From a faltering vaccine rollout to the stop-start journey back to concerts, 2021 has been an exhausting rollercoaster that no one wants to relive – so NME won’t try to do that here.
Instead, we’d like to invite you to celebrate yet another year of fantastic music made by talented artists out of so-called Australia. Here we have veteran acts still probing new creative corners; ambitious up-and-comers trying to put their stamp on well-worn sounds; songwriters crafting honest and personal missives; and artists chasing joy wherever they scent it.
Here’s NME’s list of the 25 best Australian albums and EPs of 2021.
Karen Gwee, Regional Editor (APAC)
Words: Greta Brereton, Nick Buckley, Mikey Cahill, Matt Doria, Alex Gallagher, Jackson Langford, Joshua Martin, Craig Mathieson, Belinda Quinn, Jared Richards, Anna Rose, Andrew P. Street, Caleb Triscari, Doug Wallen, Cyclone Wehner and David James Young
25. You Am I, ‘The Lives Of Others’
You Am I have kept the dream alive since 1989. That longevity comes down to the band’s inimitable chemistry, and nowhere is that more evident than on ‘The Lives Of Others’. The album was made in two different cities during last year’s lockdowns, but despite its fractured genesis, it plays out as You Am I’s most astute work to date.
Thanks in no short part to its marriage of compelling rock and dejected narration, ‘The Lives Of Others’ sees the rockers navigate a whirlwind day in the city, their perspective steered by songs that capture their creative spirit. An easy highlight is ‘Rosedale Redux’, a scorcher that bolsters the album’s foundation of resilience. AR
Key track: ‘Rosedale Redux’
Like this? Try this: Regurgitator, Custard
24. Ashwarya, ‘Nocturnal Hours’
Ashwarya’s debut EP is an enticing pick ’n’ mix of pop flavours that leaves you hungry for the next hit. The Melbourne-based singer pays homage to her musical heroes with elements of 2000s pop and R&B, but ties it together with dynamic production that feels uniquely her own.
She moves seamlessly between tracks made for the mainstream (‘COMIN@ME’), breakup ballads (‘LOVE AGAIN’) and energetic nods to her own cultural heritage (‘BIRYANI’, which features Hindi verses and Bhangra drums).
Bold, compelling, and refreshingly eclectic, Ashwarya’s ‘Nocturnal Hours’ is a powerful alt-pop debut that will keep you on your toes. GB
Key track: ‘BIRYANI’
Like this? Try this: CXLOE, Banoffee
23. Banoffee, ‘Tear Tracks’
After weaving generational trauma into pop for her years-in-the-making 2020 debut album ‘Look At Us Now Dad’, Martha Brown focused on the present for its swift follow-up. ‘Tear Tracks’ is a break-up album, through and through, Banoffee capturing all-consuming obsessions and the most embarrassing thoughts of a break-up and using the trappings of PC Music-indebted electro-pop to channel earnestness.
- READ MORE: Banoffee on new album ‘Teartracks’: “It can feel very double-sided to have a break-up record written about you”
Working with producers Petro, Ceci G and Charles Teiller, Banoffee creates an album of gentle synth-pop frustrations, letting her (and listeners) feel out and thrash through feelings big and small. JR
Key track: ‘I Hate It’
Like this? Try this: Eilish Gilligan, Collarbones
22. Telenova, ‘Tranquilize’
Comprising members from other reputable Aussie acts (Miami Horror and Slum Sociable), Telenova burst on the scene with a firm understanding of what’s needed to cut through. Instead of drawing from their past work, this trio have created a trip hop-esque palette with imagery that is conjured up as much in your mind’s eye as it is in your headphones.
The anchor of the Telenova allure is vocalist and filmmaker Angeline Armstrong, who deliberately chose to spin narratives about outlaws and mystique instead of personal and banal stories of love and heartbreak. Their debut EP ‘Tranquilize’ is a refreshing change of pace for listeners looking for a bit of cinematic drama in their lives. CT
Key track: ‘Bones’
Like this? Try this: The Marias, Tennis
21. Liz Stringer, ‘First Time Really Feeling’
A long, lonesome road of personal history runs through Liz Stringer’s sixth solo record. From her childhood and upbringing, to her sobriety, to her always-the-bridesmaid career as a singer-songwriter, no stone is left unturned. Throughout it all, however, Stringer is undeterred.
