Members of The Student’s Arts & Leisure staff ranked their top albums, artists and songs from 2021. Below, you’ll find recommendations spanning pop, rap, alternative and beyond to carry you into 2022.
Robby Haynos, Assistant Arts & Leisure Editor:
“The House Is Burning,” Isaiah Rashad
I cried when this album came out. I’m not kidding. Tears of joy. I have been a die-hard fan of Rashad since I was a freshman in high school and heard “Cilvia Demo” for the first time. His music has inspired me, helped me and been incredibly impactful in my life. And I waited five full years for this. For this absolute masterpiece. It did not disappoint whatsoever. I’m not going to say a word about this project, because I don’t want to ruin it for you. Just listen to it. Seriously, just listen to it.
I absolutely love IDK and have for years. I love being from the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia area), and seeing someone come up from the area and make such fantastic music is truly special. This album is hard. It’s hard as f**k. And beneath the aggressive 808s and the incredible flows is IDK’s evaluation of his life and a look at the toxic masculinity that consumes him. He acknowledges his own shortcomings, wishes to be better and evaluates the trauma that leads to his distrust of others.
It’s an incredibly honest look at who IDK, otherwise known as Jason Mills, really is. But it’s also lit as hell. Seriously, it’s so good.
“Red Hand Akimbo,” Paris Texas
Paris Texas is a hip-hop duo. But they’re also not. They rap, sometimes. But they also make music reminiscent of death metal and punk. They’re bursting onto the scene right now, and I recommend you hop on the train. Their two albums this year, “Red Hand Akimbo” and “Boy Anonymous,” aren’t perfect, but they are indicative of a truly special presence in the industry for years to come.
“shut the fuck up talking to me,” Zack Fox
Zack Fox was always a comedian first and a rapper second. Someone who made goofy music that sounded surprisingly good. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, he released this album. To my personal shock, it was really, really good. This album is funny and sounds amazing. This isn’t a deep, philosophical, reflective piece or a commentary on race relations. It’s a fun, goofy time. Go have a great time and listen to this album.
“Vince Staples,” Vince Staples
Just to be clear, the honorable Mr. Staples has never made a bad album. But his albums have never felt, how do I say, completely cohesive. With the exception of “Big Fish Theory,” his albums have never felt like they’re telling me a story but rather they’re sharing a collection of really good music. But, his self-titled project brought his music to a whole new level in my eyes.
You can’t party to this album, but you can do laundry to this album and you can cry to this album — a rare combo that should be cherished. Staples, alongside Kenny Beats, brought a new sound to this project that felt refreshing and incredible.
Lucie Detrick, Contributing Writer:
After being introduced to the vibey artist simply named “ford.” on Spotify over winter break, his music quickly became a regular on my playlist. Whenever I needed a little serotonin pick-me-up or a song I knew would reliably put a smile on my face, this artist came through without fail. Personal favorites include “Bedford Falls,” “Slack,” “Get Lost” and “The Feeling.” If you’re looking for a song to just close your eyes and lose yourself in the vibrations of, these are a perfect sampling.
With strong introductions that immediately have listeners bobbing their heads to the intense string melody, MF DOOM’s rap songs are a beautiful juxtaposition of words, instruments and artificial beats. I’ve recently heard from friends about how talented he is, but I only understood the hype after I was introduced to a few of his songs, which led me to eagerly explore the rest of his music.
After becoming a TikTok phenomenon earlier this year with her song “Go Bestfriend,” $hyfromdatre piqued my interest and led me on a deep dive into her rap. Emanating confidence through her music, $hyfromdatre allows listeners to walk with a bit more pep in their step as we face the world with new confidence from the sounds in our ears. Songs like “Female4vegas” and “Di$$ How You Coming?” offer great sass and storytelling. With a weakness for strong bass sounds with clever lyrics, $hyfromdatre never fails to deliver. They are songs that I would gladly blast for my friends in the car as we head anywhere from the grocery store to the airport.
Having listened to this group since high school, 99 Neighbors offer a thrilling mix of rap and lyrically sung music. A personal favorite is “Fuck No,” which describes the broken relationship between lovers-turned-strangers. Offering a beautiful duet, this song provides both sides to the classic story of a breakup in a new light. Other songs like “Mercy II,” “Bangarang” and “Damage” offer more intense, beat-oriented sounds that draw listeners in with the speed and eloquence that many young listeners crave in a song.
Some Other Stuff
All music listeners enjoy listening to their own music. But if you’re riding in the car with your parents, for example, some complaints might be heard about modern music. An alternative atmosphere that might please both adults and children consists of songs like “If You’re Leaving” by Jadelynn, Caamp’s “Officer of Love,” “Keep ‘Em on They Toes” by Brent Cobb and Katy Kirby’s “Juniper.”
