2020 was, objectively, a bad year. For me, 2021 has been an indistinguishable blur. Lest we forget the treasonous U.S. Capitol attack or the train wreck that was Season 25 of “The Bachelor,” Hurricane Ida, Pete Davidson’s alleged fling with Kim Kardashian, and of course, a new COVID-19 variant. (Thanks, Omicron.) And that’s merely scratching the surface. One of the few things that carried me through this never-ending series of unfortunate events is music.
Sonically, 2020 is hard to beat. Pop goddess Victoria Monét released her underrated “Jaguar,” and Chloe x Halle’s sophomore album “Ungodly Hour” dropped on my birthday. Bad Bunny released not one, but two pandemic albums — “YHLQMDLG” and “LAS QUE NO IBAN A SALIR” — and Kali Uchis’ ethereal “Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios)” got me in my feelings. Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” helped me channel my inner disco diva, and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Good News” debuted at #1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. Flo Milli’s “Ho, why is you here?” coupled with Rico Nasty’s “Nightmare Vacation” solidified their presence as the next hard-hitters in rap.
Those projects are merely a snippet of the incredible albums that came out last year, and this list (i.e. an amalgamation of opinions from HuffPost’s culture desk) is no different. While no end-of-year roundup can truly encapsulate the breadth of wonderful releases this year, these albums were the ones that were indubitably no-skips. I can listen to them when I’m in a good mood, bad mood, sad mood, glad mood — you name it — all the way through and back. Despite the fact that my Spotify Unwrapped revealed that I am a true dance pop gal at heart, here’s hoping this list introduces you to some talented rising and seasoned artists. Enjoy!
Tems, “If Orange Was A Place”
For some, your first introduction to Temilade Openiyi, known by her stage name “Tems,” was through Wizkid’s single of the summer, “Essence.” (And I’m sorry to break it to you, that wasn’t even the best song off Wizkid’s “Made in Lagos.”) Or, you realized Tems is the truth when you heard her feature on “Fountains” from Drake’s sixth studio album, “Certified Lover Boy.” Fortunately, I got to see her perform live at Afropunk Atlanta in September, singing hits from her 2020 album “For Broken Ears” and more. Albeit an EP, “If Orange Was A Place” transported me. Almost like a journey through Tems’ mind, the five-track extended play explores love and longing, juxtaposed with the sort of groove and funk only Afrobeats can evoke. After the year she’s had, it’d be remiss not to have Tems on this list. — Ruth Etiesit Samuel
For the past month, I’ve been listening to Adele’s latest album on repeat. Some days, my favorite track is the moody tribute to her son “My Little Love.” Other days, it’s “Woman Like Me,” a song I’ve dedicated to all my past loves, unrequited and all. I’ve been a fan of Adele since her “Chasing Pavements” era, and while the singer-songwriter has always gone deeply personal in her tracks, I feel like I know her now more than ever. And weirdly, through her lyrics alone, I feel like she knows me too. — Erin E. Evans
Jazmine Sullivan, “Heaux Tales”
I won’t publicly say exactly which of these songs was my top-played song on my Spotify Wrapped list. But if you know “Heaux Tales,” you know. Now I do have one minor complaint about Sullivan’s long-awaited return to music: I needed like five more songs in place of the six interludes. But Sullivan, who last released an album with 2015′s “Reality Show,” otherwise served up everything her fans needed with this sexy and soulful 14-track EP. “Bodies,” “Pick Up Your Feelings” and “Lost One” are still in rotation, and her songs are a perfect complement to my Adele fixation. — Erin E. Evans
Doja Cat, “Planet Her”
Doja Cat gives me everything I need in an artist. She’s talented — she sings, raps and performs like no other — and she is drop-dead gorgeous while being quirky and relatable online. In 2019, I was obsessed with “Hot Pink,” her second studio album, and streamed it well into 2020. With “Planet Her,” we get more bops from the 26-year-old artist like “Need to Know,” “Get Into It (Yuh),” “Woman” and “Kiss Me More” featuring SZA. The 14-track album is something I put on when I need a little pep in my step and need to power through yet another task on my to-do list. So thanks, Doja, for helping me be productive in this hellscape of a year. — Erin E. Evans
If you know me, you know I can and will unabashedly go on about Yebba for hours. A preacher’s kid from West Memphis, Arkansas, who draws inspiration from Aretha Franklin and the Clark Sisters, her voice is simply ordained. Born Abbey Smith, the 26-year-old singer captivated my attention in 2017, when I heard her voice on Sam Smith’s “No Peace.” I went down a rabbit hole and was mesmerized by her endless riffs and runs, notably her chilling Sofar Sounds performance. Her debut single, “Evergreen,” consistently ranks in my Top 5 Spotify songs yearly. After years of fans waiting, countless collaborations with Mark Ronson, PJ Morton, Lucky Daye, and a Grammy already under her belt, she released her debut album “Dawn” on Sept. 10, honoring her late mother. From “Boomerang” to “Love Came Down” to “Distance” and every track in between, Yebba’s album is such a testament to the healing process and all of the messy, beautiful parts of it. — Ruth Etiesit Samuel
