The Albums That Defined 2021

22 December 2021 | 11:44 am | The Music Team

Say what you will about 2021 (we'll just be happy once it's over), but it produced a wealth of amazing albums. The quality and quantity of new music released over the past 12 months both at home and abroad was sensational (it seems many artists were productive during lockdown) and while narrowing down a top 20 was a hard task, we took a poll around the office and with our writers to curated a list that we believe at least in part defined 2021.

Adele – 30

I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart.” No one expected Adele to go this hard, especially not in the opening moment of the first song, Strangers By Nature, on her fourth studio album. As she succinctly explained to one curious fan in an online question and answer session, the album is about “divorce, babe, divorce".

However, while heartbreak is well-trod territory within Adele’s oeuvre, what’s new here is the 33-year-old’s incrimination of her own divided heart. “I hope I learn to get over myself,” she laments on I Drink Wine; “I had good intentions,” she insists on Easy On Me. What emerges from this transformation is a submission to hope and grace that, despite all the messiness, feels like a hard-won and newfound sense of emotional maturity. It’s divorce, babes – but not everyone wears it this well.

- Roshan Clerke

Amyl & The Sniffers - Comfort To Me

Great snakes! Amyl & The Sniffers’ second album of blistering punk rock, Comfort To Me, is undeniable. It would be easy to assume that Amy Taylor’s confrontational vocal style is the key to the band’s appeal, or that the pure, unadulterated currents of energy that flow through the rhythm section of every track on this album is the secret. But plenty of singers can serve snide disenfranchisement or channel righteous anger, and plenty of bands can turn up the volume on their amps to eleven. What Amyl & The Sniffers offer is belief – belief in a person’s capacity for love and dignity in the face of ignominy and violence.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

- Roshan Clerke

Baker Boy – Gela

The gargantuan debut from Baker Boy managed to give listeners exactly what they wanted while still somehow exceeding the already huge expectations. Gela immediately became a must-listen upon its release back in October, cementing the Fresh Prince Of Arnhem Land as a staple of the Aus hip hop scene. 

From the massively upbeat My Mind to the powerfully thought-provoking Survive, the proud Indigenous performer showcased his ability to spin gold in one of the biggest first releases ever seen in the genre. Danzal Baker is a force to be reckoned with, and at just 25, the man behind Baker Boy definitely has plenty more to say through his music. Bring on whatever may come next.

- Joe Dolan

Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever

For Billie Eilish, today a pop megastar, the prospect of following 2019's WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? must have been daunting. But Happier Than Ever delivers – having already generated several singles, starting with 2020's delicate my future. Notably, Eilish has reconnected with her producer brother Finneas O'Connell (aka FINNEAS), rather than booking (say) the ubiquitous Jack Antonoff.

Ironically, Eilish ensures that her sophomore carries even more subliminal, softer and quieter songs – a possible touchstone Aaliyah, whose catalogue coincidentally arrived on streaming platforms in 2021. She has all but abandoned the trap aesthetics of her older bad guy.

The wryly – and ambivalently – entitled Happier Than Ever is the teen's rumination on fame and the experience of being a young female in the music industry, set against the backdrop of the pandemic and MeToo movement. Numbers like Your Power are hyper-resonant. Yet Eilish also accentuates the disarming Gen Z existentialism she brought to her Bond theme, No Time To Die, with the starkly sentimental Everybody Dies. Still, she expresses sexual desire in the blithe tech-hop Oxytocin. Eilish is now up for seven Grammies, including (again) Album Of The Year.

- Cyclone

Deafheaven - Infinite Granite

With their fifth album, US outfit Deafheaven surprised a lot of people by going in an unexpected but widely acclaimed new direction. Infinite Granite sees them take a step back from their heavier influences and focus more on melody and dynamic to great effect.

The album scored a five-star review from The Guardian, who labelled it a “great, great album”, while NME described it as “their most ambitious and cohesive” release yet.

Upon its release, Deafheaven noted: “We’ve waited so long to share this album and watching people understand and connect with it is really special.” It’s definitely an LP that demands multiple listens.

