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The Albums That Shaped 2021

By: Ryan Croke

2021 is winding down and with only about a month left in the year, and it’s time that I go over the albums that I feel shaped 2021, explore how they did so, and ultimately pick my album of the year for 2021.

MONTERO – Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X more than impressed fans and critics alike with the lead singles for this project, with incessantly catchy tracks like MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) and INDUSTRY BABY topping the charts for weeks on end. The hype for this record was understandably massive, and Lil Nas X showed in the lead up to the release of this project that he is more than just a one-hit-wonder, he is a certified hitmaker, and he is here to stay and dominate the music industry. This project was far from mind-blowing, but for a pop record, I was impressed with the variety of tones and styles Lil Nas X was able to thrive over, and I see an even brighter future for the pop star down the road. On one of the biggest albums to come out this year, it was awesome to see him embrace who he is and revel in expressing his own identity, and I feel that this project will inspire many others to do the same. Not one of my personal favorites from the year, but certainly not a bad LP, and I look forward to his next release.

Happier Than Ever – Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish’s long-awaited release Happier Than Ever sees the enigmatic young star explore a more acoustic sound than she has in the past, and I can’t say I’m particularly blown away by her work here. I’ve never really taken a liking to Eilish, and this project failed to convince me I should. I find it hard to understand what she’s saying a great deal of the time I listened to this LP, and it grew a little frustrating for me towards the end, as I couldn’t really vibe with her style, and don’t personally get the hype. She has talent, don’t get me wrong, but I found that this style of music didn’t click for me. The emotion she showed on the title track is something I found very appealing, and I wish we got more of that throughout the entire project instead of for only a few minutes. An album I wish I could understand the appeal of, but a valid choice for album of the year. 

SOUR – Olivia Rodrigo

When Disney star Olivia Rodrigo started releasing music early this year, I have to admit, I wrote her off from the get-go. I thought it would be a repeat of history with Disney stars going into music careers: she would be incredibly popular, and either fail to live up to the hype, or create average-at-best pop music like Selena Gomez or Demi Lovato. The only artist I can think of who did neither of these is Ariana Grande, who is one of my favorite pop artists of all time. Now, Rodrigo is no Ariana Grande, but she certainly surpassed all my expectations, as SOUR is one of the most intriguing pop records I’ve heard. Rodrigo takes influence from a wide variety of styles, with heart-wrenching ballads like deja vu and drivers license being some of the most popular songs this year, and pop-punk-inspired tracks like brutal and good 4 u also making the final tracklist. The album certainly feels fresh and innovative in this way, however, the transitions between songs are, several times, awkward, and I would have liked the LP more if it had a little more direction in terms of its sonic landscape. A simple re-ordering of the tracklist would have sufficed for this. But that’s the only major gripe I have with it, other than a few songs being a little subpar compared to the rest of the tracklist, but that was inevitable for a person coming from the background that Rodrigo is. Overall, I’m very impressed with this debut project from Olivia, and I’m sure it will win plenty of awards at the upcoming Grammys. What will likely be a popular pick for album of the year among her fans is something I can get behind, and I never thought I’d be saying that about an Olivia Rodrigo album. 

Solar Power – Lorde

Lorde’s return to music after 4 long years of waiting by fans was a little underwhelming, and this seems to be the consensus among fans, not just my opinion. After 2017’s Melodrama received and continues to receive rave reviews, Solar Power is quite disappointing, and I have never and most likely will never gravitate towards the more acoustic style that the LP has. I can’t say much more about it than that, it’s an average pop album, and given the hype that surrounds Lorde and surrounded this record before release, I am not impressed in the slightest degree. Earning a mention based on only hype and popularity, I’m sure a few fans will rave over this record and find it to be the best thing since sliced bread, but I most certainly do not.

Donda – Kanye West

Kanye’s 10th solo release is certainly an interesting listen. The mainly gospel-inspired record does lack direction at some points, some of the features are weak, and West himself fails to deliver at certain instances, but all in all, there is much more to love about Donda than there is to hate, especially with the recently released deluxe version featuring new tracks along with some small changes to enhance others. Kanye’s skill as a producer is on full display, and even though he’s not as sharp with a pen as he once was, there are still several heartfelt cuts that see some of Kanye’s most introspective, emotional lyrics in a long time. There are infectious, soulful tracks, cold-blooded bangers, and songs that make you just want to lie down alone in a dark room and stare at the ceiling. There are plenty of low moments on the LP, and the tracklist could be cut down to the benefit of the album overall, but there’s something for almost everyone with this project, and I appreciate that. Is it one of Kanye’s best pieces of work? Not particularly, but it’s a return to form (in some moments) that we haven’t seen from the Chicago MC in quite a while. For sure the most widely appreciated hip-hop project to come out this year, Donda has plenty of characteristics and tracks everyone can appreciate.

