From minimal psychedelia to raw soul, iconoclast jazz to astral punk, knockout debuts to long-anticipated returns, these are the albums that defined the triumphs, defiance, and surreality of 2021.

More Best Of 2021:

The 21 Best Songs of 2021 | 2021 Breakthrough Artist DJ & Staff Picks
The Top 10 Books of 2021 | The Best Food Books of 2021

Idles – “CRAWLER

"Crawler" is a punk theatrical drama about crawling out of addiction and into sobriety.

On opener “MTT 420RR,” we find our main character disoriented, repeating the refrain, “It was February / I was cold and I was high” over a sparse, deteriorating electronic loop, as lead singer Joe Talbot recounts his near-fatal accident with an MTT 420RR, one of the worlds fastest motorcycles. The fragility of life whizzed by him at 130 mph, inspiring the song’s final lyrics: “Are you ready for the storm?”

A tempest of reflections follows, with rolling thunder that crashes on some songs and then calms into a light shower on others. The album is packaged with revelations, blaring guitar riffs, heavy drumming, and incisive storytelling delivered through snarls and growls, alongside the raw, live energy that has earned Idles’ reputation as one of the most thrilling acts in rock to emerge in recent years.  

A beat will either grab you by the shirt and lift you on your feet (“When The Lights Come On,” “The New Sensation”) or have you swaying in a room full of mirrors (“The Beachland Ballroom,” “Progress”). Together, it’s the sound of dancing with your demons and finding clarity. — Tyler Boudreaux, KCRW DJ

Clairo – “Sling” 

I thought it was Clairo’s cool brand of bedroom pop that had me hooked, but it turns out I’m infatuated by the leap she’s taken with “Sling,” the artist’s second full-length released this summer and forever stuck to my ribs throughout 2021. Where her music previously tread somewhere between bubbly indie-pop and a smokey late-night jam session, the sonic and thematic footprint of “Sling” feels bolder, more mature, and thoughtfully defined. 

Stylistically, it’s more akin to ruminative composer-songwriters like Andy Schauf or Maston than Clairo’s genre compatriots Men I Trust or Beabadoobee, thanks to an intimacy that draws you in in a way that feels personal and exclusive. Take a Sunday to yourself with album opener “Bambi” and see if the swirls of twangy guitars, piano, and brass accompaniment don’t draw you in for the long-haul. Front to back, “Sling'' is a must-listen; a lush portrait of personal growth and an artist elevating their songwriting in a rare, unrivaled way. — John Moses, KCRW DJ

Meskerem Mees – “Julius” 

This album was a latecomer on the release schedule for 2021, but has earned its place as an out-of-nowhere knockout from the 22-year-old wonder. “Julius,” named for a donkey living in the yard of the artist’s parents, is a simple yet stunning debut from a relatively unknown singer-songwriter. Meskerem Mees was born in Ethiopia and raised in the tiny Belgian town of Menderee, on the Flemish side of Belgium. Now based in Ghent, Mees, with her Dutch-accented English delivery, finds ways to set herself apart from both the recent spate of hipster troubadours and well-worn folk inventions of the ‘60s (though not without already earning comparisons to a young Joni Mitchell). I suggest starting with "The Writer.” It’s my favorite track on the album, and a song I first heard via my KCRW colleague Jason Kramer. — Chris Douridas, KCRW DJ and Music Programming Curator of Eclectic24

Genesis Owusu – “Smiling With No Teeth

Australian hip-hop breakout Genesis Owusu’s “Smiling With No Teeth” is pure gold, bright and heavy; at the same time, it’s light, sensual, and demanding, taking you from what feels like a stone-cold punk rock warehouse experience into glimmering, two-step beachside serenades. It's vulnerable, raw, hard, honest, empowering, and fun — no wonder it also clocked on our 2021 Mid-Year Albums List. The record kicks off soaked in future-forward production, as if soundtracking a “Blade Runner” soiree, woven throughout the record before breezing back in time to an almost synthy, late-‘70s vibe. Together, it’s a time and space-expanding experience, connecting rap and its elements, from funk to punk, jazz to poetry, warm, choppy beats to soulful melodies. — Ro “Wyldeflower” Contreras, KCRW DJ