Her songs are equal parts heart and soul, backed by resplendent folk-rock and a voice that cuts directly through the bullshit. You can feel Liz Stringer all the way through ‘First Time Really Feeling’, from the career-best title track to the breathtaking guts-spill of ‘My History’. It aims for the heart, hits the target and lingers in the head for time to come. DJY
Key track: ‘First Time Really Feeling’
Like this? Try this: Alice Skye, Cash Savage & The Last Drinks
20. Teenage Joans, ‘Taste Of Me’
Landing just months after they’d won triple j’s Unearthed High contest for 2020, ‘Taste Of Me’ pins Teenage Joans less as up-and-comers, and more as the born-to-be queens of Australian pop-punk, keen as pie to take their throne.
‘Taste Of Me’ is a break-up record – don’t be fooled by the lens of cruisy, carefree coolness, not to mention the booming hooks, soaring riffs, and copious singalong moments. Coupled with colourful production befitting repeat listens – see the subtle, sizzling tambourines on ‘Therapist’, and all the quirky sound effects sprinkled over ‘Apple Pie’ – Teenage Joans’ debut paves their way to a bright future. MD
Key track: ‘Ice Cream’
Like this? Try this: Teen Jesus And The Jean Teasers, Mum Friends
19. Mike Noga, ‘Open Fire’
Had ‘Open Fire’ been released before Mike Noga’s too-early death, hearing him intone “I don’t want this body / I don’t want this soul” over funereal keys would have been alarming; now it sounds painfully prophetic.
What’s worse is that it’s a stunning album, with upbeat highlights like the driving title track and ‘Little Birdy Big Bear’’s gabble of a lyric. But it’s the elegiac moments like ‘No Body No Soul’ and the gentle ‘Breathe For Me’ that hit hardest. Heartbreakingly, the final lines of the album are “If I keep holding on”. If only. AS
Key track: ‘Open Fire’
Like this? Try this: Liam Finn, Gareth Liddiard
18. June Jones, ‘Leafcutter’
“I need to tell the world a story,” sings June Jones on her second solo album. Those stories are incredibly frank, whether she’s reckoning with an overdue ADHD diagnosis (‘Remember’) or committing to the hard work of talking things out (‘Therapy’).
- READ MORE: June Jones: “Even when the world feels extremely difficult, there is always humanity and care and solidarity”
Between those diaristic revelations and Jones’s striking vocal flourishes, ‘Leafcutter’ dramatically peels away layer after layer of personal truth against a balmy electro-pop backdrop that’s all the more impressive for being self-produced on a secondhand laptop. This is an intimate reflection on Jones’s daily life not just as a trans woman, but as a unique soul striving for resolution. DW
Key track: ‘Therapy’
Like this? Try this: Ngaiire, Geoffrey O’Connor
17. Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders, ‘Hijack!’
Jack Ladder (real name Tim Rogers) had a choice before album number six: Look after fans with more sardonic soliloquies, pelvic crooning and night-time boogies like on 2018’s ‘Blue Poles’, or make a triumphant return to the brooding majesty of 2011’s ‘Hurtsville’?
Fuck that, he said. ‘Hijack!’ instead soars on strings from Sam Lipman as Ladder sings over wicked waltzes about characters he met at rehab and, sure, the time he nearly died in the Blue Mountains fires, paralysed by fear and inebriation. He delivers it all with a tired, knowing grin. Single ‘Leaving Eden’ is a whole new genre: baroque ‘n’ roll. MC
Key track: ‘American Smile’
Like this? Try this: Donny Benét, Kirin J Callinan
16. Jaguar Jonze, ‘Antihero’
Jaguar Jonze has sent shockwaves through the industry in the fight against toxic masculinity and rape culture. But equally worthy of headlines is Deena Lynch’s brand of art pop, which is gripping, gorgeous and grisly all at once.
