Last June, with the whole world in multiple simultaneous states of crisis, it was a fraught time to talk about the best music of the year so far, to say the least. This June, things are hardly back to status quo, but they do feel a bit different: The presidential election is over. Sports are officially back. And with at least half the adults in the country now vaccinated against COVID-19, things have started to open up again — including in the music industry, where festivals, tours and other live events that either took 2020 off or were forced to be radically reimagined are once again being scheduled like usual.
With the music world springing back to life, you’d probably expect that a lot of the bigger artists who’d largely written off last year as a wash would arrange to make their triumphant comebacks this year. And so far, well… sort of. Many of the artists dormant in 2020 have stayed as such through the first half of 2021, or have just begun to peek their heads out, leading to a pretty slow start to the year for major releases. But in their continued absence, a number of new stars have emerged, while some less-hyped veteran artists have also made welcome returns — and a couple of the biggest names have indeed made their presences felt.
Here are the Billboard staff’s 50 favorite albums of 2021 so far, presented alphabetically, with our favorite songs to follow tomorrow.
Aly & AJ, A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun
Releasing an album after 14 years, and on the heels of a pandemic, introduces just a bit of pressure. Pop-rock sister duo Aly & AJ combat that by dancing right through any such anxieties — and creating the perfect soundtrack for fans to do the same. On their latest album, released independently, the songs span from breezy, windows-down shout-alongs (“Break Yourself,” “Listen) to more contemplative, California-rooted rock gems (“Slow Dancing,” “Personal Cathedrals”), resulting in a well-balanced album that tells a beautiful story of hopeful reemergence — and manages to pack a decade-plus of wide-ranging emotion into 12 tracks. — LYNDSEY HAVENS
Another Michael, New Music and Big Pop
If the phrase “New Music and Big Pop” sounds more like the name of a Spotify playlist than the title of a gentle indie-rock album, that’s because Philly trio Another Michael spend much of their lovely debut LP ruminating about popular art, music analysis and their own ambitions as performers. The result is less meta than it sounds: in between winks toward the Best New Music-obsessed, New Music and Big Pop charms with grand harmonies, folk-inflected song arrangements and singer-songwriter Michael Doherty’s delicate voice, which spins upward into a falsetto in a way that will make a listener’s heart hurt. — JASON LIPSHUTZ
Arlo Parks, Collapsed Into Sunbeams
Like a sun-warmed sweater you slip into on a lazy Sunday, Arlo Parks’ Collapsed In Sunbeams is a reassuring hug of an album. Vintage soul-folk instrumentation with an indie edge and vibey, languid hip-hop beats buoy the 20-year-old singer-songwriter-poet’s ruminations on everything from the moment she knew a relationship wouldn’t last to the queer pain of pining for a straight friend. With Sunbeams, Parks brings her sadness into the light, dusts it off and fortifies her spirit to start hoping again. — JOE LYNCH
Demidevil does not sound like a debut project — its skillfully-crafted production and deliciously irreverent songwriting suggests an artist with years of experience under their belt. Ashnikko‘s snarling, self-possessed delivery shines throughout, as she scorches her haters (“Toxic”) as well as sexist record executives (“Little Boy”), and even offers a 2021 update to an Avril Lavigne classic (“L8r Boi”), with the in-your-face flair and vitality that may have her on the precipice of stardom. — STEPHEN DAW
The Black Keys, Delta Kream
The Black Keys are back with Delta Kream, but it’s something a little unexpected — at least upon first listen. Rather than their usual car commercial- and arena-friendly rock anthems, Kream is entirely made up of traditional blues covers. From the single “Crawling Kingsnake” to the slow-rocking build of “Sad Days, Lonely Nights,” the band masters the blues sound of decades past. The admiration for the musicians who built rock and roll runs throughout the set and it’s clear Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney — who reportedly recorded the album in 10 hours in Auerbach’s Nashville studio — have deep reverence for the music. A must-listen for any Keys or blues devotees, this is in many ways the album the Akron-born band was destined to create. — DENISE WARNER
