While we are still battling back from the most unprecedented years in modern history, 2021 was another jam-packed, wild time… especially for all things music.
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As the world is slowly opening up with more folks getting the COVID vaccine and boosters, the entertainment industry is getting back in full swing.
So, with such a high influx of jaw-dropping, mind-melting, goosebump-inspiring releases, the American Songwriter staff got together and each submitted our top picks for best albums of the year. With artists of all genres, styles, backgrounds, and more represented, it’s becoming clear that 2021 was a historic moment for music.
Check out our picks below:
(One record was so good, two of our staff members had to have it on both their lists.)
Picks from Lisa Konicki:
1. Adele – 30
The most highly-anticipated album of the year did not disappoint. After a six-year hiatus, Adele returned with what could be considered the best album of her career—30. Known for turning heartbreak into song, the new album is a deeply personal and vulnerable look into her divorce from Simon Konecki and the effect it had on their son Angelo, who can be heard talking to mom on “My Little Love.” “Oi, I feel like you don’t love me. Do you like me?” he asks his mom mid-song. (ugh). She really knows how to pull at our heartstrings. While “Easy on Me” is the most radio-friendly song on the album (hence the release as the lead single), tracks like “I Drink Wine,” “Oh My God” “Can I Get It” and “To Be Loved” are sure to convert any non-Adele fan (if there are any left). Strong, vulnerable, hopeful, and raw—we couldn’t ask for anything more from the 33-year-old powerhouse vocalist.
2. JoJo – Trying Not to Think About It
JoJo’s come a long way from that 13-year-old little girl who belted out “Leave (Get Out)” on your pop radio stations in 2004. Fast forward 17 years and that little girl has become a confident woman with a message to share on Trying Not To Think About It. A true expression of her honesty and vulnerability, JoJo’s album takes on anxiety and depression, at a time when we need it most. Getting through the pandemic put mental health issues at the forefront and the album addresses those topics head-on. While the subject matter may be heavy, the brilliance of this album is that JoJo uses the songs (and her insanely powerful vocals) to wrap her arms around you, leaving you feeling comforted and with a sense of security (It’s okay not to be okay). You can’t help but feel seen through songs like “Worst (I Assume)” “Anxiety (Burlinda’s Theme)” and “Spiral SZN.” This R&B turn has rocketed JoJo into another universe and we’re just happy to be visitors in her world.
3. Maggie Rose – Have A Seat
One of the best vocalists in all of music (there I said it), Maggie Rose can do no wrong. Have a Seat is proof of that. With 11 roots-rock and soul tracks, each one more chill bump-inducing than the next, Rose’s vocal prowess becomes more and more evident (as if we needed more evidence) and that’s just at first pass. Showcasing a mixture of rock ’n’roll, soul, folk, funk, and R&B on standout tracks such as “Saint” “Telephone,” “Do It” and “What Are We Fighting For,” Have a Seat—recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama—transports Rose from country singer to bonafide star. You’ll never know what I can bring to the table if you don’t have a seat with me, she sings in “What Are We Fighting For.” The question is, what are you waiting for? Go ahead, pull up a chair, and Have a Seat. You won’t regret it.
4. YOLA – Stand for Myself
Americana, soul, pop, R&B, however you want to classify Yola’s album, it’s just damn good. Stand for Myself, her sophomore effort and follow up to Walk Through Fire (2019), is an empowering and sobering look at society today through Yola’s eyes. From bigotry and self-doubt—something Yola has clearly dealt with—on “Barely Alive,” all the way through to self-realization on the anthemic closing track “Stand For Myself,” Yola’s message is simple: Be Kind. While her words are set to jamming beats and dance-y grooves, underneath they call for a substantial change in how we treat others who are different. We’d be foolish not to take heed of this message. So press play and get your groove on because if Stand For Myself is Yola’s journey to self-actualization, we’re here for the ride.
