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NPR Music's 50 Best Albums Of 2021

Renee Klahr

If the year presently coming to a close was a dance, it'd be a hesitant shuffle, tentative steps toward — or heyyyy, maybe away from? — an uncertain future. So maybe that's why, when we sat down together to discuss which albums we loved the most over the course of 2021, NPR Music's staff and contributors found ourselves drawn to albums by artists making breakthroughs, moving forward with clarity, without balking at the obstacles falling in their way. Our list of the year's 50 best is topped by an album that was unmatched in concept, songwriting or performance, but it had so much good company. Everywhere on this list you'll find the thrill of artistic revelation, musicians finding themselves, willing something new into reality. There's plenty of fun, but little escapism. Many of these albums are stacked with great songs, but these aren't snacks. Even when slight they are composed, with a sense of purpose. This is nourishment. Look around. You'll find something fortifying to build you up for the road ahead. (As a bonus, you can find our list of the 100 Best Songs of 2021 here.)

Stream NPR Music's 50 Best Albums of 2021:
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Silk Sonic

An Evening With Silk Sonic

/ Aftermath / Atlantic
Aftermath / Atlantic

As expected, An Evening With Silk Sonic has been one of the year's most talked-about releases. The pairing initially came about as a joke, but after "Leave The Door Open" exploded in spring, anticipation and pressure soared sky-high. In the case of two hit-making mammoths like Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, risks rival reward, and perfection is the standard. So, setting aside all the extras of music consumption in 2021 — TikTok dances, first listen reviews and other social media fodder — did Mars and .Paak craft a great R&B album honoring the legends who birthed them? Yes. One of the best. —Bobby Carter


Circuit des Yeux


/ Matador

Haley Fohr leapt into the great chasm of grief and found something in and outside herself. Circuit des Yeux has never backed away from harsh sounds or traumatic themes, but on recent albums, Fohr's sonic experiments have bloomed beautifully toward empathy. With an orchestra and Chicago's experimental community of musicians at her disposal, -io is brilliantly extravagant, expanding Circuit des Yeux's sublime songwriting with arrangements that complement her commanding vibrato. Strings round out the bottom-end groove of "Vanishing" and swirl in the haunted Suspiria wilderness of "Sculpting the Exodus," but also float in the synth vapor of "Walking Toward Winter." Fohr says that "-io is a novel, not a movie," recognizing the need to pause the album's heavy magnitude, but you absolutely must return: It's in the small moments of "Stranger" and "Oracle Song" that we find restoration. —Lars Gotrich


Pink Siifu


/ Self-Released

Pink Siifu hails from all over the sonic and geographic map. But there's a special groove in his soul for his native South. GUMBO'! serves as his site-specific dedication to a musical lineage that stretches from Dungeon Family funk to Weezy's proto-trap. Still, it couldn't rightfully be classified as gumbo — or Siifu — if he didn't smack it up, flip it and deconstruct it with a veritable stew of afro spiritual sounds and righteous-to-ratchet practitioners ranging from Big Rube to Bbymutha. An experimentalist steeped in tradition, Pink Siifu's patchwork quilt feels like the prequel to how we got over. Coming on the heels of his punk-inflected 2020 protest album NEGRO, it's the home-cooked meal we deserve after another year of living while Black in America. —Rodney Carmichael



...and then there's this

/ Astral Spirits
Astral Spirits

Flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Mike Reed — dynamic third-generation members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians — originally formed Artifacts Trio with an inspired agenda, tapping that organization's archive as a repertory source. But if their first album, Artifacts, showed proof of concept, this splendid follow-up, organized mostly around their own compositions, reveals a degree of unanimity rare in any setting. Now an improvising trio simply called Artifacts, these farsighted, openhearted artists connect on the level of tone and texture as well as groove (and "groove" truly is the right word). —Nate Chinen, WBGO


Gewandhausorchester Leipzig • Nelsons • Repin

Sofia Gubaidulina: Orchestral Works

/ Deutsche Grammophon
Deutsche Grammophon

Sofia Gubaidulina, who turned 90 in October, is a God-fearing composer who puts the fear of God, and plenty of philosophic rigor, into her courageous music. In exhilarating, exquisitely recorded performances, the album tackles life's big questions. The Wrath of God opens with a hair-raising horde of snarling tubas, and Dialog: I and You, ruminates on metaphysical relationships while disguised as a violin concerto, bravely rendered by soloist Vadim Repin. The Light of the End, a kaleidoscopic work, sets up a conflict between the physics of music itself. The album celebrates a master composer and the power of a symphony orchestra. —Tom Huizenga


Rodrigo Amarante


/ Polyvinyl

With his first solo album in seven years, the great Brazilian-born, now Los Angeles-based musician Rodrigo Amarante explores his masculinity and memories. The songs on Drama are soul-filled, fun-filled and tropical, bouncing from English to Portuguese. We meet characters along the way: some filled with joy and love, others troublemakers with troubled lives. Like so much of the COVID-induced music of 2021, this album evolved out of isolation, which allowed for a great deal of introspection and self-discovery. Drama differs in sound and tone from anything else I heard all year. —Bob Boilen


Adia Victoria

A Southern Gothic

/ Atlantic

Her pinned tweet reads: "to the south—my land and my people. this record is yours. from one of your daughters." Musician, poet and podcaster Adia Victoria wrote much of A Southern Gothic in 2020, filling orders while working in an Amazon warehouse, not consciously trying to create music. In the mindlessness of that menial work, Victoria crafted stunning, heat-infused blues vignettes that brilliantly capture the painful depth of Southern racism and the frustrations and complications of being a Black woman in the south. Victoria told World Cafe, "I wanted this record to sound like I made it out of the dirt and the clay and the rocks and the sea and the south." —Suraya Mohamed





Yebba's debut album, Dawn, hops styles and touts a youthful ambition preventing us from slapping a label on it. Pick a mood and she'll master it. Just don't settle in too long. You're carried away on the acoustic folk vibe of "All I Ever Wanted" when, next thing you know, Smino is riding shotgun on "Louie Bag." Then on to the next. I believe it all. The body of work is an emotionally honest dedication to her late mother, yet the story arc showcases more than the loss she's endured. Dawn is the long-awaited introduction to what's sure to be a storied career in music. —Bobby Carter


Kenny Garrett

Sounds from the Ancestors

/ Mack Avenue
Mack Avenue

There is a moment in the title track of Sounds from the Ancestors where the spirits that Kenny Garrett has spent the album invoking all converge. Up to that moment, this journey in ancestor worship has called upon the spirits of late musicians Roy Hargrove, Art Blakey, Tony Allen; the spirit of the Black American church and the Hammond B-3 organ; the spirit of the wide musical expanse of the African diaspora represented in France, Nigeria, Cuba and Guadalupe; and most importantly, the spirit of life, memory and legacy. We are delivered to a moment where Garrett and his collaborators, including conguero and vocalist Pedrito Martinez and vocalist Dwight Trible, surrender to the sounds, to the spirit and to the source. It is impossible not to join them in surrender. —Mitra Arthur


Susana Baca

Palabras Urgentes

/ Real World
Real World

How did Afro-Peruvian vocalist Susana Baca celebrate her 50th year working as a recording artist? She made one of her best albums ever. Palabras Urgentes, produced by Snarky Puppy's Michael League, is a collection of 10 songs that honor other legendary, Latin American women vocalists and offer life lessons about the times in which we are living. Across a variety of musical traditions and sounds, the album ultimately celebrates the glorious musical gift that is Susana Baca. —Felix Contreras

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