As the music industry regained some normalcy, big-time releases returned. But how many made our list of projects worth celebrating?
Was 2021 a good year for music? Strictly from a marquee-name perspective, it certainly was. A year into the pandemic, the industry unleashed a torrent of high-profile releases, with Billie Eilish, Adele, Drake, Kanye, Lana Del Rey (twice), Kacey Musgraves, and Lorde all returning. (And that’s all before acknowledging two rerecorded Taylor Swift albums.) This year also saw a number of names jump into the upper crest of stardom: Doja Cat and Lil Nas X went from pop curiosities to certifiable A-listers, while Olivia Rodrigo catapulted to the very top of the industry almost the second her first single dropped. If you were looking for big-ticket releases, there was no shortage of them.
Perhaps the better question is whether these albums delivered on their promise. And that’s a more complicated debate. Below, you’ll find the Ringer staff’s list of the 10 best albums of 2021. You’ll notice that only a few of the names above appear on this countdown. There’s no Billie, no Drake, no Lil Nas X—their albums that dominated the charts and captured the zeitgeist, but for one reason or another, couldn’t match those artists’ previous highs.
In their place, you’ll find a handful of interesting entries: heralded indie-rap projects, a left-field post-punk LP, a 20-year-old reviving garage and two-step for the TikTok generation. These may not mark the biggest releases of 2021, but they’re the ones that hypnotized or thrilled us and gave us a glimpse of where music is headed. And they may even make a few marquee names in their own right. —Justin Sayles
I’d spent the past decade blacklisting U.K. rappers from my imagination in response to them often playing dumb about the obvious influence of U.S. drill music in their own scene. Gradually—due to some excessive patriotism on my part, I admit—I expanded the blacklist to include U.K. musicians under age 30 in general. But then PinkPantheress came along and, at the tender age of 20, launched an nth-wave garage revival with her lighter-than-air singing. So let’s call a truce, shall we? Let’s dance to the year’s strongest debut project, the short and strident To Hell With It. Yes, I agree, the samples are a bit too obvious and heavy-handed, but COME ON: How many breakout singers this year were making better music than “Break It Off,” “Last Valentines,” and “Passion”? PinkPantheress has cornered an immortal dance tempo and, dare I say, saved Britain. —Justin Charity
So much of the mythology of Mach-Hommy revolves around secrecy. That goes for both his identity—the Newark MC is never photographed without a bandanna or Haitian flag over his face, even when he’s getting a cosign from Jay-Z—and the way he’s protected his music: Mach-Hommy and his frequent collaborator Your Old Droog once successfully fought to have their lyrics removed from Genius, and Mach-Hommy’s albums have been hard to come by on DSPs, as Mach has long favored making them available for purchase exclusively on his website, typically for more than the cost of a car payment. But 2021 has been different for Mach; no longer content to simply be a ghost spoken about in revered tones on Rap Twitter, he unleashed two stellar full-lengths immediately available to all upon release: Pray for Haiti and Balens Cho. The latter arrived just this past weekend, while the former—which came in May and was executive produced by Griselda’s Westside Gunn—may be the most ambitious of his career, as he bends Griselda’s high-art-via-street-hustle aesthetics to his will. (Its cover is a nod to a Basquiat painting, though it also recalls Virgil Abloh’s repurposing of Caravaggio’s David With the Head of Goliath for Westside Gunn’s Pray for Paris.)
Throughout Pray for Haiti, the rapper effortlessly unspools punch lines and references to old Jigga while paying homage to his Haitian roots and pulling down the face mask just a slight bit. Not coincidentally, Pray for Haiti has been the most acclaimed—and most widely received—album of his career, adding to his legend in the process. As Mach raps on Haiti’s opening track, “The 26th Letter,” “It’s crazy what y’all can do with some old Polo and ebonics.” It’s also crazy what you can do by letting the listener in a little while still maintaining the mystique. —Sayles
Talk-signing is not a new phenomenon—hell, the Germans have a word for it and Lou Reed essentially built a career out of it—but it has had a bit of a renaissance as of late. In particular, British art-rock bands like Squid, Black Midi, and Shame have deployed the technique to critical acclaim and cult followings in recent years. In 2021, there was no greater testament to the style’s resurgence than New Long Leg, the debut LP from South London post-punkers Dry Cleaning. It’s the type of album that can either demand attention or wash right over you—Lewis Maynard’s bass lines are infectious to the point of being spellbinding, while guitarist Tom Dowse alternates between the urgent licks like the one on breakout single “Scratchcard Lanyard” and the dreamlike flange found on “Every Day Carry.”
