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DJ Mag's top tracks of 2021

We've switched up our end-of-year coverage this year. Instead of ranked countdowns, we've asked 40 contributors to pick their favourite albums, tracks and compilations from the past 12 months, celebrating the personal sounds that made this strange year a memorable one for electronic music. Here are DJ Mag's top tracks of 2021

A Sagittariun 'Inner Frontier'
[Rekids]

This was the year many dance music scenes, industries and communities started to claw back everything that was lost in 2020. Elusive and secretive UK producer A. Sagittariun clearly understood this when opting to deliver one of the most commanding warehouse-leaning techno workouts imaginable for a Rekids debut, creating an arrangement so powerful, disorienting, euphoric, and rave-driven it could only be taken as a celebration of the reasons we wanted clubs back. It’s a beautiful sort of madness. MARTIN GUTTRIDGE-HEWITT

Anz 'You Could Be (feat. George Riley)'
[Ninja Tune]

Jam-packed with cascading synths, sunny vocals and infectious melodies, ‘You Could Be’ feels like free-falling into the bright lights and promise of a big night out. Taken from ‘All Hours’, an EP that charts the highs and lows of 24 hours in a club, ‘You Could Be’ is an unrelenting boost of positivity and fun that served as a reminder of why we missed nightlife so much. Anz is on the precipice of something huge and this cut was a major step towards it. KELLY DOHERTY

Ayesha 'Ecstatic Descent'
[Scuffed Recordings]

As events returned this year, tracks from Ayesha’s ‘Potential Energy’ EP on Scuffed Recordings have been everywhere. Visceral, percussive tracks tailor-made for communal dancefloor experiences, their syncopated rhythms and tactile sound design hit a sweet spot between intricate and rowdy. Without fail, they go off. ‘Ecstatic Descent’ captures the excitability at the heart of the EP perfectly; its thunderous breakbeat erupts from beneath a flurry of cascading melodic chimes and gallops to a euphoric finish. Explosive and irresistible. EOIN MURRAY

Bonobo 'Otomo feat. O’Flynn'
[Ninja Tune]

I am a big Bonobo fan; the soundscapes that he creates are moments of sonic excellence. With ‘Otomo’, what we get is detailed intertwining of sounds, woven together to deliver an angelic, euphoric, club-ready number that is reflected throughout the duration of the track. Starting off with a comforting, gentle glow, the single opens up with a serious bassline that engulfs it and drives it along. Warm, lush pads and the haunting vox play together nicely to show off yet another fine example of Bonobo’s work. MICK WILSON

Bruise 'Joy'
[Foundation Music]

It was last year’s Detroit-flavoured piano houser ‘Grand Hi’ that brought Bruise to a larger audience. Aside from killer remixes for PRVNA feat. KdotMelody and Kameelah Waheed, 2021 was all about Bruise’s ‘Joy’/’Theme’ release. ‘Joy’ proved once again that the combination of pristinely produced inspirational piano chords and heart-wrenching strings is a recipe for an anthem. In a year in which we tentatively began returning to clubs and raves, perfectly wrought piano tunes like ‘Joy’ were just what dancefloors needed. HAROLD HEATH

Burial 'Chemz'
[Hyperdub]

Released digitally in the no-man’s land of Christmas 2020, Burial’s ‘Chemz’ didn’t drop on record till May — a trendsetting precursor to the great vinyl delays of 2021. A tingle- inducing rush, mashing up scratchy 2-step, addictive R&B vocals and hardcore breaks with Burial’s ghostly chords, it pulses with the intoxicating, out-of-control feeling that unites love and drugs. Like both those experiences, by the end it’s gone a bit strange. But when it does finally finish, all you want is to hear it again. JOE ROBERTS

Calibre 'Badman (with DRS)'
[Signature Recordings]

At Naked City festival in September, Calibre came on for the penultimate set amidst a darkening sky and a sea of lights. He opened with ‘Badman’ and looped the intro for several extra minutes, building delicious tension that made the track’s fervent low frequencies all the more ecstatic. A dub number engineered with Calibre’s rough precision and topped by DRS’ minimalist menace, ‘Badman’ was a late-winter, mid-lockdown balm that proved an exquisite finishing verse to a strange summer of parties. BEN HUNTER

Elkka 'Burnt Orange'
[Technicolour]

