Songs of Trauma, Fear and Triumph
The past year was awash in recorded music — not only the stuck-at-home recordings that musicians occupied themselves with when touring evaporated during the pandemic, but also many albums that had been made before the lockdowns but had been shelved in hopes of some return to normalcy. The albums that resonated most with me during 2021 were songs of reflection and revelation, often dealing with traumas and crises, transfigured through music.
1. Bomba Estéreo, ‘Deja’
The Colombian duo Bomba Estéreo released “Deja” as a series of EPs tied to the ancient elements: water, air, fire, earth. Each new one broadened an album that entwines folklore and electronics, personal yearning and planetary concerns. With Liliana Saumet’s tartly endearing singing and rapping and Simón Mejía’s meticulously kinetic productions, the songs dance through their fears. (Read our interview with Bomba Estéreo.)
2. Allison Russell, ‘Outside Child’
Allison Russell, the longtime frontwoman of Birds of Chicago, transforms a horrific childhood — she was abused by her stepfather — into songs of joyful survival. “I’m still rising, stronger for my pain and suffering,” she sings. Drawing on soul, country, folk and deep blues, she connects her own story to myth and metaphor, remembering the trauma yet decisively rising above it. (Read our interview with Allison Russell.)
3. Mon Laferte, ‘Seis’
Sometimes visitors can see what residents take for granted. Mon Laferte is from Chile, but she has been living for more than a decade in Mexico and has immersed herself in its music. On “Seis,” she wrote songs that draw deeply on regional Mexican traditions — mariachi, banda, ranchera, corrido, norteño — to sing, in a voice that can be teasing or furiously incendiary, about deep passions and equally deep betrayals. (Read our interview with Mon Laferte.)
4. The Weather Station, ‘Ignorance’
Tamara Lindeman, who writes songs and records as the Weather Station, surrounded herself with a jazzy, intuitive backup group for “Ignorance,” clearly aware of Joni Mitchell’s folk-jazz precedent. The rhythms are brisk and precise; winds, keyboards and guitars ricochet respectfully off her breathy vocal lines. She sings about impending disasters, romantic and environmental, and the widespread disregard for what’s clearly about to happen. (Read our interview with the Weather Station.)
5. Mdou Moctar, ‘Afrique Victime’
Mdou Moctar is a Tuareg guitarist born in Niger. Like Tinariwen, his band plugs North African rhythms and modal vamps into rock amplifiers and drums. But “Afrique Victime” further expands the sonic possibilities for Tuareg rock, from ambient meditation to psychedelic onslaught. Six-beat rhythms and skeins of guitar lines carry Moctar’s voice in songs that can be modest and introspective or unstoppably frenetic.
6. Julien Baker, ‘Little Oblivions’
“Beat myself until I’m bloody/And I’ll give you a ringside seat,” Julien Baker sings in one of the brave, ruthlessly self-indicting songs that fill “Little Oblivions,” an album about the toll of one person’s addictions on everyone around her. She played all the instruments herself, scaling her sound up to arena size and chiming like U2, even as she refuses herself any excuses or forgiveness. (Read our review of “Little Oblivions.”)
7. Black Midi, ‘Cavalcade’
The virtuosic British band Black Midi bristles in every direction: with jagged, skewed funk riffs; with pointed dissonances; with passages of Minimalistic, ominous suspense; with lyrics full of bitter disillusion. And then, just to keep things unsettled, come passages filled with tenderness and wonderment, only to plunge back into the fray. (Read our interview with Black Midi.)
8. Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Sour’
Olivia Rodrigo, now 18, fixates on a breakup with an adolescent’s obsessiveness on “Sour,” building on the audience she found as a cast member in Disney’s “High School Musical.” With Taylor Swift as a role model for craftsmanship, her songs are as neatly detailed as they are wounded, and the production whipsaws through styles — calm piano ballad, ethereal choir harmonies, fierce distorted guitars — to match every mood swing. (Read our review of “Sour” and watch her “Diary of a Song.”)
9. Esperanza Spalding, ‘Songwrights Apothecary Lab’
“Songwrights Apothecary Lab” was the bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding’s pandemic project; she consulted neuroscientists, music therapists and ethnomusicologists to devise music for healing, and an online user’s guide prescribes the purpose of each song. But the songs are equally effective off-label; they encompass meditations, serpentine jazz compositions, calm or turbulent improvisations, open-ended questions and sly bits of advice, the work of a graceful, perpetually questing mind. (Read our interview with Esperanza Spalding.)
