by InRO Staff Featured Music Year in Review

Top Albums of 2021 — 5-1

January 7, 2022

A week awaited, but our writers’ Top 5 Albums of 2021 have arrived. Long-time readers may not be surprised with our pick for #1, but it’s simply unimpeachable. Indeed, our enthusiasm is so robust that we’ve included two pieces on the album (one a rave from earlier this year, one newly written). But don’t get it twisted — all five of the below albums fairly blew us away. Most albums, even if we previously covered them, have been revisited with new words and new writers, and everything in our Top 10 has been given this treatment. Check out our full Best Albums coverage (including our Honorable Mentions) all this week!

Credit: Marc Baptiste/Allison Russell

5. Allison Russell

The subtext of Outside Child, the solo debut from Allison Russell, is trauma — childhood abuse, cyclical violence, life as a teenage runaway. But the heart of this album is set on themes far more redemptive — surviving, healing, not allowing your whole life to be defined by the worst thing that ever happened to you. (As Russell once sang with her great band Birds of Chicago: “You are not what you’ve lost / what remains should not bear the cost.”) It’s an album of devastating recollection and astonishing courage. But what stands out the most is its surprising hopefulness. Russell is a luminous witness, lingering not so much on the grisly details of trauma but on what can happen next. Despite the wounds she still carries, what she manifests here is wholeness.

Produced with soulful warmth and resonance by Nashville pro Dan Knobler, Outside Child assembles familiar forms into vivid album-length storytelling: You’ll hear rock and roll, blues, even trance reveries coalescing into a singular narrative. The heroic Russell is always the magnetic center, yet there isn’t a moment in her story that doesn’t feel open-armed in its embrace of those who have known similar suffering. Some of the album’s most powerful moments come when Russell addresses the lives of others. She is tenderhearted in her advocacy for other women whose lives have been shattered. And she is willing to speak a benedictory word over the man who abused her. Perhaps her blessing does not amount to forgiveness — that’s Russell’s business alone — but it is certainly an act of kindness. And strength. Josh Hurst

Credit: Iglooghost

4. Iglooghost

Though British producer Iglooghost (aka Seamus Malliagh) operates within some of the more tonally extreme subgenres of 2010s electronic music — UK Bass, glitch, dubstep, and hyperpop among them — the method to Malliagh’s madness is usually even more extreme. Each Iglooghost release to date has been accompanied by a corresponding lore drop from Malliagh, who can be relied upon to describe the complex auxiliary worlds which ensconce (and supposedly motivate) his collages of squelches and oscillations. Per Malliagh, 2015’s Chinese Nu Yr EP was conceived around the platform game-esque narrative of a worm named Xiāngjiāo, while Iglooghost’s debut album, 2017’s Neo Wax Bloom, concerned the ecological troubles of an alternate realm accessed via a portal in his backyard. One might assume that these explainers are simply playful attempts at humor from a hyperactive mind, yet they can offer useful primers for music whose free-form qualities make it otherwise difficult to find a foothold. Another substantive offering of mystical narratives arrived alongside Lei Line Eon, the second Iglooghost album released this April, and — in keeping with Malliagh’s prior symbioses — their fully-realized scope correlates to another musical peak for the Iglooghost project, and more broadly in the landscape of music released in 2021. A step to the left of the more dense, immediate productions on previous Iglooghost works, Lei Line Eon presents a dreamier collection of songs whose topographies are mappable onto both its intended multimedia experience and the inner imaginings of an open-minded audience.

According to Malliagh, Lei Line Eon was created following an 18-month study into the titular “Lei” music: an ancient musical subgenre recorded on disk-like contraptions in rural Ireland. If a curious backstory for Malliagh to put even more effort than usual into maintaining his art’s truth, the feint indirectly informs his artistic progression here, receding from the modern world that inspired his more manic releases and instead incorporating classical music, nature ambient, and negative space into the Iglooghost sound. The evolution is immediately apparent on opener “Eœ (Disk•Initiate),” which scrapes awake with lilting strings that drift into a glitched-out storm at the song’s close, less a dance music drop than an extended thunderclap recorded to tape. Other highlights like “Zones U Can’t See” and “Sylph Fossil” occupy similar intersections between the natural world and electronic music structures, reaching emotive peaks through their pairings of acoustic instrumentation and club banger tactics, and closing out with codas whose laptop birdsong communicates a sense of continuity, ending the songs as if moving between scenes. The level of restraint exercised in moments like these is perhaps unexpected from Malliagh, who emerged via Iglooghost as something of a wunderkind in maximalism, yet his wider dynamic range and compositional strategies on Lei Line Eon are a welcome development, and especially appreciable in the context of a project whose over-the-top character necessitates constant reinvention to retain its awe-inspiring qualities. Where many other 2021 releases seemed content to circle cul-de-sacs of previously charted terrain, Lei Line Eon finds Iglooghost as singularly devoted as ever to the act of album creation as world-building. Mike Doub

