2021 was a monumental year for music, from re-releases of classic albums to unexpected, genre-blending projects. We decided to ask our writers what they considered to be the best albums of the past year. Here’s what stood out to them:

Graphic by Alison Barlow.

‘The Turning Wheel’ by Spellling

California-based artist Chrystia Cabral, better known as Spellling, released “The Turning Wheel” in June 2021. Her shimmering synths, progressive song structures and ever-shifting vocal range make for an art-pop album like no other before it. The album is split into two sections. The first half displays Spellling at her brightest, with high-pitched vocals and swelling instrumentals. By contrast, the latter half takes on a much darker tone. Thrumming basslines and a more personal scope define the final five songs, with Cabral’s vocals pitched down into a deep alto. Much of “The Turning Wheel” revolves around Cabral’s love of the natural world and her desire to save what humanity threatens to destroy: “You want to set out for the city’s turning wheel/ But I want to stay up on the hill.” She takes her concept to the next level by shifting from the outside world to her own inner conflicts halfway through, resulting in a masterpiece both sonically and conceptually.

– Jackson Schneider, Arts and Entertainment Editor

‘MONTERO’ by Lil Nas X

“MONTERO” debuted in September 2021, and Lil Nas X made it far more than your average album release; he posted a birthing video for his album and advertised it on satirical billboards across the nation. In celebration of the album, Lil Nas X even created a “baby” registry, which was a list of charities he supported and wanted his fans to donate to as well. Lil Nas X brilliantly used this album to make critical social and political statements in support of the BIPOC, houseless, LGBTQIA+ and women-identified communities, and that’s before even addressing the genius quality of his music. Each track on the album defies category, settling somewhere in the gray area between pop, rap, hip-hop, country-rap, trap and pop-rock. Even though the album is bursting with famous celebrity features like Doja Cat, Elton John and Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Nas X’s musical genius and versatility stand out like no other.

– Zimra Chickering, Senior Staff Writer 

‘Valentine’ by Snail Mail

The most impressive thing about “Valentine,” Lindsey Jordan’s second full-length release as Snail Mail, is how downright sweet it is. Even when accusing her partner of infidelity, the most biting words she can find are “C’mon, I loved you!” Over a fleeting half hour, Jordan demonstrates how we tend to put the onus of heartbreak on ourselves out of continued admiration for someone who’s probably already moved on. Track after track, she gives herself up, offering everything from whispered confessions of exhaustion (“c. et al.”) to groovy declarations of loyalty (“Glory”). Through all of this, Jordan never lashes out at the person whose spell she still finds herself under, amplifying the heartbreak that much more. If you aren’t crumpled in a heap of tears by the time she tenderly croons goodbye to her lover on the album’s closing number, you’re getting ready to wail along to the explosive opening track of “Valentine” all over again. 

– Noah Gentry, Senior Staff Writer

‘CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST’ by Tyler, The Creator

“CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST” is an attestation to the maturity that Tyler, The Creator has developed in the last decade as an artist. From reminders of where he started in “MASSA” to his success in “BLESSED,” Tyler paints a picture of the struggles that allowed him to rise to fame. Hidden within the underlying ode to DJ Drama’s “Gangsta Grillz” mixtapes are powerful messages about Tyler’s sexuality (“WILSHIRE”), race (“MANIFESTO”) and his mother’s influence on his career (“MOMMA TALK”). Generally speaking, this album showcases Tyler’s range and his ability to combine beautiful instrumentals without compromising his flow. One thing I’ve always admired about Tyler is how skillfully he weaves features into each song on his albums. In “JUGGERNAUT,” for example, Lil Uzi Vert and Pharrell’s verses are phenomenal, showcasing the artists’ beautiful lyricism, which often goes unnoticed in some of their other songs. The depth and brilliance present within “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST” are sure to amaze anyone who gives the album a listen. As I’ve witnessed Tyler’s music mature and develop a distinct individuality, I’m excited to see what will come next in his impressive career.

