25 of the South’s best albums from 2021

Virtually every genre of American music can trace its roots to the South, that confluence of African, French, Spanish and British sounds that gave the world jazz, R&B, bluegrass, rock & roll, country and blues, and the building blocks for much more. 

And Southerners are still pushing the boundaries of American music, at labels big and small. The best albums to come out of the South this year saw: 

  • An 80 year old Arkansas jazz legend partner with a British electronic producer and the London Symphony Orchestra 
  • An alt-country band finding new life in the radio hits of 90s country
  • A third generation Mississippi blues artist proving that the Hill Country is alive and well
  • Big Boi proving he still has something to say
  • Black artists reminding the world that folk and bluegrass have African American roots too
  • And, of course, Lil Nas X taking us to the depths of hell and giving the devil himself a lapdance. 

2021 was a year of inspirational highs like the emancipation of Britney Jean Spears from conservatorship after a years-long #FreeBritney campaign and sorrowful lows like the death of Young Dolph. Artists drew inspiration from institutional problems as well as internal pains and losses. And plenty of them offered us a damn good time. 

Music is, of course, a subjective medium. Some of these albums may suit your taste better than others. So rather than rank them, we alphabetically present 25 of the best albums to emerge from the South this year. Enjoy. 

The Raleigh, North Carolina-based American Aquarium may be darlings of the alt-country set but that doesn’t mean they’re gonna get above their raising. Released in two volumes over the course of 2021, Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers is more than a collection of covers. It’s a powerful reimagining of 90’s country radio hits. Before the jingoistic battle cries of the 2000s and the bikini top, truck, and beer anthems of the past decade, there was a silver age of country music in which women came into their own, men watched strange trucks in their lovers’ driveways and forgot their troubles down at the Twist & Shout.  With no shortage of the promised twang and a big dose of millennial nostalgia, the band imbues the songs of their childhood with the sounds of the present. Buy it here.

Louisiana bandleader Jon Batiste may be best known for providing the Oscar-winning soundtrack to Pixar’s Soul and his work on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, along with his band Stay Human. But he demonstrated in 2021 that he is a versatile and electric performer in his own right, with a stunningly charismatic performance on Austin City Limits, and eight Grammy nominations for his album “WE ARE.” His latest album is his most autobiographical portrait to date and he beautifully jumps from R&B to gospel, from jazz to hip-hop, to examine the soul of his family’s multigenerational experience in America. Buy it here. 

Even if Big Boi had retired after Outkast went on indefinite hiatus in 2006, he’d have a place on the Mount Rushmore of Southern hip hop (or perhaps Stone Mountain). Instead, he has gifted us an incredible solo career and is clearly having a blast on “Big Sleepover” with Sleepy Brown, the legendary member of the Dungeon Family. As Mr. Brown announces on the opening track, they have “nothing left to prove,” so this is two elder statesmen of Georgia having fun and spitting bars about what it means to be at the top of the game for 30 years. Buy it here. 

Big KRIT: A Style Not Quite Free

At 3 p.m. on most Sundays in Meridian, Miss., perhaps the most exciting activity the town has to offer is drinking cheap beers at a fast casual restaurant near the interstate. That’s why the sound of one of the city’s sons, Big K.R.I.T. is so rich and soulful. KRIT’s music bangs, but his songs aren’t club bangers. In fact, it seems to be made for folks who live in places like Meridian, where you can’t find bottle service within a 100 mile radius. If “A Style Not Quite Free,” sounds familiar, it could be because it was originally released as a 2016 mixtape called #12for12, where K.R.I.T. dropped a new freestyle every hour for 12 hours. That project was remastered and remixed into a studio album that dropped in August 2021. Buy it here. 

Leon Bridges: Gold-Diggers Sound

Leon Bridges made a name for himself with albums that evoked the soul sound of the 50s and 60s, with “Gold-Diggers Sound,” Bridges jumps forward in time, offering a modern riff on 80s and 90s R&B. Like many Southerners, the Texan headed west for artistic inspiration, holing up in Gold-Diggers, a Hollywood spot that’s part bar, part hotel, part recording studio for an album that brims with confidence and cool. This may be the sexiest album on the list. Buy it here. 

Three years into the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and all the societal dysfunctions it laid bare, “everybody has the blues,” Cedric Burnside told the Reckon Interview this summer in a conversation about his Grammy-nominated album “I Be Trying.” Few would know better than Burnside, whose grandfather R.L. Burnside was a legend of Mississippi Hill Country Blues. Cedric’s entrancing songs like “The World Can Be So Cold,” and “Keep On Pushing” are an emphatic declaration that the blues are alive and well and that the Hill Country’s best days are ahead. Buy it here. 