Credit: Eric Welles-Nystrom

3. Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / London Symphony Orchestra

One of the more immediate musical trends to take hold post-Covid was a noticeable shift toward quieter dynamics, embodied most visibly by the singer-songwriter ASMR of Taylor Swift’s folklore/evermore diptych and Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, but also more broadly in an ongoing ambient music renaissance and certain inward strains of the underground rap landscape. The shift is easily, and perhaps too conveniently from a critical perspective, explainable via our more solitary sociological moment, though it’s still difficult to imagine Promises — a live album featuring producer Floating Points (aka Sam Shepherd), saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra as collaborators — arriving to ears more attuned to its invocations than our current ones. Indeed, Promises emerges as a consensus year-end favorite among numerous outlets and constituencies, its champions running the gamut from jazz-heads to poptimists to rockists. Whatever the motivations that inspire these different groups to celebrate the record may be, the diverse body of support is somewhat fitting for Promises, an album whose component parts — among them insistent keys, quavering strings, and the journey of Sanders’ tenor saxophone around and above them — are themselves diverse, seeming to coexist in a sort of liminal space on the album. Largely recorded in 2019, Promises arrived this March in sync with our since-adjusted volume settings, its thoughtfully metered rises and falls providing harbor in a year whose real-life peaks and valleys arrived more chaotically.

Promises is organized around a single seven-note pattern played on harpsichord, which inaugurates — and repeats throughout — most of the album’s nine movements. The album-length composition was conceived by Shepherd, whose solo records as Floating Points navigate the club and classical genres with a crate-digger’s expertise, and here achieves a sustained mood whose elegant minimalism recalls the tone poems of Brian Eno. Yet in true “live record” fashion, Promises’ structural conceit is deepened through the alchemy of in-person collaboration, with Shepherd and co. locating moments of unexpected overlap within the album’s architecture of echoes. Sanders — a proper living legend at 80 years old — is arguably Promises’ focal point, his saxophone weaving together a legible emotional throughline in a 46-minute suite largely defined by stasis and sound design. His intuitive approach treats the album’s central pattern as both example and counterpoint, with airier ascents on Promises’ first few movements mimicking the harpsichord’s cadence and calm, and later moving against it with rapid-fire barrages and searching declarations on “Movement 5” and “Movement 7.” If an unusually contained environment for Sanders, he makes convincing bedfellows of his peers here, taking the baton from the London Symphony Orchestra with delightful trills and hums on “Movement 4,” and teeing the group up for their show-stopping full orchestra swells on album centerpiece “Movement 6.” Together, the three parties have realized several paradoxical feats with Promises: a work which eludes definition despite being built around repetition, one that remains ambiguous despite its conventionally beautiful moments, and an ambient jazz album released in 2021 that was a “must listen” event. Mike Doub

Credit: Dan Regan

2. Porter Robinson

Though few may have expected it, Porter Robinson emerged, quite triumphantly, as one of 2021’s most significant pop artists, reasserting himself as the ultimate innovator of this particular electronic dance music blend. Emerging from Skrillex’s OWSLA and the remnants of the early 2010s US EDM movement, Robinson’s 2014 album Worlds landed on an awkward cultural precipice, debuting an evolved take on the genre right as it was going out of fashion in a serious way. But while dominant critical tastes didn’t quite favor Robinson in that moment, inevitably, they’ve rolled back around to somewhere significantly more receptive to the starry-eyed producer in recent years, his idealistic, anthemic dance tracks an appealing contrast to the generally empty music dominating contemporary pop charts. 

