Dork’s Albums of 2021

From unexpected superstars to returning heroes, here’s the year in its standout records.

What a year, eh, Dear Readers? The second compromised by our ‘good friend’ COVID-19, beginning in lockdown and only starting to find something close to a sense of normality at the back end of summer, there’s been no shortage of amazing music to enjoy. To celebrate finally seeing 2021 out the door, we’ve put together a list featuring fifty of our favourite albums from the last twelve months. From unexpected superstars to returning heroes, here’s the year in its standout records.

There’s always one specific moment at a festival when everything seems inexplicably magical. The sun is setting, distant beats are felt underfoot, and everybody is descending into total merriment. On SG Lewis’ debut album, he’s somehow managed to successfully bottle that moment up. ‘times’ is a love letter to the midsummer heat and the euphoria of those late nights, and it’s every bit as captivating as you would expect. Its unspoken encouragement to throw caution to the wind and embrace pure joy is irresistible. There’s something addictive in the basslines and synth – an unshakeable sense that SG Lewis is grabbing your hand and dragging you straight to the centre of the dancefloor. Leave your inhibitions at the door. Neive McCarthy

Danny L Harle has always operated within a different musical dimension. With his debut album, this bonkers sonic explorer blasts off into a whole new stratosphere helped out by a few ‘friends’. You see, “Harlcore” isn’t just Danny. No, it’s also more than just an album. It’s a truly immersive experience helmed by the four resident DJ’s at the producers imaginary club that acts as the location for the album. DJ Danny, MC Boing, DJ Mayhem and DJ Ocean all combine their talents to supreme effect on a record that is exhilarating, dizzyingly inventive and offers a vivid snapshot of a dreamlike world to escape into. Everyone is welcome in Danny L Harle’s electronic funhouse. ‘Harlecore’ is a truly thrilling creation. Martin Young

At one point, Twenty One Pilots felt like an almost underground concern – a whispered idea surrounded by intricate, complex lore, despite the fact they were able to headline massive festivals and drop gigantic hit songs. If that’s the case, ‘Scaled And Icy’ is the sound of a band stepping into their limelight fully. Big, bright, bold and brilliant, it might not be as dark as previous record ‘Trench’, or have the depth of some of their greatest moments, but it’s certainly confident – and that’s infectious in itself. Dan Harrison

Pop will prevail. That’s the mantra that runs through Zara Larsson’s much anticipated second full-length. After the wild success of her 2017 debut ‘So Good’ – apparently at one point the second most-streamed album by a female solo artist on Spotify, dontcha know – ‘Poster Girl’ isn’t letting up in the slightest. This is strictly a ‘no ballads allowed’ zone. By going for front-to-back bangers, Larsson is playing to her strengths. With that Swedish high-def pop heritage, every song could be a chart smash. Pass the blu-tack. Stephen Ackroyd

Jumping on a remix of Charli XCX and Kim Petras’ ‘Click’ in 2019, Slayyyter established herself as a key player in the next generation of retro-futuristic pop stars. Holding her own beside two of her forefathers just a month after dropping her first mixtape, Slayyyter was clearly on the up and up, but what was yet to come was next level. An accumulation of the 2000s icons she idolised as a child (Britney, Gaga, Xtina, you know the deal), the hit-minded penmanship of her contemporaries and the 100mph hyperpop movement, ‘Troubled Paradise’ could kill a Victorian orphan on first listen. While she was finding her feet during her mixtape era, they’re firmly planted on the ground this time. A genuine no-skip affair, it’ll be trouble in paradise for the other pop girls next. Abigail Firth

As the long-awaited follow up to ‘Turn Out the Lights’, ‘Little Oblivions’ feels desperate to not retread old ground. Sonically, it’s more expansive; consciously layered with synth, banjos, mandolin and drums to avoid any familiarity with the stark, vulnerable sound of Julien Baker’s previous work. It’s a bold step forward. Alexander Bradley

