-generation face up to life’s harsh realities

If escape was a major theme in Tomorrow X Together’s ‘The Dream Chapter’ series, its chaotic follow-up brought the five-piece firmly back to reality. Their eclectic, angst-ridden second studio album poured its heart into bringing the trials and tribulations of young adulthood to life. But even through emo-pop-coloured clouds of cynicism, dazzling moments of hope still managed to shine through and thaw pessimism’s grip. RD

Key track: ‘0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You) (feat. Seori)’

NME said: “Prior to the release of ‘The Chaos Chapter: Freeze’, TXT’s back catalogue was a skip-free zone. This new record not only keeps up that 100 per cent strike rate of golden tunes, but also gives us their best release to date.”

37. Ray BLK, ‘Access Denied’

37. Ray BLK, ‘Access Denied’

In a nutshell: A polished and feel-good debut that does the London’s talent justice

The winner of BBC Music’s Sound Of 2017 poll finally delivered her debut album this year, which saw her shake off any preconceived notions about her music. From self-reflective ballads to dancehall tracks, Ray more than proved her well-roundedness and blazed a trail for any number of future UK R&B hopefuls to follow. KSW

Key track: ‘MIA’

NME said: “Although the album is called ‘Access Denied’, Ray BLK has granted us the first glimpse into her rebirth – and we’re ready for the ride.”

36. Girl In Red, ‘If I Could Make It Go Quiet’

36. Girl In Red, ‘If I Could Make It Go Quiet’

In a nutshell: Queer-pop icon catapults bedroom pop into the stratosphere

Norway’s Girl In Red – AKA Marie Ulven – initially earned her stripes as a life-saving online sensation, her voice offering solace to those struggling to find their place in the world. For her debut album, she elevated her idiosyncratic indie anthems about coming out, battling anxiety and being free from the DIY bedroom pop origins to a blockbuster level. AT

Key track: ‘Serotonin’

NME said: “In the stand-out moments, Ulven proves that she’s more than capable of rabble-rousing indie-rock and slow-burning yearning alike.”

35. Big Red Machine, ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’

35. Big Red Machine, ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’

In a nutshell: The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon expand their musical community

Collaboration has always been key to Big Red Machine, and it was a defining feature of their second album ‘How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?’. Dessner and Vernon were joined by a host of guest vocalists (including Taylor Swift, Sharon Van Etten and Fleet Foxes) to add their distinctive sounds to the Big Red Machine community. It never lacked cohesion, though – as Dessner explained to NME earlier this year: “The music binds it all together, and it’s almost like chapters of a book with different characters that are all singing, all interrelated.” HM

Key track: ‘Renegade’

NME said: “The epitome of the figurative ‘beating heart’ that formed Big Red Machine, this is an autumnal album: one that lays the duo bare emotionally, and one that frequently calls for reflection.”

34. Remi Wolf, ‘Juno’

34. Remi Wolf, ‘Juno’

In a nutshell: Maximalist, genre-bending funk pop that marries brazen lyrics with visionary beats

Nothing was off limits for Cali-based artist on her dizzyingly good debut, a smorgasbord of fearless songwriting and ridiculously fun production. She poked fun at everything – her experience with addiction, her favourite pop culture icons, her desires and regrets – and rewrote the rules of pop music without even thinking about it. Wolf’s voice was warm and bright, her vision blindingly colourful and commanding. EK

Key track: ‘Quiet On Set’

NME said: “Maximalist pop music that’s stuffed with moreish hooks, gloopy grooves and cartoonish ad-libs.”

33. AJ Tracey, ‘Flu Game’

33. AJ Tracey, ‘Flu Game’

In a nutshell: The Tottenham rapper’s the unanimous MVP on his banger-filled second album

The London star invoked the nickname given to a food-poisoned Michael Jordan’s 1997 match-winning NBA performance to emphasise that ‘Flu Game’ was never going to miss. When the west London MC wasn’t effortlessly sprinkling wry sports references into his assured solo cuts (‘Cheerleaders’, ‘Draft Pick’), he was seamlessly linking up with the likes of Mabel, Kehlani and, er, T-Pain (it works, mind). When AJ shoots, he scores. SM

Key track: ‘West Ten’

NME said: “‘Flu Game’ cements AJ Tracey as a commercially successful rapper still discovering new ways to craft hooks and clever wordplay.”

