Cambridge Audio's Albums of the Year: 2021
Despite everything, 2021 certainly came up trumps when it came to albums. We were inundated with lockdown projects, viral chart smashes and long-awaited masterpieces. It was tough to pick favourites, but we somehow narrowed it down to 21, which seemed fitting with what year we’re in. So, here it is, our most listened to records of the past 12 months.
Stuart George, Managing Director
Ishmael Ensemble – Visions of Light
A fantastic record, but not one that's easy to describe. Despite echoes of so many other artists, it feels totally original and surprising. It's a Jazz record, but then again it’s so much more. It definitely reeks of Bristol – in a very good way – yet is so much broader. Much listening to come.
Top Tracks: ‘Wax Werk’, ‘Soma Centre’, ‘Looking Glass’
James Johnson-Flint, CEO & Jim James, Regional Trade Marketing Manager
Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic
An album so good it got a double nod from our team. James described the record as “Seventies soul, skilfully done from start to finish. A truly pleasurable composition that made me feel like I was back on a Crystal Palace rooftop with my pirate radio mates.” While Jim says it’s “One of the best RnB albums I’ve heard in a long time,” adding “It’s a throwback to the ‘70s but with lyrics for today. Anderson .Paak provides the rasping vocals to Bruno Mars silky voice. The songs are a great example of soulful storytelling – just a great album all round!”
Top Tracks: ‘Smokin’ Out the Window’, ‘After Last Night’, ‘Put on a Smile’, 'Leave the Door Open', 'Skate'
Kiel Nowakowski, Head of Operations, the Americas
The Weather Station – Ignorance
This is the album I’ll return to in the future if I ever want to remember what 2021 was like in North America. Tamara sings about the great crises of our time – the climate, the pandemic, the economic realities for many of us – but does so by focusing on the micro rather than the macro. This album is gorgeous, deeply pensive and the musical performances are impeccable. It blends opposing musical and lyrical themes in the effortless way gifted songwriters and arrangers can: it feels both light and dark; both chaotic and calm; and both complicated and simple. It feels like a long walk through the woods with a close friend you haven’t seen in a long time. For my money, they were also one of the best performances at Pitchfork 2021.
Top Tracks: ‘Tried to Tell You’, ‘Parking Lot’, ‘Loss’
Tamsyn Wilce, Digital Marketing Executive
CHVRCHES – Screen Violence
Whatever drug it is that CHVRCHES are putting into their songs, I want it injected into my veins. Not many bands succeed in releasing a continuous stream of flawless albums, but with Screen Violence the Scottish trio have added a fourth showstopper to their repertoire.
Inspired by horror movies of the ‘80s, Screen Violence is a deliciously dark record that takes their renowned synth-pop sound and splatters it with words that cut like a knife. This is the sound of Lauren Mayberry truly coming into her own lyrically and becoming the feminist voice that is so highly needed in an industry lead by men. Tackling subjects that include gaslighting (“He said, ‘it's all in your head’”), depression (“I'm writing a book on how to stay conscious when you drown”) and the brutalisation of women (“Don't want to find your daughter in a body bag”), it’s a middle finger from women everywhere to the societal pressures we face every day.
Top Tracks: ‘Violent Delights’, ‘Asking for a Friend’, ‘He Said She Said’
Bob Scranton, Head of Sales (US)
Prince – Welcome 2 America
I chose Welcome 2 America, by Prince for a number of reasons. Most of them the usual reasons that would make you vote for something. Catchy tunes, impeccable musicianship, great harmonies, top notch production values. The kind of album that calls you back to listen more and each time you hear it, you hear brilliant things that you hadn’t noticed. But Welcome 2 America is more than that.
These have been hard (and continue to be) hard days for many in the USA. Welcome 2 America calls that out. In the voice of a dead man, who laid down these tracks years ago, all the topics that plague our racial injustice are wrapped in melodies that are hard to stop singing and listening to, but at the same time have messages that are hard to hear.
‘Welcome 2 America’, ‘Running Game (Son of a Slave Master)’ and ‘Born to Die’ articulate Prince’s view of today’s hard world, while songs like ‘One Day We Will All Be Free’ and ‘Stand Up and Be Strong’ offer some support for those who live hard lives. It’s a collection that hits on all levels. Besides, you can always choose to ignore the lyrics and dance. It is Prince after all.
Top Tracks: ‘Welcome 2 America’, ‘Running Game (Son of a Slave Master)’, ‘Born to Die’
Pete Dixon, Technical Marketing Manager
Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under
Well written and unashamedly raw, the difficult second album came good. Seventeen Going Under is a well-produced, toe-tapping singalong album with real instruments played by real people, that despite some dark themes (and naughty words!) never fails to raise my spirits. There's even a Vangelis-style string at the end of the title track.
