Top 10
1.

Michelle Zauner had a momentous 2021. In April, her first book, a memoir about her complicated relationship with her late mother called Crying In H Mart, debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list. Then she made the best Japanese Breakfast record of her career. While Japanese Breakfast’s early material was often classified as lo-fi, Jubilee represents her grandest music yet, nodding to the sonically rich and expansive indie albums of the ’90s and ’00s by artists such as Bjork and Joanna Newsom. In terms of lyrics, Zauner has turned her eye to character studies that are delivered with cinematic flair. – Steven Hyden

Olivia Rodrigo Sour
2.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s had a bigger 2021 than Olivia Rodrigo. In time between sharing her debut single “Drivers License” in January and releasing her No. 1 album Sour in May, Rodrigo went from Disney Channel fan-favorite to one of the most talked about musicians across the globe. She raked in award nominations, dominated streaming services, and smashed charting records held by the musical greats. Throughout the 11 tracks on Sour, Rodrigo positioned herself as an ever-talented songwriter capable of crafting both touching heartbreak ballads and roaring pop-punk anthems. The album captivated audiences of all generations with relatable lyrics and effervescent instrumentation while simultaneously rewriting the persona of the typical pop star. – Carolyn Droke

Tyler The Creator Call Me If You Get Lost
3.

Pound for pound, one of the most impressive studio releases of the year, Call Me If You Get Lost finds rebellious Tyler taking a nostalgic step back to redeem the blog era credit from which he was either barred or that he himself spurned (depending on which version of him you ask). Tapping mixtape maestro DJ Drama and emblazoning his latest with the Gangsta Grillz label is deceptive, though; as much as he revels in the sheer art of rhyme (“Lumberjack,” “Juggernaut“), he also finally gets more vulnerable and expansive than he’s ever been (“Massa,” “Manifesto”), pushing the series beyond mere mixtapes into something richer and much more vital. – Aaron Williams

Turnstile Glow On
4.

Just an insanely fun record that has unwittingly inspired a revival of one of the biggest bummer music conversations: What makes a hardcore band a hardcore band? Specifically, can a band that kind of sounds like 311 and ’80s Rush (seriously!) really be considered hardcore? Fortunately, Turnstile themselves don’t seem to care all that much about semantics. Yes, they play shows with the manic energy of a hardcore gig. But their songs have so many hooks that Glow On ends up being one of 2021’s most inviting and inclusive records. – Steven Hyden

5.

Jazmine Sullivan returned to the music world after an almost six-year absence with her Heaux Tales EP. Through 11 songs with help from Ari Lennox, Anderson .Paak, and HER, Jazmine sings about the experiences through love and intimacy that she and other women go through. There are moments of passion and moments of regrets, but the vulnerability to tell it all and stay true to herself, along with help from other female voices, helped to make Heaux Tales a flawless project. – Wongo Okon

6.

Though she’s been operating in the the indie sphere for half a decade at this point, Lucy Dacus‘ third album Home Video marks her strongest effort yet. Now in her mid-twenties, Dacus is far enough away from her youth to reflect on her childhood. With a sense of humor, nostalgia, and a bit of incredulity, Dacus examines her bible study days on Home Video. With catchy refrains, inviting vocals, and heart-tugging lyrics, Dacus walks listeners through the highs and lows of first-times, youthful relationships, and self-discovery. Armed with her current wisdom, Dacus’ music gives honest advice in the form of poetic ballads, urging both her former self and her friends to see their self-worth in the face of potentially harmful relationships through songs like “VMB” and “Christine.” – Carolyn Droke

7.

After four long years, The War On Drugs finally returned in November with a reward for our patience. Musically, I Don’t Live Here Anymore is a refinement of the craft the band explored on 2017’s A Deeper Understanding, which itself was a refinement of 2014’s Lost In The Dream. It’s evidence of a band that is always adapting and evolving for an LP that is without a doubt their most accessible material to date. It packs in catchy hooks, driving rhythms, and emotionally cathartic instrumental arrangements anchored by guitar solos that will remind you why guitar solos are, in fact, awesome. – Zac Gelfand

8.

