The 20 Best Albums in 2021 So Far: 20-11

Written by Matt Slocum 

2021 started off slow (in so many ways), but music wise, we’ve already seen some really good drops so far this year. By the end of 2021, the list is probably going to be star studded. Due to the pandemic, music has been in a weird place. Lots of artists have been hesitant to drop, perhaps due to not being able to tour or roll out their projects properly. So, it’s not a surprise that as the world starts to open, some of the biggest artists are gearing up to drop soon. Drake – who is on the verge of releasing Certified Lover Boy, Kanye – whose DONDA rollout is getting frustrating at this point, and Travis Scott’s Utopia are all anticipated to drop before 2021 closes out.  

However, we’ve already had some great music so far. There have been a lot more than 20 great albums this year, but these are my picks.  

20. Yung Bleu – Moon Boy 

Label: Vandross Music Group/EMPIRE 

Release: 23 July 

When I was listening to this project, I continuously thought “holy shit, this is so good”. Yung Bleu assembled basically everyone on this album and didn’t pay a cent for their features (according to him). This project is star studded, with features from Drake, Chris Brown, John Legend, and Big Sean to name only a few. While this isn’t his first project, it was the first that a lot of people had heard from him. He dropped the single ‘You’re Mines Still’ featuring Drake last year, which was my first time hearing from him. Although Drake isn’t shy from hopping on a song with virtual unknowns, this one was different. It didn’t so much feel like a Drake song like many of his other features. His verse wasn’t first, and Yung Bleu did his thing. This is a great album. There’s not much to say except go listen to it. There are really good vocals from Yung Bleu and a lot of great RnB songs on here. My only critique was I wanted to see him switch it up, but he honestly does his thing on every song.  

19. Migos – Culture lll 

Label: Quality Control  

Release: 11 June 

I think Migos delivered exactly what fans wanted to finish the Culture chapter. After an okay Culture ll project in 2018, they took some time off. People thought they had fallen off or had overstayed their time in the shine. But Culture lll was a reminder that they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. They pulled out all the stops for this album, with Drake, Cardi B, Polo G, Juice WRLD, Future, Justin Bieber, Pop Smoke and NBA YoungBoy featured. To be honest, I thought it was a little lengthy. They didn’t need to have 19 songs, and it had a bit of a fall off on the second half. But in saying that, the first half is full of bangers that have dominated the charts and the Spotify playlist so far this year, and it was nice to see them slightly step out of their comfort zone on tracks like ‘Antisocial’ featuring Juice WRLD. I thought this was a pretty good album overall and was a good thrust back into the limelight again for them as a group, as well as a reminder that they’ve truly had a huge influence on the new wave of hip hop in recent years.  

18. Slowthai – Tyron 

Label: A Method/Interscope 

Release: 12 February 

Slowthai is easily one of the most underrated UK artists. He’s different, and I find it hard to compare him to anyone specific. I really like this album. It starts off with a lot of energy with songs like ‘45 SMOKE’, ‘CANCELLED’ featuring Skepta and ‘MAZZA’ featuring A$AP Rocky. It’s angry, with a tinge of humour, (classic Slowthai), and continues this way at a high pace, with high energy and upbeat production until about halfway through. From this point, Tyron is a lot more mellowed out, with more laid-back production and poppy samples as well as nice guitar tracks. The second half is a lot more of him kind of explaining himself and tries to articulate the fact that there are always two sides to a person. He has features from James Blake and Dominic Fike. They fit the vibe perfectly, just as Rocky and Skepta did in the first part. I think Slowthai does a really good job articulating his thoughts in most of his music and this album really showed that side of him. Slowthai blocked out a lot of the outside noise and was very honest on this project. He talked about character flaws and thoughts and opinions that he had during the process of recording this album. While he’s never been shy and does let listeners in quite a lot on his previous music, this one feels different. I rate it highly, and you should keep an eye out for him, as he’s easily one of the most underrated, talented, and different upcoming artists not only in the UK but in music.  

17. Willow – lately l feel EVERYTHING 

Label: Roc Nation 

Release: 16 July 

This album sounds like your childhood, kind of like a Disney theme song but with an edge. It’s an alternative rock album and honestly, Willow really does her thing. It’s short and catchy, fun, and all-around good music. She’s taken a lot of inspiration from the times of Avril Lavigne and Paramore and executed it to a T on this album.  

It reminds me of that scene at the start of the Black or White music video by Michael Jackson, where McCauley Culkin is blasting electric guitar in his upstairs room. Willow is only 20, and an already established and highly respected RnB artist. It’s time to stop sleeping on her music because she has crazy potential. Willow is clearly experimenting and pushing the boundaries with her sound on this, and it’s different. I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did but if you listen to it, it just catches you off guard (in a good way). It’s harder to earn the respect of your peers in the industry as well as the public when you’re coming from a family as famous and talented as the Smith’s..  

16. Jim Jones & Harry Fraud – The Fraud Department 

Label: EMPIRE 

Release: 19 February 

This is a solid album from Jim Jones, a true hip hop legend. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, but Harry Fraud on production with basically any raw rapper, let alone a true legend is going to be enjoyable. This has a classic New York feel to it, with that kind of grimy subway underground feel. Jim has always been a prominent figure in hip hop all the way from his Dipset days, but he’s quietly been doing his thing for a long time. He’s always been highly regarded for his ear, and doesn’t really show any signs of slowing down on the mic anytime soon. 11 tracks and around 30 minutes run time is perfect for today’s tendency for a shorter attention span. It makes you kind of feel like you’re committing a crime or in a mob movie when you listen. It takes you straight into the streets of New York, where everyone is trying to make it. This album feels like a movie, like a modern soundtrack to Godfather. It’s high-quality music, and it might take a more mature listener to appreciate this one.  

