Scene’s Best Albums of 2021
Every year, the cultured denizens of The Observer’s culture section come together to rank the best albums of the year. The process is long and tiring, involving a complicated Excel spreadsheet (the formulas for which we barely comprehend).
Often, there are casualties — this year, there were several. Right on the outskirts of our top-10 list were Adele’s latest masterpiece, “30,” Billie Eilish’s self-reinvention on “Happier Than Ever,” Clairo’s most comprehensive music yet on “Sling” and even “Fearless (Taylor’s Version).” That’s how good of a year 2021 has been.
Without further ado, here are Scene’s best albums of the year…
10. “Jubilee” by Japanese Breakfast
2021 has been a huge year for Japanese Breakfast. Frontwoman Michelle Zauner published “Crying in H Mart: A Memoir” in April that debuted at No. 2 on The New York Times Best Sellers list (I’ve read it and think it’s fantastic). Shortly after, the band released their third studio album, “Jubilee,” which has been nominated for a Grammy award in the alternative music category. The band itself has also been nominated for a Best New Artist award at the Grammys.
Japanese Breakfast is a phoenix rising out of ashes. Zauner, devastated after losing her mother to stomach cancer, decided to throw herself into music and form a band with her husband, Peter Bradley, and friends, Craig Hendrix and Deven Craige. In her memoir, Zauner says “only after [her mother] died did things, as if magically, begin to happen.” Fittingly, the band’s debut and sophomore albums are melancholic tributes to Zauner’s mother.
The release of “Jubilee” (perfectly titled) signals the band’s liberation from grief and transition into a more upbeat era. It is a dance-pop and techno album about happiness and desperately wanting to be happy. The sweeping string and horn arrangements, rich production and Zauner’s soft (and sometimes unintelligible) crooning meld into a dreamy soundscape for long road trips or dance parties.
The most popular hit off the album, “Be Sweet,” is energetic with a funky bass line and sprawling synths — a modern ’80s song. “Kokomo, IN,” my personal favorite, “channels Belle and Sebastian at their most orchestral.” The album also slows down with shoegaze-inspired ballads like “Tactics” and “Posing for Cars.” Lyrics like “If I could throw my arms around you / For just another day, maybe it’d feel like the first time,” show that Japanese Breakfast forges a new path in music — one between heartbreak and happiness. — Claire Lyons, Scene Writer
9. “A Beginner’s Mind” by Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine
Having written about indie’s sad, beloved banjo boy in the past, I make no secret of the fact that Sufjan Stevens is probably my favorite musician ever. Lucky for me, Scene agrees: “A Beginner’s Mind,” Suf’s new collaborative record with another wispy, soft-spoken indie treasure, Angelo De Augustine, comes in at the ninth spot on our list.
The concept of a “beginner’s mind” originates in Zen Buddhism, describing an open, curious perspective on the world and its many intricacies — the mindset, you could say, of a pupil. On the album of the same name, this philosophy takes three forms. For one, it’s the sixth and central track of the record. For another, it speaks to the concept of the project itself — every song is inspired by a movie, diverse in age, genre and quality, but each one taking on newfound purpose when reflected through Sufjan-colored glasses.
But most of all, “A Beginner’s Mind” tips its hat to the young De Augustine, who could be called a pupil of Stevens himself after opening for him on tour. The true beauty of their album is the sweet and subtle ways in which identities melt together — their voices so completely complement each other that they occasionally blend into a single, angelic refrain. The instrumentation, meanwhile, calls to mind Stevens’ classic “Carrie & Lowell,” which feels like something of a rebirth after six or so years of techno experimentation and pure instrumentals.
