Top Ten Albums of 2021

  1. Happier than Ever – Billie Eilish

Genre: Alt pop, lounge pop 

After sweeping the Grammys with her debut album “When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go” in 2019, Billie Eilish returned this year with her much anticipated sophomore album “Happier Than Ever.” I’ve enjoyed Billie’s music through the years, own the vinyl, but am rarely impressed by her. And although this album has some career highs, it is by far her worst body of work. I was hoping for a new turn for her, specifically a turn away from her producer, her brother Finneas, who has a remarkable talent for making the same song over and over again and having it still be bad. Unfortunately, he returned to produce this entire album, and Billie suffers for it. The production is weak and repetitive, and the mixing is just uncomfortably bad. Billie’s vocal tone is good, but the mixing makes it sounds like she’s breathing in my ear. It’s not all bad though, I enjoy the lounge pop groove “Billie Bossa Nova”, admire the glimmering “Halley’s Comet”, the gloomy and twisted “NDA”, and of course the rock breakdown at the end of the viral title track, which might do more harm than good by making me wonder if she’s capable of such a good song why the rest is so underwhelming. Billie’s lyrics were never much for me, and this album doesn’t provide an exception. She sings about boys and being sad, which I don’t mind, but provides nothing new or interesting, and her mumble-whisper vocals don’t help. I do like “Halley’s Comet,” a melancholy love song, and “Male Fantasy.” I didn’t have high expectations, but I regret having high hopes. I came out the other side with a few good tunes and an itch in my spine. 

I sure have a knack for seein’ life like a child” 

  1. Crazy In Love – ITZY

Genre: K-Pop, Teen Pop, Hip-Hop 

If rookie K-Pop girl group Itzy can be pinned down as anything, it’s reliable. If they can do any one thing, they can make an enjoyable song—every time. Would I call it a masterpiece? No. But it is enjoyable, every time. They kept this status quo for their debut full album, Crazy in Love. Itzy put the pleasure in guilty pleasure. They make the songs that make you look around before you blast it in the car, the earworm you can’t believe you find yourself singing along to in the department store—because sometimes, you just need a good song. That’s what Itzy is here for. “Sooo LUCKY” is the song you’d hear at the end of a cheesy 2000s movie, “Chillin’ Chillin’” is the song you’d shamelessly look up after hearing in the mall, “#Twenty” is the song you’d hype yourself up to in your room before doing something daunting. “We will be ok”s to the “You got me crazy in love”s, Itzy are stereotypical to a T, but you will not be able to keep your eyes off them. Or get “Swipe” out of your head. 

Crazy In Love isn’t good, per se, but it is fun, and there is something to say for that. 

“I guess the world is mine, I am just twenty”

  1. Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land – Marina

Genre: Pop 

Marina, formerly Marina and the Diamonds, has had a career that has been an uphill battle for a breakthrough. It seems like every album will be the one with the hit, the big one that finally gets her recognition, but she has been on a downhill since her sophomore album Electra Heart in 2012. Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land is her attempt at what Katy Perry infamously labeled as “Purposeful Pop” in 2017, an album about how awful global warming is and why misogyny is bad. There are some genuinely good lines in here, like “You got a white picket fence and your dad’s got a gun, and when you see the police there’s no reason to run.” But then, in the same song, she’ll say something like “F***ed with the food chain, f***ed with the farming too, now the food don’t taste like it’s supposed to do.” There’s jaw-droppingly bad lyrics like this in almost every song, and the album ultimately falls victim to how hard Marina is trying to make a point, and she doesn’t even know what it is. 

Marina has always been a powerhouse vocalist, and she sounds brilliant on this album. She shows off her range from deep and scratchy in “Venus Fly Trap” to operatic and angelic in “Goodbye”, adding just the right amount of emotion whenever it’s needed. The production isn’t anything revolutionary or particularly stunning, save maybe the title track and “Flowers,” but it does its job, and does it well. I’m not normally a fan of synth-pop, but the instrumentals of this album are perfectly balanced to not be forgotten in the shadows, but give Marina’s voice the light. Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land stands right on the line of good and meh, but in the end, I do think it leans towards good, with some mixtures of great. 

