While 2021 wasn’t as shattering as 2020, it wasn’t exactly the poster child for a good year. In no particular order, here are ten albums that made it all the way to the top of our list.
1. Little Simz – Sometimes I May Be Introvert
On her 4th album, the UK-based rapper born Simbiatu Ajikawo helps us ask herself (and us) the big, looming question. “Why the desperate need for applause?” she chirps in Standing Ovation and goes on to warn (perhaps plead), “Don’t be so obsessed with me you think you what’s best for me”.
Hailed by Kendrick Lamar as “one of the illest doing it right now, Simz pairs luxuriant cascading arrangements with a sort of confessional whisper with which she delivers lines that bring home the day-to-day impact of well-known tragedies. To mourn an absent father, she charges, “Is you a sperm donor or a dad to me?” To grapple with her own desires and fears of being too big and losing herself to a million flashing lights, she questions “Simz the artist or Simbi the person?” (Introvert).
This is an album obviously made with lofty aspirations of self-realization and expression, and it is accomplished without flaw. Empowered by the production chops of veteran Inflo, Simbi casts black pain and a woman’s rage into a personal gospel that everyone would do well to take a page out of.
2. Cleo Sol – Mother
While she is best known as part of the acclaimed rhythm and blues outfit SAULT, Cleo Sol is every bit a musical messiah by herself, as evidenced by her 2019 release Rose in the Dark and her latest, perhaps most intimate offering, Mother.
Engendered by her experience of becoming a mother as well as having one (she gave herself the moniker “Sol” to honor her mother’s mother’s half-Spanish heritage), the album is a soaring testament to not just her depth of sentiment but her glorious, multi-melodied vocal prowess.
Musically, listeners are rewarded with sinewy soul-jazz harmonies, lush orchestral swathes and euphoric crescendos that stop short of perfect climax. You hear a touch of Stevie Wonder in structure, pacing and placement, with some songs longer than others and filled with noticeable shifts in aesthetic midway.
In an act of rare courage, the album radiates the helpless vulnerability and uplifting reassurance of a mother’s love. In songs like Heart Full Of Love, Build Me Up and Know That You Are Loved, she epitomizes the overwhelming love of new motherhood. But she also draws upon her own memories of being mothered in 23 and Don’t Let Me Fall. The album comes full-circle by laying bare some pivotal experiences that made her both woman and artist alike.
3. Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
Bringing back the mixtape format that dominated 2000s American hip-hop, Tyler the Creator (forever somewhere between bard, changeling and prophet) has found the perfect nostalgic format for his trademark bolt of irreverence.
On this album, Corso explores the sudden shock of fame, economic success and its particular manipulations. Manifesto reveals heartbreaking self-doubt from a black artist wondering if his voice would really mean anything for the BLM movement. In Massa, Tyler documents the earliest of insecurities he had to barrel through in order to get his music out there (and eventually, get his mom out of a homeless shelter). Wilshire, 8 minutes long, is a gripping ode to frowned-upon love, replete with just enough melodrama to make it heartbreaking without becoming a bore.
Hosted by the iconic DJ Drama, whose Gangsta Grillz mixtapes have blessed us with some of the greatest hip-hop this century, “Call Me If You Get Lost” is a perfect representation of the artist who created it – questionable, compelling, essential.
4. Joy Crookes – Skin
Soul crooner Joy Crookes has a seemingly natural bend for putting truth to storytelling. The Bangladeshi-Irish singer has offered up a debut album that perfectly weaves the political with the emotional. Chronicling her transition to adulthood, she offers up her musical ruminations on everything from “casual sex to generational trauma, abuse of power, and mental health”.
Among a stellar repertoire, a few songs are particularly memorable. There’s 19th Floor, heaped with charming and strained stories of growing up in London (which, she admits, is wired into her despite its appetite for struggle). Unlearn You claims the ballad and turns its beauty against itself by using it to detail the enduring agony of being a woman every day. Wild Jasmine describes fraught romance in the sparkler casing of 60’s style soul. Kingdom trashes large swathes of her current political landscape, all while retaining the muted snark of a 23-year-old’s helpless angst.
