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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


Madlib, ‘Sound Ancestors’

A legend in the world of underground hip-hop, Madlib has for decades been keeping the tradition of sampladelic suite-making alive on resplendently stoned, beautifully crafted albums, like 2004’s landmark MF Doom collab, Madvillainy. This time out he’s working with electronic producer Four Tet, and the result is one of his finest mind-warps yet. “Dirtknock” magically flips some bass pokes and vocals from mumbly first-gen post-punks the Young Marble Giants into something deeply funky, while the album-closing “Duumbiyay” creates an exploratory jazz motif from a primordial proto-rap recording by children living in a Harlem housing project in the 1950s. As its title implies, Sound Ancestors is an album where the entire history of recorded music feels eternally up for grabs. —J.D.


Mustafa, ‘When Smoke Rises’

The Toronto singer-songwriter’s debut album is a haunted meditation on grief written in the wake of reeling after his friend Smoke Dawg was murdered in 2018. But When Smoke Rises is much more than a collection of devastating ballads, though it’s also that: the 24-year-old used the record as a staging ground for his playful, striking colliding of genres and traditions, from sparse piano torch singing and folk strumming to hip-hop and spoken-word sound collages. But what remains most striking about this immaculate debut is Mustafa’s arresting, quivering vocals and his gut-punch portrayal of grief so all-encompassing that, as he sings on “Capo,” he can’t even scrub it off in the shower. J.A.B.


Young Thug, ‘Punk’

For an album named after a movement of aggression, Punk is remarkably soft. Sometimes Young Thug is crude when he’s delicate (“I wanna lay with you every night and we never bone”), but he’s direct about his anxieties (“I came from nothin’ but that ain’t how the world see me”). Navigating his childhood traumas, complicated relations with the law enforcement, and his responsibilities as a wealthy community figure, Thug shows skill in the tender without sacrificing the fun of his oeuvre. Complete with some of the best work this year from his contemporaries J. Cole, Drake, Doja Cat, and Gunna, Punk traverses levity and darkness with tact. —M.C.


Mabiland, ‘Niñxs Rotxs’

Mabiland’s second album, Niñxs Rotxs, deepens and enriches the R&B en español that’s continued to claim space in the Latin music industry, and also takes listeners on an emotional journey that blends neo-soul, rap, hip-hop, and R&B. Through her melodious soundscapes built for deep thinking, the Colombian multihyphenate shapes a narrative of a “broken” girl — reflected in the album title, aesthetic, and lyrics — and carefully lays out the internal battles that come with the experience. She strays from commercial pop reggaeton, opting instead for soft undertones of nu-funk, experimental instrumentation, and sequence selections that hold her stories together. Tracks such as “Niñxs Rotxs” are rooted in self-reflection, while “Ashé” and “WOW” act as powerful reclamations of pro-Black protests. —J.M.


The Weather Station, ‘Ignorance’

Canadian singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman has followed what’s become a familiar path from bedroom folk to a fully realized musical vision. On Ignorance, the textured sound channels folk, jazz, orchestral music, and rock through a slippery rhythmic sense that reflects the real-time meditative quality in her lyrics. Ignorance is largely about the slow, inexorable destruction of our nautical world (“I should get all this dying off of my mind/I should really know better than to read the headlines,” she sings on “Atlantic”). But it’s just as much about reveling in the fleeting beauty amid the collapse, making for music that proves subtlety can sometimes be a more effective political weapon than shouting. J.D. 


Mdou Moctar, ‘Afrique Victime’

In some ways, Mdou Moctar’s Afrique Victime sounds both like an inversion of rock & roll and the purest rock record to come out in recent years. The Tuareg singer-guitarist has dispensed with the genre’s structural hallmarks — there’s rarely a backbeat (and, hell, most of the songs aren’t even in your typical 4/4 rhythm) — but he shreds on his guitar more fluidly and passionately than practically any six-string hero to grace the cover of a guitar mag in recent years. When he puts his guitar in the spotlight, as on “Taliat” or his unplugged (and wholly un-Clapton-like) “Layla,” it feels like the rest of the music is following him. And when his voice and guitar work together on the title cut, the effect is truly transcendent. —K.G.