5. Lainey Wilson – Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’
Country’s new girl on the block, Lainey Wilson, came out swinging with her BBR Records debut album, Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin.’ Opening up on the pulsing “Neon Diamonds,” she keeps your foot tapping through “Things a Man Oughta Know,” “LA,” “Straight Up Sideways,” and the closing title track. There’s not a dud in the bunch. Every song on the album has hit potential. And with her country as country can be Louisiana drawl, Wilson endears herself further to listeners by singing seamlessly through the one song we all wish we had written, “WWDD” (What Would Dolly Do). There’s no shortage of humor, wit, sass, and kick-ass attitude from this country newcomer. Her music has already been featured in the hit drama series Yellowstone three times and her single “Things a Man Oughta Know” topped the Country Airplay chart earlier this year. If that’s not country cred, I don’t know what is.
Picks from Tina Benitez-Eves:
1. Santana – Blessings and Miracles
In a time when fear pervades, Blessings and Miracles is Carlos Santana’s mystical medicine music. Transfused by healing instrumentals and a collection of tracks written by Chris Stapleton (“Joy”), Diane Warren (“She’s Fire”), and a return to his Supernatural, “Smooth” partner Rob Thomas after 22 years with the merengue-pop and Spanish Harlem beats of “Move,” Blessings and Miracles also features Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, Death Angel singer Mark Osegueda, Corey Glover, Santana’s daughter Stella and song Salvador, and the last song created by the late composer Chick Corea, featuring his wife Gloria. “This is mystical medicine music to lift you into a place where your ego cannot bring you into self-deception,” Santana told American Songwriter, “stories of triumph, victory glory, redemption, forgiveness, compassion, healing hearing, correcting, and alleviating.”
2. The Joy Formidable – Into the Blue
Gazing upon love, new beginnings, and unexpected magic, Into the Blue was initially written in Wales, and later fleshed out once the band returned to Utah, the perfect setting to release the emotional baggage of their fifth album. Without addressing political or social commentary, The Joy Formidable digs into the effects of manipulation and regaining control. You see me for what I am / I don’t have to guess any more sings Rhiannon “Ritzy” Bryan, splitting vocals with Rhydian Dafydd building around the unexpected of the title track, and picks up on growling “Chimes” and the siren-charged crunch of “Sevier.” Into the Blue rides the dramatic waves of pain, regret, and those magical sweet hereafters of life.
3. Jerry Cantrell – Brighten
When Elton John gives you his blessing, it’s a sign you’re on the right path. Running just under two minutes, Elton John’s “Goodbye,” a deeper cut off his 1971 release Madman Across the Water, is one of the tracks Jerry Cantrell assembled on his third solo album—and his first in nearly 20 years—Brighten, along with an all-star cast of musicians. Co-produced with film composer Tyler Bates of the John Wick Franchise, and engineered by Paul Fig, who has worked on the last three Alice in Chains albums, Brighten also features Guns N’ Roses’ bassist Duff McKagan, backing vocals by Greg Puciato of Dillinger Escape Plan, and drummers Abe Laboriel Jr. and Gil Sharone, and producer Michael Rozon on pedal steel.
4. Jesse Malin – Sad and Beautiful World
Nearly 20 years after releasing The Fine Art of Self Destruction, everything has turned full circle around, of all things, a global pandemic. Performing weekly streams—dubbed The Fine Art of Self Distancing throughout 2020—was just the trajectory New York City rocker Jesse Malin needed for his ninth album Sad and Beautiful World. Split by Roots Rock and Radicals, Sad and Beautiful World is everything Malin is about—the punchy, the punk, and the more exposed lyricism that has always been there since the beginning.
5. Bleachers – Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night
Saturdays always fascinated Jack Antonoff more. “Sunday night blues are for people who love the weekend and are sad it’s over,” says the Bleachers singer, songwriter, and producer. “Saturday night blues are for people who can’t find their way in the weekend.” In the midst of working with others–co-writing and co-producing Taylor Swift’s folklore and evermore, and co-producing Lorde’s Solar Power, and St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home, Atonoff returned to Bleachers with Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night, a follow up to 2017 release Gone Now. The 10 tracks of Saturday Night move from depression to hope and everything in-between with “91,” co-written and sung with the author Zadie Smith and rousing duet with Bruce Springsteen on “Chinatown,” Antonoff’s take on The Boss’s “Jersey Girl”—set on the other side of the Hudson.