This makes droll lead singer Florence Shaw and her ASMR non sequiturs the perfect complement for the music. On the more urgent tracks, she can fade into the background, with only the odd phrase jumping at you (as on “A.L.C.,” when she says, “I’m tall when I’m young and I’m short when I’m old”). On the more restrained tracks like “Strong Feelings,” she becomes the main attraction, reciting lines such as: “I just want to tell you I’ve got scabs on my head / It’s useless to live / I’ve been thinking about eating that hot dog for hours / Kiss me.” It’s often philosophical, occasionally goofy, and always thrilling. And even as Shaw avoids singing the notes, it’s bound to get lodged in your head. —Sayles
The comeback album is a difficult enough task. To make one under the assumption that it might also be your last requires a certain kind of alchemy. These were the stakes of Hiatus Kaiyote’s third album, Mood Valiant, released in June. A lot happened in the space between their 2015 sophomore album and their most recent release: The group’s vocalist, Nai Palm, was diagnosed with, battled, and recovered from breast cancer; the troupe spent a year apart to regain their sanity after decades of desperate grinding; they even changed record labels.
And yet what Hiatus Kaiyote created in the wake of calamity was something so challenging—equally crushing and bright—that it makes all of the circumstances surrounding its birth appear to have served some purpose. It’s what the group would call fate.
Mood Valiant is an utterly funky and vibrant album. It is pensive and ethereal and equally heartfelt. Tracks like “Get Sun,” all zinging keys and melody, and “Rose Water,” an absolutely bubbling ballad, can burn through any sort of cloud. It’s the kind of record that manages to say all that’s needed, in what time it has at its disposal. It’s an ode to a life well-lived. —Lex Pryor
Donda is an infuriating album. Coming after its creator’s failed presidential bid and several years of doing any and everything to burn all of his goodwill, the project was born out of a frustrating, public-facing process in which Kanye forced his fans and music media to sit through three livestreamed listening parties that showed the album in various stages of completion. Rumored release dates came and went with nary a word from Kanye except to raise the stakes of his petty (and apparently squashed) beef with Drake. When Donda did arrive, it was 27 tracks and nearly two hours long, and it gave prominent credits to DaBaby, who spent much of 2021 dealing with the fallout from a homophobic on-stage rant, and more troublingly, Marilyn Manson, who is under investigation for sexual assault. (The Grammys have had a hell of a time sorting through that.) It would be understandable if anybody but the biggest Yeezy head sat this one out.
But there’s the matter of the music. Donda finds Kanye at the most inspired he’s been since perhaps 2013’s Yeezus, whose cold maximalism serves as one of the guideposts for the new album. Donda can be beautiful—take the serenity of “Moon” or the trap gospel of “Hurricane.” It can be pulverizing, as it is on drill-adjacent “Off the Grid,” which features one of the year’s best verses (albeit courtesy of Fivio Foreign). It can also be infectious, like on “Jail,” an earworm that seems silly at first blush but becomes more poignant with each listen. (“Take everything / Take what you want” is gutting to hear Kanye belt, particularly in light of his very public divorce proceedings.) Donda is not the Old Kanye, but that guy isn’t ever coming back. It’s also not a promise that he won’t ever frustrate us again—that guy will surely be back before we know it. What it is, however, is a virtuosic, if flawed, musician making a compelling, if imperfect, statement. That’s why we stick around through all those frustrations. —Sayles
Is there anybody in hip-hop worth rooting for more than Houston rapper Maxo Kream? He comes across as wise and street-weary, though never bitter. He’d be forgiven if he were: His life—as detailed on excellent tracks like 2018’s “Roaches” or “Cripstian,” the opener to this year’s Weight of the World—has had its share of challenges, to put it mildly. But as one of the genre’s best storytellers, Kream is using his gifts to pull himself and his family out of those circumstances all while documenting that rise with a novelist’s eye. Weight of the World comes on the heels of two other stellar projects, Punken and Brandon Banks, but his latest may be his best album to date. Here, it feels as though he’s putting it all together, finding a way to have more introspective tracks like “Local Joker” or the aforementioned “Cripstian” sit naturally next to straightforward bangers like the Tyler, the Creator–assisted “Big Persona” or the Freddie Gibbs team-up “What I Look Like.” It feels as though the ceiling is the sky for Kream, and the only thing more exciting than witnessing his rise is hearing him rap about it. —Sayles
Teenage girls run the world and Olivia Rodrigo is no exception. Sour is an honest debut that made thousands of millennials horny for nostalgia, pop punk, and heartbreak. She caught the instant wave of success with the earnest and record-breaking “drivers license,” only to follow up with the pure chaos that is “good 4 u.” (Seriously, she sets a house on fire in the music video.) The 18-year-old Olivia captures revenge and insecurities with exceptionally surprising nuance and maturity. Her lyrics are wise and obviously influenced by her jaded predecessor Taylor Swift. You can hear this start to take form with lyrics like,“You didn’t cheat / But you’re still a traitor.” The album is wonderfully and carefully crafted with the help of producer Dan Nigro, a former indie rocker, which explains why tracks like “jealousy, jealousy” (shoutout Fiona Apple) work so effortlessly. Olivia is nonchalant, fierce, and so clearly over it. She can’t even parallel park—as ungracefully noted in the distortion-filled track, “Brutal.” The album’s concept? Well, it’s quite simple: Don’t date mediocre men. —Lani Renaldo
As a rap partisan, I manage to go entire years without enjoying rock music, and then this album arrives like a brick — but a good and welcome brick; a wonderful brick; a brick consisting entirely of RTX-3090s, let’s say—smashing through my driver’s side window. It’s snappy and forceful and brilliant. The best song is whichever track you’re currently playing, and you’re never going to stop playing Glow On. Good thing I’m not assigned to settle on a best track for the Ringer’s best songs of the year list, though I suppose I could lose a few hours just praising “New Heart Design,” a big twinkling supernova of a song. —Charity
There’s no one way to tell a good story, but the best ones have little interest in answering anything at all—they might change your outlook, but they exist to question and unfurl. More than any vocal excellence or rhythmic mastery, this is what sets Jazmine Sullivan’s slight but overwhelmingly full EP, Heaux Tales, apart. The work stretches 32 minutes and vacillates between Sullivan’s own music and six recorded conversations with her friends, each of which probe the infinite boundaries of love and pleasure in the lives of Black women.
