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NPR Music's 50 Best Albums of 2021 (30-21)

Renee Klahr

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 the100 Best Songs of 2021 here.)

Stream NPR Music's 50 Best Albums of 2021:
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Lil Nas X


/ Columbia

If we're being honest, a lot of people didn't see this blurb coming. When Lil Nas X exploded into the collective consciousness two years ago with his country-rap record "Old Town Road," critics and listeners alike figured he'd take his horse down the 'ol path to one-hit wonder-ness. With his debut album, the Georgia artist lays bare other plans. MONTERO, much like the artist it's named for, sonically draws us in by challenging hip-hop and celebrating all things creative, queer, bold and weird. For two years, we watched what we thought were gimmicks from an artist dying for attention. Now, Lil Nas X delivers brutal honesty via gems like "DEAD RIGHT NOW," "SUN GOES DOWN" and the Elton-John backed piano trap ballad "ONE OF ME." With MONTERO, Lil Nas X took all of our doubts (his own included) and threw them back in our faces for 40 minutes of beautiful self-reflection. —Gavin Godfrey



When The Black Hand Touches You


Memphis never stopped being the home of the blues, to hear Lukah tell it. In a time and place where predators and prey meet the same fate, the scramble to survive the systemic traps and generational trauma of an unending drug war can drive a man mad. When The Black Hand Touches You is a funeral dirge in first person. And Lukah, the grim reaper-slash-dealer, resurrects heartaching soul samples to sack up and slang his lyrical antidotes. But all is never lost to total despair, particularly when the haunted goes on the hunt and the black hand of death gets balled into an empowered Black fist. —Rodney Carmichael


Summer Walker

Still Over It

/ LVRN / Interscope
LVRN / Interscope

Still Over It is Summer Walker's middle finger to her ex, yes. But beyond that, it's a collection of affirmations for anyone who's ever been wronged by a lover, partner or even friend. The project is bookended by a knowing "narration" by Cardi B, who coaxes Walker to control the narrative of her love life, and a tranquil prayer from Ciara, who encourages her attempt to close an unhealthy chapter of her life. Summer Walker's collaborations with other women stand out on the album, from the intentionally detached nature of "No Love," her joint song with SZA, to the emotionally invested "Unloyal" featuring Ari Lennox. —Kiana Fitzgerald


Toumani Diabaté and The London Symphony Orchestra


/ World Circuit
World Circuit

This beautiful album is no crossover gimmick. Toumani Diabaté, master of the 21-string West African kora, wanted to collaborate with a symphony orchestra for years. The result is a transfixing blend of odd bedfellows, with Diabaté's plucked flourishes and lyrical melodies dancing between and floating above subtly textured orchestral arrangements, including three by Nico Muhly. "Haïnamady Town," an album highlight, opens with Diabaté's improvised solo, introducing a bittersweet theme, before strings and winds softly emerge. "Mamadou Kanda Keita" and "Mama Souraka" include cameos by acclaimed Malian musicians, including the late singer Kasse Mady Diabaté. Kôrôlén is a miraculous cross-cultural gem. —Tom Huizenga


Cleo Sol


/ Forever Living Originals
Forever Living Originals

Cleo Sol tends to the songs on Mother with a gentleness that seeps into the experience of listening to them. They are soothing in their mellow, jazz-inflected soul and nurturing in their lyrics, as the London singer erects a monument of maternal love. Sometimes, as on "Don't Let Me Fall" and "23," that means extending grace in moments of lack, and other times, as on "Heart Full of Love" and "Sunshine," it's simply giving thanks for the miracle of such a gift. Often, though, it's Sol pouring into her child — and into us. Songs like the divine centerpiece "We Need You" and the piano mantra "Know That You Are Loved," brimming with affirmation, offer the warmth of a lullaby and the protection of a mother's prayers. The lilt of Sol's voice, its hazy contours and the way it glides across the production, is a balm that seems to say, "You are safe here." She was transformed by motherhood, and she courageously uses the space of Mother to lay herself bare, to break open a heart that's fuller than she thought possible and give still more of herself. —Briana Younger


Eris Drew

Quivering In Time


Across her lengthy career as a vinyl DJ and rave evangelist, electronic producer Eris Drew has espoused her concept of "The Motherbeat," a testament to dance music's ability to heal. On her first full-length album, Quivering in Time, she harnesses that ability in full force for a collection of bouncy, exuberant dance music that blurs the borders of house and techno, rife with surprising samples of breaking plates and movie monologues. Recreating the loopy unpredictability of her DJ sets, Drew's debut delivers a mix of non-stop fun, with flashes of meditative beauty. —Hazel Cills




/ Roadrunner

It's not novel to point out that Baltimore hardcore band Turnstile can be more pop than punk. From the opening synth arpeggio of "Mystery" to the harmonies on "Alien Love Call," the beauty of GLOW ON lies in the hodgepodge of genre that's created across the album's 15 tracks. The record finds the band strengthening the connection between its intense, mosh-friendly sound and the group's inspirations, which can range from Bad Brains to Sade to the go-go music of their native DMV. It's an incredibly groovy direction with melodies baked into every line, making the album a bona fide pop record hiding behind riffs, pedals and a hardcore sheen. —Reanna Cruz


Mickey Guyton

Remember Her Name

/ Capitol Records Nashville
Capitol Records Nashville

It was a big deal that Mickey Guyton finally had the opportunity to release a debut album this year, after a decade of striving, and she didn't squander it: Remember Her Name is one of the standout country-pop works of the modern era. Guyton summons the power of the big, belting singers of the 1990s and 2000s and, like the best of them, never relies on athleticism alone; she has the insight and ability to let her performances flare and smolder and soften into plaintive sighs. As a songwriter, deeply knowledgeable about country forms and tropes, she expands the meaning of odes to down-home identity, good-times tunes and stirringly confessional balladry by shaping them around her own cultural reference points and experiences of gendered racism in life and her industry. It's as groundbreaking as it is accessible. —Jewly Hight, WNXP



to hell with it

/ Parlaphone

PinkPantheress anoints a new generation into the club of cool with the release of her debut mixtape, to hell with it. Like flipping through a CD binder from someone's glove box, it shuffles through UK garage, electropop, jungle and alt-rock seamlessly, linked together only by the artist's shy vocals and tongue-in-cheek lyricism. PinkPantheress is as organic as a pop star comes in 2021, having risen to the top despite insidious algorithmic bias and viral music marketing. If anything, to hell with it encapsulates a year of restlessness, of dancing in bedrooms, of twirling headphone cables on fingers, nostalgic for the past. —Alex Ramos




/ Sub Pop
Sub Pop

Low's Mimi Parker toldAll Things Considered this year that she's always "pushing towards the beauty" as a songwriter, while her bandmate and husband Alan Sparhawk "focuses on the chaos." That duality, a hallmark of Low's impressive, forward-thinking minimalism, is on full display on the band's stunning 13th album, HEY WHAT. The album refines the sonic palette Low developed with the jagged, distorted tones of 2018's Double Negative with a renewed focus on melody, shifting seamlessly between the beauty of Parker and Sparhawk's harmonies and the chaos of ambience and decay. —Marissa Lorusso

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