The Top 20 Albums of 2021

We thought we could see it this year. Brightening the edges of our curtains. Warming the pillows of our reading nooks. Landing on our screens to interrupt our binges. We thought it was The Light, and for a few glorious weeks we scrambled out of our tunnels into it, the possibilities blossoming with the spring.

Even me, who thinks the pandemic has been stuffed with silver linings – more time with my wife, working from home, the best excuse ever to avoid meeting new people – was excited at the prospect of going to restaurants again, traveling again, breathing again.

But it was just a temporary break in the clouds. Even so, I’m here to report 20 sightings of a different kind of Light. The kind that humans create when an undefined urge demands they express themselves, be it through an instrument, or their vocal chords, or their pen. These are the albums that reminded me what humanity is capable of in 2021 – if we can create these, surely we can figure out a way to leave this tunnel for good.

20. Georgia Anne Muldrow – Vweto III

The Light from a Crossing Signal Switching from “STOP” to “MOVE”

The third installment in this R&B visionary’s series of instrumental hip hop albums acknowledges that, even when you strip life down to its building blocks, it’s still complicated and intriguing as hell. “Vweto” is a Congolese word for “gravity,” but with every effervescent bass line and echoing drum pattern, Muldrow reassures us that we can still pick up our feet and move. Our tether to this planet might be unbreakable, but damn is it flexible.

19. Unto Others – Strength

The Light of a Bedside Table Lamp, Where a 15-Year Old Is Reading The Catcher in the Rye and Nodding Solemnly

On 2019’s Mana, the band formerly known as Idle Hands served up a bubbling cauldron of Satan worship and goth-pop hooks that spoke to the sullen young dork in all of us. A few years and a name change later, the Portland, OR, quartet returned with Strength – an attempt to be more serious that succeeds in spite of itself. The heart-on-sleeve Depeche Mode flourishes are tempered by chilly Police guitar figures, and the blasphemy is scrubbed away. But Strength sticks with me regardless, because this band remains utterly committed to expressing outsized, borderline-embarrassing emotions with a straight face, while churning out hooks for days.

18. Parquet Courts – Sympathy for Life

The Light of a Neon “OPEN” Sign In a 1980 NYC Dive Bar

This Brooklyn post-punk institution begins the second act of its decade-long career on its seventh LP, where it expands its scope to explore danceable, immersive, bass-driven new wave soundscapes without completely abandoning the Stooges and Velvets worship of its early records. On “Marathon of Anger,” a recounting of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in New York City, singer Andrew Savage engages in a mesmerizing call and response with his bandmates, while synths bloop, a simple bass line swings, and guitars deliver chilly funk accents. It’s an evocative RSVP to the similarly serpentine invitation David Byrne sent out over 40 years ago – to join him in embracing the passage of time, watching the water flow as the days go by.

17. iLoveMakonnen – My Parade

The Light of the Embers in a Fireplace That’s Been Burning All Night Long

The world has never seemed to quite be ready for iLoveMakonnen – a calm, level-headed rapper with off-the-charts emotional intelligence and a knack for party anthems. Back in 2014, Makonnen had a certified hit with “Tuesday,” complete with a Drake remix and a contract with his OVO imprint. But it wasn’t until 2021 that we got the artist’s first true LP, My Parade – a stripped down, casually catchy, profoundly introspective achievement. By splicing the bass drops and chittering hi hats of Atlanta trap with the patient fireside tempos of quiet storm R&B, Makonnen has made something perfectly of-the-moment – a pandemic classic full of vulnerability, paranoia, joy and intimacy. Who said parades had to be loud?

16. Helado Negro – Far In

The Light of a Sunrise on the First Morning of a Tropical Vacation

Just because Roberto Carlos Lange sings in a whisper doesn’t mean he can’t command your attention. On his seventh LP as Helado Negro, his deceptively quiet instrument is as agile as ever, shifting between finger-picked calypso ballads and sweaty disco hooks with the ease of a green thumb strolling between his veggie garden and beds of perennials. As a result, Far In won’t necessarily grab you by the ears at first. It further cements Lange’s status as one of our consummate “growers,” its melodic and textual depth revealing itself more with every listen, until before you know it, you’re surrounded by blossoms.