Standout songs include “Back to Oz” (inspired by the 1985 cult classic, “Return to Oz”), “Murder And Crime” (the original “Mad Max”), “Fictional California” (“Bring It On Again”) and the lead single, “Reach Out.” Inspired by the lovely German film “Wings of Desire,” the song is a ballad about intimacy itself — about reaching into your past and feeling your loved ones standing beside you. The lyricism is some of Stevens’ best (“I would rather be a flower than the ocean”). And when he and De Augustine croon “Wisdom of the wise / You and I, in defiance,” you can’t help but think that they’re talking about themselves. — Aidan O’Malley, Scene Editor
7. (TIE) “Voyage” by ABBA
ABBA triumphantly returned after 40 years for their ninth studio album together: “Voyage.” The album is a “thank you” to their fans as well as one last hurrah for the group. The album is nostalgic, fun, and crosses genres from Celtic pop with the song of “When You Danced With Me” to bittersweet ballads like “I Still Have Faith In You.” The album retains the essence of all ABBA classics with the quintessential harmonies and catchy melodies, but is also new in their exploration of growing up. The songs build together to convey the growing pains that come with life, but also the beauty that comes with growing older.
ABBA is forever a musical icon and “Voyage” is now another celebration of their talents and musicality. Listening to the album, I was reminded of my childhood when I would blast earlier ABBA albums and dance with my sister. The album made me think about my life and how much I have grown. As well, it made me think about the future as I head into adulthood and the “real world.” I love this album and listen to it on repeat as I do work and walk around the campus. I recommend the album for anyone who wants to hear good music from the heart. — Rachel Hartmann, Scene Writer
7. (TIE) “Planet Her” by Doja Cat
You might not have heard about her name, but you must have heard her songs. Doja Cat conquered TikTok, again, in 2021 with her third studio album “Planet Her” issued on June 25th. Featuring appearances by The Weeknd, Ariana Grande, Young Thug and J.I.D., “Planet Her” journeys through pop, R&B, hip-hop, Afrobeats and more. It marks the new height of Doja Cat as a rising pop-rap star.
Doja Cat’s musical versatility and her vocal deliveries are displayed in his conceptual world created by herself. Surprisingly, this album came up as a concept album which is usually used to convey serious messages, “based on a fictional planet self-originated by Doja Cat on which all species and races of space exist in harmony.” Exploring through each single in the album, listeners can feel the world of female empowerment, lust and luxury by Doja Cat’s playful and effortless energy in vocal deliveries. Listen to the album and you will agree: You will never be bored by her vocal deliveries and musical versatility. She can sound like three different artists within her first three songs of the album.
It’s also hard to argue with her knack for naggingly catchy, TikTok-ready melodies. Her songs occupy a large portion of the landscape of TikTok dances. This trend is exacerbated by her lyrical skills being flippant and funny.
If you are looking for an album for a chilly Friday night, check out Doja Cat. — Mia Mei, Scene Writer
6. “Women in Music Pt. III (Expanded Edition)” by HAIM
At once personal and relatable, sonically innovative and familiar, bitingly satirical and tender, the expanded version of HAIM’s third album is a genre-bending treat. Written and produced during quarantine with help from Rostam Batmanglij (whom you might know from his time with Vampire Weekend), the original “Women in Music Part III” sees the Haim sisters exploring themes such as depression, misogyny in the music industry, failed relationships and even health problems. It’s also worth mentioning that the original was No. 2 on our 2020 list.
On the expanded version, the sisters reimagine old tracks — the new “Gasoline,” for instance, features Taylor Swift — and offer previously unreleased content in the form of bonus tracks. Just as the original album was remarkably raw and personal, its three new tracks are rife with intimate and affecting themes. The jazzy-sounding “Summer Girl” is about a boyfriend’s battle with cancer, and “Hallelujah” celebrates familial love, while “Now I’m In It” echoes images of darkness from the original album.
The album’s title is a satirical nod to the perennially over-asked query about being “women in music,” so it’s really no surprise that the songs themselves are concerned with this theme of perpetual underestimation: On standout track “Man From The Magazine,” they recall journalists asking inappropriate questions and a store clerk handing lead vocalist Danielle a “starter guitar.” Similarly savage “The Steps” sees Danielle insisting that though she and her partner “share a bed,” she doesn’t “need [his] help.” Not every song, though, is aimed at dismantling the patriarchy. “I Know Alone” is a deceptively upbeat reflection on the feelings of loneliness and alienation that have you “sleeping through the day” and “dream[ing] the same.” “Leaning On You,” one of the album’s more optimistic entries, is about finding support and acceptance from those closest to you.
