Here at XPN, the common thread among the albums we were excited about in 2021 is uncommonality. When the on-air and digital staff was polled about their favorite music of the past 12 months, with a couple notable exceptions — The War on Drugs, Japanese Breakfast — there wasn’t a ton overlap. This speaks to the broad range of outstanding music released this year, but also to the spirit in which it was released.

In this list below, you’ll read about pandemic albums and long-in-the-works-pre-pandemic albums. You’ll read about artists who threw rigid genre constraints out the window to define themselves on their own terms, not through anyone else’s lens, and you’ll read about artists who fully immersed themselves within their genre of choice, refining and perfecting classic forms. You’ll read about storytellers, emotion-sharers, and uninhibited creative spirits doing the unexpected.

18 months of forced down time gave everyone a lot of space to think and the state of the world gave us a lot to think about. These 26 albums each take a unique approach to relating those ruminations, and in the process telling the tale of 2021.

Anika Pyle — Wild River

Anika Pyle’s first solo album is a beautiful and vulnerable collection of songs dealing with loss, insecurity and finding your path. The punk-rooted singer-songwriter from Philly shapes her thoughts like soliloquies that mix music and spoken word poetry; Pyle mourns her father, recalls times of insecurities as well as times of sitting with her friends and simply enjoying their company. This is told through small moments – driving along a highway, practicing a difficult conversation in the mirror, recalling her last dinner with her father which seemed like it would be like any other meal with him. The realization revealed in the song “Haiku for Everything You Loved and Miss,” is like a tough piece of advice given by a concerned friend: “Everything you loved and miss / Will never be the same / As it was when you loved it.” – Maureen Walsh, The Key

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Another Michael — New Music and Big Pop

The young Philadelphia band keeps refining their blend of indie pop and chamber folk, now more confident and accessible than ever on their debut full-length. Stirring melodies from singer Michael Doherty balance with stylish performances by core band members Alenni Davis and Nick Sebastiano, packed in tight arrangements that bring surprises around every turn — like the gang vocals that finish “Row,” the synthesizer bubbles that swirl around “Hone.” Lyrics run from homely (“I’m drinking coffee in the basement”) to expansive, contemplating whole lifetimes, with feet still planted on the ground (“Will you look back when you’re seventy-five?”). Spring and fall, the humble sense of wonder in New Music and Big Pop keeps pulling me back in. – Thomas Hagen, The Key

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Arlo Parks — Collapsed In Sunbeams  

Singer-songwriter and poet Arlo Parks, WXPN’s Artist To Watch in December 2020, released her remarkable Collapsed In Sunbeams album in January of this year. Parks’ star began to shine, though, in 2018, when her debut single “Cola” married subtle and infectious R&B grooves with a confessional singer-songwriter style. Parks doubled down on her debut album, a collection of songs fully deserving of the critical acclaim, and the 2021 prestigious Mercury Prize she received. Songs like “Black Dog, “Hurt,” “Green Eyes,” and “Caroline,” cover subjects including sexuality, alienation, and mental health, yet embedded within the lyrics is a sense of optimism. In October, at her sold-out Philadelphia debut at The Foundry, Parks performed what XPN’s John Vettese called a “transformative set,” of songs “moving and empathetic, but also radiant and uplifting.” Looking for your next favorite new singer-songwriter? If you’re not familiar with her, dig into Arlo Parks’ Collapsed In Sunbeams. – Bruce Warren, XPN Program Director 

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Beach Fuzz — Losing Touch

The Philadelphia-based collective Beach Fuzz released their fourth studio EP Losing Touch at the end of Summer 2021, complimenting their Spring EP Holding On. The band takes the listener through the seasonal transition with relatable songs that reflect on the shorter days, uncertainty of things to come, and the self-doubt in overthinking, played over the band’s refined psych-rock sound. The introspection is met with guitar-driven synth pop that will remind you that a good antidote to racing thoughts is indie music. – Dylan Eddinger, The Key

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Cassandra Jenkins — An Overview on Phenomenal Nature

