The 20 best EPs and mixtapes of 2021

Bigger doesn't always mean better – these rapid releases showcased rising artists at their finest

While the pandemic forced us all (back) inside at various points throughout the year, some of the most exciting emerging artists lifted our spirits by breaking new ground with bite-sized nuggets of new music. When the world stopped, they kept going – releasing ambitious EPs, mixtapes, and mini-projects, many of which were born out of bursts of isolation-induced creativity.

For the acts below, (all of which are yet to release their debut album) nothing – not lockdown restrictions, not cancelled tours, not widespread confusion and frustration – could stop them from being seen and heard. Even though, at times, this year felt endless, these artists’ shared perseverance was something to be truly admired.

Contributors: Rhys Buchanan, El Hunt, Ben Jolley, Liam Konemann, Charlotte Krol, Hannah Mylrea, Caitlin O’Reilly, Niall Smith, Nicolas-Tyrell Scott, Thomas Smith, Jenessa Williams, Kyann-Sian Williams, Sophie Williams

Anz – ‘All Hours’

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Who: Club-orientated DJ and producer with mainstream ambition
What NME said: “There’s no doubt Anz knows exactly how partying should make you feel. With ‘All Hours’, she manages to keep the excitement, intrigue and energy going so that – like all the best raves – you wish it didn’t have to end.” Read more
Key track: ‘You Could Be’ (featuring George Riley)

Ashnikko – ‘Demidevil’

Who: Wickedly funny pop provocateur starting a riot everywhere she goes
What NME said: “A debut album proper in all but name, in fact, ‘Demidevil’ shows that Ashnikko’s far more than a two-trend wonder.” Read more
Key track: ‘Deal With It’

Bad Boy Chiller Crew – ‘Charva Anthems’ 

Who: Fun-loving raveheads taking their beloved Bradford to the world
What NME said: “‘Charva Anthems’ definitely hints at a growing ambition. The production is shinier, the hooks are pitched higher and the rap delivery is so urgent that it recalls the kind of value-for-money rush you see in the dying minutes of a Student Union happy hour, double-fisting VKs until the walls spin.” Read more
Key track: ‘Don’t You Worry About Me’

BackRoad Gee – ‘Reporting Live (From The Back Of The Roads)’

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Who: Wickedly dexterous bars from the UK’s next rap superstar
What NME said: “The mixtape is a steadfast glimpse into what BRG has to offer to the rap game, effortlessly morphing old school grime nods, drill spins and afroswing melodies together for a diverse yet cohesive 18-track effort.” Read more 
Key track: ‘Enough Is Enough’ (featuring Lethal Bizzle and JME)

BERWYN – ‘TAPE 2/FOMALHAUT’ 

Who: Mercury-nominated rapper and producer bravely sharing his lived experiences
What NME said: “‘Fomalhaut’ delves deep into the artist’s tumultuous journey into music; inner-city life, homelessness and longing for his relatives in Trinidad permeate the mixtape’s eleven tracks.” Read more
Key track: ‘I’D RATHER DIE THAN BE DEPORTED’

Binki – ‘Motor Function’

Who: Starkly vulnerable tales of pain and growth from future indie icon
What NME said: “On the four tracks that make up his first extended release, he takes his fizzing indie sound to harsher places than before, traversing crisp shifts in intensity and tempo, and mashing in gloomy rap verses.” Read more
Key track: ‘Landline’

Central Cee – ‘Wild West’

Who: Chart-bothering grime and drill star capturing the realities of street life
What NME said: Central Cee clearly has the tenacity and notoriety to resonate, while leaving room for allure; it makes his approach to the mic all the more fascinating.” Read more
Key track: ‘Commitment Issues’

COBRAH – ‘COBRAH’ 

Who: Pop icon making deliciously filthy bangers to exorcise your insecurities to
What NME said: “The driving force of the EP is a commitment to pleasure, not only in the erotic, but in the self – in inhabiting your own identity and ability.” Read more
Key track: ‘GOOD PUSS’

