After one year of isolation and loss melted into the next, these are the albums that soundtracked a world rebuilding.
For the third year running, the team at SMPM have worked to find the best albums in the world, from the underground to the biggest artists on the planet. We are so proud to keep writing about the music that means the most to us, and we are so happy to show you the best music in the world.
Here are Slow Motion Panic Masters' Top 20 Albums of 2021:
BICEP - ISLES [Electronic] - Northern Ireland
Bicep made one of 2021's best dance albums. No one was surprised.
12 DOGS - CONSEQUENCE OF SOUND [Hip-Hop] - South Africa
One of the most impressive emerging artists of 2021 made one of the year's best hip-hop albums, too.
BO BURNHAM - INSIDE [Singer/Songwriter] - USA
Though the visual side of his lockdown masterwork does a lot of the heavy lifting, Bo Burnham's dissection of social inequality, white saviourism and celebrity status found an impressive vehicle through infectious hooks and sagacious lyricism.
THE WEATHER STATION - IGNORANCE [Alternative Rock] - Canada
In an album of sedate home-runs, 'Robber' stands as one of the best songs that 2021 had to offer. Add it to the list of unmissable Weather Station sounds.
INJURY RESERVE - BY THE TIME I GET TO PHOENIX [Hip-Hop] - USA
Marked by the loss of late member Stepa J. Groggs, Injury Reserve produced not only an excellent tribute to a friend and collaborator, but a forward-thinking and confidently experimental hip-hop record.
20. STILL WOOZY - IF THIS ISN'T NICE, I DON'T KNOW WHAT IS
You can say a lot about Still Woozy, but in the end all that really matters is that he makes really nice music. His solo debut If This Isn't Nice, I Don't Know What Is might not be tied together with the kind of intricate thematic blueprints that some of the other albums on this list can boast, but it never needed to be. It's an album that plays with the boundaries of genre in service of incredibly compelling pop songs, and the music still hasn't left my head after months.
This album's more consistent than it had any expectation to be, but particularly when 'Window' gets going the artist's production takes off. Fusing inspirations from hip-hop, soul, dance and beyond, there's no song that better encapsulates what Still Woozy has to offer, and how much this album is worth your time.
HIGHLIGHTS: ‘Woof, ’Rocky’, ‘Window'
19. WEBCAGE - PEER2PEER
If someone was to imagine "internet music," it would sound like webcage. Bound together online by their shared desire to create, this underground online collective are clever, energetic, off-kilter and exciting. peer2peer is one of the best debut albums of the year, and is criminally underrated with its outrageously adept production and a clever fusion of pop-punk and screen-filling MIDI inputs. Listen to those synths on 'twitterthread'; the math-rock melodies of 'fall right thru'; the unbelievable drums on 'head in the clouds'. It's all just so good.
webcage flip through genres in a way that totally mimics our need for constant internet stimulation. They sound like putting an Owl City CD and your cousin's reddit timeline into a blender, but in all of the best ways imaginable. It's staggering that young creatives can produce things on the level of peer2peer, but this is the new reality of music-making. This kind of band literally could not have existed twenty years ago, and the landscape of music is in a much better place now that they can.
TRY THIS SONG: 'undermyskin'
18. RIVAL CONSOLES - OVERFLOW
As electronic projects go, Rival Consoles' Overflow can be particularly intimidating in its scale and sound. It's a masterfully composed hour-and-a-bit of galactic sounds and thudding bass, and the places that its music transported me to were more vivid than any other record I heard this year. In its rainbow of musical sensations, there is always something new to emerge from the bokeh, revealing itself only when Ryan Lee West determines it to be precisely the right time to do so.
Hans Zimmer presumably holds some inescapable influence over the work, but that's not a bad thing for me. You could play opener 'Monster' over Dunkirk without missing a beat, but Overflow is no act of imitation. It occupies so many different spaces, absorbs so many different sounds on multiple different planes. This is a workout tape, a soundtrack to a film that doesn't exist yet, and a great way to give yourself a panic attack on the tube thinking that you're suddenly Jason Bourne. Highly recommended.
