The 20 best debut albums of 2021

Essential records from another turbulent, yet tremendous year for new music

Amidst the stop-start routines and confusion that defined much of 2021, pockets of light started to emerge. Festivals made a return over the summer, as did gigs and in-store album signings – all of which are essential to new, exciting artists trying to establish their sound, audience and place in the music industry at large. As such, it has been rewarding to see both debut albums years in the making and those recorded throughout early months of the pandemic receive a live airing.

As life began to open back up, we turned to these powerful and varied first statements to soundtrack the times we gathered in sweaty club venues, dancefloors, packed basements and moshpits. They offered relief as we began to shake off a year’s worth of pent-up energy, and finally, once again, found escapism and catharsis through live music. These albums went all-in on what matters – and we’ll continue to find joy in them throughout those even brighter days ahead.

Contributors: Andrew Trendell, Ben Jolley, Caitlin O’Reilly, Charlotte Krol, Cyclone Wehner, Damien Morris, El Hunt, Ella Kemp, Georgia Evans, Hannah Mylrea, James Balmont, Kyann-Sian Williams, Luke Cartledge, Luke Morgan-Britton, Mia Hughes, Rhian Daly, Rhys Buchanan, Sophie Williams, Thomas Smith, Will Richards.

Arlo Parks – ‘Collapsed In Sunbeams’

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Who: London songwriter and poet with their own distinct blend of pop, soul and R&B
What 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.” Read more
Key track: ‘Black Dog’

Ayra Starr – ‘19 & Dangerous’

Who: Teen prodigy at the forefront of Nigeria’s alté scene
What NME said: “There’s a real allure to Starr’s world of magic, determination, and confidence, which she explores and inhabits as ‘19 & Dangerous’ progresses.” Read more
Key track: ‘Bloody Samaritan’

Baby Keem – ‘The Melodic Blue’

Who: Eclectic, impressively dexterous rap star who isn’t afraid to experiment
What NME said: “‘The Melodic Blue’ offers a confident and fully-realised project, one that shows that [Baby Keem] continues to be difficult to pigeonhole.” Read more
Key track: ‘Trademark USA’

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

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Who: Supremely talented seven-piece looking to challenge and confound
What NME said: ‘For The First Time’ is a triumph, both as a document of who this band have been up to now, and a thrilling hint as to where they may head next. Read more
Key track: ‘Science Fair’

Celeste – ‘Not Your Muse’

Who: Self-assured soul star exploring the many dimensions of love
What NME said: “While the pressure to live up to this level of hype may make lesser artists crumble, on her first album Celeste cements her place as the new face of British soul.” Read more
Key track: ‘Tonight Tonight’

Claud – ‘Super Monster’

Who: Phoebe Bridgers-endorsed songwriter telling powerful, universal coming-of-age stories
What NME said: “Instrumentally and stylistically, ‘Super Monster’ is true to the all-embracing ethos of bedroom pop, with Claud pulling from a wide arsenal of sounds to flit between genre boundaries.” Read more
Key track: ‘Cuff Your Jeans’

Drug Store Romeos – ‘The World Within Our Bedrooms’

Who: Fleet trio ushering in a new, mega-exciting age of dream-pop
What NME said: “There’s a sense that had this album been released 30 years ago, it might be a cult classic by today — akin to Young Marble Giants’ ‘Colossal Youth’ or Stereolab’s ‘Emperor Tomato Ketchup’.” Read more
Key track: ‘Secret Plan’

Dry Cleaning – ‘New Long Leg’

Who: Deadpan but deadly powerful art-punk from 4AD-signed quartet
What NME said: “With Dry Cleaning, and on debut album ‘New Long Leg’, these types of boundaries and ties to how things should be done are tossed out of the window, leaving a blank page on which they proceed to run riot.” Read more
Key track: ‘Scratchcard Lanyard’

Easy Life – ‘Life’s A Beach’

Who: Leicester boyos taking on the world with genre-less bangers and buckets of charm
What NME said: “The Leicester band have always excelled at taking with the rough with the smooth… ‘Life’s A Beach’ toes that line between serenity and uncertainty once more.” Read more
Key track: ‘Skeletons’

