Here it is, the main event.
The thing I was most struck by in 2021 was the lack of consensus on an album of the year. In a rare occurrence, Pitchfork (Jazmine Sullivan), Rolling Stone (Olivia Rodrigo), the (now Uproxx) critics’ poll (Japanese Breakfast), and the Metacritic meta-list (Little Simz) all had differing takes on the album of the year, and it still doesn’t feel like those contenders are significantly ahead of the rest of the field. Perhaps consequently, my list looks less like a consensus list than it basically ever has. Which is just peachy with me!
I did a great job of finding and listening to new music that I enjoy this year, so much so that this feature contains one hundred albums released in 2021. Earlier this week I expected to have about 70, so I was pretty surprised to add everything up. Which just makes me all the more excited to share the product of my hard work with you.
As a final note about my list, it’s pretty cool to see all of my top three albums by artists who owe a lot to Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift is one of the biggest recording artists of the last twenty years, but I’ve always felt like not a ton of artists were very obviously influenced by her. That’s changing! And I’m clearly a big fan of that development.
I’m doing this a bit differently (and more thoroughly!) than in recent years, so here’s a rundown of the order of things. First, I’ll be going over some fantastic albums that I won’t include as 2021 albums for whatever reason. Then I’ll dive into the top ten of 2021. After that, I’ll show the remaining ranked top 25, the remaining unranked top 50, and then a lot of honorable mentions.
I’ve also given one song recommendation for each album, each of which is among the album’s best but is not one of the 40 songs included in yesterday’s best songs of 2021 feature.
Here we go! I’ll see you next week for the best TV episodes and TV shows of 2021.
Ineligible But Worthy
Low Cut Connie: Tough Cookies: The Best of the Quarantine Broadcasts
Excluded because it’s kind of a live album (the rare sort of those recorded in 2020), Tough Cookies is an essential document of the 2020 Instagram Live quarantine concert era. Everyone who’s heard it rightly praises “Little Red Corvette,” but I think the cover of Cardi B’s “Be Careful” is really nasty, too.
Listen: “Little Red Corvette”
Taylor Swift: Fearless (Taylor’s Version) & Red (Taylor’s Version)
It would feel weird to compare remastered/expanded editions to actually 2021 music, but it’s not like there was nothing new (or new-to-us, anyhow) on these versions Taylor, and while for the most part it’s understandable why these are the vault tracks and not the album tracks, they still represent output from the periods surrounding her two finest albums.
Baby Queen: Medicine
Discovered less than a month too late for my last list, Medicine became by far my most listened to release of this year. Songs about technology are hard to write, but “Pretty Girl Lie” and “Internet Religion” work because yeah, her psyche has been wildly impacted by screens and algorithms. Heck, she writes this awesome thankful-but-glib song about SSRIs and it’s somehow the fifth best of six songs here.
Listen: “Pretty Girl Lie”
10. illuminati hotties: Let Me Do One More
The one we’ve been waiting for. After spurts of pop brilliance on last year’s mixtape, Sarah Tudzin does anything she wants here. An anticapitalist ballad? Check. Surf rock with a country twang? Absolutely. Straight up Bikini Kill shit? She’s here with it. And because one of her best skills is putting on so many faces, it’s that much more meaningful when she finishes with easily her most sincere and vulnerable song.
Listen: “Pool Hopping”
9. Lori McKenna: Christmas Is Right Here
I finally hear it! I finally hear the beautiful song hidden within Paul McCartney’s horrible house of mirrors known as “Wonderful Christmastime.” Then right after McKenna conquers that song and makes it hers, she wallops us with two tearjerkers about how Christmas illuminates the sad little ways that life changes.
