#5EUK Top 20 Albums of 2021 (20-11)
So here we are, ladies & gentlemen. Top 20 albums of 2021.
I don't think I have had more albums in contention than this year. I began with a long list of about 60, which wasn't too bad. But then my shortlist got to around 30 and I began to struggle. There were so many albums I wanted to spin again. So many albums that left a really great impression on me for one reason or another.
So I then decided to make what I considered the "easy locks". The albums I know I want to gush about. But that didn't make the process that much easier, so I just went ahead and spun albums I wanted to spin again.
The number was at 24 for a while, so I thought, should I just cop out and make the list 25 or strive for a clean 20? Because I think 20 is a solid number for a solo album list. As you can see by the title, I managed to trim it down to 20.
You'll have to wait until the Top 10 of this list to see what didn't make my list, but just know even though they didn't make the Top 20, they're really worth your time.
Anyway, this has been a year of surprises for me. Artists I've never heard of making big impressions, perennial list makers of years past not doing so this year, it's interesting and very refreshing that I can continue to refine my tastes.
Some fun facts about my list before we begin:
This list is the closest to 50/50 male/female I have ever had. (Nine female, 11 male.)
This list features 10 UK artists. The remainder American.
This list features my first ever pick for a Remix album.
Seven albums are by artists that are producers and/or instrumentalists first.
So let's begin with No.20, some arresting vocal Jazz:
No.20 - Lady Blackbird - Black Acid Soul
Picture this. You're recording your debut album after years of stopping, starting, stopping and restarting your career. You rub shoulders with heavyweights but nothing concrete comes from it.
You finally find your footing. You finally find your sound and your musical identity. And it leads you to start your debut album with a cover of Nina Simone's "Blackbird".
From start to finish, Lady Blackbird has you by the throat. Vocals that sound like it comes from a veteran of the game. Yet, this raw vocal power comes from a woman who is only just getting started.
Over minimal instrumentation, Lady Blackbird roars, whispers and everything in between for 42 minutes, culminating in a body of work that anyone that loves the Golden Age of Soul where the likes of Simone and Billie Holiday owned the airwaves should listen to immediately. If you respect top-tier vocals, you should listen. This is vocal Jazz that shouldn't be missed.
With tracks like "It Not That Easy" where she croons over this lone piano and some organ behind that, the imagery just gives off someone bleeding their heart out in a harsh spotlight. The last 30 seconds give me goosebumps every time. And then comes "Fix It" which is also vulnerable but towards the other person. She's wanting to care for and cure your ills. The piano on this one is sublime. Further down the tracklist, you have a personal love, "Beware The Stranger" which is just some wonderful songwriting about a woman on the run. Paired with backing vocals and strings, the mystery about this unknown is captivating.
An album for the purists of all sides of music.
Favourite Tracks: It's Not That Easy, Five Feet Tall & Beware The Stranger
No.19 - Adrian Younge - The American Negro
Where to begin for this one... I can't say in any facet that this is a casual listen. Because it *really* isn't. But I do feel it's an album worth listening to. Because there are plenty of albums that drop names of people that are only known for having injustices placed upon them. But there's rarely an album of this scope that uses the spoken word and music in equal measure (in tracklist allocation, not minutes) to provide such an imprint on your psyche once you're done listening.
What self-taught musician Adrian Younge has done here is a body of work that is built to force thought from you. And I get it, sometimes you don't want to think. Sometimes you want to unplug. But man, ever since my first spin of "The American Negro", I haven't been the same.
Along with Loren Oden, Chester Gregory and Sam Harmonix backing him up, Younge pierces with spoken word in between the deep soul/orchestral cuts, with topics all stemming from systemic racism in America. But whilst the project itself is very daunting on the face, the music itself is very nice and varied in tone. Jumping from the title track with its deep guitar strums that bursts into a soul/funk number, to something like "Watch The Children" where it replaces guitars for strings and horns, the project is superbly balanced.
I'd hazard to say, if the spoken word interludes weren't here, the album would be more well known, but it is Younge's forensic questioning and pondering of everything to do with the neuroses of the Black American that makes this such a fascinating listen.
Favourite Tracks: Dying On The Run, Race Is A Fallacy & Light On The Horizon
No.18 - TrueMendous - The Misdiagnosis of Chyvonne Johnson
This was one of the most fulfilling releases of the year for me. I have been following TrueMendous since 2019 when I discovered her double EP series "P.S. This Your Father Calling" and "P.S. This Is Your Auntie Calling". The prior I put on my 2019 EP list.
Her style, her flow, her wit. She's so unique as an artist. And when she signed to High Focus Records and dropped another EP "Huh?", I knew I wouldn't have to wait long before I finally got an album from her.