Cha Wa takes their name from a term used by Mardi Gras Indians to announce “here we come,” and their album “My People,” certainly delivers. The jazz funk of Cha Wa feels like New Orleans in the best possible way. Their songs sound like a celebration, befitting of the costumes worn by the Mardis Gras Indian band, but listening closely for the lyrics reveal the gritty, messy truths of life in the Crescent City.  As Hurricane Ida bore down on Louisiana in August, the title track of Cha Wa’s felt like a battle cry. “My people, we’ve been left behind before…My people, said we still here, and one day we gon’ all be in the same boat.” Buy it here. 

This EP from New Orleans R&B singer Lucky Daye may be short but it is stacked with duets with the likes of Queen Naija, Ari Lennox and Yebba, who is also recognized on this year’s list. He even samples Missy Elliott on the standout track, “My Window.” Daye’s name may be on the record but it’s the women who shine here. Each track plays out like a conversation – or impassioned argument –  about romance and relationships from beginning to end. Buy it here. 

After a year of pandemic-instilled isolation, was there any song more celebratory of the pure joy of being in each other’s company than Indigo De Souza’s “Hold U?” The entire sophomore album from the North Carolina rocker interrogates the highs and lows of both losing and finding yourself in relationships and the company of others. As we continue to deal with Covid in fits and starts, De Souza’s record is stirring reminder that there is pleasure and peril to be found in the crowd. Buy it here. 

This album’s title track started as a response to the murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville, Kentucky, police in 2020. But as Mickey Guyton wrote, the song expanded to include more about her own story. She first signed a record deal in 2011 so it took a decade before she was finally able to release her debut record. As a result, this is a powerful testament to how the music industry can swallow people up and destroy their confidence, particularly Black women in a genre typically dominated by white men. Her album expands on the themes she introduced on “Black Like Me,” which was released during the summer of protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, examining the effects of racism, institutionalized and internalized. And her song “All American,” is a strong counter argument to so much of the flag waving you hear from mainstream country music, making it clear that America is made better by diversity. Buy it here.

Anthony Hamilton spent two weeks in the hospital after coming down with coronavirus. Outside, the country raged in an ongoing fight for racial justice. The Charlotte-based Grammy winner’s tenth studio album – one of the best R&B records of the year – is a testament to Black joy, love and, most of all, perseverance. In a season of heartache, on “Mama Don’t Cry,” he reminds the listeners, “We pulled through some hard times, but we made it.” Buy it here. 

In 2020, Jason Isbell promised that if Georgia flipped blue in the Senate runoff elections, he would release an album covering Georgia artists. He may have put up with months of badgering on Twitter about where his album was, but Isbell over delivers. He’s joined by talented friends like Bela Fleck, Brittney Spencer, Amanda Shires, John Paul White and fellow Best of 2021 artist, Adia Victoria, on an album filled with songs by REM, Allman Brothers, Cat Power, Gladys Knight and others. It is a showcase of Southern talent, past, present and future. And just recently, Isbell promised a similar album for Texas if the state flips blue in next year. Buy it here. 

So this is what a J Cole album sounds like with features, huh? His rabid fans have made a meme out of the fact that his first few albums went platinum without so much as a single guest verse but this year the Fayetteville, North Carolina rapper was looking to share the love and this mixtape is much richer as a result. It also helps that The Off-Season is less serious than his past two albums. He’s here to have fun and offers up an array of Southern references, samples and swagger, name checking Steph Curry, calling out the New Yorkers who live up I-95 from North Carolina, mixing in Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz, bringing on fellow Fayetteville rapper, Morray, and Atlanta’s own Lil Baby, 6lack and 21 Savage. Buy it here.

Valerie June’s music defies easy categorization, drawing from blues, bluegrass, soul, folk, country, gospel and psychedelic sounds with confidence and fluidity. “The Moon and Stars,” is a proper name for an album that seems as comfortable on the astral plane as it does in Appalachia. It’s perhaps best summed up as a spiritual experience, with the Tennessee artist intentionally including brief interludes for moments of reflection between the tracks that describe the thin line between love and loss. “Ain’t it funny how the ones make us laugh, can know such pain?” she asks. “You wanna touch the sun, got to learn to dance through rain.” Buy it here. 

Kacey Musgraves skyrocketed to stardom with songs that vividly depicted life in small town Texas, cementing her place as one of the finest songwriters in American music in her first three albums (and underrated Christmas collections). Upon first listen, “star-crossed” doesn’t feel as specifically Southern. Gone are the vivid stories of pageant queens and waitresses dreaming big dreams during cigarette breaks, but what emerges is a deeply personal story of a couple caught in a marriage that’s built upon and bogged down by expectations of a patriarchal society and purity culture. And, honestly, what could be more Southern than that? Buy it here. 

Guitars, voices, and a microphone—when Miranda Lambert joined forces with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram late last year, they stripped away nearly everything but the most basic elements. The result follows in the footsteps of jam session classics like The Basement Tapes. You can feel the comfort these artists have with one another and the emotion they’re putting into each line. Lambert’s voice has never sounded as raw and pure, making the re-recordings of old songs (most notably “Tin Man”) brand new. Buy it here.

