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Top 25 albums of 2021

Best albums of the year

By RANGE Staff

Photo Illustration by Erik Grice

25 | The Killers – Pressure Machine

The new wave veterans’ most conceptual project and their second in two years might just be their best work yet. Offering a hard-hitting portrait of frontman Brandon Flowers’ hometown of Nephi, Utah – complete with voice recordings of real-life residents telling their frequently harrowing stories – Flowers’ vocal gravitas paints the picture of a deeply troubled small town stuck in the past. Their typical arena-rock sound becomes associated with steadfast characters pushing tragedies under the rug, while quieter tracks offer a voice to the voiceless.
- Ben Boddez

24 | Mustafa — When Smoke Rises

From his early beginnings as a poet, Mustafa always focused on the distinct, undersung experiences at the intersection of Blackness and Islam. On his confessional debut, Mustafa illustrates that intersection with the fabric of his Regent Park neighbourhood in Toronto. Mustafa brings palpable human grief to the systemic issues of violence, loss, surveillance within a community pushed to the margins and pressurized from within. “The Hearse” presents the line of reasoning with the anger leftover from loss. In a year where grief was front and centre, When Smoke Rises is a comforting balm.
-Daniel McIntosh

23 | Mastodon – Hushed and Grim

A beautiful and expansive meditation on death, Mastodon’s first new release in four years takes the form of a sprawling double-LP. Fifteen shades of grief are unfurled over the course of four heavy sides as the quartet thrashes through a haunted sea of splintered guitars and snapping percussion. No sonic stone is left unturned as they forage a squalid 60s wasteland for fascinating anti-algorithmic time shifts and soulful vocals befitting any R&B eulogy. Scrambling up metallic cliffs to harness the thunder and lightning from on high, Mastodon polarizes fear, regret and awe without losing sight of the elemental truths that made them. A testament to their dedication to the hustle of the Art, Hushed and Grim succeeds in its willingness to ‘serve the song’ through the fulfillment of a communal vision.
-Christine Leonard

22 | Backxwash - I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses

The latest from Polaris-winning Backxwash begins with a precursive message: “The purpose of pain is to get our attention that something is wrong, protect us from further damage and to request care. It's in this sense that a little bit of pain is a good thing.” The voice loops and distorts until it’s an inescapable cloud. The intro could serve as a warning or a blessing, as Backxwash’s metal-rap hybrid provides guidance through her vision of despair.

21 | Rostam - Changephobia

On Changephobia, Rostam Batmanglij continues to build on the baroque and classical stylings that made Vampire Weekend a unique entry in the aughts-rock canon. Despite his major claim to fame being the principal producer of the alt-rock quartet, Rostam’s second solo outing draws heavily from jazz. The album is bolstered by Henry Solomon’s baritone sax, an instrument Rostam says he grew obsessed with over the yearslong creation of the album. With new additions to Rostam’s already expansive bag of tricks, the artist reasserts his ability as a songwriter and producer, making a solid case that change isn’t always such a bad thing.
- DM

20 | Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR

Many were unprepared for the musical year to kick off with such a bang when the mostly-unknown Olivia Rodrigo dropped “drivers license” on January 8 and innocently threw people of all ages back to the pain of their first heartbreak. The rest of the album is packed with equally heart-rending vocal performances set to brilliantly written anecdotes of jealousy and betrayal, with poetic gut-punches of lyrical specificity that would make her idol Taylor Swift proud.
- BB

19 | Baby Keem – The Melodic Blue

The zany, unhinged energy California rapper Baby Keem brings to his debut is one of the most refreshing forces in hip-hop since his cousin Kendrick Lamar broke onto the scene. With most tracks containing at least one beat switch and more than a couple different voices, Keem is essentially what would happen if Lamar used his blazing technical abilities and dynamic character work for fun party tracks full of hilarious punchlines and delightfully eccentric non-sequiturs instead.
- BB

18 | Hildegard — Hildegard

The linkup between Montreal’s super-producer Ouri and Polaris-longlisted singer Helena Deland resulted in an eight-day retreat into experimentation, one track per day. The half-hour record offers a distinct take on alt-pop. “Jour 8,” could have been written for 2001 Avril Lavigne, save for the sonorous, haunting loop of textured vocals floating around, as if in purgatory. Hildegard sets two disparate stars entirely in their own orbit.

