In many ways, it feels like 2021 went by in a much more stressful, surreal blur than 2020 did, as life began to readapt into new versions of a previous life. As far as music’s concerned, the year started off as messy as we were, reflecting the necessary recovery period from multiple lockdowns. But as the months progressed, we were nonetheless blessed with what multiple artists had clearly spent their downtimes brewing, and many of them were definitely worth the wait. Featuring highly anticipated new records from Demi Lovato, Kacey Musgraves, Alessia Cara, and Adele as well as debuts introducing ones-to-watch like Maisie Peters and Alex Porat, these are my picks for the 10 best albums of the year.
Justin Bieber, Justice
“I’m on my ten thousandth life,” Justin Bieber sings on his latest studio album Justice, “But this the one I’m not giving up.” In a predictably stagnant year for pop music, reflecting the brunt of the 2020 shutdowns, the Canadian singer returned just a year after his highly anticipated comeback effort, the lackluster Changes, for possibly his best work yet. While he’s spent the last few years of his career forging a path into cringeworthy white-boy R&B, Justice reminds that when he’s in the right headspace, pop is what Bieber does best. Much of the album’s lyrical content revolves heavily around Bieber’s marriage to Hailey Baldwin, and comes across as an effort to make amends with both the public and himself. On the comfortingly infectious “Hold On” he also seeks to help those that might still be struggling. Considering that much of popular culture over the last decade has been dedicated, for better and for worse, to charting Bieber’s rise and fall from grace, it seems rather hypocritical to not give him a second chance when he seems committed to reconciling. And during a year when we’ve been forced to spend excessive amounts of time with the voices in our own heads, reconciling with our destructive past is a blessing.
Best songs: “Deserve You,” “Holy,” “Hold On,” “Somebody,” “Ghost,” and “Anyone”
Demi Lovato, Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over
Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over is Demi Lovato like we have never heard before: they are sassy and carefree while also serious about their identity and personhood in a way that they have been itching to be for years. As someone who grew up projecting his own suffering and struggles onto the confessional lyrics of a Demi Lovato ballad, it feels as though Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over is the moment where we must let them truly spread their wings and no longer exist solely as the soundtrack for our own heartbreak. Of course, they never belonged just to us in any sense of the word, but if their old management had continued to have their way, they would have never gotten to grow in the ways they already have. “I’m sorry for the fans I lost, who watched me fall again / I wanna be a role model / But I’m only human,” they sang on “Sober” in 2018, and thankfully Lovato lived to reach a place of well-deserved freedom where they learned to celebrate the human they are—especially for an artist who had a long-established brand of recording songs called “You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore” and “Old Ways” supposedly about their past selves. “Now I’m in a good place,” they preach on the standard edition closer. And for once we are finally listening and hearing them.
Best songs: “Anyone,” “Dancing With the Devil,” “The Art of Starting Over,” “Lonely People,” “The Way You Don’t Look At Me,” “Melon Cake,” “Met Him Last Night,” “The Kind of Lover I Am,” “Easy,” “15 Minutes,” and “California Sober”
Olivia Rodrigo, Sour
With her debut effort Sour, Olivia Rodrigo gives a voice to teens of her own generation while also reminding us of the enduring appeal of rebellious young women. She manages to create something uniquely and unabashedly her own simply by refusing to be anyone but the current version of herself—messy emotions and all. Rodrigo also puts her own spin on the eclectic sounds of her predecessors, with everyone from Lorde to Alanis Morissette. The difference now, of course, is that the cultural appetite for female anger has been completely redefined, thanks in large part to the rise of social media, the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, and abject governmental failure on a global health crisis, among other things. Sour’s ability to play between the lines of angsty rebellion and imperfect young human being who’s aware of the ample room left to grow is surely what resonates most with listeners of any generation. And after all, if there was ever a time the world needs your anger, it’s now.
