Over the past year, I’ve kept loose track via WILT of the albums I was obsessed with each month. A short term affair, however, does not automatically create a favorite album worthy of a year. This year featured a lot of powerhouse releases from some of my favorite artists, new debuts, and great finds from the past as well. Since I predominantly listen to lyrical music on Spotify, an album really had to catch my attention for it to earn a place in my car where it would then be on infinite loop for every early drive to work. At one point, my entire 6-CD stereo was full of Taylor Swift. Still, now that we’ve reached the end of the year, it’s time to separate the true favorites from the fondness.
This year was, in some ways, a struggle but these albums pulled me through.
- DEMIDEVIL by Ashnikko (2021). I discovered this artist last year and, lucky for me, 2021 began with the release of this debut. It has all of the infectiousness of pop-trap virality with the same lack of sensibility that made me love the Millionaires. The production is slick and the lyrics are clever. Tracks such as “Deal with It” and “L8r Boi” sample and build off of previous artists. There’s a devil-may-care attitude to this whole concept which I love because it feels open, fun, and brings a new take on sexuality in music. I’ve listened to this album while cooking too many times to count.
- Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish (2021). I loved Eilish’s EP and debut so it was safe to assume I’d love her second album too. However, what I found was a transformation of sound, a searing indictment on power dynamics, and raw emotion delivered in so many different ways. I find it funny now in hindsight to realize I was listening and loving the singles for this album long before it was released, but the wait was worth it. Obviously, the titular track steals attention in the way it moves from a soft portrait of moving on from a relationship into a tempest of frustration and anger. If you haven’t yet screamed at the top of your lungs while driving to this song, I highly recommend it. Other tracks such as “Oxytocin”, “Halley’s Comet”, “NDA”, and “Therefore I Am” all build on this narrative in various ways and really showcase Eilish’s talent and the productions’ ability. It hasn’t left my car once.
- Inside (The Songs) by Bo Burnham (2021). If you saw this on my favorite movies list then it was pretty obvious it was going to be a favorite album too. Not only are some of the songs instant earworms, but the satire and humor in so many of them make it perfect for those days when you need a boost. From the relatable content of “White Woman’s Instagram” to “Look Who’s Inside Again”, we get a range in emotion as the discourse on media output and consumption is analyzed in a musically meta way. Tracks like “That Funny Feeling” and “Goodbye” bring new levels and really showcase Burnham’s lyricism and ability to create motifs overall. For some reason, I really like listening to this album while cleaning or doing laundry.
- if i could make it go quiet by girl in red (2021). This debut studio album from one of my favorite artists really delivers in a lot of different ways. We still get the same amazing songwriting, but the production and sound are quite different from earlier EPs. I love how the album covers everything from intrusive thoughts to falling in love to confrontation. Some of my favorite songs are “Serotonin”, “Body and Mind”, and “I’ll Call You Mine.” It has my favorite kind of sound in that a lot of the lyrics are depressing but the sound is upbeat. The album has featured in a lot of my morning routines, random dance breaks, and was my choice for the drive to my make-up graduation ceremony in May. Really, it delivers on so many levels.
- If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power by Halsey (2021). I haven’t met a Halsey album I haven’t loved yet. And she continues to transform with every one even as her signature rasp carries her through the songs on this dramatic concept. With production by part of Nine Inch Nails, her usual alt-pop sound becomes grungier here as it further addresses topics of femininity, motherhood, and pregnancy. It has all the cinematic oomph of mid-2000s emo with the clean sound of today. The tracks, in some way, blend together but stand out as they play. Songs like “Darling”, “honey”, “Whispers”, “The Lighthouse”, and “Ya’aburnee” all have their own vibe and sound but are carried through by the theme and Halsey’s voice. The lyricism, at times, captures you with a unique pain or insight and then releases you. This is another car album that gave me energy in early mornings or after long days because it carries power.
- Welcome to Horrorwood: Silver Scream 2 by Ice Nine Kills (2021). This entire concept album features songs inspired by horror movies. Of course I was going to love it. I’m only sad I didn’t discover their earlier work sooner, but the hype was already built and I eagerly awaited its release. Some tracks are more obvious than others in what they’re based off of, but others feel like hidden gems for those who really love this genre. The sound is also reminiscent of mid-2000s emo but with more octane and better lyrics. It’s hard to pick favorite tracks, but “Assault & Batteries”, “The Shower Scene”, “Hip to Be Scared (feat. Jacoby Shaddix)”, and “Wurst Vacation” were played on repeat. Each song has musical homages to the films they’re based off of, such as in “Assault & Batteries” when the theme song for Toys R Us can be heard in the chorus—which is fitting since this is based on Child’s Play. If you love horror and want an album that encapsulates some of the most popular films we have, then this is it.
- star-crossed by Kacey Musgraves (2021). I do not gatekeep Kacey Musgraves from new people, but—after her Grammy-winning Golden Hour—I do like to point out I’ve been here since 2013. I’ve been here for the sound transformations and how her subject matter has shifted a little bit with every album. And, yes, star-crossed is a divorce album but not in the same way The Chicks’ Gaslighter was last year. Instead, it really delves into how two people can fall in love, share a life, fall apart, and the ramifications of all that with a kind of tenderness. Tracks such as “good wife”, “breadwinner”, “camera roll”, and “hookup scene” detail a relationship that feels all too relatable on many levels. While the sound leans more pop than traditional county, the funky beats and twang are all still there and make for a good or melancholy time depending on the song. This is also a good album for introspective road trips.
