THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2021

The music industry has again done it tough in 2021. And while touring new material has been pretty much impossible (at least in Australia), musicians have continued to release excellent material – helping us to be able to cope with such tumultuous times. So here is the Upside take on the the best of it!

  1. Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under

A stunning follow up to Fender’s 2019 debut, Seventeen Going Under is searing, confessional rock’n’roll with big Springsteen energy – it’s like Thunder Road set in Northern England while also treading its own path. The songs simmer with emotion, carried by music that keeps the listener close. It’s music that deserves to fill a stadium – and, given a recent UK tour with Gang Of Youths, hopefully, Fender can find his way to Australia soon.

  1. The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore

Adam Granduciel has distilled all that he does best into the band’s fifth studio album, while ruminating on the nature of change. When he sings ‘I don’t live here anymore, but I got no place to go’ – we can all relate! That layered sound is still there, but what’s different is the clarity of the vocals in the mix, suggestive of the artist’s new confidence in his songwriting – it’s more than just crafting tunes around the guitar solos. It is also amazing that this work sounds like an album crafted over some intense jam sessions, when in fact, the pandemic required band members to contribute from locations dispersed wide across the US.

  1. St Vincent – Daddy’s Home

A concept album of sorts, set among the textures of her father’s record collection (and inspired by his return to the family from prison for white-collar crime), Annie Clark delved deep into the sounds of the 70s and early eighties: Pink Floyd, Bowie and even Sheena Easton. But in typical St Vincent style, and given the subject matter, it all feels slightly askew. With each album, Clark delivers something new and thrilling – and Daddy’s Home is no exception. Brilliant stuff from a truly creative mind.

  1. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage

Recording in the pandemic required Cave to go without the Bad Seeds – and only Warren Ellis in collaboration. But perhaps this is where we were headed all along, given the trajectory he has taken since Push the Sky Away. The pared-back arrangements leave the focus on the truly startling poetry of the lyrics. With much of it meditating on a promised kingdom that we hold in our minds (whatever form that might take) – it is the perfect pandemic soundtrack as we imagine an end to all this. Meanwhile, ‘White Elephant’ is some of this pair’s most brilliant work, with Cave inhabiting the terrifying mind of a gun-toting Trump supporter while leading us to the album’s most beautiful moment.

  1. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend

The UK band deliver their best work yet in this polished collection of songs that skilfully cover a range of genres. The moods also shift across the album, alternating between introspective (‘The Last Man On Earth’), playful (‘Delicious Things’) and a sense of swagger (‘Smile’). Singer, Ellie Roswell, is in fine voice and moves effortlessly between the various assignments, while the rest of the outfit all serve the material well.

  1. Crowded House – Dreamers Are Waiting

A new iteration (now with a family flair) re-captures the mood of the band’s finest album, 1993’s Together Alone. Refreshing the line-up has the effect of making Crowded House sound like a band again (rather than an extension of Neil Finn’s solo projects – as great as that is). Finn’s songwriting maintains its characteristic ethereal nature, but this time around it is a little more grounded in current events, with references to the pandemic, social media and pop culture. Crowded House tour the album around the country early in 2022, with details here.

  1. Baker Boy – Gela

It’s hard to believe that Gela is Baker Boy’s debut album, such has his impact been for several years now. Having taken his time to craft this, Danzal Baker really delivers with an infectious groove from start to finish and also makes use of some excellent collaborations, including Yirrmal and G Flip. Gela is fantastic bi-lingual, genre-bending, culture-defining stuff. Catch Baker Boy perform at WOMADelaide, with details and tickets here.

  1. Bleachers – Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night

When you are the hottest producer in the world, you get to call in some favours on your own record. Accordingly, Jack Antonoff has Bleachers working with a range of talents on this album, including Bruce Springsteen, Lana Del Rey, Warren Ellis, St Vincent and the Chicks. Apart from his fame as a collaborator, Antonoff is an excellent songwriter in his own right, delivering an album that harks back to earnest mid-eighties stadium rock.

  1. Middle Kids – Today We’re the Greatest

One of the best bands to emerge from Australia in recent years, Today We’re the Greatest is a very worthy successor to the outfit’s 2018 debut. The songs here explore some new territory while maintaining the quality of songwriting, particularly Hannah Joy’s beautiful sense of melody. With a personal, confessional character, there are some excellent dynamics at use here to underscore the emotions of the work. Middle Kids will support Crowded House on their 2022 Australian tour.

  1. Sleater-Kinney – The Path of Wellness

Down to a two-piece, following the departure of longtime drummer Janet Weiss, there’s a new feel to Sleater-Kinney. Although a self-produced work, the influence of Annie Clark (who produced the previous album) can be felt through these songs. The characteristic social commentary is still there, packaged up in some solid rock tunes. It’s a thoroughly engaging listen from beginning to end.

  1. Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time

Courtney Barnett is one of our finest songwriters. With two quality albums under her belt, the excellent work continues on this third LP. As always Things Take Time, Take Time is packed with wry, observational lyrics. She is also great at crafting music to accompany these thoughts. Working only with Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa (the pair playing all the instruments on the album), this is a fantastic sounding record. Country Barnett performs at WOMADelaide, with tickets and information available here.

  1. Royal Blood – Typhoons

The UK hard rock duo takes a turn towards the dancefloor, with this groove-laden, disco-tinged effort. Typhoons is a super fun listen that your ears never tire of – even after repeated listens. The riffs are still in abundance but there’s more texture to the work than on the previous album, and it’s all so catchy!

  1. Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over the Country Club

2021 delivered two Lana Del Rey albums. Chemtrails Over the Country Club (also the best album title of the year) continues in a similar vein to her 2019 masterpiece Normal Fucking Rockwell – but the soundscape is more intimate here. Her other work, Blue Banisters, is also well worth checking out.

  1. Shannon and the Clams – Year of the Spider

With their own brand of retro, Shannon and the Clams return with Year of the Spider, a lively and hugely enjoyable record – despite the darker territory the songs venture into. And it helps that Shannon Shaw has such a terrific rock voice – that combines with her bandmates to produce such an irresistible sound.

  1. Tori Forsythe – Provlepseis

Country singer, Tori Forsythe, goes rock – and it really works, with a great collection of raw and powerful songs. It does help that Forsythe has such a great voice and the material here showcases it perfectly.

And the rest…

  1. Amyl and the Sniffer – Comfort to Me
  2. Springtime – Springtime
  3. Polish Club – Now We’re Cookin’
  4. Jazz Party – Nobody Gets Away
  5. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee’d At State’s End
  6. The Killers – Pressure Machine
  7. Reigning Sound – A Little More Time With Reigning Sound
  8. Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth
  9. Torres – Thirstier
  10. Hiatus Kaiyote – Mood Valiant
  11. Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
  12. Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic
  13. Big Red Machine – How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last
  14. London Grammar – Californian Soil
  15. Lorde – Solar Power

Written by Matthew Trainor