Best Albums of 2021
2021 was another incredible year for the music and jazz scene.
Before we dive headfirst into what 2022 has on offer, the Jazz Revelations team took some time to reflect on the past 12 months to pick out some of the albums we couldn't get enough of.
Although there are many more albums we wanted to feature, here is a selection of some of the top albums of 2021, as chosen by Ben Lee, Robbie McGrail and Ally J Steel.
Athletic Progression - cloud high in dreams, but heavy in the air [Touching Bass] | Ben
2021 saw the release of cloud high in dreams, but heavy in the air - the Danish trio’s third album in 3 years! This one is out on Touching Bass, and they reach a new level of mesmerising beats that slip and slide out of intricate grooves.
The record is quite experimental in places, with ‘Cooked Ones, Pt. II’, ‘MOUSSAS FINEST’ and ‘OSAKA’ showcasing how adept they are in different moods. Sometimes, it’s ridiculous to think there’s only three of them with the number of layers cutting through, and a special shoutout to Jonathan J. Ludvigsen on the drums because he plays like an absolute madman.
Mother has been a somewhat underappreciated work in the phenomenal music-filled year which was 2021.
Having begun her musical career in the late 2000s, Cleo Sol took time away from releasing music, before returning to work with Inflo producer. The pair have gone on to form the mysterious SAULT (see below) and Cleo Sol has continued to work with other contemporary like Little Simz where she has appeared on her fantastic record Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (see below).
In the first part of 2020, we were blessed with the true emergence of Cleo Sol through the release of her phenomenal record Rose in the Dark. In 2021, we received her follow-up record Mother; a soulful and delectable double album that traces Cleo's reflections of her relationship with her infant daughter and her own mother.
Cleo Sol's thoughtful album is calm, welcoming and brimming with intimate lyrics - standing tall as another excellent release.
As Jazz Revelations has passionately outlined in the past, the last few years have been superb for the multi-instrumentalist, beat-maker and producer Emma-Jean Thackray, and 2021 was certainly no exception. Alongside sweeping up a series of prestigious accolades and award nominations, Emma-Jean Thackray picked up a publishing deal and released her long-awaited full-length debut record - Yellow - released on her label Movementt.
Bending the realms of jazz, whilst weaving in elements of electronica, funk, soul and even indie, Yellow is a brass-filled musical awakening. Taking us on a psychedelic ride, Yellow is a deliciously unique statement, which is energetic and engaging throughout - which sees Emma-Jean Thackray stamping her importance on the contemporary scene through her ingenuity.
A wonderful debut album from Belgian-Ghanian multi-instrumentalist ESINAM out on W.E.R.F. Records.
Esinam leads with the flute on the album and it creates a beautiful mix of tracks that go from the spiritual and soft, to the heavy and energetic. There is a blend of Afro-Electro rhythms into rock grooves, ambient soundscapes and soulful melodies.
‘Flowing River’, ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Morning Memories’ are the standouts to check out.
Promises is one of those records many of us didn't know we needed, but once it was announced and landed, it has become one of the most talked-about albums of 2021. And, in my opinion, rightfully so.
Floating Points, an innovative producer of the contemporary world, and Pharoah Sanders, a stalwart relic of the jazz world, came together after Sanders heard Sam Sheperd's - aka Floating Points - 2015 debut record Elaenia. The coming together of these two forces has resulted in a transient work that takes you to another place.
Containing 9 movements with an overarching motif, this symphonic work is utterly engrossing, which builds, rises and falls elegantly as it merges spiritual jazz with classical and electronic sounds, helped by the force of the London Symphonic Orchestra's string section.
Some within the music world have criticised its continuous themes, believing it is lacking. However, I'd argue that this sophisticated simplicity is one of its strengths, as this helps create an engaging ambient space. Promises is a truly special record, which elevates you into the cosmos. It's utterly beautiful.
A sensational album from Pakistani instrumental quartet JAUBI out on Astigmatic Records. With Tenderlonious, Latarnik and Vox Humana featuring throughout the album, I fell in love with ‘Straight Path’ and I’m not sure I have heard many better songs this year. It’s so emotive, deeply serene and gives me shivers all over my body that hug me until the song rings out. The rest of the album is just like this though, with grooves mixing in hip-hop, North Indian classical and spiritual jazz and ‘Raga Gujri Todi’ and the title track cranking up the energy even further.
I always love it when Jazzbois bring out new music, and their sequel to their debut out on Blunt Shelter Records hits the spot once again!
The Budapest trio plays instrumental beats of jazz and hip hop, but they can go from very playful and delicate to gnarly and intense. This album I feel changes up the tempo a lot more too. ‘Blunted Again’ is a delight, ‘Anubis’ takes you on a journey and ‘Spookydope’ is a wonderful, chillin' hazer.
Jerome Thomas’ That Secret Sauce is very sexy and that’s pretty much all you need to know about it.
Floating in the space of soul and R&B, it’s hot and steamy all the way through, with a healthy dose of bass controlling the pace. ‘That’, ‘Secret’ and ‘Settle Down’ are my favourites but they all blend together so nicely that it just feels like one constant piece of music. The breaks between the songs give time for your senses to take a breath before Thomas’ sensual beats come back to turn you on.
The epic second album Illusions & Realities from London collective Levitation Orchestra blows you away. Bringing together spiritual jazz, electronica, spoken word, classical and lots of improvisation, it’s an extraordinary experience and you are completely immersed into the music all the way through.
