Ryan and I started The Minimalists eleven years ago this month, and each year since I’ve catalogued my favorite albums of the past twelve months. While the last couple years have been difficult for most of us, the angst of the pandemic created some, ahem, breakout albums. Here are my nine favorites from 2021.
1. mike., The Highs. I hate to invoke a cliche to start this list, but there’s no better way to say it: this album is a vibe. During lockdown, the musician Michael Francis Seander stumbled into maturity, dropped his frat-boy persona, and rebranded himself as simply Mike (stylized as mike.; formerly Mike Stud) before releasing this genre-less album that became the soundtrack to countless coastal drives. Clocking in at 23 songs, The Highs is a shockingly uncluttered classic—the perfect album to take us out of the lows of the pandemic. Is it hip-hop, pop, country, or R&B? Yes, all of the above, and then some. Favorite lyric: “I’m so close I can taste it / Off to the races / I ain’t got no neighbors / Traded them for acres.”
2. Andrew Belle, Nightshade. The third installment in his trilogy of ethereal gems, Nightshade is composed of ten flawlessly sequenced songs. From the album’s soul-crushing opening line, “I don’t think of you much anymore,” to the reflective breakout single, “My Poor Heart,” to my favorite track, the diaphanous “Numbers,” every song is a delicate reflection on life, loss, and love. Favorite lyric: “You’re learning that everyone in a room is in love with their own tongue / Last night I thought of you / And the color lifted me from the ground / Last night I swallowed you / And there’s a spectrum inside my mouth.” (Note: You can listen to Andrew on The Minimalists Podcast here.)
3. Don Toliver, Life of a Don. A symphony of heavy-mellow mood music. Toliver doesn’t say much on this album, but his songs are so stunningly melodious that he doesn’t need to. Favorite lyric: “Sometimes you’re toxic / I’m through with nonsense / And whatever you call this.”
4. Kayne West, Donda (Deluxe). A staggering portrait of a confused genius re-finding—and refining—himself. Believe it or not, I didn’t enjoy this sonic masterpiece on the first spin, but then I let go of my expectations, and by the time Ye resequenced the album for the deluxe version, I found myself unconsciously returning to Donda almost daily. Favorite lyric: “Hey, Miss Donda / You run into my mama, please tell her I said ‘Say something’ / I’m startin’ to believe ain’t no such thing as Heaven’s trumpets / No after-over, this is it, done / If there’s a Heaven, you would think they’d let ya speak to your son.”
5. Mustafa, When Smoke Rises. This Toronto native is understated, incisive, and gritty on his minimalist, eight-track debut. If Nick Drake recorded an album with Drake it might sound like this urban alt-folk masterwork. Favorite lyric: “If she runs her fingers through my past / She may lose the softness in her hands.”
6. Tory Lanez, Alone at Prom. Indeed, 80s pop music is back in fashion, but with a twist of rhythm and blues. Lanez may be unaccompanied at prom, but he isn’t letting that prevent him from having fun. Favorite lyric: “I left my love at your place today / We’re too young for these incidents / Wore my heart on my sleeve too long / Goin’ through heartbreak won’t be too long.”
7. Sam Outlaw, Popular Mechanics. Much like Tory Lanez (above), Outlaw might have kept this 80s-pop-Americana LP buried for the last four decades. Thankfully, he unlocked the time capsule just before the sun set on 2021. Favorite lyric: “When everything you know / Starts daring you to go / There’s a stirring in your soul / When you feel it.”
8. Mat Kearney, January Flower. Kearney returns with his upbeat, spoken-word, singer-songwriter anthems. While every song on this project adheres to MK’s timeless aesthetic, each record also feels emphatically of the moment. Favorite lyric: “I used to worry about nothing / Said I’d never grow up, and / I fell in love and it was enough until it wasn’t / I used to dream that we could make it / But now I’m working on a paycheck / And the voice on the line says, ‘I’m doing fine’ / Can you tell that I’m faking?” (Note: You can listen to my recent Quarantine Qonversation with Mat here.)
9. Lil Baby, My Turn (Deluxe). Okay, so, this album would be much higher on this list (top three, if not number one), but it was technically released in 2020, and I was late to the listening party. Regardless, once I gave the deluxe edition a chance this spring, this collection of graceful juvenilia stayed in my proverbial tape deck longer than any other album this year, so I couldn’t leave it off the list. After one listen to this melodic-rap triumph, you get a sense that you’re listening to the future of music. As the title suggests, it is indeed Lil Baby’s turn. Favorite lyric: “A love letter came through the mail, it said, ‘I miss you’ / I ripped it up and flushed with the tissue, try to forget you / I ain’t got nothing against you, we human, we all got issues / But I’m tired of being tired of being tired / That part of me done died.”
Honorable Mentions: Adele, Radiohead, Julien Baker, Drake, Brandi Carlile, J. Cole, John Mayer, Baby Keem, Snail Mail, Khalid, Matt Nathanson, Juice WRLD, Foy Vance, Nas, Noah Gundersen, Belly, CVRCHES, Young Thug, William Fitzsimmons, Russ, Ethansroom, Lil Durk, Justin Bieber, A Boogie wit da Hoodie, David Gray, Clever, Joshua Radin, EST Gee, James Vincent McMarrow, NF, DVSN, and Tyler, the Creator.
Listen to the playlist in full on Spotify.
For my favorite albums from past years, visit our blog.