2021 IN REVIEW: Top 10 Albums of the Year

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Artistic exploration entered an entirely new terrain in 2021. After live music was ripped out of our hands for nearly two years, we were finally reunited with our favorite artists during the summer of 2021 as musicians went on COVID protocol-filled tours and appeared at festivals. 

With the prospect of performing new music onstage for live audiences, artists took their work to a new level. The morale boost that comes with the vision of hearing a song sung slightly off-key by eager fans shines through the records that were released this year.

As you submit your final papers, you’re going to need some new jams to celebrate with. Read on for The Monitor’s top albums and songs of 2021 and add your favorites to your “end of 2021” playlist.

  1. Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett: Love For Sale

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s beautiful artistic relationship is eternalized on this tribute to American composer Cole Porter. Love For Sale features solos from both musicians as well as duets. Their vocal connection is undeniable and a listen through the album provokes visualizations of the pair glimmering on the stage of Radio City Music Hall. 

Lady Gaga shows off her gorgeously rich vocal qualities that are a perfect marriage with the swooning dips and glides of Porter’s jazz standards. And though Bennett’s voice reflects his advanced age (95), he still brings incredible power to the numbers. The instrumentation of the album provides the perfect amount of dramatic swells to pair with both Lady Gaga and Bennett’s vocal expertise. 

And, of course, we listen and we remember Lady Gaga’s overwhelming emotion when Bennett recognized her and recalled her name onstage despite his battles with Alzheimer’s disease. Although the duo’s 2021 performance at Radio City Music Hall was titled “One Last Time”, Love For Sale ensures that their music will live on forever. 

  1. Lucy Dacus: Home Video

Philadelphia-based singer songwriter Lucy Dacus has apparent ties to 2020 and 2021’s favorite Phoebe Bridgers. Dacus and Bridgers joined forces with Julien Baker to form Boygenius in 2018, and Dacus’ 2021 solo album provides similar folk-esque melodies with thought-provoking lyrics that continue to maintain popularity amongst a variety of age brackets.

Home Video transports listeners through a three dimensional timeline of Dacus’ life as she paints an autobiographical portrait and tells about her personal navigation of queerness. Driving strums of carefully calculated acoustic guitar chords and slow, grounding backbeats create a sturdy orb around the album as a whole that causes listening to become an extremely internal experience. Well crafted and emotionally impactful, Home Video defines itself as a memorable, story-driven album.

  1. Inhaler: It Won’t Always Be Like This

Most listeners wouldn’t immediately connect Inhaler, the Dublin-based rock band featuring four musicians just gracing their early twenties, to U2. But then you listen a little closer and you realize that lead singer Elijah Hewson’s voice sounds familiar in an ungraspable way. Finally, by the fourth track, “Cheer Up Baby”, you hear it… you hear Bono.

Hewson is U2’s star vocalist’s son, yet Inhaler’s young fan base could care less about this connection that would probably only satisfy their U2-loving parents. Inhaler’s four members are the definition of swoon-worthy rock-and-rollers, with stylish haircuts and film photographs posted to their Instagram page. It Won’t Always Be Like This presents a classically wonderful guitar-driven portrait of an early twenty-something lifestyle while occasionally incorporating trendy synths. The album successfully built a solid platform for Inhaler to jump from as they grow as a group. 

  1. Lil Nas X: Montero

Lil Nas X’s Montero was highly anticipated after the Georgia-born rapper and singer released “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)”. The single zoomed to the top of charts and quickly gained TikTok fame.  

The album has multiple tracks as iconic in nature as the record’s namesake song. “THAT’S WHAT I WANT” quickly shot up Top 100 lists upon release and maintained a well-deserved seat in its throne at the top of Apple Music’s “Best New Songs”  list. The album’s closing track, an impassioned duet with Miley Cyrus entitled “AM I DREAMING”, shows Lil Nas X’s range as an artist and provides a wonderfully range-extending amount of emotion and passion. 

  1. Adele: 30

With a ballad like “Easy On Me” followed by a soulful yet intensely amenable track like “My Little Love” (in which she vulnerably reveals conversations with her son), Adele’s 30 soared up to the top of this year’s albums despite being released in late November. She further shows her versatility as an artist as well as her immense amount of talent and moves audiences in a way that only her music can successfully do. 

