AP’s top albums of 2021: ‘Sour,’ ‘Donda,’ H.E.R. and Eilish
Ten of the best albums of the year, as selected by Associated Press entertainment journalists.
OLIVIA RODRIGO, “SOUR”
Olivia Rodrigo kicks off her debut album “SOUR” with the words “I want it to be, like, messy” and she goes on to deliver just that. The 11 songs from the 18-year-old singer-songwriter’s breakup album are raw and angry, dreamy and mocking, playful and profane, with shards of punk and princess pop. It’s an astonishing human hello from the youngest solo artist ever to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Taylor Swift is clearly a role model — and even gets a writing credit for a Swift interpolation in “1 step forward, 3 steps back” — but there also are echoes of Alanis Morissette’s fury from “Jagged Little Pill.” It’s indeed a messy album and messy was perfect for 2021. — Mark Kennedy
KANYE WEST, “DONDA”
Kanye West took his religious musical walk a step forward on his 10th studio album “Donda.” The highly-anticipated album — named after his late mother Donda West — lived up to the hype with a healthy dose of talent from Jay-Z on “Jail,” “Pure Souls” with Roddy Ricch and Lil Baby and The Weeknd on “Hurricane.” Throughout the album, recorded wise words were featured by his mother, who died in 2007 following plastic surgery complications.
Ye’s latest project is a follow up to his gospel-themed album “Jesus is King,” which won a Grammy for best contemporary Christian album. But with “Donda,” West strived to create a hip-hop gospel album — not an easy task, especially with so many top-line features who he convinced to buy into creating the 27 tracks filled with an array of gospel undertones. West opens up about his marital issues with his estranged wife Kim Kardashian on “Lord I Need You.” Much like that song, he often speaks out loud in hopes that a higher being can help answer his prayers. — Jonathan Landrum Jr.
YOLA, “STAND FOR MYSELF”
The British singer-songwriter Yola perfectly encapsulates the freedom of finally feeling alive after years of sacrificing yourself to society’s expectations. As a Black singer whose artistry was often shoved into tiny genre-specific boxes, her sophomore album “Stand For Myself” is a glorious exploration of her musical breadth. Yola, the musical therapist, is telling you she’s been in your shoes, barely struggling to get by, but she’s making you dance away in tears to a ’70s disco beat. The Grammy-nominated “Diamond Studded Shoes” is a self-reflective protest anthem that acknowledges that the kids are not alright and you gotta put up a fight. Yola’s impressive vocals carry you along a soulful, rocking journey of discovery. — Kristin M. Hall
TYLER, THE CREATOR, “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST”
While it was presumed that two of the biggest personalities in hip-hop, Ye (formerly Kanye West) and Drake, would battle for the No. 1 spot with their new albums, one clear winner emerged: Tyler, The Creator. Following his 2019 Grammy rap album of the year, “Igor,” this record masterfully displayed both Tyler’s MC chops and producing expertise. Whether it was the gritty, hard hitting “LUMBERJACK” or taking “Backseat” by popular 90s R&B group H-town and flipping it into “WUSYANAME,” Tyler again proved he no longer draws in listeners with the shock rhymes he once spit as a rap rookie, but because his talent and creativity are limitless. — Gary Gerard Hamilton
LUCY DACUS, “HOME VIDEO”
Lucy Dacus delivers a stunning coming-of-age portrait, exploring sexuality, morality and the impact of relationships through the lens of Christian youth culture. There’s a nostalgic feel throughout the 11 tracks as Dacus reconciles the person she was with the one she’s grown into.
The imagery in “Home Video” is vivid, tying each song to a moment and place in time. “We’re coming home/From a sermon saying how bent and evil we are,” she sings on “Christine.”
Dacus doesn’t shy away from the person she was and the influence structures like vacation bible school had on her (“In the summer of ’07/I was sure I’d go to heaven/I was hedging my bets at VBS”). There’s also a subtlety in the way she describes the impact of relationships that is highly relatable. It isn’t always a scathing remark that leaves an impression, but a partner who calls you “cerebral”–“Would it have killed you to call me pretty instead?”