32. Laura Mvula, ‘Pink Noise’

32. Laura Mvula, ‘Pink Noise’

In a nutshell: Supremely talented musician reboots her career by taking a trip to the ’80s

After being dropped by her record label in 2017, Laura Mvula went back to the drawing board. Stepping away from the elegant orchestral pop that dominated her first two albums, the Birmingham-born singer-songwriter decided to make a harder-edged record infused with the “warm sunset tones of the ’80s”. Whether she was channelling MJ on ‘Got Me’ or duetting with Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil on the dewy-eyed ballad ‘What Matters’, the results were glorious, glistening and utterly life-affirming. NL

Key track: ‘Got Me’

NME said: “It isn’t just a heartening comeback, but an absolutely sparkling pop album.”

31. Slowthai, ‘Tyron’

31. Slowthai, ‘Tyron’

In a nutshell: An equally scorching and sobering game of two halves from the Northampton rapper

The belligerent first part of Slowthai’s second album (which featured him going toe-to-toe with Skepta and A$AP Rocky) might’ve followed the formbook, but ‘Tyron’’s reflective companion side saw its eponymous creator embark on the road to redemption. Tender collaborations with James Blake, Mount Kimbie and Deb Never helped the rapper embrace his sensitive side, where he even sampled, of all people, Mariah Carey. SM

Key track: ‘terms’

NME said: “Largely written in the solitude of lockdown, Slowthai’s second album sees him reckon with childhood, adulthood, shame, defiance and regret.”

30. The Killers, ‘Pressure Machine’

30. The Killers, ‘Pressure Machine’

In a nutshell: It’s Brandon Flowers’ ‘Nebraska’

Dialling back the canyon rock maximalism for the lockdown age, Brandon Flowers constructed a restrained, reflective and relatable portrait of his childhood hometown of Nephi, Utah: the “hillbilly heroin”, the train track tragedies, the small-town unities, limitations and isolations. Not as stark or dark as Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ (guitarist Dave Keuning’s studio return came with much atmospheric fanfare), ‘Pressure Machine’ was nonetheless still a masterclass in how to stir everyman intimacy. MB

Key track: ‘The Getting By’

NME said: “The songs presented here are less likely to be belted out with strangers at a stadium tour, but to soundtrack an existential stare into the last whisky of the night.”

29. Genesis Owusu, ‘Smiling With No Teeth’

29. Genesis Owusu, ‘Smiling With No Teeth’

In a nutshell: Colourful funk-rap that’s not afraid to play with difficult themes

The Ghanaian-Australian rapper’s debut was a record that celebrated life outside of your run-of-the-mill R&B, layering poignant lyrical narratives of race and politics with a theatrical vocal performance. A little bit Gorillaz, a little bit TV On The Radio, a whole lot of something of his very own, ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ was an album that showcased Owusu’s abundant potential. JW

Key track: ‘The Other Black Dog’

NME said: “Genesis Owusu has delivered a riveting album that underscores the power of self-knowledge, perspective and art – one that should be cranked loud.”

28. IDLES, ‘CRAWLER’

28. IDLES, ‘CRAWLER’

In a nutshell: Bristol rockers evolve into a darker, more insular beast

IDLES’ fourth album was a rebirth. While the band had brawled and bellowed their way through 2020’s ‘Ultra Mono’, ‘CRAWLER’ saw them retreat, eschewing political and social barbs for self-loathing and introspection. Over the thrum and hiss of minimalist instrumentation, vocalist Joe Talbot tackled his struggles with addiction head-on, opening a brand-new chapter for one of the UK’s most beloved bands that felt both uncomfortable and cathartic. DL

Key track: ‘The Beachland Ballroom’

NME said: “‘CRAWLER’ rips apart the idea of what IDLES is, how they can sound and what they represent.”

