The 40 Best Albums of 2021

Here we go. As another year draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on all of the art this year has gifted us. From chart-busting efforts from Olivia Rodrigo (Sour) and Adele (30) to genre-bending projects from Tinashe (333) and Lil Nas X (Montero), this year in music was a rewarding one. The common thread for the 40 albums on this list is their commitment to the truth of their artists. These albums grappled with the interlocking realities of the pandemic, divorce, addiction, and growing up with a steadfast commitment to vulnerability. Music’s biggest stars slashed their facades (just a little bit), and let us peek into their psyches with some truly outstanding records. These are the 40 Best Albums of 2021:

40. Southern Curiosity (Fancy Hagood)

Mick Music

Notoriously one of the most stubborn and reluctant genres, country music’s best offerings almost always come from those purposely pushing against the grain. Fancy Hagood’s Southern Curiosity, a tender collection of autobiographical notes on youth and queerness, is a shining jewel of country music greatness. He rips through heartbreaking ballads (“Either”) and grooves his way through thumping anthems (“Casanova”) on his journey across a soundscape that blends elements of traditional country music with bedroom pop. Fancy’s luscious tone landed him a blockbuster collaboration with Ariana Grande and Meghan Trainor almost seven years ago. That same tone has matured to one that drips with wisdom and wistfulness, weaving life lessons and well wishes for the next generation into every phrase. Listen to: “Either” and “Southern Curiosity”

39. Shelley FKA DRAM (Shelley FKA DRAM)

Empire / Atlantic

Although Shelley FKA DRAM has experienced his fair share of mainstream pop success, that isn’t the focus on this album. If pop music can be understood as effervescent musical catharsis anchored by its own universality — then that’s Shelley FKA DRAM. R&B has been described as “Black pop music,” and this is 2021’s clearest example of that. His earnest vocal performances evoke the blues in their rawness, and the buoyant production is a tribute to the rhythms that make R&B so magical. After a stint in rehab and some time off to recalibrate, DRAM was reborn as Shelley FKA DRAM. This new album, the first under his new moniker, is from a man with a clearer perspective on life and his purpose. Somber synth-laden soundscapes decorated with disco and neo-soul references underscore his paeans for love and reciprocation. Despite the myriad influences and collaborations (H.E.R., Erykah Bady, Summer Walker, etc.), Shelley remains in control. Listen to: “Married Woman” and “Remedies”


38. SoulFly (Rod Wave)

Alamo

One of the saddest guys in a genre that has gotten more and more melancholy, Rod Wave’s SoulFly is one of the most reflective albums of the year. Rap ballads are Rod’s chosen avenue to explore the links between his childhood and present self. It’s not the beats or the flows that make SoulFly such an enthralling listen. It’s his voice — inviting, intimidating, nostalgic, and hopeful — that keeps the project steady. Blues and soul reverberate in his tender vocal delivery to offset the blunt storytelling that he is so fond of. “I watched my cousin smoke crack his whole fuckin’ life/Fentanyl hit the street and he OD’d the same night,” he laments on “Pillz & Billz.” Unlike many rap albums of this year, SoulFly’s success is not contingent upon big-name guest artists or unbelievably long tracklists, it’s the earnest quality of his voice and storytelling that does the heavy lifting. Listen to: “SoulFly” and “Tombstone”


37. Dancing with the Devil… The Art of Starting Over (Demi Lovato)

Island

It truly is unfortunate that Demi’s year was derailed the way that it was. Dancing with the Devil… The Art of Starting Over, their seventh studio album, was their strongest and most consistent offering yet. An overwhelming journey through their most recent battle with addiction and subsequent recovery, Dancing with the Devil combines all of Demi’s musical personas to ignite their healing process. There’s the spunky pop-rock of their early Disney days (“The Art of Starting Over”), forays into trap-inspired pop bangers (“Met Him Last Night”), and soul-influenced hymns of survival (“Sunset”). Above all, Demi’s voice sounds better than it ever has. Whether their voice is soaring across the album’s numerous ballads or adopting a distinct rap-sung cadence, it sounds full of life and passion. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “Easy” and “The Way You Don’t Look At Me”

36. A Touch of the Beat… (Aly & AJ)

Aly & AJ Music / AWAL

Yes, that’s two Disney alumni back-to-back. Don’t worry, there are more coming! Aly & AJ’s fourth studio album (full title: A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun) is a formidable return to the scene. Their first album since 2007, A Touch of the Beat relies on tender guitars, lush melodies, and gentle vocal performance to anchor lyrics that explore divorce, love amid the pandemic, and the creation of microcosmic getaways. A Touch of the Beat… is probably the 2021 album that handled pandemic-as-a-muse-syndrome with the most grace. Aly & AJ didn’t inundate us with preachy sermons about vapid “lessons” the pandemic taught them, nor did they limit their exploration of the past two years to quarantine. Their nuanced look at separation on the physical, emotional, and legal levels elevated A Touch of the Beat heads and shoulders above most of this year’s releases. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “Slow Dancing” and “Stomach”

