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Radio Milwaukee's top 25 albums of 2021

Perhaps the most striking thing about the albums we loved the most in 2021 is how little they have in common. When Radio Milwaukee's DJs and staff were submitting their ballots for this year's list, we were astounded by how sprawling and eclectic they were. No two ballots looked remotely the same.

The resulting list is a glorious hodgepodge -- a mix of old veterans and new arrivals, huge pop stars and small independent acts, artists from Milwaukee and from across the globe. We hope you love these albums as much as we do.

25. Isaiah Rashad - "The House Is Burning"

Chattanooga native Isaiah Rashad for nearly a decade now has delivered consistent rap flows and fresh beats, with some career-lifting collaborations. An artist on Top Dawg Entertainment (yes, the same label as Kendrick Lamar), this hidden gem out of the Southern rap scene has finally made a mark of his own. "The House Is Burning," in my humble opinion, is the project that has really solidified the range and talent that Rashad possesses. If you want grooves and bangers this album will not disappoint. (Kenny Perez)

24. Katy Kirby - "Cool Dry Place"

With nine songs coming in at just 28 minutes total, Katy Kirby’s “Cool Dry Place” was as easy album to listen to. Kirby’s greatest asset is her intimacy. She’s a soft singer. Letting the microphone do the work, pulling you in. There is a kind of smallness to the whole thing. You can put it in your pocket and carry it around with you. Pulling it out when you want to sing and cry and yell, “Yeah we’re cut on the knuckles, but at least we’re open wide.” “Cool Dry Place” felt like a secret whispered into the ears of all of your best music friends. A little treasure passes between hands of the hands that you want to be touching. And now it’s my turn to whisper it into your ear. Unwrap this little gift. Then put it in your pocket and pull it out between stop signs. (Justin Barney)

23. Tkay Maidza - "Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 3"

Last year was weird; that’s something we can all agree on. Equally indisputable is the fact that Tkay Maidza is an absolute swiss army knife. This album boasts her ability to shapeshift within her talent, not only showcasing her luscious R&B delicacy, but also her ability to rap potent punches. For example, the opening track, “Eden,” unveils the red velvet curtain and lures you into Maidza’s colorful world. The track is deliciously smooth and radiates the energy of a slow, sunbeam-filled Sunday morning. In contrast, “Syrup” rattles your chest with gurgling bass, effervescent sirens and percussive vocals. It’s a hard-hitting, witty track that will inject you with confidence, if you even dare catch yourself lacking it. (Erin Bagatta)

22. Lucy Dacus - "Home Video"

Some musicians write about nothing in particular. Maybe a feeling or something abstract, as to not give too much away. Lucy Dacus is not that kind of songwriter. When Lucy Dacus was on an early tour, she kept her journals with her in the tour van. The journals she wrote in every day. Documenting and cataloguing her life into neat, bound pages. One day on tour someone broke into the van. They stole her journals. She said it left a hole in her heart that she hasn’t quite fixed. He doesn’t write as much in her journals anymore. Her albums are her journals now.

“Historian” documented a five year relationship that she stayed in because of some misguided obligation. “Home Video” serves as diary entries for her life. Maybe the most important aspect of her life are her friends. Of which she is fiercely protective of. “Home Videos” has Dacus sticking her thumbs in the eyes of her friend's transgressor, throwing shoes at the alter of a fraught marriage ceremony, and getting palm readings from a friend's mom. There aren’t many albums that gave of themselves the way “Home Video” did this year. (Justin)

21. Mdou Moctar - "Afrique Victime"

"Afrique Victime" is the fullest portrait of Moctar's gifts that he has offered yet. It somehow conjures the explosive, uncontainable sound of the band’s performances and showcases why Mdou is one of the finest guitar players today. (Marcus Doucette)

20. Adele - "30"

The one album of 2021 that I listened to in full on the day it came out was Adele’s “30.” The first single “Easy On Me” was indeed easy on me to sing along to right away, like slipping on a beloved soft sweater to curl up by the fire and cry into a cup of cocoa. Sidebar: Thank You, Adele, for getting Spotify to turn off the shuffle default on album play. It always irritated me, and in fact was making me angry on the release date when I was trying to listen to “30.” I wanted to hear the songs in the order that Adele and nature intended! (Doris Wessels)

