We saw the return of live shows this year. We saw fans reunite on the dance floor. We saw warehouses, small venues, music festivals and more reopen. We may have lost dancing in 2020, but we found it in 2021.
Not only did events return this year, but artists across all genres dropped albums that stunned audiences around the world. Whether it was bass music, South African house, live-electronic, techno, experimental electronic, jazz-infused house and so much more, the sounds brought the dance music community together. Some artists released music that aligned with their typical club sounds while others experimented with at home music designed to be heard on headphones. Regardless of how it was meant to be heard, LPs and EPs captivated audiences as hope for the return of live shows proved successful.
For me, I found myself listening to a wide variety of genres—expanding the breadth of my listening patterns, which was much needed after I sought comfort in the familiar during 2020. Many of the albums I gravitated towards prove to be texturally varied, offering an abundance of sonic flair to soundtrack me working from home, walking around New York City, going for runs, getting excited for a show that I would be attending later that evening and much more.
Here, I share 15 of my favorite albums from 2021.
Fred again..’s second album beautifully chronicles snapshot moments of life while also examining the grief the artist faced following the death of a loved one. The first half marks the mournful portion of the album, while the second half, starting with the track “Hannah (The Sun),” transitions to happy stamped moments of life. The 16-track LP proves to be complex and diverse: it showcases sorrowful vocals, hopeful lyrics, piano, layered sonic textures, shimmering synths, unsettling soundscapes, blissful production and more. Actual Life 2 (February 2 – October 15 2021) includes numerous vocal samples such as the voice of a construction worker he met in Atlanta. Track highlights include “Kahan (Last Year),” “Hannah (The Sun),” “Carlos (Interlude)” and “Catrin (The City).”
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After seven years, iconic artist Porter Robinson releases his second studio album, Nurture. The 14-track body of work boasts sounds of nature, spellbinding synths, messages of hope, raw vocals, guitar and joyful melodies. The LP follows a bout of depression Robinson experienced after the release of his debut album, Worlds. In addition, Nurture proves to be like most Robinson tracks: undoubtedly by him due to his signature and genre-defying production. Highlights include “Something Comforting,” “Get Your Wish,” and “Musician.”
At the intersection of instrumental discernment and dance music production is RÜFÜS DU SOL. The Australian trio releases its 11-track LP Surrender, reminding listeners why it reigns within the live-electronic space. The body of work is texturally diverse, offering raw emotions, captivating vocals, organic and cinematic soundscapes, haunting synths, celestial sounds and moments designed for pure dance floor euphoria. Surrender was created during lockdown, with several of the tracks made during a six week studio trip the band took to Joshua Tree—even staying adjacent to the location its Live From Joshua Tree album was filmed and recorded on.
Legendary artist Black Coffee, who is considered the godfather of South African house music, drops his 12-track sophomore album, Subconsciously. The LP boasts euphonious beats, emotion-tinged soundscapes, warm piano chords, deep house music, sultry melodies, hypnotic beats, soulful vocals and more. Subconsciously also features an impressive lineup of collaborations with global stars, including Pharrell Williams, David Guetta, Diplo and Usher. Indeed, the LP can be considered a career-defining album from one of the world’s most prominent producers.
While iconic artist Boys Noize’s sound is typically rooted in techno, his collaborations allow him to expand his creative footprint while maintaining his distinct sound. The multifaceted creative further exemplifies this with the release of +/- (pronounced Polarity). The 15-track LP begins with “Close,” which was created with a modular system and features industrial sounds that progressively become harder and funkier. +/- pushes sonic boundaries as it continues, showcasing everything from captivating and enchanting vocals to warehouse vibes, hip hop drums, funky sounds, pulsing beats, futuristic soundscapes and more. Closing out the album is “Act9,” which delivers soulful vocals layered with ominous production.
Genre-smashing duo Zeds Dead drops its sonically diverse mixtape Catching Z’s. While the duo is best known to fuse aggressive dubstep, throttling drum’n’bass, hip hop and ethereal electronic music, the mixtape explores experimental electronic music. Catching Z’s features soul-stirring sounds, transfixing tempos, sweeping 808s, masterful downtempo production, hypnotic vocals, chilling chord progressions and serene soundscapes. Indeed, Catching Z’s delivers tons of sonic flavor from the esteemed Canadian artists. The mixtape is released via its electronic, chill and downtempo imprint, Altered States, that launched in March in celebration of five-years of its highly-successful Deadbeats label—which focuses on dubstep, drum’n’bass, hard house and heavy-hitting bass music. Highlights include “get what you need,” “i think you’re cool,” and “late night drive.”