- Dan Cribb

Emma Donovan & The Putbacks – Under These Streets

Melbourne’s Emma Donovan & The Putbacks have had an absolutely huge 12 months, releasing two albums in the space of a year, 2020’s Crossover and this past September’s Under These Streets. Both are stunning releases, but it’s Under These Streets that makes the list (we’d fight to include Crossover too if it was also a 2021 album) following a wealth of praise from fans and the industry alike.

Alongside multiple nominations at this year’s ARIAs, Donovan and co claimed Best Album for Crossover at the 2021 Music Victoria Awards, as well as Best Group and Best Soul, Funk, R&B Or Gospel Act.

Ahead of the release of Under These Streets, the Gumbaynggirr singer described the group’s award-winning dynamic and what went into creating their latest album: “Under These Streets reflects our return to the studio and realigning as a band coming out of some very dark and tormenting times. We literally ran out the door from lockdown and jumped deep into the studio.

“When The Putbacks and I are in the studio, we jam, we write and there’s a lot of trust for me to play with lyrics and melody. This album shows our strength as a musical unit, our relationship and trust with one another, and marks my return to the Melbourne community.”

- Dan Cribb

Every Time I Die – Radical

Dark Distance kicks off Radical, with frontman Keith Buckley howling “spare only the ones I love - slay the rest”; and it’s this brawling sentiment that ignites a barrelling sonic adventure that is, at times, brutish, while also injecting lashings of personal relatability simmering underneath. And while there are significant blasts of discomfort throughout the album, Radical instead slowly reveals itself as a heaving ode to communal experiences and self-worth, with Buckely repeatedly lyrically acknowledging the short-comings of some personal and pretty universally difficult thematics - and the end result is entirely one peppered with moments of hope and inspiration. READ MORE

- Tiana Speter

Flight Facilities - Forever

This year Sydney's Flight Facilities unveiled the long-awaited sequel to 2014's Down To Earth – and it was worth the wait. The Future Classic signings last aired the souvenir Live With The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, scoring an ARIA for Best Classical Album to the indignation of purists. James "Jimmy" Lyell and Hugo Gruzman bring that cinematic flair to FOREVER, which feels less like a 'producer album' than a journey – destination unknown.

The future bass aviators expand their horizons sonically – piloting through funk, electro, synth-pop, disco and deep house. The curation, too, is artful. Indeed, FOREVER is Flight Facilities' counterpart to Disclosure's Caracal. The pair secure the prerequisite guest vocalists, but work organically, instead of commissioning obvious 'topliners-for-hire'. Among FOREVER's passengers are Cali alt-rapper Channel Tres, Chicago combo DRAMA and, again, Sydney's BRUX (Elizabeth Rose). Flight Facilities liaise with New Zealand electro-popsters Broods on two tunes – one the '80s-tinged title-track. 

The spacey electro-boogie Heavy, with Los Angeles-via-Minneapolis singer/songwriter Your Smith, is a highlight. But the album's summit is the celestial If Only, which orbits through piano house and acid techno, Flight Facilities reuniting with Emma Louise, previously heard on their classic Two Bodies.

- Cyclone

Genesis Owusu - Smiling With No Teeth

The Canberran maverick Genesis Owusu probably never imagined that he'd find a fan in a former US President. But Barack Obama has the funky Gold Chains, off Smiling With No Teeth (SWNT), in his 'Favorite Music of 2021' list – the single Owusu's reflection on the vagaries of success. 

With his conceptual debut, Owusu transgresses – and transcends – the conventions of Australian hip hop. SWNT might be compared to Prince's initial punk rebellion – and OutKast – over any contemporary art-rapper, bar Kanye West. 

For studio sessions, the rapper/singer/aesthete led his own Black Dog Band, with members like keysman (and producer) Andrew Klippel (an industry veteran who, in the late '90s, cut deep house as AK Soul) and guitarist Kirin J Callinan. The grooves are pointedly authentic, instinctive and fresh. 

