Strange year. A year of starts and stops, of feeling better but still bad, of muffled crises and a hazy future. Who can maintain focus when viruses are mutating along with the currency system? How did anyone have patience for the sobfests and statement albums that dominated the pop-music discourse? I needed songs that itched for attention, that evaded routines, that could tell a joke, and that said it was good to survive each day. Many of my picks could be described with the word that a brilliant new artist used to describe overpaying for mushrooms: silly. Was there any nicer way to label 2021?
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1. Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg
Imagine that you and a total stranger wrote down every thought you had in a day--every odd craving, every awkward flashback--compared notes, and realized that 80 percent of what you'd written was identical. The results might feel as happily baffling as the debut album by the London post-punk act Dry Cleaning. While the poet Florence Shaw shares droll, cut-and-paste monologues, her bandmates' precise rock heroics create the feeling of an amazing story unfolding. As you throw devil horns to mentions of "crappy, crazy pizzas," and "knackering drinks with close friends," life's banality comes to feel like the shared adventure it really is.
Listen to: "Scratchcard Lanyard"
2. Arca, KicK iii
Three albums into the hallucinogenic, Where's Waldo?-ass sprawl of her five-album Kick series, the electronic experimentalist Arca delivers this warning: "Oh, shit!" The earth seems to crack open, a million robo-spiders crawl out, and you may feel the impulse to try and dance to whatever is happening. The ensuing swarm of beats and blasting noises on KicK iii radiates feral swagger--Arca raps of her "cuddly fur, sharpened paws"--while also showing how machines can help humans carve outside their reality. The more confusing the clamor, the more adrenaline to enjoy.
Listen to: "Ripples"
3. Allison Russell, Outside Child
This folk songwriter's solo debut opens as if in a lovely, languorous dream--but a nightmare looms. To make sense of her own childhood abuse, Russell has tapped into the mythmaking powers of roots music while also drawing from existing legend (the mystical chant "Hy-Brasil") and history (the feminist elegy "All of the Women"). Yet sun rays spill out in rousing choruses about endurance and grace. Particularly when she slips into the French of her native Montreal, her steely-smooth voice makes the same case as her lyrics: "I'm stronger than eggshells / I'm tougher than luck."
Listen to: "The Runner"
4. Tyler, the Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost
Just as the vaccinated masses began to browse Travelocity again, the visionary rapper Tyler, the Creator invented a jet-setter persona called Tyler Baudelaire. He's a filthy-mouthed Rick Steves whose hype man brags about scarfing French-vanilla ice cream in Geneva. Yet the whirlwind Call Me If You Get Lost is less of an escapist jaunt than a confession of restlessness. As DJ Drama shouts over choppy, ever-changing beats, Tyler's grumbling about money, relationships, and aging implies an all-too-common mystery: Why do I always want more?
Listen to: "MASSA"
5. Underscores, Fishmonger
Olivia Rodrigo, Lil Nas X, Willow Smith: all young folks expressing their god-given brattiness by turning to the trusty tools of pop-punk. But the new artist who makes jumpy rhythms and nasal-blocked vocals seem freshest is the California hyperpop kid Devon Karpf, whose debut album grieves for a rare and doomed fish. With glitchy productions and unpredictable song structures anchored by tidy hooks and an emo heart, Underscores nails the same trick that Violent Femmes, Blink-182, and 100 Gecs did: creating songs that first seem like a joke, but that don't get old.
Listen to: "Second Hand Embarrassment"
6. Lorde, Solar Power
How rude for fans to start mocking the onetime coolest-girl-on-Earth the second she started making relaxed beach music. How predictable of me, a longtime Lorde skeptic, to finally get into her when she did. Solar Power isn't lacking for slowness and dorky jokes, but the gushing warmth of highlights such as "The Path" and "Oceanic Feeling" is like psilocybin, making ordinary surroundings glow. Luckily, Lorde threw her phone into the water to prevent anyone from discouraging her from making more music like this.
Listen to: "Secrets From a Girl (Who's Seen It All)"
7. Rod Wave, SoulFly
In an era when sadness has become part of slick hip-hop aesthetics--a bummed style doesn't necessarily mean bummed substance--the Florida hitmaker Rod Wave renders pain with old-fashioned fidelity. The singer and rapper's weary tales arrive with churchly trills, nu-metal groans, quiet-storm beats, and zero concern for coolness. The strongest tearjerker, the love letter of "Street Runner," shows how earnestness can enable highs that are--as Rod Wave sings with grandfatherly gentleness--"higher and higher." (Nine bonus tracks open the album's deluxe edition, but start with the original first song, "SoulFly.")
Listen to: "OMDB"
8. Ninajirachi and Kota Banks, True North (Deluxe)
If our superstar dance divas are going to remain busy with lingerie or (as they should) legal emancipation, talented newbies with laptops can still keep our parties fresh. The best fizzy-pop, jump-on-couch collection of the year was an expanded 2020 EP out of Australia that some streaming-service algorithm implanted in my ears. Its combo of sparkly electro textures and twisty, femme-Eminem boasts is familiar and futuristic, dumb and smart, all at once. "I'm too much for you, small doses," the rapper/singer Kota Banks warns with palpable confidence that you'll hit replay.
Listen to: "Secretive!"
9. Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales
R&B divas have long done what Jazmine Sullivan does on Heaux Tales: speak of their experiences in ways that complicate stereotypes about women who pursue their desires in the bedroom and at the bank. But Sullivan's album-length expose of the way that money and sexism shape the romantic battlefield has the analytical heft of a dissertation, albeit a hilarious, moving, and virtuosically executed one. As she and her many guest stars hop between horny raps, yearning ballads, and chatty interludes, they achieve a Matrix-like miracle, reshaping the very game that they play.
Listen to: "The Other Side"
10. iLoveMakonnen, My Parade
If you're not familiar with the 2014 hit Drake collaboration "Tuesday," prepare for Makonnen Kamali Sheran's voice by imagining some hybrid of Prince and Vincent Price on laughing gas. On what's technically the rapper/singer's first album, iLoveMakonnen brings hammy excess to gem-like jingles across genres: hip-hop, country, Andrew Lloyd Webber-core, and the oddly crowded field of "I'm Too Sexy" tributes. During this past spring of cautious optimism, I turned to My Parade again and again for the way Makonnen transmits a squealing, giddy rush so pure that it doesn't matter whether it lasts.
Listen to: "2Sexy"