19. Terrace Martin - "Drones"

Of all the great artists to come out of the L.A. jazz scene, Terrace Martin has risen to the top of the pile for me personally. His Grammy nominated album "Dinner Party" was a highlight of 2020, and he was on some of my favorite releases of last year, but "Drones" is something special. It is riddled with impressive features from Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper to Snoop and Kendrick to Leon Bridges and James Fauntleroy all coming together in a perfect marriage of so many diverse styles of Black American music. (Jordan Lee)

18. St. Vincent - "Daddy's Home"

Her sixth studio album “Daddy’s Home” was released in May. It’s a trip. If you haven’t listened to it yet, that’s cool. If you want a punchy review of the album, you can check with thoughtful folks on other websites. I’m hoping you are just feeling adventurous. Find your favorite headphones, go somewhere cozy and give yourself over to the journey. Forty-four minutes well spent. (Dori Zori)

17. Noga Erez - "KIDS"

The first track I heard from Noga Erez was actually in 2020. “You So Done” was fresh, new and honestly a delight to sing out loud at the top of my lungs. Songs with an interesting beat and cool percussion get my attention right away and this song fits the bill from the first few notes. Handclaps with a beat that sounds like it was made from a bassoon... I’M IN! Thank goodness her second studio album “KIDS” dropped in March, a collection of singles from 2020 but mostly full of new music.

Learning her history studying composition at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and then serving her time as a soldier in an Israel Defense Force Military Band just added interesting layers when enjoying the full album. Noga writes about serious issues pointing out social and political inequities and the chaos that results from such a lop-sided world. She sings and sometimes raps with a mostly deadpan but seductive vocal delivery that makes me want to turn the volume all the way up and feel all that angst together. (Dori)

16. Buck Meek - "Two Saviors"

In a cramped, rustic bar bathed in gold light, I was lucky enough to witness Buck Meek perform "Two Saviors. It’s a blatant exaggeration, but I felt as though the entire population of Ballard, Seattle had shown up for this show. We were all shoulder-to-shoulder, enamored by the band’s performance. I’m convinced that those same feelings of comfort and communion experienced that night permeate through this album wherever you go. The album reaches you with familial arms, prays that you’ll listen to every word and invites you to trust that you’re okay. You’ve been okay decades before you were born, you’re okay in this moment and you’ll be okay tomorrow. "Two Saviors" tastes like time travel. It holds the flawed underdog in us all, and poetically crafts our stories of trial and triumph into an album that everyone can find themself in. (Erin)

15. Joy Crookes - "Skin"

To say that Joy Crookes’ album “Skin” made an impact on my musical journey would be an understatement. Crookes inspires a generation of Brown girls as she takes ownership of her identity, with songs about the transition into adulthood, heartbreak and misogyny. She forces you to pay attention while giving you the neo-soul sound your heart desires. 

A highlight of my year was taking an impromptu trip to London. During the same week I was visiting, Crookes posted on her Instagram tickets that a fan was selling tickets to her sold-out show in Kentish Town. I begged a stranger to sell them to me and made a friend along the way. I was absolutely blown away by her soulful voice and stage presence that night. She gave us her heart that night while performing her love letter to South London. Her grandmother was sitting three rows behind me and danced with the crowd while Crookes sang “19th floor” a song dedicated to her grandmother, gentrification and the process of immigration. 

I’ve turned to music this year and found myself listening to albums from the past, one that gave me a sense of nostalgia in a year of chaos and destruction. I didn’t get a chance to listen to new material, but “Skin” will definitely be an album I plan on revisiting -- a journey of self-discovery and resilience. (Salam Fatayer)

14. Nas - "King's Disease II"

At the ripe young age of 47, Nas has done it again. There is something to be said about aging with grace and eloquence in such a microwave genre: Hip Hop. From, arguably, the greatest hip hop album of all time, ‘Illmatic’ through the alleged lows of Nas’s middle passage, we arrive at the stellar "Kings Disease II." The follow up to last year’s Grammy winning (his first…how?) "King's Disease," produced entirely by Cali’s wunderkind Hit-Boy, this one shines with banging production and the god-level bars we come to expect from Nasir Jones. The reverence and praise for the relevant maturity of this album are well deserved and the blueprint for flyness after 40 -- or halftime. Thanks, Nas. (Anthony Foster)