NAO, “And Then Life Was Beautiful”
British R&B/urban contemporary singer NAO is one of my all-time favorite vocalists. I saw her in concert at Afropunk Brooklyn 2019, and watching her perform “Bad Blood” and “Drive and Disconnect” (i.e. my top-played song this year) was a spiritual experience, to say the least. Thanks to Spotify Radio, my first introduction to NAO was through her second studio album “Saturn” (2018), which explores themes of young adulthood in the context of the Saturn Return. The 33-year-old from Nottingham describes her sound as “wonky funk,” and has a range like no other. (No, she doesn’t use autotune; that is her real voice.) Her third album, “And Then Life Was Beautiful,” comes after the birth of her daughter amid the pandemic; her breakout track “Antidote (feat. Adekunle Gold)” was written as a “remedy to these times.” As the name suggests, the album is about making it out the other side — the other side of friendships we’ve grown out of (“Better Friend”), perpetual exhaustion (“Burn Out”), and much more. From the amazing featured artists, such as Lianne La Havas and Lucky Daye, to her hypnotic voice, NAO’s ”And Then Life Was Beautiful” is easily a 10/10. — Ruth Etiesit Samuel
Lil’ Nas X, “Montero”
Genre-bending Lil’ Nas X came on the scene as what some would call a “meme-rapper” with “Old Town Road.” As a legitimate country fan, proponent of The Black Yeehaw Agenda, and fellow Black Georgian, I had no choice but to support him. His evolution since April 2019 has been remarkable, from Southern cowboy to eye-catching style provocateur and a stan-turned-marketing savant. The thing is, Lil’ Nas X has always contained multitudes.
His “7” EP merely foreshadowed his long-awaited chart-topping debut album, “Montero,” largely produced by the duo Take A Daytrip. The album, he said, was therapeutic. To me, it sounded like a letter not only to folks who’ve grappled with self-worth, but a letter to himself, chronicling the ride he’s been on professionally, dealing with grifters in “DEAD RIGHT NOW,” and personally, grappling with sexuality in “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” and earnest pleas for love in “THAT’S WHAT I WANT.” And of course, no Lil’ Nas X project would be complete without tracks shutting up the naysayers and reaffirming his bad bitch attitude, like my personal favorites “SCOOP (feat. Doja Cat),” “DOLLAR SIGN SLIME (feat. Megan Thee Stallion),” and “INDUSTRY BABY (feat. Jack Harlow).” Apart from the fluff and gimmicks, this album, to me, is an anthem about forgiving oneself, finding purpose, and immense growth. In conclusion, that’s my man, and I’mma stick beside him. — Ruth Etiesit Samuel
Olivia Rodrigo, “SOUR”
I’m not sure what this young woman puts in her music, but wow. Maybe it’s the teen angst, the forthcoming pop-punk revival I’ve been yearning for, or the annoyingly spot-on TikTok algorithm, but Olivia Rodrigo’s “SOUR” is a masterpiece. To be frank, initially, I was very unmoved by “driver’s license” and the drama that followed. (Not sure anything tops the ostensible feud between Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez during Disney Channel’s golden era…) However, when Rodrigo released “deja vu” in May, my heart shattered into a million little pieces for this girl ―and my younger self. “I made the jokes / you tell to her / when she’s with you / do you get deja vu / when she’s with you.” Bars, I tell you. From “brutal” to “traitor,” “good 4 u,” and “favorite crime,” Daniel Nigro and Olivia Rodrigo are an unbeatable songwriting combination. The way Rodrigo articulates her unadulterated emotions as a teen is something so admirable to me, something I wish I had more space to do as a Black girl growing up. (It’s why I love Rico Nasty today, honestly.) I’m so excited for Rodrigo’s reign in music. — Ruth Etiesit Samuel
Kacey Musgraves, “Star-Crossed”
Oh, Miss Spacey Kacey. You have come such a long way from “Same Trailer Different Park” in 2013. Just when I thought she couldn’t top “Pageant Material” or “Golden Hour,” top-tier storyteller Musgraves has done it again. In the words of Adele, this album is about “Divorce, babes. Divorce.” During the 47 minutes and 32 seconds of “Star-Crossed,” Musgraves takes listeners on a mostly acoustic journey (which I absolutely love) through her mind as she grapples with emotions of marriage and her recent divorce. Although Musgraves and I are in two completely different phases of life, her album is an all-too-relatable anthem for women who know they deserve better, need space to feel all the feels, and see that under its shiny veneer, love requires equally committed people to make a partnership work. While “breadwinner” is a cheeky little bop that TikTok forcibly implanted in my brain, “good wife,” “justified,” “cherry blossom,” and “what doesn’t kill me” are my personal favorite tracks. Though “Star-Crossed” was rejected for Country Album of the Year eligibility at the Grammys (*rolls eyes*), I’m keen on seeing the other accolades Miss Musgraves will inevitably rack up, thanks to “Star-Crossed.” – Ruth Etiesit Samuel