Looking back over the albums that meant the most to me in 2021, it’s not surprising that many of them reckon with loss, disruption, and grief. What’s slightly more surprising is how many of them find reason for hope, whether in the power of love, the promise of God, or the redemptive power of song itself.
Standard disclaimers apply. I have not heard every piece of music released in 2021, and even if I had, the rankings would still be fluid and subject to change. But if you want to know which albums impressed, persuaded, inspired, consoled, and entertained me the most, here are a few treasures.
Top 10 Albums
01. Outside Child | Allison Russell
The subtext is trauma— childhood abuse, cyclical violence, teenage flight. But the heart of this album is set on themes far more redemptive— surviving, healing, not allowing your whole life to be defined by the worst thing that ever happened to you. (As Russell once sang with her great band Birds of Chicago: “You are not what you’ve lost/ what remains should not bear the cost.”) Produced with soulful warmth and resonance, Outside Childassembles familiar forms into vivid album-length storytelling. The heroic Russell is always the magnetic center, yet there isn’t a moment in her narrative that doesn’t feel open-armed in its embrace of those who have known similar suffering. And because the grisly details are rendered unflinchingly, the album’s hopeful witness rings totally true. An astonishing feat of courage. A luminous showing of strength-through-vulnerability.
02. Mercy | Natalie Bergman
Everything about Bergman signifies cool— from her deadpan Dylan phrasing to her photoshoot penchant for vintage bathing suits and dangling cigarettes. But there’s nothing aloof or removed about Mercy, an album born out of tragedy, which plays like a psalmbook of doubt, despair, and desperate faith. While some quote-unquote Christian singers employ Jesus as a mascot, Bergman looks to him as a life preserver. The album also happens to be a compelling odyssey of rhythmic and textural experiments. A song called “I Will Praise You” sounds like Vampire Weekend moonlighting as a praise and worship band. And I mean that in the best way possible.
03. Dear Love | Jazzmeia Horn & Her Noble Force
Basically the Mama’s Gun of vocal jazz albums— a record that stands on the shoulders of giants, but builds toward a unique and personal point of view. On her first album fronting a big band, Horn holds the center with her immaculate diction, her playfulness, her range. Her songs paint a holistic picture of love in various forms: Romance, sex, self-love, social justice. But it’s really all about the voice, a perfect conduit for intimate address and emotional connection. With due respect to my #5, this is the most affecting singing I heard this year.
04. Carnage | Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
In which Cave reasserts himself as our most compelling theologian. Across these interconnected ruminations, by turns desolate and romantic, Cave bears witness to an age of collective isolation and insanity. All the while, a “Kingdom in the sky” hovers just overhead, sometimes appearing as a beacon of salvation, sometimes an oracle of judgment. Following a trilogy of spare, ambient recordings with his Bad Seeds, Cave pares down to a two-man lineup here, and with Ellis creates an intoxicating sound that alternates between the meditative, the cinematic, and the surprisingly raucous.
05. 30 | Adele
In a year that found all of us processing loss and disruption, Adele turned in a good old-fashioned divorce album— easily her most effective work to date. There is enough good-natured therapizing here to fuel a season of Ted Lasso, but Adele’s doing a lot more than just “working on herself.” She’s honestly reckoning with how her pursuit of happiness or self-actualization might harm the people around her. In songs that occasionally sound like prayers, she pleas for pain to be a catalyst for grace; she entreats us to go easy on her, each other, and ourselves. Musically, it’s just one flex after another. The bangers have never been this playful, or this conversant with pop trends. The throwback stuff has never been so luxuriant, so unselfconscious, so affecting.
06. WE ARE | Jon Batiste
The Soul composer and Late Show bandleader got more Grammy nominations than anyone else this year, prompting a minor backlash: Why would Grammy voters put some jazz pianist at the center of the musical universe? But listening to WE ARE, it’s clear that Batiste is actually pretty close to the center of several musical universes, uniting a swathe of Black music idioms (jazz and blues, hip-hop and R&B) into something kinetic, colorful, and purposeful. Loosely structured as a bildungsroman, the album traces Batiste’s journey from youthful innocence to a place of wisdom and advocacy. He is a polymath in the vein of Prince, but where the Purple One trafficked in kink, Batiste’s whole vibe is basic decency. And who couldn’t use some of that?
07. Sour | Olivia Rodrigo
For all the sad dads, still riding their post-folklore emotional breakthroughs. For the kids who never knew what it was like to live in a world where guitar-based music dominated the airwaves. For the geriatric millennials like me who downloaded TikTok just to see what “Driver’s License” was all about. For connoisseurs of laser-targeted vulgarity, finely-chiseled heartache, and sadness that gives way to rage, but can only ever end in tears.
