The 50 Best Albums Of 2021

The 50 Best Albums Of 2021

We made it! Mostly. Kind of. The COVID era, which utterly derailed music and most other things for the better part of two years, isn’t quite over. But around the time that most of us got our second arm-jabs, the whole economy surrounding music started to sputter to life once again. It’s not quite the same as it was this time in 2019 yet, but it’s now possible for a band to release an album and then tour behind that album. We used to take that for granted. Now, it feels miraculous.

Even in the depths of the pandemic, artists never stopped releasing new music. But in the past few months, especially, we’ve seen a tidal surge of new records, and many of those new records are truly great. The music that we loved in 2021 didn’t adhere to any particular sound or sensibility. Some of our favorite albums this year twinkled and murmured and soothed. Some of them whooped and thumped and celebrated. Plenty of others clanged and howled and made a whole lot of noise. There’s no central theme to our list of the year’s best albums. There never is.

We, your Stereogum staff, owe a great debt to you, the Stereogum readers. We mean that in a metaphysical way, and we also mean it in a literal way. Last year, when this site went independent, you, the readers, raised enough money to keep us going, and we are eternally grateful. For the small staff of this website, all we really want to do is blather to anyone who will listen about the music that we like. You have made it possible for us to make our living doing that. Thank you.

In that spirit, here’s our list of the 50 albums that we liked best in 2021. The list was chosen entirely by the staff here at Stereogum. We all made our own personal lists, assigned points, came up with a ranking, argued over and tinkered with that ranking, and ended up with what you see below. Later on, we’ll give you our lists of the year’s best EPs and the best albums from certain genres, as well as a few other year-end goodies. But this list is the big list. You’ll probably find a few new things on it that you might like, and you’ll probably find a few reasons to argue with us, too. Enjoy both. —Tom Breihan

50

Closer - Within One Stem (Lauren)

After the release of their 2018 debut album All This Will Be, the members of the feverish New York screamo trio Closer dispersed up and down the Eastern seaboard. With the musicians all living in other cities, Closer had to bring serious energy and purpose to their return, and that’s what they’ve done. Within One Stem lasts 24 bruising minutes, and yet it feels expansive and majestic, its scratchy storms of guitar careening off its splintered lyrical bellows and channeling all the fear and doubt and anxiety hanging in the air. —Tom

49

Brandi Carlile - In These Silent Days (Low Country Sound/Elektra)

In These Silent Days acted as something of a companion piece to Brandi Carlile’s 2021 memoir, Broken Horses. As such, the album is intensely personal, mining painful aspects of her early years in rural Washington and making an intentional decision to find closure. For all of its heavy subject matter, In These Silent Days is a gorgeously structured work, with Carlile embracing the family she’s built for herself on songs like “Mama Wolf” and “You And Me On The Rock.” Nearly 12 years into her career, Carlile proves once again that she’s incapable of making a bad album. —Rachel Brodsky

48

Flock Of Dimes - Head Of Roses (Sub Pop)

Jenn Wasner fittingly revived her solo moniker Flock Of Dimes to make one of her most direct and open albums yet. Head Of Roses chronicles the demise of a relationship, Wasner processing it during the pandemic, and the seismic personal transformations she underwent as a result. From the anger in “Price Of Blue” to the wistful recollection in “One More Hour,” the full spectrum of grief is represented. While Wasner’s music is often otherworldly in its beauty, she has also become a deeply empathetic writer. Head Of Roses strikes the balance as perfectly as anything else she’s done. —Ryan Leas

47

Mach-Hommy - Pray For Haiti (Griselda)

The rare Mach-Hommy album to be released to streaming services found the masked New Jersey rapper teaming with Westside Gunn, ending up with a sound between the blurry visionaries of the lo-fi hip-hop scene and more conventional neck-snap boom-bap. It may not retail for hundreds of dollars, but Pray For Haiti is distinctively Mach-Hommy, animated by his mercurial spirit and his concern for his family’s native land. As the man himself puts it, “Not like the rest of these bums, multilingual/ Thought you was the best on the drums? Meet Ringo.” —Chris DeVille

46

Chvrches - Screen Violence (Glassnote)