New York-based artist Cassandra Jenkins has been a professional musician for much of her life, touring with her parents by the age of 12 and later playing alongside Eleanor Friedberger, Craig Finn and David Berman as part of his final project, Purple Mountains. Her Josh Kaufman-produced solo release, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, is an exercise in strength and beauty. Its quiet and relaxing sound can be deceiving; these songs are not a distraction, they are Jenkins over-and-over again facing loss, pain and uncertainty head-on, fighting back with a love and compassion that ceases to waiver throughout the album’s 32 minutes. The album’s finest moments follow no pattern, they range from her heartfelt ruminations on Berman’s death in “New Bikini” and “Ambiguous Norway,” to the spoken-word masterpiece “Hard Drive,” where Jenkins expertly crafts scenes from her life to depict the process of self-healing. The 7-minute instrumental, “The Ramble,” featuring saxophonist Doug Weiselman, closes the record like a bath of peace and acceptance. With An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, Jenkins gives us a set of songs that transcends its subjects and sound, she gives us a document that invites us all to overcome our troubles together, so long as we leave room for grace. – Julian Booker, Sleepy Hollow

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Doja Cat — Planet Her

Doja Cat’s Planet Her proves once and for all that the “sophomore slump” is a weightless myth. Released in June 2021, the album is 100%, prime cut Doja: a simultaneously dorky, sexy and brilliant swirl of chaotic neutral prowess. All of which carries dutifully through her transmorphing vocals, tracks with pulsing merengue melodies or sparkling synths paired with airy, sing-songy vibes, or provoking, bass-punching dance tracks like it’s nothing. Very few artists can create an album that tells us everything about ourselves and airs out our exes too. Because after all, don’t we all deserve “Ain’t Shit,” the long awaited update to TLC’s “No Scrubs”? – Megan Matuzak, The Key

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Emma-Jean Thackray — Yellow

Full of beautiful arrangements and a bold, utopian spirit, in another lifetime, Emma-Jean Thackray’s Yellow would’ve fit perfectly alongside 70s jazz-funk epics like Donald Byrd’s Places And Spaces or Roy Ayers’ Mystic Voyage. As one of the leading lights of London’s contemporary jazz scene, Thackray’s gifts as a bandleader shine particularly bright on cuts like “Venus” and the smooth jazz / house fusion, “Say Something.” – John Morrison, Culture Cypher Radio

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Hand Habits — Fun House

The third record from Hand Habits shows songwriter Meg Duffy pushing their writing further than it’s ever been. On Fun House, they tackle themes of growth, loss, and friendship set to veritable dance anthems on tracks like “Aquamarine” and slower, more characteristic Hand Habits tunes that make use of musical tensions like “The Answer.” While Duffy insists Fun House is not a “quarantine record” — but which album this year truly isn’t? — the record does reflect on a period of isolation. Fortunately for Duffy and Hand Habits fans, their quarantine bubble included fellow songwriter and producer Sasami Ashworth and engineer Kyle Thomas, who contributed immeasurably to the new sound. Hand Habits’ 2022 tour with collaborator Perfume Genius will be an absolute don’t-miss. – Paige Walter, The Key

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Illuminati Hotties — Let Me Do One More

A few years ago, while recording her band illuminati hotties for an in-studio session, bandleader Sarah Tudzin came into the control room to check out the equipment. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill geeking out over a high-end mixing console and assorted preamps; our gear had the honor of being sized up by one of the most inventive producers in music today. All of Tudzin’s sonic tricks are on display on Let Me Do One More, from rollicking acoustic ballads to blistering noise punk. Big Thief’s Buck Meek and Great Grandpa’s Alex Menne make guest appearances, but it’s Tudzin’s conversational (and often darkly humorous) lyrics that steal the show. Already hard at work recording and producing other artists (including work with Philadelphia’s Kississippi), Let Me Do One More stands as Tudzin’s latest victory lap. – Eric Schuman, Indie Rock Hit Parade

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Japanese Breakfast — Jubilee

Michelle Zauner had maybe the most explosive year of any artist, releasing her third studio album under the name Japanese Breakfast, an original soundtrack for the game Sable, and her debut memoir Crying in H Mart. It’s no surprise, then, that Jubilee is all about joy, in all its shapes and forms. With the single “Be Sweet,” Zauner proved her place as a pop artist, while songs like “Posing In Bondage” and “Slide Tackle” set her apart with a level of production that is great to just bliss out to. It’s an album perfect for the big party, or for big headphones. – Sam Kesler, The Key

