The Black & White’s 21 best albums of 2021

By Alex Schupak

In the months following the end of 2020 — which Time Magazine described as “the worst year ever” — a cautious optimism emerged, making way for a cultural shift ripe for reflection, healing and celebration. That’s not to suggest everything went back to normal; anxiety surrounding COVID-19, political upheaval and day-to-day uncertainties touched every aspect of our being. It was the balance between these two forces — the urge to declare victory over the year and the concern that life “could get worse” — that showed up so readily in the music we consumed throughout 2021.

This year was an excellent year for music. From experimental hip-hop to indie rock to radio pop, artists across a wide array of musical genres were determined to broadcast their visions after a year of isolation, and this year, more than ever before, they were willing to push artistic boundaries. But these 21 albums ranked below all grew out of radically different places. Some artists, like Adele, found their voice through vulnerability, while others, like Baby Keem, went the more braggadocious route. Playboi Carti fused punk, goth and “vamp” aesthetics into his trap flows while black midi dove deeper into their prog-rock roots. Some artists picked up where they left off before the pandemic, while others veered in directions we may never have expected.

Without further ado, here are The Black & White’s top 21 albums of 2021.

21. Lil Nas X, “MONTERO”

The long-awaited debut studio album from the crossover superstar didn’t disappoint, bringing together polished production and introspective lyrics to create a colossus of a musical project.

Standout track: “INDUSTRY BABY”



20. Squid, “Bright Green Field”

2021 was an outstanding year for post-punk, which was in no small part due to Squid’s debut studio album, which melded jazz, spoken word and complex song structures in a style similar to that of Talking Heads.

Standout track: “Narrator”



19. Taylor Swift, “Red (Taylor’s Version)”

Swift’s re-recording of “Red,” with an additional nine tracks “from the Vault,” explores topics such as self-empowerment, objectification and abusive relationships, but Swift’s reclamation of her art, and subsequently her “reshaping of the music industry,” might be the most significant part of this release. 

Standout track: “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)”


18. Silk Sonic, “An Evening With Silk Sonic”

Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak continue to bring the ‘70s back in style with this buttery throwback album that is as sonically smooth as it is technically impressive.

Standout track: “Smokin Out The Window”



17. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and The London Symphony Orchestra, “Promises”

Quite possibly the most cohesive album on this list, “Promises” builds each track on top of the previous one, creating an electro-jazz-orchestral experience that feels like floating down a river through magical meadows.

Standout track: “Movement 6”



16. Kanye West, “Donda (Deluxe)”

Even when viewed in a vacuum — admittedly a difficult thing to do given Kanye’s endless antics — this album’s mix of gospel and rap sounds is both daring and innovative, and it’s only complemented by the slate of grade A features Kanye pulls together. 

Standout track: “Life Of The Party”



15. Tyler, The Creator, “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST”

Tyler reaffirms his rapper status by pulling together one of the strongest hip-hop albums of the year — it really does taste like “French vanilla ice cream.”




14. Backxwash, “I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses”

For any industrial rap fans out there, Backxwash’s new album is a must-listen; the tracks fuse elements of noise, metal and hip-hop, combining it with personal lyrics about the artist’s experiences as a Black, transgender woman.

Standout track: “SONG of SINNERS”



13. Baby Keem, “The Melodic Blue”

On his debut studio album, Baby Keem burst onto the scene with a one-of-a-kind flow that’s impossible to replicate; what’s most impressive is that this is only the beginning — there’s still so much room for him to grow as an artist.

Standout track: “family ties”



12. Armand Hammer and the Alchemist, “Haram”

Armand Hammer, with help from legendary producer Alchemist, delivered one of this year’s most robust experimental hip-hop albums, which is laced in fragmented emotions and iridescent memories of summers long gone.

Standout track: “Stonefruit”



11. Little Simz, “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”

Little Simz goes maximalist on her latest studio album, pulling together epic orchestration, traditional African instrumentation and vivid lyricism to create a project that can easily stand its ground against the likes of Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar.

Standout track: “Woman”



TOP 10

10. MIKE, “Disco!”

At first listen, the underground Brooklyn MC might sound sleepy over his hypnotic beat selection. Yet upon deeper concentration, though, MIKE’s trauma, battles and experiences shine through, not only in his lyrics but also in the delivery. What may be mistaken for a “lazy” flow actually holds the artist’s truths, restlessness and struggle to beat his demons. “Disco!” is a brutally honest saga of self-healing, vulnerability and reconciliation that can be as healing for listeners as it seems to be for MIKE himself.

