After another chaotic year of this fucking pandemic one of the few shining lights has been the quality of the music. More artists are taking their time and delivering more complete projects, unlike the last few years pre-pandemic where singles got strung along and the craft just didn’t feel there. 2021 was different, our list is the 12 best complete projects top to bottom. This year Hip Hop really took the driver’s seat and grabbed a chokehold of our top positions but some blue bloods and newcomers really influenced this year’s scene so much that it can’t be ignored.
12 – Adele-30
Tottenham’s own makes her return six years after her last smash hit album 25. Once again she has turned her real-life tragedy and heartbreak into a complex and vulnerable listening experience. Publically Adele has dedicated this project to her son Angelo and their relationship after her divorce from her ex-husband Simon Konecki. The biggest single on the album “Easy on Me” is an intimate look at how success doesn’t always equal strength. The piano recordings are excellent as always played on a classic grand piano that adds that Adele gravitas. Age has given her sound a little more seasoning, this album leans more into organic soulful sound as a whole rather than full band measures like projects of her past.
11- Young Stoner Life, Young Thug & Gunna – Slime Language II
Slime Language 2 is the second installment of a collaborative mixtape by the American record label Young Stoner Life led by its Founder Young Thug and featuring Gunna, one of the label’s brightest stars. For me, this was the most underrated album of the year. Features include Drake, Kid Cudi, Travis Scott, Coi leray, Lil uzi vert, YNW melly, Skepta, and Future so the album packs star power on top of extremely well produced beats. Over 50 different producers are given credit on the album giving the beats a lot of variety and really takes chances. This is one of the strong points and one of the weaknesses of the album since there are so many different types of artists and sounds that you’re bound to not like a song. This project really swung for the fences! Some of my favorites are No Surprise, Solid, Proud of You, WokStar, & Trance.
10 – Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Little Simz is the caviar of British rap whose excellent use of samples creates an instant cult feel giving her music weight. The theme of the album pays homage to the cinematic production of the past creating a funk-driven rap album. The lyrics are reflections of almost a decade in the music industry while simultaneously coming of age delivered in smooth packaging. My favorite song is “Point and Kill” which has a nasty bass line that drives the song over African-influenced drums. Little Simz’s fourth studio album shows this singer/producer doesn’t have the potential to be one of the best, she is one of the best.
9 – J Cole – The Off Season
J Cole’s fifth studio album delivers thoughtful lyrics and soulful beats that have become Cole’s calling card. The production is done by Cole himself, T-Minus & Ibrahim Hamad who deliver a polished well-edited Hip Hop headbanger. My favorite verse was on “a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e” where he talks about the reality of growing up around violence and how internet culture isn’t real in comparison.
“Uh, applying pressure
Started my grind where crime festers
And nines showing like they in they second trimesters (Crazy)
That’s why when niggas throw a shot or two online, I pay no mind to their benign gestures”
For being known for not having any features this album has some great ones with Lil Baby, 6lack, & 21 Savage who add life that makes this a true full-bodied project. The Off Season isn’t something I put on regularly but when I do, I enjoy it.
8 – Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR
The surprise punk single of the year “good 4 you” is held by ex Disney Star Olivia Rodrigo who delivers an authentic representation of teen angst, self-worth, and heartbreak through the eyes of an 18-year-old in 2021 in her debut album SOUR. She’s not the first female rock star but the most talented to come in quite some time. The instruments and musical writing on this album is excellent and well balanced. Tracks like “jealousy, jealousy”, “good 4 you”, & “brutal” are relentless thrashers but most of the album has melodic music and vocals giving it variety while transitioning seamlessly. SOUR’s social impact is big because a whole new generation of young girls are learning about Rock & Roll from Rodrigo continuing the lineage of transcendent female Rock Stars. Rodrigo’s project has punk roots with pop aspiration creating visibility at new levels for a new generation.
7 – Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
After releasing her New York Times best-selling memoir Crying in H-Mart, Michelle Zauner pivoted back to music with gusto in her band Japanese Breakfast’s latest Jubilee. Japanese Breakfast is a modern pop-alternative band but has roots in punk and is heavily influenced by bands like the Smiths whose impact is heavy-handed in one of my favorite tracks “In Hell.” Her book and the album both touch on the complexities of life navigating love and grief following the death of her mother that affected Zauner greatly. Her use of non-traditional instruments like the saxophone and synthesizer gives Jubilee a throwback feel while also setting herself apart in an indie scene that seems to be getting more convoluted every year.
