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.
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