Femme Culture co-founder Elkka has released two stella EPs this year, one of which included summer highlight, ‘Burnt Orange’. The track’s hazy intro, wispy vocals and skippy rhythm section arrived right on time for the season, quickly filling DJ sets over the festival period. Praise came from BBC Radio 1’s Annie Mac and, unsurprisingly, the public at large; by early July the record had clocked in over 1 million streams on Spotify. RIA HYLTON

Ewan McVicar 'Tell Me Something Good'
[Trick]

Rising Scottish star Ewan McVicar created 2021’s biggest festival smash in the form of ‘Tell Me Something Good’, an infectious crossover house anthem that’s found both commercial and underground success. Sampling Rufus and Chaka Khan’s hit of the same name, thumping bass and percussive groove transform the 1974 classic into one for uplifting dancefloor moments. It’s also currently sitting at number 15 in the UK’s official top 40, popular on TikTok, and receiving regular rotation on BBC Radio 1 and Capital Dance. AMY FIELDING

Gabriels 'Love and Hate in a Different Time (Kerri Chandler Remix)'
[Atlas Artists]

If you found yourself audibly saying “Oof” at least once this year, it was probably to this track. It’s textbook Chandler — which is a very good thing; hats hung and swung on a classic deep house groove, decorated with teasing piano chords and a stripped-back Marvin Gaye-inspired vocal. When the Moog-esque bass eventually drops, it’s pure subby bliss. A deep house masterclass, from who else? DECLAN MCGLYNN

Hammer 'I Wanna Be Like You'
[Italo Hits]

Hammer's newly formed Italo Hits label has transported us back to the ‘80s — and it’s never sounded better. The imprint’s debut release, a two-track EP from the man himself, landed on neon-orange vinyl back in April, featuring the title track ‘I Wanna Be Like You’. Dominated by a driving bassline and hypnotising vocal, it’s as moody as it is feel- good, offering cinematic scale, while still being a total club smasher. Simply brilliant. LIAM SMITH

India Jordan 'And Groove'
[Ninja Tune]

Upon its release, ‘And Groove’ felt instantly seismic. The first single of India Jordan’s celebrated EP ‘Watch Out!’ reminded us of the ecstasy club-facing music provides. As spring blossomed and we returned to that strange hybrid model of dancing while seated at tables, hearing ‘And Groove’ through giant speakers felt blissful. It guided us through the darkest part of the tunnel, into the light, where we could safely gather to discuss the song’s beauty in person rather than over hurried WhatsApp messages. DHRUVA BALRAM

Jayda G 'All I Need'
[!K7]

You know that warm, fuzzy glow when you’re leaving a club, surrounded by your friends, just as the sun’s coming up? That’s how Jayda G’s productions sound, like ‘All I Need’, taken from her ‘DJ-Kicks’ mix. Somehow capturing both lazy, post-dance mornings and the bump and groove of low-slung house in action, Jayda’s romantic vocal work and heady production makes you want to close your eyes, throw your hands in the air and grab whoever’s closest to you. It’s a love letter to friendships, and the dancefloors they’re made on. AMY FIELDING

Joaquin Joe Claussell 'Air We Breathe (Revisited Cassette Demo)'
[Rekids]

Joe Claussell can get the dancefloor going with the best of them, but the NYC vet has long been exploring the spiritual end of the house spectrum, with his productions and DJ sets often more akin to meditative explorations of percussive mesmerism than they are fist-pumping party-starters. ‘Air We Breathe (Revisited Cassette Demo)’, off of this past summer’s excellent ‘Raw Tones’ LP, is a prime example of Claussell’s mastery of free-flowing rhythms, capped by a subtly majestic melody that stirs the soul. BRUCE TANTUM

John Glacier 'Boozy'
[PLZ Make It Ruins]

The average person might have spent most of 2021 with fingers permanently crossed against the disorientation of our times, but putting words to that feeling was John Glacier. The choppy, Vegyn-produced ‘Boozy’ is as vulnerable as it is languid, as Glacier shares amblings on lovers, friends, and the physical and emotional distance between them (“You see hues when I’m high but I’m feeling low,” she raps). The closing refrain ”I’m not better I’m just different” is endearingly honest, something we need more of in music. CHRISTINE OCHEFU

Jubei & dBridge 'Show Me'
[Carbon Music]

In the days of yore, highly sought-after, super-secret dubs were commonplace — so much so that there’s now a lucrative trade in unearthing them. But with a biblical flood of new tunes now released each week, holding down a certified banger is a rarity. To launch his new label, Jubei shared a dub few thought would see the light of day, igniting joy across the d&b scene and selling out the wax in what seemed like seconds. ‘Show Me’ maximises its minimal elements, a simple vocal snippet and euphoric bleeps proving utterly irresistible. BEN HINDLE

