• Charlie Taylor

#5EUK Top 20 Albums of 2021 (10-1)


Welcome back, ladies & gentlemen, to my Top 20 Albums of 2021. If this is the first instance of you seeing my album list, GO READ THE FIRST PART.


But if you have already peeped 20-11, then let us continue!


This Top 10 came very quickly for me. This is always interesting to me because the most time I spend doing my Album list is in the 15-20 range. Every year I can firmly pick 10-15 albums that I know will be on my list in some capacity. And then there's another 15 or 20 to occupy the final five. So once I write out 20-15 and feel good about it, everything else is gravy. Funny how that works eh.


So contrary to popular thought, I find doing the top spots way easier than the latter. Because there are more albums I want to talk about but won't because I like a hard cap. But don't worry, I've got plenty of words to go around.


And with that said, let's kick off the Top 10, with a friend of 5E:

 

No.10 - Joel Culpepper - Sgt. Culpepper


This was an album I have been anticipating for years. Over three years ago, Joel Culpepper invited me to a private showcase near London Bridge. It was the first private event of that nature I've ever been to. He performed some new material, some became singles dropping that next year, some became a part of this album. With the help of DJ Yoda, Guy Chambers and others, it was a memorable night in more way than one for me.


Skip to 2021, several performances that got him worldwide recognition, respect from some of the greats and the creation of his own label imprint in between, "Sgt. Culpepper" dropped.


Beginning with one of my Songs of 2021, "Tears of a Crown". A great start to an album with funky guitars, making the song cool as ice but everything else, including Joel, provides a serious tone. The highlight is the hook and the slight elevation of strings.


It provides a taste for what's to come: A shining example of modern UK Soul. With sounds reminiscent of late-Motown & Curtis Mayfield. The high speed "W.A.R" is a jolt of energy, sounding like it should have been featured on a car chase scene for a 70s Blaxploitation film.


The middle of the album with songs like "Poetic Justice", with that damn guitar and strings grabbing me by the neck again, to "It's In Your Sex", one of the slower jams that sounds more of a contemporary cut; turns the album into one of relationship musing.


The final track "Black Boy" approaches a topic that Culpepper has broached before but is always encouraged and poignant: Gassing up the black boy and tapping into black boy joy. (If it applies to the listener.) Making the album something for everyone. You have storytelling Joel, sexy Joel, introspective Joel and supportive Joel, giving you when putting it all together, a varied plate of tunes that fit snug in the Soul/Funk umbrella.


Favourite Tracks - Tears of a Crown, Poetic Justice & Black Boy

 

No.9 - Joy Crookes - Skin


This was a slow growth into me loving Joy Crookes. It took me a few instances for me to realise "Huh, I really like Joy Crookes don't I?". The first instance was first hearing the single "Feet Don't Fail Me Now" on TV. I loved the drums throughout, the hook is one of my favourite hooks of 2021 with the addition of the strings and Crookes' voice.


The next one was her feature on my No.14 album this year, Swindle's "THE NEW WORLD". Her chemistry with JNR WILLIAMS on "HOW I'VE BEEN" (I hate the amount of all caps I had to do right there) was one of the highlights of that record.


And in between those instances, I spun the album a couple of times and at least once more for good measure. Now that I think about it, I probably spun "Skin" the most times out of all 20 albums just to be sure.


"But Charlie", I hear you say. "If you were so unsure, why is it No.9 on your list and not 20?". It's funny. I usually give a ton of credence to the first listen. I always give an album the time it deserves when spinning. And sometimes I let songwriting go by the wayside. But after that 2nd and 3rd spin, I was listening more to the songwriting and it unlocked for me why this album is so great.


It's personal, a window into Crookes and yet another great UK singer/songwriter to keep note of for the future. All 13 tracks hit just right. They don't come for your neck, they don't overwhelm, they're that 3rd bowl of porridge in Goldilocks. Take "19th Floor" with the beautiful strings, the smooth drums and Crookes' just floating on all of it. But it's the subject matter. Growing up on the 19th floor of a block, simple imagery but it sounds so momentous.


