It’s been an odd year for music.
This past summer, live concerts and festivals almost returned—except they didn’t. And we’ve exhausted the crop of records made before the pandemic (think Punisher and Fetch the Bolt Cutters) that dominated album–of–the–year lists in 2020.
Accordingly, the most popular releases of 2021 reflected this awkward, transitional state. Two of the year’s most beloved albums were re–recordings of Taylor Swift albums we had already heard before. Meanwhile, Olivia Rodrigo went from getting her “drivers license” to generation–defining ubiquity in mere months. “Indie,” whatever that still means, was likewise divided between genre stalwarts (represented here by Snail Mail), and underground artists (see: L’Rain) finally claiming their spot in the limelight.
But fear not, Street’s list of the best albums of 2021 has it all; we strived to represent both old favorites and new, along with the variety and eclecticism of the records that gave us comfort during this tumultuous year.
–Walden Green, Arts editor
Fearless (Taylor's Version), Taylor Swift
Top tracks: “You All Over Me (feat. Maren Morris) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault),” “The Way I Loved You (Taylor’s Version),” “Mr. Perfectly Fine (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)”
Listening to Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is like perusing your old diary entries from high school after years of therapy: You get to relive your biggest life lessons with a little less bitterness than the first time around. The mature confidence in her voice finally matches the ambition of the album’s title. From manipulative first relationships in “Fifteen (Taylor’s Version)” to the hopeless romanticism of star–crossed lovers in “Breathe (feat. Colbie Caillat) (Taylor’s Version),” each song is its own three–act vignette in which Swift’s older self is a puppet–master; her younger self, the marionette.
The not–so–subtle recreation of the album cover for the 2008 original version of Fearless, this time bathed in golden light, couldn’t be more perfectly suited to this re-release. Fearless (Taylor's Version) is a warmer, bolder, and more reflective version of its former self, crafted with the wisdom of someone 13 years older. I don’t know much about music—seriously, someone had to explain to me what The Velvet Underground was yesterday—but I do know that this album is still “Untouchable (Taylor’s Version).”
SOUR, Olivia Rodrigo
Top tracks: “traitor,” “enough for you,” “deja vu”
Olivia Rodrigo’s chart–topping album was nothing short of a sparkling debut. The album is cohesive—with a pop–rock sound reminiscent of Avril Lavigne—and yet the songs themselves are vastly different. Try juxtaposing the angsty, grungy rock of “brutal,” with the gentle string–plucked ballad “enough for you.” Rodrigo’s voice sounds amazing on each track, cementing herself as a master of versatility. This kind of music feels nostalgic, and yet so incredibly fresh—perhaps because it is unlike all the other mainstream pop albums that have been lauded in the past few years.
But aside from its unique sound, what I adore most about SOUR is how unexpectedly poetic it is. Rodrigo’s lyrics are evocatively profound and relatable. It is essentially a coming–of–age album, crafted around topics like first love, loss, and self–worth—all areas that resonated with me and millions of other young listeners. Her lyrics have a Taylor Swift–ian rawness to them: “But don’t tell me you’re sorry, boy, feel sorry for yourself / ‘cause someday, I’ll be everything to somebody else” (see: “enough for you”), or “I kinda wanna throw my phone across the room / ‘Cause all I see are girls too good to be true” from “jealousy, jealousy.” Rodrigo somehow perfectly captures the existential angst of growing up and all the pains that often come with it. If this is what she’s come up with at the ripe age of 18, I can’t wait to see what’s next for her.
CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST, Tyler, the Creator
Top Tracks: “WUSYANAME (feat. Youngboy Never Broke Again & Ty Dolla $ign),” “SWEET / I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE (feat. Fana Hues & Brent Faivaz),” “WILSHIRE”
After more than a year of lockdown, Tyler, the Creator, embraced adventure and travel on his opulent sixth studio album. The scuzzy breakup tale of his last record, IGOR, gives way to a luscious victory lap where Tyler revels in his successes as much as he uses them to mask his insecurity. Tyler revisits his old style, with tracks like “RUNITUP (feat. Teezo Touchdown)” and “LEMONHEAD (feat. 42 Dugg)” calling back to his Odd Future days. He also makes pit stops at new sounds, dazzling with the '90s–R&B flair of “WUSYANAME,” the elegant woodwinds of “HOT WIND BLOWS (feat. Lil Wayne),” and the soul–reggae fusion of the sprawling double track “SWEET / I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE.”
