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!
Lists like this require more work than you’d think, which is why I don’t make them too often. But as new releases just start to trickle in, I thought I’d offer my hypothetical hall-of-fame ballot; my response to the age-old desert island question.
I am presuming a fairly spacious island, and lots of time on my hands. So why 60? Because 100 seems unwieldy somehow, yet keeping it to 50 required cuts I couldn’t bring myself to make. As is always the case with lists, I intend this as a snapshot in time: 60 albums that have been formative, that have brought pleasure, that have abided mystery and midwifed revelation. Ask me again in a month and I’m sure I’d come to some slightly different conclusions.
Tiny Voices | Joe Henry
“Love & Theft” | Bob Dylan
The Birth of Soul | Ray Charles
Birds of My Neighborhood | The Innocence Mission
The Bright Mississippi | Allen Toussaint
Mama’s Gun | Erykah Badu
The Long Surrender | Over the Rhine
The Weight of These Wings | Miranda Lambert
Kind of Blue | Miles Davis
Black Messiah | D’Angelo
Civilians | Joe Henry
Real Midnight | Birds of Chicago
Good Dog Bad Dog | Over the Rhine
A Love Supreme | John Coltrane
Every Picture Tells a Story | Rod Stewart
The Basement Tapes | Bob Dylan & The Band
Sign o’ the Times | Prince
So | Peter Gabriel
The Low End Theory | A Tribe Called Quest
Paul’s Boutique | Beastie Boys
Court and Spark | Joni Mitchell
Money Jungle | Duke Ellington
In a Silent Way | Miles Davis
Rain Dogs | Tom Waits
Abattoir Blues & The Lyre of Orpheus | Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Red | Taylor Swift
The Gospel According to Water | Joe Henry
The Scene of the Crime | Bettye LaVette
Painted from Memory | Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach
Parade | Prince & The Revolution
Undun | The Roots
Highway 61 Revisited | Bob Dylan
Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
Legacy! Legacy! | Jamila Woods
Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus | Charles Mingus
Basie & Zoot | Count Basie and Zoot Sims
Thelonious Monk Trio | Thelonious Monk
Achtung Baby | U2
All This Useless Beauty | Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Time Out of Mind | Bob Dylan
Purple Rain | Prince & The Revolution
Hell on Heels | Pistol Annies
Sings the Blues | Nina Simone
Otis Blue | Otis Redding
How I Got Over | The Roots
A Boot and a Shoe | Sam Phillips
Time (The Revelator) | Gillian Welch
John Wesley Harding | Bob Dylan
Trust | Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Voodoo | D’Angelo
Back to Back | Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges
Folklore | Taylor Swift
RTJ4 | Run the Jewels
Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple
Hounds of Love | Kate Bush
King’s Record Shop | Rosanne Cash
Lifes Rich Pageant | R.E.M.
Brighter Than Creation’s Dark | Drive-by Truckers
there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens with Franceso Turrisi
My top 25 album picks, along with commentary, are still available here at the blog. But if it’s raw data you’re after, I can tell you that I spent time with around 90 new releases this year, and can easily list 50 without hitting any duds.