- Montero by Lil Nas X (2021). If we were worried that “Old Town Road” was going to be Lil Nas X’s one hit then this album put that idea to bed. Not only does it amplify the clean production, the lyricism, and the variety of sounds, but it also freely showcases how unique of a talent this artist is. While the opening title track may have caused a delightful amount of controversy due to its music video, it is definitely a banger to begin with and the album doesn’t let up from there. There’s a good mix of party songs with dance beats and slower numbers that really tear your heart out. “THATS WHAT I WANT” and “LIFE AFTER SALEM” really display the variety in tonality. The songs shift and transform one into the other so effortlessly. Features by Elton John, Miley Cyrus, Doja Cat, and Megan Thee Stallion make for an unpredictable but satisfying mix. If you haven’t already, give this a listen.
- Solar Power AND Te Ao Mārama by Lorde (2021). I’m including both the original and the te reo version of this album because I love them both. Lorde’s third album had a lot of hype since it’s been five years since Melodrama, critically beloved by the depressed and heartbroken. I can understand the polarization in this album’s reviews, however. This is a carefree, escapist, psychedelic journey into self-care and actualization. In the midst of much of America’s troubles, that was not what people wanted. It worked for me. The wistful turn of her voice and the tumble of the more mellow music make this a good album for relaxation and getting away. Songs like “Mood Ring”, “Hold No Grudge”, and “Mata Kohore/Stoned at the Nail Salon” capture what it feels like to leave everything behind for a while. And, sometimes, that’s exactly what we need.
- SOUR by Olivia Rodrigo (2021). In terms of surprises of the year this was it. The lead single, “drivers license” was released in January and by May we were all hyped as hell for this album full of teenage girl angst. Nods to artists like Taylor Swift and Paramore make this something that reminds me of younger days, but Rodrigo accurately captures so much of the emotional turmoil surrounding unhealthy relationships. While the higher octane tracks mostly made it on the radio, most of the album is relatively sedate as it mourns this relationship. While tracks like “jealousy, jealousy” are hidden bangers, others like “traitor”, “enough for you”, and “favorite crime” display the levels of hurt one incident can create. So, yeah, if you’re going through feels this is perfect listening.
- People Don’t Change by PJ Harding and Noah Cyrus (2021). This EP takes what I loved about Cyrus’ EP last year and meshes it with Harding’s well-matched voice. While there are only six songs (and I wish there were more!), each one really carries its weight in storytelling, tonality, thematic oomph, and more. The acoustic sound is gentle in nature but catches your attention. In some ways, this reminds me of an early Civil Wars with only the soft songs. “Dear August” and “Cannonball” are highlights for me, but the EP, as a whole, feels cohesive. I hope that these artists continue to collaborate and produce more work together because it’s a genuine connection when they do. This album is perfect for quiet solitary nights.
- Red (Taylor’s Version) by Taylor Swift (2021). Unlike last year, I’m only including one Taylor Swift album in a year when there were two. While I did enjoy Fearless (Taylor’s Version), I found that I haven’t listened to it as much as I’d hoped—that may be because I listened to the other version too many times in younger days or because the bonus tracks didn’t catch my attention in the same way sound-wise. (It’s still good though). Red (Taylor’s Version), however, is another story. My friends and I had a virtual listening party when it released, panicked when Spotify wouldn’t load, and then I sobbed my way through half of it until I was dehydrated. What I already loved became so much more through the maturity and understanding in Swift’s vocals. The production on quite a few of the songs has changed. We finally have a 10-minute version of “All Too Well” and it is as emotionally devastating as we expected. It brought new life to something that was already beloved. Some tracks that stand out are “Treacherous (Taylor’s Version)”, “Begin Again (Taylor’s Version)”, “Nothing New (feat. Phoebe Bridgers)(Taylor’s Version)(From the Vault)”, and “I Bet You Think About Me (feat. Chris Stapleton)(Taylor’s Version)(From the Vault).” Are the long titles a bit ridiculous? Maybe, but if Taylor owns it her name is on it, and we respect that.
- 36 Questions: The Deluxe Album performed by Jonathan Groff and Jessie Shelton (2017). 2021 was the year where I really tried to listen to podcasts for the first time. I spent a good chunk of time enjoying The Self-Love Fix, but it was this unique form of a musical that really caught my attention. Without clear visual action, Groff and Shelton manage to convey an entire story as an estranged couple try to reconnect via the 36 Questions That Lead to Love. Not only are the songs fantastic, but the sound design and production are great as well—really creating an auditory story through voice memos versus reading a script. “For the Record”, “Our Word”, and “Listen Back” utilize the recording technology well but also create great imagery in the audiences’ minds through certain kinds of specificity. It’s a little under three hours long to listen to the entire podcast and definitely worth it, but this album has just the songs and is about an hour long (which tells you how much dialogue there otherwise is). It captures a realistic and human story in interesting ways and the songs all build on that in great musical fashion.
This year was—obviously—dominated by new releases. While I did listen to other albums and old favorites, nothing quite caught my attention as much as these did. It’s my hope that in 2022 I’ll find some old gems, add some much-needed diversity to my listening, and open my mind to things I hadn’t thought of liking before. Overall, 2021 has been a great year for music. The albums have carried me on a musical wave from January to December so fast it seems impossible. We’ll have to wait and see what the new year brings.