The English singer is known for moving listeners with intense emotionality woven within her songs; however, somehow, 30 takes this notion to another level. The album navigates Adele’s life after her divorce and it showcases the artist’s ability to dive into an emotional place while maintaining strength. Just like Adele’s earlier albums, 30 will forever be held with respect and admiration by listeners. 

  1. Billie Eilish: Happier Than Ever

Nineteen year old sensation Billie Eilish traverses through well-deserved fame after her first two albums (2017’s dont smile at me and 2019’s WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?) and her musical growth is apparent on new album Happier Than Ever. Opening ballad “Getting Older,” shows off her rich vocal abilities and maintains a signature electronic-based instrumental foundation. Although a bit less edgy than her 2019 album, Happier Than Ever maintains her cool-girl aesthetic while further developing her unique sound that has impacted pop music of the later 2010’s and early 2020’s as a whole.

The album’s title track, “Happier Than Ever,” gained rapid popularity. The transition between the hauntingly soft introduction to the bass-heavy, confident shift to the song’s climax is composed immaculately. Her edgy angst comes back as she passionately sings lyrics such as “‘cause i’d never treat me this shitty / you made me hate this city”. Eilish’s third studio album proves her importance in today’s industry. 

  1. Arlo Parks: Collapsed in Sunbeams

Just as the satisfyingly composed album cover photography suggests, British artist Arlo Parks’ debut album is consistently cool. As she lounges on a vintage red-leather furniture set wearing platform Converse, a corded phone hangs off the hook and a Himalayan salt lamp balances the portrait. Just as the cover is visually balanced to a chill perfection, every track maintains this effortless vibe.

Vocal harmonies rest on top of crawling groovy bass lines and rhythmically funky guitar chord patterns. As instrumentation gains a bit of drive in tracks like “Hope” and “Eugene,” Parks’ vocal register remains on the same plane. This creates an intriguing pull between the vocal lines and instrumentation, making for heightened interest with each listen. 

  1. Olivia Rodrigo: Sour

At just 18 years old, Olivia Rodrigo not only released her debut album; she also announced (and sold out) a US, Canadian, and European tour, got nominated for seven Grammy Awards, won Time Magazine’s Entertainer of the Year Award, and continued her role on Disney+ series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series

Sour is the epitome of an album that a waning teenager should write, yet it simultaneously exceeds the expected musical standard for ANY musician. While Rodrigo’s lyrics dig deep at the Gen-Z teenage experience, the album’s popularity proves that those emotional (and sometimes terrifyingly so) years of heartbreak and comparison to peers lives within you forever. Yes, it’s dark, but at least Olivia got us through the worst of our dating troubles. 

  1. Wolf Alice: Blue Weekend

Wolf Alice blends heated, driven metal with Blondie-esque, ‘80s inspired pop on the band’s third studio album. Track “How Can I Make It OK?” leads into “Play the Greatest Hits”; a listen to just these two songs showcases the album’s range while also providing the perfect balance of moshy, dance-worthy and swaying, subtle tempos. 

The London-based group’s Instagram page flaunts their musical technique and expertise in snippets of acoustic sets. Singer Ellie Rowsell shows off smooth vocals with the slightest bit of twang in an unproduced version of “How Can I Make It OK?”, making her angst-filled, monotone lyrics sneering “And you don’t like me well that isn’t f**king relevant” on popular track “Smile” all the more impressive. 

Blue Weekend was destined to be performed live for rambunctious audiences. Thankfully, live music made advances during the second half of 2021, allowing for Wolf Alice to do a fourteen-city tour throughout autumn. 

  1. Japanese Breakfast: Jubilee

“Paprika”, Jubilee’s first track, immediately blasts blaring beams of deep, red-orange sunlight through every inch of your bloodstream, providing the perfect climactic opening to an exceptional album. The album then takes listeners through a journey using classic indie pop musical elements. 