17 | Turnstile - GLOW ON

After defying genre lines and recruiting EDM icon Diplo for production work on their last album, acclaimed hardcore punk band Turnstile take things even further. Not only do disparate guests like Blood Orange, Julien Baker and hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo appear, the album’s sound often mixes the typical crunchy power chords with Latin grooves, dream-pop breakdowns and neo-psychedelia. Frontman Brendan Yates belts his phrases like a circus ringleader riling up his onlookers, the subject matter often a simple celebration of being alive.
- BB

16 | Spellling – The Turning Wheel

Even if the music wasn’t as spellbinding as it is, The Turning Wheel would be one of the most interesting albums of the year based on its concept alone. Spellling somehow crams all the twists and turns of a human life cycle into a chronological twelve tracks, musing on mortality and the powers that be while praising music and nature as the central, grounding forces that give life its spark. Her breathless, evocative vocal work and the gorgeously textured and complex instrumentals are an added bonus.
- BB

15 | Dave - We’re All Alone In This Together

British-Nigerian rapper Dave is a genuinely positive force in rap music and his star has been continually rising since the release of his powerful 2019 debut, Psychodrama. A born storyteller with a knack for wordplay, he offers up a slice of vulnerability in three parts with this 2021 concept album that puts empathy on a pedestal. Featuring stunning beats and chilling production with his signature piano underscoring much of the album, the young rapper is joined by an all-star cast of collaborators, including James Blake, Stormzy, Snoh Alegra, and Wizkid to help tell his story that is only just beginning.
- Glenn Alderson

15 | Tyler, the Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST

After the high-concept, character-driven masterpiece that was IGOR catapulted Tyler to new levels of success and acclaim, Tyler, the Creator returns to his rap roots, now more mature and having stepped up his production game. A clear disciple of Kanye West and Pharrell, Tyler’s combination of lush instrumental palates and wordplay is unmatched as he grabs his suitcase and goes for a victory lap around the globe, his two worlds of high art and knockout-punch street rap now married.
- BB

13 | Remi Wolf – Juno

Remi Wolf’s debut is completely overwhelming in the best possible way. Throwing musical genres into a blender and delivering some of the most downright surreal lyrics of the year, she sometimes sounds like a rock frontwoman and sometimes like a powerhouse soul singer as the instrumentals behind her veer closer towards chaotic funk and 90s hip-hop. Most of Wolf’s promotional material features the singer dancing wildly in front of a brightly saturated explosion of colours. This is the sonic equivalent.
- BB

12 | Certified Lover Boy — Drake

If Drake is anything, it’s consistent and his sixth studio release doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Drake and his team have crafted a formula that creates compelling music but limits any sense of exploration. All the standard fare is here but without any new draws or revelations. On Certified Lover Boy, Drake is too set in his ways, and too big to fail.

Japanese Breakfast - Jubilee

11 | Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

The acclaimed indie-pop band took four years away from the spotlight after doubling down on a couple lo-fi projects that dealt with immense grief and loss. Finally turning to the other side of the emotional spectrum gave us some of the year’s best pop music. Big-band instrumentation and sunny synth hooks underscore frontwoman Michelle Zauner’s captivatingly youthful and highly emotive delivery as she actively combats her natural proclivity for darker thoughts and celebrates life’s simple joys.
- BB

10 | Shame - Drunk Tank Pink

With nothing but time on his hands after all touring plans came to a grinding halt, Shame frontman Charlie Steen embraced the calming powers of pink and painted his entire room the same shade that many drunk tanks have famously used to calm their boozy occupants. The effects of the colour made its way into the writing that you hear on the band’s stunning sophomore album, resulting in a mature and boisterous post punk offering. From their supercharged lead single “Alphabet” to introspective closer “Station Wagon,” Shame stepped into their role as the torchbearers of a fresh new sound with their unique brand of wiry post punk.
- GA

9 | St. Vincent — Daddy’s Home

Multi-instrumental experimentalist Annie Clark’s second team-up with superproducer Jack Antonoff is even better than the last. Loaded with 70s-inspired grooves, Clark strives to become her own father figure, inspired by a moment of reckoning after her real father’s release from prison. She runs through topics like grappling with substance abuse, society’s failings of transgressive female celebrities, and, most powerfully, expectations placed on women to be wives and mothers, all with a catchy and emotionally poignant pop edge and talent on whatever instrument you’ve got.
- BB

8 | Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

British rapper Little Simz has one of hip-hop’s most masterful pens, combining it with dizzying technical ability and sweeping, orchestral landscapes to offer some of the genre’s most fully-realized tracks of the year. It’s easy to simply nod your head along to Simz’s relentless flows over addictively dynamic and cinematic palates, The Crown’s Emma Corrin acting as whimsical fairy-tale narrator, but reading into her lyrics unveils a wealth of wisdom as she incisively diagnoses the conditions that influenced her personality.
- BB

7 | Cadence Weapon — Parallel World

In his acceptance speech for the 2021 Polaris Prize, Cadence Weapon took the time to address our Prime Minister’s blackface scandals. Plural. “That’s exactly why I need to be making rap records that are political, that are about these subjects because that’s still a fact today,” he said in response. Parallel World builds on where his 2018 self-titled left off, with the Edmonton rapper launching pointed critiques on themes of systemic racism and gentrification. This time around, he has a renewed focus on the dystopian socio-political issues that impact Black Canadians and more lyrical smoke for its enablers.