Kameliia 'Less Effects'
[Overbalance]

Bulgarian artist Kameliia wrote ‘Less Effects’ before the pandemic and by the time the track was released in January 2021 on Russian label Overbalance, it wasn’t possible for ‘Less Effects’ to go full whack on club soundsystems due to lockdowns worldwide. But ‘Less Effects’ slipped into D.Dan’s Boiler Room in July when he unleashed this secret weapon upon an eager crowd in Warsaw. The title reflects Kameliia’s approach — stripped back, groovy techno that nods to her love of classical piano. NIAMH O’CONNOR

Kasango 'Closer'
[Madorasindahouse Records]

The same man who produced arguably the biggest Afro-house track of the year (‘Osama’ with Zakes Bantwini), South Africa-hailing Kasango has retained a steady upward trajectory in Afro-tech since his 2020 ‘One Night’ EP. A gorgeous, goosebump-inducing single, ‘Closer’ reinforces that rise, as Kasango takes an anonymous, royalty-free sample and sculpts an entirely irresistible earworm. If this offering is anything to go by, 2022 is bound to see him return to the end-of-year lists with a glowing debut album. SHIBA MELISSA MAZAZA

Little Simz 'Introvert'
[Age 101 Music/AWAL Recording]

This from Simz trumps all. The opening militaristic drums and big orchestral production can scarcely prepare you for the epic nature of ‘Introvert’, Simz running through a highly personalised take on the cognitive dissonance of inner-city living, encountering “Poverty / Corrupt government officials, lies and atrocities”. Her manifesto is laid bare, supremely powerful verses on personal/political truths offset by an optimistic chorus — “Find a way I’ll find a way / The world’s not over”. Majestic. ‘Introvert’ is her magnum opus. CARL LOBEN

LMajor 'Can’t Do It'
[Astrophonica]

In 2021, the sound seeping from studio bass-bins and (later in the year) club speaker-stacks was often breakbeat powered. LMajor, together with his Club Glow crew and as half of Local Group, has been instrumental in this, making both 140bpm slammers and razor-sharp jungle tracks. But his music isn’t just a retro exercise: ‘Can’t Do It’ used classic motifs (tidy drum edits, diva hollers, warping bass), but delivered them with modern production and an ear influenced by newer dance music evolutions. BEN MURPHY

Nia Archives 'Headz Gone West'
[2021 HIJINXX]

Jungle, it’s safe to say, is in ruder health than it has been since the ‘90s, and that’s thanks to new-gen innovators like Nia Archives. ‘Headz Gone West’ and the EP of the same name erupted in 2021 to add a surprise burst of melodious R&B to the new-school jungle sound. Add to that her acid-washed, psychedelic aesthetic and trippy, DIY rave videos she posts to her Instagram and you’ve got a refreshing new take on jungle that’s not quite liquid and certainly not a revival. JAMES KEITH

Lyra Pramuk & Eris Drew 'Everything Is Beautiful & Alive'
[Bedroom Community]

Lyra Pramuk and Eris Drew are both icons in their own right, so for them to join forces on a record was one of 2021’s special gifts. Taken from Pramuk’s ‘Delta’ album that arrived in September, ‘Everything Is Beautiful & Alive’ feels like a perfect summary of the helter-skelter happenings of 2021 and the post-lockdown relief. It’s ecstatic drums and warm ‘90s lean build a beaming sense of euphoria that many of us were thankful to re-engage with when clubs reopened. SOPHIE MCNULTY

Mainline Magic Orchestra 'Xumba Xumba'
[Public Possession]

Just as many of us were tentatively stepping back onto dancefloors this summer, along came Mainline Magic Orchestra’s heater ‘Xumba Xumba’. A chugging number by a live house music band that doesn’t take itself too seriously, it had the perfect temperament to ease us back into it all. With its winding synths and cheeky percussion, the track is as sleazy as it is silly, sending good vibes from Barcelona to radio shows and parties all over the world. SAFI BUGEL

Octo Octa 'Find Your Way Home'
[T4T LUV NRG]

