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When 2021 began, the general consensus seemed to be that this could be a special year for music. Artists had been home since early 2020, giving them an extended block of time to work on new music.
For the most part, those expectations panned out. The new releases from Jon Batiste, Adele and Judith Hill immediately popped with album-of-the-year excellence. And if those albums made the top entries on my Top 10 Albums list easy to choose, the wealth of other very good albums made it tough to rank the next seven albums and decide which albums to leave off the honorable mention list.
Here’s where I landed in picking the year’s best albums.
1. Jon Batiste. “We Are.” The latest album from Batiste has earned him 11 Grammy nominations, and this time the Grammy folks got things right. “We Are” is the best album of 2021, as Batiste shows he’s a master of soul and its various iterations.
On “Cry,” he conjures thoughts of prime Al Green with a silky yet insistent groove and knockout melody. “Tell The Truth” is the kind of gritty funk-rocker that recalls Sly & the Family Stone and James Brown at their best. Batiste gets his gospel on with “I Need You,” a shaking and stomping tune that doesn’t need a choir to raise a ruckus, and flexes his jazz/classical chops on “Movement 11.” Then on “Whatchutalkinbout,” Batiste shows he can rap with the best of them, as he reels out rapid-fire verses to a snappy-as-it-gets jazzy beat.
While well known in jazz circles, the Grammy recognition for “We Are” should propel Batiste to much wider popularity.
2. Adele, “30.” The year’s most anticipated album does not disappoint. It finds Adele bringing her striking and emotional vocals to a varied song cycle that mirrors the turbulence that paralleled the project. (She went through a divorce and had anxiety issues, among other challenges.)
Making such a confessional album can be tricky, as there’s a thin line between being brave and being self indulgent. For the most part, Adele nicely navigates her very personal subject matter within a group of songs that, on a musical level, form a well rounded album whose rich melodies and charged emotions make it a work of uncommon candor and grace
3. Judith Hill, “Baby, I’m Hollywood!” A protege of Prince, Hill comes into her own on her fourth album, showing she’s a talented songwriter and powerful singer as she confidently moves between rock, soul, funk and more, in this 13-song collection.
Prince’s influence is felt on a trio of tracks — “Candlelight in the Dark,” “God Bless the Mechanic” and “You Got the Right Thang.” But there’s also percolating soul on the melodic gem “Wanderer,” while the pop/soul of “Miss Cecilia Jones” tips its hat to Stevie Wonder, and the title track is a rousing Sly and the Family Stones-ish rocker. Somewhere Prince must be smiling.
4. Amythyst Kiah, “Wary + Strange.” On this album, Kiah (a member of the string band Our Native Daughters) brings together the Tracy Chapman-ish acoustic folk and indie rock sides she had previously shown in her solo work and emerged with a wider ranging modern sound malleable enough to suit this set of strong, soulful songs that range from the spare acoustic “Firewater” to the rock of “Black Myself” and many points in between.
It’s not just the music that’s compelling on “Wary + Strange.” Thoughtful, personal and frequently powerful lyrics are at work, too. “Black Myself” is a timely and forceful look at racial prejudice and pride, while “Wild Turkey” is a vulnerable assessment of the toll inflicted by a death from alcoholism.
Couple the music with the messages, and you have a potent album in “Wary + Strange” on which Kiah has found her true voice as an artist.
5. Lil Nas X, “Montero.” With this blockbuster hit album, Lil Nas X blows away stylistic boundaries, showing a talent not only for creative hip-hop tracks (“Dolla Sign Slime” and “Scoop”), but R&B (“Tales of Dominica”), melodic rock anthems (“Life After Salem”) peppy acoustic-ish pop (“That’s What I Want”) and sleek blend of modern pop and R&B (“Void”).
Add in plenty of clever wordplay and “Montero” suggests that Lil Nas X is the complete package. It will be fun to see what he does next.
6. Brandi Carlile, “In These Silent Days.” With each album, Carlile sounds more confident and mature as a songwriter, and “In These Silent Days” solidifies her standing as a leading talent on the Americana scene.
Once again, Carlile’s vocal melodies and emotional lyrics shine, be it on the ballads “Right on Time” and “This Time Tomorrow” or more robust songs like “Broken Horses” and “Sinners, Saints and Fools.”
7. Halsey, “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power.” In what might seem like a surprising choice for this album, Halsey teamed with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails for songwriting and production. Her collaborators’ influence is felt on occasion, but this still is very much a Halsey album. With a diverse range and savvy synthy pop appeal, this one tops her earlier albums.
8. Japanese Breakfast, “Jubilee.” Michelle Zauner (who essentially is Japanese Breakfast) shifts from the dreamier sound of her first two albums to a more direct synthy pop sound, and even adds strings to a pair of tunes (“Kokomo, IN” and “Tactics”). The rich melodies and broader musical range suggest Zauner is only beginning to scratch the surface of the music she’ll create in the years ahead.
9. Poppy, “Flux.” On her latest album, Poppy streamlines her sound a bit, but still blends pure pop catchiness with noisy elements on songs like “On the Level” and “Flux.” But other songs like “Lessen the Damage,” “Her” and “So Mean” are more like hooky Pixies-ish guitar rockers. It makes for an effectively bracing album, and as always, Poppy’s girlish voice offers a cool contrast with the edginess of the music.
10. Julien Baker, “Little Oblivions.” On her third album, Baker writes plenty of self-lacerating lyrics (“Bloodshot,” “Ringside” and “Relative Fiction”) as she struggles with recurring themes in her music — her flaws, her addictions and the damage she can inflict on herself and others — all while she tries to accept her failures and how they contribute to who she is as a person.
Chances are plenty of people will identify with what Baker has to say on “Little Oblivions,” while appreciating how smartly she expresses herself. The music on “Little Oblivions” is more full bodied than her previous two albums.
But she retains some of her indie lo-fi vibe, while imbuing many of the songs with some of the most engaging melodies she’s crafted and sturdy instrumental support. This makes “Little Oblivions” an enjoyable listen despite the hard issues Baker confronts with her lyrics.
Honorable Mention: Arlo Parks: “Collapsed in Sunbeams”; Du Blonde: “Homecoming”; Billy F. Gibbons: “Hardware”; Willie Nile: “The Day The Earth Stood Still”; Little Simz: “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”; Lucy Dacus: “Home Video”; Curtis Harding: “If Words Were Flowers”; Allison Russell: “Outside Child”; Robert Plant/Alison Krauss: “Raise The Roof”; Genesis Owusu: “Smiling with No Teeth”