Each year at RX Music, we poll our entire Music Programming Department to come up with a consensus on what the best albums of the year were in many genres that we program for our clients.
This was quite the year for music, featuring many major releases from artists that held off from releasing amongst the uncertainty of 2020 like Billie Eilish, Adele and Lil Nas X. In a summer where we were given a bit of a break from the pandemic, tours and concerts also resumed. This year included well known bands and artists putting out some of their most groundbreaking releases like St. Vincent, The War on Drugs, Little Simz and Japanese Breakfast. We heard new sounds that we fell in love with like Mdou Moctar’s Nigerian desert blues, UK Garage meets modern R&B from PinkPantheress and jazz meets a symphony orchestra with the new Floating Points record. Much of these we covered in our weekly series RXCOMMENDS.
Before we get into our favorite albums list, let’s go over some of the biggest music moments of 2021…
– After numerous documentaries, protests and #FreeBritney becoming one of the most popular hashtags on Twitter – Britney Spears was finally freed from her conservatorship on November 12th.
– The rollout of Kanye West’s Donda, featuring stadium listening parties, last minute changes and updates to the release, guest stars and an ongoing feud with Drake who also released an album this year was super entertaining. The story has a happy ending, with Drake and Kanye setting aside their differences for a joint benefit concert earlier this month.
– Abba and Lorde returned with new releases – both were unfortunately underwhelming.
– After giving us one of the worst pieces of streaming service content – a modern remake of Home Alone – Disney Plus gave us one of the best pieces of streaming service content in the form of a nearly 8 hour Beatles documentary on the making of Let it Be which makes you feel like you are hanging with the boys.
– Taylor Swift, in an ongoing effort to re-record her back catalogue of albums to reclaim ownership of her masters, put out new versions of classic albums Fearless and Red – with guest stars, B sides and new content galore.
– Rest in peace to Stephen Sondheim, Drakeo The Ruler, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Charlie Watts, Joey Jordison, Biz Markie, DMX, Chick Corea and SOPHIE. Gone, but their legends and tunes will live on forever.
Without further ado, here’s the list. Enjoy these albums over your Holiday break. Once again, Happy Holidays from all of us at RX Music and we look forward to writing about whatever the music world has in store for us in 2022!
– Michael Primiani, Music Consultant, RX Music
Best Alternative R&B Albums
1. Nao – And Then Life Was Beautiful
A celebration of R&B, both old and new school. Although there are heavy nods to nostalgia and the past, Nao created a record that doesn’t sound like anybody else. The result was a vibrant and truly affecting third LP which used its organic messaging to defy expectations and uplift all the benefits of slowing down. This album radiates joy. And while many albums in 2021 examined and explored life with COVID, few are as gorgeous as this one. – Craig Clemens
Best Ambient Albums
1. The Bug – Fire
Deep, heavy, and apocalyptical – Fire finds Kevin Martin focusing on atmospheric sound design rather than melody or catchiness. The album leaves an incredibly big impression with it’s harsh and pounding industrial production combined with a chorus of grimy, dancehall vocalists. The result is an LP that tackles some incredibly heavy subject matter by simply reflecting the world we’re living in. It shakes our floors and snaps the listener our of our complacency and instils a little fire into our lives. – Craig Clemens
Best Art Pop Albums
1. St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home
On all fronts, this album is incredibly masterful stuff. For the first time in what feels like more than a decade, St. Vincent has metaphorically kicked off the stilettos and embraced a sort of bare-footed soul that has been missing from her music for quite a while. Those coming to her music after a long absence, it’s best to try to imagine that this is Annie Clark 2.0 – warped in from another reality that is ready to blow your mind with this shining, spectacular addition to her discography. – Craig Clemens
Best Country Albums
1. Yola – Stand for Myself
These dozen tracks showcase the range and talents of a singer-songwriter who refuses to accept life’s limitations. An absolutely enthralling step on her musical journey, Yola balances pop and politics, and sounds like she has been in the trenches herself for quite some time. Sleek, soulful, intricate, and perfectly attuned to country-soul stylings, this album has all of the ingredients of a record less defined by genre but more by the artists heart and incredible voice. – Craig Clemens
Best Electronic Albums
1. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
