2021 Top Albums

Aidan Zanders
7 min readJan 4, 2022


I listened to a lot of music in 2021. I tried to remember to add every album I listened to that came out to a Spotify Playlist titled 2021 Records Listened To. At present it has 1,063 songs on it and runs over 67 hours.

That number would be longer, but I spent a lot of time listening to my favorite records on repeat. So much so that my 2021 Backlog playlist is just over 17 hours long. I have no doubt hidden somewhere on there is an album that would have knocked another on this list off. Someday I hope to listen to them.

But this isn’t a list of my records I forgot to listen to. It’s the more exciting list. The records that I did listen to.. and love?

Let’s kick it off with:

20. The Notwist — Vertigo Days

The Notwist are back with the best Stereolab record since Dots and Loops. An incredible mix of tracks that push their sound forward in new ways, and yet feel familiar like you’ve always known them.

This should link directly to the start of Oh Sweet Fire, a stand out track from the new record.

19. Wednesday — Twin Plagues

Sometimes you want to rip and shred, other times you want to reflect on the darkest times and feel hope about what’s to come. What Wednesday propose is: why not both?

18. James Blake — Friends That Break Your Heart

The best James Blake song is called “If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead” and was released as a single in 2018. He’s put out two albums since it was released, and it’s been conspicuously absent from both. Perhaps it is simply too powerful.

17. Madlib — Sound Ancestors

A beautiful showcase of Madlib’s immense talent as a producer. Stepping away from the mic to let his beats shine through. Excellently mixed by four tet as well.

16. Adeline Hotel — Good Timing

The past two years have been pretty hard, sometimes you just want something you can put on and sink into. Good Timing is a record like that. It makes great background or foreground music. For folks who liked the instrumental half of Adrienne Lenker’s release from 2020.

15. Another Michael — New Music and Big Pop

We were up late online talking about new music /And you sent me a link to a song that I’d never heard before / I need to get my headphones on /Just think about the long pause after it’s gone.

As someone who spent 10 years falling in love with someone they met online, staying up late at night sending songs back and forth. Something about this record just hit from the first notes. Love to Philadelphia, forever.

14. Claud — Super Monster

I think a lot of people hate on this record but I don’t really understand why because it bops. First release from Phoebe Bridger’s “Sadest Factory” label.

13. Irreversible Entanglements — Open the Gates

Intro track, including this one because it’s the shortest.

This rich experimental jazz album had a high bar set following up the reckoning that was 2020’s Who Sent You , yet here we are. Love to Philadelphia, forever.

12. Green-House — Music for Living Spaces

There was a time I might have written this off as being too derivative of Plantasia, but I see tribute and reverence in this beautiful work. Inspiration is great, and this builds upon what made Mort’s work so appearing.

11. Godspeed You! Black Emperor — G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!

Yeah Godspeed are back. First record since their hiatus that I feel captures the spirit of their earlier work, and the intensity of their live shows. It’s unmistakably more Godspeed, so if that works for you it’s gonna work for you. It works for me.

10. The Mountain Goats — Dark in Here

Big fan of John. I love the raw energy he brings to records like Zopilote Machine and 2020’s Pierre Chuvin. But I appreciate the maturity in his newer records. The evolution of an established songwriter with literary chops taking a step back to allow the rest of the band to shine as bright, all while continuing to sing about lizard men.

09. CHVRCHES — Screen Violence

People who know me well know I love horror movies. So when I read that Churches were going to make an album inspired by 80s horror I knew I’d love it. This record retains everything that made their breakout pop shine so bright is here, but they sing about Final Girls and reference Westworld. It’s a fun, moody dance pop record that is great in the car.

08. Satomimagae — Hanazono

This was an impulse buy that really wowed me, and also turned me onto a new record label with a rich and rewarding catalogue to explore. A great discovery that rewarded multiple deep listens. For fans of Sea Oleena

07. Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine — A Beginners Mind

The concept used to market this album is so funny to me. Sufjan and Angelo hold up in an AirBNB watching a bunch of old VHS tapes and getting inspired to make some songs loosely interpreting them. If we’re not getting the rest of the 48 states, I’ll take it.

