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Rolling Stone UK’s album underdogs of 2021

Here's our definitive list of this year's musical hidden gems

By Hannah Ewens & Nick Reilly

Sleaford Mods press shot, 2021
The Nottingham pair have finally put down a studio version of the live favourite. (Photo: Press)

The music world doesn’t only revolve around the mainstream players that hit the top 10. Some of the finest albums and EP releases of the past 12 months may not have landed in the upper echelons of the album chart, yet still deserve a place in the ‘best of’ lists of 2021. From Self Esteem to Sleaford Mods, here is Rolling Stone’s pick of the essential listens you might have missed…

Fred Again.. ‘Actual Life 2 (February 2 – October 15 2021)’

On debut album Actual Life (April 14- December 17 2020), Fred again.. provided
a unique chronicling of life under lockdown, anchored by beats that were ready to guide us back into nightclubs when that opportunity arose once more. But its follow-up is a sombre and more affecting affair, directly influenced by the death of a loved one. The contemplative ‘Tate (How I Feel)’ will resonate with anyone who’s ever wondered if they can carry on after suffering huge personal loss.

Amyl & the Sniffers – ‘Comfort to Me’

I’m short, I’m shy, I’m fucked up, I’m bloody ugly!” screams the bratty, exhilarating frontwoman Amy Taylor. The statement is affronting and insecure: an appropriate early introduction to Amyl & The Sniffers. Second album Comfort to Me is attack and retreat, fury and thoughtfulness. Mixing D.C. punk with heavy rock, the Australian four-piece have created a playful soundtrack to one woman’s hyperactive brain.

For Those I Love – ‘For Those I Love’

Grief is transformed through haunting and, crucially, life-affirming storytelling on David Balfe’s self-titled first album under the moniker For Those I Love. Spoken-word over electronica depicts raw das and drunken nights in Dublin after the loss of Balfe’s best friend to suicide.

Far from bleak, the promise of healing offers a revitalising, emotional experience.

Chubby and the Gang – ‘The Mutt’s Nuts’

2020’s Speed Kills saw Chubby and the Gang cementing their place as one of the UK’s most exciting punk bands, complete with a breakneck DIY spirit and healthy distrust of authority. It’s taken to the next level on follow-up The Mutt’s Nuts, which sees the gang enlisting the services of Fucked Up drummer and producer Jonah Falco to expand those sonic boundaries and take their furious message to the world.

Parcels – ‘Day/Night’

Australian electro-poppers Parcels’ double album Day/ Night is rare in that it justifies its length. On each track, the listener is transported to different sonic territories. ‘Free’ is a slinking laid-back ode to personal liberation, while ‘Somethinggreater’ offers an impressively faithful tribute to ’70s disco. A brilliantly accomplished, genre-spanning record.

PinkPantheress – ‘to hell with it’

What started with PinkPantheress uploading low-quality 15 seconds of unreleased tunes to TikTok has now resulted in her becoming one of the world’s most rapidly rising stars. She’s secured a major label deal and debut mixtape to hell with it proves she’s far from an interesting fad. On her
first mixtape, the Bath-born musician expertly combines simplistic samples with deeper lyrics and rave-ready production for an instant serotonin hit.

Sleaford Mods – ‘Spare Ribs’

Who better to chronicle the reality of Covid Britain than Sleaford Mods? On their
sixth album as a duo, Jason Williamson and instrumentalist Andrew Fearn call out authority and inequality at every turn. The album title, Williamson previously explained, comes from “the idea of the amount of people that died from the first wave of coronavirus; human lives are always expendable to the elites… We’re in a constant state of being spareribs.” A tough but vital listen.

Dry Cleaning – ‘New Long Leg’

Despite what some of the scene’s modern forebearers might tell you, post-punk doesn’t have to be po-faced. In 2021, Dry Cleaning’s debut proved there’s a place for deft musical experimentation — paired with lyrical surrealism. On standout track ‘John Wick’, vocalist Florence Shaw deadpans: “Someone pissed on my leg in the big Sainsbury’s.” It’s one of 2021’s most inventive and funny records.

Matt Maltese – ‘Good Morning It’s Now Tomorrow’

On his debut record, 2018’s Bad Contestant, Matt Maltese used the guise of a fiendish crooner to deliver jazz-pop tracks laced with an altogether darker take on the world than their sonic exteriors would necessarily suggest. ‘As the World Caves In’, for instance, offered a surreal look at a fictional romance between Donald Trump and Theresa May, set against the background of a global apocalypse. But three albums in, Maltese’s outlook has significantly brightened. On Good Morning It’s Now Tomorrow, he lives up to his claim that the record is his “most hopeful work yet”. Although the piano-led tracks remain distinctively his, the album’s overarching themes of hope and evolution made for one of 2021’s best and brightest records.

Japanese Breakfast – ‘Jubilee’

Michelle Zauner’s first two albums under the Japanese Breakfast moniker were defined by the toughest of topics. Her 2016 debut Psychopomp tackled her mother’s cancer battle, while follow-up Soft Sounds from Another Planet saw Zauner tackling the emotional impact of her death. On third album Jubilee, Zauner parts with the darkness and joyfully reacquaints herself with the light through ten of the most perfect pop songs.

Ray BLK – ‘Access Denied’

Ray BLK’s debut album might have arrived some five years after she was declared the Sound of 2017 by the BBC, but it’s more than worth the wait. Powerful hooks are matched by BLK’s clever wordplay as she deftly tackles heartbreak and pain. The nods to American R&B also offer an exciting glimpse of where she’s headed next, with samples from artists including Lumidee, Notorious B.I.G. and Ashanti. The waiting game has completely paid off.

Finneas – ‘Optimist’

He made his name producing and writing for his sister Billie Eilish, but Optimist
sees Finneas proclaiming that he’s a star in his own right. His debut album even offers an explanation for why said sister has been a success – he’s a deft hand at combining accessible melodies with experimental lyrics that take a surprising left-turn. “There’s this dream I’ve had / ‘Bout Mum and Dad / Makes me so sad I wake up crying,” he sings on the haunting ‘Love Is Pain’. It’s an accomplished first album and a strong sign that bigger things await.

Priya Ragu – ‘damnshestamil’

On debut mixtape damnshestamil, Priya Ragu proved herself to be a true artist of the world, delivering a kaleidoscopic vision that proudly displayed her South Indian roots while incorporating dancefloor-primed R&B beats. Highlight track ‘Chicken Lemon Rice’ is the perfect encapsulation of these two sides – and one which sets Ragu out as a true original.

Self Esteem – ‘Prioritise Pleasure’

On her second solo album, Rebecca Lucy Taylor has delivered one of the year’s best records. She uses a shiny pop exterior and infectious hooks as a vehicle to explore deep-rooted societal issues such as street harassment, institutional sexism, and taboos around female sex. The result is nothing short

of sensational, with standout track ‘I Do This All the Time’ confirming Taylor’s place as one of Britain’s boldest and best pop songwriters. Assured and deeply unapologetic, here is an album with the most singular and relevant voice we’ve encountered all year.

Turnstile – ‘Glow On’

A band that’ve managed to reframe hardcore with each album do it again on their third, Glow On. Riffs and grooves are a given with Turnstile. Here they use soul and psychedelics to ponder the mysteries of the universe. “You really gotta see it live to get it,” the bassist sings on ‘No Surprise’ but while true of the genre, it’s not relevant here.