Folklore | Taylor Swift
RTJ4 | Run the Jewels
Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple
Aftermath | Elizabeth Cook
Rough and Rowdy Ways | Bob Dylan
Women in Music Pt. III | HAIM
Who Are You? | Joel Ross
Blackbirds | Bettye LaVette
We Still Go to Rodeos | Whitney Rose
Felis Catus and Silence | Leo Takami
Rainbow Sign | Ron Miles
Song for Our Daughter | Laura Marling
Mama, You Can Bet! | Jyoti
Letter to You | Bruce Springsteen
That’s How Rumors Get Started | Margo Price
CHICKABOOM! | Tami Neilson
Headlight | Della Mae
We’re New Again | Makaya McCraven & Gil Scott-Heron
Private Lives | Low Cut Connie
All the Good Times | Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
SOURCE | Nubya Garcia
Half Moon Light | The Lone Bellow
Total Freedom | Kathleen Edwards
RoundAgain | Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, & Brian Blade
Future Nostalgia | Dua Lipa
Southside | Sam Hunt
Omega | Immanuel Wilkins
Evermore | Taylor Swift
First Rose of Spring | Willie Nelson
Heaven to a Tortured Mind | Yves Tumor
Hey Clockface | Elvis Costello
Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able | Black Thought
Serpentine Prison | Matt Berninger
Punisher | Phoebe Bridgers
Reunions | Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
See You Tomorrow | The Innocence Mission
Your Life is a Record | Brandy Clark
Petals for Armor | Hayley Williams
Rejoice | Hugh Masekela & Tony Allen
We Are Sent Here By History | Shabaka & The Ancestors
Saturn Return | The Secret Sisters
Echo Mine | Califone
Gaslighter | The Chicks
Good Souls Better Angels | Lucinda Williams
Italian Ice | Nicole Atkins
Imploding the Mirage | The Killers
McCartney III | Paul McCartney
Pick Me Up Off the Floor | Norah Jones
Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? | The Soft Pink Truth
I’ve clearly dropped the ball this year, at least as far as blogging goes. I won’t make any excuse for myself, except to say that the value in criticism can seem tenuous on a good day, and has sometimes felt like an unseemly luxury during a global pandemic and a fraught election season. It is a luxury that my mental and emotional bandwidth just haven’t been about to accommodate. Maybe I can make it up to you by recommending 25 albums that have quieted, comforted, challenged, and sustained me throughout this strange year.
As ever, there are purely personal selections, and if you ask me to redo this list in even a week’s time some of the entries might change. But all are outstanding, and all have gotten a lot of play here at Hurst HQ.
One slight departure from previous years: For whatever reason, it suits my mood to start with the #1 slot this year, rather than do my customary countdown. Life is short. Let’s get right to it.
01. Folklore | Taylor Swift Swift has always been a remarkable songwriter. Nevertheless, her eighth album reveals a marked maturing of her craft—not so much in her casual swearing, but in the blood she draws from clean, uncluttered metaphors (“I knew you, leaving like a father, running like water”). And, she remains unequalled in writing show-stopping bridges, using them to deliver narrative pivots and grand flourishes of emotion. Her writing on Folklore is so structured that you can almost imagine these songs as standards (bring on the Tony Bennet versions); with no need to leave them legible for stadium crowds, however, Swift deliberately obscures them in misty, spongy arrangements, primarily via The National’s Aaaron Dessner. There is a faintly transgressive pleasure in the thought that Folklore might give millions of listeners their gateway drug into dream-pop, minimalism, New Age, and folk music, but the more straightforward pleasure is hearing Swift navigate new sounds with the most understated, assured singing of her career. For as much fuss as Swift has made about writing in a less autobiographical mode, she remains her own greatest character, allowing Folklore to glow with tiny embers of self-recognition (“I’ve never been a natural/ all I do is try, try, try”). On an album born in isolation, Swift stretches further and probes deeper than ever.
02. RTJ4 | Run the Jewels Deployed like emergency rations at the peak of the George Floyd protests, RTJ4 is an album born of a long, weary history of violence and dehumanization, and for a few tense weeks felt like the only new music worthy of its fraught era. Mercifully, it’s also a rap lover’s dream, an album targeted at the pleasure centers of old heads and connoisseurs. Clattering production, worthy of the Bomb Squad, shapes street noise and psychedelic sound effects into the sleekest, funkiest, most undiluted Run the Jewels record yet, and provides the perfect cacophony to feed the duo’s wisecracks, breaking news bulletins, and arresting autobiography. The buddy-comedy routine between El-P and Killer Mike has always gestured toward nihilism, but that’s getting less and less credible; they remain crusaders for the golden age rap records they grew up on, unwilling to surrender that sound to nostalgia or obsolescence. They draw strength from an aesthetic, but more than that, they draw strength from each other: Underneath the cynicism, RTJ4 is really a sweet album about brotherhood.
03. Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple Song for song and joke for joke, Apple is as funny as any of her male peers— and that’s true even if you count Bob Dylan among her clique, which you probably should. With pitch-black cabaret routines and put-downs worthy of a battle rapper, Apple is unflinching in her interrogation of personal grievances and societal abuses that fester in #metoo’s wake. A few songs capture the old Fiona, showing her to be undiminished as a piano troubadour of peerless phrasing and panache; more characteristic are songs that wrest homemade percussion and barking dogs into a sound that is raucous, uninhibited, and untamed by genre.