Brockhampton, Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine
Dubbed as the penultimate Brockhampton album, Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine presents the self-styled hip-hop boy band’s melody-driven reflections as they swerve away from their more boisterous beats, arriving at their most mature project to date. Singer/rapper Joba recalls his father’s suicide and the aftermath (“When I look at myself, I see a broken man,” he raps on “The Light”), while leader Kevin Abstract tackles racism, homophobia and gun violence in “Don’t Shoot the Party.” But Brockhampton as a whole summons the light and their brotherhood for the former member on the choir-backed prayer “Dear Lord.” — HERAN MAMO
C Tangana, El Madrileño
Spaniard C. Tangana made a name for himself as a rapper who was both hardcore and cerebral, appealing to music snobs and the masses alike, co-writing with Rosalía and zipping up Spain’s charts. It would have been easy to stay the course with more rap and reggaetón-tinged collabs. Instead, Tangana turned inwards in El Madrileño (The Man From Madrid), an homage to his hometown that digs deep into the roots of Madrid’s essential music but also incorporates visual imagery and tradition for a highly nuanced album. Tangana raps but also sings, accompanied by traditional Spanish guitar intertwining with electronic loops and handclaps. The 12 collabs here are unexpected, ranging from Cuban veteran Eliades Ochoa and icons Toquinho and José Feliciano to alt up and comers like Omar Apollo and Ed Maverick. It’s a risky but successful set that plumbs the depths of possibilities for Latin urban music. — LEILA COBO
Carly Pearce, 29
From her divorce from fellow country artist Michael Ray to the death of her mentor and producer busbee, Pearce takes the losses and changes in one of the most difficult years of her life and lays her emotions bare in an EP that shifts between despair and hope, swagger and sorrow. Whether it’s her gorgeous tribute to busbee, “Show Me Around;” the bristling humor of “Next Girl” or the heartbreak of “Messy,” 29 showcases an artist not afraid to be vulnerable in a way that ultimately comes through as strength. — MELINDA NEWMAN
Carrie Underwood, My Savior
Underwood’s first gospel album was a passion project for the singer, who has long been known for her faith. She deserves credit for approaching it with such conviction, not watering it down with secular “inspirational” songs or overdoing it with guest stars. (The tracklist includes just one: gospel great CeCe Winans on “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”) Underwood, who co-produced the album with David Garcia, obviously decided: If you’re going to do it, do it right. The results will likely bring Underwood a well-deserved eighth Grammy. — PAUL GREIN
Chloe Moriondo, Blood Bunny
Chloe Moriondo’s first album for legendary pop-punk label Fueled by Ramen marries the intimacy of the bedroom-pop music that she’s been playing since she was a preteen with rock riffs that would make labelmates Paramore proud. Whether she’s dreamily sighing, “Samantha, I’m in love with you,” or plainly admitting, “I wish I liked you as much as I like my favorite band,” the 18-year-old Detroit native proudly wears her heart on her sleeve. And with melodies that match the strength of her incisive writing, Moriondo’s Blood Bunny has made her one to watch, if you weren’t already. — CHRISTINE WERTHMAN
Chung Ha, Querencia
You know an album is good when even the interludes slap. The K-pop star’s debut album is an ambitious undertaking on all levels: 21 tracks divided into four thematic chapters, spanning EDM workouts (“Stay the Night”), rock-tinged ballads (“X”) and an impressive suite of Latin-inspired numbers (including the standout Guaynaa team-up “Demente”) delivered in Korean, English and Spanish. But there’s a slinky sophistication that brings Querencia’s cosmopolitan sounds together, and Chung Ha‘s chameleonic (but always distinctive) voice more than earns the record’s run time. — NOLAN FEENEY
Dawn Richard, Second Line
With the arrival of Second Line, Dawn Richard’s sixth full-length LP and first on renowned indie label Merge, the inventive artist gave fans much more than an album: The project doubles as an audiobook, history lesson and entire captivating world of New Orleans-inspired energy, thumping techno production and Pop&B hybrid vocals. Richard’s highly-specific sonic concoction is best heard on standouts like “Boomerang,” a dancefloor-ready, trance-inducing banger, and lead single “Bussifame,” on which she rightfully declares: “In case you n—as been missing it, I been giving you hits.” When you’re right, you’re right. — L.H.