Promises eases into our realm with a seven-note motif played on harpsichord by British electronic music producer and composer Floating Points (né Sam Shepherd). It’s a comforting refrain that will stay by our side until the very end of this nine movement suite, and throughout this mostly peaceful event, Pharaoh Sanders — an unlikely friend and collaborator of Shephard given he’s 46 years his senior — plays his tenor sax within the framework with stunning depth, every life lesson learned coursing through the brass. Yet when the London Symphony Orchestra’s strings ascend in “Movement 6,” it’s an intense, almost unsettling crescendo of sensations. Promises feels as intimate as a single night alone, every drone, every ricket, every twinkle like a sensory of the mind activating in ways outside of the dreamer’s control. – Dean Van Nguyen

9.

How many bands have had a career arc like this Minnesota institution? A respected indie mainstay since the early ’90s, Low had already amassed a strong catalog by the time they started collaborating with Bon Iver associate B.J. Burton in the mid-2010s. But with 2018’s Double Negative and now Hey What, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have somehow moved into the most sonically adventurous and artistically advantageous stage of their lives. While Double Negative was possibly a more shocking record, completely deconstructing Low’s slowcore ballads into discombobulated static, Hey What is ultimately more inviting, extending the previous album’s innovations while renewing the focus on Sparhawk and Parker’s elemental harmonies. – Steven Hyden

10.

This record took a while for me to get. Perhaps it’s my cynicism about yet another wave of talky post-punk bands from England being treated as rock saviors. But over time, Dry Cleaning won me over. Florence Shaw is the most unique and off-putting rock singer in years, always quick with a quip that doesn’t sound like a quip until it’s been rolling around in your head for a week and suddenly slays you. When she says that she thinks of herself “as a hardy banana with that waxy surface and the small delicate flowers / A woman in aviators firing a bazooka,” you are at first confounded, then intrigued, and finally persuaded that, yes, she’s exactly right. – Steven Hyden

Music Stars
Halsey If I Can't Have Love I Want Power
11.
Halsey — If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
Halsey If I Can't Have Love I Want Power
11.

Working with your idols can be daunting, even devastating in some cases. But every once in a while, game recognize game and everything flows into the ideal collab. That’s what happened when Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross started helping Halsey retool their sound for the spectacular If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. Dark, chaotic, and much more rock-centric than her last album, Manic, this fourth album is as good as a magnum opus for the alt-pop star. Wading through pregnancy, misogyny, historical sexism, and so much more, this record crystallizes her sound in unexpectedly moving ways. – Caitlin White

12.
Little Simz — Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
12.

Talk about a breakthrough album. London’s Little Simz emerged as one of the best newly established voices in hip-hop on the Inflo-produced Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. She tackles the album in complete fashion, showing that no subject is too difficult for her to master as a songwriter. She extols the mind and presence of Black women on “Woman,” flaunts her panache with fellow British-Nigerian Obongjayar on “Point And Kill,” and unapologetically opens up about the toll her relationship with her estranged father has taken on her in “I Love You, I Hate You.” In the latter, she rises above the pain, emerging triumphantly as a person and an artist, flawlessly sliding in between every note of the beat and leaving a lasting mark in the process. – Adrian Spinelli

13.
Billie Eilish — Happier Than Ever
13.

For a brand new artist, pushing past the massive surge of a super successful debut can be a challenge. But not for Billie Eilish. Barely taking a breath between accepting a record number of Grammys for When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go? and releasing new singles, Eilish weathered the pandemic by slowly trickling out songs like “Everything I Wanted” and “Therefore I Am” to set up her next phase. Happier Than Ever was a jazzy, downtempo left turn after her trippy gothic debut, and more proof than Eilish will be doing whatever she wants from here on out. When the vocals sound this good, genre becomes irrelevant. – Caitlin White

14.
Snail Mail — Valentine
14.

Snail Mail went through a lot of major life changes between her breakout debut LP Lush and sophomore follow-up Valentine, which included a seemingly non-stop tour and mental health struggles. As a result, Snail Mail’s Valentine tackles the aftermath of her fame and the cult of personality surrounding her musical persona with a delicate maturity. The earnest, rollicking tracks throughout her album detail self-destruction, masochistic love, and fame with an energy that teeters between loungy ballads and songs that absolutely shred. – Carolyn Droke