However, the album’s penultimate track, the eight–minute “WILSHIRE,” takes a hard left turn. The clean production yields to an off–kilter mix, as Tyler rants about a love interest who is dating someone else. After an album’s worth of bombast, he finally sounds lost himself. He closes the album out with a guttural “Wolf!” that directly calls back to his old persona: the edgy, abrasive anti–hero that got him to where he is today.
By taking a vacation into his own mind, Tyler solidifies his latest effort as both a fun summer album and a scathing indictment of his ego.
Top Tracks: “Reaper,” “Amoeba,” “Little Changes”
Clairo’s second studio album took the entire world by quiet storm. After her notable debut as a cheeky bedroom pop artist, 23–year–old songwriter Claire Cottrill is no longer a teenager like her “Pretty Girl” days. Sling is a tender, intimate glimpse into her retreat from the hectic life of a neon–lit adolescence. In its lyrics, the album faces questions of eventual motherhood and slowly falling out of love. In line with these incremental themes, Cottrill evolves entirely out of her synthetic sound and into the hearty tones of indie folk and blues, with a sprinkling of piano ballads.
Amid the hectic nature of 2021, Sling offers a brief period of solace and solitude to sip casually like a cup of warmed coffee. “Carried you all the way upstairs / So you can sleep and I can think,” Clairo sang on “Bags,” relinquishing the desire to fight for the sake of peace and quiet. The stark musical difference from Immunity’s fleshy yearning and harsh bitterness indicates a newfound maturity in Clairo, one that will only build for the rest of her career. Sling bundles up all of the confusion and clarity of aging into a tight–knight bundle that will linger long after the last track has ended.
Top Tracks: “The Chase,” “Small Reminders,” “Bouncin”
After her debut single “2 On (feat. Schoolboy Q)” was a huge success on the charts, Tinashe never quite reached the same commercial heights with her later efforts. But for the singer–songwriter, popularity always comes second to authenticity. Tinashe’s independent artistic vision is on full display on 333, her second full–length album following her departure from RCA Records.
While Tinashe ventures into pop, R&B, hip–hop, and electronic music on the album, her ability to speak about vulnerability or bask in confidence no matter the genre is unrivaled. From the dreamy wishes of love on “SHY GUY” to the seductive intimacy of “Bouncin’, Pt. 2,” 333 is a portrait of a musician well on her way in realizing her true desires in life. Tinashe believes that the number “333” represents a “good omen,” and 333 is a perfect representation of her carefree yet honest approach to channeling her happiness through her music.
Inside (The Songs), Bo Burnham
Top Tracks: “White Women’s Instagram,” “Sexting,” “All Eyes on Me”
Inside first debuted as a Netflix musical comedy special, but the explosive reach of its songs, which have tens of millions of plays on Spotify, earns the show/album its place on this list. The popularity is far from unwarranted: Without once mentioning COVID–19 in any of his lyrics, Bo Burnham has captured exactly what life through the pandemic has felt like from the beginning until now: a rollercoaster of absurdity, stress, grief, unending boredom and fatigue, and an emotion that can only be described as “Is this really (still) fucking happening?”
“Sexting” is an R&B bop that satirizes one man’s struggle to talk dirty over text, illustrating the ways that technology fails to make up for in–person connections (“It isn’t sex / It’s the next best thing”). “Bezos I,” which has become the soundtrack to countless TikToks over the past several months, uses a catchy synth to channel an all–too–familiar frustration with the billionaires we somehow worship, all while millions of workers have endured hazardous working conditions, pay cuts, and layoffs because of the pandemic.
It’s never been clearer that humor is a coping mechanism, both for Burnham as an artist and for us as consumers. You might laugh on your first listen, but further replays might just make you cry (or scream into the void).
Valentine, Snail Mail
Top Tracks: “Valentine,” “Madonna,” “Automate”
Though Lindsey Jordan—aka Snail Mail—wrote much of her sophomore album Valentine in her childhood bedroom, she proves that evolution and progress can happen even in a place you feel you’ve outgrown. It’s a stark break from the teenage angst and guitar/bass/drums arrangements of her debut Lush: Her songwriting, paired with softer melodies and the occasional trippy synth (hear “Light Blue” and “c. et. al.”), embraces a more resolved sort of pining—a commentary on those all–consuming relationships we tend to tear ourselves up over.
Snail Mail's music is comforting for those of us who’ve found ourselves in similar positions, myself included. A year ago, I began my college career in my childhood bedroom, feeling stuck and stagnant, but I realize now how much I learned from my relationships with myself and others during that time. Many of these lessons are reflected in Valentine, making it bitingly relatable, not to mention extremely cathartic when you scream–sing along.