27. Summer Walker, ‘Still Over It’

27. Summer Walker, ‘Still Over It’

In a nutshell: A smoky set of alt-R&B break-up anthems from the chart-topping US star

Following her very public split from producer London On Da Track, Summer Walker offloaded her relationship troubles through the styles of music she loves most: R&B and soul. Stepping away from the commercialised, overtly sexy sounds of her 2019 debut ‘Over It’, ‘Still Over It’ featured all the moody adventures of a break-up. From regret to anger – and everything in between – Walker delivered a knockout and addictive alt-R&B album that more than fulfilled its purpose of serving as a warning about no-good men. KSW

Key track: ‘Insane’

NME said: “If ‘Over It’ was a set of ladies’ anthems about love, then ‘Still Over It’ is one for the break-up.”

26. Chvrches, ‘Screen Violence’

26. Chvrches, ‘Screen Violence’

In a nutshell: Glaswegian synth-pop trio hit new heights with their intense fourth album

In a record that was full of huge sounds and stunning vocals, it was ‘Screen Violence’s pitch-black lyrics that lodged firmly in your head. A treatise on mortality, it was a fair response to both the terror of modern life, and the death threats the band received in 2019 following their dispute with collaborator Marshmello, who enlisted Chris Brown for his own work. This darker edge helped the album stand out, with ‘Screen Violence’ donning the trappings of ’80s horror movies to let vocalist Lauren Mayberry pick through several modern-day anxieties. The Cure’s Robert Smith even showed up for the exceptional ‘How Not To Drown’ – what’s not to love? JT

Key track: ‘How Not To Drown’

NME said: “The Glasgow-formed trio shape songs that are like mini horror vignettes – rich with storytelling and a side of social commentary.”

25. Royal Blood, ‘Typhoons’

25. Royal Blood, ‘Typhoons’

In a nutshell: Brighton rockers take to the dancefloor to seek redemption

Kicking the booze and drugs, Royal Blood frontman Mike Kerr found himself with a new sense of purpose and a new sonic language to express. Being far more explicit about their dancefloor influences for their third album (think Daft Punk, Justice, Goldfrapp and Cassius), the Brighton duo used groove and colour to be far more open and vulnerable – taking them out of the black, and into the shimmering lights beneath the mirrorball. AT

Key track: ‘Limbo’

NME said: “‘Typhoons’ is not only their best work to date, but all the better for Royal Blood being free to explore what they’re capable of.”

24. Snail Mail, ‘Valentine’

24. Snail Mail, ‘Valentine’

In a nutshell: A devastating and profound grunge-pop evolution

Following up the heartbreak anthems on her 2018 debut ‘Lush’ would have been an unenviable task for Lindsey Jordan – AKA Snail Mail – but she pulled it off with elegance and ease on ‘Valentine’, growing out her sound through perfectly executed ballads and captivating melodrama. If you ever need a companion to help you navigate all the heartache that life can throw up, Jordan should be the top pick. RB

Key track: ‘Headlock’

NME said: “As a songwriter, Jordan continues to cut straight through to the messy, conflicted, hopelessly infatuated guts of life.”

23. Bicep, ‘Isles’

23. Bicep, ‘Isles’

In a nutshell: Belfast duo’s banging beats confirm their place among electronic music’s elite

Having made the leap from tastemaking bloggers to beloved producers in their own right, Bicep’s self-titled 2017 debut felt like a homage to the techno, house and breakbeat they’d unearthed during their travels. But the dense, fascinating ‘Isles’ saw the pair step up to neatly define and master their own sound, utilising vocalists (Clara La San, Julia Kent) to provide vivid new textures to exploit in their creations. TS

Key track: ‘Saku’

NME said: “Few other artists can conjure up these much-missed moments of patiently rapturous rave ecstasy quite so artfully.”

