Featuring Adele, Maxo Kream, Snail Mail, and more.

As the pandemic dragged on, as the concert industry slowly roared back to life, as Kanye continued to stage increasingly ridiculous listening parties, we were faced with what seemed like an endless amount of new — and, thankfully, very good — music, spilling onto the various streaming services each day like a snapped water pipe. We've tried to reflect the best of those full-length releases here. Of course, like any year-end rundown, our Best Albums of 2021 is subjective, and the EW music staff was forced to make some extremely tough calls (sorry, Lucy Dacus, Dawn Richard, and Mach-Hommy). After a hearty debate, we selected 10 greats (and a few duds). Read ahead to find out who made the cut.

The Year's Best Albums...

Olivia Rodrigo
Credit: Geffen Records

10. Olivia Rodrigo – Sour

The dear-diary bombshell of "Drivers License" put an entire nation in their feelings — and saturated pop culture so heavily it became an SNL sketch months before Rodrigo herself was even a musical guest on the show. The surprise here wasn't just that the Los Angeles teenager had more volcanic ballads where that came from, but a rowdier streak, too; a pop princess with teeth. Whoever did her dirty — that destroyer of dreams and stealer of once-sacred Billy Joel memories —  he lives with the legends now: immortalized on eviscerating tracks like the mournful, deceptively airy "Traitor" and shuffling "Déjà Vu," and then sweated out on the pogo-ing garage-rock frenzy of "Good 4 U" and "Brutal." Revenge may not fix the hurt, but as dish served Sour, it's delicious. —Leah Greenblatt (Full review)

Weight of the World by Maxo Kream
Credit: RCA Records

9. Maxo Kream – Weight of the World

On his reflective third album, the Houston rapper surpasses standard "mo' money, mo' problems" accounts, setting the tone with the stoic opener "Cripstian'' by summarizing how he truly feels: "…my wins low/'Cause I've been dealin' with these family matters." With a hiatus marred by tragedies, including his brother's murder, one would expect Maxo to hang his head throughout. What follows instead is a pivotal listen that conveys trauma in an assured yet disarming way. —Marcus Jones

Lil Nas X album Montero
Credit: Lil Nas X/Twitter

8. Lil Nas X – Montero

Despite an audacious marketing approach and a proven ability to generate canny, subversive arena jams like "Industry Baby" and "That's What I Want," the young phenom's highly anticipated debut album turned out to be a vulnerable coming-of-age story. Standout tracks like "Tales of Dominica" and "Dead Right Now" exemplify how the chameleonic Nas articulates his lows just as well as his highs, and curated set of features — from Megan Thee Stallion to Elton John — help sell the idea that the pop-rapper is an inspiring agent of change within the industry. —M.J. (Full review)

Lindsey Buckingham by Lindsey Buckingham album cover
Credit: Rhino Records

7. Lindsey Buckingham – Lindsey Buckingham

Naming his first solo LP in a decade after himself might have been Lindsey Buckingham's sly eff-you to his former band Fleetwood Mac, who dropped him in 2018. Yet rather than totally go his own way, the legendary singer-guitarist only dug his heels deeper into the sound the group perfected 45 years ago: crisp, effortlessly gorgeous, crystalline pop chronicling love and all its messiness. No, there's no real risk-taking here; periodically swap out Lindsey's vocals for Stevie's or Christine's, and any one of these 10 tracks would feel right at home on Rumours, Tusk, Mirage, or Tango in the Night. But at a tight, polished, uncannily melodic 36 minutes, the album also has zero fat to trim. Speaking of, is Buckingham not the coolest, most dashing zad-rocker in the biz? (Sorry, Sting.) —Jason Lamphier

READ MORE: Lindsey Buckingham breaks down 10 of his best guitar riffs

Snail Mail – Valentine
Credit: Matador

6. Snail Mail – Valentine

Pulling herself from the wreckage of addiction and a breakup, 22-year-old indie phenom Lindsey Jordan (a.k.a. Snail Mail) offers up her triumphant sophomore album like a bleeding heart. Her wounds are still fresh ("So why'd you wanna erase me?" she wails on the electrifying title track), but she betrays a hard-won wisdom well beyond her years on slick mid-tempo rockers like "Madonna" and the bittersweet, orchestral closer "Mia," in which she announces to an ex, "I love you forever/But I've gotta grow up now." Post-rehab, with so many endless days and lonely nights behind her, Jordan returns revitalized, laser-focused, and even a little frisky — the tongue-in-cheek, Swedish disco­–sampling yacht-rock homage "Forever (Sailing)" is lite-FM perfection. Her catharsis is ours. —J.L.

READ MORE: Snail Mail on Lana Del Rey, Lindsay Lohan, and the album that wrecks her

Adele 30 Album cover

5. Adele – 30

In a world so divided that most citizens can't agree on a shared version of reality, there is Adele: the one human capable of uniting lovers and fighters, cynics and romantics, wine moms and man-cave dads. 30 finds the singer in a post-divorce mood, vacillating between sky-high gospel, bossa nova soul, and silky piano balladry: Album opener "Strangers by Nature," with its harmonic swoons and twinkling strings, could be a Cole Porter outtake from a lost 1930s movie musical; "Cry Your Heart Out" is its own little self-help sock hop, while "Woman Like Me" and "Can I Get It" make killer cases, respectively, for the man she's leaving behind and the one she's walking toward. And in every note of course is That Voice, still shining like the Hope diamond. —L.G. (Full review)

Tyler the Creator Call Me if You Get Lost
Credit: Columbia

4. Tyler the Creator – Call Me if You Get Lost

When his Igor won Best Rap Album in 2020, Tyler rightly called out the Grammys for limiting artists like him to "urban" categories. He's always been a gifted rapper with a liquid rasp and a playfully ferocious lyrical grasp, but Call Me spills over with so much gonzo greatness — sunny soul throwbacks, Zappa-esque instrumental freak-outs — that the word genre sounds like an inside joke. The spacey, shuffling opener "Sir Baudelaire" references both llamas and Osama in a long-run rhyme scheme that truly boggles the mind; "Corso," with its jangling backbeat and casual references to "my other other other other crib"  winks at '90s hip-hop bravado; "Wusyaname" is a shameless summer-sidewalk seduction. But he's grappling with real issues too, in a way that men in popular music of any kind rarely do: Race, class, sexuality, what it actually feels like to be rich for the first time. If you still think this is just rap, you're not listening. —L.G.

