Skip to main content

DJ Mag's top albums of 2021

We've switched up our end-of-year coverage this year. Instead of ranked countdowns, we've asked 40 contributors to pick their favourite albums, tracks and compilations from the past 12 months, celebrating the personal sounds that made this strange year a memorable one for electronic music. Here are DJ Mag's top albums of 2021

Abra Cadabra
'Product Of My Environment' [Self-released]

You might expect Abra Cadabra’s debut mixtape to rely on the high-energy style of UK drill that racked up millions of views on 2020 singles like ‘On Deck’, ‘Spin This Coupe’ and ‘Show Me’, but across the tape’s 14 tracks the OFB MC shows his dexterity as an artist by flowing across a variety of styles. Combining those hard-hitting tracks with more reflective cuts like ‘Trenches’ and ‘How We Living’, featuring Kush, Abra delivered one of UK drill’s most balanced mixtapes to date. ROB MCCALLUM

'A Future' [HAUS of ALTR]

New York’s AceMo and MoMA Ready have had another strong year with the release of their sophomore album. The 12-track record, brimming with wavy breakbeat, ‘90s techno and blistering jungle, continued a narrative established in the duo’s first LP, ‘A New Dawn’. Paying homage to the sounds that filled the dancefloors of times past while exploring new sonic heights is no easy task, but the album achieves this and more, and their message feels as urgent as ever. RIA HYLTON

Another Chemical Love Story
'Another Chemical Love Story' [self-released]

It's no secret that Newcastle-born Elliot Adamson is an excellent producer, but his work under the ACLS alias is on a different level. Inspired in name and thematics by PiHKAL, the 1991 book about entheogenic drugs that are used to heal trauma and deal with death, the album is just as powerfully psychedelic. Through carefully produced with plucked samples, tender melodies and big-room club moments, the debut ACLS LP is as moving as it is mountainous. AMY FIELDING

'im hole' [Hyperdub]

On her debut album, aya filtered familiar club sounds — grime, jungle, dubstep, breakbeat — through a nightmarish K-holed vision, fully shedding her past LOFT alias. Through abstract spoken word and poetry — touching on her relocation from Manchester to London, and pandemic mindstate — her distinctive brand of Northern humour took centre stage, rubbing up against heavily manipulated field recordings and sparse, mind-bending instrumentals that she described herself as “ASMR drill”. CHRISTIAN EEDE

'Feeling Normal' [Signature Recordings]

At a time when terms like ‘new normal’ and ‘return to normality’ were being thrown about a lot, Dominick Martin cut through the noise with a collection that’s far from what casual Calibre observers would understand as ‘normal’. Drawing a thread through the dubstep, garage, breaks and 140 side of his sound, his 16th album welcomed us into another bleak new year with beguiling, sombre and emotional consistency that matched our dancefloor-less state at the time. DAVE JENKINS

'Playground On A Lake' [Deutsche Grammophon]

Clark's ninth album could be the most 2021 record imaginable. Inspired by Eugene Thacker’s theories on pessimism and extinction, Infinite Resignation, and Denial Of Death by Ernest Becker, the sparse, haunting classical tones here offer a chilling premonition of humankind’s fate if we don’t rapidly change for the greener. By breaking from the producer’s catalogue of abrasive experimental club sounds, the record is also a prime example of the reinvention we see everywhere in post-lockdown culture. MARTIN GUTTRIDGE-HEWITT

DJ Manny
'Signals In My Head' [Planet Mu]

2021 will go down as a vintage year for footwork. Planet Mu alone has put out albums from genre pioneer RP Boo, experimentalist Jana Rush, and DJ Manny. On the latter, the Chicago producer presents a cohesive vision of R&B-injected beats. Sleek synths and smooth vocals provide a glossy coating to the deep rumble of footwork’s signature frenetic kicks, while Manny also draws on house, techno and drum & bass influences, playing with tempo and upending structures to ensure there’s never a dull moment. Essential. BEN HINDLE 

'4 New Hit Songs' [LuckyMe]

Club enigma Doss’ colourful and carefree tunes are a blatant match for 2021. Music with the texture and uplift of a bouncy castle is prized these days, rather than dismissed; if the chorus of ‘Puppy’ echoes Ultrabeat’s ‘Pretty Green Eyes’, hey, that’s a positive. Genres have melted and records are getting shorter, too — just look at PinkPantheress or Tierra Whack. What does it matter that ‘4 New Hit Songs’ runs only 15 and a half minutes long, if every second makes you feel good? GABRIEL SZATAN