The debut album from dodie is a surprising one. With two Top 10s under her belt as well as many sold-out shows, it’s hard to believe it’s only her first; it also showcases an exceptional writing style, delivered through her haunting vocal ability. Her lyricism’s brutal honesty addresses everyone’s shared fears; that gut-wrenching feeling of speaking the unspeakable makes dodie relatable on a universal scale. A salve to soothe widespread worries. Phoebe De Angelis

As her moniker alludes, Greentea Peng’s highly anticipated debut album is an 18-track opus that doesn’t just heal the mind and soothe the soul, but expands it too. Recorded in 432 Hz frequency – a pitch that falls a semitone below music industry standard, which is thought to vibrate healing energy – Greentea’s ethereal vocals twist and turn, effortlessly soaring as she navigates very real lived experiences and feelings across lyrical odysseys navigating the spiritual and socio-political. Greentea certainly is peng. Jasleen Dhindsa

Good things are worth waiting for – or so the saying goes. We’ve had to wait a very long time for the debut album from No Rome, the Dirty Hit signed solo-artist-slash-production-wizz-kid who promised so much on his arrival what seems like an age ago. A key collaborative force to label-mates The 1975, it’d be very easy to lose No Rome’s own identity inside what he’s offered to others – especially given how much of himself he gave to 2018’s ‘A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships’ – but that would be to do a disservice to ‘It’s All Smiles’, a gem of an album in its own right. At a point where we all need something to sooth our ills and reignite our faith, ‘It’s All Smiles’ does exactly what it says on the tin. Stephen Ackroyd

The brainchild of vocalist and guitarist Mia Berrin, Pom Pom Squad and their head cheerleader have been kicking around for a few years now. With the release of 2019’s ‘OW EP’, they showed themselves to be fearless in mixing the saccharinely melodic with a snarling, biting attitude that wants to stake its place in the world. Throughout ‘Death Of A Cheerleader’, the thrashing of guitar strings feels exorcising, but never overwhelming. For Pom Pom Squad it’s always been rooted in that rush of excitement that comes from finding something, or someone, you’ve been missing – including this album. It’s so much fun packed into a bold-stepping 14 tracks that you’re hard-pressed not to fall in love at first listen. Steven Loftin

Whatever Maisie Peters thought she was signing up for, chances are that the reality has left her expectations a million miles away. Celebrity tweet endorsements, getting signed to Ed Sheeran’s record label, excitement, ridiculous hype levels, she’s taken it all in her stride. And now, with her debut, she’s proven more than a match for all of it. Pinballing wildly in mood between heartbreak and lovestruck, it’s as much of a rollercoaster ride as real life is at this age. Everything is either the best thing ever or the worst thing ever. What a start. Jamie MacMillan

It only takes a few short seconds of the opening track to ascend to the particular world that London-via-Fleet trio Drug Store Romeos have created in their debut record, a warm hug of an album in a time when we could all do with one. Like Alice popping through the looking glass, ‘The World Within Our Bedrooms’ seems to exist in a world that’s close to but parallel to this one – a realm of opposites where the organic meets the scientific, where light meets dark and becomes something entirely new. It’s sometimes code for ‘a bit difficult’ to say that a record rewards repeat listens, but ‘The World Within Our Bedrooms’ contains so much beauty and subtle colours that it demands a return trip to make sure every inch of it is explored thoroughly. You’ve got to hope they’re ready for the world to crash into their rooms, because that’s the only way this is all heading. Jamie MacMillan

Bachelor is a collaboration between Jay Som’s Melina Duterte and Palehound’s Ellen Kempner. On ‘Doomin’ Sun’, the record they created and recorded during just two weeks of intense creativity, the pair combine their considerable songwriting skills to great effect forging an almost telepathic musical bond. Freed from their usual routine and buoyed by a close blossoming friendship the duo sound utterly relaxed and assured on an album that sounds unplanned and natural in the best way. Just two friends who love music doing exactly what they do best. Martyn Young

On their self-titled debut album, Goat Girl were already an impressive prospect. Like so many of their class, they’ve always felt like a creative collective – more than just a loosely post-punk flash in the pan, but freer and more organic than your average, infinitely more boring band. With time to ferment those ideas, second effort ‘On All Fours’ instantly feels like a stronger brew. An evolution to celebrate, they’re well on their way to being the greatest their name suggests. Stephen Ackroyd