15.
The Weather Station — Ignorance
15.

After a massive breakout with her third album, Loyalty, Tamara Lindeman has been slowly but steadily building a global following for her sometimes jazzy, orchestral folk music as The Weather Station. Loyalty and a self-titled follow-up in 2017 were both released on North Carolina indie, Paradise Of Bachelors, but for her fifth record, the Toronto-based musician signed with Fat Possum to release one of her best records to date. Ignorance, which Lindeman said was partially compelled by the looming climate crisis, was shortlisted for the Polaris Prize, one of Canada’s most prestigious awards. It is perhaps more frenetic than her past work, stippled with louder percussion, stranger flute, and the increased presence of saxophone and keys. But her piercing lyrical precision is still there, striking vignettes delivered in an alto deadpan that packs an awesome punch, from the very first listen to what will surely be repeat plays in intervening years. – Caitlin White

16.
Cassandra Jenkins — An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
16.

The seven songs of Cassandra Jenkins’ breakthrough second album last only 32 minutes, but listening tends to take longer — her snapshots of the cycle of hurt and healing are so powerful, you may find yourself pressing ‘Pause’ to ponder them piecemeal. An impressionistic diary written after the tragic end of her stint in David Berman’s Purple Mountains, An Overview On Phenomenal Nature is honest about the rather low odds any of us will ever be much more than okay, while forever charmed by the prospect that something might fix us, from dips in the ocean and drives in the city to new bikinis and new years. Jenkins luxuriates inside this mix of grief and hope, at home. – Grayson Haver Currin

17.
Kanye West — Donda
17.

There are event albums. And then there’s a Kanye West album. Kanye’s gravitational pull in music and fashion always causes mass disruption. For his 10th studio album Donda, named after his late mother Dr. Donda West, he previewed and teased it through three separate stadium listening events, inviting fans into the ever-evolving process of Kanye’s pursuit for perfection. To this day, the finalized Donda (if we’re including its deluxe version) is 32 songs and over two hours long, with a superstar cast of hip-hop heavyweights. It’s Jesus Is King on steroids, elevated by Kanye’s brand of street gospel, hip-hop, and pop while pulling out some of the best verses from his collaborators. Only Kanye can drop an album of this magnitude and end his long-standing beef with Drake in the same year, performing together for the benefit of freeing Larry Hoover. When God speaks, Kanye, his spiritual messenger, delivers. – Eric Diep

18.
Faye Webster — I Know I’m Funny haha
18.

For Atlanta die-hard Faye Webster, I Know I’m Funny haha represents the fully-formed vision of her folk and country for the well-rounded mind. “Got you a bass last year on your birthday / The same one the guy from Linkin Park plays / But you look better with it anyways,” she sings over a sultry pedal steel on the title track. Then, she pours it on for Atlanta Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr with “I saw you last night in my dream / That’s still the closest you and I have been,” as a saxophone bellows alongside her on “A Dream About A Baseball Player.” Webster’s ability to enact the impeccable Americana vintage sound from the nuanced perspective of a 20-something is what will keep her firmly entrenched as a torchbearer of the Southern music tradition. – Adrian Spinelli

An Evening With Silk Sonic
19.
Silk Sonic — An Evening With Silk Sonic
An Evening With Silk Sonic
19.

From the very moment that Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak made their newly-formed Silk Sonic duo official with the release of “Leave The Door Open” earlier this year, their promised debut album was one of the most sought-for releases in 2021. Would the duo live up to the hype? Would the album perhaps be unbalanced? A multitude of questions arrived at Bruno and .Paak’s doorstep, all of which were answered with the brilliant An Evening With Silk Sonic. The duo met all expectations and did it through an excellent display of showmanship. There’s no telling how long Silk Sonic will last, but their current presence is something to be thankful for. – Wongo Okon

20.
Julien Baker — Little Oblivions
20.

With each album, Julien Baker widens her scope a little bit. Where Sprained Ankle was a very sparse affair focused mostly on lyrics, Turn Out The Lights introduced a few more instruments and depth into the mix, and now Little Oblivions is what Steven Hyden calls “the most musically inviting album that Baker has made yet, with extra heft added to the guitars and rhythm section nudging her closer to a full-on rock record. But the emotional brutality of the lyrics somehow melds with the uplifting beauty of the music, perhaps giving Baker some peace in the process.” – Zac Gelfand

Music Stars
Doja Cat 'Planet Her' cover
21.
Doja Cat — Planet Her
Doja Cat 'Planet Her' cover
21.

