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NPR Music's 50 Best Albums of 2021 (20-11)

NPR Music's 50 Best Albums of 2021
Renee Klahr
/
NPR

If the year presently coming to a close was a dance, it'd be a hesitant shuffle, tentative steps toward — or heyyyy, maybe away from? — an uncertain future. So maybe that's why, when we sat down together to discuss which albums we loved the most over the course of 2021, NPR Music's staff and contributors found ourselves drawn to albums by artists making breakthroughs, moving forward with clarity, without balking at the obstacles falling in their way. Our list of the year's 50 best is topped by an album that was unmatched in concept, songwriting or performance, but it had so much good company. Everywhere on this list you'll find the thrill of artistic revelation, musicians finding themselves, willing something new into reality. There's plenty of fun, but little escapism. Many of these albums are stacked with great songs, but these aren't snacks. Even when slight they are composed, with a sense of purpose. This is nourishment. Look around. You'll find something fortifying to build you up for the road ahead. (As a bonus, you can find our list of the 100 Best Songs of 2021 here.)

Stream NPR Music's 50 Best Albums of 2021:
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20.

Injury Reserve

By the Time I Get to Phoenix

Injury Reserve, By The Time I Get To Phoenix
/ Self-Released
/
Self-Released

When Injury Reserve emcee Stepa J. Groggs died last year, the group found itself without an essential member right in the middle of recording an album. On the resulting record, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, the experimental rap outfit channels deep-seated grief and uncertainty into a claustrophobic hellscape. By the Time I Get to Phoenix is packed with pure noise, as if it's going to self-destruct at any minute, and death oozes throughout the record. But past the cacophony there's an ever-present rawness — in the wake of terror, there's potential to find pure and beautiful catharsis. —Reanna Cruz


19.

illuminati hotties

Let Me Do One More

Illuminati Hotties, Let Me Do One More
/ Hopeless
/
Hopeless

There's a delightful, sugar-high energy to Los Angeles artist and accomplished producer Sarah Tudzin's album Let Me Do One More, and it's not just because she name-drops a host of treats in the lyrics (toasted Pop-Tarts and melty scoops of ice cream included). Her first release since exiting the label Tiny Engines, Tudzin swerves between pop punk, fuzzy indie rock and '60s girl-group pop fast enough to leave skidmarks. A collection of shred-heavy party songs that showcase Tudzin's goofy sense of humor, Let Me Do One More is a work of daring confidence. —Hazel Cills


18.

Mach-Hommy

Pray For Haiti

Mach-Hommy, Pray For Haiti
/ Griselda
/
Griselda

In a recent, curious interview with All Things Considered, Mach-Hommy answered the sort of pointed press query that'd make most stomachs turn. "Do you ever feel survivor's guilt?" asked host Michel Martin, gently. "Of course – a thousand percent," he replied, in a voice low and serene as a dove's. "All the time."

That Mach-Hommy's album is already fated by its title to be a lament for Haiti is almost redundant. His work is often crammed with diasporic twoness, but crammed with other doublenesses, too. Pray For Haiti is cocky and somber, languid and drama-dense, bumpy with Westside Gunn's insane modern squall and silken with the likes of Conductor Williams' lapidary, so-Griselda-Records-in-2012 production. Like all albums we'd consider 'remarkable,' dissonance — cognitive or otherwise — is a boon, rather than an issue. —Mina Tavakoli


17.

WILLOW

lately I feel EVERYTHING

WILLOW, lately I feel EVERYTHING
/ Universal
/
Universal

WILLOW's pop-punk pivot isn't a surprise to anyone familiar with her consistent ability to push and evolve her sound. Initially trained in R&B and pop, the singer-songwriter uses alternative rock as a launchpad on lately I feel EVERYTHING, lifting various elements and refitting them to her strengths as she explores emotional extremes. Written as an experiment in the midst of adjusting to adolescence, her lyrics balance petulant angst with enlightened wisdom. WILLOW adds rock composer to her ever-expanding list of talents here, finding success in her willingness to be unpredictable: layering harmonies over shredding guitars, welcoming features from diverse collaborators like Avril Lavigne and Tierra Whack, rapping over melodramatic bass lines and more. —LaTesha Harris


16.

Baby Keem

The Melodic Blue

Baby Keem, The Melodic Blue
/ pgLang / Columbia
/
pgLang / Columbia

When you're the baby cousin of Kendrick Lamar, arguably the best MC of his generation, and you're trying to make your own name in the rap game, the stakes of show and prove go up exponentially. Luckily for Baby Keem, he's been laying the groundwork for this moment for years. Decadently experimental compared to his breakout mixtape, DIE FOR MY BITCH, Keem's 2021 debut album The Melodic Blue finds the 21-year-old rapper officially staking his claim to define next-gen rap stardom.

