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The 25 Best Albums of 2021 | Ones To Watch Staff Picks

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2021 has been well… a year. Full of rapturous highs, cataclysmic lows, and the nebulous tedium that makes up everything in-between, it's certainly not a year we'll be forgetting any time soon. Thankfully, one saving grace of 2021 was the music. From Internet-bread breakout acts, the resurgence of pop-punk, to long-awaited debut albums, this year was not lacking when it came to new releases to lose yourself in. So, what better way to end the year than celebrate our favorite EPs, projects, mixtapes, albums, you name it, of 2021.  

Mustafa - When Smoke Rises

Mustafa, at his core, is a poet. Chronicling the stories, sights, sounds, and voices of his native Regent Park, Toronto's oldest housing project, the poet, filmmaker, artist, and activist's debut studio album is a project of measured pain and heart-rending beauty. It is a story of loss, muted optimism, and a testament to the enduring power of the human spirit told through a hypnotic blend of lush, minimalistic soundscapes and illuminating soundbites. When Smoke Rises is an intricate project equally unafraid to bring you face-to-face with heartbreaking tragedy and leave you to ponder its moments of deafening silence, resulting in one of the most compelling debuts of recent memory. - Maxamillion Polo

The Marà­as - Cinema

Cinema, the debut album of the Los Angeles-based band, has a distinctive ebb and flow of emotion that makes their mix of Latin pop, psychedelic-soul, and jazz that much more alluring. Their talent shines through on bilingual songs like the effervescent "Little By Little" or the softly strummed "Fog as a Bullet," where the sad wail of horns rises to gently meet her requiem. The Marà­as turn their romance into scenes of heartache, while the pulsing-bass lines of "Hush" flip the script into a concussive rebuff of the kind of unwanted advances women receive from men. Overall, this introspective album does not disappoint.   - Ally Rincón

PinkPantheress - To Hell With It

Regardless of its placement on any year-end lists, PinkPantheress has already proven herself an artist with an inimitable digital edge. Cultivating TikTok hit after hit, much of the UK artist and producer's debut mixtape lived a life of its own as viral online snippets. So, when the viral wunderkind unveiled To Hell With It, it's little surprise that her trademark blend of drum & bass and wistful diary snippets had a unique stranglehold on an always-online generation. While its distinctive elements may not be entirely novel, borrowing from niche subcultures of UK dance and the hazy lovelorn murmurings of dream pop, the way in which PinkPantheress recontextualizes her clear influences results in one of the best dance, indie pop, or whatever you'd like to call it, albums of the year.   - Maxamillion Polo

Snail Mail - Valentine

Snail Mail examines young love, heartbreak, and the risks that come with being vulnerable on her sophomore album Valentine. She manages to embody multiple sides in her ongoing story of love, obsession, and heartbreak, transforming into the spurned ex, clingy partner, and overwhelmed victim over a range that runs the gamut from thumping pop-rock to mellow R&B. The running theme between all these selves Jordan flips through is her attention to detail, allowing even the most seemingly experimental songs to feel authentically true to herself. Her growth as a musician is a force to be reckoned with.   - Carter Fife

Dijon - Absolutely

Absolutely was signaled by its lead single "Many Times," a manic video that attempted to capture the electric energy of Dijon's live show. The sprawling nature of the single touted Dijon as a generation-defining visionary, an avant-garde folk artist with all the pained delivery of Conor Oberst, storied songwriting wit of Sufjan Stevens, and production acumen of Bon Iver at the tip of his fingers. Absolutely is an emotionally expansive affair, one unafraid to venture into rambling, loose R&B departures and search out the warmth of familiar voices. Dijon's debut album is a beautiful, and at times deeply painful, chronicling of the human condition.   - Maxamillion Polo

Terry Presume - What Box?

