2021 brought us new surprises, new variants, and new music! Here are our picks for the Best Albums of 2021.
Honorable Mention: Taylor Swift – ‘evermore’
A surprise late 2020 release, this album debuted after we’d already compiled our top albums list for last year. It’s one of, if not Swift’s strongest album yet, polishing the indie and folk chops that we always knew she was capable of honing. Romantic, whimsical, and imaginative, it simply doesn’t feel right to ignore how stellar this album is.
No. 20 The Staves – ‘Good Woman’
Soft Rock, Folk Pop
It’s hard to imagine a thesis statement simpler than “I’m a Good Woman.” But The Staves pull idea after idea out of that motif across a well-blended album of bucolic pop. Written following the death of a mother, the birth of a child, and all of the life in between, ‘Good Woman’ captures a unique flux in the lives of these three sisters. They carry these new experiences into their blossoming relationships: “I’m sorry, you should be sorry too,” they sing on “Trying.” Being a “good woman” doesn’t mean being a perfect one, but one who can accept not only the faults of others but also of their own.
No. 19 Alfie Templeman – ‘Forever Isn’t Long Enough‘
Dance Pop, Psychedelic Pop
As Gen Z jockeys for its place in the mainstream, 18-year-old Alfie Templeman is spearheading them with his guitar-driven blend of psychedelic indie pop. Deftly produced, Templeman’s sense of musicality is beyond his years, a spell-binding combo with his ability to romanticize young adult life. On his second seven-track mini-album, Templeman proves that short records can tell stories just as powerful as longer ones.
No. 18 Brockhampton – ‘Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine’
Pop Rap, Hip Hop
The biggest boyband in the world has (inexplicably) slipped commercially but on ‘Roadrunner’ there are no cracks in their artistry. The group continues to uphold its reputation for hard-hitting lyrical honesty, with each of its members undressing their personal struggles for the world to see. They pull from each other’s energies and struggles and put them in a graduate-level dialogue with each other, softening the emotional rawness with upbeat productions. It’s a tough and tumultuous listen, but a rewarding one for those willing to be taken to the most fatalist of mental states.
No. 17 Snail Mail – ‘Valentine’
Indie Rock, Sad Girl Fall
“So why’d you have to erase me, darling Valentine?” 22-year-old singer-songwriter Lindsey Jordan cries on the title track of her second studio album. Her heartbreak isn’t glamourous: the pain oozes out of her nasally, raspy twang like she’s showed up on our front door, holding us hostage to her romantic confessions. It’s confrontational, brutal, and enrapturing.
No. 16 C. Tangana – ‘El Madrileño’
Latin Pop, Reggaeton
One of Spain’s rising stars, rapper/singer extraordinaire C. Tangana matches expectations with his third studio album. It’s a thrilling, expansive survey of Latin music from flamenco and reggaeton with mutations into pop, rap, and R&B, with the same experimental success that launched his collaborator (and ex) Rosaliá to international stardom. While that name undoubtedly casts a large shadow, with El Madrileño, Tangana proves that he’s more than capable – and deserving – of casting his own.
No. 15 Bo Burnham- ‘Inside (The Songs)’
A masterful TV special rarely translates into an equally brilliant album, but Bo Burnham is no ordinary creative. With blistering speed and insight, Burnham uses his spotlight to illuminate race, class, sexuality, capitalism, mental illness, and perhaps most critically, a “White Woman’s Instagram” in under an hour. While its humor is front and center, the (self-produced) music is also impressively refined. Another walk in the park for one of today’s most versatile creators.
No. 14 Jazmine Sullivan – ‘Heaux Tales’
Neo Soul, R&B
Jazmine Sullivan is one of the best vocalists in R&B today, and with the spectacular Heaux Tales, she proves that she’s an equally great auteur. She navigates and narrates her sexual experiences across the tightly-wound 32-minute project with both wit and humor, and a refreshing willingness to acknowledge contradiction. Sex can be empowering, but it can also be wounding; it can freeing and but also exploitative. These lessons would be impossible to communicate without both real-world experience and security.
