The 40 Best Albums of 2021

It’s that time of year when our team of music writers and editors get together to count down the 40 best albums of the year. And while this has been no usual year, the quality of music that has been released has been incredibly high. Suffice it to say, this has been a very difficult list to put together – for every record we included, handfuls we loved didn’t make the cut. But nonetheless, our list has arrived.

Our head music critic Dylan Marshall, alongside our editors Bruce Baker and Simon Clark, and contributors Tait McGregor, Chris Singh, Emily Paull, Larry Heath and Dylan Oxley contribute to the AU review’s 13th annual list of the 40 best albums from Australia and around the world! We start off at home, with one of our favourite Sydney duos…

40. Polish Club – Now We’re Cookin’

I’ve had this album on high rotation since it came out. The energy in the songs is infectious, and I feel happy every time I hear Dave Novak’s distinctive vocals. From the dancy beats of ‘Stop for a Minute’ to the more heartfelt ‘no heaven’ this album shows that music can still be fun. – Emily Paull

Read our review of Now We’re Cookin’ here.

39. Baker Boy – Gela

It may have taken him a while to release his debut album, but The Fresh Prince of Arnhem Land came through with the goods on Gela. Gela, Baker Boy’s skin name and one of the truest forms of his identity, takes you into Baker Boy’s world as he paints the best and most vivid picture of himself. A proud Yolngu man, Baker Boy incorporates his rich connection to his culture into all of Gela which, as he put it, makes the album him; it’s his story. At the root of it, Gela is Baker Boy’s connection between his home, his people, the big city and his progression to being one of the most exciting artists in the country. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of Gela here.

38. Pond – 9 

Always willing to try their hand at being a little bit left of centre, over the past decade Pond has created their own comfortable absurdist niche in the psych-rock genre in the Australian music scene. They’re a band not bound by expectations or trends and 9 is a continuation of what they do best. Embrace the weird nature of Pond; you might need it more than you think. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of 9 here.

37. An Evening With Silk Sonic – Bruno Mars and Anderson.Paak

Bruno Mars and Anderson.Paak have proven a match made in retro R&B heaven, throwing out these long, luscious jams that throw back to yesteryear and yet manage to sound more modern and relevant than any other textures bouncing around the ever-changing genre. It’s a supremely satisfying listen, kept tight and funky with designs on both the bedroom and dancefloor in equal measure. – Chris Singh

36. Billie Eilish – happier than ever

Billie Eilish’s happier than ever is a showcase of just how creative she is as an artist, as capable of metamorphosis in her sounds as she is in her look. Billie’s breathy vocals may not be for everyone, but this is an album that mixes the seductive sounds of a 50s crooner with pulsing urban beats that build throughout the album. Billie did not disappoint here. – Emily Paull

35. The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore

There’s a special niche in the current musical landscape for bands like The War On Drugs. At a point in time where traditional rock music doesn’t hold as much esteem as it once did, there’s a warmth in the welcoming sounds that The War On Drugs continue to create that allow them to be one of the better-received bands still relying on guitar, bass and drums to make their music. Like a warm and welcoming hug from your partner after a long day at work, a cold beer after slaving away in the back garden, or re-reading one of your favourite books, The War On Drugs is a band that harks back to a period of fond times, with I Don’t Live Here Anymore being an album filled with sounds you’re familiar with from your past while also providing a reflective look to the future. – Dylan Marshall.

Read our review of I Don’t Live Here Anymore here.