And so, Nurture, Robinson’s incredible 2021 comeback album, had the good fortune of arriving at a triumphant moment for the now canonical EDM producer, his work having found devotees of a younger generation that unashamedly hold him up as a major artist (other InRO Top 10 honoree dltzk has frequently cited him as an essential inspiration). Accordingly, Nurture is a celebration of its author and his persistence (having stepped back from the spotlight for several years while combating depression), but not self-consciously or cloyingly, nor does it prioritize his experience over the audiences. An album that is pointedly timely in a way that can be broadly felt, and also totally, deeply personal, Robinson’s sharp pop lyricism allows for both at once, prioritizing anthem over specifics. Picking up from around where we last heard from him (there have been some side projects in between, like Visual Self), Nurture feels like an organic follow up to Worlds, putting further distance between himself and the harsher electro house type sound that initially characterized his work in favor of a spacier, more expansive vision of electronic pop music. Still mostly working off of a crowd-pleasing dance music template, Nurture moves across a wide spectrum of synth-based sonic palettes (synth pop, electronica, ambient) backed by occasional analog string instrumentation, striking a happy balance between the artificial and organic — fitting for an album that is, most basically, about celebrating the joy of life in an often dehumanizing digital world and relearning one’s sense of optimism. With Nurture, it would seem that Robinson has accomplished just this, returning to the big pop thrills that made his career with a new (and convincing) sense of earnest wonder that grants these songs a simple profundity. Sweeping and lovely in a fashion not usually associated with spectacle of this scale, Nurture locates a human essence in the machine that gives the project a sense of vitality all too currently rare in the genre and pop industry at large, but that Robinson generously imagines in accessible, inspiring terms. M.G. Mailloux

Credit: Kevin Mazur / Getty / Universal

1. Kanye West

Man, tell them haters open up the jail (Open up the jail)
And you can tell my baby mamas, “Get the bail money” (Bail me)
I said one thing they ain’t like, threw me out like they ain’t care for me
Threw me out like I’m garbage, huh?
And that food that y’all took off my table
You know that feed my daughters, huh? (Mmm)” – DaBaby, “Jail Pt. 2”

Perhaps we’ll all end up in music critic jail for our proud, unwavering love for Kanye West’s much-misapprehended masterpiece Donda — an album whose tumultuous rollout eclipsed any substantive discussion regarding the actual music of said release — but if loving yet another adventurous, idiosyncratic work of art from one of our greatest living musicians really is a felony offense, then we are, as DaBaby so eloquently put it, “guilty, guess they ‘gon have to take me.” In all seriousness, West’s latest opus finds him back within a seemingly undisciplined, erratic (read: deeply diverse) mode of music-making, the kind that led to The Life of Pablo’s disjointed structural style: you once again get a little of everything that Kanye’s dabbled with over the past twenty-or-so years of his career, a true no-holds-barred approach to compositional arrangement that genuinely requires near thirty songs to successfully accomplish. There’s early backpack-era Kanye found on the soulful “Believe What I Say,” with its looping Lauryn Hill sample and knottier wordplay, coexisting on a record with Yeezus-era heavy industrial instrumentation (those crunchy guitars on “Jail” marking “the return of The Throne”) and a throwback to Ye’s biggest doofus moment (“Drunk and Hot Girls”) with the vocoder-centric “Remote Control.” This time around, however, West has instilled a more defined skeletal framework to the tracklist, one that emerges when considered as a spiritual bildungsroman of sorts: it’s broadly characterized by a rejection of personal hubris (Donda’s first leg), a maturation into humbleness (everything following the towering anchor “Jesus Lord”), and finally ending on divine intervention and salvation (the miracle of ecstatic embrace that radiates from “No Child Left Behind”). 