Plus I love that somehow this far into his career Sufjan continues to release new records that have some of his best work to date on them. Like Lamentations from last year’s The Ascension, Back to Oz is up there with his career highs.

06. Grouper — Shade

Liz Harris is one of my favorite artists, and every-time she announces a new project I spend the intervening months til the release dreaming of holding the new record in my hands and listening to it for the first time. Shade, a collection of songs from the past 10 or so years fills in the gaps between The Man Who Died in His Boat and now.

You usually know what you’re getting with a Grouper album. But there’s something about them that continues to draw me in and reward me. This one’s no exception.

The day I saw Grouper play at Union Transfer in 2018 I woke up in Portland, OR at 4:30AM. By the time I got to the venue I could hardly stand I was so tired, but the minute she took the stage and the whole audience stood together in collective silence until she left. Not even interrupting the set to clap at the end of a song.

05. Parannoul — To See the Next Part of the Dream

And when I wake up today, there’s a white ceiling / And when I wake up yesterday, there’s a white ceiling

This record is such a surprise. The work of an unnamed Korean college student, this hugely referential album introduced me to the beautiful world of eastern midwest emo. Evoking at times American Football and My Bloody Valentine, this record holds you like a glove transporting you to the world of its creator.

04. Porter Robinson — Nurture

I found Porter Robinson at the start of the pandemic. I’m not sure why, probably auto-played after I finished listening to something else. But listening to it brought me hope. When the singles for Nurture started to come out each one built upon that feeling. Culminating in the release of Look at the Sky.

He couldn’t have known while writing it what a powerful anthem it would be for the experiences we’re all going through right now. But when the chorus hits and he sings: Look at the sky, I’m still here / I’ll be alive next year / I can make something good, something good. It really resonates. Almost the spiritual counterpart to The Mountain Goats “This Year” we’re not going to die getting through to next year. We’re going to thrive.

03. Cheekface — Emphatically No.

“Just because it’s funny doesn’t make it a joke” sing’s Greg Katz in the opening track “Listen to Your Heart” “No.” effectively setting the tone for the album that follows. Cheekface’s lyrics are tongue-in-cheek satire about the state of society today filtered through a lens of infectious pop punk. The album is full of little phrases that get stuck in your head and keep you coming back.

Oh man, an omen / A man, a plan, a plain bagel and an omelette

02. Cameron Knowler, Eli Winter — Anticipation

This album, along with Adeline Hotel’s good timing was my go-to record when I didn’t know what else to put on. It soundtracked a beautiful mountain drive through West Virginia, numerous dinners, and countless workdays. A beautiful record of traditional songs rendered beautifully on two acoustic guitars. The only problem is the name is so common and the record is so under-loved that it’s hard to find on Spotify.

01. Pleasure Systems — Visiting the Well

Similarly to Porter Robinson’s Nurture, Pleasure Systems managed to release an album in 2021 that tapped into exactly what I was feeling. We lost both of my partner’s parents in 2020, and my own grandmother in 2021. But besides people we lost a lot of things we took for granted. Eating in restaurants. Seeing friends. Alone time in our daily commutes. Grief takes may forms, and can be the product of many types of experiences.

I did not lose a loved one in the same way as Clark Sonderman, but my partner did, and through his songs of loss I’m better able to understand what she went through. Such a raw, emotionally vulnerable record is a gift to those who need it, and I feel like the world needed this one. It also helps that each song is beautifully arranged and performed.

It’s a true wonder how such a heavy record can bring such pleasure to the listener. But music is complicated. It’s the sum of many moving parts, much like people. Complicated and beautiful.

Honorable Mentions

Black Country, New Road — For the first time

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah — New Fragility

Cassandra Jenkins — An Overview on Phenomenal Nature

Jenn Champion — The Blue Album

IAN SWEET — Show Me How You Disappear

The world is a beautiful place and I am no longer afraid to die — Illusory Walls

This instagram live video of Adrienne Lenker performing unreleased Big Thief song “Simulation Swarm”



Aidan Zanders

Designer by day. Aspiring writer and animator by night. Mercy main when I can find the time.