This year for my best albums list, I’ve tried to pick a variety of genres and styles and where there were similar, almost-as-good albums, put them in a RIYL note instead of also including them on the list and making the list very long.
So, just 20 carefully curated records for this year’s list. I hope you enjoy, and if I missed anything good, drop me a note!
See also Best Cover Songs and Best Cover Albums of 2021!
20. Urban Driftwood by Yasmin Williams
19. Blue Weekend by Wolf Alice
Great indie rock.. IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY…Indigo De Souza‘s new one. It’s just as good as Wolf Alice, and it was hard to pick which one to list and which to put as the “also try.”
18. Collapsed in Sunbeams by Arlo Park
Great indie pop with thoughtful lyrics. Really, really stick-to-your ribs songs.
IF YOU LIKE THIS TRY…
- The much poppier Let me Do One More by Illuminati Hotties
- Walkman by Bad Bad Hats. I loved this album.
17. Hall of Fame by Polo G
Polo G continues to be one of the most interesting lyricists on the scene, even if his beats and delivery can get a little same-y over time. But there’s enough really, really good stuff on this record to warrant including it on my list.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY…If you like Polo G’s new school way of telling gangsta tales, check out Giovanni’s Way by Payroll Giovanni. I could easily have switched these two, making Giovanni the listed record and Polo G the als0-ran. They’re equally good albums.
16. Sad and Beautiful by Jesse Malin
Malin has been around for decades, and this album is proof he’s been honing his skills. Excellent songwriting, excellent performance. Excellent album all around.
IF YOU LIKE THE CLASSIC ROCK SOUND, TRY SOME ROCK BY OLDER FOLKS: Of everyone on this list, Malin has the most “classic rock” sound. So, I thought I’d talk a bit about classic rockmakers. Medicine at Midnight by Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl and company are also old, by rock-and-roll standards, and yet they continue to carry the torch for real rock and roll. At a time when the genre is nearly dead, or at least is on life support serving a source of cover songs for modern acts, the Foos keep it going. If you like the classic indie rock sound, you might like Pressure Machine by the Killers. It’s like their “Nebraska” (only not as good as Bruce Springsteen’s near-perfect, dark acoustic rock album. And to close the loop on indie rockers coming out with solid albums this year, try Golden Casket by Modest Mouse. It’s not their best, but it’s damn good. Oh, and Robert Plant and Alison Kraus’ new one is pretty fine too.
15. Heaux Tales by Jazmine Sullivan
Because every top 20 list needs a little hip hop flavored soul.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY…
- Introducing…Aaron Frazer. Durand Jones & The Indications’ drummer (and of a few lead singers for that band) brings an album of R&B style originals that are smooth, fun, and sound immediately like classics.
- Silk Sonic. Anderson Paak and Bruno Mars put together some slick R and B tunes. Sadly, they’re too slick. It’s not a great album, but it’s a good one–and there’s at least one classic on it: “Leave the Door Open.”
14. I Know I’m Funny haha by Faye Webster
The genre of “indie songstress who makes sad songs” ran its course for me this year–I just got tired of it–but this album was 2021’s high-water mark. The lyrics are often hilarious as well as sad, so you can laugh while you cry.
IF YOU LIKE INDIE SONGSTRESSES YOU MIGHT TRY…Dozens of others. There are many of these kinds of records, and many are great. A few of the ones I enjoyed are the 2021 albums by Julien Baker, Cassandra Jenkins, Snail Mail, Lucy Daucus, and Courtney Barnett.
13. First Time Feeling by Leah Blevins
It almost feels demeaning to use the word “clever” to describe this debut album’s combination of pop- and traditional-country. But it is clever. The album cover, even, looks like it was ripped from the 1950s. And yet it is decidedly modern and smart. One of the best debuts I’ve heard in years.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY: Hanna Juanita’s Hardliner, which is also smart lyrically, with wonderful vocal performances.
12. Dope Game Stupid by Bruiser Wolf.
Funny, insightful, and skilled. It’s rare to find all three on a rap album. This album made me think of Open Mike Eagle, a bit, but Wolf’s delivery–and his choices of rhymes–are incredibly distinctive. You will never confuse him for someone else.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY…
- WORD? by Atmosphere. Rap is usually a young person’s game. Atmosphere proves it doesn’t have to be.