Drakeo the Ruler, The Truth Hurts
After achieving cult stardom with a half-decade of impressive mixtapes, 2021’s The Truth Hurts marks something of a mainstream bow for Drakeo the Ruler, following his November release from jail. But despite now having the clout to actually get Don Toliver to appear on a song inspired by him, Truth Hurts is still driven by the West Coast rapper’s singular cool menace (“Don’t make me pull up on your block in sports mode,” he obliquely threatens in the set’s “Intro”), his flair for funny, off-kilter boasting (“I’m showboating with an emo wrist” on “RIP Greedo”) and his verve for unlikely hooks that wear down your resistance with remorseless repetition (pretty much all of “Pow Right in the Kisser”). Even when the superstar whose name shares the same first five letters shows up at the album’s end, it feels like just another twisted Drakeo punchline. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg
The U.K. indie scene never seems to go too long without a post-punk revival, but of the handful of bands representing the latest wave, Dry Cleaning have by far the strongest voice. That’s thanks to the sung-spoken nonchalance of frontwoman Florence Shaw, whose poetic musings on debut full-length New Long Leg are as jagged and piercing as the band’s coarse riffs, and as queasy as its murmuring bass grooves. Occasionally they coalesce into notebook scribble-worthy anti-catchphrases like “Do everything and feel nothing,” but they’re most relatable at their peak of free-associative frenzy: “I just wanted to tell you I’ve got scabs on my head/ It’s useless to live/ I’ve been thinking about eating that hot dog for hours/ Kiss me.” — A.U.
Duke Deuce, Duke Nukem
As any student of Memphis rap knows, there’s coming out hard, and then there’s coming out hard — and from the set’s Stooges-sampling intro, it’s clear that Duke Deuce intends to do the latter with his official debut album Duke Nukem. Like the ’90s shoot-’em-up video game protagonist who gives the set its name, the Bluff City MC blazes his way through the entirety his first album, bellowing out military chants like the second coming of Master P, curating the guest list at his “Gangsta Party” while loudly instructing all others where to GTFO, and tying it all together with his recurring signature wail of “WHAT THE F———CK?” Fair question, but considering how much Deuce’s profile has elevated since the set’s release — including a guest appearance on Isaiah Rashad’s much-anticipated comeback single — it’s clear a lot of people are interested in finding out the answer. — A.U.
Ed Maverick, Eduardo
When 20-year-old Mexican folk singer Ed Maverick released “niño” as the focus track to his debut album Eduardo — opening with the cryptic lyrics, “Life is a beast that is slowly killing me, and I don’t know what’s going to happen” — listeners were intrigued instantly. The subsequent set didn’t disappoint, with Maverick’s raspy voice and powerful guitar riffs narrating an existential crisis over 12 emotionally heavy and sonically psychedelic tracks — a testament to the young talent’s ability to create empathetic lyrics that define and reflect his generation’s fears and anxieties. — GRISELDA FLORES
Eric Church, Heart & Soul
The North Carolina native dives into a surprisingly dark abyss with this triple record — released in three parts as Heart, & and Soul — which has him constantly fleeing pain (often literally in a car or pickup truck), only finding clarity while pushing listeners to the breaking point. “Yeah, my true north is anywhere I can leave it all behind/ Let’s point this thing west into the chest of the still beating heart of the night,” he sings on “Heart of the Night.” As a listening experience, the 26-song triple album is an occasionally draining emotional marathon, but fans of Church’s layered lyrical narratives and nostalgic ease will enjoy standouts like “Break It Kind of Guy,” “Do Side,” and “Stick That in Your County Song.” — DAVE BROOKS
Foo Fighters, Medicine at Midnight
How many other bands are still churning out some of their best, most enjoyable work a quarter-century in? That’s what makes the Foos’ 10th studio album such a revelation — with leader Dave Grohl and the guys finding a way to slip a bit of funky AM radio jive into their signature bombastic loud-quiet-loud-loud-loud sound. With the Foos’ planned 25th anniversary plans on hold, Grohl emerged with explosive, ’70s boogie anthems such as “Making a Fire,” polyrhythmic single “Shame Shame” and perhaps their most emotional, seeking ballad to date, “Waiting on a War.” And if you were worried they got soft, just crank up the face-ripping “No Son of Mine.” — GIL KAUFMAN
Girl in Red, If I Could Make It Go Quiet
Throughout her career, bedroom pop star Girl in Red (a.k.a. Marie Ulven), has thrived at transforming intimate, late-night thoughts into critically acclaimed, queer-focused indie anthems. But on If I Could Make It Go Quiet, Ulven threw out her rulebook and played to the back of the house: The alt-pop project sees Ulven plugging in and doubling down on anger (“Did You Come?”), angst (“Hornylovesickmess”), love (“I‘ll Call You Mine”) and breaks from reality (“Serotonin”), all while playing around with her own musical identity. Her dream-pop style is still present on each track, but If I Could Make It Go Quiet upgrades Ulven’s sound into the kind of debut project you won’t be able to stop thinking about. — S.D.