Read more: Hip-hop breakthrough Genesis Owusu on racism, depression, and ‘Smiling With No Teeth’

Sons of Kemet – “Black to the Future” 

London horn and percussion quartet Sons of Kemet write more than songs — their sound sorcery casts jazz spells that crystalize messages into time capsules for future generations. On “Black To The Future,” the group’s fourth and most potent studio album, it's about horns that moan and bemoan. It's drumsticks on skin — a journey through the joy and anger echoing from within. It’s a work of ancestors rattling bones on beat over ancient melodies, imbued with the spirit of Black perseverance, messages of hope, and the strength of unity. — Jeremy Sole, KCRW DJ

Arooj Aftab – “Vulture Prince” 

Brooklyn-based composer-vocalist-producer Arooj Aftab has had a remarkable year. Shortly after the Berklee graduate released her striking third studio project, “Vulture Prince,” Barack Obama included a song of hers on his Summer Playlist, and in November, she received two Grammy nods, including Best New Artist — the first such nomination for a Pakistani artist in the award’s history (her song “Baghon Main” also landed on KCRW’s Mid-Year Songs list). But what's more heartening is the resounding adulation from early adopter music fans for this deeply soulful, transcendent sonic exploration of grief and longing, all sung in Urdu. Aftab is unquestionably 2021's most unlikely breakthrough artist story. — Chris Douridas, KCRW DJ and Music Programming Curator of Eclectic24

Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey – “Uneasy” 

Composer and pianist Vijay Iyer is a human that does not let life run his existence. He takes the time, slows the rotations and really focuses on words, language and history to understand the consciousness of people and cultures. He is a soul that researches generations of thoughts, deciphers the information and asks the question that may pose the possibility of a different solution.

The album “Uneasy'' was formed by the kindred spirits of Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey, and Linda May Han Oh. They are the rue, and the brew that lies deep beneath the conjured rhythm of molecularly structured forms of knowledge: A welcome antiserum to an ailing society.

They are a trilogy not only of sound, but of a belief in the higher powers of what is right, and a preference to express these sonic dynamics in composition and performance. With two decades of collaboration together, Iyer and drummer Sorey have teamed with bassist Han Oh at one of the most essential times in history — a pandemic along with a rise in racial disparities. It’s a brilliant time for a reflection, but the question is ascension vs. festering. What is “Uneasy” is to learn of the ills and poisons of society. Subtle tonalities, stories, melodies, and harmonies are this trio’s way of sneaking past the enemy and infiltrating from within. The thought being, if you can feel this love through the music and the humanity that lies within, perhaps new conclusions can be formed. 

“Combat Breathing,” based on the ethos of Black Lives Matter, is just one small look into life’s injustices. Album opener “The Children of Flint,” meanwhile, is based on one of life’s basic rights — to have clean and fresh water. Anger at this story that has repeated itself for centuries may feel potent, but nurturing all souls with an unequivocal and overwhelming dose of emotive composition gives these musicians freedom to come together and seek new paths of enlightenment — and in turn, inspire the same in others. It can disarm, allowing music to, potently indeed, be a “cause for good”. — LeRoy Downs, KCRW DJ and host of Just Jazz

Darkside – “Spiral” 

When we last heard from Darkside — the experimental electronic project from producer Nicolas Jaar and musician/composer Dave Harrington — we thought it would be, well, the last we heard from them. The duo's 2013 debut “Psychic” dropped like some kind of astral artifact amid the maximalist EDM and polished guitars dominating pop discourse at the time: Here was electronic music’s understated, cerebral boy wonder (Jaar) teaming up with a jazz bassist (Harrington) with a penchant for shredding a Gibson SG. The result was writhing rhythms and sculpted sound fields that almost immediately earned Darkside a cult-like following among critics and fans alike. Their legendarily explosive live performances, meanwhile, gave the term “jam band” a good name before liking the Dead was cool again. Then, little more than a year later, they disappeared, retreating into indefinite hiatus and solo endeavors. 