"THIS SONG IS VERY LONG BUT TRUST ME IT'S GOOD": 'Noise Call and Response II'
17. UNDERSCORES - FISHMONGER
If you listed to any of the songs off of fishmonger individually, you wouldn't believe that they came from the same album. It explodes off the hinges with '70%' - probably the best opening song from any album this year - but that energetic and unintelligible breakbeat punk is totally different to the rest of the record. It's got more faces than Yelbeghen, and each side it presents to you is just as interesting as the last.
underscores is a mind-meltingly creative musician, and their ability to create a cohesive project out of so many genres is so impressive. fishmonger operates in its own lane, with a distinctive style and voice but at the same time engages with multiple different influences while introducing clever songwriting and melodies. It's punk rock, it's hyper-pop, it's garage, its introspective singer/songwriter and it's all fantastic. It's another true gem from the 2021 underground, and as an added bonus it has my favourite album art of the year, so yknow, bonus points for that.
HIGHLIGHTS: '70%', 'Kinko's field trip 2006', 'Where did you fall'
16. VIAGRA BOYS - WELFARE JAZZ
You can't name your band Viagra Boys without making music that's a little bit fucked.
Thankfully, Welfare Jazz is completely fucked and I love it. This band is fantastic, and the album is some of the best rock of the year, but I still haven't come close to what it means when Sebastian Murphy screams "all I need is a little shrimp money" or when the album dedicates a whole song to a 'Secret Canine Agent.' This band is baffling; sensationally so. They're totally different to anything else you'll hear this year, even if you're still not entirely sure what is that you're hearing.
Viagra Boys sound like Michael Fassbender's character in Frank, screaming non-sequiturs about "stale beer" and "galactic perimeters" in front of a punk band while a local horn section imitates a goose farm for forty minutes. It's really fucking good. You should listen to Viagra Boys.
WHAT DOES SHRIMP MONEY MEAN THOUGH: 'Ain't Nice'
15. HIATUS KAIYOTE - MOOD VALIANT
Hiatus Kaiyote were a band that I had never quite fallen in love with. I came close (their last album had a hadoken-wielding baboon on the front cover, which was cool) but this Australian fusion group had never quite clicked for me. But this year? Holy shit. Mood Valiant is a moment of maturation probably unrivalled in 2021. There were always indications that Hiatus Kaiyote could make an album like this, but now that they've done it it's so much better than I could have possibly imagined.
Resisting genre classification, its concoctions of jazz fusion, neo-soul and funk are intoxicatingly brilliant. I came to the album with uncertainty, particularly with no baboon on the cover art this time, but the second that 'Chivalry Is Not Dead' set my speakers on fire it was clear just how much of an evolution the band had experienced. This is like watching Monferno become Infernape. Flames.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'Chivalry Is Not Dead', 'All The Words We Don't Say', 'Red Room'
14. YOLA - STAND FOR MYSELF
There were no songs that made my heart fly quite like 'Dancing Away in Tears' and 'Stand For Myself' from Yola's 2021 album. A wonderful mix-match of rapturously soaring highs from a kaleidoscope of different musical origins, Stand For Myself is an album with real soul. While the record might never fully live up to the impossibly brilliant standard of its two standout gems, it's perhaps the one album of the year that I think literally everyone will enjoy.
Bristol-born Yola fits into the Nashville scene like a hand in a rhinestone glove. Complimented by the neverending mastery of Dan Auerbach's production, the enchanting music of Stand for Myself works so well against melancholic expressions that "breaking up is always hard to do / one last dance is all I want with you." It's a gorgeous album, aided by disco orchestration, country harmonies and one of the year's most impressive vocal performances. With a few more songs of the quality of the record's high points, it assuredly would have ended up higher on the list, but Stand For Myself still sits as the one album from 2021 that I think everybody will fall in love with.
UNMISSABLE SONGS: 'Dancing Away in Tears', 'Stand For Myself'
13. PINKPANTHERESS - TO HELL WITH IT
Ok: imagine that I've never had a tiktok account. Imagine I'm coming to this album as a total outsider, without any violent overexposure to dancing teenagers, viral trends, terrorist recruitment videos or whatever it is that actually happens on that app. Imagine that I'd never heard PinkPantheress before switching on to hell with it for the first time.
I'd never encountered this artist before the album released, but maybe that distance from its internet overplay might be the reason that I could get so much out of it. Following in the footsteps of Tierra Whack, Jack Stauber and (sort of) Guided By Voices, PinkPantheress' micro-pop approach has resulted in songs that get to the point with absolutely no down time. There's no fat, no dud moments. It's all just relentlessly excellent music. What you're left with are ten incredibly direct songs that have revitalised UK two-step with some much needed airtime, all punctuated with my favourite sound of the year: hearing PinkPantheress shouting "hey!" under fat beats. It's heaven.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'Last Valentines', 'Noticed I Cried', 'Reason'
12. VINCE STAPLES - VINCE STAPLES
I feel like most hip-hop fans love Vince Staples. It's a cache of admiration well earned across years of excellent releases, and 2021's self-titled Vince Staples proved to be another exceptional project. While probably not living up to the unbelievable successes of 2017's Big Fish Theory, Staples still provides a hypnotic style thats so hard to pull yourself away from.