Skin is skillfully done, laden with the familiar ordeal of young adulthood. But it is expressed in the form of rare musical slam poetry. Words to quickly catch your eye flutter around a choir of disparate (but perfectly fitting) harmonies, resulting in an album as much about getting to know Crookes as it is about finding our younger selves.
5. Silk Sonic – An Evening with Silk Sonic
70’s R&B made in the 21st century will inevitably raise some suspicions, but inevitable hitmaker Bruno Mars and underground soundscaper Anderson. Paak worked hard to ensure you couldn’t question their intentions for authenticity. They source specific drum skins to replicate the sounds of the bygone era, installed no more than two mikes for a roomful of musicians, and Mars even got some idols tattooed on his chest – Miles Davis, Prince, James Brown, Aretha Franklin. They even got funk-god Bootsy Collins on board for a little musical nerd cred (can you blame them?)
Symphonic arrangements replete with seductive piano lines, strings to make you swoon, and out-of-the-blue pop hooks make the album unstoppable. Take the soul-drenched balladry of Leave The Door Open that conquered charts and hearts in one fell swoop. The song and song makers channel the toe-curling sensuality of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, also evident in Put On A Smile and After Last Night.
Paak, as usual, demonstrates awe-inspiring technique on Fly As Me and 777, not just with those perfectly grooved drums but also a husky tenor that provides both punchlines and seduction. A perfect foil to Bruno’s smoother-than-manna C3-D5-C6, he deserves to be mindlessly loved and scrupulously studied in the same breath.
The album does exactly what it is meant to. As Mars revealed to Rolling Stone, “we’re making music to make women feel good and make people dance”. Forged out of personal pain and a lifetime of struggle, it is sunlight turned to sound.
6. Sault – NINE
There’s not much known about the Afrobeat-inspired, UK-based outfit SAULT. In fact, we only know the identities of three individuals in the collective – producer Inflo, and vocalists Cleo Sol and Kid Sister. They are notorious for being nonchalantly unpredictable, and this album is no exception.
Upon release, Nine was available to officially buy and stream only for 99 days. Of all genres they could access, the collective chose warm Afro-Caribbean bops and playground chants to chronicle human darkness with unexpectedly flippant humour. Fear drones “pain is real” like some kind of dystopian mantra over lyrics like “You fear, the rage/Night, cries/Dark, lies,” – generational trauma scuttled into macabre chants. Alcohol ponders in melancholy splendour on the eternal resistance to the desire for impermanent and destructive distraction – “Oh alcohol/It was only supposed to be one.” Bitter Streets is confusing in its elegant, jazzy beauty, as it whispers of urban, racial violence whilst being impossibly serene.
Afro-funk, spoken poetry, retro bass and flecks of ostensibly divergent genres meet in a delicate and inevitable union of this album. Like their earlier offerings, Nine builds a mythology of modern-day angst but does so with such a display of skill and sentiment that you end up being almost thankful for the darkness that inspired it.
7. Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sunbeams
Bedroom pop. Vignettes of young love from an uncharacteristically empathetic 20-year-old artist, and you have an album that dribbles into your heart without you knowing it. Parks matches R&B, fluttery pop and indie twangs with natural, unpretentious lyrics and creates a record of intimate, human moments that are easy to lose yourself in.
A lover of Allen Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath, Parks breathes, mutters and winnows poetry in every song. She meditates on her own youthful encounters with heart, love and rejection. Eugene, which brings to mind the lush tones of Lianne La Havas, explores the strife of unrequited love, especially with someone outside your sexual spectrum. Just Go, however, switches over to groovy pop hooks and bass-chopped beats.
Black Dog addresses the uncomfortable revelations that come with helping someone grappling with a mental illness – “At least I know that you are trying/But that’s what makes it terrifying” while For Violet collapses into a rare patch of self-abandonment – “Nothing’s changing and I can’t do this, I can’t do this.”
Amidst the crisp breakbeats, lashes of vintage neo-soul, gentle organs and heavy-on-the-reverb guitar riffs, Parks is a chronicler of 21st-century anxieties that we are intimately familiar with, as well as terrified to truly encounter. A patina of shoegaze sounds, poppin’ funk and Parks’ uncanny knack for offering next-door-neighbour comfort make the album sound exactly as it is named – bright, complicated and requiring some un-layering.
