If we all felt lost at times this year, uncertain in the face of half-hearted hopes and looming unknowns, it was good to know we could call Tyler the creator. His luxuriant and multiple album Call me if you get lost offers comfort, escape, inspiration, and just about anything anyone living in 2021 could use. In music as in the rest of life, the highlights of the past year have occurred in fewer numbers and with less impact than one might expect. Yet they have come up with impressive persistence across all styles of work or genre. Here are my picks for the Top 10 Albums of 2021. (The list is alphabetical by album title, not in descending order of quality, although Best Project is also my top pick of the year.)
Call me if you get lost, Tyler the creator
Cinematic in scope and sound density, the sixth album by born producer and rapper Tyler Okonma is like a sound mini-series in several parts cut and pasted in random order. What is it about? Nothing more or less than Tyler’s expansive creativity, as well as his ability to bring in a dozen guest rappers, including DJ Drama, 42 Dugg, and Domo Genesis.
Collapses in the rays of the sun, Arlo Parks
Like Janis Ian and Abbey Lincoln in another era of social instability, Franco-African singer-songwriter Arlo Parks tackles big questions in intimate and poetic terms. It’s hard to understand that this collection of eloquent and melodious songs is her debut album.
Based on evidence, The Claudia Quintet
A sneaky and inflammatory review of the Centers for Disease Control, with selections inspired by the seven terms the CDC has reportedly banned from using internally, including “evidence-based,” “law,” “transgender” and “fetus.” Longtime Claudia Quintet leader and drummer John Hollenbeck composed the exquisite music in collaboration with poet Eileen Myles.
Ignoring, The Weather Station
The fifth full-length album by singer / songwriter Tamara Lindeman and an assortment of chamber musicians is rumination of the global climate crisis in slightly biting folk-pop songs.
Intimate Strangers, Sara Serpa and Emmanuel Iduma
A musical travel diary by Portuguese singer-songwriter Sara Serpa, in collaboration with Nigerian songwriter Emmanuel Iduma. Inspired by Iduma’s book The pose of a stranger, the album evokes feelings of discovery, displacement and isolation in 13 songs. With additional vocals by Aubrey Johnson, including the solo album Disentangled, released last year, is also a nugget.
Maquishti, Patricia Brennan
Aerial, lively and thoughtful music for vibraphone, marimba and electronics by Mexican-born composer and musician Patricia Brennan who is making her debut as a solo artist. Relaxing music that soothes the mind without numbing it.
Seis, Mon LafertÃ©
Chilean singer Mon Laferte (who originally recorded under her first name, Monserrat Bustamante) lives in Mexico and soaks up the earthy and highly emotional musical traditions of her adopted country. She honors them with evocative idiosyncrasy in 14 original songs, including one sung as a duet with Alejandro Fernandez, son of the late ranchero Vincente Fernandez.
Sometimes I could be introverted, Little Simz
Search for the soul and self-analysis in the orchestral rhythms of British rapper Little Simz. Produced and primarily co-written by Inflo, who also oversaw Adele’s latest release, 30, this is Little Simz’s fifth album and its sharpest, most daring to date.
Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: female, wild up
The first of seven planned albums by the west coast chamber collective Wild Up devoted to the tragically underrated and unclassifiable music of the late Julius Eastman, the gay black composer who died in obscurity in 1990. Elusive and volatile, the music of the 10 tracks on this album was composed in 1974 and still surprises today.
Of everything on this list, this is the album that I found myself playing the most. Punk and pop fun music by the Japanese quartet Chai. Absolutely the funniest album of the year.
And if this list were longer, it would also include enarge by Emily D’Angelo; Pouf, by Henry Threadgill, This bitter land, by Veronica Swift; poem of your, by Charles Lloyd and the Wonders; and Yellow, by Emma-Jean Thackray.