April + Vista
Pit of My Dreams

April + VISTA’s Pit of My Dreams is full of anguish and turmoil, but also deliverance. The duo reimagined the album when COVID put their plans to tour with Little Dragon on pause, which took the project to a darker place than they’d originally planned, according to an interview with Bandcamp Daily. They bottled the rage, stress and uncertainty of the world into the genreless catharsis that is Pit of My Dreams. It’s too lazy to categorize them as R&B, hip-hop, alternative or electronic — but all of those elements bleed into the wholly unique sound they achieve. This is an album for feeling every gritty thing and, through that, finding relief. — Theda Berry


Arlo Parks
Collapsed in Sunbeams

Arlo Parks’ in her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, exudes a type of confidence that could certainly be difficult to achieve at her age. Beginning with the titular spoken word track “Collapsed in Sunbeams,” her strengths pervade through the lyrics of the album. Arlo Parks’ vocals lull you into the same kind of warmth you find when the sun hits the window and the visible stirs of dust hang comfortably in the air. A spectrum of emotions are worn through the titles of the album, from the assuring songs like “Hurt” and “Hope” to the awe-exhilarating “Too Good”; Arlo Parks manages to spring a depth of sensations in the album. — Jillian Nguyen


Bo Burnham
Inside (The Songs)

Bo Burnham’s COVID quarantine masterpiece comes from, as a sock puppet says of his own existence, “a frightening liminal space between states of being, not quite dead and not quite alive.” Which is to say: This album, featuring the songs that serve as the centerpiece of Inside, his first comedy special in five years, captures exactly what it meant to be alive in 2021, filled with ennui, in a never-ending crawl of the all mighty feed, where “apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime.” I’m underselling the humor, and the deftness with which Burnham changes musical genres here, but even as an album, Inside bruises easily, and is worthy of dissection and obsession in theme and craft as any album on this list. — Andrew Winistorfer


Boston Bun
There’s A Nightclub Inside My Head

If you’ve ever experienced that stage of teetering between adolescence and adulthood, it’s likely you’ve also experienced the bizarre intimacy of being pressed next to strangers amid the tight walls of your town’s raging club. For some, it’s a one-and-done experience that pushes them across the border into adulthood. For others, it becomes a dose of escapism. There’s A Nightclub Inside My Head is exactly that. Boston Bun neatly packages pulsing beats into a 10-track album for listeners to take home and relive. The French producer uncovers a range of house and disco, and dips into a stripped-down drum-and-bass rhythm. — JN


Camp Trash
Downtiming EP

One of 2020 and 2021’s finest genre stories is the re-emergence of emo; those of us who had our first breakups, drives, tastes of warm beer and makeout sessions to Taking Back Sunday, the Promise Ring and Jimmy Eat World are not short on new bands to choose to longingly look at the Facebook feeds of our old high school classmates to. Camp Trash, a four-piece of Florida dudes seemingly grown in a lab that produces emo bands, make music like the best bands of Alternative Press compilations from 2005, but filtered through a thoroughly modern perspective. “Weird Carolina,” this EP’s finest song, and my song of the year so far, captures the feeling of being the friend who stays in your hometown, not moving with all the other Millennials to Portland, or Durham, or New York, and trying to stay in touch with the people who move. It’s emotional, the guitars kick ass and, like the four songs on this EP, it feels tailor-made for Big Moments with Big Feelings, which I think all of us have been having the last looks at calendar who knows. — AW


CHAI
WINK

After two perfectly frenzied albums, the Japanese four-piece’s Sub Pop debut places them in more of a more laid-back, wide-eyed haze. But make no mistake, just because the pace has slowed a step, WINK’s landscape proves no less lush for it. Instead, the pace allows them to sink their teeth into the ecstatic pleasure and small miracles of life’s details — a box of donuts, a star in the sky, a mole, a message a simple wink contains. “A person who winks is free, they can afford to receive or not receive it back. To be able to do that to someone is the ultimate smile to me! I, too, want to be that kind of person,” Kana told Under The Radar. — Amileah Sutliff