35. Solar Power (Lorde)

Universal

“Now if you’re looking for a saviour, well, that’s not me / You need someone to take your pain for you? / Well, that’s not me,” Lorde tells us on “The Path,” Solar Power’s gripping opening track. The sharp and sunny set, Lorde’s third studio album, trades the brooding synths and melancholy refrains of her previous records for urgent searches for some semblance of optimism. At some points, it feels like Lorde has cracked the code (“Solar Power”), and at other points, she hints that the code is to lean into the frivolousness of our society’s self-help culture (“Mood Ring”). Wherever she lands, Lorde’s pivot to breezy surf rock-inflected tunes shines. Her songwriting still cuts to the bone, but it’s the charismatic tonal inflections and background vocals courtesy of Clairo and Phoebe Bridgers that really seal the deal. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “Fallen Fruit” and “The Path”

34. Something for Thee Hotties (Megan Thee Stallion)

1501 Certified / 300

Megan Thee Stallion, sorry, Megan Thee Graduate, has had a fruitful 2021. As the Good News album cycle began to wind down, Megan spent the year cranking out collaborations, collecting awards, and promoting her now Grammy-nominated 2021 single, “Thot Shit.” In October, she dropped a mixtape that compiled old freestyles and some new music. Something for Thee Hotties is a fiery collection of tracks that re-center Megan’s focus. Her bars are at their slickest, her flows are more experimental, and the hooks come naturally. The pimpish cockiness of Tina Snow makes a welcome return with boasts that are infinitely more lavish in a year where Megan earned three Grammy Awards and graduated college. If anything, Megan sounds more clear-headed than she has in quite some time. It’s her best project since Fever. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “Megan’s Piano” and “Megan Monday Freestyle”

33. Montero (Lil Nas X)

Columbia

Talk about a year. From “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” to “Sun Goes Down” and from “Industry Baby” to “That’s What I Want,” Lil Nas X has owned 2021. Montero, a deeply personal reflection on fame, youth, Blackness, queerness, and imposter syndrome, is a stunning achievement. Not only did Lil Nas reassure us, and himself, that he was capable of making a cohesive body of work, he also refined his sound to a singular commitment to genre hybridization that always impresses. Flipping menacing trap drums and live brass sections, Lil Nas treats his cutting musical autobiography to one of the sweetest soundscapes of the year. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “Dead Right Now” and “Don’t Want It”

32. Temporary Highs in the Violet Skies (Snoh Aalegra)

ARTium / Roc Nation

2021 has been a great year for R&B, specifically for the women in the genre. Snoh’s Temporary Highs in the Violet Skies, her third studio album, was one of the records that contributed to that greatness. Featuring the likes of Tyler, the Creator, and production courtesy of Pharrell Williams, Snoh channeled the inspirations she drew from Michael Jackson into a fuzzy and surreal record. An immersive collection of songs that find Snoh reflecting on the demise of a relationship and her role in that development and its aftermath, Temporary Highs is not a vapid affair. Snoh isn’t a belter or a riffer, but she utilizes her tone’s unique allure to draw us into her technicolor world. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “In Your Eyes” and “Just Like That”

31. Sour (Olivia Rodrigo)

Geffen

Here’s our other Disney alumna! Olivia Rodrigo, the megastar that started that exploded onto the scene back in January, delivered a debut album worthy of the hype. Beyond the obvious narrative arc of “drivers license,” “deja vu,” and “good 4 u,” Olivia examines the hysteria of high school years with lyrics that expertly combine cracked naïveté and melodrama. Pounding pianos anchor the confessional “jealousy, jealousy,” while an impassioned falsetto rounds out tender songs like “favorite crime.” Sour is a record that refuses to crumble under the hype. Olivia harnesses the punchy pop-rock of the 2000s and her other sonic influences to deliver a brief, but memorable, debut album. Read the full review here. Listen to: “hope ur ok” and “enough for you”

30. The Harder They Fall Soundtrack

The Harder They Fall (The Motion Picture Soundtrack) - Album by The Harder  They Fall | Spotify
Geneva Club / Roc Nation