While the Ghanaian-Australian Owusu chronicles his encounters with anti-Blackness, racial gaslighting and toxic relationships, in addition to anxiety and depression, he ultimately extolls the power of individualism. Owusu takes a metaphysical turn on the folky A Song About Fishing, summoning Leonard Cohen. Significantly, he's scooped multiple ARIAs for SWNT, including Album Of The Year.

-  Cyclone

Halsey - If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power

Halsey shakes the pop stylings of last year's Manic for an album that will be less palatable to the masses but ultimately more interesting. 

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power has producers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ sonic signature written all over it; the Nine Inch Nails duo’s industrial rock undertones complementing Halsey’s theatrical storytelling well. The music might lean to Reznor and Ross' style, but the lyrics are all Halsey - deeply poetic and filled with vivid imagery.

No stranger to concept albums (they followed their dystopian Badlands debut with the Shakespearean Hopeless Fountain Kingdom), Halsey - who recently had their first child - appears on the album's cover in a reimagining of Jean Fouquet’s Virgin & Child Surrounded By Angels. The record and its accompanying one-hour fantasy film of the same name, centre around pregnancy, love, sexuality, and autonomy. READ MORE

- Madelyn Tait

Hiatus Kaiyote - Mood Valiant

Melbourne future soul quartet Hiatus Kaiyote have presented their most ambitious – and fully realised – album in Mood Valiant. Unexpectedly, the band embrace Latin American influences, specifically bossa nova, for this third foray (and premiere on Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder), travelling to Brazil to work with legendary arranger Arthur Verocai. But what elevates Mood Valiant is singer/guitarist Naomi "Nai Palm" Saalfield's poetic lyricism – Hiatus Kaiyote focussing on 'songs' over jams.

Saalfield universalises her life experiences, like 2018's breast cancer diagnosis – her songwriting allegorical, enigmatic and ever-affirming. The piano ballad Stone Or Lavender recalls Teena Marie's early deep cut Déjà Vu (I've Been Here Before) and illustrates why Hiatus Kaiyote have become tastemaker raves in the US.

Crucially, Mood Valiant is Hiatus Kaiyote's first album to chart in the Australian Top 10 and has been nominated for a Grammy (Best Progressive R&B Album). Indeed, they're truly world class.

- Cyclone

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard - Butterfly 3000

Just when you think that you might, just maybe, even a little bit, have a feel for what King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard are about, they pull something else out of their collective hats and teach us, once again, to always expect the unexpected from them. 

Butterfly 3000, the 18th studio album from the Melbourne collective and second release for 2021, is the exact example of this. 

Considered and refined, Butterfly 3000 has not only offered another evolution in the King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard sound - remembering that so far they've covered everything from an Ennio Morricone-style Western soundscape with Eyes Like The Sky to speed metal with Infest The Rats' Nest in the space of nine years. READ MORE

- Jessica Dale

Middle Kids - Today We're The Greatest

There’s a lot to unpack in Middle Kids’ second studio album, Today We’re The Greatest. First and foremost, what they’re presenting is largely enjoyable, but arguably won’t click as well as the flooring and abstract debut, Lost Friends. This release stands alone as a brand new entity of creative whimsy and confident daring.

Middle Kids demonstrate a lot of stylistic growth on this release. You’ll appreciate how risky some of the creative decisions are, like the abundance of piano ballads (heard in the title track for example) and the addition of electronic flavours through Summer Hill and Run With You. The production is also incredible. READ MORE

- Anna Rose

Ngaiire – 3

Ngaiire’s third long player simply called is a big album that offers a soulful collection of R&B groove and pop nuggets.

Right now there is a lot of meaning to the number three for Ngaiire. Her son is three years old. It took her just on three years to put this album together with her producer and co-writer Jack Grace. Ngaiire also tells us this album is about just three things - herself, the people she loves and the country. In uncertain times she certainly has her priorities right. 