34. Deadlights – The Uncanny Valley 

One of the best heavy albums of the year, hands down. The Brisbane boys have stepped up their game to crazy heights and the overall concept is eerily relatable. – Dylan Oxley

33. Budjerah – S/T EP

Some points to consider: this is Budjerah’s debut EP, and he’s eighteen! Recorded alongside Matt Corby, Budjerah’s self-titled EP is one of the most accomplished debut releases of the year. It’s simply bursting with soul and quality pop songwriting. Any of the EP’s four tracks deserve to be on End of Year lists. “Higher” and “Missing You” have been on high rotation in my house. – Simon Clark

32. Jorja Smith – Be Right Back

Another solid release from arguably the underdog of nu RnB. Technically an EP, but with 8-tracks and three quality singles in “Addicted”, “Gone” and “Bussdown”, who needs an album of filler; and what even is an EP in the streaming age? Sold as a collection of songs that were not intended for her second album, we really want to be hearing the album if these are the offcuts. – Julian Ramundi

31. Illy – The Space Between 

The long-awaited triumphant return of the rap/pop star is an eloquent summary of the past five years. It’s catchy, relevant and wholesome. And what an opening track! – Dylan Oxley

30. Kanye West – Donda

“Donda. Donda. Donda. Donda Donda Donda Donda.” It’s not often you can open an album with a track whose lyrics are solely the title repeated, but when you’re an artist as divisive as Kanye West, it’s not even questioned. The album promised for more than a year, Donda arrived with a slew of ridiculous live spectacles that built the hype for a release that put West back in the realm of quality music after more than a few misses in recent years. While not his best release, Donda has the hallmarks of being a pivotal moment in the future of popular music. – Dylan Marshall

29. Ruby Fields – Been Doin’ It For a Bit

It’s no surprise at all that Ruby Fields‘ debut album, Been Doin’ It For A Bit, sounds exactly like, well, Ruby Fields. Seemingly a million years in the making, the album is everything that Fields has built her name around and then some. A genuinely fun and charismatically easy listen, Been Doin’ It For A Bit is the edge of summer album you’ve been looking forward to after a long and bleak winter. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of Been Doin’ It For a Bit here.

28. Lil Nas X – MONTERO

Lil Nas X delivered one of the year’s most original and daring records with MONTERO, which is somewhat remarkably the record breaking chart topper’s debut record. This is a stacked album; the list of collaborators vast – from Elton John to Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion – and there’s never a dull moment from start to finish. Certainly one of the best pop or rap records of the year – however you want to define it – and undeniably a defining moment for taking queer anthems to the top of the charts. – Larry Heath

27. Amy Shark – Cry Forever

This record is Amy at her most vulnerable, featuring some of her most brutal storytelling. It tugs at the heartstrings one moment then has you chanting huge hooks the next. Very moving and empowering. – Dylan Oxley

26. J Cole – The Off Season 

J Cole clearly put his all into crafting The Off Season as the ultimate hip hop album to reflect modern times. With sharp, witty rhymes, and incredibly lush production, the rapper has managed to turn in the year’s best rap album. – Chris Singh

25. Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood & Juanita 

Kentucky’s shape-shifting country musician Sturgill Simpson returned in 2021 with a bluegrass concept album: The Ballad of Dood and Juanita. Recorded with a crew of bluegrass musicians he’s dubbed the Hillbilly Avengers, the album is an enthralling and captivating exploration of American frontier myth making. It’s smart, playful, often romantic, and incredibly well delivered, with some wonderful storytelling at work – Simon Clark 

24. Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time

Here on third album Things Take Time, Take Time, Barnett once again hits the mark with ten songs delivering on that observational humour, wit and matching musicianship that has won her acclaim over the past near-decade. Things Take Time, Take Time proves Courtney Barnett is still well capable of making music that many will find to be an insightful and at times heartwarming venture into the life of an artist re-learning how to find fun and meaning in their life. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of Things Take Time, Take Time here.

23. girl in red – if I could make it go quiet

At the root of it all, if i could make it go quiet is an album about love. It isn’t necessarily groundbreaking content, but the way girl in red delivers it and places herself firmly into each and every one of the tracks does make if i could make it go quiet something entirely special. From beginning to end, the album traverses a variety of emotions, stories, content and vibes, just as every good (or bad) road trip does. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of if i could make it go quiet here.

