The Kollection Presents: The 21 Best Albums of 2021

Each year, as December unfolds, The Kollection team at large comes together for the rigorous process of listening, re-listening, ranking, and writing about the albums that defined our year.

Once complete, a list reflecting the refined taste of 20+ music nerds and a showcase of the trends, success stories, and standout performances of the past 12 months appears.

We are proud to present the top 21 albums of 2021.

Each writer is credited under their respective review.

21. Sufjan Stevens, Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind 

A Beginner’s Mind is a true collaboration between two friends– Sufjan Stevens and Angelo De Augustine– who find themselves enamored with the world of film while sharing a cabin together in upstate New York. The various films that the two watched to unwind after writing sessions soon became the entire foundation for the project. 

“Cimmerian Shade” was inspired by Silence of the Lambs, and is longingly sung from the lonely perspective of Buffalo Bill.  Alternatively “Back To Oz” was inspired by The Wizard of Oz sequel, Return to Oz. The album is filled with filmic references, soft guitar plucks and gentle lyricism that allow for a tried and undoubtedly true Sufjan feel that is backed by emotionally-charged experimentation. Each track unveils the many places the poet’s mind goes while watching film– a perfectly randomized stream of consciousness. 

Sufjan has stolen the attention of the indie scene once again, and this album’s backstory will hold a special place in any cinephile’s heart. At last, we have a full record that packs as much niche nostalgia into one project as his 2015 album, Carrie & Lowell. Be it progress or consistency, Stevens and De Augustine are full steam ahead in the right direction.

20. L’Impératrice – Tako Tsubo

L’Impératrice is a 6-piece French band with a knack for the sweet and sexy. With one full length album and two EPs under their belt, their second studio release feels mature in contrast. Tako Tsubo tantalizes from the start, treading boldly with “Anomalie bleue.” The first guitar riff, the suspenseful synths and the buoyant, cymbal climax combine to cast a spell entrancing listeners and evoking the question of what’s on the other side of that magical door. The payoff of listening to this album in full? L’Impératrice lead singer, Flore Benguigui educates the open ear about love at first sight, feelings of intoxication and glee, and the cavernous world that is Tako Tsubo

Benguigui is the ringleader of the record and the 5 men who play instruments on each track. Her confidence points to a band whose chemistry is catching impressive momentum and a record that is a huge step forward from Mathari. From gut-wrenching heartbreak in “Submarine” to ironic misogyny in “Peur de filles”, Tako Tsubo is the sort of therapy that leaves you feeling like you’ve just had a day at the spa: cleansed, relaxed but even then, a little bruised up and emotionally drained.

19. Turnstile – Glow On

Will Mingrone

Even though Turnstile’s sound can be staggeringly heavy, GLOW ON has palatable elements so impressive that it demands attention from even the casual punk listener. The Baltimore outfit look more rehearsed and refined than ever on their third studio album, which delivers a potent batch of shoegaze, hardcore, pop, and electronic infused punk music. It’s a dynamic and dense 34 minute listen that has enough points of entry to entertain any hardcore skeptic.

The more unhinged cuts like “MYSTERY,” “DONT PLAY,” and “FLY AGAIN” keep the traditional hardcore Turnstile sound that we’re used to: high tempo, sharp instrumentation, and off the wall vocals. But the band also delivers some more meditative, atmospheric approaches to punk with tracks like “UNDERWATER BOIand “ALIEN LOVE CALL,” which includes a feature from the incomparable Blood Orange. The variety of sounds proves to be a surprisingly cohesive choice and a creative win for the still developing punk band. With a cosign and recent tour with $uicideboy$, it is clear that despite a niche aesthetic, Turnestile’s bold personality has put them on track for a lasting career in experimental rock music.

18. Arlo Parks – Collapsed in Sun Beams

Paulette Ely

At 20 years old, Arlo Parks let the world open her book of poetry and somehow it read as both profoundly mature and nostalgically youthful. The London artist created Collapsed In Sunbeams, a 12 track debut decorated with color theory and colloquial lyricism to create a sense of intimacy expressed only by true poets. Fusing spoken word with R&B riffs, Arlo Parks made an album that aligns with this era of Eilish-esque self-discovery and Olivia Rodrigo’s yearning for romance all the while standing uniquely alone in style and sound. 

