2021 was the year artists pulled out the big guns. Some of the industry’s heaviest hitters released albums that will undoubtedly become classics in the years to come. In addition, many new and lesser-known artists exploded onto the scene last year with groundbreaking releases. While in no particular order, here is a short list of what The Michigan Daily’s very own music writers believe to be the ten best albums released in 2021.
— Kai Bartol, Music Beat Editor, and Rosa Sofia Kaminski, Senior Arts Editor
CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, Tyler, the Creator
After the career milestone of IGOR, hype surrounding Tyler, the Creator’s newest album was skyrocketing, and he certainly did not disappoint. Guiding us through another weird and wonderful world was his newest alter-ego, Sir Baudelaire.
While not as fiery and passionate as IGOR, Tyler takes on a more relaxed tone: In a sense, he’s made it, and now he’s just flexing. The features on the album show again how Tyler is still one of the best collaborators in rap right now: The standout track “HOT WIND BLOWS” featured a shining verse from Lil Wayne, one of his best in a while. All of Tyler’s best qualities are present in this album, with Tyler himself having grown more mature and self-reflective. Tyler already has a hell of a career to look back on, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for the future.
— Jason Zhang, Daily Arts Writer
An Evening With Silk Sonic, Silk Sonic
In an era of pop music where artists often seem content to rehash the best (and worst) elements of the 1980s, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s decision to look even further backward and fully embrace the 1970s immediately distinguishes An Evening with Silk Sonic — their debut record together as Silk Sonic.
Of course, Silk Sonic is also distinguished by Mars and .Paak’s unparalleled vocal abilities, which were showcased on the album’s electrifying lead-up singles. But what makes An Evening with Silk Sonic so special is the quality of the project beyond those singles. The whole album is masterfully produced and features powerful backing instrumentals that perfectly capture different emotions, from the playful wah-wah guitar on “Fly As Me” to the somber strings on “Put On A Smile.”
Unlike Mars’s previous music — which, let’s face it, tends to lose its impact once FM radio stations and grocery stores start playing it on loop — the little details of An Evening with Silk Sonic keep it fresh and make it even better with each listen, just like the legendary soul and funk music that inspired it.
— Jack Moeser, Daily Arts Writer
Red (Taylor’s Version), Taylor Swift
Red (Taylor’s Version) was one of the most anticipated albums of 2021, and it lived up to its expectations. Composed of re-recordings from Swift’s 2012 Red plus ten bonus tracks “from the vault,” Red (Taylor’s Version) smashed streaming records, becoming the most-streamed album in one day by a female artist, with over 90.8 million streams on Spotify.
“All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault),” a fan favorite off the album, also set the record for the longest number one song on the Billboard Hot 100, overtaking Don McLean’s “American Pie.” The celebration of Swift’s release was felt everywhere, with watch parties for the “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” short film across the U.S. and even a shoutout from the Empire State Building, which lit up red to celebrate the album.
Red (Taylor’s Version), Swift’s second re-recorded album in her mission to regain ownership of her music, marks an important shift in discussions of intellectual property and record deals, giving hope to other artists who have also suffered losses at the hands of record companies.
— Kaitlyn Fox, Daily Arts Writer
Promises, Floating Points
When it was first announced that the supergroup of Floating Points’s Sam Shepherd, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra would be colliding forces to produce a record, there weren’t many people without high expectations. For one, it would be Pharaoh Sanders’s first album in decades. Add to that Floating Points’s excellent recent releases and the ingredients seem all laid out for a high-quality project.
Even so, I’m not convinced there were many people that predicted the heights that the final product would reach. It doesn’t feel right to call Promises a classical piece, despite the prominent and climactic presence of the London Symphony Orchestra. If anything, it acts more like an ambient record, with each movement building off of the same motif throughout. Even though Sam Shepherd’s compositional acumen was already at a high level, the fact that he was also able to unlock the fullest potential of his collaborators truly speaks to his progression as a musical arranger.
The real star here, however, is Pharaoh Sanders’s saxophone work, some of his most challenging and legendary to date. He effectively acts as the textural centerpiece to the project, perfectly utilizing his signature discordant sound and even his voice to puncture through the mystic serenity of Shepherd’s production. This truly feels like the final jewel in the crown for Sanders. In any case, Promises certainly delivers on its namesake.
— Drew Gadbois, Daily Arts Writer
I Know I’m Funny haha, Faye Webster
Atlanta musician Faye Webster harnesses her sadness on I Know I’m Funny haha with the smoothness of a summertime breeze, charged with a golden mixture of warmth and melancholy.
Underneath coaxing vocals and steel guitar twangs, Webster’s lyrics are imbued with subtle humor and a kind of unhurried honesty you might find in a diary entry. She jumps from tales of mind-numbing boredom at the absence of a love interest on “Better Distractions” to the sting of unrequited romance with professional athletes on “A Dream With a Baseball Player” with unbridled vulnerability. Webster doesn’t just write sad songs on I Know I’m Funny haha; she fleshes out these moments of romantic conflict with full understanding of love’s inherent awkwardness and unexpected joys.
