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The Best Albums of 2021

variety top critics list chris willman

With strict quarantine conditions largely over for most people, the time might have seemed right to get out of the house and go dancing in the streets. So why were so many music fans so inclined to leave the door closed — sorry, Silk Sonic — and stay in with our headphones on? Blame it just a little on lingering anti-social paranoia, but blame it a lot on the embarrassment of riches found in albums like the ones Variety‘s critics celebrate in these two top 10 lists, most of which made interior feel like the best possible frame of mind to be and stay in.

Deep introspection was a hallmark of albums at the highest superstar levels, whether it was Adele saying “This is 30” or Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish singing the late-teenage blues. From divorce albums to barely-post-learner’s-permit laments, confessional pop seized the moment. Our no-overlap lists also include some of hip-hop and R&B’s great eccentrics doing what they do best, from Tyler, the Creator deliriously reaching peak freakout to the anonymity-cherishing Inflo having a big and mysterious hand in three of the albums cited (Adele, Little Simz and his own project, Sault). This is a crop that encompasses some of this year’s most exciting Grammy up-and-comers, too, from triple-nominee Allison Russell telling her harrowing but inspirational story to best new artist contenders like Arlo Parks, or the great Brooklyn-Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab, who makes us feel sure we understand every last Urdu-language verse.

Here are Variety‘s picks for the best albums of 2021. (Click here to jump to Chris Willman’s list.)