Giveon, When It’s All Said and Done… Take Time
Co-signed last year by Drake with an appearance on the rapper’s Dark Lane Demo Tapes highlight “Chicago Freestyle” and this year on Justin Bieber’s Billboard Hot 100-topping “Peaches,” Giveon is steadily winning fans on his own with a gutsy brand of R&B that embraces influences that range from Frank Sinatra to Frank Ocean. A combination of the smooth crooner’s two earlier EPs — including his Grammy-nominated breakthrough Take Time — the singer-songwriter’s entrancing official debut album boasts the gold-certified “Like I Want You” and the stunning global breakup hit “Heartbreak Anniversary.” — GAIL MITCHELL
Home Is Where, I Became Birds
For emo and indie fans who grow up equally enraptured by Jeff Mangum and Jeff Rosenstock, no release this year has been more thrilling than Florida quartet Home Is Where’s latest LP. A sprawling opus even at just six tracks and 19 minutes, I Became Birds is bursting with vitality in every corner, enthralling and surprising and curious and funny as s–t. Call it folk-punk and you’re about halfway there, but you’re probably safer just calling it “rock,” since it’s the only thing the album does consistently throughout its many unexpected turns. It might make you injure yourself stage diving off your living room sofa; it might make you recognize parts of yourself you’d never quite identified before, it might make you finally buy that damn harmonica. — A.U.
J. Cole, The Off Season
On J. Cole’s highly anticipated sixth album, the rapper distances from his expected formula, centering a handful of features and taking a more playful approach to his lyricism, while maintaining his impeccably unique rhyme schemes. Album standouts like “my.life” and “pride.is.the.devil” recruit both emerging and established rap favorites — 21 Savage, Morray and Lil Baby — who introduce equilibrium for Cole’s solo cuts, making The Off-Season exciting for both day-one Cole fans and newcomers. At the time of his release, Cole also delved into another ambitious endeavor — professional basketball — giving extra meaning to the album’s title. — NEENA ROUHANI
Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert & Jon Randall, The Marfa Tapes
These three Texas songwriters retreated to the remote high desert town of Marfa (population 1,831, give or take) to record this stripped-down, harmony-drenched, just-keep-the-tape-rolling, 15-song set whose undeniable lo-fi charms led it to debut at No. 1 on the Americana/Folk Albums chart. Replete with between-song chatter and can’t-miss song titles like “Am I Right or Amarillo,” the album also contains an unvarnished take on “Tin Man,” the original version of which won Lambert song of the year honors at the 2018 ACM Awards. — THOM DUFFY
Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee
It seems like Jubilee is just what the doctor ordered after an isolating, year-long pandemic. When writing her third studio album, indie rock singer-songwriter Japanese Breakfast (a.k.a. Michelle Zauner) revealed, “I’ve said everything I needed to say about loss and grief, and I was excited to take on a new part of the human experience.” Jubilee is a thematic departure from 2016’s Psychopomp, 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet, and even Zauner’s best-selling memoir Crying in H Mart. The sparkling LP sets an optimistic tone from lead track “Paprika,” in which Zauner sings: “How’s it feel to be at the center of magic?” — alluding to the alt star’s long-overdue return to joy. — MIA NAZARENO
Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales
Heaux Tales bands together women for a series of tracks and tales about how they unapologetically take up space in a world trying to belittle them. The 12-time Grammy-nominated singer’s first EP checks any trifling man at the door, with the set’s single (and Sullivan’s first Adult R&B Airplay No. 1 hit) “Pick Up Your Feelings” serving as an instant classic bad-boyfriend dismissal. The R&B great only makes room for her true support system — collaborators like Ari Lennox, who confesses to nearly ruining her own career for a man on “Ari’s Tale,” before spitting X-rated verses with Sullivan on “On It.” — H.M.