08. A Southern Gothic | Adia Victoria
In which our most essential blues singer redraws the boundary lines, carefully reframing what the blues can sound like, and what kinds of stories it can tell. Her vision is expansive enough for “Magnolia Blues,” an old-timey dirge that incants Southern symbolism like some people pray the Rosary; but also “Deep Water Blues,” which rides a slick little trap beat and admonishes us all that Black women won’t necessarily stick around to save our sorry asses forever.
09. The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers | Valerie June
Valerie June’s music has always straddled two worlds, gesturing toward the earthiness of country-blues while casting dream-visions of another astral plane. But she’s never made an album that marries her groundedness and her spiritualism as organically as this one. Conventional forms burst at the seams with sound and color; familiar twang brushes up against drum machines and synth-scapes. In songs that reckon with brokenness and disappointment, she embodies the merits of keeping your feet on the ground but your head in the clouds.
10. Call Me if You Get Lost | Tyler, The Creator
A bracing and often hilarious retelling of one of the oldest stories in the book— the one about the man who gains the world, but lacks the one thing that will truly make him happy. Ensconced in signifiers of opulence and wealth, Tyler can’t stop talking about his best friend’s girl, who happens to be the love of his life; like hip-hop’s own Charles Foster Kane, he’s haunted by the empty riches he’s accumulated, and if he can’t have his Rosebud all to himself, he’ll settle for a threesome. As ever, Tyler’s medium is mayhem: A rumbling and scabrous tribute to the golden era of the mixtape, packed with more old-head rap thrills than any album I’ve heard in years. But even his thundering braggadocio can’t drown out the soul-sickness.
Hey, these are good too!
11. In These Silent Days | Brandi Carlile 12. Stand for Myself | Yola 13. The Ballad of Dood and Juanita | Sturgill Simpson 14. Black to the Future | Sons of Kemet 15. They’re Calling Me Home | Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi 16. Ignorance | The Weather Station 17. Pins and Needles | Natalie Hemby 18. Notes with Attachments | Blake Mills and Pino Palladino 19. The Marfa Tapes | Jack ingram, Jon Randall, and Miranda Lambert 20. Promises | Floating Points with the London Symphony Orchestra and Pharoah Sanders 21. Native Son | Los Lobos 22. The Servant | Shelby Lynne 23. GLOW ON | Turnstile 24. The Sound Will Tell You | Jason Moran 25. Second Line | Dawn Richard
It doesn’t feel quite fair to include this “old” music alongside the brand-new stuff, but I liked each of these a lot:
A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle | John Coltrane Red (Taylor’s Version) | Taylor Swift New Adventures in Hi-Fi: 25th Anniversary Edition | R.E.M. Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 16 | Bob Dylan Fearless (Taylor’s Version) | Taylor Swift Is This Desire? – Demos | PJ Harvey Let it Be: Super Deluxe Edition | The Beatles Kid A Mnesiac | Radiohead
A few titles that left me cold, from artists I normally love.
Rosegold | Ashley Monroe Daddy’s Home | St. Vincent That’s Life | Willie Nelson Solar Power | Lorde
I made my first year-end albums list in 2000, and have been making them ever since. Sometimes, my initial instinct proves to be unerring. Other times, my tastes shift, albums rise or fall in my estimation, or I discover something I missed the first time around. Here’s a summary of my Album of the Year picks, as I made them in real-time, along with a more current-day appraisal.
Then: U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, with Radiohead’s Kid A just half a step behind it.
Now: Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, which has revealed itself to me as one of the great R&B records of its own or any era. Though let me say, All That You Can’t Leave Behind has gone from being a slightly-overrated U2 album to being a slightly-underrated one. It may be the last time they really seemed self-assured.
Now: 2002 was one of those years in which the album that was clearly the most visionary, adventurous, and significant wasn’t necessarily the one I wanted to play all the time. So while I’ll stick with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (an album I still admire very much, even if some of the self-loathing in its lyrics has become a bit grating), I reach for Solomon Burke’s irresistible Don’t Give Up On Me just as often.