The Harder They Fall, the feature film directorial debut from Jeymes Samuel, revives and refines to the Western to center the legacies of real-life Black cowboys. Its accompanying soundtrack combines sounds from across the diaspora to relay the film’s themes through another medium. The militant “Guns Go Bang,” the Jay-Z and Kid Cudi duet that’s been garnering considerable Oscar buzz, is the centerpiece of the soundtrack. The thumping bass drives the melody forward, but its militant tone is nicely contrasted by the breezy reggae of Koffee’s “The Harder They Fall” and the sensuous soul of Seal’s “Ain’t No Better Love.” The album is an interesting conglomerate of sonic influences that shies away from taking the obvious route considering the film’s genre and subject matter — and that’s what makes it so intriguing and rewarding. Listen to: “King Kong Riddim” and “Wednesday’s Child”

29. If Orange Was A Place (Tems)

Since ’93 / RCA

Unless you were living under a giant boulder (seriously… poor you, if true), you know that Wizkid and Tems’s “Essence” absolutely dominated the year. The urgent “time is of the essence” refrain captured just how radically our perceptions of time (and how we use it) have changed since the pandemic first hit. Tems’s intoxicating tone was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, reasons the song blew the way that it did. With her newest EP, If Orange Was A Place, Tems shows us just how alluring her voice can be. Whether she’s amping up the smokiness on the hazy “Crazy Tings” or trading verses with Brent Faiyaz on “Found,” her voice is always the anchor of her records. Her lyrics, however, are just as hypnotizing. Take the moody “If I was just lost, then my life would bе yours / So give me a namе, give me something to react, my end” in “Vibe Out.” Tems’s mystique is her superpower, and 2022 is hers to lose. Listen to: “Replay” and “Crazy Tings”

28. A Gangsta’s Pain (Moneybagg Yo)


Roc Nation / CMG / Bread Gang / N-Less / Interscope

At this point, you’ve probably heard the opening to Moneybagg Yo’s “Wockesha” no short of a trillion times, but it still hits. A Gangsta’s Pain boasted a massive pop record like “Wockesha” amongst a collection of tracks that balanced brooding trap with Moneybagg’s vulnerable narratives of Southern pain. Featuring the likes of Future, Big30, Polo G, Lil Durk, Pharrell Williams, and more, the album finds Moneybagg veering into a more melodic lane that adds another layer to his Memphis-bred bars. Like so many of the year’s rap albums, A Gangsta’s Pain has Moneybagg opening up and looking inwards. The honesty of his songwriting brings the album to a place where the blues reign, but they don’t dampen the whole affair. Listen to “If Pain Was A Person” and “One of Dem Nights”

27. Overgrown (Joyce Wrice)

Joyce Wrice Music

This year, Joyce Wrice dropped off her terrific debut album — a carefully studied ode to ’90’s R&B. A stark departure from the vibe&B style that’s recently dominated the genre, Overgrown leans on heavy strings, earthy bass guitar, and twinkling piano. With her debut, Joyce marries R&B and rap while ensuring each genre retains their respective separate identities — a relatively uncommon feat in recent times. Rappers like Freddie Gibbs and Westside Gunn provide gruff counterparts to Joyce’s buttery tone, while fellow R&B stars Lucky Daye and Masego intensify the sultry forlornness that drips from her voice. Overgrown immediately sets Joyce apart as an artist with a clear vision that’s not drowning in the shadows of a previous musical era. Despite a few rough edges, Overgrown proved itself to be a necessary addition to the year’s R&B lexicon. Listen to “So So Sick” and “Think About You”

26. Daddy’s Home (St. Vincent)

Loma Vista

When St. Vincent drops, you’re always guaranteed an immersive listening experience. Things were no different with Daddy’s Home. Her fourth studio album, which recently picked up a pair of Grammy nominations, is a rollicking reprise of ’70s rock inspired by her father’s release from prison. Soul and jazz influences fill the gaps left by the departure of Annie’s beloved guitar-shredding. Instead, she and Jack Antonoff lean on the aforementioned influences, as well as a healthy dose of psychedelic rock, to create a word for her to process and compartmentalize decades of pain and trauma. At once a departure and a homecoming, Daddy’s Home is one of those records that just really makes you think and reflect. Listen to: “Pay Your Way In Pain” and “The Melting of the Sun”

25. Homegrown (VanJess)

Keep Cool / RCA

VanJess’s Homegrown was one of the best albums of the year when it dropped in February, and it’s still one of the best albums of the year in December. The silky album examines the tricky cyclical nature of relationships by combining elements of funk, rock, dance, hip-hop, and soul. The beauty of Homegrown lies in its commitment to the “R” in R&B”. That “R” — rhythm — grants us funky basslines and staccato melodies that we can actually groove and dance to. Moreover, VanJess’ chemistry, they’re the second pair of sisters on this list, allows for seamlessness that’s unobtainable otherwise. They understand each other’s voices incredibly well. So well, in fact, that even when a third voice is brought in — like Lucky Daye on the “Slow Down” remix — the pair don’t get lost in the mix. You’ve had since February to get into Homegrown; this is another not-so-gentle reminder to give it a few spins. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “Caught Up” and “Slow Down (feat. Lucky Daye)”

