2021's Best Albums: our Music Writers on their top picks

Our writers make a case for their favourite album of the year

multiple writers
17th December 2021
Seventeen Going Under by Sam Fender

Seventeen Going Under was one of the blessings birthed out of lockdown - the introspective, emotionally raw second album delves deep into Fender's own experiences and childhood to create teenage angst anthems relatable to all those young and living in today's world. 

This album for me was life-changing; after seeing Sam Fender live last month in Leeds, the album became more real and powerful to me than ever before. What impressed me most was the strong current flowing throughout the album (and his first), the essence of pride towards his upbringing and hometown. Between the Geordie slang and catchy refrains, Seventeen Going Under perfectly captures what it is to be young and impressionable to all the hurdles life throws at you.

The opening and title track sets off the album with a powerful thrust of energy and emotion; the lyrics allow us to feel we are seeping into Fender's own world: hearing the names of his friends, feeling the emotion he felt as if it was a raw today as it was when it happened. Fender's portrayal of understandable teenage anger allows us to feel heard and represented. Seventeen Going Under perfectly shows the stresses and hardships of youth whilst not showing it wholly negative; Fender creates an impactful album showing how these 'negatives' ultimately help us grow. 

Alongside personal relatability, Fender never fails to use his platform to express political issues; starting from the first album (notably 'Dead Boys' and 'Leave Fast'), Fender tackles issues of male suicide, mental health and governmental neglect of certain communities. In continuation with this second album, Fender spectacularly crafts 'Aye', a song of social critique and resentment; the repeated use of "They" allows Fender to call out organised and authoritative groups that do not represent the people or use their power wisely. He names many popular culture individuals and references to use his platform to show how times need to change. 

Ultimately, Seventeen Going Under is an album for the books which I feel, with no doubt, will continue to inspire people for years to come. 

Olivia Finlayson

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert by Little Simz

I love confessional albums. Love them. Ask anyone who knows me well and they’ll tell you that my favourite album is Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’, a classic of the genre (mainly because I never stop going on about it). So when I encountered ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’, released by London rapper Little Simz in April of this year, I felt like I had stumbled upon a treasure chest: an album destined to fulfil its place in the canon of the great confessionals.

“I’m just very to myself”, Simz said in a Guardian article about the album, her fourth, “and I didn’t know how to really navigate that, especially coming in this industry where you’re expected to have this extroverted persona all the time.”. Exploring jazz, soul, grime, and more, Simz balances dramatic orchestration with intensely personal lyrics. She is not afraid to dive into her relationships with her father (‘I Love You, I Hate You’), her sister (‘Miss Understood’) and, most importantly, herself. ‘Woman’, initially released as a single, went viral on Tiktok, with its unapologetic celebration of womanhood. Much of the album, including ‘Woman’, also explores race, and what it means to be Black and British. “Nothing in life comes easy, and you work twice as hard ‘cause you Black”, she raps on ‘How Did You Get Here’, poignantly adding, “Used to think Mum exaggerated ‘til the world showed me its fact”.

In my eyes, what makes an album truly special is when the artist gives us the privilege of seeing at least a little way into their soul. ‘Sometimes I Might Be Introvert’ breaks down its own boundaries, as Simz both defines herself in this moment and looks to who she may become in the next. I can’t wait to see what else she has in store.

Martha Lilli Probert

Blue Weekend by Wolf Alice

Have you ever listened to a song that takes you to another world? Making you feel at once on top of the world but also nostalgically at home? Think of that x11 and you have Wolf Alice's Blue Weekend, my album of 2021. Not only is this the album that I reach to for relaxation, but it is also my album of empowerment- a paradox of bold and beautiful.

A stand-out has to be the rowdy 'Smile', and with lyrics such as “I am what I am and I’m good at it, and if you don’t like me well that isn’t fucking relevant”, it is impossible not to understand the hype. These are lyrics that are impossible not to scream, instilling a contagious sense of self-confidence and energy unmatched from many songs which I have listened to before. It is hard to not feel like the main character while singing lyrics like these!

Blue Weekend takes us to another universe, while also keeping us grounded, with the euphoric 'No Hard Feelings' taking the top spot as my song of the year, as it can only be described as a comforting hug from a friend, lulling listeners into a state of calmness in taking a mature outlook towards a past lover. When my sister and I listen to this album in my car, it is always this song which we both instantly sing each word in collective sentimentalism.

This is an album is a journey. It makes us feel strong and empowered, while also giving us goosebumps at what it means to be a human. It connects people, makes us scream in eclectic bliss and is not only one of the best albums to come out of 2021, but is up there as one of my favourite albums of all time.

Lyndsey Sleator

SOUR by Olivia Rodrigo

Olivia Rodrigo released her debut album SOUR in May 2021. After the roaring success of her lead single ‘Drivers License’ and her incredibly public break-up with co-star Joshua Basset (which inspired the album) this was Rodrigo’s golden opportunity to solidify herself as a pop giant. 

