With vaccines and hope, live music began to return in 2021, and yet for a lot of us, studio recordings remained the only way we would hear new music. Luckily 2021 continued to offer a wide variety of exciting new releases.
Some notable albums that didn't make the cut for best of the year include Kanye West’s “Donda” and Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy.” This year, Lana Del Rey, Illuminati Hotties, and Talib Kweli & Diamond D. all made great albums that just barely missed the mark.
Before beginning the countdown, we should also take a moment to acknowledge fantastic re-recordings of albums that had been previously released. 2021 saw Taylor Swift beginning her re-recording of her classic, blockbuster records. Dubbing these versions, “Taylor’s Version,” these new incarnations not only allowed Swift to own the masters, thus taking control over her legacy, but they also gave her the opportunity to expand these records to include the b-sides and extra tracks that came together at the time of the albums’ original recording. The new version of “Fearless,” does the job quite well but the new version of “Red” is particularly noteworthy. (The 10-minute version of “All Too Well” is necessary listening.) It helps that Swift is a stronger performer and has an increased vocal presence than she did in both 2008 and 2012, respectively. It is historical musical revisionism in the best way.
Similarly, Jimmy Eat World, over the course of three live-streams, performed their albums, “Clarity,” from 1999, “Futures” from 2004 and “Surviving” from 2019 in their entirety. They then released the live versions of these records, dubbing these renditions as the “Phoenix Sessions.” These live takes have bite and a vital kick. Hearing standouts like “Work,” “Love Never” and the extended emo-classic “Goodbye Sky Harbor” done this way, gives these songs an extra push. They are worth finding.
And Elvis Costello in 2021 decided to take the original tracks from his 1978 classic, “This Year’s Model” and pass them off to Spanish-language singers for a new work called "Spanish Model." You probably never thought you needed to hear Juanes sing “Pump it Up,” Luis Fonsi sing “You Belong to Me,” or Raquel Sofia and Fuego’s stunning version of “I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea,” but you do. This is some fresh cross-cultural and cross-generational karaoke that shouldn’t work on paper but astoundingly succeeds in reality.
Now, the countdown:
50. Eve 6 – “Grim Value” Not only in 2021 did Max Collins become a cleverly smart-mouthed star on Twitter, but his band also returned with a brief but stunning EP. It sounds like a new beginning for them. The pandemic-minded “Black Nova” sounds like a fertile mix of influence from both Spoon and the Black Keys, while the infectiously cheeky, “I Wanna Bite Your Face” is the kind of goofy, clever power-pop that would make the late Adam Schlesinger proud. “Grim Value,” shows Eve 6 not caring about pop radio. While fans of hits like “Inside Out,” “Promise” and “Here’s to the Night” may initially notice this set’s lack of gloss, this is undeniably the band sounding freer than ever before. It’s an exciting, punk-driven rebirth.
49. Juliana Hatfield – “Blood” With perhaps one of the most disturbing album covers of the year, it is tempting to think that Juliana Hatfield’s “Blood" would be packed with political bile. Indeed it is a reflection of sorts of the last administration and our current political chasm. Songs like “Nightmary” and “Mouthful of Blood” definitely are strong protest songs, but they are also delivered with a bright, pop-infused sense of craft. Indeed, opener, “The Shame of Love,” immediately embeds itself in your head. Hatfield not only effortlessly blends pointed rage and sugary melodies but throughout the set she repeatedly shows herself to be a master of creating dense sonic textures.
48. Fresh – “The Summer I Got Good at Guitar” The latest offering from British, punky power-poppers Fresh is a five-track, 13-minute nugget that immediately makes itself necessary the second leader, Kathryn Woods declares, “I know love is a concept designed to manipulate women ... but I want it anyway,” on the title-track. Indeed, throughout the set on tracks like the commanding “Girl Clout” and the softer, warmer “My Redemption Arc,” Fresh continue to build on the promise of their 2017 self-titled set and their 2019 follow-up, “Withdraw.” If you are looking for infectious, sometimes righteous, sometimes tender power-pop, Fresh should be on your radar.
47. Danz CM – “The Absurdity of Human Existence” The music of Danielle Johnson (who used to record as Computer Magic but now records as Danz CM) is full of fun contradictions. Somehow the cuts on “The Absurdity of Human Existence,” simultaneously recall the dance music of the early '80s and imagines a modern, digitized future, filled with synths that are strangely both warm and icy. Indeed this plays like a soundtrack to a more upbeat, less dystopian answer to “Blade Runner.” “I Don’t Need a Hero,” demands attention while “My Other Self” is bubbling over with a crystalline energy that causes it to verge on trippy dream-pop. You can hear influence from the likes of Ladytron, New Order and Gary Numan all over this set in tracks like “Low” and “Idea of You.” Indeed this is the synth-driven record you need in 2021.