The multiple songs on love & relationships are grounded but packed with creative writing. "Kingdom" and "Power" are notable highlights for me. "Kingdom", a very defiant Indie jam and "Power", more subtle on the production side, but both perfectly reflects the current social climate through her songwriting.


It took me a while, but I'm glad I gave this album a couple more tries and happy to have this at No.9.


Favourite Tracks: 19th Floor, Kingdom, Feet Don't Fail Me Now

 

No.8 - Silk Sonic - An Evening With Silk Sonic


In the past few years there have been many collaborations teased and never panned out. I honestly stopped trafficking in 'Music Speculation Twitter' simply because they never happened. I was sick of it.


And look what we get when they actually make it happen, you get this squeaky clean pastiche of everything 70s. Funk, Soul, it's all here baby (Read that last sentence again in Bootsy Collins' voice.)


Silk Sonic, Anderson .Paak, Bruno Mars and Mars' longtime collaborator D'Mile team up with a seal of approval from Funk God Bootsy Collins to make "An Evening With Silk Sonic". Everything about this album is drenched in luxury. The D'Mile production is pitch-perfect, nothing out of place.


But something that really impressed me, and credit to Bomani Jones for this point, this has Anderson's best singing yet and that can be also credited to Mars & D'Mile because say what you want about Bruno, that boy ALWAYS sounds good.


The album goes by in a flash, nine tracks, just over 30 minutes. I was kind of deflated when I finished my first spin because I really wished it wasn't delayed. It might have been higher on my list if it dropped mid-summer like it was supposed to. But regardless of that, this was delivered in spades.


Both Paak & Mars have glistening chemistry, they both get opportunities to shine. Maybe more so for Mars since he led a majority of the hooks, but Paak gets his moments, like the glorious "Hercules" line in "Smokin Out The Window" that immediately breaks the best down that instantly makes my foot want to stomp on every hit. You also have his verse on "Leave The Door Open" that sets a great tone for the album as a whole and his performances on "777" & "Fly As Me" are so much fun.


Another highlight for me is Mars on "Put On A Smile". He puts his foot in that one something fierce.


I personally lean towards more of the upbeat tracks than the ballads but above all, this album is superbly balanced and even though I would have loved it earlier in the year, I'll just be happy it actually happened for once.


Favourite Tracks: Fly As Me, Smokin Out The Window & 777

 

No.7 - Makaya McCraven - Deciphering The Message


Can I just say as a novice Jazz fan how cool it is that Blue Note continually allow people to just dive in their ocean-deep catalogue and make something for fresh ears like mine? I remember "Blue Note: ReImagined" which was a cover album, done by a huge cast of UK based artists.


I highly considered it for my Album list that year. And whilst that particular foray didn't make it onto the list, Makaya McCraven freaking nailed his attempt of recreating from the work of Jazz Gods such as Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Clifford Brown, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Dorham, Eddie Gale and others with "Deciphering The Message".


Firstly, LOVE the artwork to death. Great layers. You can see the title from a mile away. But into the album itself, I went into this thinking this was all original McCraven. But when you do what I clearly didn't do when I first spun and actually did some surface-level research, you can now go peep what he faithfully recreated and gain a whole new appreciation.


The album is packaged in a "live setting" cut into three parts. With McCraven leading on drums, with vibraphonist Joel Ross, trumpeter Marquis Hill, alto saxophonist Greg Ward, guitarists Matt Gold and Jeff Parker, bassist Junius Paul, and De’Sean Jones on tenor saxophone and flute coming with him on the journey. And man is it a nice journey.


For me, it especially gets good in the 2nd half of the album with the three-track stretch of "Frank's Tune", originally from pianist Jack Wilson, "Autumn In New York", originally from Kenny Burrell and "Monaco" from Kenny Dorham.