22. Silk Sonic, ‘An Evening With Silk Sonic’

22. Silk Sonic, ‘An Evening With Silk Sonic’

In a nutshell: The most ridiculously fun collaborative album of the year, loaded with infectious personality and smooth-as-hell choruses

In the luxuriantly vivid world they’ve created as Silk Sonic, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak have elevated their individual artistic quirks while finding dynamic harmony. Rarely has music this intricately constructed sounded so effortless; this album was old-school gold, repurposing genres of the past to sound as vintage as the wine the pair sang about (“I’m sippin’ wine (Sip, sip) in a robe (Drip, drip)”). The trust and appreciation between Mars and .Paak was palpable throughout – testament to the magic of collaboration. SW

Key track: ‘Smokin Out The Window’

NME said: “The magic is in the way that the music moves: the songs are radiant and full of joy, formed from the synergy of two relentlessly creative minds.”

21. London Grammar, ‘Californian Soil’

21. London Grammar, ‘Californian Soil’

In a nutshell: Indie-pop trio’s most upbeat album yet elevates them to festival-headlining status

From its string-filled cinematic introduction to the galloping title track and angelic belter ‘How Does It Feel’, Hannah Reid’s vocals have never sounded so powerful. Offset against vast sonic backdrop, the direct, honest lyricism (about the Nottingham band’s near break-up, music industry misogyny) and romantic imagery saw spellbinding tracks like ‘Baby It’s You’ and the devastating ‘Lose Your Head’ become euphoric, if unlikely, festival anthems. BJ

Key track: ‘Baby It’s You’

NME said: “A new energy saturates ‘Californian Soil’: fizzing with club sounds and filled with bright lyricism, London Grammar are more confident, and more fun, than they’ve ever been.”

20. Lil Nas X, ‘MONTERO’

20. Lil Nas X, ‘MONTERO’

In a nutshell: An accomplished, big budget balancing act of pop, rock and trap hits

A dizzying whirl of bright-eyed confidence and pride, ‘MONTERO’ was the soundtrack of Lil Nas X finally coming into his own. Within the 41 minutes of his debut album, Montero Lamar Hill gave us the full range of who he has become: a skilful rapper, a passionate lover, a survivor of trauma and a groundbreaking cultural icon. In running the full gamut of his talents, he revealed more of himself than ever before. SW

Key track: ‘THATS WHAT I WANT’

NME said: “‘Montero’ sees [Lil Nas X] opening up on a more personal level, and asserting himself as an artist with serious creative pull.”

19. Lorde, ‘Solar Power’

19. Lorde, ‘Solar Power’

In a nutshell: The Kiwi superstar dials down the pop bombast in search of home comforts and self-acceptance

Watching Lorde mature as an artist in real time has been a special experience. ‘Solar Power’ possessed an intimate quality that comes with making sense of a new reality, mining the ups and downs of fame in order to reflect on the parallels between the person she was and is now becoming. As such, these emotionally courageous songs were revelatory, littered with death, confusion and sadness, but buoyed by cloud-parting choruses that pointed towards a new horizon. SW

Key track: ‘Secrets From A Girl (Who’s Seen It All)’

NME said: “Few artists strike gold on every record they create but, for the third time in a row, Lorde has done it again, crafting yet another world-beater.”

18. Dave, ‘We’re All Alone In This Together’

18. Dave, ‘We’re All Alone In This Together’

In a nutshell: Thoughtful, thrilling tunes from one of the best British rappers around

When NME first met Dave back in 2017, he was mixing beats in the bedroom of his mum’s house. Fast-forward four years and the 23-year-old Streatham-raised artist has two UK Number One albums, a BRIT Award and a Mercury Prize to his name. The reason behind his meteoric rise? An unmatched ability to craft grime-flavoured bangers with deeply personal, political lyrics – as evidenced by his extraordinary second record. AF

Key track: ‘Clash’

NME said: “Dave has proved again that he’s a voice of a generation, sitting pretty atop his peers when it comes to making unforgettable London rap classics.”