Placing her life under the microscope to find lyrical inspiration yields tunes about her dreams, hopes and passions and sees Ngaiire boldly representing everything that she is about. A touch introspective, this album grooves gently to sound of synth heavy arrangements that feel as smooth as audio silk. READ MORE

- Guido Farnell

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage

As the snarling, smoky tones of Nick Cave creep out via Hand Of God, aka the opening track from Cave’s recent collaboration (and non-Bad Seeds) album Carnage alongside instrumental extraordinaire Warren Ellis, it fleetingly feels like familiar territory for anyone intimately accustomed with the mystical kings of alt rock. 

But while the release of Carnage back in February was by no means the pair’s first team-up beyond their Bad Seeds repertoire, it does mark the first full length album release for Cave and Ellis collaborating directly together outside of their extensive film score work; and the end result is true nihilistic magic. READ MORE

- Tiana Speter

Odette – Herald

In 2018 Odette’s debut album To A Stranger garnered the Aussie singer-songwriter high praise and adulation as well as two ARIA award nominations, all of which goes a long way to setting high expectations for this her second album. Herald does not disappoint, as Odette moves beyond the coming of age musings on her first album to 360 her life and relationships as a young adult in these strange times.

Often citing Joanna Newsom and poets like Walt Whitman amongst her influences, there is great poetic intent driving her somewhat lovelorn lyrical observations. Her voice soars on sad ballads like Wait For You and even the almost whimsical I Miss You, I’m Sorry dealing something reminiscent of Adele-styled love sickness in the process. READ MORE

- Guido Farnell

Olivia Rodrigo - Sour

It’s hard to believe that we’re at an age now where pop punk is a vintage genre now, and yet here we are with Gen Z artists doing Paramore and Avril Lavigne style throwbacks. Call it nostalgia-baiting if you must, but it’s hard to deny the sound is perfect for a breakup album.

Along with this genre shake-up, Olivia Rodrigo casts off the shackles of a saccharine Disney persona with Sour

Following in the footsteps of Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera before her, Rodrigo has abandoned the mouse ears to let her heart out in her music. She went absolutely gangbusters at the start of the year with the single Drivers License, and continues to discover herself musically and lyrically throughout the rest of the album. READ MORE

- Joe Dolan

Parquet Courts - Sympathy For Life

Parquet Courts' eighth album is a blend of rock riffs and an increasing interest in dance music that brings all the energy that we needed to get back outside, and the attitude to face the world again. Continuing their interest in leveling egos, elevating the downtrodden and decimating class and unjustly power, the album is their most confident and open yet. 

Recorded before the Covid-19 pandemic but inadvertently providing a perfect soundtrack to opening up. Better than any other song this year, the opening track, Walking At A Downtown Pace, managed to capture the tension and nervousness, joy and relief that comes from venturing out. "Return the smile of an unmasked friend/As we take streets I don't walk down 'cause I want to avoid/Fighting temptation, walk at a downtown pace/And treasure the crowds that once made me act so annoyed." In a year that seemed increasingly 'you do you', Sympathy For Life is the sound of walking into a warm and familiar bar with a killer band on stage. Turn it up.

- Andy Hazel

Turnstile - GLOW ON 

Described by Forbes as “a hardcore album for the ages”, Turnstile’s GLOW ON sees the US outfit “charting new ground for hardcore, expanding stylistic boundaries and celebrating new possibilities”. Spin named it their Album Of The Year, noting that “never before has a band captured both the mosh pit and the dance floor with such equal vitality" and “the record’s a funhouse, twisting and turning with glee”. It’s accessible post-hardcore with infectious energy.

-Dan Cribb

You Am I – The Lives Of Others

Let's get this on the record - it’s wildly unfair to sit down and listen to a new You Am I record expecting that Tim Rogers and his band of merry, rollicking men [Davey Lane, Andy Kent and Rusty Hopkinson] will deliver another lightning-in-a-bottle concoction of the ilk of Hi Fi Way or Hourly Daily.

Yet, here’s the rub though - it seems no-one gave You Am I that memo as their newest body of work The Lives Of Others provides their sharpest output this side of the Millennium by some distance. READ MORE

- Alasdair Belling