Her pandemic EP ‘Antihero’ builds on the gunpowder grooves and nightclub shimmer of its predecessor ‘Diamonds & Liquid Gold’, amplifying the snarling bite of her Telecaster that tears through the mix like a hot knife through butter. Lynch soars overhead with her striking vocals, confidently delivering messages of staunch resilience and fearless self-empowerment. Despite the EP’s title, Jaguar Jonze hasn’t been reluctantly dragged into the spotlight – she’s rightfully seized it for herself. MD
Key track: ‘Curled In’
Like this? Try this: Warpaint, Wolf Alice
15. Good Morning, ‘Barnyard’
One of the fun things about listening to a band with two singers is oscillating between a favourite. Good Morning’s Liam Parsons and Stefan Blair politely one-up each other over their sixth major release ‘Barnyard’: Parsons draws first blood with the breathy, ennui-soaked ‘Too Young To Quit’ then Blair squares up on ‘Depends On What I Know’, which sounds like the Velvet Underground meets Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever.
And on it goes, making for an all topsy, no turvy album of humble indie pop classics and Good Morning’s most cohesive work yet. MC
Key track: ‘Matthew Newton’
Like this? Try this: Dick Diver, Terry
14. Tkay Maidza, ‘Last Year Was Weird Vol. 3’
Since 2018, Tkay Maidza has moved away from the EDM-hype tracks that made the then-Adelaide teen a fixture on the Australian festival circuit. The finale of her ‘Last Year Was Weird’ mixtape trilogy is a 22-minute victory lap across genres and styles.
Where lesser artists might lose themselves in the mix, Maidza flexes the versatility already on display in ‘Vol 2’, freeing herself and long-time producer Dan Farber from overthinking things. Whether it’s the laid-back piano-rap odyssey of ‘Eden’, the neo-soul heartbreak of ‘Breathe’ or a trap track about besting three Kims – Kardashian, Lil, and Possible – Maidza makes it sound easy. JR
Key track: ‘Kim’ (featuring Baby Tate)
Like this? Try this: Tei Shi, Princess Nokia
13. Hiatus Kaiyote, ‘Mood Valiant’
Hiatus Kaiyote’s third album ‘Mood Valiant’ is their most ambitious to date. Balancing the rhythmic skill of math-jazz, heavy funk and bossa nova with slow-burning cinematic strings – not to mention ambient animal vocalisations and Casio-esque drum programming – ‘Mood Valiant’’s seamlessness almost defies logic.
As Nai Palm pushes her voice to its limits (she’s never sung so high or low on any other record, she’s said), the thoughtful, precise arrangements evolve, never remaining stagnant. On this record, Hiatus Kaiyote are a four-piece that flow together like water rapids, swelling and eventually stilling in perfect unity. BQ
Key track: ‘Blood And Marrow’
Like this? Try this: Jaala, Esperanza Spalding
12. Sarah Mary Chadwick, ‘Me And Ennui Are Friends, Baby’
‘Me And Ennui Are Friends, Baby’ is difficult music. Unlike the full-band arrangement of its predecessor ‘Please Daddy’, the only things you’ll hear are Sarah Mary Chadwick’s sickly howl and her fingers lifting off the keys of the piano.
- READ MORE: Sarah Mary Chadwick: “I always thought taking responsibility for things was just feeling bad about them”
Chadwick’s lyrics are characterised by gentle brutality (“Death comes first / Don’t wanna talk about the break-up”); love is infected by the same wound that it heals: “Mothers never love me / Baby, that’s why you should.” And ‘Me And Ennui…’ is also laced with humour – in the sense that Chadwick dangles listeners over the void and tells them a joke right before she lets go. JM
Key track: ‘Me and Ennui Are Friends, Baby’
Like this? Try this: Mount Eerie, Daniel Johnston
11. Tropical Fuck Storm, ‘Deep States’
Has any other record so vividly channelled the fragile tensions and underlying fears of the past two years? Gaz and co. mine ready-made nightmare fuel – conspiracy theories, tech dystopia, reactionary politics, the pandemic – for the sprawling, esoteric noise-rock of their most sonically adventurous album yet, visceral and unsettling in both thematic scope and sonic execution.
