The 20 Best Electronic Albums of 2021

Featuring Porter Robinson, Fire-Toolz, Tirzah and more

Music Lists Best Albums
The 20 Best Electronic Albums of 2021

2021 has been another difficult year for electronic music, thanks in part (three-quarters, really) to the ongoing global pandemic. More than any other modern genre of music, electronic is deeply social in its construction, intention and audience, and the people of the world are slowly but surely growing impatient being trapped within four walls away from four-on-the-floor club nights. For a brief month over the late summer, just around the time Lady Gaga’s Dawn of Chromatica rounded up half the big names in the current electronic scene, it seemed like we might finally get our wish to hear the mainstream’s certified hyperpop moment cut up the dance floor, a pipe dream since Chromatica’s original delay right at the outset of national lockdown.

Beyond the collective irrepressible need to dance out all the anxiety built up over the last year, electronic music faced its greatest tragedy perhaps since DJ Rashad’s passing in 2014—the death of seminal Glaswegian producer SOPHIE. Representing a bright future for the state of electronic, as well as gesturing in a new mode of pop music, SOPHIE’s death was eulogized throughout the world of producers, DJs, pop stars and ravers, and set off the year on a dismal note, a feeling that seemed harder to ignore with each passing month.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though, and if dance music proves anything, it’s that it’s possible to sweat through the sad stuff and come out alright. Below, we’ve compiled our favorite projects this year, ranging in style from pensive bedroom projects to would-be blowout party hits.

Astrid Sonne: Outside of Your Lifetime

Copenhagen-based composer Astrid Sonne’s background as a classical violist brings a somberness to her electronic work. On Outside of Your Lifetime, Sonne blurs the lines between artificial and organic sound, taking a baroque approach to drone where synth lines and gritty plucked strings soar like a fine-tuned mechanical bird. The most striking moment on Outside of Your Lifetime, though, is the sudden a cappella thrust of “Fields of Grass,” just after the dissolution of a frantic arpeggio on “Mirror Behaviour.” Singing over flowing water, Sonne and guest vocalists Tobias Kropp and fellow Danish composer ML Buch hum out a meandering tune that shifts to the tender as each voice slowly enters the fray. Like ML Buch’s incredible 2020 debut Skinned, Outside of Your Lifetime predicts several futures, all of which feature lonely isolation pods separated by digital screens. But maybe, even then, connection can flourish in the margins. —Austin Jones

Black Dresses: Forever in Your Heart

After being harassed out of the industry, Toronto duo Black Dresses returned with a surprise album, saying, “we’re no longer a band … regardless, we’ve decided to keep putting out music.” Whether intentionally cryptic or not, it’s impossible to discern if Forever in Your Heart was recorded pre- or post-breakup—an ambiguity that somehow emboldens the nihilistic positivity the record exudes. Touring the annals of industrial, pop, noise and heavy metal, Ada Rook and Devi McCallion emerge clear-eyed and clinging, strongly declaring they’re not here to fuck with anyone and they’d like the same courtesy in return. “Everyone is ‘doing their best,’” Devi declares on “Concrete Bubble,” “I think that it’s kind of whatever / But dreams are not meant to be achieved.” Maybe dreams are meant to leave us rudderless—an inviting fantasy to ignore the community around us. But that’s not anyone’s business, really. —Austin Jones

Colleen: The Tunnel and the Clearing

The Tunnel and the Clearing is Colleen’s first full-length since 2017’s A flame my love, a frequency, and continues to build on the analog world she built then. Dialing back even further on the instruments she allowed herself to play on A flame, where she cast away the viola de gamba she had come to be known for, The Tunnel and the Clearing is a meditative exercise in minimalism, nocturnal and unhurried. “The clearing is what is always out there,” Colleen said of the album. “A vast expanse of space, light, and possibilities.” If the record proves anything, it’s what an artist can accomplish with few tools at their disposal: “Implosion-Explosion” has a fullness and a life as synth lines slowly move towards the vertical, towering above the track until dissipating behind a pitter-pattering drum machine, of which the same kind is used in the ballroom centric “Gazing at Taurus – Night Sky Rumba.” Colleen’s versatility shines as a beacon of modern composition. —Austin Jones