24. The House Is Burning (Isaiah Rashad)

Top Dawg / Warner

The Top Dawg crew had a great run in 2020, even if it was on the more low-key side. SZA dominated with her standalone singles, and Kendrick stole the show multiple times on Baby Keem’s The Melodic Blue. It was Isaiah Rashad, however, that released the crown LP of Top Dawg this year. His first album in five years, The House Is Burning is a robust collage of Southern rap, moody R&B, and Isaiah’s deft lyrical abilities. The most rewarding thing that The House Is Burning is the way it injects diversity by way of tempo. Whether it’s the thumping “From the Garden” or the contemplative “Score,” The House Is Burning moves between sounds and moods with astonishing ease. Ease is the name of the game on The House Is Burning, but Isaiah never veers into autopilot mode which makes the record such an achievement. Listen to “Wat U Sed” and “Claymore”

23. The Off-Season (J. Cole)

Dreamville / Roc Nation / Interscope

Another early 2021 album, the conversation around J. Cole’s The Off-Season may have quieted down as the year drew to a close, but, if those four Grammy nominations are anything to go by, it’s still as fulfilling of a listen as it was back in March. The Off-Season is Cole’s most collaborative album in some time. Anchored by collaborations with 21 Savage, Bas, Morray, 6LACK, and more, Cole unpacks the overwhelming weight of leaving a legacy, the impending close to his run in the rap game, and his lessons learned raising his son. At times, Cole can get a little bit too in his head which results in some particularly insular moments. Nevertheless, when he’s in his narrative-driven rap lane, he can never falter. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “Hunger on Hillside” and “95 South”

22. Trying Not to Think About It (Jojo)

Clover Music / Warner

Anxiety was a strong thematic undercurrent on Jojo’s good to know, but it takes center stage on her latest EP, Trying Not to Think About It. It’s a startlingly raw project that attempts to personify anxiety and depression in an effort to fearlessly address and rebuke their presence in her life. The imagery she uses isn’t new, but framing these battles as a relationship is an intelligent and rewarding choice. The minimalist production relies on Jojo’s swirling layers of background vocals to assume different voices in her head and create a wall of sound to uphold her impassioned lead vocal performance. The overarching themes of anxiety and depression permeate through the song’s arrangements and sequencing as much as they do through the lyrics and vocal performances. Jojo continues to top herself and Trying Not To Think About It is her most cohesive project yet. Listen to “Anxiety (Burlinda’s Theme)” and “B.I.D.”

21. Alpha (Charlotte Day Wilson)

Stone Woman

Charlotte Day Wilson is enigmatic. Spiritual mystique shrouds most of Alpha, Charlotte’s harrowing long-awaited debut album. Religious imagery of baptisms and lost kindred souls cradle most of Charlotte’s lyricism. “Won’t you come find me? / Please don’t forsake me,” she pleads on “Mountains.” Alpha’s soundscape is simultaneously sparse and stacked with choir-esque walls of background vocals that lift her vocal performance to the crux of the melancholy and the celestial. With the likes of Babyface and D’Mile behind her, Charlotte Day Wilson has created a world that is distinctly personal, but the album never folds in on itself because the imagery is innately universal. Her exploration of queerness and the inner workings of romance is simply fantastic. Listen to: “Take Care of You” and “Lovesick Utopia”

20. 333 (Tinashe)

Tinashe Music

What Tinashe is experiencing now isn’t exactly a resurgence or a renaissance, but it’s a new stage of her career that’s been incredibly rewarding to witness. She dropped one of the best albums of 2019 with Songs for You, and she’s repeated the feat this year with her transformative 333. Packed with myriad genres and beat switches galore, 333 finds Tinashe’s sound at its most explorative, expansive, and explosive. Epic drums anchor “The Chase” while a breezy homage to OutKast centers “Pasadena.” 333 doesn’t stick to one mood or one sound, it’s committed to showcasing the breadth of Tinashe’s artistry and influences. There’s musical theatre, soft rock, dance, hip-hop, you name it. Embracing peace and yielding to fate is a tricky thing, but instead of flattening that experience, Tinashe translates all of those spots of discomfort into an amalgam of sounds. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “Let Go” and “Small Reminders”