Carly Pearce, ’29’

Carly Pearce had her 30s all planned out, then her life imploded with a high-profile divorce and the death of a dear collaborator. The Kentucky singer could’ve hidden from the spotlight, but she turned her grief and emotion into the instant-classic EP 29 (and the expanded version 29: Written in Stone), chronicling that transitional age with courage, empathy, and humor. She acidly warns the “Next Girl” about a playboy ex, allows herself to be really “Messy,” and mourns her dashed dreams in the devastating title track. “The year that I got married and divorced/Held on for dear life but still fell off the horse,” Pearce sings with a sigh. Here’s to being OK with not being OK. —J.F.


Dry Cleaning, ‘New Long Leg’

Here’s the Dry Cleaning elevator pitch: Imagine a Londoner quietly reciting witty and cynical monologues about John Wick and feeling “poisonous rage” while the Smiths or Joy Division play their most hypnotic songs in the background. As an abstract, the group’s music could either sound disastrous or compelling, but luckily for Dry Cleaning, both frontwoman Florence Shaw and her bandmates have a way of playing off one another that can make their avant-garde/romantic/absurd audio plays curiously transcendent. New Long Leg, their first full-length, overdelivers the drama on 10 smartly textured tracks produced by PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish. It’s music that both demands and deserves undivided attention. —K.G.


Cimafunk, ‘El Alimento’

Cimafunk’s incandescent sophomore album, El Alimento, unfolds as a series of intersections between Afro-Cuban musical tradition and stateside masters of funk, hip-hop and rock & roll. The elastic bounce of “Funk Aspirin,” with George Clinton, brings a euphoric comparsa aboard the Funkadelic mothership, while a swirling melange of rumba and sticky bass lines provide a rich sonic canvas for veteran rapper Lupe Fiasco’s nimble word play. Loving nods to Afro-Cuban percussion abound on “No Me Alcanza,” performed with Havana legends Los Papines, while the saturated synths of “Estoy Pa’ Eso” wink at Sign O’ the Times-era Prince. Cimafunk’s roots act as a prismatic lens of musical memory, refracting strife and indefatigable Cuban resilience across the album, most emphatically on the resistance anthem “Esto Es Cuba.” —R.V.


Dawn Richard, ‘Second Line’

As a dance project, Richard’s sixth and best album is as corporeal as it is spiritual. It pulses with the delicious drama of loving the self, others, home, work, and everything our bodies are capable of. Tracking several journeys, the album bounds through the passion and despair of the singer-songwriter’s tumultuous career. It courses through her mother’s journey from New Iberia to New Orleans; it weaves through the sound and culture of Louisiana. Gliding from the vibrant electro pop of “Boomerang” to the cool bounce of “Pilot (A Lude)” to the sultry R&B of “Mornin | Streetlights,” each deeply satisfying step of the way is a world in itself. —M.C.


Doja Cat, ‘Planet Her’

Doja Cat isn’t weird just to get attention — she’s weird because she’s weird. And on Planet Her, she celebrates the hot-pink lipstick-burlesque mess of a universe where she lives, bleeding pop into trap into dancehall into science fiction. She brings out the freak in the Weeknd (“You Right”), Young Thug (“Payday”), and SZA, with the sparkly bubblegum tongue-kissing raptures of “Kiss Me More.” As for her Ariana Grande duet, “I Don’t Do Drugs,” it proves these off-the-wall divas are truly two of a kind. —R.S.


Leon Bridges, ‘Gold-Diggers Sound’

For his third album, Bridges leaned into the contemporary R&B stylings he began to explore on his previous LP, Good Thing. The result is the singer’s most carefully rendered and delightfully crafted collection to date, full of spry riffs (“Motorbike”) and delicate crooning (“Sho Nuff”) from the Texas traditionalist. Most striking is “Why Don’t You Touch Me,” a devastating tale of feeling unwanted that Bridges turns into a meditation on masculinity. As he moves away from the retro-soul trappings of his mid-aughts breakthrough, Bridges shows on his latest just how much he’s grown as a singer, songwriter, and arranger. —J.A.B.