17. Lana Del Rey, ‘Blue Banisters’

17. Lana Del Rey, ‘Blue Banisters’

In a nutshell: A dive into the archives and Lana’s close circle of collaborators

For her second album of 2021, Lana Del Rey afforded herself the luxury of looking back. While ‘Blue Banisters’ boasted some brand new material, the record also shone a light on previously unreleased tracks that got their start back in the singer-songwriter’s early days, charting her growth from master of vintage-hued melancholia to crypto-referencing ultra modernist. RD

Key track: ‘Arcadia’

NME said: “‘Blue Banisters’ doesn’t continue the Laurel Canyon folk sound of ‘Chemtrails…’ or 2019’s ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ [but it does] reminds us that Lana Del Rey is still as great as she’s always been.”

16. Sleaford Mods, ‘Spare Ribs’

16. Sleaford Mods, ‘Spare Ribs’

In a nutshell: Notts punks go to war, armed with the biggest beats of their career

“And we’re all so Tory-tired / And beaten by minds small,” Sleaford Mods frontman Jason Williamson crooned on ‘Spare Ribs’ opener ‘The New Brick’. He’s not wrong, but the Nottingham duo aren’t going to take it lying down. The Mods rose up through the beige shithousery of Brexit Britain with their most defiant, colourful, fearless, funny-as-fuck and often oddly beautiful work to date. A career-high from a band like no other. AT

Key track: ‘Nudge It’

NME said: “The extraordinary ‘Spare Ribs’ is graffiti on a concrete wall; there’s no manifesto, no easy answers and nowhere to hide.”

15. Billie Eilish, ‘Happier Than Ever’

15. Billie Eilish, ‘Happier Than Ever’

In a nutshell: Eilish surprises us on album two with a fascinating blend of vintage influences and uneasy contemporary touches

Winning a host of Grammys off the back of your debut album and rapidly becoming one of the biggest stars in the world while you’re still a teenager – it’s the stuff of fairy tales, right? Not quite. As Billie Eilish showed on the tellingly-named ‘Happier Than Ever’, being flung into the spotlight is rarely that idyllic – and, as the world gets to know you better, the smaller, private things you once treasured are constantly seen as being up for grabs. While her groundbreaking debut was menacing and electronic, ‘Happier Than Ever’ sounded warmer and more low-key, exploring the trappings of fame alongside classic, but slightly skewed, sounds. EH

Key track: ‘Not My Responsibility’

NME said: “Though it’s unlikely that her place among their ranks was ever in doubt anyway, ‘Happier Than Ever’ fully establishes Billie Eilish as one of her generation’s most significant pop artists.”

14. Clairo, ‘Sling’

14. Clairo, ‘Sling’

In a nutshell: Lady of the canyon ponders her future

“I’m born to be somebody then somebody comes from me,” the 23-year-old Atlanta-born singer-songwriter marvels of potential parenthood on the delicate ‘Reaper’, before wondering if she really wants the responsibility: “I can’t fuck it up if it’s not there at all.” Her conundrum is purely speculative, but there’s relatable uncertainty throughout this Jack Antonoff-co-produced and, on the woozy ‘Blouse’, Lorde-featuring ode to the ’70s LA scene that saw Joni Mitchell and Carole King mint their legacies. JB

Key track: ‘Blouse’

NME said: “This is Clairo doing what she does best – crafting gorgeous jewels that help you make sense of your own world, one step at a time.”

13. Ghetts, ‘Conflict Of Interest’

13. Ghetts, ‘Conflict Of Interest’

In a nutshell: London rapper emerges from the shadows of his contemporaries with his most complete record to date

After almost two decades of watching some of his grime peers break into the mainstream and be lauded as leaders of the cultural uprising he helped create, ‘Conflict Of Interest’ gave Ghetts his long overdue moment in the sun. More rap than grime, with poignantly subtle production and precision storytelling on a par with Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’, the Plaistow rapper took his time, rid himself of ego and crafted a refreshingly transparent and cohesive new age classic that bagged him a Mercury Prize nomination and his first-ever Top Five album. WL

Key track: ‘Autobiography’

NME said: “It’s a rare achievement to make an album as thoughtful and transparent as this.”