Each song on the album exemplifies why it wholly works so well as a debut, with every verse pointing to a crisis in the style of a coming-of-age allure. Whether it be “Black Dog’s” detailing of a mental health intervention for a friend or the butterflies you know you’re too smart to feel in “Too Good,” Parks somehow brings to life the inner-workings of my middle-school diary through language that I still have barely developed in my adulthood. Although I did all that I could to avoid the growing pains associated with aging in 2021, Collapsed In Sunbeams was a gentle reminder that self-discovery is ongoing and sometimes it sounds like a warm, poetic hug. 

17. Baby Keem – The Melodic Blue

Baby Keem has been making waves for years now while navigating the shadow and spotlight of his cousin Kendrick Lamar. While he blew up with singles such as “Orange Soda” and “Honest,” this album is the spark that officially establishes Keem as one of Hip Hop’s most exciting voices. 

The Melodic Blue is the most comprehensive Keem release yet. He steps out of his traditional realm of club bangers and balances the album out with soulful cuts that are, to a first listener’s surprise, more R&B than trap. His comfort in this creative space is surprising for how new the sound is. This change isn’t a full departure from form, though; when Keem hits, he hits hard. Baby Keem still brings his usual high energy and ups the theatrics bringing forth a compelling and sprawling new album.

Though this point may lead skeptics to dismiss Baby Keem as riding coattails, the most stunning moments of the album undeniably come in collaboration with his older cousin. But make no mistake, Keem can trade bars with the indisputably legendary Kendrick Lamar and keep up seamlessly. His promise still shines through the shadow of the rap messiah. This triumphant album shows active artistic growth and a declaration that Keem won’t be pigeonholed by generic trap beats. Above all else, The Melodic Blue shows real promise for the future of West Coast Hip Hop. 

16. Shire T, Maribou State – Tomorrow’s People

Scott Delamare

Tomorrow’s People is the debut record from Shire T, one half of the dynamic duo Maribou State. Though it’s backed by the formal Maribou State name, this album is in essence a Shire T performance, the artist’s bold breakthrough into solo stardom. This club-ready “celebration of British dance” melds the driving acid basslines of the 90’s rave scene with organic feel-good rhythms. It’s warm, it’s energetic, it’s dance music in its rawest form.

The record kicks off with ‘Full Attention’ as the distorted ambient synth lines back up the bouncing bassline front and center. The drum breaks of ‘Blue Kiss’ feel nostalgic and fresh all at once, as a resonant acid bass drives grit into the record for the first time. Through and through, David’s ability to make electronic drums feel so organic on this LP lend to an easy listening experience. With high energy trancelike melodies of ‘Over You’, the funky sampling of ‘Burnin’ Jungle’, and the fragile piano grooves of ‘London. Paris. Berlin.’, Shire T’s debut has got a little something for every electronic fan, and a charming change of pace for those that may be new to the scene.

15. Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR

At 18 years old, Olivia Rodrigo took the world by storm this year, emerging from a rabid concoction of TikTok, teen angst, and the impossible-to-define “new normal” that 2020 left us. There are definitely those who are quick to write off such a young star like Rodrigo, blaming her rise to fame on tasteless internet teens, but even cynics have begun to admit that SOUR has brought something fresh and substantial to the table. SOUR solidified Rodrigo’s independence from Disney, cursing and catapulting her brand into a territory that the likes of Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato did not dare explore until their 20s… and it paid off. Rodrigo is responsible for undeniably the biggest debut of the year, topping charts left and right while racking up millions of streams. 

SOUR reads like the diary of a heartbroken teenage girl navigating the pain, sadness, and anger of breakups and betrayal. “driver’s license” is the moody centerpiece, speaking to the 16-year-old in all of us, while “good 4 u” hits like a new-wave “Misery Business” and encourages the listener to scream like one’s ex is right in front of them. The subject matter deepens on the tracks “hope ur ok” and “jealousy, jealousy”, which both tackle how painful growing up can really be. “jealousy, jealousy” takes a hard look at the immense pressure that teen girls face in the age of the internet. “hope ur ok” closes out the album and tastefully speaks to homophobic abuse that queer children receive from unsupportive parents. I’ll be the first to admit that the lyrics and composition left me ugly crying.