- READ MORE: Tropical Fuck Storm: “The anxiety we were exuding for so many years caught up with the rest of the world”
Fiona Kitschin and Erica Dunn shine on ‘Suburbiopia’ and ‘New Romeo Agent’ respectively, and album three feels altogether like the band’s most collaborative affair: a locked-in, symbiotic organism even when the band are at their most experimental and abstract. It may not make for simple listening, but ‘Deep States’ is a triumph for one of Australia’s most inventive bands. AG
Key track: ‘G.A.F.F.’
Like this? Try this: MOD CON, Party Dozen
10. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, ‘Carnage’
The Prince of Darkness’ last two records were a lacuna in his gothic canon, mourning the death of his son Arthur in freeform elegies. ‘Carnage’, written and released amid global catastrophe, marries those somber forms with flashes of aggression that haven’t been heard since ‘Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!’.
‘Carnage’ is a sermon from Cave’s lockdown balcony pulpit – but rather than being literal, the songwriter channels the apocalyptic circumstances into abstract pathos. Travel might be impossible, he posits, but the transcendence of love, social change, and memory can still be found in the mind.
On this record Cave is both a beat poet lothario – “I’m a Botticelli Venus with a penis / Riding an enormous scalloped fan” (‘White Elephant’) – and a preacher of eternal love – “The morning is beautiful and so are you” (‘Balcony Man’). Those two modes are mirrored in the instrumentals: a tensile battle between synthetic minimalism and strings, often within the same song. It’s his most digestible work in a decade. JM
Key track: ‘White Elephant’
Like this? Try this: Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders
9. The Goon Sax, ‘Mirror II’
Indie pop turns sour and brooding on The Goon Sax’s third album, as the Brisbane trio document fumbling for meaning in one’s 20s. Louis Forster, James Harrison and Riley Jones swap instruments and vocals alike, stoking acute emotional interplay. Soon after Forster resignedly sings “Let’s just get high again” on opener ‘In the Stone’, Jones challenges that impulse to disassociate: “Do you think it’s better, not feeling any of this at all?”
- READ MORE: The Goon Sax: How a “breakdown about truth” led to the Brisbane trio’s new album ‘Mirror II’
More anxious and anchored in post-punk than the band’s previous records, ‘Mirror II’ is newly noisy as well, settling into shoegazing dirges amid synth interludes and distorted drum machine. Written in a tiny Queensland share-house after Forster relocated to Berlin (cue a few German lyrics on ‘Bathwater’), the album is stilted, angst-ridden and almost suffocating at times. But the trio’s pure pop instincts haven’t faded, as proven by Jones’s intensely dreamy ‘Tag’ and Harrison’s askew outlier ‘Carpetry’. DW
Key track: ‘In The Stone’
Like this? Try this: EXEK, Kiwi Jr.
8. Baker Boy, ‘Gela’
Yolngu rapper/singer Baker Boy broke out in 2017 with ‘Cloud 9’ – proudly declaring his Blakness in Yolngu Matha and English. On his joyous debut, ‘Gela’, its title referencing his skin name, Baker Boy flexes his voice, artistry and, yes, dance moves.
Danzal Baker celebrates his cultural heritage, ‘Gela’ opening with the traditional Galpu song ‘Announcing The Journey’, performed by Glen Gurruwiwi. Baker also furnishes more party jams in the mould of his carefree hit ‘Cool As Hell’ – the housey ‘Headphones’ (featuring a soulful Lara Andallo) and the exuberant ‘My Mind’ (a team-up with G Flip) are two such highlights.
