Last Word Features: Top 10 albums of 2021
Last Word Features
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 top three albums were easy picks, but the depth made it tough to choose the next 17. Here’s where I landed in picking the year’s best albums.
1) Jon Batiste: “We Are” — Batiste has deservedly earned him 11 Grammy nominations for “We Are.” It’s my pick for best album of 2021, as Batiste shows he’s a master of soul and its various iterations. Batiste conjures echoes of Al Green (“Cry”), Sly & the Family Stone (“Tell The Truth”) and lively gospel on “I Need You.” 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 song cycle that mirrors the events that paralleled the project. (She went through a divorce and had anxiety issues, among other challenges.) Confessional albums can be self-indulgent, but Adele sounds brave on “30.” And the rich melodies of the songs help make “30” a work of uncommon candor and grace.
3) Judith Hill: “Baby, I’m Hollywood!” – A protégé of Prince, Hill comes into her own on her fourth album, “Baby, I’m Hollywood!,” showing she’s a talented songwriter and powerful singer. Prince’s influence is felt on “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,” Stevie Wonder-ish pop/soul on “Miss Cecilia Jones” and a rousing Sly and the Family Stones-ish rocker in the title track. Somewhere Prince must be smiling.
4) Amythyst Kiah: “Wary + Strange” – On this album, Kiah brings together the Tracy Chapman-ish acoustic folk and indie rock sides she had shown in her earlier solo work and emerged with a modern sound that ranges from the spare acoustic “Firewater” to the rock of “Black Myself” and many points in between. Couple the music with personal and frequently powerful lyrics, and it sounds like Kiah has found her true voice on “Wary + Strange.”
5) Lil Nas X: “Montero” –With his blockbuster hit album “Montero,” Lil Nas X blows away stylistic boundaries, showing a talent not only for creative hip-hop (“Dolla Sign Slime” and “Scoop”), but R&B (“Tales of Dominica”) melodic rock anthems (“Life After Salem”) and peppy acoustic-ish pop (“That’s What I Want”). Add in plenty of clever wordplay, and “Montero” suggests Lil Nas X is the complete package.
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” –Halsey’s collaboration with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails for songwriting and production on “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” might seem surprising. Her collaborators’ influence is felt on occasion, but Halsey still sounds like herself — and better than ever — with a diverse range of songs and savvy synthy pop appeal.
8) Japanese Breakfast: “Jubilee” – On “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 that Zauner is only beginning to tap into her potential.
9) Poppy: “Flux” – On her latest album, Poppy has streamlined her sound a bit, but still blends pure pop catchiness with noisy elements on songs like “On the Level” and “Flux.” But “Lessen the Damage,” “Her” and “So Mean” sound more like hooky Pixies-ish guitar rockers. It makes for an effectively bracing album.
10) Julien Baker: “Little Oblivions” – On her third album, Baker writes plenty of smart, self-lacerating lyrics about her emotional struggles and addictions and the damage she can inflict on herself and others — all while she tries to accept her flaws and how they contribute to who she is as a person. The lyrics are compelling and so is the music, which is a bit more full-bodied than on her first two albums. This makes “Little Oblivions” an enjoyable listen despite the hard issues Baker confronts with her lyrics.
Honorable mentions: “Collapsed in Sunbeams” by Arlo Parks; “Homecoming” by Du Blonde; “Hardware;” Willie Nile: “The Day The Earth Stood Still” by Billy F. Gibbons; “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert” by Little Simz; “Home Video” by Lucy Dacus; “If Words Were Flowers” by Curtis Harding; “Outside Child” by Allison Russell; Raise The Roof” by Robert Plant/Alison Krauss, and “Smiling with No Teeth” by Genesis Owusu.