6 – Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
The London foursome of Florence Shaw, Tom Dowse, Lewis Maynard, and Nick Buxton have cut their own path by creating a sound that pays homage to its punk foundation but also has its own distinctive sound. The bass and guitar are relentless throughout the album each taking the lead in different songs. New Long Leo is excellently produced while giving the instruments a real gritty sound that gives the effect that they are in the same room but is mixed with a professional finish making the album an organic jam session. The soul of the band is undeniable in the frantic and anxiety latent lyrics of Florence Shaw that add an amazing balance to an extremely talented band that knows how to play off each other at different tempos. Since this is their debut to anyone who hasn’t listened to them I would compare them to the Growlers and Radiohead, that should speak for itself.
5 – Doja Cat- Planet Her
Whenever I bring up Doja Cat’s music, something about her views or her looks are the first things that get brought up. With much polarizing celebrity come complicated perspectives. Planet Her is an unapologetically pop pov of what it is like to be one of the most sought-after artists while navigating love and fame. After a two-year hiatus, her return is her most vulnerable and stripped-down version of herself that is much different than the version that the media and the tabloids are diligent in portraying. With songs like You right, Been like This, Options, and Alone the album is robust with bangers and ballads. Doja fills in the shoes of a pop star while plugging R&B guitar, funk bass, and sprinkles of Latin drums giving her music roots without bowing to the complete commercialization of your music that becomes inevitable when navigating the pop space. Planet Her is a cover-to-cover instant classic.
4 – Kanye West – Donda (Deluxe)
In Kanye West’s now-infamous Drink Champs interview he references his feud with Drake as Big League Rap and that would probably be the best way to describe Donda (Deluxe). In Kanye’s most polarizing project since The Life of Pablo, Donda delivers. Kanye’s range as an artist is fully met with his eclectic chaos and truthful lyrics. While also intertwining his Christian message within mainstream music. It should be noted two of the best verses of the year were on this album in Favio Foreign on off the grid and Andre 3000 on Life of the party both raw storytelling verses but hard enough to bob your head to in the car. Donda is the complete package and delivered even with high expectations.
3 -Snail Mail – Valentine
Valentine is 32 minutes of liquified Indy rock poured over cool bass lines that drive a stake through the middle of the album. Snail Mail’s mastermind Lindsey Jordan has grown since her 2018 debut Lush and Valentine is the culmination of a lot of hard work and reflection due to the time spent in her childhood home during the Pandemic. Jordan’s sophomore album is more than just about heartbreak but it also touches with the drain that comes with being in the public eye of “parasitic cameras”. Though this album has much more synth and pop influence than her debut, this piece of work is brutally honest by touching on the dark parts of herself. My favorite songs are Ben Franklin, Headlock, and Madonna.
2 – Tyler the Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
Tyler the Creator has his moment in the sun doing a donut on the music industry in a way that at its core is truly Tyler. With surprise appearances from DJ Drama, this nostalgia-driven variety pack highlights the era’s of Tyler’s music while gloating on his successes in light of an opulent lifestyle that was once inconceivable for the Angelian. In terms of mixing and editing, this album has some of the best quality engineerings you’ll hear but my biggest criticism is the lack of cohesiveness between the tracks. This was the strength of his last two albums, all the songs worked together to create a continuous sound and theme. The project may lack cohesive organization but the product is top tier. Favorite tracks are SIR BAUDELAIRE, MASSA, & LUMBERJACK.
1-Nas – King’s Disease II
One of the greatest to ever do it makes his triumphant return after winning his first grammy for the first King’s Disease album last year. King’s Disease II is a masterclass in what it takes to make a storyteller’s album that still keeps true to the craftsman that makes a permanent mark on the industry at large. I got a history lesson while being entertained, something that is extremely hard to do. Nas pushed the envelope so now all the rappers at the top need to make sure they can make something that the public embraces while receiving accolades from the industry itself. Favorite songs are Death Row East, The Pressure, and Brunch on Sundays. Favorite Feature is from A Boogie with da Hoodie & YG on YKTV. From start to finish King’s Disease II is everything and more from one of the GOATS, an absolute classic.
Cover Art by Matt Mitchell