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The 50 Best Albums of 2021

From Adele’s heroic return to Rauw Alejandro’s thrillingly unpredictable breakthrough to Lil Nas X’s pop-rap victory lap, and much more, here are the records that pushed music forward this year

2021 had plenty of marquee events in the music world: Superstars like Adele, Billie Eilish, and Lil Nas X all came through with albums that deepened their stories and solidified their greatness. But while those blockbuster releases lived up to the industry’s ever-swelling hype, this year was often more about welcome surprises — like ornery rap visionary Tyler, the Creator meeting the world halfway with the most focused performance of his career, or Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner going from low-fi bedroom dreamer into futurist New Wave maximalist. The biggest curveball of all was an unstoppable chart phenomenon few saw coming a year ago: Olivia Rodrigo, who arrived out of nowhere (or at least the Disney Channel) to rewrite the rules of the Top 40 with her instant-classic debut, Sour.

It was a fantastic year for indie singer-songwriters whose storytelling hit as hard as their guitars (Lucy Dacus, Snail Mail) and for pop synthesists from across the Spanish-speaking world (from Afro-Cuban hip-hop fusionist Cimafunk to omnidirectional reggaeton showman Rauw Alejandro). Perhaps most exciting was the continuous arrival of wonderful records by truth-telling women from throughout the ever-shifting global hip-hop/R&B/grime/afrobeats diaspora (with stellar releases from Jazmine Sullivan, Pinkpantheress, Dawn Richard, Little Simz, and Tems, to name just a few). Throw in gems by veterans like the Foo Fighters, 59-year-old literary country-rock artist James McMurtry, and (get yours, Eighties-metal kids) Iron Maiden, and the weekly clip of must-hear stuff was as bountiful as it’s ever been.

From Rolling Stone US


Jazmine Sullivan, ‘Heaux Tales’

Jazmine Sullivan doles out her music sparingly; the only way to hear her remarkable voice — raspy, cutting, and pliable, capable of whiplash-inducing direction changes — is to wait five-ish years between albums or catch her on tour, where she’s reliably excellent. Heaux Tales contains two of Sullivan’s best songs to date. “Pick Up Your Feelings” is a swaggeringly funky kiss-off, firmly grounded in the melismatic, gospel-based vocal pyrotechnics of traditional R&B, even as Sullivan slips into a drilling hip-hop cadence: “New phone, who is this?/Brand-new, like the whip.” “Lost One” is the flip side of all that strut, a parched ballad full of self-recrimination set to hollowed-out, weary guitar. Hopefully the next album comes before 2026. —E.L.


Lil Nas X, ‘Montero’

Most of the time, there’s pressure on a new kid to prove they’re no one-hit-wonder — but when your hit is a classic like “Old Town Road,” who sweats the pressure? Lil Nas X spends Montero proving he can do it all — to the point where it’s easy to forget that it’s his first actual album. Nas makes bold moves with Megan Thee Stallion, Miley Cyrus, Doja Cat, and Jack Harlow, in the smash “Industry Baby.” He makes even bolder moves with Elton John in “One of Me” — a beautiful moment of cross-generational, cross-cultural solidarity between two queer pop heroes for the ages. —R.S.


Lucy Dacus, ‘Home Video’

It only takes Lucy Dacus 30 seconds to get to the heart of Home Video. “Couldn’t look away even if I wanted,” she sings on the opening track, “Hot & Heavy.” “Try to walk away but I come back to the start.” She carries this philosophy throughout the record, a tightly woven collection of tales from her upbringing in Richmond, Virginia, that could easily be a distant cousin of Folklore. Dacus takes us through park benches, basements, and bunk beds, crafting gems about teenage heartbreak and friendship that make for the greatest songwriting of her career. She varies her sound and instrumentation — from the blissed-out indie folk of “VBS” to the Auto-Tune of “Partner in Crime,” à la Neil Young’s Trans — while maintaining fireside comfort and ease. “I’m so far from that person now that I think that’s why I’m able to write about it,” she told us in May. “It’s important to have tenderness for your past self, if you can, because there’s so much that you didn’t choose.” —A.M.


Tyler, the Creator, ‘Call Me If You Get Lost’

On “Wusyaname,” the Grammy-nominated single from Tyler, the Creator’s excellent album Call Me If You Get Lost,  YoungBoy Never Broke Again and Ty Dolla $ign pop into Tyler’s world of vibrant palettes and romantic whimsy. Both artists sound as free, and as fun, as ever. The same goes for the rest of the album, Tyler’s most confident to date. Call Me If You Get Lost manages to meet the world in the middle, with Tyler bringing a host of characters into his universe, as he finds himself maturing into his own talents. The whole thing is hosted by hip-hop mixtape legend DJ Drama. —J.I.


Rauw Alejandro, ‘Vice Versa’

After loading his debut album, Afrodisiaco, with old-school reggaeton, Puerto Rican star Rauw Alejandro switched gears and approached his second LP, Vice Versa, with the off-the-wall abandon of a mad scientist. The project, packed to the brim with unexpected beat switches and sudden flashes of house, bolero, and Brazilian funk, morphs constantly: Its crowning jewel, the Eighties-inspired, mirror-ball smash “Todo de Ti,” is all pep and disco glitter that eventually meets the brooding atmospherics of tracks such as “Cuando Fue,” a downbeat heartbreak ballad that explodes into voltaic blasts of drum and bass. Each twist is a reminder that even the most polished, commercial strains of Latin pop can — and should — avoid monotony. —J.L.


Adele, ’30’

“How do I feel so mighty small/When I’m struggling to feel at all?” Adele sings on 30. She turned that struggle into the most powerful album of her career. Somehow, she’s become a better singer in the years since 25, able to wrestle an almost impossible amount of emotional nuance out of one luxuriantly stretched-out syllable or Olympian octave leap, as she bends R&B history to fit her vision — from the wee-small-hours balladry of “Strangers By Nature” to the Aretha Franklin-inscribed “Hold On” to the bright, stately swing of “Cry Your Heart Out.” It’s her divorce record, but one free of a recrimination she’s likely more than earned. Instead, Adele digs into her overflowing feelings to locate understanding and maybe even faith — “substance in my life/Something real, something that feels true,” as she puts it on the instant-classic “I Drink Wine.” If only all world leaders could attain such wisdom. —J.D. 


Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Sour’

Damn right, it’s brutal out here. Olivia Rodrigo dropped into the first week of 2021 with “Driver’s License,” a terrifyingly perfect heartbreak ballad, but she never let go all year long. With Sour, Olivia dropped a greatest-hits album on her first try, the kind of flawless megapop monster that just thrives in heavy rotation. Rodrigo pours out her heart about her awkward teenage blues, yelling “Ego crush is so severe!” But even at 18, she’s already a killer songwriter who’s mastered all the tricks. “Drivers License” makes an epic quest out of driving past your ex’s house; “Good 4 U” serves Nineties mall-punk rage. “Deja Vu” revs up Clash guitars and Phil Collins drums into a hit about Gen-Z lovers fighting over who liked Billy Joel first. (Somewhere, Brenda and Eddie are smiling.) Olivia wants it to be, like, messy — but all over Sour, she’s the mess that we wanted. —R.S.