Best music of 2021: The top 20 albums that should be in every fan's collection

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  • Vince Staples
    American rapper and singer
  • Gary Numan
    Gary Numan
    English guitarist, singer, and songwriter

It would be tempting to view any music released in 2021 as having been shaped by the ongoing global pandemic that brought the world as we knew it to a crashing halt in March of 2020 and the isolation and anxiety that followed in its wake.

And as it turns out, several of the year's best albums could, in fact, be thought of as a logical extension of the times, from COVID-19 isolation to the global reckoning on racial justice.

Gary Numan made a concept album about climate change.

But as with any year, a lot of artists chose to look within for inspiration, sharing deeply introspective songs that would've felt like TMI in lesser hands while still others just made music because that's what music makers do.

You'll find a mix of all those types of records in this unabashedly subjective countdown of the year's best albums.

Best albums of 2021 by Arizona artists: Music from Alice Cooper, Injury Reserve, Mega Ran, Astrologer, Danielle Durack and more

20. ALLBLACK, 'TY4FWM'

ALLBLACK, "TY4FWM"
ALLBLACK, "TY4FWM"

This Oakland rapper assembled one hell of a guest list for an album that feels like a party he's thrown himself to celebrate how far he's come, with features from Vince Staples, G-Eazy, Drakeo the Ruler and more. After setting the tone with the old-school hip-hop vibe of the bass-driven "Life of a P," he makes his way through such obvious highlights as "10 Toes," which features a truly hilarious guest rap from the great E-40, the speaker-thumbing bass of "How I Feel," which boast the album's most contagious chorus. There are moments here that feel a bit reflective but there's no real moral to these stories. That would ruin all the fun he's clearly having.

19. Gary Numan, 'Intruder'

Gary Numan, "Intruder"
Gary Numan, "Intruder"

Here in the States, he may be seen as something of a one-hit wonder, forever defined by the synth-driven brilliance of "Cars," a masterclass of New Wave hit machinery that took the British electronic pioneer to No. 9 on Billboard's Hot 100. But Numan's impact on '90s industrial rock is undeniable and he's still adding to his legacy a lifetime down the road from "Cars." "Intruder" is a cinematic concept album of brooding industrial rock in which the singer tackles climate change from the Earth's point of view. It's an apocalyptic ride that plays to Numan's strengths, from an opening track about how mankind has betrayed the planet to a title track in which the Earth, understandably over it, reacts to human suffering caused by climate change with “I can listen to you scream/ Pretty music to my ears.”

18. Topaz Jones, 'Don't Go Tellin' Your Momma'

Topaz Jones, "Don't Go Tellin' Your Momma"
Topaz Jones, "Don't Go Tellin' Your Momma"

Jones splits his time between rapping and singing on this funky collection of introspective neo-soul, at times recalling Stevie Wonder in the more sophisticated moments of a "Baba 70." He's no D'Angelo, more of a Maxwell, but he wears it well. Even the funkier tracks are on the low-key side, including the elastic groove of "Rich" and album-closing standout "Buggin'." One notable exception? "Amphetamines" takes a cue from its title. What ultimately makes this album stand out is his dedication to the concept – a clear-eyed chronicle of his formative years in New Jersey on not just the album itself but its companion piece – a 35-minute film. He even sprinkles a handful of audio clips from the film throughout the album to give those memories more context, a gimmicky device that pays real dividends.

17. Chvrches, 'Screen Violence'

The Scottish synth-pop trio turned to slasher films as an unlikely source of inspiration for an album that shimmers its way through an endless string of effervescent pop hooks. The violence is in the lyrics, a juxtaposition that's well established by the time they follow "Violent Delights" and "How Not to Drown" with "Final Girl," a song inspired by the last girl standing in a horror film. "In the final cut," Lauren Mayberry sings. "In the final scene, there's a final girl and you know that she should be screaming." Robert Smith of the Cure lends his voice to the drama of "How Not to Drown," which opens on Mayberry singing, "I'm writin' a book on how to stay conscious when you drown."

16. The Black Keys, 'Delta Kream'

The Black Keys, "Delta Kream"
The Black Keys, "Delta Kream"

This is the Black Keys getting back to where they once belonged, like the Beatles before them, reclaiming their roots in the North Mississippi hill country blues the childhood friends cut their teeth on in Akron, Ohio, long before they hit the mainstream with a more contemporary offshoot of the blues. They spent two afternoons at guitarist Dan Auerbach's Nashville studio, tracking songs by R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, John Lee Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Big Joe Williams with Kimbrough bassist Eric Deaton and Burnside guitarist Kenny Brown. They even re-cut Kimbrough's "Do the Romp," a song they previously did on their first album, "The Big Come Up," in 2002. There are no revelations here, just two old friends revisiting the sound that made them want to get a band together in the first place and getting it right.

15. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, 'Raise the Roof'

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Raise the Roof"
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Raise the Roof"

An album-length collaboration with bluegrass star Alison Krauss, "Raising Sand" played a pivotal role in the late-career revival of Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant. His highest-charting entry on the U.S. album charts that didn't have a thing to do with Jimmy Page, went platinum and won five Grammys, not the least of which was Album of the Year. It's weird to think it took them 14 years to revisit the well, but it was definitely worth the wait. "Raise the Roof" finds the duo returning to T-Bone Burnett, who produced their first collaboration and rounded up a stellar cast of musicians for round two, including several who also played on "Raising Sand." They've obviously lost the element of "Hmm, I did not see that coming" which made "Raising Sand" such a pleasant surprise. But there's no shame in playing to your strengths and that is exactly what they've done here, from the haunting cover of Calexico's "Quattro (World Drifts In)" to the rockabilly-noir of "Can't Let Go" and a mesmerizing cover of Bert Jansch's "It Don't Bother Me." They go straight country to gorgeous effect on Merle Haggard's "Going Where the Lonely Go" and Plant gets the Led out in "High and Lonesome."

14. Sons of Kemet, 'Black to the Future'

Sons of Kemet, "Black to the Future"
Sons of Kemet, "Black to the Future"

Sons of Kemet are a British jazz supergroup founded by Shabaka Hutchings, who plays saxophone and clarinet on an album that prominently features tuba player Theon Cross. Those funky tuba lines do much to shape the character of the proceedings as they play off polyrhythmic dual percussionists Tom Skinner and Edward Wakili-Hick while traveling a musical landscape that draws on an eclectic mix of styles, from Latin jazz to Afrobeat and free-jazz skronk. The album also features guest appearances by noted jazz singers, rappers and poets, one of whom, Joshua Idehen, sets the tone with a fiery condemnation of white supremacy on an album shaped in part by last year's Black Lives Matter protests. "Thank you for refusing me that inch," he shouts at one point. "Because now I do not recognize your yardstick." Idehen returns for the final track, a cacophonous free-jazz explosion that finds the poet signing off with "You already have the world! Just leave black be! Leave us alone!"

13. Damon Albarn, 'The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows'

Damon Albarn, "The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows"
Damon Albarn, "The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows"

The second solo album from a Britpop icon who launched his career at the helm of Blur but achieved more success in the States with Gorillaz was originally planned as an orchestral piece inspired by the cinematic grandeur of Iceland but evolved into a more song-oriented proposition during lockdown. You can definitely hear how this material was shaped by every aspect of that situation, from the rich symphonic nature of the compositions to the sense of loss and isolation informing the lyrics. In the melancholy ballad that opens the album, Albarn sings "It's fruitless for me to mourn you but who can help mourning?" Elsewhere, Albarn asks "Am I imprisoned on this island?" and muses on the emptiness of certain rooms at the end of a relationship in the breathtaking "The Tower of Montevideo." As subdued as most tracks are, making the most of Albarn's gift for conveying a lyric's emotional essence with one of rock's most soulful voices, the album springs to life in unexpected ways, from the insistent beat of "Royal Morning Blue" to the clattering orchestration of "Combustion."

12. Sleaford Mods, 'Spare Ribs'

Sleaford Mods, "Spare Ribs"
Sleaford Mods, "Spare Ribs"

Jason Williamson ushers you into this masterstroke of electrifying political broadsides with "The New Brick," summing up his feelings on the current state of England's dreaming with "We're all so Tory tired and beaten by minds small." But he's not going down without a fight, taking on Brexit shill Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson's chief adviser, by name in the bass-driven second track, "Shortcummings," promising "He's gonna mess himself so much but it's all gonna come down hard." It helps to know at least a little bit about what's going on in British politics and other aspects of the culture going into "Spare Ribs." But unlike most topical records, the music itself — an artful blend of hip-hop, punk and electronic funk — is exciting enough to make it worth your while to Google what you didn't know while basking in the righteous indignation and wicked gallows humor of Williamson's lyrics.