46. Aimee Mann – “Queens of the Summer Hotel” Aimee Mann’s latest, “Queens of the Summer Hotel,” delivers a warm, orchestral offering full with the kind of dense character-studies, on-which she has built her reputation. If you’ve listened to any of her records since she scored “Magnolia,” more than two decades ago, tracks like “Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath,” “Give Me Fifteen,” and “At the Fricke Museum,” should not come as a surprise. In fact, this record is packed with scholarly wisdom in both its execution and craft. She even manages to make an aching waltz like “the jarringly-titled, “Suicide is Murder” sound like an elegant show-tune of the highest order.
45. Kacey Musgraves – “Star-Crossed” Right from its title-track, Kacey Musgraves’ latest record makes its mission statement clear. This is a Latin-tinged, drama-filled, heartfelt and heartbroken album about divorce. With its synths and its occasional autotune, this record shows Musgraves further distancing herself from her initial country base, but songs like “Good Wife,” “Justified” and “Camera Roll” should please those fans who came aboard on her incredible last offering, “Golden Hour,” even if this set is covered in more liberally-applied layers of sonic sheen. When Musgraves name-checks her last album on “What Doesn’t Kill Me,” a few moments before she declares, “What doesn’t kill me better run,” it is a defining moment.
44. Willow – “Lately I Feel Everything” On her latest album, Willow Smith discovers her inner pop-punk. The simple act of recruiting Travis Barker to play drums on several tracks, including the remarkable opener, “Transparent Soul,” shows she knows exactly what she is doing. When Avril Lavigne shows up on the infectious, “Grow,” her intentions are clear, somehow also giving Lavigne her best song in over a decade. It’s not all punk. “Xtra,” with Tierra Whack, has some R&B and hip-hop textures slipping in alongside the rock. “Naïve” is also a highlight, somehow sounding effortlessly weightless. Would this record be better without the 37-second interlude, “F--- You?” Yes, but this is still quite a noteworthy set. At 21, Willow is proving to be a compelling shape-shifter. Those who enjoy the rock side of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Sour,” should listen to this, as well.
43. Czarface and MF Doom – “Super What?” “Super What?” is the second collaboration between MF Doom and Czarface, a trio consisting of Inspectah Deck from the Wu-Tang Clan with DJ7L and Esoteric. Considering Doom died on Halloween of 2020, this may very well be one of the last things he recorded. If you love dusty, well-placed samples and old-school, underground hip-hop, this is for you. “Czarwyn's Theory of People Getting Loose,” is definitely a highlight, as is the wonderfully spacey, “Mando Calrissian.” When Del the Funky Homosapien shows up and tears through a stellar verse on, “Jason and the Czargonauts,” it feels revelatory. This entire set is only 26 minutes, but it feels complete. For those missing Doom, it is nice that this surprising gem exists. Just listening to “Doom Unto Others,” will fill fans with warmth.
42. Dawn Richard – “Second Line” On her sixth album, “Second Line,” Dawn Richard blends R&B, dance music and touches of hip-hop, all while paying tribute to her New Orleans roots. Growing exponentially since her “Making the Band” past, the Danity Kane singer now possesses a sophistication on thick tracks like “Boomerang” and “Pressure.” This is a potent blend of pop, R&B and bass-heavy club music. “Jacuzzi” is a sharp, sultry banger of track, while “Perfect Storm” is a dense, orchestral, warm blanket of a track. How can the first half of “Mornin | Streetlights” sound smooth and slightly sludgy at the same time? Probably the most surprising thing about “Second Line,” is the label that released it. It’s on Merge, thus somehow building an unexpected industry link between Diddy and Superchunk. Here’s to expanding boundaries.
41. Lil Nas X – “Montero” Continuing where his “7” EP left off two years ago, Lil Nas X shows that he is far from a one-hit wonder. Sonically eclectic and constantly engaging, this 15-track set offers up a wide variety of sounds. From the flamenco-flavored “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” to the gentle, heartbreaking balladry of “Sun Goes Down,” it evident that Lil Nas X wants to try to conquer every genre. The Jack Harlow-assisted “Industry Baby” possesses a royal bounce while the Megan Thee Stallion-assisted “Dolla Sign Slime” pairs hard attitude with a catchy chorus. With guests ranging from Doja Cat to Elton John, this set effortless blends a modern hip-hop sound with clear pop ambition. If all you know about this album has to do lap-dances with the devil and blood-infused sneakers, you need to actually give it a full listen.
40. Lucy Dacus – “Home Video” Like her Boygenius bandmates, Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus is a bold songwriter who is adept at telling stories. The amount of detail amassed in the 2:34 of “Christine,” is staggering. (It’s a novel.) The jumpy, grungy mosh-pit-ready drive of “First Time” is cleverly contrasted with Dacus’ measured vocal delivery. Dacus, who grew up as a Christian who identifies as queer, is an ace at character studies, frequently referencing religious imagery and experiences, while also peppering in bits of conflict. Dacus is also an expert at crafting lines that subtly catch your ear. When she sings, “He ordered rum and Coke. / I can’t drink either, anymore,” on “Thumbs,” it has a bite. On “Going Going Gone,” she offers up the kind of story that used to fill classic country radio before songs about beer and trucks took over. Three albums in, Dacus is one of the best storytellers of her generation.
