The Top 10 Albums of 2021
By Luke Schultheis, Layout & Sports Editor
Before artists pick up their guitars and mics for 2022 though, what 2021 records stuck out the most? Find out below.
10. Sweet Trip- A Tiny House, In Secret Speeches, Polar Equals
Sweet Trip’s latest record offers soundscapes as pleasant as their name indicates. After a 12-year hiatus, Roberto Burgos and Valerie Cooper reunite to create some of their lushest dream pop yet.
While the pair doesn’t stray too far from what they’re known for, they aren’t afraid to try new things on “A Tiny House.” A song like “Polar Equals,” which is an entirely instrumental piece of music, experiments with song structure. It begins watery and calmly, then explodes into a borderline industrial beat. Afterwards, techno-dance music introduces itself, then it closes with the same, soft sound it began with.
Other tracks follow the same recipe Sweet Trip has always followed by using faint synths and reverb-soaked electric guitars. “Surviving a Smile” and “Walkers Beware!” exemplify this.
“A Tiny House” is a long record, but it produces impressive and consistent music for its sur-hour runtime.
9. Illuminati Hotties- Let Me Do One More
Sarah Tudzin, self-proclaimed “tender punk pioneer” brings her A-game on “Let Me Do One More.” Kicking things off with “Pool Hopping,” the band incorporates twee guitar playing, an infectious chorus, and quirky laconic lyrics into their opener. From then on, the record rides a line between obnoxious and saccharine.
The less sweet “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA” provides stark contrast between punky, abrasive verses and a simple, but effective hook. The LP then delves into a more ballad-driven sound. Tudzin takes digs at capitalism on “Threatening Each Other,” a song that draws parallels between American economics and relationships.
She sings, “The corner store is selling spit/Bottled up for profit/I can’t believe I’m buying in/Isn’t that genius?”
Political themes occasionally appear throughout, but for the most part, “Let Me Do One More” is a fun, enjoyable gateway into the realm of tender punk.
8. Kanye West- Donda
West surprised fans with his long-awaited record, “Donda,” titled in tribute to his mother. The album, which spans nearly two hours, features many of his closest collaborators including Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, and Mike Dean.
While “Donda” sometimes feels more like a playlist than an album, its songs sound more complete than those on his 2019 release, “Jesus is King.”
Many tracks allude to God, Christianity, and have heaps of gospel influence. “Come to Life” and “Jesus Lord” come to mind as Ye gets as personal as he’s ever been. Rapping about his mother is nothing new—check “Hey Mama”—but rapping about his grief is.
“Moon,” which is more of an alt-rock song than rap, emphasizes the heartache that carries through the album. “Lord I Need You” also plays a role, with West detailing his recent divorce with Kim Kardashian.
Overall, “Donda” captures many emotions: Heartbreak, hope, loss, anger, the list goes on. Listeners get to see a new side of Ye—one that captures his introspection and soul-search.
7. Backwxsh- I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES
Zambian-Canadian rapper Backwxsh returns with one of the most harrowing hip-hop records of the year. Constructing hellish and brutal songs, she takes listeners into the darkest regions of her mind.
She ends the album’s opener “Wail of the Banshee,” angrily rapping, “In the silence/Hear the screams of the banshee/Hear the demons that haunt, that puppeteer in my thoughts/The Cavalier in my conscience, rides on a Pale Horse.”
Themes of mental illness, frustration, and religion persist throughout the record. Combining various genres like nu-metal, rap, and trip-hop, “I LIE HERE” is a 33-minute journey of menacing production and agonizing lyricism.
6. Panopticon- …And Again Into the Light
The one-man band returns with a new take on black metal, incorporating rich string sections and atmospheres that sound reminiscent of a “Lord of the Rings” soundtrack.
The opening title track is a standalone folk song—one that sets the tone for what’s to come. This eerie, cold atmosphere transitions into the urgent “Dead Loons,” an 11-minute cut that shows off everything singer/songwriter Austin Lunn can do.
Roaring distorted guitars threaten three minutes of peaceful serenity, but they somehow don’t shatter the beauty of the song. Percussive sections grow more intense as Lunn screams over the instrumental, making it sound like the weight of the universe relies on the track.
The rest of the record is more of the same as Lunn seamlessly intertwines the unlikely pairing of black metal and American Folk. This unique take on genre-bending forms a record that metalheads won’t want to miss.