Ladies and gentlemen, Doja Cat has arrived. After two albums of fun, frothy, somewhat inconsequential stabs at pop-laden hip-hop and R&B, Amala stuck her nose hard to the grindstone to turn up a much more focused, slicker slice of her world. She still wields the same wicked sense of humor that got her national attention with “Mooo!” in 2018, but now it’s a scalpel instead of a hammer (“Get Into It“). Her pop sensibilities have sharpened as well, allowing her to trade in glimmering dancefloor anthems (“Kiss Me More“) and stargazing kickback staples (“Need To Know“). – Aaron Williams

Adele 30
22.
Adele — 30
Adele 30
22.

On another sumptuous, diva-level pop record, Adele lets the world in on the painful process of her own divorce, with a greater emphasis on family and extremely personal heartache than ever before. Yes, she’s always given us songs of epic longing and love lost, but the classic ballads on 30 chronicle a woman growing up, coming to terms with the idea that teenage dreams and the effortless intentions of your twenties can — and do — fade away. But 30 isn’t a despairing album by any means, in fact, it focuses on what each loss leaves behind, and offers a blueprint for rebuilding in a new decade. – Caitlin White

23.
Arlo Parks — Collapsed in Sunbeams
23.

Arlo Parks was like a therapist during the pandemic. Originally beginning as poems, her songs are gorgeous ruminations on the depressive states that are all too common with young people today, and became magnified as we lived our lives in a locked-down state for months. The way her warm-voiced presentation of lyrics like “It’s so cruel, what your mind can do for no reason” (on “Eugene”) struck a chord with the loneliness millions were feeling in 2021 and were a salve in dire times. Collapsed In Sunbeams won the Mercury Music Prize as the top album in the UK, and also garnered a Grammy Award nomination for Best Alternative Album. It illustrated the power of Parks’ universal songwriting and she’s maintained an unshakeable grace and charisma along the way. – Adrian Spinelli

24.
Wild Pink — A Billion Little Lights
24.

The latest Wild Pink release, A Billion Little Lights, feels like a culminating moment for songwriter John Ross. What originally began as a vision for a massive double-album exploring the history of the American West was eventually trimmed down to a more conventional release, with Ross refocusing his efforts instead on creating the most beautiful and enveloping soundscapes that he could. A Billion Little Lights is what Steven Hyden called the project’s “most ambitious and overall best work, infused with deep lyrical craft and impeccable melodies that set Wild Pink apart from the indie-dude pack.” – Zac Gelfand

25.
Taylor Swift — evermore
25.

If there was anyone who was going to spend the pandemic creating not one but two perfect albums, it was always Taylor Swift. Even as the ripples of Folklore were just beginning to dissipate, Taylor gently sent a second album out into the world. This one is a little bit darker, a little more country, and just as satisfying as the first. Between her epic murder ballad collaboration with Haim and features from Bon Iver and The National, Evermore is still distinctly Taylor: Sharp, funny, sometimes scathing, and eternally devoted, despite it all. – Caitlin White

26.
Isaiah Rashad — The House is Burning
26.

If you’re going to take a damn-near five-year hiatus between albums to get your life right, your return project has to justify that wait for ravenous (and fickle) fans, or you may as well have retired. Fortunately for the TDE hotshot, his comeback feels every bit as electric as his debut. It’s more weathered and in some places, he sounds weary (“Darkseid,” “THIB“), but he also sounds revitalized and recentered (“From The Garden,” “Wat U Sed“), issuing hard-won observations and heavy-hearted moments of clarity. – Aaron Williams