And SOUR did not disappoint, through each of the albums 11 tracks we immerse ourselves in the life of a 17-year-old girl heartbroken by her negligent ex-boyfriend and hyper-aware of her life as a Disney Star yet disillusioned to the glitz and glamour of fame. Some tracks such as ‘enough for you’, ‘favorite crime’ and ‘1 step forward, 3 steps back’ focus on the emotional toll of her relationship with Joshua Basset, while songs like ‘good 4 u’, ‘happier’ and ‘deja vu’ express her anger and contempt post-break up as he moves on while she cannot.  

But this is much more than your generic break up album. The best of the lot, and what marks her as a figurehead for her Gen Z audience are songs like ‘brutal’ and ‘jealousy, jealousy’ which detail the experience of growing up in an age of toxic social media and late-stage capitalism. The pop-punk influences in these songs are reminiscent of the genre in the early 2000s (she’s stated that bands like Paramore had a huge influence on the album) and these influences tug on Gen Z nostalgia while transposing the genre onto contemporary social issues for young people. The unrelenting competition that can come with platforms like Instagram is explored in a mature and experienced way, the lines of “I know that beauty is not my lack” and “their win is not my loss” in ‘jealousy, jealousy’ invoke those trite “positivity” posts that we know are true yet hearing it doesn’t lessen the weight upon on our collective backs. The discordant, clanging piano at the climax of the song, for example, conjures the confusing and uncomfortable experience social media can have on young people if not used healthily.

Overall, Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR is an encapsulation of the despair and anger of the younger generation while also being a gentle and heartfelt exploration of her complex emotions around her break-up. And this is only the beginning, Rodrigo is an absolute powerhouse with bucket loads of potential, I can only sit and wait for her follow up to this stellar, no-skip album. 

Michael Duckworth

Comfort to Me by Amyl and the Sniffers

Amyl and the Sniffers are an awesome Australian punk rock band that have helped revive the post-punk scene through the invigorating rush of their music. I love them. I’ve been a huge fan ever since their self-titled debut album back in 2019, so I was very excited to hear about the upcoming release of their second album Comfort To Me.

Whilst I’m writing this review Comfort To Me is blasting in the background, its punk energy and snappy lyricism fuelling me to explain to you why this is the best album of 2021. Everything feels more impactful, meaningful, heavier, and ultimately better. With my headphones on, the volume loud, and this album thumping, my daily walk to 9 am lectures become a joyful strut, as it makes you feel like the coolest person alive.

The lyrics are loud, fierce, full of contradictions and extremely relatable. Lead singer Amy Taylor screams about the desire for love but not needing anyone, destroying capitalism but not being bothered enough, and dancing in mosh pits without a care in the world. The punk mentality is powerful, showcasing itself through brilliant live performances. The band members all rock mullets, tearing up the stage at frenetic paces. A spectacle to behold. I’ve already treated myself to the early Christmas present of a ticket to the bands UK tour, and I know I won’t be disappointed.

Through her evolving lyrism, Amy Taylor tackles huge issues such as the dangers women face. Lyrics like “Out comes the night, out comes my knifey/This is how I get home nicely” channel the shared dread in an effective way. The album is evidently meaningful, both personally to the band and the wider audience.

Comfort To Me is a great album, with energetic instrumentals and crucial lyrics sure to shake the world. I truly believe it’s the best album of 2021.

William Allender

Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish’s sophomore album ‘Happier Than Ever’ (HTE), was released on the 30th of July of this year, following her five pre-release singles which had a staggered release in the year prior. HTE was Eilish’s second album to top the billboard top 100, reaching number 1 in both the UK and the US whilst also topping the charts in 20 other countries.

Happier Than Ever has a noticeably different style compared to her debut album. Whereas the 19-year-old’s debut album was infamously dark with catchy beats and avant-pop influences, HTE is more downtempo and intimate, with peaceful jazz-pop tones. There were those who had a cursory listen to Billie’s new album and immediately dismissed it when they heard fewer “catchy” hits and more downtempo tracks, claiming they were too dissimilar to the Billie they know and love...

They could not be more wrong! The album is still filled with signature Billie sound distortions with synth, reverb, autotune and interesting samples, to name a few. Besides, Billie has transcended the Tik Tok-inspired craze of her generation for upbeat melodies, instead taking the listener on a fly-on-the-wall intimate journey. This is something very mature and admirable for a young artist to do, not dissimilar to Adele’s new work “30”.

HTE deals with challenging topics, opening with “Getting Older” where she sings in softer tones over a gentle synth about her intense career and alludes to past trauma and abuse that she has suffered. Later in the album she addresses these personal topics head on in “Not My Responsibility” where she speaks over an ambient electro-pop beat about the objectification she has suffered as a young female artist, stating “I feel you watching”. Towards the end of the album, in the folk ballad “Your Power” she bravely picks up the topic of abusive relationships, an issue that is gaining more and more traction in the entertainment industry with the recent rise of the #METOO movement.