39. Ghost of Vroom – “Ghost of Vroom 1” Mike Doughty formed Ghost of Vroom with his longtime collaborator, Andrew “Scrap” Livingston, in order to recapture his old Soul Coughing sound. “Ghost of Vroom 1” follows up last year’s introductory EP, “Ghost of Vroom 2.” (Yes…You read that right.) Indeed, it offers up the kind of artful, sample-infused “slacker jazz” stylings that originally built Doughty’s name with Soul Coughing, albeit with a cool lo-fi layer of fuzz. Listening to “Memphis Woofer Rock,” this returns to Doughty to his absurdist, hip-hop-influenced beginnings. Doughty offers up what I believe is his third (and best) incarnation of “More Bacon Than the Pan Can Handle,” featuring a vocal sample from Stephanie Beatriz. You could drown in the swanky haze surrounding “Beat Up on Where I Come From,” while both “50,000 Bonus Miles” and “Miss You Like Crazy” have an organic, bluesiness that I’m not sure Doughty could have pulled off in the nineties. Any fan of Soul Coughing will find Ghost of Vroom to be like the odd rebirth of an old friend.
38. St. Vincent – “Daddy’s Home” Coating her sound in a retro-funk layer that owes one part to Prince and one part to '70s-era Bowie, St. Vincent dons a blonde wig and becomes a different character on the sultry and groovy, “Daddy’s Home.” “Pay Your Way in Pain,” sounds like the sonic equivalent of a sticky floor (in a good way) while “The Melting of the Sun” is a soulful character-study with some psychedelic edges. “Down” sounds like a trippy soundtrack to a vintage cop drama while she expertly repurposes the melody of Sheena Easton’s “9 to 5 (Morning Train)” on “My Baby Wants a Baby.” Meanwhile,“…At the Holiday Party” sounds like Joni Mitchell in an ethereal mood. From beginning to end, “Daddy’s Home,” is an expertly-crafted exercise in sonic cosplay. It offers up a mean slice of funk from perhaps an unexpected source.
37. Julien Baker – “Little Oblivions” On her third album, “Little Oblivions,” Julien Baker combines the tender, intimate, detailed and heart-wrenching songwriting that made her 2015 album, “Sprained Ankle” such a breakout, with bigger, brighter production. While she did this effectively on her 2017 sophomore record, “Turn out the Lights,” one listen to both “Hardline” and “Heatwave” show that here is where the fusion really clicks. The bass-synth-heavy “Crying Wolf,” brings a great deal of tension right from the start, while also delivering a slow-burn. Again, if you like the work of her Boygenius band-mates, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, Baker will deliver the goods on standouts like “Bloodshot” and “Favor.” “Little Oblivions” finds Julien Baker at her most confident without losing her songwriting bite.
36. Weezer – “Van Weezer” / “OK Human” Weezer dropped two albums this year. “Van Weezer” was supposed to be released in May of 2020 and ended up surfacing a year later due to the pandemic, with the band showcasing an arena-rock-ready, guitar-heavy sound on standouts like “All of the Good Ones,” “The Beginning of the End,” the nod to the late Ric Ocasek, “I Need Some of That,” and “The End of the Game,” which frankly may be the strongest earworm the band has dropped since the self-titled “Blue Album.” “OK Human,” actually saw release just before “Van Weezer” and finds the group exploring a more, organic, acoustic, Harry Nilsson-influenced approach on tracks like “All My Favorite Songs, ” “Aloo Gobi,” and “Bird with a Broken Wing.” If you can only get one of these records, “Van Weezer” is the slightly better of the two, but to all the fans who say that they peaked with the “Blue Album” and “Pinkerton,” I say that this year made it clear that none of their still-standing '90s peers have as compelling a discography as Weezer.
35. Madlib – “Sound Ancestors” (arranged by Kieran Hebden) Madlib has built his career around being one of the best and edgiest instrumental hip-hop artists, up there with the late J Dilla in influence his artistry. Kieran Hebden, as Four Tet, has been known as a key craftsman of airy, forward-thinking, thought-provoking instrumental electronic music. “Sound Ancestors” brings these two minds together to excellent effect, combining Madlib’s dusty sounds with Hebden’s sleek sense of cohesion. The grooves of “Road of the Lonely Ones” and “Theme de Crabtree” are immediate. “Dirtknock” brings the dank thump that its name would indicate, while “Riddim Chant” combines a solid groove with instrumental subtlety. When Madlib titles a groove, “Two for 2 – For Dilla,” it's a reminder that if Dilla were still among us, he probably would be joining this party. For any doubters, this record should prove that sampling is a true art.
34. Courtney Barnett – “Things Take Time, Take Time” On her latest album, singer-songwriter,Courtney Barnett offers up a laid back but firmly engaging set. When she gives a slight aside, “I might change my sheets today,” amidst a very conservational lament on opener “Rae Street,” it may cause chuckle. This album is full of lo-fi warmth and intimacy on tracks like “Here’s the Thing” and “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight.” “Take it Day by Day” is the kind of half-spoken groove that has becomes Barnett’s signature, as she warns, “Don’t stick that knife in the toaster.” Like Randy Newman before her, Barnett’s wit is strong and her signature delivery may to some disguise the melodic brilliance hidden just under the surface. Closer, “Oh the Night” is a perfect example of this.