Picks from Catherine Walthall:
1. Kacey Musgraves – star-crossed
Kacy Musgraves’ fifth album is distinctly different from her previous records. On the technical side, star-crossed breaks from Musgraves’ country roots and wholeheartedly embraces a pop-infused persona. Lyrically, this collection of songs is Musgraves’ “divorce album” that drew inspiration from Shakespearean tragedies. As a whole, star-crossed is a wonderfully woeful trek through Kacey Musgraves’ period of transition.
2. Amythyst Kiah – Wary + Strange
This album both moves and calms the soul. Amethyst Kiah’s uninhibited expression of Americana on Wary + Strange is profoundly honest. “Black Myself,” a standout track on the record, tells Kiah’s story of growing up as a young, Black LGBTQ+ woman in the south. Give this album a listen, and you’ll be transported to a place you didn’t know you could go to.
3. Olivia Rodrigo – Sour
A collage of 2021 would not be complete without the portrait of the stickered pop star, Olivia Rodrigo. This 11-track debut for the Disney actress is characteristic of the distinctive Gen Z sound, yet it also hypnotizes listeners of all backgrounds. All in all, Sour is an energetic collection of irresistible breakup anthems that is ultimately “good 4 u.”
4. Marc E. Bassy – Little Men
Little Men is intoxicating, and at times, melancholic. Tracks like “Bowie” set the tone, while “Future Love” and “Trouble” solidify Marc E. Bassy’s effortless R&B sound. This most recent exhibition of Bassy’s storytelling is easy to listen to and even easier to enjoy.
5. AHI – Prospect
Canadian musician, AHI, refuses to hold anything back on his third studio album, Prospect. These ten songs fluctuate between roots, folk, pop, and soul as they meditate on what it means to be connected with others. AHI essentially peers into his own humanity and then lets you know what he found.
Picks from Jake Uitti:
1. Ayron Jones / Child of the State
Sometimes one record can change your life. This one did just that for the Seattle-born rocker, Ayron Jones. With each day after its release this year, the artist rocketed further and further up the charts. The recognition grew so massive that the guitarist and his band recently opened for The Rolling Stones in Detroit. For anyone who is out there wondering if they should keep going, let Jones’ story be your torch to higher ground.
2. IDLES / Crawler
For the few who might not know, IDLES are living, breathing, shouting, snarling catharsis incarnate. Each song is a purge. Each guitar riff and kick drum is a reaffirmation to let go of the baggage and float on up, you delightful hot air balloon, you. It’s as if IDLES is a therapist and their advice is to gnash your teeth in the face of your worries. Crawler is the handbook.
3. Jose Gonzalez / Local Valley
This album soothes my heart when it’s been shaken from whatever proverbial earthquake has just happened at the moment. Jose Gonzalez seems like a literal glowing soul from which songs and beautiful lyrics emanate. Tracks like “Head On” and “El Invento” are like blankets made of constellations. Like Van Gogh’s stars spinning in song.
4. Ty Segall / Harmonizer
With this LP, Ty Segall has created a simply impeccable rock album. From start to finish this album is like a racecar and Segall knows just when to hit that experimental button to give the extra propellant juice. “Whisper” smacks, “Erased” shrieks.
It’s a rave in 10 tracks, a mosh pit compilation.
5. Jon Batiste / We Are
If any album is woven together with a sense of spiritual oneness it’s this one from the late-night show bandleader, movie scorer, and songwriter. Batiste, whose album is just a lovely, thoughtful work, also in the same few months co-wrote the Soul soundtrack and worked at his post on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. What a feat of inspiration and all of it, of course, transferred to his audience, too.