Lil Nas X’s career almost feels like a miracle, if it weren’t clear just how incredibly savvy and self-aware this Gen Z superstar really is. By now, everyone has heard the viral sensation that started the 22-year-old Atlanta native’s career. But everyone waited to see whether his future music could possibly live up to the early rap-country hybrid. He delivered one of the most talked about records in years – and revived a pearl-clutching satanic panic to boot. The launch of Montero (the artist’s given name) showcased his wide array of skills in video production, marketing, dance and obviously, insane musical talent. His 15-track album, “Montero,” hit the market after a promotional campaign involving a fake pregnancy, a fake arrest and his own parody of the Jerry Springer Show. Lil Nas X came out swinging with tracks featuring artists like Miley Cyrus, Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, Elton John and Jack Harlow. And on the internet he currently remains undefeated. Buy it here. 

Allison Russell may have been born in Canada but – like the rest of the world these days, apparently – she’s made Nashville her home. You don’t expect many Southern artists to seamlessly sing in French to start their albums, but her voice is a welcome one on her first solo project after making waves as members of “Birds of Chicago” and “Our Native Daughters.” The themes she painfully, beautifully describes on the album such as abuse and racism but also recovery and healing, have universal resonance but certainly will find an eager and receptive audience in the South.  Buy it here. 

Pharoah Sanders just celebrated his 81st birthday. A child of Little Rock, Arkansas, Sanders played with John Coltrane in the 60s, has released more than 30 albums and is considered one of the greatest tenor sax jazz artists in history. He has even less to prove than Big Boi, and yet his transatlantic collaboration with the British-based synth artist Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra may be the most transporting, meditative and musically ambitious record on this list. This isn’t an album built to fool any Spotify algorithms, it’s best enjoyed by letting yourself get drawn into the continuous 45 minute work stretched over the course of nine songs. Buy it here. 

Try not to feel inspired listening to Bobby Sessions new album “Manifest” which is all about manifesting your dreams and grinding your way to success. When Sessions left his job in 2014, he knew he was going to find success as an MC, even if it meant years of struggling and sleeping in his car. That type of story doesn’t always have a happy ending but the Dallas rapper is already a Grammy award winner thanks to his writing on Megan thee Stallion and Beyonce’s “Savage Remix.” And his solo debut makes it clear that he’s just getting started. Buy it here.

If you think you like the name of this album, just wait until you hear the music. Nashville may not be the first city you think of when it comes to R&B girl groups. But the three part harmonies of Tamara Chauniece, Kasi Jones and Stacy Johnson manage to feel timeless and cutting edge, bringing a practiced theatricality to their record, videos and live performances. As they announce in the album intro, they’re willing to sing like “the rent is due.” Buy it here. 

Sturgill Simpson has famously clashed with the Nashville establishment throughout his career, for instance there was the time he busked outside of the CMA Awards in 2017, mocking its pageantry. But Simpson has never fit snugly into the country genre, with music that bends genre and a flat out rock album and anime film in 2019’s Sound & Fury. But “The Ballad of Dood & Juanity” is pure country and bluegrass. Over ten tracks, Simpson explores the myths of the American frontier, penning a vivid picture of the half-Shawnee Dood who is pursuing – and ultimately killing – the man who abducted his wife Juanita. Buy it here. 

If I had to name one album on this list as the album of the year, this would be it. Every song on a “A Southern Gothic” is a revelation, the poet and blues musician has a gift for storytelling and deconstructs so much of the moonlight and magnolia mythology of Southern literature and culture. “This album is a Southern Gothic from the point of view of a young Black girl growing up in the Deep South,” she told us earlier this year on the Reckon Interview. “What would that mean for her? What would gothic mean for her?” For us, it means one of the best records to emerge from the South in years. Buy it here. 

Memphis-based Yebba has had a hell of a debut, from a feature and a song title shout out on Drake’s album “Certified Lover Boy” to the attention and praise of industry legends like Missy Elliott and production on her album from Mark Ronson. Her breathy, soulful voice lends a seductive quality to much of “Dawn” and her lyrics nimbly examine themes like grief, betrayal and success. Buy it here. 

Young Dolph is dead. Long live Dolph and Paper Route Empire! Despite Dolph’s murder sending shockwaves across his native Memphis and the hip hop universe, Paper Route Illiminati is a hopeful beacon of the future for the independent label Dolph started a decade ago. The compilation project highlights the label’s deep roster of talent, including Key Glock (Dolph’s frequent collaborator/cousin and PRE’s next most successful artists who this fall dropped his second studio album, Yellow Tape 2) to newcomers like Joddy Badass, a Brooklyn-born MC who bills herself PRE’s First Lady. Y’all, Dolph was signing artists from NYC. It had only just begun. 

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