There was an avalanche of great music in 2021! I could sit here and try to come up with a compelling intro this year… but instead of some long monologue… let’s just get right to it!
Below are my ten favorite albums of 2021. The list comes from my Last.fm stats generally; I reserve the right to tinker with the order. After that are the honorable mentions, followed by some notable albums and EPs. Then there’s the “Song of the Year” and the raw data from Last.fm.
My Top Albums of 2021
10) Theodora – Too Much For One Heart – France’s Theordora is a producer, bassist and singer who has worked with such noted French acts Pi Ja Ma, Fishbach, SAGE and others. And her debut album is really solid! Spotify put “Vagiues Dans La Mer” on one of my playlists, so I checked out the rest of the album and liked it. “Step Into Disorder” is a track I really dug. Not everything is golden here, though: “Go” is a song I could absolutely live without. Still, I look forward to hearing more from her in the near future.
9) Munya – Voyage to Mars– Talk about showing up out of nowhere! Montreal’s Josie Boivin (performing as “Munya”) just kind of blew me out of the water with her debut album! “Voyage” sucked me in immediately, as it reminds me of a Saint Etienne non-album single from 1994. It kicks, and has the odd distinction of starting off in English and finishing in French. But as I listened to the album I was surprised by how many good songs there are here. “Cocoa Beach” is a chill (but thumpin’) pop tune that is just crying out for some hip TV show to put in an episode. “Pour Toi” sounds like something you’d hear in whatever the French version of The Gap is (Petit Bateau? Camaieu?). “Boca Chica” is a lovely throwback to 60s bubblegum pop. Not every song works, and after a while it does tend to get a bit “samey”. But as a fun lil’ album, this is hard not to like!
8) Kraków Loves Adana – Follow the Voice – Let me start by saying I have no idea what happened when KLA left Italians Do It Better. But then Chromatics broke up, which makes me think Johnny Jewel is a control freak. I mention this because I’m one of the few people who prefers the Jewel version of the title track over the one below. And I think Jewel’s presence in the production room was a good thing for the band. But I get it: KLA needed to be free, and they’re now free to make another great album. KLA is such a… dramatic band. I don’t mean that every song is DRAMA or INTENSE. There’s just something so… Streets of Fire about them. Like, every one of their albums is a rock and roll fable. Even though they’re from Freiburg you can almost feel the spirit of Meatloaf with them in the studio. Problem is, for me, this trick eventually wears out its welcome. So KLA albums are rarely something I listen to start to finish. It’s all about individual tracks with these guys. “Follow the Voice” is, of course, fantastic. But so are “I Have to Go”, “See You Shout” and “Taint My Mind”. In fact, the first 8 tracks hit it pretty hard, it just kind of runs out of gas by the end. Still, a good KLA album is a wonderful thing!
7) Alice et Moi – Drama – French songwriter Alice Vannoorenberghe – mercifully often shortened to just “Alice Vanor” – performs with several session musicians as Alice et Moi. And they’re good. “Je suis fan” (below) sounds like the soundtrack for a cool montage from Killing Eve. “Mamman m’a dit” is just cool, chill Europop. There’s much to love here, and the thing is, Alice have released an EP and a few singles, so it’s easy to forget that this is a debut LP. She’s proven she can write singles, and this proves she can write a full album. So what’s next? I expect big things from this woman!
6) Videoclub – Euphories – So, one thing about French synthpop is that… it’s mostly popular in France. So, anything you can find out about these bands is in French. But then, there are just some bands that lack any kind of media following. So I’m told that Videoclub is French duo, formed in 2018 in Nantes by Adèle Castillon and Matthieu Reynaud. They appear to be very young. But the band’s official Insta account seems to feature Castillon almost exclusively, so maybe it’s mostly just her? I dunno. What I do know is that this is good synthpop. It’s not an album I played endlessly… but it’s an album I kept coming back to over and over again throughout the year, finding new songs to love: “Amour plastique”, “Roi”, “Enfance 80”, “SMS”… there are lots of good songs here!
5) Hollie Kenniff – The Quiet Drift – Hollie Kenniff is the “wife” portion of the husband & wife duo that make up my favorite band, Mint Julep (husband Keith also releases music under the names Helios and Goldmund). Hollie, an industrial music fan as a teen, has turned to the ambient side of things, making several gentle, lovely albums such as this. It’s good for what ails ya – if you need to sleep or relax, or just need 5 damn minutes to yourself as you drive to the store, Hollie (and this album) have you covered. Or you can do what I do and bring your Bluetooth headphones with you and make Walmart bearable! Seriously – this is a good album, it’s just something you might not listen to every day.