12. The War On Drugs, ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’

12. The War On Drugs, ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’

In a nutshell: Philly dudes amp up the Dad-rock. It’s top gear

New fatherhood and lockdown brought out the introspective side of bandleader Adam Granduciel, a man who wasn’t exactly lacking in the wistful soft-rock department before he found himself banged up in baby jail. From the triumphant, Dylan-name-checking title track to the tear-jerking ‘Rings Around My Father’s Eyes’, this is music full of wonder and a cautious, melancholic sense of hope. Granduciel might not live here anymore, but his perfected brand of cracked Americana isn’t going anywhere. JB

Key track: ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’

NME said: “Granduciel has mastered his craft with obsessive drive, figuring out life’s bumpy road by way of soul-searching Americana.”

11. For Those I Love, ‘For Those I Love’

11. For Those I Love, ‘For Those I Love’

In a nutshell: Meditations on loss morph into a rave-fuelled exorcism

Dublin producer and songwriter David Balfe didn’t make this record as a career move – he did it because he had no other choice. ‘For Those I Love’ was written while Balfe was grieving for his childhood friend and musical partner Paul Curran, who took his own life in 2018. Balfe locked himself away in his shed to work, and drew on memories of driving around at night listening to mixtapes of The Streets, Burial and Mount Kimbie. The end result was a perfect testament to why we rave: to celebrate life. AT

Key track: ‘Birthday / The Pain’

NME said: “‘For Those I Love’ is not only an immaculate debut, but a beautiful record that speaks to anyone who’s ever loved and lost, anyone who might be mourning or just processing the days of youthful abandon, or perhaps those who need reminding that you can’t have shadows without the light.”

10. Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Sour’

10. Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Sour’

In a nutshell: Impeccable pop-punk storytelling from the school of Taylor Swift

Propelled by her viral mega-hits ‘Drivers License’ and ‘Good 4 U’, no new artist owned 2021 quite like Olivia Rodrigo. Blending comedic self-deprecation with open, unapologetic wallowing, Rodrigo pulled together the debris of heartbreak in ways that only a teenager can: full of dramatic highs and emotional lows. “I’m not cool and I’m not smart / And I can’t even parallel park” from ‘Brutal’ might be one of the lines of the year, while ‘Jealousy Jealousy’ recognised its own insecurities by learning how to step away from digital comparison culture. ‘Sour’ might have been a cultural zeitgeist, but Rodrigo’s talent is for the long haul. JW

Key track: ‘Good 4 U’

NME said: “With typical Gen-Z versatility, she hops from genre to genre without losing sight of herself and doses her songs with bitingly specific details that go full circle from being precisely personal to universally relatable.”

9. Turnstile, ‘Glow On’

9. Turnstile, ‘Glow On’

In a nutshell: Boundlessly experimental hardcore brilliance from one of the world’s most in-form bands

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the rippling synth loop that opens ‘Glow On’ – you’re going to want to be on high alert for the thrill-a-minute journey that lies ahead. The Baltimore quintet’s exhilarating fourth album dragged you kicking and screaming into the mosh pit (‘Blackout’, ‘Don’t Play’, ‘Holiday’), before it transported you to strange-but-serene new heights (‘Underwater Boi’, ‘Alien Love Call’, ‘No Surprise’) and then stage-dived back down to Earth to rejoin the band’s thunderous party (‘T.L.C.’, ‘Wild Wrld’, ‘Dance-Off’), all in the space of 35 utterly mesmeric minutes. “And it’s been so long…” Turnstile frontman Brendan Yates noted on colossal opener ‘Mystery’ – some of us have been waiting a lifetime for a record as genuinely flawless as ‘Glow On’. SM

Key track: ‘Underwater Boi’

NME said: “This is an album that shuns almost any traditional categorisation, and is all the more thrilling for it.”