It's like there's two eyes staring back at you from the fog, mesmerising you with twisting syllables and infectious beats. Vince Staples is a boa constrictor, staring at you with swirls in his eyes as he locks you into the inescapable grasp of his flow. With songs like 'SUNDOWN TOWN', 'TAKE ME HOME', and 'LIL FADE' the symbiosis of Staples' arrestingly laid-back delivery and Kenny Beats' production genius, you can't help but become ensnared in the world that Vince Staples invents.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'LAW OF AVERAGES', 'SUNDOWN TOWN', 'TAKE ME HOME'
11. SHAME - DRUNK TANK PINK
I fell in love with shame when they were five sweaty Londoners screaming about 'Concrete' and 'Friction'. Their debut, Songs of Praise came in at #92 on our Top 100 Albums of the 2010s with its combination of fantastically gnarled-up post-punk and incisive lyricism, but with this year's Drunk Tank Pink it wasn't just more of the s(h)ame.
They're still the same punk guerillas, but this latest record is a real step forward. Moments of the old shame pierce through on 'Alphabet', but this is a changed band. The shame of 2018 don't make the phenomenal '6/1', or 'Born in Luton.' Almost absorbing the sounds of Parquet Courts into the repertoire, shame are quickly becoming one of the UK's essential bands.
Drunk Tank Pink is polished, confident, and still makes me want to get up and glass middle-aged estate agents down my local Wetherspoons. A post-punk album literally cannot get better than that.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'Born in Luton', 'Great Dog', '6/1'
10. MACH-HOMMY - PRAY FOR HAITI
I was late to the Griselda Records hype train. It makes me mad. There isn't a hip-hop label with a better batting average than this unit right now, and Pray for Haiti is one of the best records they've ever made. Delivered with all the embattled resilience deserving of the topic, born out of the experiences and emotions of Haitian-American artist Mach-Hommy, Pray for Haiti feels immediate and essential.
The beats come in typical Griselda fashion, landing with quintessential East Coast drums and smoky soundscapes before astonishing lyricism and deliveries are laid on top. Mach takes centre-stage, but with production provided from a number of brilliant places (most notably from the excellent ConductorWilliams) the album shifts from place to place - still laid back, but with the expected grittiness of a Griselda project. Like the Basquiat art that adorns its cover, there's order in the shrouded chaos of shapes and sounds in Pray for Haiti.
CONDUCTOR! CONDUCTOR! CONDUCTOR! 'Folie Á Deux'
9. LITTLE SIMZ - SOMETIMES I MIGHT BE INTROVERT
After Grey Area, Little Simz solidified herself as one of the most important rappers in the UK, but Sometimes I Might Be Introvert took her music even further. Now a well-beloved artist both here and beyond our shores, Little Simz has accrued a reputation as a phenomenal lyricist, but the music that envelops Simz's phenomenal lyricism carries the album forward as one of 2021's true greats.
Grand and lavish, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert shines when Simz is placed on a platform with a whole orchestra backing her up. From the moment the album begins, it's clear to hear that this is Simz operating on a new level, able to draw from so many different places in the construction of an album that seems to be coming from all directions at once. Little Simz might be the most important rapper in the UK right now, and this album only serves to confirm her place at the top.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'Two Worlds Apart', 'Standing Ovation', 'Fear No Man'
8. MDOU MOCTAR - AFRIQUE VICTIME
We said last year that "the world's best rock band comes from the Sahara". We were talking about Songhoy Blues and our #16 album of 2020, Optimisme, but now we realise that we were wrong. It's not that the world's best rock band comes from the Sahara, it's that the world's best rock music comes from the Sahara.
Where Songhoy Blues fly the flag of Mali, Mdou Moctar represents the Tuareg people on the world stage, but both of them are part of a broader culture of unbelievable guitar music hailing from West Africa with incredible artists like Tinariwen, Bombino and the late great Ali Farka Touré. Mdou Moctar is every bit a modern great, well deserving of recognition as one of the world's greatest guitarists, but when you get wrapped up into the romance of his story: growing up in a small village in Niger; building his first guitar out of bicycle spare parts; having his music spread across Western Africa by bluetooth from one phone to another; it becomes so difficult not to fall in love with the idea of Mdou Moctar.
