The top 21 albums of 2021
Though 2021 continued to be dominated by a global pandemic, those hurdles weren’t enough to keep stars from creating incredible music. The last year was chock-full of fantastic albums, so join Wonderwall.com as we share our selections for the 21 best collections that got us through the year… There was massive anticipation for Billie Eilish’s latest album following the multi-platinum success of her 2019 debut, which nabbed the album of the year trophy at the 2020 Grammy Awards. Fans were not disappointed with her second collection of songs, “Happier Than Ever,” when it debuted in July. Rather than ditch her humble beginnings to work with big-name producers, the singer-songwriter once again collaborated with brother Finneas O’Connell, who produced the 16-track album, which is a much more somber affair then her last effort. Billie cited self-reflection during the COVID-19 pandemic as the biggest inspiration on her work this time around. That introspection shows in the songs’ restrained production and insightful lyrics, many of which tackle the star’s rise to fame and the drawbacks that have come with it.
Keep reading for more great music that was released in 2021…
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While many were ready to write off Lil Nas X after his 2019 single “Old Town Road” quickly became one of the biggest hits in streaming history, the rapper proved all of his detractors wrong when his debut album, “Montero,” arrived in September. Not only did it spark two more No. 1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart, but it featured guest appearances from Jack Harlow, Doja Cat, Elton John, Megan Thee Stallion and Miley Cyrus, making it clear he has an immeasurable amount of support in the music industry. The 15 tracks move seamlessly between slinky pop-rap and tortured rock in a collection that celebrates Lil Nas X’s queer identity, with Variety praising it for giving a “voice to the fears and longings of a generation of queer kids.” AllMusic described it as “a breath of fresh air” and “one of those instant classics, packed with as many catchy jams as introspective musings,” establishing Lil Nas X as a musical force to reckoned with.
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Who would have guessed that when Olivia Rodrigo released “drivers license” in early January that she would quickly catapult from “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” actress to one of the world’s biggest pop stars? The atmospheric power ballad provided the perfect introduction to the singer-songwriter, who released her acclaimed debut album, “sour,” a few months later. The 11-track set is packed with the sort of angst-filled pop punk that would get any teen — or teen at heart — rocking out at the top of their lungs in their bedrooms. It covers the melancholy and heartache that so often coincides with adolescence in a way that hark back to the beloved female songwriters so many of us, Olivia included, grew up with.
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Nobody does breakup songs like Adele. Fans and critics alike gushed over November’s “30,” her first album in six years, which takes listeners on a musical journey chronicling the heartache of her divorce from Simon Konecki and her path to acceptance and peace. She described it to British Vogue as, ultimately, a letter to their 9-year-old son, Angelo. “My son has had a lot of questions. Really good questions, really innocent questions, that I just don’t have an answer for … [like] why can’t you still live together?… I just felt like I wanted to explain to him, through this record, when he’s in his 20s or 30s, who I am and why I voluntarily chose to dismantle his entire life in the pursuit of my own happiness,” she explained. “It made him really unhappy sometimes. And that’s a real wound for me that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to heal.” It’s no surprise that “30” became the top-selling album of 2021 in the States within just three days of its release.
Hip hop’s most celebrated work of 2021 comes from rapper Tyler, the Creator, who wowed music lovers with his sixth studio album, “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST.” The collection finds him donning the persona of “Tyler Baudelaire,” a reference to the French poet Charles Baudelaire, whose work has been compared by many to the explicit nature and themes of Tyler’s music. The bizarre concept paid off as the songs run through a fascinating cross-section of rap, synth-pop, jazz, soul and reggae. It debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 Albums chart and NME called it “an all-encompassing culmination of Tyler’s ever-varying sound, showing that growth isn’t always linear and that artists can be a multitude of things,” adding that the album cements Tyler’s place as a “generational talent, one in fine form and continuing to push the boundaries of his vision and kaleidoscopic sound.”
Taylor Swift has been delivering a seemingly non-stop stream of content over the last few years, and 2021 kept that going with the release of two major projects: her first re-recorded album, “Fearless (Taylor’s Version),” in April, and the debut of her second, “Red (Taylor’s Version),” in November. The singer-songwriter announced she would be re-recording all of her earlier albums to gain ownership of their masters, but fans received far more than they bargained for with these collections. On the new “Fearless,” not only did Taylor update all 19 original songs with her more mature vocals and crisper production, but she also included guest appearances from Keith Urban and Maren Morris as well as six previously unreleased tracks “from the vault.” The new recordings only highlighted the best parts of Taylor’s breakthrough album, which won album of the year at the 2010 Grammy Awards, while the never-before-heard songs provided additional wistful, romantic chapters reminiscing about female adolescence. Then on the new version of “Red,” she took us back in time with 30 tracks (including six more “from the vault”), gifted us with contributions from Phoebe Bridgers, Chris Stapleton, Gary Lightbody and Ed Sheeran and then put a cherry on top with a gorgeous short film crafted to accompany a new 10-minute rendition of “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version).”
