Top 50 Albums of 2021

I always had a feeling that 2021 would be a bit of a transitional year. Between January and now we have seen our lives dramatically change between a new president, COVID vaccines becoming readily available and the world finally opening back up again. It very much felt like picking up the fallen pieces of 2020 and in many ways the same applies to the music we got. Many of these projects were likely delayed, reworked or directly made because of the pandemic. Unfortunately we also saw some major let downs with major releases this year (don’t need to name names but you can probably guess a few) but that did not stop 2021 from delivering plentiful on a wide range of albums that really spoke to me. So here they are, hopefully you enjoy seeing some familiar faces and find a few records to add to your playlists once we get done with Christmas music.

50) Lil Nas X – Montero

There were no doubts that expectations were high for Lil Nas X’s debut album, and I’ll admit I was not expecting this record to be as great as it ended up being. Every aspect of this, from the grandiose pop production, writing and artwork feels like an expression of Lil Nas X. Whether it’s on infectious singles like “Call Me By Your Name” and “Industry Baby” or a heartfelt ballad like “Tales of Dominica,” you hear Lil Nas confronting and revealing various parts of who he is. Dealing with fame, being comfortable with your sexuality and learning to accept yourself, these are all themes that come into play here and while other pop artists might take a surface level approach, Lil Nas X makes them all feel meaningful. I am beyond happy for him and all the attention this record has been able to get this year.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. INDUSTRY BABY (with Jack Harlow)
  2. DEAD RIGHT NOW
  3. VOID
  4. MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)
  5. TALES OF DOMINICA

49) Faye Webster – I Know I’m Funny Haha

This is an easy album to overlook, I’ll admit that I initially did as Webster’s quiet delivery and the slow, mellow production didn’t stand out as much to me. Then a few months went by and I saw Webster perform a lot of this album at Gov Ball Music Festival and I found myself a bit more entranced by what I was hearing. Fast forward to now and this album remains on rotation for me. It has mastered chill to a science without ever getting boring or monotonous. This might not be for everyone but if you need something soothing to play in the background at work, this might be a nice record to try out.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Sometimes
  2. Kind Of
  3. A Dream With a Baseball Player
  4. I Know I’m Funny haha
  5. Better Distractions

48) Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams

Debut albums in the indie community can sometimes feel a bit same-y, working hard to achieve a certain sound without having a distinct voice of its own. Arlo Parks, fortunately, does not fall into this category as Collapsed in Sunbeams is a distinct work from the young singer-songwriter. Parks’ approach to these songs is seemingly simple but when put together this collection of short stories adds up to something pretty impressive. Mix in some smooth, dreamlike indie rock production and you have a record that is absolutely worth your time and attention. 

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Too Good
  2. Portra 400
  3. Eugene
  4. Hurt
  5. Green Eyes

47) Olivia Rodrigo – Sour

This might be a hot take but Sour is the best album from a Disney Channel star I’ve heard all year. In all seriousness, this is a fantastic debut from a very promising young pop artist and I would be lying if I didn’t admit I was listening to this frequently throughout the year. The singles alone for this were all phenomenal and even with most of the songs focused on the same breakup the rest of the album is still very memorable. Rodrigo sells the innocence and melodrama involved in the end of your first relationship, so I expect these songs will be helping lots of high schoolers over the years. Lessons learned here are don’t break a 17 year old’s heart and expect Olivia Rodrigo to stick around for quite some time.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. brutal
  2. deja vu
  3. good 4 u
  4. drivers license 
  5. hope ur ok

46) Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert & Jon Randall – The Marfa Tapes

This is a weird album to talk about because it barely feels like an album at all. Instead, The Marfa Tapes play as a collection of lo-fi recordings from a talented trio with limited instrumentation and maximum focus on songwriting and vocal performances. Even with the raw sound each singer sounds amazing, especially while harmonizing. Miranda Lambert in particular is bold for making a record like this, departing radically from her previous stylings for something that any other artist of her stature would never dare to try. This album might not sound like much but deep down it is a true showcase of the pure talent from these three artists.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Am I Right or Amarillo
  2. Tin Man
  3. Hometown Tomatoes
  4. Amazing Grace (West Texas)
  5. Waxahachie 

45) Black Midi – Cavalcade

If you listened to Black Midi’s debut Schlagenheim, you know how wild this group can get with their sound. Fortunately, on their sophomore effort Black Midi takes the energy of their debut and applies it to a project that is equally unhinged without feeling like a retread of what they’ve done before. Across these eight tracks, Black Midi pushes each genre they play with, from experimental prog to jazz, and melts them together to a noisy, chaotic mess that will be hard to forget, regardless of if you like what you’re hearing. This has been an excellent year for experimental rock, as you will soon see, and Black Midi is clearly no exception.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. John L
  2. Ascending Forth
  3. Slow
  4. Marlene Dietrich
  5. Dethroned