Then: Joe Henry, Tiny Voices
Now: Joe Henry, Tiny Voices
Then: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Abattoir Blues & The Lyre of Orpheus
Now: There are years where picking my favorite album is a breeze, and then there are years like 2004, where I remember agonizing between this one and Sam Phillips’ A Boot and a Shoeright up until my deadline. Both are masterpieces, though in very different ways; the former a towering achievement of poetry, prophecy, useful beauty, and ribald humor, and the latter an intimate exercise in self-examination and spiritual inquiry. I guess I’ll still pick Cave, but if you don’t consider it too much of a cheat, feel free to consider this one a tie.
Then: Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production of Eggs
Now: Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production of Eggs
Then: The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America
Now: The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America
Then: Joe Henry, Civilians
Now: Still Civilians, an elegant and multi-faceted masterpiece, though the year also offered two other masterpieces (Bettye LaVette’s The Scene of the Crimeand Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) that have really risen in my estimation.
Then: Barry Adamson, Back to the Cat
Now: I’d likely change this one to Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War, but the Adamson record is so great. If you haven’t heard it, you really should.
Then: Allen Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi
Now: Allen Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi. One of the easiest album-of-the-year calls I’ve ever made.
Then: The Roots, How I Got Over
Now: I still love The Roots’ record, but would probably name Pistol Annies’ Hell on Heels as my favorite of the year. And related to The Roots, let me make a tangential observation. At the time, I remember thinking of 2010 as first and foremost a banner year for hip-hop. If you asked me today, I’d tell you that 2010 was notable largely for its bumper crop of jazz. In particular, I return to a couple of all-time-great piano trio albums, one by The Bad Plus (Never Stop) and one by Jason Moran & The Bandwagon (TEN). (And obviously there was some good country, too.)
Then: The Roots, undun
Now: Another year of anguish: I just couldn’t pick between this, Joe Henry’s Reverie, and Over the Rhine’s The Long Surrender. The years since have been clarifying: All three albums are great, but The Long Surrender is far and away my favorite now.
Then: Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio
Now: Taylor Swift’s Red, followed by Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… The Glasper album is good, but in hindsight, seems like a fairly baffling pick.
Then: Over the Rhine, Meet Me at the Edge of the World
Now: Over the Rhine, Meet Me at the Edge of the World
Then: Joe Henry, Invisible Hour
Now: D’Angelo, Black Messiah (which, to cut myself some slack, came out a few days after I made my initial list)
Then: Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Now: Same, though I do remember another one of those struggles between naming the album that made the greatest impact (Kendrick) and the one that I found myself playing most compulsively (Ashley Monroe’s The Blade). To Pimp a Butterfly is a masterpiece, but it also demands a lot from the listener. Monroe’s album is just sheer, easy delight.
Then: Birds of Chicago, Real Midnight
Now: I was never happier naming my album of the year than when I named Real Midnight, an incredibly soulful and charming record from a really special, deserving band. The album has lost none of its appeal for me, though I have realized that the band is capable of far more than I imagined at the time. (See Allison Russell’s great solo album.) I wouldn’t change my pick for anything in the world, even if these days I spend more time with Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings, which I love more and more as time goes on.
Then: Joe Henry, Thrum
Now: Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over
Then: Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
Now: Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour
Then: Joe Henry, The Gospel According to Water
Now: Joe Henry, The Gospel According to Water
Then: Taylor Swift, folklore
Now: I might be more inclined to go with the year’s consensus pick (Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters), though folklore was certainly the one I played most last year. I still think it’s a beautifully crafted set of songs, even if evermore diluted its impact a little. I still like the Run the Jewels record a lot, too!
I admit to being caught off-guard by the sheer joy and delight found in The Ballad of Dood and Juanita— the latest album from Sturgill Simpson, and already my favorite of his releases. I was happy to write about it for In Review Online.
At In Review Online, I had the good pleasure of commemorating my favorite Bob Dylan album, 20 years old as of September. For me has has never been funnier, never more delightfully complicated, never more full of vim and vigor. An excerpt from my retrospective:
“Love & Theft” asserts Dylan’s humble station in a long line of prophetic witnesses, testifying to all that is beautiful and broken about our shared humanity. Early in the album, a woman warns him that he can’t repeat the past, but naturally, Dylan knows better: “What do you mean you can’t?” he chuckles. “Of course you can.”
FLOOD Magazine just posted a round-up of the year’s best albums thus far, including a couple of blurbs from yours truly. Both albums I wrote about deal, in some form or fashion, with the concept of home: With Second Line, Dawn Richard refracts her New Orleans upbringing through the prism of individuality. And with Mercy (an impossibly good, utterly beguiling gospel record), Natalie Bergman copes with loss by longing for heaven. Both are worth your time and full attention. And by the way, my own ballot is available here.