Red (Taylor’s Version) – Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift’s newest project, a re-recorded version of her 2012 classic Red, brings a lot of new material to the table, and a matured Taylor only enhances many of the songs that made Red so beloved by fans and critics alike. Taylor has made great strides with her vocal abilities, and one of the most impressive things about this project to me is the fact that on songs being recorded 9 years after they originally were released, she sounds just as emotionally invested if not more so than she does on the original Red, which is impressive. I don’t love this project, and the 2-hour runtime makes it quite the investment to listen to, but for fans of Taylor, there is so much here to love. The only main critique I had with it is that songs like 22 and I Knew You Were Trouble sound better coming from the younger Taylor than they do from the present-day Swift, but that’s mostly out of her control. The vault tracks are all solid, and the 10-minute version of the heart-wrenching All Too Well is one of the best songs she’s released to date. For fans of Taylor Swift, Red (Taylor’s Version) is more than just fan service, it’s the recreation of a masterpiece, and I have to admit I was impressed even if I don’t have a keen liking to the LP.

An Evening With Silk Sonic – Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak as Silk Sonic

The long-awaited collaboration project between Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars will make serious waves in the music industry, and I predict it will for years to come. The duo takes us back to the ’70s but with a modern twist, as the brief, 30 minute LP features plenty of soul, jazz, R&B, and even funk-influenced tracks that are just as infectious as they are hilarious. This project sees .Paak and Mars finding a way to make their songs comedic without making them corny, and this is quite the achievement. Lead singles Leave The Door Open, Skate, and Smokin Out The Window built up lots of hype for the collaboration, and fans were disappointed when they realized the album was only 8 tracks accompanied by an intro. However, the album makes quite the impression despite its lack of length. Anderson and Bruno had an amazing time making this album, and you can tell that it wasn’t about the money, it was about the enjoyment, and that has resulted in something special. This sound hasn’t been mainstream in decades, and I wouldn’t be surprised if neo-funk or neo-disco suddenly became a fad in the music industry because of the quality and overall popularity of this record. I don’t personally think it’s the greatest album to come out this year, but can get why plenty of people will think otherwise. A must-listen for everyone. 

Certified Lover Boy – Drake

Drake’s 2021 release has no business being in this discussion based on quality, but the popularity of it alone is enough to earn it a mention. Drake is the biggest hip-hop artist in the world, arguably the biggest artist in general, and anything he releases will go platinum and top the charts regardless of how good or bad it is. This LP sees Drake abusing this power he has to the fullest degree, as he creates a bland, bloated record full of trap songs that see him act as a person corrupted by his status and ego. The person Drake is attempting to write from the point of view of is very frustrating to listen to. The album supposedly centers around toxic masculinity, and this isn’t the worst idea I’ve ever heard, as if the album was structured so that as it went on, the character rapping realized his flaws and grew to be less unlikable, it would be an appealing project with a level of depth to it that Drake has never even come close to scraping yet. However, there is no such growth of this character which is ironic, as every Drake release in the past 4 years has made it evident that Drake himself also fails to grow as an artist, and is perfectly fine with releasing subpar albums that are designed to make him as much money as possible. This focus on toxic masculinity sees Drake write some of his most cringe-worthy bars to date, with songs like Girls Want Girls and Way 2 Sexy being unbelievably corny. Even if Way 2 Sexy is one of the most fun songs I’ve heard this year, fun does not equate to quality, as the enjoyment I get from this song comes from how stupid it is, and that is not anything Drake should be proud of, especially at this stage in his career. Now, there is plenty of positives that come along with this record. Drake utilizes some chipmunk soul samples on tracks like Champagne Poetry, Fair Trade, Pipe Down, and You Only Live Twice, which are reminiscent of the glory days of mid to late 2000s hip hop, while also sounding fresh and intriguing. The production on this project is, for the most part, unique and interesting, which is more than I can say for a lot of Drake’s recent releases. Tracks like Race My Mind, N 2 Deep, 7am On Bridle Path, and TSU are all incredibly well-produced and do their job as catchy ear-worms that are designed to keep as many people coming back to this record as possible. But that’s about all I can say in terms of the positives for this project. Drake, the man whose name is under the album title when you listen to it on the radio, on your phone, or whatever means of listening to music, doesn’t do much that is appealing or intriguing to the listener, and this is yet another bloated trap project from the Toronto MC that more than overstays its welcome with a runtime of over 80 minutes. The worst part of this album is that you can tell now more than ever Drake is sacrificing quality for money, and is at this point, trying to make an album that gets him as much money as possible, not an album that will be culturally celebrated, positively received, or remembered when he is long gone. It is infuriating to listen to, as the instrumentals on this project, for the most part, are very entertaining, and to see him waste them like this frustrates me as I listen. Certified Lover Boy has broken several streaming records, and, of course, is incredibly popular with fans, but it’s not strong enough in terms of quality for me to even consider it as a potential album of the year.

