Gabe’s Favorite Albums Of 2021
From my vantage point, 2021 felt precarious. Quitting one job, starting another, leaving my home of the last five years and moving halfway across the country to try and establish another — all while the pandemic got better, then worse, then who knows — doesn’t exactly lend itself to a state of feeling settled.
So I’m grateful for every artist and album that brought me outside of my small, shifting and uncertain world. That stoked exuberance and delight. That consoled through their darkness and noise. That slowed and shrunk down the feeling of— as Bo Burnham described in his claustrophobic comedy special Inside — “a little bit of everything all of the time,” allowing time to pass, for however long, like it used to do.
At the very least, I’ve got a little more space these days, a new view outside my window, and some friends with whom to share music.
Stream selections from my favorite albums of the year, plus all my top singles of the year, on Spotify.
1. Jazmine Sullivan — Heaux Tales
There was never any competition: Heaux Tales dropped a week into the new year and didn’t let up for a minute since. In just eight tracks and an inbox full of voicemails, Jazmine Sullivan paints a Sistine Chapel’s worth of portraits about love and sex, infidelity and jealousy, passion and power. For sure, this is one delectable collection of steamy R&B singing — you’ll want to listen to “On It” guest star Ari Lennox when she commands, “Take this water and hydrate, bitch” — but by assembling so many women to speak from their own hearts, Sullivan has produced something closer to an oral history of modern relationships.
Must Hear: “Pick Up Your Feelings,” “Lost One,” “The Other Side,” “Price Tags (feat. Anderson .Paak)”
2. Little Simz — Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Straight from the overture, Little Simz’s extraordinary Sometimes I Might Be Introvert reaches for the operatic. I’ll accept it as a personal failing that this was my first real exposure to Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikaw, a British-Nigerian rapper who’s been building to this moment for the last decade. As enthrallingly honest as Simz can be when dissecting her own familial and emotional baggage, the last third of the album, starting from the back-to-back Afrobeat powerhouses of “Point and Kill” and “Fear No Man,” is a launch into hyperdrive. There are no dull moments here.
Must Hear: “I Love You, I Hate You,” “Point And Kill,” “Protect My Energy,” “Fear No Man”
3. Sydney Sprague — Maybe I Will See You At The End Of The World
I’m actually astonished Sydney Sprague’s debut didn’t take off more, and I’d like to correct that now. From the break-through-the-door opener of “i refuse to die” to the head-banging chorus of “steve,” Sprague occupies a realm where Paramore-emo crosses ever-so-slightly into alt-country. Sprague demands more from this life we’re saddled with, but constantly knocks against the limits of striving: “Can you die from over-empathy? I don’t know what’s going on with me.”
Must Hear: “steve,” “object permanence,” “staircase failure”
4. Julien Baker — Little Oblivions
“What if it’s all black, baby, all the time?” may be the perfect one-sentence summary of Julien Baker. As indie’s patron saint of self-flagellation, Little Oblivions is the closest that this singer-songwriter has reached into the maximalism of post-rock. When I saw Baker perform most of these songs live in concert, her confessions crashed against walls of guitar reverb, a fever-pitched bout between a woman and the demons she’s still trying to excise.
Must Hear: “Faith Healer,” “Ringside,” “Song In E”
5. Japanese Breakfast — Jubilee
In her extraordinary 2021 memoir, Crying In H Mart, Michelle Zauner conducted her most intimate excavation of her mother’s sickness and death, a life-altering event out of which emerged the first two Japanese Breakfast records. But Jubilee finds Zauner finally allowing in joy, each cymbal crash a seed of optimism. Or, as she describes it in “Posing For Cars,” the album’s electrifying closer, “a single slow desire fermenting.”
Must Hear: “Paprika,” “Be Sweet,” “Posing For Cars”
6. The War On Drugs — I Don’t Live Here Anymore
Somewhere during the pandemic, The War On Drugs’ 2017 record A Deeper Understanding became one of my most-listened to albums, potentially ever. Adam Granduciel and his hazy heartland rock project find a gallop they like and stay with it for however long — the journey rather than the destination, sure, but even more the comfort of steady movement. Amid a directionless few years, I Don’t Live Here Anymore picks the pace back up, a dependable companion to navigate this darkness.