6. Warren Dunes / Get Well Soon
This LP from the Seattle trio is an example of the silver lining that can come from big grey clouds. During the pandemic, the band released this record and it achieved just what it sought: to bring healing vibes to all who heard it. And if you really heard it, you did get that much better than much quicker. It’s a testament to the warmth and joy that only the band’s vibrant lead singer Julia Massey can provide.
Picks from Anna D’Amico:
1. Hayden Calnin – What It Means to Be Human
This album stopped me in my tracks. Imagine Sleeping At Last, Jon Bellion, and Bon Iver having a child. That is this album. Australian electro-folk artist Hayden Calnin tackles the eternal question of the origin and purpose of life with gorgeous instrumentals. Inspired by his move away from the city during COVID, this soul-searching and deeply reflective album is the perfect ethereal headphone-on escape.
2. Adam Melchor – Melchor Lullaby Hotline Vol. 1
Adam Melchor’s first full-length album, this 12 song LP covers it all—new love, heartbreak, and a My Chemical Romance song. That’s right folks, your favorite indie artists are diving into 2014 emo songs and transforming them beautifully. “Start Forgetting Death” showcases the spell cast by a new relationship, tied up with a beautiful trumpet feature. “Begin Again” embodies a sunny day with its upbeat, anthemic sound. With a song for everything, “hotline” is the perfect label for this album.
3. Laufey – Typical of Me
It’s only seven songs, but those seven are life-sustaining. Laufey has a perfect modern jazz sound and low alto voice, giving her a completely unique sound. The standout track “Like the Movies” captures the wistful longing for picture-perfect love that no one can quite live up to. Complete with phonograph static, Typical of Me is a daydream of an album.
4. Bruno Mars and Anderson.Paak – An Evening with Silk Sonic
This highly anticipated return of Bruno Mars was better than we ever imagined. Joined by rapper, songwriter, and producer Anderson .Paak, Silk Sonic is full of groove and soul that’s impossible to ignore—honestly, I dare you to not dance along. Beautifully produced and loaded with silky smooth vocals, Bruno Mars exceeded all expectations.
Picks from Lee Zimmerman:
1. James McMurtry — The Horses and the Hounds
James McMurtry comes by his literary prowess naturally; his father, the legendary novelist Larry McMurtry, boasts the distinction of being one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century. So too, the younger McMurtry doesn’t shy away from tapping into topics that carry weighty implications. The taut title track and the caustic, crusty “Vaquero” reflect the dusty, defiant attitude that resides at the heart of McMurtry’s mercurial melodies. The Everyman sentiments that pervade these songs ring with resolve and resilience that bring each of the characters inhabited here with both urgency and intrigue. Poignancy resides just below the surface, but it’s darkness and despair that provide the most formidable impression.
2. Amy Speace — There Used to be Horses Here
The best songwriters draw from a personal perspective. Amy Speace clearly adhered to that premise with her remarkable album, There Used To Be Horses Here, a set of songs that reference a period of time between the passing of her father, who grew up on a small farm in Maryland, and the birth of her son a few months later. It made for an emotional journey that she found herself on in-between. The results are touching and tender, offering not only offer the kind of beautiful and insightful melodies Speace has consistently come up with throughout her career, but also a series of descriptive stories that tug at the heartstrings and share sentiments that have become commonplace in a year marked by distance and disappointment.
3. Andrew Leahey — American Static Vol. I
Andrew Leahey shares a sound that rocks relentlessly but still maintains a melodic core. With hooks a-plenty and any number of compelling choruses to boot, the music resonates with a decided drive and determination. American Static Vol. 1, shares the same rugged regimen, resulting in what is arguably his best effort yet. Songs such as “Somewhere Between,” “Shadows That Still Stretch” and “Become the Enemy” make an immediate impression, given a sound that’s flush with willful resolve. Leahey clearly has the right instincts; both the stoic “Guilty Man” and the album’s big ballad, “My Avalanche,” share a cocksure attitude and an assured swagger that underscores his credence and conviction. It’s only a matter of time before a big breakout becomes a reality.
