Despite what we're sometimes led to believe, jazz hasn't been relegated to the halls of academia, it isn't background music, and it certainly isn't dead. It's constantly in the DNA of the music that does dominate the zeitgeist in the 21st century, including tons of today's best hip hop and electronic music, and it pops up in some of today's rock, pop, metal, folk, and other styles of music too. On top of all that, jazz itself is full of musicians who continue to innovate, push the genre forward, and blend it with other styles of music. If you haven't been actively seeking out new music in the jazz realm, you might be surprised at what you'll find, and at how similar some of it is to the aforementioned styles of music.

There were hundreds of jazz albums released in 2021, and we've put together a list of 12 great ones that we think everyone should hear (including a few that are also on our main year-end list). We're not calling it the 12 "best," because the truth is we haven't devoured enough of 2021's jazz albums to make that call, but we think these are 12 very strong ones that would appeal to you whether you're a student of the Blue Note catalog or you're just kinda curious what new stuff the genre has to offer.

Read on for the list, in no particular order, and if your favorite jazz album of 2021 isn't here, leave it in the comments.

Floating Points Pharoah Sanders
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Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises
Luaka Bop

For his first major album in over a decade, spiritual jazz legend (and Alice and John Coltrane collaborator) Pharoah Sanders teamed up with jazz-friendly electronic musician Floating Points and The London Symphony Orchestra, and the result is an album unlike anything that either Pharoah Sanders or Floating Points have ever made. Owing just as much to ambient music as it does to jazz, it's a blissful, ethereal, meditative album that revolves around a simple keyboard and saxophone motif that repeats and morphs and evolves throughout the album's nine movements but always lands back where it began. It's far more bare than Pharoah Sanders' maximalist classics, but its simplicity is deceptive and its melodies are some of 2021's most hypnotic and enduring.

Pick this up on marble vinyl here.

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Sons of Kemet
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Sons of Kemet - Black to the Future
Impulse!

Shabaka Hutchings remains at the forefront of the thrilling London jazz scene, and between his groups Sons of Kemet, Shabaka and the Ancestors, and The Comet Is Coming, rarely a year passes without a top-tier new album from him. This year brought Black to the Future, the latest album from the maximalist Afrobeat-tinged Sons of Kemet, and it's yet another stunning piece of work from Shabaka & co. With appearances from Moor Mother, Angel Bat Dawid, Kojey Radical, Lianne La Havas, and others, it sounds even more communal than Sons of Kemet usually do, and those artists help incorporate elements of spoken word, hip hop, R&B, and more. The instrumentation is lively and constantly in motion, and it was largely inspired by the mass social/political unrest of 2020, but it sounds hopeful and uplifting. As the album title implies, this is music that's working towards a better future.

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Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble - Now
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Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble - NOW
International Anthem

A lot of protest music criticizes an unjust past, some of it hopes for a better future; Damon Locks wants to know "what happens NOW?" He and his Black Monument Ensemble (which includes Angel Bat Dawid, Ben LaMar Gay, Dana Hall, Arif Smith, and a six-piece choir) wrote this album during the tense summer of 2020, and it reverberates with the same urgency as the protesters who filled the streets at that time. The multiple vocalists and samples speak to what was happening all around us that summer (and still now), and it comes together in a way that stresses the power of community and strength in numbers, as Damon and his collaborators simultaneously provide a musical backdrop that carefully blurs the lines between jazz, soul, Afrobeat, hip hop, and more. It transcends genre in a way that's so welcoming and uniting that it can draw you in even if you're not an avid jazz or Afrobeat listener, and though the songs are informed by unrest, these electrifying rhythms and melodies never fail to lift your spirit.

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Nala Sinephro
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Nala Sinephro - Space 1.8
Warp

If you like the Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders album and want something else to scratch a similar ambient jazz itch, the debut album from UK composer Nala Sinephro makes for a wonderful companion. Featuring contributions from Nubya Garcia and members of Ezra Collective, Maisha, Nérija, Sons of Kemet, and more, Space 1.8 features a who's who of the thriving UK jazz scene, but it doesn't really sound like any of Nala's peers and collaborators. Like the Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders album, it's presented as one grand piece broken up into various movements, and even its most minimal moments are entrancing. It incorporates elements of classic mid 20th century jazz, futuristic synths, drifting Eno-esque ambient textures, and more, resulting in an album that feels both comfortingly familiar and startlingly new.

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Vijay Iyer
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Vijay Iyer/Linda May Han Oh/Tyshawn Sorey - Uneasy
ECM

From its tribute to police brutality victim Eric Garner ("Combat Breathing") to its lament for the Flint water crisis ("Children of Flint"), much of the music on Uneasy was written in response to unrest and injustice, and you can hear pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey's passion for the subject matter coming through in their fiery performances on this album. But even if you went in blind, not knowing any of the album's backstory or any of its song titles, Uneasy would be recognizable as some of the year's finest jazz compositions. It's one of the more traditional sounding albums on this list, with warm, acoustic instrumentation that pulls from '60s post-bop, and it feels as timeless as many of the greats of that era.

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Emma-Jean Thackray
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Emma-Jean Thackray - Yellow
Movementt

"I approached the record by trying to simulate a life-changing psychedelic experience," UK musician Emma-Jean Thackray says of her debut full-length Yellow, and these 14 tracks live up to that description. Across the album, she weaves together elements of cosmic jazz, thumping dance beats, '70s funk and soul, and a heaping dose of psychedelia, and the result is an album that's as warm and welcoming as it is mind-bending and ever-changing. Some tracks are powered by meditative instrumentals, others by soaring, uplifting vocals. It's an album where you're dancing to one song, and zoning out to the next. It's so overstuffed with ideas that you wonder if Emma-Jean's ever bitten off more than she can chew, but she always proves to be a master, capable of tying all of her wildest ideas together.