4) Flunk – History of Everything Ever – Let’s not kid ourselves here. Flunk is chill-out music, nothing more, nothing less. They’re not here to rock you like a hurricane or rave on like circa 1998 Paul Oakenfold. They’re something you put on at a gathering for a hip coffee shop-type atmosphere. This might sound dismissive, but it’s not. I’m just telling you exactly what Flunk is. The opening track – “Down Here/Moon Above” is really insanely great. So is the next track, “Fingertips”, which evokes the carefree Emilíana Torrini of “Unemployed in Summertime” (which, from me, is a compliment of the highest order). From then on, it gets mellower and mellower. “Midsummer”, “Pullover” and “Fate (Or Coincidence)” are all great songs, but nothing to get the dance floor shaking. But wait – there’s more! The cover of “Ashes to Ashes” on this album is both stripped-down Flunk at their best, but is also over the top in its own lovely way. Also, a hat tip to lead singer Anja Øyen Vister, who officially became “Anja Øyen Vister, MD” this year.
3) Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World – I was immediately sucked into the world of Mag Bay, but I just really couldn’t figure out why. Then I read a review of this album that made it all click: “[Magdalena Bay’s] fuzzy, rococo synthpop confections have a magic power: They sound like whatever you grew up with, whenever that was”. That is SO SPOT ON! Anyone who grew up in the 70s, 80s, 90s, or 00s can find something to love here, and it all lives together in the slightly off-kilter world Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin have created. Sometimes it’s a bit on the nose (The opening song? “The End”. The closing song? “The Beginning”!). But let’s not pretend that “Secrets (Your Fire)”, “Chaeri” and “Hysterical Us” aren’t straight-up bangers. I think what’s even more impressive here is that Mag Bay actually delivered a great album, despite of the near-constant hype of the Indie Blogosphere. It would have been easy for the band to just throw out whatever knowing Gorilla vs Bear was going to praise it to the heavens regardless. But they didn’t let us down! Awesome!
2) Saint Etienne – I’ve Been Trying to Tell You – So… remember a decade ago, when the cool thing was pop songs that had been slowed down, like, 800 percent and sounded like some weird ambient track? Well, Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley – author of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé – was working on another book during the COVID lockdown, and would play these “3 hour version of Harry Styles’ ‘Golden’ slowed down 800%” videos on YouTube, and he came up with the idea of making an album that relied heavily on that sort of sound. But it would be about memory, human memory. It would be a trip back to the 90s with slowed-down songs and samples. It was about looking back on your youth as your own unreliable narrator. And, according to many reviewers, they hit the nail on the head. Like, on a genius level. Problem for me is, I didn’t grow up in England in the 90s, so I can’t relate. All the clever sampling is lost on me. So while I can see this is a hazy trip down memory lane and can appreciate it at some level, the samples and songs that are supposed to evoke this viscerally just don’t trigger anything in me. Although I really like the album (it’s #2 on my list, after all), I also lament that “Pond House” might be the peppiest, most “radio-friendly” track on the album. This generally isn’t something you can throw on at a party. Unless it’s a very specific type of party.
1) Mint Julep – In a Deep & Dreamless Sleep – Congratulations to Mint Julep for becoming my new favorite band and by being the first band on these annual lists with back-to-back albums of the year! And honestly, I know I have a flair for the dramatic at times, but I genuinely don’t know what to say. Earlier this winter I posted this on Facebook, about the first time I heard Cocteau Twins “Lorelei”:
It was gray and misty and drizzly that fall afternoon, and chilly enough to need a jacket… in this case, my sexy 80s maroon and silver Nike windbreaker. There were a couple big empty lots near my house with tall grass and gentle hills that, in my teenage mind, I could combine with the mist and drizzle to imagine that I was in Scotland somewhere.
And then track 8 came on. And it was like getting hit upside the head with a 2×4′ of goosebumps and bells and Australian birds and drum machines and angels singing. It was music like nothing I’d ever even IMAGINED could exist before. It was like being shot head-first out of a cannon, and it fundamentally rewired my brain as to what “music” could be.
Mint Julep manages to do the same thing to me, 35 years later. There’s just this feel to their music. They don’t “sound like” Cocteau Twins or Clan of Xymox or This Mortal Coil… yet they’re so adjacent to those acts. I mean, just listen to this and tell me it doesn’t have “1980s 4AD record” in its DNA:
Out of the gate, Mint Julep is entirely capable of making some of the most beautiful music ever. It’s all so light and delicate and fragile. “Gossamer”, if you want the 50 cent word. But even when they’re not intending to fly at 80,000 feet, there’s this:
One of their great talents is taking some old 80s-style keyboard riff and artfully drowning it in layer after layer of sound, creating a tiny – but perfect – gem, a hundred-layer cake of sound. An emotional whirlwind. Like another of my favorite bands – the apparently moribund Postiljonen – Mint Julep also have a knack for making music that’s somehow deeply nostalgic, even if you’ve never heard it before.
