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NPR Music's 50 Best Albums of 2021 (40-31)

NPR Music's 50 Best Albums of 2021
Renee Klahr
/

If the year presently coming to a close was a dance, it'd be a hesitant shuffle, tentative steps toward — or heyyyy, maybe away from? — an uncertain future. So maybe that's why, when we sat down together to discuss which albums we loved the most over the course of 2021, NPR Music's staff and contributors found ourselves drawn to albums by artists making breakthroughs, moving forward with clarity, without balking at the obstacles falling in their way. Our list of the year's 50 best is topped by an album that was unmatched in concept, songwriting or performance, but it had so much good company. Everywhere on this list you'll find the thrill of artistic revelation, musicians finding themselves, willing something new into reality. There's plenty of fun, but little escapism. Many of these albums are stacked with great songs, but these aren't snacks. Even when slight they are composed, with a sense of purpose. This is nourishment. Look around. You'll find something fortifying to build you up for the road ahead. (As a bonus, you can find our list of the 100 Best Songs of 2021 here.)

Stream NPR Music's 50 Best Albums of 2021:
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40.

Yasmin Williams

Urban Driftwood

Yasmin Williams, Urban Driftwood
/ Spinster
/

By at least one measure, Yasmin Williams is the Tiny Desk Contest's biggest winner so far. The fingerstyle guitarist didn't claim the crown when she submitted a video in 2018, but with her sophomore effort, Urban Driftwood, sitting at No. 40 on this list, she's released the highest-ranked album by any contestant, win or lose. (Fellow entrant Anjimile released our 48th favorite album of 2020.) This collection of Americana magic more than lives up to the spectacle of the native Virginian's live performances, which often feature Williams playing her acoustic guitar's frets like a piano and body like a drum. The album truly comes to life on stereo headphones, where her delicate arpeggios cascade across the soundfield like pixie dust. —Otis Hart


39.

MIKE

Disco!

MIKE, Disco!
/ 10K
/

MIKE doesn't rap so much as he bleeds diary entries. With lo-fi penmanship that reads like perfectly smudged print, he makes you lean in close to listen. And he's never one to waste a note of earned intimacy. Every year he seems to drop the best confessional of his life, garnering more critical fanfare than his prior outing. Disco! is no exception, yet even for MIKE it feels exceptional. The realest shhh he ever wrote finds him processing the pain of his mother's passing over his gauzy melodic loops while relishing the kind of self-awareness that only comes as a balm after years of painstaking self-examination. —Rodney Carmichael


38.

Mon Laferte

SEIS

Mon Laferte, SEIS
/ Universal Music Mexico
/

The most delicious parts of any Mon Laferte song are the moments in which she unleashes her voice, her galvanic vibrato rounding out notes as if consuming them completely. It's an intensity that explodes in crescendos and burns slowly in the quiet. On SEIS, written at home in Tepoztlán, where Chavela Vargas spent her final years, Laferte harnesses that intensity to honor Mexican regional music with rancheras, corridos, boleros and other styles she's studied since she moved from Chile in 2007. From the ranchera "Se Me Va a Quemar el Corazón" that opens the album to its banda version with La Arrolladora Banda el Limón de René Camacho at the close, SEIS is the sound of a heart caught fire with heartbreak, love, resistance and deep gratitude. —Stefanie Fernández


37.

Amythyst Kiah

Wary + Strange

Amythyst Kiah, Wary + Strange
/ Rounder
/

Amythyst Kiah's musical existence was a bifurcated one, alternately given over to alt-rock brooding or to accomplished updates of old-time and piedmont blues styles, up until she found a way to combine those interests into the eerily immersive world of Wary + Strange, a major contribution to the side-by-side displays of artistic agency and individuality that Black women made in country and roots scenes this year. In her songwriting, Kiah relies on folk and country-blues forms, but puts them to nontraditional use, mapping her anguished interior life with language both phantasmal and visceral. She depicts nightmares of abandonment with imagery that casts exaggerated, ghoulish shadows and undulating arrangements whose rhythms and textures edge her music in surrealism. Out front is her voice; she sings with the melancholy awareness of someone who's worked through introversion on her way to powerful resonance. —Jewly Hight, WNXP


36.