Life of a Don – Don Toliver

Don Toliver’s sophomore album met all expectations and exceeded them. A perfect blend of the sound Toliver is known for and a sonic exploration into intimate, soulful R&B that I had been waiting for Don to experiment with using his incredible vocal talents. Songs like Swangin’ on Westheimer are exactly what Don should continue to emulate and build upon in his later works. 

The project is cohesive yet each track seems to have its own identity, and there is a perfect combination of high-energy tracks that are extremely enjoyable and slower, heartfelt ballads that touch the listener on an emotional level. Don really is one of the most versatile artists in the industry today, and if he continues to improve, he will end up being one of the most influential artists of the 21st century. With the trajectory Toliver is on right now, anything is possible, and I am already counting the days until his next new project. I can’t emphasize enough just how impressed I am with Don on this LP. Almost every track here has something to offer, and someone as young as Toliver delivering hit after hit throughout an entire 50-minute album is quite impressive. This is a must-listen for anybody looking to expand their music taste and a strong contender for my album of the year.

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – Little Simz

Little Simz’s new LP deserves all the recognition it received and more. This might be the overall most impressive album I’ve heard this year. Little Simz delivers on all fronts, her lyricism is incredibly deep and is hard-hitting throughout the album’s 65-minute runtime. The production pulls from all sorts of influences, with tracks like the grandiose Introvert, featuring gorgeous string arrangements and horn, choir, piano, and drums all packing a punch, working surprisingly well with tracks like the simply produced, African-influenced Fear No Man, another favorite of mine from the LP. I don’t have as much fun listening to this record when compared to albums like Life of a Don or Whole Lotta Red, but I think this album is more impressive and impactful, as Little Simz speaks powerfully on social injustice, gender inequality, and finding herself, culminating in an extremely heartfelt record that contains powerful messages and moving production. I would compare the songwriting on this album to that found on a Kendrick Lamar project, and that should tell you all you need to know about what I think is objectively the best album I’ve heard all year.

The Melodic Blue – Baby Keem

Baby Keem, the cousin of the world-renowned hip hop mastermind, lyrical genius Kendrick Lamar, made waves in early September with the release of his commercial debut, The Melodic Blue. The abstract hip-hop project pulls from a variety of influences, namely trap and emo rap, but also includes some very unique vocal inflections and production choices for the record that are nearly impossible to describe. With high-profile collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, and Don Toliver, Keem’s latest release has commercial and critical appeal. I am thoroughly impressed with the production on this album, as plenty of tracks feature multiple beat switches that are all executed to near perfection, and the album sees Keem thrive over a vast variety of sounds. Unfortunately, this isn’t the most refined project and the lack of in-depth songwriting has only worked for an artist like Playboi Carti. Keem tries as hard as he can on this album, and I think he has a lot to offer in the future, but I need to see more from him as a songwriter before I call him one of the best up-and-coming artists in the hip hop scene. However, from a production standpoint, this album more than impressed me. A solid choice for anyone’s album of the year, though not one I would make myself.

CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST – Tyler, The Creator

A popular choice among hip hop fans for album of the year, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST is Tyler, The Creator showing off his skill as a producer on an album that has an infectious, victorious tone. He finds a way to bring insufferably boring trap artists such as 42 Dugg and NBA YoungBoy way out of their comfort zones when it comes to the beats they’re rapping over, and it more than pays off. There isn’t a cohesive sound to the instrumentals on this LP, but they all sound distinctly like something Tyler would create. I’m not particularly impressed with Tyler’s songwriting, although I have always felt he’s most in his element as a producer, and not a rapper, so this isn’t a big issue for me. I can’t pinpoint what’s holding me back from loving this album, but if I had to guess, it’s that Tyler doesn’t seem as emotionally invested in his work as he did on IGOR and Flower Boy. I know it’s hard to follow up two masterpieces like that, especially 2019’s IGOR, but I was expecting a little bit more from Tyler, and I’m not exactly let down as much as I am not particularly impressed. I do think, however, that this is the most mature album Tyler has made from a production standpoint, and despite not loving it, I do appreciate the newest LP from the Los Angeles rapper a great deal. An understandable choice for album of the year. 

