Our music editor's picks for the best albums 2021 had to offer


Nothing gold can stay. After the dreamy bliss of the instant classic Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves' marriage fell apart. Star-Crossed serves as her divorce album. Fully stepping away from her country roots for a more adult pop sound, Musgraves wrestles with the muddle of post-breakup emotions ("Justified"), the weight of carrying a one-sided relationship ("Good Wife"), and gets her claws out with a brutal warning about her insecure ex wanting to bask in her spotlight and fortune ("Breadwinner"). But she refuses to be fully vindictive, instead trying to find spots for optimism ("Keep Looking Up") and nostalgic grace, even when scrolling through the modern torture of old photos on your phone ("Camera Roll").


No one captures the rubberbanding of emotional extremes brought on by late capitalism dread quite like Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties. At times it's the hyperactive anxiety of an overstimulated brain musing about relationship insecurity over buoyant pop punk ("Pool Hopping") or rattling off rapid ADHD lines about refusing to take anything seriously with snotty, eye-rolling, bratty bravado over clanking off-kilter angular guitar noise ("MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA"). But she's also able to effectively throttle things way down and share her loving desires in delicate, detail-rich tenderpunk tunes ("Threatening Each Other re: Capitalism," "Growth," etc.). Let Me Do One More finds the musical truth in the balance between those polarities.


On Magic Mirror, Pearl Charles manages to distill Los Angeleno musical nostalgia into a sweet apéritif without ever coming across as rote. With a light twang in her voice, the singer-songwriter sways through sleek disco pop numbers with an effervescent retro style ("Only for Tonight," "Imposter"), gets lost in the bass grooves ("What I Need") and feels right at home basking in the warmth of the slide guitar on desert drifter rock songs ("Slipping Away"). All the while, Charles strives to put aside any imposter syndrome in the hopes of finding and accepting her fully realized self ("It's the best that I've ever felt / And I don't even feel like myself").


Japanese Breakfast had long been a live act I adored, but Michelle Zauner's infectious live energy and charm had never fully been captured on her band's nebulous LPs. Jubilee rectifies that. The album is a kaleidoscope, shining Zauner's warmth through a dazzling array of sonic colors and shapes. "Paprika" pulsates with a magical glittery marching-band heartbeat. "Be Sweet" bathes in sophisticated bliss in a way that modernizes the '80s synth rock single template. The musical variation keeps things fresh throughout, be it foreboding electronic swells ("Posing in Bondage"), a dusty meadow string section ("Kokomo, IN") or sultry sax over staccato guitar licks ("Slide Tackle"). The confident strength that radiates from every note and lyric on songs like "Savage Good Boy" only further underscores just how much Jubilee captures an artist at the peak of her powers.


"You can find the joy in every agonizing moment of existence on this planet." The bridge lyric from Said the Whale's sugary single "Honey Lungs" doubles as the thesis statement for the Canadian pop-rock group. In the face of the overwhelming world around them, Said the Whale turns around and delivers an unrelenting array of love songs without ever seeming cloying. The band's deft musical touch — from the kinetic drums crashing on "The Ocean" to the symphonic grandeur of the instrumental track "February 15" — and its elite knack for writing hooks boosts all the sentimental words they surround. Whether singing about love that can dig you out of the holes you get lost in ("Show Me Everything"), seems to go on endlessly ("99 to the Moon"), or floats on the breeze an air of heart-melting tenderness ("Dandelion"), the band aims straight at the most cynical parts of our hearts and hits the mark.


Scottish synth-pop trio CHVRCHES excels when mixing a haunting sense of melancholy with forever youthful yearning. Screen Violence strips things back to the group's roots to fully soak in that psychic territory. Singer Lauren Mayberry sorts through her fears of intimacy and disconnect in a world of screens ("Lullabies") with her usual radiant timbre, which acts as the glitter thrown on top of the bed of synth-pop alienation. CHVRCHES even ropes in the Cure's Robert Smith for some empathetic brooding ("How Not to Drown"). There are simply no lulls in this incredibly catchy collection of songs.