Spellling

The Turning Wheel

SPELLLING, The Turning Wheel
/ Sacred Bones
/

Ursula K. Leguin once compared truth to a pearl, its sheen enhanced or diminished by the imaginative power of the woman who cultivates, protects and wears it. On her third album as Spellling, the Bay Area-based wizardess Chrystia Cabral employs the language of myth, magic and fancy to illuminate her reality as an empathic artist negotiating the realities of a world that's multifariously on fire. Exchanging the dark languor of previous synth-based sets for the dappled expanses of orch pop, Cabral finds power in the language of forebears like Minnie Riperton and Kate Bush while staying true to her own restlessness and sense of delight. "I'm in a permanent revolution," she cries, and the phrase — like tapestry of this album — is joyfully fantastical, deeply personal and resolutely political. The truth gleams through its wild tales. —Ann Powers


35.

Moor Mother

Black Encyclopedia of the Air

Moor Mother, Black Encyclopedia Of The Air
/ Anti-
/

In 1969, historian John Henrik Clarke and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax produced Black Encyclopedia of the Air, an ambitious documentation of the history of the African diaspora. For her latest release, Moor Mother produces her own account of eons of Black history, culture and resistance that places Black folks at the center. As a work of art, Moor Mother's album is a thrilling conference of poetry and heady, electronic soundscapes. As a work of cultural scholarship, it is a harrowing, time-traveling journey through the ancient and ever-changing continuum of Black life. —John Morrison, WXPN


34.

Emily D'Angelo

enargeia

Emily D'Angelo, enargeia
/ Deutsche Grammophon
/

Mezzo-soprano Emily D'Angelo might be prized for singing Mozart and Handel in the world's great opera houses, but for her debut album she ditched the standard repertoire for music composed solely by women across nine centuries. It's a gutsy move that has paid off in one of the most arresting, beautiful vocal albums in recent memory. D'Angelo's voice, one of creamy muscularity, is backed by chamber orchestra, string quartet and electronic instruments. The album is grounded by the ancient but timeless sounds of Hildegard von Bingen, and soars with recent works by Missy Mazzoli, Sarah Kirkland Snider and Iceland's Hildur Guðnadóttir. —Tom Huizenga


33.

James Brandon Lewis

Jesup Wagon

James Brandon Lewis, Jesup Wagon
/ Tao Forms
/

Fire and earth have always cohabited in the muscular cry of James Brandon Lewis' tenor saxophone. But on this tempestuous, transfixing album — inspired by the Jesup Agricultural Wagon, a mobile classroom designed by George Washington Carver, the visionary Tuskegee Institute scientist, more than a century ago — he presses his sound into higher service. Joined by a wise elder (William Parker, on bass and gimbri) and a cadre of peers (like Kirk Knuffke, on cornet), Lewis has forged a righteous new classic of the improvising avant-garde. —Nate Chinen, WBGO


32.

Hiatus Kaiyote

Mood Valiant

Hiatus Kaiyote, Mood Valiant
/ Brainfeeder / Ninja Tune
/

The Grammy-nominated Mood Valiant heralds Hiatus Kaiyote's triumphant return after a period of deeply personal struggles and wins. The album brims with introspection, reverence, fun and gratitude, all perfectly placed within the musical wizardry fans have come to eagerly anticipate from the band. Their sound continues to evolve, and the love and trust for each other reveals itself in the depth of the songwriting and production. From Nai Palm's vocals to an arrangement by Arthur Verocai to the sounds of the Brazilian rainforest, I constantly discover something new with each listen and marvel at the sonic stratification. —Nikki Birch


31.

Doja Cat

Planet Her

Doja Cat, Planet Her
/ Kemosabe / RCA
/

Doja Cat put somethin' into Planet Her. Following the massive commercial success of 2019's Hot Pink, the oft-viral rapper-singer capitalized on her global visibility to reinvent the pop star role. A shapeshifter, she dons and sheds different skins, as a mumble rapper, afrobeat star, bubblegum-sweet crooner, pretentious beat poet and, most importantly, producer with an ear for hits. On Planet Her, Doja soars through the interstices of pop, R&B and hip-hop, a captain exploring the depth of genre, each track on the album a reflection of a different sound she's subverted and brought back down to share with Earth. Standout tracks "Get Into It (Yuh)" — a direct tribute to Nicki Minaj — and the deluxe edition cut "Tonight" (featuring '90s hip-hop mainstay Eve) highlight Doja's shameless admiration for the women who carved out space for her as a genre-fusing pop-rap-star with an impressive ability to innovate new sounds. —LaTesha Harris


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