27.
SAULT — NINE
27.

On June 25, 2021, Sault decided to limit the existence of their new album Nine for just 99 days (until October 2). The semi-mysterious UK collective already has a cult fanbase around their music, one that engages in their message and content rather than their celebrity. Nine focuses on home, specifically the band’s origins in London, where songs like “Mike’s Story,” “Trap Life,” and “Alcohol” are relatable reflections of their past. “You From London” features storytelling rhymes from Little Simz and cheekily plays up what Americans really think about the British. The album checks off many high points we’ve come to love from Sault: there’s anger, there’s mellowness, there’s R&B, there’s funk. Nine is another important chapter in a growing catalog of music that hypes up their inevitable reveal to the world. – Eric Diep

28.
Foxing — Draw Down The Moon
28.

After leaving it all on the table with 2018’s art-rock masterpiece Nearer My God, Foxing raised the stakes once again earlier this year with Draw Down The Moon, a record that Ian Cohen called “Foxing’s answer to Future Islands’ Singles or Bleed American or Manchester Orchestra’s A Black Mile To The Surface, recent examples of perpetual underdogs betting on the most direct version of themselves.” The verdict is still out on whether this record will help Foxing will be able to overcome the hurdles that have plagued them to date, but at least we got to reap the benefit of everything they had to give. – Zac Gelfand

29.
Lil Nas X — Montero
29.

The quintessential pop star for 2021, Lil Nas X’s Montero is the ultimate wink and a smile to anyone who doubted him as an industry one-hit-wonder. On “Dead Right Now,” he sings: “Left school, then my dad and I had a face-to-face in Atlanta / He said, ‘It’s one in a million chance, son,’ I told him, ‘Daddy, I am that one.'” It’s pensive moments like this tucked within an album of tongue-in-cheek mega-hits like “Industry Baby” and “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” that flash true dynamic artistry across pop and hip-hop. When the dust settles, this will go down as the year of Lil Nas X, after all, who else can claim that they gave Satan a lap-dance, had a track with Elton John on their album (“One Of Me”), and was named The Trevor Project’s Suicide Prevention Advocate of the Year? – Adrian Spinelli

30.
Porter Robinson — Nurture
30.

Since the release of his excellent 2014 debut, Worlds, Porter Robinson battled severe depressive states that threatened to derail the promising career of one of the brightest young American EDM figures. It made it so that Nurture didn’t come to life until 2021, but the result sees the North Carolina producer emerging from an emotional chasm in a joyous, life-affirming state. Painted with broad strokes of happy techno, IDM, and hyperpop, there are moments, such as “Something Comforting,” that feel like PC Music hopped up on pink and yellow Starburst. And on “Look At The Sky,” we get the purest expression of Robinson pushing through a thick dark cloud, showing us that he’s persevered: “Look at the sky, I’m still here, I’ll be alive next year. I can make something good.” – Adrian Spinelli

Music Stars
31.
Chvrches — Screen Violence
31.

Chvrches arrived fully formed on their sterling 2013 debut, The Bones Of What You Believe. However, the Lauren Mayberry-led Scottish band has sharpened their synth-pop into increasingly urgent, moody shapes in the subsequent years. On Screen Violence, the trio embrace melancholy dream-pop tendencies while continuing to explore life’s darker moments. “He Said She Said” pointedly addresses gender-based gaslighting — Mayberry sings “I feel like I’m losing my mind” over and over again, a sentiment that cuts deep thanks to her repetition — while “California” describes what it’s like to have a sunny dream turn to dust. Yet Screen Violence also leaves space for glimmers of optimism: The Cure’s Robert Smith guests on the gloomy, stormy standout “How Not To Drown,” a treatise on how to be resilient after nearly giving up. – Annie Zaleski

32.
Pom Pom Squad — Death Of A Cheerleader
32.

On the mournful pop piece “Crying,” Mia Berrin frets, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t feel anything.” But that’s hardly the case: Death Of A Cheerleader is loaded with emotion. Songs writhe with insecurity; others are deathly self-aware; some fawn with adoration. The album drips with desire, an exploration of Berrin’s queerness as well as her identity. Twisting the cheerleader image into something fanged is utterly fun — it lets Berrin strip herself down just as she does the trope: “Is there a way for me to kill the girl I wish I were?” A wink and bite at once, Death Of A Cheerleader may be self-deprecating, but in the end, the popular girl comes out on top. – Caitlin Wolper

Indigo De Souza Any Shape You Take
33.
Indigo De Souza — Any Shape You Take
Indigo De Souza Any Shape You Take
33.