44) Joy Oladokun – In Defense of My Own Happiness

Despite an unnecessarily convoluted album roll out, this is about as well as a major label debut album can go for a singer-songwriter. Joy Oladokun was previously not on my radar until several country and Americana artists I respect started giving her glowing endorsements. Needless to say I was not let down in the slightest. Right from the opener “someone that i used to be” I felt like I had been listening to Oladokun for years. Her voice is as inviting as her lyrics are honest, never feeling afraid to show her vulnerable side. Fans of Tracy Chapman will also be able to find some strong influences throughout here, but Oladokun does plenty to distinguish herself as her own artist.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. sorry isn’t good enough
  2. i see america
  3. Bigger Man (with Maren Morris)
  4. someone that i used to know
  5. heaven from here (with Penny and Sparrow)

43) Idles – Crawler

It was surprising to see Idles return so quickly after last year’s polarizing Ultra Mono. While I undeniably enjoyed that album I was hoping for a change of pace for this band and Crawler offered just that. While the loud, anthemic moments are still here, they are sparser as a bulk of this project dives into darker, more personal work. This might turn off some fans, which is understandable, but to see this group venture into new territory was exciting for me and I think they pull this approach off quite well. While still short of the highs of their earlier projects, there is no denying that Idles are still finding new ways to make great records.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. MTT 420 RR
  2. Crawl!
  3. Stockholm Syndrome
  4. Car Crash
  5. The Wheel

42) Vince Staples – Vince Staples

If you were disappointed with the length of Vince Staples’ last album, I got bad news for you. While the 22-minute length is here to stay, this album couldn’t be more different from FM! Producer Kenny Beats swaps out the summery, bouncy beats with much sparser, more minimal production. Staples himself is also in a completely different headspace, with slower raps and more introspective lyrics, there is a clear reason he decided to make this his self-titled statement. Despite the short run, this project packs a lasting punch and is a welcome change of pace for Staples as an artist.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. MHM
  2. ARE YOU WITH THAT?
  3. TAKE ME HOME (with Fousheé)
  4. LAW OF AVERAGES
  5. TAKING TRIPS

41) The Weather Station – Ignorance

This was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year and you can totally see why when listening. The production is vast, incorporating a wide array of instruments that all sound wonderful against Tamara Lindeman’s soft voice. And with climate change continuing to feel like a losing battle, a whole album focused on the pain of fighting the crisis is deeply moving. Even if a bit monotonous at times, the passion behind this record is clear and its importance is never lost. You have to commend Lindeman for this effort and the effort that went behind making a statement like this.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Robber
  2. Atlantic
  3. Trust
  4. Subdivisions
  5. Parking Lot

40) Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales

While this might technically be labeled as an EP, Heaux Tales has more to offer than most albums twice its length. Across these eight songs and six interludes Jazmine Sullivan dissects love, relationships and sex in ways that feel deeply personal to her and the women around her. Sullivan’s impeccable singing voice shines whether she is delivering swaggering charisma on “Pick Up Your Feelings” or heart wrenching emotion on “Lost One.” After an over five year hiatus it was refreshing to see Sullivan return with such a strong, vulnerable project like this.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Pick Up Your Feelings
  2. The Other Side
  3. Price Tags (feat. Anderson .Paak)
  4. Lost One
  5. On It (with Ari Lennox)

39) Lord Huron – Long Lost

Lord Huron are one of those groups I have never had an issue with, I just figured they kind of existed to fill up indie playlist space when Fleet Foxes isn’t available. While those influences can still be heard in Long Lost’s sound, the actual product here is certainly the most original thing Lord Huron has put out. For one, the production on this project is some of the slickest the group has ever gotten, elevating what could be standard singer-songwriter ballads to something much more special and memorable. This record proves the group can move in some interesting, ambitious directions without sacrificing what makes them satisfying to so many listeners. I’m considering myself a fan from this point forward.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Twenty Long Years
  2. Love Me Like You Used To
  3. Mine Forever
  4. Long Lost
  5. Not Dead Yet

38) Chvrches – Screen Violence

After being underwhelmed by Chvrches’ last album and their crossover single with Marshmello, I was worried this trio’s best days might be behind them. Fortunately, Screen Violence is as excellent as any of the group’s best work. Even with a darker sound and themes of isolation, the synth-pop production still keeps this album fun and lively, not letting a single moment of these ten tracks get dull. The Robert Smith appearance also goes over exactly as well as I would have imagined. Hopefully this is a turning point for the group and a positive sign of things getting back on track because when Chvrches are on, they are really on.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Violent Delights
  2. How Not To Drown (feat. Robert Smith)
  3. Good Girls
  4. Lullabies
  5. Final Girl