Ultimately, though some of its subject matter might be thematically heavy, “Women in Music Pt. III” is lots of fun. It is also the sisters’ most sonically experimental album yet: Songs like “I’ve Been Down,” “I Know Alone” and “Another Try” see the trio stepping outside of their ‘70s-style pop-rock niche to embrace echoes of country rock, UK garage rock and R&B, respectively. — Nia Sylva, Scene Writer
5. “An Evening with Silk Sonic” by Silk Sonic
Silk Sonic’s debut album landed on the music scene Nov. 12 this year, and it came to give listeners a concert experience within their own home. Created by the duo Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak during the COVID-19 quarantine, “An Evening with Silk Sonic” brings songs reminiscent of Motown back to the present with tracks like “Smokin Out The Window” and “Put On A Smile.”
Starting out with “Silk Sonic Intro,” the duo opens their just over 30-minute concert in a manner that makes you feel like you’re in a real arena instead of your living room. The duo’s most popular singles convey the tribulations of love ranging from waiting for your lover to come over in “Leave the Door Open” to being left behind by that person in “Smokin Out The Window.” Still, songs like “Fly As Me,” “777” and “Skate” keep the party going until the duo sings “Blast Off” to end the evening.
Rolling Stone calls the album a “lavish love letter to Seventies soul music,” but it’s also a combination of funk, R&B and a little hip-hop. The tracklist combines the talents of Bruno Mars’ strong voice and the rhythm of rapper Anderson .Paak to get listeners grooving along in their seats. The smooth lyrics are paired with snare and conga drum strikes to bring that soul element to life. Every song relies on strong drum beats to drive the songs, giving them the funk feeling that makes this album stand out among the rest from 2021. In need of a short pick-me-up? Check out “An Evening with Silk Sonic” to warm your soul again. — Sophia Michetti, Scene Writer
4. “Solar Power” by Lorde
If you’re not a fan of Lorde by now, I honestly hope that “Solar Power” will convert you. It converted me, and I would be selling the album short if I didn’t tell you that I’ve been listening to it exclusively for the past month.
Where to begin with this beauty? “Solar Power” was released on Aug. 20 (continuing my unintentional affinity for albums dropped on my birthday), but I didn’t start listening to it until very recently. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the “Solar Power” single when it was first released (I thought it sounded like background music for a Kohl’s commercial), but I’ve grown to enjoy it. The song that first pulled me in was “California,” and it’s been love ever since.
Some of my personal favorites from the album include “Stoned at the Nail Salon,” “Fallen Fruit,” “The Man with the Axe” and “Oceanic Feeling.” While I definitely find that critiques of the album are valid and noteworthy, I believe that “Solar Power” is an evolution of Lorde’s musical style and of the interaction between her lyricism and thematic display. Understandably, many longtime Lorde fans were a bit disappointed by this change, but I think it shows her maturity and the growth she’s made with making music for enjoyment rather than for awards and accolades.
While I was a big fan of Lorde when “Royals” first came out, I have fallen out of touch with her music. “Solar Power” and the accompanying Māori EP “Te Amo Mārama” have truly brought me back into Lorde’s orbit, and I could not be happier. As she said herself, “Solar Power” may not have been what critics and fans wanted to hear, but it was exactly what she needed to make and I could not agree more. — Anna Falk, Scene Writer
3. “Red (Taylor’s Version)” by Taylor Swift
“Red (Taylor’s Version)” is the second chapter of Swift’s gloriously public attempt to take back control over her masters. It’s also a victory lap for a singer that’s hitting her fiercest creative peak right now, with four genre-transcending albums in two years. The rapturous reception is a reminder of just how different the entertainment industry is in 2021 compared with 2012, when the first “Red” and its storytelling genius gave Swift a Grammy nomination but was largely ignored by music snobs on the basis of broader social tendencies to invalidate and dismiss the feelings of young women.