Octo Octa and her partner Eris Drew established themselves as woodland spirits this year, relocating from Brooklyn and Chicago, respectively, to a cabin in the New Hampshire forest. This added a naturalistic spin to their projects, which locate divine enchantment in the giddiness of classic rave. Octo Octa’s ‘She’s Calling’ EP contains a goddess invocation and an incantational spell; this eight-minute track in-between is a wiggy stumble through the cosmic thicket into various faerie rings. It’s also blessedly, affirmingly fun. MARKE BIESCHKE

osquinn 'from paris, with love'
[Dimiss Yourself]

Sixteen-year-old digicore pioneer osquinn dropped her debut record ‘drive-by lullabies’ this year, and with it came the faster-than-the-internet chaos of ‘from paris, with love’. A frenetic, ice-cold track, it thrashes between analogue twinkles one moment and plunging headfirst into a curb-stomping brostep drop and a noise freak-out the next — all in the space of three minutes. The track is the sound of an artist who — by choice or for lack of options — is terminally online and, by default, staggeringly creative. SOPHIE WALKER

Overmono 'So U Kno'
[Poly Kicks]

You’re wandering down a club corridor when, suddenly, the walls heave and hum, the bass kicking in from behind a closed door. You push the door but don’t rush it. The anticipation is the point; it’s romantic. Overmono have this moment built into their music. ‘So U Kno’ is so UK it hurts, snatches of what makes this grim island worth raving on. Whips of hardcore and garage make your lip curl into a smirk — they know where they come from — and that whirling bass-and-drums line and vocal sample are pure rave melancholia. LAUREN MARTIN

Pa Salieu 'Style & Fashion (feat. Obongjayar)'
[Warner Music]

In 2021, UK drill dominated the rap sphere to the point of saturation, but Coventry’s Pa Salieu has carved his own distinct lane, tapping into his Gambian heritage to offer listeners something different since his breakthrough in 2020. September’s ‘Afrikan Rebel’ EP is a pan-African celebration, and the Obongjayar-assisted ‘Style & Fashion’ is the standout cut, leaning into South African gqom and the amapiano sound which is now making serious, groove-crested waves on our cold island. ROB KAZANDJIAN

Parris 'Skater’s World (with Eden Samara)'
[Can You Feel The Sun]

The first single from Parris’ excellent debut album ‘Soaked In Indigo Moonlight’ was a proper head-turner. Stacked layers of stop-start, UK funky-ish percussion all rattle and wriggle in service of Eden Samara’s infectious vocal spirals. By alloying a mutant beat to the type of featherweight melody more commonly found on a Motown classic, Ciara staple or Sleigh Bells shredder, Parris stuck the landing on that increasingly rare thing: a slice of genuinely original pop. Hitmakers of the world, take note. GABRIEL SZATAN 

PR SAD & R6 'Karma'
[Pressplay Media]

‘Karma’ combines the acerbic flow of two of UK drill’s most promising young MCs, with #67’s PR SAD and R6 both having dropped huge individual tracks in the last year — ‘One Wish’ and ‘Notorious Hill’ respectively. In a year when many artists in the scene have questioned drill’s venture into poppier territory, ‘Karma’ is a dark cut that stays true to the sound’s origins. ROB MCCALLUM

Qrion 'Monolith'
[Last Night On Earth]

In November 2020, a massive statue appeared unexpectedly in a Utah canyon, bewildering news outlets and rustling up notions of alien visitors. Japanese producer Qrion was so moved by this that she produced ‘Monolith’, a melodic, acid-tinged house cut that is as mystifying in shape as the sleek, metallic sculpture that inspired it. The minimal foundations of this engaging track set the tone for a sonic journey that ignites the imagination, reminding us that there are many mysteries that we’ll never truly understand. MEGAN VENZIN 

Rochelle Jordan 'LOVE YOU GOOD'
[Young Art Records]

On the opening track of her first LP in six years, Rochelle Jordan teamed up with Alix Perez and Machinedrum on production. The result was ‘LOVE YOU GOOD’, a skittering drum & bass track with swathes of pads that elevate Jordan’s breathy vocal. After somewhat of a personal hiatus from dance music during lockdown, Rochelle Jordan putting out her most club-focused record to date encouraged me to tune back in, enjoying how her music is informed by the sounds she heard as a child in London in the early ‘90s. KATIE THOMAS

Russ Millions & Tion Wayne 'Body (Remix)'
[Warner Music]

It's historic, unprecedented and possibly the biggest UK rap song of all time — the first UK drill song to top the British singles chart and hit No.1 one in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. But regardless of all that, ‘Body’ is simply an unstoppable tune; from Tion Wayne’s effortless command of the mic, to Russ’s dance moves, to ArrDee’s endlessly quotable guest verse, to the best beat anyone’s produced in years. Any list of 2021’s finest music is incomplete without it. SAM DAVIES