An album of many inherent contradictions, Donda also operates somewhere at the intersection of divorce album — with cuts like the tender “Lord I Need You”; the anguished call and response interlude on “Come To Life,” equally as poignant — and as a touching tribute to his late mother, Donda West (summoned most stirringly on the powerful title track), with both approaches serving as the thematic foundation for the broader musical tapestry West has assembled. Unlike the inert, often deeply awkward and antiquated songs that constituted Jesus is King, Donda is a perfect union of West’s gospel preoccupations and the current state of contemporary hip-hop, where the stabbing church organs of “24” — with an accompanying Sunday Service Choir chanting “God’s not finished” — and mellower keys on “Pure Souls” organically coincide with the Brooklyn-drill odyssey “Off the Grid,” replete with a redemptive Fivio Foreign feature and demonic Playboi Carti spot. Other star-making turns come from the likes of Roddy Ricch, Don Toliver, and Baby Keem, all of whom are placed on equal footing with lyrical heavyweights (Jay Electronica and The Lox, all working overtime on “Jesus Lord Pt. 2”), while Soulja Boy and Chris Brown remain personas non grata; elsewhere, Lil Yachty pensively fumes over “Ok Ok,” and Pop Smoke haunts the skeletal “Tell the Vision.”

Donda can be a long, and at times rambly, endeavor, but one that continually pulsates with its eclectic range of erratic tonalities, all about as forward-thinking as modern music gets. Yet, it’s the recently released deluxe edition that takes this ingenuity even further: it allows listeners to engage with this material within a context that eliminates the necessity of the “album” as a form of musical expression altogether. Freed from their original associations and functional expectations, these tracks are given further breathing room to operate as stand-alone entities, where their individual merits become more apparent once unchained from their primary duties. Sure, “Jail” is a great opener, and one that starts Donda off on an electric note; but it’s also a great song in general once finally divorced from any sequencing conditions. Likewise, “Hurricane,” on the regular version, serves as a brief cool-off after “Off the Grid,” The Weeknd’s ghostly falsetto taking gentle command; here, as the newly anointed first track, the eerie opening synths feel far more expository, a calm before the burgeoning storm. There are further edits, like the reshuffling and adding of a few second parts — longer editions of “Jesus Lord” and “Remote Control” have now become official canon, both good calls — and some new songs entirely. “Never Abandon Your Family” returned after being seemingly canned after the first listening party in Atlanta; “Up from the Ashes” — an exercise in pure, unadulterated VIBEZ — is wholeheartedly welcomed. However, the biggest cause for attention — and to keep the TLOP comparison going, this album’s “Saint Pablo” — is the inclusion of “Life of the Party,” a gorgeously glossy collaboration with an emotionally-vulnerable André 3000. The last-minute addition further alters a supposedly rigid trajectory that was already amended by this new album order, but the outcome is even richer — which possibly suggests that Donda would still be great regardless of its sequencing, or if different songs were added after the fact. That, or with Donda (Deluxe), Kanye West’s genius has simply, finally surpassed the constricting parameters of the album format altogether. Paul Attard

The announcement of a new Kanye West album — his tenth in fact — brought with it the delighted attention of the usual, dusty music-minded media institutions, desperate to hitch themselves to whatever outrageous press cycle he’d inevitably orchestrate. It would be over a year before that album materialized, initially titled God’s Country and then Donda; the revelation that West had a new project in development came about (thanks to collaborator Arthur Jafa) in May 2020, less than a year after the release of his divisive gospel pivot Jesus is King, but this quick turnaround wasn’t to be, as the planned September release date came and went with no album being made available publicly. In the album-less months that followed, West went on a media rampage attempting to upend exploitative industry standard (specifically, label’s ownership of artists’ masters) while also running an ill-conceived presidential campaign, all capped off with the announcement of he and wife Kim Kardashian-West filing for divorce in February of this year. Silence ensued (though the Yeezy brand was as strong as ever this past summer), with West quietly backing away from the MAGA provocations that had eaten up much of the discourse around his Wyoming albums, and seemingly recommitting himself to the Donda project on a bigger scale.

No doubt an enticing narrative, audience, media, and industry alike prepared for a redemption arc that wasn’t going to come, although the album’s first two Atlanta-based listening parties gestured toward a version of Donda that was likely to please the skeptics and assuage the concerns of those anxious to enjoy West’s music and persona in a way they felt they no longer could. With excitement for the album reaching a peak unseen by West for some years, he refused the album’s release for another week, this time staging a listening party in Chicago with a new version of Donda that was basically the same except for some rather aggressive feature-shuffling inspired by fan reaction and unabashed antagonism in equal measure. In most cases, these changes are for the better (and the version of the album ultimately released contains these alternate takes as bonuses anyhow), but West’s choice to pull a much-hyped reunion with Jay-Z on “Jail” in favor of a mix that features backing vocals from shunned shock rocker Marilyn Manson (credibly accused of sexual assault and grooming earlier this year) and a verse from DaBaby (who spent this past summer setting his reputation aflame with a series of homophobic comments and conforntational non-apologies) instantly cast Donda as a celebration of male toxicitiy in the eyes of many who only doubled-down when the album actually came out.

