Best Music of 2021: Staff Picks
Here at Rolling Stone, we listen to a lot of new music every year — and we all have our own distinct perspectives and interests when we listen. The choices on these personal Top 10s range from commercial blockbusters and critical favorites like Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour, Doja Cat’s Planet Her, Lil Nas X’s Montero, and Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales to individual highlights from a delightfully wide spectrum of genres, continents, and scenes. Read on for a glimpse of the many sounds that filled the headphones of more than 25 Rolling Stone staffers in 2021.
Sage Anderson, Staff Writer
Even though my Spotify Wrapped was practically taunting me with “Are ya reelin’ in the years?” (Yacht Rock was my fifth most-listened genre), 2021 was more than just a time for me to look back on the sea-salt-tinged, sultry sounds of Seventies soft rock that have gotten me through so many summers. Much to the chagrin of my asshole friends who claim I should just set my location to “Margaritaville” on Twitter, I did, in fact, listen to new music this year. It was a great year for funk and nu-disco, as Silk Sonic’s “An Evening With Silk Sonic” continued to keep things light and breezy through the ups and downs of a “post-pandemic” summer (heavy on the air quotes). Certified funklordz Chromeo, who themselves wrote a Covid banger EP for the ages in 2020, Quarantine Casanova,” returned to give us a life-of-the-party live album with rhythm guitar solos galore and ample amounts of talk-box vocals. Electronic music saw some of its boldest and most creative releases in recent years, from Porter Robinson’s Nurture to Starcadian’s epic Radio Galaxy, which paints a picture of a cyberpunk society on the brink of…something. It’s a little vague and Fifth Element-y on world-building specifics, but damn if the scope of this album isn’t ambitious. Who says synth operas are dead? Across the ocean, I rejoiced at the release of an entire collection of B-sides from the world’s most famous pop group you’ve never heard of, Arashi (who beat out Taylor Swift and BTS in international album sales in 2019 — really, look it up). They recently disbanded after 20 years, but I implore, no, demand you retrospectively check out their work so that high school me can feel vindication about preferring J-pop to K-pop. Official HIGE DANdism, meanwhile, crafted an entire record that sounds made up of album-openers and closers, in the best way possible. This was a year when music stepped out into the sun, boisterous, joyful, with jams meant to be belted whenever you’re ready to grab the karaoke mic again.
Jonathan Bernstein, Research Editor
“Too much pain,” Young M.A. offers on her second LP, “could barely notice the beauty in things.” Not only did these albums provide comfort and commiseration, they also taught me new ways to listen, to notice the plentiful beauty in a fraction of the countless under-appreciated records from the past 12 months. Still, so many of these collections are centered, in some large part, around grief: Toronto singer-songwriter Mustafa’s arresting album-length meditation on mourning, Strand of Oaks’ touching tribute to the late John Prine (“Somewhere in Chicago”), and Cedric Burnside’s reckoning with a world that no longer included his mother (“The World Can Be So Cold”). Other albums, meanwhile, were unexpected reservoirs of joy: See Melissa Carper’s playful Patsy Cline re-staging in Daddy’s Country Gold, or the thrill of the lost 50-year old recording from the Meters’ Leo Nocentelli. Many of these records, it turns out, end with a message of cautious hope — whether it’s Margo Cilker coming to terms with her own mortality (“Wine in the World”), Allison Russell bursting through the clouds of her own trauma (“Joyful Motherfuckers”), or the Felice Brothers, in their best album in a decade-plus, offering up a simple four-word prayer: “We shall live again.”