But to highlight one track in particular and the main reason why I love Makaya McCraven, is the final track "Black Rhythm Happening", originally from Eddie Gale. The was McCraven makes it fundamentally a Hip-Hop track is just beautiful to me. It's a bit of a far cry from Gale's original track, but that's why I love that track and the album as a whole. He's not covering, he's putting his own spin on classics. If you love the classics, there they are, but if you're like me and you need a guiding hand, I feel grateful to someone like McCraven that can throw a Hip-Hop or ambient spin on freaking Hard Bop Jazz, make it accessible to a Hip-Hop head like me and open the door for a Jazz novice like me to go back if I so choose.


We love The Alchemist, Madlib, Statik Selektah and plenty of other Hip-Hop oriented producers for their ingenious ways of putting a fresh spin on things, why not give the same flowers to somebody like Makaya McCraven?


Favourite Tracks: Frank's Tune, Autumn In New York, Black Rhythm Happening

 

No.6 - Nas - King's Disease II


I found it so amusing when I first listened to this. When it first finished for me, I sat back thinking "So the Grammys took until KD1 to finally give him a Grammy and then the next year, Nas tops the prequel. You can't write it."


I think it's worth taking this moment to give Nas and producer Hit-Boy flowers for separate reasons. Everybody, rapping is not sports, father time does not come for artists in the same way it comes for a Basketball player's knees. Nas 48 years old. You can make the argument that Nas hasn't put out a good album in over a decade. The fact that he is putting out (in my mind) Top 10 material is nothing short of a miracle.


But it's not a miracle, is it? Because Hit-Boy, if he couldn't say anything else about his career, he can die today saying that he lit a fire up a rapper's ass who already was a legend, but finally plugged that one hole that apparently held Nas back.


I don't hear people saying "Nas is picking bad beats" anymore. And that is thanks to Hit-Boy. This is a tandem that benefits both parties and they're putting out their best work together. That's rare in this space and we should appreciate that.


KD2 just feels like one of those albums to bump in the whip. That beat switch in "The Pressure" makes me want to cop a car just to bump that at night. Then we get some insider storytelling with "Death Row East". We can definitively say Eminem dropped a clean feature in 2021 with "EPMD 2". "Rare" is a beautiful track inside and out. Hit-Boy has this knack to make a hot beat but has a childlike wonder to it. The only other producer I've given that label to is Exile.


The three-track stretch of "Store Run", "Moments" and one of my Songs of 2021 "Nobody" - with arguably the best verse of the year from Ms. Lauryn Hill and one of Hit-Boy's best beats ever - is a wonderful midpoint of the album. And then "Nas Is Good" to finish.


I really appreciate how calm Nas is now. He's not straining to have a deep concept anymore, he's just letting the pen bleed. And with Hit-Boy beside him, they might as well keep going!


Favourite Tracks: Death Row East, Rare, Nobody

 

No.5 - Skyzoo - All The Beautiful Things


From an artist pushing 50, to an artist pushing 40. Skyzoo was originally an artist I was cool with but I never had something to cling to. It really took me a minute to really tune into what Skyzoo was about. I nearly got there with his project with Pete Rock "Retropolitan" but for some reason, I couldn't quite love it. Liked it, but wanted to love it.


And then came two EPs in the same year... "The Bluest Note" (Shouts to album No.7) and "Milestones", the latter made my EP list last year. I would've put both of them in if I could. Because it was when those two dropped that it started to click for me. And then we got "All The Beautiful Things".


The way Skyzoo utilises Jazz samples. The way he paints his personal picture of New York, it's so idyllic yet raw. After all these years, think about how many New York rappers you have listened to paint a picture of New York. You'd think it would be a tired subject but Skyzoo just does it in such an honest way.


Just take some of the titles: St. James Liquors, A Tour of the Neighbourhood, Bodega Flowers, Bed-Stuy is Burning. It's like when an app on your phone asks you for your location and then (On Android 12 anyways) your phone asks you whether you want to give it your precise location or approximate location. When listening to this album, it feels like you're right next to him. He's precise location, everybody else is an approximate location.