Denise Chaila – ‘It’s A Mixtape’

Who: Limerick-born rapper with gloriously imaginative, mythology-inspired bars 
What NME said: “Expanding on her musical horizons, Chaila explores a more varied palette of thumping minimal bass-stabs, warm horn arrangements and haunting, medieval-sounding melodies through a synthesised, futuristic lens.” Read more 
Key track: ‘Return Of The King’

ENNY – ‘Under 25’

Who: One of the UK’s most exciting and innovative rap prospects
What NME said: ENNY doesn’t follow the south London crowd and rely on drill beats to make her name, she instead uses her burgeoning fame to highlight the high-concept, narrative-heavy UK rap scene that deserves more attention.” Read more
Key track: ‘Peng Black Girls’

glaive – ‘all dogs go to heaven’

Who: The sound of an eclectic, hyperreal future
What NME said: “‘all dogs go to heaven’ is a huge step up for the North Carolina newcomer, only made more impressive by the fact that he only started making music during the early lockdown period last year.” Read more
Key track: ‘i wanna slam my head against the wall’

Griff – ‘One Foot In Front Of The Other’

Who: Versatile pop hero making music that already feels timeless
What NME said:Griff performed the latter at this year’s BRIT Awards ­– where she took home the trophy for Rising Star… If the masterful performance tipped Griff as Britain’s next great pop star, then ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’ cements the accolade.” Read more
Key track: ‘Black Hole’

Holly Humberstone – ‘The Walls Are Way Too Thin’ 

Who: BRIT Award-winning songwriter crafting tunes for those reflective moments
What NME said: “​​This intimate EP sees the Lincolnshire artist moving through phases of glee and grief, pairing stark confessions with twinkling choruses.” Read more
Key track: ‘Scarlett’

India Jordan – ‘Watch Out!’ 

Who: NME cover star inspiring unifying and morale-boosting raves 
What NME said: “The DJ and producer channels lockdown restlessness into a high-energy EP that explores the concept of movement after a year in lockdown.”
Key track: ‘And Groove’

Lava La Rue – ‘Butter-Fly’ 

Who: Psych-leaning songwriter and visual artist going hard on the romance
What NME said: “‘Butter-Fly’ revels tonally and thematically in Laurel’s first flush of love, and being its voyager is a rewarding experience.” Read more
Key track: ‘Angel’ (featuring Deb Never)

The Lounge Society – ‘Silk For The Starving’

Who: Post-punk rebels from the north of England
What NME said: “In a swamped climate of post-punk where many are left searching desperately to find new ground, The Lounge Society are assuredly blazing their own path by channeling their fertile Yorkshire surroundings.” Read more
Key track: ‘Burn The Heather’

Meet Me At The Altar – ‘Model Citizen’ 

Who: Fueled By Ramen signees chronicling super-relatable dreams and anxieties
What NME said: “The pop-punk revival so far may have platformed big-budget solo artists – including Willow, Machine Gun Kelly, and Olivia Rodrigo – but with ‘Model Citizen’, Meet Me @ The Altar prove there is still nothing quite like rocking out with your best mates.” Read more
Key track: ‘Feel A Thing’

PinkPantheress – ‘to hell with it’

Who: Experimental garage star leading her generation’s dancefloor revolution
What NME said:PinkPantheress unloads these breathless and adventurous songs with a winning confidence that comes only when you outperform everyone’s expectations, especially your own.” Read more
Key track: ‘just for me’

Sofia Kourtesis – ‘Fresia Magdalena’ 

Who: Cathartic and embracing dance music produced by a true original
What NME said: “Kourtesis’ latest EP more than proves that club-ready music can be beautiful, thought-provoking and banging all at the same time.” Read more
Key track: ‘Dakotas’

Tems – ‘If Orange Was A Place’

Who: Wildly talented west African alté superstar
What NME said: “The primarily self-produced project challenged many conventions of the rising west African alté sub-genre with its indie-leaning approach to songwriting and rich, rumbling basslines.” Read more
Key track: ‘Crazy Tings’

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