The 50 best albums of 2021


If the current year ending was a dance, it would be a hesitant shuffle, hesitant steps towards – or hey, maybe far from? – an uncertain future. Maybe that’s why, when we sat down together to discuss the albums we loved the most in 2021, NPR Music staff and contributors found themselves drawn to albums by breakthrough artists. , advancing with clarity, without retreating before falling obstacles. in their own way. Our top 50 list of the year is topped with an album that was second to none in concept, songwriting, or performance, but had so much great company. All over this list you’ll find the thrill of artistic revelation, with musicians finding themselves wanting something new to come true. There is a lot of fun, but little escape. A lot of these albums are full of great songs, but they’re not snacks. Even when they’re light, they’re composed, with a sense of purpose. It’s the food. Look around you. You will find something invigorating to prepare you for the road ahead.

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40.

Yasmine williams

Urban driftwood

By at least one measure, Yasmin Williams is the biggest winner of the Tiny Desk contest to date. The fingerstyle guitarist didn’t claim the crown when she submitted a video in 2018, but with her second effort, Urban driftwood, sitting at No.40 on this list, she released the highest ranked album by all contestants, winner or loser. (Another attendee Anjimile released our 48th favorite album of 2020.) The collection of American magic more than lives up to the spectacle of the Virginia native’s live performances, which often feature Williams playing the frets of his acoustic guitar. like a piano and his body like a drum. The album really comes to life on stereo headphones, where its delicate arpeggios spill over the sound field like pixie dust. —Otis Hart


39.

MIKE

Disco!

MIKE doesn’t rap until he’s bleeding diary entries. With lo-fi calligraphy that reads like a perfectly smudged print, it makes you lean in to listen. And he’s never the type to waste a well-deserved note of privacy. Every year he seems to drop the best confessional of his life, garnering more critical fanfare than his previous outing. Disco! is no exception, but even for MIKE it seems exceptional. The most real shhh he has ever written finds him processing the pain of his mother’s shifting over her wispy melodic curls while savoring the kind of self-awareness that only comes as a balm after years of careful self-examination. –Rodney Carmichael


38.

My Laferté

SEIS

The most delightful parts of any Mon Laferte song are the moments when it unleashes its voice, its galvanic vibrato rounding up the notes as if it consumes them completely. It’s an intensity that explodes in a crescendo and burns slowly in silence. At SEIS, written at her home in Tepoztlán, where Chavela Vargas spent her later years, Laferte harnesses this intensity to honor regional Mexican music with rancheras, corridos, boleros and other styles that she has studied since she graduated. left Chile in 2007. From the ranchera “Se Me Va a Quemar el Corazón” which opens the album in its banda version with in closing La Arrolladora Banda el Limón by René Camacho, SEIS is the sound of a heart aflame with sorrow, love, resistance and deep gratitude. —Stefanie Fernandez


37.

Amythyst Kiah

Suspicious + strange

Amythyst Kiah’s musical existence was forked, alternately devoted to thinking alternative rock or accomplished updates to old-school blues and piedmont styles, until she found a way to combine these interests. in the strangely immersive world of Suspicious + strange, a major contribution to the side-by-side displays of artistic agency and individuality that black women have performed in the country and roots scenes this year. In her songwriting, Kiah draws on folk and country-blues forms, but uses them in non-traditional ways, mapping her anguished inner life with language that is both phantasmal and visceral. She portrays nightmares of abandonment with images that cast exaggerated macabre shadows and undulating arrangements whose rhythms and textures orient her music towards surrealism. Up front is his voice; she sings with the melancholy consciousness of someone who has gone through introversion on the path to Mighty Resonance. —Jewly Hight, WNXP


36.

Spelling

The spinning wheel

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Ursula K. Leguin once compared truth to a pearl, its brilliance enhanced or diminished by the imaginative power of the woman who cultivates, protects and wears it. On her third album as Spellling, Bay Area magician Chrystia Cabral uses the language of myth, magic and fantasy to illuminate her reality as an empathetic artist negotiating the realities of a world on fire. in several ways. Trading the somber languor of previous synth-based sets for the dappled expanses of pop orchestra, Cabral finds power in the language of ancestors like Minnie Riperton and Kate Bush while staying true to his own bustle and sense of meaning. joy. “I am in a permanent revolution”, she cries, and the phrase – like the tapestry of this album – is joyfully fantastic, deeply personal and decidedly political. The truth shines through his wild tales. —Ann Powers


35.

Moor Mother

Black Air Encyclopedia

In 1969, historian John Henrik Clarke and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax produced Black Air Encyclopedia, an ambitious documentation of the history of the African diaspora. For her latest release, Moor Mother is producing her own account of Black history, culture, and resistance that puts black people at the center. As a work of art, Moor Mother’s album is an enthralling lecture of poetry and intoxicating electronic soundscapes. As a work of cultural scholarship, it is a heart-wrenching journey through time through the ancient and ever-changing continuum of black life. —John Morrison, WXPN


34.

Emily D’Angelo

enargeia

Mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo may be prized for singing Mozart and Handel in the world’s greatest operas, but for her debut album she abandoned the standard repertoire of music composed only by women through nine centuries. It’s a bold move that paid off in one of the most striking and beautiful vocal albums in recent memory. D’Angelo’s voice, of creamy musculature, is supported by a chamber orchestra, string quartet and electronic instruments. The album is based on the old but timeless sounds of Hildegard von Bingen, and takes off with recent works by Missy Mazzoli, Sarah Kirkland Snider and Icelandic Hildur Guðnadóttir. —Tom Huizenga


33.

James brandon lewis

Jesup Wagon

Fire and earth have always cohabited in the muscular cry of James Brandon Lewis’ tenor saxophone. But on this tumultuous and captivating album – inspired by the Jesup Agricultural Wagon, a mobile classroom designed by George Washington Carver, the visionary scientist at the Tuskegee Institute, more than a century ago – he puts his sound at the service of the most high. Joined by a sage (William Parker, on bass and gimbri) and a group of peers (like Kirk Knuffke, on cornet), Lewis forged a new classic just from the improvised avant-garde. —Nate Chinen, WBGO


32.

Hiatus Kaiyote

Valiant mood

Grammy nominees Valiant mood announces the triumphant return of Hiatus Kaiyote after a period of deeply personal struggles and victories. The album is packed with introspection, reverence, fun and gratitude, all perfectly placed in the musical magic that fans eagerly await from the band. Their sound continues to evolve, and love and mutual trust is revealed in the depth of writing and production. From the voice of Nai Palm to an arrangement by Arthur Verocai to the sounds of the Brazilian rainforest, I constantly discover something new with every listening and marvel at the sonic layering. —Nikki Birch


31.

Doja cat

Planet her

Doja Cat put something in Planet her. Following the massive commercial success of 2019 Hot pink, the often viral rapper-singer has capitalized on her global visibility to reinvent the role of pop star. A shapeshifter, she dons and changes skin, as a mumbling rapper, Afrobeat star, bubblegum-sweet crooner, pretentious beat poet and, above all, a hit-listening producer. At Planet her, Doja soars through the interstices of pop, R&B and hip-hop, a captain exploring the depth of the genre, each track on the album is a reflection of a different sound that she has subverted and brought back to share with the Earth. The standout tracks “Get Into It (Yuh)” – a direct tribute to Nicki Minaj – and the deluxe edition “Tonight” (with the 90s hip-hop mainstay) underscore Doja’s unabashed admiration for women who made room for him as a genre-merging pop-rap-star with an impressive ability to innovate new sounds. —The Tesha Harris



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