Jorja Smith, Be Right Back
There’s a confidence to this EP that perhaps Smith has always had, but not truly gotten across as clearly as on this collection of songs. Even in heartbreak, she exudes a clear-eyed sense of who she is, and what her power is — and it lies in her sense of self, the bluesy pocket in which these songs sit, and the simple power of her voice, which connects back to the long lineage of British soul singers who came before her. The set could certainly stand to be longer, but its 26 minutes are enough to pull you in and sit you down, and by the time her voice fades on project-ender “Weekend” you’re left wanting more — a rarity in this age of endless tracklists and deluxe editions. — DAN RYS
Julien Baker, Little Oblivions
It’s hard to go 30 seconds on Little Oblivions without hearing a lyric that feels like a punch straight to the gut, let alone for a full song — and that’s to say nothing about the whole host of others that likely won’t help the liver, either. It’s simply crushing in every sense, from “what I wouldn’t give if it would take away the sting a minute” (“Faith Healer”) to “it’s the mercy I can’t take” (“Song in E”). But many of its darkest moments are the most beautiful, like when she leans into her self-described “bleep bloop music” on album opener “Hardline,” with an apex that will bring you to your knees. — JOSH GLICKSMAN
Junior H, $ad Boyz 4 Life
As the Mexican singer-songwriter at the forefront of the sad sierreño movement, Junior H took a slight departure from his streetwise and flashy corridos on $ad Boyz 4 Life to deliver guitar-heavy ballads with ultra-nostalgic and personal lyrics on love, lust and heartbreak. Powered by melancholic tunes, which became the perfect canvas for the 21-year-old’s deep and hoarse vocals, the aptly titled 16-track set not only defies macho culture in regional Mexican music, but also captures the zeitgeist of a new generation of artists who are once again embracing the artistic resonance of pure sadness, a pillar of regional Mexican music. — G.F.
Justin Bieber, Justice
Over a decade into his pop stardom, Justice shows Justin Bieber’s still not done racking up career firsts, as five singles from Justice have made the top 20 on the Hot 100 — the most yet for a Bieber collection. “Peaches,” a slinky pop-soul jam featuring Daniel Caesar and Giveon, deservedly topped the chart, but the best of the bunch may be “Lonely” (a collab with Benny Blanco), an honest and revealing examination of Bieber’s life in the spotlight. In the stripped-down ballad, he recalls his youthful travails and bemoans, “Everybody saw me sick/ And it felt like no one gave a s–t.” Not true — many of us were rooting for this talented performer to get it together. Look at what he has been able to accomplish now that he has. – P.G.
Karol G, KG0516
Despite the starry guest list — including appearances from Ozuna, Anuel AA and J Balvin — KG0516 is very much a Karol G set, with enough solo tracks to firmly establish her as today’s leading lady of Latin urban music. This album of strong, melody-first songs highlights the Colombian star’s versatility, and more than ever before,her vocal prowess. “Gato Malo,” an inspired pairing with Nathy Peluso, reads like a tango-tinged torch song with a generous dollop of attitude, while the more melancholy “El Barco” and “200 Copas” dwell on Karol G’s favored topic, of love and loss. And of course, there’s huge, commercial tracks like “El Makinón,” a female empowerment vamp with newcomer Mariah Angeliq. The real power here, though, is Karol G’s capacity to bring in the veterans and the newcomers (Juanka and Brray, Yandar and Joskin) and still emerge as the one leading the charge. — L.C.