15. John Carroll Kirby – Cryptozoo: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The Light of a Pair of Red Eyes in the Forest

For his contributions to Solange’s A Seat at the Table and The Avalanches’ We Will Always Love You alone, pianist/producer/composer John Carroll Kirby deserves the benefit of the doubt. So while you might not think you’re in the mood to hear a new age/yacht rock score to a psychedelic animated movie about a zoo full of magical creatures, I’d recommend pressing play anyway. Far from a “weird for weird’s sake” exercise, Cryptozoo is a restorative balm of laid-back experimentation, where beds of synths and acoustic guitars reverberate reassuringly, leaving us more open to the wonders of a breathy pan flute solo that we ever could have imagined.

14. Mustafa – When Smoke Rises

The Light of a Candle on a Coffee Shop Table, Blurred By Tears

While Toronto natives Drake and The Weeknd chose superstardom over self-reflection years ago, the template they laid for woozy, deep dives into an artist’s damaged psyche is still in the water up there. On his debut LP, singer/songwriter Mustafa infuses the long blue winters of his hometown into a heart-wrenchingly gorgeous folk eulogy for fallen friends and eroded innocences. “I didn’t want to risk it all / Oh I know what’s at stake / But you made yourself special / I wanna throw myself away for you,” he sings over plaintive Leonard Cohen finger picking – grief and rage and love freezing together as grey clouds cover the stars.

13. Lil Nas X – Montero

The Light from a Single Sparkler Setting Off the Entire Pack

“Funny how you said it was the end / Then I went and did it again,” boasts Lil Nas X on his debut LP. The guy has a right to feel chuffed. After all the reactionary panic over his 2019 country-rap phenomenon “Old Town Road” – including Billboard pulling it off the country charts – the man born Montero Lamar Hill hasn’t just proven he’s more than a one-hit wonder. He’s made an entire album of potential chart-toppers, while staying true to himself and his eclectic muse. Montero has gleefully egotistical rap bangers, heartsick rainy-day ballads, “Hey Ya”-indebted acoustic thumps, and frank explorations of what it’s like to be a cultural icon on this beautiful, burning planet.

12. Maxo Kream – Weight of the World

The Light That Flared in Atlas’s Eyes As He Held Up the Heavens

Maxo Kream doesn’t need choruses, or hypnotically soulful beats, or guest stars with sparkling personalities. To be clear, the Houston rapper is gifted with all of those things on his third studio album. But his stories are so vivid, introspective, and casually devastating that it’s tough to focus on anything else. Weight of the World finds Maxo wrestling with all kinds of heaviness – survivor’s guilt for old friends still striving; raw grief from the March 2020 shooting death of his younger brother; the extra responsibility he feels toward his niece in the aftermath. It’s not only remarkable that the 31-year-old is willing to tackle such harrowing subjects, but he does it without surrendering to the darkness, spiking transparency with cleverness to create an effect that feels a lot like hope.

11. Shannon Lay Geist

The Light We Keep On at Night Because It Helps Us Sleep

“You’re on your own / But not alone.” When California singer/songwriter Shannon Lay serenades us with this couplet at the end of a song called “A Thread to Find,” the effect is a form of sonic therapy. Because not only does this proclamation of support help soothe our pandemic-warped nervous systems, but it also serves as a handy descriptor of what we’re hearing. For all of its reverberating lushness, Geist is a traditional folk album, with carefully plucked acoustic guitars and Lay’s lullaby tenor going largely unaccompanied. There are no drums at all here, which means every beautiful, searching note can initially feel like it’s rising into the ether on its own. But we’re there hearing it, so it’s not alone.

10. Brockhampton – Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine

The Light of Multiple Laser Beams Combining Into One Indestructible Megalaser

If Roadrunner is indeed the beginning of the end for the Houston emo-rap collective Brockhampton, as bandleader Kevin Abstract claims, then they’re going out with a clear understanding of what they’re good at. After taking an unprecedented two-year break between releases, the nine-member group (four rappers, three vocalists, two producers) reached a new level of clarity on its sixth LP, leaving its kitchen-sink mixtape approach behind in favor of a focused 12-track statement that somehow leaves no stone unturned. Everything that makes Brockhampton great is here – lovesick pop-rap, yell-along hip hop, heartfelt alt-rock hooks, fearlessly confessional lyricism – and it all flows in a way that feels preordained.

