The best music of 2021 was about coming back out to meet the world — or at least trying to.
It wasn’t so easy. The pandemic that was supposed to end didn’t. Live shows returned during festival season, then became uneasy indoor anxiety-inducers as new coronavirus variants emerged.
Most of the albums on this list reflect that tension, though many were recorded or at least written before the pandemic began.
But that’s no surprise: Great art is often about ambivalence and uncertainty as well as a compulsion to connect. The War on Drugs songs shoot to arena-rock transcendence but also look inward with hesitancy and doubt. Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee means to be as celebratory as its title, but grief lingers.
Starting with those two and counting Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales and Lucy Dacus’ Home Video makes for four legit spots by Philly-based or -founded acts. That’s a personal Top 10 record for me that speaks to the continued vitality of the scene.
So listen up, and here’s to a healthier and even more productive 2022.
Allison Russell, Outside Child
Allison Russell’s debut album tells a harrowing story with elegance and grace. “Father used me like a wife, mother turned the blindest eye,” the Montreal-born, Nashville-based songwriter sings on “4th Day Prayer.” “Stole my body, spirit, pride.”
Does that make Outside Child sound like a difficult listen? The opposite is true. Instead, Russell, 41, a longtime member of Birds of Chicago and one of four banjo-playing Black women in folk supergroup Our Native Daughters, has fashioned a beautifully resilient solo debut. She’s at her most mesmerizing on “Nightflyer. “I’m the wounded bird, the screaming hawk,” she sings. “The one who can’t be counted out.”
The War on Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore
The title of the Fishtown-founded rock band’s fifth album doesn’t pertain to Philadelphia per se, though band leader Adam Granduciel now lives in Los Angeles. It’s more about a concept of constant motion, the forever search, that drives the Drugs’ best synth- and guitar-heavy songs, like IDLHA’s title cut and the sublime “Harmonia’s Dream.”
Olivia Rodrigo, Sour
When 2021 began, Olivia’s Rodrigo’s name wasn’t widely known beyond the Disney+ show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Her breakout “Drivers License” changed that, and the artistry that runs throughout the punk-poppy Sour shows she’s learned much from her songwriting hero Taylor Swift. Suburban teen angst is at its finest on “Brutal”: “I hate every song I write, and I’m not cool and I’m not smart, and I can’t even parallel park.”
» READ MORE: Olivia Rodrigo is coming to the Met Philly in May
Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee
It’s been Michelle Zauner’s year. First the leader of the Philly indie band Japanese Breakfast saw Crying in H Mart, her marvelous memoir about the death of her mother, Chongmi, become an acclaimed best seller. A month later, she followed with the buoyant, thematically varied Jubilee, with an album cover that showed her surrounded by persimmons, a bitter fruit that grows sweeter over time.
Tyler, the Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost
Odd Future producer Tyler Okonma’s latest alias is Tyler Baudelaire. He’s named himself after the French poet while rapping about eating French vanilla ice cream. Call Me If You Get Lost honors late ‘00′s mixtape culture and looks back on past controversies while casting an expansive musical spell. And at over eight minutes, “Wilshire” comes in second to Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” as the epic soap opera of the year.
Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales
Jazmine Sullivan’s fourth album came out way back in January, and this month both NPR and Pitchfork named it album of the year. The praise is warranted. The Strawberry Mansion-raised singer has always commanded attention with her voice, but her songwriting takes a leap forward on Heaux Tales, which brings a community of Black women to life on eight songs linked by emotionally frank spoken interludes about love, loss, and desire.
Low, Hey What
Most of the music that Duluth, Minn., couple Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk have made together has had a hushed, quiet tension. That quality persists, but the band have remade their sound with producer BJ Burton, who’s worked with Bon Iver and Lizzo. Along with simple, singular beauty, Hey What embraces distortion and noise, creating an otherworldly soundscape.
Lucy Dacus, Home Video
The third album by the 25-year-old songwriter who moved to Philadelphia from Richmond, Va., shortly before the pandemic is full of recollections based on teenage diaries. “VBS,” is about snorting nutmeg and trying to get closer to God in vacation bible school. Most devastating is “Thumbs,” which fantasizes about taking revenge on the abusive father of a friend by gouging his eyes out.
James McMurtry, The Horses and the Hounds
This is the cranky Americana old guy entry on my list. The Horses and the Hounds is the first album in six years by the son of novelist Larry McMurtry, who writes with a discipline and lack of sentimentality few can match. On “Canola Fields,” a drive through southern Alberta makes him realize he’s in need of human contact: “I still need to feel, every once in a while, the warmth of a smile and touch.”
Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime
Blues-based guitar music — in other words, rock is alive and well in the hands of Tuareg musicians from Niger and northern Mali such as Tinariwen and Terakraft. Mdou Moctar is perhaps the most adventurous of a new generation. The songs are sung in Tamashek and French, and call out damage done by French colonialism. The music is universal.
Honorable Mentions: Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg; Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever; Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall, The Marfa Tapes; Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers; Kiwi Jr., Cooler Returns; Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raise the Roof, Sault, Nine; Strand of Oaks, In Heaven; The Weather Station, Ignorance; Faye Webster, I Know I’m Funny haha