10 best albums of 2021, including Ed Sheeran, Lil Nas X and St. Vincent

In a year that brought major – and in some cases, majorly awaited – releases by reliable chart-toppers, it would seem an effortless task to pluck out 10 of the best albums of the past 12 months.

But why go easy when it’s so much more fun to ruminate and engage in numerous self-arguments?

Yes, we appreciated Adele’s “30.” We adored Taylor Swift’s recasts of “Fearless” and “Red.” We acknowledged the growth of Billie Eilish on “Happier Than Ever.” And even though the development of Ye’s “Donda” exhausted us, its virtuosity is valued.

But none of them made our final cut.

Here are the 10 albums that we loved a little more. 

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Melissa's picks:

5. Ed Sheeran, '='

Ed Sheeran released his "=" album (pronounced "Equals"), the follow-up to 2017's "÷ " ("Divide") and fourth in his math symbols series, in October.

Some find Sheeran’s earnestness annoying, and it’s a fair point. The guy likes to wallow, whether it’s in gooey romanticism or heart-on-sleeve expressions of loss. He delves into both on “=” (pronounced “Equals” in keeping with the math theme of previous releases). But even those ice-veined curmudgeons who don’t appreciate Sheeran’s sensitivity should respect his artistic evolution as he grapples with skyrocketing fame on the Springsteen-esque “Tides” and professes his adoration of wife Cherry Seaborn on “Collide,” “First Times” and, perhaps his most sumptuous ballad, “The Joker and the Queen.” But despite the polished production on radio hits “Shivers” and “Bad Habits,” Sheeran’s spotlight moment is the heartbreaking “Visiting Hours,” a eulogy for his mentor, Mushroom Records owner Michael Gudinski. In three and a half minutes, Sheeran proves how earnestness is, actually, a commendable trait.  

4. Lucy Dacus, 'Home Video'

Singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus released her third studio album, "Home Video," in 2021.

For her third studio album, the Virginia native cements her status as a burgeoning indie-rock star. From the opening “Hot & Heavy,” with its shifting tempo and multi-tracked harmonies, to the fuzz-guitar power rocker “First Time” to the epic album closer “Triple Dog Dare” (made more intriguing by the cans and spoons being used as percussion), Dacus exudes authenticity. Her lyrics wield almost unsettling vividness, but it’s impossible not to be mesmerized by her storytelling, which is often rooted in childhood memories. “Thumbs,” the story of accompanying a college friend to visit the person’s estranged father, is musically sparse, allowing space for Dacus to seesaw between concern for her friend and rage at the parent who caused such pain. She’s an old soul speaking with emergent clarity to her generation.

3. Olivia Rodrigo, 'Sour'

Olivia Rodrigo enjoyed a breakout year in 2021.

In a mere 34 minutes spread across 11 songs, the young Disney star sprints through a gamut of emotions with the kind of force and honesty rarely seen in artists twice her age. Of course, most of the joy in discovering Rodrigo is her knack for tapping into teenage angst, both lovelorn and fury, starting with the opening “Brutal,” a blast of punk-pop guitar and the unabashed declaration, “I’m so sick of 17, where’s my (expletive) teenage dream?” While Rodrigo – nominated for seven Grammys – plunked into public consciousness with “Drivers License,” a classic love triangle set to simple piano that also possesses a killer bridge, she’s positioned herself to evolve into a feisty little rocker with heart. Other hits “Deja Vu” and “Good 4 U” showcase her affinity for guitar riffs, while “Jealousy, Jealousy,” snakes into your head with a sinewy bass line. But then Rodrigo lands the aircraft softly with “Favorite Crime” and “Hope Ur OK,” reminding us that she’s still only a tenderhearted 18 year old.

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2. Lil Nas X, 'Montero'

Grammy winner Lil Nas X can add another award on his mantle as of Wednesday morning: suicide prevention advocate of the year, from LGBTQ suicide prevention organization The Trevor Project.

The career of the Atlanta rapper could have easily been relegated to the footnotes of the Billboard charts. But instead, he followed up the ridiculous (albeit record-setting) “Old Town Road” by demonstrating his vast appreciation of multiple musical genres and sharing his unbridled truth. On his full-length debut album, tagged with his birth name, Montero Lamar Hill, he reveals laudable introspection coupled with a mishmash of pop, grimy rock and singsong rapping. He courted controversy with the banish-thee-to-hell video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” but it’s one of the weaker songs on the album despite its chart success. More intriguing are the New Wave-influenced “Lost in the Citadel” and the melodic “One of Me.” And most telling are some of his lyrics, such as his sweet declaration on “Sun Goes Down,” “I’m happy that it all worked out for me/I’m going to make my fans so proud of me.” Mission accomplished.