There’s usually one record every year that gets us through whatever it is we have to get through. For this writer, this was that record. Full of joy, this purely pleasurable experience was five years in the making. Less of a collaboration and more of a transcending mind-meld, Promises is incredibly experimental sound scaping combined with a mind-boggling harmonic journey. This all star trio of producer, saxophonist, and symphony is at minimum a celestial accomplishment. – Craig Clemens
Best Folk Albums
1. Rhiannon Giddens With Francesco Turrisi – They’re Calling Me Home
Albums like these seem so effortless, so masterfully mesmerizing that they can sometimes been written off as ‘easy’. Once the layers are removed, however, the listener hears one of the warmest and uplifting albums recorded under COVID conditions. There is a yearning for other places and people while simultaneously finding comfort that what is familiar – each other. The complexity of these emotions is something we’re all familiar with over the last two years but is so awesomely conveyed here. – Craig Clemens
Best Hip Hop Albums
1. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is an example of Little Simz’s ability to address conflict and inner turmoil in a way that strikes an emotional chord with mass audiences. It’s not that she’s relatable – she’s much too talented to stand amongst the rest of us – but she knows how to present ideas in a way that emboldens people. While her album may seem directed at the events of 2020 unfolding, Little Simz has made clear that her mindset has been this way before the pandemic and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests. The British-Nigerian rapper unpacks troubling subject matter such as race, gender and insecurities through masterful flow and rhymes that stick in your mind like a daily affirmation. Lyrics like “I’m a black woman and I’m a proud one” demonstrate her power in a society that looks to silence black artists and perspectives. The production itself blends smooth and soulful samples with larger than life backbeats to shake you awake and take in her message. 27-year-old Little Simz has been on the rise for a while now and Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is proof that there’s no signs of stopping. – Lindsay Bell
Best Indie Pop Albums
1. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
If Indie Pop in 2021 had a sound, it would be this album. Japanese Breakfast doesn’t just belong to the genre but sets the tone with everything they touch. There’s a track for every emotion on the coming-of-age spectrum from the 80s euphoria of “Be Sweet” to the classic grungy & spaceless tone of young inner turmoil on “Kokomo, IN.” It’s the kind of album that makes you want to pick up and drive along the coast with your best friends. There is no destination in sight, but it captures the feeling of being full and present. Melodic guitar tones will elevate your spirit while brass arrangements enliven the album, giving it an energetic mood. In a year of uncertainty and curve balls, this album is a reminder to ride the waves and let go of expectations. – Lindsay Bell
Best Indie Rock Albums
1. The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
The War on Drugs returned this year with a careful, mature album that manages to kick doors open with grace. In glimmering, layered guitar-and-synth arrangements, Adam Granduciel meditates on ageing and new chapters without a hint of cliché. “Is life just dying in slow motion, or getting stronger every day?” he wonders on the title track, and this album feels like both: flashes of life through a carousel projector, specked with dust, moving ever forward. – Matt Lipson
Best Pop Rap Albums
1. Lil Nas X – MONTERO
Lil Nas X is a magnetic artist who consistently breaks boundaries and ruptures social constructs in near perfect form. The 22-year-old star has shattered the formula of what the music industry expects from young men and delivers a larger than life, yet authentic persona that is Lil Nas X. Tracks like “MONTERO” personify the way in which gender fluidity and homosexuality are demonized within certain belief systems. The lyric “a sign of the time every time that I speak” highlights the criticism Lil Nas X receives when he sings about constructs outside of society’s norms. And as he foreshadowed, each track and video released this year from MONTERO was met with both mass judgement and celebration. In 2021, Lil Nas X has the Madonna Effect in that his presence challenges an old and harmful way of thinking while simultaneously advocating for communities who are historically underrepresented and silenced. However, just as Madonna was ahead of her times, Lil Nas X paves way for the future that celebrates all forms of sexuality and gender expressions. Lil Nas X is a sign that the world is changing, but only with the work of people like him leading the charge. – Lindsay Bell
Best Psychedelic Albums
1. Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