37) The Mountain Goats – Dark in Here

If you know me, you should know how happy I am that the Mountain Goats have continued to remain prolific into 2021. Their last record Getting Into Knives was a personal favorite of mine and Dark in Here follows it quite well. Darnielle continues to incorporate larger instrumentation into his ballads, creating songs that sound as beautiful as they are written. While this might not be as distinct as some other records in the band’s discography, it does everything you want from a great Mountain Goats record. I am not expecting another album of this quality in 2022 but if this group wants to continue putting out records this good every year, I am ready to hear them.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Mobile
  2. Lizard Suit
  3. The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums
  4. The Destruction of Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower
  5. Dark in Here

36) Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever

Following up one of the biggest debut albums of the last decade is no easy task, and I’ll admit I wasn’t able to make heads or tails of this for a couple weeks. Happier Than Ever certainly does not have the immediate bite of Eilish’s last record but over time I found myself really connecting to many of the themes of maturing while handling overwhelming success at such a young age. Finneas and Billie continue to work to each other’s strengths as these slower ballads are livened up with colorful production that keeps this record from ever feeling dull. If this album proves anything, it is that Billie is here to stay for a long time and we have much to look forward to.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Happier Than Ever
  2. Oxytocin
  3. My Future
  4. Therefore I Am
  5. Billie Bossa Nova

35) Black Country, New Road – For the First Time

When it comes to rock albums from 2021, this would probably be the most difficult to describe. Despite being their debut, Black Country, New Road do not stick to the conventions of indie rock or punk. The instrumentation is jagged and all over the place, infusing classic rock elements with free jazz to create songs that are unpredictable moment to moment. If you are someone who truly understands composition and theory this album will probably be incredible or awful to you (I don’t know either so I couldn’t tell you). What I can say is this is one of the boldest debut records to come out in quite some time and I am excited to see what direction they go on their next project in a couple months.

Top Tracks:

  1. Science Fair
  2. Track X
  3. Athens, France
  4. Sunglasses
  5. Instrumental

34) Emily Scott Robinson – American Siren

I spent nearly every day of 2021 in New York City, which makes me absolutely connected to small town Americana.  I’ve written plenty about how much of a soft spot I have for country albums like this. Emily Scott Robinson takes the familiar and quaint and makes them feel special, which is all I can ask for from any singer-songwriter. Each song feels lived in, bursting with passion and sincerity as Robinson proves to be one of the more dynamic country songwriters out there now. Now I only regret not getting to her music before this point because her discography up until now is pretty stellar.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Let ‘Em Burn
  2. If Trouble Comes a Lookin’
  3. Old Gods
  4. Cheap Seats
  5. Lightning in a Bottle

33) Kanye West – Donda 

There are a million flaws with Donda, I will be the first to admit this, but when I think of the music that defined my 2021 this has to be in the conversation. Antics aside, this bloated, messy project feels like a culmination of everything Kanye has been working towards since The Life of Pablo. An expression of faith and family with gospel influences mixed with contemporary hip hop. Even if West’s vocals only make up about half this album, his fingerprints are all over this from the production to the chaotic pacing that all combines for a record that comes across as one of the most genuine things the rapper has done in years. Nearly every guest feels purposeful and works for their respective songs and it was nice to see so many talented artists get their time to shine on an album as exposed as this. Despite everything, the pieces of this project come together to a satisfying final project that exceeded the expectations I had for it.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Come to Life
  2. Pure Souls
  3. Jesus Lord
  4. Jail
  5. Hurricane

32) Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

It has taken me a while to get here, but I have definitely turned around on Halsey. While her earlier projects seemed to be having an identity crisis, her more recent work has certainly shown a level of focus and artistry I have yet to see from her. Instead of embracing the pop sounds that were working for her so well on Manic, Halsey takes a hard turn, teaming up with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to create an alternative rock record that works better than I could have imagined. Halsey fully commits to this sound with raw lyrics about feminism and motherhood that mix well with the rougher production of these tracks. Whether this is a one-off or a true artistic turning point, this will undoubtedly remain a special moment in her discography.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Easier than Lying
  2. I am not a woman, I’m a god
  3. 1121
  4. You asked for this
  5. honey

31) Weezer – OK Human

For a band with a sound as predictable as Weezer, OK Human was a pleasant surprise for me. Fusing their typical pop rock sound with a 38-piece orchestra, this album is one of the most ambitious things the group has done, period. And for the most part it doesn’t just work but excels in what it’s attempting. As much as I have loved many of the stripped back albums we have been getting from the pandemic, it is refreshing to hear an act take what they wrote during this time and make a grander statement out of it. It is also refreshing to hear Weezer put this much effort into an album again after being underwhelmed with almost all their output since the White Album

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Bird With A Broken Wing
  2. All My Favorite Songs
  3. Playing My Piano
  4. Aloo Gobi
  5. Here Comes The Rain