No. 13 Gojira – ‘Fortitude’
Metal, Hard Rock
The French heavy metal band Gojira keeps getting better with time. Their last release, 2016’s Magma, garnered their first Grammy nominations, new chart peaks, and critical acclaim worldwide. The band has seemingly been storing energy in the five years since, culminating in an album whose sound communicates every ounce of strength that the title implies. Its gargantuan, groveling guitar riffs are partnered with hooks and choruses just as goliath and will undoubtedly serve as a template for music’s biggest stars as we return to the age of Pop Rock.
No. 12 Billie Eilish – ‘Happier Than Ever’
After her debut album proved to be nothing short of a juggernaut, the pressure to avoid a sophomore slump could have broken Billie Eilish. Instead of trying to outdo that project, she made a deliberate recalculation: to reject the expectations thrust upon her as a young woman in the music industry. The music is decidedly anti-mainstream, virtually devoid of hooks, and even more ambient than before as a statement: her career is hers and no one else’s to control.
No. 11 Spelling – ‘The Turning Wheel’
A pandemic take on Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love,’ the bay area singer Spelling’s third studio album transforms the morbid into a transcendental experience. She cathartically looks at life through the brightest side of the prism during one of the darkest historical times of recent memory. Her ethereal soprano navigates through her melodies like she’s an oracle passing divinely created tales, to uplift and enlighten those around her. Backed by its lush, electronic-tinged baroque production, The Turning Wheel is a steroid shot of optimism when the world needs it most.
No. 10 Silk Sonic – ‘An Evening With Silk Sonic’
70s Funk, Soul Pop
When Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak released “Leave The Door Open” earlier this year, listeners and music critics alike questioned f whether Silk Sonic might just be the most perfect musical combination of the last decade. On the duo’s debut output, they live up to that impressively high bar.
With Mars being an artistically-safe mega pop star and Paak being a more experimental, indie-funk act, the two bring out only the best of each other’s musical intuition. The album sounds classic and refined courtesy of some nudging from the legendary Bootsy Collins, but concurrently, undeniably fresh.
No. 9 Indigo De Souza – ‘Any Shape You Take’
Indie Rock, Garage Rock
In the age of Instagram & TikTok, it’s easy for one to lose authenticity and sanitize their personality to the point of bleaching it. Indigo De Souza represents the antithesis to that idea: perhaps the most stunning thing about her second album, Any Shape You Take, is how effortless it sounds. It’s honest to the point that one has to wonder if De Souza did any sort of withholding at all. It’s an album rich in contrast and thought, with little obfuscation to wonder what she’s thinking.
No. 8 Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & the London Symphony Orchestra – ‘Promises’
The only completely instrumental work in this list is a compelling listen for everyone – even those who largely stray from Jazz and Classical music. Promises pushes the sounds of two conventional and conservative genres forward by drawing from Pop music’s favorite muse: electronica. While this not ground-breaking in itself, its results generated are certainly so. It’s a thrilling blend of three genres where each has plenty of room to show its idiosyncracies; where each thread is clearly defined but also seamlessly interwoven.
No. 7 St. Vincent – ‘Daddy’s Home’
Psychedelic Soul, Soft Rock
St. Vincent (Annie Clark) has long been regarded as a fully developed musician, but now, she finally believes it herself. She spoke during her release week of growing up and listening to iconic 70s records like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs In The Key of Life’ but never having the courage to tackle that sound herself – until now. Sidestepping those doubts, Clark sounds as dominant as ever, channeling her unique brand of distorted rock into another incredible variant.
No. 6 Laura Mvula – ‘Pink Noise’
Laura Mvula’s third album is a mesmerizing rebuke to a hard few years. After being inexplicably dropped from Sony Music following 2016’s ‘The Dreaming Room,’ she re-signed to Atlantic/Warner and delivered one of the most captivating synthpop albums of the year. Her jazz and neo-soul influences ornament her sound and give it a character that is uniquely her own. The rich, 80s-inspired sonic palette sounds like what an early Whitney Houston record would if it ran continuously back and forth from the future.