This is peak Jazz-Hop, the constant use of Harmon Muted Trumpets are literally and figuratively music to my ears. It gives a classic feel to the whole tone of the album. The features are all great additions. BJ The Chicago Kid on "Bodega Flowers", Raheem DeVaughn on "Something to Believe In", Karriem Riggins & Monica Blaire on "Culture-ish". All just add great flavour.


This album just ticks my boxes. And I really hope the bars about him talking to Phonte, contemplating quitting haven't consumed him. Because it took me years to even listen to him, let alone enjoy him and I'd be devastated if he stopped now.


Favourite Track: Rich Rhetoric, Something to Believe In & What Money Taught Us

 

No.4 - NappyHigh - Villains


Some congratulations are in order. Not only does Friend of 5E NappyHigh make it at four on my Album list, beating the placement for his previous album "Weekdaze", but NappyHigh is the 2nd member of my Triple Crown! Along with this album, his EP "Yellow" and song "Charismatic" made their respective lists.


But that doesn't explain why I put this album at four. Simply put, NappyHigh is one of my favourite producers right now and I am STILL waiting on everyone to stop sleeping on this man. "Villains" is so perfectly balanced to me. Half of the album instrumental, the other STACKED with features: Dizzy Wright, Casey Veggies, Memnoc, Iman Omari, Blu, Conway The Machine, MED, Planet Asia, Boldy James and Mick Jenkins.


And I'm not throwing those names as if that is the be-all and end-all. They're all great. But these beats are just sublime. "Discreet Money" with Blu, Jenkins & Planet Asia has these samples going through, these 'ah' and 'doo doo' samples that just steal it for me. "The Getaway" got these bongos and synths that just mesh so nicely throughout, then you got a mean bassline with it that takes over halfway in the track, on point.


Then further down the album, we have Iman Omari on the first half of "Real / InsideYourLove" where NappyHigh stacks his vocals saying "really" tons of times. It would be jarring, it should be jarring, but whenever NappyHigh & Omari team up, it's magic. The second half of that double up is no slouch either.


Then we have "YeYo" & "For The G's" that have some of my favourite moments on the album. The prior have these sticks going, and then that beat drop... SO creamy. Then Blu is on the hook of the latter, echoing out "This one is for the G's" with another great sample behind him as he says it. Then the album ends with "La Voyage". And if NappyHigh is reading this, just go ahead and create a Jazz album bro. That's Jazz, and it's clean.


It's the small moments of genius that just make this album for me, they're just sewn into my brain and whenever I spin this album, those moments throughout are drops of sonic gold for me.


Salute on the Triple Crown. Well deserved.


Favourite Tracks: Charismatic, YeYo & For The G's

 

No.3 - Jungle - Loving In Stereo


The best 'feelgood' album this year and number three on my list. You will be hard-tasked to find an album that is infinitely positive whilst also being authentic and, as it pertains to Jungle as a production duo, evolving with grace.


Josh Lloyd-Watson & Tom McFarland have really done it with this one. Not that their first two albums were bad or anything. But you know when you're into something and then it REALLY clicks? That's "Loving In Stereo" for me.


A sterling body of work, blending Soul, Electronic and Funk, along with great backing vocals throughout and solid features from Bas & Priya Ragu. The first two tracks, "Dry Your Tears" and one of my Songs of 2021 "Keep Moving" blend together seamlessly to set the tone of positivity and in the case of those two songs, preach resilience.


Then the bangers just keep on coming: "All Of The Time" is breezy, "Romeo" with Bas feature this filthy electronic bass, with light guitars and just wonderful vocals/samples laced throughout. "Lifting You" has this ambience to it that just feels like I'm on a cloud listening to it. "Bonnie Hill", in the words of co-host of 5EPN's "In Search Of Sauce" Miki, might have one of the filthiest basslines this year. The funk bleeds out.


"Fire" sounds like it could be in a heist movie. "Talk About It" is probably the highest energy track, the strings and vocals in the hook are beautiful in every way. If "Truth" doesn't make an EA Sports soundtrack, I'd be very surprised.