- READ MORE: Baker Boy: “I wanna show little kids they can be a voice for their community all around Australia – even the world”
But a defiant Baker also delivers protest anthems. In ‘Survive’, with monologue by actor Uncle Jack Charles, he addresses First Nations Australian experiences of intergenerational trauma, while emphasising resilience. Ultimately, ‘Gela’ extols community – and collectivity. It showcases Baker Boy as a pop star with purpose. CW
Key track: ‘Survive’
Like this? Try this: Yothu Yindi, Birdz
7. Middle Kids, ‘Today We’re The Greatest’
“Life is gory and boring sometimes,” Hannah Joy astutely repeats in the final seconds of Middle Kids’ second studio album. The indie-rock trio’s lead singer and lyricist aimed to do away with metaphor this time around and instead directly address her flaws and experiences. The obvious consequence of this decision is ‘Today We’re The Greatest’ makes for an honest listen, but it also gives the listener the chance to connect with the record more intimately.
- READ MORE: Middle Kids on their new album ‘Today We’re The Greatest’: “We know who we are, and this is it”
Stepping away from the rocky instrumentation of debut album ‘Lost Friends’ and follow-up EP ‘New Songs For Old Problems’, the band explore a tender new sound to complement the wounds Joy has chosen to expose. Now armed with two LPs that stand securely apart from each other, it leaves us wondering how Middle Kids’ sound will evolve in the years to come, and what facets of Joy’s life she wishes to explore next, if at all. CT
Key track: ‘Questions’
Like this? Try this: Spacey Jane, Ball Park Music
6. HTRK, ‘Rhinestones’
‘Rhinestones’ plays like a transmission from the spirit world. Standing under a gauzy veil of plucked guitar strings, reverb and gentle whispers, Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang lasso warped fragments of popular music into their orbit.
For the first time, HTRK decided to immerse themselves in the music of others while making an album. The new approach coincided with the launch of Haunted Brunch, their NTS Radio show inspired by a trip to the Victorian “ghost town” of Walhalla, drawing them to gothic country and eerie folk music.
- READ MORE: A day out with HTRK in the Dandenongs
‘Rhinestones’ is also a delicate tribute to live-to-air radio – a format that creates a psychic connection between its listeners who relinquish their taste to the whims of the airwaves in a collective listening experience. Underpinning it all is an exploration of the pure power of friendship – thoughts of people we once knew that have drifted away, or reconnecting at a time when many of us have been forced apart. Recorded during a time of separation, it’s an album celebrating that which connects us. NB
Key track: ‘Kiss Kiss And Rhinestones’
Like this? Try this: Jessica Pratt, Julie Byrne
5. Ngaiire, ‘3’
If you listen closely to Ngaiire’s third album ‘3’, you’ll hear an artist that composes from their gut. Vibrant and alive, ‘3’ was born out of Ngaire Joseph’s return to her home country Papua New Guinea for the first time in two decades. Then after a near-death experience while giving birth, which left the artist with severe chronic pain, Ngaiire gained newfound clarity; with ‘3’, she refused to sacrifice her honesty to a music industry over-represented by white gatekeepers.
- READ MORE: Ngaiire: “You don’t want to go to the grave clutching to a character you’ve been portraying to the world”
Propelled by Ngaiire’s smoky yet agile voice, these soulful, electric R&B songs often soar into cathartic climaxes. She sounds as if she’s digging her heels in, refusing to let anyone diminish or warp her identity, her desires, or her sound. Meticulously planned, complex harmonies sink deep into your bones, warming you from the inside. ‘3’ is a revelatory record about loving hard, surrendering to that love and to the pain that inevitably follows, and, then ultimately, letting go. BQ
Key track: ‘3’
Like this? Try this: Milan Ring, Little Dragon
4. Alice Skye, ‘I Feel Better But I Don’t Feel Good’
The flatly forthright title of Alice Skye’s second album gives you a precise insight into who she is as an artist: uncompromisingly honest and deeply relatable. The Wergaia, Wemba Wemba songwriter sings delicately of the person she wants to be on opener ‘Stay In Bed’ – “I’m working on myself to get better at it” – but becomes enveloped by who she really is on ‘Grand Ideas’: “Everything I have is too heavy to hold / Everything I do feels out of my control.”