33. Ben Kweller – “Circuit Boredom” Released with surprisingly little fanfare on New Year’s Day, Ben Kweller’s first album since 2012, “Circuit Boredom,” is an eight-song offering, pairing his signature songwriting style with a new-found pop-radio-ready synth-y gloss. “Starz” should be a new favorite, as should “Only a Day,” and “Just For Kids.” In a way, in places, this sounds like Kweller’s answer to an Andrew McMahon album. He brings forth his rock side on “Heart Attack Kid” and brings out his inner power-pop Tom Petty on “Hold Me Down.” Essentially, “Circuit Boredom” is a strong reminder of Ben Kweller’s gifts as a writer. This collection is a hidden gem.
32. The Reds, Pinks and Purples – “Uncommon Weather” The Reds, Pinks and Purples is the San Francisco-based project of singer-songwriter, Glenn Donaldson. “Uncommon Weather,” is the kind of bright, cerebral mope-rock that should appeal strongly to those who look up to the likes of the Smiths, Belle and Sebastian and the Magnetic Fields. Standouts like “Don’t Ever Pray in the Church on My Street” and “Pictures of the World” should be immediate favorites with their light shoegaze-influenced guitar passages, while tracks like “I Would Never Die Alone,” “The Record Player and the Damage Done,” and “I’m Sorry About Your Life” show a winning, yet acerbic wit.
31. Snail Mail – “Valentine” The second full-length album by Snail Mail is an epic statement. It sounds much bolder and more polished than her 2018 debut. Immediately with the one-two punch of the title-track and “Ben Franklin,” it is evident that this will be a strong set. Lindsey Jordan now possesses a captivating vocal rasp that gives her lyrics more emotional heft. Perhaps it is a boost in production, but this album achieves the greatness that her previous album, “Lush” merely hinted. Jordan tries her hand at sleek, mid-tempo pop on “Forever (Sailing)" with winning results. “Madonna,” is a dense workout that compares love to religious devotion. When Jordan sings, “I’ve grown to hate my body. / Now it’s not yours. / Now it’s not mine,” it is heartbreaking. The off-kilter and shifting rhythms in “Automate” somehow further drive attention to the song’s lyrics. From end to end, this album is a star-making effort, packed with a cathartic emotional drive.
30. Skyzoo – “All the Brilliant Things” If “real hip-hop” in the purest sense of the genre (where lyricism and wisdom were king) still got the respect that it deserves, Brooklyn’s Skyzoo would be a household name. “All the Beautiful Things” is his latest in a string of classic-worthy albums. As he tells tales of his youth, sitting on a stoop, looking up to Biggie on “St. James Liquors,” it paints a vivid picture. The beats, too, are full of slick jazz hooks from the piano anchor of “Tour of the Neighborhood,” to the vibraphone-accented boom-bap of “Rich Rhetoric.” When Skyzoo manages to rap over the beautifully off-kilter beat of “Something to Believe In,” he proves his skills, all while declaring, “Part of me is Mos Def, part of me is Mase.” The late Harris Wittels would hopefully be smiling at that fact that Skyzoo called a booming track, “Humble Brag,” while titling a track, “I Was Supposed to Be a Trap Rapper,” and then having said track be a dense lyrical exercise, fueled by a vintage Bob James sample is a brilliant bit of juxtaposition. As Skyzoo laments the gentrification of his neighborhood on “Bed-Stuy is Burning,” it is clear that this album is yet another (extremely worthy) love letter to Brooklyn.
29. Japanese Breakfast – “Jubilee” The third Japanese Breakfast offering is an upbeat affair with Michelle Zauner delivering her most joy-filled set of songs to date, from the retro-eighties groove of “Be Sweet” to the vaporous “Slide Tackle,” there is an undeniable lightness to this record. Even songs with titles like “Posing in Bondage,” and “In Hell,” possess a synth-heavy warmth. Savage Good Boy” unpacks a lot of subconscious baggage from our societal constructs around gender roles, all spread across a bright groove, complete with Chipmunk-esque background vocals. In essence, “Jubilee” is quite a fun listen that offers up some truly cerebral moments.
28. The Pretty Reckless – “Death By Rock and Roll” If there are people out there who still don’t take Taylor Momsen seriously as a musician, “Death By Rock and Roll” should serve as a permanent silencer. Here, not only does the former “Gossip Girl” star continue to prove she has a dynamite, fierce vocal power, but also, the company she keeps should be a true indicator of her true devotion. When Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil of Soundgarden join the band on the blistering “Only Love Can Save Me,” and Tom Morello plays on “And so it Went,” Momsen still steals the show. Listening to both these songs, you can’t help but think of Chris Cornell, who Momsen can fully channel while also building her own legacy. This is a hard rock record with heart. When “25” delivers a sudden, psychedelic, Beatles-esque bridge, this album shows her true depth. The beautiful, mid-tempo folk-rocker, “Got So High,” is a real highlight, as is the attention-grabbing “Witches Burn.” This album is confident and convincing in its sense of semi-Gothic Rock and Roll witch shtick and after four albums, Momsen really establishes herself a mighty force, as she volleys effortlessly from searing rockers to gentler material.