Out on Gearbox Records, the album touches on themes of childhood, stoicism, astrophysical theories, and neurological delusions and takes you from the magical, ethereal, soft sections into dramatic, overwhelming, spectacularly mind-bending ensembles. This is for people who like being pushed to the edge of their listening experiences.
The defining album of 2021 in many ways, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is an epic 19-tracker with names like Cleo Sol and Obongjayar on the bill.
A soul-hip-hop odyssey, the album has everything from Little Simz’s fantastic rapping to top-level production; it could easily be remembered as one of the UK’s greatest ever hip-hop records. Tracks like ‘Woman’, ‘I Love You, I Hate You’ and ‘Point and Kill’ defy genre constraints and stand as some of 2021’s best anthems.
Myele Manzanza – Crisis & Opportunity (Vol.1 London/Vol.2 Peaks) [DeepMatter Records] | Robbie
To capture the spirit of the times is no easy task, but Myele Manzanza’s Crisis & Opportunity, Vol.1 – London arrived with pulsating energy to soundtrack a city that was waking from a winter lockdown into a spring and summer where forgotten things of the past like fun were returning. With tracks like ‘Portobello Superhero’ and ‘Brixton Blues’, Manzanza added a new collection of London jazz anthems to the exceptional list.
The second instalment came in the early winter with Peaks, taking inspiration this time from Myele Manzanza’s New Zealand. Grooving jazz in ‘When We Could Dance Together’ and ‘Peaks & Ferns’ give the listener everything good of London jazz alongside the ‘Welli Jams’ of New Zealand in a wonderful melting pot.
For the past 30 years, the Leeds-born producer and DJ George Evelyn, aka Nightmares on Wax, has been blending downtempo beats and sounds to form a wonderful career. Despite having created some top-tier tunes, Shoutout! To Freedom... is one of his best works in years, perhaps to date.
Following a moment of contemplation in the face of COVID-19 restrictions, as well as a serious health scare, Shoutout! To Freedom... encapsulates Evelyn's spiritual outlook, particularly with the album's atmospheric start.
Like his past releases, the album morphs and merges different styles, but also showcases a set of star-studded guests, with Shabaka Hutchings, Greentea Peng, Mara TK, Sabrina Mahfouz, Haile Supreme and Pip Millett all contributing to help lift the music to greater reaches.
With Shoutout! To Freedom..., the long-time Warp Records fixture shows what a period of introspection can do - helping Evelyn to look over a commendable career, but also helping bring fresh new ideas and sounds to assemble a sublime record.
2021 saw a big step forward for Melbourne-based DJ and producer Prequel - with the release of his outstanding debut album and the return to Rhythm Section, after a gap in releasing music.
As the title - Love Or (I Heard You Like Heartbreak) - alludes to, the project is a 12-track sonic journey of the highs and lows of love and loss, specifically reflecting the breakdown of a long-term relationship and the death of Jamie Lorusso-Zyskind's (aka Prequel's) mother.
Swimming through the depths of deep house and deeply jazz-inspired sounds, Prequel calls upon some familiar names from the Australian scene to bind his record, with Horatio Luna (bass), Javier Fredes (percussion), Tamil Rogeon (strings), and Cazeaux O.S.L.O. all lending their skills.
This soul-stirring project is a welcome return for the Australian producer, one which has openly been crafted out of pain and bliss.
There’s an air of mystery when an album is only available on streaming services for 99 days, but SAULT’s Nine was another gem from the elusive British soul group.
From hectic rhythms on ‘London Gangs’ to the grooving beauty of ‘Bitter Streets’ and ‘Alcohol’, and even a wonderful contribution from Little Simz on ‘You From London’, the album has some of SAULT’s best tracks so far and stands as a perfect showcase of neo-soul-hip-hop goodness. You'll be kicking yourself if you missed it on streaming platforms, as those 99 days went past quicker than expected!
Another year, another supreme record from a Shabaka Hutchings-led outfit. Sons of Kemet's Black to the Future is one of the high points of 2021, with the group continuing to push innovative sounds and important social messages.
Black to the Future displays the characteristic energy we have come to expect and love from the group, but we are also greeted with utterly elegant pieces too. Packaged with powerful prose and emotive, sometimes haunting, sounds, Black to the Future recounts the narrative of Black history, one which is filled with a rich mix of Black-inspired music; tapping into London's electronic scene, Caribbean carnivals, dub, hip-hop and more.
In contrast to previous outings, the album incorporates more vocals than previous works, with guests like Lianne La Havas, Kojey Radical and D Double E, as well as International Anthem's Angel Bat Dawid and Moor Mother too.
Joshua Idehen, who prominently featured on the group's Mercury Prize-nominated album Your Queen Is A Reptile, bookends the project with stark statements, proclaiming "I am a field negro now / I do not want your equality / It was never yours to give me". As the album draws to its end, Idehen bellows, "Just leave Black be / You already have the world, just leave Black be / Leave us alone!"
With Black to the Future, the Shabaka Hutchings-led ensemble demonstrates why Shabaka is one of the visionaries and King's of the contemporary jazz scene.
Various - Indaba Is [Brownswood] | Robbie
Brownswood Recordings kick-started 2021 in fine form with Indaba Is, a collection of contemporary South African jazz where every track, every group and every musician was flawless.
South African artists like Bokani Dyer, The Ancestors and Thandi Ntuli, alongside a host of others, bring the flair and zip that makes this album one that has been ringing in my ears throughout this strange year. The album showcases the talent that South African jazz has always offered, and it’s just as exciting today as when I first set my ears on it.
If you would like to support or purchase the albums listed, click on each title.