The box of obviousness that Terry Presume eludes on What Box?  is what gives it its near-magical quality. On this combustible six-song effort, Presume deftly wields a poetic narrative, then seems to disrupt it with his capable ambition, shifting onto a new stage, a new genre, a new tempo without losing anything for it. What Box? is a statement, a reason to be unafraid of top-down commercial trends, because whether by raspy ballad, retro funk bop, or alt-electro effort, artists like Presume are conspicuously not listening to trending notices and instead crafting a splendid universe of personality-driven tunes. For those music appreciators fearful of being bored by new artists, What Box? Is your antidote, a bomb of honest creativity that few matched in 2021.   - DJ Connor

Fred Again.. - Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020)

Fred Again.. captures the unbridled euphoria, sorrow, and beauty of everyday life to such rapturous effect that sometimes it feels like the only proper outlet is the dancefloor. On his breakout debut album, Actual Life, the British producer and auteur chronicles a period of life through patchwork soundbites and enthralling house - instilling the entire affair with a unique personal touch and desynchronization with self that makes it all feel universal. Nowhere does this sentiment ring truer than on the The Blessed Madonna-assisted "We've Lost Dancing," a euphoric ode and rumination on what felt like the loss of dance culture in the wake of the COVID pandemic.   - Maxamillion Polo

Faye Webster - I Know I'm Funny haha

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that 2021 had its highs and lows. From the pandemic to politics, the year's disillusionment and anxiety was in desperate need of a soundtrack. Coincidentally, Faye Webster treated fans to the perfectly-timed I Know I'm Funny haha,  a melancholic and soulful journey through self-doubt, misery, and everything in-between. With her signature vocal timbre that often flows between dulcet elegance and wavering curiosity, Webster provides listeners with a small collection of indie-rock anthems for the end of the world. Is it the happiest thing you'll listen to this year? Probably not. But Faye Webster teaches us that there is beauty and humor embedded with life's tragedy. Exploring themes of inexplicable sadness and severed romance, she continuously approaches life's worst moments with a graceful mix of wisdom, humor, and irony.   - Carter Fife

Wallice - Off the Rails

Over the course of her transformative debut EP, Wallice manages to tell a thundering tale of attempting to coming of age in an aimless age. Walking a tightrope between teenage escapism and quarter-life crisis - and often stepping squarely in the middle of both - the self-proclaimed jazz school dropout conjures up one of the best collections of songwriting of the year. Propelled by a timeless voice and sage-like wisdom that belies her age, Off the Rails is a riveting sonic and thematic tour de force that feels simultaneously like a bold first step forward and seasoned offering from a timeworn veteran.   - Maxamillion Polo

Little Simz - Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert serves as a profound rumination on self, set against the sonic grandiosity and thematic drama of a Broadway epic. Behind vast, swelling orchestral composition, gritty afro-beat grooves, and one of the sharpest pens in the game, Little Simz weighs her singular aspirations against an innate proclivity toward introversion. Serving as both protagonist and adversary, Simz vacillates between vulnerability and bravado while meditating honestly on past trauma, contentious love, familial resentment, and personal growth within a cannibalistic industry. As this dichotomy ultimately coalesces in the discovery of strength in an isolated focus, the UK artist proves the project’s thesis that "The bravest of hearts can sometimes be the loneliest of souls."   - Alec Wing

glaive - all dogs go to heaven

A lot can be said of hyperpop's prominence in 2021, but few of the bubbling genre's younger and younger stars carried the scene forward quite like glaive. On the 16-year-old artist's sophomore EP, slivers of Midwest emo, emo rap, alternative, jersey bounce, digicore, and pop-punk passionately crash against one another to create an intoxicating glimpse at music's next wave. It's a testament to the rising star's undeniable talent for transforming a wealth of Internet subgenres into an IRL revolution, one that has less to do with the idea of genre itself and more to do with crafting compelling moments of unrestrained pathos. all dogs go to heaven is the sound of what's next.   - Maxamillion Polo

Arlo Parks - Collapsed in Sunbeams

As with all prodigal talents, so much of Arlo Parks success seems predestined in retrospect, but whatever the mercenary media narratives, it cannot be overstated what a brilliant talent Parks is: a vocalist with that envious tonality to stand out even when played at a noisy distance, an artist statuesque with grace and style, a deliberate and thoughtful songwriter despite this being her debut effort. All of this manifests with striking beauty on Collapsed in Sunbeams.  Whether backdropped against plucky and lonely guitars or a pulsing drum rhythm and organs, Parks coaxes tracks together into a moment of pop luminance; Collapsed in Sunbeams is relatable, replayable, and a window into the future of stardom.   - DJ Connor