27. Duran Duran – “Future Past” (Deluxe Edition) No other band from the '80s are holding onto their original legacy as tightly as Duran Duran. By that, I mean, it is downright startling how much the band in 2021 sounds like a futuristic version of their early eighties selves. This is immediately apparent from the funky electro-clash groove of “Invisible.” Simon Le Bon’s voice sounds pretty much the same 40 years down the line as he has a blast singing with Tove Lo on the disco-ready “Give it all Up.” “Anniversary” and “Beautiful Lies” are both bangers in a classic mold. Indeed the title of this record holds true, as it mines the past while simultaneously looking towards the future. Let’s hope Duran Duran continue to spin this kind of neon magic for decades to come. They are in top form.
26. Jazmine Sullivan – “Heaux Tales” At 32 minutes and 14 tracks, Jazmine Sullivan’s latest, “Heaux Tales,” is marketed as an EP but it knits a tight tapestry in its brief play-time, often focusing on the relationship between love and money when it comes to gender roles. No doubt, this is a record that will spark many conversations with tracks like “Pick Up Your Feelings,” “Put It Down,” the Ari Lennox-assisted “On it” and “Pricetags,” featuring Anderson .Paak. A few of the tracks are personal testimonies about relationships from various women. This is a brutally honest listen.
25. Maxïmo Park – “Nature Always Wins” When the seventh album by English band Maxïmo Park sets off with the sludgy and commanding, “Partly of My Making,” it a jarring and immediate call to action. On more contemplative highlights like “Versions of You” and the synth-y “Meeting Up,” leader Paul Smith at his most tender and thought-provoking, when the band turns up the amps on “Placeholder” and “I Don’t Know What I’m Doing,” they truly achieve something glorious. Then there is “Why Must a Building Burn?” which somehow sounds simultaneously frantic and stately. In the U.S., Maxïmo Park still deserve more fame and they continue to have one of the most solid discographies of the last 15 years.
24. Dinosaur Jr. – “Sweep It Into Space” It should be no surprise to those paying attention that “Sweep It Into Space” continues Dinosaur Jr.’s run of truly stellar post-reunion releases. Indeed, songs like “I Ran Away,” and “I Ain’t” showcase J Mascis’ signature semi-dazed rasp quite well, all while also putting a more laid-back, almost ramshackle country-ish side on display. Indeed, this record has the band members expanding their sound. The downright jaunty piano on “Take it Back,” should make that clear. The real highlight of the set is the unfathomably gorgeous, “Garden,” sung by Lou Barlow, which is among the alt-rock veterans’ prettiest and best singles to date.
23. Torres – “Thirstier” Singer-songwriter Torres' fifth album is her best yet. Indeed, “Thirstier,” can rock hard on songs like the opener, “Are You Sleepwalking?” and the arena-ready “Hug From a Dinosaur.” It can also show some softer and more vulnerable emotion on tracks like “Don’t Go Puttin Wishes in My Head” and the almost haunting, radio-ready title-track. Indeed, Scott has never sounded more confident or engaging. “Thirstier” is indeed quite an achievement.
22. Mammoth WVH – “Mammoth WVH” Wolfgang Van Halen has big shoes to fill and his debut album as Mammoth WVH shows he is up to the task. Does this sound like the band he was in with his uncle and late father? Not really. Tone-wise, this album sounds similar to peak-era Foo Fighters, albeit with some stellar guitar shredding. It is a set packed with highlights like “Mr. Ed,” “Epiphany,” “Mammoth,” and “Stone.” Of course, the most famous song on here, is the warm, closing ballad, “Distance,” which serves as a winning tribute to his dad Not only does this set show Wolfgang effectively proving himself on his own but it also shows how impressively dynamic he is as a vocalist.
21. Failure – “Wild Type Droid” On their sixth album, grungy Los Angeles space-rockers, Failure deliver more of their enveloping, semi-dystopian grooves. Indeed, Ken Andrews, Greg Edwards and Kellii Scott sound as tight a combo as ever on tracks like “Headstand,” “Submarines,” “Mercury Mouth,” and “Bad Translation.” “Long Division,” however is the highlight in an album without weak spots, thanks to Andrews’ soaring vocal performance. If you have never heard Failure before, this solid set should serve as a fitting entry-point into their discography.
20. Liz Phair – “Soberish” Liz Phair’s first album in more than a decade works brilliantly because it plays equally to the two poles of her fan base. For those missing the sound from her early masterpieces like “Exile in Guyville” and “Whip-Smart,” she hands in the Lou Reed and Lori Anderson nod, “Hey, Lou,” and the double-entendre-fueled, “Bad Kitty.” People who love her more pop-driven, self-titled record will probably love, “Spanish Doors” and “The Game.” On “Soberish,” Phair is also trying to move forward. Standouts, “Good Side” and the truly heartfelt “In There” show that in spite of the long gap, Phair hasn’t lost her edge or wit.