There’s something to be said for calling a project on your own terms — even, or maybe especially, when your hype is at a fever pitch. There’s no woeful disbanding, no glitzy reunion, it just is, whenever it feels right. And Darkside’s reemergence with “Spiral” feels damn right. Where “Psychic,” excellent in its own right, felt like more of a blueprint for Darkside’s compositions on stage, “Spiral” arrives feeling loose and raw, a work of minimalist psychedelia whose vitality seeps like a primordial ooze through the cracks in our new home- and screen-bound normal.  

Bells, chimes, bristling feedback, and sundry other sounds and instruments float around the record like a cosmic dust, anchored by Jaar’s spectral vocals and Harrington's farther-out bass lines. “Lawmaker” offers a brooding parable on corruption and deception over rhythmic tension that builds into blown out guitar and hypnotic loops. Single “The Limit,” meanwhile, contrasts organic textures with fragged-out vox and flute samples for a seductively dystopian plunge into its title. It's in such liminal space that “Spiral” thrives, free from nostalgia or trends — a record that takes its time, investigating the facets of the worlds it builds, and invites you to do the same. — Andrea Domanick, KCRW Digital Producer of Music and Culture

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, The London Symphony Orchestra – “Promises” 

In 1957, the composer Gunther Schuller proposed the term "third stream" to describe a music "located about halfway between jazz and classical music." Since then, broad signifiers like "jazz" and "classical" have come to feel a bit coarse and reductive, given the mind-numbing array of micro-genres which exist today. But "Promises" — a fruitful collaboration between Floating Points (Sam Shephard), Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra — hearkens back somewhat to that simpler time.

Built largely around a single motif, the composition owes much of its power to its relative simplicity. Shephard has built a lush and beguiling framework for Sanders to wander through, although his performance is most striking when he forgoes his trademark sax for his own voice in "Movement 4." And even when the piece swells to catharsis in its dynamic middle sections, a reflective stillness remains at its core. A lovely and worthwhile endeavor. — Myke Dodge Weiskopf, KCRW Senior Music Producer

La Femme – “Paradigmes” 

La Femme’s “Paradigmes” is a fantastic album, in the truest sense of the word: remote from reality. In the same French theme park where Polo & Pan host their sunny electronic-pop trip, La Femme invites the listener to visit the psychedelic-punk corner of their imagination. 

“Paradigmes” begins and ends with a chorus of horns. It jumps into the racing rhythm of punk on “Foutre Le Bordel”, rides horseback on the Western twang of “Lâcher de Chevaux”, breaks into a catchy dance groove on “Force & Respect,” and even transforms into an 8-bit video game on “Foreigner.” 

From the Massive Attack-esque trip hop vocal delivery of “Cool Colorado,” to The Velvet Underground textures of “Mon Ami,” to the atmospheric melodies of Air present throughout the album, the range of genres and instrumentation La Femme touches display the French band’s masterful control and attention to detail. On “Paradigmes,” the listener becomes Alice, journeying into a surreality of mesmerizing chords, pulsing beats, and pop-driven vocals coated in sweet reverberation to enrapture your mind. — Tyler Boudreaux, KCRW DJ 

Nation of Language – “A Way Forward” 

The sophomore release from Brooklyn post-punk/synth-pop trio Nation of Language offers, indeed, a way forward for the band’s dynamic evolution. It’s a lush, delightful listen that surprises with a sonic fabric culled from so many of their predecessors and contemporaries — see: OMD, LCD Soundsystem, New Order, Kraftwerk, and Black Marble. The deep feeling of nostalgia through the album is tempered by a fresh, distinctive fusion of the lyrics, production, and melodies, all interwoven to provide reflection in the present and hope for the future. Appropriate for any lost projects from John Hughes, or paired with a bike ride on a cold, crisp night with a thick fog over sepia-toned streetlights. — Nassir Nassirzadeh, KCRW DJ

Dry Cleaning – “New Long Leg” 

About midway through the song "Scratchcard Lanyard," Dry Cleaning vocalist Florence Shaw casually drops a lyric, repeated as if to double down, that serves as an apt visual metaphor for her band: "A woman in aviators firing a bazooka." 