Michelle Zauner not only led Japanese Breakfast to the tops of charts and multiple Grammy nominations, she also released her first book, Crying in H Mart: A Memoir, which hit The New York Times best-seller list. Zauner’s ability to effortlessly flow words together is clear in both her novelistic work as well as her songwriting.

“Be Sweet”, the album’s second track, gained popularity and has rightfully been featured on multiple television shows such as HBO Max’s Gossip Girl reboot and new series The Sex Lives of College Girls. For a New York-based college student, Japanese Breakfast’s album is the perfect amount of indie excitement to serve as a daily soundtrack to a romanticized life.

A personal favorite is “Sit”. The synth-heavy opening is energized with a pulsing kick drum beat. Zauner’s vocals weave through the atmosphere created by the instrumentation. Although not as heavy lyrically as the other tracks on the record, “Sit” instantly consumes listeners in every sense and provokes a certain cinematic excitement that is unique to this track. 

Jubilee is nominated for Best Alternative Music Album at the 2022 Grammy Awards and Japanese Breakfast is also up for Best New Artist. Between its gloriously and addicting composition, Zauner’s unique vocal timbre, and poetically intellectual lyrics, Jubilee wraps all five senses in its bubbling embrace. Its fate is hopeful as it continues to gain mainstream recognition while continuing to provoke giddy emotion upon every listen. 

Honorable Mentions: TOP 5 SONGS

  1. Lorde: “Solar Power” (Solar Power)

Between 2017 and 2021, Lorde’s musical emotionality took a total turn. 2017 album Melodrama takes listeners on a rich journey through adolescent turmoil. Although it seems impossibly difficult to jump from the deep-rooted place that songs such as “Green Light” takes a fresh adult, Lorde successfully did so with the sunshine-filled tracks on Solar Power. The album’s title track encompasses the happiness of the album while fusing bursting vocals in the chorus with charismatic subtleties throughout the verses. 

  1. Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak & Silk Sonic: “Leave the Door Open” (An Evening With Silk Sonic)

Honestly, nothing could go wrong with the fusion of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s talents. “Leave the Door Open” leapt to the spot of “most popular” on the duo’s first album with its irresistible groove and both vocalist’s impressive, yet unique, sounds. The track earned its place at the top of charts and provides satisfying grooves with every listen.  

  1. Taylor Swift: “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)” (Red (Taylor’s Version))

Taylor Swift broke the internet with her re-release and re-work of her 2012 album Red. The lengthened version of hit song “All Too Well” added more hard-hitting lyrics that exposed former lovers and caused audiences to passionately scream-sing the new additions just moments after it was released. 

Swift’s Saturday Night Live performance of the track made history as she opted to do one extended performance versus the typical two musical performances during the episode. She smiled while delivering the new lyrics and brought audiences to tears as all four seasons were represented around Taylor and her guitar through lighting, falling leaves, and snowflakes. This performance made the track even more memorable. 

  1. The Marías: “Calling U Back” (Cinema)

The Marías’ first full-length album proved the band’s true indie-pop genre. As a whole, the album is cinematic and easy to float through without groundedness whilst listening. However, “Calling U Back”, the album’s second track, maintains memorability with its snappy opening bark sound and its pristine blend of hard hitting synth drops and lead singer María Zardoya’s swooning, airy vocals.

  1. Mattiel: “Jeff Goldblum” (Georgia Gothic)

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Mattiel honors their home state with upcoming full-length album Georgia Gothic (set to release in March 2022). The group, fronted by singer Mattiel Brown, played arena shows with Jack White, but their style is undefinable as it blends grunge, garage, psychedelia, and hints of bedroom pop. 

“Jeff Goldblum” was released as a single to tease next year’s album. Brown’s unique vocals glide along monotone notes through the verses, leading into a breakthrough croon in the chorus pleading lyrics “What else are we supposed to do?”. The bassline sits at a steady tempo that gives the song a coming-of-age movie scene feel. Despite the track’s use of repetitive riffs, I quite literally have listened to it on repeat since the day it was released. “Jeff Goldblum” is that song you need to listen to as the subway parts from the underground tunnels and the city skyline begins zooming by; it is made for making your life a movie.