Arlo Parks, ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’

Collapsed in Sunbeams, the glowing debut from the 21-year-old British singer-songwriter Arlo Parks, is a gentle force, guided by the intimacy of her voice and the precocity of her writing. She sketches out quiet, quotidian scenes, filled with patiently observed details that can jolt even a passive listener. “Watched a fight between an artsy couple escalate, strawberry cheeks flushed with defeated rage,” she sings over the spacious beat of “Caroline.” On “Hurt,” she describes a man with a “heart so soft, it hurt to beat,” and then offers the tender wisdom that’s become her signature: “Just know it won’t hurt so, won’t hurt so much forever.” —J.L.


Halsey, ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’

On If I Can’t Have Love’s eerie opening track, “The Tradition,” Halsey reveals the take-no-prisoners mantra that served her well while making the album: “Ask for forgiveness, never permission.” She made the whole album with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross serving as executive producers and co-writers, and the unlikely pairing worked surprisingly well. Even though she was born six months after The Downward Spiral came out, she evokes a legit grunge caterwaul on “Easier Than Lying,” and the Nails’ electro-rock sensibilities translate perfectly to the Hasley pop realm on “Girl Is a Gun” and “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God,” songs where each artist’s respective edge perfectly complements the other’s. —K.G.


Tems, ‘If Orange Was a Place’

2021 was a great year for 26-year-old Nigerian singer Tems, who reached millions of new listeners through collaborations with Wizkid (“Essence,” still a major radio hit roughly eight months after its release) and Drake (“Fountains,” one of the few freewheeling moments on the rapper’s Certified Lover Boy juggernaut). But the best demonstration of Tems’ gifts can be found on If Orange Was a Place, from the fluttering “Replay,” where she shows off the high end of her singing range and a quivering vocal control, to the sinuous “Avoid Things,” where she tries to extricate herself from a relationship dominated by “mind games.” The EP also features Tems’ stickiest duet, “Found,” with Brent Faiyaz, a bossa-inflected delicacy. “Basically, I might not be weak,” she sings, before adding a quiet statement of strength: “I found myself.” —E.L.


Low, ‘Hey What’

Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have never shied away from ugliness, singing about war, murder, and violence in the sweetest, most serene-sounding harmonies this side of the church pew. While their music is usually pretty fuzzed-out and palatable, though, Hey What finds the married duo injecting a new kind of edge into their sound: electronic stabs, drilling drones, and plenty of pent-up anxiety. Perfectly timed for a turbulent era, Hey What demolishes the boundaries with a sound as soft as a knife, as sharp as a feather. —B.E.


Billie Eilish, ‘Happier Than Ever’

After a debut that came out of nowhere to redefine pop, the expectations were sky high for Eliish’s second album. You could hear that pressure in the music: “Things I once enjoyed/Just keep me employed now,” she notes on the album’s opening track. But Eliish stared down coming-of-age angst and career trauma with a brilliant resolve; Happier Than Ever could be gruelingly spooky (“I wanna do bad things,” she sings on “Oxytocin”), understatedly optimistic (the laid-back Nineties trip-hop folk of “My Future”), or caustically honest (the killer title track). It was the sound of a fearless artist throwing a party for her demons and leaving her rapt listeners to clean up the mess the next morning. —J.D.


Polo G, ‘Hall of Fame’

Polo G brings a murderously hard edge to melodic rap. But it’s hard to credibly riff about catching a body when you’re regularly landing at the top of the Billboard charts. That tension between street exploits and mainstream stardom fuels his third album, Hall of Fame. It finds Polo G broadening his sound with pop gestures — cue “For the Love of New York,” a breakup track with Nicki Minaj — and admissions like “Toxic,” where he harmonizes “All she say is, ‘Boy, you so selfish’/I told her, ‘Baby, I’m a gangsta, I can’t help it.’ ” But he still conjures enough menace, particularly on cuts like “Zooted Freestyle” and “Clueless,” with the late Pop Smoke and Fivio Foreign, to dazzle stalwart fans and “RAPSTAR” newcomers alike. —M.R.