Never has someone so cool and detached delivered such lethal impact. Throughout Dry Cleaning’s debut album, Shaw doesn't sing so much as she recites dry observations, levels savage insults, whispers random self-help slogans, and warbles in an oddly captivating and often hilarious stream-of-consciousness banter. To top it off, she’s backed by a band who delivers a wiry and kinetic post-punk groove, making for an unusual mix that rewards with repeat listens for one of the most inexplicably entertaining albums of the year. — Dan Wilcox, KCRW DJ

Black Country, New Road – “For the First Time

For more than a year now, London’s Black Country, New Road has patiently teetered on the cusp of success. The seven-piece experimental rock outfit emerged from relative anonymity in 2019 with just two songs, and publications from the New York Times to the Guardian quickly embraced them. The Quietus even declared the group “the best band in the world.” 

With a visceral sound that melds post-rock, jazz, post-punk, and even klezmer into dynamic compositions, the band would soon sell out shows across the country, book international festivals, and land a record deal with independent stalwart Ninja Tune. Then the pandemic hit, delaying the release of their debut album “For the First Time” for a year. 

Despite a refreshingly opaque social media presence (the band only posts stock photos), the disruption hasn’t detracted from the hype — and might have even been a blessing in disguise. “For the First Time” arrived at the top of 2021 as a thrilling palate cleanser from the nostalgia and inertia that characterized much of the pandemic music experience. The record feels urgent and wild, a document of raw youth, generational disillusionment, and the hollow excesses of late capitalism that bristles with tension, intelligence, and a smirk.  

It’s also a fine middle finger to today’s short attention spans, with long tracks that grip till the end. The nearly nine-minute “Sunglasses,” for example, shape-shifts from ruminative post-punk into an orchestral ballad before collapsing into cacophony and reassembling as a dance-punk invective. Study this album close and hang on tight — the band is already set to drop a follow-up record, “Ants From Up There,” in February. We’re here for the ride.   

Andrea Domanick, KCRW Digital Producer of Music and Culture

St. Vincent – “Daddy’s Home

Watching Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, exit the stage after her revelatory Hollywood Bowl show in September — statue still, on a giant turntable, slowly fading from sight — I turned to my friend and wondered aloud whether there was any trace of a real person left in there. This was meant as a compliment of the highest order. I am sure that Annie Clark still exists within all of the day to day mundanity, frustration, bursts of joy, and bouts of confusion experienced by the rest of us mere mortals. Yet, what she's achieved with her St. Vincent alter-ego, this degree of living performance art, is something to behold. In an era where "authenticity" is prized above all else, it's refreshing — exhilarating, really — to watch someone so fully commit to their bit. 

Confrontation has always been a part of the package with St. Vincent, in addition to a hyper focus on presentation. Consider “Your Lips Are Red” from her 2007 debut album “Marry Me.” The song begins as an aggressive display of her considerable guitar prowess before ultimately melting into this longing, final refrain: “Your skin’s so fair, your skin’s so fair it’s not fair…” 

With “Daddy’s Home,” St. Vincent leans into the confrontation more than ever, because the music is perhaps stronger than ever. She knows what she has, and that you’ll eagerly look past your discomfort with the fact that you’re listening to a work of art entitled “Daddy’s Home.” When the album’s centerpiece “The Melting of the Sun,” was released as a single, the heights reached by her background singers contrasted with her own emotionless lyrics about “watching you, watch it burn” made it evident that the full album that followed would be one of immense impact. It was, and it still very much is.  Marion Hodges, KCRW Music Administrative Assistant 

Read more: St. Vincent breaks down the ‘70s, familial trauma, and four songs that move her

Tyler, the Creator – “Call Me If You Get Lost

Tyler, the Creator continues to grow sonically with his latest opus. I wasn’t sure if he could top his previous Grammy-award winning album, 2019’s “Igor.” We still get the elements and influences of Pharrell on his work, with crisp sounds and throwback drum loops that are against the grain in a 2021 sound dominated by trap loops. And, once again, Tyler handles most, if not all of the production. But one can’t help but notice the evolution and utilization of characters Tyler has created throughout his career. 