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Conway the Machine
La Maquina

Conway the Machine has long been the workman of Griselda; good for a couple great verses on their collaborative albums, and a maker of just solid solo LPs. That changes with Conway the Machine, his best solo release, one that finds him blending his flow in new, unexpected ways, rapping over grimy, dusty beats like Marty Jannetty hitting arching dropkicks. “Bruiser Brody” is this year’s most forceful statement of purpose to open an album and, as a bonus, he single-handedly kick-started a Ludacris renaissance — a Ludassaince — with “Scatter Brain,” a song with Luda’s most energetic verse in years, and JID doing a run-in for a hot-tag. Griselda is having another all-time year, and Conway is a big part of why. — AW


Erick the Architect
Future Proof

For being a relatively short EP — five songs, 17 minutes — Erick the Architect’s Future Proof has lofty ambitions: It’s a concept-album-as-blueprint for how to not only survive but live better, to make yourself future proof, whatever that future holds. Don’t mistake the goal as overly optimistic, though, because as “WTF” with Col3trane emphasizes in the chorus, our future isn’t necessarily bright: “I don’t pray for nothin’ (What the fuck is goin’ on?) / But if I did, I’d pray for everybody under the sun / ’Cause we’re all fucked.” It’s hard to pick a standout, because each track feels like a polished and pointed contribution to the whole. The versatile rapper-producer — who came up with Flatbush Zombies — says it most directly on the last track, “Selfish”: “When the music from the soul, boy you future-proof.” And every bit of Future Proof is from the soul. — TB


Erika De Casier
Sensational

For everyone who grew up listening to late-’90s and early-aughts R&B hits, Erika de Casier’s sophomore album might feel a bit like a childhood home that grew up with you, transforming into your sophisticated, sleek bachelor pad. Dictated with a sharp wit in her confident and uniquely sensual signature whisper-singing, de Casier chronicles the ins and outs — and most notably, the pitfalls — of romance and dating, both critical of herself and (rightfully) even more critical of her partners, but impossibly graceful nonetheless. With perfect flourishes of techno and garage, de Casier reinvents an entire defining era, in sound and in concept, for the modern age with tracks that are almost relentlessly good. — AS


Fana Hues
Hues

Fana Hues’ debut is a varied collection of tracks tied together by Hues’ innovative approach to R&B, informed by growing up in a musical household and vocalists like Nina Simone, Dionne Warwick, Anita Baker, Beyoncé Knowles and Mary J. Blige. Part of the moniker “Hues” is her family name Hughes, but also her desire “to capture all the different shades of one idea.” Hues is a breakup album with range, not lingering in resentment too long and exploring hope instead. It’s by no means toothless, with lines like, “So now you say you want a woman / But baby is you even a man” on the snide “snakes x elephants,” and the straightforward sexual power of “Lay Up.” But, by its conclusion, “Yellow,” Hues chooses joy: “gone are days of blue / I feel yellow.” — TB

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Floating Points & Pharoah Sanders
Promises

Despite his long-standing career beginning in the ’60s, Pharoah Sanders shows no signs of halting when it comes to exploring new sounds throughout time. Tapping electronic producer Floating Points, the two blend their styles for a distinct ambience across the album Promises. While Promises shuttles a vibrant but quiet atmosphere, it also explores a climax filled with cinematic strings and twinkling notes. Carrying the same motif in each song, the movements seamlessly blend into one another. Undoubtedly, it’s one of those albums that, when you close your eyes and just marinate in the atmosphere, you find yourself deeply aware of your own existence as a tiny speck in the universe. — JN