9. Danny L Harle – Harlecore

The Light of Neurons Firing In an Android’s Positronic Brain

As one of the more accessible members of the UK experimental electronic collective PC Music, Danny L Harle has a knack of pairing thumping molly-trip beats with clear-eyed declarations of feeling. On his long-awaited debut Harlecore, the artist puts this ability to the test over 13 tracks, “collaborating” with various versions of himself (referred to as DJ Danny, MC Boing, DJ Mayhem and DJ Ocean in the credits). The result is a perfectly sequenced journey through the mind of an electronic music visionary, touching on tender pop balladry, pitch-bended weirdo R&B, instrumental electronica, and relentlessly grinding industrial. All without losing sight of the humanity behind the machines: “I can see your heart’s been broken too / So just lay here, on a mountain, me and you.”

8. Doja Cat – Planet Her

The Light of a Newly Discovered Planet That Looks Like A Glowstick Necklace in the Sky

When Q-Tip rapped “Rap is not pop / If you call it that, then stop” over 30 years ago, he clearly wasn’t able to conceive of a record like Planet Her ever existing. And I don’t blame him. Because Doja Cat has accomplished something many brilliant emcees have never been able to pull off – a seamless fusion of bars-heavy hip hop, tender-hearted R&B, and chart-baiting pop hooks that doesn’t feel like a misguided record label ultimatum. This charismatic L.A. artist can rap and sing with equal flair, with lyrics that can be gut-bustingly hilarious, effervescently lovestruck, and convincingly heartbroken. Planet Her combines these versatile vocal performances with island-inflected club grooves, delivering every clever turn of phrase on the back of a warm, welcoming breeze.

7. Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time

The Light From Your Best Friend’s Cigarette That They Forget to Smoke Because They’re Listening To You So Intently

On her steamroller of a debut (my #1 album of 2015), Courtney Barnett was a master at finding poignancy in mundane activities, like riding an elevator or going house hunting. Six years later, with mundanity at a premium, the Aussie slacker-rock visionary has shifted focus to the thing we often don’t admit to needing in our troubled, disconnected world – real companionship. “Sit beside me / Watch the world burn,” she proposes as her band rides a swirling roots-rock groove, finding the silver lining in the apocalypse like it’s a silver dollar on the street. Barnett hasn’t lost that trademark so-over-it sarcasm in her voice, but she’s deploying it in a gentler way, underlining the irony in how we focus on personal needs when humanity’s existence is at stake, while also admitting that she’s doing it too. All while writing riffs that feel like they’ve been keeping us company all our lives.

6. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

The Light Of a July 4 Fireworks Display That Makes You Smile Even Though You’re Depressed About the State of the Country

“After spending the last five years writing about grief, I wanted our follow-up to be about joy,” said Michelle Zauner in the press materials for the third Japanese Breakfast LP. Jubilee meets this expectation and then some, with every track attempting to reach the masses with an irresistibly positive pop touch – like the weightless mariachi horns on “Paprika”; the soothing, Peter Gabriel-worshipping electronics of “Posing in Bondage”; the instant-classic disco bass line on “Be Sweet.” But this is also not quite a party album, as Zauner sings from the perspectives of a craven billionaire, a grieving relative, and a lonely heart in Indiana. So while it’s tempting to label this as an “indie rock legend gone pop,” the record’s true narrative isn’t so tidy. Because Jubilee‘s joy didn’t emerge from a vacuum. It came in the wake of pain, and is felt all the more intensely as a result.

5. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

The Light In an Electron Microscope that Lets Us See the Building Blocks of Life

On her fourth album, Little Simz is clearly in autobiographical mode. Not only is its title – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – a clear statement about the artist’s personality, but it’s also an acronym of her birthname (“Simbi,” short for “Simbiatu”). Perhaps the British-Nigerian rapper felt the need to drop these hints, because the 19 tracks on Introvert don’t sound like stark, intimate confessionals. Simz partnered with producer Inflo to weave tapestries of lush, cinematic soul, greeting the ears with the reassuring tenderness of a Curtis Mayfield ballad. And the rapper proves to be just as bombastic as all the spy-flick horns and swelling strings, sharing her hopes, fears, traumas and inspirations like a timpanist establishing the low end so the symphony can soar. “Lived being angry my whole life / Like it’s part of my DNA,” she shares, grounding us distinctly in her reality. A few seconds later, a children’s chorus swoops in, and up we go.

