2021 is nearly over, and we're happy to say that it's been a monumental year in music. From Taylor Swift taking charge of her discography and releasing re-recordings of Fearless and Red, to a triumphant return from Australian electronic superstars RÜFÜS DU SOL, it's been a great year for music fans, no matter what genres you most enjoy.
We've put together some of our favourite albums of the year, and what made them so special. Read on to see if we picked your album of the year, as well as potentially discover some albums that you might have missed!
Tyler, The Creator - CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
Tyler, The Creator has a knack for getting what he wants, but when he tweeted in 2010 that he wanted to make a Gangsta Grillz mixtape, it turns out that he wasn't quite able to make it happen.
Instead, fast-forward to 2021 and he's released a Gangsta Grillz album.
DONE. ALBUM* https://t.co/GefohE72LY
— Tyler, The Creator (@tylerthecreator) June 25, 2021
Call Me If You Get Lost sees Tyler embrace the persona of Tyler Baudelaire, and it's arguably his most exploratory and intimate album yet. We get to see Tyler show off both his rapping and singing ability, playing into the mixtape theme - album highlight SWEET/I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE playing out over eight and a half minutes, while elsewhere the tracklist is full of tracks under three minutes. The production on the album is lush, but never overstuffed - instead, each element feels perfectly selected, even as Tyler weaves in motifs from jazz, soul, pop and more. We do have to point out that Tyler's frequent discussion of travel is somewhat jarring - the album was released in the middle of a pandemic, after all!
Tracks like WUSYANAME and WILSHERE see Tyler chasing after someone that can't be his, and each lyric conveys the inner turmoil that comes with being at the wrong end of a love triangle. DJ Drama's frequent interjections add to the mixtape experience - but make no mistake, CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST isn't a project full of sketches. Instead, it's an encapsulation of an artist who's at the top of his game.
Jazmine Sullivan - Heaux Tales
There have never been any questions about Jazmine Sullivan’s vocal ability in the past but she’s often had troubles stitching together a cohesive singular project. She squashed that on Heaux Tales though - a record stitched together with voice recordings that tell stories about toxic relationships with the purpose of finding self-respect.
Sullivan pieces them together with gritty, passionate songs that can be heartbreaking, sexy, and angry. Put It Down is slinky and playful, The Otherside is hopeful and Pick Up Your Feelings is supremely confident. Lost One, meanwhile, is Sullivan’s magnum opus. It’s a bare-boned, haunting soul song that depicts the crushing end of a relationship. Sullivan’s voice always sounds great but it carries extra weight with these lyrics behind it, sending it into an impossibly haunting space.
Silk Sonic - An Evening With Silk Sonic
Who thought 2021 would be the year that funk came back? Clearly, Silk Sonic did. When Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars announced their partnership with Leave The Door Open, the world collectively swooned - and on An Evening With Silk Sonic, the pair don't miss a beat.
It's hard to highlight a standout track on the album, such is its consistency - across its nine tracks the pair sound like they've discovered the secrets to packing each song full of soul. If you've ever been in love (or loved and lost), then Silk Sonic are set to soundtrack many of your evenings going forward.
Lana Del Rey - Blue Banisters
Lana Del Rey’s first album of the year Chemtrails Over The Country Club was the more cohesive effort but there was something about the lucidity of Blue Banisters that made it more thrilling. Taking old unreleased material and songs written during the pandemic, Del Rey gave her most vivid answer to the question of ‘Who Is Lana Del Rey’. She opened up about her tainted upbringing and attacked it vocally more than ever. You only have to listen to the chorus of the Dealer or the tail-end of Black Bathing Suit to know that Del Rey has lost all her inhibitions.
There are also some of her most beautiful pockets of songwriting yet as she recreates the beauty of Video Games in Arcadia and quietly lulls the album to a close with Sweet Carolina. If Chemtrails spent its time running away from responsibility, Blue Banisters faced up to everything and it’s better off for it.
Genesis Owusu - Smiling With No Teeth
Canberra artist Genesis Owusu exists in his own world, and his debut album, Smiling With No Teeth, is an album that captures his artistic vision in complete clarity. The album explores racism and mental health through the concept of The Black Dog, with Genesis attempting to tame it throughout the album's runtime.
Speaking about the album after winning Album Of The Year at the ARIA Awards, Genesis said, “For all those people, Goon Club worldwide, eccentrics, Black people - know that it’s not up to us to change for people, but it’s up to people to catch up and see what they’ve been missing out on.” This is an album for the outcasts - but after hearing Smiling With No Teeth, you'll inevitably feel less alone. Go listen to it.