10. Tyler, the Creator, ‘Call Me if You Get Lost’
A life of luxury can’t mollify Tyler, the Creator. He’s no longer the trolling provocateur he was a decade ago when he emerged with Odd Future, but he’s still intransigent and high-concept. After singing through most of his 2019 album, “Igor,” he’s back to rapping, now simulating a mixtape with DJ Drama as hypeman. In his deep voice, he raps about all he owns and all he can’t control — mostly romance — over his own dense, detailed productions, at once lush and abrasive. The album peaks with an eight-minute love-triangle saga, “Wichita”: a raw confession, cannily orchestrated. (Read our review of “Call Me if You Get Lost.”)
And here are another 15 deserving albums, alphabetically:
Arooj Aftab, “Vulture Prince”
Khaira Arby, “New York Live”
Billie Eilish, “Happier Than Ever”
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra, “Promises”
Flock of Dimes, “Head of Roses”
Rhiannon Giddens with Franceso Turrisi, “They’re Calling Me Home”
Ka, “A Martyr’s Reward”
Valerie June, “The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers”
Arlo Parks, “Collapsed in Sunbeams”
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, “Raise the Roof”
Omar Sosa, “An East African Journey”
Jazmine Sullivan, “Heaux Tales”
Processing Pain, Blurring Boundaries
In the second year of global quasi-paralysis, what made the most sense were, once again, albums that felt like wombs and albums that felt like eruptions. When there was nowhere to go, literally or metaphorically, there were still places to retreat — to the gut, to history, to memory, to forgetting.
1. Mustafa, ‘When Smoke Rises’
Did you mourn this year? Were you broken in some way that was beyond words? Mustafa’s debut album was there with you, a startling, primal chronicle of relentless loss and the relentless grace required to navigate it. In moments when the ground buckled, this album was a cradle. (Read our interview with Mustafa.)
2. EST Gee, ‘Bigger Than Life or Death’
The latest in a string of excellent releases from the Louisville, Ky., rapper EST Gee, whose verses are refreshingly burly and brusque, and who tells stories sprinkled with surprisingly vivid left-field details. A bold back-to-basics statement, utterly free of filigree.
3. Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Sour’
The most important new pop star of the year delivered a debut album of poppy punk and punky pop that’s sometimes musically blistering and always emotionally blistered. A reminder that a failed relationship might leave you icy or bruised or drained, but in truth, it frees you to be emboldened. (Read our review of “Sour” and watch her “Diary of a Song.”)
4. Moneybagg Yo, ‘A Gangsta’s Pain’
Moneybagg Yo is a casually sassy rapper — a don of tsk-tsking, fluent in arched eyebrows, dispositionally blunt. This is his fourth major-label album, and it’s punchy and robustly musical. À la peak 2 Chainz, Moneybagg Yo boasts so long and so intently that he sounds fatigued, and in turn, uproarious.
5. PinkPantheress, ‘To Hell With It’
This is music about listening to music, about the secret places we burrow into in order to make sure our favorite songs can wash over us unimpeded. The singing is sweet and melancholic, and the production flirts with memory and time — stories of right now and back then, all told as one. (Read our review of “To Hell With It.”)
6. Summer Walker, ‘Still Over It’
The most emotionally direct vocalist working in R&B today, Summer Walker is a bracing listen. And this album, her third full-length release, is rawly vindictive and unconcerned with polish, the equivalent of a public-facing Instagram account that feels like a finsta. (Read our notebook on Summer Walker.)
7. Lana Del Rey, ‘Chemtrails Over the Country Club’
Lana Del Rey albums have become pop music’s most compelling ongoing saga about American loneliness and sadness. This, the better of her two albums this year, is alluringly arid and dreamlike. (Read our review of “Chemtrails Over the Country Club.”)
8. Tyler, the Creator, ‘Call Me if You Get Lost’
In which the rapper who introduced himself a decade ago as the genre’s great anarchist reveals something that was long clear to close observers: He reveres tradition. Brick-hard rhyme structures. Ostentatious taunts. Mixtape grit. All of it. (Read our review of “Call Me if You Get Lost.”)
9. Playboi Carti, ‘Whole Lotta Red’
Just an unyieldingly odd record. Notionally a cousin of mid-2010s SoundCloud rap, it also has echoes of 1980s industrial rock and also the glitchcore of the 2000s. It’s buoyant and psychedelic and totally destabilizing.