Following up your critically acclaimed debut, one written at the age of 17, has to be a daunting task. In the throes of growing and learning, just how do you go about starting up again? Well, in the case of Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan, you throw everything you’ve got at it, including the kitchen sink. Channelling those growing, loving, losing and learning vibes that so truncate leaving your teens and entering your twenties, it’s refreshing to hear it done with such vibrancy. With the world focused on so much of the wider nitty-gritty, the granular reality of ‘us’ gets forgotten. We need more songs about dealing with the everyday love and loss because without it, how do we know how to traverse it? That’s what makes Snail Mail shine. Delivering the most necessary of lessons through the most addictive form of medicine: Very Good Music. Steven Loftin

When we first put Easy Life on the cover of Dork, back in March of 2020, they looked set up for a barnstorming year. There were big live dates on the books. There was an expectation of a much-anticipated debut album. There was even a good chance of those awards, plaudits and end of year list mentions aplenty that might follow. And then the world stopped. Momentum wound down; it’d be easy to suggest that the Midlands massive might have missed their moment. But they haven’t. Easy Life have always seemed like a band operating on their own effortless steam. While urgency may have been forced upon them by the gears and cogs of an industry around them, musically they’ve remained the calm at the eye of the storm, laid back with an umbrella-adorned cocktail in hand. After a year of frantic panic, worry and claustrophobic stress, ‘life’s a beach’ isn’t an opportunity passed. A moment of escape from muddled, muddling lives, it’s the perfect balm to soothe us out the other side, back into the mundanity of modern life. Stephen Ackroyd

If we’re to believe what we’re told, we’re approaching the end of Brockhampton’s lifespan. With a final album on the cards for the relatively near future, ‘ROADRUNNER’ – for its part – certainly helps provide a fitting tribute to the collective. Bringing in outside contributors – Danny Brown’s appearance is especially thrilling – it’s both a great record and a tribute to just what Brockhampton have achieved. That final statement should be quite something. Dan Harrison

Without so much as a whiff of pretension or pompousness, Melbourne-based pub-rock icons Amyl & the Sniffers exploded back into our ears with a lunatic collection of 13 rapid songs on ‘Comfort To Me’. Each track is packed with enough energy to power a city and an insatiable lust for life that hums from the charmingly brash lyrics and brazen vocals of Amy Taylor. This is raw, unadulterated punk with no prefix that can only come from a band with immense amounts of talent and character. Amyl & the Sniffers have clearly put every ounce of themselves into this album, and the product is as unique as they are. Connor Fenton

“These are your greatest hits” is the bold claim at the start of, erm, ‘Greatest Hits’, the fourth record from the increasingly great Waterparks. That’s the kind of statement that you only tend to make if you’re either a) a wild egomaniac or b) dropping one hell of a record. Lord knows the music scene is full of the former, but thankfully this record falls firmly into the second section. ‘Greatest Hits’ is great then. And it’s full of hits. So that’s all good. Phew. Jamie MacMillan

Claire Cottrill knows how to create a vibe. That’s the first thing that strikes after hitting play on her second full-length. A lush, lavish, opulent piece, it sees the 22-year-old Gen-Z breakthrough icon working with alt-pop’s go-to producer, Jack Antonoff. But while sometimes, elsewhere, it might feel like the Bleachers main man has at least one hand on the steering wheel, guiding his charge down well beaten, Springsteen-esque paths, there are no such fears here. ‘Sling’ is 100% Clairo. Subtle but powerful, It’s an album born of love and care. A slow-burner, sure, but one that will last the distance. Stephen Ackroyd

What Pale Waves excel in, Dear Reader, is a command of aesthetic. Their central pairing – Heather Baron-Gracie and Ciara Doran have always had a strong sense of their own sonic identity – a unifying filter laid heavy across everything they do. It’s a strength, not a weakness, and one which elevates their second album ‘Who Am I?’ considerably. A record that feels to be as much about the band’s self-discovery as people as it is their artistic evolution, a hard left swing into late-90s alt-pop wouldn’t have felt like the most obvious route to take, and yet it works brilliantly. ‘Who Am I?’ is a lot of things. It’s a pop record from the recent past, an album that looks deep within but projects strongly outwards too. But what it most certainly isn’t is a one-trick pony. Pale Waves were always better than that. Stephen Ackroyd