Fatima Al Qadiri: Medieval Femme

The divine feminine oozes from Medieval Femme, Fatima Al Qadiri’s 32-minute treatise on the spiritual and bodily imperative of sexual desire and love. In contrast to Al Qadiri’s drag-influenced Shaneera, with all its hedonistic bombast, Medieval Femme casts its gaze to the stories we tell—that of the succubus, the courtesan and the ancient queen—as a vehicle for deep desolation, exploring history with a keenly distinguished eye. The imperious organ on “Sheba” and insouciant lute on “Zandaq” imbue the album with an elegiac aura, a certain funerary sound endemic to the Arabic poetry she references throughout. Al Qadiri achieves a sumptuous beauty here with her restrained hand, crafting one of ambient’s finest epics in recent memory. —Austin Jones

Fire-Toolz: Eternal Home

Eternal Home is the most expansive statement yet from Chicago-based producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Angel Marcloid, who records as Fire-Toolz, among other monikers. The prolific artist’s seventh full-length since 2015 is a 78-minute double album that seems to defy time, not to mention genre classification, sweeping you into a whirlwind of ambient, yet melodic, Oneohtrix Point Never-esque electronics, operatic prog percussion, caustic black metal vocals and heavy shoegaze guitars. These elements collide to particularly mesmerizing effect on standouts like “Odd Cat Sanctuary” and “Thick_flowy_glowy_sparkly_stingy_pain.mpeg,” demonstrating the unconscious precision of Marcloid’s vision. Eternal Home makes, say, hyperpop feel quaint, treating experimental sounds not as a fashion statement, but as a governing principle. If you have yet to wander into the topsy-turvy world of Fire-Toolz, there’s no time like the present. —Scott Russell

Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra: Promises

This unlikely pairing of British electronic wiz Sam Shepherd, aka Floating Points, and free-jazz saxophone titan Pharoah Sanders is among the most revelatory match-ups in recent memory. On their long-simmering album Promises, which also features the cinematic swells of the London Symphony Orchestra, the musicians’ collaborative energy proves as remarkably potent as it is improbable. Unfurling in one continuous, wordless composition split into nine movements, Promises sounds like a leap of creative faith, a cosmic communion that reaches across generations, genres and musical barriers to build something beautiful. When played without interruption and afforded the patience (and quality speakers) it demands, Promises is the kind of album that can rearrange the molecules in a room. It can imbue your drab apartment with a vast, cinematic weight. It can kill a party (this is admittedly speculative) in the best possible way. It can fill up the space while you wash dishes, put away laundry or water plants, infusing any mind-numbing household activity with a mist of supernatural yearning. Sanders, a “spiritual jazz” pioneer, is not a stranger to this transcendent approach to experimental jazz, but it’s a pleasure to hear him still pushing himself forward, still seeking the unknown, more than half a century removed from Karma. There’s a timeless quality to Promises, an inscrutable sense that the album could hail from 30 years in the past or 30 years into the future. Of course, that’s what makes it a genuine intergenerational collaboration, this sense of time collapsing upon itself. It’s in the empty space between these two vastly different generations, eras and creative disciplines that something remarkable unfolds. —Zach Schonfeld

Hildegard: Hildegard

Hildegard is the product of an alchemical eight-day collaboration between singer-songwriter Helena Deland and producer/vocalist Ouri. In the duo’s own words, the record is “a testament to the intense and often mystical collaborative process; to losing yourself in one another only to emerge as something new.” Across the album’s eight tracks, gentle singsong vocal melodies wind around organic and synthesized percussive loops, each voice drawing the other farther down the rabbit hole, “Jour 2” in particular building from a few whispered lines into an Art of Noise-style labyrinth. Listening to the duo build space for one another throughout the album, tease ideas out and follow one another’s experiments makes Hildegard an irresistible conversation to follow. —Austin Jones