10. Kanye West, ‘Donda (Deluxe)’
“Donda” lives at the intersection of Kanye’s “Yeezus” era and his Jesus era. On the one hand, there’s scabrous, churning production that sets a chaotic mood. On the other, there are moments of intense searching, gasps for air amid the unrest. (Read our notebook on “Donda.”)
11. Rauw Alejandro, ‘Vice Versa’
Rauw Alejandro, the most imaginative meta-reggaeton Latin pop star, dabbles in drum ’n’ bass and baile funk on his second major-label album. But the star is his hypertreated voice, which is synthetically sweet and appealingly lush, almost to the point of delightful suffocation. (Read our review of “Vice Versa.”)
12. Doja Cat, ‘Planet Her’
Outlandish, eccentric, lustrous, mercenarily maximalist pop from the sing-rapper with the richest and keenest pop ear not named Drake.
13. Chloe Moriondo, ‘Blood Bunny’
Openhearted and effortlessly catchy indie punk-pop about lovelorn confusion and beginning to figure out you’re too cool for that. (Read our notebook on Chloe Moriondo.)
14. Kidd G, ‘Down Home Boy’
Why yes, those are Juice WRLD cadences in the singing on the year’s best country debut album. (Read our interview with Kidd G.)
15. The Armed, ‘Ultrapop’
Shrieking sheets of nervy noise — a battering ram.
16. Carly Pearce, ’29: Written in Stone’
A brief marriage, a messy divorce, a helluva album.
17. Yeat, ‘4L’
If “Whole Lotta Red” is too coherent for you, try Yeat.
18. Conway the Machine, ‘La Maquina’
A cold, cold, cold growl of a classic-minded hip-hop album.
19. Farruko, ‘La 167’
“Pepas” is here, along with a confidently expansive range of reggaeton styles.
20. Mickey Guyton, ‘Remember Her Name’
A pop-country winner that feels both universal and singular. (Read our interview with Mickey Guyton.)
… and 20 more albums for a more well-rounded year.
42 Dugg, “Free Dem Boyz”
Gracie Abrams, “This Is What It Feels Like”
Jay Bahd, “Return of Okomfo Anokye”
Benny the Butcher and Harry Fraud, “The Plugs I Met 2”
Ivan Cornejo, “Alma Vacía”
Jhay Cortez, “Timelezz”
Dave, “We’re All Alone in This Together”
Drake, “Certified Lover Boy”
Halsey, “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power”
Cody Johnson, “Human the Double Album”
NCT 127, “Sticker”
RXK Nephew, “Crack Dreams”
Spirit of the Beehive, “Entertainment, Death”
Don Toliver, “Life of a Don”
Rod Wave, “SoulFly”
Tion Wayne, “Green With Envy”
Wiki, “Half God”
Young Thug, “Punk”
Opening Up Hearts and Minds
In an emotionally hung over year when so many people were trying to process loss — of loved ones, of charred or flooded homes, of the world as we once knew it — some of the best music offered an opportunity to slow down and reconnect with feelings we may have rushed right by before truly acknowledging. Sometimes we just needed a voice to capture and echo the absurdity all around us, but other times records gave us a way of experiencing nothing less than mass catharsis.
1. Adele, ‘30’
It takes a certain kind of record to make me want to quote Rumi, but Adele really killed this, so let me say: “You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.”
Adele has been our mass-cultural bard of heartbreak for the past decade, but in her music — save for the handful of instant-classic ballads scattered across her discography — I did not really get the sense that she was truly open in all the terror and glory that implies. Then she turned 30. “I’m so afraid but I’m open wide,” she sings on the divine “To Be Loved,” her imperial voice trembling but assured. Most breakup albums are full of anger, scorn, and blame, but this one is remarkably self-directed, a grown woman making a deeply considered choice to leap into the void and break her own heart wide apart. “I took some bad turns that I am owning,” she sings, audibly italicizing that last phrase, as if the preceding 10 tracks in all their startling honesty hadn’t already made that clear.
On “19,” “21,” and “25,” Adele acted wise beyond her years: “We both know we ain’t kids no more,” she chided an ex on an album about being in her mid-20s, which also included a world-wearied number called “When We Were Young.” “30” refreshingly winds back the clock and finds her admitting that all along she was “just a child, didn’t get the chance to feel the world around” her. But now she sings like a mature woman who knows there’s still plenty of time to get wine-drunk on the everyday wonders of her own freedom, to break her heart open again and again in her newly omnivorous and sonically eclectic songs. This, at last, is Adele living up to her promise, pop majesty at the highest count. (Read our review of “30.”)