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Hiatus Kaiyote
Mood Valiant

Hiatus Kaiyote count Erykah Badu, Questlove and Prince as fans, and have been sampled by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, Chance The Rapper and Drake (Nai Palm, Hiatus Kaiyote’s lead singer, collaborated with him on Scorpion). The powerhouse Australian band lives up to this hype easily, even after a 6-year hiatus — pun intended — between albums. Mood Valiant is a tight collection of 12 tracks held together with Nai Palm’s singular voice — ranging across grungy bops like “Chivalry Is Not Dead” and ballads like “Stone Or Lavender.” As resistant to categorization as always, the musicianship of the band as a whole — Paul Bender (bass), Simon Mavin (keys) and Perrin Moss (drums) — effortlessly collages more traditional jazz, R&B and soul influences with electronic-leaning psychedelic and futuristic sounds. — TB

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Japanese Breakfast
Jubilee

After her first two albums, each with a thematic throughline of grief and sorrow, Jubilee finds Michelle Zauner accessing joy in its many iterations. As complex, intrepid and free of a work as the emotion of joy itself often is, this is Zauner’s most maximal, most assured and most complete work to-date. From the fleets of bright horns to the electrifying pop melodies to unbound synths, all weaving in and out of complicated characters in various states of ecstasy, pleasure, desire and pain, Jubilee is a work of both sound and feeling working together, in all their highest glory, at their most unbridled and unfettered. — AS

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Jazmine Sullivan
Heaux Tales

Jazmine Sullivan’s vocal power is astounding — so much so that it has sparked numerous run challenges on TikTok — and could have carried a weaker project onto this list by its merit alone. But Heaux Tales is not only a masterclass in riffs (featuring fellow acrobatic vocalists Ari Lennox and H.E.R.) but a concept album that reclaims pleasure and asserts power through the tales of six different women, all under the reclaimed title “heaux.” It also serves as an impressive victory lap for Sullivan, since Heaux Tales is her first release in six years following Reality Show — which received three Grammy nominations — in 2015. The storytelling here is honest, intimate and the true star of the EP. — TB


L’Rain
Fatigue

On Fatigue, from its first seconds, Brooklyn-born-and-based artist Taja Cheek disrupts and experiments in manners that sound as natural as breathing. “What have you done to change?” a voice asks us at the end of the bold opening track “Fly, Die,” just before leading us into a rhythmic, atmospheric vocal looping of “Find It” that syncs up with the breath and settles into the space behind your eyes. Like her 2017 debut, which was created following the death of her mother, the record explores family, grief, anxiety, pain and one's own internal world, but this record is even more concerned with growth, change, even joy, through it all. Much like the mind and the realities we build for ourselves, L’Rain’s work brilliantly is difficult to pin down — shapeshifting, morphing, escaping into something else entirely the very moment you think you’ve grasped it; the best way to experience Fatigue is to just let go and fall into its evolution. — AS


Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
A Few Stars Apart

After multiple albums dissecting how we all needed time to unplug, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real’s A Few Stars Apart is instead centered around human connection, and how you don’t realize how much you need it until a world-stopping plague forces you to reconnect with those who matter to you. It’s the band’s best album yet, utilizing Nelson’s honeyed croon not over the rockers of the past, but over tender ballads of surprising tenderness. Nelson was born for ballads, and his band’s music has caught up. — AW

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Madlib
Sound Ancestors

Sound Ancestors is a stand-out in Madlib’s catalogue on its solo billing alone. But it’s also a collaborative effort with a distinct process between the game-changing West Coast producer, DJ and musician and Kieran Hebden, the electronic producer and DJ most commonly known by stage name Four Tet. A couple years ago, Madlib began to send Hebden various tracks, sonic ideas and experimentations that Hebden would then curate, rearrange, edit together and master. He sent Hebden hundreds of recordings over the course of two years, and the end result of their joint effort is Sound Ancestors, a 41-minute and mesmerizingly cohesive body of work that stands as a lush testament to the power of recontextualization and shared vision alike. It travels across time and space, in its incredible riches of samples, of course, but also across the hands of two careful artists creating on the same plane, and still manages to be contained within a remarkably singular sonic universe. — AS