11. Vince Staples, 'Vince Staples'

Vince Staples, "Vince Staples"
Vince Staples, "Vince Staples"

In a statement issued to explain what made him want to use his own name for an album title, the Long Beach rapper said, "As you go on in life, your point of view changes. This is another take on myself that I might not have had before." He's clearly in a more reflective space on an album released within days of his 28th birthday, setting the tone with a bittersweet track taking stock in the streets that once defined him with a shrug of "Everybody tough 'til they gotta go and see the judge." There's an intimacy to the storytelling that's reflected in the more downtempo, minimalist G-funk vibe producer Kenny Beats arrives at here. The result is an album that Staples himself has declared his most personal effort yet.

10. Courtney Barnett, 'Things Take Time, Take Time'

Courtney Barnett, "Things Take Time, Take Time"
Courtney Barnett, "Things Take Time, Take Time"

The prevailing tone is definitely more subdued here than it was on "Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit," the U.S. breakthrough that remains her calling card. But easing up on the accelerator suits the more reflective nature of the lyrics she told Rolling Stone were written during "the most quiet year I've ever had." The album begins with her dragging a chair to the window to watch what's going on as "the garbage truck tiptoes along the road." Her conversational delivery only adds to the intimacy of an album she meant as a comforting arm around a friend as the world outside her window crawled its way through a pandemic in an age defined by social distancing. "And there's one thing I know," she sings. "The sun will rise today and tomorrow."

9. Julien Baker, 'Little Oblivions'

There's a vulnerability to the vocals on "Little Oblivions" that makes the pathos of her deeply introspective lyrics that much harder to deny. On the opening track, she's "blacked out on a weekday ... asking for forgiveness in advance for all the future things I will destroy," the music swelling to a breathtaking conclusion as she shares the details of the pain she's medicating to escape. It would be tempting, as an artist, to allow the intimacy of those vocals to carry the day. Instead, she weaves a richly textured tapestry of sound around them, playing nearly all the instruments herself. What ultimately gives these songs their strength, though, is her willingness to hold herself accountable without excusing her transgressions — even for something as seemingly innocent as seeing a car burst into flames and thinking "This was gonna make me late for work."

8. Madlib, 'Sound Ancestors'

Madlib, "Sound Ancestors"
Madlib, "Sound Ancestors"

The legendary hip-hop DJ joined forces with Four Tet to construct this hazy masterpiece of psychedelic headphone funk, a sample-heavy sound collage whose more experimental detours rarely prevent it from finding its way to the groove. The way this project came together is Madlib sent hundreds of sound files to Four Tet to assemble at his own discretion. Highlights range from tracks as instantly engaging as the old-school funk groove sampled from a Terry Britten single on "The Call" and the funky folktronica vibe of the Philly soul-sampling "Road of the Lonely Ones" to more challenging fare that doesn't sound a thing like it was sampled from a 45. And there's a certain mad genius to sticking a sample of Snoop Dogg cartoonishly saying "Fo shizzle, dizzle" on one of the album's more avant-garde tracks.

7. Little Simz, 'Sometimes I Might Be Introvert'

Little Simz, "Sometimes I Might Be Introvert"
Little Simz, "Sometimes I Might Be Introvert"

Sometimes she might be introvert. Or so she says. But there's a self-assurance to her rapping here that makes it clear that what she means by introvert isn't shy and/or retiring so much as focused on the inner workings of her own mind. Introspective. And aware of the dichotomy. As the British-Nigerian rapper frames the situation on a song called "Introvert," "I bottle up and then spill it in verses/ One day, I'm wordless, next day, I'm a wordsmith." Much of what Little Simz spills involves the complicated feelings that can come with spending all that time reflecting on one's own life, including her thoughts on the father who abandoned her in "I Love You, I Hate You." Musically, the album filters hip-hop through a cinematic sense of grandeur that underscores the drama of her lyrics.

6. Injury Reserve, 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix'

The Tempe-spawned experimental hip-hop trio lost Stepa J. Groggs in the midst of tracking "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," a family tragedy that couldn't help but haunt the album Ritchie with a T and Parker Corey brought in for a landing on their own after being too struck with the loss to continue at first. As they tweeted this summer, they eventually regrouped because the tracks "still resonated fully (in some respects even taking on what felt like haunting pre-echoes) and above all else stayed true to (Groggs') constant insistence while recording to simply 'make some weird (expletive).'" They definitely honored that insistence. Corey layers abstract chaos on unsettling cacophony in dense, disorienting tapestries of noise while Ritchie with a T seems to carry the weight of a world gone mad on his shoulders "as we walk through this valley of death" where there "ain't no savin' me... or you." But nothing haunts as much as Groggs' final rhymes.