Faces – Mac Miller

A polished version of Mac Miller’s 2014 classic mixtape Faces was finally made available on streaming platforms this past October, and despite not being eligible for the honor of album of the year for 2021, it more than deserves a mention. Listening to this LP was unlike any other listening experience I’ve ever had, and the ethereal, jazz-inspired production combined with Mac’s introspective and cryptic lyrics makes for a project that has something new to unpack every time you listen. Mac is self-critical as he struggles with his addiction to drugs, something that would eventually take his life in September of 2018, and it seems like this was a call for help that he knew nobody would listen to, not even himself. The project gives me chills every time I listen, and stays entertaining for the almost 90-minute runtime it has, which is quite the feat. A classic revitalized, and although it can’t win album of the year, as it wasn’t technically released in 2021, if it were, I’d certainly have it in my top 3 from the year.

Whole Lotta Red – Playboi Carti

December 25, 2020, may be known as Christmas to most people around the world, but for fans of Playboi Carti, myself being one of them, it marked another glorious occasion: Playboi Carti would finally be releasing his long-awaited third project, Whole Lotta Red, which fans had been patiently waiting for over 2 and a half years to listen to. Much to their dismay, it was a total departure from the sound that made Carti beloved and cherished by his fanbase. He was trying something different. It’s an album unlike any other. Carti fully embraced the punk persona he had slowly been building up over the past year through cryptic Instagram posts, and the result was an abrasive, loud, punk-inspired trap record that fans could not understand at all. The vocal inflections were strange, the instrumentals stranger, and fans were disappointed, shocked, and most of all, confused by the release. “How could he wait 2 and a half years to release this garbage?”, most fans were wondering on social media. But, as time passed, more and more people took a liking to the record, and it has slowly evolved into an almost universally beloved record by hip hop fans, and it certainly has for me. I am proud to say I never had a strong dislike for the LP and thought that with time, it would become accepted by fans as a solid album. I did not expect it to become as cherished as it is today, although I understand why it is. It’s such a fun album. The crazy instrumentals and wicked vocal inflections make for an energy-packed listening experience unlike anything else the music industry has ever seen. The vibe of this album is so unique and infectious and it’s truly incredible how an LP as strange as this one can be so appreciated. I think that Carti has solidified himself as a big name in hip-hop, and the continual growth that he shows as an artist with every project is truly something to behold. He is certainly an enigma, and that’s honestly the most appealing thing about him. Despite not being released in 2021, most of its impact was felt in 2021, and for that, I’m going to let it slide as a solid contender for the album of the year.

Nurture – Porter Robinson

If you told me that I would enjoy Folk-EDM as much as I did listening to the new Porter Robinson LP, I would have called you a madman. But Nurture is one of the most refreshing albums I’ve ever heard and for sure one of the most unique listening experiences I’ve ever had. Robinson creates ethereal, heartfelt tracks that simultaneously make the listener feel like they’re walking on clouds and lying in a bed of flowers. 7 years removed from his previous LP, Worlds, Robinson surprised and quenched the thirst of many fans with his 2021 return, and I was thoroughly impressed. It sounds so digital yet feels so natural, and listening to tracks like Look at the Sky gives my ears quite the sensation. I can’t say much more than that, but know that Robinson’s sophomore album is a very refined, very peaceful listen that I didn’t think I would enjoy as much as I did. A decent contender with the others on this list for album of the year. 

Jubilee – Japanese Breakfast

This album is mind-blowing. Japanese Breakfast, an indie rock band led by the Korean-American Michelle Zauner, released one of the most impressive musical works I’ve heard to date with their 2021 record Jubilee. It’s quite the experience and is soulful, heartfelt, melodic, and most of all, jubilant, of course. The vocals from Zauner combined with beautiful instrumentation from her and the rest of the band are gorgeous, and although it may not be my favorite to come out this year, it rivals Sometimes I Might Be Introvert for what I would call objectively the best album to release this year. An incredibly strong LP that is, once again, hard to describe in words. It’s very calming and a little uplifting from a sonic standpoint, but very emotional when you focus on the songwriting. It evades description in its beauty, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in checking out an indie project. 

The Winner

There are plenty of great albums that released this year, most of which I haven’t even listened to, but of the ones I have, and the ones that made it onto this list, one stands out above the rest in terms of how much I enjoyed it and how much I was impressed with the artist who made it. I felt that they tapped into their potential, and made massive strides from their previous work. The project will certainly be in my rotation for years to come and will be the defining album of 2021 when I reminisce. That album is Life of a Don, by Don Toliver. A trap-R&B fusion has not been executed better, at least that I’ve heard, and I cannot wait to see how Don evolves and improves with his later releases. This album is the perfect combination in that it is enjoyable but also remains impressive from a songwriting standpoint, especially for an artist in such a genre as Toliver. It’s not the most in-depth, but the intimacy and emotion that is felt in Don’s lyrics on several tracks along with the pure infectious nature of the LP put it above all the other albums I had the pleasure of listening to this year. I can’t wait for 2022, and I hope that we gt just as much quality music as we did this year.