Spring appears when the timing is right, women are violets coming to light” 

  1. Collapsed in Sunbeams – Arlo Parks 

Genre: Jazz, Alternative 

All it took was hearing the chorus of “Caroline” in a TikTok for me to run to Arlo Parks’ debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, and I was quickly impressed. Most of the album is character studies, made up people, complete strangers, people in Arlo’s life, making up stories about them to talk about struggles like depression and alcoholism. Unfortunately, “Caroline” is the only effective one of them. Arlo described writing “Caroline” like “relaying the story to a friend”, and this more casual tone makes it the most effective song on the album. Collapsed in Sunbeams is plagued by Arlo trying way too hard to be poetic, instead of honest. Some lines are just questionable, like “The turquoise in my ring matches the deep blue cramp of everything”, or straight out of a 12-year old’s Instagram, like “we all have scars, I know it’s hard, you’re not alone” Arlo’s voice is pleasant, but nothing remarkable. For how emotional she tries to make her lyrics, she comes off quite bored, but the instrumentals come to her rescue. The instrumentals are easily the best part of the album, they’re fresh and filling, bringing the album to life with thrumming bass and up-tempo drums. The layering on Arlo’s voice is also fantastic. At its worst, Collapsed in Sunbeams feels like a “Don’t Give Up!” poster on a doctor’s office wall, but at best, it’s a lush illustration of real struggles in everyday life. 

Agony and hints of sage”

  1. Chemtrails Over The Country Club – Lana Del Rey 

Genre: Alternative, Psychedelia 

After Lana Del Rey released NFR! in 2019, one of the most acclaimed albums of the year and decade that earned her two Grammy nominations, including album of the year, everyone questioned what was next. The answer was rocky. Chemtrails was announced to be released on September 5, 2020, which came and went. The album wasn’t released until May, with mixed acclaim from fans and critics alike. Chemtrails’ cover fits the album perfectly—it’s happy, you feel like you’re sitting around on a summer day with old friends, but it’s black and white. Something is missing. Producer Jack Antonoff vowed Chemtrails would be completely stripped down, and while some songs like “Yosemite” are, some songs like the title track and “Tulsa Jesus Freak” are some of Lana’s most upbeat pop-leaning songs to date, and the two narratives don’t fit well together. The best song on the album is easily the opener “White Dress,” a nostalgic and remorseful piano ballad where Lana sings “I would still go back and do it all again, I thought, because it made me feel like a god,” and earns a top ten spot in her entire discography. The only other song that might come close to the top 15 is the hazy and otherworldly “Yosemite,” a misty song about change. Lana sounds lovely as usual, with her willowy voice floating above the quaint instrumentals. Her voice is homely yet haunting, but the only time she really goes out of the box is on the bridge of “Dance ‘Till We Die”, where she lets loose and yells at full volume. There’s not necessarily a bad song on the album, just very few that stand up to the level of quality Lana has been consistently maintaining through the past nine years.  

It’s beautiful, how this deep normality settles down over me. I’m not bored or unhappy, I’m still so strange and wild.” 

  1. 30 – Adele 

Genre: Jazz, pop, soul 

In Adele’s own words, 30 is an album about “Divorce babes, divorce.” And even though it was a joke on Instagram live, reality is messier. 30 is an album that never really knows what it wants to do. It’ll have it for a second, then change its mind, over and over again. 

Most of the songs take a smoky lounge jazz angle, which perfectly swirls around Adele’s voice and sets a dim atmosphere for the serious things she’s singing about, swelling and becoming overbearing when they need to, following her command every step of the way. But there’s a few pop songs sprinkled in that take the album in an entirely new direction. Specifically “Cry Your Heart Out”, “Oh My God”, and “Can I Get It”, which might not be bad songs on their own (except “Can I Get It”), but when next to the soulful jazz colossi are stains on a tapestry. 