13. Gego y Nony - "Tiempo"

Sons of a musical family, Puerto Rican natives Gego Y Nony have shown the city of Milwaukee that Música Urbana can have success in the Midwest. Their debut album "Tiempo" is filled with heartfelt reggaetón rhythms and hip-hop records that showcase their vocal range and songwriting ability. Of all the albums on our top 25, this piece of art coming from our great city could not be ignored. "Tiempo" is an amazing listen from start to finish. We cannot wait to see what the duo has in store for 2022. (Kenny)

12. Madlib - "Sound Ancestors"

Madlib had a pretty busy year in 2021. He produced beats for Westside Gunn, collborated with Four Tet, released an entire album with Declaime, and released an additional album with his trio Bad Neighbor, featuring MED and Blu. Prior to all of this he kicked off the year with the solo masterpiece "Sound Ancestors." Of all of this artists instrumental projects this one stands out as one of his strongest. "Sound Ancestors" is a great addition to a long lineage of perfect instrumentals from the Beat Konducta. Reminiscent of his 2008 project "WLIB AM: King of the Wigflip," this new project is a perfect journey through samples of '60s psych rock and classic jazz with the unmistakable lo fidelity slump of the one and only Madlib. (Jordan)

11. Viagra Boys - "Welfare Jazz"

The first Viagra Boys song I heard from Welfare Jazz was “To the Country.” I listened to it 3 times before deciding that my only criticism was wishing the song was longer than 2 min and 57 seconds. The song begins with such a gentle demeanor but eventually leads down the tunnel of creepy doom. This led me to dig into the entire album, which is unapologetically offensive. It’s hard to tell where the line is drawn between honesty and a mockery, but within that grey area I found a lot to appreciate. You’ll hear a talented saxophonist who opts to make a shrieking sound with the instrument, resonant vocals that resort to screaming, lyrics that often appear sweet on the surface and clever guitar riffs that end in a train wreck. It takes a bit of balance and a sense of humor to hear past the noise, but if you’re up to the task you’ll find a beautiful piece of art that makes you want to drink a case of beer. (Kat Froehlich)

10. Yola - "Stand For Myself"

“Stand for Myself” has to be one of my favorite soul albums in the last 20 years. Yola showcases her amazing voice and songwriting throughout this powerful album produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. She uses styles like classic southern soul and disco to express her feelings on everything from heartbreak, politics and sexuality. And listening to “Stand For Myself,” I can see why she was nominated for two Grammys. (Tarik Moody)

9. PinkPantheress - "To Hell With It"

I didn’t even know that Tik Tok was a musical force till I heard the precociously nostalgic vibes of PinkPantheress. Her new album is stocked with two-minute gems that tease to flatter several genres in a way that somehow satisfies. (Marcus)

8. Tinashe - "333"

Where Tinashe once made an entree out of R&B, on "333" the virtuosic singer instead makes tapas out of a little bit of everything, crafting an entire album out of finger-sized bites of neo-soul, electronica, dance, quiet storm and funk -- there's even a quickie jungle track shorter than anything on the PinkPantheress album; no stylistic gambit was off the table. Her range is remarkable, but it's her concision, agility and charisma that sells it. No R&B album did more this year while making it look so easy. (Evan Rytlewski)

7. Wednesday - "Twin Plagues"

The dream of '90s indie-rock lives on in Wednesday leader Karly Hartzman's fuzzed-out guitars, which warp, curl and balloon like eccentric blown glass sculptures. Even more expressive is her songwriting. Hartzman fills "Twin Plagues" with stinging, impressionistic images of half-remembered childhood traumas, all set against a blue-collar, small-town backdrop: vandalized cemeteries, race tracks, cans of Miller Lite, a Dallas Cowboys urn. As a storyteller she's guarded; none of these songs quite form complete narratives. But with details and emotions this vividly drawn, there's no need to connect the dots. (Evan)