RÜFÜS DU SOL - Surrender
In the time since their last album, the Australian electronic trio RÜFÜS DU SOL have well and truly become live juggernauts, calling the US home in recent years. Their fourth album, Surrender, sees them leaning into their reputation as a stadium-sized act, and the soundscapes abound on the album are RÜFÜS's grandest creations to date. The album draws from architecture and geology, abstract concepts that the band have turned into electronic creations with drops of epic proportions.
The euphoric Alive is a celebration of life itself, which, given the events of the pandemic, is a message that resonates more than ever. Next To Me, Always and On My Knees are some of the band's most sophisticated productions, and we can't wait for their homecoming tour in late 2022. It's going to be a special moment for all involved.
Wolf Alice - Blue Weekend
Wolf Alice are the greatest rock band on the planet right now. Rock has always been about being larger than life and yet remaining human enough to tap at the heart of the listener. That’s Blue Weekend in a nutshell. It’s a grandiose, decadent record that climbs to glorious highs but also finds poignant moments of quiet. Smile, a fuzzy guitar song sits right next to the Simon & Garfunkel folk of Safe From Heartbreak (If I Never Fall In Love). The two modes are then melded together on Last Man On Earth which begins with a single piano before expanding into a Queen-esque torch song.
Wolf Alice’s roots are in alternative rock but for the first time on Blue Weekend they suggest that their ambitions are larger than that. For the first time, they’ve showed exactly what a Wolf Alice arena show would sound like.
Olivia Rodrigo - SOUR
Teenage heartbreak is a well-worn topic in music, but when listening to Olivia Rodrigo's SOUR, you can feel her pain radiating from each track. Arriving just months after the release of her debut single drivers license, and you'd be excused for assuming that SOUR would sound rushed. Instead, it's a fully-fledged project that contains ballads, bombastic break-up songs and everything in between.
Olivia wears her influences on her sleeves - Taylor Swift and Paramore among them - but SOUR never feels like a pale imitation of the artists that have come before. Instead, it's a love letter to the music that has a special place in Olivia's life - but rather than sounding like a lyrical love letter, it's a caustic rebuke of the person who broke her heart.
MARINA - Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land
MARINA’s pop music has always been jagged but she blunted her nails a little on her last effort Love + Fear. On Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land, however, she came back fighting with an explicit, immediate reaction to the world and her own personal relationships. Ancient Dreams could almost be split in half.
One half is pointed at the world and the other is pointed at her ex. The former have a punk flair to them while the latter are stripped bare. Despite the differences, self-worth is at the core of all modes. On Ancient Dreams she sings, “You don’t have to be like everybody else,” while on closer Goodbye she declares, “I been a mother to everyone else / to every motherfucker except myself.” In MARINA’s perspective, working on yourself means benefitting the world that you live in. As she puts it on Purge The Poison, “show us our humanity.”
Little Simz - Sometimes I Might Be Introvert
Little Simz is one of the most consistent rappers in the world, but Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is a career highlight, even by her lofty standards. The album sees her reckoning with the idea of being a public figure, while wanting to avoid the limelight - and the result is an album that explores what happens when your art makes you a notable person, even if you're not always looking for the recognition.
Across tracks like Standing Ovation and Introvert, Little Simz battles with her desire for acceptance from her fans - in the last couple of years, she's become one of the UK's most celebrated contemporary artists, a label that she's not quite sure she likes. The result of the divide between her public and private life is a project that sees her attempting to push away undue adulation from those who think they know who she truly is as a result of loving her music. Instead, she'd much rather use her music to work her way through her personal issues, like her relationship with her father, which she addresses on the powerful I Love You, I Hate You.
Snoh Aalegra - TEMPORARY HIGHS IN THE VIOLET SKIES
Snoh Aalegra is underrated when it comes to conversations about modern R&B music but this year’s TEMPORARY HIGHS IN THE VIOLET SKIES makes a good argument for her position as one of the most innovative. Her sophomore album feels like it exists in a different altitude, floating in a tangerine sky. It’s euphoric and blissful and yet it also manages to get straight to the heart of the matter.
She’s direct on the excellent lead-single Lost You singing, “tell me was it all a lie?” and on Tangerine Dream she concludes, “It was all a fantasy.” The bed of lofty synths and honey-soaked vocals make it sound as if Aalegra has escaped into the sky for a brief moment to make sense of her life on earth.