Jon Blistein, Staff Writer
I’ve always had an outsized soft spot for maximalism — or dare I say, excess — in music, and looking at my list this year I see records that overwhelmed me. Even ostensible exceptions like Chubby and the Gang’s The Mutt’s Nuts, Illuminati Hotties’ Let Me Do One More, and Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg, all punk records to their core, are lyrically rich and packed with intricate instrumental work. Speaking of intricate instrumental work, few records were as dazzling and dense as Mdou Moctar’s latest six-string opus, Afrique Victime, or Theon Cross’ stunning Intra-I, an album that explored a whole swath of Afro-Diaspora music with just a single instrument: the tuba. Magdalena Bay’s Mercurial World and Indigo de Souza’s Any Shape You Take delivered pristine pop songcraft and lush soundscapes, while Tyler, the Creator’s Call Me If You Get Lost balanced raw, lovelorn introspection with delightfully over-the-top odes to the joys of travel (plus plenty of full-throated proclamations from the one and only DJ Drama). Lastly, the Weather Station’s Ignorance was a riveting full-band revelation (complete with two drummers, which I’m always a sucker for), and Dave’s We’re All Alone in This Together was an expansive, emotional concept record from a young MC who can land knock-out punchlines one moment and unpack personal and geo-political traumas the next. Last year, in lockdown, I found myself drawn to records that I felt took me somewhere; in 2021, as the world kinda, sorta started opening up, I think I wanted to be more present, and just relish and bask in sound.
Rick Carp, Research Editor
2021 had a lot of great stuff, and it was hard to cut down this list to 10 albums. There was a cheesy Twitter thread a few weeks back about how much better music was in the 1990s, which is fair as a point of view, but silly to proclaim. I listened to as many records as I could this year and…none were bad. I didn’t hear anything that I disliked at all! (The guy who tweeted that ain’t even trying.) The releases listed above don’t have any particular order; I got a car in April, and a lot of these were played while driving around like back in high school. With apologies to the editors, I’ll add a shout-out to all the other bands with fun releases, like Portrayal of Guilt, Hawak, Terminal Bliss, Succumb, Home Is Where, Hazing Over, Tower 7, Origami Angel, Infinity Land, Taking Meds, Regional Justice Center, Rid of Me, to name just a few. It was nice to be back at shows with everyone again. Please stay healthy and safe, and I’ll see ya out there.
Tim Chan, Director of Products and Commerce
Forget protest anthems or hyper-intellectual music that makes us think: In 2021, all we wanted was music that made us feel. After a year of quarantine and uncertainty, we gravitated towards albums that were at once familiar and nostalgic (and, in the case of Taylor Swift, an actual re-working of a previously-released album). These were albums that made us laugh, dance, ugly-cry, and sing along at the top of our lungs, whether we were belting out Olivia Rodrigo songs at karaoke or dissecting Drake lyrics over drinks with friends. These albums weren’t overly complicated or overwrought, and that’s exactly why we loved them. With everything feeling more and more unpredictable these days, we reached for these albums because we knew we would always find a song to connect to — and a song to make us feel good.
Mankaprr Conteh, Staff Writer
In 2021, I lived in these albums. As my one-year anniversary at Rolling Stone approaches, I realize the albums I spent the most time with were those I burrowed inside of in this role (or, in the case of Heaux Tales, my previous one). All this music sucked me in on first listen — from the scenic walk-of-shame intro to Jazmine Sullivan’s EP to the passive-aggressive voicemail that kicks off “Good Days” co-producer Nascent’s album. Sharing my passion for these projects on this platform meant I had to really figure out why I loved them. So, over and over again, I whined in my kitchen to the afro-rap perfection of Blaqbonez’s Sex Over Love and contemplated grief and friendship while strewn across my couch to Mustafa’s folky When Smoke Rises. For months, I teetered between deciphering and dancing to Isaiah Rashad’s The House is Burning; I reacquainted myself with my teenage angst to Ayra Starr’s 19 & Dangerous. As I joyfully, persistently returned to these albums, they started out as work and soon became homes.