Standout track: “Airdrop”

9. Playboi Carti, “Whole Lotta Red”

“Forget a white Christmas, we got a whole lot of red!” said some Carti fan on Christmas morning in 2020, probably. While Playboi Carti’s highly anticipated sophomore studio album technically came out seven days before the end of 2020, it still feels distinctly 2021, due in no small part to how radical it was when it dropped. While public opinions at the time were mixed, the album has aged like fine wine in the eyes of both critics and rap fans alike. “Whole Lotta Red” refused to play by the rules of its time, instead drawing influence from punk and thrash rockers of decades past (“I’m a rockstar, I could’ve joined Slayer,” he raps) in conjunction with the psychedelic beats that have always defined Carti’s sound. “Whole Lotta Red” is truly energetic, angry and counter-cultural — it’s lightning in a bottle that won’t be replicated for quite some time.

Standout track: “Control”

8. Adele, “30”

Adele’s return to music after six years is everything we could’ve hoped for and more. In a single album, she is able to experiment with her sound in the opening tracks, which crescendos to her most emotionally powerful material to date in the latter half of the project. Adele’s always had a knack for producing radio hits, but what’s most significant about “30” is that it’s the most vulnerable and mature she’s ever been. Even more impressive than her once-in-a-generation voice is her ability to balance any tracks she’s on: Adele knows when to hold back and when to give a breathtakingly intense vocal performance. “30” holds a collective pandemic experience somewhere deep within it, too, grappling with feelings of isolation, emotional toil and, of course, love.

Standout track: “To Be Loved”

7. Vince Staples, “Vince Staples”

Vince’s latest album is concise, laid-back, and so, so re-listenable. It oozes Los Angeles, from the hypnotic beat selection to Vince’s relaxed flow, conjuring up images of concrete sprawl and pink Malibu sunsets. Vince is a veteran of the rap game, and this self-titled proves his wealth of experience. Coming in at barely over 20 minutes in length, it’s all killer and no filler — this is his element. The lyrics are distinctly autobiographical, chronicling the rapper’s experiences which often pertain to the complex social and economic condition of Long Beach, from gang affiliations to gun violence. Vince encounters violence at every turn, but he manages to find beauty in these harsh realities.

Standout track: “ARE YOU WITH THAT?”

6. Westside Gunn, “Hitler Wears Hermes 8: Side B”

On “Hitler Wears Hermes 8: Side B,” Gunn manages to outshine his “Side A,” released only a month before this record, in a successful attempt to deliver one of the best albums of his career. From Gunn’s uniquely nasal voice to a production style that resembles a collage of media snippets, record warpings and nostalgic song samples, there’s so much to love about this album. The slate of features, including Tyler, The Creator, Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine, only complement their respective tracks, showcasing effortless musical chemistry with Gunn. Throughout his career, Gunn has worked on crafting an image based on the mix between high culture and gangster life, and this record only adds to his unique personna. The rapper is a fashion icon, and honorary Parisian, but he never forgets his Buffalo roots. “Hitler Wears Hermes 8: Side B” is full of straight bangers without compromising artistic integrity.

Standout track: “Hell on Earth, Pt. 2”

5. black midi, “Cavalcade”

Progressive rock’s renaissance is upon us, and we have black midi to thank. “Cavalcade” plants you at the bottom of its mountain of sound, and from the opening track all the way to the end, a cascade of otherworldly noises rains down upon you — it’s not so much angry as it’s disturbing, hysterical and feverish. But black midi finds their voice in the balance between Yin and Yang — the loud and the soft, the demented and the beautiful. The tracklist switches back and forth between palpitating, anxiety-ridden songs and heavenly melodies. On “Cavalcade,” the band masterfully exemplifies tension and release — from feral human screams to glistening synthesizers, the eccentric rock band delivers an album that’s impossible to forget.

