A Year in Review: 2021’s Best Albums
Reading Time: 11 minutes
Music can often be a sign of the times. When 2020 kicked off with Justin Bieber’s critically abhorred single “Yummy”, the world immediately began having doubts about how the ensuing calendar year would go. Accordingly, 2021 has truly been a mixed bag. While the year saw some artists breathe fresh air into a variety of genres, it also saw others stoop to new lows of creative bankruptcy (we’re looking at you, Drake). However, through all the noise, a choice few artists were able to hone their craft and produce cohesive, formative, and impactful bodies of work. From Arlo Parks to Vince Staples, here were the 10 best projects from the past year.
10. “Collapsed in Sunbeams” by Arlo Parks
In her debut album, Arlo Parks uses acoustic sound and a soothing voice to touch on timely world issues. Her breakout single, “Hurt,” describes a struggle with mental health, sung with intention over a comforting beat. She asks her audience, “Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely to feel somethin’ for once? / Yeah, wouldn’t it be lovely to feel worth somethin’?” At only 21 years old, Parks is unafraid to tackle underrepresented difficulties in romance. On “Eugene,” she sings, “I kind of fell half in love and you’re to blame / I guess I just forgot that we’ve been mates since day,” describing the complexity of queer relationships––especially those between close friends.
Parks makes her audience feel heard and embraced with her warm words throughout the 12 tracks, a difficult task to achieve in a debut album. While most of the album floats in an acoustic, airy territory, Parks also explores funkier tones with songs like “Bluish” and “Green Eyes.” And when the album’s over, Parks leaves listeners better off than before. “Collapsed in Sunbeams” is a beautiful listen––a sonic daydream full of harsh realities.
9. “MONTERO” by Lil Nas X
For the past three years, every article, review, and feature to mention Lil Nas X (Montero Lamar Hill) has inevitably begun with an admission of shock over the 22-year-old rapper’s continued relevance in a music world that seemed poised to chew him up and spit him out. But Nas X’s underdog success story has been rehashed quite enough––at this point, it’s better to face the facts: Lil Nas X is here to stay.
As such, an infectious sense of triumph seems to punctuate every moment of the Georgia rapper’s debut album. The most explicit example of this exultation is found on “INDUSTRY BABY,” a song that gave Hill his third number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. On the track, Lil Nas X and rapper Jack Harlow trade verses, patting themselves on the back over a massive collection of horns and swamping 808 basses.
But Lil Nas X’s celebration isn’t always as front and center as on “INDUSTRY BABY”––rather, it manifests in the experimentation that Nas X has the courage to make. Tracks like “AM I DREAMING,” “SUN GOES DOWN,” and “TALES OF DOMINICA” see Hill grappling with more substantive lyrical content––his mother’s alcoholism, his sexuality, and his troubled childhood––to remarkable effect. These moments of self-reflection spread between danceable anthems and victory laps give the album a depth that separates Nas X from so many of his peers. As Lil Nas puts it on “INDUSTRY BABY,” “I ain’t lost since I began.”
8. “Vince Staples” by Vince Staples
Clocking in at only 22 minutes long, “Vince Staples” sees the eponymous rapper coasting through a rapid-fire selection of smooth beats and witty punchlines. The album, produced by Staples’s longtime friend and collaborator Kenny Beats, carries a consistent sway that makes each song easy on the ears.
Adhering to the self-titled album formula, “Vince Staples” sees Staples at his most autobiographical. Tracks like “SUNDOWN TOWN” discuss Staples’s chaotic childhood, during which he struggled to find peace in a volatile environment. He raps, “Then they put us out, we was sleeping on my auntie couch / Then she put us out, stomach growling, stealing from the Ralph’s.” He effortlessly intertwines his syrupy intonation with fraught internal conflict, leaving listeners on the edge of their seats. On the Fousheé-featuring “TAKE ME HOME,” Staples contrasts a breezy, instrumental soundtrack against a set of haunting lyrics. “When it's quiet out I hear the sound of those who rest in peace,” Staples raps, never losing his unique sense of lyrical clarity while depicting the intense reality of his own home.
Instrumentally, “Vince Staples” uses soothing plucks and hypnotizing percussion loops to highlight weighted commentary on Staples’s battles with money, violence, danger, and fame. It can be a simple listen to leave on during a study session or an intense poetic experience on a long train ride. The choice is left to listeners.
7. “Valentine” by Snail Mail
“Post-rehab, I’ve been feeling so small / I miss your attention, I wish I could call.”
So sings 22-year-old Lindsey Jordan, better known by her stage name Snail Mail, on the second track of her 2021 effort “Valentine.” And as this lyric would suggest, Jordan’s rise to fame has been nothing if not tumultuous. At the tail end of her teenage years, the star skyrocketed into the public eye, had to navigate a sea of prospective record contracts, and became the face of indie rock for a new generation. All of this pressure landed Jordan in a rehabilitation facility for over a month in late 2020, an experience that looms over “Valentine”’s 30-minute runtime.