Sasha is best known for captivating audiences around the world with his signature fusion of house, techno and trance designed for the club. When the pandemic hit, though, his focus shifted to ambient music meant to be enjoyed at home. This different approach is seen in his LUZoSCURA compilation. The continuously mixed body of work features 21 tracks, which transcends ambient music, breaks, techno and electronica. The compilation takes listeners on a journey through ethereal sounds, shimmering synths, pulsing beats, cinematic soundscapes, enchanting vocals and sensuous production.
Techno queen Charlotte de Witte’s stripped, aggressive and functional music dominates dance floors around the world. Her distinct sound is showcased on her Formula EP. The three-track record features pulsating beats on “Doppler,” percolating synths on “RPM” and pounding warehouse sounds on “Formula.” The KNTXT label boss’ illustrious career to date led her to winning the title of No. 1 Alternative DJ in DJ Mag’s Top 100 in 2020, Powered by Beatport.
Woozy and groovy house maven Kaytranada stuns audiences again with Intimidated. The three-track EP showcases captivating vocals, smooth sounds, hip hop and silky production. The body of work kicks off with the title track, followed by “Be Careful” and “$payforhaiti.” In addition, Intimidated boasts collaborations with H.E.R., Thundercat and Mach-Hommy. Kaytranada won Best Dance/Electronic Album for BUBBA at the Premiere Ceremony of the 63rd GRAMMY Awards. Previously, he also took home the GRAMMY for Best Dance Recording for “10%” featuring Kali Uchis.
Rezz is globally-renowned for her dark and minimal production, leaving listeners transfixed by her ominous, slow-paced and occasionally bassy music. Her distinct sound is best seen on her fourth LP, Spiral. The album takes listeners on a sonic journey through hypnotic bass, airy production that builds up to wonky beats, catchy lyrics, chiming synths and more. The body of work features “Chemical Bond,” which was used in an Apple ad.
Flux Pavilion is a world-renowned singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and record producer, as well as one of the founders of esteemed imprint Circus Records. His illustrious career to date includes melodic, energetic bass music hits, but his latest album takes a different approach. The artist releases .wav, a euphonious, synth and electric guitar-driven album that marks a new era of Flux Pavilion. The 16-track body of work is texturally varied, boasting everything from emotional vocals to playful bass lines, euphoric melodies, percolating beats and a melodious dubstep take on a style of fugue by famed composer Johann Sebastian Bach.
Zhu, like many people, looks to the future for the times electronic music fans reunite on the dance floor. This desire is reflected with grimy techno and house heaters featured on his third studio album, DREAMLAND 2021, which dropped in April. The 12-track body of work boasts deep and powerful bass lines, shimmering and slithery synths, smokey and emotional vocals, dark soundscapes, sparkling production, pulsing beats accompanying Channel Tres’ silky vocals and more. “Sky Is Crying,” “How Does It Feel” and “Lost It” are among the stunning tracks.
Japanese-American tastemaker Qrion releases her debut album, I Hope It Lasts Forever, via renowned deep house imprint Anjunadeep. The 12-track album showcases electronica, club anthems and inward-looking tracks. From emotive piano chords to upbeat sounds, celestial soundscapes, captivating vocals, pulsing bass and organic sounds, the debut album is indeed a masterful production that’s texturally varied. The LP was written during the pandemic with Qrion using childhood memories for inspiration. Song highlights include “11-11,” “Your Love” and “It’s All Over.”
Italian duo Giolì & Assia are known for fusing live instruments, vocals and dance music, creating their distinct indie-electronic sound. Their signature sound is showcased on Moon Faces, which was released in February. The sonically diverse five-track EP blends styles of techno, house, indie and pop music that are accompanied by Assia’s emotional and enchanting vocals. With Gioli playing guitar, handpan, piano, drums and cello as well as Assia singing and handling the mixing console, the dynamic dance duo produce captivating, emotional cinematic soundscapes.
Four-time Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Joel Holmes brings “Blackness back into house music” with his live jazz infused electronic music EP Osmosis. His first solo EP, which was released in March via Toy Tonics, fuses live jazz elements with electronic music, thus creating a deep, soothing and sultry sound. The EP kicks off with “It Feels Good,” which offers warm, soulful and smokey beats designed for pure dance floor euphoria. “Playing With My Mind” brings the funk with groovy and upbeat melodies, while “Pose” is sonically diverse, layering enchanting vocals with playful piano riffs and deep house beats. Closing Osmosis is “Got To Survive” delivering smoldering vocals alongside uplifting and jubilant melodies. Osmosis brings tons of sonic flavor as it effortlessly blends live jazz with electronic music.