30) Injury Reserve – By The Time I Get to Phoenix

This is one of the more challenging albums to talk about from 2021. For one, founding member and emcee Stepa J. Groggs passed away while the group was still recording this project. This alone would cast a heavy shadow over the project but the record also takes on a harsher, more experimental production style that works with themes influenced by the pandemic and political movements that sprung up during 2020. It is a dark record all around, much different than anything the group had done up until this point. While all these elements make this a pretty difficult project to take in, the emotion behind each song is impossible to ignore. It is hard to really say where Injury Reserve goes from here but regardless of what comes down next, this is a poignant album that shows more depth than any of this group’s previous releases.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Knees
  2. Superman That
  3. Outside
  4. Postpostpatrum 
  5. Bye Storm

29) Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take

Some artists just do a classic sound so well that you can’t help but to love it. When listening to this album it is clear who Indigo De Souza’s influences are. Each song is a slice of 90s alt-rock bliss with captivating performances by De Souza at the center of it all. Her vocals here are raw and emotive, giving this familiar sound a needed darker edge to keep you hooked from the start. It might not reinvent the wheel but if you need an album to listen to as you sit in your flannel, drinking craft beer look no further than this. It’s exactly what you’ll be looking for.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Real Pain
  2. Bad Dream
  3. Hold U
  4. Kill Me
  5. Die/Cry

28) Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage

At this point in his career, it feels like Nick Cave can put out music whenever and however he likes and I will love it. On Carnage, Cave departs from his usual band to work exclusively with Warren Ellis for an album that is somewhat of a departure from what they had been doing during the last decade. While Cave’s last few albums have been truly tragic explorations of death, Carnage feels like a looser return back to life, with two masterful musicians just doing what they love doing. The end product is satisfying on all ends, capturing the truly epic highs that make Nick Cave’s best projects so incredible. Fans will be happy with this one, as it is a promising sign of where Cave is going moving forward.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. White Elephant
  2. Albuquerque 
  3. Old Time
  4. Carnage
  5. Balcony Man

27) Squid – Bright Green Field 

Another insane debut rock album from 2021, Squid gave this project everything they had. With many of these tracks clocking in between six and eight minutes, it is fair to say this band is not afraid to get bold with their chaotic, experimental punk sound. This is one of those albums that sounds so different from so much of what I am usually listening to that I can’t help but get absorbed into the sonic landscape the band sets up across these 11 songs. It is a thrilling, daring way to kick off your career and Squid absolutely nails each wild turn they take. 

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Narrator (with Martha Skye Murphy)
  2. Pamphlets
  3. Paddling
  4. Documentary Filmmaker
  5. Boy Racers

26) Snail Mail – Valentine

As much as I enjoyed some songs off of Lush, I always felt a little out of the loop when it came to the Snail Mail love. I am now willing to say I finally understand the hype with her music. The shock of skyrocketing indie celebrity is always compelling and Lindsey Jordan captures all the emotions associated with it masterfully. These songs are bigger and more complex than the ones on her debut, hitting you with one gut punch after another. Records like this are made to be heard live and I know if I was at a music festival hearing any of these songs I would only find new things to love about them. To me, that is about as good as it gets with indie rock and if this is any indication of where Snail Mail is going we still have much to listen to.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Ben Franklin
  2. Forever (Sailing)
  3. Valentine
  4. Mia
  5. Madonna

25) The Killers – Pressure Machine

After last year’s grand heartland rock statement Imploding the Mirage, The Killers are back with an album that defies all expectations I have for this band. While the music here is still clean, it is smaller in scale than anything this group has ever done. And this is for the best as Brandon Flowers uses these songs to reflect on life in the small Utah town of Nephi. Albums like these always hit a soft spot for me personally, coming from a small rural town and reflecting on what life could have been if I chose to stay there. The grounded production and songwriting gives Pressure Machine a maturity that is rarely seen on Killers albums, especially like this. I know this is likely a one-off for this band, but it certainly will hold a special place for me in their catalog.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Cody
  2. Runaway Horses (feat. Phoebe Bridgers)
  3. West Hills
  4. In Another Life
  5. Quiet Town

24) Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind

Sufjan Stevens is involved with so many projects it feels like it can be hard to pick out which are essential listening. Well, take it from me, A Beginner’s Mind is another great project that fans of Stevens should love. Collaborating with multi-instrumentalist Angelo De Augustine, the two create ambitious, beautifully composed pieces that are all partially inspired by various films. The influences range in subtlety as lyrics make reference to everything from The Silence of the Lambs to Bring It On Again. Despite this, the project never feels overly silly and has its heart on its sleeve throughout. 