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Jimbo Mathus & Andrew Bird — These 13

Andrew Bird and Jimbo Mathus return to their roots, and each other, with These 13. This collaborative album, released in March, delicately reflects the hardships of the previous year while creating something joyous and hopeful. Consisting mostly of the two voices, Bird’s fiddle, and Mathus’ guitar, These 13 finds that perfect mysterious area between folk and soul that packs the biggest punch. – Ian Zolitor, WXPN Folk Show

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Kacey Musgraves — Star-Crossed

Kacey Musgraves gives a delicate and honest depiction of how it feels to leave a relationship when you aren’t ready to. A lot of Star-Crossed is about the dichotomy of wanting things to end at the same time as fearing that end, and the uncertainty of who you are when all is finally said and done. Stand-out tracks like “good wife” and “justified” play through the full spectrum of a breakup and confront the back and forth reality of how it feels to heal. It’s not a linear process – and Musgraves lets you know that it’s okay to take ten steps forward right after taking five steps back. The production on this album is also telling of her maturation as an artist. It’s a pop-infused, synthesized take on all the delicate and shimmering moments that made me fall in love with Golden Hour.Emily Herbein, The Key

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Little Simz — Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

The perfect example of an artist building on past excellence, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert finds Little Simz delivering an album that exceeds even the loftiest of expectations. An already extraordinary lyricist, the London MC to the next level on songs like “Introvert” and “Rollin’ Stone.” She digs deep into the emotional bag on the soulful “I Love You / I Hate You” and “Little Q Pt.2.” Simz even gets to play more with her vocals on the bouncy Afrobeat-inspired “Point and Kill” and the 80’s dance vibes of “Protect My Energy.” With amazing production from Inflo, who recently worked with Michael Kiwanuka and Adele, Simz may have found the perfect sonic compliment to her master class emceeing. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert delivers in every area you’d want and more. – Josh Leidy, The Key

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Low — Hey What

An incredibly great listening experience, the 13th studio album from Minnesota duo Low kind of (sorta) reminds me of My Bloody Valentine’s classic Loveless in that all the noise combines with the beauty of the melody. You hear something different every time you listen. Alan Sparhawk is always good, but he’s outdone himself on this one. – Dan Reed, XPN Music Director

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Lucy Dacus — Home Video

Richmond native Lucy Dacus dropped her third album, Home Video, back in June, which was truly a delight. Her songwriting, focused on friendships and relationships in her most formative years, makes it easy to relate to the songs no matter what age you are. As a whole, the record gives off comforting, cozy vibes that warm your heart, even if it gives you a gut punch right in the feels: take the crushing story of a deadbeat dad “Thumbs” for example, or the way clothes in a dryer or dishes in the sink can break your heart on “Please Stay.” It’s those little details that Lucy writes about that make this album shine. There are parts of Home Video that also feel like a boygenius reunion of sorts, thanks to Julien Baker’s and Phoebe Bridgers’ backing vocals — notably on “Going Going Gone,” which also features Mitski, fellow Richmonder Deau Eyes, and her bandmates for a true family affair.  – Meghin Moore, The Key

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McKinley Dixon — For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her

When Richmond hip-hop artist McKinley Dixon spoke with The Key’s Meghin Moore earlier this year, he reflected on the narrow stylistic lane rap music often gets run into, as opposed to what it actually is: a broad and vibrant confluence of every other lane imaginable, jazz to gospel to punk. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that he’d release an album as sonically adventurous as For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her — where cascading harp and airy flute intertwine on the sublime “Mama’s Home,” where a hammering koto melody lends a gripping tension to “Make A Poet Black,” where “Never Will Know” dances between a funky horn-assisted groove to a string interlude to a soul keyboard breakdown in 20 seconds flat. It also fits that Dixon released this in 2021; between For My Mama and Little Simz’ orchestral opus Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, it seems like this year trying to show us exactly how gorgeous hip-hop can sound. But feeling is equally important, and Dixon uses his third LP to spit vulnerable rhymes about self-doubt and pain, long-lost friends and creative insecurities, about the crushing weight of living a racist society; but he also gets inspirational, lyrically delving into philosophies and concepts of Afrofuturism, from time travel to using the tools around you to build a world you want to see. On his Bandcamp page, Dixon writes “The best way to sum up this album is: I was sad, I was mad, and now I’m alive,” and you can feel every ounce of that in this masterful work. – John Vettese, The Key