And boy, is it an album alright. Nearly 80 minutes of album to be exact, with outstanding features from the likes of Janel Antoneshia, Kofi Stone and the legend Masta Ace. But honestly, there's so much here, the features barely make an impression. This is all TrueMendous as far as I'm concerned. One of the densest listens of '21 that warrants long-term consumption. You can't spin this just once, it deserves more.
As a quick comment on her artistry, the title of the album is very fitting, because TrueMendous gives an extremely self-aware lens for you to look into. She knows she's a hard person to pin down. Take "Free Food" for example. A six-plus minute story about a date she goes on with a catfish. The lyrics are so detailed you imagine it like a short film, frantically shot with several lenses. The amount of pockets she goes into is absurd and is very comedic lyrically and in her performance, (the way she tells herself to spit out the bubblegum makes me smile.) but then, just after the four-minute mark, she goes into a more subdued tone, telling this guy about herself like her favourite colour, how she loves trainers and not heels and many dichotomies she holds.
And that's just one track. The album overall is very relationship-oriented over quintessential UK Hip-Hop beats that culminate in "Yvonne's Daughter", one of the most honest and open tracks this year. The track needs a paragraph on its own but trust me, it goes deep.
I love TrueMendous. The way she self-deprecates but also does everything with confidence and chest, it's extremely refreshing and I'm so happy I found a place for this album on my list.
Favourite Tracks: Y, Worst Child & Free Food
No.17 - Cleo Sol - Mother
The dense albums continue to roll on this list, but whilst the album preceding was lyrically dense, Cleo Sol's new body of work, coinciding with her new status as a mother, is dense in a different way.
This album is the definition of 'warm'. Everything about this album feels like a hug, staring out the window as the sun shines on your face, sitting down with a cup of your favourite hot beverage. But unlike your run-of-the-mill ambient album or ambient-adjacent, this is an album where you need to focus on it in order to unlock the true potential of "Mother".
This album is very easy to slap on and have on in the background, and that's fine, but when you stop everything and truly consume a song like "Heart Full Of Love" in its near Gospel essence. And then the 2nd half turns into a beautiful dance between Cleo and a team of strings.
Or how about something a little more subdued like "We Need You"? I just feel like I'm doing Cleo a disservice listening to this whilst doing something else.
It's not all soft Gospel however, you have tracks like "Sunshine" and "23" that lean more toward her work in SAULT. That signature chilled Soul/Jazz blend. They're like slow-motion bounces on the bed that you used to do as a kid. Not a care in the world.
And it would be a travesty if I didn't mention producer Inflo, THE best producer in the UK right now, and who may or may not be mentioned later in the list. But overall, this album makes me feel like Cleo's child in the album artwork. It makes me feel safe. And sometimes, you need that comfort, that somebody has got you.
Favourite Tracks: Sunshine, 23 & Music
No.16 - Mumu Fresh - Queen of Culture
From one artist with motherly essence to another. Mumu Fresh is an absurd double threat on the mic. Do you need bars? Mumu Fresh. Do you need vocals? Mumu Fresh. Aren't aware of Mumu Fresh? You're forgiven. Now go spin "Queen of Culture".
Also labelled as the sequel to "Vintage Babies", Mumu Fresh along with longtime collaborator, producer DJ Dummy, QoC is yet another example of Fresh's versatility. You get the "Intro" that just shows off her silly level of vocal stacking and serves as a precursor to "North Star" which takes the vocal stacking and bleeds into D Smoke delivering a solid verse.
The album is littered with musical interludes that break up the album very nicely. A personal highlight is "Karen" that I simply don't want to explain. Just listen and you will understand why it's funny as well as real talk.
Back to songs like "Reparations" that continue this motif of Mumu Fresh as a diety-like figure, speaking things into existence. Then nearer to the end, tracks like "Find A Way" are so damn mature on top of the fact that she and Alex Isley make some solid R&B. Same for the 2nd half of "What's the Use in Praying" where she drops some true gems.
The album as a whole can be classed as R&B, but with the acoustic "Love Me Now", the R&B/Reggae/Dub fusion that is "I'll Make You Happy", the Gospel elements throughout the album and the barred up two-piece "Work & "Rap God", it would be a disservice to call this just R&B.
Favourite Tracks: Back To The Money, North Star, What's the Use in Praying
No.15 - Wyann Vaughn - Been In It A Minute
Ah yes. LA's own Wyann Vaughn, daughter of a member of The Emotions, frequent collaborator with many of LA's finest musicians, one of which put me onto Wyann in the first place (shout out to the legend Terrace Martin.) and if her IG says anything about her, a down-to-earth student of life.