Webster’s evergreen transparency is refreshing and what makes this record a mainstay in my rotation. She finds her fair share of roadblocks and tears throughout the project’s 11 tracks but never loses sight of her own journey of self-growth. I Know I’m Funny haha is a soulful navigation of love and growing up, whose sincerity undoubtedly solidifies the album as timeless.
— Nora Lewis, Daily Arts Writer
Planet Her, Doja Cat
Doja Cat’s second album, Planet Her, was the perfect record to solidify Doja’s spot as a top artist in the music industry.
While viral songs like “MOOO!” and “Say So” made Doja a household name, Planet Her defined her as a talented singer, rapper and performer, even without the memes and TikTok dances. Songs like “Need To Know,” “Kiss Me More” and “Get Into It (Yuh)” trended on TikTok, but where most TikTok trends tend to get old quickly, these tracks remained just as good after they went viral.
Watching Doja Cat perform Planet Her at various music festivals in the fall of 2021 was mesmerizing; Doja knows how to control an audience through being a raw, real person and having a stage presence that can hypnotize anyone. Planet Her is a perfect mixture of pop perfection and rap, and Doja’s eight Grammy nominations for the record are more than well deserved.
— Gigi Ciulla, Daily Arts Writer
The Melodic Blue, Baby Keem
Following two well-received mixtapes in the past three years, Las Vegas-raised Baby Keem’s debut studio album provides an opportunity for the 21-year-old to assert himself as one of rap’s future power players.
Keem definitely has the benefit of a little bit of nepotism, as his cousin (and, in this writer’s opinion, best rapper alive) Kendrick Lamar features on three of the album’s tracks. The sheer talent of both artists is apparent on these high-quality tracks, with “family ties,” serving as a two-faced exercise in brilliance with its dueling beats. Keem makes great use of collaborators all across the album, another highlight being Brent Faiyaz’s saccharine verse on “lost souls.” Keem doesn’t just lean back on his features, though. His output on these songs either matches or exceeds the quality of the other artists, but his solo moments in the spotlight shine as well, such as “16.” If rap fans weren’t convinced before, The Melodic Blue should be a sufficient signal that Baby Keem is coming, and not much can stop him.
— Ryan Brace, Daily Arts Writer
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Little Simz
Little Simz has been in the music game for quite some time, but Sometimes I Might Be Introvert has solidified her place in the industry.
Simz lets her listeners into her world, and there are many intimate moments that allow this album to shine. It listens like a memoir, as Simz finds the balance between universality and specificity to her life experience. Simz creates space for introspection on tracks like “I Love You, I Hate You” while balancing it through moments of gratitude and celebration on “Woman” and “Point and Kill.”
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert proves that success and a standing ovation from the world do not mean being in some grand performance or character. Simz remains true to her introverted self and creates an anthem for all of us who would rather stay home all day.
— Katy Trame, Daily Arts Writer
Vulture Prince, Arooj Aftab
Arooj Aftab’s Vulture Prince deserves a spot on any “Best of 2021” lists. The album from the Brooklyn-based Pakistani composer spans an impressive number of styles and influences while managing to stay cemented in Aftab’s breathtaking vocals and impossibly lush instrumentation.
She reaches out suddenly, as the first track “Baghon Main” tunes our ears to a chamber of plucking harps and the slow burn of Aftab’s silky vocals, and holds you until the very second the music stops. Without losing our attention for a second, Aftab lulls us with each track, bringing us to shattering peaks and crystal clear lows. Her vocal range is as impressive as the range of instruments and musical traditions that make their way onto the album.
The influences vary from Hindustani classical, to minimalism, to vocal jazz, invoking the likes of Billie Holiday and dub-reggae on “Last Night.” The comfort, warmth, chill, emotion and unrelenting charm of Aftab as a vocalist only heighten the profound moments of lyricism and composition. Devoted to the memory of her younger brother, Vulture Prince is a confession of stories, of lost moments and of love. You would be pressed to find music released this year as captivating and as immediately beautiful as this.
— Conor Durkin, Daily Arts Writer
Every year, it seems like media outlets and music blogs make the assertion that “20** was a groundbreaking year in music.” This just severely diminishes the impact of the term “groundbreaking.” That being said, 2021 has a serious case toward actually living up to that claim, and Fatigue by L’Rain might be the central argument.
The artist, otherwise known as Taja Cheek, has managed to craft a project that finds its footing in neo-soul, electronic, gospel, experimental pop and psychedelia (to name a few), and yet somehow also eclipses any sense of genre. Her use of sound collage and field recordings captures a feeling of fleeting nostalgia. To make a strange comparison, the listening experience plays out like rummaging through that one junk drawer in the house filled with old Polaroids and knick-knacks, each one conjuring its own story and set of emotions.
Cheek finds beauty in melancholy on cuts like “Blame Me,” “Two Face” and “Kill Self,” where the topics of degradation and loneliness are deconstructed with graceful poise. Spellbinding and captivating, L’Rain proves she knows the meaning of artistic originality. Given her tour with the unlikely mix of black midi and Animal Collective, it doesn’t seem like she’ll be resting on her laurels anytime soon.
— Drew Gadbois, Daily Arts Writer