The 50 Best Albums of 2021

by delarue

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 OrchestraShostakovich: 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 OrchestraShostakovich 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 OrchestraKonstantia Gourzi: Anájikon
Gorgeous, poignant Greek and Middle Eastern classical themes which also feature violist Nils Mönkemeyer and pianist William Youn

Ward White – The Tender Age
Parlor pop, psychedelia, janglerock and more on the most menacing album of the year, from the polymath LA tunesmith and multi-instrumentalist

Mostly AutumnGraveyard 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

Derrick Gardner & the Big Dig! BandStill I Rise
Pummeling, hard-swinging big band jazz from this mighty trombone-led ensemble

Bence Vas’ Big Band –  Overture et. al
Organ-driven big band jazz has seldom been this orchestral or toweringly haunting

Sana NaganoSmashing Humans
A dystopic sci-fi-themed suite set to a blend of savage guitar, violin and a taut rhythm section, with a surprise ending

Tiffany NgDark 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

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard L.W.
The astonishingly prolific Australian psychedelic band’s most deeply Middle Eastern-inspired album

The Catalyst QuartetUncovered 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 London Philharmonic OrchestraDmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11
A vividly desolate, elegaic requiem for the millions murdered by the genocidal Stalin regime

The Malta Philharmonic OrchestraContemporary 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

Erkin Cavus and Reentko Dirks –  Istanbul 1900 
Plaintive, broodingly evocative microtonal acoustic guitar instrumentals inspired by urban neighborhoods now gone forever

Bare Wire SonOff Black 
Multi-instrumentalist Olin Janusz’s bleak dirges built around journal entries by mothers who lost their sons in World War I

Katla – Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness) 
Austere Icelandic folk and grimly ornate metal epics

VolurDeath Cult 
A searing blend of black metal, Nordic folk and psychedelic 70s art-rock from the violin-and-bass-driven trio.

Michael SmallParallax 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

FortidWorld Serpent
Forlorn cinematics, Viking stampedes and rapidfire chromatics throughout this dystopic metal masterwork

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 KopatchinskajaSchoenberg: 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

Fanfare CiocarliaIt Wasn’t Hard to Love You 
Explosive, rat-a-tat minor-key dancefloor jams from one of the world’s most electrifying Balkan brass bands

James McMurtryThe 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

Katayoun GoudarziThis Pale
Poignant, often plaintive ghazal settings of classic Rumi poems from this nuanced, crystalline-voiced Iranian singer and bandleader

BesarabiaAnimal Republic
Fiery, serpentine flamenco, Middle Eastern, Balkan and Romany dance tunes

The ReducersLive: New York City 2005
An incendiary, whirlwind 40-minute set of cynical, catchy punk and pub rock from late in the legendary New England band’s career

The Academy Blues Project The Neon Grotto
Slyly lyrical, shapeshifting jamband rock with influences as diverse as the Grateful Dead, Steely Dan, Supertramp, P-Funk and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.

Changing ModesWax World
Brooding, desolate lockdown reflections, shapeshifting art-rock and slashingly cynical, psychedelic harmony-pop from one of New York’s best bands from the past decade or so

Carola Ortiz – Pecata Beata
Whirlwind, shapeshifting, flamenco-inspired songs from the Catalan singer and clarinetist

Lia Sampai – Amagatalls de Llum
Disarmingly intimate, strikingly imagistic, fearlessly political songs from this individualistic Catalan songwriter

Gabriel AlegriaSocial Distancing
A chillingly allusive, insightful Afro-Peruvian jazz album exploring the fateful first year of the lockdown

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 ArzruniAlan 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

Satoko Fujii – Piano Music
Extended-technique inside-the-piano sonics spun through a bunch of effects for one of the year’s trippiest, most hauntingly enveloping albums

DictaphoneGoats & Distortions 5
Darkly cinematic, dub-inspired, bass clarinet-driven sounds that expands on the group’s exploration of what they call “morbid instruments.”

Matthew Shipp – Codebreaker
Eerie close harmonies percolate through the legendary jazz pianist’s diverse, highly improvisational latest album

Frank KimbroughAncestors 
The late, great jazz pianist’s saturnine swan song, with an inspired, unorthodox trio

Opium MoonNight + Day
Rapturous, hypnotic Indian and Middle Eastern-tinged themes and variations on this vast double album

Menahan Street BandThe Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band
Oldschool soul instrumentals with a dark psychedelic streak

Jovica Ivanović and the Ukrainian Chamber OrchestraPiazzolla and Galliano
Majestic accordion concertos by the iconic Argentine bandoneonist and also by the great Richard Galliano

Greg Loughman – RE: Connection 
A vivid, cinematic jazz suite reflecting on the disastrous effects of the lockdown, but ultimately offering a message of hope

CanLive in Brighton 1975
Sprawling, smoky sometimes twenty-minute instrumental jams from the legendary German band at their psychedelic peak

The Shining TonguesMilk of God
Moody, gothic-tinged folk-rock and art-rock from the surviving members of the Infinite Three

The Colorist Orchestra and Howe GelbNot on the Map 
A lavish mix of dusky, sweepingly orchestrated art-rock and southwestern gothic from one of the guys who invented the style

Langan Frost & Wane – their first album
Trippy, Mediterranean-tinged retro 60s sunshine pop and psychedelic folk

Willie NileThe Day The Earth Stood Still
Stomping, surreal, allusively lyrical lockdown-era powerpop anthems and some surprising detours into slinky, funky, psychedelic sounds

Becca Stevens and the Secret Triotheir debut collaboration
Art-rock songwriter and Balkan/Armenian traditional band team up for spare, crepuscular magic

Metal! Live in Bahrain Vol. 2
Thrash, death metal and post-Metallica sounds from Persian Gulf bands Hellionight, Ryth, Necrosin and Lunacyst

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