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MESH — self-titled

To say that the songs on Mesh’s self-titled debut are infectiously catchy is an understatement. I’ve literally had “Company Jeep” stuck in my head ever since it was first released as a solo demo by frontperson Sims Harden more than two years ago. The full band on the recording transforms what were already stellar tracks into transformative ones, expertly mashing together the plain-as-day influences of Devo, Dow Jones and the Industrials, and Buzzcocks to create a whole new beast. Mesh has been one of the bright spots in an otherwise dismal year. I am better off for the existence of this band and you can be too! Listen online or pick up a copy of their tape at Silk City on the 2nd when they play the Rid of Me record release party. – Yoni Kroll, The Key

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Nothing But Thieves — Moral Panic (The Complete Edition)

At the intersection of Muse and Radiohead you will find Nothing But Thieves. For the life of me, I don’t know why this band hasn’t exploded in the US. They are legends back home in the UK. If you get the opportunity to see them, do it. There is no “press play” here. Nothing But Thieves are powerful musicians and their frontman Conor Mason has a voice that can go from a vicious attack to a lullaby in seconds flat. The album is the result of COVID isolation, crumbling government, and the slow steady rise of the machines. It’s thought provoking and loud – just like I like it. – Wendy Rollins, XPN weekend host

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Rosali — No Medium  

Rosali Middleman is sorting out some heavy feelings throughout No Medium. Reflections on the unrequited love; the fruitless efforts to make love continue working; and dealing after the fact with how a relationship can unravel, are just some of the realities laid out earnestly on the country-eyeing fuzz-rock album. The singer-songwriter comes off as tender and forlorn on “Waited All Day,” while maintaining strength and confidence on the massive “Pour Over Ice,” just prior. No Medium feels like it’s lifting a glass to a specific aching, but Middleman keeps good company with the David Nance Group as her backing band filling all orders – especially when booting you out the door on “Whatever Love.” It’s what love does to her. It’s what love does to all of us. – Brian Wilensky, The Key

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Rostam — Changaphobia

Rostam Batmanglij is the kind of musician whose imprint on contemporary music far exceeds his name recognition. I could list his many collaborators but I think that would be a disservice to the artist himself who, with 2021’s Changephobia, does more than enough to solidify himself as an essential artist in his own right. It’s a record that continuously resists too tight a grasp, alternating between raucous jazz interludes and pure pop mastery, but it’s in that slippery, middle ground that Rostam thrives, luxuriating in his own idiosyncrasy. – Sean Fennell, The Key

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Spellling — The Turning Wheel

I’m almost only buying disco vinyl in 2021, but Spellling’s The Turning Wheel LP just arrived on my doorstep today, hand-delivered by a mail carrier who clearly was a greco-roman discus champion in a past incarnation. Despite some dents in the packaging, I’m glad it safely arrived — solemn, soaring, gospel-ian (if I may dare), this record shows not only lead singer-songwriter Chrystia Cabral’s growth as a musician from a technical aspect (the layering, the moments of quiet and reverie, the expansive cinematic chords…it’s all there), this record redefines the goth, the glam, and the baroque as music that can be as empowering as it is evocative. From opening track “Little Deer” through the title track, we are assured that Spellling’s newest offering won’t be just a re-tread of post-witch house darkwave like previous outings; instead we are invited to a party more lush, more socially aware, more pop (gasp!) and by turns, more dangerous. With a voice that’s as innocent as Bjork’s one second, and as cloaked as Nina Simone’s the next, and with lyrics abstractly dissecting war, power, and gatekeeping, The Turning Wheel is the dramatic glam-rock record those of us aged out of chillwave have been clamoring for. There’s a rising movement among Black and Brown women away from traditional boxes they’re confined in — artists like L’Rain, Yatta, Highnoon, Perera Elsewhere, and Lafawndah are marrying goth, RnB, punk, and the chaos of their everyday lives to craft songs with devastating, earth shifting results. With The Turning Wheel, one of the best records I’ve heard in about five years, Spellling is demanding that we continue to listen, that we, as she sings on “Awaken”, “let our hearts surrender, let our hearts transform.” – Alex Smith, The Key