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Return to Oz
  2. Cimmerian Shade
  3. Lady Macbeth in Chains
  4. Beginner’s Mind
  5. Reach Out

23) McKinley Dixon – For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her

I always have a deep appreciation for anyone who will attempt jazz rap, especially in the underground. Jazz is a difficult thing to rap over and the amount of effort it takes to balance the multiple sounds can make good ideas messy. On his debut, however, McKinley Dixon does not only master this sound but builds on it to communicate personal themes of blackness that are more poignant than nearly any other hip-hop release this year. Dixon’s dissection of grief and trauma within the black community and moving forward through generational pain is extremely profound and worth much discussion. I know an album like this is not necessarily made for me, but its impact is undeniable still.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. make a poet Black
  2. Never Will Know (feat. (Micah James & Gold Midas)
  3. Grown Man Voice (feat. Micah James, Lord Jah-Monte Ogborn & Pink Siifu)
  4. Swangin’
  5. Bless the Child

22) Lucy Dacus – Home Video

As its title would have you believe, Home Video is an intimate collection of personal vignettes from Dacus’ adolescence. As much as I have liked Dacus’ work until now, this is easily the best she has been, really tapping into her vulnerable side to deliver songs that feel both deeply relatable while undoubtedly coming from Dacus. Her voice as a songwriter has never been more clear than it has here, only adding to the emotions behind each track. This is the kind of dynamic album that shows a young artist heading towards greatness and puts Dacus on top of so many of her contemporaries. 

Top Five Tracks:

  1. VBS
  2. Hot & Heavy
  3. Brando
  4. Triple Dog Dare
  5. Christine

21) Adeem the Artist – Cast Iron Pansexual

While this album might be small, both in size and reach, its ambitions are certainly impressive. Adeem is adding their unique perspective as a member of the LGBT+ community to a genre that has a socially regressive reputation. Few would be brave enough to write country songs about growing up pansexual in the deep south or dissing Toby Keith, but Adeem tackles these subjects with equal parts charm, wit and feeling. These are the types of indie albums that I can love, but also know there are many people who will be connected to it in a way I never will be. It deserves to be discovered by as many people as possible so we can hear more artists like Adeem in the country genre.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. I Wish You Would’ve Been a Cowboy
  2. Reclaim My Name
  3. I Never Came Out
  4. Fervent For the Hunger
  5. Womyn Who Bartend

20) Sundays – Inner Coasts

Maybe it’s the season but nothing sits better during the winter than smooth, acoustic folk music. Bonus points if this music is from an indie Danish group that is virtually unknown in the United States. Seriously, I am pretty sure no songs on this album have over 30 thousand plays on Spotify. This is a shame because while seemingly simple, Sundays takes the typical tropes of indie folk and expands upon them in dynamic, infectious ways that will have you returning to these tracks repeatedly. The production is so crisp over Magnus Jacobsen’s soft vocals. It is a surprisingly immediate album that will sure to fit perfectly in any indie vibes playlist you might be returning to. 

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Shadow Dress
  2. All We Have us Time
  3. Siberia
  4. Salt of the Earth
  5. Drifter

19) Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic

Some music projects are so perfect it feels like they were created in a lab. The pairing of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak makes so much sense it feels weird that it took this long for it to happen. The results, predictably, are stellar as these two titans of charisma complement each other on every song, never fighting for attention or feeling out of place. There is not a single beat on this record’s 9 tracks that does not feel like it has been polished to perfection. The production is smooth, wearing its retro funk and R&B influences heavily on its sleeve, while Mars and .Paak both deliver some of the best vocal performances of their careers. Very rarely do we get albums this packed with personality in the mainstream and if these two ever decide to do a tour together I will be sure to be there.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Put On A Smile
  2. Smokin Out The Window
  3. Leave The Door Open
  4. After Last Night (with Thundercat & Bootsy Collins)
  5. 777

18) Slowthai – Tyron

This was one of my most anticipated records going into 2021, having been a huge fan of Slowthai’s debut record. The approach to this album is simple, make two short discs, one with the hard-hitting bangers we have come to expect and another to get a look into Slowthai’s softer, more introspective side. It is a formula that has been done before, especially in hip hop, but there is something about the approach here that feels deeper. Despite the two parts sounding different, they are both undeniably Slowthai’s voice, focusing on the aspects of his journey to this point and how he hopes to continue growing as a person. It’s a rare album that is as sensitive as it is fun and showcases Slowthai’s continuing ambition and versatility. 

Top Five Tracks:

  1. feel away (with James Blake & Mount Kimbie)
  2. push (with Deb Never)
  3. MAZZA (with A$AP Rocky)
  4. terms (with Dominic Fike & Denzel Curry)
  5. DEAD

17) Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World

They say not to judge a book by its cover, but I literally checked this album out solely based on how cool the album artwork was. Turns out the music on the album was also pretty impressive. This synth-pop duo might feel a bit familiar to anyone who knows artists like Grimes or Chvrhes but Magdalena Bay still come across as refreshing in a crowded genre. They have an aesthetic reminiscent of early 2000s internet culture and they absolutely sell that style across this project. And it really cannot be stressed enough just how catchy these songs are. From “The End” to “The Beginning” this album had me lost in its glitchy grooves and sticky hooks. As far as debut albums go, Mercurial World does everything you want when introducing yourself and will be damn hard to follow up. I’m excited to see how they do it.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. You Lose!
  2. Dawning of the Season
  3. The Beginning
  4. Secrets (Your Fire)
  5. Chaeri