Jon Dolan, Reviews Editor
Adult Mom’s Stevie Knipe writes R.E.M.-pretty songs about the casually seismic moments that shape memory and define our future; I learned a little something about life and how to live it every time I put Driver on. Dry Cleaning’s killer debut was a mordant guitar record and a mordant comedy record at the same time. Courtney Barnett made my favorite pandemic-influenced record, a heartwarming conversational deepthink on the existential varieties of wading through everyday emptiness while we wait for things to get moving again. Olivia Rodrigo was 2021’s breakout pop powerhouse; when you start your Top 40 takeover LP asking “Where’s my fucking teenage dream?” over guitars that sound like Elastica, you are definitely doing it right. Madlib’s Sound Ancestors was the most enveloping crate-digger headtrip in his 20-plus year run (big shout out to that Young Marble Giants sample on “Dirtknock”). Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee was beautiful, strangem and resilient. New Orleans R&B outlier Dawn Richard summoned decades of grooves and a lifetime of ambition. Joeboy’s glistening Afrobeats-pop was everything his album’s title advertised. Some of the best moments on Cimefunk’s El Alimento were like wandering into some gorgeously decaying old parquet-floor Havana ballroom and encountering a hot hip-hop/funk band. Ducks Ltd sounded like the Chills mixed with the Feelies mixed with the Wedding Present mixed with the Bats, a sliver of rock history that’s a personal sweet spot for me, and in a year like this a little private comfort went a long way.
Brenna Ehrlich, Senior News Editor
For me, 2021 was all about digging into music of all genres — whatever that means these days. From the sleazy Seventies vibe of St. Vincent’s latest to Low’s most acerbic album yet to the almost undefinable beauty of Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders’ link-up, this year saw artists stretching their artistic muscles more than ever. Plus, Turnstile brought hardcore to the dance floor, GBV dropped their best album since Alien Lanes, and Girl in Red broke out with her stellar debut. Here’s to more experimentation in 2022.
Toby Fox, Deputy Art Director
Note: I’m handing off my list to my daughter, Emily Barkin. She’s the production director at Ithaca College’s internet-only radio station, VIC Radio. I think she’s got the goods.
If 2020 felt relatively quiet because of the pandemic, 2021 has been a fantastic year for new music. I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited for an album’s release as I was for Snail Mail’s Valentine. Her title track hooked me with her raspy vocals and blaring guitar riffs; I heard influences from Paramore to Bon Iver on the rest of the album, and I’m not sure anyone pulled off a more impressive combination of indie rock and acoustic ballads as she did on this album. This was also a big year for the new class of indie stars, with Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee and Lucy Dacus’s Home Video both making big impressions. I found lots to love in hip-hop and post-punk, too: Call Me If You Get Lost and Sometimes I Might Be Introvert (which I can’t even believe I waited until the end of the year to listen to!), as well as Dry Cleaning’s New Long Leg and Squid’s Bright Green Field, were among my favorites this year.
Jon Freeman, RS Country Deputy Editor
The first time I got on an airplane in 2021 after nearly two years of feeling stuck in place, I went to New Orleans. Dawn Richard had been stoking my appetite for the sensory delights and rhythms of the Crescent City with her album Second Line, a thrilling, thumping mix of house beats, bounce, and R&B that traced family movements around Louisiana. I play it anytime I start to feel that longing to get out of town, which is to say, at least once a week. Other kinds of journeys were also deeply meaningful to me this year: Allison Russell’s harrowing escape from abuse in Outside Child, Carly Pearce’s odyssey of grief and growing up on 29, and the duo Low’s explorations of spirituality and sound frontiers on Hey What. Meanwhile, Arlo Parks offered an empathetic point of view for friends with “eyes like Robert Smith” and their struggles; Jazmine Sullivan and Morgan Wade exorcised the pain of being brokenhearted and offered new perspectives on desire; and Yola and Lil Nas X made bold declarations of their own agency. Back on the idea of travel, Niger singer-guitarist Mdou Moctar took the hypnotic sounds of Saharan Africa and sent them into the cosmos with his blinding, awe-inspiring playing on Afrique Victime. If I close my eyes while the incendiary title track plays at high volume, I can almost feel like I’m leaving this physical realm — one of the last places the airlines can’t take me.