Each of these choices create that feeling you get when you’re driving somewhere in the middle of summer with the windows rolled down. All timeless songs that sew the chasm of music between generations, these non-explicit hits offer a wide range of vibes that should have people dancing along all day.
Anastasia Fowler, Staff Writer:
“Home Video,” Lucy Dacus
In her astonishing third studio album, Dacus reminisces and mourns the past. Dacus, who is also one-third of the Holy Trinity indie rock band known as boygenius alongside Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker, writes and produces tracks that are simultaneously diaristic and poetic.
“Home Video” accomplishes the incredible feat of conveying bittersweet nostalgia in songs like “Hot & Heavy.” A longing for the past is an easy feeling to express in songwriting, but the difficulty of illustrating people’s stirring yet somewhat hesitant relationships with sentimentality is where Dacus truly shines.
The album also explores the inundating cloud of religion hovering over one’s maturation through a collection of intimate letters, thought bubbles and conversations. The results are as heartbreaking as they are hopeful.
In “Christine,” Dacus uses a deeply personal letter to attribute her friend’s low expectations for her partner to a fundamentally Christian mindset of narrowly focusing on the positive aspects of relationships. Dacus’ decision to name the song “Christine” appears deliberate in the name’s similarity to the word “Christian.”
Religious themes are further addressed with poignant intensity in “First Time” as Dacus backs lyrics about her anxiety and guilt over losing her virginity — and therefore her “purity” — with steady drums that pulse like a racing heartbeat.
However, “VBS” is the hard-hitting standout of the album. “VBS,” which stands for “vacation bible school,” is a lens into fear-based teachings meant to indoctrinate and conceal the hypocrisies of religion.
Dacus’ calm voice consistently drives “VBS” and the album as a whole to present a matured woman reflecting on her upbringing with poise, steadiness and an underlying sense of disillusioning clarity. “VBS” ends with her stinging realization in the lines, “You say that I showed you the light / But all it did in the end / Was make the dark feel darker than before.” Her wisdom does not derive from a perfect lifestyle; instead, Dacus’ ability to recognize and take accountability for her own flaws and past mistakes makes her the music industry’s newest wise virtuoso.
“SOUR,” Olivia Rodrigo
While adolescent rage is far from an inventive or rare musical topic, Rodrigo blows it out of the park in “SOUR” and the album’s laser-focus on the insecurities, obsessions and narcissism of Generation Z.
Her debut record’s opening track, “brutal” instantly demands your attention with raucous intensity that undercuts the introduction of a pleasant orchestral sound in a cruel taste of deception. Rodrigo screams, “I want it to be, like, messy,” and, boy, does it get messy. The song captures the teenage angst of Alanis Morissette in a head-banging anthem for anyone who needs to shout and release their insecurities.
The alt-rock pettiness of “brutal” transitions to a piano-driven ballad: “traitor.” Easily the best song on the album, Rodrigo writes, “Loved you at your worst” and sings at her best in this hit’s devastating account of humiliating betrayal. Her voice carries a heavy weight of desperation, almost as if she is on the verge of tears, but it never crosses the line to whiny territory.
The album showcases Rodrigo’s impressive range as both a songwriter and a singer. She belts with firm power like Hayley Williams in Paramore’s smash hit, “Misery Business.” The sonic elements of the album are on par with Rodrigo’s lyrics, thanks to producer and co-writer Dan Nigro and his ability to mix an album with consistently strong and memorable bridges.
Rodrigo’s collection feels simultaneously universal and personal, a recipe curated by her musical idol, Taylor Swift. Rodrigo has a gift for transforming a common occurrence such as obtaining a driver’s license into the monumental precipice of love and heartbreak.
Underlying the explicit narrative of teenage angst is another universal experience: overcoming narcissism. Throughout the album Rodrigo channels the self-absorption that’s especially present in Gen Z as she complains about and indulges in her grievances and preoccupations.
As she embraces her self-centered pain, she embarks on a journey toward clarity with a widened lens beyond herself. The song “hope ur ok” is a promising concluding track; as Rodrigo broadens her horizons to the struggles of the most misfortunate and misunderstood, “hope ur ok” shifts the album from the cynicism and misanthropy of “brutal” and “jealousy, jealousy” to hope and altruism. “SOUR” excites me and gives me hope for the future of mainstream pop in an industry churning out regurgitated superficiality and insipidity.
“Planet Her,” Doja Cat
Doja Cat’s “Planet Her” is an electrifying, otherworldly experience that affirms Doja Cat’s status as the galaxy’s most mesmerizing pop music performer. Her verses are tightly written and undeniably catchy.
The artist’s eye-catching live performances and chaotic personality have blown up on TikTok. Several of the tracks featured on “Planet Her” are the most popular sounds on the app this year. TikTok has been an effective avenue of exposure for this chaotic star, yet a clip of Doja Cat spewing racial slurs in her old music also went viral along with the hashtag #DojaIsOverParty.
