The 30 best albums of 2021 from the world of indie and alternative.
Yes, it’s that time of year again where we go through the past 12 months and place (at great pains…) our favourite records in order of preference.
From Sam Fender to The Lathums, Wolf Alice to Arlo Parks, it’s been a great year for music with new artists blowing us away and established ones giving us some of their best work to date.
We’ve even put together a Blinded by the Floodlights playlist of the best music from the best albums of the year for your listening pleasure.
So without further ado, here’s the Blinded by the Floodlights best albums of 2021.
30. Black Honey – Written & Directed
Brighton four-piece Black Honey released their second album back in March and it was the sound of a band wasting no time getting to the point. 10 songs over a 30 minute run time had us thirsty for more. A super fun record with alternative anthems, big hooks and Latin-infused moments.
Best three tracks: I Like The Way You Die, Fire, Beaches
29. Shame – Drunk Tank Pink
It’s hard not to compare Shame to their post-punk rivals Fontaines D.C. and IDLES. On first listen the South London band compare negatively, but listen on and Drunk Tank Pink is an intriguing grower worth investing in. It’s more experimental and deadpan than their contemporaries. An ambitious effort to please Shame’s cult following.
Best three tracks: Alphabet, Nigel Hitter, Station Wagon
28. The Killers – Pressure Machine
The Las Vegas band have undertaken somewhat of a renaissance during lockdown, beginning with the 2020 release of synth-pop banger-filled Imploding the Mirage and culminating with Pressure Machine in August. Their latest is a folk/Americana inspired record based on Brandon Flower’s Utah upbringing. It had us gather a new found respect for The Killers frontman as a songwriter. They’ve re-found their credibility after years in the wilderness.
Best three tracks – West Hills, Pressure Machine, Runaway Horses
Read more: Have The Killers regained their credibility?
27. Weezer – Van Weezer
Van Weezer is just the album we never knew we needed. A 1980s metal-inspired Weezer album really doesn’t sound that appealing and yet it works wonderfully. The songs bring together the hard-rock template of Kiss and Van Halen, combining it with the infectious hooks of the pop-punk veterans for an enjoyable and anthemic record. A healthy mix of corn, pop hooks and heavy metal. So much fun.
Best three tracks – All the Good Ones, The End of the Game, She Needs Me
26. The Reytons – Kids Off The Estate
Working off the successful early-Arctic Monkeys/Courteeners British indie rock template, The Reytons debut album has plenty of working-class charm and charisma. It’s jam-packed with punky bangers and swagger, telling tales of misadventures and social class observations.
Best three tracks – Broke Boys Cartel, Kids Off the Estate, Mind the Gap
25. Amyl and The Sniffers – Comfort To Me
Melbourne punks Amyl and the Sniffers returned with their second studio album in September and, like their debut, it was a record with pulsating rock ‘n’ roll bangers. Powering through 13 songs in 35 minutes, the energy is unrivalled and the same goes for the vitriol on offer. It hits you like a punch in the face (not that we’re complaining…).
Best three tracks – Hertz, Guided by Angels, Security
24. IDLES – CRAWLER
Following a barrage of criticisms around their political sloganeering and supposed class snobbery with 2020’s Ultra Mono, IDLES returned a year later with their most reflective and inwardly focused album yet. There were still some of the punk bangers old, though it was mixed with more experimental and vulnerable moments. A refreshing comeback from one of the most outspoken bands out there.
Best three tracks – Progress, When the Lights Come On, Crawl!
23. The Black Keys – Delta Kream
In a hard-working career spanning two decades, the Ohio blues-rock duo The Black Keys now find themselves in legendary rock status, earning the right to as they please following the success of albums like Brothers (2010) and El Camino (2011). That they did in April with the release of Delta Kream, an impressive collection of Mississippi-blues covers. It may be sprawling in parts, but it showcased the uncompromising talents of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney.
Best three tracks – Crawling Kingsnake, Come On & Go With Me, and Sad Days, Lonely Nights
22. Nation of Language – A Way Forward
Full of 80s synth-pop tunes and influenced by the likes of LCD Soundsystem, New Order and Kraftwerk, the Brooklyn trio’s second album was a welcomed break from the guitars. A very rewarding and nostalgic listen from Nation of Language.