In the UK there is a particular resistance to non-anglophone music. I can't speak Tamasheq, and I don't think I've ever met anyone that can, but to those who find songs sung in a different language off-putting this is exactly the kind of album to show you what you're missing. Afrique Victime has the best guitar performances of the year, hands down, and no one comes close. There is noone in the same universe as Mdou Moctar right now, and he has to be heard to be believed.
TRY THIS: 'Taliat'
7. TYLER, THE CREATOR - CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
I want to live in the world that CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST created. In some fictional reimagining of a quasi Monaco / Capri composite coastline, Tyler, the Creator takes a well-earned victory lap. Embracing a new persona of 'Tyler Baudelaire', imbuing himself with the poetry of Les Fleurs du mal in his vacation across crystal waters and luxury destinations, the artist continued to innovate.
'CORSO' is quite possibly the best song of the year, but so much on this album deserves recognition. 'WUSYANAME', 'RISE!', 'SAFARI' - it's all gold. It might not benefit from the same intricate design as IGOR, or offer the same number of standout tracks as Flower Boy, but it certainly is the conclusion of one of the strongest album trilogies of the last ten years. It's colourful, imaginative and packed with more careful characterisation than any one listener could ever fully decode. It's vintage Tyler.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'CORSO', 'WUSYANAME', 'SAFARI'
6. BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD - FOR THE FIRST TIME
The buzz that feverishly accumulated around Black Country, New Road is unlike any that I can remember in the UK underground. Paradoxically, For the first time seemed to be the most highly anticipated debut album of the year, but mentioning Black Country, New Road in your local pub would be met only by bewilderment and saxophone skepticism.
For pretentious London hipsters who studied English literature like me, Black Country, New Road are an inescapably appealing maelstrom of circular glasses and tote bags. Adorning self-aware jibes of "why don't you sing with an English accent?" the music of For the first time commands admiration and fear in equal measure. It's incredible that a band as early in to their discography as Black Country, New Road can produce songs as ambitiously well-conceived as these, but with a follow-up on the way this may be just the start for the UK underground's newest darling.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'Athens, France', 'Sunglasses', 'Track X'
5. ARCA - KICK iii
Arca scares me. She's too powerful. Whether she wants you to feel at ease, horrified, invigorated or confused, she can do it better than almost anyone else. Her music violates; it provokes; it disturbs. In all honesty, any of the four (yes, four) albums that Arca released this year could have deserved a place on this list, but in KicK iii, my favourite aspects of Arca's experimental approaches took form.
The album sounds like windows breaking under a factory floor of hydraulic machinery. As dance beats melt into Spanish, English and soundboards of strange noises, it's easy to feel completely lost in Arca's universe, and that's the point. KicK iii is like getting stuck in a foreign airport without a map, but also the airport is on fire and full of skeletons. It's a nightmare, with drills trepanning your skull as Arca stands triumphantly over the top of you in total control.
It should be said too, that so much credit has been given to King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard for their incredible five-album output in 2017, myself included. For whatever reason, however, I just have not heard Arca get the same flowers. That needs to change. Arca might have had the most impressive 2021 of any artist, and KicK iii stands as a victorious high-point in a year of unrivalled output
TRY THIS: 'Electra Rex'
4. GENESIS OWUSU - SMILING WITH NO TEETH
This album is my happy place. Creative, clever and exciting, on a first listen it's quite impossible to predict precisely where Smiling With No Teeth is about to go. It's opener 'On the Move!' rises and falls with the rumble of a deep synth, before 'The Other Black Dog' confirms to any listener that this is an album that must not be missed.
Injected with tremendous energy and a spirit committed to irrepressible fun. It's doing so much, confident with occupying really unique approaches to neo-soul, punk and R&B songwriting but still deserving to dominate radio with a sound that's at once trailblazing and incredibly accessible. The album has a revolving door of sounds and styles, swapping between them with effortless ease. It's the best debut album of the year.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'The Other Black Dog', 'Centrefold', 'Black Dogs!'
3. FLOATING POINTS, PHAROAH SANDERS & THE LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA - PROMISES
This album was always going to be excellent, but I don't think anyone was prepared for just how fantastic it would be. Backed by the London Symphony Orchestra, the assembly of British electronic producer Floating Points with jazz legend Pharoah Sanders exceeded all expectations in the creation of a transcendent album.
