A strain of retrospection unites two of the most popular albums of the past year: Beyoncé’s Renaissance, her throwback to disco and the house music of the late 20th century, and Taylor Swift’s Midnights, her return to the club-night fun that helped make her a pop star. For each, a look into the past provided pleasures that the uncertain present did not seem to offer. Meanwhile, an impressive number of artists have turned in a different direction—inward—to create new works that aim in a range of ways to take up personal, enigmatic matters of the heart and mind. Here are 10 of the year’s best, along with 10 more worth listening to. (The listing is alphabetical by album title, not ranked by preference.)
Angel Olsen, Big Time
On her latest album, Olsen is no longer interested in proving her indie edginess and shifts musical modes, this time to country rock. The well-crafted songs touch on the durable themes of finding love and losing loved ones, to the music of a roundhouse band.
A Far Cry & Shara Nova, The Blue Hour
You don’t need to know the madly ambitious conceit of this song cycle to revel in its sheer beauty and poignancy. Five important contemporary composers, all women, collaborated to set excerpts from the epic poem “On Earth,” by Carolyn Forché, to music. Through 40 short tracks—composed by Rachel Grimes, Angélica Negrón, Shara Nova, Caroline Shaw, and Sarah Kirkland Snider—the music of this song cycle forms something of a map between life and death.
Adrian Quesada, Boleros Psicodélicos
The album on this list I’ve come back to play over and over for the joys it offers with pride: Quesada, the multi-instrumentalist best known for his work with Black Pumas, nods to bolero and mariachi in this collection of originals that sound like covers, along with covers with so much fresh invention that they feel like originals.
Ibibio Sound Machine, Electricity
A multicultural English pop group, Ibibio Sound Machine is known for their exultant synthesis of Afrobeat funk and electro, with elements of West African traditional music and disco stirred into the mix. For their fourth album, the eight-person ensemble handed production over to the London synthpop team Hot Chip, who turned up the amperage as the album title implies. Hypnotizing fun.
Cécile McLorin Salvant, Ghost Song
In every song she’s sung, Salvant has always welcomed ghosts: the spirits of her predecessors in jazz, theater music, pop, and the varied folk spheres she draws from and sometimes defies with steely purpose. In most of the songs on this, her sixth album, the spectral images are mostly self-reflections. Seven of the 12 selections are original compositions, and they are mostly tales of Salvant’s interior life.
Like many of the most important pop stars in history, Rosalía has the rare ability to leverage her fame to make ever more adventurous art, elevating her audience in the process. She made her name by modernizing flamenco, and since her debut she has become an increasingly sophisticated hybridist, conjuring experimental bachata with an assist from the Weeknd, combining and recombining elements of reggaeton, electro, and minimalist trap.
Cate Le Bon, Pompeii
At once angular and catchy, dreary and calming, this art-pop project by the Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon is deliriously elusive. Written during the early phase of the pandemic, Pompeii is named for the realm of inescapable doom that the spare, eerie music evokes. Yet something positive prevails though the force of Le Bon’s creative imagination and the joy to be found in tinkering during the time still available before the lava flows.
Ithaca, They Fear Us
In metal music, as in Gregorian chant, polka, and all categories of rigidly fixed, highly formalized music, excellence is generally measured in fine gradations of variation and nuance. The five-person English metal band Ithaca excels by suitable increments but also stands out among the recent-vintage groups for the fearsome dark-goddess vocals by lead singer Djamila Azzouz.
Perfume Genius, Ugly Season
Composed as the score for a new production by his partner Alan Wyffels’s dance company, Ugly Season is an assemblage of random-sounding, nonlinear pieces by multi-instrumentalist and singer Michael Hadreas. If it’s no more overtly serious than the five previous albums of quirky pop that Hadreas has released under the name Perfume Genius, that’s not a failing; it’s bursting with queer-friendly ideas and aural surprises.
Bad Bunny, Un Verano Sin Ti
A fever-dream fantasy of a day and a night in an impossible Caribbean, Un Verano Sin Ti works playfully with an unlikely variety of Latin musical styles—reggaeton, dembow, mambo, merengue, bomba, bachata, and more—sometimes mixing up the elements so freely that the music sounds familiar in a vague way but still utterly fresh. Bunny is a solid rapper too, with an easy flow and natural, unpretentious rhymes.
Also worth listening to:
Chloë and the Next 20th Century, Father John Misty; Fossara, Björk; From a Bird’s Eye View, Cordae; Gifted, Koffee; In the Spirit of Ntu, Nduduzo Makhathini; Jude, Julian Lennon; Sick!, Earl Sweatshirt; Sometimes, Forever, Soccer Mommy; Songs of Ascent: Book 1—Degrees, Dave Douglas Quintet; A View With a Room, Trish Clowes.