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NPR Music's 26 Favorite Albums Of 2021 (So Far)

Courtesy of artists

Here we are halfway through 2021, this year of stepping back across the threshold into the world. And what are we carrying with us as we emerge? Below, you'll find two dozen albums that worked their way into the hearts of NPR Music's staff during those in-between days. Just one pick per person, presented in alphabetical order by artist. (You can find the list of our favorite songs here. Follow NPR Music's ongoing coverage of new songs at our #NowPlaying blog.)

/ New Amsterdam
New Amsterdam

Arooj Aftab, Vulture Prince

Born in Pakistan and based in Brooklyn, Arooj Aftab revises, adapts and otherwise reimagines South Asian music — poetic songs of grief and desire that follow paths blazed by the likes of Abida Parveen and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (as well as Jeff Buckley, a Nusrat devotee). To say she's a worthy heir is hardly an overstatement; the songs on Vulture Prince swoon, stun and hypnotize, while never traversing the same terrain twice. —Stephen Thompson

  • Stream Vulture Prince by Arooj Aftab

  • / Polyvinyl

    Bachelor, Doomin' Sun

    This perfect collaboration between Melina Duterte (Jay Som) and Ellen Kempner (Palehound) produced a surprising and gritty 10-song, 33-minute album, sure to make my end-of-year list. There's a song about mega-fandom and a creepy video for "Back Of My Hand," a song about a parking lot infatuation and the tangles and delights of love. It's a collaboration I'd love to see grow; let's hope it's not just a one-off side project. —Bob Boilen

  • Stream Doomin' Sun by Bachelor

  • / Self-Released

    The Baylor Project, Generations

    Thrice Grammy-nominated husband and wife Marcus and Jean Baylor have outdone themselves with their latest offering, Generations. The album is a portal through the expansive legacy of Black music. Highlights include "2020," which features Marcus' explosively musical drumming; an acrobatic scat masterclass by Jean and guests Dianne Reeves and Jazzmeia Horn on "We Swing (The Cypher)"; "Strivin'" with alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett; and "Only Believe," a duet with Jamison Ross. From one song to the next, we are treated to the exquisite silkiness of Jean's vocals and Marcus' incredible finesse on the kit, which together create an album that is incredibly moving and relevant. Gospel, jazz, R&B, soul, blues — it's a complete package. Don't be surprised when Generations gets the duo more Grammy attention later this year. —Nikki Birch

  • Stream Generations by The Baylor Project

  • / Doddieoddie

    dodie, Build a Problem

    Dodie Clark's breathtaking debut album is densely layered but as light as air. The singer from Essex pulls this off with a vast world of delicate, found sounds and ambient noises that flutter and sigh under songs that celebrate the wonder and joy of life, despite dodie's battles with anxiety, heartache and regret. —Robin Hilton

  • Stream Build a Problem by dodie

  • / LuckyMe

    Doss, 4 New Hit Songs

    Let's hear it for the all-killer, no-filler career. In a streaming environment when we can hear almost anything we want at any time, potency is at a premium, and Doss seems to realize that more so than most. She's released just 8 original tracks across two EPs during her seven-year recording career, and each and every one is a bop — and, going by the title to this year's EP, she knows it. 4 New Hit Songs mixes house, shoegaze and pitched-up vocals for a 15-minute burst of endorphins. —Otis Hart

  • Stream 4 New Hit Songs by Doss

  • / World In Red
    World In Red

    girl in red, if i could make it go quiet

    Marie Ulven, more widely known as girl in red, is frank about her pain. What makes her debut album, if i could make it go quiet, so special, though, is her sharp self-awareness. This intentional consciousness takes different shapes, but the most notable instances are in the songs "hornylovesickmess" and "midnight love," which intertwine to create one cohesive narrative about two people in a skewed one-sided relationship, and the feelings that come along with it. She sings from each perspective, as if she's felt the pain of both. This awareness is a theme throughout the album, whether it concerns love, feelings or mental health. —Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

