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Epigram Music's top albums of 2021

2021 proved to be yet another strange year. However, in a year of lockdowns, governmental scandals and cringeworthy TikTok trends perhaps one of our few saving graces was the music industry.

By Epigram Music

2021 proved to be yet another strange year. However, in a year of lockdowns, governmental scandals and cringeworthy TikTok trends perhaps one of our few saving graces was the music industry. For our December print edition, we entrusted our writers with a near-impossible task: choose your favourite album of the year. Following the results of a poll, this was narrowed down to just three.

3. Madlib - Sound Ancestors

Credit: Madlib Invazion

By Josh Templeman, Digital Music Editor

Few artists can claim to have had the same impact on their genre that Madlib has had on hip-hop. One of the most celebrated producers, his discography is extensive, spanning over two decades and including some of the most critically acclaimed albums of all time, such as his iconic collaboration with the late MF DOOM: Madvillainy.

Madlib is the ultimate crate-digger. Everything he does revolves around finding that perfect sample – the more obscure the better. He teams up with iconic electronic producer Kieran Hebden, AKA Four Tet, who after being sent hundreds of tracks by Madlib, arranged and edited the 16 cuts that came to form the brilliant Sound Ancestors. Collaborations can be messy; artists are visionaries and collaboration can obscure one’s creative process, stretching a project in opposing directions. However, Sound Ancestors is a triumph on this front, synthesising the genius of Madlib with the flair of Four Tet – few collaborations can lay claim to being just this perfect.

Sound Ancestors is as experimental as it is celebratory of hip-hop’s roots. The project is a skilful demonstration that genre isn’t one-dimensional and that the perfect sample can come from the least expected of sources; ‘Dirtknock’ samples Welsh rock band Young Marble Giants whilst ‘One for Quartabê / Right Now’ layers a snippet from an interview between legendary music journalist Nardwuar and Busta Rhymes over its funky instrumental.

Perhaps most impressive is the project’s lead single: ‘Road of the Lonely Ones’. The track is gorgeous and is by far my most listened to track of the year. Sampling Philadelphia-based soul group The Ethics, the track is sincere and simultaneously evokes emotions of nostalgia and hope as the group’s smooth falsettos glide elegantly over the almost ethereal instrumental.

Madlib might already be one of the most admired producers out there, with a glowing discography that seemingly never ends. However, in creating the masterpiece of Sound Ancestors, Madlib has proved that he is still only just getting started.

2. Wolf Alice - Blue Weekend

Credit: Dirty Hit

By Isobel Turner, News Subeditor

Following their highly successful 2017 album, Visions of a Life, Wolf Alice’s latest album had big expectations and they did not disappoint! Blue Weekend was released in June and gave Wolf Alice their first UK number one album: an album that covers a variety of genres including rock, pop, shoegaze and indie, just to name a few.

The album has a cyclical nature. The introductory song ‘The Beach’ is a slow indie ballad that gradually builds layers throughout which is then mirrored by the outro song, ‘The Beach II’, which is constructed similarly and uses the same concepts in its lyrics. However, ‘The Beach II’ comes across as more optimistic, with lyrics such as ‘happily ever after’ and ‘it’s okay’, creating a resolute ending for the album. This is in stark contrast to the lyrics offered in ‘The Beach’ with phrases such as ‘Lost in my mind’ and ‘we’re both shouting’, opening up ideas for what is to come – an album with emotional and relatable lyrics regarding relationships and wider life itself.

The combination of more modern stylistic choices, such as indie melodies and the use of synthesisers alongside classic choices from the 80s and 90s give Blue Weekend a refreshing yet familiar sound, making its popularity unsurprising.

The vocal diversity of Ellie Roswell’s voice is truly captured in Blue Weekend. Her singing style contrasts from an almost operatic ballad in ‘Safe from Heartbreak (if you never fall in love)’, to heavier influenced shouting and screaming techniques implemented in ‘Play the Greatest Hits’. This blend of styles, combining rock and indie components, is becoming ever more popular and is particularly refreshing due to the rise of women dominating a genre that has traditionally been male-orientated. This can be seen with the likes of artists such as Bebadoobee.

If you are looking for a band that combines the stylistic techniques of the likes of Nirvana, Paramore, The 1975 and even ABBA, then this is the album for you. Blue Weekend is not only made up of singularly catchy and unique songs but is also a masterpiece on the whole, clearly securing its place as one of 2021’s best albums.

1. Black Country, New Road - For the First Time

Credit: Ninja Tune

By Theo Kent, Music Editor

I could write this entire review as an enormous, wide-ranging list of adjectives: sprawling, ambitious, diverse, bizarre, gorgeous, sinister – and it still wouldn’t do justice to For the First Time.

When trying to describe an album, it is often done with the context of music that has come before, but Black Country New Road’s debut album is too original and genre-warping for this – it has to be heard to be believed.

Having released very few, but well-received, singles since 2019, the seven-piece debuted this album with only six tracks, two of which has previously been released as separate singles. For most other new bands, this is a pretty audacious move, but in this case, it really paid off.

The album begins with a track simply titled ‘Instrumental’, which is arguably a highlight of the album (can every track of an album be called a highlight?) and it introduces the impressively disparate sounds that Black Country, New Road have mastered in what could perhaps be described as klezmer-punk-jazz.

The seven-piece band consists of a mix of classically trained and home-taught instrumentalists and resembles a conventional rock-group format with the unusual, albeit brilliant addition of a saxophonist and violinist. The vocalist, Isaac Wood, adorns the album with richly honest poetry which is as much shouted as it is sung. The lyrics on the album join light self-mockery in references to a ‘Nutri-Bullet’ on the track ‘Sunglasses’ with existential dread in comments like: ‘I am sorry – I have always been a liar’ from the dizzying ‘Science Fair’.

The penultimate track titled ‘Track X’ is their most played on Spotify, and it’s easy to see why. A gorgeously hypnotic indie guitar line is sensitively decorated with obscure violin and sax backing, and it’s perfectly complemented with the more tender side of Wood’s vocals.

You get the feeling that despite the brilliance of Black Country, New Road’s first album, they are at the very beginning of a long and successful musical experiment.

Featured image: Josh Templeman, Madlib Invazion, Dirty Hit, Ninja Tune

What would you pick for the best album of 2021?