Our Music Critics' Picks for Best Albums of 2021

Mike Brooks
One things (almost) all our critics seemed to agree on is that Leon Bridges had one of the best albums of the year.
There’s got to be a morning after. As the pandemic becomes less of a waking nightmare and more of a looming threat, music has steadily been receding back into its old poses and absorbing a bit of the new world brought on by a changed generation. Albums were recorded entirely remotely by people who lived almost entirely remotely for a year. As usual, the human spirit triumphed, and music remained eternal.

Here are a few of our writers’ picks for their favorite music of 2021:

Vincent Arrieta

1. Injury Reserve, By The Time I Get To Phoenix
Andrew Savage of Parquet Courts recently observed that while rock music has a tendency to cannibalize itself and exist in a state of self-reverence, hip-hop is constantly re-inventing itself. The most obvious examples of this are titanic — Kendrick Lamar blowing America’s collective mind on the jazz-rap opus To Pimp a Butterfly; Kanye West turning a three-way nexus of grief, heartbreak and egotistical crisis into My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — but not since Death Grips violently shook the underground FunHouse-style with The Money Store has hip-hop witnessed such a violent contortion of its own possibilities. Phoenix-based experimental hip-hop trio Injury Reserve were in the process of recording By The Time I Get To Phoenix when co-founder Stepa J. Groggs died unexpectedly at the age of 32. Remaining members Ritchie with a T and Parker Corey soldiered on, completing the album in the midst of the pandemic, and the result is an avant-garde rap opus that twists the anxieties of the pre- and post-COVID world into a juggernaut of rap music’s not-too-distant future. The chaos presented on the album feels like more than the personal hell of its members being released in a catharsis; it feels like the chaos of the world — inevitable yet affirming if you simply choose to keep going. 2. Kings of Leon, When You See Yourself
3. Lake Street Dive, Obviously
4. The War On Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore
5. Lorde, Solar Power
6. The Killers, Pressure Machine
Leon Bridges, Gold-Diggers Soul
8. Billie Eilish, Happier Than Ever
9. Crowded House, Dreamers Are Waiting
10. Bernhoft, Dancing On My Knees

Favorite Song of 2021
“Like I Used To,” Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen
It feels good to be back. Two of indie rock’s supreme goddesses obliquely celebrate the much-missed minutia of pre-pandemic life, worry-free about the world but still worried about oneself, as in,  “Sleepin' in late like I used to/ Crossing my fingers like I used to/ Waiting inside like I used to/ Avoiding big crowds like I used to.” Local Favorite
“Don’t Worry,” Leon Bridges and “Hell is a Crowded Room,” Allison Ponthier
I couldn’t pick between the two. Allison Ponthier’s sublime ode to the anxieties of public spaces and Leon Bridges’ cool heartbreaker of a duet with R&B singer Ink are two of the best songs of the year, let alone songs that have sprung from the souls of North Texans.

Preston Jones

1. John Mayer, Sob Rock
In another year marred by a seemingly endless global pandemic, there was perhaps no more purely pleasurable album than John Mayer's faithful simulacrum of mid-1980s FM guitar pop. His fastidious evocation of Mark Knopfler or Richard Marx's sleek, sculpted power ballads — the lustrous "Wild Blue" or anthemic "Shot in the Dark" — made it easy to throw Sob Rock on repeat, lost in the textures of yesteryear. Growing older often means having your past repackaged and sold back to you, but few have done it better than Mayer, who deftly walks the thin line between recycling and reverence.

2. Bo Burnham, Inside (The Songs)
3. Chvrches, Screen Violence
4. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raise the Roof
5. Leon Bridges, Gold-Diggers Sound
6. Kacey Musgraves, Star-Crossed
7. Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert and Jon Randall, The Marfa Tapes
8. Black Keys, Delta Kream
9. Adele, 30
10. Yola, Stand for Myself

Favorite Song of 2021
John Mayer, "Last Train Home"
I'm almost afraid to look at my streaming stats for this one, because it functioned, for a stretch of several weeks, as a surefire way to elevate my dopamine levels. "Last Train Home" breezes by in barely 3-minutes' time, but the combination of the irresistible electric guitar riff, industry legend Greg Phillinganes' silky synth work and the climactic spark of Arlington native Maren Morris' ecstatic vocal work is a confection that I simply cannot hear often enough.

