Every year I forget how much time and work it takes to put this list together. In an ideal world this list would have been out a week or two ago, but what’s the rush really? The first year-end lists in late November might have gotten the early attention, but they were also released before a couple of our favorite albums on this list so who’s the real winner here?
This year’s list holds a special significance because this is the 5th year I’ve published this list under the guise of Natural Music. I started Natural Music the summer of 2017 with the goal of helping people keep up with and discover the best new music coming out every week. I dove into music with reckless abandon (because what else was there to do in Columbus really?) digging each year into new sub genres and expanding the sources I used to find new music. I built up a couple iterations of teams ultimately bringing together a cumulative 40+ contributors over the years. In 2020 I launched this new site, finally leaving behind drag and drop website builders for something more custom. A few months into 2020 as the pandemic took hold I decided to double down on the project recognizing that everyone was locked down and bored, and the power music had to help. As a result some incredible content was created and friendships were cultivated.
And finally, the year we’re here for – 2021. The year we finally got back to the dance floor and actually started living again. I moved to NYC exactly one year ago and some of the virtual friendships built over the years finally culminated in real world relationships. Natural Music was always a passion project, but finally it bore some tangible fruit. The moral to this story is simple, if you’ve ever thought you wanted to move to NYC, find a way and do it. Brooklyn has an incredible energy full of love, creativity and inspiration.
This list comes late because every year we sift through every other list we can get our hands on before finishing ours. This list is a result of that deep digging, that I love, but don’t expect out of anyone else. Our goal is to lift up the most interesting and engaging music from the year across every genre. It’s also a result of some selective culling, there’s no need to reiterate albums on every other year end list. This list is also lacking in electronic releases because we are working on a separate list to present the club wizardry of the year that we'll publish soon.
100 is an arbitrary number and this list should be thought of, at best, as loosely ordered. There isn’t an album on this list that will be a waste of your time if you have at least a passing interest in the genre. The top 50 were ranked nominally higher across our contributor's lists but 51-100 hold just as much beauty.
We’ve selected a favorite track from each album in this list (of those available on Spotify). This format inherently hurts most of these albums because they’re pieces of art meant to be consumed in full (except pinkpanthress maybe). Regardless, our recommendation is to just let it play through and discover some new favorites you may have missed last year.
We also created a Buy Music Club page linking to everything available on Bandcamp.
RP Boo is a Godfather of footwork and with ‘Established’ he sets aside the obsessive minimalism of his previous album in favor of club-ready anthems and sly sample flips. A masterclass in rhythmic variety and precision-focused percussion.
Those who have remained up to date on indie pop trends over the past several years will find themselves unsurprised by the direction that Magdalena Bay’s Mercurial World has taken. But in this instance, predictability does not indicate a lack of originality, instead, Magdalena Bay makes good on all the promises of the past decade of indie pop. The group flawlessly blends influences from artists like Poppy, CHVRCHES, Purity Ring and even Robyn to create a record that is as danceable as it is emotional, and as catchy as it is curious. [Andrew Pitt]
On LP!, Peggy completes an artistic phase that once again proves his sound has no boundaries and his commitment to continual growth is unparalleled. With all the wonderful auditory embellishments of his last two albums, Peggy shifts to a less abrasive but profoundly more melodic sound that is every bit as immersive and nuanced as his prior work.
Brooklyn producer DJ Manny infuses footwork’s intricate syncopations with the romance of R&B; along with flourishes of chicago house, techno, and even a few breaks. Signals In My Head feels like a culmination, a record where Manny stays true to footwork’s spirit of movement by taking it somewhere new.