19. And Then Life Was Beautiful (Nao)

RCA / Little Tokyo

We’ve been in Nao’s And Then Life Was Beautiful era for a while now, and, truthfully, I hope it never ends. Along with Aly & AJ’s A Touch of the Beat…, Nao’s fourth album is one of the few records that handled the pandemic with grace and nuance. Over a quilt of soul, acoustic pop, afrobeats, and notes of electronica, Nao dissects the ways in which the pandemic impacted different types of relationships. Whether it’s romantic, familial, platonic, or productivity-driven, relationships anchor all of our lives. Nao dedicates a song or two each different type of relationship. Her nimble voice flips between coruscating falsetto and a caliginous lower register to round out the album’s ethereal production. With collaborators ranging from Lianne La Havas to Lucky Daye to Adekunle Gold, Nao traverses the globe with a mission of healing and unity one song at a time. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “Better Friend” and “Wait”

18. Mood Valiant (Hiatus Kaiyote)

Brainfeeder

One of the challenges excellent musicians face is that their studio recordings often pale in comparison to their live renditions. With Mood Valiant, Hiatus Kaiyote finally tapped into a space where their studio recordings capture the magic and virtuosity of their live performances. Inspired by frontwoman Nai Palm’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, Mood Valiant expands the band’s unique mixture of neo-soul and jazz with kaleidoscopic arrangements. “Stone or Lavender” is a sparkling piano ballad while cogitative synths cradle “Chivalry Is Not Dead.” As songwriters, the quartet pushes the boundaries of what could be considered hooks in the way that they employ repetition to evoke disparate moods within the same song. Nai Palm’s voice, at once devastating and resilient, is the centerpiece of Mood Valiant. The whole album is contingent upon her warm timbre; every phrase hangs in the balance on her whim. Anticipation like that is as incomprehensible as it is rewarding. Listen to: “Rose Water” and “Blood and Marrow”

17. King’s Disease II (Nas)

Mass Appeal / The Orchard

At the top of the year, Nas picked up the very first Grammy of his career for the first King’s Disease installment. Fresh off the heels of that record, the sequel is just as strong, if not better. The album finds Nas continuing to cultivate his spot as an elder statesman of hip-hop that still has more to offer. He is as emotionally candid as ever on songs like “My Bible” and “The Pressure,” but collaborations with the likes of A Boogie wit da Hoodie, YG, and Blxst update his sound and allow him to continue to hold space for the younger generation. King’s Disease II benefits greatly from Hit-Boy’s rich production. The pair understand what it means to take advantage of every second. In a year with bloated tracklists and strikingly empty songs, Nas and Hit-Boy maximize every beat and every line with a sense of urgency and earnestness that comes from their honesty. King’s Disease II may just deserve a sequel of its own. Listen to: “Nobody” and “Brunch on Sundays”

16. Off The Yak (Young M.A)

M.A Music / 3D

From Saweetie and Cardi B to Megan Thee Stallion and City Girls, female rappers have dominated yet another year. Young M.A often gets lost in the mix, but Off the Yak is a sturdy reminder to cut that shit out. Cognac-drenched ruminations on love and business anchor the album’s tracklist. Even poppier and more straightforward radio cuts like the Fivio Foreign-assisted “Hello Baby” fit naturally on the album. This is because Young M.A has the singular ability to assert her dominance on any track without sacrificing her facade of cool collectedness. Even on more vulnerable tracks like the revelatory “Yak Thoughts,” she rips through bars like “Told my fans to pray for me because I’m losin’ it / Ain’t just drinkin’ the Henny now, I’m abusin’ it,” with a tone that laces its calmness with sorrow and fear. Off the Yak is a formidable sophomore effort from one of Brooklyn’s finest. Listen to: “Yak Thoughts” and “Successful”

15. We’re All Alone In This Together (Dave)

Neighbourhood

Understandably, it’s difficult to follow up an Earth-shattering debut album like Psychodrama, but, somehow, Dave has pulled off the feat with his sophomore record — We’re All Alone In This Together. Dave is a refreshing rapper in the sense that he centers the basics over any gimmicks. His bars are consistently impressive, and his flow aims to frame those lyrics instead of muddying them. Whether he’s trading braggadocious bars over drill beats with Stormzy or tapping Wizkid for a club anthem, Dave pulls from sounds across the diaspora to soundtrack this deeply vulnerable and reflective album. From the immigrant crisis to mental health, Dave grounds his music in all of the ugliness and beauty of reality which makes for a truly compelling listen. Listen to “System” and “Three Rivers”

