10. ‘Vince Staples’ (Vince Staples)
Vince Staples delivered a refreshing dose of brevity and precision in a year in rap music otherwise defined by excess. While Kanye West’s “Donda” and Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy” leaned on a wide variety of genres and features with mixed results, sacrificing cohesion for all-encompassing, chart-dominating magnitude, Staples’ self-titled album puts the artist’s vision and lyrical abilities front and center. Clocking in at just over 20 minutes in runtime, the Long Beach native’s latest project manages to showcase his greatest strengths — and even reveal some new ones — in a concise and focused package. Staples’ chemistry with producer Kenny Beats shines throughout the album, as the pair bounces seamlessly from a rare foray into the melodic on “ARE YOU WITH THAT?” to bleak bars about summertime violence on “TAKING TRIPS.” “Vince Staples” exudes confidence and command at every turn, constituting another success in its young creator’s already impressive discography. —Connor S. Dowd
9. ‘Happier Than Ever’ (Billie Eilish)
Eilish’s sophomore effort takes fans of the L.A. Native and 10-time Grammy Award winner through an impressive tour of her and her brother Finneas’s musical prowess. With heartrending ballads like “Halley’s Comet” and “my future” on one end and upbeat electropop bangers like “NDA” and “OverHeated” on the other, the album has something for everyone, and yet remains unapologetically Billie. Her lush, ethereal vocals, layered over Finneas’s intoxicatingly complex production, bring the album’s percing lyrics to rich life. It is the album’s titular track, though, that really pushes “Happier Than Ever” above the fold. Over the course of a mere four minutes and 58 seconds, Eilish takes listeners through a haunting rollercoaster of genres and emotions, from a soft-spoken and melodic introduction to the rock-inspired second half of the song through which guitar solos blaze. From beginning to end, the album is a stunning feat. —Sofia Andrade
8. ‘Juno’ (Remi Wolf)
Bedroom pop favorite Remi Wolf — frequently featured on Spotify playlists like “Lorem” or “Ultimate Indie” — released her debut album “Juno” in October of this year, an album that delivered on the bright, electric energy fans have come to expect from her. Produced in close collaboration with bandmate Jared “Solomonophonic” Solomon, the album is full of high energy guitar and surreal lyric narratives — some of which simply make no sense at all, like the line “I got violets on my violence.” Despite its upbeat quality, the album is handling heavy emotions and processing a difficult time in Wolf’s life. As expressed by the very first song on the album — “Liquor Store” — much of the work is about becoming sober, a process Wolf started in 2020, during the pandemic. Her work is mature and stylistically incredibly unique, but also just plain fun, and this first album is nothing if not the indication of a talented career ahead. —Sara Komatsu
7. ‘Heaux Tales’ (Jazmine Sullivan)
In January, R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan released new music for the first time in nearly six years when she dropped “Heaux Tales,” the fourth album of her career. Though it may be only 32 minutes long, “Heaux Tales” punches well above its weight. As its title might suggest, the album explores and gives voice to women’s perspectives on love and sex, emphasizing their nuance and complexity. It features six interludes on the topic, all inspired by real conversations, which divide time between eight acoustically simple yet powerful songs that speak to Sullivan’s prowess as both a singer and producer. The result is a meaning-rich sonic treat, begging to be listened to again and again. — Daniel S. de Castro
6. ‘30’ (Adele)
On Nov. 19, Adele released her fourth studio album “30” after a six-year hiatus. As can be expected from the British singer, songwriter, and certified tearjerker, “30” encapsulates the tough feelings of heartbreak, messing up, and maturing into a beautifully wrapped up, ballad-filled, piano-heavy package. Adele shows a new level of self-reflexivity and growth throughout the album, best epitomized by the six-minute standout “I Drink Wine.” Through 12 songs that pull influences from gospel, jazz, pop, and even a little bit of country, Adele takes listeners on a journey of finding self-awareness on “30” — one that allows her to be vulnerable, own up to her mistakes, and ask for forgiveness from both herself and her loved ones. Above all, “30” centers on hope, something that we can all use a little bit of nowadays. —Annie Harrigan
We reviewed "Easy On Me," the lead single for "30." Read more here.
