How to decide the best albums of 2021? It was a particularly fruitful year for music, so shortlisting the true standouts is tricky. Looking back, some albums Vogue selected as the best of 2020 gained new leases of life this year, like Wizkid’s Made In Lagos. Although wildly popular, the widespread critical recognition it deserved was so delayed that “Essence” has only just surfaced on many publications’ best song lists in 2021.
2021 saw the release of some earth-shaking albums — Adele’s 30; Summer Walker’s powerfully vulnerable follow-up, Still Over It; Lil Nas X’s heart-baring debut, Montero; Tyler the Creator’s ever-evolving sound in Call Me If You Get Lost. Mustafa’s voice grappling with grief made his When Smoke Rises a soul-stirring debut. Juls’s stunning Sounds of My World reached across Africa, featuring stars from the Sudanese diaspora as well as Nigerian titans. And lo-fi rap has never been better, from Mach-Hommy’s deftly lyrical Pray For Haiti to MIKE’s idiosyncratic, distinctly special poeticism in Disco!
But for its own picks of 2021, Vogue has selected the albums that either broke new ground, represented an artist’s magnum opus, or perfected or expanded a genre. This year, all eight of the artists who met the criteria were women. Find them below.
Immensely catchy and infinitely replay-able, when it comes to popular music, Rodrigo might have just perfected the craft. Her stories resonate immediately, near-universally, and happily rotate non-stop in your head. Sour is truly exceptional: it frames old ideas in new and insightful ways, and has an ability to strike all the right nerves — playing them as skilfully as Rodrigo does her Yamaha piano. An aching, tender portrait of the heartbreak and growing pains of adolescence from a then-18-year-old wise beyond her years.
Unlike other artists who lean into painting a picture of their specific experiences, John Glacier’s debut doesn’t try to let you in, and feels all the more intimate for its distance. A stream-of-consciousness scrapbook of moments and mosaic of diary entries, through its floaty K-hole cloud the listener glimpses what feel like perfect truths – less the exact words, but something harder to put your finger on. Maybe their sequence, the contradictions, the way a line suddenly stands out through the haze… the messy, beautiful flow it takes you on.
Little Simz – Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Balancing her always razor-sharp and incisive lyrical deftness with new flows and catchy hooks, you get the sense listening to this album that Little Simz has found her groove, and it’s being in a constant state of flux. In this album, she seamlessly flows through new genres, from a whispery alt-rap to jazz influences to Afrobeat. A vastly conceptual album that explores Simz the artist, Simz the performer, and the gaps between, as she explained to Vogue, she goes deep within, touching on still-raw subjects – such as race, and her relationship with her father – masterfully untangling issues that you can still feel the pain in.
Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince
Floating above strings and keys, Arooj Aftab’s ethereal voice is like the smoke plumes of incense. Amorphous, elegant, calming and mesmerising, with a beauty that can suddenly overwhelm the body, get caught in your throat, choke you up. The Brooklyn-based Pakistani musician switches between Urdu and English, taking inspiration from ghazals, poetic songs of love and loss. A truly sublime record.
Arca always pushes us out of our musical comfort zones, experimenting with form and genre in ways that are unwieldy and can feel uncontainable, but always beautiful. Each experiment is a reminder of the infinite possibilities of life, beyond the barriers we unconsciously constrain ourselves within. Hers is a genesis project, bringing to life an entire world of new ideas, concepts, and sounds to complete her jaw-droppingly ambitious album series, releasing four in one year that span everything from reggaeton to glitchy pop to metallic rap.
This album set Doja Cat apart from her peers. Proving herself a true pop star without having to sacrifice any of the elements that make her unique – her zany humour, her carefree childishness, her lack of filter – in this shimmering album you can hear the star flex her wings, and show you all the ways she can fly. If some of the songs feel close to exhausted this year – so much so that she can’t bear to play “Kiss Me More” herself – it’s because each is an immediate, and thus ubiquitous, classic, with an otherworldly video to match. She proves she can do it all, and you glimpse just how much more she must have to come.
Pinkpantheress – to hell with it
Has anyone ever done more with 20 minutes? The sonic equivalent of a six-word story, her super short songs are each powerfully memorable hits. Pinkpantheress has managed to create music that samples many yet sounds like no-one else, and to bring jungle and garage music to a whole new young, global demographic, without really being able to be characterised as falling into those genres. Full of beautiful contradictions, with this mixtape, the 20-year-old has more than earned the hype that surrounds her.
Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales
Jazmine Sullivan has the kind of voice that could stop you in your tracks even if she were speaking gibberish. The fact that she is additionally an astoundingly empathetic wordsmith makes her almost untouchable. Tapping into the pain, desires, and longing of vastly different women – Jazmine told Vogue “I’ve been all of the girls” in an interview earlier this year – she suggests that we are all different phases of the same moon, and she makes it sound so beautiful.