5. CHVRCHES- Screen Violence
Lauren Mayberry’s lyrical sharpness makes this a standout record in CHVRCHES’ discography. Crafting lyrics that are simple enough to follow yet tell a grand story is a feat where many pop songwriters fall short.
Mayberry breaks the stereotype on “Screen Violence.” Assisted by rocking synth-pop production, the album’s hooks stand out more than anything.
While “Screen Violence” provides broad and striking instrumentals, it does not hold back on its subject matter either. Mayberry introduces elements of horror on “How Not to Drown” and “Final Girl.”
She sings “Final Girl’s” post-chorus, “In the final cut/In the final scene/There’s a final girl/And you know that she should be screaming.”
The lyric builds upon the common horror movie tripe where a female character is the “last person standing.”
In reference to the song, Mayberry states, “I watched so many horror movies to research this album. There’s something about the female experience in horror that you can relate to—the feeling of being watched and hunted and chased, which has been a big part of my relationship with being a woman, I guess.”
Lyrically and thematically, she succeeds in making her message heard on “Screen Violence.”
4. Silk Sonic- An Evening With Silk Sonic
Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak deliver the smoothest R&B record of the year with “An Evening with Silk Sonic.” Motown influence alongside a hip-hop flare make the album “smooth like a newborn,” in Paak’s words. The two have a chemistry Walter White would be jealous of.
Confidence, swagger, bravado, and charm. Mars’ affinity for writing catchy hooks is in full effect, racking up earworm after earworm. The duo also instated R&B legend Bootsy Collins as the record’s “host,” adding an immersive touch.
Mixing old and new, “An Evening with Silk Sonic” sounds like a classic Motown record infused with cleaner, fresher recording equipment.
3. Spellling- The Turning Wheel
“The Turning Wheel” sounds like an obscure musical that is atmospherically enchanting yet intimidatingly dark. Combining meticulous production alongside fairytale-like vocals, Spellling creates a magic ambience reminiscent of “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Wizard of Oz.”
A total of 31 musicians worked on the album over its 3-year development. The standout song, “Boys at School,” a seven-minute progressive pop cut, showcases the hard work and attention to detail that went into the record.
A rich synth riff, a compelling vocal sample, and an intense guitar lick make “Boys at School” one of the most exciting songs of the year. Spellling said the song is about coming to terms with her introversion and shyness.
“I’ve been that wallflower and at the same time I’ve been this person that people are magnetized towards…I never really understood it because I’m paralyzingly shy in social situations…It’s framed as the boys at school that represent this over-arching oppression of the true self.”—Spellling, courtesy of “Genius.com.”
Other tracks like “Little Deer” and “Emperor with an Egg” insert nature into “The Turning Wheel’s” themes. These songs add a “mystical forest” vibe to the already ethereal soundscapes.
“The Turning Wheel” is a rare sound, but a surprisingly accessible one. Every song is a page turn. The 57 minutes and 32 seconds whiz by as Spellling sings about animals, mythical cities, and royalty.
2. Porter Robinson- Nurture
Bittersweet. Hopeful. Persevering. One word cannot sum up Porter Robinson’s latest LP. The worst hardships can sometimes influence the most beautiful art.
Through a combination of folk-like lyrics and glamorous electro-pop instrumentals, “Nurture” showcases the most difficult, yet beautiful aspects of the human experience.
“Look at the Sky,” the album’s lead single, sets up a nostalgic theme for the rest of the album. Robinson then sings about the risk and reward of following his dreams on “Musician,” a sugary-sweet anthem about becoming the artist he is now.
Vocal transformers make Robinson’s voice sound childlike—a perfect ode to growing up and coming to terms with self. “Nurture” is yet another indicator that pop music is ever evolving and transforming.
1. Magdalena Bay- Mercurial World
This PC music duo creates new meaning behind “futuristic synth pop.” “Mercurial World” is a concept record—one that takes the listener to an alien world. Bursting with psychedelia, songs like “Chaeri,” “Hysterical Us,” and “Something for 2” sound like music from the year 3000.
The spacey production is reminiscent of a journey through the galaxy; or, according to Magdalena Bay, a journey through cyberspace. They say they make music “straight from the simulation,” and it’s clear with “Mercurial World.”
The duo takes 80’s synth-pop influences and makes them sound futuristic. Pair that with their extraterrestrial personalities, and it creates a mysterious universe behind a 46-minute wall of sound.
Do you agree with these picks? Do you disagree? What did we leave off? Let us know in the comments!