8. Hiatus Kaiyote – Mood Valiant
When the album’s third track, Chivalry Is Not Dead, starts talking about seahorse fornication, leopard slugs and hummingbirds, you are either bewildered (because you’re new to Hiatus Kaiyote), or you smile knowingly (because you know exactly how they roll). This Australian foursome come right out the gate with their signature quicksilver R&B – completely unpredictable and consistently compelling.
They haven’t forgotten the basics of what made their sound great, however. That sparkling Rhodes piano twirls and pirouettes in the tender Sip Into Something Soft, which ends far too soon. All The Words We Don’t Say, however, careens into dubstep territory, punctuated with powerful drum kicks. The effortless melody of Get Sun (with bossa nova icon Arthur Verocai) is bright, joyous, vibrant – a rippling shot of ecstasy almost on the edge of psychedelic utopia. And We Go Gentle brings to mind the neo-soul of Erykah Badu. A hip-hop groove grounds the song, and quivering bass keeps time signatures just about unpredictable without missing on melody.
Mood Valiant is the most expressive and resplendent of Hiatus Kaiyote’s work so far. Veering between the musical moods of euphoric and seductive, it is true to the artists’ strangeness, commands the intellect and captivates the heart. In other words, it’s real good.
9. Joyce Wrice – Overgrown
Fresh off a pandemic (that doesn’t seem to end), we’re all struck by the need to be more purposeful in our everyday doings. Tomorrow isn’t exactly guaranteed, and there’s not much point in being anything less than completely 100, especially without ourselves.
Joyce Wrice’s debut full-length album does exactly that. Doused in early 2000’s style R&B grooves, it is a meditation on relatable insecurities, insights, epiphanies and eventual moments of evolution. Uncomfortable truths pervade the album, and they start early on. Chandler, in buoyant beats, enumerates the many unreasonable expectations women must often meet to be “worthy” of love. Empowerment is achieved later, however, in So Sick, where she regains agency by walking away from less than she deserves – “could havе whatever I want, so I’m choosing”.
Addicted features a 70s-addled electric guitar, exploring the inexplicable draw of bad decision. Must Be Nice is something between a remix and early Destiny’s Child, featuring a surprise vocal caress by Masego. In fact, the featured artists (Freddie Gibbs, Masego, Kaytranada, Lucky Daye, Westside Gunn, UMI) are a significant reason for this album’s elevated musicality. On So So Sick, Wrice channels her inner Ciara (we all have one) with a Jon B sample and slick, jazzy buzz that oozes self-assurance and consequent seduction.
Overgrown is Wrice’s personal manifesto, a record of her emotional growth and personal boundaries she vows not to disregard in pursuit of ostensible love. Its rich soundscape is a marvel, but what makes it tick is the ever-familiar story told by a golden voice. Wrice is your confidante and shoulder to cry on.
10. Nas- Kings Disease II
Does genre legend Nas think of himself as divinely anointed? The tattoo saying “God’s Son” on his stomach, and his knack for turning tales of his survival on the streets to gospel chants, point to the affirmative. When petty crime and barely working elevators gain a spiritual sheen, you realize that Nas might just look to himself the way some of us look up to the sky.
King’s Disease (his previous album) refers to gout, which was called so because it was caused by overconsumption of rich food and alcohol as well as vegetating on a throne. One isn’t sure what the name is referring to, perhaps the accusations of complacency levied against his previous pieces Nasir and The Lost Tapes 2.
King’s Disease II maintains Nas’ tendency to heap hidden meaning into his lyrics. As always, he is part-street prophet, part-poet laureate. Collaborating with producer Hit-Boy, the album offers straightforward, clean beats and sleek rhymes. And, there’s plenty of nostalgia to boot. The Pressure blends Hit-Boy’s updated production with Nas’ time-tested clunkers, “Correctional facilities never do it correctly,” 40 Side goes “Only island that my ni**as knew was Rikers or Staten,”. There’s some funk and soul on Nas Is Good – a testament that Nas can rap to anything.
Glimpses of what made Illmatic a hip-hop standard show up in this album. Even though the man declared Hip Hop Is Dead back in 2006, he’s still around, and so is hip-hop.
Words by Shreya Bose