04. Aftermath | Elizabeth Cook Cook journeyed through hell to make this record, surviving loss, divorce, and rehab. You can hear all of that in the music— not because it’s confessional, but because Cook’s slanted, complicated narratives are so full of rage, despair, black comedy, and hard-won empathy. The hardscrabble honky-tonk of her early albums wouldn’t quite work for songs so prickly, so she instead fills them with gnarled riffs, stomping rhythms, and elliptical takes on heartland rock.
05. Rough and Rowdy Ways | Bob Dylan Imagine listening to this, the best Dylan record since Love & Theft, and thinking he was a maladroit singer. Imagine believing that a younger man could bring a softer touch to the blues numbers, or more grit to the torch songs. Imagine hearing Bob’s tender litany of emotional touchpoints in “Murder Most Foul” and still thinking it was just a song about JFK.
06. Women in Music Part III | HAIM To fully appreciate all the weird, scraggly textures on HAIM’s third album, consider how easy it might have been for them to coast forever on their sweet, sisterly harmonies and euphoric pop melodies. Both are omnipresent here, but exist within a larger ecosystem: Leaning into their earnestness, their goofy sense of humor, their ear for noise, and their instinct for studiocraft, HAIM has altered the language of classic rock into a dialect all their own.
07. Who Are You? | Joel Ross Following a smooth, assured debut, the young vibraphonist and bandleader returns with a small-group, straight-ahead jazz album bursting at the seams with ideas and invention. Ross’ music is a thrilling reminder of how the jazz tradition offers endless permutations of texture, rhythm, and tone.
08. Blackbirds | Bettye LaVette On previous albums, the world’s greatest soul singer laid claim to the songs of the British Invasion and the towering catalog of Bob Dylan. Astonishing, she’s just now making an album of songs popularized by Black women— with one Beatles tune to serve as a coda. LaVette locates the pain and resolve in song after song of heartache and despair, all of which gain their full meaning through a harrowing “Strange Fruit.”
09. We Still Go to Rodeos | Whitney Rose Nothing ever sounds too effortful on a Whitney Rose album. For her fourth, she proves herself once again to be a singer of impeccable instinct and restraint, and a graceful navigator of soaring country-rock, slinky blues, and tender ballads. Her craft is seamless and unforced, making it easy to take for granted just how smart and sturdy the record really is.
10. Felis Catus and Silence | Leo Takami One of the year’s great left-field surprises is this sweet, playful little record from Japan, which elegantly blends jazz, ambient, and New Age music with clean, folksy melodies. Its tranquility offers a welcome refuge from hurry and anxiety.
11. Rainbow Sign | Ron Miles Summoning the same all-star band that joined him on I Am a Man— merely one of the richest , deepest jazz records of the past decade— cornetist Ron Miles offers another collection of handsome, stately originals: Songs that move gracefully from meditation to mischief, from deep blues to spirited swing.
12. Song for Our Daughter | Laura Marling Just 30 years old and with seven solo albums to her credit, Laura Marling gets deeper, wiser, and more emotionally articulate with each release. Her latest is filled with stories of collapse and resolve, and shows that she’s gotten scarily good at perfectly-crafted couplets designed to break your heart. Here’s one: “I feel a fool, so do you/ For believing it could work out, like some things do.”
13. Mama, You Can Bet! | Jyoti Recording in a one-woman-band arrangement a la Prince or Stevie Wonder, Georgia Anne Muldrow recreates the loose, exploratory feel of a jazz ensemble— and, sustains an affectionate, referential dialogue with the lineage of Black music.
14. Letter to You | Bruce Springsteen Deeply nostalgic, but not uncritically so. It’s as if Springsteen is holding a seance with a younger version of himself, writing new songs that reflect on his glory days while resurrecting old ones from the vantage point of age and experience. All of it summons the majestic heft of the E-Street Band, who wear familiarity as a badge of honor. Together, they weigh the burden of mortality against the fleeting joy that rock and roll can bring, frequently making it sound like a worthy trade-off.
15. That’s How Rumors Get Started | Margo Price Price has made a couple of handsome country albums, but what many of us now realize is that we’ve always wanted her to make trashy little rock and roll records, full of grudges and bile. This one, produced by Price with Surgill Simpson, gleefully obliges.