2021’s pop circus has sometimes thrown us the odd curveball. It’s fair to say that ‘Happier Than Ever’ might not be the Billie Eilish album everyone expected – it’s no retread of her biggest hits, or an attempt to recapture the lightning of a wildly successful debut. Rather, it’s the sound of an artist growing up in public, finding texture, maturity and new things to say. So while, sure, it may not have the immediacy of an album packed with radio singles, it certainly isn’t a slog either. That slow-release impact is quite probably even more effective in the long term, and the album’s title track is one for the ages. Billie Eilish remains a fearsome talent. Dan Harrison

There is something special about home videos – something intrinsically warming and magical. Maybe it is how each grainy clip feels blurred by nostalgia. Whatever that mysticism is, Lucy Dacus has captured it immaculately. On ‘Home Video’, she places the camcorder firmly in your hands. As each track unfolds, it feels as though you are watching Lucy through the lens as she returns to her coming-of-age years. ‘Home Video’ is encompassed by a quivering intimacy, perhaps because, like its title, it captures years of vivid emotion and clung-onto memories. It’s so deeply personal, though, that it feels akin to stepping into her teenage journal. When you are a teenager, you think every feeling you have is the most crushing or euphoric: it’s an unparalleled kind of passion. Lucy has bottled that sheer intensity, but from the perspective of her 26-year-old self, it’s achingly tender. Neive McCarthy

If you read a lot of the discourse around Lorde’s third album, you might presume it is in some way a letdown. What do you mean it isn’t twelve renditions of ‘Green Light’? Expectations can be a curse, but with distance and an open mind applied, ‘Solar Power’ remains a great record. Spiritually in touch with itself and trying to find a freedom to simply be, it’s an album that speaks to its intended audience perfectly. Try not to pay too much attention to the tired old men that can’t understand everything isn’t for them anymore. They’ll never learn. Stephen Ackroyd

It’s weird to think of Chvrches about to embark on their second decade. On the one hand, they’ve very quickly become part of the accepted order of things, delivering three albums of innovative, forward-thinking pop music. On the other, they’ve always been a band that feels a step ahead of their own shadow, untethered from the trends and fads around them. Perhaps, then, their fourth full-length ‘Screen Violence’ is a gateway to something not so much new, but definitely evolved. After battening down the hatches following a 2019 social media storm, there is both frustration and almost visceral anger – but also, perhaps more importantly, that vital spark of hope too. For every line about “getting out” or finding a way out, there’s that cinematic vista that waits at the other side. What could so easily come across as doom-laden negativity actually becomes the empowerment of sticking the course. ‘Screen Violence’ is a record that understands the lows to appreciate the highs. Just like the band that made it, it’s that ability to last the distance that counts in the end. Stephen Ackroyd

It would seem that someone has chucked the ambitiously joyous essence of pop, a handful of rap’s vehemence and a good dose of rock’s styling into a bottle, corked it up along with a mint, and proceeded to shake it until the fizz erupts. Emerging soaked from this experiment into the abundantly ‘Cool’ comes burgeoning star De’Wayne, triumphantly holding aloft ‘Stains’, his debut album. A collection of songs that points a finger at the world, sticks another up at love, and begs success for a tussle with a confident swagger. We’ll have what he’s having. Steven Loftin

It’s been clear since the release of her debut EP that Charli Adams is one to keep an eye on. With last year’s ‘Good at Being Young’, Charli introduced herself as a songwriting talent to be reckoned with: those six impeccably penned songs perfectly captured a teenage spirit that everyone has pined for. Fast-forward to 2021 and ‘Bullseye’, her sprawling first full-length, absolutely cements her star potential. Bold and bigger than life, covering all bases while still giving the impression that there’s even more to come — it’s a perfect debut record. Jay Singh