16) Foxing – Draw Down the Moon

After the ambitious, and utterly spectacular, Nearer My God there were going to be eyes on whatever Foxing did next. Instead of going deeper into the experimental tendencies of that project, the band decides to expand their sound to something much stickier and energetic. These are some of Foxing’s catchiest songs yet with moments like “Beacons” and “If I Believed in Love” absolutely ruling some of my running playlists. They accomplish all this without compromising any of the elements that make the band work so well. The group is still giving each of these songs everything they’ve got, with wild, chaotic playing and expressive vocals. This album is a complete blast and does not deserve an ounce of the polarization it initially received.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Beacons
  2. Speak With the Dead (with WHY?)
  3. Bialystok
  4. If I Believed in Love
  5. Draw Down the Moon

15) Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth

It is difficult to describe Genesis Owusu’s debut studio album because in many ways this is all over the place. There are elements of hip hop, R&B, rock, even dance here and while this sounds like a recipe for disaster for a new artist, Owusu never feels lost or out of place on this project. And it needs to be noted what a talented presence Owusu is behind the mic. His charisma shines even in this album’s darkest moments, commanding each song as he raps and sings about his personal experiences dealing with things like depression and racism. It might be a bit difficult to jump into at first, but this is the kind of album that has something for everyone and will introduce you to one of 2021’s best breakout stars.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Waitin’ on Ya
  2. No Looking Back
  3. Smiling with No Teeth
  4. I Don’t See Colour
  5. Centrefold

14) Low – Hey What

So apparently I am almost 30 years late to Low, which I will admit is a total oversight on my part. This band is absolutely phenomenal and are very much deserving of the acclaim they have gotten across the decades. Their latest record is easily one of the best they have put out, just in terms of production alone. Producer BJ Burton has a masterful handling of these tracks, creating vast sonic landscapes for the duo to get lost in. The blending of crisp vocals, spacey instrumentation and fuzzy distortion is mesmerizing and absolutely worthy of the Grammy nomination it received for Engineering. I know I have a long journey left when going through this group’s back catalog but I am grateful for Hey What for finally waking me up to how spectacular this band can be at their best.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Hey
  2. White Horses
  3. Days Like These
  4. The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)
  5. All Night

13) Brockhampton – Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine

During all the chaos of 2020 it feels weird to bring up the fact that, for the first time in years, we didn’t get a Brockhampton album. Then 2021 came and not only did we get a new album but news that this would be the group’s second to last. Who knows if this is actually the case but if it is it seems like the group is taking advantage of each song they have left. Roadrunner definitely continues in the tradition of the past couple Brockhampton projects, going deep into the difficult parts of each member’s lives. Joba in particular stands out on this, being given a few moments to really get vulnerable about his recent traumas. While certainly still fun and loaded with great features, this group continues to show their maturity and have fortunately come out of this pandemic stronger.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. THE LIGHT
  2. CHAIN ON (feat. JPEGMAFIA)
  3. DON’T SHOOT UP THE PARTY
  4. BUZZCUT (feat. Danny Brown)
  5. WINDOWS (feat. SoGone SoFlexy)

12) Turnstile – Glow On

It might only be 35 minutes, but the impact Glow On has during that short time is immense. While seemingly simple at first, the more I dug into this album the more I was able to find stuff to love about it. While undoubtedly a loud punk record, Turnstile’s influences in other rock genres give these tracks a melodic edge that is rarely felt on music this abrasive. The fact they are able to keep this project so tight while naturally incorporating artists like Blood Orange and Julien Baker into the fold is nothing short of stunning. This might not be Turnstile’s first record, but this group still felt like the biggest breakout stars of 2021 for me and I am so excited to see where they take their sound from here.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. BLACKOUT
  2. MYSTERY
  3. DANCE-OFF
  4. UNDERWATER BOI
  5. HOLIDAY

11) Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee  

I got into Japanese Breakfast a little late, discovering Soft Sounds from Another Planet a couple years ago and finding it to be a solid piece of indie rock. I was not prepared, however, for the evolution this group would go through between that and Jubilee. The instrumentation has taken major steps forward, filling out these songs with lush arrangements that compliment Michelle Zauner’s voice beautifully.  Speaking of Zauner, her writing across this entire project completely sells the titular vibe of joy. After hearing many other artists take these last couple years as a way to tap into darker themes, she instead trends towards the positive and sounds amazing while doing it. This is truly the gold standard for what can be done within indie pop and rock, not being afraid to go big and bold while still maintaining the intimacies that makes your work special to begin with.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Paprika
  2. Be Sweet
  3. Savage Good Boy
  4. Slide Tackle
  5. Posing For Cars

