The 50 Best Albums of 2021
The 50 Best Albums of 2021
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 was his prophetic cautionary tale. He wrote it in 1934. By then, Stalin’s genocidal regime had already reached holocaust proportions. Hitler’s was in its early stages.
In 1946, Vaughan Williams took several themes from that symphony and built his Symphony No. 6 around them. It was his big “I told you so” moment. Together, the violence and gloom never lift throughout the London Symphony Orchestra‘s recording of those two symphonies. It was the one album that was on loop here more than any other one this year.
Antonio Pappano led this resolute ensemble in a fierce, cataclysmic performance of No. 6 on March 12, 2020. As of today, this remains the final orchestral concert recording made in the UK when it was a free country. In a stroke of serendipity, the album opens with Pappano and the orchestra playing Symphony No. 4, recorded in concert on another pivotal date in British history, Election Day, 2019. None of this is easy listening, but if you can handle it, it’s impossible to turn away from. And as a parable of what happens when we fail to recognize evil for what it is, it’s never been more relevant. That’s why it’s New York Music Daily’s pick for best album of 2021.
Otherwise, 2021 might be the weirdest year in history for recorded music. What you see here underscores artists’ resourcefulness and resilience in the face of the most crushing odds. What you don’t see here speaks to how so many styles of music have been completely decimated over the past twenty-one months.
Those who’ve followed the annual best-of-the-year lists here will notice that for the first time, an unusual number of the streaming links here – click on each album title below for full-length audio – are not at Bandcamp or Soundcloud, but at Spotify. That’s because there’s less rock music on this list than at any other time in this blog’s ten-year history. Without tour money to finance recordings, most rock artists haven’t been able to make them. What’s left is a crazy mix of jazz records whose release dates were put on ice by totalitarian lockdowns, some classical albums financed largely by government and nonprofit money, along with the usual sounds from around the world.
The best rock record of the year – which could just as easily be categorized as soul or blues – was Van Morrison‘s cynically titled Latest Record Project No. 1. This mammoth double album is somewhat subtler than the series of protest songs he released at the end of 2020, but it’s just as fearless. A rotating cast of musicians provide a purist, inspired backdrop and Morrison, who never loses his sense of humor, is at the top of his game as lyricist and charismatic frontman. That it took a 75-year-old icon from the 60s to release the most rousing call for freedom released in 2021 does not speak well for younger generations.
Beyond the next ten or so records on this list – the rest of the creme de la creme of 2021 – everything here is in completely random order, irrespective of when it was officially released, or when it was reviewed here. Click on the album title for streaming audio; click on artist names for their webpages. There are hours and hours of pleasure and solace here; you might want to bookmark this page.
Jordi Savall/Le Concert Des Nations – Beethoven Revolution: Symphonies 1 a 5
Beethoven’s first five symphonies recorded with stunning intimacy and detail, closer to how they would have been performed in the composer’s time. Comparing any of the other albums on this list to this magnum opus is a bit of a stretch.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra – Shostakovich: Symphnies No 1, 11 and 15
A mammoth, impassioned new live recording that also includes Rudolf Barshai’s string orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich’s harrowing, antifascist String Quartet No. 8.
Rafael Gintoli and the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Argentine composer Alicia Terzian’s Violin Concerto and Three Pieces for Strings
Two of the most foundational and most otherworldly microtonal classical works
The London Symphony Orchestra – Shostakovich Symphonies, No. 9 and No. 10
Withering sarcasm, vast expanses and furtive chases brought to life in two hauntingly electric concerts from 2018 and 2020 right before the lockdown
The Minguet Quartett and the Lucerne Academy Orchestra – Konstantia Gourzi: Anájikon
Gorgeous, poignant Greek and Middle Eastern classical themes which also feature violist Nils Mönkemeyer and pianist William Youn
Mostly Autumn – Graveyard Star
The most epic, relevant rock album written during the lockdown, an anguished but guardedly hopeful mix of towering, resolute, epic anthems and more delicate Britfolk-inspired themes
Tiffany Ng – Dark Matters: Carillon Music of Stephen Rush
The most unselfconsciously beautiful album on this list is built around a paradigm-shifting suite from the late 80s, rich with overtones and otherworldly ringing textures
The Catalyst Quartet – Uncovered Vol. 1 – Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
An inspired classical ensemble revisit the ruggedly individualistic, Balkan and Dvorak-inspired black classical composer from the late 19th century
The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra – Contemporary Colours
Colorful, often Middle Eastern-tinged works by contemporary Maltese composers including Albert Garzia, Alexander Vella Gregory, Veronique Vella, Christopher Muscat and Mariella Cassar-Cordina
The Armoires – Incognito
An audacious stunt – releasing a wildly eclectic series of singles under tongue-in-cheek, fictitious bandnames like October Surprise – resulted in the band’s most diverse and lyrically rich record
Katla – Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness)
Austere Icelandic folk and grimly ornate metal epics
Michael Small – Parallax View Original Soundtrack
The creepy, ultra-noir, furtively orchestrated score to Alan Pakula’s 1974 political assassination thriller hasn’t been available as a stand-alone recording til now. Not online, although the film is available on VOD
The Pocket Gods – Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall
The most surreal lockdown-themed album released to date, a witheringly cynical, satirical, sometimes unexpectedly poignant mix of styles from these snarky British pop polymaths
Patricia Kopatchinskaja – Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire
Pianist Joonas Ahonen and an inspired ensemble join the colorful violinist in a wild version of the iconic loony puppet’s tale, along with a collection of biting miniatures
Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond – Ride the Cyclone original soundtrack
No style of music is off limits to this duo’s merciless satire: American and foreign hip-hop, circus rock, corny G-rated Lawrence Welk church-parlor pop and much more
James McMurtry – The Horses and the Hounds
Doomed American troops in Afghanistan, aging drunks and lovers defying the odds, and cautionary tales of all kinds from one of the alltime great Americana storytellers
Sam Llanas – Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels
Haunting Nashville gothic, countrypolitan and Americana tunesmithing by the agelessly soulful former frontman of heartland rock legends the BoDeans. Not available online, but there are several tracks on Llanas’ more recent concert video
Şahan Arzruni – Alan Hovhaness: Select Piano Compositions
A fascinatingly diverse, sometimes minimalistic, sometimes rapturous world premiere recording of rare works by the arguably greatest American classical composer of alltime
Matthew Shipp – Codebreaker
Eerie close harmonies percolate through the legendary jazz pianist’s diverse, highly improvisational latest album
Langan Frost & Wane – their first album
Trippy, Mediterranean-tinged retro 60s sunshine pop and psychedelic folk