14. Donda (Kanye West)

GOOD / Def Jam

Ah, Kanye. Or, Ye, rather. He’s still got it. Ten albums in, Kanye has delivered a sprawling album that finds him working through grief, marital problems, politics, his faith, and more. The album is unquestionably bloated and the promotion was incomparably grandiloquent, but, at its core, Donda has some of the best music of the year. The Weeknd’s haunting chorus on “Hurricane” is one of the most evocative album openers of the year, while Shenseea’s verse on “Ok Ok pt 2” effortlessly steals the show. With a red carpet’s worth of high-profile collaborators, the album is still driven by Kanye. His forays into gospel-inspired rave music (“Praise Good”) and intergalactic melodic rap (“Remote Control”) offer different shades of his sound throughout the album’s lengthy runtime. Donda is by no means a perfect album. In fact, there are some songs and collaborations on there that should have never seen the light of day. In spite of all this, Kanye’s genius manages to peek through every now and then — and it’s almost worth it. Read the DONDA Essay here. Listen to: “Life of the Party” and “Jesus Lord pt 2”

13. Still Over It (Summer Walker)

LVRN / Interscope

Over It is one of the most beloved albums of the late 2010s, and Still Over It, Summer’s sophomore record is well on its way to being one of the most beloved albums of the early 2020s. An intimate and quietly self-deprecating record, Still Over It finds Summer rediscovering herself and her worth after the demise of her relationship with London on da Track. Dipped in AutoTune instead of being drenched in it, Summer’s voice harnesses its tenderness to offset the vicious bite of songs like “Bitter” and “4th Baby Mama.” In addition, there’s less reliance on ’90’s R&B samples and more attempts to up the tempo which helps expand Summer’s sonic palette. Summer’s guitar is still present, but this time it’s accompanied by downcast saxophone and collaborators ranging from Omarion to Lil Durk. Its toxicity is peppered with stark realism, a combination that is always destined to succeed. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “Throw It Away” and “Unloyal”

12. Dawn (Yebba)

RCA

Oh look, another woman in R&B and another album inspired by the artist’s mother. I’m starting to sense a few patterns here. Yebba’s Dawn, a deeply confessional marriage of folk and R&B transforms her feelings following her mother’s passing into a fantastic debut album. Dawn technically should have arrived years ago, but this fashionably tardy arrival proved to be for the best. Yebba’s beloved voice balances hints of rasp with her impeccable vocal control to transform her voice into an instrument of its own. “October Sky” finds Yebba’s voice flirting with the delicate acoustic guitar, while the Smino-assisted “Louie Bag” is an opportunity for her to display the results of her hip-hop influences. The album is stained by Yebba’s grief, but not in an overwhelming sense. She comes up for air every now and then for the sake of pacing, and for the sake of reminding us that grief is only as all-consuming as other facets of life allow it to be. Listen to: “Purple Paranoia” and “October Sky”

11. Mother (Cleo Sol)

Forever Living Originals

A member of Sault and yet another British R&B export, Cleo Sol is a gift and her Mother album is a staggering achievement. Obviously, motherhood is the driving theme of the album, but it’s not just about Cleo’s newfound experiences since becoming a mother herself. The experience of having a mother, and the evolution of those feelings post-motherhood, drive a significant portion of the album. “Mama, please stop acting twenty-three / You’ve got responsibilities / Are you still stuck in your teens,” she sings on “23.” Her malleable voice flutters with bliss and gratefulness while dipping into retribution from time to time. Cleo’s influences are far-reaching. There’s everything from gospel to neo-soul present in the album’s compositions. Nevertheless, her experimentation with song structure is what brings the album to a new level. Three songs on Mother blast past the seven-minute mark with structures that utilize shifts in perspective, tone, and instrumentation to anchor their constant transformation. There’s genuine care and love for music and motherhood baked into every chord of this record. Don’t miss out on it. Listen to: “23” and “Know That You Are Loved”

10. Gold-Diggers Sound (Leon Bridges)

Columbia

I’ve gone on and on about how women held down R&B this year, but I would be remiss to not mention the men that have been doing their thing as well. Leon Bridges may fly under the radar when we discuss current male R&B acts, but he is undoubtedly the most consistent artist in his class. On Gold-Diggers Sound he offers a few small, but meaningful updates to his traditional-leaning sound. Leon leans into the political with the Terrace Martin-assisted and George Floyd-inspired “Sweeter.” It’s the yearning sensibilities of “Why Don’t You Touch Me,” however, that perfectly encapsulate the childlike neediness that comes with love. Leon’s songwriting is more expansive on Gold-Diggers Sound. He’s switching between different perspectives to evoke the rotating cast of characters that frequent the speakeasy from which the album draws its title. Nominated for Best R&B Album at next year’s Grammy Awards, Gold-Diggers Sound is a winking rebuttal to the asinine “R&B is dead” takes. Listen to: “Sho Nuff” and “Blue Mesas”

