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Ann Powers

Valerie June.
Fantasy Records
Valerie June.

The end of 2021 is offering a powerful, if jarring message to culture critics whose egos are bound up in their opinions. A few great songs and albums are surfacing as consensus picks within the morass of year-end best-of features, but even those represent nonconformist impulses and private pleasures more than any sense of a public sphere. And the proliferation of lists makes it difficult to have a maverick opinion, too: Everything is being touted by someone, somewhere.

As someone who's often wrestled with an overwhelming sense of personal insignificance, I find this situation unnerving but ultimately liberating. It feels like there's finally, truly no point in trying to explain the year through a survey or to assert my taste as some kind of bellwether of artists' future influence. I'm just a friend here, sharing some stuff that you might not have heard. Shoutouts to the albums and songs that are getting bigger shine (I wrote about a few here and here). Below are a few that spoke to me beyond the buzz that's not cohering anyway. Oh — and I made a playlist that's as long as a work day featuring many other favorites. Check it here.

Top 10 Albums of 2021

▶ Listen on Spotify

1. Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers
2. Caetano Veloso, Meu Coco
3. Tre Burt, You, Yeah, You
4. Melanie Charles, Y'all Don't (Really) Care About Black Women
5. Joy Crookes, Skin
6. Sam Williams, Glasshouse Children
7. McKinley Dixon, For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her
8. Sierra Ferrell, Long Time Coming
9. Willie Dunn, Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology
10. Rhiannon Giddens with Franceso Turrisi, They're Calling Me Home

Top 15 Songs of 2021

▶ Listen on Spotify

1. Rainbow Girls, "Free Wine"
2. Leon Bridges, "Motorbike"
3. Felice Brothers, "Jazz on the Autobahn"
4. Adeline, "Whisper My Name"
5. Alexa Rose, "Clearwater Park"
6. Jon Vinyl, "Stacy"
7. Margo Cilker, "Broken Arm in Oregon"
8. Leela James, "Complicated"
9. Dave, "Three Rivers"
10. Clairo, "Blouse"
11. Loraine James featuring Baths, "On the Lake Outside"
12. Le Ren featuring Tenci, "Annabelle and MaryAnne"
13. Serpentwithfeet, "same size shoe"
14. Jackson + Sellers, "Waste Your Time"
15. Tai Verdes, "A-O-K"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.