Best three tracks – Across That Fine Line, This Fractured Mind, Wounds of Love
Read more: Nation of Language Dive Deeper Into Their Synth Pop Influences on ‘A Way Forward’ (on Kiley Larson’s Check This Out! website)
21. The Coral – Coral Island
In May, Merseyside indie legends The Coral released their tenth studio album, deciding to do things a little differently than usual. Coral Island is a double record set in a fictional seaside resort, though they are at pains to point out that it’s not a concept album (it very much sounds like one!). The record is full of psychedelic indie-pop tunes that had us thinking of old British seaside towns and old arcades.
Best three tracks – Love Undiscovered, My Best Friend, Golden Age
Read more: Why Coral Island is The Coral’s masterpiece
20. Damon Albarn – The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows
The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows is a record that will have you questioning whether this is the same chart chasing singer who spent many a year singing in a mockney accent about country houses and cheap package holidays. The Blur and Gorillaz frontman delivered a hauntingly beautiful record more in line with Sigur Ros and latter-day Radiohead than his 90s Britpop contemporaries. A stunning effort from Damon Albarn who continually feels the need to reinvent himself thirty years into his career.
Best three tracks: Polaris, Darkness To Light, and The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure Stream Flows
19. Apollo Junction – All In
The second album from Leeds band Apollo Junction features soaring guitars, big drums and hooks, a collection of anthemic tunes inspired by electropop, Britpop and disco. That the tunes have been featured on BBC’s Match of the Day is of little surprise. All In is an excellent album to restore your faith in guitar music (not that you lost it in the first place…).
Best three tracks – Sometimes, Light Up The Sky, Are You Happy?
18. Arab Strap – As Days Get Dark
Scottish indie cult hero’s Arab Strap, known for their unique brand of Scottish speak-sing indie rock, returned in April with their first album in 16 years. The production is bleak, whilst the lyrical topics tell the tales of downtrodden and sinister characters and dark themes. An album you didn’t realise you needed in your life.
Best three tracks: The Turning Of Our Bones, Sleeper, Fable of the Urban Fox
17. Inhaler – It Won’t Always Be Like This
Inhaler will never truly be able to escape the fact that they’re Bono’s son’s band (not with articles like this mentioning it anyway…), but any suspicion that they’d had their success handed down to them on a plate was quickly expelled when they released their debut album back in July. An incredibly smooth indie-pop record with plenty of groove and swagger.
Best three tracks: Totally, It Won’t Always Be Like This, Cheer Up Baby
16. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Butterfly 3000
Forming in 2012, Melbourne band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard released their 18th (yes, you read that right, their 18th…) studio album back in June. Butterfly 3000 is an infectiously colourful album that combines dream-pop, psych-rock and synth-pop to excellent effect. We’re already looking forward to the 19th…
Best three tracks – Catching Smoke, Dreams, Yours
15. The Rah’s – When Does It Become Real?
Released in June, the East Lothian band’s debut is defined by its rock ‘n’ roll swagger and indie rock bangers. A powerful and explosive listen that should get the heart pumping. Soaring guitars and big choruses, the energy on show is infectious. A winning, populist indie template done very, very well by The Rah’s.
Best three tracks – The Time Is Now, Our Design, If You Never Try (You’ll Never Know)
14. Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over the Country Club
Lana Del Rey released the first of her two albums this year back in March. More stripped back, shorter and folkier than her previous work, it still evoked similar themes of 50s nostalgia, romantic longing and Californian escapism. The succinctness actually made it one of her best yet, proving, once again, why she’s in a league of her own in the world of pop singers.
Best three tracks: White Dress, Let Me Love You Like a Woman, Wild At Heart
Read more: Why Lana Del Rey’s new album is her best yet
13. Django Django – Glowing in the Dark
These Scottish art-rockers are a band that had completely gone under the radar in recent years for me, so it was a big surprise how enjoyable Django Django’s fourth album was. Released in February, Glowing in the Dark has just about everything. There’s rave tunes, indie bangers, funk, Madchester influences and psychedelia. For the most part, it’s spacey and so different to everything else on this list. Those psych-indie-dance vibes will lure you right in from opener ‘Spirals’.
Best three tracks: Spirals, Kick the Devil Out, Glowing in the Dark
12. The Shop Window – The State of Being Human
The debut from Kent-based four-piece The Shop Window comes with a backstory of reconciliation between two bandmates Carl Mann and Simon Oxlee. The two decided to go their separate ways after their initial band Westpier folded two decades ago. They got back together in 2019 with two old friends and formed The Shop Window. The State of Being Human is an emotive jangle-pop record, full of warm tunes and indie bangers. It’s full of nostalgic and beautifully crafted indie-pop bangers.