Chvrches turned a meaningful corner on their fourth album, astutely using slasher classics as a framework to examine social media and misogyny. The Scottish synth-pop trio sounds newly energized on ultra-catchy cuts like “Asking For A Friend” and “Good Girls,” and it doesn’t hurt that the Cure’s Robert Smith shows up for a perfectly placed cameo on “How Not To Drown.” Best illustrating the album’s concept, though, has to be the shimmering electropop jam “He Said She Said,” which is structured in contradictory couplets. “He said ‘you need to be fed’/ ‘But keep an eye on your waistline’ and/ ‘Look good but don’t be obsessed.’” Like the scariest horror villains, the patriarchy just won’t die. —Rachel

45

Iceage - Seek Shelter (Mexican Summer)

If Iceage have spent the past 10 years of their career evolving from post-punk enfants terribles to something resembling modern classic-rock gods from the frozen north, then Seek Shelter is the apotheosis of that transformation. Too slippery and singular to settle into the staid comforts of dad-rock, Iceage’s version of Britpop grandeur is tinged with a dark edge that still leaves room for unexpected grace in the twilit space between dissolution and salvation. —Peter Helman

44

Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt - Made Out Of Sound (Palilalia)

With Made Out Of Sound, experimental icons Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt once again joined forces to create music that finds beauty in chaos: seven extremely volatile, incomparably pretty instrumentals that resemble life emerging out of nothingness and directly into tumult. Or maybe this is the sound of order falling apart into gorgeous disarray, allowing new shapes and patterns to emerge. However you hear it, Orcutt’s guitars and Corano’s drums are destabilizing in the best way; they’ll leave you breathlessly enthralled and ignite endless possibility within your imagination. —Chris

43

Loraine James - Reflection (Hyperdub)

Loraine James makes club music for people who would rather stay home. The London producer imbues her hard-hitting experimental electronica with genuine vulnerability and pathos, all of its unpredictable shapes and erratic rhythms like so many veins leading inexorably to the same beating heart. Both a technical triumph and an emotional one, Reflection is an incisive look inward that will resonate outward for years to come, a calling card for one of electronic music’s most exciting new voices. —Peter

42

Portrayal Of Guilt - We Are Always Alone (Closed Casket Activities)

Concussive Austin heavy-music expressionists Portrayal Of Guilt released two full-lengths in 2021, and both of them work as nuclear blasts of hate and rage and fear. So if We Are Always Alone is slightly friendlier than its evocatively titled follow-up CHRISTFUCKER, that doesn’t mean it’s friendly. On both records, POG roll screamo and noise-rock and black metal and industrial into a jagged ball and then hurl it at your skull. It’s music for middle-of-the-night blackout doomscrolling, and it welcomes the apocalypse to come. —Tom

41

Ada Lea - one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden (Saddle Creek)

Most of the songs on Alexandra Levy’s sophomore album as Ada Lea take place in motion — peering through the rain-flecked windows of cars and trains and buses, sifting through memories that feel pointed and precise thanks to her wordy lyrics. It’s bookended by two of her best songs, “damn,” on which she laments the fun that’s missing from music, and “hurt,” where she swirls around in a despair of her own making. With immaculate tendrils of guitars and burbling percussion, one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden is a folk album that’s always pulsating, specific, and never boring. —James Rettig

40

Erika de Casier - Sensational (4AD)

Erika de Casier has a voice that draws you in and then chides you for getting so close. Her sophomore album Sensational is a sensual feast populated by laidback fuck-you songs. On “Polite,” she tells off some boy after a disastrous first date; “All That You Talk About” pokes fun at materialism while sounding absolutely decadent. Opener “Drama” appropriately revels in the drama of it all while winking at the listener for lapping it all up. de Casier has absorbed the sumptuous R&B she grew up listening to and spits it back out with a sly, flippant sense of humor. —James

39

Home Is Where - I Became Birds (Knifepunch)

Brandon MacDonald is one of the more compelling voices to emerge this year no matter how you define voice, be it the blunt nasal singing that inevitably drew Jeff Mangum comparisons, a facility for punctuating heady lyrics with bracingly simple hooks (“HEY SAMANTHA!”), or a creative vision that hybridizes and synthesizes umpteen subgenres from the emo and indie rock realm into startlingly original and unpredictable music. On debut album I Became Birds, MacDonald and her Home Is Where bandmates cram more wild ideas into 19 minutes than most bands muster in a decade. —Chris

38

Summer Walker - Still Over It (LVRN/Interscope)