There aren’t as many lyrical gems as I was hoping for, but there are still plenty. “To Be Loved” is an instant masterpiece, with bullets to the heart like the bridge of “Let it be known that I cried for you, even started lying to you, what a thing to do, all because I wanted to be loved.” My favorite song of the album, of the year, is “Love Is a Game.” If I love anything, it’s a cinematic song. I can see Adele giving up, deciding “Love is a game for fools, and I ain’t fooling. What a cruel thing, to self-inflict that pain.” The bittersweetness of it all, being the ending note of the album, deciding love is nothing but a cruel game. And the last line of the album, “I’ll do it all again”, yielding to being the fool. As expected, Adele’s voice is phenomenal. Perfect control, emotion, tone, everything. She takes you with her, and you feel what she feels, every smile, tear, memory. With only her voice, you understand. 

Overall, 30 just can’t seem to make up its mind. Some of the songs are straight out of an Old Navy commercial, some are the best songs released this year, and the rest are just there. 

To be loved, and love at the highest count, means to lose all the things I can’t live without. Let it be known that I will choose to lose”

  1. Revolutionary Love – Ani DiFranco 

Genre: New Jazz, Alternative 

I trust my intuition when it comes to records. I saw the cover of Revolutionary Love, and the compelling title, and picked up the vinyl without a second thought. The clerk at The Record Lounge told me Ani DiFranco was a guitar and voice singer-songwriter. When I set the needle on the first track, the first jazzy notes of bass and drums rang through my speakers, followed by electric guitar and Ani’s aged but spunky voice. I was awestruck. The title track is seven minutes, but I never wanted it to end. It never dragged its feet, and neither did the rest of the record. The instrumentals hold a slow, satisfying tempo, giving Ani breathing room to glow. Lyrically, the album is mature, telling deeply personal tales of love, pain, healing, and growing. Ani takes a positive outlook, and ends the album on a beautiful note in Crocus, saying “All the world can go to hell, if I’m right with you, then all is well.” Ani doesn’t do anything spectacularly in vocals, but her eccentric, charming voice never falters, and she conveys emotion effortlessly. Revolutionary Love is a record to relax with on a calm day, to drive with, to heal with. It’s an album that lets you take your time, that will sit next to you with a hand on your shoulder for however long you need. 

I have the power to be the one that I’ve been waiting for, the one who sets me free, yes, I can bring the love, the revolutionary love”

  1. Solar Power – Lorde 

Genre: Indie-pop 

Solar Power is a monolith I just can’t seem to crack. It started at fifth on this list, but with every listen it climbs and climbs, unveiling hidden pathways and paradises underneath Lorde’s otherworldly voice and the transcendental production. With the release of the title track as the lead single, fans used to Lorde’s usual gloom were taken aback, and took to mocking her new bright sound. The full album wasn’t received any better. I wasn’t impressed on first release either, it doesn’t come across as a memorable album, just another sad girl singing lazily over Jack Antonoff playing guitar. But Lorde said it best; “On the surface it’s light, but it’s got a lot to it.” If you let it show you, you’ll see that Solar Power is the sun shining through trees. The advice from a detached older sister. The sand on your feet—cool and burning at the same time. 

Jack Antonoff’s production sounds surprisingly good with the layers of reverb on ethereal guitars, and although most instrumentals sound the same, they never get repetitive or boring, perfectly setting the hazy beach atmosphere for Lorde to dance around in. And dance, she does. Lorde sounds beautiful in this album. Her voice shakes with soul, and without any high notes or belting she can make the simplest of lines world-ending. Although I can’t pin down where the uncanny element that makes this album stick so hard to me, if I had to guess I would point to the lyrics. Lorde paints various pictures, all mixed together into this masterpiece. No song takes one singular form or being. Once you think you finally have it figured out, she pulls out the rug and you’re flying again. On top of the seemingly sunny tone to it all, she throws curveballs like “But I wonder sometimes what I’m missing,” and “I can’t feel a thing, I keep looking at my mood ring, tell me how I’m feeling” that you only truly catch when looking closely. I love the contemplating “Oceanic Feeling,” the kind friend in “Secrets from a Girl,” the weary smile of “The Man with the Axe”. There’s a gem in all of them. If I had to sum it all up with one, I’d use Lorde’s words herself: “Euphoria mixed with existential vertigo” 

The temperature is unbearable until you face it”