Veteran R&B powerhouse Jazmine Sullivan returned in 2021 to new levels of greatness with the release of her EP “Heaux Tales.” The concept album explores themes such as feminism, sexuality, classism and body-shaming in songs that are each supported by narrative interludes. The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter told Revolt that the tracks are about her observation of today’s women standing in their power and owning who they are. Featuring appearances from Ari Lennox, Anderson .Paak and H.E.R., the project is a bold and timely conversation piece that received universal acclaim, as well as the album of the year trophy at the 2021 BET Awards.
Hot off his turn in the Oscar-nominated drama “Promising Young Woman,” multi-hyphenate comedian Bo Burnham received rave reviews for his Netflix special “Bo Burnham: Inside” in May. It follows a variety of songs and sketches about his day-to-day life indoors amid the COVID-19 pandemic, depicting his deteriorating mental health and exploring themes of performativity and his relationship to his audience. The songs became viral sensations and it wasn’t long before Bo decided to release them as an album of their own with “Inside (The Songs)” the following month. Using a variety of musical styles including bebop, synth-pop and show tunes, the star had listeners cracking up as well as buried deep in their feels. TechRadar wrote that fans will find themselves “laughing one minute and experiencing an existential crisis the next.” It also found rare commercial success for a comedy album, with the song “All Eyes On Me” becoming the first comedy song to enter the Billboard Global 200 chart.
The stakes were high for Kacey Musgraves coming off of her album of the year-winning album “Golden Hour” at the 2019 Grammy Awards. Thankfully, the country music star lived up to the hype with this year’s “star-crossed,” which was inspired by the singer-songwriter’s personal journey of heartache and healing following her divorce from fellow musician Ruston Kelly. Kacey described the album as a tragedy told in three parts, a mellow affair propelled by steady tempos, analog synthesizers, looped drums and layered harmonies. The genre-blending production sees a far more pop-leaning departure from her country roots, infusing elements of folk, dance and dreamy psychedelia. At the heart of it all, though, remains the intimate storytelling that Kacey has become known for, slowly slicing open your heart as each track plays out.
Aly & AJ were one of the major Disney Channel breakouts from the mid-’00s, getting a generation of teens rocking and rolling with their guitar-laced pop. The sister duo returned in 2021 with their first album in 14 years, “A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun.” The collection proves the singer-songwriters have grown far beyond the output of their teens, leaning into mature, dreamy pop as inspired by ’70s Laurel Canyon rock as it is by the ’90s alternative music that made up Lilith Fair. The songs feel timeless in a way that would have once been unexpected from the stars of the television movie “Cow Belles.” Billboard included the album on their list of the best albums of the first half of 2021, calling it “a well-balanced album that tells a beautiful story of hopeful reemergence.”
Not a year goes by without a release from Drake, and 2021 was no exception: “Certified Lover Boy” topped the charts in September. The rapper’s 10th No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 Albums chart features an extensive list of guests that includes Lil Baby, JAY-Z, Travis Scott, Future, Young Thug, 21 Savage, Ty Dolla Sign, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross and Kid Cudi. If there was any doubt about the stability of Drake’s commercial performance, all that was alleviated when his sixth studio album debuted with the largest opening week in the U.S. for a 2021 album (until he was unseated by Adele) and set the record for the most U.S. Top 10 singles from one album. The 86-minute affair may be a bit exhausting for some, but its familiar concepts and musical structure make for a solid body of work and prove that if it ain’t broke for Drake, there’s no reason for him to change anything.
Doja Cat could have easily slipped into one-hit wonder territory after her breakthrough hit “Say So” became one of 2020’s defining chart-toppers. But the rapper and singer eschewed expectations with the release of her third studio album, “Planet Her,” in June. First single “Kiss Me More” gave fans a first taste of the bop-filled collection when it arrived in the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles chart, then it proceeded to stay there for months. It features guest appearances from Young Thug, Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, JID, SZA, Eve and Gunna and proves Doja Cat’s innate ability to craft hits, exemplified by the Top 20 chart placement of the album’s first three singles. Her trend-setting production, musical versatility and unique vocal delivery on “Planet Her” cements her spot as one of pop’s most exciting characters.
K-pop continues to reach new heights in the U.S., and while there’s no question that BTS rules the genre, it’s worth taking notice of some of the other successful groups, like Tomorrow X Together. The boy band hails from the same label as BTS and released their second studio album, “The Chaos Chapter: Freeze,” in May to resounding acclaim. It marks a new creative direction for thequintet, working in more elements of rock, punk and disco than their debut. In fact, comeback single “0X1=Lovesong (I Know I Love You)” sounds more like Twenty One Pilots than BTS, giving their glistening pop sheen more edge than you might expect. PopMatters wrote that the collection makes “bold statements in unpretentious ways with its production and creative choices,” experimental choices that led the album to a Top 5 debut on the Billboard 200 Albums chart.
