The 50 best albums of 2021: 50-31

This list is drawn from votes by Guardian music critics – each critic votes for their Top 20 albums, with points allocated for each placing. Check in every weekday to see our next picks, and please share your own favourite albums of 2021 in the comments below.


Agnes – Magic Still Exists

The Swedish pop star’s long-delayed fifth album embodies the platonic ideal of pop disco, steeped in Gaga (invigoratingly stern vocals about freeing one’s mind and body), Abba (piano stomps and trills), Donna Summer (the thumping 24 Hours) and Queen (melodramatic balladry). It transcends pastiche on the strength of her songwriting (you could swap almost anything here on to Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia) and the going-for-broke intensity of it all. LS


MØL – Diorama

Faith no more ... cult survivor-singer Kim Song Sternkopf (centre) with band MØL.
Faith no more … cult survivor-singer Kim Song Sternkopf (centre) with band MØL. Photograph: Sebastian Apel

Blending the blast beats and acid-gargling glottal mayhem of black metal with the uplifting, even sentimental guitar dynamics of shoegaze, “blackgaze” has become a vibrant corner of heavy music – and Danish quintet MØL became one of its best exponents with their second album. The moody breakdowns allow the explosive choruses to land all the more righteously, with vocalist Kim Song Sternkopf – a survivor of faith cults as a child – venting majestically into the mic. Tracks such as Serf bring in a groove metal sensibility to help it all swing. BBT


Some of the year’s best musical storytelling lived in the Virginia songwriter’s third record, her writing newly amplified by subtle hints of pop propulsion and grit that evoked how Elliott Smith expanded his sound. Dacus reflects on her teenage years – of church and bible camp, of budding queer desire amid a culture of shame and damnation, of the fantasies that let her escape these limitations – with such tender curiosity that these vignettes feel less like fixed memories than forensic crime scene reconstructions. Read the full review. LS


Chai – WINK

The truly self-assured rarely make a noise about it, and so it is with the third album by Japanese girl group Chai. To blissed-out, dreamy synth-pop that buoys you along like a lazy river – occasionally spiked by classic rap throwbacks and arcade-game electro – the four-piece dreamily hymn the joys of food, self-acceptance and protest, nurturing their own laid-back take on pleasure activism. LS


Stephen Fretwell – Busy Guy

Melody maker ... Scunthorpe singer-songwriter Stephen Fretwell.
Melody maker … Scunthorpe singer-songwriter Stephen Fretwell. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

A songwriters’ songwriter beloved of Elbow and Arctic Monkeys, Stephen Fretwell was washing pots in a Wetherspoon’s pub, his music career having flatlined amid fatherhood. He hauled himself up and gave music another shot, apparently at the cost of his marriage. So these songs are the work of a truly inveterate musician, and it shows – Fretwell has such a natural facility for an affecting turn of melody, his simple fingerpicked guitar made eerie by the subtle ambient tones that sit behind it. BBT


For Those I Love – For Those I Love

Poignant memories seem to lengthen and soften as we age, but this album is a reminder of how much jagged heft they have when you’re looking back after just a few years or months. David Balfe, 30, reflects on a dead best friend, poverty, trauma and the intense vibrancy of young friendships and creativity, in long recitations set to music that reaches towards techno and house. “You’re told you need to grow cold to grow old,” Balfe says, but he remains charged up with human warmth on these songs. Read the full review. BBT


Black Country, New Road – For the First Time

‘Timeless tenderness’ ... Black Country, New Road.
‘Timeless tenderness’ … Black Country, New Road. Photograph: Max Grainger

You don’t tend to get many Top 5 charting albums from bands who blend klezmer, post-punk, jazz and prog with lyrics about failed romance at a science fair, but Black Country, New Road managed it. That success is testament to how particular and fresh their sound is amid the ordinary boys of British indie, further helped by a really arresting frontman, Isaac Wood. Whether it’s really him or a persona, he is haughty, easily hurt, lustful, clumsy and incurably romantic – a wonderful, flawed character. Read the full review. BBT


Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt – Made Out of Sound

For this album, made remotely last year, guitarist Orcutt improvised to Corsano’s drum tracks, observing the waveforms as he recorded “so I could see when a crescendo was coming or when to bring it down”, he said. It’s reminiscent of a surfer’s mentality, and Made Out of Sound feels thrillingly like the trusty unpredictability of broaching the sea: absurdist guitar begets quieter contemplation; burnished riffs harden and soften, then collapse. Throughout, the open-ended sense of beauty is undimmed. LS


Gojira – Fortitude

Metal’s potential for thunderous anger makes it the most naturally expressive music to vent the fear, confusion and even shame of the climate crisis. “The greatest miracle is burning to the ground,” laments Joe Duplantier with bafflement and urgency, singing about the Amazon but perhaps also the entire planet. Other songs are direct rallying cries to save Earth (Into the Storm, Sphinx); Another World turns jaded and escapist, but is offset by The Chant, whose hearty chorus is the kind of thing a post-apocalyptic band of survivors would sing while rowing across a flooded city. Fortitude is an album that surveys humanity’s idiocy, but also its tenacity. BBT