Morgan Wade, ‘Reckless’

Morgan Wade’s brand of twangy, rangy, ringing rock used to attract labels like “alt-country.” But mainstream Nashville moved to scoop the singer up not long after she released Reckless — Wade inked a major-label deal with Arista earlier this year. Wade is so deft at conjuring the head-over-heels feeling of plunging into a relationship and the subsequent heartbreak that she sometimes seems to be pinpointing the exact moment where one blurs into the other. “Wilder Days,” sturdy and driving, has become the most popular track on Reckless, but stay for the follow-up, “Matches and Metaphors,” which is full of blunt, bleary-eyed come-ons and exquisite failures of communication. “I’m not gonna tell you how I feel,” Wade decides at one point. “It’s overrated, but damn, it’s real.” —E.L.


PinkPantheress, ‘To Hell With It’

The 20-year-old British producer made her name posting song snippets on TikTok, where she has more than a million followers. On her debut mixtape, she builds out those snippets into songs that are Ramones-ian in their length, catchiness, and dedication to not wasting a note. To Hell With It raids dance floors of the past with a spirit of earnest discovery and casual sophistication, setting breakbeats and bits of U.K. garage next to strings and a Linkin Park sample. But at its heart are honest, cleareyed lyrics about loneliness, failing your A-levels, and family conflict. She calls it “new nostalgic.” You could also call it timeless — and one of 2021’s best surprises. —C.H.


Playboi Carti, ‘Whole Lotta Red’

The long-delayed album from Playboi Carti resists simple chronology. It arrived on Christmas of 2020 but was a thoroughly 2021 record. Carti stakes ground in the current generation’s sonic sensibility, for one of the most forward-thinking rap records since Kanye West’s Yeezus. Carti shares West’s penchant for boisterous, larger-than-life ideas, but on Whole Lotta Red, he infuses the inclination with something harder to describe. On cuts like  “Control,” Carti is able to deliver, in the most subtle contours of his voice, a world of emotional range. It’s not unlike Young Thug, another Atlanta rap iconoclast, who can hymn an elaborate narrative devoid of any actual words. Carti has the freewheeling sappiness of the best alternative-rock songs of the aughts, and his album’s fingerprints are all over everything we heard in 2021. —J.I.


Japanese Breakfast, ‘Jubilee’

“I knew that I wanted my third album to be the most drama and the strongest foot forward,” Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner told us last summer. “Because by the third record, you should really know who you are and what you want to be doing as an artist. And I really wanted to go all-out for it.” On Jubilee, Zauner goes all-out and then some, an outburst of indie-rock joy sprinkled throughout each track, whether it’s the near-perfect opener, “Paprika,” the aching “Kokomo, IN,” or the mystical “Posing in Bondage” (for Kate Bush-meets-Duran Duran, see “Be Sweet”). Jubilee was released off the heels of Crying in H Mart — Zauner’s heartbreaking, bestselling memoir about her late mother — which proves she was at a creative peak this year, and has no intention of slowing down soon. —A.M.


C. Tangana, ‘El Madrileño’

C. Tangana prowls restlessly in search of new fusions on El Madrileño — sticking a “classic Cuban melody” next to a sample from YG and H.E.R., rubbing gloomy Toronto R&B production against Brazilian baile funk, sending graceful bossa nova crashing against programmed hip-hop. Tradition vies with modernity, Spanish musical styles bang into Latin American ones. Like a physicist colliding particles in the hopes of making new discoveries, Tangana smashes sounds and styles together with abandon; the work is important even though not all the trials are triumphant. “Everybody is demanding a change [in the sound of the Spanish-language pop mainstream],” Tangana told Rolling Stone. “It’s a matter of courage — artists need to experiment.” —E.L.


Turnstile, ‘Glow On’

Genre is basically meaningless these days, and Turnstile is further proof. Ostensibly a hardcore-punk band, the Baltimore group both delivers the kind of shameless, baseball-stadium rock that will appeal to both anyone who owned a Sum 41 CD in the early aughts and crate-digging Arthur Russell stans. The combination is both deeply satisfying and divine. On their latest, Glow On, the band studs ripping guitar rock with showers of electronic droplets (“Mystery”), delicate piano (“Holiday”), and timbale (“Blackout”). Rock music has sounded like, well, rock music for long enough. Turnstile is the future. —B.E.


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.