Some Grace You Don’t Lose: Top 10 albums of 2021

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 Child assembles 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.

Honorable Mentions

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

Re-Issues, Etc.

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

Disappointments

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 Know a Place Where There’s Still Something Going On: “Love and Theft” at 20

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.”

Home at Last: Short takes on Natalie Bergman, Dawn Richard

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.

Annie Update: Checking in with Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe

At In Review Online, I’ve written short takes on two new projects from the Pistol Annies universe. First, there’s my condensed take on The Marfa Tapes, transporting campfire recordings from Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, and Jon Randall. (The extended version is available here.) And then there’s my investigation of Rosegold, an Ashley Monroe album that qualifies as a bit of a disappointment, though by no means a disaster. (I’ll stan The Blade forever.)

All I Did Was Try My Best: New-and-notables from May and June

SOUR | Olivia Rodrigo

I’m not sure which brings me more pleasure: The thought of so many Enneagram 4 dads using this album to further their post-folklore emotional breakthroughs, or the thought of so many teenagers literally discovering rock and roll through Rodrigo’s snarling pop-punk. (Serious question: When’s the last time guitar-based music lit up the pop charts like this album has?) I think she’s a prodigiously gifted writer, conjuring a rush of emotions with equal parts operatic exaggeration and scalpel precision. She’s funny when she’s being passive-aggressive, funnier when she’s just being aggressive, and devastating in her smart, specific takes on heartache. Not unlike her pal Taylor, Rodrigo captures what it’s like to be young and know everything, cataloging her experiences with bruising finality. Singalong album of the year, though only when my kids aren’t around to soak up the potty mouth.

Hardware | Billy F. Gibbons

With Hardware, the septuagenarian ZZ Top leader has delivered the year’s most irresistible rock and roll record—and, along with The Marfa Tapes, one of its deepest explorations of Texas’ rich musical heritage. Working with a small combo, an endless reserve of guitar tricks , and his own craggy drawl, Gibbons does a lot with a little, offering everything from pulverizing riff rockers to surging power pop, from frenzied surf-rock to spooky spoken-word narration. There’s a vague dirty-old-man-ishness to his lyrics that hinders my enthusiasm just a tad, but any sense of tastelessness is countered by solid jokes (“you’d think I was a highway the way she hit the road”). There’s nothing flashy or hip about it, but boy is it a pleasure. 

Path of Wellness | Sleater-Kinney

There are a few things you won’t hear on the tenth Sleater-Kinney album: The urgency of Dig Me Out. The menacing grandeur of The Woods. The adventurous spirit of The Center Won’t Hold. Janet Weiss. Heck, even Corin Tucker’s glorious banshee wail is notably absent. So what do you get instead? Lots of low end. A reminder that, for as great as they’ve always been with riffs, they’re equally gifted with groove. Eleven songs that seldom rise to the A-level but never drop below a solid B. Proof that a perfectly-fine Sleater-Kinney record would be the envy of most band’s catalogs.

The Off-Season | J. Cole

I tend to admire J. Cole albums for their storytelling prowess, but this time around, I’m taken by the sheer verbal dexterity and old-head rap thrills. Bar for bar, this may be the toughest, fiercest Cole album yet, and his joy on the mic is infectious. His biggest flex? Recruiting young guns like 21 Savage and Lil Baby, bending their gifts to accommodate his more technical, braggadocious style.

Daddy’s Home | St. Vincent

I grew up listening to albums by David Bowie and the New York Dolls, so I have no problem with artists who revel in artifice. The problem with St. Vincent’s latest metamorphosis isn’t that it’s so obviously a costume, but that it’s an unpersuasive one. Her replication of louche 70s rock is impressive but never immersive; it’s the difference between seeing a stage show that really pulls you into its world, versus one where you simply sit back and admire the wigs. That this belabored cosplay is paired with lyrics that are ostensibly about her own family drama (I’m sure some press release has christened this “her most personal album yet”) is neither here nor there. There are some strong songs, and I’d put “My Baby Wants a Baby” on any best-of playlist, but overall this feels like the least essential St. Vincent album.

JORDI | Maroon 5

I actually harbor some affection for the earliest Maroon 5 albums— back when they actually sounded like a band, and when they traded in a blue-eyed soul style that was somewhat distinctive on the pop charts. This year’s model feels as algorithm-driven as anything by Greta Van Fleet, a mashup of current trends, anodyne lyrics, and cloying guest features that lacks anything resembling a point of view. They have become a band that signifies nothing but populist ambition. Okay, okay: The song with Stevie Nicks on it is pretty catchy.