19. Chvrches – “Screen Violence” On their fourth album, Scottish electro-pop trio, Chvrches continue its streak of worthy releases. Indeed, standouts like “He Said She Said,” “Good Girls” and “Asking for a Friend” are future classics, while closer, “Before if You Don’t” makes excellent use of its guitar-heavy backdrop. The real highlight, though, is “How Not to Drown,” which finds Lauren Mayberry trading verses with the Cure’s Robert Smith, marking Smith’s best guest appearance since his performance on Blink-182’s “All of This,” back in 2003. Here’s hoping we eventually get those new Cure records that Smith has long been promising.
18. Brandi Carlile – “In These Silent Days” Hitting a nice intersection between folk, country and blues, Brandi Carlile continues to grow and expand her sound on her seventh album, “In These Silent Days.” Beginning with the jaw-dropping ballad, “Right on Time,” and continuing with the upbeat “You and Me on the Rock,” which features Lucius. This set has instantly vintage sensibilities from the fire-lit sing-along, “This Time Tomorrow,” to the driving, “Mama Werewolf” and the gentle “Throwing Good After Bad.” Most of this record plays to Carlile’s softer side, making the powerful acoustic wailer, “Broken Horses” really soar.
17. Nas – “King’s Disease II” Following up last year’s “King’s Disease” with this even better second part, Nas continues to prove himself to be a hip-hop legend. On “Death Row East,” Nas fills a groove with vintage hip-hop lore, paying tribute to Tupac in the process. On “The Pressure,” he can switch up styles on a dime, over a more modern-sounding beat. “40 Side” possesses a beat that is closer to Trap Music in nature, but Nas never loses his signature flow. It’s the guests, though who also add something to the mix. “EPMD 2” is the sequel to “EPMD” from the “Judas and the Black Messiah” soundtrack and features both EPMD and Eminem. (The latter’s verse is his best in a while.) Then there is also “Nobody,” which features a killer verse from “L. Boogie,” herself, Ms. Lauryn Hill.
16. Garbage – “No Gods No Masters” (Deluxe Edition) Garbage really take no prisoners on their seventh full-length album. Shirley Manson is spitting bile on “The Men Who Rule the World,” going after the patriarchy and the capitalist systems that serve as its fuel. “The Creeps” is a cool slice of electro-clash punk. “Uncomfortably Me” is a sleek, synth-led ballad with a trip-hop drive. “Flipping the Bird” sounds like it takes its influence from the Cure and late-period New Order. “A Woman Destroyed” is a slice of menacing post-industrial chaos delivered with an operatic sense of drama. As the years pass, Garbage’s output just gets more precise. The deluxe edition bolsters the set with a bonus disc of worthy stand-alone singles from recent years.
15. Adia Victoria – “A Southern Gothic” The third full-length album from “Gothic Blues” singer, Adia Victoria is anchored by “Magnolia Blues,” a heart-stopping track that is packed with ghosts. “Mean-Hearted Woman” has the same welcoming, yet slightly blood-curdling charm. “Whole World Knows,” draws the listener in with its story of a small town girl gone astray. When Victoria is joined by Kyshona Armstrong, Margo Price and Jason Isbell on “You Was Born to Die,” it sounds like the soundtrack to a séance scene on an episode of “True Blood.” In contrast, when she is joined by Matt Berninger of the National on “South for the Winter,” the two give the album a peaceful ending. Indeed, “A Southern Gothic,” sounds like something from another century, making it one of the most unusually stirring records of the year.
14. H.E.R. – “Back of My Mind” This is technically Gabriella Wilson’s first full-length album as H.E.R., even though it doesn’t feel that way due to her previous E.P.’s and compilations. It is an understatement that she is a rising star in R&B, combining an undeniably lush, modern sensibility with timeless sounds. Obvious highlights across this nearly 80-minute set include “Damage,” “Closer to Me,” “Find A Way,” (which features Lil Baby) and the downright hypnotic and funky “Bloody Waters,” which has some nice work from Thundercat. This set is unbelievably solid. However, many might find the presence of Chris Brown on “Come Through” to be not only distressing but even a possible deal-breaker. (The two musicians were once tour-mates.) In the end, however, H.E.R. brings the goods with such undeniable power that even Chris Brown’s presence on a track cannot decrease her impact.
13. Weakened Friends – “Quitter” The immensely appealing second album from Portland, Maine, trio, Weakened Friends effectively follows up 2018’s “Common Blah,” further refining the grungy fortitude of their sound. At the center is Sonia Sturino’s powerful and unmistakable voice. The title-track, “Everything is Better,” “Spew,” and “Tunnels” are all key highlights. Perhaps the best song of the bunch is, “What You Like,” which the band released as a stand-alone single in 2019. Many of these songs are incognito ballads. “Bargain Bin” and “Haunted House,” in particular, convey raw emotion in an extremely effective and compelling way. If you are looking for a dynamic indie rock record with authentically cathartic songs, “Quitter” is that record.