Put another way, on Heaux Tales, sex is nothing and everything at once—a balm, a curse, a tool, a kind of conscription. Stories of regret and longing are provided alongside tales of revelry and delight. In one moment, Sullivan is chiding herself for her own coital carelessness; in the next, she toys with a lover, coaxing them to prove “why you deserve it.” Sullivan can channel nearly any vocal format or strain. Her voice has always had the kind of untamable power that could overwhelm, but like Jill Scott before her, Sullivan is incomparably deft at wielding quick, dexterous, and soft tones to supplement her spirited haymaker.
Heaux Tales is autobiographical, but what Sullivan summons is something equally communal: the intersection of lived experiences stitched into a collective framework. It’s messy and contradictory and never wrong because, like all the best stories, it has no interest in peddling a single right answer. —Pryor
Tyler, the Creator thrives in opposition. His rogues gallery is as extensive as it is tiring. At some point or another, he’s been at odds with Steve Harvey, schools, his father, DJ Khaled, critics, the LGBTQ community, pop stars that won’t use his beats, and girls that won’t give him the time of day (and also their cute boyfriends). Every slight, imagined or otherwise, seemed to cut just as deep. When he won his first Grammy for 2019’s Igor, he rightfully addressed the Recording Academy’s overtly racist elephant in the room—he won Best Rap Album for a project that wasn’t a rap album.
“It sucks that whenever we—and I mean guys that look like me—do anything that’s genre-bending or that’s anything, they always put it in a rap or urban category,” he said after his acceptance speech. “I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. That’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me.”
More than almost any other rapper of the past decade, Tyler has triumphantly raged and awkwardly wriggled against classification at every turn. But instead of Call Me If You Get Lost coming off like a response to that Grammys moment, it feels like Tyler’s first album that’s unconcerned with overexplaining his place within the firmament of modern music. Backed by a reinvigorated DJ Drama, Tyler’s 16-song ode to the Gangsta Grillz mixtapes of his youth is like seeing the 30-year-old artist free of the artifice that got him to this point.
Instead of shunning the genre he spent so many years trying to subvert, Tyler looks equally to his past and present. One moment he’s coaxing another side out of Youngboy Never Broke Again on “Wusyaname,” and the next he’s ceding the floor to his Odd Future brethren Domo Genesis. DJ Drama—unencumbered by the days of 2Dopeboyz and Nah Right comment sections asking for “No DJ versions”—leans into a nostalgia that makes rants about French vanilla ice cream and the sudden rewinding of songs feel warm instead of jarring. Tyler uses this momentum to his advantage. On songs like “Lumberjack” and “Corso,” his raps are unmoored from the need to shock. Tyler finds time to put his record label on blast, apologize to past victims of his mayhem-inducing celebrity squabbles, and send words of encouragement to the sea of Black kids he was once part of and now inspires.
But at its core, Call Me If You Get Lost is about guilt, of what happens when hip-hop’s nihilist incarnate allows himself the room to hurt. Across the project, Tyler hints at a story of heartbreak. Then CMIYFL’s penultimate track—“Wilshire,” a.k.a. the dirty mackin anthem of the year‚ arrives like an emotional iron maiden. For more than eight minutes, he vomits up a tale of falling in love with a friend’s girlfriend and the increasing lengths he’d go to hide the tryst. The more Tyler raps, the more conflicted he becomes. Ten years after Tyler’s cringe-inducing stalker ode “She” was unleashed on the world, it’s jarring to hear him rap lines like, “It’s morals I really have, it’s lines I could never cross.” Up until recently, Tyler’s brand was built on the idea that a line’s primary reason for existing was to be jumped over. Call Me If You Get Lost is vital, because it reconfigures our base assumptions about Tyler. All it took to make the best rap album of the year was for the music industry’s resident goblin to feel something. —Charles Holmes
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