Mama said there’d be decades like this. After the global difficulties that affected pretty much every part of every life in 2020, was 2021 a year of triumph, of progress, of outside? Sorta, maybe and sometimes. Really, it was a year of two steps forward, one-and-a-half steps back, where each advancement was conditional and where every celebration was at least partly premature. Still, after a year of bread-baking, livestreams and despair, most of us took the jump to outdoor dining, vaccinated-only live music and continual mild paranoia in relatively good spirits — a welcome light at the end of the tunnel, even if the actual end of the tunnel was still a ways off.
And the music was certainly made for interesting times. An ascendant class of pop superstars seized the brass ring good and proper this year, while a number of the biggest established names followed up prior blockbusters with challenging sets that generously rewarded fans for meeting them halfway. Meanwhile, the previous year’s lockdown inspired artists to be more collaborative than ever in 2021 — whether they were built entirely remotely over email and voice memos, or recorded all together by a roaring campfire. The real world hasn’t made cultural evolution particularly easy over the past two years, but squint and you can see this decade’s musical identity already starting to take shape.
Here are our 50 favorite albums from this year. Enjoy them responsibly, and maybe this time next year we can afford to be less cautiously optimistic.