Whether 2021 was memorable for the right or wrong reasons, there was certainly a soundtrack for every occasion. This year there were surprises everywhere with some unlikely heroes dominating the airwaves across the country and across the world, while local acts continued to punch above their weight with another year of quality releases.
These are the albums that X-Press writers chose as the highlights of their 2021:

21. Olivia Rodrigo Sour

Actress Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album is an outpouring of post break-up bitterness and heartbreak. The sadness rarely lets up through the album, but it’s not the only emotion Rodrigo lays bare throughout its 11 tracks. Some of these songs are exceptional and it’s no surprise they ruled the charts and the airwaves throughout 2021.

20. St Vincent Daddy’s Home

Musical chameleon St Vincent takes a turn for the more traditional with this sterling, 70s-flavoured art rock effort. The album feels like a highlight of the decade but its kaleidoscopic range of styles is secondary to the fact that these are simply great songs. Witness the beautiful folk rock of The Melting of the Sun, the sketch of life that is Down and Out Downtown, or the twitchy, infinitely catchy funk of Down.

19. Amyl & The Sniffers Comfort to Me

There are a lot of punk bands around these days but most of them fall in the ‘post’ territory. Amyl & The Sniffers defy that, with a set of thirteen ragged and rough punk statements straight from ’77. Songs like Guided By Angels, Hertz and Security have become fan favourites but each song here is a creative blast of raw energy. Together they form an album that counterbalances a limited sonic palette with a seemingly unlimited selection of excellent hooks and riffs.

18. Genesis Owusu Smiling With No Teeth

Aussie hip-hop seems to be changing before our eyes these days and no one captured its evolution quite like Ghanaian born, Canberra-raised, Genesis Owusu. The album was bold, inventive, and delivered with a sense of love and fun despite not shying away from the big issues, whether it be personal or political. A deserving Album of the Year award winner from both the ARIAs and triple j, Smiling With No Teeth already feels like a defining moment in Australian music history.

17. Doja Cat Planet Her

Continuing her trajectory onto outright superstardom, Planet Her showed Doja Cat unapologetically introducing herself to a worldwide audience. Under the sugary sweet pop bounce, captured irresistibly on Kiss Me More (ft SZA), Doja has lost none of her attitude and doesn’t care who knows it.

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

The War On Drugs’ fifth album, follow up to the Grammy winning, major label debut, A Deeper Understanding, took over four years to make. During this time, main man behind the band, Adam Granduciel, moved from LA to NYC, worked on the album for three years and reimagined, rewrote, remixed every song multiple times, before deciding he was ready to release it into the world. Accordingly it’s another immaculate production with solid rhythms, soaring synths and guitars. Apart from the wild 80s synth stomp of Victim, it’s mostly classic WoD rock songs crafted with precision workmanship, like Harmonia’s Dream, Old Skin and the epic title track, which greet you like an old friend.

15. POND 9

Perth legends POND pare down on the jamming and deliver a set of (you guessed it) nine tracks that are far leaner, meaner, and varied than previous album efforts. The band flashes some new tricks, showcasing some serious attitude (Human Touch), synth punk hysterics (Pink Lunettes) and dance pop chops (Rambo). On top of that, their sense of epic pop grandeur is retained with the beautiful ballad Toast and highlight America’s Cup, which may be the best Australian rock single of the year.

14. Rüfüs Du Sol Surrender

RÜFÜs DU SOL have proven time and time again that they know how to make a great dance album, and Surrender is no exception. The trio consistently make music that sweeps you away to another place, which has been a great comfort during these crazy times. Highlights include Next To Me, I Don’t Want To Leave, Alive and Devotion. If you want your dance music to make you feel something, then this is the album for you.

13. Self Esteem Prioritise Pleasure

The second album for Rebecca Lucy Taylor is a powerful record from an empowered powerhouse of a woman. With the best vocal arrangements since Florence and the Machine’s debut and shiny pop production veering from slick beats to frenetic electro-punk, it’s her lyrics that shine brighter still. Whether or not it’s a post #metoo consequence (far be it from me to mansplain), women just do anger better lately. Long since evolved from the post-grunge angst of Courtney Love and Alanis Morissette, Self Esteem delivers more nuanced emotions, proving insightful and fair even when she’s spiteful and raging. It’s breathtaking to behold.

12. CHVRCHES Screen Violence

Recorded in the thick of COVID lockdowns, CHVRCHES frontwoman Lauren Mayberry said Screen Violence started out as something “escapist” but that the lyrics ended up being “definitely still personal.” The result is possibly their most powerful and personal release to date, as the Scottish trio delivered a shadowy blend of synth-pop, new wave and indie-rock.