Kenny Mason, Angelic Hoodrat: Supercut
Instead of conforming to Atlanta’s traditional trap sound, genre-blending rising star Kenny Mason earned his stripes as a rulebreaking rebel on his album Angelic Hoodrat: Supercut. Posing as a formidable double-threat, Mason not only exudes promise as a lyrical warrior on tracks with Freddie Gibbs (“Much Money”) and Denzel Curry (“A+”) but also plays the punk-rock savant on “Titan” and “Breathe Again.” — CARL LAMARRE
Lil Durk, The Voice
Chicago drill icon Lil Durk can’t escape the O Block on his melodic, darkly reflective and chart-conquering The Voice. Beginning with “Finesse Out The Gang” with Lil Baby, Durk’s auto-tuned flow lingers into the detachment of fame writing “Roll up a blunt of that Pluto Used to be deep now I’m riding ’round uno.” The Voice’s bleak state of being — with bluesy, half-sung vocals and lower-energy melodies — reflects the genre’s turn inward after a violent year. The LP still breaks out occasionally, as with the riotous “Still Trappin'” — featuring the rapper’s longtime friend King Von, who was murdered in November. Yet, even when Durk breaks free on The Voice, he pulls himself back down, lamenting on “Not the Same” that even in death, he’ll be no help: “Can’t be no donor on my ID, that’s important/ Do so much drugs, I know it f–ked up all my organs.” — D.B.
Lucky Daye, Table For Two
The first EP in two years for R&B singer-songwriter Lucky Daye, Table For Two is a must-listen. The six-track set, released in February, features a fierce supporting cast of Ari Lennox, Yebba, Tiana Major9, Joyce Wrice, Mahalia and Queen Naija, and grabs listeners attention immediately with its catchy intro, “Ego Trip” — before smoothly transitioning into the first full tune, “How Much Can a Heart Take,” a soulful duet with Yebba about a failing relationship. The remaining songs maintain the sonically and lyrically intimate vibe with impressive consistency, making R&B fans hope he sticks around for more than 22 minutes next time. — DARLENE ADEROJU
Madlib, Sound Ancestors
The prolific hip-hop producer and instrumentalist known as Madlib opens up his archives on Sound Ancestors, a tour through his musical tastes that is as awe-inspiring yet hard to pin down as he is. Over 16 sample-ridden tracks — thoughtfully arranged by Madlib’s longtime friend, acclaimed electronic producer Four Tet — the album drifts between obscure soul (standout “Road of the Lonely Ones”), post-punk (the Young Marble Giants-sampling “Dirtknock”) and even a Smithsonian Folkways recording made by Black pre-teens in the mid-1950s (album closer “Duumbiyay”). For an artist with about a dozen aliases, it’s ironic that this album of music he did not make is the rare one billed as a Madlib release. But it’s also fitting, like he’s inviting listeners personally into his vinyl stacks. — TATIANA CIRISANO
Middle Kids, Today We’re the Greatest
Coming off their stellar 2018 debut LP Lost Friends, Middle Kids’ second album falls deeper into the Sydney trio’s psyche for an album that is consistent in its airy melodies and heartbreaking lyrics. The songs are riddled with anxious mentions of tested relationships, but never linger on despair, as lead singer Hannah Joy repeats, “I don’t f—king care, I gotta do what I gotta do.” The album is confident in its singer’s vulnerability as she grapples with past trauma, and ends with the declarative final track stating, “Even though we feel so small… today we’re the greatest.” — TAYLOR MIMS
Moneybagg Yo, A Gangsta’s Pain
Yo Gotti’s CMG imprint is breathing new life into the city of Memphis, courtesy of his prized signee MoneyBagg Yo. His latest attempt, A Gangsta’s Pain, clocks in at a hearty 22 tracks and finds the burgeoning superstar colliding with Future, Pharrell, Polo G and more. From ruminating about his lean addiction on the Lil Wayne- and DeBarge-sampling track “Wockesha” to addressing his fear of commitment on “Love It Here,” Bagg’s expanded repertoire helps widens the gap between him and his rap peers. — C.L.
Myke Towers, Lyke Mike
Lyke Mike, an ode to basketball, el barrio and, his biggest inspiration, Michael Jordan, is a comeback to the underground rap sound and lyrics that made Towers a household name. An ultra-personal production, with an album cover displaying the front of his childhood home in Puerto Rico, Towers narrates his struggles and successes as heard in tracks like “Cuando Me Ven,” “Joven Leyenda” and “Maldita Envidia.” Unlike his sophomore set Easy Money Baby, Lyke Mike, which debuted at No. 3 on Top Latin Albums, steps away from commercial reggaetón and Latin R&B sounds to navigate Towers’ musical roots in hip-hop, trap and drill, with help from collaborators like Mikey Woodz, Ñengo Flow, Jon Z, and Sahir. — JESSICA ROIZ
Natalie Bergman, Mercy
Natalie Bergman’s debut solo album is filled with grief — an emotion felt by far too many over the past year. The Wild Belle frontwoman lost her father and stepmother after a drunk driver hit them the same night she was scheduled to perform at Radio City Music Hall in 2019, alongside her bandmate and brother Elliot. Through Mercy, Bergman’s loss is transformed into a stunning gospel album as focused on faith as it is on love. The set shares the journey through loss and healing, while still delivering swaying choruses for believers and non-believers alike. — T.M.