4. Lucy Dacus – Home Video

The Light of a Slide Projector Warming Up in the Living Room

On her third album, this Virginia singer/songwriter doesn’t just tell stories. She writes letters – an offer to murder a partner’s dickhead father; an ode to a metalhead who wrote crappy poetry at Jesus Camp; an admission to a friend that she finds her boyfriend unworthy. Home Video deserves its title thanks to the specificity of these memories and the swells of emotion they can inspire in people who weren’t there. When Dacus gets less specific, it’s no less powerful – like the bridge on the gut-wrenching break-up ballad “Please Stay,” where the songwriter lists all the things her partner can do instead of leaving. “Quit your job / Cut your hair / Get a dog / Change your name,” it begins. It’s a stunning, honest admission of need, and a letter of encouragement to all who wonder if we’d be better off keeping our pesky feelings to ourselves.

3. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage

The Light That Guides Ships To Shore On Dark and Stormy Nights

Nick Cave’s singing voice is a marvel. After four decades of screaming, grunting and wailing as the frontman of The Birthday Party, the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, the 64-year-old Aussie legend is not only showing zero signs of strain, he’s exploring the upper register of his instrument, with riveting results. On Carnage, Cave teams up with trusted partner Warren Ellis to surround his voice with soft, rippling synthesizers, as he sings about deep rivers, lavender fields and kingdoms in the sky – the grief from his son’s passing in 2015 audible in every lyric about god and the afterlife. Yet despite the state of the world and his own personal burdens, Cave ends Carnage with a shaft of light through the clouds, a line repeated over and over again, with the kind of fervency that could convert a nonbeliever: “This morning is amazing / And so are you.”

2. Yasmin Williams – Urban Driftwood

The Light Next To Thomas Edison’s Work Bench

When getting good at Guitar Hero 2 wasn’t enough for a young Yasmin Williams, she picked up an acoustic guitar and started experimenting with it. She laid it face up on her lap, tuned the strings in a harmonic structure that sounded right to her, and started playing it like a keyboard. On her second album of instrumental folk, this distinctive approach is apparent in the way her fingers glide across the frets, the resulting notes flowing and clustering together like streams feeding the ocean. As she translates this tablature of the mind to us on tape, we’re presented with utterly unique compositions full of fascinating harmonic shapes, punctuated by percussive slaps of wood and the refreshing spray of a squeaking string. If they ever come out with Guitar Hero Unplugged, any of these songs would make it incredibly hard to beat.

1. Lingua Ignota – Sinner Get Ready

The Light from an MRI of Eve’s Brain At the Moment She Saw the Tree of Knowledge

Sinner Get Ready, the fourth album from the brimstone-spewing one-woman powerhouse Lingua Ignota, is categorized in iTunes as “Rock.” That’s not accurate, but I get it. What the hell else would you call an album that trembles with the conviction of gospel, soothes with the rustic sounds of Appalachian folk, and terrifies with sudden blasts of noise-metal? What singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and performance artist Kristen Hayter has done here is some kind of righteous, cathartic miracle – long, patient songs of eerie majesty with lyrics that see the world through the eyes of fanatical Catholics, who plead to their Old Testament God to strike down the evildoers in their midst. And we’re not talking about people who skip church on Sunday – the “sinners” referenced in this album title are domestic abusers. A survivor herself, Hayter has described her creations as her way of getting “revenge” at her abusers – refusing to stay calm, while simultaneously turning pain into beauty. She cries out for divine murder on “I Who Bend the Tall Grasses,” screaming about golden scythes like a delirious preacher as a church organ hums in the shadows. And Hayter’s quieter moments are no less intense. “Fear is nothing when the path is righteous,” she softly intones over the skeletal piano notes of “The Perpetual Flame of Centralia,” baptizing us in the fires of determination, and outrage, and god-given creative genius.

Honorable Mentions: Aesop Rock & Blockhead – Garbology; Amyl & The Sniffers – Comfort To Me; Froglord – The Mystic Toad; Gatecreeper – An Unexpected Reality; Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon; Jonny Greenwood – The Power of the Dog; Iron Maiden – Senjutsu; Isaiah Rashad – The House Is Burning; Ka – A Martyr’s Reward; Aimee Mann – Queens of the Summer Hotel; Megan Thee Stallion – Something for Thee Hotties; The Mountain Goats – Dark In Here; Native Soul – Teenage Dreams; Queen Key – Your Highness 3; Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood & Juanita; Tune-Yards – Sketchy; Tyler the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost

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