While TikTok-era consumerism now trims songs to mere seconds or flips them for comedic relief, two-phone Keem comes through with so much strangely intriguing, flow-switching presence on each track that it challenges the audience to lean forward, do some extra research and listen closer. Keem commands attention over triumphant horns on "family ties," spitting so exasperatedly, it's as if he's physically leaping over the trappings of his protégé status and rap royalty lineage: "Avoiding the trends and duckin' the hoes / I'm duckin' the loonies that come with the shows / I'm grateful to Man-Man, he opened up doors / A bunk on the tour bus to come and compose." Trading bars with Kendrick over three beat changes in four minutes, Keem passes the litmus test for compelling delivery and wordplay on a track that's since earned the rising talent his first Grammy nominations in the categories of best rap performance and best rap song, alongside a best new artist nod. —Sidney Madden


15.

Tems

If Orange Was A Place

Tems, If Orange Was A Place
/ Since 93 / RCA
/
Since 93 / RCA

Spoiler alert: WizKid and Tems' Afrobeats megahit "Essence" doesn't appear on our 100 Best Songs Of 2021 list. That's because despite it reigning this summer, it dropped last fall via WizKid's Made In Lagos album. But we're not going to let that technicality stop us from giving Temilade Openiyi her flowers. The Nigerian singer's second EP, If Orange Was A Place, is a straight vibe, full of late-night slow jams that show off Tems' earthy timbre. At times, like on "Replay," she even resembles a quiet storm version of Rihanna. Given the ascent of "Essence," we shouldn't be surprised if any one of these five songs becomes Tems' next low-key anthem. —Otis Hart


14.

Adele

30

Adele, 30
/ Columbia
/
Columbia

True pop geniuses are always oversharers, transforming the most private agonies and pleasures into ubiquitously felt four-minute emotion bombs. Adele, always that goddess who gets you, took a risk with her fourth studio album by chronicling not just the sublime heartbreak of her earlier mega-hits but all the ugly emotions that surface during a divorce — guilt, shame, newly lit lust for someone new, the desire to just sack out and watch telly all day. Her production team enhances this newfound lyrical complexity in arrangements that touch on hip-hop, jazz and girl group legacies while sounding unstuffily contemporary, and Adele plays up her charms by taking chances with her singing style, playing with tone and dynamics. The result is her best album yet — a private story rendered at just the right scale. —Ann Powers


13.

Tyler, The Creator

CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST

Tyler, The Creator, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
/ Columbia
/
Columbia

For a certain generation of rappers, a Gangsta Grillz mixtape was a rite of passage (see: Lil Wayne's Dedication 2, Jeezy's Trap Or Die, Meek Mill's Dreamchasers), and Tyler, The Creator resurrected the form. Complete with DJ Drama narrating the journey, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST manages to be distinctly of its time and of another. Tyler has nothing to prove and yet sounds hungrier than ever, even as he thoroughly basks in his success. He's rapping like someone who knows he's made fools of every single person who slept on him, and it's a sight to behold. Behind the boards, his experimental streak pushed into overdrive — his beats shrink, grow and shape shift, sometimes multiple times in the space of three minutes to lend the project a kind of collage-like and freewheeling energy true to its mixtape origins. Tyler has always been artistically self-assured, but no album translates the potency of that confidence like CALL ME as he takes his place among the Gangsta Grillz greats; having achieved success on his own terms, he circled back to get it the old way simply because he could. —Briana Younger


12.

Helado Negro

Far In

Helado Negro, Far In
/ 4AD
/
4AD

Helado Negro's seventh album goes far into Texas — Marfa, where he wrote and recorded during quarantine — and far inward, creating a more abstract vision of what an Helado Negro record can be. Whereas projects like 2019's This Is How You Smile touched off from themes of family or identity, Far In moves like clouds, stretching its drums and synths into milky, ambient shapes notable simply for being there, its suggestions of memories passing through like visitors. Part of what has always made Roberto Carlos Lange's music so inviting is the sense that it holds enough space to sound like it, too, is listening. Lange suggests as much on the opener, "Wake Up Tomorrow": "I'll stay here / Just to see what you can hear." —Stefanie Fernández


11.

Japanese Breakfast

Jubilee

Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee
/ Dead Oceans
/
Dead Oceans

Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner set out to write an album about happiness after writing a memoir about losing her mother to cancer. But Jubilee isn't a straightforward celebration or an escape. Instead, Zauner plays psychoanalyst and philosopher as she examines joy from its different, prismatic angles. Sentimental string sections underscore a sense of yearning; danceable backbeats inspire us to hang tight to optimism. In this emotionally intelligent pop record, happiness is fleeting, and our attempts to pin it down are an ever-present part of the human condition. It's a resonant message as the COVID era drags on. —Nastia Voynovskaya, KQED


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