  • Stream if i could make it go quiet by girl in red

  • / Mad Decent
    Mad Decent

    Danny L Harle, Harlecore

    After a year marred by darkness and isolation, Danny L Harle's debut full-length album, Harlecore, encapsulates the happiness of sharing the dance floor with a thousand sweaty bodies. Anchored by Harle's four different alter egos — DJ Danny, DJ Mayhem, DJ Ocean and MC Boing — the LP darts back and forth between electronic subgenres with a penchant for maximalist nostalgia, creating a primer to the world of millennial rave. —Reanna Cruz

  • Stream Harlecore by Danny L Harle

  • / ECM

    Vijay Iyer / Linda May Han Oh / Tyshawn Sorey, Uneasy

    Vijay Iyer already had a serious claim to one of our era's standout improvising piano trios, and then he went and formed another one. What propels Uneasy into the winner's circle is an even stronger sense of collectivity, as Iyer's unmistakable signature as a pianist and composer meets with equal investment by drummer Tyshawn Sorey and bassist Linda May Han Oh. This is hyperarticulate, politically urgent music that speaks to where we are, and where we should be. —Nate Chinen, WBGO

  • Stream Uneasy by Vijay Iyer / Linda May Han Oh / Tyshawn Sorey

  • / Dead Oceans
    Dead Oceans

    Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee

    After making two albums in the aftershocks of grief and loss, Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner set her sights on joy. The result is her most adventurous and sonically rich release, one where the widened palette suits her boundless vision. As her narrators revel in joy, plead for sweetness and ache with desire, Zauner has never sounded so exuberant or so certain. —Marissa Lorusso

  • Stream Jubilee by Japanese Breakfast

  • / VDSQ

    Chuck Johnson, The Cinder Grove

    A decade ago, Johnson was one of the leading lights of whatever you call the fingerpicked acoustic guitar style often tied to John Fahey's name but practiced in more diverse, distinct ways than that framing admits. Lately, though, the Californian artist has split the seams of his own practice with works like this wildfire elegy, which turns to yawning pedal steel and other ambient stepchildren (dig the chamber strings on "Red Branch Bell") to evoke a bodiless choir, kneading out notes of boundless sustain. —Daoud Tyler-Ameen

  • Stream The Cinder Grove by Chuck Johnson

  • / Colemine

    Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, I Told You So

    From the first notes of Delvon Lamarr's latest album, I thought, "This is juke joint music." This album is perfect for small, packed, dimly lit venues that promise a good time, but not much in the way of air conditioning. I Told You So invites you to move, particularly on "Hole in One," "Fo Sho," and "Aces." The trio says they "specialize in the lost art of 'feel good music.'" After listening to this album's blend of jazz, soul and funk (and after a year inside), any listener will be ready to find a hole in the wall to dance like their grandparents used to. —Mitra Arthur

  • Stream I Told You So by Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio

  • / FXCK RXP

    Lukah, When The Black Hand Touches You

    When Lukah speaks of death, he tends to embody seemingly dueling perspectives: the man squeezing the trigger and the one staring down the barrel. If you're from South Memphis like him, those positions ain't always contradictory. When The Black Hand Touches You voices the collective trauma of generations — from post-soul to post-crack — while possessing the endurance of a magical bloodline that understands what it's like to be a pallbearer at your own funeral. —Rodney Carmichael

  • Stream When The Black Hand Touches You by Lukah

  • / Self-Released

    Mexican Institute of Sound, Distrito Federal

    Mexican Institute of Sound's Camilo Lara didn't hold back when creating this energetic, heartfelt 10-track ode to his hometown. The record reflects the dynamism of the ever-changing Mexican capitol, pulling sounds from its streets and notes from an array of prominent Mexican collaborators. For an artist who has made his career a global one, it's the ultimate coming home album — brimming with all the love, nostalgia, and pride Lara has for his D.F. —Anamaria Sayre

  • Stream Distrito Federal by Mexican Institute of Sound

  • / Arista

    Audrey Nuna, a liquid breakfast

    With the release of her first record, a liquid breakfast, 22-year-old creative Audrey Nuna demonstrates a mastery of concept and execution over the course of the album's 26 minutes, teetering between R&B, hip-hop and pop. Her musicality and the visual aesthetic of her videos are all over the place, with her dreamy vocal delivery acting as the connective thread. Featuring appearances from Jack Harlow and Saba, Nuna's debut doesn't shy away from experimentation, making it all the more captivating to see what she does next. —Gabrielle Pierre

  • Stream a liquid breakfast by Audrey Nuna

  • / Self-Released

    Patrick Paige II, If I Fail Are We Still Cool?

