The Best Albums of 2021

For a while, every album-of-the-year list felt like it was written by Tony Soprano. That is, the version of Tony from The Sopranos’ pilot episode; the man who spends his first therapy session bemoaning the sad state of his era:

“It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”

For Tony, that feeling summed up a lot of things — the decline of American values, the growing instability of organized crime, the disappearance of the “strong, silent type.” But for music critics, the best is over meant something else entirely.

Here’s a little game you can play. Go to any best-of list from any major publication, written between 2015 and 2020, and ctrl + F for the word “dead.” You’re almost sure to find something. Somewhere, everywhere, all at once, writers were discussing the death of the album as a format.

That doesn’t mean everyone agreed on it. At this point, the Albums Don’t Matter Theory has passed through every organ of the hot take digestive cycle. Are albums dead? But wait, are they actually not? Or, are they maybe not dead yet, but slowly dying? Or, or, or, are they actually having one last death rattle before an inevitable descent into irrelevance?

Yes, there are at least a million reasons to suggest that long-form music is a declining art — so many, in fact, that it’s not even worth mentioning any of them, because at this point even the most casual music fan has probably heard them all. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that, this year, there were just so many really damn good albums.

Maybe what’s actually dying, if something has to be dying, is the idea that albums don’t matter. Because the truth is, they’ve taken on a new meaning, a new place in our gigantic, endless, niche-heavy, monoculture-defying pop culture ecosystem.

And the same goes for end-of-year lists. Back in the heyday of albums, best-of lists were meant to form consensus, to give some objective sense of What’s Good and What Matters. But now, those same lists exist to offer dissent. They’re an etc. to whatever enormous roster of great music you already found packaged neatly in your Spotify Wrapped playlist. Best-of doesn’t matter. No. 1 spots don’t either. All that matters is the list, and what it contributes to every other, totally different list out there.

Hopefully, that’s what you’ll find below. A top-25 list just like any other, full of oddball choices, idiosyncratic favorites and, near the top, a few attempts to explain what makes these records so amazing. The best isn’t over yet.

25. AJ Tracey – “Flu Game”

24. Allison Ponthier – “Faking My Own Death”

23. Jungle – “Loving In Stereo”

22. Leon Bridges – “Gold Diggers Sound”

21. Maxo Kream – “WEIGHT OF THE WORLD”

20. Kanye West, “Donda”

19. Joy Crookes – “Skin”

18. Silk Sonic – “An Evening With Silk Sonic” 

17. Blu DeTiger – “How Did We Get Here?”

16. Olivia Rodrigo – “SOUR”

15. Alice Phoebe Lou – “Glow”

14. Still Woozy – “If This Isn’t Nice, I Don’t Know What Is”

13. Snail Mail – “Valentine” 

12. Adele – “30”

11. Sun June – “Somewhere”

10. Baby Keem – “The Melodic Blue”

In August, Kendrick Lamar shared a cryptic Instagram post that, among other things, announced what felt like the end of TDE. The record label, with Lamar as its de facto poster boy, has managed to dominate rap music for the 2010s — spawning 23 albums, 84 music videos, four platinum records and an Eiffel Tower-sized stack of Grammys.

So where is Kendrick pushing his chips next? It seems like he’s betting on his baby cousin, who, at just 20 years old, managed to break through with one of the greatest rap debuts of the last five years. The Melodic Blue is Keem’s arrival as a fully formed artist — he’s a skilled rapper, a surprisingly good singer and, like his older cousin, a laugh-out-loud comedian when he wants to be. There’s nowhere that’s more apparent than on “Family Ties,” which, even just months away from its debut, already feels like a kind of torch-passing.

9. Faye Webster – “I Know I’m Funny Haha”

Sometimes, it doesn’t need to be complicated. On her 2019 breakthrough, Atlanta Millionaire’s Club, Faye Webster brushed up against a rare kind of critical acclaim for someone who was, at the time, just 21 years old.

With I Know I’m Funny haha, Webster doubled down on that formula for success, and impressively, found even more successes in the process. The album is a breezy, head-bobbing refinement of what worked the last time: soft saxophones, cruising steel pedal guitars and of course, Webster’s voice, which balances every stage of romantic longing at once.

This is an album of love songs, whether they’re about a teenage crush on an Atlanta Braves all-star or about trying to impress your boyfriend’s sisters. Webster’s lyrics are hilarious, poignant and idiosyncratic, but the formula is simple.

8. Big Red Machine – “How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?”

There are supergroups, and then there’s Big Red Machine. The indie-folk collective, centered around longtime friends Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon, has plenty of star power, added an all-star list of talent to its roster this year — from Taylor Swift to Fleet Foxes to Anaïs Mitchell to Sharon Van Etton.

The difference, though, is that BRM never feels like a supergroup. The band’s second album, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last, feels as loose and collaborative as a jam session, often letting its talented guests paint their own landscapes over Dessner’s stripped-down piano. Even “Renegade,” the Taylor Swift-featuring. single that announced BRM’s return, is a quiet piece of business, a somber, lovely pop song with minimal instrumentation and a chorus that could have just as easily been a B-side from Swift’s Evermore album.

There’s a beauty in this simplicity, which at its best, allows Dessner and Vernon to craft some of their most interesting work yet.

7. Little Simz – “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is an album that belongs to several worlds at once. Over the course of 19 tracks, Little Simz spans from London to Nigeria, from hip-hop to orchestra music to neo-soul and funk. Similarly, the album finds the 27-year-old struggling between several personalities. From song to song, she juggles her introversion and self-doubt alongside pride, confidence and well-deserved bravado.