To summarise, I would recommend listening to this sensational album alone, twice through on the first go, either in your headphones or in the bath, so you have the acoustics to really immerse yourself in its beauty. Happier Than Ever couples Billie & Finneas' ever-fascinating play on computerised sound with raw, personal topics resulting in an ethereal album which is equally as important lyrically as it is melodically.

Eleanor Penson

to hell with it by PinkPanthress

I’m not sure if to hell with it is the best album released this year. Many artists have released works that are longer, more varied and more nuanced. But To Hell with It is my favourite album of the year. PinkPantheress herself, the mystic 20-year-old singer from Bath, describes to hell with it as a mixtape, not an EP, or even an album. It is a conceptual exploration of the 2000s wistful nostalgia my generation is known for.

This tape is short in length. Lasting 18 minutes across 10 songs, there isn’t a piece that wouldn’t fit in its entirety in a Tik Tok video. These eighteen minutes are a blend of bass-line, jungle, drum and bass and garage samples, mixed with the kind of electronic, airy vocals reminiscent of artists like Clairo and Grimes, but with her use of classic UK dance samples, PinkPantheress creates a uniquely British style of bedroom pop. She claims she recorded much of her music lay down, and this intimate feeling carries across into her music, where her whispery British accent feels like it is both in your ear and floating around the room.

PinkPantheress was launched into musical fame when her song “Pain”, now named as song of the year by Tik Tok, went viral on the video-sharing app. Despite this online success, PinkPantheress has continued to let her music lead her profile. The music video for the Mura Masa produced Just for Me was her first face reveal, and she continues to operate under a moniker. This is what makes PinkPantheress so great for me.

Lyrically, her music is personal, relatable and vulnerable, but by keeping her own life out of the picture, PinkPantheress allows her listener to project onto her lyrics as they see fit. We are the same age, and she sings about familiar emotions of optimism for the future, combined with a painful nostalgia for the past and a contemplation on what it means to grow up. Her short songs feel like not only snippets of her musical talent, but snippets of her inner feelings, never giving away too much, allowing your mind to fill the blanks with personal interpretations.

Much has been made of my generation's eagerness to relate to the era we are just slightly too young to remember, in sometimes misguided references to “Y2K” tokens, clothes and music. However, fit with samples from Flowers, Circles and Gypsy Woman, to hell with it sounds like the 2000s, blended with lyrics that relate to the specific angst of young adults born at the turn of the century. It is admirable that PinkPantheress can simultaneously lean into her Tik Tok fuelled fame, with this mixtape of snappy, compact songs, modelling an album that feels truly reflective of my generation.

to hell with it is a powerful entry onto the music scene, and a piece of work that I believe sets PinkPantheress up for bigger, more developed albums. Her combination of dance music, alongside expressive yearning lyricism, is a perfect blend of the emotions felt by a twenty-year-old. Her music is the sound of the moment you leave a party, the bass-line against the sudden deep thoughts of your past and future, and this sound has made to hell with it my favourite album of 2021.

Autumn Lily

Woman On The Internet by Orla Gartland

Though this past year has been turbulent to say the least, it cannot be denied that it has been a musical goldmine.

To personally select a standout album of the year is a mammoth task, with solid comebacks from Adele and Lorde, a surprisingly sensational debut album from Olivia Rodrigo, and notable highlights from Kacey Musgraves, CHVRCHES, LANY and Chloe Moriondo – to name but a few of my recent favourites.

Among all contenders, for me, the most resonant album by far has been Woman on the Internet – the debut album by Irish singer-songwriter Orla Gartland.

At its core, Woman on the Internet is an affirmation of self-awareness and self-doubt, an acknowledgement of an individual’s own imperfections and internal complexities. But it’s not just herself Gartland is aware of; she displays a resounding cognizance of modern technological culture and our tendencies, in which we often seek guidance from the internet in the whirlwind of our own explorations and desire for self-discovery. It is a homage to the eclectic nature of early adulthood, and insight with such sincerity it is impossible not to empathise with her.

Musically, Gartland tackles it all. While retaining her signature acoustic, conversational sound – with the occasional hint of a charming Irish lilt – she also explores pop-punk influences, popping retro-style tones and electronic synth beats. Perhaps such a wide scope shouldn’t work, but here Gartland’s stylistic ambition only serves to emphasise the universal chaos of the 20-something psyche which she is portraying. Each track is crafted with controlled precision – not a single beat feels misplaced. Undeniably talented as both a musician and a producer, Gartland takes hold of her own art, capturing a refreshing blend of feeling forged in sharp-witty metaphors, bold outbursts, subdued beauty and authentic emotional transparency. In the juxtapositions of confrontational and reflective, a relatable honesty is found: “Who are you so afraid to be?” is the poignant question asked by Gartland – we may not know the answer yet, but this is a record that asserts the notion it’s okay.

Rowan Christina Driver

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