Listen: “Christmas Without Crying”
8. McKinley Dixon: For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her
Despite all of the obvious comparisons (which all speak very well of this album), McKinley Dixon insists he wasn’t influenced by To Pimp A Butterfly so much as he was influenced by everyone who happened to make that album. In interviews, he’ll light up about Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin. And indeed, the most important comparison point between the two works is the use of live music, brought to life here by Dixon’s perennial producer Onirologia. All this supports Dixon emerging as one of the finest emcees right now. Every single thing about this album works so well that it’s a little alarming that it’s a debut.
Listen: “make a poet Black”
7. We Are The Union: Ordinary Life
In announcing Ordinary Life, We Are The Union lead vocalist came out as a trans woman, and the album is one big coming out party in the way only a ska album really can be. Some songs are loudly about that theme, “Boys Will Be Girls” is a lovely fuck-you to anti-trans motherfuckers everywhere, but there’s also a lot of giddy stuff about the weird ways that brains occasionally are, like on earworm “Short Circuit” or on what should be the new ADHD wave’s anthem, “Broken Brain.”
Listen: “Morbid Obsessions”
6. Billie Eilish: Happier Than Ever
Billie’s left behind the bells and whistles from her debut, but in turn her writing has gotten a fair bit deeper. Her story of growing up with superstardom is well-trodden ground, but her approach and meditation on the subject are not only good for her but genuinely captivating.
Listen: “Getting Older”
5. Carly Pearce: 29: Written In Stone
Though some of it is also about the recent death of Pearce’s longtime producer busbee, 29: Written In Stone is largely about her divorce from fellow country singer Michael Ray after just eight months of marriage (so, “the year that I got married and divorced”). Pearce seemingly can’t help herself from writing classic country divorce songs, warning the next girl to mess around with this guy, dreading the many painful milestones of losing someone, recounting what he, uh, didn’t do. She even dares to call out to the god of the genre herself. With 29: Unwritten In Stone, Pearce has done Loretta more than proud and released one of the best country albums of the last ten years.
4. No-No Boy: 1975
Occasionally I think that some albums should come with lengthy footnotes, but Julian Saporiti’s 1975 is actually part of his PhD dissertation in American Studies. He tells many stories of Asian American history throughout 1975 (and one about crossing the US-Mexico border), and the most impactful are those that trace history and trauma directly through family lines, as he does through his mother and his mother’s mother on “Tell Hanoi I Love Her” and “St. Denis or Bangkok” and through one of his Cambodian American Students on “Khmerica” (“be my eyes, father”). 1975 is wondrous because Saporiti sings with a tenderness that doesn’t let these songs be merely sorrowful while still giving room to their emotional weight.
Listen: “Tell Hanoi I Love Her”
3. Olivia Rodrigo: SOUR
SOUR is wonderful because Rodrigo relays her breakup like a car crash where every microsecond is remembered. Take one of the lesser singles, “traitor,” and look at how the drama of the chorus just spills out. She captures these things so well so consistently likely thanks to a central anxiety that emerges throughout the album: that she might not be exciting, interesting or smart. And that relatable element helps her almost too-detailed teardown of some “not the compliment type” asshole really stick.
Listen: “drivers license”
2. Kalie Shorr: I Got Here By Accident
Straight up, Kalie Shorr is the most sure-thing songwriter right now. You could set your watch to her next song being a great one. I barely missed Open Book in 2019 and now reckon it’s probably just the best album of that year, so it’s no surprise that she hits five for five here, snarling through “Amy” and making us sob to “Love Child.” And even when she’s feeling some contentedness, she either hates the way it feels or expresses her friendship through murder. Her writing is so consistently sharp and her new turn towards guitar rock works perfectly.
Listen: “I Heard You Got A Girl”
1. Baby Queen: The Yearbook
Sure, it’s pretty brief, and sure, it’s not a perfect album (in fact, Bella herself calls this a mixtape so we can properly anticipate her true debut album this year). Still! Still. No 2021 release gave me even close to as much listening pleasure as The Yearbook.