Kedr Livanskiy: Liminal Soul

Much like lightning, Kedr Livanskiy’s Liminal Soul flashes, then fades as quickly as it struck. At a scant 34-minute runtime, Livanskiy channels cosmic ascendance with too-bright synths and aggressive garage. Like her known influence Laurel Halo, or even Björk, Livanskiy is unafraid to exploit her versatile voice for effect—on “My Invisible,” it’s as sharp as a knife, cutting through the subconscious with urgent emphasis, but morphs into something more gossamer and tender on “Boy,” where Livanskiy coos affectionately over sentimental acoustic guitar and retro breakbeats. As in tune as it feels with nature, its trance leanings and spiritual lyrics gesture to something grander, perhaps hidden, encased in hoarfrost and angel’s down, and too precious to give up. —Austin Jones

Leon Vynehall: Rare, Forever

Leon Vynehall’s dance music on Rare, Forever is an absolute trip. The DJ’s latest creation is a perfect thematic follow-up to the euphoria of Rojus (Designed to Dance) and his prickling, cinematic creation Nothing Is Still. The eerie, otherworldly textures on Vynehall’s new album seem to contain some unknown alien ingredient that makes listening incredibly captivating. Each track brings something different to the table, whether it’s the hair-raising synths of opener “Ecce! Ego!,” the chilled-out and jazzy “Alichea Vella Amor” or the euphoric haze of “An Exhale.” Vynehall is introducing an extremely limited scope of a black label test pressing of the album—only 50 copies will be sold—which feels very on-brand for a work as individual and lightning-in-a-bottle as Rare, Forever. —Carli Scolforo

Loraine James: Reflection

Loraine James’ anxiety-inducing Reflection evades characterization, exploring the best elements of U.K. drill, grime, garage and trap music, and using the palette to paint portraits of Blackness, queerness and loneliness. It is not meant to be an easy listen. Instead, James uses her music to exist as a dialogue between sound and identity. Her usage of the voice as its own instrument illustrates the malleability of identity and the importance of protecting oneself. You may not understand James’ mumbling underneath the chaotic splices of sound, but the heart is there. It is just as much an experience for her to make as it is for listeners to enjoy, and James’ musical autobiography is a truly captivating experience. —Jade Gomez

Lost Girls: Menneskekollektivet

After collaborating for more than a decade, the Norwegian duo of artist and writer Jenny Hval and multi-instrumentalist Håvard Volden have released their first album as Lost Girls, Menneskekollektivet (“Human collective,” from the Norwegian). The album draws on the creative chemistry Hval and Volden honed via their time performing together in Hval’s live band, as well as their 2012 collaborative album as Nude on Sand, but sounds quite unlike either of those efforts. Lost Girls began recording in March 2020, before the songs felt ready, and as a result, improvisation factors heavily into Menneskekollektivet, a surreal blend of synth loops and drum machines with Hval’s sometimes-spoken, sometimes-sung monologues, through which she brings her subconscious to the surface. “Making me an opposition,” she murmurs on “Love, Lovers,” entangled in her own mind, yet determined to capture her innermost wonder. —Scott Russell


After what sounds like a mechanical bull backfiring inside a hall of mirrors, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker light the whole cow on fire and let it explode. On “White Horses,” the opener of Low’s 13th album HEY WHAT, Sparhawk’s voice and guitars are among the loudest and clearest they’ve been across 13 albums spanning nearly three decades, with Parker’s harmonies not far behind in heft and lucidity. If the ever-mercurial married duo (HEY WHAT is technically the first album Low created as a duo—Steve Garrington, their fourth bassist, departed last year) have long sounded listless and adrift amid myriad moments of personal and political uncertainty, HEY WHAT reimagines Low as a vehicle for powerhouse vocals, high-Richter-scale distortion and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it percussion. The duo’s recent fascination with 21st-century disconnection continues, but the bombast is louder and the tranquility is quieter, and in focusing on lucid melodies and unobscured fidelity, they’ve created their most visceral work yet. —Max Freedman