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Morgan Wade
Reckless

You wouldn’t know it from all the hand tattoos and the cover that looks like it could be from a Justin Bieber album, but Morgan Wade’s Reckless is one of the year’s best country debuts; an assured, cracking album that more than anything — which is a rarity in modern pop country — has a point of view. The characters on Reckless have done shit they’re not proud of, done people they’re not proud of and done substances they’re not proud of, but they’re finding their way forward despite it all. “It’s a beautiful thing to fall apart,” she sings here, in what might as well be this album’s mission statement. — AW


Mustafa
When Smoke Rises

In which a songwriter for the Weeknd writes the year’s most affecting and raw folk album, a quietly sad and sadly quiet album that confronts the oppression that leads to neighborhood violence like Mustafa’s Regent Park neighborhood in Toronto. A tribute to the people in his neighborhood caught up by the systems that chew them up, and the grief that permeates the lives of the people from Regent Park, When Smoke Rises holds a mirror to misery, making it impossible to listen to without thinking of all the ways you’ve loved and lost in your own life. A stunning debut. — AW

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Olivia Rodrigo
SOUR

Oh, to be humbled like this by a literal teenager. But, of course, we’d be remiss to not include the reigning 17-year-old czar of TikTok and Gen Z feelings, and her ubiquitous cultural cornerstone SOUR, on this list. It’s a catalog of fragile hearts broken, tender egos crushed, young love unrequited, inflated teenage dreams unfulfilled — and above all, his audacity, all written in burn-book font and read out loud with her whole chest. If you’re a teen, it’ll be a blow straight to the jugular, and if you’ve made it out of that phase alive, it’ll take you straight back to the feelings that felt so uniquely your own, and have since proven to be near-universal. — AS


Pom Pom Squad
Death of a Cheerleader

Fueled by the cheerleader trope or archetype — and even more so, the near-constant corresponding pop cultural inversion of it — New York’s Mia Berrin assumes the position of a coming-of-age lead with a teenage-worthy punk streak, examining her own queer and multiracial identity through that role along the way. There’s the swoon-worthy “Crimson and Clover” cover that makes me wish this album was out and in the DJs back pocket during the era I attended prom, softer moments like “Be Good” or “Forever” that’ll raise the hair on your neck, and the more explosive, even cathartic, fits found in “Lux” or “Shame Reactions.” It’s a clever and all-around cohesive sophomore release that will have you itching to know where the young artist has her sights set next. — AS

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


San Holo
bb u ok?

bb u ok? is an ode to the unspoken hurt and isolation that has burdened us all for the better part of the past year. All those screams into a pillow and despondent words written across a journal have been tangibly presented through San Holo’s fusion of electronic and organic-leaning indie pop. Somehow, San Holo crumples up shared sentiments and renders them into a 20-track album packed with both melancholy and optimistic melodies. bb u ok? invites us to confront and pay attention to our mental health issues and the emotions we tend to swallow. San Holo, in receiving the text that inspired the album, bb u ok?, asks the same question. — JN


serpentwithfeet
DEACON

serpentwithfeet’s debut was one of our best albums of 2018, and is easily one of the best albums of 2021 so far. DEACON sees a new, joyful side of the artist who previously dealt in doom and gloom. The optimism of this record is a much-needed balm in a time that still feels dark and uncertain. I summarized my thoughts on the album best in an earlier review for VMP following the record’s release: “The miracle of connection embraced on DEACON is even more apparent amid a pandemic in which most of us have been deeply lacking in intimacy. serpentwithfeet has given us a refuge in these 11 tracks, a place where Black gay love rules all, there are no breakup songs and we tell our friends how much we love them.” — TB


slowthai
TYRON

TYRON, the rapidly rising British rapper’s second full-length, came out precisely one year to the day after his viral and admittedly tasteless appearance at last year’s NME Awards. Accordingly, TYRON finds Tyron Frampton in a more introspective mode than previous works, reflecting on everything from the notion of cancel culture, judgement, grappling with one’s own flaws and the process of confronting or amending them. Echoing the multifaceted complexity of human beings, the album has two sides, each seven-track sides — one energized and bold, all-caps track titles and punk-infused in-your-face flows, the other all lowercase, contemplative melancholic and sonically more spacious. It’s a fascinating, dynamic and honest self-portrait of a young artist confronting life in the public eye, and a young man confronting himself. — AS