6. Jazmine Sullivan - "Heaux Tales"

I’ve been a fan of Jazmine Sullivan‘s since her very first performance on the Apollo stage at 11 years old. Throughout the years Jasmin has taken me on twist and turns throughout her musical career, but nothing could’ve prepared me for her best album yet, “Heaux Tales.” This album explores Jasmine‘s ownership of her sexuality and how it bumps up against the consequences of that feminist freedom. This push and pull it’s beautifully displayed on her album’s intro “Bodies.” On the song “Lost Ones,” Jazmine once again represents millions of women trying to determine if raising their body counts in the bedroom, is worth the pain and heartache that could also live behind those same closed doors. (Element Everest-Blanks)

5. Bachelor - "Doomin' Sun"

“Bachelor isn’t a band, it’s a friendship” reads the website for the musical collaboration between Melina Duterte (Jay Som) and Ellen Kempner (Palehound). You can hear their friendship in their debut album, “Doomin’ Sun”, which was recorded over the course of two weeks in a rental home in California, but that doesn't mean the music itself is warm and fuzzy. Instead the fuzz comes in the form of ample guitar pedals, as the duo shares stories of self-doubt, pain and dissonance. Bachelor says they were inspired by themes of climate change, particularly wildfire red skies of Australia. Yet, from that dissonance, “Doomin’ Sun brings tender, loving and self-aware moments. “You are a braving light in a world so dark / And I'm scared out of my mind and I need your love,” pines the songwriter on “Sick of Spiraling.” Duterte and Kempner have created a space to be vulnerable, expertly anticipating and supporting each other artistically, as only the closest friends can. (Nate Imig)

4. Dawn Richard - "Second Line"

On “Second Line,” Dawn Richard celebrates the beauty of Black music and creativity in this genre-bending masterpiece. Not only does she pay homage to her Louisiana roots, but she also celebrates Black women’s contributions to electronic music by integrating styles like house music. This is also a work of Afrofuturism, which has seen a resurgence in the past few years. Afrofuturism is the concept of seeing Black people in the future via the intersection of the African diaspora and technology. Listening to “Second Line” is the soundtrack of a future where I want to be. (Tarik)

3. Japanese Breakfast - "Jubilee"

Japanese Breakfast EARNED her spot on this playlist. In addition to releasing this incredible album, she also released another album, “Sable” that served as a video game soundtrack. AND she released a BOOK. Zauner released her memoir, “Crying in H Mart” which spent over 20 weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers List and got picked up to be adapted into a movie. One person at their record label told me that Michelle Zauner is the hardest working person that they have ever worked with and they are right.

Zauner’s ambition shows in “Jubilee.” It starts with an orchestra. Not an actual orchestra, but a set of Spitfire Albion orchestra plugins that Zauner, of course, taught herself how to use and then maxed out the possible number of tracks one can use in a ProTools session. She finishes the album with a near seven minute destroyer that seems somehow even more ambitious than the first track. It’s rare to hear the culmination of such ambition and hard work pay off in such a worthy album. (Justin)

2. Tyler, The Creator - "Call Me If You Get Lost"

Tyler wins honors for his latest, a throwback to yesteryear when mixtapes ruled the streets. Though it feels very un-album-ey, and given the success of his last, it’s actually a good thing to hear him flex creative. (Marcus)

1. Little Simz - "Sometimes, I Might Be Introvert"

The vibe I got from my very first listen to “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert” was Little Simz is ready to share some stuff! The first track “Introvert” begins with a swelling orchestra with an angelic but strong chorus which made me think “buckle up, there IS an epic tale coming on this album.” From track one the story is being set through witty lyrics and Little Simz presents them. But it’s near the end of that track another plot is being laid down by a voice and vibe that sounds almost like a fairy godmother. I feel like she’s there to guide me as I move from track to track. Like she’s there for Little Simz, but also for me.

“Woman” is a standout track for me. A song about the power generated when women begin to support, not tear down, other women. YES! More of that please. Sometimes Little Simz uses the songs to speak to her younger self about the real-life, broken relationships within her own family. If you’re looking for the “I’m a boss, get on board or get out of the way” vibes, she’s got that on here too. Who can’t use more of those in your daily playlists, amiright? I give this album an A+++ (Dori)