Porter Robinson: Nurture

North Carolina-based producer and songwriter Porter Robinson exploded onto the EDM scene in 2010, headlining festivals worldwide at just 18, years before releasing his first proper album, 2014’s Worlds. Even in those days of dubstep and drop worshipping, Robinson’s music had an uncanny sensitivity, with a fragile beauty present even in his bangers. But his meteoric rise threatened to suffocate his creativity, placing an immense amount of pressure on his songwriting—in many ways, Robinson’s journey back to a place of creative fulfillment is what his first new album in seven years is all about. Nurture draws its power from “hope, overcoming despair, faithfully pursuing a sense of purpose, and trying to prove that it’s worthwhile to try,” as Robinson puts it, frequently stripping away everything but his vocals and piano, as if to bare its soul for the listener. Bright, unerringly melodic and upbeat textures abound, yet a song like “Dullscythe” feels as if it’s coming together in real time, beginning as a collection of synth stutters before coalescing into a gorgeous, sweeping piece of electronic pop. Nurture is welcoming and vulnerable from beginning to end, radiating gratitude for all who take the time to find refuge in it. —Scott Russell

Soshi Takeda: Floating Mountains

Uniting new age and deep house trends of the ’90s, Soshi Takeda’s Floating Mountains recalls the aquatic swells of RPG soundtracks like Yasunori Mitsuda’s Chrono Cross, as well as the nature-obsessed sound art of Takashi Kokubo. Here, Takeda deftly avoids crafting a tried-and-true dance record—instead, his compositions are informed by intense moods, painting ambient, 32-bit landscapes of imagined scenes. The studied hand drums of “Ancient Fish” give way to glistening, mystic synth, while “Floating Mountains,” with its watery flute and idle keys, seems to fly over primeval worlds rife with discovery. Elsewhere, “Water Reverberation” chimes and meditates as gentle guitar snakes through, as if teeming just under a sheet of ice. As exploratory as it is, it’s equally as fluid; Takeda demands little from listeners, much like the vaporwave producers who preceded and informed this new direction for nostalgia-laden electronica. It’s inorganic music that so perfectly captures a time and place. —Austin Jones

sv1: health

sv1’s debut album health lays wafer-thin synth textures and placid melodies alongside thwomping sub-bass and sharp, metallic edges in one of the year’s best “light-heavy” electronic releases. The sounds and surfaces introduced across the album’s 24 minutes are vibrant, watery and warm to the touch, striking a patient balance between rhythm and weightlessness. On the title track, the beat alternates between a car stereo throttling bass lurch and a delicate web of trickling percussive glitches, while ambient standout “regenerator” dissolves entirely into thick, vaporous noise. Running under all of it is an appreciation for organic forms and physical sensation reminiscent of the mini-worlds synthesized by fellow boundary pushers Iglooghost and Oli XL. —Austin Jones

Tirzah: Colourgrade

Love it or hate it, you have to respect Tirzah’s complete defiance of expectations for her sophomore effort Colourgrade. Devotion, her 2018 debut, shined as an uneven tapestry of not-quite-pop songs, an opus of diaristic, minimal dance tracks prized for their direct, bare emotion. It was always clear that Tirzah, along with her producer Mica Levi, weren’t interested in pop as anything more than a vehicle for avant-garde musings on modern love and heartbreak. The partial rejection of Colourgrade does, in a way, make sense—it’s more farflung than Devotion, undanceable, devoid of easy bops or comfortable familiarity. Despite the strangeness of these songs, though, they glisten with a maternal love. “Crepuscular Rays” loops and coils through a lengthy sunrise, giving way to the masterful “Send Me”—the spiritual brightness of a late night, with child, morphs into an incandescent dawn. —Austin Jones

