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Best Albums of 2021
Photo: Guillaume Techer via Unsplash

The 75 Best Albums of 2021

Despite a global pandemic, musicians were far more active in 2021 and had time to create their finest work. It resulted in some of the best albums in years.

35

Yasmin Williams – Urban Driftwood

[Spinster]

Yasmin Williams first picked up a six-string thanks to a video game, but she’s rapidly become her own sort of guitar hero. She plays solo acoustic, but she has little to do with the tradition you might expect her to draw from. Her playing remains heavily melodic even as she finds increasingly inventive ways to perform. Her simultaneous use of the kalimba might be a novelty, but it’s not a gimmick. Instead, it’s just one example of the ways that Williams remains consistently surprising across second release Urban Driftwood. Bringing in a cello for “Adrift” creates a lovely dialogue and a unique tone with in the album; the title track’s djembe creates yet another texture.

Combining consistent inventiveness with technical skill allows Williams to explore territory that few other artists approach. She closes the album with “After the Storm”, a cut driven by the chaos of the last few years that finds beauty in an intimate setting, fingers squeaking on the strings and bright chords implied as she continues her travels. Williams might just be taking off, with only exciting things ahead, but Urban Driftwood will stand as a landmark release. – Justin Cober-Lake

LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: YouTube


34

Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over the Country Club

[Interscope / Polydor]

The 11 songs that comprise Lana Del Rey‘s seventh studio album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, are contemplative and quiet, compared to the more lavish Grammy-nominated release of 2019, Normal Fucking Rockwell. However, Chemtrails is just as perceptive and on point, emphasizing the disenchantment of the American dream—a subject Del Rey has often explored in her music. Even the title of the album highlights the dichotomy between American wealth and the distrust and angst bubbling under the nation’s surface.

The music in Chemtrails is more stripped down than in previous releases and her vocals are often lofty and breathy, adding a tenuous quality to the folksy sound of the music. As if to emphasize the Americana atmosphere, Del Rey closes out the album with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free”, featuring Weyes Blood and Zella Day.

Throughout, Del Rey contemplates many of her favorite subjects: love, partying, Jesus, and, of course, California. But unlike many of her previous albums which lament a simpler time, this release also takes stock of the present and the desire for a better future. There’s a vulnerability and openness in Chemtrails that Del Rey hasn’t quite hit on before. The subject matter, coupled with the delicate instrumentation, has produced Del Rey’s most thoughtful and sensitive album to date. – Jennifer Makowsky

LISTEN: Spotify

WATCH: YouTube


33

Headie One – Too Loyal For My Own Good

[mixtape]

Following last year’s wildly successful Edna, Headie One has been widely regarded as the breakout star of the UK drill scene. Edna was a minor-key, often melancholic affair, frequently pushing beyond the cold savagery of drill towards more elaborate and US-influenced contemporary hip-hop stylings. Headie One’s newest mixtape Too Loyal For My Own Good furthers this rich vein of experimentalism, from the trap-influenced and expertly-produced “PTSD”, to the textured, sultry Afrobeats vibes of “Louis Vuitton Collar” to the brilliant album highlight “Cry”. Flipping Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” – “Cry” is a funky pop-rap anthem that, like much on this irresistible mixtape, points towards an ambitious future for its creator. – Tom Morgan

LISTEN: Spotify

WATCH: YouTube


32

Moor Mother – Black Encyclopedia of the Air

[Anti-]

Moor Mother is a truly interdisciplinary artist. Her output blends musician, poet, and rapper and traverses genres ranging from hip-hop to jazz to noise. The stunning Black Encyclopedia of the Air sees her further expand her ambitious scope, unpacking weighty but timely themes concerned with confronting the long, dark shadows of our histories. Though the album is easily the Philadelphia artist’s most accessible work, it’s still rich with textured musicianship, haunting ideas, and stellar guest features, including E L U C I D, Ioji, and Pink Siifu. – Tom Morgan

LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: YouTube


Flying Dream 1

31

Elbow – Flying Dream 1

[Virgin]

Sometimes a memory feels like a dream, and sometimes, it is so visceral that you start to believe it happened. Flying dreams can’t possibly be real, but they’re the ones you wish would never end. Out of the fever dream of the past 18 months, Elbow have produced their ninth studio release, Flying Dream 1. Unable to work as a group during the lockdown, the songs on the album were written alone but together. The quartet passed musical ideas to one another from their respective home studios, sharing and building upon individual snippets. As a result, the songs became a kind of conversational thread between faraway friends.

Because of the isolation, the album has a more introspective feel than previous releases. There are none of the swaying, hands-in-the-air anthems such as “One Day Like This”, nor any acerbic rockers like “White Noise White Heat”. Instead, Flying Dream 1 soars quietly with the unabashedly earnest love songs Elbow do so well. Flying Dream 1 also trusts its listeners, asking us to hold a quiet space for the music and let it reveal itself over time. It requires a tiny leap of faith to “step into the air” and fly. – Cheryl Graham

LISTEN: Spotify

WATCH: YouTube


Japanese Breakfast Jubilee

30

Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

[Dead Oceans]

“My new album is called Jubilee. It’s about joy.” On 2 March 2021, Michelle Chongmi Zauner tweeted this simple announcement about the upcoming release of the third studio album by the band Japanese Breakfast, which the Korean-American musician, director, and author fronts. The July release of the album followed on the heels of the publication of her best-selling memoir, Crying in H Mart, a book born from a loss that explores memory, identity, and finding one’s place. Jubilee is a lush, atmospheric dream-pop album that affirms the ability of pop to emote complex depth.

Jubilee is no sunny, optimistic tome. When Zauner declares in “Posing in Bondage” that the world consists of those who have experienced pain and those who have yet to, she points to joy as an embrace of life in its fullness. The rich arrangements of this beautiful album are punctuated with lush strings and horns, drumline percussion, synth, and powerful, understated solo guitar work reminiscent of the slow burn jams of Jay Farrar and Nels Cline. The music intertwines with Zauner’s poetic lyrics exploring desire, physical and emotional need, distance and intimacy, and the spectrum of loss and discovery. Jubilee is an album that envelops you in its embrace of the rhythm of life, affirming our desires and highlighting moments of beauty in the muck. It leaves you with anticipation of what Japanese Breakfast will offer next. – Rick Quinn

LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: YouTube


29

Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth

[House Anxiety/Ourness]

Smiling With No Teeth pairs sometimes shocking or downright dark situations against characteristics that seem their opposite: sprinting tempos and/or smooth grooves. The black dog motif, a lycanthropic condition that torments and lives within the narrator, tells its own tale here, a predator hidden among melodies. Chains fashioned as jewelry, depressive episodes refurnished into personal shelters. Instead of simply denouncing depravity, Owusu acknowledges its tempting power; how easy to get swept up in the primal rush. He embodies seven deadly sins simply through his vocal dexterity. Owusu growls in a lower register, flits in his tenor, yelps quite like a canine, and warbles in all types of Auto-tune.

At moments when the fog clears, Owusu bursts forth in moments of clarity as distinct as they are poignant. Of course, there’s the obvious “Don’t Need You”, the catchiest kiss-off dedicated, inexplicably, to our lowest moments. Sorry, depression, the “temples [are] at capacity”. The flip side of that sunnier disposition is what follows the midway point when the album relies less on metaphor and more on explicit, uncomfortable personal experience. Owusu rattles off microaggressions, tragedies, and abuse through often palatable means, like the pleasing rhyme scheme of “datable” to “debatable” or the Full House theme interpolation of “No Looking Back”. But as he smiles with no teeth, he continues to carry on the only way he knows how in an industry and world that still fail to grasp the true magnitude of what it asks of him. – Mick Jacobs

