My Top 20 Albums of 2021
Favorites from a year where I realized my music regimen probably changed forever
When I first started thinking about my annual list, my initial hit was, “Huh. 2021 wasn’t a great year for music.”
That would be understandable–year two of the global pandemic threw the music world into chaos.
But as I dug deeper and reviewed the albums that caught my ear this year, I realized that the problem wasn’t the music, IT WAS ME.
Music-listening has completely changed for me since the ‘rona reared its ugly head.
My daily commute (a 90-minute round trip) used to be prime time for me to really get to know an album. There’s nothing like strapping on your headphones and losing yourself in the music as a way to distract from the horrors of San Francisco public transpo.
And while I don’t miss all those hours on the bus, I do miss my dedicated listening time.
But when finally sat down with my headphones and gave the 2021 contenders a re-listen, I was struck by how rich they were.
I’m not ranking them this year; I didn’t spend enough time with any of them to play favorites. But here are my top 20, in no particular order.
Super Monster — Claude
Bedroom-pop coming-of-age drama through a GenZ gender fluid lens. Great melodies and crisp production. Came out way back in February and ear-wormed its way into being one of my favorite albums this year.
Day/Night — Parcels
My goodness, I just love the ambition of this new-to-me Australian band. A 19-track, sprawling double album. Oh, and it’s a concept album based on the circular nature of life. Oh, and the band approached it as if they were soundtracking movie. The resulting album is 1 hour and 37 minutes long (!) and well worth a full-immersion marathon listen sesh.
Collapsed in Sunbeams — Arlo Parks
Honeyed-voiced Parks debut album is a vibe — a warm, reassuring hug of neo-soul.
Jubilee — Japanese Breakfast
Pitchfork called it “stylish and eclectic” and I concur. Dreamy dream pop that spices tracks with various influences (80s soundtrack single! Orchestra! Lo-fi disco! Sexy sax!) that result in new discoveries each listen.
Loving in Stereo — Jungle
A fire collection of funky disco soul, with a dash o’ the hip-hop. I’ve lost track of months and seasons, but one reviewer called this “the soundtrack of summer…(if summer hadn’t been ruined by Covid)” and you can imagine this as the feel-good groove of warm-weather backyard parties that never happened.
Valentine — Snail Mail
Lindsey Jordan’s debut album was on my 2018 list, and her sharp songwriting is on full display in this, her sophomore album. Now, an industry veteran at age 22 (!) the album explores the downside of all the attention that came with her first release and it’s not-awesome impact on her love life and relationships. It’s a bummer for Ms. Jordan, but the resulting album is good for us.
Introducing… — Aaron Frazer
NPR Music said it best, so I’ll just quote ’em. “The music of Aaron Frazer feels a bit like stepping into a time machine: It’s got touches of Curtis Mayfiled and Carole King, but it’s also very much of the moment.” A great, vintage-soaked soulful album.
Melchor Lullaby Hotline, Vol. 1 — Adam Melchor
A pandemic project, Melchor delivered a new song every Sunday to 10,000 fans via his “Lullaby Hotline” — aka a text message with a link to an unlisted song. He collected a dozen of the songs into this collection that show off his singer-songwriter chops. Calling anything “Beatles-esque” is unfair to a young talent, but the range and fearlessness of this collection make Melchor a talent to watch, IMHO.
How Beautiful Life Can Be — The Lathums
Mentioning “The Smiths” is probably just as unfair as referencing the Beatles in a review, but these English lads love a jangly guitar. Actually, The Housemartins are probably a better reference as the Lathums lyrics lean toward hope and optimism rather than existential despair.
Hotel TV — Lawrence
Pop-soul deliciousness fronted by a brother-sister duo, emotion (joy! frustration! hope!) oozes out of every track.
SOUR — Olivia Rodrigo
I bought this one because my tween daughter insisted I add it to the Sonos the day it came out. But like lots of “olds,” was bowled over by Miss Rodrigo’s skill in crafting and delivering an emotional ear-candy pop hit. Perfectly produced angsty pop craft that made me remember what it feels like to be a teenager.
If This Isn’t Nice, I Don’t Know What Is — Still Woozy
Silky, floaty grooves that feel good. Read a review that called this album “musical double dutch” that keeps the vibe of each track hovering in mid air — it’s an apt description. This is the album I put on this year when I wanted to feel better.
Skin — Joy Crookes
Terrific debut from this Bengali/Irish vocalist. Smoky 60’s soul filtered from so many influences and references (Reggae! Electronica! Jazz! 60’s girl groups! Orchestral dream pop!) that it feels completely fresh.
Long Lost — Lord Huron
Is “cowboy orchestral” a genre? This concept album (a 1950s TV variety program is the spine) has a pretty detailed backstory for those that want to go deep, but it’s the music that makes it special. Their previous albums both earned spots on my 2012 and 2015 lists, but here they’ve elevated their folk rock sound to something that feels more timeless. “I Lied” might be my favorite song of 2021.
Revolutionary Love — Ani DiFranco
To be fair, I’ve been a fan of DiFranco for so long, it’s hard to appraise new work free from nostalgia, but this collection finds her in fine form. Musically, it’s rich and soulful, lyrically, the pull-no-punches songwriter surprises with the notion that love is the only way through conflict.
Love Signs — The Jungle Giants
Feels like every year, my list includes a bright, upbeat dance album with a lead singer who loves his falsetto a little too much. This is this year’s entry! If this one doesn’t get you moving…well, you’ll probably hate the rest of my list, too. :)
Yard Sale — The Brook & The Bluff
Soulful rock with a 70s-radio feel and a hint of Rufus Wainwright-esque balladry.
OK Human — Weezer
This came out all the way back in January and the whole idea is a bit of a gimmick (Weezer backed by a full orchestra, songs about living through the pandemic), but it was still musical comfort food for me throughout 2021.
Sad Night Dynamite — Sad Night Dynamite
Scan the online reviews of this one and “Gorillaz” is the reference that comes up most frequently. It’s got a great mix-tape feel and interesting instrumentation from around the globe. It’s a vibe.
Magic Mirror — Pearl Charles
Another from way back in January (although I didn’t discover it until much later in the year), she has a 70s singer-songwriter vibe (hello, Karen Carpenter!) by way of Abba.
And…gotta be honest, after I spend more time with some of these other “honorable mention” albums below, I wouldn’t be surprised if THEY were actually in my top 20 instead.
Other 2021 Honorable Mentions: Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! by Aaron Lee Tasjan, Forever Isn’t Long Enough by Alfie Templeton, Not Your Muse by Celeste, On Top by Dan Croll, Flying Dream 1 by Elbow, This Is Really Going to Hurt by Flyte, Palace by Honeymoan, Flock by Jane Weaver, Obviously by Lake Street Dive, Former Things by LoneLady, History of a Feeling by Madi Diaz, Lean Into Life & Other Stuff by Petey, Juno by Remi Wolf, Changephobia by Rostam, A Beginner’s Mind by Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine, Somewhere by Sun June, Cinema by The Marias, Greatest Hits by Waterparks, Hideaway by Wavves, and What’s So Fucking Funny? by Webbed Wing.
As always, I encourage you to BUY your favorite albums of the year and support the musicians who made the music you love. For those that stream, here’s a Spotify playlist with one song from each of my faves listed above.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Kovacevich is a writer and creative director based in San Francisco.