Desert bluesy tunes have been a defining subgenre within psychedelic rock for the past few decades, starting with the Palm Desert bands in California like Kyuss and Fu Manchu in the 1990s and being heard most prominently today played by artists like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Our pick for Best Psychedelic Album of 2021 is a new face who brings a unique perspective to the genre – Mdou Moctar, hailing from Niger. Afrique Victime combines Nigerian music, with rock and a specific variety of desert blues rooted in African music called “assouf”. Afrique Victime is an explosive and energetic album, a psych rock kaleidoscope of colors and sounds to which we haven’t quite heard the likes of before. – Michael Primiani
Best R&B Albums
1. PinkPantheress – to hell with it
Tell Inspector Jacques Clouseau that he can leave his magnifying glass at home, we have found the Best R&B Album of the year right here. London’s PinkPantheress, in just 18 short minutes, combines synth pop, neo-soul, and the Japanese inspired electropop sounds of Kero Kero Bonito all into a cohesive whole on to hell with it. Finding fame by going viral on Tik Tok, PinkPantheress is anything but novelty. While fundamentally an R&B album, to hell with it pulls heavily from the late 90s/early 2000s sound of UK garage music – with 2 step drums and syncopated high hats abound. Familiar, yet brand new. Doesn’t give up but leaves you thirsty for more – Michael Primiani
Best Rock Albums
1. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend
An incredibly special record, Blue Weekend is their best work to date. A blistering 40-minutes that is both confident and euphoric. Captivating and passionate this record solidified their musical identity. Across the whole record one thing is clear – this is the best Wolf Alice record, so far. And with this offering they have established themselves as one of the best and most promising guitar-rock acts today. – Craig Clemens
Best Singer-Songwriter Albums
1. Brandi Carlile – In These Silent Days
When it comes to modern day singer songwriters, there are so many gooders out there to listen to, but for me, Brandi Carlile is the standard. She charts and scoops up nominations like they are producer credits, crossing over into the pop world in her own work while maintaining a writing standard not often found in those circles. In These Silent Days is something of a musical companion to her New York Times bestselling memoir Broken Horses. It is killer from front to back and immediately prompted the vinyl order after just one stream in my house. There are piano and acoustic ballads of course, but a separator on this record is how often it really grooves. ‘You and Me On the Rock (feat Lucius)’ and ‘Broken Horses’ are standouts in this regard, but the pacing across all 10 tracks makes it more than just a collection of good tunes, rather it’s a well-crafted journey. – Ben Birchard
Best Trap Albums
1. Vince Staples – Vince Staples
Vince Staples returned this year with another masterful 22-minute argument for why he’s among the most skilled artists in the game. Gone are the hard-hitting hooks and tireless pace of previous albums. In their place are more tempered, textured beats and soulful calls-and-responses. Each track works as a vignette, an existential peak into Vince’s tumultuous early life. Vince’s flow is undeniable too, each bar rolling forward with gentle momentum. His skill is deceivingly effortless, like a maze of dominoes crashing in sequence. Vince Staples remains interested in the big picture, in setting, in the richness of detail fragmented in a dirty mirror, and in just 22 minutes he paints a short lifetime’s worth of experience with ease and confidence. – Matt Lipson
Best Albums of 2021
8. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
7. Dave – We’re All Alone In This Together
6. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – CARNAGE
5. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
4. For Those I Love – For Those I Love
2. Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
..the Best Album (& Best Pop Album) as voted on my RX Music is…
Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure
Self Esteem’s Prioritise Pleasure was this year’s dark horse, garnering unanimous acclaim in a year of high-profile releases. As the title suggests, hedonism is at center of this project, and Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s brand of futuristic pop serves that theme perfectly. Dealing with more prominent themes of recent years, too, like female sexual liberation, sexual assault, and mental health, Prioritise Pleasure is a rare feat: it’s the opening of deep wounds and the effort to reclaim one’s autonomy, all set to genre-transcending production. Taylor’s lyrics are raw and acute; she places her relationships under the microscope and finds cancers in the form of toxic masculinity and violence and the failure of her own past apathy to combat them. Prioritise Pleasure is replete with irony, humour (“don’t send those long paragraph tests / stop, don’t do it”), and searing commentaries on a world sickened by gender dynamics and female suppression. It is an empowering, fun and completely refreshing reconsideration of just what pop music is capable of. – Matt Lipson