With her sophomore album, Any Shape You Take, Indigo DeSouza tackled her songwriting with a kind of vibrancy and open-mindedness that was hard to find in her tiny North Carolina hometown. The songs on her album resist fitting any specific genre category, moving fluidly between sparkling pop anthems and somber suburban emo power ballads. Though it can’t be defined by labels, DeSouza’s music tackles love in all forms while flexing her range of intimate songwriting abilities. The shimmering song “Hold U” is a pumped-up track that describes the importance of platonic love, while other songs like “Pretty Pictures” and “Kill Me” detail the aftermath of a life-altering breakup. – Carolyn Droke

34.
Spirit Of The Beehive — Entertainment, Death
34.

Spirit Of The Beehive once felt like a DIY indie-rock band with a penchant for destabilizing noise. But on the Philly trio’s self-produced Saddle Creek debut, the sentiment feels reversed: ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH only sporadically recalls a group of musicians playing in real time — instead, its music is manipulated in a more cinematic style, maximizing each dynamic contrast. “ENTERTAINMENT” opens with ungodly chaos, sounding like a free-jazz drummer warming up inside the world’s largest MRI machine. But seconds later, the mood is mellow, with snippets of strings and guitar flying around like fruit in a blender. Spirit Of The Beehive sound only like themselves. – Ryan Reed

35.
Lana Del Rey — Chemtrails Over The Country Club
35.

While she may not be navigating the treacherous waters of social media with the most grace, Lana does best when she leans into her songwriter side and leaves Instagram be. That’s exactly what Chemtrails Over The Country Club is all about, as Del Rey descends into psych-folk smashes like “White Dress” and “Tulsa Jesus Freak.” Folksy ballads like “Wild At Heart” and “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” showcase Lana when she’s stripped back, free and easy, and completely offline. – Caitlin White

36.
Yola — Stand For Myself
36.

Yola’s second album has yielded her another set of Grammy nominations — including Best Americana Album — and with good reason. The British artist offers us a refreshing look on roots music from across the ocean, weaving tales of growing up as a Black woman with musical aspirations when the odds were stacked against her. Songs like “Diamond Studded Shoes” and “Starlight” show Yola’s unique command as a vocalist across the spectrum of Americana, laced with soul, blues, and pop. Ultimately, Stand For Myself is filled with moments of triumph, love, and protest, all set to the illustrious music of players in the orbit of Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sounds label in Nashville. – Adrian Spinelli

37.
Vince Staples — Vince Staples
37.

Call me biased (Long Beach, stand up), but I don’t think a single rap project this year came close to touching Vince Staples’ eponymous fourth studio album. Clocking in at just ten tracks — as many of the great albums do — Vince’s new approach strips away bells, whistles, and several layers of anything resembling varnish to expose the gritty truths he bares throughout its harrowing narratives. Trading in his frantic yelps for a laconic, resigned incantation, Vince invites listeners to not just watch the movie but inhabit his point of view. If you don’t get it, that’s on you. – Aaron Williams

38.
Taylor Swift — Red (Taylor’s Version)
38.

Returning to one’s old material is a vulnerable project to take on, especially when an artist is doing it for the sake of ownership and agency. There’s something specifically special about Swift revisiting 2012’s Red; the album always felt like a turning point in her career, a sign of maturation. Songs like “Treacherous” and “I Almost Do” contain some of her best lines, though lyricism cannot be discussed without mentioning the famously sharp, cinematic “All Too Well,” which takes on a new form on this re-recording as a ten-minute, even more gut-wrenching track. The rest of the songs that are “From The Vault” prove that Swift always has a lot up her sleeve, including an evocative Phoebe Bridgers collaboration that reverberates with resilience. – Danielle Chelosky