Musician St. Vincent’s sixth studio album, “Daddy’s Home,” was released to widespread critical praise when it landed in May. Inspired by her father’s release from prison at the end of 2019, it provides a sonic throwback to the musical palette of ’70s New York City. Filled with funk-laden grooves, vintage bass riffs and smooth jazz synths, it’s a far cry from the electro-rock for which she is best known. But St. Vincent’s reputation as one of the best performers working today makes the departure a fitting transition for the rocker. As Mojo wrote in its review, the album is “a full conceptual realization, filled with great melodies, deep grooves, colorful characterizations and sonic detail that reveals itself over repeated plays.”
Over the last decade, Tinashe has built a reputation for being one of the most underrated talents in R&B music. That continued with her fifth studio album, “333,” which arrived in August. The bustling collection is full of artful production and bop-able melodies that create a breezy atmosphere guided by the singer’s crystal clear vocals. Stereogum described the breathy slow jams and midtempo cuts as “an eclectic landscape of sounds, centered on fluttery impressionistic R&B but just as likely to veer into neon arena anthems, undulating synth-pop, breathless dance-adjacent hip-hop, or darkly spacious slow jams.”
One month after giving birth to her first child, Halsey put out her most assured project to date: her fourth studio album, “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power.” She decided to develop the concept album about the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth with two unexpected collaborators: Oscar-winning scorers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of rock band Nine Inch Nails. As a result, it saw Halsey tread new ground with songs dipped in alternative rock, grunge-pop and pop punk. The cinematic feeling of the album features a heavy industrial influence driven by clattering drums and distorted guitars, with lyrics centered on feminist themes addressing the patriarchy and institutionalized misogyny. The experiment paid off and showed her growth as an artist, with Spin praising its “masterclass in songwriting” and “seductive” production, while Vulture hailed it as “the best Halsey album” for its sound and concept.
British singer-songwriter Arlo Parks is one of the year’s major music breakouts thanks in large part to the release of her debut album, “Collapsed in Sunbeams,” in January. Her versatility and vulnerability are on full display on these confident tracks, which she described to NME as “a series of vignettes and intimate portraits surrounding my adolescence and the people that shaped it. It is rooted in storytelling and nostalgia —I want it to feel both universal and hyper specific.” Arlo’s storytelling is as affecting and relatable as all the great songwriters, and music critics agreed. The Guardian called the album “a diaristic, near-perfect debut” that “feels like a warm breeze in the depths of a miserable winter.” It nabbed Arlo nominations for album of the year, best new artist and best British female solo artist at the 2021 Brit Awards, and won the highly coveted 2021 Mercury Prize.
The Jonas Brothers made a long-awaited return in 2019 to incredible results, but then a global pandemic shut down a planned Las Vegas residency for the popular trio. As a result, youngest brother Nick Jonas spent time working on his first solo project in half a decade. The resulting album, “Spaceman” — his most cohesive work to date — explores four themes: distance, indulgence, euphoria and commitment, all based around his recent marriage and the isolation felt by so many over the last two years. The Jonas brand of catchy pop is overflowing on this collection, but with an added groove running through every track that doesn’t let up until the final note.
SG Lewis has quickly become one of the U.K.’s premiere DJs and music producers in recent years, an ascent helped by the release of his debut album, “Times,” in February. The 10-track affair is a non-stop dance party that he described to NME as “an exploration of escapism and euphoria, and the memories attached to those experiences.” Rhye, Lucky Daye, Nile Rodgers, Frances, Robyn, Channel Tres and Lastlings make appearances on the collection, which provides the sort of relentless joy that was difficult to find amid the tough news that pervaded 2021. With so many unable to head to the dance floor this last year, SG made the smart decision to bring the party to you with his brand of infectious disco-infused pop-house music.
Pop band LANY have built a devoted following since putting out their first album in 2017 and have kept busy releasing two collections amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the most recent of which arrived in September, “gg bb xx.” Their signature dreamy, glistening synths abound on these 12 tracks, as do lead singer Paul Klein’s stunningly clear vocals. Since their inception, LANY have provided endless tracks that will leave you heartbroken on the dance floor, and that recipe hasn’t changed here. While the content isn’t groundbreaking for the trio, it does serve a more polished rendition of their euphoric tunes. In a time when so much of the world feels out of control, this is exactly the sort of comfort food that warms the soul.
JoJo scored a number of hit songs at a young age and has spent the 15 years since demonstrating that her incredible multi-octave voice can handle much more than teen pop. Never has that been more obvious than on her latest project, the 12-track “trying not to think about it,” which was released in October. The soulful songs explore themes of depression and anxiety, revealing an insightful look at the woman behind the vocal chops. The resulting collection sees JoJo at her most raw and cohesive and creates a cozy soundscape full of incredible melodies that she told MTV she hopes “feels like a warm weighted blanket.” She certainly achieves it, enthralling you from start to finish with her relatable lyrics and vocal prowess.
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