Albums of 2021, Ranked
01 Jan 2022
The world seems to have decided that December is the month in which we reflect, while January is the month in which we look forward. Grammy nominations are for releases up to the end of September. Spotify Wrapped comes out at the beginning of December. Etc. But this means that our yearly summaries don't include the entire year at all. I prefer to reflect in January to capture the entire year and look forward in December so as to be prepared for January 1st. Not that I do the latter.
And so, in this first month of the new year, I present my ranking of the albums released in 2021 that I paid some amount of attention to, defined as having more than 30 last.fm track scrobbles, which are listed for reference but not used for ranking.
Pressure Machine by The Killers
I discovered this album from a Facebook Post where Chris Martin, the lead singer of Coldplay, shared a few songs he loved at the moment. Among them was this album's title track. I'd listened to The Killers before and generally enjoy their hits, but I always found their style to be a bit too punk or new wave for my tastes. So I was surprised when I listened to this album. I'd say it's the Folklore of their discography: stripped back and story driven. The interview recordings add to the overall effect, though I found myself preferring the "abridged" version of the album that omits them after the first couple of listens.
OK Human by Weezer
Like The Killers, Weezer was a band I'd listened to the early hits of and not much more. I listened to OK Human sort of on a whim. How dare they try to evoke the greatness of Radiohead's OK Computer? First The Beatles' White Album, and now this? While I doubt it'll go down in history like either of those albums, OK Human is very good. It has a similar angst as that of Weezer's early work but applied to more adult themes. The orchestration is great and the transitions between tracks are incredibly smooth.
Nurture by Porter Robinson
Announced in early 2020, Nurture was a release I highly anticipated. I discovered its lead single, "Get Your Wish," from a YouTube recommendation, and it quickly became one of my favorite songs, rising to second-most played in 2020. The pandemic delayed the album's release, but singles — eventually six of them — continued to come out, which I consumed voraciously. By the time it was released, I'd heard — and tired of — most of the best parts. Nurture is an excellent album, but it sounds like 2020 to me, a time I've moved on from.
Music of the Spheres by Coldplay
As a longtime Coldplay fan, I always anticipate their releases. "Higher Power," the lead single, ended up being my most-played song of 2021, serving as a kind of anthem for the year that started low and ended high. But the rest of the album was more underwhelming. "Coloratura" was one of the most excitingly experimental rock songs Coldplay's ever released, though admittedly I've grown tired of it after not that many listens. "My Universe" was special to me since my girlfriend likes K-Pop and it's a love song, but it was never my style to begin with. Overall it's a fine album, but I'd rank it fairly low within Coldplay's discography.
Scaled and Icy by Twenty One Pilots
I became a huge Twenty One Pilots fan after hearing "Stressed Out" on the radio in 2016. I highly anticipated their 2018 release Trench, but it ended up being a bit of a disappointment, deviating from many of the themes in their earlier work that I'd resonated with. So my expectations were lower for Scaled and Icy, which I'm happy to set it met. It's easily the happiest, most pop-oriented album they've made. "Good Day" gives me borderline Sesame Street vibes, but coming out at a time when things were generally looking up in my life, I resonated with it. Its closing track, "Redecorate" is a bit darker, perhaps a sign that the album isn't indicative of a permanent stylistic shift.
Justice by Justin Bieber
I think I discovered this album because I heard Lonely when it became really popular at a time when I was, well, lonely, so I went and listened to Justice and really liked it. The style reminded me of Jon Bellion, so I told my brother who is also a Bellion fan, and he informed me that Bellion actually contributed to many of the songs on the album. Great music.
OK Orchestra by AJR
My brother's a big fan of AJR. Actually, he says he doens't like AJR, but he listens to all of their music. So I listened to OK Orchestra. Again, how dare they evoke OK Computer? What's funny is they collaborated with Rivers Cuomo from Weezer, so you'd think they coordinated their album titles, but it was supposedly entirely coincidental. I love a few songs on this album, particularly "3 O'Clock Things."
Inside (The Songs) by Bo Burnham
I watched Inside, the Netflix special, and found it to be more uncomfortable than funny. Maybe it's too soon for me to make light of 2020? The album, however, I enjoyed much more. It omits the transitional clips between songs, which were a lot of the darker spots. Sure, some of the songs still reference shelter-in-place, but in a more comedic (and catchy) way.
Jubilee by Japanese Breakfast
My employer brought Japanese Breakfast to perform at an end-of-year office party, so I listened to Jubilee in the days leading up to it to acquaint myself with their music. I don't always love the artists they choose, but turns out this one is very much my style. I listened to their earlier albums as well, and I have to say I like them more, being more rock-oriented. Still, Jubilee is great, with "Posing For Cars," its closing track, being one of my favorites.
Happier Than Ever by Billie Eilish
Billie Eilish getting as big as she did in 2019 is one of the reasons I think we're in a golden age of music. I can't say I like Happier Than Ever as much as WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? But it retains the unique style, thoughtful songwriting, and overall quality.
Donda by Kanye West
After the left turn that was JESUS IS KING, I was curious what Kanye would do next. He chose to continue with the Gospel theme, and I think Donda is a solid result of doing so while reincorporating a lot of what was good about his earlier work.
Chemtrails over the Country Club by Landa Del Rey
I discovered Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana Del Rey's previous album, after someone on r/TheNational recommended it. And yeah, I liked it, though I need to be in a certain mood. Chemtrails is more of the same, which isn't a bad thing. But I can't say any of the songs on NFR ever really stuck out to me: I mainly listened to the album for the mood. So Chemtrails is sort of redundant in my book.
Planet Her by Doja Cat
I was listening to the US Top 50 on Spotify one day as I sometimes do to keep up with what's popular, and I found "Kiss Me More" stuck in my head, so I went and found Planet Her. Not my typical style, but wow, these songs are earworms.
Shockwave by Marshmello
I saw Shockwave as a new release on Spotify and put it on while driving one day. It's great driving music. Not my typical style, but I enjoyed it.
How Long Do You Think It's Gonna Last by Big Red Machine
Aaron Dessner (of The National) making an album with Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) featuring Taylor Swift sounds like the kind of music I should love, but this album never quite gripped my attention. I'll probably give it a few more listens.
The Golden Casket by Modest Mouse
I listened to The Golden Casket a couple of times because I'm a fan of Modest Mouse, and like the rest of their albums, I fully expect this album to click for me in about five to ten years. Until then, I don't have much to say about it.
Mercury - Act 1 by Imagine Dragons
After loving Night Visions in 2013 and since being disappointed by each of their later albums, it's been a while since I've considered a fan of Imagine Dragons, but I still can't but help listen to their releases at least once. I have to say I like Mercury a bit more than their last few albums. It feels more vulnerable, in contrast to sport arena-friendly rock anthems they've dominated the charts with over the last decade. Hopefully there's an Act 2 to come.
JORDI by Maroon 5
There's some catchy pop songs on here, but the album doesn't feel cohesive to me.