– Sara Khan, Senior Staff Writer

‘Smiling with No Teeth’ by Genesis Owusu 

Hailing from Canberra, Australia, Genesis Owusu is an artist to add to your queue. In March 2021, he dropped his debut album: “Smiling with No Teeth.” This album is truly a tale in dynamics, not tied down to a single mood or genre. Delving into themes of race, mental health and love, the album provides an intimate look into Owusu’s mind. His voice carries a deep resonance that is simply stunning, balancing out hard-hitting, gritty bars alongside softer sung melodies which create a harmonious unity. High-energy songs like “The Other Black Dog” are balanced perfectly with laid-back grooves like “Waitin’ on Ya.” Owusu is also playful, a personal favorite line being: “your ass is stinky and you built like a mole” off “Don’t Need You.”  The album is an encapsulation of a journey in style and Owusu’s capability as an artist at large. This work was undoubtedly one of my musical highlights of this past year, and I can’t wait to see what will be added to his repertoire in the future.

– Noor Aldayeh, Contributing Writer

‘An Evening With Silk Sonic’ by Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak

At its core, “An Evening With Silk Sonic” encapsulates the classic ‘70s vibe while simultaneously capturing the essence of today’s sound. Each track beautifully blends elements of rap, funk, R&B and soul, resulting in a musically rich record. The album really does feel like an intimate evening with Silk Sonic. The spoken intros in “After Last Night” and “Smokin Out The Window,” along with passionate lyrics, add to this intimacy. Mars and .Paak do not get enough praise for the brilliance behind the music as their chord progressions alone create magic within the songs. These chords take listeners in unexpected directions and resolve in ways that will leave them smiling. Climaxes in “Leave The Door Open,” “Blast Off” and my personal favorite, “Put On A Smile” will give you an eargasm. Overall, the velvety, funky, romantic and silky sounds of this album will supply you with enough good vibes to brighten any part of your day.

– Ama Ofosu, Contributing Writer

‘Notes with Attachments’ by Pino Palladino and Blake Mills

Because of its melodic ambiguity and sparsely rendered West African influences, some might describe trying to quantify “Notes with Attachments” a fool’s errand. What little melodies it possesses are hazy and ephemeral, and one would be hard-pressed to accurately hum more than ten seconds of any of its instrumental tracks by heart. Yet, the songs are nothing if not memorable. What Palladino and Mills leave you with after listening to their compositions is akin to a taste, sound or smell of some distant and intangible place. A sensory souvenir, if you’ll indulge me. This is the genius of the record and its creators, and nowhere is this effect more evident than in “Just Wrong,” the album’s first tune. What starts as one note from one saxophone gives way to an indefinite cloud of guitar, bass and sitar. Before you know it, the song has enveloped you completely, like a lysergic flying blanket. Ultimately, all the songs have the same impact. The only thing that changes is where they take you, and I guarantee that none of the destinations will disappoint.

– Cole Huntley, Senior Staff Writer

‘Kick ii-iiiii’ by Arca

Arca is not satisfied to merely dabble in the ambiguities enabled by our post-genre internet era. Rather, she stretches and contorts all notions of stability, forcing us to relish in her cavernous and mystifying electronic atmospheres. Over the course of four discs, Arca weaves together an erotic web of ambient electronic, romantic piano, reggaeton, dancehall, and noise. Her songs feel danceable only momentarily before antagonistic new rhythms interrupt and wash over. Listeners are forced to continually adapt, to detach from any desire for musical stagnation and rather submit to her ever-changing multitudes. “KICK ii” is more direct, pulling from contemporary pop and latin dance rhythms; “KicK iii” is abstract, intense and inspired by the ‘90s UK underground. “kick iiii” and “kiCK iiiii” are more introspective and ambient. The Kick series is an affirmation of Arca’s genius, her potential and her present status as one of the most important, forward-thinking creators of our time. 

– Jeffrey Rosen, Associate Editor