With luck and care, 2021 is probably the year where we dig ourselves out of fear and the cocoon-like reflections that characterize much of 2020, the conditions visible in music, though intentional or not. The year that brought us the profound meditations of the weekend’s After Hours, RTJ4’s apocalyptic observations of Run the Jewels, the pastoral gulf of Taylor Swift’s folklore and forever, and the pleasant sadness of Adrian Lenker’s lyrics is over.
If we play it right, now may be the time to recover and reconnect while treating ourselves with unresolved anger. These themes have rocked the year’s music production; everyone is eager to break out of their shell, leave behind former habits and ways of thinking, and nod to try something new.
Best Albums of 2021
Superstar releases were less in supply in the initial six months of 2021, probably because many of us waited for the pandemic to come to some close before rolling out a credible grosser new album. Their surreal bread-and-butter act as the opening events for the tour.
That was all right. Newcomers, niche artists, and cult heavyweights filled the void, and the year was able to cast a new superstar as Olivia Rodrigo, whose shadow probably no veteran pop mega-seller would have wanted to settle anyway. So here is a list of the five best albums that were released in 2021. And they are as follows.
Outside Child by Allison Russell:
The musical memoir doesn’t come any braver or any better than this album-of-the-year contender. With 2021 halfway through, it’s hard to imagine many other albums coming along that can match the combination of emotional power, melodic flow, social significance, and heartwarming beauty in Russell’s autobiographical retelling.
“A concept album about childhood abuse and recovery” isn’t something that lends itself to hyped stickers, and it’s probably okay that these songs are so catchy that you can easily imagine people falling in love with the album.
Sour by Olivia Rodrigo:
Chances are, upon first or second listening, Rodrigo’s debut album, “Sour,” will remind you of Billie Eilish’s new effort from two years earlier. It’s that at 18, Rodrigo is still young enough to count a 19-year-old as an influence—though you get a clear impression at times. She’s called to be with multiple people. For some lessons from Eilish, she took home from Taylor Swift several pieces of homework.
That may not be needed to say for a singer-songwriter who was 17 when she made this album. But many teen singers are in a hurry to establish their maturity, so it’s a pleasure to report. There is talk that Rodrigo has doubled her age acting “Sour” at various points throughout.
Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish:
Happier Than Ever is the archetypal sophomore album, a reckoning with the turbulence you experienced. When you quickly became one of the most famous artists of all time. Before the dust settled on your first album. Billie Eilish sings about shutting down phone calls, buying secret houses, dodging stalkers, and letting her thoughts and looks be torn apart by strangers just for the sake of the gospel, compared to the meteoric dominating of 2019, the multitrack songs have a snappier but no less intelligent tone.
We all sleep. Where do we go? She’s confident now and a little more vindictive, but her music is more subdued on the new album. Last time, the beats were dark, and her voice was clearing up. Now, put it the other way around. Happier Than Ever is the sleek, sultry soundtrack for a singer-songwriter escaping a terrible headspace.
The House Is Burning by Isaiah Rashad:
Five years ago, a Tennessee rapper hit rock bottom in his struggle with drug addiction, alcohol dependency. Spent almost the next half of a decade putting himself and his music back together. On The House Is Burning, the new album he first promised four years ago. You can hear the benefits in his voice and his writing. Sonic Cloud is an effortless marriage between rap, classic Memphis hip-hop, and TDE’s signature lush and organic hip-hop soul.
Rashad’s wordplay is noble, a hair faster than ears can catch on first listen. But upon closer inspection, it is tied between astonishing depth and playful leverage. The flows are overwhelming – a rare modern rap album where the marquee artist eats all his guests alive.
Call Me If You Get Lost by Tyler, The Creator:
It took more than a decade, but Tyler, the creator, has finally studied the playbooks of his musical heroes — Pharrell. Lil Wayne, Kanye — and is now creating music that sounds unique undeniably there. The big story now is the presence of mixtape maestro DJ Drama, which technically makes it a segment of the venerable Gangsta Grillz series, but the better story is that rap, rock, R&B, jazz, funk, reggae, and more. How bows to the will of the always-talented rapper, singer, and music producer and how he managed to create a record as diverse and influential as 2019’s R&B-focused Igor, rough rhymes at no cost to the sweetness of his beats.