After the events of 2020 placed a pause button on the music industry, curbing tours and delaying releases, 2021 offered the first glimpse of live music viewership in over a year. Amid a seemingly never-ending pandemic, it is clear that music is essential during times rampant with divisiveness and loneliness.
This list ranks the five most cohesive, inspired and distinctive projects released last year, celebrating those that provided cultural nourishment and reflection when all else seemed stagnant.
1. “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST” by Tyler, The Creator
“CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST” is a conceptual masterpiece that follows Tyler, The Creator’s alter-ego “Tyler Baudelaire,” the embodiment of luxury, sophistication, travel and mastery of the lyrical craft. “Baudelaire” is a nod to the French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire who, like Tyler, was highly regarded for his experimentation, controversiality and explicit writing.
The genre-bending artist showcases the height of his aesthetic realization, immersive storytelling and sharp production skills. Tight drums, funky baselines, harmonious synths and keyboards and exultant horns saturate the soundscape with nostalgia.
The sound and lyricism are both gritty and sweet. Tyler’s delivery of witty, distinctive bars about pride and luxury complement unpolished vocal melodies about love and yearning.
Following one of the best album rollouts of the year, the project solidifies Tyler, The Creator as one of the most compelling and gifted creative geniuses of the decade.
2. “GLOW ON” by Turnstile
Emerging from Baltimore in 2010, Turnstile is a hardcore punk rock band that has braved comparisons to ‘90s alternative-rock bands like 311 and Red Hot Chili Peppers for its fusion with funk, pop and R&B. The album’s catchy riffs and shouty choruses punch through spacey, gliding chords and groovy rhythms. “GLOW ON” has garnered respect from both punk and mainstream publications due to its dynamic and sharp execution, experimentation, creativity and innovation.
3. “The House Is Burning” by Isaiah Rashad
Following the 2016 release of “The Sun’s Tirade,” Tennessee rapper Isaiah Rashad returns with an introspective album that explains his five-year retreat from the spotlight.
“The House Is Burning” masterfully merges southern rap with R&B. Rashad features artists such as SZA, Smino and 6LACK, comfortably cruising through a warm, soulful atmosphere of guitar, piano and synths. The project stays true to trademarks of southern rap — 808s and bouncing bass — while sampling legends like Juicy J, Project Pat and Three 6 Mafia.
Rashad incorporates a medley of religious references into the album, confessing his painful awareness of using addiction and escapism as coping strategies for personal trauma, issues with his father and paranoia. His captivating delivery is laid-back and sophisticated, reminiscent of Outkast’s smooth, dynamic flow.
4. “Valentine” by Snail Mail
Between the release of “Valentine” and her debut indie rock album “Lush,” Lindsey Jordan — also known as Snail Mail — graduated high school, gained critical acclaim and took a trip to rehab.
After experiencing the pressures of fame and withdrawal from the intoxication of a failed relationship, Jordan returned to her childhood home in the suburbs of Maryland to reflect and recalibrate, resulting in “Valentine.”
The album is angsty and vulnerable. Jordan’s authentic, often unpolished voice cuts through grainy and whimsical guitar chords as she details the obsession, naivety, anger, alcohol abuse and grief she endures as she loses herself in all-consuming relationships.
5. “Heaux Tales” by Jazmine Sullivan
“Heaux Tales” is an R&B album that decries pervasive stigmas and shame about female sexuality. She offers honest and empowering perspectives on sexual liberation, equality and physical agency while bolstering her voice with the testimonials of other black women. The polished production is completed with the duality of Sullivan’s voice, mirroring that of Lauryn Hill’s raspiness and warmth. The “Bust Your Windows” singer embraces and challenges the duality and hypocrisy of the “good girl” and “bad girl” narrative written by men, takes ownership of it, then plays the game to her advantage.
Honorable Mentions, in order of eliteness
“Collapsed in Sunbeams” by Arlo Parks
“Jubilee” by Japanese Breakfast
“The Melodic Blue” by Baby Keem
“30” by Adele
“I Know I’m Funny haha” by Faye Webster
“SOUR” by Olivia Rodrigo
“to hell with it” by PinkPantheress
“New Long Leg” by Dry Cleaning
“Mercurial World” by Magdalena Bay
“Happier Than Ever” by Billie Eilish
“lately I feel EVERYTHING” by WILLOW
“Mood Valiant” by Hiatus Kaiyote
“An Evening With Silk Sonic” by Anderson .Paak & Bruno Mars
Let us all pray for a SZA drop this year.