Must Hear: “I Don’t Live Here Anymore (feat. Lucius),” “Living Proof,” “Harmonia’s Dream”
7. Cassandra Jenkins — An Overview On Phenomenal Nature
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature veers at times into the territory of guided meditation, or perhaps a Faulknerian travelogue. Cassandra Jenkins rises little above a whisper, like she’s telling secrets about the universe and it might unravel if she disturbs the equilibrium. The whole last 7 minutes of this fleeting, half-hour record ignore Jenkins’ voice entirely, levitating a lethargic saxophone over birdsong, a child’s laughter, the sounds of a feet along a path. We don’t need to sail into the mystic; we’re already inside of it.
Must Hear: “Michelangelo,” “Hard Drive,” “Hailey”
8. Kississippi — Mood Ring
Here are my top four noises on Mood Ring, the sophomore record by indie pop band Kississippi, ranked in chronological order: 1. Each backing shout of “We’re! so! in! tune!” on the opening track. 2. Those soda-can-opening pops that drum-fill into the chorus of “Moonover.” 3. Two claps before the second chorus in “Dreams With You.” 4. A seemingly-stray bass guitar plonk during the intro of “Around Your Room.” During a time where it feels like our moments for joyous discovery are dwindling, Kississippi has recorded an album chock full of them.
Must Hear: “We’re So In Tune,” “Moonover,” “Around Your Room”
9. Arlo Parks — Collapsed In Sunbeams
The characters in Arlo Parks’s songs make out after school, drink and watch Twin Peaks, get Taco Bell and cry over heartbreak. Collapsed in Sunbeams, the stunning debut from this British singer-songwriter, is awash in life’s contrasts, restless but uncertain of how to get through the day. “It’s so cruel what your mind can do for no reason,” Parks confesses on “Black Dog.”
Must Hear: “Hurt,” “Too Good, “Black Dog”
10. Cautious Clay — Deadpan Love
Cautious Clay is a musician who’s hard to pinpoint: A standout singer, a maximalist producer who slinks between neo-soul and hip-hop, a sharp writer with buttery guitar tones. Whatever genre you want to label Deadpan Love, his first actual album, these songs are sultry, catchy, and tightly built. So why are we not hearing him in more places?
Must Hear: “Karma & Friends,” “Agreeable,” “Wildfire”
Lucy Dacus — Home Video
Home Video is a coming-of-age album, years after the fact. Closer, in fact, to a founding mythology for Lucy Dacus, diaristically documenting the generational pain inflicted through religion, shame and abuse. Until, on the epic “Triple Dog Dare,” an alternate universe emerges where she’s already broken free.
CHVRCHES — Screen Violence
An embrace of horror tropes and a lack of fucks left elevates the Scottish synth-pop band to their most lyrically compelling, and catchiest, record. Bonus points for excellence in use of The Cure’s Robert Smith.
Iceage — Seek Shelter
Hardcore gone gospel? Easily the most approachable album by the Danish punk band, but even with strings and backup singers, not an ounce less blistering.
Snail Mail — Valentine
Already an incisive writer, Lindsey Jordan takes several confident steps forward — both musically and vocally — on her sophomore effort. She teases, she wails, she demands answers. She’s not going anywhere.
Erika De Casier — Sensational
Erika De Casier doesn’t want to start fights, but she’ll sure finish them. A salacious R&B album of the ’90s variety, perfect for angsty late nights and telling friends they deserve better.
Tigers Jaw — I Won’t Care How You Remember Me
Exactly two minutes and nine seconds into the opening track is when the full band bursts in and lifts this triumphant, gloriously emo record fully off the ground.
Olivia Rodrigo — SOUR
Olivia Rodrigo shook up the music world suddenly with the dagger of “Driver’s License,” then took a broadsword to every single after that. As a full length, SOUR is louder and messier than one might expect for a pop star of Disney heritage, and thank god for that.
Adele — 30
Adele has rested her voice, survived a divorce, and now she’s ready to take things slow and deliberate. As she leans into Motown and more contemporary influences, like on the sample-based “All Night Parking,” Adele breaks from the diva belt and instead flexes her range. 30 is her best album since the first, no mean feat for the world’s most popular singer.