Brighton five-piece Squid may have built their brand on post-punk belters, but with their debut album, ‘Bright Green Fields’, they’re trying their hands as architects. “This album has created an imaginary cityscape,” explains drummer and singer Ollie Judge, “A kind of dystopian British cityscape.” Only around 5% of the UK is urbanised, but in the hyperreality of modern Britain, most of us are more likely to see the rolling green hills of a Windows background than we are that other 95%. ‘Bright Green Fields’ sees Squid stepping through that looking glass. Having ditched all prior material for this album, Squid have crafted a vision of reality where everything we hear is either agenda-driven or a load of bollocks. The result? A project where each track has more turns than a roundabout, and where you’re as likely to find a grooving bassline at the four-minute mark as you are an abrupt crash into bedlam. It’s a little pretentious, and definitely an album that requires your full attention, but it’s a deceptively good time too. If this is the sound of our dystopian future, sign us up. Blaise Radley

For Those I Love, the project from Dublin producer and songwriter David Balfe, is so good that it needs a whole new barrel of superlatives before anyone could even begin to describe it properly. A record that burns brightly with the flame of grief over the death of his best friend and the love that remains, it is fuelled by a mix of heady nostalgia of times past and quiet anger at the environments that may have caused it. With a pain at times so real that it can almost be touched, its smartest trick is turning it into something approaching euphoria with its mix of poetry and exhilarating dance beats. As much a celebration of friendship as it is a eulogy to the departed, snippets of WhatsApp conversations drift in alongside samples that have been deployed with a precision aim to build into the night-time-driving-with-mates vibes of Jamie xx or The Streets, using that same ability of Skinner to pick up on the tiny details of human life. Whether it is the recollection of teenage scrapes, recounting those tales that get told around pub tables for all time, or railing at injustices and admitting the raw pain of his grief, every aspect of local life is explored. Mourning, and moving on from, the loss of a loved one is never a straightforward process and this record is no different. In a time where we’ve never needed it more, this is a vital and poignant reminder to keep your friends and family close and pick up that phone. Jamie MacMillan

If we were forced, right now, to rank human beings, Lil Nas X would feature high on the list. Not because of great humanitarian acts, or huge sacrifices made for those in need – simply because he seems fucking fantastic. Riling the right people, being his best self and dropping gigantic pop bangers as he goes, his pure chaos energy is infectious. Knocking anyone who thought ‘Old Town Road’ was a one hit wonder into a sequinned top hat, probably already cast alight and spinning on its brim, ‘Montero’ is everything pop culture in 2021 should be and more. A genuine phenomenon, in the best possible way. Stephen Ackroyd

Many of the major pop albums released in the last year have been relatively understated and muted. They’ve employed soft focus, light touch sounds and a retrenchment from any sort of maximalist dancefloor elation. Now is very much not the time. Halsey has always stood out from the crowd, though. Unquestionably a top tier star, just like the other modern pop icons, they have made a significant statement on their fourth album, ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’, but Halsey is not stepping back in any way in low key fashion. Instead, delivering a bracing and ferocious blast of intense rock and dynamic pop which pushes the boundaries and takes you on a thrilling journey. The album is the sound of Halsey relentlessly exploring the innermost depths of the psyche as they experience the swirling emotions of motherhood and childbirth combined with having a career as a major star. The result is righteous and abrasive but always striking. Produced in conjunction with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and including a turn from Dave Grohl on drums, it’s both their hardest rocking album and their most fluid. ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ is Halsey’s definitive artistic breakthrough. They have always made great music but this feels bigger. More powerful, more moving, more confident and breathlessly exciting. Halsey doesn’t play by pop rules rather bends them to their will through sheer force of nature. The power is all theirs. Martyn Young

‘It Won’t Always Be Like This’ – the perfect title for an album landing in the middle of generational upheaval – has everything. Some might attempt to cast shade with inevitable comparisons to other parts of their family tree, but if anything, it’s a marker of just how great Inhaler could become. Yes, Inhaler are a band who will always have their legacy forced upon them by others – but that’s when the music needs to do the talking. ‘It Won’t Always Be Like This’ is a mic drop moment. With everything else cast aside, it’s the music that matters. Inhaler have nothing left to prove. Stephen Ackroyd