When music writers descended upon Donda in the day(s) following its August 29th release, it was this narrative that took up the majority of discussion, with websites who had covered it every step of the way now turning around to write about the ugliness of this media circus. This is, of course, the uncomfortable genius of West’s career-spanning project, enmeshing himself within the media apparatus to the point where they’re totally complicit, anything and everything they do becomes an act of mutual promotion (there’s an amusingly faux-tough “we made you so we can break you” tone to some of the bigger Donda reviews). Which isn’t to say that West’s inclusion of Manson and continued use of Chris Brown’s unfortunately pretty vocals (originally on “New Again,” blessedly no longer on the album) isn’t tedious and ugly, an understandable deal-breaker for many perhaps, but that who the media allows to get away with what isn’t decided from a place of moral clarity (lord knows internet music critics are the last people we should look to for ethical consistency), but rather only what is convenient and profitable at the time (most cleanly illustrated in the rush to position noted ephebophile Drake as his moral superior).

But beyond the loud hand-wringing and bad faith outrage over whether West properly paid homage to his late mother the right way, Donda stands as another milestone in the Kanye West discography, one that will surely outlast the derangement syndrome it (consciously) induced. At a runtime of 108 minutes, Donda takes West back to the expansive, cinematic canvases he indulged pre-Yeezus (give or take the similarly structured Life of Pablo) while slickly synthesizing concepts and sounds drawn from across his career. Something of a male melodrama, Donda exists as a testament to the spirit of Donda West as manifested by Kanye through his art (the title track features a speech delivered by Donda herself, tellingly concluding with the prompt “What did I teach him / And why Kanye ain’t scared?”) This album, bulky as it is, moves through distinctive phases — hyped-up, radio-ready pop rap, gospel maximalism, and then something in between — so that it may be legitimately experienced both as a collection of distinctive singles and as one complete work. Poetically opening on a recitation of the title name by College Dropout-era collaborator Syleena Johnson (“Donda Chant”), Donda then breaks forth into the aforementioned “Jail,” a rock-star track that not only reunites The Throne, but serves as a thesis statement for the album and Kanye’s career at large (“I’ll be honest / We all liars”).

The album goes on to impress as both a reassertion of West’s considerable talents as a producer and songwriter (“Heaven and Hell” and “Believe What I Say” providing big solo moments), and a venue for star-making turns, gifting ascendant performers like Fivio Foreign and Baby Keem career-defining verses on “Off The Grid” and “Praise God’,’ respectively. Were the album simply this — a collection of sharply-produced hits, Donda would already be memorable enough, but West’s imagination encapsulates the fantastic pop spectacle as much as it does high-minded morality play, bringing together the spontaneous personal narrative that has dictated his last several albums with the sweeping, loosely-fictionalized narratives he wove in throughout the first four. Album centerpiece “Jesus Lord” and its sweeping, nearly 12-minute Part 2 anchors this approach confidently, interweaving a fictionalized tale of cyclical violence in the Black American community recontextualized initially by an impressive, fiercely-political verse from Jay Electronica (and rap icons The Lox on the second take) and then again by the words of Larry Hoover Jr., speaking on the unjust and cruel life imprisonment of his formerly gang-affiliated father. Surely a testament to the monumental vision of Kanye West 44 years into his time on Earth, “Jesus Lord,” and Donda, express the artist’s continued ability to navigate in between the past and present, public and private, egotistical and spiritual with a bemused deftness irresistible to haters and obsessives both (and what’s the difference, really?). We are likely past the point where a Kanye album can ever be received without ample asterisking, but this is also totally by design, the sort of confident controversy that one can embrace when they make an album as timeless as this. M.G. Mailloux   [Previously published as part of InRO’s August 2021 album coverage.]