Sons of Kemet
Black to the Future

Like last year’s dispatch from one of Shabaka Hutchings’ other groups, Shabaka and the Ancestors’ We Are Sent Here By History, the fourth LP from Sons of Kemet is a work of radical jazz, a blending of revolution, a true rendering of African history, and a dissection of oppression and colonialism. It starts with the spoken word poem “Field Negus” as a statement of powerful purpose, but it’s also an imminently danceable jazz album; “Pick Up Your Burning Cross” is like a dance party at a riot, and these songs all crackle with grooves and power. Hutchings is a generational talent, and this record builds his case; this is something like the fifth straight modern classic from him. — AW

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Topaz Jones
Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama

Topaz Jones’ Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama isn’t just a fantastic album, but also a critically acclaimed short film that won a Sundance Jury Award. DGTYM the album is texturally blanketed in R&B, soul and funk. Standout track “Herringbone” feels like it could serve as an updated bonus track to Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! — another album built off a similar lineage of Black funk and soul. As Michael Penn II wrote in a review for VMP of DYGTM when the album was released: “[It’s] a modern update to the oral tradition that’s as groovy as it is grave.” — TB


Valerie June
The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers

After becoming a star of the Americana circuit, for her new album, Valerie June blends soul, ’60s rock, country and self-dissecting folk into her finest album yet. Opening with the martial and howling “Stay” and climaxing with the Stax legend Carla Thomas-featuring soul ballad “Call Me a Fool,” The Moon and Stars sounds deceptively simple, but June’s greatest strength here is not just her nonpareil voice, but her ear for stunning, sprawling arrangements that envelop you like warm comfort. There are few albums that feel this good this year. — AW

You can get the VMP edition of the album here.


Vindata
With Opened Eyes

Sitting at the intersection of R&B, hip-hop, gospel and electronic music is Vindata’s debut album With Opened Eyes. This album is the album for those peak vibing sessions spent locked in your bedroom, when the birds have gone to sleep and you still haven’t. Smooth, sensual and groovy all in one, With Opened Eyes touches on the tonality and sounds the duo has refined over the years. While the first half of the tracklist heavily spotlights the sensations people bring to us, the second half pivots and asks you to inhale and self-examine with its ethereal sounds, leaving you as pensive as ever. — JN


Wolf Alice
Blue Weekend

Some albums are played on repeat until they become like an overly sweet slice of chocolate cake that sticks to the roof of your mouth in an unpleasant film. Although enjoyable in the moment, it becomes a folly to have ravaged through it so quickly and in such a hefty amount. Others, like Wolf Alice’s Blue Weekend, endure and adapt the same way we do throughout the seasons, even while jammed on repeat. Blue Weekend possesses a tracklist with layers of instrumentation and reverb. Wolf Alice tackles quaint sounds through delicate guitar strums and atmospheric piano chords while also unleashing a dichotomy of stormy beats. — JN


ZHU
DREAMLAND 2021

When it comes to the realm of electronic music, ZHU flexes mastery over his gritty, dark sound and falsetto voice that became heard and known long before he ever revealed his face. Even now, a blanket of mystery shrouds the producer and singer, and DREAMLAND 2021 seems to take on the same elusive vibes as its creator. Swinging through crunchy, oscillating tones, ZHU heads a tour via robust synths. DREAMLAND 2021 corrals a playlist of sounds from analog synths in “Lost It” to the mind-invasive deep house melodies in “Sky Is Crying.” — JN

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