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The 50 Best Albums of 2021

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Snail Mail: Valentine

Considering its bounty of pleaded pet names—“baby,” “honey,” “sugar,” “darling”—Valentine seems to pick up the pieces of Lindsey Jordan’s bleeding heart right where she left them on Snail Mail’s 2018 debut, Lush. But while that album promised forever, the songs on Jordan’s sophomore record are wrapped in day-glo caution tape: “Nothing stays as good as how it starts,” she sings with a wariness that makes her hopeless obsessions all the more devastating. Her world has expanded in the last three years—“parasitic cameras,” relapsing, and rehab are all mentioned—and her lyrics are sharper and more intentional, if only to make room for it all. She is now accompanied by synths, string sections, and even a disco sample, but Valentine’s pop sheen never overshadows Jordan’s unflinching honesty. Her deep growl of a voice flickers and flares above taut arrangements—a reminder that even the neatest songs can’t hide the messiness of heartbreak. –Arielle Gordon

Listen/Buy: Rough Trade | Amazon | Apple Music | Bandcamp | Spotify | Tidal

Dead Oceans


Japanese Breakfast: Jubilee

After two albums and a best-selling memoir that grappled with her mother’s death, grief had been a top note in Michelle Zauner’s work for too long. On Jubilee, her splashy third album as Japanese Breakfast, Zauner sucks up life through a crazy straw. She boosts her sound for a growing audience without smoothing over her idiosyncrasies, taking inspiration from the daily battle to tame one’s anxieties, from capitalist buffoonery, and even from the concept of inspiration itself. “How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers?” she sings. The answer is hers to divulge. –Olivia Horn

Listen/Buy: Rough Trade | Amazon | Apple Music | Bandcamp | Spotify | Tidal



Tirzah: Colourgrade

The voltaic second album from London electronic artist Tirzah revolves around a close-knit, labyrinthine, and slightly crooked emotionality. Working alongside collaborators Mica Levi and Coby Sey, she reduces her formula to elemental parts in order to bring out a more tactile intimacy guided by improvisatory songwriting, looped samples, and ad-libbed vocals. The sparse impressions on tracks like the out-of-step “Beating” and the unsettled “Crepuscular Rays” are the result of years of friendship and community melted down into what sounds like a close, honest embrace. –Eric Torres

Listen/Buy: Rough Trade | Amazon | Apple Music | Bandcamp | Spotify | Tidal

New Amsterdam


Arooj Aftab: Vulture Prince

​​When the Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab started recording Vulture Prince, she had no plans for an elegy. But then her brother died, as did a close friend. In tracing the shape of these new absences in her life, her mind went to the Urdu ghazals of her childhood, music and poetry filled with boundless, near-erotic longing for God. Aftab reimagined these ghazals, scored for only soft, stringed instruments—harp, stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, some violin. These sounds call clearly to each other across moonlit space, and Aftab’s voice cuts a path through the darkness in front of it, one line, one footfall, at a time. Jarred out of time, her grief (and ours) softens and grows overwhelmingly beautiful. –Jayson Greene

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Secretly Canadian


Faye Webster: I Know I’m Funny haha

Faye Webster strikes an unusual balance to keep her fourth album in motion: self-effacing and lovesick, but also knowing and a little cocky. Nothing much happens in these songs because nothing much needs to; Webster’s internal monologue is winsome and cutting enough to keep people occupied, and she knows it. “I like your songs even though they’re not about me,” she tells a love interest. When they’re together, she apologizes for being the first one to nod off, and when she’s by herself, she sleeps with the lights on to feel less alone. If she has to be sad, she’s going to be in on the joke. –Anna Gaca

Listen/Buy: Rough Trade | Amazon | Apple Music | Bandcamp | Spotify | Tidal



Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg

One way to hear New Long Leg is as a cringe-tinged dramedy—like Fleabag or Girls—with Florence Shaw as the performer who knows exactly how to deliver her own script. This album is not the type to be nominated for a Grammy, but it really ought to get Emmys for writing and acting. The lyrics infest your brain with quotables that reverberate for days, but more than the words it’s Shaw’s intonation that’s so funny and so heartbreaking: the grudging cadences, the way she can inject an unreadable alloy of earnestness and irony into an inanity like “I can rebuild.” The self-portrait painted here is of a burned-out shell drifting numbly through a life that senselessly accumulates irritations, humiliations, discomforts, chores, and interpersonal skirmishes, offset by the tiny comforts of Twix bars and artisanal treats. There’s a personal dimension to the inner emptiness (a sapping break-up), but because New Long Leg’s release coincided with the depressive pall that swept over the world thanks to lockdown, Shaw’s interiority synced up perfectly with exterior conditions. It’s no coincidence that the most exciting rock record in years is about the inability to feel excitement. Within Shaw is a voice of a generation distilling how it feels to be alive right now: “Do everything and feel nothing.” –Simon Reynolds

Listen/Buy: Rough Trade | Amazon | Apple Music | Bandcamp | Spotify | Tidal

AWGE / Interscope


Playboi Carti: Whole Lotta Red

Whole Lotta Red is an all-time heat check. Playboi Carti could have easily put out Die Lit 2, and everyone would have probably been fine with it. But that’s not how this Atlanta alien works. At just 25 years old, he has already reinvented his sound multiple times, from wavy plugg music to his baby voice era; whenever some SoundCloud copycats start to catch up, he jets toward new territory. On Whole Lotta Red, over blown-out beats that blend hypnotic melodies with drums that twitch and boom like a tweaked-out Godzilla, Carti yelps, shrieks, and croons as if he’s trying to exorcise a demon. Its meticulously layered-yet-effortless style will once again have all the wannabes scratching their heads for years. What a flex. –Alphonse Pierre