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Pino Palladino Blake Mills
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Pino Palladino and Blake Mills - Notes With Attachments
New Deal/Impulse!

Pino Palladino is a veteran session bassist who's played with everyone from D'Angelo to Elton John to The Who to Erykah Badu to Paul Simon to Adele to Nine Inch Nails to Perfume Genius, and Blake Mills is a singer/songwriter who's also a frequent Fiona Apple collaborator and one of the musicians on Bob Dylan's Rough and Rowdy Ways. Both are much more prolific in the rock/pop world than anything else, but together, they've written one of the best jazz albums of 2021. Pulling also from funk, rock, West African music, and more, the album defies easy categorization, and it offers up riveting instrumentals that constantly morph and change shape as the album goes on. It's groovy and maximalist at times, airy and chilled-out at others, and it covers tons of ground in between those two extremes. It's not an album you would've expected from either of these musicians, but if you didn't know any better, you'd think these two had been one of jazz music's dynamic duos for years.

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Irreversible Entanglements
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Irreversible Entanglements - Open The Gates
Don Giovanni

Irreversible Entanglements -- the group with Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother) on vocals, plus Luke Stewart, Keir Neuringer, Aquiles Navarro, and Tcheser Holmes -- continue to carve out their own unique free-jazz-meets-beat-poetry lane on their third full-length, Open The Gates. The album was recorded in one day in January 2021, when lockdown was still in full swing, and you can feel the nervous energy of that time period, as well as the urgency that comes with recording an album this quickly. Like a lot of classic jazz albums, this captures Irreversible Entanglements in the moment. It doesn't sound like they tinkered with it much in the studio; it feels raw and alive. Pick up a copy on 'Sands of Color' vinyl.

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Makaya McCraven
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Makaya McCraven - Deciphering The Message
Blue Note

In the spirit of albums like 1996's The New Groove: The Blue Note Remix Project, 2003's Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note, and 2004's Blue Note Revisited, and last year's Blue Note Re:Imagined, Makaya McCraven has taken 13 classics from the Blue Note catalog and updated and remixed them, making them fit right in with today's hip hop, electronic music, and forward-thinking styles of jazz, without losing the enduring power of the originals. Like Madlib and J Dilla and other likeminded artists before him, Makaya is bridging the gap between classic Blue Note and modern music, proving the endurance of the classics to the new generation and proving to the old guard that today's jazz musicians have something to say.

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Jaubi
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Jaubi - Nafs At Peace
Astigmatic

In an interview with Downbeat, Ali Riaz Baqar -- guitarist and lead composer of the Pakistanki group Jaubi -- spoke about how he was listening to a lot of John Coltrane's pioneering spiritual jazz album A Love Supreme, and reading about how Coltrane was influenced by Ravi Shankar, and then he thought, "Why don’t I try to write a spiritual jazz raga, so to speak?" And that's exactly what he, his group Jaubi, UK producer/multi-instrumentalist Tenderlonious, and Polish composer Latarnik did with Jaubi's debut album Nafs At Peace. Recorded during the same sessions that produced Tenderlonious' 2020 album Ragas From Lahore: Improvisations with Jaubi, Nafs At Peace is a near-seamless fusion of Indian classical music, spiritual jazz, and the neck-snapping rhythms of modern-day hip hop. Instead of drawing lines between different eras and genres and continents, Jaubi remind you that all of this stuff eventually finds a way to connect in the end, and they came out with a shimmering, shapeshifting album in the process.

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Alfa Mist Bring Backs
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Alfa Mist - Bring Backs
ANTI-

UK musician Alfa Mist makes what can rightfully be considered jazz, but he didn't start at the source. He found jazz from listening to hip hop producers like Madlib, J Dilla, and Hi-Tek. "There’s no access to jazz where I’m from," Alfa says. "There’s no way I would have come to it without finding those hip-hop records and wanting to understand them." On his new album (and ANTI- debut) Bring Backs, you can hear Alfa connecting the dots between the hip hop producers that initially inspired him and the classic jazz that it led him to. The album's as smooth and warm as hard bop era Miles, but the beats snap like modern hip hop and electronic music. Alfa also incorporates psych-rock guitar, guest soul singing (from Kaya Thomas-Dyke) and rapping (from Lex Amor), and an array of multi-generational sounds and styles. Bring Backs sounds vintage and futuristic all at once, and even with the current wave of hip hop-infused jazz musicians growing at a rapid rate, this album stands out from the pack.

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Esperanza Spalding
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Esperanza Spalding - Songwrights Apothecary Lab
Concord

15 years on from her debut album as a bandleader, Esperanza Spalding continues to experiment not just with musical ideas but also with the very form of an album. For Songwrights Apothecary Lab, she spent several months leading a traveling music "lab" that she described as "half songwriting workshop, half guided research practice," and which featured Esperanza teaming up with various musicians, therapists, neuroscientists, and other specialists to explore the healing power of music through a series of compositions called "Formwelas." If it sounds a little too high-concept or cerebral on paper, just listen to it. Even if you knew nothing about this album, it wouldn't take long to realize these are gorgeous, visceral jazz-soul songs with immediate impact. Considering it feels so good to listen to, maybe this album really does possess healing power.

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More year-end lists here.

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