“All I want to do is fuck, get drunk, take drugs.” In a banner year for unflinchingly raw, exquisitely pretty R&B, the hook from Summer Walker’s “No Love” works as a mantra. The Atlanta singer is known for putting her mess out in the open, and on Still Over It she gets right to it, putting frequent collaborator and ex-boyfriend London On Da Track on blast within the first 90 seconds. From there it’s drama upon drama, set to some of 2021’s most elegant and versatile production. Can’t wait to hear the music she writes about Larry! —Chris

37

Armand Hammer & The Alchemist - Haram (Backwoodz Studioz)

Armand Hammer want you to look at those gross, bloody pig heads. Haram means forbidden, and instead of turning away, the acclaimed and prolific rap duo of billy woods and Elucid digs unflinchingly into the taboo, never afraid to get their hands dirty. Big-name producer the Alchemist, coming off of a hot streak of his own, tempers their dense lyrical claustrophobia with his jazzy psychedelic soundscapes without compromising an inch of their exacting vision. —Peter

36

Men I Trust - Untourable Album (Self-Released)

The Montreal trio Men I Trust figured that if the pandemic was going to keep them off the road, they might as well push themselves to record music beyond the constraints of their stage show. The result was Untourable Album, a quirky and immaculately chilled-out collection of electronic pop songs that at times resembles Mac DeMarco on a Moon Safari, Sade gone chillwave, or Moby’s “Porcelain” updated for the Bandcamp era. They are, of course, taking it on tour. —Chris

35

Sons Of Kemet - Black To The Future (Impulse!)

Over the last several years, Shabaka Hutchings has unleashed an impeccable, acclaimed, and fiery series of albums across three different projects. This year, it was Sons Of Kemet’s Black To The Future, an album continuing the narrative and political concerns of Hutchings’ work overall, now in the wake of last year’s BLM protests. Atop roiling rhythms, sometimes danceable and sometimes off-kilter, Hutchings weaves genres and eras and voices, groovy earworms like “Hustle” and haunting meditations like “Envision Yourself Levitating” equally vital. Throughout Black To The Future, Sons Of Kemet reckon with the history and present, while imagining what the world could look like instead. —Ryan

34

Madlib - Sound Ancestors (Madlib Invazion)

Here we have entire sonic galaxies refracted through the mind of one genius and distilled with expert focus by another. Sound Ancestors is essentially a Madlib beat tape stitched together by Four Tet, and it’s every bit as dazzling as that description implies. The ingredients are eclectic — from ’60s psych, ’70s funk, and arty ’80s new wave to Snoop Dogg ad libs and modern Brazilian jazz — but the vibe is consistent and immersive. You could keep it on loop all weekend and you’d still be discovering new treasures hidden within this music’s nooks and crannies. —Chris

33

Xenia Rubinos - Una Rosa (ANTI-)

When Xenia Rubinos was young, she would sit in her great-grandmother’s room and listen to a music box lamp that played “Una Rosa,” a danza by Puerto Rican composer José Enrique Pedreira. Una Rosa — her most ambitious, personal work to date — gets its title and its cover art from that foundational memory. Rubinos draws from the music of her Afro-Latinx heritage while refusing to be pigeonholed by it, shifting nimbly from the rumba-inflected “Sacude” to the digital soul of “Did My Best” and crafting a vibrantly genre-averse album that couldn’t have come from anyone else. —Peter

32

One Step Closer - This Place You Know (Run For Cover)

Imagine a tidal wave coming right for you, except it’s actually a brick wall, except it’s actually 10,000 tons of furious anguish. On their full-length debut album, Wilkes-Barre straightedge hardcore upstarts One Step Closer channel their anger and distress into fiercely intense blasts of aggression. This is music for purging your soul, bludgeoning your enemies, and lashing out at all the world’s injustice, spearheaded by Ryan Savitski’s throat-shredding roar and spiked with an intense melodic edge that only amplifies its blunt-force impact. —Chris

31

Boldy James & The Alchemist - Bo Jackson (ALC)

Hardbitten Detroit crime-life memoirist Boldy James and veteran producer the Alchemist have been been making records together for years, and they’ve found a way to vibrate on their own wavelength. On Bo Jackson, they build tingly and forbidding broken-glass streetscapes. Alchemist’s glinting minor-key thumps and Boldy’s conversational rasp add up to more than the sum of their parts. Pals like Earl Sweatshirt and Freddie Gibbs show up to compete, but Bo Jackson still feels like a world that these two men created together. —Tom