Kory Grow, Senior Writer
When I look at my Top 10, I see reflections of the horror and hope that defined the past two years. It’s in the way Low brilliantly married their gorgeous, optimistic vocal harmonies to deafening noise on Hey What. It’s in Nick Cave crying out for a “Hand of God” on Carnage, Bruce Dickinson wailing about anger on Senjutsu, Sarah Mary Chadwick stumbling around her crippling depression on Me and Ennui. Then there’s the freedom of Mdou Moctar’s guitar playing, Shirley Manson’s delightful sarcasm, Marianne Faithfull’s moving recitations of John Keats and Lord Byron. Sometimes the worst times bring out the best in us.
Becca Higgins, Talent Producer (Twitch)
Toward the end of 2020, I found myself wrestling with some serious listening fatigue. Overexposure to the internet and the incessant noise of our pandemic world had left me feeling frustrated and uninspired. Until I met Cheekface. I remember listening to “Best Life” and “Don’t Get Hit by a Car” for the first time and feeling a huge wave of relief wash over my brain. Emphatically No is not only supremely fun and danceable, but it also invites listeners to have a good cathartic laugh at the carnival of horrors that is modern culture. That catharsis set the tone for my 2021 listening behavior by breaking through the frustration and stagnation and re-energizing my appetite for new music. If not for Cheekface, I’m not sure I would have been able to enjoy anything at all this year, let alone the other phenomenal records on this list. Big thanks to all of these artists for ushering us fans out of the 2020 doldrums in 2021.
Christian Hoard, Music Editor
Walking around New York City while listening to music very loud is one of life’s greatest pleasures. In 2021, I actually had somewhere to go, more often than 2020 at least. These are the albums that made me not want to get there: Mdou Moctar making a truly thrilling guitar record; PinkPantheress raiding dancefloors of the past with a spirit of earnest discovery and casual sophistication (and a Linkin Park sample); Mach-Hommy conjuring the grimy glory of East Coast rap’s past while charting a course for its future; Lainey Wilson becoming my new favorite country singer thanks to sharp songcraft and an even sharper voice…. I’m not sure Call Me If You Get Lost is Tyler’s best album, but it’s the one I’ve played the most, with something new to offer every listen in its kaleidoscopic production, offhandedly cutting self-introspection, one-liners, guests outdoing themselves, and left turns, all done with a sense of what my colleague Jeff Ihaza accurately called equanimity.
Joseph Hudak, RS Country Editor
Jesse Malin has been the gift that keeps on giving. During the lockdown phase of the pandemic, he kept me company with inspiring weekly livestreams and bits about Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone, and persevering in the modern world. The New York songwriter channeled that energy into Sad and Beautiful World in 2021, a double album that spoke to me on multiple levels. “Hey man, whatd’ya say?/I’m all fucked up in the USA,” Malin sings on the album closer “St. Christopher,” a refrain that is oh-so-’21. A different Christufa! saw me through the latter half of the year: Zopa, the band of The Sopranos star Michael Imperioli, delivered invigorating and hypnotic NYC guitar rock with La Dolce Vita. Back in Nashville, Dillon Warnek’s Now That It’s All Over was a rambunctious hoot, full of wry character studies about con artists and dead men. Elvie Shane’s Backslider was the mainstream country debut I didn’t know I needed. And Aaron Lee Tasjan’s self-confident LP gifted me swagger for days. “I got a feminine walk,” he boasted. “I got a million ways.” Same, my man, same.
Jeff Ihaza, Senior Music Editor
In 2021, I turned to music for conversation — or something approaching the feeling of connection. The club banger gave way to the emotional banger, suited for repeat listens in whatever form of confinement the latest phone notification has pushed us into now. Madlib’s near-opus Sound Ancestors, released on the earlier and slightly more optimistic side of the year, was like soaking in the wisdom of an elder. Dense in sound and feeling, the album has the kind of mystical quality that the year seems to demand. The same is true of the Sudanese-Canadian singer Mustafa’s majestic debut, When Smoke Rises. He delicately seeks out conversations with the divine. With patience and grace, Mustafa mourns the loss of friends senselessly killed in a pattern of violence that torments the Toronto neighborhood where he grew up. The result is a collection of what feel like hymns. They’re songs of mourning, but also songs rooted in hope, which couldn’t have been more necessary in the past year.
Meagan Jordan, Research Editor
Bob Marley was accurate when he proclaimed, on “Trenchtown Rock,” the “one good thing about music — when it hits, you feel no pain.” Much of the music released this year was a representation of who I’ve been and continue to grow into, although growth hurts. Jazmine Sullivan kicked off the year with an anthology of Black women’s experiences that were both relatable and like a conversation amongst elders who are transparent about their mistakes while giving loving advice to “get it together, bitch.” My gym favorites were between Wale’s Folarin II and the late Young Dolph’s Paper Route Illuminati. One puts me in the vibe of Black D.C., especially with the Go-Go hit “Jump In.” The other reminds me of my house party nights at my HBCU, when trap music was at an all-time high and Young Dolph affirmed our pockets to “Get Paid” and gave us warning in “Preach” to beware of people because they’re “shady.” 2021 was about change and evaluating change, which is emphasized in Summer Walker’s Still Over It and testified in Adele’s lived experience in 30. Although the year has come to an end, much of this music will carry through for generations. For one, Richer Than I Ever Been serves as an affirmation for me into the New Year. Long live music and rest in peace, Young Dolph.
Daniel Kreps, Staff Writer
Somehow, for me at least, a quote-unquote “comedy” album became the most essential listening of the Year 2 pandemic experience: Constantly glued to our devices, experiencing the nihilism of the 24-hour news cycle, Wikipedia wormholes, doomscrolling, human connection via social media and FaceTime, etc. Burnham’s Netflix special was a masterpiece, but I found myself constantly listening to the songs — which are really good songs, even the seemingly throwaway (and viral) ones about Jeff Bezos — without the visuals. Also getting me through 2021: Another late-career triumph from Low, Ye’s perfectly bloated Donda, and more misery via Nick Cave. Not on the list, but shout out to all those British bands — Squid, Black Midi, and Black Country, New Road — doing Beefheartian things.
Sacha Lecca, Deputy Photo Editor
In 2021 we realized that we’d be dealing with the pandemic for a long time to come and began finding ways to cope, to return to normal life despite the obvious hurdles. Artists managed to record and release music during lockdown (Idles; Nick Cave and Warren Ellis; Amyl and the Sniffers…) and eventually live shows came back to us (typically with proof of vax or showing negative tests). Some artists I’ve enjoyed for years dug deep and made records that shifted perceptions and revealed more than what we knew of them. Sloppy Jane went literally underground to record Madison in a West Virginia cave; Surfbort headed west to work with legendary producer Linda Perry; and Idles recorded my favorite album this year, Crawler, in lockdown with producer Kenny Beats at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath, England.
Other artists whose albums ended up on repeat include the Muckers, Squid, and Black Country, New Road (their frequent collaborators Black Midi had another album for me this year). Also, Geese, who put out their first album this year. Shout out to pals Native Sun and Glove for putting out amazing EPs.
John Lonsdale, Staff Writer
My year included so many changes — and, always, so much music — from the final leg of a cross-country move to finally getting to see friends and family again. Along the way, so many new albums (and a few old favorites) never stopped spinning. I drove along the coast listening to Kacey with the windows down, danced to “Solar Power,” and lost my voice singing “Happier Than Ever” with a crowd outdoors for the first time in far too long. They all, at some point, were there during the biggest moments over these last 12 months. 2021 might be coming to an end, but I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Julyssa Lopez, Staff Writer
2021 was a really transformative year for me: I became a mom, and spent most of my time in a tiny, 80-square foot nursery, feeling completely elated and completely exhausted. I looked for music with a lot of space, almost like lullabies for grown-ups, and found comfort in the muted intimacy on Grouper’s Shade, the bucolic fingerpicking on Yasmin Williams’ Urban Driftwood, the honesty of Ed Maverick’s songwriting on Eduardo, and the wide-open soundscapes on Mas Aya’s Máscaras. I was also dealing with the aftermath of a brutal labor experience (not to mention the emotions I think we were all going through after months of a devastating pandemic), so I was especially drawn to, and moved by, the powerful way Nite Jewel unpacked how women’s voices have been used to express grief and lament throughout history on her album No Sun. That’s not to say I didn’t love lots of things that were upbeat (Rauw Alejandro’s Vice Versa, Petrona Martinez’s Ancestras, C. Tangana’s El Madrileño, and Sofia Kourtesis’ Fresia Magdalena were some favorites), but these albums were the ones I went back to repeatedly.
Angie Martoccio, Associate Editor
I’ve never been a fruit person. Sure, I’ll eat a banana every once in a while, but blueberries absolutely disgust me, especially when they make a surprise cameo in dessert. Nonetheless, fruit came up in a lot of the records I loved this year, from the persimmons on the cover of Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee to the lyrics about pits on Lucy Dacus’ Home Video (for peaches, see “VBS”; for cherries, see “Partner in Crime”) to the strawberry ice cream Olivia Rodrigo reminisces about in “Deja Vu.” Even the album title Sour evokes acidic fruit — the exact taste of teenage heartbreak and what it feels like to get revenge in your cheerleader uniform. While that heartbreak seeps into all of these records, 2021 was still a good time. I stayed home a lot — and will probably continue to do so — but that doesn’t mean I didn’t dance around the kitchen in the refrigerator light.
Ethan Millman, Staff Writer
I could’ve easily written in Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee 10 times, given the sheer number of times I’ve listened to that record this year. It’s the best new music I’ve heard in several years, and it became an instant classic in my rotation. I think Jubilee is the best record to come out of 2021, and it isn’t particularly close. But we were spoiled with music in 2021. While much of my favorite music of 2020 had me looking in a more introspective direction, 2021’s music let me have more fun. And while I acknowledge my bias including the Black Keys here, my inner high-school self is happy seeing the duo come back to their roots playing groovy blues rhythms again.
Steven Pearl, Copy Editor
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, Joni Mitchell sang over 50 years ago, and getting back to live music (not to mention big yellow taxis) has been paradise, albeit just the faintest sliver of it, following 2020’s lockdowns. I skewed as much as ever to dancy alt-pop and soul this year, listening to bands from every continent north of Antarctica, and grooving, for the most part, to more kings than queens in the ever transmutable, pantheistic musicverse. Here are my top tracks, the ones I keep going back to, from my favorite albums of the year.
Kyle Rice, Senior Designer
2021 was a year filled with viral moments and soulful ballads. A mix of slow-paced tempos that framed narratives at the jump of verses, only to be rapidly overtaken by deep beats and unyielding lyrics. Ye’s blend of gospel hymns and tempos on Donda surged the hype crowd that lay dormant since Jesus is King in 2019. The seventh single, “Praise God,” found its own spotlight on TikTok, clipping his mother’s recitation of the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “Speech to the Young: Speech to the Progress-Toward.” The much anticipated second studio album by Billie Eilish also found solace in its production, balancing her coveted whispered vocals with a hymn from the work of composer Gustav Holst. “Smiling on him, she beareth him to the highest heaven with a yearning heart,” she sings, vocals stacked to somber lyrics. Sky’s reverb of “Over and Over” took the popular YouTube trend of slowing down songs to a new level, and Chlöe’s first solo single, “Have Mercy,” brought the pace back up, accompanied by a video that personified the 2000s rom-coms we all know and love. Above all, Halsey’s “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God” and “Bells in Santa Fe” were both visual and sonic masterpieces, produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails and designed by renowned stylist Law Roach.
Rob Sheffield, Contributing Editor
As a great woman once sang: It’s supposed to be fun, turning 2021. But these were the albums that lifted me up and spun me around and kept me moving, in an amazing year for music. They’re from all over the music map, from pop to rap to post-punk guitars to post-reggaeton disco. Some come from new TikTok kids, others from old-school legends, one is by Lindsey Buckingham. Some look out at the world; others look deep into the heart. But they were all reasons to celebrate in 2021. Here’s to next year. (For more, see Rob Sheffield’s full lists of the best albums and songs of the year.)
Hank Shteamer, Senior Music Editor
All I’m ever really looking for out of music is commitment — a sense that a given artist is pushing hard to realize their specific vision, regardless of genre. So when I look back on the records that meant the most to me this year, subtle affinities stand out more than surface differences. In some cases, what struck me was a certain level of determination and focus, whether that was jazz pianist Jason Moran (who also issued two stellar duo albums this year with esteemed elders Archie Shepp and Milford Graves, respectively) crafting jewel-like solo pieces that sang with homespun warmth or veteran metal outfit Carcass traversing the entire spectrum of heaviness with defiant swagger. Similarly, an epic work like Floating Points’ wondrous ambient-classical concerto for saxophone legend Pharoah Sanders often felt as intimate as Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli’s easygoing folk-funk marvel (released for the first time 50 years after it was recorded) did immersive. Mastodon sprawled out and embraced grief on their double-LP opus, but their record had just as much power to uplift as Amyl and the Sniffers’ wiry 35-minute punk burner did to dig its emotional hooks in. I heard brotherhood and collective inspiration in Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s 16-years-in-the-making follow-up to their first cult-classic team-up, the same qualities that radiated from the searing debut by Tacoma, Washington, post-hardcore trio Assertion. And in both Willow’s pop-meets-punk-meets-R&B mission statement and Turnstile’s hardcore-meets-pretty-much-everything joy bomb, I heard a vibrant eclecticism that felt like the product of deep inner peace. These 10 records each employed different means, but they all helped me reach the same mindset: one of intense fascination, coupled with gratitude that there’s still so much new to hear.
Brittany Spanos, Senior Writer
After all of the pop glitz that overtook my life while I was home last year, I was surprised by how downturned my musical mood was while vaxxed up and back in the streets this time. Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” definitely set the mood, and Sour delivered on the promise of teenage heartbreak and suburban angst that I am almost always in the mood to hear. Billie Eilish’s angst has redirected: She’s on the cusp of her twenties and out for blood, dragging all her toxic, older exes to hell and back and back again. I spent a lot of time with her album (and Adele’s) for Rolling Stone features, but they are also albums I have found immensely moving, challenging, and comforting even without the purpose of “work” attached to them. Above the rest are two albums I ended up listening to more than I anticipated: Halsey’s pivot to industrial pop with help from Nine Inch Nails (a dream combination!) and Bo Burnham’s dark, incisive soundtrack to his musical “comedy” special. Both of them shocked me from the first listen as brilliant, moving pandemic-era projects from two artists I’ve loved watching get better with age.
Simon Vozick-Levinson, Deputy Music Editor
I’ll say this about 2021, it sure beat 2020. Live music made the comeback of the century, and I remain incredibly grateful for the handful of shows I was able to see this year thanks to the magical combination of mRNA vaccines and sturdy masks. Standing in a room full of strangers, jostled by elbows and jolted toward transcendence by a simultaneous experience of art — still underrated, even now, somehow. Three of the best performances I saw this year were from Lucy Dacus, who slayed whether she was playing an opening set in broad daylight at a tennis stadium, entertaining a small group of fans at a barn in the Catskills, or triumphantly headlining Brooklyn Steel. Her songs sounded pretty great at home, too: Home Video is the record she’s been building toward since her debut nearly six years ago, a stunning act of literary memory and rock & roll salvation. The rest of my list is largely made up of favorites from the last decade who hit new highs (Courtney Barnett, Snail Mail, Dawn Richard), newer acts whose debuts took me by surprise (Olivia Rodrigo, Pom Pom Squad, Lil Nas X), and others I kept returning to when I needed to hear something real. It was an unusually strong year, as many have noted, with many credible contenders for the higher spots, and it pained me to leave Arlo Parks, Japanese Breakfast, and Dry Cleaning out of the top 10. These are good problems to have. See you at the gig.
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