2021 is winding down and with only about a month left in the year, and it’s time that I go over the albums that I feel shaped 2021, explore how they did so, and ultimately pick my album of the year for 2021.

MONTERO – Lil Nas

Lil Nas X more than impressed fans and critics alike with the lead singles for this project, with incessantly catchy tracks like MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) and INDUSTRY BABY topping the charts for weeks on end. The hype for this record was understandably massive, and Lil Nas X showed in the lead up to the release of this project that he is more than just a one-hit-wonder, he is a certified hitmaker, and he is here to stay and dominate the music industry. This project was far from mind-blowing, but for a pop record, I was impressed with the variety of tones and styles Lil Nas X was able to thrive over, and I see an even brighter future for the pop star down the road. On one of the biggest albums to come out this year, it was awesome to see him embrace who he is and revel in expressing his own identity, and I feel that this project will inspire many others to do the same. Not one of my personal favorites from the year, but certainly not a bad LP, and I look forward to his next release.

Happier Than Ever – Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish’s long-awaited release Happier Than Ever sees the enigmatic young star explore a more acoustic sound than she has in the past, and I can’t say I’m particularly blown away by her work here. I’ve never really taken a liking to Eilish, and this project failed to convince me I should. I find it hard to understand what she’s saying a great deal of the time I listened to this LP, and it grew a little frustrating for me towards the end, as I couldn’t really vibe with her style, and don’t personally get the hype. She has talent, don’t get me wrong, but I found that this style of music didn’t click for me. The emotion she showed on the title track is something I found very appealing, and I wish we got more of that throughout the entire project instead of for only a few minutes. An album I wish I could understand the appeal of, but a valid choice for album of the year. 

SOUR – Olivia Rodrigo

When Disney star Olivia Rodrigo started releasing music early this year, I have to admit, I wrote her off from the get-go. I thought it would be a repeat of history with Disney stars going into music careers: she would be incredibly popular, and either fail to live up to the hype, or create average-at-best pop music like Selena Gomez or Demi Lovato. The only artist I can think of who did neither of these is Ariana Grande, who is one of my favorite pop artists of all time. Now, Rodrigo is no Ariana Grande, but she certainly surpassed all my expectations, as SOUR is one of the most intriguing pop records I’ve heard. Rodrigo takes influence from a wide variety of styles, with heart-wrenching ballads like deja vu and drivers license being some of the most popular songs this year, and pop-punk-inspired tracks like brutal and good 4 u also making the final tracklist. The album certainly feels fresh and innovative in this way, however, the transitions between songs are, several times, awkward, and I would have liked the LP more if it had a little more direction in terms of its sonic landscape. A simple re-ordering of the tracklist would have sufficed for this. But that’s the only major gripe I have with it, other than a few songs being a little subpar compared to the rest of the tracklist, but that was inevitable for a person coming from the background that Rodrigo is. Overall, I’m very impressed with this debut project from Olivia, and I’m sure it will win plenty of awards at the upcoming Grammys. What will likely be a popular pick for album of the year among her fans is something I can get behind, and I never thought I’d be saying that about an Olivia Rodrigo album. 

Solar Power – Lorde

Lorde’s return to music after 4 long years of waiting by fans was a little underwhelming, and this seems to be the consensus among fans, not just my opinion. After 2017’s Melodrama received and continues to receive rave reviews, Solar Power is quite disappointing, and I have never and most likely will never gravitate towards the more acoustic style that the LP has. I can’t say much more about it than that, it’s an average pop album, and given the hype that surrounds Lorde and surrounded this record before release, I am not impressed in the slightest degree. Earning a mention based on only hype and popularity, I’m sure a few fans will rave over this record and find it to be the best thing since sliced bread, but I most certainly do not.

Donda – Kanye West

Kanye’s 10th solo release is certainly an interesting listen. The mainly gospel-inspired record does lack direction at some points, some of the features are weak, and West himself fails to deliver at certain instances, but all in all, there is much more to love about Donda than there is to hate, especially with the recently released deluxe version featuring new tracks along with some small changes to enhance others. Kanye’s skill as a producer is on full display, and even though he’s not as sharp with a pen as he once was, there are still several heartfelt cuts that see some of Kanye’s most introspective, emotional lyrics in a long time. There are infectious, soulful tracks, cold-blooded bangers, and songs that make you just want to lie down alone in a dark room and stare at the ceiling. There are plenty of low moments on the LP, and the tracklist could be cut down to the benefit of the album overall, but there’s something for almost everyone with this project, and I appreciate that. Is it one of Kanye’s best pieces of work? Not particularly, but it’s a return to form (in some moments) that we haven’t seen from the Chicago MC in quite a while. For sure the most widely appreciated hip-hop project to come out this year, Donda has plenty of characteristics and tracks everyone can appreciate.

