Was 2021 A Year Without An All-Time Classic Album?

Before we get to the annual Uproxx Music Critics Poll, let’s talk about sports.

Every year, no matter the league, sports fans have the same conversation: Do we like dynasties, or do we find them annoying? In the NFL, the sustained brilliance of Tom Brady over two decades has simultaneously made him the most admired and loathed athlete on the planet. You can’t help but marvel at his greatness and feel extreme agitation at once again seeing his shiny stupid face at the Super Bowl. Which is why, over in Major League Baseball, many people were delighted this year that the Atlanta Braves — rather than a perennial contender like the Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers — won the World Series in spite of having the worst record of any team in the post-season.

This is the appeal of novelty in competition. But is novelty actually inspiring?

In 2020, the most dominant NBA team of the 1990s, the Chicago Bulls, returned to “must see TV” status courtesy of the popular documentary The Last Dance. Next year, HBO hopes to replicate that success with Winning Time, a dramatization of the most dominant basketball team of the 1980s, the Los Angeles Lakers. If we hate dynasties so much, why aren’t there TV shows about the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers or the mid-’90s Houston Rockets, two teams who won championships between those aforementioned behemoths?

Sports is not music, and music is not a competition. But there are nevertheless imperfect metrics for determining which music is “best,” and one of them is year-end lists compiled by critics, including the annual Uproxx Music Critics Poll. These lists measure critical consensus, which is one of the ways — not the only one, and perhaps not the most important, though it’s certainly somewhat relevant — in which music history is catalogued, contextualized, and committed to memory.

Many years, these lists are topped by what I would call “dynastic” albums. These are the albums that most informed onlookers would predict in advance are most likely to “win” out with critics — because they are well-reviewed, well-pedigreed, and have a general patina of “importance” that will compel music writers to feel as though the record signifies something vital about contemporary culture. (To be clear: I’m not merely speaking of aesthetic judgements here, which are obviously subjective and don’t slot comfortably into the inherently reductive list format. This is discourse about “the discourse,” which as a relative veteran in this game I always find both fascinating and, well … what can be said of the music-critic discourse that hasn’t already been said of root canals?)

In the previous three years of the Uproxx poll, the list-topping record was extremely predictable. In 2018, it was Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour. In 2019, it was Lana Del Rey’s Norman F*cking Rockwell. In 2020, it was Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters. In terms music criticism prognostication, this lineup is about as chalk-y as you can get, the equivalent of Tom Brady, the Red Sox, and the Lakers winning in the same year.

This year, however, is defiantly anti-chalk. Surveying the top 10 of the Uproxx poll, all of the choices will be familiar to those who have already pored over previously published lists by prominent outlets. But among these consensus picks is uncommon parity. Nearly all of the records at the top have been no. 1 on a list, but there are no out-and-out juggernauts. Jazmine Sullivan was the fave at Pitchfork and Vulture, and Olivia Rodrigo bested the field at Rolling Stone and Billboard. But Stereogum favored The War On Drugs, Spin gave the nod to Turnstile, Consequence Of Sound tapped Tyler The Creator, and Paste flipped for Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders.

And then there’s Japanese Breakfast, whose album Jubilee tops the Uproxx poll. According to a spreadsheet compiling rankings from various year-end lists put together by my friend, the music writer Rob Mitchum, Michelle Zauner’s acclaimed indie-pop project has thus far topped just one critics list, by the website Slant, though (tellingly) she also came out on top of the Pitchfork readers poll. The strength of Jubilee is that it’s an album a lot of critics like quite a bit, even if they might not necessarily love it the most. This also helps to explain how Lucy Dacus’ fine third album Home Video and Low’s excellent Hey What — which according to Rob’s spreadsheet haven’t topped any lists — also ended up in the top 10 of our critics poll. These are well-liked grinders, not unstoppable phenomenons.

If you are the sort of person who reads a lot of these lists, this lack of hegemony is no doubt refreshing. Sure, there is clearly some consensus with these lists, but 2021 feels like the most diverse year for critical opinion in possibly a decade. The range of favorites is real and palpable. And this makes these lists more interesting to look at, shaking them out of the boring stultification that inevitably sets in at this time of the year.

But should this really be taken as evidence that critics are being more adventurous with their choices this year? Or is this merely a field of very good albums without an all-time classic that can stand apart from the pack? Was 2021 a paradigm-buster, or an off-year between Bulls championships?

Frankly, I think there is evidence for both conclusions. On the “I find this refreshing” side, I would point to the post-Trump uncertainty that loomed over music writing in 2021. During the previous four years, the former president was like a Christmas tree on to which culture writers could hang narratives that made art signify grand truths that allegedly elevated albums beyond “just” entertainment. Golden Hour wasn’t “just” an engaging crossover country record, it was a progressive act of subversion aimed directly at the conservative Nashville establishment. Norman F*cking Rockwell wasn’t “just” a lush set of mythic story songs, it was a grand summation of American culture on the brink of apocalypse. Fetch The Bolt Cutters wasn’t “just” a stirring comeback by a genius singer-songwriter, it was a distress signal from inside the hell of a pandemic for a nation on the verge of a do-or-die election.

But this year, with Trump gone and Covid (at least partly) diminished, albums went back to just being albums, and songs suddenly mattered most if they … happened to sound good. What a concept! I suppose it’s possible to glean political messages from albums as disparate as Jubilee, Sour, Glow On, Promises, and New Long Leg. But what I found refreshing about this music is how it took me away from the narratives dominating my social media feeds, and made me feel lighter as a result. In 2021, albums that didn’t inspire thinkpieces seemed to gain the most committed followings. The lack of contextual baggage only made them seem more likable.

On the other hand, I think about my favorite album of 2021, The War On Drugs’ I Don’t Live Here Anymore — which topped my list because I played it more than any other LP this year — and how it’s probably not even the best album by that particular band. (I still give the nod to Lost In The Dream.) I wonder how many Tyler The Creator fans would put Call Me If You Get Lost over recent beloved works like Igor or Flower Boy. I believe Japanese Breakfast, Low, and Lucy Dacus did put out career-best music in 2021, but I suspect there will be disagreement about that among each act’s respective fanbases. While I like all of the albums in the top 10 of the Uproxx poll, I’m not sure any of them, in the grand scheme of things, are slam-dunk, money-in-the-bank, first-ballot Hall Of Famers.

Ultimately, what all of this confirms for me is that you can’t really a judge a year when you’re in the middle (or even at the end) of it. Nobody knows which of these albums will still sound good in 10 years. And then there’s the matter of the music that critics slept on in 2021 that will in time blow all of these records out of the water. Perhaps that elusive all-time classic is still hiding in plain sight. We just have to keep listening.