4. Colin Hay — I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself
Hay’s latest is much like a mixtape, all classic tracks rendered in ways that effectively mimic the originals. Granted, the idea of covering the classics is nothing new. Artists, as varied as Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, and Paul McCartney, have all done the same. In many cases, the venture provides an opportunity to kill a little time prior to their next project. Instinct and imagination need not compete, especially when a familiarity factor is involved. When songs such as “Waterloo Sunset,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” “Wichita Lineman,” and “Norwegian Wood” are involved… well, suffice it to say the odds are heavily stacked in favor of success. While some may ask the point of it all, others will relish the opportunity to enjoy what amounts to a classic compilation.
5. Dar Williams – I’ll Meet You Here
Dar Williams has never been reticent to wear her emotions on her proverbial sleeve or to express her vulnerability or concerns through her delicate designs. In the process, it often requires her to bare her soul in a psychological sense. Williams’ latest release, I’ll Meet You Here, bears that out. Like all her efforts, Williams shares her effusive emotions with enthusiasm and conviction that allows upbeat songs such as “Sullivan Lane,” “Berkeley” and “Let the Wind Blow” to ring with an anthemic edge. Mostly though, it’s dominated by more sensitive sojourns—tracks like “You’re Aging Well,” “Let the Wind Blow” and “Magical Thinking,” that extend a soothing embrace and leave time for reflection and rumination. “It’s as clear as any memory,” she sings on the latter. “And it’s just as far away.
Picks from Hal Horowitz:
1. Danny Elfman – Big Mess
Better strap in before pushing play on the ex-Oingo Boingo frontman’s first solo, non-soundtrack release in 37 years. Whatever peppy pop-punk was once in his system has been replaced by agro, angular, often violent art rawk that’s in your face, aggressively non-commercial, and only for those who think Nine Inch Nails is too lightweight. Incredibly well produced and performed, nothing else this year sounded quite as intense.
2. My Morning Jacket – My Morning Jacket
Fans who thought My Morning Jacket might be rusty after not having recorded together since 2015’s sessions for two volumes of The Waterfall found their misgivings groundless on this brilliant return to form. The hour-long set features three expansive titles that run over seven minutes, some tighter, gutsy riff rockers, and a few exquisite ballads all of which delivered enough twists to satisfy existing MMJ followers while picking up new ones. Not just a high-water mark in the band’s already impressive catalog, it was one of the year’s most unexpectedly satisfying comebacks.
3. Joy Oladokun – In Defense of My Own Happiness
It never hurts to have the support of a superstar on your debut. So when Maren Morris stepped in to assist as co-writer and vocalist on Joy Oladokun’s “Bigger Man” it exposed this introspective singer/songwriter to a larger audience than most new acts glean. The Tracy Chapman influences are subtle but ones that Oladokun is happy to acknowledge as a black woman singing folk-rock with personal lyrics and a captivating voice. It’s a stunning first album– tender, personal, and pensive–and indicates there is more where this came from.
4. Israel Nash – Topaz
The Texas-based singer/songwriter’s fourth effort in seven years is as widescreen and windswept as the dusky expanses of his home state. Beautifully produced, sung, and played, these ten tunes total just over forty minutes but the album feels like a definitive statement by a creative musician in full control of his vision. The melodies take flight with help from gospel backing singers and Nash’s expansive sonic vistas. It creates a swirling, somewhat psychedelic palette of sound that lifts the listener from wherever they are and into Nash’s sprawling musical world.
5. Charley Crockett – Music City USA
Sixteen tracks and not a minute of filler. It’s impressive for anyone but especially for a guy who has cranked out four previous albums of rootsy, homespun, soulful country twang since 2018. Crockett’s 2019 open heart surgery might have provided the impetus for this prolific creative streak, but 2021’s entry is arguably the best of a very good bunch. There’s plenty of aw-shucks Hank Williams Sr. in the music’s simplicity and easygoing lyrical straightforwardness, a comparison that Crockett deserves and would likely appreciate.