Bella Latham is a pop savant. “American Dream” is like the median-quality song here and it’s basically perfect. She understands the importance of a well-placed bridge, the “damned if I do and bored if I don’t” bit on “These Drugs” killing me every time. She expands on her the-internet-broke-me themes of Medicine by turning back her anger on the generations who created the internet’s algorithm factory yet bemoan gen Z’s vanity.
And she ends it with a song that goes, “I’m a mess, I’m a mess, I’m a mess, I’m a mess, I’m ashamed.” It’s quite a way to go out. I hope Bella has a better 2022. I hope we all do.
Thank you for reading.
Listen: “American Dream” (ft. MAY-A)
The Next 15
11. The Buoys: Unsolicited Advice For Your DIY Disaster (Listen: “Lie To Me Again”)
12. The Weather Station: Ignorance (Listen: “Atlantic”)
13. Tinashe: 333 (Listen: “I Can See The Future”)
14. Kiwi Jr.: Cooler Returns (Listen: “Waiting In Line”)
15. Jazmine Sullivan: Heaux Tales (Listen: “Put It Down”)
16. Lil Nas X: MONTERO (Listen: “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)”)
17. James McMurtry: The Horses and the Hounds (Listen: “Operation Never Mind”)
18. Lucy Dacus: Home Video (Listen: “VBS”)
19. Carsie Blanton: Love & Rage (Listen: “Down In The Streets”)
20. Magdalena Bay: Mercurial World (Listen: “Chaeri”)
21. Japanese Breakfast: Jubilee (Listen: “Savage Good Boy”)
22. Turnstile: Glow On (Listen: “Blackout”)
23. Mach-Hommy: Pray For Haiti (Listen: “Kriminel”)
24. girl in red: if i could make it go quiet (Listen: “Serotonin”)
25. Gully Boys: Favorite Son (Listen: “The Way”)
Further Top 50
Amythyst Kiah: Wary + Strange (Listen: “Black Myself”)
Arlo Parks: Collapsed In Sunbeams (Listen: “Black Dog”)
Ashnikko: Demidevil (Listen: “Deal With It” ft. Kelis)
Beach Bunny: Blame Game (Listen: “Good Girls (Don’t Get Used)”)
Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg (Listen: “Scratchcard Lanyard”)
Genesis Owusu: Smiling With No Teeth (Listen: “The Other Black Dog”)
Home Is Where: i became birds (Listen: “long distance conjoined twins”)
Indigo De Souza: Any Shape You Take (Listen: “Kill Me”)
Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert & Jon Randall: The Marfa Tapes (Listen: “Waxahachie”)
Jlin: Embryo (Listen: “Embyro”)
Lande Hekt: Going To Hell (Listen: “80 Days Of Rain”)
Lily Konigsberg: Lily We Need To Talk Now (Listen: “That’s The Way I Like It”)
Little Simz: Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (Listen: “Introvert”)
Mannequin Pussy: Perfect (Listen: “To Lose You”)
Mike: Disco! (Listen: “Crystal Ball”)
Nervous Dater: Call In The Mess (Listen: “Red String Map”)
Parquet Courts: Sympathy For Life (Listen: “Walking At A Downtown Pace”)
PinkPantheress: to hell with it (Listen: “Pain”)
Pinkshift: Saccharine (Listen: “i’m gonna tell my therapist on you”)
Remember Sports: Like A Stone (Listen: “Pinky Ring”)
Self Esteem: Prioritise Pleasure (Listen: “Fucking Wizardry”)
Sir Babygirl: Golden Bday: The Mixtape (Listen: “Bed”)
tUnE-yArDs: sketchy. (Listen: “hypnotized”)
Tyler, The Creator: CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST (Listen: “LUMBERJACK”)