22. Brandi Carlile – In These Silent Days 

I’m something of a late arrival to the work of Brandi Carlile, coming to her work via the supergroup The Highwomen, but I am now a fully fledged convert. In These Silent Days is her seventh album, and sees her working with acclaimed producer Dave Cobb and the musician Shooter Jennings. It’s a confident and assured release, rich in detail and nuance. The songwriting on the album, as you would expect from one of the best in the business, is top drawer. This one has been on high rotation since it was released – a truly beautiful record. – Simon Clark

21. Holy Holy – Hello My Beautiful World

Holy Holy are whole(y). After years of plying their trade on anthemic stadium-ready rock tinged with hints of 80’s glam guitar and synth, the Australian act now feel complete; like they’ve managed to pull it all together once and for all. Here on Hello My Beautiful World, the anthemic beauty of the band continues to seep through on songs that will, without doubt, continue to hold a special spot for the band and fans for years to come. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of Hello My Beautiful World here.

20. IDLES – Crawler 

While it didn’t hit quite as hard or immediately as their 2020 predecessor, the brilliant Ultra Mono, in many ways Crawler is the UK outfit IDLES levelling up. These are meaty songs, that reward multiple listens, as they show off their talents as writers, musicians and on stage icons. Songs like “The Beachland Ballroom” and “Car Crash” are among the best of their catalogue – and more to the point: how lucky are we to have two new IDLES LPs in as many years? The only worry is how they’re going to fit it all into their Aussie live shows next year! – Larry Heath

19. Martha Marlow – Medicine Man 

This album from indie-pop singer/songwriter Martha Marlow is delicate, warm and one of immense beauty. Enveloped by strings, and reminiscent of Larua Marling and Joni Mitchell, it’s a record that rewards and delights further with each subsequent listen. – Bruce Baker

Read our review of Medicine Man here.

18. Sturle Dagsland – S/T

Sturle Dagsland’s self-titled album was one of the first album’s I listened to this year. It’s probably one of the ones that stuck with me the most. It’s like nothing I usually listen to. It’s an album full of primal intensity and passion. There’s an array of obscure and worldly instruments at play, but the main drawcard and the main instrument at work is Dagsland’s voice which is extraordinary. It all makes for a completely captivating and wonderfully idiosyncratic record – you won’t have heard much else like it this year. – Simon Clark

Read our review of Sturle Dagsland’s self titled album HERE

17. Amyl and The Sniffers – Comfort To Me 

Everything about Amy and the Sniffers is fast and hectic. Killer guitars, frantic vocals and driving rhythm sections is the order of the day. Introspective and defiant, Comfort To Me is a blistering riposte to the naysayers. – Bruce Baker

16. Tyne James Organ – Necessary Evil

For an artist who promised so much over their earlier EPs, Necessary Evil was the arrival of Tyne James Organ we’ve hoped, anticipated and expected for a while now. As slick and cruisy from opening track “Stranger” to closer “Honey”, it’s abundantly clear Tyne James Organ knows how to write a pop song that rivals the best. With hits in waiting “Sunday Suit” and “Better Than This” masterfully filling out the album, Necessary Evil is brilliant front-to-back and sure to fill festival stages relentlessly over coming years. – Dylan Marshall

15. Jungle – Loving in Stereo

Throwing caution to the wind and releasing an album with a stack of features and guest vocals, funk masters Jungle have absolutely nailed their third album, the overtly fantastic and sexy Loving in Stereo. Best listened to on loud speakers as you dance maniacally and dramatically around your loungeroom with your partner whilst a couple reds deep, Loving in Stereo is exactly that; loving in stereo form. – Dylan Marshall

14. Luca Brasi – Everything is Tenuous 

There is something for everyone in this album and it’s the band at their most acute. From love songs to inner laments, it’s both deeply personal and fondly relatable. – Dylan Oxley

Read our review of Everything is Tenuous here.

13. Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Many in the business told her having a child in her 20s would be the biggest risk of her career. OIn classic Halsey ‘fuck you’ fashion, she usurped that risk with an even bigger one – working with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to produce an album of dark, moody industrial pop – a far cry from her previous work. Rather than an ego project that alienated fans, we instead get an extremely well-crafted pop record for the current age and an essay on feminism, motherhood and redemption. – Julian Ramundi

12. Gretta Ray – Begin to Look Around

Gretta Ray is a musician who is more than confident in sticking to and relying on her main asset: her voice. It’s incredibly recognisable and completely welcoming. You know when you hear a sound bite from your childhood that triggers you and all those fond memories start flowing back having been locked away in your memory for an eternity? That’s the familiarity of Gretta Ray’s vocals. There’s a calming cadence and sense of safety to Ray’s vocals across the entirety of Begin to Look Around. Like a fireplace in the middle of winter, Gretta Ray’s voice and lyrics fill you with a flowing warmth that fills your body. It feels like home. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of Begin to Look Around here.

11. Julien Baker – Little Oblivions

Julien Baker has always been an artist that makes you stop, notice and absorb her talents. Now onto her third album, Baker is as prolifically complete on Little Oblivions as she’s ever been since releasing debut album Sprained Ankle half a decade ago. There’s very little, if any, façade to what pours out in her music; she’s honest from front to back and completely ready to make you sad and feel way too much about everything from the opening notes of every song. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of Little Oblivions here.

10. Lucy Dacus – Home Video

Drenched in nostalgia and melancholia, Lucy Dacus does sadness at its best and most potent. Now onto her third album, Dacus returns with Home Video, eleven songs that are a deep dive into her coming-of-age years in suburban America. Written mostly from a bibliographical viewpoint, much of Home Video is Dacus exploring her own being, while every-so-often changing the gaze of the song to be one that is centred on Dacus’ observations of others in her life, rather than an introspective look at herself. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of Home Video here.

9. St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home

Inspired by the release of her father from prison, Daddy’s Home from St. Vincent is a wonderful blurring of personal and performative. Clark, as we’ve come to expect, fully leans into her concept and is meticulous in its realisation – from costuming to the musical choices. There’s nods to 70’s rock and roll, to lounge-pop, to psychedelic, and a firm grounding in the musical palette of New York City. It’s ambitious, audacious and incredibly enjoyable listening experience, one who rewards repeat visits. – Simon Clark

8. Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under

While only now onto his second LP, Fender feels like he’s been churning away on the cusp of glory for a while now. Hailed as one of the great white hopes by the British press (as they seem to do all too often), Seventeen Going Under showcases a more pressing and at times darker side to Fender’s songwriting and lyricism.

Coming just two years after his debut album Hypersonic Missiles, Fender has managed to release an album of pulsating rock, filled with the stadium grandeur of Brandon Flowers, whilst reusing and thriving on the saxophone and piano strengths of Springsteen’s best. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of Seventeen Going Under here.

7. Shame – Drunk Tank Pink

Returning exactly three years after their first album, 2018’s stellar Songs of PraiseDrunk Tank Pink is a more mature and complete album. One that begins to unleash the true talent and potential of a band once hidden behind blunt lyrics and brutal music. Written primarily by vocalist Charlie Steen, the album comes from a viewpoint of a lyricist who lives and loves the highs of tour life. But, also one who struggles somewhat when isolated from his band mates, his job as a musician and the touring slog. It isn’t obvious, but Drunk Tank Pink is an isolation album, and released in a pandemic, so oh so timely and pertinent.

Named after a shade of pink alleged to disarm and calm those who stare at it long enough, Drunk Tank Pink is equal parts exciting, alarming, disarming and charming. It’s a positive step for Shame, and one that will not fail to impress for a while longer. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of Drunk Tank Pink here.

6. EJ Worland – No One Left to Blame EP

Here on his debut EP No One Left To Blame, Worland has created six tracks that will go a long to booking him spots at a plethora of festivals for people who love listening to the best music. With music that harks back decades and transcends continents, Worland has managed to develop a sound that touches on so many different styles that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s an album of covers or a best-of accumulated over a twenty year career and multiple albums of reinventions. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of No One Left to Blame here.