2. Tyler, The Creator, ‘Call Me if You Get Lost’
He’s still on the boat! Tyler has never sounded this breezy yet in control, but for all the luxurious braggadocio, there’s a darker undercurrent at work, too. “I remembered I was rich so I bought me some new emotions,” he raps at the beginning of the album; by the stunning penultimate track, the heart-tugging epic “Wilshire,” he’ll have to admit that’s impossible. Full of playful reflections on his past (“I was canceled before canceled was with Twitter fingers”) and auspicious blessings for his future, “Call Me” finds Tyler dropping a stone into that murky blue and discovering unexplored new depths. (Read our review of “Call Me if You Get Lost.”)
3. Snail Mail, ‘Valentine’
Lindsey Jordan begs, bargains and finally accepts the pain of heartache in this searing song cycle that further establishes her as one of indie rock’s brightest young stars. There’s a raw immediacy to these 10 songs that make them almost feel hot to the touch — the thrashing title track, the keening acoustic ballad “Light Blue,” even the slinky, synth-driven vamp “Ben Franklin.” Her nimble guitar work highlights a sharp ear for off-kilter melody, but at the core of “Valentine” is Jordan’s passionately hoarse voice, lungs filled to the brim with sound and fury. (Read our review of “Valentine.”)
4. Jazmine Sullivan, ‘Heaux Tales’
The chatty, candid interstitials woven through this wonderful album play out like an adult reunion of those young girls in the classroom from “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” — now grown women swapping secrets, recollections and hard-earned wisdom. “Heaux Tales” is a prismatic, multiperspective snapshot of female desire in the 21st century, enlivened by the testimonies of friends like Ari Lennox and H.E.R. but made cohesive by the soulfully versatile voice of Jazmine Sullivan. She breathes life into a spectrum of emotions, from the sassy assertion of “Pick Up Your Feelings” to the naked yearning of “The Other Side,” proving that it would be too limiting to choose between being a hard rock or a gem. Aren’t we all a little bit of both? (Read our review of “Heaux Tales.”)
5. Illuminati Hotties, ‘Let Me Do One More’
The indie producer turned surprisingly ebullient frontperson Sarah Tudzin is a personable and occasionally hilarious guide through the surreal ruins of late capitalism. “You think I wanna be a part of every self-appointed start-up?” she seethes in a punky, cartoonish voice, but a few songs later she’s exhausted enough to sound resigned to inevitable compromise: “The corner store is selling spit, bottled up for profit,” she sighs, “can’t believe I’m buying it.” Still, Tudzin’s songs glow with the possibility of human intimacy amid all the rubble, and they show off her mastery of so many different genres that by the end of the record, it seems like there’s no ceiling to her talent as both a producer and a finger-on-the-pulse songwriter. (Read our interview with Illuminati Hotties.)
6. Olivia Rodrigo, ‘Sour’
Hell hath no fury like a young woman out to prove she’s no one-hit wonder. From the opening guitar-crunch of the Zoomer primal scream that is “Brutal,” Olivia Rodrigo proves there’s so much more to her than could be expressed even in a song as exquisitely expressive as her seismic smash “Drivers License.” Rodrigo fashions teen-girl sarcasm into a lethal weapon on the dream-pop “Deja Vu,” rails against the Instagram industrial complex on the barbed social critique “Jealousy, Jealousy” and transforms a sample of one of her idol Taylor Swift’s sweetest love songs into a tear-streaked heartbreaker on “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back.” If it feels comparatively weak on the back end, that’s only because the first half of this album is probably the most impressive six-song run anybody put together this year. (Read our review of “Sour” and watch her “Diary of a Song.”)
7. The Weather Station, ‘Ignorance’
How do you make music about climate change without it sounding too didactic and abstract? Tamara Lindeman, the Canadian musician who records as the Weather Station, came up with a winning solution on her stirring album “Ignorance,” which finds her singing elegiac love songs to a dying planet. The graceful melancholy of “Tried to Tell You” surveys the natural beauty we’ve been too numb to mourn, while the sparse, jazzy “Robber” is a kind of musical tone-poem about large-scale corporate destruction. With her nimble voice — sometimes high and fluttery, other times earthy and low — and evocative lyricism, the songs of “Ignorance” animate, as one of her bandmates puts it, “the emotional side of climate change,” employing music’s depth of feeling to ignite political consciousness. (Read our interview with the Weather Station.)
