2021 In Review: Day 3 – Album of the Year

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2021 In Review

1. Introduction + Best Album Art
2. Song of the Year
3. Album of the Year
4. R&B and Soul
5. Rock and Alternative
6. Rap and Hip-hop
7. Dance and Electronic
8. Pop and Ballad
9. Folk and Country
10. Jazz and Blues
11. Crossover and World
12. Best Collaborative Work
13. Rookie Artist of the Year
14. Artist of the Year
15. Other Recognition
16. Concluding Remarks

Welcome back to the series – today we recognize the best albums of 2021, discussing the top two in some detail and previewing a handful of others. Starting tomorrow, we’ll delve into eight days of genre-specific discussions before resurfacing on Day 12 with Best Collaborative Work.

Album of the Year is perhaps our most important distinction, recognizing the best overall body of work held in a coherent collection of songs. The 2021 class is a relatively indie-leaning crop of albums, though many mainstream acts came very close to cracking the top twelve.

Again, the next-best ten albums are ordered alphabetically to avoid genre-category winner spoilers. (Most of these contending albums will get more detailed treatment in the genre category posts.)

Album of the Year 2021

Budung – 지지않는 곳으로 가자 (Let’s Take a Step to a Brighter Place)

Budung had been building a nice discography in the folk scene for a few years, but something about her work defied easy classification. Those idiosyncracies, once seen in the chilling edge of Chasing and the genre-crossing desolation of “Things We Left in the Fire” (one of our favorite collaborations from 2020), feel right at home in Let’s Take a Step to a Brighter Place, a supremely well-directed album that somehow sews numerous styles and genres into the year’s most visionary soundscape. Budung seems to effortlessly bridge gulfs, moving between citypop (“First Time”), R&B pop (“00”), soul and gospel (“Fairytale”), rock (“Guess Who?”) and so on, each with such confident execution and persuasive composition that it’s hard to believe it’s her first outing writing in many of these styles. That adaptability applies equally to the vocals. Budung’s measured, incisive voice just cuts through all these different-sounding tracks, and in an album that’s generally written abstractly, her expressive ability amplifies hope and despair alike as it makes them real.

The Runner-up

ChoiLB – 독립음악 (Independent Music)

There are several layers of framing in album-opening “Story of Someone I Know”, a theatrical rollercoaster that is well-summarized by the line “Here is ChoiLB acting as a ChoiLB who is talking about ChoiLB while pretending to talk about a friend”, all framed within the pretense of a film audition. By the end of it, you get the sense that the show is there precisely to get cut away: by plainly stating the farce, ChoiLB prepares us to hear from his most vulnerable place, without all that smoke. This is an astonishingly honest album, focused heavily on reminiscence and laying bare straight-up shame as part of introspection. The (many) tracks invoking the rapper’s relationship with his parents are especially poignant, and the transition where the “live on for family” message of “Independent Music” turns into a firsthand reminder of death in “Have to Live.” was among the most powerful moments of 2021. Make no mistake about its technical prowess, either – ChoiLB’s tight rhyming, intricate delivery, and tasteful beatmaking were all critical, and Independent Music‘s narrative was so well-designed that even the featured appearance of Broccoli You Too at the end had dramatic significance. It feels like a raising of a bar.

The Next 10 (Alphabetical)

Bosudongcooler – 모래 (Sand)

Chun Yong-sung – 수몰 (Drowned)

eAeon – Fragile

Jaeil Jung – Psalms

Kid Milli & Dress – Cliché

Lang Lee – 늑대가 나타났다 (There Is a Wolf)

Sogumm – Precious

Soumbalgwang – 기쁨, 꽃 (Happiness, Flower)

Thama – Don’t Die Colors

Younha – End Theory

Lyric translations by author. Artist profile and album cover images from Bugs Music.

Read our past series:

2020 In Review

2019 In Review

2018 In Review

2017 In Review

2016 In Review

2015 In Review

2014 In Review

2013 In Review

2012 In Review