From power pop to fizzing punk thrashes, to dreamy shoegaze to amped up hip-hop, the BLACKSTARKIDS sound is genre fluid, agile and dynamic. We’ve known for a while that this band are something special. Through a number of their previous projects, the trio have shown how they can pretty much do it all. Built around evoking strong feelings – whether that’s nostalgia for simpler times or the importance of cherishing your friendships and the things you love – they’re front in centre in defining a new era of artists representing what it means to be young. Martyn Young

Rock music can so often feel stuck somewhere in the early to mid-2000s, regurgitating the same ageing men playing the same ageing songs – their ranks reduced more by their own disgusting behaviour being finally called out than any genuine refreshing of the ranks. Thankfully, in 2021, the tide feels to be turning – slightly, at least. The best new rock music came from outside that sweaty, tired old tent. Willow’s big reveal might have arrived with the aid of the now ubiquitous pop-wants-to-go-punk Travis Barker feature slot, but ‘Lately I Feel Everything’ is an album of brilliance and substance from an artist who already feels to be helping lead a new wave. Better days are around the corner, and if they sound anything like this, that’s something to celebrate. Dan Harrison

Your twenties can feel like you’re walking a tightrope. You don’t feel completely different from your nineteen-year-old self, but you’re definitely more mature, right? You know yourself far better than you did back then, but there’s still so much to learn. Navigating those years are the most disorienting part of any coming-of-age. On ‘Woman On The Internet’, it’s as though Orla Gartland has reached into your mind and grasped every anxious thought about whether you’re doing things right. What Orla perhaps doesn’t realise is that this very album will offer that exact reassurance to her listeners. It’s as if you’re sitting down with an old friend over a cup of tea, ranting about your lives and putting the world to rights, just in the form of an impressive debut album. Neive McCarthy

There once was a time where Hayley Williams was insistent she’d not be doing any solo albums – and then she made two of them. ‘Flowers For Vases/Descansos’ – the follow-up piece to last year’s ‘Petals For Armor’ – didn’t arrive with the same fanfare as its sibling. Still, it proved not only what a talent Williams remains, but also just how important this period of her created evolution has become. While on a personal level the healing process through music remains both clear and reflective, it goes hand in hand with the eventual realisation on a wider scale that Williams has become a genuine, no-caveats icon. As a new wave of voices all inspired by her work begin to take their own places in a universe of pop culture crying out for fresh ideas, her influence has never been stronger. With Paramore back on the cards for 2022, it’s exciting to see just what the impact of this period will have had on what remains one of the most important bands on the planet. Stephen Ackroyd

Almost a decade ago, Odd Future, the group Tyler, The Creator initially found fame with, caused such a moral panic that Tyler himself was banned from entering the UK in 2012. This ban was finally lifted in 2019, by which time Tyler had swapped ‘edgy’ lyrics about date rape for soul-flecked tunes exploring his vulnerability and, more obliquely, his sexuality. With ‘CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST’, Tyler has fused these two sides of his discography. It’s half tender, synth-led moments and half hard-hitting hip-hop. The latter may have had the controversial edges sanded off since the days of debut album ‘Goblin’, but it still hits just as hard. Tyler, The Creator has emerged from his cocoon as a beautiful hip-hop butterfly. Jake Hawkes

Chloe Moriondo’s ‘Blood Bunny’ is the perfect example of a significant step up. It sees the young songwriter transformed from sweet ukulele playing YouTuber to a full-blown assured indie rock star who knows what they want to say and exactly how they’re going to say it. We’ve always known Chloe was something special from her earliest independent releases and EPs, but here on her first ‘Big Kid’ album, as she calls it, she puts everything together into one supremely satisfying package. Martyn Young

If life in the last couple of years has been a fairly even split of household mundanity and never-ending worries, then the very long-awaited debut from Dry Cleaning provides the perfect soundtrack. A record that exists in the gaps of modern life that most other bands skip over, ‘New Long Leg’ sticks its head in your kitchen cupboards, worries about Brexit, waits for the bins to get collected, feels paranoid, gets its leg pissed on in the big Sainsbury’s. Modern life is delightful! Brighter minds than ours could spend years dissecting each track, the wandering nature of Florence Shaw’s wry lyrics leaving you feeling at times like you’ve been dropped into her actual stream of consciousness where you only hear or understand half a conversation but still get asked whether you still want oven chips and never mind because the conversation has moved on now anyway. An album that has easily cemented their place as one of the most fascinating bands out there. Jamie MacMillan