Olivia Rodrigo, Sour
In a recent Billboard cover story, Rodrigo said she didn’t fully realize the power of “drivers license” until she saw her dad tearing up listening to it in the car. It’s easy to spend much of the 35-minute Sour doing the same, save for the times when Rodrigo trades in ballads for pop-punk and you’ll find yourself revving the engine while using the steering wheel as a drum pad. From its starkest lyrics of insecurity to its most biting one-liners, her songwriting prowess is on full display throughout. And for all the comparisons to older singer-songwriters, Rodrigo’s rewriting chart history in real time – such is the level of excitement she’s generating with her scintillating debut effort. — J.G.
Pooh Shiesty, Shiesty Season
Much like its Lil Durk-featuring lead single and breakthrough smash “Back in Blood,” Memphis rapper Pooh Shiesty’s debut mixtape Shiesty Season sneaks up on you. The singsong hooks, slow-drawled rhymes and menacing beats initially register as straightforward Southern rap — but then you keep playing it, keep absorbing every percussive creak and threat of violence, and realize just how deep the thing goes. Chalk up that replay value to the Gucci Mane disciple’s charisma on the microphone, which is remarkably polished for an MC just starting on his artistic journey; every ad-lib, anecdote and elongated syllable comes naturally to him, as if he was born to carry the torch for Memphis hip-hop. — J. Lipshutz
Porter Robinson, Nurture
Seven years after releasing his beloved 2014 debut LP, Worlds, it was appropriate that in 2021 Porter Robinson delivered one of dance music’s great coming-of-age albums, Nurture. Exploring the mental/emotional/spiritual wilderness that exists between the ages of 20 and 27 — and the particular challenges of traversing this terrain when you’re also a famous artist from whom the world is expecting a brilliant new project — the album is indeed triumphant, in both its shimmering, nuanced production, and in its embrace of an emotional vulnerability that also doesn’t deny life’s intermittent moments of unfettered joy. — KATIE BAIN
Rod Wave, SoulFly
Rod Wave’s soul-baring album SoulFly arrived a week into the spring season, like a breath of fresh air. In a year defined early on by aggressive, struggle-glamorizing lyricism, the 21-year-old rapper-singer weaved together vulnerable tales of love, community, addictions and pain, without romanticizing his troubles and vices for a mainstream audience. Instead, Wave recounted his life’s stories specifically for those who identified with those experiences, establishing early on, “If you can’t feel my pain/ Well, this ain’t for you anyways.” — N.R.
Sech’s 42 is like his personal diary, or as he best put it to Billboard, “It’s me opening my heart.” On the 11-track set, which includes collaborations with Wisin, Nicky Jam, and Rauw Alejandro, Sech turned his deepest feelings into songs, which he says all of “are real, and part of my life.” Born fully in the pandemic, the album also pays homage to Sech’s Afro roots: 42 represents the jersey number of barrier-breaking baseball legend Jackie Robinson, as well as of Panamanian star relief pitcher Mariano Rivera. Infectious perreo, dancehall, and romantic reggaetón beats bring to life standout tracks like “¿Que Somos?,” “911,” “Wao,” and the viral TikTok hit “Sal y Perrea.” — J.R.
Shelley fka Dram, Shelley
It’s been five years since D.R.A.M. earned head-bobbing raves for his Hot 100 top 5 hit “Broccoli.” The wait for a second full-length was well worth it: Now going by his birth name, the rapper-singer more than lives up to the meaning of his former moniker, Does Real Ass Music, on this sophomore outing. Diving full bore into R&B and soul, Shelley turns intimate as he reveals just how far his versatility reaches. Whether flexing his falsetto on “Married Woman,” shifting into smooth on the ballad “Cooking with Grease” or throwing a nod to his rap roots on the set’s spoken-word outros, Shelley takes listeners on a liberating ride, with R&B stars Summer Walker, H.E.R. and Erykah Badu among his guest passengers. — G.M.