5. ‘Donda’ (Kanye West)
It’s been a wild year for Kanye West. But amidst a divorce, a concert, and substantial beef in the industry, he still took the time to produce the experimental and thought-provoking album “Donda.” Whether West is voicing his grief on the mellow acoustics of “Moon,” preaching his faith on choral works like “Praise God,” or exalting the power of family throughout the nostalgic samples on “Life of the Party,” the theme of love resonates in every aspect of production on this record. It doesn’t matter what the critics had to say about it — not to Kanye nor to his fans — what matters is that Kanye did what he does best in this album and unleashed his musical genius to celebrate his late mother Donda West. Despite the messy release schedule and the public controversies, Kanye has once again proved himself to be a trendsetter who releases albums worth talking about. —Alisa S. Regassa
We wrote a think piece on “Donda.” Read more here.
4. ‘Collapsed in Sunbeams’ (Arlo Parks)
After releasing only a handful of EPs and singles in her young career, British singer-songwriter Arlo Parks delivered her first studio album in January to much acclaim. Rich with catchy beats and smooth vocals, “Collapsed in Sunbeams” has boosted Parks’s ascent to the forefront of the indie pop scene, earning her a nomination for Best New Artist at the upcoming Grammy Awards. Bouncing around Airbnb apartments to find inspiration amidst the pandemic disquiet and record songs with innovative co-writer and producer Gianluca Buccellati, Parks sought to make a statement with her debut album, exploring the tribulations of adolescence through music. The final product is tranquil and radiant, luring listeners into a world of charming rhythm and melody and leaving a rapidly growing fanbase in eager anticipation of what the young artist produces next. —Charles W. McCormick
We reviewed “Collapsed in Sunbeams” and gave it 4 stars. Read more here.
3. ‘Call Me If You Get Lost’ (Tyler, the Creator)
Tyler, the Creator embraces rap again in his sixth studio album, featuring DJ Drama who acts as the album’s narrator. “Call Me If You Get Lost” is an outstanding exploration of Black nostalgia. At times, it invites an almost-psychedelic rumination on one’s journey through life. An effervescent flute perfuses the tracks with melodic directions to the next stop on the sonic trip. Tyler’s production efforts were reinforced by Jamie xx and Jay Versace, and the longest track on the album, “SWEET / I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE,” at nine minutes and 48 seconds, exemplifies the creative genius of this production team in crafting a compelling narrative via sound engineering. “Call Me If You Get Lost” validates Tyler, the Creator as a master chameleon who consistently puts out high-quality work. —Chibuike K. Uwakwe
2. ‘Planet Her (Deluxe)’ (Doja Cat)
Doja Cat is quite a character — falling in and out of favor with the internet — yet her sorcery in the studio never fails to amaze. Her ability to traverse through genres while staying true to her distinctive style feels effortless, as she hops from an afrobeat in “Woman” to bass-boosted trap mixes of her own creation in “Up and Down.” At her core, Doja Cat is a rapper, and she’s not afraid to bring mesmeric verse and flow to her tracks much in the same vein as rapper Nicki Minaj, whose flow she references and directly expresses gratitude to in “Get Into It (Yuh).” The success of “Planet Her,” despite many of the tracks on the album already being unofficially released online, is a testament to Doja Cat’s musical prowess. —Chibuike K. Uwakwe
We reviewed the music video for “Kiss Me More” off of “Planet Her.” Read more here.
1. ‘An Evening with Silk Sonic’ (Silk Sonic)
After a nine-month-long album roll-out, the crisp winds of November steamed with the much-anticipated release of Silk Sonic’s debut collaborative album, “An Evening with Silk Sonic.” While both members levy impressive discographies individually — Anderson .Paak’s 2020 R&B album “Ventura'' and Bruno Mars’s most recent project “24K Magic'' each left the Grammys with accolades — “An Evening with Silk Sonic'' is a sum greater than the whole of its parts. Balancing Mars’s sultry vocals and Paak’s flow with commentary from Bootsy Collins, the father of funk himself, Silk Sonic’s project is a passionate love letter to the ‘70s, paying homage to the bass lines and percussion which shaped both musicians’ distinct styles. Feeling like shea butter, flared corduroys and burnt orange velvet all rolled into one, “An Evening with Silk Sonic'' reminds listeners of a time when — as Paak told Rolling Stone — artists made music to “make women feel good, make people dance, and that’s it.”And isn’t that exactly what great music should do? — Anya L. Henry
We reviewed Silk Sonic’s debut single “Leave the Door Open” from “An Evening with Silk Sonic” and gave it 5 stars. Read more here.