39.
St. Vincent — Daddy’s Home
39.

A departure from the futuristic sounds heard on St. Vincent’s previous albums, Daddy’s Home takes a trip through the past. Trading in electrifying guitars for woozy sitars, the album leans heavily on iconography from the ‘70s in order to revisit her own complicated history. Her most personal album yet, Daddy’s Home vaguely sheds light on St. Vincent’s private life with dizzying production, dreamy chords, sultry back-up vocals, and her acerbic sense of humor to explore what it truly means to be a struggling artist. – Carolyn Droke

40.
Armand Hammer & The Alchemist — Haram
40.

There’s a really rather simple formula for success when it comes to alternative rap in 2021: Get The Alchemist on the phone. The veteran producer has experienced something of a resurgence in recent years, and for the past 24 months, his influence has kicked into overdrive, beginning with Conway The Machine’s Lulu EP and including collaborative projects with the likes of Boldy James, Freddie Gibbs, and yes, Armand Hammer. The New York City rap duo, consisting of members Billy Woods and Elucid, brings the other half of the formula — cerebral, abstract rhymes that utilize all the intricate pockets of Alc’s stripped-down, avant-garde production. A match made in the shadows of one of hip-hop’s quirkier corners, it holds its own in the light. – Aaron Williams

Music Stars
41.
Drake — Certified Lover Boy
41.

In all of the exhausting discourse about the rollout for Drake’s latest album Certified Lover Boy, something that seemingly got lost in the shuffle is how ridiculously enjoyable the new record was. For all of the complaints about the seriousness and simmering rage of his last full-length release, 2018’s Scorpion, Certified Lover Boy was an antidote. Its goofy reimagining of Right Said Fred’s signature hit with “Way 2 Sexy” is a hoot, that tongue-in-cheek lesbians line on “Girls Love Girls” is undeniably sticky, and Drake goes full Drake for the majority of the album, leaning full into the memes for an album that would be impossible for anyone else to make. It’s silly, but it’s fun; why does Drake need to offer anything more at this point? – Aaron Williams

42.
Mach-Hommy — Pray for Haiti
42.

Rapping like a waterfall over deconstructed samples and muted drums, Mach-Hommy has found a niche over the past few years — the same niche occupied by contemporaries such as Griselda Records rappers Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher, as well as longtime New York underground stalwarts like Roc Marciano. Incidentally, it was in linking up with the Griselda gang that Mach-Hommy’s profile shot up, and Westside Gunn executive produces here, once again demonstrating his gift for pairing bar-heavy rappers with just the right production and collaborators to best offset their crowded writing with the contrast that only a drum-less jazz sample can provide. – Aaron Williams

43.
Black Country, New Road — For the first time
43.

This London septet has emerged, alongside Black Midi and Squid, as the most exciting figures in an experimental rock renaissance. Of course, Black Country, New Road share only superficial similarities with either of those bands — their brain-rattling debut LP collides deadpan post-punk poetry with hints of jazz, Canterbury Scene prog, vintage Rock in Opposition, even klezmer. It can be heavy, intimidating stuff, particularly when Isaac Wood favors a less melodic vocal style on brooding epics like “Science Fair.” But the band’s deft ensemble interplay balances the stylistic scales, adding levity and groove to the rollicking “Instrumental” and accurately titled “Opus.” – Ryan Reed

44.
Courtney Barnett — Things Take Time, Take Time
44.

True to its title, Courtney Barnett’s third album is content to keep calm. Unlike predecessor Tell Me How You Really Feel, each track meanders until it happens upon joy in the mundane, or the “flowers in the weeds.” While Things Take Time finds Barnett watching the world go by — a feeling deeply familiar to everyone after the past two years — she’s invigorated by the possibilities of the future. This album’s vulnerability is unprecedented; Barnett has moved past the “fear of falling.” When she wryly sings “stars in the sky / are gonna die,” it’s the side-joke to a pubescent, honest love song. – Caitlin Wolper