It’s fair to say that girl in red isn’t the kind of icon that always exists easily in the always-on, razzle-dazzle, like-and-subscribe zeitgeist. Battling with the same insecurities, self-doubts and imperfect actions as the rest of us, it’s Marie’s humanity that shines through on a first full-length that proves more than worth a sensibly prolonged gestation period. Open, raw and honest – ‘if i could make it go quiet’ is also, perhaps, a subtly different album to the one many might have expected. Unafraid to go in big and bold, it mixes Marie’s different emotional speeds with a quiet swagger. Swirling in the complicated, often contradictory emotions of everyday life, it’s relatable, affirming and more than occasionally profoundly affecting. Stephen Ackroyd

Japanese Breakfast
Photo credit: Peter Ash

Michelle Zauner’s career has been varied and constantly compelling. From her earliest beginnings over a decade ago making scrappy, perky pop-punk to creating stunning videos and imagery as an in-demand director to her first book published this year. It’s with her Japanese Breakfast project though that Zauner is most well known. ‘Jubilee’ is an album that glistens and sparkles at every moment. Zauner is revelling in her musical step up as she employs synths, strings, saxophones, pianos, guitars and anything she can lay her hands on to take her evocative and richly detailed songwriting to a new level. The culmination of a journey and the arrival on the biggest stage of a significant talent. Martyn Young

Shame have always seemed destined for greatness and in hindsight, debut album ‘Songs of Praise’ came too soon for the band to tap into the now huge appetite for exactly the sound they pioneered as part of the South London Scene. ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ rectifies that mistake across eleven glorious tracks. Packed with energy, snark and absolute bangers, it goes above and beyond what their debut managed to achieve in every conceivable way. It’s rare that a band makes two genuinely great albums in a row, but come on, we’d all have put money on South London’s finest managing it – wouldn’t we? Jake Hawkes

From the opening fanfare of Little Simz’ ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’, there’s a resounding sense that what you’re about to hear is incomprehensibly enormous. It’s like dousing yourself in a bucket of cold water – you’re suddenly strikingly alert, goosebumps rapidly rising along your arms. You can’t help but stand to attention. What Little Simz delivers is, exhilaratingly, beyond even those high expectations. This album is absolutely her magnum opus – it’s earth-shatteringly beyond what has come before, no easy feat considering her debut is one of the most revered of the past few years. It showcases a fascinating duplicity – chronicling the workings of an introvert whose rich inner world expands beyond most people’s imaginations. A creative odyssey that only a mind as quick and introspective as Simz could have crafted. Neive McCarthy

Claud’s debut album ‘Super Monster’ is a record dealing in universal themes and deep emotional connections. There’s no mystery or illusion here, just Claud writing supremely relatable, often hilarious and always super melodic indie rock songs. Relationships and how we spend our lives, especially our formative teen years, navigating them are central to the album’s charms. Claud’s songwriting is perceptive and sharp as they combine cutting matter of factness with playful wit before flooring you with an emotional suckerpunch out of nowhere. Claud can do it all and ‘Super Monster’ is the realisation of a long appreciated yet underrated musical talent flourishing. Martyn Young

Self Esteem’s second album ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ is one of those those special records that’s importance and legacy will be felt for years to come, both for its creator Rebecca Lucy Taylor and the growing band of people she has been inspiring with her brand of deeply emotionally and physically resonant progressive pop. Everything on this record hits hard. From the inventive sonics to Rebecca’s clever and dynamic use of her striking voice and vocal phrasings to the incredibly powerful lyrics that document her experiences in a deeply human way. This is a real body of work and stands as Self Esteem’s first masterpiece. Martyn Young