Valentine is simply dazzling. Jordan’s literary lyrics speak to my English major self—on “Headlock” she references e e cummings via Joan Didion—and her melodies, neither too upbeat nor too depressing, foster the perfect mood for personal reflection. I came out of the 30–minute record feeling refreshed yet introspective. Snail Mail has truly produced a masterpiece, and the optimal soundtrack to my year.
Top Tracks: “Oh My God,” “I Drink Wine,” “To Be Loved”
Adele’s 30 is one of the most intimate albums of the year. Having written these songs in the wake of a painful divorce and peppered with voice memos of her most vulnerable moments, Adele gives listeners an inside look into her emotional interiority.
While the album’s single, “Easy On Me,” was a comfortable teaser for fans familiar with her previous work, the rest of 30’s tracks shine in all of their experimental glory. The album follows a clear storyline, as evidenced by the tonal shift halfway through. It begins with a genuine embrace of mourning. Adele, almost widow–like, reflects on the many lost loves of her life, singing, “I’ll be taking the flowers to the cemetery of my heart” on the album’s first track, “Strangers By Nature.” One almost imagines her shrouded in black as she prepares to eulogize her relationship to her ex–husband, Simon Konecki.
The album’s first half consists of its lighter pieces, and “Cry Your Heart Out” serves as comic relief as Adele almost taunts herself for the melancholy tone she’s set. The album then crescendos with newfound confidence, expressed in “Oh My God,” “Can I Get It,” and “I Drink Wine.”
30 ends with a reckoning: Adele gives the listener all the proof they need to know why her relationship went wrong. Adele has stated multiple times that the album is also meant to serve as an explanation of the divorce to her son, and it correspondingly ends things with substantive and confident closure. While at times, the album feels more geared to her son than her international audience, Adele brings the listener in by the end, and gives us all the opportunity to feel her feelings with her.
On the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guide to COVID–19 symptoms, “fatigue” appears at the No. 4 spot. Needless to say, it’s something—an emotion, a reaction, an intimation—that many of us have become closely familiar with over the last year.
Experimental musician Taja Cheek crafted her second album as L’Rain to be an embodiment of its eponymous subject matter. Fatigue recalls the exploratory sprawl of Solange’s When I Get Home, and the way that record incorporated repetition to induce a meditative state. “Find It” orbits around a mantra to “make a way out of no way,” whether that “no way” is an amorphous kind of grief or something more tangible—for example, L'Rain's own music is an extended response to the death of her mother.
The music that makes up Fatigue’s half–hour suite is both spectral and resolutely physical. “Black Clap” is a field recording of a handclap game that effortlessly metamorphoses into the slithering “Suck Teeth,” which moves with the tensile force of a python unraveling its coils. In her live performances, L’Rain lets her longer, more exploratory tracks envelop the space, but the album is grounded by shorter songs like “Suck Teeth” or the piano–led “Two Face.”
In 2021, this record became a palliative to my own overwhelming malaise. Fatigue is the perfect length to soundtrack your breakfast, say, or your commute to work. When the rousing gospel coda kicks in at the end of “Find It,” it sounds like rays of sunlight breaking through L’Rain’s meticulously conjured haze.
Red (Taylor's Version), Taylor Swift
Top Tracks: “Holy Ground (Taylor’s Version),” “Message in Bottle (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault),” “Come Back … Be Here (Taylor’s Version)"
Listening to Red (Taylor’s Version) is visceral in the best way possible—kind of like finally putting to bed an intrusive memory for good. The album has plenty of those, each made richer by time passing—your first love missing your 21st birthday as you sob in the bathroom, having too much to drink and crying in your bedroom about how good it was to be 18, standing in the mirror and manifesting the strength to not take your ex back. And yet, despite all of the album’s coming–of–age ennui, it’s not depressing. It’s deeply cathartic.
The magic of the old and the newly released Red (Taylor's Version) is hindsight, nostalgia’s wiser sister. It would be easy to view each Easter egg and verse on this winding album through rose–colored glasses; its predecessor dropped in much simpler times. But the starkness of Swift’s imagery demands a deeper listen, and a lot of introspection. Swift’s honesty about the extremity of her feelings—how anxiously she loves and how deeply she longs—has sparked a lot of discussions of our own feelings, at least according to all my group chats.
The first time I heard the ten–minute version of “All Too Well,” I started writing an angry letter to a man I hadn’t thought about in weeks about how he took advantage of my kindness. The second time I listened to the song, I cried, tore it up, and unfollowed him on social media. All that to say, what makes Red (Taylor's Version) a great album isn’t so much what it says, but what it forces you to do.