Japanese Breakfast
Credit: Peter Ash Lee

3. Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee

The third album from Michelle Zauner's Japanese Breakfast is bursting with flavor — an exhilarating exposition on a life filled with love, loss, and (occasional) lucidity. "How's it feel to be at the center of magic/To linger in tones and words?" she sings on "Paprika," a ferris wheel of an opener about, among other things, the unique mysticism that comes with being an artist. The percussive strings and lulling surf-rock riff of "Kokomo, IN" sees her firmly in the emotional firing line — "These days I can't shake the awful feeling I'm missing something I can't place, is that you?/ Manifesting like the fear of an oven left on" — while "Savage Good Boy" serves as a biting commentary on our darkly comical haves-and-have-nots reality. Throughout it all, Zauner — whose memoir Crying in H Mart also makes EW's Best of 2021 list — injects each tale a uniquely ele­gant lyricism; she isn't singing as much as letting the words and wisdom spill out of her like an overflowing cup. —Alex Suskind

READ MORE: The joy of Japanese Breakfast

The War On Drugs
Credit: Atlantic Records

2. The War on Drugs – I Don't Live Here Anymore

In an era when battered, gritty guitar rock is all but dead, the War on Drugs remain a constant. For 13 years the Philly quintet have stared down that dusty, desolate highway, parting the tumbleweeds and teasing us with the prospect of a destination just beyond the horizon, but never fully delivering on their promise. The rearview mirror looms large; reprieve comes like the occasional rest stop. Luckily, the band refuses to drift into cruise control. In fact, no record in 2021 captured the growing pains of modern adulthood like their fifth album, which honed their tried-and-true formula just enough to keep us gripped. If frontman Adam Granduciel's powerful imagery (falling leaves, pouring rain, snowflakes dancing down empty roads) reflects an existential reckoning, the group's galvanizing melodies and gloriously layered production — a misty swirl of iridescent synthesizers, moody Phil Collins­­-style reverbed drums, and the best gospel chorus of the year — tell another story: Shed the past, let the present wash over you, and the answers may just reveal themselves. —J.L.

READ MORE: The War on Drugs talk making their most collaborative album yet

Best Albums of the Year So Far Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales 
Credit: RCA Records

1. Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales

At the outset of 2021, Philadelphia belter Jazmine Sullivan released Heaux Tales, a manifesto on 21st-century femininity that weaved together testimonies in spoken word and song. Sullivan said she wrote the 14-track EP to give every woman a voice, and she often cedes the floor, as her and some choice guests — including her nu-soul singer-songwriter peers Ari Lennox and H.E.R. — grapple with sex, love, self-worth, and respect, their world-weary humor and biting candor placed over austere arrangements that put the testimonies front and center. It's a powerful listen, and its half-hour length results in its stories hitting even harder.

At times, Heaux Tales combines throwback musical aesthetics and decidedly 2021 vernacular: "Pick Up Your Feelings" is a piano-driven kiss-off where Sullivan flaunts her contralto and her inner strength, the sprawled-out "On It" uses gorgeous vocal interplay between Lennox and Sullivan to drive home a tale of sexual obsession, and the spare H.E.R. collab "Girl Like Me" confronts how the imagery put forth by FashionNova and Instagram help fuel breakup-borne self-image crises. "Lost One," meanwhile, has the visceral vibe of a voice-memo text, from its stream-of-consciousness lyrics to the simple instrumental loop running underneath her wounded wail.

Sullivan has been one of R&B's most compelling truth-tellers since she broke through in the '00s with the defiant "Bust Your Windows." On the compact, thrilling Heaux Tales, she continues to distill deeply felt emotions into spirited, profane, yet nuanced tracks that feel as immediate as a late-night catch-up session with an old friend. The lived experience vibrating through each, whether it's a showcase for Sullivan's pointed songwriting or a first-person recollection of Black womanhood, made Heaux Tales worth digging into over and over as the year dragged on. —Maura Johnston

And the Worst...

Ed Sheeran's = album
Credit: Atlantic

Cringiest Pop Album: Ed Sheeran – =

The paint-­by­-numbers melodies, the cloying
lyrics, the (continued) weaponization of our math­ematics system. For Ed, bad habits = bad music. —Alex Suskind

Pop Smoke's Faith
Credit: Victor Victor Worldwide

Crassest Posthumous Release Cash-In: Pop Smoke – Faith

The late drill star deserved better than this cobbled­ together LP overstuffed with questionable fea­tures (Dua Lipa, anyone?) and bad production. —A.S.

Lorde's Solar Power
Credit: Republic Records

The Album Moonlighting as an Allergy Medicine Ad: Lorde – Solar Power

Lorde's descriptions of the new Lorde album
("a celebration of the natural world!") were, sadly, more interesting than the new Lorde album (sleepy, undercooked). —A.S.

A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's January issue, on newsstands Dec. 17 and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Related content:

Comments have been disabled on this post