- Homeboy Sandman’s EP Anjelitu. It has some of his smartest–and wittiest–songs in years. If it were a full album, it would easily make my top 20 list.
11. The Art of Falling Apart by Serena Ryder
Full of passion and amazing songwriting, Serena Ryder tells the story of how she recovered from addiction. This is truly an amazing record. It is a sad state that it didn’t get more recognition this year.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY…
- Mercy Rising by Maia Sharp
- Now Where Were We by The Ex-Bats
10. American Siren by Emily Scott Robinson
A debut album of simple country-folk songs full of faith and quiet intelligence. Funny and moving, Ms. Robinson is an artist to watch.
The Griselda label/rap collective release so much product each year that it’s hard to keep up–and it makes the releases seem less special. But they are special. Each member’s albums put out this year was good–none of it was bad–and some of it was great. Among the best of the year: Conway’s El Maquina; Mach-Hommy’s Pray for Haiti; Benny the Butcher and Harry Fraud’s sequel to Plugs I Met (my personal favorite, pictured above); and more Hitler Wears Hermes entries from Gunna.
IF YOU LIKE TONS OF CONTENT, TRY…Your Old Droog. Droog has been making smart music for years, and puts out an album every couple months. 2021 didn’t find him slowing down. His best this year is probably Time–a concept album–or this year’s releases with Tha God Fahim.
8. Glow On by Turnstile
Aggressive. Unapologetic. Pink clouds on the cover. Fantastic.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY…
- “Yak”: A Collection of Truck Songs by Angel Du$t. Turnstile bandmembers also played on this terrific album of pop-informed punk songs. Or is is, punk-informed collection of pop songs?
7. Weight of the World by Maxo Kream
It’s been fascinating watching Kream grow as an artist. This album continues his maturity from a trap rapper to an adult with a complex past and a willingness to reveal it. Fearless and powerful.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY: Boldy James and Alchemist’s Bo Jackson.
6. Jubilee by Japanese Breakfast.
It is so rare to find an album these days that is all about being happy. Even the name, Jubilee, has a smile.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY….
- Her soundtrack to the video game Sable, a collection of short instrumentals that make for a fascinating album.
- and Helado Negro, who released another smooth and sublime collection of tunes this year, titled, “Far In.”
5. Gild the Black Lily by Queen Esther
This is the only album to make it on to both this list and my list of the best covers of the year. Queen Esther’s album is fantastic.
4. In These Silent Days by Brandi Carlile
I don’t know how it is possible for Brandi Carlile to keep getting better. Her last several albums were amazing, and this one is even better. Lyrics and vocals wrapped around beautiful music that will warm your heart, break it, and then sew it back together.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY…There are several folk/Americana-adjacent albums on this list. Queen Esther. Emily Scott Robinson. I loved them all too much to relegate them to an “also try” position.
3. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert by Little Simz
It is hard to find a rapper (or anyone, frankly) with a better command of the English language. Simz strings words together in ways you’ll never anticipate, borrowing nothing, and constantly surprising. This is a dense album, one that demands repeat listens.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY…
- The Hour Of…by Khrysis. Another hip hop album that’s really for the headz, not for casual listeners, and full of brilliance.
- Call Me If You Get Lost by Tyler, the Creator. This album is the critics’ darling, and it’s good–but not as good as everyone is saying. Several of the songs feel incomplete, like demos, and overall it’s not as tight as his earlier work. Still, it’s a solid album and fun to listen to.
2. I Don’t Live Here Anymore by The War on Drugs
Like Brandi before them on this list, WoD keep getting better with each album. This latest one is the perfection of the sound they’ve been honing for years–a collection of swirling meditations…With hooks!
IF YOU LIKE THE CLASSIC INDIE SOUND, TRY…
- My Morning Jacket (eponymous). MMJ have been around since 1998, and their new album represents a return to form and one of the best they’ve ever done.
1. The House is Burning by Isaiah Rashad.
Absolutely brilliant. A celebration, and one of the best modern examples, of Southern rap. Rashad bridges the spaces between conscious rap and trap. A most excellent album.
IF YOU LIKE EMOTIONALLY RESONANT, INTELLIGENT RAP, TRY…
- For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her by McKinley Dixon
- A Martyr’s Reward by Ka