10) St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home

There is no denying St. Vincent’s pure talent as a musician at this part in her career. She has proven on album after album that she is one of the most talented artists of her time, so why not change up your style completely after your most accessible release. Moving away from the pop and art rock influences of Masseduction, Daddy’s Home is a slice of pure psychedelia, taking influence in the sounds of 1970s New York City. The end results are satisfying to say the least, with groovy production and memorable hooks. Despite being such a deviation from much of her recent work, St. Vincent is able to translate so many of her natural abilities, especially as a singer-songwriter, to these songs so that they do not feel out of place or awkward for her in the slightest. When it comes to natural musicianship, few are doing it better than Annie Clark.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Live in The Dream
  2. Pay Your Way in Pain
  3. The Melting of the Sun
  4. Down
  5. …At the Holiday Party

9) Adele – 30

Adele needs no introduction, she is arguably the biggest artist of this generation. Each of her albums are an event and 30 is no exception, comfortable climbing the ranks as possibly her best work to date. While still sticking with her usual soul and R&B influences, the production here feels grander, with touches of jazz and dance being incorporated by a selection of pop’s biggest producers. There is also no way not to discuss the writing, which like all Adele projects is a raw, honest look into the singer’s personal life. Since 25, she has had to confront motherhood and divorce, two heavy topics that are examined with the level of intense emotion that only Adele can sell. There are few artists with the kind of impact that Adele has and even when it feels she might be gone from the public eye, she will come out with another record to remind us why there is nobody out here doing this sound better.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. To Be Loved
  2. Love Is A Game
  3. I Drink Wine
  4. Oh My God
  5. My Little Love

8) JPEGMAFIA – LP!

At this point you have either gotten into the hype of JPEGMAFIA or it likely will not be happening. With each release he proves to be solidly in his own lane and more than happy to make whatever music he wants to. This is so true on LP! that JPEGMAFIA had to release two separate versions of this project, one to finish out his label obligations and another that takes full advantage of each sample the rapper intended on using. Both are phenomenal but this is for the latter version which sees Peggy in his element like never before. The sample flips add so much to the aggressive beats that fuel Peggy’s focused bars as he takes aim at his label and other underground artists. This is a pointed and angry record where JPEGMAFIA is not afraid to reveal his ugly side. Even with all this, Peggy never gets lost in the drama and delivers exactly what we have come to expect from him and more. Knowing that after this album he is free from label restraints, we will surely be getting even more great work in this vein in the future.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. WHAT KINDA RAPPIN’ IS THIS?
  2. HAZARD DUTY PAY!
  3. TIRED, NERVOUS & BROKE!
  4. REBOUND! (feat. DATPIFFMAFIA)
  5. BMT!

7) Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

Back in 2019 I was completely floored by Grey Area, an album that proved that Little Simz was one of the best rappers out right now, period. To my surprise, Simz’ follow-up builds off of everything that made Grey Area work so well. The production, courtesy of Inflo, is elegant and expansive, utilizing orchestral arrangements to create beautiful compositions. There is not a single weak moment here, each song maintains a consistent level of greatness in its sound, while keeping its palette mixed. The star, of course, is Simz who uses this album as an opportunity to confront her inner thoughts and experiences. Despite what the title says, Simz keeps nothing withheld, delivering one introspective bar after another with masterful skill and emotion. This entire record is a well-crafted, heartfelt statement from Little Simz and is yet another landmark record in her discography.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Introvert
  2. Point and Kill (feat. Obongjayar)
  3. Little Q, Pt. 2
  4. I Love You, I Hate You
  5. Rollin Stone

6) The War on Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore

Even at their worst, The War on Drugs make songs that can fit snugly on any “chill vibe” playlist. Luckily, on I Don’t Live Here Anymore the band is back and sound better than they ever have. The complex instrumentation and Springsteen/Dylan influence that made people fall in love with this band are still intact, but these songs are much more accessible this time around. Adam Granduciel’s presence is more profound here, as he lets loose on these powerful ballads that cross into pop rock territory. Working with a larger label can be difficult for many indie bands, and for as much as I loved A Deeper Understanding, I can’t help but feel that this was the major label statement that the band has been looking to make.  Fans of this band will see everything they love about the group’s earlier catalog still intact, just amped up. And if you’ve been meaning to get into this band and haven’t yet, this is the kind of release made to get new fans immediately hooked. 