16. CHICKABOOM! | Tami Neilson If it’s a knockout voice you’re looking for, you’re unlikely to find better than Neilson, a singer of rarified power, precision, and personality. Past albums have run the gamut of country and soul, but CHICKABOOM! offers something distilled: A pure concentrate of raucous, roadhouse rhythm and blues.
17. Headlight | Della Mae Play any given minute of any given Della Mae album (including this one) and you’ll get all the evidence you need that these women can play. But Headlight offers a lot more than pure bluegrass virtuosity: It’s their richest and most expansive work yet, accommodating feisty love songs and topical laments; crawling blues, rowdy hoedowns, swaying ballads, even gospel choruses.
18. We’re New Again | Makaya McCraven & Gil Scott-Heron For the third and best airing of Scott-Heron’s stirring I’m New Here material, drummer and producer McCraven dices and splices the late poet’s spoken word recitations, setting his rich words against vivid musical backdrops. The resulting album honors not just Scott-Heron’s prodigal wanderings through abuse and addiction, but also his legacy as a bridge between jazz and hip-hop.
19. Private Lives | Low Cut Connie It was only a matter of time before the extroverted Adam Weiner— our most dependable purveyor of down and dirty rock and roll— set his ambitions to a concept album. Private Lives condenses 17 songs into 55 minutes, and creates a patchwork of quiet desperation, nagging self-doubt, and unspoken prayers for redemption. Thankfully, it still sounds like down and dirty rock and roll.
20. All the Good Times | Gillian Welch & David Rawlings Ten cover songs reveal a different side of Welch and Rawlings. Where they are normally fastidious, here they sound carefree and casual; just a couple of crazy kids with time on their hands, some reel-to-reel recording equipment, and a burning love for American folk music. Come for Gillian’s sensitive reading of a John Prine tune; stay for Dave’s immaculate Dylan snarl.
21. Source | Nubya Garcia The young sax prodigy’s first album as a leader fulfills all the promise she’s shown through her guest spots and supporting roles. The album’s vibrant pan-culturalism reminds you that she comes from an immigrant family, while the speaker-rattling bass suggests an upbringing on hip-hop; but it’s her questing solos that reveal how much she’s learned from her elders, and how much history informs her take on the shape of jazz to come.
22. Half Moon Light | The Lone Bellow Gifted in so many tragically unfashionable ways, the Brooklyn trio delivers earnest anthems to a world that’s largely put such things behind it. For anyone with room in their hearts for a bit of the ol’ U2-style grandeur, this album is pitch-perfect in channeling loss and grief into catharsis, and in making intimate reflections sound universal. The cruelest irony of all: Some of these songs would sound great in an arena.
23. Total Freedom | Kathleen Edwards A beloved singer and songwriter emerges from self-imposed exile, proving that she’s lost neither her delicate touch nor her dry sense of humor. These warm, earnest originals speak to the bittersweetness of domestic life, highlighting isolation and regret, yet still finding room for gratitude. Nearly every song on the album is darker and more conflicted than it first sounds, which lends surprising ballast to Edwards’ seemingly-breezy country-rock.
24. RoundAgain | Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, & Brian Blade Reconvening nearly 30 years after their last studio summit— that would be Redman’s excellent MoodSwing, from 1994—four of the leading luminaries in jazz get together for egoless, leaderless improvisation. In a fraught year, RoundAgain offers a balm: The sound of easy chemistry between long-time pals, lost together in a spirit of play.
25. Future Nostalgia | Dua Lipa Arriving just in time to soundtrack a few million quarantine dance parties, the young British singer’s second album offers a master class in state-of-the-art disco. Singles and could-be singles pile up one after the other— coiled, propulsive, fat-free— and quickly create the illusion that you’re listening to a greatest hits collection.
Honorable Mention: Evermore | Taylor Swift All hail Taylor Swift: Our most productive quarantiner, our most essential pop star, and the redeeming poet laureate of 2020’s malaise. Surprise-released a few days after I drafted this list, her second album of the year expands upon the moody aesthetic of Folklore, doubling down on its autumnal vibe but also sharpening and clarifying it with a dab of 1989 gloss, a few left-field experiments, and at least one track that could almost fit in on country radio. It’s less surprising, less consistent, and more adventurous than the album that came before it, impressive enough to warrant its inclusion as an unranked bonus pick.