Top Tracks: ‘Seventeen Going Under’, ‘Spit of You’, ‘The Dying Light’
Darren Whittington, Senior Drupal Developer
Sleaford Mods – Spare Ribs
I chose Sleaford Mods’ new album, Spare Ribs, back in the summer for my favourite album of 2021 so far, and it’s stuck around in the top spot for the rest of the year. The record is jam-packed with (not quite so radio-friendly) hits and having seen them live not all that long ago, I can confirm that the new material sounds brilliant live. I definitely have some bruises from the mosh pits that kicked off. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can’t deny that the guys are talented.
Top Tracks: ‘Nudge It’, ‘Mork and Mindy’, ‘I Don’t Rate You’
Joseph Buechel, Customer Support and Retailer Training (US)
Bleachers – Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night
Those who know me, being the Springsteen fan-boy that I am, will not be surprised that my album of the year is Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night by Bleachers. I've had this album on repeat since it was released, and I still can't get enough. I also was able to see Bleachers on their tour in Chicago, which firmly cemented my love of this album.
Top Tracks: '91', 'How Dare You Want More', 'Stop Making this Hurt'
Diogo D’Orey, Brand Manager – Melomania
Rodrigo Amarante – Drama
Rodrigo Amarante is such an eclectic artist, but this album is almost like a trip to all his roots and inspirations. From a tropical Brazilian and African rhythm to a more old-school folk vibe, this album made me travel a lot without leaving my living room.
Top Tracks: ‘Tango’, ‘Eu com Você’, ‘The End’
Tom Castle, Customer Support Manager
Manchester Orchestra – Million Masks of God
One that album that stands heads and shoulders above everything else for me this year is Manchester Orchestra's The Million Masks of God. A thematically dense and dynamically rich record made by a band at the peak of its creative powers. This record encompasses everything the band does well, from big sweeping indie-rock (‘Angel of Death’) to tender and haunting finger-picked acoustic ballads that showcase singer Andy Hull's beautiful and distinctive voice ('Telepath').
The Atlanta band also explores new sounds and textures on their sixth album, such as the way that the propulsive funk bassline of 'Keel Timing' bleeds seamlessly into the driving programmed drums of lead single 'Bedhead’ and shows that everything they touch at this point turns to gold. No other rock band currently operating is as accomplished, as thrilling and as rewarding as Manchester Orchestra are right now, and the 'Million Masks of God' is proof of this.
Top Tracks: ‘Angle of Death’, ‘Bedhead’, ‘Telepath’
Matt Reilly, Head of Business Development (US)
Ty Segall – Harmonizer
Harmonizer from Ty Segall is my number one choice. He's prolific with his output, switching up his styles (and name) but all a variation on theme, and all stemming from garage and psych. He might have better albums, but this is still up there. Think Stooges meets T. Rex meets Thee Oh Sees.
Top Tracks: ‘Waxman’, ‘Feel Good’, ‘Erased’
Alex Harrison - E-Commerce Marketplace Coordinator
Dave – We’re All Alone in This Together
This isn’t my usual genre of choice, however We're All Alone in This Together by Dave really caught me off guard. It popped up in the list of new releases back in July and I haven't been able to get it out of my ears since. The album really stood out to me because of its intense lyrics, artful composition and hot lashings of bass.
Top Tracks: ‘Verdansk’, ‘Lazarus’, ‘Clash’
David Corke, Melomania Business Manager
Gary Moore – How Blue Can You Get
I’m not completely sure how Gary Moore has released new material 10 years after his passing, but any opportunity to hear more of his superb guitar playing will always be welcome and this album has it by the bucketload.
Top Tracks: 'Living With the Blues', 'Looking at Your Picture', 'I'm Tore Down'
Coral Williamson, Communications Manager
Lucy Dacus – Home Video
Lucy Dacus’ third album, Home Video, continues an excellent track record (see also: her work in trio boygenius) in writing confessional, intimate, yet so often also humorous lyrics, in dry, deadpan delivery that somehow also conveys a wealth of emotion. I’m a sucker for great lyrics and Dacus has them in spades. From the intimate brutality of ‘Thumbs’, when she sings to a friend about their estranged dad, “I would kill him if you let me,” to the story told of two teenage girls in album closer ‘Triple Dog Dare’, the album is a deep dive into the messiness of coming of age, and all the more beautiful for being so personal to Dacus.