All in all, “Home Video” is a moving recollection of youth — and it is a shame that it was overlooked by the Recording Academy. — Ragan Clark
JAZMINE SULLIVAN, “HEAUX TALES”
Jazmine Sullivan’s “Heaux Tales” could easily be the year’s best album. A soulful songstress always recognized for her powerful voice but never fully appreciated for her artistic brilliance, her latest project tackled femininity, relationships and Black women unapologetically owning their sexuality. R&B was never dead, but it did need some revitalization and like many things, Black women — Sullivan, H.E.R. and many of their contemporaries — came to save it. — Gary Gerard Hamilton
BILLIE EILISH, “HAPPIER THAN EVER”
Billie Eilish faced a potential sophomore slump and blew it away with “Happier Than Ever,” a fascinating look at a complicated pop star’s life. As diaristic as Taylor Swift but more self-critical and emotionally candid, Eilish’s expressive and whispery-lush vocals explored fame and its murky sides, like exposing unequal power structures or the paparazzi. “Happier Than Ever” is fuller and grander than her debut, the songs stronger in their construction, crisper. There are terrific kiss-off songs (“I Didn’t Change My Number,” “Lost Cause” and the slow-building “Happier Than Ever”) and Eilish and her producer brother Finneas even play with bossa nova. But Eilish is best in the shadows, exploring our messiest impulses and this album sparkles in the dark. — Mark Kennedy
H.E.R., “BACK OF MY MIND”
It’s hard to believe that H.E.R.’s first solo studio album came this year, especially with all her commercial success and the fact she’s already raked in four Grammys and an Oscar from her self-titled album and songs like “I Can’t Breathe” and “Better Than I Imagined.” With all the accolades, H.E.R. showed why she earned those awards with “Back of My Mind,” which is a brilliant piece of work. The 21-track album is filled with several gems including the radio friendly “Damage,” the smooth single “Come Through” featuring Chris Brown, her masterful duet with Ty Dolla $ign on “Back of My Mind” and the upbeat “Find a Way” featuring Lil Baby. — Jonathan Landrum Jr.
LITTLE SIMZ, “SOMETIMES I MIGHT BE INTROVERT”
With her fourth LP, British-Nigerian rapper Little Simz brings the heat.
“Sometimes I Might Be Introvert” is a captivating album that is at once personal and universal. From frank lines about her “daddy issues” in “I Love You, I Hate You” to her discussion of female empowerment in “Woman,” Little Simz covers a lot of ground in her sprawling 19-track record.
Perhaps the most powerful song on the album (though it’s difficult to choose just one) is “Little Q, Pt. II” where she describes in first person the harrowing experience her younger cousin went through after being stabbed in the chest. The amount of compassion shown toward his perpetrator is shocking: “But the boy that stabbed me is just as damaged as me … The broken homes in which we’re comin’ from, but who’s to blame when/You’re dealt the same cards from the system you’re enslaved in?”
To quote Little Simz back to herself: “Woman to woman I just want to see you glow.” Her talent is undeniable and with “Sometime I Might Be Introvert,” she’s created a masterpiece. — Ragan Clark
SNAIL MAIL, “VALENTINE”
2021 brought a lot of really great breakup albums, from Rodrigo to Adele, and if you still need some more cathartic emotional releases to sob and shout to, Snail Mail’s “Valentine” is a great one. Lindsey Jordan, who performs under the name Snail Mail, parses through post-relationship wreckage, as well as going through rehab. The album’s sharply sensitive lyrics, Jordan’s whispery falsettos and fuzzy guitars combine for an excellent sophomore showing from the young indie rock powerhouse. The synth-heavy “Ben Franklin,” carried along with a heavy bass line, is both snarky and self-deprecating as an ex-lover aware of her jealousy and trying to process the anger of broken promises. “Valentine” feels like prying through a diary filled with visceral heat-of-the-moment confessions. — Kristin M. Hall
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.