But Jordan doesn’t let her struggles solely define her musical narrative. At its core, “Valentine” is an album about love (or a lack thereof). Tracks like “Light Blue” and “Madonna” act as lovesick anthems for a lonesome post-quarantine world, chock full of quotables about idealizing a romantic partner.
Sonically, Snail Mail expertly traverses over the full palette of indie stylings established by her and her peers in recent years. Songs like “Mia” see Jordan lamenting over soft strings and hushed strums, while tracks like “Ben Franklin” see a sardonic Snail Mail lashing out over feedback-ridden guitars and a pounding drum line. Whether she’s gliding over glossy synths or airing out her frustrations on top of pealing basslines, Snail Mail has a true mastery over her lane of indie rock.
6. “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert” by Little Simz
Little Simz’s fourth studio album, “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert,” raises the bar for the UK rapper’s already flourishing career. Over the years, Simz has set her place among icons, receiving acclaim from Kendrick Lamar and going on tour with Ms. Lauryn Hill. The rapper’s 2021 effort showcases Simz’s ability to stay authentic to her unique tone while switching up sonics and themes over 19 tracks. She balances empowerment with sorrow between songs and even within songs. On “Woman,” Simz appreciates women of different backgrounds, admiring the strength and light they display. She sings, “You’ve got this (woman to woman, I just wanna see you glow),” echoing this album’s theme of appreciating the underrepresented.
This is especially impactful coming from a woman in a male-dominated rap industry, especially in the United Kingdom. She expands on other barriers she has faced, displaying vulnerability in “I Love You, I Hate You,” while discussing her ambivalent feelings toward her absent father. She raps, “Never thought my parent would give me my first heartbreak / Anxiety givin' me irregular heart rate.” Listeners hear the realistic back-and-forth Simz unpacks when deciding whether to feel sympathy toward her struggling father or disgust toward his inability to stick around. Little Simz bravely tests new sounds across the entire “Sometimes” and explores both personal and societal dilemmas.
5. “An Evening With Silk Sonic” by Silk Sonic
“An Evening With Silk Sonic” probably shouldn’t exist. With five years worth of distance from his last full-length studio album, fans of superstar Bruno Mars were anxiously anticipating a radio-ready comeback single primed to land at the top of Spotify Editorial Playlists and Billboard charts alike. What they got was something much better.
“Leave The Door Open”––the first single from “An Evening”––gave audiences an early taste of the formidable matchup between Mars and collaborator Anderson .Paak (together Silk Sonic). Propelled by silky harmonies, buttery vocals, and crackling chemistry between the two stars, the single was truly indicative of the album’s overall sound and quality. Eight grueling months of waiting later, the full project arrived.
At the core of the nine-track-long romp is a clear love and appreciation for the R&B and soul stylings of the 1980s. Tracks like “After Last Night” (featuring legendary bassist Bootsy Collins and rising funk star Thundercat) and “Blast Off,” slapped basses and sliding guitars usher in a slice of laid-back, groove-heavy nostalgia. Other tracks take the ‘80s homage in a different direction, using screaming brass hits and clanking percussion as a medium for joyful braggadocio and rapid-fire flows.
Even though it was a long shot, “An Evening With Silk Sonic” reaffirmed the importance of passion in any musical body of work. Carried by respect and adoration for a genre of years past, Silk Sonic managed to revamp ‘80s funk for a new generation. Hopefully, the duo can serve as a roadmap for artists looking to pull similar stunts in the future; following creative whims has certainly done wonders for Silk Sonic.
4. “Happier Than Ever” by Billie Eilish
In her second studio album, Billie Eilish addresses the drastic changes and jarring difficulties that accompany a rapid journey to stardom. “Happier Than Ever” is an astonishing 16-track album that is a far cry from her debut project. With “Happier,” Eilish demonstrates incredible versatility, creating a sonic diversity that is carried across the entire 56-minute run.
The album’s core theme is introduced with vulnerability in the album opener “Getting Older,” as Eilish strikes a sorrowful balance between being thankful for her career and antagonized by the pressure it brings. She sings, “I’m getting older, I’ve got more on my shoulders / But I’m getting better at admitting when I’m wrong.” While Eilish has had an objectively unrelatable past few years––seven Grammys, billions of streams, chart-topping hits––her album’s themes remain grounded, discussing fears in change and social pressures. Eilish also touches on shocking yet real issues that young women face in the hands of abusive men. “Your Power” explores exploitative relationships, and her lyrics hold weight in their truth––each line is carefully constructed to dismantle an issue Eilish has experienced, or is experiencing, as a young woman.
The title track of this album alone can silence any doubt spewed toward Eilish’s sheer talent and versatility. The song begins an unassuming ukulele track with a jazzy melody, territory that Billie has traversed before. However, midway through the song’s 5-minute runtime, an electric guitar line gradually picks up, ushering in a more aggressive shift in tone. At its peak, Eilish roars, “And I don't talk [EXPLETIVE] about you on the Internet,” escalating the song to a rock ballad filled with white-hot rage. In only five minutes, Eilish seamlessly turns a polite sound into a distorted brawl in a way that is completely unique to her.