HEY WHAT sounds like the world is ending, but there's beauty to be found in the finality. Minnesotan rock duo Low ride the cutting edge of the noise-and-harmony plain, crafting meticulously engineered and overwhelming walls of harsh, violent and flickering sound counterbalanced with the compassion in Alan Sparhawk's and Mimi Parker's voices. The tweaking soundscapes feel like hypnotic warning sirens ("I Can Wait," "More"), which only underscore the confusion Low attempts to sift through. At its best, on a song like "Days Like These" where crystal clean guitar lines timidly peak out before being blitzed by distorted crunch and Sparhawk delivers his words like a hymnal, HEY WHAT feels like sacred music — Gregorian chants for our age — tapping into a spirituality that's innately human.


British-Nigerian rapper Little Simz didn't limit her scope on Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. A creative tour de force, the hour-plus album takes listeners on a journey through the varying facets of what it takes to be a woman. The MC delves into being present for love ("I See You"), African female swag ("Woman"), daddy issues ("I Love You, I Hate You"), maintaining a healthy level of uncertainty ("Miss Understood"), and a host of other concerns with an uncanny lyrical flow that feels smoothly never-rushed while still embodying a no-nonsense blunt edge. The album is peppered with scored interlude tracks, which, rather than slowing the pace, almost give the presentation a Disney-esque magical floating feeling. From the bombastic horn of the opener "Introvert" to the minimalist slow stoner burn beats of "Rolling Stone" to the clattering African rhythms of "Point and Kill," the soundscape never gets complacent. And neither does Little Simz.


In a world so chaotic, it can be hard to find time for self-reflection and taking in the little moments in life. On Take the Corners Gently, Steady Holiday (aka Dre Babinski) attempts to take those tiny, challenging steps through sophisticated indie pop. Babinski's voice carries notes with a faint melancholy that acknowledges inherent sadnesses without letting them crush her. "White Walls" confronts her need to stay busy for busy's sake with a serene sway. "Sunny in the Making" turns up the bass for a danceable meditation on steadfastly striving forward in spite of backsteps. From the sparse acoustic strums of "Love Me When I Go to Sleep" to the lush indie layering of "Living Life" to the darker rock bite of "Tangerine," Babinski expertly matches the tones of her music and vocals to maximize the emotional resonance. Take the Corners Gently emphasizes that being delicate shouldn't be seen as a weakness, but a form of self-care.

click to enlarge Our music editor's picks for the best albums 2021 had to offer (11)
Ebru Yildiz photo
Lucy Dacus made the best album of the year.


No songs from 2021 felt more lived-in than the ones found on Home Video. Lucy Dacus's songwriting hits new heights on her third album, painting lyrical scenes rich with color, personal details, enlivening emotions and agonizing ones. Home Videos is an album of compassion. It showcases young love discovery in bursts of rock bliss ("First Time") and pain ("Partner in Crime"). "Please Stay" unflinchingly confronts the feeling of helplessness when trying to get through to a suicidal friend, with each passing line stinging evermore. But compassion also needn't be weak. It can be furious, as illustrated by "Thumbs" and its suppressed murderous thoughts toward a partner's emotionally taxing father, or the anger at a love settling for less on "Christine." Most vitally, the songs Dacus writes here are beacons of representation for queer kids seeking love while growing up in Christian communites of repression (see: the taboo exploration of "VBS" — vacation bible school). The album closer "Triple Dog Dare" gracefully encapsulates the album's emotional essence — despite family drama, unspoken feelings, fears and seemingly no path forward, hold on to any glimmer of hope you can. Find your love. Run away from it all. Simply love. ♦


Green to Gold - The Antlers

Hall of Fame - Polo G

Live '95 - Mega Ran

Little Oblivions - Julian Baker

Shake the Spins - Kitner

Infinite Granite - Deafheaven

Sling - Clairo

Valentine - Snail Mail

Ignorance - The Weather Station

Taiko Japanese Drumming Open House @ Salem Lutheran Church

Tue., March 5, 5:30-6:45 p.m.
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Seth Sommerfeld

Seth Sommerfeld is the Music Editor for The Inlander, and an alumnus of Gonzaga University and Syracuse University. He has written for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Fox Sports, SPIN, Collider, and many other outlets. He also hosts the podcast, Everyone is Wrong...