11. Black Country New Road For the First Time

It’s a long time since their signature tune Sunglasses first arrived in 2019, but it still sounds as fresh as ever on the debut record from London experimental post-punkers Black Country, New Road. The epic nine-minute centrepiece, with the unforgettable lyrics “I’m more than adequate/ Leave my Daddy’s job out of this… I’m more than adequate/ Leave Kanye out of this,” is, well, more than adequately backed up by five more mini-epics. As a whole the six tracks feel tight and concise without ever losing BCNR’s wild, horn-laden extravagance and abandon.

10. Porter Robinson Nurture

The second album from American electronic producer Porter Robinson is the sound of an artist that has earnt their right to explore. Titled Nurture due to its personal nature, the slickly-produced record is a blissful slice of emotive electro-escapism.

9. Lana Del Rey Chemtrails Over the Country Club

LDR gifted us with two new records in 2021, but while October’s Blue Banisters felt like a sprawling victory lap of touchstones and producers from throughout her career, Chemtrails over the Country Club benefited from a more concise vision. Blending country and indie sensibilities, 2021 was the year she left her pop past behind for good, and whilst not living up to 2019 career high Norman Fucking Rockwell!, any album with a song as good as opener White Dress is going to be remembered fondly.

8. Gretta Ray Begin to Look Around

A long-awaited album, Gretta Ray’s debut definitely lived up to the hype. Her poetic song writing and incredible melodies are as impressive as ever on this coming of age record. Begin to Look Around is an emotional journey that the listener is happy to ride along with.

7. Wolf Alice Blue Weekend

An album that celebrates the importance of the long play in a world dominated by singles, Blue Weekend is a sophisticated break up record that takes you on a journey full of brilliant highs and bittersweet lows. It’s almost as if you are experiencing the heartbreak along with the band, who have all ‘levelled up’ to master the art of showcasing their individual instruments whilst also combining to create a cohesive sound. Both sonically and lyrically pleasing, Blue Weekend is a fantastic listen from start to finish.

6. Lil Nas X Montero

With the response to his debut album effectively signifying whether he was a one-hit wonder or whether he would have any sort of future in the music industry, it was amazing confidence and swagger that Lil Nas X dropped MONTERO. The album boasted a diverse musicality and solid production that made the tracks’ infectiously-catchy hooks shine throughout, from the flamenco-inspired electro-pop of lead single Montero (Call Me by Your Name), to the harder edged trap-banger of Scoop (featuring Doja Cat) through to the pop-rap anthem of Industry Baby with Jack Harlow. A product of its time and era, the future is now open for Lil Nas X to take whatever turns he wishes.

5. J. Cole The Off-Season

If there’s one way to grab a hip-hop heads attention, it’s to open your album with a Cam’ron intro on a U Don’t Know-sampled beat. Yet the Killer Cam cameo didn’t come close to overshadowing J. Cole’s long-awaited The Off-Season, simply serving as a mood-setter. Cole controlled our attention in the 12 track album, bringing a hunger and bravado that we haven’t seen from him in years. This kind of eagerness from an artist a decade into his career helped him match it with newcomers Lil Baby and 21 Savage, and has Cole fans eager for that final album, The Fall Off.


4. Allday Drinking With My Smoking Friends

Allday’s fans probably knew he had this in him, but for most of us the Adelaide rapper’s turn into acoustic indie singalongs was as unexpected as it was welcome. Void, After All This Time and Stolen Cars were instant additions to playlists across the country, with nothing capturing the vibe of Australian suburban life this well since Courtney Barnett moved to Depreston.

3. Tyler, The Creator CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST

The greatest artists have a knack of creating entire universes around their projects, and in recent years not many have done it better than Tyler. His 2021 offering CMIYGL could be his best example yet; from the tailored garments, to the fur ushanka hats, to the signature travel trunk, Tyler’s imagery around the project was instantly recognisable and peculiarly interesting. Yet this didn’t take away from the music. With DJ Drama under his wing, Tyler packaged jarring bars, versatile deliveries and rambunctious production to deliver a mixtape-esque collection of songs that encapsulated the aspects of the rap world he holds dear.

Billie Eilish Happier Than Ever
It’s hard to imagine the weight of expectation on someone like Billie Eilish’s shoulders in creating a follow up to the world-beating debut WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? For the young pop star to stare down a world asking so much of her and to create something that felt truly authentic is a remarkable achievement. While her new look and more tender approach was the takeaway upon its release, Happier Than Ever was an album that like Eilish herself, revealed more upon every listen.

1. Little Simz Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

No one packed more of a punch in 2021 than Little Simz. Whether it be musically, personally, or politically, Little Simz showed she was as brave and masterful as any of her peers on this release. From the opening moments of Introvert, through to the compelling hit single Woman, and the unforgettable Point and Kill, the British rapper is at the peak of her powers from beginning to end.

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