Men I Trust - Untourable Album

Untourable Album is a project informed, at least partially, by the ongoing pandemic. Written with no expectations of being able to play the majority of the album's 13 tracks live, Canadian jazz pop group Men I Trust tackled the 2021 offering with a marked abandon, relishing in the freedom of creation without external attachments or pressure. The result is an emotionally and sonically expansive body of songs carried by distant whispers and sprawling, light-as-air instrumentation. Akin to floating through a waking dream, Untrouable Album is a wistful, hazy demonstration of what happens when you truly let a band exist and create freely.   - Maxamillion Polo

KennyHoopla, Travis Barker - Survivors Guilt: The Mixtape

With Travis Barker at his side, the Cleveland-born, Wisconsin-based breakout punk artist continues to incorporate indie-rock, trap, and emo in their eight-track mixtape Survivors Guilt. KennyHoopla’s signature sound is played up even more with catchy riffs and rapid-fire drums. Right from the opening, the record has Barker's fingerprints all over it, the exuberant riffs and pounding beats of pained opener “silence is also an answer” hitting hard alongside Hoopla’s soul-bearing vocal. Tracks like, “hollywood sucks,” “estella” and “turn back time” practically explode, instantly erupting into massive arena-filling anthems.   - Ally Rincón

Clairo - Sling

Following the release of Immunity, Clairo's lauded debut album, it felt like the Gen Z indie pop star had little to prove. She had turned what many proclaimed to be a one-hit, internet-bred wonder into the foundation of a critically-acclaimed discography, spun together by nostalgic indie rock and genuinely heartfelt songwriting. And with Sling, Clairo doubled down on her newfound timeless indie icon status, evoking the tender chill of upstate New York in Fall. A poignant collection of minimalistic production and generation-spanning songwriting, Sling sees Clairo at her most refined and self-assured in her idiosyncratic vision.   - Maxamillion Polo  

WILLOW - lately I feel EVERYTHING

Willow embraces the noisy alternative rock that flows through her blood on lately I feel EVERYTHING. On the 26-minute-spanning record, she pivots to guitar with a flair that demonstrates an authentic love for the genre, bobbing and weaving through pop-punk, nu-metal, and grunge. The Travis Barker-assisted “transparent soul” and “Gaslight” see Willow relish in pop-punk's resurgence, but the album as a whole aims to breaks out of those confines and dismiss any premature genre-boxing expectations. Willow exemplifies her newfound musical persona with an infectious spirit, her vocals perfectly bratty and mature.   - Ally Rincón

Baby Keem - The Melodic Blue

Few records this year were anticipated quite like Baby Keem's sophomore effort,  The Melodic Blue. In the two years that have passed since 2019's genre-pushing Die For My Bitch, the 21-year-old rising star has gone from hip-hop's hidden gem to one of the genre's most prolific titans. The Melodic Blue  sees the California rapper picking up right where he left off, juxtaposing his iconoclastic style and infectious humor with tender moments of vulnerability. From the triumphant horns of instant-classic "family ties," to the unprotected and minimalistic candor of tracks like "issues" and "scars," Keem holds nothing back. Whether he and his cousin Kendrick Lamar are trading over-enunciated and cryptic bars on ominous Cardo-produced mixes or comparing his girl to a Prada bag, Keem is a shining example of hip-hop's dazzling future.   - Carter Fife

Aries - Believe in Me, Who Believes in You

Aries'  music is rooted in nostalgia, and on his sophomore album Believe in Me, Who Believes in You that sentiment comes to life stronger and better than ever. Whether it be reminiscing on exes, calling forth '90s-evoking points of inspiration, or revisiting childhood memories, this is a project rooted in the past but not constrained by it. For every piece of crystalline wistfulness exists an opposing sense of optimism for what's to come next. A dizzying amalgamation of sun-soaked alternative, emo rap, anti-pop, all pieced together by sentimental bout of forward-thinking nostalgia, Aries makes his way through every moment of Believe in Me, Who Believes in You like it might be his last.   - Maxamillion Polo