1. Brandi Carlile, 'In These Silent Days'

Brandi Carlile delivered more musical beauty with her 2021 album, "In These Silent Days."

Again and again, Carlile’s purity – as a singer, a songwriter, a musician, an artist – is its own captivating element, an intangible soulfulness that burrows its way into your heart. A student of ‘70s songcraft – her affection for Joni Mitchell and Elton John are well documented – Carlile writes like a poet, but delivers her creations with relatable reflection. From the moment she utters the opening lines of the poignant piano ballad, “Right on Time” (“Come back now, even if you call me out/You might be angry now, of course you are”) prepare for a deeply emotional journey. Carlile wrote her seventh studio album during the early days of the pandemic and they’re stocked with underpinnings of apprehension, pensiveness, looming loss and, ultimately, hope. “You and Me on the Rock” – the frolicking acoustic guitar and harmonies both rootsy and angelic – is a sweet valentine to her wife, Catherine Shepherd, while on “Broken Horses,” her gorgeous voice unbridled, she evokes early Melissa Etheridge. When the world feels suffocating, give a listen to “Stay Gentle,” exhale and take heart in Carlile’s message: “Don't let the world make you callous/Be ready to laugh/No one's forgotten about us/There is light on your path.”

Patrick's picks: 

5. Wolf Alice, 'Blue Weekend'

The Londoners employed mega-producer Markus Dravs (Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida”) for their biggest but no less brilliant new album, which volleys between growling grunge rock and piano-assisted power ballads with equal dexterity. It also features some of the foursome’s most intimately personal and poetic lyrics to date, achingly delivered by frontwoman Ellie Rowsell on tracks including “No Hard Feelings” (“The threads that kept us together / were already wearing thin / Would we ever have tied the knot / well, how long is a piece of string?”). 

4. Remi Wolf, 'Juno'

"Photo ID" singer Remi Wolf released her debut album, "Juno," this fall.

Arguably the most exciting debut album of the year (sorry, Olivia), “Juno” is a dopamine rush of swaggering hip-hop anthems (“Quiet on Set”) and fluorescent-hued hyperpop (“Liquor Store”) that deal in the 25-year-old singer’s real-life struggles with ADHD and sobriety. Come for the California native’s sticky hooks, stay for her playful punchlines (“Sexy villain / not the hero, I’m the west coast Bob De Niro”). 

3. Snail Mail, 'Valentine'

Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail performing at Coachella in 2018.

Lindsey Jordan expands her sound even as she looks further inward on “Valentine,” the somehow even more breathtaking follow-up to her already immaculate debut, 2018’s “Lush.” Bringing orchestral strings, warm synths and folk guitar into the fold, the 22-year-old indie rocker takes us on a cathartic journey through heartbreak and addiction, with a guttural title track that demands to be experienced live. 

2. St. Vincent, 'Daddy’s Home'

Annie Clark, the musical shapeshifter known as St. Vincent, continues her metamorphosis on exceptional album “Daddy’s Home,” which transports you to the seedy underbelly of 1970s New York. Dressed in faux furs, satin slips and an angular blonde bob, Clark puts a surprisingly lived-in spin on the psychedelic funk and groovy pop-rock of her heroes Lou Reed, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. Her scorching guitar and mischievous lyrics are blissfully intact on album standouts “Down” and “Down and Out Downtown.” Although, it’s the wistful “At the Holiday Party,” a stirring ode to masking one’s misery and feeling seen, that lingers with you long after the vinyl stops spinning. 

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1. Chvrches, 'Screen Violence'

The Scottish trio are unmatched in their abilities to write a euphoric, air-punching pop chorus. (If you disagree, play “Clearest Blue” the next time you hit the treadmill.) But on exhilarating fourth album “Screen Violence,” the band brings the dark undercurrent that’s always rippled through their music to the forefront, wedding lofty anthems with ‘80s horror motifs (“Final Girl”) and incisive meditations on misogyny (“He Said, She Said”). On the feverish “How Not to Drown,” singer Lauren Mayberry’s lilting vocals perfectly complement the gravelly Robert Smith (of The Cure), as they search for light in a tunnel of depression and disillusionment. And the dizzying, defiant “Good Girls” ranks among the very best songs in Chvrches’ memorable catalog, as Mayberry brandishes her knife and takes on those who excuse away problematic male artists. “Killing your idols is a chore,” she sings cooly. “But we don’t need them anymore.”