Erika de Casier
'Sensational' [4AD]

For all I missed clubs over the last couple of years, the more persistent loss has been the closeness the pandemic seemed to cut us off from. Erika de Casier’s second album, ‘Sensation’, is like an audio salve to that lack of connection: a hushed collection of timeless hooks, wry observations and pristine beats made with Regelbau’s Central. The album left me feeling like I hadn’t been cut off for a year and a half, and I’ve not stopped playing it since May. THEO KOTZ 

Eris Drew
'Quivering In Time' [T4T LUV NRG]

Not many artists can capture the pure joy of house music as Eris Drew does. (Her partner, Octo Octa, is one of the few others.) Rolling basslines, rave-era breakbeats, 303 bleeps, ecstatic vocal snippets, the occasional hymnal melody — she takes what, in other hands, could be considered clichés and molds them into work that’s emotionally resonant and powerfully uplifting. ‘Quivering in Time’ doesn’t reinvent the house-music wheel, but it’s one of the most glorious wheels to roll though 2021. BRUCE TANTUM

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra
'Promises' [Luaka Bop]

This record may not speak to thudding dancefloors, but it does to the patience we’ve all endured the past year. It’s a 46-minute cinematic journey, tiptoeing through quieter moments of contemplation and balancing them with intense, auditory indulgences. It’s music for listening to really, really hard. It brings together incredibly skilled, but very different musicians — and although our expectations were sky-high, the result was beautiful. CHIARA WILKINSON

For Those I Love
'For Those I Love' [September Recordings]

‘For Those I Love’ is a tribute to David Balfe’s best friend Paul Curran, who passed away by suicide in 2018. The album, which marries powerful spoken word with rave- indebted production, is a proclamation of love, and a thank you to the people around Balfe that care for him. In a time when I was navigating my own loss, ‘For Those I Love’ ripped my heart from my chest, but I felt heard, the complexities of my grief validated. KATIE THOMAS

'Squang Dangs In The Key Of Vibes' [The North Quarter]

Embedded within The North Quarter’s long-form-focused musical tradition, Fox’s debut album on Lenzman’s label was a tour de force. In a crowded field of multi-genre drum & bass long-plays, ‘Squang Dangs In The Key Of Vibes’ stands out for its seamless stylistic transitions, a consequence of the hard graft put into crafting a cohesive identity by both label and MC. As rolling 170 slips down into golden age hip-hop and back again, this album speaks to drum & bass’ rich gene pool more beautifully than almost any other. BEN HUNTER

Fred Again
'Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020)' [Atlantic Records]

London producer Fred again..’s debut album, ‘Actual Life (April 14 – December 17)’ is an ode to misspent youth, untapped hedonism and fractured expression during the year the world fell apart. Producer, editor and auditory magpie Fred Gibson sifts through the ordinary in search of flashes of human connection, crafting haunting house beats around found sounds and remembered voice notes. It’s intimate, yet unshakably isolating; voices echo like a memory of a time before, in a perfect encapsulation of splintered experience. SOPHIE WALKER

Gorgon City
Olympia' [Astralwerks]

Gorgon City members Kye Gibbon and Matt Robson-Scott produced much of their latest album, ‘Olympia’, with an ocean between them. Though physically separated, the sound the duo honed during isolation has perhaps never felt more connected. Bearing a title influenced by their desire to escape, ‘Olympia’ boasts rich basslines, progressive treatments and sterling, vocal performances — culminating in one of this summer’s most invigorating and dancefloor-primed LPs. The perfect getaway, even when we couldn’t get away. MEGAN VENZIN 

FYI Chris
'Earth Scum' [Black Acre]

Co-founders of Peckham institution Rye Wax, the debut album from FYI Chris — the duo of Chris Coupe and Chris Watson — distills their distinct South London irreverency through alternating rough and smooth flavours. Aided by friends and family — the acerbic wit of Thick Richard on epic state-of-the-nation anthem ‘Scum Of The Earth’, Pinty and Simeon Jones over the dreamy swagger of ‘On Tik’ — ‘Earth Scum’ expertly beams MPC-driven hip-hop and house through the vibrant lens of SE15, Morleys, parakeets and all. JOE ROBERTS 