Still Woozy - If This Isn't Nice, I Don't Know What Is

After years of hypnotic and hazy indie-pop bangers, this year saw the release of Still Woozy's long-awaited debut album, and it could not have come at a better time. The futuristic collection of exuberant and left-leaning tracks weave between Still Woozy’s ruminations on romantic frustrations and his own internal struggles with self-doubt and emotional claustrophobia. In Still Woozy’s own way, he’s been trapped inside long before anybody knew what Coronavirus was, but with If This Isn't Nice, I Don't Know What Is, he  allows listeners to get lost in his own multi-layered radiance. With a rare sincerity and irreplicable sound, If This Isn't Nice, I Don't Know What Is stands as one of the year’s most intoxicating and unique offerings.   - Carter Fife

BROCKHAMPTON - Roadrunner: New Light Machine

Following the Saturation era, which transformed BROCKHAMPTON from a tight-knit group of Kanye stans to a blueprint for the modern-day hip-hop collective, each succeeding project from the collective has seen them reinventing themselves. Sugar served as the band's arguable breakup album, coming to terms with the fallout of losing a member and having to scrap the majority of their major label debut, while Roadrunner: New Light Machine sees BROCKHAMPTON revisiting the initial moment of heartbreak to deliver an album that plays out like a cathartic bout of weighted optimism. Triumphant yet trepidatious.   - Maxamillion Polo

Remi Wolf - Juno

Few artists dive into their eccentric self with such vim and earnestness that it deploys into a joyful vortex that pulls even the most preoccupied under their spell. But that is the case for Remi Wolf, whose album Juno is a hand-locked conversation of confidence with your best self that occurs seconds before jumping into the existential surf below. The gloss of irreverence that Wolf applies to her lyrics is felt throughout, all while being perfumed by a blossom of shuffling tempos and influences that seed the listener with nothing but hope for the weirdo class. Long may Remi reign as their queen.   - DJ Connor

Turnstile - Glow On

Glow On is an urgent and unrelenting body of work that explores the feeling of longing to break out of the quiet chaos of routine. This intense, formidable energy soaks through tracks like "Humanoid/Shake It Up," a fleeting, two-part adrenaline rush likely about quarantine. "Underwater Boi," which is also Glow On's longest song at three minutes, still uses hefty distortion, but opts for clean, resonant tones. Meanwhile on "Alien Love Call," Turnstile adapt their sound to accommodate an unexpected yet fitting cameo from Blood Orange's Dev Hynes. It's an ambitious album that pushes the envelope of expectation for this hardcore band.   - Ally Rincón

Rejjie Snow - Baw Baw Black Sheep

Irish rapper Rejjie Snow is equally interested in creating music as he is in creating moments. Citing influences as disparate as Charles Bukowski and George Michael, the underground hip-hop icon moves through Baw Baw Black Sheep with equal parts candor, humor, and unrelenting lyrical prowess. Whether trading soulful spitfire bars with longtime collaborator Cam Obi as police sirens and spoken word coalesce in the background or soaring effortlessly alongside MF Doom on one of the departed rapper's last works, Snow proves himself time and time again as more than capable of carrying the torch for hip-hop's underground or genre-bending future.  -Maxamillion Polo

girl in red - if I could make it go quiet

On her debut album, if i could make it go quiet, girl in red elevates her  lo-fi roots to create a shimmering sonic space that doesn't sacrifice the intimacy of her humble beginnings. There’s a sense of inclusive affirmation throughout the record as she captures adolescence's wild beauty and opposing confusion and grief. "I cannot live like this no more," she blares at the climax of "Body And Mind," embodying the intensity of these emotions, while on the gentler, piano-led "Apartment 402," she reflects the bleakness of depression. On "hornylovesickmess," she sings about seeing her face on a billboard in Times Square, in awe of her accomplishment. And if this album says anything about her talent, it’s certainly not her last billboard to come.   - Ally Rincón

Olivia Rodrigo - Sour

No album solidified pop-punk's eternal reign quite like Olivia Rodrigo's breakout debut album. Hot Topic-draped nostalgia seamlessly intermingles with time-honored sentiments of teenage anguish and heartbreak to create an intoxicating cocktail of cathartic highs and lows. All of this is carried by Rodrigo's impressive star power, which evokes both an air of inconsolable girl next door and voted most likely to cut your tires in the school parking lot. Sour is an album likely to define not just 2021 but an era of music to come; thankfully, it's also one of the best trendsetting projects of recent memory.   - Maxamillion Polo

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