LISTEN: Spotify

WATCH: YouTube


28

The Weather Station – Ignorance

[Fat Possum]

Eight of the ten songs on Ignorance have one‑word titles such as “Loss”, “Trust”, and “Heart”, which shows lead singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman’s tendency to keep things plain and simple. There’s nothing emotionally straightforward about such terms. They express complicated feelings (i.e., quick, what does the word “Loss” mean to you?). Lindeman sings in a calm, sinuous voice that veers from a low rumble to a high falsetto as she explores the sonics of her jazz-rock accompanists that features two drummers, a saxophonist, and a flutist, among other more traditional pop instruments (electric guitar, synth, bass).

The songs address everything from the dangers of capitalism to the desire for desire as if one were looking at the shape of clouds and deciding what they most resemble before breaking apart. The music is simultaneously unpretentious and artful as the parade of instruments comes together and breaks into blossom before separating into silence. As the old proverb goes, sometimes “ignorance is bliss” and one never knows where the Weather Station are going to take the listener. – Steve Horowitz

LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: YouTube


27

Valerie June – The Moon and Stars: Prescription for Dreamers

[Fantasy]

On the cover of The Moon and the Stars: Prescription for Dreamers, Valerie June peers back over her shoulder, cutting a dream-like figure of a high priestess marking the liminal space of transcendent imagination. Eclectic barely describes Valerie June’s rich musical output in this mind-altering album. The Moon and the Stars troubles the very notion of genre itself by drawing from traditions ranging from roots, soul, Afrobeat rhythmic structures, dream pop, trap beats to psychedelic music. In a world marked by increased division, policed borders, and retrogressive backlash to the power of diversity, Valerie June’s work traces light and healing amid darkness and pain precisely through the emergence of something wholly new at the site of this musical menagerie.

It is the epiphany, as she writes in “Stardust Scattering”, of the “grace note in between”. The dreamers Valerie June nurtures in this collection are especially attuned to the liberative truth that we humble beings are the cosmic residue of burnt-out stars. This beguiling album is equal parts witness and invocation. Its variegated complexity tethers the listener to presence and meditative attentiveness encouraged through the ambient interludes within the album. Countering the cacophony of cultural breakdown, Valerie June’s Prescription for Dreamers nourishes the soul, rendering translucent the seemingly opaque borderline thwarting our imagination. – Rick Quinn

LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: YouTube


Valentine

26

Snail Mail – Valentine

[Matador]

For three long years, we have waited for Snail Mail to follow up her near-perfect debut album Lush. Lindsey Jordan, a luminary at 22, went through a lot in the meantime. An exhausting press and touring cycle led her to seek refuge in a rehabilitation facility. Then came the pandemic and she hightailed from her East Village apartment to the leafy Maryland suburbs. Here in the safe space of home, she entered the exposed songwriting headspace. Valentine is still vulnerable—Jordan contemplates filling a bath with water as she “thought I’d see her when I died”—but she’s stronger now, more self-assured. She has spoken of giving too much away, flinging open the curtains to her personal life without consideration. But this time, she keeps something for herself.

Jordan’s guitar is thicker, stronger than before, especially now it’s buoyed with glossy synthesizers and orchestral string harmonization. On “Ben Franklin” she cries, “But don’t act like you never met me” before crawling under the succoring blanket of choppy guitar that smothers its way across the shuffling drumbeat. She allows herself to dance more, too. “Forever (Sailing)” is ready to soundtrack an ’80s movie prom scene. Indeed, the components of Jordan’s songwriting that endeared her to listeners are all here, and are elevated: her voice is rougher, the production is tighter, the heartache more consequential, more adult maybe. Valentine is the result of Jordan’s growth and a display of her resilience. She may be feeling small, but Snail Mail is about to get much bigger. – Hayden Merrick

LISTEN: Bandcamp

WATCH: YouTube


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