WILLOW: lately i feel EVERYTHING (Listen: “Gaslight” ft. Travis Barker)
Adele: 30 (Listen: “Oh My God”)
Backxwash: I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND DRESSES (Listen: “I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND DRESSES”)
Billy Nomates: Emergency Telephone (Listen: “Emergency Telephone”)
Black Country, New Road: For the first time (Listen: “Track X”)
Bo Burnham: Inside (The Songs) (Listen: “That Funny Feeling”)
Cassandra Jenkins: An Overview On Phenomenal Nature (Listen: “Hailey”)
Colleen Green: Cool (Listen: “I Wanna Be A Dog”)
Dijon: Absolutely (Listen: “Many Times”)
dltzk: Frailty (Listen: “your clothes”)
Doja Cat: Planet Her (Listen: “Need To Know”)
Doss: 4 New Hit Songs (Listen: “Puppy”)
Erika de Casier: Sensational (Listen: “Busy”)
Origami Angel: GAMI GANG (Listen: “Self-Destruct”)
Injury Reserve: By The Time I Get To Phoenix (Listen: “Knees”)
Isaiah Rashad: The House Is Burning (Listen: “Headshots (4r Da Locals)”)
Ka: A Martyr’s Reward (Listen: “I Notice”)
Kacey Musgraves: star-crossed (Listen: “breadwinner”)
Kiss The Tiger: Vicious Kid (Listen: “Motel Room”)
Lainey Wilson: Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ (Listen: “Things A Man Oughta Know”)
Liz Phair: Soberish (Listen: “Soberish”)
Lorraine James: Reflection (Listen: “Running Like That” ft. Eden Samara)
Mach-Hommy: Balens Cho (Hot Candles) (Listen: “TRADITIONAL”)
Madlib: Sound Ancestors (Listen: “Road Of The Lonely Ones”)
Maisie Peters: You Signed Up For This (Listen: “Brooklyn”)
MAY-A: Don’t Kiss Ur Friends (Listen: “Swing Of Things”)
Meet Me @ The Altar: Model Citizen (Listen: “Feel A Thing”)
Miguel: Art Dealer Chic 4 (Listen: “So I Lie”)
Octo Octa: She’s Calling (Listen: “Goddess Calling”)
Palberta: Palberta5000 (Listen: “Big Bad Want”)
Pale Waves: Who Am I? (Listen: “Tomorrow”)
파란노을 (Parannoul): To See The Next Part Of The Dream (Listen: “아름다운 세상 (Beautiful World)”)
Pardoner: Came Down Different (Listen: “Donna Said”)
POLO G: Hall Of Fame (Listen: “RAPSTAR”)
Pom Pom Squad: Death Of A Cheerleader (Listen: “Red With Love”)
PONY: TV BABY (Listen: “Swore”)
Remi Wolf: Juno (Listen: “Sexy Villain”)
RP Boo: Established! (Listen: “All My Life”)
Sarah Mary Chadwick: Me And Ennui Are Friends, Baby (Listen: “Me And Ennui Are Friends, Baby”)
Silk Sonic: An Evening With Silk Sonic (Listen: “Skate”)
Sleater-Kinney: Path Of Wellness (Listen: “Shadow Town”)
Sleigh Bells: Texis (Listen: “Locust Laced”)
Snail Mail: Valentine (Listen: “Headlock”)
Sofia Kourtesis: Fresia Magdalena (Listen: “La Perla”)
Squid: Bright Green Field (Listen: “Pamphlets”)
The Hold Steady: Open Door Policy (Listen: “Family Farm”)
Toby Fox: DELTARUNE Chapter 2 OST (Listen: “A CYBER’S WORLD?”)
VIAL: LOUDMOUTH (Listen: “Something More”)
Vince Staples: Vince Staples (Listen: “ARE YOU WITH THAT?”)
Wednesday: Twin Plagues (Listen: “Handsome Man”)
Wolf Alice: Blue Weekend (Listen: “No Hard Feelings”)
The first playlist below features the suggested songs from every album (except Sir Babygirl’s, which is not on Spotify) in this feature. The second is just the top ten albums of 2021 in their entirety.