    Failure can feel catastrophic for those who have a lot to live up to, so I completely comprehend the title of Patrick Paige II's If I Fail Are We Still Cool? The bassist for the R&B band of the past decade has a steep uphill climb to uphold the quality of both the group and his collaborators' solo offerings. Lucky for him, he won't have to worry about the answer to the album's question. His second LP, a concept piece impressively sequenced like an airline flight, is the best solo effort from the band members thus far. —Bobby Carter

  • Stream If I Fail Are We Still Cool? by Patrick Paige II

  • / Interscope

    Playboi Carti, Whole Lotta Red

    Six months after the polarizing reaction to Whole Lotta Red on its Christmas 2020 release night, people are finally starting to turn. In truth, it seemed inevitable. Playboi Carti picked his most serrated beats since the Awful Records days, burrowed into his own mythology, and came out with a high-stakes opus that's still fun as hell. The screeds got louder, but also sharper, more controlled, and full of details that clash in glorious ways. As on previous albums, the best lines rattle around your head forever, but on WLR, Carti fleshed those strays out into his most masterful rapping to date. —Mano Sundaresan

  • Stream Whole Lotta Red by Playboi Carti

  • / Geffen Records
    Geffen Records

    Olivia Rodrigo, Sour

    Sour is a pastiche of Gen Z's cultural fixations. It's overflowing with the things that plagued our blogs in middle school: the rising choruses in "Ribs" by Lorde, Glee-as-meme, yearning for the teenage dream, "a broken ego [and a] broken heart." It's one of the few pieces of music that's explicitly angry at an ex for sharing with their new lover the music you consider yours. How could they? Rodrigo knows how much this hurts; her frustration is written all over the record. —Alex Ramos

  • Stream Sour by Olivia Rodrigo

  • / Bedroom Community
    Bedroom Community

    Gabriella Smith/Gabriel Cabezas, Lost Coast

    Inspired by California coastal woodlands ravaged by wildfires, Lost Coast is a paean to nature, an expression of outrage and a celebration of the close-knit bonds among its makers: composer Gabriella Smith, cellist Gabriel Cabezas and producer Nadia Sirota. The titular composition began life as a concerto, but then transformed into a rangy threnody for cello, voice and electronics; "Bard of a Wasteland," the buoyant album-opening ballad, breaks new ground for everyone involved. —Steve Smith

  • Stream Lost Coast by Gabriella Smith/Gabriel Cabezas

  • / RCA

    Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales

    Dirty laundry — those embarrassing truths we hide for fear of judgment — is rarely aired this thoughtfully. Heaux Tales, Jazmine Sullivan's first record since 2015's Reality Show, is an intimate, honest masterclass in storytelling and a sharp homage to Black oral traditions. Contending with losses and wins and contradictions tied to sex and romance, the Philly singer-songwriter creates a sonic haven for Black women's insecurities: Paying rent for a man who lives with his mama because he's got you hypnotized; having trauma-based aspirations of security only to get labeled a gold digger; confusion on whether sexuality is empowerment or entrapment. Through minimalist instrumentals and boldly specific lyrics, Heaux Tales' thematic narratives — as shared with Sullivan by friends confiding vulnerabilities — reign supreme. —LaTesha Harris

  • Stream Heaux Tales by Jazmine Sullivan

  • / Sony Music
    Sony Music

    C. Tangana, El Madrileño

    Spanish vocalist C. Tangana jumped up several levels between his last album, 2018's Avida Dollars, and 2021's El Madrileño. After finding a home for himself amidst so many other talented Spanish language electronic and trap artists, he threw caution to the wind and created an album that is so artistically expansive in its conception and reach that there is literally nothing else out like it. He dug deep into his Spanish roots while enlisting a guest that spans from The Buena Vista Social Club to Latin America's poet laureate, Jorge Drexler. The result is as powerful a statement of creativity as I have heard in the 50-or-so years I have been seriously listening to music. —Felix Contreras