Similar to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust or wrestling superstar Mick Foley becoming Dude Love or Mankind, Tyler takes on the persona of Tyler Baudelaire, a traveling observer who seems fresh out of a Wes Anderson film (we previously met the blonde wig-wearing Igor). And just when you think you have him figured out, a new persona emerges with each track on “Call Me If You Get Lost,” taking you to a new setting and narrated by the mixtape king, DJ Drama, for that throw back authenticity. 

The content on the record tackles love, identity, and other struggles, all presented unapologetically in true Tyler form. “Wiltshire” truly punches the gut upon first listen. Cuts like “Sweet / I Thought You Wanted to Dance," meanwhile, are the true standouts, with a playful pop sound that moves into a dancehall feel that truly makes you want to hit the nearest dance floor. — Anthony Valadez, KCRW DJ and co-host of Morning Becomes Eclectic

The Marías – “Cinema

It’s no surprise that the highly anticipated debut album from LA-based indie pop outfit The Marías has been received so warmly. Bandleaders María Zardoya and Josh Conway had set the bar high with the release of 2017’s phenomenal “Superclean Vol. I.” They then furthered the mythos of the group with dreamy performances at major music festivals, and released “Superclean Vol. II” in 2018. Add to that a brief bidding war between several prominent record labels, and the stage was set for this quickly rising band to have a massive first full-length. 

On “Cinema,” The Marías have exceeded all expectations and elevated their proprietary blend of psychedelic soul, jazz percussion influence, delicate vocals, and knack for melding English and Spanish effortlessly. Stand out tracks include their chart-topping first single “Hush,” the bass-heavy “Calling U Back,” and the danceable “Un Millon.” But to fully appreciate the underlying motifs of this album, which are accentuated by interstitial instrumental tracks, you must listen to it from beginning to end. One of the best of the year, without a doubt. — José Galván, KCRW DJ

Read more: Pan Caliente: The Marías

Brittany Howard – “Jaime Reimagined

Brittany Howard continues on her upward path to becoming one of our generation's most prolific storytellers, able to evoke the strongest emotions. This is true of her work as lead singer of Alabama Shakes, and as a solo artist. If you were at the Hollywood Bowl for KCRW's World Festival series, then you understand how amazing her music is, as is her captivating stage presence. After all, there's a reason why the original versions from the album “Jaime,” which are dedicated to her younger sister, made it our No. 1 album of 2019.  

There are different schools of thought on the idea of the remix album, mainly whether it's a good one or not. But “Jamie Reimagined” is much more than just another remix companion. The title alone gives us a better idea of what's to come. The artists featured were given a freedom to push the boundaries of what they think the song would sound like if it was, in fact, one of their own. From completely flipped remixes from the likes of Little Dragon and BADBADNOTGOOD to newly sung vocals courtesy of Childish Gambino and Common (amongst others), this collection is pretty much an entirely new album where the versions sound totally different, but with a great deal of respect to the original body of work. Sometimes it's good to be challenged, and “Jaime (Reimagined)” does just that in a very unique and uplifting way. — Raul Campos, KCRW DJ and host of Global Beat: Australia

Helado Negro – “Far In” 

“The voice of beauty speaks softly; it creeps only into the most fully awakened souls.” This philosophizing of Nietzsche lives in the same world as Helado Negro’s soaring, soul awakening voice on his latest offering, “Far In.” And I say “offering” not as a nifty synonym for “album,” but because it truly feels like a gift of tender meditation offered to the listener. Warm, reverberating vocals, shimmering synths, nostalgic guitar riffs, rooted bass lines, and perfectly mixed drums on this joyous journey that Roberto Carlos Lange calls “the album I’ve always wanted to make.” 