3. “Home Video” by Lucy Dacus
2021 proved to be a landmark year for the members of musical collective boygenius. Indie superstar Phoebe Bridgers saw her fame balloon to new heights with a string of festival appearances and tour stops. Julien Baker released her critically acclaimed third studio album “Little Oblivions,” which saw her opening up her sound to a more orchestrated effect. But Lucy Dacus took the cake. With intricate storytelling, unparalleled composition, and endless personal effect, the 26-year-old’s autobiographical “Home Video” set a new standard for the modern alternative and indie scene.
From the opening chords of “Hot & Heavy,” the project’s introductory track, Lucy Dacus is a storyteller. Throughout the subsequent 11 tracks, she details her childhood development in Richmond, Virginia, from “curse words and empty cups” to escapist fantasies and Vacation Bible School. By the end of the album’s 45-minute run, Dacus has constructed an intricate portrait of herself.
Working hand-in-hand with this meticulous personal narrative is a set of painstaking instrumentals, where every strum, pluck, crash, and note feels meditated. Tracks like “Triple Dog Dare” and “VBS” see Lucy flex her full palette of production techniques, beginning with soft chords and gentle tones and closing with tumbling drums and crushing distortion. Other songs, such as “Brando” and “Partner in Crime,” see Dacus taking creative risks, breaking the familiarity of her guitar-driven ballads to diversify her sound.
2. “SOUR” by Olivia Rodrigo
At the roar of a car engine and door chime, listeners around the world brace themselves for Olivia Rodrigo’s emotional rollercoaster, “drivers license.” This debut song opened and stayed at number one on the Billboard Top 100 chart for eight consecutive weeks, giving Rodrigo a massive following even before she released her debut album. The now-multi-platinum project boasts 11 tracks that took the world by storm, becoming an unlikely candidate for 2021’s most replayable album.
“SOUR” puts words to the mental anguish of modern teenage life, and the love, heartbreak, betrayal, and insecurity that underscores it all. While a breakup narrative stays consistent throughout the 34-minute-long run, there is discernible diversity between the tracks. Rodrigo opens with “brutal,” a fiery rocker that crushes her scornful vocals with layers of distorted guitars and drums. In just the next track, Rodrigo is harmonizing over soft guitar hits and a soaring bass. This sonic diversity is present throughout the album, which jets between acoustic ballads, pop-punk rockers, and radio-ready anthems with a clear zeal and appreciation for each genre.
While some argue that Rodrigo’s lyricality has the potential to strengthen in meaning and poise, its simplicity is relatable. In “enough for you,” she sings, “I wore makeup when we dated / 'Cause I thought you'd like me more,” addressing a universally understood feeling of assimilation to a cultural standard. Rodrigo doesn’t need overly flowery language and slow-building lyrical schemes to get her point across; if nothing else, she specializes in the art of instant gratification. At only 18 years old, Rodrigo has already had an undeniable impact on the pop world, racking up accolades and taking over the charts. It will be interesting to see whether Rodrigo’s future projects expand on her existing stardom or sink under the high standard set by this breakout debut.
1. “Call Me If You Get Lost” by Tyler, the Creator
The phrase “Call Me If You Get Lost” seems at first glance to be an offer of help––should you find yourself lost, a quick dial to Tyler, the Creator might set you on the right path. However, in the context of the album, the phrase (which is repeated dozens of times across several tracks) takes on an entirely different meaning. “Call Me If You Get Lost” becomes a solicitation for invitation; Tyler might not set you on the right path, but he’ll gladly get lost with you.
This wide-eyed approach is present throughout the 16-track run of “Call Me.” Tracks like “CORSO” and “WILSHIRE” see Tyler spiraling through bouts of self-doubt, overcompensating for a myriad of perceived deficits. Other tracks, such as “RISE!” and “LEMONHEAD” do little more than give Tyler a forum to spit rapid-fire self-aggrandizements. But on an album like “Call Me,” these unsubtle flexes are welcome interjections between the weighty content found on other tracks. Sometimes there’s nothing better than hearing Tyler, the Creator count off his luxury cars over a crushing piano line and explosive drums.
The beauty of “Call Me” is found in this balance. Tyler is at his most mature to date on the project while simultaneously revealing more insecurities than ever. The album features the robust sonic palette that fans have come to expect while also harkening back to his albums of years past. Even once the 52-minute journey is over, it’s clear that Tyler is still just as lost as we are. He just wants somebody to find his way back with.
“Sling” by Clairo
“Little Oblivions” by Julien Baker
“30” by Adele
“Juno” by Remi Wolf
“star-crossed” by Kacey Musgraves
“Donda” by Kanye West
“Heaux Tales” by Jazmine Sullivan