Standout track: “Slow”

4. JPEGMAFIA, “LP! (Offline version)”

The veteran, the virtuoso, the visionary — Peggy’s musical notoriety has skyrocketed over the past few years, but on “LP!,” his attempt at consolidating his quirks, talents and out-of-the-box approach into a fully-released project is more successful than ever. JPEGMAFIA has displayed intricate hip-hop experimentation — to great acclaim — on his last two albums, “All My Heroes Are Cornballs” and “Veteran”; unorthodox sampling, disparate sound bites and noisy production continue on his latest project. But much of the specific cultural commentary that defined his previous records have fallen by the wayside, creating a new level of accessibility and timelessness for an artist whose music previously felt contained to the time and place it came out. That’s not to say old Peggy is gone: The vocoded vocals and internet-focused lyrics of the track “THOTS PRAYERS!” could’ve easily been taken straight off of “All My Heroes Are Cornballs,” and “NEMO!” is so brazenly abstract that it brings back memories of “Veteran.” Peggy is still an uncompromising, idiosyncratic genius, but as a whole, “LP!” is more musical and easier on the ears than any other project JPEGMAFIA has put out.

Standout track: “HAZARD DUTY PAY!”

3. Lingua Ignota, “SINNER GET READY”

“SINNER GET READY” is tormenting. It pulls you apart, limb by limb, beating you to a pulp, slapping you when you’re on the verge of passing out, over and over until you have no option but to surrender your entire being to it. You are not you anymore; you don’t have a right to yourself. In this way, artist Kristin Hayter replicates the dynamics of, most prominently, zealot religious groups and the abusive relationships that can be found in them. “SINNER GET READY” is a story of deep emotional trauma, and this is most apparent in the influence of Appalachian folk music on the album. The track “PERPETUAL FLAME OF CENTRALIA” is quite literally about the underground mine fires of Centralia, Pennsylvania, that have been burning for the past 50 years. Desolation, poverty and hellish living conditions force the inhabitants of rural towns like this to turn to Jesus, with Hayter exploring communal religion, pain and redemption on each track. On a musical note, Hayter brings in various religious elements to produce a sense of spirituality hard to find outside of religious services. Repetitious chants, hymns, screams and crashes create a power reminiscent of exorcism. “SINNER GET READY” isn’t a light listen, but if you give the record the time and energy it commands, you just might find yourself moved by the most extreme listening experience of your life.


2. Injury Reserve, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”

As rapper Ritchie with a T says on the opening track, “Let’s be honest here”: This album sounds more like random noise than music. Well, maybe for the first listen. Or perhaps the second. Or even the third. But it eventually becomes apparent that Injury Reserve has taken the groundbreaking experimental hip-hop torch from Death Grips and run away with it. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” sounds like nothing that’s ever been created. It’s glitchy, dystopian and cryptic; in its months of existence, it’s pushed music’s limits into the next decade. Injury Reserve’s approaches to significant topics like self-doubt, social anxieties and paranoia feel enigmatic; lyrics are seemingly cut off by bad reception every time we’re about to understand their meaning. The rapping verges on spoken word but still holds a certain urgency in delivery. While the first couple of listens might feel emotionally void, underneath the jarring instrumentals and glitchy production is a uniquely human experience, which includes everything from feelings of inadequacy on “Knees” to bittersweet victory on “Storm.” Even with the heartbreaking loss of group member Stepa J. Groggs last year, Injury Reserve will undoubtedly continue to trailblaze into 2022 and beyond. 

Standout track: “Knees”

1. Low, “HEY WHAT”

It’s nearly unheard of for a band to release their most groundbreaking work almost 30 years into their career, and yet, “HEY WHAT” is really that electric. Beautiful alt-rock ballads are injected with millions of watts of energy to create a final project that, instead of being buried by its noise rock elements, is actually bolstered by it. Climaxes sound that much greater, soundscapes are that much more engulfing, and Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s vocal harmonies are that much more beautiful. Listening to each track is like touching an electric fence, getting stunned in place as currents pulse through your body. The opener, “White Horses,” sets the tone for the record in its abrasiveness and its unwillingness to release tension too early. The end of the track contains 90 seconds of industrial clicking noises that slowly build up anxiety for the following track, “I Can Wait.” On “All Night,” “Disappearing” and “Don’t Walk Away,” Low crafts crushingly beautiful harmonies while the unconventional structure of “Days Like These” makes it one of the most memorable tracks of the year. Low outdid themselves on their latest release, constructing an album that not only tops off 2021 but transcends their long careers.

Standout track: “Don’t Walk Away”