The joyous ecclesiastical energy of house enriches your soul on listening to this full-length from the US producer, which also chimes with the desire for optimism and gregariousness amid the waning pandemic. Like a lot of the best underground dance artists in recent years (Skee Mask, Anz etc), she firmly embraces the breakbeat-driven sound of the early 90s – Ride Free even has the same Peter Fonda sample as Primal Scream’s Loaded – and further enriches those busy, cymbal-heavy rhythms with zesty detailing: rave melodies, declarative vocal samples, penetrating bass notes. Read the full review. BBT


Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over the Country Club

Who is Lana Del Rey really? The question that has animated her decade-long career has sometimes riled her, but the first of two albums she released this year turns introspective to consider the matter. Was she happiest as a 19-year-old waitress listening to Kings of Leon, as she sings in stunning falsetto on White Dress? Is she most herself as a sister, a lover, a star, an adopted Californian – or embracing her wanderlust and escaping all that? The myth and melodrama, at least, remain unchanged on a Lana album made with an unusually light touch. Read the full review. LS


Hayley Williams – Flowers for Vases/Descansos

With pop-punk surging this year, Paramore’s influence may never have been stronger – but the band’s flag bearer continued to burrow away from incandescent rock into stranger, subtler sounds. Williams’ second solo album in two years observed the dying days of her marriage, and how the reliability of sadness became its own sort of safe harbour. That strange sense of comforting desolation hums through in acoustic guitar and ghostly piano, although Williams’ innate way with a vocal hook provides the defiant life force. LS


Using synths to crack open a portal out of the drab ... Goat Girl.
Using synths to crack open a portal out of the drab … Goat Girl. Photograph: Holly Whitaker

The south London quartet’s debut was garage rock with a touch of psych; this sophomore album grandly scaled that second element up, using synths to crack open a portal out of the drab, repressive everyday. The bigger ambition was partly predicated by one member surviving cancer, and the band don’t shy from big questions about life and death: the climate crisis, capitalism and the struggle to be allowed one’s truth and identity are among the topics broached. BBT


Erika de Casier – Sensational

Any crush has a delicate alchemy, and liable to lurch towards obsession or revulsion as the fantasy of someone duels with the reality. On the second album by the Portuguese-born Danish songwriter, her would-be lover may be a braggart who is rude to waiters, but that smile is irresistible: what are you gonna do? Her minimalist take on turn-of-the-millennium R&B shivers with sensitivity, essaying every heart flutter and gut punch in plush bass, glassy percussion and elegant strings, while De Casier’s coy delivery brims with a beguiling sense of mystery. Read the full review. LS


Aya – Im Hole

This is the kind of slippery, funny, explosively creative record that perhaps could only be made in the UK. Yorkshirewoman Aya Sinclair mulches various bits of club culture in to a fetid, sweating mass – grime, breakbeat, drill, the off-kilter electronics of Autechre, the hyper-contemporary bass shudder of the late Sophie – and threads vocals through it, her surreal non sequiturs and body horror hovering on the edge of rap. BBT


Aly & AJ – A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun

It’s one of pop’s sweetest narratives: former child stars escape the machine to make a great, offbeat record. Fourteen years after their last album, one-time Disney performers Aly and AJ softened their synth-pop pedigree in this dreamy collection of west coast pop-rock, a vision of Robyn-gone-Laurel Canyon that also might sate anyone left hoping for a bit more brooding from this year’s Kacey Musgraves album. LS


The psychedelic, shoegaze-y haze has gradually lifted from Adam Granduciel’s band, burned off under a rising sun as their success has grown. He now stands in the midday of his career, with this fifth album fully embracing bright, mainstream classic rock. Powered by those distinctive WoD backbeats, which match the tirelessness of Granduciel’s search for love, perspective and contentment, these songs are huge in scale: both the arrangements and the strength of feeling. Read the full review. BBT


PinkPantheress – To Hell With It

An after-hours rite of passage ... PinkPantheress.
An after-hours rite of passage … PinkPantheress. Photograph: Brent McKeever

In the TikTok phenomenon PinkPantheress’s micro-pop gems (only two songs on her debut project exceeded two minutes), classic drum’n’bass samples double as nagging memories and overwhelming rushes of adrenaline, swirling around lyrics about obsession and disappointment made more sinister by her innocent, breathless voice. Fourteen years ago, Burial’s transient, lonely, sodium-lit sound became associated with the experience of sitting on the night bus. PinkPantheress makes music befitting another after-hours rite of passage: that bleary-eyed, rueful stumble through bright lights and swarming crowds as you try to hold it together. LS


Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature

The New Yorker’s second album is almost confrontationally still: brass like wisps of smoke, guitar a gentle thrum, softly puddling cymbals. Once the aftershocks of a loss have settled, Jenkins takes stock of what’s gone for good – Ambiguous Norway orbits her memories of David Berman, whose band Purple Mountains she was set to tour with prior to his death – and how learning how to trust again might yet retrieve her stolen sense of peace. LS


Low – Hey What

Low’s last album, 2018’s Double Negative, was a total reinvention 25 years into a virtually undented career – a staggering achievement for any band. Yet somehow Alan and Mimi Sparhawk transcended it with this follow-up, bridling its predecessor’s swashbuckling noise until it splintered, and contrasting it with electronic reimaginings of the forlorn atmospherics that made their name. The sheer invention contrasted devastating lyrics about hitting a wall – drawn from the couple’s experiences dealing with Alan’s depression – imbuing these static hymns to limits and perseverance with a superhuman sense of determination. Read the full review. LS


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