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From EP gems to indulgent 19-track long plays, experimental to orchestral, these are the 10 albums, in no particular order, that lifted the music bar this year.

1. CWAKA | MANDISI DYANTYIS

Mandisi Dyantyis’s sophomore album Cwaka arrived as an early Christmas gift on December 3, 2021 — every track a new present to unwrap. Informed by the Bible verse “The Lord will fight for you, and you only have to be silent”, the songs are rooted in Xhosa rhythms, heavily influenced by jazz music — featuring saxophonist Buddy Wells, double bassist Steve De Sousa, drummer Kevin Gibson and pianists Lonwabo Mafani, Blake Hellaby and Andrew Lilley. No sooner have you attached yourself to the Xola Ntliziyo as a healing favourite, you change your mind when you hear the powerful prayer Ndibonis’indlela ... and then the uplifting Ziyafana ... and so on.

2. 30 | ADELE

This is Adele’s best work yet. It’s raw, it’s honest, and it hurts. Dubbed the divorce record, the record-breaking album also holds the badge for one of the most impressive pre-marketing campaigns — from famous monuments in Paris, Berlin and Dubai sporting huge projections of the number 30, to British and US Vogue covers before the album — as a lead-up to the album release.

3. CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST | TYLER THE CREATOR

Featuring Frank Ocean reciting poetry on Lemonade, accompanied by a self-directed video for Wusyaname and guest appearances by Pharrell Williams, Lil Wayne and Ty Dolla $ign among others, Tyler’s sixth studio album is the dream mixtape we never knew we needed this year. Apple Music put it beautifully: ” ... the man once known as Wolf Haley is just a guy who likes to rock ice and collect stamps on his passport, who might whisper into your significant other’s ear while you’re in the restroom. In other words, a prototypical rapper. But in this case, an exceptionally great one.” 

 4. BLOODLINE | GABRIELS

A 2011 American Idol contestant, Jacob Lust’s gospel-tinged vocals transport you to a different space and time, with bandmates the classically trained Ryan Hope and Ari Balouzian. Bloodline follows their seminal album Love and Hate in a Different Time released at the end of 2020 and is equally as experimental in sound as it is melancholic, moving in its warmth and soaring in its instrumental arrangements.

5. INTIMIDATED | KAYTRANADA

In his latest offering since winning Grammys for Best Dance/Electronic Album and Best Dance Recording, the prolific Canadian record producer collaborates with H.E.R., Thundercat and Mach-Hommy and it’s a powerful electro-soul album, each song a stand-alone single in its own right.

6. 000 CHANNEL BLACK | _BY.ALEXANDER

The album features contributions by actor Gary Busey (as seen on the album cover, power Charles Bukowsky, fashion icon Michèle Lamy and model Irina Shayk. The standout track is Trumpets, a toe-tapping track that’s all bass, drums and synths and the yearning vocals of recording artist 070 Shake who will have you cranking up the sound.

The UK-born, LA-based producer Alex Da Kid, who briefly dated Halle Berry, has worked with Rihanna and Imagine Dragons and has also dabbled in fashion, launching a line called 000 Channel Black.

7. SOMETIMES I MIGHT BE INTROVERT | LITTLE SIMZ

In this new album, British-Nigerian rapper Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikawo, aka Little Simz, allows us into her intimate world and personal history; a follow-up to her 2019 breakout album Grey Area. And it’s got Inflo’s touch all over it — the award-winning producer who heads up SAULT, and worked on Adele’s 30, Michael Kiwanuka’s Kiwanuka, Jungle’s For Ever, and of course Cleo Sol’s Mother, (who is the lead vocalist on Sault). 

8. COLLAPSED IN SUNBEAMS | ARLO PARKS

Like a new best friend, this Arlo Parks has crept onto Michelle Obama’s playlist. A little bit folksy, a lot RnB, Parks’s debut album earned her nominations for Album of the Year, Best New Artist and Best British Female Solo Artist at the 2021 Brit Awards. Named for a short story by Zadie Smith, Parks said in a statement: “My album is a series of vignettes and intimate portraits surrounding my adolescence and the people that shaped it.” 

9. PLATINUMB HEART BEATING | PLATINUMB HEART OPEN | MSAKI

This double-album electronic project which features Sun-El Musician, whom she credits as having encouraged her to produce, Del Capo, Black Coffee, Kabza De Small, Oskido, Nonku Phiri, Black Motion, Beatenberg, Brother Moves On among others, is testament to Msaki’s many talents. As a singer-songwriter, poet and visual artist, Msaki was involved in all aspects of the two albums — one acoustic and the other an ode to house music. Her fans get to hear her in all her iterations.

10. PROMISES | FLOATING POINTS | PHAROAH SANDERS | THE LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

One continuous instrumental piece in nine beautiful movements, Promises is a meditation, one that transports you to wherever you want to go for 46 min, 37 sec of blissed-out escape — the combined efforts of an English electronic producer, an American jazz saxophonist and a British symphony orchestra. 

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