Though the virus kept us locked inside in 2021, music from artists Olivia Rodrigo, Doja Cat, Lil Nas X and more, kept our minds on the dance floor, hopeful for a return to a post-pandemic world.
New, young artists made their marks on debut projects, ushering in fresh sounds inspired by those who came before them. Others bathed in nostalgia and provided comfort in dark times.
Here are our favorite albums of 2021, and the amazing artists who got us through a difficult year.
Adele – 30
After a six-year hiatus, you would never know that the British singer had near career-ending throat microsurgery before releasing 30, an album that showcases the vocalist’s forceful voice. Feeling vulnerable and craving a safe space following her divorce from entrepreneur Simon Konecki, she escaped to the studio and put everything she had into her music.
Primarily produced by Greg Kurstin, who worked with Adele on previous singles “Hello” and “Water Under the Bridge,” Adele shattered hearts once again with “Easy on Me,” a somber ballad and immediate global success. Just the 33-year-old’s fourth album over her storied career, 30 is captivating, powerful and incredibly moving.
Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever
Turning heads with her breakout single “Bad Guy,” the then-18-year-old garnered global success seemingly overnight. Gen Z championed the young artist as she brought eclectic new sounds and playful sarcasm to pop music, sweeping all three of the 2020 Grammy Awards’ top categories that year.
Refusing to simply repeat the hits that brought her to superstardom, the now-20-year-old’s sophomore project, Happier Than Ever, put the idea of a sophomore slump to shame. Refining her sound (thanks to production help from her brother Finneas), her second album is confident and intimate, as Billie Eilish brings us closer to explore the sudden rush of an artist thrust into the spotlight.
Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak – An Evening with Silk Sonic
Two of the biggest names in funk/R&B came together when Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak formed Silk Sonic: a ’70s throwback that no one saw coming. It felt like a nostalgic, generation-defying time warp back to the days of Sly and the Family Stone and roller disco.
Tracks like “Smokin Out the Window” and “Fly Like Me” gave fans never-ending quotables from the slick-tongued Anderson .Paak, while Bruno Mars’ vocals soared. The made-in-heaven duo knew they had a hit on their hands when they debuted “Leave the Door Open” live at the Grammy Awards in matching suits, which was undoubtedly the greatest performance of the year.
Conway the Machine – La Maquina
Conway the Machine put Buffalo, N.Y. on the map as a new hub for hip-hop when he co-formed Griselda, a hip-hop collective partnered with his half-brother Benny the Butcher and cousin Westside Gunn. As a trio, the group harks back to the days of Wu Tang Clan in the ’90s, when boom-bap drums reigned supreme and emcee’s spit menacing bars.
On La Maquina, Conway intersperses basketball references with gunplay, stacking triple-doubles over songs like “6:30 Tip Off” and the Cardi B channeling “KD.” Even with stellar features from Ludacris, JID, and 2 Chainz, the upstate New York rapper finds plenty of space to shine and rhyme like the best of ’em.
Doja Cat – Planet Her
It’s hard to remember other music from this year given how much cultural space has been dominated by Doja Cat, a fierce and unrestrained force of positive energy and Internet savvy. Blowing up on TikTok with her song “Say So,” later remixed with a guest verse from her idol Nicki Minaj, Doja has stayed immensely popular on the social media platform, especially since her music is already so dance-oriented.
On her third album Planet Her, which has the artist feeling so fresh that you could swear it was her debut, Doja Cat included absolutely no skips start to finish. “Need to Know,” “Get Into It (Yuh)” and “Kiss Me More” with SZA, are just three of the LP’s killer 14 tracks, with the pop star’s infectious and highly talented spirit fully realized and packaged into just 44 minutes of pure fun.
Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth
A Ghanaian-Australian musician hailing from Canberra, Genesis Owusu released his stylish debut record Smiling With No Teeth back in March to critical applause, winning Album of the Year and three other top honors at Australia’s 2021 ARIA Music Awards.
The energetic, raspy singer explores his struggle with depression through the concept of the “Black Dog,” a symbol of both mental health and racism that runs throughout the entire course of the record’s runtime. He is a fan of video game music. And inspiration from the 2002 Xbox game Jet Set Radio Future can be heard through the record’s production, taking stylings from the cult-favorite skateboard graffiti console title.
HEIZE – HAPPEN
Recreating her own version of the meet-cute romance film In the Mood for Love in her video for “HAPPEN,” K-Pop singer HEIZE dazzled on her first project for P Nation, the record label and entertainment agency founded by Korean sensation PSY.
Coming off of features such as Loco’s “Can’t Sleep” and production credits on TWICE’s recent record Can’t Stop Me alongside Dua Lipa, HEIZE gets the spotlight to herself on HAPPEN. Her songs are breezy, sweeping, and infused with more traditional Korean singer-songwriter instrumentation than her more popular contemporaries such as BTS and Blackpink.
Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
Fresh off the release of her memoir Crying in H Mart, which debuted at No. 2 on The New York Times best-sellers list, Michelle Zauner hit the ground running in 2021, releasing her third studio album as “Japanese Breakfast” after a four-year absence.
Titled Jubilee, named after the feeling and not the X-Men heroine, the record is a celebration after dark times. Tracks like “Be Sweet” and “Slide Tackle” carry that sense of unbridled joy, while even more somber songs like “Sit” still feel airy and light, calling back to indie rock’s heyday when bands like Grizzly Bear and Beirut peppered playlists.
Lil Nas X – Montero
The “Old Town Road” singer proved that he wasn’t a one-hit wonder with Montero, his debut studio record and message to the haters that he could be openly out and proud, pole-dance with the devil, wear dresses, and still go to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
The titular single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” was easily one the most popular music videos of the year – at around 410 million views – only to be followed by the 250 million-viewed “Industry Baby.” With his devilish charms and even more clever gimmicks, he had the world playing right into the palm of his extraordinarily talented hands.
Mach-Hommy – Balens Cho (Hot Candles)
A Haitian American rapper who has garnered attention this year from Jay-Z and Westside Gunn, Mach-Hommy’s Balens Cho (which translates from Haitian Creole to “Hot Candles”), was released just this December, stunning with its jazzy production and social commentary.
Focusing on his heritage, the rapper flexed catchy, repetitive hooks while interplaying generational trauma, long-standing racism, and multiple dialects. He bounces between English and Haitian Creole. What’s lost in translation to the average American listener is understood in his vocals, especially on heartfelt tracks such as “Labou” and “Wooden Nickels.”
Olivia Rodrigo – Sour
Gaining fame on the Disney+ mockumentary High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, the 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo quickly topped musical charts (and stayed there) with her debut single “Driver’s License,” a teenage power ballad that capitalized on the star’s breakup with her Disney co-star Joshua Bassett.
Her debut album Sour, which acts as a kind of sampler of everything the young singer is capable of, bounces between the angsty, Paramore-influenced “Good 4 U,” “Brutal,” and “Deja Vu;” all popular singles in their own right, competing to be the favorite. Nominated for seven Grammy Awards, she could sweep the awards show at the end of January.
Tinashe – 333
Tinashe is no stranger to the industry, but years of record label trouble and disputes over how her albums were promoted have marred albums that should been celebrated for the talent that the singer so clearly possesses.
On arguably her best, and more cohesive album to date, Tinashe’s 333 boasts fantastic collaborations such as “X” with Jeremih and “Angels” with Kaash Paige. Fluidly moving from track to track, the singer’s first independently released album carries swag and confidence through inventive songs and full creative control.
What do you think? Tell us your favorite albums of the year in the comments section below!