Hiro Kone
'Silvercoat The Throng' [Dais Records]

As 2021 winds down and we stop to look back at this rollercoaster year, Hiro Kone’s stunning latest LP is a deeply healing reflection on the disruption and overwhelming cacophony of recent times. Organic and electronic instruments flicker in and out of consciousness while building evocative inner worlds that allow each element plenty of space to unfurl and breathe. It’s a documentary of a period of our lives when time somewhat ceased to exist, overflowing with beauty in each elongated moment. ZARA WLADAWSKY  

Greentea Peng
'Man Made' [AMF Records]

Greentea Peng’s debut album is obviously influenced by the times. The singer- songwriter has poured in both endless genre — electronic, dub, reggae, soul — and social thought into the work, resulting in an 18-track rallying cry against the evils of capitalism, individualism, and lack of social unity many of us have felt in recent times. It’s ideal for a listenership coming out of a year of slumbersome isolation: vibrant, spiritual and designed to wake us all up. CHRISTINE OCHEFU 

'A World Of Service' [Ostgut Ton]

JASSS’ EP on Whities last year hinted heavily at what would be her sophomore album ‘A World Of Service’. Released in the back end of November, it’s said to have come from an extended period of self-enquiry, mirroring the type of time many of us found in 2020/21 to reassess and reset. The addition of her own voice in many places makes things ever more personal, the tone of her vocals harmonising with her dynamic, multi-layered arrangements. SOPHIE MCNULTY

Jordan Rakei
'What We Call Life' [Ninja Tune]

Jordan's soulful sensibilities truly came of age in 2021’s ‘What We Call Life’. Reflecting on therapy sessions through his ultra- personal lyrics, he takes his unmatched use of layering and sound design and combines it with his more traditional multi-instrumentalist background on a mature and arresting album. If you’re unfamiliar, I highly recommend his Beat from Scratch video on the DJ Mag YouTube, which raked in 100k views in less than a month. Masterful stuff. DECLAN MCGLYNN 

Joy Orbison
'still slipping vol. 1' [XL Recordings]

Joy Orbison’s debut long-player was billed as a mixtape but sounded very much like a complete album. Referencing deep house, drum & bass, UKG and dubstep, the tracks were interspersed with voice memos from family members. The mood was intimate and introspective and very much in keeping with that sense of longing and isolation that we’ve all been going through over the last 18 months. ‘still slipping vol.1’ managed to imbue its shimmering sonic futurism with a real sense of humanity. One of the great lockdown albums. HAROLD HEATH

'Loving In Stereo' [Caiola Records]

Jungle are an outfit that need no introduction, and their third studio album, ‘Loving In Stereo’, is their best work yet. A journey through multiple genres and featuring American rapper Bas and Swiss-Tamil singer-songwriter Priya Ragu, it is their first album to have any featured artists, and explores “new beginnings, new love and fighting back against the odds”. Through soulful vocals, energising percussion and feel-good chords, it definitely leaves you with hope. LIAM SMITH

'Trapo' [Thousand8]

UK drill transitioned from gritty underground sound to mainstream chart fodder in 2021, with Tion Wayne’s ‘Body’ topping the charts and Digga D sampling T2’s ‘Heartbroken’. Early pioneer of the genre K Trap’s ‘Trapo’  tape offers an alternative. Released in September with minimal marketing, the 16-tracker is loaded with thunderous drill cuts that boom like shotgun blasts. K Trap makes space for his overarching message, too — one of personal growth. ROB KAZANDJIAN 

Kareem Ali
'All These Moments' [Self-released]

The pandemic made much of 2021 a stop-start year, but there has been one unwavering constant throughout: the music of Kareem Ali. ‘All These Moments’ arrived featuring 26 tracks infused with a personal monologue that highlights racial inequality — evocative vignettes with a devastating impact. Music with frayed edges and dusty drums, the album feels off-the-cuff and honest, as if recorded at the very moment each emotion struck. It speaks of an artist with lots to say and more than enough skills to say it. KRISTAN J CARYL

King Deetoy x Kabza De Small x DJ Maphorisa
'Petle Petle' [Piano Hub]