45.
Allison Russell — Outside Child
45.

“Run, or die”: That is how Allison Russell describes her teenage epiphany in Montreal, where her adoptive father tormented and nearly killed her during a decade of endless abuse. The solo debut from the roots-music veteran is a difficult but exquisite portrait of trauma, from early moments of innocence through scenes of sexual assault. During an endnote of sublimation, Russell aims to liberate herself not through forgiveness but through reckoning. Russell borrows from African and Irish folklore and mines soul, country, and even New Age, a polyglot approach meant to suggest we’re all tormented by the bequeathal of old wounds. Only we can break the cycle, as Russell does with this raw, redemptive encapsulation of humanity. – Grayson Haver Currin

46.
CFCF — Memoryland
46.

It’s easy to take CFCF’s Michael Silver for granted. The Montreal-based artist has spent the better part of the last decade releasing a steady stream of albums and EPs that both subvert and embrace electronic music conventions. Memoryland is no different: Eclectic and chaotic, the full-length jumps between genres and approaches — to name a few, throwback house, frenzied drum-n-bass, glitchy garage, and sleek French funk. Silver’s intuitive grasp of collapsing genre distinctions is equally impressive. The one-two punch of “Suburbilude” of “Punksong” — which conjure My Bloody Valentine and distortion-coated synth-punk, respectively — celebrate electronic music’s broad scope, while guests No Joy add the right vibe to the shimmering shoegaze “Model Casting.” – Annie Zaleski

Kacey Musgraves Star-Crossed
47.
Kacey Musgraves — Star-Crossed
Kacey Musgraves Star-Crossed
47.

One of two excellent divorce albums by divas this year, Kacey Musgraves definitely dived a little bit deeper into the psychedelic nature of love, connection, and separation than anyone else in 2021. Star-Crossed is perhaps the only album that could’ve followed up its glowing, critically-acclaimed predecessor, Golden Hour. Sure, sometimes the perfect, golden love fades, but going through the wilderness to find yourself again is all part of the journey. No matter what, the risk was all worth it, and this woozy record of self-reclamation is another ode to all the magic of this beautiful, twisted life. – Caitlin White

48.
L'Rain — Fatigue
48.

On Fatigue, Taja Cheek, the New York City multi-instrumentalist and experimental musician who records as L’Rain, excels at stitching together disparate sonic threads: daydreamy vocals, distorted psychedelic drones, sharp hits of jazzy percussion, field recordings of a pastor singing somberly. Although a highlight like “Two Face” boasts relatively linear grooves and lilting melodic vocals wrapped around spiraling piano, the resulting songs more often resemble dizzying fragments, where the musical ideas are distorted or phase-shifted into exciting, quick-cut directions. Fatigue is a brain-bending sound collage that defies boundaries and categorization — and, blissfully, sounds like nothing else released in 2021. – Annie Zaleski

49.
Madlib — Sound Ancestors
49.

Hip-hop nerds love Madlib. Maybe it’s because his list of legendary collaborators include Jay Dilla (2003’s Champion Sound) and MF Doom (2004’s Madvillainy), which set the standard for indie hip-hop releases. Recently, Madib has found a musical companion in Freddie Gibbs, whom he teamed up with to drop 2014’s Pinata and 2019’s Bandana. Sound Ancestors is technically a solo Madlib record, but his music gets some help from Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet, who edited, arranged, and mastered it. Over a period of two years of Madlib sending Four Tet pieces of music, the result is Sound Ancestors, a spiritual journey of textures, genre juxtapositions, moods, and choice vocal snippets that all flow together. It’s Madlib’s expert crate-digging and genius at work. – Eric Diep

50.
Mdou Moctar — Afrique Victime
50.

Afrique Victime is loaded with moments where the great Nigerien guitarist Mdou Moctar steps out of the song in order to ram his guitar directly into your guts. He does this for emotional effect, bending and blurring notes with the furious energy that defines one of his most obvious influences, Jimi Hendrix. But you suspect that Moctar also believes that ripping off a sick solo is extremely dope, which on this record it absolutely is. It might even make you ask: Why don’t we hear guitar solos more often these days? As it is, the concept of the guitar hero remains alive and well thanks to this six-string genius. – Steven Hyden

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.