30

Parannoul - To See The Next Part Of The Dream (Self-Released)

Parannoul is one anonymous guy from Seoul who makes sad lo-fi bedroom shoegaze with a distinct emo bent, and To See The Next Part Of The Dream might just be his masterpiece. Plucked from Bandcamp obscurity to online notoriety by its sheer unmistakable quality, this is big music for big feelings — both literally and figuratively, with several songs brushing up against the 10-minute mark. Occasionally redlining into the stratosphere, there’s a vulnerable charm to Parannoul’s music that’s only enhanced by the fuzzy limitations of its homespun origins. —Peter

29

Squid - Bright Green Field (Warp)

After years of addicting singles and buzzy live shows, the art-rock quintet Squid finally arrived with Bright Green Field. In many ways, it was what we’d all hoped for, epics like “Narrator” and “Pamphlets” toeing the line between dance-y, squiggly catchiness and bug-eyed freakout, perfecting Squid’s tension between braininess and catharsis. But by Squid’s own admission, Bright Green Field was also a darker and weirder album than they anticipated. In that way, it often becomes a difficult, daring debut — one that makes good on Squid’s early promise while leaving you with little clue where this restless band might go next. —Ryan

28

Kacey Musgraves - star-crossed (MCA Nashville/Interscope)

Golden Hour faded black” is an apt description for star-crossed, the follow-up to Kacey Musgraves’ breakthrough 2018 album. Luckily enough the country singer-songwriter ascribes it to herself on the triumphant “what doesn’t kill me,” one of the many songs that evoke the warm and fuzzy sounds of Golden Hour if not necessarily the sentiments. A divorce record that’s equal parts acerbic and self-loathing, star-crossed is a complicated odyssey of the breakdown in Musgraves’ personal life, filled with songs that fuel one to keep going. —James

27

Spirit Of The Beehive - ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH (Saddle Creek)

Spirit Of The Beehive have been making primordial sonic soup for nearly a decade now, and ENTERTAINMENT, DEATH is their most satisfying meal yet. The Philadelphia band does a little bit of everything — flurrying indie rock and psychedelic shoegaze and twisted, somnambulant beats — and on this album they do even more of everything. The result is a willfully obtuse listen that’s nevertheless engaging, as they flit between different sounds like a restless child and come up with something that sounds petulant and paranoid and perfectly imperfect. —James

26

Halsey - If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power (Capitol)

Halsey’s always been a collaborative force in pop music. This time, teaming with Nine Inch Nails industrial giants Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross yielded sonic gold on If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power. A high-concept look at pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, the immense, theatrical IICHLIWP is no doubt Halsey’s most ambitious work, one that explores multiple genres — synth-pop, grunge, industrial, pop-punk, and hip-hop are all represented — and stares down the Madonna-whore complex and institutionalized misogyny without flinching. —Rachel

25

Nation Of Language - A Way Forward (PIAS)

If you’re a sucker for synths, Brooklyn’s Nation Of Language scratch that itch with sublime accuracy on their sophomore effort, A Way Forward. And yet there are no cover-band vibes here. Sure, Nation Of Language cherrypick influences from across the decades — everyone from Kraftwerk to the Strokes are repped — but A Way Forward lives up to its name with complex, modern melodies and classic-meets-contemporary themes. (See: the anti-capitalist jam “The Grey Commute.”) Whatever way forward Nation Of Language choose from here, we’ll follow. —Rachel

24

The Armed - ULTRAPOP (Sargent House)

It’s right there in the title. This is all-caps ULTRAPOP, loud and in your face, thrilling maximalism with the breakneck intensity of the most extreme hardcore and the breathless immediacy of the very best pop music. If you really want to get into it, the Armed are a Detroit collective with an Andrew W.K.-esque propensity for misdirection and mystery and enough tangled threads of mythology to draw up one hell of a conspiracy board. If you don’t, just throw on the title track and hold on for dear life. —Peter

23

Julien Baker - Little Oblivions (Matador)

Julien Baker made her name by howling out raw emotional truths over her own spartan, immaculately recorded waves of guitar and piano. The power came, at least in part, from the intimacy. But on her third album, Baker goes for grandeur, bringing in a full backing band to add layers to words that are as unforgiving as ever. Even with the armor of that full, majestic sound, Baker still brings the inner fire, and she still speaks to the darkness inside whoever’s listening. —Tom