6 | Amyl and the Sniffers - Comfort to Me

Australian punk quartet and our September cover stars Amyl and the Sniffers channeled all of their pent up pandemic energy into this badass razor sharp sophomore album. Led by the illustrious and enigmatic Amy Taylor, Comfort To Me cuts through with the same rowdy energy that makes their live shows so memorable. Pulsing with raw punk rock fury, Taylor and her mullet sporting bandmates proved they have what it takes to build on the momentum of their infectious breakout single, “I’m Not A Loser,'' while pushing the band into exciting new directions.
- GA

5 | Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic

Bruno Mars and Anderson. Paak have been two of the most undeniably consistent forces in music in recent years, so their pairing – birthed from the mind of funk icon Bootsy Collins – came with high expectations. The duo still managed to exceed them. Mars’ show-stopping vocal talent bounces flawlessly off of .Paak’s all-around musicality and charisma, as the two run through James Brown-style funk and down-on-my-knees slow jams in a tongue-in-cheek but immaculately produced homage to 70s soul.
- BB

4 | Anika - Change

The German multihyphenate’s sophomore project, appropriately, has direct ties to her other professions as political journalist and poet. On top of her hypnotic, bass-heavy electronic mixes, Anika has quite a lot to say about the ignorance running rampant in today’s political climate, through both song and spoken-word pieces. Anika’s commanding alto voice chants mantras for progress and drives away its detractors, the title track representing a beacon of light cutting through the haunting vibe as she prays that the best in people will finally emerge.
- BB

3 | Viagra Boys - Welfare Jazz

When Swedish hardcore legends Refused penned their iconic 1994 album The Shape Of Punk To Come, it would have been hard to imagine punk rock embodying the bold and progressive sounds that fellow Swedes Viagra Boys lay down on Welfare Jazz. This face-melting genre-bending sophomore album comes out swinging with a unique energy that sets them apart from their post-punk contemporaries. With saxophones blazing, Viagra Boys work through their dysfunctions from opener “Ain't Nice” all the way through to the saucy country-tinged closer, “In Spite of Ourselves,” which features guest vocals from Amyl and the Sniffers’ Amy Taylor. Punk rock is one hell of a way to make a living but Welfare Jazz, while likely not what Refused predicted, is exactly what the doctor ordered to keep the genre interesting.
- GA

2 | Charlotte Day Wilson — Alpha

When Charlotte Day Wilson first emerged in 2016 she wowed critics and fans with her prodigious lyricism, pairing forward-thinking neo-jazz production with a voice that could stretch from a wincing lilt to a velvety bass. Her range earned her comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Feist, both artists Wilson has labelled as inspirations. On Alpha, Wilson has matured, exploring themes of identity, power, and belonging, all anchored by her smoothly textured vocals. From the straightforward R&B on “Changes” and “Take Care of You” to “Lovesick Utopia” harkening back to her folksy roots, CDW wields her ability to mutate through genres and still find herself right where she belongs.

1 | Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams

With an enchanting, cozy blend of bedroom pop and soulful vocals dusted off by a jazzy sheen, British spoken-word poet and singer-songwriter Arlo Parks has crafted one of the most captivating debuts in years at the age of only 21. Winning the UK’s Mercury Prize – essentially their equivalent of Canada’s Polaris – and with Parks having recently picked up a Grammy nod for Best New Artist, her profile should only continue to grow from here. It’s easy to tell Parks has a poetic background while listening to Collapsed in Sunbeams, which opens with one of her spoken-word pieces and often feels a little more like an anthology than an album. Parks weaves together narratives of the lives of characters both real and made up, full of touching lyrical moments as she tells the harrowing stories of some of her close friends.

On almost every track, Parks builds up a narrative around a named character, examining their personality and world through their experiences, worries, and desires. Some get lost in alcohol and television, some can’t bring themselves to leave the house, and some find themselves grappling with family and friends who won’t accept them for who they are. Clearly inspired by lingering malaise brought about by life and general anxieties, Parks’ uplifting words of advice and tender reassurances while responding to these characters’ struggles were exactly what many needed. The album’s closing tracks finally see Parks turning to her own story, offering some of the most powerful narrative moments. All in all, Parks is here to remind us that no pain lasts forever.
- BB