As the world slowly reopened after — well, amid — the pandemic, musicians naturally moved beyond themselves this year to ponder ideas of identity and community.
The best found deep connections between the private and the universal — not to mention among the eras and styles that digital streaming continues to bring closer together.
1. Jazmine Sullivan, "Heaux Tales"
Years after leaving fans wondering whether she might be finished with music, the R&B star returned in 2021 with an album as much about listening as about singing: A moving and witty blend of songs and spoken testimonials from Sullivan's friends and family, "Heaux Tales" — like Beyoncé's "Lemonade" — uses personal narratives to illuminate a larger story about Black women's lives.
2. Olivia Rodrigo, "Sour"
Call it "All Too Well (34 Minute Version)." On her instant-smash debut, pop's most talented new songwriter adapts the many lessons she's learned from her idol Taylor Swift for an age when any teenager's diary is open to likes and quote tweets.
3. Rostam, "Changephobia"
With echoes of Chet Baker and Charlie Parker in his head — and thoughts of long-sought institutional change on his mind — the former Vampire Weekend member strikes a tricky balance of nostalgia and idealism.
4. Lil Nas X, "Montero"
Turns out the "X" marks the spot where trap, pop-punk and emo-folk meet. What's more impressive than Nas' ease with genre, though, is the emotional bandwidth of a kid who started expressing himself through music only because his first attempt became the biggest hit of all time.
5. Lana Del Rey, "Chemtrails Over the Country Club"
The stronger of Del Rey's two 2021 LPs dreams of an escape from celebrity as vividly as the singer once yearned to find a place among the glitterati: Heed the way she almost-rhymes "I left Calabasas" with "The cameras have flashes" with "They cause the car crashes."
6. Tyler, the Creator, "Call Me If You Get Lost"
Framed as a jump-cutting mixtape complete with color commentary by DJ Drama, the troublemaking L.A. rapper's latest lashes together a wild array of sounds and textures as he boasts of traveling the world in the highest of style. Yet the most striking cut sticks closest to home: "Wilshire," an eight-minute monologue in which Tyler carefully mulls his involvement with the lover of a close friend.
7. Adele, "30"
"I'll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart," Adele sings at the beginning of "30" — a beguilingly theatrical way to lift the curtain on an album about what happens to a real life — to three real lives — when the romance at the center of a family dies.
8. Doja Cat, "Planet Her"
Was it the year's weirdest pop record or the year's catchiest? The funniest or the raunchiest? A pop record at all or in fact a very hard rap one? Yes, yes, yes.
9. Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, "The Marfa Tapes"
Country stars love to talk about going back to their roots; few ever commit to the gambit as fully as Lambert does on this radically unvarnished set of acoustic tunes recorded with a couple of friends (and a couple of microphones) around a campfire in the West Texas desert.
10. Vince Staples, "Vince Staples"
Never using more words than he needs to — an approach mirrored in Kenny Beats' glassy minimalist-funk production — the deadpan-absurdist Long Beach MC takes up casual violence and come-up paranoia on an album as merciless as an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
Plus 10 more not to be missed:
Drake, "Certified Lover Boy"
Lucy Dacus, "Home Video"
Bo Burnham, "Inside (the Songs)"
Billie Eilish, "Happier Than Ever"
Summer Walker, "Still Over It"
Brockhampton, "Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine"
Chloe Moriondo, "Blood Bunny"
John Mayer, "Sob Rock"
Faye Webster, "I Know I'm Funny Haha"
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