22

Ka - A Martyr's Reward (Iron Works)

“Happy I’m here to tell my story, just sad it’s fact,” Ka raps. “They stole my youth, wish I had it back.” The Brooklyn emcee’s formative years still haunt him, and those memories continue to inform each new journey into his meditative headspace. Sonically, the self-produced A Martyr’s Reward is kind of like ambient rap music, but it’s meant for close study, not zoning out — an autobiographical novel parsed out into flashes of heartbreaking, head-spinning poetry. —Chris

21

Water From Your Eyes - Structure (Wharf Cat)

There’s a good reason why Water From Your Eyes’ album is called Structure. The duo, made up of Nate Amos and Rachel Brown, set out to purposefully and playfully mess around with traditional song shapes. There are two versions of a track known as “Quotations,” both equally sprawling; there are spoken interludes and a Beach Boys-esque harmonic opener that’s followed by “My Love’s,” which uses white noise to propel the song to a teeth-clenching sonic hook. But despite (or more likely because of) all their experimentation, they have created some truly indelible pop songs in their process. —James

20

Fiddlehead - Between The Richness (Run For Cover)

Fiddlehead make poppy rock songs that hit every bit as hard as Pat Flynn’s old hardcore band Have Heart did, as a means of coping with emotions every bit as heavy. Flynn started the band while grieving his father, and their second album honors his memory with one roaring, soaring hook after another. Between The Richness is full of surprises like the Go-Team-esque cheerleader chant that breaks out in the middle of “Down University,” but the main appeal is hearing the band rip through one hearty churn after the next, stacking anthems upon anthems. —Chris

19

Clairo - Sling (Fader/Republic)

After attaining internet fame and feverish buzz as a teenager, Clairo almost broke amid all the praise for her clever lo-fi singles and raised eyebrows around her parentage. The gorgeous Sling shouldn’t have to prove anything, but it did anyway. It’s a marked sonic shift; instead of bedroom pop, Sling draws quiet influence from mid-century maestros like Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Harry Nilsson, and Burt Bacharach. What does stay consistent, though, is Clairo’s achingly openhearted lyricism; ideal for headphones, it makes the listener feel like each song is a secret for their ears only. —Rachel

18

Tirzah - Colourgrade (Domino)

Tirzah’s 2018 debut album Devotion was strikingly minimal R&B music; her follow-up Colourgrade is even more so. Once again working with Mica Levi and Coby Sey, the London musician has created a set of songs that can be hard to grasp onto, but get on its wavelength and it’s one of the most deeply affecting releases of the year. The metallic Terminator vocal effects that Tirzah slathers on its opening title track are a bit of a feint for the album as a whole, which is organic and warm and permeable, filled with quiet strumming and hushed songs that sound like alternate-reality lullabies. —James

17

Arab Strap - As Days Get Dark (Rock Action)

Kicking off with resurrection anthem “The Turning Of Our Bones” (a song, naturally, also about sex), As Days Get Dark finds the reunited Arab Strap making some of the most evocative music of their career. Over dance beats and bleary synths and plenty of saxophone, Aidan Moffat writes — thoughtfully, hilariously — about what people turn to in times of need, as the world grows more unsettling. From nostalgic lust in “Another Clockwork Day” to partying in “Here Comes Comus!” to addiction in “Sleeper,” As Days Get Dark chronicles people searching through the night, all our methods of running away — and, maybe, what we find once we get back. —Ryan

16

Tyler, The Creator - Call Me If You Get Lost (Columbia)

Soon after venting about the Grammys shunting him off into the rap categories, Tyler, The Creator made the most rapping-ass rap album of his entire career. For Call Me If You Get Lost, Tyler signaled his intentions by recruiting DJ Drama, king of the ’00s mixtape boom, to yell triumphantly over everything. The album jumps all over rap history, pulling ideas from new jack swing and Southern marching-band funk and whatever else flitted across Tyler’s mind, and the playfully digressive results work as a love letter to a whole genre. —Tom

15

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis - Carnage (Goliath)

When Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds released Ghosteen in 2019, it marked the end of a trilogy and the conclusion of a transformative decade in which Cave forged ahead into new, striking late-career territory. It was enough to make Warren Ellis wonder if their collaboration was over, but instead the two made Carnage as a duo, getting back together to jam during a lockdown respite. It is immediate and vital — “White Elephant” a rare topical statement from Cave, various songs mulling over isolation — but also presumably transitional. Carnage shows Cave and Ellis’ work together is still deeply potent, and leaves the door open for a whole new arc. —Ryan