“Planet Her” should, however, be legitimized as a top album of 2021. The kaleidoscopic array of tracks demonstrate Doja Cat’s versatility as a singer, rapper, songwriter and producer. She cleverly uses pop culture references, such as her shoutout to Ariana Grande’s trademark sound, “yuh,” in “Get Into It (Yuh).” The album boasts stellar collaborations with Young Thug, The Weeknd, SZA and the “yuh” queen herself, Grande.
Doja Cat writes impressive bars that could simultaneously dazzle her rap idol Nicki Minaj and also show how well she channels her smooth vocals and mastery of R&B in songs like “You Right.” Not only can Doja Cat vocally go toe to toe with The Weeknd, but she also empowers in “Woman,” honors her rap favorite in “Get Into It (Yuh)” and generally presents a strong clarity of self in balancing her humor, sexuality and confidence. Even when she raps, “Really, you ain’t shit, need a laxative” in the vibey “Ain’t Shit,” the artist radiates an aura of dignified self-assurance rather than one of petty immaturity.
With “Planet Her,” Doja Cat establishes herself as one of the idiosyncratic talents capable of transcending genre. This musical chameleon has earned her Grammy nominations, and words cannot describe my anticipation for her next project.
Eben Cook, Contributing Writer:
“Sometimes I Might Be Introvert,” Little Simz
After multiple promising projects from one of the U.K.’s most budding hip-hop artists, Little Simz has delivered what I believe to be her magnum opus. What stands out about this 19-track effort is the versatility that Little Simz displays throughout. Whether it be a track about her tumultuous and damaged relationship with her father or a wholesome love anthem that embodies the sweetness of a mutual companionship, Little Simz strikes a captivating balance between the delivery of dense lyricism through rapping and a buttery dose of R&B singing.
This album exudes a level of talent and prowess that is rare to come by, and I would recommend this album to anyone who listens to hip-hop and R&B and is looking to witness the ascension of a brilliant artist and mind.
“King’s Disease II” Nas
Widely regarded as one of the best emcees to grace the planet, Nas has built a modern-day revival for his illustrious three-decade career. Through the production of Hit-Boy — a widely-recognized producer in the contemporary hip-hop scene — Nas has carried his resilient, inspirational messaging and his mind-bending rhymes into 2021.
His contributions are accompanied by a mix of popular up-and-coming rappers like A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and Blxst, as well as “legacy acts” such as Lauryn Hill and EPMD. Nas has laid the blueprint for how a rapper from as far back as the ’90s can maintain relevance and enthrall audiences of all ages in the current hip-hop landscape.
“CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST,” Tyler, the Creator
Every odd-numbered year in the summer months, one can always rely on a new Tyler, the Creator project rife with innovative production and a glimpse into his life story. This particular album depicts the conflict of falling in love with the partner of a friend. It attempts to capture the well of feelings that come with an unignorable, taboo desire.
What separates this album from the rest of Tyler, the Creator’s discography is his ability to combine the gritty texture of his “rapper voice” that defined his older works with the bubbling synth-heavy production that has been integrated into his most recent efforts. The DJ Drama contributions foster a classic mixtape atmosphere that reassures listeners who disapproved of his direction on “IGOR” that he still has the rapping chops. Consider this album a summery escape from campus’s current brisk, icy conditions.
“If This Isn’t Nice, I Don’t Know What Is,” Still Woozy
Since his 2017 hit song “Goodie Bag,” Still Woozy has made a name for himself through the occasional release of a single that is always met with positive reception. After four years of rinsing and repeating, he has finally delivered a full-length album that operates as a continuation of the sounds and feelings fans can expect out of his music: floaty, dreamy melodies that sit atop groovy basslines and atmospheric synths.
To me, the biggest strength of this project lies in its consistency. It does not stray from the vibe that it introduces at the beginning. If you enjoy one song, you’ll likely love the bulk of the album. Throw this on as you watch a Maine sunset or go for a walk or drive around the area.
“An Evening With Silk Sonic,” Silk Sonic
Some may not have been aware of the Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak collaboration until the official release of this nine-track album. Meanwhile, everyone I know who listened to the lead single, “Leave The Door Open,” was highly anticipating the full-length project. Despite the elevated expectations that come with two of the most skilled musicians of the 21st century, the duo did not fall short of them in the slightest.
The revered vocal range and performance of Bruno Mars, in tandem with the charismatic delivery and otherworldly drumming abilities of Anderson .Paak, come together to offer a modern twist on ‘70s R&B, soul and funk. The concision of the album coupled with the catchiness of the hooks and melodies creates a fun listen for anyone ranging from a mainstream pop consumer to a ‘70s appreciator.