Copenhagen duo Smerz’ artistic gestation over the past few years has resulted in a hybridised style of R&B harmonies, full-throttle club beats and ornate orchestral flourish. All this adds up to “Believer”, one of the most original albums we heard all 2021. [Morgan]
“How’s it feel to be at the center of magic/to linger in tones and words?” Michelle Zauner opens her stunning third album with this question and answers it with her best batch of songs to date. Zauner’s lyrical skills are also flexed on this project whether she’s writing pop perfection (“Be Sweet”) or singing narratives about billionaires hiding in bunkers during a climate disaster (“Savage Good Boy”). But ultimately what we love about Jubilee as an album is that it isn't trying to do anything groundbreaking but executes everything that it aims to do flawlessly. From front to back it's brilliant pop songs with memorable melodies, catchy hooks, and some of the most joyous production of the year. [Liam]
An entrancing fusion of psychedelic math rock, post-punk, and post hardcore as seen through the kaleidoscope of styles that is Nic Tasker's label AD 93. Moot! is an unpretentious and fun record peppered with quick gear changes, pitch shifts and soul-searching anecdotes about empty neighborhoods and peering into dark waters at dusk. Driven by watertight percussion and a fusion of noisy experimental rock and the dancefloor ‘Moot!’ is an album that never fails to blow me away [Alek]
BRASS is an unholy concoction of mythical beings, horrifying circumstances, timeless production and two prophets grabbing you by your collar to spit uncomfortable words into your face. The bass is sizzling, the jazz is palpable in the background, ritualistic drumming fills the air as the music itself begins to fly through the background in a feverish haze. The fireplace in front of you has been fed fresh blood and you begin to see the atrocities of humanities all at once. You fall to the ground afterwards, a complete and utter mess of a person. Yet it felt freeing, didn't it? Maybe it did. Maybe you need another round. It's your call. Not like you have much of a choice in the first place. [Hurricanslash]
Mach-Hommy is shrouded in mystique. He’s a New Jersey-based rapper of the Haitian diaspora. Staying true to his roots while offering unique yet less obtuse starting point for new Griselda fans looking to find out what the Mach-Hommy hype is all about. Between Westside Gunn’s jazzy muted production and Mach’s uncanny ability to frame hard-as-nails themes with calmly delivered, tastefully complex wordplay, Pray for Haiti is undoubtedly one of the most essential hip hop releases of the year.
Space Afrika’s newest record is a beautiful way to spend 46 minutes. Honest Labour is filled with crepuscular moods and beautifully damp washes of sound, conjuring up feelings of dislocation sometimes felt on the rain-sodden streets after dark in an uncaring city. At the core, it’s an ambient album, but one that maintains your attention and breezes by like emotions converted into music.
Easily one of the most magical pieces of music to drop in 2021, what Floating Points, Pharoh Sanders, and the LPO have put together is a minimalistic masterpiece. Built around a single motif, the synths and strings set a foundation that breathes in crescendo and decrescendo across the album's runtime. Sitting atop this foundation is Sanders’ lush improvisations that are intimate and arresting. Sanders proves that even after a career that's spanned over half a century there is still art to be created, and we’re lucky enough to hear it. [Liam]
Where For The First Time feels abbreviated, the six-track debut album from the septet packs a punch. Lead track, “Instrumental,” sets the stage for the uninitiated typifying the group’s trademark Klezmer influence. Subsequent tracks follow a path of post-rock and post-punk crescendoing into complex electric free jazz arrangements. It’s a cohesive, discordant listen that dabbles in compelling territory. With a follow-up record already announced, anticipation remains high for further jolting and evocative forays. [Morgan]
Rare, Forever is a departure from Vynehall’s elaborate, concept albums but it isn't exactly a dance floor record, either. The life-long hip-hop influences, the orchestral experiments, the shapeshifting rhythms and, above all, the knack for melody make it a fitful journey through techno and house, like the work of a master who can't resist moving from one idea to the next as soon as they enter his head.
In unprecedented fashion, Arca released 4 albums in one week, each as boundary-shattering as the last over the course of 5 days. Arca expounds her mutant gospel through a peerless blend of blaring electronics, effected bilingual vocals, and throbbing reggae-ton, shattering every binary within reach. Both incredibly personal, yet global in scale, Arca’s kick series feels “perfectly” of this moment and timeless at once. Capped off with the phenomenal track “Crown” from the final kick, iiiii, Arca declares the validity of the oppressed; sovereign of who they are and what they can be. [Noah]
All hail the motherbeat!! Through its use of samples and influences ranging from breakbeat to acid house, Eris Drew has delivered a record that epitomizes rave culture. More akin to a DJ mix than a traditional full-length – the variety, energy levels, and meticulous production make this an absolute must-listen. An hour of masterful, joyous dance music.
To See the Next Part of the Dream takes shoegaze's cathartic effect and pushes it into new dimensions. Despite the language barrier the album has exploded on music forum Rate Your Music as an instant classic for its inventive but emotionally crushing lo-fi fusion of emo, shoegaze, and dream pop. It’s an album that truly exemplifies the power of music, and the fact that it’s the debut from 파란노을 (Parannoul) a self described depressed student living at home with his parents in Seoul makes even better [Alek]
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Stay tuned for our top electronic and top mixes of 2021 lists coming soon.