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NPR Music

Nate Chinen

James Brandon Lewis.
Diane Allford
/
Courtesy of the artist
James Brandon Lewis.

What caught my ear and held it in 2021? There's no coherent formula to the dozen albums that constitute this answer — except that they all came from a place of fierce and abiding commitment. You can hear it plain and clear on Jesup Wagon, which I flagged as a best-album contender the first time I encountered it. You can hear it resonating at a quieter, sadder frequency on KIMBROUGH, which beautifully memorializes a loss from around this time last year. And you can feel it just as palpably in the songs I've compiled from 12 other noteworthy albums, most of which could be swapped in above with little objection (at least, not from me). We're living in trying times, and what I hear in this music is exhortation — a reminder that we're not alone, and a nudge to keep moving forward.

Top 12 Albums of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

1. James Brandon Lewis, Jesup Wagon
2. Artifacts, ...and then there's this
3. Ches Smith and We All Break, Path of Seven Colors
4. Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey, Uneasy
5. Johnathan Blake, Homeward Bound
6. Jason Moran, The Sound Will Tell You
7. Various Artists, KIMBROUGH
8. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra, Promises
9. Sylvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson, Searching For The Disappeared Hour
10. Sound Prints, Other Worlds
11. William Parker, Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World
12. Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future

Top 12 Songs of 2021

▶ LISTEN ON SPOTIFY

1. esperanza spalding, "Formwela 10"
2. Irreversible Entanglements, "Open the Gates"
3. Terence Blanchard, "Absence"
4. Nate Smith (feat. Kokayi & Michael Mayo), "Square Wheel"
5. Jazzmeia Horn and Her Noble Force, "Where We Are"
6. Tyshawn Sorey & Alarm Will Sound, "For George Lewis"
7. Ben LaMar Gay (feat Ohmme), "Sometimes I Forget How Summer Looks on You"
8. Miho Hazama (feat. Danish Radio Big Band) "I Said Cool, You Said... What?"
9. Brandee Younger, "Reclamation"
10. Jen Shyu, "When I Have Power"
11. Craig Taborn, "Now In Hope"
12. Kazemde George, "I Insist"

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