Hayley Williams - FLOWERS for VASES / descansos
Hayley Williams joked that she was going to pull a folklore at some point and early this year she delivered with FLOWERS for VASES / descansos. The project came less than a year after the release of her debut solo album PETALS FOR ARMOR and created a distinctly different atmosphere. Written during the pandemic, it’s a stripped-back, intensely personal record that’s at times chilling to listen to.
In Paramore, Williams’ voice has so often been surrounded by raucous instrumentals but in front of an acoustic guitar, it carries a special kind of potency. “Truth is all I really want is somebody who wants me,” she sings as she reckons with the end of a relationship. And it gets darker from there. There’s a catharsis to the way the music floats though particularly in the instrumental descansos which bleeds out in a positive way.
Turnstile - GLOW ON
From the opening moments of GLOW ON, the latest album from Baltimore hardcore punk band Turnstile, a wave of joy sweeps over the listener. It's an album that showcases the beauty of hardcore to the world - but instead of watering it down for the unacquainted, the band lets the songs speak for themselves with rabid percussive instrumentation and a whole lot of fun.
BLACKOUT is one of the most energetic songs of the year, and if you're not headbanging by the time the first chorus hits, then you're not listening hard enough. Turnstile have long been a punk fan favourite, but the release of GLOW ON forced the rest of the musical world to sit up and take notice too.
Dave - We're All Alone In This Together
UK MC Dave has become one of the voices of the youth of the UK, and it's not a status he's always known how to embrace. On We're All Alone In This Together, Dave weaves tales about his personal struggles with his newfound level of success, while also widening the lens to explore how British society has failed its most marginalised members.
Even when Dave is seemingly flexing his success, like on the Stormzy-featuring Clash, there's a sense of responsibility - he's not truly able to enjoy his own wins when there is inequality all around him. His wordplay is sharper than ever, including on the James Blake collaboration Both Sides Of A Smile - a two-parted track that tells the story of a broken relationship, as well as his humble beginnings. Dave raps with the wisdom of someone fifty years his senior - and it's pretty clear that we're watching a legend in the making.
Taylor Swift - Red (Taylor's Version)
Taylor Swift is currently on a mission to re-record her first six albums, and Red (Taylor's Version) is the second release as part of that overarching project. With the hindsight of time, the re-recordings of album highlights like State Of Grace and We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together seem to have a bit of extra vigour - finally, they truly belong to Taylor.
It'd be hard to talk about Red (Taylor's Version) without mentioning the 10-minute version of All Too Well, a release that (presumably) caused an uptick in tissue box sales. It's one of Taylor's finest moments in a discography that is almost unparalleled in the pop world, and we're confident that there'll be many more throughout this re-recording process.
Doja Cat - Planet HER
On her third album, Planet HER, Doja Cat embraces the chaos. She's able to channel it into an album that's 100% her, and 100% full of twists and turns. Doja's never dulled parts of herself in order to be a more palatable pop star, and that's part of the reason that only she could create Planet HER.
Planet HER is a masterful showcase of Doja's talent. She's equally comfortable providing mellifluent melodies on Love To Dream as she is rattling off bars on tracks like Get Into It (Yuh). Doja's been described as a musical chameleon, which seems like a fair comparison - but rather than adapting the trends of the music around her, she's exploring all aspects of her musicality, with each switch-up of sound feeling 100% authentic.
Lil Nas X - MONTERO
Before the release of MONTERO, Lil Nas X proved that he was a marketing genius - but it remained to be seen how he'd live up to the hype on an album. However, from the opening song on MONTERO, Montero (Call me By Your Name), Lil Nas X sheds much of the facade that's surrounded him to date, instead delivering a deeply emotional project that explores his sexuality, as well as his relationship with his family.
The album is still full of huge pop moments - the Jack Harlow-featuring Industry Baby and That's What I Want are just a couple of examples of his pop nous - but on MONTERO, Lil Nas X isn't making music for the sake of it. MONTERO illustrates to all that success doesn't fix everything. Sometimes, it just papers over the cracks that were already there.
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Gretta Ray - Begin To Look Around
Gretta Ray's songwriting grows with every release, and on her debut album, Begin To Look Around, she announces herself as one of Australia's premier pop artists. The album draws from the aftermath of relationship trauma, acting as a warm embrace for the listener. Recorded both before and during the pandemic, across 2019 and 2020, it's a truly deft coming-of-age album.
Gretta's often been compared to another artist on this list - Taylor Swift - and Begin To Look Around is as grand as any of Taylor's albums. Songs like Human and Love Me Right are proof of Gretta's growth, both as a person and a musician. Previous releases like Drive and Better showcased Gretta's potential - and with Begin To Look Around, she seems more comfortable than ever in her own skin.