That joy buoys the imagination into blissful levitation, but isn’t cloying or conventional. Just as much as Lange will lead you into the light, his prose and production embrace the darkness of the unknown with unique openness, pleasure, and patience. He takes his time across 15 tracks, many hovering around five minutes in length, but it’s never heavy-handed, and always with effortless love. Love for the listener, for self, family, the planet, the process, and, of course, a solid boogie here and there. There’s no wonder why this bilingual beauty has been boogieing on the KCRW Top 30 Charts every week since its release. — Novena Carmel, KCRW DJ and co-host of Morning Becomes Eclectic 

Cleo Sol – “Mother”

In an Instagram post about the making of “Mother,” Cleo Sol mentioned both “the honesty that I was looking for” and the goal of being in a “pure space” while making the album. And, indeed, it is the stunning openness and vulnerability of this record that is its defining characteristic. From the opening notes of the album’s first track “Don’t Let Me Fall”, one gets the sense that what you are listening to is the artist’s bare soul, made audible.  

Prompted by the experience of becoming a mother, which Sol described as “the most transformative, uplifting, heart melting, strength giving experience thus far,” the album also touches on Sol’s relationship with her own mother. The end result is something that feels like an album in the true and traditional sense — a collection of songs intentionally grouped to exist together under a cohesive theme, and resulting in a whole much greater than the sum of the parts. As one Bandcamp fan put it, “I didn’t know albums like this still existed.”  — Scott Dallavo, KCRW DJ

Little Simz – “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”

 Listening to music is an intimate process. When we press play on a record, we agree to hear an artist out, to open ourselves up to their stories of triumph, defeat, and everything in between. The conversation is personal; we bring our own singular journeys to the listening table and form a connection to the music that is ours alone and might differ wildly from the next person’s relationship with that same piece of music. 

But every so often someone comes along who manages to permeate the confines of that one-on-one conversation to deliver messages that feel undeniably universal. Such is the case with the fourth studio album by British-Nigerian rapper Little Simz. 

“Sometimes I Might Be Introvert” is a 19-track expedition that examines everything from a complex relationship with her father, to romance, to perhaps most poignantly, her self-worth. The rapper, affectionately known as SIMBI, tackles sensitive subjects with so much honesty, that the listener can’t help but share in her vulnerability.

The album kicks off with “Introvert.” Brassy and regal, the song’s percussion suggests that the rapper is preparing for a battle she’s resolved to win. Little Simz allows the dramatic instrumental to play for over a minute before taking center stage — and so begins the exhilarating ride on which “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert'' takes us. Track after track, we’re treated to lush strings, cascading percussion, blaring horns, and a wordsmith of a rapper determined to balance life’s contradictions.

As heavy as the subject matter on tracks like “I Love You, I Hate You,” and “Standing Ovation'' might be, the album never skews too dark. Rather, Little Simz’s offering is refreshing, poignant, and fun. The project manages to have zero fillers, every track a unique offering. Together, they invite us to see ourselves in Little Simz’s journey — and in each other’s. — Francesca Harding, KCRW DJ

Arlo Parks – “Collapsed in Sunbeams”

Rarely does our team of opinionated, passionate KCRW DJs agree collectively on anything musically, let alone the No. 1 Album in any given year. This year is different. The piece of art that crushed us across the board with its poetry, elegance, warmth, depth, and precision is the debut from U.K. newcomer Arlo Parks, “Collapsed In Sunbeams.” 

First there was a song a couple of years ago called “Cola.” We sat up and listened. Then the world shut down. We listened to her solo piano cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” and an incredibly poignant and personal song about loss and coping called “Black Dog”:

‘I'd lick the grief right off your lips / You do your eyes like Robert Smith / Sometimes it seems like you won't survive this / And honestly it's terrifying,” she sings. 

More: Live from Anne's Backyard: Arlo Parks

In the above interview with MBE’s Novena Carmel, Parks tells her that when she first performed “Black Dog” live, she was struck by how much each of us had internalized the song and owned it in our own experiences. She talks to Novena about staying present in the whirlwind, journaling, and how her poems become songs. 

After nearly two years of time being meaningless, promises feeling broken, and utter exhaustion in our souls, “Collapsed In Sunbeams” has emerged as a literary and musical salve. We felt heard and understood. Finally, and most importantly, it gave us hope. — Anne Litt, KCRW Program Director of Music

More Best Of 2021:

The 21 Best Songs of 2021 

KCRW's 2021 Breakthrough Artist 

DJ & Staff Picks

The Top 10 Books of 2021

The Best Food Books of 2021