Best three tracks – Out Of Reach, Evacuate, Mannequin Lies
11. Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
There’s something quite peculiar and intriguing about frontwoman Florence Shaw’s singing style. Detached vocals and surrealist lyrics counter the tight and energetic post-punk sounds of the rest of the band. It creates a winningly odd combination. The lines are dry as sand and it just works. Somehow Dry Cleaning’s debut draws you back in time and again.
Best three tracks – Scratchcard Lanyard, Her Hippo, Strong Feelings
10. Afflecks Palace – What Do You Mean Its Not Raining
Recalling the spirit of ’89 and named after an iconic Manchester building, What Do You Mean Its Not Raining is a delicious slice of indie-pop that sounds strongly in debt to the abovementioned North West city’s music culture. Jangling guitars, upbeat melodies and addictive tunes with enough variation to drive us back to the record time after time.
It’s baggy, poppy and psychedelic, taking inspiration from The Stone Roses, Kurt Vile and The Las. Afflecks Palace formed in Manchester in summer 2019, yet their sound is so accomplished it really feels like they’ve been crafting the tunes far longer than their lifespan.
Best three tracks – This City Is Burning Alive, Pink Skies, Spinner (This Must Be Love)
9. The Institutes – Colosseums
Here’s an album I quickly fell in love with. Coventry band The Institutes released their debut album Colosseums back in October, and it was one full of warm, 90s inspired rock anthems and shoegaze tunes. It’s such a warm and hopeful record, exploring the messy emotions of a toxic relationship. Love at first listen, British indie rock at its best.
Best three tracks – Alleyways, All That You’ll Ever Know, I Just Can’t Keep Myself From Loving You
8. Maximo Park – Nature Always Wins
Sixteen years on from their iconic debut A Certain Trigger, Maximo Park returned in February with their seventh studio album. The tunes are melancholic and uplifting, finding a middle ground between experimenting and delivering a record that is noticeably Maximo Park. There’s style and depth we don’t necessarily expect from popular bands of their era.
Best three tracks – Why Must A Building Burn?, All Of Me, Partly Of My Making
Read more: Maximo Park: Nature Always Wins review
7. Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams
Collapsed in Sunbeams is an exploration of mental health, depression and youthful lust sung in Arlo Parks’ unique conversationalist style. The music itself is hard to define, a mixture of trip-hop, r&b and indie-pop and one I described back in February as a “near perfect debut”. Just watch as she swoops up at next year’s award ceremonies. The coming of age record marked the London singer as a genuine rising star.
Best three tracks – Caroline, Black Dog, Eugene
6. The Snuts – W.L.
Back in April, the hype was off the scale for the West Lothian band’s debut album and they certainly gave us one of the most accomplished records of the year. W.L. gained them a number 1 album in the UK Official Albums chart, becoming the first Scottish band to do so since The View’s Hats Off To The Buskerman in 2007.
The Snuts definitely edge more towards the funkier side of rock ‘n’ roll over the Dundee band’s punky, garage rock and it was a 45-minute journey of diverse bangers, skipping between folk, punk and funk-rock. The hooks are big in this spirit-raising debut, the success of which suggested a mainstream guitar revival was on the cards.
Best three tracks – Glasgow, Always, Don’t Forget It (Punk)
Read more: The Snuts: Does W.L. justify the hype?
5. The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Rather than reinvent the wheel, The War on Drugs refined their winning style with their fifth studio album I Don’t Live Here Anymore. The album took three years to create and was produced over seven studios. The quality of the music is fantastic, the songs stacked with pop hooks and intricate layers of pianos, synths and guitars for a yearning and emotive listen.
Title track ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’ has a proper 80s nostalgic feel to it, whilst ‘I Don’t Wanna Wait’ and ‘Victim’ possess a certain longing groove. We had this one on repeat a lot when it came out and will for some time yet. Adam Granduciel and The War on Drugs have proven again why they’re up there with the best contemporary rock artists.