Top Five Tracks:

  1. I Don’t Live Here Anymore (feat. Lucius)
  2. Old Skin
  3. I Don’t Wanna Wait
  4. Harmonia’s Dream
  5. Living Proof

5) Lingua Ignota – Sinner Be Ready

This is an album that is as difficult to talk about as it is difficult to recommend. Heavy does not begin to describe what Kristin Hayter has crafted here with her look into the rural Pennsylvania town she once lived in. Themes of isolation and religious trauma are accentuated with bellowing orchestration that sounds like something you might hear while at a religious service. The end results are difficult to embrace, but rewarding for anyone who will try to accept it. Even at its roughest, most disorienting moments, there is beauty to be found on every second of this project. Hayter’s vocals are harrowing, going between quiet whispers and chaotic yells as she audibly struggles with her own words. To say this is not for everyone is an understatement, but there is no denying what is being said here is deeply personal and profound and I am grateful that Hayter put it on a record for us.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. I Who Bend the Tall Grasses
  2. Man Is Like a Spring Flower
  3. The Order of Spiritual Virgins
  4. Pennsylvania Furnace
  5. The Sacred Linament of Judgment 

4) Bo Burnham – Inside (The Songs)

It is impossible to completely divorce this record from the special it came from, but I truly believe the songs here work on their own merits. Maybe one of the definitive products of the pandemic, Inside was created entirely by Bo Burnham in an isolated apartment. Most artists would use this limited access of a traditional studio and team to make something quiet and stripped-down but Burnham decides to utilize every tool at his disposal to create a colorful collection of theatrical, hilarious and thoughtful tracks. Much like the special, this album is scattershot, going from one topic to another abruptly, but at no point does anything feel detached from Burnham. His earnest commitment to this project and vulnerable perspective of aging in quarantine will certainly be relatable to anyone who went through 2020. While not a traditional album, this is Burnham’s best, most mature work to date and the inventiveness alone is reason enough to praise this project.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. That Funny Feeling
  2. Welcome to the Internet
  3. Sexting
  4. How the World Works
  5. Goodbye

3) Backxwash – I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses

I discovered Backxwash last year with her Polaris Music Prize winning album God Has Nothing to Do with This Leave Him Out of It, and was instantly hooked by the abrasive production and heavy vocal delivery. I Lie Here Buried… takes these elements and turns them up to 11 as Backxwash shouts dark, twisted bars over towering industrial metal production. Rap metal can easily go from intense to goofy but Backxwash never feels like she is using this sound as a gimmick but instead as a fitting backdrop to the equally intense content in her verses. Backxwash tackles gender, religion, race and depression with ferocity and focus, always staying the center of attention regardless of how heavy her beats get. This is an extremely high benchmark for how well Backxwash can do this sound and given how much she is able to fit into this 32 minute project I am confident she will be able to come back with another record at this level soon.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. I LIE HERE BURIED WITH My RINGS AND DRESSES (feat. Ada Rook)
  2. SONGS of SINNERS (feat. Sad13 & Ada Rook)
  3. TERROR PACKETS (feat. Censored Dialogue)
  4. BURN TO ASHES (feat. Michael Go)
  5. IN THY HOLY NAME (feat. Lauren Bousfield)

2) Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost

We are absolutely at the point now where we need to consider Tyler, the Creator as one of the defining artists of this generation. On Call Me If You Get Lost, he takes many of the sounds and inspirations from his previous albums and blends them together for a fun, bright journey. From the throwback gangsta rap of “Lumberjack” to the synthy pop of “Sweet/I Thought You Wanted To Dance,” Tyler approaches multiple genres with a genuine sense of love and appreciation. It helps this project feel cohesive even when making its hardest turns. Lyrically, Tyler keeps in line with the vulnerable, intimate writing of Flower Boy and Igor, detailing his struggles with being put in a love triangle. The mix of his bravado on the luxury rap at the start of this record to the heartbreak later on proves Tyler to be a master at narrative and structure across his albums. This record is arguably the most entertaining front-to-back projects Tyler has put out to date and continues his winning streak of releases that seems to know no end.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. SWEET/I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE
  2. CORSO
  3. MANIFESTO (feat. Domo Genesis)
  4. RISE! (feat. DAISY WORLD)
  5. WUSYANAME (feat. YoungBoy Never Broke Again & Ty Dolla $ign)

1) Spellling – The Turning Wheel

I will be the first to admit that The Turning Wheel is much different than the kind of album that usually gets crowned my album of the year. While I usually give the top spot to albums that are loud or upfront with their messages, this year I am going with something a little more subtle. What makes The Turning Wheel such a phenomenal piece of art is difficult to put into words but I will try and start with Spellling herself. Her voice, which will be an acquired taste for some, functions as an instrument in its own right, varying from song to song while never losing its core beauty. And speaking of beauty, these musical backdrops are composed by dozens of instrumentalists who come together to create grand, sweeping pieces that lift up Spellling’s already towering voice. Not a single note feels out of place on this record’s overarching sound and only adds more emotional weight and mysticism behind the themes of nature. While influences from artists like Kate Bush and Bjork are clear, Spellling pushes this sound in a theatrical direction, making many moments of this album feel straight from a classic Disney musical without losing any of its crucial bite. This album connected with me on a profoundly personal level this year and has refused to leave my mind since it was released this summer. An absolutely mountainous statement from Spellling and the greatest piece of music that 2021 had to offer.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. Little Deer
  2. Boys at School
  3. Revolution
  4. Turning Wheel
  5. Always

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