We’ve all been picking up the pieces that were shattered to bits by both quarantine and times are simply more emotionally charged. So go ahead, lean into it. Go cry and yell with Olivia Rodrigo like you’re the main character. We all stand to benefit from connecting to our teenage angst every now and then.

14. CZARFACE, MF DOOM – Super What?

Super What? is a sonic landscape of what CZARFACE, featuring 7L, Esoteric and Inspectah Deck, and the metal faced villain, MF DOOM, do best. Keeping both DOOM and Czarface’s voices intact and at the forefront of the album, many of the tracks contain star studded features such as Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and D.M.C. The collaborations are incredibly cohesive, each artist bounces and builds off of the next rather than competing over sounds and flows. It’s a true dream for any thoughtful hip-hop purist.

Both DOOM and the members of Czarface are production magicians who take beats, samples, and lyrics, and lay them out into impressive audio collages. Each track warrants multiple listens; you’ll hear a new easter egg with each additional spin. What sticks out most about MF DOOM’s contributions to this album proves to be his knack for storytelling. DOOM writes worlds within these records that promise to entrance the listener who closely follows the chopped up clips, beats and lyrics, and looks out for the easter eggs hidden inside. 

This release is active, dynamic, and alive. Listening to Super What? feels like a heavy head high. Translating words, melodies and audio clips into visual images, CZARFACE and DOOM create more than just sick tracks, they create complex stories that captivate not just the ears, but also the minds of their listeners. The record is a true celebration of crate digging and smoke filled cyphering alike, the perfect send off for the late great Metal Face Doom.

13. PinkPantheress – to hell with it

It is easy to label what 20 year old PinkPantheress is doing as just a fade moment, but it’s so much more than that. In fact, she even describes her music as “new nostalgic” looking back longingly onto the early aughts of internet culture that felt much less complex than our current virtual reality. PinkPantheress creates music for 20 somethings who are trying to maneuver through some of the most transformative years of their lives amidst a global pandemic, mostly via the internet. 

to hell with it is an emblem of this odd period in time where people have managed to keep their heads up and look ahead into the future, despite the instability of day to day life. Its lush grooves provide a fleeting escape from our reality, touching on vulnerable subject matter in the lyrics while keeping up nostalgic upbeat vibes through playful production elements.

This short 10 song album is the ultimate driving mix as its drum and bass elements, such as the presence of fast breakbeats and synthesizers, make for a high-speed listening experience. That is to say that these songs remind me of the Fast and Furious franchise or any virtual driving video game. Songs such as “Last valentines” and “Break if off” make you want to dance on 2X speed. PinkPantheress herself is as elusive, humble and self aware as her lyrics.  While her next albums might be leaps and bounds away from the sound of this breakout album, the culture is incredibly intrigued by this young artist who shows that no matter what age you are, there is always room to be nostalgic. 

12. Kanye West – Donda

It’s August 26 of 2021, and beautifully ringing looped piano chords from “Come to Life,” which have never been heard publicly before, are echoing through Soldier Field in Chicago. Inside the stadium are tens of thousands of people and a replica of Kanye West’s childhood home. Before the house bursts into flames as part of the show’s finale, Kanye’s voice booms over the speakers, “Floating on a silver lining. So when I’m free, I’m free.” 

Until this moment, Donda was still very much a work in progress. The multiple other listening parties leading up to the Soldier Field event included earlier, rougher cuts from the album that brought warranted skepticism. Many of the early Donda cuts had different features from what we see now, or contained sketchy mixes, or even lacked drums entirely. But true Kanye aficionados knew to keep faith; it was all a part of the fabled Ye album rollout.