14

Lucy Dacus - Home Video (Matador)

After Lucy Dacus’ years of seemingly confessional work that often pointed the proverbial camera away from herself, Home Video marked a major shift, with the songwriter thumbing through old diaries in her parents’ house and recording what she discovered across 11 tracks. The results of this self-excavation helped Dacus understand herself a little better and formed her most intensely personal album. Within Home Video, Dacus addresses same-sex attraction and growing up within the church — and how those two things are often at odds with each other (“VBS,” “Triple Dog Dare”). At its core, Home Video is a coming-of-age story made even more poignant with the benefit of hindsight. —Rachel

13

Olivia Rodrigo - Sour (Geffen)

Even after the viral popularity of “drivers license,” was anyone quite expecting that Disney teen-turned-pop phenomenon Olivia Rodrigo would put out SOUR, a project so beloved that people actually dressed up as its cover art for Halloween? Each song on SOUR, ostensibly about a broken relationship, is its own coming-of-age tale, in which heartbreak, frustration, and angst are the central characters. SOUR might occasionally twinkle with Disney fairy dust, but at its most magnetic moments, Rodrigo doesn’t pretend that being a teenager is anything like adults tend to romanticize. —Rachel

12

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises (Luaka Bop)

An English electronic music producer, a free jazz saxophone legend, and an entire symphony orchestra walk into a bar. Instead of some hacky punchline, they emerge with Promises. One continuous instrumental work separated into nine distinct movements, Promises is an unexpected opus that transcends boundaries of generation and genre to become an ageless classic. Whether you’re looking for a transportive emotional journey through time and space or just 46 minutes of texture and mood to sink into, Promises has you covered. —Peter

11

Wednesday - Twin Plagues (Orindal)

Wednesday turn old memories into emotional kindling. Led by vocalist and lyricist Karly Hartzman, the Asheville five-piece takes ghostly imagistic echoes of small-town ennui and sets them ablaze in the searing flames of fuzzed-out shoegaze, watching them burn away oh so prettily. From the twangy Americana balladry of “How Can You Live If You Can’t Love How Can You If You Do” to the gnarled heaviness of the title track, these past traumas make for some remarkably present indie rock. —Peter

10

Cassandra Jenkins - An Overview On Phenomenal Nature (Ba Da Bing)

An Overview On Phenomenal Nature is a lofty title for an album, more scientific dissertation than collection of songs. But Cassandra Jenkins more than lives up to that name — her writing is curious and expressive, especially on standout “Hard Drive,” a spoken-word collapse of memory and feeling. The album does indeed feel like some potent encapsulation of the entirety of this fantastical, dreadful world we all live in. —James

09

Polo G - Hall Of Fame (Columbia)

This past spring, Polo G notched his first Hot 100 chart-topper by muttering about social anxiety and existential dread over a bright, friendly ukulele loop. That’s one of the weird little miracles that Polo pulls off on Hall Of Fame, an album that expertly presents his bleak Chicago pain-rap in the brightest pop context possible. It can’t be easy to convey emotional rawness in the context of an ultra-commercial rap record, but Polo’s writerly grace and hypnotic hooks are up to the task. —Tom

08

The Weather Station - Ignorance (Fat Possum)

After the culmination of 2017’s The Weather Station, Ignorance is something new — a Weather Station that is slicker and poppier but also darker, an album that mingles beauty and chaos. Wracked by anxiety of living in an era when post-apocalyptic climate scenarios seem ever more imminent, Ignorance wrestles with huge, sprawling emotions but situates them in small moments — staring into the vastness of the sea on “Atlantic,” a tour stop in “Parking Lot.” With Ignorance, Tamara Lindeman’s made her biggest statement yet, without losing the aching human core that defines the Weather Station’s music. —Ryan

07

Matt Sweeney & Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Superwolves (Drag City)

As a folk singer and lyricist, Will Oldham blurs the boundaries between the tender and the unsettling. Whether depicting a mysterious villain, a hardscrabble madame, or a dying parent, his writing is somehow both obscurant and incredibly vulnerable — an unflinching stare that will let you in as deep as you can handle. And he rarely sounds better than when backed by Matt Sweeney, whose virtuosic guitar flurries are always woven into the fabric of well-crafted songs. Somehow, they topped their 2005 collaboration Superwolf with these deeply moving reflections on grief, romance, and familial love. —Chris