This album is not meant to recast the music. Instead, songs have been recorded note for note with the intention of replacing the originals and collapsing their value. However, Swift’s adult voice adds new power to these familiar tunes, a hint more venom when she snarls “trust me” in “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and with a fall from grace under her belt in the fragile optimism of “Begin Again.”
The real excitement of this venture surrounds the inclusion of a few bonus tracks. “Nothing New” with Phoebe Bridgers poignantly grapples with growth and perspective: “How can a person know everything at 18 but nothing at 22?” “I Bet You Think About Me” is a duet with Chris Stapleton that returns to rowdy country (and disdain for pretty, coddled men). And delicious flashes of a quintessential vitriol less prevalent in Swift’s recent work reemerges in the 10-minute version of “All Too Well.” Dear Lord, “F*ck the patriarchy” and “I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age.”
Rolling Stone writes that “Red (Taylor’s Version)” is “bigger, glossier, deeper, and casually crueler.” It’s the ultimate version of the pop manifesto that cemented her place in music history, and the only thing keeping it from being the bestselling album of the year is her own album “Evermore.” — Joyce Fu, Scene Writer
2. “Montero” by Lil Nas X
I want to first start off by saying that the two singles Lil Nas X came out with to promote his album were incredible. “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” and “INDUSTRY BABY” (feat. Jack Harlow) left fans quaking in anticipation for his debut album. I was definitely one of them. They are nothing but bops.
His songs speak for themselves when it comes to his personality and the message that he was trying to send. You can tell that he wanted to be completely transparent and open with his lyrics. He embraces every part of himself and it truly draws you in to the vulnerability of the album. Songs like “ONE OF ME,” featuring Elton John, and “VOID” really show a different side of Lil Nas that fans haven’t seen before.
Each song plays off of each other, whether it’s a slower song or one with a beat you just want to dance to. This album has no skips — I know that might be controversial, but I think it’s the truth. The song placements are great and they all speak to each other. The featured artists on the album are *chef’s kiss*. He has Jack Harlow, Doja Cat, Elton John, Megan Thee Stallion and Miley Cyrus. You can’t get much better than that. This album really showed that Lil Nas X is a dynamic and talented artist. — Allison Thornton, Photo Editor
1. “Sour” by Olivia Rodrigo
I remember listening to “Sour” for the first time, thinking that Olivia Rodrigo’s story was much more complex than I previously thought. With “drivers license,” “deja vu” and “good 4 u” serving as the singles of the album, Olivia showed the world her sadness and anger along with a side of pettiness. Then, when the entire album dropped, the world saw the side of Olivia that maybe wasn’t as easy for her to show — the 18-year-old struggling to pin down how she is feeling.
Opening up the listening experience with “brutal,” Olivia reveals an angst similar to “good 4 u,” but on this song, it’s about her relationship with the world rather than her relationship with a boy. She follows with “traitor” which I think is the best song off the album, from the opening “Ooh-ooh” to how long she lingers on singing “traitor” in the chorus.
Nothing hits harder on this album than the transition from “good 4 u” to “enough for you” when listening to the album chronologically. And that was what struck me about the latter part of “Sour”: how Olivia saved all the bittersweet songs for the end. And I was not expecting it. In “enough for you,” “happier” and “favorite crime,” she is mellower and creates painful yet beautiful songs.
Even though “Sour” is reportedly about one guy (Joshua Bassett), Olivia gave the world the means of articulating almost every emotion after a tough breakup — most likely why “Sour” ranked number one on our list and on many more people’s lists. Regardless of whether Olivia will be the next Taylor Swift or a one-hit wonder, 2021 was her moment. — Alysa Guffey, Notre Dame News Editor