2021 Music in Review: The 10 Best Albums of the Year
This year saw the release of albums featuring new directions that artists devised during the lockdowns as well as albums postponed from their 2020 release due to COVID-19.
After the strange, pandemic-dominated year of music that was 2020, 2021 felt like a return to normalcy for the music industry. Albums that had been postponed due to COVID were released, major artists like Kanye West and Drake dropped new albums and many albums devised during the lockdowns of the previous year saw artists exploring new directions. One notable musical event of the year that will not be included on this list was Taylor Swift’s re-releases of her older albums as “Taylor’s Version”; because none of that music was written in 2021, it will not be included on this list. Otherwise, here are the ten best albums released in 2021.
10. “Civilisation” by Kero Kero Bonito
“Civilisation” is not a proper studio album; instead, it is a compilation of pop band Kero Kero Bonito’s 2019 EP “Civilisation I” and 2021 EP “Civilisation II,” with a short ambient track inserted between. While not entirely released in 2021, more than half of the material was put out this year, so I thought it appropriate to include the album on this list. Civilisation continues the lush, vocally-driven musical style they developed on their previous album, “Time ‘n’ Place” (2018), while also bringing back the staples of their earlier albums, such as Sarah Bonito’s Japanese singing. Overall, “Civilisation” is one of the most enjoyable collections of songs released in 2021.
Best Song: “The Princess and the Clock”
9. “King’s Disease II” by Nas
On “King’s Disease II,” Nas finally rediscovers the groove that characterized his earlier outputs in the 1990s. On the lead single “Rare,” Nas asserts, “I’m in rare form”; given the similar quality of this album to his first few, I’m inclined to agree. “King’s Disease II” improves on Nas’ 2020 Grammy award-winning album “King’s Disease” in every way. The production is intense, the features are well-placed and complement the album quite well; Nas’ lyrics and flows are as good as they have ever been. This breath of fresh air in the career of such a legendary rapper is invigorating for long-time fans.
Best Song: “Rare”
8. “Sour” by Olivia Rodrigo
Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album “Sour,” written largely when she was 17 years old, demonstrates significant promise and continually surprises me with how much I like it. With powerful hit singles “drivers license” and “deja vu,” pop-punk bangers “brutal” and “good 4 u” and its quiet ballads “traitor” and “happier,” “Sour” showcases an impressive diversity of sound for a debut album. The album is not perfect; far too many songs discuss the same breakup with occasionally clunky lyrics. However, I have still found myself returning to this record often throughout the year, and I think it shows incredible potential for her next album.
Best Song: “jealousy, jealousy”
7. “Call Me If You Get Lost” by Tyler, the Creator
While Tyler, the Creator’s follow-up to his 2019 LP “IGOR” does not match its predecessor’s overall quality, it effectively furthers the style of production he’s been cultivating since 2015’s “Cherry Bomb.” Tyler’s evolution as an artist over the past decade has been incredible to watch, and “Call Me If You Get Lost” refines his style to its greatest height. While the album is less lyrically driven than his last two, it allows its production to shine over the album’s other elements. Though both “IGOR” and “Flower Boy” are superior albums, “Call Me If You Get Lost” stands on its own as one of the best albums released this year.
Best Song: “WusYaName”
6. “Flux” by Poppy
Former YouTuber Poppy followed up her rock and metal album, 2020’s “I Disagree,” with an even harsher album. “Flux” transcends the rock genre by exploring styles like shoegaze, dream pop and grunge. Poppy enhances her eclectic image and continues to defy accepted definitions through the ambiguity of her genre. Seven years ago, Poppy was making unsettling YouTube videos before transitioning to inoffensive pop music. Now, she creates a unique blend of metal and pop, and I am excited to see what she will do over the next few years.
Best Song: “Her”
5. “A Beginner’s Mind” by Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine
Indie legend Sufjan Stevens teams up with fellow folk artist Angelo De Augustine on “A Beginner’s Mind” to create an album with rich orchestral instrumentation that reflects the artists’ personalities. Each song on the album was inspired by a different film, including the movies “All About Eve,” “Mad Max,” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” This clever idea works wonderfully for the album, giving a new depth to each song that rewards repeated listens. For Stevens, this album is the best one he has worked on since 2015’s “Carrie and Lowell,” and is easily one of the best indie folk albums of the year.
Best Song: “You Give Death a Bad Name”
“OK Human” is the first full-length Weezer album I have actually enjoyed since 1996’s “Pinkerton.” After more than two decades of inoffensive music, Weezer has finally found a way to recapture the magic of their earlier albums. The orchestral instrumentals of the tracks “Aloo Gobi” and “Grapes of Wrath” evokes a beautiful energy that compliments Rivers Cuomo’s nerdy lyrics. Even the downtempo ballads “Dead Roses” and “Bird with a Broken Wing,” which would have been regarded as overly sentimental on other Weezer albums, unleashed unseen emotional depths. On “OK Human,” Weezer struck gold.
Best Song: “Aloo Gobi”
On “LP!”, JPEGMAFIA cements his reputation as one of mainstream rap’s most experimental artists. He refuses to lessen his angry, inflammatory lyrics despite his rising popularity, notably attacking contemporary rap duo Armand Hammer over multiple tracks. With “LP!”, Peggy continues to craft songs that feel sonically coherent despite their chaotic amalgamations of sound. On “LP!”, Peggy also maintains the quirks of his previous albums, such as the interpolation of Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time” on the song “THOT’S PRAYER!”, continuing his infatuation with late 90s pop music. As a whole, “LP!” is one of the year’s most rewarding albums to explore
Best Track: “REBOUND!”
2. “Black to the Future” by Sons of Kemet
On their fourth album “Black to the Future,” British jazz group Sons of Kemet present an energetic fusion of jazz and afrobeat. The group’s creativity is apparent in the album’s track listing, where the title of each song forms a poem. Various spoken word segments accompany the cacophonous horns that make up this rhythmic jazz album. The album furthers their previous work by exploring the struggles of Africans and African-Americans, both in the past and in the present. Even for those who do not typically listen to jazz, “Black to the Future” provides enough food for thought to make it a dynamic, exciting album.
Best Song: “Hustle”
Taking the top spot on this list is “Daddy’s Home,” St. Vincent’s reinvention into a 1970s funk star. After the cold, plasticky atmosphere of 2017’s “Masseduction,” St. Vincent, also known as Annie Clark, feels markedly more warm and human on “Daddy’s Home.” Starting with her screams on the opening track, “Pay Your Way in Pain,” Clark makes it clear that this album will be emotionally punishing. Clark reflects on her father’s release from prison, the struggles of her musical idols, potential motherhood and other deeply personal topics. Behind these lyrics is a warm, funk-based instrumental that evokes downtown New York in the mid-1970s. From beginning to end, “Daddy’s Home” introduces the listener to an Annie Clark that has never bared her soul so deeply.
Best Song: “The Melting of the Sun”