15. DMX – Exodus 

Label: Def Jam 

Release: 28 May 

A fitting exit for a hip hop legend. Prior to his sudden passing in April, DMX had already completed this album. What was supposed to be a comeback turned into an incredible send-off with Swizz Beats doing an amazing job in tribute on the production. DMX showed that he clearly still had it. He has always given you high energy and unapologetically honest music, and this is no different. With features from Lil Wayne, Bono, Alicia Keys and more, this was truly a phenomenal posthumous album. There is everything you could want from DMX on here, with aggressive, high-energy songs such as ‘Hood Blues’ featuring Griselda and ‘Bath Salts’ featuring JAY-Z and Nas. There are also moments of extreme sadness, mainly in the last two songs. The second last track ‘Letter To My Son (Call Your Father)’ featuring Usher was a touching song for his four-year-old son, Exodus. His legacy was already cemented, he’s an icon in so many ways, and his legendary mark will be left on hip hop forever.  

14. Dave East & Harry Fraud – HOFFA 

Label: Def Jam/Mass Appeal Records 

Release: 30 July 

Harry Fraud is having a crazy run right now, and he’s produced another quality project with Dave East. HOFFA is a gritty album that takes you to New York in the 70’s when the mafia were extremely powerful in the US. It’s named after the infamous labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared in the 70’s, and was assumed to be murdered by the mafia, although the case is still unsolved. HOFFA has that classic New York hip hop album sound, as well as the lyricism. Dave East really shows out on this, but if you’ve ever listened to him, you know he’s an extremely talented lyricist. It’s commentated by audibles from the FBA during their 7-year investigation on Hoffa himself, which add a really unique element to the flow and sound of the album and has that movie aesthetic to it. It has that gangster New York sound, like a Griselda or an old school JayJAY-Z album. Some of the best hip hop comes from having that mafia references and sound to it, especially if you’re a New York artist. I don’t think I’m in the minority saying that it’s a dark horse for rap album of the year.  

13. H.E.R – Back of My Mind 

Label: RCA Records 

Release: 18 June 

H.E.R has quickly become one of the most respected artists in RnB. She has an incredible voice and has already made hit songs with some of music’s biggest names, such as Ed Sheeran and Stormzy. She’s a Grammy winner and listening to this project will show you why! With 21 songs and a long run time, but to me it felt like one, continuous song. The vibes are pretty similar throughout but it’s so well put together as an album and I think it’s probably the best RnB project that’s been released so far this year. It’s got features from Chris Brown, Ty Dolla $ign, Lil Baby and Bryson Tiller just to name a few. H.E.R keeps being consistent and growing as an artist and is currently one of the biggest female names out there.  

12. Fredo – Independence Day 

Label: Since 93 

Release: 6 August

This is Fredo’s second album he’s put out this year, and originally, I had the first on this list. The earlier release is entitled Money Can’t Buy Happiness, which is executive produced by Dave. He just released Independence Day, and it has everything I could want from him. The whole album is just energy. Money Can’t Buy Happiness was a lot more personal, with a mix of upbeat and slower tracks but towards the end, there was definitely a fall off. Money Can’t Buy Happiness was a statement that showed he was to be taken seriously as an artist and as a lyricist. It’s just that aggressive shit that you want from Fredo because when he goes there, he’s not too far off the Stormzy’s, Skepta’s, Headie’s or Dave’s. There’s still a lot of substance and storytelling but this is more him just saying, “yeah, I’m fucking here”. I was honestly shocked at how good this was and how much I enjoyed it. When it dropped, I didn’t rush to it, but since I listened to it the first time it’s been on repeat for me. My favourite songs are ‘Independence Day’, ‘Talk of the Town’, ‘Wandsworth and Bullingdon’ featuring Headie One, and ‘Don’t Cry’. The energy keeps building the further through you get which is perfect for the run time of 42 minutes with 13 songs. I can’t wait to see what he does next with all this momentum he’s built up, he’s only going to get better. If you like grime or drill, or just that UK energy in general, you’re going to love this project. 

11. Justin Bieber – Justice 

Label: Def Jam 

Release: 19 March 

If you know me, you know I’m a big fan of the Biebs. I didn’t really like his last album, but I was a big fan of Justice. It felt like a more refined version of his last album, Changes. Of course, it was poppy, perfect for the radio, and full of hits, so basically exactly what you’d expect from a popstar like Justin. It had some interesting features, like Burna Boy, who I didn’t expect to collab with Justin. It’s an upbeat album filled with hits, but my favourites are the slower songs like ‘2 Much’ and ‘Off My Face’ that aren’t as heavily reliant on production and more on raw vocal ability. He’s got a mix of pop, RnB, and hip hop elements on here, and it’s a really listenable album, even though you’re probably sick of hearing ‘Peaches’ by now. I feel that Justin is being held back, which might sound ridiculous, but in my opinion, his best work is with RnB or hip hop elements like he shows on Journal back in 2014. I’ve heard rumblings that due to his label there is more of an emphasis on being the popstar at the moment, but on this album, there were definitely elements that reminded me of Journal. It’s easy to jump on the Justin hate train, but he’s a certified hitmaker and he’s a really talented person overall who still has so much to offer. Even though he’s been around for so long, he’s so young. If you don’t enjoy his music that’s cool, but don’t be the one pretending like you don’t.  

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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