Sure enough, the stunning climax of “Come to Life” proved to be worth the wait, as it put an exclamation point on the fresh album that preceded it. The sprawling journey on Donda is a long yet captivating one, as Ye delivers patient, anthemic hip-hop that takes full advantage of its thematic inspiration and collaborating artists. The religious narratives here are far more developed and earnest than in previous iterations, and it never compromises quality lyrics or production. The spirit that Kanye has been trying to channel for years now is finally truly realized and it makes all the difference.

Like any Kanye album, there are dozens of moments that will stick with you, like the gorgeous organ on “Pure Souls,” the silky smooth vocals from Vory on “Jonah,” the absurd line about Adam’s rib on “Off the Grid,” and of course that absolute slam dunk of a Lauryn Hill sample. But still, no track on Donda will ever be quite as poignant as “Come to Life.” It carries a special, indescribable honesty to it that defines the entire listening experience. It perfectly soundtracks the dark imagery of Kanye’s home burning before our very eyes, informing and magnifying his troubled past while simultaneously healing it.

11. Fred again.. – Actual Life 1 & 2

Mitch Meleski

Among a landscape of shallow lyrics and recycled production, Fred again.. has arrived to remind us that electronic pop music can still be honest. In his debut album Actual Life and the matching part 2 (both released in 2021), the London-based producer crafts sonic diaries centered around samples of real people and environments largely recorded with his iPhone. But the realness doesn’t end there. 

Hidden behind danceable house and UK garage-influenced beats is an intimately vulnerable account of trauma, along with Fred’s attempt to move beyond it. Most would recognize the inspiration of Fred’s breakout track “Marea (We’ve Lost Dancing)” as the shared struggle of pandemic purgatory. Fewer, though, would recognize that these songs (from the same ever-beaming and lighthearted lad on his Instagram) also contain his experience of the fatal illness and passing of a close friend in 2020.

While the rest of the scene “gets down to bUsINesS” and puts out dime-a-dozen party tech, Fred Gibson bares his soul across the two albums. Masterfully emotive piano riffs and Fred’s own sorrowful vocals repeatedly lead listeners from melancholy to euphoria and back. And yet even with the interspersed heartache, the overall feeling is not of defeat but of optimistic persistence in the face of it all. Actual life isn’t a clean split between highs and lows, and neither is Actual Life.

Though he stops short of telling us how to find it ourselves, it’s clear that Fred again.. has found release in his music…

…unless, maybe, “release” is that answer? And all that from a Pop album! 

10. Natalie Bergman – Mercy

Kian McHugh

“Your love is holy. My heart is broken. You will lift me up when I am blue. When I feel lost, I come to You.” Who is You? Jesus Christ himself, when you’re listening to the creative genius of Natalie Bergman. Mercy is the most interesting album of the year– an authentic 1960’s acid trip and stay at home bible camp all blended into a smoothie of self-awareness, Americana, and an emotional authenticity unseen in most music as of late. Only once you unpack the fair share of tough hands Bergman has been dealt can her and my praise be understood– listen, watch and then reassess on your own time. Regardless, a musical ear will find that every track Bergman composes on her lonesome and shines her light on proves hauntingly beautiful, hopeful, and, somehow, happy in a way that you may not have felt in some time.

Born into a lost generation, Natalie Bergman’s decision to get a little high on the lord and savior is… chic? relatable? it’s besides the point? We’ve all gone through the ringer these past two years. Revisiting a bit of Gospel might be just what we need. I don’t mind if you pay no heed to the lyrics. 

9. BADBADNOTGOOD – Talk Memory 

The long awaited follow-up to IV finally came this year, with the Canadian outfit further exploring their take on “Jazz”, though at this point simply calling their output Jazz feels like a gross understatement. If collabs with Sam Herring (Future Islands), Odd Future, and Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah were any indication, this band has that “it” factor, that thing that makes both artists and fans keep wanting more. IV was one of the best interpretations of Jazz we’ve seen in our era. With its polished and modern sound but old soul throughout, it provided a door for a lot of people to explore the often intimidating world of Jazz. To say they had their work cut out to follow that up would be putting it lightly, luckily they did so with flying colors.