The entire album ruminates in desertion, loneliness and devotion, over both gentle and grungy guitars with woozy piano and restrained production courtesy of Jen Cloher. But the gut-punches come in Skye’s unbound lyricism, which has you feeling every throb of pain she does. She keeps you transfixed with her singular, spotlight vocals, but leaves you emotionally winded with lines like “The part of me that hates me really loves you / Enjoy my party trick, I’ll break my own heart for you”. JL
Key Track: ‘Everything Is Great’
Like this? Try this: Lucy Dacus, Sarah Mary Chadwick
3. Courtney Barnett, ‘Things Take Time, Take Time’
Strip back everything a good artist knows and there’s nothing left. Strip back everything a great artist knows and you’re left with bedrock brilliance.
- READ MORE: Courtney Barnett: “I was trying to retrain my brain to not get hung up on certain things and to see the beauty in those moments”
On her third album Courtney Barnett stood still and took stock of her world, the isolation of pandemic life allowing for both visceral self-examination and the gentlest of yearning. Whether it’s saying goodbye to a former love on ‘Before You Gotta Go’ or hoping for a first spark of romantic recognition on ‘If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight’, the Melbourne singer-songwriter compresses her wry wordplay and guitar melodies down to an intimate essence that’s deceptively casual in its unadorned brilliance.
With Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa as her instrumental foil and co-producer, Barnett has found that a single chord or stressed syllable can be the key to unlocking a compelling song. ‘Things Take Time, Take Time’ is full of such pocket universes. CM
Key track: ‘Take It Day By Day’
Like this? Try this: Mitski, Jonathan Richman
2. Amyl & The Sniffers, ‘Comfort To Me’
A floor tom booms out under the rumble of a guttural bass-line. A guitar, electric in every sense, seethes and snarls. A belligerent chant atop the entire fray, to ensure everyone within a 50km radius is well aware that said chanter has arrived. This is the sound of ‘Guided by Angels’, which opens Amyl & The Sniffers’ second album ‘Comfort To Me’, but it’s also something else: lightning in a bottle.
The Melbourne outfit finally have recorded material that captures the all-encompassing intensity of their ramshackle live shows. ‘Comfort To Me’ is a cocksure and confident record (as on the single ‘Hertz’, which buzzes with triumphant escapism), but it’s also not afraid to show a different side amid the frenzied mosh – see the stark, desperate ‘Knifey’. “We needed to make a whole new thing,” the fiery Amy Taylor told NME earlier this year. “Higher production and all that, we wanted it to sound fucking awesome.” They’ve definitely succeeded. DJY
Key track: ‘Hertz’
Like this? Try this: White Dog, C.O.F.F.I.N.
1. Genesis Owusu, ‘Smiling With No Teeth’
Boundaries don’t exist to Kofi Owusu-Ansah. As Genesis Owusu, he is an artist who thrives in and is liberated by chaos, never once willing to stifle his ambition or his emotion. That unwavering tenacity led the Canberra artist to his debut album ‘Smiling With No Teeth’, which is his cathartic and singular response to the intertwining menaces of mental illness and society’s deep-seated anti-Blackness.
- READ MORE: Genesis Owusu: “I’d rather be a legend on my own little island than compete for a throne”
Steered through his own psyche with the help of deftly chosen collaborators, like Kirin J Callinan and Michael DiFrancesco, Genesis Owusu leaves no punch unpulled and no moment unmilked on ‘Smiling With No Teeth’. From the raucous opening moments of ‘On The Move!’ and the breathless sprints of ‘The Other Black Dog’, Owusu bombards with distorted vocals and barrages with frantic percussion. He beckons us to get lost in his internal hall of mirrors with him, staring into the rippling confusion of ‘Centrefold’, the funky confidence of ‘Don’t Need You’, the existential pondering of ‘Gold Chains’, the ecstasy of ‘A Song About Fishing’ and beyond.
As Owusu continues to dance through his own neuroses, he learns – over a melange of crunchy hip-hop, crooning R&B, scattered avant-funk and then some – the dance is never really over. ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ doesn’t provide the tidy closure other tales scramble to provide, but Genesis Owusu isn’t here to give us neat – he’s here to give us reality. JL
Key Track: ‘The Other Black Dog’
Like this? Try this: JPEGMAFIA, Phil Fresh