The most consistent and versatile producers on the South African dance scene, DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small have been flexing their artistic muscles all year. With their polish, and the immensely imaginative King Deetoy, ‘Petle Petle’ is a treat for those who enjoy quality technical sonics with an exploratory angle. Complex and interesting to return to, here the gents show off their full creative capacities. SHIBA MELISSA MAZAZA

Little Simz
'Sometimes I Might Be Introvert' [Age 101 Music / AWAL Recordings]

Most opinions are subjective, but it is an unassailable fact that this album is literally perfect. Created largely in lockdown, it roots right back to Simz’s childhood. She unpicks issues with her absent father, a brush with death, her thoughts on womanhood, a long-held self-doubt born of nearly a decade of being underestimated in the music industry, and more — all thrashed out against the backdrop of producer Inflo’s breathtakingly curated, cinematic orchestral movements, choirs, and narration from The Crown actress Emma Corrin. JAMES KEITH

Loraine James
'Reflection' [Hyperdub]

Following up on her beloved sophomore album ‘For You and I’ would never be an easy feat, however, with ‘Reflection’, Loraine James continued her golden streak. More introspective and a tad gentler than its predecessor, ‘Reflection’ examined conflict between the ecstatic hedonism of a dancefloor and internal isolation and uncertainty. In a year where we tentatively returned to the clubs, trying our best to heal from 18 months of anxiety, political conflict and loneliness, ‘Reflection’ provided a mirror to emotions hitherto unexpressed. KELLY DOHERTY

'The Practice Of Freedom' [He.She.They]

Bringing back the attitude of punk and throwing in a healthy smattering of electronica, Louisahhh nails this album with an industrial themed selection of tracks. Taking me back to pre-new-wave techno Berlin, it delivers a raw uncensored exploration of electronic music. Think Nitzer Ebb or Nine Inch Nails meets Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The message which Louisahhh portrays is deep — a very well thought-out piece of work. MICK WILSON

Manni Dee
'A Low Level Love' [Perc Trax]

"In the world of techno, albums are hard to come by. When Manni Dee announced his upcoming album on Perc Trax, it marked a turning point for the London-based artist, who is primarily associated with industrious tones. ‘A Low Level Love’ showcased another side to Manni. Working with a range of artists — some not from the techno sphere, like vocalist Sylph and cellist Emma Gatrill — Manni and his collaborators produced a body of work that will remain revered for years to come." NIAMH O'CONNOR 

Mdou Moctar
'Afrique Victime' [Matador]

In her TV series ‘Pretend It’s A City’, New York critic Fran Lebowitz dryly describes talent as “infuriating”; sometimes, it just falls out the sky and lands on someone, so why try to explain it when you can just marvel at it? Mdou Moctar is a marvel. He’s the Prince Rogers Nelson of the Sahara, a gifted guitarist and bandleader whose album shows his talent for guitar shredding and mood building — psychedelic, polyrhythmic, playful — and anti-imperialist lyricism that shows his native Niger from a caustic but hopeful perspective. LAUREN MARTIN

Nala Sinephro
'Space 1.8' [Warp]

No amount of ambient music could provide a soothing enough remedy to what’s been going on in the world for the last two years. But ‘Space 1.8’ is not of this world. Instead, Nala Sinephro’s debut album exists in the wider universe, a Milky Way of keys, harp strings, saxophone and modular synth, featuring a crew of jazz talent (Nubya Garcia, Eddie Hick from Sons Of Kemet) conducted and fine-tuned by the artist’s impeccable production. Closer ‘Space 8’ is heavenly. SAM DAVIES

Not Waving
'How To Leave Your Body' [Ecstatic Recordings]

With guest features from Marie Davidson, Jim O’Rourke, Mark Lanagan, Jonnine Standish and Spivak, Not Waving’s latest outing weaves disparate electronic styles into a sublime tapestry. Woozy pop melodies and tender vocals find unexpected footing on the Italian producer’s disjointed analogue beats; lush synth drones and wavering strings bristle under plumes of distortion. The industrial throbs of his previous works remain, but by embracing fragility Not Waving delivers his most memorable work to date — disarmingly beautiful and addictively versatile. EOIN MURRAY

Skee Mask
'Pool' [Ilian Tape]

