Any best-of list is by definition incomplete: There’s always a great record that got overlooked, an abundance of riches that simply didn’t fit into the limited numbers of spaces available, a genre whose strengths weren’t properly appreciated. But even taking all of that into account, it’s pretty clear that this year created a hunger in many people for the addictive pleasures of pop music. Pop—and often mainstream pop, at that—takes up more space on this year’s list of the 20 best albums than it normally would. There’s plenty of rap, indie rock, punk, soul, and more, but there’s a clear dominance by that most populist of genres.
And honestly? We’re not the least bit surprised. 2020 was a shitshow, to put it mildly, and 2021 has only partially recouped a sense of stability in this world. During such trying times, it’s only natural that our predilections might gravitate toward music that comforts above all else, that vibrates with the familiar frequencies of easy pleasures and offers a balm of simple melodies and rhythms. (And hey—for those who found the past 20 months just made them want to scream, we’ve also got The Armed.)
But whether you’re looking for a new artist to fall in love with or checking to see if your own favorites made the list, the following are the albums that found the most common ground among the 11 critics who contributed to this year’s A.V. Club list. (If you are outraged that something isn’t on here, it was definitely at number 21.) There was no clear victor who broke away from the pack this year; the top five albums were all within spitting distance of one another. And all of these records made us fall in love with the immediate power of music all over again.
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