Fittingly for such a volatile and unpredictable year, 2021 gave us long-awaited debuts, unexpected returns, and everything in between. Whether a promising artist’s first outing or a victory lap by an old favorite, ideas of transformation and renewal were in the air and found their expression in much of the music that came out last year.
10. Lucy Dacus, Home Video — Home Video is one of those albums that tend to stay lodged in your mind long after its runtime is up. Lucy Dacus’ memoir of her childhood and adolescent years was one of the most arresting and poignant albums to come out this year. The Boygenius alum paired deeply haunting themes and lyrics with a more daring approach to instrumentation, which came together in what is not only her most cohesive album yet, but one of the year’s most memorable.
9. ABBA, Voyage — Arguably the musical event of the year, the return of one of the 20th century’s most celebrated and iconic bands was a welcome surprise. Though fears swirled that it might turn out to be a cheap gimmick to promote their live hologram show, Voyage turned out to be anything but. It is a fantastic and memorable work, picking up from where ABBA left off, with songs that are catchy, dramatic and able to stand alongside anything they put out at their peak.
8. Vincint, There Will Be Tears — Philadelphia pop artist Vincint delivered one of the strongest debuts of the year with There Will Be Tears, almost perfectly harnessing the joy that follows a period of pain and heartache. Not at all shy about wearing his heart on his sleeve, Vincint delivers nicely on the promise of the album’s title. If relief had a soundtrack, There Will Be Tears would be it.
7. Turnstile, Glow On — Everything about Baltimore-based Turnstile’s fourth album is big and loud, expanding their hardcore punk sound to absolute stadium-filling heights. Glow On is chaotic and maximalist, daring you to keep up with it from moment to moment. Its songs sound like they were written to be screamed to an audience of thousands, and Glow On‘s great achievement is to leave you feeling like you were just in that crowd yourself.
6. Yola, Stand for Myself — The powerful titular single on its own would have merited its inclusion in the top ten list, but Yola’s Stand For Myself is an eclectic powerhouse from beginning to end. Blending and blurring genres but always firmly grounded in the long tradition of Americana, Yola sings with unmatched confidence and sophistication about rediscovering and reclaiming her own strength.
5. Lil Nas X, Montero — Lil Nas X’s long-awaited debut album was one of the most talked-about of the year both before and after its release. Montero is bold and full of standout tracks, more than delivering on the reputation he built for himself after “Old Town Road.” Leveraging a slew of collaborators from Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat to Elton John, Lil Nas X proved he’s a versatile and multifaceted artist, the furthest thing from the one-hit wonder too many pegged him as.
4. Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee — Notwithstanding the excellent lo-fi bedroom pop that Michelle Zauner made a name and career for herself with, Jubilee feels like a debut all over again. Zauner does not entirely throw out the playbook, and builds on her vocal prowess and knack for telling a good story. But Jubilee is far more dramatic and unrestrained than we might ever have expected from Japanese Breakfast, delivering nicely on Zauner’s goal to go “all out” on her third album.
3. Rostam, Changephobia — The thoughtfulness and memorable idiosyncrasies that Rostam frequently lends to other artists’ work is on full display on his sophomore solo album. As ambitious and multifaceted as its creator, Changephobia asks what it means to live in a world that is constantly turning itself upside down, and more pressingly, the joys and connections we manage to find with each other in the constant flux. In that sense, there might be no album that better encapsulates the past year.
2. Laura Mvula, Pink Noise — Laura Mvula made a triumphant return to recording this year, releasing her best work yet. Pink Noise found her squarely in the ’80s, indebted to the sounds of synthpop but always putting her own spin on them. Along with absorbing rhythms, Mvula’s incredible vocals, and sharp, memorable lyrics, a sense of celebration and freedom runs through Pink Noise. It’s hard not to get caught up in it with her.
1. Allison Russell, Outside Child — Singing in English and French and transporting us from the streets of Montreal to mysterious dream realms to the American South, Allison Russell exceeded all expectations with her transcendent solo debut, Outside Child. The stories she tells unfold and weave together across time and space, with melodies that are alternately infectious and haunting, but always memorable. Russell bares her soul with honesty and generosity, recounting the deep pain of her early life and the strength she found in herself and her own creative power, on full display on this breathtaking album.
Sean Maunier is Metro Weekly’s music critic. Follow him on Twitter at @maunski.
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