Skipping to the final track "Can't Stop The Stars", a silky finish to a superb album, that sounds like it was built upon a song that Nile Rodgers made 45 years ago. It's got a disco quality to it that I simply want to inject into my veins.


Bless this album. Going to save it for next summer and make some memories with it.


Favourite Tracks: Keep Moving, Talk About It & Can't Stop The Stars

 

No.2 - Laura Mvula - Pink Noise


There is a lot of contexts I want to give to this pick, not to justify it or anything because out of all the pastiche albums we have gotten in recent years, I think this is the best one, but I think you need to understand just how much of a creative leap this album was for Laura Mvula.


Her label injustices have been well documented and clearly, from the fact that she did next to nothing from a musical perspective for over four years, her trials after "The Dreaming Room" devastated her. I think I saw her say in a now-deleted IG post that she was not planning on creating music again. The picture was a very bleak one.


Which made her comeback this year all the more surprising. And for me personally, it wasn't just coming back that was impressive, but coming back to first drop an EP of remixes with a completely "new" sound (Remixes of her most popular works at that) and then dropping a studio album with that "new" sound fully realised. And becoming not just the third member of my Triple Crown club, but being the only singer/songwriter to do so.


"Pink Noise" is bright, vibrant, colourful and lively. It's an artist reborn. And funny enough, she needed to look back, not forward, to do so. The first track "Safe Passage" sums that side of this up pretty well: "Never imagined I would ever be free / From your story / Staring in the face of it I finally I see / I'm everything I need".


It's an album of Laura getting up and standing tall. But before that, there's "Conditional", where the themes of doing her best but this time, conditional love biting her. The beat is darker than the rest of the album, a deep bass throughout and short lines in her writing give an essence of suffocation.


But the darkness is short-lived, with the stretch of single "Church Girl" and its absurdly catchy hook, "Remedy" with THOSE KEYS in the chorus. I love those to death. Then "Magical" where it actually turns to a reminiscent tone. Then the title track brings in the 2nd half of the album. And here is where I have to say, the production of this album is so clean. I'm not a production geek, but having the earphones on for this album is such a joy.


A quick word on "Golden Ashes", which is the 2nd least listened to track on Spotify as I write this, The vocal stacking is so dynamic on this song, I can't fathom how long that track took to get right. It pays off with this thumping drum when the hook comes in. It's a really momentous moment in the album.


The album then finishes with "What Matters", the most popular track "Got Me" (One time for the music video *bites knuckles*) and "Before The Dawn" where the synths just go against the many Mvula's for supremacy. I'll call it a draw.


I really hope Laura Mvula had a solitary moment where it all clicked for her. Because in my head, I see this album as a true rebirth of one of the best singer/songwriters the UK has produced this Century. Nobody saw this coming and I for one am so damn glad this is as good as I think it is, which is No.2 on my Albums of 2021.


Favourite Tracks: Church Girl, Remedy & Before The Dawn

 

No.1 - Little Simz - Sometimes I Might Be Introvert


I hate being predictable. I really do. But if you have kept up with me in any fashion, whether it is via the Podcasts or my Social Media, you know that my No.1 Album of 2021 was Ms Simbi Ajikawo's spot to lose as soon as her first single and one of my Songs of 2021, "Introvert" dropped.


And breaking news... She didn't lose it.


I have said it before and I will say it again, next to Kendrick Lamar, she is my favourite artist. I will go one further and say nobody is doing what Simz did with this album. When I first saw that tracklist, I felt daunted. I thought she may have bitten off more than she could chew. But little did I know she topped everything she has done previously. Topped the scope of "Stillness In Wonderland" and kept the concise energy of my 2019 No.1, "GREY Area".


We got the crazy six-track stretch of "Introvert", which, since I'm making statements, is one of the greatest starts to an album in Hip-Hop history. Then "Woman" that I continue to scream the lyrics at the top of my lungs. One time for Cleo Sol who is explicitly featured here but is everywhere on this album. Then "Two Worlds Apart" with that glorious Smokey Robinson sample.