Bo Burnham — Inside (The Songs)
“Apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime,” but I felt neither about Bo Burnham’s astonishing, hilarious, devastating film and its accompanying soundtrack. Both creations — featuring the best songs by a mile in his 15-year career of musical comedy — capture better than anything the overwhelming isolation and devastation of not just this pandemic, but also our larger Internet-connected society.
Even more albums I enjoyed, in no particular order:
Clairo, Sling; Adult Mom, Driver; Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime; Pronoun, OMG I MADE IT EP; Mariah The Scientist, Ry Ry World; Foxing, Draw Down The Moon; Porter Robinson, Nurture; Aminé, Twopointfive; Taylor Swift, Fearless (Taylor’s Version); Taylor Swift, Red (Taylor’s Version); Turnstile, Glow On; Summer Walker, Still Over It; Hand Habits, Fun House; Sincere Engineer, Bless My Psyche; Lil Nas X, Montero; Faye Webster, I Know I’m Funny haha; The Weather Station, Ignorance; Yasmin Williams, Urban Driftwood; Courtney Barnett, Things Take Time, Take Time; Silk Sonic, An Evening With Silk Sonic; serpentwithfeet, DEACON; Indigo De Souza, Any Shape You Take; Really From, Really From; Grouper, Shade; PinkPantheress, to hell with it; Tyler, The Creator, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST; The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, Illusory Walls; Low, HEY WHAT; Joy Crookes, Skin; Remi Wolf, Juno; Ada Lea, one hand on the steering wheel the other sewing a garden; Lawrence, Hotel TV; Strand Of Oaks, In Heaven; Illuminati Hotties, Let Me Do Me; Jose Gonzalez, Local Valley; Bad Bad Hats, Walkman; Kacey Musgraves, star-crossed; Deafheaven, Infinite Granite; Rosie Tucker, Sucker Supreme; Dawn Richard, Second Line; Wednesday, Twin Plagues; Torres, Thirstier; Chiiild, Hope For Sale; Manchester Orchestra, The Million Masks of God; Charlie Hickey, Count the Stairs EP; Bachelor, Doomin’ Sun; Jorja Smith, Be Right Back; Pom Pom Squad, Death Of A Cheerleader; Dinosaur Jr., Sweep It Into Space; The Black Keys, Delta Kream; Shelley, Shelley FKA Dram; Girl In Red, If I Could Make It Go Quiet; Laura Stevenson, Laura Stevenson; Flock Of Dimes, Head Of Roses; Dazy, The Crowded Mind; The Antlers, Green To Gold; Chika, Once Upon A Time EP; Future Teens, Deliberately Alive EP; Meet Me @ The Altar, Model Citizen EP; Pink Sweat$, Pink Planet; Mogwai, As The Love Continues; Wild Pink, A Billion Little Lights; Katy Kirby, Cool Dry Place; The Hold Steady, Open Door Policy; Claud, Super Monster; Pale Waves, Who Am I?; Celeste, Not Your Muse; Buck Meek, Two Saviors; Teenage Fanclub, Endless Arcade; Lily Konigsberg, Lily We Need To Talk Now; Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg; Joyce Wrice, Overgrown; Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine, A Beginner’s Mind; Diamond White, Summerland; chloe moriondo, BLOOD BUNNY; Trace Mountains, HOUSE OF CONFUSION; beabadoobee, Our Extended Play EP; Ginger Root, City Slicker EP
Favorite Singles Of 2021
Songs must be released by artists as designated singles. Lead artists cannot appear in the same year in both the list of top 10 albums and top songs.
1. “Driver’s License” by Olivia Rodrigo
2. “Charmander” by Aminé
3. “Chaise Longue” by Wet Leg
4. “Pool Hopping” by Illuminati Hotties
5. “Ex For A Reason” by Summer Walker feat. JT from City Girls
6. “Damn” by Ada Lea
7. “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” by Lil Nas X
8. “Loretta” by Ginger Root
9. “Silk Chiffon” by MUNA feat. Phoebe Bridgers
10. “Leave The Door Open” by Silk Sonic
Like what you heard? Stream all my favorite music of 2021 on Spotify.