No. 5 James Blake – ‘Friends That Break Your Heart’
Alternative R&B, Art Pop
One of music’s most prolific producers came back into his own on his fifth studio album. Over the course of 44 minutes, James Blake unravels his insecurities and traumas with some of his most poignant lyrics to date: being alive at his own funeral, the mile between his heart and head, his career in music as an ephemeral meteor shower. While few would think of a Grammy winner as adored as Blake would be so self-deprecating, it’s almost overwhelming to hear him so vulnerable. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and James Blake’s misery does wonders for our collective enjoyment.
No. 4 Magdalena Bay – ‘Mercurial World’
The California synthpop duo Magdalena Bay undeniably finds their stride on their first full-length LP. Their now fully flourished sound, like CHVRCHES but less fractal, is warm and inviting, masterfully guiding their storytelling. There’s so much depth in the sound that you could drown in it, but Mica Tenenbaum’s bright and buoyant vocals paired with the dark and heavy production makes equilibrium feel thrilling.
No. 3 YOLA – ‘Stand For Myself‘
Soul Pop, Blues
The artwork for English singer-songwriter Yola’s second studio album sees her project a statue’s moxie: eyes to the camera, fist to the sky, and title to the critics. It’s a defiant rejection of standards in an industry that is known to force conformity, and it’s reflected in the music. Yola took influences from seemingly every direction – disco, country, R&B, and oldies – to create a record unlike virtually any other made this year or in recent memory. In standing for herself, she also stands for so many voiceless others.
No. 2 W.H. Lung – ‘Vanities’
Indietronica, Dance Pop
The dancefloor is often described by writers for its cathartic release, focusing on the climax of the experience rather than all that builds up to it. But W.H. Lung understands that the reality of the dancing is often tenser – lingering eyes searching for something they may or may not find, anxious fidgeting over disheveled appearances. It’s a take on electronic music from people who have clearly experienced and loved it all, not just those treasured highs.
No. 1 The Weather Station – ‘Ignorance’
Baroque Pop, Art Pop
While it’s become a recent trend for albums to sound cinematic, ‘Ignorance’ sounds theatrical. Frontwoman Tamara Lindeman writes and sings in a whimsical but not dramatic manner, her lyrics lingering in the air well after they’ve been sung. The record’s central thesis statement can be interpreted as “Ignorance is bliss,” a biting critique of a now globalized society. Lindeman finds it in love, religion, and everyday life: “I should know better than to read the headlines.” In each and every song, she ties her observations back to that idea.
Her lyrics read like the revelations of a shy academic – “I confess I don’t wanna undress this feeling / I am not poet enough to address this peeling” but they’re no less powerful or difficult to stomach. On the opening track, she looks at her native Canada’s history with colonialism, “Loss” brutally excavates death and grieving. While at the end of the album one will agree that avoiding knowledge is also avoiding pain, they’ll also have to acknowledge that our humanity lies in being able to not just acknowledge, but work through it.
Stream songs from all of these albums in one playlist!
Hon. Mention Taylor Swift – evermore
No. 20 The Staves – Good Woman
No. 19 Alfie Templeman – Forever Isn’t Long Enough
No. 18 Brockhampton – Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine
No. 17 Snail Mail – Valentine
No. 16 C. Tangana – El Madirleño
No. 15 Bo Burnham – Inside (The Songs)
No. 14 Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales
No. 13 Gojira – Fortitude
No. 12 Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
No. 11 Spelling – The Turning Wheel
No. 10 Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic
No. 9 Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take
No. 8 Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
No. 7 St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home
No. 6 Laura Mvula – Pink Noise
No. 5 James Blake – Friends That Break Your Heart
No. 4 Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World
No. 3 YOLA – Stand For Myself
No. 2 W.H. Lung – Vanities
No. 1 The Weather Station – Ignorance