Red (Taylor’s Version) – Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift’s newest project, a re-recorded version of her 2012 classic Red, brings a lot of new material to the table, and a matured Taylor only enhances many of the songs that made Red so beloved by fans and critics alike. Taylor has made great strides with her vocal abilities, and one of the most impressive things about this project to me is the fact that on songs being recorded 9 years after they originally were released, she sounds just as emotionally invested if not more so than she does on the original Red, which is impressive. I don’t love this project, and the 2-hour runtime makes it quite the investment to listen to, but for fans of Taylor, there is so much here to love. The only main critique I had with it is that songs like 22 and I Knew You Were Trouble sound better coming from the younger Taylor than they do from the present-day Swift, but that’s mostly out of her control. The vault tracks are all solid, and the 10-minute version of the heart-wrenching All Too Well is one of the best songs she’s released to date. For fans of Taylor Swift, Red (Taylor’s Version) is more than just fan service, it’s the recreation of a masterpiece, and I have to admit I was impressed even if I don’t have a keen liking to the LP.

An Evening With Silk Sonic – Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak as Silk Sonic

The long-awaited collaboration project between Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars will make serious waves in the music industry, and I predict it will for years to come. The duo takes us back to the ’70s but with a modern twist, as the brief, 30 minute LP features plenty of soul, jazz, R&B, and even funk-influenced tracks that are just as infectious as they are hilarious. This project sees .Paak and Mars finding a way to make their songs comedic without making them corny, and this is quite the achievement. Lead singles Leave The Door Open, Skate, and Smokin Out The Window built up lots of hype for the collaboration, and fans were disappointed when they realized the album was only 8 tracks accompanied by an intro. However, the album makes quite the impression despite its lack of length. Anderson and Bruno had an amazing time making this album, and you can tell that it wasn’t about the money, it was about the enjoyment, and that has resulted in something special. This sound hasn’t been mainstream in decades, and I wouldn’t be surprised if neo-funk or neo-disco suddenly became a fad in the music industry because of the quality and overall popularity of this record. I don’t personally think it’s the greatest album to come out this year, but can get why plenty of people will think otherwise. A must-listen for everyone. 

Certified Lover Boy – Drake

Drake’s 2021 release has no business being in this discussion based on quality, but the popularity of it alone is enough to earn it a mention. Drake is the biggest hip-hop artist in the world, arguably the biggest artist in general, and anything he releases will go platinum and top the charts regardless of how good or bad it is. This LP sees Drake abusing this power he has to the fullest degree, as he creates a bland, bloated record full of trap songs that see him act as a person corrupted by his status and ego. The person Drake is attempting to write from the point of view of is very frustrating to listen to. The album supposedly centers around toxic masculinity, and this isn’t the worst idea I’ve ever heard, as if the album was structured so that as it went on, the character rapping realized his flaws and grew to be less unlikable, it would be an appealing project with a level of depth to it that Drake has never even come close to scraping yet. However, there is no such growth of this character which is ironic, as every Drake release in the past 4 years has made it evident that Drake himself also fails to grow as an artist, and is perfectly fine with releasing subpar albums that are designed to make him as much money as possible. This focus on toxic masculinity sees Drake write some of his most cringe-worthy bars to date, with songs like Girls Want Girls and Way 2 Sexy being unbelievably corny. Even if Way 2 Sexy is one of the most fun songs I’ve heard this year, fun does not equate to quality, as the enjoyment I get from this song comes from how stupid it is, and that is not anything Drake should be proud of, especially at this stage in his career. Now, there is plenty of positives that come along with this record. Drake utilizes some chipmunk soul samples on tracks like Champagne Poetry, Fair Trade, Pipe Down, and You Only Live Twice, which are reminiscent of the glory days of mid to late 2000s hip hop, while also sounding fresh and intriguing. The production on this project is, for the most part, unique and interesting, which is more than I can say for a lot of Drake’s recent releases. Tracks like Race My Mind, N 2 Deep, 7am On Bridle Path, and TSU are all incredibly well-produced and do their job as catchy ear-worms that are designed to keep as many people coming back to this record as possible. But that’s about all I can say in terms of the positives for this project. Drake, the man whose name is under the album title when you listen to it on the radio, on your phone, or whatever means of listening to music, doesn’t do much that is appealing or intriguing to the listener, and this is yet another bloated trap project from the Toronto MC that more than overstays its welcome with a runtime of over 80 minutes. The worst part of this album is that you can tell now more than ever Drake is sacrificing quality for money, and is at this point, trying to make an album that gets him as much money as possible, not an album that will be culturally celebrated, positively received, or remembered when he is long gone. It is infuriating to listen to, as the instrumentals on this project, for the most part, are very entertaining, and to see him waste them like this frustrates me as I listen. Certified Lover Boy has broken several streaming records, and, of course, is incredibly popular with fans, but it’s not strong enough in terms of quality for me to even consider it as a potential album of the year.