06

serpentwithfeet - Deacon (Secretly Canadian)

If it’s possible to get high on intimacy, then Deacon is a classic of psychedelic soul. The Baltimore singer serpentwithfeet’s 2018 debut Soil was futuristic queer gospel, at home at the intersection of sacred and profane. But sophomore LP Deacon is more confident, less tortured. It’s about the relief of finding someone and the euphoria of realizing that you’re building a whole new life for yourself. Along with contributors like Sampha and Nao, serpentwithfeet spins a crazy-in-love fantasia about physical ecstasy and emotional deliverance. —Tom

05

Japanese Breakfast - Jubilee (Dead Oceans)

On her first two albums, Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner had a world of pain and grief to process. On the triumphant and accurately named Jubilee, though, she intentionally embraces joy. On its face, Jubilee is a vibrant, orchestral dream-pop record, drawing aesthetic influence from a host of classic indie greats. The vigorous “Slide Tackle” leans into pulsating electropop with a layered horn crescendo and nowhere is Zauner’s elation more evident than on the disco-lite lead single “Be Sweet.” After everything she’s absorbed, Zauner’s Jubilee sounds like a victory. —Rachel

04

Low - HEY WHAT (Sub Pop)

Low’s third collaboration with BJ Burton, HEY WHAT continues where 2018’s Double Negative left off, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker grappling with dire times by making damaged, celestial music. While the mangled distortion of “More” might present an even bleaker end destination, there are also moments on HEY WHAT — the galvanizing gospel of “Days Like These” or the fragile beauty of “Hey” or “The Price You Pay” ending the album on a resolute march forward — that suggest… maybe not hope, but at least something else on the other side of the void. —Ryan

03

Turnstile - Glow On (Roadrunner)

Turnstile’s version of hardcore was always bouncier, catchier, and generally friendlier than what most of their contemporaries offered. On its third album, though, the Baltimore band comes out blazing with something so bouncy and catchy and friendly that you could almost call it “pop.” With a Dr. Dre protege as producer, Turnstile have kept the reckless physical abandon of their early records, polished their gleaming-chrome hooks, and cranked out a half-hour barrage of joyous positivity, where even the experimental left turns hit hard. —Tom

02

Snail Mail - Valentine (Matador)

It would have been easy for Lindsey Jordan to follow her prodigious debut with more of the same. But Valentine builds on the emotional headrush of Lush in every way, incorporating new sounds and stronger lyrics and an immaculate scope that’s hard not to get swept up in. From the blearing indie-rock catharsis of opener “Valentine” to the pained but resolute conclusion of the orchestral “Mia,” Valentine is a document of a love gained and lost, and all the second chances squandered along the way. —James

01

The War On Drugs - I Don't Live Here Anymore (Atlantic)

Arriving to the highest levels of anticipation in the War On Drugs’ career, I Don’t Live Here Anymore showed up — right on time, in autumn — and exceeded already stratospheric expectations.

Perhaps you can credit that to Adam Granduciel’s ongoing sense of impeccable quality control. In fact, that is the exact fuel for I Don’t Live Here Anymore. On the Drugs’ fifth album, Granduciel has learned how to wield every element of this project together. There is moment after moment of transcendence, like the heavens opening up above you — the cresting second half of “Harmonia’s Dream,” the twilit burst of the chorus in “I Don’t Wanna Wait,” the way the entirety of the title track is equally melancholic and euphoric, like the best of the Drugs’ music. Everything here is Granduciel at peak powers, vivid sonic details now compressed into songs no less intricate but streamlined for immediate, resounding impact.

In a year as fragmented as 2021 — one that staggered when we thought it might sprint — pop culture feels more atomized, like we are all still hanging on to the specific things we find our own solace in. Maybe there were less unifying blockbuster events. But something like I Don’t Live Here Anymore, with its longing for a recent past slipping into the rearview, was a worthy companion in a year when normalcy seemed within grasp but just not quite there. It’s the sort of album you can play over and over again, invited in by hooks and then comforted by a fellow traveler trying to figure out what in the hell is on the other side of all this. The way Granduciel makes it sound you can believe, if just for 50 minutes at a time, that there really is a light at the end of the tunnel, more colorful and vibrant and real than we could have hoped. —Ryan

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