Best three tracks: I Don’t Live Here Anymore, Victim, I Don’t Wanna Wait
4. The Vaccines – Back In Love City
2021 began for indie veterans The Vaccines with a mediocre Cosy Karaoke, Vol 1 covers EP, setting the bar for the new album lower than first envisaged. Then singles ‘Headphones Baby’, ‘Back In Love City’ and ‘Alone Star’ were released, completely changing our perceptions for what was to come.
The West London band’s fifth studio album is a fictionalised city concept album and is easily up there with their best work ten years into their career. The tunes are charismatic, surreal and archaic, with plenty of joyful and despair-filled twists and turns. The Vaccines have been flying the flag for mainstream indie over the past decade and – on evidence of Back In Love City – show little sign of letting up.
Best three tracks – Alone Star, El Paso. Back In Love City
3. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend
To say I was all about Wolf Alice upon release of their third studio album would be an understatement. Whilst some suggested I was getting carried away, I described Blue Weekend as a “modern-day indie masterpiece” from a band in their prime. In the run-up to the album’s release frontwoman Ellie Rowsell spoke about being more open in her lyricism. As such, it’s their boldest and most vulnerable to date. Her stunning vocal performances are backed up beautifully by the rest of the band.
The songs move from punchy and alternative (‘Smile’, ‘Play the Greatest Hits’) dreamy (‘Lipstick On the Glass’, ‘The Beach II’, ‘Delicious Things’), to delicate (‘No Hard Feelings’). ‘The Last Man on Earth’ signalled a change of intent upon release back in February, a stunning ballad that let us know the London band’s new album was going to be their most diverse yet. What an excellent record this is by Wolf Alice. I’m doubling down and standing by my original statement.
Best three tracks – No Hard Feelings, How Can I Make It OK?, Delicious Things
2. The Lathums – How Beautiful Life Can Be
The Wigan band’s recent success has been a joy to watch unfold. Four down to earth, working-class lads playing brilliant jangle-pop music. That they’re the kind of boys who wouldn’t say boo to a goose makes the acclaim even better. Following something of blueprint left by The Smiths, their debut is full of hopeful indie-pop anthems and maintaining optimism in the face of adversity. They were rewarded with a number 1 album for their efforts back in September and the indie community celebrated in unison.
Their success felt like our success. A story of the triumphant underdog, the quiet indie kid now had a place in the mainstream. Tunes like ‘Circles of Faith’, ‘I’ll Get By’ and ‘Oh My Love’ felt nostalgic and yet refreshing. The music lacked pretension and filled us with heart-warmers aplenty. The Lathums’ debut record was one of the most anticipated for a British band in many a year. They definitely delivered on the hype.
Best three tracks – Oh My Love, How Beautiful Life Can Be, Circles of Faith
1. Sam Fender – Seventeen Going Under
Title track ‘Seventeen Going Under’ blew everyone away upon release in July, with extremely high expectation gathered for the Geordie singer’s second album. Preview singles ‘Spit Of You’ and ‘Gets You Down’ raised the bar higher, whetting our appetites even further and we wouldn’t be disappointed. In October, Seventeen Going Under finally arrived, Sam Fender surpassing the early promise shown on his debut Hypersonic Missiles. Inspired by lockdown therapy sessions, his second record is an honest account of growing up in a North East working-class town.
It speaks of someone who feels (and has felt) like they don’t belong and uncovers the unspeakable truth of depression and anxiety. Part autobiographical, it provides a look into the struggles his mother faced due to an illness that rendered her homebound and unable to work and how the lack of welfare support almost led Sam Fender to a life of crime. Sam also touches upon his political alienation in post-Brexit Britain and the gaping divide created between left and right. There’s a lot to unpack both in lyrical content and sound, though the songs are produced so beautifully that the affection for it was instant.
Seventeen Going Under has created an everyman pop star out of Sam Fender. The anger, sadness and confusion really hit home with so many and it’s really little surprise at the acclaim it’s been met with. I really didn’t need to give my album of the year for 2021 a second thought. An instant classic.
Best three tracks – Seventeen Going Under, Getting Started, Long Way Off
Honourable mentions to Glaswegian post-rock kings Mogwai who achieved their first Official UK Album Chart Number 1 with the fantastic As The love Continues, Australian band Quivers with their warm indie-pop record Golden Doubt, the jangle-pop of Kiwi jr’s Cooler Returns, and the Latin-indie groove of Red Rum Club’s How To Steal The World.
Check out the Blinded by the Floodlights best albums of 2021 playlist for the best music highlights from the records mentioned above.