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The Killers — Pressure Machine  

The Killers could have gone back to the formula that made them one of the biggest rock bands in the world. They didn’t. Brandon Flowers had a different vision for Pressure Machine, and the band’s seventh album has an intimate small-town feel. Rather than taking its cues from glitzy Las Vegas, Pressure Machine uses Flowers’ hometown of Nephi, Utah as its muse, telling stories of poverty and addiction, as well as hope. The comparisons to Springsteen’s Nebraska are fair and he’s always been a big influence for Flowers. But also, a nod to Jonathan Rado (of Foxygen) for his help in producing the album and Phoebe Bridgers who makes an appearance on “Runaway Horses.” – Mike Vasilikos, XPN New Music Show

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The War on Drugs — I Don’t Live Here Anymore

It took many studios, many players, many refinements, remixes and re-thinks to create The War On Drugs’ fifth studio album I Don’t Live Here Anymore. But Adam Granduciel ended up with the sound he heard in his head and we are grateful for the three-year effort. As always with WOD, the rock ancestors — be they Bob, Bruce, Petty, Knopfler or Henley — have left their marks.  Out of the spacious layered sonics emerges real drama; I love that nothing is straightforward, certainly not the impressionistic lyrics that are scant on details of Granduciel’s yearning journey.  To me the achievement is in the creation this soaring, completely contemporary, work out of classic rock’s bleached bones.  A winter’s worth of replays awaits. – David Dye, Dave’s World

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The Weather Station — Ignorance

When Tamara Lindeman began The Weather Station, it was a mostly acoustic folk project. Over the course of five albums, her musical ambitions have grown, along with her sound. Ignorance is an expansive, gorgeously lush, sometimes strange, complex album. Layers and layers of sound create an almost overwhelming experience, but Lindeman’s folk lyricism is the anchor. She’s able to connect the tiniest personal detail to grand universal themes and urgent topics like climate change, providing a clarity and intimacy to a world in chaos. – Raina Douris, World Cafe

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Tyler, The Creator — Call Me If You Get Lost

Let me start off by saying “Massa couldn’t catch me, my legs long than a bitch / got too much self-respect, I wash my hands ‘fore I piss,”  might be the one of if not the hardest lines of 2021. Tyler The Creator said that listening to Westside Gunn made him want to rap and after listening to Call Me If You Get Lost, I’m so happy he did, because I’m ready to call it a classic. The lyrics show that Tyler’s wordplay is phenomenal: he has a great ability to tell a story throughout an album, and has a variety of flows for each track kept inside of his traveling suitcases. The production, like his past albums, make space for more collaborations — especially with R&B singers like Brent Faiyaz and Ty Dolla Sign. However what I liked the most about Call Me If You Get Lost is Tyler’s confidence on it. I’m not saying that it’s exactly like Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint, but Tyler the Creator’s confidence matches early 2000 Hov. It’s fueled by the ripe fruits of their labor while being dripped out in a swag their peers can’t purchase. This album is a reminder to the public that not only can Tyler rap, but he probably does it better than your favorite rapper. Definitely hoping he takes home the Grammy for best Rap Album! – Rahman Wortman, XPN Weekend Host

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Yola — Stand For Myself

Coming off four huge nominations (including Best New Artist) at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards and the massive news that she’d be portraying Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the upcoming Elvis biopic directed by Baz Luhrmann, Yola had equally big visions for her sophomore album … but as most of us living through the time of COVID can relate, the pandemic had other plans for her. Rather than packing a Nashville studio full of musicians for jam sessions, she found herself recording mostly alone with socially distanced help from producer Dan Auerbach and co-writers such as Natalie Hemby, Aaron Lee Tasjan, and Joy Oladokun, who helped her finish songs she’d been polishing for years. Her resilience resulted in a record she claims as the best representation of herself as a musician yet, and if the “Great Resignation” is any indication, perhaps the album that best encapsulates the journey many people undertook in 2021: learning how to stand for themselves. – Kristen Kurtis, XPN Morning Show

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