Whenever I read a best-of list of music albums published at the end of the year, I often think about how critics decide what to include. Do they focus on the albums that pushed a genre’s boundaries, that encapsulated the year for critics, or something else?
When I was in high school, I was an avid reader of Pitchfork and loved how the popular music blog rated albums on a scale of 0–10. It felt so clean to assign numbers—so black and white.
As I got exposed to more music genres and subcultures in college, I began to feel strongly that the quality of a song or album (and all art, for that matter) is in the eye of the beholder. Trying to assign a definitive number began to feel silly. I went to concerts with bands that I adored but critics didn’t. They were criticized for riffing on old garage rock tropes that weren’t relevant anymore; or maybe they weren’t so good at their instruments, but damn were their live shows fun; or their music meant everything in the world to a small group of people.
So what makes an album worthy of an annual roundup? I’d argue it’s different for everyone at 2A who chose an album for this list. For some of us it was the music that gave us the strength to keep going amid another year of the pandemic. It made us feel cozy at home, or represented our values.
I can’t resist making a marketing metaphor here—at the end of the day, it’s about what matters to the customer.
I hope you give some of these tracks a listen, and that the reasons behind our choices give a tiny window into what matters to each of us.
Emile Mosseri – Minari Soundtrack
Favorite song: Big Country
Emile Mosseri soundtracks have landed in my regular rotation the past couple years, and especially 2021, as the warm and dreamy sounds of Minari were great company while hanging around at 3am with a newborn. – Aaron Wendel
Adele – 30
Favorite song: Easy on Me
This album captures the longing, melancholy an uncertainty of a COVID year. – Laura Templeton
Her music has an ability to pierce the soul and reminds me I can conquer any mountain I face. 30 is a masterpiece in storytelling. – Tammy Monson
Chromeo – Date Night: Chromeo Live!
Favorite song: Don’t Sleep
Electro-funk duo Chromeo has a playful retro style that I’ve enjoyed for years, and their 2019 tour was one of the last live shows I went to before the pandemic shut everything down. Chromeo approached the situation with typical good humor—recording a Quarantine Casanova EP and releasing a “2020 tour” shirt with a blank list of shows on the back, both sending proceeds to support those in need. The release of the live album was another joyful counterpoint to a year-plus of no live shows—delightful to revisit their funky sound boosted by a full backing band. – Thad Allen
Lil Nas X – Montero
Favorite song: That’s What I Want
My favorite album of the year has to be Montero by Lil Nas X. All of the music videos from this album are amazing, and really fully celebrate his Blackness and queerness. It’s been the bright point of my year. My friends and I anticipate and text each other about every new music video drop. He really commands social media well and sets the conversation. – Annie Unruh
Sophia Kennedy – Monsters
Favorite song: Orange Tic Tac
Monsters has 13 unique tracks that take you into the mysterious mind of Sophia Kennedy. The flow of the album is interesting to say the least. Beats Per Minute put it best, “Sophia Kennedy hops between styles on each track as if she’s escaping what’s come prior.” Monsters is an album that I kept revisiting through a year that sometimes had a similar feeling. – Mitchell Thompson
The National – The National (re-release)
Favorite song: American Mary
If nothing else The National’s band-titled album, remastered in 2021, is reminder of just how much this band has grown. Best saved for writers who are editing (not creating), the track list sounds like Bruce Springsteen was run through a country washer and finished off in an indie dryer. “American Mary” is the best song on there, mostly because it carries the sounds of the better band The National became. – Jane Dornemann
Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
Favorite song: Paprika
I’ve dug Japanese Breakfast’s punk-ish earlier releases and love how Jubilee layers funky basslines and gorgeous strings on top of her already stellar songwriting. It’s been fun to see her music explode in popularity this year including late night appearances, her Be Sweet Video for the Sims in Simlish, and of course her bestselling book Crying in H Mart. It’s J Brekkie’s world, we’re just living in it. – Nora Bright
Whitney K – Two Years
Favorite song: Last Night #2
Two Years is the kind of album that makes me want to abandon all responsibilities and travel around the country hopping trains. But I’m definitely not going to do that. I’ll just listen to this album. Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and plenty of country/folk influences ring out on this, scratchy, rambling 10-song LP – Mike Lahoda
Taylor Swift – Red (Taylor’s version)
Favorite song: Babe
Red is perfect to put on while I’m doing work, making dinner, or driving in the car. Something about the updated songs takes me back to years past and is just so good. I can’t help but sing along. – Rachel Adams
Sun June – Somewhere
Favorite song: Singing
Somewhere by Sun June was my 2021 soundtrack for when I wanted to bob my shoulders and focus on the beauty and intimacy of regular life. Even without the words—which are engaging—the music tells a floaty, deep-breath-inducing story. – Abby Breckenridge