12. Halsey – “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” Halsey’s fourth album, “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power,” is not only a great pop record but also a true artistic triumph. Halsey wrote Trent Reznor a letter, asking to make a record together. Not only did he comply, saying that he wanted to record an entire album together, but he also brought along his Nine Inch Nails (and movie score) partner, Atticus Ross for the ride. These three musicians make an incredible sonic stew. Halsey in particular is in top form on the entire set. Songs like “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God,” “Honey,” “Easier Than Lying,” “Lilith,” “Girl is a Gun” and the Lindsey Buckingham-assisted ballad, “Darling,” are all key highlights. Here’s hoping this partnership comes together again.
11. Adele – “30” Most likely, this is the best-selling album on this list. Adele’s “divorce record” is full of the tender, well-crafted emotional ballads you would expect. “Easy on Me” and “I Drink Wine” are obvious highlights, as are the intensely winding “Woman Like Me,” and the sly and vaguely funky, “Oh My God.” “Cry Your Heart Out” is an upbeat number about trying to keep it together. The set’s true peak may be the warm, lush, bass-y ode to motherhood, “My Little Love,” in which she uses voice memos as journal-esque passages to discuss the stress the divorce is causing her and her child. This is indeed quite an emotionally charged record and its honesty and rawness in places make it that much better.
10. Leon Bridges – “Gold-Diggers Sound” Leon Bridges’ third full-length album finds him increasingly comfortable amidst modern arrangements. From the opening notes of “Born Again,” (featuring Robert Glasper) it is clear that we are in for an enveloping sonic ride. From beginning to end, Bridges offers up welcoming, intelligent and truly satisfying R&B. The mature groove of “Motorbike,” the gentle heartbreak felt in “Why Don’t You Touch Me,” the vintage-sounding easy grooves of both “Details” and “Sho Nuff,” and the plaintive emotional, orchestral balladry of “Blue Mesas,” all are key points in the record. This is intense music for adults and yet it has true pop appeal.
9. Arlo Parks – “Collapsed in Sunbeams” One of the brightest debuts of the year came from England’s Arlo Parks. One listen to the trippy “Hurt” and you will be hooked. The combination of Parks’ clear voice combined with her knack for delivering tight character studies makes for a bold concoction. The intimate love triangle tale in “Eugene” fully puts Parks’ gifts on display. “Too Good,” on its surface seems like a fun summer groove, but if you listen to the lyrics, it is more intense than it seems. “Black Dog,” is a ballad about depression that begins with the lines, “I’d lick the grief right off your lips.” There’s a singularity to all these songs. They flow together extremely well. In the end, Arlo Parks sounds like an equal cross between early Lily Allen and Corinne Bailey Rae, all while setting forth on a narrative path that is all her own.
8. Olivia Rodrigo – “Sour” Olivia Rodrigo’s songs about teenage angst are strangely monumental. She pulled off two impossible feats this year. She got loud guitars back on pop radio with “Good 4 U” and she had fans of all ages feeling the pain of teenage existentialism again on songs like the hard-hitting “Brutal” and the soaring hit, “Driver’s License.” In just 34 minutes, this set is startlingly eclectic, from the gentle ballads, “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back,” “Enough For You” and “Hope Ur OK,” to rage-infused, sly rockers like “Jealousy, Jealousy” and the previously-mentioned “Good 4 U.” Mostly, this is an album about heartbreak and betrayal, if songs like “Favorite Crime,” “Deja Vu” and “Traitor” don’t immediately make that clear. Rodrigo’s Taylor Swift and Paramore influences may be strong but she has really achieved something singular and unique. “Sour” is the rare pop record that transcends its initial teen audience, expressing something truly universal.
7. Common – “A Beautiful Revolution (Pt. 2)" As its title indicates, this is the sequel to last year’s “A Beautiful Revolution (Pt. 1).” Common hits a new peak here, spouting wisdom over natural-sounding Afro-beat-infused tracks. Like Gil Scott-Heron and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) he is aiming for his records to offer up something deeper and more indelible. Along with singer PJ, handling most of the hooks, here Common delivers something that will make you bounce but also keep you engaged. “Beautiful Chicago Kid” is a rich origin story combined with a display of poetic prowess. “Star of the Gang” works with the same kind of revolutionary retro-magic. Common possesses a drive and a lyricism that younger emcees could study. Throughout, the chaotic political climate and incidents like the murder of George Floyd give this record a firm context. “Imagine” pictures a world with full equality, happiness and “clean water coming out of Flint faucets.” The slow and woozy “Saving Grace,” benefits from a soulful guest turn from Brittany Howard. This album seemed to get little press, which is a shame. Its organic, dusty lyricism serves as a welcome and needed bit of fresh air.
