If we all felt lost at times this year, uncertain in the face of tentative hopes and looming unknowns, it was good to know we could call Tyler, the Creator. His lush and multifarious album Call Me If You Get Lost offers comfort, escape, inspiration, and pretty much everything else anyone living in 2021 could use. In music as in the rest of life, the high points of the past year came in smaller numbers and with less impact than we might have expected. Still, they came with impressive persistence in every style of work or genre. Here are my picks for the 10 best albums of 2021. (The listing is alphabetical by album title, not a ranking by descending order of quality, though the top project happens to be my top choice of the year, too.)
Call Me If You Get Lost, Tyler, the Creator
Cinematic in scope and aural density, the sixth album by the producer and rapper born Tyler Okonma is like a multipart sonic miniseries cut up and pasted in random order. What’s it about? Nothing more or less than Tyler’s expansive creativity, along with his ability to bring in a dozen guest rappers, including DJ Drama, 42 Dugg, and Domo Genesis.
Collapsed in Sunbeams, Arlo Parks
Like Janis Ian and Abbey Lincoln in another era of social instability, the French-African singer-songwriter Arlo Parks takes on big questions in intimate, poetic terms. It’s hard to grasp that this collection of eloquently mature and tuneful songs is her debut album.
Evidence-Based, The Claudia Quintet
A slyly incendiary critique of the Centers for Disease Control, with selections inspired by the seven terms the CDC was said to have banned from internal use, including “evidence-based,” “entitlement,” “transgender,” and “fetus.” Longtime Claudia Quintet leader/drummer John Hollenbeck composed the exquisite music in collaboration with the poet Eileen Myles.
Ignorance, The Weather Station
The fifth full album by actor/singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman and an assortment of chamber musicians is a rumination on the global climate crisis in softly biting folk-pop songs.
Intimate Strangers, Sara Serpa and Emmanuel Iduma
A musical travel diary by the Portuguese singer-composer Sara Serpa, working in collaboration with the Nigerian author Emmanuel Iduma. Inspired by Iduma’s book A Stranger’s Pose, the album conjures feelings of discovery, displacement, and isolation in 13 songs. With additional vocals by Aubrey Johnson, whose solo album Unraveled, released last year, is also a gem.
Maquishti, Patricia Brennan
Airy, wafting, pensive music for vibraphone, marimba, and electronics by the Mexican-born composer and musician Patricia Brennan making her debut as a solo artist. Chill music that soothes the mind without numbing it.
Seis, Mon Laferte
The Chile-born singer Mon Laferte (who originally recorded under her given name, Monserrat Bustamante) has been living in Mexico and soaking up the earthy, robustly emotive musical traditions of her adopted country. She honors them with evocative idiosyncrasy in 14 original songs, one sung in duet with Alejandro Fernandez, son of the late ranchero master Vincente Fernandez.
Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Little Simz
Soul searching and self analysis in orchestral beats by the British rapper Little Simz. Produced and mostly cowritten by Inflo, who also oversaw the latest Adele release, 30, this is the fifth album by Little Simz and her sharpest, boldest yet.
Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Femenine, Wild Up
The first of seven planned albums by the West Coast chamber collective Wild Up dedicated to the tragically underappreciated, uncategorizable music of the late Julius Eastman, the Black gay composer who died in obscurity in 1990. Elusive and volatile, the music in the 10 tracks on this album was composed in 1974 and startles to this day.
Of everything on this list, this is the album I’ve found myself playing the most. Punky, pop-ish pleasure music from the Japanese quartet Chai. Absolutely the most fun album of the year.
And if this list were longer, it would also include enargea by Emily D’Angelo; Poof, by Henry Threadgill, This Bitter Earth, by Veronica Swift; Tone Poem, by Charles Lloyd and the Marvels; and Yellow, by Emma-Jean Thackray.