  • Stream El Madrileño by C. Tangana

  • / Epitaph

    Rosie Tucker, Sucker Supreme

    "I can't believe I'll die before becoming a frog," Rosie Tucker sings on their superb third album full of effervescent melodies and squiggly guitar lines. It's a funny lyric, before you realize it's a triple-layer metaphor about the shape-shifting nature of the self, the limits of desire and the endless march of time. But that's Sucker Supreme in a nutshell: breezy, brilliant, tender, playful, paranoid and hopelessly human. —Cyrena Touros

  • Stream Sucker Supreme by Rosie Tucker

  • / Columbia Records
    Columbia Records

    Tyler, the Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost

    Call Me If You Get Lost is a multi-sensory experience: Tyler, the Creator's 16-track album is textured, soulful and accompanied by whimsical, retro-style music videos and skits. Songs like "WUSYANAME" channel '90s R&B while "LUMBERJACK" brings to mind old-school hip-hop. This album — filled with motifs — can be returned to again and again; each listen reveals something new about the project and the artist himself. —Chasity Hale

  • Stream Call Me If You Get Lost by Tyler, the Creator

  • / Self-Released

    Van Buren Records, Bad For Press

    After years of individual releases and creating grassroots buzz in a place still mostly overlooked by the rap world, Brockton, Mass. collective Van Buren Records presented its cohesive and mesmerizing debut project, Bad For Press in April. The album is a winding, woozy ride where each artist — Saint Lyor, Luke Bar$, Jiles and more — is distinguishable by tone, texture, cadence and outlook. The ominous warning of "Medic" pays off with snarly social commentary on album highlight "Gangbanger - Remix" while fantasies of new money hijinks on "VVS" and fuzzy delusions of grandeur get brushed off with "Nevermind." Not to mention the chemistry is consistently elite. With Bad For Press, VBR emerges confident enough to have to answer to no one. It's not a record, it's a movement. —Sidney Madden

  • Stream Bad For Press by Van Buren Records

  • / Royal Mountain
    Royal Mountain

    Wild Pink, A Billion Little Lights

    Only John Ross can write about workshopping advertisement copy and still make you tear up. On Wild Pink's A Billion Little Lights, references to Heat, Indiana Jones and The Pogues sit alongside grandiose declarations (take "you want peace, you want love / you deserve that much," or "you deserved the good things that came to you," for instance). Life's vastness is extolled, and the day's minutiae is detailed alongside the universe's cosmic beauty. It's a sweeping survey of the human condition that understands days spent on Slack and nights spent staring at the sky – or more realistically, the sky as seen on your TV. —Lyndsey McKenna

  • Stream A Billion Little Lights by Wild Pink

  • / New Amsterdam
    New Amsterdam

    Wild Up, Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Femenine

    Fueled by a two-note theme in the vibraphone emerging from a thicket of sleigh bells, the late Julius Eastman's Femenine unfolds one surprising and beautiful layer after another for a jubilant 67 minutes. Freewheeling solos for flugelhorn, piccolo and cello share space with swirling, minimalist repetitions that, if you drink it all in, just may leave you feeling sublimely intoxicated. —Tom Huizenga

  • Stream Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Femenine by Wild Up

  • / Spinster

    Yasmin Williams, Urban Driftwood

    The acoustic guitar's path is not fixed. And like the living wood from which the instrument comes and the person playing, attention must be paid to the ways that they change, learn and even love. Urban Driftwood is a solo guitar album without peer, its patchwork metropolitan in influence (hip-hop, R&B, smooth jazz) and rustic in appearance. As evidenced by the polyrhythmic whirlpools of melody, Yasmin Williams taps, fingerpicks and drums the guitar with a sound truly her own. —Lars Gotrich

  • Stream Urban Driftwood by Yasmin Williams
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