6. Silk Sonic – “An Evening with Silk Sonic” The union of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak is a fruitful, retro-minded achievement of the highest order. Adding special guest, Bootsy Collins to the mix adds extra punch. These are complex R&B songs. “Leave the Door Open” is probably the most intricate pop song in decades, while Thundercat adds some extra heft to the sultry, “After Last Night.” This album travels well-worn territory but it does what it does so well. As many others have noted, it isn’t the most original collection but it offers up one hell of a set of grooves. If “Skate” doesn’t make you smile and if you don’t find “Blast Off,” uncannily smooth, there is something wrong. Anderson .Paak usually releases great records. In Bruno Mars’ case, here he finally has a record that matches and suits his level of charisma.
5. Wolf Alice – “Blue Weekend” On their third killer album, London’s Wolf Alice continue to set themselves apart from the pack. Again, it is their sonic range that puts them at another level. Again, it is really impressive that the same band can offer up something that sounds as sonically dreamy as “Delicious Things” one moment and something as visceral as “Play the Greatest Hits” a little later. (Of course, if you listen to the lyrics of the former, about a Hollywood party they both have their rough edges.) The soft and anthemic “Safe From Heartbreak (If I Never Fall in Love)” should be a timeless staple. Not only is Ellie Rowsell’s wit still intact but her harmonizing vocal lines on “How Can I Make It OK” are tighter than ever.
4. Pom Pom Squad – “Death of a Cheerleader” Speaking of sonically diverse records, in a mere half-hour, Pom Pom Squad’s “Death of a Cheerleader” runs through an eclectic 14-song track-list that plays like a trip through pop music history. Leader, Mia Berrin sets a strong thesis statement of sorts with the booming rocker, “Head Cheerleader,” where she says, “You should ask your mother what she means when she says stay away from girls like me.” Then that goes into the highly orchestral and dramatic, “Crying.” Along the way, there are nods to Doris Day and Tommy James, the latter of which in the form of a stellar, reductionist cover of “Crimson and Clover.” “Drunk Voicemail” may be the best song here, full of confessions to an ex. “Lux” is a rager that references “The Virgin Suicides,” while “Second That” is a quiet break-up ballad that would make Mitski proud. There’s a lot to unpack here. This album is both thrilling and engrossing in its execution and its scope.
3. Little Simz – “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert” The best hip-hop album of the year is from a British-Nigerian woman you may not know. Little Sims’ fourth album takes its title from an acronym for her name, Simbi. Immediately this album seals the deal with epic opener, “Introvert,” It never relents or loses steam. The smooth soul backdrop of “Woman,” is perfectly suited to Simz’s mighty bars. Try listening to the song “Speed” just once. You’ll probably want to hit repeat because it brings the fire. “Standing Ovation,” is similarly commanding. The Obongjayar-assisted, “Point and Kill” brings a distinctly African groove to the mix, while interludes like “The Rapper that Came For Tea,” offer up a first class sense of drama and theatrics. “Rollin Stone,” verges on tight trap music, while “Protect My Energy” makes the most of an early-eighties-style synth backdrop. If you don’t know Little Simz, this record will make you a fan.
2. Supermilk – “Four by Three” The second full-length album by former Doe-drummer, Jake Popyura’s Supermilk project is a little masterpiece. Imagine XTC, Weezer, the introspective side of Bob Mould and perhaps Michael Penn all in a cage-match with each other and you get the idea. The jumpy, measured chaos of “Cease to Exist,” the classic alt-rock drive of “Mouth,” and the impending rise of “The Skin,” all show Popyura’s impressive gifts as a songwriter. This album also benefits from his newly-discovered acoustic side. Opener, “Unsafe,” is pretty much perfect, while moody, almost bluesy, “Used to it,” is packed with both color and sonic texture. “Lifesaver” plays like a great sequel to Doe’s 2017 song, “Turn Around.” In all, “Four by Three” is the kind of triumph of a record that many indie rockers wish they could achieve.
1. Billie Eilish – “Happier Than Ever” Billie Eilish expands the sounds she explored on 2019’s “When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” on her new album, “Happier Than Ever.” It’s a game-changer. While the last album seemed mostly painted with the same brush, this one expands the musical scope considerably. The pointed ballad, “Your Power” sounds like it was influenced by the band America, while the title-track goes from being a quiet kiss-off to a full-on rocker. Opener, “Getting Older,” makes a full song while whispering over a whirring synth-bass. There’s almost a mad scientist vibe. You can imagine Eilish and her brother Finneas trying out different sounds to see what clicks. They hit some sort of hushed dance-floor apex on the freaky “Oxytocin,” and maneuver an intimate funk on “Lost Cause.” This album has a lot to say. More than I can put in a paragraph, as Eilish calls out powerful men taking advantage of their positions of authority on the previously-mentioned, “Your Power.” She discusses her various detractors on the appropriately chilling spoken-word piece, “Not My Responsibility.” As Eilish grows as an artist, she gets more and more compelling and new aspects of her talents are allowed to shine. “Happier Than Ever” is the best album of 2021.
As we approach 2022, I’m sure the coming year will have plenty more music to explore.