I won’t say the album’s perfect. I don’t know why, but I feel like a couple songs should be switched in order (“Lure” and “Longboat Drift” for one). But for all intents and purposes, Mint Julep are my favorite new band, so I’m not going to see any flaws in them. I’m a smitten kitten, what else do you want me to say… other than to hang on, because they have another new album coming out soon!
Brijean – Feelings
Charles – Let’s Start a Family Tonight
Clio – L’amour hélas
Drug Store Romeos – The World Within Our Bedrooms
Hoshi – Étoile flippante
Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
Kero Kero Bonito – Civilisation
Ladyhawke – Time Flies
Men I Trust – Untourable Album
Part-Time Friends – Weddings and Funerals
Requin Chagrin – Bye Bye Baby
EPs, and Other Albums of Note
Bon Entendeur – Minuit
Clara Luciani – Coeur
Coeur de Pirate – Perséides
Hante. – Morning Tsunami
Joon – Dream Again
Somegirl – Both Sharp And Sweet
You, Nothing – Lonely // Lovely
Angèle – Nonante-Cinq (too new to include!)
Leathers – “Reckless” (EP)
Genoux Verner – “Impair” (EP)
Song of the Year
Minimal Schlager’s “FMB” just grabbed a hold of me this year and refused to let go. It is, in many ways, the perfect pop song, and even has a shout-out to Cocteau Twins in it. What’s not to love about this song?
All data scraped on 12/29/2021.
Overall albums of the year from 01/01/2021 to 12/29/2021, with release year and annual play count:
1) Empathy Test– Monsters (2020, 1168)
2) Mint Julep – Broken Devotion (2016, 1085)
3) Mint Julep – In a Deep and Dreamless Sleep (2021, 732)
4) Hoshi – Étoile flippante (2021, 654)
5) Kraków Loves Adana – Darkest Dreams (2020, 461)
6) Hollie Kenniff – The Quiet Drift (2021, 421)
7) You Drive – You Drive (2018, 371)
8) Hollie Kenniff – The Gathering Dawn (2019, 350)
9) Saint Etienne – I’ve Been Trying to Tell You (2021, 311)
10) Mint Julep – Stray Fantasies (2020, 300)
Adjusted albums of the year, 2021 releases only:
1) Mint Julep – In a Deep and Dreamless Sleep (732)
2) Hoshi – Étoile flippante (654)
3) Hollie Kenniff – The Quiet Drift (421)
4) Saint Etienne – I’ve Been Trying to Tell You (311)
5) Munya – Voyage to Mars (228)
6) Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World (211)
7) Videoclub – Euphories (210)
8) Clara Luciani – Cœur (208)
9) Brijean – Feelings (184)
10) Theodora – Too Much For One Heart (141)
Total plays per artist, 2021
1) Mint Julep (2,690)
2) Empathy Test (1,177)
3) Holllie Kenniff (797)
4) Minimal Schlager (757)
5) Hoshi (755)
6) Cannons (672)
7) Kraków Loves Adana (590)
8) Saint Etienne (573)
9) R. Missing (530)
10) Kid Francescoli (525)
Total plays per artist since joining Last.fm in 2010
1) Marsheaux (5,866)
2) Saint Etienne (3,691)
3) Mint Julep (3,684)
4) You Drive (3,265)
5) Chromatics (2,096)
6) CHVRCHES (1,965)
7) Desire (1,888)
8) Purity Ring (1,830)
9) Burning Peacocks (1,734)
10) Postiljonen (1,723)
Previous “Albums of the Year”
2020: Mint Julep – Stray Fantasies
2019: Chromatics – Closer to Grey
2018: You Drive – You Drive
2017: Saint Etienne – Home Counties
2016: Marsheaux – Ath.Lon
2015: Purity Ring – Another Eternity
2014: La Roux – Trouble in Paradise
2013: Marsheaux – Inhale
2012: Beach House – Bloom
2011: The Raveonettes – Raven in the Grave
2010: Katy Perry – Teenage Dream*
* – There was no single choice for “best album” in 2010; the article simply listed my favorite albums that year in no particular order. The choice of Teenage Dream was made ex post facto from that list of albums.