Top Tracks: ‘Thumbs’, ‘Triple Dog Dare’, ‘Brando’
Alex Crawford, Customer Support Agent
Swindle – The New World
Swindle’s latest offering is just a huge melting pot of funk, soul, grime, disco, hip-hop, jazz, reggae and dub, plus everything else in between. If you dig College Dropout-era Kanye West, The Neptunes, Mark Ronson and Curtis Mayfield, then this will be right up your street!
It features lots of beautiful Motown-esque stings, super tight funk-slap bass, big horn sections, top notch production and incredibly well thought out vocal performances from the likes of Joel Culpepper, Kojey Radical, Akala, Maverick Sabre and Ghetts to name a few. To top it off, the whole album has been made into a short film freely available on YouTube and well worth checking out.
Top Tracks: ‘Sunday Best’, ‘No Black, No Irish’, ‘Blow Ya Trumpet’
Tony Stott, Head of Product Marketing
Jane Weaver – Flock
Much like Darren, my favourite album from earlier this year is still in the top spot. Turns out, I just can’t get enough of Jane Weaver’s ethereal vocals, dirty guitars and soaring melodies. Flock is a truly brilliant record. It’s pure pop sensibility laid over a nuanced and varied backdrop of attention-grabbing instrumentation and has been a constant soundtrack to my working days throughout 2021.
Top Tracks: ‘Solarized’, ‘Heartlow’, ‘Sunset Dreams’
Antony Locke, Product Development Manager
Squid – Bright Green Field
Bright Green Field is a storming debut from Squid, building on the couple of EPs they’ve released over the past two years. Arguably, the shouty vocals, the angular guitars and metronomic beats fit perfectly to the times we find ourselves in.
A common complaint often heard from us senior listeners is that all possible combinations and permutations of melodies, rhythms and genres have been exhausted over the past 60 years and there is nothing new to experience in modern music. But this LP suggests otherwise; it is fresh, engaging and demands listening to. If it is ever played in an elevator I wouldn’t leave until the last note decays.
Top Tracks: ‘GSK’, ‘Boy Racers’, ‘Pamphlets’
Dan Barnfather, Customer Support Agent
Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
I’m a sucker for hip-hop with live instrumentation, so this hits the spot for me. In my opinion, it's an even better and more ambitious album than her last one - Grey Area. Little Simz is on top lyrical form throughout, backed up by cinematic orchestral instrumentation and lush strings. The second half of the album takes a different turn, weaving through afrobeat, soul, and synth-pop inspired tracks. A special mention needs to be made to producer Inflo, for one of the best-produced albums I’ve heard in ages.
Top Tracks: ‘Point and Kill’, ‘I Love You I Hate You’, ‘Woman’
Alex Bender, US Marketing Manager
Clinic – Fantasy Island
First, start with a little dub, then add in some psych, mix that with a pinch of Tropicalia and you’ve got Clinic’s brilliant ninth album, Fantasy Island. Peer into the kaleidoscopic masterwork, Clinic’s best in years, to transport your mind to a far-off sleazy island paradise. I’ve spent most of 2021 listening to reissue labels like Mr. Bongo and Aloha Got Soul, so it’s no wonder this album has crept into my number one, gathering aspects of all great things past to bring the world a beautiful, playful, and elated album.
Top tracks: ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’, ‘On the Other Side’, ‘The Lamplighter’
Jonathan Miles, Senior Software Engineer
Hidden Orchestra – Creaks
Amanita Design's delightful puzzle-platformer conjures an atmospheric and richly textured world through the use of a wide variety of instruments: analogue, digital, ancient, modern, and in some cases, home-brew (for example a harp made from an egg-slicer!). The arrangement of each track is self-generated, the music building as you progress through each level, meaning that each playthrough of the game has a unique soundtrack. It's like having a live orchestral accompaniment while you play, encouraging you on. There's always something interesting going on to catch the ear – not only an impressive technical achievement, but a gorgeous sounding one too.
You can listen to a pre-mixed version on your favoured streaming service, or go to https://creaksbox.amanita-design.net/ to listen and mix your own.
Top Tracks: 'Palace End', 'Learn Step Turned', 'Extending'
Michael Laws, Project QA Tester
Don Broco – Amazing Things
2021 birthed some great album releases, but none that have surpassed the explosive and whacky tracks that are found on this album by the Bedford boys. Produced by the talented Jason Perry, the huge anthems are a testament to how far their sound has evolved since the days of ‘Thug Workout’ in 2008 (which is still a very fun song). Catchy hooks, heavy, almost industrial-sounding riffs make this album my favourite from what 2021 has provided us with. The music videos are also a great watch, if you ever find yourself bored.
Top Tracks: ‘Bruce Willis’, ‘Gumshield’, ‘Anaheim’
You can listen to a selection of our top tracks in our Best of 2021 playlist, just choose your platform below.