Similar to TrueMendous, I have been waiting for an album like this from Wy for a minute. Her '19 EP was a great start, but I knew at some point we'd get an album.
"Been In It A Minute" is an interesting title. Because if you just look at her page on your favoured DSP, you would think she's a new artist or something. But everyone has their own road and from a musical perspective, Wyann has done a hell of a lot on route to this album that sounds like it came straight from the 90s.
This is some of the best Golden Age R&B you will hear this year. And the spice added to it makes it that much better. It's got her damn family all over it. Blood family and musical family. The duet she has with sister Wendi on "4 Steps" with those breathy vocals over a smooth beat is just what the doctor ordered.
And then we have "Got to Be Yours", an eight-minute epic, produced by Chris Cadenhead, Khrysis of The Soul Council and West Coast legend DJ Quik that is just a crown jewel of a track. A continuation of the breathy R&B at the start then bleeds into some classic Soul, headed by the aforementioned Emotions and then after a mid-song intermission, goes straight back into the R&B with a beat so sexy you could make love to it.
With a special mention to Waren Vaughn barring on "Feelosophy pt. 2", BIIAM is just a supreme time machine of an album, centred by a woman that has been around the block, got the T-shirt and wants you to know that it takes a village. It's not just a Wyann Vaughn album, it's an album that her entire family can rally around and be proud of. There really is something special about making something for your people and nobody else.
Favourite Tracks: You Got Me, 4 Steps & Got to Be Yours
No.14 - Swindle - THE NEW WORLD
Producer Swindle is slowly but surely building a Rolodex of collaborators that anyone would envy. Now, I wasn't expecting him to be coming out with an album with so many great UK names on it so soon. But here we are.
I noticed that a few artists that I follow were taking pictures with each other, all in the same studio. I started seeing overlap and was wondering what they were doing. Little did I know that they were all there primarily to record for Swindle's "THE NEW WORLD".
You can imagine my excitement knowing several artists I routinely check out were going to be on an album by a producer that is getting better and better everytime he puts his name next to "Produced By". And my excitement was met with a feature list of dreams. Friend of 5E Joel Culpepper, one of my four favourite UK pens Loyle Carner, one of the best features in the UK right now Kojey Radical, UK legends Akala & Ghetts; Joy Crookes, Greentea Peng, Maverick Sabre, Poppy Ajudha, Daley, JNR Williams, Knucks.
This is the filthiest feature list on paper next to "DONDA" and as it pertains to the album that made my list, it succeeds in every way.
This is a very fulfilling listen, especially when you are aware of the featured artists' skillsets. Swindle as a producer does so well in teaming artists up to make a song and it would perfectly fit in the featured artists' discography. Having vocalists Culpepper and Sabre tag team on "NO BLACK, NO IRISH" is just a seamless track, stacked with meaning. (Feel free to search the etymology of "No Blacks, No Irish".) "BLOW YA TRUMPET" is a posse cut where Knucks, Akala, Ghetts & Kojey Radical get an opportunity to bar up, with production that sounds like the beginning of an extremely elaborate MarioKart song. The final track "HOW I'VE BEEN" with Crookes, Willilams, Carner & Kojey (& Culpepper at the end) is a beautiful end where everyone feels right at home. Shouts to the Crookes & Williams duet on that one.
Every track is solid, every feature bring their best performances and Swindle as the head of it all makes everyone shine on top of his horn-heavy production, constantly switching tones and everything sounding smooth. A ton of juggling but somehow, Swindle freaking nails it.
Favourite Tracks: SUNDAY BEST, BLOW YA TRUMPET & HOW I'VE BEEN
No.13 - Tiggs Da Author - Blame It On The Youts
I'm very glad that Tiggs Da Author came out with this album, because sometimes it takes someone dropping an album for me to really pay attention to them. I have heard Tiggs here and there since his hit song "Run" with Lady Leshurr dropped in '16. The other times I have heard him have been on Nines and J Hus albums.
And while I have always enjoyed Tiggs on other people's work, I never had the urge to go "Let me go ahead and spin some Tiggs". And then came "Blame It On The Youts". His debut studio album that really nails home the sound that Tiggs has been cultivating for himself in the past five years.
A unique blend of Afroswing/Jazz/Soul with a hint of classic R&B/Soul, Tiggs has created a sound that I feel anyone can jam to, even for somebody like me that isn't that educated in Afrocentric genres.
Starting the record with "Enough", a commentary on the current social climate. You would think that it wouldn't get you moving, but you clearly don't know Tiggs. The record continue with bop after bop. "Hands Up" a notable song for me. With witty lyrics on a relationship, with this bouncy production, led by a guitar, it's so catchy and sticky you could mistake it for the Omircon variant.