We then get "I Love You, I Hate You" which, as a long time listener of Simz, is something that has been coming for a long time. There are plenty of tracks where Simz has mentioned her absent father but not as explicitly as this. And boy, what a moment this song is with all that context. The final verse, along with the rising production is goosebump-inducing. Then we get the "Little Q" tracks, Pt. 2 being the full track, another great storytelling track for Simz to put in her back pocket.


I actually didn't like "Speed" at first listen, and whilst I'm still not too high on the production, the lyrics are hard and it sets up the top-tier "Standing Ovation" which is just a pure track where Simz gives herself flowers. Elite fan service right there because she definitely deserves some self gass.


Skipping briefly to "Rollin Stone" which is a real departure for Simz. I did not see that beat switch coming but I'm here for it. And her near-whisper gives a coldness to the whole track. Very fresh cut. Then another fresh cut in "Protect My Energy" where Simz does a little bit of singing over a synth-pop beat. Just keep it coming with the pleasant surprises.


And DAMN IT she goes ahead and steps foot in Afrobeat with the banger "Point and Kill" with Obongjayar providing a perfect feature. The whole track is catchy and flexy. That is paired with "Fear No Man" which is more energetic in its production and it's full of more flex bars from Simz. (The "put my mum on the cover of GQ" line is a personal favourite.)


The album finishes with "How Did You Get Here" and "Miss Understood" which are all personal reflections, going way back to the beginning and up to now. Again, as a Simz fan, these tracks are highly fulfilling.


I haven't mentioned two things and I need to before I finish. First, the multiple interludes headed up by actress Emma Corrin, posing as a Fairy Godmother/therapist type figure, the production in those really take me back to "Stillness In Wonderland", even though the ones in that album were instead painting a slightly different picture. They really tie up the album nicely, giving the whole album a five-act structure that I adore as a screenwriter.


Secondly, Inflo. As the sole producer of not just this album but Cleo Sol's "Mother" (No.17) and SAULT's "Nine". I think it's safe to say that he is the best producer going right now.


Finishing off. I am running out of superlatives for how much I appreciate Simz' artistry. It's gotten to a point where I rotate her last three albums in my head as it pertains to which one is my favourite. SIL means the most to me personally, GA is the tightest and the most replayable, but the way "SIMBI" works in its scope and creative ambition cannot be ignored.


It's powerful, it's confident, it's self-realising in more ways than one and it is without a doubt my album of 2021.


Favourite Tracks: Introvert, Woman & Miss Understood

 

Honourable Mentions:

  • Arlo Parks - Collapsed In Sunbeams

  • Celeste - Not Your Muse

  • Speech - Expansion

  • Ghetts - Conflict Of Interest

  • Yazarah - The Ceremony

  • Kota The Friend & Statik Selektah - To Kill A Sunrise

  • Awon & Phoniks - Nothing Less

  • Ocean Wisdom - Stay Sane

  • Khrysis - The Hour Of Khyrsis

  • Bugzy Malone - The Resurrection

  • Anthony Joseph - The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running For Their Lives

  • Nubiyan Twist - Freedom Fables

  • Dave - We're All Alone In This Together

  • Leon Bridges - Gold-Diggers Sound

  • Pitch 92 - Intervals

  • Abhi The Nomad - Abhi vs The Universe

  • AZ - Doe Or Die II

  • Rita J & Neak - The High Priestess

  • Common - A Beautiful Revolution (Pt. 1 & 2)

  • Cory Henry - Best Of Me

  • Blu - The Color Blu(e)

  • NAO - And Then Life Was Beautiful

  • Nala Sinephro - Space 1.8

  • Layfullstop - STiR

  • Dillon & J57 - '83 Kids

  • Theon Cross - Intra-I

  • The Harder They Fall (Movie Soundtrack)

  • Daniel Casimir - Boxed In

  • Backwood Sweetie - Christina Shauntay'

  • Dimension - Organ