Emma-Jean Thackray – ‘Yellow’

Who: Effortlessly cool jazz star for a new generation
What NME said: “Released on Thackray’s own label, Movementt, ‘Yellow’ is exactly the life-affirming collection to help those in need to hang onto the idea of a dim light at the end of a very, very dark tunnel.” Read more
Key track: ‘Say Something’

For Those I Love – ‘For Those I Love’

Who: Forward-thinking vocalist and producer making sense of grief and loneliness
What 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.” Read more
Key track: ‘Birthday / The Pain’

Fred again.. – ‘Actual Life (April 14 – December 17 2020)’

Who: Super-smooth producer offering an euphoric rush of escapism and hope
What NME said: “[Fred is] a sensitive producer who favours raw emotion instead of hiding beneath bigger beats, unafraid to lay it on the line should the song warrant it.” Read more
Key track: ‘Julia (Deep Diving)’

Geese – ‘Projector’

Who: New York indie underdogs with scrappy ditties primed for the moshpit
What NME said: “With ‘Projector’, the band have escaped their modest confines of a studio where pipes leak onto amps and delivered some of the most compelling new guitar music around.” Read more
Key track: ‘Low Era’

Genesis Owusu – ‘Smiling With No Teeth’

Who: The freewheeling rap maestro taking over Australia’s hip-hop scene
What NME said: “‘Smiling With No Teeth’ isn’t ‘Australian hip-hop’ as you know it: Genesis’ avant-funk pushes boundaries and amplifies individualism and free expression.” Read more
Key track: ‘Don’t Need You’

Inhaler – ‘It Won’t Always Be Like This’

Who: Childhood pals turned future guitar heroes
What NME said: “‘It Won’t Always Be Like This’ is teeming with nervous energy over trying to find balance in a world turned inside out, while flashes of more mature reflections on saints, sinners, kings and dreams are also promising.” Read more
Key track: ‘Cheer Up Baby’

Joy Crookes – ‘Skin’

Who: Soulful songwriter putting her Bangladeshi-Irish heritage in the spotlight
What NME said: ‘[Crookes]’ sews together effortless progressions of R&B, modern soul, and pop styles into a masterful study of a young woman reckoning with her transition to adulthood. Read more
Key track: ‘When You Were Mine’

The Lathums – ‘How Beautiful Life Can Be’

Who: Wigan gang making punchy indie anthems with a poetic edge
What NME said: “Yet while The Lathums may crib from their working class heroes, they don’t solely rely on them. Defiant standout track ‘Fight On’ – which has become a staple anthem in their live set – shows the strength of Moore’s own ability to write a tune.” Read more
Key track: ‘Fight On’

Lil Nas X – ‘MONTERO’

Who: One of pop’s proudest and most important new voices
What NME said: “Lil Nas X has sometimes been accused of gimmickry and style-over-substance – ‘Montero’, meanwhile, sees him opening up on a more personal level, and asserting himself as an artist with serious creative pull.” Read more
Key track: ‘THATS WHAT I WANT’

Olivia Rodrigo – ‘Sour’

Who: Vivid and relatable pop storyteller breaking records by the day
What NME said: “A lot of ‘Sour’ explores emotions that feel elicit, skipping boldly into dark corners that young women are conditioned not to explore. Rodrigo illuminates them brazenly, presenting a pinpoint accurate portrait of what it’s like to be young and female in the 21st century.” Read more
Key track: ‘Good 4 U’

Remi Wolf – ‘Juno’

Who: Idiosyncratic funk-pop to capture your imagination
What NME said: “[Wolf’s] prolific energy has made for maximalist pop music that’s stuffed with moreish hooks, gloopy grooves and cartoonish ad libs.” Read more
Key track: ‘Anthony Kiedis’

Squid – ‘Bright Green Field’

Who: Wonky, wordy and wonderful post-punk rulebreakers
What NME said: “Across the album, which tops 50-minutes in length, the band veer between genres, styles and moods with abandon, mirroring the frightening, ever-changing political and cultural landscape it was created in.” Read more
Key track: ‘Narrator’

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