5. Arlo Parks, 'Collapsed in Sunbeams'

Arlo Parks, "Collapsed in Sunbeams"
Arlo Parks, "Collapsed in Sunbeams"

This 21-year-old from London is as much a poet as a songwriter, setting the tone for her astonishing debut with a bittersweet monologue about "trusting our bodies" and following through after 50-odd seconds with a soulful ode to Charlie, who "drank it 'til his eyes burned, then forgot to eat his lunch." There's a brilliant tendency toward understatement of the underlying pathos in the most engaging moments of "Collapsed in Sunbeams" that makes the sadness so much sadder than those situations would have felt in lesser hands. Consider "Charlie melts into his mattress watching 'Twin Peaks' on his ones/ Then his fingers find a bottle when he starts to miss his mum." And her delivery does the rest, a vulnerable pout that doesn't come across as pouting so much as letting you in on her feelings. And it's all so relatable. As she sings on "Hope," "We all have scars."

4. Mach-Hommy, 'Pray for Haiti'

Mach-Hommy, "Pray for Haiti"
Mach-Hommy, "Pray for Haiti"

"Mach-Hommy is a icon, end quote/This gon' be the year I get my python trench coat." That's gotta be one of the 20 best lines to be found on the opening track of an album that's loaded with lyrics that leap off the record. But the mysterious Haitian-American rapper, who reunites with Westside Gunn's Griselda Records after a falling out, offers more than clever turns of phrase and unlikely pop-culture references ("Fly only first-class/Ain't no 'put me in coach'"), spending much of the album addressing the plight of the people in Haiti. And he backs up the lyrical prowess with production that's as edgy as it is intoxicating, from the hypnotic horn loop that runs through the length of "The 26th Letter" to the woozy warped-record sensation of "Folie A Deux."

3. Sault, 'Nine'

Sault, "Nine"
Sault, "Nine"

This U.K. R&B collective made our 2020 list with an album that responded to a year defined, in part, by Black Lives Matter protests. "Nine" is every bit as timely, asking "How about the love?" to introduce an album that addresses the futility of violence, from the bass-heavy funk of "London Gangs" and "Trap Life" to a spoken track in which a man recalls the day he learned his father had been murdered. On the soulful "Bittersweet," Cleo Sol sings of falling for someone who's fallen in love with the streets before drowning her sorrows in "Alcohol." There's some comic relief at the end of "You From London," a turning point that's followed by two optimistic final tracks about how "you can always start again."

2. Genesis Owusu, 'Smiling with No Teeth'

When Owusu slips into a silky falsetto on the deeply soulful chorus hook of a "Waitin' on Ya" or "Smiling With No Teeth," you can't unhear the classic neo-soul debut he could've made had he been blessed with less ambition. Instead, he spends 15 tracks flitting from genre to genre, often mid-song, after setting the tone with glitchy electronica, practically barking the lyrics "Black dogs on the move!" before abruptly changing gears into a ghostly, almost psychedelic melody. By the second track, he's rapping with abandon to a funky synth-pop groove before seemingly running his voice through a vocoder backward to brilliant robotic effect on the dreamy future-soul of "Centrefold." And so it goes, a willfully eclectic ride positioning Owusu as a Bowie-eqsue chameleon who sounds at home no matter where he lands, even leading his band through the explosive punk attack of "Black Dogs!." He's also not afraid to weigh in on the things that really matter, from mental health to otherness and racism, which he approaches with a righteous, take-no-prisoners POV. That he does all these things with personality to spare just makes his "21st century punk-jazz," as Owusu has been known to call it, that much more engaging.

1. St. Vincent, 'Daddy's Home'

St. Vincent, "Daddy's Home"
St. Vincent, "Daddy's Home"

Annie Clark has never sounded funkier, channeling Prince and David Bowie's art-funk years, complete with gospel-flavored backup singers, on an album inspired by her recently incarcerated father's old records. Hence electric sitar turning up on seven of the album's 14 tracks and one song drifting into Pink Floyd's corner of the galaxy. And yet, she sounds surprisingly contemporary on tracks she co-produced, like her previous effort, with Jack Antonoff of the band fun. The album title celebrates her dad's release from prison after serving nine years for his role in a stock manipulation scheme, a situation she addresses in the album's soulful title track. "I sign autographs in the visitation room," she sings. "Waiting for you the last time, Inmate 502." But most tracks are more focused on her own place in the world, from an opening track where Clark sings "So I went to the park just to watch the little children/ The mothers saw my heels and they said I wasn't welcome," to "My Baby Wants a Baby," where she imagines a child she hasn't had yet telling her, "I got your eyes and your mistakes."

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Best albums 2021: Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Vince Staples, CHVRCHES

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