8. Halsey, ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’

8. Halsey, ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’

In a nutshell: Ever-inventive pop star teams up with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for a blistering body horror album

Being pregnant, we’re often told, is one of the most beautiful experiences in life, all sunshine and rainbows as a new life comes into existence. Halsey refuted that narrative on their fourth album by confronting concerns around image and identity, love and past hedonism, and the patriarchy’s judgements on who can be considered fit for motherhood. With Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on hand to produce, Halsey matched such weighty topics with equally heavy sounds – skipping through industrial rock, drum’n’bass breakbeats and searing shoegaze with thrillingly visceral results. RD

Key track: ‘I am not a woman, I’m a god’

NME said: “It almost goes without saying that this album is intense as hell and not exactly teeming with light relief. It’s also an intricate and an endlessly compelling artistic statement that only Halsey could have made.”

7. Arlo Parks, ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’

7. Arlo Parks, ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’

In a nutshell: The London artist’s stunning, Mercury Prize-winning debut album

“You’re not alone like you think you are,” Arlo Parks sang on ‘Hope’, a standout cut from ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’. It was a message that resonated throughout the entirety of the Mercury Prize-winning record, a collection of warm and comforting songs released in the depths of Britain’s bleak second wave. Over a soundscape of jazzy instrumentals and lo-fi sounds Parks’ lyrics effortlessly depicted mental health struggles, sexuality, coming of age and unrequited love. HM

Key track: ‘Hope’

NME said: “Arlo Parks may be the voice of Gen Z, but there’s no doubt that this is a universal collection of stories that’ll provide solace for listeners of all ages and backgrounds for decades to come.”

6. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, ‘Carnage’

6. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, ‘Carnage’

In a nutshell: The dark lords transform COVID confusion into an adventurous career high

Cave told his fans that ‘Carnage’ was born after “taking stock” of life when the pandemic pulled The Bad Seeds from the road, leading to “a brutal but very beautiful record embedded in a communal catastrophe”. From the doomy, pulsing mania of ‘Hand Of God’ through to the spectral, swooning romance of ‘Albuquerque’, Cave and Ellis created a rich tapestry of sounds to capture the highs, lows and bewilderment of the COVID crisis while lyrically speaking to our new ideas of peace, panic, political unrest, love and togetherness. If there was one album to document what we’ve all been through, let this masterpiece be it. AT

Key track: ‘Hand Of God’

NME said: “‘Carnage’ is arguably Cave and Ellis’ best record since The Bad Seeds’ latter-day reinvention on 2013’s ‘Push The Sky Away’, or maybe even ‘Abattoir Blues’. It’s certainly two master craftsmen at the peak of their melodramatic powers.”

5. Tyler, the Creator, ‘Call Me If You Get Lost’

5. Tyler, the Creator, ‘Call Me If You Get Lost’

In a nutshell: A true original delivers the most technically impressive performance of his career

The pivotal moment on Tyler, the Creator’s sixth studio album was ‘Lumberjack’, a song that attempted to unpack the California artist’s decade-long mission to stay true to his meme-driven personality while simultaneously being taken seriously. “Used to laugh at me / Listen to me with their ears closed,” Tyler rapped, his delivery magnetic and proud. It sounded like a climactic ending to a film, narrated by our now-reflective, wiser and untouchable hero. As he continued to bring things full circle across this unpredictable-yet-triumphant 16-track album, Tyler demanded to be celebrated – and so we obliged. SW

Key track: ‘Lumberjack’

NME said: “The record stands as an all-encompassing culmination of Tyler’s ever-varying sound, showing that growth isn’t always linear and that artists can be a multitude of things.”