Like I was saying: It was a great year for records. My list of annotated favorites includes several titles I’d qualify as masterpieces, and plenty more that come close enough.
The just-the-facts version, expanded to a full top 50, is as follows, along with a few additional loose ends. I’ll be back in 2020 with some best-of-decade reflections, then on to new albums!
Thanks as ever to all of you who join me on these adventures in listening. I do not take for granted the gifts of your time and attention, and remain hopeful that I’ve honored them by turning you on to something good.
I don’t especially enjoy dismembering anyone else’s creative output, but in the interest of candor, I’ll take a moment to register just a few albums that left me cold this year, by artists I typically enjoy. As ever, your mileage may vary.
The Big Day | Chance the Rapper The Black Album | Weezer The Teal Album | Weezer Jesus is King | Kanye West Sound and Fury | Sturgill Simpson
I have half a mind to include Willie Nelson’s Ride Me Back Homeon this short list, a largely pleasant and agreeable album that falls just a bit short of recent standouts like Last Man Standingand My Way. And, I’ll confess to enjoying Maren Morris’ GIRL quite a bit less than I enjoyed HERO, though between her role in The Highwomen and her uproarious duet with Miranda Lambert, she is still one of this year’s MVPs. (And, “The Bones” is an excellent single.)
Re-Issues and Older Music
A commitment to new releases means that it’s sometimes difficult finding time for re-issues. One of my hopes for the holiday break is to catch up with some of the lavish reappraisals of classics like Abbey Road and The Band. The one re-issue that I can vouch for here is the 25th Anniversary edition of R.E.M.’s Monster, which dials back some of the guitar effects in favor of greater crispness and clarity. It remains a singularly moving document of a band that’s hurting, and trying anything and everything not to be fully seen.
A Year Ago
These end-of-year lists are always intended to be snapshots, and it would be foolish for me to assume my rankings would ever remain static or unmoving. Looking back at last year’s list, I can safely say that I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for any of my selections. I will note that it took me a few months to catch up with Universal Beings, from the great drummer and bandleader Makaya McCraven, which provides an immersive set of grooves and textures even as it persuasively bridges the gap between jazz performance and hip-hop production. It probably would have made my top 10, had I only heard it in time. An album that did make my top 10 is Love in Wartime, by the mighty Birds of Chicago, yet in hindsight I still think I underrated it: I have returned to its durable humanity and hopefulness again and again this year, and found it to be deeply nourishing each time.
I have been writing about records since I was 13, and have never enjoyed it more than I have this year. Love and gratitude to all who have encouraged me in these weekly, deep-dive reviews. I hope you’ve found it even half as worthwhile as I have.
I’ll be back with more in 2019, after a brief Christmas sabbatical. But first, a few closing remarks on this past year’s new releases. For those who want a long list of albums without my annotations, here are 50 albums I cherish and whole-heartedly recommend. (Of course you can find the commentary track here.) You’ll note that some of these I never reviewed, but only due to time restrictions—not a dearth of enthusiasm.
The most important decision a critic makes is on what he or she chooses to cover, and for me that means curating records that are worth the listener’s time and attention. There were, however, a few 2018 albums I ended up liking far less than expected; the following are all albums I had intended to write about but ultimately didn’t justify the effort, for one reason or another.
Ye | Kanye West Man of the Woods | Justin Timberlake Nasir | Nas Colagically Speaking | R+R=Now August Greene | August Greene The Now Now | Gorillaz Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino | Arctic Monkeys
I will also register some mild disappointment with Teyana Taylor’s album, KTSE—though it’s not disappointment with the album’s quality so much as its brevity and its botched roll-out. She deserved much better.
Re-Issues and Older Music
Deep immersion in new music means I haven’t yet gotten to all of the year’s big archival roll-outs—not to the anniversary edition of Beggars Banquet nor even to Bob Dylan’s More Blood, More Tracks. (I will confess to some mild Bootleg fatigue.) I have listened to the deluxe edition of The Beatles, a joyous revelation not necessarily for the bonus material so much as the chance to hear such richly imaginative and playful material come spilling out of my speakers in clarion sound. A couple of other new/old releases to note include John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once—a transitional album that nevertheless sounds sure-footed—and a sublime anthology called Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul & Synth Boogie in 1980s South Africa, so indelible that my six-year-old son has requested it on more than one occasion.