Best songs: “Brutal,” “Drivers License,” “Good 4 U,” “Enough For You,” “Happier,” and “Hope Ur Ok”
MARINA, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land
With her fifth studio album Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land, yet another return to solely her own words, Marina re-embraces her inner strength and has quite possibly created her magnum opus. “You don’t have to be like everybody else / You don’t have to fit into the norm / You are not here to conform,” she boldly asserts on the opening title track, as a reminder to both listeners and herself. “I am here to take a look inside myself / Recognize that I could be the eye, the eye of the storm.” The central theme of the record finds itself here, one that champions (without being preachy) the old souls and underdogs who have never been able to conform, the same ones who have always found themselves seen and reflected in Marina’s lyrics and stage presence. In addition to creating a safe space for those soldiers, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land also promotes the singer’s signature brand of confidence: the one we sometimes have to fake when forced to fold into inauthentic versions of ourselves.
Best songs: “Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land,” “Venus Fly Trap,” “Man’s World,” “Purge the Poison,” “Highly Emotional People,” “New America,” and “Pandora’s Box”
Maisie Peters, You Signed Up For This
“I am twenty and probably upset right now,” are the words that open Maisie Peters’ first studio album You Signed Up For This. It’s a proclamation that ultimately becomes the general theme of the record, a stunningly heartfelt depiction of 21st century young adulthood. With a songwriting prowess comparable to that of Taylor Swift or Alessia Cara, Peters creates a loveable, introspective journey into the chaotic emotions that often accompany the transition into early adulthood. She also displays a clear knack for the kind of hooks needed to make an inescapable pop earworm, something sorely lacking from an otherwise stagnant year for pop music. Although most of Peters’ previous work fits within the pop genre, You Signed Up For This is surely her most pop-focused effort yet, foregoing some of the more immature folk influences present on her initial releases. The album does make copious use of synths and the aforementioned hooks but there are still enough acoustic, heart-wrenching ballads to make for the perfect sweater weather soundtrack. But what makes You Signed Up For This compelling beyond its author’s self-examined talent is Peters’ confidence in sharing moments of young adulthood where she maybe felt anything but.
Best songs: “You Signed Up For This,” “I’m Trying (Not Friends),” “John Hughes Movie,” “Outdoor Pool,” “Psycho,” “Villain,” “Brooklyn,” “Elvis Song,” and “Talking to Strangers”
Kacey Musgraves, Star-Crossed
Even on an emotionally fraught divorce album like Star-Crossed, Kacey Musgraves’ inclusive and welcoming queer vibes are still front and centre. Here, the singer is already at peace with the turn that life has taken, even in moments of bitterness. It’s a reminiscent, grateful kind of melancholy that indicates Musgraves took her time crafting these new songs, because there might only be one shot to say them right. Expanding on the psychedelic country pop from Golden Hour (and interestingly the one that got her shunned from the traditional country landscape and accepted by the mainstream), Musgraves continues to make use of her signature wounded wit to expose the hypocrisy that often lies within heteronormative gender roles. Although the album is made up of downhearted themes, there’s still something cheerful to be found within Musgraves’ vocals that makes us somehow grateful to be sad—happy and sad at the same time, if you will—because it’s evident through the singer’s existing discography that she knows people who have known sadness know themselves better thereafter. With Star-Crossed, Musgraves is reminding us that there’s still always something to be celebrated within feeling blue.
Best songs: “Good Wife,” “Cherry Blossom,” “Simple Times,” “Justified,” “Breadwinner,” “Camera Roll,” and “Hookup Scene”
Alessia Cara, In the Meantime
In many ways, In the Meantime feels like it completes a trilogy of albums chronicling both Alessia Cara’s rise to fame and the unease that comes along with becoming a fully grown human being without your consent. The album is sonically and lyrically her best work yet, and proves that any process of healing is never black or white and does not exist on a straight line. Most importantly, nothing on an Alessia Cara album ever feels like filler, even when that might’ve been its purpose. Even on shorter offerings like “Lie to Me” or “Clockwork,” the singer’s pensive lyrics remain nothing short of spellbinding for the demographic of introverted, home-bodied youngsters she first recruited back in 2015 with “Here.” While many music critics found fault with an “unfinished” quality of songwriting on her sophomore effort The Pains of Growing, Cara has returned to finish the assignment on In the Meantime, creating another compelling body of work that feels both complete and necessary to share.