Now over 80 years old, the strength of Sanders as a leader remains utterly captivating, and as the album floats (pun somewhat intended) between one movement to the next, the arresting beauty of this record shines so brightly. It's wistful and contemplative, and moves through passages of trance-like meditativeness while harpsichord-like tones perfectly compliment Vangelis-esque soundscapes. It's a reflective pool that's so very easy to get completely swallowed up by, sinking deeper and deeper into a spectacularly sedate universe of immaculate conception.
TRY THIS: 'Movement 3'
2. SUFJAN STEVENS & ANGELO DE AUGUSTINE -
A BEGINNER'S MIND
With Angelo De Augustine being a true disciple of the school of Sufjan Stevens, many worried that this album wouldn't work. That they would sound too similar to each other, that their songs would blend together into a soft haze of whispered vocals and songs about God.
We were all wrong. This album is utterly, undeniably beautiful. As the voices of Stevens and De Augustine wrap around each other into this brilliant combination of impossibly soft vulnerability, the songs arrive enchanting, sweet and calm. A concept album designed around dedicating each song to a film the duo watched while retreating from the world in an upstate New York cabin, while A Beginner's Mind doesn't impart the same heart-wrenching solemnity of Carrie & Lowell or the rapturous highs of Illinois, this album manages something really difficult in Sufjan Stevens' discography - establishing its own unique voice. Between Point Break, Clash of the Titans, Silence of the Lambs, and more, the album becomes a game of hide and seek as the listener uncovers the references and subtexts between each song and its accompanying film.
But looking at this album as part of Sufjan's collection is only half of the story. To many, this was the introduction to the music of Angelo De Augustine, and that is a truly fantastic thing. In the presence of an all-time great in Stevens, De Augustine does more than hold his own. In fact, he gives the album many of its true highlights, and on closer 'Lacrimae' he provides what I think is easily the best vocal performance of 2021. Every song on the record is a hit, but the particular genius of 'Back to Oz' stands out. Balancing a gorgeously delicate overdriven guitar with lyrics inspired by Return to Oz (ED: the best Wizard of Oz movie), 'Back to Oz' did the impossible, giving Sufjan Stevens another song that could legitimately be argued as among his very best.
HIGHLIGHTS: 'Back to Oz', 'Olympus', 'Lacrimae'
1. SONS OF KEMET - BLACK TO THE FUTURE
Sons of Kemet are two drummers, a tuba and a sax. They are the best jazz band in the world.
Following on from the incredible success of 2018's Your Queen is a Reptile, Kemet's approach of highly conceptual, politically motivated experimental jazz has crystallised into its most potent form with the best album of 2021, Black to the Future.
With certain albums, it's just not possible for me to fully understand what is being spoken about. That was true for Fiona Apple's Fetch the Bolt Cutters, it was true for Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, and it's true for Black to the Future. The conversation at the heart of this album is one that I won't ever come close to fully grasping, but it's clear that through Sons of Kemet's latest record there are particularly salient and sombre points being made with true precision.
It's evident even in its tracklisting, forming a poem that encapsulates the albums message of black resilience, and in fusing inspirations from fusion to afro-jazz, that Black to the Future arrives as a celebration of heritage while simultaneously inventing something new. It's a powerful album, and I know that for many it has proved an affirming and resonant album too. Putting black identity to the forefront of its expression, this is a concept album that shows exactly what can be achieved through the album form.
On the music, it remains astounding how big Sons of Kemet can sound as just a fourpiece (sometimes with a bonus saxophone), with Theon Cross's tuba carrying so much of the album's weight. Its standout single, 'Hustle' is practically Tuba propaganda with it dominating the space behind class turns from Kojey Radical and Lianne la Havas. It blasts underneath declarations of "I was born from the mud with the hustle inside me" while Kemet's doubled drums layer performances in sweltering waves of rhythm.
It's an album that will spark discussion for years to come, and will rightfully stand out as one of the best jazz albums in recent memory. It's a concept album operating on a level that most artists cannot come close to, and will take many listens to fully appreciate and unpack. Its thematic power goes beyond any other from the year, but beyond that, it's also one some of the most compelling jazz music recorded in the last few years. It stands as a work of art emerging from instrumental brilliance and a defiance against the institutional violences committed against African identities, and is the best album of 2021.
EMBRACE THE TUBA: 'Hustle', 'For The Culture', 'Let The Circle Be Unbroken'
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture website created and co-edited by Ben Wheadon. He recently graduated and wanted to let you know that Fleet Foxes are the greatest band of all time.
Do you make music? Send it to us via instagram and follow the account so we can contact you if we like what we hear. In the meantime, like us on facebook and subscribe to our mailing list below to be alerted every time a new post is published on the site.