9. If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power (Halsey)

Capitol

Halsey’s artistic evolution has been a sight to behold. Their growth from Badlands to the provocative and deeply personal If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is as immense as it is inspiring. Executive produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, If I Can’t Have Love tears through brash iterations of rock, punk-pop, acoustic balladry, and boom-bap-adjacent soundscapes. With motherhood as the guiding principle, Halsey explores their revised relationship with femininity, love, trust, and hope on this gorgeous album. The pounding synths of “I am not a woman, i’m a god” pair nicely against the stark piano of the haunting album opener “The Tradition.” The album strikes the rare balance of simultaneously feeling like a stream of consciousness moodboard and highly structured narrative sequence. Halsey’s songwriting retreats from the worldbuilding of their first two records and continues down the path of vulnerability that they forged with Manic. Succinct and multilayered, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is their best album yet. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “Whispers” and “You asked for this”

8. star-crossed (Kacey Musgraves)

MCA Nashville / Interscope

A divorce album that combines the convergence of Shakespeare and the surreal, a haunting cover over an iconic Spanish ballad, a dash of disco, and a sprinkle of fuzzy synths — Kacey Musgraves crafted a gem with star-crossed. Her fifth studio album, star-crossed finds Kacey relying on ballads to work her way through the aftermath of her divorce. “Let me set the scene / two lovers ripped right at the seams,” she croons on the gorgeous album opener which doubles as the title track. Kacey’s greatest achievement with this album is how she blends her modern relationship and understanding of the world with classic media frameworks. She sings about the crippling perils of the “camera-roll” and pays an homage to the cadence of ballroom emcees across an album that borrows the the three-act structure from classic Greek tragedies. With some of her most honest and conversational songwriting yet, star-crossed is simply fantastic. Groovier numbers like “simple times” and “good wife,” offer subtle reprieves against heavy ballads like “angel” and “gracias a la vida.” Who cares if it’s country or pop? What matters is that it’s one of the best albums of the year. Read the full review here. Listen to: “there is a light” and “simple times”

7. Happier Than Ever (Billie Eilish)

Darkroom / Interscope

Following up a debut as impressive as When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go was always going to be a tall order. In order to craft her next record, Billie repeated the same steps — kind of. Another intimate collection of songs created alongside her older brother FINNEAS, Happier Than Ever tracks Billie’s journey of maturation and the many emotional and mental breakthroughs she’s experienced during that process. On “Male Fantasy,” the harrowing ballad that closes the album, Billie unpacks the negative impact pornography had on her at a young age. “Getting Older” and “My Future” embrace the fear that is baked into anticipating the future, while the swaggering “I Didn’t Change My Number” and “Oxytocin” echo the urgent rush of emotions that come with finally centering yourself in your own life. The dolorous drums of her debut album have been traded for breezy acoustic guitars and warmer vocal performances. One thing about Billie, she’s going to deliver an excellent project. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “Your Power” and “Male Fantasy”

6. Planet Her (Doja Cat)

Kemosabe / RCA

By some measures Olivia Rodrigo ran this year. Some measures will say Lil Nas X, and some may say BTS. Other measures will prove to Doja to be the year’s definitive artist, and her excellent third studio album makes her case nearly impenetrable. Planet Her, a cosmic and kaleidscopic album, is easily one of the best of the year. Nothing sounds like it. The raucous eroticism of “Need to Know” and the contemplative bedroom pop balladry of “Love to Dream” shouldn’t coexist so harmoniously, but this is Doja we’re talking about. Her singular ability to effortlessly conquer any genre on a whim is what allows Planet Her to sail through afrobeats, trap, R&B, disco-tinged pop, and more with startling ease. With guest stars ranging from Ariana Grande and Gunna to Young Thug and Eve, Planet Her builds a galaxy that Doja uses as a proxy to unpack her own psyche as it relates to love, trust, betrayal, sex and relationships. Every stuttering snare and sensuous synth is maximized on this star-solidifying album. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “Alone” and “I Don’t Do Drugs”

5. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (Little Simz)

Age 101 / AWAL

As we enter the Top 5, we’ll kick things off with Little Simz’s overwhelmingly excellent Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. Her fourth studio album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is a sprawling conglomerate of testimonies concerning the industry, family, her fears, her peers, and the human experience. Primarily produced by Inflo, the album blends notes of afrobeats, rap, R&B, neo-soul, and more to help Simz traverse her way through questions that are as relatable as they are personal. If ever there was an album where the political was the personal, it’s this one. On the album’s brassy album opener, Simz raps “I’m not into politics, but I know it’s dark times / Parts of the world still living in apartheid,” before later delivering these simple yet eerie bars, “Simz the artist or Simbi the person?” How can a person interpret their own existence when its compounded by the political and the intricacies of art on both sides? I’m not sure anyone truly knows, but Simz does a great job of trying to figure it out for herself on this album. Listen to: “Introvert” and “How Did You Get Here”