Best songs: “Box in the Ocean,” “Bluebird,” “Fishbowl,” “I Miss You, Don’t Call Me,” “Middle Ground,” “Somebody Else,” “Drama Queen,” “Best Days,” “Sweet Dream,” “You Let Me Down,” and “Apartment Song”
Alex Porat, Miss Sick World
As someone who’s always wanted to make a name for herself in a music industry that lacks Asian representation, Canadian pop singer Alex Porat intends to turn that narrative on its head with her first album, Miss Sick World. With a sound reminiscent of Lennon Stella or Charlotte Lawrence, Porat’s debut studio effort tackles everything from modern loneliness to coming of age in a world that doesn’t want to see you succeed. The singer feels as though there’s a lot to be said for the current lack of Asian representation in pop music, having grown up struggling to find role models or even just other musicians who looked like her. Her dream is to remedy that through her creations. While Porat’s first album does deal with the heaviness of these emotions, the majority of the tracks are pop music at its finest: putting you in your feels before demanding that you dance them away.
Best songs: “Bubblegum,” “Taxi,” “Dimension,” “Girlfriend,” “Miss Sick World,” “Happy For You,” and “Only Hanging Out Cause I’m Lonely”
Taylor Swift, Red (Taylor’s Version)
If there was ever anyone who doubted Taylor Swift’s capacity to re-record her first six studio albums—whose masters were unceremoniously bought by Scooter Braun in 2019—the powerhouse musician has certainly proved them wrong by now. The subsequent reissues, released under their original titles followed by “Taylor’s Version,” have been met with much fanfare from her fiercely loyal supporters and pop culture junkies alike, eager to hear reimagined versions of songs that have largely defined the lives of a generation of fans. But where Fearless (Taylor’s Version) was underwhelming, her re-record of Red has certainly reminded listeners not only why the album remains possibly her best, but how much its deeply introspective and emotional tracks still resonate nearly a decade since the original. There was an innocence and hints of embarrassed chuckles on the original record that would be impossible to replicate in her thirties that Swift approaches now with a “smile because it happened” type of gratitude. Where she failed at recapturing her teeny bopper self on her re-record of Fearless it seems as though that would be a more appropriate title for Red (Taylor’s Version): in re-recording some of her most emotionally fraught offerings, she somehow delivers even more powerful versions from a different phase of life.
Best songs: “Stay Stay Stay,” “Starlight,” “Begin Again,” “The Moment I Knew,” “Come Back…Be Here,” “Girl At Home,” “Message in a Bottle,” and “The Very First Night”
“I always say that 21 doesn’t belong to me anymore. Everyone else took it into their hearts so much. I’m not letting go of this one,” Adele said of 30 in a Vogue cover interview in October. “This is my album. I want to share myself with everyone, but I don’t think I’ll ever let this one go.” That proclamation is the best way to summarize the singer’s new album, in that it sounds like a more authentically emotionally distraught version of Adele, if you will. “Mummy’s been having a lot of big feelings recently,” she declares to her son on “My Little Love,” addressing the emotional homework the singer was doing following her divorce that her son struggled to understand. It’s doubtful that even Adele could make everything all better again as it felt like she once could, because we have changed and so has she. It’s not her job to be using her talent to heal a broken world, as if it ever was to begin with. It’s her job to make music however she sees fit. And in some strange way, that’s what makes 30 the most compelling. “I just wanted to remind [everyone] that you don’t need to be in everyone’s faces all the time,” she said. “And also, you can really write from your stomach, if you want.”
Best songs: “Strangers By Nature,” “Easy On Me,” “Cry Your Heart Out,” “Oh My God,” “I Drink Wine,” and “To Be Loved”
Which were your favorite albums from this year?
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