The grandiose “Signal from the Noise” opens things up very cinematically on Talk Memory, setting the tone for the rest of the album, and is highlighted by a shredding fuzz-guitar solo. From there BBNG winds through ethereal horn and string sections [Unfolding (Momentum 73)] and into a 3 song run of Arthur Verocai collabs, whose influence is present all over this album. Whole books could be written on Verocai’s contribution to music, but I suggest just listening to his self-titled album and marvel at his touch. The string arrangements surrounding the band’s playing make each guitar solo, drum fill, synth line, and thumping bass line pop like nothing we’ve heard from the band, and is enough to make you mouth “wow” a few times throughout listening. A track with a searing Terrace Martin solo leaves you both satisfied and wanting more, though is a fitting bookend to a gorgeous, inspiring, and imaginative album. Overall, BADBADNOTGOOD have come through with a dazzling cosmic effort yet again, proving that they are in fact undisputed heavyweights of the modern jazz movement

8. Dijon – Absolutely

Dijon’s “Absolutely” is an extremely refreshing approach to making a debut album. It’s clear that much of this record was written in a casual manner, with many of the songs sounding like they were recorded by the collaborators sitting in a room together around a single mic. The grittiness of these recordings alongside Mk.Gee’s analogue processes, drum contributions & Noah Le Gros’ slide guitar sets the album apart from the pack. 

Very few songs the average person would come across today are created in this way – many of Dijon’s contemporaries are clean cut. “Absolutely” sounds like taking a step back in time to when recording equipment was not nearly as advanced. Sonically, this record is more akin to a rock album from the early 90s than it is to another 2021 alternative R&B record.

Dijon’s full length debut showcases a refreshingly garage approach to the vast world of R&B, and it’s safe to say that the record’s influence will start to show itself in the coming years. This is one of the best standalone albums of the year, Dijon deserves his flowers. 

7. Remi Wolf – Juno

There are singers, and then there’s whatever the hell Remi Wolf is. Putting the high flying vocal acrobatics of Remi Wolf in a box is like putting a live grenade in a tupperware container. She can’t be pinned down, not for a single solitary second, on her breakout record Juno. The dynamic vocalist can laugh, cry, rap, sing, observe, manifest, all with ease. One minute, she croons “And I’ve been waiting so long, just trying to tell you… that lately, all of my songs, I’m singing about you.” Another minute, she asks “Hey guys, should I Postmates Chuck-E-Cheese?” She is defined by neither of these moments; the joy of listening comes from the whiplash one feels switching between them.

Juno is jam packed with rich production that pulls from hip hop, jazz, R&B, indie, and electronic influences, though it’s carried with an altruism that’s uniquely pop. Each track is laced with bright synths, punching bass, and crunchy guitars, but the infectious and uplifting vocal efforts from Remi make the mix alarmingly accessible. Listening to music this dense and complicated shouldn’t be this much fun to listen to.

But guess what, it is this fun to listen to; arguably the most instantly enjoyable project of the year. Ultimately, despite a cacophony of unique musical influences and a wildly diverse mood board of vocal performances, what really defines this project is the raw, visceral energy that it ensues from the moment the opening track hits. You can try to explain, categorize, and elaborate all you want, but at the end of the day, Remi Wolf is going to fucking explode.

6. Ross From Friends – Tread

Scott Delamare

Electronic experimentation at its finest. Ross From Friends, aka Felix Weatherall, returns after three years with his second studio LP, pushing the boundaries of glitchy, two stepped melancholic dance records. Utilizing his newly self-programmed music plugin, Thresho, Weatherall compiles months of studio jam sessions with story-lined memories to compose an eclectic late night/early hour record that will have you focused and lost all at once.

‘The Daisy’ starts Tread off with airy breaks, droning pads, and an addictive vocal chop pathing the way for the entire record’s continued experimentation. Traditional fans of Ross From Friends will be happy to hear the danceability of the two following tracks, as a thumping club kick drives ‘Love Divide’ and ‘Revellers’ while maintaining spacey and melancholic synth melodies. The wondrous advantages of programming a live recording and sampling device becomes apparent with tracks like ‘A Brand New Start’, ‘Spatter/Splatter’, and ‘Thresho_1.0’ as the lofi grandfather experiments with new audio landscapes. All in all, Tread is a work of art, a work of technology, and a work of inspiration to anyone in the electronic music scene. 