8. Low, ‘Hey What’
If only every band could sound this adventurous 30 years into existence. As their eerily heartfelt harmonies cut through with rhythmic blurts of electronic noise, Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk sound, quite literally, like ghosts in the machine, imbuing vast, steely soundscapes with a disarming beauty. Following the sonic reinvention of the stunning 2018 album “Double Negative,” the Duluth band have continued to frame human yearning amid a churning and apocalyptic backdrop, with career-best songs like “Disappearing” and “Days Like These” capturing both the difficulty and the necessity of finding light in a dark age.
9. Lucy Dacus, ‘Home Video’
Lucy Dacus’s wrenching third studio album is as much an achievement of memoir as it is of songwriting, a vividly conjured coming-of-age story so personal that she used her own teenage diaries for research. “In the summer of ’07, I was sure I’d go to heaven,” she sings on “VBS” (as in, Vacation Bible School), before a gradual and all-consuming doubt begins to creep in. By the final song, when a friend tells her she’s afraid that their desires have rendered them “cursed,” Dacus responds, “So what?” As thoughtfully crafted as a collection of short stories, “Home Video” achingly chronicles the tale of a young person who loses her religion but in the process gains autonomy, a sense of identity and the glorious strength to tell her own truths in song. (Read T magazine’s interview with Lucy Dacus.)
10. Dry Cleaning, ‘New Long Leg’
“Are there some kind of reverse platform shoes that make you go into the ground more?” the ever-droll Florence Shaw asks, one of many absurdist yet somehow relatable philosophical questions she poses on the English post-punk band Dry Cleaning’s singular debut album. The instrumentation around Shaw swells like a sudden squall, but her deadpan, spoken-word musings — a mixture of found text, overheard chitchat and offbeat poetry — are the eye of the storm, remaining steady and strangely unperturbed in all kinds of weather.
11. Billie Eilish, ‘Happier Than Ever’
No record grew on me more this year than Billie Eilish’s patient and personal sophomore effort, which shuns repeat-the-formula predictability and unfolds at its own unhurried pace. It’s somehow even quieter than her sumptuously ASMR-triggering debut, until those sudden moments when it isn’t — as on the corrosive conclusion to the Nine-Inch-Nails-like “NDA,” or the fireworks display of pent-up frustration that rips open the title track. Exquisitely sequenced, this is a rare pop album that doesn’t show all its cards right away, but instead saves its strongest material for the end, building toward a satisfying finale and a hint at the potential versatility of her future. (Read our review of “Happier Than Ever.”)
12. Mdou Moctar, ‘Afrique Victime’
The fluid and incandescent playing of the Tuareg guitar hero Mdou Moctar transcends borders, seamlessly fusing Western psychedelia with North African desert blues. “Afrique Victime,” his strongest and most focused record to date, showcases not only his quicksilver fingerwork but his innate gift for melody and songcraft, proving in every one of these nine blazing tracks that shredding is a universal language.
13. Bitchin Bajas, ‘Switched on Ra’
This shouldn’t work, or at least not nearly as well as it does: A drone synth outfit tackling the otherworldly compositions and complex harmonies of cosmic jazz pioneer Sun Ra? But Chicago’s Bitchin Bajas approach the task with equal parts reverence and playfulness, assembling an Arkestra of 19 different analog synths and in the process creating a prolonged musical meditation on time, space and the meaning of retrofuturism. The vibes are exquisite, and the whole thing sounds like the Muzak that would play in an intergalactic portal’s waiting room.
14. Remi Wolf, ‘Juno’
Here’s to anyone who takes a technically skilled voice and chooses to do something delectably weird with it. The Palo Alto native Remi Wolf’s pipes are strong enough to have propelled her to Hollywood on the 2014 season of “American Idol,” but she’s since carved out a much less conventional path, making bold, psychedelic pop that bursts at the seams with ideas, melodies and truly wild wordplay (“I love my family intrinsically, like Anthony Kiedis,” she sings, which — sure!). On “Juno,” one of the most promising debut albums of the year, Wolf throws everything she’s got at the wall — and a surprisingly high percentage of it actually sticks. (Read our interview with Remi Wolf.)
Some runners-up worth mentioning:
Flock of Dimes, “Head of Roses”
Lana Del Rey, “Chemtrails Over the Country Club”/“Blue Banisters”
Halsey, “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power”
Palberta, “Palberta 5000”/Lily Konigsberg, “Lily We Need to Talk Now”