Local Favorite

Leon Bridges, Gold-Diggers Sound
The Grammy-winning Fort Worth singer-songwriter continues to chart his own path, collaborating with a variety of artists across a multitude of genres, while also taking care to make near-quantum leaps between full-length album projects. His third LP was no exception. Conceived over a two-year period at the Los Angeles recording complex providing the record's title, Bridges' formidable prowess as a vocalist and songwriter results in some of the most sultry, soulful and stark songs he's yet released. Where he'll venture next is anyone's guess — but the results will no doubt be electrifying. Jamie Vahala

1. The GJQ, The GJQ
Simply put, this album fits every mood for me. From start to finish, Gaika James and his psyched-out trombone takes your from New Orleans to Dallas into outer space. In my personal opinion it’s one of Dallas’ most creative musical outputs from one of its most veteran creators.
2. Astro James, Live at Deep Ellum Art Co.
3. Cure for Paranoia, Bamf
4. Boy Jugo, Time for Jazz
5. Justin Cashion, Paranoid Narrative
6. The Roomsounds, Good Company
7. RC & the Gritz, Live in Deep Ellum
8. Johnny B33, Aries Moon
9. Joshua Ray Walker, See You Next Time
10. Revelers Hall Band, Revelers Hall Band

Favorite Song of 2021
“Seat Belts and Picture Frames” by Justin Cashion
From it’s opening line “Seat belts and picture frames could never hold you” you know that Justin Cashion’s song about a friend who died in a car wreck is going to leave you the listener in a puddle of tears. It’s a brilliant song and I love it.
Eva Raggio

Tyler, the Creator, Call Me If You Get Lost
Billie Eillish, Happier Than Ever
3. St. Vincent, Daddy‘s Home
4. Arroj Afbat, Vulture Prince
5. Leon Bridges, Gold-Diggers Sound
6. Adia Victoria, A Southern Gothic
7. Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales
8. Joshua Ray Walker, See You Next Time
9. Natalia Lafourcade, Un Canto Por México, Vol 2
10. Juanes, Origen

Local Favorite
Various Artists, Truth to Power Project

In response to the outcry of justice for George Floyd and other victims of police brutality, Dallas spoke loudest with the Truth to Power Project. A forceful union between the local music scene and the Dallas Mavericks, part of the group's effort was the release of a collaboration album featuring, among others, Leon Bridges, Keite Young, Sarah Jaffe, Sam Lao, Cure for Paranoia, Abraham Alexander and Bastards of Soul. Its message is a beautifully persuasive call for peace while teasing a taste of the infinite range of homegrown musical excellence. David Fletcher

1. Turnstile, GLOW ON
Turnstile came out of the Baltimore hardcore punk scene about a decade ago, but was never expressly a hardcore band. Always pushing the genre forward, Turnstile fearlessly incorporated elements of pop and hip-hop into their hardcore foundation. With their late-summer release GLOW ON, Turnstile once again broke mainstream boundaries, showing just how melodic and adaptive their brand of hardcore could be with its seamless introduction of funk, soul and even Caribbean sounds in the mix. At a time when music consumption has, by necessity, been confined to the home on machines that can access absolutely anything, Turnstile confirms that that the walls that separated genres have eroded, that genre labels can be quite meaningless and that you can slow dance in the pit.

2. Parquet Courts, Sympathy for Life
3. Idles, CRAWLER
4. James McMurtry, The Horses and the Hounds
Rostam, Changephobia
6. The War on Drugs, I Don’t Live Here Anymore
7. Modest Mouse, The Golden Casket
8. Olivia Rodrigo, Sour
9. Leon Bridges, Gold-Diggers Sound
10. Steve Earle, J.T.

Favorite Song of 2021
“Blank Curtain,” Cola
In November, Montreal post-punk band Ought called it quits after a decade of work together. Ought announced that guitarist and vocalist Tim Darcy and bass player Ben Stidworthy had formed new band Cola with US Girls drummer Evan Cartwright and released the single “Blank Curtain.” The song grooves into the listener’s ear drums with an infectious bass line supporting Darcy’s bending guitar strings and hypnotic vocals. With a loping rhythm and unaffected coolness reminiscent of The Velvet Underground, Cola’s only single “Blank Curtain” probably isn’t going to top anyone’s list this year, but it is an out-of-nowhere single with huge promises for things to come. Local Favorite
The Wee-Beasties, “I Wish My Mom Would Smoke Pot with Me”
It had been about a decade since the The Wee-Beasties had released its only full-length album Kill Them,  the band’s only release one could actually find without having to be at some show to purchase one of 10 copies of something released 20 years ago. Over the course of the pandemic, the Beasties re-emerged with a clear mission to make North Texas listen. After putting on a car wash to raise money to record, The Wee-Beasties released The Whole 7 Inches EP this fall with the lead single “I Wish My Mom Would Smoke Pot with Me.” Humorous and heartfelt, the song shows the Denton symphonic punk collective’s softer side envisioning a peace that starts at home with a blunt and a Terminator DVD.

Malen Blackmon

My one recommendation would be the joint EP called s.h.e.e.s.h. by Dallas artists Samsonyte and LeRoyce. Samsonyte moved to Los Angeles at the top of the year and just hit 100,000 streams on Spotify and LeRoyce, who is a producer as well as rapper, co-produced a record on Mick Jenkins' latest album.
Samsonyte and LeRoyce are both part of the Dallas-based collective Elevated. Although they've been gaining individual popularity around the city and beyond, s.h.e.e.s.h. Was their first joint project. It’s unique, laid back and it's a project fans have long been waiting for.