Life of a Don – Don Toliver

Don Toliver’s sophomore album met all expectations and exceeded them. A perfect blend of the sound Toliver is known for and a sonic exploration into intimate, soulful R&B that I had been waiting for Don to experiment with using his incredible vocal talents. Songs like Swangin’ on Westheimer are exactly what Don should continue to emulate and build upon in his later works. 

The project is cohesive yet each track seems to have its own identity, and there is a perfect combination of high-energy tracks that are extremely enjoyable and slower, heartfelt ballads that touch the listener on an emotional level. Don really is one of the most versatile artists in the industry today, and if he continues to improve, he will end up being one of the most influential artists of the 21st century. With the trajectory Toliver is on right now, anything is possible, and I am already counting the days until his next new project. I can’t emphasize enough just how impressed I am with Don on this LP. Almost every track here has something to offer, and someone as young as Toliver delivering hit after hit throughout an entire 50-minute album is quite impressive. This is a must-listen for anybody looking to expand their music taste and a strong contender for my album of the year.

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert – Little Simz

Little Simz’s new LP deserves all the recognition it received and more. This might be the overall most impressive album I’ve heard this year. Little Simz delivers on all fronts, her lyricism is incredibly deep and is hard-hitting throughout the album’s 65-minute runtime. The production pulls from all sorts of influences, with tracks like the grandiose Introvert, featuring gorgeous string arrangements and horn, choir, piano, and drums all packing a punch, working surprisingly well with tracks like the simply produced, African-influenced Fear No Man, another favorite of mine from the LP. I don’t have as much fun listening to this record when compared to albums like Life of a Don or Whole Lotta Red, but I think this album is more impressive and impactful, as Little Simz speaks powerfully on social injustice, gender inequality, and finding herself, culminating in an extremely heartfelt record that contains powerful messages and moving production. I would compare the songwriting on this album to that found on a Kendrick Lamar project, and that should tell you all you need to know about what I think is objectively the best album I’ve heard all year.

The Melodic Blue – Baby Keem

Baby Keem, the cousin of the world-renowned hip hop mastermind, lyrical genius Kendrick Lamar, made waves in early September with the release of his commercial debut, The Melodic Blue. The abstract hip-hop project pulls from a variety of influences, namely trap and emo rap, but also includes some very unique vocal inflections and production choices for the record that are nearly impossible to describe. With high-profile collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, and Don Toliver, Keem’s latest release has commercial and critical appeal. I am thoroughly impressed with the production on this album, as plenty of tracks feature multiple beat switches that are all executed to near perfection, and the album sees Keem thrive over a vast variety of sounds. Unfortunately, this isn’t the most refined project and the lack of in-depth songwriting has only worked for an artist like Playboi Carti. Keem tries as hard as he can on this album, and I think he has a lot to offer in the future, but I need to see more from him as a songwriter before I call him one of the best up-and-coming artists in the hip hop scene. However, from a production standpoint, this album more than impressed me. A solid choice for anyone’s album of the year, though not one I would make myself.

CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST – Tyler, The Creator

A popular choice among hip hop fans for album of the year, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST is Tyler, The Creator showing off his skill as a producer on an album that has an infectious, victorious tone. He finds a way to bring insufferably boring trap artists such as 42 Dugg and NBA YoungBoy way out of their comfort zones when it comes to the beats they’re rapping over, and it more than pays off. There isn’t a cohesive sound to the instrumentals on this LP, but they all sound distinctly like something Tyler would create. I’m not particularly impressed with Tyler’s songwriting, although I have always felt he’s most in his element as a producer, and not a rapper, so this isn’t a big issue for me. I can’t pinpoint what’s holding me back from loving this album, but if I had to guess, it’s that Tyler doesn’t seem as emotionally invested in his work as he did on IGOR and Flower Boy. I know it’s hard to follow up two masterpieces like that, especially 2019’s IGOR, but I was expecting a little bit more from Tyler, and I’m not exactly let down as much as I am not particularly impressed. I do think, however, that this is the most mature album Tyler has made from a production standpoint, and despite not loving it, I do appreciate the newest LP from the Los Angeles rapper a great deal. An understandable choice for album of the year. 

Faces – Mac Miller

A polished version of Mac Miller’s 2014 classic mixtape Faces was finally made available on streaming platforms this past October, and despite not being eligible for the honor of album of the year for 2021, it more than deserves a mention. Listening to this LP was unlike any other listening experience I’ve ever had, and the ethereal, jazz-inspired production combined with Mac’s introspective and cryptic lyrics makes for a project that has something new to unpack every time you listen. Mac is self-critical as he struggles with his addiction to drugs, something that would eventually take his life in September of 2018, and it seems like this was a call for help that he knew nobody would listen to, not even himself. The project gives me chills every time I listen, and stays entertaining for the almost 90-minute runtime it has, which is quite the feat. A classic revitalized, and although it can’t win album of the year, as it wasn’t technically released in 2021, if it were, I’d certainly have it in my top 3 from the year.

Whole Lotta Red – Playboi Carti

December 25, 2020, may be known as Christmas to most people around the world, but for fans of Playboi Carti, myself being one of them, it marked another glorious occasion: Playboi Carti would finally be releasing his long-awaited third project, Whole Lotta Red, which fans had been patiently waiting for over 2 and a half years to listen to. Much to their dismay, it was a total departure from the sound that made Carti beloved and cherished by his fanbase. He was trying something different. It’s an album unlike any other. Carti fully embraced the punk persona he had slowly been building up over the past year through cryptic Instagram posts, and the result was an abrasive, loud, punk-inspired trap record that fans could not understand at all. The vocal inflections were strange, the instrumentals stranger, and fans were disappointed, shocked, and most of all, confused by the release. “How could he wait 2 and a half years to release this garbage?”, most fans were wondering on social media. But, as time passed, more and more people took a liking to the record, and it has slowly evolved into an almost universally beloved record by hip hop fans, and it certainly has for me. I am proud to say I never had a strong dislike for the LP and thought that with time, it would become accepted by fans as a solid album. I did not expect it to become as cherished as it is today, although I understand why it is. It’s such a fun album. The crazy instrumentals and wicked vocal inflections make for an energy-packed listening experience unlike anything else the music industry has ever seen. The vibe of this album is so unique and infectious and it’s truly incredible how an LP as strange as this one can be so appreciated. I think that Carti has solidified himself as a big name in hip-hop, and the continual growth that he shows as an artist with every project is truly something to behold. He is certainly an enigma, and that’s honestly the most appealing thing about him. Despite not being released in 2021, most of its impact was felt in 2021, and for that, I’m going to let it slide as a solid contender for the album of the year.

Nurture – Porter Robinson

If you told me that I would enjoy Folk-EDM as much as I did listening to the new Porter Robinson LP, I would have called you a madman. But Nurture is one of the most refreshing albums I’ve ever heard and for sure one of the most unique listening experiences I’ve ever had. Robinson creates ethereal, heartfelt tracks that simultaneously make the listener feel like they’re walking on clouds and lying in a bed of flowers. 7 years removed from his previous LP, Worlds, Robinson surprised and quenched the thirst of many fans with his 2021 return, and I was thoroughly impressed. It sounds so digital yet feels so natural, and listening to tracks like Look at the Sky gives my ears quite the sensation. I can’t say much more than that, but know that Robinson’s sophomore album is a very refined, very peaceful listen that I didn’t think I would enjoy as much as I did. A decent contender with the others on this list for album of the year. 

Jubilee – Japanese Breakfast

This album is mind-blowing. Japanese Breakfast, an indie rock band led by the Korean-American Michelle Zauner, released one of the most impressive musical works I’ve heard to date with their 2021 record Jubilee. It’s quite the experience and is soulful, heartfelt, melodic, and most of all, jubilant, of course. The vocals from Zauner combined with beautiful instrumentation from her and the rest of the band are gorgeous, and although it may not be my favorite to come out this year, it rivals Sometimes I Might Be Introvert for what I would call objectively the best album to release this year. An incredibly strong LP that is, once again, hard to describe in words. It’s very calming and a little uplifting from a sonic standpoint, but very emotional when you focus on the songwriting. It evades description in its beauty, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in checking out an indie project. 

The Winner

There are plenty of great albums that released this year, most of which I haven’t even listened to, but of the ones I have, and the ones that made it onto this list, one stands out above the rest in terms of how much I enjoyed it and how much I was impressed with the artist who made it. I felt that they tapped into their potential, and made massive strides from their previous work. The project will certainly be in my rotation for years to come and will be the defining album of 2021 when I reminisce. That album is Life of a Don, by Don Toliver. A trap-R&B fusion has not been executed better, at least that I’ve heard, and I cannot wait to see how Don evolves and improves with his later releases. This album is the perfect combination in that it is enjoyable but also remains impressive from a songwriting standpoint, especially for an artist in such a genre as Toliver. It’s not the most in-depth, but the intimacy and emotion that is felt in Don’s lyrics on several tracks along with the pure infectious nature of the LP put it above all the other albums I had the pleasure of listening to this year. I can’t wait for 2022, and I hope that we get just as much quality music as we did this year. 

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