5. Babe Rainbow – Changing Colours

Kenzie Jones

Babe Rainbow is taking psychedelic indie-rock in a notable direction. Their fourth studio album, Changing Colours, is a beautifully-crafted and blissful piece of imagination. The opening four tracks, all released as singles prior to the full project, give listeners a sense of familiarity and comfortability with the entire album before listening to completion; an artistic choice that embodies the feeling of their inherent sound– comfort

Filled with gentle guitar riffs and soothing vocals, Changing Colours takes listeners on a dreamy life journey. The standout track “Zeitgeist”, is lighthearted and uplifting– a reminder to chase one’s dreams. “Different Stages of Life”, the closing track, has an entirely unique sonic feel. The messaging that closes the album– “Everybody needs connection, you know. Wondering which direction it’ll go. I’ll sit back and watch this big old river flow.” – is the sentiment that wraps Changing Colours together. Each of us are in different stages of life and we’ll all find our way eventually.

4. James Blake – Friends that Break Your Heart

Kian McHugh

James Blake’s career is defined by consistent progress. He hops from lily pad to lily pad refining his sound, collaborating with the best of the best, and collects industry accolades along the way. On his 2019 release, Assume Form, Blake crafted one of the best flowing and most versatile collections of music to grace popular culture in years. Features shined through and still he was at his best on those tracks he was, well, alone. 

The progress seen on Friends That Break Your Heart is one of honesty with self and the listener. For the first time ever, Blake seems to sacrifice his impenetrable sense of cool for a sense of realism– or maybe just maturity. In this new realm, Blake has let go of the toxic and embraced the “yaaaas” of his success. Lyrically, this project is an ode to easier living: “Never jaded eyes. Envious, no crime… Away from me is just fine.” Sonically, it’s flawless as ever.

The live show is even better than the recorded- catch it if you have the chance.

3. Parcels – Day/Night

Jacob Luna

After releasing one of the better live albums in recent memory, Parcels took a much needed break from their busy touring schedule to decompress and rediscover their sound-  typically known as a groovy ’70s clad disco pop group, each member put themselves through a bootcamp of sorts to better write the music they hear in their heads, falling back into making music that is loose and less rigid, as their performances were typically accustomed too. The result was an ambitious double album that showcases sounds both familiar and fresh. 

Day/Night is well worth the wait, as its themes of duality render a striking and encapsulating listening experience. The album opener “LIGHT” slow burns and eases us into a more upbeat and familiar grooviness we’ve come to expect from the band, but something’s different- you can hear a looseness, a confidence in their playing. This further manifests in songs like “Daywalk”, where their synchrony comes through their fluid playing, and their singles “Free” and “Somethinggreater” which sound sunny and glowing, a perfect representation of the first album. 

“Night” is no slouch though, with some of the strongest cuts Parcels have ever written. A good bit of songs on this album features brooding and darker songs that are unexpected, but nonetheless gorgeous. The highlights, however, are filled with the trademark energy the band brings, though it’s been put through a more matured lens. The funky “Famous” could be a b-side on a lost Earth, Wind, & Fire record, while “Lordhenry” has some of the best dual guitar work we’ve ever (ever) seen from Pat and Jules. “Thefear” however, is the most encapsulating song of “Night” with its mood-setting keys, haunting yet profound vocals, and eerie reverse vocals. Both albums together result in a project that is ambitious, fresh, and thought-inducing, mixed in with the familiar harmonies and grooving bits we’ve come to expect from these Australian expats.

2. Tyler, The Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost

Call Me If You Get Lost is a huge musical left turn, even for someone as off the wall as Tyler the Creator. After a catalogue of dark, off putting punk-rap, 2017’s Flower Boy was the turn of a new leaf, delivering glittery, string laced hip-hop. 2019’s IGOR reinvented him yet again with daring lo fi synth pop that was unlike anything popular music had ever heard. Then this year, turning the tables for what felt like the 10th time in his career, Tyler came through with a bona fide hip-hop classic that showed new levels of lyrical precision. It’s raw, expansive rap music that gives fans a more detailed look into his worldview than ever before, as Tyler preaches from the top of his empire that he’s built over the last decade.