5. Middle Kids – Today We’re The Greatest

Always capable of making instantly great releases, Middle Kids have managed to make an album that shows an even more vulnerable side to a band who has always managed to endear themselves to loyal and loving fans. One of the biggest takeaways from Today We’re The Greatest is the subtleties in their sound the band has introduced on the album. They’ve moved ever-so-slightly away from the full-blown festival ready moments of their debut and embraced a sound that will be better suited to a sit down theatre show, shared with friends, or paired with a bottle of wine (whether an expensive red or cheap $8 rose) over dinner and with a lover. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of Today We’re The Greatest here.

4. Ngaiire – 3

The cliché ‘third times a charm’ rings true here on the gorgeous and sophisticated 3, Ngaiire’s massive third album. With delicate layering of music and lyrics flowing throughout all of the album’s songs, 3 is Ngaiire’s best album to date. Her vocals as complete and empowering as always, there’s an urgency on 3 that makes you stop and take notice of an artist whom has mastered her craft and never failed to deliver. With stand out moments including “Shiver”, “Takeover” and “Moonshine”, you’d be a fool to sleep on this album. – Dylan Marshall

3. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend 

On the back of the world-beating and completely dominant Visions of a Life, Wolf Alice were always bound to make another great album; we just didn’t know if it was going to be straight away or in a couple of albums time. I’m here to say their new album, Blue Weekend is that next great album.

On the whole, and without knowing the band, Blue Weekend feels like it is the epitome of Wolf Alice; an album the band will look back on when it’s all said and done and be the most proud of. There’s an overwhelming slickness to the album that didn’t appear on their earlier releases that evidently will help differentiate Blue Weekend down the line. Blue Weekend feels like a culmination of everything Wolf Alice has learnt about themselves and the industry since releasing Visions of a Life. It’s a new age for the band and one that looks as promising as the band could hope. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of Blue Weekend here.

2. Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams

At the time of its release in January, we called Collapsed in Sunbeams an incredibly well weighted album filled with 40 minutes of effortlessly cool stories and poems. Nearly 12 months on, this statement is more than correct and has held up pretty damn well. It’s pretty incredible what Arlo Parks has already managed to achieve with only one album released. Her ability to blend blues and neo soul is a quality that will (and already has) allow Parks to continue to excel in an industry that doesn’t always treat young musicians the best.

The intricate and floating “Eugene” is a clear highlight on the album, with its rainy weekend guitar and overly simple drums. A tale of non-obvious love between friends, Parks’ subtle and smokey vocals, matched with a Dido-esque soundtrack is all levels of great and makes it the patently clear why “Eugene” is the lead single of the album.

There’s an unnerving calmness to her vocal delivery that will help cement Parks as one of the best artists of the 2020s. And, while it may seem like a big call at first, if you listen to Collapsed in Sunbeams, you’ll realise it really isn’t all the big of a conclusion to jump to. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of Collapsed in Sunbeams here.

1. Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth

Genesis Owusu is an artist in control. Taking a few years to get here, his debut album Smiling With No Teeth showcases an artist well and truly ready to breakdown barriers and take the world on, fifteen tracks at a time. A lengthy debut, Smiling With No Teeth is the sign of an artist not willing to be pigeonholed. Spanning a variety of styles and genres from hip hop and RnB to rock, soul, pop and jazz, Genesis Owusu puts forward everything you’d expect from an artist with a firm knowledge of what they’re trying to achieve.

Describing the album as ‘beautiful, youthful, ugly, timeless and strange music’, it’s very evident that Smiling With No Teeth is Genesis Owusu being a cool guy, doing cool guy shit. Providing commentary on and covering themes of race, identity and belonging, Owusu has drawn on self-experience to help shape an album that will without doubt be one of the best Australian releases of 2021. A reference to the way outsiders have to pretend things are okay when they’re not, Smiling With No Teeth is Owusu challenging society’s expectations of what life as an outcast is like, and all the associated anxieties that come with living as an outsider in a not always accepting environment.

It’s always great to see artists like Genesis Owusu release an album as strong and pure as Smiling With No Teeth. It is without doubt a game changing moment for Owusu. You’d be a fool to not stop, observe and take note of an artist who’s in complete and utter control. – Dylan Marshall

Read our review of Smiling With No Teeth here.