Picks from Dallas Jackson:
1. The Pretty Reckless – Death by Rock and Roll
Death by Rock and Roll is a damn near-perfect album from The Pretty Reckless, and one that is all gas no breaks. There is such a great mix of lyrics, arrangement, and Hard R rock music that makes this one of the best albums of the year. This was much more than a pleasant surprise from Taylor Momsen, it was a revelation. The growth shown in the fourth effort from the group bridges 90s grunge influences with modern music and makes it a lock to be an album that gets its grooves worn out from spinning it over and over!
2. The Dirty Nil – Fuck Art
Fuck Art slides into this list with its Jan. 1 release as it opened the year with a solid offering act that did not get the recognition it deserves. The Dirty Nil spends most of their time playing guitar through blaringly loud amps in a tiny room—which is almost a dying art, as so many artists stockpile music for later and write with a producer—that the unique style comes through in what is released. A band that (we assume) takes pride in a live show perhaps more than an album release, what it was able to accomplish on Fuck Art makes it clear that it can succeed in both places.
3. Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth
If you are ready for a concept album that goes on a sonic wandering, this is the album for you. Smiling With No Teeth pushes Avant-funk into a new arena with the singing, rapping, insanely experimental sonics that gives it the feel of a jam session that opens up doors to discuss racism, mental health, and self-image. There are so many vibes throughout this album it is hard to nail one down with Pharrell-style falsetto, folk-balladesque tunes, spoken word, and big-time bangers. If you are looking for honest lyrics to go with everything else, you will have found your place. The pulling back on the curtain of truth is yanked wide on this one. Wow.
4. Tyler, the Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
How Tyler would follow up on Igor (2019) was something most every fan was anxiously awaiting, and I don’t think many would have predicted that he would do what he did with Call Me If You Get Lost: take everything he learned over the last five albums and go back to his roots. This was Bastard (2009) level of aggression but fantastically mixed with humorous but heartfelt lyrics, incomparable producing, and fun. It winds through some of his career highlights—and life struggles—with a signature mix-tape-like vibe that provides a near-perfect balance in his bars and energy with grounded realism.
5. Leon Bridges – Gold-Diggers Sound
Bridges, with the right arrangement, could sing the phonebook and it could make for a compelling album … which makes Gold-Diggers Sound such a compelling treat because he makes his most thoughtful album seem effortless. It is in the simplicity that this project shines as the amazing production brings out the brilliance in what Bridges does. There are moments of funky drums and horns, flirty playfulness, intimacy, reflectiveness, bluesy beats, and tangible melancholy. Bridges pushed some of his boundaries and set up a next album push of excitement to see what will be done as a follow-up.
Both Dallas and Tina picked:
Greta Van Fleet – The Battle at Garden’s Gate
Greta Van Fleet was already at the gate and entered. Marching through war and peace, varied human conditions, and a connection to the natural world The Battle at Garden’s Gate is an extension of Van Fleet’s debut Anthem Of The Peaceful Army (2018), and an amalgamation of songs from varied time frames, spilling out into personal revelations, themes of war and a connectedness to nature, and more esoteric discoveries along the way—even extracting some cosmic and philosophical realms from the likes of Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley.
The Battle at Garden’s Gate took all of the things that I loved about Van Fleet’s debut Anthem Of The Peaceful Army (2018) and turned it up to 11. The band leaned further into its ‘70s sound and released a massive winner. The determination to follow in the path of Led Zepplin may make others dismissive but it is an album that is just pure fun and fire on every track. There is a lot more than meets the eye on this one as well, dig in and hear influence from plenty of non-Robert Plant reaches of rock music. Purists may say that the band did not challenge itself lyrically—and just went for simple hooks as fan service—but that is a disservice to how difficult it is to write a top to bottom album that is loaded with crowd-pleasers.