CMIYGL is a whirlwind of rap exceptionalism that delivers stunning vocals in countless different forms. Tyler’s words carry immense weight, as he’s rapping from a place of unprecedented clarity and success. Look at the unhinged verbal attack on tracks like “Corso” and “Juggernaut” or the poignant long form storytelling on “Wilshire.” There’s also the meditative, thoughtful observations on “Sir Baudelaire” and “Manifesto.” Or my personal favorite, look at the sexy anti-balladry on “Wusyaname”: “Ahhh you look MALNOURISHED.” These differing sides of Tyler are brought to new heights, and all are wildly infectious. It also doesn’t hurt that the entire album is narrated by mixtape legend DJ Drama.

It’s hard to imagine a rap album about success, traveling, cars, heartbreak, race, bisexuality, and moms to be as realized and as cohesive as this album is. It’s hard to imagine a new Tyler album that so convincingly returns to pure hip-hop conventions the way this one does, all while remaining as bold and wacky as ever. It’s hard to imagine a better time to release this album, as 2021’s return to the outside world was beautifully soundtracked by Tyler’s hymns of long-awaited celebration. It’s also hard to imagine what in God’s name Tyler will do next. But yet, against all odds, Tyler imagined all of this, just as he is undoubtedly masterminding his next opus for summer of 2023. Tyler, the Creator’s most powerful weapon has always been his daring imagination- that and his ability to turn it into reality.

1. Isaiah Rashad – The House is Burning

If 2021 has taught the world anything, it’s that clarity is becoming harder and harder to find amongst the constant chaos. Isaiah Rashad’s long-awaited album The House Is Burning does not force clarity upon us, but instead encourages us to dig deeper into our interior, to think more critically about our relationship to self and to those we surround ourselves with. 

It’s rare to find an artist as real as Isaiah Rashad. The word humble fails to do him justice. Isaiah is just incredibly human, and in this chaotic world we live in, humanity is refreshing. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Zay recounts his feelings about the release of his latest record: “I’m most scared about being too busy to talk to people, or like having too much noise around me where they can formulate their own idea of me and then not put the same type of respect onto themselves.” 

This modesty comes from years out of the rap spotlight. Zay’s previous album The Sun’s Tirade came out in 2016 and, in the time in between releases, he struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, leading him to disappear from the public eye to seek help. In 2021, The House Is Burning is somewhat of a musical autobiography, encapsulating Zay’s reflections over the elongated break from the public. Like other TDE artists, Zay’s lyrics are emotionally rich, touching on topics that are intimately connected to his own experience, but also incredibly relatable to the masses. The album stands out not only for its poignant lyrics, but also for its soulful melodies and genius drumlines produced by Kal Banx. Banx’s calling card is beautiful simplicity and engaging production, which is why he and Zay collaborate so well. They’re both hilarious odd balls that crafted this album by playing and keeping it fun. 

Like much of the world right now, Isaiah Rashad admits to being in a bit of an emotional crisis, but in his interviews and lyrics, he highlights that he survives and thrives by laughing through it. Power doesn’t always come from pain. In many cases, pain seriously alters the trajectory of your life. However, with the right attitude, pain can lead to influential art. Isaiah Rashad does just that in The House Is Burning, revealing to his audience that he believes it doesn’t matter how many times you start over, because eventually you will find clarity and self respect within yourself that will allow you to reach your full potential. Zay puts it best, “My main thing is, if you like yourself as much as I like myself, you’ll be able to do it.” 

As 2021 was an eclectic, individualistic, and mind-numbing year, so was the resulting music.

Thank you to Max Pasion for coordinating the curation, Max Gambin for creating the artwork, and to each and every one of you who took the time to write, read, and listen. Whether or not it was a “good” year in any regard, culturally it was important and impactful– and thus the music from the aspiring artists, community staples, and longtime legends that shined through is as well. And so, we hope you enjoy this curated listening experience of the projects that left a lasting impression on our team and the write ups courtesy of the biggest advocate for each album.

Stream albums 1 through 21 in order below: