The Best Music of 2021

Julien Baker played almost all the instruments herself in “Little Oblivions.”
Wikimedia Commons/Rebecca Sowell

As we transition to a new year, it’s time to look back at the top albums and eps and singles from 2021.


Julien Baker-“Little Oblivions”  (Matador)

Baker recorded “Little Oblivions,” playing almost all the instruments herself, over a period of several years where she took time off from music and returned to college. She also had a relapse into alcohol misuse. That’s the subject of this uncomfortably intense album. Although her earlier music didn’t use drums and was often based around solo piano or guitar, “Little Oblivions” makes a case for Baker as a rocker, turning towards arena-ready arrangements.

Chvrches-“Screen Violence” (Glassnote)

The experience of existing as a woman online and facing constant threats translated into synth-pop via ideas drawn from horror movies: “Final Girls,” “Violent Delights.” It’s queasy but tuneful, channeling Depeche Mode via John Carpenter midnight shows.

Circuit des Yeux-“io” (Matador)

Inspired by the death of a friend and given the ability to work with a 23-piece orchestra, Haley Fohr, aka Circuit des Yeux, channeled her grief and ambition into “-io.” Singing with a baritone voice which sounds androgynous, she draws on late Scott Walker, creating densely baroque art-pop that draws on opera and classical music.

Theon Cross-“Infra I” (New Soil)

Sons of Kemet member Cross is one of the few artists putting tuba in the lead, with a distorted tone resembling an 808 more than an acoustic instrument. Associated with the British jazz resurgence, “Infra I” transcends genre labels, bringing a rhythmic sophistication to everything it touches.

Dave-“We’re All In This Together”  (Neighbourhood)

One of the most popular rappers in the U.K., Dave’s music takes a personal turn, glancing towards ‘70s singer-songwriters. It’s not felt in the sonics, which rely on stark, stripped-down beats (the music cuts out for a while during the 10-minute “Heart Attack,” but while this isn’t party music, Dave’s combination of introspection and political concern retains its intensity, avoiding conscious rap platitudes.

Japanese Breakfast-“Jubilee” (Dead Oceans)

Bi singer/songwriter Michelle Zauner’s pop breakthrough does not avoid negative emotions entirely — one song looks back to her period as a caretaker for her late mother — but it finds excitement and, yes, jubilation even in scenarios like being trapped in a bunker after the apocalypse.

Lotic-“Water”  (Houndsbreath)

Using both “beautiful” (soprano vocals, piano, harp) and “ugly” (electronic noise, drumming on metal) sounds, trans producer Lotic makes us question such snap judgments. She has emerged from the water with her most innovative music, suggesting resilience under pressure and creating new forms.

serpentwithfeet-“Hyacinth” (Secretly Canadian)

When serpentwithfeet debuted, the gay singer sported a pentagram face tattoo and sang in a gospel-influenced style over classical music samples. “Hyacinth” is a triumph in a far different direction. Instead of trying to look mysterious, serpentwithfeet sounds friendly and down-to-earth, singing about everyday life with his partner and sticking closer to R&B.

Tems-“If Orange Was a Place” (RCA)

The Nigerian singer’s second project and major label debut reached a wider American audience thanks to “Essence,” her hit duet with Wizkid. Her voice flows gracefully over sunny beats, bringing jazz and R&B influences into Afropop — “If Orange Was a Place” could have been the soundtrack for our hot vaxx summer.

Yves Tumor-“The Asymptotic World” (Warp)

A glam star with a cult audience — check out the queer, non-binary singer’s recent live performances in torn Slipknot T-shirt, leather skirt and fishnet stockings — Yves Tumor has made the unfashionable choice to move further and further into rock music in an increasingly post-genre world. “Jackie” and “Crushed Velvet” could have been alt-rock radio hits in the ‘90s, but the most memorable song is “Tuck,” featuring the menacingly monotone vocals of NAKED.

Runners-up (LGBTQ artists will be identified with an asterisk): *Arca-“ “KicK iii” (XL), DJ Paak-“Piano Heat (DJ mix)” (self-released), *Arooj Aftab-“Vulture Prince” (New Amsterdam), Various Artists-“Amapiano Now” (NTS), Arab Strap-“As the Days Grow Dark” (Rock Action), Armand Hammer & the Alchemist-“Haram” (Backwoodz Studioz),  *Backxwash-“I Lie Buried Here With My Rings and Dresses” (Ugly Hag), Bicep-“Isles” (Ninja Tune),  the Body and Big Brave-“Leaving None but Small Birds” (Thrill Jockey), Citizen Deep-“Arcade” (Swo Entra), Myriam Gendron-“Ma Delire” (Feeding Tube), Kristen Gallerneaux-“Strung Figures” (Shadow World), *Iceboy Violet-“Drown to Float” (self-released), Loona-“[&]” (Kakao), Low-“Hey What” (Sub Pop), Maxo Kream-“Weight of the World” (RCA), *Meemo Comma-“Neon Genesis 2: Soul Into Matter” (Planet Mu) *Moor Mother-“Black Enyclopedia of the Air” (Anti-), *Claire Rousay-“A Softer Focus” (American Dreams), William Parker-“Mayan Space Station” (AUM Fidelity), *Self Esteem-“Prioritise Pleasure” (Universal), Nala Sinephro-“Space 1.8” (Warp), Taylor Swift-“Red (Taylor’s Version)” (Republic), Turnstile-“Glow On” (Roadrunner), Wau Wau Collectif-“Yaral Sa Doom” (Sahel Sounds), Weather Station-“Ignorance” (Fat Possum), Yola-“Stand for Myself” (Concord), Robert Plant & Alison Crouse-“Raise the Roof” (Rounder)

Kaytranada had a pair of key singles in 2021.Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports

Singles (excluding songs included on the above albums):

Ado-“Odo” (Universal Music Japan)

*Arca-“Rabatka” (XL)

*Backxwash-“Rosemary’s Revenge” (Ugly Hag)

BIA-“Whole Lotta Money” (Epic)

*Big Thief-“Little Things” and “Sparrow” (4AD)

*Brockhampton featuring Danny Brown-“Buzzcut” (RCA)

Eric Church-“Hell of a View” (EMI Nashville)

Lana del Rey-“Blue Banisters” (Interscope)

DJ Eastwood-“u ain’t ready (ama mix)” (self-released)

DJ Maphorisa, Tyler ICU, Visca featuring Madhumane, Mpura and Daliwong-“Izolo” (New Money Gang)

Nicole Dollanganger-“Whispering Glades” (self-released)

Duma-“Cannis” (Sub Pop)

Sam Fender-“Seventeen Going Under” (Interscope)

G-IDLE-“Hwaa” (G Cube)

Giveon-“Heartbreak Anniversary” (Epic)

*Gloria Groove-“Bonekinha” (SB)

*Kaytranada featuring H.E.R.-“Intimidated”  and Kaytranada featuring Mach-Hommy-“$payforhaiti” (RCA)

Lil Durk featuring King Von-“Still Trappin” (Alamo)

*Lil Nas X-“That’s What I Want” and Lil Nas X featuring Jack Harlow-“Industry Baby” (Columbia)

Magdalena Bay-“Chaeri” (Luminelle)

Megan Thee Stallion-“Thot Shit” (300)

*MUNA featuring Phoebe Bridgers-“Silk Chiffon” (Saddest Factory)

NCT 127-“Sticker” (SM Entertainment)

*OMB Bloodbath-“Don’t Do It” (Interscope)

Playboi Carti-“Sky” (Interscope)
Polo G-“Rapstar” (Columbia)

*Pom Pom Squad-“Head Cheerleader” (City Slang)

Carly Pearce-“Next Girl” (Big Machine)

Olivia Rodrigo-“Brutal” and “good 4 you” (Alamo)

*Serpentwithfeet-“Down Nuh River” (Secretly Canadian)

*SOPHIE-“Bipp (Autechre remix)”” (Numbers)

Chris Stapleton-“You Should Probably Leave” (Mercury Nashville)

*Syd-“Missing Out” (Columbia)

TWICE-“Alcohol-Free” and “Scientist”  (JYT)

*Sharon van Etten and Angel Olsen-“Like I Used To” (Jagjaguwar)

*Tion Wayne X Russ Millions featuring Arrdee, E1, 3T, Bugzy Malone,  Fivio Foreign, Darkoo, Buni-“Body 2” (Atlantic)

The Weeknd-“Save Your Tears” (Republic)

Weyes Blood-“Titanic Risen” (Sub Pop)

Tierra Whack-“Stand Up” (Interscope)

*Yaeji & OHHYUK-“Year to Year”  (XL)