        2. Blue Bannisters – Lana Del Rey 

Genre: Ballad, Alternative 

Shortly after Chemtrails’ release, Lana announced on Instagram that her new record, Rock Candy Sweet would be released in July, and it would address criticism and tell her true story. A few singles, months, and title changes later, Blue Bannisters was released. After hearing the three pre-release singles (“Blue Bannisters,” “Wildflower Wildfire,” and “Textbook”), I was already more excited for this album than Chemtrails. My excitement only rose when it was revealed that four formerly leaked unreleased songs, “Cherry Blossom,” “Nectar Of The Gods,” “Thunder,” and “Living Legend” would be on the album. The release of “Arcadia” as a single shortly before the album only fortified my faith. And despite all my hype, I was not let down. Far from her baroque pop and trap of the past (spare “The Trio” interlude), Lana embraces the piano with open arms on Blue Bannisters, and it embraces back. In contrast to Chemtrails’ cold, almost wintery tone, Blue Bannisters is the warmest hug you’ve ever received. Lana’s voice is pillow-soft and drenched with soul. She sounds honest, and caring, and I think the emotion she can convey in her voice is the best part of this album. In “Dealer” she screams until her throat is raw, and in “Black Bathing” suit, she whispers almost inaudibly, a realistic depiction of her emotions. The lyrics in this album glow with maturity and honesty. An instant standout to me was “Beautiful”, with the cliché theme of turning sadness to happiness, but with stunning lyrics like “What if someone had asked Picasso not to be sad? Never known who he was, or the man he’d become, there would be no blue period.” It stands a cut above the rest, easily. The single “Wildflower Wildfire” also stands out, with its awe-striking honesty in lines like “I’ve been running on star-drip IVs for so long, I wouldn’t know how cruel the world was.” Overall, Blue Bannisters is in a league of its own compared to albums released this year, and will only cement Lana’s legacy. 

I’ll always be right here, closer to you than your next breath, my dear” 

  1. Daddy’s Home – St. Vincent 

Genre: Psychedelia, Lounge Rock 

Like Revolutionary Love, I picked up a Daddy’s Home record before listening to it, having read good reviews and liking the cover. And like Revolutionary Love, I was blown away. My best memories of last summer are driving at sunset with this album blaring to the point I felt consumed by it. Everything you would use to describe a summer sunset drive could be used to describe Daddy’s Home. Warm. Muggy. Picturesque. Expansive. Freeing. I’m normally not a fan of Jack Antonoff’s quite repetitive production, but I give credit where credit is due, and the production on this album is incredible. Warm bass pulses, psychedelic guitar hums, and a slight old-timey filter on St. Vincent (Annie Clark)’s voice makes the entire album feel like a fever dream. My favorite song on the album, and until Adele’s Love Is a Game, my favorite song of this year, is “Down and Out Downtown,” where the guitar, brass and drums soar with Annie singing “I was flying over the empire state when you kissed me,” and falling with her when she crashes into the next verse, sitars and reeds floating aimlessly around her. Lyrically, Daddy’s Home stands at the crossroads where family and femininity intersect. Annie wrote the title track about her relationship with her father while he was in prison. “It’s absolutely absurd and heartbreaking and funny at the same time,” she said in an interview with Apple Music. “I sign autographs in the waiting room” she sings over the most funk instrumental on the album. “My Baby Wants A Baby” is by far my favorite lyrical piece on the album, about how women are boiled down to their ability to have a baby. “What in the world would my baby say?” Annie frantically asks, “I’ve got your eyes, and your mistakes.” She touches on the panic of it all, a topic rarely spoken on. “I want to play guitar all day, make all my meals in microwaves,” she pleads. At the climax, with backup singers belting tornados around her and drums banging, she comes to the horrible realization that so many women have to face: “No one will scream the song I made, won’t throw no roses on my grave, they’ll just look at me, and say “Where’s your baby?”” The soul in Annie’s voice is one of the most memorable parts of this record. She makes sure you know how much she cares, screaming with her scratchy voice in every direction. Even with the perfectly over the top production, her voice takes the spotlight, and you can’t take your eyes off her stunning performance for a second. 

Who knows why the caged bird even sings?”