4. Call Me If You Get Lost (Tyler, The Creator)

Columbia

Tyler’s discography was already incredibly consistent, but Call Me If You Get Lost took it previously unseen heights. Assisted by a colorful cast of characters ranging from 42 Dugg and Pharrell Williams to YoungBoy Never Broke Again and Brent Faiyaz, Call Me If You Get Lost is a love letter to the art of not getting lost on the odyssey that is self-reflection. Tyler looks inward and evaluates his past and present with fresh eyes a forgiving heart. He’s not running from who used to be. Instead, he uses DJ Drama’s animated interjections to soundtrack his embrace of the darkest parts of himself. To truly love is to love fully, and that’s what Tyler grants himself on this album. Wheter its the lovestruck “Wusyaname” or the contemplative “Wilshire,” Tyler’s penchant for of bluesy samples and his soulful production promise a fulfilling listen. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “Manifesto” and “Sweet / I Thought You Wanted To Dance”

3. 30 (Adele)

Columbia / Melted Stone

I know you didn’t think Adele of all people wouldn’t make an appearance on this list. The “Rolling In The Deep” songstress pulled a little bit of a bait-and-switch with “Easy On Me,” but 30 is so gorgeous that all will just have to be forgiven. Anchored by pristine production from the likes of Greg Kurstin, Max Martin, and Inflo, 30 is yet another 2021 divorce album… except it’s not a divorce album. Sure, Adele’s fourth record is certainly influenced by the events and aftermath of her divorce, but this is an album of healing, a manifesto of transparent parenthood, and an embrace of the incomprehensible irony of life. “My Little Love” submerges us in the anxious depths of her subconscious while “To Be Loved” transports us to a dimly lit Broadway stage as Adele wails from the most distraught pathways of her heart. Reggae riffs, trap drums, and dizzying strings populate 30, but it’s Adele’s brutal songwriting that keeps the whole affair from spinning out of control. Her pen is focused. Her melodies are shaped around her new vocal flexibility while her lyrics find her turning the microscope on herself in ways that she avoided doing on her first three albums. It’s her best album yet. Listen to: “Woman Like Me” and “All Night Parking”

2. NINE (Sault)

Forever Living Originals

Here’s the thing with NINE: it was only available for 99 days, so you can’t really find it online anymore. Regardless, that was never going to stop me from including it on this list. The elusive British music collective (confirmed members include Cleo Sol and Inflo), took a gamble by placing an expiration date on the music’s existence. The bright side? The quality of the music has no expiration date. Their version of neo-soul takes cues from house, funk, and rap to frame their conversations and observations through an explicitly London lens. The dark relationship between humor and grief and the metapsphycial implications of the parallels between weather and emotion are just a few of the tangents NINE saunters along. Despite the scores of layers of NINE’s lyrics, Sault’s infectious melodies keep the whole affair centered. In an era where Blackness is more of a prop than a plane of existence, Sault seeks to be as authentic and as truthful as possible. Listen to “Alcohol” and “Haha”

1. Heaux Tales (Jazmine Sullivan)

RCA

And there she is. Jazmine Sullivan, America’s current greatest singer-songwriter, crafted the most exquisite album of 2021. Heaux Tales, a sweeping exploration of sexuality and relationships from the lens of Black womanhood, set an impossible standard when it dropped at the beginning of January. In just over 30 minutes, Jazmine used a concept album to establish a cast of characters, provide guiding lessons based on shared experiences, and give space to appreciate true authenticity. Jazmine and H.E.R. join forces to slyly critique and outline the perils of internalized misogyny (“Girl Like Me”) while Anderson .Paak appears as a trademark ain’t-shit lover on the chugging “Price Tags.” As with any offering from Jazmine, her voice is simply breathtaking. Every Heaux Tales live performance has been better than the last, but the studio recordings are still as visceral and as arresting as ever. Her anguished belts on “Girl Like Me” are juxtaposed nicely against the sensual phrasing of “On It” and the swaggering rap-sung cadence of “Put It Down.” Heaux Tales is a brief listen, but it’s the most stacked auditory experience that the year had to offer. This is essential listening from here on out. Read the full album review here. Listen to: “The Other Side” and “On It”

Playlists are available on Spotify, Apple Music, and TIDAL.

3 Comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s