Reviewing my favorite albums of 2021 and analyzing why each one contributes to a new era of music
The rise of new artists, the comeback of old. A shift in genres and a recommitment to the ones of the past. It’s the end of 2021, and this year has been a fantastic one for music. Maybe it was the pandemic that kick-started everyone’s creativity. Or maybe, it was simply time for a new era of music to start. Either way, I’m absolutely ecstatic about this new path for mainstream and indie music, and it’s reflective in how much I’ve listened to music from this year compared to years in the past (I’m mostly an old rock person). So here is my humble attempt at gathering my favorite albums of the year. Enjoy!
January 29, 2021: Collapsed in Sunbeams by Arlo Parks
Parks, on a new rise of fame after her well received EP in 2019, released her debut album in January of 2021. Collapsed in Sunbeams is filled with Parks’ light and airy vocals tinted with a sweet London accent. The production is complex and bass heavy, especially in tracks like “Hurt” and “Green Eyes.” But Parks’ biggest strength lies in her lyrics. Soulful, simple, but powerful, her lyrics range from topics of sexuality to insecurity. She sings, “You’re not alone like you think you are,” against a smooth drum beat and the calm plucking of an electric guitar in “Hope.” She comforts a friend in “For Violet” as she assures her, “You know when college starts again, you’ll manage.” Parks reflects on her self discovery and self acceptance in a relationship with her ex girlfriend, crooning, “Some of these folks want to make you cry, but you gotta trust how you feel inside” in “Green Eyes.” Parks’ lyrics represent a new sense of bravery in today’s music: a determination to touch topics that have been buried under metaphors for years. She takes those issues and presents them in a new and powerful light, assuring the listener there is nothing to be afraid of. Arlo Parks’ music represents a new age of music for R&B, and Collapsed in Sunbeams cements her place as one of the best new artists of 2021.
February 5th, 2021: Flowers for Vases/Descansos by Hayley Williams
Hayley Williams, known for her role as frontwoman in Paramore, reflects on her past in the band in this album, revealing a more vulnerable side of herself. Flowers for Vases/Descansos was a stark contrast to her first solo album, Petals for Armour. While her first album was enjoyable, it served as more of an extension of Paramore’s style of music. Her 2021 release is entirely different; the music is plain (in a good way) and simple. Williams’ vocals, known for their powerful strength, take more of a backseat in this album, and she instead allows the soulful guitar and painfully vulnerable lyrics to take center stage. She skillfully plays her guitar in tracks like “Wait On” and “HYD.” She touches on her childhood and painful divorce with lyrics like, “Came home from school one afternoon, she was waiting in the car for me. She said, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be fine,’” describing when she and her mother escaped Williams’ stepfather. She opens the album singing, “First thing to go was the sound of his voice, it echoes, I’m sure, but I can’t hear it.” Williams’ record is fitting for 2021— a time to recover and heal after the tumultuous year that was 2020.
April 20th, 2021: Jubilee by Japanese Breakfast
With the release of her best-selling memoir, Crying in H Mart, it’s hard to believe that Michelle Zauner, frontwoman of Japanese Breakfast, has the creative strength to put out another outstanding piece of work. But she does and she does it well. Well enough that one brushes away albums like Folklore by Taylor Swift and Solar Power by Lorde and declares Jubilee the pop revolution’s leader. The album is the band’s most ecstatic sound; with swift beats, chill bass, and Zauner’s bright vocals, it’s impossible to stay still when listening. Zauner ecstatically sings in the lead single, “Be sweet to me, baby! I wanna believe in you.” There is also a quietness to the record; songs like Kokomo IN, modeled after the Beach Boys’ Kokomo, stay consistent with the album’s upbeat sound, but the lyrics convey something softer. Zauner sings, “If you ever come back…just know that I’ll be here longing.” The highlight of the album, though, is track 8, “In Hell.” Zauner mournfully sings about the death of her mother, reflecting on the last days of her life. “Hell is finding someone to love, and I can’t see you again,” she repeats against the strong beat of the drum and the lightness of her harmonies. The song encapsulates exactly what Zauner’s Jubilee sets out to do: make you cry your eyes out while also dancing your heart out. Zauner sings about the ups and downs of life, the jubilees and the funerals, making it a perfect record of 2021.
November 12th, 2021: Red(Taylor’s Version) by Taylor Swift
It’s hard to escape Taylor Swift these days. With multiple releases over the past one year, Swift has truly taken over, just as easily as she did a decade ago. Swift released Red(Taylor’s Version) this past November. The record was, yes, a business decision, but ultimately served as a love letter to her fans. Swift remembers her most famous singles with “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” She also shows off her new indie streaks with “Nothing New,” a collaboration with singer Phoebe Bridgers as she asks, “How can a person know everything at 18 but nothing at 22?” With many of the vault songs like “Nothing New” and “Ronan,” Swift is given the opportunity to add nuance to the original topics of love and loss that Red expresses. Of course, it is impossible to talk about this record without mentioning a certain 10 minute song. Her rerecording of All Too Well takes what is arguably one of the best songs of her discography, and somehow makes it even better. The nostalgic guitar playing, the painfully vulnerable lyrics, and simply the emotion in which Swift sings it truly cements the song as one of the best tracks of the album. The original Red served as Taylor Swift’s momentous breakthrough into pop, but Red(Taylor’s Version) brings us full circle, solidifying Swift’s role and impact on the genre of pop for decades to come.