Ulla: Limitless Frame

Attached with Ulla’s Limitless Frame is a note, a poem really, plainly stating the album’s central thesis: “I made this music as a way to hug myself.” Ulla (aka Ulla Straus) has always imbued her records with a certain warmth—see the beautifully fragile piano on “I Think My Tears Have Become Good,” or the pulsing ambience of “Billow”—but on Limitless Frame, the enigmatic composer seems to embrace the elegance that always permeates her releases. Despite the haziness of the album, Ulla interjects each track with jagged, mechanical sounds to extract thoughtful engagement. Just as opener “Aware of Something” descends, a sound like the thud of a washing machine attacks, an invisible assailant lost in the fog. The lovelorn saxophone on “Far Away” is reminiscent of Harold Budd’s own experiment with the instrument on “Bismillahi ’Rrahmani ’Rrahim,” but ditches the twinkly piano in favor of a more intimate, cavernous sound, wailing and vibrating on ever slightly too long. The space in between notes on Limitless Frame wrap tightly around neglected feelings, forcing a sometimes uncomfortable introspection—it’s the sound of fervent self-care. —Austin Jones

Yoshinori Hayashi: Pulse of Defiance

Yoshinori Hayashi’s Pulse of Defiance may start slow, but soon dive-bombs into frantic rhythms, and a melting pot of acid house bass and oblique jazz. The two pianos on “Luminescence” croon just out of time from one another, further offset by uneven drums; it’s reminiscent of the sultry percussion of Tricky’s debut Maxinquaye but somehow crumpled and put through a wash cycle. Though “Touch” rings true as a slinky ambient techno banger, there’s an experimental age to the tinny siren beat and pitchy synth. “Twilight” features nonsense vocal samples, threatening collision with chaotic piano and anxious breakbeats. Though Hayashi is a dance producer primarily, he paints with the avant garde hand of the jazz greats, strongly embodying the transgressive spirit implied by the record’s name. —Austin Jones

You’ll Never Get to Heaven: Wave Your Moonlight Hat for the Snowfall Train

With their flowery name and Creation Records reminiscent cover art, You’ll Never Get to Heaven could easily get lost in the annals of dream-pop pastiche as many do, rummaging milk crates for old Slowdive and Pale Saints records to mine for inspiration. Instead, they stand tall as a sort of living history of shoegaze and IDM trends, of which all flow into the crystalline tones that make up Wave Your Moonlight Hat for the Snowfall Train. Over a laconic eight tracks, singer and multi-instrumentalist Alice Hansen passionately sings unknowable tones like a dew-eyed torch singer, occasionally bowing out midway to part the curtains on a glistening, artificial nature scene in “Pattern Waves.” If their 2017 release Images was a lucid take on danceable club hits, Wave Your Moonlight is more restrained, closer to what you might imagine Julee Cruise sings in her dressing room after a long set. It’s shockingly intimate, like goosebumps on your neck. —Austin Jones

Yu Su: Yellow River Blue

Yu Su’s debut album Yellow River Blue twitches with the sprightly, bright sounds of springtime, fusing traditional Chinese songwriting with dubby percussion and synthesized basslines. “Xiu,” the album’s breakout hit, features joyous pipa riffs with glossolalic singing, echoing just overhead as if fluttering on a hummingbird’s wings or covered in a sheet of hard rain. This, combined with the gradual introduction of a glitchy beat, showcases Yu Su’s forward-thinking, kitchen-sink approach to production—every influence is welcome, and no sound is unworkable. “Touch-Me-Not” takes a more ambient approach, resembling the frigid, blurred beats of Autechre before fading in and out of focus. Gradually, the beat seems to escape before flatlining entirely—it feels like a wonder we ever heard it at all. Yellow River Blue is a transportive record, teeming with life, begging listeners to drink from its cup. —Austin Jones

Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ’80s-’90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire

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