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more loaded name than Skee Mask these past 18 months. Rather than push his moniker’s implications of anarchy or endless social distancing, however, Munich producer Bryan Müller delivered 105 minutes of pure techno comfort food. ‘Pool’ leaps from headphones with a muscular hug of acid squiggles, shimmering dubs, and headlong breaks. Flashes of humour (that’s a Scooby Doo sample) and a gentle undertow of moodiness propel the album toward a rippling, sublime finish. MARKE BIESCHKE

Sofia Kourtesis
'Fresia Magdalena' [Technicolour]

Sofia Kourtesis’ second EP soundtracked a spring full of hope. Vaccines were being rolled out in record numbers throughout the UK, the days were getting longer and the last vestiges of winter were dissipating. The Berlin-based producer’s anthemic jazz-kissed house was a deeply personal five-track project which exorcised the last shackles winter held on us. From opener ‘La Perla’ to the sprawling ‘By Your Side’, right to closer ‘Dakotas’, ‘Fresia Magdalena’ evoked the thrills of a dancefloor, preparing us for an eventual return. DHRUVA BALRAM

Space Afrika
'Honest Labour' [Dais Records]

Space Afrika's 2018 album ‘Somewhere Decent To Live’ meshed dub techno atmospheres, sub-bass and beatless ambient, but ‘Honest Labour’ took a new turn. While making it, the duo were living in different cities (Manchester and Berlin), and the sense of isolation is palpable. Taking in Cocteau Twins guitar, dusty hip-hop and delicate vocals, if anything, the lockdowns encouraged them to be more experimental, resulting in something dazzlingly original. BEN MURPHY

Tek 9 & Sonar Circle
'Anachronistic' [AKO Beatz]

2021 has been a banner year for both Tek 9 (aka Dego of 4Hero fame, who released four albums in total) and AKO Beatz (Stretch’s label which just turned 25). ‘Anachronistic’ is a shining example of how idiosyncratic and, simply, fun, jungle can be. Full of cinematic flourishes, whimsically squelchy futurism, and beats that rollick with all the energy of a freewheeling jazz drummer, it delivers the visionary scope of a golden era without tumbling down the nostalgia sinkhole. BEN HINDLE

'LIBRAH' [Abstract Mood Music]

In the midst of the pandemic when artists were battling the inability to express their music in live spaces, TekniQ used the moment to capture ears and hearts with a very touching piece of art. TekniQ beautifully takes listeners on a musical journey to soothe souls and accompany them in trying moments. Sensational vocal features from Tiffany Rosebud, Artist Lebo and Napeleon complement TekniQ’s ability to infuse and shine forth the soulful experience of Afro-house music. KITTY AMOR

The Bug
'Fire' [Ninja Tune]

Recorded during lockdown with a varied assortment of MCs, ‘Fire’ is The Bug’s post-industrial grime masterpiece. The third album in a loose triptych, it’s ridden through with on-point rhymes from the likes of FFSYTHO, Manga Saint Hilare and Daddy Freddy, and immense, dystopian, claustrophobic Bug production. From the opening apocalyptic sci-fi monologue by London poet Roger Robinson through the incendiary, scything ‘Pressure’ with Flowdan and onwards, it’s an uncompromising body of work that absolutely lives up to its name. CARL LOBEN

'Colourgrade' [Domino]

After a break that saw a move to the suburbs and a transition into motherhood, Tirzah returned with ‘Colourgrade’ towards the end of this year. Made in collaboration with Mica Levi and Coby Sey, the album is a collage of soft and harsh textures, scattered murmurs and intimate themes, that embraces its wooziness and rugged edges. It’s a stunning and visceral project that brought warmth in a time when many of us needed it. SAFI BUGEL

'Limitless Frame' [Motion Ward]

Ambient is an expansive genre, and with people turning to its calming nature even more since the pandemic, it seems that it’s never been more present than now. One standout release of this year is Ulla Straus’ newest album. Filed somewhere between Earthen Sea and The Caretaker, Ulla’s explorations are a beautiful balance between atmospheric soundscapes and minimalist instrumentation. Thoughtful, emotive, and incredibly healing, ‘Limitless Frame’ evokes the calm and serenity that we’ve all craved this year. ANNA WALL 

Want more? Read our top compilations of 2021 here and our top tracks here