Tash Sultana, Terra Firma
While descriptors like “psych rock” and “jam band” are anathema to some, Terra Firma adopts elements of both realms to mystic, moody, often sophisticated and yes, heady, effect. The second album from the Australian multi-instrumentalist, Terra Firma glides between warmly sensual slow jams (“Pretty Lady”, “Dream My Life Away”) and achingly lovelorn long builds (“Coma”) that demonstrate both Sultana‘s singular guitar work, and her similarly unique voice that can make any song sound like an incantation. An honest-to-god long player ideal for a dinner party or just an afternoon at home, Terra Firma is consistent in quality and vibe for its duration. — K.B.
From the first strains of “For You,” Nigerian Afropop artist Teni’s collaboration with Davido that serves as the first full song on her debut album, Wondaland, the tone is set: This is a project that is steeped in sonic richness, with the singer bringing people deeper into her world by using her voice in ways that go beyond words, flitting between lyric and pure melody. The result is an album that gets richer with each listen, rewarding the listener with another discovered piece of its puzzle, another segment to savor or digest on each play through. Such layers make it hard to take it out of the regular listening rotation. — D.R.
Twenty One Pilots, Scaled and Icy
The Ohio duo spent the COVID lockdown crafting their sunniest, most radio-friendly collection to date. Coming off 2018’s Trench — a dark collection of songs with a knotty backstory their beloved Skeleton Clique superfans ate up — singer/lyricist Tyler Joseph channeled the bouncy pop of Supertramp and 1980s new wave on such glistening bops as “Good Day,” “Shy Away” and “Saturday.” The pivot again proved the versatility of a two-man band that nimbly jumps from hip-hop to punk, rock and AM gold, sometimes in the same song. Though still subtly laced with some of Joseph’s fears and anxiety, S&I is a bright balm after the most miserable year. — G.K.
Young Dolph & Key Glock, Dum and Dummer 2
Unlike the Dumb & Dumber film sequel — a tired retread that Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels should have nixed upon one read of the script — Dum and Dummer 2, the follow-up to Memphis rappers Young Dolph and Key Glock’s original 2019 team-up, pushes the stories of its two stars forward, a buddy project in which the leads grow alongside each other. Part of that success can be attributed to the songs themselves — “Penguins” and “Case Closed” contain two of the hardest beats of 2021 — but the bone-rattling bass and horror-movie sounds especially resonate, thanks to the focus and energy Young Dolph and Key Glock let ricochet off one another. — J. Lipshutz
Young Stoner Life, Slime Language 2
Young Thug superfans anxiously awaiting a proper new Thugger full-length (or maybe a Barter 7 mixtape) might be underwhelmed by him focusing his efforts on a wealth-spreading label showcase, with ATL acolyte Gunna as his primary co-star. But the set is the rare major hip-hop release where the endless guest list just adds to the party without overwhelming it, with superstars like Drake, Lil Uzi Vert and Travis Scott comfortably co-existing alongside exciting up-and-comers like YTB Trench, T-Shyne and Unfoonk — and Thug and Gunna still standing out in their role as masters of ceremonies. And though 23 tracks is more than enough to start with, be sure to also check out the deluxe edition for the most exciting feature of all: Mego, Young Thug’s nine-year-old daughter, spitting bars on “Yessirskii.” — A.U.
Zhu, Dreamland 2021
Typically used to describe driving techno or heavy bass, “dark” is an overused term in the dance scene — but really, it’s the word that most suitably describes the world Zhu builds on his third LP, Dreamland 2021. Oscillating between fuzzy, pulsing house (“Sweet Like Honey”) and spooky, ultra-low BPM, piano laden meanders through the underworld (“I Need That”) the sonics are varied but the ambience is consistently shadowy, falling also into the aural lineage of Zhu’s two previous LPs. The producer himself compared the heavy sound of Dreamland 2021 to concrete, saying that “when it’s done right, it’s the cleanest, smoothest shape — but at the same time, it’s a very porous, dirty substance.” — K.B.