Beyond that, the album features possibly the best rapping of the year. On Introvert, Simz is fully realized as a lyricist, and ready to tackle the weightiest issues she can sink her teeth into. That desire is readily present on songs like “Two Worlds Apart” and “Point and Kill,” but most of all “Woman,” a track so dense and expertly crafted that it operates as a full-fledged anthem.

6. Cassandra Jenkins – “An Overview On Phenomenal Nature”

There is no song quite like “Hard Drive.” The third track on Cassandra Jenkins’ groundbreaking EP is part-spoken-word poetry, part-therapy-session, part-post-rock-epic. Throughout the song, Jenkins speaks slowly, confidential, in pain but sure of herself, as guitars, pianos, saxophones, drums, all swell and build around her, ending in a simple, cathartic reminder: “just breathe.”

At times, Phenomenal Nature feels like the moment after that much-needed breath. Other times, it feels like the days and months and years of suffering before it. Jenkins spends vast portions of the EP processing grief, namely for David Berman, the former Silver Jews frontman who befriended Jenkins shortly before dying by suicide in 2019. That loss is everywhere in Jenkins’ performance — in her low, whispering singing, in her lyrics, which find symbolism and metaphor in everyday life — but, beneath it, there’s a sense of acceptance, a profound insistence on moving forward.

5. Porches – “All Day Gentle Hold !”

It’s hard to know what exactly you’re supposed to feel while listening to a Porches record. Aaron Maine, who founded the group in 2010, makes music that’s as confusing as it is addictive.

All Day Gentle Hold ! is full of contradictions. It’s a synth-pop record full of fuzzed-out guitars. It’s a collection of love songs that constantly reference blood and gore. It’s a series of gorgeous melodies, but sung in Maine’s signature vocal pout.

It’s also, more simply, Maine’s best album to date — and possibly the most purely fun album of the year.

4. Isaiah Rashad – “The House Is Burning”

There’s no way to talk about Isaiah Rashad’s return without first talking about his disappearance. After releasing his critically acclaimed second album,The Sun’s Tirade, in 2016, Rashad went dark. For a near-five-year span, he zipped up his career just as it was bursting open, taking time off to work on his mental health and his struggles with substance use.

On The House Is Burning, Rashad is back in full form — only this time, he’s wiser, stronger and facing himself head-on. The precise, peanut-butter-smooth rapping that made his early projects so great is still there, but it’s turned inward, as Rashad’s lyrics grapple with his past, present and future. At times, he speaks as his own therapist, questioning and interrogating his inner monologue with the confidence of someone who’s no longer afraid of the answers.

3. Clairo – “Sling”

Less than two years into our #NewNormal, the term pandemic album has already become trite. But Sling, just the second full-length album of Clairo’s already remarkable career, is the exception that proves the rule. It’s an act of supreme flexibility, a record turned so inward it hurts.

It’s a study in loneliness and self-reflection so astute, so poignant and biting, that it could only come from spending an unprecedented amount of time alone. Surrounded by spacey pianos and sullen, ’70s-inspired acoustic guitars, there’s almost a cruelty to Clairo’s voice when she sings about herself. It’s bold, but only because it’s so relatable. It’s a sense of perspective we’ve all been forced to reckon with.

2. Tyler, The Creator – “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST”

Tyler, The Creator has always worked with a f*ck you mentality. It’s part of what makes his music so special.

But on CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, that mentality takes a different shape. It’s a “so this is what you really wanted? “ kind of middle-finger flip, an embrace of capital-R, Real Rap Music by an artist who, lack of recognition aside, has done more to change hip-hop than almost anyone over the past decade.

Tyler has always had bars, but here he holds nothing back — jabbing surgically through his verses while DJ Drama, the album’s official host and hype man, spends every breath in his lungs reminding listeners that Sir Baudelaire is not to be messed with.

Even more impressive than Tyler’s rapping, though, is his honesty. CMIYGL, finds the 30-year-old at his most vulnerable yet, chronicling a thorny and heartbreaking love triangle through a feature-length story that concludes on “WILSHIRE,” a nine-minute epic that may be Tyler’s most impressive song to date.

1. Arlo Parks – “Collapsed In Sunbeams”

It makes sense that Collapsed In Sunbeams, Parks’ debut album, opens with a poem. That’s because the 21-year-old Londoner —who in September earned the U.K.’s prestigious Mercury Prize for the country’s most outstanding album — considers herself a writer first and foremost. Many of the songs on Sunbeams began as poetry, and it shows. Parks’ verses are airtight, filled with complex cadences, plainspoken metaphors and internal rhyme schemes that would make most rappers jealous.

The songs on Sunbeams are not complex — usually, it’s just Parks and a simple guitar-or-piano-focused melody, provided by her frequent collaborator Gianluca Buccellati — but that’s because they don’t need to be. There’s a purity to the emotions on this record, whether it’s a discussion of suicidal thoughts on “Black Dog,” or a story about interrupted queer love on “Green Eyes.”

And then there’s her voice. Parks sings naturally, with her accent gliding from each note to the next, phrasing each word like a real person with real problems and real, relatable heartbreak. It’s a simple thing in theory, but something so far artists manage with such dexterity, especially at such a young age. It’s what has — and will — make her a voice for a generation, hopefully for years and years and years to come.

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