And I think that's the best thing that Tiggs has done here. He has shown that he can create an album where the lyrics are meaningful, yet easy to recite, to sing and dance to. Some songs are bouncier than others, (excluding "Chasing Love", that's a full on slow acoustic jam.) but they're all high quality Afro-fusion that I would love to see live and shout the lyrics to. I can firmly plant my flag and say that Tiggs Da Author is one of the best songwriters in the UK, just off the strength of "Blame It On The Youts".
Favourite Tracks: Hands Up, Blame It On The Youts, Fly Em' High
No.12 - Nubya Garcia - Source ⧺ We Move
My first ever Remix album pick! And it goes to Saxophonist Nubya Garcia and "Source ⧺ We Move", a collection of remixes, using her 2020 album "SOURCE" as the... Well... Source.
In my Jazz explorations, I have been constantly gravitating to Nubya's (pronounced New-By-A) esoteric mixture of Jazz, all centring around her tenor Sax proficiency. Everytime she's on somebody's track or most notably when she dropped her debut album "SOURCE", I have been fascinated as to how she goes about her music.
The original album was a richly textured album with genres such as Colombian Cumbia, Reggae & Calypso being smashed together over a Jazz foundation to make a truly unique body of work.
And then came the remixes...
Firstly, shout out to whoever made the artwork for both versions of this album, they are some of my favourite pieces of music artwork in recent memory. Even if I hated the music, I would've wanted them on vinyl. They're that nice to look at.
And then we get into the music itself, with Kaidi Tatham, Nala Sinephro, DJ Harrison, Blvck Spvde, Georgia Anne Muldrow, KeiyaA, Suricata, Dengue Dengue Dengue & Moses Boyd putting their spin on Garcia's tracks.
Highlights for me are Sinephro's spacy Jazz edition of "Together Is A Great Place To Be". I really wish that song was longer. It goes by so fast compared to the others. Then straight after that you have DJ Harrison isolating one of the best parts of Nubya's Sax in "The Message Continues" and slapping a smooth Hip-Hop beat on it. When that first echo comes in. Shivers.
Then in the middle you have KeiyaA's remix of "Stand With Each Other" which she turns into this deep ocean wave beat that scratches the surface of being Deep House. And then the album finishes with Mose Boyd taking on "Pace" and turning that into what is fundamentally a Drum & Bass number. His absurd drumming speed along with Nubya's Sax is just a match made in heaven for me.
To finish, I feel like I need to hail Remix albums one time. Because it's works like these that make music so much fun. I love "The Message Continues", but the way DJ Harrison brought it into my Hip-Hop-sphere completely renewed my love for it. So big up not just Nubya Garcia for creating the foundation of this wonderful assortment of songs, but Remix albums overall.
Favourite Tracks: La cumbia me está llamando (Kaidi Tatham Remix), The Message Continues (DJ Harrison Remix), Pace (Moses Boyd Remix)
No.11 - Jazz Spastiks - Camera of Sound
Rounding off the first half of my Top 20 Albums of 2021, is an underground UK Hip-Hop production duo that comes with one of the most dynamic Instrumental-dominant Hip-Hop albums I have ever heard.
There are a lot of times where producers just drop beat tapes. Here's some beats I did over the past couple of years, slap it on. But then there's those instrumental albums that have thought put in them. "Petestrumentals" is a good example of that. But THEN there's something like "Camera of Sound" where it starts off with a tone setter and just keeps on going for nearly 45 minutes.
This isn't just drum loops over and over again. This feels like a living, breathing production piece. It's like Jazz Spastiks are recording the whole thing live and have everything on a conveyor belt, ready to go. The samples of what sounds like very old TV shows keep the throwback theme of the entire album and the features add a little spice whenever they come up.
It's an album where I honestly struggle to single out tracks because the whole thing flows that damn well, like the time Prince put his album on streaming but on the tracklist it was the whole album in one 'track'.
But for the sake of argument, something like "By All Means" featuring Artifacts is superbly paced beat to have your head bobbing in double time as Artifacts skates over the beat. Or "Colours" which comes right after. Again, smooth pacing, a little slower but even though it's an instrumental, there's always something fresh coming in and out. Whether it's a scratch, a sample or new musical element.
This whole album is wonderful throwback Hip-Hop that just keeps you guessing and never ever goes stale, no matter how many times you spin it.
Favourite Tracks: By All Means, Go! & Mathematics
Thanks for reading, let me know if you spin any of these wonderful artists and how you rated it. And be sure to stay tuned for the Top 10!