SHERELLE '160 Down The A406'
[Self-released]

This debut banger from SHERELLE was the anthem of the summer reopening, cramming all the feels into a frenetic six minutes that (much like June-August) peaks from start to finish. It is a pure and unadulterated celebration of the present moment, when our voracious appetites for connection and togetherness have finally been quenched; yet there’s a sense of sadness and introspection throughout too, serving as a reminder of the trauma we’ve all just undergone, and acknowledging the complexity and utter precariousness of it all. ZARA WLADAWSKY

Sleepnet 'Angel Blade'
[Vision Recordings]

If there was a moment that truly confirmed that Noisia had come to an end, it was the start of Sleepnet. ‘Angel Blade’ landed in January with no info but enough references for fans to suspect all kinds of post-split collabs, from Deadmau5 to Skrillex. Eventually revealed as Nik Roos, he explained how ‘Angel Blade’ (and the full EP it led to) was the galvanisation of emotions he felt from the band’s split, the awfulness of 2020, and everything in between. If there was a tune that truly captured the weirdness of 2021, it’s this. DAVE JENKINS

SOPHIE 'BIPP (Autechre Mix)'
[Numbers]

Released just a couple of weeks before SOPHIE’s tragic death in Athens at the start of the year, Autechre’s take on one of the artist’s early masterpieces dialled down the maximalism of the original, and the beauty was in its simplicity. Retaining the sublime — albeit pitched down — vocals of the source material, the duo transformed ‘BIPP’ into a chugging, freestyle groover and made good on SOPHIE’s insistence that they be the only artists permitted to officially remix her work. CHRISTIAN EEDE

SW2 feat. Moses Boyd 'Dirty South (Sully Remix)'
[GD4YA]

Sully's interpretation of a contemporary jazz track sounds so different from the original, it’s almost unidentifiable. While Boyd’s drums are re-fashioned into rolling percussion, broken only by swathes of dubby vibrations, jabs of brass add an occasional bluesy hiccup to the drumfunk dress-up. This is creative mixing at its finest: fun, sharp, daring, but discrete. A side-project for the esteemed jungle producer, it’s an exciting, unexpected collaboration. CHIARA WILKINSON

The Colours That Rise 'Polo 1.2 (Live)'
[Rhythm Section International]

TCTR’s jazzy, sci-fi ‘Grey Doubt’ was one of the best albums of 2020, and while the duo work on a follow-up, Rhythm Section kindly delivered the three-track ‘Mixtape 1’ to tide us over. The EP’s ‘Polo 1.2 (Live)’ stole the show, with lush synths and a subtly funky, heartbeat-like rhythm that pair sublimely with Simeon Jones’ wistful vocal about returning to his roots, but which could just as easily apply to a lost love or even a time pre-Covid. Woozy, melancholic perfection. BEN HINDLE

Tom VR 'Fast Track To Bliss'
[InterGraded]

My playlists this year were all loaded with the tightly wound, knotty rhythms which are having an extended moment in both techno and d&b. My favourite of these was this undulating melter from Tom VR on Midland’s Intergraded label, its cascading euphoria the perfect thing to build a mix around. It also dropped during the darkest months of lockdown at the start of the year, and proved a potent evocation of the best moments on the dancefloors I was so badly missing. THEO KOTZ

Voodoos & Taboos 'Doorway'
[Phonica AM]

With a strike of divine timing — just as the clubs slung open their doors — Phonica’s new imprint headed by Luther Vine revealed this slamming Voodoos & Taboos EP. ‘Doorway’ is everything one desires in a dance record and designed perfectly for a club soundsystem; unfaltering energy, pulsating kicks, euphoric pads, intricate breaks and weaving melodies that send people into a frenzy. This timeless record is giving the dancefloors a new lease of life. ANNA WALL

Zakes Bantwini & Kasango 'Osama'
[Paradise Sound System]

The world witnessed how influential social media can be when pushing Afro-house across borders with ‘Osama’. The song was first teased on the Kunye live stream in September, with a clip that went viral displaying the heartfelt lyrics chanted from the mouths of those present. Before its official release, it was already dubbed the “anthem of the year” and that manifested on a global scale. The infectious track spread hope across Europe, America and Africa — all laced with Afro-house magic. KITTY AMOR

Want more? Read our top compilations of 2021 here