Following the runaway success of ‘Hypersonic Missiles’, it would have been dead easy for Sam Fender to double down on those stories built on the shoulders of the characters of his beloved North Shields. But, as a pandemic hit, and an enforced and extended isolation quickly followed for him, his songwriting instead took a turn inwards. The main character in ‘Seventeen Going Under’ is, instead, Sam himself. Bravely putting his own life under that same microscopic attention to detail that coloured so much of his debut, it is a bold leap forward in all the ways that matter. Very special indeed. Jamie MacMillan

It’s not like at the start of 2021 nobody had heard of Olivia Rodrigo – a Disney star with a starring role in the latest High School Musical series, she was a big deal. But nobody was quite ready for the eruption of ‘Drivers Licence’ – breaking streaming records in a January explosion the kind of which we can’t remember. That it doesn’t even feel to be the standout moment from her debut album (that’s obviously pop-punk-is-back bop ‘Good 4 U’, ‘FYI’) shows just how easily our Liv has established herself on the triple-A list. Sensational stuff. Stephen Ackroyd

Pop is about personality. That’s not to say it’s not also about great music, but when it comes to separating the very best from the rest, attitude is everything. Remi Wolf? She’s swimming in it. Generally, new artists will still be trying to establish who they are. The confidence of getting over those early bars might persuade them it’s okay to put more of themselves forwards. Open up creatively. Maybe even get a bit weird. With her debut album ‘Juno’, Remi is leaving nothing out. Sass, swagger and a choice bit of swearing, it’s not just her music that’s an absolute riot. It’s this always-on neon-glare that sets Remi Wolf apart from her peers. Gen Z’s pop troupe is packed with potential future icons. They’re vocal, vibrant and unconcerned with putting it all on the table – but nobody else does it with quite the same panache. Like that friend that always makes everyone else feel great, Remi Wolf is the serotonin shot 2021 needed. The next greatest pop star on the planet has arrived. Stephen Ackroyd

“I see myself stretched out; open to beauty however brief or violent,” begins a languorous Arlo Parks on the eponymous song of her debut album ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’. There’s something incredibly endearing about her simplistic acceptance of all that the world has to offer, regardless of its form, that makes Arlo’s music universally relatable and inherently cinematic in its wistful nature. With each song shrouded in a mist of melancholia and coming-of-age confessions, Arlo’s breathy vocals soften, and make palatable, the often harsh and uncomfortable realities of life. The use of metaphors and images of nature, nourishment, filmography and friendship offer vignettes of reality that is so near-perfect, you can almost taste it. As a debut, it is a sublime body of work from the kind of artist who is meticulous in all aspects of her craft. To put it simply — in the artist’s own words — she is “making rainbows out of something painful”, and we’re just so lucky enough that everything she touches turns to gold. Tyler Damara Kelly

Are Wolf Alice the best band on the planet? There’s a question for you, Dear Reader. Not the most feverously obsessed over by screaming stans. Not the shiniest and most playlist-ready. Not the easiest to jump on board with, thanks to a hooky 3-minute on-trend bop. The best. If we’re honest, the answer is almost unquestionably yes. By our own admission, we’re not shy of a bit of hyperbole ‘round these parts’, but this isn’t just some exciting sounding assertion yelled loud to create a bit of a spark. Three albums in, it’s safe to call it. Few, if any, even come close. ‘Blue Weekend’ is a triumph. In the context of the world around it, though, it feels even more than that. It’s special. After a year where we’ve yearned for human connection – shut away and unable to live inverted-commas-normal-lives – the summer of 2021 was already cast in stone as some great awakening. Maybe it’s serendipity, perhaps it’s design, but in landing right at the point we needed them most the return of Wolf Alice seemed almost pre-destined. Like nature really was healing. The true beauty of Wolf Alice, though, comes in what they represent. This isn’t a band that exists purely to ‘get big’. There’s no stench of cynicism from their corner. They’re the morning light that thaws the frozen pond, the ones to stand up and be counted when others shy away. That tangible outpouring of relief and emotion that accompanied ‘Blue Weekend’’s first taster ‘Last Man On Earth’ said more than words ever could. Write it large; Wolf Alice’s imperial phase has arrived. Stephen Ackroyd

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