4. Self Esteem, ‘Prioritise Pleasure’

4. Self Esteem, ‘Prioritise Pleasure’

In a nutshell: Come for the pop bangers, stay for the fiercely witty one-liners

As is often the way with capitalism, it can feel like the concept of “self-care” has been hoovered up by the suits and turned into another method of flogging over-priced sheet masks and little tiny pipettes full of acid peel. Though the title ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ felt like yet another empty slogan at first glance, Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s second album as Self Esteem actually dug far deeper into the messier realities of self-love, using twisted pop as a way to explore what it really means to accept yourself fully in a world that would rather you didn’t, moody moments and all. EH

Key track: ‘I Do This All The Time’

NME said: “Assured and unapologetic, ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ is charged with a dark, smirking wit that’s impossible to turn away from.”

3. Wolf Alice, ‘Blue Weekend’

3. Wolf Alice, ‘Blue Weekend’

In a nutshell: Britain’s best band go stratospheric on their ambitious and cinematic third album

‘Blue Weekend’, the long-awaited follow-up to Wolf Alice’s 2017 album ‘Visions Of A Life’, was something of a roller coaster. Across 40 minutes, it encapsulated all the drama you could fit into two days, from fallouts with friends (‘The Beach’) and flirtations with strangers (‘Delicious Things’), to getting messy in the kitchen at a house party (‘Play The Greatest Hits’) and crying over your ex in the bathtub (‘No Hard Feelings’). Through it all, the band sounded bolder than ever, taking their widescreen sound to dizzying new heights and raising the bar for their peers yet again. RD

Key track: ‘Delicious Things’

NME said: “‘Blue Weekend’ is another stone-cold masterpiece that further cements their place at the very peak of British music.”

2. Little Simz, ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’

2. Little Simz, ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’

In a nutshell: An epic piece of storytelling from an unstoppable talent

The orchestral unfurling of opener ‘Introvert’ made it immediately clear that Little Simz meant business with her fourth studio album: an intricately-woven feast of grime and trap beats, golden-hued peals of horn and cinematic levels of ambition. From the celebratory ‘Woman’ to the bitter delivery of ‘I Love You, I Hate You’ (“Is you a sperm donor or a dad to me?” she snarled), ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ took on weighty topics – love, hatred, systemic racism, the ache of absence – and held them close, taking us on a rich journey that cut to the core of Britain’s best rapper. EH

Key track: ‘Woman’

NME said: “A timeless project – one which, arguably, cements Little Simz as one of the greatest artists the UK has ever produced.”

1. Sam Fender, ‘Seventeen Going Under’

1. Sam Fender, ‘Seventeen Going Under’

In a nutshell: Geordie hero’s heartfelt second album cements his place as a British guitar great

If you’ve seen Sam Fender perform live in recent months, you’ll know that one song – and a single phrase within it – sends shivers down the spine and unites the room: “I was far too scared to hit him,” he says of a bully on the title track, “but I would hit him in a heartbeat now.” It’s the type of unsaid tension and regret that many of us wrangle with on a day-to-day basis – it can simmer away for years and years until it all boils over. ‘Seventeen Going Under’, Fender’s remarkable second record, took a bold, sagacious step by recognising and vocalising these slights and feelings of heartbreak in a bid to arrest them before they come to a devastating head.

Ordered by the NHS to shield during the early stages of the pandemic, Fender used the enforced time at home to revisit his younger self and count the blows and bruises he received as a young man. He resisted pity and instead embraced the idea of reinvention to not only be a better friend, brother and lover, but to be kinder to himself in trying times like these. When he touched on grief (‘Spit Of You’) and mental health (‘Mantra’), he found wise words where many of us would flounder.

The comparisons to his hero Bruce Springsteen will no doubt remain (‘The Dying Light’), but when he ventured into the Americana territory already populated by The War On Drugs (‘Last To Make It Home’) and The Killers (‘Get You Down’) Fender strengthened a sound that is ready to stand up and hold its own with the very best of them. If the title track told us anything, it’s that this is all Sam Fender has ever wanted to be able to do. TS

Key track: ‘Seventeen Going Under’

NME said: “Fender digs real deep for a wiser, weightier record stuffed with sax-soaked rock epics that touch on life and death, love and heartbreak, rage and regret. Many of you, perhaps, will recognise the flashpoints and relationships he speaks of as your own.”

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